August 7, 2013 at 7:19 PMHello, my name is Emily Grossman, and I'm an addict.
As I type, I'm sitting at the local coffee shop in Soldotna, Alaska, with a fresh toasted blueberry bagel and a triple-shot americano, in the tradition of my favorite morning ritual. I am a coffee drinker. I would have moved away from this sleepy little fishing town a long time ago had it not been for this incredible drink that sits on my table, which has yet to be beaten by any other coffee shop in all my travels of the earth. The day they take away my coffee is the day I no longer call myself a Soldotna-ite. Soldotnan? Soldotnatonian? Whatever they call these people here, I am, a local.
The tourist season is finally drawing to a close. During the summer, the population swells disproportionately, like the daylight hours, maddening everyone with nonstop bustle. Most people come to flip their rods at the river in a fiendish frenzy, hoping, like a slot machine junkie in a casino, to hit the jackpot and head home with a cache of bright sockeye salmon. Normally, you would find me right in the thick of the combat, dodging maverick hooks and split shot shrapnel, but not this summer. What happened; why the change? you ask. Did I finally admit I had a problem and start attending the local chapter of AA (Anglers Anonymous)?
Haha, well, not exactly... It's not just the fishing addiction: I'm addicted to checking my email. I'm addicted to facebook. I'm addicted to knitting turtles. An addict is an addict; one habit can only be cured by replacing it with another equally compelling habit. The key is to look for wholesome habits, I think. But now I'm sitting here scratching my head (I'm addicted to scratching my head), thinking about all the habits I thought to be wholesome that somehow overtook my life in a menacing, compulsive fashion.
For instance, I wanted to be healthy, so I took up running once. What began as a walk/jog down the highway a couple of miles and back grew over the years into an extreme love/hate relationship with a sport in which I was never genetically predisposed to excel, yet compelled me to ever greater accomplishments. For years, I lived by the stopwatch and the scale, trying to beat the shadow of a former self to the finish line, worried about the day when that would no longer be possible. My fastest 5K? My best marathon? My longest run? Does it even matter? (Fifty miles, through a mountain pass, one of the craziest things I've ever done...) No one else really cared but me. Gradually, fear overcame my joy, and every race date gave me anxiety attacks in the days that preceded it. Combine that with a bum knee that only grew worse as the years accumulated, and the "rock bottom" of this addiction was inevitable. Last summer, after surviving a sketchy mountain race that left two people critically injured and one missing in action (never to be found again), I finally hung up my running shoes and broke free from the compulsion. Now, I only run when I feel like it. I don't carry a watch. I try not to add up the mileage. Though tempted to count calories and carbs, I try not to look at labels and simply eat when I'm hungry. Stop when I'm full. I keep telling myself that maybe one day I'll go back to training with a healthier attitude and finally achieve this thing they talk about, this thing they call "balance."
But what happens when you don't have a "full" button? Some pursuits have a clear end to them, like the end of fishing season, or a marathon finish line tape. But others are more open-ended, beckoning like a horizon line, ever-receding as we approach. Practicing the violin, for instance, is one of those things. Seriously, can even a simple scale ever be good enough? Let's say someone wants to call themselves a real violinist. How do they know when they've arrived? Do they log their hours and get a sticker when they reach the fabled 10,000-hour mastery level? If not, then is it the day they finally join the Paganini Club? The Tchaikovsky Concerto Club? The Bach Fugue Club? What? How does one get there?
Becoming a practice addict is relatively painless and simple. It begins when a person realizes they can't play unaccompanied Bach the way they imagine it should sound. At this point, two options exist: 1.) Throw up one's hands in despair and shut the case; walk away, covering ears in order to silence the tempting siren-song following one's exit of the room. 2.) Recognize the fact that just a little focused attention to the instrument will grant even just a tiny improvement, and if there's hope in a tiny improvement, then a stack of tiny improvements may add up to a big one, and perhaps just a few big improvements away lies the Bach you've always dreamed of.
Those two options, the second being more prevalent than the first, pretty much sum up the past nine years of my life. The addiction came on so subtly, so naturally, that I almost didn't notice by the time I'd worked up to six hours a day (more hours than I sleep at night), that this isn't really what you call "normal" or "balanced." (Whatever that is...) Other things have fallen by the wayside: my house, unkempt, my cupboards bare, my bills and checks piling up in a cluttered mess on the counter. I don't even fish anymore. I am a practice addict, and I've been completely consumed. Every hour disappears in a soothing, organized fashion. In the practice room, I escape into a special sanctuary: emotional strife no longer exists, people and their contribution or lack thereof in my life become irrelevant. Whining dogs cannot reach me. Sleep? Coffee fixes that.
I practice because I can. I practice because I can't. I practice to prepare for performances, and to nail auditions. I practice because I don't want to let down the others in my ensembles. I practice for the approval of my muse, for the nod of Beethoven, for the accolades of composers and performers that went before me. I practice for spite, when doors have been shut and people abandon me. But when all is said and done, I practice for myself, for Areté, the goddess of virtue, and for the apostle Paul, who once said if anything was excellent or praiseworthy, to think on these things. To make a joyful noise to God, simply put. I hope to take flight and soar in the realm of the eternal, up with the mountain goats and eagles, and all those majestic wild Alaskan animals that grace the peaks of the unobtainable.
I'm better for it, I think. Have I arrived? Hell no. (I smugly bagged mm=138 for the presto in the B minor partita, only to witness my stand partner Michael Avagliano play the Allemande with such grace and melodic fluidity as to put my chords to shame.) It's a beautiful trail, though. I'll try to keep a camera close by and share bits and pieces with you all as it unfolds.
My name is Emily Grossman, and as I reach for another sip of coffee, I give a mental toast, to all addicts: "Hear hear!"
Really, I'm just fine; I can quit any time.
(My dogs, Ben and Chewy, putting their fetching addictions to good use.)
I currently addict to practice, knitting, sewing, painting, stenciling, cooking and soap-making. I used to addict to ideas and spent 12 years in universities doing just that until I had too many student loan debts. I used to addict to gardening and yoga until I injured myself a few times too often... What stops me and makes me to switch path each time is when things start to go out of hand. Luckily there is always something else I can find my way to addict to.
Part of the greatness of this type of self-imposed addiction is what you said, “Every hour disappears in a soothing, organized fashion.” Some calls it flow/rapt, something that positive psychologists are talking about a lot these days on topics of pursuit of happiness or wellbeing.
Having passion is a blessing. Having the opportunity, the ability and the means to sustain our passion(s) and to realize our dreams is not something we can complain about, isn’t it?
Rob Kapilow, quoting Joseph Campbell,“the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are”, said that he couldn’t think of anything better than being who we are by listening for that hmmm...
Emily, reading your blogs often leads me to hmmm...
Yixi, you strike me as a well-balanced person, so you must hide your addictive qualities well! Or maybe it's that you spread them out so well. :)
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