Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Christmas wish

When I was five years old my family was visiting my grandparents in Connecticut. At the time we were devout Catholics who attended church every Sunday and could sing all the hymns by heart, so it wasn't a surprise when after we returned to my grandparents' house I wandered over to the piano and played a full hymn. Well, maybe it was a surprise because according to everyone in the family I'd never touched a piano before that morning.

Apparently my parents took it as a sign of impending prodigal fame and bought me a used upright. It was gigantic, with carved relief work on the front that resembled tangled vines. Standing six feet tall it reminded me of a wise, creaky old man with dark sun worn skin. It played, which is a quality that is hard to find in a $500 piano. There was a key, the low A, that stuck like it had molasses under it and the sustain pedal stayed down when you pushed it. You had to get your foot under it and pry it back up before you could push it again. That's how I learned to play, every song a full body aerobic workout.

After a couple of weeks I started my lessons. Ten dollars a week for a half an hour lesson in the back of a music store run by a woman whose name I've forgotten. I went to her for a few months and my first recital was the most stressful thing I'd yet undertaken in my young life. I played a hit people would know, a tinny rendition of "Give My Regards To Broadway" that had my left hand stagnant in my lap most of the time. All of us little kids had songs like that. But then the big kids came out and my left hand wanted desperately to move across keys like theirs did, to dance with the right in a counter melody of coordination. At my next lesson I asked for harder music, but she refused saying I wasn't old enough. I stopped taking lessons from her.

I moved on to Melinda Jackson, a nice woman from the South who pronounced my name like the first syllable was leaning onto the next and tickling it. "Dayn-yale" is the closest way to phonetically spell it, and that doesn't even really do it justice. She was soft spoken but firm and never let me slack on practicing. She would KNOW if I hadn't been. It got to the point where I would practice obsessively - not to get better at piano, but because I couldn't stand the look on her face that said, "Why are you wasting my time and your parents' money?"

She opened a world of music to me. Her recitals were dynamic and featured every level of talent. She even let my sister (a pretty good flautist) play duets with me as a second recital piece. When I got to middle school, a friend of mine started to take lessons from her as well and we were fiercely competitive. Mrs. Jackson made it work to our advantage by giving us four hand duets higher than our skill level that she made us perform together. I learned how to use my left hand. I learned Debussy and Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. I learned what an etude was and played entire sonatas under her soothing, correcting tones. My parents promised to buy me a baby grand if I learned how to play Moonlight Sonata, so I practiced until my arms throbbed and got a $500 used, crackle finish Brahambach baby grand for my efforts. I was stoked.

In middle school I was in the concert band (playing clarinet, then orchestra bells and melodic percussion) and my director would ask me to play the piano for people as a kind of segue between grade levels. I even played at a mall once. I was basically a classical version of Debbie Gibson touring the Rhode Island mall scene. It was pretty damn awesome.

Eventually my main performance medium was as accompanist for my high school's choirs, directing a musical (Anything Goes) and not much else. I mean, really. There were boys and booze now and who has time to practice with all of that? I stopped being good. I still played my favorite sonatas and arabesques, but really I wasn't technically improving anymore.

And then there was that fateful day that my old chorus director asked me to accompany the middle school choir at their choral festival and I bombed so hard that it shook the moon. Granted she had given me the music (four different, complicated pieces) a week before the performance and I had never played them with the choir, but still. I had never walked onto a stage and not been prepared.

Since then, I haven't played for an audience. I miss it. I also know however that I am less likely to dazzle and more likely to fizzle. I haven't felt my hands wither from carpal tunnel in at least five years, and oddly enough I miss that. I haven't felt the thrill of buying new sheet music because I have nothing to play it on, and that's probably the feeling I miss the most. And just remembering how it felt to sit on a bench in front of eighty-eight keys and a million possible songs is heartbreaking.

My dad is selling the old baby grand. He broke it to me last weekend at my grandfather's 80th birthday party. I took it as a nothing, like I'd forgotten all about any piano. Deep down my heart gave a little shudder, a faint arpeggio of a memory.

So here is my Christmas wish:

I would like a piano. Nothing too expensive, eighty-eight keys and a nice tone. It could even be electric. I don't care. If it sounds like a piano and has weighted action in the keys and pedals attached, I am good. I need it. I need to breathe in trills and grace notes. I need to feel the felted hammers beat on my heart strings and finally find the adagio again.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday 250

“There was something, you know? Something real.” She’s picking at the dirt under her fingernails, her eyes darting to yours and away again repeatedly.

"And now?" you ask, your palms becoming sweaty.

She swallows hard. "There's nothing."

You look at her face and suddenly it's that day when you were eight and you thought you saw someone lying on the bottom of the deep end. Your heart raced as you frantically tried to figure out what you should do. Part of you wanted to run away and hope someone else noticed, but a bigger part of you wanted to dive in and be the hero.

"I mean, I still want to be friends, you know,” she says, her eyes foggy like swim goggles in summer. You always thought she was watery, thought she might pass through your hands if you tried to hold her. “But for me,” she adds, furrowing her brow, “there’s nothing else there.” She flips her hair. You close your eyes. Grit your teeth. Feel your heart beat harder.

And it’s that day again, but the clouds have moved and you realize it's nothing but the light playing tricks with a shadow and a forgotten t-shirt. It's nothing but nothing.

"Yeah," you concede, opening your eyes and smiling into the yellow light bouncing off her highlighted head. "There’s nothing else there." And it's easier to walk away, because you know that nobody ever needed saving because nobody really got hurt.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Panic with no disco involved

Around four years ago I woke up to my heart beating about 120 beats per minute and sweating a cold, clammy, not at all nice sweat. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was going to die which quickly turned into an "Oh my God I'm actually going to die," but I couldn't find the thing that hurt that would kill me. Chest? Ok in there, except the heart rate. Liver/stomach/abdomen? Nothing hurt. And yet I was convinced beyond reason that I was going to die so I called 911 and went and laid on my bed and waited for them to get there or the icey hand of death, whichever came first. When the EMTs arrived they took one look at me and said two words:

"Panic attack."

I couldn't believe them. I was 17 and a happy senior in high school. What the hell did I have to panic about? I soon learned that it didn't work that way.

My heart would be the first thing. It would palpitate once or multiple times. Then I'd know what was about to happen and my hands would get clammy. My breathing would quicken. At this point, I'd try to talk myself out of it. "You're fine," I'd tell myself. "This is nothing you can't handle." And then I'd be sweating all over. My vision would get blurry. I'd start to hyperventilate and get dizzy. "No," I would say, "you're just freaking out." At that point, I'd be convinced that I was dying. I'd look for a way out... get up and jump up and down just to know I still could, make a fist so hard it hurt, just to feel it... anything to convince myself I wasn't going to snuff it. If I could do these things and feel these things, I couldn't be dying.

I decided to ignore these weekly occurrences. I would hide in bathrooms during school or try to walk it off while I was at home. They blossomed into twice weekly occurrences, and finally to every day. Let me re-emphasize that. Every day, I thought I was going to die because that's what you think even though you know you won't. Every. Day. They wouldn't all be huge, but they'd exist. I was remarkable at outwardly keeping my shit together. That went on for a year, and I learned to live with it.

It wasn't until I started calling out of work every other day and leaving early that I realized I maybe might kind of have some kind of maybe sort of half problem. Yeah. I am stubborn. But when I was driving home one day and wave after wave of panic came over me, bigger than the biggest ones I'd ever had and I almost killed myself and someone else, I decided that something had to change.

I figured it was subconscious angst. I changed my diet. I started exercising. I did yoga. I did all the things they tell you to do to de-stress. I even picked up knitting (a hobby I continue today). Nope! Nothing. Once a day, I still thought I was going to die.

I became a hypochondriac. I insisted that there was something physically wrong with me and saw at least 15 specialists for multiple tests. All were negative. No cancer, no brain tumors, no heart problems, no diabetes, no adrenal/hormone/thyroid issues. I was so bucking healthy and it pissed me off so much. What was the problem?

It wasn't until I went to my physician's office and saw one of the women who was not my usual doctor that I heard the words that would change how I looked at mental issues:

"Panic disorder."

Not just "attack" anymore, kids. Disorder. DSM-IV classified disorder. Me? I had never been disorderly in my life. Still, it made more sense than anything else I'd heard/imagined. We started the medication.

Within 3 months, they dissipated almost entirely. Once in a great while I'd get a feeling of anxiety in my chest, but it would never bloom into that terrible place that defied any logical thinking. I was on the medication for 2 years and then weaned off it. We waited six months and I didn't have another one after that. Everything was fine. I never even got that wave of anxiety that comes for no reason. Again, these panic attacks happened for no. Reason. I never got one while doing anything even mildly stressful.

Anyway, I've been off the medication for over a year and haven't felt so much as a twinge. Until today! That's right. Panic at the workplace! Molly was great and went for a walk with me to clear out some of the adrenaline and keep my mind off itself and I did feel a bit better.

But I can't get rid of that feeling in my stomach - the one saying that this isn't over.