Category Archives: Human relations

Memories of my days as a computer shaman

Back before I became a hired pen literary professional, I used to be a computer shaman. My business was moderately successful, and it was good social therapy. I got to thinking about this after watching a video on Cracked, which I suggest you take a gander at as well:

Five Reasons the Guy Fixing Your Computer Hates You

Mostly I didn’t hate my clients. I liked most of them. I liked helping elderly ladies on Social Security get connected so that they could see pictures of their grandbabies, research their osteoporosis and keep in touch with their friend Adna in Wisconsin. I liked being able to reach into the middle of their mess and get rid of the thing they’d installed (very unwisely) that was causing their Windows installation to throw up. Most of them were polite and courteous to me. It was evident that most of them were philosophically pretty different from me, in terms of socio-political-spiritual outlook, and none of them seemed to care.

I went to houses of guys I was pretty sure were retired underworld figures. I went to sheds in east Pasco where huge dogs threw themselves to the ends of heavy chains in forlorn hope of attacking me. I went to mansions. I went to two-bedroom apartments containing three families. I went to farms and I went to garages. I went to the homes of old mercenaries (the real kind), old doctors, and old just about everyone. In the end, the business was a casualty of the $500 PC. It just no longer made sense for anyone to pay me $50/hr to fix a problem that if it took much time, it was easier to upgrade their abacus to something modern.

Here’s the stuff I didn’t like…

Directions.

Everyone adores giving directions, but I couldn’t tell people that I was using map software and would just print myself a map. The minute I asked for the street address, everyone launched into lengthy, arcane directions, full of information I did not need and landmarks that did not matter. I learned to just shut up and let the storm blow past. One way I knew I was about done in the business was when I became candid about it. After five minutes of meaningless directions, someone would ask (because I hadn’t responded), “Are you writing all this down?” I’d answer, “no, because none of it will help me find you. I have your address, the color of the house, whether the numbers are on it, and a printed map. But everyone loves giving directions and there’s nothing I can do to stop them, so I’m not interrupting you. But no, sir, I’m not actually absorbing any of it, to be honest.”

Dogs.

Now, I’m not a fan of dogs. All I want is for them not to come near me. That means they will not put salivas on me, leap on me, startle me by bumping my leg under the desk, or anything else that increases my tension. Chief use of my briefcase? As a shield when dogs would charge at me. And almost without fail, the syrupy, whiny explanation:  “Oh, he just wants to loooooooove you!” Maybe he does, ma’am, but I already have a lover. How I wish you’d just control your animal. Of course, most clients with dogs could not process the concept of someone who could not do his best work with a dog in his face. And it’s the dog’s house, so it’s not like I have any standing to object. I just had to endure.

Great-nephews.

Oh, how often I saw it. I’d come in to a PC with a relatively fresh Windows installation. Mrs. Miller: “Well, my hard drive wasn’t downloading to my e-mail, and I couldn’t get my disk working, and my Windows web browser wouldn’t connect to my Microsoft Works, and my printer wouldn’t print the blue ink anymore. Now, I am a total computer dufus. My great-nephew is a computer god, he works at Hanford, he programs Excel, he knows everything about computers. He told me I needed to just wipe everything off, reformat and start again, so he did some stuff. Now I can’t find my e-mail at all and the Internet is broken. All my book chapters are gone and there is no Works at all. How much do you charge to put it back the way it was?” I was thinking: ma’am, if your great-nephew were here I’d take out the VGA card and cram it into his posterior. Why do these little hotshots do this, and then not help Auntie preserve or reinstall her data? It was hopeless and I could do little to change it.

Political types.

I provided services to two quite prominent local politicians, plus some other folks many people had heard of. Some were great. One political activist was about the biggest jerk I ever did service for. First time at his door: “So, are you a [party name]?” I looked at him with calm, suppressed indignation. “Sir, right now I’m a businessperson, and my priority is to resolve your printer problem.” On another visit, he started the “I’m not sure if you know who I am…”, clearly jonesing for free services–assumption being that I owed him for his political activism. I always believed that business was business and politics was politics, and that I should not introduce mine and they should not introduce theirs. Some simply couldn’t refrain, sitting next to me, dropping hints designed to suss out my political perspective.

The perception that a generalist could easily fix all things.

Hardware, software, connectivity. To them it was all ‘the computer.’ “Can you just fix it or not?” Some people would not grasp that, in order to see on a single visit if their problem was a flaky stick of RAM, I’d have to either carry every kind of RAM with me at all times, or run and get it and swap it in, then wait a few days to see if the problem repeated. How many hours of time was all that? Was I not to charge for that fetchin’ and gettin’? Was I to cart around a van full of stuff (constantly changing with the times) just waiting for this or that to be someone’s problem? If it were that simple, and that easy, sir, I would “just fix it.”

M-CAFee.

Not McAfee, as in MAC a fee, but mc CAFF ee. So many times. “I think I have a virus, my friend says I sent her one, but I don’t see how. This came with McCAFFee.” Did she ever note that it was a three-month trial version? No. Did she ever pay them to keep the virus definitions current at least, even if it was the worst virus protection software out there? She had no idea she needed to. “But I should be safe. I do a full scan every Sunday night!” You scan your computer with an obsolete virus detector. And you don’t understand why something newer than that just sent itself to everyone in your Outhouse Express e-mail directory. It was horrible. All could have been solved with a free one online.

People unwilling to learn.

I was a generous computer shaman, with my time and energy. Most people were doing some very stupid things that caused most of their problems. And when I’d tell them what the problem was, they’d smile that stupid little smile that says, Oh, you’re so cute, with your ideas of good computer use. Do you really think, young man, that I am going to abandon my habit of shutting off my computer by shutting off my surge protector? Well, the answer was frankly no, I didn’t think they would. But I had to try to at least tell them the problems it caused. They never learned. “But I like my WeatherBug!” It was spyware. They didn’t care.

Some of it, I admit, kept me in business. I told myself over and over: Shut up, idiot, and be glad they don’t do it right. That means they have to pay you. Fair enough. But not all the situations were solvable, and if things don’t go right, people tend to think the computer shaman didn’t do a good job. In other words, if they can still break their Internet connection, that must be my fault because I didn’t make it strong enough.

In the end, the frustration became too much, and I was making more money writing and editing. So I just focused on that.

When you find yourself a human vending machine

This is something that giving persons tend to see throughout their lives:  the toxic evolution into something not a friend, but a human vending machine.  When are you such a thing? When a person or person begins to take you for granted, make you their ‘easy way,’ expect some commodity of you on demand:  emotional support, information, some sort of effort on your part, whether you feel like it or not.  Those with specialized knowledge, especially in technology, particularly become the vending machine of choice because it’s ever so much easier to just impose on another than to use one’s mind and resolve it oneself.   Persons who do this are rarely emotionally stable, and tend to have significant issues.  I don’t know the official definition of co-dependency, but I suspect it plays in.

Such situations aren’t hard to identify.  The person involved rarely asks about your own life or needs; doesn’t really care, as machines don’t have needs.  He or she shows frequent signs of instability.  This person often praises you, perhaps to the skies, and why not? That’s supposed to be your payoff. That’s the unspoken deal, that you will be told regularly how wonderful you are.  A person constantly raging about his or her other vending machines, for example, doesn’t imagine you to be thinking:  and one day, it will be me.  And yet, if you are perceptive, that is what you are thinking. You as vending machine are being tapped for support because other vending machines have started eating this person’s quarters, perhaps.

To test this status is simple.  One day, simply eat the quarters.  Not angrily, not cruelly, simply don’t perform the expected behavior.  Most often that comes when you are at a limit, or at your lowest ebb in life, and simply can’t fulfill the demanded role–it’s not that you choose to eat the quarters, but that you lack the resources to process them.  In any case, the vending machine doesn’t operate as it always did.

If on that day, the individual simply kicks the vending machine and stomps off, yeah, that’s what it was.  Don’t feel too bad for the loss of a toxic situation.  On the phone, it usually takes the form of hanging up on you. In person, someone stomps off; on chat, someone fires a barb and logs off so as not to receive a rejoinder. I have a dear friend who moved away from a place she lived for decades, and most of her ‘friends’ reacted with shock and anger: the vending machine was not even going to eat their quarters, but was going to be removed from the vicinity. A few wanted to keep in touch, wished her well, and were happy for the improvement in her life, even if that meant less access to her.  Those few wanted her in their lives not for what she could do for them, but because they cared for her and believed, correctly, that she felt likewise. Everyone else gave the machine a vicious kick and stomped off, presumably to find another machine.

So on that day, when you eat the quarters, you’ll learn something about that person. If he or she now makes time to care for you, understand that you aren’t available in the normal way right now, and gives of him or herself, that was never a vending machine relationship–even if at times it looked like one.  In vending machine relationships, the machine isn’t allowed feelings.  If yours matter, then it’s not that sort of toxic dynamic.

If he or she kicks the machine and stomps off, my advice is to say nothing, turn, and walk away.  Don’t look back.  If that person shows contrition later, suspect it.  Rarely, it is a true epiphany; most often, it is sudden regret and realization that they may have permanently broken the machine, and a desire to get it back in working order.  You can accept the show of contrition, but it does not obligate you to resume vending machine status.  That’s the key. There need be no hard feelings, no animosity, but that does not imply that you must once again open yourself up to another kick. If you do, in my view, you are not showing much self-respect. If you do, you are partly the author of your own future misuse or abuse. How can it be otherwise? Let mistreatment sneak up on you once, well, anyone can get caught napping. Let it walk right up to you, say a few of the right words, and resume as before? Don’t allow that.  Respect yourself.

That person will need to find new vending machines (he or she has learned how to search for them over the years), and will do so.  Those situations will be toxic also.  However, you do not own that problem.  A very wise woman once taught me:  “Always ask yourself who owns the problem.  Whoever owns the problem needs to deal with the problem.  You can’t own anyone else’s problems.”

She was right.

Letting kids borrow your apartment

(Warning:  contains a profanity.)

About sixteen years ago, my dear friend Domi’s son Lars was coming to Seattle for a couple of weeks.  I was going to Kansas for those weeks, so I agreed to let him stay in my one-bedroom dump on Aurora North (Shoreline).  Lars was about 18, if I recall right.  Really nice kid, responsible, intelligent, great family.  No worries in the world.

Before I left, I said to Lars:  “There’s only one rule, besides don’t misplace the keys.  Do not have anyone over.  Anyone.  At all.  I trust you but I can’t know some random other people.  So, just do not do that.  Okay?”  He agreed.

Very good.  I went off to Kansas and did all my usual Kansas things.  Two weeks later I came home.  Lars was there.  Howdied him, asked how his time had gone.  Small talk, but it was quite evident something was on his mind.  I waited.  Lars was always a good kid, so I knew he’d fess sooner or later.

“Jonathan, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“Yeah? What’s up?”

“Well, I had some people over.”  He looked somewhat miserable.

You did what?” Now, it’s not my way to raise my voice much, but when I’m somewhat angry I can be animated.  I had to pretend to be a little angrier than I was, but not overdo it, because it had taken some serious decency to fess and I had a lot of respect for Lars.  What came out was a series of chilly, annoyed sentences, jabbed like icepicks:

“Did I somehow fail to be clear as to what was expected? Was there a life in danger? Was there some compelling benefit to this? Did I mishear you when you agreed? Did I ask a great deal of you? Was that unreasonable to ask? Did I in some way do you wrong, or make you feel that it would be just fine to make casual disregard of this one clear request?”  Each time, I let him answer, then kept on.  I watched him carefully because I was pretty sure he was near tears.  Yeah, I was punishing him a bit, and I felt a little mean, but at these times one has to make the point sink in.  Plus, I was authentically annoyed.

When I figured he’d had enough, and he did not try to argue or offer a bunch of childish excuses, it was time for the finish.  “Lars, I have one question from you, and I expect a candid answer.  Think carefully before you respond.”

“Okay.”  Poor kid looked like it was his worst day on earth, but he was still in there taking his medicine.  Had to hand it to him.

I put a little extra snarl into it.  “DID YOU FUCK IN MY BED?”

“No!” His shocked look and quick answer confirmed that he was being honest, as he had done all along.  Good lad.  Time to break the ice.

Incredulous quizzical look and tone:  “Well…why NOT, boy?!!”  Then I laughed.

So did he.

My grandfather’s comedy

My grandfather (maternal; I never knew my father’s father) has been passed away some years now.  He was no more a perfect man than I am, but he was a wise man, and at times a very funny one.  He always found humor in the absurd.

The funniest thing I can remember from my grandfather was one time when he was doing one of his favorite schticks:  the dumb hick.  While he spoke with the gentle drawl of rural Kansas, he was a strong demonstration of the fact that accents do not imply ignorance.  He was intelligent and thoughtful, both as a farmer and rancher, and later as a business executive.  So when he really laid the Cletus on thick, it was quite amusing to hear.  In this case, he was reading his junk mail, aloud, as if he believed every word of it.  It went something like this:

“Dorothy, the nahs folks at Publisher’s Clearin’ House have written to me.  They say, ‘Dear Mr. Johnson, the team at PCH is pleased to officially announce yore name as the second-place winner of the $7 million grand prize.’  They say that the total amount is $1 million.  Well, Ah’ll be!  They also say they will make all necessary arrangements for me to receive mah prize, and Ah know they’re serious because they enclose a cashier’s check to cover any fees they haven’t paid.  Mighty nice of them.  Ah must contact mah representative directly before Ah deposit the check, and for more information.  Sounds reasonable.  They give me a security code, so we best keep that someplace real safe.  And you know it’s on the up-and-up because they even assigned me mah own IRS agent, Mr. Henry Cohen.  Good, because Ah don’t want any trouble with the law.”

He could go on like that for a while, straight-faced, immune to my cackles, horselaughs and guffaws.  I only cracked my grandfather up once in return when he was doing that, but that time, I got the old man good.

Grandpa was reading aloud from a Harry & David sales pitch around Christmastime–he and Grandma were regular customers.  “Harry and David would like us to help them celebrate their fiftieth anniversary!” he began.

I broke in with my own Cletus put-on.  “Ah’ll be darned, Grandpa.  Ah never even knew they was married.”

My deeply, culturally and politically conservative grandfather bust out in a gale of mirth.

It’s one of my favorite ways to remember him.

Nephew hilarity

So, this evening I’m sitting here and the following dialogue occurs:

Nephew (from a distance, calling out over the sound of music):  “Uncle, Imgnovrta Seths.”

I looked out sort of askance at him, as he is profligate with fuel.  “Okay.”

Neph:  “Eneedsda’ock.”

Me, incredulous:  “He needs the cock?”  I begin cackling.

Neph, embarrassed:  “No!  He needs to talk!

By now I am belly-busting, laughing like a maniac.  I can’t resist, especially as we have often kidded Neph about the time he spends with his friend.  “That’s okay.  We don’t have a problem with it.”

Neph, laughing a bit but ready to get the hell out of here:  “And on that note, I better get going.”

He left to the sound of absolutely insane laughter from his uncle.

My nephew has a rough life at times.

Do you promise not to put my tires on someone else’s car?

We had that conversation today down at Les Schwab.  Last fall I had to buy new studs for my wife’s car.  Les Schwab put my tires on the car of a mediocre local news anchor.  The only credit they earned occurred when the supervisor came out to the waiting area and enumerated this event to me.  Too stunned to speak at first, I just stared at him with the you could not possibly be this stupid look.  Moreover, I was in no way compensated for the extra hour and a half I had to sit around waiting for them to fetch her car back, get my tires, put them on Deb’s car, etc.  Sorry.  You’re screwed.  You will be delayed another hour and a half; no, it is not your fault; no, you will not get that time back, nor anything for it; yes, we really do expect you to just meekly accept this.

I don’t do ‘meek’ too well.  I am resolved not to let them forget it soon.  If that’s the only compensation I get, besides sinking this particular banderilla, very well.

This led to today’s odd conversation as I had the studs swapped out for the regulars (required soon by law).  I went to the counter, and asked how long it would be.  I explained what had happened last time, and asked if she could promise they would not give someone else my tires.  If she would promise, I would dare go eat some guilty pleasure lunch across the street.  Otherwise I would stand there and never take my eyes off my tires.  This was the part where she was supposed to show shocked disappointment and wonder what could be done to restore my confidence.  I didn’t think very much of her attitude, quite frankly; she acted almost as if I were making it up.  She didn’t quite eyeroll, but Les Schwab got another black mark for that.

Guess they’ll just have to wear it.  It’s not like I would tell the story on the Internet or something.

Fred Phelps and the anti-Vietnam War movement

Today I was reading that the Supreme Court upheld Fred Phelps’ right to picket and harass military funerals, part of their KKK-esque anti-gay crusade.  I don’t have a firm opinion about what the Supreme Court should have done, partly because I don’t have J.D. after my name and I understand my limits of understanding, partly because I don’t have any respect for the SC to begin with, and partly because I have zero faith in law and the rule of law anyway.  But having seen Team Fred in action from 40′ away myself, and being nearer fifty years old than forty, it did bring to mind one thing.

In our time, the military is openly, publicly and loudly glorified and adored; even a hint of anti-military scorn would get one a lot of angry reactions.  If you are young today, you never knew a time when the military was unfashionable.  I assure you that there was such a time:  my own youth.  Numerous reliable sources relate experiencing verbal abuse and degradation just for being in uniform, and especially for getting off the plane from Vietnam.  Evidently it was so common it came to be expected, coped with by service people, and socially accepted to a degree.  Which is not to say that the soldiers suffering it were unhurt by it; oh, no.  It did at least tip them off to the kind of reaction society had in store for them.  I was too young to have a view on this, but old enough to know of the social current.  It lasted into the early 1980s, when I did put on a uniform a few times and get some small tastes of it myself.  Imagine a ROTC unit that tended to de-emphasize uniformed presence on campus just to avoid stirring stuff up? I was in one.

Now, I am not sure that anti-Vietnam protesters ever picketed or disrupted an actual military funeral.  We have general consensus that disrupting anyone’s funeral is disgusting, at any time for any reason.  A lot of people found ways to oppose the Vietnam War without insulting Special Forces guys as “baby killer” in airports; fair enough.  (Some people are uncomfortable with homosexuality, too, yet don’t approve of Phelps on any level.)  But how different were the two extremes, really? How different were the fanatics in the airports, heaping scorn on some poor sod who got drafted and sent to the 1st Cav, survived and graduated, and then wanted to come home and get back to normal, from the Phelpsites I saw in a vacant lot in Pasco holding up signs advocating more military casualties? Fred Phelps and the airport harassers had more in common than I’ve heard anyone attest.  Motivated by pure hate, both asserted the right to pour verbal abuse on targets who could not effectively fight back.  The only difference today is that it’s no longer fashionable to abuse the military.  Sadly, if Phelps had stuck to just disrupting funerals of AIDS deceased, there would be nowhere near the backlash against him, even though his conduct would be just as contemptible.

I sit, and I watch, and I marvel how social currents change people’s ethical compasses without most people noticing.

© 2011, J.K. Kelley

Addendum, nine years later: I read these words from my past in light of four years’ concerted effort to remove all democracy from our republic, and I think this: If a client had come to me in my capacity as an editor, presenting me with speculative fiction like the past five years, I would have had serious misgivings about it. I look back now and see a wannabe dictator mocking a POW veteran and not losing many supporters, and I see just how variable people’s ethical compasses truly are. And it confirms my belief that a fluid ethical compass is no ethical compass at all.