I have a negative bank balance for the first time in years. The multinational corporation that handles my banking did me the courtesy of paying the check that overdrafted me, which was a kindness. I have been their customer since 1987, which may have counted for something. I expect a check sufficient to cover the overdraft sometime early next week. A family member lent me enough to cover it until then, assuming no new charges pop up in the meantime.
I am 53 years old and I work harder these days than I ever have in my life and I own one pair of socks. I am admired by people who have never met me and my readers toss me a few thousand dollars a year out of gratitude for my work touching something in them and I am behind on the utilities. My main writing client launched a crowdfunding project to support my work and it met its goal in two weeks instead of four and I spent half an hour just now trying not to feel guilty about a needless 99 cent purchase I made Tuesday. I am working slightly more efficiently this month and can expect to bring in slightly more income than usual for November because a good friend sent me some surplus ADD meds that I couldn’t have afforded, which makes me more productive as I work in this office chair that has been broken for the last year. I get email from agency staff and biologists and other insiders thanking me for the writing I do, calling me indispensible, and the check I am expecting hopefully Monday is now officially completely spent on rent and overdue bills and paying back that family member’s loan.
I am phenomenally lucky. I have a number of recurring side gigs that can provide a hundred bucks here or there, laying out newsletters or teaching classes or what have you, and a couple of those will come later this month. Annette points out that we always end up pulling rabbits out of hats. She’s right. We will probably get the check before we run out of cat food. And people just give me money, in generous portions, because they like what I do. Sometimes I can even build up a reserve of a thousand bucks or more when people are feeling especially grateful. That reserve then dwindles over the next two months as I second-guess every minor comfort. What happened to the almost $2K people donated last year in the name of replacing the stolen Jeep? Groceries, gasoline, electricity and internet and phone, and somewhere around $40 each month in mental health-related beer and tacos.
I’m writing this on a computer that was given to me by friends. They gave it to me when they saw that the previous computer another friend had given me was no longer up to complex tasks like loading web sites. Without friends and acquaintances and generous admirers and an editor at a certain website always looking for ways to put himself on the line to pay me for extra work I would not be here.
This isn’t about that, though. My friends and acquaintances and admirers shouldn’t have to be generous. People keep putting those rabbits in my hat so that I can pull them out, and that’s been invaluable. But I shouldn’t need to go to the rabbit hat so often.
I’ve always been indolent. I’ve always hated work unless I actually wanted to do it, which has been less frequent than my past employers would have liked. I was always able to blame temporary shortfalls on my not having agreed to work overtime and weekends slinging bedding plants, or blowing off a landscaping client’s lawn for an extra day, or what have you.
Now I work. I push through the tired with caffeine and methylphenidate. I managed to bring home a week’s supply of the first before the bank balance went negative. The second will run out by the New Year.
I have been eating my own seed corn.
The question isn’t one of willing endurance. I have no choice but to continue. The question is how long it will be before I break. How many years of this? Three? Twenty? In ten years I will reach an age when men in the previous two generations might have considered retiring. I have no trouble thinking of working for the rest of my life, but like this? The only thing saving me now is my memory and mind, and those will begin to fade at some point.
This week I saw mention of a survey in which freelance science writers reported their annual incomes. Mine right now is about one third the mean.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion pushed on me by the old, stale mental recordings of teachers I filed away in the early 1970s. The old refrain of the class-blind, the jeer on the entrepreneurs’ lips as they consider the proles lining up to ride the SF Muni, the smirk of the comfortable engineers and PR flacks paid to rationalize their employers’ pushing one species after another to extinction, the raised eyebrow of my former co-workers in the foundation-funded green groups working to string transmission lines across a few remaining clumps of wild land.
It is a pernicious drumbeat, and it takes more than a positive bank balance to quiet, especially when I can persuade myself that the stakes stretch far beyond my own skin.