Monday, August 29, 2016

This is not Board Walk or St. James Place

There is an old saying, "Nothing is certain but death and taxes". I think this is credited to Benjamin Franklin who was known for his witty (and true) statements. He is also on my list of "Guests I would Invite to My Ideal Dinner Party". But I digress.

I can name other certainties to that list of certanties. The one that comes to mind today is - the cable company will try your patience, raise your blood pressure, and make you Google "anti trust and monopolies".

My Story- When I moved down to Charleston I contacted the cable company to get my service connected. I selected the cable package that contained the basic cable channels without paying for all the sports channels, HBO, Starz, etc. And although my building has its own WIFI network, the package also contained internet.

Two nice techs arrived on time on the correct day, installed the cable box and set everything up for me. I explained that I was going to buy my own internet router/modem. They said that was no problem and showed me what I needed to do to install it.

That afternoon I purchased a highly recommended router/modem. While I was installing it I had to call the cable company to get the IP address and finalize the set-up. I gave my WIFI network a unique name "Norwhat" and a password that was secure but one I could remember. This gave me my own personal secure network that I knew was safe to use for banking, ordering online etc. 

For five months I used this WIFI network. Every time I logged into my laptop, my mobile phone, my iPad, even my TV, a list of available WIFI networks would be listed. Among these "Norwhat" was always included, along with its signal strength, which was always strong given it was in my apartment and no one else was using it.

Stay with me, there is a story here.

My mobile phone has never worked very well in the apartment. Maybe the brick walls have something to do with it, I'm not sure. T-Mobile, my provider, offers a special modem type device that one sets up in addition to their internet modem. This gives one their own personal cell spot that greatly strengthens the cell service in their home. I called T-Mobile, ordered one, and in two days it arrived.

Set-up was easy - just connect the T-mobile box to your internet modem with an Ethernet cable. When I tried to do this - it did not work. I attempted several configurations to no avail. After a call to T- Mobile I was assured that the issue was my internet connection. So I turned to my cable company.

I reached out to the technical department, after ten minutes of trouble shooting, being put on hold, then "escalated" to a manager, I was informed the issue was that my account did not have internet. I was only on a cable TV package. I protested to no avail. The manager happily offered a "discounted" package that would include internet for only 35% more than what I was currently paying. I said no thanks and hung up in total frustration.

The next day I called back, convinced if I got someone else they would see my situation as it truly was, and offer whatever technical support I needed. But no, after talking with a tech and again being escalated I was told once again I was mistaken that I did not have internet but for 40% more I could get it added to my account. In total frustration I told them that this was customer dis-service and why cable companies had the reputation they had. 

Did they realize I was calling them from my mobile phone that was on the WIFI network they said did not exist. And that this customer support "call" had started on a "Chat" that had been initiated online on the WIFI network that did not exist. They explained I must be mistaken and have the WIFI networks confused. Sure. How many other  "Norwhat" networks would one find in my neighborhood? Uhm . . . . NONE!

After I hung up in total frustration, I went online (using the "Norwhat" WIFI network) and logged into the cable company website to see if I was losing my mind.  I went to the "My Account" page, then to "My Services". This is a screen shot of what I saw.

I'm not sure if this company is dealing in smoke and mirrors or monkey dust but to call itself a "Service Company" is insane. Thinking back on my calls, I can only surmise that, in best case, they are offering a "deal" to pay 35% (or 40% in the second case) more to get what I already have.

As far as I am concerned they can "Go Straight to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do not Collect $200". This is truly a Monopoly if there ever was one. It's not like I can role the dice and take my little "Norwhat" Ellie a few spaces and sign up with another cable company.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Loulou is Two

My Daddy famously said, "If I had known grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first." No doubt one of the most excited moments I remembered about my father was telling him he was going to be a grandfather. And to "Sweeten the pie" ( another Docism) the baby was due on his birthday. Well as it turned out our oldest daughter arrived at 4:30 am the morning after Daddy's birthday. No doubt he would never have forgiven me except for the fact that her birth trumped everything and the rest of us.

Oh how he doted on her. When he went to pick her up from day care and found they would not let him take her because he did not have a car seat - not an issue, within an hour he had a car seat. Together they were tootling around in his 65 Oldsmobile Cutless convertible with the top down no less. They were quite the sight.

By this time Mom and Dad had gone through their rather unpleasant separation. His apartment was not the bachelor pad. No, walking in it one would think Hasbro and Mattel had exploded - toys were everywhere. He would keep our daughter any time for as long as we would let him. Dirty diapers - not an issue. A sick child - no problem. It was his granddaughter, she was perfect and could do no wrong.

My DH and I laughed at him. We were very appreciative of his help, happy to have him spending time with her, but a little surprised that he wrapped his world as tightly around her as she had him wrapped around her little finger.

Then 29 years later we found ourselves smitten by a special little girl who, in our eyes, is the smartest, prettiest, and most precocious child ever. (Now those qualities have been matched by her little sister who arrived 7 weeks ago- but I digress.) And, once again I will say my Daddy was right , a Grandchild is just that - grand!

So to little Loulou, these two years have been magical to us as we have watched you grow. You have opened an echanted world of wonder we forgot about. Suddenly everything is better while sitting on the floor, re-reading books is a favorite past time, having conversations with "Pupup" and "Hop", and Mom really doesn't need know everything. Happy Birthday Loulou, you have made our world so much better.    

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Back to the Future Without an E-Ticket

39 years ago, in the summer of 1977, I had the privilege of traveling around Europe with a good friend of mine. 

My father believed that my brother deserved a larger allowance and a new car given he would be dating and he would need the resources. While I was on a reduced allowance and drove a used AMC Gremlin because, after all in his mind - I would be dating and therefore, someone else would be paying for my dining and entertainment. Ah, but the days of southern chivalry were long gone before the 70's. However trying to explain that to my father was hopeless. Ironically he did not think twice about funding a trip to Europe. That, he saw (thankfully) as an experience everyone could learn from. But, I digress.

We set off from Lyon (after a Maymester class in France) armed with our Eurail Pass. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with a Eurail Pass, in those days this was the equivalent to a Disney E-ticket. (Showing my age, the original "E-ticket" was the ultimate ride ticket at Disney world on a scale that started with "A" - being the Mad Hatter Tea Cups to "E" that got you on Space  Mountain.) This magical pass allowed one to travel first class on any train, anywhere in Europe. And, at that time, the price for the pass was very reasonable. Better yet, unlike the US, most of Europe is accessible by train.

The trains were mostly new, well run, comfortable, reliable, fast, and always on time. Our pass not only gave us First Class seats but if we were on a night train, we had access to sleeper accommodations (that afforded us breakfast service of tea, jam, and croissants served in our "room"). This came in handy when we were unable to find a place to stay (due to lack of suitable or affordable hotels). If all else failed, we could take an overnight train to Amsterdam, usually the furthermost destination from wherever we found ourselves. Then the next morning we would take a short train ride to another destination we had yet to visit.

All this reminiscence comes forward to America's train service, or lack there of today. Amtrak has struggled for years to break even and serve the country. My experience a week ago was an example. Where as in Europe, there is a train system from small towns to the major cities that crisscrosses the continent, in the States a few lines go up the Eastern Seaboard, across the country east to west, and up and down the west coast. Only the northeast has a decent train system, but even that is lacking.

Notification that our train was delayed was made in red pen on a small white board propped up at the ticket window. Unfortunately that notification was updated often given the delay ended up being almost 90 minutes. I will admit that Amtrak has a text messaging system that notifies passengers who had registered their cell phone numbers of the delays - however it lags behind the white board.

Instead of having a ticket with a seat number and designation as you board the train, your paper or phone is swiped electronically - new age! Then your seat is assigned (is some mysterious system) by an Amtrak employee crossing your name off a piece of paper  as you step on the train. After you are seated (in your assigned seat) another employee comes and sticks a torn piece of paper with your destination handwritten on the luggage rack above your row. (Something akin to "Paddington" pinned to the Bear).

No doubt as one makes their way up the north east corridor and boards the Acela (the high speed upscale train that runs from Boston to DC) they will find themselves on board a modern train, that travels at high speeds offering amenities and comforts professional travelers expect. Customers can enjoy the Acela Cafe with fresh salads and craft beers. So I can say in this case after 39 years we have gone back to the future. 

Comparing my experience riding the train last week, as pleasant as it was, to the many train rides I enjoyed across Europe in 1977, I may as well have been  running through a pillar at King's Cross Station in London to find Platform 9¾ and catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station. It was hard to fathom that this was a mode of transportation, a quasi-government funded entity, of one of the most powerful nations in the world. 

Yes, we can send a man to the moon, develop nano technology (that only Michael Crichton can explain in his novel "Prey"),  design phones that are smarter than their users, yet we cannot make our trains run on time. Where is that DeLorean when we need it?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fried Chicken and a Friendly Face

You know you are in the south when after settling into your seat on a north bound train the older lady sitting next to pulls out her supper of fried chicken, deviled eggs, and a jar of tea. Naturally she offered to share. I was surprised she did not have a linen napkin, but to be practical, it may have gotten wrinkled in transport.

She explained that she was on her way to Virginia Beach to meet her "girl friends" for their annual long weekend. They had made this trip for years. Given she was in her late sixties - probably seventies but had aged well - I can only imagine the stories she had to tell. Her gray tightly curled hair was cut short. Her dark complexion showed the beauty of age and her brown eyes sparkled with youth. When she finally finished her supper, she carefully wiped her hands, wrapped up all the remains and trash into her Tupperware container and stored it in her travel bag that she had under her feet.

She could tell I was having an issue with the foot rest on the back of the seat in front on me. "Oh, honey," she said with a smile,"Just touch this lever." She pointed with her toe, "And push." I thanked her.

She just smiled, "I've been riding the trains for years." She went on to talk about how this particular train named "The Palmetto", which on its way up the Eastern Seaboard ran through South Carolina at night, was notoriously late. "And don't ask me why," she said in her soft southern lilt. "Makes no sense to me. The other trains are on time, why this one never is beats me."

We talked about children and grandchildren, travel, and life in general. I took the opportunity to ask her about the train, her travel experiences, and other trains that run up and down the Eastern Seaboard. As we sped past stations in the night, she commented that usually the train would stop but there must not be any passengers scheduled to get off or board, and the train was trying to make up time.

We spoke quietly as most of the other passengers were sleeping on the dark train. Soon we both dozed off. I awoke when I heard the announcement that we were leaving Petersburg and the next station would be Richmond. 

As I stepped off the train in Richmond, I found myself on a long platform between a northbound and a southbound train that happened to be in the station at the same time. There was no sign of the station nor sign pointing the way to such. My seatmate, who was walking in front of me, turned and politely said, "We go this way." I was glad she was there to guide me because I would have most likely walked the other way and God only knows where I would have ended up.

I was surprised how long the train was as we walked the platform beside it. Finally we came to the end and could cross the tracks to find the elusive station. She smiled and as if she could read my mind and said, "If you checked your luggage, you will find it out in front of the station."

I thanked her and told her how much I enjoyed meeting her. She wished me well and walked spritely into the station. I only hope I can age like that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Away on the Silver Meteor

Always being the adventurous (aka foolish) one, I decided to take the train to Richmond last week. The idea being not only was it less expensive than flying, but I could save a day. If I took the overnight train on Wednesday, I would have Thursday with my friends versus spending Thursday fighting the traffic on I-95. And, I had no desire to drive by myself all night Wednesday on I-95. 

The reviews on Amtrak have been mixed at best. But, I’m always willing to give something at least one shot.  That “willing to give something at least one shot” was seriously questioned when I entered the train station in Charleston. Crossing the threshold put me into the 1960’s and I am not talking about anything nostalgic. It was old (and not in a Charleston way), it was derelict, and depressing. It was hard to tell if some of the people there were waiting for trains that never came or if they simply lived there.

On the wall was an architectural rendering of the “New” structure that (I assumed) was planned to replace the current one. I noticed there were no dates of when the drawing was done, when the construction was to begin, or if this was just a pipe dream. I will say the employees were friendly and most helpful. Of course when I checked my bags I was told that my train was running 20 minutes late - something to do with a switch problem in Florida. Suddenly the words "mixed at best" and "Amtrak" usually being linked together in any given description ran through my mind.

A well to do couple walked in and I thought the lady was not going to make it to the ticket window. I could tell she was reaching into her Gucci bag for her anti-germ wipes. (I expected her to pull a medical mask and can of Lysol out at any minute.) Watching her was at least entertaining. I so wanted to tell her that I doubted anyone here had anything communicable, Ebola was under control and, contrary to the her first impression, she had not been transported to a station in India filled with untouchables. Her husband seemed nonplussed. As he took a seat, she insisted on standing.

Long story short, my 9:17 train arrived at the station around 10:50. Unlike airports, train depots (at least ones in the south) do not have bars offering the comfort of adult beverages, which is unfortunate. We boarded, found our seats, and were off. 

The seats on the train are nicer than those I have had on any recent plane trip. They are probably 50% wider. There is enough leg room in front of each seat to put a small carry on on the floor and still have room for your feet and to stand and easily reach the aisle without crawling over your seat mate. The seats recline far back and there is an extension that one can raise from beneath the front of the seat to support your legs - making it fairly comfortable to sleep.

Best part - when the patron in the seat in front of you decides to recline their seat, it is hardly noticeable. Electrical outlets are available at every seat. And, yes, this is coach.

 I did notice with each stop as we moved north, the quality and class of the patrons improved. It wasn’t like I had problems with anyone I was traveling with. Everyone was friendly and very polite. By the time we reached Richmond it was day break and there was a lovely sun rise in the east. The station was clean and more of what I imagined a train station to be – unlike the one in Charleston that I found reminiscent to a Grey Hound Station in a back woods town in Alabama. I felt as if I had emerged from the underworld and had crossed the river Styx. 

For $77 dollars and 7 seven hours (scheduled), I was quite pleased and will definitely consider this again. Having traveled on trains in Europe, we are far behind the curve, but it was much better than I expected. A positive is that there are no TSA security lines. A negative is that there are no TSA security lines. Your ticket includes 2 checked bags. There is a “Lounge” car you can walk to where you can purchase snacks, sandwiches, drinks, beer, and wine. On the longer rides there is a “Dining Car” where sit down “A la cart” meals are served. 

Yes, I will do this again. It sure beats the traffic and stress of I-95. Of course there are more stories to tell.