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The Spy Deals With the Family


Becoming a full-time freelance science writer has had a dramatic effect on my daily life. Instead of spending hours sucking exhaust fumes on a crowded freeway while inching toward an office full of people, I now walk from the kitchen to my study, where I spend my days working alone. I communicate with my editors by e-mail or, occasionally, on the phone. And I get to listen to whatever background music I want ("Romeo and Juliet," the Dire Straits version, at the moment).

Some of the other changes have been more subtle. For example, it has made my family very suspicious. Judging from a couple of recent experiences, they don't quite believe that anyone can make money while sitting at home listening to music, talking on the phone, and surfing the Internet. And even if they can, they certainly aren't earning it. Only drug dealers and day traders make money at home.

My first hint that my family was concerned came a couple of months after my wife and I arrived in our new hometown. My mother called up and accepted an invitation to come for a visit. Although it is not unusual for us to visit my mom, she rarely drops in at our place. Even when I lived in Paris, she only came as close as London. So while I was happy, I was also a little concerned. What was she up to? Apparently, she was wondering the same about me.

The questions began in the baggage claim area. "How do you like it here?" "Have you been looking for a job?" and "Any chance you can work for (fill in name of big local science establishment)?" Even though I had already told my mom that I was doing mostly freelance work, I answered that yes, I do like my new city, and no, I am not looking for work, at least not at the big local science establishment. And in all fairness, at that point I hadn't told her yet that I was going to try freelancing full-time. So I enlightened her.

My mom took it pretty well. All I had to do was show her a couple of magazine bylines and mention how much they paid for the articles to convince her that I could make a decent living as a writer. And the obvious pleasure that my wife and I take in our new urban life sealed the deal. After a weekend spent showing off our thriving restaurant and theatre scene, my mom flew home content. That's the great thing about my mom, as long as I am smiling and paying my own bills, she really couldn't care less what I do for a living.

A few weeks later, a wedding in my wife's family took us to San Francisco. And as soon as we walked into the first of several parties, the questions started again. "How do you like it there?" "Have you been looking for a job?" and "Any chance you can work for (fill in name of big local science establishment)?" And once again I replied that yes, we like it, and no, I'm not looking for a job. I'm freelancing.

By the end of the last wedding night party, I had repeated the conversation many times and seemed to have convinced everyone that freelancing is a valid career alternative. And it was actually pretty easy. My wife's family has a surprisingly large number of painters, so they already know the benefits of freelance work, and after 4 days of wine and Greek dancing, the rest were ready to agree to just about anything.

Of course, the real reason I care what my mom and my in-laws think of my new career is that I share some of their concerns. Can I make a living as a freelancer? And even if the money starts pouring in, will I be happy doing it?

After 4 months, I am getting enough assignments to keep me busy and pay the bills. There is never any guarantee that they will continue, but I feel like I have established myself as a respectable science writer and I have good working relationships with my editors. Most importantly, I still enjoy the challenge of writing about science for a nontechnical audience, certainly much more than I ever liked research.

Whether I will enjoy telecommuting is a different question entirely. Although I love being able to crank up the stereo whenever I want and take a midafternoon guitar break on the porch, I miss the companionship and camaraderie of the office. Unfortunately, my new co-workers aren't very good conversationalists. But more about them next month.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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