I am mechanically illiterate. I cannot blame my mother for this one. I inherited the deep disability from both sides of my family.
To the best of my knowledge, my father never made a household repair, with the single exception of changing a fuse. This was a task he managed to cloak in such mystery that my sister and I would gaze in admiration when he descended the cellar stairs in darkness and returned in a halo of resurrected light.
As for the one machine he used, the car, my father had only the fuzziest notion what made it go forward or backward, let alone what made it break down. It is my impression that he regarded the stick shift as a kind of wand.
So I read with some bemusement the latest survey from the National Science Foundation. They proved to their dismay that large numbers of Americans do not know a double helix from a cross-stitch. By our own admissions, only one in three Americans claims to know what a molecule is; one in six claims a clear understanding of DNA; one in three, of radiation.
The survey-quiz master, Jon Miller, noted that the people who knew the least about science were the most superstitious. Moreover the people who ranked lowest in science literacy felt they had "little control over their own fate" and that they had to depend on experts. I was not surprised by all this. There is so much more information about the scientific world than there was a generation ago that we have all increased our opportunities for ignorance. There are more things not to know.
What I now realize, though, is that it's equally true in our everyday domestic lives. The machinery that we deal with is so much more complex that it is possible to become dysfunctional at a much higher level of performance.
I, for example, have outdistanced my father's mechanical incompetence by technological leaps and bounds. This is an accomplishment like the old Woody Allen line: Success has helped him to get refused for dates by a better class of women.
But with all respect to the National Science Foundation, I believe it is not deep science but middle and high tech that infects our everyday lives with incompetence. Even those of us who can define and spell deoxyribonucleic acid often have "little control over their own fate" in electronic households.
Consider the number of machines that have entered my family since father's triumphal processions to the fuse box. I have an oven that, in concept, can itself turn on, cook the food, then turn itself off while I am at the office. It's been four years now and and I have yet to figure it out.
In the den, there is a VCR that can record 12 separate TV shows on 12 separate channels over time. After a private tutorial session with a man of saintly patience, I had this under control. When we got hooked up for cable TV, however, one system broke down and another never successfully emerged.
The latest answering machine I live with but cannot work promises to answer the phone and deliver messages from remote places. It even has a code for secrets. I regard that code as unbreakable. When the machine and its real owner leave for college, it may learn some tolerance for human beings.
I do not, blessedly, have one of those coffee makers you set at night, or a fancy stereo that comes with indecipherable buttons, or a washing machine with 32 options. But I feel put upon by the electronic demands of living in a modern home. There is nothing you simply turn on anymore. You have to program.
In truth, no ''molecule,'' however misunderstood, would make me or many fellow illiterates feel this powerless. Molecules mind their own business. The real culprit is a user-hostile appliance.
I console myself with the myth that I have chosen to flunk mechanics. I can either learn how the U.S. Senate works or how to get my oven to roast a chicken while I'm at the office learning how the Senate works. But the National Science Foundation people are right: The less you know about something, the more superstitious you are. The more you believe in magic.
Take this word processor. All I can tell you is that for some mysterious reason, it obeys my "commands." In a moment I will add a few mystical letters to the top of this column. I will then press a button, add an eye of newt, spittle of toad, and instantly it will travel 400 miles south. How? Why? It's abracadabra to me.