What might of…

I’m trying to read a new book, but it’s slow going.

It’s called One Second After, by Dr. William R. Forstchen, and the basic premise – survival in America, following an EMP attack – is compelling. At least, that is, until you start reading the book.

I was sold by the preface, written by Newt Gingrich. Whatever you might think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he’s an educated, reasonably literate man who is trying to be a serious person. So it was based largely on his endorsement that I took the plunge.

What a mistake.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, it’s been nothing but sophomoric, naïve and predictable. The characters are painfully cardboard, their dialog is stilted, and there’s nothing terribly compelling about any of their interactions.

Early on, the author admits that he’s writing about a town that seems a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and his self-consciousness is well-founded. The entire cast of characters is straight out of the 1950s. Think Barney Fife meets Stephen King’s The Stand, with a little standard right-wing patriotic fluff thrown in for good measure.

The action centers on the emotionally wounded father, an unsung hero with a military background as yet unproven (but soon, yawn, soon to be proven, you just know it’s coming), a man who is a widower with a couple of daughters, one a diabetic, one a 16 year old dating a boy who acts so much like a boy scout that we’re reminded of the author’s early years spent writing for Boy’s Life.

We’ve got the predictable love interest for our hero, the sexy nurse who is quite a bit younger than him, but not creepily so. He’s already shown her his heroic side, thereby proving that he’s not yet part of the “I need Cialis to be ready for when the moment is right” crowd. This achievement came with a wound that she tends for him while calling him “sir”, a noble scar that he earned by fighting for proper southern behavior while in line at the local CVS.

Finally, he seals the deal by demonstrating his emotional accessibility, breaking down in front of the nurse because of his fatherly concern for his diabetic daughter’s insulin supply, which he just secured by whacking someone over the head with a beer bottle.

It gets better.

There’s a moment when the hero hands a few cans of Ensure to a WW2 vet (stranded in a nursing home without electricity, staff members, food or even running water) before snapping to attention and saluting the old guy. I kept waiting for the  hackneyed “Thank you for your service, sir!”

But all pretensions of one warrior’s respect for another are dashed, because our hero turns tail and abandons the poor old guy to a lonely death, stealing the rest home’s remaining supply of Ensure and running for the hills.

Not just here, but overall, his behavior is a mixture of schoolboy sentimentality offset by angry, chain-smoking, combative selfishness.  And it is in this toxic mix that our hero completely loses the reader’s sympathy, while what remains of our interest in his fate dims even darker than the lights in his electricity-starved world.

At this point, the only reason that I’m sticking with the book (skimming it would be truer) is for the remaining EMP-related disaster scenarios, which are interesting and thought-provoking. But the clumsy plot, laughably cartoonish characters and saccharine dialog are so cringe-worthy that even skimming brings too much sap over the gunwales.

And yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it gets even better.

Apparently, nobody ever mentioned to the author, a man with a PhD in history from Purdue, that the phrase “might of thought” is not quite English. Unless you’re referring to the intellectual fecundity necessary to spawn a particularly mighty thought, an animal which I doubt has often crossed this author’s inner savannah.

I found myself dumbfounded as I ran across variations of this glaring, grade school error.  Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to realize that phrases like “might have thought” are commonly contracted to “might’ve thought”.

Yes, that sounds a lot like “might of thought” when spoken, but both the author and his illiterate editor prove their striking lack of might in their own thought by (in the author’s case) making and then (in the editor’s) missing this type of error, something that would’ve knocked me out of my socks as a 5th grader.

And sadly, this is neither a one-time mistake, nor a typo. I’ve run across many examples of Dr. Forstchen’s profound misunderstanding of written English in this book. Throughout it, he writes no better than the author of some choice graffiti on a truck stop restroom wall.

How is it possible that mastery of middle school English is not simply a given for Purdue’s doctoral candidates? For those in the sciences, I could see an exception or two, but for those seeking a doctorate in history, where the meat and potatoes of the entire program is nothing but writing?  How was this kind of an error suffered to exist at all during his candidacy, or more to the point, how does it endure today in this professor of history at Montreat College?

Apparently it isn’t just Purdue or Montreat that spawn such literary genius. Although I can’t fathom how the publisher, Tor Books, is able to employ editors illiterate enough to miss them, the book contains stunning clunkers like these:

    “We might of lost the fight.”
    “We might of gotten even.”
    “You might of seen that as too forward of me.”

Garbage like this isn’t a question of my being overly grammatical or failing to cut the author some slack for an honest mistake. This kind of thing is ignorance, plain and simple. It is ugly.  Writing this poor is an insult to the reader.  It drags the author’s work into the slush of amateurish, self-published trivia.

And that’s the sad part, because as I skim through the remaining pages, I find myself thinking “Oh, if only it had lived up to Newt’s hype, how great a book this might of been”.


Thank you for choosing Thrifty

It’s really odd: I used to have to choose Thrifty Car Rental when I worked as a full-time contractor for a Bay Area technology start-up. The start-up was playing the usual games (usual for the tech industry, at least) of pretending that all of its employees were actually not employees, despite issuing them business cards and employing them exclusively, full-time, for years on end, isicro-managing their every step, and requiring their daily presence at remote locations at the far ends of the civilized world.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The annoying thing was that, during the years I spent working for them (as the aforementioned full time yet magically independent contractor), I was compelled to choose Thrifty Car Rental while travelling on business. Exclusively Thrifty.

This was because their accountant wouldn’t reimburse for any other pricier brand, or even a portion of a pricier brand. Whether or not I covered the difference, didn’t seem to matter, it was a philosophical thing, apparently. I wanted Hertz, but I would’ve settled for Avis, or even Budget, for crying out loud.  Anything to avoid the stink of smoke, or to have a window that actually rolled up.

But no, she was as adamant as New Hampshire’s state motto on this point. She even said it to me outright: “Andrew, you will choose Thrifty, or you will die.”

But justice prevails, sometimes in the most oddly poetic ways. One afternoon, while processing my expense report, fate turned the tables on her “Thrifty-or-Die” motto, when she suffered a sudden and sadly fatal heart attack. Found face-down on my latest expense report, with her pen poised for approval on my Thrifty receipt, she clearly died a happy accountant, thrifty to the end.

Anyway, I had won the battle, at least in a karmic sense, but in the longer term, I ended up losing the war. This is because once in place, corporate standards are effectively immutable, and so it went with the accountant’s legacy, which was adopted by her successor and enforced with, if anything, an even greater enthusiasm for corporate thriftiness.

So, although (or paradoxically, because) I hated driving Thrifty’s filthy, high-mileage rent-a-wrecks, fate offered me no other choice: I had to rent from them, or walk. Especially after Thrifty-or-Die’s untimely yet somehow noble demise.

And so it was that I went on to become one of Thrifty’s most valued members, a “Blue Chip”, although I often felt like a blue chump, waiting in miserable lines with the other victims, dumped by a wheezing little bus in off- off- off-airport locations, all of us hoping for something with less than 50,000 miles on it and a working radio.

But time moves on, as do employees misclassified as consultants, and eventually I stopped working for that particular Bay Area high tech company, swapping it out for another. At least I didn’t have to travel nearly so much, which meant that my relationship with Thrifty entered an extended, blissful hiatus.

You can imagine my joy when Thrifty unexpectedly sent me an email today, plaintively whining that my Black Friday spending spree hadn’t included renting a 4 year old Ford Fiesta with a broken windshield.

Reflexively, I unsubscribed.  As I have been doing with a lot of other things, lately. But that’s also another story.

Anyway, the oddest thing happened.

After clicking unsubscribe, I found myself in an extended dialog with their website. I’ve learned that in many cases, you have to run this kind of gauntlet to escape from spam-Hell, but this was something of an entirely different caliber.

In most cases, unsubscribing is kind of like breaking up with a stalker: you can’t just respond with a “piss off, we’re through”. Like the stalker, the company ignores your attempt at dialog by shunting your responses to an “unattended mail box”, which is the corporate version of returning your cease-and-desist letters unopened. This way, they can keep on spamming you without guilt, or at least legal ramification.

So, accepting my fate, I dove into Thrifty’s monumental customer survey, working my way through page after page of check-boxes and “share here” dialogues, until the progress bar showed that I was finally nearing the end of what had turned into a minor death march.

And it was at this point, bathed in the light from the end of the tunnel that would surely lead me to everlasting freedom from their spam, that the website told me, simply: “Thank you for choosing Thrifty”.

Which is exactly my point.

I wasn’t choosing Thrifty – I had never chosen Thrifty.  I had been forced to it, driven unwillingly into their dank blue reception areas more times than I could ever recall. Even under hypnosis.

No, instead I had thought that I had finally achieved my shining moment, my opportunity to un-choose Thrifty at least.  I had just gotten done plowing through page after page, unchoosing Thrifty again and again, with liberal doses of “great vengeance and furious anger” worthy of Samuel L. Jackson.

But all to no avail: Thank you for choosing Thrifty

I’m sure you can understand why that canned response, thanking me for doing precisely the opposite of what I had just done, stung as such an insult.

I mean, hadn’t we just engaged in “a productive dialog to improve our customer experience”?  And if so, hadn’t that customer experience software noted any telling trends in my responses, like maybe that I had just been giving them zeroes on a scale of 1 to 10?

Anybody listening in Thriftyland?

Not getting the written responses, that I can understand, as I was dealing with a machine.  But not even paying attention to the check-marks?  What part of “lowest possible customer rating” does not compute?

I guess it’s interactions like this that we all must endure, if only for sanity’s sake. Over and over and painfully over again, we are forced to listen to insincere sincerity and impolite politeness in these corporate interactions, whether online or (worst of all), on the phone.

You know, normally, I try to go with the flow, just clicking, deleting, unsubscribing, spam-trashing, or listening to the blather before saying “No thanks, it’s nice of you to offer it for the 14th time, but I’d really rather not renew my subscription, given that the purpose of this entire phone call is to cancel it. ”

This assault on our patience and the trivialization of our responses has become part of everyone’s normal day. Like dealing with junk mail in the physical world once was, now junk content in every electronic venue imaginable assaults us from all sides.

I guess today was just one of those those times when I found myself enraged by another tedious slog through the double-speak, yearning to slash my way with a machete of truth through the dense jungle of politely meaningless interactions that clutter and waste our days.

Annoyances such as having to fill out lengthy surveys merely to be freed from a “community update” (read, corporate marketing database), or having to listen to diatribes about online security when simply trying to find out why your cable is down, once again… these are things that anger people out of all proportion, because for many of us, they are the 998th of a thousand little cuts dealt out by a depersonalized yet technologically-empowered world, every day.

So sure, in my little rant you can see that I’m climbing a mountain made of many molehills. This was, after all, a singular example from a regular, daily stream of email annoyances.

But I guess that for me, it was the combination of insincerity and time-wasting pedantry that inspired this post. I fell for the bait, I tried to share the truth with a company about my experiences with them. But why did I even bother?

In the end, it was like talking with HAL in the movie 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  But thank you for choosing Thrifty.”