Every year my mom asks me what I want for my birthday. I can’t remember the last time I could think of something solid.
When I try to get a little selfish and think come on, let’s get a greedy – there has to be something I really want – the first thing that comes to mind is “more free time”. When I think “free time”, I don’t mean “leisure time”. Sure, more leisure time would be nice, but what I really want is more time to work on more stuff.
I have a pretty low-key job, at least relative to the average job in America. I put in my forty hours a week and don’t often put in hours on the weekend or in the evenings. I travel a small amount, but otherwise I do most of my work from home. So no, I don’t feel like I’m working myself to death. I’m hobbying myself to death.
One of the roles in my day job is that of a web developer. I’m a DIY learner, and I spend a fair amount of my free time doing web development for myself, working on pet projects that are not quite appropriate for work, yet expand my knowledge and skill-set. I also do a lot of gardening – it’s something constructive and creative that my wife and I can work together on and be proud of, so we spend a lot of time planning, prepping, planting, tending, harvesting, and even preserving. I enjoy cooking and cycling – both of these things I wish I had more time to do, and they’re often the first to suffer cuts when I’m low on free time.
And then, of course, there’s writing. Writing time also faces cuts whenever free time gets slim, and it continue to do so as long as it remains a hobby. I’d like to set some goals and develop some schedule for my writing time; to push it to that level just beyond “entertainment” or “hobby” – or even “side project”. I also know that I were to push writing all the way to “job” or “making a living”, I would grow to hate it. So it is what it is: a hobby, a side project, but with real goals.
It’s been a pretty long week. Once, a few years ago, I got into my head that I might dip my toe into the waters of freelance web development and see how I liked making a little better money. I cut my day-job down to four days a week and put in lots of nights and weekends to develop a rather complex website for a small business here in Portland. Although I don’t do much work on the site any more – just a few tweaks now and then – I often get the first call if the site goes down for any reason. I got such a call Monday morning.
What followed was the worst kind of disaster for a website – hard drive failure, lack of data redundancy, and outdated backups. I scrambled late into the night to help the business get set back up with something remotely workable while they sent the drive out for recovery, not knowing how much it would cost or what the chances of success would be.
Later in the week, my fellow IT guy at my day job installed an extra hard drive into our file server, following my instructions. Things went awry – not quite a disaster, but an unforeseen problem nonetheless, requiring us both to shed a little off-hour free time to track down the point at which things went wrong and to safely undo what we’d done.
There are days when I love my job. Most days, in fact. I love technology – when it’s used well. And a lot of what I do is guiding and advising people in how to best use technology. But when technology fails, it can suck free time – and energy – like a sieve. Every time I have to reboot a computer, I can feel myself aging while I sit there helplessly waiting. Every time I see an inexplicable error code, I want to reach past the shiny user interface, into the code, and all the way back to its creator and strangle the programmer who is making me Google random letters and numbers.
I haven’t written in a week. In the past, I used to be able to procrastinate much more easily. Lately, whenever I’m not writing for multiple days in a row, I start to feel at a loss.
In the preface to his collection of essays, “Zen in the Art of Writing”, Ray Bradbury says:
I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic.
It feels good to be addicted to something worthwhile again*. To be addicted to a creative process. But like all addictions, suffering withdrawal is a bitch. Everyday life is like the rehab that keeps me from enjoying the addiction of writing. Because unlike other addictions, a creative addiction takes time and energy.
So that’s my birthday wish: more time and energy for all my hobbies and side projects, and in particular for writing. If I can get some of that, I promise not to complain about my age to my friends and family. Like I’m the only human who is aging, right?
The great thing about this wish is that I know I have the power to bring it into existence. I know I can “make time”; actually no, that’s not true. I can’t “make time”. When work calls, I have to answer, and when I run out of steam, I have to rest. What I can do is get back up faster when I’m knocked down. Instead of wallowing in the loss, grieving for my dead and buried free time, I can snap out of it, take my needed rest and then get back on the god damned horse.
And I know there are others out there in the same boat (I’m married to one). We work, we heap on the side projects, and sometimes we want to just give up – but we know that if we stick it out, we might actually accomplish something. We might actually see something to completion. And when that happens, it’s like giving yourself the best birthday wish you can imagine.
* I say “again”, because I once had an addiction to playing music. I put a lot of pressure on music, making it the centerpiece of my life. When you build something up so high and then it falls, it’s very hard to rebuild, and sadly, for me playing music has been downgraded from “lifelong passion” to “neglected hobby”. There is occasionally hope and inspiration in that department, and one day I’ll do it purely for the love of it – and I look forward to it being upgraded to just “hobby”.