Doing the Work

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Half an hour past totality, minutes before the game resumed, a body filled the seat beside me for the first time all day.

“So, Seattle, huh?” ESPN’s Sam Miller asked me. “How was the drive down?”

I was impressed he remembered the small talk we’d made five hours earlier after I’d had him sign my copy of the book he co-wrote as the sun began to peek above the horizon. Then, he’d seized on a detail in an anecdote I related—the phrase “then-girlfriend”—and asked if she was now my wife or ex, and I had clarified that she was now the latter.

Since my first breakup, I’ve eschewed the term “ex” when telling a story about someone I was dating at the time of the tale to someone unfamiliar with the chronology, because there’s an uncertainty to it. Was she already my ex then? Were we dating then, and she’s now my ex? Saying “then-girlfriend” always seemed easier, until Sam popped that question.

When he reappeared in the box seat, Sam engaged me in conversation with an ease that I’ve long wished I’d possessed when interacting with strangers. There was an information gap—I’ve listened to hundreds of episodes of his (ex-)podcast, read dozens of his articles, and most recently, finally finished consuming the book he’d signed for me, whereas all he knew about me could be summarized in less words than this blog post has already taken—but we jumped from topic to topic like old friends: From eclipse traffic to Father John Misty to how his wife had been an intern at the same magazine as me to whether the circumstances behind Mike Hargrove’s depature from the Mariners were stranger than normal. (He had confused Hargrove’s exit with Jim Riggleman’s resignation from the Nationals.)

Somewhere in there, my book came up, as it tends to whenever I engage in conversations with people who aren’t familiar with the now-quixotic nature of my personal journey towards publication. When I told him how long ago that road trip took place, he asked where I was at in the process. When I said that it was done, but not done done, and explained that it might not matter anyway, since I can’t seem to gin up interest in a memoir when I’m not already famous, he asked a question I’d never heard before.

“Even so, do you find value in doing the work?”

*******

The men in my family have long suffered for their work.

My paternal grandfather was forced to drop out of high school to support his mother and siblings after his father abandoned the family to form another in an era when divorce wasn’t an option. My maternal grandfather was a workaholic type, a tobacco salesman who became a shell of himself when his nicotine addition fueled a heart attack and stroke. And my father’s work ethic led directly to his demise when he changed flights to return from a business trip early so he could make yet another meeting on this side of the Pond.

That’s long been how I’ve mytholigized these men, the grandfather I never met, the grandfather who was dramatically reshaped a year before my birth, and the father I can barely remember. The last time America witnessed a total eclipse, all three of those men were still living, and I was years away. The last of them died a dozen years ago, leaving nobody to contradict the tales I tell myself.

I can’t say for certain how true any of these tales are, if I’m being honest. We’ve never found any record of what happened to my father’s father’s father, though I sometimes wonder if that alleged second cousin who keeps pestering me on 23andMe might actually be the answer. Regardless, my grandfather dropping out of high school before the peak of the Roaring Twenties is completely devoid of context for me, even if I pretend otherwise.

My other grandfather? I used to hear stories of absentee parenting, but they’re only stories, unverifiable these decades later. Since Mad Men debuted, I’ve perceived him as a early-seasons Don Draper-type, (presumably) without the philandering. The timing checks out: Sally Draper was born right in between my mom and her older sister. Regardless, he dedicated his life to his business, and what good did it do? My uncle believes my grandmother would have left him if not for the stroke.

And my dad. A story that’s been told here several times before, but I hit the bullet point above: He wasn’t supposed to be on that plane. He was trying to get back early for a meeting, and he never got back at all.

These are the stories I tell myself when people ask me why I don’t just get a job.

*******

It’s a strange thing, to be willfully unemployed in America. This country’s dedication to work, its sense of job as self, remains unparalleled throughout the world (or so I hear.) Whereas other countries offer mandatory benefits—parental leave, more vacation days, actual health care—here, the job is supposed to be its own reward.

Last year, a friend criticized me for getting into my life story too quickly when meeting new people, and I pushed back. What else am I supposed to say? I argued, pointing out that the most common ice-breaking question in modern society is, “So, what do you do?”

What do I do? Nothing. (But that makes me look worthless.) I mean, I don’t have a 9-to-5. (Quick, don’t look like a freeloader.) I’m living off of investments. (Now I look like an entitled finance-bro, a barnacle on the economy.) I’m working on a book.

“What’s the book about?”

All roads lead to the same place.

*******

I never decided to live this way. I didn’t wake up one day and decide, “Fuck it, guess I’m never working,” not even during that one job interview wherein the store’s assistant manager went on extended tangents about the trilogy of sci-fi screenplays he was writing about three generations of space prostitutes and how the Illuminati was responsible for the founding of the United States. It was a series of smaller choices, a decision tree in which I decided to follow my passion each time, knowing that my way was paid.

My adult life has been defined by the safety net above which I keep swinging. Some choices are measured, some are more whimsical, but none have put me at any real risk. In a Twitter thread about e-book piracy a while back, a writer friend said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I write so I can eat.” I’ve never felt that hunger.

I write because I want to, and I eat because I want to, and I play games and read books and watch baseball and go on road trips to Oregon all because I want to. My life is functionally devoid of need, devoid of obligation to anyone but myself.

And sometimes, that feels the same as being devoid of meaning.

*******

I have this (bad?) habit after I shave, when I inevitably miss a spot. I’ll be in the car, or on my couch, or somewhere similarly idle, when I notice a stray, uncut whisker on my face and begin trying to pluck it with my fingernails. Sometimes it’ll take minutes, sometimes an hour or two. At times, I’ve given myself a minor blister on my index finger from the compulsive act, but I can’t seem to help it. Things won’t feel right until that whisker is gone.

Ever since that conversation with Sam, that question of his has been picking at my brain the same way. “Even so, do you find value in doing the work?”

Yes. Maybe? Sometimes.

I’ve been back at work on the book lately, after unintentionally taking an extended period of time off due to other drains on my emotional energy, and despite the overwhelming feeling of futility I sometimes feel, every so often, I’ll read a phrase or sentence or paragraph that I wrote all those years ago and have a moment where I’m impressed with my younger self. Or I’ll have a new insight into who I was then, and be able to explain why I acted the way I did then in a way I couldn’t have at the time. My perspective has and hasn’t changed, simultaneously.

I was thinking earlier today about the last time I persisted against pushback because I saw value in what I did. An old volunteer gig, now several years past, where I spent two years battling against a new staff member who felt the need to put his stamp on things, even if it meant reshaping the beautiful wheel we’d invented back into a square. I decided to put my head down and outlast him, and when I’d finally done so, I decided to walk away. I won the battle, but lost my will to fight.

Still, there was value in that work.

This work, though? I can’t say, not yet. Certainly, some people who read early drafts long ago thought so. Certainly, there’s an outcome here where this is all worth it in the end, and it’s not even the fame-and-fortune outcome that (almost) any creator dreams of achieving. (I don’t.) Certainly, there’s value in this story I’m trying to tell, hiding in a thicket of all the darlings I’ve yet to find the courage to kill.

Do I find value in doing this work? I can’t say. But I’m sure there’s value in getting it done.

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