Tinker toys

Speaking strictly anecdotally, many of the smartest people I know have a particular practice in common: as children, they would disassemble things (toys, bicycles) and put them back together to see how they worked. Having mastered the innerworkings of one set of items, they moved onto bigger and more complex objects (kitchen appliances, clocks), not always without consequence, and eventually, in some cases, became capable of changing the oil on their cars or repairing heavy machinery. 

There is a certain beauty in this tendency, a symmetry to taking things apart and putting them back together. I very much like the idea of self-sufficiency borne of a lifetime of tinkering, but it is not in my nature. My grandparents used to bring out a musty box of Tinkertoys when we’d visit, and while my cousins relished the opportunity to build outlandish space stations to suit their wild imaginations, I rifled through the box for a set of instructions, some clear rules or guidelines about just what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing. I eventually settled on Lincoln Logs, with their neat blueprints and solid construction.

As a general rule, I ignore red flags and continue using things until they simply do not work anymore (“THIS IS FINE,” I insist). When washing machine belts break and car engines making clunking sounds and small electronics cease to function, I am the stoic cartoon dog, calmly drinking his coffee in a room on fire.

(Aside: I am convinced this tendency of mine is at least in part because, when I was eleven or so, my dad once “fixed” his ancient Subaru Loyale station wagon by strategically placing black electrical tape over the Check Engine light and turning up the music whenever he drove it so you couldn’t hear the whine of the engine. Despite sounding like a solution you’d hear about on Car Talk, this actually worked for several weeks, until he forgot about it and went to have the emissions tested.)

I am very much invested in instant gratification — I get an idea, and I want to do it right now, whether it’s reorganizing all the gear in our spare room or building a bed in the back of the new truck or pitching this half-baked idea to some magazine.

Never mind that I don’t have the tools; we’ll buy them! I can’t wait for things to be shipped, I will drive around town until I can find them in a store! I will read this book on the subject in a single afternoon! We shall spare no expense!

But like John Hammond, my ill-conceived (or at least ill-executed) ideas are often disastrous, albeit on a much smaller scale. It rarely gets to the point of things literally falling apart; typically, I am a couple hours into a project before I realize some key element (a tool or supply; parts; knowledge) without which I cannot possibly complete it. Then I pout a little and agree to do a little more research (“I think we can still make this work,” Bix always assures me) and finish it when we have more time next weekend. I can think of literally dozens of times this has happened.

I like to think it’s a testament to my resilience that I rarely allow myself to learn from these mistakes. (“It’ll be different this time! I’m not biting off more than I can chew!”) We all have foibles, I tell myself, and I can do little but hope mine come off as charming.

It was with this characteristic attitude that I set off with Bix after work a few weeks ago for an overnight bikepacking trip. I hadn’t spent much time on a bike this summer, let alone ridden at altitude with a heavily laden bike.

Also, instead of owning actual bikepacking gear, such as panniers, for example, we jury-rigged our own, cinching dry bags to our handlebars and water bottle cages with stretchy rubber ski straps.

Approximately one mile into the trip, a dry bag, jostled by the bumpy Forest Service road, flopped out of place.

“I can totally keep riding like this,” I thought, “This is just where the bag wants to be. Equilibrium, I think that’s called.”

I rode over another bump and it settled further, this time rendering it impossible to brake or shift gears.

I stopped, which wasn’t hard, despite being blocked from using my brakes, since I was riding very slowly uphill. I readjusted the bag to be exactly where it had been, then started riding again. It moved almost immediately.

“Bix!” I called, “Do you have another ski strap?”

He shook his head.

“Just tinker with it!” he suggested.

I sighed heavily. I hate tinkering. I want everything to work immediately, even if I did it wrong.

But I tinkered. I reversed the straps, and when that didn’t work I redistributed some weight in the bag, and when that didn’t work I threw a teeny tiny tantrum and then took some weight out of the bag altogether, and that worked. There. I tinkered and it worked.

In spite of my frequent tinker stops, it was a pretty quick eight miles to the dispersed sites we’d intended to camp at. When we arrived, I almost didn’t want to take the bag off my handlebars. It was the Exact Right Circumstances, I was convinced, that had allowed me to get it to stay, and there was no way I could replicate them in the morning.

“You’ll just have to mess with it on the way out tomorrow,” Bix laughed.

Despite myself, I learned not one but two things on this very short trip. First, because bikepacking is extremely fun, it would be worth investing in some actual gear that I don’t have to constantly futz with. And second, short of that, I am maybe a little more capable of making adjustments than I realized, even without a set of blueprints.

(I will try to remember this next time things don’t go as planned and I’m ready to kick and scream.)


One thought on “Tinker toys

  1. A fun read! You amaze me that you can write an entertaining piece with such a seemingly insignificant topic!!! Yay for Emma!!!

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