op-ed

Why Do It If It Doesn’t Pay?

Once upon a time you were probably a child. I can’t say for, certain, as I don’t know you personally. You may have sprung forth at full maturity from a madman’s laboratory or perhaps you are a sentient plant, but for the sake of this conversation let’s assume that at some point in your history you were a child.

Yes, and let’s make one more assumption: That little acorn version of you entertained fantastic visions of your future, and the giant oak of a human that you were destined to grow into wasn’t going to lay down roots in an office cubicle.

Career options for children, particularly young children, border on infinite. My daughter, for instance, chose as her future vocation chef-actress-doctor-spy. My son never gravitated toward hyphenates, but throughout his childhood he considered choosing as his future job Spider-Man, karate master, and musician. For children the possibilities are as limitless as a cloudless sky, but one thing is almost certain: Lurking nearby is at least one well-meaning adult ready to pop their little hot air balloons and bring them down to Earth.

My primary balloon popper was my father, who took great pride in teaching his children the value of a dollar. You want it you gotta earn it, kid, and so from an early age his children learned to pull their weight. Ever had a parent ask you to buy the cookies, magazines, or wrapping paper his or her kid was selling to raise money? That parent was not mine. To be Jim Stafford’s child was to practice your sales pitch until it was flawless and then do the leg work yourself. Social anxiety? Child abductors? Savage dogs? So what? I didn’t sign up to sell candy, kid, you did. Now go knock on those doors.

And so my sisters and I did, each with variations on the same basic pitch: “Hello, my name is Jimmy Stafford, and I’m with Cub Scout troop 123. We’re selling candy to raise money for the troop. I have Tootsie Rolls and butterscotch. They’re only a dollar each, and when you’re done with the candy inside you can use the container as a bank. How many would you like?”

The lessons didn’t stop at fundraisers. One summer my father offered to pay me a penny for each dandelion I dug out of the yard but only if I dug deep enough to get the sunny little bastards’ entire roots. I filled two lawn-sized garbage bags with bright yellow flowers before the lawn was weed-free. My dad dumped these onto the driveway, where he carefully sorted the dandelions with complete roots from their partial brethren. When he was done he paid me for maybe a quarter of my entire haul and then told me to put the flowers back in the sacks.

A couple of years later he proposed the princely sum of 20 dollars to scrub away the bright orange mud staining the bottom two feet of bricks holding up our house. “Stain” is the proper word, by the way: Upstate South Carolina’s red clay doesn’t surrender easily. After a few experiments with various detergents, my father sent me into battle with a wire brush and some substance so caustic that it ate through a galvanized bucket. I went at those bricks for weeks, scrubbing hundreds of linear feet clean. I probably had 15 feet left to go when I reached my limit of scrapes from the wire brush and burns from the mystery detergent. “I quit,” I announced. “Just pay me for what I did.”

“I don’t owe you a penny,” my father said. “We agreed to 20 dollars for the whole house. You didn’t finish the job, so you don’t get paid.” Point taken.

For the rest of my childhood, parental requests for assistance and chore demands were countered with the question “how much?” “Why can’t you do anything just because you’re part of this family!” my exasperated father would shout while I waited perplexed for contract negotiations to begin. After all, if it was worth doing it was worth getting paid for.

Now, when you were a kid you may have dreamed of being an astronaut, policeman, doctor, firefighter, lawyer–heck, I don’t know. Maybe you set your sights on the growing field of chef-actress-doctor-spy. However, with exception to brief periods where I considered careers as world Frisbee champion or Tour de France winner, from a very young age my wiring insisted that my calling was “artist.” Whether this meant writing, painting, sculpture, music, acting, or carnival sideshow shifted now and then, but I remained certain that my only purpose was to make things. The problem was that no matter how much I felt like that was worth doing, only in rare cases does the world seem to think it’s worth getting paid for.

I can’t honestly say that my intentions were always pure. Like any kid I entertained visions of fame and fortune, but most of the time I simply believed that my DNA demanded that I make art, or more specifically narrative art, regardless of the medium. My practical father did not want his son to entertain such frivolous (and perhaps homosexual) thoughts. A man needs a good job. You can’t make a living writing stories and drawing pictures. As my high school graduation neared, my old man proved himself a poet capable of fashioning the following couplet: Go to an engineering school never pay a penny / go to an art school never get a penny.

I chose art school, but while I found out many years later that he actually threw me significantly more pennies than he ever admitted the lessons of my childhood were much too ingrained. I grew into an adult borderline obsessed with financial security–not with the acquisition of wealth, but rather the steady job, the sure thing. “When I became a man I put away childish things,” as a divinely inspired artist once took the time to write, and vocations that didn’t pay were childish.

I don’t regret the lessons of my childhood, regardless of how this all may sound. My father did everything he could to steer me toward the center of the bell curve. The middle of the herd is where one finds safety, after all. With risk comes reward, but mediocrity always pays the bills.

But I very much regret the heavy-handedness of those lessons, the false choice implicit in “anything worth doing is worth getting paid for.” That line of reasoning wasn’t unique to my father, by the way. This is the fundamental tenor of American life, so it should come as no surprise that both life and death in this country involve financial transactions. The notion of a modern day Jonas Salk giving away his miracle cure because it’s the right thing to do is pretty much unthinkable. The idea that one might enter politics as a civic duty is absurd. Jury duty? What a waste of my time.

We monetize everything, and as a result more often than not we turn the sacred into the profane. Take the blues, for example, an art form once meant for not much more than passing the time a little more pleasantly. All you needed was your voice, maybe a harmonica or a guitar, and you were your own entertainment. Once the record men came and the blues became a business all that mattered were “good” songs, meaning songs that sold. What use was a song that didn’t sell? More to the point: What was the point of an artist who didn’t sell? Was he or she even an artist?

The blues business made stars of Muddy Waters and Leadbelly, but it made superstars of Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and more recently Joe Bonamassa. Monetization changed the fundamental purpose of playing the blues–at least that’s how it seems when viewed through the lens of “anything worth doing is worth getting paid for,” but a quick visit with Etta Baker on YouTube (one of today’s many monetization engines) puts things back into perspective:

I get it: We have to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. There are no free rides in American life, so if we want food, medicine, and roofs over our heads we better practice our sales scripts until they are flawless: “Hello, my name is Jimmy Stafford and I’m with the I Don’t Want To Starve To Death In the Gutter Foundation.” We better scrub those bricks and get every inch of those dandelion roots.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that not everything needs to be monetized. There’s nothing wrong with being a front porch guitar player, dancing in your own kitchen, or writing stories that nobody reads. Just because nobody is paying you for it doesn’t mean that you are wasting your time. And there’s nothing wrong with serving in public office, curing cancer, or simply serving on a jury without compensation. There’s so much worth doing without a payday. I’ll even argue that the stuff worth doing is worth doing regardless of whether there’s any money in it

And son, I hope you read this. The world needs a real Spider-Man and also the trash needs to be taken out.

Categories: op-ed

2 replies »

  1. Like all children who were born to parents raised during The Depression, I grew up in awe of the power of money. With it, you ate well and prospered. Without it, you faced life on the street. I was one of those rare children who never dreamed of a career. I hated being asked what I was going to be when I grew up because I never had a clue what to say. I inevitably faced the day when, college degrees in hand, I had to join the masses earning a living. My career choice was made by virtue of a bank being the first employer who hired me.

    So the career die was cast. I was a Banker. It sounded good when conversations got around to “What do you do.” It paid ok. My parents seemed to enjoy introducing me as “My son, the Banker.” It looked good on an application for a loan or an apartment. But that’s all it meant to me.

    Now it’s 50 years later and I’m looking back from the vantage point of retirement and realizing how little my career meant to me. It’s the stuff I did outside of the working world that reflects who and what I am. I got to be a Bank Vice President but it is the volunteer work I did that I remember fondly. I co-founded a gay service center that is nearing its 50th anniversary of serving our community. I served for ten years as a volunteer and board member of the United Way. When I bought a home in a troubled neighborhood I helped found a neighborhood association that chased away the gangs, drugs and prostitutes. All of that gave me pride but no income. I have no regrets and treasure the memories of serving my community and helping to make it better. It’s not the life I envisioned, but I’m glad it’s mine.

    Liked by 1 person

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