Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's The Date Again?

Today is October 30, the day before Halloween. As I've whined about before, Halloween has nearly completed its journey from trick-or-treating to becoming an adult play day. Kids still go out looking for candy, but the spirit of the day has been drastically altered.

If one thing hasn't changed, it's the affection adults have for the bite-size candy bars and goodies intended for the little guys. Today I found my stash of such treats somewhat depleted. Some time ago I bought two large bags of candy and, as is my usual practice, bought the good stuff just in case there was an abundance of leftovers. OK, so I had a few myself in recent days and decided this morning to return to my favorite store to pick up a couple of additional bags before the door bell starts ringing.

Guess what? The store was out of Halloween candy. Clerks were unpacking Christmas candy today. The checker said that this close to Halloween it would be silly to expect the store to have -- Halloween candy.

Let me get this straight. Christmas candy? Christmas is almost two months away.

Sure, we've all seen television commercials dropping hints about the Big Event that rolls around in December. One TV commercial is for scented candles and, although it doesn't refer to Christmas outright, the candles being hawked are red and green. There are ads for major department and discount stores explaining the benefits of lay away and casually depecting elves. Plus there is that one often-shown ad for a large retailer which includes a white dog with a red bulls-eye painted around his eye (get it?) which has actually received a significant amount of negative feedback. People have said, "Hey, it's really too early for that." But the ad continues to run. So be it.

Christmas hype has been with us for many years and does not appear to be waning either.

When I was a kid, even a very young kid, the Santa hysterics were quite evident. There were church events, a school band event, singing carols and making a gift at school. All of those activities involved either making something or rehearsing to perform, all of which required getting into the swing of the holiday weeks earlier than everyone else. That was OK because we realized the planned performance/gift required oodles of practice and time.

But Christmas was not hyped on television or in the press, at least to the same degree. We eagerly awaited the Wards and Sears catalogues and looked through the pages to see what we might want to put on our Wish List. The process was done discretely, quietly, carefully. We marked the pages and made a list.

Excitement didn't build seriously until after Thanksgiving. When we watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and saw Santa riding a float at the end, it was official. Christmas was on its way! Thanksgiving was savored for its warmth and family gathering. Turkey sandwiches followed and then… it was time to begin looking ahead to the next holiday. Enthusiasm was there when we really needed it.

Today many people shop well in advance of Christmas. Some shoppers are hoping to find the best bargains. Some have to buy early because they are shipping gifts to a distant location and have to leave enough time. Some want to purchase an item before the store "runs out." Others simply want the shopping to be finished, somewhat like going to the dentist.

Rushing and enjoying seem contradictory. If you are going to enjoy a holiday (or vacation or dinner at a nice restaurant), isn't it better to relax during the event? Why run around like a chicken with its head cut off?

Now through the end of the calendar year is a period filled with a myriad of events. There is family time. Cooking and eating time. Decorating the tree time. Plenty of memories to recall and cherish.

But we need to keep in mind that we are supposed to enjoy the time we are given. Especially during the rush to do everything, we need to slow down and enjoy each minute.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I Don't Get It

In this world of sound bites, instant messages and late breaking headlines, a most extraordinary development has occurred. There seems to be a wide-spread breakdown in information that we all need.

The public is told the minute that certain celebrities get plastic surgery, check into rehab or file for divorce. It doesn't escape our attention when a politician misrepresents a fact or ignites controversy. There is instant coverage for any number of media trollops who bask in the spotlight promising some juicy tidbit.

No, that "information" is immediately provided to the public.

What seems to be missing is good, old-fashioned details about matters which are confusing.

Recently I have been sifting through materials provided by insurance companies hoping to lure Medicare recipients during the so-called open enrollment period. Having turned 65 this year, I quietly entered the bracket and selected supplemental coverage. Open enrollment is my first indication of just how many friends I have in the insurance industry. It's rather nice to be wanted.

But gotta say that navigating the materials is daunting. In fact, I'm only reviewing materials following a rather disappointing performance by my original choice. On more than one occasion, I had contacted my original provider to ask coverage questions. In each instance, I was given the assurance that yes, the matter would be 100% covered. At no time was this information correct, resulting in additional expenses to me. One matter was "appealed" and I was assured in writing that a reimbursement payment would be forthcoming. When 60 days had passed without receiving a check, a follow-up inquiry uncovered that the letter was wrong and in fact there would be no payment. Why had I received a letter saying that a check would be issued? "Sorry, I don't know" is hardly reassuring.

It's thoughtful to offer an annual period when seniors can shop around to identify a different provider. From what I've gathered, it sounds like many people actually do change coverage to find better customer service or access to information.

But after looking at alternatives, I'm not so sure that such an option exists.

Recently I met with a local insurance consultant who helped explain coverage. His answer? "They're all pretty much the same. They will avoid paying you if at all possible." This statement is probably the most revealing information received to date on the subject.

Medicare supplemental insurance is not the only area to deal in smoke and mirrors. It only happens to be a current example which impacts a large audience. Someone remarked to me that I happen to be inquisitive enough to ask some pertinent questions. He added that most people don't even ask questions and merely accept what is offered.

While the Medicare coverage issue seems rather insignificant in the "big picture" of life, this example provides a chance to revisit some points we should all keep in mind.

  • Pay attention. If you are about to do something big (or even small, for that matter), pay attention. Whether that action involves buying a house/car, signing a contract/agreement, or getting married/divorced, slow down a bit and think the matter through. Putting your name on anything should not to be done carelessly. If the matter is particularly momentous or intimidating, get a second opinion.
  • Ask questions. It's surprising how many times I ask a question about some matter when the response is "You're the first person to ask that." People should ask questions about anything that is unclear. Expressions like "what if" or "why" should be part of your dialogue. Take these phrases out of storage, dust them off and use them.
  • Do your homework. Whether it's changing insurance providers or trying a new medication, gather some information. It's out there. Try searching the internet. Don't have internet access? Most local libraries are wired. If not, the library can help you find information one way or another. There is likely a senior center or agency which can provide guidance.
  • Get assistance. Being a pest is not necessarily a bad thing. Customer service is provided by most organizations. They may not welcome questions, but that's the reason they exist. Make sure you feel comfortable with your conclusion.

You owe it to yourself to take control of your decisions. You'll be glad that you did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis

It hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Last night NBC Nightly News ran a story about the event and showed video of President Kennedy speaking to the nation about the matter. A very young president said: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy certainly got our attention.

I was in high school at the time and remember that period vividly. Of course, there had been talk about the so-called nuclear threat all during the Cold War. Ever since the end of World War II -- even before I was born -- the majority of people were aware of the dangers of atomic warfare.

At first, the nuclear threat was explored in films starring gigantic insects and organisms resulting from nuclear tests. We giggled as we silently pondered whether such things might actually exist.

Waves of paranoia ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, accompanied by other hysteria, like the "Red" witch hunt conducted by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was a period of post-war apprehension and uncertainty.

Then began more open discussions about nuclear war. Some folks constructed bomb shelters in their back yards. Others created survival kits for their homes -- flashlights, food and water -- just in case. At school, we practiced "duck and cover" drills in which we got on the classroom floor beneath our desks, face down and rolled up like a ball so we would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

But suddenly an actual situation had developed. The missile crisis involved a challenge by the Soviet Union which had established missiles in Cuba, a stone's throw away from the United States. It was a tense thirteen days until the matter was resolved and the missiles were removed.

In hindsight and based on all accounts of those involved in 1962, the United States was very close to entering nuclear war.

Graham Allison, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has said: Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was ''between 1 in 3 and even,'' and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

What if the American people had been fully aware of the situation in 1962? It seems likely that panic might have ensued, causing riots and worse. Perhaps that would not have been the case in view of the American mindset of 50 years ago. We were not yet ruled by sound bites and instant information.

So, what's the point of exploring this event?

The point is that sometimes instant information should be reined in a bit. Today pundits are so anxious to get a scoop that they leap to conclusions which are both ill-advised and incorrect. As the present political campaign nears to an end, perhaps we should try to exercise a certain amount of restraint before reporting any rumor to be a verified fact.

This country has come a long way. It would be shame to see us regress into a nation of Chicken Littles who run through the streets screaming, "The sky is falling."

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Changing Face of Halloween

Halloween is on its way. Rather, I should call it The New Halloween.

Few things are exactly as we remember them from childhood. But Halloween may have undergone the most radical change of all.

Halloween was originally for kids. Knowing that it was coming meant it was time to pick a costume and decide what character you wanted to be. Moms were usually involved in the creation, which likely included some discarded clothing, perhaps a sheet with holes cut for eyes and maybe a mask purchased from Woolworth's or Kresge's. On the big day, kids disappeared during the lunch hour and returned to school dressed in costume. Younger kids often paraded around to visit each other's classes in costume, hoping that no one would recognize them.

Halloween was one time that we went to the neighbors' houses to trick or treat. It was simple but fun: we would knock on their door and ask for candy. Everyone would inspect his candy haul and carefully protect the loot. There was rarely an adult to accompany us as we covered the neighborhood in the dark. Occasionally a few of us would go to another neighborhood and perhaps be driven, but that was unusual.

The last time I recall going to any school Halloween event was in 7th grade when the school band had a big party. Many kids attended and there was a spook house where scary stories were told while your hand was immersed in dishes of raw liver. There were other activities including recorded music for dancing. But at 7th grade we already were outgrowing Halloween.

A lot of time has passed.

Today, Halloween is a big deal, especially for the adults. There are saucy, risqué costumes, the use of elaborate make-up techniques -- it's become very complicated. Sure, kids still trick or treat, but I would imagine nationwide the numbers of kids out on Halloween have vastly reduced.

Wonder when this all changed?

Many years ago, while living in a large city in the Southwest, we began to hear rumors of people "putting stuff" into treats handed out at Halloween. News reports indicated there were razor blades and straight pins being inserted into apples and candy bars. Just who the heck was doing such a thing? After all, this is a holiday for the kiddies. Some hospitals even offered to x-ray candy that had been received. Parents warned the kids not to eat anything before it was examined.

Today it's dangerous for small children to go out alone at night. I don't know whether or not there continues to be Halloween fear in all parts of the country. But most of the children who visit our house now at Halloween are in groups of 2 to 5 and always accompanied by at least one parent. Concern by parents is not over done. It's probably a very good idea.

Some towns don't encourage trick or treating at all. Instead, they have a community-wide event at a shopping mall, park or other public area where people congregate and kids can collect candy from local merchants. It's all in good fun and parents probably relax when there is a certain amount of structure. Sometimes these events include a costume contest with prizes given for creativity.

But nearly everywhere -- at stores, in offices, on campuses -- it appears to be the adults who wear the majority of costumes these days. They wear elaborate designs which consume a lot of time and even money to execute. In the 1950s, few -- if any -- adults participated. There might have been private parties at lodges or church groups which adults attended. But seeing someone in costume at the bank or grocery did not occur.

Several years ago, my groceries were checked out by The Hulk, a bulging specimen decked out in green paint wearing a torn shirt. This was the first time I recall seeing someone in the workplace in costume and it was a little awkward. Was I supposed to say, "Like your costume" as I handed him my check? Do workers know how out of place they appear?

Families still decorate for Halloween, carve pumpkins and buy bags of candy, but the spirit of Halloween seems to have changed. Too bad, too, because it's one of the last bastions of something set aside for children.

Perhaps that's why some people seem determined to remain a child for one more year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Your Opinion?

Every day we are bombarded with questions which require choices: "Paper or plastic?" "Would you like fries with that?" "Can I borrow $5?"

We are also surrounded by loud sound bites, brash advertising, obnoxious emails and constant phone calls. Our minds routinely have to process a lot of information.

As a result, I sometimes find myself indifferent to rather unimportant choices. Recently a friend asked me whether I wanted to have lunch at Restaurant A or Restaurant B.

"I really don't care," I answered.

He frowned. "No, where do you want to go?"

"I like them both," I replied. "And I really don't care." He chose Restaurant B which was fine. If I had really preferred one choice over another, I would have said so.

Everyone should have an opinion about certain issues. An opinion is not the same as simply making a choice. An opinion is defined as the view about a particular issue based on considered facts then concluded by the thinker.

People routinely get asked for their opinions. Currently many are being asked for their political opinions. Most folks often refuse to share their opinions and instead wait to mark their ballots in privacy. Some will write letters to the editor, talk openly (and often about matters of which they know little) and freely share their opinions, often with little encouragement to do so.

Opinions are good things to have. We are not judged by our opinions which are private matters. Among the ideas bantered around and for which many of us likely have our own opinions are such topics as religion, childrearing, job performance and patriotism. There are subjects to be avoided if we hope to retain friendships, such as the proverbial question: "Does this dress make me look fat?" Sometimes it is best to keep your opinions to yourself.

Several years ago a friend and I were visiting his family which lived many miles away. The family was arguing over personal items remaining in the house of their recently-deceased grandmother. She had passed away a week earlier and, unfortunately, the vultures were circling. Each of my friend's siblings had their eyes on certain household furnishings. We were riding in the family car while driving several miles to a family event. My friend, his two brothers and a sister -- along with assorted partners -- were captive in the vehicle. As the conversation turned to which of the household items were the most coveted, tension began to build. One of the sisters-in-law finally asked me to share my opinion of the matter.

I smiled. "I'd rather not say."

"No, come on now," she encouraged. "You're rather impartial. We want to hear what you think."

At that point I shared my opinion which apparently was too blunt for my fellow passengers. Again, sometimes it is best to keep one's opinions private.

For fear of offending others or sharing too much information, many people entirely avoid forming opinions. They think a lot about things -- certain topics more than others -- and let the grains of information enter and leave, but rarely organize what is going through their heads. There is little analysis during which the information is sorted, absorbed or eliminated and a thought created. Thinking about any topic carefully is really quite easy but, unfortunately, is a practice rarely utilized.

It's good to have an opinion, like carrying a spare set of car keys. We never know when it might come in handy and when we might be called upon to reveal how we felt about a certain topic.

Some people are fortunate enough to live in a stimulating environment which welcomes -- even encourages -- interaction among its citizens. Other locations discourage such interaction entirely. What does one do with an opinion that no one else wants to hear?

There are options other than talking to friends about subjects they don't wish to discuss.

Write a letter to the local newspaper.

Review an online article and post a relevant comment -- your opinion!

Find an already-posted comment and show support or disagreement with that comment.

In today's world, it is not necessary to bottle-up your opinions and remain silent. There are plenty of chances to make your opinions known.

Provided, that is, that you have an opinion.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Weather or Not

Some people hate to see the end of warm weather. Personally, I have always liked autumn. It is one of the loveliest seasons with colorful leaves, decorations of pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn. People begin to bundle up a bit, bringing thick sweaters and light jackets from the back of the closet. Air conditioning gives way to electric blankets, furnaces and fireplaces. It's time to settle down a bit from the hectic summer. Crops have been harvested, the kids are back in school. Everyone let out a collective sigh.

What's not to love?

It appears there is something about weather and the change of seasons that causes people to whine. Perhaps it's because weather is something that we cannot control. Perhaps some folks just dislike change because it brings …change. Don't know.

But on any nice, brisk, sunny fall day, someone can invariably be heard complaining about the fact that another season has arrived. "It's too cold." "It's dreary." "Winter is just around the corner." "First we rake leaves, then shovel snow." We've all heard them expounding their opinions in the grocery aisle, standing in line at the post office or anywhere that a familiar face is encountered. Like a broken record, the same sentiment is repeated over and over.

Recently I came across a number of quotes about the weather. Thought they were interesting and wanted to pass them along, beginning with one of the best:

"Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of ten people
couldn't start a conversation." -- Kim Hubbard

"The storm starts when the drops start dropping
When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping." -- Dr. Seuss

"Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." -- Mark Twain

"When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure." -- Alice Hoffman

"A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." -- Carl Reiner

"There is no weather in malls." -- Charles Baxter

"It's so dry the trees are bribing the dogs." -- Charles Martin

 "Not reassuring when weathermen say 'Today will be terrible but don't worry. It won't be as terrible as tomorrow or Friday.'" -- Jonah Goldberg

"After three days men grow weary, of a wench, a guest and rainy weather." -- Benjamin Franklin

"If you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes." -- Mark Twain

"What can it be about low temperatures that sharpens the edges of objects?" -- Ian McEwan

"While it's summer people say
Winter is the better season.
Such is human reason." -- Reiko Chiba

"Love is like the weather in Nevada -- you don't know what the freak happens." -- Selina

Since such statements include founding father Benjamin Franklin, whining about the weather must have been with us for a while. Perhaps we all should just sit back, bite into a crispy apple and relax a bit.

Complaining isn't going to make any difference.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Get Out and Vote

This blog entry will not preach the virtues of voting. I will simply say first: casting a vote is a duty that everyone should exercise. Please get out and vote on Election Day. Every vote counts.

There. Enough said.

Now that everyone recognizes the importance of his vote, let's acknowledge that the lengthy and expensive process of running for public office is a bit silly and occupies way too much attention of even the most loyal party supporters.

Elections seem to have changed beginning in 1960 with the advent of the first presidential debate. In that event, everyone began to realize that brains and sincerity could be less impressive than good hair and nice teeth. I was in 8th grade in 1960 and was surprised at how badly Richard Nixon looked during that first debate. He wore no television makeup and sweated profusely under the bright studio lights. He also had a severe "5 o'clock shadow" and appeared nervous, smiling stiffly and sitting awkwardly.

John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked as though he were attending some type of society tea, calm and coiffed, his youth and charm apparent and shining forth even through the picture tube.

The world was in trouble in 1960. There were problems in Cuba, in Berlin and soon in Southeast Asia. While viewers might not have had inside information about these various hot spots, we knew things weren't doing too well here at home. The Civil Rights movement was bubbling beneath the surface. And to top it all off, the 1960s were about to arrive, bringing social change and nuclear awareness to every home.

So here we were watching these two candidates and analyzing which one would be best to guide us into the future. We were actually viewing and comparing these two men based on -- what else -- appearance. There might have been smoke-filled rooms at play as alliances were formed. But millions of viewers made up their minds right there that one of the candidates looked more "presidential" than the other. The die was cast.

Prior to the 1960s, information for the public was heavily filtered by the press. For instance, I didn't know that Franklin Roosevelt was a polio victim until I was out of college. There were certain facts that were not openly discussed -- the fact that he could not walk unaided and the fact that his personal life was less than ideal. Such topics weren't the subject of tabloid fodder because, well, there weren't tabloids and talking heads making a living from other people's troubles. But FDR was a heck of a president and got us through The Great Depression and most of World War II without a hitch.

It would seem that decorum in politics is a thing of the past. I recall when President Clinton was being interviewed on MTV that he was famously asked "Boxers or briefs?" After a moment of obvious embarrassment, he smiled and responded, "Usually briefs."

Perhaps that was the moment when the public decided that each and every detail of our presidents or even presidential candidates was fair game.

It's too bad. We don't really need to know personal details about each candidate, whether his/her name appears on the national or local ballot. We need to know if the candidate has sufficient credentials, has good character references and whether he/she will give a hoot about the job and community. We do not need to know if those running for office have expensive haircuts, capped teeth or wear designer clothes.

It's not a fashion show, folks. It's an election.

Most aspects of civilization could use a little more decorum. Decorum is defined as "dignity or correctness that is socially expected." It would be nice if someone could design a new fast food or vitamin supplement to help us rebuild our decorum. It looks as though we are deficient in that area.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Cutting Room Floor

Today I read that Mel Brooks is being honored by the American Film Institute with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Good for him. Brooks has always been hilarious, a fact many of us take for granted. But he deserves kudos for his work and recognition for his sense of humor, both of which were way ahead of their time.

I recently saw an interview with Brooks and co-conspirator Carl Reiner by Jerry Seinfeld on his web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." (If you have a computer or access to one, you must watch this series.) It is extremely entertaining as Seinfeld dines casually with Alec Baldwin, Ricky Gervais. Larry David and others in show business. The Brooks-Reiner episode is certainly one of the best, guaranteed to make the viewer appreciate what was going through the minds of these creative pioneers.

Mel Brooks talks openly about how some of his movies were not "politically correct" when they were released. No kidding. When his movies were made, people were aware of things which were not polite to say and do, although they may have done them anyway. Brooks' movies pushed that envelope and we laughed -- a lot. But that was then and this is now. We can't judge any movies or entertainment from decades ago by our hyper-sensitivity of today.

Recently I was watching a tribute to silent movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It was vastly entertaining. The films were from comedy director Mack Sennett and some of those contained "bits" that made me uncomfortable. These were from the early 1920s and 1930s when life was far different than today. Sennett's bathing beauties caused scandals by showing their figures in tight-fitting but all-covering swimsuits when most women dressed in long sleeves and full skirts.

We can scarcely fault something that occurred nearly 100 years ago. We can overlook certain things in view of the period when they occurred.

What disturbs me is when a movie that I have seen in the theatre is shown on TV and edited so much that it barely resembles the original. Folks who haven't seen the movie can still follow the plot and most likely will find it entertaining. But it's not the movie that had been originally shown to audiences. It must be very frustrating to directors whose work has been chopped and spliced even after it is completely finished. Sometimes directors are eventually allowed to repair the damage with a so-called "director's cut" and replace scenes that were removed. Sometimes this occurs many years later, but filmmakers must feel vindicated to see their movie as they originally intended.

I wonder why some networks even show films which are so badly edited. For instance, I have always liked the original "Die Hard" starring Bruce Willis. It's shown often and has somehow taken on the overtones of a holiday movie, because, I suppose, the setting is at an office Christmas party. However, the mayhem that arises hardly resembles "It's a Wonderful Life." But the movie has remained fresh, with crisp dialogue and a story that moves right along. It is among the films that has stood the test of time, a stretch in today's society.

The movie has been bleeped and cut nearly to the point of being absurd. Certain words that Bruce Willis speaks are not often spoken in polite society. Despite that, Fox Movie Channel shows "Die Hard" with its entire original dialogue -- no bleeps. It was their movie to start with and I admire that kind of bravado. Heck, people have most likely heard worse words.

If a film can't be shown unedited by a network, it seems that the programmer has other movies from which to choose. There are plenty of them out there. Why show a movie where scenes might be deleted and the dialogue sanitized? It's a little like telling a joke and skipping the punch line.

Just a guess, but I would imagine a large percentage of folks might feel the same way. After all, most of us are grown ups. People might prefer to see a movie which was introduced by some type of disclaimer and realize that the kiddies should not be watching.

Send the kiddies to the family room to watch "Finding Nemo" again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Further Adventures in Customer Service

I've raved before about the decline of customer service. Back in the day, I recall items such as doormen, floor walkers and restaurant hostesses, people who politely provided assistance to customers. These positions were considered a courtesy to shoppers and diners, to help guests locate a particular item or a seat in an ideal location.

Today you are lucky to find a cash register (aka service desk) randomly placed in a department store so that you can make a purchase. Many restaurants have signs near the entrance encouraging hungry customers to "Seat Yourself."

Calling a bank, credit card company or insurance provider can be a nightmare. Better not be in a hurry; you are bound to be put on hold. Some businesses provide an answering message that actually announces how long you will be waiting before speaking to someone. "Currently customers are experiencing a wait time of XX minutes."

Yesterday I received customer service among the best ever. Perhaps there is still hope.

For many years I have purchased apparel through certain mail order clothing companies, two in particular. When I first moved to the East in 1990, I needed clothing items which I hadn't needed while living in the desert -- long underwear, weather-tough outer shoes -- and the most convenient process was to order them. The design quality was unwaveringly high. The fit was perfect. The material was top notch. Plus I didn't have to go anywhere to get them and the items arrived in a couple of days. I was hooked.

I continue to order from these two companies, one store more than the other now. Products from my preferred provider are traditional and timeless. The second company has begun to appeal to younger shoppers. In either case, I know that if a product is less than expected, customer service can help.

Several years ago, I bought wool trousers which were comfortable, stylish and wore like the dickens. Once while phoning in a new order, I mentioned to the customer service lady that the lining in a pair I previously purchased had not held up and was torn and uncomfortable. "Send them back," she offered. "We will replace them." "But I've worn them a great deal," I said. "Doesn't matter. If you are unhappy with a product, you can always return it." I sent the pants back and received a new, identical pair at no charge.

A few years later, I took a nasty fall on the job and ruined a rather new pair of chinos. The knee was torn and damaged. I called to order a new pair, expecting fully to purchase them myself. When I told the order desk what had happened, I laughed at how badly I felt because I loved the trousers. "Send them back," he offered. "But the pants weren't damaged until I fell," I said. "Doesn't matter. If a product is unsatisfactory, you can always return it. I sent the pants back and received a new, identical pair, again at no charge.

Yesterday, my brother casually remarked about how some jeans he had ordered last winter (from the same company) were too short. "I think they must have shrunk," he said. "I'll put these in the donation bag." He was holding the jeans along with the original paperwork. Looking at the order form, I said, "These were ordered in February 2012. I'll call and see if you can still return them."

I phoned the company and spoke to a soft-spoken customer service rep. He said that he was looking at my brother's order history and identified that particular order. "Can he return these?" I asked. "Of course. If at any time a product is unsatisfactory, we hope you will return it. We want satisfied customers." He then said, "Those jeans are now on sale at $10 less. Would you like another pair in a longer length?" My brother said, "Two pair." "Your order will be there in a few days. If you want to return the old pair, you will be credited with the original price. Is there anything else I can do for you today?"

I was shocked. "I must say your company provides extraordinary customer service. Thank you so much." Suddenly I felt a glimmer of hope for the future of shopping and business in general. To think that someone (1) listened to my story (2) suggested a solution and (3) did so quickly and politely is remarkable.

As long as there are companies such as this who continue to value the customer, I will not give up on civilization as we know it.

Shop on!