When You Live in the Local Economy, Musicians Are Just People (And Cyndi Lauper Is Coming to Dinner)

After getting mad at her daughter for handing hard earned money to a street performer, "Radical Homemaker" Shannon Hayes considers what musicians bring to the local economy.

“Can we invite Cyndi Lauper over for dinner?” Ula asks.

Occasionally, my children’s dim understanding of reality surprises me. I am standing in the kitchen, searing pieces of beef before flicking them in the slow cooker to make a stew for Saturday at the market. She will be accompanying me, even though the forecast is for rain.

Ula valued the music as much as she valued her own labor.

Usually, she and her sister are happy to spend market days home on the farm with their grandparents, helping with chores, baking when the weather is foul, or swimming or fishing when the days are warm. But I have a suspicion that they have decided to pay more attention to market days this year. They are now in business for themselves. They have a babysitting business, a dog biscuit enterprise, and Ula is marketing her own line of greeting cards. They are pooling their funds in a vacation jar, which is already bursting with $1,300 from their efforts over the last eight months.

It is supposed to be my job to manage their sales at the farmers market. But when I came home the first week and had no greeting card or dog biscuit figures to report, I think they may have held a private shareholders’ meeting to discuss the problem. Ula, the ace saleswoman, has since decided to accompany me to help boost business. When babysitting gigs come up, Saoirse will hold down the fort, caring for their charge at the farm.

So I already feel as though I am on some sort of probation when Ula asks to invite Cyndi over for dinner. I don’t like repeatedly being a disappointment to my children.

“No,” I tell her flatly. “I’m not inviting Cyndi Lauper over for dinner.”

“Because the house is so messy?”

“Actually, we don’t know her.”

Occasionally, her mother’s dim understanding of reality surprises Ula. I see her shake her head to herself. She has no response for me.

The next day at the market, business begins to pick up. Ula perches on a stool behind the booth, greeting people with a wide smile.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

“I was looking for some chopped meat,” one customer says.

“Well that’s over here.” She points to the spot in the booth where we display the ground beef. “But we also sell dog biscuits, and I made them myself.”

And she gets a sale.

Before noon, she’s sold two packs of greeting cards and her entire stock of dog biscuits. In light of her hard work (and in the interest of getting her out of my hair for a while), I let her take a little of her earnings and put it in her pocket. She charges out of the booth, ready to feed the local economy. I am busy selling pork roasts and chickens, so I don’t pay much attention.

The crowd is thick just after 12 o’clock. The rain must have led people to sleep in, and they are coming into the market later than usual. I barely notice the guitar player who has begun strumming down in the pavilion. One of my customers gestures down to the scene.

“Is that your daughter down there dancing?”

I don’t even look up. “Probably,” I say, keeping my attention focused on tallying sales. I’m grateful for the live music. It is the perfect distraction for my Ula. Otherwise, now that she’s sold out of product, she’ll keep pestering me to buy sweets.

A little while later, there is a break in the crush, and I am restocking the table. Ula comes running up to me.

“Mommy! Mommy! Did you hear the music down there? It’s great! I took all my money and I gave it to the other kids who were listening, so they could give it to the guitar player!”

Now she had my attention. “You did what?”

My girls regard musicians as part of our community and local economy, as a source for energy to dance through life.

“I gave it to the other kids.”

“You just gave it to kids you didn’t know?”

“Yeah. I gave it to them so they could pay the guitar player.” Another customer comes up to buy eggs.

“Ula! You can’t do that!” My voice is a sharp hiss, my eyes fierce with that “mom glare”the one that is intended to restore order at times when I have to behave myself in front of the outside world.

Her eyes grow wide when she sees my disappointment in her. She stammers a bit. “I, I, I thought the kids should pay for the music.” I see little tears in the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mommy!”

I feel a sudden weight in my stomach. I am not handling this correctly. I’m not sure what to say. As is often the case, Ula has once more caught me off guard with unforeseen challenges to my parenting policy. I know I have done something wrong, but another customer is approaching and I have no time to think things through. At a total loss, I throw my arms around her and kiss her cheek, then whisper, “You are loving and generous. You are not a bad person. We’ll talk about this later.”

I am thinking all the following week that I need to teach Ula more skills about controlling her impulses, about planning her spending, about understanding how hard she has worked for her dollars, and the importance of saving them. But I don’t find time to discuss it.

The next weekend, an accordion player, fiddler and saxophonist come to the market. Saoirse joins her sister on the sales force. After they’ve moved sufficient product, I see both of them out on the lawn, twirling and twisting to the music. Knowing that I had a problem with her handing dollars over to perfect strangers, Ula tosses half her money into the accordion case. She hands the other half to Saoirse, who happily throws it in. This time, I say nothing.

This past week, my friend Lisa, a fellow homeschooling mom, comes for lunch. Our girls run and play outside, and somehow our mommy conversation turns to celebrity worship, our culture’s tendency to appoint rock stars, movie stars, and teen idols to incite infatuation among American youth … to get them to pine for the fame and fortune that will be allotted to so few.

“Saoirse and Ula have never really known about that,” I observe. “There are lots of local musicians around, and they just know them.” I gave it some more thought. “I mean, they love what they do, they love going out to hear them play. But they don’t think of them as demigods or anything.”

Lisa leans forward. “You mean, they see them as ordinary, hard-working people, like everyone else.”

Her comment stays with me throughout the day after she has left. My mind keeps flitting back to the scene on Ula’s first day at the farmers market. Ula had worked hard. She had made greeting cards. She had made dog biscuits. She had mustered her courage and talked to potential customers about her product. She had made sales. And down in the pavilion, there was a musican, bringing music to the market, filling our community space with joyful, dancing children.

That musician worked hard. For every three-minute song he played, he had to invest a lifetime in lessons and practice.

If Cyndi works hard to put out good music, shouldn’t she be rewarded with a  home-cooked meal, straight from the farm?

In farm business accounting, we learn about calculating “return to labor.” Farmers raise products, keep track of their costs, and, if they market their products directly to consumers, they determine their prices. Any profit is considered a “return to labor”—the actual payment we see for the time invested.

Depending on the enterprise, we see anywhere from $2 to $10 per hour. And as a vociferous advocate for the rights of farmers to earn a fair wage, I never hesitate to share those shockingly low figures.

But what is the return to labor for ordinary, non-celebrity musicians? On that day at the market, did they make anything more for their efforts than the money my seven-year-old was sending into their cases?

My friend Lisa was right. Ula saw the musicians as hard-working people. Just like herself. And she sent her cash, that representation of her own life energy, into their instrument cases. Ula valued the music as much as she valued her own labor. It was as important to her as any other locally made product on offer at that market.

Local music and arts—the documentation of the culture, history, and struggles in our own backyards—have tremendous value to my children. It celebrates their place in this world. It does not drive them to pine for stardom. Instead, it brings them closer to home. And rather than seeing musicians as separate from themselves, Saoirse and Ula regard them as part of our community and our local economy, as a source for their energy to dance through life.

Thus, I suppose it is only natural for Ula to want to invite Cyndi Lauper over for dinner. It is true that we’ve never met her, and that we only have her albums, but since other musicians work hard and perform at the farmers market, at the library, in our local church hall, or out in the park, Cyndi must do the same, right? And if Cyndi works hard to put out good music, shouldn’t she be rewarded with a good home-cooked meal, straight from the farm? It only seems fair.

This week, in preparation for the market, I sit down with Ula and the money jar. I point to the wadded up bills pressing against the glass. “Ok, Ula. This money stays in the jar. It is your savings. But this,” I pull out a stack of ones and count them into her hand, “is for the market.”

I have learned that I am not always the best arbiter of her pecuniary decisions. “Spend it on whatever you like. When it’s gone, it is gone. But it is your choice. If you want to give it to kids to pay the musicians, that’s fine.”

“But you said I shouldn’t do that.”

“I was wrong. You were doing something important, and I didn’t understand.”

She smiles and jumps up and down with pleasure, relieved that my dim understanding has brightened somewhat. I suppose it is only a matter of time before she broaches the subject of fixing supper for Cyndi once more. Because now, hopefully, I’ll understand her view on the matter. Every musician needs to eat.

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