Friday, April 09, 2010

Ever since I read Matthew Crawford’s book on the value of physical (vs theoretical) work — especially repair work — I’ve looked for opportunities to fix things. My wife and I rent, and since we moved to NYC and gave up the car, most of the stuff we own is not all that complicated, or hard to figure out (not that I could figure out a car anyhow. Those things are complicated!).

So what to do? I poked around a bit when one of the range igniters on our stove got disconnected, and I spent some time reattaching one of the window balances in our bedroom, when the window wouldn’t stay up. But otherwise, there’s nothing much in the house that fits that sweet spot of being both fixable, and not so overly complicated that I couldn’t/shouldn’t touch it (when the gas line stopped working to one of the stove’s ranges, I just called the super and he fixed it).

Except the vacuum.

Vacuum cleaners are interesting machines. They aren’t complicated at all — they’re basically just a motor attached to some tubes that draws air in and deposits it (and the dirt) into a bag or plastic container. They aren’t yet (the ones I have access to anyway) overly computerized, but when they break most people still just chuck them out and get new ones. This means that I wasn’t surprised the other day to find a relatively new-looking hand vacuum sitting outside someone’s apartment, in the free-if-you-want-it zone between fence and curb.

What’s most fun about opening up a broken machine is you never really know what’s gone wrong, or how to fix it. So (at the behest of friends and spouse) after carefully inspecting this little street-find for bedbugs and other unwanted critters, I went ahead and took it home and opened it up.

At first, the problem seemed to be pretty simple: when I turned it on, the brush wouldn’t roll, and the belt that turned the brush was missing. I went to the store and bought a package of two new belts (cost: $6) and some new bags for good measure, and came home. But when I put the belt in, I noticed that it still wasn’t spinning, and I was smelling a burning rubber smell, as well. Uh oh.

So I went back and pulled the whole thing as apart as I could get it. Then I started fiddling around. I got it mostly apart, and (with it unplugged, of course!) put my fingers in the rotor and started trying to spin it. Sure enough, it was stuck. I felt around, and found something rubber that seemed loose. A few seconds later, out popped the old belt, which had gotten sucked up in the motor’s fan when it broke. Voilà! I put it all back together, put on the bag, and swept up the carpet.

Okay, but so I fixed a little vacuum cleaner, so what? Well, Crawford would say that I spent a little time engaged in my environment, not as its master (or more rudely as the helpless baby that demands all objects serve me) but as its servant — understanding the “needs” of the machine, and bending my own will to solve its problems. Through this, I’m able to develop some humility and also be a more useful part of my environment.

That’s all fine and good, but mostly I like the feeling of success — a real, solid I-made-something-right kind of success. The kind that people might only get close to when solving video game puzzles anymore. Plus, I got a working vacuum cleaner for $6. Nice!