Love in the Time of Tech

When the computer crashes or the DVD player dies, my wife expects me to fix it. Truth is, I don't know what I'm doing, either. But I can't let her find that out!
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For as long as I can remember, I have been my wife's technology manservant. Utterly useless when it comes to apparatus used for home repair or chores, I've always been in charge of all the "higher devices" -- anything described with "mega" or "giga."

It has also been my fault if these devices don't work, even if the real blame belongs to the manufacturer -- or to Diane herself for "panic pushing." That's when she pushes one button and when it doesn't do what she thought it would do -- or doesn't do it fast enough -- she pushes other buttons, and eventually all the buttons. And then she's surprised that she has just ordered her computer to destroy every file she has ever created and then to blow up her printer. She has wrought similar havoc on her cell phone, our TV, and the microwave (which, with the proper sequence of buttons, can actually be a weapon of semi-mass destruction). Each time, my fault.

So far she has spared our new digital camera, but only because she's afraid to touch it at all until she has had time to study the manual and learn how to work it.

I believe only Stephen Hawking could grasp how much time that would really take.

To make matters worse, I -- like many of my fellow husbands -- now service not only my wife but also a large extended family of impatient "low-tech ladies." Over the past couple of years I helped my mother, my mother-in-law, and my sister-in-law (along with her two daughters) buy computers, Internet service, digital cameras, and DVD players. I figured that if they all had the same models and service that I did, it would be easier for me to help whenever asked.

I'm now handling so much family tech support that I may have to outsource myself to India. In the middle of all this, Diane decided she wanted to switch from a PC, which is what we've used for 20 years, to a Mac, which she heard was more "user friendly." Needless to say, we have yet to meet any of these befriended users. And even after taking a college course on how to do graphics on a Mac, she still prints out every page she creates along the way in fear the machine will eat her work.

There was a time when being the technology manservant was actually kind of sweet. I recall somewhat wistfully those early days of marriage -- and of high tech -- when Diane would call for me from her home office with a computer problem. I'd come bounding into her room, stand behind her and reach her keyboard by putting my arms around her -- the same way guys used to teach their gals how to golf. Then I'd fix the problem with a keystroke or two and feel very manly, very modern.

As I kept coming to Diane's tech rescue, I did wonder why an otherwise-contemporary couple took on such traditional gender roles only with these gadgets. I worried this was because of something I was doing -- was I deliberately trying to keep my wife barefoot and unable to work the spellchecker? Or was she, and other wives, suffering from some kind of "compu-rella complex," where they actually preferred to be repeatedly saved? Either way, I assumed the need for my techno-chivalry would be short-lived, that as soon as these machines became more commonly used and easier to run, I would never again find Diane weeping at her monitor.

Today I know better. While I certainly know many women who are digital whizzes, they are usually people who have to be to do their jobs. For most couples there is still a large tech gender gap, and it usually involves the husband being responsible for care and maintenance.

Why do these technologies push some primal marital button?

For advice and solace, I call my friend Tim, who has been my tech guru since floppy disks were actually floppy. What husbands never want to admit to their wives is that most of us really don't know all that much about these devices. We just know more than our wives do. And we all know a guy like Tim who doesn't mind occasionally serving as our technology manservant.

We're also not ashamed to call our Tims (as we are to ask for directions while driving). So I suspect we ask for advice sooner, and more frequently, than our wives would ever believe. I know Diane feels insulted when I suggest she ask me for advice earlier in the predictable cycle of giga-aggravation, or call tech support herself. She thinks I'm dissing her. I'm not. I'm just trying to convince her that we all need a Tim.

I have always been curious how my Tim, who brought compu-comfort to so many, handled the tech divide in his own marriage. Apparently, no better than me -- which I find comforting.

"Please," he says, "I just got off the phone trying to help my wife with her iPod, with little success." That's particularly dangerous since iPods are so much easier to throw on the floor and stomp on than computers are.

Tim says that while he has been the tech guy at the office for years, doing the same thing at home is a different story. "The worst part is that if something doesn't go exactly right, they look at you like you killed their puppy," he says, sighing.

I know that look well. And I doubt Diane would ever believe how hard it is when I fail as her high-tech manservant. This happens more and more now that she's on the Mac, a machine that sometimes makes me feel digitally impotent. As much as I enjoy being able to solve her tech problems -- the closest a guy like me will ever get to, say, being able to fix a car -- that's how much I hate choking in front of her.

Still, there are some technological joys in marriage. Diane has scanned a lot of her drawings and paintings from over the years, and for my birthday made me a book of the pieces most personal to us and our relationship, a gift made possible only by what she learned in her graphics class. And sometimes, out of nowhere, I'll receive a flirty little e-mail from her and I'll write a similarly flirty one back -- like we're back in high school passing notes to each other in the digital hallway. After a half dozen exchanges, I'll get one inviting me up to her office -- for some help with something that requires no devices at all.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2006.



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