Home life · Notes from West London

Giving things up, and replacing them

It’s okay to give things up, as long as you can find at least two reasons for doing so, and can work out what you’re doing as a replacement.

Last autumn, just after her 9th birthday, our daughter gave up piano lessons. There were many reasons for this, but the two main ones were: a change of teacher (her old teacher, who she was very happy with, went on maternity leave), and problems with timing (the lessons were before school, making Monday mornings more of rush than they were previously). We planned to find a new teacher, and maybe schedule lessons for weekends or after school. Four months have passed and it hasn’t happened yet. But the time that she used to spend on piano is now being used for something else: football. She plays, practises, reads about and watches football a lot more than she used to. (She is at the Emirates Stadium as I type these words, having won a Junior Gunners prize to watch a live screening of the Arsenal game at Old Trafford.) And very occasionally she goes back to the piano and practises for a few minutes.

This small slice of home life serves as a good example of my belief about giving up things: there should be good reasons for giving something up, and you should have an idea of what you are going to do instead.

Sometimes you give up good habits, sometimes you give up bad habits. The reasons for the latter will generally be much clearer than reasons for the former, but without something to replace a bad habit you can slip back into it easily, and repeatedly. Alice Cooper (the rock star Alice Cooper, as I would have to explain to anyone below a certain age) famously gave up booze and took up golf instead. Golf is his replacement activity, and it’s become as much of an addiction as his 24 daily cans of Budweiser used to be: he plays every day, and hasn’t touched alcohol for decades. He talks about it on this episode of “Desert Island Discs”.

Sometimes, without consciously planning to give something up, you just do it, and you work out retrospectively what you’re doing instead.

I used to watch a lot of movies, for fun, and then for work (working for a Film Festival). I stopped working for the Film Festival (a conscious, financially-based decision; the pay was terrible) and then pretty much stopped watching movies, even for fun. Some years later I realized that the time previously spent at cinemas, in preview theatres, or watching videos was now taken up watching live sport. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened. It all coincided, around 25 years ago, with my team (Leeds United) being promoted back to the top division of English football, and the explosion of live sport on TV. You can now watch more live football games on TV in a month than you could in the first 20 years of my life put together. And I often travelled to and from Leeds on a Saturday to watch the games – that was 12-14 hours driving, chatting, listening to music, all for 90 minutes of football. In the late 1980s, by contrast, there were plenty of Saturdays when I would watch 5 or 6 movies instead.

Last month we decided it would be best if our 11-year-old son gave up a Friday afternoon drama activity that he had tried through the autumn. The rehearsals are leading up to a musical production in June but they weren’t really working out. The two main reasons for giving up: the likelihood that he would only be in crowd scenes (so it wouldn’t make much difference whether he was onstage or not, a poor return for all the time he would put into the show), and the cost. (He continues to do tap-dancing and street dance, for a different show in June – he hasn’t given up all performance.)

I fully intended to find a replacement activity such as drum lessons, or ballroom dancing, both of which he would happily take up, but haven’t found anything suitable yet. Instead we have settled into a pattern, between 5pm and 7pm on a Friday, which I find completely acceptable. We return home from dropping his sister at the drama school, take it easy for a while, and prepare our Friday night dinner, the simple, collaborative meal that I wrote about yesterday. And then we eat way too much of it.

Over the last month I have been comparing this time of the week to something in the Narnia book “The Silver Chair” (obscure Narnia reference coming up). For an hour a day Prince Rilian escapes from the enchantment that he has been held under for years and returns to his old self. The hour or two that we spend peeling and slicing, and then eating, has become our calmest, most enjoyable time of the week. The other Friday, with “Highway 61 Revisited” accompanying our preparations and meal, the thought occurred to me that I really should sort out some other activity when spring comes (those drum lessons perhaps, or tennis). But it would involve giving up one of my favourite times of the week, and I’m not ready for that yet.

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