identification & identity

First, let’s start with words. As a species, we use words to communicate. In the beginning, language was rudimentary. Used to signal an alert of danger or the availability of a food source. In order for individuals to successfully communicate, they had to use the same sets of sounds to identify objects, actions, places, emotions, and the individuals themselves. Over time, human language has evolved from a tool to assist with the basic needs of sustaining life–to how we use it today. Reading a worn copy of Harry Potter, ordering Chic-fil-a through a speaker, emailing friends across the world, happy hour gossip, the comments section in Twitter.

While the ways in which we use language have expanded with time and technology, it still holds true that, within communities, the same set of words are used to identify people, places and things. A name is a word used to identify an individual. But a name doesn’t feel like just another word. We retain our name across the world. It goes with us no matter where we go or who we encounter. Who we are as people, our identity, is tied to our identification. Our background, our familial ties, possibly our generation can all be gleaned from the sounds used to identify us.

Yesterday, I met up with my college roommate for brunch at Le Diplomate in DC. Over buttered toast, she begins telling me about a gripe with her husband of two years over her resistance to adopting his surname as her own. She described their compromise: professionally, academically and legally, she will keep her maiden name. Socially, she’s happy to use his. In the most millennial sentiment I may have ever heard, she says, “So, I changed my name on Facebook and OpenTable.” She’d told him that tradition wasn’t a good enough reason to give up the identity she’d built over the past thirty years. I tend to agree with her.

A quick tangent. I am irked by most traditional marriage conventions. Given that women are no longer moving from the parental home straight to a husband’s home, are no longer property of said husbands, are quite capable of making their own way through the world, can vote, earn income, and own property… you know, equals… why do we keep these silly traditions?? Ok, tangent over.

I remember in college, this same roommate, whose parents immigrated to the States from India, telling me about the trouble of choosing a spelling for her first name. In high school, she’d adopted a shortened, Westernized version. She was unsure who she wanted to be. The all-American girl everyone grew up with, or the girl with the richer name and cultural background? The confident, successful woman sitting in front of me yesterday had no qualms voicing her concerns about retaining the portions of herself attached to her maiden name. At the same time, this wildly intelligence woman, understands and accepts the importance her husband places on being a Mr. and Mrs. Hence, Facebook and OpenTable.

This conversation had me wondering about other friends who recently tied the knot. Checking in with my best friend, who was married this past July, and who has updated her Facebook to include both her maiden name and husband’s surname, I asked if it was legal. With an equally giggle-worthy sentiment, she texted me back after midnight to say she’d been too lazy these past seven months and is now waiting until her taxes are done to add her husband’s last name (sans hyphen) to hers. I can only imagine the hassle of trying to do one’s taxes with two legal names within the same calendar year. You do you, bestie. She leans a bit more to the traditional side but I truly love that she is using both names. If our name, our identification, is linked to our identity, shouldn’t the melding of two lives into a partnership warrant a growth in identification? I guess my issue with this is that it is typically only the woman who grows in this manner.

When I moved to Italy after college, I learned from the family with whom I was living, that Italian women retain their maiden names in marriage and that children adopt the father’s name. Fairly progressive, Italia. This is a convention I know well. To this day, my mom says she should have put her own last name on my birth certificate, but chose that of my biological father instead, for no other reason than tradition. I was legally identified as being family to a man that my mother had no intention of allowing contact with me. This bow to centuries worth of patriarchy did me no harm, and is actually an interesting and meaningful part of my identity. When I was fourteen, I chose to legally change my last name and adopt that of my dad. The man who actually raised me and whose name I used socially anyway.

I like to say that I will not change my name again for a man–I’ve done it once already. However, I do see a kind of gracefulness in changing one’s name with the ebbs and flows of life. Making your identification match your identity at a given point in life does not have to represent a succumbing to a societal norm for norm’s sake. Whether it be using a nickname, adding a hyphen, reverting to a maiden name after a traumatic divorce, or adopting the name of the man who raised you like his own, making a conscious choice about the sounds we use to identify ourselves, one way or the other, demonstrates an awareness of self.

 

goodbye, nugget.

Today I came home from two weeks away and a plant was dead. Or mostly dead. Either way, it was dry and brittle and shedding its tiny leaves with abandon. But I literally can’t keep a plant alive–am known for my anti-green thumb. So why care about this plant? One month ago, Fang left my life. And this damn bonsai tree was given to me to honor his loss. While I try to soak its roots and encourage it to drink, it still makes me feel like a failure twice over.

Fang was with me for six years. My best friend. Sometimes it felt like, my only friend. He was my reason for getting up and out on the weekends. My go-to for a nap buddy. He got me through mortar attacks, breakups, hangovers, birthdays, depression. Life. He was who I would grip when a loud noise would startle and disorient me into thinking we were back in a conflict zone. Probably, I provided similar comfort. The trainers I hired to work with him and I, both said that dogs experience a type of PTSD. Whatever you want to call it, we are all a product of our environment in some way. He was no different.

Fang was wild and sweet and beautiful and scarily intelligent. I’m not saying I’m all of those things. But I do think there is something to dogs possessing similar traits to their humans. When I was anxious, he was anxious. When I was calm, he was calm. Thus, he made me try to be the best me so that he could be the best him. In the end, either his or my best just wasn’t good enough. I made the hardest decision I have ever made in my life.  I said goodbye.

I don’t regret things. I just don’t. I weigh my decisions and actions and accept the consequences of such. There is no place for regret. That does not mean, however, that there isn’t a place for grief. Sadness. Anger. The depths of loss. The shock of an empty house. And the absolute fucking stupidity of a dead plant. From experience, I know these things will dull with time. I will remember the cute and loving moments. The times when Fang’s seeming capacity for empathy literally saved me from myself. For now, I’m just going to continue misting the bonsai and hoping I can do better.

 

customer service: love or rage?

Let’s talk about Customer Service. As a consumer, you know good customer service when you experience it, like love, you know when you’re in love even if you may not be able to quite explain why you love someone. You just do. They meet all your needs, are respectful of your wishes, and give you the indescribable warm and fuzzies. The converse is true. If you’re like me, bad customer service, with a capital B-A-D may at first frustrate and annoy you, and then inevitably escalates to the type of rage only born by repeatedly beating one’s head against a particularly insulting wall. Just Google search (Comcast + Grandma + Hammer) to see what I’m talking about. That woman may be my hero.

Over the past week or so, twice I have been violated in ways that have significant financial and security implications. First my Amex was taken on a $6,000 shopping spree at a Sears Roebuck in Jersey. On what does one even spend six thousand dollars at Sears?? Secondly, on Wednesday night, while I was eating tots in Falls Church, someone stole five packages off my front doorstep. Not two weeks after Fang left us and the neighborhood has turned against me.

Both of these incidents warranted many phone calls to more than a handful of companies in order to rectify the wrongs done to me. Each interaction ended in varying degrees of success. Each company handled my concerns with grace and understanding somewhere on the Love-Rage spectrum of customer service. I have decided to grade them all based on my own customer satisfaction.

The joke is that every time I use my credit card enough to remember the sixteen digits, expiration date and security code, that is about the time that it is stolen and I have to get a new one issued. Tis the age of data and credit theft, no matter what the banking institutitions and CISSP experts do to counter the cyber threat, it happens. The loss of my Amex to a laughable Sears-shopper does not really phase me. I got text and email alerts from USAA the moment it happened (of course I didn’t get those alerts until 4 pm when I left work) and I was able to call and cancel the card on the same day. Anyone else who uses USAA knows that they are customer service MASTERS. No matter what the situation, they respond promptly, with compassion and gratitude. It is the nature of a company that serves those who serve their country.

In this case, the same day I called, the Fraud Folk cancelled my old card and issued me a new one. To be delivered today, in fact. The Fraud Folk also assured me that all six fraudulent charges would be credited back to me one day after they hit my account. Thursday night, after the theft ridiculousness, I got the feeling I should check my USAA account and make sure all was well. It was not. They had credited me back only one of six bogus charges. When I tried to call back and ask Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I discovered the Fraud Folk only work Monday through Friday, eight to six. Seriously. So I called back Friday morning. Spoke to someone who told me I needed to sign some affidavits first which had been mailed a few days prior, before they would credit the rest of the charges. I asked for said affidavits to be emailed to me immediately to speed up this process no one had thought to mention since my initial call. Friday evening after work, it is clear they have taken no action. No affidavits. No credits. So I call the Fraud Folk again. The woman on the phone this time seems to be quite surprised that no action has been taken, and taking pity on me, grabs a Fraud Analyst who I think is on his way out the door (in my head, I’m picturing at knife-point) and voila! Credits will be evident in 24 hours. USAA: C+

About that replacement Amex that I’m expecting today. USAA sent me an email with a tracking number for the replacement card. Clicking the link takes me to the good ole’ United States Postal Service. I remember that USPS had done me the good favor of “upgrading” my account to something called MyUSPS. This is supposed to be some next-level customer portal with increased utility. I’m guessing. Logging into MyUSPS, I’m hoping to click a button to have the USAA package held at my lost post office (I’ve been having some trouble with mail delivery of late…). Woohoo! There is a button. But then it tells me there is a fee to hold at the post office and that I need to checkout my cart. Weird. But I click that button and am given repeated error messages. So much for this shiny new attempt by USPS to join the modern world. I eventually got it to work after logging in on my laptop vice my phone. USPS: C-

As to the four companies I called to see about getting credit or a replacement. In descending order of love, or ascending order of rage–however you want to look at it.

Amazon: A+

The only reason I knew to call Amazon is because UPS told me that a package had been left at my door from them. I figured it must have been a gift because for once, I was not actually expecting anything from the online market giant. Easy to use online system that let me request an immediate phone call. No kidding, took all of two minutes to get someone on the phone. No searching for customer service numbers. No automated answering system and endless “Say what this call is about” or “Press 3 now” or “I didn’t get that. Please try again.” Nope, just a human being. When she told me that the package was a bonsai tree from someone named Stephanie, I immediately understood that 1) my dog sitter had sent me a lovely, thoughtful gift to help me mourn for Fang, and 2) that some jackass had taken it. All I asked this Amazon angel for was if she could recreate the card. Instead, she issued a replacement bonsai with the original card, and empathized with my loss. It was amazing.

Overstock: B

Main issue with Overstock is that while the dude on the phone was very pleasant and understanding, Overstock has a policy which states that they will wait four business days while “investigating” before they will issue credit or a replacement for a missing order. When I called back after two business days and a weekend to ask if there was anything I could do to get my cool-gel-memory-foam pillow….I woke up with a crooked neck…the nice lady released my replacement. Yippee!

DayDesigner: C+

As part of my campaign to take over my own life, I researched the best day planners and decided on a Whitney English Day Designer planner. This thing is a work of art. Has monthly and weekly planning pages, as you’d expect, as well as a place to list out my daily gratitudes, top three concerns, and dinner planning. For $62, this thing is going to be my 2016 bible. And it was freaking not there when I was all set to spend an evening prepping it! My complaints, their website lists NO PHONE NUMBER. None! They have a email form on the site but we all know the longer you leave these things to fester, the less fantastic they get. So I tweeted at them. Yes, I will unleash a social media storm if you leave me no other choice. Twenty minutes later, I get an email back with a link to the USPS tracking saying it was delivered and wishing me a nice night. Read your emails and try to discern the problem. Four email exchanges later, they shipped out a replacement and offered me printable planning pages while I wait.

J.crew: D-

It is no joke, J.crew autocorrects to “screw” on my laptop. Yep, accurate. J.crew is now the ONLY company that has not replaced my order. They are waiting until eight business days from my order until they will “investigate”. Same issue I have with Overstock: companies operating on the assumption that a customer is trying to screw them over. I’m really not, I just want my new silver flats and puffy vest. Which I was going to wear to work on Friday. And which may not be available to re-ship on Monday since they were on sale.

Final thoughts: working in customer service, I know it can be difficult to take the time to be a compassionate listener, ensuring the needs of your customers are met to the best of your abilities, with expediency and care. Nothing ruins the customer experience more than the condescension, mistrust, laziness or indifference of a bad customer service rep. Beware, companies go wrong with poor user interfaces, bug-y websites, phone systems that just throw up roadblocks and denying access to a human. These top the list of electronic failures. On the other hand, all you need to grab me as a loyal, life-long customer, is to listen and respond with care when I’m crying on the phone about a lost bonsai tree.

 

P.S. I’m writing about customer service because I’m not ready to write about that other thing just yet.

test. tested. testing.

Prompted by the document scanner I received for Christmas, I started sorting, scanning and filing about a decade’s worth of paperwork last week. Oh, the wonder of OneNote. During this excavation, I discovered a clear plastic folder my mom had given to me a few years ago. Inside were some important things like my birth certificate and an old passport. My acceptance and scholarship letter from UVa. That kind of thing.

In addition to these proofs of my existence, my mom had saved things like Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores from tenth grade, report cards from eleventh grade, AP and SAT test scores. I got a 1280, by the way. I giggled at the proud mama-ness of it all, looking at all of these now-obsolete datapoints about my fifteen and sixteen-year old capabilities.

What bearing does my 93 in AP Environmental Science have on my life now? None, whatsoever, but I do remember enjoying that class. We read about sustainability and global ethics in Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The theory of the Tragedy of the Commons. Our teacher, Mrs. Hypes, made us do research entirely in printed media: newspapers, science magazines and periodicals. No internet searches allowed. We helped with an elementary school science day. I helped fifth graders build water purifiers from rock and sand. I also volunteered with an after-school gifted-in-science program for middle-schoolers. Looking back, this was probably the first experience I had with teaching. So no, neither I nor anyone else cares about the grade I got in 2003 in an AP class, but what I learned that year has had a significant bearing on my life.

Due to the ongoing job search, I requested my UVa transcripts in case someone wants proof I attended. Besides the four years worth of Facebook posts from my dorm, the sorority house, the Grounds, the apartment on 14th street. Social media definitely says I was there, but my guess is that employers would like something more official. The transcript is interesting. Reading it, I feel like an archeologist deciphering the decline and subsequent rise of an ancient culture. Besides the obvious, what do the numbers and GPA say about my life during those years? I see the first year I mostly stayed in bed. I see the semester I got past the required coursework, drilled down a bit more on my interests, but also joined a sorority. I see the final two years working like hell to bring up my GPA, on the Dean’s List. I see the concentration of my passions in Linguistics and Italian studies and the corresponding successes in those areas. I see the year I volunteered with foreign graduate students as an ESL tutor. When I arrived, it was immediately clear to me that I was nowhere near the smartest kid at UVa. I was not an engineering prodigy or a pre-med struggling through Organic Chemistry. I was not a mogul-in-the-making with an eye on the Darden School. But I am proud of myself. Proud that I found and pursued my passions. Proud that I graduated from Virginia having put everything I had into it.

Like many others this past weekend, I sat mesmerized by the Netflix docuseries Making a MurdererTalk about a train wreck. There was a lot of talk about the intellectual capabilities of Brendan Dassey. Sixteen year old Brendan was said to have an IQ around 70. Of course, I start Googling. I wanted to know what an IQ of 70 actually means in the real world. I want to know what the upper and lower ends of the scale are. I also would like to know where I fall on that scale. Turns out, there are many different types of IQ tests and the scale runs from about 45 to 155. I took five online IQ tests, each using a slightly different methodology to give myself a good idea, within one standard deviation, of my own IQ.

Here were the sites I used and my scores:

Averaging these together, and with the understanding that these were probably not the most accurate or official tests out there, this leaves me with an IQ around 126. Given I did not want to pay these websites for a full report, I got little more than my number on a sliding scale. Although, seemypersonality.com did tell me that creativity and writing are not strengths of mine. I’ll just ignore that, thank you very much. Depending on which scale you use, my intelligence quotient is categorized as either “Superior” or “High”. While those are very nice-sounding words, they, like my high school and college tests scores, do not tell the whole story.

Numbers are not strengths, simply indicators. My numbers indicate that my mind works more quickly and retains more than others. This says nothing about my emotional strengths or weaknesses. Says nothing about the fact that my family has been laughing at my seeming lack of common sense since I was a kid. Says nothing about my potential as a leader or my social skills. Says nothing about compassion or kindness. Nothing of perseverance.

Life seems to be full of tests. Never-ending tests. We are assigned numbers and ratings from the time we are in Kindergarten and on through adulthood. Think about how numbers affected the type of opportunities or limits on your own life. Or your children’s lives. From the very start. As a society, we place such high value on numbers alone. Funneling people into corresponding buckets. You’ll be placed in a gifted and talented program. You’ll be placed in remedial classes. You’ll be encouraged to take STEM electives. You’ll be steered towards auto shop and cosmetology. You’ll be given a full ride scholarship. You’ll encouraged to take community college classes. You’ll be hired. You’ll be passed on. You’ll be promoted. You’ll remain in your current position.

There is so much more to the intelligence, worth and strengths of a person than the numbers our society uses to define us from the age of five. My own numbers have led me through a great life thus far. Complete luck of the draw that my earliest numbers pushed me to the position to continue to earn and benefit from more numbers. Not everyone is so lucky. We need to recognize that and fight for another way. A better way to measure and quantify a person. Numbers do not tell the whole story.