Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Droofus Day

We have had an entire season’s worth of illness roll through our house in recent weeks – a nasty version of what medical professionals call “the crud,” complete with fever, chills, aches, congestion, sneezing, blowing and all the rest. At a certain point you want to have the house fumigated, or perhaps burned to the ground, just to get a fresh start. But I should not complain, as I am at least a week further into recovery than my wife is. I have already had my Droofus Day, and she has yet to celebrate hers.

We learned about Droofus Day from our friends Martin and Karen, in whose household it is an institution. The term comes from a children’s book by Bill Peet titled “How Droofus the Dragon Lost his Head.” It was published a bit too late for our children, but it was a book that Martin and Karen’s kids wanted to hear over and over again. I have not read the book, but as I understand it Droofus, the youngest and smallest dragon in his pack (do dragons travel in packs?), fell behind the others and became lost. But Droofus made lots of new friends among the woodland creatures and essentially established a new and gentler dragon lifestyle (I gather his herd was a rather nasty lot).

But one day Droofus suffered some sort of mid-air collision (the details are fuzzy in my mind) and plummeted to the earth, unconscious. I have seen the picture, and Droofus was definitely in rough shape. Day after day he lay there, unmoving, while his little woodland friends kept vigil. Then one morning Droofus opened his eyes, rose to his feet, and pulled himself back together while his little friends rejoiced. Droofus was back!

That is how our friends came to employ the term “Droofus Day” to describe the day in the course of an illness where you wake up, not completely recovered but knowing the very worst is behind you. Karen solemnly describes Droofus Day as “the most personal of all holidays.” For me, Droofus Day came the morning my fever broke. I still had the crud, but I felt like a human being again.

I came to work and told a friend that it was my Droofus Day, which required an explanation. After hearing the tale she nodded her head: “We needed a term to describe that day.”

I wonder if it could not be generalized to describe any number of situations where we have suffered trials and tribulations but have finally reached the turning point. “A panel of leading economic experts report that while the economy will remain sluggish and unemployment high for the next two quarters, they believe that last Wednesday was Droofus Day.” Bad times and challenging circumstances do not normally end all at once – often the improvement is so slow that we have a hard time seeing it. But somewhere in there is Droofus Day, and Droofus Day should be celebrated.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thermometers and other things we rarely use

For the past four days I ran a fever, seemingly because of a severe sinus infection. We all know what the experience is like: aches and chills, listlessness and lack of focus, sleeping for nearly 12 hours and still not wanting to get up. You feel about as welcome in social settings as a vial of anthrax in a subway station. All you can do is attempt to ride it out, knowing that it cannot last forever.

Through it all I became rather obsessed with taking my temperature, which appeared to shoot up and down in accordance with its own merry schedule. 102° when I first awoke, 99.5° after the aspirin kicked in, perhaps a brief foray into sub-normal territory before spiking up again. After a few days of this it dawned on me that this might have as much to do with our thermometer as with my temperature. Sure enough, I took my temp three times in succession and got three different readings.

Being frugal – ok, cheap – I sent Susan out to purchase a new battery for the thermometer. This proved to be a false frugality, as an LC41 battery costs more than many thermometers do. Worse, it did not fix the problem – the thermometer’s little electric brain remained scrambled.

So this morning I struggled into my clothes and left the house for the first time in three days in search of a new thermometer. It has been years, perhaps decades, since I shopped for a thermometer (which likely has something to do with the inaccurate readings). I quickly sorted out that there were two basic classes of digital fever thermometers: “60 second” units that cost around four bucks and “8 second” units that cost twice as much. Priced in-between were a number of thermometers whose performance appeared to be on a par with the “60 second” units but which carried endorsements from the Red Cross, the AMA or NASCAR. The basic “60 second” thermometers were on sale for 3 bucks (almost two dollars less than the replacement battery had cost) so I grabbed one. I took my temperature twice and it was the same (normal) both times: success!

So did I actually have a fever for several days? Clearly I did, because it was measured by the most accurate instrument known to man, my wife’s hand. But how high it got, how much it fluctuated – these things will never be known. I immediately tossed the old thermometer away (after removing the new battery, of course), since the one thing worse than having a thermometer you can’t trust is having two thermometers that disagree – as the saying goes, “the person with two watches never knows what time it is.”

How many things do we have in our home that we use very rarely, but expect to work perfectly when we finally need them? When that day arrives we discover that the glue has dried up in the bottle, the battery charger has lost interest in charging batteries or – in my case – the thermometer has developed a playful sense of humor. I bet there is a retired man (and it would have to be a man) out there who has all these things on a master calendar. Every April 18 he inventories his cans of touch-up paint. There is something in me that could become that sort of man. Fortunately, there is also something in my wife that could divorce that sort of man.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Rebate Blues

I finally bit the bullet and upgraded our cell phone plan to include data services, which will add a hefty fee to our monthly bill. Like so many other people, we have allowed ourselves to become increasingly dependent on being able to access information – email, Google, Wikipedia, even (God help me) Facebook – no matter where we are. As a friend said in wonderment when I informed her that we had no plans to purchase “smart phones,” “they’ve become part of the cost of being alive in the 21st century.”

So I am finally a 21st century guy, although I am committed to not being one of those people who fidget with their phones every free moment. At least I will not once the novelty wears off. Currently I am not fidgeting with the phone; I am trying to figure out how to work it.

Fortunately the phones themselves were dirt cheap. They are a model called the Droid “Eris” which is something like an iphone for folks on a tight budget. They cost me forty bucks apiece after rebate. And therein lies the rub.

Why do companies insist upon giving us rebate forms instead of just taking (in this case) two hundred bucks off the bill? To save money, of course. They count on a certain portion of customers never getting around to sending in the rebate form. And they also count on an even greater number of consumers making a mistake in requesting their rebate and therefore not qualifying.

For example, when I bought the phones I was told that they were returnable only if they were returned in the original box. Fair enough. Then I was told that to request the rebate I had to cut off the portion of the box containing all the bar codes and magic numbers. I had to press the young woman a bit before she admitted that the phones could still be returned in a mutilated box.

Because I am a bit suspicious by nature, when I got home I read all the fine print on the rebate form. I learned that the company is not responsible if my request gets lost in the mail. I learned that if I send it certified mail so that I can prove they received it, they will take longer to process my request. I learned that I cannot send rebate requests for both phones in the same envelope or I will be disqualified (this information was buried very deep in the fine print). I learned that I should make copies of everything I send, but that copies are unacceptable in requesting a rebate. The one thing I did not find in the fine print were the words “Good luck, sucker!”

Oh, and should my rebates actually show up some day, they will be in the form of Visa cards. Clearly they are paying a bank less than $100 for a $100 Visa card, because the bank knows that, like gift cards in general, a certain portion of them will be misplaced, lost or forgotten. I am surprised the rebate does not come in the form of a gift certificate for a funeral home.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Toyota, Calvin and Edwards

All idols have feet of clay and every hero will one day disappoint us. How many children and teens looked up to Tiger Woods as a role model? Now he has joined a long list of fallen sports heroes. The story (likely apocryphal) has it that as Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out of the courtroom after giving testimony in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, a heartbroken young fan called out “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” But it was so for Joe, for Tiger, for Pete Rose, for Mark McGwire, Michael Vick and so many others. Their athletic achievements were remarkable, but are forever tarnished by their personal moral failings.

Let us not even get started on the moral lapses of religious leaders! So many preachers who thumped the pulpit hardest in denouncing the sins of others proved guilty of sexual misconduct, infidelity, dishonesty and greed of the worst sort – it is hardly surprising that many folks dismiss all religious people as “a bunch of hypocrites.” While he was still an atheist, Malcolm Muggeridge was once asked why he was so hostile to Christianity. “I have nothing against Jesus,” he answered, “I just don’t care much for his friends.”

I could go on to discuss politicians, police officers, bankers – there is no human organization or institution that is free of moral failure. Christian faith insists that sinfulness is inherent in the human condition. John Calvin put it must strongly when he termed human beings “utterly depraved,” which led one of my colleagues to respond “anyone who believes in the utter depravity of man can’t be all bad!” We are complex and wonderful creatures, capable of remarkable generosity, self-sacrifice, kindness, decency and compassion. But we are also depraved, and the very best of us will occasionally fail to live up to our professed values. Which is why we need external sources of authority to which we are held accountable – laws, codes, oaths and commandments.

Toyota is the most recent idol whose feet of clay have been exposed to the glare of public scrutiny. They have been a role model for many organizations, including the one I work for, Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin. Goodwill has adopted many of Toyota’s programs and procedures – notably LEAN – that have been and continue to be of enormous benefit to the organization. We also adopted a fair amount of their jargon, which I have been less enthusiastic about, but that’s another story.

Now the world knows that Toyota ignored many of its professed values in pursuit of power, position and the almighty dollar. It will take them many years to regain the trust and respect that their customers had invested in them. The sins of greed and arrogance have once more taken their inevitable toll on a respected and widely-admired organization.

Like many other organizations that joined “the cult of Toyota,” Goodwill is trying to distance itself from Toyota’s moral lapses while continuing to employ the valuable business practices they pioneered. We have learned a great deal from Toyota about how to do things better. Now we have received a lesson on how critical it is to hold fast to our values, for once we begin to compromise those values in even small ways we begin sliding down the fast and slippery slope Jonathan Edwards described in such a terrifying manner.

It is remarkable how many people still profess to be shocked when a respected individual or organization behaves very badly. As Calvin and Edwards would say: Duh!”