23 August 2001

"The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win,
you're still a rat."
   - Lily Tomlin

I am sitting at my workstation, sunlight pouring into the room at an unreasonably early hour. I’ve been online already. Even though the service provider has gone bankrupt, the systems are still up and running while another provider salvages the usable pieces. I had a look to see if anything new is posted in the provider’s internal news group. There is.

The man who oversaw the daily operations of the business, who led the team that made all the wrong, bad decisions, who let the company fall into extraordinary debt and disarray while the customers suffered, now writes pathetic little notes to the users. He says he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but one possibility that suggests itself to him is to follow his engineers to the CLEC that purchased his operation. He observes that he’s learned being between the customers and the telephone company is a terrible position for anyone, and he’ll be glad to be out of it. The service in the company and the relationships with long-term customers declined with his arrival on the scene, but he does not seem to have observed this.

I always think it’s interesting to hear what arrogant, proud men have to say for themselves when they are undone by the very wheels they set in motion with their own hands and minds.

I remember how furiously angry I was last summer. I was trying to upgrade to a 56K modem on a computer I wasn’t prepared to ditch. The upgrade wasn’t going well at all. The ISP’s technical support folks blamed the modem manufacturer, the telephone company, and the computer manufacturer for my predicament, feeling themselves blameless. No matter that they’d swapped out access servers at precisely the same time I installed a new modem. “Not our problem,” they insisted, “all our equipment is industry-standard. It’s definitely a problem on your end.”

I believed them at first, and restored my original modem and settings. The performance was abysmal, nowhere near the level of performance I’d experienced the four previous years. “It must be your telephone line,” they said when I reported back my results. “Call the phone company and have them test your lines.” The telephone company came and tested my lines, at the standard rate for service contacts. The ISP technicians bumped me back and forth between first-line and second-line support, and I spoke to several supposedly senior people, all of whom seemed baffled by my problems, because “Nobody else is having trouble.” I’d been reading flames on the newsgroup for weeks. The president of the company posted a note, sneering at my technical ineptitude, and my “whining” about service levels and performance. He suggested the only thing wrong with my computer was the person operating it. He said, “I stand behind my decision to upgrade our equipment for the greater good of our customers.” With that, I stopped believing, and found myself another, better provider, even though I had pre-paid for six months of the old ISP’s services.

I logged in to the old provider now and again, just because I was still paying for the services. About a month after my switch, I found announcements by the ISP’s technical support manager in the internal newsgroup stating the “upgrade” to the new equipment had “failed.” All equipment and settings were being returned to their original states. I laughed when I read the post. I wasn’t going to be returned to my original state.

I’d been maligned in a public forum by people I didn’t know, who’d been paid for services they weren’t rendering to me. In the end, it was my threat of exposure to the Better Business Bureau that got results. I told the ISP’s president, “Just keep it up. I’m beyond caring what you do. I’m a writer, and all of this is going to make for dandy reading in a local trade journal or newspaper.” I may have aimed too low.

The same arrogant manager who so infuriated me then now nostalgically addresses us, the disenfranchised customers, about “the good old days.” The irony is, this is not the person who made those days good. This is the person whose management decisions made all the trouble. I am always surprised when organizations fail to keep their focus on customers. I guess it’s hard to be humble. 

Look at all the people who have climbed the slippery slope, achieved the summit, and then fallen. 

What they wanted was power and control. What they discovered, all of them, was that they could not maintain either power or control without the approval of those who they wished to subjugate. The venue doesn’t really matter, either — the issues and outcomes are always the same.

Excuse me. I have to send up a serving of steaming crow to the newly-unemployed executive. I wonder if he’s hungry enough to eat it?


21 August 2001

"Let the world know you as you are."
    - Fanny Brice

Prompted by some perverse urge, yesterday I decided it was time to look myself up on the World Wide Web. I wanted to see what the viewing public thought it knew about me. I wanted to know how exactly to what extent my private life was exposed, and whether there were opinions or ideas about me in existence that I didn't already know about.

There are many search tools from which I could have chosen, but I decided I'd take the simplest, most direct route I could. I used "Google," which is simple, and fast. I've heard it's currently the most widely used search engine in the world, in regular use by millions of Web surfers. When "Google" was first introduced a couple of years ago, ancient history in dot-com terms, I was amused by the conceit of the site's name, a sly smooshing together of the words "go" and "ogle," and equally pleased by the speed and accuracy of the search results. Today, I am amused by the way people routinely refer to the site as "google," and their bemusement over why a search engine should be named for a cartoon character.

It was to discover how many of these same people had access to information about me I initiated my search.

I forced myself to keep the search simple. First name, space, last name. Search.

My name is not particularly common, with unusual spellings of my given name as well as my family name. Knowing this, I was unprepared for the results, which displayed after 2.3114 seconds of searching. 2,314 pages, with the combinations of "given family," "given," and "family," displayed in order of confidence in the matching criteria. Even after eliminating the pages which did not have an exact match, there were still more than 100 pages.

Who were all these people, and why were they parading around the Internet advertising themselves as me? I decided to look through some of the pages.

I discovered that I am a versatile person, with a stunningly wide range of talents, experiences, and expertise. Depending on whose page you believe is really me, you come away thinking I am married, single, engaged, divorced, or separated. I am a teenager, a forty-something baby boomer, or a retiree. I live in San Francisco, Detroit, Washington DC, Topeka, Dublin, Denpasar, or Toronto. I am a nuclear physicist, an Irish geologist, a writer, a classical musician, a graduate student, an agriculturalist, a teacher, an athlete, a lawyer, a nutrionist, a faith healer, or a marketing assistant. Oh, wait. Faith healers are marketing assistants, aren't they?

I am also deceased, as of October 31, 2000. I died on Halloween after a brief illness. Knowing I died appeals to my sense of irony as I struggle to embrace myself as all these people. As I read my obituary, I was thinking, good, there's one less version of me to be concerned about.

A few pages had email addresses which look very familiar to me, since they are all variations of my own email address. Some pages had contact information that included home addresses, office addresses, and telephone numbers. I could actually pick up my telephone and call myself, if I wanted to. I'm trying to decide whether or not I have the nerve to make contact with others who have walked on this earth and know what it is to react and respond when our name is spoken or written. I feel a kinship with these people, whether they know anything about me or not. And what would I do, should any of them come searching after me?

Excuse me. I need to go update my home page.


02 August 2001

"The price of greatness is responsibility."
    - Winston Churchill

Elian Gonzales was recently in the news again, a follow-up piece to show people what has become of him since his return home to Cuba. I commented, “It’s too bad what’s happened. They’ve ruined that child’s life. And ruined the child, too. Look at him. He’ll never be normal again. How could he be, after this?”

The boy was mugging with the sly, precocious, irritating arrogance that false modesty reveals, very much as he used to mug for the reporters who vied with each other for a glimpse of Elian during his stay in Florida. I was struck by how he seemed eager for the camera’s eye, the public attention he was receiving. Here was a child groomed to celebrity. While we don’t see as much of him now, every day he was in the US, we were treated to images of Elian at play, Elian with the loving family, Elian going to school, Elian as the focus of a custody battle in which governments were depicted as archetypal forces of good and evil.

The facts were these:

A little boy was discovered floating off the coast of Florida, the lone survivor of a boating accident. He was claimed by relatives in Miami, who took him to their home and petitioned the courts for legal custody. The boy’s frantic father, on learning of his son’s location, asked that his son be returned to him in Cuba. The Florida relatives resisted efforts to return the boy to his father. Two grandmothers flew to the US in an attempt to convince the Justice Department that their grandson should be returned to his father’s custody. The boy’s father flew to the US to personally escort his son back to Cuba. The relatives again resisted the government’s request to surrender the boy to his father.

Beyond the bare facts was another story:

Elian Gonzales’s life was ruined from the first day he arrived on United States soil. He was never treated as an individual, he was a symbol to us of the ideological and socio-political warfare waged between the US and Cuban governments. There was no reason to keep the boy from his father, who by all accounts, loved Elian. Instead, people all over the country jumped on the disgraceful bandwagon of chest-thumping nationalism, convincing themselves they had the “right” to keep the boy, because his life would be “better” in the US than under Castro’s government in Cuba. The Cuban government demanded Elian’s return, while Cuban politicians and officials made haranguing speeches about the evil opportunism of the godless and unprincipled people in the United States.

The media had a wonderful time retelling Elian’s story, each successive version tilting the truth just a little bit to better illuminate whatever ideology or point for which they held the strongest conviction. Millions of viewers, listeners, and readers joined in the endless, knotted debate.

We decided somewhere along the line we desired a mythological struggle, so we framed the battle for the boy in terms of an heroic quest for freedom, with Fidel Castro as the embodiment of threatening darkness. The problem is, the “hero” was only six years old. He simply could not understand the context of the battle being waged over him. He was told that a life of mind-crushing controls and obscurity awaited him if he was forced to return to his father. Elian thought he was the most important little boy in the whole world, because everyone around him told him he was. What he knew was he got plenty of attention, plenty of toys, and plenty of money.

His plight, a whole year of it, was observed by the rest of the world. In the same year, the United States government drafted petitions demanding that children who were taken to other countries to be returned to the parent still residing in the US. There were men and women who were desperate for news of sons and daughters spirited off to Asian, African, or European nations. These parents grieved over every moment of separation, and they turned to the United States government for intercession and assistance in recovering their missing children.

In most of these cases, the children were either living with the absconding parent, or in the bosom of the extended family. The United States government worked diligently to ensure the safe, swift return of the “kidnapped” child to the grief-stricken parent.

Nobody saw any irony, tragic or otherwise, in the fact that the Gonzales affair was the same, only it was the drowned mother who absconded with the son, spiriting him off to the United States, unbeknownst to the father. The Cuban government had a moral obligation to assist the father in recovering his son, who was for all intents and purposes, kidnapped. Instead of admiring the father’s courage and determination, we excoriated him, and cast aspersions on the Cuban government’s intentions in assisting him.

Every day, we send illegal immigrants back to their countries. Many of the deportees seek political asylum from horrific, oppressive situations, and a few are in peril of their very lives. We don’t make many exceptions — we send these people away. We tell them they must follow the legal processes for emigration from their homelands and for immigration to our country before they will be welcomed. If Elian Gonzales had been a forty-year-old woman, his stay in the US would have been brief, with him likely being deported as an “undesirable.” However, Elian wasn’t undesirable — just the opposite, in fact. He was a cute little boy whose personal tragedy stirred our collective national parenting instinct to protect him. He was our poster-boy for adoption, a “Dondi” for the 1990’s. We were so intent on our own feelings, we lost sight of what we were doing to a man’s family.

And for that, I am ashamed. I hope some day the Gonzales family can find it in their hearts to forgive us.

Excuse me. I need to go hug my kids.