Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tied hands - and the value of time

It's been eight weeks since I wrote on this blog; the longest break for years. Not that I've been idle; rather my hands have been tied - quite literally at times.  And I've been thinking too, about the value of time.

All my adult life I've longed to play the saxophone. The wish began in Park View Records - a tiny jazz store that just happened to be on my route home from school. The owner didn't much care if you bought anything - so I'd hang around listening to the latest releases from Verve and Blue Note. At a time when my mates were drooling over Debbie Harry and Kate Bush, I was reading cover notes on Stan Getz and Ben Webster. I still reckon I got that right.

And yet, despite my wish, and always a love of jazz - I never quite had the nerve to buy one.  Somehow, actually playing wasn't for me, and especially so the sax - it was too cool, too loud; too much of a statement. And in any case, I was crap at music - or at least I had been at school. What's more, I didn't understand it; chords and scales and tempos were a mystery - scary even.

I told myself I could paint and draw - and resolved to be happy with that. Later I'd learn to climb and kayak - later still to be a writer. But as for playing the saxophone, that would remain an unfulfilled dream...

I'm not sure what changed my mind.

My faltering progress on the banjo (a basic competence after three years of struggle) didn't hint at a latent talent. I turned fifty some years ago, so it wasn't even a rash present for the big 'five-zero'.  There was no bet involved, no sponsorship, no dare; the truth is, I hadn't thought about playing the sax for years.

So when I happened by chance to pass through London's Tin Pan Alley I wasn't expecting to say, why the hell not?  Even less was I expecting that after ten minutes sales chat I'd be lugging home a big old tenor, and a good one at that - in for penny (quite a lot of pennies actually); in for darn old racket.

And I love it.

It took a certain nerve, and a very thick skin - for your neighbours won't love you at first - to make those first few squeals notes. But in a matter of days the familiar obsessional drive began to kick in. I could feel it taking hold: awake at night thinking of scales; drumming my fingers in imaginary patterns; not bothering to write! If proof were needed, the other week I devised a system of elastic bands to hold my fingers closer to the keys.

My only regret is that I waited so long. I feel a need to make up for lost time. In my more wistful moments I imagine how good I'd have been - and the pleasure I'd have had - if only I'd bought one at eighteen.

In a sense that last thought is pointless as well as hypothetical - for there is nothing I can do about it. And yet it harbours a deep truth about the value of time.

We all know that time can't be bought.

When economists try to capture its value they succeed only in part. Figures show that in real terms  £10,000 is worth 30% less than eight years ago - in four more, it's value will have halved. But this approach can't possibly capture the true loss - for even if we account for inflation, and add in a risk premium or a super-bonus just for the heck of it - what of the missed opportunity, the pleasures that could have been; the joy and memories forgone?

We intuitively know this. It's why we borrow at times - because the benefit of consumption today is so much greater than waiting for a tomorrow that might never come. We extend our mortgages because we need a bigger home when the children are small, not when they're off to college. And we know too that some opportunities come once in a lifetime.

And yet, so often we put off the things that cost very little.  When I said my saxophone was a lot of pennies, in truth, it wasn't much more than a few fills of petrol. It's the effort it takes that is the real inhibitor.  I know I'll never be much of a jazz musician and in a way that makes me sad - but less so than the prospect of dying like Croesus, who despite his infinite wealth had nothing to show for it.

Deep down, we know that time costs nothing yet has infinite value.

And as I play my saxophone one of things I ponder is how casually I've spent so much of it.

But the lament is not exclusively a sadness, it's also a call to action. For if a good life is a one richly lived, there's time enough to do much more - time to focus on what's possible, rather than what's not or might have been.  Time to rethink priorities.

Time even, to start writing again.


  1. I am so happy to see you here again. I had begun to wonder what was keeping you away. You're right about the value of time and I've found myself saying "oh, what the hell," much more than I did in my younger days. It is too bad that we somehow have the idea that we should not do something we would like for lack of time or money when the interest is clearly there and not fleeting.

    Best of luck with your continued writing.

  2. Very wise words and thought provoking.

    There is a cafe here in town called Blue Note,a quick Google reveals there is also a jazz club in NY by the same name and the definition of a blue note according to Wiki "In jazz and blues, a blue note (also "worried" note[1]) is a note sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale for expressive purposes. Typically the alteration is a semitone or less, but this varies among performers and genres."

    It's true, you learn something new every day :-D

  3. You have been missed. This was a joy to read and to contemplate, stirring the senses. There is that dxxm button accordion I never did learn to play. It sits waiting for the dog to howl.

  4. I am glad to find you again...and then I find you had abandoned us for a musical instrument/

    And so you should. Being able to do something because you want to and you can is precious and the whole piece makes me think back to wasted opportunities because I put work first.
    Opportunities that I only really see now...then I was too busy, being careful with money, whatever it was that obscured my vision.

    I did enjoy your rubber band solution to keeping control of the keys.

  5. Hi Mark, I had been wondering where you'd gone. Nice to know you've been using the time well :)

  6. Good to see you back, Mark, but wow, what a reason for your absence! Our daughter started to learn the sax in her late 30s and loves it enormously and now plays very well (to my untutored ears). She started more gently than you on an alto sax, before graduating to the tenor, so I know what you've been going through. :-)

    I so agree about the value of time versus money and about not refusing challenges just because we're getting older. That's why I fulfilled a long-held ambition and went into full-time parish ministry in my mid-50s and have never regretted it!

  7. "For if a good life is a one richly lived, there's time enough to do much more - time to focus on what's possible, rather than what's not or might have been."

    Yes! I'm borrowing that, to post it on my Facebook status. (With credit, of course.)

  8. Seize the day. Wasting time is a crime.

  9. Good to see you back!
    Just do it and It's only money are two of my mottoes. Life is short.

  10. Oh you admirable man! Enjoy making music. It is never too late. Nae pockets (or saxophones) in a shroud. Do what makes you smile - and eventually it'll make the neighbours and family smile too.

    You've given me a shake. I want to go horse-riding. I think I just will!