03 January 2007


My waitress, my audience

For some reason I felt like hugging my waitress this morning.

There’s a diner in my hometown that I visit up to three times weekly, while my daughter is at school. They know me here. I have my special table, my eminent domain, where I plug in my computer. Kathleen, my regular waitress, brings me coffee even as I sit down and tries to guess what I want for breakfast, with some accuracy. She knows my name, too, which I feel is the best part. So in this new year, after I happily kissed 2006 good-bye, I was inspired to welcome my diner lifestyle in true living style. “Kathleen, can I give you a hug?” I asked, and she said yes.

Then we get to talking. Her age, my age. Her career path, my career path. The kinds of things people always talk about at the start of a new year. To sum up her half of the conversation in just one sentence, I’d write this: She came to the realization that at the age of 54, if she had taken her father’s advice and gotten a job at the phone company when she was 20, she would be retired instead of working at the diner. (I have to add that she’s never had a vacation in her entire life, except for two weeks when this diner was closed temporarily, and that her job pays no benefits.)

As a self-employed indexer working voluntarily where she works, what can I tell her?

First, I tell her that my profession is dominated by women over the age of 45. Many of these women raised their children and wanted to do something different with their lives. Many felt oppressed by their imaginings of the traditional workplace, or were afraid of having insufficient skill to reenter the job market. Others no longer had the financial support of a spouse and simply needed to find work to stay comfortable, or even solvent. I see these women at every indexing meeting and in my classrooms. Almost all had never heard of indexing before, and they’re giving it a try. After all, being self-employed and reading books sounds a lot better than being buried in a cubicle.

Then I tell her that once you’re truly self-employed, making enough money to pay monthly bills and quarterly taxes, in your life you will never experience unemployment again. You can’t be fired, you can’t be laid off, and you can’t be transferred to another division, location, building, team, or employer—not without first choosing it for yourself. As long as you have your core skills, you’re not much different from a child who can entertain himself with sticks, sand, and even an empty parking lot: the world is your workplace.

Finally, I tell her that in my profession, everything I have every learned (and continue to learn) has a direct application to my job performance. My grandfather says “no knowledge is ever wasted,” and in my case he’s literally correct. Every conversation I have gives me better background on people and information, and every experience provides me with a potential story to share with my students.

It’s not hard for me to be positive about what I do, because I love what I do. There are lot of perks, too, from being my own boss to sitting at my favorite table in the diner, where I am now. Kathleen, on the other hand, is pretty grumpy about her job. She gripes about a lack of benefits, a dearth of Social Security earnings, a regular 5:30am wake-up call. I have no doubt that I have it better than she does, at least in these ways.

If there’s a professional lesson for me here, it’s that Kathleen is my audience. She is the person who reads the books I index, the person who might sit in my classroom. I have to remember that if I do my job correctly, I am building a bridge from me, the college-educated small business owner who works off his laptop, to people like her. The gap in our lives is the challenge I face every time I sit down to invent a keyword, and index entry, or a label for a hyperlink.

In the world of indexing, these life differences are surmountable.

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