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Minding Manners

When I was a child, my mother taught me that whenever anyone gave me a gift, it was imperative to thank the person for it. If the gift was a face-to-face delivery, a heartfelt thank you might suffice. But if someone took the time to mail me a gift, the least I could do would be to write them a note or send a card expressing my gratitude. I do that to this day.    

I taught that practice of expressing gratitude to my children. And I’ve noticed that many – although not all – people I know who are in my age group were also taught that courtesy while growing up or learned it after they were grown. But from Generation X, the Millennials, Gen Z and on down the line, the courtesy of expressing gratitude in return for a gift, service, or favor is vanishing faster than landline phones.

Are people just out-and-out thoughtless or do they take it for granted that courtesy requires no reciprocal action?

Surely, I am not the only one who remembers that, years ago, if you sent someone a birthday card, a wedding or baby shower present, or even a sympathy card, especially if the card contained a monetary gift, we’d usually receive a thank you card in return. It was rare not to hear anything from the recipient, and frankly, it was considered downright rude. Today count yourself lucky if someone acknowledges having received your gift without you having to ask them if they got it. As I see it, the lack of good manners is just another sign of deteriorating behavior in a society that becomes more uncivil every day.

Lest you make the wrong assumption, I don’t give gifts merely for someone to thank me in return. I do it because either I like the person or want to do something nice for them to recognize a special occasion. But I dislike feeling that my kindness is taken for granted. An acknowledgment is not only the right thing to do, its common courtesy. Unfortunately, I must agree with Whoopi’s implication that we are veering away from a do-right society.

Granted, things get lost in the mail, and packages get stolen off of people’s front porch. But if you live close enough for me to bring an envelope to your home, give it to one of your family members, or slip it beneath your door, then that destroys the “lost mail” defense. And if you do nothing more than holler across the street when you see me, “Hey, I got it!” or give me a thumbs up signal, I might consider that action a bit uncouth, but no acknowledgment is undeniably rude.

The practice of saying thank you is so deep-rooted in me that – you can bank on this – if I receive a gift from someone and do not thank them, then I am either incapacitated or dead.

It’s embarrassing to me to call someone to ask if they received a gift I sent. That’s almost as bad as lending someone something and after months of waiting to have to ask for it back. I can easily overlook giving away a couple of eggs or a cup of sugar, insignificant things like that. Most likely, I’ll say, “Keep it.” But when it comes to lending a household item, let’s say a punch bowl, a hammer, even a book (especially a book) I want it back. It was a loan, not a gift. Judge Judy would attest to that. And wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be?” But that’s another subject for another day.

Several months ago, I sent a sympathy card containing a check to a long-time neighbor after I learned that her mother had recently died. She didn’t phone or send a thank you note. I’ve seen her in passing at least three times since then and has she ever said thank you? Can a paper doll walk a runway?

We are all busy, so being too busy to say thank you is a lousy excuse, and I’m sure that by now you realize that thoughtless thanklessness of people is one of my peeves. Whether someone holds a door for you or shows kindness in some other way, the least you can do is say thank you. Expressing gratitude is more than just a social nicety it shows civility and reassures others that their gesture was appreciated. That being said – I appreciate you taking the time to read my rant and patronize this blog. Thank you!

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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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The First Stone

Youthful indiscretions – is there no forgiveness for them? Who among us hasn’t done something in our youth that we regret when looking back on the misbehavior as a mature adult?

On Friday, the right-wing blog Big League Politics published a racist photo from the 1984 medical school yearbook of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. One of the photos on a page titled with Northam’s name depicts two people, one in a blackface costume and another wearing a Klan outfit.

On the day that news outlets broadcast that photo, there was swift prejudgment and immediate demands for the Democratic governor’s resignation. He issued an immediate apology for the photos but seemed to waver on whether he was one of the two people in the picture. The next day he asserted that he was not in that photo and added that since he had not purchased the yearbook, it was his first time seeing the picture. Only he, the persons in the photo, and God know whether he is truthful.

Flipping the script for a moment – the Me Too movement brought out numerous women making sexual misconduct allegations, some that occurred decades ago, against prominent men. To be fair, some male victims have made similar accusations against women.

The point is whether the issue is sexual misconduct or racist behavior, how far back is too far back to drag up someone’s past and use it against them?

Before I incur a backlash of criticism let me clearly state that I am not making prejudgments against Me Too victims or people who are accused of or guilty of racial injustices. I merely want to emphasize that people do stupid and irresponsible things when they are young (and sometimes not so young) that they might not repeat when they are more mature.

I know that all transgressions are not attributable to youthful ignorance. The arrogance to make sexual powerplays or blatantly or subtly display racial hatred is sometimes deep-seated. But the purpose of this post is not to judge the alleged perpetrators; I am simply wondering how long is too long to hold something that happened decades ago against someone without examining or considering their track record going forward. If a person has a continuous, unrelenting record of wrongdoing that is one thing, but if the accused shows by his (or her) actions over the years that he or she has changed their wayward behavior why continue to drag up the past? When is long ago long enough?

My cousin, Renate Jones recently said this about the Gov. Northam controversy. “While I agree that this was horrific, this was over 30 years ago, and as a young man, he did what a host of many young people do…stupid stuff. We cannot judge this man by what he did so long ago. In the eighties, racism existed, and still will [sic]. How is the man now living his life? Ultimately judge him by his behavior now. I am black and do not feel he should resign. In 1984, I was militant as [could] be…need I say more? Imagine if you guys have some of your behavior come back to haunt you [from] 30 years ago”

After apologizing for appearing in the disturbing photo, the governor said the next day that he wasn’t in the picture. He insisted that neither figure wearing a racist costume was him. He also said that he never bought a copy of the yearbook and that Friday, when the story broke, was his first time seeing the photo. Some people hearing that were left wondering was it an attempt at damage control to save his reputation and job or is he sincere?

I agree with Renate, how far back in the past is too far to go to hold something against someone? (Let me add that I am excluding and find unforgivable certain hideous crimes like kidnapping, child trafficking, rape, and cold-blooded murder.)

So, a young teacher observes a toddler smacking a pacifier out of the mouth of another child in a daycare center. Will that act of aggressiveness be held against the child 40 years later when he is nominated for the position of let’s say, US Surgeon General because the teacher remembered the incident and publicized it during the confirmation period? Sounds laughable, doesn’t it?

What about the high school cheerleader who purposely trips-up a competitor during tryouts. A few decades in the future when the tripper becomes, perhaps, Secretary of Education or even President of the U.S. will she be forced to resign from her position because the tripping act was exposed? Ridiculous!

I am not trying to make light of serious situations, but if every one of us is required to give full disclosure about every racist or mean-spirited thing we’ve said during our lifetime when does the line get drawn? Is redemption or forgiveness possible?

Images of hurtful things can remain seared in people’s minds. I retain a clear vision of an act of sexual misconduct committed on me by a former manager in the workplace. I also recall instances of blatant racism that I experienced at the hands of at least two CEOs at different workplaces while others in the office were aware of it, but pretended not to see. Some people change; others don’t. Such is life.

If someone spends years of their adult life on the straight and narrow, trying to live down previous insensitive conduct is there no tolerance for evaluating that person’s behavior going forward?

Since the Northam incident, and numerous times in recent years, I’ve heard many talking heads on TV say, “There is no place for racism” in our government or our society. There isn’t – but it exists, and it rolls downhill.

When people obviously and blatantly continue to perpetuate evil throughout their lifetime, that is one thing, but when people show by their actions that they are trying to do better because they know better, then I say give them a chance.

If we – individually – are to be held responsible for every wrongful thing we said or did in our distant past, whether it is attributable to youthful imprudence or adult ignorance – who among us would be able to cast the first stone?

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Laughing All The Way

Every year while ambitious people are making New Year’s Resolutions I am not. IF I were to make resolutions, one would be to practice having more tolerance for intolerant people. Since I am an admitted procrastinator, maybe I’d resolve to postpone saying or writing things that other people think, but wouldn’t dare say aloud or publish.

Since people sometimes take offense at my attempt at humor, I suppose I could resolve to write strictly serious content without trying to make folks smile or laugh out loud, but that would be like having the Times Square ball get stuck mid-way during its descent on New Year’s Eve. Imagine if that big, glossy ball suddenly stops while lowering on the pole during the countdown to midnight. Would all of the revelers collectively hold their breath and freeze? Heads upturned, mouths gaping, not a single eye blinking, all movement halted mid-motion, the only souls stirring would be city officials scrambling frantically to get the ball moving again? Perish the thought.

Why should I make New Year’s resolutions? If I’m planning to do something, I’ll do it anyway and if I’m not I won’t. Some optimists busy themselves jotting down resolutions days before the New Year; others do it moments after midnight on New Year’s Eve, while I’m usually sipping sparkling cider and reminiscing about bygone years. I know that change is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from longing for some days past – let me repeat, some days – and wishing for a return to the way things used to be. If I could turn back the hands of time, I might make resolutions, and these would be my top six priorities:

Number 6.           A return to normalcy. A definition I once read describes normalcy as “being usual, typical, or expected.” If that’s the case, it seems like hardly anything is normal anymore. Normal was unobtrusively replaced over the years by the so-called new norm. The new norm is a no holds barred, say anything, show anything, do anything, be anything, anything goes – insane world. The younger generation won’t get my point because they are used to the insanity. They were born into it and grew up with it. But many people of my generation get it. I’d like to see a return to normalcy as it used to be generally understood by the average intelligent person. I am not a person who follows everyone else over the cliff, meaning I cannot be persuaded to believe what I perceive to be abnormalities. You will never convince me that up is now down, black is white, left is right, and a natural born woman is now a man or vice versa because of a surgical procedure.

Number 5.           Common sense supersedes political correctness.  Granted the principle of political correctness is not entirely bad, but it’s not all good either. PC is intended to put boundaries on offensive speech and behavior, but when imposing one’s personal or a group’s belief on others, there is always the risk that someone’s rights will be infringed upon. One example of this is the use of the n-word. I hate that word and never use it. However, some black hip-hoppers and other black people use it freely, yet they are offended when members of different racial or cultural groups do the same. In a Vox.com article, author, educator, and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed his opinion – contrary to mine — about the use of that word.

Number 4.           Disciplining unruly children. There was a time when parents, teachers, or other well-intentioned adults could discipline their children or someone else’s minors without fear of being arrested. Back in the day, the worse reaction a non-relative adult would get when scolding a child for wrong-doing was for the brat to say, “You ain’t my mama.” or “You’re not the boss of me.” Today it is not unusual for some children to call the cops on their parent if the parent physically punishes them for wrongdoing. Go get my belt. I’m gonna whip your behind. It is not uncommon for a well-meaning school teacher attempting to discipline an unruly student to be attacked by a juvenile and sometimes even that child’s parent will come to the school with a bad attitude and clenched fists (especially when the parent is as immature as the child). Is it any wonder that there are so many rude and disrespectful youths wreaking havoc in the community and running wild through the streets?

Number 3.           Privacy. Ripley’s Believe It or Not stories of strange or unusual facts or occurrences had nothing on today’s world. Before the Internet, Google, people search engines, hackers, and social media one could expect to have some privacy. Anonymity was much easier to achieve a few decades ago; you could hide in plain sight. Not anymore. Today, if you want total anonymity you almost have to commit a deed that will get you placed in the witness protection program – and even then you may be discovered. Just about anyone from Internet snoops and sleuths to busybodies can obtain your social security number, address, phone number, banking info, medical records, police, court and credit records. They can even identify every one of your baby daddy or baby mamas you’ve ever known.

Number 2.           Telephones.  A non-published or unlisted telephone number once freed you from bombardment by unwanted phone calls. Now, telemarketers and robocallers are relentless. I block more calls on my phones than offensive tackle, Trent Williams does on the football field; but they keep calling. And while we’re on the subject of phones, I long for the days of one phone number per home. A good old landline. I could call the home of a relative or friend and if the person I was calling weren’t there someone would usually answer the phone and tell me that. Now, if I phone someone, it’s likely the call goes to a cell phone. If I reach voicemail or get no answer, and urgently need to speak with someone else – anyone else – in the household I have to call a second, third, or sometimes a fourth number before someone answers their phone. That’s because everyone in the household who is out of diapers has a phone and each of them has a different number.

I have no choice but to live with the issues I’ve cited above. But if there is anything that makes me hope that when the New Year rolls in at midnight, I will awaken to discover that like Rip Van Winkle I had been asleep for a long time and it was all nightmares, it is the Number 1 item on my if-I-could-turn-back-the-hands-of-time list.

Number 1.           There was a different outcome to the 2016 presidential election.

Happy New Year!

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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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