Long before I started collecting yellow power tools, I collected levels, those elegantly palindromic devices that can tell if a surface is out of synch with the Earth’s horizon. I scoured estate sales in ranch houses built after World War II, the ones with pegboard-paneled basement workshops, where–I can only imagine–men of the Greatest Generation retreated after dinner to ruminate on what they had just seen in Europe and Asia, all in the guise of tackling a honey-do list.
On my Friday morning meanderings into those musty half-lit rooms laden with Coca-Cola crates and old fishing nets, in the hours before a wrecking ball erased any hint of authentic mid-century modern to pave the way for 8,000 square feet of neo-Cape Dutch, I have so often felt my pulse quicken upon sighting an old-school wooden spirit level, painted red and punctuated by a tiny bubble designed to diagnose which end is up.
I don’t know what it says about the wonky wobbliness of my life that I have thought I needed so many levels, but there is something metaphorically and literally beautiful about an engineering tool whose key component is air and whose pronouncements are in line with the most basic abstract starting point of geometry: zero degrees.
When so much of the world feels slanted one way or another, a level provides a reassuring reminder that there are, in fact, immutable truths—of the same order that dragged the moon between the Earth and sun for an awe-inspiring few minutes during last week’s eclipse. On the final day of an estate sale, you can take home all the existential comfort a level has to offer for about four bucks.
Furthermore, I love that the old levels were so often painted red. And that the new ones, the glorious German-engineered $300 Stabila aluminum levels, are a vibrant yellow. They don’t have to be. They could be wood-colored. Or metal-colored. But no, someone chose to finish them off with a candy-apple or sunshine hue, as if to underscore the colorful joy of making things…or to keep them from getting lost among all the beige lumber.
Before I started construction school, I displayed my level collection decoratively, like a red bouquet of bubbly rectangles. Now, I actually use them, most recently, to level a set of shelves I built in my son’s closet. (For what it’s worth, my floorboards are NOT in synch with the Earth’s horizon. But, by God, my son’s closet shelves are.)
Before loading the teenage laundry onto the finished shelves, I slid a weathered red rectangle across the surface with one hand, while using the other hand to pat myself on the back for collecting all those levels all those years.
“I knew these levels would come in handy some day,” I smugly told my son, who was assisting.
I showed him how to lower the high side until the air settled between the lines. I was just about to praise the immutable truth of gravity and the glorious predictability of air’s behavior in a closed barometric system, when my son reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and, with one simple sentence, burst my bubble:
“Mom,” he said sweetly, “You know there’s an app for that, right?”