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Your Call Is Important To Us

We’ve all had to do it; sit on the phone while listening to distorted, often depressing music, waiting for someone on the other end to finally answer our question or fix our problem.

And when you do get to talk to someone, they rush through their rehearsed jibber jabber, mumble jumble, assuming that you understand every word. Never mind that the quality of calls on cellphones has taken a very steep dive in the last few years.

Remember when phones were phones, and call quality was everything? Now it’s more about how many apps you can stuff on your device, and how good the camera is.

But I digress.

Around mid-January this year, I found out that my 2019 taxes had been reassessed and the CRA determined that I now owed them gobs of money. It was my mistake. I had declared some income I made in the wrong box on my income tax form. It was simply in the wrong box, I didn’t really owe money. But it made a mess of things.

After a number of attempts at calling the CRA, I finally got in the queue. And then it was another 5 hours of listening to that distorted, over-modulated classical music, before I actually got to speak with a real person. After some back and forth, I was given instructions as to how to mail all of my documents to a CRA office in Winnipeg to clear it up.

So last week when I got an email that there was a message in my CRA account, I assumed it was a response, and hopefully a resolution, to that issue.

Nope. It turned out to be another problem. Sigh.

This time, it took 19 calls over several days to even get in the queue. You go through the rigmarole of different menus and long, automated instructions before you finally get the dreaded “All of our agents are busy and the queues are full. Please call back later” thing.

This year’s tax season is turning out to be like no other in recent history for the CRA. They have been hiring thousands of extra agents for what they consider to be a very complicated tax season, with CERB and other benefits payouts being only part of the story.

Many users were locked out of their online accounts as a precautionary measure when it was thought some of their information could potentially be compromised. And the CRA website is only half working, with lots of pages unavailable due to “Technical Difficulties”. It’s a real mess.

On my 19th call, I finally got through to a real person. It was a surprise when the wait was only about 10 or 15 minutes this time. The agent was really apologetic and very helpful. I fixed my issue in about an hour.

I really feel for the agents who have to deal with an awful lot of people who are already in a bad mood because…well, let’s face it, how many of us are NOT in a bad mood these days? Especially when you’ve been waiting in the call queue for hours.

How do you get anything else done? How do you eat lunch? How do you, um, how shall I say, deal with nature’s call? I mean, we all take our phones with us to the bathroom anyway (don’t we?), but what if the agent comes on the phone just at that very inopportune time?

And I think maybe they should reconsider the distorted classical music and find something else. Rock or repetitive pop music might fire people up even more, so forget that. I’d like some jazz, myself. But I think the best choice would be some spa music. Chill while you’re waiting, and imagine having a nice massage, or a sea salt scrub, or a body wrap…ye-a-a-ah….

Hello? Hello? Click…

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Facebook Follies

When I became a computer operator (now referred to as a computer “technician”) at the Vancouver Public Library back in the early 80s, it was an enormous task to enter the name of every book and periodical, and every patron, into our new system. We hired a group of people for that task, and they literally spent months and months tucked away in a room, doing nothing but data entry.

It amused us at the time that a few of the patrons were worried about their information being put into a computer system. Who would see their names and addresses? Who would have access to their records? We rolled our eyes at their paranoia.

Little did we know that 40 years later, we’d be carrying devices in our pockets that knew almost everything about us even when we didn’t mean for them to. Not only that, but those little devices could also broadcast whatever they knew about us anywhere in the world, to whomever wanted that info.

Last year around this time, we were on what would be our last (sob) vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii, before this COVID thing hit. We were walking through a market when I spotted a t-shirt on a woman about my age, and it made me laugh. I can’t remember now exactly what it said, but it wasn’t anything I’d seen anywhere before, and I thought it was pretty funny.

So I giddily told my husband and my daughter about it after we had passed the woman.

Back at our condo that evening I was on my iPad perusing Facebook, when I saw that very t-shirt in my Facebook feed. It was a unique t-shirt, so I knew it wasn’t a fluke. That was the first time I realized just how little privacy I actually had. Suddenly, those long ago library patrons questioning where their info was going to be seen or accessed, weren’t so paranoid to me anymore. My phone was actually listening to me.

As we have all discovered, the technology and algorithms on our phones and other devices are mapping our routes, listening to us, and watching every Google search we make.

A lot of people have quit Facebook for many reasons, including that privacy issue. Facebook pretty much makes all of their revenue (in 2020, close to $86 billion US) from businesses, big and small, who want your dollars. Of course, that’s what advertising is for, and what would businesses and companies do if they couldn’t advertise?

What bothers me is the sneaky little way that technology is figuring out what you might want to spend your money on. It feels creepy. It’s like some sleazy guy followed you as you walked through the mall, and watched as you eyed that new red dress. Then he shows up in the parking lot with the red dress, trying to convince you to buy it from him as you’re attempting to get into your car. That kind of creepy. And so much more.

Because, now imagine thousands of sleazy guys following you through the mall, every one of them carefully watching to see which purchases you might be considering. That’s closer to reality.

What’s even worse is how we are targeted by political ads. The fallout from that has been witnessed in such a distressful way with our neighbours to the south. “Freedom of speech” the tech companies say. More like “freedom to spew bull poop”.

In spite of all of this, my 149 friends and I are still on Facebook. Oh, there have been a few who’ve left, especially after some of the negative publicity that Facebook has received. And others have un-friended me for reasons I cannot fathom. What did I do? What did I say? It feels like being dumped.

And why are the rest of us still scrolling our Facebook feeds? That’s a good question, which I am sure has many answers. For me, it’s about staying in touch with friends and family, especially during these difficult times. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but at this point, the convenience that Facebook offers is unparalleled, at least for me.

Many of us are are waiting for the day that these social media companies will be held more accountable for their content, and take greater responsibility for their massive influence. We can always hope?

Me, I’m just trying to keep my voice down, in case that creepy guy on my phone is still listening. Shhhh!

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Electric Avenue

When I was quite small, the family car, an old 1938 Chrysler, finally gave up the ghost, and we went for 4 years without a vehicle. New cars were expensive and my Dad, a bus driver, had a mortgage to pay and not much else left over after that. We pretty much walked or took the bus everywhere we needed to for those four years.

Finally, around about 1966, my Dad bought one of the first Toyota Corolla’s in Canada. It cost him $2298.00. And, as he recollected in his memoirs, that was with a radio included!

One of our first road trips with the new car was a drive to the BC interior. Whenever we stopped for gas, the gas attendant would stare up and down the car in wonder. The Toyota looked nothing like the North American vehicles everyone was used to at the time.

Dad loved that car and drove it for many years.

Fast forward to last year, February 2020, when my daughter became the first in our family…well, the first of anybody we know, actually, to get an electric car. She’s had her red Hyundai Kona for almost a year now, and it’s been a learning experience, but not a difficult one.

With the recent announcements by GM that they will be building electric vans at their plant in southern Ontario, and President Biden revoking the Keystone XL Pipeline permit, there is a feeling of change in the air. Literally, I suppose.

Gas vehicles won’t disappear overnight, of course. And hybrid vehicles will help the transition for many. But more and more people are lining up to buy electric vehicles these days.

Still, change can be slow. One of the concerns many people have is the number of charging stations across the country, and the other is the length of time it takes to charge, even for a fast charge. More and more infrastructure is being built across Canada, with many gas stations also providing EV charging stations now, but it’s a process. And you won’t find EV charging stations yet in many smaller communities.

Charging up certainly isn’t quite as quick as gassing up. While she was waiting for her Kona to arrive, my daughter plotted out where all of the charging stations were in and around the city and on the Pat Bay Highway. Then it came down to figuring out how to use that charging time effectively. Like plugging into an EV stall at the mall and getting her grocery shopping done at the same time.

When she comes to visit us, she plugs her car into a regular outlet outside the house. In an 8 or 9 hour visit, she can only get a 10-15% charge. As an example, she uses that much charge just driving to and from work for one shift out at Swartz Bay.

At the mall, with what is called a Level 2 charge, she can get the same charge in about 2 hours. With a Level 3 charge, it’s two or three times faster than that. Of course, that all depends on the size of the battery too.

Me, well I still have my 2004 Mustang GT convertible. It’s a gas guzzler, but it’s pretty nice. I love to put the top down. When it isn’t raining, that is. And it has a V8 engine, so you can hear me coming from many blocks away.

Ford came out with an electric vehicle called the Mustang Mach-E but it looks nothing like a Mustang to me. So I have refused to purchase it, in protest. If they ever make an electric Mustang that looks like a Mustang, I’ll be first in line.

I don’t drive a lot. I work from home, so typically, I get in the car once or twice a week, if that. Some might say I don’t even need a car considering how little I drive. But I can’t let go of my Mustang. Don’t make me!

The car also has to be plugged in when I’m not using it. Just like a lot of muscle cars, the battery drains when it’s sitting there for too long. So I have a battery maintainer that I attach to it to keep the battery charged.

In which case, I guess you could say I DO have an electric vehicle, no?

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The Soundtrack To Your Life

What kind of music do you like? This is a question I ask every new guitar student on our first meeting, so I can gear what we learn towards what they listen to.

Interestingly enough, most adults will answer “I like all kinds of music.” There is the odd one who will be quite specific in their taste; country, jazz, rock. And some will only tell me what they DON’T like. “I like everything except country. Don’t make me play country.”

When it comes to the younger students, these days I’ll ask them where they find and listen to new music, and the answer is most often on YouTube or from their friends. In fact, a lot of the time they don’t even remember.

My generation, the Boomers, and the next generation, Gen X, mostly found our favourite music on the radio. Whether it was on the old radio/record player cabinet our parents owned, on the family car radio, or our own transistor radios, we were always plugged in to the latest hit songs.

If we really liked a song, we’d buy the 45. The single. If we really liked the band, then LPs, or “long playing” albums, were the next step up. I bought my first LP at the local drug store. It was a Three Dog Night record. I wasn’t particularly fond of Three Dog Night, but that’s what the drugstore had. I think I still might have it somewhere.

A.M. radio was pretty popular when I was a kid, and the mix of songs, now called “Free Form Radio”, could be quite eclectic. You might hear a pop/rock song like The Guess Who’s “These Eyes”, then a country song like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, followed by the Edwin Hawkins Singer’s gospel song “Oh Happy Day”, and Bob Dylan’s folk/rock song “Lay, Lady, Lay”, all in the same afternoon. It was a great format because you were exposed to a long list of different genres. The DJs were the ones who decided what they wanted to play, based on their whims and their listener’s requests.

Eventually, radio stations started to create playlists. They would target specific audiences or ages and, in my opinion, they kind of ruined a good thing.

I actually worked at a radio station for a year back in the early 1990s. The playlist was only about 500 songs, targeting people who were teenagers in the 1950s and early 60s. 500 songs sounds like a lot, but when you listen to it all day, every day, your eyes start to roll to the back of your head.

I got pretty tired of Elvis. Forgive me.

Ten years ago when I would visit my Dad, who had Alzheimer’s, at his care facility, I would bring a CD player and CD with some of his favourite songs for him to listen to. What always struck me was that, even if he was in somewhat of a stupor when I first arrived, as I turned on those songs, it also turned on his brain. He came alive. He’d smile, sing along, and start chatting away.

Even after the music was turned off, he would still be engaged and chatty. It was wonderful.

What I learned was that music is a “full brain” experience and that, in Alzheimer patients, there are studies that show that their brain activity and function increases when they hear their favourite songs.

When you learn to play a new instrument, it’s like exercise for your brain. In later years, many people can still play their instruments perfectly well and sing along, even if they can’t remember what they had for breakfast!

Most of you would probably include the songs you listened to as a teenager in your list of favourites. There’s a physiological reason for that. According to an article in Psychology Today, “we grow more attached to the music we hear as adolescents than at any other time in our life because of our neurons. When we love hearing a song, our brain’s pleasure circuits get activated and the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. Our prefrontal cortex retains the personal memory music evokes.”

You’ve probably had that experience of hearing an old song that you love and remembering a very specific time, a scene, or an experience from your youth. Like it was yesterday. The infamous Dick Clark claimed that “Music is the soundtrack to your life.”

In the last few months, I have been gathering all the cuts to my life’s soundtrack, just to have them in one place. I play those songs in my car when I’m out for a drive, just trying to get away from the craziness that has been happening in the world. Give me some of that serotonin! The feelings and memories those old songs evoke are uplifting, and remind me that there have been better times.

And there will be better times again. Play on.

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Harry’s Bar

Like many of you, I was appalled at the chaos unleashed at the U.S. Capitol the other day. It was especially sad to see that beautiful building, a place many of us have been to, invaded by swarms of ugly, hateful rioters.

My one and only visit there was in June 2019, when my husband and I took off for a whirlwind trip to New York City and Washington. Our good friends joined us for the NYC part of the trip, but we visited Washington on our own.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about the idea of going to Washington. For one thing, the occupier of the White House did not impress me much. But my husband had always been interested in visiting the city, so I tagged along.

We took the train from New York through Philadelphia, along the Delaware River past Wilmington, Baltimore and finally into Washington D.C. It was a great way to see a little bit of the eastern coast of the U.S.

We booked an older hotel, not far from the National Mall and within walking distance of many of Washington’s landmarks and museums. On our first afternoon and evening, we took a bus tour to get our bearings and to see the sights at night.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the city. The architecture was impressive, especially the Capitol building. The history represented in places like the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials, was inspiring. And there were so many museums. We could easily have spent weeks there exploring it all. I was especially moved by the Korean Veteran’s War Memorial, where we witnessed two vets, both in wheelchairs, introduce themselves to each other, sharing their memories of that time.

We did manage to drop by the Whitehouse. I was a little hesitant to go at first, but we found out that the Orange One was off golfing somewhere at the time, so that made the visit somewhat easier to stomach. And what gave me a little sense of hope were the other members of the public who were there, out on the street in front of the White House, protesting his presidency. A man stood on a riser with a megaphone and spoke out against many Trump transgressions. Another fellow seemed to be a permanent fixture, living in a tiny trailer across the street plastered with protest signs.

But we also noticed the numerous souvenir vendors along the way, selling pro-Trump paraphernalia. Bobble heads and MAGA hats, t-shirts and buttons. People were gleefully buying all this stuff.

At one point, we saw a busload of what appeared to be high school students, disembarking for a tour of the Capitol building. A number of them were wearing those unmistakable red caps, which was particularly disappointing. So young, and likely completely unaware of what that hat actually meant.

All of these things were like ugly scars on an otherwise beautiful city. This historic and distinguished community had been crashed by a nasty clown.

I’ve mentioned our hotel, which seemed to be a good deal when I booked it. It was an older building and the room we stayed in was pretty much stuck in the 70s, but it had everything we needed. Downstairs there was a restaurant and bar that we tried out a couple of times. And, of course, there was a souvenir shop with MAGA hats. Groan.

Harry’s Bar was a little bit dark, but certainly colourful, with stained glass light fixtures and red soda fountain chairs from some other decade. There appeared to be a regular crowd that hung out there. People who knew the place.

So it was a surprise to us when the name of that hotel popped up in the news the other day. With all of the Trump supporters expected to crash Washington to attend his rally, the hotel was promoting the fact that it would temporarily shut down.

Why? Because the Hotel Harrington, the place we stayed, is apparently a favourite hangout of the Proud Boys. And Harry’s is their bar of choice.

In 2019, I’m not sure if the term “Proud Boys” had entered into my consciousness yet. I wouldn’t have recognized the people in Harry’s as being anything other than maybe a bunch of bikers or something like that.

I remember standing in front of the White House back then and reminding myself of something important: that presidents whom I have admired had also occupied that famous residence. Presidents who understood and respected the office they held. I looked at it again, with that in mind, and it felt much better.

In a couple of weeks, the White House will once again be occupied by someone I have great respect for. Someone who understands that the presidency isn’t just about the President.

January 20, 2021 can’t come soon enough.