Category Archives: Human relations

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.

==

*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

Whether or not you choose how to age, you do choose

Today I am feeling philosophical, and I want to share one of my fundamental beliefs about aging.

If we are spared, in our forties, we choose. What we choose in our minds does not constitute our choice. Rather, our choice is manifest in our actions. Talk is cheap and wishes are cheaper, but deeds matter. Deeds are who you are, whatever you may wish you were.

In most cases, by our forties, we have figured out how we will get through our years. We may have decided that we will do so in a given job field, or with no job at all, in partnership, as parents, entirely singly, as hermits, or in whatever way, but we are mostly established by that time. At that point we are likely to have something of a surplus of resources, even if very modest, or at least probably do not have so many urgent wants or needs.

Sometime in our forties, we decide whether or not to share. It is a decision whether we will seek to give of our knowledge, our possessions, our time, and whatever else we value. Not all of it, but enough to be remembered. We either decide to share, and live the remainder of our lives sharing, or we decide to hoard.

It is a decision based partly in the choice of courage and confidence over fear and uncertainty. The brave, confident person is not afraid to share. The fearful coward hoards.

The neighbor gal overshoots the cul-de-sac and her bike rolls up into our yard. We either smile and wave to her, or we scream at the poor kid to get off our lawn.

The Girl Scout is selling cookies we don’t want or need. We either stop, discuss, engage, and purchase, or we hasten past without eye contact.

The elderly fellow is clearly lonely and not terribly interesting to talk to, and is a bit tactless. We either be patient and listen for a while, or we treat him like a leper.

It’s Halloween. We either turn on the lights and hand out candy, or we shut them off and refuse to answer the door.

The hotel desk clerk looks harried. We either answer her “have a nice evening, sir” with something bantery like “Thank you; I wish you a peaceful evening free of entitled jerks,” or we just nod and take our keys.

The other guy, who has out-of-state plates, is in the stupidly designed lane the rest of us locals knew to get out of. Now he’s truly stuck. We either let him in, or we close the gap and let someone else perhaps do it, screw you, I got mine, not my problem.

A family friend is down on his luck, and very proud. We either find a way to slip him some money (which we will never again mention), or we figure that’s his problem.

Whether or not we choose to share mainly determines the nature of our memorial service.

If we choose to share, we burden our survivors with a mighty but rather heartwarming burdening; our memorial service becomes a vast pain in the butt. It becomes necessary to rent or obtain an auditorium in which to hold our memorial service. In some cases (and this actually happened to one family friend of ours) it will require two auditorium sessions.

If we turtle up and cannot bear the thought of anyone getting anything he or she did not earn, and yell at the kids to stay off our lawn, the memorial service is easier. It can be held in the men’s can at the SunMart on 27th and US 395 in south Kennewick, WA, and probably without taking over any stalls or disturbing anyone’s deuce deposition. Might even be able to handle it in a single stall.

If so, poetic justice.

But whether or not we choose with our minds, our actions represent our choice.

Share or hoard. Either you have chosen, or you will choose.

And as people choose, so do people’s organizations in their fullness of maturity: companies, churches, social groups.

Even nations.

Choose.

Dear Girl Scouting parents: please hush

Not entirely, of course. But kindly let the girls answer the questions on their own without opening your traps unless the girl asks for your help.

I admire Girl Scouting, in spite of the fact that my wife got kicked out of them for cursing and refusing to sell cookies. (As Weird Al teaches us, some girls like to buy new shoes, and others like driving trucks and wearing tattoos. I married the second variety.) Girl Scouting is inclusive, teaching a number of worthy values. It helps to raise generations of strong women. As an aging man, this is worth whatever it takes to achieve because–assuming I don’t seize up like an engine out of oil–I’m going to be elderly in a world that these girls will one day be managing.

Selling Girl Scout cookies can be an important link in the process of developing those values–but much more so if you will please shut up.

Here’s the deal.

  • I know the cookies are very expensive.
  • I know this is a rather more educational and practical fundraiser than simply asking for money.
  • I do not actually want any cookies.
  • I absolutely should not eat any cookies.
  • If I were acting in my own best interests, I would blow past the cookie table and send a cash donation to my local GSA organization. I would spend less money, they would pocket more profit, and I would have less pork to walk off. Stopping for cookies is not what I want to do.

I do it because this is my village, and these girls are its future, and among the most important things a girl can learn is poise in dealing with the public–especially with older men, who could in theory seem like hairy intimidating monsters. Older men who have thought things through will understand that they have a dog in this fight, and may/should do the following in some form:

  1. Stop and say hello to the girls. Speak with respect: “Good afternoon, young ladies.” Model the way men should treat them, so that they learn what that is. Later on in life, when asshole men treat them otherwise, they will recognize the difference.
  2. Whichever girl responds, ask some thoughtful questions. What does your troop do in the community? Which of these contain peanuts? Are there any new kinds this year? What have you learned from Girl Scouting? What do you like best about it? What did you do to earn that badge?
  3. Listen to the answers. You asked, now shut up and let her tell you. Show interest. Ask a follow-up if you wish. Be friendly, of course, not grouchy, but process the answers you receive. Be engaged.
  4. Don’t ask the parents anything. The parents aren’t the vendors; the girl is. Give her the dignity and experience of directing every question to her.
  5. Pick out at least one box of cookies, to show them that poise in dealing with the public earns trust, respect, and business. Pay the girl and wait for the change. Thank her and accept her thanks.
  6. When you get home, give the cookies to someone who can eat them.

I hope you see where I am going with this. Now that I’ve entreated myself, let me do the same for the supervising parents.

First: you are doing an outstanding thing. Thank you. Without your unselfish dedication, none of this would be possible.

Second: with all due respect and with great gratitude for your volunteerism, please shush. Be silent. For the love of whatever deities you serve, let the girl answer unaided until she asks you for help.

When the customer asks questions, s/he is trying to help the girls. The customer is doing his or her part, in a small way, to teach. Except in rare cases, the customer does not actually care that much about the answers. Therefore, kindly let the girl answer the question. If she falters, continue the fine art of “shut the hell up.” Do not butt in. Shut your mouth. Let her think. She has a perfectly good brain. How she uses it will determine her destiny.

What if she’s stuck? Teach–in advance. Teach her to ask you for help if she needs it. If she does not know the answer, she needs to know that it is all right to ask for help and knowledge. Explain to her that you’re going to let her handle this, but that if she doesn’t know the answer, she should ask you and then relay the answer.

You must not answer for her. Do not make eye contact with the customer. This is her customer. Do not parentsplain. Let her learn to handle the customer and seek answers she does not yet have. In time, if you will just shut the hell up until asked by her, she will be confident handling all sorts of odd questions.

Do you seriously think she’s too stupid to subtract five from twenty? Don’t laugh. I had a parent butt in and interrupt a girl today while she was making change (for the day’s second box of unwanted cookies bought by me). Good lord! If Common Core means that a nine-year-old girl can’t subtract five from twenty in her head any more, then we need to send in our resignation from the ranks of developed countries. Let her make change!

If she does something wrong, unless it would somehow deprive the customer of fair value (which is when you do butt in), wait until no one is listening, then teach. Parent. Counsel. Educate. Guide. Help me out. “You forgot to thank that customer. That’s very important.” “Remember that it’s okay to stop and think for a moment.” “Did you treat that customer like the most important person you were dealing with right then?” Gentle, supportive, educational. Help her be better and let her see that being better produces better outcomes.

I’m serious. Help me out. I’m perfectly happy buying overpriced cookies I don’t want, but for the love of Pete, help me help the girls.

Let them handle the deal.

If you are one of society’s blurters or helicopter parents, and are just busting at the seams to open your trap, wait until she has handled the transaction and I’m leaving. At that point, I will probably reward her poise by looking to you and thanking you for volunteering to teach fine young ladies like these. Now you can talk. Now it’s about you. It was about her, now it’s about you. Bask a little. Let the girl see that volunteerism earns respect and that she and you are part of an organization much valued by the public.

If you did as I asked, by shutting up long enough to allow me to do my little part, you’ve earned that.

P.S. One week later, and it still goes on. Coming out of grocery store today. Began to ask Brownie the relevant questions. Girl attempts to respond. Adult present kept butting in. I am tired of this and I’m done tolerating it. Quietly, behind my hand: “Young man, I am addressing the vendor. I’m trying to help this girl learn. Please kindly let her answer.” To his credit, he tried, though he butted in again, and when she showed herself perfectly capable of giving a $5 in change for a $10, felt it necessary to coach her on making change. Gods save us all from well-meaning helicopter parentsplainers who won’t shut the hell up and stay out of it until they are needed. I feel like I’m teaching fricking first grade, and it’s not the girls I’m having to instruct.

One more, later that day; at last, some parents with their act together. I asked their girl about her bridge emblem, and about what they do in the community. She and her sister were obviously poised veterans, and she told how they are saving money for a veterans’ breakfast. Perfect trigger point. “Well, ma’am, that sounds like the kind of thing I want to support.” Not a word from mom and dad. On the way out, I praised their daughters’ confidence. Dad: “They’ve been doing this for six years, so they know all the answers. They can take care of it.”

Yes, young man, they can.

And as you age and falter in your days, they will remember you from their youth as a man who–more than any other man–taught them how men should treat them, and who let them find their own strength, and they will revere you to your final hour and beyond. When lesser men treat them less well, they will know the difference and demand better.

I didn’t tell him all that, of course, but I thought it as I pushed the grocery cart across the parking lot.

Harold’s sneakers

I used to know a guy named Harold, whom I met through my good friend James. Well, Harold had issues, though he wasn’t a bad guy at heart. In short, Harold was a perpetual, seemingly compulsive liar. He would brass through any lie even when presented with plain evidence to refute it. Harold was convinced that he had been a very important member of a secret special ops unit. If the subject of a language came up, he claimed to speak it fluently. Harold lied about so much that one believed nothing he said, and one was surprised whenever a truth leaked through all the fiction and horseshit.

Even so, I never expected he’d burn a friendship to get a couple grand, but live and learn. He still owes me that money, plus interest, ten years in.

I did have fun one time, when Harold showed up at my door unannounced, wearing his green beret (which was draped on the wrong side). I did not miss a beat. “Little girl, I’d like two boxes of thin mints, and two boxes of the peanut butter dream cookies, please.”

Before entering, Harold raised a middle finger, signifying his disapproval of my greeting.

Another time, Harold got snowed in at my place during a freak Pacific Northwest westside snowstorm. He was stuck there for three days, during which he managed to get my sliding glass door stuck open due to ice, thanks in turn to his frequent need to go out and smoke. Since he had trudged some distance through the slush to reach my place, he had arrived with very wet sneakers, which he removed. My carpet would never be the same again. Harold’s sneakers had a legendary stench, and he was now walking around my place in his wet socks. He claimed to have contracted some sort of jungle fungus in the tropics. I suspected he probably just hadn’t changed his socks often enough.

When I awoke the next morning, and went down the hall, my nostrils cringed before the assault of Harold’s fermenting sneakers (probably almost ready for la remuage et le dégorgement). This will not stand, I told myself. My solution was silent, swift, and sure. I dug three quarters out of my laundry coin jar and scooped up a scoop of laundry detergent. I looked at Harold, pointed at his shoes, then to my door. I sat the coins and detergent on the table and went back to my room, hoping that my body language had conveyed the full urgency.

The funniest one, though, was when James needed his house painted, as he feared he might need to put it on the market due to illness. Harold and I teamed up to paint the house. Now, James had a small mutt named Willie. Willie, an inoffensive creature to anyone partial to dogs, annoyed me and I paid him no attention of any kind. Willie did not care. Willie liked me anyway, and for that reason, James liked me. This was a pretty hot day, Harold had rented a paint sprayer, at the use of which he was inept, and we weren’t having a very easy or clean time.

James, being the good guy that he was, ordered pizza for all of us. (He was too frail at that point to help paint the place. He would eventually need a transplant, which would buy him some more years before we lost him.) Harold and I were glad to go inside for lunch. I was so tired, sweaty, and hungry that I didn’t even care that Harold had removed his sneakers.

We all shared a jovial pizza lunch, eating our way to the crusts. Willie expected that this would be his snack time, and began to get a little eager. James chastised him in that piercing nasal voice I miss to this day: “Willie! Good dogs get, and bad dogs don’t!” Willie, no fool, resumed his patient wait. Soon James pitched a succulent pizza crust in his direction.

I swear to you that this is true: it landed directly in one of Harold’s shoes. I would not fictionalize something like this without telling you so.

James, of course, had not meant to do that. Willie’s reflexes caused him to dart for the thrown food, and within six inches of Harold’s footwear, the dog halted as if he’d hit a force-field. Willie stopped, examined the situation, sniffed, and backed off. He gave James the mournful canine look that says ‘You are such a fucker,’ and trudged away in sorrow.

When it registered what we had just seen, that was probably the best laugh we all ever had together.

It’s how I like to remember James, a man whose eulogy I would one day have to deliver.

Remembering my friend Brian Rush, 9/12/56 – 12/2/15

If being in your fifties is all about obituaries and funerals and memorials, I’m starting to grasp how people’s attitudes can become in their sixties. This is not fun. You watch it accelerate, and it can’t help but get you thinking.

I hadn’t seen Brian in twenty years when I got the news that he had died of an aneurysm, though we had sporadic touch here and there since Facepalm came along. Way back when, I met him through my then-girlfriend’s religious circles, and we established common interests in history and gaming. He was very well read, creative, intelligent, funny, and knew it–but since he was also self-honest, he would have been the first one to fess to a large ego.

Our first interactions involved a couple of computer games at which I asked him for pointers. One was Colonization, a game of the European occupation of the Americas. As you played the role of a colonial governor, building your independence from a mother country until the day you unfurled Old Glory in rebellion, now and then the monarch would contact you with messages like this: “Governor van Abductus [or whatever your name was]. In honor of Our recent marriage to Our fifth wife, We in our Wisdom have decided to raise the tax rate by 4%. The tax rate is now 35%. If you wish, you may kiss Our royal pinky ring.” The pot-bellied image would extend a dainty hand. If you didn’t kiss the royal pinky ring and pay the tax, you couldn’t trade the commodity with the homeland any more. Brian and I hooted and laughed over the irritation this caricature brought to the game, and it became sort of a meme; when one of us was relating a requirement to do an unpleasant thing or suffer (go to the DMV, for example), it would be: “So when do you go in to kiss the royal pinky ring?” I remember him as a source of laughter and debate and wit, a more than worthy sparring partner in matters of difference and philosophy. If you hadn’t thought through your position, Brian would show you what you’d missed.

He was also a hell of a public speaker. I used to be part of a group that gathered to play multiplayer boardgames. One of them, a political and semi-military contest called Republic of Rome, was in Brian’s and my historical wheelhouse. It was also a game of such great nefarity, chicanery, and deceit that the rules author felt he had to enumerate in unambiguous detail certain restrictions. Such rules were taken on faith by custom in other games designed to appeal to less slimy people. Such as the part about electing a banker:

4:3 BANKER: Elect one player to serve as an unrecompensed “Banker” throughout the game. He doles out money from game supplies as it is earned, makes change upon request, and maintains the proper currency levels on the State Treasury Track while keeping the State, Game, and his Faction’s funds distinctly separate. [Underlines are mine.]

“Unrecompensed”; if not otherwise specified, RoR players would attempt to charge the other players some form of commission or fee for banking services, plus presumably a stipend just for being themselves. “As it is earned”; he may not do as RoR players otherwise would seek to do, and dole it out to purchase influence from those peddling it for personal advantage. “Maintains the proper currency levels…distinctly separate”; absent such explicit rules, RoR players would consider that being banker was a license to steal as much money as possible for themselves, as long as the rest of the players did not cop to it and combine forces against the banker.

Brian was very good at the game. We often found ourselves in conflict, mainly because each of us knew that the other was going to play historically (full sleazebag). He also offered a lot of entertainment, because part of the game was the speechmaking. We all ended up with nicknames; I forget Brian’s, but we had a guy named Aaron whom we called ‘Citizen Erroneous,’ and me they called ‘Citizen Taxus,’ partly for the Latin name of the badger, partly because I had gotten away with sticking the Roman state with numerous perpetual tax obligations while feathering my own nest, and the rest of them rightfully had it out for me at all times.

Brian would rise to address us. If his faction held the Censorship, you could anticipate something like this: “Conscript Fathers, there is but one true threat to our Republican traditions. One guilty of levitas during the state’s crises, of mismanaging the state’s funds, and very worst of all: of seeking to become a King! I herewith launch a Major Prosecution against Citizen Taxus, and call upon you, Citizen Erroneous, to prosecute!” I would then have to defend myself, not through reason, but by pointing out that Brian was doing this to me purely for personal gain. Since that much was obvious even to a Gaul, I would need more ammo than that. I would hint at the growing number of legions loyal to him, suggest that they ask him to disclose his faction treasury, and imply that he had fluffed the latter up by illegal or at least highly unethical means. This was almost certain to be correct, since we all did our best to steal anything that wasn’t a) nailed down, and b) very emphatically prohibited by the rules.

As I could see him launch into his expositions of my faction’s numerous moral and political shortcomings, I did my all to avoid ruining the moments with laughter. I could see by the twinkle in his eyes that he was also struggling most of the time. And when I did similar things to him, I know he found it very challenging to keep a straight face.

What fun we had.

Such are my memories of Brian Rush, philosopher, proud pagan man, historian, writer, storyteller, gamer, and friend. He was a father, and cared very much for his daughters’ welfare. Now they are grown women; when this was all happening, they were little girls whose parents had split up. I never knew the details of that, and did not ask, but I could see that his daughters were important to him.

I will always remember Brian, and the twinkle in his eye.

Deb’s and my hearts go out to all his surviving family, especially the daughters who meant so much to him.

Mr. Giro Nakagawa, 1921-2015

News comes to me of the passing of a longtime friend, Mr. Giro Nakagawa. I met his second son, Byron, in college; we hung out together, ran around in the woods at Fort Lewis together, gamed together, and drank together.

Mr. Nakagawa was born in the Seattle area, and grew up during the Depression. His parents had immigrated from Japan, which made them Issei (first generation) in Nikkei (Japanese American) parlance. That made him Nisei, or second generation, born an American citizen. His children would be Sansei (third generation). He graduated from high school in 1938 and eventually found his way to the Willapa Bay area, where he worked dredging oysters.

World War II came, and as a country we handled it exactly as American custom and tradition demand: by wadding up the Constitution and becoming crazy-ass paranoid. In this case, that meant that young Giro, like his entire family, would be sent to an ‘internment’ camp. He spent part of the war years farming beets in Idaho for a sugar company, then was drafted to help defend the country of his birth that had treated him in such a way. Fortunately, he did not see combat. When Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa described the war years, they referred to it as being ‘in camp.’ When he came back, he met with prejudice in the Seattle area, and went back to oystering at Nemah, a tiny town on Willapa Bay.

Mr. Nakagawa married Miyoko in 1957. They had three children: Michael, Byron, and Noreen. I met the rest of the family in 1981 as a college freshman, when Byron invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his family. And therein arises a tale.

Mr. Nakagawa was not a large man, but he had a powerful command presence. I learned this on the Saturday morning after the holiday. On Friday, you see, Byron took me out to party with his friends, and we stayed out pretty late. Until about 3 AM, as I recall, and we came home completely plastered. The Nakagawas had two living room couches, and we each were sleeping on one in a sleeping bag.

Since sleep compresses our perception of time, it felt as if I’d just collapsed in a beery haze when a command voice pierced my repose. “UP!” Still drunk, I stirred a bit, peered over at By on the other couch. He was in about the same state.

“UP!” came the former sergeant’s voice. I looked up to see Mr. Nakagawa in the living room wearing his red hunter hat. “I just shot an elk down in a valley. If you can stay out and carouse all night, you can also get up and work.”

Man, we didn’t have to be told a third time. By and I exchanged glances and got the hell out of those sleeping bags, right away. We staggered into yesterday’s clothes and followed Mr. Nakagawa out to his pickup. He drove us out onto a remote logging road where a couple of his friends (a term that probably includes everyone in Pacific County, because he was revered and cherished there) were rigging a pulley to a small tree.

Mr. Nakagawa led us down into a replanted Weyerhauser forest, with saplings about twelve feet high on average, probably lodgepole or ponderosa pine. The other men began to rig one end of a rope through the pulley and to Mr. Nakagawa’s trailer hitch, and we took the other end with us. When we reached the elk, maybe eighty yards down the slope, I saw that they had already gutted it. It was a medium-sized bull, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to annoy during rutting season. He tied the rope to the elk’s snout, and as I recall, sent Byron slightly up the slope to help reduce entanglements. Then Mr. Nakagawa and I took our positions alongside the enormous carcass. It was a drizzly November morning in southwestern Washington, I was still quite inebriated, and we were laughing.

Our job was to stay with the elk as the truck dragged it uphill, helping avoid it getting hung up on anything Byron had been unable to clear from the path. Mr. Nakagawa bellowed up the hill to get things moving, and the elk began to slide uphill. We scrambled after it, trying to avoid getting caught between elk and obstacle while helping elk get past obstacles. Now and then, one of us would lose his footing and come up laughing. Four hours of sleep, tipsy, soaked, and I was having fun. At one point, when I fell on my ass, our eyes met and we laughed from the belly. That remains my enduring image of Mr. Nakagawa, a hearty laugh across a dead bull elk’s remains as they slid up the wet, grassy, pine-needly hillside, with us scrambling to keep up.

I later reflected that this was very characteristic of his way in life. He didn’t mind what his children did, so long as it didn’t get in the way of them pitching in. And if you were with his children, you were like one of them, subject to all the same privileges and expectations–and welcomed to all the fun.

By and I remained in loose touch; he stuck around in Nemah to help his parents as they got on in years. Mr. Nakagawa survived a serious health scare some fifteen years back, an aneurism if memory serves. In 1998 I got married, and though I hadn’t seen him in over a decade, I sent the family an invitation. Byron drove about six hours to attend, and his parents sent a very generous wedding gift. Strangely, I misplaced the check, and recently found it while unpacking. Very unlike me to misplace money. All I could think of was that I was sorry for having messed up their checking account; I hate it when I send people checks and they don’t cash them. When I went to spend the wedding night in a hotel with Deb, we left the apartment in the hands of my bros John and George, my old workplace crony and friend Chuck, Byron, and our late-teenage niece Kristen (who had been a bridesmaid). It tells you a lot about my friends that Kristen wanted to stay there, rather than at the house where the other women were camping out. She was the safest person in the Tri-Cities that night, surrounded by some of the very best men I know.

I will miss him, but it was an honor to know him. Deb’s and my hearts are with Mrs. Nakagawa, Mike, Byron, Noreen, and the whole community.

How to throw lightning bolts of consumer recompense

In our modern society, we too often tolerate the standard responses from our vendors. “That’s just our policy.” “We can’t change that, sir.” “We apologize profusely, but do not plan to compensate you.”

Don’t take that shit.

Here’s how to get some compensation for what was done wrong. It won’t always work; I wouldn’t bet on it working on the Comcastards, for example, or Arrogant Twits & Torturers. But if you don’t believe it can work, let me blow my own horn a little here, and then maybe you will change your mind. Bear in mind that not all letters are negative; good work can and should be highlighted:

I wrote to the CEO of Seafirst Bank (children, there once was a Northwest commercial bank by that name) to praise the conduct of an employee. (Someone had found my lost paycheck, taken it to the nearby branch, the employee had not contented herself with just mailing it to me, and phoned me to verify that it was mine and would I like to come get it. Exceptional.) I also praised her manager, whom I respected very much. The employee got a bonus check. Before long, the manager had a new placard announcing that she was now an AVP. Put it this way: from then on, any remotely reasonable request I made at that branch was considered ‘very reasonable.’

I wrote to Jeff Bezos to straighten out the quagmire of getting my contributing author credits right on books sold at Amazon. I heard from a very nice young man who sliced through the red tape and solved it.

I wrote to Michael Dell about the idiocy of continuing to send me ‘refurbished’ CRT monitors that came up very short in the furbishing department. I got a call from one of his personal assistants, and in less than a week, I had a new monitor. I am looking at it to compose this post.

I wrote to the Benton County PUD (Public Utilities District; stop giggling, you infants) about a stupid policy regarding billing cycles. Simply put, I saw no reason why my billing due date should be tied to my meter-reading date. I wanted to pay promptly in full each month, and I just wanted my bill to show up conveniently. That one was tough, but after four years of campaigning, and one final letter to the commissioners, they did it.

Great Floors left my (at the time, vacant) house a mess. They replaced the carpet, but left shreds of it laying all over the property. Boxcutter blades on the bathroom floor. Dragged the carpeting over freshly painted wall corners, abrading the new paint right off. Tied up the drapes in knots and then didn’t untie them. Turned my heat off and then failed to turn it back on, in a cold climate, in winter. Left the extra carpet out in the winter weather, though there was a perfectly good garage handy. I wrote to the CEO, who tasked the local manager with fixing things. Said local manager tried to blame it all on a painting contractor who had no reason to be in most of the places that had damage, thus attempting to muddy the blame waters. Bad move. I wrote to the CEO again. One person was fired, one was demoted, and I got $500.

Frontier’s technicians were stupid. Not only did the company think I should have to change my email address because they bought the local DSL business from Verizon, but they had no one intelligent enough to figure out why I couldn’t access my email unless I wanted to use Outhouse Express. After a great deal of hellraising, I got them to give me $150 to pay for my new business cards and the headache of changing my address.

Centurylink, in defiance of several pointed requests, not only issued me a published phone number, but put me in the phone book. The Federal do-not-call list works about as well as most Federal anything, so that was no help. Every beg-a-thon in Boise dialed my number. In the end, I got them to give me a compensatory discount every month for a year, plus not charge me for an unlisted number in the future.

A Yakima Federal S&L loan rep promised me something, then failed to keep his promise when I’d gotten my paperwork together. “Sorry, program closed.” Not so fast, son, I’ve been at this a long time. I eventually called my way up to the chief lending officer. After a polite discussion where we got past all the usual fluff and were being fully candid, he said, “That’ll leave a lot of money on the table over the years.” “True,” I said. “And I will have all twenty of those years to tell everyone who will listen that YakFed is a highly principled bank that keeps its commitments.” He thought for a moment. “Done,” he said.

Bear in mind that if you call, you must follow the same principles as you’d follow if you wrote a letter. There are many more examples, but now do you believe me?

Good. Here’s what you do.

The Tale of Woe. First go through the normal channels. Sit on hold. Write down names and dates. Act like the typical dufus who can easily be blown off. You will spend a lot of time on hold, talking to foreigners who can’t solve your problem or compensate you fairly, getting annoyed a little more by the minute. Just take notes. The Tale of Woe gives you a story to tell about how you tried the normal process and were treated shabbily. There is also the chance–rare, but non-zero–that the normal channels may actually resolve your problem. That would be nice, too.

The Manager. Once you determine that the normal channels are a fail, call back and ask to speak to the manager. Explain that you are very frustrated and don’t want to tell the whole story twice, and that you don’t want to take out your frustrations on the person who answered the phone, as you know that isn’t fair. Try The Manager, who probably can’t solve your problem, but make a good faith effort anyway. (Stupid or unempowered customer service people are usually a reflection of middle management incompetence and evil, so I wouldn’t expect too much.) Continue to compile the Tale of Woe.

The Lightning Bolt. If you are not exceptionally articulate, find a friend who is. If you have no friends who are exceptionally articulate, then you should befriend some of us. We are helpful to have in your world. Find out who the CEO is, and find out how to mail him or her a letter–call the corporate office. Reassure them that you just want to write a letter and that a PO box is fine, lest in our modern paranoid day the receptionist suspects that you are headed over with a van full of bad things. Then throw the Lightning Bolt, which is a letter designed to persuade. Follow these principles:

  • You must have fairly paid all money that you legitimately owe. People with bad payment histories have no leverage. You must always maintain an exemplary payment history, even if your notion of exemplary is different than theirs–you must be able to articulate it, show that it’s reasonable, and prove that you live by it.
  • Do your level best to keep it to one page. Bear in mind that if you succeed, a minion will be assigned to investigate, so no need to take a ton of time.
  • Spell names correctly, use gender-neutral language where suitable, and say Mr. or Ms. (or Dr., etc.). Take the time to get this exactly right. ‘Ms. Lynn Smith’ may actually be Mr. Lynn Smyth. Spelling correctly shows respect.
  • Write respectfully. You are pleading your case to a busy executive, an important person whose time is finite. You want the reader to see you as a wonderful customer who has been treated odiously by the firm, and who can be satisfied.
  • Be reasonable. If your position seems in any way unreasonable, you will get nowhere. Do not unfairly malign any person involved, or present an unreasonable wish. The customer isn’t always right, and only fools think s/he is. Reality: the customer is as right as the firm can possibly make him or her without giving away the store.
  • Be satisfiable. If you offer no hint as to what would make you happy, there is minimal reason for someone to attempt to please you. Offer a path to full restoration of your confidence and respect.
  • If at any point in the Tale of Woe, you got frustrated and were too harsh with someone, fess to it in some way, and apologize.
  • The Tale of Woe needs to be involved enough for you to keep one key painful event in reserve, so that if you are asked if that’s all there was, it isn’t.
  • No matter how difficult this is, avoid statements that sound like telling the CEO how to run the company. Those will be resented. The way around that is:
  • Above all, frame it in the firm’s business interest. You are writing to a very successful businessperson who wants the company to do well. You must present the case for why the change you want, or the recompense you want, works in the firm’s business interest. Retaining good customers? Positive PR? Rewarding people who pay promptly and in full? To appeal to a politician, you’d frame it in terms of the support you can mobilize and offer. To appeal to a business person, frame it in terms of doing the best business for the firm.
  • Offer something in return. First, make clear that this would satisfy you, because one good ‘something in return’ is making you go away happy. I swore to Benton County PUD to physically drop off my payment each month, just to make dead sure that when they changed the due date to make me happy, I would never be late, ever. You read what I promised the YakFed lending chief; I went him one better, and brought him my business again when we bought a house in their catchment area. I promised Centurylink to endure a year of phone nags without complaining to them about it again.
  • Normally I would say you should make sure to assure the CEO that if s/he calls you, you will be polite and reasonable, but think about it. If the tone of your letter fails to convey that without having to specify it, then your letter is already a fail. Write in such a way that the CEO might actually like speaking with you.
  • If you get bought off, stay bought. If you make a promise, keep it in every particular.
  • Thank the executive for his or her time and attention.
  • Provide your full contact information, because you’ll be hearing back.

Sometimes the CEO will call you in person–this happened to me with a credit union–but most of the time you should expect the CEO to hand this off to an assistant and say, “Fix this.” Expect the assistant to call and check your facts. If you overstated your case, you will look terrible. If you were a complete jackass, you will look terrible. If you lied, you will look terrible. If you don’t pay your bills, you will look terrible. If the assistant smells bullshit, the CEO does not expect him or her to waste the company’s time and money on a liar or a deadbeat, and will back the assistant when s/he phones you with nothing more substantive than a verbal apology.

You had better have been factual, if anything understating the pain. If you got even a little frustrated, your apology for the way you vented the frustration needs to have been in that letter. If you craft your words correctly, you will seem like the world’s best customer and most reasonable person, just seeking to do high-quality business with the firm, and that your business was treated as though it had no value, but that they can make it up to you.

Then let them.

=========

If you can’t bear to read a long letter, skip this addendum.

Here I include a sample Lightning Bolt, plus the follow-up letter (always of value, especially when the business is smaller and more local. It reminds me that I got the story slightly wrong above, but that’s okay, because the truth as presented is even more entertaining. First, here is my letter to the Commissioners of Benton PUD, all of whom I researched for useful references that would help me frame my position. It couldn’t fit in one page, but here I had a protracted tale to tell:

June 18, 2008

  • Mr. Jeff Hall
  • Ms. Lori Sanders
  • Mr. Robert Bertsch
  • Benton P.U.D.
  • POB 6270
  • Kennewick, WA 99336

Re: P.U.D. account #[number]

Dear Commissioners:

We’re having a P.U.D. migraine, and we hope you can help us.

We are P.U.D. customers with service at [address], Kennewick. When we bought this home nearly seven years ago, we discovered that our P.U.D. billing cycle could vary as much as nine days, depending on when the meter was read. This concerned us (not the meter reading itself, simply the billing), for we are rigorously creditworthy people who pay all their bills—in full—on the 4th, 5th or 6th of each month. (Exact timing depends on weekends and holidays. We don’t even take vacations during that time.) Where necessary, we work with vendors to ensure that their bills show up in time to pay them promptly. As a result, our credit is excellent.

Unfortunately, the irregular billing meant that sometimes we had the P.U.D. bill in time to pay, and sometimes not. When we first saw the situation, seven years back, we phoned the billing office to seek a solution. The representative brusquely told us that the billing system couldn’t be changed and that we’d just have to live with it. We didn’t expect the meter-reading route to change for one household; we just wanted to get our bill at the same time every month, in time to pay it immediately. Evidently, that was considered unreasonable.

We didn’t appreciate the brush-off, and decided that if that’s how the P.U.D. felt, we would simply pay whatever P.U.D. bill(s) we had in hand when we paid all our other vendors. In practice, that meant that some months we had one bill, some months none, and some months two plus a late fee. Whatever was there, we paid. Having tried hard to repair the situation, we resented those late fees, but since one can’t really switch electricity vendors, we had no choice but to clench our teeth and pay them.

We operated that way for about four years. Once a year we would phone the P.U.D. office, again seeking a resolution, and each year we got the same answer. We still felt our request was reasonable, so we didn’t back down.

In 2005, the annual phone call finally paid off. The billing department put us on what we now understand is called a Protected Billing Cycle, and we in turn agreed to an unusual step: henceforth we would hand deliver the P.U.D. payment to the drop box, rather than entrusting it to the mail. As we saw it, since the utility had met our request, we had the ethical duty to ensure that we were never late (even by accident). We felt we had a mutual understanding, and it delighted us to keep our bargain—which our account history will demonstrate that we have. We subscribed to your Green Power initiative; given the evidence of good stewardship, we knew you’d use the money wisely.

With our May 2008 billing, we received a survey. We were pleased to rate the P.U.D. favorably in all categories, and included a special note of praise for the billing resolution. We included it with our payment.

Imagine our surprise when our next invoice came, and the due date was June 30! We’d like to hope that someone didn’t read our survey and hand it to a supervisor who said, “What special billing arrangement? Cancel it!” It looked as if the P.U.D. had abrogated our understanding without even so much as the courtesy of a notice, and without the slightest provocation by us. Most likely it was a coincidence; if so, its timing was awful.

Surely there had to be some mistake, so one of us (Jonathan) stopped by the Kennewick office to speak to a supervisor. We discussed it at length; the supervisor pulled our payment history and verified our claims. Her answer was that the P.U.D. was doing away with these Protected Billing Cycles, and our turn had simply come. We made most of the points we have made in this letter; she remained unmoved. She offered various justifications and suggestions, but the short version was ‘sorry, tough luck.’ She invited us to write to the Commissioners.

Very well.

Our position was and is simple. We are honest people who just want to get our bill on time and pay it promptly in full. We submit that we are your dream customers. What percent of your customers try to weasel out of paying? Probably more than a few. Those people harm us all; they deserve no accommodations from the utility. We, however, are the people who can and wish to pay.

All of you are successful businesspeople outside the P.U.D., so we hardly need point out that every business wants reliable customers who use the product or service, make no spurious complaints, and pay promptly in full. We believe you’d agree with this statement: any business practice that makes it harder for willing customers to pay promptly in full fails a fundamental test of good business.

What, then, do we ask of you? Simple as can be: assure that our monthly bill is mailed in time to arrive by the end of each month, with a due date not earlier than the tenth of the next month. That’s all. For our part, we will assure prompt payment in full each month: we’ll make sure you never regret it. In short, we would like a return to the fair and helpful understanding that resolved the longstanding awkwardness (for a couple of years, at least). We have made every effort to resolve this amicably over the years, to the P.U.D.’s advantage as well as our own. We feel we have earned an affirmative reply.

The representative at Kennewick did offer one creative idea for us to propose, and we wish to credit her for it. Perhaps, she suggested, the Protected Billing Cycle concept might be reinstated as a benefit available only to clients with outstanding payment histories. That makes sense to us. We would surely qualify, and it would reward the most responsible, honest customers. We’re open to any solution that puts our bill in our mailbox by month-end, due by the tenth of the next month, so that we have it in hand to pay in full.

We don’t think it’s too much to ask. We hope you’ll concur.

Sincerely,

[us, address, phone number]

The short version is that they did as we asked. To make them feel excellent about having done so, we followed up:

July 22, 2008

[the same people]

Dear Commissioners:

Today we received a call from [employee’s full name] about the billing cycle issue pursuant to our previous letter, and she informed us that the Protected Billing Cycle will be reinstated for our account.

We could hardly be more delighted. We want to thank you for a) taking our concerns seriously, b) recognizing our strong payment history in a proactive way, c) solving the issue to our complete satisfaction, and d) assigning Paula to the communication task. She made an excellent impression for the utility: professional, pleasant and informative.

We were confident that if we described the full situation, we would receive a fair and considerate hearing. Obviously our confidence was well-placed—and just as obviously, the public trust is very well-placed in the hands of the current commission.

For our part, you can be assured that our payment history will remain exemplary. The P.U.D. deserves that of us, and you shall have it.

Sincerely,

[us]

We never again needed to ask the Benton PUD for anything, but I suspect that if we had, a phone call to that employee would have obtained us the most favorable consideration. Note also that those PUD Commissioner slots are elective positions. While I wasn’t so crass as to come out and promise them my vote, be assured that they got the message. It spoke to their personal as well as business interests.

Anyway, that’s how it looks with live ammunition.