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The Polarity of the Penguins

December 10, 2008

Last Sunday, I helped fix a holiday emergency. It seems that the inflatable penguins that my girlfriend set up the other night had mysteriously deflated. Have you seen the penguins yet? If you travel through Mosier, you can’t miss them. They’re right on the corner between the new 10 Speed Coffee and the old gas station. It’s really cute. There’s a giant one with a scarf, and there’s one that keeps bobbing up and down out of an igloo.

In order to plug in the inflatable penguins, we had to run about 300 ft of “extension cords” to the nearest available outlet. Let’s call this the “main transmission line.” I say “extension cords” because the main “extension cord” is actually a “homemade extension cord” made of the kind of wire you use to wire a house with. The other extension cords consisted of one that looked like your average orange heavy duty extension cord, but in reality it was only for 2-pronged things, not three. The main transmission line also had some fairly normal extension cords in the mix. We used duct tape and plastic bags to tie them together, and hopefully keep any water out.

At the end of these cords, were, among other things, more extension cords. There were even more extension cords wrapped up in bags, in fact, they were nicer looking than some of the cords that were being used for the main transmission line. And finally, there was an indoor use only power strip, fully loaded and piggy-backed with plugs from penguins, two lighted deer, a season’s greeting sign and 15 strands of regular holiday lights.

Surely, this would be enough to overload any circuit.

You see, my girlfriend had set all these holiday decorations up the other day, and everything was working fine, until one day, mysteriously, there was no power to the penguins. She started talking about extension cords, and “funky” extension cords, and “outlets” and “funky outlets.” She mentioned that when she finally plugged everything in, the lights in the utility room went on. How weird is that?

So when the report came in about the deflated penguins, something deep down inside registered – something that must be genetically ingrained in the male population.

“I have a tool that can help us figure this out.”

It’s something that I bought a few years ago, but never really used. It’s one of those “outlet testers,” you know, the three pronged plug with multi-colored lights on the front that tells you if your “neutral” is reversed with your “ground” or if your “positive” is confused with your “open negative.” Granted, I’m not an electrician, and I don’t think I would go tearing up an electrical system if this device told me that the electrical outlet was wired wrong, but it would be nice to at least be able to verify that an outlet is wired correctly.

So down the hill we go, to check out the penguins. We even bring a plug-in light to test if we have power. I bring my handy outlet tester. We trace the main transmission line back to the outlet, and lo and behold, it’s not plugged in. That’s strange. Is it as simple as plugging it back in? Well, we plug it back in, and sure enough, the lights to the room come on. In all my years, I’ve never seen that happen.

But there’s still no power to the penguins. Well, that wasn’t completely true. There seemed to be some faint power going to the lighted deer. Did that “season’s greetings” sign flicker? Is it a fuse? One of ten extension cords? The funky extension cord? The power strip? This could take all day. It’s time for the outlet tester.

So we head back to the power source of the main transmission line. And I plug in the outlet tester. This is exciting, I’ve never used this before. The outlet I need to test is about chest-high. So you know that for a 3-pronged outlet, some have the third plug “Up” and some are “Down.” I’m not sure which is correct, but when I plug my tester in, it’s upside down, and I can’t read it. So now I’ve got to arrange my body half-way upside down to read the thing. Upside down. Backwards. Whatever. I count off the little lights and compare it to the polarity chart on the tester. And lo and behold, whatever the reading was, it was not correct. Something was amiss. By golly, the first outlet I tested is wired wrong.

The mystery of the room lights coming on when something is plugged in may be solved. We find a correctly wired outlet. The penguins start to inflate. A little girl and her mom are already enjoying the town’s decorations. And Christmas has been saved.

I go home and test more outlets.

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