Don’t Mess Up My Block – A Short Story

Note: Don’t Up Mess My Block, published in Thirty First Bird Literary Magazine, is an excerpt from my novel of the same name.

“We must do the thing that terrifies us most.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

I was dressed up like an Italian, with gold chains around my neck.  Sweat poured from under my black wig as I pushed my way through the crowd.  I shouted up at the French paratrooper.  “European national!” I said, holding aloft my new EU passport.  The gate of the embassy opened and I ran for the waiting helicopter.

We in the West take so much for granted – elected governments, honest police forces, functioning capital markets, pornography on demand.  These are benefits of our civilization.

However, I believe it is the duty of us fortunate people to bring prosperity and democracy to the darker corners of the world.  And I also believe in seeking out personal challenges, as evidenced by the above quote.

Which is why I was in the Republic of G——.  I don’t spell out the name of this country for reasons that will be clear later in this narrative.

I had spent the past year in Hiltons and Hyatts from Akron to Long Beach, empowering audiences to heedlessly seize their dreams with my “Don’t Mess Up My Block” concept.  Several articles had already been written about my idea and the response in the blogosphere had been very favorable.  I started the tour lecturing to middle school business clubs and concluded by giving a presentation to more than a hundred passport clerks at the State Department.

After the applause died down in the Condoleeza Rice Auditorium, the director of the West Africa desk approached me with an interesting proposal.  Would I be interested in applying my practicums of self-improvement in the Republic of G—?

I initially declined his offer.  The Republic of G— is infamous, even by degraded African standards, for its corruption, state-sponsored violence and swarms of biting gnats. And for its “intractable civil war”.  That was the phrase that was used more than any other in press accounts of this unfortunate sliver of a country.

Besides, I was making a comfortable living with my “Don’t Mess Up My Block” presentation.  Based upon a late-night encounter with a hooker who told me to get lost, the root of my self-actualizing speech was to be loyal to your blind ambition, whatever the costs.

As I advised audiences to clear the deadwood (kids, family) out of their lives to achieve success, my speaker fee steadily climbed and was approaching the five-figure sum enjoyed by my mentor, Esalen.

Esalen was also my life coach at this time.  I talked to him weekly, as we reviewed my goals and activities.  Esalen took a keen interest in my life, especially when it came to my speaker fees.

“Soon, you and I will be on the same level!” I laughingly told him.

“You should take the State Department job,” Esalen responded.

I was silent, imagining my violent death in a green jungle at the edge of the equator.

“You should take it because it’s dangerous,” Esalen said, as if sensing my discomfort.  “If you come back alive, you will be fearless. And if you don’t, well, lesson learned.”

We discussed the matter into the night, over the phone. Esalen was ensconced in the Four Seasons San Francisco while I lounged comfortably on the 800-count sheets of the Four Seasons Washington.  My trajectory had taken me, in just a few short months, to the exalted level of inspirational speakers that Esalen occupied.  My mentor believed that I needed a new challenge, something that would really stretch me.  The fear of my execution at the hand of Maoist guerillas was a legitimate concern, for they had recently put to death a whole busload of bird-watchers from Nebraska, on perhaps the most ill-planned expedition ever mounted by the American Aviary Society.

“You’ve become too comfortable,” Esalen said.  “You need to stretch.”

After several hours of argument, Esalen convinced me.  I would go to Africa, because I could get killed.  It was the type of challenge that I needed. Esalen seemed relieved that I was going to a war zone.

The next morning, I called the State Department.  My contact was delighted.  They had money they needed to “move” as he called it, before the end of the fiscal year. I would start immediately.

The next day, I was on a plane to Africa.  After landing on a pockmarked runway, I was taken to the Presidential Palace.  Lions roamed the grounds of the immense estate.

Columns of smoke lined the horizon, from villages that the guerillas were “purifying” of capitalism.

The Ruler, as he was referred to, listened to my presentation politely, almost docilely.  This was a man who came to power in an early-morning putsch a couple years earlier.  The elected President had been rousted from his bed and shot at poolside by The Ruler himself. At the time, he was known as Captain Mobumbo. Not one to delegate, he liked to handle matters personally.  After his ascension to power, he beat the guerillas back to their highland bases.  His methods were extreme, but successful.  With his hands-on management style and disregard for the “rules” (like human rights), I likened him to a jungle Steve Jobs.  He would be at home in any corporate boardroom in America.

Now, however, he needed help.  The Western powers had cut off the line of credit he used to buy Kalashnikovs from the Ukraine.  His methods had been a little too extreme.  Amnesty International had discovered mass graves and assumed the worst.  Anyone could’ve put those bodies there.

Without access to new weapons, The Ruler had lost his way.  He was tentative, unsure, and the guerillas had crept out of the mountains and fought their way almost the length of the entire country, until they were nearly to the Presidential Palace itself.  In the capitol, democracy blossomed, and with it came a swarm of critics biting at the ankles of The Ruler, like the fabled gnats of this swamp-laced land.

Where the people once saw blood and terror in his eyes, now they sensed weakness and confusion.

The man I saw wasn’t the stern-faced executioner of yore.  He fiddled with prayer beads as I began my presentation.  I told him about my encounter with a prostitute.  “After I said I wasn’t interested, she told me to get off of her block,” I explained.  “I was getting in the way of her success.  I was messing up her block!”

The Ruler shared a laugh in his native tongue with his AK-carrying guards.  As I outlined with him the idea that reaching your potential requires removing people from your block, his visage became serious.  He leaned forward, as if hearing a good folk tale. I warmed to the task and smote the air with one hand.

“You must clear your block!” I shouted, willing the man into action.

The Ruler burst into applause, a smile spreading across his face.

“Marvelous! Simply marvelous!” he said.  He then grew serious.  He took me by the hand, squeezing it with just a hint of his legendary strength.  “This is what the State Department wants?” he asked.  His blood-red eyes stared into mine.

“Yes.”  I believe in the practice of responding confidently to any question, even if you’re unsure about the answer.  Doing so establishes your authority.

Did the State Department really want The Ruler to implement my ideas?  It seemed like they did.  The contract for services was unclear, with vague words like “education” and “outreach” scattered throughout its dozen pages.  If State didn’t want “Don’t Mess Up My Block” adapted to G—- then why send me to the country?

If I was more adept at the murky world of diplomacy, I would’ve asked more questions.  However, I was from the land of business consulting, where success is measured by speaking fees and muted applause in conference rooms.

The Ruler leaned forward.  “The message is understood.”  His eyes now blazed with newfound confidence.  He strode out martially.

I returned to my room, lulled to sleep by the roar of lions, confident that I had earned every penny of my $25,000 remuneration.

The arrests began the next day.  I saw it on BBC, shortly before The Ruler kicked the network out of the country.  It was a wholesale roundup of his enemies. He called it, “Operation Don’t Mess Up My Block.”

My contact at State was furious.  The Ruler apparently claimed that I, and, in extension, the U.S. government, had authorized this crackdown.  The Ruler had explained to State that those arrested we’re messing up his block.

“This was just a public education grant!” my contact fumed.  “You were just supposed to give a presentation on management techniques!”

“He asked for advice and I gave it to him.”

My contact made a guttural sound of anger and frustration.  “I just had some money left in the budget that I had to spend! And now all of West Africa is destabilized.”

“Maybe,” I said, thinking quickly.  “Maybe, West Africa needed to be destabilized, like a company needs a reorganization.”

The phone line cut off.  The Ruler had shut down access to the outside world.

There was a knock at the door.  The Ruler needed me.

“Thank you for your excellent counsel,” he said, resplendent in his uniform of tiger skins and peacock feathers.  He occupied his throne as if he was immortal.  “My enemies are now in jail. They were block messers. But, now, the opposition say that I mess up their block by putting their leaders in jail.  They have called for a general strike.  What do I do?”

I was improvising, when I am best. “There are unresolved pressures in your political system.  They must be allowed to come out into the open, so that a solution can be arrived at.”

The general strike began and, within days, the country had run out of gasoline and food.  The people were hungry and restive.  The Ruler had shot all the leaders of the opposition so there was nobody to negotiate with.  The streets devolved into running gun battles between soldiers and the opposition.  Both sides were running out of food and ammunition.  Meanwhile, the fires of the Maoist guerillas kept inching closer to the capitol.

A C-130 landed in the middle of the night and evacuated all Americans in the country.  However, in an apparent oversight, I was not informed.

On a borrowed satellite phone, I got through to my contact at State.  “Sorry about that,” he said.  “We just forgot.”

“Can you get me out?” I asked.  The boom of mortars was getting closer.

“Ask the French.”  The line went dead.

The Ruler summoned me.  He was feeding whole chickens to his lions.  He held a bird aloft by its neck.

“This is the last chicken,” he told me.  “No more chickens left for the lions.  No beans left for the soldiers, either.”

We watched the lions fights over the chicken carcass, guarded by restive soldiers with machine guns.

“Hungry soldiers aren’t loyal,” he observed.

I proposed doing a listening session with the palace troops.  I would facilitate and record their perspectives.

“I just need some whiteboards and markers.”

The Ruler considered the offer.  “That will buy me some time,” he said.

The next day, I went down to the barracks.  I had not been provided a whiteboard or a laser pointer or slides or even a laptop.  The soldiers didn’t understand the point of the exercise. They remained in their bunks as I explained that I was to facilitate a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of employment with The Ruler.

“Now, what is constructive feedback?” I began.

Suddenly, there was a roar from the airstrip.  A DC-9 lifted up into the sky.  On it was The Ruler and the country’s gold reserves.

The soldiers rushed outside and mindlessly fired their AKs at the departing aircraft.  My situation no longer seemed tenable.  The Ruler was en route to the south of France.  I needed an exit strategy.  Before the soldiers could return and vent their rage on me, I caught a car to the city.

The Charles de Gaulle, a rusty French aircraft carrier, loitered offshore, ready to evacuate European nationals.  Vive le France, I thought.  I knew that I had to think positively if I was to survive.

In the capitol, no bullets were left.  The soldiers and the opposition had joined together to loot the city before the guerillas arrived.

How did I manage to get an EU passport?  Networking, Third World-style.  A taxi driver I bribed knew a local fixer who I bribed who knew a forger who I also bribed to get me an EU passport.  The photo in the passport was of someone else, which is what necessitated that I wear a wig and gold chains in order to pass as Marco Lucchese of Palermo, Italy.

The French paratrooper didn’t even look at the large-nosed visage in the passport and compare it to my own more pleasingly symmetrical face.  He just saw that I was holding the right-colored document in hand and waved me toward the parking lot where a helicopter was waiting.

As we lifted off, the city in flames beneath us, I reflected on the experience.  After a client engagement, I always spend a few quiet minutes processing the encounter, as if I was meditating.  What did I learn?  What value did I provide?  What’s my takeaway from the experience?

The helicopter banked hard to avoid a RPG as the other passengers on the flight screamed.  The grenade exploded in a red blast a hundred feet away, nearly shaking us from the sky.

Maybe the Third World wasn’t ready for American-style personal empowerment?  As we fled the continent for the safety of a waiting aircraft carrier, it was hard not to make that assessment.  Had my ideas failed in Africa?  Was “Don’t Mess Up My Block” not an appropriate strategy for a newly developing country?

We were now over blue waters dotted with fishing boats fleeing the chaos of the Republic of G——.

My ideas were sound.  The implementation was faulty.  The Ruler had applied them incorrectly.  By jailing all of his enemies, he had destabilized the country. His enemies weren’t the one who were messing up the block.  In fact, it was The Ruler who was standing in the way of his country’s ultimate embrace of democracy and capitalism.  Only by getting rid of himself could the country succeed.  Despite the chaos and the looting, the Republic of G—- could now progress into a brighter future.

I could see the PowerPoint slides now, as I explained things to the State Department.  This would be an important lesson for them to record and understand.  Perhaps I would be invited to give a lecture series to Foreign Service Officers around the world.

With my African adventure, I had discovered something important. I had stretched myself, as my mentor Esalen wished, and came away from the experience with a vital lesson.  “Don’t Mess Up My Block” was a compelling meme, one that animated the leader of a country to change everything.  That was a truth that deserved to be heard beyond just the few people I could reach through my public speaking.

Excitement filled me as the Charles de Gaulle came into view, trailing an oil slick a hundred miles long.  My fellow passengers were crying in relief at their deliverance. I, however, had work to do.

The helicopter landed with a hard thump aboard the aircraft carrier.  Deck personnel rushed us off the craft, its blades still spinning.  The chopper was going back to rescue more Europeans.

I believe in striking while the iron is hot. Inspiration is a fickle mistress.

While the other refugees were calling out their thanks in a polyglot of languages, I grabbed the first sailor I saw.

“Can I get a laptop?” I shouted.  “I have a book to write!”

Murder in Ocean Hall – First Chapter

I’m just about done writing my murder mystery, “Murder in Ocean Hall.”  I’ve put the first chapter online.  The book is about a famous explorer who dies in mysterious circumstances in Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Suspects are many. A cynical DC detective investigates the case.

Read the first chapter.

Feedback is welcome 🙂

Steal Something of Mine?

Steal Something of Mine?
My bike was stolen. I knew I would see it again.
The Washington Post, June 27, 2002
(c) Joe Flood

I knew that I would one day see my bike again. I just knew it. My old Bianchi Broadway had been stolen off the back stairs of my building. I couldn’t believe that someone had gone to the trouble. The mountain bike was five years old, with worn tires, a temperamental chain, and a skein of rust on its exposed parts. To take it, my thief had to go up two flights of winding metal stairs, break the U-lock, and then carry the bike back down.

Looking out that Sunday morning, at the empty spot along the rail where my bike should be, I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. Kryptonite named Washington, DC as one of the “Top 10 Worst Cities for Bike Theft.” Nationwide, it is estimated that 1.5 million bicycles are stolen every year. An experienced thief can take your locked bike in about 10-20 seconds.

I just couldn’t believe that someone would steal something of mine. It hadn’t been an expensive bike, but it was the first bike I had ever owned. And my Bianchi had been with me everywhere. I had commuted on it up the long hill to American University. Ridden on it on pleasant weekend excursions along the C&O Canal. Coasted down the Mall by softball players and tourists. Why would someone steal something of mine? According to the National Bike Registry, the most common reason for bike theft is to pay for drugs. The value of a stolen bicycle is roughly 5-10% of the bicycle’s original retail value. Bikes are even used in lieu of currency in drug transactions.

But now my bike was gone. I don’t know why I bothered to report it. The police didn’t even come by to take my report; I filed it by phone. And stolen bikes are rarely recovered.

Yet, I knew I would one day see my bike again. For months afterward, whenever I saw a red mountain bike I would stop and squint at it, looking for identifying characteristics. No, the handlebars are too straight. No, the tires are too narrow. No, the bike looks too new.

One summer later, I found her. I was walking past a dusty park a couple blocks from my apartment, a little worn square of grass where men sit and drink. I looked over. Something that looked like my bike was leaning against a tree. I stepped into the park. The frame was covered with tacky stickers and duct tape. There was a big gash in the seat. It looked like the gearshifts had been broken off and the tires replaced. But it was my bike. I could tell by the rust.

The bike’s owner, a short Salvadoran walked over to me.

“This looks an awfully like my old bike,” I said.

“No, no, no. Es mine,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“I’m not saying you stole it, but this is my old bike,” I insisted.

We bantered in broken English and Spanish.

“I don’t want no trouble,” he said. He led me out of the park. “You follow, you follow,” he said, waving me on.

He got on the bike and rode out of the park, me walking behind him. I was waiting for him to take off and pedal away but he never did. My heart was pounding and I was shaky. Where was he taking me? He was careful not to get too far ahead of me, coasting down the sidewalk, looking back at me.

He turned down an empty alley. I followed. He reached a wooden door in a fence and pushed it open. He waved at me to come in. Me and the new owner of my bike squeezed into a narrow passage between a wall and a garage. The door shut.

He went to go get someone. I waited in a small courtyard. A man, his neighbor, approached. When he got closer, I saw that he had a Spanish-English dictionary in his hands.

I explained that this was my bike.

The neighbor got the story out of the Salvadoran man. He and his friend had found it, among junk, along V Street. They had taken it home and fixed it up. They fixed up bikes they found in the area. The neighbor didn’t know where they got them from but that they weren’t thieves.

The Salvadoran got anxious during the explanation.

“Calm down! Tranquilo!” his interpreter said. “He wants you to know that he’s not a criminal.”

“No criminal, no criminal.” He paced in the little courtyard, looking up into my eyes.

I didn’t think that he was a criminal. He could have told me to get lost back at the park, or rode off when I was following him. He didn’t have to get his neighbor to try to clear up the situation.

He offered me the bike. I didn’t want it. The bike was ruined, and nothing like the bike which had taken me everywhere. I had bought another one a few months earlier. I told him that he could keep it, that I didn’t think that he was a criminal.

“No criminal,” the man said, happy.

“No criminal,” I replied.

“Problem solved,” the neighbor added, relaxing.

The neighbor asked me my name. Joe. His was Joseph. The Salvadoran’s was Jose.

“Hey, we all got the same name,” Joseph said, beaming. “Joe, Joseph, and Jose.”

“Joe, Joseph, and Jose,” Jose said, pointing at each of us in turn.

I squeezed the brakes on my bike one last time and left.

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?

InternetDay.com, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.

Wrong.

Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.

FADE IN

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

CEO
And I want Java. I read about that.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?

CEO
Me.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

CEO
All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
6 MONTHS LATER
The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

CEO
Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

CEO
You better have a plan.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

CEO
It’s also the most profitable.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

CEO
Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?

FADE OUT

A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” Clickz.com provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.