March 19, 2020
(++++) A TOUCH OF REFRAMING
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things. By Cy Tymony. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Big Nate: Blow the Roof Off! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
Is it a MacGyver or a kluge? To each his or her own answer – and the enjoyment of the new edition of Cy Tymony’s Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things may depend on one’s response. “You can always do more with what’s around you,” Tymony writes, and demonstrates the truth of the statement with a five-part book of short-but-sweet lessons in creating useful things out of other useful things by using them in ways beyond the ones in which they were intended to be used. If you find Tymony’s little projects simple and elegant, you will see them as MacGyvers – named after the TV show from the 1980s (and beyond) in which the title character carried around a few innocent-enough items all the time and managed to make highly ingenious problem-solvers and outright lifesavers from them. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge that Tymony’s ideas would work but find them somewhat ungainly and perhaps not as pragmatically useful as he thinks, you will dub them kluges – workarounds that get the job done but are clunky and inelegant. Either way, though, Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things is an enjoyable book because of the way it helps readers see commonplace items in new ways, whether or not the resulting projects are ones that people decide they actually want to try. Not that the projects are difficult – most of the time, they are quite simple, and in some cases can indeed be exceptionally useful. “Your way of looking at things is your greatest resource,” Tymony says, and this can be particularly helpful if one needs some makeshift outdoor survival techniques. For example, all it takes is a large plastic bag to create an evaporator still: wrap the bag around a leafy tree branch they gets a lot of sun, seal the end (simply tie it tightly if you do not have string or a rubber band handy), and let the sun do the work – as the bag heats up, water from the leaves will evaporate and condense. You can even use some of the water to make a signal fire: put two teaspoons of water in a clear jar or bottle, tilt the jar so the water is in a corner at the bottom, and place it so the sun shines through the water onto some tinder – the water acts as a lens that focuses heat. The notion of using water to make fire rather than put it out is an example of the way Tymony cleverly uses rethinking and reframing. Back home, he finds many other neat ways to use everyday objects. For example, you can buy hiding-place items for valuables that look like commonplace items such as books or soda cans. But you do not have to buy anything made especially to hide things. Instead, you can simply store items out of sight in unexpected places that are probably already in your home: in the battery compartment of a portable radio, for example, or inside a tennis ball after slitting the ball along its seam, or inside a vacuum-cleaner bag. True, you have to remember which clever hiding spots you choose, but the basic idea is a useful one. Other concepts in Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things may be sneaky but are more in the nature of science projects than practicality. For instance, you can easily make a battery from a lemon by inserting a nail into it and a piece of heavy copper wire into it nearby (but not touching the nail). This gives you the positive and negative electrodes. The acidic lemon juice is an electrolyte – but the lemon battery generates only a fraction of a volt, so you would have to connect a whole bunch of lemons in series to get a useful amount of power. So that notion is clearly on the “kluge” spectrum. But whatever the merits of individual ideas in Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, the book as a whole is a useful bit of mind expansion, showing that things are not always what they seem – and even when they are what they seem, they can also be something more.
Even comic-strip characters can benefit from thinking of everyday situations in new ways, as Lincoln Peirce shows in the latest Big Nate collection, Blow the Roof Off! Peirce finds ways, again and again, to vary the strip’s themes so they do not become merely formulaic, which they easily could: Nate is a perpetual sixth-grader who always has the same teachers and classmates, and it would seem that there is only so much a cartoonist can do after more than a quarter of a century with the interactions of a well-known cast of characters. So once in a while, Peirce shakes things up by giving a significant role to a completely new character – and that is what happens in Blow the Roof Off! In this book, Nate rediscovers a girl he met briefly at a fair in the previous collection (unfortunately, there is no recap for anyone who missed Hug It Out!). Their connection is explosive – he smashes into her while running in the hallway – and it turns out that she has just transferred into Nate’s school, and they really like each other. This is something new for always-lovestruck, always-striking-out Nate, and it is only the start of a particularly well-done reframing of the strip’s central character’s interactions with the world around him. Even in sixth grade, the course of true love never did run smooth, and in this case, the roughness becomes significant when it turns out that Trudy is in seventh grade – and anyone who ever attended middle school will recall that between sixth grade and seventh lies an abyss. The way Nate and Trudy decide to give things a try anyway is wholly believable within the context of Big Nate, and while it is predictable that Nate will have all sorts of ego-diminishing encounters with seventh graders (in class, in the hallways, even at a party to which Trudy invites him), it is also predictable that Nate will work his way through the putdowns and emerge with his sense of self-importance only mildly compromised. On top of that, Peirce gives some tantalizing hints that Trudy could be a very good match for Nate if they can overcome the age (that is, grade) difference, since it turns out that she has a locker even messier than his – which longtime readers of Big Nate will consider impossible until Peirce shows it. Of course, not all the sequences involve Trudy in Blow the Roof Off! There is a series in which things do not go well for Nate when he goes trick-or-treating as Mr. Moneybags from the Monopoly game. And one in which Francis suggests changing the name of the kids’ band from “Enslave the Mollusk” to “The Bobcat Boys” – that turns out to be a suggested reframing/rethinking that goes nowhere. And one in which bull-headed Coach John substitutes in teaching art and yells at Nate for doing an abstract painting – until Nate says he is actually depicting fireworks at a football game, which Coach John says is more than fine. All the Big Nate strips, and the book-length collections of them, are variations on a theme, and Peirce continues to prove just how versatile that theme is – while showing how a touch of reframing/rethinking here and there can open up a whole series of new possibilities for a whole series of new Nate-centric adventures.