A Tangled Vine

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 17, 2007

A woman somewhere in the flooded Missouri River basin is standing by her mud-filled house, talking about her dead trumpet vine. "My garden," she is saying. She wonders if, in the face of such widespread wreckage, it's ridiculous to be so heartbroken about losing her little flower garden. "No!" I'm saying to the TV, as I iron a shirt. It's not ridiculous. The vine is her symbol. The vine is her history. She goes on to reminisce about planting it more than 10 years ago, a gift from her grandmother, or maybe her mother. I didn't catch it. I was concentrating on spray starch.

"But she will never . . . know," she says, choking back tears.

She? Who? I grab the remote, hit the button to wind time backward a few seconds, as has become my habit. This is the way many of us watch TV now, thanks to the wonders of DVR, technology I embraced years ago.

With that, the screen goes blank. Actually, green. A bright, fluorescent space-alien green. No! This is infuriating. This keeps happening, in exasperatingly unpredictable intervals: Hit the back button, and the entire system shuts down. From green we'll go to snow, to white, to blue, to information that the satellite has to acquire a signal, to a countdown of that action, to a little bar showing progress of the downloading of a program guide.

"Trumpet vine!" I am shouting to the TV. "I just want to know about the lady's trumpet vine!"

I will, of course, never learn the full story, just as I never got to see how Susan found Mike in the wilderness on "Desperate Housewives," and just as I never got to see the last dance Billy Ray Cyrus did on "Dancing with the Stars," which was probably just as well. I lose about seven minutes each time this shutdown happens, which, in the scheme of things, is no tragedy, I know. But neither is a splinter in your foot. Sooner or later, you have to pull the darned thing out, or you'll go mad.

It is time, I know, to call customer service. I have put this off, because such calls require a commitment of time and energy and fight that should not, frankly, put one in mind of a mud-filled home and a plea for mercy from FEMA. But somehow they do. Earlier, I was on the phone for nearly an hour with a US Airways customer service representative who told me there was probably nothing they could do about the fact that I got no mileage credit for any flight I flew in most of 2006 because they had my name misspelled. This got me so hopping mad that I thought about downing several shots of vodka and lying in my hammock in a drunken stupor. I ended up ironing shirts instead, a far healthier de-stresser.

Then I put on the TV. And now, this. Fine. I pick up the phone. I am concerned that I might take out my leftover US Airways anger on the Dish Network customer care representative. I am also wondering about the status of a growing ball of Nextel rage that is lodged on my temporal lobe, not to mention many old, but actively festering, wounds from various health-care providers.

All these fights. Was it always this way? I am not good at fights. I am too quick to surrender. We live in a world where only the fittest survive -- and, more and more, it seems that the fittest are those willing to sit on the phone for hours whining at customer service people.

"How can I help you?" the Dish Network person asks.

Let me count the ways. I make the point that I pay an extra five bucks a month for the "Home Protection Plan," theoretically guaranteeing a replacement receiver in the event of failure such as the type I have been experiencing. She very politely declines to comment on this matter. She has me run the battery of diagnostic tests I tell her I've already run many times before. The call goes on long enough for me to fold four loads of laundry, file my toenails and unload the dishwasher.

"It's a known software problem," she tells me, finally. "We're working on a patch." She says something about the early switch back from daylight saving time maybe having something to do with it. She has got to be kidding. She is not kidding. I'm getting tired. I say I have a service plan, and I want a new receiver. She says a new receiver would probably have the same problem. I ask, How about an upgraded model? She says no. I am thinking about my hammock. She tells me to wait about two weeks, see if the software patch, sure to come beaming inside my home any day now, doesn't resurrect my dying receiver. I don't believe her even a little bit. But I am worn out. All the fights. All the begging. All the pleading for someone, anyone, to live up to a promise.

I feel grateful that I don't have a history of alcoholism. I take to my hammock without the vodka. I feel the cool air between my toes and do what I must do: thank the sun and the passing clouds for my trumpet vine, my wisteria and a house that is not full of mud.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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