Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Cat Who Blogged on a Mac

I'm a Macintosh owner.

I am so because I love wearing dark jeans (they're slimming) and sitting in the darkest chair in a Starbucks, withdrawing my Blackbook surreptitiously and then opening it to make the white Apple logo on the back alight just like the young ladies' faces do when they see the whirring white and bulbous corporate ornament 'twixt my legs and—oops!—the strains of Gershwin coming from the iTunes playlist on which I accidentally "forgot" to "quit" when closing up the laptop earlier; Gershwin in this case being George (although if you have 25 minutes and a taste for the subtle I will make a stronger case for Ira) and his American in Paris—an orchestral romance that could describe the two days I spent there in the company of a gorgeous English girl, speaking long into the night about books. They have so much more culture than we do, the English. Where was I?

Ah, yes. I own a Macintosh because I am a giant stupid baby.

I'm actually neither of the above kinds of people (I bet all the Apple Boys say that!), but you almost can't help but think of both when you think of mac owners. The people who adopt them as talismans of cultural currency are far more unbearable than the people who rely on them as crutches for never learning anything computer-wise until it's been thought about for a few years and infantilized, but both can be equally trying in the right circumstances. My first personal computer was a mac, as were many people's, but that doesn't excuse illiteracy across basic computer platforms.

But because Apple presumes that kind of illiteracy, catering to the ownership demographic that can't understand anything at all, you really are better off taking your computer to have them fix it, rather than fixing it on your own. Insofar as I can tell, detectable removal of screws on a laptop invalidates their warranty, even if you're trying to look at stuff to see what is wrong. They assume that you will fuck something up so royally that just trying to look at the fuckup constitutes the fuckup itself. "Why were you messing around in here?!?!?!? You must have broken it!!!"

Thus you trundle in to the Apple Store as some self-castrato and hand your life over to a guy who is startlingly labeled a Genius but who has probably arrived on site that day to remove a strained black wolf shirt, toss it in the rear of his hatchback and replace it with an even more gutfully challenged black Apple shirt. (In the parking lot. In view of children.) He spends most of his time expasperatedly power-leveling new iPhones that replace the ones owners have let their children use like pucks on an air-hockey table. He looks like every frown on his face is met by a silent awareness of the level that his MMORPG character isn't currently reaching. Sometimes he smiles in a way that radiates through all cheek divots.*

* — There are two payoffs to his working here. First, he intakes another $500 bauble that he knows you treated like a sports implement, one someone in the company will make $20-worth of repairs on before shipping it back to corporate, whereupon it will be shipped back in glossy packaging so he can sell it you for a pre-owned "discount" price of $200 when you come to buy your whiny kid a toy just like yours. He knows he is the tech dealer for your idiot junkie habit.

Second, he's looking at all the amateur pornography on the iPhones. He knows that your wife has gone to seed, and he knows it's not because you're pumping a lot of it, there, Peter South. If I could gamble on it, I would, but since I can't, let me just say that I'm certain we're only two years away from a massive lawsuit of Apple as a whole or the Apple Stores as some corporate subsidiary for theft and distribution of untold terabytes of unwittingly publicized amateur pornography. There is only a barely discernible line of shirt stains between the people handling your pizzas and the people handling your PowerBooks.

Worse, he smiles because he knows that you can only see him at 1:37 p.m. or 4:12 p.m., according to the completely incomprehensible and afternoon-destroying appointment schedule the Apple Store demands. He smiles more broadly when this is a weekday. He is a Genius.

One day, a couple months' back, I had to visit these guys. I didn't dare try to repair my computer and risk having the repair leap from $0 to $750, and honestly it was making a sick unidentifiable-via-the-useless-owner's-manual beeping noise anyway. So I came in, laptop in hand, put it in the care of Gordo the Genius du Jour, found out it might have been a sick RAM problem and got told to come back in [noncommittal time span].
"You didn't try to fix this on your own, did you?" Gordo asked me, about to retreat behind the stylized panel-door all Apple Stores have.
"No, I said."
"Good. You know that [something about having your own brain and using it] can do something that invalidates AppleCare."
"Yes. I know. It's just as well. I'm actually an idiot."
He took me seriously. That's okay: he was ugly.

Given that your options with these people are either to wait for a "while" or to leave your computer with them "until it's fixed," which can mean days, I chose to wander and get my laptop back on the same day I was there. Surrendering the device and letting them know that you are going away only means that they can say, "Oh, gosh, we couldn't get to it," but if you have the store number and call back on your cell phone to ask how things are going while you're fucking around somewhere, they won't forget it. I'm not trying to sound crafty or Alpha-male in this disclosure; I'm not some dickhead who figured out how to steamroll a system or anything. I've just been annoyed and put upon by their repair process in the past, don't like getting fucked over, and am addicted to online gambling. Also, after getting a really ugly runaround in the past, a couple employees quietly disclosed to me that Apple has a pretty good "Squeaky Wheel" policy, so being politely but repeatedly irritating pays off.

So I found myself killing time by wandering around the mall and into a store called Books-A-Million. I love books. My house is filled with them. The dimensions of the living spaces in my house are determined by where we can put the bookshelves. I want more bookshelves, for the books I can't stop buying. I have a list of hundreds of books I've gotten from the library and read and never bought, and I easily have a few hundred I've bought, shelved and known I'll get to eventually. I like having them and want more. This constant need for places for books and less attention for all other places will probably be an enduring struggle between The Wife and me, because I'll eventually trick her into going into one of the smaller rooms of the house to look for chocolate or something, and then I'll wall her in there. With books.

That said, Books-A-Million sucks.

I've known two people who've worked there, and I've picked through five different stores in five different cities, and they are all comprehensively bad in terms of layout, logic and selection. As regards my friends' experience, both worked at different stores, and both stores had bigger Christian Devotional sections than all non-fiction sections combined. In what was supposed to be a warehouse store cataloging the best possible cross section of interesting human writing, there were more Bibles than there were history books.

One friend worked at a store directly across from a beach, and the store just kept getting more bibles from corporate. She and all the assistant managers would call the corporate branch and plead with them, "We're right across the street from a beach. People can walk there. They can literally walk 300 feet to a beach. Please send us more paperbacks that people will read on the beach." Nope. Corporate would under-send Grisham and Clancy and Danielle Steele and just send more bibles. Bigass editions from Zondervan. The kind so big you could put a cardboard box over a dog and put a bible on top of the box and keep the dog from tipping it over and escaping. That sort of biblical weight.

I started wandering through the store, and I wasn't disappointed. In an area heavy with tourists, there were shelves and shelves of devotional literature, many more of stuffed animals, toys, cards and assorted things. Non-bible books were an afterthought. I couldn't even find the mystery section, despite really not wanting to bother anybody about it, because being that hopeless at finding stuff was at least eating away time.

I looked for the mystery section because I'd recently read a Charles Todd detective story (the one I reviewed here) and was curious if I could find more to see if they'd stayed good or got better or what. Eventually, I asked a minimum-wage bookseller who actually seemed pleased to be asked about books, and she walked me over to two panels of bookshelf. They were labeled "MYSTERY" halfway down one, and on the other panel of shelf they gave way to something else, so it wasn't even really two panels of mystery novels. Aside from Agatha Christie and novelizations of BBC series that long ago stopped being written by the writers whose books had inspired them, almost every book on there started with the title The Cat Who Could ____.

If you've ever ventured into the mystery section of bookstores, you've probably seen these titles dozens or hundreds of times, and every time you've probably thought the same thing: "That looks like it sucks." Here's the thing: you're right. Just read this summary from Wikipedia:
The "Cat Who" books center around the life of former newspaper reporter James Qwilleran, and his two Siamese cats, KoKo and Yum Yum in the fictitious small town of Pickax located in Moose County, "400 miles north of everywhere."
Jesus Christ.

Everything about the series is just godawful. First of all, maybe I'm drunk and it's the Carol Mosely Braun talking, but the author's name, Lillian Jackson Braun, makes her sound like she could be a really cool black lady, but she's actually this old white lady who you just know has a room in her house she portentiously calls The Yarnery that has one wall filled with ornately stitched throw pillows, one of which features Jack Lord holding up a gluestick and saying, "SCRAPBOOK 'EM, DANNO."

Second of all, one of the cats literally solves shit. I'm not making this up, and I can't stress this enough: in the first book, the cat Ling-Ling or whatever reads English backwards. Later he emits "death howls" when deaths are caused by foul play, and his whiskers twitch to give evidence to clues. I presume he does this in all the books, otherwise there'd be no point to putting "cat" in their titles other than to make lonely women feel like the thing they spend most of their time talking to can actually understand them.

That's really the kicker to the entire series: lonely woman fan-service. The main character is a single guy who's sensitive, intelligent, listens to jazz music, is safely white and — best of all — he likes cats! He even reads to them and feeds them lobster because they demand it. He didn't have any family growing up except his mother. He never drinks because of a troubled past (a woman who broke his heart and about whom he feels guilty). He is a good listener.

He has a sexy mustache that gives him clues by twitching his whiskers just like the cat's.

Speaking of the cats, did I mention that the single-man character has also risked his life to save animals whose younger non-lobster-demanding counterparts can be found for free, by the side of the road, and all through the classified ads? Granted, not every free kitten can solve murders, but why not move to a less-murdery community and just audition free cats? What do you have to lose besides
a. being around lots of murders;
b. lobster debt?
Obviously this would never happen, because then the books wouldn't be fan-service. The whole mystery aspect of each book might, in the author's mind, be some kind of new riddle or challenge, but to much of the readership they're probably just new garnishes and new excuses for the same comfort food. "I'm not eating chocolate this time. It's... uh... chocolat." No, the nice attractive man who loves cats and is romantically available for the woman character who I like to think is Just Like Me is busy investigating a totally different mystery.

I wandered around the Books-A-Christian for a while and kept coming back to the mystery section and just staring at those books for a while, eventually picking up one and skimming through it and getting a lot of this. Then I'd wander off, looking for another whole genre of literature or non-fiction that wasn't there at all, get disappointed, and come back to all 1.5 shelves of MYSTERY again. I'd pick up another Cat book and skim it. They're dumbfounding.

What they got me thinking, then and there, is that they might be the apotheosis of women's-lit fan-service. You can't do much better appealing to the lonely lady stereotype than a handsome bit of damaged goods who's curious, artistic and socially just, a man who is always available and enjoys a partnership with the animal most associated with single awkward women. I tried to think of titles that could be even more stereotypical, and it was really difficult:
The Substanceless Chocolate
The Thomas Kinkade Painting That Never Had An Affair With Its Secretary
Groundhog Day: Obnoxiously Giant Engagement Ring Edition
Tales of a 4th-9th Grade Something Who Was Never Awkwardly Taller Than Boys of the Same Age
My Homemade Afghan That Performs Limitless, Giving Cunnilingus
The Country Cottage That Could Hug You
That's it. I can't think of anything else that might even compete. Anyone who has any suggestions for me should post them in the comments. I'll add the good ones.

What's interesting, at least to me, is that thinking about these books made me wonder what the ultimate fan-service male novels must be like. You'd have to find the one person who, like Braun, had just tapped into an endless zeitgeist of comfort-reading. You'd have to have men who questioned their virility and power in their teenage years, men who'd never been anything like "apex maleness" when they entered into supposed manhood. They'd need to discover gifts that set them apart, that made them competitive with the "herd" of typical males in an unexpected way that allowed them to get the drop on the incurious and unintelligent. They'd need to have a unique handsomeness that forced women to look at them a second time, even after an initial dismissal. Their strengths would be ones that played to the sort of people they were — intelligent, unique, outside the mainstream — rather than coercing them into being just like everyone else. If challenged, they would succeed, and they would go onto greater success with that confidence. Hopefully with a really hot bitch next to them.

Then I walked to the fantasy section of the store, nodded at all the covers facing me and eyerolled my way the fuck outta there. I shuffled around the mall a while longer and eventually got my computer back. I spent the time shooting the shit with Apple Gordo, as you're obliged to do while he's explaining things tediously like "what turning the computer on means," and I brought up books and genre interests enough to get him to talk to me about his. I was pulling away from the counter with the now non-fucked laptop and got an idea and stopped asked him (in an admittedly less gutsy and more wheedling and roundabout way that broke down to this):
"Hey, man, out of curiosity, is Piers Anthony the bomb or what?"
Anyway, everything was fine with my laptop, and I went home, but nobody really gives a shit about that anymore.