Sunday, April 29, 2007

Privacy, please

Yesterday our block hosted an enormous garage sale. You wouldn't believe how excited this made me. Garage sales were an important part of my youth. Unfortunately, I have difficulty getting rid of stuff; and when I was younger I would often decide, midway through the sale, that I actually wanted to keep various items.

So my parents instituted a rule: Nothing that leaves the house can go back in the house. It worked.

Well, Mrs. Gerbil and I made a small wad yesterday. But the tragedy of it all was that I had to go to work after a few hours. I would much rather have been sitting out in the driveway than telling callers that I honestly do not have their claims information. Alas.

But before I went to work, I found myself with a little dilemma. Mrs. Gerbil and I live three blocks from a clean and sober house, approximately half of whose residents were my clients at my previous job. I've run into them at bus stops, in downtown Berkeley, in restaurants, and even in the corner liquor store (where they buy cigarettes and snacks, and we buy milk and Ben & Jerry's). It doesn't really bother me, and it certainly did not bother me while they were my clients.

Yet yesterday, I was pre-emptively bothered. I saw one of them walking down the street, then walking back up the street with some garage sale loot. Our building is set back from, and perpendicular to, the street; and there's a privacy fence around the driveway. Thus: I could see him, but he couldn't see me.

I started wondering: What if he comes to check out our wares? Not that he would buy any of our girly stuff, but what if he strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Gerbil and me? How would I introduce him? Should I introduce him? And is it a bad thing if he finds out where I live, even though I haven't worked with him in months?

(Mrs. Gerbil and I have already discussed what might happen if one of my former clients approaches both of us. The agreement: She is not to ask me from whence I know this person, as "I can't tell you" is fundamentally the same as "That's my client.")

My worst fears, however, were not realized. A short while later, he zoomed back up the street, garage sale loot in hand, without so much of a glance up our drive.

I still wonder what might have happened, had he checked out our stuff. It's hard to observe the "I'll acknowledge you only if you acknowledge me" rule when the person is literally at your doorstep. And what if he'd bought something? Would I have felt weird taking his quarter for one of Mrs. Gerbil's sci-fi/fantasy novels?

Signs point to "yes."

Later in the afternoon, Mrs. Gerbil went off to Walgreens to retrieve a prescription of mine. The staff at our Walgreens generally does a terrific job of authenticating their customers, even those whom they recognize (such as yours truly). However, Mrs. Gerbil reports that the pharmacy tech tried really, really hard to give her someone else's prescription.

Apparently the tech asked dutifully for my name and address--and then proceeded to hand Mrs. Gerbil the bag directly behind mine. Mrs. Gerbil protested, "That's not the right one!" The tech said something to the effect of "Did you move? It looks like we have the wrong address on file."

Mrs. Gerbil pointed out that not only have we not moved, but the name on the bag was not mine. They went back and forth about this for a bit before the proverbial light bulb came on, and the correct bag made it to Mrs. Gerbil's little paws.

I'm not even going to begin on that one. Hip-hip-HIPAA, dudes.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The price of convenience

According to the newsletter Mrs. Gerbil received the other day, the Alameda Green Party is congratulating itself over preventing the construction of some cell phone tower somewhere. I don't know where the tower was supposed to be, as Mrs. Gerbil has already recycled the newsletter and the link which should lead to the newsletter doesn't actually yield anything of use.

But this will not stop my snark. Oh, children, my snark cannot be stopped.

I will concede that cell towers are ugly. I'll also concede that I had no idea that there were so many ways to disguise cell towers. But it's not just aesthetics (or lack thereof) that fuel protests against cell tower construction. It's the possibility of a health hazard. It's the intrusion of commercial activity into non-commercial zones. Oh, and it's the principle of the thing.

Now, I'm all for preservation and good planning and all that, but there's a fundamental problem with cell tower nimbyism: No cell tower, no cell service.

Many people have no land line because their cell phones are their primary phones. That's great for people who know they can always get reception. Mrs. Gerbil and I each have a cell phone, but we also have a land line because cell phones aren't 100% reliable. On our landline we have a cordless phone and an old-school phone with a 25' cord. (Why the ancient model? Because we can't use the cordless to notify PG&E that the power is out.)

If cell tower construction is restricted, then existing towers may get overwhelmed--and then we'll all bang our heads on the wall to the tune of "We're sorry, all circuits are busy now. Please try your call again later."

When I decided to get a cell phone about five and a half years ago, I chose my company based on local coverage. The best coverage in my area came from Verizon or Sprint, but it was well known that there was no Sprint reception on Coventry Road. Coventry is full of all kinds of fun shops, and as I lived about a quarter mile away, I was there all the time. Needless to say, I chose Verizon. Verizon, however, does not have such great reception in our bedroom in Berkeley. But this doesn't bother me. I can put up with the lack of reception in our bedroom, because the only way to fix this is to put up a cell tower on the bed. And that's just plain silly.

However, I also don't subscribe to the belief that cell phone ownership equals constant accessibility. So I suppose it's okay to support the restriction of cell tower construction if you don't mind not being able to use your cell phone everywhere and all the time. But if your cell phone is necessary for your survival, then cell towers are your necessary evil.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gee, your armpits smell terrific!

Well, I had planned to blog about a Celebrity Deathmatch that isn't, but should be:

The Aflac Duck vs. the Geico Gecko

but it seems I am not as original as I'd thought.

I would have probably spent an evening moping about this, if not for last night's Target run with my best friend, R.

When R and I go shopping, we are a force with which to be reckoned. Even Mrs. Gerbil thinks so--which is why she tends not to come along. But last night, Mrs. Gerbil had to work late; and so R and I made like teenagers and spent the night at the mall.

We each needed various items from the health and personal care section. Alas, this took a lot longer than it should have, as there are just way too many choices these days. There must be 57 varieties or Crest toothpaste, and it's getting harder to find good old cool mint gel. And really, how many different cartoons need to be festooned on band-aids? R and I find this all very amusing.

And then we spotted the best varietal of all:

vanilla chai deodorant
R put her astonishment this way: "Dude. The point of deodorant is to make your armpits not smell."

I put mine this way: "Dude. No one's armpits should smell like Starbucks."

I suppose it's possible that R and I, hip as we are, have missed some important new trend in accessorizing--the one that dictates that your underarms must match your hot beverage.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"No" means NO.

One of the unfortunate things about my job is that I cannot do a single thing about claims. I cannot tell anyone the status of a claim. I cannot reprocess a claim. I cannot even say whether a claim has been received. This is because I am not in the claims department.

My department never closes. The claims department does. When the claims department is open, I can transfer callers to a real live person over there. When the claims department is closed, not a single real live person is there to receive the transfer. And the only thing I can do is say to wait until the next business day--which can be a tall order if it's 7pm on a Friday night.

I don't know why it is so difficult for people to understand that I can't view their claims information. I get at least three calls per day that go like this:

caller: I am calling about a claim that my doctor submitted three months ago.
me: I'm sorry, I can't see any of your claims information. The claims department is open Monday through Friday, from...
caller: But my doctor sent in this claim three months ago and it hasn't been paid yet.
me: I apologize for the delay, but as I said I do not have access to any information about your claims.
caller: What do I have to say to get you to pay my therapist?
me: Please call back when our claims department is open and they will be happy to assist you.
caller: But why can't you help me with my claims?
me: Because I am not in the department that handles claims. That department is closed right now.
caller: Oh. Okay then, bye.

As you can imagine, I get very tired of saying the same thing over and over and over again. I probably say "I can't see any information about your claims" in my sleep. Sometimes I feel like I'm David Spade in that one commercial, except I'm not saying "NOOOOooooo!" for the passive-aggressive hell of it.

Mrs. Gerbil suggested that I come up with fun, creative ways to impart this information. Last night we came up with a whole slew while we were supposed to be sleeping.

Some of them were inspired by cheesy martial arts movies:

~ Your claims information is silent, like the ninja.
~ Your claims information is as the first crocus of spring, but it is still December.
~ Your claims information is as a deer, deep within in the forest.
~ Your claims information is as concrete shoes at the bottom of the Hudson River.

Some of them were inspired by television:

~ In the world of managed care, claims information is considered especially valuable. In this company, claims are handled by an elite squad known as the claims department. These are their hours...

Some of them were inspired by folk songs:
I cannot give you your claims status
I cannot do squat about claims
That's done by another department
So why are you talking to me, to me?
Call back, call back
Call back on Monday at six AM
Call back, call back
Call back on Monday at six.

And some of them were inspired by nursery rhymes:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, but I don't have any of your claims information.

The man in the moon came down too soon
And asked the way to Norwich;
He went by the south and burnt his mouth
From eating your claims information.

Old MacDonald had a farm
And on his farm he did not have your claims information.

Alas, I don't think this would qualify as good customer service.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

2007 Report on My Balls

Mrs. Gerbil convinced me last night to make matzo ball soup for dinner. I had suggested matzo pizza (slather matzo with spaghetti sauce, top with shredded mozzarella, microwave 45 seconds), with promise of matzo ball soup tonight, but Mrs. Gerbil reminded me that she wouldn't be home for dinner tonight on account of her Maundy Thursday service. So I agreed to make matzo ball soup last night instead.

Well, I am happy to say that my balls are quite delicious this year. Their texture is midway between fluffy and dense, and the salty liquid in which they are bathed also has some carrots in it this year.

I gotta tell you, Mrs. Gerbil is a big fan of my balls.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A word to the wise

After many, many months of under-employment, I finally found gainful work a few months ago. In the words of Mrs. Gerbil, having a real job is "totally crazy like whoa."

Since late February I have been working the swing shift (including weekends) in the call center of a humongous behavioral health insurance company. Mostly I'm quoting benefits, issuing authorizations, and pre-certifying inpatient stays. But occasionally I get crisis calls, which are always interesting.

In addition to rather sizable paychecks, this job has provided some perspective in my quest to Fix The World By Complaining. I'm now a lot nicer to call center representatives whom I contact in my personal life--because I know now that they can't change a whole lot of anything, no matter how angry I get about it.

I've also learned that every call is documented, or at least should be documented. Details of your calls to your health insurance are considered part of your medical record--which means you can request to see those data at any time. I would hate to see the notes our former health and dental plans have on me.

And I have learned about the mute button.

The mute button is the best way to put callers on hold without actually putting them on hold. It's weird and uncomfortable to be on the phone with a stranger while neither of you is saying anything, right? and it's so much better to be on hold, right?

Okay, maybe not. But in any case: If you don't hear the hold music, you are probably not on hold. You are likely on mute. Which means that the call center representative can hear everything you are saying.

So hold thy tongue, knave.