Can you operate your home?


Last week I went outside to mow the lawn.

We have a riding lawn mower, and one of the features on ours is a kill-switch kind of arrangement. Basically, if you get off of the seat the mower shuts down.

Last year was my first summer using a riding model. I spent a fair amount of time getting used to the process of starting the tractor and engaging the mower. I tried to pay attention to different height settings, and even gave some thought to the seat positioning. I learned about how to shift the unit into neutral so I could roll it around. Basic stuff, sure… but nothing out of the ordinary for using such a piece of equipment.

There were some features that didn’t really matter to me all that much. I have yet to need the cruise control. (Although, in all fairness, I actually can see a use for such a thing.) The cup holder is nice, though I almost always forget to bring a beverage with me. And, honest admission, when driving around and reading the manual and talking to friends, if it was even mentioned I never paid enough attention to the part about keeping the motor idling along if I got out of the seat to do something… or, say, for running it a bit to empty out the gas tank before storing it over the winter months.

Last week I learned the set the idle process. And while I am thrilled that I won’t need to break out the concrete blocks this year to get enough weight on the seat to keep it running as I break things down for falling snow and store summer tools, that isn’t what led to this essay. Instead, while riding around the yard, I began to think about other things in my house that I don’t use to the fullest of potential. (Or… sure, more accurately… don’t know how to operate completely.)

Now before you go crazy about me not know my riding lawn mower might have a rider-less idle, I ask you to consider a few things.

First, like the cruise control, I never needed to leave it running while I went off and did something except at the end of the season. Plus, offered in my defense, while playing the winterization game throughout the garage, I also had to keep my push mower running. It’s one of those that has a handle you need to keep engaged for operation. The end result… my train of thought was rolling down the tracks of keeping handles in place and finding ways to keep mowers running.

And with that “learn it if you need it” concept in mind… second, I’d like you to think about the items in your home that I’m willing to bet you don’t fully understand.

Let’s start in the living room. Grab the television remote. Look at it carefully. Do you know what each and every button on it does? Why does it contain buttons with labels like active, keypad or repeat? Why are some of the buttons unlabeled and different colors? (And if you think you know what the colored buttons are for because you’ve used them to label a program as a keeper or to initiate a delete process, I’m warning you that no partial credit is offered if you don’t know what all of them do.)

Time for the kitchen. How long have those cans like Spam and corned beef hash been sitting on the shelf in the pantry? Where did those bottles of sauces… many with flavors and spices and promises of heat that appeal to no person in your household… come from? Can you find your mandoline? (Do you know for certain whether or not you own a mandoline?) Now head over to the all-purpose junk drawer. Open it up, identify every item in the drawer and state with certainty where it actually belongs.

Now wander the house. Consider those two wonderful occasions every year when most of us need to adjust the clocks. Are you finding clocks with strange and horribly labeled buttons that take a few extra moments to figure out? (It’s usually the damn clock radios on the nightstand that cause these frustrations. But considering the number of people that have gone decades allowing the clock to keep flashing on a VCR, I know there are more.)

We all have things that we’ve brought into our homes and later cannot figure out how they arrived. There are plenty of items, even items used each and every day, that we don’t even think about (until we have to).

We have tools and equipment that were obtained to serve one or two (or a simple handful) of purposes… and yet they have options and knobs and more available that we not only don’t understand, often we don’t even think about or know of their existence.

But as long as the general chores get done, and the power doesn’t go out in the middle of the night, we never really consider many of these things. They become if not unappreciated than certainly unused features.

I suppose as things become more complex… and they are, which you can’t deny when our washing machines can now send messages to a smartphone (while being constructed to have a lifespan only 25% of what they had a few decades ago)… the idea that we’ll never understand everything a tool can do shouldn’t be a surprise. And yet, I don’t recall the last time I turned to a butter knife as a stand-in for a screwdriver. Those were good days.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at