Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More Tales from the Consumer Trenches

It seems like a distant memory now. But that one click of the mouse set off a chain reaction that required an enormous time investment to correct. Ah the joys of the modern and convenient electronic age.
It all started when my brother in law Michael moved from one apartment complex to another. As his paperwork goddess it was up to me to switch his auto pay on the Arizona Public Service utility bill to the new account. I love auto pay because it sends me notice of how much his bill is each month and I report that to him for his bank balance tracking purposes and, it gets paid with no further action. Easy and amazingly convenient. Who could ask for more?
Well, try as I have over the years I am no secretary. So it was no surprise to find out that I committed an error. The problem was finding it out--and getting it fixed. It started when we received written notice that the payment had not gone through. I immediately phoned. It seems that August/September is the worst month of the year to try and call to talk to a service rep. Each time I did (and there are many) the hold time was reported to be no less than 30 minutes and most often 1 hour.
Imagine my horror to find that once I did reach a person they would not talk to me because I was not him. Silly us, we had forgotten to file a power of attorney with the power company. Just slipped our minds I guess. (But I could have had a guy call and pretend to be him and they would have been none the wiser as they verify your identity with the last four SSN digits-a number I would presume the ex would certainly have had plenty of access to-no system is fool proof I guess.)They have this strange security concern that involves ex-spouses getting even so we all have to suffer for it. Problem was, at the time Michael was in Michigan and I was in Arizona so it was a bit tough to coordinate the call. Anyway, I assured the rep (who was very kind and as helpful as she could be within the confines of her guidelines) that she would not have to tell me a thing--I would do all the talking. After describing our plight she used some magic hand signals and without telling me exactly I was able to figure out that I had entered the account number incorrectly. Easy to fix. But they were unable to waive the $15 return fee unless they spoke with him personally! It did not seem economically prudent to have him call from Michigan on his cell phone and be placed on hold for up to an hour for a $15 credit. In hindsight this was a fatal judgment.
I breathed a sigh of relief and reinitiated the autopay.
Now Michael has learned that in order to avoid overdraft fees he must check his account balance regularly. He does so nearly daily. That information, coupled with my telling him the amounts of his bills, has worked beautifully for the last year or so. So now, I have told him the amount of his APS bill-$96 and not knowing about the snafu is figuring that money is already out of his account.
Well, as luck would have it-the end of the month was upon us by the time the auto pay searched his bank account for the now $111 it needed to satisfy the debt. What luck-there was only $101 in the account AND THE DAMNED THING GETS RETURNED AGAIN!
Now, however, we are both in Michigan and on the last day an unexpected rain storm caught Mike's cell phone by surprise and sort of knocked it out of commission. When we got back home we find the new notice that the APS bill bounced (and you guessed it-another $15 fee), and two more notices-one demanding a cash payment in full for all current amounts due and for the next 12 months and a turn off notice.
Several times that week I tried calling APS again in hopes of getting the same kind rep on the phone. After being on hold for upwards of 30 or 40 minutes each I had to break off the call because I had something else to do before they answered.
I finally got through (after a 40 minute wait); I told my story to the woman who refused to speak with me because I was not him. She could not understand why he could not just call her from his cellphone at home. (See above).
We had no choice but to pay as time was running out. After a somewhat difficult website search I was able to locate the fact that most Circle K stores have a payment kiosk. So we went to the bank, got the cash and stopped at the first Circle K we saw. It was kiosk-less, of course. We finally found one an paid.
Last night I finally got Michael to call APS (figuring a Monday evening would be the least wait time-wrong) and we talked them into taking us off the cash pay status. After another wait on hold (the rep had to get the OK from the supervisor) we were graciously allowed to return to the auto pay system--but only with the stern caveat that if we screw up again--one more time, in the next 12 months we will be banished to cash kiosk hell with no exceptions.
It is not easy being handicapped. Although Michael still has his driver's license he cannot drive at all. He also got summonsed to jury duty--at the regional court center in Surprise, Arizona which is 21 miles away! Mike is very adept at zipping around the neighborhood on Dial A Ride and has even taken the bus to Scottsdale, but this is foreign territory for him.
As luck would have it the government instituted the Americans with Disabilities Act that apparently resulted in the court giving notice on the summons that if you need an accommodation you simply call this number.
So Doug calls and hears a very lengthy recorded greeting that essentially reports that this person will not call you back if your request does not fit into a specific category of accommodation, specifically for the court facilities it seemed. She was unclear about whether getting there was one of those categories. Doug took the chance and left his message-can he come to Phoenix instead of Surprise? No call back. He then thought maybe she misunderstood and did the whole thing again. No call back.
And they wonder why people don't go to jury duty. Michael certainly won't.
Michael leads the most simple life of anyone I know; due in no small part to his physical and financial condition. It really is not complicated in the least anymore. Yet between Doug and me a serious amount of time is devoted to it. Why is that?
The moral to this story is that every little thing we go to do in this progressive society has an unbelievable administrative burden. The benefits of all this automation are great until they don't work-then you are in the morass that I can only imagine as what hell would be like for an anal person like me. Just retelling the stories to the people involved takes an inordinate amount of time. If you aggregate all of these things together it is no wonder people have no time these days. Every spare moment is being devoted to keeping the machine running. We truly are rats on a treadmill with little time to think and even less time to savor the special moments. Maybe it would not be so bad if the economy slows down-perhaps we can all catch our breath!

Footnote: The court accommodation lady called back! They just have to write a letter. Maybe there is justice after all.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Helicopter parents, try landing for a little while

Doug's column on being a college parent

Sept. 9, 2007 12:00 AM
Oh, this is great . . .

Headline on the MSNBC Web site, Sept. 5: "Killer at college: Meningitis threatens students."

I try not to be a paranoid parent. I've tried hard for almost 18 years. Oh, sure, I've been known to pore over the WebMD Web site reading up on horrific tropical diseases when the Kid would start sniffling. And, yes, the Wife has rolled her eyes more than once in response to my medical judgment. But it's not completely because I'm paranoid.
Somebody out there really is trying to make me crazy.

September 5, you see, was the Kid's second day of college class. She spent a good part of that day at the University of Michigan student health services clinic, which treated her for wheezing, coughing and generally exhibiting all the symptoms of the sort of exotic tropical diseases that MSNBC convinced me were ravaging her immune systems.

I know that the MSNBC health reporter was just doing her job.

She found an unfortunate college freshman at Indiana University . . . a Big Ten school which, coincidentally, is just 328 miles, according to my research on Mapquest.com, from my Kid's school (another Big Ten college, please note!) at Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Hoosier student had contracted meningitis. She was a freshman. First time living in a dorm. And she exhibited symptoms that, OK, weren't exactly like those of my Kid, but were vaguely similar if you dwelled on them long enough. And dwell I did. Then two cases of the disease were discovered in Flagstaff, including one infecting a Northern Arizona University student. And, suddenly, I was in full-paranoid mode.

The fact that the circumstances that help promote the spread of the awful disease exactly mirrored those in which I had just plopped my kid did not help.

Dusty, dirty, claustrophobic dorm rooms? Check. Close proximity to hacking, wheezing strangers from all 50 states and over 60 foreign countries? Check. Heartless, uncaring parents who race away cross-country at the first opportunity to revel in their newfound status as empty nesters? Well, not exactly "check." But until I learned the kid had a sinus infection and had all the marvels of modern medical science at her disposal, I sorta felt that way.

At least I'm not the worst sort of insufferably oppressive, self-torturing parent. At least I'm not a "helicopter parent."

During a parent-orientation session on campus, a UM psychologist described modern moms and dads as people who hover over their kids' lives like helicopters, ready to swoop down and take charge of problem mitigation at the first sign of trouble. Rather like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction who sweeps in to clean up John Travolta's bloody little messes.

This is not an unfair description of the current generation of parents of college freshmen.

During the question-and-answer period of parent orientation, one mother asked the psychologist if it would be too much for her to continue calling her son to remind him to eat lunch. He told her that, yes, any mother who would do such a thing to her 18-year-old son is an overbearing harridan. Not in precisely those words, of course. But something gently akin to it.

Another mom wanted to know if it would be OK for her to call her son each morning to make sure he got up on time for class.

What was truly amazing about this parent was that she lived in Spain. So, in order to call her son each morning before class, she not only would have to know his precise class schedule, but she would have had to calculate the time difference between Madrid and Ann Arbor each day. The UM shrink assured her that playing long-distance alarm clock to a near-adult is not a good thing.

So, the Kid is OK. Happily under the influence now of who-knows how many neo-Marxist professors, Ann Arbor anarchists and wild-eyed vegans.

And here I forgot to pack her a copy of Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

Argh. I'm a miserable dad

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tips for Slow Cooking in the Fast Lane

Many people I know say they don’t cook--don’t have the time or the know-how. The way I look at it is that after breathing, eating is the most frequent thing we must do or we die. So if it is necessary, why not make it a good thing? The slow food movement has basically the same goal. But the unfortunate name makes the harried rat racer avoid the subject. But it does not have to be that way.

I know cooking seems like a burden. You have to plan and shop and chop and clean up. But what is the alternative? I notice that when I get lazy (and yes, there are times when I think it is too much trouble to make a meal) I find that I resort to convenient foods that never seem to satisfy my hunger. So I keep snacking around and then I fell gross for the next couple of days. I suppose if you did that all the time you would not realize that you really don’t feel too good and would just keep doing it.

But I have a few suggestions to get you out of that routine of mindless eating of prepared foods. Following these ideas makes it relatively easy and believe me, the people in my house are very happy.

First, I learned back in the cookbook days that anything is possible, even on short notice, if you keep a well-stocked pantry. Once full of the basic items you simply add that item to your shopping list for the week when you use it and you never have to worry about having things on hand. So take some time and make sure you have flour, sugars, salt, canned beans, dried rice and legumes, pastas (orzo, spaghetti, penne) crackers, vinegars, oils, etc. And start collecting dried herbs and seasonings. My favorites are the bulk herbs and spices hanging in the Mexican food section. Put those in air tight jars (they have cute clamp lid jars at World Market) when you get home and you will have an ample stock that will last quite a while. Go for cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic powder, powdered ginger, cloves, star anise, red chile flakes, dried chiles, chile powder, whatever strikes your fancy. And don’t forget the cooking spray! Pam is good and there are some that are olive oil that are great.

Then, stock up on meats. Buy in bulk at Costco, Sam’s or on sale at the grocery store. Fill your freezer with ground beef, short ribs, pork chops, chicken breasts, whole chickens, fish and shrimp. Repackage them in amounts that you will use at a time. Also buy bulk nuts--pecans, walnuts, hazlenuts, almonds and store them in your freezer.

Once you have these items all you will need is the perishables. For these it is best to eat local. I go to the downtown Farmer’s Market each Saturday morning and I buy whatever is there in amounts that seem like they will last the week. This is a terrific way to get around some of the menu planning headaches that keeps people from cooking. Eating local means that the seasonal output is always changing. Some of the items that are offered remain pretty constant here in the desert, but there is always something coming in and something else going out. Using the changing vegetables to define your meals reduces planning time to next to nothing--the ingredients do it for you.

My farmer’s market trip lasts one hour, including travel. And it is always so fun. You get to know people and constantly discover new foods-like Queen Creek olive oil laced with blood orange flavor, mmmmm. Now that you have the kitchen stocked you will only need to go to the grocery story to buy milk and eggs and bread and to replenish your pantry stock. That makes the grocery-shopping trip very quick. So, I have already saved you lots of shopping time!

With the supplies on hand, the key to this whole process and the secret to my success lies in a subscription. Several years ago I was turned on to Taunton’s Fine Cooking. This magazine is the best practical and accessible cooking tool you will ever have in your kitchen. It comes out 8 times a year and is filled with pictures and features and recipes and tips presenting in such a way that you want to sit down and devour it immediately.

When I get home from work and have no idea what to make, I simply assess the ingredients I have on hand and go to the Taunton’s recipe index (either in the magazines themselves or on line) and search for recipes that fit the time and materials I have available. And, almost every time, it is like a gourmet meal. And to be honest, I rarely make the same thing twice because there are so many variations to this method.

So dinnertime is always an adventure; it is nutritious and like a fine dining experience. Please get the magazine and see for yourself.

Check it out at http://www.taunton.com/finecooking/ .

And, it makes a great gift! My mother has been making it a Christmas gift to me for years and I could not be happier.

Good luck and good eating.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

ASU, the official center of the universe

No, not my alma mater- I am talking about Appalachian State University in North Carolina. First, on Saturday September 1 2007 they pulled off the athletic feat of the century (or maybe two centuries) when they beat the University of Michigan on its home turf in the college football opener. We were more stunned than usual, given that we were in the vicinity when it happened. We were installing our daughter in her dorm and helping her transition into life as a wolverine. After that tragic event Doug ran around screaming “We are going to pull her!!!!”

Meanwhile, the now infamous Youtube video clip of the Miss Teen USA contestant who could not string two coherent words together in response to the question about why most Americans cannot locate the U.S. on a map was making the rounds. Turns out she is also headed for the hallowed halls of Appalachian State.

Just two days after the miserable defeat in Ann Arbor, Hootie and the Blowfish played a date at the DTE venue in the Detroit metro area. Turns out two members of the band were alum of-- you guessed it-- Appalachian State!
The latest revelation is the goofy advertisement for the school also making the rounds on the Youtube that has been the subject of copious snickering critique. For more on that see Doug MacEachern’s unsigned editorial “A Toast to the Other ASU” at http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/opinions/articles/0906thur1-06.html://