Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Life in the No-Tinker Zone

As a contrarian, I have a responsibility to be against whatever everyone else is for. So it is that, instead of jumping onto the "hip moms and alterna-dads" train, I choose instead to embrace my oldness and unhipness. To this end, I am working to slowly develop the habits and nuances of an old guy.

I do not smoke cigarettes, which puts me at a great disadvantage in the world of old guys, or at least the world of old guys as I imagine it. I also do not "tinker," which is perhaps an even greater shortcoming. Old guys have to "tinker." It doesn't matter what they "tinker" with, something I learned several years ago.

My father, during my youth a model planes and war games guy, always a car guy, once a gun guy, decided to become exclusively a camera guy after he shot his knee off while cleaning some mayhem-producing weapon. This being several years ago, he has been all cameras, all the time, for as long as many jawas in our family can remember.

He belongs to several camera mailing lists, message boards, places you can go and discuss cameras. Rare cameras replaced rare guns (and before that, rare cars) in his life, and he seems pretty happy that way. He gets to "tinker," though I suspect that much of his "tinkering" takes place in the form of online research, rather than in actually taking apart cameras and putting them back together. If he does take them apart, etc., I can guarantee you that there will be lots of sweat and exactly one profanity per session. That's the way it was when he was trying to put the stereo I got for my bar mitzvah together, and I have no reason to believe that his methodology has changed over time.

One day, a few years ago, my father and I, plus the Jawa and Count Burpalot, joined the Rocket Scientist on a dry desert lakebed to watch him fly his radio-controlled airplane. There were lots of plane-flying guys there when we arrived. All of them knew the Rocket Scientist. Over half of them were old guys, and after awhile (maybe it was just a few minutes. Time seemed to move pretty slowly for me out there on the dry lakebed), I noticed these guys spent most of their time not flying the airplanes, but tinkering with them instead.

The Rocket Scientist had his off the ground pretty quickly, and then stood there, squinting up at the sky, flying smoothly around, which came as no surprise to me, given that his 9-5 job involves piloting march larger, often experimental airplanes around at great speeds. To say I was impressed with his flying skills was to say that the few seconds I got to watch him fly -- in between chasing the Jawa and Count Burpalot around, trying to keep them from the other guys' planes -- were impressive, indeed.

As I said, the other guys were mostly tinkering. I realized then that it doesn't matter what it is -- cars, radio controlled airplanes, cameras, guns, fishing poles, model trains -- the basic activity is the same. It involves going to a store your son might find singularly boring, talking to the guy there, buying a few small pieces of stuff, going home and patiently putting things together and taking them apart, then joining a bunch of other guys out somewhere that your son also might find singularly boring, patiently putting more things together and taking them apart, and talking to other guys. And in-between, flying something, taking a few pictures, driving something, shooting something.

Weirdly enough, as I write this I realize that, while the tinkering gene may have skipped me, it has landed squarely on my Jawa, who, at age 9, is already frequenting singularly boring stores and talking to the guys who work there, buying overpriced, very small items, then taking them home and tinkering. He lays out cards and small figures on the ground, concentrating mightily, gravely moving one piece or card from one spot to the other.

For my dad, it was war stuff. For the Jawa, it's Japanese stuff, battle stuff, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Bionicle. He hasn't narrowed it down, and thank God yesterday at Metreon he didn't beg me to go into the uber-geek gaming store next to the arcade. "I'm not old enough for that stuff," he said, casually, as we passed.

I can't wait.

But for me, father and son of tinkerers, nothing. The best I can manage is books, and while the library is singularly boring to most, you can't really tinker with a book. I am outcast from the world of men.

I try to make up for it in other ways. My latest old-guy quirk is putting my glasses, when I'm wearing them, on my forehead when I'm reading something. This is an old guy thing, because it is only recently that I discovered I can actually see close-up things better without them. So I figure, if I'm going to have an old guy condition, why not exacerbate it with a time-honored old guy habit. On the forehead go the glasses.

If I smoked cigarettes, I could focus on something, squinting through a haze of smoke, with my glasses on my forehead. Alas, it's not my vice. Which is fine, because the situation I just described goes hand-in hand with tinkering.

I tried model cars. No patience, and I'm sloppy. My cars came out with big blobs of glue all over them, unlike my father's pristine, historically accurate airplanes.

He'd had a special table built when we added a family room to our house. The table came out of the wall, resting on this tiki thing we had. He'd set up all his stuff and build airplanes while we watched TV, read, played games, whatever. That way we could all be in the same room, even though it sometimes backfired, especially on the nights set aside for painting the airplanes, when the paint fumes and rattle of his air compresser usually chased us from the room.

He kept the completed planes in the basement on plexiglas shelves. There was a little tiny, stubby one with a single jet engine in its tail. That was my favorite. Once a month, he took them all down and dusted them, one by one.

He'd had this room made special when we did the basement. How happy he must have been, with a room in which he could display all of his airplanes, but also with enough room to put up a 4 x 8 table in the middle, onto which he dumped a bunch of kitty litter. He'd then use the kitty litter to make hills and trenches, and would stage (again, historically accurate) World War II battles, using little tiny army men and tanks. Not like my bigger, seldom used army men, but tiny, detailed, spray painted with his own tank and paints. He explained to me once that he likes to set up actual battles, ones that happened, and see what would have happened had this or that general chosen a different strategy.

A real hobbyist, my dad. Most of it went away when we moved to California, which is sad, though familiar to me, a non-hobbyist.

I tried cars, when I got old enough to drive. But like many Jewish men, the stuff under the hood may as well have been a Rubik's Cube to me. Same with motorcycles, though the risk of masculinity is much greater for a guy who shows up and doesn't know how to fix his own bike than it is for a guy in a car. With a car, you might be a collector, and everyone can drive a car. To be a motorcycle guy is to be part of a rough-and-tumble fraternity of men. Men who tinker. Men who don't panic if their motorcycle leaves them stranded somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Men who are not me.

The rest of the hobby totems -- guitars, skateboards among them -- poses, all of them. No real interest on my end. No tinkering.

So I am left, hobbyless and tinker-free in middle age, with my glasses on my forehead, tagging along with my child as he patiently navigates the mean shelves of a Japantown hobby store.

Does laundry count as a hobby?


Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

here are a few ideas:
1 - collect records - you have so many cool record stores up there - and it's become an old guy thing.
2 - online fantasy sports - that kills a lot of time - and i imagine relationships, too
3 - ebay
4 - skoal
5 - drinking during the day

6:33 PM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

oh yeah i forgot - if you collect records, chances are you'll have to tinker with the turntable every once in a while. sweet - 2 birds, one stone. nice.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous zin gal said...

As I look in towards what was my dining room table, I see my husband, glasses perched on balding crown, building a very large radio controlled airplane. First you build, then you fly and no doubt crash, then the fun part...tinkering.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous the hammer said...

I have to consider Wine Guy a tinkerer and old guy (relatively speaking) although his eyesight is still great. He does engines, motors, plumbing, electricity, repairs and laundry. Wow, maybe I don't give him enough credit. That said, he's sometimes as grumpy as an old guy. Mixed blessing.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I have recently fell in with a group who tinkers with Squier '51 Guitars. They are the best guitar $100 can buy. I am too embarrassed to say how many I now own.

Squier 51 Modders Forum

The optometrist's office called earlier this week to let me know that my new glasses with "blended" bifocals are in...

1:37 PM  
Anonymous roger a. hunt said...

although tinkering might require small parts, imo, the following list counts as areas where you have/do tinker.

1) eclectic music and off brand bands
2) nuances of your friends
3) every tv show ever made, pre-1988
4) baseball stats
5) mad mad mad mad world

i could list more, but i have to catch this jack cassiday film festival.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Noodles Mom said...

What about when women get older? They do crafts. What do you do if you're not only not crafty, but consider it a fate worse than death? I'm still trying to convince Rocket Scientist that shopping is, in fact, a hobby and one I can participate in well into old age. In the meantime, tinkering and craftiness obviuosly skip a generation-Felix Unger(formerly known as Count Burpalot) tinkers with the best of them, and Noodles is as crafty as they come.

7:32 AM  
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