Day 19: Child’s Play

Imagine you’ve been asked to curate an exhibition of your life. You’ve been given a warren of six or more rooms (depending on how old you are) in a small abandoned hotel that is scheduled for demolition. Each room will be devoted to your life at a specific age, say 7, 13, 18, 30… You’ll soon realize that the first room, the one dedicated to your childhood, will be crammed with things, more so than any other room in the exhibition.

Nigel Shafran, from his series Charity Shops / Car-boot Sales / Market Stalls

Nigel Shafran, from his series Charity Shops / Car-boot Sales / Market Stalls

Many of the earliest memories I have from childhood are connected to things. Even when I recall persons and places and events, they are always accompanied by even more vivid memories of things. I could draw a fairly good reproduction of the Thanksgiving house decorations my mother would put up. I can almost feel the seersucker shortie pajamas I wore at our summer house. I recall a particular kind of crayon that had to be kept in the refrigerator and a plastic cup I drank out of with its built-in plastic straw. My parents surely celebrated at least part of my birthdays in the kitchen but I don’t remember any in particular. But I do remember the parallel grooves in the edges of a formica kitchen table and the yellow plastic cushioned seats of the chairs that were set around it. And, of course, I recall the toys and games, the Elgo sets of red plastic bricks and white trim that my brothers and I built houses from, more idyllic than the basement flat we lived in, and the panel-and-girder set we constructed towers and forts with.

My brother and I always seemed to be making things. My mother got us to make break baskets out of Popsicle sticks. We glued pasta shells on empty cigar boxes, which she spray painted gold, and ironed fallen oak leaves between sheets of wax paper. She let us watch entranced as she heated marbles in a cast-iron frying pan and then slid them into a bowl of ice water; this would “crystallize” them, or so we thought, as we glued them onto the earring posts she had given us. She gave us sheets of small mosaic tiles that we’d pull off from and affix, one by one, to a concave square disc that could be used as an ashtray. Once she baked an LP and let us shape it into an undulating fruit bowl.

It was my introduction to the transformative processes of art, though then it was just a lot of fun. No, it was more than fun. It was enchanting and magical, seeing how an object slowly took or changed shape as it was being constructed or manipulated.

I would experience this again in junior high school in shop class, also known back then as “industrial arts”. Such classes were more or less done away with in the 1990s under the pressure of funding cutbacks and, as philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford notes in his Shop Class as Soulcraft, a general lack of appreciation, if not actual belittlement, of the value of the manual trades.

In shop we learned how to use a lathe to turn a columnar block of wood into the neck of a table lamp. We were taught how to hammer a piece of sheet metal into an ashtray. We were shown how to work with plaster and stir in powdered pigments ever so gently to create a sense of marble in the mold for the (yes) ashtray we were making.

I imagine these activities were intended not only to teach us how to use power tools and work with different kinds of material but also and more importantly to train us to make things, in preparation perhaps for our future as a provider and metaphorical builder of the family home. These classes taught us respect for good workmanship, which was a matter of skill but also attentiveness, timing and the respect, if not affection, for the materials with which one works.

I, for one, saw how easily things could go wrong: too much pressure for too long would turn the piece of wood spinning on the lathe into a spindly mockery of a chair leg. I wasn’t very good at making things. Maybe I was too unsure of myself as a kid. Or too nervous around the power tools. I never became good with my hands. I contented myself with assembling things, rather than making them. Naturally I knew fairly early on that building bird and monster models and filling in the contoured shapes of a Venus Paradise coloring sheet, whatever pleasure it afforded me while I was doing it, was a substitute for something else. Later on in life I started making things of my own: poems, some stories, thousands of lines of programming code, a couple of plays. Not prolific in output and, with the exception of the code, usually for myself and friends, but it was in some sense creation.

But I don’t know how things work. The mechanics of objects mystifies me. I had to ask my downstairs neighbor to help me put up a blackout shade on my glass-paned bedroom door. Jörg says even girls have better toolkits than I do.

Which is why I have a collection of broken things. The clocks with the paralyzed second-hand, a Braun citrus press that dribbles when I squeeze oranges, a Phillips body shaver that keeps getting stuck on “on” and buzzes until the battery drains, a blender that’s been reduced to only one speed.

I’ve accommodated myself to these disabilities. I’ve replaced most of these things, anyway. I keep saying I’ll take them somewhere to get fixed, but I never get around to it, so they just pile up, witnesses to my incompetence with things that do things.

I still retain enough from the early lessons I learned with my mother and her crafts projects and then later in shop class not to be able to throw these disabled objects out. Something in me says these things should be saved. Now as I write this I remember my friend Anita telling me about an organization in the city that does exactly that. You call them up and arrange a time for them to stop by and pick up things that have broken—CD players and old PCs and I suppose even blenders—and they fix them and then re-sell them. The money goes to some charitable purpose, I can’t remember which exactly, but it doesn’t matter. They can have them all—the blender, the VCR, an old laptop I have, even the body shaver (though I doubt if that has any salvage value)—except maybe the Braun press. I can deal with the dribbles for now.

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