Marietta Pritchard: First that and now this? When bad things come in multiples

Monday, August 18, 2014
AMHERST — Despite his education in a rational tradition, my father was slightly superstitious. He didn’t like spilled salt, he spoke of omens and he had, so he believed, a lucky necktie. Immediately after the first few times my husband-to-be visited my parents’ house, there were noticeable domestic malfunctions: One time the dishwasher went on the blink and another time it was the washing machine.

My father, who laughingly claimed it was something to do with Bill, would have surely known a Latin saying that “explained” it — Post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that when one event happens after another, the first is the cause of the second.

The dictionary refers to this as fallacious thinking, and of course it is.

This summer I have been wishing I had some such simple explanation for the sequence of annoying, if relatively minor, breakdowns in our current living arrangements. Things have been going awry — the heating system in the room over our garage began to produce unwanted baseboard heat during the hottest days of the summer; the kitchen faucet was leaking into the cabinet below; our dining room table suffered a serious structural defect when we opened it for a large family gathering; the back door lock froze and threatened to keep us out.

Of course, all of these problems can be explained with one word: age. The heating system wore out a gasket; the faucet responded to the ill-effects of 22 years of Amherst water; the back door never had a decent lock; the dining room table was secondhand when we got it, and has always been living on borrowed time.

Probably all houses should have something comparable to an annual physical, since it seems that maintenance is the name of the game past a certain age, for houses as well as humans.

On my recent visit to our family doctor, I settled in for our yearly conversation. Because I have no major complaints so far (knock wood — I am my father’s daughter, after all), we often talk about the current state of the medical profession. He doesn’t like the way things are going, and continues to believe in and conduct an annual physical exam, despite pressures to the contrary.

It may not be specifically “necessary,” nor does it, evidently, produce statistical results, and it is certainly time-consuming, something insurance companies hate. Still, even with a minimum of tests, it offers a way for doctor and patient to keep in touch, to know each other when there is no crisis, which surely means better, more humane results when something serious happens.

Our doctor and I talked a bit about the effects of aging, and at the end of our conversation, he reminded me that I needed to watch out not to break any more bones while walking our dog in the winter.

A couple of years ago, two years in succession, I had broken a wrist after slipping on the ice. I assured him that I had invested in ice cleats and was being very careful. After all, I said, it wasn’t the dog’s fault. Both the cause and the effect were clearly mine.

He wished me well and left the room. After a moment he came back and stuck his head in the door, like a vaudeville comedian for a last joke.

“I’ve been practicing medicine for a long time,” he said, with a knowing look, “and I’ve never known anyone to blame the dog.”

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at mppritchard@comcast.net.