Saturday, December 24, 2011

When Machines Turn Rogue

I swear some mechanical devices have it in for me. I always take it personally when something I’m trying to use stops working or, even worse, simply refuses to function correctly for me in the first place, even though other people don’t seem to have similar problems.
Computers always have minds of their own. I worked for seven years in IT, and whenever I’d call the Service Desk with an issue, it seemed as though my machine had it in for me, since no one else shared my experience. But most people already know that those particular devices have quirky personalities. They’re like friendly dogs who suddenly turn and bite without warning. Cell phones are a similar breed.
But computers and phones are not alone in selecting targets and attacking.
I’ve always been very mechanical. When I was about twelve, I took apart a broken toaster and fixed it. I still can’t tell you how I knew what to do, but I did. And that’s been a pretty common experience throughout most of my life. So why is it that some specific mechanical items are determined to make my life miserable?
One of the vilest of these was the little station wagon Larry insisted on buying many years ago. Our old car had reached over 100,000 miles and, although we’d had no real issues with it, was beginning to show its age. Repairs were clearly in our immediate future. Expensive repairs. At that time, I was playing Super Mom, doing PTA, Girl Scouts, etc. I needed a car with more room to stow gear and kids, so a mini-wagon seemed like a good idea. Just not this particular one.
I hated it on sight. It was yellow. Larry bought it because it had faux wood trim reminiscent of his old 1954 Ford Country Squire woodie. That particular vehicle tolerated me and behaved pretty well when I drove it. Not so the yellow beast!
I ran out of gas twice before I figured out that the gas gauge was defective. Then I used the trip meter and always filled up at least fifty miles before I knew I’d run out. Years later when Kim was driving the car, she used the gas gauge, and the dumb car ran on fumes, even when the gauge read ‘Empty.’
And that was not my only difficulty. The back lift gate never opened for me. Larry and Kim could open it easily using only one hand, but when I’d try, it stubbornly refused to budge. I asked them for the secret, but neither of them could tell me what I was doing wrong. The car just hated me. The feeling was mutual.
Because the body had apparently not been undercoated correctly, it soon began to molt yellow paint, followed by rusty chunks. My brother dubbed it the “Yellow Rust Bucket” or YRB for short. I swore it was trying to escape from me, one small piece at a time. Unfortunately, we owned this car longer than any other we’ve ever had.
My experiences with mechanical revolt aren’t limited to the United States, either.
Our washer and dryer in Japan were supposed to be the best in the world, made by a highly-respected German company. The washer took nearly an hour per load. And sometimes it would overheat, ruining several favorite pieces of clothing over the time we lived there. It was also a ‘one-sheet wonder’ since it would only hold a maximum of one sheet at a time.
The dryer was a different story, but a beast of a different genus. It worked like a salad spinner, capturing the water in a reservoir. When that filled up, the machine would stop until it was emptied. One load of clothes took hours to dry. The dryer didn’t heat, but the washer did—and overheated. To top it off, there was no heat adjustment on either machine. We had it serviced and were told it worked as designed.
I called these monstrosities many unpleasant names—especially when yet another favorite garment had been melted by the washer or when I needed something and it wasn’t dry. I also took the refusal of these monsters to work properly personally until a friend from California visited and attempted to use them. “How in earth do you live with these things?” she asked after trying to do a small load. The answer was we formed an uneasy truce. But the mutual loathing was always just beneath the surface.
When we returned to California after nearly three years in Japan, I hoped my days fighting rebellious household appliances were over. Wrong! I had not anticipated dealing with the new top-of-the-line double ovens we bought when we remodeled our kitchen.
We chose this particular brand because we were assured by the salesperson that it was the best. WRONG! Although installed per the manufacturer’s instructions, whenever I tried to use both ovens, the breaker tripped. And the heat was so uneven that nothing I baked turned out right.
I called the store, and they told me to contact the manufacturer since the appliance was still under warrantee. Unfortunately I was never actually able to talk to a real person on the manufacturer’s Customer Service line. Instead I was fed into a continuous loop of recorded suggestions, none of which addressed my problems. I finally called the manufacturer’s authorized service number in our area.
The service person arrived and checked the oven. When I asked why the breaker always tripped, he responded, “You’re supposed to use only one oven at a time.” WHAT? Why would I buy a double oven if I only intended to use one at a time?
When I questioned the twenty minutes required to get to preheat, his answer was,  "I recommend at least half an hour.” HUH?
And when I asked why it didn’t keep an even temperature, I received a long lecture on how ovens determined temperature. He told me everything was working as it should. Yeah, maybe in his warped parallel universe! He charged me a small fortune and left. Nothing had changed.
The worst happened when I had about eighteen people for dinner and tried to use the ovens to reheat a frozen entrée. The breaker tripped three times. The oven never came up to temperature. Dinner was eaten an hour late after I removed individual portions and heated them in the microwave. We ate in shifts. And I stopped cooking.
A couple of years later, I replaced the nearly-new ovens with another brand recommended by a friend who is a gourmet cook. I no longer have cookies with raw tops and burned bottoms. I can now prepare a meal for twenty and have everything on the table at the same time using both ovens simultaneously. And preheating now requires only five minutes. The best thing is that the previous unlamented ovens have gone on to that great appliance graveyard.
My most recent nemesis is the sewing machine. This one belonged to my mother. When she moved in with us over twenty years ago, there were three in the house. My daughter took my old Singer Featherweight, a little workhorse that still functions beautifully. My other portable was the same brand as Mom’s, but hers had all the bells and whistles. When a friend gave birth to a little girl and mentioned that she’d like to make clothes for the baby, I decided to give her my portable. Big mistake!
This mechanical demon loved Mom, but it hates me! I’ve never been able to get it to function properly doing even the simplest tasks. I’ve had it refurbished several times, but needles and thread still break with painful regularity. It knots and refuses to zigzag. The stitches are uneven; the bobbin comes loose; and the bobbin never holds enough thread to finish a project. It’s nearly impossible to thread the needle because the mechanism prevents grasping the thread from the back of the needle.
I spent two days in an all-out war with this devil recently and ended up throwing a full-blown tantrum A huge cloud of cursing hung over the room. My husband took refuge well away from the battle. I finally struggled through the nine simple seams. Casualties: two needles, one bobbin, many broken threads, lots of knots, two destroyed days, one vile temper.
But in the end, I won. No mere mechanical device will get the better of me. At least not for long. But the sewing machine has been given notice. It’s next on the destruct list.