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VOL. 46 | NO. 48 | Friday, December 2, 2022

You don’t have to be a gambler to know when to quit

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Americans prize tenacity, doggedness, as reflected in the adage “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” But there’s something to be said for knowing when to judiciously throw in the towel.

Remember last year when I wrote about deciding to learn the guitar? Well …

Quitting and I have a long history. One of the earliest examples doesn’t seem to have even been a conscious decision: I was a Cub Scout for a while and then I wasn’t. Not related, I don’t think, to having accidentally smashed the den mother’s window with a baseball. Or to the fight with fellow Cub (and later friend) Pete Trowbridge.

But it’s safe to say that I was never going to be on the Eagle Scout path. I couldn’t even swim.

Because I bailed on swimming lessons. The arrow pointing out the door, as it were, was an early challenge: the dead man’s float. After a few attempts I concluded that the only way I was going to succeed was to actually become dead, since I seemed to have no buoyancy as a living being.

Another major inflection point came in high school. After five years of organized football, I decided I’d had enough. The reason was simple: The game was no longer fun. A 1-9 record in each of my last two seasons no doubt played a role, and my departure occasioned no great change. The team managed a third 1-9 without me.

(Quitting did provide me with a lifetime of dream activity. I’m back in high school and have decided to play my senior year. But for some reason, I’m unable to find my uniform, make it to the field or convince the coach of my worthiness or … so it goes.)

College delivered another opportunity to change direction. I’d pledged a fraternity, despite misgivings about the cost to my social independence.

Those reservations all came together on the first night of initiation, as I sat blindfolded and alone in the Delta Psi house while various “actives” whooped and hollered and ran around in an effort to lend gravitas to the experience.

A thought entered my head: What the hell am I doing here? I depledged the next day.

The most consequential decisions to bow out involved several romantic relationships. Each started well enough, but eventually collapsed under the weight of dueling life goals and personality types. One ultimately took the Mississippi Supreme Court to untangle, since she and I couldn’t even agree on whether to split. (I won.)

More recent was my late-life decision to essay a martial art, with the goal of black-belt-level mastery. After three years it became clear to me that, faithful training notwithstanding, I’d never be any good. I suspect it was clear to the instructor much sooner.

Which brings me to the guitar.

I took it up for several reasons, as I mentioned in a column last year, among them to try and stave off the mental decline of advancing age by doing something cognitively new and challenging to the brain. Plus, it’s so damn Nashville.

As with the martial art, diligence has again been my keyword. Through the pained and often uncooperative fingers, through the blown chords, through the erratic strumming I’ve soldiered on, encouraged by the promise that, over time, things would eventually get better.

Various YouTube teachers – chiefly Andy, Lauren and Justin – have lent guidance, with ultimate-guitar.com providing chord recipes for my chosen tunes. Practice sessions have become a nostalgic journey back in time, since I only work on songs I’m familiar with, and the only songs I’m familiar with are 50 years or more in the rearview mirror. My mental soundtrack is an AM oldies station.

A catch to progress: Even songs that I like a lot (think “Hello, Mary Lou”) get tiresome before I’ve mastered the knack of playing them, and songs I like less (think “Sweet Caroline”) get tiresome a lot sooner.

Another catch: Many of my favorite numbers are Beatles tunes and require finger dexterity and chord proficiency far beyond that of mortal me. Yet another catch: Songs that are relatively simple to play can be deceptively difficult to sing, when your vocal range makes Bob Dylan sound like Freddie Mercury.

Things have gotten better. But it’s also become clear that, as with that martial art, I will never be any good. Quitting, my old friend, has begun to look like a wise option.

As Kenny Rogers advised of card games – and life – in “The Gambler,” it’s essential to know when to fold ’em.

Meanwhile, ultimate-guitar.com shows that “The Gambler” is a pretty simple song. I think I’ll try it.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.

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