Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Maybe I Should Steal Wavy Gravy's Identity

I'm worried that I'm not smart enough to live my life anymore. I started worrying because I realized that I didn't know everything I needed to know to live my life.

Didn't you think that as an adult, the kinds of tests you faced as a kid were over? You know the tests, the ones that ask you things that you'll never need to know? As a grown-up, we face all kinds of tests every day, tests that really cause us to show the world what we are made of. Tests like "Can I make it through the day on just 1 bowl of Honeycombs?" Or "Can I tilt my computer screen just enough so that nobody else in the office can see that I actually spend most of my day blogging and reading Peanuts' comics online?" Really the same kind of tests that our pioneer forefathers faced.

Those tests, as tough as they are, are preferable to the boring old kind of tests that we faced in school, tests that wanted to know things like "When did the Civil War start and end?" (Answer: It is what it is.) The Civil War was a popular subject for tests when I was a kid. Even more popular was "The Gilded Age." Remember "The Gilded Age," with robber barons and Mark Twain and Rutherford B. Hayes? I sure remember it, because every history class I've ever taken focused primarily on The Gilded Age. Here's how a year's worth of history broke down for me:

Revolutionary War and founding of America: 1 week.
Thomas Jefferson through Andrew Jackson: 1 week.
The run-up to the Civil War: 1 week.
The Civil War: 2 days.
The Gilded Age: October through April.
1900-1939: 1 week.
World War II to present: 2 days.
The 1960s: 2 1/2 weeks.

It gave me sort of a warped view of American history, one in which our founding fathers were roughly equal in importance to Wavy Gravy. That's what you get when Baby Boomers teach you from textbooks printed in 1921.

Nowadays, I've learned, kids don't even take tests anymore. What they do is watch press conferences in which Brett Favre retires. That's what my kids were doing last week in high school. The school showed the press conference. Live. The school motto should be: Preparing the leaders of tomorrow. For unemployment.

I thought I was done with tests of knowledge that can't help me, though. I thought I'd never need to do that again. Until all these e-commerce and internet websites came up with all kinds of tests that I have to pass to check my email or leave a comment or get my credit report.

It was bad enough with passwords and those scrambled letters. The little test for posting to this blog, for example, uses scrambled, mangled letters that I have to retype. And I never get it right the first time because to me, a loopy, twisted "h" could be an "n," making me guess which it is, and I'm always wrong.

But that procedure is preferable to the new test some sites use, making me answer a question like "How many days are in October," or "If Alice sells six candy bars and makes $6, how much did each one cost?" What makes that so hard is that I've subcontracted out my thinking to the Internet -- I no longer bother to know or remember things; I just look them up. When I can't think of the title of a song, or want to know what my schedule is next week, 0r need to call Sweetie, I don't search my memory. My memory is full of things like the lyrics to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." I can't hold useful knowledge in there; I go look it up. But if I can't get onto my computer to look it up, then what do I do?

But I'd rather take a million of those tests then the even-worse wrinkle I found recently. I had to check my credit report, and, of course, they have test questions because everyone is worried about identity theft.

I, by the way, do not worry about identity theft. I owe a zillion dollars in student loans. If you want to steal my identity, go ahead. I'll let you know where to send the payments.

I've never checked my credit report before, so I did not expect the test and, when I began taking it, I didn't know how they came up with the test questions and answers in the first place. But there they were. I passed "What was the street you grew up on?" and I passed "Who was your prior employer?" Then I got this:

What is your favorite restaurant?

That threw me. First of all, what would they base that on? Nobody from a credit reporting agency called me to ask me that. Were they judging by credit cards I used at restaurants? Had they called my friends? Did Sweetie tip them off? Can spy satellites track me that closely? And what time frame were we talking, here? Over my lifetime? Over the past year? When I lived in Washington, D.C. and would stop and get chili cheese fries on the way home from work?

But more importantly, what if I answered truthfully? Would they look down on me? Because the answer, quite truthfully, is McDonald's. So I tried that, and it told me I was wrong.

That's right: my credit report said I did not know what my favorite restaurant was. I couldn't check my credit (and I still can't.) But more startling than that was that I didn't, apparently, know enough about me to convince a stranger that I really am me.

I don't know what to make of that. I'd rather they asked about The Gilded Age. That I can handle. As long as they don't scramble the letters.

P.S. It took me three tries to post this because "U" looks a lot like "V" on that test.