Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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SEPTEMBER 5, 2011 9:07AM


Rate: 33 Flag

“Hold onto that one,” Mr. B. remarked as I picked at my salad.  “He’s a provider.”

After a year or so of occasional cat-sitting for his two disappointingly unfriendly felines, I had been invited to lunch by Mr. B.  At the terrace of a pretty Left Bank café facing Notre Dame, I smiled and tried to look unperturbed by what he’d jut said, though some heavy thoughts were crashing from my subconscious, down to my chest.

The “he” that I was being advised to hold onto was my boyfriend, whom I’d introduced to Mr. B. so that he’d feel comfortable with us staying in his apartment together.  I’m not sure how Mr. B. had gotten the impression of my boyfriend as a provider, but I had to admit he was right: one of the things I most admire about the latter is his work ethic and his smart sense of investment.  In his early 30’s, he already owns a nice-sized Parisian apartment, and is able to live a very comfortable life.

Mr. B. seemed to be the opposite.  His life wasn’t comfortable, but luxurious, with a massive apartment in a 17th century building on the Ile de la Cité to call home, trips around the world, never having to cook a meal for himself, a weekly visit from a cleaning woman, and the requisite sexy-and-much-too-young-for-him Russian girlfriend.  Mr. B. hadn’t earned these privileges in the conventional sense; most writer/philosopher/academics like him couldn’t.  Instead, he told me proudly that day, he’d gotten some money after he and his first wife had divorced.  From his second ex-wife, he’d gotten ownership of his envy-inducing apartment.

Mr. B. liked to live in ease and comfort, and I was amazed at encountering someone so unabashed about not wanting to work in order to earn his keep.  More surprising to me still was his sense of accomplishment, not shame, at having accumulated riches by taking them from people he’d once been intimate and raised children with.

But what really shocked me was the conspiratorial tone of the conversation – it seemed to suggest he thought I was like him.

It wasn’t the first time I worried that people might get that impression.  When I met my boyfriend, I was “very poor but very happy” (to use Hemingway’s very apt phrase about bohemian life in Paris), and was content to continue on that way for the rest of my life.  I’ve always liked creature comforts, but I’ve never been the kind of person who demands or requires luxury.  Give me some books, some beautiful scenery, the Internet, a working toilet and shower, and a way to save up enough money to visit my family from time to time, and I’m good.  Everything else is an extra bonus.  But of course, why wouldn’t it look suspicious for a poor American girl to get into a relationship with a property-owning French citizen who makes a nice living? 

I know the reasons I’m with my boyfriend are sincerely love-based. But I did have to wonder, though, was I that different from Mr. B. in other ways?

Behind me were already years of failed jobs that shouldn’t have been failures, since I did well at them and had even liked most of them.  One, a position as a movie critic, was something that had been on my list of dream jobs.  But though I consider myself a motivated, responsible person who follows through on things, my interest in every career I’ve ever attempted has petered out after a while.

I don’t like schedules. I don’t like routine.  At the same time, I don’t like total unpredictability.  I don’t like people telling me what to do.  I don’t like repetitive work. I don’t like having to go to a meeting or an office if I could just as easily work from home. In addition, my IBS only makes commuting more stressful, which rapidly erodes a lot of the appeal a job might have.  Basically, I don’t seem to be cut out for a regular kind of career. 

Of course, most people don’t like at least certain aspects of their job.  But the thing is, they plug on.  Money seems to be a powerful persuader for many –but my convictions and actions have shown that I’d rather be happy than rich.  I’d rather sacrifice financial gain than my time – and have. 

When I lived on my own, this wasn’t a problem; I always found part-time jobs or gigs that allowed me to earn enough to get by.  I was proud of that financial independence.  But Mr. B.’s words made me see another side of things. I had to admit, part of why I could feel so carefree about money was probably because I knew that if there were ever an emergency and I needed cash, I had several wealthy family members who would probably help me out.  Though the reason I’d chosen to live in Paris was because of the passion I feel for this city, it sure does help that my healthcare needs cost almost nothing thanks to socialized medicine – not to mention the private health insurance plan my boyfriend gets through work, and which, as his legal partner, I get to benefit from, as well.  Though I do contribute to our expenses, as well as do most of our chores, trip-planning, and communication, I live rent-free in my boyfriend’s place.  I’m a mooch, I realized.  Not a calculating one like Mr. B. seemed to be, but a mooch in spite of myself.  It’s a small comfort that I didn’t plan things this way; I have a sense of honor and respect other people’s work and earnings – but still.  How did Mr. B. sniff me out?

The only work Mr. B. seemed to do, as the new, expensive computer atop his desk that faced windows looking out onto the Seine attested, was write.  The one thing I’ve consistently done without boredom since childhood is this very activity.  Writing and editing are truly two of the very few efforts I really give my all to, and never seem to tire of.

Of course, I worry what would happen if, miraculously, I were ever able to parlay this passion into a decently paying career of some kind: would the fact that some structure, authority figure(s), and/or routine would probably be involved, make me go off it, too?

Deep down, I think this might be one of the reasons why I haven’t really tried to break into freelancing.  If writing became a job, would it lose its appeal to me?  And if it did, what would my life be without writing?

Then again, I recently got an article published in an English-language newspaper here.  A start-up, so I was in close communication with the Editor-in-Chief (a charming man), and no money was involved to add pressure (“You have a real talent for finding unpaid work,” my friend J.G. wryly quipped when he heard).  The editor told me he’d like to work with me again – and try as I might to rationalize it or project myself into the future, I don’t feel bored or terrified by the prospect.  So maybe it’s a good sign.  Maybe making writing a job wouldn’t kill my joy and love for it.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the way I currently make a living.  Teaching English to adults who need it has so many advantages on so many levels, and is spiritually fulfilling. But after three and a half years, I hear its death knells starting to sound in my heart.  

My short-lived cat-sitting career was snuffed out by my own hand, as well.  Though I’m crazy about cats, and though it pays excellent money and lets you spend days and nights in gorgeous abodes (rich people get very nervous about their beloved kitties being alone), though there’s not really a routine or much structure, I lost interest in that, too.  A few months after our lunch, when Mr. B. would call to see if I was available, I started making excuses, wanting to stop myself all the while.  

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I wrote this on my lunchbreak on Friday, in a fit of questioning and despair. I had no idea that it was Labor Day weekend! Seemed kind of fitting to post it today....
Such a thoughtful post. My mother always urged me to find a rich man. And of course that made me find the worst of the poorest and I have paid a high price for that. Mostly tho I am paying a price for not following thru on any career. I like art. But never made it real. I don't like much else. I always got money from my mom and that does a number on my self esteem. Looking back I wish I had taken a passion and been successful. Mr B might not have been calculating. Maybe it all just happened to him because he loved the right lady. Im where I am living now because I was with a guy. hmmmm....lots to think about here. Thanks.
I loved this Alysa. Artists need patrons and that is just the way it is. It's a bonus when a person is also in love like you are. I worked all my life as a teacher and had to support my husbands and children all by myself and it was indentured servitude no matter what the feminist harpies say. I now live happily off of my loving husband's humble income in a beautiful but modest home and j'adore being an artist and a writer--finally. It's what I was meant to be. You're young and still discovering the world. Enjoy it!
This post made me want to be BFF with you 4ever. Loved it. Related to it beyond measure. Would love more detail on this," My short-lived cat-sitting career was snuffed out by my own hand, as well."
I am of the strong opinion that you can and will make a living writing, and that you will very soon.

This was so honest and fun and refreshing, and just great, Alysa. Good intentioned long term job avoiders unite!
A very fitting post for today. But thoughtful and thought-provoking as well. I think you describe yourself perfectly here: "Give me some books, some beautiful scenery, the Internet, a working toilet and shower, and a way to save up enough money to visit my family from time to time, and I’m good. Everything else is an extra bonus."
I get this and I think you and I are the kind of people who really really appreciate the extras that come our way.~r
Your a good writer and soul searcher. That doesnt make y ou a moocher.
Oh boy, are we kindred spirits! I relate beyond measure to your work dilemma. I also can't stand to be cooped up in an office, and I need to feel continually challenged and also nourished (in the soul sense). Writing for money has generally been satisfying when I'm working on the project itself--almost any project can be interesting when I think of it as a kind of language puzzle. I wish you luck and can't wait to see where this next adventure leads you. :)
If only we were all so thoughtful about our work and our lives.
Like most writers, you just want to be free to write. Unfortunately, the real world steps in and changes all of that.

I don't see you as a moocher. You are working and contributing. Maybe you feel guilty about not being able to contribute more.

As to making a living out of writing, keep at it.

Sounds like Monsieur B. has a very good point.
I love reading your posts, and the glimpse of a city where I will never live. Gook luck with solving your dilemmas, but when you finally figure life out, it might not be as interesting anymore...
Money, in no way, insures happiness. This is one of the fallacies our culture has told (or lied to) us. Don’t write for money either, write for yourself. It is there where you will find your voice. Have a thick skin, because the rejection letters tend to pile up, even for the best of writers.
When asked why he never worked a day in his life, Alessandro Principe Ruspoli replied, “I never had time.”

”I am a tree still full of fruit,” he liked to say, “when all around me I see so many withered vines.”
Work's work. Some maybe more fun than others, grass is always greener too.
P.S. Paris sounds like a good place for you to be, right now. Literature in America has been hijacked by the MFA programs, who are churning out writers who all sound exactly the same. For this reason alone, I rarely read anything by American writers anymore. Presently I’m into Jean Echenoz (France). There are exceptions, of course, and I highly recommend Land of the Blind, by Jess Walter. You might even enjoy my novel, The Prophet of Sorrow, about the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Cheers!
You are in a fortunate situation, and know it. Gratitude makes daily life sweet. Also, what Confucius said: choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Having not had a real job since 1985, I can attest to that.
Not having any family that could bail me out beyond a meal I always had to work, and finally found something that I enjoy and have done well at, but not until my mid thirties. I can say life is much easier with that out of the way, and knowing I can support myself. I do suggest you find something you can fall back on, as I do to my grown children. Thoughtful piece.
My ex-wife has a Zen slogan piece: Leap, and the Net will appear.
I always admired that in her, if... well, life, but, from what you've said of the current boyfriend, he's a keeper. There's always work to be done, if you don't mind getting your hands dirty so to speak, cleaning houses, painting things, yardwork, retail, and, it's not all bad. You meet people different than you're used to, and life's funny that way. As long as you know that in the back of your head, and that there's always soup kitchens and missions, or bridges to sleep under, if it gets really bad, and you're still alive and there's libraries, it's nothing to worry about. With life, there's hope.
There's a little here for everyone. The hard worker, the cat sitter and the writer. Life is always more fun when you're asking questions, instead of having to supply the answers.
nice essay. any chance you can work in a pic of his young russian gf? haha :p
life and work are like what happens when an irresistible force meets immovable object.
my philosophy which I read in a blog once: "more play and less work"
more on the corporatocracy in my blog.
My mother used to say you can be as much in love with a rich man as a poor one. I think what I seek is a smart one, and that often has other bonuses of comfort.

I always figured I could become a cat-sitter if I needed the cash. Mine has it pretty cushy whenever I leave. She keeps me from feeling guilty. A service as much for me as for my cat.
Perfect timing! And not having a love of money is a virtue in my book. I could have continued at my good paying job until the ulcer I was starting to develop forced me into early retirement but instead I set off in search of something fulfilling. It may not have worked out as I planned but at least I'm happy. :)
This is another terrific piece from you, Alysa. I am a fan of introspection, as you know. The word provider has always stuck in my craw when it comes to describing a potential partner. I wouldn't be able to accept that as a reason for being with a man either. But, Mr. B's apartment sure sounds wonderful... :D

you will find something :) you're introspective, aware of yourself and others, smart- you will find a stable place to land
it's scary though, isn't it, being up in the air?
What Fernsy said, pretty much word for word.
I think you're fine, Alysa. You are a "starter." I am too. I am interested and excited by doing something different and challenging, and doing it full steam ahead. But then I get tired of it, and I have to go on to something different. My interest usually lasts about three-and-a-half years....although I spent a lot more time with raising horses, since that spoke to my soul. Your soul is free, so don't worry about being supported. How much better than living with someone who doesn't support you! Enjoy your life! You have created something wonderful.
From childhood Ms. Stim wanted to be a writer. For the last 20 years, she's mostly done freelance business writing and loves it. You're quite right that most people don't like certain aspects to their jobs. I don't like the work aspect of mine. I have a certain low level of respect for Mr. B that he essentially is honest about his parasitic nature.
I've never once had the impression that you could possibly be a mooch. A mooch is someone who takes and takes and never gives back. You are far from that my dear. -R-
I have been doing a considerable amount of retrospection lately. Your insight here gave me even more food for thought. I am unfinished, but not sure what is the finish. This was a good piece to read today. Thanks for sharing it. wonderful. Blessings on your quest to be realized for what you are. xo J wonderful. Blessings on your quest to be realized for what you are. xo J
I recently discovered WikiQuotes, so I’d advise you to get ready for a barrage of others’ words being patchworked into my comments. And posts.

I am unashamedly going to steal others’ hard “work’’ in thinking of, and others’ far more difficult “work” of thinking of it to begin with, because oddly enough I see that as a sort of “work”:to redeem old thoughts from random distribution in the cosmos, & invite them into an integrative whole…MY THOUGHT…which , if I am doing my “job” right, I cannot begin to know the outcome of, AS I AM DOING IT. In other words, my work is to create…for…as Blake said, “I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's;
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create…”

Your conflicting feelings about work are explicitly laid out in this essay. You are trying to “Reason & Compare” them. Forget it. It will bring only gut-pain…

This may be harsh, but realize (as do wage-earners all over this globe, which by the way, in case nobody noticed, is spinning off to Hell) that

“True Work is the necessity of poor humanity's earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundreths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked…” melville,

And also

“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery. “
Bertrand Russell..

If you wish to address this on the plane of conventional morality just rest assured, with these unconventional conventional thinkers that your


Work is valued by the social value of the worker.
• Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words
We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.
Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, of Star Trek…



Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is the work of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses….


Your writing is prose, you object. We disagree on that!
I keep wanting to go on'm more convinced than ever we must be related, Alysa, our feelings about work, living and writing are so similar. I work my job for purely practical reasons--the rent must be paid. Lately I've felt like the best thing about my job is that I have it. And the small security it provides is not to be sneezed at in this incredibly up-fucked 21st century. I don't need huge gobs of money, but I do need the supply to be regular and dependable. But I'm much happier on days when I can paint for two hours and then go out and bop around in a bookstore.

It's a funny thing about people like Mr B..--we who are less fortunate feel superior for not being so greedy, while enviously wanting what he has. It sounds like he's living my dream life (Minus the Russian Girlfriend, in my case). If I could make it happen, I so would. But since I don't, I can be smug that I didn't get it throuh a "provider."

But I can live the way I do because I have non-wage income that's the fruit of wise past investments on the part of my Great Uncle Blanchard Miller at the turn of the 20th century.
Many of my favorite posts - and this is one of them - are ones in which the author examines him/herself in a different light than usual. Don't be too critical of yourself; sounds like the boyfriend isn't.

Here's how I see your future: "An American in Paris," by Alysa Salzberg, available wherever good books are sold.

I do understand and appreciate the fine points you made here throughout. I am wondering though if you hope to marry your boyfriend one day. (I do not require an answer.) If you do, I would urge you to consider how your choices may be affecting things within your relationship.

I mean this kindly. After reading your work, your voice comes through quite clearly as a warm and sincere person. If you were not so very far away, I could imagine us being friends.

You write well. I think you will one day be pursuing your writing as a career. As one of my very wise friends once said, "It doesn't have to be a dream."
As long as your boyfriend has no problem with this, neither should you. Reverse the situation, and it you see a problem, then there is a problem, right?
Ditto what scanner said. Heed his wise comment.

I am dependent on spouse for health insurance these days. That's the way it goes. I had offered to support her sans job several years ago. Sometimes you give more and sometimes you get more.

Sometimes putting one's nose to the grindstone gets one nothing but a sore nose.
Fitting, indeed, says she who had to work on Labor Day. (Because in an Assisted Living Home, somebody has to be at work every day, so we don't automatically get federal holidays off; we take turns).

I keep thinking of you as my 20-years-younger alter-ego. Sheesh! Such similar history with jobs and "mooching." I have always contributed to mutual expenses but also always lived with/married people who earned much more than I and paid all or most of the housing costs). At this point, Lady Lucia pays 80% of the rent because 20% is all I can afford, on my extra-low income, even though I work almost full time (30 hours per week, which, I believe, is full time by French standards).

Like you, I've had a lot of jobs I liked but I always burned out on them once they'd gone on too long, gotten too restrictive or required too much reporting to bosses and offices. Like you, my IBS has made "straight jobs" difficult because, sometimes, I can't get out of the bathroom in time to go and punch a clock at 9:00 AM (or even 10:00).
Anyway...may we all be free and easy, without guilt. I feel a heckuva lot of guilt about my situation with Lady L., but she knows I'm trying to get better-paid work and contribute more but we're in a recession. I guilt-trip myself but she doesn't guilt-trip me. So long as you and your boyfriend are at peace with the situation, all shall be well...
Alysa, although you wrote this "in a fit of questioning and despair" it is absolutely refreshing! Your introspection and honesty are something that I admire and respect so much. This post just makes me smile and say, "Good for you, Alysa!"

From where I sit, you are in no way like Mr B.
Yes time is just so valuable and you write wonderfully my friend.
If by writing about yourself you discover that you are not who you think you are, then I am intrigued. If by writing about yourself you confirm that what you imagine yourself to be is what you are, I am not.
PS. I'd feel a bit different if I had a "safety net," as you do. If Lady Lucia decided she didn't want me here, I'd be homeless, because I don't earn enough money to pay for even the smallest apartment, in the worst neighborhood, on my own. And I don't have any wealthy relatives (or even middle class ones) who would take me in. 'Though I do trust Lady L., and believe we'll stay together, nobody can be 100% sure about any relationship. That's a big part of the reason (in addition to wanting to carry more weight and be more helpful to my partner) that I'm trying, so very hard, to get better-paying work. I hate feeling like, if something bad happened, I'd be destitute. I hope that, by the time you get to my age (late 40s) you'll feel more secure than I do, financially, while still having a good, balanced work and personal life. That is the ideal...
Thank you all for reading, and for your thoughts. Once again I find myself so busy I haven't been able to get onto OS to read, so I'm going to forego responses here to take the time I have to try to catch up with you guys' writing. And I'm sorry if I don't succeed in doing that, either.

I really appreciate everyone's thoughts and reflections on this subject - I really didn't know how people would react and I guess I thought mainly I'd be considered lazy or a mooch. It was just something I had to get out.

Eva - I just want to say, I"m sorry you feel like you do about your work/relationship situation. It seems to me you and Lady Lucia are very in love, and as scanner wisely wrote, "Reverse the situation, and it you see a problem, then there is a problem, right?" I do hope you will feel more security soon, though.

As for those of you who asked about marriage - rest assured, the boyfriend and I are PACS'ed, which is a common law marriage-type agreement here in France. We have a basic legal responsibility to each other, and also pretty much the same rights as any married couple (for example, we can put each other on our company's health insurance plans, etc).

Thanks again for reading and commenting and for your kind, supportive, and commiserating words, everyone! I appreciate them more than I can say.