Did God, or whoever organises these things, send Monday’s jazz session along to give me something to write about? Probably not given that I’ve written about this aspect of retirement several times before and almost always in the context of me playing jazz either on guitar or, latterly, piano. The aspect in question is, as you’ll guess from the title of this blog, about setting oneself challenges as a retired person. It may be that there is something special about challenges in a retirement context. It’s not that I didn’t set myself challenges before I retired. Working in other countries would be an example. Much easier to have turned down the offers especially since, after the first big one – teaching in Special Ed in the USA, I knew exactly how much of a challenge they would turn out to be. And they were and we rose to them, so not an unknown experience for me.
This is just one example, albeit a bloody big one, of pushing myself (and the family) to the limit and even beyond, all in the name of proving myself to be something I wasn’t at all sure I could be. So over the years we’ve been no stranger to challenges and their close associate – self-esteem building or sometimes destroying. And yet there has been something about setting myself challenges as a retired person which has a flavour to it quite unlike any pre-retirement ventures. Self-esteem and retirement is, as I’ve written before, a funny old business.
It sometimes seems that there is an element of almost desperation to this aspect of my retirement. It’s not desperation across the board you understand because, in lots of ways, I’m happy with what form my retirement has taken. However in the area of pushing myself generally to learn new skills and specifically to play jazz guitar and now piano (on account on my fingers becoming increasingly arthritic – piano being somewhat easier chord-forming wise than guitar – and how old does that sound? How bloody ironic is it that, as my knowledge has increased, my physical skills have decreased at a proportionate rate?).
As I was saying, an element of desperation. But why, what am I trying to prove and to whom am I trying to prove it? I’ll take the last one first because it’s easier. I think the only person I am trying to prove anything to is myself. I’m quite clear about that. I’m pretty sure that nobody else in my life ‘gives a monkeys’ about these challenges and I mean that in the nicest possible way. As to the ‘why’, that’s trickier. It may be something about raging against the dying of the light and the last time I used that phrase and attributed it to Dylan I got a comment from somebody who said Dylan never said that. Wrong Dylan of course, on his part that is not mine.
If only I achieved satisfaction, boosted my self-esteem (and why would I want to do that?) simply by the taking part. You know the classic it’s the journey that matters not the arrival. But it’s not true. Showing up to these Monday jazz sessions and being crap but telling myself, and the rest of the group, that it doesn’t matter that I’m crap because it’s the effort that counts, simply isn’t going to fly – a bit like my solos sometimes.
Once again you ask, why is he writing this now? Well even if you don’t I’m going to try and tell you. I’ve been attending these fortnightly jazz sessions since last September, you work out how many that might be and each one has been a challenge but I have, as they say, hung in there. You have to remember that the rest of the group have all been playing jazz for a long time and do so in other contexts along with Monday’s, for them, I suspect, low key gathering. But Monday just gone was particularly difficult. As always with these things there were complications. It’s all very well saying play what’s in front of you and forget everything else and this applies in a musical and sporting context, but it’s not that bloody simple. Circumstances have an effect. In this case matters were put in the mixer because of my white van and a new person joining the group. Explaining this any further would be too tedious but they affected me and I started the session two-nil down to use the sporting metaphor.
Layered on top of this were the usual bug bears. For example, am I playing too loud or too quiet? Fairly basic considerations I think you’ll agree and pretty simple to sort out you’d think. And yet, and yet, even before it gets to the opinions of others in the group and of course they tend to have different views and fair enough, there’s my own take on it. When even I can’t decide, well you know there’s trouble ahead. If I play too quiet then I can’t hear myself and if I can’t hear myself then I can’t tell if I’m playing it right (and correct it). But then if I play louder and I’m playing it wrong then other members of the band can hear me playing it wrong. And that’s not good, so turn it down, but then I can’t hear. Oh dear, I think you’ll spot some faulty thinking in there somewhere
And, as if that wasn’t sufficiently confusing, then there’s the underpinning, or over-arching, fact that this is the last practice before we do, what for me is, my first live gig as a jazz piano player. As a way of keeping this challenge within some kind of bounds, I have decided not to take any solos on the gig. Simple, but then the old ego raises its unlovely head and I feel small for not agreeing to take a solo (not that anybody really cares) and hasn’t Ian who’s been in the group less time than me and plays guitar, taken on two or three solos. Bugger, this is hard, why am I doing it, why am I putting myself through this mental torture? And at the end of the session when somebody asks me if I enjoyed it, I cannot stop myself saying no, I did not and I’m thinking about pulling out of the gig and maybe the whole damn thing.
God I hate this neediness, a patheticness that only seems to happen in this learning environment / challenge setting. Anyway my band mates, if I may call them that, make suitably supportive noises which is nice and means I’ll probably carry on at least to the next crisis but what form of attention-seeking strategy did I have to employ to get this reaction. I am not proud of myself and if I’m not then surely this rather negates the whole purpose of this retirement challenge?