May 23, 2022 • 19M

Stabbed in the Back


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Appears in this episode

James Breakwell
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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By the end of the day, a record number of people had been stabbed clean through. Another successful triple birthday party was in the books.

In a way, the triple birthday party has outlived its original purpose. No, my kids haven’t stopped having birthdays, although it would be nice if they would slow down on them a little. Giving each kid one every single year seems excessive. My oldest, Betsy, and second oldest, Mae, were born two years and a day apart, and my third kid, Lucy, was born two years and two weeks after that. People are often curious about this precise grouping of birthdates. Their first question is if I have an anniversary exactly nine months before then. I do not. Instead, the real reason for this highly concentrated spacing is my wife Lola and I both estimated that two years was the minimum amount of time it would take us to mentally and emotionally recover from the prior kid. This was, of course, a gross miscalculation. In parenting, there’s no such thing as recovery. The two-year spacing stuck all the same, however, at least until the birth of our fourth kid, Waffle, who showed up seventeen months after Lucy. She’s always done whatever she wants.

Lola and I could have celebrated those three closely spaced birthdays quietly without inviting anyone over or vacuuming a single rug. Instead, for reasons long since forgotten but that almost certainly involved shame and wine, we decided years ago that we should host a grand party that would be the one day a year where we lied to our friends, parents, and siblings and presented ourselves to the world as proper adults. We wanted to showcase that, for at least one brief four-hour window, we could make our lives look under control. Despite reports to the contrary, our house was still standing and nothing was even on fire. (There were some years where things actually were on fire, but only because paying proper attention to a propane grill is challenging after four or five beers.) The party gave us an aspirational deadline for all household projects. No matter how long we put something off, it was okay as long as we got it done by the triple birthday party. Then, the day after our one and only social event, we could sit back guilt-free as chaos once again engulfed our lives. We had a whole year before we had to pretend to have it all together again. It’s possible we were doing parties very wrong.

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Lately, though, we’ve been inviting over people more often than our prior once-a-year rate. The kids are getting older and hitting milestones like First Communion that necessitate letting people come to our house. We’ve also been hosting frequent board game sessions. Those are great because they give me an excuse to day drink while also sparing me from the horrors of unstructured smalltalk. I might not know what polite questions to ask about your new house or recent promotion, but I can definitely talk about whether we should clear the disease cubes out of St. Petersburg or Milan. That’s a conversation from our recent attempt to play the cooperative board game Pandemic, which we lost horribly, resulting in the deaths of everyone on earth. There’s a reason no experts in real life called me for advice about covid. These smaller, more frequent gatherings mean Lola and I can’t let things fall apart for 358 days and then panic clean for the last week before the party. That doesn’t mean we keep it together year round. It just means people see us enough that we can’t lie to them any more. Damn their accurate assessments of our lives.

If you make the same mistake over and over again and expect different results, that’s insanity; but if you expect the same unfortunate results each time, well, that’s tradition. The triple birthday party definitely falls in the latter category. Thankfully, the lead up to the big day this year was the least stressful it’s ever been since we had already so thoroughly disappointed everyone in our lives. I barely even remembered to sweep up the pig hair before guests showed up, which, according to the late Ann Landers, would have been the greatest party foul of all. Really, the only things we had to do before the party were get food and order presents. Thanks to two-day shipping, that was a decision we could put off until exactly forty-eight hours before the party. Although not everything actually has two-day shipping, which is why one of Lucy’s gifts won’t arrive until July. We’ll tell her it’s for her half birthday.

Fortunately, the most important gift of all arrived in plenty of time: her new sword. No, not the Nerf ninja sword that I bought her two Christmases ago or the four foam swords I got for all the girls last year. The new sword was a hard plastic recreation of a two-pronged alien blade from the Halo video game series. Lola never knows what to get Lucy, but I just buy her a slight variation of the same basic gift over and over again, and she loves it more every time. From the moment Lucy unwrapped the Halo sword, she never put it down. Mind you, unlike all her previous swords, her new melee weapon had no padding whatsoever. I stressed to her that this one was for imaginary play and NOT for fighting with other people. She spent the rest of the afternoon impaling party guests. She stabbed Grandpa. She stabbed Grandma. She stabbed Mom and Dad and all of her sisters and family friends who weren’t sure if they even wanted to be at the party in the first place but after the stabbing most definitely did not. In the Halo video game series, killing someone with a sword results in an animation where you jab the pointy end through their back and out their chest. Lucy did her version of this where she snuck up behind people and shoved it under their armpits. Her body count was off the charts. The good news is we can order way less food for the triple birthday party next year because nobody is going to show up.

That’s the face of a girl who’s about to stab someone.

Her fancy party dress even came with a built-in sword holder. How convenient.

Surprisingly, the sword wasn’t the most violent gift of the day. That honor went to Nintendo Switch Sports, purchased by my friend Greg, whose alignment is definitely chaotic evil. (Then again, at Waffle’s last birthday party, I did give Greg a giant taxidermy mountain lion, so this might have been revenge.) Switch Sports seems like a harmless video game cartridge, but in terms of the pandemonium it caused, it was like gifting a puppy and a karaoke machine all rolled into one. Much like its predecessor, Wii Sports, Switch Sports requires players to wave around controllers to simulate activities my kids would rather die than do in real life. The controller swinging wasn’t so bad. That was just an imaginary sword fight aimed at the TV rather than at each other. The worst part was the jumping. For some reason, every single game required their feet to leave the ground for spiking volleyballs or blocking soccer balls or doing flying kicks to knock down bowling pins. Full disclosure, the kids might have been lying to me about how much jumping was necessary in any of these games. Regardless, they sounded like a pack (herd? tribe?) of drunken kangaroos. Unfortunately, the Nintendo Switch is on the second floor. Soon, those of us downstairs looked up in concern as the chandeliers shook precariously and tiny flecks of ceiling plaster drifted down. I fully expect the subject line of next week’s email to be, “The Hole in the Playroom Floor.” Next year, I’m getting Greg a full-body taxidermy moose.

The kids had plenty of sugar to power their debauchery. The real main event of this year’s triple birthday party wasn’t the stabbing or the jumping or the condescending judgment of everyone we know. It was the cupcakes. Every year, Lola channels all of her powers of creative expression into frosted masterpieces. For this party, she opted for cupcakes instead of cakes to save time, although I’m not sure that it’s any quicker to custom decorate sixty small baked goods instead of three large ones. The kids got to pick out their own designs. Mae chose pigs (her attempts to become my favorite child are a little too obvious), Lucy chose Lego Ninjago (yet another stab-happy fantasy universe), and Betsy chose succulents. Not “flowers” in general, but that one specific kind that isn’t even all that colorful. Lola was up to the challenge and created succulent frosting worthy of the Botanical Society. I think she actually likes it when we push her artistic frosting powers to the limit. When she asks me for a cupcake theme for my birthday, I’m going to request the Mona Lisa.

The girls, about to enjoy their two favorite things in this world: sugar and fire.

On second thought, maybe the kids should have even more birthdays each year.

Usually, we have enough cupcakes left over for full meals for the next week, but not this time. Despite the constant stabbings, people stuck around for longer than usual and ate nearly all of them. This year, we did more than sit around and drink. First, we played Halo Infinite. It wasn’t even my idea. Lucy’s been talking about it all week and actually asked if we could play before cupcakes and presents, which basically means she considered it to be more important than oxygen. She was mainly excited to play in-person with Greg, who is the second best player at our weekly Halo nights (my brother, Harry, is better and will never, ever let any of us forget it). I managed to convince six out of the twenty people at the party to play and fired up the necessary number of Xboxes. I put Lucy and Waffle on Greg’s team against me and two other adults (or just two adults, no “other,” depending on what you think of my adulthood status). Greg and the girls stomped us, and Lucy ran downstairs from her gaming spot in the playroom with a huge smile on her face to give him a high five. The next game, Greg and the girls won decisively again. Lucy ran downstairs, overwhelmed with joy. Greg picked her up and spun her around in a victory twirl. There have been people less excited about winning the Super Bowl. Greg is still a genuinely terrible human being who buys house-ruining gifts, but he is pretty good with the kids. I guess we’ll invite him again next year, assuming the inevitable hole in the playroom floor from Switch Sports doesn’t cost too much to fix.

After a handful of Halo matches, we switched to board games. We prioritized games that could have an unlimited number of players all shouting at once. After all the years of raising kids, deafening volumes are kind of my comfort zone. The biggest hit of the day was FitzIt, a game where you try to come up with a single thing that fits as many of the cards in your hand as possible. In my most controversial turn, the noun I came up with was “padawan,” as in a Jedi trainee from Star Wars. My descriptive cards were “not usually bought in a store,” “religious or spiritual,” and “has a tail.” We had a prolonged screaming match over whether or not a padawan’s thin braid, colloquially known as a rat tail, fulfilled that last requirement. There were no lawyers in the room, but you wouldn’t have known it by the impassioned (and loud) arguments on both sides. We were ready for the Supreme Court. In the end, it came to a vote, and I won (barely). I ended up winning the game, too, which is another reason why I love FitzIt. That’s also why they no longer make it and you can only buy it second-hand. The free market destroys everything I love.

We ended up playing board games until 8 p.m., when even the most diehard of our friends and relatives decided they’d had enough of us. Afterwards, I let the girls stay up as late as they wanted since, with that much sugar in their systems, they wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway. If I made them sit still and lie down, they would have burst into flames. Then Lola and I went up to our bedroom and promptly fell asleep. Hosting a party all day while getting stabbed is exhausting. Next year, I’ll remember to wear my party chainmail.


We need to talk.

Most of you are wonderful. Scratch that. Almost every single one of you is. The subset of people who are causing problems is a fraction of a fraction of a percent. However, with an audience this large, even that small minority is still more people than I’d like. This message is regarding them.

A few weeks ago, I started a Substack account with both free and paid subscription options, and ever since, I’ve been getting emails from people who are absolutely outraged that I’m trying to make money off my writing. How dare I, a writer, attempt to make a living off my words? In a normal week, free subscribers get one post and paid subscribers get an extra four. My first week on Substack, I made all five posts free, which made people angry because I emailed them five times. Last week, I only emailed out the free Monday email and the teaser for the paid Thursday email, and people were still upset that the Thursday email costs money. There was even a seven-day free trial so that if you really, really didn’t want to support me, you could sign up, read every piece of paid content I’ve ever written, and then cancel without ever giving me a cent. A handful of readers were still upset.

Let’s talk money. I know, I know, that’s taboo, especially on the internet. Part of building a brand is acting like a success. Fake it till you make it and all that. I have a massive audience across every social media platform, but almost all of those followers only read my free content. Things start to look different when you get to the part of my writing career that actually pays the bills. I recently wrote a book that was 90,000 words. It took me a year to write and edit. For all that, my advance was $8,000. My agent’s cut was 15 percent, so my actual earnings were $6,800 before taxes, split up over two payments about a year apart. Then I had to write countless free 2,000-word newsletters that included a pitch at the end for why you should buy my books. Each one of those basically takes an entire Sunday to create. I also had to continue pumping out daily content on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in the hopes that, out of a million plus followers, a tiny sliver would subscribe to my free newsletter, and then an even tinier sliver of that tiny sliver would buy my book.

I do sell a lot of books, at least compared to many other midlist authors, if only because my starting pool of free readers is so large. I move enough copies that publishers continue to give me contracts to write more books. But I don’t sell enough to make a living. If three percent of the people on my newsletter list bought my book in the first week it came out, it would have made the New York Times bestseller list. If three percent of my free email readers became paid subscribers, I could quit my day job. You don’t need to be a math genius to figure out that it doesn’t take many $5 per month subscriptions to blow my book earnings out of the water. That’s why I made the move to Substack.

Three percent of you aren’t going to become paid subscribers. I get that. Most people just want to read stuff on the internet for free. More power to you. I love having a big audience for my work. All I ask is, if you do want to continue reading my content for free, please don’t send me emails complaining that there’s now a way for other people to financially support me. The angry messages I’ve been getting have been wild. It’s not a lot—maybe four or five per newsletter—but it’s enough to ruin my day. One guy said he bought three of my books; therefore, I shouldn’t have to make money off anything else. I appreciate the support, but I didn’t realize the cumulative $4.88 in royalties I made from those sales were supposed to be enough for me to retire. I’ll inform Lola. Another person was furious that my email, sent at 11 a.m. ET, arrived at 1 a.m. in Australia. I have no idea how to deal with that complaint. I didn’t create timezones. Yet another person said it was a scam that I charged money for my newsletter about how I fell for a scam. I guess they thought if they subscribed, instead of getting exactly the paid content I promised, I was just going to rob them.

I like writing. I like getting better at doing it. I like working toward the day where I can use that skill to financially support my family. What I don’t like is cringing every time I get an email notification because those four or five people just have to let me know why they have a problem with me this week. There’s an unsubscribe button at the bottom of every post. If you don’t want my free content, you can leave any time you please. This isn’t a hostage situation. No need to send me a manifesto explaining why you’re heading for the door.

So here’s the deal: I’m going to keep putting out free stuff. If you’re a free subscriber, you’ll get the free newsletter on Monday and the first few paragraphs of the paid newsletter on Thursday. You’re welcome to read those paragraphs or delete the whole Thursday email and just read the Monday one. The world is your oyster. But if you threaten to stop reading my emails for free unless I comply with your demands, I’m just going to boot you from the list. I can’t stop sending out paid content so I can bask in the zero dollars per month you’re giving me. That’s not how capitalism works.

Sorry for the PSA. Unfortunately, I doubt this will stop those four or five people every week, but I had to try. This might shock you, but I’m a human being, too, and it really sucks getting hate mail from people who I work so hard to entertain for free.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.