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"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
- G.K. Chesterton
When I first stumbled across Chesterton's quote I read it as a parody of the adage "Anything worth doing is worth doing well," a motto I had always embraced.
At the age of 45, my intense need to overachieve had left me in a state of burnout. I was a cranky, depressed insomniac. Yet I refused to take time off work, drop mileage from my triathlon training, or say "no" to any opportunity to prove my capabilities. If I sound like an annoying, goal-oriented, self-obsessed individual, I probably was.
I grew up in a household where average could always be improved upon – a B could have been an A; second place was not first.
A little research into Chesterton's beliefs confirmed my initial reaction. Chesterton praised the merit of the amateur; he defended mediocrity.
The notion of imperfection intrigued me. Could satisfaction be gained from incompetency, or even failure?
Not long after, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. When I researched the disease, I was alarmed by two risk factors – it may be genetic and a history of concussion may influence its development. Both my grandmother and my aunt got Alzheimer's. A few years ago, a cycling accident catapulted me through the air and face first into the roadway. I was left with shattered teeth, a broken jaw – and concussion. It was as if my brain's glossy operating system had crashed and all that remained was a dark screen with a blinking green cursor. It took a year to reboot.
One day, I came across a study that said playing an instrument might reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. It was worth a try.
"I'd like to learn to play the violin," I told my husband over breakfast.
His coffee sputtered across the table, followed by a fit of snorts and laughter (a response I've learned is the universal reaction to such a statement made by a 45-year-old with no prior musical experience). I didn't know I could be so funny.
"You can't be serious?"
I thought of Chesterton's words and lifted my chin: "Absolutely. Look, you can buy a violin on Amazon for $100."
My savvy shopping idea was rewarded with more shrieks and guffaws, followed by a lecture on the decline of quality through mass production.
"Will you take lessons?"
"No, I thought I'd just wing it." I'm ashamed to say I was serious on this point.
A week later, my violin arrived. I'd prepared myself for the inevitable screech and impending violation of my eardrums, but when I picked up the instrument and swept the bow across the strings, I was shocked. Silence. I tried again. In a frenzy of frustration I pulled the bow faster and harder against the strings. Still silence. Apparently, even playing poorly requires skill.
I signed up for lessons. Surrounded by five- and six-year-olds, I waited in the music studio's reception room. Beside me sat a pint-size blond girl with pigtails and pink sneakers. I couldn't help but size her up: Yeah, you may think you're cute stuff but I'll whip you at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
I jumped to my feet and a tiny woman with a huge smile and sparkling eyes greeted me.
"So you want to play the violin?" she said.
I heard a treble of a giggle from behind – Pink Sneakers, no doubt.
My instructor may be petite, but her enthusiasm is enormous and her patience exemplary. Since starting my lessons, I've discovered how to make a flawless screech in perfect fifths. She never cringes. And when she accompanied me for the first time, I felt an extraordinary thrill. I realized that harmonizing could be even more exciting than playing solo.
I recently went to visit my parents. My father grows more confused with every day and is tormented by hallucinations.
When I brought out my violin to play, my mother joined me at her piano. I'm more thumbs than fingers, but my mother (bless her) tried to keep time with my beat. After a few songs, my father stood and shuffled to the closet. Mom and I paused, shocked when he returned with his harmonica. He hadn't played in years. As we continued, my father brought the instrument to his lips and blew.
The melody we played was erratic at best, but when we finished our excitement brimmed forth as if we'd performed with the Royal Philharmonic. We'd reversed time. For a moment, my mother had her husband back and I was their little girl.
Maybe my father's frustration with his daily challenges has left him more tolerant, because for once he didn't criticize my effort. Instead he looked at me and said, "You're doing a fine job, Kim." I couldn't remember the last time he got my name right.
Sometimes a thing is just worth doing.
Kim Mead lives in North Vancouver.