Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leaves You With Nuthin' Mister

"Where Do You Think You're Going?" - Christmas Vacation (mp3)
Mele Kalikimaka - Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters (mp3)

Here is the honest first-person account of one man’s attempt to do something amusing, fun, and mildly noble. And also just damned foolish.

Times like this ain’t easy for nobody. Not for people, not for businesses, and not for non-profits, which depend heavily on people and businesses doing well. In tough times, water cooler talk mutates. It used to be highlights from last week’s Saturday Night Live skits or Sunday’s best NFL games. More often lately, the talk is like those anvils in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, sort of darkly cartoonish, but heavy, burdensome.

Backseat driving other people’s jobs. Lamenting that too many people have grown too mentally slovenly, having dined too bountily on the fatted calf of the Good Times. Decrying all the ways we have lost our way as an institution. Twenty years of no job cuts and only the occasional year without any raises is pretty good stuff. Too good, really. It takes you off the edge, which is where Maverick swears one must be to survive.

Early in the year, the noble fisherman best known as “TroutKing” joked that it would be cool if we DJ’d the annual faculty Christmas party. He got the idea while driving from one fishing hole to another that summer while shuffling through his iPod.

Who knows why for sure? (Well, troutking does... but it doesn’t serve my narrative or deadline to ask him.) Further, who knows why he asked me to join his folly? Was it like Bill Murray dragging Harold Ramis into the Army in “Stripes”? Was it because I have some vague knowledge and appreciation for rap that evades him? The world may never know.

Regardless, I made note of the idea and in October mentioned it to the boss. He was foolish enough to accept.

Trout and I spent a decent amount of time trying to get things right, trying to satisfy the event’s theme -- “Caribbean Christmas” -- while also minimizing our own nausea (read: not too much Jimmy Buffet). Trying to structure 3 hours of dance-friendly music for a crowd with a 50-year age range and a strong majority of employees born prior to 1970 is a hopelessly-doomed task.

"Electric Slide"? No. "Cotton-Eyed Joe"? Noooo no no. "Cha-Cha Slide"? Aww helllll no. Love Train? They’re gonna demand it, I say. Over my deaf body, Trout says. It’s inevitable, like death, I say. Then kill me now!! Trout says.

Meanwhile, we’re both being bombarded with requests and suggestions from friends and enemies alike. For every one “you should play...” we receive 10 “please don’t play...” And then, early last week as we sit in Trout’s office sharing our concerns, fears and excitement, our boss walks in. He wants to make sure “Love Train” will make the list and that Trout won’t go off the rails playing too much Bob and Bruce.

It’s his party. He can train if he wants to.

The event itself went off as well as could have been expected. A tough grader like myself would give us a B. Dollar for dollar, getting a B-quality DJ experience was a damn good investment, so there’s no shame in our performance.

Yet, much like my experiences teaching classes almost a decade ago, I couldn’t help but feel this heavy weight of disappointment in all of it. Feeling like we did something “pretty well” and “OK” doesn’t make me proud. My expectations of myself are too high, perhaps too unrealistic. When we turned off those speakers after the party was over, the look of joy on my face was 3/4 a look of relief that it was over and done with.

When it became clear that our boss was regretting (or at least fearing) his decision to grant us DJ privileges, when everyone was spouting off divergent notions of great songs, when the “Love Train” drama came to a head, all these things piled into the clown car of melodrama and tension far surpassing anything that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with “Play That Funky Music” or “Mony Mony.”

We just wanted to have some fun, play some music, and get people to dance. That’s all.

During the party, the micromanagement continued. It wasn’t so much his wanting to stick his nose in that hurt, because as I said, it’s his party. Rather, it was the look of abject discomfort in his eyes, his lack of confidence in us. He wasn’t the conductor of the “Love Train”; he was the conductor of that runaway train in “Unstoppable.”

Our hopes of doing something nice and mostly harmless, that would save the school a few bucks (between $600-1,000, actually), was making the experience much less enjoyable for the boss. Not the goal I had in mind, not by a long shot.

There was a silver lining, however.

Many of our friends and colleagues wanted us to succeed. They wanted it almost as much as we did, maybe more for a few of them. Friends who just don’t dance, hardly ever, and rarely for more than a song, were out on that dance floor for almost the entire time. They dragged their spouses out there with them. They all cut rugs much longer and plusher than is their nature. They did this not for the music, and not for the party, but for us, the two nerds behind the mixing board, panicking over whether “Superstition” or “TikTok” would better serve the immediate needs of the dancing masses. (Important Side Note: “Funkytown” no longer holds sway over anyone, especially the syntho-’80s version.)

We the DJs were out on a limb. Our friends went out on a limbo. For us.

Then we had our own Norma Rae moment. The boss was calling it a night, but Trout wanted to play “Glory Days.” It was the one Bruce song he had insisted on including. The boss demurred. Strongly. Trout was stout. In bold defiance, he picked up the mike with a call of duty to his colleagues. Sing with him! Dance with him! Show Bruce the love and respect the REAL Boss deserved!!

And, by God, they did. One of our coworkers -- a guy who could hardly be considered a close friend -- even organized a “Soul Train line” and got people dancing down the middle. It was the damn coolest Last Song dance moment a dying dwindling crowd could have had.

With friends and coworkers like those, one hardly need ask why I’m still at the same place after 14 years. It was one of the best and most uplifting Christmas presents I’ve ever received.


goofytakemyhand said...

Was it as spirited as Bruce closing out "Late Night With David Letterman" on NBC in '93?


Bob said...

more so.

troutking said...

Billy, great post. I had been attributing the success of the Glory Days send-off to alcohol and Bruce's music, but you are right. It is also, if not mostly, a tribute to the power of friendship and comaraderie that is hard to find in today's world. As his Bobness says at the end of every concert, "Thank you, friends."