My on-and-off struggle with instruction manuals

When Mom needed to know how to light the pilot on our old wall furnace, she consulted its instructions, which were printed on a thin leaflet stabbed on a nail in the utility-room closet.

Today, we need the whole closet, not just the nail, to store all the bloated leaflets and manuals that accompany machines found in the average house. Who says we aren't a nation of readers? Shucks. Before you can use a new electric skillet, you're supposed to read its 12-page manual. I'm sure there's a lawyer behind all this.

Like most people, we have a library of this literature that accompanies our time-saving machines. We can't save enough time, though, to read it. So we fiddle and poke around and try to operate the equipment without reading the instructions. Then we find any helpful kid over age 3, because they're all born techies.

The other day, for example, I broke down and bought a simple new answering machine. The hardest part of the operation should have been pruning the Ozarks from my accent so I wouldn't sound like Aunt Birdie's Biskit Barn, should some important editor call.

I killed 10 minutes trying to get the already-recorded message from the strange man out of the machine. He sounded pleasant, a nice guy to have around the house, but I knew good and well that my mother would never talk to him. That meant I could miss an important call from her - such as an invitation to run over and retrieve that homemade pumpkin pie cooling on her cabinet.

Finally, I offered my 13-year-old a buck to teach me how to record a message on the machine.

He smirked. "Make it $10, and I'll set the clock for you, too," he said.

It took him less than three seconds, which isn't a bad hourly wage.

Everything with a cord in our house has a manual, but the fattest manuals came boxed with the microwave. One is for "basic" microwaving, and the sequel is for "advanced."

Limp from hunger one night, I begged the little techie to help me defrost a T-bone.

"If you'll help me put the on-time switch in the five-minute position," I told him, "I think I can handle it from there." I'd been puzzling over the advanced manual so long that I could have cooked the steak on a stick over a campfire.

"You're reading the manual for the motion-sensor light," my son pointed out.

You've read one manual, you've read them all: thin plot, excess verbiage. They're all a real turnoff ... if you can just find the switch.

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