A wise man once said that in every stereotype or cliche there’s a grain of truth. This can be evidenced when walking down the street in New York City and smiling at a stranger, when observing the attendees at an Ani DiFranco concert near a college town, or when trying to speak to a high-school cheerleader about Nietzsche. Often there’s a reason why generalizations exist, and most of the time it’s a valid one. So suffice it to say that when I heard I was visiting Oklahoma, I immediately thought of under-educated, toothless hillbillies who relied on farm animals for food, work, companionship, and intimacy.
I have not seen a single cow tipping thus far, but I’m still holding my breath.
A list of what I did see when driving from the airport to Simon’s childhood home:
baby cows and horses
oil contraptions that appear to be a euphemism for oral sex, called “pump jacks”
bales of hay
the American flag on trucks
and a tractor
So far it’s surpassed my expectations in beauty, intellect, and digestibility. I’ve consumed blackened catfish, a Sno-Cone, fried okra, pinto beans, and a variety of fruits bought from farm-stands. But Norman, Oklahoma isn’t just a bastion of traditional Americana, it’s also where I dined at my first Thai-Italian restaurant. No, not fusion. Half of the menu was Thai food, and the other half was Italian. I ate veggie padthai, Simon had a pepperoni slice. I was kind of astounded by the diversity.
Simon’s parents are hilarious, adorable, generous, and deeply in love. Even if my personal compendium of meet-the-parents scenarios didn’t include a girl’s father calling Mike Piazza of the Mets a “fag” as he shook my hand, a mother telling me point blank that I would never compare to her daughter’s ex-girlfriend because she “just hasn’t realized what she let go of,” and a father walking in on his daughter performing cunnilingus on yours truly, I believe that this introduction, so far, has gone more smoothly than I could have imagined.
One of my favorite things about Simon, that he obviously has received from both his mother and his father, is his approachability, you can speak to the boy about anything. (Case in point, on our flight into Oklahoma City we sat next to a pastor. The topics of conversation included skateboarding, Malcom Gladwell , and the somewhat-predictable Jesus.) His parents are expert conversationalists and have made it very easy for me to let down my guard and be myself, which is saying a lot considering my generally suspicious nature and moronic, tight-assed upbringing where manners were emphasized over personality. Both of them work, and have a lot to share when it comes to the nature of the economy, how to shift business priorities as the parents of an adult, and the way they view the progress of Ministry of Imagery.
Simon’s father made an observation that was haunting, and it rattled around in my brain like a set of keys thrown in a washing machine. The current trend in many fields is for work to be subcontracted. Companies are less inclined to hire an employee to work permanently on-site, or to throw money at insurance policies and other assorted costs of having a “team.” Many companies no longer invest in a human element, because they’re looking to cut costs that aren’t simply reflected in dollars, but in energy and time as well. To hire someone to do a particular job, may it be a single assignment, a set of assignments, or an amount of work over the course of several months, is a lot less of a risk, there’s less inclination for an employer to worry about the return of investment or employee inertia. When you devalue the human element in business, that’s when the freelancer comes in. Which is why Simon and I have been able to start a business. Which is also why I’m perpetually worried about the where the next paycheck is coming from.
I mean, when was the last time you heard about a freelance writer asking for a raise?
The thing that concerns me about the sudden decline of office jobs, and the influx of freelancers on the market (both as writers, as well as in other sectors), is that there may be a glut in the market. Just as rabbits multiply, so do people wanting to work, unshowered, in pajamas. If there is a supposed “need” for freelance employees, suddenly the competition to get hired is less about skills or personality, more about lower rates and what you’re willing to cut out of your lives.
For an all-too-common example: we have no health insurance. If something were to happen — a skateboarding accident that breaks every knuckle in my right hand, if what I swear is Simon’s narcolepsy is actually diagnosed — we would be shit out of luck. The other day I had a kidney infection. I couldn’t look for work because I found it impossible to get my feverish, achy, bloody piss-filled self out of bed. What if it had been something worse? No shit that America’s health care crisis is tainting nearly every individual with prehensile thumbs who lives here. But isn’t the problem only going to get worse before it gets better as the amount of contract employees increases? Is freelancing the new factory work? How does any freelance writer ever make enough to own a home, start a family, and have a savings account, let alone afford antibiotics? Moreover, do freelance writers all wear the same clothes from high school and refuse to have their musical taste progress beyond mid-nineties industrial bands, or is that just me?
Sometimes it seems as though the original approach I took might have been the more stable with regard to longevity. If you can get an office job you have steady income and you still have time to dedicate to your heart’s passionate side project. You have both the paycheck coming in and the pursuit of your art on the side. If what you love is a hobby there’s far less stress and pressure, and you know that you’ll always be able to make ends meet so long as you clock into your “real job” on time. I just wonder for myself, and for Simon, if that would feel like selling ourselves short. After all, it’s too late now, we’re doing it, we’re learning by flailing, it’s terrifying, mortifying, and humbling, and we’re loving every second of it, other than the bickering when we’re hungry. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, although it’s hard sometimes not to wonder if it will never get any easier. I just wish we knew freelance writers in their forties who make a good living, sending their kids off to school, and returning to their computers to write for eight hours the way that, traditionally, parents would go to the office. I wish we had a model to follow, just like we have one to deviate from.
On the flip side of this coin, though it doesn’t answer any of my questions, most of the kids I’ve met out here have full-time jobs. They work at cosmetics counters, at casinos, or in laboratories. All of them seem pretty content. And, in case you were wondering, all of them also have teeth.
Write to me at AinsleyDrew at gmail. And thanks for everybody who contributed “meet the ‘rents” horror stories. Keep ’em coming, if I get enough of them I’ll compile a post when this trip is over that presents them all anonymously.