Machines say, ‘Make my day.’

Janice Lindsay
Janice Lindsay

Mechanical objects aren’t necessarily terrifying; it’s just that some of us might have been more comfortable in a slightly less technological century.

For me, the anxiety about mechanical things started long before 8-year-olds were taking selfies with their iPhones.

I blame the phone company. I grew up before dial phones, in a small country town. When you lifted the handset to make a call, a live operator said (in our case, demanded): “Number please.” If a shy child learning to use the phone hesitated for even one second, she received a lesson in supreme adult crabbiness. An equation began to take shape in mind: mechanical object equals embarrassment.

The lock on the school principal’s door didn’t help. Once, our teacher, who was also the principal, needed a book from his locked office and sent little-kid Janice with the key to fetch it. Struggle as I might, I could not figure out how to unlock the door. Deeply chagrined, I returned to the classroom empty-handed except for the key. The teacher patiently walked me back to the office and showed me how to unlock the door. But it was too late. I hate locks.

And talk about learning to drive a standard-shift car! I learned on an automatic, but decided a standard would be safer and more practical. (This was when a driver’s skill mattered, before cars got smarter than we are.)

Once, when I was new to the art, I found myself trying to inch forward in the line at a toll booth on the Mass. Pike. I established a routine: shift into first gear, step on the gas, surge forward, stall, jerk to a stop. I was engaged in this surge-and-jerk rhythm when it was my turn to pay the toll. I was stalled 15 feet from the toll booth with a line of Boston drivers behind me, and you know how patient they are.

The toll taker stepped out of his booth and sauntered to my car. I opened the window. “Look,” he said kindly, “why don’t you pay me the toll right here. Then, when you get this thing started, you can sail right through.”

I paid the toll, kissed his hand (mentally),waited until he was safely re-ensconced in his booth, shifted into first gear, and with one might surge I flew through the booth at 50 miles an hour.

Did I mention embarrassing?

For people like me, every new technological device holds potentially heart-palpitating challenges: digital watch, microwave oven, bread machine, TV.

But to bring on a true anxiety attack requires a computer.

I bought a user-friendly computer. An ordinary computer-literate person could be in business an hour after opening the box. It took me three anxious weeks just to work up the courage to open the box.

I eventually figured out how to program the printer and load the software and the computer and I worked out a deal: It would do what I asked, and I wouldn’t ask it to do anything hard.

But then came the inevitable day when I had to update the system. I was determined to do this correctly, by myself, in a calm and professional manner. Having spent a couple of months in mental preparation, I sat down at the computer and began, trembling.

Know this: Machines can smell your fear.

I won’t relate the regrettable details of my system-update adventure. But now I know that whenever I decide to do anything serious computer-wise, I must not go it alone. I must ask help from a highly trained and knowledgeable computer professional. Or an 8-year-old.