To the host:
As a young person, it is hard to find role models and peers who enjoy working hard... doing good work. In trying to be an aware, fit, and wholesome individual, it seems I only identify with old people. What do you suggest?
You're so right, that the pleasure of work is crucial to a healthy life, but surely you know classmates who love their schoolwork, whether its math or history or writing or music, and that's where it all begins. In any school, there are the comedians and the hipsters, the joiners, the fluffheads, who make a point of sloughing off work, who take their identity from not doing well, and then there are us nerds who dig down into the material and want to do well, not to win approval but because the work makes them feel whole. Marge Piercy wrote a poem, "To Be Of Use," in which she said:
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
You can learn a lot from old people but the hard work needs to be done by your generation, Jenna, and I wish you well. Find some strivers your age and talk about the work you want to do in your life and look for people engaged in that work and see if they'll take you on. Be wary of fields in which there is rigid hierarchy, look for fields in which people of many different competencies are accepted as equals, in which everyone pulls together. And good luck.
My granddaughter is a freshman in college. What advice does a grandmother who has made more mistakes than you can name give to her? She's bright, talented, her own person and so excited. Perhaps she needs to go where she's never been without advice from me. What do you think?
Take care of yourself.
What would be good for your granddaughter is an older, wiser, familiar soul (you) to whom she can speak freely and tell the truth and know that you respect her independence. A benevolent listener who will offer advice if asked but who will not pry and will not tattle, except in extreme circumstances. So make plans to drive to her town and take her out to dinner. A college kid can always use a free meal. Skip the advice. Tell her about the dumbest thing you did when you were her age, or the Five Dumbest Things. Have a good talk. Make her laugh. Get yourself a motel room and ask if you can come to a class with her. She'll be impressed that you take an interest. And you'll get to take vicarious pleasure in her adventures in the world. Don't discuss her with her parents except to stick up for her when they rag on her, as parents are wont to do. You're her grandmother. Entirely different job.
To the Host:
I am 35, and used to listen to the show when I was driving semi-truck. The music brightened my day, and reminded me how important it is to keep playing and writing my own music. What advice would you have for a young man trying to dedicate his life to his music and present himself to the world?
Newman Lake, WA
Thirty-five is not so young in the music world, Steven, and I'm sure you know that. Eighteen is young, twenty-two is young, and thirty-five is sort of a gray area. My advice is to focus on the craft of performing, developing your musical craft, and put your original music on the shelf for a little while. Try playing music that people want to dance to, or hear in the background as they eat their dinners, or that has ceremonial weight (weddings, funerals), or that you could play in a public place and make people smile as they pass by. Music that will lift up the lonely. There are a lot of lonely people in the world and music can be therapeutic for them and right there is a big vocation. Think of people at the beginning and end of the life cycle, a roomful of 2nd graders squirming in their seats, a roomful of elderly in wheelchairs, and think what you could give them in 15 minutes that would brighten their day. That's a huge service and an enormous challenge. And those people are available for music. They need it, unlike most people in the middle years who are ferociously busy, distracted, hard to reach. At the age of 35, a person has lost some of that youthful ambition and drive to excel, but he has not lost the need to Be Useful.