Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thinking about inside the box

By Dick Hirsch

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t even noticed that on certain streets in many neighborhoods the United States Postal Service, familiarly known as the USPS, has been unceremoniously removing and lugging away the familiar blue painted steel mail collection boxes.

Beset with problems across the land, regular mail has lost its rank as a leading mode of communication. As a result, the USPS has been rearranging pickup routes and eliminating many collection points and those chunky, clunky receptacles that have been in place for decades.

It doesn’t matter that those installations have achieved iconic status in many locations. With fewer traditional letters being written there are less being dropped in the mailboxes. Alas, this is yet another example of one of those objects or situations where it suddenly becomes apparent that something was never truly appreciated until it was gone. When the USPS crew arrives and the men unbolt the box and load it on the truck, it may not be as emotional a moment as the time you learned of the death of your favorite uncle. But it grieves those who relied on that location as the gateway and path to correspondents in places near and far; it is a painful loss.

It has become commonplace. Across the country the USPS has removed over 188,000 of those staunch, stolid and eminently serviceable contrivances as part of its restructuring in the age of e-mail. (Incidentally, I hate myself for using terms like “contrivance” or “object,” but I have discovered that a mailbox is not that blue object on the corner, it’s the device at your home where mail is deposited.)

The presence of a mail deposit location within a short walk from home, down the block or around the corner, is an accepted element of our culture. During the past few months on several occasions I’ve overheard customers at the branch post office complain to the clerks that a mail deposit location in their neighborhood had been removed. The clerks, understanding and polite, can offer little solace to the complainants. Consumers can call or write to the USPS, but there apparently is little chance that a collection box, once uprooted, will be reinstalled.

The places where boxes have been removed have been adjudged to be underperforming, those where only a minimum number of letters were deposited each day. The USPS keeps records of the volume collected at certain spots they suspect are being underutilized. If the findings are positive, the location remains active and in good standing. But if they are negative, chances are very likely that a crew with a flatbed truck will materialize one day and abruptly change the world for the remaining loyal users of what had been a convenient and dependable drop-off point.

I speak from bitter experience as I recall the day I returned to my office one afternoon and quickly sensed some suspicious activity as I entered the parking lot. I was unfamiliar with the USPS strategy at the time since it had not been widely publicized. I noted the presence of several men in coveralls with hand tools, monkeying around with the mailbox that stood right outside the building’s front door. Letters had been collected there for years, well before my arrival, without regard to rain, hail, sleet or storm. Now they seemed to be unfastening and removing it.

I conducted a brief interrogation and was satisfied they were agents of the USPS on an official mission.

“We have been surveying this box and it has been underperforming for some time,” one man said. I knew it was senseless to argue. They hefted the box aboard the truck and drove away. I quickly realized I would no longer be able to write a letter late in the afternoon and hurry to drop it in the box for the 5 o’clock pickup, thereby possibly making it a candidate for delivery the following morning. On such occasions, and they were frequent, I always had an immensely satisfying feeling of efficiency. When the box was decommissioned, it was a dreadful loss; I immediately directed what I thought was a persuasive plea to the proper functionary at the USPS Main Post Office. There was no response and that was the last we ever saw of a blue mail box outside that door.

There is a lesson here for those who cherish a certain conveniently located mailbox: use it or lose it.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Downsizing is not a naughty word

By Dick Hirsch

If economy and efficiency in local government are the goals, how much money is each community saving and how much more efficient will municipalities become by eliminating two out of five positions on a Town Board?

I realize it’s fashionable to jump up and down and shout hooray for the efforts of those who have voted to reduce the governing bodies in West Seneca, Evans, Orchard Park and Alden. In each case, after a spirited local referendum, the boards were reduced by two members. I’m sure somebody must have calculated the savings and it must be so miniscule it is almost embarrassing to discuss.

There was a time when I thought Kevin Gaughan would be my newest personal hero, the indefatigable and relentless promoter of downsizing government. He predicts his effort will eventually result in more efficient and cost effective government in Erie County, resulting in a growth spurt for the entire Buffalo-Niagara area.

I’m sure he must believe his own rhetoric, but I can’t imagine why. I’ve heard him speak and he is articulate and convincing, his determination undiminished by the frequent and recurring skirmishes with local officials. For all of that energy and good work, I salute him. He has also recruited a substantial number of true believers, folks who think, as he does, that they are pioneers, developing a route to a new age of government.

I disagree.

He and his efforts get plenty of press coverage and editorial support. Who can envision an editorial opposing efforts to make government more efficient? The news keeps coming as he trudges from town to town, followed by a retinue of reporters and minicams. Results are headlined on the late news and in the daily and weekly papers. Those stories are usually accompanied by interviews with local residents, some of whom are ecstatic to be part of what they deem is progress, others to be sad that the old structure has changed. None of the interviewees seem able to explain, even generally, how the elimination or retention of two local offices is going to impact the governance of Erie County. It’s a tough question.

In my line of work, I’ve been either an observer of or a participant in countless debates, presentations, panel discussions and bull sessions over the years about how best to eliminate overlapping levels of local government. The goal: to transform the area’s municipal management, creating a more efficient structure. The dialogue was virtually continuous. Blah. Blah. Blah. When two daily newspapers were being published one coined the term “suburbanitis,” defining it as the ailment afflicting the area. The other described what we had at the time---and still have---as “oxcart government.”

Elected officials at every level have always paid tribute to the concept of some form of consolidation, but most were truly more earnestly concerned with maintaining the status quo. By retaining the power they wielded in their own fiefdoms they protected themselves as well as other public appointees and employees; change could result in many of them being consolidated right out of their jobs. There have always been examples of metropolitan forms of government that have been adopted elsewhere and operated successfully, but the concept never played very well in the Buffalo area.

It has always been a simple matter to look at the roster of cities, towns and villages in the county, along with school districts and authorities created for special purposes, and conclude that it is an outdated, cumbersome, costly way to operate. The first target of discussion has usually been the villages, places like Farnham, Depew, Williamsville and the others, trying to explain what useful purposes they continue to serve. The merest whiff of any plan aimed at studying the value of the continued existence of a particular village is guaranteed to produce an uproar.

How about merging certain services like engineering, public works and assessment? A countywide police agency works in other places. Those are emotional issues which have an established group of vocal opponents, many of whom are public employees.

That is old news. Kevin Gaughan knows all that. Yet he spends time tinkering with town boards, with the only significant accomplishment being publicizing his downsizing issue. Moving toward serious change is a much more daunting assignment. It might begin with an imaginative county executive as leader. Do you think Gaughan might be interested in that job?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A new form of rejection

By Dick Hirsch

Top quality people get rejected every day. It can happen to anybody, anywhere. It’s part of life. Show me a person who claims to have never been rejected, to have always been accepted, and I’ll prove you have discovered a person who has either been living a very insular life or, more likely, is having difficulty remembering the truth.

Some people react to rejection much better than others. They accept it and move on to other pursuits. These are not second class citizens; many of them are bright, accomplished, well-behaved and attractive. Yet circumstances develop which place them in a position where another or others must make a judgment about their acceptability.

The arena is often related to business, starting with the job interview. Generally there are more applicants than there are positions available, so there will always be more rejected than accepted. Decisions like that are difficult to make and the results are often impossible to understand.

Years ago, I worked on the rewrite desk of a daily newspaper and from that vantage point I was able to observe many job interviews conducted by the city editor during the relative quiet of Sunday mornings. I was able to chat with many of the candidates either before or after their interview, and thus was able to form my own opinion. I was almost always surprised about who was hired and who was rejected. From that experience I concluded acceptance and rejection were often a matter of chance or considerations unrelated to ability.

Rejection is surely a major factor in personal relationships, too. Need I say more? How painful it is to accept, without wincing, the rejection of a member of the opposite sex.

For writers and aspiring writers, opening the envelope (or the e-mail) containing the infamous rejection slip causes extreme pain. The process can create serious self doubts. I suffered in the early days while collecting my share of rejection slips, but I can derive some solace from the realization that most of the magazines that rejected my work have failed and disappeared while I am still writing.

Sales persons are the individuals who face rejection most often. Whatever they are selling, they must be resilient enough to understand they cannot make every sale. Rather than moping, they must be positive, believe in their product, and move on without tears. If they are unable to withstand rejection they will fail and eventually become candidates for a more ominous form of rejection: they’ll be fired.

These examples are drawn from experience and observation and have created in me the feeling that the sooner a person learns to deal with rejection, the better they will be able to function. Frankly, I felt I had ascended to that level, but recent events have cast grave doubts on my own status.

I have been the victim of a relatively new and growing form of rejection. I have been spammed without justification, spurned without the opportunity to explain myself. It is difficult for me to admit this in print, but I do so in order to provide some comfort to others who may suffer the same indignity.

The first incident developed when I sent an e-mail to a college classmate, a man who was always open-minded and approachable. When I received no response, I decided to use the old fashioned method. I called him and he answered. He said he was glad to hear from me. No, he said, he never received my e-mail. I volunteered to resend it, which I did. He called me the following day to report I had been categorized as spam by his filter, and consigned to the spam file. He retrieved it and sent me a long response, including an apology for spamming me.

A few days later, I had a similar experience. After receiving no reply from a friend who is a partner in a national consulting firm, I phoned him. He had no recollection of my e-mail and I suggested he check his spam file. BINGO! It was diverted to the rubbish. My self-concept, already bruised, was further tattered after I sent an inquiry to several executives of a large firm, seeking their opinions for an article. Several days later it became apparent my e-mail had been intercepted and routed to the Dumpster.

Those episodes were a painful introduction to the new threats of rejection lurking along the information superhighway. Ah, well, I’m getting over it.