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Tolerating Civil Servants and Other Public Service Providers

Raise your hand if you enjoy going to the DMV. Come on. Someone. Anyone. No one?

I feel you. It is no secret that most people would rather have a root canal than go to the DMV or any other government agency and have to interact with a civil servant. Although numerous services are now available online, sooner or later you may have to travel that road to aggravation and visit a public service office.

Some folks try to avoid the visit by making a phone call. I assure you that calling and engaging in the press button marathon is often just as exasperating as going there. You dial an agency’s number and the phone rings. And rings. And rings. When and if an automatic answering service responds, a recorded announcement asks you to press or say this number and that number so many times that by the time the number to the extension you need is announced you’ve forgotten why you called. And even when on rare occasions you are lucky enough to get a live person on the line right away, you may be asked, “May I put you on hold while I pull up your records?”

“Sure” you answer knowing that your choices are limited.

Whenever that happens to me, I imagine that the person who leaves me hanging under the pretense of searching the computer files is chit-chatting with the person in the next cubicle about non-job related issues like her date or his score the night before.

A bad attitude seems to be the modus operandi for many civil servants whether they communicate with you over the phone or in person. Do you ever wonder what is wrong with them the reason many display such insolence when all we want to do is take care of business?

Before you presume that I am lumping all civil servants into one barrel of incivility, I promise you that I am not. And I admit that sometimes I am caught off guard when one of the “govies” displays a pleasant disposition.

Following the longest government shutdown in American history, I had a problem with my social security payment. Having no desire to visit the office, I made numerous phone calls to various offices within the department trying to resolve the matter. That futility went on for over a week. Each time I called the Administration an automated service answered, and, of course, asked me to hold on. I’ve learned to always check the clock whenever I am asked to hold. And then I imagine how nice it would be if agencies were required to pay callers a dollar a minute for hold time.

My time is as valuable as theirs, so instead of idling, I would press the speaker button, set the phone on a nearby table or place it in my pocket and go about doing housecleaning, computing, or whatever I needed to do, all the while listening to corny hold music and waiting for an agent to pick up. The longest wait-time I logged one day was 58 minutes, after which – you guessed it, I hung up. Fifty-eight dollars would have been nice compensation for my time.

On the days when a live person finally came on the line that person sometimes transferred me to someone else. I admit that I found at least a couple of the govies were courteous, professional and helpful. Eventually, I got the issue resolved without having to spend 3-4 hours downtown at the agency.

Flashback to the dreaded visit to the DMV. A few weeks ago, after my grandson misplaced his wallet, he had to go to DMV to get another ID card. Before going there, he prepared by heeding my advice. “Carry everything and anything they might ask for to prove your identity and residency so you won’t have to make a return trip.” Birth certificate, social security card, lease, utility bills, bank statement, official mail from any government agency. You might as well throw in the kitchen sink.”

I was flabbergasted as my grandson said he was when he later told me that the experience was “not bad.” No long wait time. No hassling by a disgruntled clerk. A young man who he described as “pleasant” asked for one – yes, only one – of the numerous documents he had brought with him. (Of course, we know that had he only brought one document, he would have been asked for everything that he didn’t bring.) My grandson was in and out of there within 45 minutes. Surely that must be record time for a trip to the DMV.

Unlike private sector businesses where dissatisfied customers have the option of going elsewhere for service, state and local government offices hold the monopoly for dispensing driver’s licenses, passports, and other official documents as well as administering various social services. Civil servants had a reputation for nastiness long before this country entered the “season of being mean.” The question is why are some bureaucrats so darn unpleasant?

Perhaps the answer lies within a study done by Gallup in the summer of 2009. It revealed: “The fact that public employees have stronger job protections, even in nonunion organizations than their private-sector colleagues, makes it more difficult to deal with poor performers.”  Does that give government workers license to treat patrons like crap?

Another study I discovered was done by researchers from USC, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Kellogg School. It was conducted to test how power and status determine behavior. “The results showed that when low-status individuals [i.e., customer service reps] are given greater power, they are more likely to abuse that power.” To the contrary, people who hold positions of high power and high status often behave more professionally than those in lower status position. (Of course, as has been evident in the political milieu during the last two years, there is an exception to every rule.)

My early job history included seven years of employment with the federal government before I decided I’d had enough and fled to the private sector. Because the offices where I worked did not involve direct contact with the general public, I did not see much animosity by my coworkers directed against callers. However, I did witness the arrogance that some upper-grade staff members levied against their subordinates, so I easily understand why lower lever workers might take out their frustrations on their clientele.

The next time you absolutely must interact with a civil servant who is providing customer service at a government agency (or any place of business) as soon as you perceive that she or he is about to cop an attitude, disarm the person. Instead of escalating the situation with a put-down, “If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your wig off,” show your pleasant side. I know this may be difficult to do. The urge to give as good as we get is often irresistible, but it’s worth a try. Keep in mind that the person serving you may have nothing to lose, and all you want to do is accomplish what you came for, leave, and pray to God that you never have to return.

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Planting Memories

I don’t have my mother’s green thumb, but I surely inherited her love for flowers and house plants.

For years, I’ve told my daughter about how, when my siblings and I were growing up, mother kept an indoor garden of beautiful house plants. When I was still in grade school, most of those flowers flourished year round on the windowsill in our living room.

The one plant that was too large to sit in the window occupied a place on the floor beside the roll-arm upholstered chair. Its sturdy, bright green leaves must have been at least three feet tall. It was a Sansevieria trifasciata. (“What the…,” you say. My thought exactly, that’s why I prefer to call it by it’s familiar nickname “mother-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant.”)

The snake plant is native to the tropics of West Africa, and while its average lifespan is 5-10 years, some have been known to live as long as 25 years.

I’m not sure if that particular plant was my mother’s favorite, but it sure was mine. The beautiful flower thrived for years, even surviving the move our family made from the cramped apartment in LeDroit Park to our more spacious house in Petworth; but like all living things, it eventually died.

Some weeks ago, my daughter surprised me when she presented me with the snake plant pictured above. “Had she grown tired of hearing me share memories about her grandmother’s snake plant?” I wondered. No, she’s just that kind of thoughtful person. I almost cried because the plant resurrected old memories. I purchased a snake plant early last year, but it came to an early demise shortly after I brought it home, probably due to my overwatering it. I didn’t know then, but I do now; water is not the snake plant’s best friend. (I did say that I didn’t inherit mother’s green thumb, remember?)

I am not one of those eccentric people who name their plants. However, I made an exception and named this one Millie, after my mother, Mildred, because my childhood recollection of my mother’s beautiful snake plant is as vivid as if I were standing in front of it today. Isn’t it strange how things that some people would consider insignificant are, for others, a lasting memory?

Lately, whenever I walk past and look at that plant gifted by my daughter, I think of my mother nurturing her plants with the same tenderness that she bestowed on her children, all those years ago.

Next month, May 12, is Mother’s Day. When that day comes, mother won’t get flowers from me as she did for many years, because (as some of my readers know) she deceased four years, nine months and 20 days ago. But this year, I’ll look with gratitude at my daughter’s (early Mother’s Day) gift, and smile as I always do, because it rekindles pleasant memories of my mother and her fondness for plants.

Plant-lovers will tell you that plant tending takes root in our mind, and just like every pleasant moment in our life plants sow something sweet in our soul.

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Reeling from Drugstore Sticker Shock

Some people tend not to care about anything that doesn’t directly affect them, for instance, the insane cost of pharmaceutical drugs. Any frequent user of medication for hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. would agree that without medical insurance coverage, those drug costs are too expensive for the average person and absolutely unaffordable for others.

I had first-hand experience with the outrageous cost of prescription drugs, a few weeks ago when a small itchy spot suddenly appeared on my arm. At first, I ignored it, thinking that it would soon go away. When the spot became more annoying, I visited my dermatologist. He examined the area, determined it to be a minor skin irritation, and then prescribed a cream for me to apply daily until it cleared up.

Before continuing home, I stopped at the pharmacy to get the prescription filled. The pharmacist looked young enough to be a high school student, but her pleasant demeanor was mature and professional. When I asked her to make sure that my insurance would cover the prescription before she filled it, she obligingly entered the required information into the computer and after a few seconds told me, “I’m sorry they won’t cover it.”

“How much will it cost if I pay for it?” I asked innocently; well, not exactly innocently. Being cognizant of the controversy and frequent media reports in JAMA and other sources, I am aware of the outrageous cost of many prescription drugs. But how much could a small tube of ointment cost? Twenty dollars, $30 at most. The pharmacist entered additional info into the computer and then stared too long (I thought) at the monitor.

I begin feeling uncomfortable, but my anxiety heightened when she looked at me with the culpable gaze that a child displays to a parent after doing something that he or she knows is wrong. The only thing missing was the “Uh oh!” but she didn’t say it. There was just that pregnant pause of deafening silence between us until I chuckled and asked: “Is it that bad?”

She hesitated for a few seconds longer as if preparing to tell me that someone had died. Certainly, this wasn’t the first time she had to deliver bad news, but apparently, she didn’t relish doing it. I dropped my smile, raised my eyebrows, and tilted my head slightly to one side like a curious puppy. “Hit me,” I said.

Almost in a whisper, she said, “Without insurance, it’s $600.”

After I mentally picked myself up off the floor, I said aloud, but mainly to myself. “Are they crazy?”

I sensed real empathy as she cautiously asked, “Should I fill it?”

I wanted to say, “Hell, no.” But more politely, I said, “Would you call my doctor and see if he would recommend a generic brand that the insurance will cover.”

“Of course.” She walked a short distance away to a desk holding the telephone and made the call while I waited. Upon returning she told me that a recording had come on saying that the office was closed between 1 and 2 pm. The wall clock behind her showed 1:05. I remembered that the small staff took lunch during that hour and told her so. She said that she would try again later and would call me.

Around 2:30, the dermatologist’s assistant called me. She said that as she told the pharmacist there is no generic brand for that particular medication. Then she added that she could place a call to a mail order pharmacy that they use. “Their prices are much lower than the drugstores, she explained before adding, “The procedure is that you pay over the phone with a credit or debit card and the medication will be mailed to you. They fill most prescriptions for about $35 or less and you’ll receive it in a day or two.”

I agreed to that arrangement and later received a call from the mail-order pharmacy to get my consensus. Aside from a snag that was no fault of the drug provider (Blame UPS. Their excuse – bad weather delay one day and an attempted delivery – to the wrong address – the next.) I finally received the small package containing a 30g tube of cream.

It is generally believed that the greed of the pharmaceutical industry is killing Americans and my thinking is that is truer than true.

Cost aside, I have what some may think is a precarious habit of always reading the list of potential side-effects on any medication that may go on or into my body. That is exactly what I did after I opened the box containing the cream.

The instructions included possible side effects: severe burning of treated skin; could cause warts, lesions, blistering, swollen glands, sore throat; fever, chills, body aches, flu symptoms or worsened skin symptoms. Nope! I told myself before tossing the unopened tube into my nightstand drawer. I decided to try another remedy instead.

About a year ago, when I had a similar skin erosion, the assistant to that dermatologist had told me that she finds that Aquaphor is excellent for curing minor skin disorders. I went right out and bought a 14-ounce jar which cost $14. Yes, yipe!

Aquaphor is a “dermatologist recommended” ointment that contains petrolatum, not petroleum jelly. It looks like Vaseline, but unlike Vaseline, it contains several medicinal ingredients.

I located my jar of Aquaphor and began using it. Had I remembered that I had it before going to the dermatologist, I would probably have tried it first. Within three days the itchy rash cleared up. It’s been nearly three weeks now and it hasn’t returned. This is not an advertisement for Aquaphor, but I honestly admit, it works for me.

The point is that the outrageously high cost of medications is so extensive that lawmakers like Senator Bernie Sanders are proposing and supporting legislation to combat it. And videos like the one below are being made to keep attention focused on the problem.

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The Eye of the Camera Will Make You Fat

When I was a child in elementary school, on the first day of art class Mrs. Graves, our teacher gave each student a plain gray twin-pocket folder. She told us to store assignments that she would be giving us throughout the school year in the folder and keep it in the cubbyhole of our desk until she collected them. She then instructed us to write our name on the back of the folder and added that we had about 5 minutes to draw something of our choice on the cover. “Be creative,” I remember her saying. “Use your imagination.”

While we were sketching our amateurish masterpieces, she walked around the room. Stopping briefly at each child’s desk, she would look at the drawing and then hold up the folder for the class to see. Afterward, she’d offer encouraging comments about that student’s creation. Some of my resourceful classmates drew pictures of their home, a pet, or their family. One student sketched colorful birds perching on the branches of a leafless tree, and a couple of others attempted self-portraits. I looked intently at each folder. The skill of my classmates was evident. Then I looked down hopelessly at my naked cover.

As the teacher grew nearer to me, I became panicky because I couldn’t think of anything to draw. My brain was producing one big question mark. THAT became my cover. Question marks. Large ones. Small ones. Some were right side up, others upside down and sideways. Using every crayon in my Crayola box, red, yellow, blue, green, orange, brown, purple, and black, I covered the front of the folder with question marks and put down the last crayon as she arrived beside my desk.

Unlike the outspoken woman I became, the little girl back then was self-conscious and painfully shy. As I raised my arm and handed Mrs. Graves the folder, I simultaneously lowered my head to my chest, anticipating criticism for not being more creative.

“Curiosity. That’s what your drawing depicts.” She said cheerfully, after looking at my folder. “Lots of question marks. You are curious about things. Very good.” She handed the folder back, and I forced a smile as I exhaled.

I saved that folder for years and wished that I had it today. It must have been an omen because my insatiable curiosity hasn’t diminished over the years. To this day, I still ponder things that some folks wouldn’t give a second thought about; I want answers. I want to know the why behind the why.

Take photographs for instance. There is a common saying that the camera adds 10 pounds to the person in a photo. I’ve long wondered why people look fatter in pictures; then they do in person. Wait a minute. I think I hear the sound of the PC police approaching. Lest I be accused of body-shaming and offending someone, I’ll restructure the question. Granted that I already have more thickness than I desire I’d like to know why do I – let me emphasize I – look fatter in pictures?

According to Gizmodo, Business Insider and other sources of my research, the camera gives the illusion of people being larger than they are because cameras have a single lens through which they capture images while humans have binocular vision (meaning that we have two eyes). Our brains compensate for this double vision. When we focus on photographed images, we perceive depth and can see around the edges of objects. This perception can give the impression that an object is wider than it is, including our bodies. Other factors contribute to our perception of the images in photos including lighting, posture, poses, clothing, the angel (shooting position) and even the camera lens. When any of these things are askew, it can make images appear larger than they are. Viola! Extra pounds.

If my rudimentary explanation on why pictures make us look fat have you second-guessing whether you ever want to be photographed again, this short and entertaining video will provide some tips on how not to look fat on camera.

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Still Standing

I published my first blog post on September 17, 2010. Potpourri101 had not yet been born. The original blog called bboomersnet.com was consolidated into Potpourri101 in June of 2012.

During my blogging years, I have written many favorite posts. I’ve also written some that I consider bloopers. But I keep writing. I can’t not write. It’s in my DNA.

While reviewing some of the 388 posts published on my site, I came across some favorites like this one, originally published on December 2, 2010, and posted here with some slight revisions.

Stand Up and Be Counted

 “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Those inspirational words of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspire courageous people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Ideally, his words also motivate closet activists, people who hesitate to speak up publicly or take action at the opportune time.

We all know someone who loud-talks up a storm behind the scenes, complaining about what “somebody” should or should not say or do, but when the occasion arises for the whiner to speak publicly about the issue, his or her jaws lock tighter than a hard shell clam.

I believe that some people are born activists, while others grow into those shoes. It doesn’t matter how they arrive at being a crusader, what is significant is that at some point they learn the importance of speaking out and championing their cause, whether it is a global effort like Climate Change or working to eliminate homelessness in their community. Activists are mindful of their Ps and Qs:  they prepare, participate, and when necessary, they question. Then, they pursue a course to affect the cause that they are championing – whether it means joining their colleagues in a public protest, taking part in a fact-finding survey, or simply casting a vote.

On the other hand closet activists often avoid publicly stating their opinion, preferring to cower in the shadows and grumble instead of taking a stand. No one is right or wrong all of the time. Sometimes we make good choices, other times bad. But regardless, the point is having enough gumption to express yourself. Don’t straddle the line. Whether you support a cause or disagree with it. Man or woman up!  Let your position be known.

People who have the opportunity to speak up and refuse, basically deserve whatever they get from the outcome of a decision by the majority. Life is a crapshoot, a gamble. Each one of us – from the President of the United States to the homeless person on the street – has limited control over some things and no control over others. It is liberating to be able to state a position, to voice an opinion. You may change your mind later on. You may even regret a decision, and that’s okay. Mind-changing is permitted. But you can feel pleased that you at least had enough backbone to assert yourself. As Malcolm X prophesized long ago, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”

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