The Ballad of Austin G

For most of the time that we lived in Latham, New York, we were hard-wired for both television and internet purposes to Time Warner Cable of Albany. They were not cheap, and we had occasional service problems, of course, but they were generally resolved quickly. Having entertainment being pumped to us over that fat, underground wire seemed a good system, and having actually worked for Time Warner Cable of Albany for several years, I was favorably disposed toward them, even when they weren’t performing at the top of their game.

When we moved to Des Moines, I assumed that we’d find a similar “all services on one wire” situation with whoever Central Iowa’s leading cable provider might be. I was wrong: cable service in our neighborhood is patchy, low quality and expensive, so we were forced to enter into split contracts with an internet provider who pipes our bytes in via a DSL telephone line, and a television provider whose signal comes into the house via an antenna on the roof. Since the prior owners of our house had used Dish Network, it was an easy transition for us to take that contract on ourselves.

There are some things we like about Dish, but their pay-per-view service is not one of them: they have limited offerings, and since our television is not connected to the internet, we have to order movies online in advance, then make sure that we are in the TV room at the right moment to tape or watch the movies in real time. The last time we tried to do this, we pre-ordered the very marginal The Rum Diaries, and when we went to watch it, almost 25% of the movie did not successfully load, due to some communications glitch.

While Marcia fumed in her recliner, I retired to the home office to contact Dish Network, hoping that we could salvage our movie night. I used their online technical assistance service, and was connected to a technician who identified himself as Austin G. Within the first few lines of online communication, it became very clear that Austin G was a chosen (or assigned?) name of convenience for an individual who (a) was not a native English speaker, and (b) had been trained to offer replies to customers culled from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

To his (her?) immense credit, Austin G did a great job resolving the customer support issue that I brought to him/her. But as the clearly canned responses that he/she was trained to offer crossed my computer screen, the creative writer in me decided that I needed to create a character myself, one just as eager to please, but language impaired, as Austin G him/herself.

I recorded the text of the conversation and share at with you at this link:

Austin G Provides JES a Customer Service Championship Performance

I found the whole exchange very amusing, though I admit to feeling marginally guilty about it, seeing as how my amusement sort of came at someone’s expense, when they were just trying to do their job and bring home the bacon. Or the saag paneer, as appropriate. When all was said and done, Austin G took care of the problem I brought to him/her. That’s what customer service people are supposed to do, and Austin G did it well. So when I received an e-mail from Dish Network asking me about the quality of my customer support interaction, I was delighted to respond their request, even if I was not quite ready to give up the creative writing character I had embraced during my correspondence with Austin G. Here’s what I told them:

Austing G RatingI have no idea what Austin G’s real name is, nor what his or her future holds . . . but I sure hope that Austin G finds great personal and financial success in whatever city and country he or she resides in. Their assistantage was really great. And the gratitudinous was sincere. Thanks, Austin G!

Two Years

Two years ago today, at about 5:00 in the morning, I woke up in a cheap hotel room in Latham, New York, drove over to a cold and empty house that had once been full of all of my family’s worldly belongings, loaded two protesting cats into my car, and headed west for Des Moines, Iowa. It was cold. And dark. And raining.

In the two weeks before this momentously dreary morning, I had also spent five days in Annapolis, Maryland as the Naval Academy Class of ’86’s reunion coordinator for a three-day, 25th Anniversary event involving over 1,000 people, $100,000 in expenses, and uncountable numbers of details, questions, complaints and comments to be handled. Just before that, I had spent four days in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in my role as Secretary to the Corporation for the American Institute, dutifully recording days’ worth of meetings, and then transcribing minutes.

Oh, and I also quit a job I loved and oversaw the sale and emptying of our home of twelve years.

Barring life-altering death and birth experiences, obviously, I can tell you that October through December of 2011 were undoubtedly the most difficult and stressful months of my adult life, made all the harder because Marcia had already moved to Des Moines with her new job, and Katelin was away at college. So I spent most of my time drifting around an ever more empty house, worrying about the fairly stupid combination of responsibilities I had saddled myself with during that period of time, and trying to figure out how to say goodbye to so many people and places that were important to me.

Since I had no regular income at this point, I amused myself by “eating the House” (don’t buy any new food until everything in cabinets and refrigerator has been eaten, leading to some interesting meal combinations), and “living off my shit” (lightening the load of the move by selling a lot of things I’d accumulated over the years, and not spending any more cash than I was bringing in). I also loaded a huge dumpster-full of basement detritus that was not salable, and donated our bikes and house plants to people needier than we were. One woman of very limited means was starting a new household for her child and new boyfriend, and she cried with gratitude as she took the many gorgeous plants I let her have, since she had been forced to leave all of her own beloved plants in her ex-husband’s house. After she left, though, I felt like crying because they were gone.

And then on November 12, 2011, the morning after a lovely wedding and reception attended by many dear friends from Rockefeller College, I got in the car, and I left. I would have liked to have stopped and seen Katelin in Geneseo on the way, but could not do so with the cats in the car; I just needed to drive as hard and as long as I could to get to Des Moines as fast as I could. I made it past Cleveland on the first leg, and spent a sleepless night in a desolate interstate highway hotel listening to the cats pace and cry. The next morning, also by 5:00 am, we were up and on the road again, next stop Des Moines.

Marcia had a great apartment out here already, so it was wonderful to arrive there at the end of a long and unpleasant drive, even if the cats (and their litter box) had to share it with us in close quarters. The day after my arrival, Marcia and I were scheduled to close on our new house in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. The closing was, probably no surprise, also stressful due to the seller using a fly-by-night “Sell Your Home Yourself” outfit that did not provide needed documentation, paperwork and filings; fortunately our own exceptional realtor got it all done for us.

The final walk-through and acceptance of the house was something of a shock to us in terms of how much junk was left behind by the sellers, and the unexpected condition of many of the rooms: the prior owners had once painted without moving furniture, and the interior walls of the house looked like a patchwork quilt when they got their stuff out. So there was a lot more work necessary than we had expected, and it was really well into spring 2012 before I felt like we had gotten the required baseline projects done to bring the house up to the standards we wanted and expected. (Our additional shower took another six months after that, even).

But, eventually, there I was, in Iowa, chores mostly done, house settled, spouse gainfully employed, child doing well in school back in New York, cats happy that I gave them their own couch in my home office.

Huh. Now what?

Well, fast forward two years, I guess, for part of the answer. I am in my 18th month as Executive Director of Salisbury House. It’s a tough, time-consuming and often thankless job, but it fits my skills and interests, and allows me to work with a truly astounding historic house and its collections. I’m growing to appreciate it more and more. Marcia’s work continues to go well, too, as she always adds value when working on behalf of her clients and their interests, and has much better home/work balance now than was the case when she was a partner in a New York law firm. Katelin graduated from college in May 2013 and followed us out here: she has a great job in her chosen field of her study, and lives in her own apartment in what’s emerging as a hot neighborhood in downtown Des Moines. Our house is very nice: we pay much less for a higher quality property, in a well-regarded neighborhood. We have seen more of Marcia’s family in Minnesota in two years than we had in the prior two decades. And the cats still like their (increasingly shabby) couch.

So it’s mostly good, at bottom line, though I still feel the sting of dislocation occasionally. The move has allowed us to achieve most of the objectives that we desired from our relocation, and we’ve settled into new routines, with new friends, in new places. I have actually been surprised at how hard the adjustment was for me in many ways during these first two years. Having moved so often while growing up and during my early professional career, I used to be really good at ripping up and starting afresh at the drop of a hat, but those 19 years in Latham (the longest I have ever lived in any one place) caused my roots there to sink deeper than I realized they had.

Of course, there are little lifestyle things out here that remain gentle annoyances: the regional acceptance of boomboxes blaring from bikes and golf carts, for instance, or most restaurants being closed on Sundays, or having the State-wide news occasionally dominated by matters that really, truly mean less than nothing to us (e.g. legislation regarding lead vs steel shot when hunting doves, which really evokes a lot of passion in some quarters hereabouts).

When those aggregated annoyances start to bother me, I have found that the best therapy is to return to a practice that helped me get through my first few months here: I get in the car, and I drive and I drive and I drive around Iowa. (Without the cats, though. They are on their couch. Always). Work peeves, petty urban annoyances, worries about things I can’t fix, all of those thoughts tend to dissipate when I am on the road experiencing Iowa at its most granular level: riding down dirt roads between corn and soy fields; visiting tiny towns with exceptional civic architecture and museum cultures; passing through the gorgeous campuses of the State’s many small private and three large public colleges and universities; appreciating entertaining roadside vernacular statuary and architecture from the earliest days of car culture in the United States. Best of all is when I get to do these drives with Marcia, or Katelin, or both. They are great company in great scenery.

I completed my Full Grassley in March 2012, having visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties in less than five months’ time. But I didn’t stop driving, and I didn’t stop exploring, so my current Iowa travel map looks like this now:

jesmap

I rarely go the same way between any two points in the State if I can help it, though I am running out of options between Des Moines and Iowa City, since I go to or through there often. I will be planning on adding some new roads in December when I accompany Marcia to Clinton in the eastern part of the state, and we find a new route to wind our way back. Huttah!

Two years ago today, the cats and I set off on a terrible, disquieting drive to Iowa. Today, I actively look forward to my drives around Iowa as an anchor.  And then I look forward to coming back to our new house. To Des Moines. Here.

I think that’s good progress in 24 months’ time, don’t you? The cats certainly do . . .

catcouch

Nine Ways to Say I Love You

1. Last week’s Navy vs Notre Dame game was a heartbreaker, made more painful when they showed David Robinson (arguably Navy’s most famous athlete, with the possible exception of Roger Staubach) wearing Notre Dame regalia. David was in my Naval Academy company his plebe year (he and his room-mate and I and my room-mate used to play a lot of acey deucy late at night, when we were all supposed to be sleeping or studying), and I like, respect and admire him. I am also delighted that his son is an accomplished football player with the Irish, since I know that the younger Robinson will be every bit the fine scholar-athlete that his father was. But, you know, maybe neutral colors for the Navy-Notre Dame game, huh? Just saying? Nicely enough, Notre Dame followed up on their success by tanking in a game against Pitt, while Navy pummeled Hawaii at home. Good bounce back, Mids. Very proud.

2. Just for the record: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds deserves to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner of college football’s most famed award. What he does week after week after week with a small offensive line against major college programs is just remarkable. And knowing what he has to cope with, week after week after week, in terms of his academic and military responsibilities makes him all the more everything that a great student-athlete should be. Are you watching and listening, Heisman Trophy voters? You should be.

3. Andy Prieboy‘s “Bands” is one of my favorite songs of recent years, since it does a brilliant job of describing the obsessive mindset of the serious music geek, and also sounds just gorgeous in terms of the language, words, rhymes, alliterations and rhythms that Prieboy uses in telling his tale. He’s an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and storyteller, right up there with my other long-time favorite tune-smith, Jed Davis. This band, that band, every damn band, every damn band know to either God or man, indeed . . .

 

4. Robert Fripp is one of my favorite musicians, and also one of my favorite philosophers and writers. After a period of retirement as a performing player, he is bringing back King Crimson in 2014 with a new seven piece lineup. I very much loved this quote from his online diary (which I read regularly) about part of the reason why he is re-embracing the venal world of the professional player: “Simply put, my life is closer to Paradise than I might reasonably hope for. The danger with Paradise: we fall asleep in the wonderfulness of it all. At that point, time to bring out The Pointed Stick.” I like and get this. It helps explain my masochistic tendencies.

5. One of the nice things about having Katelin living nearby is that we can get together when we have something special to do, or we can get together when we just feel like hanging out and being lazy. A couple of weeks ago, she was here in the afternoon while we just slugged about and watched football. She was sort of paying attention, while also reading a book, and it occurred to me that I had never actually seen her actively watch or had a conversation with her about football. So I asked her if she had any idea as to what was actually happening on the television. Here’s what she told me:

So the kicker kicks the football, and then they all run after it, and if they catch it, they generally run faster. And the kicker wants to get it as far away from scoring a touchdown as possible, but they want to get it to the touchdown. A lot of tackling happens, and there are four downs, and the downs have to do with when they’ve been tackled the most often. And when a touchdown happens, the kicker gets to do this again, to kick the ball to get it, I am blanking on what the thing is called, the pointy thing, and if that happens then they get an extra point, and the defense players are bigger than the offense players, and they don’t really look like humans. And the positions are quarterback, linebacker, kicker, running back. I don’t know what they do, but I know the linebackers are defense and they are the biggest guys. I know what the quarterback does: he is the head of the team, so he does the huddles and does the counts and tries to get the ball across. Oh, there is a center, too.

6. I have really been enjoying listening to some of the classic Little Feat albums recently. As I was looking for footage of them at the peak of their live capabilities, I found the great version of “Dixie Chicken” from Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special linked below. It is interesting how many times a search for great live performances from the ’70s bring up links to this amazing television show. With forty bazillion cable channels now, how come we can’t have nice things like this today?

 

7. G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been on hiatus for several months now while he works on other projects, but he’s started producing new Sunday strips in recent weeks, and plans to come back to his full daily schedule in the next month. I miss his his insightful daily takes on our modern times, but am glad to have strips like this one again, even if they only come once per week.

8. So let’s say you are lucky enough to have Dale Crover (he’s on the left in the linked video) as the drummer in your band for 30 years, even though he did not participate in your very, very earliest demo works. So then let’s say that your original drummer from way, way back in your pre-Crover days turns up and wants to play with you again. Obviously, the answer is to kick him to the curb and tell him he missed his chance. Unless, of course, you are the Melvins, in which case you switch Crover to bass and let prodigal drummer Mike Dillard handle the skins again. That should be a recipe is futility, if not disaster, but in true Melvins fashion, they make it work brilliantly on their new record, Tres Cabrones . . . which is the best thing they’ve done since their last counter-intuitive move of incorporating Big Business into the band for their brilliant 2006 album (A) Senile Animal. “Civilized Worm” from that record is one of my favorite live clips ever, even if it didn’t appear on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special.

9. The title of this post comes from an album by the legendary Albany band Section 8, who I interviewed and wrote press material for back in the ’90s. They played one of the ten greatest live shows I ever saw, at the late lamented QE2 in October 1997, then broke up soon thereafter. In January, they’re playing a two-night reunion stand in Clifton Park, and the tickets for the event sold out almost as soon as they were released. I just wish the bastards had done it before I moved to Iowa.