A few months ago, I had an annoying day. It began with the microwave going on strike. I wanted to heat up a frozen breakfast burrito, which would have taken a minute and a half. But something was wrong with the microwave. I couldn’t get it to start. OMG. Disaster! What was I going to do without this most essential appliance?
I checked the burrito wrapper for directions on heating the burrito in the oven. That would take a lot longer–at least 20 minutes–and I was hungry. Then there was my coffee. I’d have to heat that on the stove in a saucepan. Brother. Life had suddenly become one big fat chore.
I finally discovered the problem when I saw that the fridge was also on the blink, along with the fan above the stove. I’d blown a fuse. How I have no idea. But this led to problem number two. I’d been living in my new apartment for a couple of months, and it was my first time having to deal with a fuse box. In my old place there was a breaker box and all you had to do was flip a switch. But in my present dwelling there’s a fuse box with these round little things you plug into a socket. I had no idea how to deal with it. Were there spare fuses around? And which fuse was the bad one?
I called a friend for help. She admitted that she didn’t know a thing about fuses either. But she knew a gal who lived close by me who could definitely solve the problem. Within around 10 minutes, this woman arrived and knew exactly what to do. We found a box of fuses, she replaced the bad one, and glory to God the fridge started humming, the fan over the stove started whirring, and the microwave beeped. Whew! A bullet dodged. Life was normal again.
But there were more hurdles ahead. I had a new vacuum and couldn’t figure out how to empty it. The directions were simple enough. There was just this button you were supposed to push that opened the canister. But I couldn’t dislodge the canister. I pushed and pushed, and pulled and pulled, but the canister wouldn’t budge. I was at my wits end. How could such a simple task be so insurmountable? I gave up until the next day, when another friend came over, and I showed him the vacuum. He very calmly pushed the button and the canister came right out, just as nicely as could be. Apparently, it liked him and not me. Talk about humiliating.
That was not, however, the end of my battle with machines. A few days later, my Chromebook died. For absolutely no reason. The screen suddenly went dark. It was plugged in and the “on” light was on, but I had no screen and nothing I did could bring it back. Even my editor, Amanda Dodge, a true genius with computers, couldn’t get it to work. And I hadn’t even been using it that long–less than a year. Two hundred smackers down the drain.
I was reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode entitled, “A Thing About Machines.” The great character actor Richard Haydn plays a nasty, mean-spirited food critic who has no friends because he’s always treating people horribly. He also hates machines and constantly rants about how they’re always breaking down. Well, one by one, all the machines in his life gang up on him. The TV talks back to him. The typewriter types warning messages all by itself. His electric shaver, the old-fashioned type on a cord, turns into a cobra-like creature and slithers down the stairs, tripping him. Eventually, his car goes after him and runs him over. The message is clear: be grateful for the modern conveniences that make life easier–or else!
I was also reminded of a TV series that ran on PBS some years ago: The 1900 House. I wrote a column on it years ago, but it’s worth revisiting. Although we tend to have an idyllic picture of the “good old days,” life 100-plus years ago was, for everybody but the rich, drudgery pure and simple. In The 1900 House, a home in London built in 1900 was completely restored to its original state, down to the patent medicines in the medicine cabinet, and a family was chosen to inhabit it for three months exactly as a family in 1900 would have lived. Over 400 families applied for the honor via videotape, explaining why they wanted to go back to the turn of the century. Almost every one of them gave reasons like, “It was a much simpler time…There weren’t so many distractions and families spent more time together…There wasn’t the rush-rush-rush of today; you could live a quieter, more peaceful life…”
The lucky winners were the Bowlers—Joyce, a gabby, high-strung mom who was a school inspector, her Royal Marine husband, Paul, and their four kids ranging in age from 16 to 10. Joyce was hysterical with joy at the thought of actually going back in time. “I love history,” she gushed, “and this is a dream come true! Positively a dream come true!” Her rose-colored glasses view of 1900 wasn’t even shaken by the preparation the family had to go through with historians, who instructed them in the arts of struggling into corsets, stiff-necked collars and high-button shoes; doing dishes with some greasy abomination that passed for detergent; boiling the wash in a vat and agitating it with a paddle; and other charms of pre-techno life.
The London neighborhood they were going to was in on the project. Store keepers made home deliveries in period clothes and charged a penny for a basket of bread and buns and a shilling for a week’s worth of meat. When Joyce and the girls went off to market at a modern supermarket, all the merchants were instructed not to sell them anything they couldn’t have purchased in 1900. As the Bowlers arrived at their house in a big horse-drawn cart, the ladies in long skirts and big hats, the guys in heavy woolen suits, derby hats and socks held up with garters, the street was lined with their cheering new neighbors. Joyce Bowler naturally burst into tears of joy. Short-lived tears, I may add.
So how long did it take for this history-smitten mom to have a genuine 1900 meltdown? Three days! It all started when Joyce couldn’t get the hang of cooking on the wood range, an obstinate creature that also was supposed to heat the water in the whole house but didn’t. Cakes turned into crumpled messes, stews burned, and everybody had to take cold baths, unless they wanted to boil pots of water, drag them upstairs and dump them into the tub. The kids started whining, the little boy went on a hunger strike because he couldn’t get pizza, and Joyce ended up sitting in the backyard with the chickens and bawling.
You have to hand it to the Bowlers. They stuck it out for the full three months. On the last day, when they traded their heavy, restrictive 1900 attire for jeans and track shorts and said goodbye to the 1900 house, they were unexpectedly teary-eyed. But by the time they piled into their SUV and made their first stop—Burger King—nobody was looking back.
So much for the good old days. Reflecting on The 1900 House, I realized how lucky, and how truly spoiled, we are today. Computers, smart phones, microwaves, toaster ovens, induction stoves, electric brooms, Roku, Amazon, self-driving cars–heck, even a good old plug-in vacuum–have made life so at-your-fingertips easy that the quality of patience has pretty much gone out the window.
I might just try living like they did 123 years ago, just for a day or two. If I do, it will certainly make a column to remember. Stay tuned…