Your call is important to us

Having had many months of practice calling for services given that I was strictly adhering to the stay-at- home directive from our Health Departments, I have come to hate calling anywhere that provides services. In the early days of the lockdown, when many had to cancel travel plans, the airlines and affiliated loyalty businesses, saw an exponential use of their phone and web services by patrons looking to change, cancel or rebook flights. I was one of those many, and naively believed the introductory greetings of the automated message: “thank you for calling XYZ, your call is important to us, please wait until an available representative can take your call” or any variation of the sentiment. This of course was followed by the now very familiar, “we are experiencing an increase in calls volume and wait times may be longer than usual. We appreciate your patience; the next available agent will be with you shortly”, or “we are experiencing longer waits than usual; please try again later”. With the latter message, the call would just drop, not giving you the option to wait for 30 minutes or so on the phone listening to tinny muzak. I must say that the other day, one outfit that was experiencing an increase in calls volume, did ask me what type of music I would like to listen to while waiting: contemporary, jazz, classical. Precious! Other variations of the greetings were encouraging customers to use the online services, the mobile apps and other automated services put in place to serve us better. But my experience has been that either the internet sites were either overwhelmed by the usage, did not offer the particular service I was looking for, or in one instance, the site did not recognize me. My first go at having some issued resolved is to always go to the mobile app first ( I still am in awe of how powerful these apps can be), then the company’s website, and lastly the phone. It seems that lately, I always ended up having to use the phone.

In the first week of March, I used up 357 minutes trying to get through to an airline in order to 1) reset my profile on their newly upgraded website that did not recognize me as a “loyal” customer and therefore did not allow me to cancel the flight I was to board in three days, and 2) actually cancel the flight.

I often wondered when I heard and hear these disingenuous messages, how many “agents” are actually available to answer the calls. In a large corporation, like an airline or a bank for instance, are there 5 people answering the phone lines? 10? And if all the employees that used to be in the office are now being told to be at home, were they added to those “agents” answering the phone? Would make sense, no? Before the lockdown, I could go into an office and talk to a person in order to resolve an issue. Now that person is no longer physically available, it is understandable there will be an increase in phone traffic and, as a manager of XYZ, I should be preparing to deal with that.

One has to wonder if the corporations are in cahoots with the phone providers. In normal circumstances, my 500 minutes of phone time is more than enough – every month I end up having 423 minutes left on my plan. Now, with the new reality of having to deal mostly on the phone or on line to acquire services, I run out of minutes. 30 minutes wait time here, 20 minutes there, 5 minutes of “options” for me to choose from before actually getting in line to wait for the next available agent; it all adds up and unless my services can be dealt with after 5 pm on weekdays and on weekends, one by one the minutes fall into the numbing loop of tuneless music.

Why does a customer need to listen to a myriad of options ‘to serve us better’? Why not have a ‘triage receptionist’ who would know in no time with whom to connect you? Why is it that service has come to mean that I have to do all the figuring out before I get to the service? Shopping and services have become a weeding out exercise. Walk up and down the aisles to find your products ( and hopefully your sense of where a certain product should be is the same as the store’s), listen to phone options that if you were to map them out would look like some Chomskyan syntactic structure of a long compound sentence or some project management flow chart.

Kudos to the agents, though. When I was finally greeted with a name and a “how may I help you today?”, the agents were knowledgeable, courteous, helpful and above all patient.

The pandemic has created extraordinary circumstances not only from a health perspective but in all matters of daily life it seems. I just hope that the pandemic has not become the excuse for increased appalling on line and phone services to those who need them.

Pots

Pots is an interesting word, a generic word that can be used in so many ways – cooking pot, pothole, depot, pothead, potpourri, potage, and so forth.

I was born in a country, now designated as “developing”, where potholes on the road were the norm – once a road was built, it was rarely patched up. It was hot and the asphalt would soften under the heat and heavy transport would leave the tire marks that then became potholes, full of water when it rained, or debris as the wind picked up. The capital city was established in the mid-18th century and the independence was declared in early nineteen century. An old city by American standards, but one with broad avenues lined by large trees whose canopy provides relief from the summer sun. It also has many sidewalks, original some from the turn of the century, big marble slabs that with the years have become lose and uneven. As a child, I would jump from loose slab to loose slab, getting splattered by the mud trapped between the stones – a delight for a child, a curse for the ladies walking in high heels, or the gentlemen going to work. Not much has changed, the city has paved over its cobble stoned roads, but the sidewalks continue to be a challenge or delight.

Fast forward, I am now living in a G-7, industrialized country and again, the familiar potholes. These not formed by the melting asphalt but by the extreme cold that heaves our roads. The spring becomes a treacherous driving adventure as motorists swirl to avoid them, or when they can’t, become victims of broken axels, damaged or lost hubcaps, and overworked suspensions. Not as much fun as jumping hopscotch on the marbled sidewalk.

Rich or poor, industrialized or emerging economies, it seems potholes are a fact of life. Inevitably, you fall into one.

Speaking of pots, I chuckled the other day, when our neighbour who has a keen eye for antiques, recounted how when she was working in an Asian country, she hosted a dinner for prominent personalities. Having found an amazing vessel for serving her dinner, a boeuf bourguignon, she polished it and got it ready for her dinner party. A success, as expected, as our neighbour is the consummate host. A few days later, a friend approached her to thank her for such a lovely evening, but suggested that perhaps next time she use another serving dish. What she had used for the dinner party, it turns out, was a very elaborate, antique, rich family’s chamber pot.

Hair

Come to think of it, everyone’s life has a leitmotif running through it, which usually shapes one’s life. A Navy brat moving to new schools every few years, or a child of mixed cultures, or a parent’s profession which drives the dinner conversations. Sometimes it is just something that is there, ever present. Hair is such a leitmotiv for me. My father was a barber and then hairdresser and my mother, although a trained midwife, ended up working in the hair salon with my dad. Hair paid for my basic needs of food, lodging, clothes. Hair bought houses, cars and vacations.

Hair was a dinner topic because lots of clients meant a good month, color-in-a-box was damned, the hippie movement too. Hair was political, hair was financial. There was good hair, bad hair, difficult hair, dirty and clean, natural and dyed, and of course blue rinse. And there were nice haircuts and not so nice ones. I was taught to appreciate the art of hair. I never wanted to become a hairdresser: I knew first hand the difficulties and hard work surrounding the trade.

So hair has been a part of my life, a professional family heirloom if you like. I notice hair, not as a fetish but as feature, just like one notices the eyes or the mouth of a person. And hair, like any other part of you, says a lot about you. Are you always coiffed? or do you walk out of the house without combing it? do you wash it daily? do you style it? do you play with it? do you shave it off? is it important to you? And a good hair cut, any hairdresser will tell you, can carry you anywhere. If you have a good hair cut, your hairdresser has seized its soul and has brought it alive. Just like sculptors see the sculpture inside the block of marble, so does a good hairdresser see what your hair can and cannot do.

I notice hair.

Some 8 years ago, hair was the catalyst to an encounter which has enriched my life. I was in a fitness class and I saw a woman with a great haircut, an interesting, asymmetrical cut which was perfect for her and her hair. And the great hair was consistent: in humid weather, on a rainy day, on a dry day, or after taking a hat off. The hair cut was bang on. So I spoke to her about her hair. It turns out that we had had in the past the same hairdresser and she gave me his new coordinates.

So what? women exchange hairdresser contact information all the time. However, this fortuitous exchange based solely on a great haircut, gave me the opportunity to meet a person who has become a dearest friend. And of course, I too, now having reconnected with my former hairdresser, have not only renewed my acquaintance with a great person, but also have a great haircut!

Never underestimate the power of hair.

Discrimination and the Grocery Store

Walking down the isles of a large chain grocery store in town and not finding what I was looking for, I realize that placing foods on shelves was quite a political statement. Of course, everyone is familiar with the visibility equation: certain foods are placed at eye level, some at the very bottom shelf and so forth. But this is not what I am talking about.

Searching for my item, I read the signs hanging from the ceiling at the beginning of each aisle, and realized that there were certain distinctions that made me uneasy. Aisle 13 read – Sauces, pickles, soup mixes, Mexican food. The latter got me thinking. What is Mexican food? Tacos? that would fall under crackers, crisps. Guacamole? that would be a sauce. Refried beans? that’s an easy one, beans! Salsa? also an easy one, sauce! and so forth. Mexican food is just that: food.

And what happened to the rest of South and Central America, where they also eat some of the so-called “Mexican” food.

And then on Aisle 14: Ethnic food. What on earth is ethnic food? well, soya sauce, curry pastes, canned lychee, tamarind candy, crystallized ginger, kimchi. Grosso modo, we are talking Asian type food. But then again, Asian food is just food.

I had to ask myself, so where is the Italian or Mediterranean food entry on the aisle descriptions? After all there is a myriad of pasta sauces, grated parmesan, a variety of pasta shapes, spices, coffee, and cookies. But there isn’t an Italian, Portugueses, Greek or Spanish food aisle description. Are Italians not important enough to have their own listing? What about British food? Middle Eastern food? and the list could go on.

I am grateful that my grocery store offers all these choices of tasty foods, however, would it not be easier to stack rice, egg, bean curd, soba, and wheat noodles all in the same area? Why not place curry, spaghetti, butter chicken, salsa, guacamole, hummus, soya and other sauces all in the condiments area? Why not place dried and canned legumes and vegetables all in one area?

I hate having to run up one aisle to get canned chickpeas and black beans ( usually found with the “Italian” type food) and down another aisle to get canned peas. Since I enjoy a varied diet inspired by world flavours, I have a hard time “ethnicizing” my food.

Let’s opt for grouping of similar items, like spices, teas, coffees, and bread – they have got it right – no ethnicity, just labels showing their origin, where African coffee sits right next to Costa Rican coffee, right next to Chicory.

I

The travail of choosing paint colour

One of the most dangerous thing a couple can do, is to ask the Other to buy some paint. He who has to choose is bound to fail.  Looking for white? Do you mean Snowfall white, Fresh artichoke, Summer mist, Morning haze, White on white? It seems that white can be an endless possibility of colours and clever names.  Looking for yellow? Is that Sunshine blaze, Fresh egg yolk, Lemon peel?  Again, endless semantic and chromatic possibilities.

So how does it work?  someone in the lab drops one dollop of green onto to the white base paint and the techs call is fresh mint, two dollops of green is crunchy celery, three dollops, fresh artichoke, four, Irish moss, five, avocado ripple, six pukey green? Let’s not put six dollops or come up with a better name?

I get it that colours can have cool or warm tint, light or dark shades, but to have a two-page spread of whites or a palette of 50 shades of blue? Are my tastes so blunt that I cannot appreciate all that is offered?

I am no historian but any civilization that has that many choices of colours to adorn their walls must be heading straight into oblivion.  Only one with infinite time on ones hands can ponder about a myriad of variations so subtle that if you chose X and the clerk at the paint desk gave you X+1, you probably would not notice.  And nothing good ever came of excess time to spend on superfluousness.

Colours have a tumultuous history.  Its pigments were used as currency; its colours as status.  What colour is the robe of the cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church?  the Roman Emperor’s? The Lac insect gives us Chinese lacquer and colours’ names gave a pretty good indication of their origins: starting with black  or charcoal from carbon, red and yellow ochres which were used in caves’ drawings throughout Europe, Crimson (from Kermes, the insect used for the dye). Recipes to obtain rich deep colours were passed on from generation to generation and kept secret.  Colour denoted politics, economy, and social status.  Artichoke green? not so much.

Since we have choice, let’s exercise it;  but do not send your Other into the perilous Paint Aisle of the local hardware store alone. And if you do, make sure you offer a flowchart to help with the decision…

 

 

 

…And still

After all the hundreds of thousands of years that homo sapiens (wise man) and the ‘anatomical modern man’ have been roaming the earth,  we are still today,  talking  front and centre, in the media, fiction, non-fiction, medical journals, popular journals and in personal stories, about abuse.  Men against men, women against men, men against women, men against children, children against children, women against children, institutions against people, humans against animals and the environment.  Have we not learned anything at all during those thousands of years?  It seems not.  Is that what the human condition is?  Is the existence,  the act of living,  of being stuck with others like or unlike us so unbearable that we can only hurt, diminish, or abuse to gain any control of our lives?  Is it a case of l’enfer, c’est les autres? (Sartre, No Exit)

Much has been eloquently said and  and written about this issue and I do not feel I can contribute to the debate.  However, I do wonder, and perhaps, naively: where are the parents of the abusers?  Is it not the goal of a parent to bring up children to become decent human beings respectful of the “other”, whatever or whoever that “other” may be?

 

 

So what about privacy?

“To respect other patient’s privacy, please stand back”.   This sign is posted at my doctor’s office, on the glass that separates the receptionist and the patients. The said glass goes from ceiling to counter and has a 5-inch diameter circle cut out from which the voices of the receptionists reach us.  Some of us are more hard of hearing than we used to be, so as a force of habit, the receptionists enunciate clearly and slightly louder than they would in a normal conversation.

So, I am standing behind the line drawn on the floor with two people standing in from of me.  In the few minutes standing,  I now know their names, their addresses and phone numbers, given that the receptionist validates each patient’s information before letting them sit in the waiting room.  The same information will be imparted on me to my fellow patients, despite the fact that I start my conversation with the receptionist saying that nothing has changed in my personal information. “So you are still living at …..and we can reach you at ….. ?”

At the physiotherapist now, I am asked to sign a consent form to allow the physiotherapist treating my foot, to have access to the X-ray of said foot; that consent form will go to my doctor who safely guards the image of an injured set of bones.

Again at the physiotherapist, all the ailing bodies waiting to be pricked, sucked, magnetized, stretched or manipulated, are patiently at their designated stations, some sitting other laying on the beds.  Looking around the room, I see a variety of bodies, mostly my contemporaries, in different stages of disrobement.  The men it seems, all have upper body, lower back ailments, requiring them to have their torso exposed.  The women seem to suffer from a variety of ailments, requiring them to wear shorts, which most probably they would only wear in the privacy of their back yard and never in public.  Yet here we are, in this big hall, sitting half-naked, some chatting with the person across the room, equally disrobed, as if it were the most natural thing to do. As if any one of us sits half naked in our living room when we have company and chat away about the recipe for pumpkin pie grandma used to make. All that is missing is the salted peanuts and olives.

And then comes the treatment: to pass the time both patients and health care  providers, exchange topics raging from family woes to weekend plans.  I now know more about the 10 o’clock Tuesday morning 68-year old swimmer who is leaving for Florida in November, than I care or need to.

When it comes time to leave, we all pudicly pull the curtains around the bed and get dressed.  I understand if a woman has to take off the hospital gown and get dressed, but the man who has been sitting up until now only wearing his pants, why pull the curtain to put on a shirt?

I usually bring and audiobook.

Sometimes I get confused about privacy…

What is in your trunk?

When my family emigrated from Europe 63 years ago, they were educated, but working class, neither rich nor poor, seeking the post war riches in the Americas.  They chose to go South.  They boarded the transatlantic ship with a suitcase each and two half-fullmom scan056.jpg

wood and metal large steamer trunks, containing their good clothes (including socks, stockings, shirts and blouses, underwear and nighties) and their everyday clothing, their good shoes, comb, hairbrush and other personal items, photographs of their deceased fathers, a two-tome encyclopedia, tools for the trade they were going to set up in their new country, important documents, money in envelopes.

When they emigrated a second time, this time to go North , they had a child, and two full trunks and a suitcase each.  They were wealthy, but wanted to live in a safer environment in which to bring up their child.  They had more good clothes and more good shoes, their personal belongings and more photographs, and now their child’s books.  But the art, the fine and everyday china and all other belongings were left behind.  They did not quite leave stuff behind.  The things they left were identifiable.  The painting by so-and-so, the German- made couch, the Grundig radio and turntable, the Italian damask linens, and so forth.  When they boarded the airplane, they had each a suitcase.

I live in a city of about 1 million population: there are in excess of 50 storage facilities ranging from a few storage units to multiple storey buildings.  Of course, there is a legitimate need for these storage facilities (diplomats, armed forces personnel, in-between houses, warehousing), but it seems that in the past decade these facilities have multiplied and there does not seem to be an end to their proliferation.

So why the need to store things?  What are these precious things that we cannot part with yet we have no room for?  We tend to generically name them stuff.  We buy stuff, we store stuff; we get rid of stuff, we donate stuff.  We no longer live in the household with one set of fine china, but two, or three; no longer just one or two Sunday outfits, but a closet full; not one wristwatch, but several.  Of course, we live in a consumer society, where spending keeps the economy going, which keeps us in the comfort we enjoy.  I have no issue with any of this.  But then from the East come Danshari, KonMari, methods for decluttering, and reorganizing. A call to return to a minimalist life, a more serene self. Something to consider, something in my to-do-list.

My father had rented additional storage space in the condominium where he and my mother lived.  It was full of his stuff.  When he died, at 79, we threw it all away and kept the shelving units.  When my mother died, at 88, she did not have stuff.  She had two file folders with important documents, a few good clothes, the jewelry my father had given her, one set of good china, two photo albums, a pair of baby booties and matching blanket, and the book she was reading.  It all would have fit in one trunk.

I often wonder:  how many trunks would I have, were I to leave tomorrow?

What color are you?

This is not an inane quiz like one might find in popular magazines. It is rather a thought about how we, as English speakers , think and communicate. If I were to say ‘red’ or ‘blue’ or ‘yellow’ to you, what would you see? Apple sky sun? Sports car, water, sunflower? Would you see little squares of paint samples? or would you see numbers, 5, 3 and 2? What if I said house? or bread?

Even among English speakers, the idea of house can be one with a wrap-around porch, or a Victorian dwelling, or a modern bungalow. Bread can be sliced, rustic, round, white or whole wheat and so on.  So even among English speakers, basic words, for which we have universal shared knowledge, conjure up images that can be as varied as their consumers.

So what happens if we speak the same language out of necessity rather than culture?  A school for foreign students, for instance, usually uses English as a lingua franca.  House can now mean apartment, hut, or a basic cube made of concrete blocks; bread can be pita, injera, or ciabatta.  So communicating the fact that one might miss the bread from home, can entail a description of what is green mealie bread or any bread that does not conform to your idea of what bread is. Often though, the necessary clarification is lacking. And the conversation continues with one speaker with one idea if what bread or house may be and the other speaker, well, with another. Mismatches pile up as the conversation continues. Seems like we are now in the realm of unshared regional knowledge.

If you think of all the other permutations of two people of same, similar, dissimilar, or distinct cultures, the magnitude of unshared regional knowledge increases, sometimes to a limit where there is no common ground.  For instance, the notion of bread for a Westerner and an Asian differs considerably not only in their preparation but also in their use.

So far, I only talked about color, houses and bread.  Simple enough, yet complex in its own way.  What if we extrapolated shared and unshared (universal, regional and local) knowledge to more complex idea, like, right/wrong?

For the birds

 

Am I a bad person because I choose which animal in nature I want to feed?

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a fresh “offering” on my car

There are all sorts of critters in our backyard, gophers, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and squirrels that come in grey, black and red. We also have garter snakes and toads. Moles, voles and rats as well. And of course, we also have birds. At certain times of the day, the bird traffic resembles the streaks of red or white light of cars on roads, streaks of yellow, brown and red darting from tree to tree with the accompanying squawking, chirping and tweeting.All creatures deserving of food.

The squirrels, cute as they may be, really are a major nuisance. At this time of the year, they gather their nuts. Their preferred method is toIMG_0640 climb to the top of the oak trees, snip off tender shoots with leaves and acorn and drop them to the ground, where the acorn shell breaks and the meat is easily and readily accessible. Clever and destructive.

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Who, me?

Our cars have been completely dented, our driveway looks like it has a carpet of broken brown shards.  All this to say that there many of THEM around, and only two of US.  And they are winning:  they chase the birds away, they destroy our bulbs, they destroy our cars.  So when it came to time to buy a bird feeder, it had to absolutely be squirrel proof.  And so we bought one and to our delight and amusement, the squirrels would find the “door shut” as they clung to the feeder or jumped on it, their weight doing the trick.  So we enjoyed the birds comings and goings until the chipmunk and red squirrels entered the scene.  They are light, they are quick and they are clever.

The squirrel proof feeder is no longer a sanctuary for the birds.  The weight of the lesser squirrel like creatures is not enough to lower the “door” to the seeds.  So you can see them perched with their snouts in the hole, filling their cheeks full of seeds.  So we devised some contraption to keep them away.  It is working for now. But as I said before, they are clever and it is just a question of time.

I really do not want to feed THEM.  I want to feed the birds.  Am I a bad person for segregating, favouring and supporting who I want to feed in the wild?