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WND Commentary
Work: Curse of the living class, Part I

By Claire Wolfe
© 1999 Claire Wolfe

So there I was, sitting in the Hog Trough Grill and Feed, half a block north of the Hardyville stoplight, sipping a cappuccino and reading e-mail on my laptop.

Well, okay, it wasn't exactly a cappuccino. But Janelle, the waitress, had offered to stir Kream-i-Whip into the Folger's crystals, speculating that it might be "just about probably the same thing in a way."

Kids: don't ever try this at home.

So anyway, there I was sipping whatever it was and reading e-mail. The message on the screen was from FreeLife reader Glenn Stone, who wrote from deep within the urban caverns of Georgia:

I'm not looking for Hardyville. I know where it is; I've found it in a number of places in North Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I do, however, have a question: What does one DO out there to keep oneself in chicken fried steak and gas for the pickup truck? ... [I know I'd like to be more independent, but] I can't figure out how to get out of this little grey cube and out there where I know I'll be free. ... So what I'm really asking is, for this country-born, city-bred geek ... where the hell is the hole in the mouse wheel?

Janelle looked over my shoulder as she delivered a load of buckwheat cakes and offered, "We're lookin' to hire a dishwasher, evenings. Would that help?"

"Probably not, Janelle. But thanks."

Times like these, I'm glad I'm not Ann Landers, facing thousands of impossible questions every day. One's enough.

The sorry fact is that any caged mouse who wants out -- whether out into the country or just out of a nasty job and into a more humane urban life -- is probably going to have to grow big, pointy teeth and claws, and rip a hole right through the circling wheel without much help. Then, godblessim, may he leap out and leap far. Nobody can do it but the mouse himself -- though perhaps I can offer some perspective from a former cage-runner.

In this column, we'll look at potential ways of earning a living in a rural town. Then next week let's talk about how to manage with less money, more time, and more fulfilling work wherever we may be.

Jobs ala Hardyville

A little place like Hardyville sounds charming as all get out to folks stuck in 5:00 o'clock traffic. But frankly, it doesn't sound so great to people trying to run businesses. Half the storefronts on Hardyville's main street are gaping empty. And that's typical. Why? Because people who think they want to live here absolutely know they don't want to shop here. No discounts. No selection. Not efficient. And now there's the Internet for competition. It's not only the storefront businesses, either. What manufacturing operation wants to be set up where supplies arrive unreliably, where shipping is expensive because the place is so out of the way, and where there aren't many people who can do whatever job needs doing?

So no, there aren't likely to be hordes of employers in Your Own Private Hardyville, just waiting to grab you and pay the Big Bucks. Sorry, not even the Skimpy Bucks, usually. Bottom line: If you want to move to a small town, the easiest way is to bring your own job.

Easier said than done, right? Right. "Easy" is a relative term when you're talking life changes. But you can start investigating any time. Figure out where you'd like to go. Maybe check out several places. Read Yellow Pages for those areas and for a bigger area to see what useful services might be either missing or oversupplied. Talk to locals about what they do and need. On the other hand, think about a business that's not dependent on geography -- that you can do wherever you are. If you don't have piles of money to invest, think about how you can best invest your skills.

Small town business possibilities might be all over the map: independent software development; remodeling and "fixit" work; catalog sales; Internet-based sales; specialized agriculture products (herbs, exotic animals); regional or ethnic foods; medical services (lots of old people in places like this); specialized retail; horseshoeing and other animal care; operating a campground; independent trucking; furniture making. Who knows?

One good source for ideas for independent income in rural areas is Backwoods Home, the world's best magazine. But starting your own business is risky, time-consuming, sometimes expensive. It's not for everyone. And even those so inclined can't usually just leap into it, like that. So isn't there anything else? Well, one or two things.

I hate to say this, I really do -- but in a lot of small towns, government has been the only growth industry for the last ten years. This means there might be jobs on the tax rolls, from road maintenance, ranger duties or computer services to various variety of bureaucrat. We discourage the latter type in Hardyville, and hope you'll provide ample discouragement to bureaucrats wherever you may go. But it's a sorry reality of the Republicrat Era that even small towns might have government jobs when they don't have the freedom-enhancing kind. Subscribe to local weeklies and keep an eye on state job listings if this is your sort of thing.

Now, what about the much-vaunted "telecommuting" the media has been all a-flutter about these last few years? It's a sure bet that, in the long run, working at home while also working for some distant corporation will change both the face of work and the prospects of tiny mid-nowhere towns like this. But in our household, we've got personal experience, and our judgment is: not ready for prime time.

My Significant Sweetie works on cutting edge software for allegedly cutting edge technology businesses. The companies he contracts with are inventors of cyber-wonders, so you might expect them to be eager to leap into the future via telecommuting. His skills are in demand. Nevertheless, in five years, he's found just one to hire him without requiring his body to park itself in one of those gray cubies. Hire someone who's off in Hardyville, while The Boss is in Boulder or Redmond or Cupertino or Boston? Heaven forfend! The sluggard might take a 20-minute coffee break while we're not looking! He might not be here to attend our Compulsory Team Meeting On Empowering the Independent Workforce for Self-Motivation!

So sometimes, a move to Hardyville might mean resigning yourself to spending part of your time away, working in that cubie at least a few days a week, or one month out of three, or three out of six, while you make a transition to your true vocation. Such part-time "cubie" relationships are available through temp agencies, and with an increasing number of corporations.

If you're a so-called "knowledge worker," definitely don't neglect the possibility that your present employer might, in the long run, work with you on that sort of arrangement, even if it doesn't seem likely now.

And help is on the way for all telecommuters and telecommuter wannabes. The International Telework Association and Council and its magazine, Telecommute are promoting independent work and showing people how to do it.

How do I survive in Hardyville? Barely. I write and sell my work to faraway publications. Yes, it's an occupation people fantasize about, and in many ways I'm blessed. But don't let anyone kid you. This is a good way to starve. When I left the city, where corporate clients could take a look at me once a month or so (which, for some reason made them insanely happy), my income dropped by at least 80 percent.

But I prefer this to traffic and pantyhose and schedules. So here's another bottom line, even more fundamental than "bring your own job": Have the right attitude.

I started out with one attitude in my favor (though for many years it seemed more like a drawback). I hate Other People's Dumb Rules so much that I'll put up with anything to work on my own terms. Believe me, I had a lot of obstacles to overcome (most of them self-created) before I could chew a hole in that mouse-wheel and escape, but I got here, finally.

You may think you're stuck now -- especially if you have children to support, a spouse who favors the high life, a pile of plastic debt, a mortgage or a big lease on your Lexus. But nothing's hopeless, as long as you point your thoughts in the right direction. The path out of that gray cubicle might even be nearer and shorter than you imagine. The thing is to stop focusing on the trap and to begin focusing on specific things you ultimately want and that you can do specific things to achieve. That's what we'll talk about next week.

Oh yeah, if you do make it to a small town, it might be a good idea to bring your own cappuccino maker.

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