Saturday, December 20, 2008

Re-use, recycle, regret

Benjamin Franklin was truly a remarkable fellow. He was the most famous and accomplished American until the Revolution, when he was eclipsed by Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest of that crowd. I've always felt that Franklin was that most honorable of accomplished people: his accomplishments were not glorious victories or the amassing of huge wealth, but instead subtle small things insinuated deep into the culture. And one of his most successful means for doing that was Poor Richard's Almanack, which he peppered with clever adages extolling the virtues of thrift, hard work, and a reserved tongue. 

I've been re-reading some of the old gentleman's adages, and I have found a few that are worthy of repeating:

Death takes no bribes

One good husband is worth two good wives; for the scarcer things are the more they're valued.

The poor have little, beggars none;

the rich too much, enough, not one.

Waste not, want not.

This last has now become a standard of our extended language, and it certainly plays a large role in my thinking. I feel badly about wasting things; it seems not just dumb but out-and-out wrong. Sending something to the dump when it still has some value bothers me a lot. If I do find it necessary to throw something away, I usually disassemble it to recover any parts that might be useful. Sometimes I take this to silly extremes. I once had to replace a shattered drive shaft from the power takeoff from my tractor. The break was at one end and so, when I removed the broken part, I found that it was a good three feet long, a 3/4" steel rod weighing at least ten pounds. This I just couldn't throw away. Fortunately, with 40 acres and three outbuildings, there's plenty of space for these odds and ends. And who knows, perhaps someday I'll find a good use for a ten pound steel rod. And if I don't, after I die the executors of my will shall have an odd time figuring out how to get rid of all the junk I've squirreled away.

But today I would like to relate another tale of the dark side of recycling. Two days ago a small fan of mine failed. It has been running continuously in a corner of my house for the last five years. Why? Because that corner is a nook that holds our upright freezer, which is a little too big for its nook. Accordingly, there's very little airspace for the air to circulate around the cooling coils, which means that the deepfreeze is quite inefficient. Did you know that your refrigerator and freezer are probably the biggest guzzlers of electricity in your house (unless you have electric heating)? That's because they run 24/7. So anything you can do to improve their efficiency is a good thing. That's why I set up this little fan.

It ran well for five years, but finally it developed some sort of mechanical problem and began making noise. So I dragged it up to my workroom and took it apart. The bearings appear to have locked up, so I cleaned them out and re-oiled them. It was a rather time-consuming task, and as I worked I wondered at the wisdom of spending so much time repairing a fan that could be replaced for ten dollars. But my sense of aesthetics demanded that I continue, so I got everything clean and smooth and re-assembled it. It didn't work. More disassembly, more diagnosis. After another hour of poking around, I finally realized that an internal connection in the coil had been broken. That's where I draw the line on repairs. I could probably fix it, but a small error on my part could have made the fan a fire hazard. So I gave up. All that saintly effort was a total waste of time. Not wishing to retire from the field in total defeat, I retrieved a few screws and nuts from the thing to put into my supplies. You never know when another screw will come in handy.

I wonder about the deeper motivations for my behavior. Is it a fear of irreversibility? Am I afraid that someday I'll be kicking myself, thinking, "If ONLY I had saved that tractor PTO drive shaft, I'd be able to deal with this problem today!" After all, I can always throw it away tomorrow. Am I prudently preserving my options are am I obsessively evading the inevitable? Is this, at some deeper level, a distant echo of a fear of my own mortality? It seems that obsessive saving of things is more common among old people -- is there some sense of identification with the discarded item? "I'm old and worn out, too, but I don't want to be thrown out, either!"

I really don't know. But I think I'll put this essay into my archives.


E. R. Dunhill said...

It's interesting that you brought up Franklin when you did; your post came the day after Poor Richard's anniversary. I like to think of PRA as an early blog. Worth noting: The APS and Yale publish The Papers of Benjamin Franklin online.
I'm also glad to read that someone else tries to fix things. I was just talking with my wife about the bizarre mindset that has emerged in which replacing something is the only way to deal with it when it's no working exactly right. Fixing things is fast becoming how I spend any free moment, as my son has begun a series of experiments to test the constraints of gravity vis-a-vis toys and Christmas decorations.

Sue said...

I think that the time we spend trying to fix things is not "wasted" even when we are not successful. Because we learn from the process. We learn what we can and cannot do, and often something about the thing that we were working on. All this knowledge may prove useful in the future.