Saturday, February 28, 2009

You're going to keep missing the point until you see the movie

I went to Target today for some pre-trip shopping-- and almost forgave them for the pot rack situation because it was really, really nice to be able to get everything from snorkeling gear to sunblock to high efficiency laundry detergent in one store. I also looked at but did not buy snack bars (or as Target cleverly chooses to call them, "nutrition bars"). Large block letters across the wrapper of a set of PowerBar products spelled out "ELECTROLYTES." I almost got some for the garden I'm starting. After all, it's what plants crave.
***

I talked to my parents this afternoon. Not a whole lot to report, but mom did worry that the call was dropped whenever I didn't respond within a split second or otherwise:

Mom: So, we took that bamboo piece of furniture and moved it outside. Hello? HELLO?
A.: Yes, I'm here, I hear you.

[More conversation]

Mom: What are you up to this weekend?
A.: ...
Mom: Hello? HELLO?
A.: I'm here, mom. I'm getting together with some friends and just getting ready for my trip.
Mom: What's there to get ready for?

Keep in mind that about a year ago, mom was getting ready for the trip to China at 3am.

A.: Charging batteries, figuring out what to pack and what to pack it in, figuring out what I need to buy.
Mom: Okay, I see. When do you get back?
A.: Two Fridays from now.
Mom: We'll visit at the end of the month.
A.: Just not the last weekend in March.
Mom: Why?
A.: Because I have plans for the last weekend in March.

We went over this a few days ago. We'll probably go over it again soon.

Note that mom isn't being mean; this shift in tone, actually, is change I can believe in. We all have our moments of absentmindedness; as long as mom's not (a) trying to manage my career (b) calling me a shrew or otherwise insulting me or (c) recounting detailed stories and ten minutes later asking me to put them into a complaint letter, I really can't complain.

Bad customer service: subtle example

Not every instance of poor customer service is an in-your-face 'f* you' to the customer, although I'd argue that Best Buy's not giving you any say in when they'll deliver (and Sears, too) comes pretty close. Some instances are just sloppy, stupid.

I don't particularly want to go to Hallmark; its existence kind of goes against everything I believe in. However, I do have friends, despite what my mom will tell you; those friends do have occasions in their lives that are to be celebrated; and I have found Hallmark to have the greatest selection of the supplies I need to organize celebrations of such occasions. I'd like to hit the one on King Street early, preferably on the walk back from the market, so I'd like to schedule my trip to the market around when Hallmark opens. So I go to the store locator on Hallmark's website. Which does not provide hours of operation. HOW STUPID IS THAT?? Sure, there's a phone number, but that's an extra step. I don't want to pick up the phone and I sure as hell don't want to talk to a person (nor waste my time listening to an automated message-- I'd rather waste my time complaining to you about Hallmark). Let's not push this having-a-soul thing too far: while I'm quite happy to socialize with my friends, the more non-social transactions I can get through without interacting with another human, the happier I generally am.

Anyway, more on bad business models here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

wall rack saga, continued

So I just realized that those bastards at Target intend to charge me for return shipping! This would be acceptable if I had the option to return to a store, but I don't-- and they're totally backhanded about it-- they have you print out a postage label and all and in fine print tell you that the shipping cost will be deducted from your refund. I know this is stupid, but if I return it now, I'll have lost $20 just on shipping. Whereas if I keep it, I'll have spent a lot more but at least I keep the pot rack. Which won't hold pots in my kitchen. But f* that-- I'll find SOME studs in my house that are 16 inches apart. See if I ever buy from Target.com again.

Too good

Last night's episode of the Daily Show was particularly hilarious. The whole thing.

Also, Kris Kristofferson on watch Colbert. Which means that song will be in my head all weekend ;).

Go Away I Will Deal With You Later

Regarding the title: You've all heard Jay's choking story, right? It's not the same without the visual, so Jay, would you video it and send so I can post it?

Anyway, I promise that I am going to stop harping on how annoying Gracie is, but this is in response to one of your questions about an earlier post.

One of you asked me whether I work more now than I did before, in reference to the "I am not kitty-mom-in-chief so let me do my job" post. The issue is that I work from home sometimes, which I never did in my old job, so Gracie was never in a position to annoy me while I was working. I worked from home this afternoon-- actually, I went to a conference session in Crystal City in the morning, ran to the office in DC over lunch, ran back for a session in the afternoon, and came home to finish what I needed to get done. Not because I need the hours, but because there was something I absolutely had to get done today (and conference attendance was not optional). So I'm scrambling to get this thing done, and it's bad enough that Gracie's loitering around my feet and whining non-stop even though it's a whole two hours before her dinner time. What's worse is that she decides to jump up on the papers I'm working with. It's like she's trying to do the most annoying, infuriating, disruptive thing possible for that particular moment. To put it in perspective, it would have been less annoying had she done her scatological magic somewhere else in the house (and let me tell you, that is high on the threshold of annoying). I mean, what about my sitting here, focusing intensely, says "please jump on the papers I'm working with"?? I'd say, "what part of 'I'm going to beat you' do you not understand, but I've never actually beat her, which is a good thing. If you're feeling sorry for her right now, you take her while you're trying to work.

Logically, her behavior does her no favors because it only delays what she's asking for. My mom does this kind of thing too, and doesn't register the whole 'if you leave me alone and let me finish what I'm doing, you'll get what you want' faster thing. This is how this argument has unfolded with mom:

Mom: A.! Get off the phone!
A.: One second, mom...
Mom: No, get off the phone NOW!
A.: Well, if you'll let me...
Mom: No, NOW!
A.: I'm not going to hang up on my friend. I'm going to end the conversation in a civilized manner. Now, if you would let me do that...
Mom: No, get off the phone now!
A.: I am going to get off the phone as soon as you stop talking to me.
Mom: Now!
A.: If you're done.
Mom: You always have to have the last word!

This is how the conversation unfolds with Gracie:

Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: Shut up.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: I'm going to beat you.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: It's not even your dinner time.

Or

Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: Mommy's working.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: Gracie, go away.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: Gracie, shut up!

Or

Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: In a minute.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: I'm getting your food out, dumbass.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: The sooner you stop whining and let me get to what I'm doing, rather than having to chase you around with a spray bottle, the sooner you'll get your dinner.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: You're so f*ing stupid.
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: How the f* did you get so stupid? Is it genetic? Were you dropped on your head as a kitten?
Gracie: Meeeeeoooowwwwww
A.: Good thing you're cute.

***
Today (i.e. the day after I wrote the above), Gracie got the beating she's been asking for (well, actually, I still didn't beat her. But I did spray her at close range). She scratched/bit one of my friends, which was really not cool. First, this morning, she was jumping on me while I was in the middle of writing out invitations (it's like she knows when I'm busy and just has to get in the way). Then, some friends were over, and she was attention-w&oring as usual. At one point she jumped on the couch and my friends were petting her. From out of nowhere, she attacked. It was, as I said, really not cool, and she knew it (because she ran away immediately). But I caught her and sprayed her at close range (at which point one friend said, 'wow, when you hold her like that, you can really tell how fat she is.')

The humanities

Ah, the ages-old debate about what a non-vocational education is good for. Perhaps some, like my mother, would use against it the fact that I am not capable in the short time I have before I need to run to work of putting together a strong argument (nor is it likely that I'll have the energy when I return from work). That's a cop-out, though: it's not a lack of energy; it's intellectual laziness. The value of the humanities is so obvious that it's a chore to make it explicit, and I've done just that so many times that I'm sick of it. Some of you are familiar with the debate's bastard step-brother: what difference does it make that an engineer has never heard of Che Guevara? Besides, what does Che Guevara have to do with anything in this day an age? To me, that's akin to questioning what education and community building have to do with poverty alleviation, but that's a statement about my opinion rather than an argument. An argument will not be forthcoming because, as I said, I have to go to work.

I will, before I go, invoke another Nina story. Nina's parents were over for latkes over the holidays; Natasha, her mother, was telling us that neither Nina nor any of her classmates from her stint at Mass. College of Art were working as artists. Which begs the question of what that education may be good for. Composing an answer to that question would be a waste of my breath and your time; the question itself, however, is symbolic of the larger debate at hand.

I will, while continuing to cop out of developing a coherent response, sloppily share some observations. I have worked with or otherwise encountered more than my fair share of people who, for example:
-do not think abstractly
-do not tolerate intellectual uncertainty
-cannot see proverbial shades of gray
-cannot put two sentences together
-do not think critically

Now, it's only fair, since we're talking about fair shares, to disclose that I, for example:
-still do not know how to fix my outlets
-do not understand the internal workings of my car
-don't know a lot about a whole bunch of things

But I'm pretty good at my job, and I owe much of that to my non-vocational education. I would still argue that even if the only thing the job market needed was people to fix toilets and build bridges, society would still need the humanities; otherwise, see Idiocracy (see Idiocracy anyway). And there are two parts to that: (1) there are plenty of plumbers, engineers, what have you, that do think critically and understand what Che Guevara has to do with anything, and it may or may not make them better plumbers or engineers but it makes them better citizens and (2) there is great, real demand for people who can think critically and put two (or more) sentences together, and those skills, for the most part, need to be cultivated.

Okay, I really have to go to work now.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Books

Please understand that I tell you of my burn out and exhaustion not to complain or solicit sympathy-- I know you're all burnt out and exhausted, that you work as hard as I do, etc. (although I doubt that your cat annoys the crap out of you to the same extent. Just kidding).

Anyway, while my extracurricular and home repair activities have wound down, work has been insane. I've actually been really enjoying it, but I'm exhausted. All I want to do at the end of the day is go home and rest. Even on less exhausting days, I've skipped out on things that would theoretically be interesting, but when you're tired, you don't really appreciate those things. Conversely, sometimes I get over myself and go to things, and sometimes I'm disappointed (and angry that the organizers or performers of the event wasted my time).

So today I went to a "conversation" with Helene Cooper, now the Times' White House correspondent. I've read a lot of her work over the years, but became especially interested after reading some of her writing on Liberia, her home country. It wasn't actually what I just linked to (that's the first chapter of her book, which she discussed at the event); it was something she wrote just after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected, perhaps this. Anyway, when I heard she was speaking, I knew I had to go. I RSVPd, but when it came time to go, I wanted to go home... but I knew this would be worth it, so I went. Then, the event didn't start for a while. I finished my crossword, read the New Yorker. A smarter, less lazy careerist would have networked over the wine and cheese being served but I had even less energy than usual for schmoozing. I was really tempted to just leave. I almost did, several times. But something told me to stay, and I'm so glad I did. For every event that is a waste of time, that makes you think-- what was it that I read in a movie review the other day--"I could have been turning my mulch;"-- there's that one time that makes you think, I can't believe I almost missed that, that I almost talked myself out of going-- and this was it. She was so good, so fascinating to listen to, so charismatic, so insightful. As well as surprisingly easy to identify with as an immigrant, albeit from a completely different place and situation.

I've not read the book--although I plan to--and I don't think I've ever recommended a book I've not read, but I'll stake my credibility and your time on "The House at Sugar Beach."

Trees

So well said:
The high point of Jindal’s address came when he laced into “wasteful spending” in the stimulus bill, and used as an example a $140 million appropriation for keeping an eye on the volcanoes in places like Alaska, where one is currently rumbling.

“Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.,” Jindal claimed.

I don’t know about you, but my reaction was: Wow, what a great stimulus plan. The most wasteful thing in it is volcano monitoring.

Louisiana has gotten $130 billion in post-Katrina aid. How is it that the stars of the Republican austerity movement come from the states that suck up the most federal money? Taxpayers in New York send way more to Washington than they get back so more can go to places like Alaska and Louisiana. Which is fine, as long as we don’t have to hear their governors bragging about how the folks who elected them want to keep their tax money to themselves. Of course they do! That’s because they’re living off ours...

The waste argument is a perpetual winner because there will always be some. Years ago, when I was a reporter, I remember getting a call from a woman in the Bronx who was screaming: “They’re over on Moshulu Parkway planting dead trees!” Sure enough, a city work crew was digging holes along the side of the street and carefully sticking in brown and dried-up pieces of foliage. The men claimed the trees had simply lost their leaves for the winter — an explanation somewhat undermined by the fact that they were evergreens.

I’m telling you this because on Tuesday I was talking with a high-ranking Obama administration official about the stimulus plan. “There will be a dead tree planted, figuratively speaking,” he said somberly. “That will happen.”

How could it not? Much of the stimulus money is being channeled through state and local governments, through tens of thousands of governors, mayors, county executives, transportation commissioners, parks superintendents and so on. Try to imagine the person in that pyramid with the lowest I.Q., and you’ll understand that there’s a dead-tree planter hidden in there somewhere.


And I appreciate this because my mom and her friends will hold up the dead trees as microcosms of the whole thing-- and I find dead trees as infuriating or more so than the next person-- but there's a point where you have to accept a level of dead trees. I have planted a number of figurative dead trees, especially during my move; even my mom does it from time to time. If you're going to do just about anything, there will be things that you do in error.

***
Speaking of dead trees, soft toilet paper is bad for the planet.

In other news, Mexico's drug war is increasingly f*ed up; and there's some hope for Sudan.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wednesday evening roundup

I was at work late enough today that I had to go out another entrance (or exit), on account of which it made sense to use a different metro entrance. Which entailed walking past the Verizon Center. Which is always an experience. Sometimes you can tell who's playing (I think I blogged about the time hordes of screaming, pre-teen girls were emerging from the metro in droves--that was for the Spice Girls); sometimes, you have no idea but it's fun to guess. This evening, it was sports rather than meeting; I couldn't tell you who or what, but I could tell you that I certainly didn't look like I gave a shit as I walked past. So it surprised me when one of the guards? scalpers? what have you? said, "trying to get a ticket, ma'am?" I mean, if he was a scalper, you can't blame him for trying-- waste nothing but breath. But you have to wonder.

***
There was a segment of yesterday's phone conversation that I forgot to blog. I remembered it because I'm watching (well, listening to) last night's Colbert Report, in which he says, "Mom, get off the phone!" which was certainly a frequent refrain in my childhood. Mom would listen into everything--the more difficult and personal the conversation, the more determined she was to listen. When I called about a job, she was on the line. No call was too trivial; when a magazine called me to ask to renew, she spoke up to say "no" for me. But I digress.

Mom: Did you know it's Nina's birthday today?
A.: Of course.
Mom: Really? How did you know?
A.: I know Nina's birthday.
Mom: You're good. Then again, I was good at your age.
A.: I'm not that good. I mean, you know Natasha's [Nina's mother] birthday.
Mom: Yes, but that's different.
A.: How?
Mom: You were little when Nina was born.
A.: You were little when Natasha was born.
Mom: I suppose. Did you wish her a happy birthday.
A.: Of course.

How else could one answer that question? "Actually, I told her to f* off"?

I'm probably being unfair. It's because I'm tired. All in all, mom is being very nice.

***
Now for your roundup.

Dunleavey reviews "Shopaholic."

Milbank reviews your elected officials on Twitter.

The Post also has a quasi-interesting article on what the recession means for dating. Interesting not because of the insights, but because it's funny how people can live in the same city and still inhabit a different planet.

Wednesday morning roundup

On bank execs on crazy pills, or perhaps ego pills.

On public discourse in the age of Youtube:
There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker...

Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

saints preserve us

For the second time in months, I was about to preface a link with 'very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is amusing, but I'm not sure I can keep saying that, because this absurd s&it keeps coming up.

So close

I almost went a whole month without a single mom-blog post. For what it's worth, the one that follows is pretty tame.

I called mom on my way home from the metro. She told me about how they finally found and installed the new entertainment center and how there's furniture and stuff everywhere.

A.: I hear you. I bought one of those wall-mounted pot racks, but my wall-stud structure isn't agreeing with it, so its component parts are currently all over the place.
Mom: What is it?
A.: A pot rack. But my studs are an irregular distance from one another, so I don't think I can mount it.
Dad: Studs are 16 inches apart.
A.: Yes, and the screw holes on the pot rack are 16 inches apart. The studs in my wall are not.
Dad: Can you at least find some?
A.: Yeah, but they're still not in the right place relative to one another.
Mom: Can you get someone to help you?
A.: It's not me. It's my wall.
Mom: Well, wait. When we visit we'll look at it.
A.: If I'm going to have to return it, I want to package it back up and return it.
Mom: What else is going on?
A.: Not much. Work is going well...
Mom: Knock on wood.
A.: Oksy, knock on wood. I'm leaving for my trip next week.
Mom: I saw a package for that trip for dirt cheap.
A.: Yes, you told me that the other day.
Mom: No, I just saw it recently.
A.: Right, you told me.
Mom: No, more recently than that.
A.: Okay.
Mom: It was really inexpensive.
A.: That's nice.
Mom: Maybe we'll visit in March after you get back. When do you have to return the pot rack?
A.: Well, don't plan your visit on account of the pot rack. March is good apart from the weekend of the 28th.
Mom: What about the 28th?
A.: I'm busy on the 28th.
Mom: Well, don't return it yet.
A.: [Shrug.]
Mom: Actually, I'll look for one in AJ Wright.
A.: I can assure you they don't have them there, and the problem isn't the rack; it's my wall.
Mom: I guess you can return it if you want to.
A.: I'll figure something out for the pot rack, mom.
Mom: Okay, have a good night.
A.: You, too. Bye, dad.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wah.

Wah wah wah wah wah.

Please indulge me while I turn this blog into a bitch session-- I mean, it's always that, but one not at my expense for just this once (okay, fine, more than once, but who's counting).

It would be one thing if my kitchen wall were not the stud farm I hoped it would be... but it does--even that segment of it--does have three studs. I got the studometer to detect the same ones more than once. More or less. They're just some irregular distance apart, whereas the makers of this shelf thing are beyond certain that studs are sixteen inches apart. Well, mine aren't.

The irony is, this thing came with the best set of directions of anything I've installed since I moved into this house. It even has a diagram to indicate what the different screws and nuts look like and where they go. The instructions are clear. They don't read as if LSD or other controlled substances played a role in their composition. They're dream directions. So why is my kitchen not cooperating with me??? Wah.

all over the place blog

Do you know how many people tried to make me miss my train this afternoon? First, there was the very large man who, whether he wanted to or not, took up most of both escalator lanes. Then, on the next escalator, there was the guy who positioned his roller suitcase smack in the middle of the escalator. Then, with the train in sight, shortly before the doors closed--one good thing about rush hour is that you get that time that it takes people to get off the train-- the person in front of me just stopped. And thought. And then boarded. Thankfully, I made it in, too, but it was annoying. And it happens all the time. People are in a hurry, but then they stop and contemplate (or realize that it's not the line they want), but they continue to lock the doors. It's really f*ing annoying.

By the way, I'm not proud of or even unconcerned about this anti-overweight bias that Project Implicit has confirmed that I have (the good news is, I harbor "little or no" other biases, of the ones I tested on). I don't believe in trying to justify my bias, although part of it really is that I don't like it when people block the escalator or take up part of my seat. But I don't accept that kind of argument from other people-- I think it's pretty lame, actually. You hear guys especially say that it's not a shallow thing so much as a proxy for self-control. Having no self-control myself when it comes to food, I can hardly judge others for that. Maybe that's it? Maybe it's my own frustration with my post-30 weight, especially now that, given that I'm leaving in ten days, I have to accept that I'll be going on vacation chubby? Maybe that's why Gracie is especially annoying (although let me tell you, she is pretty annoying in her own right)?

***
Back to the topic of public transit, the buzz around Washington is that half the members of the WMATA board rarely use the system and some owe parking fees. The reactions range from "I'm shocked" to "makes perfect sense." It actually makes even more perfect sense given some of the inane, expensive ideas they've implemented over the years to try to improve service (hiring a marketing company to come up with cheesy posters on metro etiquette; hiring riders to test the system-- I mean, WTF?).

***
I didn't watch the Oscars; I don't have a TV, and anyway, most of it was past my bedtime. I did read about it, though, and I f*ing LOVED the opening line of Sean Penn's acceptance speech.

***
Okay, back to the studmaster. Which doesn't seem to think my kitchen wall has any studs. Well, it does, but they're never in the same place twice. I don't know.

Seasonal, local

It's not that I'm trying to bum you out, first with the description in last night's post of EC 112's treatment--that was the contextual (and thought-provoking) means to a humorous end--and now with this investigative report on the forced labor behind winter tomatoes. It's just that... I thought you'd want to know.

I'm a hypocrite; the weekend before last, I purchased five pounds of Florida strawberries without really thinking about it. I consume summer produce throughout the winter. It's not that I don't think about the labor that goes into producing my food; it's that I'm too lazy to change my habits.

Is this case similar to the sweatshop situation, where the last thing you want to do is stop buying and put people out of business? I don't know. I can say that with this:
The Campaign for Fair Food, as it is called, first took aim at Yum! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and A&W. After four years of pressure, Yum! agreed to the one-cent raise in 2005 and, importantly, pledged to make sure that no worker who picked its tomatoes was being exploited. McDonald’s came aboard in 2007, and in 2008 Burger King, Whole Foods Market, and Subway followed, with more expected to join up this year. But the program faces a major obstacle. Claiming that the farmers are not party to the arrangement, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agricultural cooperative that represents some 90 percent of the state’s producers, has refused to be a conduit for the raise, citing legal concerns
I'm definitely done with Florida tomatoes.

Derek Zoolander would be proud

Check out this new legislation-naming contest. My pick, out of the entries so far: "The Act to Help Children Read Gooder." Other entries here.

wrong

According to all empirical evidence, this is not how it works:
"If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely because they are uneducated and they don't know about budgeting. But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives."
- MAZIN al-SHIHAN, director of a city agency in Baghdad, on his plan to pay
men to marry Iraqi war widows.


Again and again, studies of development aid, microfinance, remittances, what have you, show that when women manage the money, the money is invested in the family (health, education, savings), whereas men usually blow it on themselves.

Stop taking her side

Do you know what that little rat just did? She bumped the arm that was holding my coffee. She is still alive because the mug was tilted toward me, rather than the laptop. The mug was in my hand, because when it was on the arm of the futon, she was coming very close to both knocking it over and dipping her tail in. Apparently, she thinks she is entitled to be fed before her breakfast time, and she thinks she can wear me down by whining non-stop, but we've been over this: her breakfast time comes no earlier than 6:15, and annoying mommy only makes it later.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I hear a lot of "oh, poor Gracie" (in reference, for example, to her having got her fat ass stuck behind the wall when we she first moved in) and "but she's so cute." Well, there are days-- and she hasn't wielded her poop as a weapon of psychological warfare in a while-- but there are days when I think, that's it, asshole: keep it up and you're going back to the shelter. And then, of course, I think, 'I've made a commitment.' To which I respond, 'but that unwritten contract did not account for psychological warfare with scatological weaponry.' But it may as well have; she's a cat. And I took her on. Which is not to say that no point is too far, but I have to admit that none of the behavior so far, albeit very annoying, has reached it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More

You may be wondering, 'what-up with all the New Yorker articles all of the sudden? Well, for months, I didn't really have time to read; the New Yorker issues from those months will be going on vacation with me in less than two weeks. This past week's is quite good, and when I went online to link to the one in the previous post, I couldn't help but notice this one. An excerpt:
When Emanuel said this, I noticed that over his left shoulder, on the credenza behind him, was an official-looking name plate, which he said was a birthday present from his two brothers. It read, “Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself.”

EC#2 has a sense of humor

You don't know it, but in a way, you have won the lottery: The New Yorker has made quite a worthwhile article available without putting you through the ordeal of its digital reader. I don't know how long you have to claim your prize before this link turns into a pumpkin, so read it soon. In the meantime, I will entice you with some excerpts. First, the matter at hand:
The last “enemy combatant” being detained in America is incarcerated at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina—a tan, low-slung building situated amid acres of grassy swampland. The prisoner, known internally as EC#2, is an alleged Al Qaeda sleeper agent named Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. He has been held in isolation in the brig for more than five years, although he has never stood trial or been convicted of any crime. Under rules established by the Bush Administration, suspected terrorists such as Marri were denied the legal protections traditionally afforded by the Constitution. Unless the Obama Administration overhauls the nation’s terrorism policies, Marri—who claims that he is innocent—will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Next, the not-so-funny part:
For the first six months, Marri was kept in an eight-foot-by-ten-foot cell with one blacked-out window, no social interaction, and nothing to do or to read. An internal report, declassified in 2005, showed that during this period the Department of Defense ordered the removal of the mattress, pillow, and Koran of a detainee in the brig. Marri was also deprived of visits from the Red Cross, in violation of international laws. He was denied hot food, and consistently felt cold: he was given no socks, and his bed had only a stiff “anti-suicide” blanket—one that cannot be made into a noose. Andrew Savage, the local counsel for Marri in Charleston, says, “It was a psychological effort to devalue him. He was going crazy. He thought the smells from the nearby paper mill were poisoning him.” At other points, Marri started feeling “tingles” all over, and began hallucinating that microphones had been installed in his cell. “He was getting delusional,” Savage said.

When unidentified interrogators finally showed up at the brig, Marri told them that he needed three things: a blanket, shoes, and socks. If he was given those, he said, he would talk to them in another six months. “He said, ‘You deprive me? I’ll deprive you,’ ” Savage said. Instead, “the interrogators got rougher.” Marri was chained in a fetal position on the floor. When he started to chant prayers rather than listen to the interrogators’ questions, Savage said, they tried to silence him by wrapping duct tape around his mouth. When he kept humming, they tried to gag him. But as they started to tape a sock in his mouth he began to choke, causing the agents to panic and stop...

Given the reputation that military prisons have developed after the abuse scandals at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the lawyers for Marri were surprised to discover that they had allies in the Navy brig who shared their concerns over Marri’s treatment. Unlike the staff at Abu Ghraib, the brig staff had been trained for the job. Their mission, as they saw it, was to run a safe, professional, and humane prison, regardless of who was held there. It was the political appointees in Washington, at the Pentagon and the Department of Justice, who wanted Marri to be kept in prolonged isolation. In 2005, Savage discovered that the head of security at the brig, Air Force Major Chris Ferry, “would stay all night with Marri. He’d go down to the brig and sit with him, and tell him to hold on. Chris was there at three in the morning, on the darkest nights.”

As I am not writing a term paper, I am leaving out the case against Marri and the quite interesting legal issues that the article brings up. I highly recommend that you read the article. As far as this blog is concerned, I'm moving on to what is funny:
After Savage filed suit, Marri’s conditions started to improve, and so did his behavior. Marri was gradually given reading material and exercise equipment...Marri’s conditions have so improved that his lawyers jokingly refer to him these days as “the Emir of the S.H.U.”—the high-security wing of the brig is known as the Special Housing Unit. He remains the sole prisoner in the wing, but he now has the regular use of three cells, which he refers to as his “executive suite.” One cell contains a memory-foam mattress. Another houses a personal library containing hundreds of volumes. The third contains alcohol-free cleaning supplies, in compliance with his Muslim religious needs. When visitors come, he sees them in an upper-tier room that he calls his “summer chalet.” He also has exclusive access to a thousand-square-foot dayroom equipped with a treadmill and an elliptical machine. Officially barred from watching the evening news, Marri has become a devotee of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart—whom he calls “that Jewish guy.”

Marri is still not always a model prisoner. At one point, he became angry at Stephanie Wright, the brig’s commander at the time, for being slow in getting him medicine that he had requested. He picked up a guard’s two-way radio, which had been left unattended, and screamed into it, “Stephanie! This is me—Ali—EC#2! Move your ass!” His voice was heard over all the radios in the brig. Guards came running toward him. “I think he acted out for his own entertainment,” Savage said.

Since prison censors cut many of the hard-news stories out of the papers he received, Marri began sending brig authorities frequent notes about local ads. As Savage recalls it, one note said, “It’s a two-for-one sale on upholstered chairs! I’ll take the purple—you can have the lime green.”

Amateur hour

Sigh.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The monster evolves

Over lunch, I remarked that I saw a military recruitment ad in Better Homes and Gardens. Someone was talking about ADD, which reminded me that I'd seen an ad for ADD medication in the same magazine. Which I didn't find as odd as the military recruitment ad. So I told my friends about it, and it surprised them, but it what surprised them more was that I was reading Better Homes and Gardens.

I'm not reading it for the Homes part; I've kind of figured that out on my own (well, with the help of many friends, too). I'm not one of those people who can model decor according to what's drawn up in a magazine, although I can get ideas from it. But since I know almost nothing about gardening, I don't think it's a bad idea to look to magazines for inspiration, and I think I'm going almost exactly copy one of BHG's suggested garden plots.

What's even harder to admit than reading BHG? Going to Marthastewart.com. It came with a huge recommendation (and caveat of 'even though she's a horrible, irritating human being') from a friend who once landscaped for a living, so I decided to get over myself and seek Ms. Stewart's advice.

It's not only for reasons of ego and self-perception that I'm slightly weary of both; it's that I don't particularly care for the advice of either in other areas. I subscribed to a year of Everyday Food (had to get rid of frequent flier miles) and have since found few recipes that appeal to me, because they rely quite often on processed ingredients (BHG's recipes are similar), and if there's one trendy expert whose credo I'm not ashamed to live by, it's Michael Pollan. Decor-wise, too, neither BHG or MSL is my style-- too fussy, even when they're claiming to be simple; too matchy-matchy, too countryside bed&breakfast (not that I have anything against those-- I just don't want my house to resemble them).

But while I know food, and I apparently have a greater sense of decor than I thought I did, I know nothing about gardening, so I have no choice but to get over myself and see what BHG and MSL have to say. We'll see what happens.

People of Old Town rejoice!

The Trader Joe's on St. Asaph is expanding, and not a moment too soon. I've walked right out of that place because it was just too crowded and the lines were too long (which they are most of the weekend). Maybe you've known this for a while, but I just found out from a friend I ran into in town--who was going to stop at the TJ's in Springfield because she couldn't deal with the crowds at the local one (she's going to be out there anyway, but still.

***
On this beautiful day in Old Town, I had a lovely lunch with some friends at Vermillion. We occupied our table for quite a while, and as the restaurant became crowded, a waiter very politely offered us a round of drinks at the bar... if we moved to the bar. The drinks were amazing (I got the apple pie... mmm), and the handling of the situation was very professional. A year ago, friends and I were having dinner at 701 in Penn Quarter-- and we weren't there for unreasonable time-- when we were flat-out, rudely asked to leave because another party was there for our table. I, personally, will never return there.

Restaurant etiquette goes both ways, and Tom Sietsema, the Post's food critic, started a lively discussion on the topic. This will shock you as much as it shocked me, but the main themes are people on cell phones and rowdy children.

Some excerpts:
...loud or otherwise unruly children (those who kick chairs, get underfoot of waiters, etc.), & of course cell phones.

What irks me the most are parents who allow their children to run wild in a restaurant, or in any public place. I have seen this happen to often to wonder, "What are these parents thinking of?" Are they not aware that their children are bothering other people? Perhaps not.


I was going to stay away from the breastfeeding-at-the-table discussion, until someone tried to justify it as such:
It seems to me that diners in a restaurant can look the other way for a few seconds while Mom positions baby for nursing. Babies have the right to eat, too, when they are hungry! And if you're tempted to say that babies don't belong in restaurants for dinner, please give Mom a break. We give up so many of our own personal freedoms when we choose to become nursing mothers. Happily, in most cases, but still. It's nice to know you can enjoy a night out at a nice restaurant and keep baby contented with a little nursing.
To which I say, aw, hell no! You give up your personal freedoms? First of all, who the hell begged you to have a child? If you're going to do it, don't whine about the sacrifices. More importantly, let's talk about personal freedoms. Please consult the constitution. I don't think it endows entitlement to a night out on the town, with a clause that specifically allows you to breastfeed in public (although I personally feel that if you can do that discreetly, it's not an issue). I'm just so sick of many parents' sense of entitlement.

This guy sums it up brilliantly:
Absolutely, the most irritating thing for me is obnoxious parents who feel completely justified in bringing their ill-behaved young children into a nice restaurant... Babies screaming and throwing food around. Kids climbing over everything and making a mess...I took my 16-year-old daughter out to Jaleo recently and ahead of us was a family with four young boys, aged from toddler to early elementary school and they were climbing on the fixtures before they even got to the hostess stand. After they were seated at a big table in the center of the dining room, the hostess moved to seat us right next to them and I asked her to find a table at the other end of the room. Sure enough, even from across the room, you could see these brats acting like they were at Chuckie Cheese's.
Note to parents: now matter how adorable your little Josh or Ashley is in your eyes, it's rude and inconsiderate to subject the patrons and staff of an adult restaurant with their presence. If the place doesn't have crayons and paper place mats with games and a "kids" menu, and if you're kids don't know how to act in a grown-up place, then leave at home--or go to TGI Fridays.
And these:
...disruptive children (actually should be inattentive parents) - by this i don't mean fussy children or loud children but ones that are either running through the restaurant or truly shrieking at the top of their lungs with no attempt by their parents to deal with it.
and
While I admit I don't like being subjected to other people's screaming children, I know it can't always be helped but one time was beyond the pale... Two of the children in this family were allowed to run around as they pleased and the baby was just letting loose with bloodcurdling screams (you would have thought it was the Spanish Inquisition)Why? Clueless dad was tickling the baby and thinking it was quit amusing when the baby shrieked! So since he was so amused he just kept doing it and doing it. Everyone in the restaurant just looked at each other in disbelief. We weren't sure whether to get up and leave or go over and give clueless dad a piece of our mind. When they left everyone was so relieved.

Of course, the woman changing a diaper on the table takes the cake, but I've seen people change diapers where they just shouldn't... it's the cluelessness. Their heads are so far up their own asses that they can't comprehend why others wouldn't want to later be in contact with a surface that had been in contact with their child's poop.

And then these jerks get all sanctimoniouswhen we express a preference for child-free dining.


***
These babies are really cute.

must-read

The New Yorker has made sharing articles unnecessarily difficult, and reading them using their new online reader is no fun. Nonetheless, "Opening Night", about the airport slums of Mumbai, is well worth the hassle. Go while it's still free (it does require registration).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On advice

I've changed a lot over the last ten years, but one thing for sure hasn't changed: I have very little tolerance for unsolicited advice. I also like to think that I don't dish it out, but I may slip sometimes.

The thing is, there's a kind of advice that is completely useless. Well, there are several, starting with the kind that frustrates most women to no end but somehow finds itself in comments from men all the time. It's the "you must think I'm stupid/no, I'm just helping you solve your problems" advice. For example:

Woman: I'm not sure I like this book.
Man: Well, don't read it, then.

Volumes have been written about that, and we've all probably experienced it, so I'll move on to the next useless kind of advice: That which starts with "you should."

As a wise woman put it, "'should' can be found in the dictionary between 'shit' and syphilis'." And that's because none of us is really in a position to tell another person what they should do. Only you know your situation, your goals, your priorities, etc.

If I may define that type of advice in the negative, i.e. by describing what useful advice would be, I'd say that useful advice takes the form of factual information. Let's contrast:

Useless: You should go to Las Vegas.
Useful: Depending on what you're interested in, Las Vegas is a good place to go because there is outdoor stuff to do just outside, and the city itself has its draws.

Useless: You should buy a new car now because they're offered at great prices.
Useful: If you're in the market for a car anyway, now is as good a time as any.

Over the years, I've gotten tons of both kinds of advice on jobs, real estate and relationships, and I'm glad that-- with the first two, anyway-- I was able to distinguish the good from the bad (and tune out the useless, because something about "you should" just makes me stop listening).

What got me thinking about this again was another great column from M.P. Dunleavey. The theme reasserted itself throughout the homebuying process, throughout the course of which everyone and her grandmother is full of useless advice. If you listen to other people's guidelines about how much of your income you should commit to housing, you'd be hard-pressed (on my income, anyway) to live in any major metropolitan area. I mean, I could have bought farther out to save $150 per month, and then committed that $150-- as well as more time-- to commuting costs. I've probably gone on, in these pages, about how years ago when I got out of grad school and took a job with an hourlong commute, my parents and their friends emphatically urged me to move closer, and I couldn't be happier that instead assessed my own priorities and refused. A friend of mine who bought a beautiful condo in the city often talks about how her monthly payment, high by the standards of any financial adviser, couldn't be more worth it.

Maybe I'm feeling the need to wax philosophical about this because I want to reassure myself that I made the right decision to go on a very expensive vacation (and then another vacation five weeks later). The same MSN money, which as you can gather, I strongly recommend for personal finance advice, just updated its financial savvy quiz. I do pretty well on these things, but the one thing I always get wrong is when they ask, 'a friend calls you up and invites you to a once-in-a-lifetime ski trip that you haven't budgeted for; what do you do?' The right answer is 'turn it down and start budgeting.' Well, I don't believe in turning down travel opportunities, unless they are truly exorbitant, and in that case they're not opportunities in the true sense of the word. I turn down, for example, offers from Smith College alum association to participate in $10,000 trips, but that's because for that kind of money I can take myself there on my own schedule. I mean, everyone's situation is different, but if you're securely employed, and I know that's a big 'if' these days, you'll make the money, but will you always have another chance to see a new part of the world?

Another friend spoke of the mental accounting that she was doing when she thought about remodeling her kitchen: she'd rather borrow to redo her kitchen than borrow to go on vacation. For some reason, it seemed more responsible, even though it's the same money, which is being borrowed so that she can do both. And I understand the mental accounting logically/emotionally-- I do it all the time-- but I'm going to argue that travel is a perfectly legitimate expense.

The financial advisers' rule of thumb is 'don't borrow for depreciating assets,' i.e. cars and clothes. Travel provides experiences of a lifetime (hopefully in a good way, but you'll never no unless you try).

This is especially the case for we single people, because we can't just decide to go somewhere and have a spouse at the ready as a travel partner. In lieu of that, we have to take those opportunities when they come up. I couldn't agree more with Ms. Dunleavey: sometimes it's worth making the decision that goes against all (or most) of the conventionally accepted financial advice.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nobody cares about your kids' poop

I am doing my best to tread carefully here, because back in the day I promised that I would never become one of those tiresome jerks who talks about mortgages and home improvement as if anyone else gives a $hit. On a similar note, I understand that I may one day have a child who likes to scream on airplanes (but let me tell you, I will at least do what I can).

Disclaimers aside, I LOVED this article, as well as the not-online Editor's Letter that introduced it:
Veteran business journalist [Nancy] Hass looks at the ways in which mommy culture seems to have invaded everything, arguing that we've embraced it publicly for long enough, thank you-and women can now move forward secure in the knowledge that motherhood is, yes, a tough and demanding and extremely rewarding job, but it doesn't necessarily make you fit to be a senator, any more than Al Franken's being a father makes him fit to be the freshman congressman from Minnesota.
Highlights from the article:
It’s not as though I don’t love my daughter. Or that I take her for granted. Infertility made her birth a novel-length saga, and I marvel daily that she’s a healthy, fearless, slaphappy toddler... But I have never once thought of her as the best thing I’ve ever done. Perhaps that’s a function of having had a better-than average work life, but it’s also because I’m loath to take credit for my daughter as an accomplishment. Reproducing, even for me, who had to go to such lengths to become a mother, doesn’t feel like a personal achievement; it’s just a natural part of the human cycle. That’s one of the reasons I love being a parent; it’s comfortingly prosaic, delightfully unremarkable. Can you imagine women in small Indian villages standing around the local well asking for reassurance from the others that having their brood of kids is “the best thing they’ve ever done”? It’s a ready-made caption for a New Yorker cartoon.
and
So why do so many accomplished women, even in the most rarefied professional environments, feel compelled to treat their children as something to be celebrated publicly in minute, often embarrassingly scatological, detail? Why do they assume that tales of their offspring’s quotidian doings will envelop everyone else in a cloak of bliss? While there are indeed a few colleagues with whom I’ve developed a real friendship and whose children’s lives I love hearing about (part of the reason I chose these pals is their ability to endow even a toddler tantrum story with wit and irony), it’s a tiny club. And it surely doesn’t include the acquaintance who corralled me during a break at a recent seminar on the world economic crisis, nearly bursting to compare stories of our kids’ capricious bowel habits, school issues, and general adorability...

Give a female celebrity a soapbox, and you can bet she’ll eventually wind up effervescing on the joys of motherhood. No cliché is too hoary for these gals as they gesticulate madly with their slender arms and toss their high-gloss manes; they seem unaware of the cultural ironies embedded in the reveries. These mistresses of mass media (and you know who they are) have perfected the mixed message: I’m a regular mom, just like you. Pay no attention to the three nannies who have been cropped out of this picture or the fact that I spend four nights a week on the red carpet. I’m really just a harried hausfrau who can’t stop talking about my kids’ organic diet. Have I told you that having a baby is the best thing I’ve ever done?
and
Linda Hirshman, the philosopher and feminist author, says the current tendency of women to blather at work about their children is a by-product of the “Mommy Wars,” the heightened tension that developed a decade ago between stay-at-home mothers and their employee counterparts... The question, she says, is “how much of your banal, private reproductive life is appropriate in the public space? No one is saying you should be a man in a skirt, that you shouldn’t leave early for a soccer game or that you should hide your pregnancy, but that’s not the same thing as abolishing the boundaries between the personal and professional spheres.”
and
My husband too thinks I’m overreacting...He advises me to suffer the indignities of office baby talk gracefully. “So what if you have to choke down one more poop story?” he asks.


Okay, I KNEW I wasn't the only person out there sick of the poop talk and the presumptuousness behind it, i.e. other people will find talk of this person's baby's poop fascinating. Now I know that I've mentioned Gracie's poop once or twice, but it's in the context of "I never want to see it outside the litter box again," not "awww, what a strong personality she has"

There's another interesting point in this article:
Hirshman, who has a grown daughter, suggests that incessant banter about children at the office ultimately feels forced because it conflicts with the true nature of paid work. “Women try to use children as a way to bond with other women at the job, to say, ‘I’m your sister, not your competitor...’”

Kid talk can also, ironically, wind up creating just the sort of exclusionary environment that women historically resented on the job.... And then there’s the stealth power gesture of bosses who mention their children—and the frustrations of mothering—in an attempt to humanize themselves to women below them in the hierarchy, Hirshman adds. In some cases, the boss may be a genuine softie, as focused on the needs of her employees as she is on her kids, but more often such mentions are “a powerful if illegitimate weapon. They create commonality, but that’s just a device. You don’t get to be the boss by being a nice mom type.”
I've seen this a lot with things other than motherhood, in the workplace and otherwise. People who are uncomfortable with their status, socioeconomic or otherwise, try to portray it as not that big a deal, but it backfires because to it's a huge deal to the person that doesn't have it. I once had a very wealthy manager who complained about the price of things-- strategically, to make herself sound like one of us-- but it backfired because it was so clearly contrived. There was also the colleague who went out of her way, whether she knew it or not, to establish her place in society (what private schools she went to, whom she knew, etc.) but tried to be "one of us" by talking about how she's really most at ease in her jogging clothes, which struck "us" as, 'well, yeah, you can afford to be; your connections will get you ahead, whereas the rest of us better look the part.' And I've certainly seen people try to do this with kids, i.e. emphasize the burden that they are... and in that case especially, I've seen it backfire, because those people that really want kids would gladly take up that burden. I guess if you think that people can't just be happy for you--that they're going to be jealous-- you're going to try to compensate by emphasizing the negative, and it will probably backfire.

I've been thinking of a friend--because she's being a jerk--who is on the surface very nice but has regularly displayed jealous, defensive behavior when someone else is living an aspect of the life she wants. I wouldn't think that this person is unhappy (and no, she doesn't read the blog, so I'm not hinting at anyone), but for some reason she's excessively threatened. The Times just had an interesting piece about jealousy and envy, and Barack Obama made a reference to the concept when he said that we don't begrudge people their success. I'm often envious and rarely jealous, i.e., every time I hear that a friend has a fabulous trip on the horizon, I very much want to go on that kind of trip myself. But I don't harbor jealousy toward the friend; I'm quite happy for her. And if she started going on about how much the trip sucked, it would just annoy me.

To bring this full circle, I do care about my friends' kids. Of course, I care about my friends and about the important things in their lives, and I like talking about children when it is interesting/sociological, or as Hass says, "endowed with wit and irony." But I don't want to hear anyone's kids scream on a plane, and I don't want to hear about their poop.

Tale of two assholes

I'd like to revisit that unfortunate episode of a few years back in which I lacerated my arm.

It was the Tuesday after Labor Day, and the ride to work that very rainy morning was scary, to the point that I thought, "I shouldn't be driving in this weather." I have a Corolla; it's wonderful in many ways, but handling in bad weather isn't one of them. I thought that if this kept up, I wouldn't come in the next day, particularly since I had a long meeting in town that day and wouldn't have been expected to come in. I said as much to my manager at the time, but then I recalled that I'd promised a colleague that I would do something for her that morning, and resolved to come in in any case. That evening, I slipped on my way to the rubbish bin and stuck my arm out to catch myself, which resulted in my continuing to slip and sticking my arm through a window. I looked down and saw a flap sticking out of my forearm. I promptly stuck it back in position and pressed to stop the bleeding, and went to find my phone. This is the part where I realized I was glad I lived in Alexandria rather than DC, because the first responders arrived before I could go upstairs to get my wallet. But I digress.

I went to the emergency room--the first responders had wrapped the wound, but I would need stitches--and made two phone calls, the first to my carpooler to say that as far as I could tell I was still in for the following morning depending on how soon I got out of the ER (he suggested that I take the day off, and I concurred that that was a good idea). Then I called the colleague that was depending on me for the morning so that she could make other arrangements. I also asked her to tell my boss that I wouldn't be in, in case I wouldn't be up to it.

The good people at the ER took some X-rays to ensure that there was no glass in my arm, sewed it up for me, gave me some vicodin and sent me on my way.

The following morning, I made a few more phone calls, the first to my boss.

A.: Good morning, M. I wanted to let you know that I won't be coming in today...
M.: What, too much rain for ya?
A.: Well, no. I was in the emergency room last night and I'm still not feeling great.
M.: Oh, well! See you Thursday!

He did later apologize for that, saying that he wasn't really listening, but as one of you pointed out, that's still not acceptable. If you're a manager, part of your job is to listen. I'll also point out that that was one of his lesser offenses as a manager. For what it's worth, even though I didn't go into the office that morning, I did go to my meeting in town that afternoon.

I'd like to get back to not listening, because that will take us to the tale of the second asshole, my then-doctor. He was the third person I called (after my health insurance company). I let his office know of the ER visit and asked whether Dr. Heron would remove my stitches in two weeks' time. They confirmed that he would, confirmed that they would deal with my insurance as needed, and scheduled an appointment for the removal of the stitches.

So imagine my surprise when two weeks later, I come to that appointment and Dr. Heron tells me that (1) this is the first he'd heard of my trip to the ER and that too bad but since he didn't file the necessary paperwork, my insurance likely wouldn't cover anything to do with this incident and (2) he would not remove my stitches, because he did not put them in and for all he knew there could be glass inside the wound, which could open him up to liability. I reassured him that I called the office to inform them of my ER visit--in the same call that I made the very appointment in which I was participating, and that X-rays were taken to ensure no glass in the wound. He said it didn't matter that I'd made the call, because he had no record of it (don't you love it when people take responsibility for what goes on in their business), that X-rays didn't detect glass (odd, the ER people seemed to believe it did), and that he would absolutely not open himself up to liability. At that point I was in tears. All I wanted was to have those stitches out, and driving with them in was really no fun. Also, I could have gone to the ER at any time, and gone to yet another work meeting that I would have wanted to go to. Anyway, I drove myself to the ER, waited in the waiting room with screaming children, paid the ER copay, and got the stitches out. The ER staff were baffled at Dr. Heron's behavior. As I'd said in the previous post, I wrote a complaint letter to my insurance company (which, incidentally, covered most of the bill, and had no idea what the doctor was talking about), slammed him in an online review, and got a new doctor.

Of course, this wasn't the first time Dr. Heron had failed to impress me--this is where the not listening part really shines through, but I also have to take some responsibility for not having listened to myself. He was thoroughly unimpressive but I said to myself, 'look, you don't go to the doctor for anything but epipen prescriptions and referrals, and any moron with an MD can do that, so you may as well stick with the moron whose office is walking distance from where you live.' Anyway, let me tell you about my visit to the moron's office that summer:

Dr. Heron: How can I help you?
A.: I'd like a prescription for an epipen and a referral to an allergist, please. I've had epipens for several years now, and I most recently used one a few weeks ago when I was stung by a hornet.
Dr. Heron: You were stung by a hornet?
A.: Yes.
Dr. Heron: And you're allergic?
A.: Yes...
Dr. Heron: You must use an epipen when you get stung!
A.: I did use an epipen, which is why I've come for a prescription for another one.
Dr. Heron: Make sure you always use an epipen.
A.: Yes, I do use an epipen when I'm stung.
Dr. Heron: That's very important. Make sure you always carry it with you.

To my credit, I did not say 'shut the f* up and write me the m-f prescription so I can get one to always carry with me.'

You've gotta love it when people don't listen and then waste your time with information you already have.

The above experiences were annoying, but they pale in comparison to some of the experiences my friends have had with their doctors. There has been a spate of articles in the Times about how younger doctors especially are increasingly arrogant and bad at listening. Here are a few.

Disclaimer: I've also had good doctors, and I have friends who I know are amazing doctors. So I'm not here to slam doctors. (I have also had amazing managers--most of the time, really-- I've been quite blessed). I'm here to say that as with teachers, for example, the difference between good and bad has exponential consequences, and the bad ones can be really bad and are more prevalent than what would make sense.

Accountability

My soapbox, of late, has centered on service providers that deal in various aspects of home improvement, but over the years I've certainly had plenty to say about medical professionals, as have my friends. This Zagat thing is a welcome development, and I hope more insurance providers take it up. An doctor and even his or her office staff--and I hear more complaints about them than about actual doctors--can make your life hell even without being technically incompetent. In my case, years ago when I lacerated my forearm, I fired my doctor for a combination of not listening, needlessly scaring the crap out of me, refusing to do his job and otherwise wasting my time. I sent my insurance company a letter and gave him a poor rating on an online medical site, but it would have been great to slam his ass in a more widely read setting. I have no doubt that he felt he could get away with his bull$hit because he knew that no one would ever know. What could be better than bringing accountability without litigation to the medical system?

It is because of accountability, not schadenfreude, that this kind of made my day. Still, the hypocrisy is stunning. These people insist that they have every right to go on with their lives and careers as if they had nothing to do with ruining other people's.

Tom Friedman on posthumous accountability.

And then there's equal opportunity accountability:
Executives of banks that have received TARP cash have said that it is too hard to account separately for how they spend their federal dollars. Money is fungible, they argue, and therefore they cannot readily distinguish between outlays of their own resources and those provided by the government. But that’s the type of doublespeak that would get the head of a town’s homeless shelter thrown in jail. If bankers are unable to segregate cash by source and specifically account for expenditures, why are they in charge of banks in the first place?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Caveat Emptor

In my inbox this morning was a newsletter or what have you from Overstock.com. I thought about it and, in addition to deleting it, unsubscribed from their mailing list. Was I sure, asked the screen? I would no longer get news of sales and other deals. Positive. I don't need anything at the moment, so even a fantastic sale will just cost me more money and suck more time. I had to do a lot of shopping for the house (well, some had to, some wanted to, and I'll admit-- some impulse), but now I pretty much have everything I need but a few things, and I don't need my inbox clogged with news of sales on stuff I don't need.

I unsubscribed and went to the next newsletter in my inbox, which let me know what Liz Pulliam Weston had to say this week. Fittingly, it was all about consumerism:
Tips and tricks may indeed save you money and make you feel like a smarter consumer. But they haven't done much to address the growing anti-consumer attitude of many businesses, which seem to be competing with each other to come up with new ways to soak their customers.


She goes on to explain why being a sloppy consumer-- and it's hard not to become one-- is unAmerican:
Now, you may think of yourself as pretty savvy, a consumer "sophisticate" in economists' terms, as opposed to a "myope," who doesn't know the score and constantly gets taken in deals.

The problem, as MSNBC Red Tape columnist Bob Sullivan points out in his book "Gotcha Capitalism," is that nobody gets to stay a sophisticate. No matter how hard you try to educate yourself, unethical businesses are always one step ahead of you. Everybody gets slammed sooner or later.

"The credit card company turns a dial," said Sullivan, "and a sophisticate becomes a myope overnight."

In the system we have now, cheaters prosper. Companies that are honest about their prices lose out to those willing to lie about the true costs of what they sell. Sullivan recently found a great example in Valentine's Day flowers, where consumers using two of the top florist Web sites wound up paying 50% to 100% more than the advertised price because of hidden fees. The third site, which seemed to have the highest price, actually had the best deal.

This isn't just bad for the consumer. It's bad for capitalism. Instead of the most efficient companies winning, the biggest liars are.


It's true. This is what I experienced with, for example, Verizon (before they started f*ing with me about my actual service, i.e. back when all I was trying to get them to do was transfer it to a new address without their trying to tack on added services I would never use). It was exhausting. At that point (before the move), I still had the stamina (and lady balls) to fight them, but months later I would have been at the point of 'f* it and do whatever you need to do so I can get off the phone and on with my life.'

Not just with utilities, but with all sorts of things I had to buy with the house--goods and services--I saw a lot of 'bait and switch.' It became especially evident because as a new homeowner, I became of a consumer of services to a completely new extent (and I'm sure more is yet to come). I'd never before consumed, in the full sense of the word (i.e. hired, etc.), maid service, a plumber, or an electrician. It didn't take long to develop great appreciation for the people who actually did their job well.

Take the cleaning service. Now, I partly blame myself, but this woman came highly recommended by my realtor, and I'd had great experiences at that point with people highly recommended by my friends. Afterward I thought, is she for real? How does she get repeat customers? I mean, I'm human, and although part of me feels that if my bosses have to come back to me and actually ask me to do things that I should have known to do, I have failed. My job isn't just to do my job; it's to be one step ahead so that they don't have to think about the things I could be doing. Now, things slip from time to time, but what would be truly unacceptable is if I neglected to do a series of things that were a standard part of my job and, when they came back to me with a clear list of those things, I then completed the first task and didn't bother with the rest. Who DOES that?? Apparently, people do.

But I digress. Ms. Weston then talks about mortgages. [Aside: I also recommend the section on mortgages in "Nudge," which comes to similar conclusion-- the system is just too complicated for most people to be able to navigate it. Thankfully, I did get a really great lender--through the recommendation of a friend and by not choosing any of those recommended by any of the realtors I'd worked with.] Anyway, Ms. Weston:
The way we handle mortgages in this country is far too complicated and fraught with hidden conflicts of interest for a borrower to ever be sure he or she has gotten the best possible deal.

A savvy, cautious borrower who did plenty of research might have avoided the toxic mortgages that are blowing up in lenders' faces. But she could still be slapped with unexpected fees at closing, since no one has been enforcing the laws about good faith estimates. Because her lender officer or mortgage broker had financial incentives to steer her into a more expensive loan, she may have wound up with a higher interest rate than she deserved.


The fix:
I don't propose we resort to a nanny state, where every detail of every consumer transaction is regulated. Every rule seems to become a weapon used to bludgeon the ignorant or unlucky.

But I do propose that consumers have a right to a fair shake. Regulators need to have the will to enforce existing laws that protect consumers and the tools to really punish companies that deceive.

And you, the consumer, need to stop accepting the idea that you're a sheep for the shearing. You know the difference between fair play and foul play; so do regulators and so do businesses. Make them show it.


A separate column on MSN talks about how utilities have started charging fees for the luxury of paying your bill. Indeed, I went to pay my water bill the other day-- recall that this is the same company that turned off my water for "non-payment" and kept it off for three days (and on the third, claimed to have turned it on when they hadn't) because they couldn't be bothered to call me when the meter that they had to read to transfer the service to my name was piled over in the previous resident's trash. Instead, they kept it in her name... and turned off my water when she didn't pay the bill. But I digress. There was a fee for paying the bill online. There was even a fee for paying over the phone through an automated system. I had to actually send a check, and I hate doing that. It just makes me fume.

Rick Jurgens of the National Consumer Law Center aptly sums up the system: "We all have a common interest in demanding and hoping that there will be a minimum standard set for customer service. . . . Instead, we have this death-race spiral to the bottom."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Silly Nicholas Kristof

He's got it all wrong! What on earth does education have to do with fighting poverty? Doesn't he know that education is nothing more than welfare?

On that note, you're all going to watch or record "Idiocracy" tonight, right??

***
Frank Rich again takes on the bloviators.

Thursday afternoon

I had my windshield replaced on Thursday. The week before, I googled "auto glass Alexandria" and requested quotes from numerous shops. Some didn't respond at all; among those that did, there was great variation in the quoted price, as well as politeness/professionalness. The manager of the place I ended up going with asked that I drive out to the shop, since the process would work better inside (or at least in more moderate temperatures). I wondered whether this was actually true and debated whether it would have been worth paying an extra $25 for the next best estimate, to not have to spend an hour at the mechanic's, but they'd already ordered the glass, and out to Falls Church I went. [I'd like to take this opportunity for a shout-out to my employer, which, by allowing flexible scheduling and teleworking, makes having to deal with car and house stuff much less painful than it otherwise would be].

As I was saying, out to Falls Church I went... and I'm glad I did. It was fascinating. First of all, this guy is hilarious. Actually, first of all, it was great service at a great price, but the guy really is hilarious. Shortly after I arrived, two women with laptops came in and sat down. I thought, 'wow, they're hardcore; here I am with a months-old New Yorker, but they're going to work while they wait?' But soon it became clear that they were there for work: they sold internet advertising and were there to pitch their product to the shop's manager. It didn't seem like he needed it-- his cell phone rang "off the hook" the whole time I was there. Indeed, at one point-- after discovering that a delivery didn't include needed parts, and calling the dealer to complain--"I have not yet found a way to do a tune up without spark plugs," he said--he turned to the internet ad ladies and said, "I don't actually need more customers; what I need is competent vendors!"

I hear you, man.

Turning to the matter at hand, he then said it was all about google. "People want to eat, they use Google; people want to sleep, they use google." He turned to me.
"A. found me on Google." I nodded.

Google wasn't enough, they told him. Only half of the people who search online use Google. The other half mostly use Yahoo and yellowpages.com, apparently.

The women kept trying to figure out where the manager was from.

Woman: How did you get into this business?
Manager: I used to be an airplane mechanic in the Air Force.
Woman: For what country?
Manager: This one.

The window guy finished my car just as I finished an excruciatingly upsetting article about refugee camps in Chad. I got up to pay.

Woman: Where are you from?
Manager: Guess where I'm from.

Pause

Woman: I don't know.
Manager: Guess.

Pause

A., unable to take it anymore: Armenia.
Manager: How did you know?

The women are staring at me in awe.

A.: Your name.

I mean, once you've met a few Armenians, you've figured out the name thing. It's not rocket science. Maybe they'd never met any Armenians?

The manager high-fived me. I thanked him and accepted his card (and promptly passed it onto a friend who needs her windshield replaced, and lives near there). Then I remembered that my tire was low. Even though I'd just put air in it. I asked him where their air thing was, and he told me that they'd take care of it. In taking care of it, they discovered a small screw in the tire. They patched it for free for me.

I'm not beyond wondering whether people are messing with my car, between the windshield, this screw thing, and a flat I had a few weeks ago. But the crack in the windshield resulted, I'm pretty sure, from a rock that flew off one of those trucks, and the earlier flat was caused by something that couldn't have been inserted on purpose. Likewise, this tiny screw would have been difficult to insert on purpose, and besides, if you were going to slash a tire, wouldn't you just slash the tire?

I hope the guy finds some competent vendors.

Don't think I'm done asking for help

Anti-Valentine's Day was really, really fun, and it was wonderful to celebrate the new house with my friends-- especially since many of them have done so much to get it to this point. I can slow down now on house stuff (and breathe now that I'm not dealing with party preparations), even though there is still work to be done and I know things will pop up from time to time. But now that the obligatory stuff is under control, and that it's getting warmer (and yes, 30-40 degrees is warmer), it's time to start gardening. And as with everything else, I'd like some help with that. Any volunteers?

***
It makes me really happy that people liked the house, and even happier that I like the house. I mean, I like it enough that it doesn't bother me that I bought before the economy descended farther into hell, so conceivably I could have gotten a better price, because I'm thrilled to have this house in particular.

One thing that many anti-Valentine's Day guests said was they also loved the neighborhood, and a couple of my neighbors stopped by--one beforehand--and said it was a great neighborhood.

I tell you this because the roommate that was supposed to move in a few weeks ago decided not to at the last minute, because she wasn't comfortable with the neighborhood. [I am, actually, okay with this, because I've discovered that it's kind of nice to live alone; I may decide to rent again, but I'm not all that determined]. Yes, there is public housing the next block over, but that is the case all over Alexandria. In all but the first of my over six years in the DC area, I have lived a block or two from the projects. It's actually kind of funny to talk about this with people who don't live in the city, because they make such a big deal out of it. I mean, don't get me wrong-- it can be noisy, etc.-- but it's not any less safe than the nicest parts of DC.

A family friend stopped by before the party--she had to work in the evening--and asked whether I was concerned about shootings. Now, I don't take safety for granted. I have an alarm system and I subscribe to crime reports-- which is why I can definitively say that the area is not big on shootings. When I reassured her, she said, 'oh, well, you used to live in Shaw, which was worse.' I shrugged. I also lived in Glover Park, which, together with Georgetown, are miles from any affordable housing, but host more than their fair share of muggings.

I don't really have a point, except that people's perceptions are funny. My parents' perceptions of the size of houses is funny, particularly because of who they are. It's one thing for people who are wealthy--especially those who have always been comfortable-- to think that houses start at 3,000 square feet, but my parents lived the first forty or so years of their lives in tiny apartments. People's perceptions of neighborhood safety are interesting in the same way.

So, it's with that in mind that I'm glad people had good things to say about my new neighborhood.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy AntiValentine's Day

Here's some reading to get your day going:

Government imitates TV, as explained by Gail Collins. Meanwhile, the European Union imitates junior hi.

I think I liked it better when Stephen M. Walt was pissing off the Jews, i.e. those other than me.

I have to go grill some vegetables. Remind me, tomorrow, to tell you about my trip to the mechanic the other day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What you're doing on Sunday night

You are watching "Idiocracy" at 10pm on Comedy Central.

Seriously. I've been telling you for years to see this movie, and those of you who have obliged have really enjoyed it. So get on your butts and watch!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Setting the mood

As if you needed more reasons to hate this bull$hit holiday, MP Dunleavey has come through for us:

The problem is that Valentine's Day... has grown from being a celebration that once aspired to some meaning, to being a trashy, materialistic extravaganza.

Think about how much pressure there is to participate:

Every schoolchild, practically, is expected to make or send cards to their classmates or bring treats to class.

Some single women feel so left out on Valentine's Day that they've been known to send flowers to themselves, so they won't look like losers.

And don't assume couples are happier: For many, Valentine's Day is a yearly excuse to have a nasty fight, with partners feeling unloved . . . because they didn't get a stuffed bear or some candy. What?

What makes this ritual even more puzzling is that Valentine's Day doesn't even have a good story (see: Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July) or spooky ghosts and pumpkins. In fact, we don't even know the story.

Note this baffling summary on The History Channel's Web site: "But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine's Day -- and its patron saint -- is shrouded in mystery."

Basically, throughout the millennia, February was always a slow shopping month. Then, because a couple of early Christian martyrs (both named Valentine?) might have died for love, a holiday emerged.

I'm not making this up. I found the following stories on Wikipedia and in a U.S. Census Bureau release:

* A priest secretly married lovers in defiance of a Roman emperor's decree and supposedly was executed for it.

* Another man, as legend has it, was rejected by his mistress, and -- you'll like this -- he carved out his own heart and gave it to her. Yech.

Last year, Valentine's Day-observing Americans spent an average of $123 on gifts, according to the National Retail Federation... If my husband spent $100 on gifts instead of putting it into our emergency fund -- a far greater gesture of love -- I would make him eat the oil bill for breakfast.

[A]s a country deep in debt, we don't need to spend billions of dollars on tokens of affection.

More logic

That's f*ed up.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

logic

I don't think conservatives are always wrong, or monolithic, or inherently bad people. I mean, I know conservatives who are not out of their f*ing mind. But sometimes I can't help but wonder, between the guy that went on a shooting spree at the church he considered "a den of un-American vipers," and the great minds at the Heritage Foundation:
With an expansive view of “welfare spending,” Mr. Rector puts the bill’s two-year welfare tally at $264 billion. (He counts things like Pell Grants, which help low-income students attend college, and Community Development Block Grants, which help low-income neighborhoods finance everything from sewers to crime prevention.)

“I find it offensive that they’re trying to sneak things in there,” Mr. Rector said of the bill’s supporters. “None of these programs deals with the fundamental causes of poverty, which are low levels of work and lower levels of marriage. They just say, ‘Give me more.’”


I mean, what on earth do grants that help low-income students attend college or help low-income neighborhoods finance everything from sewers to crime prevention have to do with the root causes of poverty? Clearly, higher levels of marriage is the answer.
***

I wish this surprised me; while it doesn't, it does provide a great quote:
"I don't think there's anyone in Russia who doesn't know what a drunk person looks like," said Katya Kushner.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Getting by

Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed"? In it, she goes undercover to work a variety of minimum wage jobs to see if it is possible to do so and break even (she concluded that it was not). At one point, she was concerned about being found out: surely, something would give her away; there had to be something about her that said, "I have a Ph.D; I don't fit in," but nothing did.

I could go off on a number of possible tangents here, and I'll just touch on a couple:

1. The employees behind the cash registers of Walmart, McDonald's, etc. are not infrequently highly educated immigrants whose levels of English, as well as other obstacles, preclude employment more commensurate with their education.

2. Over the last few months, I've been saddened to notice an increase in people who--for whatever this means--appear to be college-educated, working at grocery stores.

But it's an interesting issue, this education-income dissonance. So is the issue of what kind of lifestyle a given income will get you. Here are some thoughts on getting by in Manhattan and Washington.

Sunday morning roundup: reflections on greed

From Mr. Amidon and Mr. Rich.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Milestones

I meant to blog a non-facetious celebratory post to myself, since this week I hit my one-year anniversary of the new job, and I love it.

Now another congratulations-to-me-- this time facetious-- is in order. I've achieved my highest credit card bill ever. It's quite a sight to behold.

I'm glad I made the repairs/improvements and purchases that I did, and I'm glad I did them now. If they need to happen, I may as well enjoy them right away. As I've mentioned on these pages, I got a great price on pretty much everything, and I love having outlets that work, I'll love having a washing machine that doesn't leek, and I'm sure it will be nice to have a dryer (and that the gas hookup will, with time, pay for itself in lower utility bills). Mentally, I understand what has happened. Emotionally, it's a shock to see such an enormous figure after "Amount Due." Part of the issue is timing; in addition to January being the time that I decided I'd had enough with stuff not working around the house, it's the month that Gracie gets her annual checkup and that I pay my car insurance bill. This year, it's also the month that the house was reappraised for refinancing and that I prepaid the exorbitant but once-in-a-lifetime vacation I'll take in a month. Followed by another vacation I'll take in April because I'm that much of a slacker.

Anyway, for your enjoyment, here is another customer service conversation:

Citi: How can I help you?
A.: There is a [$55!] foreign transaction charge on my statement this month. I have made no foreign transactions.
Citi: That's for the charge by the travel agency in Ecuador. It costs us to convert to dollars; that is what that charge is for.
A.: Ecuador's currency is dollars.
Citi: For any charge listed in a foreign currency, we charge to have it converted to U.S. Dollars.
A.: Ecuador's currency is U.S. Dollars. That charge was billed in U.S. Dollars.

She transferred me to a manager, and we had the above conversation, again. Eventually, she said that even when billed in dollars, anything charged in a foreign country is assessed a charge, but that just this once, she would magnanimously credit it back to me. I thanked her for that, and thanked her for letting me know so that I would not use that card abroad. She retorted that there is no card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee.

True... but WAMU charged a third of what Citi charges... but now that they've been bought out by Chase I'm not so sure. So I did what I'd long held out against, and opened another card. But I just wanted to check and make sure.

I called Capitol One and asked for confirmation that they levy no foreign transaction fee, and indeed they do not. So if you're traveling abroad and can stand another credit card in your wallet, give them a call.

Conversations

Have any of you ever arrived somewhere thinking you had a lodging reservation, only to learn that that reservation didn't exist? I haven't, yet, but I've read plenty such stories in letters to travel magazines, so I know to double-check reservations. Please find below my correspondence with Travelocity:

> * Customer* 02/05/2009 05:24 AM
Hello, I made a reservation through Travelocity over 24 hours ago. However, the status on my account says "We are unable to confirm this booking with the hotel." Does that mean I cannot rely on this reservation? How do I go about getting it confirmed?
Thank you.
A.

* Subject* status unconfirmed * Email Correspondence* * Response 02/06/2009 10:42 AM
Dear A.,
Thank you for writing to Travelocity.
We understand your concern regarding your hotel reservation booked with "Hummingbird" under the Trip ID: 390341342301.

A., please be informed that it takes 24 hours for the reservation to get updated on the hotels system when you book with Travelocity. Be informed that your hotel reservation is confirmed with the hotel. We have also separately emailed you the confirmation of your reservation under Trip ID 390341342301.

Please feel free to write to us for any further information that you may require. We appreciate the opportunity to serve your travel needs.

Regards,

Paul T
Travelocity Customer Service

Dear Paul:
Thank you for responding. However, in the confirmation e-mail I just received, the status is still listed as unconfirmed, and it is the same on your website. Can I take your e-mail below as a guarantee that my reservation is, indeed, on the books of the hotel?
Thank you,
A.

Travelocity Member Services

Re: status unconfirmed [Incident: 090205-002412] Response (Kevin T) 02/06/2009 01:59 PM
Dear A.,

We regret the inconvenience caused to you for the error in our previous response.

Per your email we have reviewed the reservation for your stay at Hummingbird booked under Trip Id 390341342301 and as per our records we see that this reservation is not confirmed. As this reservation was not prepaid we would suggest you to cancel this booking and make a new reservation as you was not charged.

We regret any inconvenience this may have caused to you.

Regards,

Kevin T

***
Well, I'm glad I checked. I am now attempting to communicate directly with the hotel I've reserved through a different travel service.

***
***
One thing I will not miss about giving blood is having to go through the countries I visited over the last three years EVERY TIME. They keep records of other information; would it kill them to keep those records? Those countries haven't changed, and I'll gladly list any new ones for them. I'm not sure why this bothers me more than getting sick after giving blood, which lasts a bit longer and feels positively horrendous, but it's just such an inefficiency and it drives me up the wall.

Anyway, here is a conversation from my pre-bloodletting interview:

Nurse: In the past year, have you ever been in a prison?
A.: Yes.
Nurse: You've been in a prison?
A.: Yes.
Nurse: [Looks at me funny]
A.: I have visited a prison. I have not been imprisoned in one.
Nurse: Oh, okay, that's fine.

Well, she did ask whether I'd been in one. We cleared up the misunderstanding and went on to talk about my tattoos.

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