Other Writing Index

Jack Has A Thermos

Nobody loves a gadget like my father. Right up there with things that taste good are things that do things—unscrew tops, uncork bottles, inflate rafts, deflate rafts, juice oranges, blend milkshakes, vacuum spills, water lawns, keep tennis balls fresh. Like some kind of one man Consumer Reports, he has tested the usefulness of several decades worth of power tools, barbeques, and exercise equipment, the last in a never-ending quest to get in shape. I remember in the late Seventies there was a rope thing that you attached to a doorknob and you put your foot in one end of the rope and your hand in the other and when you pulled with your arm your leg rose up and vise-versa. It was simple, really. You just laid there on the floor, watching TV, using your own body parts for resistance. Unfortunately, the doors in our house had warped smaller from the air-conditioning and when you pulled on the rope you also pulled the door open.

Most people think of gadgets only as novelty items, clever contrivances that are possibly of more interest than of actual use and which make good jokey gifts at Christmas and Hanukkah. But as far as my father is concerned, any device, large or small, that promises to accomplish a task better than whatever device came before it, qualifies as a gadget. Call him a technophile, call him a prophet, call him a sucker. I call him The Gadgeteer.

Over the years the Gadgeteer has bought untold numbers of flashlights and telephones and popcorn poppers. Inevitably, our family had multiple generations of things—five juicers in ten years representing biannual improvements in juicer technology. We had a camera for every occasion, a small sampling of which included a classic thirty-five millimeter Nikon, the very first model of the Polaroid camera, purchased on a trip to Florida while they were still unavailable in New York, and a spy-sized Minox. On vacations my mother referred to herself as "Sandy Hold This" because my father would invariably insist that she carry his cameras and binoculars in her purse or slung over her shoulders, an upper middle-class sherpa.

Surprisingly, our kitchen and workshop did not boast a full array of Ronco products. That is because you had to mail away for those. Nothing is worse for my father than waiting for something he has suddenly decided he has to have. Part of the pleasure he gets from making these purchases is the immediate gratification of bringing them home as soon as he has discovered them. The rest of the pleasure is derived from the gadget itself, which is also, by its nature, a source of immediate gratification. You do this and then this happens. If it takes more then ten minutes to accomplish a task, it is not a gadget. Also, if it is not fun to use, it is not a gadget. The washing machine and the dishwasher and the iron are not gadgets. The vacuum cleaner is not a gadget. Or rather, the conventional vacuum cleaner is not a gadget. The nifty, outdoor, suck-up water, nails, and industrial waste vacuum cleaner is a gadget.

My father gets enormous satisfaction from the knowledge that he is taking care of his family by bringing home a better mousetrap. Many was the Saturday afternoon he returned from an excursion to the hardware store or the electronics store or a store in Westport called Silver's where pretty much everything they sold with the exception of luggage was a gadget, and presented us with his latest discovery.

"You've got to see this. It works like a dream. It's much better than that old thing we had. Wait a minute, let me just, wait, I think there are instructions somewhere, okay, this fits in here and this fits like this, there we go. Okay, now try it."

Sometimes the latest generation of a gadget had become more complicated, enabling it to accomplish a new set of tasks and broadening the scope of it's usefulness.

"Look at this, it has twenty different functions, twice as many as before. It's really amazing, the things you can do now."

And sometimes it had been simplified to an almost Luddite state of grace.

"Do you remember how the other one had all those buttons and dials and you had to set it every time? Christ, it was a real pain in the ass. This one you just turn on and off. You won't believe how easy it is."

Unfortunately, my father's technological prescience did not always result in a step forward for the Kaplan Family. In addition to a museum quality collection, Calculators Through The Ages, our basement housed a whole host of devices that were not so much functional as hyper-functional; they were too clever to actually work. Recreational items often fell into this category. Lounge chairs that doubled as floatation devices, safe versions of games that aren't fun if they are safe, science or craft projects that resulted in something completely unidentifiable. Occupying a prime corner of the dog's room—that was the room in our basement where the dog slept and where my brother and I were supposed to hang out with our friends but never did, opting instead for the paneled den with the big color TV—was a drawing contraption made of liter size plastic bottles that you filled with water and hung from the ceiling and there were some magic markers and pulleys involved and some string and you were supposed to be able to draw enormous geometric shapes with the bottles and markers swinging in various directions. Sort of like a giant Spiro graph. I am probably missing some important part of the description but I can tell you, I saw the thing in action and nobody ever knew what was supposed to happen. Then there was the giant chess set which consisted of a shaggy chessboard rug, about five feet square, and a set of ten inch tall, sand filled chess pieces. They were hard and large enough that if someone threw one at your head it could make you cry. This was not a gadget in the literal sense, but was, from my father's point of view, a new way to play chess, and thus qualified as a gadget in spirit. I think he had a vision of my brother and me laying around on the floor, improving our strategic thinking while listening to the Archie's. I don't remember ever playing a complete game of chess on that rug, possibly because at the time of its purchase my brother and I were totally consumed with making monsters by putting rubber globs in a heat chamber. Now that was a good gadget. The only member of our family ever to use the chess set was the dog. He lounged on the rug and occasionally carted the pawns from one end of the room to the other in his mouth.

My father's all-time biggest turkey took up residence in our garage in 1979. It was a Citroen with a hydraulic system that enabled the car to rise up when in use and lower down when at rest. The intention was, ostensibly, to give the rider the impression that he was floating gracefully above the roadway like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. He wasn't. The Citroen was already so low to the ground that even levitated to it's full height, you still had to crouch down to get in. It was a thankless car. It made my mother angry every time she saw it skulking menacingly on its haunches in the garage, and she was filled with dread at the thought of inheriting it when my father's muse, Gadgetella, struck next.

It struck alright but it didn't strike a car. Sometime around my sophomore year in high school my father decided that what we needed in our back yard was a hot tub. He and my mother had long debated the pros and cons of installing a pool, and one day, on the umpteenth fact finding mission to the pool store, my father fell in love with a redwood hot tub. He went home and made drawings and calculated figures and he came up with the idea of having an eleven by thirteen foot tub with a swim jet, the swimming equivalent of a treadmill. He found a carpenter from the Old World who hand cut and fitted every redwood plank and built beautiful curving railings. In the first week after it was finished my brother and I stood at my parent's bedroom window and watched our father's white body flailing away against the foamy jet. That's about as long as that exercise regimen lasted. In all fairness, though, the hot tub was pretty great. If I'd been popular it would have been really great. And being Jewish, no one ever took their bathing suit off. Still, friends came over often and we steeped late into the night, playing with the jets and breathing in the bromine scented steam. In the summer we turned off the heater and used the tub to cool off in, like a little swimming hole.

There were ways in which my father applied his gadgeteering skills with more serious intent. He was one of the first people to have a phone in his car. This was the late nineteen sixties, decades before cellular technology, and it was essentially like having a shortwave radio in your car. He loved the idea that he could talk to a client or call my mother to say he'd be late without stopping to find a payphone. The Mobile Phone, as it was called, looked just like the phones in our house, except it sat between the front seats in a box like the Bat Phone and to get a line out you actually had to talk to the Mobile Operator. At stop lights my brother and I used to open the window, hold out the receiver to the driver of the car next to us, say "It's for you" and collapse in hysterics. In those days my father was a hero because he could stop for distressed motorists and let them call for help, and they often couldn't believe their eyes when he offered them the phone.

He was also on top of the computer thing very early, and both he and his business, a consulting business, were transformed by it. One room of his company's offices was entirely devoted to a throng of huge Burroughs computers, whirring and ticking and hacking away, floor to ceiling, twenty-four hours a day. They were straight out of a 1950's sci-fi movie, and it was not hard to imagine them eventually breaking free from their moorings and galumphing down the hallway to my father's office. He would yell "Aaargh!" and that would be that. "Some day," my father told my brother, who was something of a techie himself—he worked in the A.V. Lab in school and was one of the kids who wheeled the over head projector into your classroom so the teacher could show you transparancies of Europe Before the Great War— "Someday" my father predicted, "everyone will have a computer on his desk."

Now that he has one on his own desk, it is continually breaking down because he refuses to leave it alone to do its job. There is always one more thing he can get it to do. "I was just trying to make the cross-referencing easier and I completely screwed the thing up. I was on the phone with the computer guy for half the day. But I know what I did wrong, so I just Écome," he says to whoever is nearby, "I'll show you what I did." He just found some software that helps return the computer to where it was before he messed with it. "It's really fantastic. I can't believe it took them so long to come up with something like this. Before, you made one little mistake and you wanted to tear your hair out. Christ."

But nothing, no computer, no telephone, no waterproof wristwatch or rechargeable battery, no bagel slicer or egg coddler or collapsable beach chair with cup holder and shoulder strap, no fold-into-a-tiny-pouch travel bag, nothing, has captured my father's imagination to the extent that the thermos has. Is it too big? Is it too small? Does it attach to the car? Does it have it's own carrying case? Does it keep things icy cold or boiling hot? These are the questions that consume him on a daily basis. And of course the thermos he is using at present is always the best one there is.

It is helpful to view it as a sort of mathematical model: Jack has a thermos. Maybe you have a thermos, maybe you don't. Either way, Jack wants you to have his type of thermos, because according to Jack, his is fantastic. Yours, that is, if you are not just reusing spring water bottles, which I might add, Jack thought a very good idea for several months, serves your needs. Jack's thermos does not serve your needs, or rather, you don't give a shit about the whole subject. Still, Jack buys you his type of thermos. Both because he wants you to have something fantastic and because he wants to prove to you that he is right. You use his thermos a few times. It's okay. When you concede as much, Jack tells you he has found a thermos he likes better.

This is the way with my father. He is of one mind about things, his mind. It is impossible to convince him otherwise, even with charts and graphs and surveys and polls. No device or idea works until he sees it works (or until he reads the directions), and then nothing else works. And this applies to every aspect of his life. If he likes a particular food, for example, it is not possible to make him understand that you don't: "Rye bread is delicious, you're crazy." Each time my mother served the horrible Liver Meal—that was the meal consisting of sautŽed chicken livers, cooked spinach and French's Mashed Potatoes, horrible, horrible—my father would lean over my plate and stir the spinach and mashed potatoes together, thus contaminating the mashed potatoes and essentially doubling the amount of spinach. "How can you not like this?" he would say. "It's delicious. You don't know what you're missing."

When I was about twenty-four years old, I had an operation of sorts to remove a congenital something or other that had taken up residence in my right lung, despite the fact that it had absolutely no business there. Before the procedure began, my father instructed me to drink eight full glasses of water. He was absolutely sure that he had heard somewhere, or read perhaps, that prior to procedures "such as yours", a patient must deluge him or her self with fluids. I told him that no one had suggested this to me but he was adamant, the result being that I later found it necessary to pee mid-procedure in the presence of ten or so medical personnel, onto a folded towel, which was all I was offered, while I lay stark naked on a gurney. A nurse said to me "Eight glasses of water? What in God's name for?"

Ahh, but the trouble is, I can imagine myself saying to someone: You have to drink eight glasses of water this morning before your procedure. And when they ask why, I would posit: Because this is that kind of procedure. Maybe I read it somewhere, maybe someone I know has had a similar procedure, maybe I made it up. (I am often most convinced of the rightness of things I make up.) I am, in fact, the Gadgeteer's daughter, and I have inherited a variation of the Gadgeteer Gene. While I couldn't care less about all those clever little devices, per se, I have an almost unshakable confidence in my ability to think logically. And I am pretty much always right. And I don't stop giving my opinion until I am sure it has been absorbed if not actually ratified by all listeners, or else they leave the room, which sometimes happens. My father is more dismissive of opposing opinions. Or rather, he is sympathetic. He will shake his head at the sad and sorry state of your antediluvian gadgets and might even buy you some new ones, but he will not lose sleep over it. I, however, am less sympathetic than rather dangerously empathetic. I feel what you feel. And if I feel that you are wrong, I will stay up the entire night until I have brought you around. Nobody can beat a dead horse like me, nobody. Except maybe my mother, but look at what she's up against.

If I sound impossible to live with, I'm not, but there's time.

If my father sounds impossible to live with, he is, but now, thankfully, that is exclusively my mother's problem. It helps that my father is also the most loving, most generous man I know, and if you keep at him long enough, hard enough, if you are sure of your facts and armed with some evidence, you might occasionally break through to him. When you do he will laugh, wonderfully, at his own wrongness and say, "Really? I can't believe it. No kidding. I was absolutely positive. Oh, well." Once in a while he even proves himself wrong.

"It fit into this holder in the car door and would have been great except every time I took a sip, the Goddamn thing leaked down the side. Christ. I got this other one, though, and it really keeps the water ice cold."