Household Fun Only Max Planck Could Love

With winter now departed, I was looking forward to a long stretch of pink, lazy sunsets, and mild evenings accented with the smell of dinner cooking on a hot outdoor grill. And then, poof! My handy propane barbecue took early retirement.

I knew something was wrong a few weeks ago, when the gas flames started changing from their normal blue color to bright yellow. It was inevitable that a problem would crop up eventually, since I'd never performed any of the cleaning or maintenance tips listed in the instruction manual during four years of ownership.

So I wasn't surprised when closer inspection revealed severe damage to the metal casing around the gas burners. The barbecue only cost $159.99. For that price, you can't expect the manufacturer to be using sophisticated, heat-resistant materials that protect the space shuttle. Many of the parts are thin sheet metal, which disintegrates after prolonged exposure to fire and hot dripping hamburger juice.

The prospect of buying a new barbecue leaves me disgruntled. And my gripe isn't about the money. No, what bothers me is the thought of all the different parts of the device wrapped up in little bags, and my inability to put them together.

For me, "some assembly required" is one of the most ominous phrases in the English language. It wasn't always this way. In elementary school, I spent many happy hours building plastic replicas of movie characters such as Superman, Dracula, and Godzilla. But those kits were just toys. Compared to them, a propane barbecue is truly a monster.

So how, you wonder, did I handle this dilemma when I purchased the appliance four years ago? Simple: I delegated it. Our friend Tom, who designs and builds movie sets, was scheduled to help us remodel the kitchen. When he arrived in town a bit early, my wife and I rushed out to buy lumber while Tom "relaxed" by assembling the barbecue. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but Tom lives far away and won't be available this summer.

However, it didn't take me long to compile a list of other likely candidates. My friend Rick has excellent technical instincts. When a headlight went bad on my car recently, I was planning to buy a whole new reflector unit until he reached under the hood and showed me how to remove the burned-out bulb, which cost $1.09 to replace.

"How does a person figure these things out?" I asked. Rick just shrugged and said, "Oh, you kind of tinker around. A lot of this stuff is simpler than it looks." Max Planck probably felt the same way about quantum theory.

So I'm going to watch closely while the new barbecue is being fitted together, but I won't disappointed if my toolbox talent remains dormant. I'd rather concentrate on assembling my network of reliable friends. If you can build solid relationships with good people, the nuts-and-bolts issues will be easy to resolve.

* Jeffrey Shaffer's latest book of humor is "It Came with the House" (Catbird Press, 1997). He lives in Portland, Ore.

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