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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.


Why I Watch Documentary Films

Every cognizant person will agree that we are never too old to learn. Learning is even better when you enjoy it, and I do. I take pride in acquiring knowledge about new things. There are various ways to learn. Firsthand experience is often an excellent teacher. On the other hand, there is knowledge to be gained from articles, books, and films. Documentary films are high on my list of educational tools.

Some of the numerous documentaries I’ve watched over the years and recently include Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, I Am Not Your Negro, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Surviving R. Kelly, and The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.

While I prefer films about the Black experience, I don’t limit my viewing to presentations about a particular racial group or subject. Open-mindedness not only helps me to maintain a well-rounded base of knowledge; it expands my critical thinking and prevents me from stating baseless opinions and making irrational judgments.

Most recently I watched the documentary Period. End of Sentence. My first thought as I began viewing the film was that we take so much for granted in this country. You’ll learn why I thought that as you continue reading.

Period. End of Sentence is a 26-minute film that won an Oscar last month for Best Documentary Short Subject. It is about the stigma surrounding menstruation in a rural village called Kathikhera, outside Delhi, India.

I was surprised to learn of the level of naivety of the Indian women (and men) concerning a subject that rarely raises eyebrows in America. In the Delhi town (and some other resource-poor countries including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia) the subject of menstruation is rarely discussed among women and certainly not with men.

As one man in the film is heard saying, “Menstruation is the biggest taboo in my country.” Women on their period are believed to be unclean. Less than 10 percent of women use sanitary pads and lack knowledge about menstrual hygiene.

Few schools have adequate facilities to allow girls to perform proper hygiene during that time month, so there is an increase in school absenteeism and a high dropout rate among young girls. Like other menstruating females, school girls use old cotton clothing or whatever cloth they have on hand when they are on their period.

In one scene in the film, a man operating a crude machine developed to produce sanitary pads instructs his female employees on how to use the machine. When finished, the pads are boxed and then sold to shops in the village where merchants are willing to buy them (not all merchants do, because of the societal taboo). Women from the shop that manufacturers the pads also go door-to-door trying to sell boxes of pads, but some women upon learning what they are for refuse them. Some also questioned the safety of using the pads that are self-sticking to underwear.

The attempts to educate women about menstruation and the use of pads, instead of pieces of cloth that are washed and reused or discarded, are often rejected by women who are embarrassed to buy the pads or discuss the issue when men are around. Even more mindboggling is one apparently middle-aged man who, when told what the pads were for, said that he thought the women in the shop were making diapers for infants.

Perhaps you see now why I say that documentaries are high on my list of educational tools. The next time you decide to watch a documentary check out Period. End of Sentence.

The taboo surrounding menstruation which is still prevalent in some countries prompted the World Bank to create the following video on the subject.


Grandma Ninja Warrior

Each year, a local TV station sponsors a Health and Fitness Expo where no-cost wellness classes and health screenings are available to attendees. There are also hands-on activities including endurance events to challenge health enthusiasts like me.

In years past, I have participated in exercises from aerobic to yoga; but the thing that beckons me most is the rock wall. You might think that a card-carrying AARP member might shy away from something so rigorous. No so, I enjoy a challenge. So upon arriving in the exhibit hall early Saturday morning, I headed straight for the rock wall. Game on!

Before a participant is strapped into the safety harness and allowed to climb the wall, we are required to sign a waiver. It warns that if I should fall and break a bone, sustain some other bodily injury, or worse yet, drop dead – while not acting my age – the contract absolves the promoter of any liability. After signing the waiver, a red, one-inch wide band, similar to the band you receive in a hospital emergency room, was placed around my wrist indicating that I had signed my life over to Divine Providence. Also, in case I wanted to try the climb again later or attempt some other age-defying stunt, I would simply show the band to the staff person.

A previous attempt and failure to scale the wall two years ago made me more determined to try again. With true grit, I was able to propel myself a few stones higher this time. The Lat Pulldown and other strength building gym machines had helped me build my upper body strength, but it wasn’t enough. I was about four feet off the ground when my calves started cramping forcing me to end my quest and indicating that I should have spent more time stretching.

As I walked away from the wall, feeling defeated but not dejected, I glanced back to see a young boy who looked to be about ten years old ascending that wall like Spider-Man on a mission.

Geared up for another challenge I went in search of the Spartan exhibit. Days earlier I had watched a young reporter on TV demonstrate the Spartan race and I told myself “I can do that.”

Unlike the real 3-4 mile Spartan race with its many obstacles and competitors, the Spartan course at the expo is a scaled-down, mini-version. The first thing a contestant does is warm up by running 30 seconds on a curved treadmill. Then, the objective is to go through each obstacle on the course as fast as you can. Since I wasn’t competing against anyone but myself, time didn’t concern me. My goal was simply to conquer each obstacle.

After getting off the treadmill, I walked (did not run) to the first wooden wall, it was approximate four-feet high. The struggle to climb over it took me approximately 5 minutes. (I could have walked around it, but that would have defeated the purpose, would it not?) Next came the bear crawl. That was easy. I scooted beneath the mock-barbed wire fence in about 60 seconds. After exiting the bear crawl, I was supposed to run to and climb over a higher, inclined wall. That wall was twice my height, at least 10 feet. After two earnest attempts, I walked around and found myself facing another wall. It was 7 feet. Pass! The final task was to pull myself up on a rope mounted to a post and ring the bell at the top. Sound easy? It wasn’t.

The two young men on the staff, who shadowed me along the course probably had a good laugh about my senior version of the Spartan crawl, er, I mean race after I left, but throughout my effort, they were encouraging and even gave me a high-five as I strolled across the finished line.

I’m not dismayed that I failed to complete the Spartan course. Completing two out of five obstacles wasn’t bad. I enjoyed every challenging minute. Later that Saturday evening I had some muscle aches, and pains in places that I didn’t know could have aches and pains, proof that I had pushed my body. I think I’m hooked now on the Spartan course.

My cousin, Rai, told me that she is planning to do the real Spartan race. She’s athletic and half my age. I know she will finish the course. I’ll just wait until next year’s expo and try the mini version again.


Black Like Who? Some Folks are Dying to be White

Under the new norm, anything goes, and few things are taboo. It seems like nothing is a given anymore. Before sex reassignment surgery if you were born male or female most likely, you lived and died that way. A medical or cosmetic procedure can now alter nearly every natural human feature. Laser surgery can permanently change eye color. Hair — that’s a no-brainer, think color, weaves or extensions. There are makeovers available for one’s BBF – breasts, butt, and fingernails. And Black people who so desire can change their skin color. That’s right. If you are a person of color and you dislike your appearance, you don’t have to stay that way.

“Say it Loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud” was a 1968 hit song with a strong meaning by “the Godfather of Soul” James Brown. Sometimes, it seems as though Brown’s message of Black pride did not filter down to some Blacks in post-boomer generations.

Numerous high profile Black people are believed to have whitened their skin. Most notable is pop star, Michael Jackson. Some of the Braxton’s, fashion model Iman, rappers Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj are only a few among a growing list of celebrities who have chosen to shed their darkness and lighten up.

There are various ways to lighten dark skin. Glutathione treatments are popular. Depending on where you get the treatment, how many shots you take, and the maintenance doses required to keep you looking light and bright, the cost of regular injections can range from several hundred dollars to as much as $4000 per treatment. Skin-lightening can also have dire consequences.

In spite of the risk and cost, skin-lightening is not done exclusively by the rich and famous.

Glutathione treatments, bleaching creams, and other skin-lightening treatments are popular, not only in the U.S. but in other countries, as well, including India, Asia, and Jamaica where lighter skin tones are perceived as more beautiful than darker skin.

Although some skin-lightening crèmes are deemed to be dangerous because they contain mercury and cancer-causing chemicals, that doesn’t prevent the industry that sells the products from enjoying a booming business.

Many Blacks see skin-lightening as a rejection of black identity. What is it that causes some Black people to abhor their dark skin? Is it self-esteem? Vanity?  Mental illness? Anti-dark skin color bias and the notion that life and living are much easier when you are light or darn near white is an assumption that stems from slavery and racists propaganda.

How about you? Are you are a dark-skinned Black person reading this, if so, are you comfortable with who you are or are you shameless about changing skin color? Do you believe that dark skin color is the black man’s burden?

If you are conflicted, perhaps you will find some understanding about the subject in this stunning and sometimes graphic video. It includes a wealth of information concerning everything from the reasoning behind skin-lightening to the famous doll test. Teachers will certainly be familiar with the doll test. Set aside 20 minutes because once you start watching this video, you won’t want to turn it off.



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.