By Christopher Cudworth
When you are small and people give you birthday presents made of plastic in the shape of a hammer, screwdriver or wrench, people think it’s cute that a little kid likes to play with toys that look like the tools that big people use. It’s fun for little kids to pretend they’re big people. It helps them model behaviors and learn hand-eye coordination. And play is considered a principle component of healthy socialization.
Using play tools can also convey life lessons. Such as the fact that round pegs do not really fit into square holes. Worth remembering.
As we grow older and actually start to use real tools in practical functions, there remains an element of play involved. Hammering nails into fresh clean wood feels good. The set of a screw flush in a board or a plaster wall is a genuine accomplishment. So is a completed plumbing experiment. All plumbing work is an experiment until it actually works as it is designed to do. Ask any hardware clerk how many visits it takes for the average “home plumber” to accomplish a simple job and they will likely tell you, “6 to 7.”
Plumbing is one of those things that never really feels like play. It’s really not much fun getting sprayed in the face when your compression fitting is not executed properly and the water pressure sends hissing jets of water up your nose. Neither is it fun seating a toilet on that wax ring around the dark hole leading to the sewer only to find you did not get the bowl on straight and toilet water starts seeping out the bottom.
Life is an experiment
Life in general can be an experiment when it comes to tools. Which is why it is so important that we have our toys. They make us feel less inept if we’re lucky.
Running shoes look like elaborate toys these days, with all their day-glo panels, tricky treads and flashy stripes. Short of actual sparkles, today’s running shoes look more like something worn by a 10-year-old girl than a mature adult. Yet here we go traipsing down the street, matching fluorescent compression socks and all, acting like we’re all grown up and serious.
It’s comic, really. Yet runners can’t compare to cyclists when it comes to outrageous kits and tools that look more like toys. Our bikes alone are a strange fantasy of logos, slick paint and accented brakes, components and saddles that you might otherwise find at a Star Wars or Star Trek convention. Bikes are the tools of the cycling trade, yet something about them relegates them to toy status if you have a shred of honesty about you.
Even when a runner or cyclist gets involved in “serious” training there are childish elements to the pursuit of the prize. We have all kinds of acronyms, like a secret code we speak only to the “inner circle” of those who understand the fine line between tools and toys. We set “PRs” and run for causes ranging from “TNT” to “MS” to “ACS” and everyone knows what we mean. We live in a toy world of symbols and hopes and flashy gear that sets our running and riding apart from the drudgery of basic efforts with basic tools.
Of course we get serious about our toys when they cease working for us. That $130 pair of shoes wears out on a small part of the sole and we toss them into the casual wear bin, back to the future as “tools” again to be worn around the yard, or if lucky, turned into hi-tech casual wear because they go well with a pair of pants or a favorite shirt.
When our bikes break down we either fix them ourselves using actual bike tools, or we take them to the bike shop and beg them to have mercy on our cyclism souls. Either way it is serious work getting our toy bikes back in shape so we can sport about town at 20 miles per hour as if the laws of physics do not apply to our sorry asses. Riding a well-tuned road bike is about as close as most of us will ever come to that dream of flying on our own accord. The bike is a tool for that dream, but it is the toy of our imagination. A bike is, therefore, both a tool and a toy, and it doesn’t do much good to separate the two.
Playing with reality
Runners know that sooner or later there will come a day when everything feels easy and light on the feet. Glancing down at our playful footwear we feel suddenly uplifted. Is is the caffeine today? That tube of toy goo we just chewed? The sunshine? No matter. When we feel good running the entire world is our toy. We hop curbs and turn corners with a bit of acceleration. The sound of our toy shoes makes us happy with each footfall. The world turns all rainbow colors and prancing unicorns dance ahead of us on the road. Starlight dazzles in daylight and sidewalks roll us up like waves coming onto the beach. Cars and trucks bend and sway out of our way as we smooth down the road, breezes bouncing off our skin as the pace quickens and there are no thoughts of pain or grief or limitation.
And we say to ourselves, “Nobody better toy with me today. Because I rock.”
Tools and toys. You can’t always tell the difference. Nor should you always want to.