Monthly Archives: July 2010

Fear of Flying

I’ve never been a big fan of flying. I’m a textbook white-knuckler. No matter how many times it’s been explained to me, I just can’t quite grasp the whole concept of aerodynamics. How can 700,000 pounds of metal lift off the ground and up in the air merely because the design of the wings makes the air beneath the wings lighter than the air above the wings? I can totally understand how a paper airplane zooms through the air, but 350 tons of steel? 

I’ve heard the worn-out cliché that percentage wise, it’s safer to fly than to drive an automobile. Well, for me, I’d rather take my chances with a car. Even if I hit a tree head on, there’s a chance I’ll live to see another day. When a plane takes a nosedive, it’s time to kiss your butt goodbye. 

There was a time when the airline companies pampered their customers to death (excuse the ironic expression), which to me, helped ease the stress and made the whole fear-of-flying-thing almost bearable. I remember free meals, cheap alcoholic beverages, free movies, few, if any luggage restrictions, leg room, and service up the old wazoo. I also remember arriving at the airport 15 minutes before your flight was scheduled to take off and still having 10 minutes to spare. 

However, if you haven’t flown recently, you’re in for a real treat. The typical airport is like a cattle call; hundreds of people converging on the check-in counters to check their baggage at 35 to 50 dollars a pop. And going through security has to be what it’s like to spend eternity in hell. I’ve arrived at the airport two hours before my domestic flight was scheduled to leave, and barely made it to the gate before they closed the door on the airplane. 

There are some deals out there if you hawk the Internet wholesalers regularly. When I fly to NY to visit family, rarely do I pay more than $325. But of course, my knees are jammed up against the seat in front of me and the guy sitting next to me is fighting me for dominant position on the armrest. And for only fifty dollars more, I can move to a seat with a few inches more legroom. But even if I do cough up the additional money, it doesn’t stop the little monster behind me from kicking the back of my seat. I can also look at their “Food for Purchase” menu which offers a variety of overpriced foods that you wouldn’t find at the poorest soup kitchen in the country. However, if you’re patient, two hours into the flight the attendants will give you a free, ¼ ounce bag of delicious peanuts or pretzels. 

And of course, it’s always a pleasure using the toilets, unless, of course, you weigh more than 95 pounds or you’re taller than five-feet-two. But what I think I love most is when the pilot refuses to turn-off the “fasten seatbelt” sign—even during periods of negligible turbulence—for the entire 5-hour flight, and asks you to remain seated with a full bladder and violent cramps in your lower abdomen. Can’t wait to visit my family in NY come September. If it wasn’t a 3,000 mile trip, I think I’d drive.

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The Dreaded “Was” Word

Writing fiction requires two distinct disciplines: Creative talent and grammatical expertise. Like any art form, writers are guided by certain commandments; a handful on the creative side, but many on the technical side. A writer pretty much has a green light to craft his or her story with few creative constraints. As long as the plot is plausible, an author is free to flex his or her creative muscles. But that is not the case on the technical side. Although there is a little wiggle room, the basic principles of grammar, syntax, sentence structure and fundamental language rules apply. 

The first commandment of writing fiction is, “Show, don’t tell”. Although this concept can be more complex than one might imagine, in a nutshell it basically means that a novelist should write more action scenes than narrative scenes. Instead of writing, “John felt angry”, write, “John kicked the lamp across the room”. 

The second commandment of writing is, “Minimize passive voice.”  The most common passive voice word is “was”. Instead of, “He was in love with her,” say, “He loved her.” Instead of, “It was a cold December day,” say, “The cold December day chilled his bones.” See the difference? 

As a writer, I can no longer read a novel as a reader, nor can I forgive a writer who consistently disregards the technical rules. Makes little difference if the story is compelling and engaging. If a writer bombards me with lazy sentences overusing the “was” word, I’m completely turned off. 

Unless you’re living in a vacuum, you’ve likely heard about the current literary phenomenon, the trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, the Swedish novelist who died shortly after delivering the three books to his publisher in 2004. He wrote, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The reviews on these books are off-the-charts fantastic, and the entire literary community is buzzing about these books. A dear friend of mine who is a voracious reader (she reads four or five books a week), told me that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the “best thriller she ever read”. Considering how many books she reads, that’s a hefty statement. 

As a writer of thrillers, I, of course, had no choice but to buy the first book in the series, if for no other reason than to find out if it lived up to the hype. Now bear in mind that Stieg Larsson wrote these books in Swedish, so the English translation may not accurately represent his style, narrative voice, or use of language. Well, I started reading it last night. And you know what I first noticed 12 pages into this book? The passive word, “was” appears 41 times. That’s forty-one-times in only twelve pages. If it continues at the same pace, then this 590 page novel will likely show the “was” word 2,015 times. 

You might be asking, “So, what’s the big deal? If it’s a compelling story, who cares how many times he uses the “was” word?” Here’s the problem. Even though you may not be conscious of the overuse of the “was” word, used so frequently instead of action verbs, the writing will seem flat. Not to mention the fact that the “was” word is not the only evidence of passive voice. The novel is inundated with passive voice sentences from beginning to end. As a result of this literary flaw, there is much more “telling” and little “showing”. The “was” word is the lazy writer’s crutch. It takes much more skill to craft a sentence without using the passive voice. 

I have no idea how this stunning flaw got past the editors at Random House (the publisher). But it is a sad commentary on literature in general. If substandard writing like this can catapult a book into the limelight, position it as a #1 NY Times Bestseller, then contemporary fiction as we know it is in serious trouble. 

I was very unhappy that this book was not what it was supposed to be.

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Filthy Rich

My wife and I just started watching a program on the House & Garden channel called Selling New York. Basically, it’s a show about elite NY real estate agents trying to sell multi-million dollar properties to the super-rich. One unit in particular was listed for a cool 25 million dollars. 

Watching this program got me to thinking about people with enormous financial resources. Maybe because I’m a poor slob from Upstate NY, I can’t relate to their egos or motivation. However, I can’t help but wonder what makes someone want a 25 million dollar piece of real estate. 

I am not a socialist. In fact, I believe in a free market and the basic principles of capitalism. But in my heart of hearts, I know that there must be something terribly wrong with an economic system where a sports figure can earn 25 million dollars a year, while thousands of people are rummaging through dumpsters for cans and plastic bottles. 

I do not believe in the redistribution of wealth, nor do I believe that we should have laws that force rich folks to share their wealth with the needy; altruism should remain voluntary. What puzzles me though, is why many of the super-rich people in the world don’t willingly share their good fortune. If you have enough money to virtually buy anything your heart desires—mansions, hundred-foot yachts, villas in Tuscany, diamonds, flashy sports cars, gold fixtures in your bathrooms—and you still have a few billion dollars tucked away, why would you not want to support a worthwhile charity or humanitarian cause? 

The only word that comes to mind is greed. Gordon Gecko, infamous character from the movie, Wall Street, proclaimed, “Greed is good”. Sorry, Gordon, but I disagree. Greed is a contagious disease that festers and spreads. Can you imagine what kind of world this could be if every wealthy person across the globe subscribed to the theory that “generosity is good”?

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Customer Service

After dozens of encounters with customer service reps representing every industry from healthcare to banks to utility companies to auto dealers, I have come to the sad conclusion that with few exceptions, customer service exists only in the past tense. The typical customer service rep today can only look in their little company handbook and quote policy. But they are not empowered to think outside the box. 

Whatever happened to the philosophy that the customer is always right? Now I realize that many consumers are unreasonable and their expectations are off-the-charts ridiculous. However, I truly believe that this represents a small percentage of typical consumers. Most people merely want quality products and good service after the sale. Period. 

Back a few years ago when I worked as a General Manger in the retail automotive business, I learned many things about customer service. One concept in particular stuck with me. If a customer has to debate and argue to get what he or she wants, and through this negotiation the company agrees to make things right, from the customer’s point-of-view the company did nothing to help him or her. It was only through the customer’s insistence that the problem was resolved. Consequently, even though the company agreed to fix the problem and took a hit in the cash register, they got no credit for it in the customer’s eyes. 

So, my philosophy as a General Manager was simple. When a customer complained about something and I felt that ultimately I’d cave in and agree to help him or her, I did it immediately, without debate and without making the customer convince me that they were entitled to this consideration. When a business agrees to resolve an issue right up front, with no argument and no double-talk, the customer wins and the business gets a good report card. 

A recent experience pretty much blew holes in my theory about customer service being a lost art—at least in one instance. My wife went to New York to visit family, particularly, her 87 year old grandmother. She was gone for 12 days and toward the end of her visit, I sensed that she needed a pick-me-up. So, being the wonderful husband that I am, I sent her flowers and an “I Love You” balloon through 1-800-FLOWERS. I had never used this service before and thought their flowers were a little pricey. Not wanting to call every florist in New York City, I toughed it out and paid their outrageous price. 

I was pleased when my wife called and told me she loved the flowers and that they delivered them exactly when they said they would. 

Two days later, half of the beautiful flowers were either dead or droopy. I went to the 1-800-FLOWER’S website and told them what happened and expressed my dissatisfaction. Several hours later, I got an e-mail from them apologizing and offering to send another bouquet of flowers—free of charge. In addition, they agreed to send me a $20.00 gift card I could use toward a future purchase. Boy, was I impressed. 

I wrote back and asked if they could send the flowers to San Diego rather than NYC because my wife was returning the next day. They immediately responded and cheerfully agreed to redirect the flowers to San Diego. Ultimately, someone crossed signals because they sent flowers to both NYC and San Diego. 

Here’s the bottom line: guess who’s getting my business the next time I send flowers? Do you think I would consider another florist even at half the price? So, 1-800-FLOWERS probably lost money on my transaction. But in the long run they not only made me a customer for life, but I’m telling everyone I know how terrific they are. Why don’t other companies understand this concept?

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