Playing for me

An acoustic guitar hangs on a wall in between two black-and-white drawings of birds' wings.
Photo by ANNI GUPTA on Unsplash

I played guitar for the first time in almost three years again this week. COVID quarantine is dull. By the end of the day, I’ve stared at the screen all I can. I have two guitars sitting there in their cases. Why not try it again?

I didn’t like how stiff my fingers were, or how sore my soft fingertips became after only a few minutes of play. I didn’t enjoy it.

Playing guitar used to be a constant source of comfort to me. “I play guitar” was part of my self-image, even years after I stopped playing. But over the years, my interest waned. I rarely thought about my guitars except when I noticed the cases off to the side in my bedroom. How did that happen?

I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was twelve. I learned the basic chords and I learned a few songs. But I never enjoyed playing. It didn’t help that the guitar wasn’t a very good one. It was difficult to get it to stay in tune, even over the span of a few minutes. That made playing it frustrating and I gave it up.

In 1989, a friend decided to sell the 1987 Aria she had bought new, only to discover that she didn’t enjoy playing. I tried it, loved the sound of it, and paid her cash. I decided to take lessons and pretty soon, I got good enough to play for others and have them sing along. That was what I wanted: attention and recognition.

That 1987 Aria is still my favorite, partly because of its beautiful sound. Mostly because of the many fond memories around playing it in public.

But the pleasure of performing faded. I didn’t know why. I almost stopped playing. What stopped me was a gift from a member of the therapy group I was in during graduate school. The gift was a question.

Her name was Becky. In one session, Becky observed that it seemed like I did everything with my eyes on how others would perceive it. And appreciate it. And approve of it.

She asked, “What’s wrong with just playing guitar to make yourself happy?”

That is one of the most powerful questions anyone has ever asked me. It shook me. It encouraged me and gave me permission to put my own enjoyment first. I started focusing on what made me happy to play and learn. I started enjoying it again. And I began applying the same principle to other areas of my life. It changed the way I approached life and helped me develop a happier outlook in general.

Playing guitar remained important for many years after that. Eight years ago, something changed. I lost my job. I found a new job soon after, but it was a horrible one. A lengthy commute sapped time and energy, and the toxic workplace drained me even more. I stopped playing guitar.

When I started working at Malwarebytes, I was happy again and had a shorter commute. I started playing again. But after a year, I changed jobs again. Again, a daily commute across the Bay. The next job was also in Tampa. After two years, I started traveling for work. I thought about buying a guitar I could travel with, but it never happened. By the time the pandemic began, I was so out of practice that it seemed like too much effort to start playing again.

These days, my commute is from one side of the house to the other. I have a lot more free time—especially now that I’ve quit Twitter and cut back on following and commenting on blogs. And I have a real desire to play again. The desire might fade once I’m no longer quarantined. But it’s going to be nice to spend time with that Aria again.

The right priority

I played my guitar for the first time in years last week in honor of John Prine. I haven’t played it since and although I want to play more, I probably won’t.

It had been five years since I last played. I was rusty, for sure, but I thought I hadn’t lost much skill. I could get back to where I was five years ago without much effort. The trouble is that I wouldn’t likely get much better than that, either. The reason I stopped playing was that I reached a plateau. I couldn’t increase my skill any farther without devoting more time to practice than I could spare.

Broadcaster Ira Glass talked the fact that as beginners, creative people often have less skill than taste. The gap between what they want to create and what they can create is disappointing. That disappointment is why many quit. That is where I was: unsatisfied with my skill, but unable to improve. If I’d had the time, I don’t doubt that I could have been a very good guitarist. But writing called to me more than playing did, and so I decided to focus on fiction.

I’m almost halfway through revising my latest novel, with the working title Faithless. It is the best thing I’ve ever written, and when I finish this revision, it will be better still. For the first time, I look forward to trying to find an agent because the story is good. I believe there’s at least one agent out there who will see its potential and find it a home. And my next novel (already percolating in my mind) will be better still.

I miss playing guitar sometimes, but I made the right choice to set it aside.

Mourning John Prine

anni-gupta-3ohPyV3zsjk-unsplashJohn Prine died yesterday of COVID-19. I’d heard about him being put on a ventilator and being in critical condition, so I was expecting it to happen. Nevertheless, news his death shook me up badly.

I discovered Prine’s music in grad school. I read about his song “Sam Stone” while researching a paper on anti-war songs. I found a copy of the lyrics. They moved me and I started looking for his music. Chain record stores had nothing. I scoured independent stores in Tampa and found a used copy of German Afternoons on CD.

If it had been vinyl, I would have worn it out in a week. At the time, I played guitar at coffee house open-mic nights. I started incorporating songs from the album into my sets–mainly “Paradise” and “If She Were You.” They never failed to please. Later, I found more of his music. The lyrics to “Sam Stone” were poignant. Hearing him perform it knocked me down. “Angel from Montgomery” would get stuck in my head for days every time I heard it. And I think that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” should be mandatory listening.

I haven’t played my guitar in so long that the callouses on my fingertips have faded to nothing. But I still have the guitar I used to play at those open mic nights. Tonight I’m going to get it out, and I’m going to play “Paradise” as best as I can, and I’m probably going to cry all the way through it.

John Prine was never as famous as the musicians he inspired and influenced, but his songs were honest, and the world was a better place with him as a part of it.

May he rest in peace.

(Photo by ANNI GUPTA on Unsplash)