When you were a child, I bet some of the things you liked to play with most weren’t even toys. I know it was true for me, as it probably was for lots of people. This fact is inconvenient for the makers of those plastic toys that they like to promote so aggressively to parents, around Christmas time, but it doesn’t make it any the less true. Children have a way of finding fascination and wonder in the most curious objects. There is no distinction, in their minds, between an interesting piece of discarded junk and a slickly marketed consumer fad. The one that captures their imagination most is always the winner.
I’m so old, that when you used to buy ice cream, to take home to your freezer, it was packaged in robust tins; tins like chocolate tins used to be, with a pressed lid that slid on and off snuggly. This was long before the ubiquity of moulded plastic containers and just before the less than satisfactory waxed cardboard experiments, which made the ice cream in direct contact with the wax taste slightly funny. Ice cream tins are long extinct now, of course. I found a picture of the exact half gallon tin I mean on the Internet.
These tins had just enough thermal mass to keep the ice cream from returning fully to its liquid phase, during the ten minute or so car journey back home from the then brand new supermarkets that had begun to appear in my home town, on any blazingly hot Australian summer day. Tins were a practical solution, if perhaps expensive to produce and bulky to transport, to and from the ice cream factory. A full one, falling on your foot from the height of the refrigerator’s freezer compartment, could hurt you a lot, if the edge of the tin became the point of impact.
The wonderful thing about these tins is that they seldom went to waste. An empty ice cream tin could serve for literally decades as a receptacle for all kinds of interesting collections. My dad had an interesting collection. He habitually put stray nuts and bolts (or other miscellaneous fasteners) left over from construction projects, found on the ground while walking around, or from the disassembly of defunct household appliances, electric motors or rusting motor vehicles, into his empty ice cream tin. Over time, the tin became filled to the brim with the most diverse collection of discarded fasteners imaginable. Some were new, but most were used. There were all kinds.
One of my most memorable and very favourite childhood experiences was being allowed to sort through my father’s large tin of stray nuts and bolts. Usually, my dad wanted me to search for a suitable nut or bolt to fix something, or to do an impromptu stock-take, to see what we had. Eventually, though, it became my habit to spontaneously empty the tin out on the polished concrete garage floor, for something to do, just for the sheer fun of sifting through all of these weird and wonderful parts. Having done so, I would methodically put each piece back into the tin, until they were all back where they came from. There was fun to be had in simply handling and examining each different, strange article. Feeling their shape in my hands and looking at them from different angles was actually pleasurable.
I freely admit I found fascination and wonder at all the different kinds in the collection. As a child, I had no understanding of what you’re supposed to like or any real concept of money. I didn’t know or care if each part was outrageously expensive or crazily cheap. All I knew is that these were spare parts, unwanted for their original purpose, but possibly useful in some other context as yet to be encountered. It was cheap fun, based on the appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of these fine, precision-made fasteners.
I loved counting them. I enjoyed sorting them and separating them into different categories. There was special satisfaction in finding parts that mated. What stopped them from coming apart on their own, I wondered? Figuring out what function some strange item or other had was an intellectual challenge that made me wonder who had made the part in the first instance and for what intended purpose. Working out why each was designed thus and not otherwise was another source of endless speculation that exercised my mind. Day-dreaming about what you could make with them led to long, extended flights of imagination. It was interesting to me, trying to fathom how each was made, by what manufacturing process and why the materials used were chosen. Each one had its own history – it came from somewhere or was once a part of something larger. Half the fun was the imaginative speculation about each piece’s back story.
With this ridiculously simple tin of nuts and bolts, I could find hours of enjoyment, lost in the flow of examination and invention. I took delight in their utility and charm. Each piece had its own intrinsic beauty or had acquired an interesting patina, with age. It was impossible to be bored, with such an interesting collection to hand.
Looking back on my childhood with the benefit of adult hindsight, I’m sure there was an aspect of feeling like I was becoming a grown up, through getting to know grown up things. It was a “man tin”, after all. Being familiar with and knowledgeable of all of these objects from my father’s adult world was the gateway to some kind of maturity and credibility, as a developing male. It was a way to be like my dad and to gain his fatherly approval and acceptance. I’d get extra attention from him, if he felt he could teach me things he knew about. Playing childish games didn’t usually engage him as much. Messing with man things, though, like tools or these nuts and bolts, always made him smile indulgently and encouragingly. He wanted me to learn about this stuff. It would help me become self-sufficient and useful to society.
In later years, as a teenager starting to design and build my own projects, discovering just the right part to do the job, from otherwise discarded junk in the tin, was absolutely joyous. That always felt like sticking it to the man, to me. It was a form of rebellious self-determination. I was developing my agency and sense of authority, learning to stand on my own two feet, at the same time. It taught me to have the courage to show what I had made and stand behind my designs. Having the ingenuity to improvise and make something useful out of what were discarded parts always felt good – as if you had gotten something for free.
Consequently, the nail and screw aisle in the hardware store became one of the most interesting places on Earth. There were even more kinds of strange and useful objects available. Each one was shiny and fascinating. Time spent in this section of the store was always filled with curiosity and wonder. Even today, I get the same fascination and satisfaction with tools and tool catalogues. Every art or craft has its specialist tools. These collections of specialised accoutrements, good for little else other than their designated purpose, are sources of endless pleasure. I’m equally enthralled by and at home with the paraphernalia of electronics, luthiery (guitar building), painting, music technology and kitchen gadgets.
They say that materialism is a terrible character weakness, but I contend that if materialism is in the cause of becoming a better, more capable person, who is able to do more to help others, then it’s not such an evil and wicked thing. Learning and knowing are not purely intellectual exercises, divorced from physicality. You have to include your hands and your body in the process. Knowing how to use nuts, bolts and tools, and becoming proficient at applying them to solve problems is not a bad thing and certainly not something to feel ashamed about. Finesse and grace, in using these seemingly prosaic items, is to be admired, not condemned or dismissed.
My favourite indulgence is guitars and I confess I have a few. They all do different things, cause me to play in different ways and inspire different songs to be written. I don’t really know why, but they do. Each one has a character of its own, despite their superficial similarity. I’ve found that having lots of cheaper guitars can be a lot more fun than fewer more expensive ones. I’m not much impressed by their price tags. Price is a very unreliable indicator of value. I’d rather have an instrument that opens up creative possibilities that were previously closed to me, which inspires me in new ways, than pay through the nose for a beautiful piece of what is essentially musical furniture, destined to be a never-played, monumental, museum piece. Untouchable musical instruments are as good as dead.
I don’t understand minimalism. Where is the intellectual and imaginative stimulation in throwing away all the seemingly insignificant, small things that make up a collection of junk? Yes, it’s true that it might look like so much inconvenient clutter and have no appreciable utility, but that’s to miss the point of tins of nuts and bolts entirely. It isn’t only about what good they are as nominal objects. It’s their cultural significance and the thoughts they can give rise to. It’s about seeing how they can work in different contexts. Your intelligence gets a work out and your creativity is appropriately stimulated. If you see these small objects as a cognitive burden and clutter bothers you, rather than inspires you, I think you’re looking at them the wrong way. A barren workspace doesn’t thrill me at all, no matter how white you paint it. I need those little prompts to ideation and innovation around me. Each one nudges my thoughts in its own peculiar direction. They’re invention fuel.
The impressionist artist, Paul Cézanne, painted endless images of humble apples, in every orientation, arrangement, light and state of ripeness imaginable. Why did he do this, when he could have, as the heir of an established banking family, easily painted fine silver table objects, expensive china, jewellery or gold bullion? The suggestion was that he took great pleasure in prosaic objects, usually overlooked by everybody as nearly worthless. With his artist’s eye, he wanted to elevate the superlative apple to the status of something more significant to mankind. This, in his view, is where true beauty lies. I think he was onto something important.
That simple tin of nuts and bolts, from my childhood, taught me to have an appreciation of small but intense pleasures. You could do the same with feathers, or pebbles, or the vast array of different leaves or flowers, for instance. The infinite variety of possibilities is a way of experiencing genuine, existential richness and wealth. I encourage you to make a collection of similar items of your own, whatever they happen to be and to savour each item in your collection for it’s own subtle, intrinsic values. It will change you forever, as a person. I think it’s a change worth making.