Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mastering the Art of Not Working

The morning of my fortieth birthday I slept in. If you’d call “sleeping in” an activity that was over by 7:30 am. A decade or two ago, I'd have called it “waking up early.” But a decade or two ago, I didn’t talk about my life in terms of decades.

The best part of sleeping in was that Mike brought me a cup of coffee in bed. Having coffee in bed is delightful to me, and always makes me think fondly of the year I spent living near Union Square in a microscopic studio apartment. My bed was jammed up so close to the kitchenette that I could reach over and turn on the coffee maker without setting foot on the floor. I pretty much had to drink the coffee in bed too, because it was one of the only pieces of furniture in the apartment. Sometimes I was also just lazy -- I didn’t wake up early enough, or lounged around in bed so long that I was late for work. It’s not like I was out drinking speedball cocktails every night. I was juggling two jobs. But one of them was for the city. Almost everyone in my office – including the guy in the cubicle next to me who moonlighted as a DJ in a strip club – seemed to think our work day had a flexible start time anyway.

The morning of my birthday, I woke up with two things on my mind. One was death. The other was my anxiety dream. It wasn’t my standard issue anxiety dream – where I’m about to take a final exam in a French class I never actually attended. In this anxiety dream, I was back in New York, in the stairwell of a downtown subway stop. My kids were running around, and I was trying to hold up the top heavy Maclaren stroller with my knee, while I rifled through my wallet for my Metro card. Irritated people were pushing past us. As the bell for the next train started going off, I swiped my card and found it was empty. In a rush, I pulled out a ten dollar bill, and fed it into the machine.

Just as the bill slipped out of my fingers, though, I realized that there was another ten stuck to it, underneath. I tried in desperation to get it back. But the card machine didn’t give me the credit. Then, I missed the train. And there I was, standing on the platform -- ten dollars short, with two kids, going nowhere.

I thought about the dream as I sat there that morning, anxiously sipping my fortieth birthday coffee. I couldn’t figure out what it was about the dream that bothered me so much. Missing a train is annoying. But it’s not like missing an entire French class, which could set you up for a lifetime of underachievement. Later that day we took to the kids to the zoo, and I thought about the dream again while I sat on a bench, watching people walk by with choco tacos and goat feed. The dream, I realized then, was completely unrealistic. I do have children. And a Maclaren. But there were other things about it that were too bogus to be taken literally.

New York does have an extensive public transportation system, for example. But I did not take my children on it. It is my opinion that disabled people are the only people who have a harder time getting around on the subway than mothers with small children. There are a lot of good Samaritans in New York who are willing to carry strollers and hold doors. But many of the apparently able-bodied men who ride the subway must secretly suffer from fibromyalgia. Because once you finally do make it down the stairs, through the gate, and into the train lugging your bags, your kids, and your stroller, these tender gents will sit for the entire stretch of Manhattan, watching you and your exhausted children cling to the pole for dear life. The best you can hope for at that point is that another man will finish clipping his fingernails onto the floor in front of you and get off at the next stop. Rather than subject all these well groomed men to my monstrous offspring, I chose to mostly take cabs, where I could strap them into mostly functional seat belts and pay someone to be a good samaritan in the form of a big tip.

Even if I had relied on the subway to get around, though, there was still the matter of the ten dollar bill. I don’t know anybody in New York who buys their metro cards with cash, in such a small denomination. Four rides and several hands of clipped fingernails later, you’d be right back where you started. If you know how to use the touch screen --and the MTA hasn’t set the machine to malfunction mode -- you can buy a new card in less than a minute, and still have time to stroll over to the kiosk and buy some tictacs before the train comes.

And that’s when I realized it. It was exactly ten years from the time I started graduate school in New York, to the time I decided to leave my career as a history professor and stay home full time with my kids. Well -- technically what happened was -- I decided to work part time, and my job decided to let me stay home full time with my kids. But now, after more years than I ever imagined would go by, I haven’t gone right back. Instead, I just get a lot of anxiety when anyone asks me if I’ll “ever work again” – as if staying home with your kids not only isn’t work, but might, in fact, be a terminal condition. I know it’s not true just because my subconscious dreamed it up. But part of me is starting to suspect that those ten years of professionalizing may end up going -- for lack of a better word -- nowhere.

So, maybe that particular career train is already pulling out of the station. I like to think that somehow, the work thing will just work out. But in the end, mastering the art of not working – for me -- might not be about catching up with that train. It might just be about figuring out a new way to get around.


Catherine said...

My favorite post yet, because I love coffee in bed, too,(ask me how Mo weaned me, age 11, onto coffee) and because it so vividly (that $10 bill!) and fluidly contrasts your life in NY with your life now--the things you've set aside, the things you've gained, the things you've let go, and how you can peacefully assess all that. We so old and wise!

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