Observations: Wants and needs

Published on: August 18, 2011

I’ve had an electric guitar since I was 12. I didn’t appreciate how much I needed it until it was gone. Mitch Traphagen Photo

I’ve had an electric guitar since I was 12. I didn’t appreciate how much I needed it until it was gone. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I was 12 years old when I had my first-ever serious conversation with my older sister. No doubt until that time, to her I was a mindless blob in a flesh suit. I probably remained so afterwards, too. There is nothing pretty about being a 12-year-old boy.

In that conversation, I told her I wanted to be a rock star. In 1975, most boys my age from Worthington, Minnesota, still wanted to be baseball players, police officers or astronauts. I wanted long hair, leather pants and, most of all, a guitar.

I even knew what guitar I wanted. I spent hours admiring it in the JC Penney catalog. Worthington, MN wasn’t big enough at that time to actually have a full-blown JC Penney store, but there was a catalog order outlet downtown. In those days, Penney’s, Sears and Montgomery Ward all produced catalogs… tomes, really, that offered everything from appliances to handkerchiefs. They were thick and substantial beasts that no doubt were used across America to fix holes in walls and jack up cars.

One day after school, on a day no different than a seemingly infinite string of other days after school, I walked home from West Elementary to spend some quality time with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, assuming the weather cooperated enough for our rooftop television antenna to pick up the signal from the station 60 miles away. By the time I was in the 6th grade my Mom had returned to teaching and my Dad’s workload had become such that he frequently didn’t make it home until 8 p.m. — which is why it was such a surprise to hear him yelling for me at 3:30 in the afternoon.

I’ve told the story in this column before about how he had noticed me admiring the guitar in the catalog, had secretly ordered it, and surprised me with it that afternoon. In 1975, most Dads I knew just didn’t do that sort of thing. Mine did — for which I will always be grateful. Each day, I am thankful that I am his son.

Dad hired a student from the local college where he worked to give me guitar lessons. In addition to learning the rock and roll songs I wanted to play, I also managed to learn a few country riffs and John Denver songs for my Dad. It wasn’t more than a few weeks after that wonderful afternoon that I gave my first concert in the living room of our house, singing Denver’s “Country Roads.” From then on, whenever he saw me with my guitar, which was often, he would ask me to play the country riffs that I had learned. As 12 turned to 15, I became more reluctant to do so. It just wasn’t cool. At his funeral later that year, the minister who listened to my grief and guilt over that suggested I just pick up the guitar and still play it for him now and again. A few years later, when I was playing in a local rock band, I incorporated the country riffs into a song we played and I always thought of him.

The JC Penney guitar didn’t last very long. Before the year was out, I traded it for another guitar, which led to another, which finally led to a 1973 Gibson Les Paul. In my mind, there was no better guitar ever made. For the past 25 years, however, that guitar has spent most of its time in a case. As the years passed, the value of the guitar increased while my skills decreased. Somehow it became harder and harder to play — it was a relic of a different time and of a different me. As such, it only came out of its case every few weeks for a few strums. Until a few months ago, that is, when I traded it to a good friend for some camera gear. I knew my friend would use it and appreciate it. But it was the first time since I was 12 that I didn’t have an electric guitar. For the past 36 years, I took it for granted and now, suddenly, it felt like I had traded away part of what made me, me.

Last week my wife Michelle called one morning to ask me out to lunch. I immediately became suspicious — her office is in Tampa and lunch is rarely a possibility with our schedules. In fact, the last time she had called to invite me to lunch, we ended up going home with a puppy from CARE. But she was insistent, so we met at Five Guys in Summerfield. While we were waiting for our burgers and fries, she excused herself and I became immersed in some nonsense on my iPhone. I looked up just in time to see her carrying a long, black case with the word “Fender” imprinted into the side. She had taken the morning off to go to a music shop to make my babbling about a guitar I would like “someday” into a reality today. In the long black case, now sitting on a table at Five Guys, was that guitar — a candy apple red Fender Stratocaster.

The case is now in the closet and the guitar is on a stand, ready to be picked up at any time. I’m playing again, taking joy in remembering the songs I played decades ago and in learning new ones. It is all having an odd effect on me. I love writing and photography, but over the years that has become more work-like. Somehow, strumming that electric guitar is changing my outlook on everything creative, which naturally includes my work. It is giving me focus, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

What I thought as a “someday” luxury, my wife saw as a necessity to who I am. Indeed, having an electric guitar again is helping me to feel more complete somehow. It is amazing to me how something that is really nothing more than a want could be so needed. I am certain there are things in almost everyone’s life that may appear to be wants but are really needs. Art, writing, woodworking, music, photography, carpentry, needlepoint and more are all things people commonly consider mere hobbies that are, in fact, essential components of who they are. So many things considered non-essential, from music programs in schools to sports are, in fact, entirely essential. They help define us, they give us an outlet for the ever-increasing stress of just getting by in life.

Listen to your heart and to your soul — they are telling you what you need in ways your brain may not comprehend. It’s not necessarily about a shiny new object like a guitar — it is about letting you be you and that doesn’t have to involve a new toy. For me, the guitar is just my key to the real me. The me I had been forgetting.

I no longer have visions of being a rock star. In fact, with a few exceptions I’m pretty happy with how things are right now. I was happier still as I plugged in my new guitar and plucked out a few country riffs. The gift my Dad gave me has lasted a lifetime. He gave me passion.