The Annual Thank-A-Thon

roast turkey

CC 2010 M. Rehemtulla

It’s that time of year again, the time when relatives we only see at weddings and funerals cram themselves into our homes to argue about politics and religion while some of us slave over a meal that will leave the kitchen trashed, everyone angry at each other, and most of us bored during some dull NFL games in the afternoon. Let us be thankful.

Actually, I am thankful. Life is pretty good for us here at Chateau Nita, and we know that it’s not for many people. We’re relatively healthy, have decent jobs, and our debt is manageable and justifiable: Mortgage, two modest cars, not a lot of consumer debt.

But we’re also well aware that many are struggling. Some problems are of people’s own making. Some are beyond people’s control. So while AJ and I dine on a delicious turkey breast made by Nita, we’re all going to think a little bit about those not doing as well and count our blessings.

For starters…

Three Stooges GraduatedNita and I are middle aged college students. Yes, it took us both twenty years and two marriages to get around to starting our freshman years in college. But off we went. These days, many question whether college is worth it. A lot of schools are for-profit and not really worth the paper they print their degrees on. But Nita goes to the University of Cincinnati. I followed an associates degree in 2012 with a business degree from Wilmington College. We both finish up this summer. Was it wise getting a degree this late in life when we should be working towards retirement? Let’s put it this way. It’s a lot easier to be a hard-to-hire senior if you have a degree than it is if you don’t. And it’s just smart to know how business operates before you actually start a business. Yanno?

Billy Crystal typing

Source: Orion Pictures

I’m thankful I have the opportunity to write. There was a time not so long ago when I planned to hang it up. Holland Bay was an unreadable mess. My agent at the time did not seem engaged. And I’ll be honest. Being unemployed did not exactly foster creativity. So I fired my agent, posted a bunch of “I quit” messages, and planned to worry more about finding work. But a funny thing happens when you decide you don’t hafta. You start to wanna. Holland Bay kept calling my name. A science fiction idea kept calling my name. I went from the guy on the left to becoming a freak of writing nature like Dean Wesley Smith. As all this was happening, the whole indie-vs.-trad argument exploded. What I learned is it doesn’t matter. I do both. Get over it.

Jennette Marie Powell

Source: jenpowell.com

But I would not have been able to start writing again if it had not been for some supportive friends. I want to give a shout out to two of them here. The first is Jennette Marie Powell, aka Li’l Sis. Jen and I go way back, like longer than we’ll admit to. (There was no Internet worth mentioning back then outside of the movies.) Jennette was the reason Northcoast Shakedown was written. She became a writer in the late nineties, showed me her first effort, and asked, “So where’s yours?”

Jim goes home, digs out 14-page outline and proceeds to start writing. If she had not said that to me, I wouldn’t have written that novel in time to tell my mother I finished a real novel. I finished Northcoast two months before she died. The revisions took a long time, but that was all part of the process.

Brian ThorntonAnother writer who kept me from throwing it all away is my fellow Sleuthsayer Brian Thornton. I met Brian in my early days online in the Short Mystery Fiction Society, a group we’ve both since left. My first in-person meeting with him was in the lobby of the Bouchercon hotel in Toronto in 2004. I was coming up the escalator when a voice said, “Jim?” I was then treated to a Cuban cigar because, this being Canada, they were legal. (Barry, Raul, you need to fix that problem in the US. Come on, guys. Cuba is America’s fourth largest trading partner. Who are you trying to kid anymore?) In the dozen or so years I’ve known him, we’ve both gotten married, both had novels that took years to write, and both kicked each other’s asses when we wanted to stop and throw it all away. I’m currently one of two people red inking his historical novel Handmaiden of Fate. (The other is actually the lady editing Gypsy’s Kiss.) Brian helped me pound Holland Bay into shape and made introductions to an agent whom I hope will be my agent. It’s been a fruitful friendship.

Will code for food

CC 2006 Patrick de Laive

I am thankful I work. Not only that, but as of this summer, I work strictly in development. The bad ol’ days of desktop support are over. What’s the next step? I don’t know yet. I just found a parking spot I like, and I have yet to attend my first company Christmas party. But now I’m doing more than just helping the little old lady in customer service find her Start button. We have other people who do that. I spend my days writing queries and hieroglyphics that have curly braces and make things happen. It’s e-commerce, which means that, as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to have to log into work to clear off some of the production errors from overnight. Well, someone has to.

Nita

The reason I get up in the morning

Finally, I am thankful for the little miracle to the left here.I met and married Nita in a whirlwind romance in 2008. We’ve been through a lot together since then. It’ll be seven years this coming June. She is my partner and my best friend and the great love of my life.

Because of Nita, I got to experience fatherhood as AJ was 13 when I married his mother. AJ spoils us as parents. We have nieces and nephews whom we love like our own children, but they would also challenge us as parents. AJ is equal parts man-child and very mature and in all the right ways. It’s been wonderful to watch him become an adult. He’s now 20, and we get a little jealous when he goes out and does all the things our parents warned us about, mainly because we don’t have the stamina to stay out that late anymore.

Yes, I’m thankful I have a family. Or rather, they have me. I could list a lot of regrets I have about the first two thirds of my life but why? That last act is shaping up to be pretty awesome.

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Father’s Day

This Sunday is Father’s Day. I’ve been fatherless since 2004. I’ve been a stepfather since 2008. It sort of makes Father’s Day bittersweet for me.

When I think back on my dad, I realize who it was who gave me the tools to turn my life around. In the mid-1990’s, I was broke with no prospects, having dropped out of college with a ton of student loans to pay back. Then I realized my dad worked 60 hour weeks from the time he was 28 to let my mom stay at home with us kids. I always wished my father was around more, but I never resented him for it. When I hit my lowest point, it occurred to me that I could work 60 hours a week to turn things around if my dad did.

It was that mentality that got me out of debt. It was how I became a writer, went back to school, and even how I ended up marrying Nita. I used to worry that I didn’t measure up to my dad, whom my cousins all remember as being the nice uncle. Then I realized that any success I’ve had in life has had a lot to do with what he showed me.

One of my last memories of my dad was the first Father’s Day after we lost mom. We all missed mom badly, and my brother had us all up for the weekend. So on a sunny Father’s Day afternoon in 2003, my dad, my brothers, and my nephew sat around watching Porky‘s. Yeah. Porky’s, the same movie mom and dad swore we would never watch. And we laughed our fool heads off. We missed mom, but you could tell she was not around anymore when dad sat down with his sons and grandson to watch an R-rated teen comedy.

A few years after he died, I met Nita. I was single once again and, at 42, knew most of the women I would date would have children. Some, not all. I accepted this. I actually welcomed it. I had no children of my own, so if a new partner’s child or children accepted me on some level, I could have some of that experience.

Nita is extremely close to AJ. Even before her divorce, AJ stuck by his mother. The divorce hurt him, and having seen my nieces and nephews deal with such splits, I knew I’d be dealing with a lot of anger. But Nita made it very clear on our first date that they were a package deal. He was 13 at the time. I decided that, since he was five years (really less than that) from being an adult, I’d just treat him like one. I remember when I popped the question to Nita, I ended up begging AJ to let me marry his mom. (BTW, he thoroughly enjoyed watching us squirm while I blubbered like an idiot.)

I never insisted that I be treated as a father, but I treated AJ like he was my own. A lot of times, it’s left us figuring out what that means. I’ve never tried to insert myself between him and his father (whom none of us have heard from for years now). I’ve deferred to Nita on most parental decisions since I came about late in the game. Treating him as an adult seemed the best option. But AJ early on made it clear I was more than “Dude Who Married Mom,” which I would have been happy with.

This year, I’ve been informed I’m to do no yard work or housework this weekend. (Sounds like what we did for Nita on Mother’s Day.) And this year, for once, I’m comfortable with Father’s Day again.

Overly Ambitious Writer Is Overly Ambitious

wired man

Photo: Mike Licht, used under Creative Commons

Ever feel like you’re pulled in too many directions?

I get that a lot. Today’s post was supposed to be the final Space Stuff! post. Well, not only is Dick’s SF novel still in progress, but the characters decided to throw in a plot twist I did not plan.

I hate when they start feeling their oats and writing their own stories. Well, no I don’t. I just don’t like it when I can’t turn over my fingers to them. Why?

I’m multitasking. Big time. What am I up to?

  • Fitness – The plan is to do the Pig at 50, literally running the Flying Pig Marathon the week of my fiftieth birthday. At the moment, that means devoting three nights/afternoons a week to running. So far, a mile and a half is a challenge and will continue to be for the next week or so. Even tonight’s later winter snow will not stop my run to the local park. This only looks to take up more time as I go to two miles, then three, then five. Next year’s goal is a half marathon (13 miles). That will require almost daily running, with at least three days of 15 miles.
  • Education – I am working on the bachelor’s degree I should have had when the first George Bush took office after finishing the associates I originally abandoned in the 1990’s. This semester is a math-intensive one. I’m taking the summer off, but I plan to graduate next spring. And then…?
  • Freelance development – Which means I need to learn how to program in more than just C# over ASPX. (Say what?) I want to write mobile apps. I want to do interactive web sites for businesses who don’t want to pay people in-house to build them. I want build them for authors. (They will be cheaper sites, but there will be more clients. Win-win!) So I need to block out time after homework to study… Well, right now, it’s MVC, Photoshop, and WordPress. Speaking of which…
  • Freelance covers – I don’t post much here on that because I’m mostly grabbing images off the Internet and importing them into GIMP. But I’ve hit GIMP’s limitations, so, thanks to AJ’s student discount, I have a Photoshop install. Now I’m going back to the beginning and learning that app from scratch. At least now, I understand why so many Photoshopped images look so bad. When this is done, I’ve already found one or two clients who are willing to trade editing for cover art.
  • The blog – Notice I’ve cut back to three days a week? Even that’s a challenge when you don’t know what the next day’s topic is. Plus Dick (The Dick Bachman to my Stephen King) will have his own blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and even a page on Pinterest. Blogs are necessary, except when they aren’t. Then you shouldn’t have one.
  • The day job – 8 hours plus commute. ‘Nuff said.
  • Family – All this is pointless without Nita and AJ. I’ve moved most of the work down to my office so Nita doesn’t have to listen to me chatter endlessly about whatever’s on the Internet while I’m boning up on Java or creating JimWintersDick.com (Watch the price of that domain skyrocket now.)  But I need to spend time with them. Otherwise, I burn out. I mean I married Nita for a reason.

I know that looks like a lot, and right now, it is. But at the same time, once I start doing more, I can start earning more. Somewhere in there, I always find time to write, even if it’s a scene I’ll write in about fifteen minutes (This is Tuesday night.) that I have no clue about.

And at some point, I’m going to have to learn a new skill: How to do nothing.

Not as easy as you think.

Christmas As A Kid

Gene Autry“Happy Holidays, folks, wherever you may be.”

You know, no one ever called out Gene Autry, one of the kings of the singing cowboys, for saying “Happy Holidays.” Everyday between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, from the year I was born until a couple of years after I left high school, my mother played this album. In our house, we had one of those big console “hi fi” systems from the 1960’s that could play hours of vinyl with the old style record changers. Most of the year, the sounds of Johnny Cash, an Eddie Arnold box set, and Loretta Lynn would emanate from it. Eventually, I was able to slip in the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, The Beatles, and those cheesey K-Tel collections everyone used to buy in the days before mix tapes, burning CD’s, and iTunes.

But every Christmas season, mom owned the stereo. And every Christmas season, the day’s music started off with Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There were a couple other albums she would play, but this is the one I remembered best. Long before Christmas became about Black Friday, fighting over which relatives I would spend Christmas with, and just a generally depressing time of the year for me (which is not the case right now), Gene Autry was the sound of Christmas. Gene Autry was fun.

I only remember a few of the songs off that album, mainly “Rudolph” (Duh!), “Up on the Rooftop,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I did find it odd we had very little religious music that time of year. I came from a religious household, one that wasn’t particularly materialistic, and yet all the songs on that big ol’ Philco were about Santa Claus. The exception was Tennessee Ernie Ford album that included “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

And what about Christmas Eve? We weren’t big church-goers on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We also lived in duplexes for most of my childhood. Which, like a lot of duplex and apartment dwelling kids, led to the question “How does Santa get in the house when we don’t have a chimney?” When I was really young, like before my oldest brother was born, mom would come into my room while my dad went into the living room. She’d say, “Wake up. Daddy’s letting Santa in with the presents.” But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to see him. It’d spook the reindeer.

Nita came up with an even better Christmas ritual when AJ was very young. She would take AJ outside to sprinkle glittered oatmeal on the snow so the reindeer could find the house. Then Santa would get in the house with a magic key. I missed out on that, but it sort of put the magic back into Christmas for me when she told me that.

So Christmas has become special again. I think it’s because Christmas since I married Nita has been an intimate holiday. The tree stays lit all night. We give each other pajamas every year, then spend the day wearing them. It’s just Nita and AJ and me. I call my brothers, and we have a party with Nita’s family earlier in December. Too bad that album disappeared long before my parents moved to Amish country. Might be fun to hear Gene Autry again.

Especially when it clashes with our Foo Fighter-loving taste in music.

Giving Thanks, 2013 Edition

flamingturkeyIt’s that time of year again, when we in America pause to give thanks for what we have. In Canada, they do this in October (better weather) on a Monday (kills Monday for a week.) I sort of like the Canadian idea, but in America, it’s a rare four-day weekend. It’s a day for watching football (The Cowboys, the Lions, and, for some odd reason, now the Ravens). We consume huge amounts of the meat of a rather stupid bird, which puts us to sleep following dinner. It is a day for many families to embrace and indulge their dysfunction. Friday is a day that makes even Gordon Gecko despise capitalism, even if only for a day or so. It is the cultural end of autumn, the fiscal start of Christmas, and time when those of us who hate cold weather resign ourselves to that inevitable season we must endure for a few months: Winter.

But mostly, Thanksgiving is just that: Giving thanks. What am I thankful for?

Will code for food

zazzle.com, labeled for reuse

I work. Unemployment is still high, mainly because we have a Congress that, collectively, is the most useless in American history. Nonetheless, I have a job. Since 2008, when the economy tanked spectacularly, I was only out of work for about six weeks at the longest. When I lost my job at BigHugeCo, the VP who broke the news to me – whom I’d worked with for years – told me he regretted doing this, but at the same time told me to enjoy my summer vacation. They handed me twelve weeks severance. Within a couple of weeks, I was contracting, with only a two-week break that summer. There was a scary six weeks the following January and February where work jobs just weren’t to be had. And then I found work at Medishack, a job that was a hybrid of my old job as a desktop support technician and what I wanted to do, development. A lot of my good fortune was luck. A lot of it was persistence. And one thing I’ve seen during our most recent recession is that some people had a sense of entitlement that kept them out of decent jobs because the work was “beneath them.” These are usually the same people who complain the loudest about other people not working. So why did I not join in their reindeer games? All I know was that my creditors were asking where their money was, and it was hard for my wife to put food on the table with only my unemployment check to add to her income. I took less-paying work because I believe if you don’t work when it’s possible, you have no right to complain about not finding a job. It’s not like some people who literally can’t find work. Those people I feel for. The ones I had no respect for were the ones who asked me if I was insane taking temp jobs only two weeks after a layoff. I found that question insulting. At one point in my younger days, I worked three jobs at 60-70 hours a week. I don’t like idle time. Not without a fat bank account to back it up.

computer code

Photo: Carrot Lord, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful I have a marketable skill. I write code. And I still fix computers. (No, I’m not going to fix yours. Forty hours a week of that is enough.) And I’m learning more about that all the time. Technology was a boon to me in the 1990’s. Through the Internet and cheap PC’s, I discovered several skillsets that will probably carry me through retirement, assuming I can retire. I don’t see why not. The more I learn, the more opportunities come my way. Add to that a business degree, and the opportunities open even wider. Nita is also getting a degree, a technology degree. This is going to help us open our own business. That, if successful, will secure our future. It won’t guarantee one or both of us won’t have to take a job welcoming people to Walmart at some point, but it makes it less likely.

Gabriel Iglesias

Photo: Tom Villegas, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful for my health. Yes, I gained back all the weight I lost earlier this year. But after a recent hospital stay, my doctors were actually encouraged by what they saw. It’s only renewed my commitment to run the Flying Pig Marathon the week of my fiftieth birthday. I need to renew my discipline – no snacking, more fruit, stick with and keep revamping an exercise plan.

My wife expressed some doubt about me doing the Pig, but I have 2 1/2 years to get ready. In the meantime, my health can only improve. It’d better. After 50 is when a lot of things start falling apart at inconvenient moments. I intend to be healthier at 50 than I was at 40.

Nita_picMost of all, I’m thankful for the lovely lady to the right. Nita has been the best thing to ever happen to me. After five years, she still accepts me for who I am, is not afraid to be herself, and lights up my days and nights. Because of her, I’m a stepfather. And AJ looks at me as more than just the dude mom married. He is a great son, and I’m privileged to be part of his life. Our home is cozy and warm, and we all laugh a lot. I’ve married a hair metal chick and live with a boy who loves Monty Python. I look at Nita and know that I have a future. I watch AJ as he works his first job and goes to UC Blue Ash and marvel at how his adult life is a blank slate. Thanksgiving at our house is just us three with a small turkey and one rule: Stay out of Nita’s way until she puts up the tree. Once the tree is up, then we can get involved. Until then, shut up and eat your turkey. Oh, and could one of you do the dishes after lunch?