Working Retail and Dealing With the Plague

So, while this blog is ostensibly about my writing, today I’m going to talk about my real world job at the grocery store. I’ll provide a little background for you here. I’ve been working for my chain since 1997, at various stores and positions. I’ve been responsible for many of the different aspects of store operation at the retail level and they’ve kept me around so I feel like I must be doing something correctly.

Now, under normal circumstances I would say that retail is a kind of boring, mind-numbing job for a lot of folks. It’s not rocket science, but the folks that are best at it are the kind who thrive on interaction. That’s because at the heart of it, retail is based on customer service. You can probably just take out the word customer and go with ‘service’. The whole deal is based around doing things for people.

Ringing their groceries.

Fetching an item they can’t find or reach.

Pretending to smile and care when you’re an introvert who really just wants be at home, peacefully alone.

Taking care of things that might not typically be your responsibility, but you’re the person who’s there when it needs doing, like cleaning the restroom after a code brown.

If you don’t derive some satisfaction from doing things for other people, from being of service, then retail might not be your bag.

What does this have to do with the current pandemic crisis, you might ask?

Well, the COVID-19 crisis is making it more difficult to do all of that. Literally every aspect of a retail worker’s job is being impacted by this damn thing. I don’t just mean the weird, idiosyncratic things like trying to maintain social distancing while you’re leading a customer to a thing they’re looking for.

I don’t want to oversell – or understate – the reality of the situation for us, because there is a genuine fear of infection or transmission of this virus that we have to square with ourselves every day, but it’s difficult for me to relate. On the one hand, going to work doesn’t feel dangerous. The labor of it is largely unchanged, excepting the first crazy-ass week where all you nuts were buying up every case of water and package of toilet paper we could get to the shelf. But there is an undeniable risk involved now. It’s a grocery store, serving over a thousand people every day. When you run that many people through the same space the chances of picking up an airborne droplet have to increase, not to mention all of the contact surfaces (which we are now having to clean and sanitize at regular and often intervals). Like a lot of people, I don’t just have myself to worry about. I’m married with children. My wife is working from home now, but you can’t run a grocery store remotely. If anyone is going to get this thing and bring it home, the odds indicate that it’ll be me.

As someone who runs a register periodically, the new plexiglass shields don’t really do much for my confidence. There has to be a way past, through or under them in order to exchange money. Speaking of, money has always been filthy. Now it’s potentially a contact surface that could be carrying the virus (I’m not an expert, I don’t know the odds of this happening. But, it seems prudent all the same to advise using your debit/credit card or better yet, your phone via Apple Pay or the Android equivalent and limit even touching the pin pads as much as you can). We keep hand sanitizer at the registers of course, but that’s not as effective as a thorough hand washing. How many customers go through a single line between a cashier’s breaks? Three, four dozen? And while you can feel reasonably confident that any one specific person probably doesn’t have a wildly contagious virus, how do those odds work out over the course of an eight hour shift where you might wash your hands six or seven times? If you’re paranoid about going to the store right now (and good on you if you are), think about the number of folks that a cashier has to interact with daily.

So, the store is taking measures to ensure that we’re still serving folks as safely as possible. Cleaning doors and handles and carts and baskets and registers and pin pads. But there’s not really any way to protect against one dipshit who doesn’t cover his mouth when he coughs, or sneezes into the open air instead of his elbow. Everyone I work with understands this fact explicitly. We work in retail, where the rules that determine our reality can change from one day to the next because of one person’s screw up, though the stakes aren’t usually this pronounced.

Here in Arizona things aren’t as bad as a lot of other places. Today we’re up to about 3700 confirmed cases and 122 fatalities. You might be tempted to think those are lowish numbers compared to the likes of New York or Florida, and they are. But I suspect it’s leading to the general public not taking it as seriously as they ought to, which is frustrating as hell when you’re an “essential worker.”

Despite it seeming like traffic has decreased a little during my commute, and it’s hard to be sure, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of folks going to the damn grocery store. Our daily regulars are still showing up daily, seldom wearing a mask. Still plenty of folks bringing their kids shopping when one parent could have stayed at home with them. Still people dropping in to pick up one or two things.

It’s highly unlikely that any of my actual real life customers will ever see or read this blog, but for those people that do here are two simple changes you can make to mitigate the risk of picking this thing up when you do have to go out in public.

Plan your shopping. Grab enough to feed you and your family for several days, a week if you can. Utilize your freezer. Reducing the number of times you have to go out in public is the best thing you can do. Don’t be the guy who drops in to pick up a 12 pack of beer and nothing else every other day.

Don’t bring your kids. Look. I love kids. They’re damned disgusting though. They lick things, they grab things. The grab and lick things then put those things back without washing their hands. Children are a disease vector unto themselves during normal times, and these times are not normal. If you can leave them at home with a semi-responsible person please do that.

I’m not here to tell you that the folks at the store are heroes without capes. The medical workers are heroes. Nearly everyone they deal with is ill or unwell in some fashion. They’re far more at risk than anyone else in my estimation. But, the grocery store is a place virtually everyone goes to eventually and it only takes one sick person to potentially get a lot of other people sick and/or killed. Take a little responsibility and stay home as much as you can. This thing isn’t going away any time soon.

Obligatory Blog Entry Title

Hello folks! Still not dead, thanks for asking.

Have you seen Knives Out yet? Because you should see Knives Out. It’s a masterclass of plot. In addition to being beautifully shot and frankly just delicious to watch, that film does a hell of a job of doling out just the right amount of information to keep you interested and following along. It’s either out of theaters now, or at the very ass end of its run. But either way, if you do any kind of storytelling you should go see that film and take it into you, let it consume your soul, subsume every fiber of your being, become you. Let it make you the story machine you always wanted to be.
Well, maybe that’s a bit much. It’s a very entertaining film though.

I’ve been plunking down words here and there. Still at it, if slowly. Kids, job etc. Also, been making crazy progress on my video game backlog, so uh. THAT’S A THING. Very important, I assure you.

Also reading Seven Blades in Black by one Sam Sykes. It’s a lot of fun, and reminiscent of older Final Fantasy stories in some ways, and you can smell the anime on it as soon as you open it up. You’ll either be into it or not, but it’s quite my jam right now.

Speaking of catching up on my video games, I just added a game to the backlog and picked up Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. I’ve been jonesing for an old school feeling JRPG for a while now and it definitely fits the bill. The music isn’t really doing it for me so far, but I spent my youth wanting everything to sound like Nobuo Uematsu or Koji Kondo, so that’s probably a failing of mine. It’s fine. The story work though, that’s been fun to watch as I play. It’s an interesting world that wants to take its time drawing you in and getting you to know everyone, and I can really appreciate that. I’m also knocking out Rise of the Tomb Raider and farting around with Star Wars – Jedi: Fallen Order. I think that’s how that’s typed. It’s a bad, ponderous title. How it ever saw the light of day is frankly beyond me.

Anyhow, I’m leaving for Disneyland tomorrow. I’m planning on getting a badass custom lightsaber while I’m there. Have fun folks, type at you next time!

I wrote therefore I am

Here I am, back again with my periodic proof of continued existence. I did some more outlining, just some generic birds-eye-view scene building really, but it’s progress.

I have a problem, or maybe a quirk, where whenever I spend too much time editing any given photograph I dislike it more and more. It’s like the character creation sliders at the start of Skyrim, where the more time I spend on a photo the less patience I have to continue working on it and the less joy I derive from the finished piece.

I get the same thing with writing.

This can be a blessing sometimes. It means I don’t often get bogged down in trying to perfect a sentence or a paragraph or a scene. But it also means that I struggle with polish, with taking my prose beyond functional and mundane and making it sing.

I wrote a trunk novel a couple years back, and though it had larger issues than the prose itself, when I edited it I basically just ran through the thing and moved some punctuation around and fixed spelling errors. I sent it out to some agents and got exactly the reaction it warranted, which is to say none, with the exception of a couple form rejections.

I don’t know that I’ve got any real point here, except that maybe it’s a good thing to know your weaknesses so you can attack them. Developing a sense of your own ability is tough, and I’ve known folks who’ve over and under estimated their writing. Developing that sense and the perseverance to deal with what you determine from it are probably the keys to learning any skill.

So, fellow nerds, stick with it. Here’s a photo I took the other day down at the lake in Tempe.

Between the bridges at Tempe Town Lake

Not quite left yet.

This space has been dormant for quite a while. I pruned some politically charged entries, not because I believe I was wrong about any of them – Trump is a liar and a crook and fuck him sideways forever – but I’d gotten to a point where this place that was supposed to be me talking about my writing was me ranting about shit that really pissed me off in real life and I just didn’t get anything from doing this anymore.

Not to mention other life changes that sidetracked me from giving this page any attention, like having another kid who is adorable and awesome. Or like a promotion at work, which is a challenge for me and of course more time consuming and life swallowing than my previous position. Whether I actually make any more money at it is currently up for debate.

All that being said, I started a new story that I’m pretty excited about. It takes influence from the stories that grabbed me as a teen when I became a fan of science fiction and fantasy and everything in between. Things like Final Fantasy and Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time. The plan is to be working on it at least a little every week, so theoretically there should be more consistent things to post about, even if it’s just “I outlined more.” And now that I’ve got a shiny new laptop that doesn’t lag with every keystroke I’ve got one less barrier to writing and posting more often.

Not necessarily super interesting stuff on its own, I know, but I’m thinking about using this space to show off some of my photography. I’m not a professional, I’m not even sure if much of it is any good, but it’s a thing to throw on a blog when I don’t have a more interesting thing to talk about.

So, here are a few shots I really liked from a trip to Iceland that we took a few years ago.

A black sand beach at the town of Vik
Outside a greenhouse where tomatoes are grown
The Harpa Concert Hall

Not a Review of Wonder Woman

I’m not a movie reviewer, just a big fan of movies and super heroes, so I’m not going to review Wonder Woman. I’m just going to say that if you like one or both of those things, you should go see it.

It’s a film with a pure theme and a refreshingly honest story. Our hero is heroic. She does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Not because of some tortured backstory or daddy issues. She’s a good person who cares about people and frankly it’s nice to have a hero who exemplifies heroism again. Especially from DC, who’ve thus far managed to whiff it on Batman and Superman.

Wonder Woman isn’t a perfect film, and I could pick a few nits if I wanted, but it’s unwarranted when it does so much right. Despite the fantastical story, all the characters feel and act genuine. 

Oh, and Wonder Woman’s badass theme riff is on full blast in the action sequences, just like it ought to be.

You should see it. Go and do that.

First Form Rejection!

Well, the title says it all.  I’m not in the least bit bummed about it – they are part of the game.  When you’ve been as plugged into writerly culture (if such a phrase is even the correct term for it) as I have been you understand that rejections are part and parcel of the whole deal.  If you’re not getting rejections you’re not sending out work. Gotta go through a lot of ‘No’s to get your ‘Yes’.  And so on, etc.

So the first thing I did was send out some more queries. To be honest I’ve no great expectations for this first novel. I don’t really think it’ll ever see the light of day (from a publisher anyway) but I wrote the thing so I’ll be damned if I’m not going to submit it to hell and back before trunking it.  I did the work, the least I can do is send it out into the world and see if anyone will give me money for it.

In other news (which is to say not really news at all) I’ve been slowly poking at my new WIP, seeing what pokes back and what fades away into the nether reaches of my brain.  Hopefully I will have an outline to work from ready in a month or two, and in the meantime I’m still waiting for feedback from some beta readers on Thief of Souls.

As an aside, if you’re a writer and not getting everything you can from the internet there are a few things I suggest.

-Listen to podcasts about writing. Two of my favorites are Writing Excuses and I Should be Writing.  You probably have a commute of some kind, or at the very least 20-30 minutes a week somewhere. It will do you good. Trust me.

-Check out Absolute Write.  The forums are a veritable treasure trove of information on everything from plotting to prose to agents and submitting. I’ve had nothing but good experiences there and the people have always been willing to help newbies.  That being said, as with any forum read the FAQ first.  Many things are covered and have handy links. It’s worth the time to peruse.

I can’t think of anything else pertinent to say so with that I will sign off!

Look, I can update this blog!

It’s been a good long time since my last blog update, not entirely because I’m lazy and spend too much time playing video games (though that certainly had something to do with it) but also because I’ve not had much to update. After finishing the first draft I passed it along to a few trusted readers and got back a few bits of insight then plunked down and did a full revision.

I looked at every page, every paragraph, every line and judged them with an iron fist.  Some of it got bounced around, some of it got cut, some new stuff got added. From what I understand this is normal. Bringing us to now…

This last week I finished my first full revision on Thief of Souls and sent it to a few people to beta read. I hope to get some solid opinions on what people do or don’t like about it, things that might instigate head scratching, etc.  I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, but I’m happy enough with it as it stands to start submitting it to agents. Let’s all cross our fingers, toes, eyes, and earlobes.

In the meantime I’ve begun writing the next thing, which I’m pretty excited about. I didn’t want to start straightaway on a sequel to Thief of Souls, given that the likelihood of it being picked up may not be stellar, so I’ve jumped onto another idea that’s been sitting around in my head for a few years. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is until it’s had its proper gestational period.

I don’t have any other proper news related to my writing, so with that I will bid you good day (or evening, or whatever – this is the internet after all.)

In Which I Riff About Xbox One and PS4

With E3 blowing up this week there has been a deluge of video games news.  The juiciest bits were undoubtedly the pricing and the new Xbox One and PS4 systems, followed very shortly by millions of nerds and fanboys like myself collectively scratching their heads over some of the policies being announced by Microsoft.

The biggest kerfluffle, and the one that still seems to be the sticking point after lots of PR backpedaling and clarifications, is the always online nature of the Xbox One. I personally don’t have a big problem with the 24 hour checks back to home base to determine you’re playing a game licensed to you because I rarely trade in games and I can count on one hand the number of times my internet has been out in the last ten years or so.

However, I realize I am not the only person in the world who buys video games. There are big chunks of the United States where broadband internet is not so prevalent as it is here in metropolitan mecca of the southwest, lovely Phoenix Arizona.

At Microsoft, Don Mattrick has said that if you need an offline console experience, you’ve got an Xbox 360 to take care of you.

As a consumer this says to me “I don’t care about your dollars if you don’t have a consistent internet connection.” Is there a more blatant way of telling a certain number of people not to send their money that direction?  Is there anything less consumer friendly?  It basically means that you can’t play new games on new hardware if you can’t fit into the square hole of the demographic they’ve designed their system for.

When Mr. Mattrick says go play a 360 if you need to be offline he is discounting his competition.  A PS4, architecturally similar to an XB One, will play many of the same 3rd party games and not require you to be online to do it.  Microsoft has essentially ceded a certain demographic to their competition with this policy, and it’s a stupid move.

I prefer to play my 360 over my PS3 when I’m gaming, but if all things are equal -excluding the fact that I can play my games with a PS4 if/when my ISP is having a bad day – I think a lot of consumers will go that way.  The internet hubbub certainly seems to point that direction.

But launch for these two systems is still a few months off, and Microsoft theoretically has time to change their tune before they drive a big wedge between themselves and a large segment of the video game playing audience.

And Now, for Something Completely Different…

Today I’m going to go into a little bit of a story that is quite telling about parts of myself.  A little look behind the curtain at what happens in my brain.

In 1997 I was a common breed of video game nerd.  I was 17 years old, and heavily into console gaming after having bought myself a Nintendo 64 and a Playstation the previous year.  I was also building my then burgeoning collection of CD’s (long since dwindled, physical media? pfft).  The first CD’s I had bought were from The Beatles, but I was big into classic rock at the time so I was soon adding things like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Steve Miller Band to my set.  And so a unique situation arises wherein I’m listening to a lot of old music and playing (what were then) top of the line brand new video games.

I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy as a kid (not necessarily so much anymore, but that’s another topic entirely) and was eagerly awaiting number 7.  Eventually it came out and I played it for hundreds of hours, interspersed periodically with bouts of Lynyrd Skynyrd (a greatest hits double CD that was in heavy rotation on my player, don’t judge I was 17).

So now, as a 33 year old (theoretically grown) man I have strange associations in my brain.  Every time that I hear this:

my brain starts thinking of this:

I’ve found no good way of disassociating the two, nor am I sure I even want to, as it brings me a strange sense of bizarre glee that somewhere in the folds of my brain matter two unlikely neurons are inextricably linked.  In my head, southern rock means mako reactors, materia, pointy hair and nigh incomprehensible storytelling and I’m not sure I’d have it any other way.

50k.

Yep, skipped right over any possible Warhammer jokes and went to 50,000 words. I don’t have much to say about it really, beyond that I felt very little as the wordcount tipped over last night.  I got a very tiny jolt of “Oh, that happened.  I guess that’s a thing that I did.” and then it was gone.

Granted, that particular number was never the intended finish line, and only serves as the loosest basis of the idea of a halfway point.  There’s still a lot of mountain to climb, after all.

So, looking onward from this point what have I got left to do?  I’ve moved all of my players onto trajectories that will lead to THE END in one way or another, and that is actually kind of exciting.  I’m still skeptical about reaching 100,000 words with this draft though.  Not that missing that target would be the end of the world, I could end up with a tighter and more concise 90,000 word novel and I suppose I’d be just fine with that.

Alas, I think my brain is starting to get ahead of me.  Reality check, I’m still only halfway through a first draft.  I’ve still thousands of words to go, and revisions and rewrites on top of that.  Back to it, I reckon.