I was working through my e-mail early Saturday morning when a pair of shadows dancing across the periphery of my desktop monitor interrupted the cacophonous silence of my home office.
Distracted, I swiveled around in my chair and squinted into the rising sun. Through the ingenious translucent window shade I could see the silhouettes of a couple of hummingbirds feeding on the brilliant orange flowers of the giant succulent (Aloe marlothii) that lives beside my office. A quick Google search confirmed my recollection that the species, which I bought for myself a decade ago and never fails to bring to mind the plant in Little Shop of Horrors (Feed me, Seymour!), is native to South Africa, as are many of my favorite strange plants.
Marlothii's seasonal inflorescence is a compound panicle, a woody stalk with many branches covered with tiny fluted flowers that draw all manner of insects and bees and colorful birds. When the flowers dry and fall, the remaining skeleton resembles a giant thorny antler harvested from a huge and fanciful beast. Over the years, I've exhibited an assortment of these unique specimens as sculptural pieces, planted in crushed rock in a large glass vase in the entryway of my house. With no co-workers anywhere in sight, no water cooler to gather around or morning staff meetings to attend, this is the kind of mission that typically occupies my break times (if not the more humdrum tasks of laundry, errands or foraging for food).
Accustomed as I am to spending the bulk of my time alone, engaged in my solitary craft, I've had the unique experience over the last year or so of starting my own business. I guess it happened for a lot of reasons. Some of it had to do with growing up—a desire to wield a modicum of control in an increasingly complex time. Some of it had to with the way work is changing for many of us; rarely can anyone just do one thing anymore.
Let me tell you how it began.
For the first six years of my working life I was a devoted employee of a large and respected newsgathering organization. In professional situations, I was introduced as "Mike Sager from the Washington Post." It was as if Mike Sager was my given name; from the Washington Post was my family name. Post-Watergate, pre-internet, my family was great and powerful. I was a loyal and dutiful son. I might have been a little pisher, but I had the kind of business card that could put me in a room with the president of the United States—and it did.
When I left the Post, at age 27, looking to follow my muse, newspapers were still thriving. What I was giving up was something my co-workers and I ruefully called the "golden handcuffs." I wasn't just leaving a job. I was leaving a big important job.
And I was leaving home—the place where I'd been plucked from the ranks of copy boys and promoted to reporter, trained by the best, allowed to make my mark, the only place anybody had ever heard of me.
Which never really registered until after I quit, when I went to the stationery shop to order business cards (which is what you had to do in those days).
Who the hell was he?
As the years of my freelance experiment progressed, I learned that the independent contractor had to wear a number of hats. Doing the job I loved—writing and reporting—was only part of it. I was also responsible for cold-calling new clients and making professional contacts, drumming up work, navigating the political atmosphere of the various workplaces with which I was tenuously associated by estranged remote. I had to send out invoices, keep track of expenses and deductions, hunt down payments from (comparatively) rich but stingy institutions, deal with lawyers and agents, make projected income tax payments, create and contribute to my own pension and find health insurance.
I was, in other words, the salesman, the factory, the work force, the accounting department, the public relations department and the CEO. Maybe it was the isolation, or maybe it was the influence of my recreational activities, but somewhere along the line I began to think of myself as The Sager Group—the many faces of Mike.
Whenever anything out of my control would happen, I would take it like a man. I would bravely say and do whatever it was I was supposed to say and do—if the Post taught me anything it was an almost-military appreciation of company loyalty and chain of command. I would tell myself I was doing the right thing, the adult thing. And I was. At the very base of things, I'm eternally just a cog in the wheel—one has to honor that reality in any field. Ultimately, at the top of my list of things to do is to make a living. Over time, there would be others to support as well, people who would depend upon me and my 10 fingers for housing, food and general upkeep.
Yet, even as I was doing all this heroic bucking up, I would also take a moment to acknowledge a smaller universe. The one in which I was trying my hardest and doing my best. The one in which I was eternally the sun.
I'd tell myself: "He might be So and So, but I'm the president of The Sager Group."
I was an overweight and unexceptional child who couldn't spell or seem to memorize multiplication tables. (I was the only student sent from the "smart class" to the "dumb class" for math). I also got bad grades in in conduct. I remember spending much of third grade with my Formica and metal desk pushed up against the teacher's stolid wooden island at the front of the room, her idea of making me behave, I suppose.
While my upbringing at home wasn't without the usual catalog of family neurosis, my parents and sister loved the shit out of me and treated me like I was the greatest. When something went wrong for me, my mother—who grew up Jewish in the not-so-tolerant American South during the eventful years of the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust—used to bolster my confidence and mend my social wounds by telling me: "Nobody's better than you."
What she meant, I'm positive, was "You're as good as anybody else. You are equal. You have the same possibilities in your life as all others, don't let anyone tell you differently."
In testament to the importance of semantics and repetition when it comes to marketing, mind control and other forms of propaganda, however, I think what I ended up getting from my mom was a slightly different message—the actual words I heard over and over again: Nobody's better than you.
So I'm eternally stuck in this weird place. I feel entitled by dint of what my mommy always told me.
And yet, at the same time, I know that nobody else on the planet particularly feels the same way.
One evening about two years ago, I sat down at my office desk with a sharpie and a sheet of printer paper and, like some kind of daydreaming teenager in his bedroom, drew a sketch for a logo for The Sager Group.
Twenty-eight years or so since conception, it took only a few seconds to poorly render the same silhouette I see almost every morning projected against my computer monitor by the rays of the rising sun—my own bald head. Then I scribbled these goals: Produce great stuff. Work with people you love and admire. Harness the means of production. Help others enable themselves.
Since then, The Sager Group LLC has published 11 books (six more in the works), produced two rap concerts at the House of Blues, several music videos and three short films. A partial roster of participants in my little venture include: A pair of Romanian programmers (one in Transylvania whose surname is Vlad), the writer/producer from Seinfeld who coined "yada yada," a documentary filmmaker who learned his trade shooting porn, a former student who grew up to be a lawyer/entrepreneur, a master proofreader who assisted Woodward and Bernstein with their Watergate stories at the Post, my best friend from fourth grade (he formalized the logo), an ex-running back for the Baltimore Ravens, a PhD from a Jesuit college who shape-shifts into a writer of young adult, romance and vampire novels, a man once known in the media as the "Teen Tycoon" and a former Navy Seal and his brainy Taiwanese wife who keep my technology running.
I haven't broken even yet—and there's no way I'm giving up my day job—but I've had a lot of fun, learned a shit-ton, met some cool people, collaborated with adored and respected friends and even made some worthy entertainment. The Sager Group does the stuff I want to do, but the product doesn't matter. It's the idea we're talking about here—the same principals could easily be applied to making furniture or apps or building houses or starting an investment bank or a hair salon. It's all about breaking off a small piece and making it happen. So I still might be in the red, but it's not that bad. I'm positive I would have spent more had I taken up golf.
Instead, I've created my own little universe.
Photo by © Juice Images/Alamy