Much ado about manuals 1


What is it like to get old in South Africa? It’s okay when the lights are on – but since late last year the country has been experiencing rolling blackouts known locally as “loadshedding”. Every block in the national grid has a 2-hour daily slot without power. So you listen to the radio or check your phone app to find out if loadshedding is on. If so, you make sure your phone and laptop are charged. And if your slot is at night you get the flashlights, candles and firewood ready.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to turn off all your home’s electrical outlets. Not that one is always home and able to do so right before the power is cut. That is the background to this story.


A big brown box arrived on our doorstep the other day. Inside was a brand new microwave oven. This was because a power surge zapped our old one at the end of a recent power cut.

A replacement microwave had finally been procured, courtesy of our insurance policy. (Don’t expect Eskom or the municipality to pay when your electrical outlets start smoking. But that’s enough of my loadshedding woes. For now.)

I opened the box and put the shiny new microwave on my kitchen counter. I then spent awhile reveling in the satisfaction of seeing the space that had been empty since the zapping now filled.

It had been ages since I’d been able to defrost food for dinner in minutes and I was keen to do this. But of course I knew the drill: RTMF. Read The Manual First. Or RTFM, a tip that call centre Helpline workers often want to shout into the phone, meaning Read The F***ing Manual! I get it about the need to read instruction manuals. I just can’t face all those pages of small print with confusing diagrams.

Of what relevance is this Manual Micro-Rave to My New Old Self, you might ask. Antipathy to manuals is not age-specific. This is correct. I confess to having avoided manuals all my life.

What’s new is that my aversion is getting worse with age. Young people may disdain manuals, but for them it’s not a barrier to operating a device or appliance. They aren’t afraid to turn it on and start figuring it out.

Unlike the fearless youth, their elders are often full of fear. That we will make a mistake and break something. That we may later be told: You shouldn’t have done that.

Let us return to that new microwave in my kitchen – still unused, the manual unpaged. It took hours before I finally, very unenthusiastically sat down and started reading that manual. The only thing that kept me going was the fear of what might happen should I dare to press the Start button before reading until the end. I had a vision of sparks accompanied by a loud zapping sound.

microwave oven on fire

What we worry could happen to anyone who speedreads the microwave manual

In reading the manual I discovered that a microwave initiation ritual needed to be done before food could be inserted in it. This involved a bowl of water and a lot of steam. Apparently the microwave would fail to last as per guarantee if I skipped that vital step. Who knew? Clearly only those who read the manual.

Those essential instructions were preceded by these exact words: “Before using the your oven first time”. I cite them not to poke fun at the odd syntax but to suggest that this warning might best have been put on page one. Instead of being buried among nine (9!) pages of warnings. My favourite being this nonchalant caveat: “When heating food in plastic or paper containers, keep an eye on the oven due to the possibility of ignition.”

I am sorry to report that this has not been my only experience of manuals of late. I encountered one again when I bought myself a clock radio.

digital display of time on clock radio

If you’re wondering who buys a clock radio any more, the answer is old people. That’s as opposed to very old people who may only trust a clock with a face. I quite like a face on a clock, but in the middle of the night what I want is a bright digital display. Clock faces that promise to glow in the dark can be too faint for sleepy old eyes to read. I don’t fancy lying in my bed trying to figure out which number the hour hand is pointing at. Thus this purchase was less for the radio than the clock. 

My goal was simply to be able to tell the time – night or day, close or far. Which meant that I first had to set the time. Which involved reading Alarm Clock Radio: The Owner’s Manual. With great effort I mastered the seven (7!) steps needed to set the time. Now I can even use the CLK SET/MEM button to set a 12-hour cycle instead of 24.

 Salvador Dail's painting The Persistence of Memory

Clock faces feature in Salvador Dail’s surrealist 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory

Then guess what happened? The same culprit that launched this saga by zapping my microwave oven struck again: loadshedding. Because of course, without power the digital display is dark. When power returns there is only an annoying flashing. All that effort put into setting the time is erased.

It was then that I realised it wasn’t such a brilliant idea to buy a clock radio at this point in our country’s history, in our new era of regular power cuts – predicted to continue not just for months, but years. So if you peek through my bedroom window and see a figure by the bedside table, hunched over a clock radio, that’ll be me. Doing my daily post-loadshedding time reset. With the manual at my side.




One comment on “Much ado about manuals

  1. Reply Lanna Jun 26,2015 1:51 am

    Woe is you- to be followed by the rest of the world- sooner than later!

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