Of all the tribulations of modern life, one of the greatest trials today is the intermittent fault. The red light that flashes on your dashboard and goes away before you can read it; the unusual sort of smoky smell from the washing machine every few loads; and the tiny noise from the basement that wakes you and quits before you can identify it. 

Whether we know it or not our brains are constantly comparing sensory inputs to expectations. Our entourage of technology produces a background noise we monitor without realizing, even asleep. When the pattern is interrupted, it goes straight to our panic center. If you don’t believe it, check your pulse rate after a tiny hesitation from your tractor transmission. 

There are several ways we cope with this autonomic alarm system. First, we try to recreate the noise, smell, vibration or flicker. If a sound, for example, happens when turning left at the ends, every other turn is a tense, exhausting alert. The most insidious faults will return to dormancy giggling until we convince ourselves we imagined it or tire of paying so much attention. The second occurrence, however, means the game is on.

Like every problem on the farm, communication is key. The most difficult part is like most recovery programs: admitting the problem. Throughout the years, I have learned to be very, very careful when responding to a spouse communication, “The X made a funny noise and then stopped.” The correct response is not “Are you sure?” or “It’s probably nothing.” Those words will often require eating at great expense and humility. I would suggest the best reply if I knew it, but I’ve only been working on this problem for 40 years.

Besides, if you think it’s awkward to warn a relative, it’s trivial to calling in a professional. When the best symptom you can give is: “The screen freezes and then goes to the main menu. But not every time ...” You can almost hear the service manager’s eyes rolling over the phone. Maybe not as much now that flat fees for a service call have risen, however. Vague symptoms equate to billable diagnostic hours. Describing a sound can require a thesaurus. “It’s more of a hiss than a buzz, but not a sizzle.” Sounds also bring forth inept impersonations. “It’s not a thunka-thunka, it’s a tickety-tickety.” And nothing can be more difficult to admit than “It just feels funny.”

The fear that grips us is these random events might be the only clue we have to prevent a ma$$ive failure. In the meantime, any joy or mere satisfaction in operating the device disappears. Operators get swapped ostensibly to get different eyes on the problem, but mostly to hand off the ticking time bomb to anyone else. This fear is well-founded, as virtually every farmer I know can begin a sad story with, “We thought we heard something in the gearbox a couple times before ...” 

These misfires go dormant for long periods, ensuring a lengthy period of technological mistrust, followed by rummaging through hazy memories when they reappear months, even years later. “Didn’t it do this two years ago, or was it the yellow truck?” And the cycle begins anew.

I have reached the age where I know what scary is. It’s not, despite everything I can gather from horror films, a teenage girl in a nightgown going into a dark attic alone. That’s simple thundering stupidity. She could have pulled the covers over her head and been perfectly safe, but noooo ...

Real terror is a strong grip on your arm at 2:17 a.m. and the phrase “thought I smelled smoke.” Make some coffee, you’re done sleeping.

Luckily, as we age, our senses decline gently to shield us from spurious alarms. Sounds go unnoticed, smells don’t register until pungent, momentary lights are unseen in the glare. At my time of life, most of those intermittent faults pass by unrecognized until the first hint something might be wrong is, “Hey, that’s oil on the windshield.” Now there’s a problem you can nail down.