Yesterday, Zack and I received the first check for the first client we landed since becoming a business. The project we’d been working on for the last year or so was a continuation of work Zack started in grad school, a legacy of our pre-Akashic Labs days. The check we received yesterday was for the first project bid and contracted as Akashic Labs. It’s also for my first primarily ethnographic research project in 4 years, my first solo ethnographic research project, my first fully-remote project. It’s a lot of firsts–and it was even paid early!
We celebrated in the UPS store where we get our business mail. Raven, my favorite clerk, was in the back as I pulled the letter out jubilantly.
“I don’t know what happened, but it sounds good!” he shouted from around the wall of mailboxes. He’d been watching every day as we came in to check the mail, offering cheer as we left empty-handed and disappointed.
“Today we’re not disappointed!” I crowed. “We finally got paid!”
We have a running joke about disappointment, Zack and I. Every day, we check the mail, hoping that one of our invoices has finally been paid. In the early days of waiting for checks, I would approach the mailbox brimming with hope.
“Maybe the check is here today!” I would say Zack.
“Boy, you sure love disappointment!” he’d say. He has always had more realistic expectations about life.
Now, as the months have worn on, the joke has changed.
“Zack!” I say, as we’re passing the mailbox on the way out. “If I check the mail now and when we come back, I can be disappointed twice!” Some days, I can even squeeze in three or four disappointing mailbox openings!
But yesterday, we were not disappointed. Yesterday, we got a check. Yesterday, I admired Raven’s hippie costume (with authentic peace sign necklace from his father, who “went all hippie-commune” after serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War), and Zack and I walked through the beautiful fall leaves to the library, where we dropped off our ballots and picked up 11 books (fiction and fantasy written by South Asian authors, guides to government contracting, and some Pema Chodron).
Yesterday was a much-needed win.
The thing is, I knew starting a business would be difficult. Well, intellectually I knew it. People always say that starting a business is hard, after all. But I don’t think I had yet absorbed the knowledge, made it part of me, the way things you do when you “know in your bones” that something is true. I did not realize how long the difficulty lasted.
We have blown through our savings twice this year, waiting (always and forever waiting) for invoices to be paid. Six weeks, three months…always waiting. I have lost count of the number of times this year we have borrowed money from my friends and siblings, just to make rent or bills while we’re waiting on those fucking invoices to be paid. Waiting, always waiting.
You get to a point in the waiting where you no longer know what to do with yourself. Continuing to work on the project for which you seem never to get paid doesn’t seem to be a great use of time–soon the little money remaining will run out, after all, and someone has to make sure you have a place to sleep and food to eat. So you turn your attention to finding new work. Promptly paying work, ideally. You brush up your portfolio, network like crazy, put in a few project bids, respond to inquiries. Nothing pans out (most things don’t), and just when you’re sure you’re going to have to break your lease and move in with your much more reasonable Real Adult(TM) siblings, you get a check in the mail. Ah, you think. Maybe this project is going to go forward, after all. You return to accumulating hours on the project.
Of course, because this cycle happens all the fucking time, progress on the project is brutally slow. You’re hedging against disaster, constantly looking for scraps of driftwood to lash together into a raft that will hold you over for just long enough for this to get easier. Because it has to get easier, right? When they said it was difficult, they didn’t mean difficult forever, surely.
For a while, I was running a complicated budgeting system, based off how much I projected we would earn a month, using credit cards to bridge the gaps between invoices and then paying them down whenever the actual money came in. This, as you might imagine, quickly became untenable. As the invoices got later and later, and we got mired in the above-described cycle, we started actually accumulating debt, which is obviously bad news bears for people in positions as tenuous as ours.
And so I have placed us on a cash-only budget, which is certainly better from a fiscal responsibility standpoint, though much less flexible.
We are learning to work with the inflexibility.
We are learning to walk the tightrope.
We are learning to make the tradeoffs.
This struggle, of course, is only really noteworthy in that it is so far from what I expected from my adulthood. After all, I did precisely what I was supposed to do in order to avoid this financial tightrope–I got a degree (several, actually) in purportedly lucrative fields. I followed my passion–research–landed a fancy internship, moved to a bigger city. Somewhere after that things get all tangled, the timeline out of order–instead of migrating to a new city and Real Job after my internship, I stayed in Portland and launched my research consultancy a full 5 years ahead of schedule.
Every once in a while, usually while contemplating my account balances, I wonder if that was a very stupid plan, indeed.
But because I am stubborn, or because I believe in the things we’re building, or because I have a wildly hybridized research skill set that no one in Portland knows what to do with, or because I have found no happy places for myself in the industry, I press on in this endeavor. If we can pull it off, it will be truly breathtaking to behold. (Just wait, I promise it will be worth it.)
Until then, I try not to think too hard about the weddings I have missed, that I have been unable to send presents for. (I keep a list, though, of my newlywed friends, who will probably get their wedding presents from me on their 10th anniversaries.) I try not to think about birthdays, and if we all just agreed to abandon Christmas gift-giving, I, for one, would be grateful. I try not to think about our rapidly disintegrating wardrobes, my lack of a raincoat, the bellydancing classes I wish I were taking, the untimely death of four pansies in my garden that I should really not replace.
I try not to think, “Shadoan, you have brought this on your own head with your stubborn, stupid unwillingness to submit to the system. If you could have been happy as just a software engineer, then everything would be so much easier. Or if you had just been willing to give up Portland, you could have worked in a soul-crushing suburb of Seattle or San Francisco, commuting an hour or more one way doing research that will never see the light of day for a giant corporation that is legally obligated to put profit ahead of all other considerations. If only you weren’t so committed to this idea that your life should be meaningful, if only you were willing to buy in to the American technocapitalist mythology, if only you could, for once in your life, just be normal.”
Zack is less burdened by these thoughts. Perhaps, because all this was my plan, I feel responsible for treacherousness of the road we travel. It is steep and slick, and the surrounding forest is full of unknown unknowns. We are tremendously fortunate, I know, to even have friends and family to lean on. It is the very definition of privilege. But in the darkening days, I find myself thinking, “If I were a Responsible Adult(TM), like our siblings and dear friends who have pulled our bacon out of the fire on numerous occasions this year, then I wouldn’t be needing to lean on anyone.”
Zack, however, has taken to the constraints of our situation with remarkable enthusiasm. Frustrated by his increasingly shaggy hair (and the corresponding lack of budget space for haircuts), he decided to learn to cut his own hair. He did a remarkably adequate job of starting it, given that he was using an elaborate setup of mirrors and a pair of nail scissors. I stepped in before things got too hairy, providing him with a haircut that–while not quite professional quality–is at least an advanced home haircut. It even has layers! Sure, there’s an error or two (hairrors, as I like to call them), but all in all it was a bang-up job. (Especially given that all I was doing was imitating the motions I’d seen hair stylists do, while attempting, as my dear friend Alicia says, “to remove all the parts that aren’t elephant.”)
He patched the worn-through soles of his shoes with superglue, making them–if not quite waterproof–at least more resistant to Portland’s puddles. Today, to our great pleasure, we uncovered an older pair of shoes with a more beat-up upper but with soles in good shape, that happen to be made on the same sole model as the ones patched we superglue. Our new plan is to remove the soles from the pair with the trashed upper and use them to replace the worn-through and superglued soles on his favorites. I admit that I have never done shoe surgery, but I am somewhat buoyed by the haircut success.
Then, this afternoon, he discovered a major treasure–someone in the building was throwing away what looked like the remains of a first carpentry project. Two benches and what might have been the top of a table, all made of 4 foot x 11 inch planks of 1.5″ thick hardwood. As furniture, it’s nothing particularly special. But as raw materials, it’s a major find–enough lumber for the shelves we need to build in the kitchen and then some. We were practically gleeful as we rearranged our storage unit in the basement to fit our new treasure.
I don’t have all the answers. Actually, most days, I don’t have any of them. I have no idea if the path I have laid for us is a good path, or just narcissistic stubbornness. I have no idea what Real Adulthood(TM) is supposed to be like. Is it, as I fear it to be, a choice between an endless uphill slog of just-one-unexpected-expense-away-from-disaster or an endless uphill slog of limited freedom in an industry that eats people alive? Or maybe (just maybe!), as a more optimistic Past Me must have thought, is it possible for it to be an opportunity to build something better for all of us?
I don’t know. But I did re-purpose some Christmas lights from storage to provide extra light in our dark desk area. It’s not quite a desk lamp or a raincoat, but it is festive as fuck.