I quit my job recently. That’s not breaking news in the Great Resignation era, but it’s above the fold front page stuff for me.
My father drilled into me that one never walks away from a steady paycheck without having the next one lined up, and I’ve clung to that advice since reporting for my first shift at age 14. There have been a couple of exceptions over the decades, usually in conjunction with a big move, so it’s no surprise that my resignation coincides with my relocation.
Complete upheaval: new home, new state, new job. But didn’t I just say that I quit without having another job lined up? No, I said that I don’t have another paycheck dangling in front of me like a crack vial. You’re looking at my new job–stringing words together, paycheck be damned.
With exception to brief adolescent dreams of dominating the professional freestyle Frisbee circuit, making art is the only job I’ve ever wanted: narrative art–writing, doodling, storytelling. But that was never a viable alternative for a paycheck addict, and besides, I had responsibilities.
Someone other than me has depended upon my earning power since I was 18 years-old: a tuition office, a girlfriend, landlords and mortgagees, and eventually my own family. My children shouldn’t suffer because their father is wired for the least lucrative vocation in American life, I reasoned, and so I dove Gap-khakis-first into corporate life. My paycheck addiction bordered upon pathological during my kids’ childhoods. I lived in constant fear of losing my job. Accompanying that was the near evangelical belief that I could never find another one.
But my kids have moved on now. They’re out there coming to their own conclusions about working life, and I find myself in debt to no one. Not one soul in this world depends upon my earning power now, aside from the usual list of money vultures: the tax man, utility companies, the makers of wasabi almonds.
And so I find myself in a very unique position–too young to retire from chasing paychecks, at least according to the gubment, but too old not to feel the inevitable bony grasp of Death tightening around my throat. (“He earned well” makes for a sorry epitaph.) Too old to be governed by fear of a lost paycheck–too goddamned old to be infantilized by an employee handbook dictating what I say, what I think, how I dress, when I wake, whether I have accrued enough time to entitle me to recover from the flu or take an unplanned drive to the beach. When to eat or go to the bathroom and for how long (“You get two fifteens and a one hour lunch”). “Treat your social media accounts like extensions of the workplace,” the handbook demands. I’m much too old to be told how to behave on my own time.
That’s all that a paycheck is supposed to buy, after all–time. I sell you you eight hours out of each day, five days per week. But that’s not enough for the modern employer. Dating as far back as the Clinton administration, my company declared me on-call 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. (This is probably a good time to note that I was not an emergency responder, nor was I a doctor or the carrier of the nuclear football. For the last 29 years of my professional life I worked for banks. Keep that in mind next time someone complains about “bankers hours.”)
I’m no longer willing to sell my time, at least not in the manner of a paycheck addict. That deal is just too damned expensive. How much anxiety, depression, heart disease, substance abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and suicide has at its chewy nougat center these inequitable arrangements we make with companies who could really care less whether we live or die? Just keep grinding it out. Feed me, Seymour, feed me! If I’m going to work 24/7 let it be for myself.
“I have no money, no resources, no hopes,” Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer. “I am the happiest man alive.” I’ve envied those words for 35 years–not the words, really, but the leap into the abyss that they represented. Miller left a lucrative yet soul-crushing job at Western Union (along with a wife and kid) in order to live a creative life. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and now I have albeit in a much more responsible manner. Would you expect any less from a paycheck addict?
I walked away from my own cosmodemonic telegraph company with money, resources, and abundant hope, hellbent on making a little narrative art before Death chokes the life out of me. I no longer envy Miller’s words–I understand them. It’s my time to be the happiest man alive. That’s worth more than any paycheck.