Stuck dumb by technology that passes while we're busy self-cleaning the oven

October 17, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

THE TEA KETTLE whistled, and my son, who can hear any electronically created beep or buzz but not my voice, jerked his head around.

It took him a minute to figure out where the sound was coming from, that the steam from the boiling water had forced its way through a tiny opening to create that whistle.

"Ingenious," he said softly and to himself.

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that an entire generation of technology has slipped into oblivion before my children noticed it.

I had the same thought when my daughter wanted to buy one of those heavy, black, rotary-dial desk phones at a garage sale, but had no idea what it was used for. She, of the pink princess phone with speed dial to her girlfriends, thought I was joking when I explained that we used to make telephone calls with those. "How did you use it?" she asked, truly baffled.

When I tell my children how we used to cook popcorn -- with big pots and hot oil and yellow kernels they've never seen because the kernels are sealed inside those microwave bags -- they think I am making it up.

My mother, God bless her, had a wringer washer and no dryer and cloth diapers. I found her recovering on the sofa once after the wringer had pulled in her long, pretty fingers along with the sheets.

She used to iron those sheets, but only after they'd spent a couple of days on the bottom shelf of the fridge, cooling while the moisture from the sprinkler she'd created from a glass milk bottle spread through them.

So I am aware in my own life of the march of technology. Spin cycles, permanent-press sheets and steam irons. But I feel like my own inattentive children will have to visit the American History Museum at the Smithsonian if they are to see the artifacts of even the most recent past.

Such as:

Ice cube trays. My daughter shouted from her grandmother's kitchen once, "Mom, Grandma makes ice cubes from scratch." She thinks ice comes out of a hole in a door.

"Ugh, sink water," she muttered as I filled a glass from the faucet. This child of Brita thinks only bathwater does not come in a bottle or cold and filtered from the shelf in the refrigerator.

There is more. My son thinks of my stereo system as I might think of the gramophone. "Do you know," he said with indignation, "we are the only family that still has a turntable?"

He bought a CD player with months' of allowance and told me I could use it anytime I wanted. "But I don't have any CDs," I said.

There is so much my children have never seen. Such as a television set with rabbit ears. They have never watched a test pattern while waiting in dawn's early light for cartoons to start. They will never hear the national anthem played before sign-off at 2 a.m.

They have never had a fountain drink or seen me sleep with my hair in rollers.

Nor have they seen me clean an oven, wearing rubber gloves and spraying noxious foam. I flip a lever and hit a button to do that. It is so easy my son once cleaned the oven by accident, incinerating muffins in the process.

I have never defrosted a freezer in front of them, shutting pots of boiling water inside it. They have never lived in a world without Velcro or bar codes or scanners. They know nothing of typewriter ribbons or reel-to-reel tape recorders like the one that preserved my third-grade piano recital.

My daughter did not recognize a toaster, because you can't make French bread pizza in one and so we have a toaster oven. She has never clinked her teeth against a glass thermometer.

What is the point of listing these ancient technologies? None, I suppose. Although I wonder some days if I am standing still while all these things move in and then out of my life, or if I am moving through time and discarding this stuff as I go.

My 11-year-old was thinking hard as he watched the tea kettle shoot off its steam. "Why didn't they just attach some kind of heat sensor that would let you know when the water is hot?" he asked.

# "They did," I said.

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