Saturday, June 12, 2010



When I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I spent three days in the ER, hooked up to a tube of insulin the size of a bomb. It was called la bomba. My blood sugar was so high the bomb needed replenishment every few hours, and this need was announced with a shrill alarm. If I had been sleeping, I'm sure that dramatic alarm would have jolted me awake. But I couldn't sleep. I was in the ER. I was laying on a thin, awful mattress. A plastic mattress. I was hooked to tubes and bombs.

After three days, I was unhooked and transferred to a room with a slightly more comfortable bed. Hallelujah! I'll never forget the delight of my first meal: roasted potatoes and cod with spinach. I ate slowly, savoring each bite. I sat, cross-legged on my bed, reading and re-reading the USA Today's Olympic coverage (this was the 2004 Games, in Athens). After eating, feeling finally relaxed, I closed my eyes. Ahh, sleep...

Did I mention my roommate?

He was an elderly man, a Catalan, who hardly spoke Spanish, let alone English. He introduced himself. I had just eaten. I had just closed my eyes, in fact.

"Señor," he cried. "Lo Siento!"

He pumped two shots of cologne in the air. The smell, floral and nauseating, hit me all at once, and it arrived with a surprise: another, deeply human, smell. Shit. The man had pumped his cologne, thinking it might disguise his accident; it only amplified the smell, brightened it, really, as lemon zest brightens cooked mushrooms.

"Lo Siento," he said, again, his voice full of shame.

Within minutes, two orderlies--two slim, cheery guys--arrived to wash the man and change his bedsheets. Closing a blue curtain that seemed, to me, to divide my beginning from the old man's ending, the first orderly smiled and repeated the old man's sentiments, "Lo Siento!"

I heard, and smelled, the routine through the blue curtain, as the man's cries modulated, from shame to thankfulness, as the smell evolved from a floral funk to an equally nauseating soapiness.

I stayed in that room, with the old Catalan, for four days. I spent my time looking out the window, to a strip of pavement below, where patients in blue outfits roamed. Some patients smoked and talked, and some simply smoked as they moved, tediously, across the pavement. To me, though, these walking patients embodied the most powerful urge that had yet occurred in my life—the urge to get the fuck out of the hospital. I felt terrible--reduced to a bed! And the man--I felt terrible for him, too. It seemed unfair! How did we end up in this place? How do we get out?

And that's how I came to think about the orderlies. These guys, the same two guys, willingly came here, to this hospital, day after day, merely to work. To clean. To comfort. To wipe.

It's the wiping that got me. After a few days, these guys seemed like saints to me. I mean, their life's work, at least at that time, included the necessary task of wiping an old man's soiled ass. Laying there in bed, I lost all sense of self-pity. How could I feel bad for myself? These orderlies were much more pitiable. Clearly, they had the worst job in the world.

And, Josh, this is what you do, right?

For most writers, especially young writers, writing is a notoriously low-paying job. I'm always comforted when I hear about writer's "real" jobs--the jobs they take to satisfy life's financial needs. It reminds me, as I trudge out the door for another shift, that we're in this together, all of us, equals in ambition and needs. The goal, of course, is to make a living writing. Or, as Kenneth Koch so beautifully states it in his poem "Some General Instructions":

"If you do not have money, you must probably earn some
But do it in a way that is pleasant and does
Not take too much time."

After a failed romance drove him to Europe in 1977, The Great Bolaño, "began a long, itinerant tour of the Mediterranean coast, taking on an absurd variety of jobs: grape harvester, dockworker, campground watchman, trinket-shop proprietor. In his spare time, he wrote lush, sentimental poems about his Mexican friends."

William Carlos Williams was, awesomely, a doctor. Wallace Stevens, shockingly, was an insurance executive. Frank Kafka, the Chief Legal Executive of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute, spent his working life writing reports such as "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines."

T.S. Eliot was a banker. Douglas Adams was "moonlighting as a hotel security guard" in London when he began The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And Kurt Vonnegut owned a Saab dealership in the late 50s.

From the improbable website

I've been (relatively) lucky: since I was 24, I've managed to make money in a way that is pleasant and does not take too much time. Before that, I worked almost exclusively in kitchens, except for the year after college, when I worked at my father's consulting company. I was the lowest paid executive in the entire place. (Karen, my future wife, also worked there, and made about 30% more than me.) I didn't read or write a lick for an entire year. Faced with the very real prospect of assuming eventual control of the company, I left for Barcelona. My father, finally fatigued by the business, sold his share five months later.

In Barcelona, living entirely off my savings, I wrote every single day, longhand in a journal, sometimes for 8 or more hours a day. Since then, my shining goal has always been a return to this momentous opportunity: to write every day, without concern for cash.

At 25, my money depleted, I came home and started a new consulting "company" with my father. We got a few contracts, which required about two weeks of work each. For that work, I made $1500/month for two years. During that time, I lived with my father, writing my first, second, and third novels--all failures. At the end of that period, I finally moved in with Karen, and my financial situation complicated. Still, via a patchwork of freelance work, I managed to successfully stay away from a real job for years.

Then, I came home from my honeymoon, at 29, in September 2004, broke and sick and fearful that I might have to move back in with my father, wife in tow. That spring, I found a job at a grocery store. Whole Foods Market. I've worked at the grocery store, happily and sometimes unhappily, since then. I wear an apron to work. I make the equivalent of about $40K/year. My title is: Demo Coordinator & Healthy Eating Specialist. Yes, you can be a "specialist" in healthy eating; you merely need to be hired for the job, and complete an online course from eCornell. Now I have an Ivy League education, a "Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition."

And yet, I actually enjoy the work. I cook. I teach. I guide others through the rigors of kale. Most importantly, though, I make my own schedule. I work only 30 hours. It all comes down to this: I took the job because it allows me the time, and freedom, to write.

I basically live paycheck to paycheck.


Sometimes people ask me, "What will you do with your MFA?"

As if what I'm doing, trying each day to write a worthwhile novel, is not the real thing. The real thing, of course, is money.

"I'm applying for teaching jobs next fall," I say.

And I mean it.

But even as I say it, I start to feel a constrictive life of no-writing, or less-writing, tightening around me like a hospital tube. The truth is, for my entire adult life, I've stubbornly and selfishly chosen jobs that accommodated my writing lifestyle, and not the other way around. I know this can't last--unless something changes: unless I publish my current novel; unless I find some way to have my writing make money for me.

My wife makes nearly double my salary. Soon, we'll try to have kids. At that moment, when my wife stops working, my current lifestyle will become immediately untenable.

Now, each day when I sit to write, I feel the weight of this upcoming challenge. Of course, I don't expect my writing to take me anywhere, to do anything for me, to make a career for me. But I am a writer, for better or worse. The difference, of course, the main difference between being a writer and not, is writing. Without undue expectation and with wild abandon.

I suppose one thing that motivates me, then, is to hear about all the others. My friends, Kurt Vonnegut, any writer, who has done something like wipe another's ass, or run a Saab dealership, merely to sustain a writer's lifestyle. But there's something in these jobs, too. These jobs are not always merely means to an end. They say something about us, don't they? I suppose my hope is that writing will eventually say the most about me.

Until then, I'll continue to specialize in healthy eating.

1 comment:

Lisa H. said...

seth, i didn't know you worked at whole foods! there are a lot of perks to working at a grocery store. there's something to be said for doing work that doesn't require 1) sitting at a desk 2) thinking too terribly hard. the other perk is that these kinds of jobs tend to be flexible. for example, i'm taking the whole month of june off to be at an artist colony. what other job would let me do that?