I yearn for the age of tinkering

The other day, while I was sedately working away in my office, there was a great crash outside my window. Looking up, I watched as a backhoe began to tear into an abandoned three-story building long slated to come down. From that point on, all work was out of the question. I reoriented my chair and stared out at the demolition, completely at peace, thoroughly satisfied.

What is it about wrecking things that has such visceral appeal? Although I walk on politically fragile ground when saying this, the draw seems to be almost exclusively a male phenomenon. I bore witness to this conviction later in the day while teaching my biology laboratory. At the sound of the first clatter of steel against concrete all the men in the room leaped to their feet and headed to the window while the women, for the most part, remained at their tasks.

Having said this, I can clearly remember my origins as one who fancies seeing things taken apart. When I was 5, I picked up a fork and began to pry into my parents' kitchen radio. My father rescued the thing just in the nick of time, but he didn't scold me. Instead, he found a broken radio and handed it to me along with a set of tools. "Enjoy," he said, and I was delighted with the dissection that ensued.

(As a footnote, I should add that my father's prescience as a parent had an unfortunate side effect: The very next day I attacked the radio in my kindergarten, laying it out tube, screw, and wire. The teacher, Mrs. Aronson, called my parents in and asked, rhetorically, "Who could indulge such behavior?" It was the only time I saw my father at a loss for words.)

The radio was only the beginning. The first thing I did after receiving my first bike at the age of 7 was to take it apart. It took me several days to restore it, but I never lost the feeling for how the thing worked. Then came my first car, a '68 Chevelle. Within weeks I knew every screw, gasket, and hose.

The age of electronics and computer circuitry has largely put an end to such tinkering and laying out of parts. I miss the mechanical age, when a person - no matter what his or her education - could look at a machine and see which part moved what, thereby gaining some idea of how the thing as a whole worked. Further, when the machine didn't perform, a good whack often did the trick. But when the era of cogs and wheels and levers was supplanted by microcircuits and liquid-crystal displays, people at large were effectively cut off from the transparency afforded by the mechanical, workaday world.

Now, when something breaks down, the normal solution is to throw it out and buy a new one. What would Thoreau say?

The day after the building outside my office began to come down I picked up my 7-year-old son at school and took him to watch. He was immediately captivated by the wrenching of metal, the thunder of cinderblocks as they tumbled to earth, and the attack of the backhoe as it tirelessly bit into wall and roof and floor, yanking the building to pieces. "It looks like a dinosaur!" whooped my son, and I couldn't have described it better myself.

I looked at the man in the cab of the machine, and his expression was one of pure joy. What boy or man wouldn't give a great deal to pull those levers and step on those pedals with such abandon?

After an hour of standing and watching, I found it almost unfair to pull my son away from the action. He pleaded to stay a while longer, and I granted him a 15-minute extension. That night, after tucking him into bed, I was still feeling the afterglow of watching that heavy machinery at work. I sat down at my computer and began to type some thoughts about the event. In midparagraph, though, the machine froze, as it frequently does. Not having the patience to reboot it, I looked furtively about, then whacked it but good. The cursor pulsed back to life and I resumed my typing.

A lesser man might have thrown the thing away.

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