February 28, 2008

10 days in customer "care" hell

Let me be brief here: I called HP tech support, and under their guidance, I blew up my laptop. It was having problems connecting to the Internet, but it was, until this phone call, working. The tech guy said, press f8 and control, or something to that effect, and the laptop was dead. Gotta love that outsourcing.

Six repeat-your-serial-number-and-all-personal-data (short of the results of my last Pap test) later calls and 2 sets of disks later, after about 10 emails and promises made and not kept, and a "case manager" who telephoned me and made the mistake of giving me his name and telephone number, with an extension, but oddly enough, no email address, I got the laptop to work again.

As for HP and its "tech support" system, caveat emptor.

February 18, 2008

Here and there...

The day after I returned from Mexico, The Misanthrope from Toner Mishap was in Wonderland, and we had a lovely dinner together -- six hours worth of talking, and plenty more to say. He is the first blogger I've met in real life who wasn't someone I knew prior to my blogging days. I hope he's not the last.

We seemed to share the same outlook on life, politics, sex, relationships, the media, and so on. The story of his day in court hit new highs in accounts of absurdity in government. He served as a juror, and wrote about it afterward. He was the foreperson of the jury, a job I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Although in Law & Order and all the other court TV shows, the foreperson is not addressed by name when issuing the verdict, he was. So the defendant, found guilty of a major felony, knows by name one of the people who judged him a criminal.

It hardly seems fair that The Misanthrope was subsequently called into court for writing in his blog about the way the justice system seems to have derailed. (Translation: expediency is not government's middle name, since it's civil service, you would have to go postal to get fired.) Apparently one of the alternate jurors found his blog and duly reported it to some official who had too much time on his hands.

Seems to me the judge owed him an apology and perhaps protection for having used The Misanthrope's name aloud in the courtroom while the defendant was present. Instead, he got a lecture.

The right to free speech doesn't apply when you're a juror. Thanks a lot, Big Brother. Ironic, isn't it? Reminds me of the husband of a former friend. He served in the Navy and was fighting for a Constitution that didn't apply to him. (Then there was the mug he gave me: "Navy: Earth Friendly." Sure, as friendly as a nuclear submarine could get.)

There's a reason why I blog as alice, uptown, and the players in my blog go by the noms-de-blog nicknames I've given them. That reason is privacy. Inasmuch as it is possible to separate the public from the private (okay, the right to privacy died at the end of the 20th century), I would never name online my lovers, my friends, the people I love and cherish.

Kayanna, my niece, is one exception. Since she just turned one year old, and her parents don't read my blog, and you don't know who alice is (don't try the phone book: alice, uptown has an unlisted number), there's enough distance that I can tell you who she is. Perhaps when she's older, I will give her a nom-de-blog for her privacy.

Migraine days, migraine nights

Over at The Daily Headache the question has been posed: is there a migraine personality per se? Offhand, I would disagree. I’ve known too many people with migraines and incredibly disparate personalities to agree with that. What we do share is a genetic predisposition to migraine, which, like depression, is related to how we process serotonin, a neurotransmitter.

Serotonin processing is also related to depression, another disease I no longer question. I’ve stopped asking “why,” and, when I have a major depressive episode, I just want it to go away, and I don’t care how, just don’t make me talk about it again. I have a chemical imbalance, period.

Joan Didion wrote an essay in The White Album called “In Bed,” about her migraine experiences c. 1968. I read it years ago, and it still resonates for me, particularly the part about major stress not correlating with her headaches. For me, it is relaxing that brings on those particular synaptic lapses.

Migraines are part and parcel of my life: after 30 years, I don’t care “why.” Instead, I look to my meds to see how fast I can staunch the pain. Those Imitrex commercials are full of shit. Give me those old-time opiates any day, thankyouverymuch. Some are available over-the-counter in Mexico.

(Alice knows where to obtain different drugs in many parts of the world. She could give you the Cook's tour of where to find relief from pain, infection, stomach upset, cough, allergies, etc., on five continents.) This would be one reason why people ask alice about all things pharmaceutical.

I was diagnosed with migraine at age 18 or so, and can recite chapter and verse all the so-called medical breakthroughs in the past 30 years. I’ve tried the latest and greatest, and not only are the newer drugs expensive, they don’t work at all for me. When I have a migraine, I want the old-fashioned tried and true, what's proven to work for me, regardless of any potentially addictive effects. It’s far too late in the game for me to care.

Cure my pain, and let’s be done with it. Forget about my personality: my head hurts; I can’t move; I get sensitive to light, sound, and scents; and the little man with the big hammer behind my right eye is having way too much fun. If I can’t kill him, at least I can knock him out long enough to make it through the night.

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February 17, 2008

Things are slow, down in Mexico

I may well have been in the land of los americanos and felt overwhelmed by a need to be with people who have a different -- to be precise, one more like my own -- sensibility than I found. Yet according to the halting Spanglish conversations I had with the waiters on the beach, los Mexicanos are having a queasy trickle-down feeling about their own economy in 2008.

(Note to self: "trickle-down" added to vocab during Reagan administration. That would be the sum total of progress during those eight years: one sliver of enrichment to my vocabulary, at a cost to others I cannot calculate.)

If you hadn't caught the headlines that the U.S. economy seems to be tanking, any of the Mexican staff at the timeshare could have told you. Business was way, way off. Admittedly, I didn't see much beach or pool traffic, nor were the restaurants in town full.

My initial assessment was I'd caught an early-February lull in the tourist season. Granted, I'd never seen one in the Caribbean, but who knew about Mexico?

Alice considers the weather in Wonderland and on the East Coast: if it's winter, it's cold and dark. The middle of the country, you may have gathered, is not a locale to which she gives much thought. But yes, it's dark and snowy -- and colder than here, now that you mention it.

Since few mid-westerners tend to frequent the Caribbean in Alice's experience (from Haiti to St. Barts, with a dozen islands in between), and she is pretty sure most people dislike the freezing, daylight-deprived days as much as she does, it stands to reason that those who can must have some warm destination in mind. Yes, dear: Mexico for the Midwest; Hawaii for the West Coast.

Not until the owners' party did Alice ever met anyone from North Dakota. (That reminds her: last year in Cabos, she met people from Wyoming, another geographic spot that has been hidden from Alice's horizons.)

Then I pondered: if the Mexican economy depends for its well-being on things buzzing along in the U.S., it stands to reason that our tanking economy would topple down Mexico's, and that more Mexicans would want to emigrate here for jobs that don't exist. Catch-22?

My most fluent Spanish sentence remains: La via del train subterrano es peligroso. Translation? Subway tracks are dangerous. Not that it matters to anyone at the tip of Baja California, Mexico. It's just what I know how to say.

And bodega? I thought that was Spanish for small grocery and cigarette store, as that's its definition in Wonderland. No, it means warehouse. Whoops.

February 07, 2008

At the end of the world

Baja California has thousands of unspoiled, undeveloped, straight-from-heaven miles of land, acres of untouched beaches and shorelines. Timeshare territory, however, doesn't fit into that category. At the tip of the peninsula, 1000+ miles south of the U.S. border, Alice has stumbled upon – and bought into – a peculiar American enclave.

It's an odd bit of the U.S. imported into Mexico You are a visitor to a country within a country. No getting around it, timeshare owners are turistas. Any place that the tap water has been purified, rendering bottled water unnecessary, is a spot for capital-A Americans.

Cabos San Lucas may call itself “the end of the world,” where desert meets mountain and El Arco marks the end of the landmass, but in Alice’s immediate vicinity, it is hard to tell, difficult to feel the implications of geography and language, nearly impossible to sense she is abroad. She gets the U.S. primary results from CNN.

It is a long way from her telephone-less, kerosene-lit childhood in Haiti, an island with no tourist infrastructure -- where few Americans ventured, where Alice spent 20+ years with no TV and limited electricity.

The "owners' party" feels like a freshman-year college mixer. The opening questions differ slightly. What's your name? your hometown? How many weeks a year do you come here; how many years have you had this unit? What restaurants do you like in town? Done any whale watching?

A mariachi band plays Mexican songs recognizable to the American ear. There are contests for owners to humiliate themselves dancing or imitating a Mexican yell in exchange for a bottle of tequila or a Mexican wool blanket.

No one asks what you plan to major in, and most owners have reached the place in the workforce to which Alice aspires: retired.

Some cultural differences are noticeable: the resort is run Mexican-style, despite the players speaking English. The P.R. person, the sales people, the concierge, the hospitality department, and the front desk are all separate fiefdoms. The idea of an American-style meeting or memo explaining how the departments and the whole enterprise could be coordinated would never be issued.

It is one way to know Alice has left Wonderland. Another is the pelican landing in the swimming pool, something that would never occur in over-chlorinated America. The pelican swam around, took his time before taking flight and seemed no worse for the wear. The third is that the timeshare’s English-speaking doctor makes the equivalent of house calls for $100 U.S. This is startling and useful for Alice’s friend.

For Alice, not so much: the doctor wouldn’t write her a prescription for her U.S. migraine meds, and instead offered something Alice had never heard of, at $4 a pill. Alice sticks to over-the-counter muscle relaxants for which she would need a script at home. She prefers to know precisely what drugs she’s taking.

knows of less touristy locales to explore: San Jose del Cabos, Todos Santos, La Paz. To see those as a traveler, she has belatedly discovered, you need some rudimentary Spanish, a map, perhaps a guidebook and, most definitely, the guts to drive a rental car on bumpy Mexican highways. Perhaps next year, if Alice’s driving skills improve, or if she brings friends better equipped to get behind the wheel.

Mexican roads are better than those in Haiti, home of Alice’s beloved palapas-like chacoons. They are closer to first world streets than those in undeveloped countries. Yet the asphalt is not nearly as smooth as one might expect, given the general emphasis on keeping los turistas americanos from realizing they are not in Kansas.

Last week she and her friend mistakenly took an English-speaking tour of San Jose. The guide glossed over the art galleries, churches, and historic sites they wanted to see, in favor of attempting to make los Americanos do their part to enrich the local economy (and probably his relatives in particular). The guide took them to the Mexican fire opal store, where he hoped his group would drop muchos, muchos pesos.

With Alice, he didn’t stand a chance. She has had guided “tours” of pearl, enamelware, and rug “factories” in places like China, and not only did the fire-opal merchant’s shop tour seem identical to the pearl and other factory “tours” she had experienced, but the sales methods were dead ringers for ones she has previously ignored.

Alice wasn’t buying, not in San Jose del Cabo, not anywhere. Alice has sojourned in and traveled to too many continents to consider herself an ordinary turista. No “bargaining” for her, thankyouverymuch.

Alice practices her minimal Spanish with the housekeeper, and in exchange, teaches her new words in English. It is frustrating: while Alice can converse almost fluently in French, it is a distant enough relation of Spanish that it doesn’t translate. Her Spanish-English dictionary doesn't contain the words she needs.

For the party, Alice dresses the part of an owner, runs through the standard questions, and realizes what she forgot when purchasing her two weeks at the end of the world: that is, she is not an American. Alice lives in Wonderland; she is a native New Yorker. What’s more, she is a yellow-dog Democrat.

Her birthright imprinted on her the sense to consider everything but the coasts is fly-over country, filled with towns she will visit on business or to see friends, but otherwise avoid. The only time Alice has passed through Texas has been to change planes. Given the Texan owners she met, she plans to keep it that way.

Mainstream American culture is too bizarre to contemplate: Alice is single, childless, and lives in a city most owners will never visit. The owners’ party has too damn many gun-toting, anti-abortion, warmongering Republicans present for her comfort. Thankfully, the next day she meets some New Yorkers, upstaters though they may be; some Democrats from California, and liberals from Minnesota.

It occurs to Alice that in her adult life, she has knowingly had only two Republican friends, and she no longer speaks to either of them. After the Shrub slid into office, neither was sufficiently embarrassed to admit what an imbecile occupied the White House. Both former friends have a considerably more mainstream take on what life “should” be than what Alice’s life was or would become. Both are car-dependent suburbanites.

Save for large cities on both coasts plus Chicago, Alice sees the U.S. as a place with favorable currency exchange rates and peculiar customs, all of which involve driving to the mall and countless visits to Wal-Mart. Some involve parties at which Velveeta is the cheese product of choice, and "fine wine" has a screw-off cap, vs. cheap wine from a box.

It is places like Tiny Town, Sleepy Southern state, where the brother and family live. He telephones from the car, the supermarket, or Wal-Mart, never from his home. The South has manners that scare Alice almost to death.

In Wonderland, Alice uses public transportation, and the only call she makes from a supermarket is to ask whether more purchases are requested. Wonderland is blessedly Mart-Mart-less, in Alice's neighborhood where real estate prices make the cost of entry prohibitive to Major Marts, and the zoning laws have been created to keep Mart-Marts, though not 40-story condos, at bay.

It is bad enough that Wonderland has been deluged by local chains, like Duane Reade, a ubiquitous lousy drugstore, and national ones -- high-end cosmetic and mid-range chain clothing and lingerie stores like Origins, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret. The independent bookstores have been eaten by Barnes & Noble; the local leather goods stores pounced on by Coach; the candy stores by Godiva.

There is scarcely a movie theater left that is not a conglomerate-owned multiplex. Individual hardware stores in Alice's neighborhood have been replaced by a monolith known as (Un)Gracious Homes, now competing with Home Depot. Home Depot is situated in the Bloomberg building, which holds the eponymous mayor's business. One of his goals seems to be making Wonderland less so.

Back at the end of the world, Alice tried to make conversation at the owners' party and realizes the fatal flaw in her attempt to amortize trips to warmer climes: in a hotel, guests have varied nationalities, interests, and stories. On timeshare turf, everyone is American, and most, it seems, are conservative.

Too late: Alice should have realized the basic timeshare owner requires no surprises in vacation destinations, whereas Alice is accustomed to and has spent years seeking them. It is only in the communal hot tub that Alice meets Democrats, people with whom Alice shares some basic social values and with whom she can keep up her end of the conversation without apoplexy.

She even gets to play Scrabble and meet people to join on a sunset cruise. The sunsets, too, remind Alice of her younger days in Haiti, albeit without the rum. Tequila is its Mexican equivalent.

A Brit Alice knows refers to Wonderland as "an island off the coast of the U.S." He is correct, and, common language aside, at the timeshare owners' party, Alice was in the country of Americans completely alien to her: Republicans.

Subsequently she has met people who did not come out for the free margaritas and guacamole, those who were on Alice's team on Super Tuesday. She suspects they are a minority.

It is strange to contemplate how many winter weeks Alice has purchased in pseudo-Mexico. All she can tell you is, the welcome mat is open. Any winter you choose, Alice's casa es su casa.

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February 04, 2008

Alice remembers Internet cafes of the past

It's been 10 years since Alice has bolted into a town to connect with the world at an Internet cafe. Then, she was at a writer's colony in Massachusetts, racing in her rental car over 40 miles of a winding, hilly, two-lane road.

In Mexico this week, Alice saunters into the cafe calmly. She isn't expecting any salacious, lavicious communications these days.

Why the urgency then? She was conducting an affair -- though, since Alice is and was single, did it qualify as such? She had made no promises, taken no vows. The Married Man, on the other hand.... was philandering his hobby? An entertaining diversion from suburban less-than-wedded-bliss, kept intact because he loved his children and hated to cook?

Alice admits to some twinges of guilt, for she did know -- and had gotten along famously -- with TMM's wife years before. If TMM's wife hadn't phoned Alice a lot worse for the wine when her husband was out partying with the boys, there might have been more guilt. At the time, not so much.

Ten years ago, Alice needed those town trips to check email, flirt in cyberspace with the TMM, who had instigated the affair while Alice was staying with his family. Sure, she had hesitated. Stop making passes at me, she said. I'm in your son's bunk bed while your wife is in your bed, passed out from last night's drinking. What are you thinking? (No verbal answer.)

She did not protest too much to find herself having amazing sex with TMM in her favorite Wonderland venue for a clandestine rendez-vous, a hotel. The room overlooked one of the city's only private parks in a lovely residential area three miles south of chez Alice, convenient to Grand Central Station for TMM.

With its dark bar, residential location, and old-fashioned separate taps for hot and cold water, the hotel was a quaint landmark from another era. It's long gone now, purchased and demolished to make way for another overpriced, over-amenitied condo project selling for $2,000 per square foot or so.

Alice broke off the affair -- and has steered clear of married men and women in matters of the heart (or body) ever since. TMM taught her a lesson, one known to most single women of a certain age: TMM was out for himself, and Alice a convenience.

Though all she wanted was sex and some laughter -- if she had wanted to be a wife, she would have sought out that slot, say 20 years ago -- six weeks with TMM re-enforced the fact that Alice lacks the emotional filter required to remain superficial. She starts to take matters seriously -- and serious is where the single and the married part ways.

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February 01, 2008

La vida es bueno en Cabos San Lucas

Life is good here. It's sunny, laid back, not crowded, and the people are extremely pleasant. I'm not besieged with maternal phone calls.

Bonuses are, I get to ignore the New York State primary election, with Hillary and Obama leaving vote-for-me messages on my answering machine, not to mention the testosterone-fest of Superbowl Sunday.

I'm with a friend for a week, then I'll be here a week by myself. Note to self: learning how to communicate in Spanish was a resonable New Year's Resolution. Alas, I did not achieve it, so I'm glad to be with someone who can utter sentences in Spanish. My default language is French -- and all of that is flooding my brain.

Espanol? Not so much. Not yet. Perhaps next week I'll conjugate verbs, after my friend, who has German, Russian, and some recently reaquired Spanish under her belt, leaves me to my own devices.

We have great plans, places to go, art to see, but most likely, we will stay here by the pool or under the palapas, the Mexican version of Haitian chacoons -- thatched hut roofs made of sisal or banana leaves that shield us from the sun.

It is, I realize, the palapas that attracted me most, attached themselves to my soul when I was here last year, that made me think, this is like the Carribean I knew as a child, the one where my family was intact, where Christmases were merry.

I am older now, and will probably never see another chacoon in my life -- the Haiti I knew has vanished, with all the political upheavals, my father gone (17 years as of last week), all my family's ex-pat friends dead or relocated to safer climes. I have no more ties there, so I am making a Haiti for myself, one for this century.

This one is a land with electricity, telephone, cable TV, hot and cold running water, enough water pressure for a jacuzzi, but still: a beach where, at night, the stars shine through clear skies; I can hear the ocean from my bed; and all we do is eat, drink, play cards and backgammon. We sleep as soundly as children. It is Alice's version of a winter Wonderland.

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