Technical Considerations

Audrey Thompson

Ours is a household with a serious commitment to mechanical and electronic gadgets. Well, when I say “household,” I do not really mean the cats. I don’t want to suggest that the cats have anything against gadgets. They do have their prejudices, but on the whole they approve of mechanical and electronic appliances. Although they dislike any machinery having to do with household maintenance (particularly vacuum cleaners and collapsible ironing boards) or potential enemies (such as doorbells and phones), they are deeply interested in can openers and they are fond of high-end appliances like computers and digital cameras. They are especially interested in cameras. Our cats prefer to be on the taking rather than the receiving end of cameras. At our house, it is hard to take pictures of cats; everyone crowds behind the camera, trying to see what it is that I am looking at and whether I am framing the shot properly. Taking candid family photos around here is like having four directors and one actor. Even when I bribe the cats with catnip, there are often one or two breakaway cats who will stroll over to look at the camera and consider my technique.
Catnip-induced group photos
Trillin, Harley and Teddy Trillin, Harley and Teddy

My sister Barbara used to be like that. Not that we gave her catnip, but she was more interested in controlling the gadgets than being recorded by them. Once when she was two, we were all at the dinner table in the dining room, where Dad was secretly using the reel-to-reel recorder to tape the family dinner conversation, intending to mail the evidence to our grandparents. While Chuck, Mom, Dad, and I conversed with our usual vigor, Barb uncharacteristically stayed out of the conversation, chanting to herself in an alternately soft and loud drone — “1, 9, 4, 8, 3, 6, 7, 11.” Having realized that the recording volume needle on the reel-to-reel swung to the right when she shouted “9” or “11,” Barbie began trying to get the needle to flash over into the red zone. Pretty soon she was standing next to the microphone, booming out numbers. It was only because we had a rule against getting up from the table before everyone was finished that anyone happened to notice what she was doing. But the evidence is all on tape.
Tom and Barbie
Barbie and Tom
Barbie in Geneva
Barbie in Geneva

The cats have a similar interest in the technical capabilities of machines. We are afraid to let them have any machines of their own, though. It would just equip them for better communication and we don’t really want that. If we were truly progressive and forward-thinking, we would buy them some paw paints. What with all the mal du siècle moaning going on around here — howls of existential anguish in the living room, desperate pining on the back porch — it would be a sign of support to encourage the cats to put their feelings on canvas. It could be interesting, too, to find out whether cat expressionism looked more like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Marc Franz’s “Cat on Yellow Pillow.”

But we are not sure that we want to encourage more communication of the cats’ innermost feelings. We get plenty of cat messages as it is. Not that we always understand them. The ones we do understand are the cries of choked indignation and peremptory commands having to do with food and going outside. The messages we don’t understand are usually Harley’s. They may not be messages at all, of course. There may be a point to dropping erasers and plastic frogs in the water dish and then again there may not. Or there could be a point that I might just not understand. Ivan’s father used to run the dishwasher at 3:00 in the morning with the family toothbrushes in it; Ivan currently has a pristine new tangerine mixer to keep the pristine pink mixer company; the house painters we hired this summer used the aesthetic criterion, “How bad can this paint job really look to people in cars, driving by?” No doubt there is some obscure logic to all of these. One does not always care to probe too deeply, although in the case of the painters it might have been instructive to know their standards in advance.

As far as cat logic is concerned, Ivan and I seem to understand most of what we need to. The cats dumb it down for us so that the messages come through loud and clear. Two cats at the back door bark out commands to open it at once, while the other cat bangs repeatedly on the cat food cabinet door. The last thing Ivan and I really need is for the cats to have cell phones. “Brrring, brrring!” “Food crisis in the kitchen. Attend to situation stat. Over and out.”

So when I talk about having up-to-date mechanical and electronic gadgets, I don’t really mean the cats. Actually, the household commitment is not my own personal commitment, either. I am still using my mixing fork, my analog watch, and my reel-to-reel tape recorders. When Donna’s parents found out that I had two reel-to-reel recorders, they went home to Albuquerque and brought back theirs to add to my collection. Roger and Mary had never met anyone else who even knew what a reel-to-reel recorder was; the fact that I owned two showed that I was serious.

Later, they also gave me cashmere sweaters. I have gotten much better hand-me-downs from Donna’s parents than from my own, let me tell you. The kind of stuff my parents send is never cashmere sweaters. It is more along the lines of newspaper clippings about how to write your own will, cassette tapes of the musician that I hate most in the world — I forget his name — and 49¢ long-handled wooden spoons that I bought at a craft store in the 1970s and painted avocado green and decorated with chicks and bluebirds. Not to dwell on this point, but if my parents have wooden spoons that I painted, it is because I gave them those spoons — they were a gift of my childhood. It’s true that most people I knew got similar gifts. I seem to have spent my entire adolescence in the basement covering things with beige or avocado housepaint and then trimming them with stylized flowers, ivy, chicks, bluebirds, and Little Miss Muffets decked out in bright airplane-model paints that I bought at the Ben Franklin five and dime store. Once I painted six empty Gallo Hearty Burgundy bottles with pictures of ants and ladybugs in outfits and gave them to the Clancys.
Decorated Bottles
The Clancys still have all of them
The Clancys
Tom, Barb, Audrey, Marian
Audrey leaves the basement
Thompsons and Clancys
Some of the Thompsons and Clancys in the 1970s
Baby Maggie
Baby Maggie with Marian’s feet near avocado-painted stool

I have plenty of regrets about having spent my adolescence this way, but adolescence is full of regrets, after all. Apparently, my mother also regrets my Bluebird Period. She is getting rid of the evidence as fast as she can (all the while immortalizing every fleeting sketch of my brother’s in $400 frames and acid-free mats. “Can you hint to Chuck gently not to send any more sketches?” Dad asked me. “We are already into several thousand dollars in frames here, and we have also run out of walls”). By contrast, Chuck, Barb, Rick and Phyllis, my aunt, and the Clancys all maintain vast collections of Bluebird memorabilia. I am not sure why this is. I am not talking about people who have no taste in art. These are people who know about art. Take Rick, who gets invited into the back rooms of art galleries so that the owners can show him the really good stuff. Apparently the stuff on the walls where people might see it and buy it is good, but not really good. Be that as it may — I am going to take Rick’s word for it that art dealers keep the really good stuff in the back room, but I do wonder (and to think that people dare to call my story facts into question) — there is no doubt that Rick spends major time in art museums. Despite knowing art, though, he and Phyllis have a substantial Thompson Bluebird collection.
Rick and Phyl and a Lion
Rick and Phyl at the Art Institute of Chicago

Rick and Miro

Rick with Miro in Washington DC

Obviously, then, this is not about taste. I think it may be about holding on to the evidence, so as to bring it out whenever it might prove most embarrassing. If they are saving up for a big occasion, like when I win the Nobel Prize for Philosophy, I am safe, but just in case they release the evidence for some lesser occasion, I want to get in there first. I am letting you know up front: these are not birds painted Picasso style, or Hans Holbein the Younger style, or Faith Ringgold style. These are birds painted in a style that you could not safely compare with anyone else’s.

Collectible Bluebird Stool

Until a few years ago, I continued to do impressive work in this style on a purely occasional basis, usually for Annika’s amusement, but I stopped after Barb identified it as “my” style. Watching me draw a beach scene to order, she said admiringly, “It’s amazing. You perfected that style in 4th grade and have been using it ever since. You really have your own artistic niche, don’t you?”

Perhaps in fear that I will revert to my avocado-paint-and-bluebirds mode, Mom sends me periodic updates on her tastes. Sometimes they take the form of lengthy discourses on the color salmon (against) or taupe (also against). Sometimes they skip the reflective mode and get straight to the point. Enclosing a clipping from Parade magazine advertising a set of country-blue kitchen knives with white geese on them, Mom wrote in large letters at the top of the page, “I do not like goose-blue. My kitchen is red.” It is possible, of course, that these are just random thoughts and are not particularly meant to guide me.

The fact that my mother sends me ads from Parade magazine stipulating what not to buy, rather than generous compliments or cashmere sweaters, is not the real point of this story. It is just an aside. But I think it is a point worth noting.

To return to the question of electronic gadgetry: although I am not especially an afficionado, I can talk about electronic stuff like an expert. I am very comfortable around terms like “motherboard” and “ethernet.” In my department, I have gained considerable standing as someone who knows about these things. My only real critic is Ivan. “The trouble with any version of WordPerfect later than 6.0,” I’ll tell him, “is that they all fail to configure properly with the ethernet.” “That’s an unusual way of putting it,” says Ivan. “Not really,” I’ll say. “It’s not merely that the asyncs don’t fit the motherboards, but that they unavoidably overload the server. Result: core dump.” “You really have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?” “Well, not in the fullest possible sense, maybe — not in a professional sense,” I say. “But I think it sounds kind of plausible, don’t you?” “No,” says Ivan.

Despite my familiarity with the language of electronic gadgetry, it isn’t often that I am inspired to buy gadgets of my own. Last year, though, William talked me into buying a PDA by promising me that if I had a PDA I would never again be disorganized, late, or pressed for time. I am always on the lookout for that sort of gadget, as the alternative would be to change my life. Actually, when things aren’t going well, my first thought usually is that now would be a good time to change my basic nature. I remember scrambling in my purse for my office keys some years ago, while Frank watched me with that detached interest so typical of philosophers. “I have to change my life,” I grumbled, as I searched through all the junk in my purse. “I can’t keep going on like this. I can’t stand it anymore.”

“That’s your plan — to change your life so you can find your keys?” asked Frank.

“Yes,” I said. “Oh, here they are at last.”

“What happens to the life-changing plan now?”

“That’s all in the past,” I said.

William happened to catch me at one of those I-must-change-my-life-at-all-costs moments and at the time it seemed easier to buy a PDA than to change my being. I spent the next two weeks figuring out how to do all the stuff I needed to know to work the PDA and then programming in my schedule, addresses and phone numbers. Within two days, the PDA had lost its memory and informed me that I would have to start all over again. I stuffed it in my knapsack. From time to time I would think about it guiltily, but I didn’t take it out again till Ivan asked me, “How is your PDA working out?” I tried to look thoughtful and reflective, and he said, “That’s what I thought. Can I have it?” “What for?” I asked. Ivan’s interest in calendars is purely theoretical. “To load an electronic Vietnamese dictionary, so that I don’t put wear and tear on my books,” he said. Later he loaded a Japanese dictionary on the PDA, too. Now Ivan uses the PDA several times a day for translations to and from languages that he has no real occasion to speak and does not actually know how to speak in any case. Naturally he does not use the PDA’s appointment calendar, calculator, memo pad, shopping list, address book, or any of the other functions that normal people would use. Then again, I am a normal person and I did not use those functions either.

It is just as well that I got rid of my PDA because, as it turns out, not only do they not at all insure that you get to your appointments on time, but they actively make you late. According to some theorists, a PDA prevents you from making it to your appointments at all. The last thing you want William to do, if you plan to meet him for lunch, is to enter you into his PDA. No one is exactly sure how the Patented Defensive Amnesia system works, but it seems to have parallels to the legal system. Things get all jammed up in the court system — it’s a lot like the ethernet, very messy and confusing — and it is only when you have been dead for some time that you get a court date. That is how lunch plans with William tend to be — unless you can catch him without his PDA.

The lesson is, you have to choose your electronic and mechanical gadgets wisely. Frankly, it is better to have two mixers than one PDA. Ivan and I do not take risks. We have two mixers. Just to be on the safe side, you yourself may want to get three. As Elvis Costello says, “It’s not that it’s so much fun, but it’s safer that way.”

Seeing double

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