People Who Can Do Things
Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2005
Last Saturday I went out to mow the lawn and the starter cord on the mower broke on the first pull, without starting the engine. Since the grass was well overdue for cutting I went right out to the hardware store to look for a replacement cord, based on a vague notion that I’d seen them for sale. I didn’t think it would be very difficult to replace, but had another vague notion, based on some previous incident, that it was not quite that easy.
It took me a while to remove the three housings which enclose the starter wheel, or whatever it’s called: there was a flimsy plastic one which was mainly decorative, another and heavier plastic one which included the gas tank, and lastly the starter housing itself, which includes the spring-driven recoil mechanism that rewinds the cord after you yank it. At that point I remembered that the tricky part was to wind the recoil rotor to a point where it would, upon release, rewind the cord all the way—otherwise you wouldn’t have enough cord on the rotor to crank the engine—but not so much that there was too much tension on the cord, making it hard to pull and more likely to break. At this point I thought at least one extra hand would be useful, so I asked for my wife’s assistance. Together we managed to get the new cord in place. I reassembled the mower and gave the cord a yank. It didn’t feel quite right—it seemed to be catching somewhere—and the mower didn’t start. I yanked it again, and the mower started, but the cord popped out, broken where we had knotted it to hold it in place. Perhaps we’d been a little too aggressive with the flame we had been instructed to apply to the knot, to melt the nylon strands into a blob that couldn’t come untied.
Well, at least I had the mower started, but now I would have to mow the entire lawn without letting the engine shut off. I used the broken cord to tie down the safety bar which shuts off the engine if you let go of the handle, so that the engine would keep running if I accidentally let go. This is one of those safety mechanisms—lawsuit-inspired, I assume—which may protect truly careless people but at the same time encourages more carelessness: rather than let go of the handle and have to restart the engine, I frequently find myself hanging on to it while stretching to reach in front of the mower to remove an obstacle.
And so the lawn was mowed. But we’ve had so much rain lately that I don’t want to go two weeks without mowing, so yesterday I was faced again with the task of replacing the cord. This time I put some thought into figuring out how to get the right amount of tension. I measured the amount of cord required for one revolution of the starter and determined how many rotations would be needed to pull the cord a few inches farther than the bracket which stops it on recoil, figuring this should be about the right amount of tension. I turned the rotor backward that many rotations (about three and a half), jammed it there with the pair of scissors I had used to trim the cord (thus dispensing with the need for an extra hand, my wife being busy elsewhere). I managed to thread, knot, and seal the cord again, this time being very careful not to heat the load-bearing side of the knot.
I put the main housing back on, with the four bolts that held it just tight enough to keep it in place, and tried it. It felt right and worked beautifully. The motor cranked nicely. The cord remained intact. I tried it several times, and it seemed fine. I put the second housing on and tightened down the four bolts of the main housing, getting them as tight as I could. Since I’m not that strong, I usually figure “as tight as I can” is about right. But not this time. I twisted the head off the fourth bolt.
So the mower works, but it’s wounded. Eventually I suppose the vibration allowed by the missing bolt will cause other problems, and I’ll have to take the thing to a shop and get the bolt drilled out and replaced. Or perhaps just give the mower to the shop as a ten-dollar trade-in on a new one.
This is a fairly typical of what happens when I try to fix something or undertake any other task that requires more than a very minimal amount of manual skill. I don’t have much in the way of motor skills or mechanical-spatial sense. I feel some sense of grievance about this on genetic grounds, since my father was a mechanical engineer and my maternal grandfather was a very skilled cabinetmaker. But my paternal grandfather was a lawyer and judge whose lack of mechanical sense sometimes had people snickering behind his back. (His son, my father the engineer, once said that he would have trouble putting salt in a shaker—but on the other hand he had a decent prose style, and he distinguished himself in other ways .)
My wife did not know this about me, or at least did not fully appreciate it, when we married, but it didn’t take her long to figure it out. I think the light began to dawn when we attempted to collaborate on building a bookshelf. She kept taking issue with my notion of how to do things, and I thought she was looking at me oddly. Her father and brothers are union electricians and the sort of men who can build or fix most anything, and she just assumed that this was true of all men. The truth is that she has a lot more mechanical and structural sense than I do, and might have been as skilled as her brothers if her father had taught her in the same way. I think she was annoyed about this for a while, but eventually accepted it as an opportunity to do things herself without a condescending male looking over her shoulder.
I’ve always felt myself to be fundamentally out of touch with the physical world. I often feel that I’m operating my body at one remove, like a person using dials and levers to control a robot. And whatever I’m thinking about at any given moment is most likely not what is directly in front of me. I was a terrible athlete as a child and adolescent and was happy when I got old enough to opt out of sports. I tried gamely at Little League but was the kind of kid who was stuck in right field when almost all the hitters pulled left, in the hope that he might not do too much damage, and who might or might not be paying attention if the ball came his way. I played basketball in junior high and when I think of my very few minutes of playing time in actual games all I remember is a blur of confusion. In fact the only sport I remember enjoying much was football in P.E. classes, where all that was required of me was to try to run over, or avoid being run over by, the guy who lined up across from me. Being on the small side, I generally got the worst of these matchups, but it was an enjoyable level of violence and since we all had to play no great skill was expected.
I think my wife summed me up pretty well once, after she had long accepted and become amused by my incompetence. We were discussing some household repair or project which I was thinking of attempting, and she said it might be better to have it done by “someone who has a better relationship with the laws of physics.” Actually I have an excellent relationship with those laws, abstractly speaking: I found physics one of the more interesting courses in high school, love the elegance of Newton’s laws, and still occasionally dabble in popularized accounts of new developments. It’s the actual things that exemplify the laws that I have trouble with.
Yeats had an elaborate and not very convincing cosmic scheme which gave great prominence to the ideas of thesis and antithesis, and, if I remember correctly some thirty years after reading A Vision, included some idea about a person seeking to become his opposite. I can see a little of that in me, in the form of a great admiration of people who can actually do things. I contemplate with childlike wonder and enthusiasm the feats of acrobats, athletes, painters, sculptors, craftsmen, builders, mechanics, and engineers.
One might expect that I would be sympathetic to gnostic spiritualities which regard the body as being an essentially unimportant prison for the spirit, and promise liberation from it. But not at all: on the contrary, I look forward to the resurrection of the body in the hope of experiencing the integration of mind and body that at my age can only elude me further. I don’t know what we will do with our glorified bodies, but surely we will be at perfect ease in them.
I am, nevertheless, pleased to suppose that there will be no need for lawn mowers in heaven, nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that there would be machinery of any sort at all there.
 Without Fear or Favor: Judge James Edwin Horton and the Trial of the “Scottsboro Boys”, by Douglas O. Linder