Last night I was picking through my stack and started composer Philip Glass’s memoir, Words Without Music. I wound up reading over 50 pages before I passed out. (That’s a lot: I’m a slow reader, especially at 10PM.)
Glass writes about working in his father’s record store and how formative it was for him. His father began as a car mechanic without any formal education, then moved to fixing car radios, then to selling records with a little bench for repairing radios in the back. He wanted to understand why some records sold and why some didn’t, so he’d take home modern classical music and try to figure out what was wrong with it. Instead of diagnosing it, he fell in love with much of it, and started foisting it on his customers. Glass says his dad would come home late, around 9 o’clock, and then start listening to records from 10 to midnight. Glass would sneak downstairs without his father knowing and listen along.
One time Glass ordered four copies of a particularly obscure classical album for the shop. His father got mad at him, but Philip convinced the old man to keep them on the shelves and to let him know when the last one sold. Several years later, his father called and said he’d just sold the last one. “I can sell anything,” his father said, “if I have enough time.”
In an obituary of professional hoaxer Alan Abel, Margalit Fox notes that Abel’s father kept a general store, which is where Abel said he learned the art of hucksterism: “He’d put ‘Limit — Two to a Customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell,” Abel said, “and they’d be gone in a minute.”
In Tamara Shopsin’s memoirs, Mumbai New York Scranton and Arbitrary Stupid Goal, she writes a lot about her experiences growing up with her brothers and sisters in their parents’ grocery store and restaurant. (They now run it.) Her work is filled with the unconventional practice and wisdom of her father. (See my post, “Something to look forward to.”)
I try to let my kids spend a lot of time in my studio, so I’m attracted to these kinds of stories. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to visit my parents in their offices. My parents had a lot of night meetings — my dad was a 4-H agent and my mom was a guidance counselor and school administrator — so I spent a lot of time in abandoned offices, poking around on typewriters and playing with copy machines and raiding office supply closets.
In How Children Learn, John Holt writes about how important it is to let our children into our everyday worlds and our work:
If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.
He laments — and he died 33 years ago — how many of us don’t actually do work that means anything to children (“What do people do all day?”):
[H]ow much children must have learned from watching people do real work, in the days when a child could see people doing real work. It is not so easy to manage this now. So much of the so-called work done in our society is not work at all, certainly not as a child could understand it… It is in every way useful for children to see adults doing real work and, wherever possible, to be able to help them.
I’m thankful to do work that my sons can not only understand, but can emulate.
Every day is “take your kid to work” day around here. Sometimes that’s a burden, sometimes it’s bliss, but it’s always full of meaning.