The Patriot Ledger

COMMENTARY: What it's like to live in a 'dumb home' -
Appliances conspire against owner

The Patriot Ledger

Remember all that buzz about "smart homes?" You know, where every boring task, from laundry to cooking, is programmed into your home's central computer? You just punch in an ID number - or, better yet, a programmed chip recognizes your face or fingerprint - and, Voila! Your jeans slosh in the washer, a roast browns in the oven and bubbles float from the hot water automatically filling the bathtub as you step out of your work clothes.

The machines in my home laugh at such state-of-the-art dreams. They long ago conspired to train me to lower my standards and accept that I live in a "dumb home" of misbehaving underachievers. At any one time, at least a dozen so-called labor-saving or entertainment devices are working below capacity - or just aren't working.

Take my printer: I've brought home three feckless $99 specials with Liz Taylor attitudes toward a long-term relationship. This latest bubble-jet bimbo works only 'til the paper runs out, then refuses to finish the job, even with a fresh supply. The On button and Reload button don't impress this baby once she's quit.

To encourage the printer, my teenage son told me to "defrag" my computer, and I told him to clean up his language. Then I read the manual, and launched a program to toss out the clutter on my hard drive.

Now the printer works occasionally, just like my son.

Then there's my fax machine. For the price of a $5 replacement policy, Staples guaranteed me a new machine or $70 worth of merchandise, the cost of the fax. Two weeks later, the cartridge roller snagged and the copy function died, so I slogged back to Staples and upgraded to a $100 model and a $10 replacement policy. The new machine faxes OK, but, like the first one, it refuses to copy. So now I'm down an additional $45 (plus gas money) and own a lazy fax. I can almost hear the collusive chuckles.

Let's move on to the home entertainment system, which is anything but, in my house. My stereo is a $40 boom box that I move - along with a rubber banded stack of CD's - from the living room to the kitchen, as the mood strikes me. I'd love to buy a new CD/tuner/receiver with multiple speakers, but the range of configurations to study and the number of wires to install discourages me. I'm more in tune with my 1938-built house: A radio/turntable in an RCA console cabinet would suffice.

I try harder with my TV. Of course I have digital cable and watch as many as eight of the 300 or so available stations - when the TV cooperates, that is. Sometimes it demands I click once on two separate remotes to get a picture; other times, a simple touch of one changer brightens the screen. And occasionally - when I'm running late for The Sopranos, of course - the cable connection vanishes and all I get is snow. I used to make angry calls to the cable folks. Now I just sigh and grab a book: Tomorrow, the TV will work fine again and family members will smile behind my back.

Not that I'm alone in my complaints: Anyone born before JFK won the White House fears microchips. At least 50 percent of us can't record on our VCRs, either.

But I feel unfairly targeted by older-style machines, too.

My garbage disposal grinds so loud I can't hear my daughter's rap music. Its vibrations plunge plates and glasses into the drain.

The built-in oven timer beeps so softly I've sold my family on burned cookies.

Hot water spurts from the cold water faucet in the master bathroom and plumbers scratch their heads. I've grown to like boiled toothpaste.

The ice-maker on my GE fridge sometimes plops a few ice cubes in my drink, but mostly it just grinds and gnashes. The water dispenser spouts air. The appliance fix-it guy shrugs.

For 24 hours recently, no one could hear me on my phone, unless I shouted. Day two, callers gently suggested I didn't have to holler, so I guessed the problem was over.

Day three, I spied a Verizon repairman on the telephone pole across the street. "What's the problem?" I called to him as I took in my mail.

"For one thing, there's a bird's nest inside this line," he said, pointing to a bunch of twigs and leaves bunched around coiled wires. "You just never know what you're gonna find, when you poke around," he added.

In my home, it's bats in the belfry.

Ingrid Shaffer's column appears Wednesdays. She can be reached by E-mail

Copyright 2002 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Wednesday, November 20, 2002