Sunday, July 18, 2010

Parallel Universe?

This morning I received an email from a friend who is living in Japan. The subject bar said,"Parallel Universe"? The only content was a link to a website that had a headline and story reporting that one of the NFL teams had forfeited a game when the co-captain realized that flipping a coin raised the existential problem of meaninglessness for him and he could not continue with the coin-toss calling or the game. (if our whole season is determined by chance, what purpose does it all have?)

I was about to face my own Sunday morning challenge to Meaning as part of my six month encounter with the New York Times Company. The external problem is that I am not able to encounter the actual New York Times in the manner that the New York Times Company and I contracted for, although I keep my part of the bargain by paying the bill every month.

The larger ironical aspect of the situation (and perhaps irony usually points to a situation where meaninglessness is breaking through into awareness) grows out of the juxtaposition of the fact that the New York Times Company is in the Communication business and produces one of the best (reasonably reliable, well written, concenred with ethics if not always ethcially outstanding) "commuications" --its newspaper-- with the fact that communicating with the company has been for me, ultimately, an exercise in meaningless--(also known in some existential circles as absurdity--as in the absurdity of life).

One level of absurdity is related to the following facts. Last winter I subscribed to the Times--to be delivered to my apartment in Philadelphia on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Mornings. (I can remember living in Miami and not being able to buy the Sunday Times til Sunday afternoon; I remember living in Austin, Texas, and not being able get the Sunday Times til Wednesday--in those days being damn glad to get it at all).

For about six weeks, I recieved the morning paper on Fridays and Saturdays, but never on Sundays.

Well, not exactly never. If the paper wasn't delivered by 8:30 I was permitted to call the New York Times Company, wade through the muddy waters of their phone answering menu, keying in all kinds of information which a few minutes later (or many many minutes later) I would have to provide again to a person on the line for "verification purposes". Then I had the choice of asking for a credit to my account or for the paper to be delivered by 2:30 PM. Sometimes it was delivered Sunday afternoon, but not always, and I didn't always receive the credit on my bill that was promised in case of non-delivery (but I really didn't want my money back, I wanted my paper).

I guess my first level of encounter with meaningless and absurdity grew out of my awareness that 1. the Times delivery network had my real address (on Fridays and Saturdays) and 2. that my neighbor right down the hall got his Sunday Times every week before 8:30. I couldn't understand how those two facts could be true--the New York Times (company) knows my address and they do deliver papers on my floor on Sunday. Why didn't I get mine? Even after all these months, I don't know how to make sense out of these facts.

After several weeks of exploring this issue with representatives of the Times, and encountering their apparent inability to solve the problem, I gave up and cancelled my subscription, with the compnay, by my rough estimate, owing me perhaps $10-$20--you have to pay the regular rate even if you have to call them and get the paper late (see below)--not to mention the time I wasted (and the time and money the New York Times Company wasted, although not the people who work at managing their home delivery, because some of them wouldn't be employed if there were no problems with delivery, I guess).

Since, my neighbor continued to get his paper, and I continued to feel envious (this touching on my inferiority complex and my underlying existential anxiety about who I am--not helped by people on the phone who keep asking me to verify my identity), I got a new idea.
I started a new subscription to the Times, this time only for Sunday. I assumed that if there were difficulties in getting the paper under these conditions, there would be a rigourous purity to the reality of the situation and that it might be confronted more easily and actually solved. When they were solved I then could add back the Friday and Saturday paper.

I was right about solving the problem of getting the Sunday paper, only unfortunately it was finding a solution through restricting variables that seemed to work, not that the new, second, subsription itself didn't include the problem. That is, I didn't get the Sunday paper delivered by 8:30 Sunday morning, but again had to call up every Sunday, after 8:30, and usually my paper was delivered by 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. One Sunday, I told to my story to a "subscription manager" named Wanda who answered the phone in Miami Florida (see reference to that city above) who insisted that she would get me a paper that day and that she would fix the problem. I was very skeptical, but in fact, a paper was delivered to me about an hour later that Sunday and the next Sunday morning there was a paper outside of my door at 7:15 when I went to look for it. This continued every Sunday for the next three weeks. I called her and left a message in Wanda's voice mail box thanking her for her help and congratulating on her impressive exercise of power.

(Another of the four existential challenges we all face is the issue of powerlessness and I certainly had a wonderful opportunity to work on this issue also in this encounter with reality of the Times. I might have started writing about that challenge if my friend hadn't sent me the link to the story on meaninglessness).

I know. I know, I should have been content with this "victory" and let myself and Wanda live with savoring our successes.

I really like the Saturday crossword puzzle (one of my less self destructive compulsive, anxiety reducing activites and which I have perserved after giving up several other more destructive ones), and so, I decided to take what I assumed would be a small risk. I changed my subscription to include the Friday and Saturday papers. Since the compnay had solved the problem of getting me the Sunday paper, which was where the problem was in subscriptions number one and two, and since they had no trouble getting me the Friday and Saturday papers during the period of Subscription number one, I thought it unlikely that there would be a problem during subscription number three. (And if there were a problem, I assumed that it would be with Friday and Saturday, and, even though I like other parts of the paper those two days, I could get the crossword puzzle from the internet, free as a Sunday subscriber--assuming I had to cancel the Friday and Saturday parts of the subscription).

My estimate of risk was wrong. The week after I enlarged my subscription to include Friday and Saturday delivery, I received both of those papers, but not the Sunday paper. I have recived no Sunday paper before 8:30 A.M. in the six weeks since I began subscription number three! Sometimes, I have gotten the paper Sunday afternoon--once I got two copies, but they were both delivered to the desk on the first floor of my building and I didnt' find out til Sunday evening, once I got a paper on Monday--but it was missing the magazine section and the news of the week in review. I have never got a credit for any of the missed papers.

Although these facts themselves clearly might challenge many people's sense of living in a meaningful world and having a meaningful life, they do not represent the most serious assaults on meaning in the situation. Remember, I write blogs as an exercise in self narrative and the issue here is how do I handle challenges to my maintainence of personal meaning in an often absurd world. I have to continue to the second level of my experience of this situation to show the full challenge to my belief that we live in a world, a culture, that has coherence and meaning (and can function at basic tasks that it sets itself, like delivering objects to a certain time and place with some regularity if a person is willing to pay for the service, the price that is asked.)

As I indicated above, if the newspaper is not delivered to your door by 8:30 AM you are permitted to call the New York Times Company and exercise your "rights". Unfortunately your rights at that point do not include having the delivery that you paid for so that you can read the paper in the morning.

The people on the phone were always at least superficially polite (sometimes in a corporate kind of way, sometimes genuinely warm after the initial run through of their trained responses) and always apologetic and reassuring that the problem would be taken care of and I would get the paper soon. The second level of challenge to meaning has to do with my dawning realization that the New York Times Company has a system related to delivery that 1. doesn't work and 2. that the people involved in its management really aren't in charge of it, or don't understand it themselves, in its reality. For me this is a more serious challenge to my belief that our world has meaning.

At first, I thought that the people I was talking to really knew how the distribution system worked and simply wouldn't tell me. In other words, when I asked them, how could it be possible that I could get the Friday and Saturday papers and not the Sunday paper (since thier frist responses were that they probably didn't have my correct address), no one ever gave me an answer. I began to believe that really they didn't know. Their job was to take calls about non-delivery, and notify some distributor who would then fix the problem. They didn't need to know what caused the problem, nor to make sense of the problem, nor how to solve the problem. Their idea of solving the problem was simply to make a note in my file that I didn't get delivery and to notify the distributor that I didn't get a paper, ask that a paper be delivered to me, and note that the distrubtor shouldn't let this happen again.

I don't know how Wanda solved the problem of getting me my Sunday paper during the period of Subscription number Two. She either couldn't or wouldn't tell me, and perhaps she was just lucky when the several subscription managers on previous Sundays hadn't been. (I do believe that they sent the notices, because at least some times I got the afternoon delivery; and when I checked the following week, there was always a note in my file, indicating that I had called with a problem and that the "appropriate" steps were taken. Perhaps Wanda's Son-in-Law had a job in Philadelphia delivering the newspaper. I wish I had been able to get in touch with her directly again about the problem with Subscription number 3, but actually I wasn't even supposed to have her voice mail number and I never could talk with her directly.

After two weeks of the problem during Subscription number 3, a subcription manager whose cousin wasn't in charge of delivering the New York Times in Philadelphia, realized that this problem was more than run-of-the mill--and therefore not likely to be responsive to her routine "solutions"-- that is notifying the distributor. She called in a Subscription Supervisor.

Jody, the subscription supervisor, has not only been polite, she has done something almost unimagineable to me after my vast experience as a consumer and provider making phone calls to companies--she called back the next week to check on the problem and every week since she was called me about my "case". Not only that, after two weeks of failing to solve the problem, she notified the district subscription manager, who actually called me two weeks in a row in the middle of the week to tell me he was monitoring the situation and that it would be solved. Again, neither Jody nor he told me how it was possible that I could get the Friday and Saturday papers and not the Sunday paper, especially in view of the fact thtat I was regularly getting the Sunday paper under Subcription number two, until I re-added Friday and Saturday under subscription number three. I don't know if they knew how it could happen or not, but they didn't tell me. They also weren't able to solve the problem.

Something interesting did happen after this district subscription manager had been called the first time (on Sunday). A few minutes later I got a call from a "local" distribution manager. He was polite and promised to get someone to bring the paper to me quickly and he was willing to reveal that he actually worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is, apparently, in charge of distributing the New York Times in Philadelphia. He said something which made it sound as if, when I changed my subscription, on "his" list I was switched from Sunday to Friday and Saturday delivery (it did seem likely that the New York Times didn't make this error--since they had immediately charged my account for the added deliveries under subcription number 3 and their records reflected the switch to that kind of subscription on the date I requested it). None-the-less this Philadelphia Inquirer manager assured me he could fix the problem and that I would have no problems in the future, but that if I did I should call him and he gave me his personal extension. I did call hm back later that day when my paper didn't show up--and it turned out that he had actually arranged for the paper to be delivered twice--but since that was the Sunday these papers weren't brought up to my apartment, I didn't know it. In the two subsequent weeks, that I haven't gotten the paper, he has not answered the phone when I called on Sundays and he hasn't returned my calls. (Perhaps he has been fired. I would guess that the Inquirer is delivering the Times because of its own dire financial condition, which may have something to do with why the arrangment apparently doesn't work. All speculation on my part, of course. I also speculate that the New York Times may be printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer for Philadelphia delivery. Underlying reality in our culture has gotten more and more complex and counter-intuitive--aren't the New York Times Company and The Philadelphia Inquirer Company competing in the Philadelphia market? Isn't competition in the market place what makes our capitalistic system work?).

This week the District supervisor from the Times' Company didn't call midweek to check on last week's delivery, as he had promised. Perhaps he has been fired also. I think it more likely that he has had to face his own powerlessness to solve a problem which is probably within the range of authority and responsbility of his job description, so he is either using denial or having an existential crisis of meaning and powerlessness himself.

The above paragraph may be completely true, but there is another slightly more challenging (for me) possiblity as well. This morning, faithful Jody called me again to find out if my paper had been delivered. I told her "no" and that I had decided to give up and cancel my subscription again. Jody as always been extremely polite and apologetic (not as warm and human as Wanda, but clearly doing her job, including trying to keep customers happy, to the very best of her abilty). According to what I imagine is corporate policy she asked me if there was anything she could do to get me to change my mind about cancelling. I said "no". then I said, "yes. Cancel my subscription, arrange to get me the paper on a regular basis and I will be happy to start paying, retroactively, from the week I get all three papers". Jody responded that it was not within her power to arrange delivery if there is no current subscription. She said if I ever changed my mind and wanted to renew my subscription that I should feel free to call her and that she would try to make sure that I got the paper. I told her that I would never subscribe to the New York Times again and probably I'd never read it.

(I cancelled my subscription to the New Yorker when they had a picture of Barak and Michelle Obama on the cover looking like Arab terrorists; I did sneak a peak at a couple of cartoons one week in an airport magazine rack, but other than that I have kept my pledge of non-support to such tastelessness, and what I consider very poor judgment on the part of a magazine that I treasured in many ways).

There have to be consequences for actions and inactions on the part of people and businesses. And especially information carriers.

Later in the day, another thought came to me. I'll bet that both Jody and the district manager by now know that the New York Times Company does not have the capability of getting me a paper on Sundays. The corporate policy, or perhaps for the security of their jobs, they are never permitted to say that, so that in fact they will keep saying that they will solve the problem as long as the customer is willing to keep calling, going through the automated menus, waiting for someone to answer or return their calls, calling again to get credit for missed papers. In this game, the customer has to quit so that in that way it becomes his fault (for giving up, when in fact the problem was "certainly" going to be solved). Maybe Jody and the district manager really did believe every week that the problem was going to be solved next week (although their never telling me what actually needed to happen to solve it, adds to my skepticism on this point). I believe that it was in their interest (or the interest of the company) to make me the quitter.

Now for the personal part. I used to get very angry when confronted with situations that challenged my sense of meaning. Ditto for when I felt powerless. I became self righteous and judgmental and often very negative in my speech to the people representing those realities which were evoking a sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness in me.

I am doing much, much better. My awareness of the larger situation--that the people I talk to on the phone are as powerless and facing absurdity just as I am--and they are as human and worthy of respect as I am--never fails for more than 10-20 seconds at a time. For me, this now seems like a long time, because living outside of my own authority, giving up my sense of meaning and my power, is quickly in my consciousnes and it is painful. Out of the 30 or 40 phone calls which I must have had with various representives of the Times, I know there was one, and there may have been two, when I had no lapses into anger and self righteousness. In that one or two calls I remained, the whole time, calm, serene, centered, curious, good humored, polite and considerate of the person I was talking with,

The habit of forgetting who I am, of losing touch with my own power, my own authority, my own sense of purpose, my own humanity and compasssion is very strong even after so much work and after so much success in weakening it. I am grateful that I have come this far. I am accepting of my ongoing imperfection. I am decdicated to continue to do my best to deiminish this bad habit even more.

I am not even bitter when I consider the possibility that the reality is that I was forced to be the one to give up in this situation, with the implication that I should have more faith in the New York Times Company to honor its committment to me. In fact, I am proud of myself for surrendering to the reality, after having gotten about as much practice as I can from this situation of challenge to my serenity and centeredness if the face of absurdity and powerlessness.

One final point. This is support of writing personal narrative--as a part of maintaining mental health, or meeting existential challenges, or keeping balance in one's life. After my subscription termination ( more properly: resignation;surrender) I thought of writing this essay for my blog. Clearly this is an exercise in support of meaning creation. This story is not about how bad the New York Times is, or about what terrible shape our country, our culture, out society is in. This is a story about my individual struggle to create meaning, to keep balance, to live in serenity, to document for myself my own growth and its processes and value. Even if no one else were to read this essay (well perhaps you will, Loyal Arlee: thanks), writing it helps me to let go and helps me to know I didn't waste time (nor did the New York Times Company waste my time). Even though I failed to achieve my goal of having The NewYork Times delivered to my door that goal, I did succed in my more important tasks of growth, development and healing.

Al, thanks for sending me the link.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Harris--I enjoyed your NYT essay. I found it funny, inspiring, and easy to relate to. I had not considered approaching a customer-service problem/experience as a chance for self-improvement but it seems much more worthwhile than my current approach!