Rethinking “Workaholism”

Working | Playing

Recently, Lauren wrote a really great piece on “The Balance Matrix” – a struggle many of us share, and something I’ve been working hard on my whole professional life. Reading it made me start to re-examine some of my childhood experience.

My parents were (are now really, despite being at least nominally semi-retired) workaholics – they worked, really, all the time. They got up early, went to work, came home, ate food, went back to work. I went to bed and still they’d work. They worked on weekends. They travelled for work. They worked when they travelled. Both my parents are phenomenally successful, and leaders in their respective fields – but boy did they ever work hard to get there.

At the back of our house was a sort of solarium, the sun room we called it. My dad, mostly, worked there. We had a glass-topped table and he would sit at, idly nibbling at the eraser of a yellow HB pencil or a gently pinching his lower lip between his thumb & fingers. He’d be hunched – either forwards, leaning over the table, or back, his right leg cross over his left. In either case, most of the time there’d be several piles of printed documents – journals, study results, his own data – spread over the table. To one side would be his dictaphone. But his focus was always on a lined yellow pad of paper. He’d furiously write away on that, turn a page. He never seemed to go back – he’d just write. I suspect he was constantly writing in his head prior. When he was satisfied, he’d dictate what he wanted to say and someone in the dictation pool at the hospital would later type it up. In more recent times, of course, much of  this would be replaced by his laptop. But not the yellow-lined pad of paper, nor the alternately leaning hunch.

My mother, by contrast, always hid herself away to work. Once my sister moved out, she took over her room and that became her office where she would while away the night, busy writing, researching, thinking, quietly muttering to herself. As a teenager, many a night would I carefully sneak home in the dead of night only to discover that my mum was still up working. Some of that may have been parental worry about her wayward young son, but she’d be up that late nights I was home too.

What’s curious is that although my father worked in a public spot, his work was much more mysterious to me than Mum’s – she would think out loud, talk about her work with us all – I suspect as much to help formulate her own thoughts as to share – while Dad was simply quietly efficient, back there in the sun room.

I swore, as I got older, that I would never be like them. I hated that they always worked, and I thought it a terrible life that I wanted nothing to do with. I loved the idea of indolent evenings spent with my family playing, sharing, living.

But a fun thing happened on the way to the coliseum….

I discovered that I have incredible work ethic – like my parents. I discovered that I too prefer to work in long, straight, deeply-focussed bouts – like my parents. I discovered that I too have immense ambition and drive to succeed – like my parents. I discovered that I too love what I do, and it’s not really work when you love it that much – like my parents.

But I still, even when I want to – try really hard to not bring work home, to not work evenings, to stop and truly experience my own children’s youth. And so I don’t work at home in the evenings. Liam, now in grade 3, is starting to have regular homework – somewhere between 30 & 60 minutes worth 3 days a week. And you know what? it’s a struggle to get him to do it. My sister, who shares many work traits with myself and my parents, doesn’t work at home either. And you know what? it’s a struggle for her to get her kids to do their homework. But, despite all my slacker tendencies at school (sat at the back, never took notes, etc), I always did my homework. It’s just what we did at home – we did our work.

And so, now, I look back at my parents long work hours and don’t just see workaholics chained to their desks. I see amazing parents who not only wanted to succeed, but wanted their children to succeed and modelled how to manage time, how to prioritize work – and most importantly, how to work. I see parents who showed their children how to have a career you love and children you love and work hard at both.

I don’t want to struggle to convince Liam to do his homework and whether he needs to do it – homework’s one of those stupid things that you have to do. But how fair is it, in his eyes, that he has to come home from a long, hard day at school and then do more work when both his parents are sitting on the couch, relaxing? He has no model to indicate that working at home is a normal part of life. And while yeah, I wish schools didn’t give homework and I doubt the utility of it, it happens. And so now, as we embark on this 8+year journey of nightly homework, I think back to how well my parents modelled getting stuff done at home and begin to think they weren’t, perhaps, just insane workaholics.

Perhaps, just maybe, they were teaching me something. And I could teach my children that too. And so, when my kids have homework, maybe I should have homework too. I’m a small business owner. There’s no shortage of things to do. I don’t want to spend my evening doing them, but then, Liam doesn’t want to spend his evening doing homework either. So maybe we should treat this as something of a team sport. We’re all in this together.

The CD is 30

CD Shelving
CD Shelving by Tingy, on Flickr

For someone for whom music has always been central to my life, I was very late to the CD party. I grew up in a house where there was a communal stereo in the living room. First, custom built shelves of old bricks & boards, LPs stored underneath, a row of cassettes, then the amp & cassette deck. The record player held the place of privilege, alone atop the unit. My parents had a sizeable record collection: dozens of folk & singer-songwriter era records from their youth, along with an even larger, but to me, largely invisible classical collection. the LSO’s recording of Brahms was only an obstacle to find the Cat Stevens or the Beatles.

Upstairs, in their rooms, my much older siblings had their own music collections. MY brother had an even larger collection of LPs, stored in milk crates. His collection was largely contemporary, and for the era, pretty outside the mainstream. When he wasn’t home, or I thought I wouldn’t get caught, I would sneak up into his room and just gaze at the albums. Slip Diamond Dogs out of the sleeve, careful not to rip the paper liner, cringing as inevitably the corners would get folded. He had a small lint-brush kept atop the milk-crates that was to be used solely to clean his records. I cleaned so many records that I dare not actually play, hearing in my head the music held within them. My sister, to my memory, did not have records in her room. She had posters and cassettes, and it was all much scarier and I left it more or less alone. Teenage boys can be angry towards their little brothers. Teenage girls fiercely protective of their space are downright scary.

The CD already existed during all of this time – but it was a non-factor in my family’s life until it had been out for nearly a decade, around 1990 or so. Somewhen after my siblings left for university, when I was 12 or 13, our house was broken into. The record player, visible on its pedestal from the porch outside, was a victim of that burglary, along with any number of records from below. When the stereo system was replaced, my parents bought a CD player. My mother was a fan of the Concerto de Aranjuez, and that LP went missing during the robbery. For her birthday I bought my first ever CDs, 2 different renditions of the Rodrigo’s masterpiece, for my mother.

Even though there was a CD player in the house, I continued to buy tapes for myself for entirely practical reasons: When my brother left home I relocated my bedroom upstairs into what used to be his, and in that room I had a double-tape-teck-radio blaster. It was terrible, essentially monaural because the right-side speaker was constantly shorting out and I loved it. Late sunday nights I would stay up in bed, desperately hoping to keep the signal so I could listen, & record, the Grateful Dead Hour radio show. I bought 120-minute tapes so I could record the entire hour on 1 side of the cassette. I would carefully label each episode, and stored it in a pleather-covered cassette-holder briefcase. I would also endlessly make mixtapes. Some were themed (songs starting with the letter I, spelling the recipient’s name), some were educational (all songs produced by Rick Rubin), some were mercenary (I would give and sell and trade tapes to friends). But every single one of those tapes was made on my crappy double-cassette-deck, painstakingly lined up to optimize each side of the cassette. CDs just didn’t lend themselves to easy trading. They were artifacts of consumption, not catalysts for creation like cassettes were.

The first CD I bought for myself was (keeping with my love of the mix-tape & live music), a bootleg 3-cd set  of a live Led Zeppelin show from Montreux that sounded terrible, contained mistakes but I thought was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I bought it at a market in Paris while I was on exchange there. I didn’t have a portable CD player with me in France. I didn’t have a CD player of my own at home, but I wanted that set.

It wasn’t until a year later that I got my first CD player, in 1994: for my birthday, my parents gave me a stereo amp. I hooked it up to the 4-ft speakers my brother had left behind nearly 5 years prior in my room. All it could do was play the radio. I was both thrilled, and crushed, that it sounded so good and I couldn’t play my music on it. But that christmas, 2 months later, came part 2: the double-cassette-deck component, and, a cd-player. It all came to university with me, including the way-too-large-for-my-dorm-room speakers, and I loved it. I had acquired a bunch of CDs & quality headphones that I bought second-hand from the owner of a nearby headshop. I still use those headphones today, but nothing else remains from that stereo. Not even the CDs.

For having started collecting CDs fairly late, I made up for it quickly. I bought dozens of magazines that came with sample-music CDs. It was a fantastic way to learn of European techno from Toronto, or music from the New York folk scene. Nearly every spare dollar I had went to buying music. When I moved in with Leah some 8 years later I owned just north of 1000 CDs. I spent hours re-arranging my CDs – if you’ve seen or read High Fidelity, you’ll recognize the obsessive levels of re-arranging I would do. It wasn’t until I realized that Leah didn’t understand how to browse my ordered by alphabetical by producer/songwriter that I gave up on all that & started grouping roughly by genre, then alphabetically. It’s amazing that less than 8 years after that, not only could I no longer arrange my albums by producer, I don’t even know who produced the vast majority of albums I own: it seemed so vitally important to know then, so trivial now.

In 1996 I started working at the student computer help desk at UBC. A manager there, named Jeffrey, had a SCSI CD burner. For work purposes, of course – legitimate duplication of software to hand out to UBC employees (trumpet winsock, anyone?). But late one evening he showed me that he could also duplicate CDs. Create an exact digital duplicate. No loss in fidelity like as what happened to my mixtapes. I was hooked. I couldn’t begin to afford to buy a new CD-R, but when UBC upgraded his machine, they let me buy his old CD-R for a couple hundred bucks. It was single-speed, but It. Was. Awesome. Everyone I knew and loved received a custom-made mixed CD for christmas that holiday. I printed my own album covers & liner notes on my brand-new bubble-jet printer. I asked my girlfriend of the time to hand-write on the discs because my handwriting is terrible.

I experimented with buying CDs, duplicating them and then returning them to stores, but I discovered that I missed the liner notes, so that only happened a few times. I also discovered that because there was no “skill” in making mix CDs that I didn’t enjoy it as much as making mix tapes. The fade-control, time-limits could all be effortlessly predicted through the software. I played with DJ mixes, but was terrible at it, and the software for making such things was very bare-bones back then.

I last bought a CD about 4 years ago. I started a project to digitize my CD collection, and now buy all my music digitally. I don’t miss the format at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. I miss the thrill of examining the packaging, reading the liner notes terribly. There is nothing quite like rushing home with a new purchase, peeling it out of the plastic wrapping, putting it on the stereo and lying there, headphones on to really hear the album, and browsing the liner notes. You can’t do that with digital music. There’s nothing to hold. When my toddler is old enough that I don’t have to worry about him breaking things, I’ll likely buy another turn-table and buy some favourites on vinyl, but not another CD.

It was a good run.


London Calling

London Calling
London Calling

I don’t know if I stole it from my brother, or inherited it when he outgrew it or if it was a gift. But when I was a kid, I had a tshirt. I ratty, thread-bare tshirt that had the iconic album cover image from The Clash’s London Calling on the front. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who The Clash were or what they sounded like but I knew I loved that shirt. The abandonment of smashing a guitar spoke to me. I was a reserved, ultra-shy kid. I could never in a million years imagine doing such a thing. But I loved it.

Growing up, music was important in my family. We had a quality stereo, with good speakers. It sat in 1 corner of the living room. The unit was home-built, cobbled together from some bricks and wood boards. The bottom shelf was storage for our LPs. The second shelf held the amplifier and the cassette-player. There was  half-shelf on top of that, which was cassette storage on the left. & the crown jewel: the record player. I’ve no idea if it was a particularly good player, but the sound that came from those speakers when listening to an LP was sublime. We had a stiff-cushioned couch that was perfect for building forts (or a tunnel) out of. I would put on an album – the Beatles, or Cat Stevens or something else from my parents’ collection, which tended heavily to singer-songwriterly & classical, and sit in the semi-darkness of my fort, dreaming of the wide world outside my windows, listening to the record player, bursting forth from my fort when it was time to change sides of the LP. It my memories these were always solo pursuits, but I think the truth is more that I was so lost in my world that I was oblivious to the rest of my family around me.

Much as the tshirt that preceded it, I don’t know if I stole the album from my brother’s collection, or if it was a gift – I’m certain I didn’t buy it. But it was the first gate-folded double-LP I can remember. There was some water damage, in the bottom-centre corner, and the cardboard had sponged out & torn slightly. The sleeve, yellowed & made brittle with age or use, of LP 1 had torn, and someone had taped it back together with cello tape. The album cover had that slightly musty smell of damp cardboard that I will eternally associate with good music. I’d pull the disc out of the sleeve carefully, so as to not further damage it – sleeves were always really important to me, despite their almost by-design replaceable nature. I’d lift the plastic lid up off the record player, situate the disc on the centre spindle, gently place the needle-arm at the start. Then always, always, turned it UP. The initial crackle and pop, and Oh, that opening riff. Snarling, choppy guitars howling scratchily out of the speakers. Then the surprisingly musical singing from Joe Strummer, London Calling. Heaven.

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to London Calling. I’m by no means a good guitarist but I can play every song straight through. I know every lyric. Our LP had a scratch in the middle of Death or Glory – the first “just another story” was never sung, just bounced over. I’ve since bought this album on Cassette, CD & ripped it to FLAC, but in my mind’s heart, these digital versions are what’s wrong, not the scratchy version on my album.

I don’t own a record player right now. The convenience of the digital library, accessible anywhere, instantly being able to play any tune is just too hard to compete against. But digital music doesn’t have the soul of an LP. They say scent-memory is particularly strong. And it’s true. For many of my favourite music from when I was a kid, I have an olfactory response of the musty smell of the cardboard LP covers they lived in, the hot-dust smell of a record that had been played on repeat for too long. Liam won’t have that. When he wants a song, he’ll find it on our digital library, on on YouTube. There’s an inconvenience in flipping through stacks of LPs, but there’s also a joy of browsing too – how often did I put on something entirely different because my fingers happened to pause on that LP while searching for another one all together?


Blast from the Past: Pencilneck Creations Site Mockup

At the turn of the century, I was finishing my degree & running my company as a sideline. Today, digging through my digital archives to find a file from that era, I found this: My photoshop mockup for the original Pencilneck Creations site (Pencilneck Software was born when I joined forces with Jeff. Given the nature of the company, we changed the company name slightly from ‘Creations’ to ‘Software’):

Pencilneck Creations
The remaining mockup from my original "corporate" site

Simple, very plain – this is definitely the style I liked at the time. Not that there was any fear of anyone confusing me with a designer. But looking at our current site (woefully out of date as it is), we’ve come a long way, baby.

Musical Nostalgia

It’s happened. I’m officially old. I’m looking about the contemporary musical landscape, and most bands are coming up short against the bands of my youth. I miss Grunge. Well, not really Grunge per se, but the ethos & certain bands. I miss the manic creativity and conflicted stardom of Nirvana. I miss Kurt Cobain’s anguished howls and menacing singing. I miss Pearl Jams us vs. them attitude. I’m happy they’ve found their bliss and are loving life and rocking out, but I’m bummed that Eddie Vedder doesn’t seem to mind being held in our debt anymore. The conflicted anger at rapt fans singing along while they worked out their twin demons of wanting the joyous communal experience, while rejecting the stardom that came with it made those early Pearl Jam shows fraught with Tension. I wish someone today could combine a snarl with beautiful melodies like Billy Corgan & the Smashing Pumpkins did. They mined that vein until there was nothing left. On the flipside of Smashing Pumpkins was Soundgarden, with Chris Cornell’s joyous wails lending weight to his otherwise tortured growl powering through most of the songs. I loved listening to the fem-rock (riotgrrl?) of Sleater Kinner, L7, Breeders. Who today has picked up the agro-rap-rock rants of Rage Against the Machine? Hell, even wannabes like Stone Temple Pilots had serious vocal chops.

Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder, From the Official Pearl Jam Flickr feed

The late 90s were rife with bands making millions performing radio-friendly imitations of their still-on-the-edge predecessors. Indie rock was a peppier response to that schlock. And while contemporary indie rock is vibrant, multi-hued collage, I haven’t heard bands in the past few years that so effortlessly pull out that directionless, generational anger as their early 90s predecessors. I love the ironic detachment of the Strokes, the dance rock revolution of Franz Ferdinand, the melodrama of Gnarls Barkley. I couldn’t be happier about the “new folk”, whether it’s the sweet, bluegrass tinge of Mumford & Sons or the freak-folk Devendra Banhart – but it’s not angst-rock.

I think a large part of what’s missing to me is that so many of these new bands just seem so fucking cool – like they’ve all got it figured out. They have a pose, a look. They know how to talk to the press, how to manage their media, how to deal. It may be an elaborate act, and they might not. They still say idiotic things, overdose, are stupid, but they tend to present well. I remember watching interviews on the New Music and these guys (and girls) just seemed so unaware of how to present themselves, and still tried to come up with real, hard-thought answers rather than already having a quip ready. It’s possible that their skin was crawling purely because of withdrawal, but I like to think it was more than the drugs. It was the mindset. It was the punk DIY ethos mixed with a genuine desire to affect change for the most part.

So while I continue to find new music I really dig, today, today I miss early 90s rock.

…just don’t get me started on the state of techno

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