Saturday, February 16, 2013

Giving Up All Hope of Finding A Knowledgeable Human

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Feb. 21, 2013] © 2013 

By my calculations, I spend a third of my time sleeping, a third enjoying retirement, and most of the rest on hold waiting for the next available agent.  I don’t think anyone would argue that automated phone systems are the Techno-Ebola of our time.  But I wouldn’t even mind that much if at the end of it was a Knowledgeable Human Being.

I don’t know where The People Who Actually Know The Answer are but one place they certainly aren’t is at the end of any customer service line.  I try going for the best of three to see if I can get at least two people to give me the same answer, but oftentimes, I have to go for best of seven.  If it’s the visa section of any foreign consulate, the mortgage division of a bank, Medicare, Social Security, or almost anything related to the State of California, you’re pretty much looking at the best of infinity. 
Here’s what I consider the fundamental mystery of our times:  Why is it that no matter how many calls you make in advance, you can only get the right answer to your question after you’ve done it wrong?  That’s when the Actual Knowledgeable Human crawls out of the wood work to inform you, as these recent examples from friends illustrate, that (a) the college credits you were assured would transfer from your former institution to your new one will not (b) the medical procedure the customer service agent confirmed was covered is actually Out of Network, and (c) the address that they gave you to send your first re-fi mortgage payment is actually the old one, incurring $300 in non-negotiable penalties (and a black mark on your credit). 

Not, of course, that the institutions involved will take responsibility for the misinformation of their own employees, even if you have documented exactly whom you spoke with and when, or even recorded the call.  Their mistake?  Your bad. 

A corollary to the Mystery of Only Getting the Right Answer After You’ve Done It Wrong is a phenomenon I call Asking the Unanswerable.  Business journalist Frank Lalli did a brilliant illustration of this in the December 1 New York Times describing his efforts to find out what his blood cancer drug would cost under either a new insurer or Medicare which he was required to transition to come January.  He documented 70 calls to 16 organizations and got estimates from $20 a month to a whopping $17,000 per year.  The most accurate information, he lamented, was that he wouldn’t actually know the cost until he filed his first claim in January after irrevocably committing to a new plan. 

A South African friend who works here and visits her son and grandchildren living in Europe regularly encounters a second corollary to this phenomenon:  Asking the Unanswerable of Ogres. I’d use a different word but my paper won’t let me.  My friend notes that there are not only serious idiots working customer service desks, but some appear to be Satan’s second cousins.  She swears the people at this particular European consulate lie awake nights thinking of diabolical ways to thwart the would-be traveler, for example, invalidating her visa request on the basis that the letter of invitation from her son had to be faxed rather than mailed to the consulate (a requirement never mentioned by the evil customer service troll she’d spoken with at length.)  Only after the letter came in the mail instead of fax did The Crone Who Actually Knows make her malevolent appearance.
So where exactly ARE The People Who Know?  Certainly, as we’ve determined, not interfacing with the general public by any known method of first-line communication.  Where do they live?  And why can’t we get to them the first – or even 15th – time around? 

Here’s my theory:  The entities who Actually Know are tiny mutant life forms who live in a secret bunker at an Undisclosed Location.   They have been programmed to hide there until such time as a hapless human has made some irrevocable commitment to a well-researched course of action then beam themselves to earth in humanoid form cackling maniacally to reveal The Real Answer.  (But too late for you, Bucko!)  I guess we earthlings must simply accept that certain things fall under the category of Unknowable:  Shakespeare’s precise birthday, certain properties of subatomic particles, the real recipe for Mrs. Field’s cookies.   And above all, the advance knowledge of accurate information. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

New Year's Health Tips I Plan To Ignore

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Feb. 7, 2013] © 2013
I always think of January as The Attack of the Skinny People, the folks who were posing for their cover shots on every major women’s magazine while the rest of us were scarfing down pumpkin pie, Christmas cookies and potato latkes.   Their results are to be commended, of course, but let me just say that you can save yourself the trouble of buying these post-holiday magazines because despite the glowing write-ups and the before-and-after photos, their success can all be summed in two words:  Eat less.
Of course, a two word article doesn’t sell magazines, so the publications feel compelled to bombard us with health and weight loss tips that range from flat-out idiotic to those of dubious scientific merit, always prefaced with “research suggests…”  Here are some of my favorites gleaned from the January glossies:

“Carry an Altoids container filled with nuts. It fits about 24 almonds – your perfect portion size!”  It also makes the almonds taste like Altoids which means you’ll never eat them.   Definitely a good weight loss trick!

“Put motivating quotes on our fridge, by your bed, and on your calendar!”   Is it OK to tape them  over last year’s?  
“Limit snacks.  Mindless eating can add up to 300 extra calories a day.”  300?  I should be so lucky.  Have these people never heard of Dove Bars? 

“Sip hot water and lemon before breakfast.  It helps detoxify your liver.”  When I want to detoxify my liver, I prefer a large orange juice with a little salt and 2 Advil.  
“Each gram of fiber you eat cancels out seven calories.”  So, like,  these calories never happened?

“Add turmeric to your food.  It can reduce your chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”  Of course, everything you eat will be yellow.   But a small price to pay for not developing…what was that again?
A full page display ad for a weight loss supplement featured before and after photos of both men and women.  Forget the weight loss.  I want the six pack abs and the permanent tan that you get from the product.

Facial wrinkle tip:  “Try to sleep on your back.  If you lie on your side, it causes creasing in the skin.  Over time, it remains etched in there.”  (Source:  Journal of Seriously Spurious Medical Facts?) 
In one weight loss success story, the guy says: “The same feeling I would get from eating a whole pizza and a bottle of wine, I get from running now.”  Sorry, but this guy is clearly a plant from an alien galaxy and should be immediately repatriated with his fellow Klingons.

To sleep better at night:  “Take a bubble bath.”  (Sounds good.)   “Why bubbles?  They form a layer of insulation on top, which keeps the water hot longer.”  Clearly a guy wrote this.  Bubbles, meathead, look pretty, are generally scented, and keep you from having to gaze upon the results of the last ten years’ food felonies.  I mean, duh. 
“Research suggests a 30 minute workout will reduce hot flashes for 24 hours.”  Define “reduce.”  Especially define “research.” 

What’s “In” in 2013:  “Pencil skirts look polished and flatter every body type.”  Pencil skirts look good on pencil-shaped people and make the rest of us look like fermenting pork sausages.  

“Instead of a cheeseburger and fries, have a lean bison burger on whole wheat pita with baked sweet potato fries.”  The magazine alleges the satisfaction is the same (hah!) but the calories are much lower.  News flash:  What makes food satisfying are Vitamins S and G (salt and grease).  And you don’t want to know what Jonathan’s charges for bison.
Still, I have to confess that I’m always a sucker for those insanely healthy recipes that populate magazine and newspaper pages the first week of January.  In the spirit of post-holiday penance, I went for the 99% fat-free turkey meatball recipe made with quinoa instead of breadcrumbs, poached in sodium-free organic marina sauce and served over a mound of whole wheat penne pasta and steamed broccoli.  The second night, the leftover turkey meatballs were carefully rinsed, revitalized in a vat of Classico Italian Sausage pasta sauce and served over linguine.  The leftover broccoli is in a Tupperware container growing a new strain of penicillin.   

I tried, I really did.  But I’m just insanely glad it’s February.