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Life

So I’m a homeowner now

I have the keys to my new home now. I never thought this would happen.

Owning a home is part of the American dream. You get a good-paying job. You get married. You have a kid or two. You buy a house and work for forty years until retiring into the sunset.

The problem is the American dream no longer exists.

I finished college and entered the adult world in 2009, right in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime recession with no job, no job prospects, and no idea what the job prospects would be.

It took almost ten years post-graduation to have a consistent annual income over $30,000 per year. And for the first couple of years when I did, it was all through self-employment, so I was taxed as the employer and the employee. When my income finally exceeded that amount consistently, I stayed put. I didn’t let go of my freelance work. I accepted every freelance position available on top of my regular job.

So how am I holding the keys now?

Luck and privilege.

I grew up in a working class family in the rural South and was the first in the family to attend college. Despite the lack of higher education in my family, I got all A’s in school with little effort, so my whole family expected that I would continue getting straight A’s and go to college. I’m kind of white and straight and able-bodied if you squint (or ignore my name).

I finished college with about $30,000 in student loans, slightly over the national average at the time. When you consider that I went to a small private college, that amount of debt isn’t awful. Well, it wouldn’t be awful if I hadn’t graduated into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Numbers vary, but entering the workforce in a recession nerfs your lifetime earnings by about 9%. When you don’t know what you want to do (like 2009 Sushi) and you don’t have a support network of college-educated folks with the types of jobs you thought you could have who can show you how to get those jobs, you flounder. Or at least that’s what I did, back in my small town where working an office job where you got to sit all day was for rich people only, searching for anything that would pay me for the next year and even getting turned down for minimum wage jobs.

I moved out on a dream and a contracting job paying a whole fifteen dollars an hour, far more than I thought I’d ever make. It was enough, but not for long since an emergency or self-employment taxes could wipe me out. It took years to hold down a job earning a living wage for over a year at a time because most of those jobs were contract roles that ended when the company closed or when my contract role’s project ended, all made worse by the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career and therefore I was throwing job applications into the abyss for anything that sounded remotely relevant.

I spent most of my early career writing anything I could get my hands on; blog content, social media updates, and marketing spiels were my specialty. Despite my writing roots, I sucked at writing these things. There’s a big difference between writing for your no-fucks-given audience and writing for a specific brand trying to sell and promote a product or service.

It wasn’t until someone took a chance on me for a freelance technical writing role that I really found my niche. And with that, I broke into the field after one last non-writing job and knew I had found my career calling.

The pandemic meant job cuts and my eventual layoff, which turned out to be the best worst thing to happen in my career. Sure, I had lost my job. But if I hadn’t gotten laid off during the pandemic, about a year into the new job, I would have stayed there for awhile, maybe for years, with almost no raises. Whatever the case, I was finally able to pay off my old tax debt and student loans (only ten years later) and create a solid emergency fund right before pandemic shit got real.

But the increased pandemic unemployment payouts plus my freelance work plus not going anywhere meant I was still saving a little money during this time. And now that I had a few years of experience in my field and impressive achievements on my resume, I could go anywhere… and make more money.

It didn’t take long; I started a new role contracting for a big company through one of those placement agencies, which came with a 25% raise. I kept doing my freelance work over the next year since a social life wasn’t happening anytime soon.

With that, the savings started to grow.

2021 arrived and brought an attempted coup, my first pandemic birthday, vaccines, and then misery at the not-so-new job. My contract got renewed. No one on my product’s team had any idea where the product was going or what they needed my work for, or when. Heck, I was still using Microsoft Word, actively sending my career backwards in a field where docs as code is an essential skill.

So I started job searching, complete with a spreadsheet to track what I’ve applied to and see just how many interviews I was getting. As an unfortunate expert job searcher by this point, I had a gut feeling that my job response rate would be low, but gut feelings don’t do crap without data.

Three months later, I started a new amazing job as a direct hire with an intro interview rate of 33% (plus a few I turned down on the spot). Oh, and another raise.

At this point I was financially comfortable, debt-free, and finally feeling good about life. My emergency fund was quickly growing into something closer to a down payment fund even after saving for retirement. Now what? I was lucky to rent in the same home for over ten years, sharing the rent with a roommate for most of that time. When my then-roommate mentioned wanting to moving out of state, I started looking at the cost of homeownership. Despite the real estate boom, a modest condo in a nice part of town was within my budget.

So I went for it. Even though I was approved for the top end of my budget, no one pressured me into buying more home than I could afford, and I like to think I had realistic expectations through the whole process. I looked at six homes this spring and got accepted on my first offer without waiving anything outlandish, the one where I was standing in the home and told my agent “I want to put an offer on this”. That offer got accepted.

When I say luck and privilege, I mean it. Anything could have gone wrong. Offer after offer could have been rejected. Financing could have fallen through even though I was a perfect candidate on paper. The inspection could have revealed major issues and I could have backed out then. I could have lost my job halfway through the process.

But here I am now, sitting in a home where I can paint the walls, put as many holes in the walls as I want, and make a bookshelf door if I damn well please. (Yes, I’ve looked into this.)

And that makes me feel filthy fucking rich.

Categories
Life

Farewell 2020… I mean 2021

Here we are again. 2021 was… a year to say the least. It started with joy at Georgia doing the right thing in the Senate runoffs and feeling like my vote mattered, along with the possibility of getting a vaccine in the near future and putting an end to this hellscape. It ended with a Senate that can’t do a damn thing, a new and potentially more concerning variant, and wondering how much longer I can put living life on hold.

Categories
Life

The Pandemic Con

I attended Dragon Con in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, fully aware that the convention would be different than in non-pandemic years and that attending a large event was still risky. All attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test from the last 72 hours before picking up a badge. Masks were required everywhere inside the con. You couldn’t buy a badge onsite, Saturday-only badges weren’t available at all. Capacity was halved compared to 2019, but 40,000 people are still a lot no matter how you slice it.

So how was it?

Weird.

I thought I’d be running back home an hour after arriving, ready to hide for the rest of the weekend from my roommate (who skipped out on the con altogether) and the friends staying with me and attending the con. The knowledge that I could do that instead of retreating to a hotel room finally led me to attend, at least for awhile.

You could feel the lack of crowds at the con, and while the con had a different energy than usual, I loved the lack of crowds. I didn’t have to push through crowds in hotel lobbies. I could sit on the floor. I had to wait for the bathroom once the entire weekend. (This is an accomplishment in itself.) I wasn’t squeezed up against people during panels. I could walk on the sidewalk instead of the road. There were fewer elaborate costumes that took up a lot of space, even at night when more of them come out, but never fear: the inflatable dinosaurs were there as always, and the Loki variants were everywhere.

To my great surprise, con attendees were good about keeping their masks on when they weren’t actively eating or drinking. Most of the panels I attended were small in number, with seats further apart than usual (although the exact spacing varied by hotel). In fact, I didn’t go to any of the huge panels–partly because I wasn’t interested in any of the big name guests, partly in an attempt to avoid bigger crowds. Sure, mask use became less consistent in the food court and late at night when more booze came out. But even at the late night dance party I went to, mask use was surprisingly high even on the dance floor.

The desire to stay masked while indoors brought to light my habit of snacking and staying hydrated during the day. In the past I’d eat a snack and have some water during a panel so I could grab a meal when friends were going to the food court or when I had a two-hour break between events. The half-hour block between events, combined with the walk to get food, lines, and of course eating the food, required at least an hour break to grab a meal, and that’s just for going to the food court.

This year, I started to feel my lack of snacking and drinking around Saturday. Finding a place outside to have a snack or drink started to feel like a surreptitious smoke break. Every time I did take a break outside to drink some water, I found myself drinking most of my bottle in a single sitting and wondering why my throat was so sore, as if yelling through a mask and only drinking water during these sneaky breaks all weekend had nothing to do with it. It’s a good thing I had prepared big breakfasts at home before heading to the con because I found myself eating lunch around 2pm most days, sometimes later.

All of these circumstances led to this con being the least social Dragon Con to date. We’ve been trained to think in bubbles over the past year and a half, and that thinking is hard to undo. My social anxiety nightmare is being the lone person in a group where everyone else already knows each other. This is hard enough to handle during regular cons; it takes only twenty attempts to ask if I can sit with a group in the food court only to be told “We’re saving this seat for our friend” before giving up and walking around for half an hour, searching for a place to sit and eat my sad fast food alone. This year breaking out and talking to others was hell, partly because everyone was in their bubbles and partly because there were fewer people remaining to talk to if a conversation ended.

As someone who normally bounces between tracks alone and avoids most of the big panels, making line friends was next to impossible. I carried around a Pokemon Go sign on Friday stating what I wanted to trade, and while this gained only a few trades, it led to a lot of conversations. I was actually sad when a local player took me up on a lot of those trades but couldn’t meet until Sunday because it meant I had no reason to carry that sign around anymore; after all, she was receiving all the things on that sign. I liked having a reason for people to talk to little old me without a costume, just a NaNo shirt and bag with a few nerdy pins on it.

The less social nature of the pandemic con made this year the least fun one to date. Everyone else had their bubbles. Yes, I had friends and acquaintances around the con, and I hung out with some of them throughout. I showed one group of Pokemon Go players the hell I put my brother through in Super Smash while playing as Kirby (and then to be fair, I played as someone else the rest of the time and died pretty early because how do the other players work when you can’t just smash them). I hung out and people watched with a couple of other friends throughout the con. I traded and talked with a local trainer on Sunday. I ran into several Wrimos, both local and from afar. Honestly, the most fun I had at this con was at a queer dance party on Saturday night; if everything is less crowded, may as well check out a party or two and keep my mask on. As a balloon came out and a few of us thwapped the balloon to another group, I laughed so hard I almost cried.

These social frustrations aren’t unique to this year. The social frustrations over the past few years and the sheer size of the convention have started to outweigh the fun I’ve had. So many of my friends and acquaintances love this convention because they’ve found their people. I don’t love it because these people do not feel like my people. I am an alien among the con attendees, an impostor geek who barely recognizes the costumes and isn’t there for most of the media stuff.

All this makes going back next year hard to justify, even though I am local and don’t have to plan a year in advance. I go through this struggle every year. Why continually put myself through the social grinder? I think back to where I have found my place at events, and the answer is always in more niche events. Night of Writing Dangerously. The board game area at other conventions. Pokemon Go Fest. Places where we definitely have something in common or have an immediate reason to interact. The sheer number of tracks at Dragon Con and my interests mean I’m always bouncing between tracks, making it hard to see the same people over and over and connect with them. There’s rarely enough time to settle down for a nice game, even this year when the gaming area would have been less crowded than usual.

If I go next year, I need to approach the con differently. Dragon Con has a writers track (which I already visit) and some additional paid writing workshops that I’ve never attended before. I’ve never been in the con’s board gaming area because I’m so busy trying to do everything else. And most of my attending friends are into completely different things from me so we’re usually off doing our own thing throughout the weekend, hence why I try and fail to make new friends all the time.

I’m not sure what a different approach entails, but it’s time to rethink the Dragon Con experience before burning out and giving up altogether.

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Life Uncategorized

Having More Time Didn’t Magically Solve My Problems

You’ve heard it over and over, from me, from other people, and probably from yourself: I don’t have time to do it all. And in my own navel-gazing case, it’s true. I have a full-time job, some freelance work that I’ve managed to limit to ten hours a week, and other side things: Wikiwrimo, competing in Pokemon Go PVP tournaments, leaving my computer screen to go outside regularly, reading 50 books in a year, pursuing my writing, and on and on and on.

Time was a struggle before the pandemic. I had a boycritter to spend time with. Every weekend had a social thing, sometimes multiple. I was combining multiple tasks at once: freelance work and spending time with the boycritter in coffee shops, cleaning or exercising or commuting with audiobooks.

Honestly, I had been burning out for a long time. All I wanted before the pandemic was a day to myself, free of responsibilities and work and social obligations. I got that free day at the end of February, right before COVID turned the world upside down. The problem with burnout is that a day off is merely a band-aid on an existing problem. Despite being furloughed in April and eventually laid off last year, I still found other things to do with all that time: more than zero effort into housework, updating Wikiwrimo with big picture updates that I had been delaying for years, a little bit of reading, and the usual job search stuff. As I settled into the rhythm of a new job alongside my freelance work, the things I had picked up with the extra time fell to the wayside, and once again I found myself scrambling to get ready for NaNo while also planning the great world tour.

Now I’m barely keeping up. Time spent on the wiki is time I’m not spending on freelance work, which is time not spent writing, which is not time spent making sure I don’t live in a pigsty. Just like in the Before Times, one thing going into overtime or one unplanned thing can mean rearranging the rest of my week to make sure I’m still on top of my obligations.

So what happens now when normalcy glimmers in the distance, along with the hope of an in-person social life on top of everything else I’ve been doing for the past year? Some deep reflection over whether my current lifestyle plus the return of a social life is even sustainable. This isn’t a recent problem. Unfortunately it is the real problem, and I don’t know how to solve it.

I’ve already shaved time from other hobbies. Pokemon Go battling is a hobby of mine, and I’ve cut back on the parts of the game I don’t enjoy, primarily raiding. This has been easy thanks to the continuous return of repeat Pokemon to legendary raids and my apathy toward mega raids. I’ve continued playing while out on walks because long walks in other neighborhoods have been my primary way of leaving the house safely during the pandemic, so I’ve combined that with taking down gyms.

More strikingly, that time has also come from my writing. Ever wondered why I still haven’t finished editing a novel yet? This is why. Editing a novel is a huge undertaking, one that is possible to squeeze into the cracks, but the extent of my editing, at least the early stages, lends itself more to longer stretches of time that I don’t often have. This leaves me trapped: my novels won’t fix themselves.

But some days, after all the work and extra work and wiki maintenance and generally being an adult, I just need to Not for awhile. That’s where all the Twitter and Discord and Pokeclicker and forum stuff come in, and yes, maybe reading a book or having a semblance of a social life while the world is turning its way around. I’ve forced myself to keep going, to keep squeezing some of these projects in, but there’s only so far I can go.

The pie-in-the-sky solution is to become financially independent. After all, the real problems started when I started working full-time with a commute and freelance work. Since my generation looks at boomers and say “Your decisions are why we’ll never retire”, financial independence before traditional retirement age is unlikely.

Well, financial independence is unlikely if I want to pursue the most logical solution: quit my freelance work. This has been dancing around my head for awhile, especially since juggling this much work, all my side projects, having a social life (well, in the Before Times), and everything else I want to do is impossible.

For awhile I told myself I’d quit after repaying my student loans and old debt. Then I paid off my student loans right before the pandemic, and about six months later, the rest of my debt. Now I can quit anytime I want, but something keeps me there. It’s not a love of the work. While it does involve a lot of research and organizing information that I enjoy, it’s often tedious.

Now I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that pays well (albeit with a long commute that will make these problems worse if office work resumes) and healthy savings. But there are retirement goals to get on track for, thanks to not even starting until age 30. There’s also a vague goal of saving for a down payment in the next few years, and freelancing will speed up progress toward that goal while not detracting from other goals like retirement catchup and travel.

I could quit now, but fear keeps me in place. It took me years to get any kind of job despite hundreds of applications and interviews, and I spent a few years cobbling together multiple low-paying freelance gigs to pay the bills with some breathing room. Hustling is in my blood.

There’s also the fact that my current job is a long-term contract with an expiration date. Yes, there’s an option for renewal or hiring, but I don’t know how that would play out, and my attitude toward staying may change drastically in the next year.

So now what? I don’t know. I really wish I did since this is the only life I’ve got, and the end of the pandemic means a chance to truly start living it.

Categories
Life

Farewell 2020 (I hope)

Oh 2020, the year that was a decade long, the month that was a year long… where do I start with you?

The problem with 2020 is you’re never grieving just one thing. The background noise of the world around us has become foreground noise: case numbers and deaths are rising, people think it’s their right to have a 500-person wedding or get a haircut or eat in a restaurant while putting themselves and others at risk, small businesses near you are closing, no one is taking this seriously, the leaders who can tell people to take it seriously aren’t doing shit and in some cases are actively making it worse…

During the first few months of the pandemic I was furloughed, then laid off. The then-boycritter and I broke up after sheltering in place apart and angsting over how we could stay together after he moved away for his new job. I found a new job. I took long walks around neighborhoods just out of my normal strolling zone but close enough that I could still visit on foot. A friend died early in the pandemic and I was the one who wound up telling our mutual friends and acquaintances.

With the foreground and background volumes so flawed, I did mourn the life I had in the Before Times, but I never got to grieve my own losses on their own. In the jumble that 2020 became, each thing added to the grieving pile with no hope of separation.

The volumes adjusted themselves as the summer turned to fall. The pandemic wasn’t worse, but it didn’t look better either. The world settled into a new normal. BLM protests filled the streets, including some near my home. I found a new job and laughed and cried at the new Baby-Sitters Club TV show and kept reading and social distancing. I caught imaginary monsters and won a few small tournaments. Democracy prevailed in the US presidential election, despite the attempts to overturn it. I redrafted a novel and virtually met hundreds of Wrimos around the world. Life was looking up again.

Now someone is fiddling with the foreground and background noises of the world again, and the non-grieving is coming back to me.

The memes and discussions will start in the coming weeks. Post your first 2020 photo. When was the last time you ate inside a restaurant? The last concert, the last festival, the last trip…

The last.

It’s hard to think of something as “the last”, especially right now. In Before Times circumstances, “the last” would mean “most recent”. That meaning still holds but has a heavier meaning of “last time for a very long time”, like how the last time I ate inside a restaurant was Tuesday of That Week.

When will I do that again?

It’s difficult to make 2021 goals with so many uncertainties floating around. A vaccine exists, but how widespread will the vaccine be in 2021? As a younger person with no high-risk conditions and a job that can be done remotely, I’m low on anyone’s priority list, and rightly so.

I haven’t set many goals for the past couple of years, a blessing in disguise this year. I did accomplish all three of my 2020 goals: read 50 books, write 100,000 words for NaNoWriMo, and become debt-free. The last one entered more nebulous territory during the spring despite paying off my student loans in February, but I demolished the rest of that debt after starting the new job.

I’ve been taking on too much and burning out for a long time, and that period of joblessness in the spring and summer would have been an ideal mental recovery time without a pandemic in the way. I dream of winter 2019, those three months of pandemic-free relaxation spent in coffee shops and food halls during off-hours, applying to jobs and writing one of my best navel-gazing essays to date.

The experiencing self, who is choking up more than a few tears while writing this post, is simultaneously bored and working overtime. There is almost nothing new to experience except bad news and chaos all around. My job is in my field and pays well but is often frustrating. Living with someone else shows the best and worst of us both, and the worst is more often magnified in my mind.

The remembering self is busy crafting a tale for Future Sushi, but there’s almost nothing to add in my day-to-day life. The days are blending together into this eternal wasted March. Somewhere in that future lies an end to this hellscape, but the exact location is uncertain.

Time still marches on, independent of our actions, which causes me to look ahead to whatever shape 2021 might take.

Big goals haven’t worked for me in a long time. Saying I’ll edit my book or revamp this website haven’t helped without a more concrete action plan. Here’s what I have planned for 2021:

  • Re-plan and start revising my NaNoWriMo 2020 novel
  • Read 50 books
  • Write 100,000 words for NaNoWriMo 2021
  • Save half my post-tax income

The last goal may become a challenge if we can start having social gatherings and go to restaurants and concerts and conventions safely again. I welcome it. Barely going out in 2020 and finding a new job with a significant pay increase has made me realize how lucky I was this year — and how unlucky so many others weren’t. As a Great Recession grad, it took a long time to reach financial stability, and I would have been screwed if I had my financial situation of five years ago.

Most of this saved cash will go toward retirement thanks to this late financial start. Beyond that, I’ll start saving for a place to call my own and yes, a nice vacation if things ever go back to normal. I have a lot of places to see before climate change destroys them.

Beyond that, I’m taking small steps and hoping they add up to big ones. It’s the only thing I can do right now.