Monday, November 27, 2000

Sound of a Not So Comforting Pain-o

"And if I said I really knew you well what would your answer be? If you were here today. Well knowing you, you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart. If you were here today."
-Paul McCartney "Here Today"

Accidents happen. That's what I told the fur coated elderly lady that ran a stop sign and plowed into my car. Physically no one was injured, emotionally we both left a little shaken. She was pulling out of a church parking lot after having attended the funeral of a dear friend. Looking at the mess in front of us- snarled up pieces of metal and plastic- she said she didn't know what to do. She scratched my name and number down on a bag that held her recently purchased medicine. "Please have the insurance company deal directly with me and not my husband," she said. "He's been very sick."

My initial reaction to the accident was one of anger and resignation. What else can happen in this year of unrelenting sadness and loss? But after talking to this woman who saw when I got out of my car that I was visibly angry, and hearing her circumstances I found myself comforting her. "It's only an accident. At least we're not hurt," I said as she hugged me.

If this had happened a year ago it almost would have been welcome. For over a year I drove around with a badly dinged (more like smashed) fender, remnants of smacking into the side of my garage one wintry evening. Slightly embarrassed with the appearance of my car I nonetheless drove around kind of hoping someone would hit that side of my car so I had somebody to blame other than myself. This past summer my father helped pay for a new fender and shiny new hubcap covers. My car looked great. I proudly drove around, showing it off to all my friends as if it were a symbol of my own mental health.

But that particular slippery slope is as up and down and unpredictable as the icy streets of Minnesota. Indeed you might say my frame of mind seems to be increasingly hinged upon the beat of a few mechanical musical notes (and memories).

"But as for me, I still remember how it was before. And I am holding back the tears no more. I love you. What about the time we met? Well I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get. Didn't understand a thing, but we could always sing. What about the night we cried? Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside. Never understood a word but you were always there with a smile."

It was an overcast shadowy winter day and Mom was driving me home from my piano lesson in our 1974 Pinto. From my passenger side of things I was busy thinking about which one was more fiery- the explosive flammable car we were in or the version of "Fur Elise" that I unleashed that day on my poor unsuspecting teacher, the aptly named Mrs. Good. We were at the intersection of County Road C and Western Avenue in Roseville about to take a left turn about a mile from our house. I was feeling snug, smug, and secure in that Pinto, perhaps my favorite family car- with its phony wood paneling, ever spreading rust, four-speed stick and clutch, and wonderful stereo (with both AM and FM), when all of a sudden Mom lost control and we spun in a circle.

I participated in hundreds of piano lessons from fourth grade through high school but this sidebar moment is the one I remember best. I'm sure Mom was quite panicked in our skid, trying to regain control of the car before we hit anything or anybody, but for me it was an unexpected entertaining ride. It seemed as if we were turning in slow motion and I got a perspective of the intersection I had never had before. Luckily we ended up facing the right direction as Mom regained her composure and control of the Pinto.

After lying in bed the other night following another increasingly unsound night of little sleep I decided to get up and take out some of my frustration on my badly out of tune piano. As I was singing "Let it Be" I thought about Mom, and how she was amused whenever I was over at my parents' house playing Mario on the Nintendo and I'd get upset about my inability to conquer part of the course and losing another Mario life, and then I'd stomp over to the piano and bang out a tune. (I'm probably the only musician ever who produced his best work intensely inspired by what that computerized little Italian guy could or could not do.) In my dimly lit living room as my current version of music tumbled from my hands and voice I also thought about how glad I was that Mom encouraged me to take piano lessons and stick with it through some pretty discouraging hours of practice and lessons. It was perhaps the best direction Mom gave me with the possible exception of the summer of typing classes she signed me up for (thus allowing me to jot down these words you are now reading).

I don't play my piano much these days. The sound seems to rattle Mr. Max who often gets very wound up darting from room to room. Sometimes he even joins in- howling at yet another mangled McCartney tune. But I can't entirely put the blame on his aging yet still sturdy shoulders (do cats technically have shoulders?). Somehow the music just makes a heavy heart even more melancholy. There is an important pair of listening ears missing. Because I don't play or practice much my already limited ability is further hampered. Thus what was once a cathartic activity becomes more work.

So besides being a dust and cat hair collector my antique turn of the century upright piano serves mostly as a conversation piece. Last month an inspiring survivor, the mother of the cutest little bumblebee was over on Halloween night. She looked at my desperately uninspired, lacking in a woman's touch home decor, and was impressed by my piano. She asked if I played. I shot her a skunk-eyed look. Why, pray tell, would I have a piano if I did not play? But then again perhaps she somehow sympathetically and intuitively knew these days I play only once or twice a week.

I almost volunteered to play a tune for my rare captive audience. I'm not exactly one who likes to make a spectacle of himself in public, but I've been known to show some visible eccentric showmanship a time or two. But I wasn't quite up to it. The songs are the same only the sound is more hollow. My own personal fenders are still a little beat up.

"And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along then you were here today. For you were in my song."

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