Considering what might be my twelve rules of life (after Jordan B. Peterson):
I wrote about my first ‘rule’ in 2019 BC (‘Before Covid’): Be Yourself – or, Don’t Pretend To Be What You’re Not. I know this is the theme of every Disney movie there is, but just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. Don’t spend your life at war with yourself. I spent too much of mine doing just that and it leads only to self-hatred and depressive illness. The only way out of the resulting inner conflict and its consequences is to accept yourself and live with who you are.
Life isn’t a box of chocolates but it is like a hand in a card game. You can only play with what you’ve got, not with what you wish you had, nor with what you’re pretending you’ve got. There’s more chance of winning on this basis, though it’s not guaranteed. At least you stand a chance of happiness.
I find that, although I have this as my first rule of life, I haven’t actually written much about it. I wrote more, and more despondently, when I wasn’t being myself. The story that follows, based on something that actually happened to me, perhaps conveys some of what I’m saying here about being yourself. Or maybe not. You decide.
O, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive
Frequently and erroneously attributed to Shakespeare, the couplet is from Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion, published in 1808. I read this story on BBC Radio Cumbria a few years ago.
‘You told him what?’ I said incredulously.
‘I told him you played the piano.’
‘But I don’t play the piano,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought you did. I must be confusing you with someone else.’
‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Liberace? Mrs Mills?’
‘There’s no need for sarcasm,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I’ve heard you play.’
‘I’ve never played the piano’ I said, ‘unless you include ‘Chopsticks’ and the first line of ‘We Three Kings’. That’s the total extent of my repertoire.’
‘Oh,’ she said again, ‘but you can’t tell him that. You’ll have to go along with it now. When he asks, tell him you do play.’ She smiled sweetly as if she’d somehow resolved the predicament she’d created for me.
‘Why would I do that?’ I asked her. ‘He leads a world famous orchestra. He’ll see through me in a second. I’ll come clean, tell him you were confused and that I can’t really play the piano.’
‘Oh, please don’t do that,’ she pleaded. ‘You’ll show me up. I’ll feel a right chump.’
‘Surely not,’ I said. ‘Look, honesty is the best policy, Janice, so if he mentions it, I’ll tell him the truth.’
The man himself was coming towards us. My sister-in-law turned, pretending she hadn’t seen him, and launched herself at the buffet. He held out his hand and smiled broadly. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘Janice tells me you’re something of a virtuoso.’
‘Ah yes, about that…’ I began.
‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘it’s so good to have another musician here, especially one of your calibre.’
My calibre? What had Janice been saying to him? But instead of asking him this, I found myself saying, ‘Ah, well… yes, thank you.’
‘Who did you study under?’ he asked.
I hesitated before spluttering, ‘Miss Marjorie Roe’, the name of my music teacher from primary school. Had he spotted my hesitation? Why was I even worried that he might have done?
‘Can’t say I’ve heard of her,’ he said, puzzled. ‘Still, she was obviously capable of nurturing your considerable talent.’
‘She was very good,’ I mumbled.
‘They should have had you play at the ceremony this afternoon. It would have been infinitely preferable to the noise we had to endure,’ he said sniffily.
‘Oh, quite,’ I said. I had thought the little ensemble at my nephew’s graduation was rather good – though evidently not of the same calibre as myself; not if Janice were to be believed, anyway.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘some students of mine are looking for a little extra tuition and, obviously, with all of my engagements, I just haven’t the time to oblige. I wonder if you might be …’ he left the implication hanging.
How could I extricate myself from this tangled web? Whatever I said, or tried to say, only ensnared me further. ‘No, really,’ I said, ‘It’s just that, you see, I can’t actually…’
‘I quite understand, old chap. So many commitments and demands on one’s time. And it is quite an imposition, I do agree, to have one’s time taken up by the less capable and – let’s face it – less talented.’
‘No, it’s not that…’ I started again to protest.
‘Then you’ll do it? Splendid!’ he cried. ‘And it does pay rather handsomely. Not that that’s a consideration, of course.
‘It pays rather handsomely?’ I repeated. Why, oh why, was I even considering it? It didn’t matter how much it paid; I couldn’t possibly take on his students when I can’t play the piano!
So here I sit, next to the baby grand in the university’s music room, jotting down the conversation as I recall it. My first student will be arriving any minute and I’m hoping against hope he’s interested in learning ‘Chopsticks’.