Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Human Freshness Dating

I was one of the busier NYC freelance trombonists in the 1990's, playing and recording regularly with a couple dozen bands, plus a wide circle of colleagues who'd call me for this or that. There was also a still wider circle of casual connections - near-strangers who'd once taken my business card and who might at any time call out of the blue. This is how freelancers cobble together a living.

I knew it all didn't run on its own momentum. I needed to be out there playing constantly to maintain old connections and to forge new ones. But I'd circulated so widely that I assumed there was some buffer; that at least some interest would persist even if I wasn't beating the bushes.

Then Chowhound launched, quickly exploding in popularity. It never really stopped exploding, so I spent a decade trying to manage a tidal wave, with no time for music, much less networking. My music career slipped away from me.

At no point did I announce I'd quit. I didn't have time to quit! I just stopped returning calls. I figured offers would still drizzle in for a year or so, then gradually thin. With my massive network of contacts, I'd still get calls for busy nights like New Year's Eve, as distant associates, desperate to fill gaps, worked down their lists to me. A fine mist of offers would waft my way for years.

But, as it turned out, within two months my phone went completely dead. The "fine mist" thereafter added up to maybe three calls, total. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.

Moving ahead through the Chowhound years, I was constantly interviewed and profiled by major media, fielding hundreds of media requests per year. I tried my damnedest to be entertaining, and came to be known as a reliable source for amusing commentary.

Finally, I finished my mandatory term with CNET, which had bought Chowhound, and ran for the hills. I didn't announce retirement from the food world (though I did begin directing my attention to other realms). And I don't think I lost any drollness. So I figured even if I wasn't helming Chowhound, I'd occasionally be called for a quote, or invited back to some of the dozen or so public radio programs where I was considered a "friend of the show". There'd be a trail-off, but it would be years before it all dried up.

Nope. There were very few calls (I ignored most, being tired of acting the part of the whacky, food-crazy Chowhound), and, within two months, my phone went dead. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.

It was revelatory to experience this twice, in different realms. If it had happened only once, I'd have taken it personally. But seeing it twice showed me that this is a natural process and that it's entirely impersonal.

Whatever slot you fill in this life, other people focus on the slot you occupy rather than on you, the occupier. Very little in this world is personal, including the most personal relationships.

If you feel you've reached some enduring position, you ought to keep firmly in mind that it's not about you. It's never been about you. The essential message of life on Earth is: it all churns. You will be replaced...quickly. And thank goodness for that! Irreplaceability would be tragic in a mortal world.

This isn't a harsh reality - unless you were laboring under delusions to the contrary. It's just a reminder that we're all here to engage in a vast, endlessly morphing collaborative art project. So we may as well wear our roles lightly.

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