Thursday, March 13, 2014


A condition with my water heater: the pilot light won’t stay lit. Probable cause: a defective thermocouple.

The thermocouple is a device that responds to the heat of the pilot light by generating a small electrical current. The current trips a magnetic switch that maintains the gas flow to the pilot light. No heat, no current, no gas flow, no pilot light, no flame, no hot water.

Lighting the pilot light requires manual ignition (by rapidly depressing an ignition plunger like flicking the wheel of a cheap butane lighter) and depressing and holding a pilot switch until the temperature of the pilot flame is sufficient to activate the thermocouple mechanism.

My dysfunctional water heater provides an admittedly pedestrian metaphor for conceptualizing the present malaise among my comrades, the oppressed (although comparatively privileged) corporate slaves in the US who content themselves with bickering about politics—as if there were any differences among Obama, Bush, and Mussolini other than their graveside rhetoric.

Of course, the pilot light itself is too weak to alter the temperature of the water in the tank. Rather, it burns a solitary blue teardrop of flame as a source of ignition for a much larger and far hotter blaze. I know there is still a potential for fire within us—a fire as hot as it was with our ancestors when their lives (and land) were first stolen from them. The structure is intact and the potential for conflagration lurks ever close to the surface.

But there is no ignition. The pilot light is out and will not hold a flame.

So the metaphoric question: What is it that corresponds to the thermocouple? What is it that could provide the small but vital current necessary for an enduring flame? And once we have identified this, what must we do to bring it back on-line?

It may be important to note that the thermocouple requires a preexisting flame. So the pilot flame is maintained only when it already burns (a bit of a catch-22). And once extinguished, the pilot requires manual ignition. Will we have to force the flame upon ourselves and actively feed it—hold the pilot switch down—until it acquires sufficient heat to burn on its own?

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe the first step is to find the metaphoric matchstick.

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