frustratedIn one of his monologues, Garrison Keillor talks about the way in which our society has abandoned competence. His point was that as we have mastered more and more complex technologies and as we have educated ourselves in more and more specialized tracks, we have lost our grasp on the world that immediately surrounds us at every moment of the day.

Keillor used as an example a farmer who is capable of grappling with each of the many, and often unpredictable, circumstances that arise in his daily life. For the most part, the farmer does this on his own, Keillor said, drawing on a combination of knowledge, experience, skill, common sense, and wit that cumulatively constitute his competence. He is an electrician, a mechanic, a carpenter, a veterinarian, as the demands of the moment dictate. He doesn’t turn to someone else for help every time things don’t go just as they should.

Recently, we ordered a laptop battery from Dell. According to Dell, it was to be delivered on or before July 8. It wasn’t. On the night of July 9, I called Dell at the number the company provides for checking up on orders. Over the course of about 35 minutes, I talked to three people, each of whom required the order number and all or part of my Social Security number, and each of whom required that I tell my story from the top.

The first agent explained, after consulting “the system,” that the battery — which Dell had predicted would be delivered by July 8 — wouldn’t be delivered at all, because “Dell Financial” hadn’t approved the order. She neither knew nor could discover anything further about the matter.

biz12_cThat agent transferred the call — but, of course, no information — to Dell Financial. The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could not see in “the system” why the order wasn’t approved but that “the system” wouldn’t let him do anything further with it. He suggested that I talk to the Order Modification Department, have the original order cancelled and a new one issued. He transferred my call — but, of course, no information — to the gang at Order Modification.

The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could issue a new order, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it would be approved and suggested that he transfer my call to Dell Financial. As I, becoming increasingly agitated, tried to tell him that I had just spoken to Dell Financial and had been redirected to him, he kept repeating himself as though he were reading from a cue card. It never occurred to him that he, not I, should talk to Dell Financial and anyone else in the Dell empire who was in a position to let me spend my money with their company. I wouldn’t let him transfer my call, so — probably to get rid of me — he cancelled the old order and issued a new one and brightly told me that the battery should be delivered by July 21.

I figure the only way that’s going to happen is if the shipping department at Dell is run by a farmer.


Remain calm

July 10, 2009



Personal attacks may be driving Sarah Palin from public office, but not so the prime minister of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi told G8 leaders gathered in L’Aquila, “You all know very well they are making personal attacks on me, but don’t worry, I will be leading my country for another four years.”

Berlusconi’s perceived dalliances and affairs and his tumultuous marriage have made for lively reading, and they have also made for no end of righteous explanations from the prime minister. He and Gov. Palin have this in common: Neither has done anything wrong.

It’s unusual, to say the least, for the head of a government to address an internal matter like Berlusconi’s circus of a life before  a gathering of his peers, but this is no ordinary man. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his statement was the tone of reassurance: “Don’t worry,” he told his colleagues, “ma state tranquilli” — the expression literally means “but remain calm.” Here was Berlusconi — within himself seriously concerned about the battering his reputation has taken in capitals around the world — expressing his determination to remain in office in terms that make him sound not vulnerable, but indispensible.

On balance, even coming from Berlusconi, it was more heroic than anything we’ve seen in Wasilla.