Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The amazing dexterity of Loren

Lately, I have been playing a lot of table tennis with a good friend of mine here in Ann Arbor. I also played quite a bit a few years ago, and, though I got up to a sufficient level of competence that I didn't consistently embarrass myself while playing, I was never very good. Of course, when I resumed playing after two years' break, I was even worse; but we have been playing every week day, or nearly every week day, for between an hour and two hours, for about ten days, and not only have I reached the level of skill that I had back when I used to play, but also I have gone beyond it -- or anyway, it seems so to me. One of the ways I judge my skill is by how well and how consistently I return my opponent's shots, and my friend here has a significantly different style of attack from the people I used to play, so that maybe it's just that that style is well suited to mine rather than that I've shown any significant improvement. Whatever -- one way or another, I feel good and confident about my game. I was talking to the aforementioned friend last night and mentioned that, with all the clumsiness I show in every other walk of life, it is very rewarding to feel, at least in table tennis, that my body is under my control -- that I can react quickly and confidently even to unexpected shots and can, more often that not, at least come within the neighbourhood of the ball. My friend's comment was that, despite the profusion of stories I tell of myself in which I am a hapless bumbling incompetent, it seems to him I am not actually as clumsy as all that.

OK. This is heartwarming, right? The ugly (or clumsy) duckling comes to realise the true beauty (or dexterity) he keeps within himself. Good. Now let's consider the following story.

The light bulb in the computer room in my house recently burnt out, and, since the room gets lots of natural light during the day, I would keep forgetting to replace it until night time, at which point -- wouldn't you know it? -- the room was dark; and, since I couldn't find a flashlight and the light was an overhead one embedded in one of those translucent shells that often encase ceiling lights (I don't know the word for them), I was reluctant to fiddle around with it when I couldn't see. (One of the many stories I tell on my clumsiness involves my, after some effort -- for I had never had to deal with such a thing before, and didn't have a ladder, or indeed a normal chair, so was instead wavering unsteadily on one of those swivel chairs which are often found in offices but which, mysteriously, seem to have been designed with no thought given to how they will serve as stepstools -- finally unhinging from its housing a similar shell covering a similar ceiling light in my first apartment, setting it on the floor, and then, as I got off the chair to fetch the light bulb -- for of course I had neglected to get it in advance -- putting my foot right in the middle of the shell, shattering it. This and other indignities I visited on the apartment were, however, eventually miraculously forgiven me, for the building was torn down, which rendered moot the question of whether or not my apartment was in sufficiently good condition to merit the return of the security deposit.) This situation had gone on for some days, until finally this morning I managed to remember that it needed to be remedied, so I fetched a light bulb and (let no one accuse me of indecisiveness) did it. The old light bulb I took downstairs (to throw away), together with my laptop, which was in the computer room but needed to go in my bag (also downstairs) so that I could take it to university.

Let us pause, for a moment, to regard this laptop. The first laptop I ever got was won from my parents after much whinging -- I still cringe with embarrassment when I remember working myself up to tears in their presence over the thought that I would be the only kid in my class without a notebook, a concern (this was 1995) that they initially thought could easily be remedied by a trip to the stationery store -- and was a Toshiba. This computer was innovatively designed with an integrated bit of electronics (I didn't know, and for reasons that will become obvious never bothered to find out, the specifics) that obviated the need to carry around a bulky external transformer -- a design that appealed to me and that, after further studious whinging, was induced to appeal to my parents; and the convenience of not having to carry the external transformer was moderated only slightly, eventually, by the fact that this internal bit of hardware got so hot that it literally melted my keyboard. (Toshibas are apparently viewed now as bastions of reliability; I can only assume that, as was the case with the Toyota Corolla I owned for a while, my usual luck sufficed to get me the one bad machine that an otherwise reliable company made.) Anyway, that troublesome behaviour was still in the future when, carrying one day through the university my laptop in its trusty carrying-case, I reached out in haste to catch a heavy double-door which was about to fall closed; and, in doing so, somehow managed to release my grip on the computer itself, so that, rather than catching the door, I threw the computer at it. As you can imagine, this did not work wonders on its (already heatstroke-stricken, I suppose) innards -- more specifically on the monitor -- and, though I eventually got the monitor replaced under warranty (I seem to remember that getting the coverage entailed my conveniently forgetting to mention how the damage to the monitor had occurred), a proper respect for the delicacy with which one must treat a laptop was instilled in me.

Well, the laptop, as such machines must do, became obsolete, and, because I didn't do much travelling, I contented myself with desktops for a long time; but, in the past few years, I have found myself ofttimes at conferences where the laptop-owners were easily checking their mail (and performing whatever other important online tasks they needed to do), but where I and the other technological dinosaurs were reduced to hand-to-hand combat over who would have access to the lone computer which had been set up with a guest account which we could use for SSH. (Another important factor is that I type much, much faster than I write, which means that a laptop would impart -- and has imparted -- a significant speed-up to my note-taking.) Thus, last June, I went out and bought a new laptop; and, at the urging of friends, got an Apple -- specifically, a 15" Powerbook G4. Of course this machine I handled with due delicacy (not least because it had cost me $2000 rather than the $0 which I personally had had to spend on the Toshiba). I was delighted with it from the beginning, but my faith in the infallibility of all things Mac took a slight hit when, five days after I had got it (and a few hours after I had transferred over all my important files from the PC and -- keep your groaning to yourself -- deleted the originals), the computer gasped, sighed, and (in the middle of one of the only games of chess in which it has looked like I had a chance of winning against the computer) died, no more to be revived. Well, it would boot, but it couldn't find the hard drive; and that was that. I bid a tearful farewell to my data, sent it off to Apple, and, creditably quickly, received in return a new one.

This new one was again a delight, but you can imagine that my joy was slightly tempered by what had happened so far. I instituted (as I had frequently promised before to do) a system of regular backups, and so far all has been well -- if, that is, we forget the brief interlude in December when the machine would sleep every thirty seconds, a malady which the repair shop could not diagnose but which a few moments with my system.log and Google revealed to me was probably caused by a faulty temperature sensor in my trackpad. (Temperature Monitor revealed that, as far as the trackpad was concerned, the temperature was going in a few seconds from a chilly -200 C to a balmy +400 C; and, computer manufacturers having apparently learned something since the days of the Toshiba I described above, the computer viewed this as a no-no and, quite reasonably, went to sleep.) When I mentioned this to the technicians, they said that they had actually seen this problem many, many times -- in fact, so often that the part which would need to be replaced was out of stock, and probably couldn't be had for a month and a half. As I mentioned, I do have a desktop PC at home, but once one is used to the convenience of a laptop it is hard to give it up, and I found the idea of waiting so long undesirable. Fortunately, again with some insight gleaned from a few moments with Google, I called Customer Relations and expressed my wonder at a company which prides itself on quality and reliability but, given ample opportunity, cannot seem to provide me with a computer with both a working hard drive and a working trackpad. This seemed to do the trick and I got my part within a week -- and, though a further bit of the lustre of the Mac had worn off (metaphorically, not to mention a bit literally, too), it's been quite reliable ever since and I would be loath to be parted from it.

With all that said, the reader will probably understand why I try to handle my laptop with particular delicacy. In particular, it's not obvious to me that there is any particularly safe way to grip it (it seems like holding it as one would a book is likely unpleasantly to squeeze various internal organs), so I have a habit when I carry it of balancing it horizontally on my fingers as a waiter would a tray of food. Thus -- to recap the story so far -- I am going downstairs, with my laptop computer, daintily balanced on my fingers, in one hand, and an expired light bulb in the other.

This is a situation that the gods of fate cannot resist; and, in the form of my two cats, who were eager to be fed, they had their agents in the field to teach me the error of this style of descending the stairs. Sure enough, while threading my way past the menagerie, I missed a step, and, given the choice between again throwing my laptop at an unoffending target, or smashing the lightbulb if I tried to grip something with the other hand, I wisely elected to fall and slide down the remaining five stairs. (The lightbulb made it unscathed; the laptop flew out of my hand, did a few neat pirouettes in the air, missed the railing, and came down on top of a soft cat toy on the (rather deep) carpet, all of which cushioned it sufficiently from the impact that it's still working -- at least at the moment. It was asleep at the time, so I think also the hard drive was parked; but, all the same, I'll do another backup tonight.) For a few moments I lay on the floor and offered my thoughts on life to my startled cats, who gave me the sort of looks which only cats, with their blessedly short memories that exclude from recall those times they slightly miscalculated their jumps, can give. When this amusement palled I got up gingerly. Of course my coccyx was none too thrilled about the adventure, but the pain faded fairly rapidly; but the left side of my neck felt a bit stiff.

I started trying to bend and stretch my neck to limber it up a bit, until I remembered an anecdote from the delightful book "The Wayward Professor" by Joel Gold. He was out, he says, one day on some sort of field trip with his students -- I forget what exactly -- engaged in a venture that in some fashion necessitated travelling over ice. (It may have been just that he was going into a museum and had to cross a patch of ice to do so.) Displaying the grace and agility for which I have often been celebrated, he inadvertently performed an elegant bit of ballet as he tried to cross the ice, a performance whose undue ambition was rewarded with a strangely stiff and sore ankle. This, he bravely told the students, was nothing, and though he was having trouble walking he supported himself on whatever (including said students) came to hand, meanwhile flexing the ankle to keep it from getting too stiff. (I have the opinion that here I am actually conflating two of his stories with similar plots, but the point here is the punchline, not the details.) Eventually, the field trip over, he was prevailed upon to get medical attention, which he did. The examining nurse took a peek at the (by now ugly and swollen) ankle, and said, "You haven't been bending it, have you?"

Well, he's not the laugh-out-loud kind of humorist. Anyway, with this cautionary tale in mind, I decided that maybe I would check with a reputable grown-up before doing something stupid. My first thought was to call my wife, but she is working in a supervisory capacity at a factory and is often on the (very loud) factory floor, where conversation (especially on a cell phone with poor reception) is not easy. Thus I bethought myself to call my father, who works at home and, besides therefore being usually to be counted upon to be at home, has seemed before to be both able to make time for a quick chat mid-day and also not averse to doing so. However, this usually reliably present fellow was absent (or at least not picking up the phone), so I decided to call my wife after all. The following exchange, well, followed:

Me: Do you have time to talk for a minute?
My wife: About your little brother?
Much as one likes to keep spice and variety in married life by spontaneity and originality in conversation, this did seem a bit strange. My little brother, despite his many virtues, crops up rarely, if at all, in our conversations. Thus:
Me: No ....
My wife: Have you read your e-mail?
Curiouser and -- wait for it -- curiouser. This question (especially in that tone, which the reader cannot hear but I could), even the most adventurous cannot help thinking, usually presages bad news.
Me: No, what?
My wife: He's been in a very serious accident.
This story as a whole is meant to be lightly humorous (could you tell?), and, however one addresses such a thing, putting this bit of the conversation in the midst of a rambling playful story cannot help but be jarring. All the same, this is the conversation as it occurred; and, following the lead of the great Douglas Adams, I will anticipate the rest of the conversation by saying that, though the accident was quite serious, and the consequences initially appeared so, as of now it seems that no lasting injuries were sustained (by him or anyone else in the accident). That established, I felt a bit awkward about seguéing to what came next, but it was, after all, what I had called to ask:
Me: Well, this seems a bit anti-climactic after that news, but I fell down the stairs and think I strained my neck, and just wanted to ask you if there's anything I need to do.
My wife: You need to go to the emergency room right now.
My wife knows that I, in common with men the world over, believe in ignoring any injury or medical condition as long as possible, and so naturally took my calling her about it as an indication that it was very serious indeed. (I had anticipated this response, but had secretly been hoping that the reply would instead be "Eh, it's nothing, shrug it off.") Though I argued that I didn't want, or have time, to go to the emergency room, she insisted that I at least go to immediate care; but eventually we agreed that I would call the nurses at FirstHelp, the service provided by Blue Cross to its insurees who, unlike me, do not have a wife or other responsible adult to call when they do something stupid. I called them, and had the usual experience with them (I've had to call a few times before), to wit: The nurses I have dealt with have all been very polite and professional, but one can tell that they are aware that the caller's injury or condition is very minor, and they are bored to have to go through the routine, as well as also maybe a little disappointed in him or her for not having had the wit to see this him- or herself. (I should emphasise that this is purely my impression derived from perhaps imagined subtleties of tone, and, again, nothing of word or deed of the person to whom I spoke was less than exemplary.) The conversation concluded with my interlocutor's telling me that I should apply cold and heat as appropriate, and expect some soreness and stiffness, but not worry unless I experienced any of -- well, some list of symptoms ('shortness of breath' was one, but I'm an asthmatic, so that wasn't very helpful; I think 'massive unexpected bleeding out the ears' didn't make the list, but fortunately it hasn't happened, so I guess there's no need for concern).

The part of my story dealing with my fall is, despite its prominent and lengthy position, actually only the prelude to this story (steel yourself, dear reader, and plunge ahead -- we are almost to the end of this post). As I mentioned, in common with so many others who share my sex (errm -- or perhaps that phrasing is poor), I usually try to ignore or deny any condition that would take me to the doctor, so there have been, that I can recall, only two times when I called my wife to whinge about some injury I had suffered. One was the incident I have just related, which was followed by the conversation above; the other I will recount now (briefly). Several years ago I broke my leg (by wandering into traffic), and so got to spend the summer in a cast (attended, let me mention since it can never be mentioned too often, by my wife, then girlfriend, who dropped everything and, at about twenty minutes' notice once she heard, took a ten-hour bus trip to be with me). As the summer wore on, I got to be pretty good with crutches, to the extent that one day, as I was walking (or hobbling) in to university, I found myself behind someone walking along the sidewalk more slowly than I. Aggrieved by this obstacle in my path, I veered onto the grass, then discovered that sudden abrupt changes of trajectory onto wet and slippery surfaces are not to be recommended while on crutches -- in concrete (no pun intended) terms, I fell, heavily on the sidewalk. (I had devised over the weeks I was wearing the cast a fairly elaborate way of carrying with me the books and papers I would normally have had outside my bag and in my hands. Though I think this was a reasonably clever method, it did not allow for such catastrophic changes, so, in addition to trying to pick myself up, I had also to retrieve my far-flung and now bedewed papers.) Now much exercised at the poor hand fate had dealt me, I made my way to the university and, on arrival, called my wife. "Hello," said I (my inventiveness at full pitch); to which "Have you seen the news?" replied she. It was September 11, 2001.

I can take a hint from fate. No more shall I try to tell others about my injuries.

P.S. The massive irony inherent in making a blog post detailing my intention no more to tell anyone about the subject of said post is not lost on me.


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