You don’t have to make a living if you’re alive. You don’t have to make a killing before you die.
It has taken me more than a year to publicly write these words, and it’s still not easy. But here goes, at last:
I lost my job. Thirteen months ago.
This was not ideal. It was right before Christmas. It was right before a planned two-week holiday trip to Italy. I was in the middle of renovating a house that we’d taken down to stud.
It wasn’t performance related, for what it’s worth. My company got acquired by a big bank, and that bank almost immediately laid off about ten percent of their new workforce — including the entire marketing department, due to “redundancies” with their tenured employees. It’s not what we were told by the outgoing CEO, nor by the new owners during the announcement of the purchase. But it became clear during the eight weeks between purchase and layoff that our future had been predetermined. We never even got a chance to prove our worth.
The kicker? I was about six months away from resigning. As soon as we’d finished renovating that house and began pulling in rental income from it, Jenn and I agreed it was time to get out of the traditional workforce and spend our hours doing work that we really felt good about doing. By all accounts, I should’ve been able to take the layoff in stride.
So why did I feel guilty? Why did I feel like I failed, in some way? Why do I stammer when I meet someone and they ask what I do?
If those were all framed as a single multiple-choice question, the answers might be…
- Because you’ve held a job since you were 16
- Because this is the first time you’ve been “shown the door”
- Because you grew up Catholic
- All of the above
For a minute I tried telling people I was retired. But they’d look at my youth1 and it would just lead to puzzlement and a long, drawn-out story that’s not very interesting.
Also, it wasn’t true.
I’m not retired. I’m managing our little collection of rental properties. And I’m supplementing that income with some freelance writing and marketing gigs. And I’m writing, for myself, several hours every day. (Maybe it’ll be a book, maybe it won’t. But I’m writing what I want to write, and I view that as my job.)
I recently read William Powers’ “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream” — a book where he documents living in a 12-by-12-foot house, off the grid, without electricity or running water for a winter and spring in rural North Carolina. During his stay, he ran into a few like-minded folks. He called them “post capitalists,” which is the best shorthand I’ve heard for what I’ve become.
As Sam Phillips says in her song “Continuous Limit,” quoted in the image above, “You don’t have to make a living if you’re alive. You don’t have to make a killing before you die.”2
Still, now I usually just tell people I’m a freelance writer, and that’s the end of it. I’m selling myself short,3 but I don’t like talking about myself much anyway, and we can at least move on to something else. Unless they’re really curious.
And if that’s the case, they’ll get an earful from me.
I’ll tell them my most valuable possession isn’t my 401(k), or my beloved craftsman bungalow, or my truck (hey, my 2004 Tacoma4 may not be as stylish as a Jaguwar, but I do love that thing).
Time is my most valuable possession.
Time to write. Time to do all that stuff around the house that’s languished for a dozen years. Time to volunteer. Time to read more books. Time to search for a little plot of land to farm. Time to walk the riverbank with my wife and my dog. Time to ride my bike. Time to play B-sides.
People may be surprised to learn that Ken Jennings — a fellow whose 15 minutes of fame endured for six whole months, when he became a record-setting “Jeopardy” champion in 2004, raking in $3.2 million dollars in that run — wrote a book about, of all things, people who are obsessed with maps (like him). In one chapter of “Maphead,” he talks to folks in the Travelers’ Century Club, which requires its members have set foot in at least 100 countries to join. One of the members he interviews recounts a story about working at his first job, for Ma Bell, alongside an older fellow who would share his grand plans of traveling the world with his wife upon retirement. “She died the very day he retired,” Jennings writes. “The look on that guy’s face!” the man told Jennings. “It was such a momentous realization. You’ve got to do things when you can.”
This doesn’t have to mean just traveling the world — although I very much recommend it, as it will change your life. “Things” can mean lots of, well, things. Like plunging your hand in the soil and helping at a tree planting. Like staying up until 1 a.m. to hear a band. Like learning to sew or weave a basket, for fricksake. Like having a conversation with someone you don’t know when you’re waiting on a doctor or a mechanic or just the elevator.
“You’ve got to do things when you can.”
When I end up at the coffee shop at 11 a.m. or we sneak away to the matinee showing of a movie at 4:30, I still feel like I’m getting away with something.
And maybe I am getting away with something, although, really, I just feel like I’m living more. I know I feel better. I’ve lost twenty pounds and I don’t go to sleep worrying about a big project at work. The free-time thing is still new to me, since I spent eight of those thirteen months tackling the home renovation myself (versus contracting out much of the hammer-swinging).
But I suspect that I’ll be busier now that I’m “retired” — now that I’m a post-capitalist; now that I’m livin’ for givin’ the devil his due — than I was when I was working for The Man.
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1Relative youth. I look younger than I am, thanks mostly to the robust head of hair I inherited from my mom’s side.
2From her 2018 album, “World on Sticks,” which is full of powerful sentiments that seem to attest to the simple-living aesthetic Jenn and I have pursued for years now. One song, “American Landfill Kings,” begins “How did we find ourselves living on top of the things that we don’t want any more, screaming while we cover our ears.”
3I’m already not what anyone would call a tall man.
4I didn’t discover until last year that rabid Toyota Tacoma fans call their trucks Tacos. And now I derive great pleasure from knowing I drive a “Taco truck.”