Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Controversy surrounding the BBB

What do you think of when you think of the Better Business Bureau? Do you think of an unbiased organization that acts as a mediator between businesses and consumers? A neutral party that makes sure that its accredited businesses are fair players and treat their customers well? A watchdog organization that goes after rogue capitalists to try the get them to shape up, and if they don’t, giving them a low rating? A company that gives its all to protect US and Canadian consumers?

That’s what I thought, too. But my idea of what the BBB is and does has changed significantly. Two weeks ago, all sorts of new issues have arisen within the organization that make me simultaneously weep for humanity and laugh at how ridiculous it all is.

About a year ago, I became aware of the fact that rather than act as a neutral party that assigns businesses ratings based on how ethically business is conducted, or rates based on the frequency or number of customer complaints, the BBB seems to give a business a good rating as long as that business continues to pay its BBB membership dues. I’m not the only one who had this misconception. David Lazarus wrote about this as early as 2009. He found that two restaurants in the LA area had wildly different ratings, even though neither of them had received any BBB complaints from customers. The one with a B-minus rating was a world-renowned restaurant run by a famous chef, while the other was a less prominent café with a rating of A-plus. The only difference? The second eatery paid $350 in annual dues and was therefore a BBB-accredited business.

This bunny, although a known cookie thief, is a BBB-accredited bunny and thus has an A-plus rating.

Despite the obvious warning flags and an investigative segment on ABC’s 20/20 in November 2010, nothing was done to fix the issue. I’d thought I just had always been too lazy to find out how the BBB assigned their ratings. That this was the way they had always run their organization and I’d just been an ignorant, blissful, trusting consumer. But then earlier this month, conflict erupted within the BBB, shaking the foundation to its core and causing an internal split.

Prior to this split, the BBB had consisted of 113 smaller member BBBs nationwide, the largest of these being the BBB of the Southland. But at the beginning of March 2013, the BBB of the Southland either seceded from the Council of BBBs, or they were kicked out, depending on which side you believe. Neither side has done a particularly good job of maintaining credibility, as the divorce was followed immediately by a volley of communications from either side pushing their individual brands of propaganda. The old BBB managed to strike first, stating that they had had no choice but to eject the BBB of the Southland from their alliance for failure to adhere to BBB policies and procedures. The newly-named BCA (Business Consumer Alliance) shot back with a retort with a tone approaching high-school-level cattiness. They said they had willingly quit the BBB due to old outdated policies that the crusty leadership had no intention of changing. The BBB has assured its members that they will continue to allow accreditation and resolve complaints by using their nationwide network to step in and cover the gap. The BCA promises new features and products that will probably fall on deaf ears, as most consumers trust the BBB and most businesses will want to remain aligned with them to retain their customers’ trust. After all, the BBB has been around for over 100 years. But that doesn’t mean it’s not corrupt.

Where do consumers turn, then, for reliable information regarding the ethical performance of businesses? Both the BBB and the BCA seem to employ a pay-to-play scheme and are each equally guilty of name-calling and mud-slinging. And for-profit organizations are predictably no better. Yelp has been known to bury positive comments about businesses if their optional subscription fee is not paid, sending negative reviews straight to the top of the page. And TripAdvisor allows users to change or delete ratings after posting, which is why you virtually never see less than 5 stars on there for any business. Who are we to trust nowadays?

This guy... left me a bad rating on Yelp.

I do believe that most organizations are just as bad as the other, as exhibited by the BBB vs. BCA scandal. No matter how noble a consumer protection agency is, they will never be fully rid of this problem. In general, most companies big or small have at least some level of corruption, and there are always issues that work against values like efficiency and honesty and that you cannot fully trust the full rhetoric of any one company or organization. But I also believe in the goodness of humans, that most of us just want to survive and connect with each other and make sure our families are fed. So maybe it’s out of this goodness that corruption is borne - we are all just doing our best to make enough cash to survive.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The things I would say

Last summer, I spent a week in Illinois and Missouri visiting the relatives on my mother's side of the family. This was a routine occurrence during my teenage years, wherein my sister and I would make yearly summertime pilgrimages to the Midwest countryside for two-week-long visits. Now that I'm an adult with limited vacation time and have spent the last 2 years living in Germany, I make it out to the ol' homestead much less frequently than I would like. But I managed to fit it in last summer and was overjoyed to have done so. Everything was perfect and relaxed, the weather was hot but not oppressive, and we did nothing but hang out on my aunt’s farm, swim in the pond and eat large amounts of home cookin'. I couldn't help but feel like a child again among all the aunts and uncles. They are there, year after year, living in the same houses and driving the same cars, taking us out to the same buffet restaurants and shopping at the same Wal-Mart. The scene there has remained unchanged as far back as I can remember.

This time around, we arranged it so that my brothers and sister could visit the same time I did, turning it into a proper sibling reunion. We’re all grownups now and live in different cities, so this doesn’t happen very often. We had lots of time to hang out and play with all of my cousins' kids, the oldest of the bunch who are now entering their teenage years. That's something that has changed over the years: watching my little cousins morph from baby blobs into little kiddos and now into young pre-teens that are smart and talented and way better with technology than I am. But the rest of it remains as unchanged as a memory. My siblings must feel it too, because they revert to the same childlike behavior as I do, there among the backdrop of cornfields and azure Missouri sky. We play and make silly jokes and allow ourselves to be fed catfish and pancakes until the point of bursting. And over it all presides my grandmother, always there, always the same. The matriarch that is always the oldest at all the family reunions, and can still remember who is related to whom amid the awkward potluck-y chaos, who tells the same stories year in and year out. The stark epitome of unchanged-ness.

My grandma was born in September 1916, making her 96 years old. Her first road trip was with her father and sisters in a Model-T across Wyoming when she was 16. She remembers the Great Depression and World War Two. She married at 18, raised 4 children on a farm in rural Missouri, was the head cook at the school cafeteria while my mom was in grade school. After that, she ran her own diner in the nearest town for 11 years, baking pies every day to the endless delight of the locals, finally deciding to close shop sometime near the end of the Reagan administration. She has no idea what the Internet is (even though I use it to call her every Sunday afternoon). We don't Skype, because I'm pretty sure that would be too much for her to handle, even though it would be flipping sweet to videochat with her via her giant flatscreen TV that her sons got her for Christmas a few years back. No, I call her on her landline. She knows the call is coming, too, because it takes place every Sunday, always at the same time of day. I picture her settling down into her easy chair, maybe muting the TV in anticipation of the phone ringing, waiting for my call.

The idea for a weekly call is new for us - previously, I only called her on her birthday, Christmas, and Mother's Day. The onus came from my aunt during my last visit. Most of the care that needs to happen for Grandma has fallen to my aunt for 2 reasons: 1. because she is an absolute saint, and 2. because no one else has been around to do it. Grandma is surprisingly self-sufficient for an elderly woman, but even though she lives alone in her own apartment and can do most self-care tasks independently, she is heavily dependent on my aunt in an emotional sense. The whole system only works because they have lived next door to each other for the last 25 years, ever since my grandfather died of a heart attack on the farm while out raking leaves. In calling every week, even just for a short window of time, I would be helping my aunt in the work of entertaining Grandma. Even though it's just a tiny, tiny fraction of the work that my aunt has done day in and day out for over 20 years, she explained how it would really help her out if I would take time out of my schedule every week to do it. So I agreed to it. As commitments go, it's pretty low-level: I didn't mention that the call takes place so late my time that I don't really ever have to cut my plans short to go home to call, and that if I do it's probably for the best because it's a Sunday night and I shouldn't be out late anyway and definitely not out late drinking and/or dancing, so really the weekly appointment does a good job of keeping me out of trouble.

Grandma can't understand a lot of what I say on the phone. Her mental capacities are largely still there, it's just that she has a hard time hearing me. And when she can't understand something I say, it embarrasses her and sometimes she doesn't even ask me to repeat myself before slipping into an apologetic "I wish I could hear as well as I used to", which has the unfailing ability to shatter my heart into pieces every time. So I change the way I talk when I speak with her. Some of it is unintentional, like the "g" falling off the end of every word ending in "ing": "doin' alright, lookin' out for yourself, goin' to dinner". But I also take care to make my sentences shorter, focusing around one main point, creating a palatable little package that’s more digestible for my grandmother's ears. And I stick to easy topics, asking questions she can answer. The weather. Her blood pressure. How the family's doing. Whether she'll be attending church that evening.

But there's other things I wish I could ask her. Heavier things. Non-small-talk things. Things that are no longer suitable for a 96-year-old with hearing and blood pressure issues. And there’s things that I would tell her, too. I don't believe in a heaven, but if I did, it would be a place where you could get the answer to anything you ever wanted to know from anyone who ever existed. A fountain of knowledge from which you could drink again and again for the rest of eternity. And in this heaven, I would of course interview Einstein and JFK and Stalin and Amelia Earhart and various other historical figures, and find out all the answers to all the mysteries and conspiracies of our time and the times before us. But I would also want to sit down for a good long time with my grandma, a version of her unimpaired by physical limitations and ghosts of the past. And in this heaven, we would have a lot to talk about.

I would tell her that I’m glad for the simple fact that she exists on this planet, that she chose to make a life on the farm and tame the land so that her offspring could have a good childhood. That it’s only through her choice to reproduce that I’ve been given the miraculous gift of life (of course, there were many other people involved in that series of events as well – I would interview them too in this version of heaven, naturally).

I would tell her that despite all my feminist beliefs and liberal leanings, despite all the opportunities I have been handed in my life, there are still moments when I wish I'd had her childhood. There's something firm and solid about being raised on a farm with your four sisters, all learning together how to cook and sew and quilt, knowing you were expected to find a nice young man to settle down with by the end of your teenage years. I'd ask her if knowing her fate from the time she was a little girl made her feel trapped, or if it offered a much-welcomed sense of security.

I would say I don't ever want to know how it is to have your youngest child pass away before you do, to have any of your children die for that matter, and how she mustn't blame herself, she didn't know the medication might have those side effects if you took it during pregnancy. No one knew, not even the doctors. How she must be the bravest person I know for living through it. That it could have been much worse, that Mom easily could have passed away decades before she actually did.

I would say that she shouldn't resent the loss of her youthful beauty, that it's an absolutely astounding feat to make it to your tenth decade of life and that she should be proud to be 96 and should be owning it, when inside I know that I will probably feel that way too if I ever live to be that old because I'm already mourning the loss of my youth at age 28.

I would ask her what it’s like to lose all the people you knew, to have all your siblings precede you in death, and whether that made her value her days all the more or just served to make her relive her past over and over in her head and wonder what the sense of it all is.

I would confess to her that part of me wishes she would have moved to New York after retiring to spend her pension on a small Manhattan studio apartment and delightfully elaborate hats to wear to the corner café for her morning coffee, because that is what I would want for myself if had to spend 25 years as an old single woman. That her choice to stay in the Midwest and do nothing for a quarter century stems from asking herself “Why would I do that?” instead of asking “Why wouldn’t I do that?”. I should know. It’s a mistake I make all the time.

I would ask her if she’d ever thought of the events of her life as conscious choices, or just considered everything to have turned out the way it was meant to turn out, because that’s the way things were back then. Maybe she's thankful that she didn't suffer from an overwhelming tide of choice bearing down on her, or maybe she would have wanted more freedom to choose.

I would urge her to show her love for her children and grandchildren, instead of judging them for the choices that they’ve made and the people they’ve turned out to be, the people they always were. To practice acceptance and to demonstrate it daily. To set an example for the rest of us: her 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren.

These are the things I would like to know. But like I said, I don’t believe in heaven. Which incidentally makes it all the more pressing that I cherish every moment during those Sunday calls as I listen to my grandmother’s gravelly voice falling quietly out of my laptop speakers. And to make it a priority to go see her again soon. To fly to the Midwest to take up a spot next to her on her ancient couch, to nestle my arm under hers and just talk about any old thing, is as close to my imaginary heaven as we may ever get. And when I run out of things to say, to just listen. And when there’s no more words left, to just sit there and be still, and enjoy our little version of heaven on earth together in comfortable silence.

Frankie Turner passed away at age 96 on April 11th, 2013 at 10:30pm CST. A copy of this post was printed and placed in her casket. Her obituary can be found here. Rest in peace, Grandma. I hope you found your way to the heaven you believed in.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sums it up pretty nicely.