Sunday, April 27, 2008

Penny for Some Thoughts at the Five and Dime

A HALF-DECAYED IRONING BOARD cover compelled me to walk to my local five-and-dime for a replacement. Coupons in our town savings mailer sweetened the deal: 15% off, which, combined with a stroll to the store instead of a drive, helped me stack monetary and gas savings. Keeping the spending local, rather than pouring it into a big-box store whose profits are counted out of state, also had appeal. This trip was dipped in win.

I combined this run with a drop-off of books at the library and a stop at the dry cleaners — another key coupon-use center — with some work shirts. Once at the five-and-dime, I wandered the ware-crammed aisles for a spell, eventually triangulating on the housewares via the kitchen goods. A display of various board covers awaited, as did someone who recognized me.

A woman in her fifties said, "I know you." I couldn't place her — a friend of my mother's? Local restaurant owner? Someone from a doctor's office? — so I let her continue. "We used to work together. I left [the company] in December."

I still didn't recognize her, not having memorized all the office names and faces by that point, but her citation of last-year's layoffs was recognition enough. She said she'd heard about the company's most recent play — the move of jobs to Central City — and added a depressing detail I hadn't heard: Those who did move out there would have their salaries cut to match the local market.

From my perusal of the Central City real estate guides placed in the lunchroom for those considering relocation, I had noticed a striking difference in rent and home prices. I'd suspected the new additions to my magazine staff would be paid less than the local veterans who'd left. The rents (about 50–70% what I'm paying here for the same digs; my full NJ rent would get a whole townhouse) and home prices (the bubble-inflated price of my parents' average suburban home on a quarter-acre would get a multiacre estate, an empty plot to McMansionize, or a palatial condo) listed in the guides confirmed this hunch. But somehow I didn't imagine they also would slash current salaries.

Back to my former coworker. I told her that few seemed up for the move, and that the head of one afflicted department estimated a zero-percent acceptance rate. In this light, I said, this effectively was another round of layoffs. She agreed and urged me to grab all I could. I mentioned I'd been through a layoff myself, so my current level of trust in any employer to provide long-term job security was nil, so I had been doing just that since my start. I also let her know how my new coworkers on the book all were hired in Central City, which made my retention mystifying and tenuous. She smiled and reiterated her "grab all I could" advice, adding that eventually we'd be able to lodge the remaining Tri-State Area employees in someone's house. Considering this is probably how we started up, I said, at least it would be a return to our roots. She laughed, and we parted ways.

That evening, I spent several hours reading about financial management and freelancing.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Overdue Returns

FOR THE PAST TWO MONTHS or so, I've been culling my library. It's now obvious that books are missing from the shelves. If you were wise enough to have taken a picture of my living room during one of my Xmas parties here, holding that photo up with my current shelves in the background would display notable gaps.

This has not been easy. I was raised with a reverence for bound words. I've long had full shelves, plus a couple of boxes of additional books — roleplaying tomes, mostly — in the closet. Parting with them seemed heretical.

I've since understood the emotional attachment that old possessions can conceal, the ties to a safer past they can represent for some. Taken to an extreme of which I would accuse nobody I know, it results in hoarding. In my case, it belies a sad nostalgia. And I have come to hate that prison of a word.

Merciless winnowing was in order.

The first couple of loads went easily. I've brought three grocery bags to the library so far. I actually believe some of the books came to me from their monthly fundraising sales. I think I bought them — I'm thinking of four or so S. J. Perelman collections — out of a sense that I was rescuing the wit inside from final disappearance. I now know it is not my duty to rescue them at the cost of convenience, storage space, or sentimental ties to a New York society now long gone. I'm done with them; let someone else enjoy them. Their past is not my past. I've got enough trouble with that past already.

Poker books from earlier in my studies were also added to the mix. If I've internalized the wisdom, I don't need the shells from whence it sprung. Not that I've become some sort of hold'em demigod, but if I am playing better in any way as a result of having read them, they're sort of alive through my improved play. Which sounds like the justification those soccer-team plane-crash cannibals made for wolfing their dead chums in Alive. At no-limit hold'em, there's little distinction. Eat or be eaten.

But I digress. I made a rule earlier this year that if I were to buy new books, old books would have to go on a one-for-one exchange. I recently took the opportunity to upgrade my Las Vegas Fodor's Guide. My copy of James Ellroy's towering and ugly masterpiece American Tabloid seems to be out on permanent loan, and I fetishize that book; thus I also ordered that. Those were straight replacements (my 2006 Vegas Fodor's is now in the care of a recent convert to the Neon Havens). Were anything else to come in the door, however, something else would need to exit.

Inspired by a post on Get Rich Slowly about the acid-drip that renting a storage space can represent to one's savings, I felt energized to resume my book winnowing. This morning, my local library will become the lucky recipients of the following volumes:

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy: Millions of these two titles are in print, and shall be for years. No need to duplicate the work of the public library system by retaining two of them here. I do have fond memories of Red Storm though. During my boring college summer job, I used to sneak the paving-stone-sized Red Storm paperback into the john for 20-minute reading breaks. Not as brazen as my mother's habit of taking naps in the ladies' room on days following benders with officemates, but damn close.

The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction: This one, a college textbook, has survived several purges. It was the sole text used in an American fiction class I took as part of the English major program. A second course I took that same semester — for which I had to read and comprehend a Great Novel like The Sound and the Fury or A Farewell to Arms each week — had the same professor. And he was terrifying. Think about one click less scary than Elaine Benes's dad as portrayed by Lawrence Tierney in Seinfeld. He wasn't hostile or lacking in academic rigor, just terse and uncompromising, and he detested lack of class participation. (As someone who is terrified of public speaking, but even more upset by having nobody else in a class or meeting answering an instructor's question, I thus had four phobia-laden classes per week.) People eventually forced themselves to answer his questions, but almost always with an unconscious inquisitive lilt at the end, as though asking the prof if they had finally satisfied his burning quest for an answer that demonstrated that the class was actually thinking deeply about the literature. In retrospect, it was effective. In person, it was enervating.

For the class in which we used the Norton, we had the choice for a final project of analyzing one of the short stories we hadn't covered in class, or writing a new one. I chose the latter, and submitted what I, with my current set of eyes, now recognize as a terrible pastiche of cyberpunk clichés. I also now realize they were only really clichés to someone who, as I had been in 1990, hadn't been steeping themselves in William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, and Richard Kadrey at every chance. I anticipated a withering last-page summation of its crappiness from this strict arbiter of great American literature. I was instead stunned to receive an A–. Two years later, I entered the story into a contest run by the college literary magazine. It took third, won me a C-note, and was published in the magazine. Not bad for a story whose best line was, "His scream abruptly cut off as my fingers met in his forebrain."

Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing: I took the opportunity a month ago to read through this, to determine whether it held anything of continuing worth. It does not; in fact, it's shockingly dated, and was so in the late 80s, when I received it as a gift. You wouldn't think writing tips could go out of date, but the book is tied closely to the markets contemporary to the publication of its individual articles. (Likewise with a guide to writing science fiction short stories that went in an earlier purge.) There is no advice in here that I cannot also find from working writers' blogs, more current writers' guides or marketplace reports, or — frankly — by taking the advice of an oaf I know who told me, about 12 years ago, that I ought to spend 3 hours a day writing. It was his one non-oafish piece of wisdom, and shames me in my failure to follow it.

(Yes, I owned this book before I wrote that horrible cyberpunk story in college. No, I didn't call upon its advice. Writer's Digest is blameless for that horrid line you read a couple of grafs up.)

White Jazz, James Ellroy: This will surprise some folks I know. But it's simply not as good as its predecessor, L.A. Confidential (which is an order of magnitude more complex than the also-excellent movie it inspired), or Ellroy's next novel, the aforementioned American Tabloid. (Jazz does introduce a prototype of Pete Bondurant, one of Tabloid's three stars, which gives me one of those shared-universe kicks, like seeing the skull of an Alien warrior-bug among the Predator's trophies in Predator 2.) For me, the tighter, more telegraphic prose style he adopted after L.A. doesn't function as well in the first-person narrative he uses in Jazz. Third-person limited seems to work best with that style, as does his use of three rotating protagonists, each of whom illuminates traits of the other two through his observations and interactions. With only one narrator, White Jazz feels more like a transcript; with three, Ellroy's books become brutal, seductively shadowed sculptures.

Shock Value, John Waters: The year was 1999. I'd just quit my first real job, and I was attending a horror convention with one of my now-former coworkers, on whom I had a wicked, unspoken crush. We shared a love for the science fiction show Babylon 5, and several of its stars were set to appear at the con. Also on the guest list, along with the usual assortment of nostalgia-pimps and fraying fright-flick and geek-TV retreads, was sleazemeister John Waters. I spent most of the con waffling over how to tell my coworker — who was, if it can be believed, even more naïve about romance than I was — that I dug her as more than just a friend. As I'd driven her to the con, however, I didn't want to spook her and make her even more skittish. So instead I followed her through the exhibition halls, spending way too much money on signed photos of various B5 stars. We bought copies of Waters's book and queued up for his signature. I told the surprisingly normal-looking but stylish Waters my name, shook his hand after he signed the book, and told him I loved his work in The Simpsons, for which he graciously thanked me. If I could've mustered the balls to have been as honest and direct with my coworker about how I liked her as Waters was about his life, aesthetics, and films in this book, I could've spared myself a summer's worth of nervous frustration and second-guessing . . . and the eventual humiliation of being flatly told, when I finally spilled my guts to her, that (and I quote) "you know, I don't date," only to watch her begin dating a longtime friend of mine, her eventual husband, that fall.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Not Sure How Many More Bullets I Can Dodge

IF THINGS CONTINUE AT WORK the way they've been going since the turn of the year, I'll be the only person in the office. Or at least this one.

Around 2:00 today, two messages went out to the staff. If you received the first one, you were called to a meeting at 2:30; I and the others who got the second one had to meet in the same place as the first group at three.

From past experience, you wanted to be in the second group. Last time they did this, the two meetings were launched so that the first bunch would be told of their layoff, and be packed and out the door, while the second bunch was being informed of their former coworkers' collective fate. Still, the cryptically brief note bore no information on why we would be meeting, so we were left to wonder.

I happened to pass the conference room while the first group was in session. No read on the faces; not excited, but not overly glum. Maybe the full story hadn't yet unfolded.

But I got a taste of what might be the topic of discussion when I hit the kitchen. I noticed five stacks of apartment- and home-finding guides on the sideboard, of the type usually found near the entrance of our local supermarkets. I passed without scrutinizing them at first as I got a can of Diet Coke from the fridge. On the return pass, I decided to look at one, to see how rents were doing in northern New Jersey during the collapse of the homebuying market.

Only this wasn't a New Jersey apartment guide. It was a Central City apartment guide.

All five of the guides were for Central City homes or apartments.

My guess: Some or all of us were going to be told our jobs were moving to Central City.

Although past experience told me that the second group to meet with the bigwigs was the one who was going to be OK — or at least better off by comparison — I knew that they had finally hired the last staffer the needed for my publication, out in Central City, the previous week. We were now at full strength again . . . and in far less time than I thought they'd need. And I could see no reason why they would persist in paying a New Jersey salary for a nonmanagement person when they could just as easily make a push to have me move, possibly knowing — from my earlier inquiry about COBRA — that I had displayed no particular fear over joblessness. By this method, they could "dismiss" me by offering me a go-away check, assuming I'd choose that and joblessness over moving.

Which is correct. My family and friends are here. Even if I didn't have either group, I can't easily conceive of an amount that would induce me to pull up my roots. Not before retirement age.

My hunch proved right. As I headed back to my desk, the first meeting broke up. I followed a couple of stunned-looking folks to a growing cluster of coworkers, who confirmed that production of several publications was to be consolidated in the Central City office, and the staffs could either move or take severance.

Long story short, my job is staying here, much to my surprise. The second group was indeed made up of folks slated to remain here.

I got assurances from two authorities (both parties to the note I sent around after my return from the hospital) that my presence in the office was very much desired and appreciated. I told one of these parties it was good to hear that, considering my review was on her desk.

I can only imagine how many folks will go along with this. This is a de facto layoff. The company had to know the majority of the people would say no. We're not an office of friendless orphans waiting for the next Pony Express recruiting drive.

So over the coming two months, a couple dozen folks will have the twin joys of helping to purge their cubes and departmental records of unneeded paper, back issues, and other impedimentia ahead of the planned subdivision of the office, and then themselves be purged.

I feel . . . lucky?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Three "FUCK!"s A Gallon

HOW SAD IS IT THAT all of my recent financial windfalls get grouped, in my mental budget, in the "use this to pay for gasoline" category?

In appreciation of the work that we did getting the last published issue of the magazine out under heavy fire, my managing editor gave me and the artist a $50 money card. In principle, I could use it in Las Vegas, spend it on some decent vacation clothing, dedicate it toward a digital camera — anything.

In practice, my first thought was, "I can actually fill up my car's gas tank!" rather than taking $20 sips each week to spread the Pain across multiple visits.

Same thing today, when I lugged a milk bottle full of small change (the quarters are reserved for laundry) to the bank. The $56.25 this yielded? Sure, I could drop it in my emergency fund. I could consider it found money and go nuts at a fairly decent restaurant. I could add it to my poker bankroll ahead of the hold'em binge in Sin City. Or just split it down the middle for Mother's and Father's Day gifts come those two holidays.

Nope. The trek to the bank took me past my local "cheap" gas station. There, I will have the pleasure, at my next fill, of being keistered for $3.24 for each gallon I buy, which will top out at about six gallons for the usual double-sawbuck sip. I can only imagine the $56 will go into my tank in part or full. (The quarter I'm still saving for the damn wash.)

I feel like fuckin' Mad Max crossing post–nuclear holocaust Australia, searching wrecked vehicles along the dusty Outback highways for traces of the precious juice. Only this isn't a sunbeaten dead continent I'm inhabiting; this is the last remaining superpower . . . granted, a superpower with track marks up and down its arms from skin-popping Chinese money and Wah'habist oil, but still, more or less the scuffed hulk of what we used to consider the primus inter pares of the First World.

If I'd have known, pre-$3/gallon, that gas would continue to spike, I'd have bought a clutch of gas cans, filled them while gas was "cheap," then lined them up in my parents' garage. If airlines and delivery services can hedge against commodity speculators dry-humping the cost oil, so can I. Ideally, I'd make like an Eighties-style apocalypse cult and build my own massive underground tanks, but I think you need a few thousand follower-zombies to help fund such an endeavor. I'm lucky if I can get dogs to come near me. And they don't carry cash.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hitting the Track (Gently at First)

WITH THE FLOWERING OF SPRING, in both foliage and temperature, I can resume taking walks in place of gym-bound cardiovascular exercise. This Saturday, I had a nice chunk of early-afternoon time blocked out for just such an outing. I thought about mounting the hill near my house, but my knees were giving me a little grief. I have no history of knee pain, so this was mildly alarming. Not wanting to aggravate whatever was up there, I chose a flat course nearby.

There is a school down the street from my apartment with a full athletic field, complete with a track around the gridiron. I'd spied folks jogging around it while driving by, but I'd never given it a tryout as a walking course. So under clouds reluctantly parting to admit the sun, I strolled to that side of town and surveyed the course.

The football field and track were populated only by a solo runner and a gaggle of Canadian geese cropping the turf. I was surprised to see the track was fine gravel over earth, not paved. (I recall my high school having a paved track.) Reasoning that this would be a bit more like walking on sand, from an increased muscle-effort standpoint, I picked the bleachers as a starting point, cued up an archive of the mighty Rex of WFMU's Fool's Paradise program, and got to walking.

I decided, as I rounded the first curve, to add a short jog to the circuit: for the length of the bleachers, I'd pick up the pace. I figured this wouldn't kill me (or at least if it did, I'd croak doing something positive for myself). My knees were a bit creaky as I approached this first test, but I nonetheless jogged alongside the bleachers, perhaps a 30-second stretch tops, and entered my second lap without collapsing. Other than the crap in my pockets bouncing up and down with the rest of me as I jogged, no problem the first time through.

By the third "sprint," my knees no longer hurt. I guess they just needed a decent warmup that my slower walk to the actual field didn't provide. Encouraging news. I'm not unaware of the toll obesity inflicts on knees, and my mother is down to bone-on-bone in hers. I've got to do what I need to do now, before I lose full joint utility.

Although the big hill has the advantage of working my quads most brutally, the field now revealed the blessing of being quiet. Passing traffic seemed distant, even without the earbuds feeding me schlock rock from the deepest, darkest 50s and 60s. Cars on the hill, by contrast, always sound close enough that they seem to be right on your tail.

By about the fifth lap, the sun had warmed the field enough to release waves of fresh-grass scent, which took me back to grade-school soccer practices. I recalled doing 440s then around the field and hating them. I evaded the easy trap of wishing I'd done more to be athletically inclined back then, and concentrated on improving myself now, the only place I can ever be and the sole locale where I can do myself some good. I noticed sweat beading on my brow and running down my neck, both good signs that I was doing real work. Another soccer-practice memory snapped to: The coach who complained to her kid that if she wasn't sweating, she wasn't working hard enough.

The jogs weren't killing me, but by the eighth round, I was feeling a slightly painful stretching in the tendons of my soles. I began to wonder how many total laps I'd notch. Ten seemed a nice round number, but this being my first venture into limited jogging and fast walking on a semisoft surface, I eventually topped out at nine. Rather than stopping dead, I stretched to cool down for a few minutes, feeling comfortably loose ahead of the lower-half strength workout I had planned at the gym later that afternoon. Oddly, the walk home felt like I was climbing a hill — whether this was true, or just a side effect of the unfamiliar exercise, it still took extra, and gratifying, effort to accomplish.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Neon Glow on the Western Horizon

MY GRINDING EXILE FROM LAS VEGAS will end this coming June. After a delay from a return visit that began as a voluntary money-generating 2007 pause, which became mandatory in November 2006 when I got word that I'd be laid off in four months' time, my reentry into Sin City has, at last, been plotted.

One bit of good news facilitating the trip is that we've had success in making the first new hire in the Central City office. By the end of this month, I'll have a new editor-in-chief, as long as the person doesn't freak and back out. Though there will be an extended transition period between my current and future managing editors (MEs), and also some effort to bring this April hire (who will be my immediate boss) up to speed, having any help with production and editing will be most welcome.

To digress, the April issue went to press a week ago, three days sooner than the March one — and with the same staff. We had to cut a couple of articles for space purposes, which saved me writing time . . . which I ended up needed after 5:00 that day, when I cranked out two short columns in 40 minutes to complete the issue and get it out the door. I had a ton of well-timed help from the ME — with whom, I realize, I can actually work well in a fast-moving situation, far more easily than my former coworkers could — and our artist, who bounced everything we gave him out to prepress as soon as it hit his desk. By closing the issue Wednesday night, we dodged a huge markup on postage fees, which we'd only found out about that previous Monday. For avoiding this overcharge, the ME graciously gave the artist and me giftcards this week to thank us for our diligence. (She was particularly stunned I was able to pump out those two stories in such short notice. I hope the amazement carries forward onto my review!)

I think the measures I took after the chest pains a month and change ago to get the April issue launched earlier, and all parties concerned on board with what needed to be done in light of the short staff, were key to shaving three days off the schedule. We may be able to keep that momentum for the May issue; the content we bumped from April to May gave me a head start, and I've turned over a number of items to the artist thus far this week. I felt comfortable enough to book a personal day for next Thursday to put in some volunteer work down at WFMU.

But most important, I feel like I will have the freedom to return to my usual summer habit of spending a long week in Las Vegas.

I was shocked, when I booked the flight a few weeks ago, at how cheap it was. This was around when crude oil spurted past $100/barrel. I had expected Continental to have tacked on a fuel surcharge of anywhere from $20 to $50. Not so; with the fees and terror tax tacked on, $260 round trip from Newark. That's cheaper than a few years back. I guess the fuel-arbitrage desk at Continental HQ is earning its keep.

Besides, I had a better use for the leftover money:

That's right. I've had enough of waiting for $39/$69 mail offers from the Golden Nugget or staying at the oddly smelling Plaza in Downtown to save a few extra bux for a rental car. I took 2007 off for a reason: to save bread for a full hotel experience. I can think of few better places to do so than Steve Wynn's mad chocolate Death Star in the desert.

I've stayed in very nice chain hotels — the Doubletree properties in Philadelphia and Chicago, and a particularly attractive Hyatt in Morristown, NJ, for a wedding — and the rooms I had at the Golden Nugget and the Flamingo in Vegas were quite serviceable. But I am seeking an enveloping escape. I've walked through Wynn a number of times in past visits, and if the rooms are anything like the casino and other public areas, I should be all set.

I also wouldn't mind picking up a few of these from the Wynn Poker Room —
— or perhaps their red-hued $5 cousins. I'll see what I can do. I didn't tie myself down to the 6 hours the poker room would've wanted to get a discounted room, as the competition there is supposed to be tough. I want the freedom to rove around to other poker rooms and not be forced to grind it out at Wynn, which altogether makes the game more like a job. And that is precisely the one word I don't want to use while out in Vegas.

So I will spend the next two months or so in a mounting frenzy, with the liberating plane flight drawing closer with agonizing slothfulness, with the glowing reward of Las Vegas awaiting me seemingly just out of reach. I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to it.