August 15, 1987

My husband Dan and I were married 25 years ago today. In honor of this milestone, I share the following:

A few weeks ago, an alarm went off in our house in the middle of the night. Dan got up to investigate. He returned a minute later and crawled back into bed without a word.

“Was it the smoke alarm?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, clearly ready to resume his slumber.

“What did you do?”

“I took out the batteries.”

“What?” I was now more awake. “But what if something’s burning?”

“Nothing’s burning. Anyway, it was the carbon monoxide detector.”

What?!” Now I was sitting up. “Dan, if the carbon monoxide detector goes off,  you don’t just take out the batteries and go back to bed.”

“It wasn’t the alarm,” he said with the tired patience of someone who has dealt for many years with someone who — well, reacts to things more strongly than he does. “The batteries are just dying.”

“That’s not the sound it makes when the batteries are dying,” I said. I got out of bed and stormed off down the hall with the piqued energy of a person much used to taking matters into her own hands when the man in her life fails to see the emergency.

The disemboweled carbon monoxide detector lay in state on the kitchen counter. I flipped the back open, where I learned that the unit is capable of emitting a variety of noises in a variety of configurations that mean different things.

First Alert CO detector
Our CO detector

A chirp every minute means you need to replace the batteries. Three chirps every minute means the unit is malfunctioning and you need to replace it. Four loud beeps followed by a pause, then repeated, means CO gas has been detected and your family is about to die. And five beeps every minute means the unit itself has died.

I was pretty sure I’d heard the four beeps, the pause, and then another four beeps. We were going to have to rustle the kids out of bed, find someplace to be for the night, and call the — who do you call when your CO detector emits the four beeps at you?

By now Dan had made his way down the hall too. I explained about the chirps and the beeps.

“It was just chirping,” he insisted.

“No. A chirp’s like this—pri!—whereas this was more like BEEP!

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was. Dan, you were fast asleep. A chirp would not have woken you up, but this did.”

“Whatever. Maybe the unit’s dead. It beeped a few times and then it stopped.”

“No, it went BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, then paused, then started up again.”

“No, it beeped and then it stopped and didn’t start up again.”

“Yeah, because you took the batteries out!”

“It stopped before I took the batteries out.”

“Okay, so we don’t know if it went BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP or BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, but how dumb would it be to die because we couldn’t be bothered to make sure?”

He shrugged sleepily.

“And not to be histrionic or anything, but I have a headache,” I added. “That’s a symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“It’s a symptom of being awake at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he countered.

“Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.”

“Look,” he said, going all President Obama on me. “There’s nothing on in the house right now that could produce carbon monoxide. It’s summer. The furnace isn’t on. There’s no smell of gas.”

“The fridge?” I asked, pointing to our absurdly noisy refrigerator. It certainly sounded like it was emitting something.

“The fridge? Naomi, the fridge doesn’t run on gas.”

By now I’d looked up “carbon monoxide” on my laptop and confirmed that it is indeed a product of combustion and does not spontaneously appear in the absence of said chemical reaction and could not be produced by any of our non-gas appliances or electronics.

“Okay,” I finally said. “Let’s do this: We put fresh batteries in the detector and hang it back on the wall. Then we open all the bedroom windows. And we go back to bed. But if that alarm goes off again, we’re calling 911.”

He agreed, handling the CO detector while I took care of the ventilation. I will confess that when I went into our boys’ bedrooms to open their windows, I checked to make sure they were still alive. I hadn’t done that since they were infants. Their long teenage bodies didn’t look very fragile anymore, but my heart still contracted with a fierce maternal something when I looked at them sleeping.

And then we went to bed. Dan was asleep in an instant, as always. I had trouble falling back to sleep, but I always have trouble falling asleep. The alarm did not sound again. Obviously, we all woke up again the next morning. The house was nice and cool from having so many windows open all night.

Since then, a nice man from PG&E came and fixed a gas leak at the water heater so small it barely registered on their instruments. He then checked the whole property and confirmed there were no other leaks.

So why am I telling this story on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of my marriage?

Well, mostly because it’s funny. That seems reason enough.

It also captures our relationship to a T: My over-reaction. Dan’s under-reaction. The way we’ll disagree about anything — not just over how to proceed, but even what’s real (chirps? beeps? four? five?). We’ve been over this territory so many times, it’s — I was going to say, it’s not even funny, except that it’s actually pretty funny.

But the story doesn’t only capture our dysfunctions. It captures our functions too. We figured it out that night. Together. With some testiness but little acrimony. And a little help from the Internet, of course; we both have a deep and abiding respect for empirical evidence and logical arguments.

The thing is, between my tendency to maximize every perceived problem and Dan’s tendency to minimize them, we usually manage to average somewhere near rational. Dan’s immediate concern that night was to go back to sleep; mine was for the four of us not to die. (Actually, it occurs to me these are often our chief concerns.) Anyway, for the balance of that night, we both got what we wanted.

Naomi and Dan, May 2010

The episode also made me appreciate the extent to which we comfortably rely on long-established household choreographies. When the alarm went off, we both knew Dan would get up to check it. When I went marching down the hall to investigate, I knew he would follow. And when we decided what to do next, we didn’t even have to talk about who was going to reset the CO detector and who was going to open windows. We knew.

That kind of knowing may be one definition of home.

So happy anniversary, my love. Here’s to another quarter-century of being home with you.

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