Self-gratification (part whatever)

MAOTE: Oh, we're doing this self-interview thing again?

ME: Seem to be. Why not? Are you objectively pro-terrorism or something?

MAOTE: No, dude, it's just, at a time when your comment response is at an all time ebb and you can't even get someone to yell at you, much less think about anything you say seriously over in Glenn Greenwald's comment threads, you're going back to this? As I recollect, this posting technique has been called everything from 'massively egotistical' to 'outright and uneasily masturbatory' by those who don't like you much...

ME: They're just jealous they didn't think of it first.

MAOTE: Dude, you didn't think of it either, you totally stole it from THE COMMITMENTS.

ME: Whatever. Ask me some leading questions, monkey boy.

MAOTE: Yeah, okay, okay... so, what's been going on lately in your real life? Anything cool?

ME: Cool? Ahhh... hmm. Well, you know my old gaming buddy from up North, Nate, just visited last week for four or five days...

MAOTE: The one with all the emailed trash talk about how nobody could ever beat him in SCRABBLE?

ME: Yeah, among other things.

MAOTE: So, did you beat him at Scrabble?

ME: We played him twice. In the first game, SuperGirlfriend like hammered him by 60 points. In the second game, I totally crushed him.

MAOTE: Totally crushed him?

ME: Oh, absolutely.

MAOTE: By how many points?

ME: Well... it doesn't really matter how many points, what's important is, I destroyed him. See, my opening move, I played my entire tray with 'garbled', which was good for 27 points plus the 50 point bonus. So, BOOM!, I was off at supersonic speed.

MAOTE: Man, that's a great start for Scrabble. I'll bet he never managed to make that up.

ME: Well, he played out his entire tray in his following move and he had a 'z' so he did make it up a bit. In fact, he led slightly for most of the game, by a few points.

MAOTE: But then...

ME: He got stuck with a 'q' at the end of the game and lost a lot of points. He kept trying to bluff me in his closing turn, putting out ridiculous crap like 'Quie' and 'Qua' and like that, huffing that 'well, he KNEW that was in the dictionary', but it's like, there aren't any more letters in the bag and I've played out everything I had, so it's his last turn, of course I'm going to challenge anything he puts down! And he had nothin'. So he had to take off the 'q' and 'u' points and that gave me the edge.

MAOTE: So you crushed him by what, ten, 12 points?

ME: Okay, 3 points, but still, which column did it end up in for me? Thrill Of Victory, or Agony of Defeat? That's what I say.

MAOTE: I see your point, but you know you totally date yourself with references like that, right?

ME: Shut up. I kicked his ass. I kicked his ass over and over again at HeroClix, too.

MAOTE: Which he'd never played before, and anyway, you will only play by your own House Rules, so, yeah, I'd think you'd have an advantage there.

ME: Bite me. Let's see, what else is going on... SuperAdorable Kid has a bad cough and a fever, so SuperGirlfriend and I are a little stressed out over that. I'm getting hired on permanent at this horrible temp assignment...

MAOTE: The one where you help people out with their Flexible Spending Accounts?

ME: Yeah. I hate those people.

MAOTE: Just because they're all affluent haters who are trying to cheat on their taxes?

ME: Not all of them, but... yeah... look. I got a call from this woman in California who works for one of our major corporate clients. She had put $5000 aside... the legal annual maximum... for dependent care, and she'd never set up an account before, and she wanted to know how she got the money back.

MAOTE: Typical call?

ME: Well, we get that a lot, people who are using an FSA for the first time and aren't sure how they go about it... which strikes me as insane, or at least, pretty foolish, that they'd get into this kind of deal in the first place without fully understanding what they are doing, and then wait until they've had all the money taken out of their paycheck for a year before they try to get some straight answers. But, anyway, I told her about how she'd fill out a claim form and send in her day care receipts, and she was all like 'well, my childcare provider doesn't give receipts, it's a private individual', and I said "okay, that's fine, just have your provider sign the affidavit regarding how much they charged you" and she was like sounding all puzzled now, but then she said "so, okay, we just put down our expenses for taking care of the children while I'm at work, and I have my husband sign it..."

MAOTE: Whoa. Her husband is staying home and watching the kids?

ME: Yeah. It's very MR. MOM, I guess. Which is cool and all, but...

MAOTE: Wait. The dependent care FSA... that's for working parents who have to pay for daycare, right? I mean... if one of the parents isn't working, and is staying home to take care of the kids...

ME: Then they don't qualify, right. I mean, my head was spinning. I've never had a call like that before. So I finally understand what she's saying, and I'm like "uh, well, this is just for working parents who have to pay for daycare... if your husband... you know, one of the parents in the household... is staying home to take care of your kids, then that doesn't qualify."

MAOTE: And she took that well?

ME: Well, if by 'she took that well' you mean 'she went off like a minor character bitten by a RAGE infected monkey in 28 DAYS LATER', yeah, she took it well. She started ranting and screaming about how they'd set this money aside because she and her husband were both supposed to be working but she'd gotten a much better job offer unexpectedly so he'd stayed home instead and this was HER money and there was no way I was just going to keep it and she wasn't going to accept that there was no way to get it back...

MAOTE: Five thousand bucks. ::whistles:: Man, that's gotta hurt.

ME: Yeah, but you know, she's a moron. I mean, well, she's a textbook fool, anyway... she gets into this thing without really knowing what she's doing, doesn't pay any attention to it all year, makes decisions that will completely screw her, and then goes off on me when she finds out the consequences of her own appallingly idiotic choices...

MAOTE: Did she seem, like, stupid?

ME: No, she was clearly intelligent, and given who she worked for and her general attitude of 'you can't do this to me, it is very important that I get my way in this and it is inevitable that eventually you will capitulate to my whims', she must have been in management or working on an executive level. But she didn't have the vaguest clue what she'd done.

MAOTE: Let me get this straight. They'd figured they would need daycare, so they set aside all the money they could to be reimbursed for it.

ME: $5,000, the legal maximum per year the IRS allows you to deduct from your taxes for daycare expenses, if you are a working parent. Yeah.

MAOTE: So then she gets a MUCH better job than anyone expected, and hubby decides to give up HIS job and just stay home and take care of the kids...

ME: An admirable decision. I wish more parents could afford to have one of them stay home and raise their kids, instead of sending them off to untrained, mostly unlicensed, semi professional strangers for most of every weekday.

MAOTE: Well... at that point, was she still locked into the program, or...?

ME: No, you can always go to your HR department and explain circumstances like that, and they will usually let you out of the FSA. I imagine she didn't even think about it, or, if she did, she just figured 'what the hell, we can use the tax deduction' and just stuck with it... which is another indication of how much money she must have been making. These people who set aside $5,000 out of their salary for day care, and another $5,000 for health care....


ME: Yeah. They do that, and then they file one claim a year, usually in late November or December, to clean the accounts out, so they can go on vacation or Christmas shop with the money. These people are clearly making a great deal more money than I ever will, and they mostly look at an FSA as a way for them to knock their reportable income down, maybe get into a lower tax bracket.

MAOTE: So, she really went off on you?

ME: Yeah. It was like, there was just this arrogant disbelief, coupled with absolute outrage, that I wasn't helping her find some way around the rules so she could get the money back. Like I was some obstinate bank teller trying to keep her from cleaning out a savings account with some irritating rules technicality. She was going "okay, look, this is my money, I put it in this account for a specific reason and my circumstances changed, I understand that, but there is no way I'm losing this money because of that, that is ridiculous, now tell me what I have to do to get it back".

MAOTE: And there was nothing...?

ME: Nothing legal. She and her husband hadn't paid out anything for daycare over the last year. They had no legitimate expenses that could be reimbursed from the account. She'd already admitted that to me. They did not qualify for the tax break, and the money they had set aside was going to be forfeit. It's like, you put aside $5,000 a year for your commuter expenses, because you know you always spend at least that much taking the train to and from work every year. Fine. But then, at the start of the year, your company says "guess what, we're going to let you work from home from now on". Which is great, everybody wants to work from home, you're fine with that... but either you never think about the commuter account, paying no attention to the walloping deduction that shows on every pay stub...

MAOTE: That seems unlikely.

ME: Yeah, it does, or, more likely, you're aware of it, kind of, in the background, but you're thinking "well, at the end of the year I'll just file a claim and get it back and I could sure use the tax break anyway".

MAOTE: But at the end of the year, you're looking at the claim form and it's dawning on you that, hmmm, maybe, if you sign this the way it is, someone out there could interpret that as tax fraud...

ME: Yeah. Or, at the very least, you're thinking as you read this over 'gee, this doesn't fit my circumstances, I don't have any receipts or ticket stubs or anything, hmmm, there must be a way around this'. So you call your benefits administrator and say 'hey, here's the deal, so how can I do this, can I just claim, like, my normal driving expenses to the store or to church or to my mother's place on Sunday, I mean, that's basically the same thing, right, or, if it's not, what can I claim, because I have all this money in the account and it's my money, I earned it, so what do I do to get it back'...

MAOTE: And this snotty guy on the phone says "Well, you didn't have any commuter expenses because you didn't commute to work all year, so you can't get the money back."

ME: There you go.

MAOTE: And she went ballistic?

ME: She MIRVed on re-entry. She was going to take out half a dozen cities the way she was going off. "This is my money I earned this money there is no way I'm losing this money you cannot keep my money now tell me how I get it back!" She got pretty shrill.

MAOTE: Was there anything she could have done?

ME: She could have forged the claim form. We'll pay out a dependent care claim without documentation if the provider signs the affidavit on it stating that they attest under penalties of perjury that they provided daycare services on the dates stated above and charged the amounts stated above, etc, etc. But we need the provider's Tax ID number, if they are a professional day care, or their Social Security number, if they are a private individual. So it's trackable, and the IRS really does monitor and audit people who have these kinds of accounts, so it's very risky to do that... and she had to know that. She didn't want that kind of grief. What she wanted was for me to tell her the back up plan that she was sure must be out there for people like her... people who put the money aside into the FSA, but then don't actually have the FSA. She was sure that there must be a way for her to just withdraw the money with no penalty. She simply took it for granted that, yeah, she'd been told it was a use it or lose it account, but this was $5,000 of her money, and nobody was actually going to make her forfeit it just because, you know, she'd made a little mistake...

MAOTE: But...

ME: They will. Oh my God. Are you kidding? Employers love idiots like her. Five thousand smackers in that account she couldn't pull out because she had no reimbursable expenses? Five thousand bucks that is forfeit to the company? Shit, they probably gave her a framed certificate for being Dimwit of the Year.

MAOTE: And you get a lot of calls like that?

ME: Oh yeah, especially towards the close of the claim year. I got a call this last week from a guy who was all outraged because we hadn't paid his claim for some expensive prescriptions. So I check in our claims processing system and it got turned down for 'this requires a doctor's letter of medical necessity'. So I ask him, 'what are you trying to claim for'. And he will not tell me what the prescription is for, he just keeps repeating "it is for a legitimate prescription medication" and finally I pull up the original claim in our imaging system and I'm like "Okay, this is for Rogaine, dude". And he's going "Well, it's a legitimate prescription medication!"

MAOTE: He can't get reimbursed for Rogaine?

ME: Hell, no, not any more than you can get reimbursed for a boob job. It's a cosmetic product; the IRS is not going to give you a tax break because chicks won't date you when you're bald. Don't be stupid.

MAOTE: Did you tell him that?

ME: I wish to Christ I could. We have to be very pleasant and very professional with these people, and a lot of them just need a shot of plain old fashioned straight talking, like, "Bitch, you set aside a lot of money for daycare and then you didn't spend any money on day care, so shut the fuck up" or, "Look, buddy, the IRS doesn't care if you're a Baldo Calrissian and you can't get any trim because of it."

MAOTE: So what did you tell him?

ME: I told him that if he could get his doctor to write a letter of medical necessity for the product, then we could reimburse for it.

MAOTE: Would that have worked?

ME: Absolutely, but there isn't a doctor on the planet, I mean, not even Dr. Nick Riviera would write an lmn for Rogaine. What is he going to put in it? "My patient the bald motherfucker here needs to take Rogaine or the cute young thang who answers the phone at his advertising firm won't blow him in the back seat of his Lotus any more?" Please. And he knew it, too; the minute I said that, he was like "Well, I can't get that." But then he's off to the next thing.

MAOTE: Which is?

ME: "Well, I never had any trouble getting this reimbursed before, I've had the flex spending account for years and you've always reimbursed me for this before, when did this change?"

MAOTE: And you told him...?

ME: This is another one of those where we can't say what we long to say, which is "Hey, Mr. Wax On-Wax Off, nobody here, not even the Latvian guy who puts the lunch trays through the steam sterilizer down in the cafeteria, gives a shit how many times some idiot paid your non-reimbursable cosmetic snake oil prescription before this. That was then, this is now. It's not reimbursable without a letter of medical necessity. Get one or shut the hell up."

MAOTE: But you found a way to express that to him.

ME: Yeah, I said it more nicely. And then he's off to, you know, his last point, which is "well, this is a huge problem then, because this has always been reimbursed before and I spend a lot of money on this product and I set aside a large amount of money to be reimbursed and I need to get this money back".

MAOTE: Uh huh. So, again... he's screwed...

ME: Yeah, and he knew it. Okay? He knew what was going on, or he wouldn't have been so coy about telling me it was Rogaine. He knows this stuff isn't reimbursable, he knows that, assuming we actually have paid for it in the past, he's been getting over and screwing the system, he knows that this does not actually qualify for tax credit. There isn't an affluent bald guy on the planet who hasn't looked into whether or not they can get a deduction for Rogaine, and who hasn't been told 'no, it's not eligible'. And they buy it anyway, because, indeed, the hot receptionist at the office absolutely will not swab your pipes for you if you look like Jason Alexander but aren't on TV. But somehow, they want their vanity to be tax deductible, and, well, it just isn't. And he knows it isn't, and he's been getting away with it, and now he's screwed.

MAOTE: But this is a huge problem, and you have to do something about it.

ME: Oh, yeah. And, you know, I wrote a long entry a while back about the Somebody Else's Problem Syndrome, and how the world would be a better place if we didn't insist on trying to see everything that way, but instead tried to help people out when we could. But things like this, when people made a really moronic mistake, and they know it, and I know it, and they know I know it, and the consequences of their mistake aren't life threatening or even particularly damaging, it's just, you know, a little humiliating for them to have to accept they're going to lose this money... honestly, I have no sympathy. It is not my problem, it is their problem. And it's not up to me to solve it for them, there really isn't any way to solve it for them.

MAOTE: Well, you could process a claim for them and send the money back.

ME: Sure. Without adequate documentation? Yeah, I could. And I would probably get away with it, since we are so badly organized where I work and no one has time to go through every account and check everything we do, and they only really catch mistakes if someone complains about something later, and who's going to complain that you helped them get their money back when they know they didn't deserve it?

MAOTE: But you won't, because...?

ME: Several reasons. First, I could get caught and I might get disciplined, or even fired. I don't need that, I don't know these people. If I'm going to risk that for someone, it needs to be for someone I genuinely think is getting screwed unfairly by the system. If you have an autistic kid and our claims department won't sign off on releasing $5,000 for some unconventional therapy, yeah, I'm your guy. I'll get that claim reprocessed for you. I've done that for people in that specific circumstance in the past. And I've helped out other people who were being screwed by technicalities in the system that I didn't think were right.

MAOTE: So, it's essentially just, who kisses your ass and who doesn't, that you make these decisions based on?

ME: Well, I won't deny that that's part of it... you come at me with a big Leanna Helmsley "It Is Very Very Important That My Will Not Be Thwarted In The Most Minor Manner" attitude and you'll be lucky if I tell you your account balance. But that's actually just a small part of it. I've had participants start out screaming at me, and found out eventually that I'm the fourth person they've talked to that day who isn't helping them, and they have a kid in the hospital, or their husband just died and they don't know how to deal with it or get access to his account, or something, and I'll still help them. But here's the most important thing -- the IRS does audit these accounts. Are you kidding me? Five thousand, maybe ten thousand tax free dollars? And if the IRS audits you, your paperwork better be in order. I'm not doing anyone any favors by releasing their money to them if they don't have a legitimate claim... they'd better have a pretty overwhelming need for me to do that.

MAOTE: So these people with the autistic kid... aren't you screwing them, if they get audited?

ME: No, in those cases it's usually just, they got a letter of medical necessity for the procedure, or the special school tuition, and it is reimbursable, but the claims department is dicking around with vague technicalities in the wording of the lmn. At least, that's what it was in both cases I can think of... almost literally, in one case, an 'i' hadn't been dotted and a 't' hadn't been crossed. But you're talking to these people on the phone and they are in agony. I mean, they have an autistic kid, and they are never going to have a spare cent to spend on anything else in their lives, ever... and we're giving them shit about their FSA? They're jumping through all the hoops, getting the paperwork in, and these are the people that the tax break is actually meant to help. I mean, this is one of those cases where I really do think, it's their money, let's get it back to them.

MAOTE: But the ones who are pretty obviously just trying to screw the system? And who won't even kiss your ass while they do it?

ME: Fuck them. And the clueless ones who sign up for the FSA without knowing what they're doing. Or the ones who make really idiotic mistakes with their claim forms, like forgetting to sign it, and then get pissy with me over it. "Well, can't you just sign it for me right now? You're talking to me on the phone." And when you say no, they have to sign the form themselves and send it in, then they get all aggrieved and sulky and say "Okay, well how long is this going to take now, we don't start all over again, do we?" and, yes, of course we start all over again, but guess what, jerk off, I didn't make you forget to sign your claim form. So shut the fuck up.

MAOTE: So they are hiring you permanently to take calls like this all the time?

ME: Yeah, that's the plan.

MAOTE: Okay. So... how did it eventually go with the daycare bitch, and the Rogaine cretin?

ME: Oh, they eventually demanded to speak to a supervisor.

MAOTE: So you transferred them...?

ME: When I have especially assholey customers on the line, and they ask to speak to a supervisor, I look around and see who is at their desk, and who isn't. And then I transfer the jerk I'm talking to over to whichever supervisor isn't at their desk right that minute, so they go into voicemail.

MAOTE: Niiiiiiice.

ME: Yeah, I like it.

MAOTE: You realize Gandalf is reading this right now and fuming about how that's really unprofessional and wrong and you're the reason why we outsource all our call center jobs and the inevitable crash of American civilization is all your fault.

ME: I hope the fucker has an FSA and I hope to GOD he calls me sometime. I'm sure he's the kind of dipshit who can't fill out his claim form right.

MAOTE: Maybe he's the Rogaine guy.

ME: Could be, I guess. He strikes me as the type who would go prematurely bald and then not be able to deal with it. But you know what's really pissing him off is that he knows he can't even post a comment to this entry about this, because I won't let it through.

MAOTE: Yeah, you've got that big vein throbbing in his forehead right now, no doubt.

ME: Well, I hope he doesn't stroke out or anything, I don't need the bad karma.

MAOTE: Speaking of Gandalf... the comment moderation seems to have had a really chilling effect on the discussion levels here. Does that bother you?

ME: I don't know that it's had that much of an effect. I still have the same commenters; occasionally, I even have someone new show up. It seems to be pretty much business as usual... I just have the kind of control over the threads that keeps trolls from even bothering to make an effort. That's fine with me. It's not like I'd be getting Glenn Greenwald type responses if I killed the comment moderation. And I do like the control. So, you know... honestly, I think he did me a favor, making me put it back up.

MAOTE: And do you find the general lack of attention you get over here frustrating?

ME: Oh, sure. It bothers me sometimes. But there are a lot of people out there who write well and get little attention. I'm sure they all think the same thing I do... 'man, if Digby or the Poor Man or Kevin Drum or Brad DeLong posted exactly the same thing that I just posted, people would be linking to it from all over the world and they'd get awards and 400 comments'. And I think, just like everyone else, that if I could just get Glenn Greenwald or Atrios or even John Rogers to plug my blog a little, I'd get some monster traffic'. And sure, it's all about attention; I'd like a little more of it... especially since, yes, I really do think my stuff is as well written and as interesting and entertaining as the stuff on a lot of those better known blogs. But, ultimately... I write for me, and if I have a few other readers out there who like my stuff, that's fine, too.

MAOTE: Why does what you just said strike me as a tremendous rationalization?

ME: See "BIG CHILL, Jeff Goldblum dialogue".

MAOTE: Man, he did get all the good dialogue in that movie, didn't he?

ME: Well, William Hurt got some good lines, too. "You're so linear. Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you."

MAOTE: Yeah. The self centered asshole and the nutless wonder got all the good lines.

ME: The nutless wonder wound up with Meg Tilly, too. What kind of message does this send to the young impressionable males in the audience? Get your balls shot off and push drugs, and you too can end up with the sexually voracious Asian hottie? It's madness.

MAOTE: Still, it was Kevin Costner's greatest movie ever.

ME: Well, yeah. Although I do like NO WAY OUT.

MAOTE: You just like the scene where Sean Young takes her fur coat off in the hallway.

ME: It's a good scene, but, no, I like a lot of stuff about that movie... great performances from Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton, Howard Duff, George Dzunda... even Sean Young showed us some acting chops, although her character was torturously stupid. Jason Bernard, Fred Dalton Thompson... it's all good. And it's one of the very few movies I've seen as an adult that had a vital plot twist in it I genuinely did not see coming three reels away.

MAOTE: It's pretty homophobic, though.

ME: Yeah... it's a Red baiting, 'oh the Commies are evil' flick, too. Still, it's an excellent thriller and I enjoy it... it's the only good thing Roger Donaldson has ever directed.

MAOTE: And on that, I think breakfast is ready, so...

ME: Yeah, screw this noise.

MAOTE: Which pretty much sums up how your entire audience feels about these entries, I'm sure.

ME: Yeah, yeah. Pass me the cinammon rolls, schmuck.

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