Sunday, September 11, 2011

We all have the story. Here's mine.

This will probably not be very interesting, but I needed to type it out for catharsis.  An unpleasant and unrelated thing to return me to blogging, which I’m sure I’ll abandon again.  This is jumbled and unedited and just my thoughts.

Today I’ve learned the stories of what dozens of my friends were doing on September 11, 2001.  It occurred to me that I now know all these tales, and that I don’t know what my husband was doing that day.  I didn’t know him then, and I’ve never asked him.  But even people I did know… I have no idea what my sister was doing that day.  Or my parents.  I remember wanting to make sure they knew I was safe, away at college in Atlanta.  Of course I was safe, but it seems like that day everyone wasn’t sure if anyone was really safe any longer.

A truth that I’ve come to is that experiences on September 11 were all so very personal, and we all put so much of ourselves into the way that we processed it.  And yet we experienced them together.  We all remember exactly what we were doing, and while it was a national experience akin to the Kennedy assassination (I very distinctly remember thinking that on the day: this will be our “Where were you when?” moment), it’s still hard for me to even fathom how people in Washington, or Maine, or Illinois experienced it.  It feels like such a personal experience; and yet it was one that we all had together.

Everyone’s story seems to involve the fear that they would be next, regardless of where they lived at the time.  For me, living at a college just a few miles from the Centers for Disease Control made me keep thinking about biological warfare.  The many planned places of attack made us all start coming up with the place near us that could be next.

I hate that everyone’s memories are so banal, because we all had to live through it.  No one’s story is interesting in and of itself, because we all were experiencing it together, whether we were on a couch in our living room or in a dorm room or a classroom.  It all jumbles together when it’s a shared memory.  Some of my friends or coworkers were so young when it happened that it probably feels to them the way that the Oklahoma City bombing felt to me – abstract, crazy, weird, hard to get your head around.  Not that I was able to get my head around September 11 as a nominal adult.

My roommate and I had just gotten to the student center to get breakfast when we saw that a plane had hit.  By the time we got our food, the second one had hit and it was clear something was up.  We didn’t see it happen.  I went to class as usual; I’m sure some classes were immediately cancelled but no one in my English class seemed to really figure out what was going on.  By the time I went to my next class, the Pentagon had been hit.  More importantly, the towers were gone.  I remember it so distinctly, someone telling me, “Theyr’e gone,” and me just not getting it.  What did she mean, they were gone?  How did I manage to be talking about Jane Austen or whatever the hell I was talking about in my class while these buildings ceased to exist? 

I didn’t cry until the church memorial service that I went to a few days later.  But once I started, I couldn’t stop.  I cried on the person nearest to me in the pew, someone I had a conflicted relationship with but who let me bawl on him for at least twenty minutes. 

It took a really long time for it to sink in.  Because I didn’t see any of it happening, because I wasn’t watching the news when any of the planes hit, or the towers fell, or when life as we knew it changed, it didn’t feel real.  After that second class, I went to my dorm room and turned on the TV.  I didn’t stop watching for almost 24 hours.  I didn’t sleep much that night, if at all.  I couldn’t miss anything again.  My supervisor at my campus job finally made me stop.  She made me go back to my dorm room and required me to go to bed and to stop watching. 

Now, ten years later, I can’t watch.  Every time I’ve watched a documentary about it on TV, or read a book about it (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” made me want to throw up), I get that panicky feeling in my chest and put myself there that day.  I have dreams where I’m in the towers.  I have dreams where I know what’s going to happen and I keep trying to tell everyone to run but I don’t have enough time.  I can’t watch anymore because I can’t relieve that again.

Ten years.  It feels longer, and yet it’s forever present.  I think about all the things that have happened to me since that day.  And I think about all those people who didn’t get to experience those ten years.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

I read. At least, I used to.

To say that the plan is more of an aimless work in progress would be an understatement.   True, three facets of it are starting to come together.  I have a job that is paying the bills and gives me lots of free time to write and be productive and see my husband (though, to be frank, it’s mostly giving me lots of time to take afternoon naps and be perpetually sleepy).  And our debt situation is slowly but surely turning around – the $4000 is down to about $3200, but more importantly we’re equaling the drop in debt with a rise in our savings account.  The writing is starting to pick up again.  I wrote around 25 pages over the span of a week, which is not a small amount.  Then again, I haven’t even cracked my journal again since that outburst.

But what I want to talk about today is the reading part.  The part of the plan that I can’t get my head around.  I haven’t addressed it, because I haven’t figured it out yet.  I am the girl who had books as the centerpieces at her wedding.  We have three six-foot tall bookshelves with books behind other books, and I bought six wooden boxes at the liquidation sale to fill with more books that are now sitting under our bed.  And yet I haven’t completed a full book in over two months. 

I’ve kept track of the number of books I read over the past three years, and each year it clocks in right at around 35.  It’s June 13, and I’ve read precisely four books in 2011.  Sure, I could turn it around, throw in a Harry Potter reread or a bunch of mindless crap to pad the stats, but at this rate I’ll be lucky to crack ten books read for the year.

I’m overwhelmed.  It’s ridiculous.  I never realized how much I treasured that hour-long lunch break at Borders to read.  The thirty-minute train rides to and from work every day.  I walk to work now, where I have a half hour to sit at a desk and anxiously watch a camera to see if we’re getting slammed with customers (even if I know I can’t do anything about it, I can’t stop staring at it).  And, in the process, I don’t read anymore.

That’s a lie.  I do read.  Just not books.  Part of not working at a bookstore also means that I have suddenly subscribed to even more magazines that I did before.  I used to read the New Yorker while packed in like the proverbial sardine on the train, then hit Entertainment Weekly on my lunch break.  Now I have to fit them in at home.  We get Esquire and Rolling Stone.  I can only hope that Andrew reads them, because I sure as hell don’t.  I have every issue of The Believer and I may have read a single issue in the past year and a half.  I feel a sense of accomplishment when I get through a third of Vanity Fair each month.  I dabble, when I am inherently someone that likes to read magazines from cover to cover. (Except for Entertainment Weekly – that one I have methodically read in the same way for as long as I can remember: back page, then thumb up to the reviews, then go to page one and work my way back.  I still hate that they moved the Must List to earlier in the magazine, because it always used to lead off the reviews.  But I digress.)

Oh, and did I mention?  We get the Sunday New York Times now.  To read that thing from cover to cover (which, believe it or not, I actually try to do) is like an entire 8-hour shift of work.  The Book Review alone took me an hour this afternoon.  GAH.

Then there are blogs and websites.  The premiere of last week made me pretty much quake in horror at the idea that I would ever read a whole book again.  In one day alone, it had articles by Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, Tom Bissell, and – oh, yeah – Dave freaking Eggers.  I could spend the rest of my life reading nothing but websites, and while they might have serious journalistic qualities, that doesn’t give me the satisfaction of closing a book after finishing the last page.

So I ask of you:  how do I turn it around?  How do I make sense of all these options?  Do I designate one day a week to magazines, one day (one would hope Sunday) to the newspaper, one day to catch up on Google Reader, with four days left over to read a book?  Do I set aside my lunch break to do the Reader thing on my phone, leaving the afternoon for book and journalistic endeavors?  Should I keep hoarding these New Yorkers, or should I just look through the table of contents the minute I open the mailbox and determine which articles I want to read? 

I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown here.  Too many options means that I just dabble, never finishing anything.  So.  Please.  Light a fire under my ass.  Give me your advice.  Just, please, don’t make it too long.  Because I’m 200 pages into a 750-page book and have this 4-inch tall stack of periodicals to get through from last week.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hey, I still exist.

Okay, so it turns out I suck at this blogging thing.  Not that anyone who has known me for a while should have expected anything better; this is the third blog that I’ve started and then meandered around.

To be fair, the last few months have been a huge adjustment.  Borders closed.  I lost my job.  And then two days later, I started another job.  I wish I had taken a little more time in between jobs, but I won’t begrudge my good fortune.  I’m now a supervisor at Starbucks, making about the same amount of money as I was at Borders (actually more with tips, if I’m being honest).  And yet the job is so much less difficult.

Still, it’s taken some time to get used to it.  I’ve worked in a cafĂ© before, so that part of it is fine.  It’s the schedule.  Since I started with Starbucks, I’ve done nothing but open, with one or two later shifts.  They call those later shifts the “third opener.”  Third opener starts at 6:45 a.m. 

Six forty-five.  As the third opener.  Think about it.

Most of the time, though, my alarm goes off at 3:40.  At least three times a week, I have to be at work at 5 a.m.  Suddenly, I’m tired all the time.  I take naps.  I’ve never in thirty years on this earth been able to take a nap, and now it’s all Andrew can do to get me off the couch and into the bed before I can’t move anymore.

It’s really weird, though; when Andrew is off, we get to have entire afternoons together.  I work a full shift before he even eats lunch.  We’ve never had so much time to spend with one another.  He’s actually turning into me, the one who’s annoyed that he never gets time to himself.  So we usually get to spend some time together in the afternoon, and then I crash around 4 and he wakes me up to cook dinner.  Days have so many more hours in them when you wake up in the no-questions-about-it middle of the night.

I’ve realized that this weird thing happened when Borders closed:  I disassociated.  I used to care, and we’re talking A LOT, about customers.  About making all those people who were grouchy or rude or just unpleasant happy.  Turns out, liquidation took that away from me.  This is not to say that I’m a bad supervisor, or that I give bad customer service.  It just means that I’m so much more zen.  Who would have thought that I, Jamie Quinney Thomas, would ever become zen?  I’m able to realize how petty everything is after going through the process of closing a store.  Part of me wonders if I would feel this way if I had gone into a business other than coffee, but to be honest now when someone bitches at me about us being out of dark roast and it taking two extra minutes to brew, I just want to give them a raised eyebrow and say, “Seriously?  I drink coffee.  And coffee?  Isn’t worth that kind of melodrama.”

I think that honestly this is a better way to respond to customer adversity.  It’s healthier.  I go in, I brew some coffee, I manage some people and count some money and order some stuff like I used to at Borders.  I miss checking out books and I miss knowing what’s coming out every week (losing a bookstore job has led to me subscribing to both the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly on top of the scads of other magazines we already get), but the job is so much less stressful. 

The only thing that really bothers me is the people.  I don’t want to sell my new coworkers short.  It’s just that I knew within a month of knowing most of the people I worked with at Borders if we would be friends for the long term, and after a month of Starbucks I don’t even see myself friending any of these people on Facebook. [UPDATE: I have successfully friended three Starbucks people.  And turns out, I dig 'em.  So there's that.]  Since Borders closed, I’ve realized how strong my relationships were with a lot of people there.  We see each other almost as often as we did when we worked together, though now we have to pay to hang out instead of getting paid to do it.  I miss having those kinds of work relationships.

I’m hoping that I’ll get back into the things that make me me soon.  I haven’t read a book in a while (though to be fair I’ve read a lot of magazines and newspapers).  I realized how much I depended on the train commute for reading time; now I walk to work (which is, of course, a blessing).  I finally got back to writing the last week or so after a good six months of a complete and utter block, and I’m hoping that train will continue. 

So maybe the next post will be about resuming the plan.  The debt issue is definitely starting to resolve itself; the reading conundrum I’m going to try to solve soon; the writing enigma is coming together.  But for now, I’m going to go to bed.  Because five a.m. comes really, really early, no matter what time I pack it in for the night.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Well, the thing of it is that I'm lazy.

I just spent forty-five minutes applying for a job I do not want.

It’s very frustrating to fill out retail applications, especially when I realize that I’m basically starting from scratch all over again.  It’s repetitive by nature; you have to input the same job titles and the same responsibilities over and over again.  When it comes to the other jobs, the ones that actually require thought and cover letters, I just don’t have the energy.  I try my damnedest to give a shit, but I just don’t. 

Work is depressing right now.  All of my favorite people keep me going on a daily basis, but they all know that I’m done with this place.  So are they.  It’s really hard to care about rearranging sections that sell, or boxing up pallets to send to other stores.  Really hard.  At first, these tasks at least felt like something to do – I get really bored really easily, so having something to do, even if it’s slapping a sign up on an endcap, kept me going.

This week, that isn’t even keeping me going.  I spent an hour yesterday with three of my closest work friends screwing around.  Playing makeshift baseball with a crumpled up piece of paper (ball) and a long sheath of plastic (bat).  It was management-sanctioned free time, and I didn’t care, because the four of us had definitely put in some manual labor earlier in the day.

Which brings me to another point: manual labor.  That’s basically all I’m doing anymore.  We don’t have computers to look anything up.  We don’t hold anything, so phone calls last about thirty seconds as opposed to the usual 3-5 minutes.  All we do is move cases, move books, move boxes, pack stuff up.  I will say that my back is really, really sore.

When I’m home, I feel like I should be applying for jobs.  But I’m tired all the time. 

This sucks.

I really didn’t want this blog to be whiny, but this is my life right now.  I keep hearing from all my former coworkers that I’ll be shocked how free I’ll feel when I’m done with this place, but right now all I can think about it is how tired I am, all the time.  Even when I’m bored out of my mind.  Especially when I’m bored out of my mind.

So today I hung out with a friend of mine at a coffee shop, and I wrote.  It felt wonderful, even if it was ultimately unproductive.  I sat and drank my coffee, ate my bagel, and wrote a full two pages.  That’s like writing a book in comparison to my recent output.

I think that part of my laziness in this job search thing is that I want the time off.  I really, really want some time off.  We’ll be okay for a little while on savings and unemployment.  I’m going to keep writing two pages at a time, and applying for jobs and writing cover letters, but if I get to the end of this liquidation process and I’m still without a job?

Oh, hell yeah, I’m going to enjoy a little time off.

And in the meantime, I've instated nightly dance parties.  Every night, I put a playlist on my iPod and I just go to town.  It makes me happy.  It makes Andrew laugh.  Every so often I get him to join in.  And really?  That's not a bad thing to have as the highlight of your day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Oh, and by the way, did I mention they were all vampires?

I hate calling myself a writer.  I just do.  It feels like every person in the world is a writer these days, and it really grosses me out to put it out there.  Because then I have to clarify it and it makes me want to vomit.

But alas, it’s true.  I write.  I’ve always written.  When I was six, I used to walk through the backyards of my neighborhood by myself and make up stories.  I did this for many, many years; the neighbors probably called me the Weird Kid Who Talks to Herself. 

The first fully composed story I wrote down filled a one-subject spiral bound notebook.  The notebook had a yellow cover, that much I remember.  I handwrote it and let my fellow sixth-graders read it.  People liked it.  I was eleven and I had written a story, with chapters, that had a beginning, middle, and an end.  Plotting was suspect, and characterization was nonexistent.  It was, most likely, a total Babysitter’s Club knockoff.  But people liked it.  I got a little validation – I could do this.

A few years later I read a series of books by an author named Katherine Applegate.  They were short and serialized, but unlike the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High they had a defined end point.  She told her story in eight installments.  I fell in love with them.  I still have those little mass market paperbacks, and I still read them every year or so.  I loved how she wove the details into the story instead of stopping in the middle of the book to remind you of who was friends with who and what everyone looked like (which were the hallmarks of BSC and SVH).  It sounds minor and obvious, but this was a revelation to me.

I started writing my own series of books. The early drafts were, to be fair, pretty much direct ripoffs.  Applegate’s books were set on an island off the coast of Maine and involved a group of friends whose lives were forced to intersect because of proximity.  Mine were set on an island off the coast of South Carolina and while my island wasn’t as tiny, my characters fit into the stock character molds of many of Applegate’s.

Over time the books shifted.  They were still set on the island, but the island got bigger.  Their world got bigger.  I got older, and my characters got much more interesting and became much more mine.  I got a degree in creative writing along the way.  I let people read various drafts, some of which would make me cringe in agony if I reread them today.  I worked on other projects, but ultimately it came back to these characters, and this story, every time.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write anything else until I finish this series, which is vaguely depressing until I remember how much I love these people that I created.

But recently it got harder.  I’ve been at a standstill for a while.  I sit down to write and just tinker around with the same sentences.  I really like most of my scenes and most of the plot; I’ve rewritten them so many times that I can’t even begin to start over again.  All I do is think of various character traits or descriptions, but honestly I feel like it’s not the characterization I have problems with – it’s bigger than that.  So I sit petrified with inability to do anything.

This is because I had a breakthrough with the aid of a few helpful readers.  I realized I had something really stupid happen at the end of the first part, something that I nicknamed the Big Deal That Sucks (BDTS if you will).  It’s a really big deal.  And it really sucks.  I put the BDTS in when I was fourteen and I never got away from it because I needed it for later plot repercussions, and somehow it took me until I was thirty to realize that it has to go.  Changing it from the BDTS to merely a Big Deal, that doesn’t quite suck, is infuriatingly difficult.

Secondly, and more annoyingly, I realized that my structure has to change.  When I was a teenager reading young adult books, they were short.  Little two hundred page paperbacks that you could devour in an hour or two.  Now they’re seven hundred page monstrosities.  I realized I have to take my nine-part series and combine them into three or four bigger books.  That is unbelievably hard.  Unbelievably.

But I write.  Or at least I try.  People always say that writing is hard, and it’s true.  The fact of the matter is that I wouldn’t give it up for anything.  It’s hard, but I love it.  It’s what I am.  And there I go, speaking in the terms that make me generally want to vomit.  Ultimately, I just like writing about these characters and trying to make them into real people, with real – if sometimes sensationalized – problems.

Oh, and if you read this far, I’ll explain the title of the post by closing with my friend Ryan’s joke concerning getting them published one day: 

“If you add some vampires into that Young Adult series of yours you'll never have to work again...”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Number Crunching

The average household credit card debt is $14,750. 

Ours is, give or take fifty dollars, $4,000* as of the beginning of February.

*I’m not including student loans.  That’s a totally different discussion, and one I don’t really mind paying. 

For some of you, that might sound like a ton.  For others, it might be nothing.  For me, it’s the average.  I feel like we’ve been paying down cards for a long time, and for the past six months or so we’ve been sitting right at around that $4K.

I want to pay these all off by the end of the year.  My original goal was by July, but with the fun news of my pending unemployment, I’m going to give us an added six months.  I feel like putting this out there is going to keep me honest.

How did we get that much?  I’ve thought about it, and it all comes down to one thing:  transportation.  Any of you who remember my car remember how much of a money suck it was.  I probably had to put in $500-$750 to fix it every year in college.  College, where you don’t really have a job except for pocket money, so those repairs were charged every time.  The day before we moved to Chicago, I literally gave my car away, realizing that it wasn’t even worth trying to get money for it.  I signed the title over to a tow truck driver in the parking lot of our apartment complex in Atlanta.  My credit card had a $3000 balance, due in large part to that dumb car.

I’ve paid that card down to practically nothing.  It took me many years of steady payments, but now it’s got a manageable balance.  I’m pretty proud of it. Then we get to the second part of the transportation question:  plane tickets.  Most of the debt on Andrew’s two credit cards, other than the replacement wedding ring he just had to buy, is due to plane tickets.  And then lately we've gotten things like an overcoat for him - that I think he'll be able to wear for a decade, easily - and a suit for me, which should come into good use when I start to get all those people banging my door down for job interviews.  We don't use credit cards for small purchases.  We never buy groceries on credit, or shoes, or whatever.  We only use them for big ticket items, and it feels like lately those big tickets have gotten bigger.

None of this is unmanageable.  In fact, before I found out that I was definitely losing my job, I had a plan for it.  Which included a chart.  I made a chart with each card we have, and put spaces in it for each month.  I realized that we can afford to pay $800 a month on the various bills.  Each month, I was going to write in the squares what the balance is on each card, and total it up so I saw the ebb and flow.   Once we paid something off, I was going to up the amount I paid for bills that we still owed.

I still plan on doing that, at that rate, until I’m officially out of a job.  Hopefully I’ll find something new before then so I don’t have to stop our rate.  We’ll see.  If I actually do go through a period of unemployment, I’ll ration out what we can afford.  Hopefully by then it won’t be that hard because we’ll have paid it down enough.

I put this out here so that everyone can hold me to it.  At the end of each month, I’m going to put in my new total.  And we’ll see if I actually keep myself on track.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I'm crying right now.  It's the second time I've cried since I found out about all of this.  The first time was Friday, when I found out I wasn't going to get any kind of severance.  Those were angry tears.  This time, though, I'm having actual weak-chin-water-streaming-down-my-face tears.

I want to stay positive, but it's very hard right now.  I'm sorry if this is going to depress anyone to read, but I think I just need to write it down so I don't have to hold it in.  It will probably be very personal, but I can't help it.

Yesterday was the worst day of my working life.  It was a day of hundred-deep lines.  It was a day where you couldn't pick up the stacks of recovery (code word for Shit Other People Can't Be Bothered to Put Away) before you found another six stacks.  It was a day where I told a good friend of mine that I felt like I was running the whole damn place by myself, only to have him say simply, "Because you are."  I had to hold it together for a staff of underpaid, definitely unappreciated people, and though there was a time or two where I definitely didn't act as professionally as I could have - and definitely not as professionally as I should have - I did my job.  I spent my lunch break talking on the phone to a fellow manager who had the good luck to be off and he had to remind me that there is no reason to stress out anymore.   I just need to keep punching a clock until this is all over.

The real reason I'm crying, though, is not about the loss of the store or my job.  It's about the loss of that rarified, wonderful thing that working in bookstores since I was seventeen gave me: the relationships.

I'm sure that I'll keep in touch with people, but it won't be the same as walking in and seeing them every day.  I'll make new friends wherever I'll end up, but I don't see ever finding myself working in a place where practically every person I meet has at least one shared interest: the love of reading.

I met my best friend, the man of honor at my wedding, at a bookstore.  We didn't like each other at first, because we were both way too outspoken and full of it back then (altogether now: back then?), but then we realized that we had an almost perfect ability to speak our minds to one another without fear and an almost uncanny shared love of the same things in pop culture.

I met someone who is among my oldest, longest-lasting friends at a bookstore.  He is my literary soulmate, someone who I have never lived in the same city with for longer than three months but who I've shared more with than just about anyone.  The fact that he and I are still in close contact almost a decade after we first became friends gives me hope for the friends I'm about to lose daily contact with.

I met a writer who makes me laugh and who gets weirdly - and probably only jokingly - scandalized by my comments at a bookstore.  If I didn't have coffee dates with her every week or two, I'd never get anything written these days.

I met a fellow book nerd, a person who makes me eternally optimistic about my ability to read Ulysses one day, at a book store.  To him I say this: our staff pick endcaps are already empty, even at just 20% off.  That proves that we have good choices and that there are people out there who value our thoughts.  We did everything we could, sir.  Keep up the fight.

And I met my husband, my favorite person in the world, at a bookstore.  If I didn't have him to come home to right now, and if I didn't have him to clean up the apartment unprovoked so I would have a day to do nothing but cry and write cover letters, I don't know how I would make it through this.

There are others - so many others - who I will miss seeing every day.  On Friday I played what I called a Fantasy Draft of People We'll Never Have to Talk to Again with a few of these friends.  We laughed so hard I almost peed my pants, just making me realize that I need to have another fantasy draft where I list all those that I'll miss oh so much.

I'm still crying.  Damn it.