Breaking Slowly

I recently began doing morning pages again. If that means nothing to you, the least you need to know for the following story to make sense is that I am doing three pages of handwritten freewriting each morning. You can read more about the process here.

Anyway, since I’m doing this intentional practice, I decided to buy myself a decent pen to write with. I’m not precious about things, but I find that paying attention to things means I respect them. So, having a dedicated pair of shoes to go walking in, and a dedicated chair to read or meditate in, and to the point of this story, a new notebook and pen to write in.

So, after reading lots of reviews (because obsessing about small things is another thing I do), I decided to buy a Pilot Metropolitan Gel Rollerball. Mostly because it uses the same refill as my favorite pen – a Pilot G2 Gel Pen.

Amazon had them in stock, but for some reason, the earliest I could get it delivered was about 10 days away. Office Depot didn’t have any in stock at their store near me, but I could order it and have it delivered in 48 hours. This is a lot of effort for a $20 pen, but again, this was special.

The package was supposed to arrive today. It (the package) did arrive today. The packing slip that was enclosed said it was a pen, but it was not. It was instead a business card holder, like you would put on your desk.

No big deal – I went on the website and there was a huge button that told me that Office Depot was all about taking care of business, and that I could talk to a live chat agent. What followed was a comedy of errors. The live chat person was typing in what appeared to be broken English. They responded to my questions with answers meant for someone else. They told me I would have to return the business card holder and they would have to receive it before they could resend my pen. Then they told me that they would mail me a check (you know, like it’s 1997) as a refund, and I would have to reorder the pen myself.

At this point, I called their 800 number (which I apparently should have done in the first place) and I spoke to a really nice man who told me his computer terminal was broken, and asked me to hang up and call them again later.

At this point, I’m more than 30 minutes invested in trying to solve the case of the missing pen. Any cost-benefit analysis is out the window. Now, it’s personal.

I call back, speak to a lovely person named Paul, and I explain to Paul on the front end that if I seem frustrated, it is because I am, but I am not frustrated at him, but at the trouble I have been having with Office Depot, and I hope he can help me. As an aside – I find this technique to be extremely helpful, as it places them on the alert that things have went wrong, and it lets them be part of the solution – almost like they are striving to be better than their colleagues.

Paul listens, has me on hold for 30 minutes (no lie, but at least I’m on hold) and then comes back on and tells me my new pen will be here on Tuesday. Yay, Paul.

But here’s the point: Look at how many things were broken in the process of my buying a $20 pen. This is a major brand name pen – a few years ago, any chain office supply store would have had it in stock, on a shelf. Amazon, masters of logistics, can’t get me this pen in less than 10 days. Again – this is not an obscure pen. Office Depot messed up the order in their warehouse, shipping the wrong product, and nobody noticed. The Live Chat operator can’t type, and obviously didn’t understand what I wanted. The first operator’s terminal was down, and was unable to recommend I do anything but try later. It took 30 minutes of my being on hold to get Paul to do something as simple as agreeing to send me what I originally ordered.

The pen was not obscure or rare. Office Depot is not a Mom and Pop company. It’s all just broken, but it’s not obvious at first, and it isn’t a collapse. It’s just breaking… slowly.

A friend the other day described what is going on right now as, “Like the end of the Roman Empire, but with Wi-Fi and streaming”, and the more I think about it, the more on the nose that sounds.  My local grocery store was out of canned vegetables the other day. Like, all of them. Two years in, the local Kroger has never recovered their paper towels stock to pre-pandemic levels. I went to buy a particular saw from the local Home Depot – which their website said was on sale, and that this store had 11 of in stock – and there were none on the shelf, and nobody there knew where any were. We literally had to talk to 3 employees and 1 member of management and invest 30 minutes to find a saw they had on sale.

I’m not complaining about the employees – everyone is, I’m sure, doing the best they can. But it’s obvious to me that the system is overwhelmed. Nothing is happening like it should, and yet, everything is still going. Sorta.

I get asked sometimes why I keep a deep pantry of food, and why we invest in redundancies, like the ability to cook food by three methods, or the ability to heat our house by two different utilities, or why I have cases of water in the closet. It’s not that I think there is going to be a major Armageddon scenario, where we are all eating acorns and wearing bear skins.

Instead, I think things are just going to wind down, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it just breaks, and then we will have to fix it. But the slow part will take decades, and we have to survive while it’s happening. The Capitalists will do everything they can to hang onto our consumption, and so they are investing heavily in a façade of normality, to keep us going.

I think, eventually, things will balance out. But until they do, a lot of people will be hurt, and if history is any guide, it won’t be those of us buying $20 pens, but rather those who can least afford it.