The lawn sprinkler had a lifetime guarantee. Yours, or its, that's the question.
If it ceases to work, it's dead, and its lifetime is over. When you think about it, nothing with a "lifetime guarantee" mentions your lifetime, or new parents would send in warranty cards with their infant's name as the owner. "We're going to get 80 years out of this sprinkler! It'll be an heirloom."
Of course, it died after five years. Last Tuesday, to be exact, at 6:49 p.m. My wife found me standing by the sprinkler, typing into my phone, and asked what I was doing.
"Googling 'lifetime sprinkler won't oscillate,' " I said, It was possibly the first time in my life that those words have been strung together. By anyone.
"Go back and forth. See? It keeps getting stuck. It goes one way, then the other, then stops. It is non-oscillating. It will oscillate no more forever. But it has a lifetime guarantee, so I'm looking online to see if there's something I can do."
"I never liked that sprinkler," she said, and I was surprised: She had an opinion about the sprinkler? And she kept it bottled up for the last half a decade?
"It's top of the line," I said.
"It's junk," she said. "It's plastic."
"It's lightweight. And it has a timer, so it automatically shuts off." Which, to wives, sounds like: "I'm so lazy I can't be bothered to turn off the faucet."
Still, she was convinced it was junk. Get something heavy, she said. Something metal. Something simple.
"OK, OK. But first let me look like I'm doing something by staring at websites." Sure enough, the top-of-the-line sprinkler was prominently featured on a variety of sites devoted to people venting their fury at shoddy products.
One line kept turning up: "If I could give it zero stars, I would."
You see this a lot online. An Amazon review of a book: " 'War and Peace' is supposed to be a classic but if you ask me it should have had the first part about war and the second part about peace but it's all jumbled up. Confusing! If I could give it zero stars I would."
A TripAdvisor review of a motel: "First of all the manager charged our credit card for more than the rate on the reservation, and when we complained, he pulled a knife on us. This should have been our first clue, but we were tired so we took the room. Ugh! There was mold in the bathroom and a body in the tub. Bedbugs. The sheets were actually paper towels taped together. Would give zero stars if I could."
A Yelp review of a restaurant: "Our reservation was for eight people at 7 p.m. When we got there, we were informed that they had us down for seven people at 8 p.m. and offered to seat seven and a half people at 7:30. Waitress was rude, constantly not laughing at my jokes. Nachos were too spicy!!! The ice was that crushed kind that melts right away. If I could give zero stars I would."
And an IMDB movie review: "Worst movie ever. Cardboard characters. The hero just walks around in a white coat talking to people. The portrayal of the Nazis is ridiculous — they did not speak English. The dialogue all sounds familiar. Would give zero stars if I could, but there's a nice vintage airplane at the end, if that's your thing. If not, avoid 'Casablanca.' "
It is obvious that there's a great demand for the ability to leave a zero star rating. Many people would do it if they could, but they can't. They are forced by the ratings system to give one star, which requires them to make an endorsement they obviously would prefer not to.
When you think about it, though, one star can be even more withering than zero. It's like tipping: Leave nothing and the waiters think you forgot, but leave a small tip and they get the message that you weren't happy.
Or, perhaps we should adopt a universal ratings system: one to a thousand. If you give someone one out of a thousand, the point's clear. If you still wanted to give zero stars, you'd look petty.
No, that wouldn't work. "Should we see this movie? It has an average rating of 647 stars." People would read it as 6.4. So perhaps we should go to a binary verdict: thumbs up, thumbs down. Those ratings are the most reliable, really. There are only two outcomes: All things considered, it's not worth it. Or: When you study the totality of the product and its shortcomings, it's still recommended.
But what if you can't decide? Then perhaps you shouldn't leave a review. I was tempted to leave a two-star review for the sprinkler on the complaint page, because it had worked for a few years, and that ought to count for something.
Instead, I just put my phone away and went to the store for a new sprinkler. They had one left. I was tempted to call up reviews, but considered: It's heavy. It's metal. It's simple.
Ten stars, wife would say, and that's the review that matters most.