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iOn the Contrary-i Infections and Inadequacies

Shari Caudron thought that her upstanding behavior would render her free of debilitating cyberdiseases.

October 17, 2002
Related Topics: Internet
It started with gentle warnings from friends. “You may have a computervirus,” e-mailed an associate from Chicago. “Please get your system checked,”urged a friend in India.

Virus? Checkup? Me? Don’t be silly. I don’t visit the kind of Web siteswhere I’d pick up viruses. Well, except for that one time I visited a sitethat sold life-size blow-up Shari dolls. I’d planned to send one to a friendas a joke but nixed the idea when I learned the cost was $89 plus shipping and“handling,” a term that made me nervous.

Virus? Checkup? Me? Don’t be silly. I don’t visit the kind of Web siteswhere I’d pick up viruses.

I figured my upstanding behavior on the Internet would render me free ofdebilitating cyberdiseases. But about two weeks ago, my cherished Gateway 2000staged a severe work slowdown. Files took a painfully long time to open andclose. Copying documents was out of the question. Working on my computer waslike a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles: an hour of teeth-gnashingfrustration followed by five minutes of slow progress.

This went on for three days, until one morning, in the middle of anexhaustive Internet search, the entire system seized up like a soprano strickenmid-aria with a fatal heart attack. There was no going on. I had to call acomputer service.

The technician, who was easily half my age, arrived the next day, and thefirst sentence out of his mouth ended in the word “ma’am.” Ma’am?!Excuse me, but aren’t ma’ams feeble widows who need help with theirgroceries? Puleeze.

I huffed down the hallway to my office, the computer tech in tow. He sat onmy black swivel chair and began to tap loudly on the keyboard. “What is yourvirus-protection software?” he asked.

“I think I used to have the Norton Utility Closet or something like that,”I replied. “I can’t remember. It might have been uninstalled. Maybe itcrashed. Does it matter?” I felt a riptide of ignorance and humiliationpulling me out to ma’am-land. I tried to change the subject. “How’d youget into this line of work?”

“I like computers,” he replied, frowning at my monitor. “It says hereyou have McAfee and the virus definition files were last updated in ... whoa!1998? Is that true?”

“Could be,” I mumbled. “So--are you married?”

It didn’t help that the week my computer decided to crash was the same weekmy partner’s mother, a former schoolteacher, was visiting. “You have a virus?!” she asked, when the technician arrived. “Don’t you keep yourvirus files updated? Shari, you’ve got to keep your virus files updated. Youcan pick up bad things on the Internet. You also have to clean your filesregularly. Shari, you are cleaning your system, aren’t you?”

The computer tech nodded as she spoke. This did not make me feel better.

To set the record straight, I knew I was supposed to keep my virus filesupdated. I knew I should have been performing, at the very least, some routinemaintenance. But frankly, this seemed like a hassle. I don’t like hassles.Besides, I’d never had a computer problem before.

I turned my attention back to the technician. He inserted a disc into the CDdrive, tapped some keys, sat back, scratched the side of his nose, squinted, andshook his head from side to side as if trying to clear water from his eardrums.

“Is it bad?” I asked.

He didn’t respond right away. He was too busy reviewing rows of numbersthat scrolled across my screen, a process that made me worry he’d be able totell how many times I’d played Freecell over the last year. Eventually, hedisclosed the bad news: I had 178 infections, or 178 infected files, orsomething like that. I don’t recall his exact phrasing because the moment Iheard the “I” word, I began to feel dirty.

“It’s going to take me a while to clean all these files,” he said,pulling on rubber gloves and a surgical mask. (Actually, there were no gloves ormasks involved. But I wouldn’t have been surprised.)

“Will I lose any data?” I asked, trying to keep the concern from myvoice. He didn’t know.

Figuring the repair would take about 45 minutes, I went downstairs and lookedthrough recipe books. I planned that night’s dinner. I planned the next night’sdinner. And I began to bargain with the computer gods. If my system could becleaned without any data loss, I promised to check for viruses every day. Atleast once a week. Definitely once a month. I was like those people who vow towatch their fat intake if the bypass is successful.

Another hour passed and I began to think about all the other naggingwork-related tasks that are easy to ignore: preparing monthly reports, makingsales calls, having an honest talk with a colleague about why I no longer wishto collaborate on an upcoming project. It’s easy to ignore uncomfortableactivities. But as my mother always said, ignoring irritations doesn’t makethem go away. I hate it when she’s right.

It took the technician almost six hours to get my computer working again. “Ma’am,”he called from upstairs. “I think we’re done.”

I skulked into my office and asked whether I’d lost any files.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “You were lucky.”

Lucky, yes, except for two days of lost work and whatever six hours of repairtime will cost. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “I won’t charge youfor the time when the system was scanning and I was just sitting here. Thatwould suck.”

Suck, indeed.

Speaking of which, I’ve now made it a rule to take care of at least oneniggling work-related task each day. Today’s job? Writing a letter to the headof lost and found at the Sheraton Hotel in Baltimore, who allegedly has not beenable to find some clothing I left in a drawer there even though I called aboutthe clothes a couple of hours after checkout. My plan of attack is simple. Iwill start the letter, “Dear Ma’am ...”

Workforce, October 2002, pp. 20-22 -- Subscribe Now!

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