It's easy to disassemble things. I found this out many years ago during a long, boring stretch of summer when all my playmates were away and the TV broadcast three things: game shows, soap operas, and "Donahue." As all parents know, children will manufacture their own amusement if left to their own devices. So, picture me: A tow-headed kid, a little squirt maybe eight years old, immune to the grotesque capitalist comedy of "The Price Is Right," screwdriver in hand, searching room to room for appliances to take apart.
I started with the clocks. We had a variety of clocks in our house, including a massive cuckoo with pendulous weights on hanging chains, but they mostly fell into two categories: wall clocks (analog), and clock radios (digital) on the bedside table. (Remember, this was an age before we all carried around combination phone/computer/time pieces in our pockets. And why do we still call them "phones"? The title seems vestigial now. Who among us still employs their phone mostly for conversation? As my colleague Amara Projansky recently pointed out, a phone was an object created by an industrial designer as a talking and listening device, not this "piece of soap"—think of the shape of your iPhone—we pin against our heads and struggle to communicate through.)
The wall clocks didn't have much to them, so I would just pop the plastic face off and try and hold the second hand to keep it from moving. And then I'd try and push it forward, to speed up the time until something more interesting than playing with clocks was afoot. I permanently damaged the mechanisms in a couple of the wall clocks in this way. My parents never mentioned the spooky action of the clocks. I guess they must have known it was me, or did they fear the house was haunted by a clock-tampering ghost?
The digital clock radios were more fun to dismantle, as they had a carapace-like housing that, once removed, revealed an inner landscape of sci-fi electronics—transistors and ribbon cables that I unplugged and replugged in an attempt to understand their mystery. (It didn't work, nor did it engender a love of electronics in me, just confusion.) The LED display unit, which towered like a monolith above the circuit board I didn't dare touch, as I thought it would spill out LED juice if I opened it.
My favorite clock was on the nightstand in the third-floor guest bedroom. It had a glass top, like a terrarium, which encased three rows of plastic squares on spindles. The squares had numbers printed on them corresponding to hours and minutes. The squares flipped over each minute, each hour. I'd stare at the clock and count to 60 to see if I could synchronize my counting with the flipping of the minute square. I got quite good at it, actually. I even tried to elevate my synchronized counting to the level of parlor trick, inviting Tommy Regan over to watch in amazement as I performed. In retrospect, I probably oversold the experience. Tommy was unimpressed. Sometimes you don't realize how ridiculous you look until you see yourself reflected in the gaze of someone else.
A short time after my failed "trick," I dismantled the spindles themselves, ending up with a few dozen white squares spilled on the rug in front of me. After the initial novelty of shaking them in my hands and throwing them down, I-Ching style, on the carpet wore off, I tried to put the clock back together. This proved problematic. Despite my best eight-year-old effort, I couldn't get the squares to stack on the spindles in the intended way. I spent many hours, palms sweating with anxiety, trying to put the clock back together again. Finally, in near hysterical frustration, I hid the whole mess in the basement under some tools on my father's workbench.
Distant cousins who visited us that summer were eventually blamed, in absentia, for the clock's disappearance.
I went on to ruin a number of household items that summer through a process of expert disassembly and kid-level reassembly. A non-exhaustive list includes: eight-track player, toaster oven, desk lamp, pellet rifle, and the house's built-in intercom system. It's a minor miracle I didn't electrocute myself, but thankfully it was just a phase.(Like my pyromania, which would come a few years later and reach its flaming nadir when I set the couch on fire at the funeral home hosting my grandmother Nancy's wake. But that's a whole megillah unto itself.)
I was reminded recently of how easy it is to take things apart after I posted a snarky comment on Facebook (something I rarely do, I swear) about an article in the New York Times T Magazine about Kate Orne, publisher of Upstate Diary. It's the type of trend-spotting drivel about "Upstate" the Times trots out a couple times a year. The writer of piece, Mimi Vu (not making that name up), attends a dinner party hosted by Orne at the second home of some friends in the Columbia County hamlet of Hillsdale, breathlessly describing a fecund creative scene the likes of which the Hudson Valley has perhaps never seen before.
I've seen and admired the smart design of both the print and digital versions of Upstate Diary, which covers some of the same ground as Chronogram, and profiles some of the same people like Kris Perry, Simi Stone, Melisssa auf der Maur, and Linda Montano. Orne's background is in photography, and she's got a great eye with an aesthetic that draws heavily (in a good way) on Interview, where she was an editor.
Unfortunately, the Times piece makes Orne sound ridiculous. The writer, Vu, includes a few quotes from Orne that makes her sound hopelessly pretentious: "Please don't call Upstate Diary a magazine," [Orne] insists. "It's a publication, because I see it as something more timeless." And clueless: "We are really discovering and defining a cultural community which is beyond the metropolitan areas." (Orne's own vision statement, posted on her website, also does her no favors: "Upstate Diary is about the creative possibilities that thrive in communities outside of city limits.")
Just a short while after calling out the piece on Facebook for Orne's fatuous quotes, I thought better of it. By that time, however, my post had already attracted a couple dozen comments of commiseration (with me, for laboring in obscurity on a "real" Hudson Valley magazine publication) and derision (for Orne). And transparency has its own value, so I let it ride. But it reminded me how easy it is take something apart—even a child can do it. To create things—beautiful and useful things like Upstate Diary and Chronogram—requires extraordinary effort that can often be seen through a distorted or disgruntled lens. These days, I trying to put more things together and break less things apart.