Day 25: When Things Break Down

I am on my third body shaver. The fourth, if you count the hair clipper that started it all off. The one I bought in that heady rush of blinding enthusiasm which comes with falling in love and in which you shed old habits and acquire new ones with such ease and so little concern for whether the new self you are fashioning is someone you’d live to have around the following month.

The heroic abandoned appliances from  the Disney film, Brave Little Toaster

The heroic abandoned appliances from the Disney film, Brave Little Toaster

The clipper wasn’t intended for body shaving, but it had to do. There were no other suitable appliances on the market at the time. This was before the arrival of the hairless 3%-body-fat Abercrombie & Fitch ideal of hunkiness moved body shaving from the backrooms of fetish to the bathrooms of mainstream America and companies began making appliances to accommodate the sudden need of countless men to rid themselves of unwanted axillary, pubic and thoracic body hair.

I had help the first time, which was kind of exciting and certainly a litmus test of trust for the beginning of a relationship. For me, though, it was one of those practices whose turn-on factor was directly proportional to its novelty, and I soon decided I might as well do this myself.

I was not hard to convince. I don’t have electric egg poachers or electric knives or yoghurt makers but I do have a large collection of grooming aids, including an electric toothbrush, water-flosser, nose trimmer and a blow-dryer I use for drying my ears after swimming. So I bought the clipper and when that satanically stopped working right after the warranty expired, purchased the Phillips body shaver that had in the meantime finally arrived on the market.

The gadget outlived the affair, as did my enthusiasm for body shaving. It turns out you really do need an A&F body to carry off a hairless crotch in your 40s. But I kept the shaver because, package instructions to the contrary notwithstanding, it was the perfect tool to crop the overgrown stubble on my scalp before taking a razor to it. It was an appliance whose utility was wholly a function of my laziness. There is a point between head shaves, one I often missed, beyond which the application of a razor to the scalp is bound to end in blood.

The Phillips eventually gave the up the ghost as well, inconveniently right after the guarantee had also retired from active service. I know that machines are not designed to last for ever. Indeed, there are tables published on the Internet with the estimated lifespan—yes, this is the word used—of appliances, major and minor. Oven hoods conk out at 14, gas boilers at 20. Trash compactors eke out a measly 6 years. The actuarial tables of the domestic machine give no indication of the cause of the death. My shaver ended its useful existence in a frenzy of partying. The on-off button got stuck and it wouldn’t turn off. Oddly enough, I couldn’t just throw it out. It seemed unseemly to do so. So I put it in a box and the box in a drawer in the bathroom and let it run until the battery drained, which wasn’t much better. I could still hear it, slowly expiring. I felt as if I were committing an act of infanticide.

It is not easy to part with a machine. Chipped dishes, souvenirs that have grown ugly with time, clothes that belonged to a body we once were or hoped to become, objects that spoke to a self that we have grown out of—these are easier to get rid of. But machines, no. They occupy a no-man’s, no-object’s land between the inanimate and the animate. Appliances run on current, an animating juice of sorts, an élan vital, even if it is méchanique, that allow them to move. They seem somehow alive.

Mechanical objects have their own calculus of utility. If you plug it in and something happens, there’s still some use to be had. Though it’s rare when we actually question whether the intended use really was in fact useful. Most “labor-saving” small appliances do nothing of the sort; they are really compensating for a lack of discipline, time or skill. Good knife skills—and a very good knife—make most kitchen devices superfluous.

I have kept an ancient blender long after I acquired one of those unimaginably powerful machines that can liquefy iPhones. The scratches on its old plastic beaker seem to provide a resting place for a crew of odd smelling bacteria but it does whiz when I turn it on. And it does one thing better than its modern replacement: hummus. So I have kept it, In a drawer with such relics as an old Zip drive, a digital voice recorder and a waterproof iPod shuffle that won’t turn on but I think just might if it let it rest long enough.

It’s not as endearing a crew of obsolete appliances as the Sunbeam toaster, electric blanket, Bakelite radio, vacuum cleaner and gooseneck lamp who were the protagonists in the independent animated film, The Brave Little Toaster, which was picked up and released by Disney. Curiously enough, the creative talent behind the animation in this film went on to some of the original members of Pixar Animation Studios.

After years of living abandoned in an empty country cabin, these outdated small appliances decide to set off on a journey to find their long-lost “master”, a young boy who hasn’t been to the cabin in a decade. Ironically, unbeknownst to this brave crew of misfits, the master, now a young man about to head off to college with his girlfriend, drives off to the cabin to pick up the old appliances and take them with him to the dorm. As Rob, the “master” drives off to the cabin, Toaster, Blanky and the rest of the crew go through a series of harrowing experiences on their way to Rob’s apartment in the city. Despite the utterly wacky pretense–ok  a movie with an electric blanket in a supporting role?—the film has some interesting things to say about usefulness, loss and fidelity. One of the most poignant scenes of the film was the night the misfit crew spends in the workshop of Elmo St. Peters, the owner of an appliance parts store, a man who rescues old appliances only to disassemble them later to sell their spare parts. An overhead light with a Peter-Lorre-like voice warns the newcomers “you never quite know what he’s going to do,” and the motley assembly of broken, abandoned appliances burst out in a song, “it’s like a movie show.” They mean, Frankenstein.

I’m not hoarding useless appliances. I’m saving them.

The Braun shaver eventually stopped working, too. It wouldn’t charge. I left it on its base for 48 hours and it wouldn’t even hum for me when I turned it on. I repeated this procedure a number of times with the same result. Zilch. I felt betrayed. I saw it as a failure of the appliance’s self-will and self-discipline (yes, of course, I realize this was a projection of my own lack thereof). But I still felt it wasn’t trying hard enough.

I went out and bought another one. The same model. And the first thing I did when I got home from shopping was to toss the old one into the kitchen pail. Whereupon it started to buzz.

This was most spooky, I must confess. I immediately snatched out of the garbage. It seemed wrong to leave it there on its bed of coffee grounds and eggshells. I took it out, cleaned it carefully, and laid it to rest in the drawer with the scratched smelly blender and Zip drive.

But then I got to thinking. In the end these obsolescent appliances are an iconic representation of the obsolescence to which I myself am fated to become. I recognize that my solicitousness to these broken objects of diminished utility is an act of defiance against the eventuality of my own uselessness, at least in the ways that utility is measured in our production-obsessed society. But that’s the stuff of movies.

This afternoon I took out the shaver and the blender and the Zip drive and the rest of broken machines in my drawer of uselessness and brought them to a recycling bin for appliances. I could have taken them to the equivalent of Elmo St. Peter’s shop. But that would have been inhuman, wouldn’t it?

Incidentally, AV Club reports that Waterman Entertainment has recently acquired the rights to The Brave Little Toaster and is planning a CGI/live-action sequel which will feature a number of gadgets that were not around during the production of the original animated feature. One of these is the iPhone.


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