Saturday, November 1, 2008

Saturday Silliness

Stuff That's Too Stupid to Wait Until Sunday

I wrote last weekend about how our bank wouldn't take a USDA check, written on the Federal Reserve Bank...

I got a written explanation to present to the bank:

The Check Clearing Process for the 21st Century Act (Check 21) which was signed into law on October 28, 2003 and became effective on October 28, 2004, has had an impact on the negotiability of USDA Farm Service Agency Commodity Credit Corporation (FSA/CCC) checks.

CCC is a wholly owned government corporation that uses CCC checks as its instrument for payment.  CCC is not a Financial Institution.  Because CCC is a government entity it does not have a commercial bank account as other financial institutions do.  CCC’s account is with the United States Department of the Treasury.  For this reason, the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank (KCFRB) acts as CCC’s fiscal agent and is responsible for receiving CCC checks through normal banking channels and treating them as cash items. CCC Checks received by the KCFRB, which contain a routing transit number of [omitted] pre-printed in the MICR Line of the CCC check, are paid by the KCFRB and the expense charged to CCC’s Account with Treasury. 

Since the implementation of Check 21, some financial institutions have had difficulty accepting and processing CCC checks.  In a few cases, banks have refused to accept the instrument stating it is not a valid check because the check does not carry an account number in the pre-printed MICR Line at the bottom of the check.

Until Check 21, CCC has never had a problem with the acceptance of its checks by financial institutions.  As a temporary measure, CCC is requesting financial institutions to manually enter our Agency Location Code (ALC) [omitted] into the account number field when validating its checks.  ALC [omitted] represents CCC’s account with United States Department of Treasury. 

USDA Farm Service Agency apologizes for any inconvenience that it may have caused.  New stock has been ordered and placed into circulation; however, it will take time for the old stock to deplete itself. 

If you have questions or need to contact our office, please call me at [omitted].

Sounds reasonable, right? Riiiiight. This weekend, we managed to deposit the check (a pittance), but not before my husband threatened to withdraw all of our savings and move it to another bank. We've been customers there since 1994, and there's a bit more at stake than the face value of this one check. Even if the check bounced...it's a government check and the bank has lots more of our money. What's the worst that could happen?

I'm kind of irked about something else, though, too.

I convinced a colleague to open an account at WAMU. A few months later, we're having this little worldwide economic crisis, and WAMU goes under, to be bought by JPMorgan Chase. Nifty. Our deposits are FDIC insured, and our banking goes along without a hitch - if you don't count this silliness over a government check. Then my colleague tells me she's going to withdraw her money from WAMU and open an account at Chase. "Why?" I ask.

"Because I got an offer telling me if I open an account at Chase, they'll give me $100."

Well, I can't argue with her logic...but I think Chase's Marketing department is missing a few marbles.

Don't Speak for Me Sara Palin

I love this video. Thanks to @DowntownWoman for tweeting about it!

Nutty NaNoNovelist Nudged by November

It crept up on me this year. None of that anxious anticipation; no "what am I going to write about this year?" angst - I managed to pretty much forget about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) until last night around 11:00 PM. "One hour left to go!" I chatted to Elysabeth Eldering.

"It's already started here," she wrote. Nice to know I'm not alone in this madness. I started in 2001; I think there were 140 of us signed up. In 2007, there were over 100,000 participants. I show up in the forums every year, treating it a little like a funky class reunion. I should try writing a book, again, this year.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo novel. That gives it some respectability, don't you think? So y'all can just quit giving me those funny looks, now.

Friday, October 31, 2008

There's No Trick to It

Just move. They say that small steps make a difference when it comes to burning calories and losing weight. Today proves it. I went to work - a sedentary desk job involving moderate PC use. In terms of calories burned, I might as well be sleeping. In fact, I think snoring burns more.

But here's the cool part: Beginning at 5:15 PM, I went for a long, leisurely walk through the neighborhood. A stroll, really, with long periods of simply standing still, taking pictures or people watching as kids and adults ran up and down the streets in costume, begging candy from their neighbors.  Between 5:18 and 8:00, I burned almost 600 calories!

bb103108

Bodybugg Data for 10/31/08

Yeah, we won't talk about the three pieces of Papa John's Pizza or the 10 or so fun-sized candy bars I had for dessert...

Trick-or-Treat, Smell My Feet...

I don't know how a kid goes from not being allowed to trick-or-treat for religious or moral reasons to being allowed to trick-or-treat as Michael Myers, but I'm glad of it. Trick-or-treating with your best friend is so much more fun, at this age, than trick-or-treating with Mom.

buddies

The annual neighborhood parade, led by the fire truck, is a tradition:

parade

Thank goodness there was no official contest; the grown-ups competed with the kids for best costume:

jack

I think the kids won on sheer creativity! Here is...a pile of trash! Oooh, it moves! It begs for more junk - junk food, that is.

trash-costume

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Odds & Ends

I'm decked out in Halloween orange and black, but I'm tickled pink to announce that Trockle has been nominated for a 2008 Cybil Award.

My son is trick-or-treating tonight as Link from Legends of Zelda. The hat was custom made and turned out beautifully.

link-zelda-sm

I will be standing discreetly at the end of the block - discreetly, unobtrusively, and decorously dressed as - a wi-fi hotspot. (Technically, a wi-fi detector, but it's Halloween and I can declare myself a hotspot if I want to. You want to get technical? I can be a hotspot and a wi-fi detector - blame it on hormones.)

The shirt's from ThinkGeek.com. But since I just got word they turned down my application to join their affiliate program, you'll have to search for it yourself. (Hey, what do you expect for free advertising? :) They have great stuff, though - I also own the binary people shirt, the RTFM shirt (and mug), the pet cactus, and I'm due for a refill on caffeinated soap. Their customer service is excellent, too - the handle on my first RTFM mug popped off the second time I used it, and they promptly sent a replacement.

Just 43 more minutes before the gigantic bag of Halloween candy can be ceremoniously opened and readied for the trick-or-treaters that never make it to the end of our street. Katie said, this morning, "Somewhere in the world it's 5:00 o'clock." Well, since she's not trick-or-treating in Beijing, she's had to wait all day for her chocolate.

Two days ago, I peered into the windows of the Haunted Pumpkin House. They were covered in cobwebs! Wispy white and black filaments began to fill the rooms, and the spooky, dilapidated house began to cave in on itself. Drat you, Houston humidity! RIP, Haunted Pumpkin House - I was so hoping you'd make it to Halloween. You will live on in our memory, and on the pages of this blog:

pumpkin-house-front

That's a skeleton hanging from the tree, and unoccupied broomsticks flying around the house. A black cat stands guard in the upstairs window, over a coffin-shaped doorway. The windows are eyes (they even have "eyebrows" suggestive of gables); the doorway is a mouth open in shock as giant spiders crawl up the "face" of the house - near a crescent moon "ear" (the other "ear" is a witches hat).

pumpkin-house

The photos don't do some of the details justice, really - that's a floating candelabra in the background, and rats running into the house (some have already made it through the spooky little fence).

pumpkin-house-detail

Rickety shutters hang (barely) from crooked windows. There are headstones in the family plot.

pumpkin-house-detail2

Poor Haunted Pumpkin...we had fun while it lasted.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

But...But...I KILL Yeast! I Can't Even Bake Bread!

Battling the Belly Bulge

Mr. Hyde is alive and well, and living inside me. He doesn't kill, mind you - just gobbles up anything that isn't nailed down. Seriously, starting around three in the afternoon, Hyde comes out to play. I swear, he could have me eating a phone book, some days. It doesn't have to be good, just edible. I can hear him cackling with glee as I open my mouth...

I've been chalking it up to hormones. Nasty, evil "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" hormones. But maybe not. I'm slow to join the anti-yeast bandwagon; I've only ever had one yeast infection in my life, nearly twenty-five years ago, and that was due to four months on powerful antibiotics for an ear infection. The yeast took over - but not where you think. I had gray stuff coming out of my ear canal.

I've suspected, for years, that I am anathema to yeast. I can't even bake bread - it won't rise. I make great flatbread, unintentionally. Yeast takes one look at me and drops dead. So really, I've always figured yeast, systemic or otherwise, was the least of my problems.

So yesterday, when someone twittered this: How to Flatten Your Tummy and End Food Cravings EFFORTLESSLY, I was skeptical. Okay, I rolled my eyes and almost clicked off the page. But I read on, just to see the sales pitch. And there wasn't one. I read Kelley Eidem's tips for losing unsightly tummy flab and curbing cravings. It's not unique or new information - we've been hearing about systemic yeast and toxins for years - but I ignored it. And, in ignoring it, I never imagined a connection between food cravings, belly fat, and yeast. From Kelley's article:

Yeast lives on sugar...and so does your brain!

The yeast in your tummy gets first dibs on almost any sugar you eat. Meanwhile, your brain cells need sugar to live.

Your brain is literally screaming at you, "HEY, I'M DYING UP HERE! GET ME SOMETHING TO EAT!"

Having read a similar admonishment about artificial sweeteners, this made a lot of sense. Basically, according to Kelley (and most other sites I've now read that deal with Candidiasis), many of us are walking around with an overgrowth of yeast that has mutated into tentacled monster yeast that is now digging little microscopic holes in our intestinal lining. Blech. A healthy amount of Candida Albicans is good for you, but once it takes on its fungal, tentacled form, it's a bad thing. It crowds out all the other good bacteria you need - and yogurt just isn't enough to bring it back under control.

The simplicity of Kelley Eidem's instructions - the straightforward, "I'm not selling anything here, you can get this wherever, don't have to buy it from me and you don't have to buy my book" approach hooked me. I'll admit that the words "effortlessly" and "without willpower" had me intrigued, as well.

I'm still a little skeptical, mind you - but I figure this isn't going to kill me. In fact, a woman who works at The Vitamin Shoppe follows a similar regimen, for medical reasons, and assured me that the products recommended work - at least in helping to create a healthy digestive system - and won't hurt.

I started taking the recommended supplements last night. We'll see, soon, if this has any effect on my food cravings or weight loss efforts. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, do take a look at Kelley's article.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Utterli...something.

utterli-image
This Cardinal is full of frustration; doesn't know the bird he attacks daily is himself. I know people like that.

Mobile post sent by HollyJahangiri using Utterlireply-count Replies.

6 Reasons Writers Should Twitter (and 1 for Gamers)

When I first heard of Twitter.com, I could not imagine why I would want to use it. Several writers I know dragged me into it, and after a few weeks, I began to see its value.

1. Train yourself to write a complete thought in a concise 140 characters or less. Ruthlessly pare messages to their essential core.
2. Build your network of colleagues; search http://search.twitter.com/search?q=writer or http://justtweetit.com/writers-authors/
3. Promote your writing, your blog, your book, your brand.
4. Procrastinate. Twittering lets you look like you're doing something productive.
5. Glean article and story ideas from recent tweets; discern trends. @ reply to interested Twitterers when posted or published.
6. Learn from others. Keep an eye out for useful, topical articles, books, and posts promoted by others. Read, read, read...and comment.

Bonus: Dedicated to my twelve-year-old son and all the gamers I know...

After using Twitter for a while, check http://twitter.grader.com and see if you can "level up."

Camping on a Sleepy Volcano - with Bears! (Part III)

The hike to Bumpass Hell is short, tricky, and not nearly as physically grueling as the hike up Cinder Cone. I cannot believe this is the one place I forgot to take the trekking poles; they would have come in handy on the slippery spots. You do not want to slip, here; the trail is narrow and made treacherous with snow, ice, water, and mud slurry.

Looks like he's hovering in mid-air, here, doesn't it?

I forgot the trekking poles, but when you see people coming back, the opposite way, wearing shorts and flip-flops, you kind of figure it's doable. In fact, Jeff did it with Keegan riding on his shoulders.

You know this look by now, right?

"Make me 'pose' one more time and I will gnaw off my right arm and beat you over the head with it." Isn't the view almost worth the risk, though? Here, son, let me show you how it's done. You just sit here on this pointy rock, and...smile! The hills are alive... with the sound of muuuuusic...

William takes good pictures, doesn't he? Here he is with Phil (the man who refused to give up on us and let us die as we brought up the rear on every hike). Not sure if William is concentrating on his footing or trying to ignore his mother:

 

The water here at the start of the Bumpass Hell geothermal area is pleasantly warm. It's not acidic enough to dissolve flesh, either (I let Jeff check it out first). And the walkways are clearly safe and sturdy...

 

Still photos do not do justice to "Fool's Gold" and boiling mudpots. The following video playlist includes some footage from Cinder Cone, as well:

Isn't earth just amazing in its diversity? Here we have snow-covered mountains; hills belching hot, sulfurous gases; boiling mud; and thriving conifers.

The week passed all too quickly, and it was time to say goodbye. My friends made a video for those of our group who couldn't join us, and they made one for my husband, J.J., as well:

Here we are, at the Rice Hill Drive-In:

Jeff's a funny man. Totally deserves to wear that shirt. How many dads would make the drive from Washington to California in a van packed with seven people's camping gear - along with all seven people - and never once show the slightest hint of irritation at anyone or anything? Here he is, unloading our gear from the roof rack at the Sheraton PDX in Portland, OR:

And there, we said our last goodbyes to Sue, Jeff, Ryan, Evan, and Keegan. Well, not our last goodbyes - we were emailing each other the next day, and eagerly uploading photos to share with the others. A few families bravely tackled Lassen Peak, then headed home a day or two later.

I'm ready to do it again!

Camping on a Sleepy Volcano - with Bears! (Part II)

Close up of doe at Manzanita Lake

When I think of deer, I think of gentle, skittish creatures. This photo captures some of the nobility and watchfulness I saw in Lassen's deer, but does absolutely nothing to convey the sheer fury I saw on the park road as we drove in that first night.


I might have missed it - the coyote was a fearful blur that streaked across the road just ahead of the van, followed closely by the doe. We tend to think of the coyote as predator, the deer as prey. But never underestimate the power of a mother whose offspring are threatened or harmed. I figure that was one dead coyote; he just hadn't rolled over and begged for a mercy killing yet.

Once, when my daughter was just a few months old, I found a wasp in her room. My normal reaction would have been to grab the super-economy-sized RAID and spray the entire bottle on him, just to be sure he didn't come back up for air and sting me like "Zombie Wasp from Planet Zorkon," or something. But I couldn't spray poison in my baby's room. I calmly lifted her from her crib (ignoring the fact that I'm terrified of wasps and would ordinarily have been running around in crazed circles and jumping up and down while swatting at my hair to be sure he wasn't flying into my ear or something) and put her in my room. I shut the door. I went back to the nursery and shut myself in with the beast. I hunted it down, and when I found it resting against the wall, I backhanded it. Hard. With my bare hand. Ouch.

Oh, he didn't sting me. He instantly fell dead on the floor. I'm surprised, though, that the force of the blow didn't shatter bone or sheet rock. Damned wasp had the effrontery to threaten my child? It had to die. The throbbing in my hand was irrelevant. That wasp could've been a Bengal tiger in that moment, and it would have died, instantly, by my hand. Two seconds later, I was close to shock, as this knowledge - and the sight of the dead wasp - and the throbbing in the back of my hand, sunk in. I calmly got Katie, put her back in her crib, then went to my own room for a tiny nervous breakdown. I'd used all my adrenaline stores for the week.

So I imagined this foolish coyote, doing what hungry coyotes do... and I recognized a kindred spirit in that doe.

For weeks, Debby and I had been plotting "Operation Bumpass Hell." The trail to Bumpass Hell usually opens in July; we camped the last week of June. But Debby is a geophysicist, and I'm a former volcanologist wannabe; there's just no way we were going to go home without hiking to Bumpass Hell. Option 1: Risk a federal felony charge for trespassing on a closed trail in a national park. Option 2: Seduce a park ranger and convince him to take us out on a "look see" to determine if the trail was safe.

Turns out we had a third option: Most of the park rangers were women - thwarting us on Option 2, but the trail was open because others had been just as overeager as we were, so they went with a "can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy and opened early despite lingering snow, ice, and slippery mud. Our husbands could just stop rolling their eyes and smiling indulgently at the plots we (probably) wouldn't have hatched, anyway.

But first, the group decided to hike up Cinder Cone. Okay, never mind "Bumpass Hell." I've found Hell on earth, and its name is "Cinder Cone."

Looks like a big mound of dirt, doesn't it?

This is my son, William. This is his, "Don't make me pose," face. And his, "Why are we doing this, again?" stance. An eighty year old man would've walked faster, with more pep in his step. It was slightly hot, and we were both carrying packs with two liters of water, some trail snacks, and sweatshirts. I had a camera, extra batteries, and probably some other crap I didn't need to be hauling up Cinder Cone. What did I know?

Nothing. I knew nothing. I might have had an inkling that I was in trouble right about...here:

But I sort of remember thinking something like, "Oh, hey, that doesn't look like a very long hike." Or, "Nice, clear-cut trail." Or, "Hey, if Bear-Bait up there can do it, piece o' cake." Karma's a bitch. I should never have teased REL about being bear-bait. REL is a damned mountain goat. She was in better shape than the kids. Her husband, Phil, was kind enough to lag back at the rear, with William and me, to ensure that we didn't just throw ourselves off the cliff and into death's welcoming arms. (I thought about it, once or twice.) If you have never climbed a cinder cone, imagine climbing up a mound of gravel, chopped up blacktop, and black sand (ground pumice). It's hot, it's sharp, and it's slippery. You take one large stride forward; you slide back half the distance you gained. On Cinder Cone, you gain 800 feet in elevation in about half a mile. And if you're a flatlander from Houston who is not used to hiking the mountains of northern California, you start sucking wind about three quarters of the way up. You can see the rim, but it might as well be on Pluto. This is the point at which I sent my son and Phil on ahead to join the others, while I sat down and contemplated Death:

Only the certain knowledge that I would either have to come back and try again next year, or kick myself in the ass until the day I died, kept me going. Sheer stubborn determination, coupled with a nostalgic love of all things igneous, got me back up on my feet. I thought I was in decent physical shape, but there is something very sobering about lifting one incredibly heavy foot, dragging it forward, sliding back almost as far, and sucking wind for a good sixty seconds before being able to lift the other foot. The fact that silver-haired retirees were passing me on their way back down the volcano, smiling and exchanging pleasantries, only added to my humiliation and distress.

Click the picture to enlarge it. Do you see the two people on the trail leading down to the bottom of the volcano? (This particular cinder cone is estimated to have been formed around 1650. It's not active. Hikers can go all the way to the bottom of the inside of the volcano and back up. Pele doesn't swallow you up, even if you're a virgin.) Those two people are my son and REL's husband, Phil. I am so glad that my son - remember the kid who had that, "Can we go now?" look, earlier? - got bored waiting for me to make it up to the rim, and decided to hike the entire trail.I would've gone, too, but that one stretch near the rim looks even steeper than the trail on the outside. I tried to picture the logistics of an emergency rescue: (a) the EMTs would have to run up and down that trail with all their equipment and a stretcher (not bloody likely); (b) they'd have to extricate me by helicopter. Now, I'm a writer. My imagination works overtime. Imagine a helicopter rescue attempt in a cinder bowl.

Not a pretty picture, is it? If you're not getting the visuals I'm getting, good - no gory nightmares for you.

The hike back down Cinder Cone was easy, giving a whole new dimension to the phrase, "It's all downhill from here."

This is me: semi-intrepid adventurer in front of stinky fumarole at Bumpass Hell. Actually, it was a whole lot less stinky, I thought, than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The sulfur seems to dissipate faster, even though it's being belched out more powerfully.

In this next photo, notice a couple of things: In the midst of this gaseous, mineral-rich desolation, there is an abundance of life. And in contrast to the super-heated sulfurous steam and the boiling mud and the warm water welling up from underground hot springs, there is snow - yet it's rather warm, standing there in my short-sleeved t-shirt.

Notice, too, how there are no railings between tourists on the boardwalk, and certain scalding, flesh-rending death in the boiling mudpits below. Just thought I should point that out, having realized it about five minutes after letting my son go blithely running up the boardwalk to join the other kids. Yeah, fun times. Well, he's a Boy Scout. Adventure is his middle name. And if he didn't hear me say, sixteen gazillion times, that the boiling mud could strip bubbling bits of flesh off bone in about five seconds flat - well, it's his own fault for not paying attention to his mother.

Urk.

Do you think I'm being overprotective? Wait until I show you were I found him when I reached the top of Multnomah Falls, near Portland, the next week. For now...to sleep, perchance to dream. It's late - or early - and I have work tomorrow. Lots of it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Camping on a Sleepy Volcano - with Bears! (Part I)

This past summer, William and I went camping with friends at Lassen Volcanic National Park. It was my third time ever to camp in a tent, and our first in a national park designated as "black bear habitat."

We flew into Portland, Oregon, visited briefly with my brother in law and his girlfriend, had dinner with the "Northwest Contingent," spent the night with REL, Phil, Arthur, and Jessie, then rode thirteen hours in a fully-loaded van with Sue, Jeff, Ryan, Evan, and Keegan to our campsite in northern California. Now, the west coasters are used to wildfires in the summer, apparently, but driving through a haze of smoke and falling ash made me think we were just a little too close for comfort to the Shasta fires. It was like driving through a blizzard in a weird orange haze. I sent text messages to my husband, "Check the Internet for road closures," and later, the classic line from Marathon Man: "Is it safe?" About that time, I lost cell phone reception.

Honestly, a week without a cell phone is not a bad thing at all. I just felt a tiny bit guilty that my last text message home was so ominous. I get the feeling my husband thinks that in any confrontation between me and a forest fire or a bear, I'd come out on top - he just didn't seem all that worried. Sometimes I think he gives me too much credit. I know he had the park rangers' number, but they claimed there were no calls for Holly.

This is a bear box:

I chose to think of it as our "closet." Our friends kept the food in their bear boxes; we kept our clothes and all the other crap we probably didn't need to drag halfway across the country with us in ours.

I have the most patient friends. They barely batted an eye when I finally had a little meltdown. (Okay, they're all moms and dads to 12 year olds - and various siblings - that's how we met. If a little meltdown was enough to rattle any of them, I'd be stunned.) By the time we pitched out tent, I was out of steam and my last nerve was completely shot. I had to be reminded about sixteen times that the twenty or so anthills under the tent were not Texas Fire Ants and they would not torment us until we screamed for mercy. I think I only had to be dragged out of the bear box twice. I mean, does it make any sense to you that we lock up, in a metal box, everything with a scent - except us? Why don't we just sleep in the bear box and give the bears whatever else they want, instead of securing the "stuff" and sleeping vulnerable in a flimsy nylon tent? Are we insane?? It didn't help that the shot of Scotch I'd set down on the picnic table vanished and I had to worry that one of the kids might have mistaken it for punch. Ooooh, the guilt... Turns out it was probably an overzealous mom, trying to wash dishes before dark, lest the bears take up drinking in addition to foraging for picnic food.

Any notions that Holly is a party animal were quickly dispelled. I can hold my liquor, but fresh air is another matter entirely. As the stars came out - omg, there are stars up there? Who knew, coming from Houston? - I said goodnight and crawled into the tent to bundle up against the coming chill. I was out like a light. Unfortunately, I had to get up three or four times to use the amazingly pristine facilities...

This is my son, the sleepyhead, around 9:00 or 10:00 AM. Forget breakfast.

Mind you, he's the only person to routinely turn in before me, so he's had plenty of sleep. It's the fresh, cold air, I tell you. Though the daytime temperatures were warm (we hiked the snow-covered trails to Bumpass Hell in short-sleeved t-shirts and still worked up a sweat), it got down into the low 40s at night.

The next day, I felt slightly human. Stiff and sore from sleeping on the ground, in the cold, but amazingly well rested and ready for a hike. We started off easy, after a leisurely breakfast, hiking around Manzanita Lake. We stopped to take pictures and to race pinecones from a little bridge over Manzanita Creek:

More later...time for work!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stiff, Sore, and Totally Ready to Hit the Gym

K. and I missed our lunch time workout today. I had errands to run that simply could not be put off: pick up the car from the shop (it was having its nails done); make a mad dash through Wal-Mart looking for Boys and Girls Country wish list items to donate; buy a new blender because the rubber O-ring on the old one got chewed up while attempting to make smoothies...

The thing is, I really look forward to spending lunch at 24 Hour Fitness. I honestly never thought I'd say that; certainly not so soon. But K. and I have hit the gym about 3-4 days out of every work week, and I've made up the lost days at night or on weekends when I can. Although it sometimes means a longer work day, getting in a brisk, thirty minute hike on the treadmill or lifting weights or punching my frustrations away is a great way to de-stress. It leaves me physically exhausted, mentally focused, and far less cranky.

I haven't had the bodybugg™ on since Saturday morning. I haven't needed it. I've been blogging and writing and doing an incredibly believable performance as a couch potato. I am the poster child for bad ergonomics: I sit with my legs crossed at the knees and my torso turned about 45 degrees to the right (since of course my knees don't fit under any desk, while crossed) - I use my right knee as an armrest for my left forearm. I'm a human pretzel. Whee! Any thoughts of working out this weekend were totally disregarded after my phone call with 24 Hour Fitness's billing department; I was irked. By this morning, I had a sense of humor about the whole thing, but I was still feeling a little snarky.

Until Jennifer called me, tonight, from 24 Hour Fitness headquarters, and said, "This is about a weblog you wrote..." Eeep! :)  They really, really care about customer satisfaction - it's not just a buzzword with these folks. That is refreshing.

I can't wait to work out tomorrow at lunch.

A Request from K.

I know what K. is going to say when I tell her about the phone call. "Did you ask them about Boot Camp?"

Jones Rd & 249 - this every-other-Saturday Boot Camp is hugely popular, judging from last week's turn-out. K. lives clear across town (and Houston's a BIG town), and would love it if they'd offer that twice a week at 5:30 PM. She loves our gym, but won't drive that far on a Saturday morning.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Stupidity

Bank Won't Accept US Government Check?!?

I wasn't too worried about the economy until my husband told me that our bank, now part of JPMorgan Chase, refuses to take a check from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

24 Hour Fitness: Great Gym, Fantastic Trainers, Idiot Billing Department

[Updated 10/27/08: I was not expecting a personal call from Jennifer apologizing for this incident, explaining how it happened, and describing the corrective measures that have been taken, but it was a pleasant surprise. Not only do I accept the explanation and the apology, I highly recommend 24 Hour Fitness to anyone who is reading this and looking for a great gym. I hope you have one near you. I wish all the corporations I dealt with were as responsive - and as pleasant.]

I've had two calls and a dunning notice from 24 Hour Fitness since taking their special offer of the bodybugg and five training sessions for $199. I dutifully called them each time, and I think I was reasonably civil until yesterday.*

"Yes, I'm calling for Trisan, at extension something or other..."

"Yes, please give me your name, phone number, and social security number..." Okay, I made up that last part. They didn't even ask for my membership number. But I'm not giving out so much as my initials until they forward me to the person I'm calling or tell me what I'm calling about. "Um, I'm just returning this person's call."

"Okay, I'm forwarding you now."

"Hello, this is Trisan--"

"Yes, this is Holly Jahangiri. You called me?"

"May I have the phone number I called you from?"

Friends who know me well know exactly the tone of voice this provoked from me. I'm not proud of it. It's a holdover from when I was about 14 and convinced that 99.9% of the world's population was just dumber than dirt.

"How should I know what phone number you called me from? What is this about?" Yeah, okay, I'm being a bit of a snot there, but I'm at the end of my tether with silly corporate billing departments and craptastic technical support folks in general. I have no patience, so I'm getting my passive-aggressive jollies at Trisan's expense.

"Okay, just a minute, let me try to call up your membership account information." Yeah? With what info? Did you suddenly get Caller ID? "Can I have the spelling of your first and last name, please?"

And the race was on to see just how fast I could spell my own name. I think I set a new world record: 1.7 seconds. Yeah, I'm mean. We already established that.

"Um, okay, yes. How would you like to pay for the personal training sessions you signed up for?" Trisan is gamely trying to do her job and has somehow managed to pull up my account info; I'll give her that.

I say, for the third or fourth time now: "I paid for them in full, with my credit card, weeks ago, in the gym where I signed up for them. I have a receipt. What's your problem?"

"Oh, yes, yes - I see that now. It's showing you paid."

"It had better be. It was, the last time I talked to you people. Are we done now?"

"I see that you have three people on your account--"

"No, I have two."

"I show a Katie--"

"I canceled her membership in March when I added my son."

"--there have been no payments on her account--"

"--since March. That's right, and there had better not be. I canceled her membership when I added William."

"And there is a William. I am showing no balance on his account. So, there is no problem. Thank you very much. Have a nice day."

What the hell? "Yeah, you too. Call me again, and I will consider it harassment."

"Oh, no, no - everything is fine. We won't be calling again." Yeah, that's what they said LAST time.

 

* I'm sure all this is recorded somewhere "for training purposes," so I admit for the record that this is the conversation as I remember it and it may not be recorded verbatim here. Poor Trisan was, no doubt, simply reading from the script she was given. It's the person who gave her the script - or the folks who maintain the billing records - that I'd like to send back to "training."

[Updated 10/27/08: This is all past history. I'm happy to say that this has been resolved with a phone call that reaffirms my belief that some companies - like 24 Hour Fitness - do care whether their customers are happy. Thank you, Jennifer. I'm happy. ;) And I trust you didn't call just because my trainer, Amber, told you how good I was at punching... ]

The Mind Behind Midnight

An Interview with Vivian Zabel, author of Midnight Hours

 

How did the book, Midnight Hours, come about? How long has it been in the works?

I have an online friend, who “adopted” me as her mom, yet she continued to be extremely secretive. I had no idea where she lived, except a general area. I couldn’t contact her. Other people I knew who “knew” her wondered why she was so mysterious. With my vivid imagination, I took her need to hide and developed Midnight, an online predator who targets disabled men. In fact, the friend helped with details and ideas developed in the novel.

And, no, the friend is not anyone dangerous, just a single woman who needed to protect her identity for valid reasons.

The Mind Behind Midnight

I worked on Midnight Hours for over three years.

They say "write what you know," but this seems a stretch - computers, police procedure, murder - did Midnight Hours require a lot of research? Where did you start? Who and what were your most useful resources?

Ah, you know my limitations concerning computers, etc., rather lack thereof.

I do have some knowledge of murder and police investigation and procedure since one of my nieces was murdered, and I followed that case very closely. In fact I'll write about that case some day, either as non-fiction or fiction, haven't decided.

However, a sergeant of the Oklahoma City Police Department helped with information. A friend who is the administrator of a jail in Tennessee, and who trained to be a dispatcher, answered many questions and gave suggestions and information. The Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department answered questions. I researched on the Internet. Google is our friend, so is Yahoo search.

The young woman who was the "model" for Midnight, although never a  criminal or a predator, actually helped me with many points and ideas.
I took all the information, mixed well with my exceptional imagination, and Midnight was born.

Do you think that a hint of romance and a dash of sexual tension add to a mystery or thriller? Why?

I think a hint of romance and just at least at small dash of sexual tension adds some spice to a mystery or thriller. A sub-plot that includes the relationship between a man and woman gives readers another bit of interest. Straight mystery, thriller, suspense needs some leveling from time to time.

Do you foresee a sequel for any of these characters?

A sequel for any of these characters? Why of course, the title will be Darkest before Dawn. Any one who has read Midnight Hours understands the title.

Between running a publishing business, promoting your existing books and those of other 4RV Publishing authors - how do you find time to write?

Perhaps a better question would be, how do you find time to sleep?

Seriously, I do most of my "writing" in my head. I carry a tablet with me everywhere. While in the doctor's waiting room, I write. While waiting in the car for Robert to do whatever, I write. When ideas pop in my head, even if I'm in bed, I go to the computer and write.

Do you have any "writing rituals"? Anything that gets you into the writing mindset and helps you to be more productive?

I "daydream." I start thinking about a simmering plot or characters and weave a story. Then all I have to do is put the words on the screen or on paper.

Do you write to silence or music? If to music, what kind of music inspires you? Does it vary, depending on the genre?

From the day after Thanksgiving until after Christmas, I write to Christmas carols and songs, whether with singers or just instruments. The rest of the year, I write to silence, or maybe the TV in the background.

Haunted Pumpkin House

Halloween2008-blog

Katie and I used to have a mother-daughter Halloween tradition of carving and decorating rather elaborate pumpkin creations. Our first pumpkin carving contest entry was a reprisal of an award-winning pumpkin "invented" by my mom, back when I was in grade school. We took First Place and won dinner at Ruby Tuesday. Our second - the one that won Best of Show in 1996 - was a haunted pumpkin house. I don't even remember what we won that year - we were just so pleased that our original entry beat out the more sophisticated stenciled, carve-by-numbers pumpkins that were entered into the contest. There was another contender I remember that was carved like an old-fashioned carrousel; that one, rightfully, gave us some stiff competition.

We haven't carved a pumpkin together in several years, and we missed it. We decided to recreate our haunted pumpkin house - bigger, better, and spookier than before. No mere Jack-o-Lantern for us! Our haunted pumpkin house has a demonic windows for "eyes," a coffin-shaped "mouth," a crescent moon and a witch's hat for "ears." Inside you'll find rats, spiders, and a black cat. Outside is a "yard" of Spanish moss glued to a foam board and landscaped with skeletal trees, a "hanged man" skeleton, headstones, a hatched buried in a bit of cut-out pumpkin, a flying candelabra and broomsticks.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Be sure to read Mysterious (and Deadly) Midnight, and leave a comment for your chance to win! I will be blogging from an undisclosed location, today; apparently, Midnight has found my blog, and knows where I live. But I know a thing or two about her, as well...

Mysterious (and Deadly) Midnight

Midnight Hours, by Vivian Zabel, first captured my attention as a short story. I wanted more. And indeed, there was more to the story...

Homicide lieutenant Martin Rogers is determined not to let debilitating injuries sustained in the line of duty defeat him. Disability doesn't suit the man who is used to taking care of others, but a madman's bullet forces him to accept help from family and friends. Confined to a wheelchair, the Internet becomes his social outlet and a woman known to him as "Midnight" serves as a welcome distraction from the pain of grueling physical therapy and rehabilitation. But as Martin presses her for more personal information, he learns that she bears an uncanny resemblance to a woman whose photo was found in the pocket of a dead paraplegic. To complicate matters, she's also a dead ringer for an attractive assistant D.A.

The story of Midnight and why she preys on vulnerable, disabled men is a compelling one, as is Martin's struggle to prove to himself and the rest of the team that he's still an able contributor and adversary to this dangerous criminal who has now set her sights on him. Calculating as Midnight is, she has made a grievous error: Martin isn't helpless, and he isn't alone. Will her rage and frustration at being thwarted by Martin cause Midnight to make a fatal mistake? Or will she manage to stay one step ahead of her "Copper"?

Author Vivian Zabel has created a cast of credible characters - men and women who are neither superheroes, nor archvillains, but people readers can relate to and care about. Readers who enjoy mystery, but who are fed up with dialogue in which four-letter words are used in place of commas, will be relieved to note that Zabel spins a yarn without resorting to excessive or inappropriate profanity.

The plot moves along at a comfortable pace, occasionally taking twists and turns that are surprising yet plausible. I tend to like character-driven fiction with an intriguing story, which this is. My friends groan when they catch me reading the last pages of a book before I finish the first pages, but it helps me to decide if I care whether the characters make it from point A - the first page - to Z - the last. Not only did I care, I'm eager to read the sequel: Darkest Before Dawn.