Friday, June 25, 2010

Four from the Past (All Follow-ups to Previous Columns)

On a blazing hot summer day like today, I'm inclined to laziness, which means taking the easy route of revisiting some topics I've dealt with before, starting with one from the cooler days of mid-spring, ending with the one from just last week when it was already pretty much like today.


First, from my column of May 7 on the new Georgetown Safeway:

Safeway Revisited.
I've been back a few times, and am still a fan, though a bit of the thrill has worn off. That happened on my second visit, after the opening week hoopla was over and the greeters, aisle-guides, and checkout ushers were all gone, and shopping returned to being a more humdrum experience of negotiating a maze of aisles while checking off a long list of needed grocery items, until the cart was full and it was time to stand in the checkout line, get checked out, and haul the stuff home. This is not the fault of the store, of course: It would be unreasonable of me to expect all those first-week added helpers to continue to offer personalized shopping assistance on an ongoing basis. However, I must report that my most recent trip to the Georgetown Safeway did include a bit of serendipity: I was told I had been randomly selected to receive a gift from the bakery department and was then offered my choice of a free carrot cake or chocolate cake. I took the carrot cake and shared it with the Rosedale Annual BBQ Picnic on June 20. It was all gone within minutes, while I was still on my main course, so it must have been good!


Second, following up on a discussion-within-a-discussion in the Wedding Gifts Column, Part II (May 21):

Who Needs So Many Vases? There were two comments on vases as wedding gifts in that column, both decidedly negative. What do you do with that unique, artistic vase you've received if you happen to think it's ugly as dirt? This, apparently, is a common enough problem that it cropped up again in Ask Kelli's June 23rd column, and she said it's fine to return it if you can figure out out where it came from. I certainly agree with that advice, but the problem with the vase-not-from-the-registry is that you are unlikely to be able to discover its origins, at least not without having an awkward and potentially feeling-bruising conversation with the giver of the gift. Now being 22 years past the window of receiving opportunity for wedding gifts, I'm not very likely to be saddled with an unshapely vase for that reason, but just this week I seem to have ended up with the "what do I do with these vases?" question, all the same. You see, my adult daughter has a summer job with the Commission on Presidential Scholars, which last week put on a four-day series of events honoring 141 of the nation's top high school students. There were dinners in their honor, receptions, a photo op with the President, official tours of museums, and more. At each of these events there were floral arrangements on the tables. After some of them, the staff members were told they could take the flowers -- in their vases -- home. My daughter took advantage of this offer twice. The flowers have since faded, but I now have two leftover vases.
They're not bad, actually, but they're nothing special either. One is a clear glass cylinder, the other an opaque glass pitcher. I also have a half-dozen other vases that once held Valentine's Day flowers, Mother's Day flowers, birthday flowers. Right now they're taking up a lot of room on a back shelf. I guess I could add them to the next Value Village pickup. But I'm wondering, do these things even have a thrift shop resale value? Perhaps I should just put them in the recycling. I'm thinking that vases are becoming like wire hangers -- but at least those you can return to the dry cleaners once you have more than you want to keep. Maybe one of our local florists could establish a drop-off collection so that glass flower vases can be reused. If anyone knows of a florist that already has such a program, please let me know! Just send the florist's name and address to alllifeislocal @ fastmail.net and I'll do a follow-up in a future column. (Well, since this is already a follow-up to a follow-up, that would be a follow-up cubed.)


Third, a follow-up on my column of June 14, on my overnight stay at a hotel in New York City:

Reviewing hotel reviews.
After giving a thumb's up to the Park Central Hotel in my column, I decided to give the hotel a good write-up on Trip Advisor, the biggest and most popular customer review site. Before posting my own mostly positive review, I thought I'd look over the last four or five pages of reviews already on the site. Most were like mine, generally good, but I was surprised to read a few that made an overnight stay in the hotel sound like a descent into the lower depths of hell. These were not just negative reviews but reviews that included words like "BEWARE" and "Worst experience ever." (To read the actual reviews, look for those by: desertcrow, freqtravels_10, cricket 4445, bnormant, and sstfam). It seemed impossible to me that someone could have had such a terrible experience at a place that I, along with most other customers, had found clean, well located, well maintained, and competently run. Some of the causes for complaint in the intensely negative reviews seemed to me to be things that were either trivial or things that could have been fixed with a call to housekeeping (burned out light bulbs, for example) -- and even if not fixed promptly, hardly the sort of thing calling for such outrage on the reviewer's part. In most cases I found myself mentally taking the management's side, wondering if the customer had given the hotel a fair chance to put the problem right, or even whether the complainer was representing the situation accurately. (I especially rejected those negative reviews that included a slam to the "outdated d├ęcor" of the hotel's lobby, which struck me as attractively "retro." In my own review of the Park Central, I noted that having obtained the room at the bargain price of $100 per night, I was not expecting perfection, but, having found the room clean and comfortable and the service pleasant, I was quite satisfied by what I got for my money. In some future column I expect to come back to the problem of how to read between the lines of a business review, including how to detect when the reviewer has some personal axe to grind against the business, and how to recognize when someone is simply shilling for a friend or relative in the business. (Both of these are something we have to deal with everyday as listserv owners.)


And finally, a follow-up to last week's column (June 19) on the woes of World Cup soccer played to the ceaseless whine of vuvuzelas:

World Cup Cacaphony Continues. (Bet you can't say that three times fast.) The people at CollegeHumor.com have at least made it possible to laugh at the noise: http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1937652. And while you're there, you might get a chuckle out of this other soccer parody, as well:
http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1937652. I wish I could add a follow-up note here with the answer to the main question posed in that column: Where is there a sportsbar, either in Cleveland Park or in the vicinity, that is showing the World Cup matches with the vuvuzela noise technologically erased from the soundtrack? Alas, no one supplied an answer, and I suspect that is because there isn't one. Not too late, though, if you know of someplace and are willing to share it with the anti-vuvuzela brigade, Cleveland Park division; just send it to alllifeislocal @ fastmail.net.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 25, 2010.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Vuvuzela-Free Zone in Cleveland Park?

Today's column is about the World Cup Soccer games going on in South Africa (go USA!) but more specifically, it's about that infernal buzzing noise coming from the stands as South African fans blow incessantly on their plastic horns called vuvuzelas. How is that a topic fit for "All Life Is Local," you might well ask. I have a couple of answers to that, but first let me give you the context of the question.

If you have watched even the briefest bit of any of the World Cup games on TV (and here's the schedule, if you'd like to start: World Cup Soccer Schedule ), you already know what the problem is. The vuvuzela, when played by lots of people spread throughout the stadium, produces a tremendously loud droning, like a gigantic swarm of bees, or worse, like a concert of dental drills. The constant din makes it hard to follow the commentary, and the sportscasters on site say that it's so loud down on the field that the players can barely communicate with one another. There's already been an instance in which a player said he did not hear the referee's whistle because it was drowned out by the blowing of these horns.

Despite complaints from the players, fans at home, and fans in the crowds, FIFA, the governing authority of international soccer, has ruled that the vuvuzela can't be banned because it's part of the culture of the host country. FIFA's official position is that polite guests (that is, the soccer players) should not tell their hosts how to behave. What's wrong with this analogy is that the host country is not inviting guests into their parlor to enjoy a vuvuzela concert. The guests are actually the ones called upon to perform, and it's the sort of performance that requires full attention and ability to communicate with each other -- skills that are impaired when it's too loud to think straight. And why should the musical culture of the hosts be allowed in the stands, anyway? If the World Cup were played in Scotland, could the stands be filled with bagpipers piping nonstop? If it were played in Switzerland, would alpenhorn blowers be allowed to boom throughout? If it were played in Japan, could taiko drummers drum through every match from start to finish? You get the idea.

The buzzing of vuvuzelas isn't just an annoying sound but it prevents one of the more pleasurable sounds associated with the World Cup games: the cheering and singing of the fans of different countries and teams. This time around, there's no possibility of hearing chants of USA! or GOOOAL! or "Allez, Ola, Ole!" that livened up the experience of the great World Cups of the past. It's all bzzzzzz-bzzzzzzz and no chance to hear anything else.

There may be a solution, however. The techie web site Lifehacker reports that you can attach an equalizer to your TV and set it to balance out the frequency of the buzzing of the vuvuzelas, which will go a long way toward muting the sound. Here's the web site that explains how to do this: Lifehacker anti-vuvuzela page http://lifehacker.com/5564085/how-to-silence-vuvuzela-horns-with-an-eq-filter?sk\
yline=true&s=i
. And that bring me back around to question I alluded to in the second sentence of this edition of All Life Is Local: How is the problem of vuvuzela noise at the World Cup in South Africa connected to life in this corner of the world? Well, I'm hoping it's possible that there's a sports bar somewhere around here showing World Cup Soccer games for people like me who want to watch them without getting a vuvuzela-induced migraine. A bar with big TVs hooked up to an equalizer, right here in Cleveland Park, or perhaps a metro stop or two away. If you know of such a place, please direct me to it! Getting an equalizer and hooking it to our own TV just for a few weeks of games is not a practical solution for us, but we figure it could make economic sense for a venue that could draw in patrons by the busload. A bar with a super hi-def screen could also offer superior World Cup viewing as well as listening pleasure. Plus I'll throw in the incentive of free advertising on this Listserv (9,500-plus subscribers) to any bar that can offer us vuvuzela-free viewing.

Beyond my quest to find a place to watch the World Cup without the being driven insane by that buzzing sound, I want to use this space to urge you to join the movement to get FIFA to reverse its disastrous tolerance of vuvuzela-blowing in the stands. Please add your name to the international petition:
http://www.banvuvuzela.com .

Finally, I want to end on a positive note. (I wrote in my second "All Life Is Local" column that I would do my best to stay upbeat and keep this space from being a repository of my natural curmudgeonly tendency to pile up complaints.) There is one very good thing that I want to point out about the vuvuzela: It is an amazingly point-worthy word if played in Scrabble -- a game I know and appreciate far better than I'll ever know soccer (and may well make the subject of some future "All Life Is Local" column). If you ever happen to have that bizarre combination of letters and you can find someplace on the board to play your seven, connecting to an eighth already played and accessible, you'd have a bingo (that is, a play that uses all seven tiles at once) earning you a bonus of 50 points, on top of the minimum score of 25 points you'd earn for those letters played on the plainest possible squares, for a total of 75 points. Now consider this: if you could manage to play "vuvuzela" starting on one triple word square and stretching to the other triple, that would place the Z on the double letter score, so that the whole word would be rack up 33 points, which would then be tripled and re-tripled, for 297 points -- plus the 50-point bingo bonus, for a whopping total of 347 just for that one word! Of course, that would be a once-in-a-lifetime play. If I ever made such a play, I would definitely want to blow a vuvuzela in celebration!

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, June 18, 2010.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cool Air and Warm Regards

If you're a regular reader of all the columns on the Cleveland Park Listserv, then you will have read the story in Tuesday's Tech Column about the complete failure of our central air conditioning system during a heat wave, ending eleven days later with a total system replacement. So now I have two loss-of-AC-during-a-heat-wave experiences in my life, but I still like the first story the best. It happened when I was fifteen and living with my parents in a rented house in Baltimore. Our landlord was Dominic Piracci, a big city building contractor and father-in-law of the then-mayor of Baltimore, Tommy D'Alesandro III (whose sister is Nancy Pelosi, but at the time she was not a public figure, so this little factoid is completely irrelevant to my story, and I don't know why I'm bringing it up).

On the fourth of July in 1967 on a day when the temperature was close to 100 degrees, the air conditioning in our house failed, and my mother called Mr. Piracci to report the problem. She started by saying that she was sorry to disturb him on a holiday but hoped he could send someone soon. Of course, she didn't expect a same-day visit but was thinking that it might be possible to have someone out the following day.

Much to her surprise, within an hour of that phone call, an AC service truck came up the driveway and a pair of technicians appeared at the front door. My mother led them to the central unit, which they were able to put back in working order in perhaps as little as twenty to thirty minutes. My mother, after signing the work completion order, marveled at the speed and efficiency of the repair company and how wonderful it was that they would come out so promptly to fix someone's air conditioning on a national holiday.

The head technician shook his head ruefully. "No, lady," he said, in a gravelly voice, heavy with a Baltimore accent, "We don't normally work on a holiday. We don't even normally do private homes at all. We only do work in big buildings." Then, lowering his voice to a respectful near-whisper, he continued: "But when Mr. Piracci says go...you GO."

The story doesn't end here. A few months later, we read in the newspaper that Mr. Piracci had entered into a plea bargain with prosecutors who had charged him with corruption over certain city building contracts. He would be going to prison for at least the next few months. My mother, having been so impressed with his diligence as a landlord, decided to send him a sympathy note, something to the effect of "sorry to hear about your troubles" and sending him her best wishes and warm regards.

At the end of the following summer, my father unexpectedly died. Over the course of the next month my mother had to figure out how best to deal with our radically changed circumstances. One of the decisions she made was to move from Baltimore, where my father had worked at the headquarters of Crown Oil, to Washington, where she had her job at the ACLU, thus enabling her to give up her long twice-daily car commute. The only hitch was that shortly before my father's death, my parents had just renewed their lease on the house for another full year. So she called Mr. Piracci and hesitantly asked to be released from the terms of the agreement.

His initial response was to tell my mother that it was his longstanding policy never to let a tenant break a lease for any reason. Then he paused a moment and added, "You know, when I went to jail, a lot of people turned their backs on me. Some of them were business associates, and some of them were people I thought were my friends. But you wrote me that note. You don't need to worry about the lease. You can leave whenever you like, and just pay what you owe up to the day that you move out. And I wish you and your children only the best." With the magic of the Internet, I have just learned that he died in 1982 at age 69 in his native Baltimore. To us he was a gentleman, and I send his descendants my warm regards.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 11, 2010.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One Night in New York

Two weekends ago I was in Austin, Texas for the wedding of a cousin on my mother's side of the family. On the last day of the Memorial Day weekend I was in New York for a funeral on my father's side. All I need is 3 more weddings to feel like I'm in a Hugh Grant movie. However, my purpose today is not to tell about the funeral (except to note with love and respect that it was for my very kind and talented Aunt Shirley, my father's sister, who was a professor of English at John Jay College, as well as an occasional concert performer in the piano duo of Meister & Schnitzer; she was 85). The purpose today is to run through the pluses and minuses of a DC-to-NYC overnight planned at the last minute.

On Friday the 28th I learned that the funeral would be held on Tuesday, June 1st. Since the service would start at 11:30 a.m., my first thought was to take a same-day flight into LaGuardia and fly home sometime in the late afternoon, but the moment I saw the cost of the air shuttle back and forth (about $600 round trip!) I started looking at train fares. That was better, but still not great: $106 for the regional (the slow train, not the $180 Acela) there and $74 for the even slower train back (leaving Penn Station at 8 p.m. and arriving at Union Station at 11:25 p.m. That had some appeal, but in order to make it to the service on time, after figuring in the ever-present risk of delays, I'd need to take the 7:25 a.m. train, arriving at 10:44 a.m., or maybe, to be really on the safe side, the 6:35 a.m. arriving at 10. Either way, it was going to be a very long day.

Bill, my husband, was the one to suggest the solution that worked best: Stay overnight. (Neither he nor my children could change their schedules to attend, so I was going solo.) That way I could take one of the super-cheap bus lines that take you to New York in comfort, with wifi and electric outlets at every seat, in 4 to 5 hours, depending on time of departure. The maximum bus charge is $25 each way. If I spent just $50 on transportation, I could still beat or equal the Amtrak price by finding a hotel for $130 or less. But was that possible?

Hotels.com to the rescue. Bill's search turned up the Park Central at West 57th Street near Columbus Circle, just 3 subway stops from Riverside Memorial Chapel where the funeral would be held. It got three-and-a-half stars on Trip Advisor along with generally good reviews. And a room on the night of the 31st could be had for an even hundred bucks. That seemed the way to go, so I grabbed it.

Next task, booking the buses. According to busjunction.com, the Bolt Bus (which I'd used in the past and had liked) was completely booked up on the way there, but I reserved a seat for $23 on the way back. To get there I tried a new bus -- well, relatively new, in service just for the past 8 months -- called the Tripper Bus, which departs from the Bethesda Metro station, ending at 34th & 7th Avenue near Broadway, just 3 subway stops south of the Columbus Circle stop near the hotel. The price was $25, or two bucks more than the Bolt Bus...but they give you a free bottle of water.

Now that I'm back, here's the report:

Tripper Bus Grade: A-. The bus was clean, on time, and had a good wifi signal the whole way. My only complaint is that the seats are upholstered in a scratchy, fuzzy fabric, and I was in shorts. The main annoyance of that trip, though, was not the fault of the Tripper bus but was due to a problem with the iTunes movie that I had planned to watch on my netbook to pass two hours of the time. Something went wrong with the download, and the movie kept freeze-framing on me. The dialog continued normally, so it wasn't entirely unwatchable, but it was still not what it should have been. (Upon my return I asked for and received a credit from iTunes.) I would certainly take this bus again, but would wear long pants the next time. After 4 rides, your 5th one is free.

Park Central Hotel Grade: B+. If I had been paying anything more than $100 for the room, I'd have had a lot of complaints (long check-in line; the shower water never got hotter than lukewarm; I was charged $3.75 to store my luggage for a few hours; the elevator system was confusing and slow), but hey, when you can get a safe, clean, quiet, centrally located hotel in walking distance of the theater district for that price, you really shouldn't grouse too much.

Bolt Bus Grade: B. I would have given the Bolt Bus an A but something went wrong with the wifi connection and the driver couldn't get it working at all during the trip. Fortunately, this time the movie that I had downloaded played perfectly, and I also had a good book with me. The bus was comfortable and on time.

All in all, taking into account the somber purpose of the trip, an efficient and hassle-free there-and-back. Plus one bright note: My aunt's only child, a never-married man in his mid-50s, introduced his fiance and let everyone know that wedding invitations would be forthcoming. I hope to be returning to New York in the not too distant future for that happy event. I will keep you posted.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 4, 2010.