Sunday, November 30, 2008

I'm a Little Teapot, Short and Existentially Insignificant

My teapot is cheap. I bought it, a prissy cup and a prissier saucer at Kitchen & More for 11.99. It’s glazed a creepy burnt brown. You might see something similar gathering dust in your grandmother’s cupboards.

Believe it or not, the teapot was a last resort. It was my way of restoring a semblance of order to what was at time-of-teapot a chaotic, unjust world. The day before, my 360 had gone tits-up, pulling the now-famous“RROD,” or Red Ring Of Death, the console’s way of telling you that something has gone horribly, irreparably wrong within its guts. Whatever you had planned on doing, well, sorry – go outside. Read a book.

In my case, I was planning on playing Fallout 3, which my little brother had bought me as a belated birthday present. The Action RPG has been very much my slice of pie since playing System Shock 2 – which, so far as milestones go, is up there with learning how to ride a bike. I settled into my desk chair, popped open the tray, and submitted the disc for the 360’s consideration. RROD.

Living with modern technology is an exercise in existential smallness. When a game crashes, glitches, feeds you an error message so long and foreign it might as well be Sanskrit, or otherwise denies you the service desired, you know that you were foolish to expect anything else (PC gamers are especially familiar with this). You sigh, recognize your order on the totem pole as the lowly, bottom-feeding consumer, and reload the last checkpoint. If the problem is fatal, you haggle for a refund or enter the labyrinth of customer support.

My 360 was approaching its 3-year birthday. It was tacky from soda spills, and occasionally mishandled the disc so it ground like a buzzsaw against the CD tray. I glumly realized that repairs would probably be cheaper than buying a new console, so I dialed up Customer Support.

Before I go on: Microsoft’s Customer Support was leagues better than EA’s, which has caused me to break out into a sweat, chew my nails down to bloody stubs and pour a drink at 2:45 p.m.

The bass thrum and shivering whiiirp of the 360 power-up came through the receiver, which seemed especially cruel – anyone calling this number wasn’t hearing that sound, and wouldn’t be for a while. A robot named Max coaxed me through triage, determining what system I had, what was wrong with it, blithely ignoring my repeated pressing of “0” or my requests to “speak to a human fucking being, please.”

Eventually I proved too much for Max to handle, and was passed on to a Sri Lankan with the unlikely name of Chris.

“May I call you Rob?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, feeling better already.

After some ownership shuffling (the console was registered under my brother, who had no desire to help in its mending), Chris told me that my system was still under the generous 3-year warranty, though just barely. He would email me my shipping label – what was my email address? I heard the chatter of keys, and then silence. Chris was gone. The call had been dropped, either on my end or his.

Again I called, again I brushed past Max, and landed in the disembodied hands of getting a woman of indeterminate nationality. May she call me Rob? Yes, she may. I explained my situation, explained that I already had a repair order open, and what should I do now? She would need to cancel it, she said, and if I would give her a second to do that? Sure, I said. I was listening to a thrash-metal version of the Halo theme when I dropped the pen I was twirling between my fingers. When I bent to pick it up, my jawbone hit the “end call” button. Beep. Gone.

My forehead became hot and dewy. I felt that old spine-tingle of I-Have-No-Mouth-But-I-Must-Scream terror. I called again. Whiirp. Max. Sri Lanka, or Malaysia, or Calcutta: MayIcallyouRob? After asking me all the standard questions, I explained that I hadn’t gotten any email, that the goddamned system was in a box, waiting to be whisked away to Mesquite, Texas and its free repair job. Hell, at this point, I was willing to pay – if a good, old-fashioned bribe couldn’t set this straight, I was truly and bluely fucked. After a long pause, the voice on the other end nervously explained that their systems were presently offline. You should call back in two, three hours, he said. Sorry.

An hour later, with the headache ebbing out of my skull and the ringing noise fading from my ears, I had an ugly teapot, squatting among the torn butcher paper they wrapped it in. I worked on a pot of Earl Grey, sipping gingerly and stepping from room to room to make sure there were no dead bodies. I felt a little disoriented. I could have done anything, really.

The story has a happy ending: the 360 is currently on its way to Texas, and in two-to-three-weeks, I should be carving my happy little warpath through post-nuclear Washington, D.C. And I suppose it’s healthy to be reminded of your insignificance, from time to time. I’m sure I’ll keep on numbly transacting, exchanging my vital statistics for the hope of service, until Microsoft delivers a flawless product.

Until then, I’ll pour myself a cup of tea and smile into the RROD.