Earlier this week a friend-of-friend very nearly died. My ex-bandmate Rob was playing with his new band Waxeater at a venue in Austin, TX when his bandmate Elliott was electrocuted on stage, presumably due to an ungrounded electrical supply. Fortunately a nurse in the audience was able to re-start his heart and after a week in an induced coma, it looks like he is going to be OK.
To the average person that would seem like a terrible way to go – not merely the electrocution part, which I think we can all agree is undesirable, but to die while playing in a dive bar with bands that few people will ever hear of or care about for what I can only assume was very little if any money. That's the crux of what an excellent writer and friend (who previously brought us the Ballad of Johnny D) argues in his thoughts about the incident. In short, he asks what possesses grown-ups to devote so much time to a creative pursuit like being in a band. Is it worth the strain touring puts on relationships? The inability to hold down a normal job? The constant financial hardships? The risk of being electrocuted in some dive bar or punk shithouse? To most of us it isn't apparent why anyone would put up with the relentless grind of going on the road for the privilege of…well, playing in front of a handful of drunks at a bar in Topeka, KS while the local cadre of scumbags plots a way to steal all of your equipment when you fall asleep at 7 AM on the puke-stained carpet of someone you barely know. It isn't glamorous.
DJ ultimately concludes that people do this to find a community of like-minded people; you'll only win a few hearts wherever you play, but they'll be worth it. They'll have your back. They'll hold benefits and fund-raisers when your uninsured ass ends up with a potentially fatal illness. They'll let you borrow when your shit breaks or gets stolen. They'll feed you and give you a place to sleep. They'll help you out when you're unemployed and the last dollar is gone. All of this is true in my experience (which admittedly is not as extensive as that of people like DJ or Rob).
That said, I have a different take on it. Since I'm no longer actively in a band, I'll use blogging and comedy as examples here. From a rational perspective I shouldn't do either. It could get me fired. It could give people who want to make my life difficult all the ammunition they'd ever need. It diverts time I could spend advancing my career (in theory) or enhancing relationships. The last thing that is going to help me with the necessities of life is to get on a stage or the interwebs and express myself voluminously and without a filter.
So why do I do it? Yes, both have introduced me to some interesting people. But I do it primarily for another reason. Academia is incredibly destructive to self-esteem. It is a continuous and near endless process of accepting rejection and hearing people tell you how much you suck. I've applied for 130 jobs over the last three years and been rejected from all of them. Journals have rejection rates exceeding 90% in most cases. It is very important for me to do something that does not result in complete failure and rejection. When I hear people laugh or see a post cross 50,000 hits it's a subtle reminder that not everything I do results in rejection.
Wilde said that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. It's a good observation, and in my opinion it's the best reason to do whatever it is we choose to do with our lives. You spend so much time on the job you hate, listening to the boss who treats you like shit, and wondering why you bother to get out of bed anymore. So if you want to spend your time writing the great American novel, building birdhouses, attending Star Trek conventions in animal-themed S&M gear, or touring the country in a van with a band no one has ever heard of to play before tiny audiences, so be it. There are always risks, ranging from simple embarrassment to bodily harm depending on the nature of your pursuits. Hell, having any pursuits at all is a risk. Why not get a second job or work harder at your first one instead of wasting your time telling jokes at the Comedy Pouch in Possum Ridge, AR or playing math rock at the 4th Street Vomit Bucket in the worst neighborhood in Newark? Well, not only are some things more important than being practical, but what could be more practical than doing whatever is necessary to make yourself feel like your life is worthwhile? It's OK to remind yourself that you're not quite as worthless as the world makes you feel, even if there are considerable risks and opportunity costs involved.