A Rare Connected Moment

As quarantine drags on and casual human contact becomes increasingly scarce, I find myself compensating for the persistent, searing solitude by seeking moments of connection with passersby – however fleeting – as I go about my routine errands. I’ve always been talkative to a fault, but these days I catch myself striking up conversations with strangers even more than before.

This evening, in the middle of my nightly TV date, I suddenly remembered that I had run out the 14-ingredient fresh fruit salad that is part of my daily breakfast ritual, and also out of oranges for my fresh-squeezed juice, so I headed out to Safeway to stock up on fruit. Grocery shopping in one’s pajamas has become an established social norm in Berkeley, so I didn’t bother to change.

As I wheeled my cart around the produce section, I noticed a young man in his early twenties – shorts and sandals, fancy headphones resting just off of his ears – circling the cut flowers display. When he reached the roses, he stopped and nervously picked up a cellophane-wrapped bouquet, inspected it, put it down, and picked up another. Then another, and another. As he did so, a shy smile flickered across his face, revealing his restless delight at the scene he must have been silently planning and at the role these roses would play in it. I watched, loading my last box of berries into my cart, then proceeded to the checkout line. He followed, a respectful six feet behind me.

We took our places on our designated red circles and waited. After a few seconds, I turned around to face him, and spoke.

“Those roses are the perfect choice,” I said.

“Thanks,” he replied, not quite concealing a twinkle. I returned the smile, then turned to check the line ahead of me.

A few more seconds passed. I turned back to him and caught his eye.

“When you give them the roses,” I said, “be sure to say what’s in your heart.”

His subtle twinkle became a full glow. “You sound like you know exactly what’s going on,” he said, now smiling broadly.

“Dude, look at me,” I replied. “I’m old. Of course I know what’s going on.”

Before he could reply, his phone rang, he took half a step back, turned away, and answered, speaking almost in a whisper. I was confident I recognized the foreign language he was speaking, but because of the distance between us, the Muzak, and the mask that muffled his speech, I couldn’t quite be certain. I turned and started to unload my cart onto the conveyor.

When he had finished his call and the bagger had placed the last bag in my cart, I turned back to him. “Do you mind if I ask you what language that was you were speaking?”

He paused and seemed guarded for a moment. “It’s … Moroccan dialect,” he said, with just a hint of a hesitant stammer.

And then I did what some who know me call “That Thing.”

“Oh,” I said and smiled. “`Arabiyya mughrabiyya!” [“North African Arabic,” in North African Arabic.]

His eyes widened. “Na`m!” [“Yes!”], he replied almost automatically, and then, in English, “Wh… How… Where did you learn Arabic?”

I told him about my keen interest in languages, and that there are several I can just barely speak, and that Arabic is one of them. I asked if he was from Casablanca.

“No, Fez,” he replied. “Have you been to Morocco?”

“No,” I said, “but my sister-in-law is from Marrakech. Je suis sûr que tu parles aussi français.” By this point my new friend was beyond trying to make sense of the situation, all barriers were broken, and he responded naturally in French.

We spoke a while longer, still in French, until it was time for him to pay. I caught his eye again, looked down at the roses, and then back up at him. I pointed to my heart.

Min qalbak” [“From your heart”], I said, switching back to Arabic.

Min qalbi” [“From hy heart”], he replied, pointing to his own and smiling pensively.

“Good luck,” I said, and he nodded. I turned and headed out the automatic doors to the parking lot.

Perhaps he thought he had been visited by an angel. I certainly felt as if I had.

Hear, Hear!

I’ve done a lot of thinking about whether to write about this, and ultimately decided it could be therapeutic to me and potentially helpful to others. So here I am, writing about something I have almost never discussed publicly, and only very rarely even with my most trusted family and friends.

Over the past couple of decades I have been living with very gradual but persistent progressive hearing loss. The process has been so slow that – like the proverbial frog in the pot – I often didn’t consciously realize it was happening, or at the very least, the extent to which it was happening. Admittedly, there were moments when, despite my best efforts at self-delusion, my worsening ability to discern sounds that had once been crystal clear became inescapable. Sometimes I would invoke pathetic little rationalizations: My ears must be dirty. It’s those allergies. I can’t hear a thing through these thick walls. Why does she always mumble? But on an unspeakable but omnipresent level, there was always a part of me that knew.

The effects of aging don’t usually upset me. Year after year since fifth grade, I rejoiced at the opportunity to order new glasses frames, never concerned about my advancing myopia. I wasn’t remotely perturbed on the very specific morning when I could suddenly no longer turn over in bed without the aid of a hand or foot. And the arrival of presbyopia – and with it, my first pair of “seamless transition” bifocals – was little more than a source of amusement.

But my hearing is another matter altogether, a critical facet of my identity and sense of self-worth that is fraught with emotional baggage. I have never excelled at sports or visual arts, never been tall or muscular or dexterous, never been entirely comfortable or conversant in popular culture. But I have always taken pride in the keenness of my ears and in the skill and delight they have given me in both language and music (particularly singing), the only two realms in which I can present myself to others with complete confidence. Hearing, not sight, was always the sense that I trusted: I’ve always been horrible with faces, but great at recalling and identifying voices. I often can’t replicate the simplest physical gesture or pose, but I can effortlessly mimic voices and accents to perfection. In all of those contexts and more, the relentless decay of my hearing felt like a kind of slow, shameful death, a gradual loss of self, a slow descent into oblivion.

Once or twice, I briefly considered the possibility of hearing aids. But the thought of wearing them felt like a public admission that I would never again be my true self. And on the two occasions when, on a whim, I dragged myself into a commercial hearing aid outlet for evaluation, I was subjected to a traumatically offensive combination of heavy-handed clinical ignorance and smarmy hard-sell salesmanship that left me feeling violated and angry and ashamed.

Sometime over the past year, my perspective began to change. It’s hard to pinpoint when and why. I suspect that the multiple health challenges I have faced and overcome (and seen others overcome) in the past few years may have changed my thinking about physical abilities and disabilities and their relationship to my identity. The most dramatic of these was a severe injury to my foot, requiring three surgeries and a three-month recovery period in which I could neither walk nor stand. In its wake – perhaps as an aftereffect of the injury itself – came sudden clinical dysphonia, which left me practically unable to sing. I worked tenaciously to defeat these setbacks, and defeat them I did.

Whatever the reasons for my evolving outlook, I recently decided to revisit the idea of hearing aids. This time, I resolved to treat my decision and its implementation with all of the urgency and commitment that it and I deserved – just as I had done with my other health issues. Rather than casually wandering into a dealership as I had previously done, I consulted with an otolaryngologist, and also with trusted, experienced friends and family members. In particular, I sought and received crucial advice from my own brother, who has always lived fiercely and fully and proudly and victoriously with profound congenital hearing loss.

This week, I underwent a comprehensive hearing exam by a highly recommended audiologist, who prescribed and dispensed a pair of state-of-the-art invisible hearing aids. And I do mean invisible: They sit deep inside my ear canal and can only be seen if you are peering into my ear from about an inch away.

The difference is life-changing, in the most literal sense. Every waking moment sounds different from anything I’ve heard for decades: listening to or performing music, engaging in conversation, watching a play, walking down the street, or simply going about the routines of daily life. Everything. Again and again, the smallest unexceptional sound will surprise me so intensely that I will break into a grin or audibly laugh: The creaking of a chair. A finger snap. A snippet of conversation from a group walking past me in the street. The chirp of a sparrow a hundred feet away. My sock as I pull it over my heel. And of course, numerous forgotten subtleties of musical orchestration, running back to greet me like old childhood friends as I listen to songs and classical works from which they have long been absent.

I sense that it will take me some time to assimilate and fathom the depth of this dramatically transformative experience. As that process progresses, I will undoubtedly have much more to say (as I so often do).

Meanwhile, I keep asking myself why I waited so long. To the extent that I consciously know the answers to that question, they are not simple. But the more important question is: What other choices am I avoiding that could potentially bring happiness and fulfilment to myself and to others whose lives I touch?

I hope to engage profoundly with that question in the days to come, as perhaps all of us should.

The Angry Letter

I’ve often heard the age-old advice that if you’re about to write an angry letter, be as angry as you can, write it all out, and then crumple it up and throw it in the trash. I always thought this was a silly idea, and that the only way to resolve one’s anger is to communicate it to the offending party. But yesterday, I half-inadvertently ended up giving the time-honored technique a try.

I had awoken steeped in one of those slow-developing rages at an organization that had slighted me the day before, and I was determined to complain to the person in charge. Of course, being a devices-only kind of guy, I haven’t used a pen or crumpled a note in a couple of decades. (My home-office waste basket is typically full of discarded envelopes, used paper napkins and tissues, and empty yogurt containers.) So I typed out a detailed, angry letter, rife with hyperbole and venomous metaphors, and reviewed and perfected it over the course of an hour or two. Somehow, something in my better nature convinced me to wait a few hours and give it a sanity check before sending it off. So I clicked Save and went on with my day.

Last night before bed, I opened the file for another quick review. I smiled in embarrassment at the first sentence, and by the time I got to the second one, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so absurdly over the top, bursting with every possible angry-missal, poison-pen hissy-fit cliché ever invented. Each paragraph (and there were a bunch of them) was exponentially more ridiculously melodramatic than the one before. And I had written it all in earnest with the intention of actually sending it.

At a certain point, my wife asked me why I was laughing and I started to read the letter out loud. I was guffawing so hard, tears rolling down my cheeks, that I could barely finish. When I was done, I felt great. I closed the file and toddled happily off to bed.

The Dark Side of the Sunshine

I’ve been back and forth for the past couple of days about whether to post this status or not, because I usually do not post issues this personal on social media. However, the greater context is a very public topic, and after some deliberation I’ve decided that the crucial importance of the public issue far outweighs my own privacy considerations.

First of all, I’m ok. I’ll say it again: I’m ok.

But until a couple of days ago, I did not know that I was ok. I know now that I have a skin cancer on my scalp called Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), which is not life threatening, and which will soon be cured with a fairly simple surgical procedure that has a 99% success rate. Even for the unlucky 1% who are not cured the first time around, all they have to do is repeat the surgery, and they’re cured. Basal Cell Carcinoma is never life threatening.

But my particular type of BCC comes with a twist – one that is uncommon in white people. It’s called a Pigmented BCC, and although it, too, is not life threatening, it is distinguished by the characteristic of leaking pigment into the surrounding skin. To the naked eye, this characteristic can make it visually indistinguishable from melanoma, which is a far more dangerous and often lethal cancer. In fact, it impersonates melanoma so well that until the biopsy results came back, even my dermatologist was fooled.

Happily, the biopsy confirmed that I don’t have melanoma. The BCC (which was never life threatening) was completely excised for the biopsy, and I will soon be undergoing a procedure that will virtually ensure that it never comes back. But when my dermatologist first examined me, she was so sure that this was melanoma (“very concerned” was the code phrase she used), that she let some words slip that she should not have – words like “how much time you have left” and “death.”

For almost three days, and two sleepless nights, I lived with the foregone (but incorrect) conclusion that I had a potentially fatal disease. Melanoma (which, again, I do not have) is a big deal. It spreads like wildfire into the lymphatic system and moves into other tissues and vital organs, destroying them. When that happens, despite aggressive treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, the chances of surviving for 5 years are about 15%. Thankfully, the dermatologist was, as she said, “pleasantly surprised” to find that her suspected diagnosis had been wrong. Thankfully, I do not have melanoma. A friend keeps telling me not to say I dodged a bullet – “there was no bullet in the first place” – but I dodged a bullet.

Why am I posting all of this publicly? Because almost all of us live in a culture where sun worship is revered. Sure, we’re occasionally reminded to use sunscreen, to cover up, to seek shade. But the cultural equation of tanning with beauty, the universally promoted allure of absorbing the sun, the implicit comic heroism of sunburn, are so deeply reinforced by advertising, media, and popular culture, that most of us don’t take the reminders seriously. Go to the beach! Lie in the sun! Get a tan! Look like a movie star!

The romanticization of fun-in-the-sun in today’s culture is as strong as the romanticization of cigarettes was in the 60s, when I was growing up. Sure, our Hygiene teacher mumbled something about how smoking wasn’t good for us (before retiring to the Teachers’ Room for a quick smoke). But everything and everyone else – from Joe Camel to movies and TV and our older siblings – told us that smoking was cool. Our parents smoked. Our idols smoked. And so, sometimes, did our doctors. (In Israel, when the kids were small, we had a pediatric ENT doctor who smoked in the office between patients.)

Cigarettes, of course, are not cool. They kill – and so does the sun.

That is why I’m posting all of this. This is, in the most literal way, deadly serious: There is nothing romantic about sunbathing, nothing cool about a tan, and nothing funny about a sunburn. Reducing your exposure to the sun can save your life. Wear a hat when in the sun – even if it’s cloudy. Use sun block – the higher the SPF rating, the better, and broad-spectrum protection is critical. Wear a hat. Wear a shirt. And make your kids do it. That last part is crucial: skin damage from solar exposure is cumulative. And all of this is true regardless of your race or skin color or tone.

Be healthy. Be safe. And never, never, take life for granted.

Thermal Shock

[Note: This was posted three days after Donald J. Trump assumed the office of president of the United States.]

I’m feeling a type of thermal shock that I haven’t experienced in nearly 40 years.

Between 1976 and 1980 I had the good fortune of completing my mandatory Israeli military service in the Israel Defense Forces Band and Orchestra. This was a double blessing, because it both kept me off the battlefield and enabled me to participate actively in the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace process. Along with friends like Micha Davis, Lior Eitan, Roni Benjamin, Avi Adrian, Dudi Davidov, Rafi Primo, Haimd Haim, Dov Gordon, Eyal Bor, and others, I came to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to greet Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with his own national anthem, and then performed again and again shoulder-to-shoulder with the Egyptian band (that’s a whole other story!) as chunk after chunk of the Sinai peninsula was returned to Egyptian sovereignty.

One of the first of these chunks was the Northern Sinai coastal town of El Arish. On May 25, 1979, the band drove to the ceremony overland, through Ashqelon and Gaza, in our usual wooden-seated chartered Egged bus. As we drove into the sleepy town, we passed the usual signs in Hebrew and Arabic on ramshackle garages offering cheaper car repairs than their Israeli counterparts, as well as billboards advertising Israeli junk food. We arrived at the camp, played the marches and anthems, and watched the Israeli flag come down to the tune of one bugle call, and the Egyptian flag come up to another. Those in attendance cheered and threw confetti at huge portraits of Anwar Sadat in military garb, flanked by copious amounts of bunting in the Egyptian national colors.

Then, as our bus departed back for Tel Aviv, hell seemed to break loose. What seemed like hundreds, perhaps thouands, of Egyptian armored vehicles materialized on the streets. Crowds roared and threw candy. Egyptian police motorcades passed repeatedly along our route, sirens wailing. The Hebrew billboards had vanished. Egyptian fallaheen in long robes jumped up and down on the roofs of their pickup trucks, waving Egyptian flags and rifles and hoisting fists. And the entire region was united in a boisterous chant of “Allahu Akbar! Tihya al-Misr!” (God is great! Long live Egypt!)

Everything was utterly transformed from what it had been just a couple of hours before. And most of the musicians on the bus – soldiers only in name – were scared out of their wits. I had never seen a rickety old Egged bus approach 100 kilometers per hour on a dirt road before, but on that day it was pedal-to-the-metal all the way back to the Israeli border.

That was the last time I experienced the depth of sudden, frightening change that I have now felt since Friday morning.

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1982/04/26/091025.html?pageNumber=1

Some Thoughts on Liberalism and Conservatism, on Father’s Day

My Facebook feed is filled with Father’s Day wishes, but also with thoughts about gun control and immigration and terror and religion and walls and big-money politics and race and what it would take to Make America Great, and about Those Liberals and Those Conservatives.

“Conservative,” taken literally, means “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.” “Liberal,” taken literally, means “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.”

Anyone who has seen me in the routines of my daily life knows that in that respect, I am as conservative (small c) as they come. I am the stereotypical caricature of a Creature Of Habit. I eat the same breakfast every day, and usually the same dinner and lunch. I shop at the same stores, and buy the same groceries. I take great comfort in the familiar. Notwithstanding my record of circumnavigating the system (and my many, many moving violations and traffic school terms) I am a passionate lover of rules and boundaries and standards and constraints. I am a homebody, and venturing to unfamiliar places — however seemingly open and inviting — can sometimes feel to me like negotiating the alleyways of Gaza. I have been telling the same jokes for fifty years, and I heard most of them from my grandfather. I have yet to perform a karaoke rendition of a song that is less than 30 years old. Although a staunch atheist, I am a sucker for liturgical music, for a strictly Orthodox Passover seder, and for Christmas carols. I am very aware of the reasons for this personal conservatism and for my desperate need for the safety it affords me, and while they are certainly not Facebook material, they are very real.

At the same time — particularly in recent years — I try to be acutely aware of the areas in which my personal conservatism encroaches on the freedoms of others, infringes their boundaries, causes them distress or oppression or pain. And in those areas, I strive diligently to change my behaviors, reactions, thought patterns and speech patterns, and to open myself to new perspectives. Liberalism in my personal life — the willingness to adopt new behaviors and opinions and discard traditional values — can be acutely challenging. But I persevere in this commitment to personal change and acceptance as best I can. To do less would be cruel to all of the loving, compassionate, supportive people in my life.

I understand the need to cling to one’s values, whether rooted in the Bible, the constitution, or our childhood traditions. And yet, I remind myself daily that examining my own behaviors and convictions — listening and accommodating others — does not mean that someone will take my morning yogurt away or force me to dress differently or perform the Black Eyed Peas. I can change my ways when they are critically in need of change, and still remain safe. I can let go of a harmful practice or belief and my fortress of personal conservatism will not crumble.

In the same way, examining our ideological convictions — listening and accommodating the concerns of others — does not mean that someone will take our guns away, or abolish the English language, or shutter our churches, or trivialize our marriages and families, or bring jihadis to our doorstep. Let us hold on to our values, but let us also be constantly aware of when it is critical to open our hearts and minds to change. Let us strive to be kind, compassionate and respectful of those whose backgrounds and viewpoints are different from our own. And when we disagree, let us do so without resorting to insult, deliberate offense, and humiliation.

Thoughts on Holocaust Remembrance Day

In the early 1960’s my father was a science teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. Like most public school teachers, his salary could not support a family of five – even when coupled with my mother’s greater income as an advertising executive – so he moonlighted several nights a week as a pharmacist. On occasion, I would join him at the North Philadelphia drug store where he worked, and it was always a rare treat. I learned to formulate capsules with a mortar, pestle, and spatula, and to fix an ice cream soda. I also learned the rudiments of tactful customer service – for example, that one does not respond to a discreet customer inquiry by shouting across the store “Hey, Dad! What’s Kotex and where do we keep it?”

One summer evening, as I sat at the counter sucking up a malted (does anyone even remember what that is?), a customer came in. She had that familiar Old Jewish Aunt look that reminded me of my grandmother and her friends: sunken, gray features, hair in a bun, simple housedress. She addressed my father in Yiddish, in a half-whisper. She had a serial number tattooed on her forearm, and I knew what that meant. I couldn’t hear much of what they said, and I understood even less, but I heard her say Ikh hob moyre – “I’m afraid.” After a few minutes of hushed conversation, my father patted her on the arm and said Zayt gezunt, dayget nisht – “Be well, don’t worry” – and she left without buying anything.

When the door closed and its little bell was still, my father quietly spoke – half to me, half to himself: “We beat the Nazis twenty years ago, but the war isn’t really over.” I asked him what he meant.

This woman lived in the neighborhood, he explained, one of a very few Jews left in what had once been a Jewish enclave. She had come in once to buy something, and my father had noted her broken English and responded in Yiddish. After that she kept coming back. She believed obsessively that the Nazis were everywhere, and that they were actively pursuing her. Usually when she came in, it was because she believed she had spotted an SS man lurking around a corner and wanted to warn my father. For her, the nightmare would never be over.

Today – half a century later – I know that my father was right. The Nazis are nearly all dead, and so are the survivors, but new Holocausts continue, and their effects prevail long after the conflicts have ended. A century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, the legacy of slavery lives on in our cities. The Treaty of Fort Laramie – our government’s last pact with a Native American nation – was signed nearly that long ago, but the suffering and devastation wreaked upon our First Nations can never be reversed.

Even in our own time, we again witness a despotic demagogue gaining popular favor in a free country by inciting hatred and exclusion and inflaming the ignorance of the masses. In more remote lands, mass murder, exile, and persecution continue to rage, yet we at home are cruelly indifferent toward the victims as they seek refuge. Once again, it seems easier to seek a scapegoat than to summon compassion.

Ikh hob moyre. I am afraid.

The Wrong Way to Be a Friendly Policeman

**Note: Everyone in our family is safe and well.**

It was about 11 pm last night. I was feeling unsettled about a real-life concern highlighted by the TV drama we had been watching. I was anxious and sleep-deprived, having spent much of the previous night and day weathering the tedious, bureaucratic fallout of Naomi’s wallet and phone being stolen the night before. It had been a stressful day. I couldn’t afford another sleepless night, so I took a sedative and drifted off.

At about 11:30 (I looked at the clock), I was awakened by the insistent and repeated clanging of the doorbell. I jumped out of bed and could see the glare of a powerful flashlight darting on our front doorstep.

“Who is it?” I managed to vocalize through the haze of the sedative.

“Berkeley police, sir. Is this the home of Naomi Jacobson?” 

Terror. I had just seen Naomi a few minutes before, when she left for a sleepover at a friend’s. What could possibly have befallen her in such a short time, in such a safe neighborhood?

My heartbeat went from allegro vivace to prestissimo, but my brain transitioned into the clear-headed, adrenaline-nourished crisis mode acquired and practiced over decades in a country where buses routinely explode, and where air-raid sirens once repeatedly forced me and my children into an airtight room with our gas masks in the middle of the night. In the split-second it took me to unbolt the lock, my brain displayed and processed vivid images of a dozen different scenarios that could lead a policeman to wake a law-abiding citizen in the middle of the night with questions about his absent teenage daughter.

Standing before me was a very large police officer with a very large flashlight in one hand and a very small envelope in the other.

“Yes, officer, it is. Has something happened?” I thought I heard a siren from a distant street.

“Are you a family member? Are you related to Naomi Jacobson?”

More brain scenarios.

“Yes, I’m her father. What’s going on? Come in.”

The policeman thrust the envelope at me. “Sir, I’d like you to open the envelope when you’re ready and look at the pictures, and see if you can identify your daughter.”

Dizziness. More frightful mental scenarios. (With war raging in my former homeland, I have spent the past week viewing countless images of mangled bodies, grieving parents, dead and wounded babies and children, grinning selfies of teenagers now dead.) The sedative and the adrenaline were playing tug-of-war. I steeled myself for the worst. After a seeming decade of fiddling with the flap, I finally focused on the contents. 

Not horrific photos, as I had expected, but a blurry photo ID along with a health insurance card and a dojo membership card. Yes, I explained to the officer, these were the contents of Naomi’s wallet, which had recently been stolen on a bus. I did my best to steady my breath and blink away those tears that replace the clear-headed, in-control, bomb-shelter state just as soon as the all-clear has sounded. Composure gave way to post-tramua as the officer made some notes, handed me his card, and explained the circumstances under which a chance dog-walker had found the hastily discarded cards and brought them to the police only ten minutes before. 

“No, sir, nothing has happened to your daughter. Sorry if I alarmed you.”

Hug your dear ones close. I certainly did this morning, when Naomi returned from her sleepover.

Test Question

To Y.J.

9.

It was, arguably, the singular test question
Most repeated, most plagiarized, most modified
In my classroom history:
“A train sets out from Town A to Town B at an average speed….”

Advancing with me from grade to grade,
It evolved with every station on my journey.
By high school, it was utterly transformed:
“Total passenger weight…engine power…wind velocity…track friction…gravitation….”

I did not realize that I, too, was on a train.
Nor that it was a trick question –

A communal secret, a joke shared by all my teachers, now deceased.
I imagine them laughing together, skeletal,
Marking my answer wrong in the Teacher’s Lounge of the Afterworld,
Their angelic fingers caked with the chalk dust of eternity.

“What time does the train arrive…?” It never does.
At Town B, it will be a different train.
Wheels, cars, conductor, engineer, passengers – all will have grown, aged, changed.
They will barely resemble their Town A counterparts.

I am still on the train. I am the train. And the question is not
“What time will I arrive?” or “How far will I have traveled?”
But:
“Who will I be at the end of my journey?”

– 6/4/2014

“Your call is important to us. Your estimated wait time is two hours.”

Sometime in the 1970s, during my 27-year extended leave of absence from the United States, someone came up with two conflicting ideas about how to generate a profit from customer service, which is not traditionally a profit center. I believe these two strategies have led to the extinction of product and service quality as we once knew them.

  • Commodify and mass-produce customer service. Customer service used to mean delivering individual, genuine, committed, caring responses to customers’ questions and concerns. The customer would go to a company’s service professional, who was actually well acquainted with the product or service she or he was supporting, and had the skill and knowledge to understand a problem and deliver a solution. Service professionals were trained in the actual subject matter, so they could understand and solve problems first-hand, rather than just reading responses from scripts or transferring the customer to a supervisor. Phone centers were staffed by intelligent receptionists and switchboard operators who could listen to the customer’s problem, understand it, and route the customer to the correct specialist extension or department. The goal of service was not to rack up as many shoddy “customer contacts” in an hour as possible, but to tenaciously work with a customer until the problem was solved to complete satisfaction.

    But training is expensive, and so is the CSR’s time. So instead, companies developed self-support websites, IVR phone trees, “I’ll just check that” scripts, computers with humanesque voices, and canned-text email and letter responses.

    The more automated the tools became, and the further removed from customer satisfaction the service industry infrastructure became, the lower the expectations of human service personnel. (I remember returning to the U.S. for a visit in the late 70s and being shocked to see cash registers in fast-food outlets with pictures of the products on the keys, so cashiers did not have to know how to read the word “cheeseburger” or know the basic math required to enter the prices. And relatively recently, I realized with horror that today, cashiers under the age of 30 or so do not typically know how to “make change,” instead relying on their computers to tell them how much change to give a customer who has handed them a dollar for a 60-cent purchase.)
  • Provide “caring statements.” Some dubious “consumer research” initiative — perhaps a focus group or quick online survey — led businesses to the perception that customers will spend more money if products and services are offered in a way that seems vaguely personal and empathetic. But genuine personal engagement is expensive: it takes time to learn a customer’s name and something about his or her life, build a rapport, and make a positive impression. So instead, companies developed low-investment “instant empathy” strategies, and talked themselves into believing that customers would actually feel valued when exposed to them.

    Live telephone operators used to say “I’m sorry, can you hold?” and would then check back with the customer every minute or two to update her on the expected wait time and explore alternative options. This expensive approach was replaced with a recorded “Your call is important to us,” often played over annoying elevator music and between advertisements for half an hour or longer.

    Instead of store staff being trained to engage personally with customers, a single “greeter” was paid (not much, presumably) to stand just inside the front door and intone “Welcometobestbuy, welcometobestbuy, welcometobestbuy” every time a human body broke their field of vision. Form letters that were devoid of any personal content were updated to include sentences like “We appreciate your business” and “We know that your time is valuable.” Supermarket cashiers were told to look down at your receipt and read your name aloud as they told you to have a nice day. Junk mail systems were redesigned to provide envelopes addressed in a font that looked a little like handwriting, with sales brochures that looked a little like individually written letters, complete with printed “handwritten” signatures at the bottom. The less effect these strategies proved to have, the more they were beefed up. Soon, call center staff were trained to say things like “Welcome to General Industries, where customer satisfaction comes first and our patrons are important to us. How can I exceed your expectations and provide you with truly first-rate service this morning?”

Complementing these two service strategies was the product strategy of rushing to market with an incomplete or poorly made product, rather than investing in quality. The idea was that it would be a waste of potential revenue to wait until a product was actually tested before selling it, and that it would be cheaper in the long run to sell faulty products and replace them if absolutely necessary. In the software industry, rather than wasting time and money on testing and perfecting the product prior to release, products were released with known flaws, in the knowledge that “service packs” and “updates” would be supplied months later, and often only when requested. Rather than employing beta-testers, the software developers duped the paying public into testing their products for them. Manufactured products became less and less reliable, because refurbishing a failed product is cheaper than enforcing quality standards throughout development and production.

Finally, the doctrine of the better mousetrap became obsolete and was abandoned. Rather than striving to provide a superior product or better service, competing businesses aligned to offer the lowest, cheapest common denominator. So switching banks, airlines, cable providers or phone companies is no longer a viable solution.

Where will all of this lead us? Why does the marketplace not rebel against it? And what is the consumer’s alternative?