June in DC! When the lovely spring weather slowly slides into swampland horror. The sun glares down and it’s a humid mid-80’s before 8am. I try to walk 10 miles a day, despite my soul-murdering sedentary day job, so I push on through Code Orange mornings, breathing in toxic fumes and insuring that I’ll die, choking to death, at the age of 63. All for the illusion of fitness.
It’s about this time of year when I think about my long-abandoned goal to become a landscaper. That was back in 99, and I had just had what we’ll go ahead and call a nervous breakdown. I wanted to quit the office life forever, never dress up again, and get dirty every day. Drive around in a truck and mow lawns, plant trees, tend to gardens, wear shorts, and get sexually molested by lonely housewives and/or Slovenian ex-hooker au pairs.
Yet, I write this now after nine years sitting in a windowless office, talking to morons, and being treated by my superiors like I’m a troubled 13 year old.
For two years, there at the end of America’s Last Decade, I worked for an Associated Press-affiliated company. My job was to edit the lifestyle, politics, sports, and entertainment newswires. I had two deadlines each day – 10am and 3pm – and my job was to sit in an office and surf the raw feed for stories, as well as receive countless fucked up stories sent in by stringers and by some Skynet-style AI that was constantly surfing the wires and the net as well.
I had to fill a quota for each of those two daily deadlines. Basically, I just weeded out stories that fit the topic of each of the wires and, if I was short, I wrote a few original pieces to meet the quota. I was often short. The shit that came in read like it was written on the back of cocktail napkins, or it came from foreign journalists with a poor grasp of English, or even unpaid nobodies who ranted crazily. That raw feed was amazing. But there wasn’t much time to sit and giggle about the crazy shit. The deadlines loomed. I came into work everyday at around 7am, sometimes earlier, and got right to work. Read through a million stories, pick out the “best” ones, edit/rewrite as necessary, dump into a folder, then transmit at 10am. At 10:01, I’d start all over again for the 3pm deadline. At 3:01 I left the office and avoided the written word for the rest of the day (which I usually spent at Flanagan’s in Bethesda, back when they were in a dismal basement and all the wait staff were high on cocaine and kind of scary).
Sounds interesting, though, doesn’t it? Especially for the editors and writers out there. You get to see a weird backstage sort of area in newsmaking, you get to make up snappy stories, you get to edit out 100% of the humanity from countless wannabe writers… There was a downside, though – the news never stops. You get a newspaper on Saturday and Sunday. You get one on Christmas and New Year’s. I had to go to work seven days a week, and on every holiday. Now, there was only one deadline on those days, and it was whenever I wanted it to be. So I’d get up at 7am on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays and drive in and spend an hour or two doing a sloppy job, then shoot everything out at 9am or so. Then fast home to enjoy the rest of the day.
So no days off and no vacations for two years. I started to get a little cagey after a while. In 95, I spent a couple months in the UK, wandering like a vagabond, and the travel bug bit me something fierce. It had been on my mind to return, and the AP job provided me with the money to do so. But I had to fight just to take a sick day, let alone consecutive days off for pleasure.
Things came to a head in 1999 when a writer friend of mine called with a long sob story. He was under contract to write a travel/history sort of book about the American Southwest. His publisher gave him a $100,000 (!!) advance and, almost immediately, his life fell apart. His wife left him after a series of insane shenanigans that belonged on a bad soap opera, then his teenaged kid dropped out of school and got busted for drugs. The book suffered and, finally, his publisher was threatening to send a few Terminators down to kill him and take the advance back.
Since I was the only person in his life who had no life of my own, he pleaded for help. Come out west and babysit for two weeks while he drove all over Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in search of Horace Greeley’s dream. (Except it wasn’t actually Greeley who told us to “Go West” was it? But, whatever…)
I agreed. Even something as horrible as babysitting a troubled teen sounded like a vacation to me at that point. But, of course, getting two weeks off was like taking on a Waffen-SS unit with an egg whisk. I finally claimed that it was a deeply personal family tragedy, at which point they said I could take one day. I finally won the two weeks, but it cost me just about everything. When I returned, it was clear that they wanted me out. Every day, there’d be some silly problem and I’d be dragged in to have the big boss yell at me. They moved me out of my office and put me on the wild and crazy news floor, surrounded by blaring TV’s and screaming editors. They took away everything and poked and prodded until I finally just lost it and stormed out.
Footloose and fancy free! I went back to my apartment and collapsed. Never again, I swore to myself. I was going to live like the Other Half. I applied for weird jobs like landscaping, and installing koi ponds, and working at tropical fish stores. I started doing freelance writing for a British-based business journal, which paid well but unreliably. I did some other freelance editing and writing gigs – hanging out at bars in Bethesda. But no jobs came through, and freelancing just doesn’t pay the bills when an invoice may go wanting for two months.
I was slowly pushed back to a regular job, and finally reached a level of desperation that made it necessary. This time, I decided to focus on a job that allowed me to have a life and pursue my interests – writing, publishing, travel, time off to sit at home and complain about my job. I looked into the groovy non-profit world, picking out weird folks. At first, I tried to merge the landscaping/freelance idea with the real job – tending monuments, research work for things like the police memorial and so on. I ended up with American Youth Hostels – following my first, best dream in life: Travel. It was a sick little customer service job, but I secretly enjoyed it. It involved zero brainpower and I spent all day talking to kids and non-traditional travelers. People who roughed it and did the hostel thing and, so, had something of a well-rounded view on life. Few and far between were the angry, evil customers. And every call fed that dream of travelling.
The job gave me plenty of time off, as well. I explored New Orleans for a week in 2000, I toured Spain for three weeks in 2001, and I took off little bits of time here and there for road trips west, north, and south, and a quick jaunt to Canada.
Then, in 2001, my boss left, and his replacement was a corrupt madman from the Congo who took me off the phones and forced me to write love letters to various women he had met on the street. Paranoid to the core, he came to believe that his employees were spying on him, and he’d have me try and counterspy against them.
It was time to leave. My old boss said there was an opening at his new place and, well, here I am. Nine years of not-so-enjoyable customer service work. I talk to enraged morons who have a very narrow view of the world, and are surprisingly socially dysfunctional. But, it was still another job that allowed for seemingly endless vacation time and gave me the emotional and mental freedom to pursue my life and dreams.
Now I’m moving into that old mindset I had in 99. Now I feel that my life and dreams can be the same as my job. Though being a weird gardener is no longer on the table, I’ve found myself thinking about where I was back then. Somehow, I’ve managed to turn my hobbies into real skills, and, as opposed to being a somewhat wayward dreamer in 99, I’m now able to take those skills and turn them into cash…which I can blow at a basement bar somewhere. Full circle!
So why not? It’s time to get up and walk away once again. Well…once the credit card debt is paid off. And I can be sure to cover the rent that is twice what I was paying in 99. And… Oh god! There’s no escape, is there?
Word to the wise, my younger readers: Stay free. Because if you haven’t felt the wanderlust yet, then you will eventually. And, if you never do, then your life isn’t worth living.
My time of change is fast approaching. All I need is to undo my financial woes and I’ll be back to square one. Except, this time, things make a whole lot more sense. And I can make sure that invoices get paid because I’ve learned how to make homemade explosives.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
It actually WAS Greeley who coined that famous term!
The freedom versus stability debate is as big a conundrum as the material versus the spiritual. Ergo whichever one chooses, there is sure to be somethings gained and some lost.
But if we really dwell on it, all our major life choices (e.g. marriage, friendship, career, education…)leave us in a situation where were damned if we do and damned if we don’t, as they say.
Ah, sorry, DD. The phrase actually comes from John Soule, a journalist out of Indiana. Greeley wrote his famous editorial and quoted Soule’s earlier work.
Let’s just agree that it’s up for debate:
It’s only a debate we can have over a bottle of vodka.