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Bad Brain | 2015 | Lowercase T


I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.  

-Albert Einstein

The Busking Artist Farmer

Amber gathers together fliers from each CSA at this farm fair, asks me to get her another cracker with pesto, and pronounces that we are done.

"We just got here," I argue. "It took me longer to find parking in Hudson than it did for you to exhaust this. Don't you want to rub elbows? Scope out the competition? Let them know that you are a farmer?"

"I don't like talking to people," she says.

"You could have just googled them, then."

"I wanted to see what this was about," she says.

Creating a community sponsored farm has become her passion since she graduated from wanting to support herself exclusively as an artist on etsy. Her art still plays a part in her CSA, as she intends to include one work in each of eight annual pickups, aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. For the last two summers, she honed her skills and put her knowledge into practice at the Red Hook community garden, which the owner has since turned into an abandoned field beside a bank.

Amber occasionally sighs how she looks forward to the day she has a proper farm that makes her so much money that I can stay home all day and write, but I do not labor now as a sort of quid pro quo. I work my day job because I have to support us but I have no expectation that our situation will reverse. If she manages to turn her labors to a profit, that is grand, but

I want her to do this for her own sake, not mine. A week later, because she is reading Amanda Palmer's book The Art of Asking, she decides that she will also be a street performer. Her idea is to have a bowl with runic fortunes on slips of paper, along with a few that mean she will give the person a flower or small present. She will distribute these as though she is a mechanical fortuneteller. I ask where she imagines she is doing this. She describes how she will hit up the lunch crowd in Rhinebeck when I am at work.

She thanks me for being supportive of this idea and I ask how I have explicitly supported it. I have been curious about it, mostly testing the edges for structural flaws, but I have yet to give it my full support.

"But I might have spending money then," she argues, although I haven't said anything to provoke this. She has planned for a debate and she will have it even if I require prompting to pick up my part.

"You could just get a real job for that," I remind her, as she wants me to.

"I don't think anyone would hire me."

I can see her perspective. An entry for "Farmer and Street Performer" on a resume wouldn't astound me if I were hiring for middle management.

Until she thanks me for my support, it doesn't fully occur to me that I am presumed supportive by my silence. I do see issues. People are abusive toward street performers at worst. Usually, buskers are simply ignored. I imagine Amber toiling all day in front of a restaurant and pulling in no more than a couple of dollars. Even in the bits of The Art of Asking I have glimpsed over her shoulder, Amanda Palmer talks of people taking money out of her hat or altogether stealing it, recovered only because one of her friends chased after the thief. This is less likely in Rhinebeck, but not outside the realm of possibility. I offer to play bodyguard on some of Ambers sessions, writing at a small remove while she sits very still, but I am not comfortable with this new hitch in Amber's plans.

"Do you think I will actually do this?" she asks.

"Why would you say it if you didn't want to?" I ask. "I don't know why you ask me except that you want me to tell you the truth: I think you will try it. I don't know that it will be worth your time and resources, but you will likely buy the needed accessories and give it a shot."

In short order, she has read a dozen articles about busking, can recite what other people have done wrong ("Most people fail because they stop performing once they have enough money to get food or pay their rent") and can identify the handful of successes, prominently including Amanda Palmer. However, asking for money on Boston streets is more lucrative than giving fortunes in Rhinebeck.

At twenty-six - Amber's age - I had my Master's degree and was trying very hard to make it as a teacher, because I saw that as the responsible thing to do. Employers rejected me because I looked too young and immature, because I was "super over-qualified," because I was the wrong gender and race. I was deeply in student loan debt and living with a woman going through her own attempts at occupational legitimacy. We struggled because we rarely had a stable platform from which to build our lives, unlike now.

I am grateful I can give Amber the opportunity to work rather than demand from necessity that she get a job she might not love. Still, a small part of me is jealous that she can float around, trying out time-intensive avocations, without having to stick long to any of them. The apartment floor is coated in dirt from the seedlings she has been nourishing indoors since December, but now she will also be a fortune-telling machine and staff spinner. I cannot deny that she puts in a lot of effort-she can have a Puritan work ethic when pressed-but she doesn't usually see any results beyond Bard students stealing her produce and, I imagine, the money out of her hat.

Yet, at its core, is my writing much better? Factoring in costs (web hosting while I perfected my written voice, supplies, gas to events, copies of my work), I am likely paying myself pennies per hours of effort, and that is only because I have an annual convention and a library willing to pay me to talk and encourage on a regular basis. On only the strength of my written work, I am not positive I am even earning a penny an hour. The only consolation might be the nuggets of writing I get done while working day jobs. If only very technically, I am being paid to write then. I more than understand devoting oneself to something that may always be a financial loss. I can track and know there are fewer than five hundred print or purchased copies of my work in the world. There are maybe nine hundred more that were the result of free days on Amazon, files that may sit unread on Kindles worldwide. Amber has never begrudged my need to sit in the dark and shape little visited world, so why would I speak against her growing produce in the noon sun?

Doesn't Amber deserve that opportunity to discover her talent and passion as I have? Yes, she has more time in which to do it. Yes, she doesn't focus much energy in finding a job that pays her, but she hardly needs to. I have worked long, anxiety-filled hours from a sense of obligation to my partner. I have been the poor one despite twelve hours a day of work. I have walked the razor edge between poverty and independence. I have burdened crisis hotlines because I could not measure up to expectations. Is the purpose of my professional success not that I can liberate the woman I love from the crevasse where I lost years? Lao Tzu has a quote in The Art of War to the effect that "I make war so my children can make math and science so their children can make art and poetry." Let her make art because I have worked for it. Aside from paying for her own movies and dinners out-or at least allowing me the privilege to pay for her rather than the presumption I will-she has few bills.

Though I would like her to build her skills, most of these are artistic or agricultural. My feeling is that anything at which I work as hard as she does had better have a check attached. I have been in the position of "helping out a friend" with my labor, which only resulted in hours wasted when the company scrapped the project. It isn't even about the money but the validation that my time did not go unappreciated. Amber's motivations are different, though I am certain she would prefer a paycheck to jerks on Tumblr covering her artwork with their logos.

Soon after the busking conversation, because my mother bought praying mantis egg sacs without realizing they are cannibals, Amber begins considering how she will raise insects and if there is money to be made at this pursuit beyond deterring pests from eating her plants while she gives fortunes. Within days, she has a background in the various kinds of mantises and has ordered insects for her "babies" to eat.

Soon in Xenology: More timely entries?

last watched: Being Human
reading: Transcendence
listening: Sia

Bad Brain | 2015 | Lowercase T

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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