Perspective in Zone 3 – On Accepting Errors in our Writing

What you see here is a transformer. It’s made to convert electrical current—in this case, from 120 volts to 24 volts. I can’t explain how it works; I only know what it does and that I needed one. Well–apparently I needed one.

I mean, I thought I did. I thought I would put it to use cleverly, solve my problem, accomplish something, and move on with my life. The transformer had other plans, and by hearing about them it’s possible that some of your suffering around your writing may be relieved.

See, it all started when my son was born. (If you’ve been paying attention to my Instagram for the past 9 months, this is not news to you.) My son’s arrival at my house led to a number of upgrades, taken on by me, also known, occasionally, as Mr. Fix-It. (It is primarily in my mind that I am “known” by this moniker. OK, to be honest it is exclusively in my mind that I am known by this moniker.) One of the jobs I took on was to upgrade the thermostats in our house. They worked OK, but we wanted Wi-Fi enabled thermostats so we could adjust the temperature in rooms with our smartphones. We thought this would be handy for when our boy was napping, and also when we were away, we could save energy by turning the heat down, and things like that. And, yes, we Airbnb our place at the holidays, so we could monitor the heat then as well. We’d only gotten the broadband connection to make this possible about two years ago, it was time, and I was excited in that dumb way that people like me get excited by technological upgrades.

Well, so I researched different models and bought one by Honeywell, and set about installing it. If you’ve ever tried to suspend an atom in mid-air using electromagnetic energy fields, you have an idea of how simple a job this is.

To my surprise, within a short time it booted up, and I was able to run the configuration thing and get it connected to Wi-Fi. Then I installed the mobile app and tested it out. I jacked up the heat to make the boiler run, hit Submit, and boom, the thermostat screen went blank. It would not restart.

Two weeks, seven calls to Honeywell customer support, and three trips to the hardware store later, and I had a new thermostat, the same model, and it was now powered correctly so that it didn’t fail. See, there’s something called a C-wire, or common wire, and it was needed to bring the higher current levels to make the digital display work. Old thermostats don’t need those, so I had to add it using an additional wire. Where to add it was a place that Honeywell wasn’t willing to tell me about and the manufacturer of my zone controller wasn’t willing to tell me about, because I was a homeowner, not a contractor. Nice policy, eh?

It goes without saying that I consulted 16 online forums and 15 YouTube videos too, discarding results from years past which are now the top results because the algorithms that lead everyone to them, even though they’re wrong.

By some small miracle, I learned that my zone controller featured a 24-volt common terminal just waiting to employed for such a purpose. This was a boon.

So, at this stage—success! It wasn’t easy. At times I wanted to die or murder someone, and I also wanted to chastise the “writers” of the Honeywell PF754LM-95 User Manual for their abject disregard for clarity. But I got it done. The heat in Zone 1 of our house was now controlled by superior means, and we could do all the thing we hoped.

As time allowed—parents, you know what I mean—I got a second Honeywell and installed it for the second zone of our house, again replacing the wiring with new 5-way to accommodate a C-wire. (Our house was built by rural tradesmen and the homeowners themselves, and things are a bit piecemeal.)

I was pleased. Then came Zone 3, the upstairs zone, including the master bedroom. The other zones were on the first floor, a drill hole away from the basement, where the boiler is. Now a whole floor of house lay between the thermostat spot and the basement, and it turned out that the existing wire traveled down the wall, across a length of ceiling, and down another wall, stapled all the way to the studs. I could not possibly pull it out or run new wire along the same path without inflicting major destruction.

Now came a research black hole spanning many days, as I was also raising the son whose arrival sparked all this. Bottles, naps, diapers, and all. In the end, the best option seemed to use the power already in the upstairs room, rather than running a C-wire to the basement for those 24 delicious volts of current. Handymen reading this can now anticipate that the power in this room would be the standard 120 volts, and so queue the titular resistor, no doubt.

There were actually two resistors. The one you see is this post is the second, the first having exploded in a puff of sparks and smoke. See, even the guy at the electrical supply store didn’t know which way to wire it. The terminals were not marked in/out or +/-, or for that matter heads/tails, or anything else. I tested it in my garage, just trying to get the third thermostat to boot, rather than installing it on the wall first. (See, I was learning!) When I threw the power, it hummed briefly, then popped and smoked, and the whole thing was hot to the touch and smelled “like burning” to quote Ralph from “The Simpsons.”

I cut my losses and plugged on. Some call this perseverance; it is often indistinguishable from obstinacy. I bought another resistor, at another $75—and again, in due time, which is to say, weeks later—fixed what I assumed was the problem, by wiring the positive and negative in the only other possible configuration than the one I’d used last time, switching black and white (the green wire being a ground wire). It was at the exact moment that I exploded the second transformer that I thought: “Not polarity! Directionality!”

It wasn’t the polarity, it was the directionality. I was sending 120 volts into the “out” terminals. Whether they were on the correct poles was moot.

At this point I hit pause on the upgrade, and at the present moment, my house has two Wi-Fi thermostats and, in the upstairs, an old school one—with a dial and a copper coil in it. How that coil knows what the temperature is, I have no idea. But I know that it is incompatible with my router.

And that’s OK. We’re functioning.

This is all to say that some of your projects will succeed through trial and error and others will fail.

Samuel Beckett said it best. “Fail Better.” For a time, there was a literary journal with that title. Is it still around? Not sure.

But your writing life is no different than the rest of life. There are hard-earned successes and doomed flops and close calls. With some writing projects, some stories, the methodology was always wrong, or every effort well-intentioned but ill-informed, or executed on faulty guesswork, or the victim of bad timing or the product of distracted, overworked mind. Anything that can happen in life can happen in your writing.

The key here is expectations and perspective. I skipped the big victory prior to this resistor debacle. The big victory was that I actually added hydronic baseboard heaters to two rooms that formerly were seldom used but had now become my boy’s changing room and its adjacent back bathroom. Not only that, I’d removed an awful plastic basin washroom sink and swapped out a standard door for a barn-style hanging door, which made the interior space usable.

That was huge.

For the plumbing I had to learn all about “heat Pex,” had to obtain and learned to use a special clamping tool, had to understand the size of pipes, and how to drain a line, and how to drill through ceramic tile, and a few others things. It was tough. Nothing came easy. You take the good with the bad, but you be sure to recognize the things you get right, the ways you learned, and the spots where you came up short, and you move on.

In time, I’m going to try again in Zone 3. I hear there is a plug-in adapter I can get for about $12. I probably should have started there!