Saturday, January 16, 2010


Have you ever persisted in pounding something into a hole that was not made to fit it? (No, of course you haven't, unless you're me or have little mechanical aptitude, which in my case is a redundancy. Watch: I'm about to demonstrate how.) The more it doesn't fit, the harder I pound. In Skinnerian terms, this is called an Extinction Burst, the frenzied increase in a futile behavior before you finally come to your senses and cease. It's great fun to look for in daily life: Karen Pryor, in Don't Shoot the Dog, cites the store clerk who more and more energetically swipes the malfunctioning credit card through the machine until crying uncle at last and manually entering the number. Another common example is the guy who keeps phoning, with greater frequency all the time, the less you return his calls. Or maybe that's something else, something non-Skinnerian.

With every piece of new technology in my house, that's what I feel like doing: pounding harder. Maybe a good, analog kick will make things work, because my native abilities sure aren't doing the trick. (Sometimes kicks do work in the digital realm, as well as checking all plugs and connections; now that, I can do.)

My brain, I must now face, simply won't accommodate certain types of knowledge. Other types, yes; I'm your girl if want some fairly opaque poetry! But increasingly, my ability deficits encompass almost everything in this new world. My camera; my ever-slowing computer; the GPS I am soon to acquire, as needed in the first rally I am hoping to run; and, I have no doubt, the radar detector I so desperately need. Need.

We had tears the other night when, after a hard-fought war with homework, the victor asked, for his prize, a movie during dinner. When the screen resolutely faced us a stony gray, the red word "VIDEO" appearing at intervals in the upper right corner (Yes, I know--"video," that's what we want to watch. Why won't you respond?) no matter what I did, I knew I had failed. Not just my child (a small fail, to be sure, but "I'm sorry, honey, I just don't know how to fix it; maybe I can get someone to come over tomorrow who will know" is repeated an awful lot in our small barracks), but the entire new century.

So it is a good thing a patient, generous, and technologically apt friend was around when I brought home the new flat-screen TV, then. I realize these things are for most men in the same line as pro football cheerleaders, winning at craps, and imagining sinking a knife into a terducken on Thanksgiving. For me, though, it's just a replacement for the 1978 vintage set, otherwise destined for the dump, I got on Freecycle last year. The one that is barely visible from across the long and narrow bedroom in the new house. Sometimes you just gotta watch movies while under the covers, you know?

I noticed in the store the sales placard, laden with exclamation points, listing all the extras you could jack up the final price with. "Let our experts do the installation for you! Only $99!" I guess this is a savings, provided one's time is worth at most $25 an hour, since the owner's manual takes around four hours to read. This seems to be about the average these days; as a writer, I should take note, since I suspect that it's not true that people don't read anymore. They read manuals now, which means there's no time for War and Peace.

I opted not to pay the Geek Squad, and relied on the kindness of a friend. I have yet to figure out what's going on with the TV downstairs. I may never know. It has its secrets, which it is not about to give up to the likes of me. I would rather coax cream, semisweet chocolate, and espresso to rise inside a ring of rum-soaked ladyfingers. I can trade you a hell of a chocolate charlotte, buddy, if you will show me how to upload photos--and then show me where they've gone to inside this computer. Because I haven't the faintest idea.


Kevin G. said...

Your frustration is probably shared by most people who didn’t grow up with a game controller as an appendage. I think that in competing to build a better mousetrap (of the digital variety), the focus is usually on something other than longevity or ease of operation, as said device will probably be obsolete before it would ever become a relic.
Why else would electronics salespeople tell you in one breath that your new purchase was a shrewd decision, yet in the next breath try and persuade to not even think of leaving the store without being armed to the teeth with extended warranties ? Maybe they wouldn’t know how to fix it either.

Anonymous said...

At my husband's work they have a saying "There are many problems that can be solved with the combination of brute force and ignorance."
As for your slowing computer, try a Mac. Ever since I threw out all the windows pcs and replaced them with Macs a few years ago my computer problems vanished.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yeah, if I only had a nickel for everyone who's cried in perplexed frustration at me, "Get a Mac, Melissa!" I'd have a . . . Mac.

Kevin, I used to try to flatter myself that the fundamental problem was simply that I grew up in a different age. And to a certain extent that's true. Look at the plethora of jokes about why parents have kids: so they'll have someone to program the VCR, etc. But unfortunately I now know many iPhone junkies and the like who are considerably older than me. No, let's call a spade a spade: Melissa is impatient, and would much rather do other things with her time than sit down and expend the mental energy required by the 120-page manual that comes with every tech item these days.

Or try to look winsome (!) and press a friend into service. Yeah, that works. Sometimes.

Jim said...

We all have our strengths. You are more articulate than I could ever hope to be, and I can make the VCR stop blinking 12:00. I'm not sure I came out the winner.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Jim, I will leave your implication unanswered (but not unappreciated). However, in terms of remunerative powers, I know which I would choose: the ability to keep things running trumps stringing words together any day. Or this particular one, at any rate.

Steve said...

It happened that the time of my life that I most wanted to watch television coincided with a series of puppies. They were relatively undisciplined and all too often unsupervised; remote controls became chew toys on numerous occasions. Sometimes the dead carcass was found, other times it would simply disappear (probably buried somewhere outside for later).

As the remotes were replaced each operated a little differently and I was forced to learn a new procedure if I wanted to use the TV. I became adept at fumbling my way around until I arrived at some function that I recognized, but I wondered why they wouldn't put a "Home" button on it. A simple "take me back to where I started" command so that I could try again. Maybe that is included in the better remote controls, when there is such a good chance that it would come to an untimely end I would buy the least expensive one that I could find.

My best advice for you is: if operating the TV is such a "guy thing" maybe you should try NOT reading the instructions first. :-)

Peter said...

After your thumb goes numb pressing buttons on your remote without result, any friend of your will be happy to press those same damn buttons just as repeatedly. I'm too far away to take it from you so just mail it to me. My chances of success are the same here as there, so it really doesn't matter, except we can't make cookies afterwards.
Your friend.

jane said...

Sorry, but no one reads the instruction manuals. Did you really spend four hours reading one? That's crazy!

If you think people read less these days, you only have to look around on the subway, or at people's monitors at work, to see that isn't the case.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Peter: I've found that sometimes just having different fingers futilely pushing random buttons does the trick; therefore, I'll mail you my remote, you mail me yours, and we'll end up fixing each other's. Enclose description of what the cookies tasted like, and I'll do the same. Voila.

Jane: Gee, you've unmasked me. Now I'm forced to publicly admit that I am indeed insane.