(about paint cans, screwdrivers, transformation & identity, McGyver, holidays, and Shakespeare)
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a screwdriver only.
What’s a screwdriver? It is not handle, nor head,
Nor shaft, nor any other part
Belonging to a tool. O, be some other name!
(Romeo and Juliet, kind of, Act 2, Scene 2)
Recently while clearing debris from the Goodale Park Shelterhouse basement with Julie Hallan and Rick Frantz, we uncovered some scary old cans of paint. We wanted to see if the paint was still usable, and when I couldn’t find an official paint can opener, I grabbed a screwdriver.
When I use a screwdriver to pry the lid from a paint can, I hear a voice from my childhood telling me, “Don’t use a screwdriver; use a paint can opener!” This always seemed silly to me. If I use a screwdriver to open a can of paint (and if it is effective), then hasn’t it become a paint can opener? At that moment, at least, it has stopped being a screwdriver long enough to assume another identity. Naming an object is simply a convenience, and what really matters is how that object is actually used, or experienced.
Objects can easily transform. One day in February several years ago my Toyota Corolla’s windows had iced over and I had no scraper in the car (not even a CD case, which I often used). As my eyes lifted from scanning the debris on the floor, they fell on the fuse box cover, near the hood release. I had removed the fuse cover before; there was something familiar about it, yet I was surprised when my fingers gripped it perfectly. I took it to the windshield; it provided an ideal angle that scraped the frost more cleanly than any scraper I had ever owned. Although it was an effective fuse box cover, it had transformed effortlessly into an ice scraper. Then it returned to its role as a fuse box cover next to the hood release, which happened to also be a great place to store an ice scraper. I liked my tool so much that when I finally gave the Toyota to one of my students, I kept the fuse box cover. I mean the ice scraper.
I can think of almost limitless examples of these transformations, although none are spectacular. I’ve used milk crates for bookcases, a cigarette as a time-delay fuse, Lysol spray as a flame-thrower (to scare a crow from a duct), calipers as a pocket-door lock, a washcloth & brick & baking pan to make a humidifier, 15-amp sheathed wire to unclog sink traps, and a baster to remove a nerd candy from my daughter’s nose. I am, of course, humbled by MacGyver, who was the undisputed king of transforming objects, using (from among hundreds of things) chocolate to stop a sulfuric acid leak, a pistol as a wrench, and a fire extinguisher as a bomb. I like to think that MacGyver would have used a screwdriver (probably the one on his Swiss Army Knife) to open a paint can.
These situations in which we are using something in a way that was not originally intended (i.e., “I never thought of that before”) are different from someone intending for it NOT to be used that way (i.e., “I thought I told you not to do that!”). In this case, the object is being co-opted, pirated, or appropriated, and the transformation threatens the original intent. Many of these transformations are related to depositing refuse; they are some of the most obviously irritating examples: The neighborhood cats have appropriated my back yard as a litter box, my tree lawn is used as a garbage can, and my neighbor discovered that his front porch had become a solid-waste toilet during Comfest. I have seen parking lots become ashtrays, and a telephone pole in our alley become a urinal.
Often these transformations are actual threats (e.g., porch excrement), but sometimes the threats are merely perceived. The “reason for the season” movement provides an interesting example; although Santa is often used as an example of co-opting a holiday, Christian proponents engaged in some hypocritical appropriating of their own. Most religious holy days in December are connected to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, and in the 300s, church leaders chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus’ birthday because it was conveniently already celebrated as the birthday of several deities in the Roman Empire. If Christmas is now (for some) a reason to exchange presents, or to visit family and drink eggnog, then isn’t THAT the reason for the season, for them? And can’t we celebrate that transformation along with the Christian transformation, Kwanzaa, and the winter solstice?
Similarly for Easter, groups have celebrated death/resurrection themes and fertility themes (e.g., hares and rabbits) following the spring equinox for millennia. Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations. And as if that isn’t enough, the word “Easter” is a transformation of “Eostre”, the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. A festival was held for her annually at the equinox. And now Easter is the Sunday after the Paschal full (i.e., pregnant/fertile) moon that follows this equinox. So who started what? What’s the right name? Does it really matter? Can’t we all just get along? None of this needs to diminish any of the traditional Easter celebrations, but we might see less hypocrisy if people would stop getting their tights in a bunch about the Easter bunny.
The words “Easter”, “Christmas”, “porch”, “fuse box cover” and “screwdriver” evoke specific images for each of us. They are ideas and things that mean something (or many things) to us. So then, what’s in a name? We ascribe a great deal of power to names, but what really matters is what something is, not what it is called. That which we call a rose (or a screwdriver) by any other name would smell as sweet (or turn a screw as well) and do even more.