On Meeting Your Muse (2014 Elohim-fest), and the blessings of the Watch

June 29, 2014 4 comments

We all have our inspirations, the people who bring out the best of us. I have managed to do a lot of things over the course of my life that might be unexpected were you to meet me for the first time. My forays into music and writing are two of them.

I can still remember the defining moments that drove me to play music: When I was 14 and picked up a guitar for the first time I was told I would never be a guitar player because I did not have the “look”; In my sophomore year of high school, the first time I saw KISS live on video, I was hooked on bass and hooked on the epic coolness that is Gene Simmons on stage and thought, if I could not be a guitar player, perhaps I could be a bass player. In my senior year of high school I started up a fledgling rock band and began to learn bass to MTV videos, specifically to the galloping awesomeness of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris.

But the one thing that got me absolutely driven to play was my first glimpse of the brilliance that is George Lynch. Although he is a guitar player, and I am a bass player who can also play guitar, his music is what drove me to play. I consider him a muse, one of my “heroes”. Someday I hope to simply shake his hand and tell him how much of a difference he made in my life.

I mention George, and the intensity of my love for his work, as well as the positive and negative events that led to what I consider to be a successful music career, to put context into the story of this event. To a lesser degree professionally, but perhaps to a larger degree personally, I have a similar muse in the writing world. In many ways his work is so powerful, so amazing, that at times it seems overwhelming for me to even engage as an author; I’ve written tons of poetry but I find it difficult to write actual stories because I just know it can never be that good. I would love to one day be considered a good author, and in the last few years I’ve tried to write short stories and had difficulties with finding the “voice” of various characters as I work through story ideas.

One way that I’ve managed to get the writing juices flowing is through an online community known as “Kevin’s Watch”. I joined the Watch in 2008 and have nearly 2,000 posts there. You can check it out here when you have the time and if you are so inclined. It’s simply an awesome community of people with like interests and who have actually become friends. And it’s not in the Facebook friends kind of way, either. We all have an interest in our favorite fantasy author, but on top of that we discuss other novels, other artists, tell jokes, and even rant at each other in one of the more civil (allegedly) political forums, our very own “Think Tank”. The group has turned out a few anthologies of short stories and I’ve used that as well as some internal discussion forums to try to move my writing forward.

All of which is background for an event that happened last weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the home of my favorite author, Stephen R. Donaldson. He is the author of the Series That Changed Me, the incomparable Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. They are epic fantasy in a way that Tolkien is not, driven by strong characterization and heroic characters that grip you with their passion and dedication to what is right. In the midst of this amazing world, Thomas Covenant stands as an embodiment of all that could be wrong with the universe, an anti-hero who is driven to criminal actions by his inability to believe in a fantasy world filled with the purity of untainted love and beauty. There is no more vivid world to lose yourself in, no more vivid story to immerse yourself in. A Second and Last Chronicles have followed, along with Mordant’s Need, a two-part series that is well worth reading, and the Gap Sequence, a five volume brutal examination of man’s basest desires and depravity that builds for three and half books to a gripping climax that leaves you turning page after page after page, an absolutely transcendent work of ever-increasing intensity that doesn’t let up for more than a thousand pages. And there are books of short stories as well as a mystery series.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s website

For a different perspective on this event, visit Lynne Cantwell’s fantastic blog at Hearth/Myth

For the last decade, after the release of a book, Mr. Donaldson has agreed to meet with fans of his, mostly from Kevin’s Watch, for a dinner and interactive Q&A session. Dubbed “Elohim-fest” after a race of characters that Thomas Covenant encounters, this “meet and greet” has reached its fourth incarnation, with over 40 of us attending from as far away as Australia and Finland. I myself attended for the first time, with two goals. One was to merely shake the man’s hand and acknowledge everything he’s done for me; the other was to ask him one of those “how do you do what you do” questions, specifically around the struggles I’ve had with voice in my stories. In poetry, meter and rhyme can dictate voice; in prose, I still struggled with it.

Asking My Question

Asking My Question

So I asked him my question, something on the order of, “How do you write dialogue that sounds real to your readers, and that doesn’t sound like something you yourself would say?”

I can’t really tell you what he said to be honest, because as he answered the question, he maintained eye contact with me the whole time, and just to have him know for that few minutes that I existed was more than enough! It was beyond words.

Stephen R. Donaldson

Stephen R. Donaldson

That in itself was amazing. To actually meet a hero of mine. How often do people really get to do that?

But the weekend was so much more than that, mostly because Kevin’s Watch, as a community beyond your everyday internet community, made it that. I’m fairly socially awkward around people until I get to know them, and to be honest, a small part of me was dreading dropping myself into an environment with people I’d only met online. Back in 1997 I was part of the first “internet chat rooms” at Yahoo! and had some disastrous “meet and greet” events in those days. Plus I just don’t usually believe that what I have to say is going to be of much interest to others. But Danlo (the host of the event and the man we all owe much thanks to, along with his lovely wife) made everyone feel at home at a gathering the night before the event, and I completely felt as if I’d known these people all my life, which in a way, I sort of have, given my now 6 years as a member of the Watch. I had so many amazing conversations and talked to people from all over the world in ways that I would not have done without the Watch. I made some unexpected friends as well. I can’t wait for the next one when they have it…as much for another chance to sit in a room with my favorite author as to simply talk about writing with people who are engaged.

So, the moral of the story, I suppose, is to go and meet your muses if you can. And when you do, I hope that you will meet a bunch of wonderful people who are on the same journey, and be able to count them as friends. It’s a great feeling and one that is hard to describe, and even harder to replicate.

Customer service gone bad: How Honda almost won the battle, but then lost it and the war

December 12, 2013 4 comments

If you’ve followed me on Facebook, then you are aware of an ongoing battle I (and many others) have had with Honda about the quality of their paint jobs on their new Civic models from 2006 until today. I can still remember how excited I was to buy a new Civic in ’06. The car was much roomier than comparable models and it’s gotten excellent gas mileage, sometimes as high as 40mpg on the highway. I have about 115k miles on it in 7 years and it still runs beautifully.

But about two years ago the paint started to flake along the roof, and it progressively got worse. I reached out to my local Honda dealer, Sunset Honda in San Luis Obispo, and was basically told that I “park my car in the sun too much”. I responded with, “So does everyone else around me, it’s California…what else can I do?” Basically I was told the problem was mine.

I reached out to the dealer who sold me the car (Penske in Ontario) and while they were much nicer, they were clearly not interested in repainting the car. I got a couple of quotes myself on a repaint, one of which was more than the actual original sticker price of the car.

I reminded both dealerships that I was a good Honda customer, and was soon to be in the market for a mini-van, and the Odyssey caught my eye…but not if it was going to look like broken eggshells in 4 or 5 years. If they weren’t going to stand behind their product I wouldn’t buy another vehicle from them. There was no way that this problem was naturally occurring and the only logical explanation was a faulty paint job.

Nope.

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Over the next couple of years my car continued to get worse, and after some soul searching, I decided that I’d never recoup the value of my car if I spent that kind of money on a paint job. Since it still ran well, I decided I’d run it into the ground instead, try to squeeze another 6 or 7 years out of it. In the meantime, I commiserated with other Honda owners in the same situation and came to realize something.

There were thousands of Hondas out there just like mine, all with faulty, flaking paint. And Honda continued to blame sunlight and waxing and UV rays and whatever it could come up with to refuse to address that it obviously had a defective product.

Of course in the meantime, since my car was no longer under warranty, I stopped going to Sunset Honda for service. There’s several hundred dollars of revenue a year down the drain right there.

About two months ago, I received a surprise in the mail, so innocuous that we almost didn’t open it. It was a letter from Honda extending the warranty on paint for Civics like mine and offering to paint the car at no charge!

Hallelujah, right?

Well, sort of. See, while they were offering to paint it, they were going to make sure that it was as inconvenient as possible to do so. They only offered a six month time frame to get the repaint done. That was ok, but when I called the dealership to schedule, they said that they would need to have the car for two weeks to do the paint job, and no, they couldn’t expedite that.

Ok, two weeks isn’t bad if I have a loaner car…but no. Since, in the words of the Honda service technician, they were doing me a favor and helping me out by repainting my car, they were not going to offer a loaner.

Super. Would they reimburse the cost of a rental?

No.

So basically, I had to endure the inconvenience and cost of replacing my transportation while they “helped me out”.

I solved that problem by scheduling my paint job over a time where I was either out of work on vacation or traveling out of the area to minimize inconvenience on my family.

Intriguingly, while waiting for my car to get painted, I discovered that there was a class-action lawsuit filed against Honda (http://www.topclassactions.com/lawsuit-settlements/lawsuit-news/2185-honda-defective-paint-class-action-lawsuit) . So much for the idea that they had decided a repaint was the honorable thing to do, eh?

Once my car was painted, I wanted to pick it up on a Saturday, mostly because I didn’t want to have to interrupt work or my family schedule to do so. I got a call from Sunset Honda saying that I could pick it up, but it was extremely inconvenient for them because they don’t like to have repaints picked up while the primary technician was out of the office.

Making it crystal clear that my convenience was unimportant to them. Sweet.

But I picked it up on Saturday anyway, since I’m a rebel that way. The technician on duty at Sunset handed me my completed paperwork and then congratulated me on the repaint. I told him it looked fine. And he then graced me with this fantastic statement completely lacking in self-awareness:

“What other car company would repaint your car for free at 114,000 miles?”

Let’s see. One that also failed to paint it properly the first time? One that thinks they are
doing me a huge favor by fixing their faulty product? One that also completely missed the boat and a chance to gain a bunch of loyal customers by stepping up and fixing it right away? One that has now completely lost me as a customer?

Yeah, that company.

At the very least, the car pretty much looks like new. They painted everything except the bumpers.

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You’d think that’s the end of it, but no, today the seal at the top of my windshield has started to come off…as near as I can tell they didn’t seal it completely. I’ll be taking that to my personal mechanic, because the last thing I want is for Sunset Honda (or any other Honda) to be involved in my automotive business. I’ll take my next $30k+ purchase to someone else.

One can only imagine, based on the number of other people I know with this problem, that there are now thousands of dissatisfied customers out there. I see Hondas with bad paint jobs every day now when I am out and about. And when I show the photos to my friends, they say they start seeing Hondas in the same situation. One wonders what that does to people who might have been considering buying a Civic or an Accord.

Or an Odyssey.

Well played, Honda. Well played.

Considering a new Code Camp talk

December 11, 2013 Leave a comment

So I’m considering getting back into the ring at code camps. For the past several years I’ve held out of them mostly due to more qualified people handling a lot of the topics, and wonderful personal things like my kids and family taking up quite a bit of time (seriously!). But lately I’ve felt the urge to get back into the swing of it.

One of the things I think is underrepresented, and will likely become the basis of my next talk, is Website Operations, and how you can support that concept via architecture and developer philosophy. This would cover things like email delivery and storage, cache management, web farm management, logging and debugging, change management and tracking, GA versus local web analytics, and so forth. Wondering if people would consider that interesting or boring?

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