My life as a call (center) girl

th“I told them ‘none of that call center shit,’” my friend, Fran, told me when she was looking for a job. “I am not doing that shit no matter how much it pays.”

While I nodded and agreed that working at a call center would indeed suck, I didn’t remember Fran’s words of wisdom a few months later when I found myself looking for a job and one popped up at, yes, a call center and, yes, I applied.

Since my work background had absolutely no customer service or call center experience, that the call center would decide to hire me was right up there in the shock department with the sleepover where a pal told me how babies were made. I applied because I needed a job and I wanted to earn decent money but I never really thought I’d be hired. I also applied because really, how hard could a call center job be? Wasn’t that what Ernestine used to do on “Laugh In”? Surely I, a somewhat competent person, could answer a phone and say whatever version of “One ringy dingy, two ringy dingy” that was required.

That’s what I thought, anyway.

“Describe your ideal job,” the woman interviewing me requested.

Thinking quickly, I tried to figure out the perfect answer. Let’s see, upon entering the call center I saw what seemed like a hundred women in cubicles taking calls with one or two poking their heads over the grey fabric walls to ask a neighbor a question.

“My ideal job would be to work by myself but also be part of a team,” I said.

I wasn’t lying: that would be my ideal job but I neglected to add that the working by myself part would be working alone in an isolated beachfront mansion and the helping my teammates would be primarily via emails or texting. It isn’t that I’m not a team player but I’m the kind of team player who prefers to stay in the locker room while everyone else busts their asses on the field.

The three women interviewing me nodded approvingly telling me I’d hit the right balance. Within two weeks I was officially working at a call center.

At first it wasn’t too bad since I was being trained and wasn’t required to actually talk to living, breathing customers but the honeymoon ended way too soon and before I could get my headset to really fit comfortably I was suddenly answering telephone calls on my own.

I suspected I wasn’t ready but I also knew that any more training most likely wasn’t going to help. My new boss believed that the best way to learn how to do something was to figure it out on your own. That was how she learned and, dammit, that was how everyone else was going to learn. The call center I worked at was part of a medical system and our job was to answer questions from patients and make and schedule appointments as well as deal with nurses, doctors and other medical personnel.

I don’t know if it’s the pecking order that’s inherent in every work culture or if the nurses I dealt with were overworked or just plain nasty but every single day I had at least one phone call from a nurse who threw me into an instant panic that made my hands sweat and my scalp itch. My absolutely least favorite calls were from nurses who wanted to make “same day” appointments–appointments that went into special time slots and had to be grabbed quickly before some other call center slave snagged them.

“You’re very slow,” I was regularly told. “Can’t you go any faster? I want that slot!”

While I wanted to snap back, “If I could go any faster, bitch, I would!” but as all of our calls were monitored, I bit my tongue. Sometimes I was able to snag the spot but most of the time I failed miserably.

Throughout my brief tenure as a call center girl I learned several key things about myself including: 1) I’m good at empathizing with people who are upset, nervous and ready to fly off the handle since that was how I felt myself 99 percent of the time while taking phone calls. Rude calls from patients never bothered me because I understood they weren’t mad at me; they were mad at their doctor or test result or insurance company.  2) I crack woefully under pressure when trying to figure out the answers to questions I don’t know. Things that seemed like common sense to my fellow call center inmates seemed impossibly intricate and arcane to me. And, finally, 3) call center personnel, no matter how much they’re being paid, aren’t paid enough.

I eventually got a tiny bit better at unraveling the mysteries of the medical center and fairly adept at directing calls where they needed to go but I never ever felt truly relaxed about the whole process. Every time the phone rang—and it rang pretty constantly—it was like a small bomb was being detonated right there in my cubicle.

“I don’t think this is the job for me,” I told Fran the Wise one day over Diet Cokes. “I just don’t seem to have the right kind of brain to handle all this call center shit.”

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t say ‘I told you so.’


My son is dating a twit

I wanted to like my son’s girlfriend, I truly did. That was before he had a girlfriend and I assumed that I had raised someone bright enough to choose a gal pal who was not only attractive but also smart, fun and who was able to keep fur from growing in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. My son’s girlfriend has none of those sterling qualities. Well, she’s cute but other than that I can’t find any sterling qualities in that young lady. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what he sees in her other than a sex life that requires minimal effort and that I absolutely refuse to think about.

I don’t like my other son’s girlfriend either but at least she stays away from me. She’s more of a dolt while the other girlfriend is a twit. A twit and a dolt. Lovely. The dolt is highly possessive and makes sure I only see that son on major holidays, a scenario I would have once thought impossible to live with but one that I’ve adapted to very well. The twit, on the other hand, rarely comes over either and when she does she doesn’t talk to my husband or me. She answers questions, leaves her unhousebroken dog for us to dogsit, eats the food I fix and leaves without saying goodbye. How the hell did this happen?

Both of my sons were Mama’s Boys and, as a friend pointed out, boys tend to date girls who remind them of Good Old Mom. (To my credit, I didn’t point out to that particular friend that her son is married to an alcoholic crack head so what did that make HER?) But does that mean that I’m also a dolt and a twit? I’m sure I was both doltish and twitish when I was younger but I always said at least hello to my boyfriend’s mother and I would never dream of not asking the most basic of How-are-you’s to either of my boyfriend’s parents. And I most certainly thanked them for the birthday presents they gave me!

I think the fault lies in expectations. As in my sons apparently have none and I have too many. But they are happy and I suppose that’s enough. I guess it has to be since no one has asked me for my opinion on either young lady in question. However, if the dolt or the twit think they are ever getting anything in my will, they are sadly mistaken. I’m spending it all first or I ain’t going anywhere.

Attitude of Gratitude

What a load of horse shit. Quite frankly I’d like to meet the gentleman who coined this dreadfully trite phrase, sit him down and explain to him just what a load of horse shit it is.

And I know it was a guy who came up with this. In our society it’s a given that men are more often in the role of authority and therefore more likely to be condescending. You know, trying to placate with platitudes to avoid revolt.

On the surface this phrase seems harmless enough, and in the eyes of the most optimistic of beholders the phrase may almost seem…helpful. There is much wisdom to be found in the notion that we should make the best of our circumstances and be grateful for all we do have. However, it’s become a mantra for the people who belong to the “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay” club. And aside from being patronizing to the more cynical among us, it is also really harmful if you throw it around like confetti.

I have always hated the phrase. I can’t remember when I first heard it, but I can remember the day it jumped from the category of “slightly annoying” to top on my list of “complete drivel”. It was a day I was out shopping with my mom.

She had been diagnosed with an incurable type of cancer at an insanely young age and for all practical purposes she was handling it with a hell of a lot of dignity and wise resignation.

She kept her diagnosis private until she couldn’t for practical reasons. Once the news spread in my small hometown it wasn’t long before she fell victim to an onslaught of fundamentally good people with the dumbest shit to say.

It is astonishing to me how people see your diagnosis as their opportunity to smother you in cliches and unsolicited advice regarding how grateful you should be for everything you “do” have. Yes, my mom was grateful. She was grateful to have had 58 interesting years, she was grateful she got to know all of her grand kids, she was grateful for every single happiness and heartache that made her who she was.

On the day in question, she and I were out to get groceries for some unnecessarily complicated dinner we were going to cook. This was one of a million ways my mother gracefully accepted her fate and showed immense gratitude. She never cooked when I was growing up. She was a single mother and a damn good one, but I learned early that if survival was an instinct I possessed I would do well to learn how to feed myself. Outside family members often speculated about how many nights a week she and I ate Tombstone pizza. We never did tell anyone. But I can tell you now, it was at least 5 nights a week. However, this suited me fine.

Her interest in cooking was one she acquired after her diagnosis. She went through a period of immense grief and self pity, and rightfully so. But she pulled herself out of it and was determined to enjoy all of the little pleasures she could. She decided that since she liked to eat, it would be a joy to learn how to cook. And she took this on with great passion. I don’t think she had the makings of a great chef, but she enjoyed it and was able to lose herself in the moment while she was cooking. This is something I can only imagine is the greatest of coping skills when you know your time is finite.

Well, there’s something to chew on…since we all know our time is finite, it would do us all a world of good to spend our spare time doing things that we can get lost in.

Anyhow, back to my original train of thought. We were out shopping so my mom could engage herself in some cooking therapy and spend some time being grateful, when we ran into someone she knew from work. Another person who had just heard the news and couldn’t wait to impart some non-cancer-patient wisdom. It was all the same stuff she heard at least ten times a day from ten different well-meaning acquaintances, but this woman ended the conversation by saying, “Remember Katie, keep an attitude of gratitude.” I could tell immediately that my mother was taken out of her happy moment by an unintentionally rude woman with some shitty advice.

My mom handled it with her characteristic dignity, but as soon as we got in the car she started screaming and slamming her fists on the steering wheel. I just sat still while she got it out of her system. I understood, without her having to say a word, just what had her so pissed off. Finally after about two minutes of hysterics followed by about 5 minutes of silent crying, she turned to me and said, “Am I wrong to be this pissed off at that smug asshole?”

I knew it was a rhetorical question, so I continued to keep my mouth shut (a skill precious few have mastered, evidently) But I do remember thinking to myself, wow, that’s some kind of fucked up — the poor woman is so desperate to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that she has forgotten that she has the right to be pissed off without anyone else’s permission.

I was grateful for what came next — there was a stream of consciousness that flowed from my mother that I swear to God I will remember word for word until the day I shuffle off this planet.

My typically stoic and dignified mother cut loose. “Fuck that. I am sick to death of people telling me what to be grateful for. When the hell is it okay for me to be royally pissed off that I’m 58 and going to die within a year? For all that asshole knows, not only do I have cancer but perhaps an STD, a UTI and my cat might have been hit by a car this morning as well. I mean I know she meant well but all I see are the wide open flapping mouths of people who mean well and yet inadvertently condescend to me. I’m tired of them acting as if they know what I need to hear. 99% of these people are casual acquaintances and have no earthly idea what the fuck my life is like and they don’t have the right to force me to be cheerful just so they’re less uncomfortable with the idea of their own death.”

Then, reverting back to her typical unflappable self, she turned to me and said, “Well, what the fuck are we waiting for? That dickhead just wasted 20 precious minutes of my life, and I’d like to get back to living it if you don’t mind.” Good lord, I miss her.

So, an attitude of gratitude is much like a religion in my opinion. It is fine to cultivate silently in your own head, and especially if it brings you a sense of peace. Just don’t force it on other people. You can be assured you do not know of what you speak.

If you want some advice regarding how to talk to people when you know they’re dying, here it is — don’t talk so fucking much. Just shut your mouth and open your ears and your heart.

My sister Dindo

I freely admit that I envy a great many people all kinds of things. Firm thighs. Perfect teeth. Actual careers. But what I find myself envying almost more than all of those things combined are the fortunate people I know who have siblings they like. Siblings who are normal. Siblings they are happy to talk to on the telephone and take vacations with and spend Christmas with. I’ve always wanted a normal sibling. Instead I have Dindo.

That isn’t her real name, of course. It’s her nickname, one bestowed on her long before I was born and one that has managed to stick around lo these many years. I’m not even sure what Dindo stands for. I just know that when my mother used to call Dindo to din-din it automatically set my teeth on edge and made me want to bash Dindo over the head with the nearest sledge hammer.

“Dindo! Time for dinner!” Mom would trill and Dindo would come scurrying to the table like a hyperactive terrier. Mom had nicknames for all of us (mine was Nanny Goat, another bizarre nickname that was thankfully forgotten by my second birthday). But Dindo liked her nickname so Mom continued to call her Dindo and she continued to respond.

It isn’t only Dindo’s annoying nickname that rubs me the wrong way; it’s Dindo’s entire annoying personality. I honestly can’t remember her ever behaving in a way that didn’t make me want to walk several yards behind her and pretend we weren’t together. Such as the lovely occasion when our family was eating out in a nice restaurant and Dindo had to go to the bathroom. We were seated in a corner booth with Dindo dead center. Instead of excusing herself and exiting via the side of the booth like any other person on the planet would have, Dindo dropped to the floor and crawled out under the table. When we asked her just what the hell she was doing, Dindo replied, “I didn’t want to bother anyone.” No, she just wanted to embarrass the living shit out of the rest of us instead. Oh, and Dindo was around 25 at the time.

Then there was the stage Dindo went through where she wore only Vaseline as make up. I’m not talking Vaseline as lip gloss. Dindo wore about half an inch of Vaseline all over her face to ward off wrinkles. To make matters worse, she liked to march up to my friends (is it really necessary to say that I very seldom invited friends over?) and announce, “I have Vaseline ALL over my face! Can you tell?” I believe I spent half of my adolescence apologizing for my sister and the other half avoiding her.

It’s not like Dindo is slow or challenged in any way other than personality. She has a law degree, a Master’s degree and makes way more money than I do. I wish I could say that she’s a lovable eccentric only she isn’t. There’s nothing lovable about Dindo. Especially her lack of interest in anyone other than herself. When we have our painful weekly telephone visits the moment always rolls around when Dindo resentfully asks me what I’ve been up to. It doesn’t matter if I tell her that I’ve discovered a gold vein in our backyard, or that I’m having an affair with Liam Neeson or that I have three weeks to live. Dindo doesn’t respond because she doesn’t CARE what I’ve been up to and she doesn’t listen when I tell her. If I spent my adolescence avoiding Dindo, I’m spending my adulthood giving her the finger over the telephone.

So it’s obvious why I envy my gal pals who have sisters they adore, sisters they spend vacations with and sisters who are their best friends. Hell, I’d settle for a sister who remembered the names of my kids. I would so love to have a sister I could plan a vacation with, someone to go to Vegas or New York or Hawaii with, someone I didn’t loathe. But I don’t. I have Dindo and she’s obviously not going to change.

Dindo bought herself a book with the optimistic title, “How to Live Well Over 100” and I’m quite sure she’ll make it. Only the good die young so Dindo should be with us until she’s about 900.

Crushing on…well, just about everyone!

For as long as I can recall, I’ve had a crush on someone. My earliest recorded crush was on David McCallum, AKA Illya Kuryakin on the 1960’s Cold War classic, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Mr. McCallum was also my first celebrity stalking experience when he appeared as the guest celebrity in the Berwyn, Illinois Pet Parade and I got to see him. Although I don’t really remember the parade or seeing my beloved Illya, I do know that even though I wasn’t in kindergarten yet I understood that having a crush was a whole lot more fun than, say, watching “Romper Room.”

Once I did make it to kindergarten I started having crushes on boys in my classes in addition to my constantly growing list of celebrity crushes. I don’t remember most of them now but a few names are burned in my memory bank forever. Pat from second grade. Bill from third. Dennis, Pat’s brother, in fifth.  Mike for my entire high school career. Crushes made school a lot more fun even though I suspect I would have done a lot better academically had I gone to an all-girls school.

When I was 18 I met my husband to be and, naturally, had an enormous crush on him. So huge that I decided that I couldn’t live without him, switched colleges twice and married him at 20. That should be where my crushes stopped but to my surprise—and delight—they didn’t. Even though I’m a very settled married lady now, I STILL get crushes. There was my dentist for a while, my gynecologist (I know) and various co-workers. Co-worker crushes are the best since, like school, they make going to work a whole lot more fun. However, since my current job has a five to one female to male ratio and the guys there are the least crush inspiring group I have ever come across, to have a crush on anyone I currently work with would require me to become gay. I would also have to become a masochist as my current co-workers are collectively pretty awful. So my crush life is minimal these days save my numerous celebrity crushes (even dead celebrities–I adore William Holden and don’t get me started on Steve McQueen) and an old friend crush I run into just often enough to keep my crush embers glowing.

But what I want to know is why don’t I still have a crush on my husband? I love him and I like him and I mainly enjoy his company but my heart no longer goes zing when I see his car pull into the driveway. I rarely find myself getting gussied up for him and I can’t recall the last time he got gussied up for me. What happened to all that crushing I used to do on him? Oh, right. We moved in together.

There’s something about living with another person,24/7 that is a definite crush crusher. The combination of hearing them slurp their morning coffee, watching them trim their toenails in the family room or sitting across from them at the dinner table and noticing the big glop of Ranch dressing on their chin can be somewhat off putting. I’m sure that my hubby feels the same way about me when I’m wearing my old lady bathrobe, stretched out on the sofa and reading People magazine while we’re watching “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s not a pretty picture, I assure you. What I want to know is if I’m just a shallow bitch or does familiarity really breed if not contempt then perhaps resignation? Ennui? Sheer exhaustion?

Of course, I know that the fantasy is always better than the reality. Any one of my crushes, even David McCallum, would probably get on my nerves within a few months. Maybe that’s why crushes are so much fun. Your rational mind knows they aren’t going anywhere, knows that you don’t really WANT them to go anywhere. It’s your irrational mind that loves them so much.

Thank God we mainly get married using our rational minds. Otherwise I imagine my life might have consisted of me moving from one crush to another and probably would have ended up looking like a highway after a multi-car pileup. I think the answer is separate bathrooms. I’m fairly positive that if my hubby and I spent a little less time together, especially when it came to personal grooming, I might be able to stoke that crush fire on him one more time…

Not a nice person at all

I can’t tell you how many people look at me and think they see a nice, middle-aged mom wearing stretch jeans from Walmart who drives an SUV and spends her free time watching “Murder, She Wrote” marathons on the Hallmark Channel. And they are right, mostly. Except about the nice part. I’m really not that nice at all. There are days when I’m a downright bitch.

Nice. Sugar and spice and everything…nice. Fuck nice. Nice sucks. Do you know what nice is to me? Nice is telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Nice is not taking a chocolate chip cookie to ensure that there will be enough to go around and then secretly resenting the people who ate YOUR chocolate chip cookie. Nice is telling your best friend that her new hair cut is adorable when really it makes her look like a guy—an ugly guy—and NOT telling her to grow her new haircut out pronto before her hormones get confused and she starts getting a five o’clock shadow.

Even worse than every day, run-of-the-mill shallow nice is its evil twin: fake and mean nice. Fake and mean nice is what you hear from a faux friend who tells you all kinds of nasty shit only she says it in a sweetie pie kind of voice that makes you begin to doubt your sanity. Like telling you how lucky you are because even though you’ve obviously been on some kind of high calorie, high fat, high alcohol binge for the past three years, you still look all right because you’re so freakishly tall that you can carry those forty-seven pounds without looking TOO bad. Fake and mean nice is repeating something awful someone said about you “for your own good.” Fake and mean nice is making cracks about your children or your husband or your dog, all the while pretending that you’re just kidding or teasing or trying to be funny—I never knew you were so sensitive! After all, I’d never hurt your feelings. I’m NICE, remember? Fake and mean nice is as phony as artificial sugar and just as bad for you.

I don’t want to be nice. What I want to be is kind. Truly kind. There’s a big difference, you know. Kindness is truthful but it relies heavily on tact so that the truth is told in a way that doesn’t hurt your feelings but still gets its point across loud and clear. Kindness listens to what people are saying and, even more importantly, remembers it for later. Kindness looks you in the eyes while you’re talking and it waits until you’re finished before responding. Kindness tells you when you are fucking up but it also reminds you that it’s possible to stop behaving like an idiot. Kindness waits for you but it doesn’t rush you. Kindness knows when to keep its trap shut. Dogs are kind. People not so much.

So if you ever run into me in the Walmart parking lot, in my SUV and stretch jeans, I hope you won’t automatically think I’m just another nice middle-aged mom. Instead think kindly of me because that’s what I’m trying to do about you and every other person I meet. Do I always succeed? Not hardly. Not even close. But I’m trying and tomorrow I expect to do a little bit better than I did today.

Married For Ever After

When I was a kid and my parents had a fight, I always hoped they would get a divorce. I realize that most likely puts me high on the chart of abnormal childhood behavior since NORMAL children want their parents to stay together NO MATTER WHAT, but I honestly didn’t think a divorce between dear old Mommy and Daddy would be all that traumatic. From around age ten on I had everything planned out: my mother would take me and we’d live in a nice apartment in Chicago, leaving the house to Dad and my siblings where they could annoy each other in the boring suburbs. Another plus was that I’d get to go to a new school where no one would know my former dorky self and I might even turn out to be one of the Popular Kids. Although I knew that my fantasy was wild to the point of psychosis (especially the part about becoming one of the Popular Kids), it was a fantasy I clung to up until I left for college when I realized that my parents were never, ever going to split up. Of course, by that point I had my own life going on and what my parents did–or didn’t do–wasn’t too interesting to me any longer.

So how did I wind up getting married myself at the oh-so-tender age of 20? No one should be allowed to get married before they can legally buy alcohol. But I did and, amazingly, I am still married to the same person three decades later. Three decades, nine dwellings, two kids and numerous pets later. Now I get why my parents stayed together: it takes way too much energy to call it quits. Energy I no longer have and, sans a billionaire boyfriend waiting in the wings and avec completely intertwined lives, it looks like this is going to be it for the next two or three decades as well.

It’s not that I don’t love my husband because I honestly do when he’s not whining or chewing too loudly or talking while I’m reading or doing something else equally irritating. I love him but I don’t always want to live with him. I think it would be a great idea to make it mandatory for all married couples to have to move on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary into a duplex where each spouse gets his and her own bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. If that’s not feasible, how about a required month-long separate vacation every year? At the very least a long, solo weekend every now and then.

I do know that I would never recommend anyone get married before they are at least twenty-seven years old. Thirty-seven would be better and forty-seven would be grand. A friend of mine got married for the first time at age forty-nine, six years ago, and you should see her Facebook posts. They’re enough to make anyone puke but that lucky woman is going to float through the rest of her life on a cloud known as Newlywed Bliss. Even when she’s eighty she’ll still be getting used to her husband. I’m jealous but I have to say good for her because she played the romance card exactly right–she held onto it until late in the game before setting it on the table. AND she’s old enough to buy all the liquor she’ll ever need.