This is the place that I share my writing — bits of novel, memoir, essays, poetry.
I’ve been asked about the Caterina part of my Instagram name. I like to travel. I like travelling in Italy. On a recent trip I was nominated as the person in the group who spoke the best Italian (and that’s not saying much) to make some key restaurant reservations. I knew from past experience that the beginning “k” in my name and the middle “thl” consonant combination is troublesome for Romance language tongues. So I invented an Italian name to make restaurant reservations. Caterina Pietro. I liked it. So I use it for many things now.
But I don’t just like traveling to Italy. So can you expect kathleen.catherine for French travels, or kathleen.katharina for Germany or kathleen.katharine for so many other northern European places? Maybe. Maybe not.
A meeting of my angel investors was held yesterday, November 13, 2020. This was a specially called meeting, which I requested in order to get some direction on my immediate creative pursuits. This is the transcript of my presentation.
Attendees: Kathleen.Caterina – CEO and CCO (Chief Creative Officer) Lavender – Chairman of the board/lead muse Olga – Board member at large – dancer from the Imperial Ballet, noted for the trailing chiffon skirts she wears Ruby – Board member at large – Broadway hoofer from the 1920’s, wears tap shoes and red lipstick Redmond – Board member at large – representative of Irish culture and folklore, prefers to sit in the back seat of the car but has agreed to come inside for the pandemic but will not change out of his outdoor clothing suited for walking across muddy fields Josephine – Board member at large – newest member of the board, French 17th century noblewoman Missing board members – Olive and Pepper – nature and garden muses who prefer to stay outside Also present – Frederic Chopin So, let me convene the meeting.
First item on the agenda is to thank you all so much for attending. I know you are pretty much always available for me and I do appreciate it.
Next item – what’s next for me? What do we collectively want me to turn my attention to next? I need some guidance here. The same kind of writing? Something new? A new genre? Poetry? Prose poems? More of the short glimmery things that I like? You all know I really like doing those, just writing on whatever occurs to me, but without some new input it’s hard for me to get going on those things. I mean I’ve already written two pieces about linen tablecloths.
You there in the back? Josephine? Welcome to the group. Everyone, this is our newest member. Please make room for her on the bench.
What’s that, Josephine? Oh, you have a proxy from Pepper. Fine. Yes, I understand he doesn’t want to come inside. But please ask him if it’s strictly necessary for him to keep inviting all the rabbits into the garden.
Does anyone want to add anything to the agenda?
Yes, Olga? Please don’t trip on your skirt, but yes, please come here next to me if you want. I know you like to whisper right into my ear.
OK, yes. I agree. I have not been sitting to do creative writing as much as you would like, as much as I have done in other periods, even earlier in the pandemic. But I’ve been trying to get some new input into my brain to shake things up a little, to make sure I’m not in a creative rut.
Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that playing the piano and listening to lots of different kinds of music is contrary to our mission statement. After all, it has to be one of you who invited Chopin. He hasn’t been here since the last time Will was home. And I do appreciate his help with those nocturnes.
Well, thanks for understanding how distracting the election and its aftermath have been. And the continuing concern about social justice. I think I made it clear when we all got into this that I have no interest in just turning off the lawyer/citizen part of my brain. And my concerns for the future of this country and everyone who lives here. And I’m still adjusting to the fact that I don’t need to reserve so much of my energy to brace myself for illogical and harmful political news.
Moving on, I think we can all agree the tarot cards and meditation classes have been good? Yes?
What’s that, Ruby? Do you have something to share with everyone? Yes, your make-up looks fine. Put away the mirror. You don’t like the Zoom meetings? Well, I don’t either. Yes, I know they make me look very serious and older. Humorless, even. Ok. But it doesn’t help that you are forever tapping your feet through all the meetings. We all have to learn to be a little more patient, I think.
Josephine wants to say something. Thank you, yes. I’m very pleased that I’ve been able to keep up with my French studies during the long period at home. I love reading aloud to myself. And sometimes I just write down words that seem particularly beautiful or noteworthy. Today I just wrote down “detendue” and “etendue” in my notebook to think about a little more. Thank you so much for coming to help me with all of that.
What’s that? Well, what are you here for then? It seemed pretty clear that’s why are are here. What else can a 17th century French noblewoman help me with?
I don’t understand. How do I need protection from myself? For myself? Are you sure you aren’t getting prepositional phrases mixed up? Stop swishing your skirt. Explain what you mean.
Oh, I see.
Well, you probably have a point. Yes, I do feel compelled to finish things. You do know that has gotten me very in far in life, right? Getting degrees? Running law offices? Raising children?
Yes, okay, okay. All right.
Yes, there are one or two things I can disengage from.
Olga, do you want to share with everyone and not just whisper to Josephine. Did you two cook this up before the meeting? No? I’m not sure I believe that.
So, let me get this straight. If I stop doing some of the meetings and groups I’m in and use that time and energy to sit down with empty paper and a full pen, you will all work together and come up with my next writing project? It will become obvious to all of us?
Ok. Do we need a vote? No? We’re all agreed?
Thank you all so much for your time today. Lavender, will you give us a closing prayer? And then we still stand adjourned.
Another piece in an occasional series of little glimpses of writing
The Italian restaurant on the strange triangular corner. I’d passed it endless times on my way to the office. I wanted to go there to eat sometime. On the right day, with the right person, not in a sad, lacking way but something to look forward to. When someone came to visit. For now I was happy in my little puddle of solitude. My work oddly challenging and satisfying, my evenings quick and quiet in the golden light of the white-paneled kitchen, which must be fully visible to the street but with a transparency that never bothered me.
My thirty minute walk each way the daily mental and physical stimulation I needed. New ideas, new things to look at and plan for all the while with a growing flush in my face and a pleasant rhythm to my pace.
And now. Improbably sitting here with Michael. Practically grabbed off the street. His sneakers appearing out of a car, my taking in who it was, calling his name, twice, always twice to give him to chance to try to recognize the voice, not ignore it as part of the overall white noise of fandom.
A tobacco brown coat reaching to his knees in the mist. His incredulity. Mine too. What was I doing here? Going to work. The foundation was down the street. He’d forgotten. What was he doing here? Meeting with his lawyer. A nod up to the crisp white windows above us.
Pause in the growing rain. Spread across the sidewalk. Exposed, even in this business district. He looked left and right then grabbed my hand and ducked into the doorway of Il Cielo. It was eleven in the morning. Inside waiters were flicking and placing napkins, counting wine glasses. He tapped. The man inside nodded no, started to wag a finger, then realized who it was. Sprang forward to pull the door inward, to herd us in.
A minute later we were at a table in the back. Screened from the rest of the restaurant but able to see the full scope of the restaurant. Tucked right in that strange triangular street corner.
His sweater was blue heather, a color I would expect to see in my grandfather’s closet. But of course on him it was perfect. Timeless and perfectly of this time. I wanted to touch it. I was afraid of that. Still. Too soon. Not sure of the effect. Quicksand, burning black hole of unfulfilled inappropriate expectations, feelings, assumptions. Still needed more time in my own corner.
But the sweater. I could handle that. A bit rough and scratchy. Meant more to protect than to comfort. Blending in with native colors that only make sense here with all the subtle greens and even greys. It would fade away in California against all those greedy blooming sages and jacarandas.
I reach out and grasp his arm, between wrist and elbow, the pretext of interrupting as the waiter asks what we want.
A bitter little cappuccino and a short glass of bubbly water. Almost not sustenance. An odd privileged penance.
He turns to me.
The waiter goes.
The sweater is softer than I expected. A disappointment. This sweater has been washed and laid out to dry countless times, with lavender and chamomile, no detergent. I remember there is a grandmother on an island somewhere, accessible only through a shuddering, capricious ferry that he still took to visit her, folding himself in a corner, with an anorak and backpack as props to a disguise. This sweater from her hands, each inch of yarn pulled through her fingers for him.
I look up to meet his gaze. Another thing I’ve been afraid of. But this surprises me. Because it is he who looks apprehensive, unsure, unstable. I take in his blue eyes, noticing again the slight difference between left and right, inexplicably corrected in countless released photos.
He was not expecting me, not planning to deal with me. Perhaps ever again.
What is he expecting my reaction to be? I can’t even picture the palette of possible reactions at my disposal.
So, I start neutrally. Modestly.
“How have you been?”
The waiter served the coffees. Pure white cups and saucers. The exact same shade as the linen tablecloth, which I found pleasing, satisfying. It was the only thing that pleased me about this so far.
I realized the tips of my toes were damp in my shoes, as were my pants just above my knee, where the rain had hit me. I’d need to pay some attention to footwear and all kinds of ways to protect myself. I kept my smile to myself at the fact that this was what I was thinking of in this moment, this moment that I’d imagined and dreaded for months now.
I stretched my hands flat on the table. No rings, no polish, no adornment. My fingers looked too flat and long. I made a little triangle on the tablecloth, the tips of my index fingers touching, with each hand angling out a bit. I didn’t remember doing this as a child, but it seemed like something I would have been taught to keep me from fidgeting.
I looked up at him. He pulled his coffee closer to him and tapped half a packet of sugar in. So, some relaxation of food rules. My mind started to spinoff to decide what greater conclusions I could draw from that. Then I actively stopped myself. Brakes on.
I dismantled my hand triangle and made eye contact with the waiter who was attending us, with perhaps too much curiosity.
“Can I have a regular cup of coffee? And some milk?”
He nodded and disappeared.
“What are you working on?” I asked. A neutral question and one I thought he would answer for me. He obviously wasn’t going to start a conversation on his own.
“Do you know the oud?”
“An oud. It’s kind of like a lute. From the middle east, Turkey.” He traced a shape with one hand, a womanish curve out toward the rainy street. His hand then lowered in defeat.
“No, I don’t know it. Isn’t there something Cuban like that?” I thought back to a charming mustachioed but overly serious man I’d met in Santa Monica.
“That’s a laud,” Michael said. “I think it’s a similar shape. They must have come from the same roots. All those traders who got kicked out of Spain and ended up in the Caribbean.”
He trailed off, not able to summon the energy to discuss even music.
The waiter came back with my fresh coffee and a little jar of milk. It was a cream-colored container that upset my satisfaction of whites on the table. I poured a bit of mik and moved the container up against the awful yellow flowers at the edge of the table near the wall. How quickly could I drink this coffee and leave?
And you’re doing all right,” he finally asked.
“Yes,” I said, pushing out the automatic expected response. “I’m good. I think I like it here. The work is good, my flat is fine for me for now.”
“But the rain?” he said, looking outside.
“I like it,” I said. And I did. I always felt energetic when I woke up to a grey sky, ready to get on with what I had set out for the day and ready even for new things. No distractions, no questions about what to do.
“I think some part of me needs it, longs for it. Maybe that’s what was missing for me in L.A.” I surprise myself when I offer this.
He looked surprised too. A little flash of something in his eyes. Curiosity and maybe a little fear. What could I possibly mean?
I drain the rest of my cup.
“I need to go.” I stand up. “Good luck with your lawyer.”
I’ve read that in the past week one of the things on Kamala Harris’s to do list was to select her Secret Service code name. She picked “Pioneer.” It seems perfect. I found myself wondering if she’d been thinking about this before now – back when she first threw her hat in the presidential ring or maybe in the months when she was out of the race and wondering about the vice president thing. Or maybe it was just an off the cuff lucky selection – something she seems very capable of doing.
I then found myself wondering about what I would pick for my own Secret Service code name. I have more time to think about this right now than Kamala does.
So, where do you start? It needs to fit you, it needs to be easy to speak into those little wrist microphones that the Secret Service uses. I guess it should be a little inspirational. I have resisted the impulse to go check to see what code name the current president uses. I don’t want that image in my mind.
For myself, I came up with and quickly rejected many possibilities:
My favorite ice cream/gelato flavor? Stracciatella – too hard to say and too foreign.
My favorite shoe brand? Repetto – again the foreign problem.
My writing idol? Edith Wharton. Maybe.
My favorite classical muse? Terpsichore? That would definitely NOT work. Not everyone knows how to pronounce it – but that is definitely the kind of federal official I would want to be.
A ballet heroine? There are so many. But which ones are appropriate for this? Ah, yes, Kitri! Full of fire and good upbeat energy. I like that. That is definitely on the short list.
A food or beverage item? That’s a bit challenging. Tea drinker? No, that’s too passive and old-fashioned. Veuve Clicquot? I like the image, but again the foreign pronunciation problem and the alcohol connection is probably not ideal. Wait, wait, I know. Arugula! My favorite salad green. A little bitter and interesting and not universally liked. Ha! For me, I could eat an entire plate with just a little balsamic vinegar. It’s the only thing from some former extreme diet habits that I still use. Yes, that’s perfect. But again, we have the foreign pronunciation issue. By now certainly everyone knows how to pronounce arugula? Maybe not. And it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But wait – don’t the British call arugula “rocket”? I seem to remember that from looking at translated restaurant menus and getting confused.
I’m worried about Enrique Carlos Saavredra de Moreno*. He has been part of my daily life for months now, the carrot at the end of the stick. Always ahead of me, keeping me going. And now he’s gone.
Enrique Carlos Saavedra de Moreno is the top person on the leaderboard in Memrise’s 5,000 Most Spoken French Words program. He is there every day – a handsome Latino man in a studio portrait. He has a very formal look and I imagine he has extremely good manners. But he has not done any practice yesterday or today.
I started Memrise French courses well over a year ago. I was planning for a month-long trip to Paris in April 2020. It would be sort of a 60th birthday gift for myself. My “boys” (ages 27 and 29) would visit me, I would get multiple museum passes, I would research a few Michelin-starred restaurants I wanted to eat at, I would stay in a building that had been built by Henri IV.
I’d studied some French before. I’d taken a year of community college French when the boys were still in high school. I had a great teacher and liked it quite a bit.
Then I got waylaid by Italian. When our youngest son left for college my husband and I started taking Italian lessons. It was something we both wanted to do – to bolster our travel, our love of cycling (actual riding for my husband, watching races on television for me), to step into a perhaps slower paced part of our life. I went whole hog. I took private lessons, I started reading La Gazzetta dello Sport’s cycling page in Italian every day, I went to language school in Montepulciano for week-long classes, I picked my way through two of the Elena Ferrante’s novels in Italian (I’m still not entirely sure what happened). But once the Paris plan was hatched I pushed Italian to the side for a while and turned back to French.
My son suggested I would like Memrise better than Duolingo. I found the cartoon owl annoying and it was too time-consuming to get through material. I looked into classes at the local Alliance Francaise but the commitment was pretty significant and I realized I didn’t really want to learn how to do rote conjugations or anything that might get you through a written exam. I was never going to take an exam. Well, not on paper. I wanted to be able to read menus, including the adjectives, and read descriptions of paintings in museums and historic placques.
So I devised my own program. I went through the six different levels of Memrise French and thoroughly enjoyed the little video clips that demonstrated French spoken at the speed you would see in the street, I liked the graphics, I liked how easy it was to move along if you really paid attention. When I got through all those levels, I turned my attention to the 5,000 Most Spoken Word section of Memrise. It’s basically flashcards, but again the graphics are interesting and old words are repeated so you can feel like you are really making progress. I also asked a friend who is a translator to give me a list of some books written by French writers that are simply written but beautiful. I would read aloud from these books, as I did with Elena Ferrante, just to try to get my tongue somewhat used to the order of words. I knew I was mispronouncing things. I didn’t understand a lot. But I stuck to my two or three pages a day and my ten new Memrise words a day.
As quarantine came down upon us, I was spending anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes a day on French. When our trip cancelled, in those early days, I paused. Would we get to go in the fall? Next spring? The following fall?
What was the point of keeping up with this? I was just at 2,500 words when the trip cancelled. I’d been trying to time it so that I would be at word 2,500 when I left for my trip. I’ve always liked measurements and deadlines and signs of progress.
I kept on. The little shelf of French books was looking at me everyday when I went down our staircase. The Memrise app was still open on my computer at work, even though I hadn’t been there in weeks and it wasn’t clear when I would return.
And that’s when I noticed Enrique. I measured my daily progress by doing enough exercises so that I was in the top 100 for the week. When you finish an exercise you are popped into a screen that makes it easy to see where you are. I usually would be around number 80 – 85. Fine.
But there he always was in the number 1 slot. Enrique Carlos Saavredra de Moreno. He was always number one. And by an astoundingly large margin. He was always the leader for the month too.
I started to fixate on him in July, when a little bit of boredom had really started to set in. His somber, business-like photo intrigued me. My photo showed a pair of black pointy high heels with a jaunty cherry-colored bow – the best pair of shoes I had ever owned. And I didn’t list my full name in my profile.
But Enrique did. I looked him up on LinkedIn. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of detail provided there. He is a management level engineer for a well-known international liquor company and he is based in South America. He has an impressive educational background and his resume shows an enviable rising through the ranks of a number of brand name food and beverage companies.
So – how does Enrique have the time to spend TEN TIMES as much time as I do learning French? Last month, I scored around 120,000 points. He scored 1.2 million. If I spend twenty to thirty minutes a day on the program, to which I devote a pretty quick pace, that means he spends 200 to 300 minutes each day. That’s three and a half to five hours. And that’s in addition to Enrique’s obligations overseeing manufacturing for his company? Remind me to never drink any Brand XX if I ever go to South America…..
Then my imagination starts to take over. Maybe he’s a bot. That’s always the explanation now, right? But why? Why would any bot farm want to make sure they are at the top of the leaderboard on a language learning platform?
Maybe Enrique is up for a promotion and expects to be transferred to France? Maybe he is looking for a job with another company that is French owned? Those are perhaps both reasonable explanations. But why is he being so public about it? It’s like he’s bragging about how much time he is sinking into this. And if that’s his objective, couldn’t he come up with a more productive way to go about this? A private tutor? Even in the time of COVID, it’s easy to find online instruction in language and that does seem like something that can be effectively taught by Zoom.
Even I am getting a little bored with Memrise, but I’m committed now. Today’s vocabulary words include essuyer (to wipe) and autrui (others). The word that consistently shows up in my list of difficult words that must be repeated is prélèvement – a withdrawal. I consistently get that wrong. Today I finished word 3,948 of 5,000. I’m doing 20 new words a day so that means I should be finished before the end of September. I am already daydreaming about the present I will allow myself when I finish. Perhaps some Cire Trudon candles? Some Herbin ink? More French linens?
And what will I do then? I will have to go on with the refreshment lists of words to review. I will need to figure how to best measure that pace. And I will keep on with my reading. I think I just read a very long, repetitive description of a young English pilot dying in a tree in Marguerite Duras’s town. I think it was just one young English man even though I read that term at least fifty times so I can’t be sure. I’m finding I’m enjoying being a beginner in a language. Yes, I can read Emmanuel Macron’s tweets but I imagine he writes them so that someone with third or fourth grade level French can understand them. I will never be fluent in French. It will always be a goal on the horizon, something I can just play with and enjoy. Not the passion, the method of making a living that English is for me.
But what about Enrique? What does this all mean to him? He has not done his French in two days. I hope he’s not sick. I hope he lives someplace where it’s safe for him to go on a little holiday with his family, maybe returning to a lake or mountain resort that he hadn’t gone to since he was a child, his head turned by other more distant places as he got older. I hope he is on that family trip now, drinking some of the adult beverages his company produces. It’s too much to hope that he is reading Marguerite Duras too. But maybe?
*I changed his name and some details to protect his privacy.
This is a character sketch from my novel in process “White Acts.”
She had only met her mother’s cousin once. When she was a teenager, already fully ensconced in her ballet training, she and her mother, Marie, had gone for a visit. Her father had not gone for some reason. Work probably. The luxury of a week off probably did not come along very often.
They took a morning train. It was a hot summer day. Olga had taken very few train journeys but she had an idea of adventure and elegance that did not match up with the blue linen skirt she had carefully selected from her modest wardrobe and briskly ironed. The skirt stuck to her legs in creases of starched pleats on the dirty mustard yellow seat. She was annoyed to miss a week of training, even in the breathless summer, as some of the lucky girls disappeared to family homes in the country or to seaside treats. She knew enough to be vague about their destination. A farm outside Lyon could not be anyone’s idea of an extravagant summer adventure.
The train was full so smells. Cheese, meat, sweat, perfume. The window would not open and she tried to disappear into her book. At the station in Lyon, her mother craned her neck on the platform, finally furiously waving in a manner that was not at all like her. A petite woman near the concourse waved back and took long determined steps to meet them.
She was beautiful. There was no other word for it. Dark, dark hair pulled into an elegant bun, cornflower blue eyes, pale, clear skin, full cherry lips. She looked nothing like Olga or her mother, pale washed out versions of this.
“Nadia,” her mother called out and pulled the woman to her. The skirt of Nadia’s blue and white printed dress billowed against her legs, making Olga feel even hotter and stiffer in her skirt. Nadia was much younger than Marie. Olga could not judge her age and was trying not to get distracted in trying to remember possible birthdays, the revolution, the exodus. It had all only been half-explained to her, many times but only in a particular, practiced way that did not invite questions.
“This must be Olga.” Nadia spoke French, with no telltale Russian undertones, almost as pure as Olga’s. Nadia turned to her and held her at arm’s length, as if to study Olga. Her eyes were bright and lively. “How lovely,” she said, after a few seconds. “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
“You met her when she was a baby,” Marie said with some impatience, starting to organize their suitcases. She pushed a small white fabric bag toward Nadia. “Here are some treats from Paris for you.” Nadia peeked in the bag but Olga knew it would not be obvious what was in the carefully wrapped package. She had been given the delightful task of buying the little gifts. Her mother declining to leave the apartment yet again to go anywhere unfamiliar. Her father handed her a banknote, more than was usually spent on a week of groceries. Olga spent an entire rainy afternoon after class dreaming and buying. Glaceed fruits, jasmine tea, small chocolates in a bright orange box that was perhaps prettier than the chocolates themselves. She looked forward to watching Nadia unwrap each item and hoped her mother would approve of her choices.
“Come, come. Emile is waiting outside.” Nadia waived her hand toward a side entrance and took Marie’s suitcase. Outside a black car was at the curb. At the sight of them the driver hopped out and came around to the curb. He took the suitcase from Nadia and held out his right hand.
“Welcome,” he said, first to Marie and then to Olga. He was balding with bright blue eyes and a compact body fitted into a suit that looked like it had served him for many years. Olga relaxed when she saw his tobacco-stained fingers.
“Thank you.” Marie stood and watched him arrange the suitcases in the car. “I am Maria Matayeva. Thank you for allowing us to visit Nadia. It is very kind.” She waited for Emile to straighten up and face her. She had used the full power of her name, as she often did when she met a new person. Olga saw her get taller and stiffer as she pronounced her full name, fueled by the knowledge that she had been named after the tsar’s mother and his favorite daughter by one of the tsar’s own circle, even if without the knowledge of her father’s family or the benefit of a wedding ceremony. That mixed inheritance was a constant presence in the family.
Olga climbed in the back of the car. She did not listen to the others talking as they drove, although she did notice that Emile called her cousin Nadine and Nadia smiled every time he addressed her.
Only when they go to the farm and she had unpacked their few things did Olga realize she was confused. She had understood that Nadia was an employee at the farm, assisting with the geese and ducks that were Emile’s specialty, handling part of the business end of supplying the traditional restaurants in Lyon. As they sat down to a late lunch in the big sunny kitchen, just Emile, Nadia, Olga and Marie, it became obvious that Nadia was the lady of the house, serving up lunch with the assistance of a sturdy, unsmiling older woman.
They ate braised leeks and a sausage that was unfamiliar to Olga, but delicious. As was her practice, she nibbled and delayed, making her bites last until she was no longer fully hungry and could pretend she was satisfied. Her mother’s ever-present pretensions of gentility and plenty let her allow Olga to get away with not eating every bit on her plate. At home she avoided serving Olga just the small amounts she would actually consume, displeased by the spartan look of the plate with so much empty space.
After a piece of apple tart, Emile asked if they wanted to see the operation of the farm. They walked carefully across a gravel yard that would be a lifesaver in wet or mud but was a challenge in the city shoes. By the time they reached the white building that housed the geese and ducks whose livers were so prized, Marie’s mouth was a flattened line, her kips pressed tight against each other in disapproval. Olga wanted this tour to last as long as it could to delay the time when Olga would be alone with Marie and Marie’s displeasure with Nadia would be spilled onto Olga.
I’m a week into my thousand piece puzzle of Monet’s “Sailboats on the Seine.” It’s a peaceful scene of five sailboats on a cloudy day on a rippling river. There are houses on the far bank and a tall poplar.
I am done with the straightforward parts. The edging, the orange-sherbet colored sailboat in the foreground, the acid green grassy bank, the various masts, each in a different shade of brown, some with pink edging, some with black.
I’ve happily listened to podcasts of the Brian Lehrer Show and the Cycling Podcast as I’ve approached these sections, day after day. I usually turn to the puzzle late in the afternoon, when my lawyer work is done, I’ve exercised, I’ve studied French, I’ve written, I’ve grocery shopped, I’ve paid bills, I’ve read the news, I’ve monitored the garden, I’ve re-inked my pens, I’ve brushed the cat. In other words, when I’ve done everything I can possibly do to keep my brain and heart and spirit intact – and it’s still too early to start making dinner, to drink wine, to watch TV.
But today? Today there are about four hundred blue pieces for me to sort through and place. Yes, there are differentiations. Some have a bit of cloud, some are obviously shadowed water or a flat grey sail, some have what seem like pixillated colors. Perhaps not a single one is just blue. But that’s what it looks like from across the table.
Can I do it? Oh, yes. This is not my first pandemic puzzle challenge. I’ve done collections of beetles and butterflies, Victorian imaginings of triumphal Roman parades, and a riotous collection of twelve Van Gogh paintings. When I finished each one I felt great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, feelings that are harder to come by now than they were a few months ago.
Today, I’m not sure I want to experience satisfaction from combing through little cardboard pieces for hours. Even if I put the air conditioning on and lower the shades.
So – a radical idea – what if I don’t finish it? What if I let it sit for a few days and then crumble all the pieces back in their box? All I need to do is give myself permission.
Isn’t that the most challenging part?
I am a finisher, a completist. My life has been earmarked by setting out to do things and getting them done. School, the bar, opening law practices, raising children, running charities, learning Spanish, German, Italian, writing books. Whatever it is, I have finished.
I’m told I’m in a stage in my life where I can consider leaving some of that behind. My to do lists. My charts. My outlines. My rules.
I’m rolling all of that over my my mind. Now, with old hard-baked routines perhaps gone forever it’s easier to think about these things. To contemplate not finishing.
I think of other seascapes I’ve admired. Other Monets, yes. I mentally lock on all those dreamy paintings left behind by JWM Turner. You only know some of them are seascapes because someone has told you so. They are a sweet meld of gold and grey and sunlight. Unfinished, we are told. So there.
If Turner could leave works unfinished, why can’t I?
I will consider my orange sherbet sailboat and acid green grass a success of concentration and study. Right?
NBC is showing old stages of the Tour de France. This week they showed a replay of Stage 5 from 2014 — a stage that formed the basis for a chapter in my novel “Arenberg Forest.”
On the morning of stage 5, I was up even before my alarm, ready to read all the news and steeling myself to bug everyone for some pre-stage content – some carefully staged selfies, some artistic shots of water bottles and spokes, some cutesy broken English tweets to competitors that would bring a chuckle. It was going to be the last thing anyone was going to want to do but it was clearly my job to make it happen.
I pulled open the curtains. Grey, wet, rain beaded on the window. Oh no. This was bad. I knew the prediction had been for some rain today, with some of the gutters damp already as we pulled in last evening, but this was worse than I thought it was going to be. I looked at my phone. Unremitting rain for the entire day. Eighty percent chance. A lot of them had already been dreading the day, a stage that had been talked about constantly since the race route had been revealed the previous fall. Stage 5, a mini Paris-Roubaix. A race over the fabled cobbled roads of Northern France that were usually part of the famous one-day race held in April, a classic race that the scrawny, leaned out climbers, so comfortable on the unforgiving slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees, skipped, leaving the slippery, cut-edge cobbled roads to the broader heavier riders. Like Kristof. The Dutch, the Norwegians, the Belgians, the Australians. They were the ones who longed for the teeth-rattling roads of the north. But now, in the first week of the Tour de France, the lightweight climbers had no choice. They, like everyone else, had to spend a day on the bumpy and now slippery blue-stone cobbles that made this gritty corner of France famous. Their best hope was to survive the day unscathed, no falls, no unexpected launches into the crowd or a ditch, no unforgiving gaps of time.
I sighed. Now no one was going to want to even talk to me, let alone give me cutesy upbeat commentary to share with the world. I wondered if Rudi, the team’s general classification rider, now sitting in fifth place, just ten seconds behind the Spanish yellow jersey wearer, was awake yet. It was better if he wasn’t, if he could scrape another hour of untroubled sleep from the night. Someone had told me that before the team’s reconnaissance visit here about ten days ago, Rudi had never ridden any of the French cobbled sections.
I rooted around in my suitcase, trying to figure out the best combination of clothing to keep me dry and comfortable during what promised to be an awful day.
The dining room was as I expected. I poked my head in as I headed to the office to print out some additional maps. Mostly silent, the clinking of plates about the only indication that sixty world class athletes were getting ready to participate in an epic day. My eye scanned over the several teams sitting at the different tables, the colors of hoodies and t shirts the only way to keep them apart. The Australian team over in the far corner seemed a bit jollier than the others, their former Paris-Roubaix winning manager telling jokes and all but slapping a few backs.
I caught Kristof’s eye over the head of a French teammate. He raised his coffee cup in greeting. He looked calm, concentrated. He looked to the left, at the enormous window covered in raindrops and looked back at me. He smiled.
I felt like I could read his mind. “Oh, good,” he was thinking. “This is a day for me.” My heart sank a little.
I went out to the bus to see if they needed any help. Karin was hunched in the back storage area, wrapping sandwich portions with great speed, humming to herself.
“Can I do anything?” I asked.
“No, I’m good.” She paused, standing up straight to stretch her back. “I don’t even know what to give them. It’s a short brutal stage. It will be less than four hours and they are starting early so I don’t even know how much they’ll eat. But I guess we need to be ready for anything.”
“Maybe you can help the guys with the bottles or something.”
I went to the truck where the mechanics were checking tire pressure. For this stage they had completely changed bikes, switching from the lightweight highly-engineered road bikes that had been used for the first four stages to sturdier bikes, with more robust handlebars and differently filled tires to cope with the roads. I’d heard a lot of discussion in the last few days about what the right tire pressure would be for today. A lower pressure was necessary so that a tire wouldn’t pop the first time it encountered the sharp unprotected edge of a cobblestone. But if the pressure was too low it took too much energy to ride along the smooth roads that constituted the majority of the route. 25 kilometers of cobble over a day’s course of 140 kilometers. Did you want to be comfortable on the cobbles or fast on the smooth pavement? The question had made several meals pass more quickly.
The guys were all concentrating, each intent on his own task, the sound of the pressurized pumps the only sound other than the ticking of wheels turning as they were checked.
After the depart I was assigned to the first feeding zone, right before the cobbles started near the Carrefour des Arbes. We passed by the fabled restaurant, the crowds undiminished and undismayed by the driving rain. I saw Flemish flags snapping proudly in the wind from the tops of white campers. I saw an Irish flag draped over a young man’s head in an attempt to keep him somewhat drier, I saw elderly men in snappy bright-red jackets and toddlers in clear plastic raincoats. The enthusiasm of the crowd was the exact opposite of the atmosphere inside the team bus an hour ago.
We parked the car in as dry an area as we could find and hiked up the road. I had six cotton musette bags slung across me, over my borrowed Directe Bank parka, which I was forced to wear so that the riders would know which team I was connected to. As we got into position, picking the fourth spot along the row of similarly garbed and burdened team assistants, Carlos beckoned to me.
“Antonio is out,” he shouted in my ear. “He went down twice and abandoned. I think he broke his elbow. It just came over the race radio.”
Antonio was the Spanish rider, the pre-race favorite, who was sitting in the number two position, sitting at the same time as the overall race leader before the start today.
“What?” I said. It seemed unbelievable. He hadn’t even placed a wheel on a cobblestone and already he was out.
“It’s carnage out there,” Carlos continued. “It sounds like there are two or three crashes at every roundabout.”
My stomach turned.
“Our guys OK?” I asked.
“So far, yes,” he said. “But don’t get your hopes up.”
I sent up a little prayer. Please, please, was all it said. I realized as soon as it flitted across my mind that it wasn’t a prayer, it was an imperfect communication – my attempt to try to influence Kristof. Please don’t be stupid. Take it easy, just survive the stage. It’s just one day. You don’t need to show them what you can do every day.
It turned out Karin was right. Most of the riders didn’t grab their bags, perhaps not needing the nutrition, but more likely not wanting to swerve even a little bit to get to the left to grab onto the bag. I hoped they all had enough water because even in the rain they would need to drink and it was almost impossible for them to get extra bottles once those awful cobbled sections started.
“This is useless,” Carlos said, when they were all passed. “Let’s just go to the end unless Luca has something else for us to do.” We hiked back down the road and into the car, the crowd starting to disperse around us now that the race was passed. Carlos got on his phone.
“We can just go to the end,” he said.
It took us just ten minutes to extricate ourselves from the crowd of cars leaving the course and within a few minutes we were on the highway, heading to the finish outside Valenciennes, at the end of the cobbled sections. The rain continued to beat down on the windshield. Carlos switched on the race radio, the official broadcast of what was happening in the stage. We heard of one crash after another. The talented young American rider in his first Tour de France had somersaulted into a ditch, taking some spectators with him; three Spanish teammates had tangled on the sidewalk in front of a brewery, spilling into each other on an unexpectedly slippery patch where the trucks departed; the English national champion ate up more than a minute waiting to have a flat tire fixed. It was completely unbelievable, unlike anything I had ever even heard of occurring in one day, let alone witnessed in my year and a half in the sport.
Please, please, my bleating, ineffective message went up into the ether one more time.
We got to the finish very quickly and were able to find a spot to pull the car in next to the team bus. Carlos turned to me. “Not a bad day to just sit on the bus and watch. Here,” he said, proffering a flask to me. “A little brandy. It looks like you could use it. You okay?”
I nodded, but took the flask. It was barely two and it felt like the day would never be over.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You think it’s ok for me to be on the bus?”
Usually staff at my level were not allowed on the bus, even when the team was out doing their important work on the road.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on. I think you’ll need to see the tv coverage to do your job, right? And I’ll deal with Luca if he gives you a hard time. Besides, he’ll never know. He has other things to worry about.”
I nodded and climbed out of the car, disentangling myself from the uncaught bags, not even aware that they were still arrayed across my chest under my seatbelt.
When we got on the bus four staff people were already distributed in the first few rows, eyes glued to the television suspended over the driver’s position. No one acknowledged us as Carlos and I crept by to sit behind them.
“What’s going on?” Carlos whispered to the mechanic in front of him, Rogier, the young Dutch guy who was a whiz from what I’d been told.
“We’re okay. Izzy and Marcus had a wobble but they are ok. Peter popped a wheel but the neutral support people were right there so he was ok,” Rogier whispered back, with an urgency that reminded me of war movies.
Our unit seemed fine and fit for battle.
The camera zeroed in on Kristof, near the front of the leading group, his glasses shielding his expression, Rudi right behind as if tethered by an invisible three-foot chain to Kristof’s rear tire. A cheer went up from our small group on the bus. The commentator was speaking French but I gathered that he was relaying Kristof’s impressive history with these roads, with the spring classics, and guessing at the team’s strategy in having Kristof assigned to making sure that Rudi made it through the stage in one piece and near the front.
I cheered too but my stomach tightened again. The camera lingered in a close-up on Rudi’s face, his lips spread in a grimace, then shifted forward to Kristof, his upper body immobile as his legs continued to pump as if he were out on a clear spring day on newly paved road.
“Very good, very good,” one of the mechanics said excitedly, standing up to pace behind me in the aisle. “30K left. They can do it.”
The wind shifted and the rain came directly at the window next to me. I watched the television expecting the same wind to buffet our two riders. But they plowed on, heads down, trying to shield themselves from the water. A few moments later Kristof turned to say something to Rudi over his shoulder. You could barely see Rudi nod, but right after Kristof sped forward through the group of riders in the arrow ahead of him, Rudi still locked on his wheel. Soon they were five and then ten feet in front of the others in a massive display of strength and courage. And perhaps stupidity. Our bus didn’t cheer this time. What was Kristof doing? There was no way this was a pre-planned tactic, there was no way Rudi would have the ability to continue on at this pace for the rest of the race and Kristof would be expending energy he might greatly need in the coming days as the race headed into the steep Alpine slopes that were so difficult for him. Now Kristof opened his mouth, gasping to get more oxygen and to plow on. He was right behind the motorcycle with the TV camera and I saw the spray from the motorcycle’s wheels hitting him in the face. I could see him startle and slow to avoid the stream of brown, dirty water. Rudi didn’t realize he was slowing and almost hit Kristofs’ rear wheel, veering in the final second to avoid going down. He exhibited some superior bike-handling skills in keeping upright as his rear wheel fishtailed, but the hesitation of the two of them was enough to have them swallowed back into the lead group, their potential for a breakaway evaporating before our eyes.
Our watching group seemed to all let our breath out at the same time. I was relieved. Surely Kristof would check in with the car on the radio and get some further instructions on what they wanted him to do and he wouldn’t do any more freelancing.
I got up and went to the back of the bus to find a bottle of water. I sipped my water and looked out the window, letting my focus soften on the now fogged over windows. I stood there for a while, wishing the stage were already over, that whatever was going to happen had already happened, that Kristof was standing outside the bus, tired and unhappy but in one piece, no MRIs, no x-rays planned for the evening, no head injuries, no broken wrists. I knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to be wishing for but I was paralyzed by fear, by a sudden and unexpected desire for protection, even as I knew it meant mediocrity and disappointment. I turned my head to crack my neck, to bring me back to the reality of where I was and what I was supposed to want and went back to my seat.
20K to go now. The leading group still a minute out, but with a good number of the overall contenders tightly tucked in together, moving as one down the stormy road. Our watching group remained quiet as the tenths of kilometers ticked off on the screen, the commentators seemingly not saying anything important because nothing was really happening.
Then at 10k, we saw Kristof flick his elbow, providing a signal of some sort. He shifted to the left and surged through a gap that didn’t look to exist, Rudi somehow able to remain with him through the acceleration. They paused at the front of the group for a split second and then accelerated forward. Kristof’s teeth were bared as he pushed forward, looking over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure Rudi was still with him.
“Yes, yes!” Carlos shouted next to me, standing to shake some of the excitement out of him.
“He is going to do it,” yelled one of the mechanics, the one I barely knew. I wasn’t sure who he was referring to – Kristof or Rudi. Kristof was putting in the superior effort, leading Rudi forward and letting Rudi conserve a bit of his energy by following in the wind shadow Kristof’s broad back created. I knew this was supremely difficult for Rudi, with his toothpick arms and long, delicate shins, sometimes looking like they weren’t substantial enough to thrust him up a flight of stairs let alone along the tops of the worst cobbles in Europe.
I held my breath and watched. They ticked through nine K and then eight, with the lead group not able to catch up with them, but with Kristof not able to create a further gap. I knew it was Rudi’s inability to go any faster that was keeping them in that uncomfortable in between state.
At 5K, just as Kristof and Rudi went under the banner, there was a tumble of two riders in the rear of the lead group. I couldn’t quite tell who it was on the grey tv screen, but the crash made the entire group hesitate a split second, and Kristof accelerated again. At first it looked like Rudi wasn’t going to make it, was going to melt back in with his key rivals, but then he surged forward and was back on Kristof’s wheel. I wondered why Kristof was doing this. There was no way Rudi was going to be able to maintain any real chance of a lead in the coming days and Kristof was just expending himself. Was he showing off? Did he consider this his road, his pave, his part of the world? Was he just following the directions he’d been given, to haul Rudi with him all the way to the end? I wondered if Rudi wanted to do this. Hadn’t the plan to been to just get through the day safely and without losing a chunk of time? No one had said anything about a dare devil attempt to win a stage.
The next seven minutes were the longest in my life. We all watched, completely silent, as our pair slid down the road towards us. At 3K, Carlos said, “We need to go outside.” I roused myself. He was right. They would need towels, drinks, protective support. We were already late. I scrambled to my feet.
“I’ll go, you stay.” He pressed me back down and with surprising speed, tapped one of the other guys on the shoulder and they were gone and out the door, swinging nylon bags of supplies over their shoulder. He wasn’t being nice to me, letting me stay in the dry bus and watch the end of the race. He wanted someone bigger than me to help him wade through the crowd and shepherd our riders to the stage, or anti-doping or wherever they needed to go. I wasn’t much help in a crowd of raving French fans.
Last kilometer. They were safely through the red banner, with the leading group nipping right after them. I was tired of holding my breath. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to happen. In my mind I could see the two of them spilling into each other on the final bend, like Dennis Menchov in that final kilometer of the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, skidding down the historic road in front of the Roman Forum before bouncing up and onward.
Fifty meters from the finish, Kristof looked over his shoulder one final time, making sure Rudi was still there and making sure the others were still where he thought they were. He nodded at Rudi and swung off to the left, allowing Rudi to pass by him and go on to roll over the line first, taking the stage win and perhaps moving up a spot or two in the overall classification with the time bonus. As they rolled forward into the waiting arms of Carlos and Benny, Kristof and Rudi clasped each other, some brotherhood bond having been formed on those awful roads. I didn’t even think that Kristof much cared for Rudi or thought him to be a particularly talented rider. But today I guess that didn’t matter.
I felt ill with fatigue. The thing I wanted to happen a while ago was happening. In a few minutes Kristof would be standing drained outside the bus, without a victory for himself, but having spent way too much energy and sacrificing perhaps good results for the coming week. But the team had a stage win for Rudi, his first ever in such a big race. That didn’t make it better for me. Kristof could have taken the stage, confirmed himself as the absolute king of the cobbles, asserting his domination one more time. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t.
The first of several sketches about starched linen.
Now that my dining room table is my office, perhaps for the rest of my career,
I cleared out the cheerful tablecloths from the cupboard. Thanksgiving. My birthday. Graduations. Wine resistant yet still faded grape birthmarks on some, near where my husband, the host and primary pourer, would sit and share.
Now I want to see as much wood as possible, under stacks and piles of books and files. But under my sleek space grey computer I need a cloth, some protective layer, as much to cradle my challenged RSI wrists as to prevent scratches on the table. As much to give some outline and boundary to my workspace even as I struggle to do that for my days.
In my closet, still and folded, I find a square of antique French linen. White and starched, with a tri-part red stripe at the edge, right at my rib cage as I pull close to the table to work. Cross-stitched initials in the left corner that are not mine. Difficult to read. I realize I was reading it upside down. Now it’s clear. DP.
The person I bought this from got it at a brocante in Normandy. One hundred years old, she said. I’d hidden it away until I had some worthy use. A picnic lunch in our garden. A base for a chilled metal urn full of champagne bottles, for a party that was supposed to happen last week.
But now? Now? Now it’s the witness to my work. I will not fuss over the workmanlike and reassuring white square. I don’t dread the ink blot that will surely come, the coffee drips, and odd bits of crumbs from the afternoon cookies that have now entered my life. This cloth survived one pandemic, perhaps with an earthenware bowl of brown eggs resting on it. Perhaps to cover dough waiting for its time to be shaped into sustenance. Nothing fancier. There’s no edging, no hint of lace here.
Just like there’s no such things on me.
The cloth and my computer on a big wooden table. This is my workspace, my reality. Yesterday, I ordered more antique French cloths. You will ask why – yes, it’s true I only have one table and one computer. But I somehow want a small pile in the cupboard. A small sign of abundance, of expanded possibility.
“A party without cake is just a meeting.” That’s one of my favorite Julia Child quotations. First, because it has nothing to do with cooking. Second, because it involves cake.
I like cake. A lot. In the unlikely event of my being nominated to the Supreme Court, cake unlike some of the topics that came up most recently, would perhaps be the subject of questioning in the Senate judiciary committee. However, for someone who likes cake I don’t eat very much of it. Years and years of fixed attention to limiting food consumption and keeping a mental list of good and bad foods can’t be ignored so easily. I have cake maybe once every two months or so. And it had better be worth it.
I’m a decent baker. At the holidays, I look for a family event where I can bring a coconut cake that I can make look like the snow scene in the Nutcracker. We order a special princess cake from a local Danish bakery whenever my son visits from Germany. I make an amazing chocolate cake, which I recently made for a friend’s birthday during quarantine. A total of five hours, three kinds of chocolate, many, many steps, which I happily did in old clothes that could withstand flour and spatter. That was an event I looked forward to. When it’s just my husband and me it’s unimaginable to make a cake for just the two of us.
When we used to have dinner parties, I had a regular rotation of things I liked to make – a pumpkin cake made with olive oil and rosemary, an almond apricot jam tart with a crunchy meringue topping, and banana cream pie made from a recipe from a long-defunct Depression-era Los Angeles diner. Sometimes I thought my husband invited people over for dinner just so we could justify the banana cream pie.
But now? Now? Now my meetings are on Zoom and there aren’t even breakfast burritos or dry sandwiches to help keep me in my seat. I must stare fixedly into my small thirteen-inch computer screen, fussing with lighting and the stack of books placed underneath to try to bring some sign of life into my face. It seems impossible that I can look so much worse in that little screen than I do even in my bathroom mirror every morning. Yes, my hair is flat and has that distinctive ribbon of darker, greyish hair in my part that I see on everyone when I go to the grocery store. Yes, my chin line is looser and more prominent than I would like. But I swear, when I left the bathroom to start my workday in the dining room an hour ago, my eyes looked alive and ready and I was actually glad to get going on the things I wanted to do. Now I’m not so sure.
Standard definitions of “meeting” include the terms “assembly” or “coming together.” There’s no mention of physical closeness. Perhaps that is assumed. Or perhaps our dictionary editors were well ahead of everyone else in preparing for the pandemic.
All I know is that I really don’t like these new meetings. Don’t get me wrong. I like working from home, doing solo work on projects. It’s like I’ve been preparing for this model of work all my life. But for meetings, I don’t like the idea that there’s an assumption that my time is somehow worth less now, that I can be called upon to devote a half hour or hour or whatever period of time, fixed in my little square with everyone being able to critique the collection of books and art in my background. I don’t like the forced jollity, the repetition of memes and jokes that perhaps were funny and fresh in the middle of March but which now just seem like a waste of air and effort. This is all supposed to be easier, more efficient, an entry into a new way of arranging our lives – dare I say it? It’s supposed to be a piece of cake. But not for me.
I comb through my calendar, looking for things I can cancel or simply not show up for. For times when I can hide and camouflage myself in the anonymity of not responding to an email or calendar invitation. I go back through my camera role to try to find a professional-enough photo of myself that I can put up when I want the camera off, when I want to be free to read Twitter or knit or play with the cat while I listen to whatever is being said in a Zoom meeting. My search is fruitless. All the photos I have in recent years are of me with my family, eating tortellini in Bologna or having schnitzel in Berlin. Solo photos of me are in the middle of the lavender in my garden or showing off my new flamenco shoes or ballet flats or Tahitian pearl necklace or framed against the arches of the Pont du Gard in Provence. When was the last time I took a professional portrait? Our firm website has been up for several years now. The photo there clearly is an eight-year younger me that I don’t want to use. Next time I’m in the office (in two months, perhaps?) I’ll have someone take a nice photo of me at my desk that I can then use for the remote meetings that I know will continue to happen for months and months.
I do have a lot of photos of slices of cake. Princess cake in Oslo, Victoria sponge at Fortnum & Mason, sachertorte in Salzburg, and a piece of mille feuille from my most recent birthday in January in New York. Then it hits me. Perfect. Until I get a decent professional photo, I will have a picture of a piece of Esterhazytorte from the Café Central in Vienna as my Zoom place keeper. A bit of Austro-Hungarian decadence. Because, after all, what is a meeting if there is only cake and not any true human connection?
Today is my son’s 28th birthday. I spoke to him this morning. He is in Berlin and is making good use of his quarantine time. He is working on finishing touches for an LP and is writing material for a new EP. A few days ago I came across this piece, written when he was 14, when he was at a crossroads with his music. I guess I didn’t need to worry. Names are changed but if you know me, you know him.
Adam’s piano recital is tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Not for the normal reasons, like when he was seven or eight and I savored the anticipation of how well he would do and how shiny with satisfaction he would be when he was done. Now I want tomorrow night to come so that I will never have to listen to that Rachmaninoff prelude again.
It’s a big, showy piece of music, requiring the musician to bounce powerfully but playfully all over the keyboard and then switch on a dime to the middle section that sounds like swells in the ocean. It being assigned to him is a sign of his being almost full-grown and thus able to meet the physical demand of putting upper body weight into the piece and, I think, an attempt by his teacher to smoke out just what he wants to do with his music. In these mid-teen years, as so many of the boys peel off from classical lessons to pursue guitar and other interests (or as one friend has put it – “wheels and heels”), the piano teachers of the world must love blowing the dust off the big showstopper numbers for the boys with big hands and long arms.
For the first month or two the piece grew on me. Then I didn’t really hear him playing it much. Theoretically he was practicing in the late afternoon when I was still at work. Then he started playing it again with a mix of fury and enthusiasm, day and night, once the date of the recital was announced.
As the parent who primarily supports musical endeavors at our house, I’ve been soaked in Adam’s anxiety over this piece. On the half hour Friday afternoon drive to his lessons he brings along his laptop and plays each of the recordings of the piece he has found, over and over. There is Lang Lang, a hip but serious looking young Chinese man who takes the presto parts a little too brightly for my taste and misses the opportunity to tease out the hints of humor hidden in the staccato passages. We have Rachmaninoff himself, whom we hear attack the piece too quickly, through some magic of resuscitating old recordings, and my favorite, Vladimir Ashkenazy, who looks so friendly and approachable in the album art. There are a few others and I can tell them apart within a few measures of a recording starting. For some reason Adam listens to the Lang Lang recording the most.
As we drive, everyone else on PCH is admiring the silvery glint of the late winter ocean and the few surfers tiptoeing across parking lots to the sand. I’m trying to adjust the visor so that Adam can better see the clips of Vladimir Horowitz he found on YouTube to see how Horowitz used his slight frame to reap the fullest sound from the piano. I guess there is nothing like having your teacher compare you to one of the most renowned pianists of the last hundred years to get you to scurry to the keyboard and not focus on Horowitz’s prune-like face.
The ironic thing is that Adam typically is a very reluctant practicer. Yes, he does miraculously discover a burning desire to practice a few times a week just as we all get up from dinner to wash the dishes, but I don’t think that counts. I’m trying to figure out why this piece has gotten under his skin and stayed there even after several months. Part of it is that it’s difficult. It’s also robust and intriguing. I don’t know that I’ve heard him play it perfectly even once so far. I’m sure he doesn’t like that. It’s a new and unwelcome circumstance to him. And I don’t think it’s anxiety alone that has him glued to that piano bench. Maybe deep inside him he knows that this is the sort of piece that separates boys from men and he is eager to find out what side of the line he is on.
At the beginning of the school year Adam was ready to give up the piano. When we were trying to figure out our family schedule in September and try to fit everything in he slyly smiled and volunteered that he had an idea of an activity he’d be happy to ditch. I knew exactly what he meant.
“No,” I barked.
“Why not? I don’t really like piano. It’s not fun anymore.” He slumped down in his chair at the table. This was when he was past his honeymoon stage with the Rachmaninoff and he seemed unable to wheedle Susan, his teacher, into letting him switch to something else. She’d fallen for that with him too many times and I think she had drawn her line in the sand.
I put down my coffee cup and squared my shoulders to face Adam head on. “Do you really like math? Is it fun?”
“Not really.” He answered cautiously, not sure where this was going.
“Do you want to try to give that up too? Should I call school and just tell them you don’t like it that much anymore?”
“No, that’s ridiculous. They’d never let that happen.”
“Exactly.” I nodded with satisfaction. “Well, I’m in charge of extracurricular activities and music is the most important of those. If you feel too busy to give your full attention to everything you’re doing we’ll cut out voice.”
Once I came up with that, I knew I’d won. Adam had started taking voice lessons the previous spring when he had a big role in his school play. What had started as an excuse to learn yet more Broadway show tunes had turned into a serious pursuit with Adam chasing and stretching notes with his brand new bass voice and our house now rang with Italian art songs in addition to the piano music. When new neighbors moved in next door I felt compelled to explain all of this to them so they would feel free to complain if he was keeping their children awake in the late evening.
This winter Adam and a friend from school decided they wanted to apply to vocal programs for the summer. I said that would be fine but that he needed to do all the work. I was not going to spend my few precious hours on the weekends researching summer camps for teens. When I said that I knew there was a significant chance that nothing would happen. But Adam is also very single-minded so I was not completely surprised when he told me there were three programs he wanted to apply to and asked me to go to the music store to find music for his audition CDs, which would be due in a few weeks.
But now, tonight, he must focus on piano. It’s Friday night and we sit down to eat dinner, which is one of Adam’s favorites – ravioli in meat sauce that I bought on our way home from Huntington Beach. We are about five minutes into the meal when he gives a big sigh and puts down his fork.
“What’s up?” my husband asks.
“Nothing.” Adam’s tone is downcast and engineered to invite the follow up question.
“No really, what?” Matt complies.
“I just want it to be 24 hours from now.” Adam’s eyebrows raise and meet together above his glasses in a pleading look.
Matt, who has obviously forgotten all about piano recitals, looks confused so I jump in.
“Look, at this point you just have to go and do your best and try to enjoy yourself. You can’t do anything else to prepare at this point so you just have to perform.”
Adam wags his head from side to side as if he is considering what I’m saying. I realize he relishes the attention he gets from being someone with an upcoming performance. He doesn’t really want it to be tomorrow night. He’s savoring the expectation of the performance even as he protests. If he was really dreading it, like his history exams, he wouldn’t talk about it.
“You’re good at that sort of thing,” I continue. “I don’t see why this is different from any other recital.”
“You don’t understand,” he bursts out. “Those girls are awful.”
Ah, the girls who go to the Orange County High School for the Arts, a dedicated arts high school. I’ve only seen them at recitals and they seem okay to me. A little high strung and hunched over in their silky party dresses as they sit down to play and adjust the bench, but certainly not Medusa-like. He’s been talking about them a lot in the last few weeks and I know a little bit about them from his descriptions. There’s Amy, the girl who has pretty much stopped going to school in order to practice for some big competition, and Laura, the girl who Adam thinks is about on a par with him talent wise but who spends about two hours a day playing in addition to the time she spends in lessons at school. Laura has the lesson slot after Adam on Friday afternoons and their teacher has had them play for each other as Laura arrives and Adam prepares to leave. Adam, usually so confident in how he chooses to live his life and in his ability to get the benefit of any doubt by force of personality and humor, has met his match with these girls. He says they are mean and he does not appreciate their unvarnished helpful comments to him that he would be so much better if he just practiced more. I’ve tried to get him to tell me why he thinks they are mean. It doesn’t quite seem the right word to me. I think they are probably dismissive and he’s not used to anyone being like that to him or his music.
“So what,” I say, switching into my best Ethel Merman imitation. “Those girls don’t do half the things you do with your time. Sure, they spend a lot more time practicing but you know your piece so there’s no reason to think you won’t be great.”
“You don’t know them. They’re really mean. And tomorrow night the only thing that matters is how much you practice.” I hope he’s wrong about that and that musicianship and artistry that is not simply a function of hours at the keyboard will emerge, but he slinks out of his chair and into the living room where, of course, we hear the opening bars of the Rachmaninoff.
“I hate that piece,” Matt says in a low voice. We sit and listen and take the final sips of our wine. We’re going to wait him out and not even start to clean up the kitchen until he’s ready to help.
“But admit it,” Matt continues. “Part of you is relishing watching him suffer a little because he doesn’t practice as much as he should.”
He’s right. For all of my pep talk, I think it’s very useful for Adam to experience this. A little regret for every time he chose to watch MTV instead of playing the piano. And something I can’t fix for him. All I can do is watch him go through it.
At the same time I know I’m not watching this just from my role as a parent. I’m an audience member. Adam doesn’t seem to get it, but I have absolutely no basis to coach him through the nervousness of a big performance. I’m a plodder, a plonker, a Sunday afternoon Bach invention tinkerer. While we started playing the piano at the same time, nine years ago, Adam left me in the dirt quite a long time ago. And either he hasn’t noticed, although that seems impossible, or he is giving me the benefit of a huge doubt and continues to allow me to be his artistic buddy when all I am really capable of is turning the pages of the music for him.
I slide quietly into the living room to watch him play. I stand a few feet behind his right shoulder and watch his hands. He’s opened the lid of the piano and the sound fills the entire house. I almost can’t watch as I see how natural he is as he bends into what he’s doing. It’s painful to think how little this means to him. I want to know what it feels like to be him, to be able to coax such emotion and power from ink dots on a page. Is it my fault that he’s so indifferent? Part of me is hoping that his recent enthusiasm for this piece means that it was just a passing phase and that we’re going to experience one more complex piece after another.
He gets to the end of the piece. As he’s winding up to start it once more, I go the living room and tap him on the shoulder.
“Let’s leave it for tonight. Come help with the dishes.”
He nods, closes the piano and follows me into the kitchen. Tonight I get to do the dishes with one of my favorite artists.