It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these, so please bear with me.
I woke up this morning with a major backache. This was my body’s way of pre-injuring itself in preparation for the thing I’d been putting off all week, assembling my daughter’s main Christmas present. This year she asked for a new play kitchen. She’s had a plastic kitchen-thing since she was so little that I remember being terrified that she might try to pull herself up on it, which if she’d ever done so would have sent child and kitchen tumbling to the floor. But now, what with her being in kindergarten and being a purveyor of only the finest of pretend haute cuisine, she needs something more in keeping with her personal tastes and style. We would have happily gotten her a perfectly fine play kitchen, but then my parents got wind of the child’s needs and for about a week now I’ve had a box sitting here containing the parts for a play kitchen that is just slightly larger than our actual kitchen and weighs a little over half a ton (that’s a rough estimate, mind you). A toddler would have no trouble pulling him or herself up on this kitchen, or at least I hope they wouldn’t because, if this thing tips over on top of a kid, that kid is looking at months of traction and rehab at a minimum.
I feel like grandparents get some secret joy out of buying Christmas presents for their grandchildren that are harder and less intuitive to assemble than the things they had to assemble for their children once upon a time. When I was a kid I played with a lot of pretend-violent toys, things like Star Wars, G.I. Joe (the little ones), Transformers, etc. I don’t remember how much assembly those things involved, but I do know they involved a lot of decals, and for a time decals became my father’s mortal enemy in life. If he could have, I’m confident that he would have hunted down the folks who invented (discovered) the properties of basic adhesion and suffocated them by sticking toy decals over their mouths and nostrils. Now I have a daughter, which in itself tells you nothing, but my particular daughter is like the Platonic Ideal of “Girl” as far as toy companies are concerned, so there aren’t a lot of war toys and decals to worry about. But that’s OK, because instead of decals, I get to put together playsets, which is easily worse, so the generational imperative is met. By the time my daughter has kids, I’ll just buy them the basic components of a laptop or something and let my daughter assemble it herself.
In the glorious age of Chinese manufacturing, I think cheap furniture (and this kitchen set is basically a piece of furniture, except with more parts) makers are tasked with engaging in subtle psychological warfare against the American consumer via the assembly process. This involves two separate attacks on the buyer’s psyche as he or she is putting the item together. The first is what I like to call “The 37-Step Step.” I like to think that I’m very good at following assembly directions, and I’ve certainly put together enough cheap desks, bookshelves, and other kinds of furniture to have identified the pattern those directions follow. They start out simply enough: attach a couple of knobs, step completed; screw a rail into a piece of wood, step completed. Somewhere around step 8-12, after you’ve been doing these very simple steps and feeling very good about yourself, they ramp things up on you. This is where the diagram switches from a single piece to the whole item, and instead of putting one part onto another part with a couple of screws you’re supposed to attach 46 parts together using all the screws ever made. Then they keep things at that level for the next 10 steps or so and, if you haven’t taken a baseball bat to the furniture and/or your own head after that, you get a couple more very simple steps before you’re done.
The second tool in the psy-ops campaign involves “The Slightly Out of Place Hole.” This is absolutely a deliberate attempt to get you to harm yourself and/or others, and the reason I know this is because The Slightly Out of Place Hole is never drilled into the furniture earlier than step 10 in the assembly process. It’s also never completely out of place, enough that the consumer would just say “screw this” and send it back as a defective item. No, The Slightly Out of Place Hole is just out of place enough that you can sort of get the screw or dowel most of the way in there, but not quite all the way. The really expert craftsmen of the Slightly Out of Place Hole art will drill it in such a way that when the consumer thinks, “maybe if I just force the damn thing in there it will go,” they will invariably either smash the particle board around it or strip whatever bolt they’re trying to screw the dowel or screw into. The Slightly Out of Place Hole is why I prefer to assemble these things when I’m home alone, and ideally in the middle of a work day when most of my neighbors won’t be there either, so that the stream of loudly-shouted obscenities emanating from my house will go unnoticed. Because The Slightly Out of Place Hole is designed to come into play well into the assembly process, the consumer is then forced to undo at least three or four major steps in order to jiggle the pieces around to find the one Magic Spot where everything sort of grudgingly fits together.
If the consumer still hasn’t hurt him or herself or anyone else or smashed the furniture into particle board dust by now, The Slightly Out of Place Hole is the last big hurdle he or she will have to jump before assembly is complete. Now all that’s left is to assess the damage done during the “maybe I can just twist harder and force it in there” interlude, which in my case involved two stripped cross dowel bolts and an emergency trip to Home Depot. All-in-all that’s not so bad. And anyway, if I were even thinking for a second of really complaining about any of this, reading this would have changed my mind:
AN Irish pensioner facing into his 10th Christmas alone has taken to placing newspaper adverts in a bid to find someone else to spend December 25 with.
James Gray, 85, cannot even remember the last time he saw someone else on Christmas Day after a decade of lonely festive celebrations at his London flat.
Earlier this month the retired butler placed an advert with The Irish Post looking to establish a pensioners group to celebrate Christmas Day with.
And although he had high hopes that his festive plan would work, he was left disappointed when only one person responded to his advert.
Mr Gray’s hopes suffered a further setback when the respondent later told him she would be spending Christmas Day with someone else.
Now the 85-year-old, who has no immediate family to call on, is worried that he will have to suffer Christmas alone again this year.
“I just want to find someone in time,” he said.
“I am used to the loneliness, but I do not want it to be the same this year.”
After the Irish Post ran that story, this happened:
And since we reported his story the retired butler, who is living in south London, has been inundated with offers from prospective companions.
He is now looking forward to receiving his first Christmas cards in years after a Christmas card appeal (see below) from The Irish Post.
“It is so touching to me, after all these years alone, to see this response from people,” he said. “I’m so appreciative of the offers. I should have done this years ago.”
Between the corrupting effects of book learning and the extraordinary institutional criminality of the Catholic Church, the religious aspects of Christmas haven’t held much sway for me for a long time, but the season still holds a special place in my heart. Yes, it’s over-commercialized and yes, parts of it suck, but the chance to spend time with loved ones is what makes Christmas important. Putting together this damn kitchen was a giant pain in the rear, and frankly 2013 was kind of a crappy year now that I look back on it, but I have a wonderful wife, an amazing daughter, and family, in-laws, and friends who make it all OK, including you find folks who come here and read this silly little blog from time to time (that’s something I couldn’t have said this time last year, so that’s something). It doesn’t have to be Christmas–it could be Hanukkah, or Eid, or Dawali, or Nowruz, or next Tuesday afternoon–but we should all cherish the time we get with the people we love, and reach out to those who find themselves alone more than they’d like.
So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Festivus, whatever you like. Enjoy the season in whatever way is most meaningful to you.