… enlist someone else’s orbitofrontal cortex.
The moment I ended the call, I knew my Saturday was going to have hard challenges I was no longer capable of easily handling. I’m older now and I don’t have the passion for home repair I once did. Nevertheless, when a friend called me up and asked me to help replace his dead electric water heater, I figured it was the least I could do, especially when replacement estimates were coming in at $1200-$1500. After all, it was less than a year ago that I replaced the one in our house for only $80 (I found it on Drewslist as a contractor’s overstock).
Once I got to Elrod’s house it became clear why the estimates were so beefy: his 50 gallon water heater was under the house in a teeny crawl space, about 100 feet from the access door. We would have to crawl over to the heater on our bellies and do much of the work on it on our knees, probably banging our heads on floor joists and water pipes all along the way.
The first task was to disconnect the old heater. It soon became clear that the plumber who installed it soldered the water pipes up between two of the floor joists after the tank was in place. Therefore, we couldn’t use wrenches to loosen the connector fittings. The pipes would have to be cut. Unfortunately, I’d traveled the 20 miles to Elrod’s house and forgot my pipe cutter and didn’t think to bring my Sawzall, which would have made short work of those water pipes. The only remaining option: handsaw them with a hacksaw. The challenge there was the same as for the wrenches: no room to maneuver…
Knuckle-busting Makes It Happen
Three quarters of an hour later, after much cussing and knuckle-busting, the pipes were finally free of the tank. But when we tried to move it off the concrete slab it was sitting on, we discovered the heater weighed more than 400 pounds! It was still filled with water – a pint’s a pound the world around. We could have run a garden hose from the drain spigot at the bottom of the tank, only the access door sat elevated higher than the tank’s drain, and one of the two things all plumber’s know for sure is that left to its own devices, water only runs downhill. So, unless we wanted to flood the crawl space and work in the mud, the only option remaining was – a bucket brigade.
Twenty trips back and forth from the crawl space opening later, the tank was light enough to move. Except for one thing: a 16” heating duct that had also gone in after the hot water tank when the house was originally built. Time out to remove the tape and screws holding both ends of the giant duct in place.
When the duct was subsequently removed and out of the way, with considerable effort we finally managed to roll the water tank over to the crawl space opening. Then, with Elrod pulling from the outside and me pushing on my belly from the inside, we managed to finally emancipate that dead and mangled beast.
Only now I was exhausted.
Breaktime in Bethlehem
“Let’s go get a burger and a beer,” Elrod masterfully suggested. So we did.
“Seems like you’re almost out of gas,” Elrod mentioned on the drive back to his house. “Not as young as I used to be,” I replied.
“How about this: just help me lift the tank out of the crate and move the pressure/temperature valve from the top to the side. Got enough juice for that?” I did have.
I also had enough juice to help carry the water tank over onto the mover’s blanket Elrod had placed in the crawl space opening, after which I was free to go. Except I couldn’t leave him to try to maneuver the tank all by himself up onto the slab. So I offered to push while he pulled.
And that’s how the rest of the afternoon went – with Elrod suggesting the next small, manageable step, and me helping him accomplish it. The job had changed from “removing and replacing the water heater” – a large, tiring and very involved undertaking – to doing one small step, and then another and then another, mostly orchestrated by the neural seat where Elrod’s Executive Function resided: his orbitofrontal cortex. Blending his “higher power” skills at project management with my knowledge of building and remodeling, we were able to accomplish what otherwise would have been left to a plumber to do for several hundred unnecessary dollars.
Executive Power and Privilege
It’s this “higher power” of Executive Function that is responsible for so much energy and creativity going untapped and unexpressed in this country, in my estimation. Schools or parents or other social institutions haven’t empowered us as children or as adults to grow through practice (and tons of mistake-making) all the neural fiber bundles from the farthest corners of our neural network up to the front and center where Executive Function primarily comes to reside. But here’s the hopeful takeaway message: It’s never too late to begin growing those connections … one nerve fiber at a time! In the meantime, when you can’t lead or get out of the way, willingly designate someone else for you to temporarily follow. Or to serve you as a … Slapper.
Neuro-Literary License Disclosure: What’s true about the above account actually ended at “Only now I was exhausted.” The rest of the story took place solely in my mind on the drive home as I pondered what it would have taken to actually get Elrod’s water heater job fully completed. The answer: his or someone else’s orbitofrontal cortex (like mine?) willingly assuming temporary executive command. Or perhaps, as this research suggests, all I had to do was wash my mouth out with sweetened lemonade!