Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | June 5, 2009

Behind the Screen

Behind the screen is the sanctuary. This holds not just for the Church, but also for the home. Fact is that it’s kind of hard to think what other reason there would be for having a screen. Open windows almost always seem to have screens, and when they don’t, somehow the windows don’t feel right… it’s kind of like they’re undressed. Once out in California, we stayed in a hotel with no screens. I remember trying to distract the bellman from this idea of what a tip should look like by asking what we would do if the Killer Bees showed up… but that’s like trying to distract a dinner-bowl oriented dog into thinking that dinner comes in a bag not a dish. The bellman of course said not to worry, we would just phone the desk and for the right tip, he was sure they’d send someone over with a can of Raid, and for another tip, they might even let me squeeze off a couple of rounds at the intruders. I told him I believed in Wellness, Jogging, and Preventitive Medicine… even preventitive screens… but it didn’t make much impression, nor did it seem to convince him that a ten-spot was enough for the moment.

Down in the Lobby, talk among those in the know soon shifted to the fact that in all our days there, no one actually saw any bees.

“So how do you think they manage to pollinate all the flowers, vegetables, and stuff?”
“Yeah. And what about all these kids?”
“I don’t think the kids seem to be having any problem… but the rest, I dunno. Maybe they do it with eye droppers?”

Back here in the East where men are still men and the bugs grow as plentiful as bamboo in the jungle steppe of the Gobi, we may not know much about anything that matters… but we do know our screens. Mostly, we know that there are two sides to a screen: there’s the good side, and the outside. And in case you’re new to these things, the key thing is that if you rely on them and you haven’t carefully washed, cleaned, pressed, and prepared your screens, they might let you down. Like they say in the Marines, “Get to know your screen. One day it may save your life”… meaning from bees. On the otherhand if you can, just make sure you’re on the good side, the inside, and close the doggone window, why heck…. you’ve broken the code. Turn on the AC, take a load off  and just forget about it for a while.

“Nature… that’s for the other guy. Who needs it?”
“Yeah that’s what I be talkin’ ’bout. Get back to the land? I say, you get back to the land, I’m gettin’ back to the AC”
“Right. And it better not be global warming in my living room. More like Ice Station Zebra.. without the submarines.”

So you get the picture.  We’re… correction… I’m… not exactly Mr. Environmentalist. I’m not sure how we got on this, but the point was that in my house… the purpose of opening windows and using screens seems to be something I’m still baffled about. My wife opens the windows in the winter…. “to air the house out”. Me? Winter time, I’m just fine with warm and stuffy… unless we’re talking noses… which we’re not. But the other trick about the screens… is that they’re wired. I’ve always wanted to hear Beethoven through them and pose like that guy in the famous speaker commercial with my hair blowing back… but then my hair did blow back, and I can’t find it any more.

Actually… these things aren’t wired for sound, and they’re not electric. They’re hooked up for vibration… which sounds like we’re weirdos or something…. but means only that if a bad guy shows up at our house and wants to get in, he’ll touch the screen and set off an alarm. Of course, they caught maybe exactly one guy once this way in Omaha… but it’s good for sales. Sure, we all know everyone else in Reform School took the same “shop class” where they teach them how to remove an engine from a car and fold it into a lunch box in three-and-a-half seconds with the police watching through the hole in their donut.

“See any evil?”
“Nah… just this Krispy Kreme here.”
“Hey… they only thing evil about it is you’re thinking about taking that last one… and it’s meant for me.”
“Correction: I’m not just thinking… and by the way, the only thing evil is the hot-hot-hot light.”

And even if these wired screens are something of a joke…  has that stopped us? No, and it hasn’t stopped us from inflicting these things on ourselves either.

For reasons that I’m still not clear on, my folks put in a burglar alarm back when I was in middle school and I was still skinny enough to slip my arm in through the mail slot and let myself in after school. Mom was never home, so the house would be locked up tight when I walked home. She meant to be there, but it was more of a theory… like she was on her way, or on the phone somewhere… or something… and what’s twenty, thirty or more minutes in the life of a kid anyway? I mean as a parent, I’ve been there. But of couse as a kid, it was clear she was either operating on Grand Theory # 3 (ignore him, he’ll go away and somebody else will pay for college), or  she’d obviously forgotten that time in kid brains passes either at light speed, or freezes entirely –  with no in-between. And adding a kid’s need for sugar to this combo is like removing the control rod from a nuclear reactor.

So somehow she missed the clear and present danger presented to her well-stocked cabinets and whacked out nutritional theories by the gaping  opportunity her “lack of presence” posed.  Y’know what I mean… or used to… back in the good old days before nutrition really got scarey… back when it still meant cookies, crackers, chips, cheese, peanut butter, English muffins, chocolate milk… all the good stuff . And if you managed this program rightly… you wouldn’t actually be hungry after a few seconds, or find yourself puzzling over dinner, “Do I eat that green thing… or can I last ’til breakfast?” That’s a window on salvation that slams shut when she-who-must-be-obeyed  arrives. And since they didn’t trust me enough to give me a key…I had to get in somehow. And of course when my arm filled out and that didn’t work anymore, I moved on to the old credit card trick I’d read about in the newspaper. Now why they didn’t trust me with a house key, but somehow I had a credit card, I’m just not sure. Might have had something to do with my Dad’s comment when he gave me the card.

“Here’s a credit card. If you ever get in trouble, use it… but you better be darn near dead… or you’ll wish you were.”

I’d say he was a kidder…. but jokes were for other people. On the other hand, he had a highly developed twist to his sense of humor, that meant tweaking Mom whenever he could, and having me demonstrate my skill to the cocktail set seemed to work.  Of course in her turn,  she did what all Mom’s do… and called in the hired gun. She arranged a visit from the local PD to discuss “security” while  giving me the evil eye. And soon enough we found some pre-NASCAR types crawling all over the house wiring up for a burglar alarm my Dad grumbled was costing him an arm and a leg. Those guys wired everything: pencils on desk, coins on Dad’s dresser, the cookie jar –  all got wired without even a hint of caffiene or controlled substances.

From that day to this, there have been few years I’ve lived any place without one of these things… and I’m ashamed to say that’s a lot of living. But the truth is… the only part that seems to work about these systems is the fire alarm. Now how do I know this? Good question. The way we determine whether any alarm system is working is simple: If it doesn’t go off – it’s working. If it goes off… we get it fixed. Electricians love this … it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  I think they came up with the idea when houses stopped burning down whenever the light bulbs burned out.  I mean we caught my grandmother… a bunch of times… trying to get outside to snitch the newspaper. Then of course we caught that infamous ruffian, A.  Thunderstorm, who notoriously and repeatedly soaked the wiring to compromise security for the perfect break-in. And of course my Mom and the local PD got a lot better acquainted… through all those false alarms when she was heading out to the grocery for more threatening food. But mostly we find these things will be real handy if we’re ever worried about the sound of a cork coming out of a wine bottle, a high pitched dog bark, a sneeze, and especially… high winds.

Like the other night: We were sleeping, and then somehow we weren’t. Out of the fog we grasped the notion that somewhere there was this emission… like the sound of someone’s car alarm going off for the third or fourth time. I got out of bed, turned on the lights… and looked out the window…

“Funny… shouldn’t the headlights be flashing?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well… it’s not happening…”
“This is just really annoying ?? !….”
“Yeah… I mean… “
“Hey… did ya’ hear that….that voice saying it’s a break in…”
“Yeah… and so the annoying thing is … it’s our house.”
“Duh…look at the panel?”

I guess it’s fair to say we weren’t operating at full wattage. But of course squinting at 1:30am with a blaring noise in your ears isn’t all that easy for being at your best. So then the fun begins: Try to find the phone number…. it’s in the top of the dresser… no that’s the old one. Try the back of the calendar. There. Now call the alarm company, try to remember your password… no not the old pet’s name…. or the boat’s name…. or the old car model…. or the maiden name… but that first date was… it the twenty-seventh or the twenty-eighth of February?  or what is it something else altogether? No that’s for the email.

“The cops are coming?”
“Oh no!”
“Actually… they’re… here.”

Now that’s the thing that seems to be the point of these alarms. We hate these false alarms so much… that… okay… maybe it’s not true in your house… but in  mine, if my wife never had to turn it on, she’d sleep better. Does it make any sense that she’s more afraid of the alarm than a break in? Uh… given the record…. maybe it does.

The cop was nice, and offered to check around back with his flashlight. I guess he spends a lot of time practicing on the range with that thing, and it’s good to give the guy a chance to use his skills, so I said, “Sure”. I thought they wore brown, but either they switched to blue, or I just wasn’t up on the latest fashion make over. Of course he knew and I knew he’d not find anything, and he didn’t. And he didn’t seem intimidated about waking the neighbors… or asking sensitive questions… like “the age of  my system”, but I knew it wasn’t personal. Fact is… at least he was interested when no one else was. I mean… think about the last false alarm you heard. Like that Koan about the tree…. “If an alarm rings in a neighborhood, and nobody moves, does it actually ring?” No one listens let alone worries about these things anymore. It’s like….either we’re already dead, or it’s false… and if you didn’t actually hear a gun shot or see a police helicopter… then nothing’s actually going on.

Only it is… because the alarm companies have a secret weapon known as “the call list”. This is the list of folks who the alarm companies call up to annoy after they annoy the police… because they know that no one is actually going to pay attention to the bells, the lights, and the flares and fireworks…. but no one misses a phone call. So when these things go off at 3:00am…. and they’re stoked on coffee…  they go into action. They even have a set of trivia questions to throw at you like “Can you say the alphabet… backwards?” I remember once when my folks alarm went off a few years ago at about that time. The alarm company called and wanted me to go over there.

“Did you call my parents?”
“Yes, but they didn’t answer.”
“Did you call the police.”
“Not yet. It might be a false alarm.”
“So if there IS someone….what do you want me to do…go over and get shot if it’s real, or report it’s false to the police so they don’t have to check it out?”
“Uh… I guess. But what if your folks are dead?”
“Like..  shouldn’t you call an ambulance?”
“No… they’re not on the I’ve-Fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up service.”
“Then they’ll just have to be just as dead in the morning as now.”
“So you’re doing nothing?”
“Yes…  I’m going to try to get back to sleep.”
“But….y’know we’ll be calling you back in thirty minutes if it’s still ringing.”
“Oh… and I’ll be answering. Hey… do us both a favor and take me off the list.”

The call from Mom the next morning was… shall I say “testy”. Turned out of course that my folks were in fact out of town, but despite the fact that it was  a false alarm, Mom wasn’t happy with my ‘tude. And like any Mom worth her salt, she was incensed… something her generation knew how to make work for her. Anyway she wanted to know what my problem was, why I didn’t love her, and why I wouldn’t go over there and get shot like a good boy. My protest that I loved her but of course I knew it was a false alarm somehow didn’t slay the savage beast. She wasn’t buying it. More to the point, my being shot if I went over there and it was real… just wasn’t one of her pressing worries. I mean… the police would be there to pick up the body… and she was out of town anyway… so she wouldn’t be first on my alarm company’s call list.

And that’s the other thing I like about these lists. Going to work the next day to pick up the voice mail telling me there’s a possible break in at my house. Do they ever say, “There’s possibly a really crummy alarm system at your house with another… go figure… false alarm. What do you pay these people for?” No, of course not. Could they get work if they replaced clock radios with these guys? Doubt it. We’d all be late on work days, and waking up at the crack of whatever on our days off. And I already do that anyway.

But we do have an answer here. My alarm company guy is an ex-CIA guy. I know… they all say that. But this guy really… I mean he used to take his kids to play paint ball…. in the jungles of Nicaragua somewhere. Serious… “M-kay”. “M-kay” is a technical term at the CIA… I mean “the company”. Guy did work for the Chinese Embassy, the Russian Embassy… all his old contacts. After the Wall came down… all his wiring guys were… suddenly… Russian. Sweetest guys you’d ever meet. Probably had fourteen advanced degrees in fields of study I can’t even pronounce. And if you needed anything fixed, you didn’t even have to call. You just went over to the corner… the one on the stairs… and whispered, “I think there’s a problem with the nuclear launch codes….” and next thing you know… the door bell would ring. Literally… I kid you not… thirty seconds.  I mean… how long does it take to walk from the Ice Cream truck parked at the bottom of the hill in December to the front door anyway?

So I whispered to the steps, the steps whispered to the truck, and the truck whispered to the  guys… oh… the Russians are gone… so it’s gonna take a few days. And we’re sleeping with the alarm off. If you want to pick up some valuables, we’ve decided to save folks the trouble and left them outside. But as for these wired screens, I’m hooking up my iPod. So long as no one plays with matches and starts fooling the fire alarm, my wife’s happy as a clam. Me… I’m depending on the dog… ’cause he never barks at passing squirrels, people who might be thinking of coming by, the trash truck, nearby airplanes… or whatever. Fact is, the dog and the alarm company have a lot in common – only dog biscuits are cheaper and the dude doesn’t have a call list.

Larger meaning. Oh..yeah. Let’s try this: “I guess the larger meaning is that there really is a lot more peace and happiness in  ‘going without’. Like the old song says, leave your troubles on the doorstep. So your sanctuary behind the screen is preserved only when your treasures are safely on  the other side.” Some might say this holds whether we’re talking about the home, the Church or anywhere… but others might not. You make the call… but don’t put me on “The List”.


  1. Yeah we grow bugs here in California. Somehow they all end up in the State Capitol Building, Sacramento.

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