Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Love the Apples, Hate the Hassle

The apples on one of our trees needed to be thinned. Overburdened limbs were bending in sweeping arcs, a sure sign we'd be hearing the "crack" of breaking branches if nothing was done about it. Being a good soldier, albeit a late one, since optimum thinning time was two months ago, I hauled out the 12-foot orchard ladder and thinned. The good news is, I didn't fall off the ladder. Being a worrier, I'm always pretty sure I'll fall off eventually, but it didn't happen today.

If you don't know about apple trees, you may think it would be pretty nice to have one. That's kind of like saying it would be pretty nice to have another fulltime job on top of what you already do. The only benefits of this job are, well, the apples, and you get part of the winter off.

The hobby orchardist – a title I'm qualified to claim, since I own no less than seven apple trees, a real three-legged orchard ladder, and two genuine antique canvas picking bags – starts working in the late winter. Before the tree buds out, it has to have a haircut. All those long, sprangly, straight-up growths from the previous year have to be whacked off. One semi-dwarf tree can produce half a truckload of water sprouts, as they're called. Imagine what's left lying on the lawn under seven trees. And you can't leave 'em lying there, so if you don't have a wood chipper, you either take them to the Waste-to-Energy Recycling Center (the dump), or you pile them up in your field and burn them.

Ever tried to burn green branches in damp weather? Last time I tried it, there were three of us pouring gasoline on the pile, poking lit newspapers under the pile, and generally doing everything to the pile but lighting it with dynamite. A year later the pile was still there. That was the year I got smart and hired a service to prune the trees and haul off the trimmings, including last year's, which by that time were nicely dried and would have made a great bonfire.

Springtime, when young hearts should be celebrating love and bunnies and all that, is the season of spraying. If you don't want nasty greenish worms in your lovely fruit, you must spray. Not once, not twice, but every few weeks for four months. For years, I tried to do it myself. I didn't have commercial equipment, just a thingamajig on the end of a hose, filled with chemicals I measured and mixed myself. I looked pretty goofy wearing coveralls, goggles, and a face mask. I could never get the spray high enough to treat all the limbs, and I was so worn out after spraying a couple of times I quit. Let the worms do their worst; I could eat around them.

I finally got even smarter and paid the chem-lawn service to spray the trees. It's expensive, and it only kind of works; they come out to spray three or four times, which really isn't enough. They spray all the trees, whether or not they have any fruit this year. So maybe it's not so smart, but it gets done, and I don't have to do it.

The thinning I mentioned earlier? That should be done after the little apples start to form, oh, about May or early June. Theoretically you pick off all but a few fruits on each branch or you risk two things: a tree that loses limbs and no crop at all the next year. Both have happened to my trees. Did I learn? Guess not. I was out there thinning apples the size of baseballs tonight. I worked for an hour on one side of one tree and left hundreds of apples on the ground. It hurt me to waste those beautiful, promising little green apples. I left far more on the tree than I should have, and I may pay for it when the apples grow heavier.

At least I don't have to worry about picking up the fallen apples. By tomorrow morning every single one will be gone, along with all the leaves I accidentally tore off. I have an army at hand, and they muster quickly when the apple trees are bearing. Feathered, quilled, and antlered, they are out there right now in the twilight, starting their feast. No, the apples won't go to waste. All my labor this evening will plump up some hungry animals who are facing a cold winter. And that's a very good thing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jedi vs. Airline

I drove my husband to the airport at 6 a.m. I drove back to pick him up at 7:30. We drove out to the airport again this afternoon. All those trips to the airport, and he still didn't make it from Spokane to Montreal. But he did triumph over the airline system.

We knew something was wrong when he didn't get an email confirmation of his e-ticket so he could check in online. I tried to look him up with his United Mileage Plus information; as usual, I couldn't get in. And his confirmation number plus last name didn't get me anywhere. Weird. That had always worked before.

I had called United last week to bump his seats up to Economy Plus, and they found him, so we thought he would be able to check in at the airport. We rolled in a little late - about 45 minutes before his flight instead of the "required" two hours - but pretty confident that he'd be fine, as he had no luggage to check. Well, he was confident; I'm always petrified something will go wrong. And today, it did. Hah! I was right.

I dropped him off and heard this story later. He checked in at the ticket counter and found that his reservation was under "Martes" not Mertes. He might have tried to skate through on a normal, U.S.-only flight, but not on an international one. He didn't want to get stuck at Customs going in or out, with a ticket that didn't match his passport. So he asked the ticket agent to change his name, and she just stamped his ticket and told him to go on through. "It'll be fine," she said. My husband was skeptical, but he tried. Of course the TSA agent stopped him and sent him back to ticketing.

Again, the ticket agent insisted he'd be fine. Again, TSA wouldn't let him through until the ticket agent promised he could get reticketed at the gate. Again, my husband didn't believe her, but what could he do? He followed the accommodating and sympathetic TSA agent (who told him "She's done this four times this morning and we're really upset with her") back to the gate, where the gate agent looked at him like he was nuts. "We don't do ticketing at the gate." Right. And back my husband went to the ticket agent.

Long story short – the flight left without him. The ticket agent refused to issue him a receipt showing his name spelled correctly. She said she couldn't issue anything with his correct name until he bought another ticket. So he came home, frustrated and angry with the airline system, but mostly with the agent herself. He couldn't reticket at the airport because he didn't know when his boss would want him to reschedule.

Once he called the office and got a new date for his trip, I got on the phone with United. I expected to just change up his ticket, and gosh, was I wrong. Half an hour on the phone with United, and I was as upset as my husband. The news was bad: the problem with Scott's name being misspelled was being tied to his Mileage Plus account, which they said had shown his name as "Martes" not "Mertes" since the 1990s. Neither of us believed that, since he's flown on United many times without running into this issue. What I do remember is talking very slowly and clearly to the foreign-sounding agent when I first made Scott's reservations for Montreal: "M-MARY. E-EDWARD. R-RAYMOND..." You get the picture. Apparently she thought that was "A-ADWARD."

The call to United this afternoon left us reeling, because there was simply nothing they could do for us until we got the Mileage Plus mess straightened out. Until then, that $977 ticket was useless. And the price for a new ticket had gone up to $1,800, which we'd have to pay for immediately, since we had no credit coming anytime soon from the old ticket. Oh, and don't forget the $150 change fee, and the $98 for Economy Plus seats that we'd have to buy again. No refunds there.

The agent on the phone gave us a slim hope that we could get a better outcome by going back to the airport. Great, another 44-mile roundtrip on the off chance the same agent would be there (apparently that was a requirement). But we decided to try.

When we arrived at the United counter, we found one female and one male agent and no customers. We had their total attention. While I stood by for moral support, my knees shaking because I hate, absolutely hate, confrontations, Scott stepped up and told the woman his story. He told it with feeling and emotion; I could almost see her mascara run. This woman wasn't the agent from earlier in the day, which turned out to be a good thing. She had a kind heart and some authority, or perhaps she got the power to help us from the guy next to her. They worked our case together.

Twenty minutes later, we walked out with new tickets for the exact day Scott needed to go back and ZERO fees. In other words, instead of an extra $1100 (if our current ticket had had any value), we traded his tickets straight across. This just does not happen. It simply doesn't. I knew if anyone could make a miracle happen at that airline counter, Scott could; he's a likeable, nice, friendly guy, and he got through to a couple of people by appealing to them kind of like Princess Leia did in Star Wars: "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."

So Scott has his tickets to fly out next Sunday, and my Jedi and I have a few extra days at home together. Montreal will keep. All is well.

Monday, September 1, 2008

What I Want to Know

A local TV news program has a promotion that goes something like this: "We want to know what you want to know." I don't quite get their point, but I'm guessing they want their viewers to pitch questions about what's going on in the community.

Okay, I'll bite.

Could you send your TV news crew to the house down the road and find out why it's vacant only two years after it was built. What happened to the teen-aged boys who ripped around their acreage on dirt bikes, happily keeping this entire farming area abuzz with noise and dust? Why did the homeowners leave the entire place in weeds instead of doing some landscaping? I want to know.

And by the way, can you ask the retired farmer across the field why he allows his elderly donkey to run loose? We nearly hit "Eeyore" one day as he dozed, standing up, in the middle of the road. We've dubbed him Eeyore because we kind of like the old guy (the donkey, not the neighbor) and hope he doesn't end up on someone's bumper. People drive altogether too fast past the farmer's house, despite his "Please slow down" signs. Is Eeyore really clever and agile enough to escape his fence, or is the farmer letting him out on purpose to act as a mobile speed bump? I want to know.

This same farmer and his family seem to drive only white sedans that are usually parked in his yard with the trunks open. Could you please find out what's up with that? I mean, was there a body in there and they're airing it out? You never know, he could be the local hit man. I want to know.

I'd also appreciate it if you could get some information from that neighbor who's a member of the volunteer fire brigade but keeps lighting fires in his backyard. "It's just a fire pit," he claims, but I'd swear it's an illegal burn barrel. If I can't have one, neither can he, okay? I suppose it's safer for him to have one than for the average guy, but still... I want to know.

I'm dying to know why another neighboring farmer cuts the hay in his rented fields, gussies it up into those enormous wheels that look like cinnamon rolls on their sides, and then leaves the rolls to rot. They look like something the ancient Romans would light on fire and roll down the hill to get rid of nosy neighbors. Okay, so don't do too much investigating on this one.

Finally, investigate this: Where is the badge of honor that should have been bestowed upon my husband when he ran over a cat the other day? Not for hitting the poor little thing, certainly, but for stopping, tenderly picking it up, and rushing it to the vet for help. This same man will swerve for deer, dogs, squirrels, quail, and just about anything that's in his path.

So when somebody like my husband goes out of his way to get medical treatment for, and find the owner of, what turned out to be a stray cat, why isn't there some kind of recognition? Can you find out who is supposed to appreciate, comfort, and praise him for his compassion? Oh, that would be me. Never mind.