The Christmas challenge is starting to build

December 15, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

For many of us -- by which I mean the mechanically challenged -- the scariest words in the English language are: "Some assembly required."

As it happens, I am the 1993 poster person for the mechanically challenged.

You can see my picture in hardware stores, with my trademark, gap-toothed grin, under which it says: "Doesn't know a claw hammer from M.C. Hammer."

Normally, this is not a problem for me, since I simply stay away from tools in much the way diabetics avoid sugar and still manage to live a relatively full life.

That's if you don't count the two solid weeks I once spent putting together an outdoor grill that, when I bought it, needed only the little rubber tires put on. Somehow, by the time I was finished, the grill ended up looking like a gutted Nash Rambler. We keep it in the backyard and use it to store firewood.

Come the holiday season, though, the mechanical deficit suddenly takes on grand, if not exactly glorious, proportions.

Soon it will be Christmas Eve. Little children will be tucked up in their beds, with visions of Mortal Kombat dancing in their heads. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are in the den pounding down the holiday cheer while putting the finishing touches on Christmas Day.

This will come out sounding sexist, but, in the houses I know, Mom is hanging up stockings and putting out any leftover eggnog for Santa. Meanwhile, Dad is asked to assemble (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING WORDS MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO SOME) the Barbie Townhouse.

Once upon a time, that dad was me.

Let me say, straight off, I don't like Barbie. For one thing, I have a philosophical problem with a 10-inch doll with a chest that would look right on Mount Rushmore. It gives little girls a distorted view of beauty and little boys dreams they don't understand.

I don't like Ken either, and I can't explain why, except I've always hated the guys who actually get to date flight attendants. (You haven't forgotten Stewardess Barbie, have you?)

When my daughter was born, I vowed never to get her a Barbie. I had no problem with baby dolls, but I wanted to balance them with toy trucks and baseball gloves and electric guitars and a lifetime subscription to Ms. magazine.

I held out for years. Well, technically years. It was, I think, two.

She wanted Barbie. I gave her Lawyer Barbie. She wanted more Barbies (you can no more have one Barbie than you can have one Lays potato chip.) I gave her Doctor Barbie. Nuclear Physicist Barbie. Kareem-Abdul-JaBarbie.

By age 5, she insisted on the standard-issue Slut Barbie, who lived in a swingin' singles place, hung out with guys who worked in health clubs and wanted Spuds MacKenzie for a pet.

Barbie did this partying in Barbie's Townhouse, which we gave in and bought for her and which my friend Alan, then childless, offered to help me put together. To that time, Alan's greatest mechanical achievement had been unlocking his front door.

We took Barbie's Townhouse out of the box. That part didn't take more than a half hour. We then read the directions, which were in a language I had never seen before but which included a lot of "Slot A's" and "Slot B's" and is, I learned later, understood only by people who own power drills. The only tools I owned were a corkscrew and a nail file.

We didn't just have to build the house. We had to build an elevator. I knew from the beginning I had a better chance of solving Fermat's theorem. But, still, we began. What choice did we have? Mostly what we did was swear. We found "Slot A" but not "Rod B." We swore. We found "Rod C" but could not find "Rod C" on the easy-to-follow drawing that looked as if it had been done by Picasso in his cubist period. We swore some more.

After maybe six hours -- my wife long since gone to sleep -- several draughts of eggnog had been consumed and our version of the townhouse looked exactly like Mount St. Helens the day it exploded.

Which is when Alan came to the rescue. He admitted he had a friend who not only had power tools, he also had a hydraulic lift in his garage, although Alan had never gotten up the nerve to ask why. In any case, Alan said if we offered him maybe 20 bucks, he could fix us up in maybe 20 minutes.

What resulted was a small Christmas miracle.

The next morning Barbie Townhouse was there under the tree. I never took credit for it. I always said Santa did it.

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