Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Marathon Remembered

The 2009 New York City Marathon is this Sunday, November 1st.

I remember it as a crisp fall Sunday turned dark, an eerily unsteady day for a marathon. The day was October 23, 1983.

Author and leading animal rights activist Cleveland Amory had, in his inimitable fashion, not asked, but told me I was coming to “a little party” he was giving in his Central Park South apartment, which “practically” overlooked the finish line of the New York City Marathon.

I arrived to find Cleveland’s cozy living room, too small I believed to contain the larger than life Cleveland, filled with “big” people: Walter Cronkite, Arthur Schlesinger, Norman Mailer and Walter Anderson, the Parade Magazine chief. I was immediately informed that the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon had been attacked by a terrorist suicide truck bombing, killing 241 marines.

I was asked questions I wished I had answers for—I was supposed to be an authority on Lebanon—but I was as uninformed and bewildered as everyone else. You don’t venture guesses when it’s Walter Cronkite who’s doing the asking.

Cleveland had engaged a chef to prepare omelettes to order, but no one was eating. No one was interested in anything but the heartrending news. The venerable newsmen seated themselves around a television set to catch what updates they could. They talked about switching channels briefly to look in on the marathon—which one could view “live” from Cleveland’s balcony, a dozen steps away—but stayed glued to their seats and the network news. In reality, no one on TV knew enough of anything yet, and the reports became a litany of hearsay and conjecture. If you take news as something new, there was none.

Only Mailer and I took to the tiny balcony, which overlooked the final stretch immediately before the marathon’s finish line. Smitten by the display of the runners’ stamina, I said, “Look at that, Norman… 26 miles, and they look fresh as they can be!” He said, “That’s because they’re losers.” As my jaw dropped, he added, “It’s a race. They should be all out.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Ghost of Time Warner

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, it wasn’t China, it was waiting for service from Time Warner.

For one long week, my wife and I lived in our new apartment without the telephone, television and Internet service—“the triple package”—we ordered from Time Warner twelve days earlier. In spite of Jean’s repeated calls to customer service, her patient demeanor and sweet implorations, we had no evidence, nary a trace, of the actual existence of the world’s largest entertainment company, Time Warner Inc.

To the contrary, I began incrementally to confirm that the corridors and cubicles of the 114 billion dollar mega corp that occupies mega space in a mega building overlooking Manhattan’s Columbus Circle are occupied, as in possessed, by the Ghost of Time Warner Customer Service, an ungodly assembly of bunglers and prevaricators who swear by everything holy that you’re scheduled and they’re showing up, as they proceed to stand you up hour by hour day after day. A long week of no service call—“Someone will be there today”—and no return phone calls— “In a half hour, I promise”—for a job scheduled well in advance in a building that occupies an entire city block at an intersection so central it’s difficult to avoid. It was AOL that used to be the company everyone for good reason loved to hate. Now it’s AOL’s parent company, Time-Warner Inc., that incurs the amply-earned wrath and curses. The Ghost of Time-Warner Customer Service haunts the denizens of Manhattan. And it isn’t yet Halloween.

Sunday morning I had it with Time Warner Non-Service Inc. I called (by cell phone), coolly unloaded on Non-Service Customer Relations representative Miguel and insisted on speaking to someone who could get the job done TODAY. I emphasized, repeated and broke it down into five letters: T-O-D-A-Y. “I want someone here TODAY.”

Miguel, trying to be helpful, asked if I could go to Queens to pick up the modem the serviceman he’d yet to acquire would require for the job. I asked Miguel: “Did you ever hear of a Bad Customer Relations Department? Anywhere in the world?” Since Time Warner Non-Service Inc. apparently doesn’t teach its employees too much more than how to avoid the truth, I thought I could further Miguel’s career. “Customer Relations implies good customer relations, Miguel, not deceitful customer relations, or incapable or inept ones.” I continued the lesson by citing the obvious: "Your company has men in trucks; I, like most Manhattanites, don’t have a car. Your men are on your payroll, I am not. You’re Time-Warner and I’m…

"I’m at 79th and Broadway, 20 blocks from Time Warner headquarters. Walking distance! 79th and Broadway, Miguel. If your offices are on fire, odds are the fire-engines will pass through 79th and Broadway on their way to put out your fire, it’s that tough to avoid. I’m not calling from a farm, Miguel. Major subway and bus lines cross through here all day and night. And your installation man can’t find his way here, even by accident?"

Miguel connected me to his director, Osvaldo. In the fleeting magical moments that I had not one but two Ghosts of Time-Warner Customer Service on the phone, I told them not a single person has called back. Ever! “It must be in the manual," I said. "No matter what the problem is or what the customer says, you tell them you’ll call back in a half hour. A Footnote tells you, *Don’t bother. They’ll never be able to find you again.”

Osvaldo offered to try to get a service person for me “today” and call me back. I rationally opted to wait on the phone. Forty-five minutes later Osvaldo returned to the phone to tell me he was sorry, but he could not find anyone available “today.” To make up for it, he’d offer me two months of free service. I said we’d already been given one month of free service. And now, two more months of free service... for service we don’t have and can’t get! How can you beat that?

Before the word “tomorrow” could come out of his mouth, I asked Osvaldo to put himself in my shoes. I told him that if the situation were reversed and he need a comma or period and it were my job to supply him with punctuation, I’d leave my desk and come to his office. If no one else from Time Warner Non-Service was available, I thought either Miguel or Osvaldo should leave his desk and come to me.

Osvaldo offered again to work further on it and call me back. Having gained nothing, I had nothing left to lose.

Hours passed without a call. Naturally, I couldn’t reach Osvaldo, so I tore into the man I did reach, whose name I never heard because I was screaming over every word he uttered.

When I entered the world of having to “do business” for myself, I quickly learned that the best way to get attention—sometimes the only way—was to punctuate the important sentence with an obscenity. That’s when I learned to curse. It took me years to learn to scream. Sadly, most people don’t really hear you unless you curse or scream. (I don’t recommend doing both at the same time.) That, sadly, is the way the world works.

By and large, I gave Time Warner Non-Service Inc. the courtesy of the considered scream. Not loudly, but articulately. Yes, that’s what works: screaming articulately.

I got results.

Every story has its heroes. This one’s are Miguel and Osvaldo. Osvaldo eventually called me back. And Osvaldo delivered! All right, the day after, but he went where no one prior had tread. A service call!

I’m posting this via my newly-installed Internet service. I learned today that I have VIP status with Time Warner. Isn’t that a scream?

I want to thank Time Warner Inc., not for the service, too arduously obtained, but for the story. This will probably blow my VIP status.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Alfred Nobel could never have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not, at least, in his lifetime.

Nobel, a Swedish chemist, developed nitroglycerin—not for angina, but for explosives. Having succeeded with an effective blasting oil, he resourcefully developed and patented a blasting cap—a detonator—for triggering the explosion of nitroglycerin.

After losing a brother and a factory from two separate nitroglycerin explosions, Nobel managed to stabilize his mighty explosive and give it a name that stuck—dynamite. A chemist with a head for business, he patented it. An innovator with a taste for explosion, he subsequently invented a blasting gelatin—gelignite—and a blasting powder—ballistite—to go with his blasting oil. For Nobel, who accomplished all of this and became wealthy from it in the quarter-century between 1862-1887, life was a blast.

Nobel said, “If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.” One turned out to be so good it is his undisputed legacy—the creation of a prize for “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The Nobel Peace Prize.

Gandhi didn’t win it, but Arafat did. Sartre asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration, and not only did the Nobel committee award him the prize, but also ignored his refusal of it. Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho declined it because peace had yet to come to his country, but that didn’t deter his co-awardee Henry Kissinger from accepting it.

It’s fair to say that President Obama won it for being an advocate for both “fraternity between nations” and“the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” For little more because he’s had time and opportunity to do little more. What he will do regarding “the abolition or reduction of standing armies” remains to be seen. If the committee for the Nobel Peace Prize intended to encourage him; to support his honorable endeavors; to put the best light on the worst of human conditions, war; doesn’t that only serve the public good?

Alfred Nobel envisioned a future that is yet to come. “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.” If only.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rx: Health Care Made in Taiwan

A health scare I experienced in Taiwan, only 1/13th the size of the United States, made me zealous for services and benefits we in this country only dream about.

While at dinner with five other American journalists in Taiwan this past June, I felt a stabbing, shooting pain in my lower left arm indicating angina. I tried to deny the pain and dismiss any significance it might have, but my companions were too knowledgeable to fool. Mindful I was going to be in the air for nineteen hours the next day, they insisted I go to a hospital before we boarded our plane for New York.

At 7:30 the next morning, accompanied by Lynn, a colleague, and our Taiwanese guide, Lily, I took a taxi to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Hospital in the coastal town of Hualien. At 8:20 a.m., we entered the emergency area, which bore none of the earmarks or anxieties customary to one. Without wait, I was able to tell a receptionist in English why I was there. I wasn’t asked to fill out any forms. All I had to write was my name, once.

In less than five minutes a young woman doctor walked over to where we were seated and began asking me questions, the right questions. After I described my symptoms of the night before, she prescribed the expected EKG and a blood test, took my blood pressure and listened via stethoscope to my chest. She said I would have the results by ten a.m. In less than another five minutes, I was asked to enter double doors behind the reception desk that led to the emergency ward.

Although I was wearing a surgical mask, I was nevertheless wary of catching something. Patients lay in rows of hospital beds. A nurse, sensing my discomfort, led me to a bed on an outside aisle where I sat facing away from the other patients as she took blood from me. I scrutinized the procedure to make sure she was using a new needle, which of course she was. But I was still uneasy. I asked if I might have the EKG in a more private area, hoping for any unoccupied corner of the room. The nurse did even better; she moved the bed into a separate chamber. I was comforted and thankful.

While I subsequently waited with Lynn and Lily in the waiting room for the test results, Lynn suggested we take a poll on what time we would have them. We all lost by overestimating it. At 9:51 the doctor emerged with the completed EKG and blood test results, which she reviewed painstakingly with me. They indicated the pain wasn’t from angina or anything threatening to the heart. They revealed I had a heart murmur I didn’t have on examination a week prior to going to China. I was offered, and gratefully accepted, print-outs of all my test records to relay to my cardiologist in New York.

When we rejoined our colleagues, they, already informed I was OK, greeted me with cheers and applause. Then, one by one, they sidled over to me, individually expressing envy. I pointed out they had relaxed at a beach while I had spent my last four hours in Taiwan anxious about whether I would be on a flight home that day or not. The response could only come from journalists: “Yes, but you got the story.” And they were right.

It’s a tale of national health care. The Taiwanese government, founded “provisionally” in 1949, faced with entering the 21st century with half its population having no insurance coverage at all, started late and got it right.

The government began by consulting experts from a dozen other countries, cherry-picking and combining their finest features for inclusion in its own nascent system. It wanted one plan that covered everyone, assuring free and equal access to doctors and hospitals for all without waiting lists or “gatekeepers.” To finance it, it opted, in 1995, for a single payer government-run national insurance fund everyone is compelled to join and contribute to based on either the ability to pay or a fixed affordable premium. No Taiwanese citizen ever has to worry again about going bankrupt due to medical bills. Working people don’t have to worry about losing their insurance if they lose or change jobs. Low income households, military conscripts and veterans are 100% subsidized.

Taiwan’s NHI (National Health Insurance) system offers comprehensive benefits you can barely recite in one breath: prescription drugs, vision and dental care, maternity and child care, psychotherapy, preventive medical services, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicines, kidney dialysis, radiation therapy, surgery, inpatient and home care, and more. Everyone has a smart card that enables a doctor to read the patient's medical history and medications. The patient’s bill, transmitted to the government insurance office, is paid automatically. It’s no wonder Taiwan has the lowest administrative costs in the world: less than 2 percent.

The taxi rides, roughly two hours to and from the hospital, came to $10 more than my hospital visit. The entire bill for my examination and battery of tests was $56.

Back in New York, I reported my experience to my cardiologist, who recommended I have an echocardiogram. The first available appointment for me was in a month.