Dear Comcast

March 27, 2007

Well, since I wrote to them on March 2, I’ve heard from Comcast. About every three days in fact. There hasn’t been a response to my letter of complaint for their deceptive marketing practices (described in my previous post), but there has been an endless stream of advertising material, topped off today by the monthly statement. I opened it, not expecting to find that they’d knocked $15 off my monthly charges and–guess what–they hadn’t.

But I’m not done. I shall write again, pointing out that if they indeed want to “better serve [my] needs,” and really “look forward to providing [me]” with all my entertainment and communication needs (a lofty aspiration), and truly do welcome my “questions or concerns … 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” (as one of their effusive advertising pieces assures me), then they could start off by affording me the courtesy of responding to my letter.

Maybe I’ll suggest that if they were to cut down on their direct mail, the money they’d save by not sending me and everyone else glossy promotional materials several times a week would probably add up to quite a lot and they could certainly manage to let me have $15 a month of it.

I shall also print out and enclose my last post and this one, maybe (and maybe not) after I’ve allowed time for a few comments from my loyal readers–to whom, by the way, I apologize for the long silence.

So what about that long silence? My excuse is that April 15 is the deadline to file income tax returns, and I’ve been putting everything together for my accountant. Reality is that I have been failing to put everything together for my accountant every weekend since mid January because there has always been something far more appealing to do. I’m a writer, dammit not a book-keeper (although I actually keep very orderly books, thanks to Quicken, Excel, and my obsessively tidy personality).

Because part of any job I’ve had has been bailing out other people who didn’t plan ahead, so they don’t get stick from their various powers-that-be, I don’t want to put my accountant in the same position by being one of the clients who send him a year’s worth of information on April 10 and expect him to file the tax return on time. So I took care of it last weekend and sent him the stuff (thank you Federal Express) yesterday. Within the next few days, he’ll call me telling me what I forgot.

Deceptive marketing

March 2, 2007


I used to have Verizon phone and DSL Internet services, but then I sold my house and moved to a highrise condominium. I planned to continue with Verizon, but after five weeks without even telephone service and with a large number of excuses for why not, I ditched Verizon and moved my phone service to AT&T. That left Internet. Verizon has somehow got the monopoly on Northern Virginia DSL service, so it’s theirs or nothing. And you can’t get Verizon DSL unless you subscribe to their voice service.

The only other broadband option is Comcast cable, which costs a whole lot more than DSL. Having no other choice, I went with that. I don’t watch TV and didn’t want the cable TV service, so up until a few weeks ago, I was a high-speed Internet customer only. Then I received a call from a Comcast telemarketer telling me that if I changed my service to the Internet and Basic TV package, I would pay $15 a month less than I was currently paying (which was a total bill of $61.10 a month).

“Wouldn’t you like to save $15?” the young man asked. The answer was obviously “yes,” and I agreed to change my service to the package deal.

Today I received my first “reduced” bill for Internet and basic cable TV services. It is for $62.91—which is $1.81 more than the total bill I was paying before.

I called Customer Service. The representative with whom I spoke gave me a bunch of double talk about how I was paying $15 less—$42.95 versus $57.95 for the Internet service, but when you added in the TV service and taxes, well … umm yes, he supposed it did bring the total to “about” $1.81 more.

So I have just written to Comcast protesting what I consider to be deceptive–or at best, misleading–marketing practices. When someone tells you that you will pay less and save money but doesn’t explain that it is for one component of the package only and that by the time you add everything together, your bottom line is actually going to be higher than it was before, isn’t the natural assumption that you are going to be writing Comcast a smaller check every month?

I suggested that an appropriate response would be a reduction to my Comcast bill of the $15 I was led to believe would be the result of my signing up for the package. I said Comcast could disconnect the TV service or not as they wished—such is my interest in it that I have not yet even bothered to connect a television set to the drop to see if it works.

If Comcast has an atom of customer relations savvy, their response will be to reduce my monthly bill by $15 and leave my basic TV service in place. We shall see what happens. I’ll let you know.

Monochrome world

February 25, 2007

From my seventh floor window, today’s snow looks beautiful, but I have no urge to join the two hardy souls trudging across the bridge into the park. I’ll watch from a warm distance.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

February 19, 2007

I was going to write about spam (the e-mail kind) but since I couldn’t bring myself to put out my own money for a can of the stuff (the pseudo-food kind) to photograph, I went to the Hormel Spam(R) Web site to grab a picture and got sidetracked. You’re greeted with the Spam song (no, I’m not joking) and if you wait about 30 seconds, there’s animation. In fact there’s a lot of animation on the site and a veritable treasure trove of links. I decided against consulting “What is Spam?” It used to show up on the lunch menu when I was in elementary school (usually as rubbery pink slices but sometimes in fritters), and I’d as soon not know what, along with a week’s worth of sodium, they were inflicting on hapless children.

There is a whole Spam subculture, much of it tongue-in-cheek, but not all, I suspect. There’s a Spam Museum (admission free), a Spam Fan Club, and a Spammobile that tours the country giving out free samples. There are Spam festivals, most notably the annual Austin, Texas Spamarama, which has been going on since 1978. And of course there’s a Spam store with a huge variety of items with which you can show your allegiance to the product. A Spam pig clock or timer for the kitchen, pillows (think how nice they’d look on your couch), a mouse pad, a collector’s spoon, a Spam emery board, Spam wine glasses for the truly elegant table setting, a Spam three-legged pig (don’t ask). The link to the Adult category didn’t work, which is probably just as well, since the thought of a Spam G-string and pasties is not enticing. It was hard to choose, but my favorites were the glow-in-the dark Spam stadium cup, scrunchy, and boxer shorts. I always figured that the chemicals in Spam made you glow in the dark, and now you can accessorize to match.

The surprise for me is that Spam doesn’t stop at the pink rubber I was forced to eat at school, now known as Spam Classic. There are 11 other varieties, including Spam Garlic, for the more sophisticated palate; Spam Low Sodium and Spam Lite, for those concerned with healthy eating; and Spam spread (remember that one for your next cocktail party).

There’s obviously more to Spam than Monty Python skits. I’m not tempted to give it another try, though. I’m a vegetarian.

If only we could do a retake

February 13, 2007

I signed up to receive alerts from the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department, which is how I know that a body was found at the weekend in a dumpster/skip a block from where I live, and that last night, the Alexandria police charged a man with first-degree murder.

First-degree murder means the killing was premeditated. The alleged murderer planned it, set it up. According to the police report, the suspect killed the victim “at his home late Friday night or early Saturday morning and then put her body in the dumpster.”

The victim, Anna Sherman, was 21. She died of “blunt force trauma.” In other words, she was clubbed to death with something heavy. What a waste. Barely more than a child, she had — in the normal course of things — a long life ahead of her.

The suspect is Frederick Simon Ajlan. 26, someone else who has a long life ahead of him. Maybe. He may spend a long time in jail (as well he should), but in the backward Commonwealth of Virginia, first-degree murder carries a possible death sentence, so he may die. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think people who murder should get away without lengthy punishment. Murder is wrong (in my opinion) — and that goes for the legalized, state-sanctioned kind too (in my opinion).

Last night I heard that a man I worked for years ago had died in his late sixties. He pretty much self-destructed through morbid obesity and reckless overspending. He was a bad manager but a nice man, and I am saddened by his death.

I am far more saddened, however, by the very incomplete story of a young woman and a young man I didn’t even know, who were involved in a relationship (according to the police report) that recent events suggest went bad. I would like to rewind the tape for both young people and write a different ending.

Alexandria Police Department photographs.

Cold Cold Ground

February 6, 2007


It’s an odd hobby for a child, but I used to collect epitaphs. In later years, I started to photograph cemeteries and graves. Marie McC, therefore, is a woman after my own heart. She likes cemeteries too and has just started a new blog, Cold Cold Ground. Of course, I will be contributing regularly. This photograph is Marie’s inaugural image.

Check out her new blog.

Photograph by MarieMcC.

Waste not, want not

February 4, 2007

Eventually rechargeable batteries won’t recharge, and that’s what happened to my Palm Tungsten E. It lasted around two years, which is the useful life the reviews gave it, so I can’t complain that I wasn’t warned. Palm’s astute marketing strategy is to make PDAs with batteries you can’t replace, so you have to buy a whole new device. I removed all the data from my fast-fading E, smacked it with a hammer for good measure (producing the interesting abstract above), then zapped it with my magnetic tape eraser and dropped it in the trash can.

If I had any vision, I would collect moribund PDAs, whack them around, and get the Hirschorn or the Tate Modern or MOMA to put on a show of my work. They’ve all done far sillier exhibits. But rather than launch my new art career, I simply bought another PDA. I chose a Palm TX because it is WiFi-enabled, so I can check my e-mail when I’m overseas (which I will endeavor to do without drawing attention to myself); but even if I’d chosen the E2, which is the new, improved E, the charger and the sync cable wouldn’t have transferred because the connections are all different. This sort of thing drives me crazy. I ended up with a useless-to-me U.S. charger/power cable; international charger/power cable with interchangeable plugs depending on whether you’re in the U.K., continential Europe, or Asia; and sync cable.

Thank goodness for Freecycle. I advertised the spare items just after lunch today, and at around 4:45 this afternoon, Brian, whose Tungsten E is still working, stopped by to pick them up. I could have put them in the Goodwill bag and taken a small tax deduction, but I’d way rather give them to a person I know can use them.

Freecycle and Craig’s List make me feel a bit better about planned obsolescence.

$5, $10: Does it really matter?

December 23, 2006

5.jpgI went to Barnes and Noble this morning. On my way out of the parking garage, I passed an old man who had just found a discarded fast food container in the trash can and was eating the leftovers. I waited until I was past him then looked in my wallet for some money, hoping I had a $5 bill or some singles. I had a $10 bill and a $20.

Ten dollars seemed too much and the small amount of change I had–less than $1–would have been an insult. I hurried to Barnes and Noble, close to tears at the thought of how desperate you’ve got to be to eat someone else’s leftovers out of a trash can. The quickest way to get change was to buy a cup of coffee. There was one person ahead of me, so it should have been quick, but he had mistakenly proffered a Starbucks gift card, and the barrista had mistakenly tried to ring it up, and all this had to be sorted out while I stood there impatiently shifting from one foot to the other. When I’d bought my coffee, I dumped the cup on a table and ran back to the garage with a $5 bill in my hand. I was too late. The man had gone.

I keep thinking about him and wishing I’d given him the $10 bill. I have never in my life been hungry because I didn’t have enough money for food. And it’s not that I couldn’t afford to give him $10. Tomorrow I am going to give $50 each as Christmas presents to three young people, the grown-up children of a friend. They will be glad to have the money but they won’t want for food without it.

I don’t know why $5 seemed right and $10 seemed too much. What I do know, though, is this: It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the act. I’m pretty unhappy with myself at the moment.

The price some of us pay for picturesque

November 20, 2006

Before I begin this shameless bid for sympathy, I want to make clear that I’m not advocating that every walking surface be covered with more-level-than-level concrete, just that in historic areas, you watch your step.

I hobbled back to the United States in July with a stress fracture to my foot, without a doubt brought on—or brought to fruition—by large amounts of walking on the cobblestone streets of old Lille. And now I am recovering from an encounter with Old Town Alexandria, where the charming brick sidewalks are uneven and the metal grates they place around trees (presumably to discourage dog poop) tend to shift out of place.

I took a friend, visiting from England, to lunch in Alexandria on Saturday. Coming back to the car after lunch, I tripped on one of the dog-deterrent metal grates and fell straight forward. It was one of those surreal experiences that happen very fast (too fast for me to even put my hands out to try and save myself) yet also happen in slow motion so that you can say to yourself on the way down, “This can only end badly.” As it did. My chin met either the sidewalk or the metal grate—I was too dazed afterwards to know which—with my full weight behind it. I bit my tongue on both sides, broke a tooth (a back one fortunately), cut my chin (dramatic amounts of blood but a small cut), got assorted bruises here and there, and pulled a muscle (I assume) near my ribs.

I was incredibly lucky. I don’t know how I didn’t break my jaw or my nose or my front teeth. I don’t know how I didn’t knock myself out. An older or a heavier person might not have escaped so comparatively lightly. I was also lucky that someone was with me to pick me up and mop up my bleeding chin—thank goodness there are still old-fashioned people like me who carry cloth handkerchiefs!

My jaw is not back to 100 percent functionality so right now I am living on mashed potato, mashed banana, applesauce, yogurt, ice cream (my excuse for the latter is it feels so good on my swollen tongue), and whatever else I can purée in the blender and slide into my mouth on a teaspoon. I feel as though I should be in a highchair being spoonfed.* I was three years old when my late mother fractured her jaw and had it wired shut for six weeks. I don’t know how she stood it. They knocked out a tooth so she could eat everything through a straw, which probably explains why she hated soup for the rest of her life. No blenders in those days, so it must have been a dreadful production to prepare food. At least I can eat thicker mush, but even so, after a mere 2.5 days, I crave crunch, especially celery and corn chips.

I will be interested in the response I get (if, indeed, I get one) from the person on the Alexandria City Council under whose wing sidewalks fall and whom I e-mailed yesterday.

I leave you with this thought from my sometimes eccentric (see footnote) but usually practical mother, “Pick up your feet and watch where you’re walking, for heaven’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you?”

* My mother had her weird moments and spoonfed me not with the boring “This spoonful’s for Daddy, and this one’s for Uncle Bob” or that thing about airplanes going into hangars, but by making each spoonful a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. I was an extremely finicky and reluctant eater and so I got lots of practice and could (though not now) recite them all, in order, at the age of two.

Ghoulies and ghosties

October 31, 2006


From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Traditional Scottish prayer

Trick-or-treating was new to me when I came to the United States. It wasn’t a custom when I was growing up in England, but apparently it’s now made its way across the Atlantic—though my aunt tells me the children are not in costume, and they ask for money, not candy.

Until 18 months ago, I lived in a townhouse in a very close-knit neighborhood. I used to enjoy giving out candy to the small devils, and ballerinas, and ghosts, and Teletubbies who knocked at my front door, their parents hovering far enough in the background to give the little ones the illusion they were doing it on their own. On the whole, the trick-or-treaters were quite young children because the townhouses there are very small and once the children get bigger or multiply, families move to bigger houses. I didn’t dress up myself (as a couple of my neighbors did) but one year I made myself a Scream mask, though I was careful to put it on only after opening the door as my real self. Just because you’re dressed as a scary person yourself doesn’t mean, when you’re six or seven, that you can’t be frightened by another scary person.

Around 8 PM, the children started to get quite a lot bigger, and that’s when I turned off my porch light and stopped answering the door. I learned my lesson the year I said to one teenager, who had clearly started to shave, “Aren’t you a bit old for this sort of thing?” The next morning all the bushes and the tree outside my house were festooned with toilet paper. At least they had grasped the “trick or” part of the mantra, unlike the little boy I once asked, “If I don’t give you a treat, do you have a trick ready for me?” He looked completely blank, as if I’d addressed him in Sanskrit.

I now live in a condominium apartment where there are few children. I shall miss the groups of little hobgoblins proffering plastic pumpkins and paper bags tonight.

Berry Picking

October 22, 2006

The place: the people mover between the plane and the terminal at Dulles Airport last Friday. The time: about 3:30 on Friday afternoon.

As soon as they sat down, the people on either side of me whipped out their BlackBerries or BlackBerry-equivalents, as did two people standing up. “This is always scary,” said the woman on my right to her standing companion, loudly enough to let us all know that, important as she was, the eight-hour flight from London would have meant a vast accumulation of e-mails demanding her immediate attention. A true candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.*

Once upon a time, people spent a few hours on a plane or went away on vacations, and their companies actually soldiered on without them. Whatever had to be done was done by someone else (if it was really that important) or else waited until they got back to work after the trip.

I doubt that the urgency of work-related tasks has increased significantly over the years, and I suspect that the business calls conducted loudly on cell phones from buses and metro trains and the compulsive e-mail checking over restaurant lunches are frequently unnecessary and can probably be summed up by a cartoon I saw some time ago in the New Yorker. A man is sitting in an empty subway car, mobile phone to his ear. The caption is, “Do you mind if I call you back later when there’s someone around to overhear?”

*Pseuds’ Corner: for the uninitiated, see Private Eye.
Not my picture of the berries. I didn’t have the nerve to whip out my camera and photograph the important people around me, so I took this off a gardening Web site. I’ve forgotten which one, so I can’t properly credit it, but if notified, I will.

Culinary tip: How not to make toast

October 5, 2006

I walked into the office this morning and dropped two slices of bread into our antique toaster for breakfast. The toaster usually takes five minutes to induce a slice of bread to turn slightly brown, so I stopped by a friend’s desk, and we got into conversation. Right about the time I started to smell my toast, the fire alarm went off. The whole nine yards: flashing lights, blaring sirens. The entire corridor was blue with smoke. The thing that is supposed to pop the toast up when it’s done had failed.

I assume that people on the two upper levels of our three-level building followed the standard procedure and evacuated, thinking there really was a fire. A trio of my colleagues (who were on their way out anyway) left with a dramatic show of crouching, coughing, gagging, gasping—and, of course, laughing. The rest of my department stayed. I was mortified, though no one else (including the boss, fortunately) seemed to think it was anything but funny, and by lunchtime, when everyone had made at least one smart remark about it, I was laughing too.

The fire department showed up to reset the alarms—a fire engine bearing three firemen in full gear, carrying axes and oxygen tanks. The boss had called to let them know it wasn’t a real emergency, or I suppose they’d have come in with hoses; even without hoses, they were impressive. On balance, though, I think I made the right decision in not asking to have my picture taken with them.

Different realities

October 4, 2006

I was in line at the supermarket the other day behind a woman with a child of around two. He was sitting in the child seat of the cart, and his mother was handing him items to put on the belt so that he could help her unload the groceries. I’m always pleased when I see mothers with enough patience to do that kind of thing.

What did give me pause, however, was the fact that each item he placed on the belt—yes, every single one—elicited from his mother an increasingly emphatic cry of “Good job!” delivered in that over-enthusiastic voice that adults often adopt with small children. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but since putting cans of soup on a conveyer belt isn’t beyond the capabilities of any average toddler, I figured a “Thank you for helping Mommy,” delivered at the end of the process, would have been sufficient, and I wondered what Mommy would say if he did something truly remarkable. It was by no means the first time I’ve seen that, or something similar.

In the United Kingdom, I am told, there’s a movement to replace the term “failed”—as in failed an exam—with “deferred success.” Along the same euphemistic lines, several years ago, I was witness to a thoroughly irresponsible piece of driving by a juvenile that caused an accident in which several vehicles were damaged, but fortunately, no one was injured. I went to Fairfax County Juvenile Court to give evidence. The plea for the driver was “innocent” or “not innocent.”

These days, you mustn’t correct children’s homework with red ink because it’s traumatic for them. (Though as my cousin, a recently retired elementary school teacher points out, if your homework comes back covered in comments, it’s clear you got a lot of stuff wrong, whether the ink is red, green, or purple.)

A while back, I saw the results of a survey of the mathematical ability of high school students from 10 nations. In achievement, American children scored the lowest. The same survey students were asked to rate their own ability. In self-esteem, American children scored the highest. Self-esteem is good—if you have reason to esteem yourself highly. Otherwise it’s self-delusion.

Congratulated for breathing, protected from reality by euphemisms, and allowed to have an unrealistically inflated sense of their own abilities, children growing up today (it seems to me) are going to have a hard time when they go to work and hit the real world where people are not rewarded for simply showing up and are expected to take responsibility for their screw-ups.

But now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to ponder the following: Should I bask in the newfound comfort of my deferred success in high school Physics; or should I worry that the term implies a need to try again, whereas “failure,” as it was insensitively called in my day, happily releases me from further obligation?

The Promised Land: V

September 19, 2006

The workers of many religions and nationalities clasping hands across the factory conveyer belt are the central message of the mural we have been examining for the last several days: There are no boundaries between workers. We are all workers, and we are all, therefore, equal because whatever we do, we contribute.

I recognize two symbols of ethnicity at the right of the assembly line of workers:


In the middle is symbol of the Celts and below it is, I think, a Native American symbol. But the top symbol, which seems to be two seahorses facing—what is that? It’s one of many unanswered questions about this superb mural. The muralist’s name appears below, and I plan to track her down and find answers.

If you visit the Washington, D.C., area and are interested to see this mural, you’ll find it on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, on the side wall of the building that supports the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee. The creation of the mural was featured on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8 on Alexandria Daily Photo.