Friday, November 24, 2017

Column: Flabbergasted by gadgets that sometimes go on strike


I used to know how things worked. Now I don't have a clue.

It used to be, if I opened a book, there would be pages inside with words. Once upon a time, I knew that if I had a pad and a pen, I could write sentences and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Now I flip open to a screen, enter a password and then swipe my fingers over a surface while ritually chanting, "Oh, please don't give me the twirling circle. Please, don't give me the twirling circle." I have absolutely no idea why this particular ritual permits me to read or write, but it does.

I've become entirely dependent on it. I'm dependent on a lot of things I don't understand.

I depend, for example, on the microwave. I used to know how my food was cooked because I cooked it: on a stove, over a flame, in a pan with some butter, salt and garlic. It didn't matter what I was cooking — chicken, fish, steak, oatmeal — that's how I did it.

Now I buy meals in microwaveable bags that need only to be laid on their side and permitted to rest before being served. Frankly, that sounds like how I should treat my guests and not how I should prep my meals. Yet one must keep up with technology.

Despite having it explained to me both by Consumer Reports and by young men who have completed courses in engineering (conversational bids such as "Do you know anything about microwaves?" pass the time during dinner parties), I still have no idea how the microwave works.

I understand only that it heats food by "zapping" it with "energy" and cooks it from "within" often making pizza "soggy," chicken legs "vile" and grapes "explode in a glowing ball of plasma gas."

I also know that food-in-a-bag is 1. Less appetizing than anything I make on the stove; 2. Way easier to clean up than anything I make on the stove. There are days when I feel like I'm sacrificing the soul of my kitchen on the altar of convenience.

But when that happens, I just warm up a store-bought chocolate-chip cookie and the feeling goes away. Happens every time.

What doesn't work every time is the music system. It used to be that I could put on a record, or a tape, or a CD, hit the "on" button and position the speakers appropriately. Then I could dance around the room to Glen Campbell singing "Such Are the Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" while I did the vacuuming.

Now we have a deal whereby music wafts through every room — except when it doesn't.

Since we never learned how to use the system properly, most of the time we find ourselves living in monk-like surround-silence.

We can't do anything about it, either.

The guts of the system are hidden neatly inside a cabinet. When opened, it looks like there's a tiny yet vibrant casino in there, complete with flashing lights, blinking signs and, for all I know, a boulevard filled with very small strolling musicians. Maybe they occasionally go on strike; maybe that's why sometimes we can't get music to play.

The lovely young friend who installed the system for us seems to understand how it functions, however. He can always walk us through it over the phone much the same way film characters walk the apprentice plumber through brain surgery over the phone. And, as in the movies, it works — just once.

Maybe our young friend is head of the tiny musician's union. It's as good an explanation as any.

Now some genius has developed touchless toilets for the home. Can you imagine? Guests will simply disappear for hours. They'll be stuck in the bathroom. They will be faced with a toilet they don't understand. They'll search for handles and levers; they'll swipe their hands everywhere trying to activate the magic radar. When that fails, they'll lie down on the floor and scramble for the on/off switch — so much for touchless, supposedly sanitary, technology.

(Some might start chanting, "Oh, please give me the twirling circle" figuring that since it works for the computer .)

Meanwhile, you can be reading a book in a silent dining room, eating chocolate chip cookies. That's something everybody understands.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

© 2014 Hartford Courant


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