Thursday, September 20, 2007

#111 - In Praise of the Dibble

In Praise of the Dibble

9/20/07 (#111)

My daughter's cousin* Owen was over one day and we all decided to mix up a round of Nesquik, the world's most fabulous chocolate milk. The powder, mind you, because my pint-size posse and I roll old school: I have tried a host of challengers to the "best chocolate milk" crown, from the so-called gourmet Scharffen Berger sludge that seems to defy the milk to at-least-it's-better-on-ice-cream Hershey's and most of the options between, but nothing hits the spot like Nesquik. (Though I still have trouble calling it that, as it went by the trade name Nestle Quik when I was a young chocolate-and-calcium-speedball fiend.)

When out of the scrutinizing watch (and frustratingly flawless memory) of adolescents, my powder-to-milk ratio tends toward the exorbitant, ensuring that many gulps feature that sweet, gritty texture I love; but with the impressionable eyes of two five-and-unders watching, I am invariably the responsible adult, heeding the directions on the package in hopes that they will grow up with a taste for moderation that I don't possess. The kids were going to mix their own, and before we started, I said, "Remember, two spoons, that's all."

Of course, one would expect them to try to maximize each scoop by balancing a ridiculously tall tower of powder on the end of their jittering spoons, to gingerly move the payload across the deceptively vast terrain between Nesquik container and milk glass without that disappointing twitch that causes a minor avalanche of chocolate to be lost upon the counter top. (At least I would expect that, because that remains my standard Nesquik modus operandi.) But the kids each took one reasonable scoop, then another. As I moved to put a cap on the mix, Owen quickly jabbed his spoon into the shrinking gap between yellow container and plastic top and protested, "We didn't do the dibble!"

The dibble? I didn't want to sound concerned, but I didn't like the sound of a young boy dibbling in my Nesquik. "How does one 'do the dibble', Owen?"

He pushed the lid aside, dipped the tip of his spoon into the cocoa and retrieved a tiny portion of the Quik, an amount so small it could be hidden behind a shelled peanut. "Two scoops, plus a little dibble," he chirped brightly.

Ahhh, that dibble. I didn't know it had a name, but I am quite familiar with the dibble; in fact, I am a great fan of the dibble; furthermore, I would venture that the dibble often possesses as much value as either of the immeasurably larger scoops.

The dibble is that little something extra that separates a satisfactory experience from a sensational one. Of course, the most essential element of the dibble is its visibility---the inconsequential bit of cocoa dust that Owen added into his glass of milk did nothing to increase the chocolaty flavor of his beverage, but he knew it was there, and he reveled in his victory over the two-scoop limit. He might have started with two larger scoops, and thus had more chocolate even without the dibble---but then, that method didn't include the dibble.

Young and old, we can all be swayed by a little dibble. When I worked as an auto station attendant (a.k.a. gas huffer) my station had a commitment to washing the windshield of every car that purchased gas. There was a time long ago when that service was the norm at a good filling station, but the bean counters discovered you could have less staff if you only washed the windows on request, not on principle, and these days you can usually expect some high school kid to stand at the rear quarter panel of your car staring into space until the pump automatically clicks off. Our station charged more per gallon than those no-service stations, yet we regularly dispensed 300,000 gallons a month---washing nearly every windshield as we did. People didn't mind paying our price, because they got the dibble: Pardon the pun, but when they left our station, they could easily see the difference.

Many businesses have exceeded expectations as a direct result of the dibble, and many others have failed for lack of the dibble. For example, I cite my last two experiences with the oft-maligned (and oft-deserved) airline industry.

My brother summed up the state of modern airlines this way: Customers have lost all loyalty to a brand, and brands have lost all loyalty to their customers. We might prefer one airline over another, but airline seats are a commodity and few will spend $700 for a favored carrier if they can reach the same destination for $500 with a competitor. Because of that, airlines scrape to keep their seats as cheap as possible. Corporate budgets have no room for dibbles.

I flew US Airways in July, my first time flying that carrier. It was a red-eye flight departing at 11:00pm, and while waiting to board, I heard a customer ask the ticket agent for a blanket and pillow. "You can get those on the plane," she cheerfully assured. Seated in Zone 2, I boarded early in the process, and after stowing my bag I looked for the promised blankets and pillows. There were none to be found. I asked a stewardess where they kept these items, and she explained that they didn't have any. None? "None." Well, we're still at the gate, let's solve that problem before we leave. "Portland isn't one of our hubs, we aren't provisioned for that here." A full-capacity, four-hour overnight flight and US Airways decided that the t-shirt-thin blanket was too much of an expense in exchange for the $600 airfare. (Bonus points: Upon arrival, as the exhausted coach peasants trudged wearily off the plane, we were treated to the sight of a wrinkled blanket and pillow on each of the first-class seats. Apparently, US Air now considers the t-shirt-thin blanket and no-cushion doll pillow to be first-class items.) Forget the dibble---this was 1 ½ scoops of chocolate being passed off as a two-scoop glass of Quik.

Compare that to my last experience with Delta. Same journey (though not a red-eye), and a typical airline experience: Standard free-for-all jostling to get everyone aboard**; 25 minutes on the tarmac waiting for takeoff; ample room to slide several sheets of paper between my knees and the seat in front of me. 3 hours and 30 minutes later, one of the stewardesses got onto the intercom and encouraged us to join her in some "post-flight yoga", a simple bit of stretching that would get us ready for the mile-long trek through the airport to our next connection.

"It's easy," she began, "let's start with our necks----let your head gently fall forward, then slowly rotate in a clockwise position. Since we traveled from the West coast, we've lost three hours, so to help you adjust, maybe start with your head dropped to the right." She continued on in this whimsical way, coaxing us to rotate our shoulders, chastising some passengers for not participating, demonstrating how to rotate the ankles…"Good job, everyone. I bet you're feeling better already. Now gently put your left foot behind your head". Many eyebrows shot up in disbelief before the cabin filled with laughter. Her routine lasted 10 minutes, and at the end, I felt a strange sensation: I felt good. Everyone seemed to feel good. Where most flights end with exhaustion and silent competition to escape the fuselage, that plane was full of smiles and cheerful conversation. And how was this miracle of air travel achieved? One exuberant woman provided one simple service that we didn't expect. There was no extra cost to Delta, but the extra value was immeasurable.

Such is the value of the dibble. Her dibble didn't even include a metaphorical mini-dip into chocolate powder; instead, she provided something intangible, a contagious enthusiasm that spread throughout the plane. (Admittedly, the airline-hostess-enthusiasm-bar has been set rather low by those hosts who continue to deliver the cartoonish string of perfunctory "buh-byes" to the bleary-eyed masses as they eject them into the terminal.) Her enthusiasm managed to defy the state of modern air travel and win my loyalty for Delta: That brief interlude of faux-yoga and a funny monologue convinced me that Delta has a much better understanding of how it feels be a traveler than the yes-we-have-no-blankets attitude of US Air, and I appreciate a company who understands what it feels like to be a customer.

Now if only they'd just include Nesquik among their complimentary beverages. But then, the yoga was Delta's dibble---Nesquik would be a double-dibble. I dare not be so greedy. (At least not while the kids are watching.)

©2007 wpreagan

* Why not say "nephew"? Because Sage and Owen aren't technically cousins; their moms are cousins, which probably makes them second-cousins, or first-cousins-once-removed, or some other impersonal and irrelevant modifier that I refuse to embrace or even tolerate. Family is family, and "cousin" is the furthest semantic extension I will abide. My wife's cousins are my cousins, not my cousins-in-law; my wife's cousin's spouses are my cousins, and not some hyphen-riddled sub-set of my life. Family is not an org chart, it's a tree, and no matter how far out a particular branch any of us might be, our roots are shared.

** Tangential mystery I would love to have explained: When they call passengers for boarding, they start at the front of the plan and work back. This means that the first group of people are filling up the first set of seats, standing in the aisles forcing their over-size carry-ons into the overhead bins and looking for non-existent blankets while everyone else waits in the unheated/uncooled tunnel that connects the airport to the plane. Then the next group of people start filling the next group of seats, followed by the next, and the next, etc. All the while, the back of the plane is empty, and the people who will sit in those seats are standing in the hallway. It seems that if they loaded the back of the plane first, then you could get everyone on board simultaneously. There must be a reason---perhaps with weight in the back and not the front, the plane might do an inadvertent wheelie---but I wish such things were explained during the pre-flight informational session. That, and how an 80-ton bus with wings can get airborne in the first place.