My wife and I built a bookcase recently and only once did she have to fix me with the sort of withering gaze that mothers generally reserve for their small children who have flooded the kitchen with pancake syrup.
For me this counts as a major accomplishment.
(Also the episode didn’t involve syrup.)
Lisa and I have assembled several pieces of furniture and the exercise tends to highlight the inherent conflict between our approaches to construction.
And by conflict I mean the way a sane person (Lisa) becomes increasingly annoyed at another person (me) who frequently grunts and gesticulates in an alarmingly spastic way.
And who peers at a set of instructions with the perplexed expression of an archaeologist who has unearthed a stone tablet etched with the runic symbols of a language dead since the Bronze Age.
And who seems to think a screwdriver is used to pounds nails and in many other ways to gouge paint from the pristine surface of a shelf.
The problem is that I have no patience.
Actually the problem is that I have no skills of a mechanical sort.
The absence of patience merely increases the volatility of the situation, much in the way that mixing certain materials will blow up the high school chemistry lab.
(This was not my intention. But it appears nobody in the school system considered the wisdom of giving teenage boys access to beakers of sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, which substances were stored, conveniently enough, next to Bunsen burners.)
I deal with my lack of aptitude by treating the assembly guide not as a blueprint but as a series of general suggestions, to be consulted occasionally between energetic bouts of whacking and trying to wedge the corners of pieces into anything that resembles a notch. Or that can be made to resemble a notch with the aid of a hammer and a chisel.
During any construction project I mutter the phrase “it’s bound to fit eventually” as a sort of mantra.
(I employ the same haphazard approach with cooking, with results that my former chemistry teacher would recognize immediately. As would the people who work at those companies that clean up after natural disasters.)
I don’t wish to quarrel with the manufacturers of fine furniture products but I believe they have an unreasonable reliance on the value of crude drawings to help people turn a stack of boards and a plastic bag of hardware into something that will hold books without collapsing.
I find it especially annoying when the instructions have a larger, and ostensibly more detailed, illustration to explain some particular step in the process.
This seems logical.
It is not.
If the sequence isn’t clear in the smaller rendering — a sequence, let’s just say, that involves the simultaneous insertion of one piece into another while twisting one nut clockwise and a second nut, several feet away, counterclockwise, a maneuver which clearly requires at least one more arm than most humans have — well, a larger depiction of this impossible feat doesn’t make it any less impossible.
Lisa is far more forgiving than I am about the utility of instruction manuals.
She insists — and not without a certain plausibility, I must concede — that if you simply follow the directions, and never proceed to the next task without verifying that you’ve completed the current one, then you almost can’t avoid ending up with an item that at least superficially resembles the one pictured on the box.
Like all fantasies, this one is tempting to believe.
Sadly, it ignores the grim truth that not even the most comprehensive instructions — and I’ve yet to come across one I would so describe — can anticipate every way, or even many of the ways, in which an amateur assembler can go wrong.
(An amateur who is unskilled as well as impatient being, of course, the sort most likely to botch the job. I can, and indeed I have, misinterpreted assembly directions in ways that the people who wrote them would not believe unless they had actually seen the mistakes happen. Which, fortunately for them, they did not.)
What I wish is that companies sold items that are fully assembled but have one flaw — a board facing the wrong way, for instance, or a screw of the improper length jutting in a place likely to pierce a vital organ.
This is where I tend to end up anyway. I have, much as certain animals evolve, developed a proficiency for tearing apart — sometimes quite literally — a piece of furniture to fix a step I messed up along the way. I still wind up with multiple parts unused, usually including stout pieces that seem designed to bear a considerable load, but most generally the item stands on its own for at least several weeks.
(And when it ceases to do so the resulting injuries, most generally, are minor ones.)
This newest bookcase is sturdier than most of my previous efforts, as I anchored it to the wall with a pair of metal brackets included in the kit (I even used both of them.)
Which is not to say I don’t feel a twinge of trepidation whenever I recline on the sofa beside the bookcase, my head resting in a position where, based on my eyeball calculations, the second shelf would strike my forehead if the thing topples over.
The instructions called for each bracket to be attached to a wall stud, but this wasn’t possible due to a disagreement between the bookcase’s dimensions, the span between studs and the place we decided to put it.
In my own inimitable way I worked around this problem with the creative use of a couple of those hollow plastic anchors designed for drywall. When I finished I gave the shelf a healthy tug and was gratified that it seemed not to budge so much as a micron.
But I haven’t yanked on it since.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.