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The Accidental Oracle

Dear Oracle: I’m afraid my PC has turned into one of those “zombie computers” I read about. It’s always up to something, beeping and grinding and popping up “windows” all over the screen with weird alphabets and the filthiest pictures you can imagine.

I’d turn it off, but I’m afraid it will blow up! How can I rescue my computer from the clutches of the zombie world?

–Lois Shybling, Snakepocket, Georgia

Dear Lois:

The problem starts with what’s called “spam” or junk e-mail. I have a huge spam problem myself, with thousands of messages backed up in my computer like plastic bags in a cow.

(I hate it when movies follow plastic bags drifting on the wind—it’s not romantic at all. Those bags always end up in some innocent animal’s gullet; I hear caribou in Alaska ram pipelines until they crack, then drink the oil to dissolve all the bags stuck in their digestive tract. No wonder we’re running out of oil!)

And the “spammers” are incredibly lazy, sending e-mails from phony people like “Kallistrate Rozelle” or “Jisley McNish,” with titles like “re: what you said” or random gibberish, like you should be thrilled to get whatever garbage leaks from their computers, probably sitting in a hut stinking of mutton and sour milk in some dumpy village in the middle of Asia that was leveled by Mongol hordes centuries ago, and has attracted nothing but criminals, windborne insects and plastic bags ever since.

Anyway, the spam carries “viruses and worms” that can eat your computer’s brain, which is already full of stuff called “software” that’s so wormy it brings to mind the Swiss Alps, which are ready to collapse from all the tunnels the Swiss dig to hide their fighter jets, gold bullion and anisette.

And oddly enough, the story of the Swiss suggests a solution to your problem.

Like isolated people everywhere, the Swiss are ornery and paranoid. Villagers used to wait along mountain trails for hikers, ply them with wine, cheese and rosy cheeked charm, then guide them to the scenic rim of the local “Hidey Hole” and shove them in.

These mile-deep chasms have served the Swiss since prehistoric times, when the Alps were first settled by itinerant fetish salesmen, moonshiners and criminals banished to the wolves from barbarian outposts in surrounding forests.

(Note that “Hidey” is a modern sanitization of “Heidi,” as the holes were originally named for the ancient expectation that widows promptly follow their husbands into the afterlife. Swiss widows would mourn for a day, then bid life a Bacchanalian goodbye for a week or two. Once sufficiently cleansed and exhausted, they would dress in their wedding lederhosen and jump into the Hole, yodeling for their husband, e.g. “Yodel-ay he...Helmut!! I am coming!”

These oaths would echo across the Alps in the fall, when husbands—blinded and reeking of anisette from endless toasts to the harvest—would attempt to leap the local Hole in a test of courage, and fall to their doom yodeling profanities.)

Such behavior may be deemed unacceptable now, but what could be expected from outcasts threatened by creaking glaciers and knife sharp peaks, with merciless armies rampaging through every summer—from Rome, Gaul and who-knows-what dung worshipping, gull gut divining, pickled pig snout eating heathenish lands—to steal their herbs and womenfolk?

And even though today’s Swiss are famously civilized, I understand their constitution still compels them to “accost and confine to a burlap sack” any stranger who approaches their property, then to “feed the Hole” with the sack. The anxiety produced by this rustic pre-emptive attitude is what makes people there so polite and the trains run on time.

So Lois, I suggest you take the “Swiss approach” to your computer. Pull its plug, drown it in the bathtub and drag it out to the curb, where garbage professionals can pick it up for disposal at your local Hidey Hole.

If you get lonely for e-mail afterwards, just answer your phone and talk to the telemarketers—they get lonely down there in the boiler room stinking of oil and cigarettes, dialing number after number searching for someone who will listen. And if you get the urge to look up useless facts (i.e., “google”), call your local librarian—thanks to the internet, they’re all lonely too.

–A. O.

Dear Reader:

I have sad news: My good friend Shelly Suggstein passed away last week.

Shelly and I go back to the beginning, when I hosted a live late-night cable TV show, Answers After Dark, and took callers’ questions from an easy chair, dressed in a red silk smoking jacket and fidgeting with a silver cigarette case.

Shelly was the show’s director/producer, and he helped me become who I am today with his infectious zeal for bringing “dignity and class” to the “advice game.”

(In spite of our classy approach, our ratings “tanked” when The Psychic SWAT Team began airing at the same hour, featuring four psychics on screen at a time, making it impossible to keep track of who was predicting (advising) what for whom, thus relieving them all of responsibility. Our show was cancelled three months later.)

The years passed and I lost touch with Shelly. I received a postcard a few years ago—one of those silly tourist cards with a picture of a “Jackalope”—on which Shelly reported that he’d met and married “an angel” named Susquehanna Jones—a casino hostess/yoga instructor in Laughlin, Nevada, who was “a dead ringer for Pam Grier in Foxy Brown”—and was honeymooning in the Southwest before returning to New York.

According to the police, who found a letter in his apartment addressed to me, things did not work out with Susquehanna. The officers discovered stacks of passionate letters Shelly wrote begging her to return from Atlantic City, where she’d moved after a series of arguments with his mother; every single letter had been returned unopened. They also found a dozen increasingly shrill messages from his mother, confined to a

wheelchair in her home in Queens, stored on his answering machine.

Here is the letter Shelly addressed to me:

My Dear Friend:

So this is how it ends. We all seek “the answer,” though we know it before we begin: The answer is Love.

But what if the answer cracks your heart, sends blood spurting through your fingers and destroys your favorite sweater, with a Navajo design so vivid it brought tears to your eyes with some marrow-deep memory? What if a week later the plants die and the cat leaves, and a week after that the yellowed blinds, cracked and brittle as dry leaves, fall to the floor and give the room to the sun?

They will find my withered arms locked around our honeymoon portrait. There we posed at the rim of the Grand Canyon, blinded by the photographer’s flash, looking past each other at separate hemispheres of stars, with a tourist helicopter hovering between us in the distant haze like a dragonfly.

When I close my eyes, I can still see the new star, lit by our vows at the Bullhead City Best Western Motel Wedding Chapel, that sparkled across our night skies for two magical weeks, then began to fade as the sun lifted itself from Texas and our plane took off for Newark airport and home.

It seems like a million years ago, and I feel a million years old. But do not feel bad for me; I found love for a few moments, and its memory will lift me—from this thwarted thing, this knotted tumor of choked passion—into the blinding heart of the sun. The rest of me, those billion cells throbbed with pain, will drift to sleep like bees in a drought-starved hive, then crumble in a pyramid of dust.

But before I put down this pen, I have one final piece of advice: If you see something in her eyes, calling from across the galaxy, do not shy away from the light…

–Eternally Yours, Shelly

And other than the imaginary blood, that’s exactly how they found him, as though he’d just sat down, embraced the portrait, and waited patiently for his bodily fluids to evaporate.

Maybe love didn’t work out for poor Shelly, but, as the letter proves, he never lost his enthusiasm for “dignity and class,” even in the throes of passion thwarted. And now, when I weave through the crowds of this teeming metropolis and find myself sagging from the weight of earthly concerns, I recall his sage advice and lift my eyes to search the faces streaming past…for a sign, for that light.

–A. O.


Kurt Strahm


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2007

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