The nuts and bolts of writing, but not nuts and bolts

"I won’t even attempt to put together furniture from Ikea," Sue Wunder writes in an essay. Even handling a can opener produces eye rolls from her son.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Rosario Robert (left), senior mechanical engineer, and Sarah Finney, research engineer, prepare to field-test a mine-sweeping robot at Fetch Robotics in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1998.

My mechanical “don’t know-how” is well known in my family and among my close friends. 

During my years as a partner on a small Indiana dairy farm I could mend a fence, but my repairs more closely resembled baling-twine macramé than anything permanent or even logic-based. When partner Charlie came home from a trip, he’d glance about and grab his toolbox before unpacking. 

Watching me struggle with a bridle clip one day he sighed and said, “I’m glad you’re not defusing a bomb, there.”

A new neighbor once asked me for help rewiring a ceiling light. “I have no idea how to do that,” I apologized. “I do,” she said. “I only need you to hold the ladder.” We worked marvelously together.

I was supremely unprepared to assemble the free-standing basketball hoop a friend gifted my son on his eighth birthday, with its myriad stanchions, braces, nuts, bolts, and screws. I took it back to the store and asked for a refund or assistance. One fellow devoted his break time to the task. A half-hour later we slid the thing into the pickup. I gave him $20. 

I won’t even attempt to put together furniture from Ikea, something advertised as “easy as pie.” I tell whomever I pay or cajole into doing that kind of thing that, for me, nothing seems to be as simple as advertised. 

Fiddle under a car hood? Years ago, my then-teenage son Tim dissuaded me from even popping the hood of my car. I could jam the latch in no time, he warned. And now his son rolls his eyes alongside his dad as they watch me handle something as simple as a can opener. 

When grandson Connor was just beginning to write, he fashioned a sign and taped it to my microwave: “Put on cook or defrost,” it read. I haven’t discarded it, even though that microwave has now been replaced. I kept the sign even though I’m happy to say I never actually needed it. But I loved his gesture, which marked the dawn of Connor’s realization that Nana needed help with some things.

And so it’s a surprise when something other than a word or phrase clicks into place for me. My assembly of a simple bedside table with screw-on legs was a triumph the other day. Finally learning how to use the machines to buy train tickets here in Switzerland, where I now reside, was another coup. 

I gloat whenever I successfully work the combination lock for my bicycle – I love biking along the ubiquitous local Wanderwege. At first I left my bike unlocked when I made stops rather than risk being foiled and stranded. It’s an old bike and probably not worth stealing, but I have conquered that lock at last.

Perhaps my finest moment came when a fellow using a wheelchair rolled up to me in Basel. He gestured to me and asked if I could straighten the listing panel supporting his head. I eyed it, wishing desperately that he’d called on anyone else – for his sake. But when I brought the panel upright and swiveled a single lever, voilà! He was back in action. I watched him glide away, my whole day having been made in that one moment.

My lack of practical savvy is nothing to be ashamed of, I tell myself. We all have our shortcomings. Mine lie in assembly and repair. Fortunately I am practiced in the art of enlisting aid from sympathetic friends, family members, and even strangers. 

In return, I offer free editing help and advice, cleaning up and clarifying letters, résumés, and texts. How is it that those “repairs” I make aren’t completely obvious to everyone, I sometimes wonder. 

Then I think of Connor’s five-word instruction on that microwave. And I get it.

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