I used to think that the purpose of being mature and refined was to be critical. That the only way to properly display expertise was to shoot down something perceived as lesser. That a life spent learning a certain craft meant that I had to be the biggest snob about that craft, forever standing with my arms crossed picking apart anyone offering their version of it. My particular life pursuit—the thing I do to the exclusion of other crafts and general sanity and normalcy—is songwriting. Devoting my life to songwriting means that at least part of my brain is at all times to some degree working on a song, like some computer program running in the background that is summing an equation for the elusive Unified Field Theory. Devoting your brain to something like that, it's no way to live a decent life. It's no way to be a selfless, social human being. I teach a songwriting class summers at a rock camp for teens in Pendleton and I always find myself fighting the urge to start every class by shouting, "Get out of here! You don't want to do this! Find a rope swing! Put your hand out the window of a car on the highway and surf the wind! Just don't sacrifice your happiness by trying to write another song! We have enough songs!" But maybe I feel that urge because I'm trying to thin the herd of possible competition, throw them all off the trail while I secretly calculate how to write a perfect song. I'm sure serial killers devote a similar portion of their brainpower to figuring out the perfect way to catch their prey and dispose of the body. They are still probably better conversationalists at parties than songwriters.
The equation for songwriting, if it were an equation, not that I would ever write it as an actual equation, would look something like this:
[(p +e) * h] / y = x
Wherein p is the pain of living with your heart over-exposed, e is the embarrassment of being a grown man sleeping in your van, h is all the happiness you've put aside to play bars with blown speakers in Arizona, y is the amount of physical years you've sacrificed by malnourishing and mistreating your body, and x is, of course, a perfect song. If all of those factors could reliably produce a perfect song, then it would be worth it. But the equation is, of course, imbalanced. X is unattainable.
Being a writer has to involve breaking your own heart every day, like how Rocky would crack open an egg and eat it raw while he was training for a fight. Any time a protective covering forms around your tender areas, you have to break them open and expose yourself again. There's no other way. Otherwise you're just writing out words dispassionately as though you're taking a typing test. And, like training for a fight, writing words is literally last on my list of things I want to do at any given moment. I will whine and plead and bargain myself out of having to write down words. Just staring at a screen and trying to put inexpressible thoughts into insufficient language is too much like mud wrestling my own childhood regrets. It's trying to pinch open the spout on those single-serving cartons of milk while I dread the post-lunch social studies class where the football player is going to laugh at my collar shirt underneath my cable-knit sweater. I'd literally rather do anything. But avoiding writing makes me feel too much like a kid with a swimming pool in summer who stays inside watching tv. I should really swim in that pool. I'm lucky to even have a pool.
Andy Rooney was, believe it or not, a writer. It was sad when he died the other week and all the headlines said, essentially, "Old Curmudgeon Finally Dies." His irascibility became shtick, and you can't argue with a consensus of headlines around the country that determined that he was just a sourpuss. Would you want your life to be summed up by the opinion that you were someone who was grumpy and annoyed at everything? I wonder at what point you slip down that path and forever become a curmudgeon. As a young man he was a war correspondent who was one of the first people to visit the Nazi concentration camps after they were shut down. Maybe that's a good enough reason to become a curmudgeon.
In the beautiful and baffling film The Tree of Life, the mother at one point says, "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." To me, that is the only way to charge into old age: to try to open up and be more and more loving.
For example, my friend Dave is the biggest true fan of music that I know. He genuinely tries to like every piece of music that he comes across. I used to think this was foolish. How could you trust someone's opinion if they always like everything? But now I think that trying to love everything you come across is really the only worthwhile pursuit. When Dave hears a new album and initially doesn't like it, he'll try to listen it again while he's going to sleep, or out jogging, or in some other mood or under some spell. He tries to will himself into liking music. Why isn't that what I do? I always resist liking something new, like I'm trying to force myself to find men sexually attractive. Instead of being open to a new band, I need to hear twenty positive recommendations of it before I'll even listen to a song, and two seconds after the vocals come in I'll have made up my mind that I can never get into. If the voice doesn't feel like home, if it doesn't sound like a memory I love reliving, then it's not worth getting involved.
Over the last few years I've found myself only going out to shows because I want to run into a certain person I've been too preoccupied to call on the phone, or to remind a bandleader that I exist and would love to open for them on tour, or to check out a new band not as much for what they sound like, but how many people they can draw on a Wednesday night. When did these become the main reasons for going out to shows? If music were food, it would be like going to a restaurant just to talk to the waiter and see how many people are seated and see how fast the risotto comes out of the kitchen. Why don't I just sit down and feed myself? Most nights I leave a show feeling empty and unfulfilled. It's not the fault of the music. I think it's the fault of me, the listener. Lately I only feel nurtured when I go see something that is outside my main discipline, like dance or comedy or theater. When did it become so hard to stand up close to the stage, unfold my arms, give my energy to enjoying the music, looking for reasons to love instead of reasons to hate? If this is what it feels like to turn into a curmudgeon, I'd rather change the sails and take a different tack. There is, after all, still time.