Sunday, July 29, 2007

Desert Dreams ... and Nightmares

Someday, Noodles' Mom will be free of the Mojave Desert, and someday, Sandra Bullock's layabout husband will be a major wage earner, capable of whisking his family away for exotic vacations every summer.

Until one or both of those days arrive, the Jawa and I will define our summer vacation as a week at Edwards Air Force Base, deep in the evil, sandy heart of the Mojave, 25 miles from the nearest town.

We have been here since last Saturday, and will return home to San Francisco -- and its soothing, oft-maligned by many but not me 65 degree fogginess -- tomorrow.

Noodles' Mom does a good job of keeping everyone busy normally, but this time both Noodles and Count Burpalot were laid low with "walking ammonia," limiting our entertainment options. For example, there were no visits to the local (that is, Air Force-sponsored and 25 miles from the next closest) swimming pool. Instead, in a moment of sheer genius, Noodles' Mom went to the "BX" and bought a ten dollar swimming pool, which the suddenly oversized and teetering on the edge of adolescence children splashed in happily for hours.

Truly enjoying this trip has been Shack. Free of his concrete jungle of a yard, he's spent hours in the heat, running roughshod through my sister's huge backyard. Seriously. When he gets home, he's going to feel very ripped off.

Me, I blasted my way through about a half-dozen books in a week, stayed up later than everyone else and slept through breakfast. Some nights, lying in my neice's bed with the Jawa, four thousand pictures of horses looking down at us, I'd put down whatever book I was blazing through and watch my son sleep.

I know that the days of it seeming very cute for the father-son team to share a bed are dwindling. Before long it'll seem kind of gross, just two hairy guys with the same DNA squished into a bed.

But for now, I can look over and watch him lie there and look like a miniature, male version of our own Sandra Bullock, who at this very moment is applying another coat of "Brown Bag"-colored paint to the new archway.

Unfortunately, once you get past the waning days of cuteness, sharing a bed with my Jawa is no pleasure cruise. The child is a whirling dervish, rolling around restlessly, wrapping himself up in the covers, sweating badly enough (and sleeping deeply enough) that I can amuse myself for quite some time by running my hands through his hair until it stands up, Heat Miser-style, or fans out in the manner of the look favored by Cure frontman Robert Smith.

Today I was driving through the desert, trying to convince myself that all of those Gram Parsons, desert-loving, headband-wearing or ATV-driving types aren't insane. As I drove, I passed the occasional beat-up gate with a sign saying stuff like "Caliente Ranch," indicating that there are people for whom the great dream is to chuck it all, buy some land (from Van Ness Brokers' Mimi Song, perhaps? Her name dominates a stretch of the Palmdale Highway outside of Llano) and wake up to peace, quiet, Road Runners and the sun's unforgiving rays.

Good on them, I guess, but I still think they're nuts. Even the mis-named town of Lake Los Angeles, with its run-down shacks and weird, giant piles of rocks peaked my interest only in that it looked like the kind of place you'd use as a setting in a story about two people who've been so beat up by the world that they think they no longer have any chance at love.

Even weirder: I was driving down Avenue O, twenty miles from anything, and every mile or so I'd see someone walking. Didn't matter what age -- young, old, kids, adults -- people walking. Run down, messed-up, beat all to pieces. Walking down a desert road, miles from anywhere.

And a thought about these desert communities -- Victorville, Palmdale, Hesperia, Lancaster -- so let me think about this: I'm going to go home tomorrow and duck down while Prius drivers tsk tsk me for driving a big heavy car. Meanwhile, they're building thousands of new houses in Victorville, and there's no water there.

Someday, hopefully soon, we will spend our summer vacation at a butt-kicking beach house somewhere, either in California or one of the mysterious (to me, anyway) beaches of the Atlantic Coast, with my sister and her family. No one will worry about going into bankruptcy or getting their plans crushed by the United States Air Force. Everyone, in other words, will be happy.

Except Shack, who's really going to miss this huge backyard.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

An Icon Reaches the End of the Road

One bright spot in this summer of discontent has been the time I've spent with my Jawa. He had camp -- out in the lush wonderland that is Marin County -- Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, but he was home today, leaving me wondering how to fill the daylight hours without a) watching lots of Cartoon Network, or b) arguing with each other. Given our limited resources, naturally I had only a few options to work with.

I chose to go to the San Francisco Zoo. As zoos go, it's pretty lame and occasionally cruel, but it's the only zoo we've got, and we're members, so it costs nothing to go. Off we went.

Being a committed and consciencious parent, the kind who would never let his kid go off into a wave pool unsupervised, I packed water, fruit and sweatshirts into my backpack.

Now let me give you a little background on this backpack. Bought for $19.99 the day after Mark's wedding (in 1999), the small, sturdy, outrageously unhip pack has served as a sports bag, an overnight bag, a book bag and outright luggage. It has travelled by air, both as a carry-on and as checked luggage. It has carried hundreds of ounces of bottled water at once, then sat on my back as if light as a feather. It has survived a sea change of styles, in which one went from carrying it slung over one shoulder to wearing it over both. I prefer both, myself. It has even outlasted Mark's marriage, I'm sad to say.

And now, it is gone. Dead. Broken like so many pairs of $15.99 sunglasses.

It was a day like any other, and the backpack's responsibilities were quite familiar. The Jawa and I left the house en route to Steve & Kate's camp in Mill Valley, along with the Shamen and 400 Yu-Gi-Oh cards. In the backpack were two white workout towels, a bottle of water, my lock, my workout gloves, an iPod and my wallet. Plus a Blistex and some change (for the newspaper).

I dropped the kids off at camp, marvelled at the differences between San Francisco and Mill Valley, navigated the parking lot full of Volvos much like my own, then continued out to Larkspur to the gym.

It went like this for another 90 minutes, me in the gym, secure in the thought that my reliable, trusted backpack was doing its job without complaint, carrying things, being thrown into a locker, slammed up against the locker walls, hung on a hook, just like it has been hundreds of times before.

But this time, when I went to get my stuff after the workout, something was different: when I unzipped the small pocket in the back, the zipper came off in my hand.

No more backpack.

Lets be fair, here. It wasn't even a Jansport. It was some off-brand. Everytime I wore it, I'm sure people wondered why I didn't just pony up for the Jansport. Or maybe they wondered why I was stuck in 1999, backpack-wise, when there had been so many improvements in backpack technology since. I liked my backpack. No, I loved my backpack. It was a silent, supportive partner in so many of my pursuits.

I tried to go on like nothing was wrong. "The pocket is pretty secure," I thought to myself, "Lets give it a shot."

Three strides and my iPod came crashing out onto the floor. Two more and there went some change. The backpack was trying, but there was no way to ignore the truth: it had run its course.

I am left with a large hole in my life.

A few years ago, feeling insecure and wanting to bring my look more up-to-date, I bought a new backpack at Old Navy. Yellow and having seemingly hundreds of straps, it clung closely to my back, sleek and stylish, but not very practical. For one, it didn't zip down the sides like my old backpack. It had a lid that snapped down, instead. Instead of unzipping to reveal everything I'd placed inside, this backpack required that I reach blindly inside, counting on fate and naked hope to retrieve whatever I wanted.

The back sipper pocket is too narrow. I put my wallet and iPod in there and it bulges out weirdly. And there're these two weird metal clip things on it. They don't clip to anything. They just hang there. It's a lousy design, and yet it cost the same $19.99 as my faux-Jansport.

But I have no choice. If Sandra Bullock must turn in her Acura and be doomed to the Genentech shuttle, I will suffer my uncomfortable fate. I will wear the yellow backpack. I will reach blindly inside for my towels and my water bottle. I will listen to the random clanking of the two metal pieces that attach to nothing.

Today I tried again to wear the old backpack, to the zoo. I put nothing in the broken pocket. Instead, I put everything in the large pocket, which made for some sweaty moments as I reached in, looking for my sunglasses amidst the water bottles and sweatshirts. It put an edge onto my day, but when you're walking around a zoo, holding hands with your nine-year-old son, how big of an edge can it be?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Stain on My Day

Not much bothers me as much as when people assume that my "lifestyle" is the result of some kind of well-planned scam, that all of the poor career decisions I've made are a smokescreen. In their eyes, I am a genius of slack, somehow having convinced this poor, hardworking woman to finance my educational whimsies, then trudge off to work while I sit at home, eating malted milk balls and watching TV.

This simply is not so. I've gotten where I am today via 20 years of random screw-ups, short-sighted thinking and a breathtaking inability to fit my square pegged-self into the conveniently round holes of society. Don't let the polo shirt fool you; I am one seriously out-of-sync guy.

And lest you think that my days stretch out before me as endless fun, consider that the complications of my days, while seemingly trivial, have no less impact on my ability to enjoy myself than an unreasonable boss or client does yours.

Consider today's conundrum: I woke up feeling like someone had just slammed me in the jaw with a 2 x 4, drove the Jawa to Discovery Science camp (this week is one of the three this summer in which he has an actual planned activity), went to the gym, drove home and ... hmm ... seems to be a very unusual smell in the house.

It hit me immediately after opening the door. Shack stood there, hanging his ridiculously giganticly-eared head in shame. I looked around and found nothing. But ... that ... smell. It was not good, not the way I hope our house usually smells.

"I'll find it eventually," I thought jauntily, then continued into the bedroom to separate laundry.

It was while hauling the laundry basket downstairs that I found it. Not a small pool of urine, or a sad, but manageable pile of vomit. No, what began yesterday as a hint -- while at the dog park, the Jawa mentioned that "Shack's poo has the consistency of pudding," thus guaranteeing that we would be eating no pudding for the immediate future -- now sat before me in colorful, malodorous symptomatic form: Shack is not feeling well.

I'm sure you've heard people describe how, during an auto accident or other traumatic event, time seems to slow down. Consider finding a giant stack of dog diarhea parked next to the dining room table a traumatic event. Time slowed down. In fact, I had enough time to consider whether I had any chance of ignoring the problem, before admitting that I would have to do something about it.

Quickly coming to my sense, I thought, "Carpet cleaner." But we had none. So I grabbed what I could with two paper towels, then sprinted down the front steps to the garbage can, making noises only decipherable by zealots who handle snakes for fun. This took care of the lion's share of the problem, but left an indelible stain on our very tired and on its last legs dining room rug.

Consider our dining room, and my role in its present state. Even if you take away Shack's attention-grabbing efforts, the room is no show-stopper. We have a formica table that was really cool when we bought it for $99 in 1995, thinking that it'd be hip and retro and provide a bridge until we could afford a real dining room table. Twelve years later, it's still here.

As is the tired old blue rug, dotted with small keepsakes from various meals the Jawa has eaten since we bought it, in 2000. Sandra Bullock has been planning our dining room makeover since 2002. We have decided on at least 5 dining room tables and a half-dozen rugs. And yet, when it came time for Shack to cut loose, he knew that if he went into the dining room, we would care that much, because we still have the same post-collegiate, stained, falling-apart setup in there that we've had since moving to San Francisco. If this is a con I'm running, it's a particularly cruel one.

Still no carpet cleaner. I would have to improvise.

Can you use Comet on a rug? The label says "no." Windex? Lysol? No, and no. I remembered that my mother kept a large bottle of something called "Simple Green" around, so I drove to the grocery store and bought some, then sprayed about half the bottle on the stain. This left me with a wider, more deeply ingrained stain.

Downstairs I found some Baking Soda stuff. I poured it on the stain. 30 minutes later, the stain was still there, but now at least it smelled like Baking Soda instead of Shack's intestinal distress.

Meanwhile, Shack was lying around, waiting to get yelled at. No way. This was my fault, for leaving him inside while I went to work out.

My options seemingly exhausted, I decided that the only thing to do was to flip the rug over. So I moved the table and chairs from the rug, pausing twice to straighten out chair legs that were collapsing inward on themselves. Shack decided that now as a good time to check and see if I was still angry with him, so he planted himself in the middle of the rug.

Stupid rug. Just as bad on the other side.

Seriously, this took about a half hour. Me flipping the rug around, then trying to match it to the pad underneath, Shack running from spot to spot on the rug, all the while trying to make sure that at least two of his legs remained on its surface. And after all that, I decided to just flip it back over. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

You can't accuse me of slacking on this one. By lunch I'd tried three cleaners and the other side of the rug. And the stain remained as stubbornly obvious as it had been the first time I saw it.

What I needed was that little cat the the Cat in the Hat keeps under his lid, the one that has the thing called VROOM. Wipe that stain off the earth, shovel the snow and put everything back in place before mom gets home, or in my case, before the Jawa returns from camp. Shoot.

Finally, I found something downstairs, something I'd overlooked. A bottle of something called "Kids and Pets." You pour it out, onto the stain, let it sit there, and, in a non-toxic fashion, it lifts the stain away. You blot at it with a clean towel. If it doesn't work the first time, you repeat steps 2 through 4.

If it doesn't work the second time, you pour a half-gallon of it onto the stain, go away for two hours, then scrub it with a wire brush.

At this point, I began to notice that the stain had become part of the weave of the rug. It was now difficult to ascertain where the rug ended and the stain began. Taking a short moment to remind myself what this stain was comprised of, I gagged, turned away, and poured more "Kids and Pets" onto the affected area.

As of right now, 8:10 pm, the stain stands. It is part of a larger wet area made up of 70% "Kids and Pets," 15% Simple Green, 10% Baking Soda and 5% water. Sandra Bullock just shrugged her shoulders and said, "I think we should just order that new rug now."

Simple as that!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sprint PCS Owns Me

I am fortunate enough to serve two genetic masters. Both were on display Tuesday, to the everlasting pleasure of the first of three Sprint PCS customer service clerks I spoke to.

I speak for my entire family when I say that we have hated Sprint PCS almost from the moment we signed our first contract, back in 2000. Seven years of sketchy billing, incompetent customer service, endless unrecorded phone calls followed by mysterious bills, plus their complete inaction in a case of identity theft, which resulted in a very dark spot on our credit, which may still be there, despite their repeated reassurances that the "incident" has been resolved.

So why, you ask, did we put up with Sprint for seven years? At first, because it's just easier to swallow the rage than to get new phone numbers; then, when it became possible to "port" your phone numbers, we were imprisoned by our 2-year servicea agreement. Thanks to Genentech and Verizon, we entered June on the brink of freedom from the nefarious forces at Sprint PCS. All we had to do was untangle ourselves.

Not so fast, former wearer of an impressive Jewfro: despite the apparent ease of switching our phone numbers to Verizon, and despite Sprint's insistance that our 2-year agreement was up, I found myself spending 90 minutes on the phone (landline) with a friendly Sprint "customer care representative" Tuesday, while the Jawa lurked in the background, learning how to use words like "ludicrous," "unacceptable," and "corporate lackey," words I myself learned in 1987, while eavesdropping on an incensed Peter O'Toole whose engagement ring design had been botched by Shreve's.

The problem, according to the woman whose name I never got, thank God, was that, despite what I'd been told the week before, our agreement was not up until July 16, and so I would have to pay $150 per phone number and, oops! I'd already transferred those numbers, so I guess I owed $300. We still had one line with Sprint (Sandra Bullock's old line, now erased through Genentech largesse), would we like to transfer that one, too? If we wait until July 16, it won't cost $150, but we will ahve to pay for another month of service.

And that earlier call I'd made to Sprint PCS? Never happened.

Somewhere in Arizona, my mother's ears perked up: it was time to fight the power.

Imagine the frustration. Also imagine the freedom. Given that there was essentially no way to avoid being screwed by a company that had screwed me over time and time again, I was free to abuse this woman any way I saw fit. I could shout, use words she'd never understand, say things like, "LET ME FINISH SPEAKING!" and frankly, at the cost of $300 plus a month of Sprint that we'd never use, she owed me at least the chance to vent.

But I went too far, and I don't mean when I told her that I'd just done a Google search on "Sprint sucks" and got 1,800,000 hits. When she kept insisting that I had not called the week before, and that maybe I was the kind of person who'd jump the gun and cancel three phone lines at a cost of $450 less than a month before they were set to expire, I decided that what I needed was for her, this heartless, mindless Sprint PCS she-devil capable only of mimicking the corporate line, to admit that maybe Sprint PCS had screwed up.

If she'd done that, I would have gone away. But she wouldn't. And so it went on and on ... and then she hung up on me.

I wonder if the Jawa could see how close I was to a coronary. Could my mother, now undoubtedly attuned to this disruption in the force, feel the angry, solid mass settling into my stomach. Did she pause while working in the glass lab, and shake her fist toward the heavens? Hung up on by your former wireless provider! The irony!

The Jawa quickly ran into his room, emerging with a note. On it he'd written "Dear Sprint, you suck. We are not paying. You are freaking crap."

My thoughts exactly, but probably more likely evidence that I'd unwittingly commmitted a parenting faux pas during my outrage. Shoot.

Not to late to turn it into a learning opportunity, so I explained to him that there was essentially nothing we could do, and that I was yelling for two reasons. First, because they owed it to me, and second, because as my mother's son, I will NOT be bullied and I will tilt at all the freaking windmills I see fit to tilt at.

"If I was grown up, I'd sue them," explained my litigious son.

"Well, the problem is that they have no record of me calling earlier, and they're a huge monolithic corporation who can destroy my credit. I have to pay them. What I can do is write a letter to the company, to the Better Business Bureau, write in my blog, but honestly, they don't really care. I can't hurt them. They can only hurt me."

In other words, kid, your father, like most, is a paper tiger.

By the time we reached his OT appointment ($100 a week so he can make a rubber band ball to strengthen his fingers and thus ultimately improve his handwriting), I was taking directions from the other half of my genetic soup. I called Sprint back, this time speaking slowly and calmly, like a very reasonable man who has been treated poorly but understands that we need to work together to resolve this problem.

This time, somewhere under the hot Arizona sun, a man in a Reyn Spooner shirt stirred.

"Look," I said, "I understand that you probably don't have to do anything. But the right thing to do would be to waive those charges." I paused, as a reasonable man would do. "It's just the right thing to do," I repeated.

Amazingly, the rep put me on hold for 10 minutes, not 75. And every 3 minutes she broke back in to see if I was doing alright.

Then Melissa, her supervisor, came on and explained that, even though it is in the contract that I would need to pay $150 for each disconnected line, it was wrong of Sprint PCS to not remind me of this. They can waive one of the charges, but not both. Would that be okay?

"That would make me happy," I said. Meanwhile, in Arizona, Dad made his bio-feedback face, which is designed to demonstrate that the person wearing it is calm, in control, and completely unflappable.

After I hung up, I thought about the game Sprint PCS had just played at my expense. For instance, how come Melissa had a record of my June 25 call, but the unnamed she-devil did not? And how come Melissa had clearance to erase one of my charges but not both? What difference did it make? Basically, Sprint had gotten rid of me with as little impact on their end as possible. The she-devil got to hang up on me, and since I couldn't remember her name, she wasn't called out on the carpet for it. They'd already lost me as a customer, and they're getting one more month out of me. Where I woke up Tuesday thinking I owed Sprint nothing, in the end they got an extra $250 out of me.

$250 which I'm sure is needed so much more by Sprint PCS than it is by me. Good job, Melissa and she-devil!

Which leaves me where? Nowhere. Like I told my Jawa, there is nothing I can do, short of spending alot of time and money and at best ending up a human interest story that fills up the last 2 minutes of the evening news. Whoopee. Sprint never cared about me, no more than Verizon now does. Melissa ended our call by saying, "We're sorry to lose a valued customer like you," and I'd hung up before I thought to even say, "Yeah, well I never felt valued."

It's a pretty lousy lesson to learn, re-learn and/or be reminded of. The only good part was enjoying the full effects of both parents as they channeled themselves through me. To my mom, thanks for the awareness to take on a behemoth like Sprint and fight it to the end, never once thinking (until the she-devil hung up on me) that my valient battle would end in total defeat.

To Dad, thanks for giving me the awareness, once I learned that I would not win the battle, to switch gears and lay on the charm. In this case, of course, the charm was a completely hollow and false manipulation on my part -- and exactly what they deserved.

Good to have both options.

Oh, and a plague on Sprint PCS. May your nationwide network crumble like a hunk of bleu cheese left out in the sun while we all dance on your grave, you bloodsuckers.