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Opinion

The Curse of Instruction Manuals

When I was young, cursing was frowned on in our family. I was raised a Catholic and it was a mortal sin to take the Lord’s name in vain.

But I remember shocking myself one day as I led a pack of Stowe ski friends down the mountain after a 20-inch snowfall in a game of “follow the leader.” To show off, I veered off the summit trail and over the cliff that begins the National, a notoriously difficult racing trail. The new snow had obscured a chain and a pendant sign across the trail indicating it was closed. I felt the sharp pain in my shins and pitched forward over the chain. Both skis and one boot released, and I avalanched down the 45-degree slope in a billow of fresh powder to the vast amusement of the tourists riding slowly up the then single chairlift. I came to rest where the National crosses the lift-line, swearing like a banshee and evoking even more amusement. Since I was missing one boot and both skis, a kindly ski patrolman brought me a skip-jack to ride to the bottom. In the spring, a mountain company employee found one of my skis below the parking lot in the spring with a broken Arlberg strap.

By the time I was twenty, I was married and had a child so I stopped cursing altogether. But now that the kids are all grown and departed, the need to role-model went with them and I’ve started swearing again.

At 72, it’s no longer epic sports accidents that trigger my umbrage, but rather new devices that don’t work as I expect them to: a TV remote or an “intelligent” thermostat with too many buttons, a microwave clock impossible to reset after a power outage, or a “smart” phone I don’t know how to answer when it rings. The list goes on.

Like many dotards, to quote Kim Jong Un, I have little patience for 40-page instruction manuals in micro-type, the first twenty pages of which are safety warnings and death threats about misuse of the device, like how swallowing certain of its components might cause heart failure or impotence.

I generally discard instruction manuals more than a page along with the packaging. I’m told I can always download a .pdf from the Internet, but I’ve lost the instructions on how to download a pdf.

My children and my patient wife urge me to read the illegible manuals, assuring me it will make my life and theirs easier. But I’ve chosen a better route, one that has brought relative calm to our household. I’ve discarded every “tool” that has more than one page of instructions or the use of which is not wholly intuitive, like good old kitchen knives, scissors, screwdrivers, flashlights, and wooden pencils. I’ve replaced all our smart appliances with dumb ones. I find myself wishing I’d never sold our ’50s-era Maytag wringer-washer, but I’ve solved the incomprehensible modern washer dilemma by letting my beloved do the wash, as she seems to have mastered the new washer, which looks to me like the cockpit console of a 747. And now we dry our clothes on a handsome wooden rack in front of the woodstove and the living is easy!

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