FRATERNITY brothers at Cornell call it "the driver." A Washington lawyer calls it "the zapper"; a New Yorker calls it "the clicker." Others say "the remote" or "the thing-ie." They all mean the little black box that, having transformed television, now threatens male-female relations.
With broadcast television, people used remote controls mostly to zap commercials. With the spread of cable, and its 36 or 70 or 150 channels, the luxury has become a necessity. Now the remote is to TV what page-flipping is to magazines.
What does one do, for instance, late at night when the movie ends and on comes one of those hokey "infomercials," hosted by celebrities hustling miracle ways to lose weight or gain wealth? Zap! An instant remedy for all viewers, male or female.
The trouble arises from the word "instant," and the reason becomes evident in how differently men and women typically flick, click and zap.
He clicks quickly, pausing for barely a second on each channel until he has gone through them all. How long does it take, he will say, to decide, no, I don't want to call an 800 number to buy a 10-karat gold Black Hills ring.
She moves deliberately, pausing for 20, 30 seconds on each channel. No one can tell, she will say, whether something is worth watching until you watch.
What is it about the clicker that so renders the genders? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld offers one explanation: "Because women nest and men hunt." Such speculation earns laughter; yet it does not reach the power question: Who, nester or hunter, controls the remote control?
It is, thankfully, a rare problem. All too often, he and she glumly agree that the right button to push is the one labeled OFF.