Friday, July 28, 2017

Little Annoyances That I Love

I am my father’s kid. My dad could fix anything from a toaster to a Plymouth. And since I grew up watching him take things apart, I started tinkering early—a TV remote here, a transistor radio there. It taught me a strange sort of empathy: Machines weren’t evil or cantankerous, I learned; they responded to a kind touch, like anyone. I still love little fix-its, even ones that are really none of my business, like...

Anything loose
Switch plates, doorknobs, porch lights—I get a thrill when I see something that’s a little cattywampus or hanging by a thread of its only screw. I can’t say I carry a screwdriver around (I have to save something for my eccentric old age), and I try not to straighten things on other people’s houses right in front of those people. But I’m just saying, if you leave me alone in a room with a crooked picture or wobbly towel rack, you will find it mysteriously fixed. In the restroom at work, there’s a coat hanger that’s been loose for five years. I tighten it every time I go in there, and every day it loosens up again. I’m a happy Sisyphus.

Laundromat dryers that won’t take your quarters
Laundromat users know all about this: You put your load in the dryer, then start plunking your quarters into the slot. But some of them won’t take; they come out the little return chute. You keep trying, but there’s this one quarter the dryer doesn’t like. Or maybe two, or six. When this happens, I can practically hear the dryer saying, a la WarGames, “Would you like to play a game?” Yes, dryer, I would! Let’s call this game “What kind of body English do I have to put on this quarter to get you to take it?” I will stand there, dryer, putting in that quarter over and over at different velocities and angles. I know, sometimes you want it pushed with a little backspin; sometimes you want it dropped gentle as a feather. We all have our preferences, illogical as they seem. I am listening.

Cranky toilets
I once lived in fear of toilets. When I was a teenager and my family had just moved into a new house, we had a maniacal one that graphically overflowed many times. Finally my dad got fed up with it and ripped the thing out of the floor. He turned it over, and out fell a dinky little hairbrush that some careless person must have flushed down it years earlier. Empathy again—that machine had been choking on that spiny brush for all that time! I know now that toilets are one of the simplest machines on the planet; they can’t electrocute you, burn you, or rearrange your fingers (at least not too badly). They only have, like, four moving parts—the handle/chain doohickey, the float thing, the fill valve (which the float thing is attached to), and the flapper. And the most common problems—a toilet that won’t stop running or drips endlessly, or a tank that won’t fill—are often caused by either the chain/flapper connection (which is the bone-headed easiest part) or some combination of tinkering with the float and the fill valve. Universes can be righted by just jiggling something or unkinking the chain. Most clogs are also easy to fix, if you have the right kind of plunger, some determination, and a lot of of hand soap afterward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited for a public restroom to clear so I could lift the tank lid and fix some simple thing.*

Paper jams in copy machines
I love these. I live for these. I became a fan of paper jams when I worked for a very small company (five people) that had a lovely office manager who was the designated copier tamer—until she quit one day and left us to fend for ourselves. That was when I discovered that the copier not only had diagrams all over the insides of its doors, but it even would walk you through a paper jam on its little LCD screen. Pop this panel, it would say. No? Then pull this one over here. Lift the green lever. Twist the little gear. (Don’t burn your hand on the silvery plate.) In time, I learned that pretty much all the levers and handles on all copiers are made to be lifted and pulled, and it’s hard to break anything. So now, when any copier seizes up, I love figuring out where the slightly baked, accordioned fistful of paper is hiding. In the past ten years, I’ve only been stymied by one or two paper jams; the rest I was able to figure out and fix, no matter how long it took. (And do not try to stop me—I’m as dogged with these things as with a crossword puzzle. I will stay until I’ve figured it out.)**

Finding fishing trash
Okay, this isn’t exactly machine-related, but it’s another little world-tidying thing that I’m obsessed with. It happens a lot when I’m out on my kayak on a weekend morning, paddling around a lake and marveling at birds and the endless permutations of light on water. In the midst of my reverie, I see a scrap of ugliness: a tangle of dirty fishing line caught in a bush, or wound through the branches of a half-submerged tree. Sometimes there’s a bright doohickey attached to it—a red-and-white bobber, or a sparkly lure. It’s disgusting litter, dangerous for birds and fish and dogs, and I get grumbly about people cutting their lines and leaving that trash around. But I also feel a small rush, a kidlike “finders keepers” thrill, because, as I paddle over, pulling my pocket knife out of my life vest, I know this junk is now mine, all mine! Sometimes it takes a while to untangle it, and I’ve learned to be wary of fishhooks—those sparkly lures fool me just as well as the fish, and I’ve stabbed myself with them plenty of times. I’m not a fisherperson; spending a morning killing or maiming fish isn’t my idea of fun. But I get a huge amount of satisfaction chucking all that junk in the boat, taking it home, cutting the line into little bits and tossing it out, and adding the colorful lures and bobbers to my ever-growing collection*** of fishing debris that I’ve removed from the ecosystem. I do it for the osprey and trout and dogs and every other innocent thing for whom a crawdad-shaped lure poses a danger. In my collection at home, it’s just a tame curiosity, like a defunct guillotine or a sword from the Middle Ages. Now it’s just history.

* Maybe this is a gender issue; maybe men just pull public toilets apart no matter who’s in the room. But that’s kind of weird in a women’s bathroom, so I do it discreetly. 

** Pet peeve: People who give up on a paper jam and just walk away. I mean, who do they think is going to fix this? The servants? Figure it out. Tape a damned sign on it. Call somebody. This also brings out my passive-aggressive side, which is not pretty: When somebody leaves the copy machine wounded, I get in there and start pulling on handles and loudly opening and closing panels so the culprit is sure to hear it. [You, machine, you are fine; I’m only mad at the prince or princess who left you broken.]

*** Whenever I set a bobber or lure aside for the collection, I always think of that line from Friends where Chandler’s crazy roommate gleefully says of a tomato he’s just dehydrated and miniaturized, “This one definitely goes in the display!”