Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Taking Inventory - Part One"

I’ve been taking piano lessons once a week for the past four or so years, minus some breaks here and there, when my piano teacher goes on the road, backing some octogenarian trouper who’s still got it. People living longer has extended their careers. Retirement communities are the new Las Vegas.

My piano teacher invariably returns with some locally-flavored joke he picked up while keyboarding in the hinterlands. His most recent one came from Alabama.

The joke goes like this:

“How is a hurricane like an Alabama divorce?”


“In a hurricane and an Alabama divorce, somebody’s losin’ their motor home.”

My piano teacher likes to say that he doesn’t teach piano, he teaches people. My experience suggests this to be the case. At our first meeting, I told him my goal was to play as badly as those great composers who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and accompanied themselves as they sang. I am proud to announce that, after four years of training, I’m getting really close to playing as terribly as they did.

To be honest, I’m pretty amazed I can play at all. My hands refuse to relax, and the fourth finger of my left hand participates only under duress. It seems angry about the whole thing. Like it was kidnapped from another hand, and was forced to play the piano, when it would much rather do something else, like simply be a finger.

In the end, however, my piano-playing limitations are not the result of my setting the bar embarrassingly low or of an intransigent digit. It’s me. Or, more specifically, my attitude.

This perspective has shadowed me my entire life. It can be summarized in four words:

“I can’t do this.”

It happens every time. Whenever I start learning a new song, and every song has it tricky parts – difficult rhythms, challenging chord changes, a complicated arrangement – I almost immediately hear my mind’s mouth saying:

“I can’t do this.”

Followed almost immediately by,

“It’s too hard for me.”


“It’s impossible.”

Every single time.

What happens after that? Not right away, but eventually?

I learn the song.

Every single time.

It's just how it goes. Never once have I abandoned a song, because it was too hard for me to learn. Some songs take longer than others, but ultimately, I’ve been able to play a reasonable facsimile of all of them. I go on to a new song? I take it home to practice?

“I can’t do this.”

“It’s too hard for me.”

“It’s impossible.”

The evidence that I’ve succeeded in learning every song I’ve ever tried?


My bad attitude simply curls up its lip and, paraphrasing the line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, snarls,

“We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! We’re screwing you up anyways!”

The attitude is a constant companion. It accompanies me to the gym:

“I can’t balance myself on that big ball with my hands out to the sides.”

And then I do it.

It’s at the acupuncturist’s when he puts me on a new diet:

“I can’t drink green juice.”

And then I find a way to get it down.

And, of course, it was there at the beginning of every show I ever ran.

Best of the West

“I can’t do this.”

Family Man

“This is too hard for me.

Major Dad

“It’s impossible.”

History records that I did them all. Not always successfully. Never with style, ease, and grace – my attitude made sure of that. But I always made it through.

The next show comes along? It’s like it’s my very first time.

Habits are learned behaviors. You’re not born going, “This is too hard for me.” Though who knows, maybe you are. I seem to remember thinking something along those lines on the way out. Or maybe that was my mother.

Whether it’s learned or innate, or a combination of both, free will offers us the opportunity of resisting those habits, replacing them with something considerably more helpful.

Why shouldn’t we? It’s not like a negative attitudes is the truth, and a positive attitude is made up. They’re both made up. So why not sign on with an attitude that doesn’t make hard things exponentially harder? A reflexive “I can” instead of a reflexive “I can’t.” Or a neutral one, making no judgments one way or the other:

“Let’s give it a shot.”

I like that one. Why don’t I make that my attitude? Or, if it’s not just me – and I hope it’s not; otherwise, I’ve exposed a personal shortcoming for no valuable purpose – why doesn’t everyone suffering from “I can’t do this”-itis?

It would be nice to learn a new song without believing that it’s too hard for me.

But so far,

Despite a record of unblemished accomplishment,

I still think it’s impossible.

In case you were wondering…

Did I ever think writing comedy was impossible?

I absolutely did.

What changed my mind about that?

They started paying me. I figured if they were writing me checks, they believed I could do it. And who was I to disagree?


Julian said...

So, you would like to be able to be able to have a positive attitude, but to date you've only been successful after pushing through a negative one?

To achieve that goal, why don't you tell yourself "It's too hard to have a positive attitude. I can't do this!"?

After all. That technique has had a good success rate in the past!

Anonymous said...

Beat me to it, Julian!! What I want to know is why you try even though you think you can't do it?Are you sure you're attitude is as bad as you claim?? Most people with "real" bad attitudes never try,