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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

Gumption Traps

Everything came to a screeching halt.

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

January 21, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

I am my own worst enemy. I have every advantage in life - despite my mental illness. If I should fail to achieve my goals, it will be entirely of my own doing, and not because of any external obstacle I face.

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes what he calls a "gumption trap". He illustrates it with the example of a stuck screw in a motorcycle: one moment you're working away at fixing your bike, then suddenly you're stopped cold by stripping the head of a screw. Everything comes to a screeching halt.

Train locomotive crashed through wall of station

Train Wreck at Montparnasse, France, 1895
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

For the last little while, I've been very diligent about practicing my piano. I play scales for an hour, then spend an hour practicing songs. I'm re-learning several songs I once knew and had forgotten, as well as a new song that I started back in Vancouver.

Last night it all came to a screeching halt. I've spent the whole night - I've been up since yesterday - trolling Kuro5hin and Slashdot, and mindlessly reading the Google News. You'll be happy to know that all the markets in Asia have crashed.

I managed to play my scales, but not my songs. The thought of sitting at my keyboard fills me with despair. As I write this, I can see all of my hopes and dreams slipping through my grasp.

Geometric Logo

The Circle Flower

I've been up all night because I haven't wanted to go to sleep without completing my piano study. To do so would be to admit defeat.

I have drawn much of my inspiration for changing careers into music from the way I taught myself to program: I have only ever had one computer science course. Instead my old roommate and I split the cost of a used Mac 512k, and I would sit up all night writing a simple vector graphics editor I called CircleDraw; it was optimized to draw geometric patterns like the one I use for my logo.

"It's Mac Tonight," I used to say.

I've always thought that if I could teach myself to program well enough to make a career of software engineering, surely I could repeat my success by learning to play piano, and to compose.

But programming has always been much easier for me than music. I learn programming concepts very quickly; music comes much more slowly to me, and only at the cost of very difficult, persistent work. I find music fascinating not because it is easy, but because it is so mysterious.

Sometimes I go months without visible progress. While I can play some difficult pieces, I have found a few songs whose scores look very simple, maddenly difficult to learn.

My experience with music is that, despite playing regularly, I have dry spells lasting for months, punctuated by a few weeks of blazing progress.

A couple days ago, I finally learned to play a couple of those seemingly-simple yet maddeningly difficult songs. One of them I had been studying since 2004!

I think my recent progress comes from having figured out a more effective way to practice. I can't really explain it, but in recent days I'm getting more out of practicing than I used to.

I was feeling quite hopeful about all this - until last night.

It's hard to explain, but I'll try: the thought of sitting down and studying - not just practicing, but challenging myself to learn something new - fills me with dread.

This is actually a common problem of mine, when facing anything difficult. What is maddening is that I know the fearful anticipation of suffering as a result of doing something difficult is far worse than the actual act. My despair is completely delusional! But knowing that doesn't make the despair go away.

You know the line of Latin I keep posting: "Nulla Dies Sine Linea" - "Never a day without a line". It was advice that the Romans gave to artists. I first learned of it at Kuro5hin, in a discussion of my writing, where someone advised me to write every day.

In recent days I have found great inspiration in it. I've had a lot of trouble with fatigue lately, so much so that it's hard to even get out of bed, let alone play piano.

But then I say to myself "Never a day without a line" and it gives me the determination I need to sit down to my keyboard.

I was so inspired by it that I bought some fancy paper, the kind normally used for resumes, and bought a nice document frame, then made myself an inspirational poster in Illustrator. At the bottom I put a full piano keyboard, that I drew after measuring the keys of my real keyboard.

I'm intending to post a Vancouver Diary about it... here, I'll upload the PDF... here you go.

I was very satisfied with myself when I mounted it on the wall above my keyboard. It's a nice addition to my otherwise austere room. I imagined how looking at it would get me through times of trouble.

Times of trouble. Like tonight.

There it is, on the wall to my right. Mocking me.

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