Thursday, November 28, 2013

Being Thankful for Strange Things

This is a continuation of my entry from yesterday.  
Today is Thanksgiving.  Every year on this day I try to answer the questions, "What am I thankful for?"  
There are lots of overlapping answers.  Answers that make an appearance each year.  
I'm thankful that I'm employed.  That I'm not sleeping out in the cold in some cardboard box, wondering where I can go to get something to eat tomorrow.  
I'm thankful for my family.  I'm especially thankful that I got to travel to visit a large number of them this year (using plane tickets and hotel reservations paid for by that aforementioned job that I'm thankful for).  
And writing about my family, I'm thankful that I was raised by stubborn parents, who infused me with a mixture of both of their slightly different brands of stubbornness.  
How does this square with me deciding to give up my dream of publishing my novel, along with dozens of short stories, and one day being able to stay at home and make shit up for a living?  Like I said in the previous blog entry, it started with this email I received.  
After I made my decision to abandon my efforts to write anything, I immediately put it into practice.  I know from experience that the decision to change life habits need to be followed up on immediately.  It took me a while to get used to waking up at a time when ninety percent of civilized society was still unconscious.  It was going to take time to undo that.  
It wasn't easy in the beginning.  My body is used to waking up just before my alarm rang at 4:30 AM.  So on that first day of being a non-writer, I found myself staring at the alarm clock waiting three minutes for the alarm to ring.  Being already awake, I went to my desk and started going through my paperwork, looking for the birth certificate and social security card I'd need to get my driver's license reinstated.  
The second day, I set my alarm for an hour and a half later, using the time previously set aside for writing for sleep.  I still woke up right about four-thirty in the morning, but I turned over and took an hour and a half nap before getting up and going to work.  
I have to admit that during what I this transition period, which was how I was thinking about it, I wasn't happy.  
Let me take another stab at that because I'm not by nature a happy person.  I'm not one of those people who can just "Be Happy."  This isn't to say that I'm unhappy.  When greeted by my peers and colleagues during the day, when they say, "How're you doing?" or "How's it going?" my typical reply is "I'm breathing" or more generally, "I'm Oh-kay."  And that's usually true.  Most of the time I'm OK.  That's because for me the state I refer to as "Happiness" is the result of something.  When my department makes the daily goal, I'm mildly happy.  Just beyond the border of satisfied.  The very few times I sold a story or comic book script for publication, I would be quite happy.  An emotion that would repeat itself when I finally got to see the work in print.  So not being happy wasn't that big of a deal.  
What was more difficult to deal with was the uncertainty of who I was now.  Being a writer was a big part of my self-identity.  I knew I needed something to replace it.  But even before that, I knew I had to move away from it.  
At a working lunch, where I joined some other managers meeting some new members of our sales staff, I had to correct the colleague doing the introductions when she referred to me as a writer.  I "was" a writer, I told her.  In private, I asked to refrain from referring to that part of my past again.  
It was strange and awkward.  But if I was going to do this, I needed to do it right, right?  I couldn't let other people think of me in a way that I was trying to not think of myself.  
In my mind, I figured if I could get through the first week, the second week would be better.  Seven days in a row with no effort to write anything but a production report at work or an email to my staff giving them the day's assignments.  That's what it would take.  
On the sixth day, the same day the Bible says God created man, I got an email.  
I recognized it immediately.  It was a reply to a story I'd sent to Analog magazine back in August.  I knew it was going to be a rejection letter.  It would be too much of a Hollywood moment for it to be an acceptance, and too far out of step with the normal results of these efforts.  It was the reason I had decided to quit, I told myself before opening it.  This would be the nail in the coffin, so to speak.  The last form letter rejection I would have to bear.  
After squaring my thoughts, I opened it.  This is is what it said: 

Hi Erick,

Thanks for letting me see "Robot Watch." It's a good story, but I'm afraid it didn’t strike me quite strongly enough to take it for ANALOG. Best of luck in placing it elsewhere; I’ll look forward to your next.


Yup.  Just as I thought.  Another response telling me I wasn't good enough.  I closed the email and continued my search online for the forms I needed to find to get my driver's license squared away.  I followed this up with a shave and a shower, breakfast, making lunch, and heading to the office.  

It was somewhere between the 70 South and the 134/101 interchange, stuck in the typically glacial Los Angeles freeway traffic, that my mind started going over the email in my head.  I kept going over one phrase, over and over and over again...

"It's a good story..."  

Yeah, yeah.  I know that.  If I hadn't thought it a good story, I wouldn't have sent it to you, Trevor.  It just wasn't good enough, was it.  You said that yourself.  It didn't...  How did he phrase it...?  Oh!  Got to change lanes, get over before I go north.  

"It's a good story..."  

But not good enough.  Remember that.  It's the same as all the other rejections, right.  

"I'll look forward to your next." 

You'll have to keep waiting, Trevor, because there'll be no next.  I'm done with you guys.  I'm not playing pretend any more.  Besides, I don't have anything else to send out...

Then my mind reminded me that I did.  I had another finished story that Trevor hadn't seen.  It had been rejected by someone else.  But maybe Trevor might...?

No.  No, no, no.  No.  NO!  

Throughout the day, whenever my mind had a moment to break free from the leash I was trying to put it on, it would do this to me.  

"It's a good story..."  "I look forward to your next."  Remember, Sheila Williams, the editor at Asimov's, once told us that she didn't have to encourage anyway to get submissions, so when she did she was serious.  Trevor works in the same building as Sheila.  What goes for her must go for him, huh?  Huh?  

By the time I was driving home, I found myself thinking about sending off the ready story to Trevor.  And about how I might fix the short story that had been frustrating me for the past month and half that I'd been trying to finish.  Or about making writing "just" a hobby.  Yeah.  Like a functioning alcoholic, I'd be able to write now and then and still walk away whenever I wanted.  

The next morning, on the seventh day, when I was supposed to be resting from my two decades long labors of getting strings of words published, I got up at my normal time and pulled out my journal.  I wrote about all the things I had been thinking over the previous six days.  I then started reading the last chapter of a novel I had been working on, but had set aside last year to rewrite my most recent one.  

It was a good story, I decided.  The chapter needed some rewrites.  Here and there.  A scene or two.  I wrote 148 words that day.  
I skipped the next day because I had to go into the office early.  Besides, I wasn't a writer any more.  It was...  Just a hobby.  I did write the day after that, though.  Seven hundred ninety-five words.  I got sick and missed the next three days, but wrote 545 words the next day.  

I've been like an albatross, flapping his wings, feet running along, struggling to get off the ground.  Yesterday's blog entry was the first thing I've finished in about two weeks.  Today's entry is the second.  

And I sent Trevor the other story.  And I sent the story Trevor said was "a good story," to someone else.  

So...  Here I am.  I feel like I should stand up and say, "Hi, my name is Erick and I'm a writer," the way they do at AA meetings.  It's not a happy feeling.  But it seems to be what I am.  

Happy Thanksgiving, for all the things I am thankful for, such as slow Los Angeles traffic, parents that made me too stubborn for my own good and timely emails that are just encouraging enough to get me to struggle on.  


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Later, When I Have Time."

Hey there, to whomever is reading this.  It's been a while, huh?  The reason I haven't posted anything to this blog was because, earlier this month, I made the decision to stop writing.  
That's actually not completely accurate, though I did go the longest stretch I can remember in my adult life without writing a thing.  I want six days straight without writing anything.  Nothing in my journal.  Didn't work on any story, novel, script or blog entry.  I was trying to see if I really NEEDED to write.  I was trying to see if I could make a habit of "not-writing."  
It happened because of an expired driver's license.  My expired driver's license.  
It went something like this...
About a month ago I tried to use my FSA card to pay for a prescription and found out it it was suspended.  A "Flexible Spending Account" card is like a credit card, for those who don't have one.  It's part of the health insurance plan I have.  They take part of my paycheck out, before taxes, and put it into a fund I can use to pay for co-pays, prescriptions, doctor visits, things like that.  They give me a credit card that pulls money from that account.  
In recent years they've changed the rules on using it that make it less convenient.  Even though it works like a credit card at the time of purchase, I often have to provide "substantiation" for my purchases, copies of receipts or EOBs (Explanations of Benefits) to show that it was for a covered expense.  I get these requests for substantiation in the mail.  When I do, I often put them in a In Basket on my desk at home to take care of.  Later, when I have time.  
Remember that phrase; "Later, when I have time."  
When the pharmacy told me my FSA card was denied, I immediately guessed what might have happened.  "Later, when I have time," had become, "too late, gotta fix this now."  I contacted the company that handles my FSA and confirmed what it was they wanted (I could write a blog on dealing with them alone, since the charges they were questioning were reoccurring charges, making me wonder why they needed to substantiate them every...  Single...  Time, but I digress).  
That night, when I got home from work after speaking to the FSA people, I pull out all the paperwork that had been building up in my In Basket.  I needed to find the receipts, which I remembered getting, for the two charges the FSA people said I needed to substantiate.  I started pulling out all the papers and envelopes there, organizing them.  
There was one from the DMV.  It had been opened, which meant I had looked inside and then immediately set it aside.  This time I pulled out the papers from the envelope to get a better look.  
It was a notice telling me that I was eligible to renew my driver's license online.  As long as I had not any changes to some basic health related questions, regarding eyesight or passing out, or my address hadn't changed, I could go online, pay the $32.00 fee, and expect my new driver's license, using the photo they had on file for me, within two to three weeks.  
The notice warned me that I should take care of this before my license actually expired.  It had been mailed to me in February of this year.  A month before my license was due to expire in March.  
Feeling really stupid, I got online to see what I needed to do, if I could still renew online.  The DMV website is not the most search friendly portal on the internet.  Not by any means.  I did find a phone number to an automated help line.  I went round and round through the menus they offered until the computerized voice asked if my license had already expired.  When I pressed #1 for "Yes," I got a response telling me that I needed make an appointment to visit a DMV, bringing my original birth certificate and social security card, which would be verified while I waited, along with some completed forms, which I couldn't find on the website, in order to get my license reinstated.  
It was about this time that I sat down on my living room floor, surrounded by the papers I had been going through, and started to curse.  I cursed myself for being such an idiot.  I cursed myself for wasting so much time.  
You see, the reason why I had set aside this notice for "Later, when I have time," is because I had been putting myself on a very tight schedule.  I would wake up in the morning at 4:30 AM to put in my writing, going until at least 6 AM, sometimes even longer, before getting ready for work in a hurry and rushing out the door to the office.  I would then spend nine, ten, sometimes even thirteen hours a day, taking care of business for my employer.  If I managed to sneak out early, I'd try, as often as I could, to sneak to the gym to at least do 30 minutes of cardio.  Increasingly though, more often than not, I would come home in time to grab something to eat and go to bed.  The process would be repeated throughout the week.  
On Saturday, if I found a way to avoid going into the office to catch up, I would crash.  I would be lazy all day, not doing much of anything.  On Sunday, I'd be scrambling to catch up on whatever I needed to do to get ready for the week.  Laundry, bills, what little "Later, when I have time" stuff that I could pull from the In Basket.  
Like a tumor, the pile of stuff had been growing.  I kept telling myself I would get to it.  Later.  When I had time.  
At that moment, knowing I had been unknowingly (or forgettingly?) breaking the law by driving without a valid license for eight months or so, I felt completely stupid.  It was a similar feeling I had, years ago, when I added up what I owed on all my credit cards and discovered that I was over $16,000 in debt.  A problem had been created that I hadn't noticed until I couldn't ignore it.  
With my credit card debt, I had no one to blame for myself.  With my current situation, I focused my attention on what I thought was the culprit.  
My writing.  
More specifically, I decided it was the time I'd been spending writing that was the problem.  Every day, for an hour and a half to two hours, sometimes three or four hours on the weekend, I was sitting there trying to make up lies that other people would want to read.  And for what?  What had this effort, repeated almost every day for twenty, thirty-some-odd years given me in return?  A handful of publication credits.  A huge pile of rejection notices.  And recently, a mountain of frustration.  
Wouldn't it be better, I told myself, to use that time to take care of things truly important?  Like...  Renewing my driver's license in a timely fashion.  Or sending in my substantiation so I could buy my medicine.  Or even just washing dishes, so I didn't have a sink full waiting for the weekend, taking up some of that precious, "Later, when I have time," time.  
Or even more basic things, like getting a full night's sleep.  Or working out before I went to work.  
So I decided to give up my writing time.  I would make it my "Later, when I have time," time.  Or even just my getting the sleep I need time.  
And that's what I did.  And that's why I haven't written or posted anything since then.  I told myself that it was the adult thing to do.  It was the mature decision.  I was going to stop wasting time.  I was going to give up the writing habit as someone trying to quit smoking would do.  
Then, I got this email.  
To be continued...

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Where Are My Bonus Coins?

I had something happen to me this week playing online baseball that I think points to my general lack of satisfaction with my life.  It went something like this...
It was one day, thirteen hours ago.  That’s how WGT Baseball MLB counts the time.  I had just gotten home from a thirteen hour day because of month’s end.  I was tired, but I was still going to play my “Rival Game” in WGT Baseball.  I had to in order to keep pace with the other team, all of which were better to some degree than mine.  This is a product of my previous success in the game.  As your rating goes up, which is based on wins and losses, you get pooled with better teams.  
I pick a rival to play against, someone calling themselves “Michael’s Team.”  He uses the San Francisco Giants logo as his team’s symbol.  This is reason enough for me to want to beat him (I use the Los Angeles Dodgers as my symbol).  
As with most of the teams in the rival pool I’m currently in, his team hits way better than mine.  His team is also faster, too.  I do, however, have an advantage in defense over most of the other teams, especially against Michael’s Team.  My defensive rating is 23% higher than his.  And I’ve been training my pitcher to take advantage of this asset by increasing his power rating.  This should mean that even if the other team gets a hit, the ball won’t travel as far and will be playable by my superior defense.  
My prognosis: Since I’m going to control my team’s hitting during the game, and my pitching and defensive combination should stifle his hitting enough, I should be able to scratch out the runs I need while keeping his team down.  I expect a tough game, but one I should win with a score something like 5 to 3 or 6 to 4.  
At first, things go the way I expected them to.  I get a run in the first, then another in the third.  He finally scores in the fifth, but I match the run in the bottom of the inning.  He scores three in the top of the sixth, taking a one run lead, but I erase that lead and take it back with two runs in the bottom of the frame.  With three innings left, I’m leading 5 to 4.  
Then it happens.  The little spinning wheel counting the outs, 1...  2...  3...  stops to reveal that his team has scored six runs in the seventh.  
SIX RUNS?!?  How the F***ING HELL did he put SIX RUNS on me?  I am PISSED!  I think my neighbors must believe they live next to a psychopath.  I usually curse when I lose at this game, which has been happening more and more often as I get higher and higher in levels and play against stronger and stronger teams, but at this...  INJUSTICE...  This ILLOGICAL, STUPID, UNFAIR, ILLEGAL, BRAZEN ACT OF DIGITAL CHEATING...!  If I were to invoke biblical style phraseology, it would be safe to say that there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  
To make things worse, suddenly I can’t seem to hit anything.  I discover, in fact, that they’ve added a new feature to make the game “more realistic,” the Double-Play.  Over the next two innings, I hit into two of them.  Yeah, effing, stupid computer program with incestuous inclinations...  That every so f*****g realistic.  
The insult continues in the top of the ninth, when the computer playing Michael’s Team decides he deserves another run.  I’m now six runs down.  I’ve not been able to get more than two runs off of him this game.  I’m tired.  I’m fuming.  I’m angry.  What do I do?  
There’s a feature of these “free” online games that allow their creators to make money.  You can buy tokens, in WGT Baseball they’re called “chips,” using real money to improve your team.  Buy them special equipment to increase their performance, or buy a better stadium, to give you better training results.  I usually buy them to heal players instantly after they are injured.  This allows me to keep a smaller team, which means less payroll expense that other players complain about in the online forum.  
In WGT Baseball, you can also use them in batting situations to give yourself a boost.  To increase your batter’s power when he swings, or to increase his chance of hitting the ball.  
I start to use mine.  I probably spent about 80 cents with each swing of the bat.  I ended up burning through about nine dollars worth of chips in that inning.  I ended up scoring seven runs, winning the game 12 to 11.
The insight I think I’ve gained comes from this question: Did this win make me happy?  No.  Not happy.  At best, I was relieved.  I did NOT WANT TO LOSE.  And I didn’t.  But happy...?
I think this is the indication of an addiction, isn’t it?  When you first start using your drug of choice, there is that HIGH.  A feeling of euphoria.  It’s that pleasure that brings you back again and again and again.  But that high becomes harder to achieve as time goes on.  You use more and more of your substance of choice to reach it.  Then, you use more and more of it not to get that high, but to keep yourself out of the low that follows.  
I got into WGT Baseball because I LOVED playing the game.  I was winning and winning big.  Now, I “have to” play it.  I’ve even skipped writing sessions because I was faced with the choice of writing something or putting in my season game.  Since my writing doesn’t feel like much of an attraction these days, it wasn’t as difficult a choice as it should have been.  
But another thought has come to mind.  It’s how much I wish life had Bonus Coins to add to one’s efforts.  Imagine...  You go to a job interview, say, and you’re talking to the person doing the hiring.  You get to your experience in the field and you notice a frown on her face.  You aren’t quite what they’re looking for, you start to think.  She looks up at you and starts to open her mouth, a slight shake of her head is seen...
Cha-Ching!  Bonus Coin!  
“The advantage an employer has of hiring someone with less than idea experience is that we can train you in our system without you having to unlearn another...”  Her frown becomes a smile as she extends her hand.  “Your hired!”  
Or when I’m submitting a story...  Cha-Ching!   Bonus Coin!  And my story skips past the frustrated wanna-be intern that’s been assigned to go through the slush pile, who would see an idea he had for a story done much better in mine, and land right on the desk of the editor making the final decision.  
I’m not trying to get out of doing the work.  I do my best.  I train my team.  I’ve written every day for years.  I’m not asking for a magical charm to give me something I don’t deserve.  I just want a small, itsy-bitsy little bonus that will make a difference.  That’s all.  
I was hoping some conclusion would present itself before I reached the end of this entry, but it hasn’t.  I’m thinking about quitting playing online baseball, though I haven’t yet.  I’m trying to budget myself.  I took a loss playing the team in first place in my Season League when I decided to not spend a bonus coin on the last batter of the game.  I’m telling myself I have to deal with losing.  At least with the online baseball its more contained, more straightforward.  With other things...?  
Maybe it’s just a matter of keep stepping up to the plate.