Tag Archives: service

One Year Back Home

Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones. 

That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.


We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.

IMG_1385Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.

IMG_0868Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.

I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:


  • North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova (above).
  • An initiative I’ve undertaken with others to encourage retired people to pursue volunteer opportunities. 
  • A book manuscript I’ve written about our recent adventures and what it means in today’s world to be “not exactly retired.”


I also traveled to Romania to help teach a workshop on vaccines (above) and took two excellent adult-education courses with OLLI. Champa’s been working in her garden, pursuing art projects and spending time with family and friends. 

We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)


Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.

So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.


Get Smart, Not Mad

If you’ve been frustrated dealing with the customer-service departments of some big American companies, just imagine trying to resolve a problem with them while you’re living on a modest budget halfway around the world.

I’ve come up with a method to do this effectively, which I’ll describe in a moment so you can use it, too — a break from my usual narrative about our Peace Corps activities. First, though, let me set the stage by sharing two examples of excellent long-distance customer service we’ve experienced while serving as volunteers in Moldova.

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The first was with Harry & David, which sells gift baskets, fruit and other goodies online. In December, Champa and I ordered a holiday gift for our younger son and his family. They had recently moved to a new house and I inadvertently entered the old address. When the package didn’t arrive, I realized my mistake and sent the company a message explaining the situation.

Their response amazed me. They sent a replacement gift to the correct address at their expense, even though I had caused the problem.

I made the same mistake when ordering hands-on science kits for our grandsons from KiwiCo. That company also responded immediately, sending a replacement kit to the boys, at its expense. I was so impressed.

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I am now a loyal customer with both Harry & David and KiwiCo. Not only do they sell great products, but they responded quickly and generously to my problems.

I wish I could say the same about Best Buy and The New York Times.

Both of those companies were initially unresponsive, ineffective and maddening, at least with me. I had to slog through tweets, online chats, e-mail messages and long silences before finally resorting to my special trick to get my situation resolved. I didn’t call them because I expected they would put me on hold even though I was calling internationally.

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With Best Buy, I was receiving annoying daily “do you want to resubscribe?” pop-up messages on my laptop. They came from a virus protection program I’d purchased from Best Buy a year earlier and, at their suggestion, had replaced with new software when the subscription ended. Best Buy told me I could only end the pop-up messages by resubscribing to the original software, for a fee, even though I’d uninstalled it and bought the new package.

With The New York Times, my online subscription suddenly stopped working. (The problem turned out to be that it was still connected to my previous job, even though I’ve been paying for it.) I sent numerous e-mail messages to find out what happened. No answer. I sent a series of Tweets to their customer care account on Twitter. No answer. I had an online chat with an agent who kept me waiting between each exchange while she handled other customers. She eventually said she’d fix the problem and write me back. She didn’t. When I sent her several follow-up inquiries, she didn’t reply.

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I finally resolved both situations with this technique:

I searched each company’s corporate site for the most senior executive I could find who seemed to have oversight of customer service, corporate communications or a related function. I then Googled their name with an “@“ sign to find their e-mail address. I also looked them up on Twitter.

Once I had their names and contact information, I wrote each executive a polite message explaining my dilemma. I asked them to assign someone to follow up with me. I wanted an actual person, with a name, who was empowered to help me.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.51.30 PMBoth appeals received gracious responses and quick follow-up. Both problems were resolved. It’s what I expected based on my own experience before joining the Peace Corps. I was sometimes on the receiving end of such messages. I always responded helpfully, even though it wasn’t my direct responsibility. I considered these messages to be welcome insights into problems our organization might have with its systems.

My suggestion when you’re trapped in Customer Service Hell, in other words, is to not become angry at the person on the phone or online with you, regardless of whether they are in the United States or somewhere else. They are probably overworked, with limited authority, and even more stressed out than you.

Get smart, not mad. Identify and recruit the assistance of a senior person who has the power to tell a competent colleague to resolve your situation. Be courteous with them, although sometimes you may also need to mention in passing how much you hope to avoid going public or pursuing some other recourse if the terrible service persists. Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.49.59 PMGive them a chance to take the high road. (All of this assumes, of course, you have a legitimate concern and are being honest with them rather than trying to scam them.)

When the executive tries to make things right, respond appreciatively and professionally. In my case, let me say how grateful I am to the people who intervened for me: Matt Furman and Dan Saunders at Best Buy and Meredith Kopit Levien at The New York Times, as well as to their colleagues.

If you’ve had a similar experience, good or bad, or have your own advice to share, I encourage you to leave a comment.

Oh, and one more thing: If you ever need to buy a gift basket or an educational toy, I know just where you should go.

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