Friday, December 13, 2002

Being Mechanical

In the same week or so our household experienced the following: the dishwasher stopped draining the water after the dishes were washed, the stereo refused to play the last cuts on CDs, the dryer stopped drying though it kept tumbling, and my computer began opening e-mail with excruciating slowness and would no longer download anything, although it navigated the web normally.

Things are in the saddle and ride mankind, Emerson said, before horses were obsolete. Horses and saddle metaphors were replaced by machines and machine metaphors, which were replaced by whatever hybrids we have now. As I watched the first repair guy take it apart, I was somehow comforted that the dishwasher seems to be still mostly a machine, without computer circuitry and little in the way of electronics. He couldn't figure out what was wrong, though. I was less enthusiastic when the second repair guy said that the motor needed to be replaced after only four years, which actually means that it's more cost-effective to buy a whole new machine. Machines should last. But then there's planned obsolescence. Theoretically, computers should last longer, but then there's progress, marketing and Microsoft.

I have a fairly complicated relationship with machines. My father and one of my grandfathers worked with machinery-my grandfather had a tailor shop, with sewing machines and a big pressing machine. My father made his living selling and sometimes repairing sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. But I am not what you would call mechanically inclined, although I can actually program a VCR and I'm not bad with stereo and recording equipment. Once when I was trying to impress a lady, I actually repaired her sewing machine with very little idea of what I was doing. But I know nothing about the insides of cars. It seems like prying.

I know some things about machines. For instance, machines are supposed to work. Shakespeare uses "mechanical" to refer to people who work. Julius Caesar begins with the Tribune Flavius protesting to a carpenter and a punning cobbler that they shouldn't be idly hanging about in the streets of Rome. "Being mechanical," he says, "you ought not walk, upon a laboring day, without the sign of your profession." He complains to the carpenter that he is not wearing his leather apron and carrying his rule, and so on. Now mechanicals have been replaced by mechanical devices. And they aren't supposed to be idle, either.

The other thing I know about machines is that they are supposed to make sense. They are the physical manifestation of cause and effect, input and output, lever and pulley, wheels within wheels, male and female (electrical connections, that is.) Newton showed that the universe makes sense as an intricate but rational machine. Even now we think of our brains and our bodies as machines, more or less; if we give them the right fuel and maintenance, they work, but if they break down, we have experts who know how they work and can usually fix them.

But machines-and those computerized, electronic hybrids-get complicated, and pretty soon, so much can go wrong in so many combinations that they are no longer easy to figure out, even for the people who work with them and repair them professionally.

As we know from Star Trek, anything of sufficient complexity can be alive, and even sentient. Essayist Maria Lauenstein married a Buddhist from Sikkim in the Himalayas, who (back in the States) talked to their car and trusted it to find the way when they were lost. It usually did, even when she was driving. That's one kind of evidence. There's also an opposite kind: Sometimes when cars and other machines break down for no apparent reason, they start working again, also for no apparent reason. Entities that do things for no apparent reason must be people.

Machines are important personages in just about every room and every part of our lives. People who aren't Buddhists talk to their cars, and not always in profanities. Some may pat their TV set affectionately as they pass. We conspire with the dishwasher, and feel a sense of common accomplishment when the silverware shines and the wine glasses twinkle. We have relationships with our machines.

Which is why they upset us when they break. It's not just the inconvenience, the cost of repair; it's the betrayal. And it's the guilt. What did we do wrong? Can this relationship be saved? Was it something I did, or is this just another indication that I am not in harmony with the forces of the universe?

This is only my second dishwasher. I hated the first one. I liked this one, mostly because in addition to making noise and noxious fumes, it washed and dried the dishes. You got clean dishes out of the first one only if you washed them before putting them in.

I've only had two cars in my life, and I'd still have the first one if I'd been confident it would make it over the Rockies. I try to do my part in meeting the needs of the machines I'm entrusted with, and I do think of the machines in my life as alive. I'm grateful for their efforts and I take sort of a parental pride in their accomplishments. I don't mind if they have little idiosyncrasies, as long as that doesn't include additional noise or fumes.

Also I don't take machines for granted, and I try to keep them to a minimum. I don't own a cel phone. I've never used a pager or palm organizer. I'm still using a stereo amplifier, now hooked up to a portable CD player, that was built in 1970. It's a good amp. I expect the best from the machines in my life. And I can be stubborn. I'll keep after a problem, no matter the time or energy wasted, which is almost always considerable.

But these days, I am totally surrounded and there are just too many. I don't know why that stereo is skipping like mad just on the last CD cuts. Or why the computer won't download, even after I ran the recovery program which restored all the programs to their original state. I'm sure there are reasonable explanations. But it seems like they've just gone nuts. Or gotten old before their time.

The dryer, however, just needed to breathe better. The intake pipe is free of lint now, and that dryer is hot and tumbling, as good as new.