Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Reluctant Wanderer

Writing a short story is such a different beast than tackling a novel. Having written two full length novels (of around 100,000 words each), it was a bit of a challenge to write a couple of short stories recently. One is called The Howler King which was submitted for a short story contest. (I won't hear for a few months how that did). The second one I did on a whim for an anthology about evil tumbleweeds. It's called The Reluctant Wanderer.
One thing about doing anything creative is that people may like it or not--and for various reasons. I get that. There are certain authors I like to read, or music I like to listen to, and some I don't.
The gatekeeper / editor of the evil tumbleweeds anthology has "declined" my story. The comments were that the story was "too vanilla" (I guess they prefer chocolate) and the tumbleweeds were not "evil" enough. They offered me the chance to re-write the story.
I considered doing just that--for about 2.3672 seconds. Then I decided, "Nah, I like the story the way it is--I'm not going to change it just so it fits better what a certain person wants." Now this may seem a bit headstrong, and it probably is, but in the end, I want to be proud of the stories I create.
When I was shopping The Hidden Sun, one of the rejection letters said that the story was too tame and that if I were to add some swearing and a sex scene or two, they would consider it. For that comment, I considered doing that for 0.0000000001 second--if even that long.


**Update 5/7/11** The Reluctant Wanderer has been published in an anthology called How The West Was Wicked by Pill Hill Press. More information can be found here and here.

A bit of a warning: some of the stories in this anthology are a little more "wicked" than others--meaning read them at your own risk.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Where does the white go when the snow melts?

This picture was taken my by talented daughter Kelley. It's a shot of our backyard.

I've seen snow in various amounts at different locations in my life. Unlike the common saying that Eskimos have something like 5,627 different words for snow, I just have the one--and it's a four letter word.

Actually, that isn't fair. I have a love / hate relationship with snow. In Utah, there were days I would wake up, get ready for work or school, and then leave the house just to find my car buried under several feet of snow. Heck, I even kept a shovel in my trunk. In addition, I'd put big, heavy bags of rock salt in the trunk as well, not only to help weigh down the back of the rear-wheeled drive vehicle, but also to use as a melting agent if I got really stuck.

Even earlier in my life, we had a paper route. The Sunday edition was done first thing in the morning. On would go the heavy coat, mittens, two pairs of pants and those awesome moonboots we had back in the 80's. (Actually, I sort of miss my moonboots) I'd walk from house to house, trudging my way through snow, trying to keep the papers dry and myself warm.

Of course, this would be a good time to mention how I had to walk to school in the snow, uphill (both ways), wearing cardboard shoes, with wolves at my heels and only a "brick" of Shredded Wheat for breakfast--but it wouldn't be true. I didn't have cardboard shoes--I had my awesome moonboots.

In all my years of school in Utah, I only recall school being closed down early once. It was the day before Christmas break, and it had been snowing for several days. There was something like 5 feet of snow, and it was still coming down--hard. They let us walk home early from school that day--though it was uphill with wolves on our heels.

The most snow I've ever seen was a trip we took as scouts to Yellowstone. They said they had like 12 feet of snow or something like that. The only way to get around was on snowmobiles. That was pretty sweet.

And then came my time in Connecticut. This is where the hate part comes in. OK, maybe hate is too strong a word--how about: "an incredibly intense dislike" for snow. Why? Because working at a TV station meant never ending snow coverage. Forget any plans you had with your family--snow meant long hours at work, telling people over and over again: "It's snowing!"

Now that I've moved to North Carolina, snow is back to something of a wonder. Overnight, we got about 6 inches of snow. They say it is the first white Christmas time in the Raleigh area in 60 years. To put into perspective how much 6 inches of snow is for this part of the country, I came up with a formula: You take the number of inches of snow, multiply it by 5, and replace the word "inches" with "feet."

Finally, there is the questions of "where does the white go when the snow melts?" I've asked this question many times to many people. I've gotten all sorts of answers--some very scientific in nature. My favorite response by far was, "It goes into the ground and turns green."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Click, click, click

The clock radio was old. It was so old, the numbers displaying the time were on little flat plates that would flip over when the time changed. In fact, the clock made an audible clicking sound when the time changed. At night, the time could be seen by the little light that illuminated the block numbers.
It was the only clock we had in the bedroom I shared with my two brothers. It sat on a bookshelf where we could all see it. Most of the time, I wasn't aware of the little clicking sound it made--it was just background noise--like the humming of the fridge, or the sound of the heated air blowing through the vents. However, on this particular night, I was very aware of the clicking sound. With each of the small, timely noises, it meant it was that much closer to morning.
I had fallen asleep fairly easily that night, but my little 7 or 8 year old body was just too excited to stay asleep. It was with dismay that I woke up and saw that the clock read 2:30 am. Let's see. If I was to get up at 7:00 am, that meant I had, wait--let me think about it--about 4 and a half hours to go. How many clicks was that? Ug, too many to figure out.
How did I sleep most of the time? What was the trick? Certainly my body was tired enough to sleep, but my mind had other ideas. It was filled with, oh, what was that saying? Ah, yes. "Visions of sugarplums dancing in my head." (What the heck is a sugarplum anyway, and why would it be dancing? Frankly, that's kind of scary--no wonder I had a hard time sleeping if my mind was filled visions of those)
I didn't want to wake up my brothers. No, let them sleep. Just because I was too excited to sleep, I shouldn't deprive them of the pleasure. Dang, only 2:47 now.
"Thad? Are you awake?"
" No, and neither are you. Go back to sleep."
Harrumph.
Click, click, click. The minutes painfully passed. Click, click, click. Is that what the author was referring to when Santa came down the chimney? It kind of made sense now that I thought about it.
Then I got an idea. They said that counting sheep helped you fall asleep. But why sheep? Why not goats, or cows, or platypuses (or should that be platypusi as the plural of platypus?) Bah, it didn't matter. Sheep were fine. I imagined 60 sheep in a pen. Each second, one sheep would jump out of the pen. I'd start the count when I heard a click of the clock. That way, when the pen was emptied, another precious minute would have passed, bringing me closer to 7:00 am.
Darn if that pen didn't keep filling up with sheep.
"Kenny, are you awake?"
"Yes!"
"Me too!"
"I'm too excited to sleep!"
"Me too!"
Pause
Pause
Okay, back to the sheep. I waited for the clicking so the pen would fill up. Click. Ah, there we go.
After the longest night of my life, we closed in on 7:00 am. Even Thad was awake now. We got dressed as the time got closer.
Then, it happened! 7:00 am! Whoo hoo!
"Mom! Amy! Time to get up!"
They were slow to respond. Bah! It was 7:02 now!
Amy came out of her room. As the oldest, and the only girl, I wondered if she understood how important this was.
"Mom's going to be taking pictures. I always look gross. I'm going to take a shower first," she said.
Are you kidding me? It was now 7:04 am! Taking a shower? I don't think so. Thankfully my two brothers voiced their displeasure at the idea as well.
Mom was up now. "Get in a line at the top of the stairs. Youngest to oldest," she instructed.
We did as we were told. C'mon! It had to be at least 7:06 by now!
"All right," she said. "Let's go see what Santa brought."
And so we did.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Customer service ratings--to the extreme!

I've noticed as a consumer that there has been a bigger focus on customer service surveys recently. I guess it makes sense. In an economy where jobs are hard to get and money is tight, businesses are doing whatever they can to make sure they retain their customers.

I'm all for receiving excellent service. If I go somewhere, I want to be treated nicely, not talked down to and certainly not treated like I'm a nuisance.

However, just like many things happening in corporate America, things can be taken too far. Think about the last time to went to your bank. Now, if I were to ask you the following questions, how would you rate your experience on a scale from 1 to 6 (6 being the best):

1. They went out of the way to please

2. They did things right the first time

3. They treated you like a valued customer

4. They made your business their top priority

5. They followed up and kept their promises

All right, have you figured out what you would have rated them? How many of you gave a perfect "6" in all the categories?

Now, did you know that if you scored anything less than a "6" in any of those categories, the person you "graded" would have a black mark given to them?

Now, let's take it to the next step. Let's say in any given month, 14,000 people go to a certain bank location. Of those 14,000, 10 people are randomly called. Of those ten, the minimum goal is 80%, or 8 out of 10 have to grade their visit with all perfect 6's across the board.

Any math whizzes out there that can figure the margin of error with those numbers?

I, sadly, have worked in such an environment. In my opinion, it is completely unfair--especially when the employee is held accountable for the non-perfect shop, even if they did all they could to take care of the customer.

Need more proof? Here is a true story that happened to me:
I was at a training class for a couple of days. When I returned to my store that I manage, I'm told that a customer came in while I was gone. He was very upset because another store, a good hour away, had messed up his accounts and caused him fees. My team fixed the issue, refunded the fees, and escalated the issue to the area manager--because the man was that upset. I was contacted by the area manager and asked to buy a gift card for the customer to "make it up to him". I was also told at the time that I needed to update the man's zip code in the system.
So, I did as was asked. I even called and left a message for the customer apologizing for what he had gone through and told him the gift card was on the way.

When out next surveys came in, this customer had been called and scored us very low. What was worse? The survey pinned me as the person who got the bad survey. How could that have happened? I had never even seen or spoken to the man. The survey was triggered when I updated the man's zip code in the system.

The result? Not only did I lose a big chunk of my bonus for that month, but I was also written up for the low survey--because it was policy that anytime that low of a survey is received, the person had to be written up.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Video memories

Not so many years ago, people would preserve their history in journals. Scrapbooking was a newer way--taking photos and arranging them into neat designs. With more technology comes more options. One way I've kept a family history is by making music videos. When I made my first one about 12 years ago, that was pretty cutting edge. With today's computers, just about anyone can make home movies into something neat. Every Monday night we have something called Family Home Evening. As noted in previous blogs, it is a time where we get together as a family to sing a song, have a prayer and lesson, someone demonstrates a talent, we do and activity and have treats. One of the activities the kids enjoy is watching movies of themselves when they were younger. It's amazing how much they have changed in such a relatively short period of time. I'm including a video we watched just the other night. It was taken in 2004. A little background: the girls had seen these large dolls and had done something to earn them (I don't recall what it was) These dolls were huge!--and frankly, a little scary. This video shows them giving names to their dolls.
video

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't inhale

"When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale and never tried it again." –Bill Clinton

It was labor day weekend, and I was the manager on duty. The grocery store was one of those "no frills" places where people bagged their own groceries and took them out to their car. The floor was cement and the shelves were made out of wooden 2 x 4s. The products were often still the boxes they were shipped in, just cut open with easy access for customers to get what they needed. By far, we had the best prices, but the warehouse feeling of the store was almost too much for some people.
We were just about to close up for the night when a very loud whistling sound came from the far back corner of the store. It was like nothing I'd heard before. I tried to call the store manager, but he was out of town. The same was true for the store owner.
My assistant for the night was a cute girl who weighed maybe half of what I did. We looked at each other in concern, and then decided to check it out.
As we got closer to the back corner, the sound was so loud, we couldn't hear each other speak. It was from a large closet of sorts where the noise was originating. There was a fine, white mist coming from the room, but it wasn't smoke--nothing smelled like it was burning.
I told my assistant to wait outside the closet and I would go check it out. (That was me being the brave macho manager dude). I opened the door to find the room was filled with this white mist. In the room was all sorts of machines--none of which I recognized. I stepped in further, trying to see what was causing the issue. Very quickly, I started to feel light headed, and there was spots dancing before my eyes. A still small voice told me to get the heck out of there.
So I turned, and panicked for a moment when I couldn't see the door. I was really getting dizzy now and stumbled my way toward where I thought the door was. I found it and got out. The world was spinning now, and my assistant looked at me with pure fear in her eyes.
Somehow she helped me get to the front of the store--to this day, I'm not sure how. She must have been working out to get such a tall guy like me to move when my body didn't want to. At the front of the store was the fire department and an ambulance. Even in my foggy state, I wondered who had called them, to find out later, the fire alarm had tripped.
The next part was fuzzy, but I recall being placed in the ambulance next to my assistant where we were both put on oxygen. It turns out that that one of the compressors that kept the freezers cold sprung a leak and was spewing Freon into the air. Now, I don't know a lot about such things, but I was told breathing in Freon was bad--like too much and it could kill you kind of bad.
I survived, and I took a deeper lesson from it. Many times in my life, I've been placed in situations, both professionally and socially, where there are things around me that are dangerous. I'm not only talking about physical things, but also behaviors. At one of my places of employment where I ended up leaving on my own, the "air" was becoming polluted with negativity, micromanaging, double standards and questionable ethical behaviors.
Just like when I was in the room with the white mist that seemingly was harmless at first, longer exposure would most certainly have led to unpleasant results. So, again, I listened to that still small voice in my head that told me to "Get out!"--and I did.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Extend this!

I have a love / hate relationship with extended warranties. By and large, I think they are a waste of money, though on occasion, they have paid for themselves several times over.
After I graduated from Brigham Young University, I took a job at an electronics retail store. I was looking for a job in TV, but those were hard to come by and I knew it may take a while. Add the fact my wife was several month pregnant, and the urgency to get a job was pretty high.
The place I worked is no longer in business--and it is no wonder why. We were straight commission sales--plus we had to empty the trash, mop the floors and clean the bathrooms in our suits as a "perk" of working there. (Again, we were straight commission, so you can imagine how much commission I got from scrubbing toilets)
One thing they really pushed was the extended warranties. In fact, they would track the percentage of your sales dollars and the minimum expectation was that 10% of your sales came from the extended warranties. And if you think about it, why not? After all, you are getting people to pay for something they may never use. It's almost pure profit.
Again, think about the term: it is an extended warranty--meaning it only kicks in after the manufacturer's warranty expiries.
Here is a true story: I sold a customer a cell phone and as well as the two year extended warranty. A few weeks later, he came back with the phone, telling me it stopped working, but he had bought the extended warranty. I had to explain to him that for the first year, he had to contact the manufacturer--but since I am such a nice guy, I helped him find the number and we called from the store. The result? He was expected to send the phone back to the manufacturer in the original packaging and he would get it back in 6 to 8 weeks. If he didn't have the packaging, there would be a fee. I honestly thought the customer was going to deck me.
After that, I had a hard time selling the extended warranty because I didn't believe in it. I quit the job soon after because I got my first TV job.
But the extended warranty stories don't end there. My wife and I got a car and were "talked into" getting some sort of paint coating protection. A couple of years after we had the car, we noticed some issues with the paint, so I called the number about the warranty. They said they would be "happy" to help us. We would just need to drop it off to an authorized repair shop--and that it could take up to a week to get it done. Where was the nearest "authorized" shop? 3 hours away.
But here comes the "love" part of the story. When we bought our last van, my wife was a hard nose. She is quite the shopper and bargainer. We actually walked out on the salesman because my wife wasn't happy with the offer on the trade in. He called us back a few days later with a better offer, and included an extended warranty at no extra cost--and it was for 8 years or 80,000 miles.
Just this week, with our van at 78,000 miles and less than 4 months until it turns eight, we took it in to have it looked at. The call from the service man said that we needed a whole new rack and pinion system as well as a number of other things. He told me what all of these were over the phone. I listened politely. After he was done, I said, "Well, it sounds like you have some work to do. Go ahead and get started."
He was all excited and started to give me a quote when I nicely interrupted him. "We have the extended warranty."
There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. Then he said, "You do?"
"Yes."
"Let me call you back," he responded.
15 minutes go by. The phone rings again. It is the service guy. "After talking it over, I'm not so sure all those things need to be replaced."
"I have a list here of what you told me, and I don't think you would want one of your customers riding around in an unsafe van, would you?" I answered.
"Well, no. But there is no way we could get all that done today," he says.
"That's ok--tomorrow will be fine for me. Thanks for calling and letting me know about those problems. We'll see you tomorrow."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ohmyhecknoway!

Growing up in Utah Valley was quite the experience. It most certainly has its own unique culture--which isn't a bad thing. It just is what it is. As a general rule of thumb, traditional swearing was frowned upon by the general public, but that didn't stop people from uttering different words instead.
What kind of "curse" words would you hear in Utah Valley when I was growing up? Well, there was "shoot", "darn", "fetch", "heck", and "jeeze" to name a few. One of the more common exclamations was "Oh my heck, no way!" However, it was so common, and often said very quickly, it was jokingly referred to as one word, hence, "ohmyhecknoway!"
There were those that told me that saying a substitute for a word was just as bad as saying the "real" swear word. For example, if I were to hit my thumb with a hammer and then proceeded to yell, "FETCH!" it was the same as dropping the F-bomb (that's a nice way we referred to that other "F" word).
On this point, I'm going to respectfully disagree. I don't believe that using a different word in place of a swear word is the same. Why? Simple. Words have power.
Now, I'm not talking about the "My name is a killing word" (Dune reference) type of power. I'm saying that certain words in and of themselves have power. For example: "I now pronounce you man and wife" has a totally different meaning than "I now pronounce you man and banana."
Need another example? How about instead of "You are under arrest" you say, "You are under a mattress". Still not convinced? All right, one more: instead of "You're fired!" you say "You're hired!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I'm @ home & typing blog # 52! (at no $ for the reader)

There was a time when computers weren't in almost every house. It's true! I'm almost ashamed to admit we have 3 now. What did people possibly do before computers? Well, for writing letters and such, we had these devices called "typewriters". This next statement will show how old I am: in High School, we learned to type on typewriters.
The semester I took the typing class, I broke one of my little fingers playing sports. It was fairly early in the semester and I wore thing honkin' big cast. Instead of learning to type using all four fingers and my thumb, I only use the first three fingers and thumb on each hand. It's weird, but, it works for me.
When you made a mistake while using a typewriter, it could be a painful process. Some of the more advanced type writers would "white out" the character you mistyped. Other times, we had to physically insert a little sheet of white out. Either way, it was a mess.
I recall getting an invitation to a cub scout event that had been type written on a 3 x 5 card. It said the event started at @:00 pm. @:00 pm? When was that? I freaked out, telling my mom that I think they invented a new time. She assured me that it was 2:00 pm because the "@" symbol was above the "2" on the typewriter.
Of course, that brought up the next question: what the heck is the "@" symbol? She patiently explained it was short for the word "at". My little mind back then works very much like my mind now. So, someone took a two letter word and converted it to one symbol? Why would they do that? It's not like they were abbreviating the word "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". (Although maybe they should create a symbol for that word).
Next time my mother had the typewriter out, I asked her if there was more funky (we used the word funky because this was in the 70's) symbols like the @. In fact there was. # was number. $ was dollar. % was percent and so on. Again, this was before computers and the internet so I couldn't just look up where the symbols originated. It remained a mystery.
Just last night, my wife noted how the symbol @ was all but unused until email addresses came about--now you see it everywhere. And she's dead on. What's also a trip is that on my smart phone, there is a "shortcut" for ".com" -- it's ALT B. I wonder what's next.
To wrap up this blog, here is a little quiz. Try not to look at the very bottom of the blog for the answer. This quiz will determine if you are a computer nerd or not. After you read the questions, think of the answer in your mind.
Here we go:

What is 5 plus 1?

What is 10 minus 4?

What is 2 times 3?

What is 4 plus 2?

What is 7 minus 1?

What is 6 times 1?

What is the first vegetable that comes to your mind?

Okay, this is the part where you see if you are a computer nerd or not.


If you answered carrot, you are a computer nerd. Why? Because the symbol above the "6" on a keyboard is the "^", also known as the carrot.
By the way, how do you capture a rabbit? Easy, you hide behind a bush and make the sound like a ^.