Wednesday, August 21, 2013

White Girl Reviews Zumba

I started going to a gym a few weeks ago because I am too wimpy to exercise outside during summer, the idea of showering while someone else watched my children was appealing, and I wanted to try Zumba.

I've now been to two Zumba classes. Here are my reflections:

Zumba is dangerous. Two minutes into today's class I gouged myself in the forehead with my fingernail while attempting to do some elaborate Indian dance hand movement. Bollywood star I am not.

Zumba must be a thumb-biting response to centuries of white privilege. Because while my membership at the gym comes courtesy of my husband's energy industry paycheck, that salary can never buy me a Latina booty. Or rhthym rythm the ability to spell rhythm.

Zumba is not a great workout. Maybe it's the instructor, Marianna, catering the class to the majority of the attendees ... who are much older than me ... or else it's just the nature of Zumba. I don't care how much you sway your hips, stomping in a circle is not strenuous. I do work up a sweat by the end, but there's so many breaks between songs that I never hit that horrible/wonderful state where I think I can't go on but I do. Or maybe it's my past soccer experience where I considered two hours of conditioning in 100 degree weather "a great workout." Yes, I know I'll never attain that same level of fitness I so unappreciated as a teenager, but I'd at least like a taste of the burn, you know? What is a great workout is the "Body Works Plus Abs" class led by a fifty-something lady who kicks my trash and left me unable to fully extend my right arm after my first time. She doesn't wear silky capris with "Zumba" emblazoned across her behind, but she provides a much more intense workout. And she doesn't make impassioned bird noises randomly throughout the workout. And she doesn't make me listen to banda music.

Genie pants. Not only do they billow with the seductive power of the Orient ... they also provide a nice optical illusion that gives your booty super powers. Only three wishes, though, please.

Zumba makes me doubt everything I know about anatomy. While it's no revolution in terms of actual fitness achieved ... HOW DOES SHE DO THAT WITH HER BOTTOM? It's like it's not connected to the rest of her body. You know how black people are supposed to have an extra bone in their feet? I'm pretty sure Marianna has something extra in there. I try to mimic her booty-popping, but I end up looking like a tapir with palsy. I know because there are mirrors everywhere. I cannot escape the nightmare that is my frizzy-haired, red-faced, sweaty self. It brings back memories of the worst charades round of my life. I was at a weekend retreat with Nathan's engineering lab-mates and their spouses. The word "gyrate" came up on my turn. Let's just say all the engineers in the room were very puzzled at my, uh, performance. When I revealed the word after the failed round, they all said, "Ohhh, like a gyroscope?" Yeah, guys, just like a gyroscope ... not the inebriated stripper I was just channeling. That's Zumba.

Maybe Zumba could incorporate some whirling dervish dance moves.

Next up: yoga.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What You Really Need In Your Diaper Bag

First, let's define the word "need": something you will die without. By that strict definition, the only things you need in that suitcase-sized tote you call a diaper bag are a blanket, some granola, and a spear to keep predators away from you and your young. You don't even need diapers or wipes because you've seen the Babies documentary and you know all you need is a dried corn cob to get that business taken care of.

Okay, okay, I guess the meaning of "need" varies from one manic mother to the next. I like to consider myself a low-maintenance parent with low-maintenance children, so this is what I "need" (in a first-world sense) in my diaper bag:

Your arsenal.

For the bebes:

-Wipes. I have a set in my bag and another in my car. Even after all my children are potty-trained, I'll be keeping the wipes in my car.

-Diapers for both my children. In an emergency, know that a size four diaper can work on a size one newborn ... just saying.

-Plastic bag(s)--they take up no room and their utility is almost boundless. Just don't store a poopy outfit in a bag and then forget about it in your hot car for a week ... because then you'll need another plastic bag to put over your head to protect yourself from the weapons-grade stench, and that's just not safe.

-Backup outfit, and by "outfit" I mean a bare-bones white onesie. This is your emergency outfit, remember, not the ensemble your little cherub will be wearing in your family portrait. This is meant to get you from the Target bathroom, where you discovered the blowout, to your house in a socially acceptable manner. It could even be debated that just a diaper can qualify as your "backup outfit." No judging ... but if that's your plan it will probably go down in the Walmart bathroom.

-Blanket. Because Houston is so warm, I love the muslin blankets that are huge, but compact. And apparently you can forgo the expensive Aden+Anais blankets and make your own.

-Burp rag (blanket/extra outfit can double as this in a pinch).

-Pacifier. One for the mouth and another for the bag.

-Toy. 1 or 2 SMALL tokens of amusement for the toddler. Graham is welcome to bring his own bag of cars/books to use in the car if he carries it himself.

-Other potentially legitimate supplies include: breast pads, Tylenol (a few in a Ziploc, not a space-wasting bottle), bottle-feeding paraphernalia, etc. And that's a very restrictive "etc"!

For Kimber: 
-Wallet. I use this lovely card carrier. It's easy to find because it's cold and shiny (very important when you're searching the black hole that is your diaper bag).

People mistake it for a cigarette case ... but the most interest thing inside is the punch card to my favorite crêperie.

-Water bottle (Graham and I are willing to share, so we don't need a sippy cup). I love this water bottle, mainly for its colors, but also because it is insulated (less condensation when I leave it in the car during a humid Houston summer). I don't love that I have to bite the mouthpiece. I'd prefer a straw.


-Keys. Save yourself some time and always put these in the same pocket. Same goes for the wallet and phone.

-Pen and paper.

-Chapstick. This barely makes the list.

Things you think you need, but don't:

Changing pad? No. It's okay for your kid to come into contact with germs. If you must, you can use a blanket/plastic bag combo. I used to carry one of these around, until one day I forgot to put it back in the bag after washing ... and two months later I realize I hardly miss it.

Diaper cream. Unless you have a kid with a chronic diaper rash problem, you don't need this. Don't start whining about "just in case," either. Chapstick can address a serious, random problem in a pinch.

Lanolin. Same as above. It's great for the early weeks, but then put it in your medicine cabinet.

Sunscreen. Put some in your car, if you must.

Face wipes/Lysol wipes/binky wipes. You already have wipes! A baby wipe is a baby wipe is a baby wipe.

Lotion. Unless you've brought your baby along on your Antarctica research trip where the atmosphere is sucking moisture from your baby like a shop-vac, you don't need this. Buy some good lotion that will last several hours, and put it on before you leave the house. Also, remember you don't really need to give your baby a bath more than once or twice a week. Your baby isn't the sweaty, post-pubescent mess you are after a day without a shower, and it just dries out their skin.

Nursing cover. This is a whole other soapbox ... but use your blanket, or else go sans cover, heaven forbid. Oh wait ... I'm pretty sure God didn't give Eve a fig-leaf nursing cover ...

Hand sanitizer. Your baby is destined for a life of asthma and Coke-bottle glasses if you are anal about this. Suck the binky off yourself and pop it back in his mouth. Also, just wash your hands or use a beloved baby wipe.

Snacks. Unless you are going to be gone through a meal, your toddler should be able to go several hours without food (obviously, this is age-dependent). Hunger is not pain, and they will eat better at the next meal if they haven't been snacking their fat, sticky, privileged American face off.

The moral of diaper bag packing is to weigh what you really need against the strength of your shoulder. If the weight of your "what-if-there-is-a-nuclear-holocaust-and-I-do-not-have-infant-dose-radiation-pills" anxiety is heavier than your 30 lb diaper bag that won't shut, then pack every single "just in case" item you can think of. Good luck finding anything when you need it, though ... and prepare your health savings account for the shoulder reconstruction surgery you'll need when you're sixty (this actually happened to my best friend's grandmother, who carried a too-heavy purse her whole adult life).

Also, you will live (i.e. you don't need) a Petunia Pickle Bottom bag. The Skip Hop Dash (what I use, pictured at the top of the post) is less than 1/3 the price, has enough room/pockets for the essentials, won't clash with 95% of your clothes, and doesn't scream "I'm a diaper bag full of unnecessary crap!" Also, it's the bag Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber use, ahem.

But really, all I actually need is a simple pouch made from a goat pelt, strapped across my back, right next to my spear.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

10 Ways I Negotiated with Customer Service and Won: How I Reclaimed $625 from The Man in Two Months

One aspect of being an adult I didn't anticipate is the hassle involved in dealing with lame grown-up stuff like health insurance, internet providers, and paying for library books your toddler ripped apart during what should have been his nap time. I never realized how much my mom probably had to dig through the dung heap that is customer service, all while I was whining about teenage-world-problems like how the janitor cleaned the pudding-cup-lid mosaic from the inside of my locker door (he had no respect for installation art).

As an adult, I have costlier issues sapping my time and emotional reserves. Through experience, secondhand knowledge from Nathan's business negotiation course, and my own pushy personality, I've identified a few strategies to get out of fees, lower your bills, and generally save money.

The first call center ...

1. Be nice. Customer service employees are still, surprisingly, human, and respond well to nice people. Make your request pleasantly, and they may respond by doing everything they can to make you happy (because happy and nice are not synonymous--you can communicate your grievance but still be nice about it). Nathan used this strategy the other day to lower a dental bill. We'd accidentally scheduled an appointment for Graham during a window when he wasn't insured, and we were billed around $70 just for getting his teeth polished and counted (if the insurance company was paying, who cares, but this bill did not reflect the value we felt we received). Nathan nicely mentioned it during his own appointment, and at our next visit we unexpectedly received a $42 refund.

That's worth smiling about! (and FYI, he has 20 teeth.)

2. Be a good customer. If you can point to a long history of good customer behavior, you could negotiate for lenience when it comes to getting out of fees. I've used this strategy successfully for getting out of a late credit card payment fee (a one-time thing--that's the key) and a few bank overdraft fees. More recently, after Graham ripped up a few library books, I took him to the librarian and we solemnly confessed the crime and asked what we owed. The librarian responded well to us taking responsibility, and said she would wave the replacement fee because we "were so nice." Also, we made sure to confess to the nice librarian. We probably saved around $40 in fees to replace and re-catalogue two books.

Me, rip two books to shreds and throw the pieces like confetti all around my crib? Never.

3. Ask and ye might receive. Asking for freebies or refunds can be uncomfortable, but by asking for something specifically, you can derail their script of "I'm sorry, but that's our policy," and get them to think creatively about how to meet your request. Just ask! This was the foundational principal in Nathan's business negotiation class.

It's a great strategy to use when you're dealing with companies with good customer service--they want to say "yes"! I used this approach successfully a few weeks ago at Target. I found a pair of sandals I liked, priced at $16, but missing the price tag. I asked if I could get a discount (we'd both benefit because they wouldn't have to deal with putting a new tag on the shoes ... admittedly this is a small benefit for them, but you work with what you have!). The cashier agreed and marked them down to $10 for me--a savings of $6--almost 40% off!

I used this strategy successfully a month ago when dealing with Amazon. I was returning an opened wireless router. Even though I'd technically missed the return window, and opened the package, I got them to accept the return, waive the restocking fee, and pay my return shipping--all just because I asked. I probably saved about $12 in restocking and shipping fees.

If your request is denied, reply with, "What can you do for me?" It's lame for them to reply, "Nothing," so they may think of something to make you happy. Also try asking to speak with the manager--they often have more power to meet your requests.

4. Use the medium you're most comfortable with. Going back to the Amazon example--it was easy for me to ask for all those freebies because I was doing it over chat. I would have felt a little awkward asking for all that over the phone, and especially in person. Use the communication channel that fits best. For example, if you are ticked off, you have greater impact if they can hear the tone of your voice, or better yet, hear your voice and see your wrathful-customer-vindication face. Just don't be too scary or they'll call security. Also, don't ever yell, be threatening, use personal attacks, or swear--call center people only have a few instances when they are justified in hanging up on a customer, and it's when a customer uses those cheap strategies.

I am the wall between you and a bill adjustment. Break me down kindly.

5. Use the magic words, "I will cancel if you do not (insert demands here)." Having a customer cancel their service is a huge black mark against the customer service rep. Because it usually costs a lot more to gain a new customer than to retain a current customer, companies will try and do a lot to keep your business--whether by locking you into contracts, making it complicated to cancel, or heaven forbid, by keeping you happy. Avoid the first, endure the second if needed, and exploit the third. I used these magic words last month while dealing with my AT&T internet bill, which had doubled after my 12-month promotional rate expired (also meaning I was no longer under contract=leverage!). I had to repeat the magic words several times (also the other magic words: "let me speak to a manager"), and I had to be transferred and put on hold several times, but eventually I got on the phone with someone who could meet my demands. I negotiated for a 25% discount on my bill (still higher than the initial promo rate, but Graham and Ruby were crying so I caved ... I probably could have gotten more if I'd been even more persistent), and three months of free service, worth $96.

AT&T is an unforgivable curse.

6. Hold them accountable. Know your rights as a customer, and exercise them! Graham's beloved sound machine broke two months before the warranty expired. Yes, it's a hassle to go online, find the warranty info, contact the company, and upload a photo verifying the model you have, but then the friendly company sends you a new sound machine, worth $25.

Love this thing.

Sometimes you have less standing, though. A rep from my health insurance company told me I would be reimbursed for a prescription from a special pharmacy, even though it was out of network. Believing her, I filled the $132 prescription, then filed my claim, which was subsequently denied, twice. While I was at fault for not knowing the parameters of my policy better (no out of network coverage), I had been given misinformation. So I pushed and pushed and pushed (usually necessary for insurance companies) until they were willing to compensate me for their mistake--$98 back, baby!

7. Be informed. Does the company price match? Compare rates from different companies, and see if one of them will match and/or beat their competitor's offer. We got a smaller furniture store (i.e. better customer service) to take $200 off the price of Nathan's chair in order to match Dillard's price, and they gave us free delivery on top of that (worth $75) because they wanted to beat Dillard's.

Upholstery: A few cows. Delivery fee: $0. Seeing your husband snuggle your baby daughter: priceless. Awwww.

Another time, our doctor billed us $174 for an uncovered medical procedure (we've got to read the fine print more ... gah). Knowing that physicians will accept way lower rates if the insurance company is paying, we asked our insurance company what that contracted rate was. We went back to our doctor and said he should be willing to accept that amount from us if he would have taken it from the insurance company. His office manager (the doctor's wife ...) didn't like that so much, but again, we pushed and pushed and pushed (What is it with the health care system in this country?! Seriously.), until they agreed to accept the insured rate of $77--saving us $97. Be willing to research these policies and figures--it could save you a lot.

8. Channel your righteous anger. Sad, but true: sometimes you need to rear your ugly dissatisfied-consumer head and get intense. Don't be mean by attacking the customer service rep personally, but feel free to attack the company and its policies. Use great words and phrases like "disgusted," "unacceptable," and "how are you going to make this right?" I had to use this strategy today with our energy company. I signed up under a rate of 6.8 cents/kwh ... which they honored for two weeks before jacking my rate up to 16.1 cents/kwh. When I got a bill for $232 (over three times what I paid the same time last year), I was ticked, and I let them know. I immediately asked to speak to a supervisor, who, after listening to my angry spiel, agreed they had been unfair and applied the cheaper rate, saving me $134.

9. Avoid companies with reputations for bad customer service. Because why patronize businesses that don't respect you or your resources? Capitalism is a beautiful thing (usually), and you can reward companies for their good behavior with your dollar. Then you won't need most of these strategies!

Why is the mom the only one wearing pants? Why, why, why? Subliminal feminist propaganda?

10. Put on an episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and pick up the phone. Because you might be on hold for a while (okay, you will definitely be on hold for a while--be strong!), and you can't have your adorable toddler distracting you from your game.

Total saved: $625. Boom.