It was an innocuous day. Bright, a touch chilly for Arizona in December, but I knew it would warm up as the sun rose over the mountains. The dry Sonoran Desert air was still, but not unpleasantly so. I opened the door to the casita where we were staying, startling a bobcat hanging out near the walkway who was getting ready to harass a bunch of birds. He (or maybe she), having no interest in me except for my rudeness at interrupting breakfast, turned around and trotted off up the path towards browner pastures.
My two-week vacation was drawing to a close. Reemergence from doing not much of anything was only days away. Although, to be honest, I was well and truly tired of my finite wardrobe, half of which was too light for the climate, the other half too heavy. No sartorial Goldilocks moment to be had. I was quite ready for a more expansive closet. So, with my morning walk complete, cup of tea at my elbow, I convinced myself to brave my email. I logged into my Outlook account, averting my eyes from the neglected inbox. This is when I recalled a lesson I internalized long ago: I am not that important. Spoiler alert, dear reader. It turns out I am that important. At least in cyberspace.
I quickly scanned the messages lying like roadkill on my personal mile of the information highway, and decided this was not the day to correspond with my correspondents. Tomorrow is another day. And, indeed it was.
No bobcat the next morning, as I took my daybreak constitutional. Just bunnies with lovely little white cottontails, from which I am sure, the bobcat and his kin would make rabbit carpaccio for dinner. I returned to my desert enclave and repeated my morning routine of the previous day. Shower. Tea. Outlook. At which point, everything went sideways.
When I logged in, a message popped up from Microsoft. “We detected an unauthorized login,” it said. “Please supply us with an alternate email account so we can send you instructions.” Luckily, like most people, I do have another email address. I do not use this to hide my identity or conduct money laundering. I swear. Anyhow, I reluctantly gave an entity I hoped was a valid emissary of Bill Gates the requested information.
The scene now changes to my alternate internet coordinates. Indeed, there was an email waiting there. This is what it said. “We have detected you have logged in from a different location.” Yes, that would be Arizona. It went on. “We have blocked your email account. To reactivate your account, you need to complete three simple steps. First, please tell us the last three passwords you have used.”
Seriously? I can barely remember my existing password. And this was beginning to sound a little fishy. Since when are you supposed to tell anyone your password? I fudged it with fake passwords. Make my day, Microsoft.
Next step. “Please answer your security question. What is the name of your cat?” Most right thinking people would not think I am, strictly speaking, a cat lady, but I have had many dead cats over my life time (just to clarify, they were not dead to start with and I was only tangentially implicated in most of their deaths), and at this moment have two cats who are somewhere south of their ninth life. In all, there could be eight possible options for the answer. Which one would I have selected? Your guess is as good as mine. And as it turns out, my guess was exactly as good as yours.
“Please tell us the subject lines of the last five email messages you have sent, and the addresses to which you have sent them (actually, they did not use ‘to which’ in that phrasing, I am editorializing). Just so you know, I did not fall off the cabbage truck yesterday. I fell off that truck many years ago. This whole thing seemed a little suspect. Okay, you who are purporting to be from Microsoft, you want me to tell you the email addresses of other people. And the nature of our correspondence. And of course, I would be totally willing to do that to gain access to my benign yet somehow also extremely urgent unread email messages. There was one small problem. I could not get access to my email account to find out which messages I might have sent lately, nor to whom, nor on which subject.
But then I remembered. I had been corresponding with some authors for the website I edit. I did not remember their email coordinates per se, but could find their author websites. I went to one of the cyber-addresses that had a “contact me” link. I clicked, and suddenly, magically, got connected to an Outlook email address. My own. So much for email jail security. I now had access to all of the secrets Microsoft was in search of: names, dates, places, circumstances, and every last detail of what I needed to know to get out of this. I whipped out the tiny pad of paper supplied by the hotel, and transcribed all the details in longhand. Fighting cyber fire with analogue fire. This had better not be a scam.
With fingers and legs crossed, I tried to get back into my locked Outlook account. “You have not authenticated yourself,” it said. “You may try again in twenty-four hours. If you can’t even figure out which dead or living cat is in our database, no email for you!” Okay, maybe it didn’t say exactly that, but really, another twenty-four hours? Multiply that by the number of possible cat answers and I would be home for a week before I got back into my email.
I channeled my inner Las Vegas slot machine addict, as I whacked the security question mole four more times until Outlook threw up its hands and said, “Your email address is dead to us. You are dead to us. Your dead cats are dead to us.” But now, it was time to head home. I loaded my laptop into my knapsack, packed my ill-conceived wardrobe, and made my way to the airport. Only twenty-four hours until email jail parole. Maybe.
Plane took off. Plane landed. So far so good. I made my way home. I waited a respectful period of time, as long as it took to take off my coat and feed the cats, until I booted up my laptop and logged into Outlook. “There you are!” it said. “Somebody thought you were in Arizona. What was that all about? Don’t worry. We didn’t let anybody steal that special your gym was having on green juice. And you are now totally free to connect with that person from Nigeria who wants to give you $10 million. Let us know how that works out.”
Which leaves me safe in the knowledge that I really am that important to you, Outlook, and that you miss me when I’m gone. Someone has to.