WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 1 – The Sporting Life, Continued)

Does it count as advertising if I add that cigarettes suck?

Introduction: When Jobs Are Good, Actually

I find it an interesting and rewarding challenge to write about people who enjoy their jobs. I’ve talked about the pros and cons of my recent job and there are certainly things I like about it. Being able to get so much love from animals is such a nice feeling and makes me feel appreciated, even when my managers don’t exactly do that with how much they pay me.

Nevertheless, I love dogs and I love helping them have better lives. That doesn’t mean that my job is perfect or that it doesn’t have bad aspects. Even when I work more independently and see dogs on more of my own terms, the dogs themselves (or the owners) can be difficult in some ways.

For example, right now I’m working with a golden lab named Cooper. Cooper is a handsome dog who is very friendly and helps a young veteran that owns him. But even as a service dog (in training!) he just doesn’t know how to listen to commands yet. And even when he does, it’s often brief.

On top of that, helping someone who fought in a war that I would have opposed makes me feel morally ambiguous. But I try to push that aside and remember it’s some extra easy money, I get to stay in a nice place I’ll likely never be able to afford and the dog is really my customer.

Sure, the owner is an important aspect, but the dog is really the individual I want to take care of and feel appreciate. It all links together anyways, whereby if I do that with the dog, then I do it with the owner too.

Anyways, I’ve been going on about this for a bit now, let’s conclude this section of The Sporting Life. Fitting that Winter’s last (great!) article also talked about sports (wrestling and football), make sure to check that out!

Blackie Mason  (Sports Press Agent)

Sadly, Mason is the least interesting interviewee in this section. Mason is largely happy with his life and only has sporadic and mild criticisms of the industry. He has some cool stories (working with Muhammad Ali!) but I don’t have much to say about that other than it was cool to read and Ali (apparently) made the job easy for him, which is unsurprising to me.

Something I find interesting more broadly is Mason’s description of his job as “…extolling the virtues of others” (373). There’s something both odd and unique about a job that is upfront making you sell someone else.

Sure, by working retail or as a used car salesman or some sort of office worker you are selling a company and perhaps indirectly the CEO or something else. But you aren’t specifically selling a human being.

But this is exactly what press agents (and agents more generally) have to do. They have to not only sell themselves but more so be selling someone else. They have to know how this this person works just about as well as they know themselves and still sell themselves as well.

And how does Mason feel about this?

I wouldn’t be doing anything but. I’m happiest in this field of endeavor. If somebody took me out of this and offered me twenty-five thousand dollars a year more—“You’re the manager of a men’s clothing department!”—-I would say no. I’d be miserable.

I could never visualize a challenge selling a man a tie for three dollars, ringing that cash register and saying, “I accomplished something today.”

Within thirty days I would be taking psychiatric treatment.

pp. 375-376

Damn. I mean, this is some strong stuff right here. How can you argue with this kind of perspective? Mason sees his job as a sort of challenge and challenges aren’t necessarily a bad thing to have.

Now, being obsessed with challenge to the point of putting winning above all else is something worth criticizing. But we’ll get to that next time.

For Mason, the challenge lies in selling the person he is working for.

There’s a lack of freedom in this (he sometimes has to tell them what they want to hear) but getting the feedback he wants from the papers is meaningful for him. And honestly, that’s benign enough that I can’t see a good reason to make too many critical statements about it either way.

And Mason really isn’t obsessed with his job. He likes it and enjoys the challenge, but he’s not an early riser and he’s not out to exploit people if he can help it. He talks about growing up in a tough neighborhood and now a tough industry, but trying to not let it change him, “I gotta be me.” (376)

Still, Mason is not perfect and he’s honest about his imperfections. There have been times where people have used him and he admits that “It stays with me.” (375) He then becomes vindictive himself but tries to not let it consume him. Still, he tries to resist the corporatization of his job.

There’s been a change in the element in twenty-seven years, since I broke in. The people now are a different breed. They are the Madison Avenue-PR-type. The Brooks Brothers suit, attaché case, and let the cookie crumble if it will and all these clichés .

These three-hour lunches. Big corporations have these people knifing each other, backstabbing, jockeying for position. Oh, it’s become very commercial, cold and impersonal. … I can take pride without going through this phony rigamarole.

375

It’s a good interview but there’s not much more to say. Mason obviously enjoys his job, but can also be critical of what it was becoming in the early seventies. He’s not so perfect he’s never held something against someone else for screwing him over or using him, but he’s also self-aware.

Sometimes, reading this excellent book, there are people I wish I could meet and chat with over some hot tea and a nice warm bagel.

Blackie Mason is one such person.

Jeanne Douglas (Tennis Player)

Now we’re talking! Things get a little more complicated in this interview, which I think is another thing I struggle with when the interviewees are just like, “yeah, life is tough but it’s OK more often than not”.

That’s simplifying things, of course. But it’s difficult to have a solid position from someone who is just “meh” about their position in life. If they have strong feelings and are confident about their role, that’s interesting!

Conversely, if they could care less about their job and dream about a better new life, even for just a moment of the interview, that’s interesting!

Admittedly, Douglas does have a bit of the “meh syndrome” going on here. She’s relatively happy with the game itself, but isn’t sure how she feels about how serious and competitive it’s gotten for her as of late.

She also discusses family pressures to be a great player, advertisements and the future of her job and her life. She discusses the everyday struggles of her job in some more interesting ways than I think Mason did.

But enough meta-discussion, let’s dive in!

She is a professional tennis player. She is twenty-two. She travels nine months of the year as a member of the Virginia Slims Professional Women’s Circuit. “It’s Women’s Lib, you’ve come a long way baby. 

Yeah. There’s been quite a discussion about a cigarette company sponsoring a sporting event. What can you say? Some of the girls smoke, some don’t. It’s just a way of promoting tennis.

We’re not promoting smoking.”

376

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First off, notice she travels most of the time. In all likelihood, she travels far more than she actually plays tennis itself. That’s a somewhat depressing reality (and Douglas isn’t a fan of it either) but not surprising given the stories we’ve heard from baseball players and jockeys.

Second, yeah, including women in tennis was a great thing to do. But then having them turn around and sell themselves so a corporation could make better profits and they can keep squeaking by (as Douglas constantly makes reference to) is not exactly my idea of women’s liberation.

Third and lastly, when you sell a product you can’t magically separate yourself from the act. When you decide to promote a given product and its in the name of the circuit you represent, you are in effect selling that product, whatever your personal feelings on it may be.

And it isn’t as if Virginia Slims was going to let Douglas talk about her feelings anyways. She likely would not be able to go up to a TV reporter and tell them while she doesn’t personally like cigarettes or advocate for their use, that the money helps her play.

Even such a mild criticism like that would not be allowed by many corporations. It wouldn’t be very good publicity to have a star who is supposed to be representing your brand to openly and publicly say they don’t even personally support its use, never mind personally use it.

Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

When you’re in an advertisement, even if it’s a sport, you’re helping sell those products. Again, this relationship between Virginia Slim and Douglas doesn’t strike me as too much about “liberation” as it does mild economic freedom via a commercialization and commodification of the body.

But then again, this was 2nd wave feminism.

What can you expect?

I started played when I was eleven years old. My whole family plays. We’re a huge tennis family. My uncle was like ten in the United States.

My mom took it up after she was married. She got ranked twenty-fifth in southern California which is one of the best places to play tennis. She works in a pro-shop at our tennis club.

She pushed me and I really resented it at first. But she made me play to the point where I was good enough to like it.

377 (emphasis mine)

This was a section of the interview that bothered me. Children should be left to pursue their own passions and not simply inherit whatever their parents did. I don’t doubt that Douglas enjoys tennis, but I think there are better ways to get there without pushing children like this.

If you let children develop their own interests in a free manner, they’re more likely to push themselves. You may also find that they’ll even ask you to help them from time to time. As Douglas herself says later, parents should be more of a “guide” (380) than a pusher.

There’s this belief in our culture that children have this obligation to follow in their parents footsteps. But this is just a way for parents to legitimize their own existence a little more and feel better about themselves. Where they may have failed (often in their own eyes, less than their child’s) they want their child to succeed. But that’s their desires, not the child’s.

And look, I’m not a parent. But I am a big believer in youth liberation and hung around plenty of kids in my day (not to mention I used to be one…) and read about what can help them. When I see this kind of stuff that Douglas is talking about her, I recoil.

It reminds me of adults who say, “Hey, I was spanked and I turned out fine!” It’s obviously not of the same morally, but it’s along the same lines of, “Well the ends were good, so the means are okay!” which I dislike.

And more than just dislike, I think it reveals an attitude that belies a rationalization of whatever our parents did to us. If we turned out “okay” (whatever that means) then our parents must have done a great job! But often the case is that we did a lot of the work on ourselves as well.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for ourselves, if no one else.

Players tends to be more superficial now. Before you were more friendly. You’d write back and forth and have a good time. Now you don’t have good friends. you’re on the court and people are just having fits, losing tempers. People are now so competitive for money you just don’t want to get involved personally.

377

As Douglas remarks later on, it’s a “lonely life” (ibid) and I can’t help but notice that too. Especially contrasted to the life of the jockey that we saw earlier, it seems like being a tennis player can be a real downer.

To be honest, the most I ever paid attention to tennis and how fun it can be was when I used to play Wii Sports back in the day (mid/late 2000s are now back in the day, Doreen?! Good grief…). There was a tennis game option and it was one of the most fun I had playing that game.

But it’s tough for me to imagine hitting a ball over a net and running back and forth through a cramped court much fun. Then again, as I’ve previously stated in the previous entry of this series, I don’t care much for sports.

It’s worth noting that not only did Douglas’ mom push Douglas to play but also paid her 0.25 an hour to do it! I just can’t imagine my mom being so passionate about something that she did the same thing for me.

Then again, my mom and I grew up mostly on our own when it wasn’t for family. We weren’t exactly rich, so I can’t imagine my mom spending….well whatever the 90s equivalent of seventies 0.25 for something.

On top of the prior loneliness, there’s this:

There’s zero social life. I get romantically involved about twice a year and wreck my tennis to death.

378

And you know what really sucks? Remember that advertisements that Douglas and others do for Virginia slims? Well, apparently they can’t even afford to give Douglas and others a fare to their tournaments.

All Virginia Slims can do for Douglas and others is guarantee that they can play in the tournament. Luckily, Douglas has some friends in high places (read: extremely wealthy people) and so she’s made it by.

Even so, she admits that, “…now it’s coming out it’s not such a good deal.” (379) which almost makes you think these corporate advertisements do way more for the corporations than they do the players. Weird!

To wrap up this interview, let’s look at two quotes about family:

I’m not a materialist like my father. He hasn’t been in favor of tennis. He’d always say, “Okay, when are you going to be a secretary and make some money?” He’s like a sunny day friend. When I’m winning—great!

He loves publicity. I’m his daughter. But if I’m losing, “Be a secretary, get the money.” He cna’t even see the way he changes. I couldn’t care less about him. I want to be independent. Money means freedom.

380

There’s some great stuff here but it’s also disconcerting how 2nd wave feminists often (and 1st wave almost always) conflated financial independence within a capitalist system as “freedom”.

As the popular saying goes, “until all are free, I am not free”. So even if you’re very wealthy and successful within a capitalist system, your freedom still depends on the freedom of others. Your life is still interconnected in some way to how the rest of society is getting treated and feels.

This isn’t to say that financial freedom within capitalism cannot help us achieve better conditions for ourselves. But it’s to say that doing so is doing so largely on the terms of capitalism itself. And as Douglas herself has discovered via the Virginia Slims advertisement, it’s not great terms.

Lastly,

If I get married and have a daughter, I would push her into something like my mom did me. I think kids should be pushed.

Okay, pushed is a crummy word. Kids should be guided.

I stayed at a house a couple of weeks, the kids were fat. They didn’t do anything after school, just watch TV. It’s like they were dying.

I would prefer athletics. I would push her to the point where she’s good. And if she still didn’t like it, I wouldn’t push her.

380

Okay, so that “guiding” I was talking about from Douglas is kind of bullshit within the context she says it. She’s just trying to dress up the fact that she could be pushing her kid something she wants them to do.

And of course, all parents have to push their kids to do something. Heck, the actual act of becoming a parent revolves around several sorts of pushing (if you get my meaning), not to mention conception is a literal push.

More specifically though, we have to push our kids to have manners, understand language, treat others with kindness and so forth. These are good and understandable. What’s not good and understandable is pushing kids on matters of hobbies and choices they have about their own bodies.

If they’re trying to hurt someone that’s obviously a big exception and similar with using their words to harm others. But what they do in their spare time should ultimately be up to them. It may not happen in all of the cases where parents push their children but the “resentful child, now grown up who has issues with their parents” is a trope for a reason.

And Douglas’ judgemental notion of “dying” says way more about her than it does the kids. “Fat” is relative, especially in an industry that has long been rampant with athletes who almost obsessively try to remain in shape.

Here’s the thing though: Your shape isn’t necessarily the shape that everyone should be. Respect the fact that other people have different body shapes and let them do something different with their bodies if they want.

I’m tempted to say even saying something is a bit too much (other people’s bodies is really none of your business) but maybe with kids it can be a little different if you think they’re unhealthy and there’s good evidence for this.

Regardless, like mother like daughter. “

Guiding” is just pushing dressed up in more 2nd wave feminist nonsense. Dressing up the authoritarianism in 1st wave feminism (they did rally for prohibition after all) and putting it in nicer tones so it sounds more palpable. I’m happy feminism has gotten further along than the 60s and 70s.

Can you tell I have an issue with 2nd wave feminism yet?


Well, I had more planned but I think that’s enough for one entry!

Join me back again later in the week for the conclusion of this chapter.

If you’d like to donate to my Patreon, it’s here.

One thought on “WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 1 – The Sporting Life, Continued)

  1. Pingback: WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 1 – The Sporting Life, Concluded) - Abolish Work

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