Monday, February 28, 2005

Decisions, choices

I was playing with my daughter tonight, just before I put her to bed. That isn't what we usually do. I try to heed that sensible advice, to keep everything calm just before I put her down. But I just couldn't help myself. So we jumped on the sofa, and ran around the sofa table, and rolled on the floor. I sang silly songs to her, and pretended to sneeze a lot, which is what really cracks her up these days.

It was when I was carrying her upstairs that she sighed. This completely care-free sigh of a child, riding the train of life along what seem like never-ending tracks. No stops in sight. No forks in the road. No decisions to be made. You wake up. You are dressed, fed, teeth are brushed, you're dressed some more. You are driven to the daycare, where you eat every now and then, play, sleep, look at a few books. Then you are picked up again, you play some more, you eat, you're bathed, put in pajamas, teeth are brushed again, more playing, and then you are carried off to bed.

And I started thinking. When did this really stop? I mean, when did I have to make my first real decision? The first hard one?

First, there was a period where I actually got to have choice. What clothes to wear, what to eat, whom to talk to, what movie to go to. Then that choice widened. When to go to sleep. To smoke or not to smoke. What to smoke. What subjects to pick in school. What to do in my love life. Once I had a love life. Somehow, these choices were not that hard. Sure, they seemed all-important, at least at the time. But there always seemed to be a Right Answer to every question. One possibility was always better than the rest.

I guess it wasn't until I turned twenty, that I actually had a life-defining decision to make. One that had only two choices, and neither one was better than the other.

One the one hand, I wanted to live my life playing the piano. I had been playing for more than a decade. It had become an important part of me. A beautiful voice of my own. Something that I was really proud of. At a time when there was not much about me that made me proud. Playing gave me this wonderous feeling of honest, innocent joy. Music would open up to me and allow me to delve into it, forgetting everything else in my life. And it felt so good. Freeing, novel, soothing. Powerful. Humbling. Good. I knew I could do this. I did not have long to go before finishing my education as a soloist at the music college. My teacher was happy with me. I had a good relationship with my instrument, my soul seemed to have a really good connection to my fingers. My technique was quite good. It was all good.

But not great.

And therein lay the problem. I was not great. I would never be able to concentrate on just performing. Playing what I felt like playing. For other people. That luxuray is reserved for only the truly great. Which I wasn't. I would have to take up teaching. Spend much of my time listening to other people maiming pieces of music, again and again and again. Music that I knew I could play way better than they ever could. I loathed the idea of it. Which is strange to think about now, when one of the most fun things to do for me is to teach at the university, or to tutor math or comp sci to high school kids. But then again, that is different. These are merely things of interest, not hardwired down into my feelings.

My other choice was to find something other to do. Something that wouldn't pain me, but I could still become interested in. They say that those who don't know what graduate school to go to, eventually go to law school. So I tried that. And, luckily enough, became somewhat interested in it. Eventually, I found myself a niche in which I am certain that I am more content than if I was teaching other people to play the piano. Every now and then I find myself in front of a piano again. And sometimes I try playing it. Understandably, each time I remember less than the year before. This once integral part of me has become a stranger. I have now lost this voice that I had. And all the things that I was able to say with it.

When I think back, it seems silly to me, that this turned out to be such a life-altering decision. That this was my first lose-lose decision of real consequence. Now that I am older, I have had to make other, even less pleasant decisions. And I also see my friends and family facing even harder choices. Like quitting college, because they can't justify to themselves running up more debt to pay for it. Or ending a marriage that they feel has taken a wrong turn, and thus facing the ire of a hurt child. Or staying tied to a place because that is where you can get work, even though your heart has moved over the border to a different country.

Maybe this is what choices do when you get older. First there becomes more of them. Then they get harder. Finally, you get to make decisions that hurt you. No matter what you choose.