Death of a Piano

As a parent, you usually know when you mess up, but sometimes fails happen when you least expect it. For instance, last night at bedtime, I was looking for some relaxing piano music to help lull my daughters (3 and 7) to sleep and ended up finding this video about an old piano left on the sidewalk, and the reactions of people who pass by it.

My daughters asked if they could watch it. It seemed harmless enough. I thought it would probably be uplifting somehow, like maybe some concert pianist would sit at it and get one last nocturne out of it.

As we watched, I explained to my girls the difference between a regular piano with a long, contoured body and an upright piano, and how they were introduced to make pianos available to people with smaller homes or apartments.

I’ve been trying to inspire one of them to play because I always regretted that I didn’t learn. I took lessons as a kid but was a typical boy, more interested in playing baseball in the street. How could I know how much knowing how to play a piano would benefit me for the rest of my life? I can play the guitar bit and I love to sing, but man how I would love to sit down and play a little Beethoven or Chopin.

Anyway, a few people stopped to tinker with the piano but the camera was too far away to hear what they were playing. By the time the video was over, my girls were riveted, wondering what the fate of the old piano would be. Then . . .

they tore it to pieces.

My girls both started crying. I turned off the video exactly as I would if I were trying to protect their innocent eyes from an act of violence. Struggling to calm them and undo the damage I had unwittingly done, I said, “Come on, girls. It’s just a piano. It’s a piece of furniture that makes noise.”

It didn’t work. They cried harder. Insulting the piano only made matters worse.

Then I switched directions and acknowledged their feelings, saying, “I wish that would have ended differently, too. I was hoping someone would come by and take the piano home with them. That was sad, huh?” They both calmed down a little and, with quivering voices, said, “Mm-hm.”

Their reaction may also have been partially caused by the fact that we have an upright piano in our house. It has sat in the corner for years like an old friend, waiting for someone to muster the interest and determination to learn to make it sing again. It’s old. Like a hundred years old. I imagine it sits there silently dreaming about its glory days in some house in the 1930’s when the family piano player (almost every family had one back then) played while the others sang and danced.

I also remembered my own childhood, when I anthropomorphized absolutely everything. I would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash only to retrieve it, straighten it out, and apologize to it. (Really.) Maybe I had watched H.R. Pufnstuf too much and thought everything was alive. Or maybe children are just naturally more sensitive to the various kinds of consciousness – however subtle and immeasurable they may be – that imbue all things that are made from something that was once alive. Or perhaps an object’s usefulness, particularly the joy it brings the user, gives it a kind of personality. Plenty of musicians talk to their instruments, give them names, etc. There’s even an old expression used in love, “How about you and me making beautiful music together?”

So, though I hate to see them cry, I’m glad my girls felt sorry for that old piano. They knew it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. They know it’s much, much more. I think somehow they know, like all would-be musicians curious about an instrument, that only it can help them unlock all those secrets and fears and overwhelming feelings stirring in their young souls.

My favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox, (the American one, not the Canadian one), once said he was attracted to the guitar as a teenager for just that reason – because he thought it knew something about him that he didn’t, and that he couldn’t discover without its help.

When my girls busted out crying, I felt like I had done something wrong, but in the larger picture, I think my wife and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think they’re going to be alright. If they didn’t care about the old piano getting demolished, I’d be much more worried.

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humor?

Okay, this is too weird not to share. 

My eldest daughter has reached that age where her teeth are falling out.

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Her first lower incisor came out and she took it to school to show to some friends. This is big news in the first grade world, as is how much dough they took the Tooth Fairy for. Of course, there is no agreed-upon amount between parents so some kids end up feeling like their teeth are more valuable than other kids’ teeth. 

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Anyway, she was having a little picnic on the front lawn of the school with some friends when she realized she had dropped her tooth. Tragedy strikes! She started crying because she was really depending on that Tooth Fairy moolah. About a dozen parents and even more kids started looking for it. After five minutes or so, the father of one of her friends found it so there was a happy ending. I told him I didn’t know how to thank him, he really saved my little girl from a lot of heartache, blah yada etcetera.

A few days later, he told me his daughter had lost the exact same tooth. My daughter and his daughter and all their friends were doing their usual picnic on the lawn when she lost her tooth somewhere on the lawn, too! Everyone started looking for it and I found it, in exactly the same spot where my daughter had lost her tooth several days before! So I got a chance to repay her dad, after all, and in exactly the same way. Talk about a tooth for a tooth!

There are hundreds of kids at the school, the front lawn is vast, and over a dozen people searched both times. What are the chances? I can’t help thinking coincidence is one of the ways God entertains Himself, that old prankster. He probably told the Tooth Fairy all about it. 

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Mister Rogers Gets a Twenty Million Dollar Grant from Congress – with a POEM.

Everything about Mister Rogers was as warm and magical as his show was. He knew how to communicate effectively with children and adults because he did it without bluster, ego, machismo, or any of the other qualities that seem to define many celebrities today. He did it with kindness and love as pure as the driven snow. He emanated goodness. He was a strong enough man to allow himself to be soft. That’s why this tough congressman loved him and didn’t feel embarrassed to tell him he gave him “goose bumps.” Most men are desperate to stop being so damn strong all the time. Mr. Rogers spoke to children in a way they understood, and he spoke to the child in all of us world-weary adults, too. I wonder what he would say about the condition of childhood in America today if he were still alive.

What do you do with the mad that you feel?
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong
and nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag
or see how fast you can go?
It’s great to be able to stop
when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong
and be able to do something else instead
and think this song . . .
I can stop when I want to.
I can stop when I wish.
I can stop stop stop anytime.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
and know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
that helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a lady
and a boy can be someday a man.

For the Children

Like everyone else in America, I’ve been thoroughly disgusted and saddened by the couple who starved, tortured and abused their thirteen children for over a decade. I won’t mention their names because I think anyone who commits such atrocities should not be awarded fame, however twisted, after they’re caught. They even smiled at each other in court yesterday when the judge told them they couldn’t talk to their children for three years. Thankfully, it looks like they’ll spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison.

As a parent of two daughters, it’s unfathomable to me how not only one but two parents can do the things they did. I feel guilty when I raise my voice to my girls even a little.

When my first daughter was born six years ago, I wrote and sang 15 songs on a CD in her honor called Great Big World. Of course, the songs apply to both my girls now. I’m working on a second CD for both of them.

One of the tracks is below. I hope it provides a little therapy to anyone as troubled as I am by all the child abuse stories we hear about these days. I know I need regular therapy, and it usually comes in the form of music.

This song is also for all the children unfortunate enough to be born to parents who don’t appreciate the miraculous blessings that they are.

The Lost Country

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I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

My Girls

They bring out the best in me. They sharpen my focus. They motivate me to pass the point where I stopped before. I want them to be proud of me and the work I do, but they are the reason for all of it. And if I were to fail as a parent, nothing else I ever accomplish would matter much.

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Holocaust

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The white dove again lies maimed and bleeding.
Statistics, cold and hard to fathom,
tally the losses of one more day.
Horror and heartbreak between weather and sports.

But I don’t cry anymore
when the newsman tells his tales
of death and destruction.
In some worlds, death can be a blessing.

I don’t cry anymore when I learn
that another child has been slaughtered
because I know my tears would be useless
and tainted with hypocrisy.

I don’t cry because I know
that the murders I hear about
night after night
from the warmth and safety of my living room
are only the final, minor deaths.
Deaths of the flesh.
The true carnage took place long ago
when their young spirits were abandoned
to wither and fade
like unattended gardens in a desolate place
where beauty is buried too deeply to be touched,
where innocence is choked and pounded
until every trace of sweetness is gone, forever;
where the angel of mercy,
helplessly fleeing the bloody scene,
stumbles, shattering her delicate face
on the asphalt, unnoticed,
and the pastel dreams of childhood
swirl and die
in the hot dust
of the ghetto sidewalk.