On Hold

by Catherine Breese

Customer service survey

Why is it that I can listen to thousands of great sounding songs right here on my smartphone, but when I’m waiting on hold with any number of companies they play something that sounds like it is coming from an old cassette recorder dropped into bottom of a metal garbage can? My friend Ken says that they do that purposefully to discourage customers from calling. He may be right. Then, the tin music is interrupted about every 30 seconds by a voice reminding me that I can go online at the company web address and handle all my needs there. It says this as though I have never heard of the Interweb. Please.

Ah, customer service. What does customer service actually mean in 2014? After hours of trying to change my address with every company, creditor, insurer, employer, bank, magazine, and membership organization to which I belong, I can tell you a lot about it. YOU are your own customer service agent. You wait on yourself. If the service agent is slow or rude, well, see yourself about that. Nowadays, we are asked by nearly every company to get online, create a user name and a password, and serve ourselves.

The Virginia DMV actually warns that it charges a $5 fee if you complete a transaction in their office that you could have made online…and we all know what a pleasure it is to complete any transaction at the DMV office. Heck, I cannot even call Verizon, my wireless phone provider, on my telephone. The phone call rolls right over to my browser, conveniently opening up Verizon online.

Not that talking to a customer service agent was ever a celebratory experience. But until recently you could, at least, handle a few things over the phone. Those days are over. In the last week, I have created a total of six new online access user names and passwords. I have written these down. I have carefully placed them somewhere where I will definitely be able to find them, in six or eight months, when I next need them. Definitely.

What happened to all those people who used to assist me by phone? I think at least some of them are still sitting in a dimly lit cubicle, waiting patiently for someone to click on that popup icon. You know the one—the little box asking you, the customer, acting as service agent, if you’d like to “talk” to someone. Then, if you are venturesome enough to click, you will type a conversation with a person(?) who replies with a number of well written responses he/she’s got handy. Is typing a conversation with someone easier or more convenient than talking? I think not. But I’m old school like that.

The gold standard of customer service, in my experience, is Lands’ End, a company that still answers the phone without a hold, and who still helps every customer who calls with more information about their products than anyone could need. I love them. Erie Insurance was also fantastically kind and polite on the telephone when I made a claim this past year. On the other end of the customer service spectrum are the despicable cable companies. I have never had a single pleasant experience on the phone with any cable provider in any city in which I have lived. I called Suddenlink in Charleston once and was told by the recorded voice that they were simply too busy to handle my problem and I should choose a different time to have a problem.

Ultimately, I don’t mind waiting on myself. “Thank you for calling, Catherine. This is Catherine. How may I be of assistance?” I’m very efficient, and I am never rude to me. I have a problem with spelling, but my excellent manners and friendly attitude more than make up for that. Now if I can just come up with a foolproof system for remembering usernames and passwords, my economic life can go on, virtually, without having to make any human contact. Sweet.

Raise Your Glass in a Toast to Holiday Driving

By Catherine Breese

road picture

If you have not had the good fortune to be on our nations’ highways yet this holiday season, consider yourself blessed. Out on the road, however, with the rest of us Americans who are too poor to buy airline tickets but not too poor to use thrift as an excuse to stay home, you will be stuck in an automotive parade of desperate drivers and their captive passengers.

Luckily, some organizations are trying to make your holiday travel safer and more enjoyable. We have scoured the Internet for its best advice. What follows is a sampling of our top picks in holiday driving tips:

1. AAA recommends, “If you’re traveling with children, remind them not to talk to strangers. Go with them on bathroom breaks and give them whistles to be used only if the family gets separated.”

Uh, did they say give your children whistles? In the car? 

2. Rocochet.com offers the following suggestions for cold weather safety: “It’s a good idea to carry a few extra items during the winter. Blankets and some food and water are nice to have. Kitty litter is great for gaining a little traction should your vehicle get stuck on ice. A flashlight is a must, and a hammer helps should you need to actually break up the ice around your tires before throwing down the kitty litter. For that matter, a car charger for your cell phone isn’t a bad idea either.”

I was right there with them until the word “hammer.” Hammer? And if you have enough room in your gift-filled trunk for a bag of kitty litter, your family must have been trained to pack a suitcase by Bear Gryllis. If you’re actually bringing your cat, you are nuts.

3. State Farm Insurance cares about aggressive driving. They suggest you “Take a deep breath. Find a way to stay calm in tense situations. Keep breathing, play holiday music or listen to a book on tape. When witnessing aggressive driving, don’t make eye contact or respond in kind to an aggressive driver. Both actions may fuel the driver’s anger.”

“Don’t make eye contact” can be good advice both on and off the road. “Keep breathing” is also good advice for almost anytime at all. As for the holiday music, once I’ve heard “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” once, I’m done for the season. If you make me listen to it twice, it might get ugly.

4. Smell the Truth reminds us naïve Midwesterners that “Millions of medical marijuana patients [will] hit America’s roads this upcoming week for another hectic holiday travel season… Experts say standard common sense applies with regard to the still-federally illegal marijuana. Medical or not, don’t get caught, or it could be a hassle.”

Don’t break more than one law at a time. I don’t know who first said this, but it is a genuine gold nugget of wisdom.

5. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported their arrests from last Thanksgiving: “DPS troopers arrested 386 individuals for driving while intoxicated, issued more than 7,500 speeding citations, 875 citations for no insurance and more than 770 seat belt/child safety seat citations. DPS patrols also resulted in 258 fugitive arrests and 211 felony arrests during the same time period.”

I’m only reading between the lines here, but I think driving a car in Texas is a good way to get arrested—if you’re looking for that particular checkmark on your bucket list.

6. And while we’re talking about Texas, do you really need to carry a gun for the holidays? FindLaw wants you to know that “Not all modes of transportation permit guns, so check before you buy a ticket. Buses like Greyhound generally don’t allow guns, even in checked baggage. Amtrak allows guns only if you book at least 24 hours beforehand and meet other requirements. And airplanes require all firearms to be checked rather than carried on. Don’t be caught unaware and have to cancel your plans or be forced to leave your gun behind.”

Haven’t we been over this? Holiday get-togethers are a bad time to be bringing along a firearm. I know everybody says they wish Uncle Rupert were dead, but nobody actually wants to see you do it. Please, leave your gun behind.

7. Finally, the Alabama Personal Injury Lawyers Blog (alabamapersonalinjurylawyersblog.com…just wanted you to see the address) has this sage advice: “Don’t text and drive. Or eat and drive. Or put on your make up and drive. Or pick up that item you dropped on the floor and drive. Or do anything else other than drive. Distracted driving is dangerous. Pay attention to yourself and your surroundings. That is the number one rule of Defensive Driving and distracted driving is the antithesis of that.”

Leave it to the Personal Injury Lawyers of Alabama to use the word “antithesis” in a redundancy so circular that even Judge Judy would cite them for contempt.

Our Best Advice: We here at Alta Blue Skies want to remind everyone that being generous and kind on the roads is one way to make yourself happy. Let someone else into your lane. Return someone else’s cart. Pay someone’s toll. Wave to strangers (not with your finger). Let another shopper ahead of you in checkout line. This is the only way to survive the holidays with your character intact. Your act of kindness may just generate others, and even if it doesn’t, you’ll feel okay about being a human being.

I Believe In Ugly Christmas Trees

By Catherine Breese

Camera 360A range exists within the confines of art and beauty, and it is fair to say that most of the décor associated with the holiday season falls safely outside of that range. If you disagree, I invite you to take a step out your front door and examine your closest neighbors’ homes. Some of you will see very little of note or interest, an occasional wreath or red bow indicative of a neighborhood whose residence are either disinterested or tired. For the rest, well, there is a view that looks something like what would happen if Disneyland and ate something spoiled and threw it up as it walked along home.

It’s not just the tastelessness of the individual decorations, but rather the combination of themes, motifs, mythology, religion, and whimsical nonsense that make for the travesty that absolutely defines outdoor holiday ornamentation. Bryan Remix

Reluctantly, I will admit to my own occasional admiration for the tasteless. My step grandmother had one of those aluminum trees that came complete with a twirling colored spotlight throwing multicolored glory onto the tree. They put it up in their front window for all in Lakewood, Ohio, to admire. As a kid, I thought this was the most amazing tree ever. The adults in the family would beg to differ, but what did they know? I found a picture of a flocked tree in my own living room on my first Christmas (photo above).

In our old Charleston neighborhood of Weberwood, there were two families living directly across from one another who battled it out every year: Hanukah vs. Christmas. They were fairly large homes and each family took great pride in decorating with an absurd quantity of lights, ornaments, projected images, sculptures, yard signs, and inflatables: Menorah vs. manger, Star of David vs. Star in the East, dreidel vs. train set, Santa Claus vs. Judas Maccabeus. It was something to look forward to for us. I hope these two families were friends. I hope they did this all in good fun. If not, it was still enjoyable for us, but that’s pretty sick, too.

Of all outdoor holiday décor, the most astounding and obnoxious has got to be the giant inflatable. I haven’t quite made up my mind about this daunting newcomer to the world of lawn ornamentation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want one. But I am weirdly attracted to them. It’s the size thing, no doubt. We used to have neighbors who set up three: an inflatable nativity, an inflatable waving Santa, and a giant snow globe featuring and penguin and real flying snow. If you live next to this guy, you may as well leave your stuff in the box above the garage. Your house would have to be on fire to garner more attention.

I have visions of workers in a faraway factory wearing puzzled expressions as they sew together these monstrously huge decorations: Santa in a fire truck, Santa with a sleigh, Santa and some friends in a swimming pool, Santa grilling, Santa with a beer, Santa in a boat catching a tuna. Americans must seem quite confused about our own mythological figures.giant inflatable yard

(Hey, if you really want to see some remarkable inflatable art that is really art, look into Florentijn Hofman. He knows how to do big stuff in a way that inspires genuine awe. It’s not holiday related, however.)

plastic snowmanAt this time of year, you don’t have to look very hard for something ugly and/or tasteless. So that makes it pretty amazing when you see something not ugly. But—here it is—I believe in ugly Christmas trees. They represent not our lack of culture and aesthetic discrimination, but a sort of quest for it. If it is the effort that counts in life, and I am surely one who espouses this as true, then we must commend the tremendous effort that people make in order to celebrate decoratively. Even if people don’t know exactly what it is they are celebrating, by golly, they are trying just-so-gosh-darn-hard to do it. Clark Griswold is an American hero. As he says in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?”

Links Florentijn Hofman

So Many Superlatives, So Little Granite

by Catherine Breese


Walk the 360 degrees around the base of the Wright Brothers Memorial pylon and you will read the above inscription. The monument itself is majestic—1200 tons of granite rising from a 90-foot grass covered dune. The sides feature carved wings and the top is a lighthouse-like beacon. It is dramatically different from every other thing men have built on the Outer Banks. It is grand and isolated and monumental. The rest of Kill Devil Hills and the Outer Banks is rustic, sandy, beachy, and, of course, relatively tacky. Beach art is an oxymoron. (Forgive me, beach artists.)

To match the grandeur of the monument is the grandiosity of the inscription. The trouble begins with the word “conquest,” which can hardly describe the brief 12 seconds that Wilbur Wright spent aloft. I mean, hadn’t birds and insects already done the flying thing plenty? Even pelicans—which look a lot like bulldozers with wings—could fly about a kabillion years before the Wright boys. And have you ever seen a swan take off or land? John Goodman should be able to fly if swans can.

DSCN0371Then there is the word “genius,” which mischaracterizes the Wright brothers, as well I think. Not that they weren’t smart fellas. But, the Wright brothers were in North Carolina practicing gliding for two full years before their famous first flight. They worked with printing presses and bicycles and other machinery for years before that. They designed and redesigned their aircraft. They failed many times both before and after the event that inspired the monument. In one crash in 1908 in Virginia, they killed their passenger and Orville suffered multiple broken bones. Human motorized flight was not invented by a genius; it was invented by a couple of stubborn idealists who had “dauntless resolution.” Now there, the inscription is entirely accurate. As far as “unconquerable faith” goes, that’s pretty spot-on as well, as long as we’re talking about faith in the laws of physics, or faith in the rationality of the scientific process. The monument doesn’t specify, so I will read it the way I choose.

There is also a mistake in the inscription. It is not a huge error, but one can clearly tell that the stonemason needed an extra cup of coffee on the morning he chiseled the word COMMEMORATION (photo above). Why wasn’t this fixed? I’m pretty sure someone besides me has noticed it. There is no mention of it anywhere on the web. Maybe it is like a favorite photo where cousin Randy is closing his eyes, but it’s a family heirloom anyway. Or maybe it costs too much to fix. The monument has been refurbished twice since 1932 and they did not fix the mistake either time. If you know anything about this, I welcome your insight.

Anyway, I am not taking up a fund for its repair. I, along with my type-A friends, will simply have to avoid that south side of the monument on future visits. I will surely return, probably a few more times. I do so appreciate our National Parks, and I adore the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In fact, my love of the Outer Banks is boundless, dauntless, limitless, indefatigable, inexorable, inexhaustible…

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