Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lofty Thoughts/Summer Laborlore

It's been so long since I've posted that I couldn't even remember my password. I had to look it up in my folder of passwords, usernames, and answers to security questions, which, thank goodness, I was able to find wedged into an overflowing drawer of the messy desk that is nominally mine.

My time in Sweden was truly fantastic, and I'm sure that I'll have lots to write about, assuming I can endure until my little lovelies are back in school. If you're a stay-at-home parent by trade (or by default), perhaps you know what I mean.

This summer is better than previous ones, though, in that I have had some actual thoughts in my head, like air in an otherwise deflated balloon. However, when it comes to the point where I'm ready to tie it and hang it up for display, motherhood obliges me to let go--for just a second--and with a long, farty noise (which, if it wasn't purely metaphorical, would delight the little ones) my balloon/head shoots erratically around the office and lands flaccid and empty on the long-unvacuumed floor.

But if truth be told I did have the opportunity one morning this week to visit the Library of Congress to hear the keynote speaker at the Laborlore symposium: none other than my former colleague Nick Spitzer. His talk was called "In Katrina's Wake: The Building Trades in New Orleans."

Nick is, of course, the host and creator of the American Routes radio program, in which capacity he delves into the vernacular music of the U.S. To a great extent this music retains its links to roots music and to the people who combine night time and weekend music-making with ordinary day jobs. This has been the practice in New Orleans as well, going back at least a century, where the same largely Creole community that created jazz in response to the tightening talons of Jim Crow also built, ornamented, and maintained that beautiful city's homes and public buildings. Those New Orleans families still practice the building trades, having passed them down through the generations along with the music, which, though one may be led to believe otherwise, is not the drunken excess of libertines but rather a remarkable commentary and elaboration by the working people themselves on their city, their place within it, and their lives. Rebuilding New Orleans--body and soul--is about bringing these families back, letting them do their thing (actually, things) and insuring that the city continues to be a fertile place for people to work and play.

Because the music, the architecture, and other creative expressions come out of both work and play, of course. Work and play and life give meaning to each other. And if this seems a far-fetched idea, difficult to apply to one's own humdrum life and job, then let Nick be an example. His own career, even when I first knew him (way back when) as an agent of the government bureaucracy (!), has epitomized experimentation, creativity, play--as well as care for the nuts and bolts-- as clearly as Louis Armstrong's banjo player/plasterer Johnny St. Cyr, or any of those other gentlemen he spoke of at the symposium.

Nick can speak on any topic but when you get him going on something he really cares about, it's preaching. At the LOC, in front of an audience of colleagues and friends, Nick may have been preaching to the converted. But that's largely what preachers do, I suppose. In any case I sensed strongly that this particular crowd was both inspired and spurred to further action in the field of documenting and explicating labor lore.

How inspired I am to continue on with my summer labor is another issue altogether. In any case my audience is a captive one, even as I am captive to it. With two weeks still remaining, I'm going to fill up some balloons, of the literal variety. Up, up and away! Farty noises, ahoy!