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Quittin' Time 

A single dad goes out on a limb ... for laughs

"So, Dad, what're you gonna do when you don't have a job? Just, like, hang out?" This from Bebo, riding in the backseat of the car. David Bowie was singing in the background.

Bebo, my lone child, is 8, the age of masterfully living in the now. But I was forcing her to think about the future — I had just told her that I, her single, 37-year-old father, was leaving my job without another one on deck.

"Uhhh, no, Beebs," I said, my voice trembling as I glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror of our tiny black Pontiac. "I'm not just gonna hang out. Nope."

"Then where will you work?"

It was a fair question, and I had a good answer, but it still made me nervous. My neck tightened, my clutch foot twitched, and my body temperature rose.

I recognized the fear; it struck whenever I told an adult about my seemingly wacky decision. Each time, I expected the same reaction: "Are you crazy?" "In this economy?" "My gawd, you and Bebo will be homeless by July! Way to go, Ward Cleaver!"

But the reaction I'd gotten so far — from adults, anyway — was more along the lines of: "Good for you — jumping without a parachute!" "You'll be just fine." And the most shocking: "You're brave."

Encouraging? Absolutely. Helpful? Yes — true confidence builders. But only one person's opinion truly mattered, and she was chewing gum to "Rebel Rebel" in our car. I could not completely exhale until I knew Bebo felt OK.

This was all Robin Williams' fault.

Countless rock stars say their worlds changed when they first saw Elvis or the Beatles; for me, it was Mork from Ork, Robin Williams' goofy alien.

I was Bebo's age when the last episode of "Mork & Mindy" aired on television in 1982. Afterward, I marched into our Swanton kitchen and declared, "I'm going to be a famous comedian when I grow up, just like Mork!"

Mom laughed. Hard.

I was on my way.

I couldn't major in "comedian" in college, so I spent my freshman year in radio, then switched to writing and journalism and penned a humor column for the student newspaper. I continued on that track for 15 years while working as a news reporter and author in Vermont and South Carolina.

And then, in April, after 11 years, I left my newsroom desk at the St. Albans Messenger ... to focus on comedy.

Yup — that's eggs-actly how Mom laughed in 1982.

Being a reporter had its benefits — free food at events, free pens in the office and my name in ink regularly — but life-consuming, daily newspapering eventually took its toll on me. At a small-town newspaper, you either cut your teeth and move on, or stay and burn out. After 15 years, my adult teeth were in, and my flame had faded. I scrounged for creative ways to cover government meetings, court hearings and yet another Vermont Maple Festival. I was bumping my head on the ceiling, and it hurt.

I had two options: Wait until I found a new, full-time job and risk leaving with resentment, or go and gamble that the time was right. No hard feelings. No scars. No plan at all. I took Door No. 2.

Generally, this is not the Swanton way.

My father, also a native Swantonian, has stayed with the same company for 40 years and endured every change along the way — good, bad and "My pension is what?" I respect Dad for that, and he knows it, just as he has respected my dream since my 1982 speech by the stove.

My dad never said, "I don't know what's next. I'm working on that." But that's what I said to Bebo when she questioned me in the car.

"Will you keep writing?" she wondered from the backseat.

"Yes. That's what I want to do. And comedy."

Pause. "O-kaaay, sooo, how will we make money?"

I turned off Bowie. "I'm going to write articles for other newspapers and magazines that will pay me to do it." Stay in sync, brain and mouth. Keep it together. "That's called freelancing. So I'll still work, just not every day at the same newspaper anymore."

"You weren't happy there?"

"I needed change. And sometimes, Bebo, when you aren't happy with something, and you've done all you can with it, you can walk away from it for something else, even if you don't know yet what that something else is."

Another pause. "Are you happy, Dad?"

My once-shaky voice strengthened and formed the words — genuine and confident — for the first time since early April: "I am happy, Bebo, and we will be fantastic."

She flashed her I-get-it smile in the rear view mirror, while I found the brakes on my racing mind. Then I taught her how to say, "Nanu nanu!"

She digs Robin Williams, too. K

Leon Thompson is a writer living in St. Albans. "Use Your Words" is a monthly essay in which writers reflect on parenting and childhood.
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