Even in Ottawa it is not unusual for a siren to wail on Friday night. Awakened at 2 a.m., the
people in the neighborhood tried, as people awakened by sirens do, to pinpoint the noise. The siren wailed for what seemed like five minutes, then stopped. It was only when the siren resumed a few minutes later that it became apparent that the siren wasn’t moving; it was not attached to an ambulance, a fire truck or a police car moving rapidly through the streets. It was just a siren, sitting there, doing nothing but cry in the night.
The cry was heard a few more times that Friday night. Each time, it lasted for a couple of minutes, then stopped. Trying to make sense of a siren that didn’t move, a siren unaccompanied by racing engines or squealing tires, the neighbors wondered, briefly, if there was such a thing as an air-raid warning and what sound it might make. Was this World War Three? If so, was the second siren the all clear? Then what about the third siren?
A more sophisticated urban dweller could have provided the correct answer right away. Someone’s alarm system had failed. A technological miracle, designed to save time, money, lives or all three, had messed up again. There was a precedent for this. Just down the street, an elaborate system installed by the cable TV company had summoned the fire department at least twice in the past month. The fire department arrived promptly, only to discover that the alarm system had been frightened by the toaster. Now someone else’s alarm, designed to protect the car from theft or the house from burglary, was being triggered by some city critter or some malfunction of its own, or simply by the humidity.
A dog would have been cheaper, better company and easier on the neighbors, but what would have protected the dog? Modern city people worry about such matters. They buy expensive devices to make their lives easier and the expensive devices let them down.
Except for the fact that it happened to be in another part of town, the siren crying in the night could have belonged to the friend who was having trouble enjoying his new car stereo. Having trouble enjoying it had nothing to do with the quality of the car stereo. It was everything he wanted: great sound, great bells, great whistles. But almost
as soon as he bought the car stereo, he became obsessed with the likelihood of its being stolen. Now he wished he had never bought it. Alarm systems for cars are available. Some day he can buy one, and it can wake everybody up at four in the morning.
When that happens, it will be only one more example of the folly of putting your trust, or your money, in things. The more sophisticated the thing, the more costly, the less deserving it is of your trust, not to mention your affection.
A cheap dog, of course, can be just fine.
Only a couple of weeks before the unfortunate incident with the alarm system, one of the families in the neighborhood had visited a technologically advanced summer cottage and had been let down severely.
The power mower did not work. Normally this would not matter, because
The fire department arrived promptly, only to discover that the alarm system had been frightened by the toaster
summer cottages do not have lawns, but some people can’t leave their lawns in the city. They want to have it all. The push mower had been disposed of when the power mower was purchased.
A second problem was that the coffee took a long time because the electric kettle had been left in the city. Third, the electric starter on the outboard motor didn’t work. The rope for starting it by hand was frayed and useless. There was a canoe but no one knew where the paddles were.
Eleven people had arrived at this summer cottage, in five cars. One of the five cars developed engine trouble and wouldn’t run. That was another problem. The owners of the nonfunctioning car couldn’t help look for the paddles because they had to see about getting the car fixed.
You can see what a sad story this is getting to be. Everything would have been fine without the power mower, the fifth car, the electric kettle and the electric starter, but they had all broken down, causing delays, irritation, tall grass and late coffee. People had to be found to fix the broken things. Waiting
for them took time that could have been spent enjoying something that didn’t require electricity.
Worst of all, the ecologically correct septic system didn’t work. The pumps stopped pumping, the fans stopped blowing, little red lights lit up all over the control panel. This baby, when it was working, could do things with sewage that you wouldn’t have believed—if you wanted to think about it all. Grey water would just about tap dance for you. However, this particular weekend it wasn’t working—and a perfectly acceptable outhouse had been taken down when it was clear that it had become obsolete.
There may be an explanation here for why so many people are so depressed when they are on holidays, supposedly enjoying the high point of their year. They have slaved and saved to accumulate the things that will make their lives work and their leisure hours more leisurely. The things break down: people can’t go fishing because they have to wait around for the guy to come to fix the septic system.
While they sit and wait for the latest gadget to be repaired, they can ponder the likelihood that the computers running Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars system will really set up a laser-beam shield to keep North America free from nuclear attack. Perhaps it will have to go back to the shop.
For the moment, the shop near the marina can handle the power mower, the electric starter, even the ecologically correct septic system. But who will be able to fix the microwave, the VCR, the espresso maker, the compact-disc system, the satellite dish, the electronic mosquito zapper, the computer disk drive, the electronic fish finder?
These are the things we collect, the things that convince us our lives are somehow better than the lives of people of other nations. All of them will be brought down to the cottage soon, to make life easier, and somebody will have to fix them. If no one can be found, the cottage will fail. More likely, an electronic cottage industry, as it were, will arise to service the high-tech demands of the wilderness.
The next step at the cottage is only too obvious. To protect our gadgets, there will be no choice but to install a burglar alarm system. At 4 a.m. it will sound, triggered by a lightning bug, and frighten the loons.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.
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