Saturday, September 27, 2003

Two minutes hate, via cell phone

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According to an unofficial poll taken by me, with a margin of error of plus or minus three points, everybody in the world now has a cell phone.

My wife and I used to be the last people we knew without them, but no longer. Depending on your point of view, we have either caught up with the 21st century or crossed over to the Dark Side.

OK, so not everybody has a cell phone, but if you throw a stick in any direction odds are good that you’ll hit somebody yammering into one. Odds are excellent that the person you hit will be 14 or younger. In that case, don’t actually throw the stick.

I used to loathe people who have cell phones. Something about being able to call anybody at any time from anywhere makes cell phone users so smug.

“The only people who really need cell phones,” I often huffed to my long-suffering wife, “are doctors and drug dealers. Everybody else is playing dress-up.” She would nod graciously, pretending not to remember that I’d cracked the same lousy joke a week earlier.

My distaste began when regular people — not doctors or drug dealers — started driving like blithering idiots while talking on cell phones. Mostly, this bothers me because people who call other people from their cars usually do so to say, “I’ll be there in two minutes!”

Also, it’s irksome watching people seemingly blab to themselves with those “hands-free” wires they attach to cell phones now. When people talk to me now, I have to check their ears to make sure I’m the other half of their conversation. If people had any idea how nuts they look when they use those things, they’d pitch them into the nearest fireplace.

I also despise having to listening to other people’s cell phone conversations. For one thing, most people have nothing interesting to say (“Just calling to say what’s up!”). When they do, it’s too interesting — the telephonic equivalent of dropping your pants in public.

But I declared war on cell phones one day when my wife and I were in Boston, shopping at the Prudential Mall. At some point in the day, I had to answer a rather different call, so to speak, and found my way to the gentlemen’s facilities.

So there I was, washing my hands at the sink, when I heard a voice say, “Hello?”

I turned around and saw nobody — until I spied feet under one of the stall doors. I cringed, anticipating all kinds of misfortune.

“Are you there?” the voice said.

I cleared my throat, ready to ask the guy, as tentatively and plainly as possible, if he needed emergency assistance. In case it became necessary, I was preparing my standard lecture on how making small talk in the bathroom drives me up the wall. “Uh,” I said, “do you —”

“Hi!” he said. “What’s up?” And then he began having half a conversation. The other half, I realized, was on his cell phone — while he was on the john. He sounded like he was going to be hanging out for a while. I heard something splash.

I escaped and found my wife. I told her the whole ugly story, repeating my lousy joke about doctors and drug dealers, which she politely smirked at.

So I was home one day much later, stuffing an effigy of Alexander Graham Bell, when my wife sat me down and explained the situation rationally. She does a lot of freelance work, so she needs to be in contact with her clients even when she’s away from the house. And since both of us spend a lot of time on the road, we need to stay in touch.

“I think I need to get a cell phone,” she said.

Here’s what I said:

“Sure.”

Yeah, I’m not sure where I changed my mind, either, but it happened nonetheless. I became a cell phony.

Maybe it was idea of buying a new toy that converted me. Did I mention my cell phone flips open like a wicked cool James Bond gadget?

We signed the next two years of our lives away in a contract, promising to use our shiny new cell phones like good little doo-bees. Here’s an excerpt from that charming document: “We make no representations or warranties, express or implied, including, to the extent permitted by federal, state and local law, any implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose concerning your service or your wireless phone.”

I looked it up. “Merchantability” is in the dictionary, but just barely.

Believe me, I would like to report that I’m a responsible cell phone user. I can’t do that, though.

I had plans to use it for emergencies only. So why is the number for the China Star on President Avenue programmed into my speed dial? In case I have a boneless sparerib emergency?

I promised myself I wouldn’t make frivolous public phone calls. After I bought the cell phone — the same day, in fact — I called my wife with it. “Just calling to say hi!” I said. She was in the next room at the time.

And dig this: I’ve used the cell phone while on the john. Twice. The deep sense of shame I feel can’t be expressed with words.

I won’t reveal who was on the other end of the line, except that it was a she. She didn’t know where I was at the time, and still doesn’t — but I told her I’d be there in two minutes.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Crime and misdemeanor

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The public library’s main branch reopened this week after two years of renovations. I saw the pictures right here in The Herald News, and it looked very nice in there — too nice, in fact. After seeing a picture of the gorgeously redone lobby taken from the second floor, I dashed myself against the walls of my apartment, grinding my teeth in agony.

I love the library and admired the renovations, but I was wracked by guilt. I committed a monstrous crime in my youth: I took out a book in 1995 and never returned it.

The volume that led to my downfall is “Side Effects” by Woody Allen, a collection of his short stories. On June 21, 1995, I checked out the book fully intending to return it two weeks later.

At least I read it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It’s not as if I checked it out to play street hockey with, or ever used it to beat small animals and children. I read it cover to cover several times, even the Library of Congress bullshit on the bottom of the copyright page.

After two weeks, I didn’t return the book. I was reading it obsessively, memorizing it, analyzing every word. I would have worn it as a hat if it had provided more shade. It was also never in bookstores — and even if it were, those books cost actual money.

You must understand: Woody Allen is one of my favorite authors and filmmakers. I admire his work more than anyone else’s. Dig this excerpt from his short story “The Condemned”:

“Lying back on his bed ... he appeared to be some kind of inanimate object, like a large football or two tickets to the opera. A moment later, when he rolled over and the moonlight seemed to strike him from a different angle, he looked exactly like a twenty-seven-piece starter set of silverware, complete with salad bowl and soup tureen.”

To hell with Shakespeare!

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, did the library actually expect me to give up brilliant prose like that after only two weeks?

For the first six months or so, the library sent late notices to my house with alarming frequency. A cleansing fire took care of them nicely. After a while, the notices stopped arriving, and with a fiendish cackle I moved “Side Effects” from under my pillow to my bookshelf, where it fit in nicely with my growing collection of legally acquired books.

Then the paranoia set in. I began to suspect that the librarians knew all about Woody and me.

“Why don’t you bring that book back?” my wife asked one day. "I bet they won’t charge you for it.”

“Forget it,” I said. “With my fines, it’s grand larceny.”

I went to the library, looked up books about the Library Police, but was too chicken to check them out. I imagined they were going to set up traps for me — complicated snares involving buckets of KFC original as bait and tranquilizer darts shot into my neck. Eventually, I stopped going. The false noses and oversized wigs became too cumbersome. So I borrowed books on my wife’s card.

Years later, wandering through a bookstore, I found a thick tome called “The Complete Prose of Woody Allen.” It contained, among other things, every story in “Side Effects.” I brought it home and stuck it on the shelf near my library book.

“Does this mean you can bring that old book back now?” my wife asked. “I’m tired of taking out stuff for you.”

“I can’t bring it back!” I spat. “I’ve come too far to stop now. The overdue fines will bankrupt us.” I cocked an eyebrow and twirled my mustache. “Oh yes, my dear — ‘us.’ You’re an accessory.”

“They have those amnesty days,” she said, “where you can bring in overdue books and don’t have to pay the fine. Why don’t you call and find out?”

So naïve! “That’s just what they want you to think!” I brandished the book at her. “They’d love to get their hands on a prize like me. And while I’m occupied, they send the Library Police here to take it away from me.”

“You can always drop it in the box, you know.”

I removed the library book from its shelf and stroked the cover. “It’s mine!” I hissed. “My precious...

And so it was until the library reopened after its renovations. I read all about the way it was fixed up, with new skylights and stacks you can wander through.

“It’s supposed to be beautiful in there,” my wife said. “Hint, hint.”

“Of course!” I yelped. “They fixed up the joint — just to torment me! They know I can’t check out books without paying my fine! Oh, they’re clever. They are clever.”

Bring the stupid book back already!” she yelled.

So on Monday, 426 weeks after the book was due, I crawled back into the library. I had calculated my overdue fines, at 10 cents a day, to be about $298.

I didn’t have $298, so once I entered the bright new lobby, I made sure I had an unobstructed path out the door in case I had to make a run for it.

The librarian — a nice lady and not at all like the cruel-eyed federal agent I had expected — scanned the book. “It’s not in the computer system anymore,” she said. “Oh, well.”

I braced for more. “Is that it?”

Apparently, it was.

Since she didn’t know of my awful crime, I said, “Can I get a new card?”

“That’ll be one dollar,” she said.

I felt like kissing her. Now I have a brand new library card and a brand new library. I’m a born-again book nerd.

Incidentally, that same day, I used my new card to check out a jazz CD. The library wants it back on Sept. 30.

I like jazz.

I like jazz a lot.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Sept. 10, 2001

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In February 2001, I was scheduling a date to take my GRE test, which is like the SATs for graduate school. It was a boring chore. From several testing dates, this is the one I picked, completely at random: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The day seemed as good as any at the time.

Mostly everyone has already re-eulogized the more than 2,800 dead, remembered the World Trade Center towers as they once stood, bragged about what’s gone right since then, wagged fingers about what’s gone wrong.

Frankly, since that day, both what has both gone wrong and gone right scare the hell out of me.

We’ve cleaned up colossal messes in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania, and created substantially larger and stickier messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of the latter two will be cleaned up soon, no matter how many times President Bush lands on any number of aircraft carriers.

And with the second anniversary of the attacks, we’re constantly ordered to remember 9/11, to remember our dead friends and family, and the planes crashing, and the stunned reactions from the reporters as the people trapped inside were crushed inside the collapsing buildings, to remember who did this to us and why we need to do the same thing back.

Enough! I’ve done that! Now I want to remember Sept. 10, before “terrified” became a natural state of being.

I want you to do the same.

Sept. 10, 2001, I am sitting on the floor in my living room, by the coffee table, studying for the GRE exam, which I am scheduled to take the next day. I’m also watching the television news, which is quite boring. The stories about shark attacks and Calif. Rep. Gary Condit’s hanky-panky are growing dull. I have no idea, but this is the last time in at least a year that the TV news will be dull.

I give myself three sample GRE tests. The GRE, by the way, is a picturesque slice of hell. It takes several hours — meaning I spent most of the day indoors, cramming my head full of statistics.

Meanwhile, a perfect, seasonably warm day lingers outside.

It is also a pleasant day in New York, I hear.

On another TV station, two anchors fill extra time during the news with idle chitchat.

Back in Fall River, I am not comfortable with my self-tested GRE scores, so to clear my head I walk my dog. There is a breeze through Kennedy Park, and the late afternoon light is a mild orange. Why wouldn’t the weather be nice in early September?

My wife comes home from work and she tells me that she had heard on National Public Radio that fish is “brain food.” In those days, NPR was full of harmless news stories like that. So I decide that since I will take my exam in Boston, I will eat lunch at a sushi place just before the test. We are both nuts for sushi.

“I wish I could come with you,” my wife says.

“I wish so, too,” I say.

In lower New York, people who work in the World Trade Center towers are going home for the day. Some are probably happy, some probably not. Most probably don’t feel much different one way or another.

My wife tells me about her day at work. I am preoccupied, because the shadow of the test the next day is hanging over my head.

As it grows closer to night, the red lights on the top of the World Trade Center towers light up. Many tall structures have pulsing red lights at their highest points, so planes flying by in the dark don’t accidentally crash into them.

Back home, I suggest that my wife and I get ice cream cones. We eat them sitting shoulder to shoulder outside the car at Somerset Creamery, and we talk about the future.

I’ve spent the whole day concentrating on the very near future, hoping the test will go off without a hitch. But in the end, I will spend the next morning glued to the TV set, horrified, listening to a reporter say simply, “It’s gone.” My wife will call me, and we’ll hear the report about the Pentagon crash together, and for one stomach-churning instant, I’ll put that together with the New York attacks and think, “This is the end,” meaning The Very End of Everything. That feeling will pass, luckily, and I’ll drive to Boston around noon for my test, one of just a few people driving into the city, as opposed to escaping it. I’ll pass by the sushi restaurant just in time to see the chefs and waitresses literally fleeing, as in locking their door and running away — because the restaurant sits in the shadows of the two tallest skyscrapers in Boston. I’ll be afraid to take the subway, so I’ll walk five miles from Boston Common deep into Brookline, and find that my test is postponed, and walk five miles back, a trip so serene I will almost forget that I was ready to be dead a few hours earlier. I’ll feel incredibly stupid and callous for thinking that my lousy test would not be postponed. Everything everywhere is postponed except for three grim searches: for the missing, for the dead, and for the guilty.

But that’s the near future, and on Sept. 10, 2001, it hasn’t happened yet. When my wife and I are eating ice cream that night, we’re talking about the long future. In between becoming millionaires, I say, we’ll travel the globe. Since we’re making it all up as we go along, it’s as nice as we want it to be.

Looking overhead that night, what look at first to be stars are actually blinking airplane lights. Planes are crisscrossing the country unmolested. Why wouldn’t they? There’s no reason to worry.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Asteroid rage

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For years, I’ve been walking around with a sense of baseless dread, chewing my nails when there’s no obvious reason for me to chew them. Finally, my paranoia has a name: “2003 QQ47.”

That’s the name of an asteroid two-thirds of a mile wide that, earlier this week, British astronomers said is rocketing straight toward Earth with human extinction on its mind. Worse, the predicted date of this catastrophe is March 21, 2014. If you’ve made a dentist appointment for that day, astronomers said, you should probably reschedule.

Of course, British astronomers were also saying that, according to calculations, the chances of 2003 QQ47 hitting Earth is 1 in 909,000.

A Sept. 2 Associated Press story about 2003 QQ47 — headlined “ASTEROID DUE TO COLLIDE WITH EARTH” — said that the asteroid had only been tracked for a week. The reporter seemed rather calm for somebody staring extinction in the face: “The risk of a collision could fall as its movements are further tracked.”

“I would say there’s no cause for concern at all,” said Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the time looking tragically shortsighted.

This next tidbit of information warmed the cockles of my heart. If 2003 QQ47 collides with Earth, according to the AP story, “the rock would have the force of 350,000 megatons, or eight million times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.”

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to describe my outlook on life, I would first try to wrestle the gun away from you — barring success, I would call myself “optimistically pessimistic.” I always think the worst will happen, but I really hope it won’t.

To make this condition worse, I’m drowning in news. I edit news for a living, and most news is, sadly, about atrocities: people blowing each other to bits, others getting decapitated by elevator doors, incurable viruses, environmental plagues, the cancer-causing effects of margarine, the perils of not washing one’s hands, or of washing them too much — you name it.

To an optimistic pessimist who wallows in news like me, a 1 in 909,000 chance that an asteroid will collide with Earth in the near future is practically even odds. An asteroid collision would fit in very nicely with all the other horrible news happening every day, and it’s more possible than my hitting the Powerball, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. You see why I’m climbing the walls?

So I was all set to stock up on D batteries and tinned meat and crawl into my bunker located deep below the earth’s crust when I read on Space.com that 2003 QQ47 will not hit Earth. Somebody goofed — probably that Fitzsimmons clown. He seemed a little too calm, if you ask me.

I look like a mellow character. A friend from college once described me as “jolly” (he was drunk at the time). It’s a façade to hide that I’m a compulsive worrier.

I often worry about the wrong things. I eat too much junk food, but I don’t worry about that excessively — not nearly as much as I worry if the mail doesn’t arrive by 1:30. I can barely remember the name of my car insurance company, and I don’t much care. But every time I leave the bathroom I’ll spend 40 minutes checking and rechecking to see if my fly is down. I’ll wait 8,000 miles to change the oil in my car, but if the dog gives me a sad look I’ll start worrying that she’s secretly mad at me.

I also spend time worrying that I worry too much.

So naturally, when I read cockamamie headlines about enormous space rocks screaming down from the heavens to annihilate the human race in the next 10 years, I worry about it, even though I’ve read the odds and I know it’s not really going to happen.

By then, I’ve already spent too much time reading the news story and staring at advertisements, which is the whole reason why some jerk wrote the hyped-up headline in the first place.

Now that I’ve started worrying, I’m too pessimistic to believe that an asteroid won’t collide with Earth at some point.

Dig this: NASA has catalogued a list of near-Earth objects like comets and asteroids that it considers “potentially hazardous,” meaning sometime in the future one of them could slam into our planet. It’s an interstellar rogues’ gallery. According to a NASA Web site, there are 524 of these objects. No kidding. I may find a use for my batteries and Spam after all.

The site is maddeningly vague when it comes to details about these celestial deathtraps. I have too many questions that the Alan Fitzsimmonses of the world have no answers for:

-- If we’re all doomed, why the hell did I bother taking four semesters of Spanish?

-- If an asteroid heads toward Earth, is there some way we can minimize human deaths — possibly by diverting it to land on a Republican convention?

-- Let’s say we find some way to blast incoming asteroids to smithereens with a laser-beam-equipped spaceship. Will I, with my superior skill at the Atari 2600 video game “Asteroids,” be drafted?

-- Even though 2003 QQ47 isn’t scheduled to collide with the planet, will City Councilor Leo Pelletier still want to cancel the 2014 Holy Ghost feast?

-- How, if at all, would a catastrophic asteroid disaster affect the performance of my mutual funds? I keep hoping they’ll take off one of these days — but I’m not holding my breath.
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