13 December 2010

It's Official. Winter is Here.

And doesn't that just suck? I have to admit that I really, really HATE winter. I hate the cold. I hate that it gets dark so early. I hate that going outside has to be such a production. I hate it when people say things like, "There is no bad weather, just inadequate clothing."

I'm LOOKING at you, my darling husband. One day that little statement is going to get you a snowball down the back of your jacket. Or worse....

See, I have always maintained that I was stolen as a baby from rich people in the Bahamas. I was born never to wear shoes. I was never meant to be able to picture what "long underwear" even looks like. I'm one of those people who is meant, truly meant to have a light golden tan all year. My freckles were meant to be visible every day of my life. The words "fishbelly white" were words that I was never to hear in conjunction with MY legs....

I know. We're supposed to live in terror of an errant sunbeam touching our pristine skin. The sky is supposed to fall if....for one second....the thought even crosses our MINDS that this is just a smidge hysterical. Because it is. Sunscreen is the #1 reason that we have to take Vitamin D supplements now. Our bodies can manufacture more than enough of that substance...if we let them.

Ok. I'm starting to rant. Never a good thing. I give you pictures of summer. Behold the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

All photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

03 December 2010

We're Back!

We lucked out. The last time we went to Japan was three years ago. It was September, and blisteringly hot. I'm talking temperatures in the mid to high nineties (35-38C) every day. Since we walk everywhere wherever we go, planning for a day's jaunt also included stops for buying water everywhere we went. We still had a lot of fun, but we also had cause to be deeply grateful for a culture that has vending machines on every corner.

This time, the weather was perfect. There's no other way to describe it. We only had one day of drizzle, and even that ended by noon. We spend a day and a half in Tokyo, took the bullet train to Kyoto for four days, then returned to Tokyo for two more before we caught our flight home from Narita Airport. Everything went without a single hitch. It was amazing. I kept expecting something to screw up, but no. The planes left and arrived on time. No luggage issues because we never check luggage. There were no snarl-ups at airport check-in or security. Even the lines were short. It was eerie in the nicest way possible.

The main reason (aside from The Boy's work schedule) we went at this time of year had to do with the leaves. In my opinion, there is nowhere on earth with more beautiful gardens than Kyoto. I know a lot of folks will disagree with me. It's all right. What I mean by this is that gardeners in Japan, and Kyoto in particular, always design with an eye to the look of the garden throughout the year. Even in winter, they're beautiful.

I'll shut up now, and let the photographs do the talking for me.

(All photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

18 November 2010


(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

As some of you know, I'm a bit of an advice column addict. I read them, I parody one of them, and I pay attention to what people say, especially when it comes to things that are bothering them in the moment. Having done this for a few years, I have to say that the more people are miserable, terrified, angry, and depressed right now, around Thanksgiving. Don't get me wrong, Christmas is just as bad for a lot of folks, but Thanksgiving seems to bring out the worst in most people.

I get it. I do. I didn't grow up in the best or safest situation, and holidays were awful when I was both a kid and a young adult. NO ONE had a good time. Ever. Not once. There was constant arguing and fighting, foul long car trips, the same people got drunk every year, and it was altogether an experience that left me pretty cold towards all of the holidays.

As I got older, I opted out. For a very long time, the best Christmas I ever had was one where I opted to stay at University, using my bus money to buy myself the groceries to cook what I wanted just for ME. I didn't care about presents, I had no interest in any rituals, and my only decorations were a couple of glitter garlands that were left over in a stationery store on Christmas Eve. I thought that was heaven. Silence on that particular holiday was the best gift I could have asked for. I vowed right then never to get roped in to someone else's drama again, and I've pretty much managed it.

I still see so many letters to advice columnists from people crying in pain over what really is only ONE DAY out of a year. There are fights over the guest list, over the recipes that are to be used, over who has to/gets to host, who has to travel, who hasn't got the money to travel, and the list goes on and on. Thanksgiving -  a day when we are traditionally meant to give thanks for what we have, has become a nightmare for many, many people.

This is the busiest travel week of the entire year in the U.S. It means that people who never fly will be flying. The airports will be crammed with tired, angry people, some of whom haven't got the faintest idea what they're about. They make it miserable for those that either have no choice but to fly or who do it all the time anyway and are irritated themselves as they slog through the nightmare that is an airport on a holiday weekend.

Let's not forget the hundreds of thousands of people who will be driving long distances to Mom's or Grandmom's house. Hundreds will die in accidents caused by snow, ice, storms, drunks, fog, morons that insist on texting at 70mph and so on. All so they can get to an overcrowded house to eat the same (usually dried out) bird with the same people that they have every year since birth.

Why not stay home? Why not start your OWN traditions? Why is it that families of all shapes and sizes have to travel to someone else's party? Why is it somehow seen as "wrong" to stay home and cook for the people that you love and are close to you both personally and geographically? Why do people put such pressure on themselves that they can't enjoy the day even if things go perfectly?

There are a lot of people this year who just don't have the money to travel, or who would be stretching a dollar until it screams just to be at the holiday table. Why should they have to deal with pressure and guilt trips if they can't  go? Let it be.

The letters show that people's personal issues come to the fore on holidays. People that have always fought will continue to fight. There are threats of canceling parties, refusing to attend if someone else is either invited or not invited. Screaming matches seem to be the rule of the day for so many people. One doesn't want to be in the same house with the family drunk/pedophile/jerk/nasty aunt/miserable granny/bunch of smokers/whiner, and so on, and another freaks out at the notion of NOT having those people attend.

I have to say that I simply don't get it. Thanksgiving is meant to be a holiday where people get together who care about each other. The mere fact of DNA is no guarantee of that, as most of us know full well. So why the pressure? My thanksgiving means surrounding myself with people I care about, that want to come to my home. I believe that we should make our families, not put up with people that we hate just because they're "family".

The Boy and I don't want to be responsible for making anyone do anything. We just want to see the people we care about around a table that has a great meal on it (and I haven't cooked a turkey in ages), with good wine and conversation and usually a great deal of silliness. We would never demand that anyone travel huge distances or bring ridiculous amounts of food to my party. If we couldn't manage the food on our own, we wouldn't be having the party in the first place, now would we?

There is no angst over recipes, china, the "right" serving dishes, the "right" table settings, the "right" way to do things in our house. We don't care how our guests dress. There's nothing formal about our home, ever.  People who care about us and who we care about know full well that there are no rules except to have a good time and not worry about anything being "perfect". We provide food, wine, music and a cat that occasionally likes to sit on laps. There's no specific time to arrive or leave. No one has to do dishes - The Boy and I can handle all of that.

We don't always have guests for Thanksgiving. One friend hosts an open house instead of a massive meal, and that's always a fun time. Last year, we were invited to a friend's house, but couldn't make it because The Boy had H1N1 and we were quarantined. It was all right, though. He wasn't desperately ill, so we made a good meal and watched a couple of movies. The year before, the weather was lousy for driving, so we had a gorgeous pork roast and relaxed on our own.

I think that, with all of the misery and angst that goes into holidays right now, we should all step back. If you don't want to see your family for whatever reason, then DON'T. If anyone is going to judge you for it, who cares what they think anyway? If they weren't upset about this, it would be about something else, so let them be as nasty as they want. THEY'RE the ones with the problem, right?

Have a good holiday and relax, everyone. Remember that it's only one day out of an entire year and try not to get involved in drama and agony that will taint relationships for years. We're headed out of the country for a nice long holiday this year. It's going to be great. We'll be virtually unreachable - and we aren't taking computers with us, so no one can e-mail. I suspect it'll go down as one of the best holidays ever, and that's the way I like it.

13 November 2010

Cauliflower - The Best Veg On The Table .... And A Poll

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

This post is in response to quite a few requests for the recipe for my favorite favoritist cauliflower recipe. I LOVE this dish. So does everyone else that tries it. It's a little fiddly to make, but it's so good, you won't care.

I got the original from the The New York Times over a year ago. I make it a little differently, in the interest of faster cooking, but it's essentially the same recipe.

(To the writer - please accept my humble and grovelling apologies for changing your recipe. It's wonderful, and it deserves to be spread around a bit more, don't you think? I promise that I am not a professional cook or in any way making a nickel from what I write.)

Here goes.

Cauliflower with Almonds, Capers and Raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

1 medium head of cauliflower, washed, trimmed and cut into 1" (or so) florets
1 1/2 teaspoons butter

Set aside.

3 tablespoons bread crumbs (I use panko, and a little more than this)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil

In a large oven proof pan (I use cast iron pan for this), saute the bread crumbs in the olive oil until lightly browned. Remove from pan, set aside, then wipe out pan with a paper towel.

3 tablespoons slivered raw almonds
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the almonds and s & p to the pan and brown. Set aside and wipe the pan as before.

2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar if you like it better.)
1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon of capers, drained
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, minced
1 teaspoon chives, chopped fine

In a small saucepan, simmer these ingredients until the raisins are plump and soft. Set aside.

(I don't always have fresh herbs on hand. I've substituted a little minced shallot for the chives, and used dried herbs instead of fresh to fill in what I don't have. It still works, but the flavor is not as intense. Use your judgment, and pick the flavors you like best to concentrate on.)

Now....the fun part.

Saute the cauliflower with the butter in your big pan until slightly browned. Put the whole pan in the oven, and roast until the cauliflower is tender-crisp.

When the cauliflower is done, put it into a large bowl and add almonds, raisin mixture and lastly the bread crumbs.

The original recipe calls for the head of cauliflower to be sliced rather than separated into florets. As far as I can tell, this would mean browning each slice on both sides and then putting it into the oven which would mean a whole lot more work in the end. I freely admit I'm a short-cut goddess in the kitchen. Separating the head of cauliflower into florets means less time cooking and it's easier to serve family-style.

Most cauliflower recipes call for massive amounts of cream or cheese. I think those are far too heavy to be served at a big meal like Thanksgiving or Christmas. There's enough going on on the table without adding something that's going to hit everyone's stomach with a thud. The other down side is that those recipes completely disguise any flavor the cauliflower has of it's own - and it has a nice one.

Need I mention that this has FAR fewer calories and MUCH less fat than the standard gratin?


Now, I posted this in response to Pooham's poll on Slate. She asked everyone for their favorite side dish for Thanksgiving dinner. Pooham, I hope you don't mind, but let's ask the same question here.

So give, everyone: What is your favorite side dish for any holiday dinner?

05 October 2010

Open Call Response to Jonathan Wolfman

For those of you who are reading this on The Fly , this is a response to an open call for responses from a poster named Jonathan Wolfman. His question is: "What is your gift? What do you do with it?"

Anyone who wants to respond to me on blogspot is, of course, more than welcome. In fact, I happily extend the question to all the Fraysters who want to answer it. I'll post the link on Salon, too, in case anyone there is interested. This is going to be fun.


The only answer I have is ..... ready? I make stuff. I'm good with my hands. Doesn't sound like much, does it? I mean, a LOT of people are fairly adept at doing things, of putting things together, repairing things and the like. 

It's hard to explain what I mean. I see in three dimensions. I'll never make a painter or be able to draw well. I've tried, and it's utterly futile. I'm foul at math. It's like a foreign language to me. I can't picture it, and that crippled me all the way through school. In fact, my math teacher in Grade 12 gave me a mercy mark just so I could get into university, then made me promise to take geography as my science option. I did.

That still isn't very clear, is it? The thing is, it's a maddeningly ephemeral thing. If you gave me a bag of clay, I could build you what I want you to see. If you hand me a pen and paper, forget it. Whatever I put there won't make a lick of sense. I'm sure there's a deeply complicated explanation for it that delves into brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, whether I had pets as a kid, and whether or not the water was fluoridated when I was born (it wasn't), but that's just the way it is. 

What I do is clay. Clay makes sense to me. It's something I can manipulate - I can make it do what I want it to. When I'm working on something at the clay lab, I zone out completely, sometimes for hours. All I need is my IPod, a bucket of water, some tools and a bag of clay and you can count on me being occupied for as long as it takes for me to either finish a piece or realize that I've missed lunch and I'm damned hungry. Thankfully I have some friends that are brave enough (I get VERY cranky when I'm hungry) to smack me on the shoulder and make me take a break.

Don't get me wrong. It's not easy. As with any art form, there's a massive learning curve. I've been at this for ten years and I'm still learning. I suspect I'll be learning for the rest of my life, which is both maddening and reassuring. It means I'll never lose interest.

There are people who say that working with clay is all about chemistry and physics. Ok. I get that. Clay bodies vary, glazes are incredibly complicated and highly experimental and I know I'll never have the patience to make my own. That's because these folks are all about the mechanics. You can recognize most of them because everything they make is perfect. It is symmetrical. It's usually thrown on a wheel. A whole lot of people make decent money doing this - it's their job. Their work sells because it's generally pretty nice, it's always recognizable and it has a use. 

What I do doesn't have a use. In fact, it's utterly useless. I do this on purpose. I figure that if I wanted a bunch of identical plates, I can get them at Crate and Barrel for a lot less money and a ton less angst than trying to make them myself. I get bored very easily, and if what I make became mechanical or mindless to me, I'd quit. I wouldn't see the point any more. 

 I've never made the same piece twice and if I tried, I probably couldn't do it. That's just the way it is. I work with my hands, not with machines. I don't want to master the clay that way. There are things I'm very good at. Sales, for example. I've been pretty successful at selling just about anything in the past, from couture gowns to nails. It's easy for me - I've been told I'm a "natural", whatever the heck that is. It bores me stiff, though. I had to quit because I just can't muster the energy to care about something I've got whipped.

I've posted a few of my Utterly Useless Pots. They don't hold water - and that's on purpose. I don't want them to have a function. I don't want anyone to hold on in their hands and think "vase", for instance. Other people make better vases than me, to be truthful. My first instructor was Larry Fleck. He always used to ask me what things were FOR. My stock answer became, "Larry, it just IS."

Utterly Useless Pot. 12" tall, 8" across. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved. 

High fired stoneware. The glaze is temoku wiped off, then dipped in yellow salt.

Utterly Useless Pot. 15" tall, 37" diameter. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

Low fire terracotta with matte black underglaze, matte gray glaze on top. It looks very different, depending on what side you're looking at, which I think is pretty cool.

Utterly Useless Pot. 8" tall, 7" across. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

High fired white stoneware glazed with red iron oxide, yellow salt and temoku.

For those who swore they've seen these pictures before....you're right. I've posted them before. I KNOW I have to get on with taking more photos. It's just so much more fun to be in the studio, don't you know.

The above pots are three in a series, and I'm off on another series now. I find that when I find a shape that makes me happy, I play with it for awhile. I want to see where it can go, so I mess with it on different pieces and with different glazes for awhile. It took me six pieces to finish with this one. There's another one that I haven't photographed that's just massive. It's in white with black accents and I have to look at it for awhile because I'm not altogether sure about the glaze.

These are for sale, by the way. If you're interested, you can reach me at onemessylady@gmail.com .

I know where I get this. I come from a long line of carpenters, farmers, harness-makers, boat builders and other craftspeople. If I could go back far enough (and I can't, really), I'm sure that there are "handy" people in my gene pool that go back for centuries. No artists, though. Most of the family are pragmatic and rather gloomy types that would never do something that doesn't have a "use".

There are other things I can do. The handiness is most useful. I sew, for example. For the last couple of years I've been making my own wool coats. I like summer dresses, and when I make them, I know they'll fit. I love being able to wear something that I won't be seeing walking down the street all over the place.

I can also replace taps, install light fixtures, repair tile, and paint interiors. These are all survivor skills that I think everyone should learn, but that's because I'm kind of a tightwad.

28 September 2010

Apropos of Nothing.

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved. This is an all-vegan, all the time image. See? Tomato. Vegan. I can't even see any bugs. Just sayin'.)

I've been seeing something in grocery stores - ok, pretty much Whole Foods - that's got me a little puzzled. I know that labels sell products. Heck, I even used to collect the wrappers that used to be on the occasional blood orange or mandarin. If there was an interesting label, that's all I was interested in when it came to choosing the fruit for the week. I admit it. I'm as big a sucker as anyone else. I still have a file with those labels in it.

(Disclaimer: This post is in no way a criticism of Whole Foods, their suppliers, or their employees. I just shop there, so that's where I see the odd stuff. It could be ANY grocery store.)

I know that "organic", for example is not only kinda nice to see in our grocery stores, it's also a marketing strategy that's a guaranteed money maker for the producer. Hell, I'd use it too, if I were in their position. Why go organic at all unless you want to make some money based on the label? Money is a good thing.

But, lately the label reading "Vegan" is what I'm seeing, and it's got me bemused. How, I wondered, could someone actually BE a vegan and not know what they can and can't eat? After all, being a vegan is hard work. Research is required to get the right amounts of protein and nutrients in their diets. Reading is required. Cookbooks must be bought, websites consulted, buzzwords memorized, sermons written, disapproving glares perfected.... This is Serious Stuff.

(I have to interject here. I'm not a vegan. I'm not even a vegetarian. I happen to think that the domestic swine should be the most exalted animal on this planet based on sheer tastiness and versatility. You can eat pretty much the whole pig except the squeal, and it's all delicious. I think this is a Good Thing. I have no interest in changing my ways, and I'm not going to argue about it. It just is.)

What led to this speculation? About a month ago, there were two ladies in the baking supplies aisle of Whole Foods earnestly debating the differences between two bags of sugar. One was labelled "Vegan", one was not. I admit I stopped to listen. I do that. Anyone who doesn't is fibbing. The younger of the two was determined that she was going to buy the vegan version. The older one asked, "What's in sugar that makes it NON-vegan to start with?"

The younger lady was really getting angry about this. That label was becoming crucial to her well-being. Then her friend pointed out that the sugar with the "Vegan" label was CHEAPER than the organic sugar from the same company and was in a virtually identical bag. In fact, they were side-by-side on the shelf. Why the price difference? I read the labels afterward. The sugar labelled "Vegan" wasn't organic.

I left, pondering the logic of this and knowing that since these thing aren't based on logic, I was unlikely to get any sort of answer. I told The Boy about it when he got home that week, and asked what he thought of the situation and he said, "You know these things aren't based on logic. I think you might have too much time on your hands. Did you remember to get the Humboldt Fog?"

Fine. I left it alone. I had stuff to do anyway..... like remembering to put the damned Humboldt Fog on the next week's grocery list. Then remembering the list.

The following week, I went back to Whole Foods (I DID remember the list, I just left it in the car. I got the cheese, but forgot the lamb shoulder. Sigh.) Naturally, just walking in the door got me thinking about the "Vegan" label again, so I started seeing the bloody thing everywhere I turned. A partial list, and yes, WTF? should be after every item.

1. Maple Syrup.
2. A spice mix for the barbecue.
3. Flour.
4. Bread. (Good bread has three ingredients. Flour, water, yeast. It ain't rocket science. Oh wait...how can yeast be vegan? It's alive. I'm confused.)
5. Pasta.
6. Ketchup.
7. Tomato Paste. (Which had salt and guar gum added. The kind I buy has one ingredient on the label. That would be "tomatoes".)

You see what I mean? It's everywhere. These are only a few things. I already knew that there was a product called "Vegan Worcestershire Sauce". For those that don't know, Worcestershire Sauce has as its main ingredient fermented fish. It's the fish sauce of the western world and it's a crucial product in most kitchens. I tried the vegan stuff once when they ran out of Lea and Perrin's. Big mistake. It was mostly MSG (a vegan product from the sea) and it STILL tasted sweetish and nasty. Altogether a waste of $4.99. I dumped it down the drain. Probably it killed a few fish.

Now, I can see the need for the label on, say, cookies. I make mine with butter, a vegan no-no. Baked goods are complicated, so fair enough. But MAPLE SYRUP?! Really? What could be more vegan? Or sacred to Canadians, wherever they live? You stick a tap in a tree and boil down what comes out until it's...syrup. Maple syrup in fact. Where are the animals in that? I guess some producers still use sleds with horses in Quebec, but the horses are all right with that. I asked one once, just to make sure.

On that trip, I left the store thinking I just had to write a post about this. Clearly Western Civilization needs to ponder this. Naturally, I procrastinated. Another week passed. Back I went to Whole Foods. I DID write a list, put it in my pocket and consulted it in the store. What was on it? Hmmm. Milk, eggs, yogurt (gotta get the kind with no pectin or the cat won't touch it), crunchy bits, snack items.....a couple of other things. And yes, I actually wrote "crunchy bits". Then when I got to the store, all smug about having the list in hand, I kicked myself for trying to write a list before I was fully caffeinated that morning. The basket was VERY full on my way out that week. That's what I get for being vague.

I was thinking about this and other, weirder things, as I walked the aisle, filling my cart with snack items and crunchy bits. I was still thinking about it when I ran into one of the store clerks. He's a nice kid and very helpful. He's hunted things down for me in the past. So I asked him, "What's with the vegan sugar? ALL sugar is vegan!"

"No it's not," he said, "Didn't you know that?"

"Um, dude, sugar is a plant. If it's not cane, it's usually beets. Or is there some special way to eliminate the bug parts?"

He got a very serious look on his face. "It's the way it's made. When they cut the sugar cane, they put it on a big floor and pound it with cow bones before they put it in the crusher."

I looked at him, "Are you serious? Really? Because I've BEEN to a couple of sugar plants and they're just big steel buildings with big steel machines."

No way. He wasn't buying that. He looked at me like I'd gone off my rocker and went to find brown rice pasta (yuck) for another customer (bet it had the "Vegan" label on it).

So here I have to cry bullshit and ask where in blazes THAT rumor started? Cow bones? What the hell is that all about? Who says something that moronic? Worse, is there something in the vegan diet that makes people believe stupid things? Is that a requirement or is it part of the buzzword memorization?

I had a friend when I was about five who sincerely believed that if she didn't cover her mouth when a dragonfly went past, it would sew her mouth shut. I knew a girl in high school (not the brightest penny in the till) who sincerely believed that not only could you GET pregnant from a toilet seat, it happened all the time. She believed that even AFTER she got pregnant in Grade 11. I still look for the occasional four leaf clover. Until she died, my great-grandmother firmly believed that if she used a curse word, then said part of the rosary, God would be all right with the bad language.

The sugar thing I don't get. I've always, based on the preaching I hear all the time, firmly believed that veganism was more a religion than a lifestyle choice. Many vegans, especially professional vegans, sound more like evangelists than health mavens to me. Having heard the twaddle about sugar, I have to wonder just how many other idiotic superstitions are out there.

I'm going to start some of my own.

1. Ooooh, did you hear? Every time someone butters their toast with real butter, a robin dies.

2. It's a scientific fact that if you eat pork, you'll get a little curly tail. Doctors cut them off all the time without telling their patients about it.

3. Did you know that regular gasoline has cow fat in it?

4. Refrigerator factories use live mice to test the seals. They put a mouse into each fridge and time how long it takes for it to die.

5.  Steel factories use baby pig and dolphin blood to make the steel stronger.


Can anyone out there come up with any more? I want to see how long it takes for someone to tell me one of these things that BELIEVES it!

(Ok, I just read online that some sugar processors, when sourcing the activated carbon that is used as a filter, buy it from companies that use bones to make the char. Fair enough. I guess that's not vegan. I STILL want to know where the hell that kid got the idea that beating cane with cow bones is something that any manufacturer would bother with. I also want to know why  it's a bad thing to use cow bones, a byproduct of the beef processing industry, to make char? Would the bones be better off in a landfill?)

12 July 2010

Now...for the rant!

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

Now to that rant I promised yesterday and didn't deliver... Except I can't do it. Not the way I planned, anyway. I can tell you a story. Let's see how that goes instead.

For the past four days, I've been trying to give money to Steve Jobs. And what a job that's been! I've never had so much hassle and kerfuffle trying to get someone to take money from me. It's a nightmare.

So, the back story is this. The Boy (That would be my husband, a nickname I shamelessly stole from Christie Blatchford which is another long story altogether.) never buys things for himself. Hardly ever, anyway. It's not that he can't afford to spend money on himself, he just doesn't do it. For example, he gets his jeans and polo shirts from Land's End. Overstocks. Work clothes he'll buy when he needs to and he doesn't skimp, but just for his own pleasure, not so much.

This means that I was overjoyed when I finally heard him express a wish to purchase something! It's rare. When it happens, I make every effort possible to make this easier for him. See, he hates shopping. No one could ever make him set foot in a mall even at gunpoint. Heck, even if someone had ME at gunpoint, he might think twice. Going to any store is something that he sees as a cubic waste of time.

Driving with him is a hideous experience. Parking, especially when he sees the rates, makes him bananas. Actually going in to a store? About 90% of the time, forget it. He'll stand outside with his hands behind his back, looking like the Secret Service. He does, too. Especially when he's got that leather jacket/beret combo going. Hubba hubba.

So. A few months ago, he expressed an interest in an IPad. Even though he's a PC guy, he figured the IPad would be a nifty way to read magazines and whatnot while he was traveling (which he does every week). Also, he then wouldn't have to do his shopping on the company computer - even though the company doesn't care about that. He just doesn't think they need to know about his new acid-green chair. Whatever. It sounded like a good idea to me.

He decided to wait. It takes awhile for Apple to get it right sometimes, so this made sense to me. When the time came, he decided to take the leap. He decided that he wanted the 32G wi fi only IPad. NOW. That's right. In 21 years of working for the firm, he has never owned his computer. It's never been an issue. On this, he had to have the machine immediately. Bless the lad, I can see his point.

So. We decided to go to an Apple store and just buy the blasted thing. Saturday, after we went to the Farmer's Market and then the gym, we showered, had a snack and set out. I decided to go to the store in suburbopurgatory because the parking is free, which would supposedly make him a little happier. I called the store before we embarked, they said they had what we wanted in stock, and we left.

It took 40 minutes to get there. This was not fun. All the way there, and keep in mind that we're dealing with a 40-nevermind-year-old guy, he was muttering: Are we there yet? Jesus Christ, YOU RAN A YELLOW! You're going to get us killed! Killed! You're driving like a bat out of Hades, woman! Oh dear Gawd. How the hell long does this drive take, anyway? What? How long has that construction been there? Do you come this way often? Well, I can see where that future suspension repair is going to come from! Oh Geez! Now we're in the suburbs! Yuck. I'm getting hives!

I was serene. I am long since used to this nonsense. Since he doesn't enjoy driving himself, I do it and while I've yet to follow through, he knows that if the whining gets to be too much, he can walk home. That is, there's a limit, he just hasn't quite hit it yet. Generally, when we leave the house he has no keys with him (Why should he? I have them, right?), so he settles down eventually. Faster even, when he realizes that he forgot his wallet, too.

So. 40 minutes for the drive. Five minutes to walk to the Apple Store so I could have the following conversation:

"Hi," I said, speaking to the kid at the door, "We're here to buy an IPad."

"Do you have an appointment?" she said.

"No. Can't I just go to the desk, get one, pay for it and leave?"

"Oh no. You have to talk to a salesperson. There's a 30 minute wait. You should have made an appointment. No one can speak to you now."

Can you see where this is going? The Boy heard the part about waiting and headed for the door. I caught him, found a guy in an Apple shirt wandering around, cornered him and told him what I was after. He wasn't thrilled about it, but he went in the back room.

"Sorry," he mumbled, "They aren't in stock. We probably won't see any for a couple of weeks."

"What is this, IKEA? (We all know IKEA is just Swedish for 'It's out of stock.')" I was getting testy, what with The Boy heading for the door and the thought that whoever I spoke to had told me that they WERE in stock, in fact that they had lots of them. The idea of hanging around waiting for a 12-year-old salesperson for half an hour didn't thrill me either. Not to mention the 40-minute drive in 90 degree heat.

"I don't know who told you that. We've been out of those for days."

"Doesn't Best Buy have them?"


"Do you know which ones have got them?

"No, and I'm not allowed to phone and find out."

So we left. The Boy was surly about it, but there's a Best Buy across the street from the Apple Store, so I figured we could ask there. A slap-happy optimist, that's me! They didn't have one.

*And here I have to insert something of an apology to Best Buy. I have long complained about the staff and their terrible attitude, especially to female customers. I have learned the way to navigate there, and I'll share it. Don't wander around the store. Go to the greeter at the front, smile and ask if they can find out if what you want is in the store. They're happy to do it. In fact, when they don't have something, they'll even phone around and find out if another store has it. This time they only thing they could do is tell me to check another store that happened to be on our critical path homeward.*

We checked a second Best Buy store and they couldn't help us either, but the guy did find out that the store that stocks IPads is so far on the other end of the city that it isn't worth the drive. It's PAST the downtown Apple Store by another 20 minutes in the car.

So we went home. The Boy was disappointed. After all, we had spent half a day TRYING to spend six hundred bucks. Being thwarted is a powerful thing. Emotions were running high. We went for a walk, stopped at our local for a beer, and determined that we would just order it online. We did just that. We felt better. Ok, I had a hip cramp from all the damned driving and he was still vibrating even AFTER I told him that the truck had been at least 30 feet away when I made that left..... ok, maybe ten.

Sunday morning rolled around. The sun was shining. The world continued to rotate. Everyone in the house was still breathing. A good day. We made another trip to the gym, (That foie gras isn't free any more. We have to earn it.) got home, make breakfast and commence to check e-mail.

"Oh shit-bugger-damn, those assholes!" The Boy trumpeted, "That is the absolute goddamned limit! I'm done! I quit! I'm going to order an HP web thingamie right now!"

He was clearly still reeling from the drive. I had no idea he was so traumatized. I poured a little coffee into him and made sure he was eating. Also, he isn't a patient soul at the best of times, and he was being tested severely by that point. Frankly, I'm surprised it took him that long to bust out the bad language. It turns out that the IPad we ordered wouldn't be shipped until the end of the month, but we were guaranteed to get it......right about the time we're going to be out of town for a week.

Now I was getting pissed. I had picked up on the psychosis and decided that dammit, I was going to get him the blasted machine no matter what! I suspect this is similar to parents who are desperately determined to get the hottest new toy for their kids at Christmas. Whatever. I was DAMNED if he wasn't going to get what he wanted within the next 48 hours.

First, I went to the web site. No dice. I couldn't open the invoice, even by signing in on my account (they make you have an account, even if you only spend fifty cents on a piece of string there). I had no choice. I phoned Apple. This takes time. To find the phone number, you have to spend about half an hour online. That's how many hoops you have to jump through.

Once you have the number and dial it, a perky male voice comes on, informs you that it can handle any question you have (yeah, right) and you have to say "operator" a dozen or so times while it runs through the entire call menu three times. No shit. This is the way it works. The machine switches you towards a human, after telling you (no matter what time of day it is or even what day) that they are "experiencing higher-than-average call volumes and you'll have to suck it up and wait...unless you want to go back to Automated Guy.

I got a human. Here's the conversation:

"This is Cedric (I'm making that up), how may I give you excellent customer service today?"

"Hello Cedric, I need help with an online order. Can you access order number (13 digits plus letters) for me?"

"Well Mrs. -----, I can't do that from here. I can send you back to the automated service, though..."

"NO!!! Gawd NO! Please no! Can you just transfer me to..."

"I'll transfer you to sales, ma'am."

(There was clicking on the line. Lots of clicking. And Musak. From Dr. Zhivago. Fitting. Something that sounds like half a dial tone. Then another voice.)

"Hello Mrs. ----. This is Tina (I'm making her name up, too). How may I give you excellent customer service today?"

"Tina! So glad to hear a voice...any voice (I was starting to sound a little unhinged, but I think she's used to that), can you access Order number....."

"Yes, ma'am! Here it is! It's going to be delivered August __."

"Er, Tina, we're going to be out of town. Can we change the shipping to overnight? That way we'll get it before..."

"I'm sorry ma'am, we can only do that if you cancel your order and reorder."

"Ok, let's do that. Right now. The same credit card..."

"I'm sorry ma'am, you have to do that online. You can cancel the order with me, though."

At this point, I'm shaking and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, "Tina," I say in gentle, dulcet tones, "Honey, I'm trying hard to give you folks money here, and I just can't seem to do it. Can you at least tell me if that thing is in stock?"

"Oh no ma'am! If you re-order now, you'll lose your place in the line and it'll be September before we can ship it. And I'm not allowed to tell you if an item is in stock."

"Fine," I muttered softly while humming a Ramones tune and clicking a pen on my teeth, "just please cancel the order."

I hung up and The Boy spared me a pitying glance before returning to his newspaper. We've had the "why on earth do you think they'd help with anything" conversation many times. I live in hope, but it's really the triumph of hope over experience.

We read the papers, I baked a cake, we started to prep dinner, there were cocktails. Things were looking up. Naturally, I had a brainwave. The downtown Apple store was going to close at five, and it was ten to five. I stopped everything, and reeking of onions and gin, ran to the phone.

Someone actually answered. This is a minor miracle. When you phone an actual Apple location, the phone system ALWAYS tries to send you to the national call center. That way lies madness, because if you do push the wrong button, you'll be told that they can't give you the phone number to any store AND they can't transfer you.

"This is Dillon (another made-up name), can I help you?"

This voice sounded kind of cranky. I was reassured in a way. It sounded as if the artificial perky had worn off.

"Dillon. Do you have the 32 gig IPad wi fi in stock?"

"No. No one has that one in stock. Nowhere in the country is THAT MACHINE.... *puff puff* in stock. We have the 64 gig version here."

"Great, here's my credit card number, put one on hold and I'll get it first thing in the morning."

"Ma'am. No. We aren't allowed to do that. No holds, not for anyone, not ever."

"Ok, then just pay for the thing..."

"NO! *long shuddering sigh* I mean no. We need to take an imprint of your credit card."

Ask yourself, people. When was the last time anyone ever took an imprint of your card? I smelled bullshit.

"Fine. I'll be in first thing in the morning." I hung up.

This morning, I was at the store less than five minutes after it opened. I walked over to the cash desk in a purposeful manner, asked for the 64 gig whatsit and waited. She looked for a millisecond as if she were going to ask if I had an appointment, so I said, "Listen, kid. No appointment. Just a credit card. Do. You. Have. The. Machine."

She turned and looked for it. For a second, it looked like she was going to say something, but found the cabinet empty, shivered for a second, opened another door and found the thing. On a pile. Beside ANOTHER pile of the same device, the one that whatshisname couldn't even tell me if the had or not, but could certainly never put on hold..... that had cards labelled "Hold for..." on them taped to the boxes.

I rallied. I paid for the IPad. Told the very nice cashier what I'd been told the day before and also told her that her company wasn't doing her or any of the other staff any favors.

--------------------- --------------------------- ---------------------

That was the adventure of my weekend. It sucked. I was going to write a profanity-laced rant at Apple, at the lousy service, at the crappy set-up they have going, about the shit customer service...but then I had a think as I was driving home this morning. (Parking downtown for 36 minutes, $17.00. Worth every nickel.) There was very loud music (Smashmouth. Fush Yu Mang, their best disc.) on the CD player. It's calming.

See, the people that work at Apple are terrific. They are smart young people. They know their stuff. They are extremely well trained and they honestly and sincerely do their best to help their customers. They're nice. Honestly and without any qualifiers, these are nice people trying to do a good job. NOTHING in the surreal journey that I had to go through to buy a one pound piece of cool technology was their fault. NONE OF IT.

This is what I think it's about.

It's all about a sales strategy that pretends to be as cool as a 70s night club. They deny access. They abuse their customers because they are laboring under the delusion that the customers want to be treated like crap. It doesn't matter if you have the money to spend, you have to wait in line. You can spend half a day and a tank of gas to spend your money there and they don't care. They have actually convinced a whole lot of people that this is cool! It's working for them.

Sadly, when someone like, say The Boy, just wants to buy and go home to play with his purchase, he's not allowed do it. He's like an increasing number of their customers. He has money and he wants to spend it with the minimum of hassle. He doesn't give a rat's behind if he's supposed to think waiting around for a commodity product to be handed to him is "cool". He's past all that crap.

Like he says, after all the years he's spent working, "I AM The Man."

Is this all an elaborate upsell? I ended up spending a hundred bucks more than I planned just to avoid going through this process again. Think about it. I'll grant you that I could have got stubborn and decided to wait. I'm generally pretty tight-fisted when it comes to overspending. This was too much for me, though. I paid a hundred bucks to escape. I wonder how many other people do the same?

It's too bad, really. I LIKE Apple products. We both have IPods. We like them. I'm writing this on my MacBook. I like it a lot. I've got a couple of IPhones on order (and do NOT get me going on how "cooperative" AT&T is, please), and they're going to be fun. I know that.

I can't help feeling as if we've been taken, though. I wonder if Mr. Jobs, safe from the scrutiny of actual people in his sterile lair, understands exactly how pissed off people are getting? I wonder if he understands how unfair he's being to his sales staff, because they're the ones who have to deal with customers...like me. Frustrated people. Unhappy people.

Do you think he's paying them enough to deal with that?

11 July 2010

A Rant.

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

Can't rant right now. Still too angry. You'll hear it all after I have a couple of cocktails, I promise.

01 July 2010

Happy Canada Day!

Yes kids, it's Canada Day! I know it's also the Fourth of July long weekend, but since I am Canadian (for the next couple of weeks, anyway), I feel compelled to bring to you images from your Neighbor To The North. Also America's largest trading partner.

We Canadians are notorious/famous for our sense of humor, our maple syrup, poutine, media figures (Peter Jennings, Pamela Anderson, Wayne Gretzky, John Candy and a whole bunch of others, anyone?), outstanding scenery, oil, gas, um.... and a whole bunch of other stuff that drives some Americans around the bend.

For those of you who ARE Canadian and living here in the States, for the next couple of days, say words like house, louse, and mouse a lot. People either think the way we say those things is "cute" or they go slightly batty. Try it! It's fun!

So here you go. I give you this song and a few photos for the day.

No matter where you are, have a terrific long weekend!

Coastal Rain Forest, Vancouver Island.

This might LOOK like simple graffiti, but it's actually a remnant of the big fight over legalizing marijuana country-wide. Medical marijuana IS actually legal, but that doesn't mean a whole lot yet.

Queen's Park, Toronto. Yes, it's a government building which is not so very exciting, but it was a pretty day, so why not?

The east coast of Vancouver Island. I took this picture at a wharf just before we went into the fish shop to get crabs and oysters for dinner. YUMMY! And no oil spill, either! (Just sayin'.)

(All photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

08 June 2010

Father's Day

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved)

I think I've written on this topic once before. If I have, then you can stop reading right now. I won't mind. If you think I'm tiresome on the subject, then go ahead and tell me, I'll feel free to ignore that.

Every year around both Father's and/or Mother's Day, there are glowing tributes all over the place written by people who truly adored their parents. Some of them head directly into what I like to call "The Land of Smarm" because NO ONE is that wonderful. Make no mistake. I've met and know a lot of genuinely wonderful people of both genders and all I can say is that not one of them is as wonderful as hindsight seems to make the parents of some writers. There are, after all, no perfect humans.

I know that it's tempting to editorialize the lives of people who have died. Turning dead people into saints is common and has been for who knows how long. It's natural not to want to dwell on the down side. No one wants to know after the fact that good, kind Uncle Freddy who loved puppies and kittens and gave a fortune to children's charities was screwing his secretary(ies) for the entire length of his 48 year marriage. And managed to knock them up. Or that Auntie Jillian was a compulsive gambler who went bankrupt four times and left her kids alone in the house while she went to win it all back. Families don't talk about these things while the people in question are alive - after they die, all of the nastiness is erased from discussion altogether (at least where other relatives can hear it).

But, and here's where so many people are going to declare me evil and rotten, what if there is no up side? What if the LAST thing someone wants to do on Father's Day is listen to someone blither on about how "special" and "important" all fathers are, and how they're all just fantastic human beings who deserve a day of worship all of their own?

See, there were many, many years when the very thought that I might have to participate in some celebration that would involve my father made me nauseous. I felt ill at the thought that I would have to sit through a dinner where I would be expected to make nice to my father. I distinctly remember being in Grade Three or Four and being made to sit in the hall for an hour because I flatly refused to make a glittery card for my father. I just could not do it.

The man was a rat bastard. He was scum. He was living proof that even violent, verbally abusive (yet stony sober at all times) scum do indeed reproduce. When he died by his own hand in 1997, I was relieved. Those of you who adore all of your relatives can't relate, I'm sure. Save it. Believe me, I've heard the line, "But he's your faaaaaaaaaaaaaather, you have to love your faaaaaaaaaaaaaather" all my life. And no, I don't. I do remember lying awake at night wishing he would die in a flaming car wreck on his way home from work.

Here's the kicker. I'm not the only one who feels that way. Not even close. My childhood was pretty rotten, but what I went through is nothing compared to what other kids experienced or are experiencing right now. There are thousands of us. We don't ask for sympathy. We don't care about that.

At 46 years old, I'm well past the obsessing, the fear, and the self-pity. It's done. My tormentor is long since moldering in the ground and that's the way it should be. He and my past no longer have any power over me. In fact, I'm having fun. Life is good. My father-in-law IS one of the best people I've ever met and his son is just as wonderful. Better actually, but I'm biased. I'm grateful for both of them.

So, you ask, what the hell is this all about? Not much. Just remember, those of you who are tempted to canonize all fathers because your own is wonderful, that all fathers (or mothers for that matter) are NOT worthy of praise in any sense. If you find yourself tempted to yatter on about how there must be SOMETHING to adore about every father, save it. We've heard it all before. And you're wrong.

If you run across someone on either Father's or Mother's Day who is dancing around singing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" buy them a beer and count your lucky stars that you don't have cause to do the same. If you know someone who isn't participating, or is saying the equivalent of "Bah, humbug" leave them alone. Don't make excuses. Don't brag. Don't try and talk them into anything. Accept that not everyone had your experience and leave them alone.

For those of us who are going to get increasingly queasy as we get closer to the holiday - it's just fine to feel that way. Shut off the television when the treacly movies come on. Throw out the newspaper when the poetry about Dad contest finalists are published. Make barfing noises when radio shows featuring the three hairball choker Tributes to Daddy are on the radio. Those of you who go to church can skip it that day without guilt.

It's all right. You aren't alone. In fact, you're still standing, which means you won. Never forget that.

28 May 2010

Things I plan on doing that are "bad" for me. A Messy Poll!

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

I keep hearing about all of the things in life that are going to kill us, and I'm really starting to wonder just how seriously to take them. Of course, whenever I say things like this, someone gets all indignant and tells me how horrible I am that I would do such things and how dare I even consider it....

So to hell with the lot. One day "sugar is poison", the next it's not. Coffee used to be "poison", but it turns out it's fine, too. Margarine instead of butter was Gospel for twenty years or so...until someone found out about polyunsaturated fats, trans-fats and all of the other nasties that margarine contains that will kill you. I'm bitter about that last one, by the way. I have always like butter better, and I was deprived for far too long.

What am I going to do then?

1. I'm going to eat the good stuff. That means things like pork belly, foie gras, lamb - all of the meat products. Whole eggs. Butter. I'm going to cook with it, bake with it and put it on my toast, just like I do now, for the rest of my life.

Dessert. I'm going to eat desserts. In all their sugary glory. That's what gyms are for, right?

2. I will NEVER eat things that health enthusiasts tell me I "have" to eat. There will never be soy or foodlike soy products in my house. NEVER. Weird, uncookable grains? No thanks. Brown rice? Yuck, tastes like dirt. Even yogurt. I never particularly liked the stuff. It tastes like milk gone bad...oh wait! It IS milk gone bad!

3. I'm never going to stop drinking. Wine is good. Red wine is better. There's nothing like a lovely bourbon to bring smiles (I recommend "Noah's Mill) to my life. Good Scotch. The next time someone accuses me of "alcoholism" because I had two glasses of wine with dinner, I might just smack them.

4. I quit smoking in my late 30s after smoking for 20 years. I did it only for the sake of my health, NOT because I didn't like it. When I hit my late 70s/early 80s, I'm going to take up smoking again. I LIKE smoking. Nonsmokers will never understand this. I'm all right with that.

I'm an addict, I admit it. A full decade after quitting, the cravings are still there. There are many times when I'd like to mug that teenager for his/her cigarettes, sneak into the alley and smoke'em all. The funny part of this is that whenever I say this to former smokers, they either remain silent (because they agree) or they loudly proclaim that they would NEVER..... But they never say they don't want to do just that.

5. I'm not giving up the sun. I can't do it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of lying around on beaches or lounge chairs, but I'm damned if I'm giving up the sun on my face and the Vitamin D I get from it. Screw supplements, I want the real thing. If you live in a place that has winter for more than six months out of the year, you understand me.

Let me go further. Sunscreen sucks ass. It makes me itch. It makes my skin do weird things. It smells funny. I'm allergic to some of them.

Yes, I'm a fair-skinned person with a few (not many) freckles and red hair. I don't really tan, and what I consider to be a tan (on me), most people snicker at. I'm not just fair, I'm fishbelly white. But I LIKE my freckles. I already have a wrinkle or two, but I'm going to be 47 this year. I've earned them.


Naturally, I don't plan on paying any attention to people who seem determined to suck all the fun out of life and preach at me to obey them in all things. I find the older I get, the less likely I am even to be polite to these folks. They're pretty obnoxious and the kind of nosiness they display is something I find really irritating.

I guess I really AM on the road to curmudgeonhood. Hmm. I'm ok with it, too.

So here's the poll:

What "bad" things are YOU not giving up?

24 May 2010

In praise of real people.

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

We love to hate the people that provide the services we need. Over the years, it seems like every single time I have to deal with, say....cable that doesn't work properly, dodgy electricity, insane phone bills that make no sense... no. A comprehensive list would only serve to piss me off again, and I'm actually in a pretty good mood, all things considered.

Here's one of my main peeves. Have you ever noticed companies like the cable company or your cell phone provider has a sweetheart of a promotional deal for new subscribers about four times a year? This irritates the hell out of me. After all, here I am, a loyal customer for ten years or so, and I GET NO BREAKS.

Sign up for the new texting plan.... get unlimited free texting for six months! WTF? How about cable television? Sure, they advertise the premium movie channels for a ridiculously cheap price for NEW SUBSCRIBERS only and we longstanding customers get hosed, right? Sigh. We have to pay full price and beyond for the service that others are getting for free, and there's nothing we can do about it!

Or is there?

For years, these companies have been shunting customers off onto web sites in an effort to cut down on the number of humans they have to pay and provide with benefits. For the most part, I have no trouble with this. As someone who has moved a lot, it's convenient as hell to just go online to cancel service and reinstate it somewhere else. I like it.

But there are always questions that just can't be answered by the machines. You have to PHONE for help. This is where I go bananas. In the past, I would sit on hold (I know you've all done this, bear with me), push buttons for half an hour, finally get a call center person who couldn't do anything that wasn't already online, and would therefore transfer your call and hang up on you without getting through to another person. Start over. Repeat as necessary. The whole process (IF you got help) would take hours, suck up half the day and leave me limp and exhausted, fit only for a stiff drink and a long nap.

Still - what choice did I have? It's not like you can just refuse to pay your bill until the problem is fixed, right?

I think things are changing, though. Clearly I'm not the only one that has problems with this nonsense. I've complained all over the place, and it seems that so have a whole LOT of other people. So much so that I've been pleasantly surprised not once, but TWICE in the last month.

Ready? I'm still reeling. This was too easy!

1. About two weeks ago, I got my cell phone bill and it was insane. Never mind how insane. Just nucking futz. It was bad. I figured there HAD to be a better way, so I bit the bullet and called AT&T.

A nice young lad answered the phone. I told him about the insanity of my bill, he called it up and said, "Wait a minute (clickety click)..... do you NEED two thousand free texts every month?"

"Heck no!" I responded, "How did THAT get there? I don't use more than a hundred or so a month and it's not listed on the bill!"

"Hang on (silence, followed by clickety click) I can reduce your bill by thirty bucks a month just by cutting your texting limit in half.... (silence, followed by MORE clickety click)...Ok. Wait a minute. Ok..... Wow.... (silence) hang on here... You're paying WAY too much for roaming! Let me just...."

Now at the time, all I did was make affirmative noises and hope he was getting this right. I figured he was on a roll. I was right. By the end of the call, he had cut my bill by just over fifty bucks by changing the texting thing (I have 7 gazillion unused minutes, by the way, and he let me keep them), and giving me a discount that I should have been getting all along for roaming. I was shocked....

"Ma'am, could you hold for just a minute, please? I have to talk to a supervisor about something."

I agreed, and about three or four minutes later, he came back on the line.

"Thank you for holding. Here's what I did. You get your discounts, and we are back-dating them for six months because of the error with the roaming charges. Your next bill will be around ten dollars, and the discounts will all be applied for the one after that."

I thanked him, he gave me the stock canned answer (Is there any other way we can provide you with excellent service today?) We hung up. I was in shock. It had to be a freak thing, right? I mean, no one gets a deal from the phone company!

2. A few months ago, The Boy suggested that I cut HBO. We don't watch a lot of television, and most of it is time-shifted anyway because he's away all week. We watch whatever we watch on weekends and there's only so much time available. I did it. I must have been nuts. I missed the entire season of TWO of my favorite shows. So today, I just thought screw it. I'm reinstating HBO.

Now, there was no easy way to do that on the web site. I puttered around on it for twenty minutes or so, then gritted my teeth and called them. I did the menu thing. I groaned when I realized that I started this whole sleigh ride just before I meant to have lunch and would probably be starving to death by the time I finally finished. I sighed.

But...but.... There was NO HOLD TIME. You heard right! Comcast - the former call center from hell had someone answer the phone right away! The cynic in my was convinced that it would just be someone who would redirect my call.....but no. No, she didn't!

She reinstated HBO for me, then told me to hang on. When she came back, she said, "Aunt Messy? I just checked to see if you were eligible for any discounts, and I see that we can offer you HBO for ten dollars a month for the next six months."

She asked me to hold again and came back in a minute or so.

"Ma'am? I asked my supervisor if there was anything else I could do for you and she has authorized me to give you the promotional rate on your Internet service for six months as well. Sorry I couldn't find anything else."

Again, there I was, shocked at how easy this was. My cable bill has dropped by $45.00 for the next six months!


Is there a moral here? Yes. As much as these companies hope and dream that all of their customers will just do business online, it's not going to happen. Seriously - I have Comcast internet, so just how am I supposed to deal with a problem if it craps out? Exactly. They will ALL need to have people available to actually talk to customers.

Now note that not a single discount that I got was available online. How's that for a kicker? By spending about an hour on the phone, I cut about $90.00 per month off my bills for the next six months! There is no down side here. Sure, the bills will go up at the end of that period, but who cares? It's not like they're going to ask for my savings back, is it?

After the six months has passed, I'm calling them back. If the only way I can qualify for loyalty programs and discounts is to be nice to a call center kid twice a year I am all over that. It costs me nothing to do that at all. In fact, I suggest that all of you try the very same thing. You have nothing to lose, right?

14 May 2010

Questions...Always Questions....

(Photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

For anyone that's interested in the pictures....

These were taken on a recent trip to Portland OR. We had one sunny day, and that's the one we decided to spend at Washington Park, which is huge and gorgeous. Sadly, we were early for the roses, even though it was the first week in May. Spring there was so cold and wet that everything slowed down.

The pictures were taken at the Japanese Garden. That azalea is actually two plants. Over the years they've been pruned into a perfect ten foot diameter circle. The second is a Japanese Maple and it looks overexposed because it is. I was standing inside the canopy looking up when I took the picture. I was more interested in the structure of the tree than the leaves.


Some of this is prompted by the fact that The Boy and I have applied for citizenship. Our forms are in, and we got fingerprinted by Homeland Security a couple of weeks ago. If things go at their normal pace, we will probably be sworn in by the end of September/beginning of October, in time for the November elections. We'll see.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a very official looking envelope in the mail, addressed to me by name, that looked a lot like the Census form. Now, I sent that in as soon as I got it - it was in the mail the very next day. This envelope looked about the same, so I opened it, figuring that it was either a duplicate (strange but I imagine it happens), or I'd screwed something up so they were asking me to re-do.

I opened it, and there was an official-looking letter inside with a huge black heading that said "2010 Congressional District Census". In very tiny little black print underneath that it said "Commissioned by the Republican Party". Now it was addressed to me by name and signed (by machine) by a Michael Steele, who I've never heard of. I'm sure he's a nice man, even if he IS a Republitard.

The cover letter was filled with loaded language that interspersed the usual paranoid idiocy with things like:

" Barack Obama was barely in the White House a month when he dropped all pretense of "hope" and "change" and laid bare his real agenda of massive tax increases, government-run health care, amnesty for illegal aliens (it's ok, The Boy and I are legal), and bigger, more intrusive government."

You get the gist. It's a three page letter, demanding that this "census" be returned by 28 May and also begging for money. We've seen it all before. Still....when I looked at the survey it was STILL iffy as far as I was concerned.

The form LOOKS like the real Census form. There's a blurb at the top about being selected for the survey and so on, and in small print with a white line through it that was meant to look like a copier malfunction and so virtually unreadable; "This is not a U.S. Government document."
Neat, hey? Oddly, this "malfunction" is present ONLY on that small line of text.

The rest of the printing job is beautifully done with not one error as far as I can see. It has all sorts of numbers on it, a tracking code, due date etc. I know that this is an old advertising/marketing trick. No one reads the text of the letter, right? Most people just toss that out. No one really pays attention to the exact wording at the top of the survey, either. They just fill in the boxes. It's even postage paid.

There are 21 questions, and they read like the typical paranoid Republican bullshit we've been hearing since the last election was called.

"5. Do you think the record trillion dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for or nation?" (Like the Shrub didn't start that whole sleigh ride.)

"9. Are you concerned that as other countries like China buy up hundreds of billions of dollars of our national debt they will have more control in directing our nation's future economic policies?" (Hmmm. A new take on the Yellow Peril bullshit that was around a hundred years ago?)

I found these questions hilarious, but that's just me. No, they really ARE hilarious. So there. The funniest part of the whole thing, though is Page 4 of the "census". It's a donation form that is designed to take credit cards. Gotta love political parties! The whole thing seems like a lot of work to ask for money, don't you think?

It's also funny that this is coming to me. Not only am I not registered to vote, I CAN'T do that. I'm not a citizen!


However, this got me thinking, and I have questions about politics here. I'm Canadian, so give me a tiny break here before mocking me.

1. Do you have to declare a party before you go into a polling booth?

2. When you register to vote, is that done by a civil servant or do you have to register with party officials? If it IS a civil servant, do you have to tell THAT person what party you're affiliated with?

3. Why do party officials count the ballots? Isn't that begging for trouble, or at least corrupt counting practices? Shouldn't the people counting be neutral? In Canada, that means civil servants.

I am genuinely confused by this. I've voted in a lot of elections in Canada, and we were always taught that the secret ballot is sacred - that no one has a right to ask how you're going to vote. Ever never. It's not just that no one answers the question, no one asks because it's considered so rude.

Also, Elections Canada used to (I don't know if they still do) count damaged and defaced ballots. Defacing a ballot- usually by drawing a big black X through it) is considered a legitimate form of protest. Essentially, if you deface your ballot, you're making it clear that all of the candidates are idiots so it doesn't matter who gets in.

There are no exit polls in Canadian elections - again with the secret ballot. All campaigning has to stop before the vote and the bars are closed. Apparently a favorite tactic among the politicians of yore was to park a wagon full of kegs of beer outside polling stations.

So anyway, what gives? I was raised believing that it's nobody's damned business how I vote or for who.

That's right - you got it. Messy asks for help AGAIN.

03 May 2010

I love a good vacation!

(Photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

I'm back! Despair not, for there will be SHADDAPS! all over the place in the next couple of weeks.

We went West this year.....ok, we usually go west, but this time we went to a city that I have never been before, namely Portland, Oregon.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I just like all things West. Westerners are more laid back. They're in less of a hurry. They don't seem to rush to judgment like people from other parts of the country. I should say continent, because Western Canadians are pretty much the same. In short, they just see fun in life a little quicker than most.

Portland is a gorgeous city. I have to sift through my photos and I'll post them for you later if you're interested - if not, tell me and I'll post them anyway. What the heck, It's my blog, right? The gardens are stunning. Washington Park is a wonderful resource for the city, a beautiful retreat for urbanites who need some green and downtime. We walked, we ate (Park Kitchen, Gruner, 23 Hoyt - all fabulous) we took some pictures, it was lovely.

There are craft breweries. Lots and lots of them. One young man told me that Portland is called "Beervana", and I can see why. The creativity of the brewers there is legendary. You cannot go wrong in a pub there - it's all good.

Our main goal was not the city of Portland, though. Always remember that we are Wine People, and that Oregon is the home of Pinot Noir. It was wineries we were after, and The Boy was determined to go to the people who produce some utterly spectacular wine and buy "from the farm gate" as it were.

See, many of the producers that we like are very small. They often make less than a thousand cases of wine in a season. Because of this, distributors aren't interested in dealing with them. The small producers have limited access to the markets and a lot of them aren't even interested in selling all over the place. Their entire production goes to certain restaurants and people who belong to their wine clubs as well as locals. You have to go to the winery to buy from them and everyone's good with that. (Westerners, remember?)

Doing this takes a little research. The last time we were in that area, about 15 or so years ago, there were maybe 20 wineries in the area. Now, there are over 100. Many of them have tasting rooms that are open to the public. Some of them are by appointment only. Research is in order, and phoning ahead is crucial. We went early in the year. A few of the tasting rooms were not to open until the beginning of May.

But going early was a good thing. See, there are a lot of people who do what we did. A LOT. During the summer, the Willamette (say it like Dammit) area is lousy with tourists, all tasting wine with some buying and some not. It's been a major economic boost to the area. Going early in the season, though, meant that the winemakers were free to talk, and they're happy to do it. These folks are passionate about what they do, and it shows.

Now the other thing you need is a place to stay, and there are a whole lot of B & Bs around. We lucked out and went here . Bruce and Susan were brilliant hosts. They went out of their way for us and made dinner reservations, appointments with some of the wineries we wanted to go to and Bruce's breakfasts are out of this world delicious. In fact, his scones are currency in some of the wineries. At Archery Ridge, when we mentioned where we were staying, the man behind the counter popped out with, "Got scones?"

It was a blast. Like I said, it was early in the year, and it's been a cool spring, but the weather just didn't matter. The people were terrific, and Bruce and Susan were so wonderful we're going back there again....maybe in the fall?

A couple of tips. Take a rain jacket. Don't bother with the fancy clothing or shoes. You will literally be walking in farmyards. Don't forget your GPS. Seriously - take your GPS. It saved our marriage....no looking at maps necessary equals a happy couple. Trust me on this one. The roads meander and the addresses and the maps don't coincide all the time.

15 April 2010

So it's Tax Day! Who cares when the sun is shining?

This morning, I put on my gym togs, planning on working up a sweat before coming home to actually accomplish something. It didn't work. I was drinking my coffee (I can't work out without that), and looking out the window and I just couldn't stand the idea of being indoors on such a gorgeous morning.

So I didn't. I trekked off through my neighborhood with my trusty camera, randomly snapping photos of ... I don't know. Everything. Nothing. Cool stuff? You be the judge. I was just having fun, here.

Magnolia.... They're everywhere.

Brown Line tracks. Yes, those ARE houses backing on to the tracks. Expensive ones, too.

Just a random architectural detail that now faces an alley. I think the alley was once a street, but it's hard to tell. There's a lot of this glazed terra cotta work around here, you just have to hunt for it.

I love these trees. They're nothing fancy, just weeping willows, but they're gorgeous, aren't they? When the leaves finish coming out, they'll be silvery.

These are just a reminder that Tax Day also means spring is here and I have proof! This is what we waited for all winter. Now everyone should go out and spend at LEAST an hour outdoors today.

(All photographs copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)