Friday, May 17, 2013

Going Postal: Adventures in Customer Service

While I understand that the credo “the customer is always right” isn’t applicable or appropriate for all occasions, the basic tenet behind it is that because someone chooses to give you their business, you ought to treat them with care and respect — even if this occasionally means you take one for the team in order to maintain good customer relations.

An essential component in that credo is that customers have a choice as to where they take their business; the free market promotes good behavior on the part of businesses in order to keep turning a profit. Monopolies eradicate choice and the need for good customer relations, because they are the only options. You can expect them to behave badly simply because they can.

The United States Postal Service used to be the only game in town when it came to sending mail. This is no longer the case. With email and package carriers competing for trade, the USPS has seen a marked decline in recent years. Raising the price of postage and cutting substations and deliveries is not doing enough to shore them up. Usually, when a couple of bigger boys join the gang, the former bigwig tones it down a little for the sake of self preservation.

The trouble is that the USPS is that it still thinks it can steal your lunch money and have you thank them for it. Here’s a list of diabolical events that have occurred most recently to yours truly:

      Package of rare books arrives torn to pieces, the box half missing, delivery person says nothing.

      Wrong mail delivered to wrong houses on a regular basis; when confronted, mail carrier just shrugs and walks away, continuing to throw mail in boxes randomly.

      Mail was put on hold by someone — not me — for three weeks. I could not stop the hold (I didn’t have the confirmation code because I wasn’t the one who ordered the hold), in response to my complaint, the USPS left a message on my machine advising me to find whomever did it. Gee, thanks. That was helpful.

      My request to purchase a book of stamps was refused by the counter person because I was told “you could be mailing a bomb.” When I explained that I needed to affix the stamp to an SASE to go inside the envelope before it was sealed, she said "yes, but if I sell you stamps for an unsealed envelope, you could put a bomb in it." We are talking a regular manilla envelope, just to be clear. 

      Stack of 50 regular sized envelopes all containing the same thing which should have been given regular rate stamps (whatever it is now) were determined to cost over $1 each because, well, just because. Counter person refused to sell me 50 regular stamps if I was going to use them to mail said letters. Thus ensued tragicomic dialogue about the USPS deciding for me what I could or could not put stamps on if they would or would not sell them to me in the first place. I pointed out that I could always buy stamps from the automated machine in the lobby, and was told "well, don't blame me if none of them arrive," which I interpreted as a specific threat to my mail in particular. (All 50 of the letters affixed with regular stamps did, in fact, arrive unmolested, but I did take the precaution of mailing them from a postbox instead.)

      Stood in a queue at local busy high street post office for 15 full minutes waiting for a USPS employee of any kind to appear behind the open counter. Literally a human being of any kind. There was apparently no-one in the building. I gave up after that. Who knows how long everyone else in line waited?

And this brings me to today’s happy scene. A single female USPS employee was working behind the counter. There was a long line. When a mother with a young child approached with a parcel to mail, the worker decided that some print on the recycled box — which was in Italian and included the word “pollo” (chicken) — was in fact an old box in which bottles of pinot grigio had at one time been packaged. She therefore refused to take it on the basis of a rule that says the USPS cannot ship anything with the name of an alcohol on it. (Actually, the USPS cannot ship alcohol as content, not simply wording.)

Despite the mother’s calm requests for some packaging tape with which to conceal the offending print, or some paper and tape — or a marker to blot it out — the worker steadfastly refused to touch it. The box, the mother explained, contained DVDs, not alcohol. She was told in no uncertain terms that she had to leave the post office and return at a later date with a different form of packaging. “But,” the mother protested, “I have already waited a long time, and you’re telling me to leave?” Then the worker offered her a barrage of insults and rebukes — in full voice in front of a large line of people — for her stupidity.

There were audible gasps from the queue. The word "postal Nazi" were uttered. The mother and her child left. 

First: clearly the USPS worker couldn’t read Italian. I know of no pino grigio with the word “chicken” in its name.

Second: how can the USPS expect the vast swath of its customers to know every arcane rule about packaging?

Third: it would have cost her nothing to conceal the print with a bit of tape, but she didn’t out of sheer meanness.

Fourth: Here’s what the USPS says in its official guide to packaging: “Choose a box with enough room for cushioning material around the contents. Sturdy paperboard or corrugated fiberboard boxes are best for weights up to 10 pounds. If you are reusing a box, totally remove or obliterate all previous labels and markings with heavy black marker.”

Fifth: have you ever tried waiting in a long line with a toddler and a heavy package? Show some Goddamn humanity.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Floating In My Tin Can

Space Poignancy

I showed this to all of my middle school students today. Some of them couldn't believe it was made in space, or at least without special effects. I am not sure what this says about their sense of wonder.

I don't know how this can't be your new favorite version of this song ever.

Here is Commander Hadfield reflecting on his time on the ISS.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

One day, right before my 40th birthday six years ago, I received a call that changed everything. By “everything,” I mean my identity. I was no longer just an ordinary Mom; I was a Person With Cancer. Up until that phone call I had assumed that I was the very picture of glowing health.

When I told a neighbor about the diagnosis, the first thing she did was give me a plastic bracelet embossed with the name of an organization which sought to raise awareness for brain cancer. “You’ll need this,” she said, as if my life depended on it.

For her, she probably did think her life depended on it; she had brain cancer. I said thank you and as soon as I got home I tossed it in the trash. I knew immediately that I would not be one of those people who cling to plastic bracelets as if they were life rafts or badges of courage; I would wear no pink ribbons and I would not walk, race or run for The Cure. I am not a jogger. I do not wear plastic jewelry. I did not want to be a Person With Cancer.

The only thing that had changed was that I knew about my cancer. I had been carrying it around for years, blissfully unaware. But I had been a Person With Cancer for a long time — since before my children were even born. I was still in robust good health. Having cancer did not make me suddenly feel sick — but it made everyone else think I was sick.

I did not want to be a Survivor. Sure, I didn’t want the cancer to kill me, but reaching for that label made me feel like I wasn’t currently surviving. Yet we are all surviving, every day; it’s called living. Being a newly-minted Person With Cancer, however, thrust me into a world in which guilt was a strongly motivating factor — guilt about things I had never thought to feel guilty about.

I was supposed to feel guilty about not wearing a plastic bracelet or joining a fun run. About not collecting yogurt lids or wearing pink. Women are supposed to feel guilty about not doing monthly breast exams or getting annual mammograms. I felt guilty about getting fake breasts. I knew I was supposed to feel a pang of survivor’s guilt every time I ran my fingers through my hair. I felt guilty about feeling sexy. I felt guilty about not feeling guilty: it was a mess.

Soon enough, once treatment began, I was decidedly not in good health and I certainly looked like a Person With Cancer. I felt guilty about having wrecked my health in order to get healthy. Cancer is a countdown that begins on the day of your diagnosis, regardless of the status of your tumor — as if the news itself trips a timer on the bomb that has become your life.

The Race for the Cure is run on Mother’s Day — an obvious choice. As a Survivor, I would be entitled to a discount and free pink hat identifying me as one of the Lucky Ones if I signed up. I’m not a pink hat-wearing kind of girl. I run this race every day when I chase my children or lug laundry up and down the stairs.

I honestly don’t know if we can “cure” cancer, or even if that’s a logical goal. Cancer has been around a long time; it’s a process that happens to cells in your body for one reason or another. For most of history, life killed you before cancer could. There are far more people living with cancers which have yet to be detected — and with cancers which will not kill them even if they go undetected — than there are People With Cancer.

The “with” is the important word here. We can fight cancer; we can beat cancer for the time being — but we never really know if or when it has returned, usually until it’s too late. So we must live with it.

We have to drag it through life’s finish line with us whether we like it, or know about it, or not.