Four years months ago, before the recession we knew and loved had reared its pretty head, I took an early retirement. Call it what you will, but it wasn't premature. In fact, it was long overdue.
Since turning 30 what seems like a lifetime ago, I accelerated towards middle age with knuckle-whitening velocity. Marooned in a corporate job, I gathered ornamental adipose and silver temples. My butt warmed a swivel chair in a dreary cubicle embellished with company-monogrammed memorabilia. I wore a florid necktie two days a week and flashed an ivory visiting card emblazoned with a fancy title. Round my neck, I bore the IT man's ubiquitous albatross - a dirty-white plastic dog-tag bearing my name and sundry details of my allergies along with a mug-shot taken at knife-point.
Quitting is not what people with fat, comfortable jobs do. Unless they find another fat, comfortable job. Naturally, after four years and nothing new, cool or exciting to report in my life besides a wife, a car and a dangerously overweight home loan, I had allowed people around me to assume that I had "arrived". They were relieved that I had renounced my peripatetic ways and "settled down". Some even regarded my charmed life with a twinge of jealousy.
But what do they who envy know about ennui?
Parked in the hangar of my cranium was a novel. It needed an oil change and a lick of paint. But nobody in the corporate cosmos could understand that the urge to write can be as intolerably pressing as wanting to pee when your plane is taking off and the seat-belt signs are glowing.
Nobody, except my wife.
Had I nine hours a day to myself, I told her dolefully one night, I could complete that novel within a year. And to fortify my case, I wore my damnedest earnest look and said, "I'd like to be involved in bringing up our child. It's my karmic calling."
With a month to go before Baby arrived, we did some foolhardy math. When Wife was ready to work again, I would quit my job. We inked a pact: House-husband-slash-Stay-at-home-Dad would change nappies and bottle-feed Baby while Wonder Woman brought home the baingan. Of course, while Baby napped, Daddy would write.
Baby turned out to be a bottle-loathing infant with an in-built Mom-seeking device. That completely trashed our feeding strategy involving breast pumps and frozen bottles. My plans to make a spare buck to shore up finances evaporated with the arrival, in full battle gear, of Recession. It pussyfooted in and chose the plush maroon couch in our living room to hang its dirty boots.
My reaction was not to panic. Or more accurately, to not panic. Instead, I copped out. You know the difference - when the rats in the race ran harder, I jumped ship.
Recession dug its heels in. Cook demanded a raise; we sacked him. Driver decided he had a better career hawking vegetables. Maid's unexplained absences fanned our anxiety. My only solace was Babysitter. But when she too vanished, life spat in my eye.
I attempted to rise to the occasion, bravely offering to watch the brat through the day and push myself harder to write. I felt like Garp in John Irving's fabulous novel, being a great stay-at-home dad and churning out masterpieces. But despite such enforced inspiration, my muse had eloped with Cook. When I sat down to write, my head crackled with white noise.
Now, 'Working Wife and House-husband' is not a potion that, by Toutatis, everybody swallows. Especially in family circles. And the way we appear to the world doesn't help, either. My wife has dark circles from day-job stress and sleepless nights, while I have glowing cheeks from polishing off uneaten baby food.
"How's the book going?" they ask. "Working on it," I mutter.
They don't say it but I know what they are thinking.
The word appears in an eerily similar context on page 221 of John O'Farrell's The Best A Man Can Get. Protagonist Michael Adams leaves his wife to the drudgery of bringing up babies to live a double life. His wife thinks he's working when he's actually staying in a flat with three other men, watching TV, running up debt and nearly cheating on his wife. He is soon found out.
It's a funny book but it left me in a cold sweat. Six months down, the seat-belt signs were off but my novel was barely taxiing. And Recession seemed to be on an extended vacation on my couch.
How long before I was found out?
Someone suggested I go back to that corporate job just to give Wife a break. But hey, I'd do anything for love, but I won't do that!
This article first appeared as a column in M Magazine (http://www.msutras.com/)