Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Being Thankful for All the Right Things

It’s that time of year again, when we focus on all the things we should be thankful for. And one of the things I’m thankful for is all the good service I get. So it was a bit of a shock this past week when I was faced with the following question from my bank: what’s better: security or customer service? A loaded question, I know, but I hoped that I could have both. I’m not sure my bank agrees or even knows how to do both.

I’ve been banking with this outfit since 1987 (says so right on my debit card). And that card has mostly worked every day since I got it all those years ago. So you can imagine my surprise when I tried to use it last week and was told that it was inactive. Curious – I’d used it the day before and it was fine. And speaking of curious, I wanted to know why.

So I called the number on the reverse side of the card to get to the bottom of this, and that proved to be a real challenge. When I finally got to a live person, I was asked some questions intended to verify that it was me – and my second surprise was when they told me my answers were incorrect (I guess I really don’t know my address, birthday and mother’s maiden name). So I asked for and got a supervisor, who asked me several more questions that ultimately proved it was me they were talking to.

Only then was I finally able to find out why my card didn’t work: some place where I used the card was caught then trying to use it inappropriately, and what happened next was done entirely by the bank without notifying me whatsoever. They immediately cancelled the card and issued me a new one, put it in the mail, and then waited 7 calendar days (which their policy assumes is enough time for it to get to me) before automatically invalidating the original card. Good plan, except that the USPS got in the way and took more than 10 days to deliver the card to me. I didn’t know that the fraud happened, didn’t know the card was cancelled, didn’t know to expect a new one, and didn’t know any of these arbitrary time frames that were set by their policy. So I was left with the old card that was invalid rather than the new one they assumed I would have received. Ah, the law of unintended consequences.

How come they didn’t pick up the phone and call me, or go online and email me. They have all my contact info; in the past they’ve called or emailed when they saw what they thought were questionable uses of the card (you’ve had that happen, right??). I wanted to know why they discontinued this service-friendly practice as it related to my current problem. So I called again and had to go through the process of getting to a supervisor who finally told me that they’d discontinued that practice because they had to make so many calls, and it just wasn’t efficient. Huh?

Now here’s the rest and most amazing part of the story: the card finally came in the mail and I noticed the zip code they used was one of those with 9 digits, not the normal one with 5 digits that we all use and can remember. I called them back, waited on hold, and, when I again finally got to a supervisor, asked if this was the reason that they thought my answers to their questions were wrong? And believe it or not, they admitted that it was. I asked if they thought that giving the correct 5 digit zip code it could or should have been sufficient. “Sorry”, they said, “the policy says you have to give the whole 9 digits.” “Think that’s good service”, I asked. “Sorry”, they said, “just trying to fully protect you”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for the bank doing what they can to look out for my security. But wouldn’t it be better if they’d used a bit more common sense in designing good measures, and then allowed their employees to apply them sensibly. Wouldn’t it be better to encourage people to use their heads to help figure a way to help someone rather than forcing them to read and stick to a simple and senseless script. Wouldn’t that be better than being forced to choose between security or good service.

All of this brings me back to being thankful during this season of Thanksgiving. It’ll be good to gather with friends and family tomorrow and reflect on all that we have to be thankful for. And while I’m doing that I’ll make a silent wish that the people who run things and design the policies and practices that affect us all put themselves in their customer’s shoes, and figure out how to make things like security and good service work together for everyone’s benefit. This wish would be directed to government officials, bank managers and all of the countless other people who make the kinds of decisions that affect us all. Now that would be something to be thankful for, and make this a Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

My message this week is about taking ownership for what you do and how it affects others:

“We must exchange the philosophy of excuse - what I am is beyond my control - for the philosophy of responsibility.” Barbara Jordan

Barbara Charline Jordan (1936 – 1996) was the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate after reconstruction and the first Southern black woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became the first African-American woman to be interred in the Texas State Cemetery.

Are you going to have to give an excuse for your work today or will you take responsibility for it? Tough choice to make – one comes from weakness, the other from strength. You want to be given lots of responsibility, but have you earned it. If you’re given the responsibility to do something then you have to do your best: that means being fully prepared, that means acting like you own it fully, that means working hard to get it done right and on time, that means not stopping until it’s done. And it means you can’t blame anybody else if you don’t – because it’s also your responsibility to figure everything out to make sure you live up to that responsibility. There’s no excuse if you don’t – only the responsibility to keep at it until you do. That’s the philosophy of responsibility.

Stay well!  And Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Life is a Marathon

How many times have you referred to something you’re involved in as a marathon? While I’ve used that metaphor many times, seeing the New York Marathon last week gave me new insight into the real meaning of that phrase.

The race ran right through my neighborhood here in Brooklyn and what a sight it was. 47,000 people all running in the same direction – professional athletes, casual enthusiasts, competitors young and old, people with disabilities, runners with prosthetics, marathoners of all ages, races and creeds. Some were dressed with the latest running attire, others just put on what they had available; some ran with purpose, others with the casual attitude of a stroll in the park; some ran with friends and colleagues, others ran alone; some took this very seriously, others brought the party to party; some were intent on finishing in good time, others with just finishing. Our apartment was at the 8 mile mark, so there was still a lot of life in the runners as they ran by. The professional leaders ran by approximately one hour after the official start, and then 45 minutes later a throng of runners began – it took nearly 3 hours for this mass of people to finally pass. The last of them were walking slowly – but they were no less intent on finishing the 26.2 mile course than were the Kenyans who flew by first.

There’s a lot of history behind these marathons:

• The name Marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. The legend states that he was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon (in which he had just fought), which took place in August or September, 490 BC. In commemoration of this, the marathon became one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896. With 47,000 runners in this year’s event, it was of Olympian proportions.

• The length of the course (officially it’s 26 miles and 384 yards) is also an interesting tale – while it is ostensibly the distance that long ago Greek messenger had to run with that battlefield message, this official distance was modified over the years as Olympic officials modified the start and finish lines to accommodate the British royals

• Today, more than 500 marathons are organized worldwide. Five of the largest and most prestigious races, Boston, New York City, Chicago, London, and Berlin, form the biennial World Marathon Majors series, awarding $500,000 annually to the best overall male and female performers in the series. No wonder the front runners (no pun intended) were so motivated to run so fast.

• Among the more unusual marathons are the Midnight Sun Marathon held in Tromsø, Norway, the Great Wall Marathon on The Great Wall of China, The Big Five Marathon among the safari wildlife of South Africa, The Great Tibetan Marathon run at an altitude of 11,500 ft., and The Polar circle marathon on the permanent ice cap of Greenland. The Intercontinental Istanbul Eurasia Marathon is the only marathon where participants run over two continents, Europe and Asia, during the course of a single event.

• Many marathons feature a wheelchair division. Typically, those in the wheelchair racing division start their races earlier than their running counterparts. The New York City Marathon banned wheelchair entrants in 1977, citing safety concerns, but by 1986 14 wheelchair athletes were competing, and an official wheelchair division was added to the marathon in 2000. This year’s race was highlighted by hundreds of racers, young and old, in wheelchairs of all varieties. It was especially moving to see the dozens of military veterans in this year’s race whose injuries and disabilities did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm and commitment.

The crowd at this year’s event was practicing some other rituals that were equally as amazing:

• In our neighborhood there was a festive atmosphere including an all-rhythm band that played non-stop for three hours, and a disc jockey who called out the names of the interesting and colorful runners. This gave the runners, who were from all over the world, a sense of America’s real diplomacy – regular people cheering on the efforts of other regular people.

• Everyone all along the route cheered for every runner that went by – this gave the runners a needed shot of adrenaline and helped spur them on for the remainder of the race. These anonymous affirmations were offered genuinely and accepted gladly. This warm and festive atmosphere belied the seriousness of the runners’ intentions; but it seemed that other than the front runners, all the rest were thrilled to be able to do something this incredible.

• The runners themselves had many different outfits – clearly there’s a line running gear that most wear. But then there are the exhibitionists that are decked out in outfits most likely intended to amuse – the Brits in Bras (dozens of men and women in colorful and costumed bras), the runners who were wearing those goofy new 5 toed shoes, and the decorations on the wheelchairs. All of these added to the human element of what is otherwise a pretty serious event.

And then there were the countless examples of people to people diplomacy – the crowd and the runners interacting in ways that are not readily found in the conflicts throughout the world. The crowd on my street stayed until the last runner limped by and cheered just as wildly for their courage and spunk as they did for those who passed first. People who don’t know one another, have little in common and would not ordinarily discover the things they each appreciate, were drawn together in this universal event. Why can’t this happen in the many other instances where disparate people are brought together? Why won’t people join together in common purpose and good cheer for non-sporting events? Why won’t people who don’t know anything personal about one another take the time to learn and accept each other? I guess we just get nervous about the unfamiliar things we bump into each day. I would hope that the same level of diplomacy found in the Marathon could be extended to all the other times when and where strangers are brought together. Take time today to look for someone you don’t know who is doing something you’re unfamiliar with, and applaud them, tell them you’re impressed with them, wish them well, and show them some real warmth and kindness. You just might meet them in a race someday and wouldn’t it be grand if you were able to cheer together.

My message this week is about treating others the way we want to be treated:

“Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends.” Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson.

Ever been compared to a dog? Lots of times people refer to each other as “a dog”, or we reference what’s happening as “a dog’s life”, or we say someone’s “working like a dog”, or someone asks us to “stop barking”. And even more often we talk about “man’s best friend” as the measure of one’s loyalty. We all know people with dogs, many of us have dogs, we even know people who look like their dogs – and these pets are often treated better than family, friends and neighbors. People talk to their dogs as if they’re human, they ascribe human-like behaviors to their dog’s actions, and they’ll take their dogs to the vet faster than they’ll go to a doctor themselves. And because society puts so much stock in loyalty, it’s not surprising that history is filled with examples of man’s fidelity to their dogs. So please reflect on these dogisms and remember to be loyal to your two-legged companions today.

Stay well!

Friday, November 18, 2011

                           The Payoff

We work hard in hopes that our efforts “pay off” one day – well, ours just did. My daughter and her wonderful husband just called and told us that they’re expecting their first child, and that we’re going to be grandparents. Like many things in life, the perception of what we think this would be like is nowhere near as great as the real thing.

When we got the call, the “are you sitting down” was the tip off. Now I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting a call like this, but none the less it was like a pure shot of adrenaline. Old bones, like mine, don’t get many of these kinds of shots these days, and since this is our first grandchild, we were flooded with lots of emotions. Someone once told me that the payoff for being a parent is becoming a grandparent – now I can say “ain’t that the truth”. All those days and nights and years of doing the things that one does with their children (too many good and bad things to list here) dissolve into the euphoria of learning that you’re going to be a grandparent. It’s funny how the world advises how not to spoil a child, but it seems to be just the opposite when starting to learn how to feel about and treat a grandchild. It’s almost like throwing out all sense and caution, and then getting giddy when considering what the kid just has to have.

My wife immediately thought about making a blanket that the baby would use and take into adolescence; our daughter had one that became worn and tattered over the years - I think she might still have a small piece of the fabric from that cherished “blankie”. I immediately thought about what the baby would call me – Grandpa, Pop-Pop, Opa, Zaide – the choices are endless. And then our thoughts focused on all the loved ones now gone and how they would have reacted to this. Fortunately, the parents-to-be have two wonderful maternal grandmothers who are now filled with the joy and expectation of having a new great-grandchild. This life-goes-on thing is really exciting!

So, what does one do when the prospect of grandparenthood is really imminent: these days you go and check it out on the internet! And what do you find:; National Grandparents Day; Grandparents Magazine; your state’s Department for the Aging; and even a Foundation for Grandparenting. And then there are the millions of references and images of grandparents and their extended families on the AARP site. There’s no end to the miles of smiles associated with this happy event.

But then, in the back of our minds, there’s the awareness of all that goes in to having and raising a child, the stages the kids (and their parents) go thru, the colds and viruses, the sleepless nights of missed curfews, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat of every event the kids participate in, the many anxieties and countless emotions that accompany everything the kids do. In the end, none of us parents would, in hindsight, change the fact that we had a kid, even if we could. All of the plusses far outweigh any of the minuses. And now that we’re going to be grandparents, there’s this belief that we’ll mostly be around for and the recipients of the good things. Because at the end of the day, we can always give the grandkids to their parents and go home, right?

But that’s too flippant an attitude. In this crazy world of ours, we all worry about bringing another soul into the world we read about in the news every day. Hatred, wars, poverty, inequality, distrust, double-dealing, unemployment, economic uncertainty – the list is endless. But you know what – our parents, and our grandparents, and all of their ancestors faced uncertain times too, but they still had kids. That’s because of this instinct to build a family, to care for someone, to give what you can to others, to continue the human race. That’s because there’s a trust and belief that tomorrow can and will be better, and that with a new bundle of responsibility we’ll work that much harder to do more, make more and be able to give them more than we had. That’s because this really is the spark that launches generations, and it’s the reason we’re on this earth. And that’s because it’s a moments like these that the depth and meaning of our existence becomes apparent and real, and that we again sense our place in this vast universe.

It’s all part of the payoff for all that we do in life, and all that life takes out of us, and all that we ever hope for. It’s all there – believe me, it all flashes quickly to show that it’s there – when they ask whether you’re sitting down. So we sat down and let the thrill of this announcement carry us into this next phase of our lives. And just like when we were kids and declared that we would do things differently if and when we became parents (and didn’t), now we’ll reflect back on all the things our grandparents did (and didn’t do) and try to do and be more. But in the end, it will all be about the same. It will all be filled with hope and love and more – all the things that were there when we were kids (and then parents) but couldn’t really see from those perspectives. And, just so you now, I hope the baby will call me ‘pop-pop’ just like my daughter called my father. That will really be the payoff.

My message this week is about accepting the responsibilities that come your way and making the most of what you do.

"Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it's addressed to someone else.”
-Ivern Ball

Ivern Ball was a Dadaist poet and writer famous for wise quotes. Dadaism’s purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, Dadaism was also anti-bourgeois and anarchist in nature.

What’s written on your wall? This writing-on-the-wall idea is often about some unspoken and unwritten undercurrent. People are always judging what they see and hear, and whether they formally communicate it or not, they form perceptions about who and what others are. And some of the things that people judge are whether someone has integrity, is responsible, and accepts responsibility for their actions. The best ways to show that you do have these things are to be open and transparent, to treat others the way you want to be treated, to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re expected to do it, to say what you mean and mean what you say and to accept and fulfill your responsibilities. So when you see the writing on the wall, assume it’s for you and address it appropriately. Things like this can help you be better, so pay attention. You’ll be glad you did.

Stay well!

Friday, November 4, 2011

unmade bed It's a Guy Thing

I’ve been a bachelor for the past 4 months while my better half stayed in the Adirondacks with our 2 dogs and the cat.  They’ve had a great summer there: my wife has re-discovered the photographic beauty in the mountains; the dogs got to run free, the cat couldn’t get enough of the birds and mice, and me – I turned our Brooklyn apartment into what looks like a bachelor pad.  I’d better do something about this sorry situation before my wife returns.

For those of you who don’t know or remember how bachelors live, let met elaborate.  Making the bed – nope, just going to get back into it tonight. Putting away my shoes – why, they’re easier to find spread out around the apartment’s floors.  Towels – since I only use them after a shower, how dirty can they get?  The same water that cleans me in the shower cleans the tub too – right? Dirty clothes – simple piles eliminate the need for sorting later on.  Doing the laundry – after all this time I don’t think the colors will run.  Washing laundry in hot water – why not, the way I buy clothes they’re never going to shrink too much for me.  Washing the sheets – it’s only me so once a month outta do.  High heat when drying – that gets the wrinkles out. Dirty dishes – keep piling them in the dishwasher until full – that’s a good way to know when to run it.  All those attachments on the vacuum cleaner are way better than dust cloths.  Butter – leave it out – it’s easier to spread on toast when soft.  Milk – the nose knows when it has finally run past the “sell by” date – and aren’t those dates only guidelines anyways?  Dinner – best served in front of the TV – and those paper plates are a great invention. Menu selection – the same thing 7 nights in a row works – either from the leftovers or just getting the same thing over and over (hey, ya gotta know what you like)!  Peanut butter and jelly have all the food groups covered.  Breakfast – OJ from the container is quick and saves on the washing. Figuring out where to put whatever I am using – that’s easy: on any flat surface I can find.  And watching endless reruns of Law and Order is a real entertainment treat.  Life is good!

Walter Cronkite used to say “And that’s the way it is…” as his way of signing off each night on the CBS News – worked for him, but I don’t think it’ll work for me when she walks back in here.  So – what to do? No problem, I’ll just clean it up.  Uh, there’s more here to clean now than I thought.  I never knew how many places dust could build up on and in, and I didn’t know how hard it was to go around and pick everything up and put it back in the place it’s supposed to be, and I didn’t know how dirty a refrigerator could get and how hard those caked on stains could be, and I didn’t know so many other things that I took for granted because my wife always made sure they were done.  You see, guys just don’t know about some things.  Look, I’m not completely clueless, I just act it sometimes.  I love doing the dishes, but that’s not enough.  I love running the vacuum, but that’s not enough.  I love washing my own clothes, but that’s not enough.  I love eating dinner and watching TV, but that’s not enough.  I’ve gotten sort of used to being alone, but that’s not how it is when you’ve chosen to be with someone else.

I know what should be done – I just got lazy.  I know what I need to do now – but I may not have enough energy or time to get it done.  And here’s where my mother’s words come back to me (or to haunt me)…”Never put off to tomorrow what you should have done today”.  And here are the words that immediately ring out in a guy’s mind when he hears that: “NO KIDDING!”  How come we take our relationships for granted like this?  How come we procrastinate like this?  How come we get lazy and let questionable habits like these get started?  I had such good intentions when the summer started, and my initial attempts at doing things the right way, were good.  But the first time I didn’t do one thing the rest of these other things just started piling up around me.  What’s that rhyme: “oh what a tangled web we weave….”?  The truth is, you should always do what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it.  Laziness is a bad habit – and there’s just no excuse for it!

Well, you know how this movie ends: there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done after leaving it undone for so long.  I’ll clean and sort and put away and straighten stuff right up to the time my wife walks back in; she’ll graciously acknowledge all that I’ve done and quietly notice all the things I didn’t do.  She won’t say anything – she never does, but more importantly she won’t have to.  I’ll know it, she’ll know I know it, and she’ll hope that maybe I’ll remember this the next time.  And that’s another guy thing: our uncanny ability to forget this kind of simple lesson the next time.  I’d like to think it’s an inoperable or immutable DNA flaw. But it’s not.  It’s a guy thing.

My message this week is about doing what you should be doing, no matter what.

Arte Nathan
 “He is not wise to me who is wise in words only, but he who is wise in deeds." 

-St. Gregory

Pope Gregory I (540 – 604), better known in English as Gregory the Great and St Gregory, was pope from 590 until his death. Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day.

I think that what Pope Gregory was trying to say is that “talk is cheap”.  You read all the time that successful people both walk and talk the talk, but what’s that really mean?  There are people all around – at work, home and in the community – who watch and listen to what you say and whether you really mean it.  And the proof is in how you act and what you do - it’s not enough in today’s world to only superficially address things, or to only do half of what you say and promise. All the talk about transparency means that everyone can see and assess everything you do, and they always judge you by those things.  So be wise today, not just in the words you use, but in the deeds you do.  Remember – be wise is words and deeds today.

Stay well!