I recently found myself sitting across a dinner table in Melbourne from one of the most frustrating people I’ve ever known, once again having to explain/justify my life to him.
As usual, he was having trouble with the idea of being a “freelance” anything, free of any obligation to go into an office for at least eight hours a day five days a week – something I haven’t done since the summer of 2006, shortly before I gave up the traditional 40-hour work week (which, in my case, had always been more like 60), and the regular paycheck that goes with it, and left New York City for Buenos Aires.
“So what do you do all day?” he asked, after a nine-months-pregnant pause. I took offense, and not just because I’ve never been busier in my life. (These near-daily blog posts don’t write themselves, nor do any of the hundreds of freelance articles I've done since 2008, when I started writing regularly again after a two-year hiatus.) There was more than a hint of judgment in the way he asked his loaded question (note the emphasis on the second "do"), one he seemed to ask every time he saw me.
The last time I’d seen him, some eight months earlier when he was on holiday in Bangkok, he’d actually had the audacity to question my finances ("So how do you make money?" he'd inquired, as have many before him -- as if they all have every right to know), and I was pretty sure he was getting ready to go there again. When I tried to stop him before he started, his reaction was like an explosion in a tightly sealed bottle. He spoke slowly and deliberately, looking off to the side as if he was addressing an unseen jury. His voice was at volume 5, but his righteous indignation was unmistakable. On a scale from 1 to 10, it was hovering around 20. He was really milking playing the misunderstood victim.
He insisted that he couldn’t care less how I made my living and called me on getting defensive every time the conversation took a predictable turn into the realm of my unconventional (by Western corporate standards) lifestyle. I asked him why I had to answer the same questions every single time I saw him. I may have switched cities several times since we’d met, but I hadn’t changed careers. I'm a writer. What does he think I do all day?
“I was just trying to make conversation,” he responded, unconvincingly.
He later 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 that I'd known him, and 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 this obnoxious interview.
He simply didn’t know how I do it, live life without structure that's imposed on it by someone else. Though 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, it was his lifeline. It may not have always 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, and how was he supposed to do that? He 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.
I know a lot of people who are like that, and I don't think there is anything wrong with them. It's just not me. The fear of being alone is a common aspect of the human condition, but it’s something with which I have no personal history. When I say I’m a loner, I actually 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. I'm pretty sure that even a care-free and career-free person like Paris Hilton finds ways to occupy herself during regular business hours. Surely she's not counting flowers on the wall all day.
But that's not me either. This so-called friend knew that I'm a writer. 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 David Bowie or 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, if you happen to not 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 number of negatives about himself. I’d never considered him to be a person of remarkable depth, but for the first time, I was certain he was someone who was bored with life. Why else would he need a 9-to-5 job, especially one that didn't reflect any of his personal interests (if he even had any), to fill the hours of his day? Why would he think of the hours of his day as something needing to be filled?
I wondered about the new love of his life that he’d found online a few months earlier. What did they see in each other? Were they both just looking for someone to fill the empty space beside them and those hours of the day which weren't already being filled by their jobs? Of all the things he’d said about his new boyfriend, the ones that stuck out most were that they had the same first name, and that they new boyfriend worked out twice a day.
Ah, so that’s what he does all day!
I probably should have felt more of that compassion I'm known for instead of such annoyance. It must be tough spending your life depending on the presence of other people to keep you not only occupied but content, too. The guy sitting across from me 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 and a boyfriend who worked out twice to day to help him ward off loneliness. Perhaps if he had interests, passions, he wouldn’t have to “make conversation.” It would just happen. He certainly wouldn't wonder what I do all day.
I didn’t say any of this, of course. I didn’t want to offend him any more than I already had. Plus I really wasn’t interested in “making conversation.” I was too busy thinking about all the things I’d do the next day, alone, things that had nothing to do with going into an office or answering stupid questions posed by people who didn't care enough to remember the answer a few months later.