I find it important to occasionally take stock in my life. I do this by asking myself the question, "What's most important to me? What are the things I value the most and get the most long term satisfaction and fulfillment from?"
I feel very fortunate that the overall most important things in my life are well established, stable, loyal and unlikely to change. Those would be my wife Aeyoung and our dogs, Bridget, April and Arya. They are there every day for me and we'll always be there for each other. Hence, I don't have to really sweat the small stuff when it comes to them. I do make it a point to regularly remind them how important they are to me, but that's not the context of this post.
Once you get to the personal fulfillment level of Maslow's hierarchy, you probably need to attempt a look at yourself with a little wider lens and with consideration to the long term. Often we are so caught up in the little details of life that we lose focus on the future. Missing the forest for the trees to coin a phrase. I feel very lucky that I had two years during my Army career to pursue additional education in my field. While the knowledge was a bonus and has reaped rewards, the most important and longest lasting benefit was the amount of free time I suddenly had on my hands.
My only responsibility was to attend school for two years, so I found myself with considerable more free time that I initially filled up with just my typical recreational activities of golf, movies, reading, computer games and the equivalent. After a few months of this I had mentally reached a point where most of the static noise that tends to build up with day to day frustrations and issues that we all experience had essentially melted away.
I started to think more reflectively and internally and the one great epiphany I experienced was that I had given up one of the great loves of my life when I stopped playing guitar regularly nearly fifteen years before. It wasn't a conscious decision. I just gradually quit playing regularly, mostly because my time was more occupied and because I wasn't really making progress.
Truthfully, I had never really learned the importance and value of dedicated practice and study on an instrument. When I was a kid I think I just dreamed of being a rock star (always a guitarist) and didn't really appreciate how much work it would take to become a good if not great musician. I had friends who were very accomplished in their own rights, were members of bands, but I didn't make the connection of how much time they had dedicated to their instruments & art to reach the level of mastery they had achieved.
I took a few lessons here and there as well as buying some song books and once they became popular, tablature magazines. I learned enough guitar to be able to play three chord punk songs and albeit poorly, some basic scale patterns like the blues. I also learned very basic and sloppy versions of a few fingerstyle parts like Blackbird or the opening to Stairway. In one part of my mind I thought I was doing pretty well, and I would even have people tell me I was good. In retrospect, I think these people were just nice, positive people who wanted to say something uplifting.
I did benefit from developing a modicum of muscle memory for chords and basic scales, but I otherwise never really learned to play the guitar. I knew (and people had repeatedly told me) that I would only get better with practice, but I was either not mature enough or just had too many other areas of concern in my life that my rational mind and will never got together and agreed that work needed to be done. So, I put my guitar down.
I had owned an Ibanez strat style electric, an Ovation acoustic and a Peavey Bandit 65 solid state amp. I also had two pedals (Boss Super Overdrive and Stereo Chorus). When Aeyoung and I moved to Kentucky, we were tight on funds and I ended up pawning the Ibanez and the Amp/pedals for a little extra cash. I don't remember what we got for it, but it wasn't much. For some reason, I held on to the Ovation. I think somewhere inside I knew that letting that guitar go would be completely cutting off ties with the musician I had dreamed of becoming. So the Ovation sat in the closet. It followed us around the globe, occasionally (every few years) getting brought out of its case for a few nostalgic attempts at "Tangerine" or "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You". These attempts would add up to probably less than one hour of playing time over a 15 year period.
The ironic thing, is that I never stopped thinking like a guitar player. I would hear a song playing and immediately focus on the guitar part. I would mentally air guitar solos in my head while listening. While I was always a music fan and listened whenever I got the chance, the amount really increased with the advent of digital music players in the 2001 timeframe. It was probably partially a result of getting my first Ipod in 2003 and the subsequent increase in music listening that influenced my renewed desire to play music.
As 2003 drew to a close, I increasingly thought about guitars and music. I started to get back into buying guitar magazines and listening more to guitar oriented music and with the increase in the number and depth of websites, I was able to do more research and reading into the subject as well. I didn't realize what I was going to do overnight. Gradually as I read more (and had so much more information readily available compared to my teenage years) I started to feel the old spark of joy that I remembered from certain sentinel musical events from my childhood.
I still remember the first time I heard live music. They were the opening act for Donny & Marie at the Ohio State Fair and I was probably around 7 or 8 years old. We weren't there to see the band, my parents had just taken us to the fair that day. They were otherwise forgettable, but it was live amplified guitar, and it froze me in my tracks. I had always loved music from a young age. When I was 3 or 4, I used to insist that my parents play "Bye Bye, American Pie" anytime we got in the car. This was back in the days of analog AM/FM radios. I remember loving that song because it told a long story to music, and I just remember wanting it to go own forever. I would have killed to have my own ipod back then.
I remember the first time I heard a neighborhood kid playing an electric guitar (It was the Reidlingers a couple streets over. There were playing a really crappy version of I think, "Rock & Roll All Nite"). I remember the first time I saw Pat Metheny, and Rush, and standing against the stage while Jimmy Page played the solo to Stairway at the British Invasion show in Dallas. I remember the first time I heard/saw Eric Johnson on his 1989 Austin City Limits appearance. These were touchstones in my life. Music has always had a special power in my life in that it reaches me on a deeper and much more direct level than almost anything else I can describe. Music can communicate on many levels, often on higher intellectual, spiritual, political, and other more esoteric contexts. But Music has always had a unique quality in its ability to reach me emotionally.
I'm not an overtly emotional person. I didn't cry at my Father's funeral. I didn't feel like I was holding anything back, I just didn't feel the urge. I didn't feel any strong emotions about his death at all for several months. But one morning I woke up with a song in my head. It was very simple, just a few chord changes and some vague ideas of lyrics, but I knew it was a song about my father, and about his passing. I spent a few hours trying to work out the chord changes and jotted down some lyrics, but I couldn't continue. I was just finding myself overcome with emotion as I would hear the song and attempt to attach lyrics. I'll get back to it someday. As powerful and cathartic as this experience was, it wasn't a unique experience with music for me.
I've heard someone describe how they don't automatically get emotional when watching movies. It doesn't matter if the movie is supposed to be moving or not, they just don't have that empathetic experience while watching the drama unfold. Until the music starts playing. It doesn't matter how cheesy or nostalgic the show is, when they cue the music at the right time, it's like flipping a switch.
I don't know how else to describe it. For me, music has an immediate and powerful pathway for me. In internet parlance, it has an ultra high speed broadband connection to my emotional side. In my life I don't show or express a great deal of emotion, especially to outsiders. Even within my immediate family unit, I don't regularly show or express sadness and anger. I'm a generally stable, happy and fun loving person. I love to laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures in life, but I don't really experience a great deal of sadness. That's partly because I live a very fortunate life, but it's also because I'm just not inclined to feel sadness. It's generally not a healthy emotion in my opinion. If there's something in your life that makes you sad and you can change it, you have no business being sad. If it's something you can't change, then you should focus on something that doesn't make you sad.
But with music it's a different thing. It's truly like a switch. I can be listening to a song and feel an overwhelming wave of sadness or melancholy wash over me as I listen. And when my Iphone shuffles to the next tune which is usually something that's polar opposite to the last song, my mood can immediately reset itself to the current tune. And it doesn't feel unnatural to go from sad melancholy to high energy, angry heavy metal. It feels perfectly normal.
Music is as fundamental to my life as eating and drinking. I'm fortunate in that I'm able to listen to music all day, even at work. Wow, this is really a rambling, circular way to get to my original point.
To whit, taking stock. Music, while being a persistent and powerful force in my entire life, returned to its rightful center when I decided to resume my life as a musician. It feels weird calling myself a musician because I don't perform for others (unless you count Aeyoung and our four legged children), and I don't earn income or otherwise engage in any activity that would identify me as such that others would know. Nevertheless, getting a new electric guitar, amp, and starting to practice again felt like coming home after being gone a long, long time. My love for music had never changed, I still had that same spark of excitement when learning a new passage, finding a new sound, feeling the calluses starting to return to my fingertips. But I had changed.
Although I still had that young teenager with Rush and Zeppelin posters on his walls and dreams of knocking audiences out with my playing prowess inside me, I was a very different person by then. I had spent 17 years in the Army. I had served overseas on long tours and deployments. I had experienced Combat firsthand, done my job well, and come out relatively unscathed. I understood the value of life. I understood the value of work. I knew that the truly valuable things in life are hard won. I knew that becoming a great musician wasn't about the endpoint. These sorts of endeavors are not about the destination, to coin another old phrase. I had faced many challenges that seemed insurmountable in the past and overcome them. I knew that almost nothing is impossible (I would say nothing, but I don't care how hard I work at it, I'm not going to get a roster spot on the Cowboys) if you want it bad enough.
Oh yes, taking stock. I learned a really valuable lesson about my life in general when I got back into playing music. You have to identify what's really important to you. Take away all the superfluous bullshit that clutters up your life and leave only the things you truly can't live without. I don't mean what you would take in case of fire, we can be a little more generous than that. First and foremost it was always be my wife and dogs. After that, the most important things in my life that I can't and/or don't want to live without are essentially the same as they were when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Music, books, movies, and later video games. There's a lot more to my life and experience than that, but those are the things that truly make me happy.
I don't discount the importance or value of medicine. It's my career and it's been very rewarding to me and my family on multiple levels. But if I'm being completely honest, I could leave medicine today and never look back. I actually like my job. I like the work. It's usually interesting, low stress, and it's good compensation. But I don't have to practice medicine. If I found a similarly lucrative and low stress predictable occupation in an area I was better suited to work, I would probably consider a career change.
Not so with music, movies, books and video games. These are what makes me truly happy and will always be a part of my life. Sad to say, if I'm still alive to see my 80s and beyond, I'll still probably be looking forward to the latest version of a fantasy RPG like Warcraft when it comes out. I'll probably still be listening to my hard rock and metal, and I'll probably still be trying to attend concerts if Aeyoung and I are physically capable and have enough hearing remaining to enjoy the show.
So, what has taking stock go to do with this? I try to make a point of taking stock at least once a year or so. I ask myself where I'm at in my life, and where do I want to go? What are my weak areas and will improving them enrich my life? If so, why aren't I working on them right now?
That's the simplest way I can describe taking stock. Where are you at in your life? Where do you want to be? What do you need to do to get there? Why aren't you walking that way right now?
My current "take stock" list has been pretty stable since I got back into music. I've passed a few milestones like retiring from the Army, moving back to my hometown, getting a good stable federal job. My short/long term goals are fairly simple. We need to sell our house in Killeen and then focus on the next house we will buy which will hopefully be our last. We want to get it right this time so that we're completely content with our decision and can happily stay in that home for the rest of our lives. That's the goal anyways.
After that, my list of priorities is fairly predictable. Continue improving in music: (acoustic/electric guitar, piano, theory, ear, songwriting, production, performing) and possibly add drums and bass to my instruments, learn to read/write/speak Korean (finally after nearly 22 years of marriage), train/complete a marathon and continue running as a way of life.
The satisfying thing for me is that none of my great passions are about reaching an endpoint. As my technical ability in music improves, I'll eventually get to the point where I feel less compelled to work on technique and more on songwriting, improvising, performing. Regardless, I'll never run out of things to learn or practice. And I'll never lose my love for the process. I would have lost it by now if it was going to happen.
Also, I'll never run short of new music to listen to, new movies to watch, new books to read, or new video games to play. Life is truly wonderful. By taking stock I can see where I want my life to go and I'm thrilled to be making the journey. And if I die tomorrow, I know I've lived my life to the fullest that I could with the time given to me.