Certainties of Life

August 2nd, 2017

There are times in life when one’s own certainties, however trivial, take an unexpected tumble in a crushing and spectacular way to end up in a heap of embarrassment. One such moment of embarrassment occurred to me recently when something that I was convinced was a certainty turned out to be nothing more than a fervent belief. I hasten to add that the certainty that I am referring to is quite trivial as certainties of life go. It is by no means some profound truth that is universally held to be undeniable.

The episode that led to this modest certainty being embarrassingly shattered began with my attempt at using the fairly recent innovation of on-line banking. I use on-line banking sparingly. I am not yet weaned from the pen and cheque method of money transfer. It so happened that I had not used the on-line facility of my bank for over a year. Had I known that sporadic use of on-line banking only caused the bank’s computer system to treat  an occasional customer with suspicion, if not downright hostility, I may well have foregone its use altogether. But bliss as I was in my ignorance of the mysterious ways in which the security of on-line banking worked, I proceeded blithely to tackle the first hurdle that confronts all customers of internet banking: the secure log-on. This consisted of a combination of three security parameters including a user-id, a so-called passcode, and a six-digit pin number. I had entered all of these with great care and utmost attention, when to my alarm, the log-on process asked for further, entirely unexpected security information that I was totally unprepared for. The log-on process, quite capriciously as far as I could make out, suddenly demanded to know what my father’s middle name was. Now I am aware that these kind of personal questions are a part of the checks and safeguards that are embedded in on-line banking systems for security purposes. Typically such security questions are asked when the user is unable to provide a valid password or has completely forgotten what it is. But I was incredulous that of all the questions that the system could have put to me for an additional security check, it should have been that about my father’s middle name. My incredulity was not as misconceived as might be imagined. It so happens that in the matter of security questions of this kind, the user usually has a choice of several security related questions from which he may choose one, whose answer would be something personal to him. Thus the user may opt, for example, to use the name of the last school that he attended, as the security question for an additional security check, - should it become necessary. My preferred security question has always been the one that asked for my mother’s maiden name, or so I had always believed until recently. I have a good reason for preferring to do so. My mother’s maiden name although of Indian origin happens to be sufficiently short and simple to make it easily pronounceable, even for those who as a matter of principle remain averse to pronouncing foreign names. My father’s middle name on the other hand, whilst also of Indian origin or perhaps because of it, is a tongue twister of such ferocity as to defy all normal rules of English pronunciation. To attempt to pronounce it is to submit to a verbal form of sado-masochism. I would therefore never have inflicted it on anyone even as a response to a security question, - or so I had convinced myself until being asked for it unexpectedly by the bank’s security system. My unshakable belief that I could never have used my father’s middle name, provoked in me such an unsettling feeling of paranoia that I convinced myself that somehow my personal details on the bank’s security system had been compromised, - most likely as a consequence of some nefarious hacking activity of which lately there seems to be so much coverage in the media. 

 

The dark underworld of hacking and cyber fraud holds unspeakable terrors for ordinary mortals like me. Amateurs that we are, we only skirt on the edges of the internet and have only a superficial understanding of its intricacies. I decided therefore that I needed urgently to seek expert help to deal with this frightening security beach. In great agitation, I phoned the helpdesk of my bank. The helpdesk assistant that I was connected to, was almost a model of courtesy and effortless efficiency. After successfully completing the inevitable security checks, I explained to him the purpose of my call: my possibly baseless but firm conviction that my security details had been tampered with. If this grave pronouncement had the Helpdesk adviser sitting up in alarm, my account of what had actually occurred may well have had him intrigued and possibly even hanging his head in despair: what was he to make of a customer who alleges that his so-called unique security question has been tampered with and replaced by a fake one? Conscious of the likely implausibility of my contention, I was hesitant myself as I began to explain to the adviser my reason for believing that the security question I was presented with could never have been one of my choice, - that my father’s middle name was so excruciatingly unpronounceable to native English speakers, that I would never have embarrassed myself or them by using it as part of a security question. I asked the adviser if he could tell me from his computer records exactly what my security question should have been, as that would address my fear that some hacking activity had maliciously altered my real security question to a spurious one that wasn’t of my choice. The adviser did appear to understand my concerns but such is the nature of the checks and safeguards that protect security information of my bank’s clients, that even the adviser could not tell me exactly what my security question was or should have been, as that information was withheld even from him. This of course was not what I had expected from the helpdesk, reassuring though it was to me that my personal data was seemingly inviolate even from casual access by the bank’s helpdesk advisers. 

 

Despairing at what I might do next, I asked the adviser, rather in the manner of a confused old man muttering to himself, whether I ought to try and reply to the security question, as requested, provide my father’s middle name, and be done with it, - no matter how hopelessly unpronounceable the name was. The helpdesk adviser’s reaction was one of enthusiastic support. “Why not,”  he said, “Go for it”. I wasn’t sure if I was quite so ready to go forth as boldly as the adviser’s exhortation had implied but under the circumstances I had no option but to act on my own suggestion and put my elaborately constructed theory of a security breach to the test. Certain in my belief that I would be vindicated by the outcome of the test, I typed in my father’s middle name as required by the security system and waited with smug confidence for the expected error message that would prove my point. I waited in vain. For to my consternation, and perversely to my horror, the system accepted my father’s middle name as the correct response to the security question. In an instant I realised that everything that I had averred about the impossibility of my ever using my father’s middle name in response to a security question now seemed utterly foolish. I made a pretence of being excited that that my security problems were finally over but I was actually quite wretched. I announced with fake excitement to the helpdesk advisor that the system had accepted my security response and allowed me in. I offered my apologies for having contacted him unnecessarily for a problem that turned out not to have been a problem at all. He was of course gracious about it, - indeed delighted for me, and bid me a cheery good day as he concluded our conversation. He may well have hung up with the satisfaction of having done a good job but to me the whole encounter had been an extraordinary experience. 

What had begun as a perfectly innocuous attempt at using internet banking had somehow left me pondering on the nature of life’s certainties. If a certainty of life could be as fragile as mine had proven to be, then my understanding of a certainty was seriously flawed.  I can now apprehend that certainties of life are least prone to being shattered when they are based on empirical evidence or received wisdom of many generations. Regrettably, the certainty that I had assumed, and which prompted me to phone the helpdesk in some panic, was based on neither. If I had only paused to think, I would have realised that my certainty was not a certainty of my life. It was rather a certainty of my imagination: I had conjured up a certainty in my mind from nothing more than a fervent belief that I would never have contemplated using my father’s middle name as a memorable security word. On reflection, I should have been wiser than to allow myself to commit the folly of ascribing to my fervent belief the attributes of a certainty. But I had done so and had accordingly suffered a shock when the assumptions of my imagined certainty had been proven false by the evidence of my own actions carried out in reality.




 

 

Uitilty of Cowardliness

July 30th, 2016

I have lost count of the number of times I have been spared embarrassment, - not by any exercise of wisdom on my part but rather by my unfortunate propensity to cowardliness. If fortune, as it is often said, favours the brave, then it cannot be denied that it sometimes intervenes on the side of the cowardly to save them from their own folly. This was amply illustrated in my own case recently when I foolishly took it upon myself to be civic minded. I had just set out on my usual gentle jog when going past my neighbour’s garden, I noticed a woman closing the lid of his “wheelie bin” (wheeled dust bin) as though she had just dropped something in it. My neighbour’s dust bins, like those of nearly all others in the road, are usually kept right next to the front garden gate, so that it is quite easy for strangers to drop waste material in it surreptitiously. Indeed, this kind of fly tipping, as it is called, has become quite a hot topic of public debate in recent months within the borough that I live in. The Borough Council has even coined a new label for it, - “Envirocrime”, and its monthly newspaper, exhorts civic minded borough residents to be active in helping to combat this new menace. The council’s exhortations seldom penetrate the dull brain of a 75-year old like me but somehow its campaign against fly-tipping had made a deep impression on me, and I was something of a recent convert to the need for vigilance against “Envirocrime” as I stepped out of the house that morning. Unsurprisingly therefore, it only needed the sight of a woman furtively closing the lid of my neighbour’s dust bin to stir the hesitant enviro-vigilante in me into a creature of fiery resolve, - or so I imagined. My initial reaction was one of indignation with words like “would you mind not dumping rubbish in my neighbour’s dustbin please, etc.” forming in my head. But predictably they never passed my lips, for that would have required uncharacteristic courage on my part. Resorting instead to discretion, I merely sauntered past the lady pretending that I had not noticed whatever it was that had just occurred. But however straight-faced I may have tried to appear, I realised straight away that in choosing to be non-confrontational, when nothing but bold action would have sufficed, I had failed miserably at the very first hurdle in my newfound mission to fight enviro-crime. The realisation made me feel wretched at my own cowardliness. But cowardliness had thankfully not diminished my capacity for cunning and in an instant it came to me that I could use guile to atone for my failure where courage had so miserably deserted me. So it was that I proceeded to enact an elaborate charade, which began by my stopping abruptly in my tracks and doing an about turn, having just scurried meekly past the fly-tipping lady. I then assumed a puzzled look and made an ostentatious show of checking my pockets in the manner of a perplexed man who had suddenly found himself bereft of something that should have been on his person. These actions of mine were of course designed to allow me to take a good look at the fly-tipping woman and more importantly, the registration number of the car that she was in, without arousing her suspicion or heaven forfend, her wrath at being observed. In the latter aim I succeeded admirably. Having noted the registration number of the car, I kept repeating it in my mind as I walked back to my house in order to commit it to paper before my notoriously non-retentive memory could set in. With the culprit’s registration number carefully recorded on paper for later action, I felt that I had done enough to take at least the first faltering steps to discharge the civic obligation that the council had urged on me in their crusade against enviro-crime. My next step was to go up to my neighbour’s house to advise him of what had taken place. It was of course quite safe to do so. There was no intimidating presence of a possibly wrathful fly-tipping lady to deter me, for I had taken good care to check that the lady had already departed from the scene in her car. To my dismay, my neighbour was out but that was probably just as well, as in my state of excitement, he would probably have found my breathless account of what had occurred a little too unnerving. Disappointing though it was, there was little to be done about my neighbour’s unavailability. As events were to prove, the unavailability of my neighbour was a fortuitous boon to me as it spared me some embarrassment subsequently. My neighbour’s unavailability meant that I could carry on with the jogging that I had intended to go on when I had first come out of the house that morning. Later that day, long after I had returned from my leisurely jogging exercise (it could actually be characterised as an exercise in “shambling”), I decided to go round to my neighbour once again to inform him of the “fly tipping” outrage that he had been the victim of in his absence. This time my neighbour was in and I proceeded to appraise him of exactly what I had seen. Recounting what I had witnessed only served to bring back an onset of righteous indignation, that left me spluttering incoherent phrases as I sought to offer my neighbour my sympathies, for having had to endure the outrage of his dustbin being misappropriated for fly-tipping. In contrast to my embarrassing agitation, my neighbour was the epitome of unruffled sang-froid. In a matter-of-fact voice, he merely said “let’s see what they have dumped in the bin. It was emptied only yesterday by the bin men”. We walked up to the bins with foreboding on my part as to what horrors were about to be uncovered inside the bins, when to my astonishment the first bin opened by my neighbour revealed nothing more shocking than an empty coke bottle. The other two bins were completely empty! For a second or two I was stunned and in a state of disbelief and complete denial: I could not possibly have been so mistaken about what I had seen that morning! I had most emphatically seen someone furtively opening a dust bin and dropping something in it! How could that be explained as anything other than outrageous fly tipping? But faced with the incontrovertible proof of the absence of any fly tipping, in the form of a solitary empty coke bottle, it began slowly to dawn on me that what I had witnessed earlier was not so much an act of environmental criminality, - rather a well-intentioned action of a civic minded woman anxious to avoid littering the street. It is perhaps a moot point as to whether the lady should have first sought the permission of the owner of the bin before proceeding to use it. I am aware that using someone else’s property without prior permission is not something that is to be indulged: it is termed colloquially as “taking liberties”. But in this case, the unauthorised use of a private bin was arguably not as reprehensible as the dropping of litter might have been. The pursuit of a higher goal sometimes outweighs the impropriety of its method and although the lady’s unauthorised use of a private dustbin was to be deprecated, it did achieve the laudable aim of keeping the street litter free. I was ashamed that I had attributed to this lady’s actions base motives that I had only conjured up in my own mind, but in my shame and misery I blamed not myself for my mind’s paranoia, but rather the high powered “enviro-crime” awareness campaign of the council. The campaign undoubtedly pursued a worthy aim but as often happens with well-intentioned plans, it seems to have been struck by the dreaded law of unintended consequences. In this instance, in trying to make placid mild mannered borough residents like me “enviro-crime aware”, the council had only succeeded in making us “enviro-crime paranoid”. As it was, it took all my innate cowardliness to ward off the embarrassment that could have befallen me. And therein lies perhaps a profound truth. Although, cowardliness can scarcely be considered a virtue, it too has its uses: as my example has shown, it is the best curb to rash acts of paranoia. If discretion, as the Bard tells us in Henry IV, is the better part of valour, then cowardliness is arguably the safer part of paranoia.

Old People

July 14th, 2016

That I am now quite an old man, is no longer in contention. The mere fact that many men and women that I meet in the street address me as “Sir” is ample evidence that I am perceived as person of pitiable old age. But it never ceases to amaze me how so many youngsters routinely associate appearance of old age with some by-gone era that predates even the oldest living person of to-day: they may quite easily, for instance, associate a man of seventy with the trenches of the First World War, as has happened in my case. I recently visited my optician for a routine eye test. On arrival, I was greeted by a very pleasant young receptionist who asked me if I had visited the optician before, in which case, she informed me, she could easily find all my details on the optician’s computer system. On my assuring her that I was indeed an old client of the optician’s returning for a check-up, she asked me for my name and date of birth. With some, entirely irrational, trepidation I provided her with the required information: my forename, surname and my date of birth, which was of course, 22-2-1940.  A flurry of finger tapping followed, to the accompaniment of echoing clicks from the ubiquitous computer keyboard that now adorns all shops and businesses. When the clicking ended, there was an ominous silence which I apprehended boded some inexplicable problem for which I might be held accountable. My foreboding was justified: my record, contrary to the receptionist’s expectations, seemed not to exist on the Optician’s computer system. And as I had feared, this eventuality only seemed to suggest to the receptionist that the information I had provided could not have been accurate; that she might have made an error in transcribing it into the computer, was a possibility that she was not about to entertain. Youth in its innocence tends to be oblivious to its own fallibility. Be that as it may, it was with the utmost courtesy that she asked me to repeat the details of my name and date of birth. More bemused than irritated, I re-stated my full name, followed by my date of birth. As I intoned my year of birth, 1940, I detected a faint smile on the receptionist’s face which left me in no doubt that she had just solved the mystery of my missing computer record. Curious to know how a computer record that had eluded the receptionist only moments ago, could now be about to make its appearance, I waited eagerly to hear what the explanation might have been. Alas when the explanation came, it scarcely served to flatter my ego. Showing scant recognition of any faux-pas that she might have committed, she said “Ah nineteen forty, - I thought you said nineteen fourteen!”. Unflattering as the assumption behind her remark was, it caused me more mirth than outrage. Mental arithmetic was clearly not her forte, or else she might have realised that even with my age-worn face, I was an unlikely centenarian. More to my disappointment however, what her unabashed explanation really revealed, was the inability of the young to comprehend the world of old age. To the still youthful, the aged live in a world in which there are no age differences: it is, in their perception, a world in which all the different generations of the elderly, however many decades apart, somehow coalesce into a single blob of longevity called “the old people”.

Senior Moment

November 28th, 2015

Despite having reached an age that most would regard as being quite old, I cannot say that I am always cognisant of that fact, although my awareness of my old age does return swiftly whenever I find myself beset by the aches and pains that seem to accompany the arrival of old age. However, I have always convinced myself that whilst as an old man I might be more feeble now in body, my mind remains as agile as it ever was in my youth, - as evidenced, for example, by my considerable ability to solve Soduku puzzles and my still undiminished facility to recite poems that I had learned as a schoolboy. Indeed, like some keep-fit fanatic submitting his body to tortuous exercise, I tend to subject my mind to some energetic mental exercises such as reciting the 75 times table, - which, as countless devotees of “Countdown” will no doubt vouch for, is extremely useful with the show’s numbers game. Sadly, I have discovered that even meticulous care and painstaking nurturing of one’s mental faculties is no safeguard against the mind’s susceptibility to the sporadic stupidity that the ageing process engenders. One such episode of stupidity occurred to me recently when I tried to leave an underground car park in Walthamstow. It was early morning, - about seven o’clock, and the timing of the occurrence, - the early hour, may well have had some significance for the lack of rapidity with which my mind reacted on that occasion. I offer this as an excuse because there is, I believe, a theory that holds that the human mind tends to react rather lethargically to events in the wee small hours of the morning. Indeed it is this theory apparently, that underlies the police practice of staging early morning arrests, predicated as they are on the belief that the pre-dawn lethargy of the human mind makes it less likely to be disposed to offering resistance to arresting officers. At any rate, my mind was not disposed that morning to offering any resistance to the vagaries of technology that confronted me, even though they amounted to nothing more than a malfunction of an automatic door, in an underground car park. At that time of the morning, the car park was virtually deserted, as I parked my car and walked up to the exit that led to the street above. The exit was clearly marked “automatic doors” and on approaching it, I fully expected the doors to part before me like some biblical sea before fleeing Israelites but to my surprise they remained unyielding. It was annoying and it might have been tempting to blame modern technology. However, I am not as cynical about the efficiency of modern British engineering as many people these days affect to be. I therefore attributed this system failure, perhaps somewhat charitably, not to poor engineering but to a possible cost-cutting measure instituted by a parsimonious local council, whereby the automatic functionality of the doors was switched off outside of normal working hours. Undaunted, I made every effort to open the door manually but no amount of pushing at the door was of any avail: it remained firmly shut. Somewhat disappointed, I turned round to try and find another door that I could use to let myself out and as I did so, noticed a young girl walking in my direction. To my alarm, this young girl appeared to be heading for the same door that I had just tried and found wanting. Normally, as an old man I would be wary of accosting young girls but on this occasion my sense of civic responsibility welled up in me. In a display of public-spiritedness, I assumed my most polite manner as the girl approached and announced to her that the door that she was about to use “was not working”. The girl’s immediate reaction surprised and delighted me, - because she responded to my pronouncement with the sweetest smile that I could possibly have encountered from a stranger. To my dismay however, she seemed to take no notice of my warning about the problematic door. Charmed as I was by her smile, I could not help entertaining the uncharitable thought that this girl was so full of youthful confidence that she could not be bothered with good advice that was not only well intentioned but would soon prove to be to her clear advantage. Like some wise old sage about to prove the sceptics wrong, I waited with smug expectation to see the girl make a fool of herself. But my smugness turned the next instant to acute embarrassment when I saw to my mortification that the girl, far from being thwarted by the door, had sailed right through it by the simple expedient of pulling it open rather than pushing it shut, - as I had been doing. I stood open mouthed in grudging admiration, marvelling at this young girl’s mental alertness which enabled her to make light of a situation that had confounded me and which now made me feel feeble minded. Why, like her, hadn’t I thought to pull the door when pushing it did not work? Why wasn’t I sufficiently compos mentis to cope with this most unchallenging of situations? Slowly, the realisation came upon me that that my mental faculties for all their daily exercise had not overcome the perennial problem of age related stupidity, known euphemistically as a “senior moment”.

Halloween

November 22nd, 2015

Halloween up until recently had meant very little to me other than as a day in the calendar that had some strangely rustic associations with the world of witches, warlocks and ghouls. Until recently also, it was not a day that was marked by the observance of any particular custom. Children especially were as unaware of the passing of Halloween as the Ides of March. The 31st of October, in those days of pre-Halloween-bliss, was not a day that children awaited with anticipation, thrilling at the prospect of dressing up in ever more expensive witch-costumes and frightening the neighbours into handing over money and sweets. The thought of wreaking such havoc at Halloween scarcely stirred the childish imagination in those days and peace and normalcy prevailed at Halloween just as it did over Christmas. Little did any of my generation then suspect that these happy times would soon be a thing of the past. It is not possible to-day to say when exactly it was that the idyll of Halloween-obliviousness ended and the purgatory of  Halloween “trick or treat” began. But “trick or treat” has now found a firm foothold amongst the popular customs that children in England follow; and the children’s adoption of this American custom has had some serious repercussions for the adult population as well. For adults, “All Hallows Eve” is no longer the inconsequential day in the church calendar that could easily be ignored. It has become a day that must be noted and carefully prepared for, - to ensure survival at the end of a demanding evening of “trick or treat”. Preparation for the rigours of modern Halloween can be a daunting task but the elderly like myself have found that they can do worse than to begin by acquiring a plentiful supply of sweets and chocolates in readiness for the evening’s trials. Also to be advised is the precautionary step of ensuring that a sufficient amount of small change is to hand to dispense to groups of importunate children arriving at the doorstep. Following these two simple guidelines has served me well over the past few Halloweens. I have always managed to send away “trick or treat” children knocking on my door with very little to complain about and in the process have given myself what I consider to be a well-deserved feeling of smug satisfaction at having coped adequately with a formidable challenge. However, life is always full of surprises and even great wisdom acquired through long experience is not immune to being frustrated by the turn of events, - as I found out for myself at this year’s Halloween. This year, to my great disappointment, all my diligent preparation for meeting the challenges of Halloween turned out to have been totally in vain. I followed all my carefully devised plans this year as in previous years, to prepare myself for Halloween. On the day, I went to my local Sainsbury’s and purchased a goodly quantity of sweets and chocolates. Next, to obtain some loose change, I decided to forego my usual custom of paying by credit card and chose instead to pay by cash at the check-out. With some trepidation but with all the charm I could muster, I asked the check-out girl if she would oblige me with some twenty-pence coins. Noticing that she showed not the slightest bit of irritation at this possible impertinence on my part, I went on to impose on her good nature by explaining that my strange request was actually intended to spread happiness amongst “trick or treat” children who were sure to be around later that evening. The check-out girl exceeded all my expectations and let me have three pounds’ worth of twenty-pence coins. Armed with my shopping bag full of sweets and weighed down with my small change, I felt confident that I was fully prepared for the ordeal that lay ahead that evening. Little was I to know, as I awaited the arrival of fearsome mask-wearing Halloween children, that the evening was to end without a single child deigning to grace my doorstep with his presence. I waited nonchalantly, with the confidence that comes with good preparation, for the ring on the doorbell but to my complete surprise and some disappointment the doorbell remained silent. The hours ticked by, - six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight, nine! At half past nine, I conceded that this Halloween night had gone by without troubling me with the ritual of “trick or treat”. I was more amazed than relieved. How could this have happened? Could this have been Sod’s Law working in my favour or had Providence rewarded me with a lucky escape for some good deed that I might unwittingly have performed in past life. With my usual mistrust of children, I was even tempted to believe that this might have been a fiendish trick played on me by the kids, out of sheer wickedness, deliberately to deny me the opportunity of giving them a treat and feeling smug about it,  - but deep down I would have to admit that I was quite glad that this Halloween, “trick or treat” for once, seemed to have gone back to being what to me it always  was, - not at all a very English custom, at least in my little corner of England.