Every day, same problem. What to write, how to write, why... Do you feel up for it, or should you just go back to bed and wait 'til it's time to go to work.
Two shifts in. Carrying the night while the other guy, without much enthusiasm for Monday night jazz, hides in the back room reading on his iPhone. There are only a meager few reservations for the night, as if something was up. The keyboard player comes up to the bar after the customers are gone, and we talk about the Baltimore riots, his memory of the one in DC after the assassination of Dr. King. How terrible and counter-productive. "You didn't make the laws, but you have to respect them." The old nightclub and jazz corridor, which provided jobs and entertainment for the locals, laid waste... "When did the Howard Theater finally reopen? Three years ago..." Ouch.
Then the musicians are gone, their equipment loaded, a decent dinner enjoyed in the corner, the last plates to clear back downstairs to the silent kitchen empty under fluorescent lights, the dishwasher's stainless steel counter and sink there inside the door under the hanging sprayer tucked away for the night, the dishwasher's metal levered doors open, laid bare. I'm cleaning up, knock on the door, it's old server., coming from his first shifts at the new job down the road where he's already making good money, serving fish table-side. I make him a Beefeater martini and he has an excellent story about a staff meeting... Do not question management, be positive, do not break stuff. A slide show. Do not be the problem, be the solution. Work smarter, not harder. (Yes, I remember the two-faced clichés of a particular management team... The truth is: Respect the staff, treat them as adults, professionals, an asset, and then the staff would care, do the right thing.) The meeting departs, heavy tables are lugged in to set up for a private party. "Five round tables," one manager says. This is done, with much jee-hawing, chairs and tables.. And after all this is down, as opening time is drawing nigh, "no, no--one long table," says higher manager, looking at a spec sheet, so they have to redo it all, switching everything out.
The talk moves to what I've been up to. Some great travel tales. The attitudes of people from other countries, the things they go through. And then talk turns to my lack of decent earnings, lack of retirement plan and all the usual forms of security. Old server talks me through it. "Promote yourself, do your own classes, or get a job teaching at prep school, which you can do a lot longer than what you're doing now." And he is right, of course. Care and concern from a world-wise good-at-reading-people older brother type for yet another of one of those younger brother types, who's very smart in some ways, but doesn't have it together, might end up out on the street...
"They'll let you teach that class, into your seventies, and you wouldn't have to be subversive about your message..." (I'd explained my little sermon about the psychological and spiritual benefits of sitting your butt down every day to write.)
But everyday, same problem. What to write, how to write, why? For what purpose.
In the old days's tradition, as Coomaraswamy points out in one of his essays, a masterpiece was simply a measure of a workman's competence in the standards of the guild. You'd done enough of them, and now you could make a good quality ceramic pot or altarpiece. Now the term sounds to us a bit more elevated. A masterpiece sounds like a thing beyond normal human capability, a marketing term for that which surpasses all other standards. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, gold standards, beyond the norm, genius, yes, masterpiece, but for the rest of us, yeah, keep plugging away. Who's the guy on PBS with magic of oil painting, with the neat tricks that make mountains and then lakes and then trees and then a rail fence and a cabin appear, techniques abused to the point of humor to decorate the wall above the bed in hotels like the one I recently stayed in in Chinatown, such that all trees had the same downward droop as the tropical pines and the mountains all had the same blue El Capitan lump but pushed together like books on the shelf there in the background by some heretofore unseen (and implausible) trick of geology, but the domicile of this kingdom having some nice verandas under an awning roof where indeed one might stay in good vaguely Chinese comfort... Yes, whatever you want; it's your world to create.
But we still live in the shadow of things like the earthquake disaster in Nepal, and in the sober light perhaps the term 'masterpiece' is viewed closer to its original scale.
Writing, yes, I try to focus on writing, and not my lack of security for old age, my misplaced reliance on Social Security benefits. I write and put aside the reminder I get from the wine-reps, you should have left this job yesterday; how old are you? Fifty. Fifty? (Expression, hidden: you are fucked.) Dude, get out now; be a teacher.
I think of Job. Job, were you around when the foundations of the world were lain? Uh, no... No, I wasn't, as far as I know.
But I should be a teacher. That does sound better than slogging through another twenty five years of shifts then having nothing at the end of it to show.
Onward I go, crafting my yellow journalism, the ends of my shifts presided over by somber judges who drive a weak man into the Beaujolais...
Incense burned, two sticks, one of Nag Champa, one of Sandalwood, over the usual sadness I expand around and attempt to put in place, the scented smoke unable to reach the poor sweet shaken Buddhist Nepalese survivors of earthquake nor the rubble of their old temples, I think of how I'd rather inhabit one of those old age airy ink mountain prints, suggestive like calligraphy is, minimal in scene, evocative of weather and mist, waterfall, a monk's abode, a bird on the wing, all deeply satisfying in a strange way, than the lush green, blue and gold luxury of the hotel painting, if I had to chose.
I stand up, the hunched posture straightens a bit from having written and the glance at the clock that says the mysteries of actual time draw close to when the person you have chosen to be gets ready for work. A leaf blower revving in the distance.
As I shower, loosening up under the hot water, I am reminded of a golden restaurant of the past, now departed, from years ago in this professional career. I can still hear the new management team's leader, shouting to us one through the hot stale air of a sunny Saturday morning about sexual harassment, and he, the worst perpetrator of the very thing. I remember the original management, a small slip of calendar page with the old Tao wisdom on it, ending with "the best leader of all is the one of whom the people are barely aware of; and when they succeed, the people say, look at what we have accomplished all by ourselves."
I almost have to wonder, driven to the thought by logic, that if a writer relies heavily on the management of marketing his, or her, works, then you stand the risk of being a product of that marketing. But if you write the simple truth...