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A Welcome Pop Up

February 15, 2018

The Pop-Up Globe has returned to Auckland for another summer season!

The Pop-Up Globe is a temporary replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  It’s called “pop up” because they can take it down and it can pop up anywhere there’s room.  For the third year in a row, they are doing a short summer season of four plays.  Once you figure out how to get in . . .

 . . . You can check out the theatre.  It’s made of scaffolding, plywood and corrugated iron and it’s an amazingly good copy.

They have a nice outdoor area where you can relax before the show and during the intermission.

Everything is very informal and once you get inside, you can wander around and check things out.

Here are the (very brave) groundlings:

Stage set for the Merchant of Venice

Stage set for Macbeth

What the actors see if they look up:

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not the best place to see a play because of acoustic and visual issues, but the atmosphere is great and the performances are always very good and a lot of fun.

A couple of weeks ago we saw The Merchant of Venice and last night we saw Macbeth.

One of the things we like about the performances is that they are always unique.  Sometimes they take creative liberties with the plays, like setting them in the contemporary South Pacific.  Others are relatively traditional.  The Merchant of Venice had an all-male cast, harking back to Elizabethan times when women couldn’t appear on stage.

Last night’s Macbeth was great.  The setting was medieval Scotland with armor and shields and swords, and there were no major departures from the script.  And they made the show very interesting.

Unlike most theatres where they tell you to turn off your cell phones, here they tell you to turn off your phone unless you want to take pictures.  And I did.

There was a trap door in the stage that became a convenient place for unceremoniously dumping bodies, such as Banquo’s.

It’s also where the fantastically weird witches emerged from.

And the cauldron scene was great.

But this was Shakespeare in Auckland in summer, so you just knew that it wasn’t going to be totally traditional and predictable.  For example, there was this sign at the groundlings’ entrance.

And believe me, they weren’t kidding!  After all, the play was Macbeth.  There was a lot of blood, and it was as if the actors took a particular glee in using the entire stage for a fight and then moving over to the edge of the stage to deliver the death blow, complete with spatter into the audience.    They regularly had extras crawling around on the stage with rags wiping up pools of fake blood.

But Tom, I hear you asking, what do they mean by “other fluids?”  I’ll tell you.

At the end of the scene in which Macbeth kills Duncan, the king, he is having a meltdown and as Lady Macbeth leads him to bed, someone knocks at the gates.  Macbeth yells, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking.  I would that thou could.”

The next scene features a hung over old man answering the door.  When you studied Macbeth in school (I know you did) your teacher told you that the scene is purposely light to give the audience some relief from the emotional strain of the murder scene.

The actual dialogue in the play is light enough, but last night they took it up a few notches.  When the old guy comes out, he’s talking about someone knocking at the door and starts telling the audience these horrid knock knock jokes.  For example:

Knock knock (he says).

Who’s there? (the audience yells).


Shelly who?

Shelly compare thee to a summer’s day?


Knock knock

Who’s there?


Toby who?

Toby or not Toby.

You get the idea.

So the old guy finally answers the door and is talking to the men who have come.  They ask what took him so long and he tells them they had a big party because the King is there and everyone drank too much.  They tell him they can tell he had a few and he starts explaining the effect drinking has on him, from sexual performance to making him have to pee.

He then goes up to one of the pillars supporting the stage roof  and reaches into his robes and starts to pee.  He says “Ahh, was afraid I’d get stage fright.”  He then turns around and walks to the edge of the stage.  He reached into his robes again and says, “Oh, I’m not done.”  And that’s when we knew what they meant by “other fluids.”  It was hilarious to watch the groundlings running backwards to get out of the way.  And if you thought they moved fast then, you should have seen what happened when he made it look like he was about to get sick.

Definitely lightened things up.

But back to the play, most of what flew off the stage was blood.  The acting was great and the people playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth did a great job of showing their emotional disintegration as the weight of their actions started to get to them.

They also did something really cool during the intermission.  When the play started, it was still light outside, but by the intermission it had gotten dark.  In keeping with the Macbeth motif, they used this lighting effect to cover the outside of the theatre in blood!

It was an interesting and entertaining evening and one of the most surprising things is how timely the play seemed to be.   Although you (generally) don’t have heads of state whacking people left, right and center, the way the witches altered the course of history with their suggestions was a scary reminder of how modern governments are affected by outside influences.  Double, double, toil and trouble!


A Test For You

February 7, 2018

In a world of fake news and sponsored content, it has become really difficult to tell what you can believe and what you can’t.  Check out this video and ask yourself if you have the acuity of judgement to determine whether you can believe it!

Emptying A Room

December 24, 2017

Our friend’s daughter recently got married, and we were invited.  It was one of those modern weddings where everyone lives all over the place and people had come from all over the world for the Big Day.  This is important—people came from all over the world to be together—presumably at the request of the bride and groom.

Initially, the wedding didn’t disappoint.  It was in a really fancy place and the entire event was contained on a single floor—the ceremony in one room, cocktails in another and dinner in a third.  There were ocean views.

The ceremony was dignified and short.  After the wedding, instead of making the guests stand around while the party got pictures taken, they had a really nice cocktail hour with drinks and nice snacks.  It was a great way to meet people and mingle.

Then we went to dinner.  If I hadn’t already known it was an expensive wedding, the dining room would have been all the evidence I needed.  Tables were tastefully decorated.  In fact the whole room was beautifully decorated.  Seating was assigned and each guest had a name card and menu.  Not only that, there was a bottle of Scotch whiskey on each table, so guests could help themselves.  And I’m not talking airplane sized bottles.  They were the real thing.

The wedding table was on a raised platform and stretched across half the room. In the center of the room was a modest dance floor and band set up.

We settled into our seats and were introducing ourselves to our table mates when things started to hint at going horribly wrong.

There was a thunderclap of drums and brass that would have put a twenty-one gun salute to shame and a young man in a suit twirled into the middle of the dance floor like a televangelist.  He held a microphone and introduced himself as our MC for the night.  He promised that he would personally ensure that “everyone” would dance their feet off before the night was over.

I was confused.  He wasn’t the best man.  In fact, he had been hired to make sure we all had a good time.  We had been up till he showed up.  He behaved like the most over-enthusiastic cruise director or camp counsellor.  He was just too, too happy about the whole thing.  And he stubbornly mispronounced the names of the bride and groom.

Before we go any further, let me interrupt with some commentary.  A lot of our friend’s kids are getting married these days and we go to a lot of weddings.  I don’t want to sound like too much of an old fart, but I enjoy meeting and talking to people at weddings and at several of the weddings we’ve been to lately that hasn’t been possible because the music has been too loud.  Once I put a teaspoon on a tea cup and the seismic vibrations of the bass from the DJs kit vibrated it right off because the noise was so loud.

So I had come prepared.  With industrial earplugs that I picked up in a factory I’d visited.  How dorky is that?

It was too early to deploy the ear plugs, but I wanted to, as a band of at least 10 people with drums and brass and electric guitars exploded while the MC introduced the wedding party and other VIPs.  There was then an extended period of frenzied dancing and the noise and chaos cannot be described.  When I say extended I mean long.  Unnecessarily long.  And the “dancing.” It was as if the crowd on the dance floor were possessed.  Slam dancing I understood.  I thought Black Flag were great.  But this was in a different league. I started to think we were going to have to recall the priest to do some exorcisms.

At one point, the guitars and brass faded away only to be replaced by mind (and ear) numbing drumming that sounded more like a blacksmith pounding on an anvil.  Is that a new thing?  Metal drums?  You both heard and felt them.

Our prayers of “please make it stop,” were finally answered.

We then had a fantastic dinner, with nice speeches by various parties.  But as the tables were being cleared the band came back.

With a vengeance.

My earplugs only made it less painful.  People were literally sitting at the tables with their hands over their ears.  Others vainly appealed to the parents of the B&G.  It only got worse.  It was a live band with at least three guitarists, four brass and two drummers plus a male and female singer.  It wasn’t a wedding, it was a concert.  And we were unwilling participants in the mosh pit.

A few stalwarts stuck it out for dessert, but most fled to the (relative—you couldn’t really escape) calm of the other rooms.   Even young people walked out holding their heads.

In the meantime, the Bacchanal continued in the wedding hall.

Outside, we were able to converse with long lost friends and lots of pictures were taken.  When we got home we downloaded them with the intention of sharing them.  But we can’t because everyone has this wide eyed, Village of the Damned look.


Time for a Boycott!

December 12, 2017

Company B is a big houseware products retailer in New Zealand.  Up till now, I avoided going there was because the stores are always understaffed.  You can never find any salespeople to answer questions and there are always big lines at the checkouts because there are usually only two or three checkouts open.

Plus, they have really, really irritating advertising.

But things have changed.  Even if you don’t mind bad service and obnoxious ads and really need a set of sheets, you may want to rethink shopping there.

The managing director is a gentleman who we’ll call MD.  His stated mission is to make Company B profitable.

For his effort, he earns $1 million a year and also has a net worth of about $600 million because he’s owns most of Company B.

Nothing new here, I’m sure you’re thinking.  But wait.  Earlier this year, The Listener, a NZ news magazine did an article about executive compensation and sent a questionnaire to twelve NZ companies to find out about their executive compensation practices and how they compared to pay rates for line employees.  Only three companies responded and Company B wasn’t one of them.

Further research revealed that line workers at Company B earn a little more than minimum wage (but that’s not what is considered a living wage).  The article includes the interesting statistic that the average employee’s annual earnings are about what Mr. MD earns in two weeks.  For seven years, the employees have been trying to negotiate a collective pay agreement with management, but management’s not talking.

I know what you’re saying.  “But, Tom, if we boycotted every company that acted like that, we’d never buy anything.”

True, but get this.

Yesterday’s top news headline in the Auckland papers was that Mr. MD is taking the Auckland Council to court.  Why?  Because they will only let him have three helicopter flights a week from his suburban Auckland home and he wants six.  Wah!

He is building a $12 million house in a very fancy inner city Auckland suburb (median home value is $3 million plus) on a beach front lot.  The house, of course, needs a helipad and the approach will be directly over a popular public beach.

Mr. MD is no life-saving doctor who needs to rush to emergencies.  He is quoted in the paper as saying that he doesn’t own a helicopter but hires one to fly up north to his golf club.  He would have to drive 16 kilometers, (about ten miles) to get to the heliport, but is quoted as saying “I don’t want to have to drive . . .” and that Auckland Council is being “manifestly unfair.”

I can assure you that most of Mr. MD’s employees drive more than 16 kilometers to get to their just above minimum wage jobs.  And they do it every day, twice a day, not just when they are playing golf up north.  And by the way, it sounds like he wants to play golf six times a week.  How is he going to provide $1 million worth of service and make Company B profitable on the golf course?

In case you haven’t figured it out, Mr. MD thinks he is better than his employees.  And he thinks he’s better than you, his customers and just about everyone else.  He is too busy and too important to drive for half an hour.  Normal rules don’t apply to him. It’s “manifestly unfair” if people think they do apply to him. Plus, he clearly thinks that there’s nothing wrong with not sharing the profits that Company B makes with its employees.

The reason Auckland Council wants to restrict helicopter flights in leafy suburbs is because they make a lot of noise and kick up a lot of dust. It bothers people who are using the public beach.  Sort of like kicking sand in their faces.


A Devilishly Nice Place

October 6, 2017

We recently took a short holiday and decided to explore a part of Australia we hadn’t seen before.  We talked to our friends and decided on Tasmania, which up until that point we knew only as an island south of Australia, the home of Tasmanian devils and a former penal settlement.

We flew to Hobart, the capital and largest city and drove right around the island in a counter-clockwise direction.

There was just too much to see and a chronological narrative would get way too complicated, so I’ll just describe some of the highlights.

First of all, a little geography.  Tasmania is 240 kms (150 miles) south of mainland Australia separated by the Bass Strait.  It is just a little smaller than Ireland or Sri Lanka but only has a population of about half a million.  Almost half of the people live in Hobart, the capital, so you can imagine, the rest of the island has lots of wide open spaces.

Aborigines are believed to have settled in Tasmania 40,000 years ago but they were virtually wiped out by the British settlers.  For 50 years, from 1803 – 1853 the colonial population grew, largely because of transporting of about 75,000 convicts from the British Isles.  There are a number of museums where you can learn about convict history and the settlement process.  People were sent to Tasmania for infractions such as stealing a handkerchief or loaf of bread.  And both men and women were transported.

Because European settlement began in the early 1800s, there are a lot of interesting old buildings all over the country, and an amazing amount of history.

Here are some of the more interesting buildings we saw along the way.

Downtown Hobart and Launceston (the second largest city) are an interesting mix of old and new buildings.

And in Richmond we saw the oldest stone bridge in Australia, built in 1823 with convict labour.

Of course one of the highlights of any trip to Australia is the wildlife and Tasmania is extra special because of the Tasmanian devil.  We saw a lot of them—both in wildlife sanctuaries and as road kill.  They are about the size of a big cat or small dog, but they have a few special features.  Notice the teeth for one thing.

We learned that they have the biting strength equivalent to three pit bulls!

But for the most part, Tasmanian devils are in more trouble than they cause.  They are mostly scavengers and they will defend themselves, but they don’t attack or do feeding frenzies or anything like that.  They got their name because they have red ears and eyes and when the early settlers saw them in the light of their campfires, they looked rather satanic, so they got the name “devils.”

Also at the wildlife sanctuaries we were able to see a lot of interesting animals up close and personal!  We got to feed some kangaroos.

And check out the koalas:

This is a wombat:

The peacocks didn’t feel like spreading their tails, but seemed happy to drag them in the dirt.

I’m no kangaroo expert, but I think this baby is too big to get back into the pouch.

This is a black currawong, a native bird endemic to Tasmania.  Locals told us that they were bold and friendly and this one didn’t hesitate to hop up on the bench we were sitting at.

We also saw some rocks that reminded us of animals!

What animals/ birds can you spot?

 In addition to interesting animals, there was nonstop fantastic scenery, and because of the size of the island, in one day we could find ourselves in snowy mountains, sunny beaches and rainforests.

It is technically spring in Tasmania, and you could see the transition from winter to spring as we drove along.

The wattles and acacias were flowering and the variety of yellow flowering trees was amazing.

However, not all yellow flowers were a welcome sight. In one region there was an invasion of gorse, a plant that was brought in from England.   The entire plant is prickly and in England, where they regularly have frosts, it is used for fences and hedgerows.  In Tasmania where summers are warmer, there is nothing to slow it down and it is growing wild in huge areas and there are eradication programs in place.

Speaking of frost and cold weather, however, we encountered plenty of that.  This is the view as we drove to Cradle Mountain:

And this is part of the drive across the island from Strahan to Hobart:

But there were also some really nice beaches, although it was too cold to enjoy the surf!

This is the beach at Scamander where we stayed one night.

And this was our room!

We also learned about the interesting trees and forests.  A lot of Tasmania is covered in eucalyptus forest. There are numerous varieties of eucalyptus, and all these trees have amazing character.

This is the Eucalyptus Obliqua which can grow up to 90 m (295 feet)!

We also learned about a tree called the Huon Pine, which isn’t a pine at all but rather a unique tree that has its own genus and species.  It is native to Tasmania and stands of the tree have been almost destroyed because the timber is so valuable.  In addition to beautiful grain, the wood contains an oil that prevents it from rotting and so the trees live several thousands of years.

Between loss of habitat and logging, the tree became threatened and it is now illegal to cut down live Huon Pines.  We visited a timber mill with an amazing old but still functioning saw that was over 100 years old.  The mill has a special license to collected Huon Pine logs that were submerged when the hydro dams were built and the timber is sold to artists and furniture makers.

This is a Huon Pine in the wild.

Speaking of trees, we visited an interesting place called the Tahune Airwalk.  It is an amazingly engineered forest canopy walk at the confluence of the Huon and Picton rivers.

We saw the amazing trunks from the ground.

And then went for a walk in the canopy.

View of the Huon River and surroundings from the airwalk

We were up there!!

In addition to an elevated walk in the trees, you can cross the rivers on some hair raising bridges.

The locals told us that the rivers were unusually high because of heavy rain, but they weren’t as high as they were during the last floods.

And speaking of water—as we drove around we visited a number of interesting waterways and waterfalls.  This is the Cataract Gorge in Launceston which you reach by means of a chair lift.

There were lots of interesting rock formations, some with spooky faces.

And this is the St. Columba Falls, the highest in Tasmania:

One of the most interesting places we visited was Cradle Mountain National Park.  Cradle Mountain is 1545 metres high and got its name as it reminded the early explorers of a baby’s cradle.

There are several volcanic lakes in the area but the largest, Dove Lake, at the foot of the mountain has a walk way established all around it. It is one of the prettiest walks in Tasmania and it took us almost three hours because of the ice and snow, which we hadn’t expected, but that made it even more interesting.

There was some interesting vegetation.

This section is called the “Ballroom Forest” because the canopy of beech trees is so dense nothing grows under the trees and, I guess, you could dance away!

Also as we drove along, in addition to meeting interesting and friendly locals, we got some insights into life in Tasmania and also had a chance to see efforts being made to revive small towns and attract visitors.

This is Franklin, population 500, where they have a great weekend farmers market and some nice heritage buildings.

The Huon River flows through Franklin so it is also a boat building and recreation centre.

Lilydale, population 288, distinguishes itself by having artists paint power poles along the main street.

In Sheffield, population 1600, artists decorate the buildings with murals and there is a competition for new murals each year.  They also have a nice mosaic walk in the main park.

This is a directional sign to the actual suburbs of Sheffield.

In Devonport, you can get the overnight ferry boat to Melbourne.

And in Hamilton they are cashing in on their convict history

One of the most memorable towns we visited was Strahan (pop 800) on the west coast of the island.

It is a fishing town with nice walks and beaches.

But what was most memorable is that it was the scene of my theatrical debut!  A local theatre group has developed a fascinating, entertaining and funny historical play about convicts in Tasmania called The Ship That Never Was.  It is Australia’s longest running play.  It is an institution in Strahan and it has been performed by just two actors in an open air theatre every evening (except in winter when they show a movie of the play), since 1994.

We went along and settled into our seats.  It starts out with just an introduction of the 10 characters, all of whom are actual historical figures.

As the play progresses, the two actors actually assemble the ship that never was and then, assemble the crew from the audience.  I’ll spare you the details, but the plot involves convicts building a ship, mutinying, stealing the ship and sailing to Chile.  Even though they got caught eventually, they got off because of a technicality in which the ship had never been properly registered and therefore they successfully argued that there couldn’t have been a mutiny and the ship couldn’t have been stolen.

Anyway, I was press ganged into serving as the ill-fated captain of the ship who has to deal with the mutineers.  I even got to wear an oversized Napolean hat!

It was a lot of fun and all of the proceeds from the show go to help disabled children.

We were really impressed with Tasmania and its wonderful animals, scenery and friendly people.  One of the things that was most interesting was the sense of the island being poised for growth as more people move from mainland Australia to escape the heat.  It is also rapidly developing as a tourist center.

There is a lot of emphasis on making sure that the development doesn’t have an adverse impact on the natural beauty, and there are many reminders about what happened to the Tasmanian Tiger, a wild dog that was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century.  Everyone knew what would happen.  In 1863 this warning was sounded:

And people recognized the problem:

But the last Tasmanian Tiger died in the 1930s and today, people are looking to protect what is left of nature.

It’s definitely worth experiencing Tasmania and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.






Rodent Code Red—Could It Be Karma?

September 7, 2017

One of my jobs at CUE Haven is pest control, which entails stocking poison bait stations and maintaining traps to keep invasive possums, weasels and rats from killing both our plantings and the native birds we are trying to bring back.  Just last week I gleefully updated our running totals of pests caught and a few days ago gave a presentation to some high school students on the benefits of whacking introduced baddies.

Somewhere in the rat world, they decided it was time to extract a little vengeance.

As a result of this merciless campaign, among other things, we’ve learned what dead rat smells like and that’s why I was alarmed when we got home the other day and my wife said, “Do you smell a dead rat?”

“Indeed I do,” I responded.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about our living conditions, but this has happened before.  We have lots of bush around the house and a crawl space underneath and every couple of years we get a whiff of something that’s not quite right but at the same time not horrendous.  I’ve been able to deal with it by spraying some stuff a guy gave me that he claims is used to deodorize cars and hotel rooms that have been smoked in and crime scenes.  And it’s always worked.

Not this time, however.  The stench just got stronger and it seemed to be coming from everywhere.  I kept spritzing until the bottle ran dry and the look on my face was probably how Bruce Willis would have looked if he’d ever run out of bullets in Die Hard.  He probably would have said something similar to my utterances, too.

There was only one thing to do.  Actually two–a sane person would have called in professional help.  But I decided it was time to gird my loins and go down into the crawl space to see if I could find the source of the problem and (the horror) deal with it.

Over three days, I went down twice but was unable to find anything—it didn’t even smell down there.  But the odor was becoming localized in the downstairs bathroom which shares two walls with the crawl space.  That spawned a new theory of where the creature was and a plan for extraction.

Because I didn’t have one of these

I went to plan B, the homemade version

It was hard for my wife to get a clear picture because she was laughing too hard to hold the camera steady.  But she wasn’t the one who was going into the hole!  I, for one, wasn’t laughing.

Even with the greater confidence that my protective gear afforded, I was unable to see any evidence of a rodent incursion.  The insulation was intact, nothing was chewed or disturbed and there were no body parts in evidence.

I gave up the search, but we were truly getting alarmed at the quality and intensity of the smell.  I had inspected every inch of the bathroom where the scent was the strongest but found no possible source.  For some reason it seemed strongest in the shower.  There was no way it could be coming from the drainpipe.  I’d even knelt down and checked.  I looked around for a possible source and that’s when I saw the recessed light fixture.  Please, no!

Getting up on a ladder confirmed my suspicions and my worst fear.  These recessed lights sit in the ceiling cavity.  What if the rat had been walking along and got zapped?  Would it catch on fire?  I was forced to act and the only thing to do was to pull the fixture out of the ceiling.  But what if the rat fell out when I did that?  With maggots on it? There wasn’t enough digitalis in the Southern Hemisphere to bring me back from that experience!

Ascending the ladder and making sure I wasn’t positioned directly underneath,  I took out the light bulb.  I tugged at the fixture while holding a bucket underneath.  The fixture slid out easily and there was nothing there!

Except a lot more stink!

I examined the cavity with a flashlight and didn’t see anything.  I wasn’t sure if I was happy about that or not.  Emboldened by not having had a decomposing rat flop out of the ceiling I took a closer look.  I saw something that looked like a wire where no wires were supposed to be.  Using some kitchen tongs that will never be used again I gave it a tug.


Of course, the thing didn’t have the decency to pull out easily.  Which somehow made it even scarier.  How could it have gotten wedged between the light bracket and the insulation?  Shouldn’t it have shrunk?

My new primal fear became having the thing come flying out at me when I finally dislodged it, but after a bit of breathless (literally) work, it plopped obligingly into the bucket.

Open windows and a lot of incense are getting things back to normal odor wise.  My blood pressure will take a little longer!


Did You Know They Can Do This?

June 5, 2017

For some time, I’ve had a creeping feeling of powerlessness in the face of corporate bureaucracy.  Ever since Mitt Romney gave us that business about corporations are people too, it seems like they have more rights than me.

Things like phone companies not letting you carry over unused minutes come to mind.  You paid for it, but you didn’t use it.  Bye bye.

But phone companies are positively charitable compared to banks.

Banks seem to have this attitude that any cost they incur is supposed to be covered by customers.  Or, if the loss is big enough, the tax payers.

This was brought home to me recently when I received a $60 check from a Fortune 500 company.  Which I duly deposited in the bank.

A few days later I got an advice in the mail saying that the check had been returned to the company due to insufficient funds and that for trying to deposit a bad check I was being penalized $12.00.  The fee was 20% of the check amount.

My first thought was WTF, the economy must really be bad if blue chip companies are bouncing checks.

My second thought was WTF is the bank charging me for?  How was I supposed to know?  What did I do wrong?

I have to admit that the thought of trying to sort out the problem was terrifying.  But I girded my loins and called the 24 x 7 customer service line.

After pressing “1” for English and a few other numbers for other things, I navigated through the tense moments of trying to remember if my secret question was my first pet’s name or my favorite teacher’s name.  Duly verified, I then had the pleasure of telling a computer what my problem was.  You know that faux-friendly and encouraging voice that says, “Please tell me in a few words how I can be of help” and never understands what you are saying?

Because the conversation may have been being taped for training purposes, I didn’t say what came to my mind, but rather said, “Returned check fee.”

“You want to open a checking account?”

I’ll spare you the entire dialogue but after a few iterations, I wasn’t able to control myself and said “I want to talk to someone other than a ***** machine.”

“You want to know the location of the nearest ATM machine?”

At that point I was pretty sure that their strategy was for me to say “it’s only twelve bucks, forget about it.”  But this was getting personal.  I finally got “Press pound to speak to a customer service representative.”  Which is what I’d been trying to do for the past ten minutes.

I wonder if the people answering the phones at the bank call center know that the people they are talking to have just been subjected to an exercise in frustration guaranteed to put them in a state of mind that is not conducive to rational discussion.

But, again remembering that the call may be getting recorded for training purposes, I maintained a pleasant demeanor when a person came on the line and asked how he could help.  I was polite and friendly, asking about his day, the weather where he was and all that.

Then I got to the point.  I was reasonable, suggesting perhaps that a mistake had been made.

All to no avail.  I got a polite but stern lecture that as result of presenting the check to the bank, I had initiated a series of Herculean efforts on their part to process the check and they had incurred costs, only to find that I was wasting their time.  So not only did I not get the money I’d deposited, but twelve bucks was being taken out of my account to compensate the bank for me having inconvenienced them so thoughtlessly.  The semi-scripted lecture the guy gave me actually had me thinking I’d done something wrong.

I reasonably inquired as to whether the bank had in fact expended twelve dollars worth of effort during the process.  After all, McDonalds seems to go to a lot more effort to give me a burger and they don’t charge that kind of money.  Could he send me the details of the charge?


At some point you feel as if you’re talking to the computer again and you don’t care if the call is being recorded for training purposes.  I asked the guy if he thought the charge was fair or reasonable.  I told him I didn’t think it was totally legal because there was no way I could avoid the fee.

He agreed that I couldn’t have known that a check from a Fortune 500 company would bounce, but I could have avoided the fee if I hadn’t presented the bad check.  Further, he advised me helpfully that if I maintained a balance over $200,000, all fees would always be magically waived.  That wasn’t very helpful!

We were at an impasse but I wasn’t going to give up. And we continued to talk.  Things escalated.  Over twelve lousy bucks!  I’ll spare you the details, but I played the let me talk to your manager card and voila, they finally reversed the fee.  It was the hardest twelve bucks I’d ever earned.

And of course, the conversation ended on an upbeat note “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

What scares me most about the whole thing is the way it unfolded.  First I interacted with a machine and communicated by pressing buttons.  Then I interacted with a machine which tried to guess what I was saying.  Then I had a lengthy interaction with a disempowered human and finally got someone able to resolve the situation.

When you consider that human jobs are being replaced by computers and robots, I bet you some cost accountant at the bank is looking at the customer interface process and putting their finger on a blip in the cost curve that shows that human interaction is the most expensive part of the process.

Can you imagine negotiating with a perfectly logical robot?

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