Guitar-playing Dad

Rather than reading Catch 22 or the photography book I paid £20-odd quid for this morning to read on the boat, I thought I’d write something that was inspired by Write for your Life episode 101. Creation’s better for the soul than consumption, right? In that episode, host Iain Broome was talking about how he can’t read when he’s tired and can’t stay awake in bed for longer than three minutes. Rather than talk about how I deal with that (answer: audiobooks!), I’m going to talk about what I’ve referred to as my number one passion since I was 21, playing guitar.

When my daughter was born in 2004, I was already obsessed with guitar. I had by then bought and sold a few high-end guitars, was moderator on a couple of guitar forums (remember them?) and even ran one of my own. How good my day was was determined by how much practice time I had managed to fit in that day. We lived in Luxembourg then and it’s a very family oriented country. Parental rights of employees are very generous and so I found myself doing the modern dad thing, working part time or from home. So I was home and able to play a lot while Freya slept or watched CBeebies or Baby Einstein.

In October 2004 I made my first trip to Atlanta to meet a bunch of online friends IRL and it was utterly fantastic. (2007 jam photos) I went every year for the next five years after that, as well as a two-week trip to Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp in Tennessee. These were good times. Something that stood out to me in both places was the large number of 50-something dads with high-end guitars who were just getting back into playing after a long hiatus while their kids were growing up. I remember thinking to myself that I would never let that happen to me. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I had a kid and was playing more than ever, right? My son was born in 2006 and, same deal – play, travel, buy, sell, chat, moderate. Guitars were everything.

We left Luxembourg and moved to Arran in 2008 to take on a new business and that’s when things began to change. I started experiencing a lot of what Iain talks about in episode 10. I was too tired at the end of the day to play anything and, for the first six months, I don’t think I played for more than half an hour. But the passion began to come back slowly. I recall one evening sitting by the coal fire, getting out the guitar and playing some of my trickiest material. Much to my surprise, my playing was just about as good as ever, undoubtedly caused by the fact that I was hearing my guitar for the first time in months and in such a romantic and calming atmosphere. It never sounded so sweet.

So, problem solved? Well, kind of. My playing went from strength to strength. I got asked into a bluegrass band and had some of the best musical experiences I’d ever had, playing local village halls and opening for bigger acts like Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain and Lunasa. The Atlanta jams had stopped happening since I moved to Arran, which, selfishly, was kind of good for me as there’s no way I’d have been able to go anyway. But good fortune shone my way and the host jam, Little Brother, decided to have another one in the October when I was to turn 40. So, I gigged hard that summer, playing local hotels three nights a week and putting all the earnings into my plane ticket. And what jam it was! It was one of the best experiences of my life, to have made such good friends and get to see them all again in one of my favourite places for my birthday. And my playing then was probably as good as it’s ever been.

After that I was feeling burned out. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and the meds were making me tired and depressed. I came off the strong pain killers that had been propping me up for so long and the guitar playing started to suffer. When I was asked about the following summer’s playing schedule, I opted out. If I wasn’t in bed for 10 o’clock, the tiredness became overwhelming and gigging though the week would mean getting home at midnight or later.

Last year I had a few fairly high profile gigs and they didn’t go great. Well, in actual fact they were probably fine, but my fear prevented me from enjoying them. Family life was okay because I was now home most evenings and getting to see the kids and I was happiest staying home at nights. I’ve hardly played my guitar at all this year. I’ve felt the passion stirring when I’m out listening to music on my headphones and walking the dogs, but I’ve been getting increasingly bitter about being in middle age and not having created anything. I was listening to Fatboy Slim of all people, loving it and wondering why the hell I’d never created anything like that. I’m a talented musician, but in terms of creativity, I suck. So I began to look more towards my second hobby, photography. Like music, it is also all consuming, at least for me anyway. But it has the advantage of making me feel that I’m creating something.

And now I’m at a crossroads again. I have family and work commitments, as well as a podcast subscription list that gives me no breathing space at all during the day. My reading list is also long, but I’m struggling to get to any of that now. But why the crossroads? Well, my good friend and fellow musician that I played in the bluegrass band with has asked me to join him in a new band. I didn’t think I wanted it, but as soon as he suggested it, I got a little glow in my tummy. This guy is one of the best fiddle players I’ve ever heard and, without rhetoric, this could be the chance of a lifetime for me. I know I can commit, and stick to it. Ask my masonic brethren. My worry is the fear. I’m feeling all right just now, but I’ve felt all right before and had the fear come back. I think what I’ll have to do is get back on top of my life again. Cutting back on the podcasts would help (not yours of course Iain!). If only Myke bloody Hurley would stop putting out so much good content! I think that getting on and staying on top will keep the fear at bay. I know that because it has worked before. And better attendance of AA meetings will help too. I reached eight years last month and still need the meetings to keep the darkness away.

Thinking back to what prompted this post, I think what I’ll have to do is start scheduling things in my life again. I did it before for a few months and it was surprisingly effective. I’ll make a weekly schedule of repeating tasks and take care of things in bite-sized chunks. So, rather than reading none of Catch 22 each day because I want a decent sized chunk of time to enjoy it, I’ll allow myself to tick the box after having read only two pages. Rather than practising a song until it’s perfect, I’ll practice for 10 minutes then check the box. Last time I did this, the 10 minutes often turned into 30 or more, but the fact that 10 minutes allowed me to tick the box made me far more likely to pick it up in the first place. What can I say? I’m a box ticker. I think the advice that Iain put into his Room 101 of ‘just write’ or ‘bums on seats’ in this case can work. Schedule 10 minutes of writing time, be sure to do it at a time of day when you know you’re not going to be sleepy (tea time’s the worst for me) and write for 10 minutes. It might become 30 minutes or more, and it might not.