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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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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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You Are Not Alone

This has been a more difficult post to write because, usually, I try to be light about everything. Sometimes it’s not so easy. There have certainly been enough opinion pieces, news, and statistics about anxiety and depression these days because of the pandemic we are experiencing, so who needs more of that? But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I promise.

I didn’t get on an airplane for many years because of my fear of flying. It’s called aerophobia. It started after a flight back from Hawaii on our honeymoon. We hit a bumpy patch during the flight, as often happens, but I was on my way back to my seat from the washroom during one of those drops, and almost got knocked off my feet. Of course, we landed just fine and I didn’t think anything more of it.

What happened in the following months, however, was that I started to have nightmares about planes crashing. Over, and over and over. And I convinced myself that it might be some kind of premonition, so I decided I would no longer set foot on a plane.

And I didn’t. For 20 years. One time I even had the opportunity to go on a free trip to Hawaii. I didn’t go. Instead I got really mad at myself for being so scared. What the heck was the matter with me?

I started to research it a little bit, first of all realizing that a LOT of people have the same fear. Many people take anti-anxiety medications before they fly to counteract it. Some have other forms of treatment like cognitive therapy. And then there are those who never get over it, and stop flying all together.

Me? I turned to one thing I thought might help. I got back into mindful meditation and practiced it as much as I could. Ommmm…

A couple of years later, we took the chance that I might be able to handle a flight, and booked a trip back to Hawaii. It was a celebration of my daughter’s graduation from high school. This would be my big test. Leading up to the trip, I worked really hard to not let those anxious thoughts overwhelm me. It didn’t always work, but I kept at it.

On the day of our flight, I sat in the airport lounge and did a lot of deep breathing and tried to stay calm. I remember the walk onto the ramp and into the plane, trying not to panic. Strapping myself into the seat, I wondered how I would keep myself from screaming for them to let me get off.

On the taxi down the runway, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and clung to it. We finally took off into the clouds. Over the next while, I tried to relax a little bit. It took a couple of hours, but eventually I could smile a little and looked out at the puffs of clouds and the blue water below.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to finally walk barefoot on the sands of Waikiki. The picture you see here is from that first moment. I’m not saying that I overcame my aerophobia in one trip. It took many. But I have had lots of successful, anxious-free flights since.

I’ve been anxious about many things in my life, but that was a major one.

And now anxiety has reared its ugly head again, as it has with so many others during this pandemic. I started worrying about getting sick. Not just from COVID-19, but pretty much anything. Any time I felt a twinge of pain or an upset stomach, I “catastrophized” it, convinced it was a serious illness.

After weeks of this, I decided to tell my immediate family about it, and they have all been wonderful. My daughters have both dealt with anxiety too, and know what it can do to you.

I’ve gotten back into my meditation. I take frequent walks outdoors when I can and remind myself of the “okay” moments. Hey, right now, I’m okay! I tried CBD, or cannabidiol, which is derived from the hemp plant, to help me sleep. Sometimes it works. I have a pretty healthy diet, but apparently certain foods can help with anxiety too, as can staying away from others.

I don’t let myself get sucked into all the negative stuff as much, especially online. Realizing how many stupid people there are out there can drive you crazy! And keeping track of COVID-19 numbers is not a great idea either.

Ultimately, I try to talk about my anxiety more, which is why I’m writing this.

I know there are many, many of you out there going through the same and much worse. Don’t be afraid to tell others. Be gentle with and forgive yourself. Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed. Talk about it. It’s been a long, long haul for all of us but we’ll get there. And you are not alone.

(For those of you in the Island Health region, if you need help or you are in crisis, please call 1-888-494-3888 or 1-800-588-8717, any time day or night.)

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Halloween 2020

Pictured here is Sam. Sam Boney. He’s looking a little perplexed because he isn’t really sure how to carve his pumpkin this year. Should he go for his usual scary face? Or maybe something a little bit more friendly? I mean, 2020 has been scary enough.

A lot of people are not really sure how to handle Halloween this year, but others are trying to be creative. At our house, we’ve already built a candy chute for the kids. A little PVC piping and some orange tape and lights to wrap around it, and voila! They just have to stand at the bottom of the steps, open their bags or buckets and we’ll send their candy down the chute. Perfect.

It has also been suggested that you can use tongs to hand candy out, or put the candy in individual bags. I can understand, though, how some people might not be comfortable handing out candy this Halloween.

We get an average of about 70 kids at our house every year. I really enjoy the tiniest trick-or-treaters the most. Sometimes you answer the door and they just stand there and stare at you with no idea what is going on. Some see the open door and start to walk right in. Others try to say “trick or treat” with little or no success. One time I opened the door to a little girl who simply said “Candy?” And their little costumes are the most adorable just because THEY are.

Then there are the “kids” who are a little past their expiry date. I mean, once your voice changes and you’re taller than me, maybe it’s time to move on. I actually had that attitude for years until a friend said “At least they’re out trick or treating instead of somewhere else causing trouble!” That gave me a new perspective. I now welcome kids of all sizes.

Sam and I are wondering how many there will be this year. I mean, we’re lucky in that Halloween isn’t outright cancelled, as it is in Los Angeles County, for instance. No gatherings, no haunted houses to visit. Now THAT would make Halloween night pretty eerie to me. You’re allowed to watch a scary movie at a drive thru, or decorate your yard, but no trick-or-treating whatsoever.

In BC, with some new protocols in place, we’ve managed to hold a provincial election without too many hiccups. So even if it looks a little bit different this year, I think those of us who want to can manage Halloween one way or another. At least I hope so.

Oh, and Sam Boney finally settled on a face for his pumpkin this year. It will be a happy face.

Grey skies are going to clear up
Put on a happy face!
Brush off the clouds and cheer up 
Put on a happy face!
Spread sunshine all over the place
And put on a happy face!
~ From Bye Bye Birdie, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Music by Charles Strouse

To all the kids and parents heading out there this Saturday, have a safe and Happy Halloween!