Today marks the first birthday my father would have had since I left the world of salaries and offices for freelancing. With apologies for taking the blog on a personal detour, here’s a story about the significance of that.
We Obbies aren’t known for our longevity. My dad died almost eight years ago, at age 66, of a rare cancer. He would have turned 74 today. His father died at 74 of a heart attack, the same thing that almost killed him in his 40s. They were farmers, but my father left the farm for factory work in his early 20s to provide better for his growing family. He missed farming and thought a lot about making the most of his limited time on this earth. So he retired early, in his mid-50s, to return to farming. It was a retirement in name only. He worked constantly, but now it was for the love of it. He barely turned a profit. And he couldn’t have cared less. Given how young he was when he died, his unconventional career move showed great foresight.
Early in his “retirement,” my father sat me down for a talk. He was worried about me. By then I was in my mid-30s (he was 20 years old when I was born). I had advanced rapidly in my company and had been running one division or another starting in my late 20s. We lived far apart, so he only saw me when my parents visited us or when we took our vacations to visit them. Either way, I was working too much to enjoy my time with them, to say nothing of my own wife and kids. Even on my infrequent vacations, I would hole up in a room with my computer and phone. I wasn’t good at letting the stresses roll off me. My dad noticed. Promise me, he said, you’ll quit all that and do something you really love before it’s too late. Do it at age 50, he urged. I promised him I would, even though I considered it financially and practically implausible.
We never talked of that again, not even when I quit my job in New York to live close by in his last year of life. I took a full-time teaching job with a long commute. That winter was a snowy one, and I was commuting every day (later on I worked out a schedule that let me cut back a bit on the driving). I didn’t see him nearly enough, though I did manage to help on the farm as he grew sicker. After his death, I helped my mom keep the farm running for a couple more seasons while I stayed overly busy with teaching and writing projects.
I remained in that job for the next several years, enough to get both kids through college. Then, as my tenure clock ticked down to the up or out moment, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. The commute had grown so tiresome I was at a crossroads: move or quit. I knew what work is truly my first occupational love. Even though reporting and writing long-form narrative journalism is work that’s turned far less lucrative for most journalists in recent years, I decided as I approached my mid-50s — already past the deadline I’d set with my father — to walk away from the safety of a salaried job and start over as a freelancer.
Now I work on long-range reporting and writing projects that have almost no proven ability to put food on our table or pay the mortgage, at least so far. I can’t say I’ve learned to relax or work fewer hours. But now I’m doing the work I had set out to do before career advancement and income overshadowed happiness. My financial advisor’s anxieties notwithstanding, I consider this a fun experiment, to see if I can make a mark in this field before I run out of energy.
I’m doing one other thing, too: getting away from the computer and phone now and then. I lack my father’s farming and mechanical skills. But we own some land, which I walk twice a day with my wife and two dogs. On this March 8, as we walked the usual circuit through our snowy woods, I thought about that long-ago promise and decided I had, more or less, managed to keep it. Happy birthday, Dad.