Paul Hanson Clark Interview Part II: Cookies, Capitalist Voodoo, and the Work-Art Balance

This is Part 2 of my interview with poet, artist, and part-time cookiemaker Paul Hanson Clark, so you can check out Part 1 here.

 

But I Also Have a Day Job: So to make your life work and still do your art, you have to go to your web editing job during the day and make the doughs in the afternoon.

Paul Hanson Clark: Yeah, so I wake up in the morning, I eat a little bit of food, I go to my office, and I start doing computer work at the web editing job, which I do for 2 to 3 hours, then I leave and drive across town to a cookie shop, where I then do physical labor for 4 to 6 hours, which is me making dough—taking large amounts of sugar, flour, eggs, butter, etc. and putting them in a giant bowl and then turning on a mixing machine to mix them all together.  So that’s the center of my day—those two activities define every day except for Sunday in my week.  On Saturday I don’t work at the web editing job, but I’m the only doughmaker at the cookie shop, so I have to go in in the morning and I work a full day, as opposed to a near-full day.  So yeah, time is…[trails off]

BIAHADJ: How does the physical labor aspect of the cookiemaking job compare to the web editing job?

PHC:  There’s definitely a complementary factor.  I do like having my time at the office job defined and limited, and then having to go to this cookie shop.  For the web editing job I could hypothetically do that work from a fucking space station if I wanted to…but for the cookie shop I have to be at the fucking cookie shop, I have to be taking the ingredients that they buy for me to mix together.  I need to be there, so having that like, Gotta Go, is good, but I also like the physical labor better than the mental labor in a lot of ways.

The cookie dough job’s a cool job because there are many steps in the process that are always kind of repeating, so you’re just going through a cycle—like a 20, 30, 40 minute cycle—over and over again, but each cycle is filled with its own little nuances and steps and whatnot, so it’s not like at the fucking factory where you’re just punching the fucking hole in the widget or whatever, and you just punch 60,000 holes a day and you’re literally a human robot.  I still feel like I’m a human working at the cookie shop, but I’m working hard like a fucking robot machine or something. It balances out sitting in front of a computer so much, because when I sat in front of a computer all the time, I just grew more lethargic and was less fit.

BIAHADJ: Was it difficult to learn how to make the doughs?

PHC: No, it was very easy. The first day, the woman who trained me had it set up, basically, but she was like, “OK, the way I like to train people and the way I was trained is, you just do it, you just get started, so here’s the recipe—do it!”  So then I just started doing it, and it’s fairly simple, you just put weights of different things into buckets and mix them together, and they have it all written out so that you put all the weights together, then you put them in the mixer, then you mix them for a defined period of time, then you usually put some more shit in the mixer, like the sugary ingredients, mix those for a little while, then the flour comes in and you mix that for a while, then if there’s an M&M or a chocolate chip topping you mix that for a while.  So it was a mentally engaging process, but it was also just something I felt like I arrived at naturally through repetition.

BIAHADJ: Has the physical fatigue contributed to the recent nap factor? [see Part 1]

PHC: Definitely—that’s a huge part of it.  When I started the dough job I was like, “This is going to be great, I’ll just make dough for a few hours and chill because I won’t feel exhausted from staring at a fucking computer screen all day.”  But then I realized I’d be exhausted in a completely different way, which is like, fucking physical exhaustion.  Which is better—I feel better when I’m physically exhausted, and I don’t feel depleted, I just feel like I need rest.  When I feel depleted—I don’t know how to phrase this distinction, but the feeling of needing rest to me is a good feeling.  The feeling of not being able to do anything cognitively but also not feeling like you need rest is a very shitty feeling.

 

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BIAHADJ: Are there any other perks?  Like, do you get to taste the cookies?

PHC: Umm….

BIAHADJ: Or the dough?  Like we did with the spatula when we were kids?

PHC: [laughs] I uh, don’t typically eat the dough as I make it.  I have a bit, and no one ever told me not to, but I feel like if I got caught doing that they would, like…tell me not to do that.  But for the most part I personally try to avoid eating lots of sugary foods, because I find that once I eat just a single sugary thing, then I want the next one, and then that leads pretty quickly to me eating lots of sugary things, which then fucks with my whole life…so I try to avoid eating cookies.

HOWEVER, I do get a free cookie every time I work. Usually I don’t take my free cookie, but I CAN eat a free cookie that’s made from the doughs that I created, along with this other doughmaker who works at the store.  But I guess the real connection I get while I’m doing something is that it has an impact on the world, like, there’s fucking people coming in constantly, into this store, and buying cookies.  I have a friend who works at Wendy’s, and she often tweets about how working at Wendy’s makes her hate all of humanity…and I was like, man, she should work at this cookie shop, because the people who come in here are pretty jacked to be buying cookies, like they’re super friendly and gregarious and stuff.  So I think there’s something about these sweets that taps into this nostalgic feeling of goodness that we all share from being children.

We also make these giant cookies, and we have decorators who will draw things on them, and it’s so common to have people come in and be like [exaggerated voice] “Oh wow that looks amazing!  This is great!  Thanks so much you guys!” [normal voice] and they’re just super jacked about it and super grateful.

In addition to my free cookie, I can get cookies for cheap, so I can get a dozen cookies for two dollars and fifty cents.  So now any time where I know I’m going to be at a gathering, I’ll usually bring a couple dozen cookies, maybe even more, and I’ll be like, “Hey everyone, I brought cookies,” and everyone will be like “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and then I’ll just see the people enjoying the cookies.  I can literally watch them eating them, and I know that I made that possible by making the dough, but also by bringing the cookies to the gathering.

But you know, sometimes, if I make a fuckload of doughs, and I’m really tired, sometimes I’ll just grab a cookie, sit in the chair in back for like 10 minutes and eat the cookie, and that’s a very chill feeling.  I’m not a big believer in that whole [parody voice] “You exercised so you earned the junk food, so go ahead and eat that sundae!” [normal voice] I don’t like that logic, but sometimes if I’m doing physical labor for like, five hours straight, then yeah, I’ll eat a fucking cookie.  That’ll be just fine.

 

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BIAHADJ: Takeaways like that feel important to me because they’re not things that usually come to mind when we think about the other benefits a job can have.  Another benefit I’ve found with physical labor-type jobs is that freedom to let your mind wander and think about other projects, which I find is much harder when I’m sitting at the computer all day or interacting with people.

PHC: The cookie job is pretty interesting because I think a lot—that’s all I do.  Like, when I’m making the actual dough, there’s like, a phase of the doughmaking where you’re on the clock—you’ve started the mixer, and then you have a minute or two until you do the next step with the mixer, when you change the speed of the mixer, or you add the ingredient to the mixer, or whatever.  So in between those changes you have to be putting shit in buckets, and preparing shit for the mixer and doing all this stuff, so during that I’m usually hyperfocused on whatever I need to do in that moment.

But then, when the mixing’s done, you just have this giant mass of dough sitting in the mixer, and you have to dig it out and put it in buckets, then put the buckets in the fridge.  And while I’m doing that I can just kind of think about whatever, you know?  And I find it to be a space where I think about things, and then when I’m cleaning, especially the dishes—I do a lot of dishes—I think about all kinds of shit, and I have a lot of moments of clarity doing this physical labor, because I just kind of process things in my life.  It’s interesting, and I never thought it would be so…beneficial.

I decided recently to stop using Twitter, and I arrived at that decision while I was doing dishes.  Now I’ve thought of doing this before—this was not a new idea—but I had a kind of moment of clarity while I was just doing dishes and contemplating my life.  So just having that kind of time when you’re engaged in a physical task but your mind is free to wander, I think is pretty cool, and super beneficial.  Maybe not for my art, but for my psyche, or something, or for my like, spiritual well-being.

BIAHADJ: Do you find it easier to disconnect from the cookiemaking job after you’ve left work?

PHC: At my previous job, I was an assistant editor for a weekly newspaper, so one of the main things I was in charge of was creating an Arts Events Calendar for the town of Omaha every week.  And that takes a bit of time, but it’s a simple task, it’s not hard to do.  But the point is, that job had a massive email intake—like, the email address for that job got like a bajillion fucking emails a day.  To deal with that, I started to have them imported into my personal email account, so my work life and my personal life, at least through e-mail, became intertwined, and I found myself pretty much constantly doing work.  Unless I was getting shitfaced, I would always be dealing with these fucking e-mails, and it was cool because I was really good at it, but when I quit that job I was like, “Never again will I have my work e-mail be part of my personal e-mail.  From now on, they will always be separate.”

That’s the weird ideal, where work is a colony, completely separate from the rest of my life, and when I’m there I just inhabit the world of that colony, and I don’t have to worry about the mainland.

BIAHADJ: Where do you think that urge to merge your work life into your personal life came from?

PHC: [pause] Damn. Uh…I mean….it’s gotta be, like, Henry Ford capitalist voodoo, partially, like we’re told that we’re supposed to be productive and working constantly, and always be doing a good job, so that natural things like your mind wandering, or just relaxing doing stuff that isn’t productive, become spaces of inner psychic turmoil, which is shitty.  I think that’s part of it, but I think I have a tendency to oversimplify shit like that.

BIAHADJ: What do you mean by oversimplify?

PHC: Well, it’s like…oh yeah, life sucks because of capitalism.  And yeah, life does suck because of capitalism, but that’s just one piece of the pie, of the suckiness of life, and if you’re going to say that the whole pie is because of that, then you’re being really dishonest.  But I’ve dedicated myself to projects before with passion and vigor, and that has allowed me to act and work in ways that I view to be admirable to some extent.

BIAHADJ: Projects, as in personal projects, or projects as in paid work projects?

PHC: I guess usually it’s been personal projects, but I’ve had instances where it’s been a school project or a work thing, where I’ve been very dedicated to it for one reason or another, and I guess I just want to be that guy in all the facets of my life, the guy who’s super psyched about the thing, and is giving it his all.  And when I’m not that guy, I feel disappointed in myself.

But at the same time, it annoys me that I feel disappointed in myself, because it’s ridiculous to think that I should always be giving it my all, that’s just more of the Henry Ford capitalist voodoo. But just because passionate pursuit of stuff has been perverted in all these weird ways doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful and worthwhile to pursue something passionately. I’m thinking about job postings that are all like, “We want a ROCK STAR who LIVES for BRANDING!!!”  Shit like that makes me feel like the idea of caring about something passionately is a lie designed to make me a more profitable cog in the capitalist machine. But there’s other stuff that I’ve pursued with passion that has enriched my life in very real ways, and I want to keep doing shit like that, but sometimes it’s hard to not get trapped in the web of bullshit.

 

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BIAHADJ: Do you find your art has changed since you started working the second job?

PHC: Since I started working the second job, I have less time to make art, to write poetry, whatever.  I still write in my notebook a fuckload, but I haven’t been good enough about typing up my writings and editing them, so I feel like I’ve lost a lot of time that I can dedicate to my work, to turn it just from a random mass of words into something that really matters to me.

There’s a poet named John Wieners, and in some interview they asked him if his poems are just stars in the sky of his life, and he can just look at them and form constellations and shit.  And I just like that idea, that you can turn an ephemeral creative act, a momentary experience, into this thing, that has a relationship to other things, that matters to you.  And I’ve had a lot harder time taking my art to that place since I started working two jobs.

But, I’m optimistic because the upside to the two jobs thing is I have to actually make decisions about what I do with my time, and if I don’t decide to do shit that matters to me with my free time, then there’s no extra free time, and all I’ve done with my free time is shit that doesn’t matter.  And then I never get to do the shit that matters.  So if I want to do the shit that matters to me, I actually have to make that choice, and being forced into that position I feel is making me way better about how I’m using my time.

I’m interested in working a lot for a while, and in continuing to try and make art work and make work work simultaneously. I’d like to eventually be able to take some of that workload off and just focus on the art shit.  Not completely—I don’t necessarily want to never work and only make art.  I don’t really like that ideal.

BIAHADJ: So what, then, would be your ideal?

PHC: I’m not really sure what my ideal is.  If I could hypothetically make a living from my art, I would probably pursue it, but that seems so unlikely, and so many people who manage to do that have to make all these tough choices that compromise either their art or how they function as an artist, and that it isn’t up my alley.  But if the opportunity emerged for me to make a living doing art in a way that felt good and natural to me, I would definitely pursue it.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen.  So, then, what is my ideal within reality as I see it? Again, I’m not really sure.  I want to live a life where I feel as though I’m functioning within society in a way that feels good to me and is useful to others.  Being an artist definitely feels good to me, but I think there are limits to how useful my artistic practice is to others.  I think there’s some usefulness there but I’m not sure how much.  So yeah, I’d like to continue making art but also doing something that feels good to me and is useful to others.

The problem is that a lot of what is available to us as “work” is fucking miserable to me and of questionable usefulness to others.  So many jobs out there feel geared toward moving money, period.  We live in this world that is defined by these weird financial systems and I realize there’s no escaping that, but I do feel it’s possible to do socially useful work within that.  I’ve always enjoyed working in food-making places because it’s enjoyable to me, how it’s a self-contained process that doesn’t follow you home, and it also provides this social function, i.e., people need to eat.  Maybe I’ll land there more fully someday, but that has its own tradeoffs in the form of hard hours, the job being physically demanding, and the fact that purveyors of junk food have a much easier time getting paid than purveyors of food that’s good for people.

I guess this is all to say that I don’t have a dream job, or an ideal that I can see before me.  So maybe I should only speak about this in the realm of the hypothetical.  My ideal would be to work part-time, get paid three to four times the minimum wage, and do socially useful work I enjoy.  If I had a say in how society is set up, I would push for a situation where everyone could pursue this path.