• I dropped Max at South Station about an hour ago. He left New York at 10 PM Friday night to hop a bus for Boston, hoping to escape what at the time seemed to be a cataclysmic hurricane. By this morning, we knew that Irene was an erratic mess-maker, causing wind and water damage in spots, leaving other places unscathed. Time for Max to get back to New York and his new life as a City Year corps member.

    On our drive to South Station, Max and I saw Boston washed clean. The rising sun shone blindingly, brilliantly.  Cool crisp winds shooed away the blanket of heavy, wet air that’d been stalled over the Atlantic coast.  I watched as Max lugged to the terminal a backpack and bags filled with freshly laundered clothing and giant speakers.  Should he have made such a fuss to get back to Boston, after all?

    A radio announcer voiced a piece in which New Yorkers posed similar questions. They criticized New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for what this morning seems like over-the-top evacuation plans. As I sped along the Mass Pike, the city before me, I wished we could all be a bit more grateful. Thank goodness it wasn’t worse. Halleluyah that an ordinarily pro-business public figure was willing to take an “anti-business” stance in favor of keeping people safe. How lucky we are that the worst most of us can complain of is a wet basement or a loss of power. I’ll bet the folks down in New Orleans, where today they’re marking the sixth anniversary of that storm’s landfall, would love to have so little to report.

  • A light’n’lively story in today’s New York Times describes the impact of Verizon Wireless’s installation of temporary “cell on wheels” towers on Martha’s Vineyard’s vacationers and locals. Wireless users’ cell phones start ringing when President Obama arrives on the island, known for its remoteness and beauty. These folks ordinarily forego cell coverage on The Vineyard. Most vacationers prefer life without cell interruptions but, as Times reporter Abby Goodnough notes, understand the administration’s need to link to the wider world.

    Reading the story stirred up two sets of memories for me, one relatively recent, the other less so. Here forthwith:

    MEMORY THE FIRST

    I spent an exasperating week in July battling Verizon’s land line service to have DSL and telephone restored here in Brookline. In normal times, our internet service is painfully slow. To give you an idea, imagine having your bandwidth eaten for six to eight hours to upload a seven-minute radio piece.  (For reasons too complicated for even a modestly intelligent person to understand, we aren’t able to get cable.) In addition, the quality of our everyday telephone land line is compromised by a persistent, staticky crackle.  This is on a good day, mind you. In July, the crackle got so bad that conversations were almost impossible, plus the line would frequently go dead, dropping calls mid-conversation.  I put in a request to Verizon for repair.

    A week and four separate visits from Verizon land line workers later, I was at my wits’ end. Repairmen would show up, check the antediluvian pole and line behind our garage on our neighbor’s property, tell me they had tapped us into a new “pair” of lines coming and going from the central switching station, and then leave. And still we’d have no phone service.

    By the time the last worker arrived, I had lost faith and patience.  I was supposed to have had phone service, and he was supposed to be visiting to improve the DSL coverage. Given that the phone still wasn’t working, I’d called Verizon in advance of his visit to make sure the work order reflected the need to restore the line — not just to install a digital splitter for the DSL.  It took me over an hour to convince several different Verizon reps in call centers around the world to change the work order. Despite my attempts to give a heads up, this fourth worker arrived without a clue that he’d need to fix the actual phone line.  As I’d suspected, he balked at my request to bring back phone service, because his work order only told him to install the DSL splitter.  When we were done “discussing” the options, he agreed to take care of both issues.  He diagnosed the same problem with the land line as previous repairmen and  generated the same solution. He explained that one of the emails alerting the switching station to activate the new pair had gotten dropped earlier in the week, hence the lack of phone. All would now be well, he assured me. Either you fix it this time, I told the guy, or I’m canceling my service plan with Verizon. He told me he needed to leave the house to find a new pair and hook us up.  We agreed he would leave his laptop in my house as surety until the service was completely restored. He came back a good while later to let me know that he’d finished his job and would be leaving.  Nope, said I, I’m not giving you back your laptop until the phone works.

    This guy was as fed up with me as I was with him. He told me that by contract he had to leave my property as soon as he notified the central office to activate the new pair.  I told him that by contract his company owed me phone service and that once the phone and internet were running, he could have his laptop back.  (My kids found this hilarious. I’d “Mommed” the poor guy.)  “I want to speak with your supervisor,” I told the repairman. Like those who’d come before, he told me this wasn’t possible. I told him I didn’t care. It was take no prisoners time.

    When this able worker realized that I really wasn’t going to let him have his laptop back until the phone worked, he went into the basement to talk with his supervisor in private. He returned several minutes later and handed me his cell phone. The supervisor — a guy in charge of land line coverage for my town — explained company policy.  I asked him how the policy made any sense, given that Verizon was hemorrhaging cash by sending four separate workers to fix a straightforward problem. How could this be cost-efficient, I wondered? If the phone didn’t work after the fourth guy had left, Verizon would have to send a fifth worker to start all over again. The supervisor finally agreed to leave his worker in place until the job was done.  But the worker couldn’t raise anyone in the central office. So he took off for an hour of lunch. When he returned and restored my land line and internet service to its crackly, slow, pre-repair state, he was free to leave. With his laptop. And I was grateful.

    Talking with these four separate workers, I learned that each was frustrated with management, with repair policies, with the company in general. Each spoke of the company’s lack of commitment to land line service. Each told me that the company didn’t care if it lost land line customers to other service providers, that the company wanted to be left to its cellular business. Wireless workers aren’t unionized, they told me. Land line workers are. They complained about gigantic corporate earnings, insistence that there be employee give backs in upcoming contract negotiations (including health care coverage), and predicted they’d be out on strike come the first week of August.

    The strike came to pass, with lowly workers attempting to bring Verizon management to its knees. You can read/watch a relatively pro-management piece as well as a relatively pro-labor piece explaining some of the bigger issues.  Where do I fall on this strike? I believe the workers when they say that the company is trying to grind them out of unionized existence. I also think they do a terrible , inefficient job installing and maintaining land lines.

    What recourse did I have to register my dissatisfaction?  I could have cancelled our service, but all of my business cards and stationery list my email @verizon.net.  I know there are ways out of this, but they are complicated and even expensive for me.  Since I’d given the worker back his laptop I only had one other option. I am, in my way, part of “management.” I sold my stock in Verizon. I had quite a bit. Even if in the end I lose money because of my trade, I can fan the flames of my righteous indignation by refusing to profit from management’s awful motives and even awfuller policies. And I remove my capital from a pot that could potentially fund workers’ pensions and health insurance coverage. I don’t wanna profit from having a dog in this particular fight.

    Did I bring them to their knees, or what?

    MEMORY THE SECOND 

    A few summers ago, I worked as a reporter for National Public Radio’s Cape and Island’s affiliate. One of the stories I was researching but didn’t get to produce featured the critical role internet connections play in year-round sustainability of families and businesses on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. I interviewed impassioned residents on the Outer Cape who were frustrated by their inability to get their businesses running because of lack of internet. Also spoke with young people who’d grown up on Cape but were moving away because they couldn’t support themselves. At present, families and young people are leaving the Cape in droves. Housing costs, lack of year-round employment, and iffy public transport make Cape Cod an undesirable place to put down permanent roots for all save the independently wealthy.

    Last year, a hard-working non-profit organization, Open Cape, managed to midwife a deal harnessing federal money, local grants, and up-front investment from service provider RCN to provide increased internet coverage throughout Cape Cod.  You can read about the partnership, which is mandated to have finished its work by 2013, here.  The hope is that entrepreneurs and small business people who could live and work anywhere will choose to settle on Cape Cod for its spectacular beauty and quality of life IF they can get the first-rate internet access they’d expect on the mainland. [N.B.: See above for a sense of what that might actually look like.] With this class of people will come jobs, cash flow, and opportunity, enabling a wider spectrum of people to live year-round on the Cape. The best of capitalism and government intervention in tandem. At least in theory.

    CONCLUSIONS

    When I think about Verizon’s ability to throw up a coupla portable cell towers to provide coverage for President Obama — just like that! — I am struck by the power of independent corporations in this country. Their ability to choose “can do” is often inspirationally breath-taking (and phone-ringing). And their decisions to operate in “can’t do” mode is proportionately nauseating. Who benefits when the terms of engagement insist on bringing at least one party (repair guys? workers? corporations? customers?)  to its knees?

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  • “Cuba-to-Florida Quest Defeats Swimmer at 61,” the headline reads in today’s New York Times. Diana Nyad, famed marathon swimmer, tried to make her way from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage in one go.  Her shoulder cramped.  She kept swimming. She had an unexpected bout of asthma.  She kept swimming. She began vomiting uncontrollably.  She stopped swimming. Her handlers pulled her from the water, and that was that.

    I want to be supportive of pretty much anything anyone does to challenge themselves, but this venture struck me as kinda dumb. But, then, I don’t get mountain climbing, either. So what if you can swim from Cuba to Florida? Or climb K2? Seems like a huge waste of money, plus it’s really dangerous. And you could leave people who love you feeling awful forever if something bad were to happen. Like if you were to die.

    In addition to my usual “hunh,” I didn’t respect Nyad’s motives.  She told reporters she was feeling bad about getting old. Or older. Whatever. She announced that “60 is the new 40” and that she wanted to do something that would prove she was in great shape physically and in better shape mentally than ever. “People my age must try to live vital, energetic lives,” she said. “We’re still young. We’re not our mothers’ generation at 60.” And this: “I’m standing here at the prime of my life; I think this is the prime, when one reaches this age.” I rather lost patience when Nyad counseled to “[b]e your best self.” Didn’t Oprah retire, already?

    In yesterday’s newspaper I read about 70+ year olds clamoring for elective plastic surgery. I don’t want anyone discriminating against my saggy old self. But, really, when do I get to let go a little? When can my “best self” admit that it’s not in its prime any more, that it can’t do what it did at 20? When can my “best self” have a bad knee and crow’s feet?

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  • Two Ends

    Two of the kids – Lily and Max – finished high school in early June.  I know, I know.  They call it “commencement.”  It’s supposed to be a beginning, the start of what’s coming next.  I like the idea of “graduation.”  You move (up?) from one step to another.  But, really, it felt so much like an ending.  The end of waving kids off in the morning from the breakfast table, the end of dropping kids at the train station and picking them up again in the afternoon, the end of having supper ready for everybody and hearing holy hell when everybody is sick of chicken, the end of having gangs of boys hanging out in the basement in front of the TV.  It was hard to think about beginnings, especially because nothing had begun yet.  It will.  I know it.  But it hadn’t then and hasn’t yet.

    We celebrated a lot of these ends, and it was joyful.  I threw parties.  Grandparents traveled to Boston from distant locales.  There were presents.  Everybody dressed up and looked spiffy.  Mark, the kids, and I traversed Alaska’s Inside Passage, from Juneau to Ketchikan, as a way to note these endings.  The five of us had – let it be publicly acknowledged – a lot of fun. Together.  As a family.  A dream come true.

    For Sam, of course, things haven’t exactly ended, because he is spending another year boarding and will have his commencement/graduation/end next June.  It’ll be different, in part because he’ll already have made the leap to “away.”  And it’ll be different because he won’t be graduating near home, so I can’t make all my neighbors gather and fuss.  But with luck we’ll all be together again – grandparents included – and it’ll be a big huge deal.  That’s the way it seems to be turning out in this family.  Reaching goals, coming to a place of achievement, marking rites of passage: we notice, and we eat cake.

    A Middle

    So, now, it’s high summer – August – and I feel like a yo-yo.  I keep pinging around.  I helped Lily get set up on the Cape so she could work her usual summer job at the fruit’n’veg stand.  I helped Sam get started at Berklee, where he’s been percussing away. I’ve helped Max and four others find an apartment in New York, where they’ll be volunteering with City Year for 11 months in public schools. Max hasn’t started yet, but he’s fully engaged in planning and will soon head with Mark in a U-Haul filled with furniture donated from generous friends.

    And I’m in the middle of too many projects.  I’m working on the syllabus for the course I’ll be teaching in the fall.  I’ve done another round of research for a long piece, but I haven’t written it yet.  I’ve emptied my office of books, but I still have a dozen, deep file cabinet drawers to sort through and vast stacks of papers to sort.  Good news: underneath the horrible, mouldy carpet lies a hard wood floor.  Such potential.  Kind of a metaphor for everything else.  Who knows what’s underneath?  Maybe something that with a bit of polish will shine?

    I feel stuck in the middle, meanwhile. After all the fanfare, not much has changed.  I’m still buying groceries and emptying the dishwasher.  The kids are keenly aware that new sorts of independence are just around the corner, but they haven’t quite reached the corner yet.  A bit of push-me-pull-you has ensued.  Normal, I know, in the Separation Derby, but not always comfortable.

    A Beginning

    You give everything you’ve got to these growing, shifting children, and if you are actually able to give what they need – not necessarily what they want or you expect – you get … to be left alone.  This somehow seems a bad bargain at the moment, although older friends tell me it’s actually great.  Right now, I think, “Who’d be crazy enough to sign on?  Three times?”  But that’s what the Bowl o’ Cherries is all about.  You’ve got to savor the delicious fruit of raising a family, recognizing that you’re going to be left with a messy napkin filled with pits.  The tasty fruit is gone.  The seeds are to scatter.  They’re going to mature into the loveliest trees. Probably in someone else’s yard.  You’ve been so busy getting to this point that other parts of the garden have lain fallow or even gone to seed. What to do?  Begin again.

    Mired in the middle after so many endings, I am engaging in a tiny beginning. I’ve had my first two cello lessons and can now play both the “Dreidel” song and “Jingle Bells.”  Pizzicato only.  I told this to a neighbor’s son, a young man I have loved since he and my kids were all 5.  He’s a wonderful musician with a wry sense of humor.  Next, he assured me: Bach’s cello suites – preferably Number Two.  I told him to check back with me in 2014.

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