Plan to improvise

I’m playing sax again. This is a great development. Music has been a quiet joy for me for quite some time, and to have it back in my life in a place where I’m using it is super cool.

I play off and on, at church, and it’s at once strange and awesome. Sax doesn’t usually fit into your typical rock-bandy set-up that churches use: guitar, drums, keys, vocals, and whatnot. That’s been the problem, and the barrier.

I remember the first time I’d lent my services as a windbag was when I was in a youth group in Ontario. They asked if I needed music, and I waved them off. “No, I don’t need it.” Was it bravado? Avoiding conflict? Or the belief that I could do it? All of it, probably.

***

I’ve described Kari as “relentlessly practical”, and I do so with the highest of affection (and a little playful teasing, at worst). She has a good budget, plans her meals, and is not terribly indulgent with her extra money. This has been something of a boon for me, as I’ve not needed to spend to excess to sustain the relationship.

I recall a point early on in our relationship, probably a few months in. I was at her apartment, while she made dinner. There was a list on her fridge. I looked it over: entrees, desserts, of different varieties. She’d made a list of things that she might cook for me at some point.

To say I was floored when I first saw the list would be an understatement. She was so on top of her life that she wanted to know what she was making, and put in the work before I got there. I was always impressed with her cooking: not just the quality, but the planning, the effort. And every time, there was more with it. Each piece of the dinner had a place: a protein, a vegetable, a starch, a dessert that went with it.

As we went, and she made things on the list, she scratched them off, as if concerned to have them again (which, the majority of the time, I was not, since she is an excellent cook). But as much as the meal itself, it was the planning, the thought, the care in picking that impressed me. I was never so precise.

*****

It was the Ontario experience that honed my want to improvise. Without sheet music, you learned to listen and pick up things. It usually took me a couple of trips through a song, and I would have something figured out. Sometimes it worked. Others it didn’t.

And so it happened, off and on over years, that I would join various church musical teams, preferring that to organized band-like groups, which erred a little too close to high school for me. I liked a sound that I would actually listen to. I liked being part of a smaller group, on stage. And there was a little part of me that enjoyed it when I surprised skeptics with making a “doodling sax” fit in with an otherwise straightforward musical outfit.

But you learn, and adapt. Many smarter people than me have honed the instinct, to not just play and riff and do what I want, but to come and go, to really use it when I join in, and not stomp on the rest of the band. This took a lot of time for me to really learn and appreciate. Part of that was not often having the opportunity, but now, playing more often, I can relax, and let it go, really get into what I’m doing.

Now, we’ve got a guy who has an orchestral background, and even has music for me when I join in. A younger version of me would have missed being off the leash, being able to do what I want, but the older me can lay back and enjoy it more.

*****

Dennis and I rarely plan meals prior to the day of said meal, and such was usually the case when I cook for Kari, which has been more common of late. I’d be ashamed to admit how often it was a couple of hours before she came over, I’d wander over to the grocery store, looking for inspiration.

I’ve gotten better at that, and more than a little of that is her influence on me. She has health and practicality on her mind when she makes meals, and that’s a really good, grounded perspective to have. I guess I never really needed to, when it was just me to worry about.

But it’s not just me any more. If I want a life that includes someone else, I need to think about it. I don’t get to walk through the grocery store, waiting for the perfect idea to hit me before dinner. And that’s probably better.

I chuckle when she calls me a good cook, and this is why: I’m just making it up as I go, usually. She works. She puts the effort in, and deserves it. I believe that I don’t, sometimes.

*****

I’m looking for a new job now. That’s a little scary. A few months ago, it wasn’t part of the plan. Maybe it should have been. But sitting back and letting things happen, or riffing my way through, isn’t an option anymore. Not that this is bad.

A couple of years from now, this will be the best thing that happened to me, I think. Right now, it’s a little scary. I’m not a banker any more. And that’s fine. I made that choice, and in some ways, I feel better than I have in years.

Gun to my head, I would have said I didn’t like banking. There were parts of the job that got me through: good clients, putting people in better financial situations, helping friends in the rare situation I could do that. But I couldn’t sell. I couldn’t handle conflict as well as I wanted to. There were anxieties that stayed with me when I went home, gnawed at me through the night, and weighed on me as I approached the door to work in the morning, and I couldn’t deal with them.

I was coasting on my natural talent, making it up as I went, being a “good guy” who people liked, but not genuinely planning or applying myself to be the best I could be. And that wasn’t right for them, or for me. So I quit. It wasn’t practical, or correct, or planned, but I did it anyway.

I keep thinking of how much of life so far has just been me improvising on the fly, just making it up as I go. The further I go into adulthood, the more I’m convinced It’s all that way. You can’t plan for everything. But sometimes, I wished I’d planned more, or better. Improvisation can be skill, and I’m thankful I have it. But sometimes, a good plan really helps too.

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