On the Paradoxical Nature of Unlimited Time

You’re probably wondering how the experiment is going.

(If you don’t know what the experiment is, go read this. I’ll wait.)

(Are you caught up now?)

(Good.)

Last night, I went to bed around 11 p.m.; this morning, I woke up a little after 7:30. By 8:30, L and I were side-by-side in our matching bathrobes, digging into the Ruy Lopez. We hadn’t planned on playing chess this morning, but we had been studying chess last night (after we went through the five Peano postulates and how they related to Hofstadter’s typographical number theory) and the board was already set up, which made it easy.

But everything we’re doing has become a lot easier now that we’re integrating our lives together instead of trying to fit each other into our free time.

And — impossibly — we’ve both ended up with more free time. To spend together, and to spend on our own.

How did this happen?

Some of it has to do with logistics. Now that the two of us are going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time (instead of me going to bed and waking up two hours earlier), our circadian rhythms are more in sync, which means we are more likely to want to do the same things at the same times of day. This, in turn, makes us more likely to do them.

I also did something ridiculously simple that completely transformed the way I slept — I swapped out my cheap, synthetic “down alternative” comforter for a cotton quilt. Technically two cotton quilts, since it’s getting colder at night; one that my mother made for me when I was a little girl, and one that L made with his grandmother when he was a little boy.

I don’t want to say “this one weird trick cured my insomnia,” but it did stop me from waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, which means I’ve been sleeping better than I’ve slept in, like, years.

But the real reason we’ve ended up with more time than ever — somehow, impossibly, improbably — is because we’ve started giving everything we do as much time as it needs.

And life shouldn’t work that way.

But it might.


I mentioned, when I started blogging again, that I had experienced an “unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August.” Then I told you that I would have to write about it at some point — so here you go.

After we moved into our new home, and after we got the piano set up so that I could start practicing again, I began working on two new pieces: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major (K. 332), and Schumann’s Papillons.

L, who is a piano teacher, often compares the process of learning music to solving a series of problems. The trouble is that many musicians, even reasonably accomplished ones like myself, don’t solve each problem in full. They get the piece to the point where they can play through it well enough, accurately enough — even though many of the technical aspects are still unaddressed and/or unspecific.

Maybe they haven’t finalized a particular fingering, for example — or maybe they’ve decided on a fingering but haven’t worked out the accompanying arm weight, or standardized which part of the finger attacks which part of the key.

Maybe they’re still fudging a tricky articulation.

Maybe they’re leaving out a rest because they’d forgotten it was there (or never paid attention to it in the first place).

Maybe they can play that chromatic run most of the time, which nearly counts as all of the time, because nobody can play it right all of the time — unless you take the time to look carefully at what you are doing, figure out why the run isn’t coming out the same way every time, and make the necessary adjustments.

And taking that kind of time takes time, for lack of a better phrase.

So I decided to take it.

As much as I wanted.

I told L that I was going to learn these pieces until I had solved every problem in them, and I wasn’t even going to play past the first eight measures until I’d solved every problem those measures presented — because I knew that if I got in the habit of playing “well enough” and telling myself I would get more specific about solving problems later, I’d have to unlearn all of that unspecific playing.

I told L that if it took me the rest of my life to learn that Mozart sonata — to play it the way he and I thought a piece could be played — it would take me the rest of my life.

I don’t know how much longer I have to live, but so far I’ve spent nearly four months on the first movement and am just starting to address the second.

The idea that I would not let myself play past the first eight measures until I’d solved all of the problems in them worked, in theory — but in practice (pun intended) I quickly discovered that every stage of the learning process generated a bunch of new problems.

In other words: you learn eight measures and tell yourself that you’ve got the fingerings and articulations and dynamics all solidified, and then everything changes when you speed up the tempo, or try to play from memory, or begin the transition from measure eight to measure nine. I just realized this week that the reason I wasn’t able to consistently play a chromatic run wasn’t because my fifth finger wasn’t always striking the same way (even though that was part of the issue); it was because I was using a fingering that created a problem with the interval leap at the end of the run, and switching to a non-standard chromatic fingering (the one recommended by the editor, coincidentally enough) also solved the fifth-finger striking problem.

And if I hadn’t told myself that I had unlimited time to work all of this out, if I’d been trying to get the piece put together to play for an audience by a specific date — or if I’d been trying to have something to show a piano teacher by the end of the week, to “prove” that I’d “practiced” — I wouldn’t have taken the time to address and readdress every tiny inconsistency.

I’m playing better than I’ve ever played.


The idea that you have unlimited time is, of course, not true. Certain aspects of life, including the length of it, come with deadlines — and everything you take the time to do takes time away from everything else you could be doing.

And, although disconnecting the idea of time from the idea of the clock and the calendar has given me the freedom to be more present in the present, telling myself that I have unlimited time to learn K332 or work on this piece of music I’m composing — or, for that matter, that L and I can take as much time as we want to talk with each other, or linger over dinner, or cuddle — has also prompted me to think seriously about whether the life I’m living is worth the time I’m giving it.

Is this particular Mozart sonata worth an unlimited number of hours of study?

Is my relationship with L worth an unlimited amount of time in each other’s company?

Is the house we’ve bought together worth the unlimited amount of time it takes to make a home?

Is the piece of music I’m composing worth an unlimited number of revisions?

Interestingly, the only question I’d answer no to is the last one. I told L, when I started arranging Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 for tenor and piano, that I was doing it mostly because I wanted to make something, and literally making anything might help me figure out what I wanted to create next.

So I’ll finish it, because I’m pretty much done — but if I weren’t, I might give it up. The composition is fairly pedestrian, a little bit derivative, and not worth my unlimited (and also very, very limited) time.

An original idea, on the other hand, might be worth it.


I wrote, when I began this experiment, that L and I would have to “figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.” That has turned out to be the easy part.

The harder part is choosing which disciplines, and which indulgences, to pursue.

I started this new method of practicing by trying to study both a Mozart sonata and a Schumann waltz suite, for example — but even though I told myself I had unlimited time to solve all of the problems both composers presented, I only really had enough time to focus on Mozart.

Likewise, L and I went from trying to study chess, go, and bridge simultaneously to focusing just on chess — and then focusing on chess openings, and then focusing specifically on the Ruy Lopez opening.

Which is what we began our day with, at 8:30 this morning.

Not because we planned it — but because we chose it, together, and decided to give it as much time as it needed. ❤️

 
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