Saturday, December 29, 2007

Going to Graceland

I just came back from a trip to Memphis. It was my second visit to the flat city on the Mississippi River. The city has wonderful barbecue, which I ate, and a dreary airport, at which my flight from Minneapolis landed. Brad’s mom picked us up and drove us to the family home in Germantown, a pleasant suburb of shopping malls and gated communities built around a charming small town.

It was Christmas Eve. Houses were decked in bulbs and wreaths. But the streets were quiet with anticipation.

A Christmas Day surprise. Christmas is so predictable for many people. Awake, they wander downstairs to the living room, pour a big glass of eggnog, and start to open the wonderful gifts that Santa brought. The Christmas tree aglow, tiny bulbs cast a soothing light on the boxes taped in red and gold. For the Jew in me, it’s always been just another dreary day when everything is closed so you have to go see a movie. But this was my second year of enjoying the Christmas spirit, filled with coffee cake treats and gifts to be revealed.

After a few hours of unwrapping and warm thank yous, we retreated to a Christmas dinner with corn pudding and turkey and stuffing and cranberry Jell-O mold. It felt like a second Thanksgiving. It was wonderful. Then I wandered upstairs for a short tryptophan nap. Later in the afternoon, we went to see the film Juno, and then returned home for a lazy evening.

Asleep for an hour, I was told to wake up! We were headed to Graceland. Just after Midnight, I pulled on my jeans and the same shirt I wore all day, wrapped myself in my red vest and got into the truck. After an hour on the road, driving by shuttered shopping centers and dozing Starbucks, passing sleepy houses along the quiet road, we arrived. I sent a couple of emails along the way from the back seat of the Toyota pickup.

We arrived about 1:30 in the morning: Graceland Nursing Home, Oxford, Mississippi. It was quiet, but the lights were on. We rang the bell and peered down the hallway behind the glass door, watching from outside in the frosty Mississippi air as a blonde woman in a brown nursing uniform — a small speck in the distance — slowly lumbered toward us. From the other end of the long, dim hallway to her arrival at the front door easily took two minutes. We followed her back and into the room where Brad’s grandmother had been alive only an hour earlier.

I see dead people. A dead woman lay there. Later, I told Brad that she didn’t look so good. That she looked very, very dead.

I had met her a year ago. Although she had been very feeble at the time, and barely knew who her own grandson was, she was polite and offered me a warm hello. This time, her face was as white as her hair, her mouth was frozen in the shape of an egg, and her thin body was draped with a red nursing home-issued acrylic blanket.

I remember seeing my own grandmother when she died many years ago. She, too, looked like a sack. But she had been a robust, loving, funny person. She had managed the Thriftique, the store operated by the Cleveland Council of Jewish Women. She walked to work everyday, made amazing stuffed cabbage, told stories about the people she knew and the experiences she had, bargain shopped at Bernie Schulman’s, and lavished her grandchildren with gifts and food and unconditional love. She also snuck cigarettes, had heart attacks, ate fatty foods, and died of kidney failure. Being in the hospital waiting for her to die had been a horrible experience. And once she died, her body in the hospital bed, if I hadn’t known who she once had been, to me she would have been only a waxy encasement, mouth open, eyes closed. I knew, looking at Brad’s grandmother under the red blanket, she had been much more than a body.

The funeral director drove in from Tupelo and spent some time chatting with Brad’s mother and telling her about making funeral arrangements. And then we asked the late-night nursing staff for some trash bags. They returned with a handful of heavy duty Hefty’s, dark orange, like cinnamony pumpkin pie. We pulled clothes — housecoats, old pantsuits, dresses, undergarments — off the hangers and stuffed them into the bags, along with shoes, teddy bears and random holiday decorative items that we found in the closet.
I pulled down the photos of relatives, mostly people I’d never met, and set them in a box. The snapshots were taken at various stages of her life and their lives. In some of them, she was with grandchildren and nieces and friends. All reminders of a life that was filled with meaningful interactions. And now she was lying in a hospital bed, dead, with her family around her pulling down her last possessions and putting them into trash bags at 2:30 in the morning.

The funeral director asked us if we might step out of the room so he could get her ready. While we stood in the hall, he moved her to a gurney and covered her body in a furry red dead-person body cover with the name of the funeral home embroidered on the side. Then he wheeled her away. We walked back to the parking lot and returned to Memphis, and I hopped back into bed again before 4:30 AM.

I’m glad I had the chance to meet Mary Wells in 2006. I won’t remember her like this. And I know Brad and his family won’t remember her like this either. On Christmas night, she vacated her body and moved on. Hopefully, far from the dreariness of the nursing home with its hallways and smoking lounge and attendants who looked like they’d rather be sweeping the aisles of Wal-Mart than the bathrooms of Graceland where residents pee and miss the toilet.

Already, I think she’s closer to being the woman she once was. The family came into town two days later to relish memories they had of much better times and of a grandmother who was a special person to all of them.

I don’t think of my own grandmother as the cold body in the hospital bed. I still think of her as a warm spirit who added so much to my life and, in many ways, made me the person I am today.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All about food

Food. I feel like thinking about food at the moment. Not that I’m particularly hungry, but that I need to reflect on what I’ve been shoveling into my body. I suppose it’s the first step toward developing a resolution or two for the New Year. And I just returned from the airplane lavatory, so I’m going to think back on the foods I’ve eaten lately, in reverse order, to imagine how I’d be feeling if they were not inside of my body. This is where things get momentarily crude and if you prefer a dainty read, then I suggest you skip a couple of paragraphs. Not that there’s anything wrong with natural human body functions, of course.

It feels so great to go to the bathroom on an airplane. Not just one of the ten pee breaks to be taken during a five-hour flight, but having your once-a-day special seating way up in the air somewhere over Nebraska.

You know how it is. The plane takes off and the air pressure changes. You get that horrible bloaty feeling all over: the kind that doesn’t just remain in your stomach but oozes into your extremities. Your calves feel like they’ve expanded; your head feels packed with Charmin. It’s always worse if you eat prunes for breakfast. Although very few options exist to remedy the change in altitude, expulsion is an option. Nose blowing and ear popping only go so far. Sometimes, you just need to just need to take a crap (And then, please unhook the air freshening gel from the little holster above the toilet and hold it directly in front of the air vent for 15 seconds. I recognize it will smell like an old lady’s powder room, but it provides a sense of Febreze-like freshness for the incoming passenger).

I, personally, don’t know what happens when one poos in space. I mean, perhaps it stays in a bucket under that forceful blue flush, but I’ve heard stories about big chunks of bluish ice (and the attached chunklets) dropping into chimneys, crashing into McDonald’s, and damaging elementary school gyms.

I digress. Working backwards with food here….. Before slipping into the lavatory, I indulged in an in-flight delicacy. Brad is sitting next to me and we ate our delicious United Airlines snack boxes. He got the smartpack and I opted for the minimeal. That means I ate potato chips, cheese spread, applesauce, crackers, pretzels, Milano cookies, and pepperoni. If you think about it all being squished into a big ball, it’s completely gross. He nibbled at granola, pears, bagel chips, sour apple sugarless mints and Cashew Roca. Okay? Who the hell is packing these things? And why have United’s snack boxes been proclaimed the best and healthiest food in the domestic sky? Anyway, it’s too soon for any of that to have made it into the deposit I just left 37,000 feet above Omaha.

Let’s just imagine I’d avoided the snack box. Then I’d still have raisin bran sliding around in my gut from breakfast this morning. That was on top of the midnight snack of a reuben sandwich that made its way into my belly. I still feel a little Thousand Island dressing sticking to my esophagus.* The late night snack was courtesy of United Airlines. They offered seven dollars in food and a room at the Comfort Inn due to an aircraft mechanical problem and flight staff that essentially timed out. During the time spent waiting through the updates from staff and the gate changes, I snarfed down about one-third of a garlicky Caesar salad (or what passes for one) from the Corner Bakery “To Go” at O’Hare’s Concourse C.

After a day off in Chicago, I’d like to think it was only travel-oriented food that was gross. But it wasn’t. I will say, if we could remove all of the food I just described, that would be great. If that were the case, then the last thing in my stomach would have been the chocolate pecan pie from Frontera Grill. Can you believe I hesitated ordering it, deciding I only really wanted the flan-topped chocolate cake with cajeta? Well now I will go buy Rick Bayless’ cookbook and make that pie happen in my own home. Perhaps every week. The sweet completed a bright culinary experience in an otherwise bleak food week.

The previous night, dinner had been at Tomboy, an Andersonville Lesbian-ish restaurant. I ordered a server-recommended tilapia in pumpkin sauce. Hmmm. Next time I crave that dish, I’m headed to the Canned Foods Grocery Outlet store for a bucket of 79-cent pumpkin pie filling and a $1.99 piece of past-dated fish. I’ll just lay the fish on some mashed potatoes and spinach and dump the pumpkiny goop all over. Lesbians! I’m hoping that my recent lavatory visit was the completion of my body’s experience with that fish. Would I call it the worst dish I’ve had in a year? Easily.

Here’s the deal: If I had avoided this trip to the Midwest, the last thing in my body would have been a bit of arugula, gnocchi and chocolate-coconut ice cream made with coconut milk. Good San Francisco food. I would have sadly missed Frontera Grill’s crunchy ceviche, smoked mahi mahi tacos and mole-doused enchiladas (and the tamarind margarita with chipotle peppers and sugar on the rim, which our gracious server shook precisely 50 times). But I also would have missed a bleak salad at Culver’s “Home of the ButterBurger” and horrid chicken blobs from O’Hare’s Man-Chu Wok.

A clean colon. I’m on my way home and looking forward to a fresh food start in 2008. I will try to eat better food this New Year. I will think about what the inside of my stomach looks like as the cheese and chocolate mix with turkey burgers, Flamin’ Hot Doritos, pudding, Flax cereal, cranberry juice, dried apricots, and Meyer lemon ginger cookies. A big mound of pinkish gelatinous opaque meat-like goo with assorted chunks and stomach acid. But first, I will head to Memphis for a few days for lots of barbecue, caramel cake, and fried catfish.

*That reminds me that when my friend Viet turned 21, he felt so grown up he went to the bar and ordered a thousand island iced tea.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dumpy hotels

Lodging. I’m somewhat picky when it comes to hotels. Can you believe it? And if I'm displeased by a lodging establishment, as you read when I stayed at the Squire Tarbox and the Western Inn Express, I make sure I share my disappointment. I want to protect others from staying in disagreeable surroundings. Let’s say it’s my mission.

So I just thought I’d share some of my latest best picks and worst picks. You can read the reviews of many of them on Trip Advisor, a swell site packed with reviews of accommodations by particular people, like me, and people who are willing to sleep in just about anything.

One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out on the Trip Advisor web site is how many fake reviews exist. I think there are gazillions of them. For example, when I stayed in the Robin Hood Resort in Big Bear Lake, Calif., I made my decision to stay there based on the high rating of the place. But after I stayed there and realized it didn’t pass muster, I went back over the Trip Advisor reviews and determined the bulk of them were fakes. They all rave about the place and recommend that visitors eat at the sorry little restaurant downstairs called Nottingham’s. If you look at the Shoreline Inn at Terrace Point, in Muskegon, Mich., you’ll find the same thing. You can tell the owners have been desperate to turn around the poor reputations that are being advanced by people like me just trying to tell the truth. Same with the Priory in Pittsburgh, where I stayed the last few days, only to find a quaint bed and breakfast (I hate bed and breakfasts!) with tacky fixtures and shabby interiors.

Sure. If I owned a hotel, I would probably tell my friends to come and stay at my inn and write a rave review on Trip Advisor. “Be sure to mention that the host is wonderfully charming.” “Tell them the beds are ultra-plush: the most comfortable you’ve ever slept in.” “Tell them that the restaurant on the ground floor, Joey Goldman’s Delicatessen is far better than Zingerman’s or Katzinger’s.” And so the Trip Advisor review would sound like all of the fakes (minor grammatical gaffes intended):

    Joey Goldman’s Hotel is the very nicest in all of San Francisco. You’ve got to stay hear! Its conveniently located in the safest and most exciting neighborhood in Frisco. Stay nowhere else! The host, Joey Goldman, is the nicest person Ive ever met and he made us feel oh so welcome. He was always so genuine and upbeat. He wouldn’t hurt a fly! Their was even a complimentary box of wine when we arrived.

    The beds were like sleeping on spun honey, with 1000-thread sheets, nicer but remarkably similar in color to the ones they sell at TJ Maxx. The bathroom amenities were superb, all with a patchouli-catnip fragrance – very classy if you ask me.

    Be sure to eat at Joey Goldman’s Delicatessen. Their borscht soup is the bestest I’ve ever tasted.

    I know next time I’m in San Francisco, I will definitely stay at Joey Goldman’s Hotel.

I’ve gotten better at combing through all of the fakes and realizing which are genuine. The fakes will never mention lousy internet service, the sound of belching from the room next door, surly staff, moldy tiles. They will never tout the joys of eating stale Fruit Hoops (yes, the generic variety of the cereal) at the complimentary breakfast bar.

It’s not much fun to review decent hotels. I mean, it’s cool to give four stars to a nice place, but three-star hotels are kind of dull. I realized, with some input from Brad, that I tended more toward reviewing the hotels that suck like Splenda. But I’m not too negative. A lodging establishment would have to be unspeakably bad for me to assign it a lonely single star. It would have to be an out-of-this world experience to get the official Joey five-star rating.

Let me know if you need your hotel reviewed. For a price, I might be willing to go to five stars (just kidding, Trip Advisor). For now, I sincerely recommend you do not stay at the places where I wouldn’t stay. I know what you like and what you don’t like. Believe me.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pittsburgh: many returns

It’s a very pretty city. The quintessential American city. As you exit the tunnel, the Monongahela River appears before you, you are ringed by lush hills and the angled skyline glistens in front of you. Downtown Pittsburgh is alive, the streets filled with buses and people jay-walking. CVS and Rite Aid stores coexist at every other corner, alongside bulletins promoting upcoming performances by Kenny G.

I was quite excited to begin a new project in Pittsburgh. It would be a good excuse to see my relatives in suburban Murrysville and give my skin a bit of wintertime exposure that I miss in San Francisco.

Exploring. My colleagues and I had good meetings with transit staff and hit the road to explore our new project area. We toured the city’s incredible busways and whisper-quiet light rail lines. Our guides took us to the tops of hills and the bottoms of valleys all on the buses of the Port Authority. We saw streetcar neighborhoods with an exciting blend of cafes and gift shops. And cupcake spots.

Next time I'm in Pittsburgh, I want to go back here, in Squirrel Hill.

We spent a few days seeing what Allegheny County offers. But each day I saw communities that were less and less impressive: crumbling mill towns with boarded up shops, decaying homes, empty lots and dreary shopping centers puffing their last breaths. I suppose I shouldn’t say they weren’t impressive, because they were impressive in the sense that they were depressive. I saw beautiful row houses that would be valued at three-quarters of a million dollars in even the lowliest of San Francisco neighborhoods, selling for $5,000 each. And because nobody will buy them, they languish until the owners eventually give up, pick up some plywood scrap from the nearby lots to hammer to the window frames and door frames, officially relinquishing them to the welcoming arms of decay.

My impressions of Pittsburgh dulled as I saw more and more of the landscape. From the mill towns along the river to the down-and-out Hill District, attractive neighborhoods abut horrible neighborhoods that are being bulldozed by the day. Some of Pittsburgh looks just as bad as New Orleans, if not worse. And it’s sad because it has so much potential to be so nice. We got off one bus that simply loops around a hilltop neighborhood of housing projects and I heard a young woman say to her companion, “What are those white people doing getting off that bus. I ain’t never seen no white people on that bus.”

Pittsburgh could use more people. And more money. So here’s my offer. Can I get 20 of my closest friends to buy a $5,000 vacation home in Pittsburgh? How ‘bout a nice little row house in McKeesport? For the price of a house in San Francisco I could easily buy 150 of them. But I wouldn’t want to live there alone. Anyone want to join me?

I like Pittsburgh. And I’ll take any suggestions on what I can do to improve it.

I’ll be back often over the coming months. Maybe I’ll even go back this month. Perhaps even next week. Why not?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Now I’m old. I’ve had a few weeks to savor old age and it feels just about the same as it felt when I was almost old.

First, let me show you how old I’ve become!

I love this dress because it goes with just about everything!

Amazing, huh? It happens so quickly. One day I was a spry 39-year old guy. Suddenly, I’d become an old woman from Iowa on a tour in San Francisco. Not that there’s anything wrong with being from Iowa, touring San Francisco, or being old.

I’m trying to figure out strategies to combat oldness. I think I’ve done several anti-old things in the past few weeks:

  • Being creepy. I went out on Halloween, swinging by a couple of parties, even if I was in an old crow’s getup. I couldn’t manage to get out of character and I think people started to believe I was actually their grandmother spying on them in their whorish costumes. (Oops, that sounded old)

  • Getting on line. Some friends recently sucked me into joining Facebook. After getting pounced on by four people and having a crazy group identified with my name, but without me there, they managed to ‘guilt’ me into signing up. That seems like an anti-old thing to do.

  • Eating lots of sugar. I’ve been totally addicted lately. Old people with dementia only eat sugary things, but again that’s really old people… with dementia. Young people eat sugary things, but they also eat Chinese food and burritos. That's how I eat.

  • Going to Dollar Tree. San Francisco got its first nearby suburban Dollar Tree: that dumpy store full of crap from China that takes a buck for every purchase. Young people don’t have the money to buy their party plates at Neiman Marcus, so they go to Dollar Tree. I was probably the oldest person there.

  • Seeing The Rainmaker. I went and saw a play on a Saturday night. Okay, so that’s totally “old people.” But, I waited in line to get free tickets and sat in the very front row. That’s how non-old people see their plays.

  • Having a baby shower. Old people don’t have baby showers, unless they’re having them for their daughters and sons. We had a baby shower. That’s very thirty-something.

  • Listening to my iPod Touch and emailing people from the bus. I’m so totally hip with my portable music and total connectivity. Old people are not. I’m even choosing ringtones with my ringtone maker. Whoa-oh.

  • Having a messy house. The house has been a total wreck lately. Old people do not have messy houses. They have vases on nicely dusted doilies.

I’m sure I’ll slip up at some point and start actually behaving like an old person. That will be embarrassing and regretful, and I’m sure someone young, like my friend Jesse, will be the one to point out my oldness.

For now, I’m keeping good company.

My delightful lady friend Caroline joined me out on the town for Halloween. Her poor daughter died of feline leukemia last year.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Last Sunday at 39

I woke at six o'clock this morning and dragged myself to the shower. When I entered the bathroom, I took a moment to examine my face. It was that early morning face, with odd creases from the pillowcase pressed into my forehead. Otherwise, it was the same: eyes where they belong, nose in place, mouth there with a little dawn crust around the edges.

I don’t expect any big surprises when I peek at myself in the morning. Each day I grow accustomed to the way I look.

Back in college, I remember once looking in the mirror and taking a vow that I would never let my skin acquire an old age roughness. I would not allow small creases to find their way into the areas around my eyes or to appear on my forehead.

Looking at my face this morning, I can see I broke my promise. Some small bumps exist along with a couple of bumps on my nose I can’t seem to eradicate. Although my forehead doesn’t sport deep cracks, it has a few small lines, the same lines that have found their way to my eyes.

It’s not bad. It’s not the worst thing to look older when you are older. I confess I apply some anti-wrinkly prune face moisturizer to ‘decrease the presence of fine lines’ but I don’t want to look like I’m in my 20s. I actually still am asked for my ID sometimes, but I think that’s probably because I’m short.

I got my early start today because I had to catch a flight to Phoenix. I’m typing from 39,000 feet right now. I’ll change planes there and be off to Houston.

At the San Francisco airport, I surveyed the waiting area and saw an available chair next to an old woman talking on her cell phone, so I claimed the seat. I started sending a text message and realized I was inadvertently eavesdropping on her conversation. I was attracted to her voice, a voice of an old woman who sounded professorial. I thought a little about how our voices change as we age, perhaps a bit envious that I would never sound quite so erudite as she did when I’m an oldster. She talked about spending the day at Stanford. She mentioned her daughter and talked about having a law scholarship named after her, with an initial endowment of 1.5 million dollars.

When I overheard that, I decided I’d better take a peek at her again. So, I stood up and knelt by my suitcase to unzip a pocket. I didn’t need to get anything but I thought it would be the most discrete way to take a good look at the person sitting next to me: Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

She looked old. Spots and wrinkles. White hair pulled back in her signature hairdo. But she spoke kindly and comfortably to her agents who approached and guided her on to my flight, securing seat 2A, a window, in First Class.

I’m sitting 14 rows behind her right now, typing from US Airways Economy Class seat 16 A. I’m thinking I don’t really mind that this is my last Sunday at age 39. In the 15 minutes that I listened to her and observed her, O’Connor epitomized refinement and intelligence. I may not be as polished, nor as learned or powerful, but I can age with grace and dignity. And some anti-wrinkle cream (might as well try something).

They say aging is about doing what makes you happy, fighting for what’s important to you, and staying active. I know I have some work cut out for me, but I will do my best. And I’m having a big party next weekend, being thrown for me by Brad, Mark, my mother and others, which both thrills and embarrasses me.

Enough of this talk. Now I’ll look more closely at the cracks and crevices. Deeper and bigger. Dry. Pretty amazing.

I’m sure the Grand Canyon is even more impressive from the ground than from my window. From 39 (thousand feet, that is).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Whoa-oh-oh-oh Mexico

American tourists shop for fine jewelery at sidewalk stalls south of the border.

Baja California. I spent about 90 minutes in Mexico today. Maybe a little longer. It was the shortest trip to a foreign country I've ever made. It wasn't glamorous Acapulco or silvery Taxco or even shabby-chic Tijuana. It was the capital city of Baja California: Mexicali.

This building seems to be missing something: the rest of the upstairs.

Considering I've been interacting with Mexicali residents all day at meetings in El Centro and Calexico, it seemed worthwhile to check out their place of residence.

Note to self: don't take bus photos in the middle of the street!

I don't have much to say about my visit, but offer just these few quick snapshots not sanctioned by the Mexicali Tourist Board.

It seems like an "after" photo might increase sales. Or is this the "after" photo?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Engaging in engaging conversation

Taking off. I was on a quick flight down to LA, sitting next to my friend and colleague, Linda, who was taking a nap. I had been sitting, peering out the window from seat 11F, at the clouds below. Finally, the sun crept above the layer of gray.

Sitting on a plane, while a robust conversation is going on, gives one an opportunity to eavesdrop. The guy on the other side of Linda talked on his cell phone before takeoff about being out of the country most of the next few months. “I’ll be out of the country more than I’ll be in it during the next semester,” he said. He flipped through a Lonely Planet travel guidebook on the Arabian Peninsula. It was a boring conversation to overhear.

Much more interesting, due to the star power, but almost as dull was the conversation that took place between the French couple seated in12E and 12F and the man seated next to them in seat 12D. The man was wearing a turquoise string tie and a fleece vest embroidered with an acronym I couldn’t figure out. He introduced himself to the French duo when he sat down, clearly annunciating his name as Brian Schweitzer, the Governor of Montana. He made a quick joke, “Schweitzer, not Schwarzenegger,” perhaps to emphasize to the couple that indeed they were having the honor of sitting next to the actual governor of Montana. They smiled and nodded.

He asked them about themselves and they responded that they own a French restaurant in Palm Desert. Governor Schweitzer talked about how his ancestors were originally from France, but moved to Ukraine to farm before escaping the pogroms and moving to Montana. Just listening to him interact, I could tell he was a very outgoing, affable guy. I would imagine those are the characteristics one should possess to be a governor. He asked the couple several questions about themselves, to which they provided answers. He suggested they market their restaurant to French-speaking Canadians, selling them on the fact that they could visit Palm Desert and speak their own language. He lamented the US Dollar’s demise and the favorable exchange rate that Canadians can now enjoy when they patronize US businesses.

What I found very weird is that the French couple didn’t ask him any questions. I mean, come on! He may not be Ben Affleck, Larry King or Liza Minnelli, but he’s still an important person and I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with him. Besides, he’s only the governor of Montana. That shouldn’t be terribly intimidating.

I suppose it could be intimidating if you crack a stupid joke, and I imagine a lot of people do. “They let you cross the state line? You chasing a moose that got away?” or “Is Montana having a state budget crisis? Is that why you’re flying in coach?” I mean, sure, say something stupid and then ask the guy a few questions. This dull couple didn’t ask him why he was going to LA. That’s a pretty basic question for anyone to ask the person sitting next to them on a plane, especially a person who seems outgoing and interested in engaging in a conversation. They didn’t ask him about Montana. Or what it’s like to be governor. Or if he would run for president. They didn’t ask him about his stand on Medicare benefits or harvesting National Forest timber. Nothing about abortion or same-sex marriage or retirement benefits, or any other issue that might possibly be of interest to them. They didn’t ask him about who he knows in the world of politics. Or if he knows Larry Craig. Or if he saw the movie Across the Universe. Instead, after a while, they let the conversation drop off and went to reading their magazines.

Maybe they were illegal immigrants. Or involved in weird covert French smuggling activities. Or maybe they were just dreary restaurant-owning French people without the ability to carry on a conversation. The governor said, “I’d love to visit your restaurant when I’m in Palm Desert next month!” They seemed rather uninterested, but the woman volunteered a business card. The governor talked about how Wolfgang Puck cooked him dinner recently and also went skiing with him (or something like that… a slight lapse in eavesdropping). They said, "Oh yes. Wolfgang Puck. He is Austrian.”

I don’t really know what I would have said if I were sitting next to him. Maybe tell him I could do a nice transit plan for the State of Montana if he wanted to hire me. Maybe ask him what it’s like to be governor. Maybe ask him where in Montana he would recommend I visit. I don’t know. Something.

Toward the end of the flight, after about 30 minutes of silence in row 12, the governor struck up another conversation with his uninteresting neighbors. Smartly, he started again on the topic of food. He said he was a rancher. He also said they have a lot of bears in Montana. He said he’d even eaten a bear: “If they’re not lying around on the ground with a disease, they’re safe to eat, but they’re very oily.” He talked about suggesting to his wife that they eat their lame mare on the ranch, an idea that insulted her and she flatly rejected (even though they send their old horses to Canada to be slaughtered for meat in France and Japan!). Now, of course, he explained he lives in the Governor’s Mansion in Helena. He makes less money as a governor than as a rancher.

Upon landing in LA, the Governor’s assistant approached and had a quick chat with him. Then he followed behind me as I got off the plane and headed up the jetway. One man, with a frazzled look, went running down the jetway back toward the plane and the governor remarked to him, “Forgot your cell phone, huh?” Then we all entered the gate area and Governor Schweitzer was greeted by two official-looking Latino men who welcomed him to Los Angeles. Their delegation walked toward the main terminal; Linda and I walked in the other direction in search of food to nourish us on a 2 ½ hour layover.

It was nice to overhear a politician who seemed to be a nice guy. I probably disagree with his politics, but it was good to eavesdrop and not be left with a bad taste in my mouth. Well, perhaps only boring French flavors.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Old ladies love drug stores

Drug stores really fascinate me. I think they represent the perfect retail business model. Let me explain.

Where do you get your diabetes medication? At the drug store, of course. And where do you get diabetes? At the drug store, the place with the largest candy collection around. With Thrifty Brand ice cream for sale. With strange "European Deluxe Collection" Bulgarian cookies and Chinese gummies.

Where do you get your high blood pressure and heart disease medication? At the drug store. And where do you get high blood pressure and heart disease? In the aisles of chips and jerky and crackers at the drug store. Or from behind the counter, where hundreds of cigarette brands are sold. Or just waiting for the next surly employee to begrudgingly announce, "Next customer in line."

And where do you buy the stretch mark cream? And the weight loss pills? And the Nicorette? And the toothpaste? With insurance payments on medication – drugs that people depend on for the rest of their life no matter what the cost – the drug stores can make a killing.

Drug stores must have a reason to sell all of their remedies, so they create the problems.

It’s kind of crazy. As children, my sister and I would walk up to the neighborhood Eckerd drug store. Using our allowance money, we’d buy as much candy as we could carry and drag it home. Family friends whose parents restricted their sugar intake worshipped us and became our best buddies as we sneaked them sweets at dinner parties.

The drug store became the place for the good stuff. As we got older, my sister got to know the woman behind the cosmetics counter at Eckerd, where she would buy Rose Milk and makeup and nail polish. We’d buy Slush Puppies there, gum, and more and more candy. On Valentine’s Day, we would proudly present a red foil heart box filled with lousy Palmers or Russell Stover chocolates to my parents. Another purchase from Eckerd.

We’d visit Cleveland and go to Revco drugs with my grandmother. She would buy Aqua Net and Polident, and then other candies that old ladies like: Chocolate Parfait Nips, Andes Mints, and malted milk balls in the milk box container.

Old ladies love drug stores. I think I do too. I peruse the Walgreen’s or Rite Aid circular, inspecting the paper for any must-have products that will make my life more complete. I get my ten dollars worth of free things – hair gel, dishwashing liquid, lightbulbs, Pepcid – each month at Rite Aid, taking advantage of their Single Check rebates. I get a secret thrill when I can present a $1.00-off coupon for a tube of toothpaste that is already on sale for $2.49 (from the regular $3.89!), and that also comes with a $2.49 rebate. This means I am actually being paid by Rite Aid to buy the toothpaste. I get to stick it to the man.

I suppose I’m not the target demographic they had in mind when they established their rebate program, but considering it’s all now on-line and takes a few seconds of my time each month, I’ll happily line up with the predominantly old ethnic gals and proudly purchase that Porcelana Fade Cream that will be fully reimbursed, minus the sales tax. It will end up in a drawer somewhere in the house and eventually, when I get age spots, I’ll be able to pull it out and apply it, knowing that I not only prepared in advance for my speckled affliction, but that I paid not a penny for the even tones in my skin.

We need more drug stores. More candy bar coupons and gel insoles specials to keep me standing in line behind the oldsters. And I’ll continue to argue when the register flashes my prune juice at the wrong price. I'll point to the sign that says “If the price scans higher than the shelf price, the item is free.” And I'll type an email to the manager to complain. Then I’ll submit an on-line rebate request for the price of that juice.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Orleans is a big mess

Hell and high water.

I’m heading home from two-and-a-half days in New Orleans. It’s the post-Katrina New Orleans I’ve shunned for two years. Please forgive my previous utlra-cranky post. After this trip, I have nothing to be cranky about.

New Orleans. Thick with wet air, temperatures near 90 degrees, crime-filled and corrupt, it’s one of those places I’ve never understood. I had visited once before, about 15 years ago, with my grad school pal Roger. His brother taught at Tulane and his Quebec-born sister-in-law had a certain impatient flair that seemed fitting for New Orleans’ curious ways.

I found the city as eerie as an Ann Rice novel. I expected witches and vampires to be lurking in the azaleas and bougainvillea. I expected to be jumped by a mob of angry Black teenagers from one of the run-down public housing complexes that ring the French Quarter. I expected cockroaches to crawl out of my etouffe. I expected the water in the river, the river that crested on the bank above the streets below, to overflow and wash me away. I expected to be stabbed. I expected to get mosquito bites. I felt an emptiness, one that seemed sinister compared to the feeling I got in other humidity-drenched cities like Atlanta and Savannah and Cincinnati.

When the hurricane hit the city, I watched the images of angry mobs and dead animals, the collapse and destruction, the flooding. And I thought, “I knew it! I knew it was going to happen! I must have just had that weird feeling all along. Gosh, that’s creepy.”

I read in today’s Times-Picayune that the police were enjoying a three day reprieve from the city’s insane violence. This weekend, no one was killed. One person was shot and a few others stabbed, but the city couldn't claim a single fatality. This is apparently good news. The paper reported that two weekends ago eight people were killed. And in early August, 11 were murdered.

The freakish brutality made sense to me. I had a disaster show-and-tell this afternoon. My nearly three-hour tour in the comfort of a New Orleans transit coach showed me destruction and hopelessness. The bus wove past broken levees and weed-filled golf courses. Popular malls that had been knocked down. Boarded up, crumbling Winn Dixie stores and McDonald’s restaurants – things that don’t usually shut down unless a new and improved version is being constructed a block or two away, allowing the existing spaces to make the transition to Dollar General stores and Irma’s Burritos, usually with a new coat of paint and replaced signs.

Grocery options are limited, even on Canal Street.

We drove by thousands and thousands and thousands of houses, from tattered to collapsed. And thousands of empty lots, where the debris had been cleared and replaced with ‘for sale’ signs, sometimes spray painted on scrap wood. Our bus passed piles of trash: broken beds, toilets, cars, sinks, dog houses. We passed trailers parked either in FEMA lots or in front of the houses that were too dangerous to inhabit, but whose owners didn’t have the money to make their homes safe enough to go inside.

Golf anyone? The lack of people means there's no rush to fix what was once one of New Orleans' larger golf courses.

Hosted by the bus company, RTD, we silently rolled past the agency’s three transit facilities, looking at the hundreds of buses that were flooded, looted, smashed, and destroyed. The transit agency currently operates only 20 percent of the service they operated in August 2005.

Most of the buses don't look so good.

Amid the mess, houses had been rebuilt. Some were on stilts or manmade hills. For those without enough insurance money to cover a big redesign, new houses were perched right on the concrete slab where similar houses once stood. No logical order to why some houses had been rebuilt and others had not, these rebuilt or remodeled homes are scattered across New Orleans like small residential compounds: miniature Green Zones, each for one family, surrounded by the remnants of destruction, loss of community and a sense of lawlessness.

Two years later, this is the dominant scene.

But some construction is underway - in pockets everywhere.

The French Quarter seems intact. If I hadn’t ventured out of the tourist and historic zone, I might have thought – after a fifteen-year absence – that it looked a little rougher around the edges, but still maintained about the same level of rundown charm and overall uneasiness I had perceived during my previous visit. Across Canal Street, downtown looks a little worse than other American downtowns in Detroit or Oakland, but not markedly so: plenty of abandonment, but also signs proclaiming McDonalds “now open” or Eugene’s “coming back soon.” Just north of downtown, like a reminder of the war zone, several buildings between six and 15 stories still hover over Canal Street, windowless and missing signs.

I was directed by my tour guide to return home to San Francisco and write to my congressional representatives, informing them that I believe more funding should be directed to Louisiana. I was also implored to tell my friends and family members to go to New Orleans, to enjoy the Creole restaurants, suck down a bunch of Hurricanes (the drink!) on Bourbon Street, and enjoy the city.

I’m sorry. I can make this plea to send money to New Orleans: please send money to organizations trying to rebuild. But I can’t tell you to visit. I couldn’t tell you to visit after my first trip 15 years ago and I can’t tell you to go there now if you want to relax and enjoy yourself. But if you want a reminder of how fleeting everything really is, how countless communities have disappeared and how depressing an American landscape really can be, then you should go.

I have no doubt that the destroyed neighborhoods will be rebuilt. It’s happening already. It will be very different.

A rebuilt levee wall. The neighborhood to the right of it is gone.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I'm really cranky right now

I'm sitting on the plane en route to New Orleans. I just discovered I forgot to charge my computer so I thought I'd try typing on my Sprint Mogul. I'm sitting next to the fat white retard in his late 40s who is listening to his iPod and beating on invisible drums in the air in front of him.

I'm all about ‘getting into’ your music in private, but there's nothing like an ugly fat guy enjoying his music too much to make you wish the plane had an ejector seat.

This turd actually was listening to his music while we were waiting to take off and while we took off. I realize that his stupid iPod is unlikely to really interfere with the plane's navigational equipment, but I suppose I really am a rule follower and disapprove of ugly stupid people who don't follow directions.

I know I should really be more respectful of idiots because I fasted yesterday and enjoyed a little introspection on the occasion of Yom Kippur. I sought forgiveness for all evil actions and thoughts. And I suppose I've already gone ahead and started to have evil thoughts.

I'm a bad person. I'm sitting here in seat 11D enjoying The New Pornographers on my iPod (saw them in concert Monday!), but was respectful of the FAA's dumb regulations. I was also considerate of the people around me by not behaving like a freak. I bet he's listening to Jimmy Buffett or Van Halen. I tried to sneak a peak at his iPod to see what this psychotic behavior was all about, but couldn't get a good look.

I think I'm just in a cranky mood because I have to go to a conference and I'm not so sure I'm feeling so confident about my presentation tomorrow, so I need some time to rehearse, but I'm going to have to go schmooze with other conference-goers. Maybe it will be more enjoyable than I envision.

Or maybe it's just that it's hot outside. Or that nearly everyone in the Charlotte airport, where I just changed planes, was superfat and I'm tired of seeing superfat people because they represent the decay of this country. People who drive SUVs to CostHo and Wal-Fart and vote for George Bush.

Okay. Deep breath. I'm starting to calm down to the sounds of The Decemberists. It's a nice way to tune out the rest of the world. And not think about the annoying fat people drinking Diet Coke and tuning out the world by tuning into their iPods too. And I'm thrilled to know that a drained battery on my laptop won't keep me from complaining.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The FBI trend

As modeled in a Mississippi drug store in front of my camera phone. The $7.99 pricetag was too high to make this a souvenir.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as God meant it to be.

The FBI movement is kind of freaking me out.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. That's what FBI stands for and should stand for, at least in this country.

I learned not long ago that FBI stands for about two dozen other things. They all pretty much make sense to me because the three words that are abbreviated F-B-I have a first word that starts with an F, a second word that starts with a B and a third word that starts with an I. According to the Farlex dictionary, some of the other meanings of FBI are as follows:

  • Famous But Incompetent (apparently common slang used by militia groups)
  • Fiji Born Indian
  • Forbrukerinspektørene
  • Fubu Bodywear Incorporated
  • Funny Business Inc. (Danish, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Another meaning listed by Farlex is Firm Believer in Islam. That makes sense, too.

But what have craziest of Christians gone and done? They’ve hijacked FBI to stand for “Firm Believer in Jesus” or “Firm Believer in Christ.” Fair enough, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Hello? That would be the FBC or the FBJ. Using that rationale, I live in the USO: United States of America. Secure Storage and Retrieval of Information would be SSARO instead of SSRI. Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide would not be AAFSW, but would instead be AOTAF. NARAL would be NAARR. NASCAR would be NAFSCA. The Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators would be OAOSS! What would this world be if we left off all of the final important words in their abbreviations?

Anyway, the stupid people who’ve Christianized FBI in the worst of ways have used it to market a host of products. It assigns that "dark suit FBI thing" to followers of Christ, converting a government bureau into some weird thing. Maybe the government really is hunting you down for a crime if you don't proclaim you're an FBI Jesus.

So join the trend. Buy some FBI's at your local Christian bookstore or website (or, in Mississippi, your local Fred's Drug Store). Some retailers include,, and all over eBay.

One version of this attractive shirt available at a Christian store near you

Need a hat to go with the shirt? The little 'I Heart Jesus' on the lower one reduces, for me, the fear of God that this hat puts in your heart.

This bumper sticker would like nice on your SUV and would scare away the abortion-seekers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Becoming a mess

After eating just about everything produced in Mississippi, it was time to think about a quick low-carb period in my life. So I returned home and decided to banish cake and breads and sweets and alcohol from my diet for ten days. It usually works for me to feel healthier, energized and skinnier. And my stomach has been feeling overly acidic lately, so it seemed like it would be a nice break to re-center me.

I was very good at eating egg whites and low-fat cheeses and vegetables and legumes and avoiding anything sweet. After seven days, I felt better, but I wasn’t getting much sleep and I clearly wasn't getting the fiber I needed (sorry). Of course the few times I’ve done this, it reminds me of the one low-carb experience a few years ago that got to me try toxic Splenda instead of sugar and end up covered in rashes.

Anyway, after days of being really great and low-carb, I flew to Indiana for a two-day work extravaganza. There I remembered how hard it is not to eat carbohydrates when one travels.

I slipped first thing in the morning, awaking in the flickering fluorescent lights of the Courtyard by Marriott and ate an apple. How could I feel guilty about eating an apple? Then my colleague Rachel and I drove to Lafayette and were ‘blown off’ for our first scheduled meeting of the day with a merchants association there. A weird quiche-like puffy thing at Panera around 10:00 AM held me for the rest of the day. But at 6:30 PM, after a 4 hour and 30-minute workshop with the transit board, I took a dive right for the chocolate/white chocolate/cherry chunk cookie that was packed in the lunch box they had prepared for me. Then the teeny bag of Jelly Bellys (it really was teeny – maybe eight or nine of those colorful little sours). Then the Mento in its individually wrapped Mento wrapper. Then the potato chips.

Hell, I’d started. When I got to the Hilton Garden Inn in West Lafayette, I sucked down the sandwich. I threw the plastic container of field greens with balsamic dressing into the fridge and completely forgot about it.

I think bodies are meant to have carbs. Sure, they make your stomach pooch out, they make you tired, and they age you. But they taste so great.

At that point, after the meetings and the previous night’s sleep in the hands of Lunesta to battle the carb-free energy, I decided I’d just stick with a healthier low fat eating routine. Avoid frequent trips to Mississippi. Go to the gym. So I walked over to the Snowbear Custard joint adjacent to the hotel and ordered a small serving of pumpkin custard. Then I went back to the hotel and downed another Lunesta.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Room and board in Mississippi

Beautiful public art in Jackson, Mississippi

I’ve now been to Mississippi three times. The first time was December of 2006, when Brad and I went down to Oxford to ride around on his father’s four-wheelers on the tree farm, to eat fried peach pies, to visit his grandmother and to explore Oxford. The second time was later the same day, when, after returning to Memphis, we drove back to Olive Branch for a fried dinner extravaganza.

Last Sunday, I arrived back in San Francisco from a couple of days in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst is about an hour south of Jackson in southwest Mississippi. I joined Brad and his family for a wedding in Wesson, but we stayed at the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst was selected because it’s the closest “wet” community, meaning you can purchase booze, something not so readily embraced in much of Mississippi. Not that there were really any places in Hazlehurst to go drinking. But I can see why, if you lived there, you would want to go drinking often.

The Western Inn Express is a two-story motel on a highway, down the street from a Piggly Wiggly, next to a Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken, and less than a quarter-mile from a soon-to be replaced Wal-Mart. The rooms are painted blue, a darker shade than any wall I’ve experienced in a lodging establishment. The three flickering 40-watt fluorescent bulbs barely illuminated the shadows of the room, which was perhaps a good thing. At one point I thought I dropped an earplug behind the side table and discovered a Wal-Mart receipt, a penny, a used tissue, and a ball of dust and hair. I decided to leave it as a tip for the cleaning staff. The tip being: If you clean behind the furniture, I’ll give you a bigger tip (Okay, okay – I left them a couple of bucks, but they didn’t even take it the first day. Perhaps they were warned not to take any money in the room or they’ll be fired).

Little treats behind the bedside table. Enjoy the blue walls.

Actually, the motel wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. What was worse was the restaurant across the highway from the motel. Known as Stark’s, it’s the favorite local hangout. Running across the busy highway and walking up the broken gravel driveway to the front door sets the stage for what’s inside. A former Dairy Queen, a sign posted just inside the door advertised the day’s special: “Fried Bologna on Jalapeno Cheese Sourdough Bread Sandwich.” (It remained the day’s special for the duration of our stay in Hazlehurst). Delicious as it looked, I opted for nothing, but returned later in the day for a caramel shake, which tasted like someone dumped Winn Dixie caramel-flavored topping into a blender with some milk and ice. Sweet and flavor-free.

Stark’s was filled with the diversity that is Mississippi. Fat white people, skinny old white people, fat Black people, skinny old Black people. They were all packed into the greaseball of diner playing cards, talking about guns and church and politics and the Hazlehurst High School football game that would be played later that night. The soles of my shoes easily slid across the grimy tiled floor, nicely coated with the oiled offgassing from thirty or forty fried bologna sandwiches sold over the course of the month. Some of Brad’s relatives who had eaten at Stark’s said the burgers there were the best around. And I wouldn’t doubt they were.

Stark's special treat

After the previous night’s dinner at the Family Catfish Restaurant — about a mile down the highway — I couldn’t get an appetite to eat anything at Stark’s. I was still wearing the same shorts I wore the night before (I forgot to bring more than one pair). My butt still felt sticky from the evening’s dinner, where it adhered to the bench that was my seat while I ate fried catfish, french fries, sweet potato fries, hushpuppies, fried okra, fried onions, and deep fried hamburger dills. We pushed it down with some extra creamy cole slaw and some sweet turnip greens.

Hazlehurst, Mississippi has much to offer. Lypsinka was born here.

So instead of Stark’s, we drove to the next town. Brookhaven was more upscale than Hazlehurst, so I was able to get a more upscale breakfast at Cracker Barrel. (We could have stayed in Brookhaven instead of the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst, but Brookhaven is a “dry” town.) I was craving fruit for breakfast, but all they offered were candied cooked apples: a bowl of apple pie filling. Delicious.

The visit to Mississippi was not really about the lodging or the food. It was a family visit, and for a family visit we all make sacrifices on our weight and sleeping comfort. I easily gained four or five pounds on the trip. Of course, the lack of fiber in my diet there didn’t help too much.

The wedding ceremony celebrated the second marriage of both bride and groom. Gathered on the expansive front porch of their new farm home that resembled a hunting lodge, we watched the three-minute ceremony. It was performed by a retired pastor who proclaimed the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. The bride and groom said their vows, the pastor mentioned something about Corinthians and everyone around me bowed their heads. And then we ate boiled shrimp, jambalaya, pasta salad and a darn good white wedding cake. Easily the tastiest of the three wedding cakes I ate this summer. From The Cakery in Brookhaven, I was told.

Getting ready for the wedding on the front porch

Brad’s relatives were warm and friendly, adjusting with curiosity and easiness to their son’s wedding guest. Lots of hugs all around and invitations to visit Nashville and Overland Park and Oxford. Lots of cigarettes too. And with Brad’s parents planning a move from Tennessee to Mississippi, it looks like I’ll have many more opportunities to visit this fine state.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Other things that suck: Sprint customer service

Amp'd. I ranted about Amp’d Mobile at the end of July. The company shut down and left me without mobile phone service. Then they had the balls to send me a final bill a month later with the notation that I could only pay by check, and if I didn’t pay, my name would be turned over to a collections agency. AND, no customer service number is available if I have any questions. I called the law firm representing them in their bankruptcy proceedings and was told I’d get a call back. I never did. I hope their chief executive gets an undiagnosed case of giardia. In the billing envelope, I sent Amp’d back a note that said I would willingly pay if I could talk to someone. I also said I’m not sending them a check. I’ll let you know what happens.

Anyway, after a month on a pay-as-you go plan from Verizon -- easily able to make my Amp’d phone work on their network -- I jumped ship to Sprint. I used to have Sprint and had no problems, but in my never ending quest to get the best possible deal and the most unique product on the market, I switched to Amp’d. We know where that got me.

With much Web searching, I stumbled upon an impossible deal: $30 for unlimited mobile web access/text messaging/downloads, 500 anytime minutes, free calls to other Sprint customers and unlimited evenings beginning at 7:00 PM. All you had to do, according to one sneaky website I discovered, was go to the Sprint employee referral website and give the referring employee’s email address as

I did just that. Even ordered a semi-cool Mogul phone, typing in an additional $50-off coupon code I found elsewhere on the web. I submitted another $100 rebate for the phone. No, it’s no iPhone. But for Sprint it’s one of better choices for a web-enabled PDA phone with a pop-out keyboard.

Of course things got screwed up. Verizon refused to port over my number from Amp’d (Amp’d ran their network on Verizon). To deal with the porting issue alone, I spent about four hours, maybe five, on the phone with polite but untrained customer service staff in the Philippines and somewhere in the Caribbean. They kept transferring me to other untrained people in other locations. Actually some of them weren’t only untrained, but were just stupid and incompetent (perhaps that’s a cruel thing to say, but it’s true). And they kept giving the standard international call center answer: “The computer says everything is still in process, so please be patient.” One employee told me I’d already accumulated $200 in download charges, which made no sense and infuriated me even more than I already was. I also got disconnected by a very flustered and quite inept man in a Philippines call center, after spending 48 minutes on the phone.

One customer service agent mistyped my social security number when I was first registering the account, which also screwed everything up. She transposed a couple of the numbers in the last four digits (She also changed my plan to the wrong plan). Another representative told me I had to go to Sprint store to correct the Social Security number typo, so I went to the local Sprint store and was told by the high school student working there that they couldn’t change it. After my second visit to the store, when I demanded that they “get the right person on the phone” who could change it, they did, and it was changed in a matter of minutes.

I also took advantage of a promotion on the Sprint website to download a free ringer. When I went to purchase the ringer and entered in promotion code to make it free, it went ahead and charged my account $24.99. After eight emails to someone named Pearlie S., the charge was eventually reversed.

At one point in the whole debacle, I was transferred to a woman whose voice I recognized as 'Black American.' A person on US soil. Perhaps my questions would finally be resolved. When I told her my account number, she said, “Aw, damn. I can’t do anything about that. I work in long distance. That’s a cell phone number.”

At last. One person I spoke with knew what I was talking about and said, “That’s an employee referral account. You need to speak to the Sprint Employee customer service department.” I can't tell you how many times I told the customer service reps exactly this. Can you believe it? After about seven hours on the phone and in the Sprint store, someone supposedly knew what to do to secure my phone number, correct the plan, remove incorrect charges, confirm the adjusted Social Security number, confirm my coupon, and fix other things that I can’t even remember. I still haven’t received the bill yet, and I’m sure problems will surface, but at least I finally know the correct toll-free number.

So my advice, if the plan is still available (and I’ve confirmed that it is as of this posting), get a deal on the Sprint SERO plan. And then don’t dial any of the numbers in any of the printed information they send you. Don’t even dial the number taped to your phone to activate it. Dial only the Sprint employee customer service number. And then we can enjoy unlimited Sprint-to-Sprint free calling. Talk to you soon.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

August break over

Images of early August: My neice and nephew ate spaghetti.

Back to work. I took a break from my Spenda Sucks e-journal in August. The reason: I didn’t take too many of my usual long flights. Flying gives me ample opportunity to rant as I sit in an uncomfortable seat for hours coasting miles above the planet. But that’s over.

Greetings from 39,000 feet.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Gimme a break

Just taking a break in August....

Monday, July 30, 2007

Two for billing: get Amp'd

Bye bye phone service. I got a text message a week ago from my mobile phone service provider informing me of the possibility that my phone service would be disconnected on July 24.

I freaked out and ran to the computer to look up my bill. It looked fine: my automatic payments were still passing on my money to the phone company. I decided the text message must have been an error so I called the toll-free customer service number. An automated greeting voice answered – sort of an accented Midwestern woman – telling me to press this or that for information, new accounts and billing. I pressed two for billing and waited, listening to the “on-hold” rap music.

This was no ordinary cell phone company when I signed up for the service. I had been doing my Internet research because I wanted to escape from Sprint 16 months ago. I clicked on website after website that detailed mobile telephone service plans from the usual suspects, including Sprint, Verizon, Cingular (now AT&T again), and T-Mobile. I sneaked a peak at plans unavailable here in California offered by Qwest and ALLTEL and Cellular One. And then I found the perfect mobile phone company: Amp’d Mobile.

Amp’d Mobile. Amp'd offered Verizon service at prices better than Verizon’s own plans, a small selection of very nice phones, and some pretty decent service options. So I jumped to a "500 anytime minutes, unlimited after 7:00 PM" plan and enjoyed a year and four months of nearly flawless service.

Customer service was a bit unrefined, but efficient and always very helpful. For example, I discovered the chip in my phone was defective, so I called to request a new one.

After sitting on hold for a couple of minutes contemplating the weird hip-hop tune being pumped into my ear, the customer service “agent” answered: “Thanks fo’ calling Amp’d Mobile, man. Wazzup?”

I tried to act all hip-hop and cool, like Amp’d’s age 35-and-under target demographic. “Hey. I’m callin’ ‘cause I think somethin’s wrong wit' my phone. The chip don’t seem to work.”

“Oh, man. Them phones been doing that lately.” I heard some computer keyboard clicks in the background. “I’m sorry sir, but we out of them. They all backordered.” Another pause followed.

Great, I thought. I got a lemon of a phone and I can’t get it fixed. (To be honest, the phone was working fine, but I just couldn’t listen to any of the music I had downloaded to my phone).

He returned to the phone. “Sir, I’m sorry about that. So let me tell you, go out and buy your own. You be reimbursed up to fo'ty bucks.”

The exchange wrapped up with “you sure?”, “yeah, just fax the receipt!”, and each of us saying “cool.”

That’s how most of my interactions were with Amp’d customer service. But last week when I called after getting the text message that my service was going to end, I waited and waited and nobody answered. So I started clicking around on the website. And I came across a Q&A section with information about bankruptcy and the end of service, full of misspelled words and many unknowns.

Each day, a new button on the Amp'd website turned blue (all except the one about Amp'd Canada, which is apparently still working): Amp'd's Customer Q&A.

Aha. I was going to be a casualty of a failed marketing scheme, one that targeted young people without any credit who downloaded millions of dollars worth of hip-hop music and never had any intention of paying their bill. And to think three days earlier I was perusing the website thinking about ordering a new or upgraded phone or plan!

The next day I went to the Verizon store and switched my service to the network that had carried my calls but had never received any of the money I paid. The Verizon sales guy, typical 20-something who could care less about anything, actually got excited that he could easily switch my phone to the Verizon network. He was almost giddy, telling me it looked like the Amp’d software was actually better than the Verizon software. He said he was going to start telling his friends to go out and buy the Amp’d phones that were going to be on clearance and then sign up for Verizon service using them.

I’m shopping again for a new mobile carrier. Helio looks kind of cool and I like their Ocean phone. But maybe I should accept the lesson I’ve learned and stick with one of the big guys. And get a dull AT&T iPhone.

I miss Amp’d.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Innkeeper out

Westport Island, Maine. I came back from Maine last weekend. It was my first trip to the lovely lobster state, and I paid my visit in order to join in the merriment of my friends’ Bethany and Abigail’s wedding, which I officiated. It was my only stint as wedding officiator, or faux rabbi as I called myself. A Jewish wedding, we convened under a chuppah. I infused the ceremony with my personal reflections on the couple’s relationship, but the presentation was built upon an outline they had given me. I had asked them to list things they wanted in their wedding and informed them I planned to craft the ceremony around their preferences.

Aside from a swarm of mosquitoes under the chuppah during the ceremony, all went quite well. I told myself that I was not permitted to swat the bugs during the celebration. With a gathering of 150 guests, I was sure to be photographed slapping my head or neck, or even worse, with a gruesome expression showing my disturbance.

The entire wedding weekend was a blast, and capped a week in New Hampshire on Highland Lake. In fact, I give the trip a top rating, with one exception: a certain unpleasant innkeeper.

Bethany had selected the Squire Tarbox Inn as a good location for her friends to congregate and slumber during the wedding weekend. It was a perfect choice: clean, historic and only a few miles from the wedding site on Dreyfus Lane. Breakfast was quite delicious and the grounds were lush with an organic garden, ponds and a forest. It was a bit kitschy with Raggedy Ann dolls in every room and bits of clutter to give the inn some personality. But all of this was unnecessary because the inn had plenty of personality, and not a particularly good one, in its manager.

The day before the wedding, I headed to the dining room to find the innkeeper to ask about an iron. Her assistant, a cheerful young blonde woman with her hair pinned back, dashed upstairs to fetch an iron, light blue, circa 1978, and an old folding ironing board. She offered to take them to my room, but I told her not to bother herself and that I could easily manage.

Pressing. Back in the small room, where the bed occupies almost all of the space, I set up the ironing board and plugged in the iron. I added a bit of water and waited for it to heat up. No steam was coming from the iron, so I pushed a few buttons and adjusted the settings before conceding it wasn’t going to be a good ironing experience. Brad ironed his shirt and then I ironed my new Benetton shirt, going over it again and again with the dry iron, hoping to press some of the wrinkles out. When I finished, I moved on to some slacks and another pair of pants before starting on a silk and linen blend tie. Caroline dropped by to see if she could iron too, so I finished up the tie and unplugged the iron. With nowhere to set it, I placed it on the bed and began to disassemble the ironing board. When I picked up the iron, some of the water, perhaps ¼ cup, spilled out on the bed (certainly none of it had escaped the iron as steam). Caroline smartly suggested hanging the duvet on the porch in the sun so it could dry, so I pulled off the sheet and draped it there. She finished her ironing and we walked outside, iron and ironing board in hand to pass it to other guests, Alisa and Lisa, patiently waiting to press their clothes in their room.

On the way out of my room, housekeeping staff greeted me. I told them about the duvet, with apologies, and showed them I had hung it to dry. The two young women thanked me for hanging it, told me “no worries,” and I headed on my way.

Adequately pressed, under the chuppah.

Returning to the Squire Tarbox in the evening, we discovered our bed had been made with only one blanket, an old yellow one with specks of dust and hair. Brad and I went downstairs to ask the innkeeper for another blanket. She was supervising Caroline’s ironing in the inn’s dining room!

I made my request and she replied, “I was very displeased with what you did to the duvet.”

Caught off guard, I responded, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. I hung it up to dry and told the housekeeper about it.”

“The duvet is stained and it won’t come out.”

I told her it was just a small amount of water from the iron. “The iron wasn’t producing steam and I was trying to figure out how to make it work.”

She eyed me with a look of contempt. “There is nothing wrong with the iron. People have been using it all evening.”

“It’s an old iron,” I said. “And it doesn’t produce steam very well.”

You would have thought I was telling her that her daughter was a whore. “It works perfectly well. I don’t understand what you were doing ironing over the bed.”

I decided it was best not to get in a catfight with a mature Swiss feline. “If we could just get another blanket, that would be great.”

“I’ve been working for 15 hours and I’m ready to go to bed, “ she snarled. “I’ll be back in just a moment, but I need to lock up.”

As soon as she disappeared up the gloomy back stairs, I unleashed to Brad and Caroline, perhaps more audibly than I should have, “Fucking bitch. I hate her. She just needs to do her fucking job because I’m paying to stay here.”

She came back with the blanket and handed it to me. At the same moment, another woman asked if she could use the iron. The innkeeper was riled: “Not tonight! I’ve got to put it away so I can go to bed.”

We all just glanced at each other and escaped from the room as fast as possible.

Not cheap. I was paying $175 a night to stay there, under the watchful eye of a woman who should not be running an inn. A certificate framed on the wall expressed Delta Airlines’ appreciation for her 33 years of service. It made sense. Think of Delta’s flight attendants. They’re bad. Then think of the worst one. She would have been better suited to be the dorm matron in a school for girls.

As one who has always wanted to run an inn, it’s interesting to get a lesson on how not to do it. Following the weekend, I wrote a review on Trip Advisor. It is somewhat balanced and reasonably polite, and offers prospective guests a qualified three-star rating. Perhaps some will consult it. I think the Squire Tarbox innkeeper would do well with fewer guests to ruffle her feathers. Or fewer guests to wet them with an old leaky iron.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Splenda not made from sugar

It's worth reporting the good news that the makers of Splenda must retract their false statements in France, and a trial on the same matter is scheduled in the US in November. The ads suggested Splenda is made from sugar, so it's natural like sugar.

In case you are unfamiliar with Splenda, it's the toxic crap in the little yellow packets that fat people eat.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sharing clutter

When I got back from Paris and Stockholm, and the three dynamic days of focus groups in Chicago, I returned to my home that wasn’t mine alone anymore. It had been occupied. Not by mice, or bugs, or that barking and scurrying Olive upstairs. It was bigger than that.

I had prepared myself. I reminded myself that anytime I had left town before for a long period of time, I arrived home to find my house felt different. It had a weird smell. Things seemed larger or smaller than they had before I had left. Returning home would be no different than those previous homecomings, but there would be different furniture and more clutter.

When I get off a plane and return home, I leave clutter in my wake. It’s the curse of a Libran’s business travel ways. I get home and open my suitcase and usually leave it in a corner unpacked. Or I dump the contents in a pile. Or I take the things I need out piecemeal so my suitcase ends up remaining slightly packed and slightly unpacked with remnants of my trip strewn across the sofa or the bed.

I did that. I got home and dumped my stuff out alongside the stuff Brad had deposited in the house. It was now a house for two. It would take a while to unpack his belongings, so I figured I had a lot of time to deal with my own things. It was nice to hide my sloppiness in the chaos of the household merge.

A few weeks have now passed. As time went by, I put away my traveling things. I also managed to do a better job of clearing out space for Brad’s things. He eventually had space for his shoes and a sill for his collection of dollhouse toilets. His bedside table slid neatly against the wall.

Even with these minor steps toward progress, the house remained cluttered for a while and I felt guilty that Brad didn’t have any space to call his own. But then one day he took charge. He established the back bedroom as his principal domain, laying a carpet from his former house and putting his antique oak desk in the window looking out onto the garden. He slid my crumbling chest and glassy wine chiller under his desk. He moved my filing cabinet to the closet, hanging his clothes on the rod next to it. We yanked the scraggly lily-like plant out of my yellow terra cotta urn under the window, saving a couple of stems for replanting in a smaller pot; we then repotted his three-stalk tropical foliage in the much larger urn, giving its compressed root system a chance to spread out and grow into its new surroundings.

Gradually, the other rooms have filled in with a mix of Brad and Joey. Our belongings will continue to integrate with each load he deposits in the living room. And I’ll learn to accept that a blond wooden bench that served as his coffee table doesn’t have to be tucked in a room of similarly stained bookcases. And he’ll come around to admit that the pairing of similar furnishings gives a room a more complete look. And that modernish is not evil.

Hooray. He already bought a nice Knoll side table yesterday. It’s nice to see he’s adapting so quickly.

The table. It will look good when it's not shoved next to the Judaica cabinet.

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