Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Pitch To Verizon

My life is mainly free of any significant contention. I work out, apply for jobs, look into various graduate programs, and pay bills.

I pay bills. Ahem.

Let me qualify that last sentence. I pay bills whose account numbers are operational. That leaves out Verizon broadband, a division of the telecommunications giant.

When paying a bill over the phone, one enters the account number and one's credit or debit card number, followed by the pound sign. Following from this, one enters the amount to be paid, receives a confirmation number, and closes the transaction within two minutes. One doesn't spend an hour and forty-five minutes, each month, engaged in hand to hand combat with the phone company in some grandiose effort to martyr one's way through honoring a debt.

Unless, of course, one is dealing with Verizon.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I've been duking it out with the phone company since, um, July 2009. Specifically, Verizon assigned a faulty account number for my broadband bill. That's why I now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Each month, when attempting to pay the bill, the automated attendant shares "I'm sorry. I did not recognize that number. Please try again." The next step includes contacting a real, live human being in the billing department -something even Marlin Perkins would have found challenging. "How can I help you today?" is soon followed with "apparently something is wrong with your account number", as I'm reminded of the adage that "misery loves company". The billing department representative asks for my social security number in order to access the account, the bill is finally paid via much struggle by the representative, and I begin to wonder if people are driving bubble top cars by the time I've paid the bill. Still, all is right with the world; the bill is paid, and I have peace of mind.

Until today. I received a bill from "can you hear me now" claiming that I owe the company $366.20 for an "unpaid broadband bill extending back to February". Wait a minute.

First of all, if my bill had been unpaid during that entire time frame, my service would have been cut off like Daffy Duck in a gin joint. In fact, I'm still accessing the internet precisely because my bill has been paid. So agrees my bank, which is only too happy to provide evidence detailing each and every payment. Why, then has Verizon refused to correct the issue?

First of all, the account number itself isn't recognized by the very business which created it. If Verizon can't recognize it, why should I be expected to? "Your call may be monitored and/or recorded for quality purposes" is played into my ear while I'm placed on hold en route to asking that very profound question. (What quality, I ask myself, bemusedly, while being informed that my expected wait time is less than two minutes.)

"I'm sorry you're having so much trouble, sir" doesn't successfully quell my rage, as I'm balling up socks and hurting them at imaginary heads of Verizon executives who are very likely imaginary themselves. "According to our records, you owe us the money. How would you like to pay?"

What an excellent question: it further provides me with motivation both necessary and sufficient to develop a wicked fast ball. "My bank says you were paid for each month I've used your service, except for the past month", I begin, "and -"

I'm cut off by the twenty-nothing year old who's doing her best to practice her professional bearing in a vain attempt to cover her utter incompetence. "Sir, you'd have to take that up with your bank" is followed by changing my tactics to throwing sliders. Calmly, I promise to speak slowly so she'll have a better chance to grasp the concept of paying a bill, having evidence that the bill was paid, and that the issue should, logically, be resolved by now.

Linguists would be proud of my slow, if precise, enunciation of the syllables now pouring off of my lips and sugarcoated with sarcasm not unlike arsenic mixed with maple syrup. "I paid the bill. I have a statement from the bank attesting to that fact. Therefore, I don't owe Verizon the money. Wasn't that easy?"

I begin my curve ball when her "no, sir" response is issued.

About the time I mentioned something about referring the matter to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, she decided to transfer my call to her supervisor. Hooray. I get to start the entire process over again -just as I had to do with the resolution center, the billing department, the retention department, the financial department, and the cafeteria, first explaining the situation to the representative and then to his or her supervisor.

The issue remains unresolved. Verizon's stance is that it couldn't possibly have committed an error. If that were true, then criminal fraud is the only thing which Verizon could have committed. Along those lines, I mentioned something about RICO law, and asked the representative if orange is a flattering color for her.

Thank you, Verizon, for motivating me to practice my baseball pitches. I haven't thrown a baseball in decades, and when I did I was a first baseman in Little League. Maybe the Orioles can use a closer.

At least then I could afford to be ripped off by your utter incompetence.


Monday, December 1, 2014

I'm Not Puzzled

Recently I discovered an online jigsaw puzzle website which is packed full of automotive puzzles. As I'm a car guy (mom and dad met each other while working at Chrysler, thank you), I welcomed the escape from boredom which bordered on the surreal.

Every kind of car is on the site. Talbots, Saab Sonnets, and even Chevies (sorry for the profanity) are featured on the site in all of their high-octane glory.

That's why I've become miffed. You see, I'm obsessive-compulsive about things like puzzles. It would be no small understatement to describe my resilience when it comes to completing jigsaw puzzles in one sitting.

Don't get me wrong. That polite little forty-eight piece job was a wonderful break from the usual ennui. That's why I was left feeling kind of empty approximately four minutes and thirty-eight seconds later, when the Vega masterpiece was completed. What does one do when facing such dynamics as OCD and an overwhelming desire to escape the painfully mundane?

That's exactly right. One delves into a five-hundred piece puzzle of Richard Petty and his '74 Dodge Charger, doesn't one?

Now, I don't know about you, but when I build a puzzle, I always start by assembling the edges. It becomes easier when one sees where the grass, beer cans, and chicken bones go. And really, was there ever any question regarding the placement of that two foot long STP decal? The eighty-thousand or so fans perched behind the world famous driver and his neon grin were a bit more difficult to figure out; apparently Thelma was the one wearing the flannel shirt on that chilly February afternoon at the speedway.

Race cars are a huge favorite among we automotive puzzle-solvers, but sometimes one needs a breath of fresh air. And that's where street gassers come into play. For those who don't quite know what a "street gasser" is, it's simply a replica of a mid-sixties gasser drag racer, identified mainly by a truck or van front axle and a high-altitude front end. It was speculated, back in the days of the Polaroid instant photos and first-run showings of "My Favorite Martian", that raising the front of the car would lead to improved weight transfer, and thus improved traction. Turns out that it led to nosebleeds and the need for step ladders. Still, the automotive genre remains popular, with a large number of car parts companies supplying the components necessary to transfer your vehicle into visceral terror on wheels.

It would be remiss not to mention the puzzles of exotic cars and their powertrains. In particular, the six-hundred fifty-two piece copy of a Lamborghini engine had me worried about my plans for the fast-approaching evening one day last week. The worst part wasn't feeling an overwhelming compulsion to complete it. It was having to enlarge the screen so I'd have enough room for all of the pieces. That, of course, meant that I'd have to struggle in order to see the pieces clearly enough to build the dumb thing. Exercise and bill payments were delayed as I struggled, valiantly, to ascertain which was the spark plug wire for cylinder number seven.

In all, I love the website. I have to steer clear of it sometimes, though (pun, sorry). The addiction to building cars which I'll never be able to afford provides me with a good bit of satisfaction. And that's okay. I can leave the cars in a full state of assembly while I traipse out to the kitchen for a Weight Watcher's spaghetti dinner, lovingly microwaved for my dining pleasure.

Doesn't puzzle me a bit.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Habitat? Oh, The Humanity

While snooping around the net the other day, I decided to see if I could locate some of my long-lost blogs. I found a few gems over on WordPress. I use the word "gems" in the academic sense, especially since words like "pedantic" scare me. Several of these early writings were primitive, and that's being kind. (I can't believe I ended one blog with "to be continued following a Taco Bell break". Really, what was I thinking?)

The blog of choice was a wonderful venue to release frustrations wrought by a thankless and miserable job. At the end of the day, I could engage in "narrative therapy for fun and profit", assuming that the monetization option worked. (It didn't.)

After hours' worth of taking abuse from two assistant managers whose job, apparently, was to inflict abuse on low-wage employees while basking in air conditioned comfort, venting a few how-dare-you's" in the comfort of my home (and shorts) helped me to prepare for the abuses of the next workday.

I think that's how I got into trouble; one day, following an especially trying afternoon, I sought the counsel of my boss's boss, only to discover that she was rarely in her office, and was, apparently, loathe to return phone calls.

That, of course, fanned the fire of my rather flame-kissed tongue.

"The ladies who work in the office", I mused, "are too busy chasing mice around their offices late at night and drinking milk from their saucers to deal with employee issues". Now, I'm all for free speech. I'm also a bit of a hothead at times, feeling rather put out by assistant managers who chain smoke while watching the rest of the employees carry slate top tables, shower/tub units, and all kinds of floor tile for customers. The fact that such a leader can't actually be relied upon to, um, lead, isn't good for morale, even if it is good for blogging material.

It took approximately .002 seconds for my executive director to discover my less-than-gentlemanly redress of grievances. It took even less time for her to express her opinion of my right to free speech, if issuing a written evaluation and an unpaid three day vacation were indications of her thoughts on the matter. "And don't even think of setting foot on the property this Saturday", was effectively her parting shot.

As I was a part time employee, I never actually received any type of paid vacation during my seven year tenure in the ol' sweat box. I was admittedly confused regarding her verdict. Mean to say I'm being granted a Saturday off  -something which only the managers ever get to enjoy? Well, heck, lady. In that case, maybe I should mention something about the store manager kicking the dock doors off of the hinges in a rage reaction to a customer.

It's easy to feel sour about the entire experience. Leaders should lead by example rather than by abuse of authority. Call me crazy, but I'm of the opinion that Christian organizations should actually try being Christian. It could be the case that feeling so insecure about holding a position of responsibility that one feels the need to snap at his employees with reckless abandon is counterproductive.

I'm free from an oppressive job. I'm thankful that the seven years there didn't jade my opinion of my faith, despite numerous apparent attempts to the contrary.

I tell you, if Moses had seen what goes on in that store, there would have been another commandment. Still, I'm free and I'm doing well, thank you.

I think that's because these days I spend most of my time in my habitat.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Reunions, Dancing, And Cornbread

I love my high school classmates.

Specifically, I love the occasional (and all too infrequent) get-togethers several of us enjoy for lunches and dinners. The camaraderie, the moral support, the remembrance of the good old days.

The social dynamics of the dance floor during our thirty-fifth reunion.


Anyone who knows me knows that I majored in psychology. That's convenient when recalling lectures from social psychology class I took during the Reagan era.

While the band began warming up with something not-too-disco, no fewer than twenty-nine thousand women made a beeline for the dance floor. That was pretty interesting in light of the fact that there were no husbands/significant others accompanying them. That piqued my curiosity; am I the only guy who's agonizingly self-conscious about dancing, which in my case probably resembles Herman Munster trying to walk off a foot cramp? Scanning the entire main ballroom, I only saw five or six guys. The rest, as I discovered momentarily, were hiding around the corner, having placed themselves, strategically, near the bartender and the food. Hey, two birds, one stone.

In all fairness, there were quite a few ladies back there as well. Turns out they were the reserve unit to replace the original Dance Platoon.

This was a pretty interesting phenomenon; as the evening progressed, the second troupe hit the floor with all the gusto of Ethel Merman at a state fair. This second group was even more interesting to observe than the first. I say that in the context of how they danced. Whereas the first group of classmates strolled out to the floor and displayed good fast-dance form, the second took the field, as it were, and did a circle dance which seems to have closed in on some guy who made the mistake of using the area for a shortcut.

I'm not making fun of anyone, nor would I want anyone to think that. People were simply having fun. Well, except for that guy who looked for all the world like he was going to panic if he couldn't escape and evade back to the food line, not that I blame him. (They taught us to practice empathy in psych classes. I taught myself "you're on your own, pal" as I made my way to the baked beans and cornbread.) I'm reasonably certain that he survived the ordeal. I speculate that he made his escape somewhere between some soft rock song and "Disco Duck". (Note: they didn't actually play that song, but had I ascribed a Barry Manilow tune here, we'd all have sought escape.)

The final main dance, not taking into account one couple who danced a slow dance alone, and who are obviously in love, plus two guys who joined perhaps eighteen ladies for three minutes, formed either a wavy line dance or half of the Electric Slide, depending upon my eyesight and the sobriety of perhaps one or more people on the floor. No one got trapped in that one, but when two sides of the dance tried, momentarily, to move in opposite directions it made me realize how light-hearted the whole thing was, and it reminded me not to take some things as seriously in my own life. (I'm the guy whose first Little League experience was to assume that because I'm left-handed that I should run to third base. I was called out about halfway across the pitcher's mound, by the way. Am I judging anyone? What, are you nuts?)

I considered taking dance lessons, but decided that my own self-consciousness would relegate me to the line serving beans and cornbread.

That line trapped me at the pasta salad.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Snow, Ruminations, And Tennis

I have no idea how it happened. One day last winter, while digging my car out of the snow it occurred to me that I needed to play tennis.

That was a pretty random thought for a guy whose afternoon would be defined as productive if he could locate the name "Michelin" on his right rear tire. Anyway, the more I worked to liberate my car from the clutches of what looked almost like a typical January afternoon in some place like Rochester, Minnesota, the more my mind wandered.

I engaged in various ruminations while freeing the other three tires from solid ice -a workout which prompted me to escape to my happy place. I guess my most immediate problem was that I didn't actually have a happy place. All I had was ice, gray skies, and "watch that snow shovel, dude" issued by a neighbor whose car I was absentmindedly covering with the snow I was clearing from my own car. Ruminations became the doorway to any number of happy places. Actually, the ruminations became more of a hallway at a Motel 6. I think I had gotten to the locks on the car's doors by the time I had begun weighing the pros and cons of visiting Deming, New Mexico, and renting a duck for the duck races. Oh, sure, you never know what kind of a duck you'll get when you rent one. The best way to win a duck race is to throw yourself into the sport with absolute passion and go for it. That means raising a duck from a duckling, and training him or her to outperform every other duck on the circuit. It means getting up at five-thirty every morning for duck calisthenics and stretching. And really, encouraging ducks to stretch themselves until their beaks meet their little duck knees has got to be challenging.

Ducks were out, then. That was clear -as clear as the windows I was now dusting the last bit of snow off of. Maybe I should return to school. Hmm. The problem there is that, while I'll eventually do exactly that, it's a serious challenge to have letters of recommendation sent by professors who have moved to unknown addresses in foreign countries, died, or, in one case, been incarcerated for stealing computers. In any case, I have more than sufficient time to formulate a good plan to return to school.

One thing I learned from behaviorists is that life is largely about having something to do. The fact that I was now clearing off the moonroof with the precision of a neurosurgeon overdosing on Dexedrine drove that point home. Maybe I could start a self help group of some kind. Maybe contracting with a church to borrow one of its rooms once a week was the way to go. Heck, even I can afford to buy coffee for the clients, and I ain't rich. In the end, I nixed that idea by the time I got to the headlights. Turns out that the valley has so many self help groups that one more added to the mix will spread the self help population so thin that none of us would actually get any help -or coffee.

While I expounded to myself on the idea of a niche self help group -maybe something like people with mood disorders (like me) who worry because someone elses blue eyes might be prettier than mine, and who experience profound anxiety as a result. That idea, too, was tossed aside as I experienced a panic attack due to having almost broken the car's antenna while thinking deeply about what it would be like to suffer from blue-eye anxiety.

And then it hit me: what I needed to do was play tennis. A game which I had played perhaps five times prior, and which I most recently played in 1982. As the weather grew warmer, the days longer, and the car freer from the last vestiges of precipitate, I began thinking frequently about what it would be like to play the game again. There I was, in my mind's eye, with four percent body fat, lean, sinewy, and with a Burt Reynolds-esque moustache, meeting with friends for a rousing afternoon game with friends, with my brand new 1978 Dodge Magnum GT (black, because this is a macho daydream) parked outside the courts so that everyone could see that I had arrived, baby. Looking for all the world like a composite of any number of other guys, I was really playing the game like a one-time US Open hopeful whose potential pro career had come to an end due to a tragic racket stringing accident. It was in that moment that I felt strongly compelled to buy a cheap racket and nine tennis balls, and see how close to that ideal I could come to before the onset of the next winter.

 Let me tell you, while my daydream version of me was really making the ladies swoon, the real version of me was making them run and duck due to my very erratic serve. In fact, one of the balls ended up on the bottom of my car's windshield, which was parked backward at the bottom of a steep hill. Thus far I've only had one partner on the courts, though a good friend says he'll play me. I look forward to that. Maybe in October, when the temperatures drop a bit and my serve is reduced to Southwest Roanoke. The serve itself is decent now. What I want to be able to do is sustain a volley which will be entertaining enough for whoever I play against. "Sorry about that -are you okay?" shouldn't be included in the tennis lexicon.

I'm getting better at this. The ball is landing, about thirty percent of the time, solidly in the service box. Occasionally I go for a Wimbledon-type of serve: a hundred miles per hour and as much felt as I can bust off of the ball. I don't know what it's like playing on grass. I do know something about ricochets. When playing against someone, I won't serve that way.

Unless I'm ruminating about firearms.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Courting A New Interest

Oh, the tribulations of tennis.

Pardon me for sounding like I'm whining. For the previous five decades of my life, I regarded tennis as an activity whose thrill factor rivaled that of taxidermy. I'm not sure what happened. One day I woke up and felt an overwhelming compulsion to buy a cheap racket, some of Wilson's finest burn-your-retinas-yellow balls, and have at it.

Of course, it hadn't occurred to me to sit for a moment, and peruse over some of the basic rules. That's what led to my overconfidence early on. I tell you I was really slamming them with the ferocity of the finest ever to step on the courts of the US Open. Turns out that you can do that with impunity when you park it midway between the base line and the service line.

To correct my error, I spent another week overcompensating by serving from the chain link fence behind me. I'm still unsure whether or not that's legal. I can tell you that it's a great way to get some pretty quizzical looks from people who have played the game for a long time. "What's that man doing, mommy?" is usually followed by "leave the poor man alone, dear. Obviously he has issues". My racket, purchased for the less-than-princely sum of nineteen dollars, already bears the battle scars of said fence, in addition to the time it slipped from my hand during a serve, cleared the fence, and tried to return prematurely to my car waiting at the bottom of the hill.

I was relieved when my serve finally settled down and allowed me to get the ball into the service box at an apparent speed of five miles per hour. A bright yellow ball travelling at that speed apparently creates an optical illusion to people playing in the next court. Some guy's partner had stopped paying attention to his game, apparently, to watch Wilson's Gravity-Defying Specials wandering lazily across the net, looking for all the world like the back of the head of the "have a nice day" guy. (I still imagine the insipid smile of that character and imagine him thinking, gosh, it sure is a nice day to receive four-hundred tennis racket concussions this afternoon.) While I'm musing over this, the guy in the next court is missing another serve, now transfixed to the rookie whose mission of the day is to develop at least some control over a basic serve.

I'm unsure how, in pro tennis, people are expected to hit a ball, make it exceed one hundred miles per hour, clear the net, and still make it land in those little boxes right on the other side of the net. I began whacking the balls with a lot of force in order to increase the speed. In fact, the speed did increase, dramatically. I know this, because  the net was now billowing as though it were caught in an early wind of an oncoming hurricane. The balls, meanwhile, were returning directly back to me. Actually, ricochet is a better term to use here.

Hoping to finish the afternoon well, I began hitting the balls with a little less force, which helped -that is, until I became aware that I was only paying attention to the net itself. In my zeal to drive the balls onto the opposite side, I became aware that I was actually mortaring a very nice young couple who was trying to slip past and onto the far court, and whose own afternoon shouldn't have included shell shock.

I like tennis. People who play it seem very friendly, The fact that anyone could have forgiven me for my unintentional full frontal assault means that I can return to that court without having to wear a fake moustache and a visor. My serve itself has improved substantially. Can't wait to play with a partner. Fascinating game, tennis.

I'll court it for awhile.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It'll Work Out

What's up with people at the gym these days?

I ask out of concern. I've encountered workout routine behavior, which is completely alien to me, over the past several days.

Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. I wonder whether or not people read fitness magazines and decide to put suggested exercise routines to the test, hoping to find some "at-long-last" shortcuts to looking like airbrushed models within four weeks. My own routine is a conservative, if stodgy, one; upper body exercises three days per week, and lower body workouts two to three, depending on whether or not I'm bitten with the "let's-look-stupid-on-a-tennis-court-today" bug which has been a personal tradition since, um, Friday.

I don't intend to malign anyone's workout routine. That said, I've noticed some pretty odd behavior around the ol' gym lately. Take last Thursday: Thursday is a lower body workout for me. I was knocking out my one-hundred thirteenth calorie on the treadmill when some young lady, holding dumbbells, slinked past me, "how-do-you-doing" all the way across the club floor while dropping first one knee and raising it again, then the other knee and giving her ACLs a run for their money.

I thought that looked pretty odd, but it there are any fitness benefits to it I might sacrifice my own dignity for the gain.

It was right about that time when another young lady stepped on to the treadmill to my left. Engaging in what appeared to be attention-seeking behavior (and thereby drawing my attention away from the "you're doing pretty well for such an old man, Rob" message scrolling across the readout), the girl opted to begin her treadmill exercise by increasing the elevation until she looked like a Tenth Mountain Division candidate. I watched with morbid fascination while she leaned as far back as she could, hands on hips, and raised her feet, one at a time, until their height was approaching the lower portion of the flight path at Roanoke Regional. I have reason to believe that the only reason she wasn't wearing a shako was that it would have left her too top heavy and toppled her into the oblique machine positioned behind her.

Finishing my own cardio for the day, I decided to sneak in one upper body exercise. It felt good, knowing that I was getting a little extra upper back work in -until Billy Biceps decided to serenade us with either a Cro-Magnon mating challenge or twelve evenly-spaced cries for help. "AARGH! ARRGH!..." became the order of the afternoon as approximately forty-two patrons fell in and counted their reps to his grunts. I opted to vocalize my own reps, lest I lose count and begin grunting myself. That, of course, could have been taken as an acceptance to his apparent challenge, which would likely have led to a viciously competitive "grunt-off" and perhaps a trophy.

In all, I had an excellent workout, and reduced my own stress twice over. I enjoy the people at the club. Everyone is there to make the most of his or her fitness. I love that. Even the how-do-you-doers and the marching band hopefuls are exploring new ways to gain fitness, even if that means shunning more traditional methods of training. People are gaining, or regaining, fitness.

As for me, well, I'm the guy whose first workout there included sitting backward on the seat of  a shoulder exercise machine, accidentally, and nearly causing some lady to burst out laughing when I tried to save face by claiming that I was experimenting with exercising my muscle group from the opposite direction. That didn't work out. But that's okay. We're all learning.

It'll work out.