Sunday, April 28, 2013

Work with Friends

This past fall, I spoke with a long-time acquaintance and the topic turned to his new a cappella group. The members lived in different parts of the country. The group rehearsed irregularly. He didn’t have any grand expectations when it came to touring or recording.

Bear in mind that this guy is a pretty prominent figure in the a cappella world. So why the modest new group?

“I wanted to spend time with my friends.”

Indeed, as the conversation rolled along, he explained how his career was all good, but it was important to him to keep in contact and collaborate with people he liked and with whom he shared roots.

In a way, I suppose I’ve been doing the same in my own corner of the a cappella world. No one asked me to start a blog about a cappella. And if I were to have asked, no one would have said I should start it with two of my best friends, each of whom have no more background in the field than I do. But we gave it a shot. My best friend and I co-founded the site. We only get to hang out a handful of times a year now, and inevitably, some of that time is spent with laptops open and Mountain Dew cans strewn in the space between us as we alternate between writing, talking shop, coding, and otherwise making this project happen. A couple years ago, another of our closest friends came on board to help us redesign the site and enhance any other number of visual aspects of what we’re putting out.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be more fun not to have business to discuss; to sit back and reminisce or talk about sports, or travel, or to quote the movies of our teenage years. (We do all that, just not as much as we might otherwise.) But I earnestly believe that one of the keys to the best friendships is finding people who want to talk about the same things you want to talk about, even if other people might find those topics off-putting. That’s not to devalue the people in my life with divergent interests (if one hadn’t dragged me along to her a cappella shows in the first place, I’d never have found that passion). But rather, if you can find a way to work with your friends that doesn’t feel like work because you all care--well, that’s a pretty cool position to be in.

Another example: the college newspaper.

At 17, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and wrote a recurring column for the local town paper. When I went off to college, I intended to leave my fledgling career in journalism behind. I figured I’d narrow my field of extracurriculars, and dedicate my writing time to more creative pursuits.

The problem is that I didn’t make many friends.

My freshman year roommate and I got along fine, but it was clear from the beginning that we were not destined to be great friends. I fell in with a group of girls who lived downstairs from my room, a relatively small percentage of whom I really liked and, to be fair, a small percentage of whom cared much for me.

My closest thing to a college best friend and I were having lunch in the Student Union one day and saw a copy of the weekly college newspaper sitting on the next table. She was an aspiring writer, too, and said we should go to a meeting.

That first meeting, the newspaper staff held a series of elections for vacant editor positions, complete with the candidates making speeches, the rest of the staff slinging questions at them, and then a deliberation period in which the candidates left the room and everyone talked behind their backs and came to a decision about who should get the position. An hour passed. Three election cycles transpired. Then a fourth keyed up.

“I don’t think that this is for us,” my friend said.

We both got up to leave. The news editor, a mountain of a man six inches taller than me and about twice my weight cut me off at the door. I didn’t know it then, but he was desperate for reporters--desperate enough to take a freshman aside and all but beg for help.

So, I picked up my first assignment.

My friend never came to another newspaper meeting, but I attended just about every one for the rest of the semester. At the end of the fall, the news editor graduated and one of his assistants took up his post. I stood up for my own election, for the vacated assistant news editor position and landed the job. That spring, my new editor said I should run for her spot for the next year while she moved up to editor in chief.

Sure enough, I ran and won another election. The last couple news cycles that spring, I hung around the newspaper office into the nitty gritty hours as Wednesday nights faded into Thursday mornings, heading home just before sunrise for a few hours of sleep before class.

Those late nights, I was ostensibly learning Adobe Pagemaker, copy editing conventions, and an archaic system of literally cutting and pasting text down on layout pages. But I also cultivated a feeling I hadn’t really had since I first moved to Geneseo.

Home.

In the three years that followed, I spent more waking hours in the newspaper office than any other single location, eventually moving into the role of editor in chief. The tradition of late Wednesday nights became engrained as part of my weekly schedule. Thursday night dinners after full staff meetings became one of my most cherished traditions. And then there were all the moments in between, talking with whoever was in the office about current events, music, philosophy, sex, food, drugs--all the discussions most of us don’t get to have (at least civilly) in adult life, conducted over copy edits and chicken strip subs. I found my truest college friends in that windowless ofice on the top floor of the Student Union. The monthly stipend the student government paid me for my work as editor was enough to pay for groceries and movie tickets, but the money was cursory. Like all of the best projects, done with the best of friends, working at that paper never felt like a job.

The summer after I graduated, the newspaper office was relocated to the basement of the Student Union. After my last issue went to press, I split my last days at Geneseo between packing my apartment and packing the old office--spaces and experiences that felt entirely intertwined. In so many literal and figurative ways, I was moving on and so was the paper.

But that spirit survives. It lives on when I scan my Facebook newsfeed and see our old arts & entertainment editor publishing incisive newspaper articles on music, video games, movies and live productions for a larger readership than our college paper ever afforded him; when I hear from our old copy editor, who parlayed a Blogspot fan journal into an editor job at Tennis.com, and who has since published articles on ESPN.com and in Beckett magazines. I dare I say that spirit lives on in the debates that rage in my inbox on a nearly daily basis, with each new post I make to The A Cappella Blog. My friends and I may not all work for a common publication anymore, sit around the same grimy office table, or go out drinking together on the weekends. But we’re still doing what we love, and I like to think that deeply embedded in all our prose are the common roots between us.

And so, dear reader, I impart these final words of wisdom. Do what you love; love what you do; and, in some small way, keep the people dearest to you involved in your life’s work.

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