It’s Hard To Measure A Pleasure Or An Itch (Season 2020, Episode 9)

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Jason Wilber was John Prine’s longtime lead guitarist and musical director. John died during this pandemic. Jason released a new album after John passed. It’s entitled, Time Traveler and contains a song, Poet’s Life. Today’s show title is a lyric from that song.

How do you measure a pleasure or an itch?

I don’t know. But I don’t know how you measure sadness, sorrow or disappointment either? So my inability to measure such things runs in every direction.

I’ve been sharing way too much Billy Strings with the private Facebook group lately. Billy Strings is William Apostol. He’s a 27 year old guitar whiz kid who combines heavy metal with bluegrass. Yeah, I know. Sounds nuts, right? Well, it’s not nuts. It’s brilliant.

Billy is one of those artists that I’ll binge on a few times a year. I’ll just listen and watch everything I can for 2 weeks straight. Mostly in complete amazement at how somebody can be so proficient at something at such a young age. I look over in the corner at my encased acoustic guitar, which I’m unable to play – and I think of measuring the value of a guitar in Billy’s hands versus a guitar in my hands. At least you could kinda sorta measure that by looking at how much income Billy earns playing the guitar versus the zero dollars I’ll ever earn with a guitar. My only chance of making money on a guitar is if I sell mine!

I grew up hearing preachers deliver sermons about the powerful impact of godly women. Much of the time they’d speak of how priceless a godly wife, mother or grandmother was. And since I had all three, I can attest to the high value they deliver. But I’m not able to measure it.

Proverbs 31:10 “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”

I can’t play the guitar, but I sure do enjoy watching and listening to Billy Strings perform. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve likely spent over 50 hours listening to my Billy Strings’ records (okay, they’re digital) and watching his YouTube concerts. I love watching the guy perform. Many nights in the last 2 weeks his songs have been earworms.

Many things are hard to measure.

But maybe it’s worth asking, “Why measure them anyway?”

The square, super-logical among us would say, “Because you can’t make progress unless you can measure it.” Check out The Squircle Academy if you want to investigate circles and squares.

Ridiculous. Of course, you can make progress in something that can’t be measured.

Some aspects of love may be measurable, but it’s pretty hard.

John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

So there’s the pinnacle, right? Hatred is at the opposing extreme I reckon. But what about all that space in between?

I fell in love with my wife in the summer of 1975. After 42 years of marriage, I love her more now than then. I don’t have any paperwork to prove it. Nor do I have any assessment I can show off to her. I just know how I feel and what I think. I can measure it intuitively. By how important she is to me. By how devastated I’d be if something bad were to happen to her. By how lonely I’d be without her. By the value she provides to my life.

Family. Friends. Allies. Mentors. Teachers.

How do you measure their value?

Billy Strings said this in a magazine interview

Those moments are what I cherish the absolute most. For instance, when I was six or seven years old, I was learning “Beaumont Rag,” and I just played the rhythm, but I kept messing it up in this one part. Right in the middle of the song, I said, “Stop. Dad, why don’t you play it and let me listen?” I listened to what he was trying to say with the guitar, and I go, “Now, let me try it again,” and I nailed it. He started laughing. He reached over his guitar and squeezed my little hand. He called my grandmother and said, “Listen to your grandson right now!” I was a little kid, but I’ll never forget that moment. Now there have been several moments since then, like when I got to introduce my dad to David Grisman in real life because my dad introduced me to David Grisman when I was seven years old. We got to sing songs all night.

Let me play a little audio snippet of an evening where Billy Strings and Brian Sutton were playing together. Billy starts the conversation. 

Now listen to an onstage interview Billy gave during one of his band’s live shows. Here he talks about the influence of his father. 

Ask Billy to measure the gift his dad gave him. I’m pretty sure he’ll tell you there’s no way he can measure it.

That’s why years ago MasterCard developed that advertising strategy with a single punchline, “priceless.” Some things can’t be measured with dollars. Truth is, some things can’t be measured with anything.

Well, back to the lyric of Jason Wilber’s song – It’s Hard To Measure A Pleasure Or An Itch

Measuring some things is difficult. Especially things such as what we find joyous or pleasurable. Or pursuits that drive us (aka, itches we have that we just must scratch).

The implication is that we’re attempting to measure our own pleasure or itch. You may think, “Well, who else would measure it?” Oh, plenty of people are willing to judge our every move. Surely they’d be willing to take a crack at measuring our pleasure or itch.

Is it hard? Is it impossible? Maybe not.

We invest more of ourselves in things that matter to us. But it’s not always an accurate measurement of pleasure or an itch.

For example, I know some people who invest quite a lot in caring for a family member desperate for their help. It’s not pleasure or an itch. Doesn’t mean they hate it or resent it, but they’re not doing it for themselves. They spend quite a lot of time in the pursuit because the person matters that much to them. Self-sacrifice may be tougher to measure than our own pleasure or itches. Or maybe it’s easier for those fixated on what they’re giving up. That’s why you often hear folks prone to feeling victimized complain of what they could be, or what they could be doing “if only.” Sometimes, those measurements aren’t terribly accurate though. People often enjoy imaging loftier outcomes than are realistic. “If only I could devote myself to my own pursuits, then I’d be world-class.” Maybe. But not likely! 😉

I digress.

Pleasure.

An itch.

Why does my mind go to illicit pursuits or selfish behavior? I wish it didn’t, but it often does because of the nature of my work. Coaching and supporting people means helping them through difficult times. There’s lots more of that than helping people jump on obvious – or not so obvious – opportunities. We all have tough times that require more than we may think we have to give. And in so many cases, I find myself talking with somebody about betrayal, pain, sorrow, suffering. Often caused by the selfish pursuits of others.

We jump on a Zoom call for a scheduled session. He’s off. Something is clearly preoccupying him today. I inquire.

He breaks down and tells me of a teenage son who is pursuing drugs and alcohol. How do you measure that kind of pleasure or itch on the part of his son? A broken life. A broken father. A family turned upside down. The damage is immeasurable. We both realize the cost of this ordeal will likely last for a long time. Perhaps lifetimes.

So let’s restrict the conversation to honorable, not-quite-so-selfish, and moral pursuits or pleasures. 

I’m tired of all the time Adversity requires of each of us. I’m exhausted thinking and talking about hatred, betrayal, and all the other ways we’re able to impose harm on others. The unkindness and other foul behavior in the name of our selfish pursuits of happiness. “I deserve to be happy!” That sound you hear is me retching over in the corner. You hear it when a husband cheats on his wife. Or a wife cheats on her husband. We can justify violating our marriage vows…proving we can justify almost anything. Including a teenage boy willing to throw his life away to get high – and the lives of his family who love him and are desperate to save him.

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories,” said Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey fame. I loved that show. Some great quotes in every episode.

What memories are we acquiring? What memories are we helping others acquire? It may be among the ways we can manage a pleasure or an itch. By gauging our memories and the memories others around us report.

You heard now 27-year-old Billy Strings talk about events that happened in his life when he was just a child. Seven-year-old children know little about a pleasure or an itch. Mostly, the 7-year-olds who have and do occupy my life just want to play and have fun. But they’ll grow up and remember things. Little Billy has turned into one of the planet’s very best guitar players. His pleasure playing the guitar and his itch to use it as his voice first set sail when he was just a little boy surrounded by family who loved music. Particularly a father who loved it so that he passed it onto his son forming a bond that seems to only grow stronger over time.

There’s a great video of Billy presenting his dad with a custom made guitar from Preston Thompson Guitars, a Billy Strings Signature model – specifically #1 of 33.

There’s a great story Billy shared on Thompson Guitars’ YouTube channel about his dad’s original Martin D-93.

He’s 17 when he buys the guitar back. Which means he was about 11 when his dad had to sell it. That’s a pretty big impact on an 11-year-old boy to scrape together $700 for three months in a row. Not to mention the letter-writing campaign and salesmanship to get the seller to cooperate. That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch. By the sacrifice and action taken.

There’s our answer.

Sacrifice. Action. 

That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch.

There are at least a gazillion examples. Since I’ve been on a Billy Strings binge I was thinking of a documentary I saw years ago on Chet Atkins. He grew up in extreme poverty. Introverted by nature, Chet found it easy to sit alone with a guitar in his hands. He confessed he could sit and play for hours. Spending time with the guitar was an accurate measure of the pleasure and the itch Chet had to play the guitar.

The documentary ended with Chet saying this…

“If you’re lucky in this world, you’ll be born in the country, and at an early age somebody will give you a guitar and you’ll play it with your fingers. That’s what it’s all about.”

Who knows how many kids are born in the country, given a guitar at an early age, but don’t end up being very good at playing the guitar. Much less, how few are talented enough and dedicated enough to earn a living at it. Never mind being good enough to become like Chet Atkins. But those are measurements of success, not measurements of a pleasure or an itch. Or are they?

Effort versus success is a long-standing debate. I don’t claim to have superior insight, but it seems evident that success requires a degree of effort, but effort won’t guarantee success.

Barry Sanders is in the NFL Hall of Fame. He was a running back for the woeful Detroit Lions, after playing college ball for Oklahoma State University. He walked away from the game in the prime of his professional life. Partly because football wasn’t much of a pleasure or an itch. Seems improbable given his success, but his talent was exceptional. Sometimes we see people who are extremely good at something whose pleasure doesn’t match the success.

I’m thinking of all those people – from ex-Presidents to famous Hollywood actors – who enjoy painting and spend lots of time at it. Their success isn’t in painting, but that’s their itch. That’s what gives them pleasure. They don’t do it for success.

I could argue that their success in whatever they’re known for (from politics to sports to acting) affords them to luxury of spending time doing something purely for the enjoyment. Unleashed from having to earn their income from it, they can dive in just because they love it so.

It’s a complicated thing trying to measure things that aren’t so easily measured.

Sacifice and action work…until you insert outcomes. That sparks further debate. Why must we pin outcomes on all this? Because it’s what we do. It’s how we gauge most things. Maybe that’s worth rethinking. Perhaps we ought to challenge that.

Is it because we live in a capitalistic society here in America? Is it because we’re so competitive? Is it because we love to compare ourselves against others? Is it because we love to keep score?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Likely.

True confession: One of the things that prompted today’s episode was my realization that I love to do a number of things that have no real outcome other than I love them. And I won’t dive too deeply into things like appreciating things such as great cartoons or music. You might argue those aren’t requiring any action on my part. Some would say they’re passive. I’m not so sure about that, but I think I understand the point. I’m not drawing the cartoons. I’m not creating the music. So how profitable could it be? Well, thankfully profitable isn’t the barometer. Pleasure or an itch…those are the things that matter in today’s conversation.

I can’t truly measure the pleasure I get or the itch I have to listen to music. But I can measure my sacrifice and action in time spent doing it. It’s a lot. Sometimes I’m doing nothing nothing else, but that’s not the norm. Mostly I’m doing something else with the headphones on. But sometimes I’m walking. Other times I’m sitting and doing nothing else. Still, there are hours and hours spent listening to songs. So it’s important.

Because I could be doing something else.

My wife listens to audiobooks. I’ve not listened to more than 10 audiobooks in my entire life. I love to read and I’ll spend hours doing that, too. But I don’t listen to audiobooks.

I love to podcast, but I’ll really blow your mind. I can’t tell you the last podcast I listened to. That’s right. Especially since this pandemic hit, I don’t think I’ve listened to a single podcast. Maybe snippets of some here and there, but barely even that. I love this communication though.

I love music, but I don’t love creating it because I haven’t a clue how. Plus I lack the talent. Fact is, I have a lifelong habit of failing to make the sacrifices or take the action necessary to learn. It’s clearly not important to me. Not like listening is.

I once spent a lot of time drawing, but I’ve not done that since college. I love Ballard Street cartoons though. I’ve spent time and money (sacrifice and action) proving how enjoyable Ballard Street is to me. I’ve spent no time in the last 45 years improving my ability to create cartoons.

I’ve spent years and countless hours behind the mic podcasting but I’ve spent very little time with headphones on listening to podcasts. I much prefer music over podcasts when it comes to consumption, but not when it comes to creation.

These aren’t up for argument in my life any more than they are in your life. We like what we like. We loath what we loath. Why? Sometimes we know. Sometimes we don’t.

I’m unable to measure it.

Take that Chet Atkins quote. He was born in poverty in eastern Tennessee. I wasn’t.

He picked up a guitar that belonged to a brother who played. The brother was 14 years older.

I don’t even have a brother. Much less an older brother who knew how to play.

Like Billy Strings, Chet’s family played music. My family only played records.

Would I behave differently if my circumstances had been different? We’ll never know. This is where the measuring thing really challenges us. Our imaginations go to work on what might have been.

Late in high school and in early college I could see myself writing for a living. But I remember telling friends, “I don’t know any writers. They all live up in the northeast.” Well, that wasn’t true, but it was indicative of how we can perceive things and how those perceptions can fuel our choices. I knew of great southern writers. And of others from the northwest. But my generalization was merely the statement of a younger man who just couldn’t see himself in a role because I knew nobody personally who did it.

So did the itch or pleasure leave? No. It morphed. Into podcasting. Blogging. Creating tons of notebooks. Never mind that I wasn’t able to make a living doing the things. I made sure I did them anyway.

It doesn’t make them more or less valuable. It just makes them part of our lives. We trade things. Sacrifice.

Rather than play music I listened to it.

Rather than listen to podcasts, I create them.

Rather than listen to books, I read them.

Those are personal choices I make. That’s how I’m able to measure my own pleasure and itches.

There was once a man who said to me constantly, “I’ve scratched every itch I ever had.” I haven’t. Because many of them were pretty fleeting itches. Or the pleasures weren’t strong enough 0r valuable enough to give something up instead.

Life is a constant calculation – whether on the fly or with long-term planning. Is it worth it?

Is it worth putting headphones on while clicking play to another Billy Strings’ concert? For you, maybe not. For me? At 3am when I’m not able to sleep. You bet. All night long. In fact, while I’m writing this I’m watching – for the umpteenth time – his concert in 2019 at Red Rocks.

“I used my only phone call to contact my daddy…I got 20 long years for some dust in a baggie.” 😀

By the time I was 20 I had learned a very hard truth. Many of us are in love with being able to do something, but we’re not in love with the process of actually doing it. My love of guitar taught me that. I was a slow learner. 😉

In 1974 I bought a brand new book by Tom Wheeler. Tom was a writer for Guitar Player magazine, eventually became the chief editor in 1981. A corporate takeover of the magazine caused him to jump ship to become a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. He died in 2018 when he was 70. I share that because it was his book that occupied me for 3 years before I concluded the truth of my life. I was more in love with being able to play the guitar than I was actually spending time learning to play. In my mind, I can imagine what it might be like to play like Billy Strings. What I’m unable to imagine is the countless hours spent figuring out how to play, which is exactly why Billy Strings is Billy Strings and I’m not. Well, that and the big talent gap between us. 😀

That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch.

Sacrifice. Action.

What are you willing to give up so you can have something?

Chet was playing in the boy’s restroom of the little country school because the acoustics were so good in there. What were the other boys doing? Chet says the ones who had any money were rolling dice in that same bathroom in an opposite corner from where he sat playing his guitar. Had I been at that school, I’d have likely been outside with a football. It still wouldn’t have resulted in an NFL career though!

The process is almost always unpleasant and ugly for those of us who aren’t doing it. It can even be unpleasant for us sometimes.

Did Billy Strings ever suck at the guitar? Of course. Probably not for long, but I’m only guessing. Only his family likely knows or remembers.

First efforts are sparked more by itch than pleasure. I’m willing to speculate based largely on what I know of Billy that he wanted to be able to play like his dad, who is a really good picker. The pleasure of practice was the sacrifice and action sparked because the itch was so strong. In time, the practice became increasingly more pleasurable. Soon enough, it was what Chet experienced. It was simply playing because he loved it so. Talent kicked in catapulting him past his peers.

My itch wasn’t strong enough to be scratched. When it came to the guitar, I had a very minor mosquito bite. Billy had full blow poison ivy.

That measurement was key for me.

You can’t have everything. Nobody can. It’s a fool’s errand to think otherwise.

Billy Strings has a celebrity net worth (you know you check out that website) of $5 million. His dad has the chops to have played music for a living, but he never did. What he did do is teach a little boy, his stepson. A little boy he clearly loves every bit as much as if he were his own biological offspring.

Billy is now 27. When I was 27 I didn’t have a net worth (celebrity or otherwise) of $5 million. But I had a little boy and a little girl. I had a wife I’d been married to almost 7 years. I had a fairly successful business career. I had a mentor who was helping me learn more about the Bible. I was very active at church, which was the priority. I gave up some things so I could grab other things that mattered more. So did my wife. And together, as a couple, we gave us some things together so we could have other things we felt were more important. More valuable to us.

“I made different choices.” 

We can all say that when we compare our lives to others. Or to some ideal we have of what our life may have been like.

You measure a pleasure or an itch by the choices you made – and are making. Not by the choices you failed to make. Even if they’re choices you wish you would have made.

Maybe that’s why the process has to matter more than the outcome. It’s why Billy Strings loves playing the guitar and I enjoy listening to guys and gals like him play. He admits he knows he’s blessed to play for a living, but acknowledges he’d be playing any way. And I believe him. I know I’d be listening no matter what.

We love to fascinate our imaginations with what might have been – mostly fixating on the most positive outcomes. In bedrooms and small spaces all over the world are children with guitars in hand dreaming of being Billy Strings or their favorite guitarist. Some are putting in the work. Others, not so much. But they’re all dreaming. Time will tell perhaps – perhaps not – if some have a strong enough itch or pleasure coupled with talent to make the dream a reality.

Billy Strings is having success, but he’s not likely ever going to displace Taylor Swift. She’s worth an estimated $360 million. To be fair, she’s 3 years older than Billy though so she’s got a head start.

You know how I know he loves it. Watch his face when he’s playing (the way he looks while playing in the summer of 2014 above is how he still looks). Except for this pandemic he’s playing 200 shows a year and has been doing for the past few years. He earning fans the hard way – playing live. You don’t hear his stuff on radio or TV. He loves playing. He loves performing. And he’s playing bluegrass coupled with a heavy metal vibe. Pop music is way more profitable. Another reason I know he loves it. He’s devoted to the genre, not because there’s money in it, but because it’s who he is and what he loves. His itch IS his pleasure.

Pursuit is worth the action and sacrifice. 

Do you measure a pleasure or an itch by whether or not you can succeed at it?

Some do. And I get it.

I’m often said, “If it’s worth fighting for, then it’s worth winning.” And I’ve often asked, “Why fight unless there’s hope of victory?”

But I’m not sure that’s correct. Sometimes the fight is worth fighting just because you enjoy the fight.

I used to box with my next-door neighbor, Ray. I loved boxing. Ray knew what he was doing. I had no clue. Ray got in fights at school. I never have been in a fistfight. Ever. But I loved the process. Boxing was fun. Even if I did get punched in the nose by Ray time and time again. Until I learned how to hit him in the nose, which was way yonder more fun! But still, I just enjoyed boxing. Even if I lost, it was fun because the process was pleasurable.

Doing. 

Does the itch compel you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do?

Do you enjoy doing it? Enough that you’ll forego doing something else?

Many nights I’d just soon have on headphones and have Billy Strings – or somebody else – playing in my ears than sleep. And I rather love sleep, but evidently I love listening to music more. Other nights, like now, I’ll add one more action to the equation. Writing. The itch is thinking about all this stuff and trying to figure out ways to communicate it to you. I don’t claim to be good at it, but I absolutely do love it. If not, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d do something else. Find another itch to scratch.

Have you ever tried to manage such things? For instance, have you ever tried to increase your passion for something because you know you’re not pursuing it? I’m curious how that worked out for you because I’ve never been able to fabricate it myself. Maybe I’m just inept at it. For me, it’s every bit like having a preference for one flavor of milkshake over another. It just is what it is and I have no real understanding of why. But if I were to try to make strawberry milkshakes be my favorite I’d still likely fail, even though I love strawberry flavor. I’m more likely to pick vanilla even over the chocolate and I love chocolate, too. I don’t know why. I can’t influence it to be something it’s not though.

Maybe you can. I’d love to hear about it if you’ve been able to influence your itches like that. I’d imagine it’s quite powerful if you can make yourself have an itch where one didn’t exist, or if you can intensify an itch where one wasn’t strong enough to fuel you to take some real action.

Let me give one final thought a go. I wonder if this resonates with you. I often get way too fascinated with wondering what itch I might be able to take better advantage of, but I just don’t have the itch. Mostly, I wonder about unrealized talent. I wonder what I might be very good at, but I’ve never tried it because I just lack the itch. Do you ever wonder that about yourself?

I’m pretty sure all of us have talents we’ll never know about. There’s no evidence that I’m right, of course. It’s just intuition. But it seems logical given how many things a human could pursue. I would have made different choices perhaps if I had the insight into such things. By the 7th grade, I knew math wasn’t likely going to be a dominant player in my future. I knew words and speech likely were. From an early age, I sorta figured communication would be in my wheelhouse and science would not be.

Maybe we just enjoy imagining what it might be like to be world-class at something because most of us aren’t world-class at anything. I’m not naive enough to think that’s possible, but I am mature enough to know it doesn’t matter. We can provide big value without being world-class. Still, it’s nice to imagine what it might be like to be top-notch at something. That’s why Billy Strings and other proficient musicians capture my imagination so. To pick up a guitar and be able to play with other musicians and follow them wherever they go musically is just something beyond my ability to comprehend, but I’ve seen Billy and other musicians do it.

Don’t get me wrong. Again, I don’t think we have to be that exceptional to be super valuable to the world, but wouldn’t it be nice? I’m not that good at anything. Certainly not something that could be performed so others might notice. Which is another aspect of all this that fascinates me. I can look at Billy’s face and body when he’s playing and know how deep the pleasure goes and how big of an itch he’s got when it comes to making music on a guitar. Performance.

Most of my biggest moments have been done when nobody was looking. Business decisions. One-on-one coaching.

That suits me fine, but sometimes…wouldn’t it be nice if at least your family could see you at your best instead of your worst?

Well, it speaks to the notion that you can’t improve anything if you can’t measure it. Maybe whoever said that was onto something. If we could accurately measure a pleasure or an itch then maybe we could improve it, although it completely escapes me how!

Then again, there are some itches that shouldn’t be scratched, but that’s a whole ‘nother episode. All those selfish mongrels who chase whatever they please without any consideration to who they hurt. Which is why I began the show talking about us pursuing honorable, moral things.

Lately, I’m having a harder time identifying a pleasure or an itch – a passion, if you please. Nevermind measuring the stupid things. Perhaps I’m nearing the end of the line because I don’t much think in terms of pleasures or itches. I think more in terms of figuring out if tonight I’ll be sleeping or watching more Billy Strings. The odds are heavy in Billy’s favor!

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