The Toaster Warrantee Guarantor

by Morgan Hite


I had to invent the "Toaster Warrantee Guarantor" in order to explain my mother-in-law, who is the Toaster Warrantee Guarantor's worst nightmare.

I don't know the exact details of his job. Logically, he must make toasters brown bread evenly, because hers won't. And he must keep toasters from setting off smoke alarms, because hers do. He must make toasters last a long time, like two or three years, because every toaster that comes into her possession breaks in two or three months under the pressure of her demanding expectations. For the children who grew up in the coal mine of her exacting specifications (such as my wife), the toaster was their canary-valiantly failing first for the sake of the community.

Still, I don't believe it is her expectations that kill the toasters. People who are observant of technology and the ways that we use it recognize her as a type, a kind of device-killing type that roams the streets looking as innocent as everyone else. They tell me there is actually something weird, something supernatural, about certain people, that in their hands reasonably robust technical objects, such as battery powered timers or TV remotes, do not stand a chance. It is as if she exudes a special field within which ordinary laws of physics are suspended, car batteries mysteriously discharge, telephones dial wrong numbers of their own initiative and toasters just fail. The Toaster Warrantee Guarantor's worst nightmare.

But I don't buy the special field theory, personally. I prefer an explanation given to me by the Toaster Warrantee Guarantor himself, that she has gremlins. It sounds demeaning at first, like saying a person has lice, but now I like the gremlin theory because there's a relationship there. My mother-in-law and the gremlins. They live with her; she gets something good from them (such as a certain notoriety in the family-"She's deleted millions of documents and Dad doesn't know how she's done it," says my wife) and they apparently get something from her (mischief to make). This fits my picture of her, a person who thrives on relationships, but doesn't always have the best judgment about whom to form them with.

Serious logical thinkers of course reject the idea of gremlins, invisible malicious beings who delight in wreaking havoc with machines. But those who actually spend their days answering the complaints about vacuum cleaners, humidifiers, and so on (and we must include the Toaster Warrantee Guarantor in this category) know that there is a phenomenon here that craves explanation. They know indeed that contrary to the rosy picture of a populace served well by, eagerly and easily using technology, we number among ourselves many whose interactions with VCR's and microwaves resemble more the haphazard navigations of Odysseus-lost and resigned to harassment by supernatural powers-than the arrow course of the true Magellan.

The beauty of the gremlin idea is that appliance trouble is not really my mother-in-law's fault. As the toaster goes down in a plume of greasy black spoke and fitful sparking, and my father-in-law laughs nervously knowing he will be pressed into service to fix it, my mother-in-law says with great vindication, "I knew that new Black and Decker would never last!" She feels no remorse: she has not been hard on the toaster, and I can support this, being the hungry guest sitting politely, waiting patiently for my share of this non-breakfast called "toast." As each product issues from the toaster it is critiqued by the family (including my wife, getting into old family patterns) and just before making it to my plate is diverted to the growing reject pile. The Toaster Warrantee Guarantor quakes as he sizes up this situation. Not because she wants to toast too much bread, but because he can see gremlins are at work.

The diagnosis of gremlins is fairly simple. You give the suspected host a device which has worked well for another person and watch for malfunction. When we defied family tradition and decided to leave Toronto and wander the world, my then-girlfriend sold her Toyota to her mother. It was an eminently reliable wagon on which a tire went flat and the radiator immediately sprang a leak. "You sure knew when to sell it!" her mother said.

That's when my wife told me about "the scary Renault." This previous car of her mother's was known for vibrating out of gear on the highway. You were going along at 100 km/h and then suddenly you were in neutral. Importantly, my mother-in-law just lived with this: she regarded it as par for the course with cars. (Yes, she complained about "that stupid car," but just about everything gets a complaint from her.) This is just the point about people with gremlins-using machines is for them a haphazard voyage into the unknown, routinely accepted, that involves playing around to get what you want. Yet she lives the same universe as my father-in-law, a research chemist, in fact in the same apartment.

A gremlin infestation is not as benign as you might think. When my wife was a teenager, there was a dangerous situation in the family house when the stereo, down in the living room next to the heavy drapes, burst into flames in the middle of the night. (Stereo catches fire in night-think about it. Possible? No. True? Yes.) Thereafter there was a rule that no stereos could be left on when the last person went to bed, a rule that continues to be enforced in our house today.

The Toaster Warrantee Guarantor tells me that they are working on a toaster that can actually be owned by those with gremlins. I'm looking forward to it because when the Christmas season is upon us, and we have procured those satisfying little gifts for her father from the hardware store and we wash up disillusioned once again on the shore of no ideas for her mother, the gremlin-proof toaster will be the perfect gift. In fact I envision a whole line of gremlin-proof devices-cars, timers, computers-that magically work just fine for those with gremlin host problems. My father-in-law will stare in wonder as his wife turns on the computer, retrieves the e-mail, writes replies and sends then-all without "this program has performed an illegal act and will be shut down." She'll have no reason to yell to him down the long apartment hall, interrupting his reading, to come help figure out what went wrong. Will they ever see each other?

 © Copyright 2001, Morgan Hite