Your Wait Time Is

This year, as I have done for the past two, I sat down and got healthcare for the next twelve months through Healthcare.gov and the Affordable Care Act. As much as I could rage against the irony of that name — I’ve paid literally thousands of dollars in the last few years for something that I have yet to use, thankfully, and I really struggle with calling it “affordable”; for that matter, I still struggle with the insanity that is the US healthcare system in general — that isn’t the purpose of me telling you this. No, I’m telling you as preamble to this story.

I fucked up my submission this year. I knew this because every time I got to the last page of the form, the very last page, I’d get an error message. I’d filled in everything, put all my information in, electronically signed everything, and I’d get the same numerical error each time. I was, to put it mildly, losing my mind over this: partially in terms of frustration, partially panic — the deadline was approaching and I just couldn’t finish the process for reasons I couldn’t understand. Faced with the prospect of having no healthcare next year, I took drastic measures, and called the 1-800 number for assistance.

I used to work in a call center. It was my first job in the US, and I did it for a long time; because of that, I have more patience than most with call centers and call center workers, which made it slightly more palatable to deal with the recorded message I got immediately, telling me my hold time was estimated at 50 minutes. That, it turned out, was a conservative estimate: it was closer to 90 minutes later when I finally got to speak to someone. An hour and a half of the same 30 seconds of music, looped forever and ever.

Here’s the twist, though: the woman I spoke to was amazing. Patient with my grumbling and ineptitude, kind and funny, she not only diagnosed my problem quickly, she went out of her way to fix it — to the point of restarting my entire application on the phone and walking me through it step by step, calmly dealing with me answering the wrong questions and telling me to try again. What was, by any objective measure, a frustrating chore, she made something close to a pleasant experience, or something close.

By the end of the call, everything was sorted out and my application completed and approved. (No, I won’t tell you what I fucked up; it was simultaneously arcane and embarrassing.) I had spent the entire day then increasingly upset and frustrated, angry at both the system and my inability to work inside it, and by the time I hung up, I felt relieved and oddly touched at the way I’d been treated — that someone had taken care of the problem with such good humor and patience. I knew that job, and knew just how many calls like mine she’d likely had to deal with that day; that just made me even more impressed by how things had gone.

It sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but I felt happy and filled with new faith in human nature after the call. It came a week or so too early, but still; let’s call that the first small Christmas miracle of the year.

Turn And Face The Strange

Ive been writing for different places in the last few months, after losing my Wired gig and seeing my THR workload get smaller — something that, thankfully, gets reversed at the start of next year, I’ve recently been told. It’s been a move born of necessity, but not necessarily one that I regret; it’s good to reach out a bit, try new things. Even before the pandemic, I was thinking that I should probably be trying to be published elsewhere. It’s just that the way in which it happened wasn’t exactly an ideal situation. But, really, what was, this year…?

Some of the “different place” writing has been old haunts returned to to see if it worked out, others have been new venues I’d been eyeing for awhile. Not all of it, wonderfully, has even been published under my name — intrigue! — but it’s all been part of this experience of breaking out of the comfortable work rut I’d found myself in for the past few years, and looking at the way I do the work that I do.

(Just because I call it a rut doesn’t mean I’m bemoaning it, I should clarify; it was a situation I was very fortunate to be in, and one I miss being in now, and not just for monetary reasons. Having two ongoing gigs of the scale I did was a rare and wonderful thing, and I’m lucky I had the opportunity for as long as I did. Nonetheless, I was doing the same thing for a few years, and at some point, I became a little too comfortable with that.)

It’s been an experience, to say the least — relearning how to pitch stories, and even more importantly, how to deal with pitches being rejected; learning to deal with the demands and expectations of new editors; discovering the quirks of how I write and the affectations of others I’ve taken on, unconsciously — and it’s something that has improved what I’d call my craft, if such a term didn’t make me feel self-conscious.

That said, as I head into a new year and one that, I hope, is going to be less tumultuous for the world and my profession in particular, I find myself hoping to find recurring, regular berths again. I love writing, I love my job. It’s just that, if it’s possible, I’d like to be able to love and appreciate it with a little less worry for awhile.

It Echoes Round The World

We’re at that time of the year when Best Of lists are being put together, and everyone expects to see carefully curated, well-researched, numbered lists of the cream of whatever crop is being discussed: books, music, TV shows, music, whatever. In theory, it’s something that I’m currently doing for comics, for THR, but there’s just one problem: I can’t really remember what happened this year, as opposed to last, or even  next year. My personal Best of 2020 feels more like a Best of Something Close To 2020 But Really, What Is Time If You Think About It, Anyway, No, Really Think About It?

This isn’t a new thing; the fact that I discover work months after its release — and am lucky enough to read other things far ahead of when it arrives in stores — means that I’m always struggling a little with the timeframes of my Best Of lists. (This is the first year in… at least the last three or four, where I only have to create one list instead of two, now that I’m not writing for Wired anymore. I think I’m grateful for that, but I’m not too sure.) But it’s a problem exacerbated by COVID making my sense of time particularly screwy this year, without doubt.

The pandemic has skewed my thinking along the Best Of lines in other, less obvious, ways, as well. It meant no comic conventions, which has left me unexposed to work that I would’ve discovered there, as well as robbed me of conversations that almost always sway my opinions and get me to try things I wouldn’t otherwise. The lack of any true 2020 “buzz book” is almost certainly down to the absence of comic conventions to help build consensus, I’m sure.

And so, here I am, passively — well, perhaps a little more active than that — trying to remember what came out when, and whether they deserve to be placed in the plastic pantheon that is a Best Of list, while also missing the shows I didn’t attend, and the conversations I didn’t have. It feels very 2020, if nothing else.