Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Working It Out

I’m broke. It’s my fault. I’ve given up.

Okay, so it’s really not as pretty as all that.

For the last 10 years, I’ve worked as a writer and content creator. But just barely. I’m on my way up.

In the last three years, there were months where I made no money at all. But sometimes I made very little money! My ultimate goal since I was a kid: sustain regular work as a filmmaker. And survive financially. That goal was all but in my grasp.

Now, at 34 years of age and little to no money in my pocket, I’ve had to consider going back to the job I got in high school, the one that supported me through film school, the one I so happily left to earn my living as a writer, which was beginning to work.

Before going back to that old job, I considered other options.

My wife and I had long ago cut frivolous spending. We don’t go anywhere fun. We don’t do anything fun. We don’t buy anything fun.

“What else can we cut?” my wife asked.

We sold the cars, leased two roller skates. Got rid of the house, rented someone’s closet. We’re wearing the same clothes since Tuesday . . . of last month.

“Mike,” my wife shouted. “What else can we cut?” she asked again.

I guess I was dreaming. I checked to make sure. Yup, I was wearing clean clothes and we still had our house and cars.

“There’s nothing else to cut,” I said.

So I made the decision to go backward, back to where I started, back to my first job -- manual labor with low, but at least steady pay.

While I filled out the online application, my 7-year-old son tried to keep me in high spirits. He talked about the wife he was going to get when he grows up.

“She’s gonna have blonde hair,” he said, “a pink shirt, blue jeans, and she’s gonna wanna play trucks with me all the time and have a family with me.” I wasn’t paying much attention to what my son was saying, but by the time I submitted my application, I knew I was making the right decision. My family’s well-being was more important than my career goals.

The next day, I got an interview for the job. I walked into the place I’d long since left and I couldn’t help but take in those sights, those sounds and those smells that I knew all too well. I swore that I’d never go back, that I’d keep moving forward no matter what. To go back would be to give up.

After leaving a decade ago, I occasionally had nightmares of being stuck at that job. I’d wake up in a panic, my wife assuring me I wasn’t back. I was doing well as a content creator for many years. I was making a living, building up a nice body of work and moving up. And right about the time things got bad, that’s when they got worse.

Four years of college that cost me $75,000 in student loans, and all the work I put into my career, not to mention the costly gambles I took to further that career, seemed to be meaningless as I went back to that high school job, asking for work.

Maybe I wouldn’t get it.

I got it.

My wife and son were thrilled. When I didn’t share their hoorays, my wife wondered why.

“I thought you wanted this job,” she said.

Wanted this job?

On my first day of work, I entered the building feeling like Tim Robbins’ character in “The Shawshank Redemption” as he encountered prison. I could almost hear the other employees chanting, “Fresh fish . . . fresh fish . . . fresh fish!” When I clocked in, it was like hearing my cell door slam home. On the outside I was a free man, the sky being the limit. Inside, however, I’m an institutionalized man, making just enough to get by, going nowhere.

That first day was the toughest, no doubt about it. My feet were sore, my back was sore, and I was constantly thirsty, spending most of my break time at the drinking fountain. The money certainly didn’t reflect the pain.

I knew right away I’d made a mistake. That night, friends and family tried to give me a boost.

“You weren’t going anywhere before anyway.”

“You gave your dream your best shot.”

“At least you have a job.”

 Yes, at least I have a job. My family can eat again. My wife and I can pay our bills, and we no longer owe anyone any money. But in that moment it seemed like something inside me died. My failure became a reality.

When I said goodbye to my wife and son on my first Saturday of work, I felt like I was saying goodbye to weekends with my family altogether. And I was.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” I said to them in a minister-giving-last-rites kind of way. “I enjoyed the time we had together and I’ll cherish it forever.” Before I got into my car to leave, my son presented me with a picture he drew of me at my new job.

“It’s for you, Daddy,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

There was some perspective.

Each day since then, I’ve gone to work feeling better about the choice I made. Sure, with this move I’ve gone backward. But maybe I was on the wrong path toward my goal. After all, I wasn’t making a living toward the end there. A dead end is a dead end, no forward movement there.

And so I seek a new path. I’ll continue to work really hard for many more years if I have to, and I might have to sacrifice as I have in the past, but forward I will go.

Like my son, I too once imagined a girl I’d marry -- one along the same lines as my son’s with blonde hair, pink shirt, blue jeans, likes to play trucks with me all the time, wants to have a family. I didn’t get exactly what I imagined.

I did better. And I’m very grateful for that.

-December 2010

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