Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In which Curmudgeon explains about monopolies and why he was an hour and a half late to work this morning....

Some men are born Curmudgeons. Some have Curmudgeon-ness thrust upon them. Despite my long-time nom de blog, I may be among the latter category. I did not set out to be rip-roaring angry this morning. But then....

Abuela is having health issues. She is 80; she will be 81 in August. She will be 101 in August 2034, too. In other words, this crisis will pass and she'll be fine.

But, right now, she is scared. Her blood pressure, usually low, is soaring. Her pulse is speed-racing, even when she doesn't move. And, at the moment, other than dialing the phone to one of her daughters or one of her doctors, she's not moving at all. Last week she got an appointment with a cardiologist set up for this morning; she also talked the cardiologist into providing a monitoring device and a 24/7 help number. She called it last night when her heart beat started zooming out of control again. Then she called Long Suffering Spouse.

And Long Suffering Spouse checked in with her before we retired last evening -- Abuela had calmed down some -- and, under the circumstances, I was neither surprised nor upset when Abuela called again this morning as Long Suffering Spouse and I were trying to get ready to leave. I kept emptying the dishwasher while Long Suffering Spouse fielded the call.

I finished unloading the dishwasher. I put in the dishes that accumulated overnight (remember, Youngest Son is back from college). I fixed my bagel and poured my coffee. Long Suffering Spouse was still on the phone to her mother. I couldn't tell by sound, you understand -- my wife was obviously not getting a word in edgewise -- but she was still in the rocking chair in the living room not moving.

I took my coffee and my bagel and my sandwiches for lunch into the den and fired up the desktop computer.

Younger Daughter and Granddaughter #1 were awake; they were just turning on Play With Me Sesame for the 9,000,000th time when I walked in. I opened the screen door, letting the cool air wash over me.

Younger Daughter immediately groused that it was too cold. Well, yesterday it had been too hot. Younger Daughter had merely complained that I'd not turned on the air conditioner; Youngest Son was nearly belligerent about it. But 30 degree temperature drops (and sometimes 30 degree temperature increases) are just part of the background noise of living in Chicago. I didn't let it bother me any. I was still pleasant and cheerful.

I opened up Facebook. I'd taken some pictures at the Memorial Day Parade in our neighborhood and posted these on the parish Facebook page and, sure enough, I'd picked up a few "likes." This pleased me. The milk of human kindness was coursing through my veins. I clicked on the Home tab intending to look at the news in a couple of other groups I've assembled. The little Windows 7 wheel of misfortune began spinning.

And kept spinning.

I looked at the router, the router I'd just purchased from AT&T barely two weeks ago. I may not have needed to do this. I thought my old router had failed, and Younger Daughter really needed the Internet to finish a project she was doing for my friend Steve (keeping the gaps as small as possible on her resume, doncha know), but when I went through all the steps to set the new device up I realized that my equipment wasn't broken; rather, AT&T had broken the Internet. There was a large outage in the Chicago area and we were caught up in it. I was, I admit, fit to be tied on that occasion.

Now, as I looked at the router and saw the ominous red light, the milk of human kindness curdled.

But, fine. Even new equipment can have a problem. Pull the plug, count to 10, try again. I know the drill. For good measure, I rebooted the desktop.

I waited.

One by one the green lights lit on my router. One by one, but not the one I needed. That light came back red. I was seeing red by now, too.

Still, there was one more thing to try -- the Windows troubleshooting menu.

People used to be able to fix things, back in the day. My father taught me how to change spark plugs and set the gaps and change the oil on the car. But then came electronic ignition and bans on what you could do with the old oil you drained. So I don't change my own oil. And nobody changes spark plugs.

But, also back in the day, only not as far back, during the DOS days, I could troubleshoot problems, locate corrupted files, reinstall programs. Meanwhile, back in Redmond, Washington, Darth Gates and his minions were designing Windows. (We can't have a self-sufficient peasantry, he must have told them, they'd be far too independent.) But, as a sop to those of us who thought we could diagnose and fix problems, the evil geniuses came up with 'troubleshooting menus' -- additional buttons to push, all to no avail, while the button-pusher's blood pressure spikes ever higher.

So, no, I didn't expect much from the Windows troubleshooting menus, and I was not surprised when Windows soon admitted that it could not resolve my problem.

Meanwhile, as I was plummeting from the heights of happiness to the depths of Internet despair, Long Suffering Spouse was trying to talk Abuela into not driving herself to her doctor's appointment. "If you feel like you're going to pass out, someone else should drive," my wife said -- repeatedly.

Younger Daughter volunteered and Long Suffering Spouse relayed the offer.

The offer was rejected. Long Suffering Spouse didn't really want Granddaughter #1 anywhere near a doctor's office -- who knows what germs she might pick up? -- and Abuela was adamantly opposed.

Youngest Son was volunteered.

Note the use of the passive voice. He did not know his services were being offered; he was asleep. He just got a job coaching a high school travel baseball team and they have a game today; only he knows when and where. So he might not have been actually available anyway. He was dismissed as a possible chauffeur.

"Do you have court this morning, Curmudgeon?" my wife called from the living room. I was in red-light Hell by this time; I snarled back that I did not have anything scheduled. But the last thing I wanted to do today was drive my mother-in-law around.

"Curmudgeon can do it," my wife told her mother. "No, it won't be any problem at all; he has nothing up in court." Abuela agreed to think about it and the conversation, finally, came to an end.

I could at last tell my wife that the Internet had died, right before my eyes.

"Did you try unplugging and replugging the router?" she asked.

"Yes," I barked. "It's not us; it's AT&T. Service is down again."

I raged and fumed and sputtered and swore about monopolies and Third World service at First World prices (I could see Granddaughter #1 mentally taking notes). My wife and daughter anxiously tried to shush me.

Long Suffering Spouse was not pleased. "Calm down! You're going to have a stroke, Curmudgeon," she scolded me, "and they're going to put you in Abuela's room at the hospital."

Ah, yes, Abuela.

"You realize, of course," I told her, "that your mother wants you to go with her? She's scared."

"I can't go. I have to go to school. I can't believe it's so late. I'm not going to get a parking space."

Long Suffering Spouse was up until midnight preparing materials to use in a couple of her classes today. She had every intention of going to school. I'm generally the expendable spouse, the one whose day can be sacrificed for the crisis du jour -- like when Younger Daughter called me to tell me she was going into labor. As long as I was reasonably close by, Younger Daughter wouldn't have dared to try and reach her mother at school.

But Long Suffering Spouse is worried about her mother, too. She expects her mother to be admitted to the hospital after she's seen today; I think Abuela is almost looking forward to it. Abuela seems to like being in the hospital. There was the time, a few years back, when Abuela's hemoglobin crashed; I forget the details. But if good hemoglobin is 11.5 and you need a transfusion at 8 or 9, she was down to a 5 or a 6 or a -2 or something -- something truly alarming -- and it was decided to put her in the hospital immediately. My wife went to take her (it was summertime) and got her in the car, with her bag packed, all ready to go, when Abuela realized she had forgotten to pack a favorite perfume. So my wife went back in her mother's house, rummaging through her bedroom, looking for a bottle of perfume, while she feared for her mother's life. And Abuela, sick as she was, was giddy like she was going on vacation.

Aside from a couple of similar episodes, Abuela has enjoyed really good health, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years. I think it must be sort of disappointing for her.

Anyway, mad as I was at AT&T, and mad as my wife was at me for being so mad, she could see the logic in what I'd said. "I'd better call school right away then," she said. "What's the number?"

We got her the number.

She got an answering machine. "No, this won't do at all!" she shouted. "Bring me my iPad. I need to send an email."

"You can't send an email. We have no Internet." (Younger Daughter asked whether we could send an email to the school from our phones. But the school system is a proprietary one, and one must be logged in before doing anything. I don't know how to do that quickly, if it can be done at all from a phone, I told her. Do you? No, my daughter admitted.)

Eventually, Younger Daughter and I persuaded Long Suffering Spouse to go to school in person and inform her principal of the problem. Problems. Meanwhile, I steeled myself for the ordeal of calling AT&T.

I dug out the most recent bill (it's not even overdue yet!) and began looking for a customer service number.

Like all monopolies, AT&T does not believe in customer service, only billing. On the bill detail there is a number for Internet or DSL billing questions. My actual Internet or DSL billing question -- how dare you send out bills for this crappy level of service? -- was not likely to receive a polite answer. But, after further scrutiny of the bill, I did find a paragraph labeled "customer support," that listed phone numbers -- different phone numbers -- that one could call to speak to AT&T in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, Polish, or even Russian. They probably connect you to one of Putin's own family members if you call the Russian number. AT&T is the kind of business that a guy like Vladimir Putin can appreciate -- as long as he's an owner, not a customer.

Anyway, my Mandarin not being really up to par, I decided to call the English number.

A computer answered.

"If you'd like to continue in English, press 1," the computer said. "Para continuar en Español, marque numero dos."

If you have to, you can think about that one for a little while.

I dutifully pressed number 1 and the computer started talking again. "I see you're calling from" -- and here the computer recited my home phone number. "Is this the number you are calling about?" Yes, I snapped. The AT&T computer voice is always so damn chipper; it just gets me madder to hear it. "One moment please while I gather information about your account." The computer then makes a little whoosh and gurgle like it's pulling in data from the far-flung corners of its endless files. "In a few words, tell me about why you are calling. For example, you can say, 'I'd like to pay my bill' or 'I'd like to order new service.'"

"AT&T is a bloated, corrupt monopoly that was broken apart by the courts but which stupid politicians and regulators have allowed to re-form into an entity even more evil than it was originally."

"I'm sorry, I did not get that," said the computer.

"My Internet is out. Again."

Eventually the computer put me in line to speak with a representative -- all of whom were busy servicing other customers at present, darn it -- but in the meantime I could listen to a steady stream of commentary -- like how many Internet connection problems can be solved by turning off the modem, or unplugging it for 10 seconds, and plugging it back in. I added some commentary of my own about this and Long Suffering Spouse -- back from school already -- started in shushing me again.

Then the recorded voice told me that all sorts of further troubleshooting advice was available at AT& Isn't that nice? If I could get to AT& I wouldn't be in hold-Hell here now, would I?

These messages, and others like them, all equally unhelpful, repeat until a human can be found to pick up the call.

I feel sorry for the poor lady who answered my call. It's not her fault that she has such a miserable job. The economy stinks. And then she has to listen to people driven crazy by endlessly looped messages that are completely unhelpful.

At least when you call the IRS you get soothing classical music as you waste away on hold. Or the music would be soothing if (1) you weren't calling the IRS and (2) it wasn't interrupted every 45 seconds or so by a voice urging you to stay on the line.

The woman from AT&T identified herself. She made me identify myself (didn't the computer already tell her?) and then she asked me how she could be of assistance today.

"Internet service is out in my area again. This is the second time in less than two weeks. This is entirely unacceptable."

"Can I put you on hold, sir, while I investigate? I'm not aware of any outage in your area."

At least this time, there was music and no useless suggestions.

When I began speaking in tongues at the computer this morning, Younger Daughter hustled her child out of the room. Play With Me Sesame had ended anyway. So I put the morning news on for something to pay attention to besides prerecorded inanities from AT&T.

In this news this morning it seems a person was struck and killed by a Metra commuter train in the vicinity of Arlington Park. I don't live in that vicinity, but I do live much closer to the center of the City along that same train line. And, sure enough, the news advised, the CTA was honoring Union Pacific passes this morning on the Blue Line (which I do take) because of disruption to the Metra service going to the northwest suburbs. So that was making the Blue Line slower than usual.

That would have been bad enough, but the Blue Line was also having equipment problems coming in from the airport -- in other words, by me -- and things were really messed up.

"I may just go back to bed," I announced. "If I ever get off hold."

The AT&T lady eventually came back on the line. "Sir, it turns out that there is an outage in your area." She seemed surprised. With monopolies, the customer is almost always wrong.

"When will this problem be fixed?"

"It is currently scheduled to be repaired by 7:30 p.m.," she said. Just another 11 hours (give or take) to go.

"You know," I said, "this is completely unacceptable. To find a number to call you, I had to pull out my bill. And what should I find in my bill but a notice that you are 'upgrading' Internet service in this area? Faster speeds for bigger dollars. Now why would I -- why would anyone -- do that when you can't keep the system you have operating smoothly?"

"Well, sir, I do see that we are going to fiber-optic service in your area and we won't be dependent on the old, copper telephone lines anymore. And that's the problem, that the old lines are in need of replacement."

Like the one I'm presently speaking to you on? But I kept that to myself. Instead I said, "And I also notice that you are billing me for a full month's service even though you have had two outages in two weeks."

"You are entitled to a credit, sir," said the woman. "I can put you on hold and connect you to a billing specialist."

"Please," I begged. "Do. Not. Put. Me. On. Hold. Again."

"Well, alright, sir, have a nice day."

I hung up the phone.

And it rang again almost immediately.

It was Long Suffering Spouse's sister, Josephine, calling from her office. Abuela, it seems, was on the other line with her, even now, telling her how weak she felt, how she thought she might pass out, how she was worried she wouldn't be able to answer the door when Long Suffering Spouse came to take her to the doctor. But, Josephine said, Abuela did not want to call Long Suffering Spouse and burden her with this. She didn't want to inconvenience her. "Not want to inconvenience me? I've already taken the day off to get her to the doctor," Long Suffering Spouse told her sister.

She hung up and said she'd better go to her mother's. "I can drop you off at the train. If it's working."

"I need to get some bills out," I admitted, "and I need the Internet for that."

"If it's not working in your office, just turn around and come home," my wife said.

But it was. It is. And I still need to get out some billing. Now that I've blown off some steam.

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