Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Doesn’t Kill You

My glasses broke last week. The left arm snapped clean off, leaving me with a lorgnette.
I’ve worn glasses all my adult life. Without them, the world three feet in front of my nose devolves into fuzzy blobs, which is a problem because I’m five feet tall and without glasses the ground is two feet out of visual range. I dug my backup pair out of the sock drawer, but they were an old prescription, the slight focal improvement they offered more than offset by the blinding headache they generated. Time to pay that long-postponed visit to the optician.
I waited for the bus in a foul mood, holding my broken glasses to my eyes with one hand and the post of the bus stop with the other to maintain balance as gusts of wind threw grit into my face and attempted to shove me off the sidewalk. It was an amazing wind, from the south, warm and violent.  When the bus came, I climbed aboard and fell into to the first available seat. Around me, everyone discussed the tornados that had devastated the southern states the day before, or compared power outages in their neighborhoods, or  exclaimed as we passed  toppled  trees and blown-over benches.
We came to a stop in an open area by the river. A tiny woman, ninety pounds tops, stepped off the bus but didn’t immediately make it to the ground. She hung in the air for at least a second, her weight insufficient to overcome the lift of the wind.  At the sight of her, suspended two feet above the ground, I relived a memory.
Years ago, when my clothes were still sized in single digits, I had a similar experience while working as a deckhand on a package freighter. We’d sailed into a November storm in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The boat rolled at the best of times and the waves were just far enough apart to lift the bow and slam it back into the water with juddering force. This combination of pitch and roll had everyone on the boat hanging over a bucket regurgitating lunch – except me.   
I don’t know what it’s like in today’s merchant marine, but back then, sailors still had some superstitious resistance to having women on board. I’d taken a lot of flak from my crew mates and perhaps that was why, when I noticed the latch on the forward paint locker wasn’t properly dogged down, I decided, in a moment of absolute insanity, to flaunt my stronger stomach by going forward to dog the latch before the hatch flew open and paint cans spilled all over the deck.
I made it about half the length of the ship, hand-over-handing along the rail.  Then a gust of wind hit me at the exact instant I switched hands, just as the deck pitched down and rolled out from under me. For the longest moments of my life, I hung over the water, convinced I was about to find out whether the old adage of lives flashing before eyes was true. But the wind held me up until the return roll brought the deck under my feet again. I grabbed the railing and pulled myself back to crew quarters.
Like me, the tiny woman landed safely on the ground, re-igniting the overwhelming relief I’d experienced when my feet finally touched down.
There were power outages all over town. The only optician still open, out at the mall, was beyond my price range. I didn’t get new glasses.
Normally, the frustration of wasting an entire day being bashed around town by the wind, holding up my glasses like some dorky eighteenth century opera aficionado, would have darkened my mood to the verge of violence. But the endorphins generated while reliving my narrow escape from a watery grave turned the experience into a glorious quest, a wonderful adventure battling the demon wind.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure as heck can improve a crappy day.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rancelot Ink

During a recent video call, Friend Nez proposed the idea of ranting for profit.
While delighted with the brilliance of the concept, I was astonished by the source. Nez has the prerequisite overactive imagination, but lacks the combination of paranoia and killer instinct necessary to produce a truly effective rant. She’s just too nice, as are most of my friends - although I do have one or two who could blister varnish off a Steinway Grand with a handful of well-chosen words. You know who you are.
In the modern world, there is a desperate and unmet need for ranting assistance services. I’ve mentioned before how reluctant people are to voice unpopular opinions and risk alienating important relationships with employers, in-laws and potentially homicidal new acquaintances. The damaging effects of containing annoyance are a serious health risk. Fuming in silence is stressful. Under conditions of extreme irritation, molars have been shattered by the dental pressure required to keep one’s mouth shut.
My new company, Rancelot Ink, will offer a broad spectrum of ranting assistance programs* at extremely competitive prices.
Economy Package: For a modestly-priced Merlot, your homemade rant can be published right here on this blog, anonymously and untraceably. For a better quality Merlot, graphics can be added to simulate hellishly flickering flames around the edges of your dissatisfied grumblings.
Editorial Package: Because they are composed in anger, homemade rants are frequently unintelligible. I will don my editorial cap to upgrade grammar and spelling, which will improve the legibility and effectiveness of your rant, in exchange for small, unmarked chocolates, a form of compensation originally exhorted by Friend Donna for tackling a photocopier jam that I have since developed a fondness for.
Compositional Package: For those ranters whose annoyance borders on incoherence, I offer my services as a ghost-ranter when compensated with a meal at a well-reviewed restaurant. The number of courses varies in relation to the level of your incoherence, the scathingness of the diatribe required, how much I disagree with your opinion and the amount of alcohol you can afford to ply me with.
No-Holds-Barred Package: Sometimes, a rant is of such epic proportions it can overwhelm an inexperienced ranter. Extreme ranting is a dangerous undertaking, requiring copious bile production that can result in gastric ulcers and lead to spastic colon. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Give it to me. I already produce bile in quantities sufficient to digest an elephant and would be happy to channel them into your service upon receipt of a bottle of Quarter Century Glenmorangie, an intoxicant reputed to curl dead men’s toes that I’d rather experience before I die.
To start the ball rolling, I will, for a limited time, be offering free samples. You are welcome to use the comments section of this blog to advise me of any topic currently bugging the crap out of you.**


**Don’t forget to post your rant topic anonymously.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Catching a Coney

During my shift at the library last week, a young man approached the volunteer’s desk carrying a grungy backpack and a large, clear plastic bag stuffed with white fabric. He dumped them  on the floor beside the desk and asked to use the internet.  When I requested identification, he retrieved a folded paper from his back pocket and made a big production of spreading it out on the desk. It was a letter from the Department of Corrections stating he had been paroled from the Central East Correctional Centre, a maximum security prison located in a nearby town.
There’s a halfway house for parolees just up the street. New arrivals often make use of the library computers. They usually show me a smaller, and much more discreet, laminated parole card, handing it over with surreptitious hesitancy.  My more savvy reintegrating clients visit the Ministry of Health offices first and present me with a bland, health insurance card.
I read enough of the letter to find his name. While I entered it on the sign in sheet, he told me this was his first day of freedom and he’d lost his bus ticket to a city on the other side of the province, delivering this information with an ingratiating smile. His teeth were large, square and white. His upper right incisor had been broken off at the gum line. Standing up, I pointed to a free terminal. He carried his belongings over to it.
Leaving the letter lying open beside the keyboard, he took off his jacket. Beneath it he wore a white t-shirt. Beneath that, he was the illustrated man. Elaborate tattoos writhed around his arms. Colorfully inked flames crawled up his neck, suggesting a demonic theme informed the rest of his body art. He kept talking while I logged him in, telling me he only had ten dollars and wanted to use the computer to contact a friend and ask for a loan.
Way to much information, I thought as I walked back to my desk. He’s going to be a problem. And he was. He invented all kinds of excuses to get me back to his terminal, not because he needed help, but because he wanted to tell me, and everyone else within hearing distance, his story.  If everything he said about how he lost his bus ticket was true, the guy caught a tough break. At first I sympathized, but after my third trip over to his terminal, I lost patience. He didn’t just want to bend ears. Although he never voiced the request outright, it became obvious he wanted someone to buy him a replacement bus ticket. Because his methodology pretty much guaranteed failure, I made sure he had the address of a local men’s shelter before he left the library.
He reminded me of ooVoo, an over-communication program I recently installed that spastically polluted my screen real estate with pop up “notifications” and evaded my clicks on the “don’t show me this again” button by showing me a different one. The young man and ooVoo wanted the same thing  – my money. They pursued this goal with persistent demands for attention that had the opposite effect. Irritation overwhelmed pity for the young man. Any inclination I had to read ooVoo ads evaporated after the third window popped up.  Not because I’m hard-hearted (although compassion is pretty far down my list of character traits) and not because I’m a cheapskate (although I am). What turned me off was being blatantly harassed for the contents of my wallet.
As the launch date for Sisters of the Sari approaches, this is a huge concern for me. I want people to read my novel, which means I am faced with the daunting task of encouraging total strangers to buy the book. I’m not sure how to go about this yet, but I’m pretty sure how I’m NOT going to.
As the old saying goes, there are better ways of catching a coney than running after it shouting.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cyber Chump

The other day, I renewed my anti-virus software with a company that shall remain nameless because I can’t afford a libel suit, and I can’t determine if what I’m about to write is true or just the rantings of irate bloggers like me. We’ll call them Company X.
I pulled up Company X’s website, clicked the RENEW NOW! button, selected my product, filled in my credit card details and landed on the checkout screen. I was just about to click the BUY NOW! button, when the words “virus removal assurance” spiked my blood pressure.
“Assurance” is one of those soothing substitution words that drive me crazy. It’s used in the insurance industry to take the sting out paying premiums for something you don’t ever want to make a claim for. Like terrorism and the military, insurance companies profit from fear, in most cases the fear of losing money, which is exactly what happens when you pay insurance premiums and why insurance company skyscrapers aren’t much shorter than those erected by banks. 
I’d always assumed I was buying anti-virus software to trap and remove viruses.  Had I been paying for something else all these years? Was my paranoid theory about the origin of computer viruses correct?
Bren’s Paranoid Theory About the Origin of Computer Viruses: The people who profit most from computer viruses are the people who sell anti-virus software. Motive. The people most likely to know how to neutralize a threat are the people who created it. Means. The people most likely to have access to my computer are the people who have automated update privileges. Opportunity. I would not be in the least surprised to discover my anti-virus software did nothing more than check my security key against a “customers in good standing” list.
I checked out the company’s website, but could find nothing about “virus removal assurance”, even when I did a site search just on the word assurance. I began to wonder if the company’s billing system had been hacked. Had I had just typed my credit card number into a pirate screen, run on a server farm in an abandoned Tijuana warehouse by a consortium of evil  geeks?
YIKES! Heart pounding, I scrambled over to Google and typed in “company X” + “insurance” + “scam”, but found nothing more than a few incensed bloggers protesting various “features” of Company X’s product. WHEW!
Buried in a forum frequented by people with titles like PhishingPhryer and SpamSquasher, (really, I didn’t make those up) I found a link to a virus cleaning service provided by Company X. For a hundred dollars, they’ll assign a real technician to disinfect my computer should it be attacked by a virus. Buying virus removal assurance waives this cost.
What virus? The one that got past the software I’m paying over a hundred dollars to prevent? Doesn’t your software work, Company X? Others had asked similar questions. A Company X representative responded: “This service is helpful if you're installing [redacted] for the first time on a system, or one that may already be infected and the malware is preventing the product from installing. Or prehaps [sic]you're renewing an expired subscription, and your machine is infected.”
Here’s what’s wrong with that response. I am not installing [redacted] for the first time, I am renewing an active subscription. And you know this, Company X, because you’ve got my activation key and inception date on file. So why are you trying to sneak charges in for something you know I’ll never use? What do you think I am? A cyber chump?
Well the joke’s on you, Company X. If you hadn’t used the word “assurance”, you’d be seven dollars richer now.  

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Paradox of Opinion

Opinions aren’t worth the carbon dioxide they are expelled with – or in the case of this one, the electrons blatting them out of your screen. Even expert opinions are no more than informed prejudice. Differences of opinion, especially religious or political, lead to wars. Unexamined opinions are at the root of racial intolerance, sexual discrimination and just about any phobia you can think of.  (Technically, that last phrase should read: any phobia about which you can think. I point this out for my grammaphobic readers.)
 So why do we have them? Of what use are opinions to us?
The other night I attended a small dinner party with six other women of diverse origins: mainland China, Sri Lanka, India, Canada. Some were seasoned travelers, others had never been outside the borders of continental North America. Some had raised families, others had no interest in children. Our wide array of interests and backgrounds fueled lively conversation and we had a fun time - or at least I did and I assume the others’ smiles and laughter were genuine. We traded snake stories, primarily close encounters of the poisonous kind, and talked about our vacation plans for this year, generating considerable envy in my stuck-at-home breast. But I left the party with the feeling I hadn’t made any new  friends. In retrospect, I think it’s because we were aware of our cultural differences and careful not to express potentially disturbing opinions. As a result, we found no common ground. This isn’t an insurmountable bar to forming a friendship, but it’s pretty damn high. 
My oldest friend, in terms of duration, is Wen. We bonded over the Beatles back in the sixties. Nowadays, we have nothing in common. She’s a Christian, I’m an atheist. She likes Leonard Cohen for his lyrics, I like Dave Koz for his lack of them. She hates knitting and loves to cook. I hate cooking and love to knit. But our early bond of shared pubescent adoration gave us a cornerstone of affection and from this foundation we have learned to accommodate, even treasure, each other’s inexplicable quirks and foibles.
Examining my other friends, I find that same core of shared prejudice beneath surface diversity; my friendships were forged while griping about the boss or comparing hangovers. The human race evolved in small, intensely inter-related communities. We are tribal animals. Agreement on something, anything, gives us a sense of belonging. I belong to the tribe who wanted to Twist and Shout. I belong to the tribe who worked for a boss with his head up his ass. I belong to the tribe who discovered bourbon shooters produced the most awesome hangovers. 
In the modern world, expressing unpopular opinions is increasingly… well, unpopular. The closer we crowd together, the less willing we are to challenge ourselves and those around us with potentially divisive remarks. Which is why I kept my mouth shut last night when the conversation rolled around to the nuclear disaster in Japan, because I disagreed with the seemingly safe majority opinion that it’s a tragedy. I don’t think it’s a tragedy at all. I think it’s the logical outcome of building a nuclear power plant in an area prone to earthquakes; the price humanity chooses to pay for our electron addiction. Of course I’m not the part of humanity paying it, at least not yet.  I’m pretty sure the guys working cleanup at Fukushima, catching 4.9 microsievert an hour in an industry where acceptable exposure is 5000 a year, disagree with me.
That’s the other thing about opinions. They are almost always self-serving and motivated by personal bias. Which makes perfect sense. We all want the same thing: to live safe, comfy lives. Opinions are just differing takes on how to achieve this goal. In the above example, I find it comforting to believe we can learn from our mistakes before my neighbors start popping out two headed babies, which would seriously deplete the niceness of my life. (Note, this hasn’t stopped me slaughtering countless, innocent electrons generated by a nuclear reactor to fill your screen with this drivel.)
The irony here is that our ancient desire to bond over the tribal campfire seeking safety from the wolves prowling out there in the dangerous darkness is what prevents us from working together sensibly to build a sane, peaceful world where all of us could truly live safe, comfortable lives.
In my opinion, it’s time for the human race to grow up. You may think that’s hogwash. Fantastic! Now we both belong to the tribe of people who disagree.