We're analog citizens in a digital world

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To say I suffer from techno-aversion is putting the issue too strongly. In truth, I would love to understand all these digital gadgets with codes and options and inter-gadget hookup potential. I yearn to command them to perform all their magic tricks for me.

My adult son takes photographs in Australia, plugs his camera into his laptop, and I see the pictures on my computer in California half an hour later. How does he do that?

And my teenager watches TV with three remote controls within reach, switching between their buttons like a frenzied pinball player. He tells me he's taping one sports game (and deleting the commercials) while watching another one and keeping track of the weather station for ski reports. How does he do that?

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My sons swear it's simple, and they try to teach me - over and over and over. But while it all makes sense when they're standing beside me, it makes no sense at all as soon as they walk away.

Once the youngest forgot to turn his stereo off before going out for the evening, and I stood in front of it for 10 minutes looking for a button that said "Off/On." Unable to find it, I lowered the volume to an inaudible level before bedtime.

The "Power" button was later pointed out to me, and I wondered who'd given the industry permission to switch from "Off/On" to "Power" without notifying me.

Some people suggest this is a male/female thing. However, as my husband is only a teensy bit more adept at these gizmos than I am, I'm convinced it's an analog/digital generational issue.

So whenever our resident teenage digital guru goes away for longer than a weekend, I become nervous. One power failure can occupy him for an hour, reprogramming the flashing red numerals - 12:00 ... 12:00 ... 12:00 - all over the house.

We'd barely waved goodbye to our son, Skylar, on his way to camp for a month, when our answering machine developed something sounding like hiccups. It had behaved like a family friend for six years, never giving us a moment's trouble unless the cat walked across the button pad in the middle of an incoming message, and we really couldn't blame that on the answering machine.

But with the dust of Skylar's bus barely settled onto the road, our treacherous machine rebelled, misbehaving even when the cat was nowhere around. It snarled the tape, garbled the greeting, made a strange clicking noise, and then just quit working altogether.

Hoping to avoid the trauma of buying a new machine, we took the old one to a local repair shop. The fix-it man's thick, eyebrows shot up to his forehead when we set it on his counter. He looked at it with something approaching awe as he said, "Whoa! Man, this machine is ancient."

Personally, I thought six years might qualify a dragonfly as ancient, but not an answering machine. I kept quiet, however, hoping for a favorable diagnosis. He poked it here and there and turned it over to inspect all the various connection ports. With pursed lips and an ominous shaking of his head, he plugged it in, pushed its buttons, and then delivered his judgment: "It's a throwaway."

My husband and I exchanged helpless glances, shrugged, and with fond backward looks at Old Faithful, bought a new answering machine.

As soon as we brought it home, we realized fully what we were up against. Our 15-year-old was at camp and wouldn't be home for three more weeks. But we really needed that answering machine. So we changed into our most comfortable clothes, pulled up two ergonomically correct chairs, and hunkered down to the business of trying to make it work - all by ourselves.

Taking a deep breath, we lifted the new machine from the box and set it on the desk. The cat jumped up, knocked the box over, and put a paw on the keyboard.

"Don't even think about it," I said, staring her down. She purred and narrowed her eyes. I knew what she was thinking: Later, later, there's plenty of time....

My husband pulled out an impressive instruction book not much smaller than some of my cookbooks.

"Things must have improved in the past 10 years," he said. "Remember the so-called 'instructions' that came with our first answering machine?"

Those three thin pieces of tissue paper appeared to have been translated from Japanese by someone whose native language was neither Japanese nor English. I'd unfolded the tissue and read, "To recording go message, lift down all buttons in black and speaking closely to opening bars."

With trial and error, we eventually figured this to mean, "To record outgoing message, hold down both black buttons while speaking close to the microphone."

Our new instruction booklet, made of durable paper and protected by a glossy cover, had 60 pages detailing uncounted fancy options. If one is to believe the printed word, I could make this machine do everything short of balance my checkbook and decide what we'd have for dinner - and that was just the first 12 pages.

If by chance anything was still unclear, the instructions were also printed in Spanish, Chinese, German, Tagalog, and French. Oh, and Japanese.

So there we were, two technically challenged but otherwise intelligent adults, trying to extract the most basic information from the manual: Plug it in, record a greeting, and learn to retrieve incoming messages. Period. The other stuff would have to wait till summer camp ended.

We plugged it in. That was amazingly simple. I looked at the skeptical cat and said, "Ha! See? It's gonna be easy." To my husband, I said, "Things really have improved. We're doing just fine."

Then we reread the manual, taking notes this time and flagging the important parts. After 20 minutes of minor skirmishing, we felt ready for the real thing. We wrote out our greeting, checked everything one last time, and then I pushed the button and said, "OK, here we go.... Where's the paper?"

"Right here. Is that the 'Record' button?"

"Yeah. 'Hi. We're not able to....'"

"You're only holding down one button," he said, riffling the pages of the manual.

"That's what it says," I said, a little testy.

"Are you sure? Oh, yeah ... but put your mouth closer to the microphone."

"This is close enough." Yes, definitely testy.

"Shh.... What's that noise, that humming sound?" he said, cocking his ear.

"Just some little spool thingy going around." I gave an exasperated sigh.

"The tape cassette? Do you still have your finger on that button? Is all this being recorded?!"

"Um ... maybe."

Click.

We played it back, and yes indeed, every word had recorded perfectly, including my testiness. The cat turned her back and walked from the room with an insolent, backward glance. "Pathetic. Just pathetic," her look seemed to say.

The idea of redoing it was too much to bear, so we left it that way. Most of our incoming messages began with people laughing, whether at us or with us I was never sure.

Then our camper son called. His message started with a long silence as he digested our strange greeting before telling us of a change in the return bus schedule. A week later, we met him at the bus station and drove him home, listening to stories of hikes, canoe adventures, and a certain girl with long black hair.

But he became all business as he walked through the front door. He made a beeline for the answering machine, and within 90 seconds he'd recorded a regulation message. Then he picked up the cat, headed for the stereo, and pushed the "Power" button.

The two of them, boy and cat, stared at each other, and I could read that look perfectly. "Pathetic. Just pathetic."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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