Saturday, September 1, 2018

“Red Bricks and Ivory Notes”

"Pianos, unlike people, sing when you give them your every growl. They know how to dive into the pit of your stomach and harmonize with your roars when you've split yourself open.
And when they see you, guts shining, brain pulsing, heart right there exposed in a rhythm that beats need need, need need, need need, pianos do not run. And so she plays." - Francesca Lia Block
Walking towards the 1920’s white colonial, along the red brick pathway, uneven with roots that have jumbled with time, I anxiously carry my sheets of music, anticipating another season of piano. Magnolia seedlings have sprouted, planting stakes of what will be grand hallmarks with lilies of the valley growing freely throughout the garden beds. A stray red bud or two has lost its way and azaleas and boxwood are grounded in the yard. The great big oak that once stood at the border of her yard lived a long life and all that remains is a pile of saw dust sinking in a hole. 

As I take a step onto her tiny front porch I notice a little bird’s nest perched in a corner of the eave amongst a background of painted shutters and shingles of infinite layers. I ring the doorbell but soon remember it doesn’t produce any sound. I knock a once or twice with no response.

I know Ms. Kathaleen is expecting me. My lesson is at 2:30. Originally it was scheduled for 1 but as usual, she accommodates my crazy, erratic and disorganized time management and allows me to change lesson time at the last minute. I always call frantic with an excuse, but really I’m just a big hot mess, on a treadmill. I probably have no business trying to fit time in for myself. Yet here I am, on time for once, but someone else is playing.
Maybe she finally, after all these years, got fed up with me and took another lesson, just to teach me about the value of other people’s schedules. No, that’s not her style. Don’t think I have ever seen her not smiling, not greeting you like she hasn’t seen you for ages and is so happy you’re here, so grateful to have your presence. Her calm yet vivacious, infectious moods are always so consistent. She’s no pushover mind you, no ma’am, she’s not. She’s tough in a quiet manner. And you’d think she was actually organized with all the lessons she juggles, keeping track of sheets of music and books she purchases and passes along to her students, the great recitals she organizes, forty years of lessons and counting, but no, I think she’s as hot a mess as I am. At least that’s what she tells me.

She always says, “Mary Beth, you’re just like me. We don’t know if we’re coming or going. That’s the mind of a musician.” Or something to that effect. “Time doesn’t matter to us, at least it has no boundaries. It just flows and we roll with it.” Or something like that. “Playing piano keeps your mind fresh, keeps your memory alive. All my students are smart, do well in school and go on to do great things.”
As I peer through her window, the pane slightly rippled and cloudy, I see there is not another student taking my spot but Ms. Kathaleen at her grand piano, playing my piece. 
I oftentimes phone her out of the blue and announce enthusiastically “I just heard this piece on Classic FM and want to learn to play it.” It’s typically a Chopin piece as he’s my favorite composer. She’ll respond so delighted that I called, she’ll give a little chuckle in a high pitched note and respond in a deep pitched voice with a soft southern drawl, “Oh Mary Beth, you’ll have your hands full with that one but we can try it.”
I’m currently working on Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Ballade Op. 34 Nr2. It might take me a lifetime to learn. I’ve been working on Beethoven’s third movement of Moonlight Sonata, having mastered the first and second. The third is quite intimidating though, so much I often just sit and stare at the notes in an anxious panic. I’ll learn them before I die, but maybe not for spring recital this year. Well at least I’ll try. 
There was one piece I called her about that sounded simple enough: Chopin’s Berceuse. It’s a stunningly beautiful piece. Slow and melodic, with flat notes of D, E, G, A, and B and scales going from naturals to flats to sharps and back again. The treble clef remains fairly constant. It’s one of the pieces that makes me feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I haven’t been playing piano for very long. I’m almost forty seven and I’ve only learned to read notes a few years ago. I tried for decades to learn to read music but no one could teach me. I play by ear so the pieces I started with had always been so simple I ended up taking the easy route and sounding them out instead. The instructors assumed I was reading notes because I was playing “Stepping Up and Down” notes C, D and E. I wasn’t reading or learning though, they thought I was, but I never got past the basic kid piano books. I must have gone through about five instructors during my youth, with the same pattern of learning the same silly song, no progress, and so I’d quickly get bored and quit instead of wasting everyone’s resources.
Though my desire never waned. I yearned to play true classical music, I yearned for it, just to have my fingers dance over the keys and fill a room with great beauty. I was determined. So the summer of my sixteenth birthday, which I recall being particularly rainy and boring, I sounded out the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I had a pink boom box with a cassette player my father bought for me. I would play and rewind, play and rewind all summer long until I felt I mastered the piece. It was the first time I danced with the ivories and I was so proud, as were my parents. I felt I had truly accomplished something great: the entire piece, learned by ear, note for note.
My pride was shattered though when I played one day for my mom’s friend, a fellow pianist like myself. She told me in no unforgiving, sympathetic terms that I had spent the whole summer sounding out the piece in the wrong key. I felt deflated. I cut myself a break though. After all, I was playing on a hundred year old piano rescued from the basement of my grandmother’s house, with sticky keys and broken strings, glue coming undone on the felt. I doubt that piano had ever been tuned. Maybe someday I’ll have a new piano and I’ll gracefully dance along the keys.
Time passed, a marriage and three kids later, I got my piano: brand new and well-tuned, an upright Young Chang, pretty with cherry wood, no Steinway, but still of good stock. Now what to do with this piano? My ear could only take me so far and that’s how I stumbled upon Ms. Kathaleen.

I would show up at Ms. Kathaleen’s home with my music books, a bag of goldfish, and Pack-and-Play in hand. I would plop down my one year old son, toss him the fish and have my thirty minute lesson. And I learned, truly learned to read notes. Ms. Kathaleen didn’t start me on the baby stuff. She started me on Chopin. And I played that year in my very first recital, in front of a crowd of other adults in a beautiful chapel with outstanding acoustics.
And I choked. I got up to play, my piece so well practiced I didn’t even need the sheet music to play. I had it memorized like every great pianist before and after me. I was confident until I sat down to play. I imploded. I forgot bits and pieces, I stalled, I stumbled, my hands shaking, my brow sweating. I was mortified.
I stormed off, no customary bow, and I was embarrassed and ashamed but looked angry with fire blazing from my red head. I had no plans to return and spent the summer cowering in self-pity as my infamous piano choking turned out to be a precursor of sorts, a life’s metaphor for the catastrophe that was about to unfold.
The summer, dark and cold, even with a burning Carolina sun, was ending until a fresh breeze blew my way. Ms. Kathaleen called me, “Would you like to schedule your lessons for the new season?” I didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t she offended by my behavior? I mean, I didn’t even walk up to the stage to accept my certificate. I sent my five year old daughter up in my place. My husband even scolded me for my behavior, telling me he was embarrassed and ashamed of me. Yet she was calling me to start again.
“But Ms. Kathaleen, I choked and then I stormed off that stage.”
“Oh Mary Beth, you’re just like all those other great musicians who get flustered and throw a tantrum. That just means you’re a true pianist. So when do you want to come for your lesson?”
The summer of my fortieth birthday, that a dark and ever so dreary summer, I needed saving. I had three beautiful children and a piano but I didn’t feel my value. The music I so longed to play since I was just a little girl had been silenced.   
I showed up at my scheduled lesson, probably late and a big hot mess as usual.  Maybe I should have stayed in my cocoon. But I'm an open book and I couldn’t help myself. I broke down and told her my story, my story of shame, of devastation, my story of loss and sadness and fear. I figured this women, so well revered by many, so full of grace, would have no understanding of what I was experiencing. The thing I valued more than anything was slipping from me forever, never to be recreated, with only memories that held onto the pain. But she said, “Oh Mary Beth, I been there. Now let’s play.” And so I played.
Eight year later, as I peered into Ms. Kathaleen’s window she was playing my piece: Berceuse. Oh what a gift! I peered and listened, I closed my eyes, soaking in the notes, my eyes watering with sheer joy in the sound.
I continued to peer into her window as she sat on the stool of her grand Steinway, her back towards me. Her pure white, short yet wavy coiffed hair, her shoulders hunched slightly, a pretty purple shirt, and her fingers dancing along the keys. Maybe not with the vim and vigor of her early days, like the red brick pathway uneven with roots jumbled by time, she played and I listened. Oh what sound, what beauty, what a moment to be cherished, what a life, what value, oh what a gift, what simplicity, what a reflection.
She finally came to the door and I thanked her, with a tear in my eye, I thanked her for her gift. She chuckled in a high pitched note, then in a deep and sweet southern drawl, she hugged me, and said, “Oh Mary Beth, what am I going to do with you? You mean with my slow aging fingers, I’m stumbling through the piece” or something to that effect. I said, “Oh no, it was beautiful. I can’t wait to learn it now.” She said, “Well it will be much easier than that Ballade. Now let’s play.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2018


“Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.” Wes Westrum, Mets Manager

“It ain’t nothin’ till I call it,” Umpire Bill Klem

“Life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson

“Is this heaven? It’s Iowa.” Field of Dreams

Whomever doesn’t understand why baseball is a great sport well, my grandmother taught me not to judge, but let’s just say for those who just don’t get baseball they must be missing an American gene, or a gene of humanity, some lack of sentimentality, or something missing from the heart. I’m not referring to the rules, I mean the game!

This spring season of 2018 we were a part of the Orioles, not the Baltimore Orioles, the North Wake County, North Carolina Orioles. I’ve got Yankees blood in me born from my father who bleeds Yankees blood, but for the spring 2018 season, we were Orioles, loud and proud.

The season started out like any other little league season with the exception of this being the first season of “kid pitch” for Graham, my nine year old son. Kid pitch differs from adult pitch because it starts to test eye hand coordination maybe before a nine year old has fully developed this motor skill. Pitches are faster and more erratic. Put in laymen’s terms, the ball just doesn’t land on the bat. A batter has to wait for the right ball and be ready. And that ball may not come while the batter is up.

If you think this sounds hard on a nine year old kid just itching for the sound of a ball to crack his bat, it’s even harder on a parent. I had to ride home listening to my son talk about how he’ll never make the MLB because he can’t hit. He was downright despondent, which, for a mom, is so painful hearing such disappointment in your child’s voice. I just listened, then I asked him, “What’s the MLB?” “Mom, Major League Baseball!” “Oh,” I said, “Well Graham, you don’t want to be too good too soon. If you peak too early you’ll never make it to the MLB so just keep trying and don’t give up.” He was ready to quit but he didn’t give up. He shed some tears with every strike out but after a while he learned to shake it off and get back to the game.

The start of any baseball season is a little awkward. The team is new, most parents and kids not knowing each other. It’s like the first day of school. The start of the Oriole season was no different. Parents and kids were shy when introducing themselves to one another, the team feeling each other out, parents trying to remember names and whose kid belonged to whom, but then we started to play. Cheers from the bleachers were hesitant and quiet at first, and the boys and their team camaraderie was in an infancy stage. We lost our first game to the Braves, coached by the only female coach in the league. She was my son’s coach from the previous season and she was a good coach, competitive and tough.  I liked her last season but not this season. She beat us.

The Orioles got off to a rough start with their first loss but then they became a force of reckoning. They became number one in the league, undefeated from their next win on out. This was not just luck, this, this sweep was hard work, strategy, good coaching, competitiveness (after all this is a game where winning matters and losing really stinks, this isn’t everyone gets a trophy – this is baseball!). The team’s specialty: stealing bases. We were feared in the league.

Parents’ cheers from the stands became louder, we became more opinionated. “That umpire isn’t very good.” “Hey, that’s the second out called on our boys. Someone start video recording, we want an instant replay.” “What, that’s not the same call you made for the other team. What rule book are you using?” “That pitcher is wild, he’s gonna hurt someone.” “He was blocking the base!?#@” “Tell that boy to back down.” “He dropped the ball!” “He didn’t tag him!”

Then there were cheers FOR our kids. “Wait for your pitch” “Good eye” “Good Swing” “Come on – insert parent pet name – you can do this, you got this” “RUN!” “OMG, I can’t watch, he’s trying to steal!” “He’s off his game today, what’s wrong with my child!?” “Shake it off buddy!” “What do you mean?! He touched the base!” “Oh wait, I just missed it.” “Couldn’t get a good picture.” “I got a good action shot!”

There were cheers from the coaches “Just you and the mitt” “Let’s take this ball on a ride” “Baseball ready” “Get ready to run” “Outfield, wake up!” “You got this one.” “Tuck in your shirt!” And there were probably a few others I missed because I was busy chatting in the stands.

And of course we can’t forget the umpires: “OUT!” “SAFE!” “STRIKE!” “BALL!” and warnings “If you throw your bat at me one more time you’re OUT!”

Then there was Coach Chris, the leader of our team, hard core and full of heart for the boys and the game. If there was a call he didn’t like he’d shout a time out, march out to home base and fight his case. He often didn’t win his protest but at least he didn’t kick up dirt and spit in the umps face. He walked away with grace and said “Alright boys, let’s get back to playing.” The players would say, “Shake it off coach.” He was always ready with praise, inspirational speeches, baseball words of wisdom, recognizing every little achievement with patches handed out after each game, our boys’ hats became maps of pride.

This season we had players with a broken finger, a broken ankle, and a broken arm. These boys showed up even when they couldn’t play just to cheer on their teammates, and then, probably a little too prematurely, they were back out playing. Tyler and his broken ankle gave us all some cringes like when he went running for home base fresh out of his cast. We all shouted, “Don’t slide!” Austin pitching when last time we saw him his arm was in a sling. He threw strikes.

We ended one game with a tie. A tie? What the heck is that? So a few days later Coach Chris sends out an email letting the parents know that he went to bat for the team, called the league, argued the call that cost us a run and this time, his persistent protesting pulled a win for our team. Well done Coach Chris! Perhaps some thought this was an unconventional move for little league, a little too competitive? But I gather every parent on the Orioles was quite pleased. I think some even egged him on to debate the call in the first place.

The parents, the parents were great. Every one with a story, I could write a book. But that’s baseball, everyone has a story but everyone keeps playing. We all share in the dream. The dream that our little guy who’s growing faster every day, gets a hit at bat because with every swing, and every stolen base, and every run scored or ball fielded well, they grow. And parents beam with pride and their hearts swell and, like that ball hit far into the field, we are taken on a ride. And all the coaches, parents and kids ride that ride together and it becomes a bond that will become a memory, a really good memory.

This team has been magical. See, baseball is making me sentimental. I get it, I may not know all the rules but I get it. We’ve got one more game, the big championship game. We made it to the top. Win or lose – of course winning is better – the boys, parents and coaches will play their hearts out tonight. Then the season will end, and like most little league teams, we will all part ways. Maybe we’ll run into each other at Target or somewhere. Maybe some of us will play on the same team again, maybe some of the parents will keep in touch, probably through Facebook, a random text here and there. Maybe some of our little guys will grow up to be big guys and stand on a Major League Baseball field - the MLB! and we'll catch them and say we remembered them when...Maybe. I’ll tell you though, doesn’t matter because this field, this season, this was baseball.

Thanks to all the coaches for their hard work and dedication. You gave of your time which is very precious. Hats off to Coach Chris, Coach Brian, Coach Todd, Coach Adam, Coach Kyle and if there is a coach I missed, then my bad. I don’t remember my own kids’ names sometimes. Play Ball!