Thursday, March 29, 2007

Working it Out

First, I apologize for being out of commission for a bit. I have had family and friends in town, and have been pleasantly distracted from my computer.

Second, this is what it looks like around here lately. Spring rocks, doesn't it?

Now, to the meat of the matter.

Last Thursday, Guster played in LA. As the show was free and as I’ve listened to Guster since Lost and Gone Forever, I had to take the opportunity to see them.

I’m so glad I did. Promised a half an hour of free live music, we received over an hour of sheer musical play. These musicians—whose greatest fault is that they’re albums tend to be over-produced, and therefore free of the “crunch” of good rock—exceeded my expectations by far, and I had one of those experiences at the show that doesn’t happen to me frequently enough: each cell of my body seemed to vibrate with the bass and my very bloodstream wove through the melody. The music became almost tangible, and crushed into me full force. Free from the perfection of a recording studio and mixing room, the band members took off and played against each other with organic beauty.

The lead singer cracked jokes with the audience and the band members between songs, and the drummer’s hands flew as he played without sticks. His hands were a blur of rhythm. The bassist and guitarist harmonized off each other. When the guitarist (who apparently can also play a trumpet) experienced a little technical difficulty with his instrument, the singer scatted a solo to replace the trumpet solo. His voice echoed against the surrounding buildings and humid air, eerie and beautiful. The band jammed with us, we jammed with them, they volunteered an encore, and we most graciously accepted it. These guys were straight out having fun.

And to think, this is their job.

Seeing Guster play together made me think of work. Actually, I had been thinking about it a lot lately for various reasons. Also, my students had just discussed part of W. H. Auden’s “Work, Labor, and Play.” Here’s an excerpt:

Between labor and play stands work. A man is a worker if he is personally interested in the job which society pays him to do; and that which society views as necessary labor, is from his own point of view voluntary play. Whether a job is to be classified as labor or work depends, not on the job itself, but on the tastes of the individual who undertakes it. The difference does not, for example, coincide with the difference between a manual and a mental job; a gardener or a cobbler may be a worker, a bank clerk, a laborer. Which a man is can be seen from his attitude toward leisure. To a worker, leisure means simply the hours he needs to relax and rest in order to work efficiently. He is therefore more likely to take too little leisure than too much; workers die of coronaries and forget their wives' birthdays. To the laborer, on the other hand, leisure means freedom from compulsion, so that it is natural for him to imagine that the fewer hours he has to spend laboring, the more hours he is free to play, the better.

Do the members of Guster fall into the category of worker? And, because I value my leisure so much and sometimes, especially this time of year, I pay close attention to the arrival of June, does that put me in the category of laborer?

No. And frankly, W.H. Auden, even though you’ve got a poem or two that has moved me to tears, in this case, you’re just plain wrong. Life isn’t that simple, and you should know it.

I concede that my job does feel like play sometimes. On a good teaching day, I know I fall into that state Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” My wit is on fire, and ideas and synthesis happen lightning-quickly; I feel like time doesn’t mean the same thing as it does outside of the classroom. I thrill in my students questions and lifted eyebrows of understanding. On a good day, my students and I find each other the most fascinating creatures in the world. But, Mr. Auden, it isn’t always a good day. Nor is the “flow” part the only part of any job.

I don’t personally know any members of Guster, but I’ve known other bands and their members, and I’ve heard the complaints. The shows, yes, they’re all-consuming moments of absolute zennish adrenaline. But the tedious practice, the working out of a melody that just doesn’t want to work out, the hours on the road, the production, production, production (when sometimes even the at home listener can hear the soul being ripped out the music) adds up to just plain labor.

I’m sure that there are times that Guster’s members wish they were doing anything but what they were doing. I’m sure that when a song just won’t happen, one of them wishes he was playing with his dog and another really wants to solve that crossword puzzle he left on his desk. When I’m stuck with a pile of essays that won’t grade themselves, sometimes I wish I were doing a myriad of other things: cooking, working on the house, working out, reading, writing, actually spending as much time in the pottery studio as I’d like to. However, we can daydream about these things because they are a reality, because we do get to do them sometimes. We daydream about them because it is impossible to always be “in the moment” and at our best. Sometimes, we just need to be laboring, waiting for leisure.

Did Guster spark all of this? Not really. Did Auden really get me going? Well, he raised my hackles a bit, but what really has got me thinking about work, labor, and leisure is ECG.

ECG is in the homestretch of his PhD and has been working through a variety of career opportunities. Deciding between jobs hasn’t been easy, but he just made a decision in the last couple of days.

I know that ECG’s job won’t be perfect; I know there will be some drudgery. I hope, nevertheless, that this job will offer him some of the moments of mental exultation that I get to have on my good teaching days. Lately, ECG has been reading a book from the 1880s on the physics of bubbles. Usually I’m the reader in the house, but right now it is him, and he can’t put the book down. He sits on the end of the couch, Rose the cat on his lap, with his book held about 10 inches from his face, his feet on the coffee table. I can talk to him when he’s reading, but he can’t hear me. He’s thinking about the wonder of surface tension and the mystery of spheres. He’s having fun. I love to see him like this—I hope he finds moments like this in his career. And when work isn’t like this, at times when the mundane overwhelms the inspiring, I hope those periods are brief enough to not get lost.

I hope for ECG, my love, good work.

What does this have to do with food? That will have to happen in the next post.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Meaningful work, ah, there's the rub. I'm convinced so many are unhappy with what they do for a living because it often has so little to do with who they are as people.

A lovely, thoughtful post.