Button Pusher

On the plane ride home from Vegas on Sunday, I was seated next to a man who repeatedly pushed my buttons. Some examples:

1. Our takeoff was delayed because Air Force One was landing. To which the man replied, “F*ck that! Another f*cking reason to hate Obama and not vote for him!”

2. When a couple of fellow passengers erupted in laughter during the flight, he said, “They sound like f*cking retards [insert sound of taunting, imitative laugh].”

3. During the crew’s announcements, he said “Shut the f*ck up already!” He also never turned off his electronics despite repeated asks from the crew.

4. The man was all over his girlfriend during the flight. Thankfully nothing past first base. But still.

So many thoughts ran through my head. I thought about the vitriol that erupts around election time and how not black and white it is to support Obama or Romney. I thought about Tanis and Ellen and how much I hate when people use the word retard. I wondered whether this guy looked at me when I sat down and thought, “Oh great, a f*cking chink. I hate those people.” [You have no idea how hard it was for me to type that painful childhood slur.] I felt self conscious about the fact that I had Japanese take out with me.

I also felt angry. Angry about the derisive comments. Angry for feeling self-conscious about my Japanese takeout. And guilty. Guilty for not saying anything, particularly regarding the retard comment. But part of it was self preservation. Did I really want to pick a fight with my rowmates of the next 5 hours? Did I really want to pick a fight when I was fairly certain that whatever I said would not shift his perspective? On the other hand, was I losing an opportunity to open a dialog, enlighten, educate? Was I doing a disservice to friends like Tanis and Ellen, who have championed hard against the use of the word retard? I sat there nagged by anger and guilt. I also found myself overcome by the odd desire to find an opening to interact with the man; to find redeeming qualities. (Because I’m a glass half full kind of girl who repeatedly repeats her therapist’s mantra that the world needs all kinds of people.)

I ultimately did see another side to this man. In addition to the persistent making out and cursing (not at the same time), this man also said “please” and “thank you” when the flight attendants offered beverages. He smiled at me and said “excuse me” when he got up to go to the bathroom. He touched my shoulder to let me know he needed to scoot back in. I heard him speak affectionately on the phone to a friend when the flight touched down.

And as the flight wore on (believe me, it felt like an eternity), it became clear to me that, like the election, defining him wasn’t a black or white issue either. But I’m still nagged, wondering whether I should have said something to him. Would you have?

Six Acts of Douchebaggery

I reflect continually on gratitude, consider myself a positive spirit, and truly try to see the best in people. Subsequently, one of the things that I find most challenging in life -- particularly professionally -- is dealing with acts of douchebaggery. Or more specifically, the self-centeredness and complete lack of decorum that seems to take over when people have only one thing in mind: their own agenda. For example:

1. People who accost my friends or family to bridge introductions for them so they can “pick my brain” (worst term ever btw) or “get on my site.”

2. “Friends” who come out of the woodwork asking to pick my brain or get on my site. Often times I haven’t spoken to these people in years and/or can barely remember what they look like.

3. People who e-mail me asking about partnerships, followed by a painfully transparent description detailing a unidirectional relationship in their favor.

4. People who accost me at events without so much as introducing themselves, then start drilling me with questions about monetization and traffic and how they can create what I have created, by, say, next week.

5. Acquaintances I have made through completely different professional contexts who later find out about Boston Mamas and call my cell phone (a number they otherwise would not have) without bothering to set up an appointment in advance and then bombard me with consulting questions.

6. The woman who gave me a facial on Saturday and started pushing her to-be-published book on me, asking me to feature it on Boston Mamas.

Sadly, I experience almost all of these six acts of douchebaggery every week, but it was the last example that pushed me over the edge this weekend and prompted me to write this post. I can’t even begin to express how bummed out I was. There I was, five weeks away from giving birth, trying to do something nice for myself, attempting to enjoy one of the few areas in life where you pay to have it all be about you. And the person made it all about them. While she had me in the compromising position of excavating my pores, for f*ck’s sake.

Those who know me know that I love communicating with people. I love to welcome people openly and I try to be a helpful and generous person. I believe I am this person with those with whom I have real relationships. But I’m human and have my limits (and, as a freelancer, also rely on my consulting skills to help pay for our exorbitant out-of-pocket health care coverage, among other things). And while some days I can let these experiences roll off my back, as the volume of these interactions increases and my rationalizations (e.g., “Oh, maybe this person is: a) clueless; b) desperate; and/or c) missing part of their frontal lobe…”) lose their novelty, other days I feel incredibly sad about how these interactions prime me to be skeptical of others -- people who may, in fact, want to simply connect or create a true partnership or excavate my pores with the simple agenda of unclogging.

I’m hoping that putting these feelings to words proves cathartic and will help me deal with this week's inevitable acts of douchebaggery in a roll-off-my-back manner. Meanwhile, my free advice?

For the love of crap, don’t be one of these six types of people.

In Which the Boston Herald Acted No Better Than My Stalker Ex-Boyfriend

Yesterday afternoon, a reporter from the Boston Herald called my home number. A number I never give out professionally. Because, you know, it’s my home number.

A number I have listed under my husband’s name so I’m not easy to find. Because even though I know that my stalker ex-boyfriend from the early 1990’s knows my husband’s name and our current address (pathetic, I know), the many years of dealing with him has left me in the habit of erring on the side of caution when it comes to privacy.

The reporter wanted to ask my opinion about the recent 8-week maternity leave ruling in Massachusetts. I put the reporter on hold so I could get Laurel settled with an activity while I took the call, then asked her how she got my phone number. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m happy to talk to reporters but I never give out this number. I prefer that media contact me by e-mail, as indicated on my website. Can you tell me how you got this number?”

Reporter: “I looked it up in a database.”

Me: “I shouldn’t be in a database. This telephone number is not under my name.”

Reporter: “Actually, I looked it up under your husband’s name.”

Me: “Excuse me? How did you find that information? My husband and I have different surnames and I purposefully list the phone under his name so I’m not easy to find. I prefer to keep my daughter and husband as separate from my public activities as possible.”

Reporter: “We have a special sleuthing database that we pay a lot of money to have access to. It’s the same kind of database that background investigators and the police use.”

Me: [Envision mouth hanging open] “I find that really, really creepy.”

Reporter: “Oh, well don’t worry, you were really hard to find. I don’t think anyone else will be calling you soon.”

As if that was supposed to make me feel better.

Admittedly, as this conversation went down, I was: a) in a state of shock; b) still interested in conversing about the 8-week maternity leave ruling; c) exhausted and emotionally hung over from BlogHer; and d) having flashbacks of sitting at my college public safety office asking them to kick my stalker ex-boyfriend off campus if they saw his car on the property. Had I been in a more lucid state of mind, perhaps I should have refused to speak to her given that she clearly didn’t respect me enough to not violate my privacy. But I did give the interview. And she was actually very nice and we had a very pleasant conversation.

That said, this experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Whatever perception one might have of the Boston Herald, it’s still a newspaper. And in my lofty, idealistic world, that means that reporters ought to operate by a code of ethics, which not only includes reporting honestly and with integrity, but not violating the privacy of the people to be interviewed. I know I’m probably more stringent about privacy than most due to my stalker issue + my many years in academia and in HIPAA training, but still, there ought to be standards. I refuse to pass along private email addresses when people ask me to make connections (instead I ping person B and let them know person A wants to connect), much less pimp out private phone numbers. And even if I had access to some expensive database, were I in this reporter's shoes, I certainly wouldn’t go digging for private information when it takes about 10 seconds to click over to a person's contact page (which even has an easy to click to Media Inquiries section) and fire off an email.

In the past four years, I have been contacted by media outlets large and small and never, ever has one of these outlets found it necessary to dig for my home phone number via a private investigation database. In fact, just today I received an interview request from WGBH and lo and behold, they contacted me via the media request e-mail address provided on my website.

So Boston Herald, if this is the way you teach your reporters to roll, I suggest you revise your practices. Because sadly, yesterday, one of your reporters acted no better than my stalker ex-boyfriend.

Brands Are Listening, But Is The Hearing Selective?

I would say that in general, I’m a positive person on Twitter, more prone to happy and humorous conversation than rant. But the other week, after receiving a bill from AT&T, I couldn’t help myself. I tweeted and Facebook'd: Right after I finish this peanut butter cookie post I am flexing my wrists to write a strongly worded letter to AT&T. #fuming

I fielded some outraged Twitter and Facebook responses on the topic then went about my business. Then, within an hour, I received this tweet from @sethbloom, who handles blogger relations for AT&T via Fleishman-Hillard:

@bostonmamas Hey there. Sorry that you're having trouble. Would love to try to get you some quick help with whatever's making you fume.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tweeted about a brand without using an @ and had a rep respond quickly, but given that AT&T seems like a giant vortex, I was impressed. I emailed with Seth and he was just as pleasant and interested in resolving my problem as that tweet suggests.

So here was the problem: during my press trip to the Bahamas, though I didn’t use my Blackberry for phone calls, I did access the web a handful of times, perhaps a minute or two at a time. I honestly don't remember accessing the web 10 times in the Bahamas (I’ve always found the Blackberry too slow for browsing) but there were 10 roaming charges, totaling $386.23. Five charges were 31 cents or less; the remaining five charges totaled $385.31, an average of $77.06 per use.

My issues? First, the charges seemed truly criminal in the sense that the punishment far outweighed the crime (seriously, an average of $77.06 for a couple of minutes of usage?!). And second, it seemed bizarre to me that there isn’t an interface between Blackberry/AT&T to notify users about these exorbitant roaming charges, such as a pop up warning similar to the warning I receive if I accidentally push the Push to Talk button on my Blackberry. We did receive an e-mail warning from AT&T about international charges, but not until the third day that charges were incurred (which also was the last day of usage), which I consider a communication fail compared to the way credit card companies (who I certainly don't consider angels) contact you immediately in the presence of unusual activity -- in my case, the first usage was a whopping $166.32 roaming charge.

The point is, because of this poor corporate-level communication, consumers suffer. And similar to our dealings with Blue Cross, this is the kind of experience that leads consumers to feel alienated and mistrustful of a brand. The vitriol I responded to on the web about AT&T and other large corporations certainly seemed to reflect that notion.

Seth quickly connected me to someone in AT&T’s social media department (interestingly, not customer service) and in one short and friendly phone call my immediate problem was resolved; the charges were refunded.

And I felt of two minds about it all.

First, I was impressed. Refund aside, I thought, damn, this is why brands should be engaged in social media. I’ve seen lots of brands use Twitter and Facebook fan pages beautifully to monitor conversations from customers and respond. I’ve seen companies translate negative feedback into loyal customers because the company was there, listening and acting. (Brands fearful of engaging in social media due to potential – inevitable, really – negative feedback should take note.)

Second, I felt troubled. Yes, I got my problem resolved. I was lucky that Seth was monitoring the brand on Twitter around the time I posted that tweet, but otherwise how much of the resolution was due to: a) my willingness and ability to communicate my concerns; b) the fact that I was spouting off on Twitter; and/or c) my alleged status as an influencer in this space? I will always be the consumer who is willing to take the time to stand up for my rights, but regarding b and c, though the social media world seems expansive to those of us in it, the reality is that it is not reflective of the majority. Not everyone has this platform from which to speak and I imagine that those who do take the time to stand up and fight (blogger or not) meet mixed results in resolution, and the rest end up eating unjust charges.

On Facebook, my friend Sarah aptly wrote that it’s “so much more efficient for [companies] to simply address the complaints from people who can be bothered to complain than to actually fix what's broken in their system.” And my friend Julie pointed out (in relating her dealings recovering funds lost by Bank of America) that, “People could cure cancer in the time it takes BOA to research money of yours they lost. But go late one hour on money you owe them, they seize your firstborn child.” I agree on both counts; I can't even begin to estimate the number of examples I have heard of big companies demonstrating that they clearly are business -- not consumer -- first, with inane practices that clearly seek to take advantage of the fact that most people are unwilling or unable to raise their voices for fair resolution.

So what's my point? I will keep on doing what I'm doing -- fighting back in the face of each bit of corporate absurdity I come across. But I'm also now pledging -- and I hope you will consider doing so as well -- to encourage friends and family to fight too; to even help write a letter or make a phone call for someone who doesn't know where to begin. Because as far as I can see, the only way we're ever going to get companies to fix their broken systems is to get so damned noisy with our complaints that it's inefficient to do otherwise.

+ + + + +

Finally, two additional bits of information:

1. For those in need of consumer advocacy resources, my friends Karen and Julie both referred me to Clark Howard’s website; I haven't had a chance to check it out in detail yet, but Julie and Karen noted that the site includes a support group, complaint letter templates, etc.

2. If you're an AT&T customer: until that useful pop up warning feature comes for exorbitant roaming charges...I asked AT&T for resources on how to handle usage during international travel. They passed along a link for their info hub for international travel as well as links for these four commonly asked questions.

Well Lookie Here

OK, so perhaps it's just freaky coincidental timing (and a testament to Jon's strongly worded letter), but a couple of hours after posting about our Blue Cross shenanigans, the phone rang, and Blue Cross showed up on the caller ID. Admittedly, I panicked for a second before picking up the phone. It felt a tad big brother.

The Blue Cross representative and I discussed the claim. I told her that we thought it was absurd that we were paying $1000+ a month in out-of-pocket premiums, never go to the doctor other than well visits, don't get prescriptions filled, etc., yet we were being denied flu shot coverage because the person who gave the shot was registered in another state. Even though we got the shot in the appropriate state.

She changed course and said that since we're under a managed care plan, we would have been covered if we got flu shots from our PCPs. I told her that when I called our PCPs they told us they didn't have any flu shots available for us and told us to go to a public flu clinic. (This absurdity is a whole other matter entirely.) We went back and forth for a few minutes. She said that next year we needed to go to our PCP to get covered, or to a limited care clinic such as CVS, which contracts with Blue Cross.

And then she told me she would make an exception and reimburse us for our flu shots.

Excuse me while I go pick my jaw up off the floor.

Why Blue Cross Can Suck It

Way back in October we experienced a remarkable level of craptastic service at our local drugstore’s flu clinic. Though Laurel and I waited in line for nearly an hour and a half with various representatives going up and down the line to hand out flu shot forms, it wasn’t until we got to the front of the line that we were told: 1. Blue Cross patients had to pay out of pocket and submit reimbursement forms. 2. They only took cash ($30 a shot). 3. They would not vaccinate children (apparently they didn’t find it necessary to pass this message down the line replete with children and their weary parents).

I was mildly annoyed that they wouldn’t take Blue Cross on the spot and it was blind luck that I happened to have gone to the bank that day and had a wad of cash on me. However, having spent the last 90 minutes assuaging Laurel’s fears about the shot, there was no way in hell I was leaving that clinic without getting them. It wasn’t my best or most graceful moment, but my mama fangs came out and I refused to leave until they gave me and Laurel shots. They did. The moms behind me in line were grateful.

Fast forward to January. It took us a while to get around to submitting our receipts and reimbursement forms and we just received word from Blue Cross that our flu shots ($90 for me, Jon, and Laurel) would not be covered. The excuse being that the person who administered the shots was registered in Rhode Island, not Massachusetts.

Even though we were, in fact, in Massachusetts when we got the shots.

WTF?

As Jon wrote in a strongly worded letter to Blue Cross MA, this is a disturbing example of uncoordinated, money-first health care. I should say that in general, Jon and I are non-interventionist when it comes to medical matters; I don’t think we even own aspirin. However, after much discussion, we decided to go ahead with the seasonal flu shot since our understanding is that they are clinically effective and cost-effective to the system (i.e., it would be a far greater financial burden if we didn’t get them then got the flu and needed to be treated), and also since Laurel is 5 and Jon is in contact with at-risk populations at work.

Since Jon and I now are both self-employed we pay Blue Cross MA more than $1,000 out-of-pocket every month in premiums, yet they feel the need to screw us out of $90 worth of care on a random technicality. (And as mentioned, we are the healthy, never-go-to-the-doctor-other-than-well-visit type of people that they’re making a pretty penny off of.) As Jon said, “At best, this seems like an example of a poorly designed or poorly executed system that cannot differentiate cost-effective from non-cost-effective care. At worst, it seems like simple greed. This is the kind of experience that leads members of your plans to feel alienated and mistrustful of your brand.”

Yes, well said. For us, it’s the principle of the matter, not the $90, but what also troubles me is that I can only imagine that there were a lot of other people in that line who followed the same procedures we did, and got screwed out of their reimbursements. And maybe that cash was really critical to them.

Growing up in a large family where we barely scraped by month to month, we never had health insurance. I didn’t even know that people got health insurance until I went to college and had to sign up. We only went to the drop in clinic when it was required for school forms and it is a miracle that with seven kids, the odds rolled so well in my parents’ favor -- the only major medical issues in all those years and across all those kids were my tonsillectomy and my brother’s broken leg. Given current regulations, not having health care is not an option, but at this point I’m longing for those fast and loose times.

Because at this point, apparently our $1,000+ premiums aren't buying us much.

Midnight Call

Last night was like many nights. I was up working. The house and neighborhood were still. It was midnight and I was getting ready to shut down for the night. And then the doorbell rang.

I froze like a deer in the headlights. Midnight calls are never a good thing. Who could it be? I didn't want to snap off the light and show that I had heard the call and was hiding. I thought, okay, maybe I just imagined it. Who the hell would ring the bell at midnight anyway? The rest of the house was pitch black.

Then the doorbell rang a second time.

My heart started racing. Who could it be? My bizarre ex-boyfriend from a million years ago who still sends me mail? A stranger who actually needed my help (no, it couldn’t be, the bell would ring in a more urgent pattern)? A friend who needed me (no, my phone was on…the people I would open the door for at midnight have my phone number)? A robber or a rapist hoping that someone up at this hour would answer the door thinking it was someone who really needed help?

The doorbell rang a third time.

I still couldn’t get out of my chair. I sat very, very still. A few minutes later I listened to the crunch of snow and ice as the person left. I quietly got out of my chair and listened to the steady breathing of Jon and Laurel from the hallway. I went downstairs to double check that the door was securely locked. I went back upstairs and into Laurel’s room and gently rested my hand on her head. I contemplated sleeping with her because my mama bear radar was all lit up. Then I peeked out her window, grateful for the darkness all around me.

Everything outside was still, wintery, beautiful. Whoever rang the bell had moved on.

It seems pointless to hypothesize about who came to my door at midnight, but I still wish I knew. Would you answer the door at midnight?