Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Canada Trip, Day 2

Dawn came and went and we snoozed on.

We arose, rested, around 8pm and went for breakfast in the chain restaurant downstairs, marveling as we did at the incredible heat in the hotel corridor despite the outside temperature being extremely mild. Sadly, despite the restaurant being part of a chain we've used with great success in the past, today breakfast was inedible with the most bland, plastic-like sausage I've ever personally noshed on.

We were expecting a visit from Ali, the guy who had rented us the car and who had very kindly offered to pick us up at our hotel on Sunday morning and drive us out to the car hire dealership, and he showed up exactly on time to ferry us across town and temporarily sell us transport for the week. It took about 15 minutes to get there and sign the paperwork.

"I'm going to give you a truck" said Ali, waving in the general direction of the window. I could see a line of white Toyota pick-up trucks parked along the service road. All of a sudden the extremely reasonable cost of the car hire (about what a small subcompact would have rented for in New York) made sense.

"Er...We''re gonna need a King Cab" I said. "We have three people we're moving around."

"Yes, yes, yes. I am renting you a King Cab truck. Here, let's go and have a look."

He grabbed the paperwork and led us out the door to the biggest damned truck I could have imagined. It towered over me. It was half as wide again as the Steviemobile and seated about 27.

"I present to you your truck. A most sensible vehicle for this part of Alberta."

"And the mountains of Afghanistan" I muttered, noting the knee-high door sills and bumper lifted from a Chieftain tank. "Do they push-start many bulldozers in this part of Alberta, or is the appeal that one may safely pass over any stray bears one might encounter?"

"Most unsafe to drive over bears, sir" he replied, seriously. "They have learned to roll over and tear out the brake and fuel lines with their mighty claws as you drive. It is most unsafe to coast with no brakes in this part of Alberta and expressly against the terms of the rental agreement."

"I have no intention of driving over any wildlife" I said.

"However" he spoke over my protest "the Ford Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X is fitted with under-frame bear-proof plates upon which their claws cannot find purchase, allowing you to drive over bears, cougars and many other examples of the local wildlife with no danger. Moose pose a separate hazard and you may either buy Moose collision insurance or simply avoid them."

"Where is the boarding ladder kept?" I inquired.

"Ha ha. Let me show you the correct technique. You open the door thus, take a small run up, leap thus and grab this bar, hauling yourself in."

"I'm sorry, Ali," I said. "I don't think..."

"Shuttup and get in!" came the voice of my beloved from somewhere inside. "It's perfect and we are taking it."

Before I could protest the mighty metal beast gave off a mechanical shriek and the engine burst into life. I held on desperately as the terrible suction of the engine's air induction gubbins aspirated huge volumes of air and a passing cat, mixing it with a half gallon or so of vaporized gas so it could be exploded in one of the cylinders before doing it all again.

Mrs Stevie stamped on the accelerator and a terrifying howl rent the air as the coffee-can sized pistons were driven down in their cylinders with about the same force needed to launch a space shuttle then rammed back up by a super-massive crankshaft surely salvaged from the Titanic. The vehicle was visibly trying to flip over on its back as the Newtonian sums were figured out by a universe so unnerved by this behemoth that it was forgetting to carry the odd one.

"Stop making that howling noise and GET IN!" snarled the truck-crazed Mrs Stevie.

"I don't wanna" I whined, but she reached over, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me into the cab, almost suffocating me in the luxuriant nap of the Unicorn Hide upholstery.

Once inside with the doors closed we were isolated from the devastating ambiance pollution of the truck, and I began to see the appeal of the thing. Mrs Stevie spent two seconds reviewing the dashboard instrumentation, which looked like it had been lifted from the fire-control console of a battleship, and testing the build-quality of the various controls by wiggling them, then drove down the curb, up the opposite one, across twenty yards of snow ditch, a small herd of elk and the three lane carriageway that was pointing the wrong way, over a crash barrier and finally onto the other three lane carriageway where she combined driving at speed with attempting to figure out what each switch, stick and button did. I assisted her by pointing out possible collision hazards such as buildings and other road users while she practiced unannounced lane changes.

"Stop that screeching and stop cowering in the footwell like that!" she snarled playfully.

We reached the hotel eventually, where a problem raised itself. Everyone else was driving some variation of the vehicle we had, yet for some arcane reason the parking spaces were laid out for the vehicle we thought we'd be renting - a small to mid-sized sedan. Each monster truck was parked with its tires brushing the painted lines. Some people had just decided to park in one and a half spaces, which seemed very sensible when you consider that each truck probably represented a 60 kilobux investment.

I foresaw a problem. Mrs Stevie cannot see-saw a vehicle to save her life. She does not have whatever gland it is that enables one to reverse and steer productively when attempting to shift a vehicle horizontally a few feet by going back and forth, so if her space does not permit the operation to be performed only with forward-direction steering maneuvers she can and does perform five minutes of going backwards and forwards only to end up in exactly the same place she started in.

Mrs Stevie drove back and forth a few times in a futile effort to park inside the lines and far enough from other vehicles to ensure the safety of our Door Ding Deposit before realizing the Ford Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X was in fact only two inches narrower than the stall and giving up. I encouraged her with playful banter and the occasional bout of good-natured laughter until she stopped the truck, whereupon she punched me. I protested that it wasn't my fault she couldn't park to save her life, but this statement of fact only served to trigger a stream of invective and hurtful language.

We went back up to the room to collect The Stevieling, who had very sensibly decided to sit this episode out, and to allow me to change my underwear. The Stevieling was scowling at the television, which was playing an episode of Big Bang.

"Why are you watching that show?" I asked. "You've always said you hated it."

"It's that or the weather, golf or the news" she replied.

"Local news might be a worthwhile use of time" I said. "Call it orientation."

"I do not require orientation in the various ins-and-outs of running a fresh produce stall."

"Eh?" My confusion was palpable.

"Today they are running a special report on the benefits of local produce and where you can find it."

"But I know for a fact there are twelve more channels you could pick" I said, a little bewildered at her obstinacy.

"Six in French, which I do not understand, three weather channels, two channels programming for the 2-4 year old audience and the channel menu. Are we leaving for Granny and Grandad's now?"

"Yes" snapped Mrs Stevie. "Hurry up so I can show you the truck they rented us."

And so we trooped into the hallway, where we were greeted by tropical temperatures again. The entire time we were there the corridor was somehow kept at something like 100 degrees Fahrenheit1 . The outside temperatures were a blessed relief, being somewhere in the low 70s with no humidity to speak of. Very comfortable for me.

The elevator doors had just opened when Mrs Stevie's phone rang. It was the StevieSis, telling us to come to the parent's house because the StevieDad had fallen and an ambulance was on its way.

We made good time to the parental manse, set on a mountainside about five miles from the hotel, and a few moments after we had entered the house a team of EMTs arrived in a palatial ambulance loaded with high-tech diagnostic equipment. I have never seen such a modern and well-equipped ambulance outside of a TV show.

The EMTs were on first name terms with everyone as it turned out they had been to the house many times before. They determined that the StevieDad had to go back to hospital, whence he had only just emerged after an operation a few days before, and he cheered up. They loaded him and the StevieMum into the wagon and off they went, followed by The StevieSis in The StevieMum's Ford Explorer and us in the Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X.

Mrs Stevie's head was swiveling from side-to-side all the way down the mountain.

"Stop looking for bears to drive over" I said. "You'll put us in the ravine."

"Shuttup. I'm driving" she replied.

We got to the hospital and were immediately confronted by the usual hospital problem - where to park. The miniscule car park seemed to be full every time we arrived, but by driving around for a mere 20 or 30 minutes a space would open up and the Comedy of the Parking would commence as Mrs Stevie would attempt to fit the Leviathan into a space dimensioned for a Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually she put the beast in a stall and we figured out the pay-and-display machine calculus that had us buying a 24 hour pass every time and it was off to find The StevieDad.

The StevieDad was upset about the abrupt derailment of our planned day, and concerned for the rest of our visit and the upcoming wedding. It turned out he had good reason because he had an undiagnosed infection that was to keep him in hospital for the next two weeks.

The hospital has a strict policy about visitors in the emergency room - as many as you like until they get busy. This was good as the entire Canadian Battalion arrived in theater at about the same moment in time. Some of us had to wait in the lounge with comfy chairs while others hovered around the bedside making comforting noises. We rotated in and out of The StevieDad's bay.

We took turns to alternately reassure him and nag him about using his walker until he was properly enraged and ordered us all from the emergency room. I pointed out - quite reasonably - that he couldn't enforce his order on account of leaving his walker in the bedroom, and that if he hadn't left it there he wouldn't have fallen in the first place. I was about to mention the purple veins pulsing on his forehead when one of the electronic boxes he was wired up to started wailing and a stern2 nurse arrived and ordered us out.

I should just like to say at this point that during the visit I was constantly impressed by the amount and up-to-dateness of the technology at the fingertips of the Grande Prairie medical infrastructure. They have much newer, better and cleverer stuff than the hospital I visit every so often, and they pay for it all with a sales tax that is less than the NY sales tax. So the next time one of my American Readers listens to the tired old "Canadian Health Care" calumnies I want them to remember this - it cost my parents NOTHING for this excellent care in a state-of-the-art hospital with polite and friendly staff.

We chatted for a bit with The StevieMum and left her with The StevieDad - she wouldn't leave him until he'd been checked in - and went for lunch, promising to return a bit later. We killed some time in the original town center, making a point of popping into Wonderland, an excellent old-fashioned toystore that has a bit of everything in it from Legos to Marionettes. We used to shop there for Canada-specific Playmobil toys for The Stevieling and we did as we always do and loudly bemoaned that we no longer had a kid young enough so we could buy all the awesome new stuff "for her".

That last is true by the way. You could and probably still can buy Playmobil figures and playsets in Canada that cannot be had in the USA. Other parents would often marvel at the Inuit figures and extras in The Stevieling's collection - sleds with dog teams, seal hunters with complete miniature tool sets3, an igloo and so forth. I used to have no respect for Playmobil toys but 20 years down the road, having seen the play value for myself (and having secretly played with some of the stuff because it was so awesome) I have 180'd and recommend them everywhere I can.

We dropped by The StevieDad's ward later that night to nag him about his walker some more, but after only five or ten minutes of playful badinage he became agitated and had to be sedated. I think it might be something to do with his age because he doesn't drink that much coffee. Old people are known to be testy and have short tempers, as was demonstrated when I sat on his gouty foot shortly after we arrived. I don't think having a catheter shoved into his bladder improved his mood for the better either.

We went round to the StevieNiece's house to meet Mr StevieNiece and the StevieNiecelings, including the new baby who I may have mentioned is the most beautiful human being on the planet. We all got to hold her while she slept, though the women hogged her so I didn't get enough baby-holding time. I'll let you into a secret I've so far managed to hide under a gruff pantomime of indifference toward the child: I miss having a baby around the house. I never really recovered from New Daddy Syndrome and little miss StevieGreatNiece is adorable.

Mr StevieNiece is an affable fellow who had his life planned out ahead of him then had the rug pulled out abruptly right after he got wed to The StevieNiece. He has fallen on his feet though, and has a job that, like many in that part of the world4, takes him away from home for long periods but pays very well indeed. He and The StevieNiece had invited us to eat with them and he made steaks using a French technique I've never come across before.

The steaks were vacuum packed and cooked slowly using hot water, then removed from the bags and grilled.

I know. It sounds terrible, but the steaks were the most delicious, evenly cooked steaks I've ever personally tasted. For the first time I ate pink steak and enjoyed it. Normally, a steak that color will be raw in the middle and well-done on the outside, but these were cooked evenly and completely all the way through. Perfect, and we were angling for more steak meals ever afterward. He clearly would like to be cooking for a living but as he said to me, the market for an upscale restaurant in Grande Prairie is not large enough to keep one open long. I think his characterization of the town as "Burgerville" was perhaps a trifle harsh, but I could see what he was saying.

The boys showed us their special racing car beds, fabricated by Mr StevieSis their grandfather. He is an excellent carpenter and very inventive in conjunction with The StevieSis. Over at their house the boys kip down in bunk beds made up to look like a pirate ship. The racing cars were sleek, professional looking things that would have fetched a couple of hundred dollars in New York apiece. When I asked granddad what he used, he said "two sawhorses and a jigsaw".

Once the boys were in bed we went downstairs to sip drinks and talk while the women of La Famile Stevie hogged the baby. We had a bit of fun watching the boys on the video monitor their parents had set up while we spoke of jobs and family and when was I going to get to hold the baby for Crom's sake? The StevieNiece and Mr StevieNiece are looking at buying a bigger house and we spoke about properties for a while until it was time to leave.

On the drive home we once again took note of how closely packed the houses were. It seems insane that with all the space they have the developers insist on building houses so close to each other you can touch two by walking between them. The fire risk is substantial.

Our route took us past the railroad and I was surprised to note that the long lines of colorful grain cars that had been a fixture of the landscape on every visit were nowhere in sight. It was harvest time, but all I saw were some small, anonymous gray twin-bay hoppers. Next to the Real Thing these were drab toys. Where were the real grain cars? I wanted to photograph them up close for once. Just my luck they were not around.

We drove into the hotel car park, where Mrs Stevie spent a few minutes lining up the truck with the stall and then we retired, exhausted from the day's events and Mrs Stevie's parking.

  1. It occurs to me now that it is possible one of the foreign staff had confused Fahrenheit with Celsius when setting the thermostat. There were many South American people working in the hotel, though I was under the impression that the USA was the last bastion of Fahrenheit. Why people get bent out of shape about that beats me, but it drives some of my UK and Australian forum-buddies into fits of apoplexy at times. Neither scale is used for important stuff, and in real life you only need a five point scale - Hot enough to kill, too hot for the clothes you are wearing, just right for the clothes you are wearing, too cold for the clothes you are wearing and cold enough to kill
  2. By Canadian standards - she omitted to bracket "everyone should leave now" with "If it wouldn't be too much trouble I think" and "if that's okay with everyone, eh?"
  3. The toolsets were confiscated a) because they were too tiny for the small kid The Stevieling was then and 2) The Stevieling would have had a fit if she had found out what those Inuit Playmobils were having for dinner
  4. Which is basically a way-station for those traveling to and from the oil fields and diamond mines

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Canada Trip, Day 1

The day dawned at around 5:30-ish and this time we weren't flopping around like the living dead in the back of a limo about to pull into La Guardia airport.

The reason? I had put my foot down on the subject of getting up three hours after midnight so we could once again experience the dubious pleasure of participating in the Early Morning Meeting Of Modern Air Transport Infrastructure With The Realities Of Weather Conditions No One Saw Coming Despite A Tower Full Of Radars And A Crew Of Meteorologists.

Last time, as the attentive reader will recall1 We stood from 6 am til about 10 am on a line euphemistically called "the express check in line", missing all the connections Mrs Stevie had meticulously planned and putting us wheels down and tempers flared sometime in the late evening. Never again, I vowed2.

This time we would start the journey at a civilized time and allow the airline, whichever one we would be using but probably Air Canada since they are usually the only game in town for that journey, to have their two-hour delay and resulting mass riot in the check-in on their own sans La Famile Stevie. We would arrive after the fun was over, allowing the aeroplanes to catch up with the schedule, and all we would have to do would be to avoid the larger puddles of blood left by those too inexperienced to know better.

"Fine" snapped Mrs Stevie. "You sort it out then!"


"I'll leave the details to you!"

Well, I'm not normally moved by pathetic whining and complaining, and neither, it turns out, is Mrs Stevie because no amount of pathetic whining and complaining would get her to reverse this unreasonable new policy. I bit the bullet eventually and decided to employ ... technology.

There are hundreds upon hundreds upon three that I know of services that allow a would-be traveler to sort out the nightmare of long-distance point-to-point air travel, as any trip into the Land of the Steviemum is.

Why point-to-point? First one must immigrate to Canada and go through their customs. This used to be a simple matter of exchanging a few words with a smiling Canadian official who would wish you a pleasant stay and politely ask after your relatives. Now, however, the Canadians have moved to the American Model, which involves scowling, queuing and waiting forever.

In any event one must get off the aeroplane in an international airport and go through the process of getting back on another before it leaves without you or your bags. Yes, your bags have to be fished out of the chain-of-transport and taken by hand through the never-moving lines of people waiting to be allowed to catch their flight.

Once past that you must fly horizontally across Canada to either Edmonton or Calgary if you are of a mind to visit the Stevieparents. Once there, you must cool your heels for two and a half hours due to some sort of universal law. It doesn't matter how late your flight is or whether it arrived on time, two hours thirty minutes must be spent trying not to fall asleep.

This is harder than it sounds as Edmonton sometimes turns out the lights and clears all service personnel from the outlying gate areas so an area of peaceful twilight prevails. The odd moose wanders across the runway as the first July blizzard blows in3. A sense of peace descends on one anzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Calgary, on the other hand, is usually abuzz with at least three or four people per square mile, but the airport management have cunningly countered this intolerable overcrowding by installing enormous comfy chairs for people to await their connecting flight. Comfy comfy comfy is the order of the dazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Once the sleep hazard has either been avoided or negotiated, one must board a "puddle jumper" for the flight to Grande Prairie. These, in previous visits, have been the shoulder wing, twin turboprop Dash 8 type which is so small the average carry-on wheely bag is too large to go in the cabin area and must be dropped off on a cart prior to climbing the boarding rope.

This year we flew on a much larger Q400 and could board with our bags, but I'm getting ahead of the story5.

I used Expedia to find us a flight that would a) leave around noonish and 2) would allow over 2 hours at each stop to cushion the various outrages that fate and the airline industry could deploy to slow us down. The only fly in the ointment was that we'd have to leave from La Guardia and return to JFK, which introduced the possibility of limo drivers not finding us or dropping us off in the wrong place.

Well, that and the fact that no matter how long I looked I could not find an inbound route that didn't have us immigrating in Toronto International Airport, aka Minas Tororntor, citadel of despair. I comforted myself with the sure knowledge that it had to be easier going through the Canada-wards version. No-one could come close to the sheer amounts of unnecessary buggering about and unnecessary lack of getting organized that the American-ward side typically subjects people to. They've been Doing It The Hard Way since forever, long before 9/11, and you can't buy field experience like that for money.

I also booked us into a hotel in the middle of Grande Prairie. Mum and Dad are now too old to have us as guests and though my sister kindly offered us all manner of alternatives we decided that in order to allow us some extra freedom we haven't had in previous visits we would put ourselves somewhere where we could come and go as the mood took us, and where we could walk to the center of town if we felt so inclined. This, naturally, sparked The Great Accommodation Crisis and I have no doubt deeply hurt my sister, who after all is family and wanted to save us the bother and cost.

Part of our decision to board abroad as it were was that with a wedding that week, the Steviesis would have her hands full and be wigging-out without the hassle of having others underfoot6. Part of it was to be, for once, independent. And there were other factors I'm not going into on account of the misery of the whole thing made me seriously consider ditching everyone and going to Australia by myself instead and I don't want to talk about it any more.

Mrs Stevie relented after seeing what a stellar job I was doing with the moving, sleeping and so forth arrangements and decided to organize a rental car before I scored a hat trick and bragging rights for the next five years. She used my credit card, which made the same sort of noise bacon makes when you press a fresh rasher down on a too-hot griddle with a metal spatula7.

We couldn't print the boarding passes yet though. That could only be done 24 hours or less from the actual take-off time of the first part of the flight. Oh well.

I began receiving a sleet of e-mails from Expedia both about my vacation and spamming me about other great opportunities in world transit. They also suggested I go to Jet Blue's website to confirm everything, which I did about a week before we were to fly. I was told I could reserve seats only if I was prepared to pay a $200 fee for "early reservations", which made me roll my eyes as it had been the case in other years that the airline preferred to have the seating well-sorted as far ahead as possible. I ponied up, and was able to reserve seats on every flight we would be involved with in both directions, so it wasn't that bad.

It also turned out to be a wise decision as was demonstrated when they badly overbooked the Edmonton to New York flight and families were split all over the plane to their great annoyance. Naturally the rows we were seated in were the last ones called for boarding on every single flight, causing some problems with finding space for our carry-on bags, but again, I'm getting ahead of the story.

Perhaps most annoyingly, having dunned me for monies to book our seats, and having taken ticket monies that formed a contract promising we could take a single piece of carry on baggage, personal items such as cameras and a single checked bag each, Westjet (our carrier this time) sent me a missive gibbering about how it was that the Commonwealth Games were being held at the same time we were traveling and we should pack the minimum we could travel with or unspecified and unpleasant things might occur.

My reaction to this was that if anyone was going to have their bags sent on a different flight it would be the bloody athlete packing too many sets of skis or an extra kayak, not Mr Bottomless Wallet and his entourage traveling within the luggage limit set down by the ticket agreement. Bloody cheek.

Anyway, eventually the day of our departure dawned - and I stayed in bed! I rose around 8:30 am, rested and ready for the day's out-of-plan excursion events.

The limo arrived a little early, just as I was discovering that not only did we have a very slow leak from one pipe of the water heater, we had a much faster one from the other pipe that was corroding the top of the containment vessel quite badly and required swift and immediate action. I put a cut-off vitamin container I used to hold 20-penny nails under it8 and ran upstairs to make a cup of tea using our Keurig machine.

Keurig tea is not as good as real brewed tea but it is hot, drinkable and fast to make. I grabbed a "sippy mug" that had once held some sort of beverage from 7-11 and selected "maximum volume", and beverage in hand dashed out of the house, and boarded the limo where I was greeted by a foot-tapping Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling.

"You can ride up front" they snarled in unison, so I climbed in beside Ed the Driver and we were off.

We made good time even though it wasn't still dark outside, a point I made a few times to Mrs Stevie until she playfully threatened to strangle me. I took my first sip of tea and generous amount escaped the "leak proof" lid to cover my hands and shirt with hot, sticky beverage (I take sugar). I used a pocketful of tissues to staunch the flow and caulk the lid but the blissful element was gone and when we arrived at La Guardia I derived great pleasure by binning that Demon-Infested cup with extreme prejudice.

Check-in was, for the first time ever, the experience promised when you print out your boarding passes at home; a quick, essentially painless operation.

Of course it couldn't last.

The out-of-plan excursion events started in earnest with the brusque "security check", in which Mrs Stevie was identified as having terrorist knees. I'm not kidding here, her knees were flagged as being "suspicious". She offered to show the man her knees but he waved his hands in panic and told her to lower her dress immediately.

I can understand this. The thought of being confronted by Mrs Stevie's legs has oft-times induced panic attacks in me too.

Once at the gate she stomped off, muttering about knees, to buy whatever the local equivalent was of a Triple-Kaff Clawhammer Latte and I overheard someone talk about silencing cell phones, and thought I'd better do that too.

Whereupon I discovered mine was missing. A quick search followed by a slow search failed to turn up the device so I went back to the security check-in to see if I'd left it there. I had a clear memory of placing it in a tub so it could be x-rayed for hidden rocket launchers. No. It wasn't there.

Mrs Stevie gave me a ten minute speech on how stupid I was between sips of her rocket fuel beverage, but it didn't include any new information, being basically an ad-libbed re-hash of various familiar themes that she has, in my opinion, over-used over the years. At least it took her mind off the knees business. Then she gave me her cell phone so I could cancel the service on mine.

This took a while as the phonebot at the other end of "customer assistance" line wanted menu selections and the cell phone kept activating the screen blank function9 preventing selection. Not only that it kept overhearing the PA announcements the airport was piping in as attempts to use the voice recognition menu selection algorithms. The resulting chaos drove me to the brink of apoplexy, but eventually I got the job done.

So the holiday would be spent sans portable comms. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. On the one hand the convenience of the phone was lost, on the other I had deliberately left my laptop at home so as to not be tempted to do work stuff.

Once the Cell Phone Annoyance had been dealt with I was able to cast my eyes around and take surprised note of the sheer number of screwed-down iPads littered about the place. There were approximately two iPads per would-be traveler. Clearly the airport management were using Vision to move the business of cooling one's heels in their airport into the 21st century.

This proved to be a double-edged sword of annoyance when I decided to go and buy a coffee from the swank island restaurant situated not fifty feet from me, the same one Mrs Stevie had used only half an hour before. It took 15 minutes and the help of passers-by before I could figure out the iPad menu and payment device's menus, and eventually had to be walked through it by the person who would serve the coffee.

I still had to ask by mouth for a lid for the cup, and though I didn't order it and hadn't paid for it I was brought an unwanted slice of delicious-looking gateau completely unsuitable for a stomach about to undergo 8 hours plus of flying and immigration. I sent the cake back and retained the beverage. Only cost twice what Starbux would charge for the coffee too.

As I carried the "sealed" cup back to my seat I found that although the menu selection was totally 21st Century, the lid technology deployed was in fact far below the accepted norm for 1930, and hot sticky coffee leaked freely all over my hands and clothes. I realized that a holiday annoyance theme was revealing itself.

When we were called for boarding, after everyone else was safely seated with their twelve carry-on bags stowed, we walked onto the plane with our single bags and began the long and tedious search for overhead stowage. Important tip: Row 12 boards last.

And finally we sat and belted in. And sat. And sat. And sat.

I wasn't concerned at the delay as I had programmed 2.5 hours to transit Minas Torontor which should leave plenty of cushion for late arrival, bleeped-up luggage carousel and immigration. But boy was I bored.

Eventually we were told that the issue was that there was only one runway available that day, and so there was considerable congestion on the taxiways. Yes, we were stuck in traffic at the airport.

One hour late we pulled up to the runway where I could see that not only were outgoing planes using the same runway, incoming planes were too! They had only one runway for both sets of traffic! I had assumed they had one runway outbound!

It still beggars my imagination that La Guardia could muster more iPads than they had travelers, but could only organize one bleeping runway for everyone. Way to prioritize spending, airport management.

We arrived in Minas Torontor with two sets of flights being cancelled due to this dilly-dallying and ours "being held for us", and lined up at the carousel for our bags so we could run - the 2.5 hour cushion having succumbed to other people's incompetence. We got one bag of the three we had put on the plane, and the carousel ran dry. It stayed that way for the next ten minutes, starting to deliver bags again at exactly the time we should have been taking to the air in our connecting flight.

We grabbed our remaining two bags when they finally put in an appearance (together) and were hustled to the slowest line possible for immigration by an annoyed airport staffer who clearly thought it was my fault the bloody planes were late and the bleeping baggage belt was up to its internationally-famed usual standard of not very good at all.

Our appointed immigration agent was perhaps the slowest one I've ever seen in action. Not only were there the standard "Who are you and where are you going?" questions, there were detailed interrogations about where people had been and what they had seen before boarding their flight, as if she were trying to trip the travelers up with a detail she knew but they didn't on account of them not being a family of people on vacation but some sort of terrorist cell. The fact that everyone had regional Canadian or New York accents and had documentation to indicate that they had indeed arrived from where they said they had was not a factor.

Indeed, so slow and "methodical" was our agent10 that the disabled person line cleared before she got to us and we were called by a different agent entirely. We were by now fifteen minutes behind the advertised take-off time of our connection.

Grabbing our bags and rushing for the plane we were happy to see it held so we could once again attempt to find some stowage for our three carry-on bags. Other passengers encouraged us to hurry up until two other families boarded after us, at which point they became the reason for the delay.

We were temporarily held up again by someone sitting in one of our seats. She looked puzzled at being asked to move, but in the face of our just-checked boarding passes and the somewhat irritated cabin staffer standing behind us she got up and went to sit where her own pass told her to, but not before petulantly whining "I didn't know there was assigned seating", which was so absurd we just ignored it. All I knew was I wasn't changing seats since I'd paid a premium for ours.

And so we took off and flew for four and a bit hours and landed in Calgary, not much later than we were supposed to. This gave us time to eat in a casual dining restaurant near the gate. Unfortunately. The less said about the experience the better. "Very Ordinary on every level" is the kindest thing I can come up with.

Then we boarded the small Q400 for the flight to Grande Prairie and were met by The Steviesis and family, including my Niece and her beautiful new baby girl whom I didn't get to hold for long enough on account of the women taking all the baby-cuddling time and my nephew and his beautiful bride-to-be.

We eventually decamped for the hotel in a humongous Ford Leviathan 4X4 King Cab courtesy of Mr Steviesis - a very long-suffering and decent bloke who doesn't deserve the life he has inherited but who is always at the front when volunteers are needed and who looks after my folks better than they have a right to expect. I suggested we dump the cases in our room and return to the almost deserted hotel bar for a cocktail or a beer or both and the day wound down nicely as we caught up over strong drink.

The holiday was on!

  1. What do you mean, you dozed off four words in?
  2. Again
  3. An exaggeration4
  4. Most years
  5. Quit cheering in the cheap seats!
  6. I estimated she was at Wig Factor 1 when we arrived. By mid week she was oscillating between that and Wig Factor 2, remarkably calm on the whole. At the Stevieniece's wedding she had run a solid Wig Factor 5 for two days straight
  7. For real. This little jaunt ended up costing one arm, and after taxes one leg too
  8. I emptied out the nails first
  9. A preventative measure against ear-dialing that replaces the annoyance of unwanted keystrokes mid-call with the rage-inducing annoyance of having to bugger about with different buttons and menu icons when you should be listening to instructions. Seriously, by the time you get the keypad open (again) the menu is being re-read in Croatian
  10. I counted the people immigrating and could confirm that every other agent was clearing three to five people to her one

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

AT&T Are Also The Antichrist

More telecoms perfidy.

So I went back to the store in which I bought the WiFi hotspot and the new plan, only to be told "We don't do tech support. You'll have to go to Islandia, where the help and support center is only open after you leave for work and closes before you get back".

I returned home in high dugeon and called AT&T tech support and this time got kicked up to level 2 support fairly quickly and in no time the device was fixed. I was feeling good, which of course meant I was about to receive a good, solid kick in the hurtybits.

This materialized at about one o'clock in the morning when Mrs Stevie (who deals with the phone bill) let out a yell and announced to my about-to-retire ears that our bill for this month, which used to be a matter of some 160 bux or so, and which should have been that plus about 12 days of the promised 180 bux per month the new plan would cost was in actual fact showing as more than 500 dollars.

I had originally wanted a separate data plan just for my hotspot which would have set me back about 60 bux a month, but the salesdrone persuaded me adding the data usage to the plan we had would be cheaper, and quoted a price of 180 dollars per.

Naturally, this news came with bitter recriminations over the itemized bill which claimed amongst other reasons for the usury that I had overused the texting facility. This is doubly absurd in that a) I text a grand total of about 500 characters a month when I am in a loquacious frame of mind because my fat thumbs, carpal tunnel issues and the tiny phone keyboard make texting a nightmare and 2) we are supposed to have unlimited text and talk time on our plan!

So now Mrs Stevie and I must get on the phone to AT&T again to find out what the bloody blue blazes is going on.

The worry and aggravation of this all meant that I was still awake at 2:30 am and am now sitting at work feeling like death warmed over. Not only that, the stress seems to have set off something that feels like the start of an attack of pancreatitis. I hope it is only "something like" and not the real event.

Because that would be all I needed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

AT&T Are Satan Made Manifest

I recently added a cellular wireless hotspot device to our AT&T "family" plan, along with adding a 10 gig data allowance per month.

All went well for a day or so, when the mobile hotspot downloaded a firmware upgrade and the display became slightly less useful. The prominent green "progress" bar depicting my data usage went all-green 24x7 rendering it a useless waste of space. However, the data usage and the number of days left in the billing cycle were displayed so I just went with it.

The weekend rolled round and I expected all these values to clear since I was at the end of the "days left" countdown, but that did not happen. The device has been showing "0 days left" for three days and the data usage count, while rising, does not reflect this billing cycle's usage.

Not only that, I keep getting text messages on the thing urging me to set up some sort of online account. I would do that but Mrs Stevie takes care of the phone bill1 and has her own account already up and running. I am not so wet behind the ears that I would set up a second account so that AT&T's billing automation can bleep itself to a fare-thee-well and give us a month's extra grief sorting it all out, so, the store we used to upgrade the service and activate the device not opening until a helpful 10 am weekdays (two hours after I am miles away in Jamaica peering myopically at the destination display to see where my connection is) I called AT&T's "help" line.

For five minutes I listened to annoying music and witless adverts for more services I don't need and don't want (the logic of trying to upsell people already having trouble with their product is bewildering to me) and I was connected via a scratchy, hiss-filled line to someone whose accent was from near the Gulf of Oman. I could barely hear him.

Ignoring the irony we both attempted meaningful communication but I could only hear one word in three and one of those was "password", something I wasn't handing out on a bet (because I don't know it - Mrs Stevie's account, remember). Eventually this stalwart decided to kick me up to level 2 support (the people who have less script, more knowledge going for them) and I got three more minutes of adverts and then - silence.

The bleepers cut me off.

So another win for American Technology. The company that at one time defined the telephone business cannot organize a simple firmware upgrade that doesn't nerf a brand new device and then cannot organize a clean line on which to address the issue.

Good here, innit?

  1. I take care of the mortgage so it all "evens out". Her words

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Quick Update

Just back from Canada. I'll post of the horrors and inconveniences later, but should just like to mention two items of interest:

a) My new grand-niece is irrefutably the cutest human being on the planet.

2) My nephew, who somehow became 29 while I wasn't paying attention, is now the proud owner/operator of a new wife. I look forward to comparing wounds with him in the near future, and to gifting him with a copy of Uncle Stevie's Bumper Book of Wifely Treachery, Ambushes and Other Infamies Visited Upon The Innocent Author By That Vile Harridan For No Reason Whatsoever so that he may avoid much coming-to on the lawn and learn from my experience.

More later.