Monday, June 15, 2015

June's Column--Dad, the Bag, and the Printer

You knew I was going to get more mileage out of that printer fix, right?

Hacking  a system  of values

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JUNE 14, 2015

My dad and his turquoise bag arrived this week. Dad is 98 years old. The bag is about half his age.

My sister Margaret recalls that the bag came from a Dumpster in 1988, when Mom and Dad were restocking their lives after a house fire and hit an occasional bonanza in a stash of garage sale leftovers.

It’s a deep bag, with two short, sturdy handles, in a textured Naugahyde that was probably in style in 1965. It already looked brittle back in 2005 when I flew with Mom and Dad to Pennsylvania for my niece’s wedding. A zealous TSA agent, spotting Dad’s razor on an X-ray, pulled aside the bag for further inspection.

She dipped in and hoisted out Mom’s nightgown by the shoulders, then sweaters, a toothbrush case, and finally Dad’s heavy metal razor. Her rubber fingertips daintily screwed the bottom piece, and the flaps on top slowly opened. No razor blade. She smiled. All was well.

What she didn’t know was that Dad, who had read somewhere that you can’t take razor blades on a plane, had mailed them ahead of time to my sister’s house.

That episode forever gave me a sick feeling about both TSA and the turquoise bag.

That bag went on road trips to Iowa, full of magazines to read, rugs to crochet and sandwiches for lunch.

It went across the country on the train a few times. And then, this week, it came to Oregon again, by air this time, along with Dad and my brother and sister-in-law. Dad’s razor didn’t alert TSA this time, but his pocketknife was confiscated.

The bag sits sturdily in Dad’s room, undaunted and hideous.

My parents used things until they wore out. Then they repaired them and used them some more.

They did not throw things away.

When we sorted through my parents’ possessions for a sale six months after Mom’s passing, we found Dad’s heavy barn mitts, the grimy yellow fabric mended and re-mended until it looked as patchworked as a map of Europe, with even white stitches on all the national borders, way up to the North Sea.

In my dad’s lifetime, our culture has gone from Depression-era frugality and a determined use-it-up-wear-it-out philosophy to billions of single-use diapers and Cool Whip containers tossed into landfills.

My parents didn’t talk about why they lived like this. It was the right and responsible thing to do, like saying please and thank you. They might have mentioned stewardship of God’s creation and benevolence now and then, but they had no articulate philosophy for feeding table scraps to the chickens and taping the broken broom handle back together. Why would you think of doing otherwise?

Thankfully, a growing crowd of young people is questioning our consumerism and articulating why. Those cheap breakable gadgets, strings of Christmas lights and cute shoes are cheap only because they were likely made by someone twisting wires with his teeth or inhaling weird chemicals all day and getting paid less in a month than you get in a day, they say. And a landfill full of cellphones and water bottles calls for modern words like nonrenewable resources and recycling and economic inequity.

Does this mean, astonishingly, that my parents were actually hipsters, reusing and recycling before it was cool?

I also wonder which has the greater virtue — doing the right thing just because it seems right or doing it for well-thought-out reasons.

I find myself, as always, in the middle — frugal because it seems right, concerned about waste and economic disparity, equally appalled at the Naugahyde bag that won’t quit and the impossibility of fixing anything slightly technological.

The daily items of Mom and Dad’s life could be understood and repaired — the torn apron, the worn-out leather on a harness, the dangling hinge.

Our daily tools can be neither comprehended nor repaired by normal people.

I once bought a pressure washer to clean a winter’s dog tracks off the porch and a summer’s dust off the siding. It had a yellow body the size of a four-slice toaster and cost about $60 — for me, a substantial investment in a cleaning gadget.

One day it stopped working. I couldn’t fix it and my husband, whose abilities approach miraculous, couldn’t either.

Determined, I located a business that repaired pressure washers. I took my cute little washer into the shop, where huge muscular washers sat around on the concrete floor like a bunch of Great Danes taking a break from eating cats.

The large bearded man behind the counter took one look at the machine I carried and turned to me in complete disbelief. No. Absolutely not. He wouldn’t even take a look. Fixing it would be far more expensive than buying another one.

I knew he thought, but did not say, “Crazy woman.”

It felt sinful to throw away that pressure washer, for reasons I could articulate — the irresponsible waste! — and reasons I couldn’t put into words, that vague sense that tossing a toaster-sized mix of plastic and metal in the trash had implications far beyond this moment and the money lost.

Is it possible to bridge the old ways of reuse and repair with the new mysterious and secretive electronics? I’d like to think “Maybe.”

Computers and printers, I admit, are a huge improvement over carbon paper, Ko-Rec-Type, and hand-drawn charts.

Not long ago, our printer suddenly turned a normal page into a few streaks and dots. It was stubborn and silent when I enquired what was wrong.

“Please?” I said, as I changed the black ink and pressed the proper little pictures on the screen.

“Pretty please?” I ran it through cleaning and maintenance procedures. “If I offer you incense and garlands of hibiscus?”

“You might as well give it to Goodwill,” said my husband, Paul.

Furious at the printer, at these secretive and unfixable electronics, and at everything wrong in Western Society, I determined to fix it myself. Plus, we had just bought all those new ink cartridges.

I had an idea. So the black didn’t print, but would the other colors? I changed a document to purple. With an obliging ca-dunk and bzeee, out came the paper, clear and purple. The day was saved, I told the family.

The college kids grimaced. Seriously? Thermo-fluid Dynamics assignments in purple?

OK, maybe not.

I had another idea. Quietly, I popped out the blue ink cartridge and replaced it with a black one.

The printer was deeply offended. It hissed at me, and scathing words appeared on the little screen.

“How do you know this, you stupid machine?” I snapped back. “The ink cartridges look exactly the same!”

I inspected them further and found a little chip with strange gold patterns on the front of each cartridge.

Where the printer couldn’t see me, I pried off the chips and glued the chip from the blue cartridge onto the black, let it dry, and nonchalantly inserted it, then clicked on a document to print.

It did. First in a fading blue, then in a definite black.

Sermons could be printed again, I crowed. And grocery lists and research papers and checks for warehouse employees.

My children — who communicate with electronics in fearless harmony, as starlings understand the wind and fly without conscious thought — they were impressed.

“Mom! You hacked it!” Emily said.

“Hacked it?” Hacking is what pale brilliant 20-year-olds do in musty basements. Moms my age do not hack.

“That’s what it’s called!” Emily insisted. “You fooled the machine. And got around the system! So, you hacked it!”

Really? I felt smug and happy.

Today, my husband called me from our grass-seed warehouse. “I’m changing the dust bags, and they’re about a foot and a half too long, so I had to cut them off, and I was wondering …”

“Yes! I want them!” I said, and instantly pictured the tote bags I would make of the tough canvas tubes. They will be sturdy and practical, with two short handles apiece. They might even serve me so well that 40 years from now I can take them, mended and a bit brittle, to carry my sweaters and toothbrush when I pay a visit to my exasperated children.

1 comment:

  1. The disposability of everything we use these days bothers me, too. I often sin against the recycle gods, but at least I can say that neither of the two televisions we have in our house was manufactured in the 21st century, and my laundry pair has followed us for over 25 years, through three moves. When these things wear out or die, we will replace them, but I'm determined not to do so before they do!