demoralized with a stop-gap career
Wednesday, July 30 2003
Over the years I've gradually become an expert at personal computer repair. My knowledge is both broad and deep. I've been tweaking, experimenting with, and occasionally destroying the inner-workings of computers since 1983 (that's 20 years). In that time I've seen them evolve from crude things you could upgrade with a pen knife and a soldering iron to the mysterious humming beige boxes they are today. I know all the operating systems from Mac to Linux. I can write useful programs in an alphabet soup of different languages. But computers have advanced so far and accumulated so much junk code in their genomes that their behavior has come to resemble biology as much as it does technology. Thus my job is not unlike that of a medical doctor, although the risks associated with failure are considerably lower. When diagnosing a sick computer, I often lack a firm idea of what the problem is - I only have a list of theories. Infuriatingly, many of my best diagnostic techniques are thwarted seconds before yielding results by annoyances such as device drivers that take down the entire operating system. Or I have to machete my way through a forest of menus and submenus tweaking useless "user-friendly" defaults in order to avoid driving blind. Anybody who doesn't pay someone to maintain his computer knows what I'm talking about: everything you need to do is hidden behind the "advanced" button. (In the case of the Taskbar, everything I need to do is hidden behind an "advanced" button that is, in turn, hidden behind an "advanced" tab.)
I had a couple episodes today that left me frustrated and demoralized with my chosen stop-gap career as a computer repair technician. This afternoon I went to fix a woman's modem in Woodstock. It had probably been destroyed by lightning. Things were going so well at first that, on a lark, I went to "install" a non-existent "modem" using the modem control panel. Bad idea. Unexpectedly, the computer locked up. It was a recent Compaq model, and the only solution seemed to be the new WindowsXP "System Restore" option, which I'd never tried before. What a nightmare! It took an unexpected 20 minutes and the entire process had to be endured once it was begun. But even after the system was restored, it continued locking up. In the end it turned out that all I had to do was remove the old modem and the computer was fine. WindowsXP is much more stable than Windows 98, but it still only takes one flaky device to bring the house of cards fluttering down. Imagine if Microsoft designed human beings: your heart would stop beating if anything bad should happen to your hearing.
(I wonder if WindowsXP still throws a blue screen if you pull a floppy disk out of the drive in mid-access. I also wonder if it still cranks the floppy drive when there's no disk in it - a bug that should have been fixed with MS-DOS 1.1.)
In the end I was able to present myself as a competent professional, but for 20 scary minutes there I had no idea what was wrong and no way to break out of what was clearly a futile time-consuming activity.
My second ordeal came this evening at the downhill neighbor's house. It was my second attempt at installing a modem after the half-hearted try yesterday. I spent a good 45 minutes there struggling with the computer without the modem being recognized. Eventually I had to give up - the modem I'd bought at Staples later proved to be defective. Such things happen; the other day I received a defective motherboard from an Ebay merchant (in an effort to save his precious rating, he's making good on it), and several years back I bought some defective RAM from Fry's Electronics. But how embarrassing is it to tell a client that the device you've tried to install doesn't appear to work? How much worse is it when the client is your next door neighbor?
It was so demoralizing that it led me to question the wisdom of continuing in this depressing, stressful, mostly unrewarding line of work. I love to tinker with machines, but my inclinations are more creative than restorative. If I was a doctor, I'd want to be installing third arms and ultrasonic ears, not healing the sick.
In the evening Gretchen and I went to El Rodeo, the Uptown Mexican place that we visited on January 24th (Google lists that entry as the most authoritative page for searches of "uptown kingston" mexican.) Gretchen had a coupon, and this was to be another of our "taking advantage of summer" outings, but the coupon had expired a week before, an obstacle for which our waiter volunteered no flexibility. We sat at a table outside and (over margaritas and sangria) talked mostly about our respective stop-gap careers and how dissatisfied we are with them. Part of my problem is a lack of work, even though I don't much like the work I do get. Gretchen urged me to be more proactive with advertising and, once she put the necessary advertising expense in the context of our fiscal realities, I had trouble disagreeing with her. But how can I ever return to the good old days, the days when I was pulling down more than a thousand dollars a week building robots and content management systems, most of them purely for my own delight? I never grasped how lucky I was to have those sorts of jobs until after that part of the economy evaporated.
As for Gretchen, she'd feel less like she was simply filling a gap in her career if she could get a job teaching at Ulster County Community College. She was keen on talking about these things without any contamination from aspects of my life, but I wasn't doing my part conversationally, and I kept pulling the discussion back towards a Gus-centered universe. After awhile Gretchen was fed up with this, so I did my best to apologize, repeatedly saying on the way back to the car, "I'm sorry I have such poor conversational skills!"
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