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August 7th, 2008 by
I am notoriously difficult to shop for, and as such I feel bad for my wife.
It isn’t so much that I’m fussy or picky. Quite the opposite - there is little that I actually want. Oh, sure, I have my moments of technophile weakness where I see and covet a 3G iPhone or some such thing. But just as quickly I think about the cost of ownership and immediately lose any desire. After collecting more books than I’ll have time to read, and more music than I can ever to listen to, over the last 20 years, I also have lost the taste for most media. I hate cars, no longer see patients (thus no need for terribly spiffy clothes), and don’t wear a watch anymore. I suppose that she could always get me another pair of glasses (my true weakness) but even that is more of a personal choice.
So when it comes to Hallmark holidays or birthdays, I tell her, quite honestly, that there’s not much I want. I have pretty much all of the things that I need. And most importantly, I have my wife and daughter, a lovely home, and good friends. Things - that is, material things - pale by comparison.
What I really want are either scraps from my past (I want copies of all of the Super-8 movies that my father took of me and my brother in the late 1960s and early 1970s), or intangibles (I want time to visit old friends, I want to learn to speak French, I want financial security, I want to see justice meted out to the current administration … you know, intangibles). Much as she can try, these are hard things to acquire, especially, I suppose, for the latter.
So birthdays roll around, anniversaries pass, Hallmark holidays march on, and invariably I sense that Julie is frustrated by the fact that I’m hard to shop for.
Well, I hope that she’s no longer feeling that, because with the birthday present that she bestowed upon me this year (and I use ‘bestow’ with all seriousness and grandure), not only has she managed to surprise me and thrill me, but she managed to give the gift of one of the aforementioned intangibles. She managed to reconnect me to part of my past, and she also managed to start a parallel track in my life as a father. You see, I returned from a trip to Massachusetts on Saturday, walked into the house to set down my bag, and ran into this:
Isn’t it beautiful?
We had talked about putting a piano into that space in the living room for the past few months, but had relegated that to a lower tier priority since we were hoping to furnish the living room first, and maybe paint. I had looked on Craigslist to see if anything inexpensive was available in the neighborhood, but didn’t really make much of an effort. That Julie had managed to not only shop for this wonderful piano, without my having a clue, that she picked out a wonderful piano from a local business in Germantown (just down the street), and managed to get it into the house during the 18 hours that I was away, was absolutely amazing. I am a very, very, lucky man.
But beyond all that she did for me in surprising me, she unknowingly opened a door to my past.
Our first piano, when I was a child, arrived quite by surprise. Well, at least from my 4-year-old perspective, which is setting the bar pretty low. It was a gift from my grandmother - a brown spinet piano. I remember plinking away on the keys of the upper register, which as the first born son of a Jewish doctor made me an toddler-sized Van Cliburn in the eyes of my parents. It also unwittingly enlisted me in a dozen years of piano lessons. This had a number of remarkable downstream effects. Because all of the piano that I studied was classical, my musical tastes were not particularly well-matched for my age. This had the effect of putting my way out of sync with my peers, who were enjoying Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen while I was stubbornly clinging to Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. I was frame-shifted with regard to music, meaning that while my friends were exploring the Smiths in high school, I was just discovering the classic rock stations. I didn’t enjoy college radio until graduate school. Fortunately, that means that today I’m still learning about new music (thanks, WOXY).
The piano was dropped entirely by the end of my 1st year at the University of Chicago - 1987 - a little over 20 years ago, now. My love for music, of course, continued, and my interest in jazz blossomed. While I always wanted to learn to play the drums or the guitar and indulge my Y-chromosome by unleashing my inner (imaginary) rock star, I never lost my love for the sound of the piano. I had one briefly — very briefly — in Chicago. An old 1920s upright that was given to me for nothing. It cost me a few hundred dollars to have it moved into a 2nd floor apartment and another couple hundred to have it tuned. The piano was adequate. My roommate in the apartment, however, was not, and as such I moved out after a few months, leaving the piano behind.
Fast forward to 2008, and for the first time I am now in space and point in my life where having a piano, and more importantly, the time and desire to relearn it, is within my grasp. And voila. On my 40th birthday, it appears as if by magic. After a few hours of fumbling, muscle memory kicks in out come some of the sonatas and inventions that I practiced endlessly as a child. My desire to learn — to really work on this — ignites, and it is clear that this piano and I will be spending a lot of time together.
But what was truly remarkable was that as I was sitting there, squinting at the sheet music and fumbling over fingering, Anika comes tearing around the corner, stops only long enough to judge the distance between her and my lap, and ambles up into a sitting position. She sits at middle C and places the fingers both hands on the keys — not just hands clumsily on clumps of keys — and beings to try to make music. And as I sit there and smile, I bend over and whisper in her ear, “Anika, you have unwittingly enlisted in at least a dozen years of piano lessons.”
Best. Present. Ever.
August 7th, 2008 by
I’ve always enjoyed that people ask you, on a milestone birthday such as this one, how you feel.
“So … you’re 40 today. How do you feel?”
“Um. I feel pretty much the same as yesterday. I feel fine.”
This phenomena isn’t just restricted to birthdays. As a pediatrician, I’ve always enjoyed that people consider the boundaries between age milestones to be so … concrete … as if there is some hidden or latent biological switchboard that gets readjusted with each passing calendar year. I’ve spent a lot of hours discussing with patients, and their families, that borders are often blurred and gray and that any given milestone is really just a normal distribution with its mean centered around that age. There are long tails on either side defining either precocious or delayed.
Perhaps this will be how I respond to people today when they ask me how I feel now that I’m forty. I’ll tell them that I’m at least at the mean, and possibly a standard deviation or so to the left. I feel good. I have all of my teeth, most of my hair, and some of my ideals still intact.