Friday, September 28, 2007


I have been having a one sided conversation with Social Security for a few months now about the fact that I have moved and therefore I have a new address. This has mostly consisted of me trying web, phone and letter to get them to understand the concept and them stolidly ignoring me. Finally a few days ago I got several letters telling me that they think they've heard I might have a new address and if this is true then would I please call the following number to confirm? Excellent, thinks I, progress!

Chirpy Automated Social Security System: Hello! thank you for calling Social Security! Para Espanol.... click.... whirr..... please state your reason for calling.... now.

Me: Change. Of. Address

CASSS: I think you said you would like to find the address of your nearest Social Security office. Is that right?

Me: No.

CASSS: I'm sorry! Please state your reason for calling.... now.

Me: Con-firm... chaaaange ... uuuuv .... aaaadressss...

CASSS: I see! To change your address you need to be already receiving, or have already applied for benefits... [very, very long following explanation about people who are not in this position and why trying to do an address here won't work and how there's a shiny website with pretty buttons that might entertain you if you're bored]. Are you currently receiving or have you already applied for benefits?

Me: Y-

CASSS: Yes or no?

Me: Yes

CASSS: To confirm your identity, I will need to ask a number of questions. These are the same questions an agent would ask you so it will save you time if you answer these questions now. [insert about five lengthy questions] Please state your first name, then spell it

Me: Fuh-

CASSS: For example, if your first name is Mary, you would say, "Mary! Em Ay Arrrrh Why"

Me: FirstName. Eff...

CASSS: Let me confirm that... Now, state your last name and then spell it.

Me: MyVeryLongLastName. Emm Why....

CASSS: I think you said, "Meyvurrrahlug, Emm eeee veee uuuu rrrrr...." is this correct?

Me: No...

CASSS: I'm sorry! Let me try again. Please state your last name, and then spell it quickly.

Me: MyVeryLongLastName! Em!Wy!Vee!Eee....

CASSS: I think I've got it now! Myvurreeelag. Is that right?

Me: NO!

Repeat last few steps another two times until finally I answer:

Me: I guess?

CASSS: Great! Now I'll just ask five more personal and pointless questions....

Me: Do you mind if I answer in a variety of silly voices?

CASSS: Click.... whirr.... I'm sorry! The information you have provided does not match the file on record.

Me: Is that because you haven't yet figured out MyVeryLongLastName?

CASSS: If you would like to try again, say main menu! If you would like to hang up, say Goodbye! If you would like to speak to an agent -

Me: Agent! Agent!

CASSS: To speak to an agent I will need to ask several questions, these questions are the same that the agent would need to ask to verify your identity, so it will save you time to answer them now. Please state your first name...

Fortunately this system after two tries at both first and last name (I was gritting my teeth by this point and some of the letters might have come out a leeeetle muffled) says happily "I'm sorry, I don't seem to understand you. Let's skip that step."

I then get sent to the CASSS waiting section which seems to think all Social Security recipients have the attention span of Child 3 because every 3 seconds one of several voices comes on:

Voice 1: (female, cheerful, slightly patronizing) We're sorry for the wait! An agent will be with you shortly!

Voice 2: (male, mournful) We're sorry you have been waiting so long. We serve milllllleeeons of customers and we have our busy times. We will be with you as soon as possible.

Voice 3: (female, calm, gentle and slightly disapproving) We are sorry for the delay. Do you know you can take care of any number of things on our web site? I will now give a long and tedious list of examples of these things for you. Then I will recite the website address several times in case you missed it. I will not point out that this is why you're waiting, idiot, but I do hope you get the idea.


Agent: thankyouforcallingsocialsecurity. Please state your first name... and your last... and....

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The War

The Children and I have been watching The War - Ken Burns's new documentary series. To be honest we didn't intend to - we intended to turn on PBS and catch an utterly ridiculous but charming "mystery" show called Rosemary and Thyme [nb - we have a softness for this particular show because one of the stars played Barbara Good on Good Neighbors] but the first episode of The War was on instead so we did a quick swap of the television watching brain cells and settled in.

I've been quite looking forward to this series. It's been extensively advertised all summer long and I was a great admirer of Burns's Civil War. Also for some reason this has been a particularly World War II year - perhaps partly because of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima; partly because I've been reading rather a lot of Stephen Ambrose. Anyway, I was very pleased that we accidentally hit on the very first episode.

And... and I have to say I'm a little disappointed. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm not captured by this one. I know he's trying to focus on only four American towns, but it still feels too scattered to me. Maybe we're being given too much general history and not enough personal story? Maybe it's just that I know much more about WWII than I did about the Civil War when I saw that series [nb - Kirk was appalled when I carelessly mentioned that the Civil War happened in 1840 or so... this was at the same time that I could recite the French kings from Charles Martel through Louis XVI. I can no longer do this but I do know the dates of the American Civil War now!]. Maybe... and this is awful... there is very little tension because we know from the start who will survive?

We watched again last night and will continue to watch through the series. It is interesting, and it has been enlightening for the Children who knew a great deal about the European conflict from the Blitz through VE day but almost nothing about the war in the Pacific. There has been some discussion about peoples who have been indoctrinated to believe in their own superiority, to value ruthless violence, to despise "weakness" and difference. I have been interested, but saddened to see that the photographs of death and atrocity (and there are very, very many) do not shock or distress them overly - they are more likely to point out the ones they have seen before. They are much more disturbed by film and photos of the living, of children dealing with the horror of their situation, than of those who have been killed.

I'm also interested that the image that has stayed with me most through these two episodes was a very early shot, just before they got to Pearl Harbor, of an airplane beneath the ocean, crusted with various creatures but still entirely recognizable. There was something serene about that image - eerie of course, they always are whether its a collection of amphorae or a modern cargo ship, but serene.

Of course, the thing that struck me most last night was the dignified voice of the announcer saying:

"Corporate sponsors of The War include..."

Friday, September 21, 2007


Just a few moments after I posted yesterday I wandered out towards the front desk. A co-worker pointed out that it was raining and I expressed the usual delight and amazement that rain gets out here. Then she asked if I had heard about the downstairs conference room.

No... and... ???

Well, she said, it's raining there too.

Normally this wouldn't raise an eyebrow in this building, but the downstairs conference room has no windows and only one steel exterior door. This sounded intriguing so a couple of us trailed downstairs to admire it.

Sure enough, it was vigorously raining in a large section of the room. An optimist had put a small garbage can under some of the leakage but that only made the other seven or eight streams try all the harder. We contemplated this scene for a while. Then some other people wandered in and contemplated it as well. It was, we all agreed, rather weird. And rainy.

Finally someone In The Know from the top floor came to enlighten us all. The plumbers, it seems, had been foodling around somewhere on the roof or something and had managed to break a fresh water pipe [nb - since the rain collecting in the trash can was distinctly yellow this came as something of a relief]. They eyed the resulting flood for a bit and decided maybe shutting off the water supply would be a good thing. Then after a while longer they located a wet-vac and were busily sucking up the water on the roof. Of course by this time most of the flood had percolated down the interior walls of the whole building and was pattering down on the tatty carpet in our conference room.

We watched as a ceiling tile detached itself and fell with a sodden, and rather disgusting thump. This, we agreed, should be grounds for all just going home but none of us had the guts to actually do so.

Later that day I had an epiphany. It all makes sense now - the raised temperature in my office, the interior water feature downstairs: we're obviously being renovated as a tropical rain forest.

I feel all noble and carbon-friendly now. If a bit warm and damp.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

form vs function

I've mentioned it before, but the building I work in is a Genuine Design Award Winning building - all full of significance and importance and stuff like that. Unfortunately it's also a crap building where nothing works.

Last year this meant endless entertainment as offices were flooded, whole advanced civilizations of mold were grown and we were all told that nothing could really be done to fix the problem because the building was Spayshul.

This summer we are enjoying the Delightful Summer of Climate Control. For several weeks the entire building was absolutely frigid - I'm not saying you could have kept milk fresh in my office, but it was pretty darn close. I didn't mind so much since it was also ridiculously hot outside so working in arctic conditions was rather refreshing; my co-workers felt blue lips and fingers were a little much though so they called to complain. Turns out that the heater on the air-conditioner was broken (I know! Who knew air conditioners need heaters?) so we were getting pure, unadulterated frigid air without anything to take the edge off it. They were pretty sure they could get it fixed... in six weeks or so.

Now we have an entirely different problem - the heater is beautifully fixed, but while they were foodling around with it they realized that the whole system seems to have been made entirely out of asbestos. No problem though, they'll just shut down the heater again while they figure out what to do - should only take another several weeks. Apparently some folks here got a little cranky about being asked to work in offices you can see your breath in so the maintenance guys seem to have come up with some sort of solution. Unfortunately whatever that solution is means that by noon my office is a toasty 78 degrees.

But hey - the design is GREAT.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


It must be hard to be a male of a certain age these days. For... what... ten years or so the uniform has been predictable. One pair boxers (CLEAN, plaid preferred, patterns of smiley faces or hearts undertaken at one's own risk - tighty-whities out of the question), one t-shirt sporting a: profanity (see "Rebel, character traits of" for music requirements, palette restrictions and recommendations for disfiguring piercings and tattoos) b: advertising logo (see "Branding: corporate shortcut to personality" for logo suggestions and the Top Ten Companies to Avoid) or c: ironic image and/or text (see "Cultural iconoclast, an insider's guide to being an outsider" for constantly updated lists of hot-button subject matter and Blogs You Must Read!), and one pair of trousers four sizes too big. The only real issues were exactly how much boxer should protrude from the waistband, and just how do you keep your jeans above your knees when you're riding a skateboard.

But now - now darn it some fashionista has introduced skinny jeans for men. Not only does this new style make slim legs look pipe-like and plump ones like over-stuffed bratwurst, there's the terrible problem of where to wear them.

You see, these guys don't feel comfortable unless their jeans are hovering well south of the navel (they haven't had a belt above the pubic bone since they were seven). Or maybe it's that they haven't had to undo the zip to get dressed in so long they've forgotten how to work the darn things. It certainly looks as though they had a long and terrible struggle to become fully clothed but had to give up, exhausted, several inches short of success.

Not to mention that between the low hang of the crotch and the constriction of the fabric the gangsta strut has become a constipated waddle.

Cool is so damn hard.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Trap for Heffalumps

I got a nice letter from Social Security the other day. It was a Friendly Letter, that announced itself at such right at the top (in case I missed that we are now blessed with the Kinder, Gentler Social Security - [oh, and we'll be out of money in 2009]).

Dear Social Security patron (it said - sorta), this is a Very Friendly Form, which you should find in no way patronizing or intimidating. Because it's not. Please fill it out at your leisure, preferably while sipping mimosas and listening to Jazz FM, because this will be a relaxing and pleasurable experience. Then please place a stamp on the enclosed envelope (what with the no money thing we can't afford pre-paid postage) and mail it back OR WE WILL NEVER SEND YOU MONEY AGAIN. Love and kisses.

Question 1: Are you married (tick YES or NO) I carefully ticked "no" and stifled the urge to fold it up into a little triangle, scrawl "for Justin H. DO NOT READ! THIS MEANS YOU BUT NOT YOU JUSTIN" and pass it along the row.

Question 2: When did you marry?

Hmmmmm.... usually government forms include Instructions for Idiots like - "If you answer no, please disregard the next four questions, turn to page seven, add $1,254.997 to the bottom of the column and perform the secret rite of Taxation sub category B." This one had no such comment. I wondered for a moment if just possibly the Social Security people had decided the average human is bright enough to realize that if one isn't married one doesn't need to answer questions relating to said non-existent marriage.

Nah, I figure it's actually a Very Clever Plot. Some nefarious Social Security patron will look furtively around and tick off "no" when really they mean "yes." They'll probably rub their hands and chortle for a minute at the sheer brilliance of themselves. Then they'll look to the next question - "When did you marry?" and, still distracted by their evil plan, they'll unthinkingly fill in "June 8th" and carry on!

And then, you see, then when the Social Security people get the form back they can look at the contradicting answers and the evil doer will be foiled! Tax dollars at work folks - makes you all warm and fuzzy doesn't it?

Friday, September 07, 2007


Child 2 has been tasked to create a family totem "pole." The pole is actually a bunch of strips of paper all taped together - originally meant to be a cylinder but after a bit of grumbling now a long flat... thing.

The point was to choose a totem animal for each family member, explain why it was chosen and then do a drawing. Child 2 hemmed and hawed for a week over this and then came up with the following:

Kirk is a griffin: brave, intelligent etc etc.

Child 3 is a shark - not sure what the reasoning there was. Originally Child was going to be a lemur but Child 2 was restricted in the number of "invented" or non-Native American totems it could choose so it plumped for shark instead. I have a small hunch that sharks are easier to draw...

Child 1 is a wasp. This produced a howl from Child 1 but Child 2 quickly announced it was because "industrious" was a major trait of the wasp totem. It might also have mumbled something about how "louse" was a real genuine and well respected totem and some people should be grateful.

Child 2 itself is a raccoon. I had suggested badger on the basis that they are loyal, brave, tenacious, and very grumpy if you try to roust them out of their sett. Child considered this but went with raccoon because it knew how to draw one.

And me?

I'm a penguin.

Don't ask.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


There's a theory that actually human beings are just a product of viruses who use us as highly evolved mechanisms for getting around. In which case public school has to be the culminating achievement of virus-kind.

The Children have now had several weeks sitting in enclosed spaces with large numbers of other kids who, apparently, have spent their summer usefully contracting nasty air-borne bugs. They have breathed in a cocktail of rhinoviruses and coronaviruses for days now, carefully incubated the more exotic of the species and now, drat 'em, they have brought them home to me.


I need a tissue.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pretty in Pink - or Green

I don't do well in the heat. I say this with a cringe because in the past that statement has been greeted with anything from eye-rolling (that I wasn't supposed to see) to directly expressed disbelief. And these are the people who actually like me.

So I feel more than a little defensive about this weakness. People think it's all in my head so it probably is all in my head and really I'm just being difficult.

Which means that once a year or so I pretend that I don't get overheated ridiculously easily, that I'm not living in a you-gotta-be-kidding-me desert place, and that really by September it's quite cool outside. Honest.

That happened Monday. I was nagging at the Children, particularly one child, who were planning on spending the day draped over bits of furniture and furrowing their brows at various electronic devices. The combination of button pressing and brow furrowing was apparently going to raise their heart rate enough to constitute exercise. [NOTE: to be fair, Child 1 had done its button pressing - except for the sibling-related type which is constant - early in the morning and was now fretting about nothing to doooOOOOOooo] I chased them all outside with some orange cones and a soccer ball but after the fourth episode of "Child is doing _______ even though I never _______ and..." I had had it. Also I felt a little guilty since I had spent the whole morning crouched over a computer and pressing buttons. Granted mine was Work, but that was hardly the point. So I suggested a nice walk over to a lovely local park! What could be better? It was much cooler than it had been, the walk was only a mile or so, and the whole thing went by bike path.

Yes. Well, I had the good sense to realize, after a few rounds of soccer-ball passing, that I was getting a leetle warm. I just might have needed to realize it a tad earlier.

I've done this just often enough to be able to anticipate all the lovely symptoms of heat exhaustion. Ooooh, I thought as we started on the bridge, there are the muscle cramps! I think I'll feel nauseous next.... there we go! Nausea, now as we get to that traffic light the spots before my eyes should be just about making it impossible to see which means I might manage to stagger to that patch of shade before I actually get so dizzy I pass out.

The Children were quite interested by this demonstration of Heat Exhaustion - How to Recognize, and entertained themselves and me by narrating the bits I couldn't appreciate. "Ooooh, you're not really flushed now, you're all pale. Even your lips are pale - hey! Your ears are pale too!" Thanks guys.

We made it home, having stopped once more to sit in humiliation on a shady curb and then barely making it into the door to collapse on the couch. Child 2 brought me water, then gave me a nice commentary for the next hour. "You're gray now! Really gray. Okay, now you're more greeny - yah, definitely greenish. NOW you're all pink!"

Have I mentioned that I really, really don't like the heat?