Technological Autobiography: My Life with Home Appliances

My Life with Home Appliances

by Deborah Taylor-Hough

“Technology serves as a Rorschach over a lifetime, a projective screen for our changing and emotionally charged commitments.”[1]  – Sherry Turkle, Inner History of Devices

my freezerBack in the days before modern appliances, the work of keeping up a home was a full-time job.  From the need to replenish meats and vegetables on almost a daily basis due to a lack of safe food storage options, to washing clothing and diapers at the riverside, housekeeping was a never-ending chore.   I will examine the history of modern work-saving devices, looking at how the development of these items saves time and effort, focusing on stories from my own life and my family’s history and also discuss the role of appliances in the liberation of women from the solitary role of housewife. Continue reading

Writing Prompt: The Freezer

This was written in response to a writing prompt given in an MFA class last year:

“Write from the perspective of a common home appliance.”

I found that if this is read without knowing who or what the “I” is, it’s quite unnerving.  Serial killer, perhaps?  I stumbled across this on my computer today and had forgotten I’d written it, or even what it was about.  Creeped me out.  It brought to mind for me “Psycho” and someone a bit like Norman Bates.

The Freezer
by Debi

Darkness, total and complete.  Bone-chilling cold.  Stacks of frozen carcasses.  Solid ice.  The never-altering, eternally freezing, condition of my life.  Waiting.  Always waiting.  Quietly humming tuneless songs. Wondering when a flash of light and heat will signal the entrance of The Family, disturbing my solitary, frozen existence.

My downstairs neighbor receives frequent visits from The Family throughout the day.  Although my neighbor’s darkness is also complete, the blackness never lasts as long as the darkness I live in.  His cold environment isn’t enough to form ice or frost.  The fluids are chilled but still liquid.  The carcasses are preserved for a time, but not eternally frozen.  The Family worries when the small glass bulb which provides light burns out in my neighbor’s apartment.  My living space has no light source of its own.  Only when the door opens do I see the contents of my own interior.

Notebook Cento #5 – now is a now and this is a this

Sometimes I go back through my notebooks from Graduate school and make centos (collage poems) from phrases I find in the pages.   This is the fifth of a series of centos from my notebooks.

now is a now and this is a this

Notebook Cento #5
by Debi

a now is a now is a now
creating space
.                        between self and outside
.               inside and out
1st person and 3rd
.                  disruptive
find a place, not a position
not an either/or
.                    but an and and an and and an and and …
respect the thing itself
this is this, is this, is this—
.                 rather than this is that

Poem: The End of the World

This was written in response to a gallery exhibition at the University of Washington Bothell called “Particles on the Wall” which had artwork and poetry created in response to the Handford nuclear site in Washington State.  I wandered back through the gallery a second time and wrote down images and phrases that were either inspired by the work, or seen in the poetry, thus creating a response to the totality of the exhibition.

The End of the World
by Debi

I forgive
I forgive
I must forgive

Shall I show you how we dressed our wounds?
downwater downriver
terminal winds
leaking glowing circling dying

someone launched
someone drove
someone fished
and never knew

easy to bury
in the late afternoon
dragged home
bedded down
the rest of us slept
in the river’s shadow

half a million years til Spring
what fossils will the future find?
we have gone blind
we are blind
the desert eats dust
a rabbit digs its own grave

obsolete history
drafted history
voided history
closed history
engineered history

by dawn’s light

origami made from living flesh

the children unborn
carrying on the family business
cleaning up the waste
from the death beds of their fathers

this is my blood
a chalice of death
the last power
the final cover up

Notebook Cento #4

Sometimes I go back through my notebooks from Graduate school and make centos (collage poems) from phrases I find in the pages.   This is the fourth of a series of centos from my notebooks.

Notebook Cento #4
by Debi

drunken babbling
does it get in the way?
we need to move beyond
in opposite ways
the same thing

Notebook Cento #3

Sometimes I go back through my notebooks from Graduate school and make centos (collage poems) from phrases I find in the pages. This is the third of the series of centos from my notebooks.

Notebook Cento #3
by Debi

distance ———- home
love is in the mind
happens again and again
there are known unknowns
and unknown knowns
everyone lives parenthetically
do you have to work for it?
how much do you want it?
layers of imagery
is any poem with footnotes
a mixed genre work?

Writing Prompt: Where would you be if you hadn’t left your hometown?

This resembles the landscape in my recurring dream.

This resembles the landscape in my recurring dream.

Where would I be if we hadn’t moved? Who would I have been if we had stayed? I’m not sure I would’ve been alive for long.

Moving bought me time. Time to live a life removed from the places and people of childhood. Away from bullies and abusers. Away from those who still haunt my dreams and waking moments.

But then, no escape. Nowhere to run.

Bullied at school. Bullied on the street. Those ever grasping, groping hands in back lots and clubhouses. Insanity at home. Everywhere I turned, I saw only myself and my screaming face of desperation—like being trapped inside a dead-end House of Mirrors.

Let me out! Let me out! But no one hears. No rescue comes.

Help me? Please?

No. Hush, child.

A child left in the care of mental illness. They were blind. Deaf. Dumb. Numb to normal feelings.

The recurring, on-going dream of my childhood was about being buried alive. By my family. Every night. Every night beginning where it left off the night before. The nightmare that perhaps told the story of my childhood.

It went like this:

For far too many nights, tied down in a cart full of hay. Pulled by an old horse. Up and up and up and up the winding unpaved cart path.

Past the homes of friends, homes of family. Past the school, the shops, the weathered farms. To a field of grass and flowers. And a gaping grave.

They took me down from the cart, setting me quietly into the hole in the ground. Throwing clods onto my tiny child body. No! Stop! Please? Please don’t! Was I unable to make a sound? Or were they unable to hear? Or did they choose to continue despite the pleas and cries.

They were silent. Ever serious.

One handful. Another. Covering my legs. My tiny torso. My arms and hands. My face. The dirt collected in my ears, my mouth, my eyes, my nose.

The earth is cold and smells of damp. Smells of earthworms. Beetles. Clover. Grass tufts. The silence covers, envelopes, crushes me.

The lens of my dream retreats from inside my earthen grave. New scene: My family all walking away back down the hill. Silently.

The shot pans through the grim parade. The parents. Grandparents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Single file. Returning from the hill.

The shot pans once more. See the empty field? A freshly dug space, no larger than a child. A view of the mountains. The soft touch of gentle breezes on wisps of grass and weeds.

The dreams ended then. The burial was complete, haunting my waking and dreaming moments.
For the rest of my life.

Who would I have been if we hadn’t moved? Still buried. Still silent. Still watching.

Without leaving, there would have been no future. No me. There is nothing to see or imagine in that alternative timeline.

It would have been

The End.

Experiment: Grandpa’s Trophy Room

Our instructions in class last night were to do a free write about a place or experience or item from our childhoods that was somehow powerful or incredibly important to us.  Basically doing a brief bit of non-fiction memory writing.  Then, Part Two of the experiment was to go back to the same event or situation, but this time write about it as viewed through the eyes of someone who wasn’t there or who would’ve viewed the situation differently then we did.  An interesting exercise in using memory as a seedbed for creating fictional scenarios.

BearRugHeadOpenBigNon-fiction Memory-based Free Write:

“Grandpa’s Trophy Room (with Mary)”

It was like being given the key to a magic kingdom. Entry into a dark world of bear rugs, deer heads, gun cabinets, hunting photos, and dust.  My childhood friend, Mary, and I lived for those days when we were handed the key on the large wooden key ring shaped like a fishing bobber.

The bears were the islands—the cold speckled linoleum, the lava.  “Don’t step on the lava!”  as we jumped from island to island.  Grandma always made us take our shoes off before we could play our hot lava game.  Only stocking feet were allowed on the pelts.  I can remember the feel of the stiff fur through our cotton socks, feeling much like dry grass to bare feet.  The socks had the added bonus of allowing us to skate/glide across the lava/linoleum.

Those were some of the best days at Grandma’s house.  When she gave us two little girls the key to the trophy room and allowed us uninterrupted time to give free reign to our imaginations.

Fictionalized Free Write of the Same Room:

“Grandpa’s Trophy Room (with Jody)”

This time when I went to visit Grandma, I brought my next door neighbor, Jody, with me.  I was thrilled to share my magical place with my friend.  As I opened the door to my personal cave of wonders, Jody gasped and stepped back away from the doorway.

“It’s okay, Jody.  I’ll turn on the light.”

Barely a whisper.  “Are they … are they … dead?”

“Yes, they’re dead.  They can’t hurt you.  Come on in.  It’s okay.  Really.”

I knew that creepy feeling of sensing the glass marble eyes following you around the room.  But it became clear Jody wasn’t worried about the animals possibly hurting her.

Still whispering, “Who killed them?  How did they die?”

Were those tears in her eyes?  She quietly took my offered hand and together we crossed the threshold into a world from her nightmares.  Jody stopped by the nearest deer head and lightly lay her hand on the softness of its neck just under the chin.

“It’s so … it’s so beautiful.”

She began to weep.  To cry as only a heartbroken six-year-old girl can cry.  Sobs coming from deep within her soul.

I was confused.  Then, all at once, I was shattered.  How had I—the overly sensitive child who cried over the lobsters in the tank at the gourmet grocery store—how had I become immune to the reality of death that was everywhere in the trophy room?  Coming into the room cold like she did, Jody had instantly seen what my jaded eight-year-old eyes had ceased to see.

At that moment, I knew I could never marry a hunter.  My own children would not lose their gentle sensitivities.  Whether I knew the thought as actually being marriage-related at the time is unclear, but I had the definite sense that I would not knowingly or willingly choose the hunter’s life for my future.  Whatever that future might be.

Jody never fully recovered from her initial horror of the trophy room.  She was convinced now that my silly playful grandfather was a mass murderer on par with Jack the Ripper.  A mad man hiding in plain sight in suburbia.  A den of horrors in his basement.  He even had furniture and decorative objects made from appendages of his victims, a bit like the skin suit in Silence of the Lambs. My grandfather had manufactured a gruesome cabinet of decapitated wonders.

I still played the hot lava game with Mary for a couple more years after the true nature of the trophy room was revealed that day with Jody.  But much of the magic was gone.  Now instead of losing myself in the world of pure imagination, I became a bit more adept at the practices of denial.  And some mild dissociation.  When you’re the only child in a family of heavily armed hunters, you tend to keep your sensitivities to yourself.  Survival—both physical and social—is an important instinct in the offspring of the human animal.

[FYI: The change of heart I experienced in the second piece was actually true, but taking Jody to the basement was fiction and not the cause of my inward change.]

The Book of Proverbia

by Debi

One of our assignments this quarter was to keep a Commonplace of quotations from our readings for class.  We needed to pick a word or idea or concept that we would track throughout our readings, and then at the end of the quarter, we needed to put it into some sort of tangible form and try to make sense of how the quotations we chose interacted with each other.

My word that I tracked throughout the quarter was Proverbs. I basically kept my eye out for wise says, pithy truisms, aphorisms, or anything that caught my eye that remotely seemed to be implying wisdom (even just in witty ways–it didn’t need to be truly wise).

My final project was putting together a small booklet which I titled “Proverbia,” and attempted to have it look somewhat like a page from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible.  The subtitle is:  “Wisdom from the MFA Canon.”

I made a pdf file (linked above) to share with my classmates, and thought I’d share it here in case anyone’s interested in the random words of wisdom that were imparted from the assorted writers we read this winter.

Book Response: Handke’s Horror Story

by Debi

Ghosts and vampires.  Werewolves and torture devices.  These are the standard fare of horror stories.  In a story with no supernatural elements or hidden bloody chambers, Peter Handke’ book A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story evokes a true horror story. The terrifying thing about this story is that it could have happened to anyone, anywhere, anytime.  Handke’s horror story is not the frightening walk down a dark haunted passageway, but the realistic—and often nihilistic—look back at the life of a woman, his mother.

Condemned by family members and by circumstance to a life without future, without meaning, and without hope, she finally “finds herself” through literature, but in finding herself, loses her desire to live.  His mother’s final act of individuality, and perhaps her first real act of agency, was to voluntarily choose to take her own life.  Hoping to find relief from the personal horror of his mother’s death, Handke uses writing as a means to examine his mother’s life, and to keep himself active during a time when apathy and passivity could have easily overtaken him.  The desire to tell someone about her life cheered him up momentarily but was ultimately not the path to healing he had hoped.

Handke’s personal mind-boggling horrors consisted of his mother’s death, the relentless mercilessness of nature, and the rotting away moment-by-moment of life eventually leading to death.  He expressed that his horror often manifested as moments of extreme speechlessness when the horror of reality was so deep and so grave, that it was nearly impossible to describe in words.  He referred to these moments as intermittent “states” when “suddenly my day-to-day world … fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.”  But that very speechlessness and need to find expression for those moments, was also the motivating factor in much of his desire to write.  By engaging in literary work he felt alienated from himself and “transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.”

The detached manner that he told of his mother’s life, almost the perspective of an onlooker and not someone personally involved in the narrative, seemed evidence of his machine-like objectification of himself through writing.  Not wanting to extort sympathy from his readers, he wanted to convey the sense of “telling him a rather fantastic story,” so he told his mother’s life story in almost a once-upon-a-time format.  “It began with …”; the starting words of a classic narrative arc.  This happened.  Then this.  Then this.  A story told, not to incite sympathy, but to explain a life that ended in such an apparently tragic (although he would call exemplary) fashion.

Handke uses a variety of words and phrases to describe the horror of his mother’s story and also of his reaction to her death.  If he had stuck with only the word horror to describe what they were experiencing, the full impact of what the horror was and how impactful it was may have been lost to the reader.  It might have almost seemed like an exaggeration for dramatic effect.  He described his own horror as incomprehensible, uncommunicable, impotent rage, tempests of dread, mercilessness of nature, and undirected objective horror.

His mother’s personal horror was described as coming from being the eternal loser, the weaker half, poverty, wretchedness, too miserable to complain, no future, alone with the four walls, no future, strangulation, and that mere existence was torture.  By adding specifics to the general concept of horror, the reader is able to feel and relate to the true horrific nature of what was being described.  If someone read the story and simply felt it was a sad tale, they would have missed the wretched helplessness and incomprehensible grief and horror that became part of their daily lives.

Rather than traditional horror story types, the everyday events of his mother life were used to paint a picture of a woman whose life was trapped and help captive to the powers around her, in just as real a way as if she had been held in a cell of the Beast’s dungeon her entire life.  Being raised in a world where the childhood game of little girls consisted of playing “Tired / Exhausted / Sick / Dying / Dead” with their friends, the hopelessness and lack of a fulfilling future was palpable.  As a child, his mother felt stirrings of individuality during her schooling, but learning was considered nothing more than a child’s game for girls.  After all, women’s adult lives would be spent at home, so they might as well get used to being home constantly with “no room of one’s own.”  There was no worrying about the future because there was no future.  Every day was a monotony.  “Today was yesterday, yesterday was always.”

The hopelessness of his mother’s life was brought through to the reader by the repetition of the humdrum days and months and years.  Even though there were moments of hope when it seemed his mother was about to step into her own individuality and discover her true self, those moments were fleeting and served to only bring greater clarity to the horror that continued on and on throughout her life.  If Handke had given us only the monotony of his mother’s life without the brief moments of hopefulness, it may have lulled the reader into apathy, but by giving hope, the possibility of change was awakened, thus freshly awakening the reader to the sad plight of his mother.

After the introduction of appliances, Handke’s mother had more time each day to purse her own interests now that she was freed from the daily-ness of her daily tasks.  She found time to read and discovered the world of literature.  She felt the stories were giving her youth back to her, but sadly, she found these glimmers of hope served to make her feel even more hopeless and depressed.  The stories were reminders of all the things she would never do and of all the things she would never be.

Handke uses writing as a means to express the inexpressible moments in his life, and his mother evidently did the same thing as she sank deeper into depression.  When life became too unbearable and she was no longer able to converse with other people without it feeling like a form of torture, she resorted to writing letters.  Like mother, like son.  In both cases, their writing also did not bring the healing they had hoped.  His mother’s last letters were farewells, and his book about his mother did not prove to be a distraction for him.  Rather than becoming preoccupied with the process of writing, his act of writing added to his preoccupation with his mother’s death.

It is not true that writing has helped me.  In my weeks of preoccupation with the story, the story has not ceased to preoccupy me.  Writing has not, as I at first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment.

The book ends with short anecdotes, a series of simple flashes of memory and observations of himself and his thoughts following his mother’s death.  The majority of the book was a retelling of his mother’s life, but when he shifts to telling his own tale at the end, the storyline becomes broken and fragmented.  He ends with a statement that he would like to return and write more detail about these snatches from his life.  It feels as though he has processed his mother’s life story and her death, but is still detached from his own life and his own grief and consequently is unable to express his own life experiences with the same candor, openness, and detail as he could with his mother’s life story.

By allowing the reader to see the trudging, monotonous themes of his mother’s life, we come away with the full sense of the horror of her life.  The helplessness.  The hopelessness.  A life awakened too late.  A sorrow beyond nightmares.  More misfortune than anyone could wish for.