Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mrs. Keltner and the Lightning

Of all the awe-inspiring forces of nature, lightning is my least favorite. I am genuinely terrified of its potential for sudden destruction, and I will do almost anything to avoid going outside when it appears. But it wasn’t this way before 1963, the year I started third grade.

Mrs. Keltner was our third grade teacher, and if memory serves me correctly, she was a fairly nice lady. She reminded many of us of our grandmothers, in that she seemed to watch over us like a flock, doling out practical advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the things about which Mrs. Keltner was most concerned was our exposure to lightning.

Before I was in Mrs. Keltner’s class, I have to admit that I hadn’t given lightning much thought, but only a few weeks into the school year, she got into high gear with lightning warnings. She told us that during a thunderstorm, we should not ever go outside, stand close to a window, or even bathe or take showers. I translated this last admonition into not going anywhere near the bathroom or running water in general. In short, I truly internalized Mrs. Keltner‘s advice, to the point where I became deathly afraid of lightning, even after I’d finished third grade and headed on to fourth. And fifth. And sixth, and so on. But one memory stands out above all others in this regard.

The summer after I’d finished third grade, our family took a vacation to the Ozark Mountains. The trip was going fairly well until late one afternoon, when my parents decided to go to an outdoor play called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which was held on the outskirts of as-then-undiscovered Branson, Missouri. We drove down a gravel road to a field that was set up for parking, and just as we were about to leave the car, I saw on the horizon one of the meanest looking storms I had ever seen. To this day, I have seen nothing that compares to its sheer ugliness. The sky had turned a deep, dark green above a narrow ribbon of sunshine. It looked unbelievably disturbing, and I was terrified. I began crying hysterically, fearful that my parents would insist that we leave the car to watch what by now I am sure I had dubbed “this stupid play.” Of course, my parents would never have done such a thing, but still, I was beyond help and was having a total meltdown.

"The Shepherd of the Hills" in progress
As with many summer storms, the green cloud turned gray, the rain poured in sheets, and then the whole thing was over. It was then safe to leave the car, but there was still the play to endure.

When you are nine years old, even an hour seems like an eternity, but seriously, "The Shepherd of the Hills" had to have lasted almost three hours. For all that time, we were perched on hand-hewn, uncomfortable, wet wooden benches. The play seemed to go on forever, and although it was billed as family entertainment, I couldn’t really follow the plot, but at least there was no lightning, so that was good. When it was over, I told my parents how sorry I was that I had acted so dramatically, but they seemed to understand, and by the end of the evening, the vacation was back on track.

In the many years since, I’ve seen my share of inclement weather, having lived through Memphis tornadoes, Chicago blizzards, and some wicked Southern heat, but still, nothing rattles me like lightning. If I am parked only twenty feet from the entrance to a store or restaurant during a storm, I will generally run like hell to the door, effectively folding time and space to get inside. I know Mrs. Keltner would be proud that I have heeded her warnings. Every time I see broadcasts from the “Severe Weather Center," which in Atlanta generally runs up the flag when we are having no more than an eighth of an inch of rain, I think of her and how she cared for her flock.

Bless you, dear Mrs. Keltner, for your lightning obsession. I’d rather be safe than sorry. And by the way, I just looked up “The Shepherd of the Hills” on Wikipedia, and you know, the plot doesn’t really look too awful. Maybe I’ll give it another try, but this time, I’ll wait until the sun is shining.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

True Colors

I found myself in an odd, but strangely familiar, situation today. I had eaten a healthy steamed chicken and broccoli entree for lunch, but I was still hungry, so about two hours later, after a bit of light shopping, I stopped by a McDonald's drive-thru, then pulled over into a parking lot to eat my second lunch, because honestly, I just couldn't wait any longer. That alone was bad enough, but the really sad thing was that the lot where I was wolfing down my food was outside an LA Fitness gym. I sighed and resigned myself to errant behavior, but soon, the addictive flavor of the french fries washed over me and erased any sense of guilt I might have had. That's when I noticed them.

Two young men stepped out of their vehicles, stopped to say hello to each other, and headed into the gym. Both were rather heavily tattooed, with buzz cuts that gave them a rough and ready air. They strutted into LA Fitness, muscles a-blazing, and it was then that I remembered that once upon a time, I sort of walked in those shoes. Of course, there were a few differences. For one, I don't have any tattoos. (I got a temporary lizard tattoo on a 2007 weekend trip with friends after we had consumed a very large amount of light beer, and it scared the bejesus out of my friend Neharika, whose childhood home in India had been plagued by lizards. Since that time, I have not messed with tattoos.) Also, my haircut is a simple 3.5 clippers "do" that is very easy to maintain but still has a Baby Boomer One Step Removed look about it.

My commonality with the two modern gentlemen harks back to 1988, when I spontaneously decided that a) I needed to take more vitamins and b) I needed to get more exercise. A new gym named Sportslife was opening in the area, and they were signing up people at an attractive introductory rate. I braved it one evening and headed over. The very first thing the trainer did was to line us all up and give us a fitness evaluation. The group numbered about ten, and we were pretty equally distributed by gender. We were asked to perform various calesthentics, including a series of push-ups and sit-ups. Sit-ups have always been a weakness of mine, and I only made it to about eight or nine. The young woman next to me, on the other hand, attired in a brilliant yellow outfit with coordinated leg warmers and matching shoes, did 25 without missing a beat. She didn't even look tired. I realized at that point that I had a long way to go.

To make a long story short, I joined Sportslife and became a regular. I worked out three times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for about an hour and a half per session. I was religious in the order I did things and cycled through a combination of circuit training, cardio, and free weights that just made for the perfect workout. I began to see results, and that was encouraging. At one point, I could set a StairMaster on its 8 out of 10 setting and easily climb for 20-25 minutes. If I tried to do that now, paramedics would need to be on call. Yet, I was doing this three times a week and feeling absolutely incredible. But the exercise alone wasn't the whole experience -- part of it was a visual thing, and here's where I contrast the experience with that of today's gyms.

Sportslife was a product of the 1980's, and if you actively participated in the 80's, you remember such things as bright colors, form-fitting attire, Big Hair, and color-coordinated scrunchies. The gym itself was architecturally stunning, and everyone in it looked at least somewhat happy, even though, let's face it, we were all glistening profusely. On any given day or evening, the place was populated by a dedicated group of exercising fools, dressed in every color of the rainbow. And this didn't apply only to women -- we men had our own scintillating array of duds. I owned a nice pair of Nike white and teal training shoes, three pairs of stretch athletic tights in black, blue, and purple, and t-shirts in a plethora of colors. You would think that I would have stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn't. This was because Joe Schmo, weighing in at around 250 with biceps the size of Staten Island, would also be wearing a brightly colored outfit, as would all the other guys who made their way through the locker room. Drab was out, flash was in, and it was a grand time. I was in the best shape of my life, and honestly, I felt like a million bucks.

But somewhere in time, many people, and especially men, began to be fearful of color. We all remember how 80's neon gave way to 90's grunge, so it wasn't just a gym thing. Over time, I had let my Sportslife membership lapse, so when I once again joined a gym in the late 1990's, first a YMCA and then some years later, LA Fitness, I noticed that everything had taken on this monotonic variation of gray and black. It wasn't just the clothes, but the people, too. No one seemed to really smile at gyms any more. The atmosphere had become street-ready and aloof, and it made me uncomfortable, so I let it go and started walking for exercise, which I've maintained to this day. Who knows? It may turn around, and we may find ourselves back in a convivial workout universe. I would like for that to happen, but I'm holding on to a memory, I guess.

I still have those purple workout tights. They only measure about a foot across at the top. Every few years, during a clothing purge, I'll try them on, just for old time's sake, but I just can't bring myself to give them away, because they remind me how good I felt back then. I can't wear them for any measurable amount of time, because my circulation would be cut off, and given my recent experiences with eye issues and kidney stones, I just don't need anything else. But you know, I still think there's a special place in the world for spandex.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


We relocated to Atlanta from Chicago in 1982, and we have been here since, except for two years in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the mid-90's. As soon as we returned to Atlanta after our time in the Tar Heel State, we located and put a contract on a house in a neighborhood that we'd always had our eyes on. It was in an excellent school district, which was very important to us. Plus, it was only about three miles from our old house, so it was like coming back to a familiar neighborhood. We instantly bonded with our neighbors and have remained that way ever since. We've lived in the house since 1995, and we always say that none of us will move unless all of us move. It's a nice feeling, to be living this way in a metropolitan area with lots of relocated folks and more arriving all the time.

Most of our houses were built between the years 1984 and 1989, well after the advent of cable television, so there was no waiting for cable to be run to the neighborhood. By the time we got here, it had indeed arrived; in fact, when we made our first visit to the house with our dedicated real estate agent Sandy, we noticed that there were cable jacks and telephones everywhere. The former owner had been the CFO of the Upton's retail store chain, and from all indications, he liked staying in touch.

Our cable saga began with Media One, which at one time had the dubious distinction of being the company with the worst customer service in the United States. It was acquired by AT&T in 2000 and then by Comcast in 2002. I have to say that when we initially moved into our house, there was no problem getting cable connected. Right away, we were able to experience the mystical adventure of being Media One customers. We survived the acquisitions by AT&T and later by Comcast, but it was in those early days that things began to get interesting.

From time to time, as is the case with all modern television technology, reception issues surfaced. The technicians would almost always come out at the appointed times to repair whatever was broken, but if you had to contact a person by phone, you had to be prepared. One night, I sat on hold with Media One for about an hour and fifteen minutes, after which time I was about to pull out locks of my already thinning hair. But the service people themselves were generally nice, and some even had a pretty good sense of humor.

One of the most memorable visits we had from service people was during the early Comcast days, when two energetic, knowledgeable young Japanese contract technicians who appeared to be related or at least very good friends, showed up to fix whatever problem we were having. At one point, they said that everything was really messed up and that they needed to run another cable along the side of the house. This was amusing to me, since at that time, we already had two cables running in parallel along the side of the house where they wanted to run the third one. Nevertheless, I acquiesced, and a third cable was run, parallel to the other two and evenly spaced. Several days later, my next door neighbor David was working outside, and when he saw the three cables, he started laughing and said that we would never have to worry about the house falling down, because it was now so well supported by coaxial cable. And he's a mechanical engineer, so I trust him.

All along our pay TV journey, we've had issues where the solutions, regardless of provider, have been to run more cable or replace splitters and connectors. As Mick Jagger once said, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." At one point in time, I knew what all the various cables did, because I would follow the technicians around and outside the house as they ran or rerouted them. But over time, I lost interest in doing this and instead opted to sit inside the house and wait for a signal to reappear -- to play dumb, as it were. The result is that we have a truly byzantine arrangement of cabling supporting our TV viewing, and I have no idea what some of it does or if it even carries a signal.

One afternoon about eight years ago, we were shopping at Best Buy, and they had one of those desks set up where they try to sell you some TV service other than the one you're using (how do they always know?). In our case, the salespeople were selling DirecTV, and when they snagged us and told us the phantasmagorical low price we'd be paying, we decided to make the switch from Comcast. In order for the service to work, we of course had to have a satellite dish installed. This was a bold step we'd never taken, but when the installation technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side, I figured the whole thing was legit, and our installation proceeded without a hitch. When we locked on the signal, I saw that the DirecTV channel guide was a beautiful thing to behold, graced with a tonal palette rivaled only by the finest of National Geographic photographs.

We had DirecTV for about five years, and I must say that overall, it was a pleasant period of time. DirecTV has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the business, and our experience bore that out. There was exactly one phone number to call, and when we needed something fixed, they were on it. One night, I was experiencing some kind of minor system malfunction, so I called "the number." The person who answered was not able to assist me, but she instantly (and I mean instantly) transferred me to a technical support representative. This lady sounded like a hippie, and I don't mean the faux-hippie-but-really-a-hipster-who-wishes-they'd-lived-in-the-Seventies type, but the real McCoy. She asked me a few questions and then immediately gave me a solution that worked the first time. I found her entertaining, and at the end of the call, when I thanked her profusely for giving me such a quick fix, she laughed and said, "You're very welcome. I've been doing this a long time, and you know how this stuff is. It's so weird." Amen to that.

Despite the great service offered by DirecTV, the prices started to climb, as they have been wont to do since the introduction of pay TV. My wife Karen started hinting about switching to AT&T U-verse, since they seemed to offer lower prices for more channels. I demurred, saying that I'd heard some bad things about the service. I held off like this for about two years, with the DirecTV prices climbing and the U-verse offers getting better and better. Early one evening, a young man came to our door trying to sell us U-verse, and I proceeded to lecture him on why I didn't want the service. I think that, after the first five minutes, he had actually stopped trying to sell me on it, but by then, I was wound up and had started listing all the various and sundry problems I'd heard from other people. He finally went away without convincing me, sporting what looked to me to be a profound sense of relief.

But finally, due mostly to service outages during periods of bad weather, we made the decision to leave DirecTV in favor of U-verse. It all happened when we went to upgrade iPhones at the AT&T store. They made it sound so good, both financially and technically, that I finally gave in, and we scheduled the installation.

Several days later, the U-verse technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side. This part felt familiar. Once again, I felt that we were about to get something pretty good, and when he entered the house with a professional demeanor and tools on his belt that I had never seen, I was fascinated. There were all these weird wrenches and electronic tools that appeared to be fiber optic related, and for about two hours, he took control of our cabling and set us on the path to U-verse. It started out well, except for one thing: he gave us this little book full of phone numbers to call in case something went wrong. Note the use of the plural here: there was not one number to call, but many numbers, depending on what might have happened. But the channel guide...oy was beyond magical. For any given program, a stunning (and grammatically correct) paragraph would be displayed, telling you everything you might want to know and then some. Aesthetically, it was just a beautiful thing to behold. But beauty, as we all know, can sometimes be only skin deep.

There is no way to truly describe in sufficient detail, within the length of this blog post, what we experienced with U-verse. Although I have great respect overall for the past accomplishments and true innovations of AT&T as a company, it is evident that the U-verse television service has some serious technical limitations. In fairness, many of these are infrastructure related and cannot be readily ameliorated. When I would ask friends who used U-verse about the service, I found that the answers were bipolar -- either the service fell into the "I don't know, I've never had any problems" category, or it had to be disconnected due to poor reliability.

The difference between DirecTV and U-verse was actually quite simple: DirecTV service would go out during bad weather, whereas U-verse would go out regardless of the weather. In some cases, it even appeared to perform more poorly during good weather. Whenever there was an interruption, a very detailed screen would appear, listing five steps to take to recover the service. Each step was listed as a paragraph, and each was grammatically correct. Punctuation was flawless. However, despite the five steps listed, the real fix for restoring service was either to simply sit and wait for a few minutes, or to go mix up a martini, after which time the signal would return in all its former glory.

And then one night, we were again upgrading phones at the AT&T store, the same store, in fact, where they had sold us on the U-verse service. The sales associate asked us what we were paying for U-verse, and he told us that surprise, he could save us money by switching us to DirecTV, which by now, AT&T had purchased. With a look of amusement I told him that it was right here, in this very same chair, that I had been sold U-verse. He laughed, and then he told me that DirecTV was now "the thing." I later found out that AT&T has for some time been pushing all new TV customers to DirecTV. So, once again, we switched, even though I had reservations about phone support through the "new" AT&T-owned DirecTV. Besides, U-verse hadn't had any hippies on its support staff.

Last December, the DirecTV technician showed up to perform the installation. This time, I did not see an emblazoned logo on the service van, but still, I allowed him to enter the house and make the necessary modifications to restore our DirecTV service, and I'm pleased to say that, since that time, we've only had two minor service interruptions during bad weather. On clear days, everything seems to work. A few weeks ago, I saw a note that DirecTV is sprucing up its channel guide, improving its tonal palette a few degrees more. Things can only go up from here.

Oh, by the way, in all this back and forth, some of the cables have been removed, so that now, alongside the house, those three parallel cables have been reduced to one. I don't know if that single cable goes anywhere, but I'm sure I'll find out sooner or later. Best to leave well enough alone, I say.