Job #2 (Summer ’92): landscape assistant

This was not an allowance job (more like a smart way for my parents to reduce the cost of the landscaper. Isn’t that why people have kids?). I had health benefits, room, and board which, like taxes, were not deducted from my $4.50 an hour (yet I still found a way to rib my parents about the low wages until a shamefully recent time. Isn’t that why people have kids? So they can grow up to be assholes?).

I typed up, printed, and submitted invoices to itemize the time it took to jackhammer a 14×10 slab of concrete, cut down and chop up a couple plum trees (I have a shin scar as proof of my first wrestling match with a chainsaw), tear out dead crab grass (which never really dies and clings to your rake when you’re trying to clear it out), dig trenches for cement stripping and a sprinkler system, level dirt, and lay sod.

Radio hits like Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass” and Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” accompanied my labor in the sweltering Modesto heat.

Click here to follow my job journey. Share your thoughts on your own jobs in the comments.

Déjà Vu (Restaurant) all over again

As you read through these over the coming weeks, the name of the restaurant at my first job seems oddly appropriate, given all the jobs I had in the service industry.

In the summer of 1991, I bussed tables at a restaurant called Déjà Vu in Roseburg Square in my hometown of Modesto, CA. My mom frequented this restaurant and helped me land the job shlepping dirty dishes and setting tables. The job must have been under the table, because I was fourteen and a half years old at the time.

NOTE: Since I don’t have pictures from every job I’ve ever had, I will often give a nod to the music of the time. Up first: Jesus Jones (“Right Here, Right Now).

How many jobs have you had? Share in the comments. Rules are listed here.

screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MznHdJReoeo

~24 jobs (and counting??)

In honor of just starting my ~24th job in 32 years, I’m posting this pic from my favorite teaching gig. I’m drawing a blank on my Korean student in the back, but he, Naif, Juan, and I volunteered to direct traffic and support Osama at a charity 5K in Malta, IL (June 2013).

Over the coming months, I’ll be documenting each of those jobs with ~50 words each. Stay tuned for some (comedic?) tales of the chronically re-employed.

How many jobs have you had? The Rules: Any “allowance” job (e.g. mowing the lawn, taking out the garbage) that you did for parents/relatives doesn’t count. Definitely be sure to include under-the-table and volunteer work.


this ain’t your mother’s “A Christmas Carol”: a flash review

“… If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Thus says the famous miser in Dickens’ 1843 novella. And it is in the gloom embodied by this statement that the creators of the recent BBC production must have taken their inspiration. The paces that Scrooge is put through have the clear intention of boiling him in all the consequences of his own exploitive and inhumane practices.

For the first time in my life, I have read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Throughout my childhood, I experienced this story mostly through watching my uncle play Marley or Scrooge or Bob Cratchit in a variety of on-stage productions. I was also well-acquainted with Dickens’ famous ghost story through the 1984 production with George C. Scott as Scrooge.

Reading the story in its original form was rewarding in its own way—e.g. the vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds of Scrooge’s little pocket of London in the 1840s were a gift to the numerous stage and screen directors who have treated the story over the years. But what was truly rewarding upon finishing the novella yesterday evening was watching the 2019 production of the tale, starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge. The show was originally presented as a 3-part miniseries. But since my Christmas shopping and wrapping was done, I watched the entire 2 hours 53 minutes in one sitting. And it immediately occurred to me that this ain’t your mother’s A Christmas Carol.

Suffice it to say that this version leans all the way into the ghost story and goes even further to depict the absolute horrors of human misery at the hands of imperialism, a legacy the British and American audiences still grapple with—hopefully in meaningful ways. In a stroke of genius, Steven Knight (writer) takes great liberty at filling in the novella’s ambiguity about Scrooge’s past and present business exploits; the result is a stunning frankness about the depravity of humanity.

The themes starkly depicted in the 2019 rendition—exploitation, unsafe labor practices, unethical business practices, the consequences of unfettered capitalism, slavery, and sexual coercion—would have made Dickens both proud and appalled: Dickens would have applauded the 2019 production’s way of speaking truth to power; paradoxically, Dickens would have loathed to see that the themes he treated throughout his literary career are just as relevant today.


the three days of Christmas: a new tradition?

Could you survive on just three days of Christmas?

This year, putting up the tree and a few lights kept getting bumped down the list of priorities. Professional concerns and artistic pursuits have taken precedence. And now, three days before the big day, there will be no lights, no tree.

And, dare I say, no stress, no FOMO.

It helps that there’s snow on the ground and a -30 wind chill; these things serve as a reminder to slow down, to hibernate, and reflect on the things that I have. I can, in fact, do that without the glow of Christmas lights. But today I will probably watch the first 30 minutes of Empire Strikes Back and the first two installments of the Die Hard franchise to get me in the spirit. And perhaps I’ll re-read the passage in The Emergent that fairly well sums up the expectation and disappointment of the season…the melancholy satisfaction, if you will.

“…I could relate to Alma’s desire to flee the sinking feeling she always had throughout most of December. We somehow became infused with the same sense that something fantastic was supposed to happen. But the alternately high-spirited and depressing tunes of the season led us to conclude that the hope in the season was all an illusion.” –Kat Campos, The Emergent


spoiler alert: the news is bad

Masochism is a writer’s catechism. You voluntarily subject yourself to likely devastation that is not unlike that of your first middle school heartbreak.

Receiving rejection notices from literary agents or literary journals never gets easier. It’s all part of the process, but the stories your mind tells you after each form letter are truly dark and try to convince you to stop writing, to stop fooling yourself. Those thoughts are summed up like this (click image below for more of these poems):

But after all the years and dozens of rejections, I still find a way to use the ruins of each hope to kindle the fire that powers me onward.


The Emergent – a synopsis

“Unknowns can be handled in two ways. You can stay on the beach and watch, imagining what
might—but probably won’t—happen. Or you can offer up your mere physical existence for the
chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself.”

These are among the last words that Kat hears from her lifelong friend, Alma. The Emergent opens at the dawn of the internet era, and nineteen-year-old Silicon Valley native Kat is alone.

Haunted, she wonders if her actions drove Alma-and the rest of her family-away. Soon after
Alma’s disappearance, Kat finds herself in New York City with a new companion. In an apparent attempt to understand why she ended up across the continent, Kat relates her family’s story. Set in places like the shores of Oakland after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Depression-era farming communities of California’s Central Valley, and cold-war Santa Clara Valley, the family history and its ghosts also seem to shroud who Kat really is. But a series of mysterious injuries compel Kat to reveal more about herself. Will these revelations save Kat from her past? Or will they forever define her future?

Contact the author for a full tip sheet and to discuss speaking engagements.


in honor of election day: Variations on a Sickness – a dark satire

Variant: a dystopian prelude (a very short chapter from my dark satire-in-progress)

Julius’s niece is dead after following the advice of Our Dear Leader (ODL).

The armies in the north are gearing up, their leaders salivating at our weakened defenses and superior, unused medical resources. A whole division of our troops in that region ingested a cocktail of over-the-counter cleaning supplies a couple days ago. And radio silence from ODL, the man who said such an injection could be a good idea. “Whaddya have to lose?”

ODL is a man whose power is derived from his association with and intimidation of scientists who found the “sociopath” gene. A decade ago, he won office on the idea that he—and he alone—could rid the country of sociopathy.

Were it not for Bliss, Julius might have voted for ODL all those years ago. But his wife’s constant raging brought on sweat, chills, fever, headache, dry mouth, and shallow breathing. Anxiety like this overwhelmed any vague fear Julius had about The Sickness.

“You cannot vote for him, Jules,” she had said ten years ago, her dinner getting cold. “Don’t be fooled by all the free coverage the media is giving him. I mean, listen to this fucking idiot prattle on incessantly. It’s the same thing every single time! It’s not news. It’s indoctrination.”

Bliss brought up a video on her phone of ODL at one of his recent election rallies. The future dictator screamed, “The illness—people call it The Sickness—of socioplathy [sic] inflicts one in every 25 people. And it’s a terrible terrible terrible disease that is coming for you and your kids. It’s Lizzie, a great doctor of medical, who determined all this. A great person; we have a very great friendship; Lizzie always tells me what I want to hear. I really like her. I know…we know, right Lizzie?…we know some great people, great great great wonderful people, who say they’re able to detect socioplarthy [sic].”

“Did you know?” Bliss shouted as she scrolled through social media for another example. “Did you know ODL’s followers think he is a brilliant clairvoyant? What the actual fuck is going on?! The goddamned lunatic says he is able to use his ‘immense intuition’—whatever the hell that means—to determine who has The Sickness.”

According to ODL, alarmingly high rates of The Sickness supposedly existed in people who wear glasses, read books, or write newspaper articles. Of course, this idea got massive pushback in the media, playing into ODL’s trap; the dissenting thinker-writer types (and those who wore glasses) were the first to be attacked, abducted, and disappeared after the election.

“These campaign rallies,” Bliss continued as she swiped up again and again on her screen. “These rallies are recruiting tools for CC squads. Christ & Country squads! Can you believe that shit?! I’m telling you, they’re going to start rounding up people like me…and you; guilt by association. And what if we have a baby? Who knows what those animals would do to our baby. Just listen to this.”

Again, she shoved the screen in Julius’ face. ODL said, “Once we know who’s socioplarthic [sic], we can do something about it. And it’s gonna be so great you’re not even gonna believe it. We’re gonna get rid of these dangerous dangerous dangerous people, the sylviaplathics [sic]. Lots of smart people are saying this is what we should do, some of the smartest people with the biggest you-know-whats.”

After his election, ODL and his cold-blooded devotees hunted down “the infected,” employing the very same extreme ruthlessness known in the most extreme cases of sociopathy. Without a trace of irony, CC squads crisscrossed the country gleefully chanting “89% of slaughter is laughter” while efficiently taking the supposed sociopaths out of the population. Through the success of re-education camps, conversion therapy, and deportation—but mostly through wholesale butchery —ODL triumphantly, and with little physical resistance, attained total and lifetime rule of the country.

The plucky band of late night hosts, saved by celebrity, soon were the only voices of opposition. So long as they didn’t fade from memory like a movie star with a dreadful agent, the hosts were protected by their popularity. And the kettles of civil unrest that they had kept simmering for years were now at a low steady boil. Now, the late night hosts’ millions of fans have come to believe that the spread of highly contagious, air-borne sociopathic variant to be a hoax, that the resulting national quarantine is part of an ODL power grab.

“This damned hypocrite!” Bliss yells at the screen, diverting her thoughts from much more local and personal tragedies. “He’s shameless, as usual. It doesn’t matter to his followers if he’s breaking his own quarantine decrees. He’s touring these huge indoor stadiums, spouting this new theory. Didn’t I say he would come for the babies? Ten years ago, I said this would happen. Have you heard this shit, Jules?”

Her screen thrust in his face, Julius has no choice but to watch.

ODL shouts, screams, slavers to the adoring fans, “They say the novel sickness is a disease that infects little babies in the womb; and until now nobody had a way of knowing until much much much later, who had socio…socioplithy [sic]. They still say one in every 25 people is a socioplith [sic]. But some great people—people I know, great people, people who love me—great great great people are saying there’s a way to detect socioplicthy [sic] in the womb. Orange you glad you know that now?”

It is this kind of rhetoric that distracts even me, the demi-god: a semi-omnipresent, semi-omniscient, semi-omnipotent, or however it is you want to semi-classify me. I find myself distracted from this demi-epic about Julius.

His niece, Frenchie, died just the other day after a lethal cocktail of Tide Pods dissolved in bleach and a deep huff of aerosol disinfectant. She didn’t even get tasty Kool-Aid or shiny Nikes out of it.


inspiration in the fall

I’ve just finished writing two new short stories. They’re called, “The Pain of Returning” and “…with Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude”.

There’s a reason I call this writing season. Everything is in full color. Sunny days glow. The cool weather and shorter days keep my butt to the chair so I can crank out new pages. If you follow me on Instagram (@nickholmbergwrites), you know I’ve been posting about inspiration for weeks now. See the pictures below for examples.

Where do you find your inspiration?