My Tape Measure - An Appreciation
Today I had occasion to measure a wall. This was unusual for me because measuring is usually a prelude to actually fixing/building/installing something. Because I do none of these things, it’s a rare day indeed that I have any need of linear measurement. But today I did, for reasons that are unimportant to the story. What is important, however, is the fact that it gave me a long overdue opportunity to consider my tape measure.
I have a Stanley 16’ PowerLock tape measure. It’s a chunky silver thing that I have owned for as long as I can remember having a tape measure. Where I got it is unclear. It seems unlikely to me that I actually purchased this tape measure because I avoid the kinds of places that sell them. This is because I always feel emasculated in those places; I feel the way I imagine very heavy girls do when they go shopping at Victoria’s Secret. Yes, you have every right to be there, and they have products for you, but you can’t help but feel as if the salespeople are whispering terrible things about you behind your back. That’s how I feel at Home Depot. (And, I might add, at Victoria’s Secret)
So I probably inherited the Stanley somewhere along the way. Despite my discomfort with tools, Stanley has never, not once, ever made me feel inadequate, or “less than.” If anything, its heft has reassured me that, when it comes to tape measures, we are all children of God.
Measurement as a science has always mystified me. I’m just not good at it. The old carpenter’s adage “measure twice, cut once” is lost on me because I always seem to get slightly different readings each time I measure the object at hand, and even a deviation of a sixteenth of an inch or so is enough to send my cortisol levels skyrocketing. For some reason, when measuring, I seek an unobtainable exactitude.
Rulers, I have found, are useless. Those ruler tick marks are pretty thick and so I never know exactly where something begins or ends. Should I measure from the beginning of the tick mark or the end? This of course opens up all sorts of uncomfortable philosophical questions like “Where does the object end and empty space begin?” "Where does the object end and I begin?" "Are we all just a continuum of matter separated only by the random assemblage of quantum vibrations?"
And if so, if we are all just ultimately just vibrations in the dead ether, don’t those tiny vibrations constantly, inexorably, slightly alter our dimensions, even just the weesniest bit? Isn’t this just Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle writ large? These are the kinds of thoughts I used to have as a boy, minus the part about Heisenberg because I thought that was an exploding blimp.
This was also before I discovered anti-depressants.
I am not going to claim that Stanley gives me anything close to the certitude I seek when measuring. It doesn’t. If anything, tape rulers are even less reliable than rulers because they are flexible and tend to jiggle and crinkle when you want them to remain steadfast and true. In that way, a tape measure is like a child. And like a child, a tape measure generally requires at least two people to get it to behave properly. One person holds one end while the other unfurls its bright yellow tongue. Of course it’s possible, especially on small tasks, to do this yourself, but the tape measure will punish you. It will make you feel small and stupid. As soon as you are more than an arm’s length away, it will unhook itself from the lip of your desk or slide its butt away against the wall or otherwise act petulant and bratty, just like a child. Unlike with a child, though, hitting the tape measure does not help.
But what Stanley lacks in precision, it makes up for in sheer aesthetic pleasure. The tool is so compact and artfully designed. Its just a roll of metal tape surrounded by a shiny hunk of silver. I like shiny things. On the side is a little lever that both locks and unlocks the tape, which when retracting, slides back to its housing at an alarmingly fast rate. So fast, in fact, that I often worry that it’s going to hurt me. After all, it’s made out of metal and I am not. When it finally fully contracts, it buries itself in its shell with a satisfying thwack and with a slight recoil, as if you had just fired a small caliber rifle.
Stanley is the only tool in the house that my kids actively seek out as a plaything. They have never asked to play with the Phillips head screwdriver. They have never once uttered the sentence, “Daddy can we play with the awl?” No, when they want to pretend to be useful, they ask for Stanley. Then they go around the house measuring air vents and American Girl dolls and each other’s heads. These are good activities for anybody, and perfect activities for children who are otherwise forbidden from having fun.
My desire to measure things probably comes from the same part of my brain that enjoys poker. Both are feeble attempts to create order out of chaos. The world is a disorderly mess, sort of like a randomly shuffled deck of cards. Measuring the world is just a way of dealing out the cards. It gives the illusion that, with enough information, we could begin to make sense of the world and in that way begin to divine the unknowable. But, of course, it is exactly that – just an illusion. No measurement is ever complete because ultimately you are seeking information that is beyond what numbers can reveal, just like in poker you are actually seeking to know more than you opponent’s cards; you want to know his mind. What you are seeking is truth. Which means that certain things, maybe all things, are beyond our ability to measure. So if that’s the case, isn’t it better to simply accept that reality itself is unknowable and get a ruler that whips around like a cool ass enchanted snake?
Sure it is.
Which is why I’m happy with my tape measure, my oracle. He of the shiny silver surface. He of the PowerLock. He of the sixteen foot dominion. He is Stanley: Companion. Confidant. Friend.