The New Yorker published Stephen Vincent Benét’s “Nightmare Number Three” just 85 years ago. I was a bit too young then to appreciate it, but I’ve read it many times since. It describes a homicidal revolt of domestic machines. A few lines:
I guess they were tired of being ridden in
And stopped and started by pygmies for silly ends.
Of wrapping cheap cigarettes and bad chocolate bars
Collecting nickels and waving platinum hair ...
The revolt takes place on what Benét calls “Bloody Monday.” I read it again last Monday when my own machines began, without warning, flipping me off and refusing to perform their usual jobs.
It wasn’t the washer or dryer or refrigerator or coffee maker. You kind of expect no matter how gently you use those or respectfully address them, they’ll wear out one day and be less expensive to replace than repair. No, this revolt was probably planned in cahoots, by my two lifelines — especially now — to the rest of humanity: my iPhone and my computer.
It’s not that I walk around gazing at my phone, or even carry it everywhere. It’s usually home. I keep it, like the old-timer who finally agreed to a party line, for my convenience. But so many changes are occurring, ever more rapidly, in the mysterious world of electronic communications that I can’t keep up with them. Yet I can’t give up. For example, I just swapped two old vehicles for a new hybrid. When I transferred my box of favorite CDs into it, I got quite a shock: It doesn’t play CDs. This happened once before, when audiocassettes went the way of the dodo, but that was bearable. Now I’ve got to “pair” my iPhone with my cars’ audio system and play by Bluetooth music I’ve stored on the phone. So the phone now has to go with me (and be loaded with music from something else new called Spotify) if I want to listen to anything but the repeating loop of news on PBS. Blatant age discrimination!
Still, like The Beatles, I get by with a lot of help from my friends, not to mention family. When I got my first computer, back in the 1980s, I found it as confusing as the current ones, and took a course at Lebanon College. I asked one day for an explanation of what the instructor had just said. She answered that if I’d just think logically, I’d get it. “If I could think logically,” I responded, a bit testily, “I wouldn’t be in this class.” Luckily, there was no final exam or course grade.
The first hint of trouble came from the computer, which had begun to run as if it were knee-deep in mud and giving me warnings that I was using “excessive energy.” Then the phone: I’d managed with help to get it paired with the new hybrid and actually program the GPS for a trip to near Ossipee; and by pushing all the buttons (the old guy’s technique for finding the right one), I finally got the volume for the spoken directions cranked up to a useful level. All set. Then, about 20 miles from my destination, where I needed the guidance, it died. Stopped dead. Back to the map, which I still carry like a life ring.
I know CPR, so I tried it on the now-black screen of the phone, to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive.” No soap. It was an old phone I’d inherited from my wife, so it owed me nothing. The clerk at the phone store confirmed my fears: dead beyond resurrection. But here’s where the family came in. My daughter, Martha, who knows what a small percentage of technical talk I even hear, let alone understand, went with me, and we got a great deal on a new phone. She and the clerk sent me for pizza while they got it sorted out.
Next day it was off to my favorite computer guy in Waitsfield, who pointed out that, even though he could clean it up, its operating system, like mine, was obsolete. He kept it overnight to transfer its contents to a new one, and the next morning coordinated the new phone and the new computer, all the while mumbling technical terms that, to me, might as well have been in Urdu. I’m typing on it right now, but I’m afraid to touch any unfamiliar buttons, lest I lose it all.
One big improvement: Martha got me a little circular pad for charging my phone. No more plugging in; you just set your phone on it, and mirabile dictu, it works wirelessly, and won’t overcharge the batteries. Except mine wouldn’t work. Took it and the phone back; it worked. Brought it home, and it didn’t. Martha took it home to test it, and brought it back suggesting I try laying it down right side up. Oh, I almost wish for the good old days, difficult as they were! Then I remember that, much as I loved my several Beetles, they wouldn’t do at all for today’s highways. So instead I just smile as if I know what’s going on.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.