When I was a kid, we had telephones and radios, 20th-Century wonders that made us think we had gone about as far as we could go.
Today we are in an advanced technological age and directly in the path of something called the information superhighway. I don't know what the superhighway is, exactly, but I don't want to be standing there when it comes, if it isn't already here.
I sometimes wonder what life would be like if it were not for television. I think of the hundreds, no, thousands of books I might have read instead of sitting dumbly in front of the tube watching sex and violence and listening to babbling politicians.
I think of the thousands of conversations my wife and I might have had were it not for that constant assault from the tube. How many tens of thousands of ads have we meekly absorbed?
These miracles are by no means foolproof. We are all vulnerable to their frailties. I have just been through an utterly demoralizing week of intimidation and rebellion by my electronic aides.
First, my computer crashed. I am almost helpless without it. A column I had written for The Times was lost in the crash. I rewrote it on my wife's machine, but her modem didn't work, so I tried to fax it to The Times. They didn't receive it. Finally my wife had to drive it in to The Times, as she used to do.
Meanwhile, my computer sits in the shop, being worked on at $150 an hour. I had lost not only that column, but also all the others I had written in the last couple of years. My son programmed my wife's computer so I could write letters and postcards on it, but I can't make it work. So my mail piles up unanswered.
That isn't all. We have seven telephones in our house, including one portable. A week or so ago, they all went dead. We called the phone company. They said it would cost $45 for the first 15 minutes and $16 for every 15 minutes after that. We told them to go ahead. You can't live without a telephone. The repairman worked two or three hours but said he was charging us only for the first 30 minutes since the trouble was outside the house. However, the phone lines were mixed up. My son spent most of a Sunday straightening them out.
Then my answering machine went crazy. It answered after I had already picked up the phone, repeating that inane message: "Hello. This is Jack. If you want to leave a message wait for the tone."
I was listening to KOCE one night during a fund-raising pitch. They said if you pledged $100 they would send you, free, a VCR-Plus, one of those machines that supposedly make it easy to tape a program. I spent one entire day working with it and have never gotten it to tape a program yet.
The other night my daughter-in-law Jacqueline brought by a young woman who demonstrated a machine called Panic Dialer. She explained that you put the receiver somewhere in the house and wear the sending device on a cord around your neck. Then if you fell down and broke a hip, or had any other kind of catastrophe, you could push a button to dial either the police or the fire department, or any one of four friends who could be expected to help.
Because my sense of balance was damaged by my stroke, I am regarded as potentially helpless. The other day I fell while trying to get into my wife's car and chipped my right ankle in two places.
Theoretically, the dialer dials the numbers serially until one of them answers. I'm afraid if I tried that I would not only get the police and the fire department, but all four of my friends or relatives would descend on me simultaneously. What a commotion that would cause in our street.
Then a neighbor, Chuck Coulter, came by with something in a red plastic box that looked like a large lunch pail. It was a Programmable Pain Management System. He demonstrated. The machine consists of two long wires with batteries at one end and pads at the other. You place the pads against whatever hurts--shoulder, elbow, knee--and turn on the juice, controlling it with a dial. I tried it. I felt small electric jolts going through my ankle. Now I'm sitting home alone surrounded by all these wonderful machines. I'm a little afraid of the pain management machine. I might electrocute myself.
My manicurist, Nancy, says I should roll a hot hard-boiled egg over my ankle. She says it will make the pain go away.
I'm going to try it. At least it can't electrocute me.
* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.