The Work You Do

A beige corded rotary phone
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

An alumni association from one of my old colleges telephoned the other week. “Hello, Mr. Field! Can you catch us up on your education since leaving our school?” Of course. I provided the highlights of the six colleges I attended and three master’s degrees I earned.

“Oh, my! So what’s the work you do, with all that education?”

I am a house dad.

“Haha. Seriously, what should I put down for the alumni magazine.”

House dad. Forty-nine-year-old house dad.

Not to say I have not had lots of work. For example, I had a few jobs in corporate offices. In fact, for one job, I was lent out on contract from my company in a corporate office to another company in another corporate office. I was corporately squared! I reported to work for three months before being recalled, having never really understood what I was supposed to be doing in the loaner office. I spent most of my time logged into the second company’s secure system reading software testing logs. “Looks good, boss! The logs are all there.”

I started cooking in restaurants because my dad told me you could always count on it for not just a paycheck but a good meal. I found out restaurants do not always feed their people like they did in his day, but the work was pretty good. That is if you can survive the chaotic alcoholism that defines many post-shift crew parties. I always felt like those jobs in the back of the house were like time warps — you enter in the morning and come out at night with just a long blur of repetitive activity in between. It has a rhythm to it, though, and that can bring peace.

There is an indignity of sitting at the bar after your kitchen shift, cooling off from the incessant heat of the kitchen. Maybe you are unwinding with a cold drink, admiring the idle joy and beauty of the patrons, but you know you smell like chopped garlic and potatoes and raw chicken, and your shoes are soaked in mop water. It is a wall reminding you that you are in a lower station of life. Is that indignity worth the eighty-dollar shift pay and ten-dollar tip out? Maybe. My kitchen was always clean when I left, and the stations prepped for morning. I felt pride in that. Pride doesn’t pay the rent, but it keeps your chin up.

I have always admired people who can finish the sentence, “I want to be a _____.” They line up courses of training and study for that vocation. They apprentice or intern. They pay their dues. They work up through the sodden middle ranks. Then one day, ha! They are a successful _____! It always seemed like they got some magic dust sprinkled on them by the nurses at birth. I never felt that. But good for them.

One year, I drove a donations collection truck for a thrift shop. The shop resold the collected goods to homeless people. Mostly, we were picking up leftovers from estate sales — go in and clear out the clothes closet, the musty furniture, the mismatched drawers of utensils. Dead people sometimes have pretty nice shoes. I guess most people do not expect to die before getting to break their shoes in. One day I was out in the front side of the thrift shop talking to the boss, and I set down a book I had been reading. It was a book about a guy who got himself trapped inside an ant colony. When I turned around, someone had picked my book up and bought it, and left the store. I had to go to the library to find out what happened to the guy and the ants. Did they keep the guy alive by feeding him sticky honeydew they farmed from aphids? Or did the ants eat him? Anyway, some work is like that. They sell things right out from under you, dead or alive. You are never really ready for it. Keeps you humble.

A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a high school friend. Another guest in attendance was an older counselor from our youth group days. She asked, “Well, you’re all grown up now. What work do you do?” I told her about a job I had in I.T. then. Her face corkscrewed, “Aww, that’s too bad. I always thought you would do something to help people.”

At one job where I did help people, I drove an old white van through a rural beach community to pick up middle school kids and deliver them to weekly youth group meetings. Their houses were largely trailers up on blocks in sandy, weeded lots. Reminded me of a third world country, but it was coastal South Carolina. The roads were rutted, washed-out gravel. I can still see all the kids in the rearview mirror dancing and singing as that rickety van bumped and bounced under the palm trees down the lane to the churchyard.

I did not make much money at that job, but a local restaurant owner let me come in and get free lunch every day. Every day. How about that? I drank a lot of sweet tea in those days. Did I mention that every one of those kids was Black? And that I also had a job up the road at another church, a nice, big church with a paved street and everything. All those kids drove their own cars to the weekly youth group meeting. Guess what color those kids were? You know, some of us start on third base and might think we are earning our way, that we all get what we work for. Meanwhile, there are whole hoards of great kids outside the ballpark. It isn’t that they only started at first; heck, they can’t even get a ride to the game.

In my current, real-life house dad job, I have to escape my office to write these reflections down, my office being the dining room table. My kids are circling me, trying to train our dog to follow them. Shhh! Daddy’s working! I loaned myself out to a second office location. I call it “porch.”

Walking outside, I start to think that there has never been a better time to become a writer than these past eighteen months. A lot of people have laptops, or their kids do. We are not supposed to go out much. Maybe some federal support is coming into the house. And anyway, we’ve all been practicing short-form writing for years, calling one another Nazis and screaming about #BTS on social media. Without the crush of the daily commute or suffocating office culture, those of us who are home might naturally begin to reflect, and after all the binge-watching is done (but is it ever, though? Is it?), we might finally muster the courage to write down that story we’ve been letting steep all these years, wondering if anyone wants to read about us, hear our voice.

Writing is a good way to spend a day. It is work. Isn’t it? At least, there is time and effort involved. I spend a lot of time thinking of things to say, then chastising myself for not knowing how to spell the things I wish to say, and then for not knowing that word that explains the things I want to say but smarter and more succinctly. Then there is the giant effort to share. First, because sharing what I write can be a scary thing to do— it makes me vulnerable. People might think my writing is terrible and even think I am awful for thinking to share it. Second, because usually, by this point, my writing is terrible. At least those first five drafts. You know, the ones I write for free.

So time and effort equate to work, but what if it all goes unpaid? Is it still work if you do it for free? Of course, it is. At least, we adults all agree on this. Because work is more than moving widgets, it can also be an outpouring from oneself into the community, of sharing and inspiring and lifting others up. My ten-year-old does not agree. She wants me to bring home the money. And, she wants to know why we do not live in the million-dollar houses across town.

Daddy’s trying, dear. No, I can’t be a doctor.

Despite the punishing rejections, the unread reader copies mailed out, the zero account balance in my writing L.L.C., and the years of unrealized income from not working 9–5, writing work can be rewarding. For example, as an aspiring writer, I am automatically rewarded by being selected to spend 18 months at home with my children during this and any future global pandemics. Because, despite the homeschooling and clamor of boredom and tears and business of feeding and entertaining children, I can still write, right? Peacefully, quietly, write. And here, let’s throw in the adoption of a pandemic puppy while we are all sitting around at home. That won’t take up too much of my day.

Have you ever done that thing where you look at your resume to find the defining career momentum ruling your decades of labor? Instead of some vocational progress, a pile of spaghetti comes into clear focus? I suppose there are still quite a few single-track people out there. The dusted people who _____. But for me, the longest thread of spaghetti is the thing I have never been paid to do: writing. From the college newspaper to corporate reports to grants to executive planning. It’s all writing. Sometimes the work you love is not what you get paid to do. Despite what you get paid to do, you gravitate to your thing. What’s your thing?

Since the pandemic has given a more significant portion of our society than usual the luxury to think about what it means to jump off the grinding wheel, I should say to all home-bound mothers and housewives of a particular era in modern history: thank you. You sacrificed what you may not have even known were your vocational aspirations, which you were not allowed to ponder, the calculated path to professional fulfillment no one let you climb up to. You were of an era living within societal expectations that secured you away from these things so that you would stay home. And make meatloaf. I mean, we all love a good meatloaf, but at what price? As a house dad, I think of the long line of women who did this before me, who did it better, some raising generations of diligent, earnest, successful people. That took a lot of work. You shine in my thoughts.

As I sit in my luxury second office, A.K.A. “porch,” our mail carrier walks by. He smiles and drops off the mail and continues on his circle of the block, one house at a time. He is a tall and happy fellow. Slender, with a casual gait. Remember when mail was something wonderful? A paycheck. Personal correspondence. A letter of acceptance. A work contract. Here is a contract to dwell on: if this fellow sticks with it, he will be able to retire by the time he is my age, receive a lifetime of health care and a federal pension. He just has to keep on walking for the next twenty years.

I was not able to make that bargain when I was his age. And often, that is what work is, just a deal you make. Time exchanged for cash. Does anyone want to walk around in the heat, the rain, and the snow to deliver grocery store flyers? I don’t even get actual coupons anymore, just crappy ads for fake discounts and credit card applications. One pile of my mail is encouraging me to spend, spend, spend. The other pile is offering to loan me more money. Or, and I love this, offering to charge me 3% to let me transfer all my debt so they can collect the interest on it. What a deal. Thank you, random bank!

For someone with my work history, most jobs are by now either sales or fundraising jobs, dressed up as something else. So, let me pitch an idea with the hopes that you buy it? Money is nice, but having a soul to contemplate is nice, too. If you are hungry, take the job. Work the job. Be all in on the job. Pay the rent. Eat. Write down the bills. Survive. If you can eventually step into the tiers above that where money is coming in and you suddenly find the opportunity to think about fulfillment and enrichment and purpose, instead of just how else can I cook rice and eggs, when you come home and decide you want to be a photographer or an artist or volunteer in a third world country, or, heaven forbid, a writer, I just want you to know that life is incredibly unfair and unforgiving to poor people.

It isn’t unfair in the sense that they have to struggle a bit but will eventually rise up. No, it is unfair in the sense that the modern economic system is set up to grind and crush poor people into the dust we use to pave the road for the wealthy to stroll across as they shop to furnish their vacation mansions. It is not set up for equity. It is not set up for economic mobility. It is not set up to grow and encourage middle-class stability. If you feel like work is not helping you get ahead, that’s because it is true. My dad used to tell me, don’t take your money to the bank. Be the banker. I wish it were that easy, but the insight is correct. We are all counting pennies while the banker is laying racks of millions across our backs.

Remember this: sometimes work is not just about the exchange for time and money or about fulfillment. It is about power. Not punch-down power, but elbows-out power, where you have a say in defining your space, your dreams, your hopes, and the path you choose to take to reach them. The kind where others do not get to take it away from you because you are late on a rent check, or have child care problems, or because the bus never showed up. Work can be about expression, but first, your need to express a few boundaries so others cannot take that process away from you. Don’t let work define you until you are ready to let your work define you. Since money helps here, do not be afraid to put the extra shifts in today while you lay the foundation for tomorrow’s photography darkroom or painting studio or third world country donation center. Do not be afraid to go after _____, but also do not be scared not to know. I didn’t. I still don’t. Let’s keep pushing forward, hustling in the kitchens, helping drive the kids, maybe even writing down our stories. Just make no mistake, it is going to take a lot of work. I am not sure if my alumni magazine can print all that, but that’s the work I do.