Holiday this and that

December 28, 2014 at 1:34 am (Uncategorized)

The American government is very worried about being spied upon by its populace. The U.S. populace is very concerned about being spied upon by its government. This is serious, Wiki-Snowden-esque stuff.

But what, I ask, about family members spying upon other family members — kids their parents; parents their kids; spouses one another!? And I’m not talking about walking in on someone in the bathroom or, God forbid, young’uns walking in on their parents mid-coitus. No, I’m talking about proverbially walking in on your partner’s gift orders. Inadvertently. While trying to avert your eyes. Without ever having meant to ruin the holiday surprise.

When I was a kid, I once found the very large and cavernous — and otherwise never-used — cabinet in the playroom in which my mom hid my and my sister’s perfectly wrapped Hanukkah gifts. That year — I was probably 11-ish, or at least old enough “to know better” — Abby and I dived in and kinda snidely opened up every last gift in that walk-in cabinet located waaaaay at the back of the little-visited playroom. We took excited stock of the gifts we soon were to receive, and we carefully and adeptly (quite adeptly, I’ll add) refolded, retaped and replaced each present. Mom, of course, soon discovered our folly, and I recall a very effective verbal lashing from her about our ill-advised choice to rat out that year’s gifts for the slightly dimmed Festival of Lights.

I’d argue that at least Abby and I learned the old-fashioned way of our received-with-guilt bounty. But old fashioned exists no more.

Sure, kids — and partners — still can find their holiday gifts prettily wrapped and set atop high, far-away shelves. But in this age of online shopping, it actually becomes difficult to remain innocent of gift knowledge. How so?

I have two heartbreaking examples, and I’m not sure how to remedy this situation for future December dilemmas. Any tips and ideas will be most welcome.

First, I went to my husband’s AmazonPrime page because — of course — I, too, wanted to avoid shipping costs on the gifts I purchased via that miraculous shopping convenience. I didn’t even have to click — accidentally or otherwise — any link to see either what my husband had browsed for me and the girls…or purchased, for that matter. There they were, in plain site. And, when Dave went to the site to do additional seeking or shopping for one of his three ladies, he also saw what I’d considered or bought for him. Same goes for our increasingly online-savvy children. Some of us admitted to having known ahead of time the gifts we were to receive; others of us waited until the gift opening itself to reveal the Big Brother truth.

Second, innocent Dave hates hard-copy receipts and so always defaults to having an e-receipt sent to his — or, in this case — my email address. I say “innocent” because I recently was scrolling through my inbox and came across a receipt from a company I know I’d not purchased anything from. Turns out, it was from one of my most-favorite companies — SockDreams — and so I was curious. Had I, in a state of excited impulse buying, purchased a SockDreams item? I just had to know. I clicked on the link and saw not only a totaled receipt, but an itemized one…that included the purchased socks’ descriptions and my husband’s very recognizable e-signature. He’d not realized he’d sent the receipt to my email address instead of to his own. And so I knew well before Christmas morning that I soon would be the recipient of a handsome pair of black socks emblazoned with a panda bear munching eucalyptus.

Instead of kids or adults shouting out, “I just knew it!” when they receive the gift they’d asked for, today folks really mean “I knew it” in the sense of complete certainty and not just prognostication. And it really sucks. It seems that unless one forgoes online shopping (particularly at the most highly trafficked sites) and always says “yes” when asked by a clerk for a hard-copy instead of an e-receipt, the anticipation and wonderful element of surprise from here on out may well have died with the land-line telephone and (most) daily newspapers. I mourn the loss.

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USPS–I almost lost my faith in you

December 11, 2014 at 8:19 pm (Uncategorized)

Background

Before reading this post, you need to know that I love post offices. Yes, “love.” In perhaps that obsessive way people love inanimate objects and institutions like, say, NASA, or public transportation, or Dutch colonial architecture. I just adore driving through small towns (in this country and abroad) and happening across the tiniest, seemingly most inconsequential post offices still standing. The tiny, cabin-like building in Otis, Ore., looks like the relic it is. In Gearheart, on the Oregon coast, the post office resembles on the outside a speakeasy from the Prohibition era (and seems open less frequently). And I even have a picture of me smiling triumphantly (stupidly?) outside the post office at the Crazy Horse visitors’ center outside Rapid City, South Dakota.

(View a photo here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g54774-d2279516-i111551135-Mount_Rushmore_Tours-Rapid_City_South_Dakota.html)

Imagine my thrill when I happened upon this “New York Times” article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/us/revenue-and-losses-both-rise-for-postal-service-.html. See? All is not entirely bad with the United States Postal Service.

And lastly, to undergird my veneration of the U.S.P.S. generally, I even have a favorite postal worker: His name is Leon and he works at the West Slope branch of this federal institution whose very existence, I realize, is under constant threat from those who wish to hobble its budgets and cut mail-delivery days. I’m happy to pay taxes to receive mail on Saturday. The U.S.P.S. is not a fat-cat institution that should go down in a wave of budget cuts!

And yet…

…Not all post offices — or their employees — are that great, or even that kind. For me to be rankled to the core by post office employees means a really bad episode occurred. To read of my at least temporarily shaken faith in this historic institution, established in 1692 (!!!), read on.

Present-day

This blog began in 2009 under the auspices of a family trip abroad during Dave’s first sabbatical we took as a foursome. He now has another sabbatical coming up; we have the great fortune to go abroad again, though we know not yet where. It’s been more than five years since our month in Lille, France, and wherever we might end up outside the U.S. in 2015 means the girls’ passports have to be renewed.

No biggie, right?

Wrong.

First, this past August, Alyssa went to Canada with her Mimi and Zayde; it was very exciting for Alyssa to venture with her grandparents to another country, thus requiring a passport. And hers had to be renewed in jiff. Or so I was informed by Express Passport, whose customer service rep was so on the ball in responding to my inquiries that at first I didn’t notice the company was taking me to the cleaners. Only after I was down more than $250 did I realize I hadn’t needed an expedited passport in the first place and could have saved hundreds. How did I learn this? Why, it was the very friendly and helpful postal worker at the N.W. Hoyt Street United States Post Office who informed me that for a minor, Alyssa’d need only a few key documents to cross the international border between the U.S. and Canada, sidestepping entirely the need for a passport. That employee was kind and helpful…to a point. But now that I reflect on that experience, in that concrete bunker of a post office, the postal worker did snigger at me when I’d told her the expense I’d spared to update Alyssa’s expired passport.

Turns out that after the postal employee had signed off on all our required documents for that little blue book and I raced it to FedEx — as instructed by that “helpful” Express Passport lady — I didn’t end up getting the renewed passport in time for Alyssa’s departure. Express Passport had promised it to me by a certain date — that is, after all, the company’s job, especially with my money to do so in hand. But that promised date came and went, and indeed Alyssa and my folks left and returned from their vacation, all before the updated passport arrived bearing the picture no longer of a 5-year-old girl but of a 13-year-old teen.

Still, the U.S.P.S. handled the situation — and me — professionally and kindly, and even with a touch of sympathy for my overspending and under-receiving. Still, I had been sniggered at…

Me being me, I gnashed my proverbial teeth via email, trying to plead my case and take to task Express Passport, requesting a reimbursement for the expensive service it promised and on which it didn’t deliver. It credited me a mere $40. I remain displeased; I’d never recommend this sham of a service. Nor, certainly, will I ever again get myself in the pickle of (seemingly) requiring an expedited passport, renewal or not.

So imagine my glibness when I recently began the process of renewing Hayley’s passport seven months in advance of our purported departure for a place where English is not the native tongue.

To hell with any “service,” I thought; I’ll just use the government’s website, download the paperwork I’d need and, then, upon filling it out and getting Hayley’s new picture taken and birth certificate in hand, I’d rely on my trusty United Stated postal workers to see through my youngest’s passport update.

A few months have passed since Alyssa’s spendy passport debacle, and in the interim, I couldn’t remember if we needed an appointment at the passport desk at the Hoyt Street Post Office or if it services schmoes like me on a walk-in basis. To cover all my bases, I called the post office directly. Predictably, I got looped through an unhelpful series of messages noting the passport desk’s hours of operation. The recording offered the number of the State Department should any additional passport questions remained unanswered. So I called the State Department (like some kind of dignitary! I’m important enough to call a government office to which I pay taxes to get the service I deserve as a citizen!). The live, FEDERAL employee on the other end looked up the Hoyt Street Post Office’s information and confirmed that no appointment would be necessary to get passport paperwork processed.

Dave took off the afternoon the day before Thanksgiving (and the girls had no school) so we could finalize Hayley’s passport documentation and get it sent off for its renewal. Into the post office we skipped, me with a folder filled with Hayley’s reamed of papers; Dave with his hand ready to wield a pen and sign his name in the presence of God and many witnesses; and Hayley prepared to respond to the questions: “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” (If your partner cannot be present to sign passport documentation, you require additional papers that legitimize your child’s parentage; I was relieved Dave could join us to save me from additional paperwork headaches.)

A postal worker endowed with the power to sign off on passport documents asked the small assembled customers if any had either a regular package to send or a passport to renew. Up shot my arm. “Then come on over here,” she said kinda unfriendly. (For the record, this was not the same employee who’d snickered at me months ago.) Then she said, “Do you have an appointment?” I said, “Why, of course not. There is none required.”

Hoo boy! Guess what? APPOINTMENTS ARE REQUIRED! Noting my otherwise prominent eyes becoming ever more — er — prominent, the keen postal employee summoned from who-knows-where her supervisor, a woman who, if she’d donned a wig, would look just like Kate McKinnon impersonating German Chancellor Angela Merkel on “Saturday Night Live.” Down to the severe, penciled-in eyebrows.

This supervisor looked me in the eye with her burning green ones and said, “The State Department doesn’t have updated information.” I’m sorry…WHAT? “You’ll have to make an appointment and come back another time.”

I almost went postal, which was scary for Hayley to behold; she regaled me later with a story about how very large (read: unattractive and scary) my eyes got during my unpleasant exchange with Ms. Supervisor. This supervisor actually went so far as to insinuate I’d not called either her own beloved post office or the State Department. Dave, rushing to my pitiful defense said, “You think she’s lying to you?” (Hayley was shrinking by the second; I knew she wanted to melt into the icky floor tiles to avoid the embarrassing show her parents were putting on.)

Eventually, my cunning and wily (read: a little rude, a little on-edge) ways got us up close and personal with the right person who did the few things she was endowed by the powers invested in her to do, and we left. It took a while for my blood pressure to return to normal.

Just yesterday we received Hayley’s updated passport. As I had with Alyssa’s, I turned immediately to the key page with Hayley’s new photo ironed into it. Stunned, I stared at the photo of an 11-year-old pre-teen, instead of at the pre-K student who used to look back at me. Gone were Hayley’s thin lips behind which hid a mouthful of milk teeth. Gone, too, were the severely cut bangs that went straight across her forehead, resting just above her eyebrows. Her adult-leaning nose has replaced the button one of her youth, just as her baby-round cheeks have disappeared to reveal more-chiseled ones. And this is the photo we get to enjoy for the next interval, until Hayley is of legal driving age and we’ll then do extra paperwork for the child no longer considered a minor in the pantheon of passport rules and regulations, but, rather, a young adult.

I almost lost my faith in the U.S.P.S. But if this centuries’ old institution can make me feel this nostalgic, not just for its very existence and its odd outposts, but about my own children, then it must always exist indeed. Its rude-ish employees and all.

 

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