The Recital

He sweeps into the room, pauses before the audience, and takes a deep bow. All eyes are on him as he seats himself on the bench. A brief pause, hands in his lap, head bowed, his long bangs falling forward. He hunches over the keys, shoulders lifted, hands poised – and then the familiar sounds of Bach fill the room. I sit with my 10-year-old son at the advanced recital of a Levine School student. Levine is a venerable institution serving the DC community that occasionally produces world-class musicians. The privilege of performing an advanced recital, we have learned, is reserved for students who have shown distinction in every technical category of piano study.

I glance over at Jane. She has been my piano teacher for the last three years. She sits at the far side of the room, where only the pianist’s head, but not his hands, is visible through the gaping yawn under the enormous Steinway lid that has been fully propped up. Under her shock of platinum hair, her lips are pressed together in a white line – a marked difference from her usual chatty and exuberant demeanor. I overheard her just before the recital began saying brusquely to a man, whom I presumed to be Moru’s father, “I certainly don’t feel very good about it,“ gesturing to the program. And then in response to whatever he said, “Well, you did this. Or someone did. I didn’t make it.” Moments earlier, I had looked over the program. “Moru Yamamoto,” the program read, “has studied piano for thirteen years. He takes lessons with William ” so-and-so. “Ten of his years of instruction have been at the Levine School.” No mention of Jane – his instructor for nine of these ten years.

Moru has moved on from Bach to a Haydn sonata, followed by an ever-so-brief pause – at which point he elects to skip the intermission that was planned and launches into a Scherzo by Chopin. His hands fly up and down the keyboard. There must be thousands of notes in this piece, many of them played simultaneously. I am jarred by the dissonance of the chords – somehow I know they are not wrong notes, but rather, what the brilliant Chopin, known as the Composer for the Pianist, intended. The dissonance is, I feel, a fitting backdrop for the churning of which most in the room are blissfully unaware.

I struggle to push the Levine politics out of my mind as I take in the performance but they stubbornly persist. I don’t know who William so-and-so is, though I assume he must be present for his own student’s advanced recital. Maybe the bald man sitting behind me? I think about Jane’s anger. She wants credit for helping shape this prodigious son of Levine. Who wouldn’t? He is amazing. Only 16 years of age, he has a rosy future in music – perhaps Julliard, then likely as a concert pianist on a world stage somewhere.

I am woefully familiar with the notion of wanting credit. It defined my younger years, and still lingers with me today here and there, though hopefully to a lesser extent. Noticeable enough that shortly after I met my husband (then boyfriend) he nicknamed me a “credit hungry hog.” I had a pattern of asking him if he told this person or that person that something was my idea. Like, the time many Christmases ago now, when I asked him if he told his father that the model 1953 Chevy pickup truck gift was my idea. He asked, why do you care whose idea it is? Why is that so important to you? Why, because I am the one who noticed the model pick up truck in the gift shop was a miniature of your dad’s prized truck, and it is important that your family knows that I am not only observant but thoughtful in making such a connection and selecting such a gift. He shook his head.

But this situation is altogether different – or is it? I always thought if you were one of the lucky ones to have found your purpose, your calling, your passion, that it didn’t matter what the outside world thought, or didn’t, because you were in your element. Jane’s passion for classical piano is amply evident by the breadth of her mastery and knowledge, which she delights in sharing. “No, Beethoven would never play that run that way,” she would say to me. “It must be light, every note heard and given the same touch.” I would sigh wearily, certain that I would never master how Beethoven would have played. We often went over my lesson time as she enthusiastically demonstrated a technique or passage or regaled me with one of many tidbits about the composers’ lives and quirks, such as how Beethoven was a protégé of Haydn who later came to disdain him.

We talked once about why she chose to teach piano. She described it as a “pure joy,” saying “I sometimes think that we who get to teach are in some way the chosen ones.”

But given that, what role does recognition play in the equation? Is recognition a metaphorical pat on the back that… Yes, you are great? Yes, you made the right choice of career? Yes, we love you? Or even, Yes, we see you. I think about passion and its frequent tango with ego. Many of the “greats,” regardless of field – movie directors, athletes, architects, politicians, TV personalities, actors, lawyers – are known to have sizeable, even insatiable egos. It is their passion, dedication and vision that have made them great. Is that not fulfillment enough? If one pursues one’s chosen path and meets with success or at least satisfaction, why do accolades, applause, credit or recognition matter?

I see every inch of Moru’s body feeling the music – eyes closed, shoulders periodically raised, arms and legs fluid as his fingers breathe life into the piece.   Is he playing for himself or for us? Does he even care that we are there or does he forget about the audience entirely? Would he be telling this same musical story if the room were empty?

I am left wondering if it is ego that causes us to want recognition, or if affirmation is simply a basic human need that we all share, regardless of how great or modest our accomplishments. According to the philosopher William James, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Maybe we all have a fundamental need for the world to reflect back to us our own image, as we see ourselves in our mind’s eye.   As new mothers, we are told to mirror our babies’ sounds and movements, so that they get a grounded sense of themselves in the big world. It affirms who they are. Perhaps this need never goes away, only grows with our own growth and accomplishments.

Moru finishes the program with a sonata by Prokofiev, a contemporary Russian composer. I have not heard much by Prokofiev, but I can hear the modernity in this piece – the cycle of agitation, then resolution. I glance again at Jane. It has been slightly over an hour since the recital began, and I am hoping she has been soothed by the music – borne on its wings – immersed again in her craft and the magnificence of Moru’s technique and incredible musicality. She beams as he finishes and applauds vigorously – and even stops by the reception briefly to give him a hug.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t worry if you are not recognized but strive to be worthy of recognition.” Wise words, I suppose, but easier said than done.


A Forty-Love Affair

Lob. Volley. Slice. Backspin. It’s all part of my new lexicon since I took up tennis a couple of months ago. I’m running across the court, dripping with sweat, about to overheat, my face purple from the exertion, I’m sure – but I am not backing down. I will return that ball if it kills me. I play in a weekly neighborhood group and supplement with a private lesson. At the moment I’m having a lesson with Jason, a tennis pro who I am guessing is half my age. I come to the pros for the constant drip of technique I don’t get with my neighborhood group. “You’re swinging a split second too early. Wait just a bit and let the ball come to you.” Today he says, “Tennis today is a baseline game.” I nod knowingly, as though I know what that means, while I wonder, Meaning you hit from the baseline?

I’ve been curious for a long time about the middle-aged mom tennis craze. If one can judge by the laser-like focus of the players, the tempers that flare around disagreements over whether the ball was in or out, the meanness about who plays with whom – it is so much more than just a match. I’ve seen the same intensity in my own circles. Three high-school friends of mine, all of whom were great athletes in high school – in gymnastics, track and field, and tennis, respectively – have taken up tennis with a vengeance in middle age. I know this because their Facebook postings frequently tout their various tennis victories – “going to state finals,” “tournament champ!” and so on. I can count on a post every other day from one of them, and, I admit, I have followed these posts with great interest as I’ve tried to glean what fuels this fanaticism. A DC friend played throughout high school and now belongs to a local country club where she participates in women’s tennis tournaments. She said the nastiness around the tournaments is palpable: who is paired with whom; the team’s rating as a whole; who is underrating herself so as to win more matches; who won’t play with whom because so-and-so “is not good enough.” “Really, at our age, you would say that to someone, that you won’t play with them because they’re not good enough??” I asked incredulously. “Oh yeah,” Shannon replied, “there is a lot of that. My partner Linda even cried the other day. She gets psyched out by the meanness. It’s like high school all over again!”

It baffles me. What is going on? Hard to believe that it is just tennis. Why is it so addictive? And, more intriguing, why do people who supposedly know better, who are responsible for infusing their children with good values, revert to such a primitive state on the tennis courts?

I gave in to curiosity and took up tennis myself this fall, in the hopes that I would find answers by becoming an insider. Prior to this fall, I had only had a once-a-week lesson for about five months back when I was 25 years old, and no instruction ever before that, so I definitely consider myself a beginner. But even as a beginner, I felt that competitive streak, which has been dormant for so long, flaring up in me. Now, just a mere three months into the sport, I think I am beginning to understand why it compels us so.

The game conveys a sense of control and certainty that eludes us in countless facets of stay-home motherhood. The number of things you cannot close the loop on, large or small, ranks in the thousands. At one end, for example, is whether your child is diagnosed with ADHD, or who may be bullying your child, or whether your child is happy in general. Nor do you have control over trifling day-to-day matters, such as whether your daughter gets invited to the sleepover, if your babysitter cancels on you last minute, or whether the play date you so desperately need your son to go to, to preserve your sanity, will even happen because the other mom is not responding to your texts.

By contrast, with tennis, you get the feeling, however delusional, that you have the power to determine the outcome of the game. For one very brief hour, you are master and commander of your side of the court. Smack. That landed just inside the baseline. I am good at this. Whack. I made my opponent really run for that one. I have a real knack for this. Whack and grunt. Look at that topspin. I am a star. You can run down balls, out-of-bounds though they may be, to get a point; you can figure out your opponent’s weakness and hit to that weakness to gain advantage; you can circumvent your own weaknesses, by, for instance, running extra fast to hit forehand what should have been a backhand. You have so many tools in tennis at your disposal that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are your only limitation.

And the feedback is instantaneous – another plus. No need, as with a marathon, to wait hours to figure out that you beat your old time (or didn’t). No, with tennis, you usually know immediately if you won or lost the point. In one compact hour, you can reaffirm your status in the universe – Tennis Player Extraordinaire, champion of the local tennis courts, or just plain old winner of today’s game. If you lose, you have another chance tomorrow to regain any of the aforementioned titles. No matter how badly you may have played on any given day, you leave believing that you can make a comeback the next time you play. We learned from our coach that the USTA ranks players on a seven-point scale. A ranking of 7.0 means you are a “world class player” whereas 1.0 (apparently the lowest ranking) means you are working on “primarily getting the ball into play.” So the system lets you know exactly where you stand – again, a thumbs up for greater certainty in life (see previous paragraph) – while simultaneously motivating you to move up the scale. I’m 2.5 today but could be 3.0 as soon as next month. It’s all up to me.

And it’s efficient! Where else in one hour can you get a great workout (assuming you have a decent opponent), socialize, and feed your need to compete all at once? Tennis is the epitome of multitasking – something we moms pride ourselves on.

Maybe these “benefits” accrue to everyone who plays tennis. Who doesn’t love control or want to win? But with once-professional-turned-stay-at-home moms, it all takes on an added significance. An edge, much like the edge in one’s voice when you say, no, I won’t play with her because she’s not good enough. No one is recommending you on Linked In, for, say, your great dishwashing skills, or your ability to juggle multiple soccer practice drop-offs within an hour and navigate DC traffic without getting pulled over or into an accident. There are no promotions, raises, or client accolades, save for the occasional, “great dinner, honey” from your spouse, no “you are a superstar, what would we do without you” messages from colleagues. Tennis is a vehicle in which you can see some semblance of your former professional self – the measurable improvement fueled by sheer effort and determination, ultimately culminating in the competence and mastery that you identify as the old you. I climbed the corporate ladder back in the day – watch me navigate the USTA scale the same way.

“Achievement-driven,” a friend said of me recently. Maybe that’s it. The lure of the achievement. The curve here is not so steep. You can get relatively good in a year, maybe two. I’m back on the court with my Monday group. Angela is up on the other side and wields her trademark forehand, smashing the ball across the net with just an inch or two clearance, coming fast with topspin. I look to my right side and see the ball bounce just outside of the baseline. “It’s out!” I sing.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I am a good mother.

I will find my passion.

I will play a piano concerto with a major city orchestra.

My son will overcome his anxieties to become a great expressive artist one day.

I will open a café.

My facial freckles are lightening as the years go on.

I have become a more interesting person after having left the law.

I am fine with being middle-aged.

These are the kinds of stories I tell myself. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. A former boyfriend used to pat me on the head and say mockingly, “Keep telling yourself that!” whenever he thought I was being delusional. Are these delusions, though? Maybe part delusion, denial, hope, aspiration, blind faith, or some combination thereof. These – and thousands of other – thoughts snake around me like a trellis: they pop up, unbidden at times; they prop me up; they decorate me when I feel bland. They grow and feed upon themselves, taking on a life of their own, all the while disguising my fear, resistance, conflict avoidance, or simple lack of motivation.

On a good day, these thoughts represent an apple at the top of the tree – not the proverbial low-hanging fruit, but fruit that is – can be – within my reach. I stretch myself, contort my body, climb, angle and twist into poses I didn’t know I was capable of, to reach that fruit.

In my social work class, we studied cognitive behavioral therapy, where one is trained to have positive thoughts, because behavior follows thoughts (and vice versa). We also learned about denial – a coping mechanism that, in small amounts, can be healthy, but in large doses, can do you harm.

Take my dad, for example. He thinks he can hear fine. His staunch belief that his hearing is normal, in my opinion, is massive denial on his part, aptly illustrated by a telephone exchange between him and my daughter on her fifth birthday:

Dad: “Happy birthday! How was your birthday?”

Lila: “I broke my arm at school today.”

Dad (jovially): “Great! That’s great!”

She looked at me, perplexed. I pointed to my ear and mouthed, he can’t hear you.

Lila (louder): “I said, I broke my arm at school today.”

Dad (less jovially, with uncertainty in his voice): “Oh-h-h-h….okay.”

We have had enough of these types of conversations that he knows he didn’t get the message when something is said louder (and often with annoyance), but pride and perhaps other things often bar him from seeking clarity. My mother screamed with laughter when I recounted this conversation to her. She probably felt vindicated. I suppose one way to look at it is that my dad’s belief that he hears fine is working for him, even if for no one else. He can tune out things he doesn’t really want to hear (especially from my mom), and our collective annoyance at the strained conversations is apparently just a minor consequence that doesn’t cause him to lose sleep at night.

When I was younger, I was a stickler for the truth. The unvarnished truth. I could always smell when someone was in denial, avoiding the truth, or putting on rose-colored glasses – telling me something that just. wasn’t. true. As I have gotten older (and hopefully more compassionate), I have come to understand the need for some gloss (personally, I prefer the drizzle of icing on a glazed donut to the thick fondant or buttercream frosting on wedding cakes). I have come to realize that the stories we tell ourselves rarely represent either end of the spectrum, whether delusions of grandeur or major denial – but more often embody a complex web ranging from our deepest, darkest fears (“I will never find my calling”) to the highest of aspirations, the places to which we push ourselves to excel or dream outside of the box (here, insert visions of myself onstage at the Kennedy Center performing the Mendelssohn piano concerto I learned when I was 18) – and everything in between.

We are plagued, haunted, inspired, motivated, tempted, ignited, sustained, liberated – saved – by the stories we tell ourselves. They are what get us through this rich, tangled blessing called life.