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

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?


writing ritual – music

Writing routine. Writing ritual. I like the term writing ritual. Then the term is spiritual. Religious, even.

Over the course of writing The Emergent, I listened to certain albums for their familiar sounds and their contribution to my writing ritual. I wrote about it in this post.

On that note, I wanted to share the only playlist I listened to in the final six months of work on the book. Never listened out of order. The list is publicly available or you can recreate it on a different platform.

I wish I had 3 hours+ to write every session.

dreams, coffee, and the invasion of smart phones

When I was in my early to mid-20s, I would do things in dreams unimaginable to me in waking life: inject heroin, die by gun suicide, die by gun murder, crash-land small jet planes in the San Francisco Bay.

Dreaming sounds dangerous. Yes, but not always. In one dream when I was 24—a couple year after a particularly bad heartbreak—I forgave the young woman who had crushed my soul.

Other than of the occasional dog attack, I don’t dream much anymore. After all the addiction, the dying, the near-death, the confrontation with deep emotional pain, you might say that’s a good thing.

I don’t.

The current dog-attack dreams are stark because they are the only ones that I remember. Since they are connected to real altercations with neighborhood dogs over the past two years, the dreams help make meaning.

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent any and all multitudes of secular fear: pandemic, politics, and their implications on the next generation.

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent a particularly unruly part of my inner Self (an interpretation less potent in my very domesticated mid-40s).

cover art for Tool’s Lateralus: Alex Grey

The dog attacks of my dreams can represent whatever I want them to, follies of possible self-delusion and misinterpretation notwithstanding.

The real trick, at least in the dream, is to vanquish the dog. Or befriend it.

Those dreams from my 20s still carry meaning, are part of my narrative, are the basis for a personal mythology, a personal religion. Those dreams are subconscious artifacts that mark a time of developing self-awareness, a time of great personal growth.

But have I lost my religion? Visions that could inform my life (i.e. sleep cycles that lead to remembered dreams) are interrupted by the biology of the old-ish (i.e. I gotta pee at 2 AM), as well as the physical aches and anxiety pains.

And there’s so much more that occupies waking life than there was in my 20s. Two more decades of personal and world history to process; responsibilities, regret, my relationship with friends and family to concern me. Personal growth continues; I interact with the joys and hardships of life and change. But that’s fairly artificial: the books, articles, television, and cinema that I consume will never fully reflect my own experience.

In a recent episode of Throughline, Abdelfatah points out that “in today’s world, where sleep is being cut short, caffeinated drinks are keeping us awake and screens vie for our attention, it’s become harder and harder to dream.” True. Can I quit coffee in the interest of better sleep? Can I refrain from my anxiety-inducing media addiction to foster more dreaming?

In my 20s—in the early days of my relationship with coffee and before the invasion of smart phones—I was able to take the experience of a dream and consider the metaphors, sometimes for several days. Sure, maybe I was a little interested in the escapism of taking heroin, but perhaps the dream was instructing me: temporarily extract yourself from your worries about school and love and change.

I could lament how much richer my inner life would be now if I were to remember more of my dreams. Or I could develop a practice of taking an extra five minutes before getting out of bed, letting the visions of sleep set in my waking mind so they could walk with me throughout the day.


Lessons from a Tick

I would rather have lyme disease than admit this, but here goes: I have a tick.

After nearly two decades of working on The Emergent, you would think I had cured all the sentence-level “ticks.” Well, I have…now. A real buzzer-beater. Some serious Steph Curry magic. As I made my last pass of the manuscript last week, I discovered the tick. From now until publication, anything other than typo corrections is frowned upon.

What the heck is a “tick” for a writer? Generally, it’s a bad/clumsy habit in a person’s prose. For me, it was starting a sentence or a phrase with “there was” or “there were.” I discovered nearly 40 instances, made improvements to nearly all of them, and straight up deleted others. Here are some examples vs their re-writes:

There were reassuring whispers. When they stopped, I went searching for them.

vs.

The reassuring whispers stopped. And I went searching for them.

————

There was a question in her voice as she trailed off.

vs.

A question tinged her voice as she trailed off.

————

There were other stories that were just downright weird for Oso to be telling me.

vs.

Other stories were just downright weird for Oso to tell.

————

There was something changing in her that was somehow connected to the obligations she assumed.

vs.

Something was changing in her that was somehow connected to the obligations she assumed.

————

But there were two times that she changed the tradition.

vs.

She changed the tradition only two times.

————

When we arrived, the sun was out and there was no wind.

vs.

When we arrived, the sun was out and the air was still.

vs.

When we arrived, the sun was out and the air was still.

————

But there is rage and dissatisfaction in their music; it helps give me some idea of where the discontent of men comes from.

vs.

But their rage and dissatisfaction helps give me some idea of where the discontent of men comes from.


Queen Lizzy is Unimpressed

Nic and I linger over breakfast during the autumn, entertained by the squirrels playing, forgetting where their food is, getting fat. We root for them to make it across the street, cheer when they’ve lived to cross another street. It’s the same every year here in the Midwest. This year, however, those little rascals seem to be particularly abundant. And this means that squirrel demise is on the rise: hawks, cars, falls from trees, loose power lines dangling from our utility pole listed as the cause of death in the coroner’s report. More than usual, the dead rodent this year dots my consciousness like spilled ink. Or a spreading pool of blood, as it were.

I once knew someone who, for religious reasons, travelled with a shovel in the trunk of their car, giving roadkill dignified ceremonies for undignified deaths. I was never sure how this person got their PhD—or ever made it to work on time: stopping for every dead animal they drove past. I am fairly certain this person did not grow up in the Midwest, where the accidental slaughter of wild animals is part of the landscape.

I do understand the sentiment, though. So on the several occasions in the past year when a fallen (but completely intact) squirrel lay lifeless in the street in front of my house (victim of a slippery utility pole or its stray electrical current), I have scooped up the rust-and-beige body with my yellow snow shovel and transported it to the wooded areas behind the property. I don’t go so far as to bury the poor bastards; but in my mind, it is more dignified to return the little guys to nature; at least then all the fat that they worked so hard to pack on in the closing days of autumn will not have been for nothing. I mean, isn’t there more dignity in being a snack for a turkey vulture than to be a pavement Jackson Pollock, innards forced out of either end?

The latter seems like a waste (unless you’re a diehard art fan), while the former seems to serve a purpose.

Just the other day, I transported the second little body of the week to the long grasses just beyond the 3-foot fence at the back of the yard, an offering to scavengers or worms. And today I worked from home. My office commands a fantastic view of the park, the capitol building seeming to sit atop the tree line. Backyard tree now with bare limbs, I had a clear view of a well-fed red tail hawk. We’ll call her Queen Lizzy.

In the past couple years of mostly working from home, I have never seen Queen Lizzy in our tree; she lives in the park trees a good 100 yards distant from my office window. She is graceful, soaring high on warm drafts in summer and darting at lower altitudes in winter. So to see Queen Lizzy not 20 yards from me—her white breast contrasted with her brown feathers and the gray day—brought my work to a grinding halt.  

Perched 15 feet up in the tree, she rotated her head 180 degrees each way. Then she spread her wings, quickly alighting on the 3-foot fence below. For several minutes, her head was on a swivel. She could not believe her good fortune, or she didn’t want anyone to see what she was about to do, or was looking at me incredulous at the stupidity of whatever animal she was hunting.

In a flash of brown-red-white, she hopped into the grass below, flew a few more feet and landed. It didn’t seem likely that the squirrel corpse I had laid there the day before would still be around: fox and coyote sometimes saunter through the park and they surely would have caught the scent of an easy meal. So I assumed Queen Lizzy had made a fresh catch of some living thing and was waiting for it to gasp its last under her death talons.

My curiosity got the best of me, as all I could determine from my vantage was that she was just standing over the body of her kill. I figured if she was startled by me, she could take her meal elsewhere in those death talons. I was a mere 15 yards from her when I stopped at the back fence line. She did not fly off immediately. Her dignity had suffered a blow: she was embarrassed for having thought the squirrel was alive, mortified to have been seen with a squirrel she herself had not caught. More than anything, though, she was unimpressed with my offering.

Queen Lizzy flew off, mumbling something about how dining al fresco didn’t mean the meal had to be cold, too.