Do You Stumble Out of Bed Just to Work 9 to 5?

If we’re not waking up for something else, we’re not living.

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Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda in the 1980 film 9 to 5 (Photo: IPC Films/20th Century Fox)

The nourishment was palatable, but the conversation didn’t exactly spice up my night. As I sat across the dinner table from Andy in a Melbourne, Australia, restaurant six years ago, he once again was forcing me to explain/justify my life.

As usual, he was having trouble with the concept of “freelance” — being free of any obligation to go into an office for at least eight hours a day, five days a week.

Since I left New York City for Buenos Aires in 2006, giving up the traditional 40-hour work week (which, in my case, had always been more like 60) and the regular paycheck that went with it, I’ve only done the 9-to-5 office thing during the two and a half years I lived and worked in Sydney. The night I had dinner with Andy, I was still permanently off the clock.

“So what do you do all day?” he asked.

I tried to hide my disdain for the question and my impatience with the person asking it, but my voice rose several octaves, definitely giving me away.

“Do you think the blogs I write every day and post on Facebook, the ones that you regularly ‘like’ — thanks for that, by the way — write themselves?”

What did I do all day? I’d never been busier in my life. I didn’t expect him to know that, and that’s not what bothered me most about the question. It was the way he asked it. There was more than a hint of judgment in the way he emphasized “do” number two.

Inquiring minds always want to know

Questions about my nomadic lifestyle were nothing new — not from Andy, not from everyone. The last time I’d seen him, some eight months earlier when he was on holiday in Bangkok, Andy had trained his curiosity on my finances.

“So how do you make money?” he’d inquired, as had so many before him.

“I’m a writer. I write. As long as I have my laptop and Wi-Fi, I can work anywhere.”

The great thing about leaving the New York City rat race to reinvent my life and career abroad when I did — in September of 2006 — is that modern technology had given me the perfect response. I didn’t have to get too specific, or hand over my bank statements.

I suspected Andy was looking for a numerical response that one night in Bangkok (“I make this much money in one month”), but he wasn’t going to get one from me. He already knew what I did for a living. I may have switched cities several times since we’d met in Rio in 2010 (It didn’t take him long to ask about my financial survival then), but I hadn’t changed careers.

Was it possible that after knowing me for three years, he still didn’t understand what a writer does? I challenged the logic of “What do you do all day?” with something along those lines.

“I was just trying to make conversation,” he said.

Later, he admitted that it wasn’t as simple as him trying to keep the conversation going. I’d already dismissed that excuse in my head as the lamest justification ever for asking a stupid question.

It’s not as if we had ever run out of things to talk about in the three years I’d known him. We were comfortable enough together not to have to frantically fill every single moment of silence with idle chatter. As I suspected, there was more to it.

“I just want to know how you keep yourself from getting bored.”

“But you’re only bored if you’re being boring.”

I could tell he still didn’t get it. He’d never understand how I could live a life without structure that wasn’t imposed on it by someone else. Although he didn’t love his job, he had no idea what he’d do without one. For reasons that had nothing to do with supporting himself financially, employment was his lifeline.

It may not always have kept him busy or particularly interested (judging from his Facebook status updates, which were as boring to read as they must have been to live), but it kept him social. Without it, he might have been forced to spend large chunks of the day alone. How was he supposed to do that?

Andy was the kind of person who claimed to be excited about going on a solo vacation until a few days into it, when he could no longer stand being alone with his thoughts. Solitude was never his friend for long.

Not scared of going solo

I knew a lot of people like that, and I still do. I don’t think there is anything wrong with them. It’s just not me. Many spend their lives struggling with the fear of being alone, but I never have. When I say I’m a loner, I really mean it.

I’m neither self-involved nor narcissistic — unless those who have described me as a good listener and a compassionate and sympathetic friend were lying, or mistaken. But if I were about to be stranded on a desert island, and I could only have one person along for company, I’d probably choose myself.

I can understand the confusion of someone whose brain has a limited capacity for imagination or creativity, but there must be a better way to ask how I do it (like, for instance, “How do you do it?”) than to ask, “What do you do all day?” That’s a question you pose to a burnout slacker or a destitute fool without the resources to keep himself busy in any meaningful or meaningless way.

Andy knew I wasn’t spending my days counting flowers on the wall. He’d “liked” enough of my blog posts on Facebook and commented on them, too. He also knew that I’d spent the better part of the previous year working on my first book. Did he think all of that just magically happened without any effort on my part?

Does anyone wonder what Kate Bush or Sade Adu or Shania Twain do all day while they’re taking a decade between albums? We assume they are living life, enjoying it, being creative. Does being a writer not qualify as a full-time creative undertaking whether you’re punching the clock or not, even if you happen not to be famous?

In “trying to make conversation,” he made me wonder if he hadn’t been paying attention during any our previous ones. He also revealed a lot about himself. I’d never considered him to be a person of remarkable depth, but for the first time, I realized he was alive but not really living.

Why did he need a 9-to-5 job to fill the hours of his day? Why did he think of the hours of his day as something needing to be filled?

I probably should have been more compassionate. It must be tough spending your life depending on the presence of other people to keep you not only occupied but content, too. Andy had never spoken of any interests or passions, so as far as I knew, he didn’t have any.

Perhaps that was why he was so dependent on his job to help him ward off loneliness. Perhaps if he’d had interests, passions, an inner life, he wouldn’t have had to “make conversation.” It would have just happened. He certainly wouldn’t have had to wonder what I do all day.

I didn’t say any of this, but I secretly hoped the “being boring” dig had said it for me. Dinner had run its course, and so, I suspected, had our friendship. We never socialized again, and he unfriended me on Facebook soon after.

Oh, well. I was too busy thinking about all the things I was going to do tomorrow to care.

Check, please.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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