One morning last month, my Keurig one-cup coffee maker blew up, spewing grounds all over the kitchen floor. This happened right after a night when I was unable to find the channel for some show I wanted to see on the bedroom TV. Almost everything on cable is hidden on channel numbers you’ve never tried, and you can’t call anyone out of your district for help, because different areas of Boston have different channel locations. A book, anyone? I called my lawyer for some comic relief and a sympathetic ear. “Why don’t you just shoot yourself?” he said.
Even if you embrace the digital age with all of your being, I know there are times when you curse the things that don’t work. My daily adventures with helplessness, I hope, will make you all feel better about your own. I’m not going to complain about the multiple passwords we’re forced to have, or the impossibility of taking time off from work to meet service people at home. As I spout off here, my television has been sick for weeks. I turn it on; it’s pitiful, no sound. Turn it off, fiddle and diddle, turn it back on: all sound, no picture. Turn it off again, then on, and eureka: sound and picture. Only it’s locked onto Home Shopping Network—no other channels.
My sound system for radio and CDs has been out for several months. To listen to CDs, I use my car. I have a Bose radio in my bedroom as an alarm clock. Once a week, with no warning, it stops working. I pull the plug, wait a few seconds and plug it in again. Then it works, and, wonder of wonders, it flashes the correct time. How does it know? Of course, on mornings I’m flying out of Boston it always fails me, so I automatically wake up hours before I have to leave for the airport.
Even outside the home, there are challenges galore. In the gym where I work out, located in a hotel, there is a scale in the locker room. The scale is digital, perfect for the digital world in which machines can implode at any moment. On the face of the scale, it says, “Press here,” right in the middle. Of course, you have to kneel down to press it with your hand. As the zeroes appear, it commands you: “Step on.’” But every time I pressed, the screen would read “Error.” I would repeat the process, bending down, pressing, a dozen times. “Error” mocked me, every time. I complained to the bored attendant outside the locker room. “Oh,” he said, “you got to put it on an even surface.”
I went to the lobby and spoke to the concierge. “Why don’t you get an old-fashioned scale, where you stand on it and move the weights, rather than an annoying scale that doesn’t work?”
“The hotel prizes itself on design, not the past,” he told me. I’ll take the past over the future I foresee, anytime.
On the road, it’s the same, but that didn’t get me off the hook in Providence, where the cops whistled me to a stop outside of a strip club on the East Side because I could not find the entrance to I-195 East. I visited my son there and left after an overnight, heading east to New Bedford. Or wanting to head east. Signs would lead me to where I could see the highway, but never to an access road. “Is this what hell is going to be like?” I thought. I called my son after the cop left. “I can’t find I-195,” I told him.
“Where are you?” he said.
“In front of a strip joint, next to a lot full of trucks.”
“I know where you are,” he said.
How did he know? And what did he think I was doing? When my son showed up, he said, “Did you ever hear the acronym ‘GPS,’ Dad?”
“I forgot my password,” I told him.
He put me on the road to perdition then, I’m sure, thinking, “My sibs and I are not going to be able to handle this. Dad’s losing it.’’
“No, I’m not,” I would say. “I’ve always been like this.”
When I come home after a night on the town, I have a sense that every electronic gadget has been waiting for me. In my absence they’ve had plenty of time to fine-tune their plots against me. And maybe they’ve infected the others, like the smoke alarms that have been primed to go off at 3 am, in the middle of my REM dreams of being dragged back into the army.
But I turn on the TV and find a sports network. I see several ads for erectile-dysfunction meds that list potential side effects, all horrible. Maybe I’ll take my chances with the alarm clock and other gadgets. At least they probably can’t kill me. And if the pills were so great, wouldn’t you want to share one bathtub, not two?
It all makes me think of the three scariest words I know: Some assembly required.