James Lileks
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You're supposed to change the batteries in your smoke alarm when daylight saving time switches over. Right. And I'm supposed to floss for 15 minutes after eating soup.

Did you replace your batteries? Perhaps you're the ordered sort who does it right after setting the clocks ahead, all the batteries lined up on the table with Post-it notes on each, describing the intended location. When you're done, you enter the data in a small notebook, checking off every room, then put the notebook away next to the notebook that details the schedules for changing the water filter in the fridge. (Ours has been blinking red for half a year, yet we have avoided cholera somehow.)

You are to be commended, and I'm sure there's a special cloud in heaven where your sort congregates and gets cheese and wine while the rest of us have to do with crackers and water. Most of us change the batteries when we hear the dreaded ... chirp!

Which, of course, happened at 3 a.m., when finding the room with the dying smoke alarm is like trying to find a contact lens in a hall of mirrors. They throw their voices, like a ventriloquist.

Yes, I could buy those pricey units with the long-lasting batteries, but what I really want is the ability to record a voice message that tells me the precise location. Upside: quick access, no mystery. Downside: I forget to tell my wife about it, and one day when I'm at the office she hears my voice say, "I'm down in the laundry room, dying."

In any event, the spacing of the chirps is all wrong. If it was a conversation, it would go like this:

Detector: "Hey."

You: "What?"

(Two minutes pass)

Detector: "Yo."

You: What?

(Two minutes pass)

Detector: "Dude."

You: "WHAT!"

(Two minutes pass)

Detector: "'Sup, bro?"

You: "I swear to God, man ... "

(Two minutes pass)

The intention of the timing seems to be "sufficient to motivate you, eventually, but maybe you can live with it, I don't know, your call." You could pretend it's a taciturn bird. Some laconic attic sparrow. All I know is that I do not want to be awakened by this again, and so I will buy a box of batteries and replace them and be good for a year, until they all decide to die at once at 3:37 a.m.

Did I find it at 3 a.m.? No. I lay there, waiting for the next chirp. Maybe it wouldn't do it again. Maybe I dreamed it. You know, those dreams where you're falling and wake with a jerk. Maybe I dreamed I fell on a bird.


I waited for the third instance, which would require getting up and doing something about it ... and the next thing I knew, it was morning.

"Did you hear a smoke alarm?" my wife asked, 16 hours later. You know, the end of the Sunday, when wives are doing that clearance-sale on the things they have on their minds, everything must go. I said that I did, but that it obviously was not a battery issue because we weren't hearing it now. Maybe it was a very small, quick, timid fire.

Frankly, I think they start chirping because they're bored. The smoke detector near the kitchen has had the same battery for years, and it gets more of a workout than any of them. The rest of them hang on the walls like bored barnacles, but the one in the kitchen? As long as I'm doing the cooking, it has a reason to live.