Monday, May 30, 2005

Pic Dump: I spent a few minutes going through some of the pics from the past couple of months so I thought I'd share some of the least embarrassing ones. These are typically from 100-300K. A snap for broadband but will require patience for those of you on dial-up.

From Toronto:

From Ann Arbor:

From New Orleans:

And yes, I know I still owe you a full accounting of my trip through Canada. Real Soon Now.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Scribbling Status: Where did that week go?

I prepared a couple more hotel reviews for Hotel Chatter, but it looks like only one got posted. My review of Cambridge Suites in Toronto. It's entirely possible the other one got lost in cyberspace. That only means you'll have to wait until my next travel essay to hear about Niagara Falls. [update 5/24 -- Here's the second one on the Fallsview Hilton.]

For the time being, I have sorted things out with Business As Usual's new publisher. So at least that's moving along again. Sadly, it means I have to spend more time re-proofing that damn thing.

After all that, back to fiction.
Armchair Traveling: I have been trying to read The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson, at the suggestion of my friend Chrissy, who says my writing brings his to mind. I can see why she would say that. He is a total smart ass, and writes relatively terse, irony laced observations about normal things. Bryson is a Yank who went to live in England as a young adult and turned full-on Limey. He returns to the US and undertakes a road trip around the country, avoiding big cities, in a Chevy Chevette and stays at cheap, skanky roadside motels (not my kind of travel, to say the least). Ostensibly, he is in search of the glorious, Rockwell-esque image of small town America, but for the first hundred pages or so he bitches about everything. He gets down on every thing he sees and everyone he encounters. I’m fine with that to an extent, but when it is so incessant it comes to sound mean-spirited despite the wittiness. I almost gave up on it but it slowly seems to be picking up so I’m continuing, tentatively, for now. A full review may follow.

By the way, if you are looking for a truly delightful comic travelogue, I can’t recommend Hokkaido Highway Blues, by Will Ferguson, highly enough. It is a recounting of Ferguson’s adventures as he hitchhikes the entire length of Japan. In the course of it, he rips on the Japanese as well as anyone, but you never doubt his love for the place and the people. One of the most entertaining books I have ever read.
Travelocity Blows (My Mind): Every time I have interaction with Travelocity I come away shaking my head. First off, let me say that Travelocity employees are some of the politest most helpful people I have ever run across. And, within the framework of what I assume to be Travelocity policies, they do an excellent job. (Note: I am guessing that Travelocity out-sources customer support to India, considering the accents of literally every employee I have spoken with. That's fine with me. If all customer services reps were that polite I'd suggest everyone outsource to India.) But here's the thing. The interactions I have with Travelocity make no sense what-so-ever.

You may recall my previous experience (which I commonly refer to as getting pantsed in New York City) wherein I booked myself into a newly-opened, fairly luxurious boutique hotel in midtown Manhattan and, when the hotel decided they weren't ready to open after all, Travelocity re-booked me into a dingy HoJos nearby. I spent about two hours on the phone (mostly on hold) to try to get them to book me somewhere else, this time a comparable property. They said couldn’t; they just said check out of the Hojos and book yourself somewhere else. I ended up staying at the Hilton, which I booked on their website. I have no idea why they could not do that for me -- presumably they have access to their own website -- and instead had me wait on hold for two hours to essentially accomplish nothing.

This time I had booked tickets to the Caribbean on Cayman Airways (last summer), which meant no e-ticket, I had to have paper tickets. Fine, but then the hurricane flattened the island just a few days before I was scheduled to go. I had to re-book within a year and I started the process last week. After a number of calls, I discovered the correct way to do this when paper tickets are involved. So I followed the procedure, which involves preparing a written request for my re-booking and snail mailing it into the "re-issues department" at Travelocity along with my now useless paper tickets. So that's exactly what I did.

Two days later I get an email stating they could not re-ticket me and give me a number to call to sort things out. OK, so I call the number, and after a brief wait on hold a very polite woman listens to my story. She puts me on hold for another few minutes then tells me that I will need to talk to the re-issues department, and then transfers me to them. Head shaker number 1: Why didn’t you just give me the number to the re-issues department in the email you sent?

So I wait on hold for another, oh, maybe 10-15 minutes until I get a very polite woman in the re-issues department. She asks me the same questions about why I'm calling. So I go through that again, and she says, OK let me look up your record. So she looks up my record and recites my story back to me from the record. Head shaker number 2: If you could easily look up my story, why make me go through it again?

So the nice woman proceeds to ask me what flights I would like to re-book on. Since I don’t know off the top of my head, I have to open a copy of the written request I sent in to tell her. That's what I do. Her response is, "Yes, I see; that's what I have here." Head shaker number 3: If you had it in front of you, why did you ask me?

Next, the polite woman says she'll have to put me on hold and get in contact with a Cayman Airways agent. This wait on hold was well in excess of thirty minutes. Presumably she was on hold waiting for a Cayman Airways rep herself. After the interminable wait, she comes back and tells me that my reservation is all set and they will Fed-Ex me new paper tickets. I ask why they sent an email to me saying they couldn’t re-ticket me when there was no problem. She makes some sort of comment about needing to verify something or other, before re-booking. But I didn't verify anything. WTF?

This goes beyond head shaking. This is where we get to mind-blowing. After two hours on hold, I gave them no information they did not already have. I answered no questions they did not already have the answer to. I cannot fathom why I needed to make this call.

So I'm guessing when you need paper tickets re-issued through Travelocity, the policy is as follows:

  1. You must submit a written request for a re-booking, specifying the new flights you want.

  2. That request will be summarily ignored, but it will trigger an email to you saying we couldn’t do as you requested and to please call.

  3. You will have recite the details of your request to a minimum of two representatives, who only then will look at the written request you sent in and inform you that you did in fact request what you think you did.

  4. Only at that point will an attempt be made to re-book your flight and you must wait on hold for as long as it takes to get that done.

  5. Thank you for choosing Travelocity.

I am so stunned by the consummate lunacy and monumental futility of this interaction that I can’t even get upset about it. Needless to say, I steer clear of Travelocity these days at all costs. I just hope the tickets actually get to me and there isn’t another disaster that makes me have to contact them again. If I do, I shall have to remember to drink heavily ahead of time.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Is This Any Way to Run A Hospital?: The big deal was that last weekend required an urgent trip down to DC that, among other things, required me to spend some time inside a hospital (just as a visitor). Hospitals are truly disquieting places. They are like hotels, but with really, really bad service. But the most unnerving thing is how disorganized and confused everyone seems all the time. It's almost as if the only reason you get any treatment is that a deeply harried nurse happened upon you at the right time. And then, you're lucky if she happens to be familiar with the treatment you need. Or she didn't misread your chart. Or accidentally wander into the wrong room.

Case in point, one nurse upon noting that the alarm was beeping and flashing on an I.V., walked over to it, gave it a look of total confusion, and pressed the "silence" button, then went about her business without any concern for why the alarm was going off and without a reassuring word to pass on, like "That's nothing serious, I'll get someone to come in and check it," just complete indifference to the fact that a flashing red light labeled alarm on a device that was feeding chemicals into the patient's arm was going off. The service industry equivalent would be responding to a complaint about a fly in the soup by taking the customer's soup spoon and fishing it out, then walking away without a word, except in a situation where the customer just had surgery and was dependent on the soup of continued existence (I'm straining for the analogy, I know). Seriously, these hospitals ought to farm out their operations to Ritz-Carlton. At least they could train them to knock before entering a room.

I will grant that this was the only hospital I've ever been to that had valet parking. That was cool. No turn down service though...
Wynn and Lose: It is almost certainly true that I would have given a minor, non-essential organ to be at the opening of Wynn Las Vegas, the new monster hotel on the strip from Steve Wynn, the man behind the Bellagio. Hotel Chatter had some opening day pool pics, which made me drool. So I went to the website of the Wynn to check on rates and availability and was totally stifled. I gave it a few days, and tried again -- same issue. So what else was there to do but write an open letter to Steve Wynn for my dear friends at Hotel Chatter to post. Very cathartic, I must admit.
Off To See The Wizzinator: Am I wrong to get such a kick out of this sort of thing? Just when you thought a pinnacle had been attained by the man -- nay, the legend -- that is Ron Mexico, comes along one Onterrio Smith, running back for the Minnesota Vikings. Onterrio had occasion to take a commercial airline flight, which means Onterrio was up for a potential TSA search. Onterrio was not in a particularly good position to get searched. It seems Onterrio was packing some serious gear. Specifically, a device called the Whizzinator.

The Wizzinator. Can you guess what the Whizzinator is? It's not the kind of item you're going to find at Wal*Mart. The Whizzinator. It's not a device for producing processed cheese. The Whizzinator. It's not $9.95 from Ronco if you order before midnight. Actually, its full name is The Original Whizzinator, just so you won't get it confused with some cheap imitation. The Original Whizzinator is a device designed to produce a clean urine test.

From the article:

The $150 device includes a prosthetic penis attached to a jockstrap and plastic bag. Using a syringe, the user fills the bag with a precisely measured amount of water blended with the urine powder to create a clean sample. When the user takes a drug test in front of an observer, the water is released through the prosthetic with a valve (the instructions recommend the user cough to hide the sound of the valve unsnapping).

Pure unadulterated slapstick. Really, couldn't you envision such a scene in some asswitted teen comedy; Sean William Scott as the quarterback under suspicion has to give a urine sample, so he employs the Whizzinator only he can't get the thing unsnapped so he keeps coughing and coughing. Everyone is looking on in confusion, then suddenly it unsnaps and sprays all over Will Ferrell as the observing doctor.

Except this is real life. The Whizzinator is an actual product that actual people can buy (I refuse to link the site). And Onterrio Smith is an actual football player. One who already has a couple of strikes against him in the NFL substance abuse program. So what does Onterrio do when confronted with said device? Well, he naturally claimed it wasn't really his; it was for his cousin. An excuse worthy of Bart Simpson in his prime. At least he didn't claim it was just in the luggage when he bought it.

I have no idea if the NFL will count this as a third strike. I suppose if they wanted to they could track down the "cousin" and check out his story. On the other hand, knowing the NFL, there's probably some sort of clause that allows them to suspend a player for being in possession of fake penises anyway. And I guess poor Onterrio can write off any product endorsements except for The Original Whizzinator itself, or perhaps certain Larry Flynt business ventures.

Next we come to ACT II wherein desperately bored lawmakers claim the Whizzinator is "violating our trust and compromising our security." Presumably a link to cancer and global warming will be found shortly. The public good requires an investigation. "Are you now, or have you ever been, associated with a fake willie?" (There's a Bill Clinton joke in there somewhere, I'm sure.)

For those interested, you can buy a Vikings #32 (Smith's number) jersey with the name Whizzinator from the NFL shop. Although not for long, one expects.
Odds and Sods: Been a while since I did a link round-up, so here we go.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Pledge: I had to duck out for a four day weekend that can only be described as worrisome but ultimately successful. I'll let you in on some of it later. In fact, I hearby pledge to dump some serious content on you this weekend. Even if I have to put off fiction or review writing.

I just can't seem to catch up.

Plus, I just realized I have to move. The guy who lives below me smokes like a fiend and it literally gets to the point where I can't stand to be in the living room because the smell wafts up from below. Of course, I can't very well tell the guy to stop smoking in his own home, can I? So I have to move. I have to sell this place and move somewhere nearby, maybe an actual house so I don't have to worry about this sort of nonsense.

Plus, I'm having serious issues with the new publisher of Business As Usual that I won't go into here, but it's giving me a basal level of infuriation to deal with whenever the issue of a given moment subsides.

I don't remember a time in the last ten years when I was so completely frustrated with everything.

Whatever the case, new content this weekend. Promise.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha: OK I had hoped to be able to get a travel article up, and something else as yet undefined, by the weekend, but something suddenly came up. It looks like a may be a week or ten days before I get anything written now. The entire first half of this year has been an complete head spinner. It should slow down soon; it'll have to because I really need to get some stuff done and get back in the swing of writing.

I have to share the latest on HRH Miss Anna's acting career. First she took a role in music video by a very scary looking band called Catatonik. You can download a couple of their songs from the site. Note the ending 'k', which should tell you all you need to know about what a genuinely rebellious group of individuals they are. They could have gone all the way and called themselves Katatonik, but nobody likes an anarchist. Anyway, here's a pic of Anna in full video shoot regalia. Disturbing on so many levels.

The bigger news is that the shooting of the pilot for the potential TV series Signals has gotten underway. Here's the site; read all about it. Also available are a few of pics of Anna in the gallery section, here's one mid-scene (Anna is on the left); and here she is (again on the left) hanging with the "cute boys" on the set. Is that a Mona Lisa smile, or a sneer?

Speaking of pics, I took some good ones on my trip through Canada that I’ll share with you once I get it written up. Sadly, every good pic I took of the Horseshoe Falls also contains an extreme close-up of my thumb. I swear I haven’t done that since I had a Polaroid Swinger in the 1970s. But I do want to share a couple of shots of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. Check out the main buildings, then imagine it in summer (here and here).

Back as soon as I can…

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Hold Still, Wouldja?: OK, last weekend in Niagara Falls, then the week at Canyon Ranch in Lenox MA (I think I dropped a couple of pounds), the this weekend in Toronto. I will write about Niagara Falls and Toronto, but probably not CR since I've hit you with spa trips in the past and this was pretty much more of the same (although not quite as good as the previous two). Let me see what I can slap together to post by next weekend.

I made this one a road trip and my loyal Sirius radio receiver saw me through the endless stretches of Canadian farmland. It was cold and rainy for just about the whole trip but I still managed to get some fun in. Short version: Niagara Falls was OK, pretty much exactly as I remember it from childhood. Toronto, on the other hand, is now one of my favorite cities. Trip details, hotel reviews, etc. will be forthcoming.

Question: When a Canadian needs to sleep, does he "need to catch some zeds"? I admit to frezeing momentarily when the spelling of my last name came back as M-A-Zed-Zed... Culture shock.

I did remembr to set my DVR to capture the hopefully triumphant return of The Family Guy tonight. Who's a clever boy, eh? I haven't watched it yet, but I'm sure I'll let you know what I think. It's gotten to be kind of a habit.

Also, I have souvenir featherless chicken buttons. You read that right. It's the kind of bling makes the homies say "ho" and the girlies wanna scream.