Monday, July 15, 2013

Is This the Complaint Window?

OK, I tend to complain a lot. Let's get that out right off the bat. I complain about how people drive, their slavish attachment to electronic devices, poor service almost everywhere I go, church sermons that make absolutely no sense and are far too long in the bargain, dumb road signs...honestly, I'm likely to complain about almost anything. I wasn't always like this. As a younger man I was more willing to let things pass. I didn't want to hurt people's feelings or get myself worked up about things over which I had no control. Now I complain from morning till night; just ask my poor wife who has to listen to my rants. I don't like the grouch I've become, but surely, if I don't tell people about their shortcomings, how will they learn?

I try being more patient, but before long, I run out. Here's a simple example: I recently had to take a distribution from one of our retirement accounts; this is mandatory once you reach age 70 1/2. The financial institution holding the investment asked me if I wanted federal and state tax withheld from the check they would be sending me. I said I did. They sent me a statement confirming they would withhold the tax as instructed. When the check arrived, no tax had been withheld. And so it begins. I email them to explain their error and ask that it be corrected. They email me back saying they don't handle such transactions on non-secure email and that I should call them. OK, they are being cautious, I can understand that.

So I call them and of course they ask for my pin number to access the account. Now I set up this account when I still had hair on my head and a working memory, so naturally, so many years later, I don't remember my pin number. No problem, the robot recording tells me, if you can't remember your pin number just answer the following questions to confirm that it's really you and we'll email the pin number to you. I painstakingly punch the answers to all their questions into my phone keypad. (I can feel my small supply of patience beginning to leak away.) After going through this drill, the robot tells me that my type of account does not permit me to retrieve my pin number over the phone. Then why not tell me that up front before making me peck out all those annoying answers. (Patience leaking faster now.)

So I can't get help via email because my transaction is "sensitive", and since I don't know my pin number, and can't retrieve it on the phone because the type of account I have doesn't allow it, just exactly where am I? Will anyone at this financial institution deign to speak with me? Maybe I should put a note in a bottle, take it down to the beach and hope for the best. I can understand encountering an incompetent individual in any company, in fact, I encounter many of them. What really bothers me is when a large company, supposedly filled with smart people because after all, look at the salaries they make, is dumb enough to perpetuate stupidity by building it right into its systems and procedures. When that happens there is no hope.

So you see dear reader why I must complain. I am surrounded by service people who are stupid, apathetic, rude, and sometimes all three. Like Don Quixote, I endure this lonely quest, bitching loudly to anyone who will listen.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Make 'Em Laugh

When television was in its infancy, some of the most popular shows were sitcoms. Programming values were pretty sparse back then and sitcoms were relatively cheap to produce. Nearly all the actors were unknowns, the sets were as cheap as they come, and the writers were just happy to be making a living at something they loved; getting paid anything was a bonus. Also, in the days before the PC police existed, it was OK to make shows based around ethnic or racial groups. It was no surprise that shows like Amos and Andy (African-Americans), I Remember Mama (Norwegians), Luigi Bosco (Italians), and The Goldbergs (Jews), found audiences in people who took comfort in seeing others like themselves up on the small screen.

The next generation of sitcoms might be characterized as the "golden age" by baby boomers who grew up on them. My favorite, then and now, is The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Most of these shows were built around family life with a slightly harried Dad, a pretty but sensible Mom, a couple of wisecracking kids, and of course some wacky neighbors. Some of the more popular included I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Make Room for Daddy or The Danny Thomas Show. The latter spun off another great show that is still funny today, The Andy Griffith Show which, like The Honeymooners, starred a perfect ensemble of players including the great Don Knotts.

Then came the next wave of sitcoms that offered edgier programming. Led by Norman Lear's All in the Family, these shows explored themes that up until then were considered inappropriate for television. The Jeffersons was spun off All in the Family and interestingly was one of the first shows to feature blacks in starring roles since the Amos and Andy days. Some memorable sitcoms from this genre were MASH, Maude, The Smothers Brothers, and Laugh-In. Bill Cosby deserves special mention for his show, which disdained the stereotypes that were featured in other popular black sitcoms like Good Times and What's Happening. Instead he portrayed a black family as mainstream professionals with normal family problems and in doing so, elevated the image of African Americans on television.

By the 1980s, the sitcom was in full flower. I watched Cheers, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Married with Children, Night Court, Bosom Buddies, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Wonder Years. In 1989 the stage was set for the first episode of a new sitcom featuring a likable comedian and the indispensable supporting cast; that show was Seinfeld. It took a while for the show to find its feet, but once it did it was carried along for many years on the shoulders of its four main characters and a small army of quirky guest players. It can rarely be said that a television show never made a bad episode, but this show came close. Another mega hit series from the 1990s was Friends, a show that frankly, I could never get into.

As for today, my current favorites are Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David and The Big Bang Theory. Ironically, when I first saw The Big Bang, I was turned off by the Sheldon character, but luckily I gave the show a second chance because one of the writers is Anthony DelBroccolo, the son of my friend Joe. As it turns out, Sheldon is the pivotal character around whom the show revolves, and his annoying, obsessive/compulsive manner is what makes the show go. Like all great sitcoms, the show features a cast of regular players who not only support Sheldon, but who are all very funny in their own rite. The key to any good sitcom, besides likable characters, is good writing, and thanks to Anthony and his talented colleagues, this show has it in spades.

Sometimes, the world can be a scary, depressing place, and people who give  the gift of laughter help us make it through. A tip of the cap to great sitcoms and their creators for making our lives a little happier.


Children's Craniofacial Association