viernes, 30 de enero de 2009

Life, a user's manual


I've never won anything. A lottery ticket, a raffle teddy bear, not even a supermarket coupon, nothing. Maybe this qualifies me as a loser, an English expression without a Spanish equivalent that I've never grasped quite well. I've been asking myself, am I a winner or a loser? How can I tell? I didn't realize it but I was a loser. Until last Friday. I was buying razors and shaving foam at the pharmacist when a girl approached me saying I won this wonderful, marvelous, very important prize. “Why did I win? Why me?” I asked, betting it must be some kind of mistake. “Are you sure?” “Oh, you win, yes you do sir” “Why?” “Because you just bought our shaving foam” she answered in that natural, smiling, Gillete way.

“Am I a winner?” I asked her, “This make me a winner, right?”. She seemed a little confused for a second. “Yes, sir, you are da winner”. I guess she was trying to tell me something with that emphasis but my English is still not good enough to understand the subtleties of emphasis. I am a winner, the winner, whatever, I said to myself proud of my improvements in the anglo world. But after a second I didn't feel so confident. It couldn't be that easy.

I've never trusted this kind of gift. They are usually tricks, mouse traps, marketing webs intended to catch innocent victims; trustful, good at heart customers like me. “No thanks” I said, heading for the door. “Oh wait just a minute sir, take this” she said handing me a box, gift wrapped in red and gold paper. “Your prize” she said. I took the little box in my hands and she thanked me. “Enjoy it sir” she added. “That´s it? I don't have to give you my phone number, my bank account or something?”. “No, nothing at all”. “And what is it?” I asked. “I don't know either. It's a surprise. Open it, if you don't like it we can change it for another one” she answered, heading with her smile for the next awarded customer. I opened the box and I didn't quite realize what it was because I was not carrying my glasses. It seemed to be one of those electronic things, some kind of radio or alarm clock. The usual gadget kind of stuff.

At home I took it out of the case. It seemed to be a radio, a modern, portable one, with an elastic strap, intended for outdoor use when jogging or exercising. At first glance I didn't quite understand how it was supposed to work. They now make these mp3s in a true minimal way, you know, just a knob and a touch screen and with that you can perform the two hundred and fifty different functions explained in the instruction booklet written in four languages. You know how these little wonders work. Every time you turn the knob something interesting pops upon the screen, like the current hour of Alaska or the daily quotes from the Dubai stock market. Some people get annoyed dealing with these little toys but I just love them. I love to try and experiment and discover. Maybe that's why I've never read an instruction manual in my entire life. It's much more interesting to figure it out by yourself. But this one was challenging me like I never was before. It's a sophisticated little piece of technology. Beginning with the strap itself. It's electronically adjustable! When you put it on your wrist it automatically adjusts to your arm, contracting and releasing until it feels comfortable. Amazing, I thought. But apart from that promising beginning it seemed to be broken. After two hours of thorough research I wasn't able to make it work and I had to give up.

Oh, I see. I never thought this kind of thing would happen in such a nice country as New Zealand. Deceiving people with broken stuff and calling them great prizes! I was not interested in the device at all. I already have two ipods and it's a headache. A third one would be a nightmare of unsynchronized libraries. I was just upset with the deception, the marketing trick. I returned to the pharmacist and handed the device to the girl. “What happened?” she asked. “It seems to be broken” I said, in a scornfully way. She wrapped it around her wist and waited a few seconds. “Ten six. It's my normal blood pressure. What's wrong?”

What? Blood pressure? What was she talking about? “Anyway I'll measure it against a conventional device. We are going to caliber it. Wait me just a second” she added.

Oh God! Now I was understanding. I remember to see an impossible, really weird word written in the box and as the title of the instructions booklet. I opened the plastic bag just enough to peer inside. There it was. That horrible name written in the box: Sphigmomanometer!!

The next minute she was back. “What's the English name for this?” I asked pointing to the normal mercury meter for blood pressure. “A blood pressure meter” she answered. “It's not a Sphigmomanometer?”. “Yes, that´s the medical name I guess” she replied, looking at me suspiciously. “You new that this device of yours is a portable blood pressure meter, didn't you?” “Of course, of course” I rapidly answered. “I wouldn't take it for a radio, hehe”. She faintly smiled. Measured against the mercury one, my portable device turned up to be very fine and accurate. “Thanks. I just wanted to be sure” I said stumbling against the shelves heading swiftly for the door. On my way back home I repeated to myself the word more than a dozen times. What a pretty dam word, man. Sphigmomanometer. Could you believe it? I thought it was one of these English fancy names Chinese people gave to their factories! And, know what? I'm still not sure of reading those boring instructions. But, as a rule of thumb, you better get a general idea of what's all about before trying to dismantle your new gadget.

“La vie, mode d'emploi” is an awesome title of a novel from that great French sociologist and writer, Georges Perec.
I wouldn't be able to present this text in a decent way without the help of Caitlin Chew. Thanks Caitlin.