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How to Start a Fire in Your Dishwasher and Other Life Lessons

I am the only person I know who can start a fire in a dishwasher while it’s running. This takes a special, Houdini-like talent.

Here’s what happened. I smelled smoke, but I couldn’t find the cause. Strange. I checked every room, closet, and cupboard, in my house. I checked the garage. I went outside and walked around the block.

Since I live in a duplex, I thought that maybe my neighbor had left the coffee pot on or left a candle burning or a rodent had chewed through electrical lines? I went to their side of the house and rang the doorbell and looked through the windows. No one appeared to be home. I also didn’t see any fire, and nothing smelled like smoke over there.

I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t imagining the smell. Something was burning. I called a friend and she pointed out that no smoke alarms were going off. I also texted her husband who thought it could be a burned out motor on the dishwasher. (So then I started worrying about needing a new dishwasher.)

Fortunately, I have a very knowledgeable and handy neighbor who’s good at fixing and figuring out mechanical-type things. He came over and inspected the dishwasher. The motor was fine. So he looked inside. I had put an empty peanut butter jar in the dishwasher to thoroughly clean it before putting it in the recycle bin. The label came off the jar, landed on the heating coil, and caught on fire during the dry cycle, producing the distinct, but very difficult to detect, scent of smoke in my house.

Mystery solved.

Except, why hadn’t I noticed the ashes on the heating coil? (Besides that I had to put the dishes away first.)

While there are several life lessons in this short little story, (NO, the life lesson is not that I should stop recycling) like, get the cell number of your neighbors, take labels off jars before running them through the dishwasher, etc., there’s a much more significant life lesson about this story.

First, it’s a story: I created ALL of this drama. The phone calls to my friend. The texts. Bothering my neighbor. Bothering my other neighbor. Disrupting my own workday and getting completely sidetracked. All because I did not fully investigate the dishwasher because I have a belief—a story— that I am useless when it comes to fixing things.

I joke that “I’m a breaker, not a fixer,” when it applies to anything mechanical or technical. Not only that, but I also have zero interest in learning how to fix things; I’ve just always thought they are, you know, boring and for someone more qualified to figure out.

In 10th grade science class when Mr. Schaefer posed the question, “Have you ever wondered why, when you flip a switch, the light comes on?”

My immediate and resounding answer was, “No. I just want it to work.” Zero curiosity.

And that attitude sums up how I’ve approached objects that are broken. Either I’ve learned to live without them or developed a cumbersome workaround, found someone to fix them, or I buy something new. It never occurs to me to try to fix it myself. I tell myself I’m not mechanical. I’m not handy. I’m not good at that sort of thing. It’s too hard to figure it out.

And while it's true that someone can probably do it faster and better, I have paid a big price for believing the story that I’m not mechanical or good at fixing things.

Not only is there the obvious cost of paying someone else to do it—or in my case, often relying on the goodwill of my neighbor—but there are many other costs that I haven’t considered.

Because I don’t understand how things work, I’ve created a lot of drama, have a growing collection of things that are broken or that are useless, but I don’t realize I don’t need them so I hang on to them. I’ve wasted a lot of time for myself and others. It’s uncomfortable to always ask others for help, because I’m too cheap to pay a professional. It’s not fair to them.

And when something BIG has a problem, I don’t know the first thing about how to figure out when it needs to be replaced or is a simple fix, and that alone can create a lot of anxiety until I ask my neighbor to check it out.

All of this leads to the thing that is the biggest price: it affects my self-esteem. Every time something breaks, I feel and act helpless. By not learning how to fix something, I perpetuate the story that I can’t or don’t know how.

Learning something new is empowering. Being able to fix things around my house would actually boost my self-confidence and reduce anxiety. It would instill a new belief: I am capable and competent. Who knows, maybe the next time I smell smoke, I won't need to call five different people to figure out what it is. But more importantly, what kind of impact that could have on me and how I relate to the rest of the world?

This story hasn’t been serving my best interests. While I might have some cognitive limitations when it comes to understanding how machines work, not trying to learn has had a far more lasting impact on my psyche.

As humans, we do this ALL. THE. TIME. We are told things and we adopt them as fact. Or, we have an experience and we then say things like "I am not ____" or "I can't _____" and then we spend our lives proving them true and being held prisoner by those beliefs. But changing what we believe is one of the few things we have control over in this world.

What’s the story about yourself that you want to change? How would your world be different if this belief shifted? Write about it.

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