In June of last year, BigHugeCo and I parted ways. It was jarring, but they had paid for part of my schooling and sent me away funding a summer vacation. I spent two weeks lounging in the hammock out back, drinking beer, and biking the Little Miami Trail. Despite the severance pay, it was back to work after that. The contract firms came a-callin’ and I heeded the call.

The plan was to get on somewhere, look for permanent work, and use the severance pay to off load a bunch of debt. Except the first place I went to had absolutely no clue what it wanted to do from day to day. I was miserable. Now, I’ve heard many people say, “You should be happy you got a job.” I also had severance pay.

I quit.

Of course, that messes up unemployment, so back to contract work I went, this time for a hospital, then a cable manufacturer, then a dying airline. My last contract ended one day after I qualified for unemployment again. In the interim…

You know how they tell you to keep a little bit of money in the bank in case something happens? I had severance pay. And bad things happened – Blown transmission, an ER visit for Nita, the roof finally demanding our attention. So come the week of New Year’s Day…

It’s amazing how many hoops the unemployment office will make you jump through before sending you a check.

At first, the time off was fun. I could get caught up on my homework (Ha!), take my time looking for work, and watch James Bond flicks all day. Then the money coming in dried up before unemployment kicked in. That’s when it got scary.

Finally, the unemployment kicked in. Then it got boring.

I’ve been looking.  And I’ve had interviews, two of them quite promising. But there’s a difference between getting laid off with a few weeks pay to cushion the fall and getting laid off and landing on the state doll. January is the worst month for this sort of thing. Hiring managers are usually out between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, or the managers they work for are. Then it takes two weeks for human resource departments to get back into the swing of things, by which time, we here in the States have a federal holiday. The week of Martin Luther King Day sees very few jobs posted on the job boards.

Coming out of the worst recession in years hasn’t helped either. Employers are skittish.

During my contracting phase, however, I noticed some disturbing trends, some of which may be keeping the unemployment numbers higher than they should be.

  • Quite a few people said they wouldn’t take contract work because it messes up their unemployment.
    “So how long were you out of work?”
    “Four months.”
    “Unemployment is for six months, and your claim lasts a year.”
    “I know. But I didn’t want to mess up my unemployment.”
    “You know unemployment pays less than $400 a week. This pays [considerably more].”
  • Confession time. I was paid above average for my job at BigHugeCo, mainly for longevity. For some reason, a lot of people refuse to take work that pays less even when they know they were damn lucky to get what they made before. For some reason, it’s better to collect that paltry state check every week than, yanno, work your way back up for considerably more.
  • On the flip side, there are a lot of unscrupulous contracting firms who, even hearing your previous salary, try to convince you what a good deal it is to do highly-skilled labor for bag boy wages. “Oh, but you’ll be working for FoodCo, the second largest employer in the city. You should feel privileged.” You should feel ashamed of yourself for asking. I make more on unemployment.
  • One local computer company, the gold standard of local IT firms in the 1990’s, demonstrated just how far from grace it had fallen by offering me less money than a bag boy makes at Kroger, then asking me why it would be necessary for me to continue going to college when I would be working for them. The answer “Go f*** yourself” crossed my mind, not my lips. I just hung up the phone.
  • A number of people are flocking to certain industry certifications hoping to get an instant raise walking in the door. The problem is now you get a market flooded with a lot of experts on paper with no real-world experience to back it up. Aren’t you sick of seeing “We need 3-5 years experience” in the CareerBuilder ads?

I am hoping my job hunt will end this week. I had a very promising call back last week, and another interview where I not only liked the company, but the location – They’re very near the Little Miami Trail, which means I’d probably be taking the Nitamobile to work once or twice a week.

But unemployment has been educational. We watch our money more closely. I impulse buy a lot less. (Last impulse buy: Neil Smith’s Choke on Your Lies on Kindle. BUY IT NOW!) We appreciate thrift shops more now. Christmas was big, but only partly financed. Almost two thirds of it was cash, and the rest on Bill Me Later. Even the unnecessary debt was managed well, speaking of which…

I have a new attitude toward debt. What I currently have is manageable in normal times. My goal now is to avoid using credit unless I know where the money will come from or its a big ticket item like replacing a washer or buying another car. And in times like this, if you have faith, use it. If you don’t, focus on the problem at hand. Or I should say solving the problem at hand.

Because the last thing anyone can afford when they’re out of work is self-pity. Self-pity is worse than bankruptcy.

A Cincinnati Snow Survival Guide

The White Death is upon us. Unfortunately, the White Death in Cincinnati usually means 2-4 inches, what folks in Cleveland, Buffalo, and Chicago call a light snow and those in Colorado call “a dusting.”  The problem is that Cincinnati lies on the border of the southern temperate zone, where winter means one or two icy days between mid-December and mid-February and the rest of that time wearing a jacket, and the northern sub-Arctic zone, where snow appears somewhere around Halloween and won’t go away until St. Patty’s Day.

The trouble is this border shifts. Now, in Ohio and Indiana, where you have snow-covered cities like Cleveland and Ft. Wayne, this is not a problem. A state that deals with snow does not consider overspending on salt, snow plows, and beet juice (Yes, I said beat juice. It works on ice in single-digit temperatures) a waste of money.

On the other hand, Kentucky is in The South. And while mountains may get a lot of snow, snow for the most part is just not done in The South. It is one Confederate Law kept on the books after Lee surrendered to Grant in 1865.

LEE:  Fine, we’ll free the slaves. But can we agree to ban snow south of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River?
GRANT:  Can the North use Florida for spring break?
LEE:  And New Orleans, too.
GRANT:  Deal.  I’ll telegraph Lincoln.  Little Robbie Todd’s been talking about doing Lauderdale when he goes to college for years now.  Here’s your knife back.
LEE: Sword.
GRANT:  Whatever.

Thus it was not to be, as anyone who has tried to go to work in Atlanta when the temperature plunges below 32 degrees Fahrenheit after it rains.

Now, growing up in Cleveland, snow was a fact of life. Many people even owned two cars: Your summer car, which was the one you made payments on, took to the car wash, and did actual maintenance; and your winter car, which was either a car you’d already paid off or one you spent less than $500 (Keep in mind this was prior to 1984.) knowing that oil changes and even used tires were a waste.  Your summer car would last years. Your winter car would go straight to the boneyard if the salt and rust didn’t dissolve it by March. In Cincinnati?

The problem is in Cincinnati, the temperatures can go as high as 70 degrees one day and plunge to single digits the next. When I rented out the old Rancho Winter, Nita and I had a date day in Mt. Adams and Eden Park. We wore light jackets that we left in the car while we went to lunch. The next day, realizing the new tenants were moving in the crappiest weather of the year, I ran over to the condo and threw salt down on the back porch.

The result is that snow comes less frequently here than it does just 200 miles north of here. And when it comes, it doesn’t stay long.  Unless it’s a big snow. As a result, we can usually wait a snowstorm out for a day. The bad news is we never get used to driving on it.

This year has been different. We’ve had two “heavy” snows (4 to 6 inches) since mid-December, so people now are used to driving on it. The bad news? Today we’re getting 8 inches. People think they can drive on that, too. Ouch. So the person who stayed home during the first two snows now thinks they’re ready for an actual snowstorm as the rest of the state defines it.

It gets worse, though. Whenever December and January are cold and snowy here, it turns into Seattle during February, rainy all the time. (Actually, a bud in Seattle says that’s really Portland. Seattle is just cloudy a lot, kind of like Cleveland.) I find rain, much like shortened days in winter, depressing, but…

If you live in Columbus during a rainy winter month, you’ve got it worst of all in Ohio. Because when it rains in Cincinnati while it’s snowing in Cleveland, Columbus sits in that thin zone straddling I-70 where the temperature is to warm for snow, but just right for ice.

And now you know why so many of us live in Hilton Head and Florida part time.

So A New Year Begins…

Yes, a new year has begun.  Barely 36 hours into 2011, we still should have a relatively clean slate.  Remember, your weight loss resolutions don’t really count until Monday morning.  It’s kind of like Chinese food being kosher on Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day being excluded from Lent.

The New Year has brought me something I had entirely given up on:  A paying writing gig.  Not much, but enough to get my attention.  What is it?

I can’t tell you yet.  I will say it combines my interest in ebooks with the idea that someone somewhere needs to start paying me for my work.  No, not a new novel, but if business picks up, I may be telling you Holland Bay is on its way to whoever the hell my next agent is.

And so it looks like you’ll be seeing more of me this coming year than any of us expected.  Plus, I’m going to dip my toe in the same waters JA Konrath has been swimming in, starting with rereleasing Northcoast Shakedown some time in the spring, and putting Road Rules up for sale this summer.  Since I originally planned for Road Rules to remain a free novel for some time, you’ve got six months to go here and scarf it for nothing on your Kindle/Nook/iPad/electronic Etch-A-Sketch*.  After that, I’m charging you $2.99 to read it unless you want it in PDF or HTML formats.

“But Jim, you said you were changing your name and writing science fiction.  What gives?”

Already on that, young padawan.  But as those are written by the Richard Bachman to Jim Winter’s Steve King^, I’m not going to tell you those are here or when they are published.  Unlike Evan Tanner and Ed McBain, I’m not sharing.  Oh, I’m sure I’ll be outed.  I can think of a handful of people who could peel off the mask before we even speak as soon as the first short is published.  Will they?

Let’s put it this way.  One guy who knows lives on Long Island.  A lady who knows lives in Manhattan.  Another guy is in Jersey, one in Scotland, one in Palmdale, and the head of one of the crime writing organizations who’s known for years what the other name would likely be.  Consider this my permission to say, “Yeah, Jim is him” if it comes up in conversation.

But that’s neither here nor there.  For now, my writing – both crime and SF – are focused on writing shorts again.  When a novel is warranted, I will write one.  I’m doing it for the helluvit now.  I’ll write code for a living.  It pays pretty good anyway.

*Once upon a time, there was a toy slightly larger than an iPad called an “Etch-A-Sketch” that used sand and knobs to make really horrible pictures.  I once got them with a stack of records** for Christmas.

**For those of you too young to remember, music came on these vinyl platters called “records” before CD***’s came out.  You dragged a needle through a groove and got warm-sounding analog music until you played the album or 45 more than twice.  Then you got music along with snapping and popping from the needle dragging through the groove too many times.

***For those of you waaaaay too young to remember, music used to be primarily sold, and occasionally still is, on these things that look like DVD’s called “CD’s,” which sounded great as long as the person mastering or remastering the album remembered that digital music sounds different from analog, and you have to remix it so it doesn’t sound like someone ripped an MP3****of an album or a cassette with the treble turned way the hell up.  Pink Floyd on CD:  Good.  Deep Purple on CD:  Horrid until about 2004 when they remastered all the albums for CD.

****If you’re too young to remember MP3’s, you probably haven’t been born yet.

^And no, AJ will not be my Joe Hill, unless he writes video games.  If he does, he can buy his mother and me a condo in Florida.