Being a freelancer is analogous to playing emotional extreme sports. The high of scoring a book deal while your bank account is overdrawn is commensurate to the bungee chord snapping back from slamming your body into the side of a gorge. The low of receiving rejections on twelve potentially life-changing projects in one week, is proportionate to falling short of your motorcycle jump, smashing into a pile of cars, and breaking thirty-two bones. A friend once asked me what my least favorite phrase was and I didn’t hesitate. It is, “We regret to inform you.”
I know that for every extreme high there is an extreme low. But knowing this does not seem to mitigate my despair when the worst happens. The worst, by the way, is not always a rejection. In my case, it is often the fact that money I am due gets held up, lost, or substantially reduced by a clerical error or an accountant’s interpretation of tax law.
Earlier this year, Pat and I were completely tapped out. He was still taking any small job he could get, but we were both counting on the $24,000.00 payment I was due for turning in a draft of a script. Once I paid commissions and taxes were removed, the check would actually be $12,000.00, but that would be enough to keep us from the street (or, more truthfully, out of my parent’s guestroom) for two whole months. The night the check was supposed to be delivered, the children were asleep in their room, Pat was playing around on the computer, and I was pacing. Finally, the check arrived and I ripped it open to find that my $24,000.00 payment had been taxed and commissioned down to less that $8,000.00.
My eyes blurred, I started to pant, and I yelled, “Noooooo.”
Pat jumped up from his computer, “What? What, What is it?”
“No. No. No. Not again. I can’t take it.”
“What the hell is it?” Pat demanded.
“The check. The damn check. It’s only eight thousand,” I moaned, throwing myself on the couch and starting to whimper.
Pat grabbed the check, “Brett. It’s just a tax mistake. It’s happened before. They taxed you like you made all that money in one week.”
“I can't live like this any more,” I snuffled.
Pat sat on the edge of the couch. “You’ll get a tax adjustment check like the last time,” he said reasonably.
“What if I don’t?” I whined.
“You will. You probably will. Just relax now. There’s nothing we can do until the morning.”
“I can’t relax. I won’t be able to sleep,” I said.
“You can’t keep doing this to yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to calm down.”
“You’re not going to say the thing about being a fireman are you?”
“I guess I am. Apparently you need to hear it.”
“I know what it is and it doesn’t help.”
“What is it?”
“Come on, Pat. Stop treating me like I’m a child.”
“An artist complaining about the ups and downs of being a freelancer is like a fireman complaining that the fire is hot. It’s never going to change. It’s part of the job. If you don’t like it…” He let the end of the sentence dangle. Because he knew that I couldn’t quit now. What else could I do at my age? With my experience? My best bet -- my only bet -- was hanging in there. All of which was beside the more salient point that I love what I do. I’m passionate about writing.
Pat put his hand on my head and stroked my hair, “Go to bed. We’ll fix it in the morning.”
“I’ll never be able to sleep,” I said, rolling over to face him.
“You know,” he said, gently, “you don’t have to hold the plane up.”
“The fireman and the plane? That’s two metaphors in one minute,” I pointed out, meanly.
He was referring to my mother’s fear of flying. Whenever I flew with her as a child, she would grip the hand rests with unrelenting tension, and stare pale-faced in the direction of the cockpit, through the entire flight. When I asked her what she was doing, she would say, “I’m holding the plane up.”
Like my mother, I believe that worry and tension will avert disaster. If I agonize enough, I reason, the worst won’t happen. Pat has been maintaining for years that psychological tension does not affect outcome. My deeper, more soulful, self knows that this is true. But I’m not that self very often lately and I can’t afford to take any chances.
I sat up on the couch and pulled our wool throw around me.
“OK,” I said. “You’re right. I’m going to bed.”
I stood up and looked down at him. He wasn’t buying my act, but he looked too tired to continue.
“Goodnight,” I said, leaning down to give him a peck on the top of his head.
I wanted to go back to our bedroom so I could be alone with my worry and fear. There I could indulge in it without any challenge from Pat. I scooted past him and trailed the throw into the hallway. On the carpet, outside the boys’ bedroom I saw a crumpled up piece of notebook paper. Annoyed, I stopped to pick it up. There was writing on it. Spencer’s scrawl. It read, “Mom, here is ten dollars.” I opened the paper and found ten single bills wadded together.
Spencer must have heard the whole conversation and gotten his birthday money out of his desk drawer. I opened the door to his bedroom and saw him lying on his back, eyes trained on the ceiling. I padded over to his bed and sat on the edge.
Heart sinking. No fear, now, only love. Only the desire to fix. To make better. To protect. I put my hand on his chest. And we talked.