by Rick Bayan
(April 2000) My friend Anne D. is continually amused by my ongoing battles with the physical world. She watches incredulously as I struggle to open a bag of corn chips; she snickers as I mutter imprecations at the villain who designed the offending bag; she guffaws as I finally manage to tear it open with my teeth and send half the chips scattering to the four corners of the room.
I wasn't meant to exist in the physical world, her theory goes. It's not my natural home, any more than Chattanooga would be a proper home for a penguin or a utopian philosopher. Somewhere in my remote past, she tells me, I opted for the intellectual realm over the temporal one. So I shouldn't be surprised or exasperated by my inability to open a bag of corn chips.
Still, it does exasperate me. I seem to be engaged in an endless and unwinnable war with inanimate objects; the whole world is my obstacle course. I'm in awe of pilots, skateboarders, seamstresses, carpenters, circus acrobats and people who can snuff a candle with their fingertips. I marvel at their ability to mesh so effortlessly with their chosen objects, as if they were single highly-evolved organisms. The skateboard follows its owner's feet into the air without the aid of glue or ligaments, in utter contempt of gravity and lesser life-forms. Meanwhile, I continue my struggles with bags of corn chips.
For me, daily life is a comedy of minor mishaps and sight-gags. My patron saint should be Oliver Hardy, gazing helplessly at the camera after being caught in a cascade of malevolent kitchenware, then blinking hard as one final pot clunks him on the head.
I try to detach a single paper towel, and the entire roll topples into the sink. I innocently turn my house key in the lock, then feel it snap like a popsicle stick. I add one more magazine to the pile on my sofa, triggering an avalanche of paper that alarms my cat. I pull my car registration sticker out of the envelope, only to drop it at the foot of my coffee table and watch it vanish into some uncharted gremlin-land, never again to be viewed by human eyes.
Sometimes I invite disaster through my own ignorance of the rules. By any standard, placing a glass of wine on a sofa cushion, even for a moment, even if the cushion is admirably firm and level, even if the glass is three-quarters empty and the cat is nowhere in sight, is a blatant infraction of universal law. Fred Astaire and a few other chosen ones might have been able to get away with it in their prime, but I'm not Fred Astaire; I'm not even Arthur Murray. Still, I trust the sofa and the laws of physics to hold the glass upright, and I'm always miffed when they fail to indulge me on such a minor matter.
The malign forces that govern my world refuse to tolerate even a minimal level of risk. When I remove a freshly broiled slab of salmon from the toaster-oven, I generally balance the fish on a spatula in one hand while transferring it to my dinner plate in the other hand. It's a simple enough maneuver: the spatula is wide enough and my hand is steady enough; we're not performing quadruple bypass surgery here. Then, at the last second, some invisible imp tilts the thing just enough -- probably one degree beyond the minimum fish-flip angle -- to dump my succulent meal into the abyss of the kitchen sink.
The petty-disaster gods seem positively perverse in their desire to honk my proboscis. Example: I'll carefully arrange some grocery bags on the front passenger seat of my car, drive home at a leisurely clip, then slow down to negotiate the traffic bump at the entrance to my parking lot. Am I home free? Am I permitted to complete the two-minute journey with my equanimity and grocery bags intact? Of course not. The demon-possessed bags WANT to topple onto the floor, preferably upside-down so the contents can achieve a nearly perfect state of randomness under the dashboard; the fact that I've slowed to one mile an hour won't stop them. I've also learned that shouting at the bags to stay in place won't always achieve the desired result; the bags hear only what they want to hear.
I'm convinced that these so-called inanimate objects have a will, a positive desire to torment their animated companions. How else to explain shoelaces that come undone ten minutes after you've retied them for the third time since breakfast? How else to explain soup that creates a permanent path down your chin, no matter how many times you dab it with your napkin? How else to explain bread falling butter-side down four times out of five? Is it simple physics? Unlikely. Black magic? Possibly. Active malevolence within the primitive mind of the offending object? I'm beginning to think so. We need to guard ourselves against surly shoelaces and evil toast.
The most diabolically perverse inanimate object I ever encountered was the hood latch on our 1970 Pontiac LeMans. It's not a pretty tale, but I feel compelled to tell it.
To appreciate the story, you have to understand something about my life in those days. I was in my twenties, freshly sprung from college and graduate school, intoxicated by the written word and unable to make a dent in the world at large. Alternately underpaid and unemployed, I lived at home with my parents and younger brother.
Those were the bad old days; like any maladjusted liberal arts graduate, I was hopelessly unsuited to the business of making a living. Worse yet, I was blocked on every front: professionally, socially, creatively. My job situation ranged from bleak to intolerable. I could barely hold a fifteen-minute conversation without breaking into a sweat, which didn't make it easy to get a date. Writing was sublime torture. Some days I'd advance by a single paragraph; other days I'd actually retreat, having crossed out more than I had written. My efforts began to resemble the struggle along the Western Front during World War I -- all that bloodshed over a few yards of territory.
I dwelt almost entirely inside my head, just this side of certifiable, alternating between dark despair and desperate grandiosity, cheered only by my voracious reading, long walks, and occasional drives through the open countryside. Landscapes, mental or physical, were my deliverance from misery and paralysis.
The 1970 Pontiac LeMans was our secondary car, and I shared it with my mother and brother. It was a fine car in most respects: warm gold with a black vinyl roof, pleasing to the eye and dependable on the road. In fact, I'd remember it with fondness today if it hadn't been for the trick latch.
To open the hood, you had to pull the latch forward, down slightly and up again in a single movement that disengaged the safety catch. It required a deft and subtle touch or the safety catch would hold and the hood would pop up a mere two or three inches. Then you'd have to slam it shut and try again.
Nine times out of ten -- sometimes nineteen out of twenty -- the hood simply refused to open for me. I'd slam it down, pull the latch and hope for a jackpot -- then, rudely foiled, I'd slam it down and pull again. And again and again. Before long, the latch and I became sworn enemies. I hated it passionately for refusing to yield, for making a savage mockery of my efforts, for implying that I somehow didn't DESERVE to open the hood.
What made the trick latch even more exasperating was that my brother, five years my junior and brimming with post-adolescent bravado, could pop the thing with such blissful ease. After watching me struggle for ten or fifteen tries, he'd stroll by the car, give the latch a gentle stroke, and lo! -- up popped the hood. He wasn't obnoxious about his gift; he acknowledged that it was a tricky maneuver, which he delighted in demonstrating over and over again. My brother possessed the secret latch-knowledge that was being withheld from me. Some were born with innate mastery of the latch; others were destined to sweat and struggle.
One night, at the mall, I emerged into the parking lot around closing time and tried to start the car. It was a cold night and the engine stalled repeatedly, so I went to the hood with the hope of opening the choke from inside. I tried the hood latch once, twice, fifteen, twenty times. It refused to pop. I tried it again, and again, and again, muttering curses upon its illicit parentage with mounting fury. Still it refused to grant me entrance.
The significance of the trick latch began to grow in my fevered mind until it embodied everything that had mysteriously evaded me: success, sex with nubile women, creative power, ease of accomplishment. It was the Northwest Passage and the Rosetta Stone, the elusive shortcut without which we're condemned to flap and flail our way through life. It was admission to the circle of grace, the promise of just rewards. It was the Holy Grail and Moby-Dick. It was nothing less than the inscrutable mind of God separating the wheat from the chaff, the blessed from the damned, the fit from the unfit, the winners from the losers. This was one powerful and omniscient little latch; it seemed woefully underemployed as a minor automotive gadget.
By the time I finally popped the hood, my car was among the last in the lot. I opened the choke, started the engine, ran it a few minutes, closed the hood, drove home and never spoke to anyone about the incident. I knew from that evening onward, as I had suspected before, that success would never come to me without strenuous effort, demoralizing defeats, frustration and exasperation -- that I was essentially a Nixon rather than a Kennedy, except that I didn't wear dark suits and black oxfords when I walked on the beach.
Anyway, the knowledge sobered me and cleared my head. I was ready to move forward, a grizzled veteran of metaphysical combat.
When I finally landed a remunerative job and moved out of the house, I bought my own car -- a used one, and fittingly (or perhaps stupidly) another Pontiac LeMans. I made sure I tried the hood latch before I bought it, and this one actually worked. I delighted in being able to pop the hood at will.
As it turned out, this car was literally a disaster on wheels: it needed an immediate valve job and a new transmission; it regularly overheated for no apparent reason and the mechanics could never figure out why. I had another mystery on my hands. But at least I could trigger the hood latch.
My struggles with inanimate objects continue to this day, of course. Computers have provided me with a vast new source of vexation, as I tussle with error messages, buried menus, indecipherable icons, quirky modems and mind-boggling user manuals. The universe makes life difficult for those who aren't privy to its secrets, but I intend to persist even if I never prevail. Nixon would be proud of me.
On some level, I suppose I'll always be struggling to unlock the elusive mystery of the latch. Meanwhile, I hope you'll excuse me while I try to open a bag of corn chips. I've been writing for hours, and I feel like wrestling with the physical world again.