Congratulate me, or call me a fool: I've just scrambled over the corporate wall back into the IP world. I'm sporting a few scratches and an odd bruise or two, but basically I seem to be okay. Being a freelancer is, after all, my natural state. Oh, I know what you're thinking -- this guy's "natural state" is more accurately described as a crazed mix of cosmic disorientation and hyperintellectual babbling -- but this isn't a pop-psychology column, so can we just stick to business, please? Work-wise, I'm a free man again.
Of course, regular readers of this column know that I've made this transition before. I'm an old hand at the ol' back-and-forth -- I mean wage-slave to freelancer. You'd think I'd know what to expect by now; but maybe several years of regular employment have dulled my memory. This time around, hitting the street felt a little different than I expected.
Fears and Horrors, Alas
I expected the fear of freedom to grab me the minute I hit the outside, as it has in times past. I should say fears of freedom, as there are legions of the fecund little bastards. Fellow IPs may recognize a few of them: How will I find -- and pay for -- health insurance that accepts soloists? How will I find new clients? Where do I even start looking? And why would any client want to hire me, of all people? How do I explain to my friends why I gave up a steady job to become... uh... damned if I know. What the hell am I, anyway? What have I done? I must be crazy...
Phew. Thankfully, these terrors have so far been limited to minor, glancing attacks; they haven't hit me dead on. Perhaps that's just because I haven't started rebuilding my IP business yet. Right now, I'm devoting some serious time to refining my core skills of writing, drawing, and computer tech. (You think that's dumb? Read my earlier column Always Ready to Walk. Then my plan'll really sound dumb.)
Of course, I haven't been out here very long, this time around. I don't know if I've outgrown my old fears, or they're just on a short vacation. But so far I'm still not fretting that I'll never work again, still not seeing myself every time I pass a bum on the street, still not obsessively re-calculating my newfound health-insurance premiums.
It's not just the freelancer's fears of freedom and destitution, either; there are ugly pictures from the other side of the equation -- I mean from my years as a wage slave -- that haunt me sometimes. Through seemingly endless, slightly green, fluorescent-lit corridors, there's a single line of people winding along. They're wage-slaves, shuffling slowly forward, morose but orderly. Way at the front of the line is a small platform, and on it a figure strangely bent over. The line of people creeps forward, patiently waiting their turn... to murmur a few words of false praise, pledge their loyalty, and kiss the boss's ass.
My camera eye moves up, up... and then looks down at a steep angle into cube after cube of people who'd clearly rather be somewhere else. An endless grid of near-identical squares, stretching off to the horizon, each with its person stuffed inside, pretzel-like. Each has a family picture or two in a little gilt frame. Is it to soften the reality, to remind them that somewhere, affection exists? Or just to remind them why, and for whom, they put up with this indignity? Seen from this great height, the people appear almost inert, animated only by an occasional twitch of a limb or flip of a scrap of paper. If I dared, I'd tell them that they're wasting their minutes, days, lives, building value for somebody else's company, propping up somebody else's brand, while they themselves remain anonymous; and finally, not even realizing the indignity of it, losing their own identities altogether.
Those other pictures too dark? No problem -- hey, under this veneer of brooding psychosis I'm actually a creature of radiant light and bubbly good cheer. Not buying it, eh? Okay, try this image: I'm walking down the street, minding my own goddamn -- excuse me, I mean just minding my own business, and these... these little freedoms keep running up to me, one at a time. Like playful imps, they grin and giggle and wave their tiny arms in greeting -- hey, San, remember me?
Remember this? I'm in the laundry room. I'm not waiting for a machine behind all the other weekend launderers... because it isn't the weekend. It's about eleven o'clock on a Tuesday morning and there's nobody else in here at all. Now I can do laundry whenever I like -- which, naturally, is when most of the regular Joes are chained to their desks downtown. I look at the row of empty washing machines, and grin as I dump my socks into whichever one I please. Now for some fun...
What's Up, Doc? I'm in the movie theater, watching a Bugs Bunny film festival. I'm the only adult unaccompanied by children in the whole theater, because it's 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. There are small children everywhere, all making noise and in constant motion. Far from annoying me, this actually enhances my experience of the cartoons. I pull out my artist's pad and rapidly sketch Bugs and Elmer Fudd, barely able to see what I'm drawing in the darkened theater. On screen, Bugs is doing a wild parody of a barber abusing his customer. A couple of nearby kids crane their necks to see my sketches. My mind races on multiple levels, as I think about where I am, and where I'm not: I'm not in the grid of cubicles. I'm not juggling office politics. I am pondering the anatomy of an anthropomorphic rabbit. I look up: Elmer, the outraged customer, is chasing Bugs with a shotgun. Having glanced at my sketches, the kids are glancing at me now. I stare at the screen and try to look like a serious artist, or at least like a serious cartoonist... but I can't help grinning.
Thursday morning: I'm in the bank, and -- you guessed it -- there's no line. I'm in the supermarket. No line. I walk into a bookstore, an art supply store, a hardware store, all the places I like, always at an odd hour. There's no rush; I'm just browsing and enjoying myself. No longer tied to a corporate schedule, I rarely look at my watch. I don't care what time it is.
My thoughts swing back and forth from joy, to fear, to horror. The fluorescent green flickering starts again. Somewhere, the long line of sycophants shuffles forward, moving slowly. As each cautious suit reaches the head of the line, he kneels sadly before a pompous boss in a big leather chair. The slave speaks a few well-rehearsed words, and flashes a false smile. The boss hands him an envelope. The light is dim, but I think I see a word printed on the envelope -- yes, it says "security." The scene seems over-simplified, cartoonish, but still powerful. I force the image back down into the lower part of my mind.
A freelancer friend of mine calls while I'm in the middle of writing this column. Come to the gallery opening with us, she says. I think, how can I do that? I'm working! But then I remember that I'm working in my office and there's nobody watching me, wondering whether I'm earning my keep for them. I can work on the column at 2 a.m. if I choose and still meet my deadline. I go to the gallery opening.
I haven't really nailed it yet, have I? This all seems slightly trivial, all my prattle of times and places. The biggest of the little freedoms, the one that really matters, isn't so obvious or so easy to describe -- it's being free of the horrible big-office feeling that at any moment I may be knocked off my feet by an unexpected wave.
Speaking of unexpected waves, have you ever seen a jellyfish bobbing on the ocean? It's a little sad, really. Jellyfish can swim a bit, but just barely; they have just a tiny amount of control over their movements, just a little freedom of action. Employees remind me of jellyfish. They get swept this way and that with every tiny current -- Attend this pointless meeting! Pretend you take this report seriously! Kiss this person's ass! Oh, I exaggerate; employees have some control, sometimes. But any heavy tide can dash them ashore, and then --
The biggest little freedom is not being a jellyfish.
I can guess what you're thinking: My metaphor is weak, because ultimately, we're all like jellyfish. Just like a wage slave, an IP is still swept around by the tides, still a little fish at the mercy of bigger fish -- we just call the bigger fish "clients" instead of "bosses." Nope, it's different. Clients can't usually yank you about all day long with this, that, and the other thing the way bosses and officemates can. As an IP you're not a fish -- no, you're more like a fisherman, dangling your line into the water, trying to catch one of the little suckers for your supper. (No, not a jellyfish! They're inedible. A flounder, okay?) If you hook a new client -- I mean a flounder -- it may twist and spit (do fishes spit?) and annoy you, but that's only a temporary inconvenience. As an IP, you basically stay in control of your day; you cook a flounder if you're lucky, and starve if you're not, but you're never a jellyfish. Okay, enough already. Pass the tartar sauce.
And now its late, time for me to go, to luxuriate in my little freedoms. Have I been making a big deal out of trivia? It's possible that, when I lay dying, all that I'll remember may be a few big things -- achievements, love, major insights. I hope so. But most of one's time -- most of life -- is made up of a long succession of seemingly insignificant, personal, present moments. By their very nature, corporations can't be focused on such pocket-sized concerns, and they sure as hell don't care about yours. In fact, the careers they offer do the opposite -- they require that we surrender control over our minutes and hours, and even (though few wage-slaves would admit it) of our beliefs and emotions. But if we're smart, active, and very lucky, maybe we can keep our little IP freedoms... and still grab hold of the big things as we need them.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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