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Boston and New York

I was thinking that nothing really important had happened during the last quarter, when suddenly, overnight, we had a worldwide financial meltdown! Maybe it was all Neatstep’s fault. Everything was quiet when we departed for Boston and New York. We had a great time sightseeing and the weather was perfect, making up for that lousy summer.

I guess I should have been suspicious when we arrived in New York to find half of Manhattan closed off because of the UN General Assembly. The place was full of police and limousines with motorcycle escorts, flashing lights and sirens. Everyone was in town apparently, including Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin (who?), George Bush and well, Neatstep, of course……

We visited Wall Street because I wanted to see what that hotbed of sin really looks like. Well, it looks exactly the same as it does on TV – in fact it looks better on TV, because they don’t show all the road works and barriers outside the stock exchange. Little did I realize that my visit to Wall Street was going to trigger a global financial catastrophe shortly afterwards. Maybe it was because we neglected to photograph the bull, which we couldn’t get near, due to all the Japanese tourists with cameras around it, on top of it and everywhere else. Anyway, so much for Wall Street and the bull!

We traveled by fast ferry to Seattle, then by plane to Boston, train to New York, subway to JFK airport and back to Seattle. For once, we had a reasonably smooth trip, in the sense that not too many things went wrong. The only eventful episode was when our return ferry from Seattle broke down, after everyone was on board and before it could leave the harbor. The replacement vessel was smaller, so they asked for 30 volunteers to stay behind. The incentive was obviously not very great because the next step was to remove from the ferry all those who had reserved last – fortunately that wasn’t us. Then we departed with an hour’s delay.

What was I doing in Boston? Well, the whole purpose of the trip was to attend a unique high school reunion, which for historical reasons took place at Harvard University. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip and should probably be the subject of a separate blog. Much will be written about this occasion so I will include a relevant link later on. For now, it’s time to get back to the serious business of drawing!

Neatstep in the News

I figured it was worth writing an extra blog to report that Neatstep has appeared in print for the first time.
My thanks are due to Monday Magazine and to The British Columbian newspaper.

Monday Magazine highlighted my comic about the downtown tourist guides, whilst The British Columbian selected my comic concerning the unanswered emails, to accompany their half-page feature story on the author.

This is an encouraging step forward for Neatstep. I hope there will be more to report in the coming months.

Summer Solstice

The past few months have seen a recurring issue called “customer service”. This topic has provided me with a constant flow of material for my comic strip series, as you’ve probably noticed.

Just recently, I had to deal with a renovator who couldn’t, a plumber who wouldn’t, a gardener who didn’t and a local council who are now immortalized in one cartoon sequence. However, my most interesting encounter was with a large and well-known company, which requested an account update.

They sent me two conflicting letters with three different options. After wrestling with their website for some time, I succumbed and tried phoning them. My skepticism was well founded because, after going round in circles again, I finally surrendered and called the last remaining phone number…..

“Here is Marjorie, your automated assistant. I’m here to help you. What would you like to do today?” No comment! “You can choose from the options or just tell me.” Eventually, I did tell her and was then connected to a non-automated assistant, presumably for dealing with difficult people.

“Hello, I’m Tracy. What can I do for you?”, she asked. “I’d really like to meet the guy who programmed your automated system”, I said. “Hah! You and ten thousand other people!” she replied. “I couldn’t find the entry on your website”, I said. “That’s because there isn’t one!” she responded. This was beginning to sound like “Alice in Wonderland”. “Marjorie didn’t help me either”, I continued. “I know! She’s not much use”, said Tracy. “I’m your only hope and unfortunately our website is…”, “under construction!” I said. She giggled. Wow! A real person! Later, I returned to their website and completed the customer survey. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard from them since!

Recently, I’ve had some problems with Pleb the Plumber. Their phone greeting was always, “Hi, it’s a great day at Pleb the Plumber! How can we help you?” My response was always “It’s not a great day for me, especially when I’m phoning you!” Yesterday, I called “Misfit Motors” and they said, “Hi, it’s a great day at Misfit Motors! How can we help you?” I really hope, for the sake of everyone else, that this nonsense is not catching on!

Meanwhile, I have a kind of sinking feeling about the future of things. Is the world really going downhill, or is it just me who’s getting older? Ah! I know! It’s definitely “both” of those things.

April 1st. 2008

The first quarter of this year has been largely uneventful. That’s quite a relief after all the surprises of last year. Neatstep is still alive and well, following the extensive character updates and cartoon editing.

The first thing I’ve noticed this year is that everything is so expensive now. The bankers tell us it’s because of “inflation”, as if inflation is something “magic” that just happens by itself.

We’re told inflation is around three percent, but it seems more like twenty-three percent. I guess the “magic” is that everything we buy is getting magically smaller. Toilet rolls are a perfect example. I think their diminishing size is a much better indicator of inflation than the official measurements…..

The most annoying thing is when package contents become smaller. I recently tried to purchase 12 screws for a repair job but every packet in the hardware store contained exactly 11 screws. How ridiculous is that! I can’t think of any object that needs 11 screws, except perhaps a flying saucer. Something told me that I, myself, was definitely being well and truly “screwed”! With screws in such short supply, if I ever buy a new vehicle anytime soon, I will be examining it very closely, I can tell you!

Meanwhile, my do-it-yourself (and look-out) house renovations have inadvertently provided some wonderful material for a further set of Neatstep cartoons. The fun details, as always, will be revealed in the weekly newsletter.

Year End Report 2007

This is the end of the very first Neatstep year so it’s obviously a historic point in time! In some ways, I’m quite pleased that it’s the last day of the year. Neatstep always says that you should never go on holiday or never come back. I made the mistake, as always, of coming back and suffering the consequences. The punishment for having a good vacation is being hit with a wave of household repairs, which cost more than the whole vacation itself.

The various issues on this occasion included an ongoing saga with the drainage system, which if it is ever resolved, will be the subject of numerous Neatstep cartoons. In search of some answers, I spent most of my recent birthday digging a large hole in the garden, which my neighbor said, closely resembled a grave. I assured him that it soon would be, if the contractor didn’t fix my problems very soon. At the time of writing the contractor has not been sighted…..

For my birthday, I received an unexpected present and I must say it was worth every single one of the many hours it took to install! After all, I only spent about six hours digging so I obviously had some extra energy left for something else! What could be better than an electric blanket with individual controls? I’ve always felt that the best way to expire would be to accidentally electrocute myself while sleeping. With this special blanket, I am now fully ‘wired’ and ready to go places! I was looking for the “Made in China” label but it only said “Made in the USA with US and Foreign components”. Hmmmn! Now that makes me feel a whole lot better!

I made several resolutions, which are in danger of being broken even before the New Year arrives. My first resolution is not to attack the next contractor I meet. My second resolution is not to get so excited about things. The only time I get really excited is when people tell me not to get excited. I’d better stop there!

Anyhow, this will be a very short blog because I decided to take some time off, like everyone else seems to be doing when I need them. Some people wonder whether Christmas is significant any more. I say it is, because this is the only time of year when everything comes to a complete standstill. I wish all my readers a truly wonderful New Year – but not better than mine, of course!

Vacation in Europe

If you travel, then things happen and the trip to Europe was no exception. Overall, it was excellent but there were lots of Neatstep situations to wrestle with!

My first mistake was to visit the dentist before going on vacation. I had no problems but thought a check-up in advance of my trip would be a good idea. It was not! On the morning of our departure, my tooth suddenly broke at the last minute, leaving no time for repair. The tooth had a good holiday!

Our next excitement, en-route to London, was landing in Calgary. As we soared vertically upwards from the runway it seemed there was some disagreement about whose turn it was to land! The only cryptic comment from our pilot was that two aircraft on one runway was “not good’! The onward flight was less entertaining since the entertainment system was not working, so we were spared from listening to Spiderman, even though I could see him creeping up and down those buildings as I fell asleep.

I was still dreaming about spiders when we arrived at London Airport, where amazingly, there was no queue for the car rental desk. Why not? Well, because the computer system was down, of course. Not to worry, the queue at the central renting lot nicely made up for that! With our free upgrade coupon, we acquired a larger and more complex car – a big mistake, since nobody knew how to operate it. There was no key (just a control tag) and no parking brake (only an electronic one, which worked automatically – sometimes!) We found one person who knew how to open the trunk – that was a start! Then we sat in the parking lot for 30 minutes reading the instruction book. Finally, we moved off into that horrendous English traffic, on the wrong side! Help! Get me out of here! This is insane!

We reached the airport hotel and went to sleep, but not for long. A thunderous banging and wailing sound was emanating from the room opposite. We managed to communicate with the front-desk clerk in broken English. Apparently it was just a rock band, which had been practicing all week for an Oriental wedding. They always finished at 5.00pm. We returned from dinner at 9.00pm to find them still in full swing. I revisited the front desk and had more words with the clerk, who called the manager, who called the rock band, who probably called me something else but eventually they grew weary and gave up. Peace at last!

We stayed for a week in England where I gradually became fluent in broken English. “Yes, no, me – visitor from North America, do you speak English”! Everyone was very friendly (except perhaps that front-desk clerk!)

We arrived at the next airport and headed for Rome. At check-in we acquired a new friend – an elderly Italian who could speak no English! My Italian is limited to Bon Giorno, Spaghetti and Grazie but we took him under our wing. The Brits are really serious about security and they went into high alert when they discovered his heart tablets, which were promptly confiscated for scrutiny. The magic wand was waved around the bottle, but – no beeps or signals! Not satisfied with this, they took the tablets away for testing – crushing one to see whether it was explosive, but it wasn’t – for which we were all thankful! Meanwhile our Italian friend was becoming rather faint, not understanding what was happening and clutching his heart! The security people were unconcerned and explained everything to him in perfect English – the one occasion where this was definitely not useful! Eventually, with our friend on the verge of collapse, the tablets – minus one – were returned. They quickly became minus three or four! Upon landing in Rome our friend crossed his heart several times and muttered something, which fortunately, we didn’t understand!

The Internet warned us about two things in Rome – pickpockets and pirate taxis (they’re the ones with no sign and a shifty-looking driver). So, as we boarded our pirate taxi, I ignored the frantic waving signals from my wife and we zoomed off down the Via Mama Mia on the wrong side. After a short distance, our pirate driver suddenly began desperately searching around him, one finger on the wheel and one eye on the road. “What are you looking for”, I asked. “I’ve lost my cell phone”, he said. “Ah, I wondered why my seat was so uncomfortable. I’m sitting on it”, I replied. He grabbed the cell phone. “You have to watch out in Rome! These darned pickpockets are everywhere”, he said! That comment, coming from a pirate taxi driver, had to be priceless!

Sightseeing was uneventful, millions of people everywhere, queues everywhere and like the supermarket, we always seemed to be in the wrong one. We reached the train station en-route to the port. Lots more queues, ticket machines so complex that most people, including myself, gave up and joined the rapidly expanding queues. Our bus had arrived at platform 1, so logically our train departed from platform 28, which was a mere 1 kilometer to walk since platform 28 started at the far end of platform 27 – an obvious afterthought!

If you want a trip, then go on a ship! We did and it worked perfectly! The first day we tripped headlong over two deckchairs and were feeling sorry for ourselves until we met a lady in a wheelchair with a broken ankle and a guy with a broken foot who was run over by a taxi in Rome (probably a pirate one!) After that we recovered miraculously and had a wonderful journey.

Italy was hot, Turkey was hotter and Greece was hottest. You haven’t traveled seriously unless you’ve experienced the Colosseum, the Grand Bazaar and the Acropolis, all at 12.00 noon in the midday sun! What are these tourists thinking? Are they completely crazy? Nevertheless, it was impressive. In Italy we learned how to be patient, in Greece we learned how to relax and in Turkey we learned how to negotiate. We discovered you can negotiate the price of a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, but you can’t negotiate whether to stay in the mosque when it’s prayer time because then it’s everybody out! Question: How do you visit Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri all in one day? Answer: Very quickly, otherwise you’ll miss the boat like our American friends did.

We left the port of Rome and headed by train for the airport, which was a major undertaking. It’s a myth that trains in Italy are always late. They have a special system for avoiding that – it’s called cancellation. If the train is running late, it gets canceled and automatically becomes the next one. That way, the schedule always works perfectly. Our one-hour trip to Rome thus automatically became three-hours, after we had run like headless-chickens from one platform to the other several times, with luggage of course. Without luggage and stairs to climb it would have been much less fun!

We flew from Rome to Germany on board one of the many cut-price airlines, with an Italian crew. I swear that pilot looked suspiciously like our pirate tax-driver. When we dropped like a stone onto the runway and bounced several times, I knew I was right. He must have misplaced his cell phone yet again!

After the thrills of Italian Rail we were glad to arrive in Germany where the rail system is so reliable, right? Wrong! The very day that we needed to travel was the day of the German rail strike. How about that for perfect timing? More headless-chicken sessions and some backup planning followed. The only German phrase you need to know is “das geht nicht”, which roughly translated, means “no way”! That’s the phrase you’ll hear most often in Germany as it applies to nearly every situation e.g. trains, rental car upgrades, or any other services.

We survived and one week later returned to our London airport hotel. The desk clerk must have remembered us because he was not very happy and it didn’t take much longer to upset him completely when I asked for an extra transaction on my credit card. The transaction sequence became so convoluted that the specialists were called in next morning to unravel everything and reprocess it. There was no express check out for us!

We flew home and once again, the in-flight entertainment system wasn’t working so we were spared the thrill of listening to the latest pseudo-surreal movies, which made even Spiderman suddenly seem appealing!

All that remains now is to pay-off the credit card bills and start saving for the next exciting vacation.

Summer Update

It’s time for the quarterly blog update. Since the last posting, everything has come together nicely. I am still experimenting with the art work and trying hard to make various improvements, which I consider necessary.

Overall, I am very pleased with the way the series is turning out and I’m more than satisfied with the format and the style. My thanks are due for all the feedback I have received so far, which has been overwhelmingly positive and gives me great encouragement to continue.

The next step will be to obtain more exposure for Neatstep and look for some suitable publishing opportunities. I read recently that a good artist is one who just keeps drawing, regardless of anything else and since I really enjoy producing Neatstep, I will continue with this and view the publishing issue as an added bonus if and when it materializes.