March 9, 2012

Shortly before we moved out of North Carolina the city of Wilson took over running the cable system. Fiber optic cable was installed and the cable guy spent five hours crawling around our house hooking up the latest, greatest technology - converter boxes as big as DVD players, an Internet wireless router and cables running in every direction. We got some sort of central control box hanging on our back room wall, a green light glowing in the dark.

Each cable box is accompanied by a remote control as big as a brick, rows and rows of back, forward, up and down buttons. It's got a keypad like a cell phone, so I guess some people (not me) could text-message if they wanted to.

There was a star button, a heart button, and a widget button. We had buttons with yellow triangles, green diamonds, blue squares and red circles. I understood only a very few of these buttons. I knew channel up or down, volume up or down, and how to arrow around the On-Demand stuff. I never pressed the star or heart button, I was uncomfortable pressing my own widget button, and I was frankly afraid of the yellow triangle. There is always a chance, however remote, that the yellow triangle was meant to call 9-1-1.

I picture the designers of the remotes as little elves working deep inside a cavern carved deep into far-off Nerd Mountain. It's a place where everybody loves technology, so much so that they never actually do anything but mess around with gadgets. They would rather press buttons all day than actually watch a TV show. One of the nerds might have added the yellow triangle button just to play a practical joke on us civilians.

When he did the installation, the cable guy "set up" our remotes. He made it look easy, scrolling through menus at lightning speed, pointing the remotes at the various TVs like a gunfighter with the quickest hand in town. (All right, a nerdy gunfighter, but still he was pretty impressive.)

When he finished, each remote had been programmed to recognize each of our TVs, from the living room cast-off monster in the living room (which now sits beside my computer desk so I can watch my NASCAR races and work at the same time), to the little cheap unit in the bathroom. (Yes. We had a TV in the bathroom. Get over it.)

A short time after the cable guy left our area, the TV in the bedroom died, and when I replaced it, I got out the instructions for how to introduce our new TV to our old remote. There were complicated directions on holding down this button, then that button, and then finding the "code" that matched our model of TV. Forty minutes later, I was pacing the floor, pressing buttons so angrily and yelling at the remote so much that I looked like I needed to be institutionalized. I finally gave up and since then turned the TV on and off by hand.

Up until the time we moved, though, I lived in fear of what would happen if the remotes ever became de-programmed. I don't know how long batteries last, but I figured that when they die in our remotes, I was going to have to call the cable guy and beg him to come back to perform a house-wide reprogramming.

One night, I went into our bedroom to see my wife sitting on the edge of the bed, holding the TV remote, an angry look on her face.

"This stupid thing will never turn on!" she said, waving the remote at me. I sighed.

"Look," I explained for the 20th time, "the cable guy set up each remote so it recognizes the TV that it goes with. The remote is set up with two different options. Press this button, and you're controlling just the TV. Press this button, and you're controlling the cable box and the TV. So if you press the "both" button, and your TV is on, but cable box is off, the TV will turn on and the cable box will turn off. You're just going back and forth, endlessly turning one on, and the other off!"

My wife looked at me and sighed.

"Why?" she asked.

At this, I threw my hands up.

"Because," I said, "You don't understand the difference between the "TV only" button and the "Cable and TV Together" buttons! They're two separate options!"

"No," she said, quite calmly. "Why don't they just have one button that turns everything on or off? That's all 90 percent of people want this stupid thing to do, anyway!"

It was a simple, but I had to admit excellent, question.

"I have no idea!" I said. "If you have a problem, I think you're supposed to press the yellow triangle button."