the kids table

Posted: January 11, 2011 in A Day in the Life, Artists and Creative

The food was amazing.  At least it was easy to imagine that it was.  You could smell it even as we pulled up to the house in the family wagon. We spilled out of the car with the grace of a wounded swan after our long trip on snowy roads.  There were six of us and the car was too small; our own interpretation of the clowns, a tiny car, and the big top.  My sister, two brothers, and I scurried across the snow to the front door, slipping and sliding.  The smallest by a mile, I always came in dead last.  The front door was opened.  Hugs and kisses were exchanged.  On to the first order of business, the bathroom.  Again, a race.  Again, last place.  Dang!  It had been a long trip.  As I rocked back and forth, waiting impatiently for my turn, I could smell the amazing aromas wafting out the kitchen, calling out to my rumbling stomach.  In this moment, I felt not unlike Odysseus, as his boat sailed past the luring song of the Sirens.  The Sirens had sought to lure Odysseus to imprisonment on their island and to ultimate death.  This, I suppose, is where the similarities end.  Odysseus was returning from war, on a mission to his rescue his wife and his kingdom from being overthrown.  I just had to pee and wash my hands so that I could eat.  Still, as my task felt no less noble, I lashed myself to the doorknob just in case.  OWW!  A good, solid punch in the arm was one way I always knew my brother really loved me.  And he really loved me.  A lot.  The bathroom, however, was now open for business, which made my future bruise more tolerable.  Close the door.  Lock it.  Aahhhh.  Noble mission indeed.  After a good hand washing (use soap, water on warm, sing Yankee Doodle), I threw open the door for the final leg of my mission.  I strode purposefully toward the dining room, my knees nearly buckling as I neared the end of my journey.  As I willed myself not to faint from hunger, I noticed something else emanating from the dining room.  Noise.  Talking.  Laughter.  People delighting in conversation.

As an 11-year old, conversation and laughter had begun to appeal greatly to me.  I was well into the years where idle play held less allure, and good, meaningful conversation was the game I sought.  I loved the stories and feeling the sense that I was being let in on the kind of humor reserved only for grown-ups.  That sense of inclusion was new for me, and with its newness came a realization that there were more interesting things in life than just play.  Just as child’s play was becoming a nuisance, “grown-up” conversation provided a new sense of me, of leaving behind childish things.  As I floated toward the soft, warm glow of the dining room, I savored with anticipation the splendid smells woven together with the laughter of grown-up conversation.  A few final steps allowed my imagination to paint a beautiful and unsophisticated scene:  a gleaming plate before me, steam rising from an abnormally large, golden turkey leg, a fluffy mountain of stuffing, a mashed potato volcano with gravy lava spilling over, deep red cranberries – Thanksgiving dinner, 11-year old style.  Between generous bites, I would say something witty and thought-provoking to the other adults at the table who, moments before my arrival, had switched their place cards in a childish contest to be near to me.  It didn’t matter that my mouth was obscenely full; they were hanging on every morsel of wisdom that proceeded from this prepubescent sage.  And laughter, lots of it!  Uncontrolled laughter!  They would lean in and fill my drink simply to be closer, perhaps to glean some extra syllable meant just for them.  Odysseus had returned home.  OUCH!  “You coming dipwad?” Again with the love.  I didn’t bother to waste a word of response on this mere peasant.  Better to save my insightful wit for the table prepared for me, I thought.  I reigned in my thoughts just in time to make my final approach through the clouds, touching down softly in one glorious, final step to the awaiting feast.

There are those moments in life when dream segues to reality and you’re knocked solidly to the ground; when  your wildest imagination did not remotely prepare you for what actually awaited you.   This was one of those moments.  For as I entered the dining chamber, there before me was such an unimagined reality in all its brilliant, very actual realness.  The kids table.  Seriously?  The kids table?!  Not awesome.  With too little time even to organize my fit, I was pushed into my seat.  “Sit down, sit down!”  Across the room, at the grown-up table, my grandfather began to pray.  I know this because I could see everyone’s eyes were closed.  I had opened my own to take in the scene.  Let’s see… much-younger cousins to my left and right, chair too small, knees hitting the table.  Yep.  The kids table.  Right where I had left it the year before.  And my brother.  From across the room, seated proudly at the grown-up table, my brother shot me a sing-songy “ha-ha” sort of look with sniper accuracy.  Wounded, my eyes darted pleadingly to my mother who, with a gentle shrug of her shoulders, gave me a look as if to say “sorry, honey, there wasn’t enough room for him at the kids table this year.”  Not enough room.

Twenty-nine years later, I still hate the kids table.  In fact, I’m not sure why there even has to be a kids table.  Only I’m no longer talking about the kids table of old, the one we all detest with a kind of burning, mutual hatred.  I’m talking of a more grown-up version, as irony would have it.  As a songwriter living in Franklin, I get to meet and know a lot of creative types.  Painters, photographers, writers, idea guys;  all sorts – and really good ones too.  And whatever your artistic medium, at some point or another you get a chance to know the kids table.

The kids table is that place in a field of pursuit reserved for the “amateurs”.  This is true of many arenas, but I have had greater opportunity to see it in the field of music and art, and in a much-amplified way.  In art, there is an unspoken, relatively simple caste system.  There are those inside the “industry”, and there are those outside.  This can end up feeling exactly like the kids table of days gone by.  You may have something to say but you’re going to have to wait your turn, if you ever get one.  For now, you should be content to float your artistic wisdom among your much-younger cousins with you at the kids table.  Surely they’ll be impressed.  Isn’t that how it feels sometimes?  Among those I’ve walked with for years now, I can answer that question with a definitive “yes”.  Only I don’t think it needs to be this way.

Many who have sat patiently at the kids table for years, and I include myself, have looked at the grown-up table with a bizarre mix of both longing and disdain.  We’ve all experienced those instances where we get to talk to one of the grown-up artists; those conversations that are cordial until the moment when the grown-up suspects that you’re about to ask for a place at the big table.  And we’ve all experienced a perceived “shun”, a banishment back to the kids table in a way that says that our ideas are not grown-up at all, and that our talent is still in adolescence.

It took a number of years before I began to look at this differently, however.  I remember when I first had the thought, “when did I give them permission to shun me?”  I remember the moment when I held my art up to the light and realized, “Hey!  My art is all grown up!”.  And it was true.  I had many, more accomplished artists telling me as well.  Not only my art, but more importantly my ideas.  So when, exactly, did I give someone permission to shun me?  After all these years, maybe they didn’t send me to the kids table.  Maybe I sent me to the kids table.

Don’t misunderstand, the industry-insider dynamic is very real.  There really are those who have learned to shun those whose art doesn’t match against whatever the current standard is.  There always will be.  But it’s not real.  The standard, that is.  It’s not real.  I mean, not really.  The artists at the grown up table are, in fact, really good artists.  But they’re performing their art to a made-up standard.  Some of them have even allowed their artistic abilities to dull over time, choosing to manufacture art against the current standard rather than create new art out of the true freedom that ought to accompany art in its purest form.  And while it is possible and can be very good to create true art in light of an applied standard, it shouldn’t be only about a standard; especially a single standard that up till now we’ve all assumed was handed down by God himself, but was in fact made up by people who decided to create an industry for art.  A good question to ask is “who gets to make up that standard?”.  An even better question is this:  what’s keeping you from making up your own standard?  Better still, what’s preventing you from taking what you see in those uninhibited moments of creativity, and presenting it to the world as a new standard?  I believe that uninhibited art is some of the best art, maybe THE best art.  What if you didn’t have to worry about creating a standard at all?  What if your job as an artist was simply to take what you see, translate it to your art form, and give it to the world?  Let the world decide if they want to make this a standard or not.  What if creating great art has nothing at all to do with a grown-up table or a kids table?

Here’s the good news.  The kids table is disappearing.  In an ever-shrinking world, there’s just not enough room for two tables anymore.  Art created for the sake of an industry is ever decreasing.  An end is coming quickly to the day when songwriters write songs simply because it’s time that so-and-so came out with another record.  If you’ve heard any of these records lately, you’ll understand why that’s true.  And they’re selling less and less.  These days, people across the globe are looking for something that is about more that just art for the sake of art.  They’re longing for art that has greater meaning, art with a purpose.  Borders and nationalities are no longer barriers.  So not surprisingly, internet-based media continues to be on the rise.  More artists are making a living by going it alone.  It’s easier than ever to find a fan base of 10,000 or more like-minded people across the planet who want to hear what you have to say.  Only they’re not going to buy your art if the only thing you have to offer them is art performed against some arbitrary standard.  The art that they’re going to buy and follow is the art that comes from that uninhibited place that resides in a room with no tables.  And as a result, I believe deeply that we’re going to see an artistic landscape emerging that is far more unified and diverse.  We already are.  This is what always happens when you get rid of the tables.

So what part will you play?  Will you keep trying to nudge your way into a seat at the diminishing grown-up table, year after year?  Have you noticed the number of grown-ups who are leaving the table and not coming back at all?  Whatever you do, I hope you remember this.  Only God has the authority to make you an artist, and He did.  It’s time for us all to stop behaving as though an industry, a well-known artist, or any other thing makes us the artists that we already are.  We are who we are, and it’s time to believe in who we are and offer it boldly to the world.  You have something to say and you have reason to be confident.  It’s time to create your own standard, then invite anyone at all in.  I believe that standard is freedom.  You are your own industry.  Made-up standards are the essence of the grown-up table.  They’re the essence of why there is a kids table.  And you can choose to sit there if you like.  But I prefer to stand and create in a place where there are no tables.  What about you?

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