Saturday, November 20, 2010

Missing magazine fiction

I picked up a copy of Glamour magazine this week.  I realize that I am not the demographic that the editors are looking for, but I happened to be waiting in line in Target and rifled through the current issue -- there was a short story by Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse books.  I must confess I have never read the Sookie Stackhouse books (although my daughter is a big fan of her work), but I was so excited to see a piece of short fiction in a magazine that I shelled out $3.95 on the spot.

I grew up in the days when every woman's magazine was brimming with short fiction. Redbook -- now a magazine so awful I won't even pick it up while waiting in line -- once used to publish two short stories and a novel excerpt every issue. Even Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal, not to mention long-gone mags like McCalls and Mademoiselle, all published stories that for a few minutes swept you into another world.  Nothing high literary that would rock your world -- just good stories with strong plots and characters that were, well, like me at different stages of my life.  When I was young, I read American Girl -- a magazine published by the Girl Scouts that had nothing to do with $100 dollars.  The stories were about teen-aged girls trying to find their place in the world, just like me.  As I grew older, the magazine fiction I read reflected my single-and-dating stages, my  young mother stages. Then it disappeared. As did the general interest magazines that also published fiction.

I write short fiction myself. I take a workshop with an excellent teacher, and the other writers are all intelligent and talented. The group is under the auspices of Philadelphia Stories,  a slim literary magazine that is distributed free around town. In every class, we read a piece of modern short fiction.  As we discuss them, I admire the technique that goes into writing them, but I must confess, I don't like any of them. The characters are, for the most part, warped in some way.  They've been beaten by their mothers or molested by their fathers or killed their own children.  These are not people I want to spend my time with, and although I'm happy that these writers are getting published, I don't want to read their work.

Most of these stories have been published in literary magazines, and when they collect enough of them, the writers put them into a collection.  But who reads literary magazines?  Other writers, I imagine.  When was the last time you saw someone on the subway with a copy of Paris Review in their hand?  So it's mainly writers writing for other writers, who can admire their technique.  This creates a kind of literary incest that leaves the general reader in the dust. Even the stories in the New Yorker are on such a high plane, I usually give up half way through.

I miss short fiction written for regular people.  I have collections on my shelves of short fiction from the Saturday Evening Post and theSaturday Review -- general interest magazines that published writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner.  Good writers who cared about their writing, but who wrote for readers, ordinary people who wanted the blissful reading  experience that only a dose of short fiction can give.
Meanwhile, thank you Glamour.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

AirTran - Where the Customer is Always Wrong

My Mom will not be using AirTran Airlines anymore. Neither will I, come to think of it.  But I don't travel that much.

Mom used to come to Philadelphia every few months. Not to see me, of course. Or even my kids. She has two adorable great-grandchildren here who scream with delight every time she walks in the room. That is the magnet that draws her northward.

She also flies to New Orleans to see my brother.

She has been flying AirTran since they first began service between Atlanta and Philadelphia. They always seem to have the lowest prices. She wasn't happy when they started charging her to take a suitcase, but Southwestern doesn't fly everywhere, so she bit the bullet.

Until the last trip. After a week filled with the excitement of traveling first to Philadelphia,  and then by bus to New York for my son's graduation from college, Mom was ready to go home and just rest.

I dropped her off Sunday morning about an hour and a half before her flight. 

She had printed out her boarding pass the night before, a great time-saver that allowed her to check in quicker. 

She checked her bag, made some small talk with the agent who checked  her bag and her boarding pass and went on to the gate. After a while, she noticed that there weren't any other passengers coming to the gate. She went over to the board where they post all the flights and couldn't figure out which gate matched her flight. She is in her 80s after all, and her eyes aren't what they used to be. By the time she found someone to help her, she learned that AirTran had changed the gate, and she had missed her plane.

She found an AirTran agent and explained what had happened.

"You must have fallen asleep," the agent told her. " that was always the gate."

Which it wasn't - Mom had the boarding pass to prove it. 

By the time she called me she was in tears. She had a ticket for the next flight. She wasn't upset about missing the flight as much as the condescending way she had been treated by the person supposed to be providing customer service.

"They made me feel like an idiot," she complained.

Now Mom is old, but she's not stupid. And even if she WAS, what happened to that old adage, "The customer is always right." What was the point of arguing with an elderly passenger and trying to make her feel bad?
The bad taste lingered. A week after she returned home, she wrote a letter to the president of the airline.

"I probably won't hear from anyone," she told me, "but I had to get it off my chest."

She was wrong. AirTran called her. Another "customer service" agent. And incredibly enough, she made the situation even worse.

It was all Mom's fault, the AirTran agent told her. Mom had printed out the boarding pass the night before (why give people the gate when they do that if you are only going to move the flight?). THEN, she had the audacity to show up EARLY. The check in agent couldn't tell her the gate had changed, because they hadn't changed it yet!

Of course they took no responsibility themselves -- like how about make an announcement like other airlines do. "Ladies and Gentleman, AirTran flight 318 has been changed to gate 4E."

After calling to tell their customer that she was all wrong, they offered her a $25 discount on her next flight.

Then Mom did make a mistake. She was sarcastic. She thanked AirTran for being so generous.

Those kinds of people never understand sarcasm.

So that is how AirTran lost a perfectly good customer. Along with the rest of our family.

If there is a prize for the world's worst customer service, they are a shoe-in.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Gentile's Yom Kippur Redemption

My husband, Stew, is the kind of a guy that attracts incidents - good or bad. Sometimes, the guy in front of him at the dollar store will take a swing at him for no reason. When he stands by the bus stop, mentally disturbed people will single him out for conversation.

This morning he was walking home from synagogue when someone called out to him from a nearby house. Most people would just keep on walking - not my husband. He went over and met an African-American man in a wheelchair and his caretaker. They wanted to give him a check to give to a Jewish charity. He explained that because it was the sabbath, he could not take a check, even if it was for charity. They kept urging him to take the check, and he promised he would return after the sabbath.

Tonight he stopped at the house on the way home, and to Stew's shock, the man, let's call him Jim, wrote out a check for $300. Stew requested that it be made out to our local day school, which had just launched an appeal for funds.

Here is the story Jim's wife told him:

Fifteen years ago, Jim was in Florida and wanted to get out. He didn't have any money, and he had no hope of earning any. So he and a friend jumped into a car driven by an elderly woman that was stopped at a traffic light. He pulled out a 19-inch switchblade and told the woman he would kill her if she didn't give him the car.

The woman replied that she would not give him the car, but said that he must be desperate to attempt such an insane act. He agreed that he was desperate and needed $300 to get out of Florida. She told him they would drive to the bank, and she would give him the money. She asked him to promise that someday he would do something to help the Jewish people. They never saw each other again.

Now, 15 years later, on the day before Yom Kippur, Jim was eager to keep his promise. After leaving Florida, he had turned his life around, married and made a decent living. "I would be dead if it wasn't for her," he told Stew. Jim knew that Yom Kippur was a day of redemption for the Jewish people, and he felt compelled to redeem himself as well.

On the memo line of the check he wrote: For restitution.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sharing Bad News on Facebook

Facebook has become THE place to share good news. Engagements, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries - Facebook enables me to participate in my friends' happy events even though we are far apart and, often, haven't seen one another in person for years.

But what do you do when the news is bad? Does Emily Post have a proper etiquette for announcing on new media when someone dies? Someone close up and personal - not a Michael Jackson or a Teddy Kennedy.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that my Facebook Friend Andy was putting together beautiful photograph albums of his wife and posting them. There were childhood photos of her with her sister and photos of her and Andy in their younger years. One day, Andy announced that he would be taking a break from blogging. And somehow I knew that something was wrong.

Andy's wife had been battling breast cancer since before we met. She had spent several years in remission. Two years ago, Andy and I were taking a class together. Little by little, our fellow students found it difficult to come. When it came down to the two of us, the teacher gently suggested it was time to abandon the class. Shortly afterward, I learned from my cousin that Andy's wife was ill again. In one of life's funny twists, while I was becoming friends with Andy, my cousin was teaching at the same school as his wife.

I sent Andy a note when I learned about Carol. I knew I couldn't be much help, but I knew from my own year as a parent fighting for a child with cancer that any word of support is a blessing. My cousin actually arranged for the three of us to go to a book signing together during one of Carol's strong periods. But she canceled at the last minute, so we never met.

When Andy stopped blogging, I knew something was wrong and alerted my cousin. Three days later, I got an email, "Thanks for the heads-up. I guess you saw the obituary this morning."

Of course, Andy was silent. And I did not think that saying what I had on my mind was "being sad because Andy's wife died today." It was not my sad news to spread. And I could imagine how outraged Andy would be to have his wife's death announced without his knowledge on Facebook.

So I emailed each of our mutual friends. Not everyone reads the obits. And Carol had kept her maiden name. They were grateful that I contacted them, and some of them attended the memorial service.

Several days after the funeral, Andy was back on Facebook thanking his friends for their support and receiving more condolences in return.

Still, there was a moment when I considering posting the "news." And I'm glad I didn't.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What happens when the public sees the spin?

The Philadelphia Eagles' decision to sign Michael Vick has unleashed a firestorm in the media, both old and new. Aerial Ellis, who is not from Philadelphia, took a different angle by blogging on the PR frenzy that following the signing. In her excellent blog entry, Aerial calls it A Victory for Vick's PR.

From the objective perspective of a PR professional from outside the city, the campaign to re-brand Vick as remorseful and ready to atone for his six years of running a vicious dog-fighting ring was perfectly orchestrated. Here on the ground, it seemed as if almost everyone saw the PR campaign for what it was. I don't think anyone changed their minds after the onslaught of interviews and Vick chest beating. Eagles fans were happy to believe that everyone deserves a second chance, as long as they can bring the team to the Superbowl. Non- football fans, especially those who are animal lovers, believe Vick is evil incarnate and would love to see him suffer the 21st century of being ridden out of town on a rail.

But I don't think anyone viewed the PR campaign as anything but spin. Even before Vick went public, people knew he was going to repent and join forces with the SPCA. Everyone I spoke with knew that it was a game he was playing so he could collect his millions and play football again. After all, for two years, we heard no "mea culpa" even after the verdict that sent him to prison.

So what do you do when the people see the man behind the curtain pulling the strings? Do you just proceed with your campaign as if no one realizes what you are doing? If your PR effort is humbug do you just keep playing the wizard until the fuss dies down?

The Eagles won their first game tonight with Vick on the field. For most of Philadelphia, that was all that needed to happen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Richard Corliss Missed the Boat

Richard Corliss is one sad individual. I'm happy to say I don't know him.

Time Magazine gave Corliss an entire page in their last issue to rant against Netflix. "Why Netflix Stinks" was the headline. Nexflix! The online DVD service that everyone loves. Everyone but Corliss, who is the only one I've ever heard of who doesn't get his movies on time and can't find what he wants. (Once I ordered an Israeli film that they had to ship in from California. Netflix sent me the next DVD in my queue at no charge so I had something to watch while I was waiting. I'm sorry Corliss, but that's great service.)

I don't need to write a commercial for Netflix, but two things struck me as especially outrageous. First of all, he blames Netflix for the demise of Mom and Pop video stores. In fact, it was the video behemoths Hollywood and Blockbuster that killed off most of the smaller stores, just as Barnes and Noble and Borders knocked off independent book stores before delivered a blow to their solar plexus. Netflix then slew Blockbuster and Hollywood, which, in my opinion, was not a great loss. Both stores, in every town I lived in, featured rude clerks and a bland selection with little variety. If there was anything interesting on the shelves, it always turned out to be an empty video box. Not to mention the late fees . . .

But Corliss' most ludicrous claim was we are are deprived of socialization because we receive our DVDs at home from Netflix. "We deny ourselves the random epiphanies of human contact," he writes. Excuse me? He no longer has any social contact because he can't spend time with the clerk at the video store? Someone needs therapy here.

Many of us -- obviously not Corliss -- have friends. They order a video from Netflix and invite friends over to share the experience. Or they watch a video with their spouse and kids. That is socialization. It is Corliss who is joining "a nation of shut-ins" because he can't go to the video store. The rest of us are doing just fine.

Now I'm going to watch a streaming video from Netflix with my daughter. Popcorn anyone?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fact or Fiction?

Philadelphia tour guides have been on the hot seat lately because it turns up, they've been presenting fake history to tourists. If they don't know who wrote the Declaration of Independence, they just make something up. Now one of those tour guides, Steve Zettler, has decided to extend his love of fiction to Citizens Bank Park.

Zettler has never been to the Bank, or the Wachovia Center or any other sports venue in Philadelphia. But for some bizarre reason, the
Philadelphia Inquirer gave him a prime spot on the editorial page to vent about violence at the stadium and the horrible Philadelphia fans. In a story called City Sports Reputation Isn't So Funny Anymore, he makes a lot of allegations about Philly sports fans, none of which is based on a first-hand account. Just like his spiel to tourists, I imagine.

Now, everyone in town was horrified by the murder of Dan Sales after last Saturday night's game. But the people involved were on a bus coming from a bar to begin with. So they were already lit before they got to the Bank. They were a bunch of thugs who had nothing to do with the Phillies or sports. But to claim that that tragic event is typical is as much as a lie as claiming Betsy Ross was married to Ben Franklin.

Zettler, I go to as many Phillies games as I can afford. Sometimes I take my kids. I've seen people drinking and sometimes drinking a lot. but I've never seen anyone get violent or starting vomiting in public as Zettler, who has never been there, claims. I've also lived in Milwaukee, where they hawk mixed drinks at the games as well as beer and don't cut them off in the 7th inning the way they do in Philly. Nor is there any public transportation to get you back from the stadium, so all of those drunks are in cars. Now that's scary.

Should people drink responsively? Sure. Are our sports stadiums dens of iniquity? Hardly. Does someone who has never been there have any business libeling Philly fans? Not at all. Will his opinion make any difference? Nah, most
Phillies games are already sold out, and getting an Eagles ticket is next to impossible.

So what should we libeled fans do about Zettler? What about a class action law suit for defamation of character. That might shut him up. Let him go back to his bus and spin his fairy tales for tourists.