The ex-files, or cheating the graveyard of 'lost' stuff

Saturday's Hero

March 02, 1996|By ROB KASPER

A TOOL DISAPPEARED. A round, metal file that my son had been using to smooth out some rough edges on a project he was building for school, dropped off the face of the earth. Or so it seemed.

Lost, or "temporarily unaccounted for," tools are a regular part of my attempts at home repair. But it was a new experience for the 11-year-old. He ranted. He raved. He accused other members of the family, even aliens, of having a hand in the disappearance. He sounded just like his father.

I tried the usual techniques to calm the kid down and help him locate the tool. I told him to retrace his steps. When that failed to produce the tool, I told him to sit down, to close his eyes and try to mentally re-create the last time he had the file in his hand. Reluctantly the kid walked around the basement, re-enacting his activities. When that failed, I told him to wait a few days and the tool would show up. And when that failed, we took the big step. We cleaned the basement.

Sure enough, we found the file. It had fallen down on the bottom shelf of the Workmate, a portable workbench that the kid had been using to hold a few pieces of wood he had been filing. When the dark file landed on the black shelf, the file effectively dropped from view. I had looked at the shelf during one of the earlier searches for the missing tool. But the basement light and my brain were too dim to take proper notice. The file remained cloaked in darkness.

I lifted the workbench to sweep up some sawdust, the light shined on the bottom shelf and my son spotted the file. I had mixed emotions about finding the long-lost tool. I was relieved. It was virtually brand new and had cost $6. But I wasn't sure if I liked the moral of the story: Good things come to those who sweep the basement.

Moreover, the tool showed up when I was about halfway through the process of cleaning the basement. This presented a problem. Now my motivation to finish the job was gone. One voice in my head said, "You found what you were looking for, now take the rest of Saturday afternoon off." Another voice in my head said, "Clean you room!" That second voice sounded a lot like my mother.

I finished cleaning the basement. As I did, I thought about how having kids has taught me to develop more flexible notions of "lost," "found" and "blame."

I now consider an item "lost" only when it hasn't surfaced in 12 months. Dr. Octopus is lost. He is a toy figure last seen when the kid who is now 15 years old was 3 and insisted on carrying the figure into a pick-your-own strawberry field near Westminster. Also "lost" is the plastic image of the Lone Ranger who, in a moment that will live in family lore, took an unexpected dive some years ago down a commode in Chincoteague, Va. One of the kids was watching the toilet waters perform when the Lone Ranger slipped out of his hand. Before you could say "Heigh-ho Silver," the Lone Ranger was gone.

Recently, a kid's wristwatch that I had considered "lost" turned out to be merely missing in action. The watch had been missing for weeks. Its absence had been noted during several dinner-table sermons I delivered on "accepting responsibility." But then it showed up in the pocket of a coat that had been sent to a tailor. Who was to blame? The kid for sticking his watch in the coat pocket? Or the parent who took the kid's coat to the tailor without checking the pockets? I decided to skip the "blame" part of the lost-and-found ritual, and enjoy the fact that the watch had returned.

I am not confident that the watch will remain in our home. Like the file, or any object that comes into contact with family life, it could, at any moment, vanish.

I once believed in the "Dragnet" approach to finding things. I believed that if you behaved like the detectives in the 1950s TV show and asked enough questions, you could track down missing tools, watches, belts, shirts, sweaters, balls and toys. Everything short of missing socks.

But recently, I have changed my view. Now I believe there is a parallel universe out there of missing stuff. It interacts with the universe of orderly life the way the waves wash over a beach. Sometimes it takes stuff away. Sometimes it gives stuff back. You just have to learn to go with the flow, and to double check the shelf on the bottom on the workbench.

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