That Solid Inward Comfort of Mind
When I was growing up, I took piano lessons for nine years. At some point during my tenure as ivory tickler, my teacher, Mrs. Wolverton, asked me to start tracking my practice minutes each week and then submit them to her at the start of each lesson.
It was as though she suspected something was amiss.
The first week, I managed to sandwich a bit of practicing in between episodes of “Family Feud” and daily check-in calls to the automated Time/Temperature lady (“The time…is…6:49 p.m. Downtown temperature…34”). Diligently, I used a timer to count my practice minutes so that I could record them with accuracy. Less diligently, I neglected to note that I spent 1/3 of my practice time on Chopin and 2/3 of my practice time noodling out Frank Mills’ “Music Box Dancer,” a song that made me feel like a surprise one-radio-hit wonder every time I crashed my way through its delicate melody.
At 7:15 a.m. on the morning of my next lesson–
which was held before school since I had such a packed line-up of extracurricular commitments that scheduling a post-school piano lesson was impossible…and I completely hold responsible those formative years of enrichments for the fact that I’m sitting here at age forty-four in my pajamas hosting some seriously greasy hair at 11:19 a.m. on a Thursday because, honestly, racing around learning stuff during those early decades of my life left me plumb wore out, to the point that I’m still in recovery; however, on the upside, if you stop by my house, perhaps to ask if there is a plan in place for ever having a shower or putting on underwear, I can reward your visit with:
a quick run-through of “Music Box Dancer” during which I use white-girl scat singing in lieu of lyrics;
an explanation of basic ballet terms that ends with a stately révérence;
an extemporaneous original oratory for which you choose the topic and then watch, agape, as I fill three minutes with careful transitions and artful gesticulations;
or the Girl Scout pledge, my three-fingered salute symbolizing commitment to:
- personal spiritual beliefs (represented by the middle finger, in my case)
- other people (the ones who don’t make me want to load myself into a rock-weighted burlap bag, tie it shut from the inside–not an easy trick–and hurl myself over the edge of the boat);
- The Girl Scout Law (“Sell more cookies, Bitches!)
–I tossed into my backpack a pile of school and piano books and the slip of paper onto which I’d jotted my practice minutes (and sketched a gnarly doodle that had started out as a simple spiral but which had gradually morphed into a dapper little man when I’d added legs, arms, gloves, and a fedora with a daisy tucked into the hatband; lucky Mrs. Wolverton was privy to a healthy cross-section of my talents!). Hopping onto my bike, I pedaled a couple of miles down Rimrock Road, hummed a breathless bit of “Music Box Dancer,” turned right onto Sunnyview Lane, and coasted downhill to the Wolverton driveway.
The next time my feet touched that driveway, thirty minutes later, there was no longer a dancer twirling around inside my music box. Rather, the dancer had slumped her way to a dark corner of the box, clamped pink tulle between her knees, opened a comforting Hostess snack cake, and muttered, with a Russian accent, “All joy, all light, all happiness, they haff left me. I am svimming in bleak.”
My internal dancer was made slouchy and slumpy, you see, because I had been honest. On my practice report, I had written
Mrs. Wolverton’s reaction to my report was immediate and sharp. “WHAT?” she barked. “SIX MINUTES? FOUR MINUTES? A SINGLE MINUTE? A DAY OF REST? THIS IS WHAT YOU PRACTICED? THIS?”
Although well aware it was unacceptable behavior while sitting at the piano, I allowed my spine to curve a bit, hunching my posture towards the keyboard dejectedly. Attempting explanation, I started, “Well this is a Christian country, despite protests to the contrary in its publicity materials, and therefore Sunday has traditionally been a day of rest…and as for the other days, well, I was never really sure what the time and temperature were, so I needed to keep an eye on those…and then Richard Dawson kisses all the ladies on ‘Family Feud,’ and while it seems like a relatively-normal host thing to do, there’s actually something bizarrely creepy in the subtext of his actions, so I find myself riveted…and, well…”
“NO,” Mrs. Wolverton interrupted (which is actually a violation of etiquette, but I decided to refrain from pointing out her gaffe, as going Emily Post on someone’s perturbation is never well advised). “NO. There is no excuse. There is no reason for these unbelievably minuscule amounts of time spent practicing. You need to spend at least forty-five minutes, more like an hour, every single day, working on your pieces measure by measure, playing and replaying. You have a gift and are obliged to nurture it. You have to put in more time. This is unacceptable. I am astonished and ashamed that you would put in one minute, four minutes, six minutes. This is terrible. Starting this next week, you must aim for an hour a day, or you’ll never fulfill your potential, and you will be a waste of my time.”
The thing is, my music box dancer and I don’t do so well early in the morning, even on those ideal days when all that’s expected is that we eat warm scones while snuggled under our shared duvet. Thus, a pre-8 a.m. scolding administered by one of the region’s best pianists and teachers–not to mention a colleague of my father’s–was acutely traumatizing. My finespun dancer, never one to cope (she disappeared dramatically for three days when her hit single fell out of the Top 40), fell into her droop, so dashed was she, and evaporated into her dark corner for the transient assuagement of snack cakes. My response was to droop internally but, externally, to sit up straighter, look away from Mrs. Wolverton, and fixate, with very bright eyes, on the stick propping open the lid of the grand piano. Managing to emit a meek “Okay,” I felt my brain start to spin with, “How do I get through the next half hour without crying? How do I get through the next half hour without crying? How do I get through the next half hour without crying?”
The susceptibility of every carefree people pleaser is–DUH–not pleasing someone due to lack of care. I found myself, for the next half hour, hyper conscious of my suscept. Somehow, despite feeling strangled inside, I attempted to demonstrate–measure by laborious measure–that an accumulated total of twenty-nine minutes of Very Hard Work Indeed could result in improved performance. Countering, Mrs. Wolverton spent her time fussily pointing out my every error, stopping me cold whenever I flubbed more than three notes in a row, aggressively making her case that actual time spent on the music would have resulted in–of all possible outcomes!–something nearer to mastery.
That half hour was a misery for everyone involved, particularly for Dancer, who ran low on snack cakes within the first four minutes, which left her the sole distraction of digging chocolate smudges out from under her fingernails while lolling wanly yet huffily in her silk-swathed corner.
At the end of the lesson, Mrs. Wolverton regrouped and tried to shift the flattened mood from minor to major. “All right, so this next week you can really turn things around with your practicing, and I know we’ll see a terrific improvement as a result. So just get to the piano, every day, and spend some solid time there. You can do this!”
My ears heard her, but my heart still knew we had gotten in trouble. Dancer and I trudged to my bike and pedaled slowly to school, trying to make sense of the morning. Okay, we needed to practice more. Actually, I needed to practice more; Dancer’s pirouettes had long been constant in their perfection.
That afternoon, after school, after ballet class (it was Dancer’s habit to sit in the dressing room, extending her leg straight up to her ear, and snicker at us plebian elementary school girls galumphing across the studio floor while an accomplished accompanist [no day of rest for her] pounded out Prokofiev in the hopes of elevating our leaps to greater heights), after a big snack of mandarin oranges and saltines, after finishing twelve math problems, I sat down at the piano to practice.
I even used the metronome.
Setting it added approximately two minutes to my practice time. Fiddling with it between songs provided several more bonus minutes.
Our piano bench was non-adjustable, so there were no minutes to be gained there.
Deliberately, I started playing my first piece. Any time I hit a snag, I would stop and replay that measure four times. Then I would start over and aim for uninterrupted flow.
I was focused. Committed. Willing to put in the time, if it meant I would never get yelled at again.
Right around Minute Twelve, my eyes strayed from the sheet music and wandered down to the pedals. There, just behind the pedals, yawned an open floor space. Since we owned a baby grand, there was a fair bit of open territory under there. If I took all the pillows off the chairs and couch and piled them under the piano, they filled the space underneath, turning it into the inside of a genie’s bottle. My hair was long enough to pull up into a ponytail like Barbara Eden’s, and I could tie a dishcloth around my face for a veil. If Dancer wasn’t in one of her legendary tempers, I could probably convince her to play the Larry Hagman character (before her natural turnout and the agenda of the Soviet government forced her into a life as prima ballerina, Dancer had wished to be a cosmonaut). And if I first spent four practice minutes digging through the stacks of music stored in the bench, I might be able to dredge up “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and play that on the piano before playing “I Dream of Jeannie” under the piano. What an elegant transition.
Consequently, Minute Seventeen of my “practice hour” saw me, face swaddled in a dishcloth, body rolling around on couch cushions, closing my eyes and flipping my ponytail every time I wanted to make myself disappear. Oh, to have had that ability at 7:30 a.m.
When the timer reached sixty minutes, Dancer and I were flat on our bellies on top of stacks of pillows, scooching our arms forward on one pillow before sliding our knees to catch up. Crazy genie magic had turned us into caterpillars!
The timer dinged, and I molted. Human once again, I reached for my pencil to record that day’s practice minutes. Hmmm. I had just spent an hour in piano-related and -inspired pursuits. Sixty minutes it was!
I coasted down that slippery slope of logic for the rest of the week, some days spending six minutes in actual practice, thirty in front of “Wheel of Fortune” (although I was too young to notice such things, jaded Dancer drew upon her vast experience with vodka and posited that Pat Sajak was hosting drunk), twenty pulling cans out of the pantry, looking for a refried beans to make nachos, and four furtively listening in on our party line. There. That made an hour, too.
In the interests of appearing real and valid, my practice report for that week went beyond an obvious “60, 60, 60, 60…”:
The issue, of course, was that I hadn’t actually practiced more than the previous week, yet, if I hoped to pass of my practice report as truth, I would have to play better.
I decided to rely on magical thinking. Simply, because I needed to, I would play better. If I could will myself to play better without actually putting in the practice time, then I would have created an exquisite system that simultaneously allowed me to do what I wanted to and kept me out of trouble.
It was with a fair bit of trepidation that I handed over my practice report to Mrs. Wolverton that second week. It was with visible trepidation that she accepted it; as much as I hated a scolding, she hated giving one. Her face transformed to delight as she looked it over. “Why, this is wonderful! You’ve really done as I asked, and I’m sure we’ll hear the results today!”
It was with significant trepidation that I put my hands onto the keys. Dancer lounged on the floor behind the pedals, a dishcloth tied across her face, crossing her eyes at me as I began to play. Ignoring her, I kept my eyes on the music.
When I finished, I looked sheepishly at Mrs. Wolverton and began, apologetically, “I don’t know if it really sounds any better this week, but it’s a hard piece…” True to form, Mrs. Wolverton interrupted me. “Oh, my goodness, it’s so much better this week. You are clearly much more familiar with what you’re playing, and there is so much more emotion and dynamism because of that. That was excellent.”
Her praise continued throughout the lesson. It seemed that a half-hearted intention to practice more had actually led to perceivable improvement in performance. Suddenly, it seemed like there might be merit in Magical Thinking as Life Strategy.
Except, well… Deep inside, I was disappointed. Definitely, I was disappointed with myself, for I had lied and hinged my success on hope rather than effort, and while I couldn’t stop myself from doing it, I did know it was wrong. Surprisingly, I was also disappointed with Mrs. Wolverton. She was supposed to catch me out and make me be the person I wanted to be. She was supposed to know I had lied.
That moment right there, sitting on the piano bench, feeling my nerves turn to relief and then to letdown, was huge. So rarely can we chronicle the moments contributing to the loss of innocence that is a natural part of maturation. For the most part, our innocence erodes gradually throughout our lives–we read books, watch movies, overhear conversations, take blows, absorb insults, regret choices, and walk through our days; as a result of being in the world, the scales drop, one by one, from our eyes.
Sentimental opinion often mourns this loss of innocence, implying that such a loss signifies something is wrong in the world, that it would be preferable if we all were allowed to remain in thrall to undiminished ideals. I disagree. I want to know how things really are. The more I “get it,” the more I’m in it. Innocence requires protection; innocence creates a kind of fragility. For me, even though reality often turns my stomach, makes me flinch, brutalizes my sensibilities, I feel more powerful for having looked at it straight on.
Certainly, The Incident of the Practice Minutes wasn’t brutal. Rather, it caused in me a cognitive dissonance that lead to important understandings. I found out I would lie to preserve peace. I found out I didn’t feel as guilty as I thought I should have for lying. I found out that the guilt I did experience grated but could be shelved. I found out that I could be disappointed in people who had done nothing wrong. I found out that I could manipulate situations in my favor. I found out that there was often much, much more going on in the room when it appeared that people were just talking to each other. I found out that very few things are, in reality, as they appear.
Even Dancer, she who presents as filmy perfection from her toe shoes to her tiara, is actually a complicated handful of loneliness and broken dreams.
Thoughts of losing one’s innocence have been swirling through my head this week because I recently witnessed a loss in my own daughter, one akin to my practice minutes story in terms of the distinct mark it left on the affected.
Allegra and I went to Milwaukee last weekend for her Discovery Girls photo shoot days. The month before her DG time saw her getting increasingly excited: she spent hours writing and typing her article responses to the questions sent; she made piles of “profile outfits,” “article outfits,” “props,” “jewelry,” “lip glosses” in her room and spent hours trying on various combinations; we got her hair trimmed and deep conditioned; my sister treated her to a manicure and a pedicure; Allegra rewatched every online DG video and reread every issue; she asked for an early birthday present so she could have a cell phone at the photo shoot since so many DG girls report that they exchange phone numbers with all their new best friends and still call and text each other, months later. In short, she thoroughly prepared herself so that the experience could be as wonderful and stress-free as possible.
The week before the photo shoot, she got the second zit of her life. It was astronomical in size and located smack in the center of her nose. Every day it grew larger, with her refusing to pop it (“I just can’t make myself do it. It hurts!”). By the fifth day, I was manic about it, irrationally obsessed with it. The day I walked into the kitchen, looked at her, and could no longer see her eye color because her irises were obscured by the height of The Zit, I went out and bought a spot treatment and face wash. All along, Allegra told me, “It’s not that huge a deal, Mom. DG wants girls who look like real girls. If I have a zit, I’ll just look real.” That kid is so chill.
I agreed with her. I even explained that the magazine could use Photoshop to help. And I completely don’t think acne has to be that big of a deal. But still. Inside, I felt like an overbearing reality tv mom; Byron and I actually talked, one night, about waiting until she fell asleep and then going into her room, pinning her down, and popping the thing.
Fortunately, the morning after that conversation, Allegra disappeared into the bathroom for a bit and came out. The deed was done. It was at the pus-filled point where a soft sneeze would have triggered an explosion, so she didn’t have to squeeze too hard. It was popped, and the healing had three days before Milwaukee.
I suspect some of you are wondering how all this ties into loss of innocence, right? The truth is (if you can trust me to tell the truth about anything, now that you know what I did to Mrs. Wolverton), the tale of the zit is irrelevant. The only innocence lost here pertains to the idea that I would consider molesting my own child’s nose, that Allegra found out zits take a while to heal, and that you had been feeling we were heading somewhere with this woeful tale of pre-adolescent acne.
So Allegra and I loaded into the car last weekend, feeling well prepared and as though the drama of the pimple had taken care of any need for DG-related angst. The drive to Milwaukee was uneventful, if you count 80 minutes of clarinet practicing as uneventful (clearly, Allegra is not her mother’s daughter in regards to putting in the time with her instrument). We met my sister, who’d flown in from Denver for this exciting girls’ weekend, and the fun began.
Sunday was the first big day. The twelve Minnesota Discovery Girls were to descend upon the Jelly Belly Factory for an initial meeting and a tour. The photos taken this day are for the “Behind the Scenes” section of the magazine. Allegra loves “Behind the Scenes”; it’s one of her favorite parts of every issue. Everyone congregated in a conference room, and the girls did quick introductions and paired up to exchange a few more tidbits. We parents then cleared out for a few hours while the girls went on the tour and bonded further.
Two hours later, when we picked up Allegra , we told her she could choose some gifts and souvenirs from the gift shop. As is her way, she looked around cursorily, picked out a few things, and then said, “I’m good.” One other DG remained in the gift shop at this point, so I asked them to pose together and chatted with the other girl’s family for a bit.
Finally, we were finished and got out to the car. The drive to our hotel took almost an hour. My sister and I asked a lot of questions and received short answers. Mostly, the car was quiet. Too quiet.
Eventually, I said, “So, was the tour as fun as you’d hoped it would be?”
“No. Not really.”
“Did you get to see how they made the jelly beans?”
“Not right there. Not in real life. They showed us videos of everything.”
“Wow. That sounds kind of boring. I’m surprised they don’t show you an actual vat of jelly bean goo and how the beans come out on an assembly line or something.”
“Yea, it wasn’t a bad tour, but it wasn’t very interesting.”
“So did you get to interact with the other girls as much as you’d hoped?”
“No. We didn’t really talk to each other at all. They just told us how to pose and took a lot of pictures.”
After waiting a few minutes to see if there was more forthcoming, I asked, “So, do you maybe feel a little disappointed about today?”
Me again: “…because you thought you’d really be getting to know these other girls and genuinely having fun with them?”
“Yes” came the unsteady reply.
“And then you didn’t because it was all about staging and taking photos?”
With that prompt, her words finally started to tumble out.
“Yes. All that stuff in the ‘Behind the Scenes’ section of the magazine where all the girls are having fun with each other? That’s not really happening. I always thought they were hanging out and messing around together. But the photographers totally told them to act like that. They’re just acting like they’re friends.”
Me: “That does sound pretty disappointing. The staffers need to be sure they get the photos they need–because their magazine is a business–but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that the entire magazine sets you up to believe it’s a way to make a heap of new best friends. Aw, kiddo. I’m so sorry.”
My sister and I carefully didn’t look at each other. The silence from the back seat continued. Allegra’s internal processing of the afternoon overrode further conversation. Trying not to give in to tears, I felt impotent–gripping a steering wheel in the midst of four lanes of traffic while my not-yet-grown-up girl struggled alone in a darkened corner with a blindsiding of grief.
It was then that I sensed my soul’s accomplice, Dancer, peeling away from my heart and slithering to the rear of the car. Clicking into her seat belt, Dancer slid a slim hand into Allegra’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. As she pulled away to adjust her leg warmers and stare broodingly out the rain-speckled window, I heard the crinkle of a wrapper. Dancer had deposited her last, long-hoarded snack cake into Allegra’s lap.
After a few more minutes of silence, a newly-heartened Allegra spoke. “I’m still excited for tomorrow, though. We get to be pampered, and we’ll have more time together.”
“I’ll just have to be not my usual self tomorrow. I’m going to get a piece of paper ready and go up to each girl and ask for her phone number or email address. Since we don’t have a lot of time together, I can’t be shy. I need to go talk to them and use the hours we have, even though it’s not very long.”
A bit more silence.
“It will be better tomorrow. I just didn’t know how it was. I didn’t know. Now I do.”
You remember that part, some paragraphs back, where I shrugged off sentimentality for its tendency to protect needlessly and to engender fragility?
Turns out, parents are terribly sentimental about their children.
I would have gone to serious lengths to prevent this devastation for Allegra , to have assured that her every expectation for the weekend was met. I would have stalked the “Behind the Scenes” afternoon. I would have cut off my Jeannie ponytail and sold it on eBay. I would have practiced piano for 73 full and honest minutes, without a single bathroom break.
Fortunately, such lengths weren’t necessary. Once she expressed her disappointment at the lack of genuine connection, something in her eased. An hour later, after she’d stuffed herself on sweet and sour chicken (“I only got to taste five Jelly Bellies on the tour”), her spirits rebounded, and she began to reframe the experience. We talked about what we knew of each of her fellow Discovery Girls. We talked about the next day. We talked about how true friendships develop over time.
Monday arrived, and Allegra was back in high spirits. She went to the official photo shoot in the studio feeling more powerful for her loss of innocence the day before. She hadn’t known. Now she knew. And reserved Allegra made herself plop down on a couch next to three other girls; when they plugged in Just Dance 3 as an icebreaker, our “I hate to dance” Allegra willingly took whispered tips from Dancer and got right up in the line with the other rocking Discovery Girls. She went through hair and make-up. She went through several changes of clothes. She smiled and smiled. She gathered some phone numbers–not as many as she might have with even more assertiveness, but enough to start connections that continue to pan out into texting and emailing with an ever-larger group.
She came out the other side of her huge experience feeling buoyant, bolstered not by fanciful expectations but, instead, by the steady certainty that comes from having dealt with reality. Currently, her favorite past time is to sit on the arm of my chair, a Discovery Girls magazine propped between us; she turns the pages and notes which girls are her favorites–which ones she’d most like to be friends with–and then she says, proud of her insider insight, “See this picture here at the bowling alley, where all the girls are laying on the floor together like they’ve collapsed with giggles? That’s staged. It’s fake. They were told to do that.”
With that, she looks me in the eye, a knowing grin breaking across her face, and slaps Dancer a quick high-five before declaring, “That’s just how it is. Now, I need to email Natalie. She doesn’t understand what we’re supposed to do for our Web diaries.”
Unencumbered by innocence,
she skips out of the room,
a bit more equipped to face
all the greater challenges that will define