Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I FEEL LIKE A HUNDRED BUCKS, to paraphrase Paul Westerberg. Actually, I'm not exactly sure how he meant that, but I know how I mean it. If I were a weaker person, I'd be bandying about the phrase "nervous breakdown." (I didn't bandy just then, did I?) Between Bryant and yesterday's crap with the refinancing and the aborted gift, I'm just emotionally drained. I haven't even mentioned various work nonsense and that two-day colonoscopy ordeal.

All this is manifesting itself in a strange way: I'm alternately being excessively nice and excessively mean to people. Last night at work I turned into the gruff manager that those who think they know me but really don't probably think I always am. And then today at Safeway, normally an obstacle course of rage for me, I was a font of tiny kindnesses. I spared a little old lady the walk to return her shopping cart. I went to the manager's office to report the cashier's excellence (too bad the manager wasn't there). I refrained from yelling at the bastard who thought the grocery-loading lane was his own private reserved parking space.

The melancholy has left my lazy ass more creative than usual. Look at all these posts! Last night I actually got started on what I hope will be my third book, and my first one about something other than editing and writing. I was stunned at how easily the ideas and words flowed. (Four paragraphs down, 996 to go!) And then, this morning, I moved my other blog, the embarrassingly sporadic one about tennis, over to Blogspot. No actual new writing there yet, but there is a dynamite list of tennis links and some kick-ass use of color. It's a start.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

RIP-OFF ROUNDUP. As of last week:

  • A certain prominent pest-control company had taken our money for installation and maintenance of a termite-baiting system and then disappeared, refusing to return phone calls.

  • A certain Virginia-based mortgage broker had promised to refinance our mortgage at a very impressive 5 percent over 30 years, and then stalled and stalled and stalled and refused to return phone calls, or even answer the phone, as rates rose and rose.

  • A certain federal district and a certain automobile dealership had both taken my money in exchange for securing personalized license plates that never arrived.

  • A certain podiatrist had taken my money for orthotic shoe inserts that never arrived.

    Last Friday, I called the termite people again and was told -- well, whadda ya know? -- the technician was scheduled to come the very next day. Nobody had mentioned that before, of course, and we would be out of town for the weekend. So he came about two hours after my call. His pronouncement that there was no sign of termite activity left me more suspicious of the baiting system than relieved.

    Today, more progress, if you can call it that.

    The mortgage broker answered the phone and assured me that we would close this week and that our rate "lock" had been extended. When I asked how that could be true, with rates so much higher than they were when we agreed to the deal, he continued to use the word "lock" while describing an entirely different deal. I told him that was unacceptable. Now what? I hope to file a report with The Authorities. Fat lot of good that will do.

    Could the day get any worse? Why, yeeeeesss! Thanks for asking!

    I spent the next few hours trying to get in touch with a company that was selling the perfect surprise birthday present for my wife. After multiple no-answers, I filled out a form on the company's Web site requesting a call-back at work.

    That request was ignored, but sure enough some boob at the company randomly started calling numbers she found on her caller ID and succeeded in reaching Jacqueline at home and spoiling everything.

    All of which wouldn't be so bad if the big-surprise idea hadn't been (a) very, very expensive, and (b) my only idea.

  • I'M NOT A CELL-PHONE KIND OF GUY. You probably could have guessed that, if I haven't mentioned it already. I don't actually talk to people on the phone if I can avoid it.

    But I've seen those Virgin Mobile commercials ("pay-as-you-go service!"), and I've been intrigued. No monthly fees, no complicated scheme that treats "minutes" as a commodity -- you just use the thing when you need to and pay for only the time you use. And Virgin sells a $100 phone that folds to pocket size and can be set to vibrate instead of ringing some annoying ring. Not that I'd give my number out. Maybe to the wife. No, what I want is a portable phone booth for emergencies or the occasional "I'm running late" call. That would be nice.

    Unfortunately, Virgin Mobile doesn't really offer pay-as-you-go service. In a classic "never mind" moment, I read the fine print and found this:

    As long as you add at least $20 every 90 days your account will stay "Current."

    Every time you Top-Up your 90 days starts over. If you forget to Top-Up at all in 90 days, your account becomes "Past Current" and you won't be able to make or receive calls.

    60 days after your account becomes "Past Current" your account will expire. But you don't want that to happen because expired accounts lose their phone numbers.
    Let's see: $20 divided by 3 equals $6.66 if you consider the glass half full, $6.67 for us half-empty types. So what we have here is not a pay-as-you-go plan, but a monthly service agreement. A pretty darn cheap monthly service agreement, but a monthly service agreement all the same. I really wish the Virgin folks had come clean in the first place and just promoted it that way. I used the Virgin Mobile Web site's feedback link and told them as much. Boy, was I surprised when a reply came within minutes.

    Unfortunately, the information you have is incorrect. Virgin Mobile is strictly a pay-as-you-go service. We do ask that you Top-Up with at least $2o every 9o days, however, to keep your account active. Actually, here, I shall explain it all to you so there's no confusion.

    Instead of getting a bill, you just add money to your account when you need it. We call it 'Top-Up'. To keep your account open, or "current", you need to Top-Up at least $20 every 9o days, regardless of the current balance, but what's on there adds to the Top-Up.
    The company line. What, exactly, was incorrect about my information? Another quick reply:

    Ok, you got me. You wanna know something though? No cellular company, be it pre-paid or contracts, doesn't have some sort of 'monthly' fee. The other pre-paid services out there will charge you anywhere from $15-$25 a month, where we only ask that you add money to your account every 9o days. Yes, you are correct when saying that there is a mandatory payment, but we never hassle you to pay it. It's a requirement to keep your account current, yes, but if you never pay it, we won't penalize you, and you're free to reactivate your phone at any time after that, if it expires. The only bad thing is that you will lose your number. But to be honest, we are the most liberal of all the cellular companies and that is why we are the best. Hope this clears things up for you a little more.
    Now I'm torn. I probably shouldn't be suckered in by that eventual honesty, but I can afford $6.67 a month and I am impressed with the quick communication, even if much of the lively chatter is boilerplate.

    So now I start thinking about the other things that are wrong with cell phones. One: In a heck of a lot of places, they simply don't work. I find that amazing at this point, but it's true with Virgin and it's true with AT&T, or at least the AT&T service my wife has. Jacqueline isn't a cell-phone person either, but she's addicted to mobile Web and e-mail access. The plans that provide this also provide a lot of "minutes," and so we've used her phone a lot while traveling. Except when we haven't. It seems the service she uses and the one I'm thinking of using have a lack of "roaming" in common, so you pretty much have to stay on major highways and in major cities. She says there's hope that the necessary roaming agreements are about to go into effect, so that eases my conscience about investing in service that doesn't plug those holes.

    Issue No. 2 is the fact that when cell phones work, they still don't work. Also amazing at this point is that connection and sound quality are still at the orange-juice-can-and-string level. And at least the can-and-string phones had what they call "full duplex." You and your little friend could talk at the same time and still hear each other -- no "over" or "over and out." Don't go writing me about how all modern cell phones are full duplex. They say they are, but they aren't. I've had to call the editor of the Post's weekly technology pages, who's used every cell phone known to man and presumably has one that's pretty good, and the delay between my talking and his hearing, and vice versa, resulted in something that for all practical purposes was far less than full duplex. All this when the call doesn't get cut off entirely, of course.

    Also, I'm afraid that being a cell-phone owner might someday result in my using the pretentious-moron phrase "land line."

    Monday, July 28, 2003

    VH1's "200 GREATEST POP CULTURE ICONS" just might have cured me of my love of such shows.

    There will always be "How could you have left out [blank]?" and "How could you have included [blank]?" reactions to such lists, and the broad category of pop-culture icons will mean some very strange decisions and juxtapositions (rapper vs. scientist vs. cartoon character!), but even given all that, there is no excuse for the shoddily put-together series that VH1 came up with. The actor-vs.-character question is one that VH1 didn't do a great job of solving. The decision was apparently to go with the actor and not the character, unless a character (as with the superheroes) existed in multiple realms or was played by multiple actors. So we're left with such relatively personality-free "icons" as Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Leonard Nimoy, Molly Ringwald and Barbara Eden because they played some unforgettable characters.

    A large part of my disgust, I admit, could be traced to the old-guy reaction that I've discussed before. (Tom Cruise has neither a personality nor a particularly iconic role and he's No. 5?) When you're talking about icons, though, I think you need to listen to people born before MTV. The test of time is a large part of what makes an icon. That leads me to a bigger issue, which is that I'm not sure VH1 knows what an icon is. As Jacqueline and I scratched our heads at some of the inclusions, omissions and relative rankings, she wondered whether we were making the mistake of looking for gay icons. Maybe we were, to some extent, but the same over-the-top referenceability that we associate with gay culture and campiness is, to my mind, a large part of what makes an icon.

    The list was obviously weighted toward youth and political correctness, but even that bias wasn't applied consistently. Some older-people icons were overrated: Lucille Ball deserves a high ranking, but No. 4? The idiocies are countless, but here are some a few lowlights:

  • The cast of "Friends," No. 11. The Beatles, No. 12.
  • John F. Kennedy Jr. ranks higher than John F. Kennedy or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (Here's a juxtaposition for you: No. 32, JFK; No. 31, Eminem.)
  • Gwen Stefani, who has no business being on the list at all, is No. 142, ahead of Diana Ross, Jim Morrison, Bob Marley and Dolly Parton, among others.
  • Ricky Martin is also on the list. (What year is this? Hell, why not Los del Rio?)
  • Superman is No. 2. Superman belongs on the list, but No. 2? Spider-Man, an iconic character but hardly deserving of top-200 mention, outranks Batman. James Bond is nowhere to be seen. One could also make a strong argument for Jesus Christ in this company.
  • Katie Couric, but no Walter Cronkite.
  • John Wayne, an icon if ever there was one: No. 54, right behind Jerry Fucking Garcia.
  • Bob Dylan? Dylan! No. 68. Right behind Howard Stern.
  • Celine Dion outranks Barbra Streisand.
  • Justin Timberlake, but no Fred Astaire.
  • Bill Gates is included, correctly, but not Henry Ford. Bill Clinton outranks JFK, but Washington and Lincoln are out. Einstein and Freud, but no Franklin or Edison.
  • Jennifer Lopez and Julia Roberts are above James Dean and Frank Sinatra.
  • Cruise, Ford, Travolta, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Michael J. Fox, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mel Gibson outrank Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Clark Gable, Burt Reynolds, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason and Rock Hudson. Humphrey Bogart? Unrated.
  • Dorothy Hamill is on the list. I love Dorothy Hamill, but c'mon. Also on the list: Penny Marshall. If that's one for us old people, no, thanks.
  • Oprah Winfrey is number one. She's an icon, but the icon? The unrated Jerry Springer is just as iconic.

    For the sake of argument, here is my hastily conceived list of 30 musts for any icon list, in approximate order of prominence, along with VH1's ranking:

    Elvis Presley (3)
    Marilyn Monroe (6)
    Muhammad Ali (16)
    The Beatles (12)
    Jesus Christ (unrated)
    Frank Sinatra (27)
    John Wayne (54)
    John F. Kennedy (32)
    Jackie Onassis (47)
    James Dean (26)
    Princess Diana (9)
    Michael Jackson (10)
    Barbra Streisand (66)
    Elizabeth Taylor (49)
    Madonna (7)
    Bob Dylan (68)
    Mickey Mouse (17)
    Johnny Carson (36)
    Cher (41)
    Jack Nicholson (81)
    Grace Kelly (87)
    Albert Einstein (108)
    Bette Davis (110)
    Charlie Chaplin (126)
    Babe Ruth (136)
    Humphrey Bogart (unrated)
    Martha Stewart (43)
    Johnny Cash (88)
    Burt Reynolds (164)
    Walter Cronkite (unrated)

  • Thursday, July 24, 2003

    BRYANT SNAPP and I went back a long way, longer than any of my other Post colleagues. We met in 1989 on the copy desk of the Washington Times and worked together there until I left for the Post in 1997. He succeeded me as Times copy chief and quickly put me to shame as a manager. Bryant left the Times not too long after that to move with his then-partner to Philadelphia. In 1999, he told me he was coming back to Washington and asked if there were any appropriate openings at the Post. The interval between my telling the National copy chief about him and his being hired must have set a record for the Post's normally glacial hiring process. Before long he was deputy National copy chief, and recently he became editorial-page copy chief.

    He was a fellow tennis fan, a fellow "Amazing Race" junkie, a guest at my wedding, one of the best editors I've ever known and--as strange as it sounds to me, as the Washington, D.C., portion of my life has grown longer than the Arizona portion and is gaining on the Michigan portion--one of my oldest friends.

    Bryant, who was 36, died Tuesday in a car accident while on vacation in Washington state. On the two-lane road to Mount St. Helens, a water tanker edged off the pavement, overcorrected and crossed the center line, hitting the car in which Bryant was riding head on. All three people in the car--Bryant; his new partner, whom he married last year in a Hawaii commitment ceremony; and their friend who was driving--were killed.

    * * *

    Bryant took a good deal of grief about his name. There was his story about how his mom insists he would have been Ginger Snapp if he had been a girl. And his first and middle names begged to be misunderstood; I hope he's Bryant Davis Snapp in all the obituaries, not "Brian David Snapp."

    He would lament the fact that the most well-known Bryants weren't exactly the people he wanted to be compared to. As a gay man, he didn't exactly fancy Anita Bryant. And as a sensible man, he didn't consider Bryant Gumbel all that much better. Those observations came years before today's most famous Bryant, Kobe Bryant, emerged.

    My last communication with Bryant was about this new namesake:

    I hope you'll be clipping all those Bryant Charged With Assault headlines to brighten up your workspace.
    -- WALSHB 7/18/2003 7:31:58 PM

    You bet. I can put them with the one I still have from the Post Sports section from my college days:

    "Bryant Has
    The Beef
    And Wants
    The Ball"
    -- SNAPPB  7/18/2003 8:41:32 PM

    Wednesday, July 23, 2003

    VERY BELATEDLY, meet the new baby.

    I'M BACK. Please note the new address. I've waited a month for Blogger to respond to my complaints about its new software refusing to FTP to my ISP; now I've given up and gone to Blogspot. Guess I can't complain too loudly about lousy customer service for a free product.

    If any experts on Blogger software are reading, though, I have two questions:

    1. Any idea how I could get a little picture into the cascading-style-sheets nightmare that produces the green bar above?

    2. How about getting the archives to show up in reverse chronological order, the way any sensible scheme would do it?

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