When Customer Service Isn’t

Hello on a Thursday afternoon,

It is a bit overcast and a little breezy, but still feels like we have finally put a winter season away. It was neither a cold nor a bitter winter, but it was nonetheless long and taxing. There were no significant snowstorms nor did we see any bone-chilling-hide-indoors sort of temperatures, but it seemed to be a season of interminable length. I am not sure if it was the incessant humidity that penetrates anyone or anything foolish enough to stay outside, or if was the uninterrupted cloudiness that would make SAD sufferer beg for a sun lamp and be required to do 100,000 units of Vitamin D a week. Regardless the consequences of the winter without end, the change has occurred both in the calendar and now in the air. As we heard into an Easter Weekend, I am reminded of the years I was a parish pastor and how by the end of Easter I was so tired I could barely think. I am back on my porch merely enjoying the breeze and the chance to let my brain decompress. It is that time of the semester where there is something to do in every waking moment and it is probably the time to not think about trying to get any extra sleep. It is like the sprint of the 800 meter race. Can you pace and push yourself to the limit the entire race? Part of the craziness is as students are getting ready for their own pushing through the race, graduation, the end of the semester or another option might (and usually does) cause come stress, but there is that sense of accomplishment. While there is always some degree of making it through another academic calendar, there is stuff to do immediately following the semester (grading), but there are other things that need to be managed the next week. I remember getting in trouble once for telling someone that a doctoral degree (and the same is for any terminal degree) it is not something you merely do with your degree, but it is who you are. It can consume you more than many realize. That is not a complaint, though some might believe it sounds like such, it is merely a continuing and deepening realization of how truthful that statement was. I remember when I was a parish pastor sending Susan home to South Dakota for a vacation around this time of year. It was easier for all involved because the number of services during that Holy Week were enough to take up almost all my fingers. I barely got more than a shower in and a lot of coffee at the time.

I remember at the end of 1991’s Lenten season I would be heading to Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ for the second and third of what would be more abdominal surgeries. I would fly from Allentown to Phoenix to meet with a colo-rectal surgeon who was considered one of the best in the country. Dr. Robert Beart, now of the Colo-rectal Surgery Institute was my surgeon and considered one of the best surgeons for those needing surgery because of IBDs in the country. It was a frightening time for me, but I was existing on steroids and Azulfadine, which was the first level treatment for UC and Crohn’s in the past. It is a drug also used for treating Rheumatoid Arthritis. What I am realizing as I do more research because of some of my own issues, that both the steroids and the Azulfadine can have consequences for the liver. Seems that is my situation on both accounts. The liver is an amazing organ, and so much complex than I realized, but again that seems to be the case for most of what has occurred and how our body manages things. As I read things about my liver and the various things I have done to manage Crohn’s for 35 years, it is a bit frightening, but as I often note, I am still here and I have options that I can manage. I guess that makes me a pretty normal individual. I am actually excited to see what we might do to manage things and I am fortunate to work with some incredible people yet today, so bring it on.

The last few days I have gotten some walking in, and while I am supposed to be doing that, I have received some unexpected assistance in my daily regimen. Last Tuesday, after being told my regular auto maintenance people could not work on my car, I was required to take it to a BMW in the Wilkes Barre Area. I have an extended warranty, which I purchased when I got the car, but trying to get them to cover any of the repairs was more vexing than one might have expected (or should have expected). They did not want to cover anything because I was at an auto-repair place less than 40 miles from where I purchased the car (38 to be exact). Somehow it did not seem to matter that my dealer sent me there or that I was not told that I could only take it to the dealer where I purchased the car. That was the first snafu. The repairs needed were expensive, and after doing some checking, along with the BMW service people telling me they were not allowed to work on it, they told me what my bumper-to-bumper warranty did not cover (a strange understanding of bumper-to bumper). On Wednesday and Thursday morning I spent a significant amount of time on the phone between Scott Township and Wilkes getting things squared away. I was told  by my BMW dealer that the car should be done on Thursday late, but certainly by Friday afternoon. So I planned Friday. I have called the dealership more than 10 times (and the times I actually spoke to the service person was less than half that number). On Friday afternoon, I was informed that the car would not be finished until Monday and there was no communication from my local dealer to the Wilkes service people. Thus, they we telling me I would have to pay for the entire repair (which is to be almost $2,500.00). Suffice it to say I was not impressed. I knew the car had been released to the BMW for warranty work. I knew there had been communication about this (at least with me). When I noted this with the service person at the BMW dealer, he told me he had no idea, and gave me no particularly thoughtful rationale as to why my car would not be done until Monday. So I was back on the phone and I know the service and warranty people here have left a message for them in Wilkes. So . . .  the saga continues. My frustration goes back to basic organizational communication (hmmmmmm . . . . one of my doctoral areas). I see scholarly article coming out of this. On a second front, I took my snow blower into the place I purchased it because it had a significant issue after the last major snowstorm. It was taken in the 2nd week of March. I received a call asking for my permission to purchase a part (around 150.00, which is still significantly cheaper than the 700.00 the snow blower cost new). I returned their call and gave them permission. I received a second call and so I went to the facility and again provided permission. Last Thursday as I was in the throes of my wonderful car experience from the snow blower facility asking for my permission. I noted that I had provided permission twice, including in person. The response was I need to speak to a specific person. Really? I message from co-workers does not count? I even told him the cost of the part, which he noted was correct. Then as if I needed a cherry on the top of this sundae, he let me know he would be leaving the next day for 6 weeks paternity leave so he would have to send it out. Oh my . . . I am trying to figure out the rationale for such lamentable customer service. So . . . hard to say what I will hear next.

It is now Monday morning. There are 11 days of classes left. The sprint is in full stride. I got to my office about 6:30 this morning and there are a couple pressing things to manage and a number of things I need to just get them completed. Nothing difficult, but time consuming. It is amazing what I can get done before 8:00 a.m. when no one is in the building. I love those times when I can merely dive in and work. There is so much more I would like to say about so many things, but because time is fleeting and there is little I can do, just keep the head down and manage my breathing. My time of running distance in the service is coming back to me. Yesterday, which is 420 has more significance to me than what has become the tradition understanding of Munchie Day. It was my parents anniversary and they would have been married 79 years yesterday. Those who have a marriage that lasts that long because of longevity and unfailing love are splendid people to me. It is an unparalleled thing to realize that the other is so important that you will compromise and keep doing it to maintain that bond that initially caused you to believe the other was worth spending the remainder of your life with them. I have people still ask me (which I find a bit stunning because I failed to maintain two marriages) what I believe it is that keeps people together. I think my answer has been fundamentally the same, but I think my response is a bit more articulate at this point. I think it is the underlying capability to remember you love someone beyond compare on the days you do not like them at all. That is the foundation of being able to compromise.

Today it is three years since Prince Rogers Nelson passed away. I remember first hearing his music. He was quite the notable artist for a number of reasons, but his popularity (at least while alive) was probably at its height when I was in seminary in the mid-eighties. The fact that I was in St. Paul and he was from the Twin Cities area made it possible to run into him in spite of his sort of exclusivity (in a reclusive manner). I remember being in downtown Minneapolis one day having lunch and he was coming out of the restaurant as I was going in. His white Rolls Royce with the purple top was there waiting for him. I remember being shocked by how slight his stature was, especially when his music persona was so incredibly large.  It is with that memory in mind that I offer the following video. Somehow that too leisurely part of the song fits my idea of customer service. To all who are managing the end of the semester, I wish you the best as you finish up. To both colleagues and students, hang in there and keep working at it.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin