Tuesday, January 17, 2017

E-readers vs. Real Books - It's Not Even Close

Technological advancements are intended to make workers more productive and the lives of average, everyday people easier.  However, I’m concerned some of these technologies are diminishing, or even destroying, those things that have brought us comfort and warmth. To prove my point, look no further than e-books.
Personally, I prefer the look and feel of a hardcover book.  Holding a novel in my hands creates a bond between me and the author.  I get the feeling the author intended for me to have it, to read it, and to share my thoughts about his/her work.   It’s hard to evoke the same emotions with an e-book.
There’s also nothing more relaxing than going to your local bookstore or library on a rainy day, especially if they serve coffee and pastries.  After perusing the shelves for your favorite authors, you select a novel and settle into a soft chair and enjoy a brew and your book.  You’re in a cocoon, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Electronic bookstores and libraries may save you the drive and allow you to download any book you desire, but what’s the point?
I also like owning books, real 400-page novels. I know this may make me sound a bit materialistic, but I enjoy seeing my book collection lining the shelves of my living room and office, knowing I’ve read them (or at least most of them).  Over the years, I’ve collected books by my favorite authors, many first edition copies. (There are worse things to collect. I knew a guy who collected train lanterns.)  I even enjoy finding new and exotic bookends to complement and better organize my collection. Seeing e-books lined on the library page of my e-reader just doesn’t give me the same sensation.
My wife has passed many of the books she cherished as a child down to our grandkids.  These books contain handwritten notes and dates.  She has read some of these books to them at bedtime as her parents and grandparents had done with her, turning the same pages and making the same comments about the illustrations.  Try recapturing these moments with an e-reader.  
As a self-published author, one of my favorite ways to promote my books is to participate in book signings.  Discussing my writing and handing a reader a signed copy of my book creates a connection that can’t be recreated with e-books.  Without a physical book, such events would be meaningless.  I hope it never comes to that.
I get it.  E-books have their advantages.  They are cheaper and easier to access over the internet.  E-readers are lightweight and travel better than hauling two or three hardcover novels.  It’s more convenient to read an e-reader in bed with the lights off and not disturb whoever may be lying next to you.  Libraries and bookstores require expensive brick and mortar buildings to store the books, while e-books can reside inexpensively on electronic media.    
Even with all the benefits of e-books, I can’t imagine a world without libraries or homes without bookshelves.  I can’t imagine spending hundreds of hours writing a novel and not being able to hand a signed copy to a reader.   Most of all, I can’t imagine a child growing up without flipping the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham” while giggling at the same pages her grandmother found funny.         

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Air Travel - Can it get any worse?

My wife and I returned to our home in North Carolina after traveling more than 3,500 miles by air and 2,000 miles by car over the holidays.  The visits with our family members went well, and for the most part, the weather cooperated.  I’m grateful for the time with family and for our safe trips, but the service we received on our roundtrip flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was less than gratifying.     
I won’t specify which airline we used.  What we experienced happens on most carriers.  In my opinion, many of the changes to the airline industry in recent years have been made without regard to customer service or convenience.  My wife and I were victims of most of these changes.
I booked our flight six weeks in advance and scheduled it well before Christmas to avoid crowded weekend holiday travel.  With over 80,000 miles in my account, I tried to use frequent flyer miles to pay for the trip but found my miles would cover very little of the expense.  Oddly, I get a lot of emails encouraging me to use my FF miles for magazines and passes to airline lounges.  I guess they’d rather I pay to fly.     
When I went to book the flight online, I couldn’t get adjoining seats for me and my wife without paying extra fees for the available seats.  It seems sitting next to your family members is now considered a “perk.”  I was instructed to wait until check-in to see if adjoining seats were available.  They weren’t, so my wife and I sat 20 rows apart.
We were asked at the check-in kiosk if we wanted to purchase additional flight perks.  We saw no reason to pay for exit row/bulkhead legroom or early boarding privileges.  I laughed out loud when asked to pre-pay for additional FF miles.  We had decided to pack one large bag, allowing us to travel unencumbered without carry-ons, so paying $25 for checked luggage was unavoidable.
We got our boarding passes and checked our bag 90 minutes prior to departure, allowing plenty of time to make it to our gate.  As the departure time approached, the gate area began to resemble a 1965-era Greyhound bus station.  Passengers dressed in everything from parkas to pajama pants, not-so-service-looking service dogs, and runny-nosed kids in double-wide strollers flooded the area. It appeared my wife and I may have been the only passengers to check a bag.  The hundreds of travelers gathering were transporting their possessions in every possible container: backpacks, shopping bags, taped-up Amazon boxes, overstuffed travel bags, and purses the size of duffle bags.  Boarding reminded me of the Oklahoma Land Rush with passengers scrambling to stake claims to overhead storage.  Ridiculously oversized bags had to be checked at the gate, further clogging up the process.    
Thirty minutes later, I reached my seat. Every storage area within several rows had been claimed.  Fortunately, I only needed to find room to park my butt.  As I took my seat, I felt others were benefitting from me checking my bag.  Shouldn’t I get a sticker or something recognizing my contribution?
During the flight, I purchased a $7 gag-in-the-throat sandwich and $2 headphones to drown out the baby crying in the center section to my right.  The guy seated next to me pulled out his backpack from under his seat at least a dozen times, violating my space.  It was four hours of my life I’ll never get back.   
After landing and waiting 15 minutes for my wife to work her way from row 32C up the jet bridge, we arrived at Sky Harbor Airport luggage claim.  Although we’d boarded a non-stop flight from Charlotte to Phoenix at 9:00 a.m., we soon learned our bag boarded a non-stop flight to St. Maarten in the British Virgin Islands.  Even though we checked in 90 minutes early, the baggage handlers didn’t use the time to get our bag to the correct plane.  Airport code PHX must get confused with SXM.
I was impressed the airline knew where our bag was, and assumed it would just be a matter of putting it on the next plane back to Phoenix.  It was to be my first miscalculation of airline competency.  Following comments by the lost luggage agent about our bag reaching the better vacation destination, we were given toiletries in a zip-lock bag and a website address to track the status of our luggage.
After waiting nearly one day with no update, I called to insist that someone from the airline contact the airport in St. Maarten.  The bag was still there!  It took a total of 2 ½ days for our luggage to be returned.  During this time, the airline’s lost baggage website never reflected a change in status, and no one from the airline called us.  I assumed our $25 baggage fee would be automatically returned.  Wrong again!  I was told I needed to fill out an online request for the refund.
We were only in Phoenix for four nights and five days, so not having our luggage for most of our visit was a significant inconvenience.  It seemed reasonable to expect we wouldn’t be charged for baggage on our return flight to Charlotte.  Once again, I was wrong.
Our return flight was an hour late out of Phoenix while we sat in a crowded waiting area at the end of a terminal servicing five gates. The backup in flights had the area resembling a refugee processing center.  Eventually, we and our bag made it back to Charlotte.  As we loaded onto the waiting parking lot transportation, I was glad the next leg of our holiday journey was by car.    

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Holiday Letter

I write a holiday letter most years and include it with our Christmas card to friends and family who we see rarely throughout the year.  You probably receive a few of these.  I find them informative and well-meaning, but there are some that go too far and should be stamped Warning! TMI.  
Ours is usually less than one page (12 font, 1.5 spacing).   I mention vacations, status of the family pet, and maybe the publication of my latest book.  Mostly, it’s just to say we’re well and looking forward to the coming year.  
I’ve seen some holiday letters that border on autobiographies, multiple pages in length, requiring bulk postage.  As you read them, it makes you wonder how anyone could pack that much activity into a single year or even how they were able to remember it all.  I appreciate them taking the time to compose the letter and include me on their mailing list, but I’m not sure all the information is intended for my consumption.
Trying to make one letter apply to a diverse mailing list of friends and family is one of the dangers of the holiday letter.  The “need to know” varies greatly for each recipient.  Your wife’s electrolysis might be okay to share with her sisters, but your Great Uncle Henry probably doesn’t appreciate the need, nor does he care about the results.  Similarly, last fall’s septic tank backup during your wife’s high school reunion might be humorous to your college buddies, but should be left out of the letters to your boss and pastor.              
Another pitfall of the annual holiday letter is sounding boastful.  I can understand wanting to make these letters upbeat, but not everyone cares what a great deal you got on your new Lexus LS400.  In fact, there are many who believe any car that doesn’t come from Detroit represents a threat to the U.S. economy.  Also, I’m sure your wife might be thrilled to get her fifth David Yurman bracelet to stack on her right wrist, but 90% of the population wouldn’t know David Yurman from David Bowie. 
My simple rules for holiday letters are: keep them short, focus on people and events rather than things, and if it doesn’t apply to everyone, leave it out.  Admittedly, these rules may lead to a dull, lifeless letter, but you aren’t going for a Pulitzer.   The objective is to start next year with as many friends as you had at the end of this one.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Want to enjoy Christmas? Reset your expectations!

It’s taken me about 50 years, but I’m finally able to relax and enjoy the holiday season.  It was easy to relax once I understood why the Bermuda Triangle of holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) stressed me out.  I had unrealistic expectations.

Nothing creates stress more than unrealistic expectations, and nothing creates unrealistic expectations more than trying to live up to past holiday experiences.  For example, once you’ve given your wife a diamond necklace (or a diamond anything) for Christmas, you’re doomed to failure in meeting her future gift expectations.  Also, have you ever counted the wrapped presents around your tree on Christmas Eve trying to remember how the tally compared to last year?  Where does it end?
The worst assignment you can ever receive is the task of planning the company’s Christmas party.  For weeks, all you’ll hear is how great the past parties have been, how each year the venues, the decorations, and the music have grown to an epic level.  Your only options are to either seek new employment or rent Club Med Cancun and put Mrs. Claus in a thong bikini pushing a bar cart as Bruno Mars plays “White Christmas” to the beat of “Uptown Funk.”  
"Are you sure we have enough lights?"  It’s the question that haunts most married men at Christmas. At one point in my life, the rows of boxes in our attic containing Christmas decorations looked like the warehouse in the closing scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.   We had enough lights and garland to cover every peak, valley, post, window and railing on our house, plus every shrub and tree in the yard.  Scaling back was never an option.  After all, the neighbors never did. 
It’s hard to break escalating holiday expectations, but eventually expectations hit a ceiling with nowhere to go but down.  It’s like alcoholics hitting bottom before realizing the seriousness of their addiction. Having hit the ceiling, I have a few suggestions for simplifying the holiday season:
  • Christmas is for children.  Opening presents on Christmas morning is for those age 12 and under.   
  • All adults in your extended family (parents, siblings, spouses of siblings, etc.) should draw names from a gift pool.  Everyone gets one gift and gives one gift. This still allows a reason to gather, but takes the emphasis off presents.
  • Everyone should share their wish list, preferably on Amazon, where you can order/ship with one click.  If everyone complied, you’d never need to go to the mall.   
  • Don’t exchange Christmas gifts with your spouse.  Instead, treat each other to gifts throughout the year whenever you feel like it, focusing on vacations and special events versus accumulating more stuff.
  • Attend only Christmas parties you want to attend, not those you feel you must attend.   
  • Home decorations should fit into two average-size boxes and take less than two hours to put up.
  • Keep your artificial Christmas tree decorated all year.  It should be small enough to fit in the den closet during off season.
These suggestions will help get your Christmas back under control, but if you really want to reset your holiday expectations and regain the Christmas spirit, there are better ways.  Redirecting some or all of your holiday time and budget to those less fortunate will deliver more gratifying results.  While some of us are privileged to struggle with escalating holiday expectations, there are way too many others with little or no anticipation of a happy holiday.
Adopt a needy child or a family for Christmas, providing them with food, clothing, and toys for their holiday.  Donate to a food bank for those needing a hot holiday meal.  Deliver a couple bags of dog food to your local animal shelter.  Better yet, take a shelter dog for a walk, giving it a moment of freedom to be your companion.

Fifty years is a long time to figure it out.  It shouldn’t have taken me that long.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Great Writers - Born Not Built

(Re-posted from earlier this year)
I’ve been writing my whole life.  Most of us have.  The first time we spelled our name in block letters on grainy, wide-lined paper, writing became a part of our daily communication. What middle schooler isn’t required to write an essay on what I did over my summer vacation?  Universities have added compositions to their application processes.  Most jobs require the ability to write.  It’s hard to succeed without the ability to communicate in writing. 

So, am I and other self-published authors qualified to be writers?  It’s a hot topic, and my answer may not be what you’d expect.  I believe anyone who has a desire to write should write, but to be a great writer, like other art forms, requires a talent that comes from within.  Great writers are born, not built.  
As an example, my father is a gifted carver, one of the best.  He can visualize shape, texture, and color and transform a block of wood into a thing of beauty.  It’s amazing to see what he can create.  I could take woodworking and carving classes for years and not come close to doing what he finds natural.  Dad has improved his craft over many years, studying other carvers and learning new techniques, but he started with skills that can’t be taught.
Just like my father, great writers need to envision what they write before they put it on paper.  They must feel the emotions, visualize scenes from the point of view of their characters, and then transpose what they see and feel into words so their readers experience the same.   Writing is truly an art, but it’s also complex and technical.   Being able to visualize characters, scenes and plots is only half the challenge; you also must be able to choose the precise composition of grammatically correct words to convey what is visualized.  I can visualize a duck, but no one would want to display what I carve on their mantel.
I’m not claiming I was born with the inner skills to be a top writer.  I wasn’t.  My definition of a great writer is someone capable of producing best sellers or whose works stand the test of time.  It’s a broad definition, and not everyone would agree every best seller was produced by a great author.  Today, good marketing plays as much of a role in achieving success as great writing.  Nevertheless, we can agree that Hemingway was a great writer, and there are few Hemingways.
Most of my friends and family are supportive of my writing.  Several have read all my books, and I’ve received sufficient recognition and sales to keep me motivated.  Still, there are doubters.  I sometimes see eyes glaze over when the subject of my writing surfaces.  I’m sure they wonder why I spend so much of my time on something seemingly frivolous.  Surely he doesn’t think he’ll make a go of this, they must think.
What they don’t know is that I have already made of go of it.  While I accept that great writers are born with unique talents and that I’m not in this class, I know I can become a better writer, maybe even a good one.  I expect most self-published authors feel the same.  To them I say, keep on writing.    

Saturday, November 19, 2016

If Voters Behaved As Dogs

I thought two weeks after the national election the attacking and counterattacking by the right and left would end.  The political ads are gone, but cable news, Facebook and Twitter remain filled with written and verbal assaults. I’ve quit listening, and you know who else has risen above it all?  My dog, Milo.
As I thought more about it, I came to the conclusion our election process would go more smoothly if voters thought and behaved more like Milo and her four-legged friends.  I came up with five good reasons to support my conclusion.
  1. Dogs don’t care about what you say.  They care about what you do.    They are focused on how you’ve treated them in the past and even more focused on how you’re treating them now.  Speeches and debates would be lost on dogs.  
  2. Dogs can see through false promises and insincerity.  If you don’t like them, they sense it.  They know how you really feel, no matter how much you smile and praise them.  Lying to a dog is a waste of time.
  3. Once you earn the friendship of a dog, they’re forever loyal.  On the other hand, if you’ve ever mistreated or teased them, they remember.  They are not undecided as to how they feel about you.  If voters behaved as dogs, all the talk and speculation about undecided voters would end. 
  4. Identity politics don’t work with dogs.  Dogs of all shapes, sizes, colors, sexes, training and pedigrees think and act pretty much the same.  They value the same things.  They like to eat, sleep, play with other dogs, pee where other dogs pee, and of course, greet each other by smelling butts. 
  5. Dogs don’t use social media.  Most don’t even watch TV.  The only way to communicate with a dog is face to face.  Candidates would need to forget about multi-million dollar attack ads and Tweeting meaningless 140-character messages in the middle of the night.
My advice to future candidates: treat voters like dogs.  Communicate with actions, not words.  Tell them the truth.  Earn their loyalty.  Don’t put them in buckets based on sex, race, and education level.  And talk to them directly, not through Tweets and PAC-funded attack ads.   
I’ve wondered which presidential candidate Milo would have chosen.  I imagine if she’d had the chance to meet Donald and Hillary prior to the election, she would have chosen Hillary.  I don’t base this on how well the candidates adhered to the five items above, but on Hillary owning two dogs (a toy poodle and Lab) and Donald being pet-less.  In fact, it’s been reported there’s no evidence that the president-elect has ever had a dog as a pet.  If this had been highlighted earlier, it might have swung the dog-lover vote and the election.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Time to Take a Deep Breath

I’m breaking a commitment to never write a political post, knowing I will receive criticism and likely lose readers.  Still, I can’t sit idly and watch the reactions to our recent election by rioters, failed politicians, and the left-leaning media without expressing my thoughts.
Let me start by saying that I voted for Donald Trump.  As with many voters, it wasn’t a stress-free choice. The options were limited to two, flawed candidates.  While Hillary Clinton presented the better image of a president, her past careless actions and double-speak were troubling to me.  I also didn’t appreciate Mrs. Clinton trying to make this an "-ist" election, painting her opposition as sexist and racist. Our economy has struggled for too long, and I felt it was time for a change.           
It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy of the media and demonstrators protesting the election of Donald Trump.   In the days leading up to the election, Trump was being chastised by the same groups over fears that he and his supporters may not be willing to accept the outcome. “How could he not agree to a peaceful transition of power?” they argued. “He’s mocking the very foundation of our election process.”
Those protesting President-elect Trump seem to be primarily college-age students and Millennials of all races.  They justify their protests by claiming Trump was elected by an under-educated, white male backlash through Trump’s deliberate appeal to racists, sexists, homophobes and xenophobes.  Running to the moral high ground and attempting to label opponents as evil and ill-informed has lost its effectiveness for the left.  In desperation, they are no longer protesting peacefully; they are rioting, destroying property and businesses.  If anything, their outrageous actions convince those watching that the voters who’ve elected Donald Trump did the right thing.    
The time to make your voice heard is prior to and during elections, not after.  If Hillary Clinton was the superior candidate, voters should have turned out to elect her as they did President Obama.  They didn’t.  Now a generation of young adults who grew up receiving “participation awards” and fleeing to campus “safe zones” to avoid differing opinions are experiencing what it’s like to lose.  They aren’t handling it well.  
Oddly, the states that elected Trump were the same states that elected President Obama: Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.   Voters in these states weren’t accused of being sexist or racist when they elected Obama, but somehow, they’re now being labeled by many in the media as the ugly underbelly of President-elect Trump’s white backlash.  It’s just not true.  What is true is voters in these states who elected Obama in prior elections stayed home, either because they were not impressed by their candidate and her past activities, or because they expected Mrs. Clinton to win easily without them, encouraged by the erroneous polls touted by the media. In the end, more than four million fewer voters cast votes for Clinton than did for Obama in 2012.
Calls to reject the Electoral College by Eric Holder and others in favor of the popular vote are futile and self-serving.  This isn’t the first time the presidential candidate with the larger popular vote failed to be elected by the Electoral College.  It’s happened four other times.  Those election results weren’t reversed.  This one won’t be either.  If popular vote decided national elections, California and New York would always choose our president, thereby leaving the vast majority of the states without representation.  (Mrs. Clinton may end up with 0.6M more popular votes, but she won California by nearly 2.8M and New York by 1.5M. That means she lost the other 48 states by 3.7M votes.) Fair representation is the primary reason the Electoral College has stood the test of time, originating in 1787 and existing in its current form since the 1880s. 
I have concerns as to how President-elect Trump will govern, but I’m willing to give him a chance.  I believe he was elected by a broad base of people, many with backgrounds and views similar to mine: 
  • I have a college education and have voted in every presidential election since 1976 for both Democrats and Republicans. 
  • I’m neither rich nor aloof to the plight of the middle class.
  • My family’s medical insurance premiums and deductibles have become a burden, rising to over 20% of my income.
  • I believe the ACA needs to change to better favor small business and make it more affordable for the middle class, but I expect elements of Obama’s healthcare bill will remain. 
  • I take Trump’s campaign promises as directional, not literal, as I do with all politicians. 
  • I don’t expect a 2,000-mile wall to be built, but agree with strongly securing our borders. 
  • I don’t agree with deporting 12 million illegal immigrants who work and reside here peacefully, but I do think those breaking our laws and endangering our citizens need to be identified and removed.  
  • I believe the Supreme Court should support our Constitution and not bend it.  
  • I believe our military needs to be strong, mainly to deter wars, but to win them after all other options have failed.
  • First and foremost, I believe our country needs jobs and our economy needs to experience sustained growth.   
More than 60 million voters joined me in electing Donald Trump. A vast majority of states and counties supported him as well as down ballot Republican candidates in their states.  Republicans maintained control of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as a lopsided plurality of governorships. Was this simply an under-educated, white male backlash?  I think not.     
Differing political views are to be expected.  Peaceful protesting is everyone’s right, but rioting and the destruction of property are not.  The media and left-wing politicians need to stop justifying riots through minimizing those who’ve elected Mr. Trump.  For Harry Reid to imply President-elect Trump represents the interests of the KKK only emboldens rioters and points out to any rational citizen that it’s time for Senator Reid to ride his donkey into the sunset. 
I encourage everyone to follow the example of Hillary Clinton and President Obama who have rightfully and gracefully accepted the election results and have begun the peaceful transition of power.  It was a very tough, ugly election.  Both sides painted the other with broad, defamatory brushes, but the election is over. We all need President-elect Trump and his new administration to succeed.  I’m going to take a deep breath and give him a chance.     

Update November 19, 2016
As reported by USA Today, Hillary Clinton's popular vote lead has grown from 0.6 million to about 1.7 million, largely due to an influx of absentee and provisional ballots still being counted in California. She has about 63.7 million votes to Trump's 62 million; her margin in California alone is about 3.5 million.   This doesn't change the electoral vote (Trump 290 to Clinton's 232, with Michigan outstanding), nor the point made about California alone deciding the election if popular vote was used.  At this point, Mrs. Clinton has lost the popular vote in 49 of the 50 states by 1.8 million votes.