(or, “NSFWCORP and the Layoff”)
When I transplanted my family from Florida to North Carolina, hugely pregnant, with just enough cash to finance the move, we were fucked. But Florida was suffocating, I was dying in academia, and there was no way we could stay in roach-infested, moldy, cheap housing with a newborn. So, we moved.
Two kids, three cats, two adults, and a baby on the way. I’d been slaving away in molecular biology with my eyes on the upcoming PhD applications. I didn’t sleep much. I never saw my partner. It was lonely and soul-crushing, having to perform the daily accommodations for coping with how poverty gets inside you and festers like the kind of cancer dogs can smell. Can we pay the power bill this month? Will we make rent? You work, but you never hope. I worked as a lab technician, went to school full time, Jerem worked full time, we were raising two kids - one with on-going medical issues - but no one hoped. I was an excellent student, a stellar lab technician, despite the fact that all I ever thought about was money and survival.
Against all odds, we scraped together the money to move. That we pulled this off still blows my mind.
Shortly after landing in NC, I found myself writing some ridiculous science piece for some journalism start-up called NSFWCORP. They paid. And when I say that, I mean that they paid me like it was my job, not a hobby. So I treated it like a job. When I had my baby, I wrote for them on my cellphone, scripting an entire piece by thumb because my emergency c-section incision made it too painful to sit at a computer. There I was, nursing 22 hours a day, writing about Ebola on my phone.
Soon after the baby was born, my partner injured his back. Badly. He couldn’t stand, let alone walk. He couldn’t hold the baby. He couldn’t work. So I, with my connections at NSFWCORP, stepped up my pitching. With a newborn, I couldn’t exactly jump into a full-time, minimum wage job but goddamnit, I could fucking write. I became obsessed. I read constantly, ingesting news around the clock as I kept vigil over my non-sleeping infant. She never slept, not alone, not until she was past six months. She slept attached to me.
So, I rigged up a curved nursing pillow and sling so that I could nurse her while I wrote; the sound of my fingers pounding at cheap laptop keys was her lullaby. A friend told me that the more words a baby hears, the smarter she will be, so I began reading to her constantly. Dense scientific papers, breaking news, long form journalism, sports writing for sports I didn’t even follow, everything. And, with her attached to me like the world’s most cuddly lamprey, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
I loved it. Everything about academia that was a choke collar to me was celebrated here. My reluctance to specialize? Perfect. My insatiable curiosity? Perfect. Endless question-asking? Perfect. Working here revitalized me. I’d always been an anxious mess, but now my anxiety was tempered with something else. Satisfaction? Joy? Insanity?
When the time came to go back to school to finish my degree, I realized I’d missed applying because I’d been so busy writing. I put it off. I’m already drowning in debt and besides, in the months that had passed I’d gone from freelancer to contractor, carving a Leigh-shaped hole in the NSFWCORP masthead. Things my family depended on came from words that I had written. I marveled at stupid shit, musing aloud that the electricity powering the ceiling fan was made of letters I strung together. I seriously couldn’t believe it. It felt like a fraud. I fucking loved it.
I went to porn conventions, wrote about infectious diseases, was threatened by a porn star after I profiled him, covered reproductive rights in NC, chatted with park rangers, and interviewed scientists. I lived in a constant state of striving to improve. I never worked “smart” or cut corners, instead putting everything into my pieces, spending days on research that I’d never put in the piece, just so I’d be able to answer related questions should they arise. I was voracious, sucking up knowledge like a demon. Like I said, I fucking loved it.
At one point, I had the sickening realization that I’d fallen for it. I wanted to write forever. I was hopeful. I became a full-time employee at NSFWCORP. I began working even more.
In a little over a year, we had pulled our family out of poverty, with Jerem working from home as an illustrator and doing the bulk of the childcare, and me, glued to the laptop, often traveling for work. Over months, we inched closer and closer to stable. We got off food assistance. Sure, the budget was still incredibly tight, especially because you always lose benefits before you have the means to adjust, but I knew, when I got into bed each night, that bills would be paid. My 11 year-old stepson got to play Little League for the first time because, for the first time, we could afford it. Basic car maintenance like oil changes and new windshield wipers were possible. We got married in a small backyard ceremony. When the cat got sick, I had enough in savings to cover the cost of her exam. The savings were small, but my god, did I sleep at night.
I miss that kind of sleep.
Earlier this month, I was unexpectedly laid off from NSFWCORP. I was told there was an acquisition coming, and that I would be redundant. I knew things were bad, but I still hoped we’d pull through. When the news came, I sat on the ground in stunned silence, listening to my boss as he stumbled through the HR minutiae. I sat because my knees buckled, my legs turning into insolent noodles (I will later harshly berate myself for being such a vaudevillian cliche). When the conversation was over, I thanked him. Paul is a great editor who, among other things, plucked me out of obscurity and ruined my life by throwing me into journalism. I also immediately ridiculed myself for thanking the man who had just fired me.
I can be such a fucking Golden Retriever sometimes.
No one wants to cry when they are fired. It looks bad. You’re supposed to play it cool, like it happens all the time, like it wasn’t Christmas being snatched from your three kids, like you are still going to sleep at night instead of playing Russian roulette by skipping bills. Like eviction isn’t lurking.
And I’d be lying if I said I took it in stride. Oh no, I hung up the phone and sobbed, alone in the cold driveway, the harsh November air muting my embarrassment of sounds. Though Paul was hopeful I’d land on my feet somewhere, I knew the chances of that happening were grim. I cried because I knew that all of the unlikely progress we’d made away from poverty was gone. I cried because I knew that well-paying writing work was rare. But mostly, I cried because I knew that this special interlude in my life was over. Those sweet mornings with my now-husband and now-toddler, where we’d all sit down for breakfast together in a great puddle of light, gone.The priceless joy of actual family time that came with stabilizing, steady pay, gone. Our little utopia, where I had a good job with benefits that I loved, where we all had dinner together each night, where even though I am a pathological over-worker, I still got to see my kids and husband more than I ever thought possible, it was gone.
I took about 24 hours off and then I got back to it.
I work now, constantly. I feel feral and desperate, emailing and pitching and writing and outlining and interviewing and writing and editing and straining my brain to surpass its stupid limitations. I am in a mad scramble to overcome the inertia of freelancing; the process from pitch to payment is not a particularly swift one. I have stopped sleeping once more.
But it’s not the work that bothers me. No, in all honesty, the work is a salve. What hurts is the heart-breaking return to the life we struggled so fucking hard to escape. Jerem, back injury tenuously healed (but always painful), is trying to find outside employment to supplement what he brings in with his illustrations. This means money, bills, and food, but it also means that I won’t see him much any more. Because when he’s home, I’ll be writing or he’ll be drawing or both, if the baby is asleep. We can’t afford child care. We have one car. If we can work the logistics, I’ll get a job too. We’ll juggle kids and schedules and we’ll miss each other, but that’s just how life works. Normal people don’t get joy in their days. What a fucking princess I must be to even begin to whine about this shit.
There is the feeling that what I’m trying to do is reckless and vain. What a stupid little girl I am, to try to feed my family with words. To gamble with even the slight possibility of empty tummies because I’m trying to write for a living. How dare I continue this for one day longer, when at least a full-time minimum wage job would assure some modicum of income. I feel selfish and oily and tired and scared.
And my god, I am so fucking scared.
But I am also so fucking close. There are potential pieces on my horizon that make me salivate, so near the path to fruition, and yet far enough away to seem impossible. There are things that I absolutely must write, stories lodged so deep in my marrow that they compete with the pervasive financial anxiety for my insomniac attentions. My chest hurts all the time but goddamnit, I am fucking hungry for this.
But I am just not close enough.
Tomorrow, Monday, December 2nd, is the last NSFWCORP radio show. Beginning at 12:00PM Pacific, Paul Carr and guests (including myself) will be auctioning off everything in the NSFWCORP headquarters. For every $10 they get, a minute will be added to the show. It’ll go on for as long as possible. The first chunk of money will go to pay the freelancers. The rest, split between the laid-off employees. There was no severance package for me when I was laid-off from NSFWCORP. This radio show is literally my lifeline.
Which is why, at this very moment, I am queasily groveling on the internet. (Hi guys! We have a lot of shit to get rid of and a Keurig would look pretty sexy in your kitchen!!!)
My path through December is very much in the hands of the NSFWCORP readership. If enough is raised, I’ll make it through to see my pitches and proposals come to fruition. I’ll have the insane luxury of continuing to write about, report on, and illuminate the weird fucking world we inhabit. Yes, Jerem will still be taking on another job. No, my family life will still have returned to the grueling, soul-crushing daily existence of treading water in America. But, amidst the chaos, I will still be writing like a motherfucking demon.
And my tiny flicker of hope, the most dangerous thing of all, will yet survive.