February 1, 2009

There are people who are prepared for emergencies. And then there are people like me. The only crises I've ever encountered are emotional. I know what to do if someone is having a nervous breakdown. But if someone were having a heart attack? They'd die.

Not only am I unprepared, but my survival instincts are defective. Recently I was driving alone on an icy road when the car started to skid. As I lost control all that went through my head was that I'd like some hot ginger tea.

Luckily, there were no other cars on the road and when I got to a ditch, the car stopped.

Then, last week, there was a fire in my kitchen. My toaster burst into flames a foot high. Since I was on the phone when it happened I did what my instincts told me to do. I stayed on the phone.

"There's a fire in my kitchen!" I shouted. To which my polite British friend responded: "Oh, no."

Just then, the fire alarm went off. "Put it out," she advised.

I was in a panic. To get past the toaster to the plug socket I'd have to put my hand through the flames. I knew enough to know that wasn't a good idea. I grabbed a bottle of water and poured it onto the toaster.

The fireman told me this was the worst thing I could have done. "You could have been killed by the arc," he said.

What arc? No one told me about an arc. I never took a cooking class and it's not as though it would come up in a conversation with my doorman. Also, even though I Google illnesses frequently and can diagnose as well as any doctor, I haven't moved into life-threatening situations that don't have to do with disease.

Here's what else no one told me. Toasting a rice cake is inadvisable. Even though it says on the packaging that it can be toasted, it's essentially like toasting a tissue.

But now that I was a survivor, I wanted people to know. How would my friends greet the news of my near-death experience? I called them and announced: I nearly died.

Reactions ranged from scorn to indifference.

Simon in London started laughing and called me stupid. "You threw water in the toaster?" He couldn't get over my ignorance.

I explained that I didn't know you weren't supposed to do that.

"Everyone knows that," he snapped.

He sounded so annoyed. Maybe if I'd died it would have been less frustrating.

I moved on and called Liza.

"Sounds bad," she said. She was walking down the street with her friend Mary on their way to lunch. I told her I survived. "That's great, honey. Mary says Hi. Gotta go -"

"Tell Mary I survived?" I said. She had already hung up.

I called my friend Dave who was also at lunch. Who knew so many of my friends went out to lunch? I explained what happened and waited for his response. "Let me call you back," he said, "I'm about to order."

Only Sophie had genuine sympathy and recognised the gravity of what could have been. "I'm very glad you weren't electrocuted," she said.

"Thank you." I replied. "Me too." Then there was a pause. There's not much left to say after that.

I went out to buy a fire extinguisher. The man at the hardware store took one look at me and handed one over which looked like a bottle of hair spray. "It's very easy," he said, "Just pull the top off and press down." I guess I must look like someone who wouldn't know what to do with it.

Just then it hit me. A fire extinguisher makes an excellent gift. Birthdays, weddings, engagements, baby showers - finally I know what to give.

At first, no one will think it's a good gift but you know when they'll thank me? Next time they have a fire. Then they'll appreciate it. I might not know how to save my own life but I can get credit for saving others.