Thursday, 08 May 2014
Some Rituals of Life are Better In Person
A story in the Baltimore Sun on Saturday reported that a memo from the Social Security Administration reveals they are considering moving almost all services to the internet and closing thousands of field offices.
”The document, drafted by an independent nonprofit as part of the agency's effort to develop a long-term strategic plan, envisions Social Security using websites 'as [a] primary service channel' by 2025, which the writers conclude would ultimately result in a smaller workforce...
“About 28,000 employees work in those offices, and nearly 180,000 people visit them every day.”
As anyone who reads this blog is aware, I am no Luddite particularly in regard to the internet. The ease of use and time-saving qualities for such chores as shopping and banking and communication are modern miracles and that's not even adding in the value of information and entertainment that are available.
To be freed from travel and static business hours for these tasks is a time-saving relief. But there are some events too important to be sucked into the soulless maw of the internet in the name of efficiency.
When I was thwarted in trying to sign up for Social Security online, it changed what would have been just one more routine form to fill in into something unexpectedly special. I wrote about it here in 2006.
Back then, the Social Security website was not as well-run and organized as today. Here's what happened:
”...when I tried to sign up online – twice – the link to that page was broken.
“That didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the enrollment, if I could catch the webpage on a day it was working, would happen without a glitch, and as time went by, I began thinking that becoming a Social Security beneficiary is too important an event to toss off with an online form.”
That broken link allowed me the time to realize that I was not filling out a routine form, I was was crossing a border into new territory that was mostly foreign to me. Now I wanted to mark the moment, make it a rite of passage, to create something memorable about moving into a new stage of life.
So I gathered up the required papers and hied myself to the Social Security office in the town where I was then living, Portland, Maine.
“After a 30-minute wait, I was called to the counter. 'Social Security number?' the woman asked. Then, instead of 'what is your name,' she asked, “Who are you?” Since I am more than my name, I liked that and decided on the spot that it was an auspicious beginning for my little ritual.
Soon thereafter, I was invited into the cubicle of a Mrs. Ortiz who, like me, was a transplanted New Yorker and we had a fine ol' time reminiscing about our previous home and what we did and didn't miss about it.
”It was nearly an hour we spent together looking at my papers and leisurely filling out forms while I swore to the facts that I’m not a felon or a fugitive, am not lying about anything and understand my rights.
“Except that the Social Security office is as drab and dull and gray as all government agencies and, oddly, neither Mrs. Ortiz nor any other employee I could see had a single personal item in their cubes – not even a box of Kleenex – it was the best experience I’ve ever had with a bureaucracy.
”As the final step in our ceremony, we shook hands to affirm that my new status had been ritually achieved. I was now a Social Security beneficiary and, in the lights of the U.S. government, I had become an official old person.
“Aside from whatever number of additional birthdays the gods grant me and unless I marry again, this was the final rite of passage before my funeral. Mrs. Ortiz may or may not have realized it, but she made it feel like the ritual I wanted. And to celebrate my "coming of age," I had a glass of wine with dinner. Whooeee!”
If I had been able to sign up online, it would have felt – and actually been – little different from checking the balance on my credit card or paying bills on my banking website. No big deal.
But making that passage should be a big deal, it was a big deal to me and thanks to the excellent Mrs. Ortiz who seemed to understand the significance of the moment to me, I can recall that hour as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
The plans for shutting Social Security offices are connected to cost cutting. You remember, I'm sure, the Republican sequestration demands? Yes, some of those cuts are already in effect and more are required of the federal government. I have no doubt that most Social Security offices will eventually be closed.
And that's too bad. We lose a little piece of our humanity when we can't mark an important milestone with a live person and not just a screen.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Janet Thompson: Whew, Some Smell!