Thursday, May 19, 2016

"That's good, right?"

I'm reluctant to hit "publish" on this post because it's one of those things where I know someone out there will think I am whining, and I'm not.  I just feel like putting into words part of my experience that I think is misunderstood.

Let me start by saying I love my work.  I am very lucky to get to do what I enjoy, and to run a business with my husband.  That's all good.  I don't take any of those good things for granted.


I am swamped lately.  Swamped isn't fun.  And when people ask anymore how business is going and I say it's really busy they nearly all look pleased for me and say the same thing:  "That's good, right?"

Well, yes and no.  Yes it's good to be running a successful small business.  I'm proud of the fact that even though we opened at the beginning of the recession we have managed to stay in the black and provide for our family.  That's wonderful.  This is not me complaining about having a job while I know many struggle to find any job, let alone one they find meaningful.

But it can be overwhelming.  Because when you work for yourself--particularly in a creative field--there is no delegating, really.  No one can write for me but me.  No one can build my violins for me but me.  No one can practice for me but me.  Those activities suffer when I'm drowning in repairs and rehairs all of which people want done yesterday.  Nobody's violin ever breaks after a concert, it's always right before.  And I sympathize!  I'm a musician, too, and I want people to have their instruments back quickly.  So I wind up putting in some very long days.  Often after evening rehearsals that get out at 9:00 or 9:30 I will go right back to the store and not get to bed until midnight.

There are lots of demanding jobs, but the pressures are different when you are the face of your whole business and your personal reputation is caught up in all of your work.  When I was employed in someone else's violin shop the work was the same but my role was not.  My boss shouldered the responsibilities, and I only had to answer to him behind the scenes.  He got to take credit for my successes, but also had to deal with the aftermath of any mistakes, and I remained anonymous either way.  Projects left on the bench when I went home could wait until the next day and I didn't give them much thought when my left the shop.  Someone else could always finish them if for some reason I couldn't come back.  Now projects left on my bench haunt me until they are complete.  If I don't do them they do not get done.

The answer is not as easy as "hiring help."  From where?  To do what?  We have help for running charges for the rental program and occasionally helping with customers, but the actual repair work is all on me.  There isn't a big pool of people who have a lot of experience with violin varnish or who can cut a decent soundpost just waiting around out there.  I don't need someone to help me at the store, I need someone to occasionally replace me at the store, to represent me and still get done all the work I would do there and at a level that I'm comfortable with since my name is on the window.  That sort of assistance is beyond rare.

The kind of help I need is a skilled luthier who can handle customers (those are already two skill sets that don't intersect much) who ideally also plays (narrowing down further) and who doesn't want full time work (which, for someone with years of training, is not likely what they are hoping for).  I was lucky enough to find all of that in my friend Robyn, but she up and moved to Chicago a while back.  She still on occasion will take the store on a Saturday (despite the commute) which is great, but that's not the same as regularly scheduled help.

The upsides to being self-employed are many.  Being able to customize my hours around my kids' time in school is great.  I like running things my way and finding ways to be creative in what I do.  But most days relying on myself to keep the business running feels very sink or swim, and time off is hard to come by.

The only people who understand are others who have had to do it too.  When I tell them business is busy they smile knowingly and look sympathetic.  My mom knows.  When I tell her business is busy she never says, "That's good, right?" she just says, "Oh."  My sister-in-law makes beautiful jewelry and has even had her work featured on the show Reign, and when she tells me she has a ton of orders to fill, I just say, "Ah.  That's rough."  I think she appreciates not hearing another, "That's good, right?" while she tries to get more done than one person can really do and still make time for family and life.  It can wipe you out.

I got a call the other day from someone connected with Yelp who was trying to pitch me something that I didn't need and she couldn't understand why I wasn't interested.  She finally asked, "Don't you want more business?" and I said, "No!  Please no, I'm fine."  I don't think she's ever gotten that answer before, and I tried to explain that the rate at which people currently find me is all I can handle.  The poor woman then tried to tell me about some app for my smartphone, and when I told her I didn't have a smartphone she was literally speechless.  I don't know what kind of weird antediluvian Luddite corner of Milwaukee she thought she'd found, but she did finally agree that maybe I wasn't the best fit for whatever it was she was peddling.

I think part of it is nobody expects me to be busy.  Most of the professional players seem to get it and are good about asking when it would be best for me to work on their instruments or bows, but there are a lot of other people who bring me work who assume it can be done while they wait, as if there isn't anything ahead of them.  They are glad to hear business is going well because they can't imagine how a violin store can survive.  There is this odd misperception that I am in a "dying art."  There are actually more violin makers around than ever, because there are more people in general around than ever.  There are more violin makers alive today than there have ever been in all of history.

And more people play violin than most people realize.  People have been reporting on the death of Classical music forever, and it just keeps not going away.  New tiny players walk in my door every week, just as excited to pick up an instrument as people have ever been.  And then they drop them, and they cry, and I warm up the glue pot on my bench and get out the clamps so they can keep playing.

Business is busy.  That is, in fact, "good."  But it would be nice to be able to read a book or do stuff around the house without sacrificing sleep because I have to spend so much time at work.  The other day when Quinn wanted me to do some silly quiz on Facebook and we got to the question "Which word best describes you?" instead of picking "curious" or "intelligent" or any of the more interesting options, my son immediately said I should select "busy."  "Really?" I asked--"Busy?"  Quinn was unequivocal.  "You are busy." He didn't sound critical, just calling it like he sees it, but it made me a little sad.

When it gets exhausting I just have to remember it goes in waves.  The stars have to align at some point to give me a bit of down time, don't they?  I recently finished my last few concerts of the season, there are no rehearsals for a while, the kids have wrapped up nearly all of their recitals, volleyball is over, school will be out by this time next month....  And oddly with Ian away for a few weeks right now doing Army stuff overseas I have more time away from work.  I have to be the one to juggle the kids and their schedules all alone, so I've been closing the store early enough to get dinner on the table and do the laundry and help with projects.  A few customers have been unhappy when they tell me they need something now, and I explain that this week it's not possible, but most seem to understand.  (Actually, if you want to meet nice people in general, a violin store is a good place to be.  The number of bad customers I've had over all these years I can count on one hand.)

My dream is that one or more of my kids at some point wants to learn how to do what I do, since they are the only people I would be willing to take the time to train, and it would be fun to have their help.  I don't see that happening anytime soon, so I will just have to keep on being busy.  And it will just have to be good, right?


  1. Yes, particularly when you would comment "that's good right?" to me on facebook threads when I would complain about being too busy and overwhelmed at our small business.

  2. This sounds HARD. That's why I've never been enamored of starting my own business (something people have suggested during my recent years of unemployment). I would rather be a worker bee - the stress you describe would kill me. I guess some of us are cut out for that sort of thing and others (like myself) just aren't. Hang in there!

    1. There are days I really miss being a worker bee. But I remember once showing up to work at my teaching job and seeing someone I worked with being led out by security people as she carried her boxes from her desk, and it occurred to me that at least at my store I can't be fired, and that was reassuring. I couldn't run the business without my husband's help. He does all the parts of it that would make me cry (the computer stuff, banking stuff, tax stuff.... bleah).


  3. In the abstract, I love that your business is thriving, and so many people are playing strings - but I totally sympathize.

    It's feast or famine for my business of one, and it's the same deal -- when I'm swamped, I can't pass the work on to someone else, and I feel exhausted and stressed out and resentful, even, that my work is taking me away from my writing and family and other pursuits. Being busy is "a good problem to have," is what other people say. (And I say myself sometimes.)

    But when I'm not as busy, I don't make as good use of the time as I wish I could, and I start to worry. Ah, the irony.

    And still -- you couldn't pay me enough to go back to a full- or even part-time office job. This is the only way I want to work, and I feel so fortunate to have the chance to do it. It would just be nice if the work volume stayed on a more even keel!

    1. I know, it's weird, because it's not bad, it's just that it would be nice to have some balance. "Feast and famine" is exactly how it goes for me, too. In some ways working for yourself is a lot like parenting, because there are no real breaks and I'm the only one who can play the role that I do.

      We're all lucky you get to work the way you do because it results in good stuff for us to read! Looking forward to your next book.

  4. If this comment doesn't work, I quit and will just email you my comments from the last two posts. Blogger and I are fighting lately!!

    I found this useful to consider because I would've totally said "that's good right?" Thinking that it really was good! Because yay for successful small business!! And I have some friends who run small businesses in less creative fields (i.e.: garage door repair), and busy IS good for them, they can easily hire help when needed. I had definitely not considered the difficulty the "creative" aspect poses and will now be more thoughtful in my comments!

    And even if you didn't have perfectly valid reasons for not living being busy, I hate the culture that we're not allowed to complain about stuff because someone else has it worse. We're all on our own path through life and we get to decide what's hard for US!! Even if it's something someone else would be happy with.

    And I also learned something on your last post because I thought I was at least decent at reading music, but I had never heard of that clef! So cool!! Blogger wasn't too impressed with my comment though.... We'll see if it likes it more now!!

    1. Ha! It worked!! But I didn't really think it would and I had already typed it so many times I didn't want to go through it again to be sure it made sense and now I see it is a mess of half-explained thoughts. Oh well. Hopefully you get the gist!

    2. Glad it worked! I love your comments, so BOOOO to Blogger for not publishing them. (I'm in a habit now of copying my comments when they run long so if Blogger eats them I can just paste instead of having to rewrite it all.)

      I was always amazed how many people were mean in comments when I used to blog about how hard things were on my end when Ian was deployed. I was on my own with a newborn, a toddler, and a preschooler the first time, and when I wrote about how coupling that with being scared for Ian's safety all the time made life really upsetting, some people would say it was "disgusting" to hear me whine when my husband was at war. One woman said I should just "put on my big girl panties" and shut up. How is it supporting the troops to insult their spouses? Anyway, everything always offends someone, but there are moments when I write things that I can already imagine people rolling their eyes and I have to decide if it's worth it.

      I'm never upset when people say, "That's good, right?" because I know they mean it in the best possible way, but I figured it might be interesting to someone to hear a different perspective. I don't think people who aren't in creative fields realize how demanding they can be. If someone paints a wall for me, that's helping. If someone paints a piece of art for me, that's fraud. Writing submitted by me that's not mine is plagiarism. Once when I was running late I actually almost said to my husband, "Can you practice for me while I'm at work?" before I realized, no, no he can't. I have to somehow do all of it. (Thankfully when he's here he does all the laundry and most of the cooking and kid transporting, so at least that stuff gets delegated!)

      (Glad you now know a new clef!)