Love & Wisdom

Clarity – Confidence or Cash: a Paradox

CAN MONEY BUY SELF-ESTEEM? IT’S COMPLICATED.

By Danny O’Neil June 29, 2023

Illustration by Arthur Mount

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Sensitive men are having their moment right now, which means it should be my time to shine. I see my therapist every other week. I talk about my feelings. I cried in public before it was ever considered a sign of strength. You want vulnerable? I’m so freaking vulnerable.

I’m the kind of guy who agreed — even before marriage — to prioritize my partner’s career and then followed through on that by moving to Manhattan when she was offered a position at The New York Times.

So, imagine how disappointed I was to discover that in the year since I left my full-time job as a radio host in Seattle, I’ve been profoundly insecure over my new job. How utterly predictable. How absolutely embarrassing to discover that I’m not quite the sensitive and well-adjusted man I thought was.

We need to get a couple of things squared away before we continue. This column is neither about the types of work we value in America nor is it about the fragility of contemporary employment. Both worthy topics to be sure, but neither fits my story.

I’m a graduate of the University of Washington who spent more than 20 years covering sports in Seattle, first for newspapers and later at a radio station. I’m old enough that I covered a team that does not currently exist (the SuperSonics) for a newspaper that no longer publishes (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer). I’ve had three different stints at The Seattle Times. For nine of the past 10 years, I hosted a three-hour radio show five days a week on 710 AM, a Seattle sports station, occasionally appearing on 97.3 KIRO FM as well. That ended on Aug. 31, 2021, when the show I hosted was canceled. Oh, wait. That term has taken on a bit of a different meaning these days. We weren’t canceled because someone said something awful; we were canceled because our ratings were bad. Mike Salk replaced us in the mornings.

This decision was not unexpected nor was it entirely unwelcome on my part. I was ready for a change. I had worked remotely for two years, and I was ready to take the leap at being a self-employed writer. I did not expect this process to be easy, and it hasn’t been. What surprised me is how uncomfortable I get whenever I’m asked a very simple question: What do you do?

The answer is fairly straightforward: I write The Dang Apostrophe, which is an electronic newsletter distributed on Substack. I contribute to this magazine and appear every week on a Seattle podcast hosted by Mitch Levy. I’ve also written a media column for a site dedicated to sports radio, provided a column for the Tacoma News Tribune, and have done some copywriting for — among others — Kenmore Air. I’m working on two books, one about Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and the other regarding my family. I am doing what I’ve always said I wanted to do: writing.

But there’s another layer to that question, what do you do? Yes, it’s about the actual work, meaning the tasks I perform. But it’s also about the job, which is the position I hold and how l’m compensated. It’s asking: How do you survive in this late-stage capitalist hellscape? How do you make the rent? The answer: I don’t. Not yet. For more than a year now, my wife has covered virtually all of our living expenses. For the first time since I was 19, I’m not paying for my own housing.

Again, not unexpected, not unplanned. I wouldn’t even describe it as unfair. I covered all of our living expenses while my wife was in graduate school. So, while it’s strange when I use our American Express to pay for a meal, knowing that she’s the one making that payment, I expected it to be awkward. I’m not accustomed to being financially dependent on anyone. Not even my partner whom I love and trust unequivocally.

What has surprised me is the compulsion that I feel, this visceral need, to point out and acknowledge this reality that my wife is paying our living expenses. When someone asks what I do, I start out explaining my efforts to become a working writer and inevitably wind up joking about how I’m living off her largesse. See, I just did it again, taking what should be a simple piece of small talk and using it as an opening to confess my economic dependence. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to see that this is a preemptive defense. I’m cracking the joke first, hoping that it eases the sting. The question is why I’m doing this?

I don’t regret leaving the radio station. I was no longer happy there and had tired of not just the job but the day-to-day work. It’s not about the actual work I’m doing now, either. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and while being a reporter was pretty close, it wasn’t quite the same thing. I’m picking my own subjects now, writing about myself in addition to others. I feel like I’m chasing my dream in earnest.

The thing I’m struggling with is my job. The position I hold, and more specifically, the one I used to. I felt my job as a host at a radio station demonstrated my competency, my value. When my wife told her coworkers what I did, it was easy for them to understand. Might even be considered impressive. A freelance writer, though? Anyone can say they’re doing that. I don’t have a book published, and can I consider it an actual job if I’m not currently making enough to cover my living expenses?

And now we’ve reached that cringingly predictable point in which we see clearly that a man’s identity is wrapped up not in the actual activity he does for work, but his ability to bankroll the position he holds in society. I miss the security that came with my position first at the newspaper and later at the radio station. I miss the status I felt those jobs carried with others. It’s embarrassing, honestly. I thought I was past all of this, and here I am feeling insecure because I think that others might be thinking I’m a layabout. Pretty soon I’m going to use the term “breadwinner” and then I will have fully given in to the antiquated ideas of the patriarchy.

Turns out that being a sensitive man does not make you immune from the deep-rooted cultural connections between employment and male identity in this country. The gendered ideas we have about work, the links between masculinity and earning power, have stuck to me despite my best attempts to avoid conforming to the more chauvinist contours of our society.

Right now, I feel like I’m caught with a foot on either side of a divide, straddling this gap between the values I’ve espoused and the actual feeling that comes from making decisions based on those values. Moving ahead requires a leap of faith, a belief in myself and my partner and the union we’ve built in the 18 years we’ve lived together. Or I can retreat. Pull back, and find a job that is most similar to the one before, and when you put it that way, there’s really not much of a decision at all.

How do you make rent? I don’t. For more than a year now, my wife has covered virtually all of our living expenses.

I may be insecure about my job, but I like what I’m doing, and I’m proud of my willingness to take a chance and try something new. I have some pretty deep uncertainties about whether I’ll be able to make a living selling my writing, but that’s pretty understandable given the fact I haven’t done it before. I’ve also had some encouraging signs. After all, you’re reading this column in this magazine, right? Every fear I have is counterbalanced by the possibility that my writing career will pan out and this job will be something that brings me even more happiness and fulfillment than my last one. And maybe — just maybe — this whole process will bring me closer to actually becoming the man I thought I was before I embarked on this transition. Sensitive men are in vogue, right? This should be my time to shine!

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