Monday, August 29, 2011

The Un-Help Line

Have you ever known the exact cause of a problem, but found yourself incapable of convincing the one person who is supposed to help you rectify it that you really do know what you're talking about?

This isn't the same as bringing your car to a mechanic, only to have that bizarre squealing sound stop two minutes before you get there. Equally annoying? Sure, just not the same thing. I'm talking about those times when you are dead certain, no question, not even the trace of a spark of a doubt in your mind. You know precisely what's going on and you can explain the situation so concisely and coherently that even a monkey could understand it.

If only monkeys manned the help lines.

Last week, when I couldn't access any of my employer's secure web tools, I did the first thing a remote office employee should do: I checked our router to make certain we had a live wireless signal in the house. We did. Next step was to see if the other computers in the house could access the wireless signal. They could. Third and final step was to reboot my work-supplied laptop, a trick that typically resolves 99.9% of its misbehavior. After the reboot, the problem persisted. Even though the laptop was picking up the wireless signal and I could dial in to the secure VPN, I still could not access my email or our intranet services.

Because of changes to our problem-reporting procedures, we can no longer circumvent our official IT help line and go directly to the people in charge of our IT department. I can understand how this makes life more pleasant and less chaotic for the people in charge of our IT department, but what it means for the rest of us is that we have to spend anywhere from an hour to an entire day futzing around with whomever answers the 800 help line before we eventually get transferred to the people in charge of our IT department.

I want to state at this time, for the record, that the person who answered the help line was as pleasant as pleasant can possibly be, and he really was trying his best to help me. That said, I wasn't filled with hope when he said "sometimes only the Shadow knows why things don't work right." Not only does he seem to lack confidence in his own problem-solving abilities, he's paraphrasing from a 1930s serialized radio show. Something tells me this guy might be a little long in the tooth.

When he asks me to explain my problem, I tell him the company's server must be down. He tells me this can't be the case since his computer uses the company's server and he isn't having any trouble. I tell him the company has a second server primarily for remote employees like me, and his voice immediately adopts the kind of tone one uses when in the vicinity of a homeless person who might be emotionally unstable.

Instead of getting out of his chair and conferring with the other IT help line staffers to see if any other remote employees have reported similar connectivity issues, he starts putting me through the expected paces.

Are you using a router?

Yes.

Can you unplug it, wait 60 seconds, then plug it back in?

I don't have to, because I can see by my other computers that the router is working.

I just have to rule out the router as the source of the problem.

Okay, since you're talking to me nicely, I will go through this ridiculously purposeless exercise for you.

Did reseting your router do anything?

Yes, now the the rest of my computers are offline.

Luckily for me, two steps shy of suggesting we wipe my hard drive of all files and restore the machine to its factory settings, the people around him intervened. Turns out the secondary server for remote employees had been down all morning. Go figure...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 22, 2011

God Help Our High Schooler

This Thursday, Our Daughter will enter the halls of high school as a freshman.

All I can say is if our experience last week is any indication of the administrative quality her new school has to offer, she'd better start praying now and not stop until that diploma is firmly in hand.

It started out well. We arrived early at the school gymnasium and the doors opened spot on nine o'clock as we were told they would. After less than five minutes, we had her schedule and crossed the gym to pay $23 in school fees. That's when it all fell apart.

Because there were no available electrical outlets in the gym, it was announced that fee collection was being moved across the hall to the cafeteria. While the majority of parents and students milled around, confused and bouncing into each other like sardines, we scooted out to be first in line.

A table staffed by three people blocked the entrance to the cafeteria. They were not immediately helpful. After several minutes of declarations by them detailing their complete lack of understanding of their responsibilities, one of them left to receive instructions. Several instructional visits later, we were formed into three lines: one for locker assignments, one for bus schedules, and one for payment of fees.

Bus schedules was the big winner. Fortunately, we won't need the bus, so we headed up the locker assignment line.

"My daughter needs a locker," I told the nice lady with the spreadsheet in front of her. She wrote my daughter's name next to the first locker available, then stared blankly at me when I asked, "Are you taking cash or check for the lockers?"

Not only didn't they know whether the fee was $2, $3, or $5, they had no idea how they were handling payment. One more instructional visit later, we were informed we had to stand in the fee payment line, pay the $23 in school fees plus the $5 locker fee, then come back with our reciept. Only then would we receive Our Daughter's locker assignment and combination.

Fee payment went smoothly, although I couldn't help noticing a complete lack of electricity during the process. The person who collected my payment documented it in a carbon copy ledger and tore out my receipt. There was no credit card machine involved in the transaction, no phone, not even a solar-powered calculator.

Anyway, $28 later we were back at the locker assignment table being handed a combination that was supposed to open locker number two on the second floor of building number two. Two problems: (1) There is no locker number two on the second floor of building number two, and (2) the only people around to "help" the many lost and confused sardine parents were janitors.

I have nothing at all against janitors, but there are few things less helpful than uninformed people guessing solutions to problems they don't fully understand. I should know, since I am often one of those people. In hindsight, I really should have thanked the nice woman who tried to help me for offering the most ridiculous piece of advice I have received in years.

Her solution, you ask? Clearly, "2" was not the number of Our Daughter's locker, but rather it was the last digit of her assigned locker. We simply needed to check every locker ending with the number two and try the combination at each until we found the correct locker...

You at least have to give her credit for putting some thought to it.

To make an extraordinarily long story only ordinarily long, the combination didn't work even after we found the correct locker (on the ground floor), the school did not have student IDs ready to hand out at the media center as were told they would, and I ended up handing over our PTA payment to one of the teachers because the parent volunteers had abandoned the PTA table.

This evening we head back to the school to find Our Daughter's classrooms and meet her teachers. After the remarkable first impression the school made last week, I am a little scared to see how tonight goes. With any luck, her schedule might actually match up with those that the teachers received.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wonderful Spam

A few weeks ago, for reasons unbeknownst to me (or other rational humans), the IT department of the company for which I work chose to modify its procedures regarding spam.

My Inbox has since been baraged by an inexhaustible spammy arsenal of scams, viruses and deviously flirtatious emails from practically every continent -- or, at the very least, from one very busy Asian person with many aliases and a wildly fluctuating command of American English.

Last week I decided to temporarily stop deleting these emails and blocking their senders in order to fully understand, at a single glance, the magnitude of what I was automatically dismissing as dangerous junk. After all, things aren't always what they seem. Maybe some of this spam really could improve my life.

So, let's see what I might have missed in my haste to be an over-protective Negative Nancy.

Mike G immediately catches my attention with his subject line: "I will give it to you on Tuesday." Being a salesman and a former PR coordinator, I am impressed by Mike G's ability to compell me to open his email, if only to find out he plans to give me a free Dell Notebook computer. Too bad for Mike G I'm a Mac fan.

Next up is Amber Yang. Amber asks a question. I assume it's a question, because it ends with a question mark. This would be a similarly effective technique to Mike G's, but unfortunately Amber's entire email is written in Chinese, or Japanese, or some other -ese I'm not expert enough to identify and comprehend. It's not Amber's fault that I'm not bilingual, but there you are.

Mr. Commcrusher then chooses a completely different tactic -- he issues a dare: "Watch me make $60000 in one month." Not only is he daring me, he's daring me in a bold font and with a complete disregard for punctuation. Pretty badass, if you ask me. However, he weakens his argument by ending his email saying: "I can't show you how to become a billionaire, but I can show you how I make $60,000 or more per month." While Mr. Commcrusher's use of commas might have improved as his email progressed, his decision to point out the limitations of his services (i.e., tens of thousands instead of billions) is the argument of a self-defeatist.

Then there are several sexually-oriented, though not necessarity explicit, emails.

Female Seduction Secrets Video (FSSV, for short) tells me it's my lucky day because I'm one of three people selected to watch a video that will make any woman in the world want to be with me. A mighty boast, to be sure, but I'm wondering why FSSV hasn't evolved from video to DVD, or digital streaming, for that matter. Something tells me this one might be a little dated.

Then there's Local One Night Stand Dating Community For Adults (LNSDCFA), who wants to help me hook up with local women interested in, you guessed it, one night stands. Two problems here: (1) I'm wondering how a company in La Costa, CA, can know so much about the hookers in my town of residence that it's able to vouch for their quality and discretion, and (2) LNSDCFA provides the same follow up link as FSSV, both of which include my full email address.

If I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's not a link to some horrible virus that will corrupt my company's email server, then I have to assume it's a link back to one of my own files. Not only don't I recall ever creating a video about how to help men make local hookers want to be with them for one night stands, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have saved it to my employer's network server if I had.

At least Be Naughty Dating Community (BNDC) has the guts to offer me hard statistical data. They are up front and out there about giving away 597 memberships for adults 18 years of age or over. Those are numbers -- two of them, in fact -- not vague promises. And, even though their link also contains my complete work email address, at least some of it differs from the ones provided by FSSV, LNSDCFA, SDDC (Sugar Daddy Dating Community), and FFP (Flirty Fun People).

The rest seems pretty boring. Mostly they're just repetitious reminders from UPS and FedEx letting me know "The parcel was sent your home address And it will arrive within 3 business day." It's been at least 5 business day since the first reminder arrived, so I'm doubting the parcel sent my home address will ever get here.

I don't need replacement windows. I don't want a facelift. I don't need my recent credit bureau scores, or two free Southwest Airline tickets, or thousands of Hollywood movies legally streaming through my PC or MP3 player. Not even a second challenge from Mr. Commcrusher seems exciting anymore.

But wait!

Joe P says my check is waiting for me. It's right there in his subject line -- "Your Check Is Waiting." Looks like I've finally hit paydirt, and I have our IT department's lenient security protocols to thank for it.

I doubt they'd mind if I click the link Joe P provides here in his email. How much damage could it do? Besides, my email address appears prominently in his link...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Better Late Than Never

Highway driving often is devoid of interesting distractions. Traveling Interstate 95 along the eastern seaboard is a perfect example.

Mile after mile passes, the same cars traveling alongside you through one state after another, until you forget where you are. The era of the GPS doesn't help, either. I no longer need to pay attention to road signs because the computer-generated lady with the British accent will yell at me when we're approaching our exit.

Although our recent trip to Savannah was only a four-hour one-way drive, three of those hours were spent traveling the mind-numbing vastness of I-95. Leaving home, we wended our way along country roads to South of the Border, a cultural black hole just over the South Carolina state line.

If South of the Border doesn't offend you with it aggressive marketing, tacky colors, inappropriate and politically incorrect commercialization of Mexican culture, and filthy stores hawking overpriced trinkets, cigarettes and fireworks, then nothing will ever offend you. That said, it is one of the few memorable landmarks on I-95. Go north and it's all a blur of sameness straight up to Richmond. Head south and the only thing you might eventually notice is a change from pines to palm trees.

Twenty miles into South Carolina, my focus narrowed from the tree-lined shoulders to the two lanes directly ahead of me. If not for a strange sight that caught us off guard, we would have remained that way all the way from Exit 198 through Exit 5.

Approximately 100 miles into South Carolina, almost exactly halfway through the state, is a government-operated rest area complete with blue signage and restrooms and truck parking, etc. What made this rest area so memorable? The fact the signs declared it was an official South Carolina Welcome Center.

The first thing my brain did was to run a quick diagnostic check to make sure my eyes weren't misreading the sign. Sure enough, just north of Exit 98, there we were at the South Carolina Welcome Center. Maybe I'm slow, but isn't placing a welcome center in the very middle of the state equivalent to my dropping a welcome mat in the middle of my living room?

I guess the residents of South Carolina wanted to be dead certain we had fully committed to visiting the state before choosing to welcome us to it. Lord knows, I'd hate for them to waste the effort if we're only going to turn around after 50 miles and head home. It's almost offensive, if you think about it. Why wait 100 miles, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes by my driving speed, to say "hello?"

Then again, some people aren't as socially adept as others. Maybe South Carolina is shy. Maybe South Carolina didn't want to seem presumptious by assuming we had come specifically to visit it, which in this case would be correct since we were only passing through on our way to Georgia.

In the end, it's all good. One hundred miles might seem a little long to have to wait for Southern hospitality, but better late than never, I suppose.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Frilly Beds & Naked Midgets

Hand-me-downs are essential to the newly-married.

Back in the early 1990s, when My Lovely Wife and I set up house in a tiny shack halfway between her job in Southern Pines and mine in Raleigh, we had only 850 square feet to fill and nothing with which to fill it.

The house had five rooms: (1) a bedroom with a four-foot closet, the only closet in the entire house; (2) a kitchen with twelve square inches of usable counter space and an antique stove that sparked more than it cooked; (3) a former screened porch turned foyer that housed the clothes dryer; (4) a great room that served as both living room and dining room, in addition to housing the washing machine just under the pass-through between the kitchen and dining room; and (5) a bathroom that combined all of the worst qualities of every 1970s KOA campground bathroom I'd ever experienced.

We both brought to the house personal belongings that helped make it a home. In My Lovely Wife's case, that included a bedroom suite and a set of sidetable lamps from her parents' house.

If you overlook that her childhood bed held only a full-size mattress, or that it was of a frilly French Colonial style, or that it sported an equally frilly canopy that made me question my gender every morning when I woke beneath it, it was perfect. We didn't have much money back then, so we made it work, even after our 65-pound Dalmatian developed a habit of stretching herself lengthwise between us every night.

The sidetable lamps were another matter.

I'm not closed-minded, or at least I'd like to think I'm not, but our house growing up was not wantonly strewn with images of people in varying states of undress. The first time I set foot in my In-Laws' house and saw the number of statuettes of naked and half-naked people, I knew there would need to be a period of adjustment. Cherubs were my Mother-In-Law's favorite. You couldn't swing a cat in her house without knocking over a half dozen naked midgets.

Which brings me back to those lamps.

The stately shades matched the French Colonial bedroom suite perfectly. Unfortunately, so did the golden naked ladies who held the bulbs aloft in their upstretched arms. I not so lovingly, and not so creatively, referred to them as "the naked lady lamps."

Their presence alone did not offend or unnerve me, but there were many times I felt distinctly perverted groping around in the dark trying to the light on. It might have been worse if they were naked men, I suppose. Can you imagine the quantity of glue we would have used reattaching their members after a false turn of the wrong knob?

In time, and after encouragement from me, we purchasd a more conservative set of lamps to adorn our sidetables. Almost 20 years later, the French Colonial bedroom suite is mostly gone, a few pieces hidden under paint and serving out their final days in Our Daughter's room.

It is said we become more and more like our parents as we age. I've kept a close watch on My Lovely Wife for signs of it, but so far there isn't a single cherub in sight.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 8, 2011

Goal: Accomplished

So, there's this book I've wanted to write.

For some reason, I've always thought of myself as a writer, even as far back as elementary school. The projects that peaked my interest were those that required creativity and imagination, particularly when writing was involved. But when you're pathologically insecure, as I believe I was during my childhood, it's near to impossible to believe in seemingly unachievable dreams. Still, I scribbled away in the quiet of my room and hid my writings away from the world.

A handful of fanciful and forgettable short stories bubbled into being during my teens and early twenties. Although I found myself fully capable of creating characters, relaying emotions and setting scenes, my root problem was an inability to develop compelling stories.

Give some people even the weakest of plots and they can create epic dramas that drown readers in rich detail about worlds heretofore unimagined. Not so much with me.

For reasons I can't explain, my style of writing does not allow me to wander off into superfluous descriptive detail for the sole purpose of painting a pretty visual image. Perhaps because my writing reflects the kind of books I enjoy reading, I tend to assume readers don't need me to tell them every last thing about a character's physical appearance or the furnishings of a room. I'm far more interested in how the characters behave and respond to what's happening around them than I am in the minutae of the world in which they live.

When the notion of writing a murder mystery presented itself to me twenty years ago, I had no idea how to go about developing a proper story. I knew only that it sounded like a really great idea.

For the longest time, I struggled to start the project. I honestly don't know how many times I wrote and rewrote the same ten pages, hoping each time to break beyond to page eleven with a clear understanding of the journey my protagonist had to take. I held to a false belief that my progress was impeded by a lack of quality in those first ten pages. Rewriting them until they were perfect was the only way to move to the next stage.

Looking back, it's clear that my primary problem had nothing to do with the storyline I was trying to get out of my head and onto paper. Sure, there were a few things here and there that seemed silly in the harsh light of day, but they were easily remedied. No, the biggest problem was me.

After close to 30 years of imagining myself a writer, there I was continuing to imagine being one instead of simply being one. I remained that kid hiding under his covers with a flashlight, scratching away in a notebook, hoping my efforts would never be discovered for fear of embarrassment should someone actually (Gasp!) read them. It sounds pathetic to me now, but that's what insecurity can do to you. It can make you doubt what you love, doubt your proven abilities, and doubt your loved ones.

In May 2010, when I finally declared my intention to write a book, it was like being set loose in the world's largest playground. I continued to struggle with the many decisions I needed to make in order to advance the project, but I was no longer working in a vacuum. And having My Lovely Wife following along with every page and providing constant feedback made it easier for me to remain focused on the story. Before long, I was working from a proper outline, drawing out maps, and charting characters and their relationships to one another without a care in the world about who saw it and what they had to say about it. I was knee deep in the creative process and loving every minute of it.

Late this past Friday night, after 14 months of sneaking to the basement after everyone else in the house was asleep, I finally finished the first draft of DAMAGE, the murder mystery I dreamed of 20 years ago when I was a fresh-out-college newspaper reporter.

I don't believe in hard sell tactics. I'm not about to say that it's the best book ever written, but it's mine, and that's enough for me.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Turd-ucken

There are some things humans might never have eaten if not for lack of money or resources.

Take vegetable stew, for example. Back in the Middle Ages, root vegetables were seen as being unfit for the English upper classes – food from the dirt fit only for commoners – so the poor found ways to use these relatively accessible items. What better way than to mix and match them in a big pot of contaminated water from the nearby stream and blend their flavors together over a low simmer?

The rich also harbored a distrust of certain raw foods like nuts and fruits. They ate cheese but avoided milk. These were also times when most people (including children) drank mead because it was safer to risk alcoholism than to trust the quality of the local water supply.

Anyway, you get the idea. Long story short, the poor ate meager yet relatively healthy meals while the upper class died of scurvy, gout and rickets from seasoning, salting, drying and boiling the beneficial nutrients and vitamins out of everything they put in their mouths. The whole raw food diet craze never would have caught on 1,000 years ago.

These days, food snobbery is more about trying everything than about avoiding any particular ingredient.

There are dozens of shows on television in which people wander the world to find the most bizarre food customs, and the more disgusting the main ingredient the better. I’ll bet if I really pushed hard enough I could get Travel Channel or Food Network to fund a one-hour special about the best recipes for hamster testicles from around the globe. Just to tie it in with their other programming, it could air right after a new Iron Chef America featuring Rocky Mountain oysters as the secret ingredient.

Now, I don’t want to rag on my brother, because he really was acting out of a sincere desire to give us all a memorable food experience. After all, who doesn’t like to try new things?

Our palates don’t stop developing when we reach a certain age. If so, I never would have learned to love shrimp, or Mexican food, or oatmeal. Okay, so maybe I can't say I like oatmeal. For me it’s more like a bowl of heated brown sugar, honey and cinnamon with a few soggy oats thrown in for fiber.

But back to my brother and that turducken. Whoever dreamed up the idea of stuffing a deboned turkey with a deboned duck stuffed with a deboned chicken clearly had too much time on his or her hands. Maybe this is the kind of meal that results from bored culinary students getting high before their finals.

That said, I was willing to approach the meal with an open mind. I like turkey. I like chicken. I think I ate duck once and liked it. There was no reason to suspect this meal should be any less than the sum of its parts.

The first red flag popped up when I was advised to try a spoonful of the drippings to taste for myself how spicy it was. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve never been much of a five-alarm turkey kind of guy. Sure, Buffalo chicken is one of the greatest inventions known to man, but a kick ass hot turkey really doesn’t lure me to the table, let alone a spoonful of hot and spicy turkey grease.

I initially believed the excessive heat came solely from the liberal seasoning of the turkey skin. That was a false assumption.

The real fire didn’t break out until we reached the spicy sausage dressing. Yes, you didn’t misread that or suffer a sudden astigmatism. Spicy sausage dressing. I can just imagine someone sitting around thinking: “You know what this chicken inside a duck inside a turkey needs? Pork and cumin.”

By the time the meal was finished, I was cured of any curiosity I might have had about turducken. A few of us tried politely to find nice things to say about it, but even my brother was beginning to offer qualifying statements about the meal before the table was cleared. I felt bad for him, but I have to admit he did give us an unforgettable experience.

In the end, the best single word I can think of to relay the lingering impression of turducken can be found by shortening the name of the meal to its first four letters.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler