Would you call yourself a maverick?
Published: April 1, 2002
If there is a tradition of non-conformity, then is someone a conformist who personally maintains the non-conformist tradition?
There was a serious question as I graduated from college. Could I continue to be as I was (already a polished non-conformist as well as a skilled musician who didn't fit comfortably into any pre-existing box) or would I have to get a real job, a real life, a real necktie, etc? As a Princeton graduate, it would have been absurdly easy to join a bank or a brokerage firm. Perhaps I could have found some sort of habitable Ivesian locale in corporate America. But it seemed like a last resort, the thing to do only when all else failed. It offered survival, but nothing else I wanted.
How little did I care about money? Once I found a challenging job where I could get paid a tiny amount, I chose to adjust my life to fit that amount rather than to give up the interesting work. I lived on a budget comparable to Thoreau at Walden for about three times as long.
What I got in return was artistic freedom. I got to play a lot of music, to write a lot of music, to discover a whole musical civilization in the instruments that can be built out of the stuff other people throw away.
I suppose I fit the definition of maverick as well as anybody. It mostly comes from making decisions based on what I wanted to do, such as that one and then accepting, embracing, and using the results to whatever extent is possible. My life became as much about finding wonderful things to do musically. It seems inevitable that I would turn to building musical instruments out of trash. The economics are right. The possibility of heading into uncharted artistic terrain is right. Of course this life has limits, but all lives have limits, just different ones.
The strange part is that, at some point, I realized my real job was just to keep doing what I was doing for as long as I could. My life itself was a kind of art piece. It is an example to help others evaluate their own lives. Maybe I've made some stuff along the way that people can think about and smile. Maybe I've made as much of a difference as the ant who walked all the way around the walls of the city of Ur 4286 years ago. This is really too cosmic to worry about.
It always struck me that the art facilitators—the grant givers, performance space controllers, and assorted muck-a-mucks had their own agenda (how could they not?). All I do is run a little store (even if the whole thing is inside my head the IRS thinks it is a store—you wanna argue with them?) full of musical stuff (compositions mostly but also a diverse hoard of musical instruments and the knowledge of how to both build and use these tools) that the facilitators can shop in. Occasionally they find something useful in my store but often they don't. Some merchants would try and fill the store with stuff the facilitators would buy. But I don't want to try to get inside somebody else's head. I'd rather fill the store with stuff that I think is interesting and hope that other people also find it interesting. At least this way I know I can be consistent.
Since my little store never had any money, there was never an advertising budget. The only way I could let people know I even had such an enterprise was by making stuff that people would remember and talk about. That's a little bit of a lie. I had enough money to eat as much ice cream as I wanted to and to take long backpacking trips frequently enough so that I could pretend I was only slightly insane the rest of the time. I just didn't have enough money to do anything else. I wasn't going to risk either of these to advertise instead.
At one point, I was offered money if I would just use the money to make the store more businesslike. What that really meant was that I would need to spend much more time making the store more like other stores. Since I already knew that the store could only succeed if it was full of interesting stuff, really different stuff, it wasn't much of a temptation. One course of action depended on an external reference I didn't understand (and knew I never really would), the other just depended on following my instincts about what was interesting.
It seems kind of weird that a society that teaches maxims like "know thyself!" finds it strange when someone attempts to fashion a life using that knowledge.