You know you have reached the summit of middle age when the once simplest tasks become insoluble problems.
We were headed north for a romantic weekend getaway in a quaint river town overlooking the Mississippi River. The bed and breakfast was situated on a hill, or knob as they are known in these parts. The terrain between St. Louis and Hannibal is littered with knobs, strange rounded prominences that spring up as if from nowhere. Our map listed dozens of them, all with peculiar names: Ben Watt's Knob, Wilcoxen Knob, Marion Mackay Knob and Shell Knob. There were pine knobs and bald knobs, which are, as you might assume, treeless. I asked the young waitress at the Clarksville restaurant if she knew the name of the big knob that loomed up behind the restaurant. She gave me a queer look. "It's just a hill," she said, and walked hurriedly away.
We had the old two-story red brick inn all to ourselves, no innkeeper and not a single other guest. The patio featured an outdoor gas fireplace and a large heated pool from which a light steam rose. Outside was dark and a brisk 30 degrees, but that didn't stop us. No sooner were we unpacked than we donned our swimsuits, wrapped ourselves in thick cotton robes and made for the pool.
Upon hitting the water, I let out an inhuman cry. The water wasn't exactly freezing -- it was a tepid 79 degrees -- but you could have fooled me. As my blood turned to ice, I blearily began pressing the numerous buttons on the thermostat (I had failed to bring my reading glasses to the pool), while the wife attempted to turn on the gas fireplace. To no avail. Near death, we shuffled back to the warmth of our room.
Our suite featured a large Jacuzzi. Not quite the same as a steaming swimming pool, but any old port in a storm, as the mariners say. As the tub filled, I labored to turn on the jets -- again without success. "Why is everything so difficult?" I said, the beginnings of annoyance creeping into my voice.
My wife telephoned the manager, who promised to come by directly. While we waited, we turned for relief to the satellite television. (Back home, we got by with plain old commercial television.) I found what I assumed was the correct remote control, and began pressing buttons. There were literally dozens of things to press: arrows, buttons, all with infinitesimal lettering no one over forty could possibly have read.
"Remember when a television set had only a knob for channels and a knob for volume?" I said. "I miss those days."
My wife, who is no better than I at figuring out the latest technology, but has far better eyesight, took the remote and studied it. She at least managed to turn the set on.
Presently the manager showed up. After twenty minutes of staring at the Jacuzzi, he called in the maintenance man. In the mean time I asked the manager to show us how the television set worked. While he fiddled with the remote, the maintenance man arrived. The mysteries of the Jacuzzi proved too much for him too. Asked about the television, he simply shrugged.
Eventually, we were moved to another room, one where the Jacuzzi worked. The manager apologized, said he was new on the job, and offered to buy us a bottle of pinot noir for our troubles. We accepted, as long as he promised to turn up the temperature of the outdoor pool.
MORE AND MORE THESE days I hear myself asking, "Why must everything be so complicated?" This past Christmas, for example, I got a Nook e-book reader as a gift. I had the gizmo a total of three days. Three days that my wife, my son and I wasted trying to set up the device's Wi-Fi. Three days wasted on the telephone with various customer service representatives in India who hadn't the foggiest idea what they were talking about. I'm afraid I wasn't very nice to them. "Isn't this thing supposed to be easy to set up?" I snapped. "What's the point of mass marketing a device that takes an advanced engineering degree from MIT to set up?" At times like these I feel that if I should live another 30 or so years I will be as helpless as a newborn babe. Not due to any physical incapacity, mind you, but to a technological one.
I will say that the cuisine at the inn was wonderful, and we had a lovely time hiking up and down the knobs. That said, I wonder how the wife would feel about spending our next romantic getaway in Amish country?
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