Analogies between human beings and mechanical objects are imperfect at best, but I can’t help thinking that a rash of appliance breakdowns in our household, along with the accompanying frustrations, may be a kind of harbinger of troubles ahead as I plunge into my ninth decade.
The first malfunctions were minor, relatively speaking. A burner refused to light on the kitchen range, and the estimate to fix it seemed so exorbitant that we bought an electronic device to light it manually. Not that much trouble, considering that the device cost only ten dollars. Some months later smoke belched from inside the microwave—easy to replace although there were many more interesting ways we could have spent the hundred bucks.
After a period of deceptive calm, I opened the refrigerator door one morning to be greeted by a breath of stale, lukewarm air. A dive into the internet depths led to the conclusion that the problem was so profound that the refrigerator wasn’t worth repairing. That triggered a scramble to buy ice and stuff the ice cream and frozen pizzas into a couple of camping coolers and our next-door-neighbor’s half-full freezer, followed by a trip to the nearest big-box store, where a salesperson was eager to show us all the features we didn’t even know our refrigerator had lacked.
The experience was relatively painless, save for the bulge in our credit card balance, but we had to wait five days for the thing to be delivered and installed, a time that seemed interminable. We remarked about the terrible inconvenience of digging through the coolers and buying more ice, fully aware that millions—maybe billions—survive with almost none of the things we deem to be essential to our well-being. But feelings of deprivation and guilt were banished when the new appliance was finally in place and humming a soft, chill tune.
The household demons weren’t through with us, though. The TV began a slow descent into what looked like a kind of visual gibberish, setting into motion research into models and features seemingly too numerous to count. The one feature we deemed essential was voice control, to get around the tedious entry of letters into streaming service search boxes, and we found just such a model on sale at another big box store. We got it home, set it up, and sat in awe of an amazingly sharp picture that took up a quarter of the wall.
But no voice control. It was only compatible with Alexa and Hey Google and something called Bixby and if we wanted those things we’d have to get extra hardware and software. We decided to exchange it for another model—more expensive of course—that we could talk directly to and that hopefully would obey more commands than our dog. It’s now set up and everything works perfectly. Everything, that is, except volume control of the soundbar and access to our cable provider’s on-demand menu and DVR.
In the midst of all this, the washing machine decided to start banging and clattering during the spin cycle. The repair person I called didn’t even try to wring a service fee out of us but said that given its age, repairs wouldn’t be worth the cost. Back to the big box store that sold us the refrigerator, where there was a new washer/dryer unit perfect for our needs. Just another upward jolt to the credit card balance.
The unit was delivered five days later. All good, until the crew declared that some vent issue meant a different crew would have to come to install it the following day. It was somehow unsurprising that this second crew didn’t show up, which led to increasingly agitated conversations with three different customer service persons and finally a re-scheduling, which sounds simple enough but took on the proportions of negotiations between two antagonistic superpowers. We’ll see if anybody shows up to install the unit, which is sitting in the hallway like some kind of lurking monster ready to spring upon an unwary victim edging past.
I stop counting the hours spent on internet research, going to stores, and talking to customer service representatives who seemed to misunderstand everything I said. Hours that could have been spent in creative pursuits, which can teem with moments of frustration and even despair. But at least those pursuits have the promise of producing something of lasting interest, not just a shiny new household appliance that works most of the time.
As for malfunctioning bodily organs and worn-out joints, some have already shown up and more are undoubtedly on the horizon. But we’ll have a good TV to watch and a refrigerator to keep organic juices and cage-free eggs cold and a microwave to cook the frozen mac and cheese and a washer and dryer to insure fresh, crisp sheets and pillowcases for ever-lengthening periods of sleep. Life is good, as they say. And certainly preferable to the alternative.