Things I learned in 2020

What a long strange year it was. I was mostly locked up at home except for groceries for four months, then added in work (sometimes remotely, sometimes in the office) for another five. I’d gotten my last official haircut in February, finally broke down and shaved my head in July, and am now getting close to picking up the clippers again — although not going as short now because, FFS, it’s winter.

In May, I lost my dog. She was old, and the tough sort who hid the fact that she was ill until it was too late, but I also like to think that she knew what was coming and just noped out. A lot of my friends lost pets this year as well, so that theory could actually be the truth.

Every month since March brought its own new disaster to the point that I can’t even remember them all. My one social appearance this year was right near the end of December, when I attended the small masked and socially-distanced funeral of the mother of one of my oldest friends.

Two days before New Year’s Eve, I found out that my boss’s wife lost one of her oldest friends, which also affected me because I’d gotten to know him for business reasons, and I’ve become close to her as well.

Americans have become distanced from the reality of death, but Europe was and is drenched in it because of their historical plagues. Just look up Le Danse Macabre, which was a constant. In the Americas, Hispanic and Latino culture gets it. The gringos… not so much.

Other insights from the año horrible…

  1. I’ve gotten to that point at work where, as I’m going through someone’s prescription list, I know exactly what’s wrong with them just by the drug names. Diabetics, people with major heart disease, transplant recipients, and cancer patients now just jump out at me. “Oh. Taking that, got this. Right.” And yes, I know whether you’re taking those boner pills just for sex, for high blood pressure, or because you have an enlarged prostate. It’s all in the dosage and monthly refill amount. Plus, if it’s for the boners, your wife will probably be adding a telltale prescription of her own.
  2. I’ve finally drilled Spanish so deeply into my brain that I caught myself reading a paragraph in Portuguese and understanding all of it before I realized, “Oh. This isn’t Spanish.” Can’t understand a word of Portuguese if it’s spoken, but most of it is either the same as Spanish or the differences follow such regular rules that it’s completely intelligible in print.

Plus I finally got the opportunity at work to help out a client by explaining something in Spanish after he asked me if I spoke it, and finally my mouth was dumping out the words without my brain stopping to translate from English — and discussing a technical subject, to boot. It’s what I’ve been aiming for over the last eight years or so.

  1. We get a ton of robo-calls at work, but they can be quite fun to mess with, and I’ve figured out how to identify most of them. First off, if the caller ID comes up as just a city name or a long number that starts with a “V,” that’s probably one of them. Also, we have four incoming lines that ring in the order 1, 4, 3, 2. If a call comes in on any line not in order, it’s probably also a robo-caller that dialed at random — for example, 2, 3, or 4 ring when there’s nobody on 1, 2 rings when 1 and 4 are busy, etc.

These calls fall into a few categories: pre-recorded BS, usually about Google/Yelp listings, car warranties, solar panel rebates, etc., which get hung up on instantly; cold calls trying to sell home contracting services, to which I reply, “Oh, we have people already. Bye.”; calls soliciting donations for some police or firefighter fund that always seem to be the same person with the airline pilot voice and are probably also recordings; and, my favorite, people trying to sell Medicare insurance, particularly supplemental plans.

I love these because 1) It’s illegal to make cold calls to try to sell health insurance, especially Medicare, and 2) I have different ways to fuck with them, depending on how busy we are.

If we’re super busy, I’ll just say, “Oh, hey, we’re insurance brokers and we sell Medicare plans, too.” This usually creates a silent reaction that is nonetheless audible and a sudden hang-up.

If we’re not busy, then I’ll play along for a bit, ask questions designed to make them stumble or say something they shouldn’t, then say, “But I thought it was illegal to make cold calls to sell Medicare plans…” If they argue that one, then I hit them with the “We’re insurance brokers” bombshell.

  1. I absolutely despise salesmen cold-calling who will try every trick in the book to get to the boss without telling me why, and some of them can get quite pushy about it. Fortunately, I’ve been given absolute permission to gate-keep the hell out of them, and the more that they insist they have to talk to the boss to explain it because they can’t tell me, the harder I push back.

They never want to leave a name and number, but often set themselves up by asking, “When is the best time to call and reach him?” My reply: “Never.” Yes, we do have ethical sale people out there, but they will actually say what they’re selling, leave a message, or offer to email information for consideration. Those people, I like. But the ones who get mad at me for doing my job, which is to insulate the boss from their bullshit because his time is worth a lot more than mine at work? Yeah, I have no problem escalating the pushback. None at all.

  1. Improv and acting skills definitely translate into the workplace, and it’s made taking phone calls so much more pleasant for me and, I assume, our clients. During our busy period, the phones would ring constantly, and I’d frequently be the only person not already on a call, so I’d wind up fielding a lot of them.

Once I answer a call, it’s all about “Yes, and” with the client — listening to what they tell me, then steering the scene, as it were, by asking the right questions in order to figure out as quickly as possible how to handle the call. Can I answer their question? If not, do I know who can? And how can I get the necessary information for that person?

This process also involves empathy because, unfortunately, our demographic (Medicare patients) happens to have a higher mortality rate than the general population. Too many times now have I spoken with a client who has either lost their spouse or had one or the other of them diagnosed with cancer, and I’ve trained myself to instantly respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I mean it.

Keep in mind that before this whole lockdown thing and for personal reasons, I was very awkward about such references, and my more likely response would have been, “Oh.” Which isn’t empathetic at all.

Finally, I do take opportunities to latch onto little things, like if the client shares a birthday with a family member or close friend of mine (or, once, me) and point it out, or if they’re a close neighbor, although without being too specific, because that would be weird.

Something I’ve discovered, especially in the case of older people who have lost their spouses, is they just want somebody to talk to. I try to pre-empt that during our busy season, but if it’s a slow day, I consider it a part of my job as well to just chat with them after I take care of their questions.

Hey — it counts toward taking care of their mental health, right? And mine. So that’s part of our service. And, to me, it’s like having a bunch of grandparents calling me all the time, which is nice because I never met either of my biological grandfathers, and lost my grandmothers when I was 17 (maternal) and 23 (paternal).

For some weird reason, too, I get a lot of compliments on my phone voice, which is weird, because I’ve heard recordings of my speaking voice, and I don’t find it attractive at all. But I’ve actually had a number of senior women and at least one senior man flirt with me because of my voice.

You know. Basically, “Oh, you have a great voice. I’d love to see the whole package.” And yes, at least twice in those exact words from someone in their 80s.

I’m not offended by what could legally be considered sexual harassment though because, A) I’m in a privileged class anyway (male); B) They’re old and they can say whatever the hell they want; and C) I really do appreciate the positive feedback and compliments.

And, given current COVID restrictions that may extend until summer, they’re not likely to show up at the office anyway.

Oh… which reminds me…

  1. We wouldn’t be locking down again now if people had only done the right thing back in March for a couple of months. Part of that rests in the laps of people who just could not be bothered to stay at home or wear a mask in public, but a bigger part of that lies at the feet of a certain faction in our Federal Government, which couldn’t be arsed to pay everyone a living wage over the time period they couldn’t work, and across all industries.

If it had been economically feasible for people to just stay home but still be paid enough to live on, we might have stomped this down by last July. Instead, idiots started going on Spring Break in May, and it just got worse from there.

Plus which, not everyone got any kind of meaningful relief, and the biggest irony was that minimum wage workers who did lose their jobs made far more with the government’s $600 a week unemployment bonus than they would have if they’d kept working.

Which is what screwed all those minimum wage workers who were considered essential, by the way. Been to a grocery store lately? Other than health care professionals, those people are your frontline workers.

2020 was a difficult and horrendous year in which the wise among us made sacrifices, a lot of us suffered loss of loved ones and loss of employment or both, and each month brought some new disaster, natural or manmade  — Fires! Hurricanes! Riots! Kobe!

But a lot of us survived it and looking back at what I’ve learned in this year and how I’ve personally changed, it wasn’t all bad.

The year just past was a crucible in the scientific sense: A vessel in which metals can be heated to very high temperatures. Of course, the purpose of this is to transform them, usually by combining them with other metals, or by melting them to pour into molds in order to take on a new form.

Yeah, 2020 felt like it did that to all of us. Some of us have come out as stronger alloys, while others have been molded into completely new forms. Unfortunately, it still produced a lot of slag, but maybe that, too, can be recycled into something better in the months to come.

Image source, (CC0) Public Domain

Sunday Nibble #15: Things I’ve learned in lockdown

Random observations so far.

  1. People are definitely observing social distancing here. I had to go to an outdoor ATM but there was someone already there when I arrived. Although there are two machines, they’re less than six feet apart, so I waited way off to the side until he finished, then used the other machine for my transaction. When I was almost done, another person came along, and they waited off to the side as well. That’s how you make it work.
  2. I noticed the same thing when I popped into the Rite Aid next to where I live. It was almost like everyone was wearing a powerful electromagnet set to the same charge — we were all visibly veering away from each other, or backing out of aisles where someone was shopping in order to choose an empty one.
  3. I have had some really heartfelt conversations with store employees lately. On the aforementioned Rite Aid trip, the young clerk and I went through the “How are you doing?” “Good, and you?” “Good” charade but something in me just suddenly made me say, “You know what? Actually, not good, but I’m hanging in there. How are you doing?” And it was a great moment of actual human emotional contact with masks and a sneeze guard between us as we both talked about what was going on in our lives and how we were dealing with it.
  4. My dog has become fascinated with my hand-washing ritual, since it’s the first thing I do every time I come back inside, whether it’s been to walk her, or to grab a quick necessity. She never really used to do this, but for a couple of weeks now, she’s been following me into the bathroom and just standing there staring up at me as I do the twenty second (or more) wash. It’s kind of like she’s looking at me as if to ask, “Daddy, are you okay?” and she does seem a lot more concerned about checking in on me at random. I think she can sense the weird state of depression and ennui that has settled on me.
  5. I baked for the first time in a long time. It’s something I used to do often, but got away from. I’ve always cooked, though, and have cooked a lot of my own meals for the last three and a half years or more. But when a couple of bananas I’d bought went overripe, it was time to make banana bread — social media told me that’s a thing we’re supposed to do in lockdown. I had to improvise, though, because the two eggs I still had had gone bad. They’re not supposed to be green inside when you crack them open, right? That, and I didn’t have brown sugar, so it was white sugar and molasses, plus milk and oil for the eggs. (A chef friend told me later that mayo can also be used as an egg substitute. Who knew?) But I found the entire process to be very therapeutic.
  6. I’ve learned the weird whys about things that are in short supply. The very brief version is that the supply chain balance between commercial and consumer use suddenly shifted far too quickly for production to catch up — huge drop in commercial, huge surge in consumer.

Here’s the deal: TP and paper towels are used in ridiculous amounts by all commercial businesses, because they have to have bathrooms for employees and clients. Regular people, not so much… until quite a lot of us were no longer going in to work or patronizing those businesses. But… the bumwad you use at work or in the subway station is not the same quality as that you use at home, and doesn’t even come from the same factory.

It’s the same story for things like eggs and skim milk. Most of the eggs were going to the restaurant and commercial food industry, since they are such a common ingredient and, like TP and paper towels, the commercial suppliers weren’t the ones shipping to grocery stores. Why would they be when, say, the entire chain of Denny’s restaurants in a region might be ordering something like half a million eggs a week, while an entire chain of grocery stores might only be ordering twenty thousand in the same geographic area? (Source: numbers pulled out of my ass.)

Also, a lot of those eggs are also going into the processed foods you eat, and the baked goods, and that’s also where the milk winds up. But, as you’ve probably noticed, while you can now find 1%, 2%, and whole milk with ease, there’s still no non-fat or skim milk to be found and that’s because, again, the vast majority of it was going to those baked good and processed food companies — who are still cranking things out, even though you can’t find hamburger buns but there’s plenty of bread. And why do they hog the skim milk? Simple. To improve their fat and calorie numbers in the Nutrition Facts boxes.

Same story with butter, which you can’t find, versus margarine, which you can.

  1. I’ve also learned which food items are popular and which aren’t. Apparently, people love Swiss cheese and aren’t so fond of cheddar. If you’re looking for bean and cheese burritos, good luck, but all the other kinds are abundant. Any of the chocolate adjacent Pop Tarts are gone, but there are plenty of fruit flavors. If you want your canned tuna in water, sorry — but tuna in oil and the low sodium version are all over the place. You can’t clean your counters or wipe your ass, but you can blow your nose. And if you’re looking for frozen fruit, don’t set your heart on my favorite: raspberries.

Damn. Who knew that I actually shared the public’s taste in cheese and frozen fruit? I’d always thought that I was an outlier.

  1. Gas has never been cheaper, but I haven’t had to fill my tank in more than seven weeks, and it may still be another month before I have to again. (I last filled it one week before the lockdown so, yeah — that tank is pretty gassed.)

Welcome to the first Sunday in May, and thanks for coming to my TED Talk.