Real ultimate power

Your life depends on technology. Not just machines but digital technology. Things that are not mechanical; things that have no moving parts but are essential to your living. These things just work, lubricating your life in ways you could not have imagined just months ago, until suddenly they stop working, and then you are left frustrated and miserable. Nerds are the high priests of the magnificent magic of it all, hoarding knowledge and smiling down their beneficence upon you when it suits them; alternately they may treat you with scorn and annoyance, a sense that you are too stupid to deserve their attention, which is in such high demand.

I am here to tell you that it is not magic. You do not require a ponytail and a long experience of video games to master and resolve the technological complications that confront you; you can control and manage the digital things that seem to control and manage (and occasionally mock) you.

Remember this: it’s just electricity. Everything in the digital world gets converted down to zeros and ones, to binary, to electricity or no electricity. The only thing your mouse really understands, the only thing your phone really understands, and (increasingly) the only thing your car really understands is electricity or no electricity — and so ultimately you can decide to plug it in or unplug it, and the power (literally) resides in your hands.

I have a long love affair with electricity. It probably started when I was five years old and living in Surabaya, Indonesia (the largest city you’ve never heard of) while my father was a part of the US consulate there. Indonesia’s electric grid in the early 80s was unreliable to say the least; the construction and wiring of its buildings even more suspect. I was an enterprising and curious five year old with a fascination with all things mechanical and electrical. My father had a reel-to-reel musical device — it feels painful to call it a stereo, and ludicrously ancient to call it a hi-fi — and I loved listening to music on this reel-to-reel machine, in part because of my father’s eclectic taste in music. But occasionally the reel-to-reel simply wouldn’t work, and I discovered after much observation that this was related to electricity, and helped to explain the gigantic and alluring diesel generator that sat in its own building in our back yard.

One afternoon my parents were absent and I was under the caring but not particularly careful care of our nightwatchman-cum-gardner, Ishmael. Sometime after lunch, while Ishmael was taking his siesta from the scorching afternoon heat, I decided to attempt operation of the reel-to-reel, that oh-so-alluring machine, without the consent or presence of my parents. This seemed like a brilliant idea and one that did not need any further debate or review.

After a fair bit of experimentation and consternation, I managed to get the reel-to-reel operational — only to have it suddenly screech to halt as one of Surabaya’s rolling brownouts hit our house. Occasionally these brownouts would only affect certain phases of the house for inexplicable reasons relating to its original construction; consequently I procured a flathead metal screwdriver and proceeded to try to identify a live outlet in our house that would lead to the resumption of the reel-to-reel’s operation.

This was a very bad idea.

I did find a live outlet, and managed to shock my hand so badly that my entire arm shook violent and went floppy for several hours. My left hand shook uncontrollably for hours. Motor control gradually returned to me but even when my parents arrived back late in the evening, six or seven or even eight hours later, my hand was somewhat calmed but still moving occasionally of its own volition.

Rather than terrify me, this was exciting. I had discovered true, ultimate power: the power of electricity. The possibilities seemed endless. The story of Frankenstein seemed so promising and so shallow, only scratching the surface of what was possible. Years later on an ill-advised collegiate summer visit to the Jersey Shore I discovered in a badly decaying boardwalk arcade a machine called the Adams Family Shocker. The machine consisted of a giant plastic head of Uncle Fester accompanied by two large metal poles. The idea was that you grasped one pole in each hand, and the Giant Head of Fester sent something — not quite electricity but referencing electricity with its intensity of vibration — through the poles. Over approximately five minutes, Uncle Fester increased the intensity of the “shock” in an effort to establish how long you might endure (a metaphor for something else perhaps?). Could you hold on as the dial moved up into the maximum shock zone?

This was sweeter than any candy to me. I played it multiple times, absolutely giddy as I reached the maximum “shock” each time. When you started to notice steam coming out of the ears of the Giant Head of Uncle Fester, then you knew you were in the end stage, and if you could just hold on a while longer, just tolerate the shock for a few more seconds, the lightbulb in Uncle Fester’s mouth would light up, and you would triumph.

This machine, the Adams Family Shocker, was the Single Greatest Machine I had ever encountered. The memory of it stayed with me for weeks until I finally decided I must own one myself. Imagine if instead of consuming half a pot of coffee each morning, I simply shocked myself awake? This was brilliant. Think of the money I’d save on coffee alone!

After some searching aided by the early days of Google, I discovered that the Adams Family Shocker was somewhat difficult to come across, quite expensive, and had astronomical shipping fees associated with it. I still aspire to own one — the dream shall never die.

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