About a year ago this time, I was profiled twenty-questions style in Nashville Arts Magazine. To the question of ‘What does it feel like to be you these days,” I answered “I feel like I’m always busy. Always trying to make something happen.” That was the best answer I could come up with, and I was being honest. I hadn’t really thought about that answer until this weekend when I read an article by Tim Kreider in the New York Times called “The Busy Trap,” that proposes that the “crazy busy” life many of us lead is almost entirely self-imposed, and that work we’re doing that keeps us busy maybe has no value at all. Maybe it’s just us trying to impose value on ourselves and justify our existence.
While the New York Times article does a great job of making the case for personal reflection and slowing down, it fails to acknowledge the true reason many of us are crazy busy. It was in the second sentence of my Nashville Arts answer.
It started for me in my early teens when I became an altar boy. Being an altar boy is great. You learn discipline and responsibility, and develop a profound respect for the sacrament of communion. But there were some other benefits. If it was a weekday mass, you got to go to class a little late. If it was a wedding or a funeral, you often got a tip from a groomsman or a pallbearer (depending, of course). I could make ten bucks at a funeral; twenty bucks at a wedding. So I started hustling, taking whatever weddings and funerals were offered. If you wanted to meet up before class, I couldn’t. I was busy.
I got my first job when I was 12-years-old, at the grocery store around the corner from my house. I started between ten and twenty hours a week, making deliveries, stocking shelves or bringing up cases of two-liter soda bottles from the waterbug-invested basement. I would remove all the bottles from the cardboard case, shake out the box to make sure no critters tagged along, and put the bottles back in the box before using the hand truck to bring them into the store. And I did this on the sidewalk outside the store. How no passerby ever figured out what I was doing is beyond me.
By the time I was in eighth grade, I was working thirty hours a week, which meant as close to financial independence from my parents as possible. I could buy my own records and books, and wear whatever I liked. Cash meant freedom.
By the time I got to high school, not only was I working thirty hours a week, I was selling and running football tickets for the bookie around the corner, further enhancing my cashflow and my connections. High school also meant getting serious about writing, so while I was excelling at my studies and working thirty hours a week at the grocery store, I was also reading and writing all the time, and editing my school newspaper. My sophomore year I got a guitar, which meant I started writing songs while working at the store, often on the separated insides of empty cigarette cartons. In my junior year, my writing ambitions scored me an internship at my local paper, and three years later, when I was named an official staff writer, I was the youngest ever in the paper’s 100-plus year history. This is not to brag as much as to point out that at this time I was 19-years old and not only in college, but still working part-time at the store, writing for my college newspaper and in a rock band that rehearsed five nights a week and gigged all the time.
Sometimes it’s all a bit of blur to me — which jobs I worked and what year and what else I was doing. It goes on and on with music and writing projects, and extracurricular activities. There was just always this sense that I had to be doing more than the basic thing I was doing, whether that was school or a job or a band or a relationship. Just getting by was never enough. I always had to have something else going on. Something had to be happening, in addition to the thing that just happened.
Even now. I work full-time in a job that for the last six years has included what seems like another full-time job stuffed into it. That’s plenty, yet I still feel a need to take on freelance writing jobs, or the occasional pro bono publicity gig or ask to be on a committee. It’s the older, more mature version of running football tickets, I guess. I book the occasional music gig. Play some bocce ball. It’s no wonder that my outdoor exercise activity of choice is bicycling. I’m going somewhere and doing something.
I’m obsessed with my own productivity.
So why am I like this? While it was about the money when I was 12-years old, it’s certainly not anymore. Am I overcompensating for something? Afraid to stand still? Am I, as the New York Times article suggests, just trying to justify my own existence? I’m not sure. I wonder if it’s some trickling-down of the immigrant experience. My father was an immigrant from Italy, and in addition to working long hours, sometimes 12-hour days selling men’s clothing, he would play cards all hours of the night at the Italian club. He would watch soccer games on TV, but I don’t get the sense he liked to sit still very often. My sister is the same as me, but on speed. I don’t know how she accomplishes all she does, working a full-time job, raising two teenagers, resurfacing furniture, walking seven miles a night, keeping up with her friends and calling my mother to check in. And that’s just the beginning of what she does. She’s the only person I know who can lose a job in this economy and get a new one in two weeks.
She’s a hustler.
If it’s not the immigrant experience, maybe it’s the neighborhood I grew up in. I imagine most of the people I grew up with, or any kids that grew up in middle class, mostly-immigrant families in the city, feel the same way I do. Most of us were never home much. Why would we be when there was a whole city to explore. We didn’t get used to the couch. Or the TV. We looked out the window and there were things happening. So we had to make things happen, too. And that became our natural state of being.
So maybe “crazy busy” does sound silly. And maybe some of us are indeed trying to justify our existence. But maybe some of us can’t help it, either. It’s just who we are. We still stop to smell the roses, and take time to contemplate and be reflective. We just do it in our own way and on our own time, even if that means having to schedule the time to do it. We’ll make it happen. Especially when we constantly worry that the roses won’t be there to smell tomorrow.
# # #