Sunday, December 4, 2011


Improving on something until it doesn’t work anymore.

I picked up our bottle of Windex today. I squeezed and squeezed the trigger. No product came out. Upon investigation, I realized that the tip on the squirt portion – formerly round – was now square and needed to be turned 90 degrees in order for fluid to be dispensed. This I did. I also had to reattach the tube running to the bottom of the bottle that had blown itself off as I squeezed the constricted trigger. All of which prompts:

THEN: I’d help mom dry mop and then wet mop the floor using a raggedy assemblage of yarn, bound by a woven fabric strip and clamped using real sprung steel onto a long smooth dowel called a mop handle. The dry mop would collect the kitten hair, dust bunnies and leaves we’d tracked in. The wet mop would pick up the breakfast crumbs and dust and grit that had followed on our feet. After a good going over, the kitchen linoleum was clean and good for another week of activity.

NOW: I use a long handled device with a plastic panel to which a dry cloth or a wet damp cloth may be attached using Velcro. The wet cloth works best when, instead of water, I squirt a chemical film – provided by the mop maker – across the floor before methodically wiping it up.

BUT: Those Velcro connection points have a limited lifetime and soon, the unit must be replaced. And, if the dog happens to lick the floor before the cleaner is fully dried, an expensive trip to the vet may ensue.

THEN: I toasted bread in a toaster that accommodated two slices. A knob on one end allowed me to adjust the degree of toastedness. A simple push of a little lever snapped the toast into the thing and the toast automatically popped up when it was done.

NOW: I own a toaster in which I can also bake a pie. I can roast potatoes and heat leftovers. I can thaw frozen fish. I can even put a whole chicken in there.

BUT: About six weeks into ownership – in my instance – the computer module gave up. Sure, I got a replacement – covered under warranty – but the warranty didn’t offer me a warm and crisp English muffin to go with my coffee and banana the morning the damned thing crapped out. And I wonder where the defective model ended up.

THEN: I could turn on (boot) my little Macintosh computer, wait a few seconds, and once the thing warmed up, begin typing a story. The bulbous machine was small with about a 13” screen and fit nicely on my restricted work area. When I hit “tab,” the thing indented, when I hit “return” it didn’t. The nice little machine wasn’t any smarter than me. It worked and I loved it.

NOW: I own a computer that can do wondrous things: It can access information from anyone at any time. It can play movies that I didn’t see at the theatre. It can even put the postal service out of business.

BUT: It is damned difficult to sit down and type a thought without the distraction of auto indent, auto cap, auto this and auto that. I can’t type dialogue as dialect without having the damned thing correct for spelling. I choose to indent in one situation and it wants to indent every time I hit “return.” It corrects for “widows” and “orphans” so eagerly that I’ve given up donating to Catholic charities. Often, in the midst of a good story line or thought, the computer “fixes” something and, in my efforts to counteract the default fix, the thread is lost.

THEN: I could pick up the phone and dial.

NOW: I can pick up the phone and dial if I have coverage.

THEN: I could buy a refrigerator and, although I had to defrost it regularly, it’d last twenty-five years.

NOW: I can buy a frost-free model that may last seven or eight.

THEN: I could go to the bank and pick up a twenty.

NOW: I can go to the bank for cash so long as my account hasn’t been hacked.

THEN: I could twist a screw if the old Honda 90 or R-65 BMW idled too slowly.

NOW: Well, the bike never idles too slowly. But it used to be (before tubeless motorcycle tires) I could fix a flat and depend on the repair for the life of the tire.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: innovation is, indeed, a good thing. Where would we be without it? Our houses would be colder; our vehicles: far less efficient; our water and air: more polluted; our communication: less instantaneous. Where design follows function – the hammer, the cast iron skillet, the wooden pencil, the afore mentioned banana, the hen’s egg, the boxer motor (or the vee-twin), the Airstream, the wind-tunnel designed Avanti – the user is usually satisfied with the result.

However, innovation for innovation’s sake (or worse - marketing's sake) produces stuff like Microwave popcorn, the Vege-matic, the BetaMax, the Mustang II and “New” Coke. Perhaps included also should be: the plastic shopping bag [paper used to work] and the disposable water bottle [drinking fountains used to work, too.]

No, I’m not for blowing us all back into the nineteenth century, but when I pick up something that I need to use or consume right now, I’d like it to work well or taste good. Bigger, faster, lighter, more convenient and/or slicker looking seems to get in the way of that too frequently.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. But Velcro, itself, is a pretty cool development.

  2. Not to mention consumer products that are packaged so that they can not be accessed and used without a cutting torch, crowbar or the jaws of life.

    Mr. Brilliant hits the long ball yet again.

  3. I am mightily concerned that the Guzzi engine received second billing in this piece.

  4. Anonymous 1: Yep, Velcro has a certain stick-to-it-tiveness.

    Anonymous 2: Yikes! That should have read: "Transverse mounted Vee-Twin (or the boxer motor.)" My bad.

  5. One of my favorites yet.... too true and well stated.