A mechanical klutz, afraid of his dishwasher

By Jayson Jacoby January 20, 2014 10:37 am

The list of skills I wish I had is longer than many novels, and at its top are the ability to build things and to fix stuff that gets busted or stops working.

I don’t mean complicated things, like brains or nuclear reactors or jet aircraft.

I know how modest my limits are.

But aside from the occasional triumph of swapping a car’s starter, or assembling a stone wall that’s still standing after several years, my attempts at building and fixing even relatively simple items usually end with profanity and, frequently, a minor but painful flesh wound.

(Fortunately to my own flesh, most generally.)

I’m sufficiently self-aware, though, to realize that even my successful exploits, besides being rare, mainly result either from dumb luck or from the task being so simple that most fifth-graders could pull it off.

(And I mean no disrespect to fifth-graders.)

This bothers me because it means I can’t undertake any project with confidence.

Instead I assemble whatever tools I can manage to find and just plunge in, hoping only to avoid permanent disfigurement or an explosion.

My most recent exploit, as of this writing, has led to neither.

And indeed the appliance I set out to repair — our dishwasher — continues to operate as it’s supposed to, a few weeks later.

But I don’t trust the thing.

Which is to say, I don’t trust myself.

The main difference, post-repair, is that we no longer run the dishwasher when no one’s home.

(I’ve switched rather abruptly from “I” to “we” so as to include my wife, Lisa. Being wise, she is as at least as skeptical of my mechanical acumen as I am myself.)

I wouldn’t know a minute’s calm if we left while the dishwasher was on. I would during our absence constantly envision the thing spouting flames (the problem was electrical in nature), and hope only that one of the water hoses would also fail in a timely manner, inundating the kitchen but also dousing the fire.

Considering that I had to disconnect the main water supply from the dishwasher to effect the repair, and then try to get the threads tightened again, this scenario was quite plausible.

Like most mechanically uninclined people I am far more adept at dismantling devices than at reassembling them.

The trouble with the dishwasher started, as near as I can remember, a couple of years ago, but as is typical the problem was for a good while neither serious nor constant.

Maybe once every month or so the machine would fail to turn on when you pressed the “start” button.

A slight nudge of the thing, or sometimes merely opening and then closing the door, would put things right.

After one such incident I figured the dishwasher wasn’t properly anchored to the cabinet, and in fact one of the two screws had worked loose.

I tightened it, but the screw’s threads lost their grip and the problem eventually resurfaced.

A month or so ago I decided to replace the screw with a couple of stout nails, there being few problems I can’t, or won’t, try to solve by whacking them with a hammer.

When I was finished the dishwasher felt as solid as a chunk of granite.

A little while later Lisa asked me what had happened to the counter top. She pointed to a tiny bulge in the Formica.

I didn’t think the nails were that long.

Not long after, the dishwasher refused to work unless you gave it a vigorous smack with a fist. Then one morning Lisa texted me at work to say the thing not only stopped working in the middle of a cycle but, just to spice things up, it belched acrid smoke from its base.

This was of great concern to all of us, and in particular to Olivia, who, though just 6, already is well-acquainted with her old man’s clumsiness.

After making sure the short circuit had tripped the breaker I disconnected the power wires, scraped off the melted remains of the wire nuts and put everything back together.

This required a level of dexterity that most 2-year-olds can manage — it’s basically the equivalent of twisting pipe cleaners together, and my son, Max, can handle that.

Better still the wires are color coded, much like craft projects that come in boxes with “ages 2+” printed on them in a garish font that gives you a headache. If you can tell white from black it’s pretty hard to make a mistake.

I suppose after a couple months have passed with neither raging flames nor spewing water in the kitchen, my fear of the dishwasher will diminish.

Still and all, I wish I had a record of competence in such matters that I could draw on.

There is a unique pleasure, it seems to me, in possessing mechanical competence.

I’ve been around a lot of people who have it — my dad and my father-in-law being two — and when I start a project with one of them I feel none of the trepidation or sense of hopelessness that plague me when I’m toiling alone.

We are of course well into what’s sometimes called the Information Age. A lot of us have jobs that don’t require us to create anything tangible or permanent. I do myself — although I believe a well-crafted sentence can last a good long while, its vitality, even beauty, undiminished by the passage of decades.

Yet there is a special sort of satisfaction, I think, in being able to confront some problem which requires a keen eye and a deft hand with hammer, pliers and screwdriver, and know you can solve it.

Getting a fence gate to hang true, or coaxing a motor back to life, are hardly miracles.

But these can be pretty important skills if, for instance, you want to make sure a little boy doesn’t run out into the street, or you’re 15 miles in the backcountry and wondering what you might use to filter your urine if you can’t find a good spring or get a recalcitrant carburetor to stop leaking gas.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.