Hobs and Errors

I never had much time for people who went through life facing the past, not the future, constantly longing for something irrevocably lost – and here I am, full of nostalgia and regrets. Not for a lost love or a great missed opportunity, oh no, nothing so noble: the subject of my longing is my old cooker. I had to replace it  after a mere 40 years. “You won’t find it easy to get spare parts for this,” says the tactful gas engineer who can’t repair its faults, so I order a new model.

It arrives promptly. It looks good. But before  touching it, let me consult the User Manual. Its title is Double Cavity, which sounds  like a dental disaster, but then both cooker and booklet were produced in Turkey and some allowances must be made for nuances of meaning.  Also for attitudes. On my old cooker I simply switched on the gas and got on with the job; this one wants me to  keep pressing the switch for 5 to 10 seconds, as if to say “Yes, I mean it, please keep burning.”, and even so it sometimes goes out. In that case, I am told to wait “at least 1 minute before trying again. There is the risk of gas accumulation and explosion!” Well, I’ll just have to press the switch for 10 seconds or more, since clearly  the thing has a suspicious character; not sure I like it.

In the next few minutes it is I who becomes suspicious – of the designer who created my new cooker: did he ever try out his product? Do designers, those demi-gods of the hype world, ever use what they  create? This one certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have noticed that the arms of the trivets are far too short, so that small containers, like my Italian espresso machine, can’t be stood on them. Ouch – how shall I make my life-sustaining morning coffee? Fortunately I remember the ancient electric hotplate in the top part of a wardrobe and put it to work. It makes strange noises, like a volcano about to explode, but the coffee eventually emerges. The next annoyance is that the grill where I heat my croissant disperses the inevitable crumbs into inaccessible nooks and crannies. Make mental note to buy small hand-held vacuum cleaner to remove crumbs. But this is ridiculous! The grill on my old cooker had its own tray for crumbs, I didn’t need a new machine to clean  it! Indignation mounts. To cool down, I return to the Double Cavity booklet.

Not very cooling. There are five DANGER! warnings on one page. Move on. Ah, here’s some practical information. It says, “How to use the gas oven,” followed by Error! Bookmark not defined. Gee, thanks. Only three pages later do I find instructions on how to operate the oven, spiced with WARNING!, DANGER! and RISK! Is the purpose of this oven to cook food or to inflict on me a bad case of anxiety neurosis? A wave of nostalgia hits me. With my old cooker I simply turned on the oven and concentrated on the food, not on the risk of being blown up together with the butternut squash loaf.

The four hobs atop the cooker also need cautious handling. The rapid burner for big pots behaves like a flame-thrower when I light it; have to stand well back to avoid getting scorched. To make up for it, the tiny auxiliary burner comes up with the whisper of a flame, or not at all. To cook anything without getting burnt or exploding with frustration I am reduced to the two so-called normal burners, although by now I hardly know what “normal” means.

No, this isn’t just a domestic dirge. Its subject is the need to realize that innovation for its own sake can make things more complicated instead of easier, besides often using more energy, not less. For instance my new cooker must be connected to the mains electricity to make the ignition work; the old one used a small battery that lasted for a year, for the same purpose. No, I am not a Luddite, only an environmentalist and eco-warrior, longing for the simplification and sustainability of everyday life, and my experience with this new cooker clashes with my wishes. Little wonder nostalgia remains in the air.

Especially when I imagine my lovely simple old cooker slowly disintegrating in a pile of discarded kitchen antiques. RIP.

Gems among the junk

There is a conspicuous notice on my porch door, saying “NO JUNK MAIL” in bright red lettering, but it might just as well not be there for all the defence it provides. So I’ve resigned myself to receiving a daily batch of unwanted stuff and only pick out  an item or two at random  for a quick glance. But in the past week three items of huge entertainment value made me realise that sometimes there is more to junk than meets the eye, although not in the way the senders intended…

To start with, I opened  a posh-looking invitation from a firm that specializes in making your Will fool-proof, weeding out imprecise bits and – h’m – making sure your loved ones don’t pay too much inheritance tax. All very straightforward and unexciting. But as I looked down the list of services on offer, one item leapt off the page. It said: MARRIAGE AFTER DEATH. I caught my breath, closed my eyes, looked again, but there it was, opening up huge new possibilities, for it meant that not only was life after death seen as a certainty, at least by this specialist firm, it also opened the door to posthumous bliss. Just think of the countless broken romances and grand passions that –  never mind why – didn’t reach a happy conclusion, consider the sadness, the regrets and might-have-beens that could be deleted from broken hearts (this is where the incurable romantic in me was taking over) …but how did a serious City firm achieve this miracle?

Well, it didn’t, Marriage after death didn’t, after all, refer to the lovelorn ghost but  to the surviving spouse, although the specialist firm seemed more sympathetic to the former than to the latter. The question was simple: what would happen if I died, leaving my all to my spouse, who then went off and got married again? How unromantic and materialistic, what a let-down.  Still, it had yielded a minute or two of happy fantasies.

Next there was the large letter marked “Strictly Personal”. And it sounded like that, too. It told me that I had been selected personally for a very special exclusive offer that was not, repeat not, open to the general public. It gave some flattering reasons for choosing me as one of the few who received this rare privilege. And although what was on offer didn’t interest me in the least, the flattery value was high, and I quite fancied myself as a special model customer, chosen for my probity, excellent credit rating and trustworthiness. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how they knew all this about me before. looking at the envelope again, which is when the fantasy – and my ego – crashed. The envelope was addressed to “The Householder”.

After this all junk went straight into the recycling box, until a mailing arrived from a cat protection charity, festooned with pretty pictures of pussycats. (Why are all cats so fabulously photogenic?)  Yes, it was a request for a donation, like most things that come in the post these days, but in return I was offered some Cat Facts which cheered me up at once. For instance I learned that cats can produce more than one hundred vocal sounds but are unable to taste anything sweet; moreover, that they spend two-thirds of their lives asleep, so that a nine-year-old cat will only have been awake for three years.. And then came the fact to crown it all: “A group of cats is called a Clowder, a group of kittens is a Kindle.”

What a gem!. I shall never again be able to look at anyone busy gazing at their Kindle, reading some fascinating text ranging from Dante or Herodotus to Agatha Christie or Hilary Mantel, without realising that in that flat box, beneath the print, there is a group of enchanting, lively, but soundless kittens eternally cavorting around, without the slightest interest in literature. I may even dig out the Kindle I once bought and have never used, being too fond of real paper books. But knowing about those kittens  may change my mind. Miaouw.

My lost battles

It all started so well. Bright morning, two hours to spare, just the time I need to get my bank accounts updated, join the mainstream, the carefree shining millions who do online banking without really trying, plus save myself dreary visits to the local branch and queues – freedom at last.
I have two letters to guide me, from the two banks I use. Both are friendly and reassuring. I also have two small gadgets with clickable buttons in bright colours. Should be quick and easy. Just follow instructions on screen.
I do.
The instructions don’t follow me. So I spend fifteen precious minutes, achieving nothing.
Only in Greek myth is there an equivalent of the profound frustration I feel when I am almost there, only to be informed that my password or my activation code or my user name is wrong and would I start again. For the first time ever I feel sympathy for Sisyphus, King of Corinth, nasty crafty psychopath, who ended up in Hades having to push a huge stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll down again for another futile effort, in all eternity.
Except that I’ll cut down on eternity by ringing the 24/7 helpline now and get a human being to tame this dumb machine.
But what I get is a recorded voice, a medium-posh woman’s voice who asks me the very questions I wasn’t able to answer on-screen. I sink into baffled silence. She says “sorry, I didn’t hear your answer”. Of course you didn’t, you silly moo, I don’t have the answer, hence I can’t reply. She tries again, sounding like a patient long-suffering school teacher talking to a child with learning difficulties.
The same fiasco happens with my other account.
The worst thing beside the wasted time and the elevated blood pressure resulting from my attempts is the dreadful sense of one-sidedness, of the inability to relate to “the other”, because there’s no other, only a machine or a recorded voice that brings out the luddite in me. I am not an idiot, I’ve been leading a fairly successful life, coping with difficulties as they occurred, I even had some small triumphs now and then – but here I am, beaten by a piece of mindless, soulless software. Also, I feel left behind by the millions who know how to beat the software. I am left behind, unfit for purpose.
I guess I’ll have to visit both local branches tomorrow and not take it out on the innocent receptionist who will, at least, acknowledge my existence.