Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And we adapt so well to captivity

You get to a certain age, and you start thinking you’ve seen much of what life has to offer—at least at the mall. But there it was, no bigger than my hand, and the furry critter was crawling all over the sales rep who insisted that a sugar bear was just what our household needed.

Last I’d heard, Sugar Bear was a cartoon bear that adorned boxes of Super Sugar Crisp, wearing a preppy blue turtleneck sweater. Related to koalas and kangaroos and also called “sugar gliders,” these have appeared on Animal Planet and are billed as the perfect ‘pocket-pets.’” They’re well behaved and appropriate for young children. They bond to their human “families,” they get along with non-slithering pets, they’re loyal, and they love to play. When you have one, in fact, you’ll think of yourself in a whole new way: as a set of monkey bars.

Other people aren’t so complimentary. Sugar bears bite. They love to play so much that you can just forget about anything else you like to do, like read things online. Cats and dogs love them…the way women love chocolate. And they can’t be potty trained, though they tend to pee and poop on members of their human “families,” especially in their pockets. What do you expect? They’re marsupials—they know pockets from birth. Oh, and you don’t spend hundreds on just one; it needs a friend. So you should get a second, of the opposite sex. Of course, you know what comes next.

I’m sure the truth, other than their curious aversion to snakes, lies somewhere in between. But I have a bigger problem with a creature that’s captured in the rainforests of Australia or Indonesia and transported ten thousand miles to press me into servitude. Really now: If I so wanted something in my pocket that required incessant attention, a smart phone is all I’d need.

When Katie and Andrew were much younger, they received Tamagotchis in a birthday-party goody bag, and I considered it a credit to their intelligence that within scant weeks they left the beeping slave drivers for dead, virtually doomed to starvation. I have no doubt the kids would do the same if they played Farmville—and on the scale of Tyson Foods. It makes a father proud.

Yet today’s web-enabled handhelds have become today’s Tamagotchis, and there’s no condemning these critters. They text us, they comment on our status, they play music and videos, and do myriad other things with all the apps—little software programs, for the uninitiated—you can download to them. (Alas, there’s no virtual sugar-bear app.) They never shut up. And they’re creating a race of sub-human beings who walk while looking downward, banging into one another and into the path of cars—whose drivers are also checking their little screens instead of the road.

I know…because I’m trying not to become one. With my new iPod Touch, occasionally a very handy doodad, I’m still trying to find all the settings I need to set so it stops calling me with every IM, email and social-network comment someone sends my way. It doesn’t yet feel like a sugar bear in my pocket.

But the day it does, I’ll just have to download a Pampers app.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dial 00:00:00 for murder

“…'Cause if my baby don't love me no more,
I know her…sister will!”

It’s a safe bet that Jimi Hendrix wrote “Red House” about a far more shapely subject than a stainless-steel kitchen timer. But sadly for the Perratore household, the closing lines of this ’60s song have taken on a whole new meaning since we opened our Christmas gifts.

Regular readers of this blog will remember well that during the fall, a shadow lay over our family. Its name was OXO, a three-event timer that took on a personality and took to devilry whenever I was within her—yes, her—vicinity. Even placing my hand inches away was all it took for her to reset her clock to noon or shrieking like a banshee.

Shortly after she got what she wanted, publication of her story for a worldwide audience, OXO promptly expired. But she didn’t exactly go to meet her maker, which would probably have meant being shipped back to some Chinese labor camp. The next day, her lifeless shell showed up into the backpack I take to the office. She resides on my bookcase, where she can sit in judgment for eternity—not counting evenings and weekends—on my every deadline.

End of story, right? I thought so, and so did Elena. Until she reached into her stocking on Christmas morning, our favorite Bing Crosby LP playing softly on the stereo, and pulled out…Sister.

Despite our experience with OXO, I alone knew that my wife still wanted to have a kitchen timer she could use to time a few parts of a dinner at once. But don’t look at me; I was as surprised as Elena. What we quickly dubbed Sister was soon situated at the same post her fallen twin once manned.

From several feet away, I regarded the newcomer with suspicion. I drew closer, staring, and finally had the nerve to reach over and nudge the timer. That alone would have produced, from her predecessor, the polyphonic screams of feigned injury. From Sister, it resulted in nary a sound; I might as well have poked the toaster.

Next, I picked her up and unceremoniously held down her Clock button to reset the time. OXO would already have been livid—and let us know it by resetting her clock faster than I could set it. But Sister, a cooler character indeed, was not about to show her hand so easily. I reset the clock, pressed the Clock button again, and set her back down. My hands were shaking.

This morning, Elena asked me how I’d slept. The answer was easy: hardly. For the realization hasn’t escaped me that Sister has the same number of built-in timers as this household currently has people. With no weapons but a countdown—isn’t that, in the end, what we all face?—I suspect Sister’s first buzzer is for me. And my time draws nigh.

The day they find me at home, an expression of horror betraying my last moments alive, a cleaning attendant at my office will hear tones from a bookshelf in my office. From a device that hasn’t known batteries in weeks, midnight will flash…and flash…and flash….