Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston, My Beloved

I should be in Chicago right now, but after the events of this week there’s no place I’d rather be than Boston. Even yesterday, when my city was under lockdown and I was glued to the TV watching the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I thought to myself that the last thing I wanted to do was leave. If this ship is going down, I’d rather stay with the ship. But this is Boston, a city that runs 26.2 miles on our day off for fun and then two more miles to donate blood in the wake of a deadly bombing, a city that cancels Friday to hunt down the man who messed with us. This ship ain’t going down.

Kenmore Square, empty during the lockdown
When I hobbled back into work on Wednesday after two days off for the Boston Marathon, everyone asked me about my experience at the finish line and of course told me how glad they were I’d made it out unscathed. But one of my colleagues asked a unique, and fitting, question: Do you feel like more of a Bostonian now than you did before the race? I felt a rush of emotion when I told him yes, absolutely.

Rushes of emotion have been especially common for me lately, in the days before the marathon when I felt both intimidated and excited by how epic this race is, and afterward when I’ve been reflecting on the beautiful series of events leading up to the day’s horrific conclusion.

The strongest reaction I had was anger. But it was anger driven by love of my city, my marathon, and above all my people, including my teammates and our supporters and my wider community of runners and their loved ones. The city of Boston, the marathon, the charity runner program, and my Running for Rare Diseases team are some of the few things I’ve looked at and said, “This is good. This is beautiful.” I was deeply angry that someone would try to destroy so much goodness.

Moment of beauty & triumph at the Boston Marathon finish
I am convinced that the purpose of the attacks on the Boston Marathon were just that: an attempt to destroy goodness and beauty. After the attacks, some of my teammates speculated on whether the bomb would have caused more damage had the terrorists set it off at the start rather than the finish. But the sheer number of people hurt wasn’t the whole point; the point was to destroy the perfect moment of victory and love when a “regular Joe” runner accomplishes what seems impossible – running 26.2 miles – and is reunited with his family members who have supported and cheered him on. After all, the best ways to destroy the spirit of a runner are to take away her legs and to maim and kill her family and friends. The terrorists knew that they could strike fear into the hearts not only of the runners and onlookers immediately impacted by the explosions but by all of us who keep imagining “what might have been.”

Many of us began imagining nightmare scenarios during our vulnerable post-marathon exhaustion. On Monday, after I’d crossed the finish line but before the bombs went off, I remember thinking that I don’t really like myself immediately after I complete a long run. I love how I feel in the final miles of a long run; when everything has been stripped away, I often find courage, clarity of thought, joy, and a spirit turned toward God that I rarely experience in any other times of my life. But once I complete my run, I let my guard down and weakness takes over. Sometimes I just want to collapse on the ground and cry.

I heard an explosion shortly after picking up the bag I’d checked in Hopkinton that had been bussed to the finish line. Fireworks, I assumed. I was only three blocks away but had no idea what was going on. Even after being told to evacuate the Arlington T station and hearing the fear and urgency in the MBTA officials’ voices, I still had no idea. It wasn’t until I’d hobbled all the way to Park Street station that I heard an official say, “There were bombs at the finish line.”

Bombs. At the finish line.

I took out my phone immediately to start trying to locate the others I knew who were at the race and to let my friends and family know I was safe. No calls would go through; no missed calls showed up in my phone log; text messages came and went in batches and had to be resent time after time. And faces flashed into my mind. Faces of people I loved, faces of people I prayed were all right.

2013 Boston Marathon Team
I don’t know how long it was until we were truly assured everyone we knew was unhurt. It’s an indefinite period of time I never want to relive, but did relive in my mind many times that night. Every time I moved while trying to sleep, my sore legs brought my brain to consciousness, and my consciousness was filled with anger – and with love. Every time I thought about bombs being set on charity runners, and specifically on the amazing people who make up my team of runners and supporters, I was sickened and furious. I wanted to respond but I didn’t know how.

You don’t mess with the people I love, I kept thinking throughout the night. You don’t mess with an event as meaningful to me as the Boston Marathon. And you don’t mess with Boston, my beloved city.

But in the midst of all the darkness and anger, I also kept waking up with a warm feeling of being overwhelmed by the love I felt throughout the day. Scenes from the day raced through my mind and stirred something within me, something the terrorists had tried to destroy by bombing the race but which was shining even more clearly because of it.

In heaven at mile 14
I’d just crossed the finish line, exhausted and weak. “Jen!” I called to my teammate, who had finished a few minutes before me. She turned, and we embraced, bursting into tears of joy and relief. “We did it!”

My running team was jubilantly leaving our pre-race breakfast and about to get on the bus that would take us to Hopkinton. “Hey I’m worried about you,” said Phil, our unofficial team captain who knows my running personality better than anyone. “Take it easy until you reach the top of Heartbreak Hill. If you feel like you’re holding yourself back for the first 20 miles, you’ll have a great race.”

I was at the top of the stairs, on the second floor of my house, when one of my roommates got home. “Is she here?” she asked the others and came bounding up the stairs to give me a fierce “I’m so glad you’re not dead” hug.

I texted my friend Sarah from Minnesota while sitting on the Boston Common. “I can’t remember the last time I was that scared,” she wrote. Since my parents don’t have texting and no calls were going through, she called them to let them know I was all right, and she posted on my Facebook for anyone who was checking there.

Mile 14
I was at mile 14, not just running but flying. Erica, the woman with a rare disease I was running for, had flown to Boston just to spend the weekend with me and to watch the marathon. I hugged her and high-fived all my colleagues. Erica told me later I looked like I was in heaven in that moment. And I was.

"I'm dying!" at mile 24
I was at mile 24, trying to finish strong. I looked at the crowd and saw my friend Kristin, one of the few people I trust enough to show how weak I was in that moment. “I’m dying!” I yelled to her. “You’re doing so well!” she shouted back. Suddenly, her husband Chad was running beside me. “You’ve got two miles left,” he said. “You are going to do this.” He said it so confidently that I knew he was right. 

I was at mile 6, trotting along and grinning at the crazy crowds. “You are not almost there!” read one of the spectators’ signs. “No I’m not,” I thought. “And that’s awesome because I never want this marathon to end.”

I was in Hopkinton and my colleague and teammate Kai read a note from one of our company’s senior leaders. “I never ran Boston,” he wrote, “and it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life. I hope you all can enjoy every moment, every step.”

I was shivering in the Boston Common, trying to make my text messages go through. “How are you getting home?” texted my friend Courtney. “I don’t know,” I wrote back. Until I can get these texts through and find out everyone’s okay, I don’t really care, I wanted to add. “I can pick you up and drive you home.”

Scenes of Boston – my beloved city, my home – filled my mind as well. 

Boston greeted me with a torrential rain storm. I’d driven halfway across the country with my friend Ann in a rented SUV, and this is how I was welcomed? (Other things that happened in my first few days here: getting locked out of my apartment with a key that didn’t work, trying to correct a wrong turn by driving around the block and ending up lost for 45 minutes, realizing that unlike dorm rooms apartments do not come equipped with toilet paper or shower curtains, having an IKEA adventure that went horribly wrong.) Boston is a city you have to earn the right to call home.

Boston skyline & Longfellow Bridge
I lived in Somerville when I first moved to the area. My first trek into the city proper was, appropriately, on foot. I walked across the Longfellow Bridge and gazed at the beautiful – and to me at the time, intimidating – skyline of the city and marveled that I lived here now. I didn’t yet call this city home.

Boston Public Library courtyard
Given my love of books, the Boston Public Library was one of the first places I visited after moving here. Though I’d heard it was beautiful no one had told me about the lovely outdoor courtyard; discovering it was like entering a fairy tale.

Raven Used Books in Harvard Square
Feelings of awe and envy mingled in equal parts when I walked through Harvard Square for the first time. Everywhere I turned, there was another bookstore, another beautiful brick building. Why didn’t I try to go here for undergrad?

There was the period in my life when I went to slam poetry every week at the Lizard Lounge, and I wrote articles about Patricia Smith and the National Poetry Slam team. Before I wrote those articles, I’d been afraid I could never be a real writer. 

Emerson College. Park Street Church. Genzyme. These are the places where I grew wings, where I learned how to do things that scare me, where I started to become the person I was always meant to be.

The first time I said, “I’m going home” when I flew from Minnesota back to Boston.

My first run around the Charles River. My first 5K race. My first run after learning some awful Minnesota family news, feeling grateful to have this gruff city to shelter me.

Boston is the city that taught me how to run. Boston is the city that taught me how to be brave even when I’m afraid. Boston is the city that taught me how to fly.

Map of important locations in manhunt
I woke up yesterday morning and discovered that the terrorists weren’t just going after my running community and my marathon. Now they were coming after my work, my home, my friends. The carjacking took place less than a block from my office, the MIT police officer was shot on my typical walking route to and from work, the carjacking victim was released less than a 10-minute walk from my house, the suspects’ home was a street over from my friend’s house and about a mile from mine, the Watertown shoot-out was near one of my favorite running routes and right next to my roommate’s work. All residents of Cambridge, Boston, Watertown, Waltham, Newton, Brookline, and Belmont were asked to stay inside, and all businesses in those areas were asked to close. For the second time in a week, I felt real fear for myself and people I love. 

I don’t like being angry when I don’t have a clear direction to funnel my passion into. But I hate being afraid even more. After an entire day in the house, my fear had faded and I was back to asking the question I’d been asking ever since the marathon: What can I do? 

The answer was the same. I will not be afraid. I will not act on my anger in a destructive way. I will write. I will run. I will keep loving the people in my life and I will keep living my life in my city.

Memorial on Boylston Street
I will postpone my trip to Chicago so that I can walk in my city, heal with my city, cry with my city. I walked along the Charles River today and saw the runners, the flowering trees, the distinctive lines of the Hancock Tower and Prudential Center, the Citgo sign that I’d trained myself to recognize as a beacon of hope at mile 25 of the marathon course. I went to the memorial that has cropped up where Boylston Street is barricaded off and read the “Boston Strong” handwritten notes people have placed there along with flowers and old running shoes.

As I’ve done ever since Monday, I will wear my Boston Marathon jacket as a symbol that beauty, hope, victory, and love cannot be destroyed. 

When I first wore it after the tragedy, I hoped people didn’t think I was trying to get attention. The last thing I wanted was to be treated like I was special because of these horrific events. But then I realized: This is Boston. As with all my accomplishments, running a marathon isn’t going to impress anyone. This city will run me over in the crosswalk, marathon jacket or no marathon jacket. Its citizens will watch me sprint to catch the T and just smirk at me, “Good thing you’ve done all that training.” 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Friday, April 5, 2013

How the Ivies Have Fallen

From Socrates and Plato, to master and apprentice, to brilliant professor and a small circle of students, the next step in higher education could be machine and human. Harvard and MIT are behind the technology that will make it possible, and Stanford is an early adopter.

An article in today’s New York Times described an artificial intelligence computer program, developed by the non-profit EdX which was founded by Harvard and MIT, that will grade college students’ essays, give them a grade immediately, and allow them to rewrite their essays so that they can be granted a better score. The benefits? Professors are freed up to do other things and students “learn much better with instant feedback,” according to EdX president Dr. Anant Agarwal.

Daphne Koller, founder of an organization that makes a similar system, echoes the sentiment: “It allows students to get immediate feedback on their work, so that learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward resubmitting the work until they get it right.”

Until they get it right...according to the computer. The problem, of course, is that good writing can never be reduced to a formula. It should be heart-wrenching, eye-opening, condemning, redeeming, transforming. Electrical engineers like Agarwal and computer scientists like Koller – and worse yet, their mechanical spawn – ought not to be the ones teaching our future scholars how to write essays, think critically and creatively, and participate in public discourse.

I prefer to entrust writing instruction to people like Les Perelman, retired director of writing and a current researcher at MIT (thankfully, the critics of this system are also coming from well-respected universities), who founded a group called Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment. The group’s petition against the use of such automated essay grading systems convincingly expresses some of the problems:

Computers cannot “read.” They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others. Independent and industry studies show that by its nature computerized essay rating is
  • trivial, rating essays only on surface features such as word size, topic vocabulary, and essay length 

  • reductive, handling extended prose written only at a grade-school level 

  • inaccurate, missing much error in student writing and finding much error where it does not exist 

  • undiagnostic, correlating hardly at all with subsequent writing performance 

  • unfair, discriminating against minority groups and second-language writers 

  • secretive, with testing companies blocking independent research into their products

While I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism of automated grading systems and believe Perelman makes some crucial arguments, I think he misses a key point. Not only can machines not read or be convinced intellectually; they also cannot feel. Essays are meant to get into the heads and the hearts of their readers. The beauty and the power of written discourse is that it is not black and white, right or wrong. (This is not, of course, to say that there is no wrong way to write an essay. There is. But there are also an infinite number of ways to write a “correct,” or rather an effective, essay.)

These programs are meant to be programmed to grade essays similarly to how the professor would grade them. How it works is the professor grades 100 essays personally and puts them into the computer, and the system “learns” to grade according to the professor’s style. It’s bad enough when students learn to write in a particular style in order to please a professor; it will be even worse when students learn to write in order to please a mechanized, programmed version of that professor. No matter how stuck in his ways the professor may be, he is still human – and therefore, a brilliant and creative essay still has the power to make him set aside his coffee mug, pull off his spectacles, and say, “Hot damn! I never thought of it that way.”

The mechanized version of the professor will look at word choice, sentence construction, and essay structure and determine that there was nothing special about this essay. There is no room for surprise, for illumination, for inspiration. 

There is no room for genius.

To be sure, genius is a romantic notion. Probably 90% of college students at one point believe themselves to be geniuses and only .009% actually are. But that’s not the point. The point is that education – particularly higher education – should be encouraging moments of genius, flashes of creativity, and true discourse with fellow scholars. 

The danger with automatic grading systems is not just that they are unfair to individual students and can negatively impact their academic and career futures. The bigger danger is on a societal level. Instead of educating a generation of independent thinkers, we are training students to approach writing, thinking, and speaking as they would approach a tactical problem with a clear solution: Follow these defined steps, check the correct boxes, and you will be given a gold star. 

In a world where party lines, buzzwords, and sound bites are failing to provide solutions, we do not need more check-the-box citizens. We need people who are capable of thinking about issues from multiple angles, feeling deeply the cultural and narrative undercurrents of these issues, and articulating the nuance of their ideas and observations. We need people who know what it means to participate and persuade. We need people who write for people, not for machines.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's Christmas Time in the City

Stroll with me through Boston's magical holiday lights! I recommend listening to "Father Christmas," a lovely song from the Narnia soundtrack, at the same time.

Two years ago, when I first moved to Boston, I posted holiday photos of the Boston Common, Boylston Street, and my then-hometown of Somerville. This year, I thought I'd post photos that are closer to my current home--the North End. They were all taken on my phone on a recent walk home, and I hardly had to go out of my way at all.

Fanueil Hall (as seen from Government Center Plaza)

Lambert's at Fanueil Hall

Seasonal Painting on Lambert's Windows

Entering Faneuil Hall Marketplace...and Catching a Glimpse of the Tree!

Getting Closer to the Tree...

The Fanueil Hall Tree

Going Past Fanueil Hall, toward the North End, and Looking Back at the Customs House & Fanueil Hall Tree

The Greenway on the Edge of the North End
The walkway gets lit up specially for the holidays, and this picture does not do it justice! Every time I walk through that area, I think to myself how wonderful it is that people will do something just because it's beautiful, and that these beautiful things can still brighten people's days, no matter how busy and stressed out they are.

Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park - right by the Harbor and the North End

North End Tree (by the Greenway and Hanover Street)

Hanover Street, the Main Street of the North End

Urban Italian Kitchen on Hanover Street

Modern Pastry Shop on Hanover Street

North Square - One of My Absolute Favorite Places in the North End

And while we're on the subject, New York is also a fantastic place to be around this time of year. I was recently at a conference there (Social Media for Pharmaceutical Companies) and got to see the famous Rockefeller Center tree and Fifth Avenue shops decorated for Christmas. If you're looking to change your soundtrack for your perusal of this blog post, I'd recommend this performance of "New York at Christmas" by the Radio City Rockettes (whom I saw in Boston last week--they were so fun!).

Rockefeller Center Tree

And This is Me, with the Tree, Wishing All of Thee a Merry Christmas from NYC!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sequel

What happens after one’s epic story has unfolded? It’s the part of the play when the curtain falls, the part of the movie when the credits roll, the page of the book that reads with finality, “THE END.” And we all know that sequels to such epic narratives fall flat. The story was complete and beautiful as it was, so why try to add to it?

But when it’s your own life, you have to go on living that sequel. And every subsequent sequel after that. I know this sounds melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, but to me, moving to Boston and making a life here for myself felt epic. Two years ago, I packed up an SUV that I’d had to pay the “underage” fee to rent after quitting a full-time job in the worst economy since the Depression to get a Master’s degree in publishing – a field which some would say is dying or at least uncertain and which everyone would say you don’t need a Master’s in. The rational side of me knew all this and wondered whether I was making a big mistake.

But the idealist in me, the optimist that is never quite silenced despite all the events and thoughts that make me cynical, dared to dream. I imagined throwing caution and planning to the wind just for once. I saw myself walking the streets of Boston with surety, with confidence, with grace, and preferably while wearing a nice montage of stylish outfits. I saw myself getting a job that actually inspires me, earning a Master’s, and moving into a chic little studio. I hoped for all this fervently...and it has all happened, even down to getting my own studio – a perfect place for just starting out in the world.

So what’s next? Now that the personal legend I worked to fulfill over the past two years has been reached, what now do I pursue? I think a psychologically healthy person would just be happy and rejoice for a few moments in their triumph. But the truth is that I’m not happy unless I’m accomplishing something, preferably something that seems impossible. Yet, at the same time, I’m really exhausted. Sometimes I can barely muster up the energy to do much after work besides watch TV, much less to set out on another epic adventure.

How long until I need a new Boston?

When I was debating whether or not to move out here, the song “Boston” by Augustana was my constant soundtrack [with my personal changes in bold]:

She said I think I'll go to Boston
I think I'll start a new life,
I think I'll start it over, where no one knows my name,
I'll get out of California [Minnesota], I'm tired of the weather,
I think I'll get a lover and fly him out to Spain
[I think I’ll get a Master’s and visit Jamaica Plain]
Oh yeah and I think I'll go to Boston,
I think that I'm just tired
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind
I think I need a sunrise, I'm tired of the sunset,
I hear it's nice in the summer, some snow [ocean] would be nice

So what happens when people know her name in Boston? What happens when the sun that rose over Boston starts to set?

To clarify, I mean all of this metaphorically. I’m not planning on leaving Boston any time soon because I love my job and I fit in this town. But I need a new mountain to climb, a new challenge to tackle, a new story to enter into.

Maybe I should work to stop human trafficking or maybe I should run the Boston Marathon. Maybe I should write a book.

Or maybe I could find a way to be happy without being in pursuit of a goal. One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to be more laidback. Actually, that’s the PG version of the resolution. The actual words I wrote in my journal were to “stop being such a bitch.” Now, mostly people laughed when I told them that because apparently I don’t come across as a bitch. And that’s better than the alternative, for sure. But I know my ambitious heart, and I know that I have within me the fire to stop at nothing to accomplish a goal. So apparently I thought the cure to this was to set a goal to be more spontaneous and more laidback. What stepping stones can I set for myself to try to enjoy life more and to take time to stop and smell the roses?

I don’t think I will come to any answers today. But I can at least tie the bow on a different item:

Operation: Defeat IKEA, Part 2
The thrilling conclusion to my epic battle against IKEA is that I hired movers and they disassembled and reassembled my bed. Like I said, thrilling. But they did say that this was the most complicated bed they’ve ever dealt with.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Life in Review + Operation: Defeat IKEA, Part 1

Since it's been almost a year since I've written in this blog, here's a quick recap of the major events in my life: I graduated from Emerson and am officially a MASTER OF PUBLISHING AND WRITING. Oh yeah, you are all intimidated by that prestigious degree. I mean, on the scale of prestige, a J.D. gets the bronze medal, an M.D. gets the silver, and an M.A. in publishing is far and away the gold medalist.

Additionally, I got a full-time, non-temp job at Genzyme. I moved from the legal department to the fabulous CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS department where I get to write articles and tweets and update the website, etc. In the blog post where I mentioned that I got the temp legal job, I just said I was working at "a biotech company" because I was somehow under the impression that someone at Genzyme was monitoring an RSS feed that would show them any time the word "Genzyme" was mentioned and that they would henceforth monitor my blog. This now sounds extremely paranoid and rather laughable to me. I'm pretty sure that as long as I don't stupidly post anything labeled "internal and confidential" to this blog, I can safely mention the name of the company where I work. :-) In any case, it's a great job and I'm thrilled to have a paid writing gig. Also, I think this job might actually save me from my addiction to school because it's interesting and challenging enough that I won't feel like I am shrivelling up intellectually and creatively without my classes. This is a good thing because I really don't have the time or money to go back to school for another degree right now, and I don't need one for my future career pursuits. But I might be singing another tune in a year or so.

The third piece of big news is that I'm moving to the North End next month! I found a lovely little studio and I'm thrilled to be living alone and closer to THE CITY. (Please note that the picture above is actually of me standing in a re-creation of Thoreau's cabin, which I visited with my parents when they came here for my graduation. My studio may be about the same size as Thoreau's house but is much sunnier. Like Thoreau, I can say that I moved there because "I wanted to live deliberately.") The new studio brings me to the other part of this blog post:

Operation: Defeat IKEA, Part 1

When I moved to Boston two years ago, I purchased the most fantastic IKEA daybed imaginable. It is part bed, part couch, part storage space. It's beautiful and practical and ideal for apartment life. In fact, I purchased it with this day in mind--the day when I would be able to move into my very own minuscule studio. It was a dream worth dreaming, and one that is finally going to be fulfilled.

However, now that the day has arrived, I have discovered a flaw in my plan. My IKEA bed, now fully assembled, won't fit through my bedroom door nor will it fit through my new studio's door. So I have to disassemble it. With normal furniture, that would be no big deal. But IKEA furniture is anything but normal; in fact, this bed--though perfect and beautiful and ideal when fully assembled--was likely designed by the minions of the anti-Christ (my apologies to Carina Bengs, who is the actual designer). When my friend Ann was helping me move out here, she also helped me assemble some of my IKEA furniture. She was assembling this daybed while I was assembling my dresser. She got to a point in the instructions where two people were necessary, but the picture did not show two of those cartoon IKEA people helping each other out, so of course she assumed she could do it herself. (We had to put blind faith in those IKEA instructions, mind you.) The largest piece of the bed came crashing down on her foot, ripping off her toenail and spewing her blood all over the bed and floor. So the bed has already scored a point against the human race, and now it's out to score another one. But I am determined that it will not.

I have figured out exactly which cheap IKEA screws need to be removed in order for the bed to be disassembled into four manageable pieces that will fit through a standard-sized door frame. One problem is that some of the screws are so cheap that they have been stripped; the bigger problem is that four screws are the dreaded lock-screw combination:

You screw one metal screw into a hollow metal screw, which locks it in place. I'm pretty sure you're never supposed to be able to unscrew them once they are assembled. However, this is the perfect bed and I will not give up without a fight and a (possibly fatal) attempt to use power tools to accomplish my goal. If I die trying to disassemble this bed, then this blog post can be my eulogy and it can also provide evidence for a conviction in court when the best lawyers from Lockhart/Gardner bring IKEA products to the stand. (I have become a huge fan of The Good Wife over the past few months, hence the somewhat forced reference to the law firm in the show, Lockhart/Gardner.)

I know it's dangerous to promise a future blog post, but my plan is to keep you updated on how my fight against this IKEA bed goes. And I also hope to write in this blog more regularly, now that I no longer have classes for four hours two nights a week, plus an endless stream of homework. We shall see how both of these endeavors turn out.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comcast "Cares"

"Thank you for calling Comcast. Please make yourself comfortable. For nondescript jazz, please press 1. To hear reassuring lies like 'A customer service representative will be with you shortly,' press 2. For blaring heavy metal that you can hear in the next room if you decide to set the phone down in an effort to avoid wasting your life on hold, press 3." I would have chosen the third option this morning.

It all began with a monthly cable bill that was twice as high as normal. Of course, I figured that our fabulous promotional rates had run out, and I would just need to change my service plan to pay a more reasonable amount. Should have been simple, right? I was probably naive to think so. I tried to log in at Comcast's website and they told me that my account already had an email address linked to it and that I wasn't using the right one. So I figured that the email address was my old roommate's, since she was the one who'd originally opened the account.

Given that I had no time to wait on hold, I decided to follow the website's cheery suggestion to email them and receive a quick, helpful response within twenty-four hours. I received an incredibly understanding, comforting email with no real content. This is an actual direct quote:

I understand you would like to know why the total amount due is more than what it has been in the past and that you cannot log in to your online account using your non Comcast email address. I apologize for the confusion this high bill charges has caused you and I completely know the importance of having able to access your account online. Please do not worry; I am here to provide the necessary information about your bill and how you can get your user ID and password.

Oh, good. I feel so soothed. After I sent a follow-up email, Comcast finally gave me directions for how to solve my problem: I should close my current account to get rid of my old roommate's information and open a new one by clicking on a particular link and choosing new services. This sounded easy enough, so I decided to take care of it this morning as I was drinking my pre-work cup of coffee.

Big mistake.

The final step was a Live Chat in which the rep said that I couldn't possibly do what I was trying to do without calling Comcast. "I’m sorry; we cannot process your request at this time. Please call [phone number]." Since Comcast continually boasts that its email and Live Chat services are just as good as its phone services, I said something like, "I was following the directions in an email; please work with me to resolve this issue." The person—whom I was beginning to suspect to be a computer—pretty much repeated the exact sentence about not being able to process my order. It seems that email and Live Chat are just fancy ways for Comcast to avoid helping its customers.

Then I asked, "Why didn't the email just tell me to call instead of directing me to the Live Chat?" The rep started typing something and then changed his mind and typed something else, so I decided he must actually be a real person. He basically said he didn't know and repeated that I had to call the number. To which I responded: "Fine. Thanks for your 'help.'" I couldn't resist the sarcastic quotation marks, even though they are the most obnoxious thing in the world, and then of course I felt bad about it.

After all, it hasn't been that long since I've had a terrible customer service job; I know that he's just following some instructions in a manual and that part of his training was probably something like: "Don't innovate; don't use your problem-solving skills; just do exactly what the manual says." Because that's how big companies are. They treat their employees like idiots so that they can justify paying them diddly squat. So it's pretty sad that right after I'd decided this Live Chat rep was a real person, I treated him like he wasn't one.

At this point, I was already running late. I should have just postponed my call to Comcast. But I was frustrated and wanted to start out my day by solving this problem, not letting it drag on and on. So I called the customer service number and went through several rounds of "for [this problem], press 1." Then I got to the dreaded automated voice: "Thank you for calling Comcast. All available representatives are assisting other customers. Your estimated wait time is nine minutes." Okay, I thought, I can handle nine minutes. Don't ask me why I ever believe these automated voices.

So I started getting ready with the phone wedged in between my chin and my shoulder. The background music was so quiet that I could barely hear it when the phone was jammed against my ear, much less when I put it down momentarily to apply foundation or pull a shirt over my head. Putting on my makeup was the most amusing. I had my phone on my vanity, and I kept bending over to listen. If I didn't hear anything, I'd say, "Hello? Hello?" And of course, no one was there.

After at least forty minutes, as I was walking to the bus (a later one than I usually take), someone finally answered. I was out of breath from hurrying to the bus so when he asked me to describe the problem, I probably sounded like I was about to have a breakdown. I really wasn't; I had calmed down since the Live Chat incident. In fact, when he asked how I was doing, I nicely told him about my difficulties but assured him that I knew it wasn't his fault.

Anyways, he solved my problems beautifully. He actually seemed to want to answer my questions and find solutions. I'm getting the services I want at a reasonable rate, and I don't have to close my account and re-open it. (This would have involved paying for another installation, waiting around for four hours for the cable guy to come, and then having to deal with reconnecting my wireless adapter, which always causes an excessive amount of problems.) And best of all, the new services will begin immediately so I won't have to pay double for the month of July.

Though Comcast doesn’t care, at least one of its employees does.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Boys from Little Mexico--A Review

Books like Steve Wilson's The Boys from Little Mexico (Beacon Press, June 2010) are exactly why I want to go into publishing. I've had a lifelong obsession with beautiful writing and compelling narratives, and more recently, I've developed a passion for works of art and literature that promote true understanding among people and groups who might not otherwise come into contact with each other. The Boys from Little Mexico is one of those rare gems of literary non-fiction that both exhibits excellent writing and opens the reader's eyes to the lives of fellow human beings.

Chronicling the season of an all-Hispanic high school soccer team, The Boys from Little Mexico is about so much more than sports. Perhaps most importantly, it is about the meaning of sports for the players and coaches we meet while reading it. Some of these boys knew that a soccer scholarship was their only shot at a four-year college education; others acknowledged that soccer gave them a reason not to drop out of high school. But on a more abstract level, soccer had the potential to give them a vision of success, a feeling of self-confidence, and a commitment to hard work. But, consequently, losses on the field sometimes seemed to portend weightier, life-altering losses.

Anyone who wishes to understand the nuanced and so very human elements behind immigration and education policies should read this book. Meet Octavio, who as a young teenager made the decision to make the dangerous trek across the Mexican/American border with no papers and go to school and play soccer in the U.S. Meet Carlos, who had to be taken from his birth mother when he was 5 years old and watch out for his younger siblings in three different foster homes before graduating from high school. Meet Coach Mike Flannigan, an Irish-American who continually seeks to understand his players better and help them succeed both on and off the field.

But even though this book deals with important, heavy issues, it doesn't feel like one of those books we all know we "should" read but don't really want to. On the contrary, the writing is quite engaging. On multiple occasions, I wasn't able to put the book down after I got off the subway so I kept reading it while walking to work! Even though I'm not really a sports fan, I was drawn into the fast-paced soccer games and even found myself holding my breath to find out if the ball would successfully make it between the goal posts. Steve Wilson manages to write these scenes in a way that soccer fans and neophytes alike will be able to visualize and experience the games much as they would if they were actually in the stands (and in the case of neophytes like me, we understand what's going on much better than we would if we were just watching a game). Similarly, Wilson's descriptions of political policies bear immediate relevancy to the lives of those in the story and, as such, manifest the complexities and importance of these issues while advancing the book's enthralling narrative. I highly recommend The Boys from Little Mexico to anyone who cares about education, immigration, sports, or just a really good story.