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FIRST PERSON

Too Much Tinkering Could Endanger Your Health

September 09, 1996|BRIAN ALCORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have never been the tinkering type. I have always been more the "If it's broke, don't fix it" type.

Once, in my bachelor days, the knob to a kitchen drawer came off in my hand. I promptly opened another kitchen drawer, dropped the knob in, and forgot about it.

(Several months later, at my girlfriend's insistence, I pried the broken drawer open and found therein: Three sheets of extra-coarse sandpaper, seven dead AA batteries, a broken candle, a handful of sticky pennies and an oven mitt embroidered with little blue ducks. Why I wanted to open the drawer in the first place remains a mystery.)

Recently, however, I underwent a change in my employment status. That is to say, I quit my lousy, stupid job.

While waiting for inspiration to strike or the savings account to run dry, I thought I'd make myself useful by filling in a hole at the bottom of the stairs made months earlier by my Great Dane's head. (Don't ask.)

I bought some spackling compound and a putty knife and squatted there on the landing. I truly did not expect this to work. At best, I figured I'd wind up with a permanently unsolid glop of paste that my dog would undoubtedly eat.

Of course, it worked perfectly; a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

That was three weeks ago, and I haven't stopped tinkering yet. I built a planter box. I hammered down the loose runners on the staircase. I hung all the pictures that had been sitting around on the floor for want of a nail. I replaced the bad speaker wire on the stereo. I cleaned the gunk out of the mouse for my computer with rubbing alcohol.

Today, I'm going to tack down that carpet in the hallway. Time permitting, I'll try to figure out what's wrong with the television remote.

Comma comma comma comma com-com. I'm your handy man.

I am very content. I have no desire to remodel the kitchen or install a sprinkler system. I certainly have no desire to go back to work.

I just want to tinker.

*

Tinkering has three defining characteristics. First, the problem and its solution must be self-evident, no analyses required. Fixing a leaky faucet is not tinkering. That's called plumbing, and should be left to plumbers for the same reasons dentistry should be left to dentists. The Three Stooges taught us that.

Second, tinkering is a solitary pursuit. It may be a good idea, for example, to train your large dog not to run down a steep stairway at full gallop. But it isn't tinkering.

Third, the entire project should take no longer than both sides of a "Merle Haggard's Greatest Hits" cassette. Restoring a 1969 Firebird convertible is not tinkering. If you try to tinker without a clear objective or sure prospect of success, you wind up with a hobby. And nobody needs that.

What does this all mean? I don't care. I'm not interested in what it says about my state of mind, about the differences between men and women, or about the state of the nation.

I'm just a happy tinkerer, and would likely remain so until the eviction notice came, except for one distressing problem--I'm running out of things to tinker with.

*

The other night I'm lying in bed, staring moodily at the wall. My wife walks in. "What are you thinking about?" she asks.

"All our Sue Grafton novels are on different shelves," I reply.

She stops. Examines the bookcases in the bedroom. "So?"

"I'm just wondering why. 'A Is for Alibi' is right there. 'B Is for Burglar' is way over there. And where the hell is 'H Is for Homicide'?"

"I took it with me to work. If it bothers you so much, put them all on the same shelf."

"It doesn't bother me. I'm just wondering." I look at her with suspicion. "I thought you already read 'H Is for Homicide.'

"I'm reading it again, if you have to know. Look, organize all the books in the house if you want. Arrange them by thickness or color or publisher, if it really bothers you. I don't care."

"I'm telling you, it doesn't bother me."

Oh, but it does. Every night I go to bed and see those books, so thoughtfully alphabetized by the author, thoughtlessly scattered about the room. When I wake up in the morning, there they are.

I tell myself it will do no harm to put them all on the same shelf. They don't have to be in alphabetical order, I tell myself, just so long as they are together.

But I resist. For I know, deep down, that this is no longer tinkering.

This is unemployment.

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