Category Archives: #Life

Freedom and fear as synonyms

Today, I woke up unemployed.

With no job waiting for me, I am in the final stages of packing everything I own and moving halfway across the country. Again. This time, instead of moving for a job, I am moving because it’s what I want to do. What I need to do.

Even though I am not gainfully employed in Chicago, my fiance is. And I believe people, especially me, are tired of hearing me bitch about being in a long-distance relationship. About how I never get to see Jean, about the disadvantages of maintaining a relationship via cell phone signal, about really, really, really needing a hug.

Now some people, especially me, believe this plan has some pretty serious holes in it. There’s the lack of income, the potential gap in job history, leaving The New York Times company (some people include leaving Florida, but I put that in the “pro” column). I’m ready to accept these problems for a chance to move my life forward. Jean and I are getting married in a few months, and if I didn’t make this move now, I’d be making it then.

I am ready for this move now. Too many of my days have been identical to the one just before it. I’ve been stagnant in life, doing my best to stir the water as often as I can, but it’s not been enough. This move, which I’m totally ready for because it puts me together with Jean, scares the shit out of me in so many ways. And I’m glad, because I need that fear to help me figure out what I’m going to do next. To help me figure out what I want to do next.

By next, I mean Step 2 in this plan because Step 1 is that I’m going to get a really, really, really big hug.

Love Tomes on Car Napkins, the blog post

JPS' book of poetry, available here.

My companions were not dressed to crash the wedding, so I was on my own.

It was the same night as the release event for my book, Love Poems on Bar Napkins, and I was sitting outside of a burger joint downtown with Matt and the intern, discussing our next move, completely sober. The bride and groom had walked past about 10 minutes before, and a number of other guests were spotted walking from the venue to the hotel.

The options were go to a bar and sit around a table or head back to Matt’s house to sit around a table, and I didn’t like either of them. I was excited from the release, and I wanted to do something. Like crash a wedding. Given our attire, and the fact that it was approaching midnight and the event was obviously clearing out, I formulated a simple plan. I was going to walk in, grab some wedding cake, and then share the spoils with my comrades.

However, the event planner was not smiling upon our endeavor. As we arrived to the venue, a bunch of dudes in tuxes were loading up two vans with the decorations. The reception was over, and the cake was neatly packed inside one of the vehicles. I probably would have chickened out anyway, but I didn’t get the chance.

As we turned to walk back to Matt’s house, I said, “Let’s go on a road trip. I want to watch the sunrise on the beach.” This suggestion was not taken seriously, but I pressed on. By the time our walk ended, I’d convinced Matt and the intern that I had a good idea. I proposed Cocoa Beach, only a few hours away so we’d make it in plenty of time.

“If we’re going on a road trip, we’ve gotta leave the state, right?” Matt said. He was right. We scoured the Google Map of Georgia for the right destination, and started to settle on Savannah, which was supposed to be a neat place to visit.

“If we’re going that far, we might as well go to the motherland,” the intern, a South Carolinian, said. “Hilton Head isn’t that much farther than Savannah.” He was right.

Stud muffins in South Carolina.

Five hours later, sustained by caffeine, our eclectic (and largely incompatible) tastes in music, and a lot of talking out politics, we climbed out of my Focus just after sunrise and walked onto the beach.

The colors of the sunrise over the Atlantic were enhanced by the hours we spent driving through the pitch-black, overcast night and the fact that I could barely keep my eyes open. We were two states away from where we started the evening and the beach was practically empty. It was liberating. We ran into the ocean. We built a sandcastle. I got stung by a jellyfish, which gave me a pretty sweet rash on my wrist.

A couple hours after we arrived, we climbed back into my car and headed south. We did stop in Savannah, a pretty place that we ran through too quickly. Maybe we ran through the whole night too quickly.

At one point, I think we made a deal to try and crash a wedding this summer, which I’m sure we’ll never do. But on the off chance we try, I’m going to insist we put those miles on somebody else’s car.

The poems we leave behind us

For the last month, I’ve spent more time staring at stacks of my poems than I have sleeping. I was finishing a book and all I could think about. Sometimes I even felt incapable of talking about anything else to my friends and family.

Finally, on Saturday, I released the book, Love Poems on Bar Napkins, here in Gainesville. And since this morning, I’ve been selling autographed copies online for $10 (what a steal). That includes shipping.

But enough plugging, I’m here to tell you a story.

Bringing together 48 poems into a collection requires a lot of reflection. Besides finding the right order, I also had to edit each poem, some of which I wrote in college. I’m a very different poet now, and I had to decide when to leave a piece alone or, in a few cases, when to completely rip it apart.

During that process, I got a lot of help from my editor, David. He made suggestions for most of my poems and pulled together the draft order for the book. David understands poetry, and his suggestions were almost always right. When I was getting ready for the final draft of the book, we spent 5 hours sitting in a coffee shop, and he gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten about a poem.

We were discussing my poem “Tequila Sunset,” and he started to make a point, a minor point that I don’t remember, this way: “I know this really happened, but…”

That poem didn’t happen. In fact, unlike the majority of my work, it isn’t even based on something I witnessed. Almost the whole thing came from inside my head, but I had him convinced I was telling a true story. That accidental compliment from David, who knows how far a poet will go to manipulate an audience with words, made me excited for my work and kept me going while I finished work on the book.

I was still riding that high two weeks later, when I flew back to Illinois to visit Jean and my family. One night, sitting in her folks’ house, Jean pulled out the suitcase in which she keeps every note I ever wrote to her in high school. (Yes, she has one of those, and I have a corresponding bag in my apartment.) Apparently, she’d been digging through a few days earlier and reading some of the poems I’d written in the early days of our relationship.

They were terrible.

But while I was reading them, I spotted what I was trying to say, the poetic idea I reached for but never quite attained. And in a few cases, I could think of a poem I wrote later that used the same idea but was good enough to include in my book, the first copies of which were being shipped to my apartment.

My father’s favorite cliche was running through my mind. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” he’d asked me a million times. I perfected the appropriate groaning response. But still, he was right. And the poems before me, written in fading pencil and creased from being carried in khaki pant pockets for a day, were the first attempts at writing the book I had just finished. The first step toward convincing David I was writing a true story.

Turtles make a great foundation

There are awkward conversations in every one of us. Sometimes we try to avoid them, other times we never see them coming. But when they are finished, we almost always feel better.

I’ve been having a lot of these conversations lately, and I’ve come to realize that they are one of the key foundations we build our lives around. That isn’t a bad thing. These conversations are awkward because they are hard, and foundations should be made from rocks.

There have been some awkward conversations at work, lately. I’m getting ready to leave at the end of July, and it was difficult to bring up the subject with my bosses. Thankfully, they asked first (since they already knew about Jean’s job in Chicago). They have been wonderful and understanding about my decision to leave, and I’m not just saying that because they could Google this. That first conversation was a little bit awkward, but everything since has been easy and honest.

There have also been some awkward conversations with friends. The first one caught me by surprise. He called me mid-day to talk, and after the usual opening banter, I asked why he was off work so early. He had been laid off that morning. I froze for a minute, not wanting to hurt his feelings when I knew he was still in shock about the ordeal. But I decided it was best to just ask what happened right away. It was hard to listen to knowing that I’m getting ready to leave my job without a new one to go to. I was in a little bit of shock myself as he told me what happened, but I think I did us both a favor by dragging it out in the open right away, even if it was by accident.

Just tonight, I was talking to a different friend about trying to lose some weight. He and I are both trying unsuccessfully and want to change that. It’s a topic I’ve most avoided here and on my social media because I’m not sure publishing every little success and failure is a good way to keep myself on track. But maybe this friend and I could motivate each other in private. We decided on a race, pound for pound, in hopes that we could play off of each other’s successes. The whole time we’re talking about it, we were prone to unrelated tangents about anything less awkward to talk about. But in the end, we came up with a plan, and we’re going to support each other privately as we race toward our goals.

All these conversations have been replaying in my head in the days (or hours) since they happened despite the awkwardness I wanted to escape. Or perhaps they replay in my head because of the awkwardness. They’re all about priorities, specifically about setting mine straight. Moving to be with Jean, fear about leaving my job, and losing some weight. It’s hard to deal with all of these things separately, and dealing with them all at the same time has been difficult. It’s been awkward. And maybe that’s the only thing that keeps me going.

Powers of the mind

While taking the trash out last week, I found myself staring at the not-quite-full-anymore moon and wishing I was doing something more productive than spring cleaning.

“If only I had the energy of a full moon, I could do something important, something creative, something different.”

Of course, the moon has nothing to do with the way I act, no matter how often I try to convince myself I’m a werewolf. I used to believe otherwise, but my friend Bill was quick to send several well-researched articles to disprove me when I shared my belief of the old wives’ tale. It wasn’t long before I came up with a serious lack of evidence and had to admit he was correct.

Thinking of that conversation, typed furiously into a Gchat window, I remember the joy of being proven wrong.

It isn’t that I enjoy having the wrong information, and it’s not that I choose to be wrong on purpose, but I have a basic need to challenge everything. And then, after I’ve challenged it, I often find myself admitting I was wrong and changing my position. For me, it is an occasion to be cherished. It’s the best way to gather new information and to engage in a conversation with a purpose. And being a journalist has made me more suspicious of every claim than I used to be.

A lot of people don’t like that approach. They’d rather I took them at their word on everything they say. Or worse, they try to shame me for a position I took long after I’ve admitted I was wrong.

When I looked at the moon, I realized I hadn’t engaged in that kind of conversation for weeks. I was feeling unproductive because I wasn’t challenging myself, I wasn’t learning. I’ve made myself become more engaged since then, and it’s amazing how much better I feel.

And it’s true the moon doesn’t have the special powers I liked to imagine, but thanks to Bill, when I caught sight of it, it gave me the energy I wanted it to have.

The worst kinds of pranks

I have never been very good at April Fools’ day.

The problem with having one day designated for pranks is that we’re all paranoid in expectation of them and when they do happen, they don’t always have the desired effect. Physical pranks especially seem to fall flat.

Fake stories can be done very well, but in the age of Facebook, they can also be done very poorly. So. Incredibly. Poorly. Still, it has always been the fake stories that I’m most likely to fall for on April Fools’ Day, especially from Jean.

The first, and still best, time she tricked me was our freshman year of high school when we’d only been dating for 6 months. Jean walked up to me (fake) teary-eyed in the hall at school and told me she was going to have to transfer out of our Catholic school into the public school closer to her home.

At 14, I would never accuse her of fabricating that sort of teenage drama. Because that would make me the bad guy when it turned out to be true. Also, I can never remember what the date is and April 1 is no exception. After a moment or two of my consoling her and Jean avoiding every question I asked, she broke out laughing, said “April Fools!” to me, and then walked off to her first class.

And she’s managed to get me with one story every year. But this year was different.

As soon as I woke up, I started brainstorming the best story I could. After trying for hours, I had nothing. Much later, the perfect idea arrived through what I must call divine intervention. I sent Jean a text message:

“At the hospital. Turns out I have a stomach parasite. Easily treatable, might be Twinkie related.”

Still unanswered an hour later, I followed up:

“Released. Feeling Much better. Have to take it easy for a couple days.”

This story was everything. Just serious enough to not give away the fact that it was joke while also not being life threatening. Unusual enough to not be expected. And based in truth considering I just wrapped up The Twinkie Experiment, a project to see how long it takes a Twinkie to go bad (about 50 days, in my quasi-scientific estimation).

When she finally called me, she immediately inquired about my medical experience and said I would certainly have to record a follow-up episode to explain the new developments. And then I got to use the phrase I’ve never gotten to use on my fiance before: “April Fools!”

James 1, Jean 9. It’s a start.

I can’t sleep before an early flight

The airplane safety lecture drones through the warming engines at the gate. Flight attendants look as tired as I wish I felt while they demonstrate proper seat buckling and flotation device finding techniques, the latter of which will serve us well flying over Alabama, Tennessee, and Illinois.

I wonder how many of these people will follow instructions when they really matter. I watched them board in the wrong zone and glare in disgust when their oversized bag was gate checked.

“This bag has never had to be gate checked before!” Liar.

Flying out of bit cities is awful. At least in Gainesville, there are few enough of us that even TSA treats you nicely because the line is all of 10 people long. Big cities are different — the Walmarts of the sky.

On a good day, I’d bet half could manage to follow emergency instructions. And since I’m flying to see Jean, it’s a good day. When I’m flying back on Monday, I’ll guess about 10 percent.

I wrote a poem about airplane peanuts and long-distance relationships about six months ago. It’s some of my best work, and I still have trouble reading it without crying sometimes. Ever since I wrote it, I’ve saved every peanut bag the airlines have given me. Sometimes, I ask my seatmates if I can have theirs but fail to give an explanation. It never makes much sense when I say it out loud.

They didn’t serve peanuts on this flight, though.

Will fly for peanuts
by James Patrick Schmidt

The Monday morning flight isn’t full
and I’m one of the lucky few sitting
alone, which reminds me that I’m
lonely. And lucky. In this economy,
I’m one of the few lucky journalists
who managed to get a job. So lucky
that I live halfway across the country
from my wife. She cried when we
parted at the airport, but like always,
I didn’t cry until one of us boarded
a plane. And now, the tears drying
on my T-shirt sleeve, the steward
gives me two bags of salted peanuts
as if an extra 17 to snack on will
make my plight more bearable.
The airline is still making a big
deal about giving away free snacks
again since business got better.
I want to write one of the happy,
beautiful poems she’s been filling
my mind with all week but I’ve
been too busy to write. Instead,
I scribble a calendar on paper
to figure out how long it will be
until I see her again. That number
can’t be right. That number isn’t
right, but it’s the number I’ll count
down from starting now. Thank God
I have these peanuts to remind me
how bad it used to be.

The stories I tell to strangers

As I set out to romp the streets of Gainesville on St. Patrick’s Day, I replaced my usual red pen with a black sharpie. The idea was to put one ring around my arm for every green beer I drank.

I stole the idea from my friend Campbell, who used a similar method to keep track of drinks on her 21st birthday. In her original plan, she was going to put small lines on her arm. She made the mistake of putting me in charge of the marker and her small lines became full rings. Like Campbell, I eventually lost control of my experiment in documentation.

First, there was the cheating. Not all beer is created equal. And sometimes, the beer they serve green is disgusting. When that happened, I started ordering my usual drink, gin and tonic. That beverage is clear, but the garnish is a lime. So I put a circle around my arm. Then there was whiskey. Just as stereotypical to the holiday as green beer, so I drew a circle. And then I had some cider because I like it better than beer and added a circle just because I could.

Next, there was the marker. The best way to put a ring all the way around my arm was to get help from a friend. It wasn’t long before there were liberties being taken with my stripes and they were made crooked and squiggly. And then my friends added pictures onto my arms and onto each other, too. By the end of the night, I had 13 stripes, my initials, and a Wu-Tang Clan logo. I’m not even a Wu-Tang Clan fan.

My arm the morning after St. Patrick's Day.

After a while, people started asking me why I had stripes on my arm. To the first few people, I told the truth. But that got boring. Soon, I was making up a different story for every stranger that asked me. One for every heart I’ve broken today. One for every arm wrestling match I’ve won today. I’m practicing to live with a pride of tigers in the wild.

Whenever I make up stories to strangers like that, I never consider it lying. I’ve been known to stretch the truth to the person sitting next to me on an airplane or waiting in line with me at the DMV, but only in situations where I know I’ll never see that person again. And only a little bit. Telling a story about my cousin and calling her my sister or claiming to have spent more time in a city I’ve only driven through. I’ve never considered it lying. Instead, I think of it as storytelling.

Because I’m a journalist, so much of my life is devoted to factual information that isn’t exaggerated or made up. And whenever I deal with my family and friends, I treat it the same way. But there’s something about these strangers I encounter that gives me the opportunity and the desire to stretch just a little bit because it sounds better and helps us connect a little bit more. When it comes to single serving friends, maybe that is the truth.

Re-manifesto

The start of #Life was a strange time for us. We were all finishing college and most of us were unemployed or going into temporary employment arrangements. We were scared, confused, and broke. And we started a blog.

Our lives have changed since then. Jobs dominate the time that doubt once reigned. Sleep patterns have grown far too regular. Booze intake has fallen out of the alcoholic range.

Our lives have become more boring, and our lack of writing is proof of that. But we need to fight it. The focus of #Life has been the passive telling of stories that happened to us. But that ignores what a story really is. A story is an experience we prepare for and choose to go through not because of our daily grind, but in spite of it.

Moving forward, #Life will have the same kinds of stories we’ve told before, and we will find new ways to tell the stories we’re going to search out. The cast of characters might change. The website is going to look different. And we’re going to try and build a community. If you have a story you’d like to share, get in touch and we’ll talk about putting it up. We can be reached by e-mail at stories@hashtaglife.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/hashtaglife, or on Twitter @hashtaglife.

Starting this week, I’ll put up the first of our new stories. Starting today, I’m going to adhere to the new motto of #Life:

A story worth telling is a life worth living.

“To do my duty”

As I walked out of the grocery store, I was approached by a young man in a Boy Scout Uniform. He had a Tenderfoot rank patch and was probably in his first year of scouting.

“Would you be interested in supporting the Boy Scouts?” he asked.

I said I would and let him make his pitch to sell me popcorn. It’s been years since I’ve sold any myself, but I remember giving the same pitch to all my neighbors and family friends each fall while I was growing up. And I can remember my mother telling us how important it was to practice our whole pitch on people we were selling to. Something about good life skills learned from approaching people and talking to them. I just wanted the cool prizes.

My mother had this habit whenever neighborhood kids or family friends would sell her anything that she would make them give her the entire pitch. She already knew what she wanted, but she loved to help teach the children how to interact with adults. While speaking to this young scout, I found myself doing the same. I knew what I wanted — and had taken out an exact amount of cash from the ATM to pay him with — but I made sure to ask all the right questions to hear every part of his sale.

“What kind of popcorn are you selling?” “How much does it cost?” “What is the money you’re raising going to be used for?” He answered each in turn and then gave me my popcorn (the caramel corn with nuts, my favorite).

After our transaction, I started to act like my father, who never does anything the easy way. I offered him my left hand, which is a Boy Scout handshake, and told him “Keep up the good work, Tenderfoot.” I started to walk away, but saw his eyes open wide in recognition. Behind me, I heard him say to his older sister who was supervising him, “He knew what a Tenderfoot was!” And then his sister replied, “He was wearing Boy Scout shorts.”