Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Do You Speak Toaster?

By Matt Cantor
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 10:04:00 AM

I was chatting with my friend Charlie this morning about things variously fixable and unfixable. Charlie is that rarely spotted bird, the philosopher/handyman (et mariner/gadabout/movie and social critic). My little secret is that even though I have these last 20 years inspected buildings for a living, my roots run deep in the same garden that Charlie curates.  

When talking houses, I don’t know anyone I’m more likely to finish sentences for (and he, me). Well, today we got on one of our favorite subjects: the arcane knowledge of repair (or how things really get fixed). 

A lot of what fixers like Charlie and me talk about on this subject has little to do with sprockets or circuits and more to do with the behavior of things. How machines, doorways or houses seem to think or feel. Also, we talk about trips to the hardware store and how to keep them to a minimum (AKA, what you keep in your truck, car or toolbox). 

May years ago, when I spent my days fixing pretty much everything in Mrs. Jones’ house (mostly because I thought I could, foolish me) I began to have this very odd experience of what was really involved in fixing things. Though this, I developed a sort of epistemology of repair. One of the discoveries was this: Machines need to be touched.  

Here’s how I discovered this: 

I don’t remember which thing was first—could have been a stove or a light fixture or a washing machine. It was probably something of relative complexity. I would set about to take the thing apart and see if I could discover the cause for its failure (not coming on, making a noise, whatever). I would take it apart piece by piece, handling each item, turning it over it my hand to see what function it served and how it fit into the whole. Bit by bit I would arrive at some place where it seemed that all the causal elements has been revealed. And yet, much of the time, it would not be clear that there was any one obvious perpetrator. I’d scratch my head and put it all back together, only to discover that the symptoms had gone into remission. The fridge would hum, not buzz. The washing machine would wash once again, the furnace would heat.  

Now, of course, this didn’t work all the time, and often, a specific part would be found to bear responsibility. But it is strange and not-at-all rare for this simple process to produce results all by itself. Explanation? Objects need to be touched. Talking helps but mostly they just need to be touched. Those little wires and washers need physical contact every decade or so or they fall into depression and malaise.  

Charming though this theory seems, we agree, Charlie and I, that there is a less heart-warming reason for this. When we take things apart and put them back together, there are many procedures involved which, if performed well, produce a positive change. Every wiring connection that gets separated and reconnected can remove some oxide or be snugged a bit tighter, eliminating resistance. Every screw replaced may be a bit tighter, potentially eliminating a buzz or an electrically resistant connection. There are far too many of these notions to present here, but the point should be clear. Add to this that the process can often involve a repair that we were unaware of. For instance, when taking things apart, it’s sometimes hard to be sure that the spring in your hand was actually attached to it’s origins or termini when you took the thing apart. Maybe yes, maybe no. If you put the thing back together right, that might be the thing that makes it go whir and makes the sun shine once again upon your laundry day.  

Kicking things usually doesn’t work. People who kick machines that don’t work or drawers that stick get what they deserve. The mechanical world just laughs at these people and then proceeds to further break down just to spite their sorry selves.  

Then there are the conspiracies. Sometimes it’s said that things break or fail in threes (or maybe that only applies to dead celebrities). Maybe, but it’s certainly true that when it rains it pours. I’m sure that these are tests of character, rather than genuine revolts by the mechanical world. I tend to think that washing machines are pretty happy with their lot, whether operational or not. But if there is a consciousness at work among our things, I believe it is teaching us a lesson. The lesson is: get used to it. Things break down. Kicking dishwashers or screaming at the toaster won’t help. Laughter works fairly well though.  

Then there is the advanced course. Sit down with the microwave (actually, I don’t speak microwave) and get to know it. Take the door panel off, one screw at a time, and then just let the thing talk to you. This is one of the great repair secrets. I think it works for medicine and accounting too, actually.  

Take your time. Touch each thing. Look for loose parts. When you take things apart, lay them neatly out in a reverse time-line so that you know which goes back first and last. Consider the thinking of the designer. Look for where things rub. Look for scars or burn marks. Gently clean things off and set them aside. See if there is a screw or wire or washer laying in the bottom and then see if you can find its home. 

Sadly, the age of the fixable thing may be coming to an end. So many devices today are made with plastic riveted parts and have no real way of performing a repair. The toasters, lamps and stoves of the past were so much easier to repair having been assembled with real screws, nuts, wires and bolts.  

It reminds of me Merlin’s sorry resignation that the age of magic was coming to an end. Spirits once lived in all our machines and mechanisms and an occasional handling and a good talking to might be all that was needed. But more and more today, when I try to reason with my house, well … It’s just like talking to a wall.