I am sitting at Caffe Paradiso. All alone. Missing Ellen, who used to join me all the time, back in the good ol’ days when she was studying to become a midwife, rather than being a midwife.

I know I’m being selfish—being a midwife is more satisfying (and lucrative) for her. And I realize we’re parents and well into our 30s, but it still feels bittersweet, like she’s all grown up and got herself a real job.

We like to joke about real jobs among our friends. The premise is that “real jobs” aren’t just defined as “skilled work that pays the bills.” A “real job” is one that involves getting up early five mornings a week, putting on something other than jeans, and going to an office to do important things until 6:00 or so in the evening.

Real jobs involve wearing clothes that require changing out of when you come home from work. Real jobs mean you have to schedule lunch dates rather than just spontaneously heading to the Thai restaurant at a random, hungry moment in the middle of the afternoon. When we’re joking about real jobs, the joke naturally extends to Jason: that he’s the only person we know in this town who has one. (He’s Vice President of a good-sized illustration studio with big clients, like McGraw-Hill.)

To be more accurate, Dorie has a real job like Jason, minus the tie but plus a commute from Farmer City into the Real City. (When Dorie and Elie moved here from the East Coast, they thought a 25-minute commute on a nearly empty highway was a walk in the park; we think having to drive anywhere for more than 10 minutes is torture.) So after you separate out the handful of real jobbers we know, what remains?

The rest of us do things like go to Australia for a few months of research, take our kids to the pool in the middle of a weekday afternoon, do woodworking, restore people’s houses, drum or dance or make art, have summers off, and generally sit in cafes typing into our computers. (Yes: We are those people who mysteriously sit in cafes at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. Some envy us; others assume we’re lazy and privileged. I can assure you that most of us, while we’re very happy to have access to this small life luxury, are working hard to earn our own livings.)

There are a few explanations for how I can possibly have a collection of friends with such an odd assortment of daily routines and vocations. One is simply the nature of living in a university town: People can actually make decent livings being a dancer, artist, ethnomusicologist, or plant biology graduate student. Professors and students have atypical schedules, and often need a place like a cafe to pass the time between classes, where they can get something to eat and a bit of work done.

The affordability of our town is another explanation: You can get by here rather nicely on a partial salary, or a family can do well on a salary and a half. (Let’s hear it for the Midwest!) That means half of many couples we know can do things like make fine wood cabinets, play drums, do freelance writing or teach voice lessons, and still contribute to a mortgage on a nice home and drink decent wine.

Finally, Jason and I just happen to know an odd assortment of people with wonderfully interesting talents, who have fallen into an odd assortment of vocations.

At least Ellen’s new schedule, as a real midwife, is kind of funky. I can console myself in the fact that certain days she’ll be able to sit in a cafe with me at some unexpected hour, and the other day she sent me a text suggesting I pick her up at the clinic for a quick lunch at the Thai restaurant, before her 1 p.m. appointment to feel the next pregnant belly.

We’re all proud and a bit in awe of how serious and important her work is. She deals with life and death situations every week, not to mention dealing with the dangerously ripe hearts and emotions of mommies-to-be and new parents.

Ellen’s husband Gabriel, who teaches ethnomusicology—primarily jazz—at the university, once said something like this about Ellen’s real job: “What Ellen does is no joke! People could die! The worst thing I could be accused of is giving a student some wrong information that later causes embarrassment at some cocktail party.”

True ‘nough. Here’s to each of us, and whatever kind of profession the world will trust us in.

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