Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Father's Day Performance

The Boy working the keys with his best pal

Father’s Day this year began, as it should, with kid crafts (and not, as it shouldn’t, with broken arms).  The Boy took a cast-off ribbon he found in the park (award-bestowing culminations are happening everywhere and for everything these days) and affixed a paper “Best Dad in the World” medal of his own making.  Q built an elaborate paper card with four origami frogs each sitting on either a blue (for water) or green (lily pad) paper pop-up.  It was so elaborate, in fact, that she had to show me how to properly remove it from and return it to the handmade envelope.  My lovely wife got me an envelope too, but I was able to easily remove its contents, which were four tickets to the Blue Man Group, a show I’d been meaning to book for us for a while now.*  I gave myself a bike for the holiday, and after the initial giving, the kids and I went out for a ride while my lovely wife stayed in to make her killer apple-ginger biscotti.

The biscotti was for the kids’ music recital later that afternoon. Q and The Boy have been taking piano lessons since September, and their teacher puts on a show every other year in which each of his students, regardless of age and ability, performs a piece. Their teacher teaches a little differently, at least differently than how I learned. He doesn’t assign scales or finger exercises or pages of A Dozen a DayHe focuses mainly on getting his students to like piano (or guitar or whatever), which means having them set about learning songs right from the first lesson, and songs they already know and like.  Given Q and The Boy’s level, the selection has been fairly predictable:  “Hot Cross Buns,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Happy Birthday,” but also “Yellow Submarine.”

Both kids have taken to the piano surprisingly quickly and well.  In the beginning, the teacher thought Q might be too young for a full half-hour lesson, but he, like most, underestimated Q’s ability to sit and focus.  She worked her way through several simple songs and went on to learning chords.  For the recital, she was to play a version of “Heart and Soul” with her left hand moving through the four-chord progression (C - A - F - G) while her right played the melody.  If the piano has clich├ęs, this song is one of them, but it’s a little tougher to play than it sounds (no right-hand notes fall on the same beat as the F chord, e.g.).  Her teacher had a fair amount of faith in her to give her this song to play for her first public performance.

The Boy’s piece, a selection from “Spinning Song” by Albert Ellmenreich, was even more demanding. It’s a clever composition with several theme changes in just a few lines, difficult sounding and showy in the way that prompts parents to put up YouTube videos of their prodigies racing through it with feet swaying from the piano bench. The Boy mastered the notes pretty early (to his teacher’s surprise and delight), and he slowly increased the pace until he could put the parts together at a respectable clip.

They were both nervous about the recital in their own way.  The Boy had over-practiced.  His execution of his piece took on some quirks he couldn’t seem to get rid of, and he began to get bogged down on a chord change that he had been breezing through just days before.  These snags caused him to think about his playing, which is never a good thing to do with a muscle-memory task.  The morning of the recital we asked him to run through his song one last time, and his frustration foiled him such that he had to try to consciously remember the last few notes but simply couldn’t do so.  We had to make him leave the bench before he could convince himself that he couldn’t play that song — or any other — ever at all.  When it was Q’s turn for a run-through, however, she sat calmly at the keys and went first note to last without a single mistake.  After she skipped from the piano to dress up a little for the actual performance, we noticed her lunch sat on the table barely touched.

The recital was staged in a trim and neat United Methodist church in a little New Jersey town about 40 miles outside of the city.  The sanctuary had been converted a concert hall, and not much of the church’s usual function remained visible apart from the organ pipes making a silver fence along the back wall.  The teacher had a house band set up in front of the altar that included a full trap set, a Korg keyboard, a high-gloss grand piano, many microphones on their stands, and several guitars and bases corded to various amps.  We sat in the second pew mainly waiting for Q and The Boy to perform.  We all knew they were scheduled sometime toward the beginning, but we didn’t know exactly when.

Given the teacher’s style and mission, we weren’t surprised to hear covers of Bruno Mars, Coldplay, some evanescent pop numbers we’d heard but couldn’t name, and a whole bunch of Adele.**  About a half hour in, the teacher started to call up his youngest pupils.  There were odes to joy, a phrase or two from the Nutcracker, a “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “This Land is Your Land.”

Then he called up Q.  She took her place at the grand piano, her white dress bettering the shine coming off the giant instrument, and I took my place closer up at the rail where parishioners kneel to video her.  I could see her arms quiver as she positioned her fingers over the correct keys to start her song.  Everything went well until she got a little lost right at the very end, but she managed to find her way out of her music with a solid C chord and then left the bench quickly to applause.  My wife and I know her well enough to read a bit of disappointment in her face.  The Boy was next.  I was a little worried he might not hold up if he made a mistake — but not too worried.  He’s the kind of person who tends to rise to whatever occasion, and he rose again there on the bench in the church.  He played smooth and clean, split a chord once but kept on going. At the very end he started to go back into the melody when he should have moved to the final lines, but he just stopped for a moment, started up again a bar back, and went right on out as he should have, no problem.  A smile began to arrive with the final notes and bloomed as he bowed just off the bench and then came back to us.  I was so, so proud of them both.

We all had trouble sitting for the entire two hours, especially the kids whose flood of adrenaline had crested and receded with their performance.  We snuck out to the fellowship hall between songs to get a head start on the cookies and fruit and punch brought by the families.  The church’s double front doors were propped open, and the day was small-town blue and clear, like the air had just been given up fresh from the grass.  All the kids, freed from anxiety and expectation, ate sweets and goofed with each other on the lush lawn, even tolerating a few pictures by and with the adults.

Both kids enjoyed the whole thing — or at least they said they did.  Q denies that she was nervous at all.  (She is so capable at so many things that she can struggle with admitting that she struggles sometimes.)  As we pulled away from the church for New York, Q said, “We’ll see this place next time.”  The Boy was already reading his book.

This is the paragraph where metaphors and analogies tend to arrive, and, admittedly, I’m tempted to use the kids’ recital to package being a father as a kind of performance.  Though to a playwright or musician, the whole world might seem a stage, it’s not.  Not really.  My family isn’t my audience (thank goodness, because tough crowd), and I don’t aim each day to put on a show in any useful sense of the term.  Much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing father wise other than trying to be decent, an approach that doesn’t seem up to the stakes involved.  Perhaps it’s because in some ways parenting — an embodiment of care so great and old — isn’t like another thing, which is why it’s more often a thing that other things are said to be like.

I do know that I prefer this kind of Father’s Day:  One where I get to see Q and The Boy reveal themselves and then come sit next to me, relieved and proud of themselves and altogether a little larger.  And then we have punch.

Happy Father’s Day, all.

*This is the kind of gift I prefer — viz., experience- as opposed to stuff-based.  I’ve also just been thinking about how the kids are now the right age for lots of shows and that we should start going more.  Like usual, my wife is ahead of me.

**I’m constantly surprised at how many slight t(w)een girls choose to sing Adele songs.  They likely don’t have the experience that fuels her music, but, more important, they must underestimate the size and power of her voice.  She’s got a huge, deep instrument.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Boy at 9

The Boy’s mom gets a hole in one with his birthday cake

This week was The Boy’s 9th birthday and everything that accompanies it.  He’s beginning to grow out of some kid rituals, and we’ve had to accommodate accordingly. He still wanted cupcakes brought to school, but he informed us that parents aren’t there when they’re passed around. Not long from now, he’ll probably be walking to school without us as well.

We’ve also tried to set our party expectations properly. We knew we again wanted to have something small, around 9-10 kids, but the past two years didn’t quite come off as expected. Experience has taught us that it is possible to get 10 girls to focus for an hour on fine-motor tasks, but with boys you can pretty much forget it. This time, my lovely wife and I tried to put ourselves in the minds of nine-year-old boys. I suggested we take everyone to a shooting range just across the river in New Jersey, with real guns and everything, but then I put myself in the minds of the parents of nine-year-old boys and thought better of it.* We started thinking about a laser tag party instead, and it turns out that a few of those laser tag/paintball/arcade places still exist, including one somewhere out in Queens. Still, though we didn’t need to worry about live ammunition, we nevertheless had to get the partygoers to and from a place we’ve never been to in a neighborhood we know nothing about.

Sadly, we abandoned the idea of the kids and guns altogether. My wife suggested, with the ease and excellence that always attends the obvious, that we just treat everyone to mini-golf at the pier close to our building, followed by pizza and cake at our apartment. Done and done.

It was the right choice. The afternoon was hot, the pier a busy runway for the sun, but the kids didn’t seem to care, or only pretended to care for the rich comedic potential. (We brought one of those fan/spray bottles that got passed around and used a lot.) I attempted to supervise with mixed but expected results. The kids are old enough to pretty much run themselves, and I only had to tell them every now and then to get off or out of something. Q was there, too, playing the course behind the bigger boys with her best friend (who happens to be the sister of The Boy’s best friend) and her best-friend’s younger brother. Everyone had fun easily, it seemed. As we made our way from the pier to our apartment, the boys were still free enough of self-consciousness to all link up in a line, arm over neck, a wave of noise and energy that never seemed capable of breaking.

My wife made a killer cake as always (see above). At first she wasn’t sure how to represent the golf theme, but after some Internet browsing and stumbling across a small tub of gel icing she was in business. It turned out remarkable in both look and taste:  a buttercreamed mini-golf hole that included a water hazard (gel icing), a crushed cookie sand trap, a windmill, a chocolate chip for a hole surrounded by gumball golf balls, and a flag that Q helped make from a lollipop stick and folded red foam.  The Boy called dibs on the windmill right away.

As their parents arrived, we sent kids away with a light-up foam stick** and a book.  Reactions to this party favor were telling. One kid asked if he could have two of everything before he heard what everything was. Another asked me what the goodie bag was long before we were giving them out, and his interest dissolved when he heard that reading was involved. The Boy’s best friend, however, said “Totally awesome!” when he saw the pile of books and “White Fang, yes! I wanted to read that!” when he was handed the one we had reserved for him alone. No need to wonder why they’re best friends.

Gifts usually reflect people’s perceptions of the recipient, and this year’s seemed pretty accurate. His friends mainly gave him gift cards for various bookstores or books outright, along with a few LEGO sets that The Boy clicked together in minutes instead of hours. (He’s a varsity-level brickman now.) We got him, among other things, a Swiss Army knife, because he can handle a thing capable of serious cutting and sawing (including oneself). His sister insisted on giving him a white bathrobe — totally her idea — which he loves to lounge in with a book after a bath.

He is no less a thing of wonder now than when he arrived early nine years ago, and perhaps even more so. Bits of him seemed set at the beginning — yearly photos from the beach show how he approaches the ocean from the same stance over the years, and his lean frame even now like a long shadow cast by his infant body — but much of him, of course, is still in the making. Thinkers are mediators and reveal themselves in being between. We take in the world, and it gets broken up and bits of it lodged in us and spun together and out again at new angles. The Boy has become a fascinating mediator in his own right, quick- and quirk-witted, expressive, drawn to the arcane and the encyclopedic.*** He cares about most things deeply, which can lead to disappointment (often in himself) but also to loyalty and value.  I have come to respect how he appreciates things.

At the end of his day, we went in to wish him good night, a wish no less genuine for being routine. He himself wasn’t ready to end the day just yet, and he slid over in his bed, patted the gap he just opened up, and said to his mom with an excellent mix of love and joke, “There’s always room for someone special.”  If she hadn’t wanted him to get some sleep, she would still be there now.

Happy birthday, son. We love you, and we’re proud of you.

*The minds of other parents, in any event. And, okay, 9 armed 9 year-olds may very well be a questionable idea. The Boy and I will have to go on our own in a few years; I trust him with a gun.
**Resembling a golf club, sort of. Party favors are a terrible idea and a pain but apparently pretty much unavoidable.
***Just ask him about Minecraft, e.g.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Going back out

I went back to playing basketball last weekend. It was the first time I’d been on the court (at least with other players) since I had to have myself repaired about eight months ago. Conditions were perfect. The buildings just south of the World Trade Center site have the height and spacing necessary to cast a shadow through the morning to keep us and the court cool. My wrist with the screw in it was stiff, always will be. But it’s my off hand, and my game self, even at this state and age, forgot about it (and the rest of me) fairly quickly. I even made a few shots.

More important, nothing happened. I didn’t break a bone or, worse, blow out a knee. I came back home that morning only tired and anticipating the deep aches that would (and did) wake up with me the next day.

Why did I go back? I certainly didn’t have to. My brother, who played college basketball and who is a little over two years older (and many degrees more fit) than I, has given up playing entirely to avoid the possibility of hurt. And despite expensive procedures going well and four-plus months of occupational therapy, the fall I took last May shaved about 20 degrees off my left hand’s range of motion. The pair of scars along the top and bottom of this hand look like an em dash and a red squiggly spell-check flag respectively — two familiar ways of signalling interruption and error. I do need regular exercise, sure, but I can get it with a lot less risk. (I could, you know, just walk around and stuff.)

I’m up early these days, have been for a while now, working more on my writing and on getting my writing out. I don’t have to do this either. I could undoubtedly use the extra sleep, and I’m probably well past the point where I should have started a serious writing career, whatever that means. Why struggle with learning the contours of a new profession — particularly one in radical flux — and inevitably subject myself to rejection?  It’s not as if I’m answering some kind of calling. If anything, I’ve become less invested in big-T Truths and more attentive to local facts and the way those facts sound when you say them out loud to yourself. Besides, I’ve got a job (if not a career), a great family, years worth of unread books, and Netflix instant available on several devices. I couldn’t be much more comfortable than I am at the moment.

Why these things and why now? Not sure, really. I do like the feel of the ball in my hand and the chance to be good in the game, even knowing that I’m now moving away from my best days with the sport.  In part, I want to show Q and The Boy how a life can be well lived, which means demonstrating how parts of oneself always remain elusive and unmade, and how loving and being loved can be a route to finding and making oneself.  Perhaps it’s also because the Hudson looks the most blue when lit by the morning sun, and that blue and the quiet house let me listen for good thoughts before the world’s great noise turns my head. Or maybe it’s just that I’m where I’ve always been — where we all are, I suppose — lodged at the slim waist of an hourglass in the middle of what’s to fall and what’s piling up. It’s hard to know when the whole thing has last been flipped. Better to look at both ends of the glass if you want to see the most sand.