Angela has warned me again not to screw the lids on Emilia’s feeding bottles so tight. I did it again tonight. At first I thought she was just complaining because she, while strong in many many other ways, is peculiarly wimpy with regard to that kind of wrist strength that is required to unscrew the lids of things. Jars of spaghetti sauce and capers. We go around and around about the lid to the marionberry jam (although the issue there is compounded by stickiness). “Hon,” she’ll say, handing me a jar whose last user was I. “Will you loosen this?”
But tonight she explained to me why — technologically — the baby bottle lids must not be screwed on so tightly.
We have special bottles because Emilia has a sensitive stomach and we need to reduce the amount of air she gulps while feeding. All babies gulp air, which is why you burp them, and we still have to burp Emilia, but this system — they’re not even called bottles; they’re a feeding system — is made in such a way as to vent air more efficiently. These are not your father’s baby bottles, so to speak. The traditional bottle is a bottle and a nipple and a ring to cinch the nipple down with. This new system is a bottle and five separate pieces that make up the lid assembly. One of the pieces is rubbery like the nipple and it goes under the lid and has tiny, almost invisible grooves in it that channel air into the bottle from somewhere around the neighborhood of the threads inside the lid ring. Angela showed me these grooves. The problem is, if you cinch the ring down too tight, the vent grooves squish closed and then you’ve negated the benefit of your high tech bottle.
Last week on two separate occasions I encountered the meme — not a new one — that traditional men are either obsolete or doomed shortly to be so. Changes in his daily surroundings are forcing the twenty-first century male to adjust or be undone. Every once in a while someone writes a book or an article to that effect. One I have not read but seems to be an unusually sympathetic examination of the plight of modern males is Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. I used to write letters to Jeff about this back in the ’90s. It occurred to me many years ago that technologies that have transformed work — technologies mostly invented by men — have effected a ruinous parallel transformation of the male psyche, or rather of the landscape that that psyche inhabits. By this I mean chiefly the separation of men — and women too, though I can’t recall any women I know ever complaining about or even acknowledging this — from any true sense of self-agency. An apt if comic example from one of my favorite books, Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which Marni directed my attention to last year, are the faucets in restrooms that no longer have levers on them. I don’t know if women’s restrooms are similarly fixtured or if so, what women feel about this, but I have seen grown men reduced to rageful impotence waving their soapy hands underneath these “water-saving” devices, which are supposed to detect when you need another splash but often seem to be looking down their own drainholes or otherwise occupied. Crawford notes that the frantic thought goes through the traditional, solution-oriented, engineer-man’s mind: “why wouldn’t there be a lever on this thing?”
This is the kind of subtle encroachment on a man’s dignity that causes many to lapse into apathetic ingestion of reality TV, or perhaps excessive and compulsive trimming of the edge of the lawn. Our work life, and so many little things pecking at our sense of empowerment all day long, amount to a world quite different from the one that we started out in.
This business of tightening things is another example. One of the things I learned about The Art of Tightening at the knee of my very manually capable father was the concept of screwing things “hand tight”. I still remember the confusion I felt when I first asked Dad how tight and he said “oh, you know, just hand tight.” Did that mean as tight as I could comfortably tighten something with my hand or as tight as I could possibly tighten something with my hand? It was a mystery. One of The Mysteries. It was a rite of passage to eventually understand what hand tight meant, and not understand it intellectually but in my body.
In its most basic sense hand tight meant a degree of torque that lay (it almost goes without saying) somewhere between still freely spinning and moveable further only by the use of tools. I learned that there was a sweet spot, and I learned it early, and I learned it by doing it with my hands on the innumerable bicycle, train layout, tree fort and other “shop” projects that childhood life on my street occasioned. There were of course many situations that required tightening by tools (and induction into the distinct and more advanced mysteries that tools presented), but for a large portion of life’s twist-tight operations, hand tight was your go-to solution.
But mastering hand tight had implications as well for non-material, not-physical problems one encountered in growing up. The nerve-wracking situations of “not-too-little and not-too-much” and “you’ll just know” — situations that tended to paralyzed me with fear because of the ease with which it seemed one could err fatally in either direction — lost some of their bogeyman terror as I became conversant in the art of hand tight. Human relationships often needed an intervention or tweaking that corresponded to hand tight. Moving forward with intellectual tasks often required evaluations in a hand-tight mindset. Hand tight was a way of being in the world.
When I go to put the lid on a baby bottle, my goal is to prevent leakage, which means it must not spin freely — that’s just a basic, intuitive rule — and yet I don’t want to tighten it so tight that Angela can’t remove it later. The sweet spot (so I thought) is easy to find. And yet…it’s wrong. What I’m hearing from Angela is that the sweet spot that I now know intuitively, unthinkingly, is wrong. It’s too tight. It will result in system failure. Angela is telling me that the lid must be tightened only to, and not beyond, a degree that for all my life I would have called “too loose”. The new technological plastic age of microvented bottles means that “hand tight” is now “too tight”. The sweet spot has shifted.
This is not a little thing for a late-20th-century male and I’m having some trouble adjusting. Why would anyone make a bottle — I mean a feeding system — whose lid is meant to be too loose? Is hand tight becoming a thing of the past? I feel like a giant, grunting and pushing and using too much MIGHT. Obsolete might. Blundering, anti-technology might. I am a mighty man and my might is excessive in the new world.
I am lucky I am married, and to such a gracious Goldberry who knows where the new sweet spot is. “Hon,” I can say, handing her the baby bottle. “Will you tighten this?”
Update 8/29/2010: The photo is too hideous, too hideous, so I’m only linking to it rather than posting it directly in here, but a package arrived on our doorstep yesterday containing the following gift, addressed to Angela from Marni: click here to see.