"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

To Xfinity And Beyond!

Cable companies are such easy targets, aren't they?

Scene 1:
We move during the summer. I call Xfinity/Comcast/KableTown (whatever they're calling themselves these days) regarding a special "move-in" offer. A very nice guy gives us a great deal on re-establishing our services (nearly 50% less than what we had been paying). We just need to pretend this is a "new" account, so now the cable will be under Carol's name rather than mine. He says he'll take care of everything to "transfer" the account, and even arranges to have the installer come the day after we move. Fantastic!

Scene 2:
The move was... harrowing, as described in other blog posts and email updates. Beastly hot, too much stuff in way smaller place, boxes and clutter everywhere, general exhaustion. The installation is rescheduled several times and finally takes place about three weeks after we move.

Scene 3:
Cable charges come as e-bill via our bank, as expected. Bill includes charge for installation, not as expected since the nice guy said there would be no charge for that. Lengthy online chat with Xfinity leads to a credit being applied, reluctantly. I pay the "true" amount. The next month's e-bill comes through with the correct amount and I schedule the payment pronto.

Scene 4:
While on vacation, I get a call from Xfinity asking about our "old" account, the one at the address we moved from. They have no record of us requesting a disconnect, and the new tenant in our old apartment can't have cable installed until I indicate we're done with the service there. Hmm, I say -- that nice guy I spoke to several months ago said he'd take care of all of that. We are long-gone from the old place and old service. The very nice woman says she'll update her records and oh! by the way -- you're entitled to a sizable refund for overpaying on your old account. Gee, how'd that happen? I wonder...

Scene 5:
We come home from vacation and sort through the mail. Comcast (not Xfinity? I'm confused) sends a Final Notice of Disconnection, stating we owe for 2 months' service and need to submit the past due balance no later than... 3 days ago. We still have cable and internet on in the apartment (and somewhere in there is also phone service that we never use; how are these "bundles" cheaper when you add something you have no use for?), so I decide to follow up the next day.

Scene 6:
Turns out our services weren't transferred -- a new account was established with a new account number, which I failed to notice and therefore didn't update the online bill payment settings. When I now compare the two, both start with the same six digits, so I likely glossed right over that when the first "new" bill came through. Payments for our new services have been applied to our old account -- the one that apparently was never closed after we moved. I provide the agent with whom I'm chatting a bunch of information regarding the payment history, including the serial numbers on the currency I'd deposited into our checking account to cover the balances due. In response, she tells me there will be an "investigation", I'll get a call from the "Investigations Unit" within a day or two, and as a result the payments will be redirected to the correct account. (Not sure what they're going to investigate since the outcome of said investigation seems to be staring us all in the face.) I specifically ask the agent if our current services will be interrupted at all due to this snafu; she assures me that the new account will not be interrupted. I keep a transcript of the chat.

Scene 7:
We come home after a long day at work and grocery shopping, prepare a quick dinner, and sit down in front of the TV for a little relaxation. Cable service has been interrupted. Message on screen advises to call, and recording on the line asks us to pay up, pronto. Chat Session #2 goes over much of the same territory as Chat Session #1 the previous day. This very nice person (gender unknown; name and chat vocabulary are both asexual) says s/he will make sure the account is re-established immediately, while the investigation allegedly launched the day before will now be re-launched right after this chat session. Cable should be restored in 30-45 minutes.

Scene 8:
Two hours later, I am entrenched in Chat Session #3 since the only thing I see on the TV is a floating message saying "No Signal". Very nice tech sends three reset signals of varying magnitude (one of them turns on our toaster), and finally I am watching "The Big Bang Theory" on TBS, which is what we wanted to do hours before. Carol has since gone to bed, but not before our mounting exasperation with the situation leads to a few terse exchanges between us -- I snap at her, she tells me to drop dead, and finally we shake hands and retire to neutral corners. We're good like that; 32 years married and we know when to ignore each other's invective.

Scene 9 (staging TBD):
What will happen next? Will we see the credit transferred to the correct account? Will the Investigations Unit ever call, or will two men in black suits looking suspiciously like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones show up at our front door and flash that thingy in our faces so we forget all about this fubar? And what about the mysterious call this afternoon from yet another department at Ex-fun-ity asking me to call back and discuss a "third-party email" used to attempt access to our account? What were the first- and second-parties and why wasn't any booze served?

Tune in tomorrow for our next chapter of: "TO XFINITY... AND BEYOND"!!!

Clowns In My Coffee

I'm always surprised when someone says they don't drink coffee. "I don't like the taste," "It's too bitter," "Caffeine makes me jumpy," and the worst excuse is, "I drink tea, it's better for you." The medicinal benefits of coffee are well-documented; primarily, it helps you stay awake late at night while you Google the symptoms of whatever is keeping you from getting to sleep.

We all know someone who is an indiscriminate coffee drinker; usually a guy (if only because this supposition makes subsequent pronoun selection easier) who will drink the most vile brew without any standards whatsoever: re-heated; sat around for hours and is now burned/cold; uses powdered creamer; drinks flavored coffee (coffee already comes in a flavor, it's "coffee-flavored"), and the most egregious offense -- he drinks coffee from Dunkin' Donuts.

I won't get into the whole Starbucks vs. DD debate. Both places have their supporters and detractors. I'll say only Dunkin' Donuts is aptly named because even a fresh cup tastes like someone already stuck a cruller in it.

My friend Bert introduced us to the joys of hyper-caffeination. For years we served him coffee that we thought was at least adequate, and he never complained. During one of his visits, I had to run an errand in the morning and when I got back, he and Carol were having breakfast. "BERT MADE ME A CUP OF COFFEE!!!" Carol explained. "HE USED FOUR SCOOPS FOR ONE CUP!!!" Ever since then, we brew it strong so Carol won't have to go through detox.

I've studied Bert's method and this is how he brews the "perfect cup":

Step 1: Grind whole beans just when you are ready to use them.
Step 2: For a pot of coffee, use an entire bag of beans.
Step 3: While waiting for the pot to finish, drive down to the coffee shop at the corner and order a double-espresso to tide you over.
Step 4: Repeat.

Once I was so amped up after drinking coffee with Bert I went to the driving range and hit a golf ball 148 yards. That may not sound impressive until I mention I was using a putter.

A few years ago Carol and I went camping for the first and thank God only time, meeting up with her brother's family and friends of theirs in an upstate New York park. Other than us, they were all experienced campers and carried a plethora of specialized equipment to provide most of the comforts of home while stuck in the woods. Foremost among them was a massive kitchen set-up that unfolded from a container the size of a briefcase into an area large enough to hold a full contingent of pots and pans, cooking utensils, an electrical outlet, a stovetop and maybe even a convection oven. Starting early in the morning, it took quite awhile to set up. It began raining in the midst of the task, so a covering was required to protect it. Brother-in-law and his friend wrestled with a massive tarp while the rest of us stood idle and watched. As the hours ticked by, I politely asked my sister-in-law if she was able to get some coffee going while the effort continued. She said that was possible and 15 minutes later Carol and I were enjoying our java. When we were finished, she asked how we liked it and we said "very much". She smiled and said, "Good! I bet you couldn't tell it was decaf, could you?" Without another word we excused ourselves, got in our car, left the campground and raced twenty minutes to the nearest McDonald's for a jolt of caffeine, pulling into the drive-thru just as the dreaded withdrawal headache began pounding at our temples. I love my sister-in-law but at that moment I wanted to drive back to the campground, dig a hole, throw her in it, and bury her underneath several cubic yards of freshly-ground decaffeinated coffee.

Since it's usually just the two of us most mornings, I make coffee for Carol and myself using the pour-over method favored by the most pretentious of the neighborhood gourmet coffee bars. Using freshly-ground beans, unbleached paper filters, a cone, and a Japanese water pot I splurged on so I can "control the pour", it's a labor-intensive, time-consuming process that is made worthwhile by the clear moral superiority of the outcome. It was particularly time-consuming once when I knocked over the cone, scattering the grounds all over the counter -- and then did exactly the same thing a second time after grinding more $15-a-pound beans. I finally got everything properly measured and aligned and poured, enabling me to fill my mug with the rich, aromatic, velvety brew. Then I knocked that one over as well, spilling steaming hot coffee all over the counter and most of my torso. Carol, surely feeling the effects of caffeine-deprivation, found this hilarious. I evened the score after cleaning up -- I made her a mug of coffee after surreptitiously changing the setting on the grinder, placing it on a fineness of "7" rather than the usual "6", which tipped it from "Auto-Drip" to "Espresso". Revenge is a drink best served bold. She sipped from her cup, completely unaware of my treachery. Sighing contentedly, she smiled at me and said, "THANKS FOR THE COFFEE, HONEY!!!"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Marriage Wows

We've just attended the wedding of our closest friends -- my best friend Bert married my wife's best friend Marsha. We introduced them 11 years ago and their passion for one another ignited like wet cardboard. However, a couple of years back they were again in the same place at the same time in our company (as much as we'd like to believe that last factor was essential, it probably wasn't); drier conditions prevailed and FWOOSH! their situation suddenly became combustible.

The wedding was beautiful -- a perfect late-summer day; the ceremony staged outdoors at a charming cottage in downtown Greenville, South Carolina overlooking a lovely park; a small audience of family and dear friends; an excellent meal, and to cap it off the DJ played the most profound of all disco songs -- Kool and the Gang's "Get Down On It", which features this chorus:

"Get down on it, get down on it, get down on it, get down on it,
Get down on it, get down on it, get down on it, get down on it!"

Whenever I hear this song, I picture Kool hunched over a legal pad, pencil in hand, with half-empty cans of Diet Coke and smoldering cigarettes and beer bottles strewn about the recording studio. Kool looks tired and disheveled, and barely notices when the rest of the Gang walks in. "Whuzzup, K?" one Gang-member asks. "Did you finish that dope tune you were working on yesterday?" "Naw, man. I'm stuck... can't come up with a last line for it." "Read us what you've got so far and maybe all of us working together can bring on the funk." "Sure, sure," Kool replies, and proceeds to recite the seven lines he's scribbled so far. "... and that's where I'm lost, fellahs." The rest of the Gang start to think out loud, one tapping on piano keys, another absent-mindedly strumming a guitar, a third looking into space. Several suggestions are offered but quickly dismissed as being "too wordy", "doesn't flow", or "changes the narrative point of view". But after awhile one Gang-ster (which one is lost to history, and the ensuing court battles over authorship and publishing rights eventually break up the band. But at this very moment their collective creative quest still unites them in musical brotherhood) looks up and says, "Hey, what about..." and the now-completed song goes on to assume its place in dance floor history.

Our friends expressly prohibited the d.j. (who goes by the name "DJ Skid" -- can you tell he's a white guy?) from playing any of the group-dance songs that one normally hears at a wedding -- "Y.M.C.A", the Electric Slide, others of that ilk. They're our age, second marriage for both, and those kinds of tunes just didn't fit into the tenor of the event. But when "Born To Run" came on, the groom leapt onto the dance floor, resplendent in his Brooks Brothers suit, and began to thrash with abandon. His choreography mimicked that of the two "wild and crazy guys" of SNL fame, with all the finger-pointing, heel-wiggling, and hip-gyrating they displayed while walking to answer the door when they thought "American foxes" had rung the bell.

Going to a wedding inevitably leads to comparisons with other weddings you've attended (and of course your own). While Bert and Marsha organized an elegant and tasteful affair, it spurred thoughts of other nuptials we've been to that were somewhat less impressive:
  • An open bar every other hour.
  • A polka band attempting "Black Magic Woman", with a trumpet taking the lead guitar part.
  • A rabbi who paused mid-ceremony and yelled at the photographer to stop taking pictures.
  • A reception where the groom's father engaged in "dirty dancing" with his son's new wife.
  • Another reception where the dessert was JELL-O.
We've been invited to the wedding but not the reception; the reception but not the wedding; "provisionally" to the wedding "if enough people decline so there's room for you", and once we were invited to the same wedding twice and the groom backed out both times. The explanation the first time was "jitters"; the explanation the second time was the soap opera subplot that he'd fathered a child with another woman and was going to marry her instead. Even more tragically, the jilted bride didn't return any of the wedding presents.

We lived in the South for many years and were always amused when guests would come to a wedding wearing t-shirts and shorts. These were indoor ceremonies, in churches, and sometimes a full Catholic Mass. That always flummoxed the Southern Baptists, who were expecting a 15-minute service, some cake and punch, and to be back home in an hour. Usually they'd just leave the kids in front of the TV to save on a baby sitter. The concept of R.S.V.P. was also foreign to these folks, who would respond to a follow-up inquiry whether they were planning to attend with, "We'll sure try."

Carol and I had a mixed ceremony, with a priest and rabbi officiating. We had a hard time finding a rabbi who would participate, as most of them declined while still encouraging us to join their congregations after we were married. We finally found a retired rabbi who would serve jointly with a priest, but then due to schedule conflicts we needed to start the search for Jewish representation anew. Yet another rabbi declined, and when I mentioned the name of the other rabbi who would have performed the service except for the scheduling conflict, this rabbi laughed dismissively and said, "You know, he has a reputation as a 'Marrying Sam'." The whole experience contributed to my decision to renounce organized religion, largely in favor of disorganized hedonism. We ended up tweaking our schedule so the retired rebbe could step in. Bert and Marsha's minister was also retired, which got me thinking -- would you want a surgeon to come out of retirement to operate on you? "Nurse, bring me a bottle of chloroform and a container of leeches - stat!"

Anyway, we're so pleased how everything turned out for our friends and they are just radiant with happiness. As they start their new life together, another poignant Kool and the Gang lyric comes to mind; from "Fresh":

"She's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh,
She's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh,
She's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh,
She's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh,
She's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh, she's so fresh."

I couldn't have said it better myself, especially that last part.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Time Travail

We are close friends with several couples who have young children. We love to visit and play with the kids, enjoying all the baby/toddler games like "Peek-A-Boo", "Hide and Seek", and "Who Made A Stinky?" (I often win at that last one.) We relate our friends' experiences as parents and their children's development back to when our son was little, and from there dig deep into the memory banks in an effort to recall what our own experiences were as little ones. "If only we could go back in time..." we lament.

I suddenly recalled that such a trip was in fact possible! I'd forgotten all about the time machine I'd purchased several years ago. It had been sitting in the original shipping container, unopened, since delivery. I remember finding it on eBay and how excited I was at that moment, but by the time it arrived we’d moved on to our Groupon phase so it seemed we were going out for 2-for-1 dinners, or skydiving, or getting mani-pedis every week for months and I never gave the time machine another thought. 

I dug the packaging out from the back of the closet, behind the Christmas decorations and my golf bag (another rarely-utilized item), and pulled out the instructions. Typical of the stuff that's manufactured overseas, they were written in that peculiar dialect I call "Not-Quite English". Examples: "When remove the Time Machine from it's original packaging, be sure to keep the Machine upright upon all times to insure safety and stableness." "Not recommend for use by Children under the age seven." "WARNING: Manufacturer makes no warranties, either express or implied, whether in tort, contract, by statute or otherwise. And particularly makes no warranty of merchantability or fitness for any particular purpose whatsoever, in regard to anyu products sold by Hatsuhana Time Machine Company (Hong Kong), LLC." (By the way, other than the name of the company, that last one is copied verbatim from an actual warranty.)

Two Coke Zeros, a lot of swearing and a beer later, I had the thing put together. The instructions clearly stated that two people were required for operation, but I was anxious to try it out and didn't want to wait for Carol to return from her hair appointment (Christ, she's gone all day when she gets her hair done - what is UP with that?), so I decided I could handle it by myself and set the controls back to when I was age three. I flipped the switch, then hustled inside the chamber and bolted the hatch closed. Based on all the sci-fi movies I'd seen where time travel was an element, I was expecting a rugged ride, with flashing lights and loud pops and at the end I'd be thrown out from some height down to the ground, disoriented and possibly with a nose bleed. However, the "trip" was nothing like that -- I sat quietly inside the dark chamber for what seemed at most a minute or so. Then a buzzer went off and I was able to unlock the hatch from the inside. I stepped out into the backyard of the row house in Baltimore where my family lived when I was three years old -- there was the jungle gym where my mom had to sit on one swing so the frame wouldn't rise out of the ground while I played on the other swing. In fact, there was my mother -- sitting in that very spot -- and there was little me, swinging and calling to her: "Lookit! Look, Mommy! I'm high up in space!" She was reading a magazine and looked up just long enough to say, "That's nice,” then went back to her reading.

I was then aware of feeling “merged” with my younger version – I began to feel what little Johnny was experiencing, right down to the rush of wind on my face and floppy feeling in my stomach as I swung to and fro, while still maintaining some semblance of my 56-year-old cognition in terms of understanding what was happening. Physically, I was limited to my three-year-old self and therefore only able to crib these quick notes in chalk and crayon regarding my trip back in time:
·      Swing is FUN! Going to leap off NOW… NOW… NOW… maybe not yet. I need some meclizine first.
·      “Mommy, can I have a snack? I’d like some cheesy crackers and a glass of Prosecco.”
·      Furniture is IMMENSE. I could fall into cracks between couch cushions and disappear from sight. Oh, look -- raisins! Yum-um-um…
·      “I don’t wanna take a nap! Will you read me a story if I do? OK – read me Thomas Friedman’s column from today’s Times.”
·      Bedroom larger than I remember. Mattress could be better – memory foam with pocketed coils would be much more comfortazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
·      “Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home! Daddy, did you bring me a present? Oh, a balsa wood rubber band airplane… I really would have preferred an iPhone 5S.”
·      Can’t find MSNBC on the television, only 3 broadcast channels and something fuzzy called “UHF”.
·      “Mommy, are you and Daddy gonna give me a baby sister? If you do, would you please transfer your assets into a living trust so I can assume ownership of this house without having to do battle with her in probate court?”
·      Mother’s home cooking brought back so many memories. Pot roast, salt potatoes, peas and carrots, blueberry cobbler – so delicious! My tummy is full... Oops, I made a stinky.

After my father gave me a bath and put me to bed I started to wonder how I would ever return to the present day. As soon as my thoughts went back to the life I’d left behind, I found myself within the time travel chamber. After another few moments of darkness, the hatch opened and I was back in the apartment, tools strewn on the floor, with seemingly no time elapsed since I’d first stepped into the machine. At that very moment Carol walked through the door, her hair freshly styled from the salon, not at all aware of what I had been through. I started to explain but realized it was too fantastic for anyone else to comprehend – plus she had brought home two immense lobster rolls and a pint of chowder for dinner. I was suddenly famished – time travel takes more out of you than you might think. As we enjoyed our meal, I thought back on my experience and realized “you can’t go home again” – we can’t relive the past but can call upon it to enrich our perspectives about the present. Rather than feeling wistful for my childhood, I should focus on the joy of being with our friends and their children and build new memories from those adventures. As I came to that realization, I was quickly overwhelmed with a sensation that seemed to emanate from my very soul and course through my entire being...

Oops, I made a stinky. That lobster was rich.