A single spark can ignite a war that consumes the world.
Three Tibetan rebels
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Dear Corporate America:
Auto-responders are not always your friend. If you remove human intelligence from your communications loop, the results of your (no doubt) well-intentioned correspondence can end up making you look like idiots.
Case in point…
During a business trip early last year, I stayed at the worst hotel it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. In the interest of keeping this blog on a polite footing, I won’t identify the
festering pit hotel as the Days Inn in Yuma, Arizona. (Or maybe I will.)
What was so bad about it? Let me count the ways…
Torn bed sheets.
Colonies of mildew on the ceiling. (I think it was mildew. If not, I don’t want to know what it was.)
Broken shower head hanging out of the wall.
Cracked fiberglass in the shower stall.
Smears of some ugly brown substance on the wall. (I never figured out whether it was blood, feces, or something else. Either way, the ick factor is pretty much through the roof.)
That ain’t all, but you get the general idea.
Just the act of walking into the room made me feel like I needed a tetanus shot. But it was the end of a very long day, and I was too exhausted to go hotel shopping. I decided to risk one night in the room of doom.
I had reservations for a week, but I checked out the next morning to search for cleaner accommodations. The desk clerk inquired politely about my early departure, so I told him about the conditions in the chamber of secrets. I also showed him a few snapshots I had taken of the room’s unadvertised amenities. I thought the clerk might offer to move me to a room with fewer health hazards, but he just wished me safe travels, so I smiled and departed. I found a nice hotel at the same rate a few blocks away, and finished my business trip in peace and comfort.
That probably would have been the end of things, but then the auto-responders starting pinging me. First, I was invited to participate in an online survey, to rate my experience as a recent guest of Days Inn. No problem, so far. Here was a chance to let the nice people at Days Inn know that they had some issues in Yuma. I gave the hotel bottom marks for cleanliness, materiel condition, maintenance, and just about everything else. I believe I gave a passing grade for friendliness of the staff. Their complete unconcern about room conditions aside, they had seemed polite to me. In the comments section of the survey, I described my stay as the worst hotel experience of my life. I explained that I had checked out four days early, because I wasn’t willing to risk a second night in that roach trap. I probably said something about never staying at a Days Inn hotel again. I even offered to provide photos of some of the room’s more egregious problems, as a guide for improvement.
I halfway expected to receive an apologetic email from Days Inn Customer Service sometime in the next few weeks. I didn’t get one. No big deal.
What I did get was an auto-responder message, telling me that Days Inn was delighted to hear that my recent stay had been such an overwhelmingly pleasant experience.
A few weeks later, I got another auto-responder, congratulating me for being a loyal Days Inn customer, and promising me similar superb hotel stays in the future.
It’s been nearly a year since I informed Days Inn that my experience with their chain ranks just about on par with sleeping on the floor of a gas station restroom that hasn’t been touched by Lysol since the Reagan Administration. At some point, given the extremely negative nature of my feedback, you might expect a bit of intervention by some person capable of recognizing that I am the absolute antithesis of a satisfied customer. But their auto-responders continue to treat me like an undying fan of the Days Inn hotel chain.
A couple of hours ago, I received another chirpy auto-response, cheerfully reminding me that it’s time to book my Days Inn reservations for the holidays. As auto-spam goes, it’s actually a very festive email, complete with a heartwarming picture of Grandma and three generations of family gathered around a food-laden table while Grandpa carves a plump Thanksgiving turkey. (I didn’t notice any smears of blood or excrement on the walls, but those features were probably cut off by the camera frame.)
I’d like to close with three thoughts for the people at Days Inn, and their brethren in corporate America.
First, if you’re going to go to the trouble of asking for customer feedback, you might want to actually read what the customer has to say.
Second, if your software blithely assumes that all customer interactions are positive, you’re going to make yourself look stupid.
And third, I really do have pictures. Let me know if you want to see them.
Happy Holidays, and watch yourself in that shower. It’s not pretty in there.
The name Tom Clancy first came to my attention in 1985. I was stationed on a guided missile destroyer in Yokosuka, Japan, when I stumbled across a paperback copy of The Hunt for Red October in the naval station’s Stars and Stripes bookstore. I’d never heard of the guy, but I liked the description on the flyleaf, so I bought the book and took it home.
The next morning, after a night of practically uninterrupted page turning, I returned to the Stars and Stripes bookstore and bought all five of their remaining copies. I ordered six more, just for good measure.
I was a second class Sonar Technician in those days, and I handed the novel out to all of my ST buddies. Red October was our book. Our anthem. Our magnum opus.
I’d been reading military adventures since I discovered Bentz Plagemann’s The Steel Cocoon when I was about ten years old. I had devoured pretty much everything ever written by Alistair MacLean, Edward L. Beach, and Robb White, but this new Clancy guy was something different. His stories came alive with sharp-edged technical detail, and a sense of realism that I’d never seen before.
But as much as I loved The Hunt for Red October, I didn’t think for a second that he could do it again. That book was lightning in a bottle. It was an unrepeatable fluke, and I felt a grim certainty that the author would spend the rest of his career trying vainly to recapture the brilliance of his debut novel.
I was wrong. Red Storm Rising blew me away. And while I was still reeling from that, Mr. Clancy hit me again with Patriot Games. Then, it was The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears. That would have been enough success for any writing career, but Tom was just getting warmed up. Without Remorse. Debt of Honor. Executive Orders. Rainbow Six. The Bear and the Dragon. Fiction blending so seamlessly with fact that I sometimes had trouble telling where Clancy’s imagination ended, and the real world began.
I never wanted the ride to end, and frankly, I still don’t. Despite everything he’s given us, I don’t think I’m ready for a world where the old master has laid down his pen for the last time.
Wherever you are, Mr. C., I want you to know how much your books have meant to me. As a fan, I’m grateful for decades of heart-pounding adventure. As a writer, I will be forever in awe of the trail you blazed across the techno-thriller genre.
It was one hell of a ride, sir. Thanks for letting us tag along.
April 12, 1947 to October 1, 2013
Your fans remember…
If you came here because your search engine cued on the title of this post, you might want to turn back now. This is not a story about a life-long love affair. Or rather, it is a story about a life-long love affair, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Nicholas Sparks, or Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
I have a thing about notebooks. Actually, it’s more of a passion. Spiral three-subject notebooks with college ruled lines in pale indigo. Those stitch-bound composition notebooks by Mead (with the hardboard covers patterned in abstract black and white speckles). And especially, the nicely bound ones that look like journals, or other documents of great import.
These are objects of wonder and passion to me. They are the blank slates of infinite literary potential. I could write anything on their beautifully bare pages. Anything at all. The outline of the great American novel. A distillation of all accumulated wisdom. Previously undiscovered nuggets of philosophical insight. A compelling diary of the human condition, seen through the eyes of a sailor-come-novelist. With a few sweeps of my trusty Zebra Z-Grip medium point, I could pen the twenty-first century equivalent of the fucking Magna Carta. The possibilities are endless.
So, every few months, I find myself compelled to buy a new notebook. I really can’t help myself. I’ll see one on the shelf at Office Depot, or in the stationary aisle of some department store. It will call to me with its sweet siren song of bare white pages and meticulous parallel ruling. And against my better judgment, I will give in to the irresistible allure. The seductively blank volume will slip into my shopping basket like a clandestine lover slinking toward a secret rendezvous.
Every time I bring one of these beauties home, I know that this one will be different. This notebook will be the special one. I will make it my personal quest to live up to the magnificent potential of this perfectly-bound folio of unrealized possibility. This time, I won’t let myself sully the pages with grocery lists, phone messages, and half-assed doodles of deranged-looking cartoon rabbits. This time, it will be the great American novel. Or the Magna Carta.
And I will carry the unsullied beauty with me, waiting for that moment of lucid inspiration, when the grand and worthy idea crystallizes in my brain with a heartbreaking purity that I have never experienced before. My trusty Z-Grip pen rides ready in my pocket, waiting for the magic moment. And waiting… And waiting…
Eventually, I’ll find myself with a need for rapid access to paper. A quick little passage of dialogue will pop into my head, or an idea for how to resolve a problem I’ve been having with a minor subplot in my current writing project. Not the great American novel. Not the Magna Carta. Not even the opening line for a new story. Just some fragment of my most recent work-in-progress, but nevertheless, something I don’t want to lose.
So I reluctantly open the covers of my beautiful new notebook, and—after several seconds of profound soul searching—I scrawl a few lines of text. No divine inspiration; plain old everyday writing stuff, and the scribbled notes of plain old everyday life.
Now that I’ve ruined this one, I might as well jot down my grocery list. I know that stupid fucking cartoon rabbit can’t be far behind.
As many of you know, we lost my son, Josh, to Osteosarcoma when he was 17 years old. Since then, the battle against cancer has been very personal to me. I’d love to see this killer eradicated in my lifetime.
With this in mind, I’m yielding today’s blog entry to Thriller Author Colby Marshall, whose TRADE THE DAY campaign is dedicated to raising money to cure Leukemia. Josh was struck down by a different strain of cancer, buy anyone who’s fighting against the big C is an ally of mine. So, without further ado, here’s Colby…
TRADE THE DAY is a one day event on August 23 where you can donate to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society simply by purchasing a book!
Join us from the moment the stroke of midnight rings in Friday until Saturday on www.colbymarshall.com/blog for guest posts and interviews with some of your favorite authors, your chances to win signed copies of their books and author swag, and more! But most importantly, know that all sales of THE TRADE by Colby Marshall made on StairwayPress.com on this day will go to benefit the Leukemia Lymphoma Society! For more information, visit http://www.colbymarshall.com/blog
Hashtag is #TradetheDay
Facebook Event is at: https://www.facebook.com/events/180159315492128/
Thanks again for being a part of this day, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
When we were kids, my older brother was a complete bastard. Sorry, there’s just no other way to put it. Paul grew up to be an honest, decent, and compassionate man, and I am proud of the person he turned out to be. But his finer traits emerged later in life. Trust me on this; his more noble qualities were not apparent during his younger years.
In addition to his ceaseless stream of insults, extortions, and petty acts of tyranny, Paul loved to position himself as the object of envy. For him, getting a new bike, or model airplane, or baseball glove wasn’t about the enjoyment of owning and using the new treasure. It was about waving the treasured article under the noses of his siblings, and pointing out repeatedly that he had something cool, and we didn’t.
One Halloween when I was about six years old (which would have made Paul about eight), he hatched a new and dastardly plan. After we returned from trick-or-treating, while the rest of us were inspecting our sugar-laced loot, Paul stashed away a small pile of candy in some hidden location known only to him.
For the next few days, every kid in the neighborhood had a bag full of sweets, so ownership of candy held no particular prestige. But Paul knew that our troves of Red Hots, Zagnuts, and Pixy Stix would dwindle soon enough, and (of course) that’s exactly what happened. After a week or so, the last Scooter Pie had been gobbled, and the last piece of Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum had been chewed.
If Paul’s instincts for seeding discontent had been less finely-honed, he would have struck immediately, as soon as he was certain that the rest of us had wolfed down the last of our goodies. Instead, he chose to bide his time. Having gorged ourselves on candy for several days, we were all fairly glutted on sugar. For a brief period of time, Lemonheads and Baby Ruths had lost some of their appeal. So, Paul waited, secure in the knowledge that the perfect moment was not too far in the future.
A few days after Thanksgiving, he decided that the time had finally come. The delights of the annual Halloween haul were dimly fading memories, and our pre-adolescent tummies had once again begun to crave the sweet stuff. Candy had been restored to its proper place of reverence. Once again, we lusted after its sugary magic.
Paul began to dip into his hidden stash—not to enjoy his hoarded treats in secret—but to torment the rest of us. Every day, he would retrieve a piece of candy from his hiding place. Just one piece. He would literally wave it in our faces, mere inches from our noses. “See this? I’ve got candy… You don’t have any…”
Every day, a new species of yummyness would materialize in his taunting fingers. Bit-o-Honeys… Squirrel Nut Zippers… Mary Janes… Jolly Joes…
Each time, the object of desire was dangled in close proximity to our envious faces, swaying seductively just beyond the reach of our quivering lips. Each time, when Paul judged that he had squeezed the last droplet of envy from his victims, he would put on an elaborate show of eating the coveted treat.
At the rate of one a day, it took several weeks for Paul to work through his secret candy reserve. Finally, shortly before Christmas, he pulled out the very last piece: a Tootsie Roll. This was it. His final opportunity to perform the taunting ‘I’ve got candy’ ritual.
He selected me as the first victim of this parting act of torment. He unwrapped the Tootsie Roll slowly, giving my salivary glands plenty of time to do their work. He wanted me to hunger for the Tootsie Roll. I did. He wanted me to feel the pain of not possessing this delicious morsel. I did. He wanted me to watch him eat the Tootsie Roll, observing his every bite and swallow with utter and abject envy. I didn’t.
Instead, I did the one thing he was not expecting. I snatched the Tootsie Roll out of his hand, and I crammed it into my mouth.
I was chewing vigorously before Paul’s mind even registered what I had done. The chocolaty flavor of the treat seemed to explode in my mouth, sending my taste buds straight to heaven. And then, I was running like hell, because I knew that I was about to receive a major ass-whipping.
In those days, Paul didn’t need much of an excuse to kick my butt, and I had just provoked him beyond any hope of peaceful resolution. I didn’t care. That Tootsie Roll was the most amazingly delicious thing I had ever tasted, and—more importantly—my little snatch and snack attack had wiped the evil smile right off my dear older brother’s face.
Now, the funny thing is, I don’t actually remember the beat-down that followed. I know it must have happened, because Paul never forgot, and he never forgave. He was like an eight-year-old version of the Terminator. He absolutely would not stop until he had crushed his victim into the dust. But—for whatever reason—my mind has chosen not to store that particular memory.
What I do remember is this… A couple of days after I made the snatch, Paul came to me and informed me in deadly serious tones that I owed him a Tootsie Roll. That sounded reasonable to me. After all, I had stolen his candy. There was no denying that. So I promised to replace the pilfered goody as quickly as possible.
My fund-raising efforts took a few days. At age-six, my access to ready cash (even small change) was essentially non-existent. So I spent my spare time cruising drainage ditches and trashcans around our apartment complex, in search of empty soda bottles. When I had what I deemed to be an adequate number of bottles, I stacked them carefully in a cardboard box and carried them to a nearby convenience store, where I cashed the bottles in for their deposit values. At two-cents per bottle, I made enough to buy a replacement Tootsie Roll, and a couple of pieces of penny candy for myself.
I returned home, where I gave the Tootsie Roll to Paul. He gulped it down immediately, with no theatrics, and no attempt to reprise his infamous ‘I’ve got candy’ routine.
I had made restitution. The balance of nature had been restored. All had been made right, so naturally I assumed that the incident was closed.
About a week later, Paul informed me that I owed him a Tootsie Roll. At first I thought he was joking, but he was absolutely serious. I reminded him that I had already replaced his Tootsie Roll. He looked at me with a completely straight face, and assured me that I had done no such thing. I had stolen his Tootsie Roll, and I had not replaced it.
So, after a couple of more days of careful ditch cruising, I had enough pop bottles to buy him another replacement Tootsie Roll. I did, and (once again) he gobbled it down in about half a second.
This time, I was certain that the incident was closed. It wasn’t. A few months later, Paul came to see me again regarding the Tootsie Roll that I supposedly owed him. This time, I flatly refused. I had now replaced the damned thing twice, and I was not going to do it a third time. But Paul didn’t let up. Day after day, he badgered me, threatened me, wheedled me, and generally did everything in his power to make my life miserable.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to end the madness, I managed to buy him replacement Tootsie Roll #3.
The madness did not end. In fact, it carried on for decades. We grew up and moved out to make our own lives in the word, but somehow, I never stopped owing Paul a Tootsie Roll. I eventually learned that I should never go to see him without a Tootsie Roll in my pocket.
When he flew out to California about ten years ago, my kids (who know all about the Great Tootsie Roll Caper) met their Uncle Paul at the airline baggage claim with an enormous bag of Tootsie Rolls. He ate about half of them during the visit, and took the other half home in his luggage. But the next time I saw him, about eighteen months later, my debt was unabated. I still owed him a Tootsie Roll.
Paul passed away a couple of years ago. It was quite sudden. He laid down on his couch to take a nap, and he never got up. My sister-in-law called 911, and the paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, but he was in a coma when he arrived. He never regained consciousness. I managed to make it across country in time to say goodbye before they took him off of life support.
I had a chance to tell him how proud I was of the man he had grown up to be. I told him that—despite his inauspicious beginning—he had turned out to be one hell of a good brother. I held his unmoving hand, and cried, and told stupid jokes from our childhood. According to the machines, his brain activity was down to zero by that point, so I don’t think he actually heard a single thing I said. I guess I was talking more for my comfort than for his.
But oddly enough, I think he can hear me sometimes. I certainly haven’t got the great questions of the afterlife figured out, but—once in a while—I find myself thinking that my big brother is looking over my shoulder, listening to everything I say.
Are you out there, Bro? Are you listening? If you are, I want you to know that I love you and I miss you.
And I definitely owe you a Tootsie Roll.
NavyThriller.com mourns the passing of Tom Clancy. Thanks for years of adventure and excitement.