Thursday, April 15, 2010

Loin Fruit

I’m fairly sure I did not enjoy my own birth, but I am lucky enough to not remember it. Everyone else involved, however, does remember this momentous event in my parents’ Manhattan apartment, unencumbered by frivolities like electric lights or pain meds.

This experience sounds wholly unpleasant, especially for my mother. But giving birth was just the first hassle she underwent for me and her subsequent two offspring, and it was nowhere near the most severe.

As an adolescent, I was an underachieving little snot. I never did homework, rarely did classwork, and, if I wasn’t disrupting others with one delightful shenanigan after another I was looking out the window, forming elaborate fantasies in my brain unrelated to the task at hand.

Report cards reflected this charming personality year after year. Comments were seldom positive and grades were never high. At the conclusion of one particularly memorable semester, I got a 0 in art – I hadn’t turned in a single thing.

Watching me attempt to assemble Lego structures was enough to ensure that I was clearly never going to be a carpenter – if my success wasn't academic, it would be nonexistent. What’s more, I was a voracious reader in my spare time, a paradox that no doubt drove both my parents around the bend.

So they tried everything. They tried grounding me for bad grades; they tried rewarding me for good grades. They tried helping me with my homework, they tried keeping in constant touch with my teachers. At every turn, I dodged and weaved their efforts and every six weeks my report card would indicate exactly to what extent I had done so.

At long last, they decided that the education system simply wasn’t teaching me in a way that I could learn, and they opted to homeschool me. It wasn’t really “they,” though – my father works full-time, so the brunt of my homeschooling rested with my mother.

And this is what I mean when I mention the effort she goes through for me. Not only did she elect to stay at home and teach her seemingly unteachable son, she also opted to do it not in elementary school, not in high school, but in those atrocious, puberty-ridden years of middle school.

Twelve-to-fourteen is a terrible age. It’s an age of squeaky voices and obnoxious attitudes. It’s an age where kids start to develop opinions but lack intelligence to actually back them up; in this regard I was no exception. In short, early adolescence is when school is the best thing the public service has to offer, as a full day with these "people" comes close to meeting the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

But, like a champ, my mum took on her very own snotty twelve year old, spending every day in its entirety with me, trying her damndest to shape me into an educated person.

The reason I share this extended anecdote is because today is my mother’s birthday. And, as I take tentative steps into a well-adjusted adulthood, I’m starting to realise that I didn’t become this way on my own. I have my mother to thank, for her advice (solicited or no), for her constant support, and for her unconditional love.

Even from afar I know that she’s constantly thinking of my best interests. These manifest themselves in endless positive comments on my blog, messages with safety tips, and, probably unbeknownst to my father, offers of financial assistance.

So happy birthday, Mum. Thanks for giving birth to me and raising me. Thanks for always looking out for me and tolerating all manners of rubbish from me. You have done and are doing a great job, and for that I love you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Where It's Due

I thought getting a credit card to pay for my flight from the US to New Zealand would be easy. For one, my credit history is a rich tapestry of on-time payments and clear balances. More importantly, though, this is America. Financial crisis notwithstanding, isn’t access to credit a God-given right around here?

I was halfway there already. I’d recently opened a bank account and was overjoyed at its internet banking services. I gleefully logged in and became even more gleeful when I saw that I could apply for a credit card online. I didn’t even have to fill out much in the way of forms – they had all my information on file, so it was just a few mouseclicks before they assured me that my credit card would be in the mail shortly.

I quickly texted my aunt and uncle, whose house I get my mail delivered to, and told them to be on the lookout for my contribution to the American economy. A few days later, I received an unexpected and embarrassing reply letting me know that my application had been declined.

Bummer. Not only had a bank deemed me too large of a financial risk, but my own overconfidence had caused this information to be given to me secondhand. Through family. It was a fairly profound loss of face.

Perturbed, I called the bank, certain that it was some kind of misunderstanding. Of course, I first sat through transfer after transfer from one monotonous, distracted call-centre employee after another. While Americans tend to be absurdly friendly – indeed, so much so that this cultural feature arguably offsets the negative things like the lack of socialised medicine or the presence of pro-lifers – call centre employees are an exception to this rule.

Fair enough, too. They’re hourly workers who are asked the same few questions over and over again. They get paid whether they’re on the phone or off it, so it’s in their financial interests to make calls as short as possible. That was my philosophy when I worked in a call centre, which is possibly why I don’t work in one anymore.

I must have gone through five or six of these drones before I was put through to the holy grail of customer service: someone on commission. Not only is it in these people’s best interests to help you they also tend to be people who genuinely enjoy interacting with other people. Of course, by “help” I mean “sell something,” but I’ll take what I can get.

Bonnie was a pleasure to talk to for ten minutes or so. I told her that my credit history was entirely in New Zealand, and she responded with “Oh, what’s New Zealand like?” I told her a few choice anecdotes, she told me about her friends travelling through there, and I offered them my parents’ place to stay, an offer which she graciously declined. All in all, it was a very nice conversation, although it concluded with “sorry, I can’t help you, my job is selling identity theft insurance.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t need that.”

“Are you sure? Identity theft is....”

I listened to her spiel, then pointed out that an identity that can't get a credit card isn't particularly lucrative to anyone, including its original owner. To this she started to pitch again, and I regrettably had to hang up on her.

I started over at square one, this time asking for a credit card salesman right off the bat. I was put through to Dave who, while friendly, would probably not enjoy a friendship with me like Bonnie did. He was a tad smarmy.

I shouldn’t be too hard on him, though, because he quickly answered my question. Due to my entire credit history being through New Zealand banks, it meant that it was effectively nonexistent. My favourite American habit of unapologetic ethnocentrism was alive and well in the credit industry.

Like Bonnie, he was a shrewd salesman who knew that information doesn’t come with a commission. “We could get you something called a SecureCard.”

“What’s that?” I asked, with bated breath and sinking expectations.

“Well, you give us money - $300 minimum – and then you spend it through your SecureCard”

“Not to be ungrateful, Dave, but if I had money, don’t you think I’d just spend it?”

“Yes, but . . .”

Even for someone with very low sales resistance, I recognised that this card was little more than a wallet with a monthly fee, so when I hung up on him I felt zero remorse.

I pondered my situation, and decided that, unseemly though it may seem, I was going to have to restrict my spending to money that I have.

How very novel.