Hugh was a forgettable character. Short. Slight. Slow. Weak.
Desperate for acceptance.
Eager to fit in.
His claim to fame during high school was assisting two older boys settle a debate about whether it was possible to slam dunk a human being through a regulation height basketball hoop.
A high jump crash mat was carefully positioned beneath the basket.
A gymnastics mini-trampoline was placed at the end of the crash mat.
The older boys took it in turns to run across the gymnasium, spring off the mini-tramp, fly through the air, and attempt the dunk.
Hugh was the ball!
After several attempts, the argument was settled in the negative.
A student burst through the door, frantically warning of the deputy principal’s imminent arrival.
The crash mat and trampoline were hastily packed away. The assembled crowd vanished.
A bruised and crying Hugh was left suspended over the hoop, like a potty training toddler hanging above a toilet.
The deputy principal arrived. Upon seeing Hugh perched on the basketball hoop, his legendary temper erupted. In a voice that would have caused a seasoned drill sergeant to wet themselves, he bellowed for Hugh to get down at once.
Hugh was scared of heights. He was terrified of the deputy principal.
Those who witnessed it described Hugh’s dismount as graceful, but said his landing needed work.
Hugh hit the floor with a disquieting splat sound. He broke his wrist attempting to avoid landing face first on the floor. He broke his nose landing face first on his now broken arm.
The deputy principal ordered Hugh to stop crying. As punishment for damaging school property by bleeding on the gym floor, he was suspended for a week.
Nothing happened to the older boys. Life is unfair. Especially in high school.
It’s going to go boom
A couple of months later, the older boys made Hugh an offer he couldn’t refuse. If he did one small favour for them, they would stop picking on him for the remainder of the school term.
Hugh casually walked past the front of my science bench. I ignored him. Everybody did. He may as well have been invisible.
While nobody was looking, Hugh switched on the gas taps. Natural gas silently wafted across the bench top, and began accumulating in the sink.
Eventually the teacher at the front of the classroom ordered us to light our Bunsen burners.
I struck a match, and the world exploded.
A huge ball of flame whooshed up out of the sink, hit the asbestos ceiling tiles, and spread scorch marks in all directions
The explosion appeared to create a vacuum, sucking the classroom curtains inwards towards the sink. Their cheap materials burst into flames. The fire rapidly advanced towards the ceiling, the curtain lining acting like the wick in a candle.
I had instinctively leapt backwards as the gas had ignited. My lab partner had performed a similar acrobatic feat, knocking over the uncomfortable stool she had been sitting on.
I tore the burning curtains down from their curtain rail, and unceremoniously dumped them in the sink. My lab partner calmly switched off the gas, and sprayed water over the flaming window coverings.
“You are on fire” she observed, giving an understated nod towards my arm.
I glanced down and discovered the hairs on my forearm were missing, scorched, singed, or smouldering.
After plunging my forearm under the running tap, I glared around the classroom attempting to identify who had attempted to blow me up.
My eyes skimmed past Hugh. He avoided my gaze, the picture of a model student intently focused on his science textbook.
Except something didn’t look right.
It could have been the fact that his textbook was upside down on his desk.
More likely, it was his complete absence of eyelashes, eyebrows, and long blonde fringe that usually hung low over one eye. He had observed the outcome of his handiwork a little too closely!
I grabbed him off his lab stool and dragged him out the back door of the class room. We had a frank and honest exchange of views about how and why he had attempted to turn me into a human candle.
Hugh tearfully explained about the offer from the older boys. He really believed it would be different this time. Hugh had chosen me because I had always treated him fairly, and therefore was unlikely to hurt him.
He was wrong about that last part.
If you can’t be good, be careful
The older boys needed to be held accountable for their actions, but the school was notorious for turning a blind eye to disputes between students.
They were too big to take on directly. At my age the size difference amounted to a boy versus two grown men.
An alternative approach was required.
That evening, I replaced the kitty litter in my cat’s litter tray with bubble wrap. The next morning there was a pool of vile smelling cat piss in the bottom of the tray, which I collected in a plastic juice bottle.
The older boys regularly terrorised the neighbourhood in a crappy old car. Held together mostly by rust. No two panels the same colour. Unregistered. Written off by the insurance company years ago.
On my way across the school parking lot that morning, I poured the urine into their car’s cowl vent.
All fresh air entering the interior of the car would now smell like cat piss.
When they switched the heating on in winter, it would smell like hot cat piss.
No amount of cleaning and decontaminating can get that smell out.
The hairs on my arm would grow back. That fetid smell of cat piss was a life sentence.
I was reminded of Hugh this week, as I found myself perched on another uncomfortable stool at another bench. This time up the back of a consumer electronics store in my local shopping centre.
Customers like me would file in clutching expensive toys that were in some way defective, maimed or malfunctioning.
A smiling teenager, all facial piercings and tattoos in an ironic display of conformist nonconformity, would swiftly triage the issue. The goal: determine if the problem was the device, or the owner.
The customer seated on the adjacent stool had attempted a DIY hardware upgrade. Following along to a YouTube video that promised instant performance improvements, using cheap off-market parts, in just five minutes. Unsurprisingly, his device no longer worked.
The teenager confidently plugged the device in and switched it on.
There was an alarming electrical buzz.
A brief pause, followed by blinding flash of light and small explosion.
Both the teenager and I had instinctively stepped backwards away from the now flaming device. The owner sat unmoved, his gormless expression made comical by a matching pair of singed eyebrows.
The hubbub in the store briefly fell silent, before resuming as the store manager extinguished the small fire.
Like a well rehearsed ballet, the situation was professionally resolved.
The manager swiftly steered the customer towards the door. “No, your device can not be salvaged. No, you have voided the warranty. No, we don’t operate a ‘you touched it last’ rule for culpability. However, we would be super excited to help get you set up on this shiny new model that is only £2,799…”
The teenager attacked the scorch marks on the bench top with a cloth and cleaning spray. Her veritable clone, sporting a slightly different edgy haircut, liberally sprayed air freshener to mask the cloying odours of burning silicon and smoke.
In less than a minute, it was as if the explosion and fire had never happened. It was an impressive performance.
The teenager focused her 1000 watt smile on me, observing that I had escaped almost unscathed from the exploding device. I raised a questioning eyebrow, and she gestured to a large bald patch on my previously hirsute forearm, surrounded by a ring scorched hairs. Not again!
Asking how she could be of service, I explained that a key had failed on my laptop.
The teenager cautiously pressed the offending key a couple of times and agreed it was indeed broken.
The good news was the repair would be performed in-store. For free.
This turned out to be a good thing, because the broken £0.20 switch is a fixed part of the keyboard, which in turn is a fixed part of the laptop case. Which would normally cost £400 to replace!
The bad news was the repair would take at least two weeks. Apparently keyboard failures were disappointingly commonplace. A design flaw, resulting in a huge backlog.
The teenager then launched into a sales pitch masked as empathy.
“I understand how long and inconvenient two whole weeks could be without a computer. How will you work? Study? Code? The modern version of your machine had just been refreshed, to be lighter and faster (and more expensive) than ever before. I would be super excited to help get you set up on this shiny new model that is only £2,799…”
I shook my head to break the hypnotic spell of her siren song. The allure of returning home with a shiny new computer, that I didn’t need, was strong indeed.
The repair booked in, I fled the store clutching my wallet.
I’m not sure whether I was more excited or terrified at the prospect of spending two consecutive weeks without immediate access to computer at home, for the first time in more than 20 years.
I realised this had been my third visit to repair counter in the temptation store so far this year.
The first was about a phone that wouldn’t charge. Component failure. Repair cost exceeding the resale value of the used phone. Outcome: a new phone.
The second was about accidental damage to my younger son’s tablet. Outcome: tears, and a new tablet.
It occurred to me that my behaviour bore some uncomfortable similarities to Hugh.
Time and again I had bought into a myth, believing what I wanted to be true.
Paying a premium for the perception of quality. Simplicity. The promise it “just works”.
Time and again those devices failed to meet my expectations.
Planned obsolescence and poor quality control resulting in a shorter device life than was expected, or reasonable for the price.
Time and again I would be disappointed as reality failed to live up to my hopes and dreams.
Fantastic devices they certainly were. Easy to use, they were indeed. But they cost a fortune and don’t last long.
Repair prices incentivising replacement over retention. Disposable devices.
The false promises made by the older boys used to injure Hugh physically. Yet time and again he would accept them, desperately wanting it to be different this time. For them to be true.
The false illusions I hold of the temptation store’s products injure me financially. Yet time and again I imagine them, desperately wanting it to be different this time. For them to be true.
In both cases, repeating the same behaviours and expecting a different outcome may not be considered insanity, but it is certainly setting ourselves up for disappointment.
A glimpse into the future
I was reading earlier about the rumoured imminent release of an even newer and shinier version of my old broken laptop. Given the pound’s plummeting purchasing power, the new model is forecast to cost more than £3,000.
My first car cost less than that! So too did my recent high season family holiday.
I borrowed my younger son’s tablet to write this story. The screen is smaller than I’d like, and using an external keyboard takes some getting used to. But it works.
Given today’s prevalence of cloud hosted applications, there hasn’t been much that I would usually do on my computer that I haven’t been able to accomplish with my phone or borrowed tablet.
Which leaves me wondering how much longer any of us will actually need a home computer?
Excel and graphic design haven’t been much fun on the mobile devices, but everything else has been an adjustment rather than an impossibility.
Are those expensive computers in their traditional form now solving problems that many of us no longer have?
- Howes, B. (2009), ‘The Definition of Insanity’, Psychology Today