“Is my life going to be richer because I have avoided this… or poorer?”
—That’s one of the greatest questions I have started to ask myself. The word avoidance (I prefer not to use the word “procrastination”, which covers a more specific pattern of behavior in daily life and habits)—and all that it implies—has been a seriously troublesome issue in my life, and a thorn in my side to this day.
How it all got started.
One of the times in my life in which I had been creating things with reckless abandon and with a total disregard for whatever else might transpire was when I was a teenager. (No, I’m not talking about making homemade incendiary devices or volatile chemical compounds, sorry…) I spent hours and hours on most days in the dark basement, bashing out improvisations on the piano, notating whatever seemed like good ideas to develop, making multitrack recordings of the more promising ideas, and listening to as much music as I could get my hands on. Music was the center of my life.
During those inevitable years of teenage angst and explosive self-expression, most of my best friends were musicians (and we were in the same band together!). When we weren’t whiling away our time at our own jam sessions or making off-the-wall recordings of some spontaneous idea that we happened to come across, we would take long walks down to the music stores to check out the latest gear, browse through the racks at the local record store down the street, or go to a concert at a local venue when we could scrape enough money to do so. The money that I had earned from delivering newspapers went into buying a new P.A. system for our own concerts. I was also taking piano lessons once every week or two at the time, although I rarely devoted the time to practicing the materials that were given to me, preferring to do “my own thing”.
After the years of high school angst had drawn to a close (although with all of the avoidance of responsibility that accompanied it) and I was faced with the hard reality of what the heck to do with the rest of my life, the only idea I had was to continue focusing on my music and to make it into a “practical” career, broadening myself so that I could last for “the long haul” while developing my original music and continuing to evolve as a musician. So… it was off to Los Angeles I went.
During the time that I attended music school and for a while thereafter, I continued to spend quite a bit of time in much the same way that I did when I was a teenager—devoted to making music—although my fellow band mates and I had split up years ago while I was still in high school. I had been cultivating different relationships with different kinds of people, not necessarily musicians, although I must say that my field of vision was still rather restricted. I became much more reflective, spending a great deal of time by myself on walks in the San Fernando Valley in the cool evening air, perhaps trying to find a worthwhile path in life, trying to find solace in comfort in my own meager presence, or both.
Avoidance finds a familiar form…
In time, those moments of reflection were replaced with the need for companionship. I eventually visited Japan, found a job in Nagoya and got married, had two kids… and over time, music didn’t seem as important as it had in my burning days of “youth”. Seven years flew by, and I grew further and further distracted from the goal of developing myself further as a musician and from developing better music (much less the goal of turning it into a viable and sustainable career), and more concerned with satisfying the demands of my wife (who wanted nothing more than just to see me hold a steady job, which I infallibly did for almost nineteen years), keeping the kids happy, and somehow trying to just get a few decent hours of sleep here and there, not to mention trying to enjoy a few precious moments of privacy.
As the kids grew older, I had more time on my hands to develop musically—but I found that family matters, most notably the difficult and unstable relationship with my wife at that time—had consumed my efforts, leaving me with almost zero time to pursue the musically creative interests I once craved. I had worked at a steady full-time job as a writer, editor and translator for many years, which in itself was satisfying in some respects… but whatever creativity and energy I had been channeling into music from my early teenage years up through the time that I moved to Japan and got married was completely focused on trying to maintain a stable family relationship.
Eventually, the relationship with my ex-wife crumbled, and I separated. Sadly, she chose to severely limit the time I had to spend with my own kids to a matter of 3-4 hours each week (which I was told was a “pretty good deal” for being a non-custodial father in Japan). I spent the next ten years in the Nagoya area, trying to make sense of what I needed to do next in order to rebuild my life.
After the fall, but back to the old ways?
After the separation in 2002, I had become more and more interested in graphic design for print and for the Web, through working as a project manager with other designers at my day job, and through hands-on experience as a webmaster and content developer for a rather large Intranet customer service website of a major automotive company here in Japan. In 2007, I eventually decided to formalize my interest in graphic design by attending a three-year online program with Sessions College of Design. However, while I was enjoying most of the projects and felt increasingly more satisfied with my skills, after the first year or so, I spent a considerable time in avoiding the lessons, shirking the tasks at hand, updating my project schedules over and over only to break them again.
It’s true that my full-time job had been keeping me quite busy, and I was suffering from chronic eye fatigue and the ongoing stress due to the still unresolved marital situation with my ex-wife (although we were physically separated in late 2002, she still opposes our legal divorce to this day and has mustered up all of the strength she can to try and prevent the divorce from taking place). The fact of the matter is, though, that I had found yet another thing in my life to avoid—yet another thing that I hadn’t fully accomplished.
Frankly, I have been feeling like a failure as a musician (for practically abandoning what could have been a promising music career), and I failed to graduate from design school because I was unable to finish the coursework. There was also a string of other projects that I hadn’t been able to properly follow up on or fully capitalize on, such as the Kyokusen-Yokocho project, the Exploring花子 project, and an interesting iPad app design project for which I was basically commissioned in 2011 that I eventually turned down, as I was trying to finish up my graphic design certification (which did not happen anyway). I did a cute and effective website design for a local gelato shop, which I never completely followed up on, eventually just handing over to the owner without charge. (He massacred the design later—I am ashamed that my name is even associated with this project.) I even cut back on my day job hours back in 2011, but I wasn’t able to capitalize on the extra time. Don’t get me wrong—there were some successes as well… but the failures still ring out clearly to this day in my mind.
Even now, when it comes to music and design, avoidance seems to come as second-nature for me, as I create weekly schedules, maintain lengthy to-do lists in OmniFocus or Things, and then of course feel disappointed when I cannot muster up enough energy to bringing all of my plans to realization. The aggregation of tasks in life seem overwhelming—taxes, career directions, managing my finances, and trying to maintain some kind of a personal and family life, not to mention trying to settle my ongoing divorce (which is now an international matter requiring the service of the Hague Convention)—and it seems like nothing ever really gets done, although I suppose that I am accomplishing… something… in some fashion.
For God’s sake… why?
I’ve thought in recent years that perhaps the areas of music and design really aren’t as interesting as I believe they “should” be, and so I have made excuses to avoid them. The fact is, however, that both music and design still hold great fascination for me. I enjoy playing the piano (even just hammering away at Hanon exercises) and I really did get a lot of satisfaction out of the Sessions graphic design courses. I enjoy listening to music, although I feel impatient at times with all of the things that are going on in life and I find it a task to really sit down and devote my full attention to the music that I purchase to listen to. I like seeing new designs online, and a visit to the art museum is always something that I enjoy, although it has been a while since I’ve visited one, now that I think about it.
Perhaps the fact is that I don’t truly believe that I can be financially successful or maintain a stable lifestyle while pursuing a career composing and recording original music, or doing graphic design work for print and Web projects for clients. I often feel helplessly inferior, completely outgunned in terms of my conceptual skill level, especially in the area of design. Honestly, I know this is no way to live—it sucks. But this is the mental barrage of self-torment I’ve been putting myself through, each and every day.
The excuses never end.
Thanks to my time spent in school, I have the tools and probably the technical skills to do most graphic design work; but as for my conceptual abilities, I am still a fledgling in many ways. In the area of music, I used to have a fair degree of technical skill, enough to play in most general studio and live settings with practice. However, I have lost a great deal of my conceptual abilities over the years. Every time I start to create a new piece of music, I end up shelving it and moving on to something else. I fail to follow up. I exercise and indeed practice avoidance.
While I was working at my day job, I eventually decided to once again put together a studio rig, to get some decent gear so that I could play and record more. I did end up finally composing and recording the backbone of a song for the first time in years. However, I didn’t play nearly as much as I had wanted to. Again, I avoided the idea of practicing, of sitting down to compose or record music for the most part. I let other activities take precedence. As a result, I spread myself thin, and my musical gear ended up sitting in the corner of my living/dining room for years, mostly untouched, collecting dust.
Other things can be a distraction as well, especially with an Internet connection. I’ve met some unique and interesting people on Twitter, but there really is no end to all of the news and information there… from humorous pics and comics, to technology and travel blogs, to the latest world news about some mad dictator gone ape-wild or some big natural disaster that killed thousands or some amazing little technological advance that is supposedly going to change our lives… somehow, someday. I also get sidetracked easily by new apps and gear—the “technology” side of things—and spend a great deal of time just browsing around Amazon, Kakaku.com, Yahoo! Japan Auctions or the iTunes/Mac App Store, looking for things that seem interesting. (Honestly, the nighttime in particular is difficult for me. When I’m alone at night, I tend to spend more money… perhaps to “console” myself…)
To add insult to injury, one of the things that hurt the worst in recent months was the words of an old acquaintance from my first year in Japan. After I had mentioned my failure to complete the graphic design program in 2011 and sheepishly pointed out a list of reasons, including fatigue and being busy with work, she quickly pointed out, “That’s all just an excuse”.
Yes, that’s right. Any excuse would do. The effect is the same—I did not finish. She knew it, and I know it. I was secretly hoping for sympathy, a little understanding, a shoulder to cry on… but I also see the reality: you do, or you do not. (Yes, I know that this is a famous Yoda bit…) Either you finish what you started, or you don’t. In this case, I didn’t. I gained a lot of valuable skills and knowledge, and even a bit more confidence… but in the end, I didn’t get that piece of paper (the diploma), and I didn’t benefit from the advice and experience of the instructors in the remaining group of classes that I wasn’t able to complete. It may have been a beneficial experience in some ways, but it was a blow to my self-confidence, to know that I “really didn’t have it in me” to finish after all.
Back to the races, again.
Since returning from a four-month stay in Las Vegas in late 2012, much of my time has been devoted in launching and maintaining my freelance translation business. I have been playing my Korg digital piano quite a bit more than I used to. During work breaks, I sometimes move over to the piano and just start playing Hanon technical exercises, poke around on some Scarlatti pieces or make attempts at memorizing the music of Joplin… or just plunk away at the improvised passage of the day. I still find that I spend more time in avoiding it mentally or in finding mental excuses not to do it than just sitting down and giving it a try. I don’t know why I have spent so much time in my life like this. What I do know now, though, is that every day, every hour, every minute I spend in avoiding the things I enjoy—the things that could potentially bring satisfaction—is a day, an hour, or a minute of life that I can never reclaim. (Even the time I spent in pounding out this blog is forever lost, but I digress.)