“We don’t live in the real world,” a girl I’ve been dating recently told me. We were lying in bed on Wednesday morning at 10AM. I only had one class that day at 1 o’clock and as I got up to reach for my phone, her comment lingered in my head. I had heard this before, but all of a sudden I was offended. Technically, I had work that day just like everyone else. I still had to pay rent and worry about my bills and my student loans. Why didn’t my life live up to “real world” standards?
I suppose she was pointing out that it was 10AM on a Wednesday and we were still in bed and neither of us was at a desk job. And I suppose she was referring to my idea of work that day which was only one 90-minute class. And I suppose she was pointing out that “work” consists of teaching, which is essentially listening to my students speak about their problems or other topical things and correcting their grammar. I suppose all of these things combined, and the fact that I left a career job and that I live in Santiago, Chile, 5,000 miles from where I grew up make what I’m doing seem like it’s not “real” that I’m not living in the real world. I suppose.
The real world is synonymous with adulthood and taking responsibility for your bills and going out into the workforce and having the courage to live independently, out from the care of anyone else. Graduating from college and suddenly having to pay rent and student loans is like getting ice cold Gatorade dumped all over you. It’s a very real, expensive world out there. Finding a way to pay for the things you want is not easy.
Remember being a kid? Remember what that was like? Mom making you dinner, taking you to McDonald’s, asking dad for money when the slush truck rang outside your house, not having a care in the world about bills or any sense of responsibility? Sure, someone told you what to do all the time, and there were rules, but it was nice not having to do any of the work and sitting back waiting for your meals to be cooked. I used to spend summers playing baseball. My family would pile into the car on Saturday morning and we’d drive all over Massachusetts and I’d play a game or sometimes two and then I’d come home and mom and dad would buy pizza and buy some Coke and I’d sit in the pool and push myself around on a tube until after the sun went down when dad would turn on the pool light illuminating the water beneath me. And I remember just floating around there, not thinking about a whole lot, except my next game. Life was simple.
And do you remember as you got older how people started warning you about the real world that was going to crashing down on your parade? For me I had been hearing about it my whole life. I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, where adulthood equates to suffering. People would talk about business being bad, getting laid off from a construction job, having a tough time getting by, making life seem brutally difficult. My friends and family worked real jobs like running restaurants, working construction, bartending, and manufacturing. I had a great aunt who would take your simple “how are you?” small talk question at Christmas as an opportunity to tell you about her throat cancer and her granddaughter who’s getting divorced and about how she doesn’t have enough money to pay her medical bills. And I’d stand there at 9 years old sipping on eggnog listening to her, wondering if that’s what it’d be like for me. “Just wait till you start workin’,” she’d say.
When I was 18 and home the summer after my freshman year I agreed to take a job managing my parents’ café. It was a miserable job. I’d wake up at 6AM and pick up bread and bagels and open the place and run the cash register and clean up at 2PM after lunch. My first week, weary-eyed I pulled up to the Portuguese bakery off President Avenue and hopped out of my car and walked in to start carrying out the bags of bread, which were piping hot and already waiting for me on the counter. I was wearing a t-shirt and as I was running back and forth to the car I was thinking that surely it would be over 90 that day, perfect for the beach, and I thought about how I’d rather be doing that. Maria, the owner of the bakery, came out from the back and said hello and just as I was putting the last bag in the car, she noticed how tired I looked, that my eyes were barely open and she grinned and said, “Welcome to the real world.” She was standing in the doorway wearing an apron covered in flour, hair up and frazzled, grinning and looking tired herself. It was exactly like the John Mayer song, which in that instant made sense to me. I was miserable being awake at that hour and I shared her pain, and as I drove over to the café that morning I started worrying that this was what was in store for me; the party was over as far as I was concerned.
My father took note on days when I looked tired and bored because I never much took an interest in their business, and he’d say “It’s boring, huh. Doing this everyday,” and I’d just nod my head. And when I started working full-time in finance and I’d complain to people about waking up every day and doing the same thing over and over they’d simply say, “Sucks, doesn’t it?” and the words never sat well with me. As adults we envy the free-spirited, carefree lives children lead, not having to deal with real problems and real responsibilities. For me it was almost like everyone was just waiting for that day when I crossed over into adulthood so I could join them in misery and they could all smile and welcome me with an apron or a business suit or whatever it is I’d be wearing every day for the rest of my life. I pictured a party or a ceremony at the local banquet hall. My family would all be there and they’d be wearing their work clothes and they’d present me with gifts like a tie clip or maybe some business cards and congratulate me on joining them in the adult world. There’d be a cake, maybe some music, and we’d spend the afternoon talking about how we hate our jobs and I’d join them with some story about how I got laid off and about how I’m not sure how I’ll pay the bill for my kid’s tuition.
Of course, it’s not this way for everyone. You hear countless actors and musicians describe what they do as a dream, that it isn’t real, that they “can’t believe they get paid to do what they love.” Their life is a fantasy. Surely, if they’re having that much fun, it can’t be real. When they go to work in the morning they don’t say to their families “well, time to punch the clock,”…or ”hit the pavement,”…or “back to the grind,” or what I used to say to my roommate, “time to suck today’s dick.” Artists and musicians look forward to work, I think.
People sometimes can’t comprehend what I did leaving a job in finance to teach. Leaving New York for Santiago. I live in a different world 5,000 miles away now, and I’m trying out a new profession, but it’s real, sort of. I acknowledge, my schedule is unusual. I have large blocks of free time and sometimes I don’t work Fridays or go five days without working at all. Sometimes my work doesn’t really feel like work at all. But none of these things make it fantasy and not real. The only realness for me is that the job is temporary, that I don’t want to be a teacher for the rest of my life. That, and the fact that I don’t make as much money these days. Not the easy schedule, not the fact that I like the work, not the fact that I don’t find it as soul-sucking as finance, not the fact that I have energy when I finish a day, not the fact that I’m following a dream to live in South America—none of that makes me think what I’m doing isn’t real.
People who act or write music or play sports for a living or do something that they dreamed about doing are lucky. They do all the things we do, pay bills, support their kids, serve as parents, but because their job is so enjoyable and because they do what they want, we say they don’t live in the real world. Maybe they got lucky, maybe they caught a big break or maybe they just worked really hard to get where they are to make sure they never had to do a 9-5 at a job they hated. Whatever the reason, they made it through and they are the ones we, I, admire. What I admire is that their world is every bit real and that they created it that way.
Bob Dylan said “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” With no disrespect to Mr. Dylan, he’s only half right. A man is only truly successful if he does what he wants and finds a way to pay for it. Many people in America have jobs to pay for their lives and they live in big houses and they’re responsible, but their function, what they do every day, isn’t remotely what they want to be doing. They’re stuck in the real world. Contrarily there are more fortunate people with money, who live off their parents, or inherited wealth from some place. They get to do exactly what they want, but someone else pays. And then there’s the third kind of person who follows a dream, who struggles to pay their bills, but finds a way slowly over time. They don’t let personal finance discourage them while keeping at some goal. They find a way to flip the real world on its head and not be a product of it. They acknowledge real world problems and pressures, while still doing what they want.
The “real world” is only real if you let it be real and if you let it control you and dictate your actions and the job you have. By this definition, I suppose, I don’t live in that world. I escaped the real world, for now. I just hope I can stay there.