By Harlan Garbell
Gremlin — “An imaginary mischievous spirit regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault.”
When I was in my 20s I used to pay for everything I needed by cash or check. Every month my bank would send me a thick letter containing not only all of my cancelled checks, but also a computerized statement listing every transaction made during that period, including any deposits. It then calculated my final monthly balance which appeared at the bottom of the statement.
Although the statement included all of my monthly transactions, I had an obsessive habit of reconciling it with the handwritten entries in my checkbook register to make sure the final figures matched. And they always did — except once. One month there was a discrepancy of 10 cents. I checked and rechecked each entry on both documents to determine where the discrepancy could possibly be. Not finding it, and contrary to all logic, I even rechecked register entries from previous months with the corresponding bank statements — entries that had already been reconciled without any issues. No luck. Frustrated, and emotionally spent, I dropped into bed.
When I woke up the next morning I recalled the previous evening’s misadventures with a bit more equanimity and calmly decided (for me, that is) to attribute the missing 10-cent discrepancy to — wait for it — a gremlin. That is to say, a fictional fall guy for an error that, for some reason, eluded my abilities to solve. I made the decision to just move on and let the mystery be.
The silver lining to this frustrating episode was that I never again tried to reconcile my bank statement with my check register. And, interestingly enough, my life significantly improved thereafter. The amount of time, energy, and anxiety I saved monthly became a gift. From that point on, the gremlin and I started a lifelong relationship. We became pals (in a manner of speaking). I realized that a fictional construct that normally would be considered a nemesis could also be a valued alter ego. That is, if you looked at it from a different perspective.
Although I have cultivated this beneficial relationship with gremlins for many years now, I never really knew the origins of these little guys until doing some research for this article. Interestingly, the term “gremlin” was first coined by Royal Air Force pilots shortly after World War I. It was used to denote a mischievous creature that sabotaged aircraft, preventing them from flying. It was an ironical way for these British pilots (and mechanics) to acknowledge that occasional malfunctions of these new, complex flying machines could often appear literally beyond their ken (i.e. “one’s range of knowledge or sight”) until their skills and experience overcame the mechanical problem.
I would surmise that earlier incarnations of gremlins have always been around to mischievously frustrate early humans, or even pre-humans. For example, imagine one of our prehistoric ancestors misplacing his (or her) favorite flint stone for creating a spark to start fires. No doubt, our irritated Neanderthal curses under his breath (“those damn kids!”) looking for someone, or something, to blame. After finding no culprit, and no flint stone, he becomes anxious, disoriented, and perhaps a little paranoid. Yep, gremlins at work.
A similar but more contemporary example would be if you dropped a small pill or tablet on the floor of your kitchen or bathroom, and couldn’t see where it landed. Did you drop on your knees to look for it and still couldn’t find it? Where did it go? Could it have gone underneath the refrigerator? But isn’t that at the other end of the kitchen? How is that possible? Like our prehistoric ancestors, anxiety and paranoia can often accompany these annoying experiences.
Of course, we know that the laws of physics dictate that unless the pill changed its essential character from matter to energy, it has to be somewhere in your house. Moreover, we realize that when a pill falls to a kitchen floor, the laws of gravity — mass and acceleration — control when the pill hits the floor, which is often a bit faster than your eyes can follow. And that can be especially true if for any reason you are physically or emotionally distracted at the time.
Randomness also plays an important role in that the pill could hit an imperceptible crack in the floor and go in an unpredictable direction. When this happens you could be looking for that little sucker for quite a while as your imperfect physical senses, or agitated psychological state, could mislead you into looking in the wrong places. And if it does go under the refrigerator, you can say sayonara to that pill. For all intents and purposes, that space is the kitchen’s proverbial “Black Hole.”
And that’s where a gremlin can help. Let’s say the lost item was a small oval, perhaps a Vitamin D soft gel, and you have 300 similar ones in a bottle on your counter. Take it from me, the better strategy is to just attribute this loss to our friend, the gremlin, and move on. The soft gel may, or may not, materialize later. In any event, isn’t it better to save time and conserve important physical and emotional energy?* Or, would you rather get on your hands and knees for 10 minutes and possibly crack your head on the kitchen table for your trouble?
In my daily routine, I do a pretty decent job of keeping track of certain essential items. For example, my wallet, keys, or phone. However, on occasion I will mindlessly misplace one of them. My initial reaction is often a small panic, followed by beating myself up for being so stupid. After this phase subsides, I find it helpful to blame my mischievous friend, the gremlin. This tends to dissipate my anxiety and disorientation and provide some time and space to backtrack and figure out the misplaced item’s most likely location. Rarely is it really lost.
I know what you’re probably thinking. How could someone who claims to be a humanist believe in gremlins? Aren’t gremlins a “supernatural“ phenomenon? Not necessarily. It depends how you look at them. In my world, gremlins are fictional characters, not supernatural ones. I do not believe gremlins have the power, nor do I give them the agency, to actually cause the missing soft gel or numeric discrepancy.
Rather, I think of the gremlin as a fictional alter ego who reminds me of the limitations of my physical senses, as well as my often embarrassing lack of patience, mindfulness, and ability to focus. It is a fictional construct that helps me cope better when things go missing. The gremlin reminds me to ”get used to it, you’re human.” Furthermore, it allows me to do another very human thing — provide a handy, virtual scapegoat to take the fall (at least until the item is found). At which time the imaginary gremlin sneaks back into a mysterious part of my brain, as all good fictional alter egos do.
So my humanist friends, the message here is to suggest that gremlins are not just nemeses. They can also serve a purpose, similar to the myths and tragic dramas of ancient Greece — to remind us that we are indeed fallible, we are human. So, the next time you misplace something, or unsuccessfully try to reconcile a column of numbers, blame a gremlin. But also remember that he’s just doing his job.
* Note: this strategy is not recommended for more consequential items like your last blood-pressure pill.