The American piano

piano inside

Photo credit: Fred

Over thirty years ago, when I was about Fred’s age, my mother took me around to a couple of piano retailers. I had somehow gotten chosen to take piano lessons through our school’s music program, and after a year or so of lessons, my mother thought that to make any improvement I was going to need a chance to practice at home.

Eventually, and to no surprise, my mother told me that we weren’t going to be able to afford a piano after all, or even a keyboard for that matter. And it wasn’t just the piano, but a house large enough to accommodate a piano and the private lessons that I would need once the music program ended when I entered middle school. I knew it was a pipe dream anyway, but it moved me that my parents – recent immigrants who wouldn’t even treat themselves to an occasional coffee – would even consider the possibility of piano lessons for me.

I don’t remember feeling overly disappointed about stopping piano, as my interests in playing music barely had a chance to germinate. Whether it was a way to rationalize our inability to afford music or actual belief, the refrain “We’re not a musical family [and thereby have no talent or potential]” came to play over and over, so much so that I never picked up another musical instrument again, nor did I ever expect or plan for my own child to play music.

Then one day we were at a friend’s house for a playdate. Fred was three years old at the time. While the other children were playing, Fred caught sight of my friend’s piano, and walked over and planted himself on the bench. He grabbed a pizza take-out menu, placed it on the music rack, and began “playing” with both hands. He kept his eyes intent on the menu, following the “notes” dictated by the different pizza and side order options and periodically flipping to the next page of the fold-out menu to continue with the piece. Emotion took hold of his small body as his entire posture took on the shape of his impromptu pizza masterpiece.

We adults all gathered around this toddler “virtuoso” and laughed and applauded. In the years following this episode, Fred would gravitate toward pianos and keyboards at friends’ homes and at electronics stores and experiment with the keys.

When he was eight, I finally decided to find him a piano teacher. He will never be really good – I’d convinced myself of that at the time, and told all my musical friends that we are not a musical family – but since he seemed interested, I thought it would be nice for him to learn to play, and to make music a part of his life. We got him a $250 keyboard using credit card reward points and found a graduate student in music who was teaching twice a month. This more relaxed schedule suited us and the expectations that I had for Fred.

Fred’s been playing for a year now, or technically a half year, since he only meets every couple of weeks for lessons, and has performed wonderfully in two recitals. Sometimes (often) he complains about having to practice, but there are times when we can’t get him to stop. He enjoys taking familiar pieces and playing them in a half dozen different ways, making his own “Chinese” versions and “Halloween” versions, or creating his own pieces inspired by commercial jingles. Once, a couple of musically sophisticated friends – the type of near-prodigies that I always imagined the children of real musical families to be – laughed at Fred’s rustic pencil-scrawl compositions. Sadly, my normally assertive boy did nothing to defend himself and I knew it was because deep down he believed himself to be inferior. But I no longer believed this of my son, and while I typically stay out of friendship squabbles, I stepped in this time to stop the ridiculing. No, we had come too far to be shamed back to square one.

This weekend, we bought a piano.

When I was younger I’d always known I would one day own a car, a house. No matter how modestly one starts out, a car and a home are always an accessible, equal opportunity part of the American Dream. When I put my signature on our piano purchase this weekend, it dawned on me that the dream I never dared have was suddenly realized: more than just ownership of a magnificent instrument, it was the lifting of barriers through the generations in my family that said “We can’t.”

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On miscommunications, mean comments, and first impressions

I’ve been interviewing for new staff these last couple of weeks, and one particular meeting left me thinking…

I’ll call the candidate “Tom.” Tom was perfect. Present tense perfect until he asked a few questions that got me wondering.

The questions that he asked left me wondering if he was planning on eventually branching out to form a rival business, if he cared too much about what we were paying, and if pay was going to prevent him from putting in some of the necessary work that is needed in the beginning as part of the learning curve.

For a couple of days after we spoke I tried hard to separate his words from my interpretation. I imagined myself going to a couple of trusted friends with this issue. How would I recount the story? I told myself that I would need to recount his words, and not my interpretation of his words.

Tom’s questions were, after all, legitimate. I just need to ask myself how legitimate my reactions were. Was it intuition? Was it misinterpretation? I am equally adept at both.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen only in interviews (though I can imagine how many promising candidates have bombed their chances at a job because of it). It happens daily in our interactions with significant others, with our children, with our friends. Does any of this sound familiar?

Partner 1: Don’t forget you need to get [Junior] from soccer practice at 4.

Partner 2: You don’t believe I can get anything right, do you?

…..

Child: I can’t do this…it’s too hard…

Parent: You’re always complaining about things being too hard. What’s going to happen when you get to high school? Or start working? What’s going to happen then, when things really get hard and I’m not around to solve everything for you?

….

Friend 1: I was so exhausted yesterday, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give [Baby] a bottle.

Friend 2: What is wrong with using a bottle once in a while? Maybe you need to stop reading all those mommy blogs and La Leche propaganda. I don’t know of any adult who  thinks back and wishes his mommy never used a bottle on him.

….

Alright, so those examples are a bit extreme (or maybe not?) but you get the picture. I mean, how often are we bringing in our own emotions, insecurities, and experiences to conversations?

A year ago one of my posts was syndicated on Blogher. The post was about a discussion that I had with my son over blog writing privacy. In fact, the syndicated post was about which post I should syndicate. In it, I said to Fred, “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” And it goes on to show his reactions to my seemingly insensitive choice of topic.

550+ uneventful views of the Blogher post later, I received two negative comments, with one being nastier than the other. Both women felt hurt by my betrayal of my son’s trust, stating that in writing about not writing about his most private moment, I had violated his privacy. Piercing words that went straight to the bullseye of my being a s*itty mom. And here I reacted to their words: to me, there is nothing worse than intentionally hurting a child emotionally for my own gain. According to these commenters, that is what I had done or, at least, that is how I interpreted their judgment of me.

That night, I searched out the contact information of the meaner commenter and emailed her. I told her that her words stung, but because of her comment, I looked again at the post I had written, this time more critically. By early morning I had received a response. She was exceedingly gracious, and embarrassed, and apologetic. She was nothing at all like the comments that she had left the previous day. I was heartened.

We, in fact, exchanged emails for a good part of the morning. The more we “talked,” the  more I came to see that she had completely misread my post. She had somehow read into my post that Fred had come home with his underpants soiled – unable to clean himself – and that I had blogged about it. I was absolutely stunned, because nowhere in my post had I even alluded to anything like it. I had written one sentence – “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” – that was all. The original post was about a battle of wills I was having with my then-5 year old, about how he once offered to pay me to wipe him. The post centered around the negotiations that Fred was engaging me in, and it was a story of how these little 3 foot creatures can wear us down with their mental tenacity.

The commenter told me that my post reminded her of a childhood experience she had gone through. (It wasn’t her, but a friend or cousin who had soiled himself…I just add that lest you misinterpret ;-))

I won’t label myself thin-skinned or thick-skinned, because I believe that it is simply human to feel hurt by mean comments. Since this experience, though, you could say I’ve become more thick-skinned, less likely to take something personally. Just as blog posts that remind us positively of our experiences can resonate with us, so can posts that bring back bad memories. We bring so much of our pasts and our fears into the words that we hear and read and we can easily react not to the messenger’s experiences but to the emotions that his/her experiences evoke in ourselves. Our friend’s decision not to give in to formula can bring up our deepest insecurities that we have given in, and our child’s momentary whining about hardship can go to the heart of our fears as mothers that we are not doing everything right.

In a week, I am going to have to make a decision about Tom. How well I can harmonize his words, my emotions, and my intuition will impact, on some level, his career trajectory and the quality of our business. I hope I will have the clarity to do right by both him and us.

Keep walking

I’d struggled to write for the last few weeks.

We reached a domestic code orange when we came back from our spring break trip in early April. For the first week we were all tired and uninspired. The house was in disarray and it was a struggle to get Fred to stick to his daily routines and homework assignments. Then the Boston Marathon bombings happened and the clouds and rain took up residence over our town. Max stepped up to the plate while I wrestled with guilt, self-criticism, and an internal debate over whether or not I should seek therapy. Because behind the lethargy was an undercurrent of anxiety and loss of purpose that I have only recently begun to acknowledge.

During all of this, a former client paid a visit from the UK. His visit forced us to make the house presentable. This has been an area of struggle for me for as long as I can remember, and as an adult I have wondered if all this time I have been suffering with an undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder. Deep down, I knew that our lack of organization in the home was also a prison of chaos for our son, making his completion of daily tasks distracting and difficult.

We cleaned up. Got rid of all the paper that made my waking hours a living hell. Cleared our tabletops. Set up a gigantic white board checklist for Fred. As soon as we organized our house, everything clicked into place. Fred checked off his tasks one-by-one and by the end of two weeks we were high-fiving and hugging one another over his achievements. Of course, he improved in his time management because we removed the noise that had been drowning him.

Clearing my physical surroundings made it possible for me to begin making sense of the static that was inside my mind. And I finally admitted that maybe I was not okay. I have certain anxiety issues that I have conveniently ignored, that Max and girlfriends have so kindly worked around. Driving makes me anxious, for example, and I am dependent on rides if going beyond the confines of our small town. While I never loved driving, at least when I was younger this fear never really stopped me; it took more work but I would make it my goal to get to where I needed to be. I’ve since stopped pushing myself in this way. The risks outweigh the benefits, I would tell myself. But this is not okay. It is not okay because I am letting my anxiety over driving and other areas box me in at an age when I should be heading toward self-actualization. But I have harbored these secrets because I am competent and professional, and I am at an age and stage in my career where I am supposed to be confident, not afraid.

Being present – acknowledging, admitting and doing – has helped me swing out of these up-and-down three weeks. I was so traumatized by the cleaning job we did that now I deal with every piece of clutter as soon as it presents itself instead of waiting for it to accumulate. I’ve re-started my walk/jog program post-ankle surgery, having so far moved from a snail’s pace of jogging 20 seconds to jogging 30 seconds for every two minutes of walking. Someday, I think, I might go for a 5K. Or drive to the next city to meet a friend for lunch. Someday I might do more to help expand our business. Somehow, I’d let my dreams for myself and my goals for self-improvement fall away the moment I began nurturing someone else’s life as a mother.

Especially since I broke my leg last summer I’ve learned to accept that improvement can often only inch along. As it is often said, any journey is made up of many small steps. I don’t need to run. I just need to admit that I have to take that first step, and to keep walking.

Are there areas in your life that you’d like to improve? Do you also have issues with anxiety?