Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gardening with a Straight Edge

We had a lot of landscaping done this summer--the kind of thing that were beyond even the amazing DIY prowess of Cpt. Sweetie. We had three guys full time in our yard for a month, and for the first three weeks they didn't make a MOVE without a level in their hands.

They built us walkways, they built us steps. They built a patio and a bluestone planter/wall. They brought in 7 foot tall trees and planted them for us. They ripped up the lawn (a word which here means "mostly creeping charlie and a lot of weeds") and laid sod.

Then they went away.

Not that the landscaping was finished, mind you. Far from it. However, what was left was the sort of thing that even someone with limited DIY skills ( which would be me) could take over. Planting perennials and small shrubs? Mulching? Things that take more muscle than brains? That's my portfolio!

Of course, we have a scale plan for the yard, with plants spec'd by species and number and color, and so all I have to do is buy the plants, locate them according to the plan, and then plant them. One of the first I did was a ring of three cranberry cotoneaster shrubs.

Pretty, isn't it.

Since this was the first thing I was planting, I was obsessive about the placement. I took measurements from the plan, and replicated them in the yard. I took yard measurements and checked them against the plan. I lined up plants (still in their pots) and tweaked the design so that it looked good, then checked them against the plan. Only after I was satisfied that I had honored the balance of the original plan, while also controlling for the variations on the ground, did I plant those three bushes.

The digging and planting took about 20 minutes--the lining up and double checking beforehand took a good hour.

So it was with pride I showed Cpt. Sweetie the gorgeous new shrubs in our garden, regaling him with tales of all the care I had put into placing them precisely as the plan demanded.

He looked at me with that loving expression--the one that makes me feel like I won the Husband Jackpot: a mix of love, pride, humor--and said, "You did an excellent job. Except, the cotoneaster don't go there."

Ack! He was right, of course. All that measuring and placing, and I had failed to notice that the plan called for a completely different plant there.

Citrus swizzle forsythia, which looks nothing at all like cotoneaster.

Oh. Nevermind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And We Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For

Interesting responses to my last post about the disappointing seats at the U2 concert at Soldier Stadium. I was not the only one who had no warning about the terrible conditions when charged top dollar for those seats. Go ahead and Google "U2+ Chicago+overhang" and there are more than a few people disgusted by the conditions of their seats.

While it is certainly fashionable to bash Ticketmaster, it surprises me that there is such a sense of resignation about the hit-or-miss quality of a concert experience. Sure, if you get general admission tickets, you might end up in a less that fabulous location, but you know that going in--arguably it's part of the experience, like buying a lottery ticket. "I might end up a long way away, but I might end up right up by the stage!" There is also an element of control to the GA experience--people queue up hours ahead of the concert to improve their chances of a decent location.

I found this photo someone had taken from inside the ellipse. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, some of us are too busy, too old, or just too damn cranky to take those kind of chances, so we buy expensive seats. We pay the premium to have a specific place to sit, to have less access to the band, but better sight lines. It's a trade-off, of course, but one that has certain benefits that are worth the extra cost.

So when it turns out that the expensive seats cut off all the views of the lights and video screens, as well as cut out all but the faintest sounds of Bono's voice and Edge's guitar, then those seats are not as advertised. Hell, the beer vendors walking up and down the aisles had a better concert experience than was available from my $250 seat.

Imagine what it takes to cut off this screen from only 17 rows back. Yup--it was bad.

But where is the remedy? I mean, think about it. If you go to a movie, and the sound drops out or the film breaks, hey! You go talk to the manager, and they give you free passes to the theater. You have a bad theater experience, and hey! The ticket office refunds your money or they find you different seats. And both of these entertainment venues are operating on far smaller margins than Ticketmaster is.

Last July we went to see a play at the Globe Theater in London. The Globe sells its tickets directly, which means that it has to do all the ticket printing/box office staffing etc. on its own dime. It presents live theater, which means it uses more red ink than black, if you know what I mean. And it has an online virtual tour so you can get an idea of the kind of view you will have from the different galleries. The seating plan is priced by "visibility rating"--again with a clickable picture so you can get an idea of how your view will be affected by the structure itself.

Hells, even places like send actual human beings to check out the hotels--and if you end up in a hotel room you don't like, there is SOMEBODY who is EASY TO FIND whose JOB IT IS to do what they can to MAKE THINGS RIGHT--or at least enough better so you are satisfied.

So why is there is fatalism about a concert. Sure, once U2 leaves Chicago, they are gone and its not as easy as getting another hotel, or seeing another showing of a movie. But that doesn't mean that the situation is all or nothing. Ticketmaster should have a specific and EASILY LOCATED location where complaints can be addressed. They could refund the ticket price, or have left over comp tickets to exchange. They could have recommended alternative sites where you could get a better view. They could offer comp tickets to later concerts in different cities. They could give you free tour merchandise up to the face value of your tickets.

This is an awfully huge structure, to be unable to see. And to be overpowered by utility lights on the stairways.

Ticketmaster should be required to scope out the venue and be forthright about any obstructions or other issues. Had there been no overhang, my seats would have been great. In fact, the seats directly across the field were open to the sky, and the concert was everything it could have been from there--those tickets might even have been worth more than $250 a pop, the experience was that good.

But we should know that when the tickets go on sale. AND there should be a way to get some customer service at the event.

After all, Ticketmaster charges "handling fees" and "service fees" and we pay them, so it's not ridiculous for us to expect some service for those fees.

In New Jersey, Ticketmaster got into trouble over Bruce Springsteen tickets. Mere seconds after tickets went on sale, Ticketmaster announced that the event was sold out--and then redirected people to a "sister site" that had tickets available at inflated (a word which here means "scalper") prices. It totally looked like Ticketmaster bought its own tickets and then raised the prices--and it had to change its business practices.

Which is only a start, of course. Things could easily be better. It's amazing to me that we live in a world where a woman scalded by "hot coffee" can successfully sue McDonalds, but we have no recourse against a giant company like Ticketmaster.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In Which I Bitch About Soldier Field

One of the things Capt. Sweetie and I share is a geeky love for the Irish band U2. This is somewhat unusual for us, as we don't typically own the entire musical output of anybody. We're more eclectic than that. To put a positive spin on it.

But U2 is totally different. We have maybe a little fandom cred--Capt. Sweetie owned their first album "Boy" when it came out, and I certainly had them on my radar as well. But as the years passed, they kind of fell into the background. By the time "Joshua Tree" came out, we were in graduate school, where one has neither time nor money. When they took their turn into more experimental music with "Zooropa," we were new parents. Life was too busy to do much more than listen to the radio.

But then, in 2005, Capt. Sweetie said "Let's go see U2." Vertigo. It had been so long since I had been at a rock concert that I had more or less stopped thinking of them as part of my life at all. I can't remember if I took any convincing, but that was when we started catching up with the band's output and falling in love.

So when the latest album came out--"No Line on the Horizon," we were listening to it online before the actual release. One of Tonk's teachers mentioned "The new U2 album is coming out today" and Tonks was already sick of it. Thanks,!

Tickets went on sale, and I was clicking on "best available" mere seconds after the sale went live. Live, that is, for paid members of, limited to a set number of tickets and requiring a special password to purchase. That is to say, before they were available to the general public.

And I got great seats. On paper. Even with the front of the stage, on Adam's side, 17 rows up at Soldier Field in Chicago. Yup--we were taking our fandom to the next level of geekiness and actually travelling to another city for the concert. Roadtrip!!

We held those tickets for months, getting more and more excited about this concert. The reviews from Europe were positive, the set lists were nicely varied, we were ON! We flew down Saturday morning, checked into a lovely hotel, spent the afternoon basking in the sunshine of a delightful rooftop restaurant, and sauntered over to Soldier Field as evening fell. A perfect day, and a perfect night for an outdoor concert. Which we were prepared to enjoy from our really nice (and ridiculously expensive) seats.

The opening act was Snow Patrol, and we decided to forgo them. Like I said, U2 is an exception to my general non-immersion into music. We arrived in the stadium during their last song, and arrived at our seats once the house lights were on and the stage was being reset for My Band. Things were perfect.

Except they weren't. Our seats, these first tier, expensive, we-really-spent-too-much-but-this-is-U2, OMG we're so lucky seats--in short, they sucked. Completely and totally, even before the concert started.

First of all, although they were only 17 rows up, they were under an overhand for the next tier of seats. About 5 rows under the underhang, so not just "shaded" by the seats above; more like "tucked up under the eaves of the roof" overhang. This meant that we couldn't see any higher than the stage. So the 56 ton video screen was invisible to us. Well, if we scrunched down and nobody was standing up in front of us, we could see about the bottom third.

Then, they were only three rows down from the Concourse O' Stadium Food. So the lights of the hotdog and beer and popcorn and crap booths were shining over our shoulders and into our laps. It only got worse, but this was bad enough.

Bitter disappointment? Yup. Really bitter. As in "why the hell didn't I keep the General Admission tickets so I could actually SEE this concert." As in "I might as well not be here at all" bitter disappointment. I did not shed actual tears at this point, but all the excitement and crowd feeling you think you'd get at an event this size--was totally gone. I might as well be a sulky teenager in my room for all the joy I was feeling here. Capt. Sweetie could tell immediately that I was Not Happy, and he did his best to find the positives of the situation. Well, maybe it would be worth it to watch Adam and Larry and take a connoisseur's approach to this concert. And find another city to see them in. And, well, it IS U2, and the concert is guaranteed to be fabulous. Let's get over the bad and bask in the good.

He is a hero, but the circumstances were against him. Once the concert started, it became apparent that the damn overhang eliminated any treble sound. It really was a "Larry and Adam" show, because that was all we could hear: bass and drums. No guitar, no vocals. "Sorry folks, Bono and Edge couldn't make it tonight, but let's get it up for the U2 rhythm section!" But then, THEN, they did one of their patented things where on a key guitar riff the lights flood the stadium and bathe the audience in blue and green.

Except, see, over here by the vendors, there were these ceiling utility lights that stayed on, because without them, it was dangerously dark under the Damn Overhang. Four rows in front of us, people could see and hear and participate in the experience. Where we were, it was no better than sitting in someone's living room under the reading light while their kids played a concert DVD in another room. And we paid HOW MUCH for these tickets?

By this time, I was crying. I couldn't help it because it was so horribly horribly wrong. We couldn't see. We couldn't hear. We were so close, and might as well have been outside the stadium listening to what came out on the wind. By the fifth song, I had HAD IT. The cost-benefit calculus had shifted--I would rather leave to complain, no matter what I might miss, because I was already missing it anyway. After a brief stop to cry in the bathroom (so I wouldn't embarrass myself) I went in search of --what? What can be done at a time like this? Is there anyone who can refund my money? Can I find somewhere that is at least better than here? Someone I can bitch to?

It took a while--like another 4 songs, but I found somebody with the authority to do something. He handed me tickets on the other side of the stage, where there was no overhang. Downside, they were not together. But it was better than what we had, so we took it.

As I walked out from the vending corridor down to my seat--it was better than I had dreamed it would be for all those weeks before. The 360 video screen didn't just show the band, but was being used artistically. The light show turned the entire stadium different colors, and lights periodically shot up into the sky. The night was perfect, the band was phenomenal, and it was a FANTASTIC OUTSTANDING concert that totally filled my geeky fan girl heart.

It was nearly enough to make up for the horrible horrible start. I was in the front row, actually, and on Edge's side of the stage. When Bono came out on one of the bridges and pretended to climb down into the audience, he was straight in front of me, separated by a few yards of field. When the band played a remix version of "Crazy," Larry stopped right in front of me with his cool African drum. Words can't really capture the feeling of being surrounded by music and lights, being immersed in music I love, while simultaneously being close to the actual human beings who are making the music. I need to stress this, because the concert was wonderful, and as I walked into the arena to the new seats I got to have that moment where you have to stop and say "This is AWESOME!"

But there is always a "but," isn't there. Who the hell authorized those seats to be sold as premium seats? There was a jerk behind us in the crappy section who Would Not Shut Up about "They had no business selling these seats without saying they were obstructed view." He was a jerk, but he was absolutely correct. They should not have been sold at top price. They probably shouldn't have been sold at all. And as a result of the crappiness of the seats, I missed 40% of the show trying to make them work, and then trying to do something about it. AND I didn't get to see the show with Capt. Sweetie, which wasn't fair either.

So, to whom do I complain? Ticketmaster? U2? Soldier Field? What can I reasonably expect to get to make it better? I think a complaint is more productive if I know what I want them to do in response. Certainly Ticketmaster needs to re-price those tickets and label them "poor acoustics and obstructed view." They might be great seats for a football game, but I doubt even that. U2 should know that someone is screwing with their fans and debasing their goodwill by charging top dollar for seats that aren't as good as staying home and watching TV. Without stereo. Soldier Field needs to be honest with any act that comes through that location--first tier seats on the east side of the field will suck if above row 12. Seriously.

So that would be my mitzvah for the day, but I was cheated and I want to get something to make up for that. Equivalent seats for a concert date here would be nice, assuming they are coming here at all this tour. Equivalent seats for a concert date somewhere on the current tour would also be an option as well. But are those realistic? What is my bottom line to shut up and go away--if I know what that is, I'll get at least that, and I'll do it in a way that is courteous and civil but determined.

Any hints?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Do We Even Have That Blog, Kronk?

One of the (many) great moments in The Emperor's New Groove happens after Yzma and Kronk attempt to enter the secret lab. "Pull the lever, Kronk!" cries Yzma, and she disappears through the floor.

Fractions of a second later, she re-enters the room, pulling a crocodile off. "Why do we even have that lever?" she asks.

Good question. And why do I even have this blog if I never post? Also a good question.

So here I am, with a brain full of entries I've meant to post and just haven't. I may have to clear out some backlog before any of the new merchandise (ideas) have room on the shelves. Or maybe something will simply force its way to the front of the store.

Right now, I am sitting in a lovely hotel room in Chicago, ready to go to the U2 concert, watching the DVD of their Chicago Vertigo concert from 2005. This is a big deal for us, as it is a new stage in our lives. The girls voted to stay home overnight by themselves, and so Cpt. Sweetie and I flew off this afternoon for a one day trip. We will be home about 30 hours after we left, but there may be longer trips in the near future depending on how this one goes.

We spent the afternoon at the Terrace Cafe here in the Conrad Hotel, splitting a pitcher of sangria and eating a very late lunch, soaking up the beautiful weather and enjoying some quiet, undistracted time together. We discussed plans for our new landscaping, solved Obama's problems with health care reform, and. . .well, I don't remember everything. I DO remember the sangria, though! That counts for something. Right?

The concert promises to be great, and if it is even half as great as I think it will be, we will go back again once the band comes to the Twin Cities.

And you know what? I have always liked the spinach puffs.