Why You Should Be Supporting a Universal Living Wage

I currently work as a freelance editor and writer, making almost all my income from these efforts. It’s the remote worker dream, one that I would be reluctant to give up, even for higher pay. I like setting my own schedule so that I can, for instance, write a random blog post when an idea hits me. This morning, at around 6:45 a.m., an idea hit me.

One of my most recent gigs is as a translator of textbooks, translating Spanish to English. Now, to be clear, despite the fact that I have lived in Madrid for nearly 4.5 years, my Spanish is quite mediocre. As in, my reading level might, might, be B1, and my speaking level is even worse. I survive in Spain in large part due to having a partner whose Spanish is much better than mine and the fact that most of my day-to-day interactions can be done in English or remedial Spanish.

I write all of that to say there is no one more surprised than me that I am a Spanish-to-English translator. What qualifications do I have? Well, for my clients, the main one is that I am a native English speaker/writer with an above-average writing and editing ability (I type this fully aware that there will probably be three typos in this thing after I post it). And that, it turns out, is just as valuable for this particular gig as someone with fluency in both languages.

I am able to do my job because of the existence of DeepL and, to a lesser degree, Google Translate. Years ago, it was common to joke about how these translation services mangled language. There was a common ritual that involved the translation of an English phrase through multiple languages and then back to English to see what kind of word salad you ended up with. These days, such a meme is a relic of a bygone era.

That’s not to say these translators are now perfect (far from it, which is why I have a job), but they certainly are vastly better than they used to be even just a few years ago. As an experiment, I tried translating the English phrase “I love you to death” with DeepL, running it through Spanish, then Dutch, and then Japanese. When I translated it back to English, it returned “I love you to death.” That’s just an anecdote, but the point is, these translation tools have gotten far more sophisticated in a short span of time.

That’s largely due to AI. Artificial Intelligence is being used in basically every business and science field imaginable, mostly in ways far less sexy or menacing than decades of science fiction have led us to believe it would be. AI is the future, but also, it’s the present. While the kind of AI we’re used to seeing in films like I, Robot is quite possibly a century or more out, its use on a smaller, more workmanlike scale is already universal.

Now, as you can tell by the title of this post, I’m not here to write about AI (the little I do discuss AI owes a great deal to the excellent book by Hannah Fry, Hello World; pick it up). I only bring it up because it’s intricately linked to the work I do now. Without its existence and its improvement to translating technology, I would be ineligible for my current gig. Someone who was actually bilingual and a good writer/editor would be required for the job, and they would be able to ask for a far higher wage for their efforts. Aye, there’s the rub.

For the last year or so, I have been asking people, “Could your job be done by a machine?” Some people reply, unequivocally, yes, while others say probably. And still others state that parts of their job can be done by a machine, but it would lack the “human” element. Few if any people have ever said absolutely not.

As a writer, I like to think that I bring something to the table that AI (or Robby the Robot) couldn’t. Creativity, life experience, emotion, faulty logic – the “human” element. But the reality is that AI is already being used to write books and if that technology improves at even a fraction of the rate translation has improved, we’re going to see a completely AI-written novel top the New York Times Bestseller list within the decade.

(If you’re dubious, read about David Hofstadter’s experiment in AI-generated classical music, which took place all the way back in 1997.)

I, too, would like to think my “humanness” (my specific talent and imagination) brings something to my work that is valuable. Also, I like to get paid for my work. But I know the inevitable reality is that, at some point down the line, my value – and your value – as a worker will be next to nil. That process has already begun.

I have value as a writer and editor because I am pretty good at both skill sets and, frankly, way better than the average person. And for now, that means that I can make a living doing this thing that I love doing. But I have no delusion that I couldn’t be replaced by an algorithm at some point down the line. I can’t help but think about my nephews and nieces and wonder what types of job opportunities will exist for them in the future. (When I accidentally transposed the ‘i’ and ‘e’ in nieces just now, my Word processor automatically corrected it. Thanks technology!)

There’s currently much discussion of self-driving cars and how those will put truck drivers out of work. I think that fear is a little premature because fully self-driving cars are probably a lot further off in the future than people like Elon Musk would lead you to believe (a topic covered thoroughly in Hello World). In my novel, Yahweh’s Children, I make a throwaway joke about a character 40 years in the future still waiting for flying cars. The point being that sometimes the promises of “visionaries” don’t pan out when matched with the pragmatic roadblocks of reality. But I digress.

The truth is that self-driving cars will be a nightmare for truck drivers, but not because it will eliminate all truck driving jobs. What it’s going to eliminate is the need for skilled truck drivers, the type of people who have highly specialized training and can thus demand a higher wage (usually with the help of a union, but, again, I digress). A self-driving truck will still need a human driver (for the foreseeable future), but not one who needs to operate the truck with anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge. So, what happens then? It’s basic economics: far more people will be able to do that job, which means their labor will be worth less, which means they’ll be paid less. But somebody will still take that job; a job’s a job, as they say.

Truck driving is perhaps the most high-profile example of a job potentially being overtaken by technology, but it’s hardly the only profession that is at risk (just read up on how restaurants are looking at tech to replace workers). It’s also not just AI that is making jobs obsolete. The former US President won over some voters by promising to bring back coal mining jobs. It was one of his most transparent lies (as time proved), but also maybe one of the most telling. Coal mining is dying, and though advances in technology are playing a part in accelerating the decline in jobs, the reality is that an industry built on digging up a finite resource was always going to have an expiration date. But a chunk of the world wants to deny reality by putting their heads in the ground, and they will happily support someone who sells them a shovel.

Whatever your job is, whatever amount of humanity you bring to it, just know that at some point – in a few years, in a generation, in four generations – AI and related technology will take much of the skill and individuality out of it. Your position, as it exists now, will be replaced by a machine, possibly with a human to keep things running, but a human who is far less trained and experienced than you. A human who will get paid less than you get paid now, which is already probably lower (in real world dollars) than what someone a generation ago got paid to do your job.

Let me be clear: I’m not an anti-tech prophet of doom. I think technology is great, and even if I didn’t, I’d still know its progress is inevitable. The question isn’t if, it’s when, and all that.

What’s not inevitable (at least, yet) is how society adapts to technology. Anyone who tells you this current economic model of hourly wages and salaries is sustainable either has their head in a hole or is selling shovels. In not too many generations, we will either have a society that provides for its population (its entire population), or we’ll have one where wealth inequality is so astronomical, the concept of a “first-world country” will be meaningless. In both scenarios, let me assure you, the rich will be absolutely fine.

In many ways, the fight over increasing the minimum wage in the US (which I wholeheartedly support) is a sideshow, because at some point it won’t be about finding jobs that pay well, it’ll be about finding any jobs at all. If we acknowledge that technology can do some jobs completely and other jobs partially, we have to accept the math that there will be less jobs available (certainly less jobs that require skill). Considering that the global population is going to still be growing for the next four decades, at least, the decline in jobs that pay a true living wage is a problem that is only going to worsen.

And that’s why you should support a universal living wage*. You, the teacher; you, the doctor; you, the truck driver; you, the computer programmer; you, the writer. It’s not about Communism or Socialism (or any other poorly understood ‘-ism’). If anything, it’s probably the most capitalist idea possible: if you ensure the entire population has enough money to buy food and shelter and clothes and iPhones and Netflix subscriptions, business will thrive. Billionaires will still be billionaires and the Jeffrey Bezos and Elon Musks can continue to shoot their penises rockets into the moon.

Even if you adamantly believe that your job could never be fully replaced by a machine because of that intangible human factor, you have to at least acknowledge that parts of your job could be automated. Which means that at some point, the Capitalist Overlords or Job Creators (whichever term you prefer) will realize they can pay less money. And anybody who thinks that increasing the minimum wage is enough to staunch the wound is as much a victim of head-in-the-ground thinking as those coal miners.

~

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. Now I have to get back to my day job. I’ve only got a few more years before Wall-E replaces me.

* I’m using the term “living wage”, but I understand it might be better termed a universal basic income. But the UBI that has recently been proposed in the US by people like Andrew Yang has always fallen short of what I’m talking about. I mean a true living wage, i.e., not just a bare minimum, but something that allows for people to do whatever they like (say, for instance, a decade-long travel project). Your “wage” is what you “earn” simply by being alive and producing whatever you produce.

Take a Walk

This will be short today. My laptop which I bought when I was living in New Orleans six years ago (damn, that seems ages ago), is officially on its last legs, and could very well die before I even have a chance to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, it’s still alive, but not for much longer. I’m currently in the midst of shopping for a new laptop here in Spain which is not the easiest of processes since specific computer spec vocabulary is not exactly first level Spanish.

Electronics are also more expensive here in Spain than they would be in the States. As much as I’d love to be able to hold off, though, it’s just not going to happen. Without a computer, most of my income would disappear and I don’t think the gigalo industry is what it once was out here.

On top of that tech purchase, I’m expecting some hefty dental fees in my immediate future, and possibly some travel expenses. Needless to say, I’m in that old familiar place of stressing about money again.

This is my life. Something’s got to give.

Since the firsts days of 10×10, my go to method for dealing with stress, financial and otherwise, was to get outside and just walk until my feet hurt. I’ve worn through the heels of enough pair of shoes to know that I’ve probably matched Jesus in the number of miles I’ve trekked, first across America, and now Europe.

Madrid is an extremely walkable city, and a lot smaller than it seems upon initial impressions. Some days or nights, I pick a direction and just walk until I’ve listened to a full album or a couple Spanish podcasts. I’m not far from Retiro Park, so when I’ve got no other destinations in mind, I usually head there.

Fuente de la Alcachofa 3

Even on a cold day, you’ll always finds some people lounging about in Retiro, though when the sun is shining and the temperatures start to inch up above 14 C, that’s when the park comes to life.

Since I need to get out and find a laptop that a) functions at least as well as my six-year-old model yet b) doesn’t require selling a kidney, I think I’ll leave you all with some idyllic photos from one of my recent walks, and hopefully next week I’ll be back up to full speed.

Cheers,

~L

Figuras de guerraEstanque Grande remeros 2

La VigilantePalacio de Cristal (Sunbeam)

Making it through: Surviving the Great Recession on opioids and vodka

Chapter IV

[Note: The names, they are a-changin’.]

The most scenic route to San Francisco from Orange County is the 101: long stretches of coastal views and cool, dry air whipping through your windows. For our cross state move, Selene and I drove the 5 through the desert.

The trip started with a fight over a flimsy IKEA mattress that refused to stay strapped to the roof of her Jeep. Selene argued for dumping the thing, but I was determined to get that slab of hay to our new home even if I had to ride on top of it. Ultimately, we dumped it by a gas station dumpster just outside L.A.

So began Year 4.

This would be Selene’s first time living away from her parents.

Relocating every year bred routine: rent an apartment, explore the neighborhood, find a job. For Selene, though – joining me despite the vehement objections of her father (strangely immune to my charms) – this relocation upended her entire existence. In addition to her family, she was leaving behind a job, college, and her college boyfriend – her entire life up until that point – to be with me as I pursued my dream; a dream, mind you, without a raison d’être.

We’d gone in with two other couples for a lease in the unfashionable Portola neighborhood of southeast San Francisco. Though the predominantly Asian neighborhood is at a remove from the more celebrated and urban areas (or, at least, was back then), wherever you find yourself in the city’s 49 square miles, you’re never far from some activity.

We arrived under the red glow of the gloaming. Greeting us at the Jeep were Ann and Don, he an aspiring stand-up from Australia, and she the manager of a clothing boutique. Inside were Samantha and Glen, an earthy, vegan couple who, like Selene and myself, were brand new transplants to San Francisco. After first impressions, I expected to have more in common with Ann and Don, but they’d soon demolish that assumption.

With greetings out of the way, Selene and I unloaded our belongings and called it a night. In echoes of my first night in Philadelphia, all we had to sleep on was a pile of blankets.

Exhausted, Selene still couldn’t sleep. The alien surroundings mixed with a motorcycle engine revving belligerently beneath our window had her on edge. I offered to go out and say something to the cyclist, but Selene insisted I stay with her. I was her anchor to the familiar, and would be for some time. I had every intent of staying awake until Selene fell asleep, but eventually I dozed off. She never did.

Our first San Francisco morning, Selene was clearly operating on frayed nerves. I suggested a walk to familiarize her with the neighborhood so the strangeness might dissipate.

She appeared to have calmed some by the time we came across a discarded mattress a few blocks from our apartment. We hauled the find back to our place, and even though we didn’t have the right size bed frame, just having a real mattress to sleep on felt like a victory. Laying sheets down, we crawled into one another’s arms. For a moment, everything felt settled.

The moment was brief.

“Are you okay?” I already knew the answer. I could feel Selene crying into my chest, her body taut as a violin string.

“I can’t do this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t stay here.”

Since our arrival, her anxiety had only grown worse. I attempted to convince her to stay and give San Francisco a chance, to trust that in time she would acclimate. I knew well the unease of unfamiliar territory. My best efforts weren’t enough, though. Even as I begged her to reconsider, she gathered her things and headed to the Jeep.

Out on the street, I tried every last arrow in my quiver to change Selene’s mind. For an instant, I thought I might have succeeded when she slid back out of the driver’s seat. But it was only to give me a tearful, trembling goodbye.

Another woman driving away.

Selene didn’t answer her phone while on the road, so I called Kate, a mutual friend, and filled her in. Kate had worked with us at the bookstore in Costa Mesa and had been privy to every development in our romance from the beginning. Sometimes she seemed as invested in Selene and my relationship as we were.

Kate leapt into action. Throughout the next week, she worked on persuading Selene to give San Francisco another shot. Sometimes, Selene and I would talk by phone, but with 400 miles between us, it was up to Kate to act as our mediator.

Alone again, I had little else to do but wander San Francisco. One afternoon, having stepped into a bookstore, a title caught my eye: Stuff White People Like. Absentmindedly flipping through the pages of the book, one entry stuck out: “Difficult Breakups.” Touché, hipsters, touché. Under the circumstances, the humor was a bit lost on me.

Day by day, Kate chipped away at Selene’s doubts. Finally, Selene called and we discussed what it would take for her to feel comfortable in the city. I vowed to spend all day, every day with her until she felt at home. We would go to shows, take in the sights, have our bohemian, San Francisco romance.

Meanwhile, Selene was remembering why she had gone with me in the first place: her boredom in Orange County, the lack of ambition she felt there, her desire to see more. She was primed to travel. Would she take the risk?

A week after I had helplessly watched her drive away, Selene returned.

It might have been the biggest mistake of her life.

September 2008

It’s hard to express just how disastrously those first months in San Francisco went for us, but consider: We moved to one of the priciest cities in the world at a moment in time that economists have identified as the nadir of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. So, not ideal.

Up until that point, it had never taken me more than a month to find work. In San Francisco, I went without employment until January of 2009. Selene had better luck, landing a gig with the San Francisco Symphony, selling tickets on commission. Bafflingly, the middle of a recession is not the best time to try to hawk tickets to the opera.

And then there was Ann and Don, the Platonic ideal of horrendous roommates. Don, the Australian comedian with an allergy to jokes, didn’t have a visa to work and so spent his days lounging on the couch in his underwear. He might have pulled off the charming layabout cliché if he weren’t such an unrepentant piece of shit. Verbally abusive towards Ann, he berated her for her cooking (though she worked all day, she made his dinner every night) and could be heard yelling at her behind their closed door almost daily.

Ann, who could be perplexingly chipper and assertive with the group, confided her grimmer truths to Samantha: she was pregnant and hoped to keep it, but Don was demanding she abort or he’d leave her. Having furthermore admitted a penchant for finding (nay, seeking) abusive relationships, there was little question which decision Ann would ultimately make. One weekend, the couple disappeared without announcement; when they returned, the matter was closed.

Samantha, Glen, Selene, and I resolved that they had to leave. Best case scenario, Don might be forced to return to Australia and would simply ditch Ann. Since they were persistently behind on the rent and owed Samantha and Glen money, their protestations garnered little sympathy. Still, Ann knew there was only one person responsible for their ousting: me.

Cornering me in the kitchen one afternoon, she unloaded, arguing that she and Don only fought because of my sinister presence. I, it turned out, was the real corrosive element in the household. More stunned than angry, my bemused expression must have rubbed her the wrong way because suddenly she reared back, snatched a spoon from the counter, and flung it at my face. Thankfully, her aim was as poor as her taste in men.

In the midst of that drama, Selene and I had our dwindling finances to worry about. We rarely went out. Instead of drinking cheap whiskey, I settled for cheaper vodka (sacrifices had to be made). We did manage a pleasant New Year’s Eve out when an elderly queer gentleman at the bar took a shining to me and bought us drinks all night in exchange for the occasional ass grab. Worth it.

As our poverty worsened, I grew convinced that my project would become a causality of the recession. The stress dissolved our bound like acid; Selene and I existed in a perpetual cycle of fighting and reconciliation.

In November, Samantha alerted me to a two-week medical study that paid $2,100. I promptly signed up. It was a drug trial. I was administered two different drugs: the first was a potent opioid, while the second was supposed to nullify the narcotic effects of the first in an effort to quell withdrawal symptoms. Either the drug worked or I was on a placebo, because the only effects I felt were constipation.

For the length of the study, I was sequestered on a single floor of the hospital, leaving Selene behind two months after promising to be by her side through everything. She was on her own, and she was fine.

Home sweet home

When I left the hospital – practically rich – Ann and Don were gone.

Shortly afterwards, we received news that Selene’s great-grandfather had passed. Driving down to Orange County to attend the funeral, we had no choice but to stay with her parents where I was not a popular guest. Still, aside for a few pointed remarks about my joblessness, her father was generally civil.

Preparing to leave, I carried our bags to the Jeep. With Selene in the house, her father stood on the driveway, drinking a beer.

“Must feel good to be the man for once,” he called out. We didn’t speak another word to each other.

(At this time, I was also dealing with excruciating pain: my wisdom teeth were coming in, but jobless and without insurance, I had to live with it.)

In December, a charming young woman named Nicki moved in with her kitten, ushering in a quiet, calm breath of fresh air. Our living dynamic was now peaceful. The five housemates spent many nights playing board games or watching movies together.

In January, I interviewed for a management position at the locally owned Books, Inc. I had interviewed for this exact same position when I first arrived in the city, but never received a call back. That was 2008; in the new year, the store manager hired me essentially on the spot. After five months adrift, we found land.

Then Nicki’s breathing problems began. We discovered moist, black mold growing in almost every room of the apartment. At first, we only noticed dark spots in the middle of the walls, but upon investigation, we uncovered thick sheets of growth behind our bookshelves and dressers. Our attempts to wipe it away were futile: the apartment was a lost cause.

Leaving behind our friends – comrades in arms, by this point – Selene and I moved to Outer Richmond, a short walk from the beach. We had been in San Francisco for six months.

After half a year of constant, roiling turmoil, our lives were stabilizing. The new apartment was clean and the new roommates were boring, but in a good way. Selene, adapted to her new life, worked as a bank teller. We could afford the occasional date night, usually Mexican food and margaritas at a corporate chain followed by a film at the indie cinema. We were making it work; we worked.

But there’s no such thing as status quo in my life.

Year 5 was on the horizon.

Keep reading: Chapter V – Chicago

The Road Taken

This road again.

For ten years, I was in a near constant state of financial insecurity as I scrambled to find work, pay off accrued debt, and then save money for my next move. There were precious few moments where I could just relax and feel confident in my situation; when those moments did come, they didn’t last long.

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that as I committed myself to yet another move, my finances would go to hell. As of today, both of my part-time jobs are cutting back hours in the wake of revenue shortcomings, and with that, the razor-thin line I had been attempting to navigate on my way to making my savings goal for the next move has all but vanished.

With just over half a year until my planned departure, I’m looking for a third job just to pay my bills, forget savings.

On the one hand, this is nothing new. I have been here before, more times than I’d like. The constant calculations running through my head, the tightening budget, the imagined conversations with people who I will have to disappoint with broken plans; this is all so routine by now as to almost be laughable. You always stress out, I hear a voice in my head saying, and then it always works out.

Which, while technically true, doesn’t make it easier. Because things don’t just work out, I have to make them work.

Between looking for a third job, taking a TEFL class, working on my writing projects, and trying to have some semblance of a life, something will almost certainly have to give. For sure, if there’s anyone hoping I’d come for a visit before I left, you can pretty well scratch that. Come to New York City, if you like, we have things to do here, too.

And hell, I haven’t even moved to Spain yet; I’m still in the easy part.

This is the part of my life that I hate, honestly. It can feel like drowning. I don’t have a safety net or family to fall back on. I either figure it out, or… I don’t.

Of course, I must not hate it too much or I wouldn’t keep doing it to myself. Or perhaps I just hate the thought of not doing it too much to quit. Either way, once again, I’m locked into a path and the costs are adding up.

Every road in life has a toll; we choose which ones we’re willing to pay. I could have chosen a different one.

There’s a version of my life where I’m not 33 and uncertain about next month’s rent. There’s a version of my life where I’m thinking about taking my girlfriend (or, hm, wife?) out for a Valentine’s Day dinner tonight. There is some version of me in one of the multiverses where I haven’t thought about money for a decade because I make so much of it.

I’ll never meet those versions. The only life I will ever know is the one in which I sacrificed money, stability, career, relationships, and health in the pursuit of a dream. In this universe, I’m doing it again. I suppose it goes without saying that I’ve sacrificed mental health for this, too.

I don’t know how this trip ends. In the long term: Alone and in the dark, just like everyone else. But the path I’m on – this road that keeps winding and threatens to lead me off a cliff – doesn’t have mile markers or destination signs. I can’t look around and say, “I’ve made it this far, I’ve only got a little ways to go,” because there are no landmarks on this route. This life doesn’t have a roadmap, and some day, that lack of direction may just catch up with me.

You know, that famous Robert Frost poem from which I cribbed my title today has two interpretations. The first is the optimistic, greeting card interpretation that people give it when they’re slipping it into graduation speeches and posting it as a Facebook status. “If you choose your own path, that will make all the difference,” the poem seems to be saying. This interpretation is wrong.

The real message of the poem – the warning – is about constantly second guessing our decisions. The narrator spends his life obsessing over the roads he didn’t take. It’s not about a man of  decisiveness, but a man of regrets. We either learn to live with them, or they become everything we see.

It’s something to accept – when I’m broke, when I’m sick, when I’m uncertain how far away from normalcy my next detour will take me – that every path leads to regrets, even when the destination is happiness. I don’t know how this one is going to turn out. One day I may choose the road that leads to nothing but regrets.

Until then, though, I guess I’ll just keep walking.

The Final 2 Weeks

I’m so close I can taste it.

Specifically, it tastes like a glass of whiskey that sat overnight on my bedstand and, cut through with melted ice, has turned lukewarm. It just sort of sits on the tongue.

One last gulp.

Ever since I started this blog back in 2009 – on the verge of moving from San Francisco to Chicago (cities 4 and 5) – I’ve expressed my varying levels of panic due to financial concerns and the reality that, with any missteps, I could end up broke and homeless. Some years were more worrisome than others (Chicago and Seattle being the toughest, post-SF), but I never felt secure. You can’t plan for all eventualities.

In May of this year, I was finally able to breathe a little easier. That’s how long it took to pay off a debt that had accumulated in the wake of my move to Brooklyn and my subsequent months of less than steady income. It required considerably longer than normal to dig myself out of my annual debt and if I had needed to save up for another move in September I would have been in quite a predicament.

But I don’t have to save. Not for another move, at least.

You remember how your parents (or grandparents) would talk about how their parents were so stingy because they grew up in the Great Depression. They had frugality and the value of a dollar ingrained in them at a young age. Even in prosperity, they never fully shook off the habits of their youth.

That’s how I feel after 10 years of living to the bone. I don’t know how to not save.

Every year I’m a little chagrined when I hear co-workers – people who make roughly the same amount of money as I do – complain about being broke. Sure, some of them have expenses I don’t, like car payments and insurance, pets and cigarettes. But they don’t have the expense of relocating every year or losing a few weeks (or months) to a job search.

I wish I could offer up some tips for how to nurture a nest egg. I sincerely do, because I could make a metric shitton of cash hawking self-help guides about saving money. I don’t have any secrets, though, no hidden tricks or lessons from the ancients.

I only know 1 thing: If you want to save money, you have to have a specific reason, a purpose.

10 Cities / 10 Years has been my purpose (in so many ways) for the majority of my adult life, and to that end I have focused all of my energy and drive. I’ve sacrificed so much on that altar – the most obvious being relationships. I haven’t always enjoyed the journey. That was never the point.

It is because of single-minded dedication (a.k.a. “obsession”) that I now find myself 2 weeks out from the completion of a decade long endeavor.

I’ve been trying to process the enormity of that accomplishment, and honestly, I can’t. I suspect that when I wake up on September 1st, I’ll feel numb. It will be over, the lingering taste of whiskey still on my tongue, and, peering ahead at my unmapped future, I’ll not know what to do with myself.

Luckily, as my experiences have proven over and over again, time will eventually help me comprehend what this has all meant. Time is like that, turning heartbreak into character, pain into strength and tragedy into comedy. Time will make sense of nonsense.

And then.

I will find a new road and I will take it to its end. I will make a goal and I will attain it. Because that’s all I know how to do.

2 weeks: The bottle is almost finished.

Jameson Insta

Road To Nowhere: The totally made up story of how publishing my poetry chapbook turned into a nightmare

Over the duration of my project, I’ve had a few opportunities to see my writing in print, both in small presses and on the national stage. Every chance to put my writing in front of new eyes offers a burst of excitement, as I’m sure any artist would admit. The real goal for a writer, though, is to put out a book with one’s own name on it, something that is yours and only yours.

For me, such an opportunity presented itself a few years ago when I was approached to publish a collection of poetry I entitled “The Road So Far.” That’s the cover over in the sidebar. If you click on the link, you’ll notice that it’s listed as out of print. I would like to do something about that, but the truth is I have no control over it. “Why?” you ask.

Let me tell you a fantastical story. It’s just a story. I made all of this up. Pure fiction.

About a month after my article in the Washington Post appeared, a woman – let’s call her Susan – contacted me via e-mail. She said she had read some of my writing and was interested in publishing a chapbook through her imprint named Soaring Bird Publishers. It was a flattering offer and I agreed to meet with her.

I write loads of poetry, posting frequently on this website, with a few poems even being published online and in print. But I’ve never considered myself a poet. It’s not where my true talent lies (that true talent: drinking without a hangover), and it’s not my passion. But the act of writing poetry can be very cathartic, a release of pent up creativity when I’m not in a place to sit and work on a novel or short story.

I had previously looked into self-publishing a chapbook just so I could have some writing out in the world, but I ultimately rejected the idea. It seemed like a lot of work for something I was only half-interested in doing, and I am pretty adamantly anti self-publishing. So when Susan offered to publish my poetry, I thought, “Why not?”

Meeting Susan and her boyfriend/husband/partner/haberdasher in a coffee shop in Seattle, I brought a selection of poems I felt were most worthy of inclusion in a chapbook. We sat for a bit, discussed her plans for the collection and she explained that she had worked in the offices of publishing companies for most of her career (not as an agent, though). Having retired from that work, she was interested in finding local artists to represent and publish.

No, it wasn’t Penguin or Harper Collins, and in fact, this would barely be a step above self-publishing. It was someone else wanting to put out my work, though, someone who was going to take the effort and produce a professional looking chapbook. Again, I thought, “Why not?”

The universe has a way of answering those “why not” questions.

My initial email communications with Susan were spaced a month apart in the beginning, our greetings leaping from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas. In January of 2012, we had more regular correspondence and it felt like actual progress was being made. She said she had an “e-proof” of the book and would be forwarding it on to me for editing.

Then silence for nearly 2 months.

In the winter of 2012, I was unemployed and concerns about the chapbook fell on the back-burner. It was a rough couple months of financial insecurity, alleviated partially by a friend who offered me construction work. Around that time, a reporter for the local NBC affiliate contacted me. He had heard about my 10 Cities Project from friends at a party and wanted to do an interview with me. A bit of light in a dark Seattle off-season.

A couple weeks after that piece aired, Susan called me.

My frustration with the slow or non-existent responses was only compounded when she attempted to take credit for the NBC interview. This lie was the last straw: I told her I didn’t want to go forward with the chapbook anymore.

She insisted she had put in considerable time editing the book and promoting it (though she never indicated how) and assured me I would appreciate the final product. I said that if she sent me a physical copy of the book to proofread along with a contract, I would look it over and decide whether or not to sign off on it. She agreed.

Then more silence. Months went by without any communication from her, and the proof never arrived. In May, I noticed an Amazon listing for “The Road So Far,” despite the fact that I had never seen a proof nor signed a contract. I emailed her telling her to immediately take down the listing. No response.

In July, she emailed me that the proof was available for me to read. In the interim months, we had talked a couple times  on the phone and our conversations always followed the same pattern: I’d tell her I was done with this project, she would insist the book was nearly ready to go, and then  I would relent because I figured I was in this far, might as well see it through (I couldn’t give up my dream of having a physical collection of my poems).

When Susan finally sent me the proof, it was abysmal. Riddled with typos, some poems were spliced across 2 or 3 pages and other formatting errors abounded. It was a nightmare. Despite these obvious warning signs, I took the time to edit it and mailed it back with a signed contract. Dummy.

And then, you guessed it, more silence.

On August 8th, 2012, I sent her a brief email: “Have you received the proof and contract yet?”

June 25th of 2013 was the next time I heard from her, nearly 2 years since we first met. She wanted my address in New Orleans so she could send me my 10 free copies of the book (per the contract). I ignored her email. She sent it again a few days later. And again in July. She then contacted me on Facebook and I finally relented.

In an email that was far more civil than I felt, I told her that this process had been “confounding” and that I didn’t believe she had taken the work on with “serious commitment or in good faith.” I explained that I was upset that she had “published” the book on Amazon without letting me have the final say on the last edit, and I, again, wanted her to take the listing down. I gave her my address and asked her to send me what copies she had and then I expressed my wish to sever our relationship.

She didn’t respond by email, but a couple weeks later a package arrived with my 10 copies and a letter. In said letter, she told me quite bluntly that I had signed a contract so Soaring Bird maintained the right to sell the books. She also told me that she had never agreed to give me final edit. I suddenly understood the thematic relevance of a rising bird.

Ryan Adams Finger

I wrote her another email which read, in part:

I received my copies of the collection. I also read your letter, which exemplifies my issue with working with you. As I acknowledged in my previous email, I realize you have the right to sell the chapbooks. I have no legal recourse to stop you, and at this point I honestly don’t care. My issue is with you as a publisher, who despite being a single person and someone who has only published one or two other collections that I can see, still wants to behave as if you are a faceless entity big enough to steamroll over the artist. The whole point of working with a small publisher is getting the personal, genuine touch. You have provided none of that.”

If she insisted on selling the books per the contract, I concluded, then she was also obligated to fulfill the terms of the contract and pay me my share. Even as I was writing it, I knew that was a pipe dream.

Despite my misgivings, I told friends and family about the book and advertised it on this site. As far as I can tell, and despite Susan’s claims to the contrary, this was the only advertising of any kind my collection received. Many people bought copies and let me know that they had. A few months after the book went live, I contacted Susan again letting her know that I knew copies had sold and I expected payment sent to my Boston address.

That was almost a year ago. Do you think she responded? I’ll give you 2 guesses.

Two weeks ago, the last copy of “The Road So Far” sold, prompting my interest in retrieving publishing rights from Susan. I sent an email and received the usual cyber echo. I then sent a message to the Facebook page for Soaring Bird. To my surprise, I received a response. Its tone was, unsurprisingly, not conciliatory.

After indicating that my email had been received (yet never responded to), the message went on to say:

Regarding your accusations: should you engage in oral and/or verbal defamation, this company will file a libel and/or slander lawsuit against you. The words of your notification and your email are adversarial and threatening in tone. Please ensure you want to continue in this adversarial manner because it has been this company’s intent to support the publication of “The Road So Far” and to support your endeavors of your project 10 Cities / 10 Years.

Surely this is the tone of a company that “supports” my endeavors.

(Which reminds me, I want to reiterate that this story is clearly a fictional account and any resemblances to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Just a wacky story, haha!)

Meanwhile, I have no idea if the contract I signed is truly binding. I have no idea how much money I am owed as I don’t know how many copies were even published. I’m sure it’s not much, and that was never the point. I feel bad that people have bought these books thinking they were supporting me when I never saw a penny from those sales.

If you are one of those (hypothetical) people, know that the money was never the point. Just the fact that you bought a copy is all the support I could ask for. Neither this project nor the book have ever been about making money; publishing “The Road So Far” was about having some permanent physical artifact of my writing.

When I look back on this whole experience, I know I did pretty much everything wrong. But what’s to be done now? I resigned myself a long time ago to not seeing any money from this book. I just hope that someday I can gain the publication rights back in order to make more copies available (or to prevent some unscrupulous party from profiting off of my name). Regardless, it’s not about money, it’s about having a little bit of art out in the world.

To everyone who bought a book, or wanted to buy one: Thank you, sincerely. It means so much more than a couple of dollars and I am truly grateful.

As for Susan and anyone else at Soaring Bird, I’m just glad they aren’t real people. Thank goodness my real publisher would never be such dicks.

Cheers.

Where the Sidewalk Ends