A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Holding the universe together

“Mommy… how do you spell ‘duct tape’?”

I was standing at the kitchen counter, grouchily attempting to make tea in an electric kettle with a jammed lid.  My daughter was kneeling on the floor, pen in hand, brow furrowed in concentration.  She was writing out another section of her science fair project report.  The text below each section header was short and to the point, in keeping with the attention spans of twin five-year-old scientists.  The handwriting wobbled precariously.  Hypothesis: The big parachute will be slower.  Methods: We dropped the dolls and timed how long it took.  Now she was up to Materials: Two dolls, stopwatch, trash bags, scissors, string…  duct tape.

This, I thought, was not going to be one of those shiny, polished, no-expense-spared projects that wow the judges.

Sometimes I feel like my whole world is patched, welded, crazy-glued, jury-rigged, re-strung, puttied-over, wired together, and – of course—duct taped.  My right heel is wrapped in the stuff.  So is my left thumb, my bicycle seat, and both my old ski poles.  For the most part, the repairs are perfectly functional.  The gray sticky stuff works better on winter-cracked skin than any salve or balm I’ve tried.  The bike is oddly comfy and fabulously theft-proof in its taped-up glory.  Still, shouldn’t my world look a little less slap-dash and a lot less redneck?  I can’t help thinking that I probably shouldn’t be living a lifestyle that includes rolls of duct tape in every color of the rainbow.

Back east, where I grew up, duct tape was neither a fashion accessory nor a structural housing component.  Thus, I didn’t start out as a duct tape addict – at least, not exactly – although I have to admit that the inclinations were there from an early age.  I didn’t have eleven rolls of the stuff when I was a kid.  In fact, I’d never even heard of it.  But I was a big fan of all the other kinds of tape I knew – scotch, masking, and the coveted electrical – and I also had a heavy hand with the household supplies of string, cardboard, and glue.  I took apart the broken vacuum cleaner, built elaborate doll furniture from Quaker Oats boxes, and hoarded magnets, binder clips, shoe boxes, popsicle sticks, and wire. I suspect that if I’d known of duct tape’s flexible strength, its wondrous stickiness, its almost-waterproof resiliency, and the satisfying noise it makes as it comes off the roll, I would have saved up my twenty-five-cents-a-week allowance for almost nothing else.

Back then, I hadn’t yet internalized the stigma of looking like a half-hearted hobo.  Aesthetics and propriety meant nothing to me, and I didn’t know the jokes about blue tarps.  But now I look at all my repairs and Rube-Goldberging with a more critical eye.  I COULD afford a new bike seat.  I don’t HAVE to wear a jacket with a zipper that has blue teeth on the left and black teeth on the right.  The extension cord hanging from the ceiling is not particularly attractive.  And do cardboard boxes really constitute a filing system?

I tell myself that I could give up my string, my cardboard, my glue, and even my tape habit – really I could – except that things keep breaking.  In twelfth-grade physics I learned about entropy:  no matter what we do, the overall orderliness of the universe is always going to decrease.  Potential energy turns to kinetic energy, the energy of motion.  Kinetic energy, under the influence of friction, is wasted as heat.  Heat dissipates.  Things fall apart.  And when they do, we all have to fight uphill against entropy by borrowing orderliness from some other corner of the universe.  Some people do this by buying NEW things.  Shiny things.  Smooth, glossy, matching, professionally painted things.  Nancy gets out the duct tape.

The hope that I’ll be cured of all my patching is stymied by my surroundings.  If duct tape has a hometown, it’s Fairbanks Alaska. I’ve seen people using it to hold together clothing, trucks, and heavy equipment.  I’ve heard it works pretty well short-term in lieu of stitches, if you happen to have any gaping wounds.  But for all its uses, popular wisdom nonetheless labels duct tape as tacky, slip-shod, and possibly even a sign of moral decay.

I banged the kettle on the countertop slightly too aggressively.

“What are you doing, Mommy?”  The young scientist was temporarily distracted from her writing exercise.

“Trying to fix this… problematic… kettle,” I growled.  I have to be selective in my use of adjectives in front of the kids.

“Can I help you?  Please, I can fix it!”  My wannabe-helper was already reaching for the large plastic bin on the lowest shelf – the one that holds the duct tape.

“This isn’t a duct tape problem,” I explained.  The lid on the electric kettle was stuck open.  This made the water boil more slowly.  More importantly, it prevented the kettle from turning off when it did boil.  For someone like me, with the attention span of a gnat, auto-shutoff is a must. So I took a good look at the lid.  There was a little poky plastic thingy on the inside of the hinge that needed to be pushed in, but I couldn’t do it with my fingers without jamming a hole in my thumb.

“Let me!  Please, can I try?”  This was my fix-it kid.  She knows the difference between Phillips and flat-head, between D-cell, C-cell, double-A, and triple-A.  She knows that Elmer’s All-Purpose only works on porous surfaces, that bike tubes should be gently abraded with sandpaper before application of the glue and patch, and that seam allowances are a must.  She wouldn’t be able to fix the kettle, I thought, but she’d nag me about it insatiably until I let her try.  Sometimes, as I supply both my kids’ cardboard, string, and paste habits, I have an eerie feeling that I’m being charged for my own crimes, with thirty years worth of back interest due.

 I handed her the ornery thing, and started packing school lunch boxes instead.

She examined the kettle carefully.  “The problem is this little poky part,” she said after a minute or two.  “But I can’t push it in, because it hurts my fingers.”

Well, yeah.

We puzzled it out together.   “I’d use a thimble,” I said, “but I don’t have one.  At least, I don’t think I do.  But how about this pen?  It has a small indentation on the lid, and it’s narrow enough to do the job.”

She nodded earnest agreement.

 Pop.  The little plastic gizmo slid back into place.  The kettle shut with a click.  I smiled at my accomplice, and she beamed back.  The lid was still crooked.  As far as I could discern, it would always be crooked.  But I was pleased – more than pleased.  I realized that I wasn’t just compromising and making do with a less-than-perfect hot-drink appliance.   I actually liked it better that way, crooked lid and all.  I’d shared a sense of victory with my young co-conspirator.  We’d overcome an obstacle.

Moreover, we’d kept one more chunk of stainless steel, copper, and plastic out of the Fairbanks landfill.   Recycling is the guilt-panacea of a throw-away society.  Not dumping stuff in the first place is recycling's old-fashioned predecessor.   So what if the kettle didn’t look perfect?  Fixing it made it more mine – more ours – than it had ever been before.

 My fix-it kid hastened back to her original task.  “Look,” she said, proud of herself.  “See, I’m all done with the ‘Materials’ part.”  She held up her work for my inspection.

As I carefully examined her efforts, I recalled the peculiar sight of the identical naked dolls hurtling off the cabin loft, each with her own trash-bag-and-string parachute.  The larger parachute was indeed slower.  And the duct tape harnesses held up beautifully.  I imagined these items artfully arranged on a table in front of the kids’ display board – which itself was re-used, with telltale rips from the previous scientific efforts of my neighbor’s kid. 

I thought of the emails that periodically circulate around the university, in which biologists, physicists, and chemists are asked to please please please offer up a few hours for such-and-such elementary school.  It dawned on me that the project would be graded by off-duty scientist-parents – people like me.  And, perhaps more to the point, the scientists would be fellow Fairbanksans.

D-U-C-T  T-A-P-E.  The words stared up at me in purple marker from the bottom of the page.

 “The judges,” I said, “are going to love it.”