"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Existential Curse Of Numbers–Can We Ever Prove Who We Are?

“I am not just a number”, shouted Herb Blakely into his phone, exasperated, angry, and frustrated at having to enter his birthdate, account and PIN numbers, address, telephone, and credit card information. A computer glitch had invalidated his old account profiles, and his bank politely but urgently reminded him that he had to update his personal account profiles or recurring charges would be invalidated.  After five calls, two hours on hold, and bad connections to call centers in the Philippines, he hit the wall.  “Not again”, he yelled.  “Please God, not again”.

Twenty years ago Herb had been hacked by a sophisticated Nigerian fraud ring.  They had stolen his name, address, and Social Security number, and had gained access to all his credit information at Equifax and two other principal credit bureaus operating in the Washington area.  The Nigerians had run up thousand of dollars in fraudulent debt at furniture stores, restaurants, airlines, and low-end discount chains.  What he thought would be a simple matter – informing the credit bureaus that it wasn’t he who made the purchases – wasn’t so easy.  In fact it was an existential nightmare.

Nigerian credit fraud


“How do we know who you are”, said Marshall’s Furniture, “and that you didn’t make these purchases?”  How indeed, since someone using his name, address, social security number, and driver’s license – all valid and up-to-date – had bought beds, end-tables, lamps, and buffets and charged them to a credit card approved by United Bank of Memphis.

If it wasn’t bad enough that he now had a D- credit rating and would be unable to refinance his house, buy a car, or secure a college loan for his daughter, a Nigerian Herbert Blakely – a black African doppelgänger was driving the Beltway, eating at the Chesapeake Bay Crab House, buying stoves and refrigerators from Springfield discount outlets, and buying cases of malt liquor and schnapps at Central Liquor. It was profoundly unsettling and tacky.

Worst of all, there seemed to be no way to prove that the Nigerian Herbert Blakely was an imposter.  His numbers aligned correctly. No one at Potomac Mills, Best Buy, or Radio Shack had any reason to ask questions. If there was no way to prove that he – the real Herbert Blakely – was who he said he was; then what did identity mean? His poor mother and father were dead and buried and could not attest to his legitimacy; and even if they were able to testify, what evidence could they produce that confirmed their claim?” Philip Babatunde, aka, Herbert Blakely had a birth certificate, archival records, and even a voting registration card to counter any challenge.

“Who am I, then?”, Herbert asked. Does only my mother know for sure? And while we’re at it, how can I believe her?”

Herbert howled again at the phone, yelling at the tinkling canned on-hold music, the treacly recorded voice telling him that the company appreciated his patience and valued him as a customer.

Alone in his room, seemingly perpetually on hold, and remembering the profound existential angst of years ago, Herbert started to cry.  At first it was only choked sobs and a stray tear running down his cheek; but soon his anguish became a wail – a painful, inconsolable, soul-wracking release of years of frustration and pain.

At that moment, devoid of any human voice, attended only by disembodied, recorded Filipinos, trapped in a nightmare of numbers, codes, PINs, and validating documentation, he lost it.  He could not longer focus, make sense, think logically, or even right himself as he stood up and looked at the stairs.

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“I have to move to Montana”, he said before making his way to the kitchen, the Stoli, and bed.

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Most of us deal with the especially dehumanizing aspects of modern life with far more equanimity than Herbert Blakely.  We re-enter our passwords, change them when security has been breached, update our account information, and upgrade our software to make navigating the numbers easier and less time-consuming.  “Think of it as a broken wheel on the buckboard”, his wife had said, trying to calm him and allay his concerns. “Assess the damage, bring it to a wheelwright, get it fixed, and continue on to Shawnee Mission Junction.”

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Neither her blandishments nor consolations worked.  Not only were the wheels to the buckboard damaged, they had all come off.  He was left alone, helpless, and painfully solitary on the North Dakota plains.

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In his own strangled, inarticulate way Herb Blakely sounded a clarion call which few of us heard; or if we did paid no attention to.  We were being deprived – robbed – of our identity,dignity, and personal identity without a whimper. We so love our cookies that we happily give up our privacy to Amazon, Netflix, ATT, and United Bank. We get only a token and totally pro-forma acknowledgement of our abject submission. “Here are some titles that other Amazon users like you have purchased recently” is a statement of community, sharing, and commonality. We are duped, tricked, and corralled; and we go happily to the pen.

Image result for images amazon.com logo

In his hysterical imaginings Herb Blakely thought of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Wordsworth’s Mont Blanc, Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams’ wilderness; the frontier, the plains, Remington’s Indians, Watteau, and the Himalayan retreats of Hindu holy men.

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“What are you doing up there?”, shouted his wife from the kitchen. “Dinner’s almost ready”; and with that, Herbert straightened the papers on his desk, dimmed the screen on his Lenovo, and went downstairs. Once again he had been lassoed by practicality and common sense.  He was making a mountain out of a molehill, his wife had admonished. “You’ll drive yourself crazy with this nonsense”.

So once again, Herbert was pulled back from the brink.  One day he would do it, walk out from his Chevy Chase rambler, away from his wife’s nettling insistence on propriety and good sense, and out of the clutches of encroaching NUMBERS; but not today.

The next morning, as mornings will have it, his mind was clear, untroubled, and without the panicked flee-response of the previous evening. Herbert was well-socialized and he knew it.  Existential angst was a luxury, a pastime, and a useless waste of intellectual energy. “Deal with it”, his wife said when he moaned and groaned at the hopelessness of it all. “It’s only Amazon, for Christ’s sake”.

“Have a cuppa”, an English wife would have said years ago. “We survived the Blitz, didn’t we?”.  Your anguish is not existential at all but self-pitying and selfish. Get over it.

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I was always far more sympathetic to Herbert Blakely’s plight than most. I  have always realized how fragile are our underpinnings and our claim to existence let alone fame. The only thing that separated him from me and thousands of others is that tenuous, scrim-like screen between practical reality and existential reality.  I understood how he felt unmanned, dehumanized, socially castrated, and personally neutered; but I was brought up to muddle through, to seek justification through logical means, and to accept the hand of cards I was dealt.

I lost track of Herb Blakely after our Fiftieth Yale Reunion.  He seemed morose, distracted, and ill.  In fact I was surprised he even came at all.  It is an admirable thing to grapple with existential questions at age 72 when most of us are retiring to the Caribbean or the Tidewater.  No one should ever accuse Herb Blakely of hysteria or irrationality.  He was the sanest member of our class.

Image result for images logo yale university

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