Like, for instance: Unplugging every power cord from every outlet in the house every night of your adult life
“If you leave the telly plugged in overnight, it will explode!”
I remember this mantra coming from my eldest sister as much as from my dad, having as she did a five year head start on me in getting it drummed into her. But either way, the message from on high was clear: If electrical appliances were not at least switched off at the wall (British outlets have on/off switches), within moments of falling asleep, the house would be purged by Biblical fire, each of us roasted alive in our beds without so much as the chance to muster a scream.
It would play out in my head like scenes from Backdraft any time I began to fall asleep: Jolting awake with the sudden realization that I had done the unthinkable and come upstairs without turning off what was, to all intents and purposes, the detonator on a vast canister of napalm.
The mantra stayed firmly in place during university. The frustrated cries of housemates — plonked on the sofa with blankets and hangover food, only to discover that the remote is useless when the TV is switched off at the wall — were a regular morning soundtrack.
To this day — I’m 38 and living on another continent, 5,464 miles from the house I grew up in — I still check all the plugs (outlets, as you call them) every night before bed. I resist the urge to unplug the TV, but the toaster and the popcorn maker don’t stand a chance. The kettle gets a long, suspicious stare: If I’m going away for a few days, it gets pulled out at the wall. The rings on the oven get checked three or four times. Then I go upstairs, into the room where my infant daughters sleep, and all the plugs get checked again (I’ve already checked them while putting them to sleep; I will check them once more after I brush my teeth).
What am I looking for? Absolutely no idea. Flames? Sparks? Smoke? Don’t know. I just check them, because if I don’t, we will all die by fire.
So thoroughly have I absorbed this piece of fatherly wisdom that, even though I know intellectually that my flat-screen TV is surely less likely to spontaneously burst into flames than the boxy black-and-white tellies of 1950s Britain, I can’t seem to let it go.
But where exactly did this idea of nocturnally combustible televisions come from in the first place?
“My father taught me that you should turn it off at the plug, or before plug sockets had switches, we used to pull the plugs out,” my dad tells me. “He was a heavy electrical engineer — he was trained in making turbo alternators, the enormous generators that you have in power stations. Pulling the plugs out may not have been mainstream practices in households, but he was an electrical engineer, and that was his opinion of things — he was famously cautious of electrics.”
The rationale, he explains, was less that appliances were that much more unsafe back then, and more that people used to be astonishingly careless when it came to their household electrics. “People used to get up to all sorts of monkey business,” dad explains. “When a fuse blew, they would just use a thicker fuse wire. The thing is a safety valve! If you do that, whatever it is will eventually catch fire. But people didn’t have any money back then — they wouldn’t just call a sparks, as we would, because they didn’t have any cash to pay him with.”
And so, I ask the big question that I had somehow never asked him until now: With all this shoddy wiring and irresponsible behavior, just how common was it for appliances to explode back then?
There is a momentary pause before he answers: “Well, I’ve never heard of it happening…”
This is a revelation. In my head, my dad grew up in a world of endlessly exploding lamps and wireless sets. He ran to bed each evening with his arms over his head to protect him from the flames raining down from the overhead light fixtures, regularly getting evacuated in the middle of the night due to some incendiary electric mangle incident or other.
I erupt with laughter. “I’ve been doing this my whole life!” I yell. “Three generations of Leftley men unplugging everything every night, and it’s never actually happened to anyone you know!”
“It was just like locking a door,” he reasons. “You don’t get burgled every night, it’s just a precaution.”
“But dad, you do hear about people getting burgled.”
“Yeah, you do,” he says. “And you do hear news stories about house fires, and you do hear about them being caused by an ‘electrical fault.’”
What can I say: The man has a point. But is it really something that happens just from leaving the telly plugged in overnight?
“Leaving an appliance plugged into a socket (but switched off) overnight won’t increase the risk of an electrical fire or accident,” a spokesperson for Electrical Safety First, a charity dedicated to a safer consumer experience of electric goods, tells me via email. “However, Electrical Safety First recommends that electrical appliances are switched off overnight or when you’re out — for example, phone chargers and laptop chargers — as this will minimize the risk of an electrical accident.”
Still, they tell me, by far the biggest hazard comes not from your basic TV or router, but from so-called white goods. “Domestic electrical white goods, such as dishwashers, tumble dryers and fridge freezers are one of the leading causes of electrical fires in the U.K.,” says the spokesperson. “White goods fires develop rapidly, and if you’re asleep in bed at the time, it’s unlikely you’d be able to react quickly [enough] to stop them from spreading.”
If, like me, you’re now terrified that your arsonist washing machine is going to murder your family in the night, they point to this page of advice specifically dedicated to white goods safety on their website.
As for the period when my dad was receiving electrical safety advice from my grandpa — the 1940s and 1950s — appliances have, at least, gotten safer since then. But now there are other risks, too. “Products are becoming safer as product safety standards continue to evolve and develop,” per ESF. “However, we now have a variety of electrical appliances that didn’t exist 60+ years ago, e.g., hoverboards and phone chargers. These are often cheaply produced and only just meet the minimum required by U.K. safety standards.”
To summarize thus far: I should be far more worried about my fridge erupting into an inferno than my Roku box. But since I can’t unplug my fridge overnight, so long as I’m not buying cheap knock-off electronics on eBay, I may as well just let the whole notion go.
One problem there: I don’t think I can.
“It’s not so much the chronological age [that you learn this stuff], it’s really about the nature of the relationship you have with that parent and what it means to be connected to them,” says L.A.-based psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanette Raymond, when I ask her if I have any chance of breaking a habit that was cemented at such a young age. “If your dad was very anxious when he said all these things, if he said it to you like, ‘This is do or die!’ then you’re going to take it seriously because you’ve got nothing else to compare it with. It’s like him giving you a message that your safety is at stake. Not only are you going to jeopardize your own safety, but his, too!”
Raymond goes on to explain that the greater the anxiety with which such a message is communicated, the greater the impact it will have. “If they’re deadly serious and depending on you to do these things to keep the family safe, then you, as a child, are going to internalize that and do it for the rest of your life,” she says. “It’s something you picked up that’s important — it’s a connection with your parents, it’s a way you learned to keep safe.”
The solution, Raymond tells me, is to recognize that my compulsive checking of the outlets is no longer based on my safety concerns, per se, and more about my relationship with my dad. “In terms of [how to stop doing it], it’s really about, when are you ready to let go of a piece of you and your dad?” says Raymond. “It was a very salient part of your dad, so it becomes an important part of your connection with him. You’ve got to feel like you’re not letting him down, because this is something important he passed onto you as a parent, trying to protect you and your family. Giving it up could make you feel like you’re betraying that connection. So when you catch yourself going to the TV and taking out the plug, say, ‘Oh, this is about Dad, I’m going to call him instead, or text him, or think of a funny story about him instead.’”
Admittedly, this advice made me feel a bit like Ted Theodore Logan being analyzed by Sigmund Freud at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
But considering the eight-hour time difference, a call or text seems ill-advised, and I wonder if there’s some other form of reassurance that might work. Like maybe just getting my dad to tell me it’s okay to stop doing it?
“Oh, I don’t do it anymore,” dad tells me when I ask about quitting the nightly unplugging routine. “I don’t remember when I stopped doing it, but it was a long time ago. I just turn the lamps off at the wall in case the cat knocks them over.”
Now if he can just tell me that in an urgent fashion every single night for the next 15 years or so, maybe it’ll stick.