Expectations = Overrated

written by Stephen Laifer, 4th Horn, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

I love memes. I can happily spend an hour browsing the Memeverse for the perfect picture of a walrus, or a dorky kid, or maybe a “Karen,” to express whatever I happen to be feeling. Over the last few months, I’ve also developed a fondness for making my dog Zoey the star of her own memes, typically featuring snarky political commentary or not-so-profound life observations.

Early on in the pandemic, one of my go-to relatable memes had a self-confessed introvert commenting that social isolation was something for which he had been practicing his entire life, so nothing had really changed. At the time I thought it was hilarious, and dead accurate. After nine months of actual social isolation, I’ve come to discover the reality is not quite so amusing.

COVID-19 has inspired all sorts of artistic feats and bursts of creativity not only from the usual suspects who thrive on self-expression, but also from people who you might not have expected to indulge in these types of activities. I personally know a guy who has made a mint doing ink pet portraits for friends. He had never previously picked up a paintbrush in his life.

I’d like to say this was also true for me and proclaim that I have been undergoing an artistic awakening. Or maybe a reawakening, since I’m a pretty creative person. But I’d mostly be lying. I haven’t recorded a single multi-track video of myself playing all the horn parts to “Jurassic Park.” Nor have I, as a writer, written my own Great American Novel. In the more mundane realm, I have also not varnished my backyard deck, and I have yet to tackle repainting the front porch.

What I have done—and what I have discovered is hugely underestimated—is seek out ways to not just excuse my current lack of initiative or inspiration, but to attempt to embrace it. To forgive myself for not rising to the creative heights that my own self expects of me.

Nobody would argue the fact that we live in strange times. “Unprecedented” is a word that gets bandied about frequently in the press. It’s true that most of us have never lived through anything like this, so I believe it’s unfair to expect things from ourselves in an unexpected environment. Even things we know we are capable of and badger ourselves that we should be doing.

Of course, some goals are healthy. It’s important not to feel aimless—or worse, without purpose. When you’re out of work, it’s normal to feel the need to be productive. And when we, as musicians, have our primary creative outlet removed from us, we moreover lose a big chunk of our identity as performers. Some of us (I freely admit I include myself here) also lose a primary reason to practice, which is where so many musicians establish their daily routine and derive focus from the mechanics of perfecting their abilities on their instrument. Since most of us have spent our lives and careers under pressure to perfect our craft, it’s natural to feel compelled to replace this activity with another platform wherein we can express or focus ourselves. And then we wind up constantly nagging ourselves that we are capable of more and should be doing it.

Personally, after nine months of this, I no longer believe that’s necessarily required. There can be unlimited creative freedom in just allowing yourself to experience everyday life. For me, the simple act of walking the dog has become a goal: I try to use it as a means to heighten my sense of observation, noticing things in my environment that I would have previously just passed by. This simple act of looking, and really seeing, has been the springboard for improving my photography skills, and also getting me to put down my observations in a daily pandemic “diary” of sorts featuring—no surprise—conversations with my dog Zoey.

Stephen Laifer with his dog, Zoey.

In coming months, as the second COVID wave (or maybe it’s the third wave, who can keep track anymore?) overtakes us, maybe I’ll finally launch into some deeper activities. Perhaps I’ll get started on some long-promised art projects for family members. Or maybe, as friends have urged, I’ll compile Zoey’s daily pandemic observations into some sort of book form and seek out a publisher.

Or maybe I won’t. And that’s okay, too.

If my biggest pandemic accomplishment is simply forgiving myself for not doing things I “should” be doing, and instead just learning to live in and love the moment and let myself “be,” then that’s an accomplishment indeed. And I’ll take it. (For now. )

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