Sunday, November 21, 2021

When A Root Canal Is Preferable To Calling Customer Service

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published Nov. 22, 2021] ©2021

I used to think that the most terrifying phrases in the English language were “It’s a simple outpatient procedure” and “Packed flat for easy assembly.” 

But they’ve both been supplanted by the new, most dreaded phrase there is: “You’ll have to call them.”

Resolving anything by telephone has not been anyone’s first choice for information gathering or problem resolution in a very long time.  But (alleged) staffing shortages from the pandemic have made it a nightmare beyond all reason. 

There’s nobody at the other end.

Late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel did a sketch last February about spending three hours on the 211 phone line trying to schedule vaccine appointments for his elderly parents.  This was supposed to be the alternative for people who couldn’t make the on-line vaccine scheduling system work.  Of course, the reason they couldn’t make it work was because it actually didn’t work.  But neither did 211. He never got humans.

It's a well-known fact that pretty much every business is struggling with understaffing, including and especially customer service lines.  And nowhere has that problem been more egregious than with airlines.

Four? Five? Six hours on hold with an airline has become routine.  People are trying to reschedule all those cancelled flights from last year or reschedule the constantly cancelled flights they’ve booked this year.  For reasons known best to the airlines, this cannot be done on their websites.  It is a major Technology Fail. Maybe Elon Musk can be persuaded to take over U.S. airline operations.

Our daughter-in-law, for example, has often bought a ticket on-line for their five-pound Yorkie to travel back east with them when they visit her parents in the summer.  But this year, a message popped up that she’d have to “call.” Why? Did the dog need a negative Covid test?  It was literally five hours on hold listening to the same mind-numbing recording. When she finally got a human, the transaction was completed within four minutes.

Unfortunately, her children’s school decided to require all students to be back and quarantining seven days before school was starting so the return dates of their trip had to be changed.  Another five-plus hours on the phone.

Airline horror stories abounded all summer. We were sitting outside in our front yard one night enjoying the sunset when some neighbors walked by, the husband holding a phone to his ear.  He said they’d already been on hold with an airline for two hours and finally decided to just go out to dinner while they were waiting.  When they walked by on their return, they were still on hold.

One can only speculate how many cell phones have been hurled against walls in frustration. Does one’s insurance have a Homicidal Rage rider?

To make matters worse with airlines, no one believes them anymore. All those “weather” excuses?  “Techno difficulties?” “Mechanical problems?” “Air traffic control glitches?” “Crew members exceeding work limits?” The excuses are endless.

Having to spend upwards of six hours listening to a recording about how your call is very important to them must begin, by the second hour, to sound like this: 

“You have reached Lying Weasel Airlines. No one works here at the moment, except Fred.  He’s on his lunch break. Till tomorrow. Rather than remain on hold, you can leave your number for a callback by Fred.  In 2023. Please be prepared for the fact that if you ever reach Fred to reschedule your flight, you can expect that it will be cancelled yet again. Which means you’ll have to call back and start this process all over. If you do actually board one of our few aircraft that is actually managing to leave the ground, please be advised that no food will be served, your entire family may be summarily ejected if your two-year-old won’t wear a mask, our flight attendants will be in full Surly Gestapo Mode, we truly don’t care if you’re missing your son’s wedding/dream vacation/parents’ funeral, and if you so much as look at us cross-eyed, you’ll be on our permanent no-fly list. The next available agent still has 450 people ahead of you.”

No one should ever assault another human being, including an airline employee, but it is weirdly puzzling to me that the airline executives haven’t made this connection.

Flying this holiday season is truly an act of bravery.  Maybe bring a portable camp stool to sit on during those long waits in line when your flight is cancelled.  Also a Christmas carol book to add a little holiday spirit when you spend Christmas Eve at Gate 25.

I myself am staying close to home.  I’m too old and too decrepit. And too nostalgic for the era – there actually used to be one – when your call really was important to a business and airlines actually liked the passengers. I know – sounds utterly crazy.



Sunday, November 14, 2021

Inga's Short Guide To Being A Successful Mother-in-law

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 15, 2021] ©2021

 I was thinking about writing a guide on how to be a good mother-in-law but truthfully it can all be summed up in two words: “Shut. Up.” 

My long-time motto, to which I have, alas, faithfully failed to adhere, has always been “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”  As anyone who has read my column for a while might guess, letting an opinion go unvoiced is not my strong suit. 

But I really try hard with my two daughters-in-law who are truly the daughters I never had and whose good opinion is my utmost priority.  Having been a daughter-in-law twice myself, I vowed I would be a dream mother-in-law.  A friend of mine insists that’s an oxymoron.  But then, this is a woman whose bedroom sports a throw pillow embroidered “The only good in-law is a dead in-law.”  A tad harsh, I think.

I’ve learned a lot from both of my mothers-in-law.

My first mother-in-law only ever referred to me in the third person, even when I was there, and preferably without conjunctions, as in: “Ask the shiksa she wants dessert.”  These in-laws escaped from Russia in the dead of night with the clothes on their backs, enduring incredible hardships in their new land all so that their son the doctor, their phoenix rising out of immigrant ashes, could marry…me?   SO not part of the plan. 

Ironically, with the passage of time (and the raising of two sons), I have tremendous empathy for her position.  Now that I have adult sons, I know I would be devastated if either of them married someone I truly thought was wrong for him, regardless of the reason.  I wish she were alive today so I could tell her.   (She’d still probably tell me to drop dead, but I’d feel better saying it.)

My second mother-in-law (Olof’s mother) actually liked me.  And I adored her. My own mother died when I was 25 so Olof’s mother was truly a second mother to me.  Although fond of her son’s first wife, I think she wishes Olof and I had married the first time around. (So do my former in-laws.) 

The one thing I told both of my daughters-in-law from the get-go was that I was trying to learn their tastes so that if I got them a gift they didn’t like, they needed to say so. As a cautionary tale, I relayed the saga of a friend who, as a new bride, politely gushed over a hideous china tchotchke her mother-in-law gave her. She has continued to receive another one for every birthday and Christmas for the last 34 years.  Two years ago, her mother-in-law surprised her with a display case for them. 

Honestly, I knock myself out to stay on my daughters-in-laws’ good sides, and fortunately they are such sweethearts that they make it easy for me.  But occasionally, despite my best efforts, I’ve just screwed it up.  When my young grandkids were down visiting one time, I thought it would be really fun to take a bunch of cheapo on-sale hotdog buns down to our favorite sunset spot to feed the seagulls.  Now at the time, the sun was setting at around 5:00, so it was just before dinner.  Neither of my daughters-in-laws are food fanatics but they quite reasonably prefer to maximize the nutritional value of whatever they happen to be feeding their kids.  So as you might guess, not a lot of white bread.

But as soon as we got down to the sunset place and each kid had a bag of hotdog buns in hand, they started eating them instead of tearing off pieces for the birds.  It was like, “Whoa! You don’t even have to chew this stuff! It’s nothing like the 12-grain cement blocks Mom feeds us!”

Mom quickly confiscated the buns and handed them pieces to throw but these went into mouths just as quickly, despite admonishments to the contrary. I could see my daughter-in-law’s jaw tightening.  This well-intentioned happy activity was tanking fast.  It was such a good idea!  Which so totally failed!  The kids were, of course, way too full of nutritionally-bankrupt processed flour product to eat dinner.  My daughter-in-law was totally nice about it.  But in my mind’s eye, I feared becoming fodder for her next dinner party. 

Sadly, I know women who really don’t like their daughters-in-law and have even engaged in the ultimate mother-in-law act of aggression, i.e. sending the grandchildren drum sets for Christmas.  I’m going to continue to be phenomenally grateful that I ended up with the daughters-in-law that I did.  But next time:  whole wheat buns.  After dinner.