Friday, June 26, 2009

The Challenge of Retro-Tech

Household things tend to wear out or go bust in clusters. On a hot and humid morning earlier this week I realized that the air conditioning was not working and traced the problem to a corroded, leaking battery in the thermostat. That same day the cordless phone in the kitchen began whining that it wanted a new battery, sending me into the blister-pack jungle of phone batteries that look almost exactly alike to find the only one that would actually fit (memo to phone manufacturers: it would be really swell if you put the model number of your phone on the actual phone).

Brief Old Guy Rant here: Remember when the only difference between light bulbs was the wattage? Now I have eleven completely different kinds of bulbs in the kitchen alone, some of which cost what I once considered a reasonable price for an entire fixture. I have a considerable portion of my retirement savings tied up in spare light bulbs. Batteries may be even worse – I do not even try to keep spares on hand except for the basic AA, AAA and 9V varieties. I initially thought it was ridiculous when a chain of stores selling nothing but batteries opened, now I’m thinking there may be a wonderful franchise opportunity in stores selling nothing but light bulbs.

But the real challenge is in maintaining “legacy” products. We still have several phones with receivers connected to the phone by an actual cord. These are the only landline phones that will still work if the power goes out (at least they will until the expensive back-up battery on the cable modem gives out). One of these primitive phones is critical to my wife. It sits on a small table in the upstairs hallway, just outside her office. There is no electrical outlet there, so a cordless phone is not an option. She loves that phone; loves the solid heft of the receiver in her hand. Often she needs to take it into her office so she can pull information up on her computer while chatting with her caller. Long ago I made two modifications to the phone that make this possible – an extra length coiled cord for the receiver, and a 16-foot retractable cord for the phone line. This last item is what prompted me to write.

Retractable cords are fragile creatures. They are very thin, which is what allows them to fit into a retractor of modest size. Sooner or later they become kinked or frayed and must be replaced. I used to be able to pick them up in any hardware or variety store, but they gradually vanished from the shelves. The last time I needed a new one I had to buy it at Radio Shack. This time I learned that even Radio Shack has dropped the item from their line.

Resigned to paying outrageous shipping charges, I turned to the web. Even there the pickings were slim. Shorter retractable lines are sold for laptop users who are forced to resort to dial-up connections, but it took a lengthy search to track down the classic 16-foot length we needed. I bought two. I can’t decide whether to keep the second as a back-up or to place it on a stand and display it as an antique. I recently read that there are now more households in the US that a have a cell phone and no landline than a landline and no cell, and the trend is accelerating. Susan is apparently the last human being on earth still using a corded landline phone with a retractable line. I am living with the Queen of Retro-Tech.

Monday, June 8, 2009

St. Francis and the Rabbits

It is said that St. Francis was so pure of heart that animals had no fear of him. I am not St. Francis, and I sincerely wish that animals feared me more than they do. I am speaking specifically of rabbits. Last winter they destroyed the hedge around our patio, and all through the spring they have been munching on various flowers and plants. They are clearly doing this with malicious intent. They sense in their evil bunny hearts which plants we value the most and single them out for destruction. If it is not a plant they care to eat, they taunt us by snipping it off and leaving it lying on the ground. These are very, very bad bunnies.

We have tried putting fencing around particularly prized plants, but this creates a garden that resembles a prisoner of war camp. Susan sprinkles plants with pepper and sprays them with various magic potions, but the rabbits regard these as salad dressing. They are indifferent to plastic snakes and snicker at plastic owls. We win the occasional battle, but the bunnies are winning the war.

In my mind there is an obvious solution, but the only thing Susan detests more than rabbits are guns. While I am a strong advocate of gun control, I believe that gardeners have an inalienable right to defend their forsythia with a pellet gun. She raises grim scenarios of me shooting my eye out or being hauled away in cuffs by law enforcement. This is not an argument I am going to win.

St. Francis is often credited as author of “the serenity prayer,” which was actually written by Reinhold Neibuhr. Here is his original version of it:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

I cannot decide if rabbits are things that cannot be changed or things that should be changed. I like the second part of the prayer, the part most people have never heard. More of us should pray that “I may be reasonably happy in this life” because we are not likely to be completely happy. Not so long as there are rabbits.