Visiting the Moth

I went to The Moth story slam last night for the second time. The first time, I just went to support some friends, and both of them were picked to tell their story on stage! Last night I prepared a story, but alas. My name was not drawn from the bag. So today, I will share the story I would have told, with the theme of Caution (or, in Felix’s case, a lack thereof).

If you know me even a little bit, you know that I have 3 feral sons. My kids are wild. They ride scooters down the stairs. They shove each other into the radiators to see what will happen. When they have friends over to play, I hear them suggest games like “let’s kick each other in the head over and over again.”

So as you can imagine, it’s sort of hard for me to find childcare.

The oldest one is in public school, where they have to keep you no matter what. Which is good, because my kid did things like escape the building and run into the street. I’d get calls from the gym teacher telling me about her skinned knees from tackling him during bolting episodes.

I spend my entire day at work staring at my cell phone, praying I won’t see the school’s number come up on my caller ID.

It does. Frequently.

Eventually I found a daycare for the younger 2 boys while the big kid was in school beating his friends with sticks.

This was a cute little in-home daycare, run by a perky woman in her early 20s. She had the play space decorated with owls and helped the kids make hand print ornaments. Finger paintings. That sort of thing.

I was used to getting calls from this daycare. “Felix wouldn’t eat the lunch you packed,” was a common one. Oh. Ok.

“Felix wet his cot again at nap time.” Meh. Ok.

He generally seemed to like it there, primarily because the owner had driven to some exotic animal dealer in Canada and bought a baby hedgehog to be the daycare pet.

So when my caller ID showed the daycare number one day, I took a deep breath. Ok. Maybe he hit his brother with a metal train again.

Maybe he peed on the carpet again. Deep breath. “Hello?”

“Hey. So. Felix kicked a hole in the drywall.”

Woah. This is unexpected! “He did what now?”

My kid, who weighs 30 pounds, evidently spent the morning in the book nook slowly kicking a hole in the drywall. A tunnel, if you will.

Like Andy Dufresne from the fucking Shawshank Redemption, except he hid his work behind a rack of plastic baked goods instead of a Rita Hayworth poster.

But wait!

There’s more!

“I found him in the hole trying to get the other kids to come inside.”

In other words, my son was initiating a mutiny. A mass escape attempt while the daycare lady was distracted by a diaper change. He crouched in this tunnel he carved in the wall and lured his brother in first.

I’m trying to imagine this. Like, “Hey! Oren! Come with me into this jagged hole I’ve kicked into the wall of our daycare! If you don’t listen to me, I’m going to pee on your minions blanket!”

And then I got off the phone, because I needed to go somewhere and be alone and cry.

And I also had to try to figure out what the hell I do in this situation. Do I offer to pay to repair it? Does insurance cover that sort of thing? What the hell would she even say to the insurance company?

Of course she wanted me to come a retrieve my child from daycare.

I decided to stop at Home Depot on my way and buy a gift card. There’s really no “I’m sorry” card pre-made for when your kid burrows into the wall at daycare.

I worked on controlling my face and the tone of my voice when I finally got there, because I just had to know.

“Felix. Why did you dig a hole in the wall?”

And of course he just shrugged. “I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

Well, buddy, mission accomplished.

Posted by on August 9th, 2017 No Comments

Bodice Rippers: A Dabbling Tale

In early February, we had an ice dam that caused a lot of water to flood into our house and we needed to spend thousands of dollars to repair our roof. Suddenly, my work slump became a lot more serious and I had to quickly get back into the game of earning money. I began applying for any job I saw, went on more interviews than I care to remember, and (woo hoo!) landed some great new clients.

Throughout this process, my friend kept suggesting I write bodice rippers to self publish and sell on Amazon. I laughed him off a few times, and then thought what the hell? And I wrote a filthy, horrible smut story, self published it on Amazon, and began obsessively reading about how to earn money selling erotica.

It turns out there is a whole world of erotica out there. Amazon supposedly sells 19,000 short stories per day, and my basic research so far shows me that most of it is really, truly awful. It turns out there is an art to working the search engines, an unknown algorithm authors need to beat to come up when potential readers type in key words. There’s an art to all of it.

Above all, it seems the people who earn a living selling erotica view it as a business. It is work. The writing of the short stories (which are about 7,500 words) is the easiest part, and writers need to churn out 2 per week to stay fresh in search engines. The harder part is making a cover, a title, and “blurb” text (the little bit people read about your story before deciding whether to click “buy”).

I published my first, awful piece of erotica on February 14. I have now published a total of 15 short stories, one “bundle,” and one novella. To date, I have earned just under $100 USD and a few cents here and there in currencies from around the world.

All the sources I had been reading suggested that nothing would truly take off for me until I published 30 things, because readers who like my story will want a nice, robust “back catalogue” when they click to buy more things.

This is going to be a bit of a ramble, so I’m going to get to the point right away and that is this: I don’t see myself doing this long term.

I am an objectively good writer with fancy publications and an MFA. I think my terrible smut stories are probably better than much of the terrible smut selling like hotcakes, but here are some things I haven’t done well yet:

–my covers are lousy. I didn’t pay for any images, so most of my cover pictures are carrots or honey dippers or water pipes. What sells? Muscular, male chests.

–my titles are wrong. I have given my short stories names that would sell better if they were full-length romance books. Since they are short stories, the titles need to be different, filthier. I’m considering retitling the stories and republishing to see what happens to my sales, but most likely I’m just going to move on.

It’s also very hard for me to sit with writing bodice rippers. I’m used to spending days pondering a sentence, and this is a ruthless industry that demands an unfathomable pace. Short erotica means very, very loose plot elements and no character development to speak of. I’ve often forgotten the name of my characters by the time I reach the end of a short story and have to go back through and check what I named them. Considering I spent months working on the 5-minute essay I read in Listen To Your Mother, you can imagine how it feels for me to write a bodice ripper in 3 hours.

This leads me to my novella. It’s 100 pages long, and it was agonizing. I don’t want to write novellas. I don’t want to write romance novellas. I didn’t want to have to care about why Girl loved Boy but couldn’t be with him, or create conflict, or resolve the conflict. I didn’t want to write dialogue.

I also don’t want to write short erotica right now. I’m grossed out by many of the sub-genres that sell well and have zero interest in writing about billionaires, which is the Hot Genre since the success of 50 Shades.

I don’t want to say that I’m done writing erotica forever, because I’ve got my pen name all set up and all my Amazon accounts ready to go. But I’m certainly on time-out from this experiment. I’m glad I gave it a go. I’m glad I connected with other smut writers. I was not able to finance my roof repair selling smut, but that’s ok.

What I’ll likely do is “bundle” my existing stories together and republish them in wee anthologies, which means I might get closer to my 30 Titles benchmark. Then I’ll ponder whether I want to continue ripping bodices and revisit once school starts.

Posted by on July 10th, 2017 No Comments

Salted Wounds and Crusty Resolve: A Decade of Marriage

“My tea tastes salty,” my husband said, putting down his mug as I flushed saline solution through his PICC line. I pulsed the syringe, like the home health nurse taught me, wiping his arm with an alcohol pad like I’d been doing it for years.

The first time I held a syringe of concentrated antibiotics and pushed it into his body, I felt bile rise in my mouth. He sat next to me at the kitchen table, his hand on mine as I opened the cap in his arm covering a hole-that-should-not-be. I pushed the infusion through his veins, meeting his eye, and then ran upstairs to vomit as soon as I re-capped the hole in his body.

As I approach my ten-year wedding anniversary, I think back on that period as one of the greatest test of my vows. At 26 years old, I promised to hold him in sickness and health, not really understanding what that meant.

I didn’t know then that he would contract Lyme carditis the night before we closed on the purchase of our second home. He spent that time in the cardiac ICU while I found a traveling notary public, combed the halls for witnesses to make sure I had Power of Attorney to complete a real estate transaction for him in absentia. I believe I wrote the phrase “Katy Adair Rank Lev, his attorney-in-fact” 200 times that day, before I went back to retrieve his car from the parking lot at the emergency room. He’d driven himself there in the middle of the night, failing to notice that our beloved Mazda’s odometer had turned to 100,000 miles along the way.

Whenever I had to open my husband’s hole-that-should-not-be, we first corralled our three wild sons into the learning tower nearby, commanding the oldest to keep his brothers’ grubby hands away from our medical procedures. On one of these occasions, the baby got loose. Our first and honored son narrated the baby’s process of dumping a gallon of white vinegar on the kitchen floor. What could we do but keep on measuring out heparin? As the vinegar oozed down the basement stairs, the children wept, I sweated profusely, and I understood what marriage meant.

At first it was refinishing floors and fighting over the last beer in the fridge. Asking him to rub sunscreen on my back, holding hands to go vote for the first African American President of the United States.

Slowly, our marriage came to mean “look this person in the eye during your moment of greatest suffering.” Like the time I had childbirth-induced urinary retention and Corey took me and our newborn son to the emergency room. He held our brand new infant at the foot of my bed, gazing in horror at the shredded, swollen center of my body, as the staff collected enough urine to fill two wine bottles. When we went to leave, the nurse strapped a catheter bag to my leg and told me nobody would even know it was there, if I wanted to wear a cute skirt or something. But my husband knew it was there, the warm bag of piss strapped to my thigh, and he held my hand.

He stood with me for all those things, and I stood by him.

For ten years, I have cursed that man for leaving soy milk caps on the counter and granola bar wrappers behind the couch. He has, for the same period of time, scolded me for blowing my monthly budget downloading romance novels I don’t even like reading.

Better or worse, I promised. Is it worse when we transform into writhing bundles of rage in response to 30-pound humans who refuse to put on shoes or consume food? When we scream at each other and keep score of who got more minutes of sleep–who started more loads of piss laundry? I’m still barely able to talk about the loss of my mother, and how her sudden death affected every element of my life. This grief I carry will certainly test that section of my vows. The better parts, the healthy parts…those have felt easy.

What I think about today is all the hard parts and what I see is that I need him with me for all of those things. Through the sickness and the hard times and the grief and agony, it’s felt absolutely necessary to be in a marriage with this man.

Our decade has been loud and messy, punctuated by loss and cardiac distress. It has been all that I promised, though I did not know then what that would look like. I feel like I’m entering our next decade with a better idea of what it really meant to promise those things to each other.

Here’s to ten years, Cookie Pie. Here’s to fifty more as well.

Posted by on May 27th, 2017 3 Comments

Hold That?

Our neighborhood playground is quite a magical place lately. A trio of 100+ year old oak trees fell over in a terrible wind storm a few weeks ago. The kids have been making Terebithia in there, climbing the massive trunks, hiding in the caves the branches form. Poachers come with chainsaws to take bits of the wood before the city can break down the trees, so there are also deep piles of sawdust. Felix calls this “snow” and sprinkles it around like he’s a wood fairy.

Then! The city seems to have heaped its entire stash of mulch on our basketball courts, so there’s a mountain at least 12 feet high. Dump trucks come to haul bits of it away every day, but for the most part, it forms a massive playground the kids have pretended into a Minecraft mine, a throwing platform for logs, a snow-covered mountain from Frozen…really they just spend hours there.

We’ve been going to the playground every day it’s not actively raining. I’m willing to stand around in the mud and deal with 3 dirty boys. I’m not willing to stand around in the rain. *shrugs*

We met a neighboring family there the other day and I had the most lovely experience. Bethany was supervising kids climbing around the fallen trees. I was over near mulch mountain. One of B’s kids wandered over and, seeing just two of mine, asked, “Where’s the other one?”

I pointed behind a heap of mulch and B’s son shrugged. Then he thrust a bag of chips at me and asked if I could hold it so he could climb with two hands. I already had a pair of binoculars and a soft pretzel in my hoodie pocket, so what’s a bag of chips?

By the time I made it over to Bethany to share this story, she was holding sweatshirts for both of her kids and one of mine. We each had picked up a sprinkling of random things other kids asked us to hold.

This is what moms do, right? We hold all the stuff.

Whenever we went to an amusement park, my mom never rode a single ride. She stood at the exit and held all the stuff for us. I can see her there, wearing her big sunglasses, arms laden with water bottles and coats, bags and snacks.

I felt this very deep connection to her in that moment, standing in the park holding all the stuff. I wanted so badly to call her and tell her about it, the binoculars in my pocket with the chips and a rock with googly eyes glued on top.

I often think about why it feels so important to me to work part-time. For many years, my parents worked opposite shifts because of childcare. My mom worked 3-11pm, and that meant I didn’t really see her during the school year. Those weekends holding our crap while we road the whip and the bumper cars were all she got to enjoy.

Standing in the playground, with the magical mulch and the ruined trees, I felt like I was exactly where I need to be. Present, with my kids, watching as they discover a nest of snails in the mulch or blowing sawdust snow into each other’s hair. I’m so fortunate to be able to afford this, that our family is financially stable on 1.5 incomes.

So yes. I’ll hold that. I’ll hold whatever you hand me.

Except yesterday, I took a tote bag along for our things so that I, too, could climb mulch mountain and watch the freight trains rattle past.

Posted by on March 23rd, 2017 2 Comments

Crabitat

image shows hermit crab "crabitat"

note how you can still see the sharpie words “maternity clothes” on the side of the bin. Please do not worry: we drilled air holes in the lid.

So Felix has been begging us for a pet for ages. I tried to bring him into this gently by buying him an ant farm for Christmas. I even ordered the ants around Thanksgiving so I wouldn’t forget. Of course, the ants are gathered from the wild in Utah, I learned, and are dormant in winter. Also they don’t ship live critters until it’s reliably warm outside. So that brings us to mid-spring with an empty ant farm and a sad boy still wanting a pet.

Mammals are out of the question. I don’t want a reptile. I wanted a fish, damn it, but Felix can’t cuddle a fish. We took him to the Animal Rescue League to look at the animals and pet the bunnies, hoping this would appease him a bit. Nope. He wants a pet he can hold. So Corey went and bought a damn hermit crab named Teapot.

We brought Teapot home in his tiny little pet store plastic box, filled with pet store rocks and pet store food. And Teapot was pretty boring. But then we started reading about hermit crabs online and realized we were giving Teapot a really miserable life in this pet store box. So what did we do?

We had to go out and spend $100 getting more things to give Teapot a nice life. We built him a lovely crabitat (as it’s called) in the huge bin that used to house my maternity clothes. We also had to buy Teapot a friend, because hermit crabs are social animals. Now we have Lightning, too.

And so, after rehydrating coconut fiber and creating moist tunnels for the crabs, planting succulents in the humid crabitat, and filling soaking pools with specially formulated salt water, we also had to slice up some steak for the crabs. Steak. Because crabs like meat. And coconut, evidently.

There was a bit of drama last night because we came upon Lightning on top of Teapot, and it looked like maybe Lightning was trying to eat Teapot? This was very traumatic for everyone. Further research from Smithsonian magazine taught me two things. 1. I’m insanely jealous that I did not write that article about canibalistic habits of hermit crabs. 2. Most likely, the crabs were just sniffing each other.

I checked on Teapot periodically throughout the night, as I would an infant baby, because I don’t have enough to worry about. He seemed fine overnight. The steak is mostly eaten. This morning, I cannot find any trace of Teapot at all. Not even his shell, which is encouraging because if Lightning ate him, he’d surely leave the shell behind. My best hope is that Teapot has buried himself somewhere deep within the rehydrated coconut substrate, preparing to molt.

So, if you need me, I’ll be off crocheting a hammock for the hermit crabs. Because they like to climb.

Posted by on March 13th, 2017 3 Comments

Exciting News!

So this spring I did a thing. I auditioned for a show called Listen To Your Mother. I wrote an essay, read it out loud for the producers, and then was selected to be part of the cast!

My friend Tamara has been encouraging me to audition for several years, and this is the final year LTYM will be in Pittsburgh, so I decided to bite the bullet.

It feels so good to do something creative that’s not for a client. I love writing for my clients, don’t get me wrong. My clients text me about sports bras and send me academic papers about animal back fat. But this was something I wrote for me, and now I get to read it out loud for all of you!

Today I’m even on the cast blog for the show. I hope you’ll celebrate with me. It’s been a long time since I celebrated my creative writing!

Next task: locating a dress to wear for the show. This will prove, for me, harder than writing the essay to read in the show.

Posted by on March 7th, 2017 1 Comment

External Heart

There’s a saying that parenting is like wearing your heart on the outside. I feel the truth of this statement every day.

Last week, Miles was glum when I picked him up from school. I had to press him for a long time, but finally convinced him to tell me that he’d asked some kids to play with him at recess and they’d said no. And that he’d cried about it.

I mean, I haven’t felt myself shatter like that in a long time. I just scooped him into my arms and wanted to rock and cuddle him, except he’s nearly 8 years old and just wanted to go play Minecraft. I made sure to remind him that he has a group of really nice friends who care about him. I wasn’t sure why he’d reached out to another group…I’m sure there are things he wasn’t telling me.

But all I could remember was all the times I wanted someone to hang out with me and got turned down and there I was, reliving all the hard parts of being a kid. I want to spare him this pain! But I don’t know how and I don’t know if it’s possible to do that. All I can do is reassure him that he’s loved.

Thankfully he had some cup-filling opportunities to play with other kids since then and doesn’t seem to be upset about it anymore.

Posted by on February 13th, 2017 No Comments

Worst Part of My Day

The worst part of each day is when I pull up to school and have to get my children out of the van. By the time we arrive there, I’ve been screaming at them for 45 minutes until my voice is hoarse.

Each day, it begins with polite requests to put on shoes and get backpacks. When these are ignored, my voice gets more stern until I’m raving and bodily dragging kids to the car in various states of undress. They weep the whole way to school and Miles makes “whale sounds” such that I can barely concentrate on my driving.

Then they refuse to get out of the van. It’s a family culture they’ve decided upon and I’m really sick of it and we are working on it.

Today, the crossing guard (who is daily witness to my horror) felt the need to tell me the kids don’t act this way when Corey drives them to school.

Hers is another voice joining the chorus of people who feel free to criticize moms, yet offer no actual assistance. It would have taken her the same amount of time to grab Oren’s hand for me while I crammed Felix into his shoes, but instead she just felt compelled to observe that my children save the worst of their behavior for me.

As usual, when I’m with my kids, I can’t take time to speak back to people like that. It’s all I can do to keep them alive and from running into traffic. And so I kept them safe. I got them shod. I talked to them about how their disrespectful, uncooperative behavior hurts my feelings and makes for a bad morning. Again and again, I remind them. Tomorrow, I’ll remind them again.

And someday, they’ll be peaceful, respectful adults. But damned if I don’t wish upon them hellfire, feral children.

Posted by on November 15th, 2016 No Comments

Inside the Furnace

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I worked in a factory during school breaks to help pay for college. It felt very meaningful for me to accept my first job after graduation: when the Corning plant shut down in State College, PA, I was hired to help the displaced factory workers write resumes and cover letters to hopefully transition to new employment.

These workers, over 1,000 of them, worked on the factory floor for decades with multiple generations of their family. They were paid good wages and lived a comfortable life. They sweated and heaved and toiled making glass tube televisions. As I’m typing this on a flat-screen computer across the room from my flat screen television, I think you all know why this factory shut down.

They lost their jobs not just to Asia, but due to automation in the manufacturing process and changing technology. It simply takes fewer people to make flat screen televisions than it took to make the glass tube ones. And Corning was moving those few jobs to a plant overseas.

When I started at this job, they took me on a tour so I could see what each worker did to help him or her articulate these tasks on a resume. With a practiced hand, I slid on steel-toed boots and rolled in my foam ear plugs. I saw the men working with the molten glass, their arms singed hairless in the unthinkable heat. There were no women in the molten glass section…maybe they had already been laid off.

Some of these workers found new jobs in other manufacturing companies close by. Some found work in an industrial laundry. Most of them competed with each other for hourly jobs at Home Depot or Lowes, the leftover ones turning to Wal-Mart. That’s what was left.

I remember working with a man named Kermit, who was in his late 50s and had worked in the furnace for 40 years. He was still a ways from retirement, but had done the same task at the factory for longer than twice the time I’d been alive.

Because of this experience, I feel like I understand what has happened in recent days with our presidential election. I can’t understand why my own father voted against the recommendations of the union that supported him through his own 45+ years of hard, physical work, because I believe unions always have in mind the best interest of those people who depend on them to be their voice. But I understand a crumbling blue collar landscape that no longer offers jobs that will support families.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m agonizingly sad that the newly elected leader drew on these voters with promises paired with racism, misogyny, and hatred. How can his impulsive spews of hate speech be excused in light of his promises to restore job security to the working class? We aren’t so far removed from an era where good jobs were denied to Irish or Italian immigrants, let alone anyone with brown skin or a uterus.

To keep from feeling hopeless, I’ve decided to focus on one issue where I can feel effective, where I can enact change. For me, it’s public education. If I can help improve schools such that every student graduates with the skills to pass a civil service test or pass the written exam to join the military, then I will have helped. It starts for me locally, as I read more and find organizations collectively working to make change. This is a whole new furnace I’m touring, and I’m learning now how this one operates.

Posted by on November 11th, 2016 No Comments

Clearance Rack

I had some free time today, and I spent it wandering around Target, as many moms do when given an hour alone.

At the back of the store, there were giant racks of garbage on clearance for 90% off the original price of $1-$3.

My mother would have gotten two carts full of crap and spent many hours back there, picking. She’d think ahead to any upcoming holidays and her vast gifting list. She’d just grab things randomly because they cost ten cents. She’d have made multiple bags of Halloween decor and sent it off to me–enough to decorate my whole neighborhood.

A year since her death, and one of the biggest absences I feel is the lack of little things just coming in from her. The tiny spoons for my sugar in my coffee. The magazine rack by the sofa. The toilet paper holders in my bathrooms. I look around my entire house, and all the little things that make my day operate more smoothly all came from her, such that I don’t know how to begin to buy such things. I never even needed to feel their absence to know I needed them. Shit just showed up, because she scoured a clearance bin for it and found it for under a dollar.

So I spent an hour in that clearance bin. I got too overwhelmed to think about next Halloween. I remain attached to my frustration with having tons and tons of tiny things just because they cost ten cents! But I did buy some gifties for all my nephews and cousins at Christmas and some decorations for Thanksgiving. These decorations cost 30 cents, so I really splurged.

I felt myself disappointing my mother by not having a cart. I could hear her voice yelling, “Always take a cart! You just never know when you’ll find a bargain.” Well, I didn’t have a cart, but there were Dory bags on clearance for 10 cents, so I just filled one of those. Then I hauled my giant tote of crap to the checkout and the whole thing cost $9.85, and I laughed and cried all at once.

My mom would have gone first to Starbucks, but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had 2 hands free to stuff my Dory bag.

She also would have bought the dog vests for my friend’s dogs. She would have gotten 3 pairs of socks for each holiday for my kids and she would have bought the bubble bath that gives them a rash.

I can’t do all the things just like her, because I reserve the right to still feel frustrated about shit like bath paint that stains the grout, which she bought all the time! But I’m glad I had an hour to myself and that I went outside my comfort zone to dig in those chaotic clearance heaps. Next holiday, maybe I’ll feel up to stocking up for the future.

Posted by on November 5th, 2016 1 Comment