Mom, lawyer, musician?

I have very little time but love playing the guitar!

Published July 8, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You were in a band, right? Can I ask you a sort of silly question? I know that people have more important issues, but this has been bugging me and I figured if you would answer someone's question about taking a vacation, maybe you would think about this one.

I am 46, a lawyer, with kids, cats, a house, a husband ... typical boring middle-aged overeducated mom. I spend two hours a day commuting to my job, so I get up at 5:30 and get home around 7 at night on good days. I spend my evenings and weekends with my family, and have very little time for extras.

But a few years ago, I realized that being a middle-aged, fat and out-of-shape mom had rendered me invisible to almost everyone. It was initially a little sad to be invisible, but I eventually realized that invisibility meant I could do things my ego would have prevented when I was young and, well, seen. About a year ago I sucked up my courage and started doing something I have always wanted to do -- I started taking guitar lessons on Saturday mornings while my kids take their piano lessons.

Taking lessons is a vunerable and exposing experience even for those of us who are invisible, and I was lucky to snag a sweet, patient and talented young man for a teacher who tries very hard to be positive -- but I am terrible at playing guitar. I have maybe one or two songs that I can stumble all the way through (with frequent jarring mistakes and string buzzing galore), but mostly, I just know some open chords and struggle to get even one barre chord right. I am good at keeping a beat, but I can't easily play individual notes because my fingers seem to get tangled up in the strings -- I know it should be an A and I hit the E string and I keep getting it wrong.

So, by myself, I practice my lessons for a while and then I find that I just hold the guitar and I strum through the chords I know over and over because I can and because they seem so beautiful to me when I don't try to make them into a song -- I can't believe this delicate instrument can make such a lovely sound. I have loved learning about the guitar -- it makes listening to music a whole new experience for me and makes me want to be able to do it even more.

I do a lot of things fairly competently. I taught myself to play piano when I was a teenager, and while I don't know music theory and I am not a brilliant, intuitive piano player, I am not bad at sight-reading and playing sheet music. I love music and spend many hours a day listening to a lot of different things from bluegrass to rock to classical and opera ... This year, I worked for months at just being able to play the chords on the guitar -- it hurt so much to build up calluses. (I am proud of my calluses now!) I thought all that time that when I could play without wincing, it would start to come together. But I can't seem to "get" it.

I admit that I find it really hard to find time to practice. Sometimes I bring my guitar with me in the car and try to practice between meetings or instead of taking lunch, but it is not easy to hold a guitar in the car, and there isn't really enough time. I frequently practice late at night after everyone else is asleep, but sometimes I am just too tired to practice. I am fat for the same reason, I think -- just too tired and too busy to fit in exercise. So I have these two things that I feel like I need in my life (exercise and making music) and I can't fit them in.

I guess my question is, when should I just give up? The guitar is not strictly necessary and I am pretty awful at it. I am thinking that maybe exercise is more important if I have ten minutes available to do something, or maybe I should just spend "music" time practicing and getting better at piano since I am already okay at that. But the songs I want are on the guitar and I want to be better at playing it -- I want to learn to play this instrument even as I don't see it ever coming together. My kids roll their eyes when I play and my husband sort of gently keeps asking me why I am bothering with this and "where do you think this is going?" and I can't tell him that I have these ridiculous fantasies of playing and singing Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" to myself, or playing and singing backup vocals with any old local bar/cover band ... it makes even me snort to think about it.

How do you know when it is time to give up?

Unseen and Unlistenable ;>)

Dear Unseen,

Yes, I did play guitar in a band. I also sang and wrote songs. (See the link below.)

But this is about you. What strikes me is your zeal for music. When you talk about music there is real sparkle and zest. So I want to encourage you to keep playing music. You don't have to play guitar to play music. And you don't have to play "well." You can play tambourine with a bar band. That would be fun. You can play piano. You can strum your guitar for your own enjoyment, as you do, listening to the wonderful, rich tones it makes, enjoying the sound for its own sake. Music can be for you.

Guitar is hard to learn late in life when you don't have hours and hours to practice. But you need music in your life. You are obviously very musical. And you are driven. Anybody who tries to practice guitar in the car on their lunch break is driven.

But you have to find the time for it. On the purely practical side, you seem to be well organized, but you do not have a good time-management system. A good time-management system would serve your own needs. Your time-management system serves the needs of others. But it does not make you happy. A good time-management system would allow you to do the things you want to do. You might read "Your Money or Your Life," and/or  "The Lifelong Activist" and/or "Time Management from the Inside Out" to get some control over your time.

But what's really interesting to me is your insight about your invisibility: how being fat made you invisible, and being invisible gave you freedom. That just blows my mind! I know as men we sometimes do not appreciate the burden of being constantly seen. To constantly be the object of others' gaze. As if you were under surveillance! As the constant object, you must always prepare yourself for men's eyes. So you spend your life preparing, arming yourself for that ordeal of being seen. Then one day you are invisible, like Sue in the Fantastic Four. To your surprise, when you are invisible, you are free to create.

As a white male, I can be invisible. I am not watched. I am just some guy, unprepossessing and a bit sloppy. Also, I can fail. I can make an ass of myself. I have the freedom to fail. No one is going to indict the whole race of white men because one white man fails. Hell, we fail constantly!

But if you are a woman and everything depends on your being seen a certain way, then you  cannot fail, and thus you cannot create, or learn! Some great calamity will befall you if you sing off key! Now this may be in part your individual upbringing. So let's not indict our whole culture. Let's just say that what you feel is real, and amazing.

So I urge you to carve out some time for yourself. And whatever you do, do not surrender the Saturday morning that you have already conquered. If you do not keep playing guitar, then find some other musical project for that time. Do not stop playing music! You are too scheduled with other tasks as it is. Hold this ground!

Each of us must find some sphere in which we are adequate and pleasing to ourselves. If those around us deny us this basic need, then we must find some way to get out from under their censorious gaze. We must!

But anyway.

I love the image of your sitting just strumming those chords. To me, that means you really do have a musical soul, that you can just sit and hear those notes resonate, and appreciate the complex sounds. I do that too sometimes. I just sit and strum and enjoy the sounds. That is what music is for, don't you think? To soothe us, to give us pleasure? So if we can take pleasure in a few chords, let's do that. Lets just put a few chords into the air. If I'm just doodling around on the guitar, it puts a little music into the air and people like that. I may not think I'm doing much, but I'm putting a few notes into the air, and people appreciate it. Very simple sounds from the guitar are pleasant indeed.

But then something happens when we announce we are about to play a song, and everyone turns to listen and judge. Then we are in the spotlight, on the hot seat, and we screw up and feel shame. So I think that in our culture we do not have a good relationship with music. We could do much better. We could lighten up and sing some songs. We could laugh about how badly we play. That might make us all feel a little better.

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By Cary Tennis

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