It’s What’s in Your Head

You can blame pocofish for this one. He started it. 🙂

Let’s say someone was stalking you, casing your home, preparing to take something valuable to you. You went to work that day, like every day. Your kids went to school, and your wife went to her job, or went out to do the myriad things that stay-at-home spouses do. Not long after the house was empty, a young man walked up and rang your doorbell. He waited, got no answer, and rang again. If you had answered, he would have apologized for choosing the wrong address and departed your home with a friendly smile. He listened carefully whole time he stood on your front porch, verifying that no one was home.

He walked away, and two minutes later he was dialing his prepaid cell phone to alert the crew in the van that the coast was clear. When you arrived back at home that night, ready for  some tasty meatloaf, you discovered that your home had been robbed. Everything of value was gone. You called the police. They made the report. All the feelings of fear for your family and violation of your personal life rolled through your head for days afterward. The insurance company cut you a check, and you replaced everything you could. Technically, life was back to normal, but something had changed.

What about a bigger change? What if forces beyond your control came into play? You lost your job at the company you had given your entire adult life to support. The retirement you had worked for disappeared in a corporate scandal. No one helped because too many others in your situation had already been helped and the limping economy just couldn’t support any more. Your house fell inevitably into foreclosure. Your possessions began to disappear to any place that could provide a few dollars in exchange, but the pattern was set, and the trend led to the point at which you would take any job to keep your family in a tiny apartment with bargain food on the table. The apartment was not the nice kind. It was the kind that was scraping by with the rest of the country, and was willing to forget things like credit checks in return for the prospect of rent. The new neighbors’ only positive attribute was the hard life lessons they were about to provide your children in the ugliness of the world on the wrong side of the tracks.

At that point, a point you never imagined could happen, what can you do? If you had chosen one of the few careers that always need workers, you would never see that situation in the first place. If, like most of us, you chose a career based on the house of cards we call an economy, you could be in serious trouble. The more money you had before, the more likely you lived near the top of the house of cards. Any slight breeze of economic pain could blow you right off the top. If, like many Americans, you had focused all your time and effort on developing the high level of specialized skill that it took to get to the top, then whatever skills you had gained would be nearly useless down at the gritty foundation of our economy.

You would be less qualified to work at the fast food joint than the kid who had been running to the dumpster and pushing a mop. See, that kid was a known quantity in FoodFAST(tm) number 1317. He showed up for work, and he even occasionally covered the fryer during lunch rushes. You are less qualified for entry level retail because you haven’t worked retail for many years – if ever, and frankly, your salary history scares the hell out of potential employers. They don’t want to hire another cook for their kitchen, figuratively speaking; they want someone with no expectations, no potential for disrupting the work environment, and certainly someone who is happy to make thirty cents over minimum wage. On top of that, you just don’t look as good in the uniform as that fresh faced twenty-something, old man/woman.

Even if you could talk your way into a low level position, it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is keeping your family in some semblance of the manner to which they have become accustomed. Not even close. Many good people cover this shortfall by working three jobs, spending literally every waking minute scrambling for a third of what they had while working a single job with long lunches and no time clock. Many good people, through bad luck, bad location, or lack of will, never find a combination that works.

What do you do in that situation?

Instead of bending all your energy into one focused skill set, maybe you went out of your way to broaden your own personal foundation. Maybe you can fix a bike, throw great parties, hot rod a car, alter clothing, build a greenhouse, make the cake that everyone remembers, wire up electronics. Maybe your garden is the talk of your neighborhood, maybe you’re the geek who everyone asks all the techie questions, or maybe you can teach one of the things – like karate – that doesn’t require a federal security clearance and a blood sample – like basic math. Who knows what you could do?

But know this: Every skill you have is a potential door to open if life doesn’t work out just the way you planned. Every skill is a potential job, livelihood, or way of life. You could even find that your own version of change drives you straight into the arms of a better, more fulfilling life. Every skill is pure opportunity when opportunity seems lost.

Even better, that skill lives in your head. It can’t be stolen by burglars, it can’t be repossessed by the bank, and it can’t be driven out by the most sweeping changes in life. Barring massive head injury, it’s in there forever, waiting to grow, waiting to offer something back to you and those you love, no matter what comes your way. It’s what’s in your head. Now go out and fill it with great stuff!

How to Lose a Customer in Four Easy Steps

I’m a DIY’er. For the most part, I’m pretty good at building and fixing things. The project of the moment is our dryer. It’s an old Maytag unit that is somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty years old. If I really knew what I was doing, it would be fixed by now, but part of the fun for me is figuring out the problem.

Last week, it started squealing. I thought, “Belt.” We went to a local appliance shop in Lacey to get a new belt. As usual, I looked it up on the internet before I went, and then consciously decided to support the local business on the theory that it’s good to support local business on principles of local economic health, and in case things go wrong, someone is there to support me. I paid roughly twice the internet price for the belt, but I figured that’s the cost of doing business locally. I understand that local businesses need a margin to stay alive, but in the grand scheme of things, doubling the cost of an item is hard to sustain from the customer side of the equation, so let’s lets call high prices, “Step One.”

Well, the belt didn’t fix the problem. It made the problem worse. Now the dryer didn’t want to start, and when it did, the noise was even worse. In the back of my mind, I knew it was the motor, but I didn’t want to get that deep into the problem, so I looked for other causes. It turns out the two little wheels that support the main drum were incredibly tight and didn’t want to spin. I pulled them off and lubricated them. This turned out to be a very bad idea. Don’t lube them. Soooooo, I was back to the same store to get new support rollers. Again, I paid twice the going rate, and again, I justified it with my shop local ideas. Step 1.5.

Oh, those new rollers spun so nicely. Smooth. I put it all back together again, and guess what? That’s right. Still no worky. I was no longer able to avoid the motor. I took the dryer apart again, and quickly discovered that removing the motor was no big deal. I held up the dirt clotted thing and spun it with my fingers. A horrible squeaking noise issued from somewhere under the greasy dust. Ok, new motor. Sharon called the shop and they didn’t have the motor in stock, even though it turns out to be the same motor that’s in half the dryers on the planet. We were forced to reevaluate this shop local principle. From the internet, we could get the motor the next day. From the local shop, it would take two days. Oddly, the local shop’s price was comparable to the internet this time, so they won on the theory that it’s good to have help nearby in case something goes wrong. Meanwhile, the laundry was piling up, and stringing a clothes line across the house was not doing much to stave off laundropocalypse. That extra day was getting costly. Step two. Don’t be as quick as the competition.

Of course, when the motor arrived, it wasn’t a direct fit. The motor was the same, the same specs. Physically, it fit perfectly. Unfortunately, the wiring harness and connections were entirely different. There were no instructions in the box. I called the shop and explained the problem. The lady’s answer was to come to the shop around five when the technicians would be around. I went. This was my third trip across town for one part. A discussion with the lady at the counter revealed that the motor should have come with instructions and three little electrical connectors to adapt the old wiring harness in the dryer to the new connections on the motor. We could see a tiny photo of the instructions on the supplier’s web site, but naturally there was no way to download them at a readable scale. No one suggested that they try to reorder the part. Her solution was to have the supplier open another box and fax the instructions, which I would need to make a fourth trip to pick up.

“Ok. I guess I’ll wait for the technicians,” I said.

When the tech arrived, he was clueless. He was an older man. I assumed he had seen it all. I guess not. He grabbed an instruction set from the Whirlpool version of the same motor and decided it wouldn’t work. “We’ll need the Maytag instructions, and you need these adapters.” Step three. Don’t know the answers for a very common part. A younger tech came up while this conversation was occurring, casually opened a junk drawer, and tossed some adapters on the counter. I’m sure he assumed the shop would provide me with the missing adapters. I know I did, since the alternatives would be much more hassle for me.

When all was said and done, the tech not only failed to answer any of my questions, he scooped up these little connectors and they disappeared as casually as the younger tech had made them appear. I asked directly if I could have the three adapters, and the older man put on a wily smile and shook his head. I said that I thought it was the least he could do since I had a part that wouldn’t work, I had waited an extra day, and had made an extra trip. By the time I actually got the answers, I would have made two extra trips. He laughed at me like I was asking for him to provide a brand new dryer, rather than connectors that probably cost the shop exactly zero, since they had ended up in that drawer by being extras from other parts and projects. Step Four. Don’t provide penny parts that should have been in the box in the first place.

At that point, I placed my old motor in the instruction free box. New motor in the box. I turned and left. What I should have done was to demand a refund on the spot, but that would cause even more delays while we wait for another motor from a different source, and of course, there’s always the possibility of more mistakes. Instead, I walked out, never to return again.

In the end, here’s the upshot for all local business. If you can’t make it cheaper, and you can’t make it faster, then you had better do everything in your power to make it easier – especially when it costs you nothing to do it. If you don’t, then you have exactly no value to me, the customer, and you deserve to lose out to the internet juggernaut. You’ve not only lost me, a hardcore DIY’er, as a customer, but the next time I have to decide between buying locally and ordering something from the internet, you have also made your contribution to the rapid demise of local, mom-n-pop shops everywhere.

UPDATE:

I don’t know if it was in response to my email, but I just received a “helpful” call from the company in question. The finally got a fax of the instruction, which we all knew would be almost impossible to read. Apparently the supplier had the new motors in the old boxes and none of them contained instructions. But hey, if I wanted a new motor in a new box (with instructions) it was only $50 more. All of this is moot, since I found the instructions in a nice clear pdf on an obscure but helpful appliance repair forum. Rather than use the adapters, I just used standard connectors, stripped the wires, and crimped the new connectors on. After reassembly, the dryer is now working perfectly. Nice and quiet.

I Added Some Stuff

Hi all! Just a quick note to say that I’ve added a few books and software bits to the “Stuff I Like” pages. More to come, in case you find yourself without anything better to do while you wait for me to finally release Decay. 🙂

Best,

Jim

It’s March Already?

Hi folks! I’ve been driving some of you crazy (along with myself and my wife) waiting for Decay. There are a number of reasons I’m still working on it, but the goal is to make it as good as I possibly can. As you can probably tell from the mistakes, Renewal was a test for me. I literally spent my adult life trying to convince myself to write. I mean, I wrote, but I never let anyone read the vast majority of it. I always ran up against the voice in my head who said, “Why would anyone care what you have to say?” There it is. That’s the argument that kept me locked down for 44 years.

I made a loophole for myself by calling Renewal an experiment in ebook publishing. “Hey,” the other voice said, “If it’s just an experiment, then you can totally screw it up and still learn something.” Under this loophole, I created the mental space to travel down the roads of Coffee County. I don’t need the loophole anymore. Thanks to all of you, I can sit down to write, knowing that I have a right to be there.

The catch (there’s always a catch) is that I now regard it as a professional activity, and I go after it with professional diligence. Without boring you with the details, Decay has six times the hours and effort involved, compared to the Renewal series. It doesn’t help that all three novels are being balanced against each other, and I’m here to tell you, 800,000 words do not balance themselves.

I’d love to tell you that Decay is coming right now, but all I can honestly say is that it won’t be long now. I’m two list items away from having my final revisions complete, and there will be a couple of rounds of proofing after that. There’s no guarantee that all this work will produce a better story, but it’s my hope that you will think it’s worth the effort.