This Blog Post Is A Dumpster Fire

The newest catch phrase on the Internet is “dumpster fire,” which I’ve been hearing in reference to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (or lack thereof). If you paid attention to the election so far (most voters won’t tune in until after Labor Day in September), the short-fingered vulgarian turned political pretender had a horrible week: attacking a Muslim family whose Army son died in Iraq, proclaiming that his sacrifices in business was equivalent to a family losing their son in war, attacking the Republican leadership for not supporting him, complaining about a crying baby at a rally, and the list goes on and on and on.

A real dumpster fire is no fun.

My roommates and I had rented a three-bedroom triplex in Cupertino for six years when we decided to move out in 2001. The Hong Kong owner was happy to see us go, as we were only paying $1,600 per month in rent. With the Silicon Valley real estate market going insane in the run up to the Dot Com Bust, the owner doubled the rent to $3,200 per month and found tenants shortly after we moved out.  If he still owns the triplex today, which is down the street from the new Apple campus under construction, it wouldn’t surprise me if the apartments went for $5,000 per month.

Since we were parting ways and moving into smaller apartments, we decided to throwaway a lot of stuff. I got tasked with acquiring a 10-yard dumpster that got delivered to the parking alley behind the triplex. Sofa, love seat, kitchen table, books, old electronics and the accumulated crap from inside the attached garage went straight into the dumpster. We had so much stuff that it towered over the four-foot walls of the dumpster, presenting a problem on how compact everything below the wall height before I could call the company to remove the dumpster.

On the Sunday morning of our last week at the apartment, we learned that the dumpster caught on fire. The bonfire got so hot that it melted the glass pane in the laundry room window ten feet away. The firefighters quickly put the fire out. Since they initially believed it was spontaneous combustion that caused the fire, they took a fire ax to the garage door lock and found an empty garage. The arson investigator concluded from eyewitness reports that a passing homeless person tossed a burning match into the dumpster after lighting up a cigarette.

The dumpster fire reduced our towering possessions to two feet of soggy ashes. While that created room to throw out more stuff, it created more headaches for me. Even though my name wasn’t on the lease, the property manager held me responsible since I ordered the dumpster that got delivered too close to the building and I was the only one among my roommates who had rental insurance. The roommate whose name was on the lease decided to disappear for a while, leaving me stuck with winding down the apartment.

After several weeks of phone calls with the insurance investigator and the property manager, the insurance company declined coverage as the fire took place outside of the apartment. The owner’s insurance policy covered the damages. The property manager wanted to pursue legal action against me, but the owner declined to do so since his rental income doubled. I’m damned lucky to get out of that dumpster fire.

Or so I thought.

A year later I moved in with a different set of roommates who found a nice apartment in a San Jose triplex. The property manager for that triplex also managed the Cupertino triplex. We had to meet in her office to sign the rental agreement. She spent an hour roasting me for what happened at the old apartment in front of my new roommates, whom I’ve already told about and they enjoyed me being on the hot seat. She then surprised them by announcing that they were getting the apartment because she trusted me as being the only responsible adult among them. They didn’t like being burned that way.

The Mobile Office v2.0 Is Evermore

After I went up to the Mountain Winery to watch Joan Jett play the classic songs of her youth and the new songs from her next album, the coolant system in my 1999 Ford Taurus boiled over from the twists and turns of going up the mountain. The car ran slightly hotter than usual for a month. As I waited for the light to change at Bascom and Moorpark Avenues in San Jose, the engine dropped dead and refused to turn over.

Stranded in the middle of the evening commute for 15 minutes while waiting for the tow truck to arrive, someone at the Mini Gourmet restaurant on the corner saw my plight and sent out the servers to push my car into the parking lot. I thanked the woman and the servers who came over afterward

I told the tow truck driver that I thought the head gasket blew. As the car got loaded up the ramp of the tow truck, the chocolate milk shake—coolant and oil mixed in a frothy mix—dribbled out from the engine block on to the ramp. The driver sprinkled cat litter on and underneath the spill to contain the mess. He dropped me off at my apartment complex before taking my wounded car to John’s Bascom Automotive down the street.

The phone call from Mike the mechanic confirmed that the engine was unrepairable without spending a substantial amount of money that I don’t have. He recommended that I put the non-existent money towards another used car. Although they spent several hours to diagnose my car, he charged me only for a half-hour of time. I took the next day off from my non-writing job to tow my car home, made arrangements with AAA to have a non-car auto insurance policy, and for Pick-N-Pull to pick up my car. After all that, unwinding from the stress of being without car for the next few months.

The bad news didn’t stop there. My boss gave me my two-week notice that my contract wasn’t being renewed as part of a company-wide layoff. The timing wasn’t great. Looking for a job without a car was difficult but not impossible. (I didn’t get my driver license until my middle thirties.) With the government shutdown in full swing, the recruiters were ominously silent after I sent out my resume to the job search websites.

Yesterday, before the tow truck for Pick-N-Pull came for my car, I tried to turn over the engine and got a loud clunk! Something broke inside the engine block, maybe a cam shaft or something else.

The tow truck driver looked familiar. “Didn’t I pick up a car from this parking spot last year?”

Yes, he did. We went through the paperwork to transfer ownership and he gave me a check for $274 USD, which was slightly more than my previous old car. According to a co-worker, Pick-N-Pull will probably make $5,000 USD off the car. That would include $1,200 USD in new brakes and tires from earlier this summer.

The Mobile Office v2.0 is evermore.

Taking A Summer Break 2013

Last year I took a three-month summer break to restructure the writing business where I didn’t publish any ebooks while writing a business plan (didn’t happen), re-branding existing ebooks (done), and filling up the ebook buffer (didn’t happen). I’m surprised that I got one out of three done, as re-branding the ebooks with updated cover art, internal navigation structure, and front/end matter got very expensive and time-consuming.

This year I’m taking another summer break by suspending the publication of new ebooks for three months. Here are my three new goals.

1. Fixing the Content Pipeline

I’ve spent so much time learning the ropes of ebook publication over the last few years, the content pipeline ran dry and nothing is available for first serial submission or ebook publication. What I had on the bottom of the barrel wasn’t worth my time and effort to scrape up for publication.

Being an ebook publisher is fun, but I’m a writer first.

I’m clearing off the back burner of manuscripts that I’ve abandoned after I started writing or stopped editing. The last time I did this was five years ago when I kicked everything out to face a cruel world of rejections in the snail mail slush piles. This week I wrote a new short story from beginning to end in a mad rush that I haven’t experienced in years. Between the old and the new, I’m hoping to find the right balance to fill the pipeline.

2. Building a New Business System

Like many small business owners, I have way too much stuff going on to think about the big picture and plan for the future. This was why the content pipeline broke down. After seven years of shoving everything into envelopes and hoping for the best, I need a new business system.

I recently became a fan of growth hacking, where you make a change, measure the result, and make more changes with the business processes to go from okay growth to exponential growth. This appeals to me because I have a testing and programming background. Being able to slice, dice and document a big problem into smaller, workable problem was second nature. I can’t fix everything at once, but I can fix one problem and move on to the next problem.

3. Going On A Real Vacation

After I got a new non-writing tech job this year, many of my coworkers started talking about their summer vacations even though spring hasn’t arrived yet. All this talk came about because HR changed the accrued vacation time policy to force everyone to take time off, as some techies never go home much less take a vacation. As a contractor, this didn’t apply to me. But, not to appear as another antisocial techie, I said I was going to Las Vegas for my birthday in August.

Why Las Vegas?

Besides the obvious fact that I have never taken a real vacation, I have never taken an airplane trip to somewhere far, far away from Silicon Valley that I couldn’t reach by car. That the world’s largest Star Trek convention will be in full swing while my roommate and I are in town is purely coincidental. This is also a research trip for future essays, short stories and maybe an urban-fantasy series about the erotic underworld of Las Vegas.

Which of these goals will get completed this summer? I think all of them are quite likely to happen. The first two are separate sides of the same coin and the Las Vegas trip ties everything together if I hit the jackpot. This summer break will be better than last year’s.

When Your Debit Card Travels To London Without You

If you want to stay on top of your finances, you need to spend ten minutes every day looking at your account balances. This little habit can help you spot problems before they get out of hand. I got a nasty surprise last week when I found two unauthorized transactions pending on my personal checking account. The timing was terrible. The rent check was coming in and I didn’t have enough in savings to cover it.

I called the toll-free number for my credit union to report the unauthorized transactions and cancel my debit card. I asked the woman assisting me how my debit card could be used if it never left my physical possession. She told me that my debit card information could be copied by a waiter at a restaurant, from a hidden card skimmer at a gas station or a spyware-infected computer watching a legitimate Internet purchase being made.

I haven’t visited any restaurants where the waiter could disappear with my debit card. The gas pump I usually use was down for maintenance several days before the unauthorized transactions appeared. When I came back the following week to get gas, all the gas pumps had inspection stickers from the county weights and measure department. No way to know if that was the source. As for my computers, I run anti-spyware and anti-virus scanners on a regular basis and avoided questionable websites.

The affidavit form to dispute the charges never arrived at my personal email address. I went down to my credit union on Saturday morning to talk to the branch manager. He confirmed that my debit card got cancelled, flagged the unauthorized transactions as being fraudulent, and printed out the affidavit form for me to fill out. I withdrew some cash since the new debit card won’t arrive for two weeks.

An Internet search on the two companies for the unauthorized transactions revealed that they were cosmetics companies, which is a product category that I have little use for. I filled out the “contact us” form to request the identity of the person who placed the orders and threatened to file a police report against the companies if they don’t comply.

The first company based in San Francisco told me that their privacy policies prevented them from revealing the identity of their customers, and, besides, the transaction never went through on their end. The pending hold on my checking account fell off a few days later. I didn’t pursue the matter with them any further.

The second company based in Texas immediately gave up the identity of the customer and refunded the money taken from my checking account. Either I was dealing with an inexperienced business owner or the privacy laws in “no tax / low regs” Texas don’t exist.

The customer (a.k.a., the thief) had my debit card info and street address, used her presumably real name, listed a phone number for a storage rental place in San Francisco (50 miles north of Silicon Valley), and wanted the merchandise shipped to London via FedEx overnight delivery. Didn’t I read something like this in a Stephanie Plum novel?

I wanted to file a police report on the London Police Department website, but forwarded the information to my credit union to handle instead. I didn’t lose any money; my rent check went through. This has been another needless distraction in a long month of needless distractions that have taken me away from writing. Seems like it never ends.

The Return of The Mobile Office

The manager at my non-writing tech job in 2008 did me a favor when he told me to walk away from my desk during my lunch hour. So I ate my lunch and listened to the radio in my car. One day I brought a clipboard and some pens to edit a short story manuscript. A year later I finished writing two-thirds of my first novel behind the steering wheel of my car, a 700-page manuscript that I haven’t figure out how to edit.

Those were the glory days of the mobile office.

After I got laid off on Friday the 13th in February 2009 (a memorable date the manager let me pick), I was out of work for two years, underemployed for six months (i.e., working 20 hours a month) and filed for a Chapter Seven bankruptcy. If I wasn’t interviewing for jobs, browsing the job board websites or answering arcane copyright questions from my bankruptcy attorney, I wrote and edit manuscripts from my home office.

Since then I held tech jobs that made the mobile office impractical, either the lunch breaks were too short or the parking lot was too far. I went back to taking lunch at my desk, using my work computer to write blog posts over the Internet. With my last job at the hospital, where my office was down the hall from the morgue in the basement and the scent of vanilla in the air meant a dead stiff wheeling by, daily blogging was a welcome distraction.

The mobile office returned this New Year after I started a new job with a long lunch break and a short walk to the car. I eat my lunch and listen to the radio for 15 minutes, and turn my attention to whatever I put on my clipboard that morning for the next 45 minutes. If I finish the manuscript early, I can start something new on the writing pad. This is the highlight of my workday.

Only once did someone thought it suspicious that I was writing on a clipboard in my car during the lunch hour.

An inexperienced rent-a-cop jerked open my unlocked car door and demanded to know what I was doing. I got out to confront him and he reached for his mace spray. Flashing my employee badge and explaining that I was on my lunch break didn’t satisfy him. What I wrote on my clipboard inside my car wasn’t any of his damn business, which is why I don’t bring my manuscripts into work. The rent-a-cop backed down after I threatened to call 911 to bring in a real police officer to resolve the situation.

What I found out from writing my first novel is that doing something small every day adds up to something big over time. (Or something so big that you don’t know what to do with it, but that’s a different problem.) Forty-five minutes per day can turn into 180 hours in a year. Some of my best writing got done in the mobile office.

Writing And Editing On Public Transit Again

After my father passed away from lung cancer in early May, my car—which was his old car—finally kicked the hub cap a few weeks later when—ironically—I went to the post office to pick up his ashes. Without a car to drive, I had to rely on a friend to drive me to work in the mornings and take the light rail home in the evenings. Since public transit takes forever to cross Silicon Valley, I spent my commute time writing and editing. Something I used for many years before I got a car.

After getting off work at the hospital, I’ll cross the street for the bus that will take 15 minutes to get over to the light rail station in Mountain View. I’m usually listening to an audio book on my iPod Touch for this part of the trip. I don’t want to get distracted with writing and editing that I miss the stop at the transit center. After I get off bus and walk over to the light rail station, I’ll pull out my clipboard and spend the next 15 minutes to see what I need to do for that day. When the light rail train pulls into the station, I’ll take a seat inside and work for the next 75 minutes. Walking home from the light rail station takes ten minutes.

My clipboard almost always has four unfinished short stories at various stages of being written or edited. If I’m writing new material, I’m using a black Pilot G2 pen. If I’m editing old material, I’m using a red Pilot Precision V5 pen. If a short story has a submission date, I’ll focus on that one. Otherwise I’ll jump around to the different short stories until I’m done or stop in mid-sentence. If get stuck on something that won’t budge, I’ll doze off for the rest of the trip like so many other passengers do. After I have dinner, I’ll update the corresponding e-files and print out new copies to re-load the clipboard.

This break from driving came at a good time. I was going through a creative drought prior to my father’s death and taking a summer break from publishing ebooks. I’m using the “spare time” from riding public transit to get back into writing and editing short stories again.

Writing and editing on public transit will soon end as I get a new used car to resume driving again. The extra 90 minutes spent on the public transit will be behind my writing desk at home, where the distractions are numerous and my motivation diminished. If only I had the discipline to haul my sorry ass out of bed before the crack of dawn to take the public transit in the morning, I would have three hours of enforced writing and editing time. Like that will never happen.

Are You In The Writing Profession Or The Writing Business?

There’s a story in “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki about Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, challenging a group of MBA students with a simple question, “What business am I in?”

Everyone laughed but didn’t answer him. He repeated the question. Finally, someone told him the obvious answer: the hamburger business.

Ray chuckled before announcing that he wasn’t in the hamburger business but the real estate business. Although his profession was selling hamburger franchises, his business was owning the real estate underneath those franchises. McDonald’s today owns more real estate than the Catholic Church, including the best street corners and thoroughfares in America.

The point that “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” made from this story was not to confuse your profession with your business. Your profession is something you do; your business is where you make your money. Most people don’t know the difference.

I thought my business was being a short story writer. I wrote short stories, sold them to the anthologies, and republished them as short story ebooks.

As ebook sales continued to outpace short story sales, I found myself spending more time on developing ebooks than writing short stories. This frustrated me. I started missing the “old days”—about six years ago—when I wrote short stories, dropped them in the mailbox and collected 300+ rejection slips before I sold my first short story. Since my ebook sales were dependent on my short stories and essays, I would never find the time to write a novel to earn bigger ebook sales. I saw a vicious circle forming in my life with no easy solution.

Are you in the writing profession or the writing business?

I started thinking hard about that question since the beginning of the year. The answer I came up with is that I’m in the writing profession—when I’m not consoling hurt computers and broken users as an anonymous technician in Silicon Valley—but I’m also in the content producing business. Writing is central to everything I do, but not the only thing that I do.

Since I’m in between non-writing jobs at the moment, I’m in the process of revamping my family of websites. I spent the past three weeks updating my free open source software to get back into web programming, quadrupling web traffic and click-through for advertising. Updating the personal blog will be every week and this writing blog twice a month. (The key for writing multiple blog posts is to stay under 500 words for each one.) I’m still publishing two short ebooks every month. Writing new short stories are on hold until I can revise or spit polish a dozen short stories for submission.

If everything falls into place over the next year or two, I should  make enough money from my business to ditch the non-writing job and start writing novels as my profession.

Keeping A Secret Writing Identity In Silicon Valley

When I became serious about writing five years ago, I did Google search on my name before I started submitting my short stories. Lo and behold, there was another “writer” with my name, who hasn’t published much of anything from what I can tell. I decided to combine the initials of my first and middle names to come up with C.D. Reimer to avoid being confused with the competition. Six months ago I decided to separate my professional technical life from my personal writing life.

I removed my middle initial from my resume and all the job search websites to become another somebody in Silicon Valley, and my full name from all my websites. C.D. Reimer became the “brand name” for my Internet existence. By day I’m the sophisticated Bruce Wayne who works as an anonymous technician for some Silicon Valley company. At night I’m the Batman who is breaking knuckles to get another short story out of the typewriter. (Sorry, Superman, but Clark Kent can suck it.) As any cape crusader knows, you need to keep your secret identity a secret from the outside world.

Why keep your writing identity a secret in Silicon Valley?

Most Silicon Valley companies, either officially or unofficially, discouraged moonlighting by their employees. A manager’s worst fear is a group of employees working together in a garage on the weekends to come up with the newest technological wonder, take one-third of the employees with them in a mass exodus to form a new company, and make a few billion dollars after Microsoft/Google/Facebook buys them out. Everyone and their grandmother were doing this before the dot com bust. Now people are being more discreet about moonlighting in fear of losing their regular paying job when the unemployment rate is at 10% and the overall job market is slowly improving.

I find it easier to be an anonymous technician while crawling underneath the desks of Silicon Valley. When people knew I was a writer, I would get all kinds of odd questions and weird looks. Being regarded as the eccentric uncle in a non-reading family was one thing I didn’t want to repeat at work. That was before I started publishing regularly. With my work being more accessible through ebooks, I’m sure the odd questions and weirder looks would have gotten odder and weirder if I wasn’t hiding behind a secret identity.

Now that I’m doing contract work after being unemployed for two years, no one knows I’m a writer when I show up for a new assignment. More specifically, I’m a Silicon Valley fiction writer. There are a bazillion non-fiction books about Silicon Valley, but almost no fiction books about Silicon Valley and certainly no writer making a name writing fiction about Silicon Valley (although the parody memoir, “Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs” by the Fake Steve Jobs, is a close competitor). Besides, this is California. If you’re a writer, everyone assumes you’re writing a Hollywood screenplay that will fetch $50,000 the moment you type THE END on the last page. I got some oddball looks when I told people that I write fiction. Everyone knows that there is no money in fiction if you’re not Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Sarah Palin.

I’m an anthropologist of sorts studying the Silicon Valley culture, which is an ongoing project at San Jose State University that I may pursue a degree in if I ever won the lottery to go back to school, trying to relate a strange world through fiction to ordinary readers. Working anonymously in Silicon Valley is key to being a good observer and finding fresh material for my short stories and novels.

I had just finished a three-day assignment at a college textbook publisher that brought back memories of working at the San Jose City College bookstore warehouse, where I was once familiar with all the imprints that this company had bought up over the last 20 years. A boring job involving too many mouse clicks to convert online courses from the legacy platform to the new platform. The green palm leaves made from lightweight fabric to shade the desks from the overhead lights will make a fantastic detail for a story someday.

But maintaining a secret writing identity and being successful in two lines of work is a difficult task. This week we learned about the secret identity of romance author Judy Mays from a busybody parent looking for trouble and a TV station looking for a sensational news story about a female high school teacher writing racy novels under a pen name on her own time. If being exposed wasn’t bad enough, they also demanding that Mays choose between being a teacher or an author.

As I commented on Jess Haines’ blog, would there be a controversy if a male teacher wrote action/adventure novels about big guns, fast broads and shagging the carpet every other chapter? Probably not. If I was Judy Mays, I would send the Batman to break some knuckles and watch her book sale numbers spike from the controversy.