Saturday, October 31, 2015

I Got A Nice Rack Rate

I wrote recently about my experience trying to get someone from CenturyLink, my phone company, to sell me some upgraded service. I spent well over an hour on my cell phone on hold, and then another fifteen minutes listening to my service representative's immediate environs, while he tapped at his keyboard and periodically asked me if I was still there. I was, but he couldn't hear me, and eventually he hung up. I don't know why he couldn't hear me. I visualized him in front of a bank of wires pulling the plugs in and out and mine wasn't in all the way. But that's probably not how it works, or in this case, doesn't work.

Well, things happen. I get that. I could imagine being in his situation myself, reaching way over my left shoulder for the telephone while standing on the recorder pedal for the transcription machine for eighteen minutes like Rose Mary Woods, and all of a sudden all my boss's incriminating conversation is lost in the ether by accident, because things happen. It would have been my hope that someone from my phone company could figure out how to maintain a conversation because he's in the communications business, but such is not always the case.

Because when he gave up and called me on my land line, which he happened to know because he's from my phone company, he was still having problems with the communication aspect, particularly in the area of saying something I understood and getting an appropriate response back from me. The last time I spent that much time on the phone, I was talking to someone in India. I had been on the phone so long I could have set up medical insurance through Obamacare by then, and I no longer remembered why I'd called in the first place. Oh yes: we were talking about rates, and bundling, and what services I could get when.

I was confused, so he explained very carefully. It was something about my modem, and how many phone jacks I had, and what they did together in their spare time, and the fact that I'm in a GPON zone, and whether or not I get a rack rate.

"Rack jack what now?"

GPON. GPON. He explained I had copper in my wires, or didn't have copper in my wires. I don't remember which, or why, but it sounded personal.

The service representatives at CenturyLink go out for beers after work and rag on about how stupid people in the GPON zones are. I know they do. I know this because I also used to be in the communications business.

Some poor postal customer with a legitimate complaint would call up the station and get the boss on the line--our ring was twenty-five "shorts," and he had to wait for all 25 to be sure they wanted us, and not the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is 24--and he'd listen for a minute. Then he'd say "well, ma'am, I cain't do nothing about that, because your carrier is on LWOP, but the T-6 is over there helping out with the nixies, and I'll put a note here for the 204-B to give you a call once he's done entering the MSPs," and then he'd hold the phone out from his ear for another minute, and hang up and say "what a bitch." Then go out for beers.

So answering the phone is not all there is to communication. Most of us letter carriers were better at it. Here's what it looks like. Customer complains. Carrier nods sympathetically. Agrees, in standard English, that this is a truly awful problem. Promises to try to get to the bottom of it. And says "I'm sorry."

Then goes out for beers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Do, Do That Voodoo

There's been a bit of a squabble in the right-to-life/pro-choice world. It happens.

While everyone agrees that there has been a 40% decrease in the number of abortions in Iowa since 2007, the explanation remains controversial. Planned Parenthood spokesman Penny Dickey noted that the drop correlates well with the increased use of long-term contraception such as IUDs and hormone implants.

But Iowa Right To Life director Jennifer Bowen dismissed that assertion, stating that contraception has a huge failure rate. Planned Parenthood countered that the failure rate is less than one percent. Which triggered the retort that for the unlucky one percent, that corresponds to a 100% failure rate. Bowen attributed the reduced abortion numbers to an increase in baby pictures in the social media. Planned Parenthood pointed out that birth rates had not gone up at all, and so contraception, which they provide at low cost, is the only logical explanation for the drop.

Bowen declared instead that abortions are becoming rarer because of an increase in the number and intensity of people's prayers to not get pregnant. "Iowans have finally started getting in touch with the Man Upstairs," she said.

Asked to comment, the Planned Parenthood representative stared at the wall for a full minute, looking depressed, and finally mumbled something about the whole notion of "upstairs" being a relative concept constrained by the forces of gravity, and that no one really knows where, assuming there is a Man, he is; at which point everybody quit listening.

Energized, Bowen further touted the power of Iowan prayer. "Hawkeyes are a strange breed, and proof of that is the fact that as soon as they started praying more frequently and vigorously, the Man Upstairs started listening," she said. The prayer initiative is paying off. Previously, men had been praying mostly before intercourse, and women afterwards, but now they're doing it while they're doing it, and the effect has obviously been remarkable. It was a natural progression; it all started with oh God oh God oh God and then it was just a matter of fine-tuning and elaboration.

"Maybe everyone was praying the contraception would work," the Planned Parenthood spokesman muttered into a dead mike in an empty room.

"We have plans to also start incorporating various other types of prayers in order to start ridding children of different diseases while they're still in their mother's wombs," Bowen went on. A website is already in the works, including a navigable menu with items such as Petition 101.68: Lead us not into dementia, and deliver us from pigmentary cirrhosis. There has also been a proposal for a special pamphlet with a Sickle-Cell Anemia prayer fold-out to be distributed through Mickey D's. Everyone agrees it's a nice touch for the coloreds, but then again Iowans are nice people.

The Man Upstairs is reported to be totally on board with reducing abortions in Iowa. Presumably he could achieve a zero-abortion goal any time he wants to, but he's the sort who likes to be begged.

"We also have other plans," Ms. Bowen went on, "but unfortunately this is all I have the authority to divulge at the moment." Her smile remained enigmatic, but her administrative assistant was heard to say the Hawkeyes are looking real good in Escape Comet Bingo.

The Planned Parenthood spokesman was unavailable to comment due to heavy drinking. But other concerned factions were quick to criticize Ms. Bowen's take on the drop in abortions. One contingent insisted that there can be no such prayer effect and nothing short of a live blood sacrifice could account for the reduction. Furthermore, an animal no less evolved than a goat would do. If you merely toss a crab in a pot, explained a spokesman for the Mambo Miracle Institute, the Man Upstairs might have reason to doubt your sincerity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

How To Score

The thing is, Dave has had plenty of opportunity to kill me, and he hasn't done it. It's one of the things I love about him. And this is a love story.

For the record, this is also my annual baseball story. This is the time of year I start thinking about baseball, and also salted peanuts in the shell. It's a happy time. And I like every form of baseball. Including softball, which I learned how to play in my twenties. Dave went to my games. He always told me I was the best little softball player he'd ever seen who didn't have any actual skills. At all.

I listened.  I paid attention to my coach. I understood where to go and who to back up and how to run the bases smart. This made it very exciting to watch me play. Because I had a good grasp of the fundamentals, there was always the chance I'd be in the right place to knock down the ball and scoop it up, and would know where to throw it, and then there'd be that suspense while the ball loitered in the air on its rainbow trajectory. Would it roll all the way to the base before the runner got there? If she, say, broke her leg or something?

Or suppose I was running the bases. I knew just how far to overshoot second, I kept my eye on the third base coach, I gave it everything I had at the "go" sign. Spectators could track me by the slowly moving dust cloud. Would I make it? Yes! The outfielder threw it home and the lead runner knocked over the catcher! The ball is squirting around in the backstop and no one can find it! And there I am, a minute later, on third!

I don't know why I run so slow. It feels like gravity has a much greater hold on me than it does on other people. I am pounding that ground like a set of sledgehammer pistons but there's not a lot of forwardness.

Of course, I had the benefit of playing in a league--the "P" league, as I recall--far enough behind the elite city leagues that our home field was somewhere in the Oort Cloud. But sometimes we'd get up a coed team at the post office and challenge another station for beer and glory. That's how I ended up playing on the same team as Dave. Dave was good. He wasn't a slugger, but he could crack that ball into the holes in the outfield. He ran bases like an electron. His glove was a vacuum.  And he could knock a honeybee out of the air from ninety feet away.

So there I am playing first base, and Dave is crouched near third, and the batter connects with a screamer that should have just nipped inside the baseline, but Dave is long and tall and quick, and he knocks the ball down. I'm in perfect position for the throw to first. I have my heel on the bag and I'm leaning hard toward third with my mitt out, my face lined up behind it. The runner is bearing down on first. Dave loses the ball in the dust for a few moments and then grabs it and rockets it my way. As he remembers it, he glanced at the base and saw the runner was still a yard off and he could still get him. Instinct kicked in.

As I remember it, an orb was streaking straight for my glove like a freaking meteor, and all I had to do was stand there and we win the game. And when that orb, with its little flaming tail of cosmic dust, was a foot away from my glove, the glove with my face right behind it, instinct kicked in. I called on my old friend Gravity and hit the dirt.

I could hear the ball searing the air over my prostrate form and the cheers from the bleachers as the winning run came in from second base and a startled zzzzup? from a flattened honeybee in the next county and I thought: shit. What's the matter with me? All I had to do was stand there. I am such a goat. This was for a keg, for God's sake.

And oh God, Dave was running toward me. And he picked me up and hugged me hard. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what happened. As soon as I let it go, I thought: I just killed my girlfriend! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Because Love isn't just for tennis.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Tweedle Of Doom

I am working in my garden when all of a sudden I hear the distinctive, furious tweedling of a pissed-off hummingbird. Or, as I like to call it, a hummingbird.

They're all pissed off. They start out life with just a couple of cells like everyone else, but by the time they've hit the eighteenth cell division or so--at which point we have achieved about two-thirds of a hummingbird--our hero has discovered he's jammed into a pellet the size of a Tic-Tac and there's not going to be a lot to him. He's pissed.

I kind of know how he feels. I remember a soaring, optimistic time when I actually seemed to be growing. The annual pencil marks on the door jamb were getting farther apart for a while, and then the increments began to ratchet down, until finally the last mark just got darker and darker. I had beached myself somewhere just south of 5'4", and I said "oh well" and "that's that" because I am a pragmatic person, but the hummer takes it personally.

He has about two weeks in the egg to think about it, and he thinks if he ever gets out of here, there'll be hell to pay. By the time he has hammered his way out of the egg, he is a model of obstrepery. He takes a good look around, which takes hardly any time at all, and assesses the situation. The situation is that he has hatched with all of the attitude but none of the feathers of an adult hummingbird, and, in his last act of discretion and diplomacy, he bides his time. And then it's all Goodbye, Mama, and Who The Hell Are You People?

He isn't interested in making friends. And he'll be go-to-hell if any of those other pointy-headed bastards are going to dip their diddlers in his flower patch.  Mine, mine, mine. That's the hummingbird motto. And then he cuts loose with the Tweedle Of Doom followed by a sound like the sharpening of the bill against a steel: tweedle tweedle tweedle, snick...snick snick.

He needs the nectar from the flowers, or from the feeder he has yet to thank me for, in order to power his remarkable wings. What he's really after is spider meat. If he's got enough fuel for the wings, he can delete a spider from her web before she has a chance to mount an objection. He'll get what nectar he needs and park himself on a nearby branch to conduct personal hygiene and stand guard. Anyone approaches his stash and he's all over his ass, and off they go like the Blue Angels in an air show. If they had any concept of sharing, they wouldn't need so much damn fuel. Tweedle tweedle tweedle, snick...snick snick.

I wouldn't take him on. I know he's an Anna's Hummingbird, but I'm keeping it to myself. He isn't claiming allegiance to anyone.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Complete Coverage At Eleven

The man they are calling the Maxi-Pad bandit was apprehended quickly. He had robbed an auto parts store in Apple Valley, California whilst wearing a Maxi-Pad over his eyes. If he'd had any experience with the things, he'd never have gone that route. I'm not sure exactly what tipped off the police. Perhaps they put out an APB for a large man in a dark T-shirt who had lost his eyebrows to the adhesive strip.

But anyone familiar with Maxi-Pads would have been able to tell him that no matter how carefully you position the thing, your identity is going to leak out at some point. He might have had better luck if he'd tried the kind with wings, which would have concealed his nose and forehead. But even with an overnight pad, you're never going to be able to count on complete coverage.

The police spokesperson indicated he might have been under the influence of something, and I can't quibble with that. Any time I was under the influence of anything that required the use of Maxi-Pads, I felt a crime spree coming on.

At least he was fortunate enough to begin his spree after the invention of the adhesive strip. If he'd tried to rip off an auto parts store in the 'Sixties, he'd have been in a world of hurt. No matter how well he tightened the little belt, the sucker was bound to travel. It would slide down his face or up over his forehead but it would not stay where he intended to be.

Another thing to consider was once he'd decided to go with the Maxi-Pad, swimming was out for the rest of the day. If he'd had even an ounce of creativity, he might have been able to fashion something along the lines of a sombrero with tampons tied to the brim where the dingleballs are supposed to be. Even if his features were visible through the swinging tampons, most witnesses would be too astonished to recall them. Then all he'd have to do is ditch the hat in the nearest dumpster and he's home free. But there's something about this fellow that makes me suspect he'd just go around the corner to the Burger King and sit at a table with his tampon hat on and admire his auto parts. And somebody would notice.

Wait! Panty liners! Dude totally could have gone with panty liners. He'd appreciate the slim contour, comfort and lack of bulkiness. He could cover his whole face with a half dozen and still have some left over for the tattoos on his arms, which were by the way visible in the surveillance video.

Instead it looks like he's going to jail. He should have used StayFree.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I've Got Your Biological Imperative Right Here

The nicest lady
The nicest lady volunteered to take a group of us out to the Gorge to watch salmon spawning. I was all over it. I figured she'd have plenty of practice spotting salmon, and I'd have a better chance of seeing them myself. But they weren't hard to spot. There were a skillion salmon out there just having at it, and they did not care who was watching.

It's a heroic little venture those fish have going. Zip out to the ocean, spend a few years, and motor back to the home stream just in time to spawn and drop dead. Reproduction is the usual collaborative effort between males and females, but it's hard to see what's in it for anybody. There's a biological imperative operating, and whoever doesn't get with the program is a dead-end kid, in terms of personal legacy. But what a shoddy deal.

The female, at least, can look forward to dropping a lot of eggs more or less at once. That's certainly an improvement over the human model, which is one long protracted interlude of bloat and dirty laundry without a lot to show for most of it. The salmon is going to have a shot at a couple thousand kids, but she's not going to see them into kindergarten.

The way it works is the salmon make their way to the cold, fresh waters of their childhood. The females set about making a nest in the gravelly stream bottom. They do this by turning sideways and going whappity whappity whappity with their tails, cleaning the scuzz off the pebbles and sending the smaller stuff and silt downstream, until they've scooped out a  bit of a depression. The finished product is called a "redd" and can be observed as a clean patch of gravel in the stream bottom, as well as in crossword puzzles. Once she's got everything just so, she signals a male from among the group hanging out nearby, and they sidle up to each other and she drops some eggs and he shoots his wad of milt and the female makes an attempt to cover the eggs and whatever doesn't get eaten by birds or bears or other fish turns into salmon babies. Once the little guys are an inch long, we call them "fry," which is just rude. It's like calling piglets "roast."

The female might do this up to seven times, always traveling upstream, and the disturbed gravel and silt from her whappiting float down and help cover her previous efforts. That part is slick. The nature of the motivation for the males is unclear. On his way to the spawning grounds, he grows a set of canine teeth with which he can take a nip out of the butts of competing males. So some of the thrashing we witnessed was females making a nest and some of it was males duking it out for the privilege of wanking off in front of a female. Because when he finally gets the word from a ready female, there isn't anything like what we'd consider real erotic contact. They just swim side by side. The nearness of you, and all that. It's got to be done; but it seems less like passion than, say, patriotism. And then there's the whole dying part.

Mmm. Braaiiiins.
These salmon look beat to hell, and no mistake. They're patchy and weird. They quit eating when they reach freshwater, and their stomachs crumble away. The females' tails are shredded up from all the whappiting. They're a mess. And besides that, they're constantly dodging dead salmon floating downstream, which you would think would give them pause. But salmon, to their credit, do not suffer from existential dread.

Many of the salmon we saw looked, from the relatively good condition of their tails, as though they had died before spawning, which is altogether the wrong order of events. It's been a rough year for water in the Northwest. It's too shallow. It's too warm. It's too altogether missing.

But it's all the same to the bears, who'll take their fish dead, dying, or shiny. They haul them up into the woods, eat their brains, discard the rest, and poop, thus effectively redistributing nitrogen to the forest plants. You always knew what they do in the woods. Now you know why. They're always thinking of others, bears.

Here's a little video of our salmon, plus a bonus video of an American Dipper who thinks there might just be salmon eggs around (and he's right):

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Circle Chirp

We have two crickets in our yard, and they are at the five-foot level of our raspberry canes. We can hear them, but we haven't seen them. Many people, including myself until about a week ago, believe they chirp by rubbing their legs together. In my defense, I would add that I have been able to use the word "stridulate" in a sentence for decades. But they don't use their legs. They use a pair of wings. The upper part of one wing is stroked against the nubbly part of another wing. It's the males making the noise. They're hoping to attract females, in theory, but they also attract parasitic flies that lay eggs on them and the fly maggots eventually eat their way out of the cricket, to its lasting detriment. So it isn't the grandest plan. I think we can safely conclude that the crickets chirp because they really, really like to. In fact, a young male cricket can sit in his bedroom and stroke his wings all night long.

Our crickets are likely to be Snowy Tree Crickets. And those are pale, if not precisely snowy, and probably hard to see against the raspberry leaves. Usually one of our crickets gets the show going at nightfall. The second one pops in a little later, but they chirp in unison. That's totally normal. If we had more than two crickets, they'd sit in a circle and go off all at once. Our second cricket has a slightly higher-pitched chirp. I assume his instrument is a little smaller.

The Snowy Tree Cricket chirp rate is related to the ambient temperature and can be predicted, it says here, using a simple formula expressed in Dolbear's Law. Well, I never heard of Mr. Dolbear and, not that I'm a libertarian or anything, I thought his law was on the unnecessary side. And who was this fellow whose only contribution of note was a cricket chirp temperature predictor? Well!

Mr. Amos Dolbear in fact invented the telephone eleven years before Alexander Graham Bell. And he invented the wireless radio years before Marconi. And the only thing he couldn't do was get his patents to stick. A full plan for a remote-control color HD television set was recently discovered in an 1888 file of his marked "what the hell." So Mr. Dolbear was a very clever man, and yet all we have left of him now is this cricket thing. It would be like if you invented sliced bread and later the Internet, and a hundred years from now nobody's even heard of you except for your Law of Peonies ("the bloom period of peonies is directly correlated with the incidence of hail"). It's sad, is what I'm saying.

And now, thanks to Mr. Dolbear, we can tell what the temperature is by how fast a young cricket is chirping, but we still can't make him stop. Even if we tell him "you keep doing that, and flies are going to burst out of your abdomen," he'll still do it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Call Is Very Important To Them

I've told you about my internet service provider Spiretech before. You call them up and someone answers on the first ringy-dingy. They fix what's wrong. Twice they even had me bring in my computer--they're right in town--and decontaminated it for free and got its vaccinations up to date.

But the best they can do for me is DSL through the phone company, and not the fast kind, either. It's way better than dial-up of course but there are problems. More and more my computer acts like it's taken in a bolus of data and it can't swallow. I really need an internet service with a bigger esophagus.

So I was ripe for the picking when I got a cold call from the phone company offering me super duper fiber based speed-of-light internet service, and if I signed up today they'd throw in extra fiber, and vitamins and minerals and TV. And candy through the mail slot. I signed up. I hated to do it. Poor old Spiretech. They've been so good to me. And now I'd have to change my email address and probably about a thousand usernames. On the plus side, I'd be able to send Comcast packing for my TV connection. Everybody hates Comcast.

We shook over the phone, the salesman and I, and he promised to send an installer by on October 16th and email me a raft of information about what I'd agreed to, and that was that. And that was two weeks ago. And no email. I did scrawl a confirmation number on an envelope I managed to not recycle. So today I called up and asked for my information. Well!

The hold music was peppy. There was a boogie-woogie element to it that I approved of. I waited only a couple minutes and then got a guy who knew a guy and I got put on hold again so he could connect me to the guy he knew.

That guy was popular, all right. He didn't come to the phone for another ten minutes, during which time I was able to ascertain that the boogie-woogie element was but one segment in a medley that included a Europop offering that got old quick. "Logan," once he showed up, had a nice voice that appeared to originate in this country. So that was innovative. We talked. He had to put me on hold to check my status.

And that status was that I hadn't gotten an email because someone (else) put my order in wrong, and he wasn't sure if anyone was really coming out on October 16th or not. Did I remember what I'd signed up for? Well, I thought it was the whole works. Did I remember how much I was supposed to pay? Not really. All that was supposed to be in the confirmation email. Logan didn't know what I was getting, or when I was getting it. He suggested we start over. Fine! But before he could start over, he needed to make sure my other order was not merely dead but really most sincerely dead, so that my orders wouldn't trip over each other on the way to my house. He put me on hold.

Really, the boogie-woogie element wasn't that great. I mean, all boogie-woogie is just fine, but the bridge was lame, and the refrain was totally derivative. The segue was a complete rip-off from the Doobie Brothers. They should sue.

Logan checked in periodically to see if I was still there, and I was. Because my cell phone keeps track of such things, I noted that I had now been on the phone for 64 minutes. You don't give up. It's the Vietnam War syndrome. We've already lost 50,000 of our boys, and it would be a dishonor to their memory if we didn't sacrifice a few more platoons.

Logan came back on. "Mary? Are you there?" I'm here! I shouted into the phone, like a trapped coal miner. Can you hear me?

Apparently not. The hold music was off, and I heard random clicking from his keyboard, and also the entire conversation of the woman working next to him. She just had her toenails done. I know! But sometime you just got to do things just for you own self, am I right?

Logan came back on every two minutes or so to see if I was still there, but he didn't answer when I bellowed back. It was clear he could not hear me. I began to consider hanging up. I thought back: was this phone call being recorded for quality purposes? I sincerely hoped so. I didn't remember. That would have been--check the phone--79 minutes ago. Then the phone went dead.

A few seconds later my land line rang. It was Logan, clever dude. He was pretty sure he'd gotten to the bottom of the problem. So we were going to start over. Next Tuesday.

"Is that when you're sending someone out to hook me up?"

No. He'd call me next Tuesday to place the order. I didn't ask why we couldn't do it now. I was too happy we weren't going to do it now. I'm going to send Logan a Christmas fruitcake, I'm so grateful we aren't doing it now.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Patriots of Yorktown

Note eyebrows

I'm sorry I couldn't make it to the high school reunion--you all seemed to have such a good time catching up. Some of you have been kind enough to email me and ask what I've been up to for the past 45 years. So let's see. As many of you may recall, I wanted to be a writer. I was young, and didn't realize that isn't a thing. Also, you're supposed to write what you know, and I didn't know anything. And the things I was starting to learn were not things I wanted to write about as long as my mother was alive. So it took me a little time to find my calling.

I went off to college intending to be a psychology major, only I'd figured out psychology was pretty much bullshit by the time Mom and Dad dropped me off at the campus. So I threw myself into the liberal arts, until I took my first science class and realized my mistake. In four years I'd ricocheted into a biology degree and then scored an exceptionally low-paying job in my field by wearing a low-cut dress to the interview. I spent two years torturing about a billion white mice in ways you don't want to know about for chump change and then I moved across the country just for the hell of it and eked out rent and beer money doing Art. Which means I was like any other kid coming to Portland, Oregon today, except that back then we could afford rent.

By this time I discovered that a surprising number of my college classmates, who by all appearances were carefree hippies like myself with majors such as Comparative Religious Holograms and Medieval Basketry, had quietly gone off to get law degrees and were pulling down six figures and didn't have furniture made out of cinderblocks and planks. This troubled me for a while until I satisfied myself they were miserable, and by then I was taking my first steps toward my dream job. I became a drunken mailman for fifteen years. After that I was merely a moderately lit-up mailman for another sixteen years. And all of it was in service to the great plan, and culminated in the job I'd been meaning to have my whole life: retired mailman who enjoys a good beer or two.

That pretty much covers the picture. There was probably other stuff in there, but I don't remember it. For instance, I don't know precisely when my eyebrows went away. I'm as curious about that as anyone.

But that's just hair under the bridge. Now I'm old enough to have perspective instead of eyebrows. There's no shortcut to perspective: it takes time. Perspective is what allows you to be happy maintaining a weight that horrified you when you first approached it from the other direction. Thanks! You all look great too.

And with perspective and seasoning, I get to be a writer after all, so it all worked out. Plus I never had to be a whore about it. I'm the pure kind of writer. The unpaid kind.

Yes, that means I'm free.