MACHINES have been my lifelong nemesis. In a showdown between me and a machine, the machine will win hands down every time. Its triumph is utter. The car stops dead on the highway as I am racing to the airport. The dishwasher floods on the evening of a dinner for 25. The automatic bank teller loses the deposit that stands between me and bankruptcy.
Conditioned by years of this treatment, I long ago conceded the greater power of machines. Now I use them, but only grudgingly. And at the first hint of trouble, I flee.
Of course, in this age of sleek devices and competent women, my attitude keeps me at a distinct disadvantage. As I chew on the dust of my button-pushing pals who are forging ahead in the corporate world, it grows clear that I will have to do something about my mechanical illiteracy.
The time to begin my education, I thought, was the day we bought a home computer. In fact, it was several weeks before I could bring myself to do anything but approach the machine on mental tiptoe. I read a little of the manual, turned the computer on and off a few times, and listened with awe as my mate described its inner workings. Clearly, this machine had the capacity to wipe me out with one blow. Rather than face ignominious defeat in the study, I always found pressing business elsewhere. Once, I even swept the basement floor.
Finally, the day of reckoning came. It was early on a Sunday evening. The house was quiet. Tom was huddled in his chair, engrossed in a physics journal. The dog slept at his feet. With nothing handy to distract me, I sidled into the room, opened the manual and began working through the basics of editing. It was a lot easier than I thought. As I breezed along, I began to understand the lure of computers -- you are In Control. The machine obeys you. A novel idea.
I should have known what lay ahead. I issued the command to scroll the screen, calling up two halves of a piece of writing. The machine whirred softly . . . and the screen went blank. I waited a minute. No response. Pawing through the instruction book, I tried to see what I had done wrong. Nothing. More frantically, I tried to find out how to exit back to the beginning of the lesson. "Escape" -- altogether too appropriate a term. The screen, obdurate as ever, stayed blank.
I resisted the temptation to turn to Tom for help. Compounding my fear that I had broken the damn thing was my mounting sense of stupidity. I had just enough wit left to realize that asking a man who cut his intellectual teeth on particle beam accelerators for help at this point was only asking for trouble. Feverishly, I pressed the "Escape" button again and was miraculously rewarded with the beginning of the lesson plan.
Plodding through the now familiar routine, I retraced my steps through the lesson, hit the key to scroll the screen . . . and the machine went blank. "Escape." Repeat. Blank. "Escape." Repeat. Blank. Childhood humiliations began to flash in my mind like strobe lights -- the time in fourth grade when the only ball of the season I might have even thought about catching woke me from my daydreams as it plopped at my feet. We lost the game and no one talked to me for a week. I reminded myself that a playground full of irate ten-year- olds is harder to face than a machine on a table. "Escape." Repeat. Blank. Blank. Blank. Blank.
I had been stretched to my limits. Fury and frustration propelled me steadily and silently out of the chair, out of the room, and into our bedroom. I kicked off my shoes, hard. The sound of them thudding into the wall undid any remaining threads of self-possession. With abandon, and tears streaming down my face, I ripped off my socks, tore off my jeans, shirt and underwear, and began to jump up and down on the lot.
"What are you doing?" said the blurred figure at the door. For the next five minutes, Tom received the full measure of my outrage. I flailed, I stormed, I wept, scouring the memory of every humiliation suffered at the hands of man or machine. Tom wisely stood by, waiting for the tempest to pass. But the dog seemed to feel his home was in immediate danger of collapse, and running between the two of us, appointed himself peacemaker. First he licked my naked knees, then Tom's brushed denim ones, tirelessly pouring saliva on troubled waters. We dissolved in helpless laughter. Hiccoughing down the last of my tears, I stammered out an explanation of what had happened. "Well, the machine must be on the fritz," Tom said calmly, and led me back to the study. The dog gave a few last conciliatory licks before subsiding at our feet.
Stunned by the notion of an incompetent machine, I stared blindly ahead while Tom fiddled with the keyboard. Just as he had predicted, the lesson disk had a glitch in it. The machine would have to go back to the shop. I began to flush with the unaccustomed and delicious sense of victory. It burst out of me in a crow of sheer pleasure: "I won. I won. I won." The dog just lifted his head and woofed, softly.