Batteries Not Included


Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs got nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you

— “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus),” lyrics by Rick Evans

The last time I was home in Kentucky I went straight to the one place I’m sure to find my mother—the kitchen.

“You know,” Mom said as she slid into a seat across the table from me. “I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got the washing machine and dryer doing the laundry, the dishwasher cleaning last night’s supper plates and the bread machine whipping up a loaf of sourdough. You can’t beat that with a stick.”

I remember the Christmas my mother got her first dishwasher; it was 1968. Dad was profoundly proud he could provide my hard-working mother with this modern convenience. It was a BIG DEAL. Recently, when her fifth dishwasher stopped performing to her expectations, Mom called an appliance center. They delivered and installed the next day. No down time. Not one dish hand-washed in the interim.

My parents are big on gadgets. Need something thawed? Microwave on 50 percent power. Wrinkled clothes? Hit them with the heavy-duty steamer. Write a letter or send photos snail mail? Not when e-mail is so much faster and cheaper. Shopping? Order from the Internet and everything arrives at your doorstep. My parents no longer open garage doors, get up to switch television channels or unlock car doors manually. My father has a riding lawn mower, a sprinkler system and a computer for day trading.

Like the rest of the country, I grew up with increasing conveniences and I think nothing of them. My mind runs to what else I can eliminate from my own routine—mainly cleaning chores. I recently spent some serious money on a robot that sweeps the floor. It seems extravagant, but I couldn’t clean beneath my new low-slung platform bed. The flat little robot slides under with ease. I enjoy slapping him down and returning to find a spotless floor. My mother was distraught to learn that the robot only works on hardwood floors (she has wall-to-wall).

I liked the robot sweeper so much that I decided to try another curious machine—an automatic litter box. My cats are mostly outdoor animals, but sometimes I have to leave them in for a couple of days while I travel. I hate cleaning a cat box, so I forked over $100, assembled the works, inserted batteries and waited for my felines to investigate.

They sniffed and feigned indifference, and as soon as I cracked the door they shot out to their favorite place behind my garden shed. I decided to force the issue and shut them inside. A few hours later I heard an odd whirring. I darted to the cat box, mystified as it swept the litter clean and dumped kitty poo into a receptacle that opened up like a tiny garbage truck. Success!

I heard on NPR that aging Baby Boomers are installing elevators in their homes when stairs become a challenge. It seems that at $15,000 a pop, it’s cheaper and more convenient to install a lift than it is to move to another house. I’m sure that when the time comes, my parents will check into this option. Mom has always hated hauling laundry up and down the stairs.

Americans are inventive. We’ve spent centuries creating machines for the nasty little chores we don’t have the time or inclination to do. Consequently, we may be conveniencing ourselves into an early grave. TV shows and magazine articles all remind us that our sedentary lifestyles are killing us.

I read countless articles that praise a more European way of living where people stroll along the streets of their towns to their local baker, butcher and vegetable stand for fresh food. Americans don’t have time for this. So we cut the job short by rushing through a megastore, bleached a sick pallor by fluorescent lights, in hopes that we can pick up some Christmas lights and a set of radial tires along with two weeks worth of frozen food.

Perhaps it is overly romantic to envision a family that still cooks at home and sits for hours talking and laughing. We now live off television and just-add-water-and-microwave boxed dinners or food passed to us in bags by poorly dressed strangers in small windows. The closest we get to that leisurely family meal is when we meet up at a local restaurant—never mind the harried waiter eager to turn your table.

Our country is seeing a frightening increase in high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. In a world of instant messaging and chain restaurants, we are missing the bigger picture. Americans try so hard to avoid work that we have forgotten it’s important to simply move. We should remember that a home-cooked, sit-down meal with friends and family is about more than simply filling a hungry spot. We need more movement in our days so we can feel the sweetness of rest after physical exertion and the satisfaction that comes from a clean house or a pretty lawn.

My parents don’t yet have a clapper for their lamps nor do they need a scooter to get around, but when that day comes, I’m sure they’ll buy top of the line. As Baby Boomers age, there will be a sharp increase in the sales of mobility and convenience products, and when folks no longer want to manage their households (and their busy families won’t take them in) they can move into assisted living communities with 24/7 health care and recreational therapists to arrange their days. Most Americans will end up not responsible for themselves at all. This concept scares me, although I think I’ll look into buying stock in geriatric markets.

When I was a kid I was enamored of the cartoon show “The Jetsons.” Push a button and food appears. Step in a tube, arrive at work instantaneously. Kids make a mess? Rosie the robot will pick up after your untidy family. I know for sure if they ever come up with a real Rosie, my mother will be first in line to buy her. If she works out, you can bet I’ll be asking for a Rosie too. I’m sure Rosie won’t mind cleaning up the powder-fine clumping litter that my new cat box spews everywhere.

Janna McMahan is the author of the novels Calling Home and The Ocean Inside. Check out her other writing at

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1 comment

  1. Nice story! It takes me back to the way things used to be, and reminds me how much we have now, and take for granted. I think about how my grandma used a washing machine that had a roller to squeeze the water out of the clothes after the agitation ended – and she thought it was a such a time saver! Thanks for this story reminding me of my past and my present, and making me curious about my future.

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