Vacation, competence is all he ever wanted


WASHINGTON -- I was looking forward to getting back to work after my vacation. I really was. Really, I was. Really.

It rained every day on the Family Vacation From Hell. When I started calling our rented beach house the Crap Shack, my son told me that was an insult to crap shacks everywhere. It's nice to get back to a house that's simply old and rundown, and away from one that leaked and grew some kind of science experiment in the bathroom.

I was, in some perverse way, looking forward to sorting through the electronic detritus that builds up whenever I make a conscious decision to become truly oblivious.

When I'm on vacation, I'm on vacation. I don't read the papers. I don't check messages. I don't answer the phone. Ignorance is truly bliss.

The downside to that philosophy is that it leaves me with about 6,371,432 e-mails. I actually need to read maybe 62 of them. Most of the messages promise to develop my undersized manhood, reduce my oversized mortgage or come from Darlene in Gaithersburg who wants to meet me. I always wonder how they know about my manhood. Google Earth?

I am not really a Luddite. I have that peculiarly American faith in technology. Americans have always figured we could just invent our way out of our problems. Every company in the world seems to be launching a service that'll give me voice, video and the Next Big Thing, even before they figure out how to make the Last Big Thing work.

Lately that faith was tested. Why, I ask, don't things just work? Things were going along swimmingly, and I was looking forward to Monday. Really, I was. Really.

That is, until I tried to log on and, to use the technical term, everything was fried. It didn't seem like ghosts in my machine but rather a problem with the network that's run by a company whose name rhymes with horizon.

I always approach calls to the "help center" with the same feelings depicted in art where St. George slays the dragon. Only I'm not George. I'm the dragon, because we all know who's about to get lanced a lot.

So I again dove into the breech, where I talked to someone somewhere. Here's the way the conversation went:

Tech support: Mumble, mumble, mumble.

Me: I'm sorry. I can't hear you. Can you speak up?

Tech support: Mumble, modem, mumble, green light.

Me: I'm really sorry, but I can't hear you. Could you speak up, please?

Tech support: Computer, mumble, modem, mumble, mumble, green lights.

Me: Speak up! I can't hear a damn thing! Speak up!

Tech support: Mumble, Macintosh. Mumble, green lights, modem, mumble.

Me: Yes, it's a Mac.

Tech support: I'm sorry. I'll have to transfer your call.

It seems like the company that rhymes with horizon wants to blame me for their outage. It takes hours before they'll admit to a "server error." I thought that was something that happened when a waitress brings the wrong food. I had so many "tickets" opened up on me, that I thought I was in danger of losing my license.

What is it about the service economy that makes nothing economical and the service bad? No wonder I doubt the claims made by companies, both high tech and low, that they can improve my life if government just grants one more favor.

There's a silver lining in my tale of woe: After pulling strings, yelling and beating my head against the wall, things righted themselves. I finally got to do what I really wanted. Get to work. Really.