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Column: A family tradition of failing with technology

As I struggled the other day with a diesel engine on a tractor, and realized I was losing the battle, it occurred to me that this shouldn't be a surprise. Any examination of my ancestry turns up some folks who have either not cooperated gracefully with new technology (I consider a diesel engine new technology, which goes to show where I am regarding technology) or, having not cooperated well, failed disastrously.

Great-great Uncle Ralph is an example. Upon being found in close association with someone else's horse, family rumor has it that he was disastrously interface between a short hanging rope and a tall oak tree. I guess Uncle Ralph would have thought this a good example of user-hostile technology.

Grandma in particular resisted the entry into her life of any invention after the chicken egg. That was it for her. After Grandpa died, and after Grandma had lived all alone in a big house in town, her frugality became extreme. I remember arriving at her house for a visit in winter and shivering outside in the cold while she spent several minutes pulling rugs and blankets away from the door, so I could come in.

Once inside, it wasn't much better. You either kept your coat on or froze some more because she knew just enough about technology to turn the thermostat down as far as it would go, using sweater technology instead of gas heat technology.

Aside from this resistance to heating technology, she was happy and healthy and insisted on having holiday dinners at her home. Tradition was tradition.

For Christmas that year, her children--my dad among them--searched for the perfect present for Grandma, keeping in mind the fact that they were dealing with the egg barrier for a limit. No electric mixers, beaters, blenders, chippers, stirrers, etc. That eliminated practically everything on a normal Christmas list. What to give Grandma. What? What? What?

Finally, after a great deal of discussion and contemplation and item rejections, they decided upon what they thought was something she needed, and could handle, technology-wise. Their choice? An electric blanket to keep her warm at night. Just an on-off switch, like the lights, which she seemed to handle OK.

It had no moving parts. Great.

At Christmas that year, gifts were exchanged in the usual subdued mid-Western, WASP-ish good cheer, subdued because that's how it gets when you are brought up not to show too much emotion, and because we drew names, and what does one get your spinster great-aunt, whom one has seen maybe once in your lifetime.

Drawing names was the black side of Christmas, if you were a young boy. You just knew those presents were going to be hard to be excited about.

"Gosh, isn't this nice," said Grandma upon opening her electric blanket, everyone around her wishing she would like it, hoping she would use it, wondering if she would want it. "It's just perfect," she went on, gushing just enough that everyone relaxed and went on to open their various neckties, hankies, socks, hair brushes and whatnot.

One of her children, one of dad's sisters, I think, said: "We'd better not find this one nailed up to the front door, because it's an expensive electric blanket!" This was said half-jokingly.

In response to this, Grandma giggled her best, said don't be silly, and even I at a young age realized that Grandma's hearing had finally sunk below comprehension. I don't remember for sure about a hearing aid, but I think it was squealing so loud that no one could hear anything.

Nailing blankets over the front door didn't seem to earn the "don't be silly" reply. I knew she had not heard what was said.

Her children all congratulated one another on such a successful gift, and went on to another helping of cake and ice cream.

At the following Easter dinner at Grandma's house, Grandma was asked how she liked that wonderful electric blanket they had gotten her for Christmas.

She giggled, and replied, in her best now-don't-feel-bad-you-tried-your-best-and-sometimes-stuff-just-goes-bad: "Oh that old thing! It was full of worms. I threw it out!"

I looked at the diesel engine.

And giggled.