Pity the sad sacks who are cursed with packages that fiendishly refuse to be opened by human hands

An exasperated reader asked recently, "Does anything work at all in this country anymore?"

The only thing that's better than it used to be, said Jack P. Gabriel, is men's socks.

It is an exaggeration, of course, to say that nothing is as good as it used to be. For one thing, so many of our high-tech toys are so new in our experience that there are no previous models to compare them with.

It is a little early yet to say, "Computers aren't as good as they used to be," or "They don't make compact disc players like they used to."

It does seem, however, that every product goes through a phase of deterioration sometime after it has been brought to what we accept as perfection.

The American motor car, for example. At one time, probably in the late 1920s, it seemed about as beautiful and efficient as a machine could be. Of course it wasn't. Today's cars have dozens of useful features that those works of art didn't have: four-wheel brakes, shatterproof windshields, automatic transmissions and numerous technical improvements that I am not mechanic enough to name.

But after World War II American cars not only became gauche in design, but inferior in quality to those built in Europe and Japan, and the American auto industry is still paying for that lapse.

"I do sympathize with Jack P. Gabriel," writes Clement Salvadori of Laguna Beach, "but he mustn't despair. On the plus side I would say that the Orange County Performing Arts Center works extremely well, Harley-Davidson motorcycles are better than ever, and digital traveling alarm clocks are excellent devices. On the down side, it takes the Jaws of Life to get into a bag of potato chips; telephone service is declining at a rapid rate, and--here I must disagree with Mr. Gabriel--it is impossible to get a good pair of socks."

I haven't yet had the pleasure of attending the Orange County Performing Arts Center and I have never ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. My wife and I do have digital alarm clocks beside our beds, and while we don't travel with them, they are quite reliable in getting us up on the mornings when we have to go to the gym.

But I know what he means about its taking the Jaws of Life to get into a bag of potato chips. I think packaging is the most underrated curse of our times.

I can see the board of some big packaging firm meeting on a Wednesday morning to work on a new product. The CEO says, "Gentlemen, our chief competitors have turned out a package that takes 10 minutes to open, can't be opened without a pair of scissors, a butcher knife, a screwdriver and a hacksaw, and drives customers insane. We've got to think up something harder than that!"

I can not open a loaf of bread, a box of crackers, or a box of cereal without resorting to tools, ripping frantically at the seals like a man trapped inside a plastic sack, cursing, breathing hard, driving up my blood pressure and going momentarily out of my mind.

I end up tearing up the sack so that it can not be folded back together again, to keep in the goodness, and usually spilling half its contents on the floor.

Meanwhile my wife stands by, watching me with a kind of unbelieving fascination. For reasons that I do not understand, she has no trouble with packages.

Usually, when I am in the throes of one of these one-sided wrestling matches, she will say, "Here, let me do it."

Of course I have my pride, and I finish the job myself, whatever the cost. But I have seen her open a package, which she does with a simple, knowing, confident motion that drives me almost as crazy as my failure to do the same thing does.

I am convinced that the packaging industry is run by a psychopath who derives pleasure from frustrating millions of people. Any package that is that secure against ordinary strength and cunning can not have been achieved by accident, or merely with the idea of keeping the contents fresh.

I remember when you brought home a loaf of bread in waxed paper, folded down one flap and slid out the loaf. Perhaps today's hermetically sealed loaves have a longer shelf life, but the old-fashioned packaged loaves seemed fresh enough to me, and a lot more accessible.

We who like a little wine with our dinner have long since learned that opening a bottle of wine is not easy, unless it's one of those cheap kinds with twist-off tops. But opening a bottle of wine requires a certain style, a panache, that makes the effort worthwhile, and when the cork slips out with a slight pop, we feel a sense of triumph. The delay has only heightened our appreciation of the first sip.

Much worse, though, than packaged food, are the plastic containers that compact discs come in. If you do not yet have a compact disc player, take my advice and don't get one until they package the discs in something less inviolate than the plastic boxes they now come in. They will yield only to heavy duty scissors and sharp knives, and then with the greatest reluctance. They are fiendish.

I have not yet noticed a decline in telephone service, but I dread the day when something goes wrong and we have to call the repairman.

As for socks, I get mine at J. C. Penney.

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