|Before I was born,
there was a piano in our apartment in the Bronx. On
the fourteenth of June 1943, my father and mother
were working at different jobs in Manhattan. Lou, my
father, telephoned Esther, my mother, to meet him for
lunch. It being the first year anniversary of their
marriage, Esther was convinced he would be surprising
her with a good robe, a hostess robe, for which she
had been arduously hinting. They ate lunch without
him ever mentioning their anniversary and no flat box
was pulled out from under the table. She was
convinced her husband of one year had forgotten.
Later that evening, when she arrived home, there in
the living room of their one-bedroom apartment was an
Otto Altenburg baby grand.
Despite promises, my mother never learned to play it,
but my older sister did. A musical instrument,
particularly the piano, was de rigueur of bourgeois
refinement. I remember her performing pieces from a
yellow book, Schirmer's Sonatina Album. She still
reads music. To this day she occasionally plays on an
electric keyboard in her Berkeley apartment from
Margaret Bradford Boni's Fireside Book of Folk Songs.
Underneath that piano I took refuge from my parents
during one of their clamorous fights.
My older sister crawled under the piano to hold me
and yell at them, "can't you see what you're
doing to him!"
As a child, I wasn't interested in music lessons, but
as a teenager I asked my parents for piano lessons. A
year of piano lessons went badly for me. My teacher,
Mr Jack, had me practicing children's pieces. What
more could I expect since I was a beginner? I was not
prepared to practice those boring pieces ad nauseam,
so I was never very good. Then came the required
once-a-year performance expected of all Mr Jack's
students. It took place in one of the music rooms of
the local high school in front of a gathering of
proud parents. I absolutely did not want to
participate, but Mr Jack insisted it was required.
There was even a correct way to bow that I had to
learn, which was from the waist and very low. I was
forced to it by my parents, who were oblivious to the
affect this would have on me.
A girl, years younger, had remarkable fingers that
pranced effortlessly through a difficult etude by
Chopin. My far simpler performance with clumsy
fingers followed hers. My humiliation was unbearable.
Mortified beyond repair, I quit my piano lessons.
Indeed, I refused to endure the shame of learning any
It didn't mean I didn't love music. While I believed
my thick, short fingers were never intended for
musical instruments, yet music is the ears' ecstasy.
Even this Atheist can't help but wonder if music
isn't proof of God, the only convincing proof. And
like God, music is unimaginable to those who are not
in possession of it. Music cannot be described in any
terms other than itself.
This evening I am thinking about the passion I've
derived from listening to music. For two years I have
been plagued with the onset of tinnitus for which
there is no cure. More recently I have been cursed
with infections in both my ear canals that have
temporarily devastated my hearing - at least my
doctor has assured me it is only temporary to
mitigate my morbid state of mind. I have been
deprived of what comes closest to being God for me.
I had returned to school in the autumn of 1974. I was
going to Ricker College in Houlton, Maine, and there
I became enamored with a very beautiful woman named
Robin. One day she found me in the lounge of the
dormitory playing those stupid pieces Mr Jack had me
learn. Well, I had been practicing them from memory
for a decade and they no longer seemed stupid. I had
the courage to bring feeling to my performance. The
music was simplified versions of Bach and you
certainly cannot go wrong with Johann Sebastian Bach.
Robin, thinking I could read music, ran to her room
and returned with sheets of music for me to play. It
was embarrassing to admit I couldn't read music. She
pressed. Okay, hardly read music. She pressed harder.
So I learned to play Vārvindar Friska, a Swedish
spring song. I would play it and she would sing
along, in Swedish, in her operatic voice. That was as
close as I ever got to her.
It was not the end of my musical career. The summer
before my first marriage I was living with my
parents, who now owned a three-bedroom ranch house in
Levittown, Pennsylvania. The same Otto Altenburg
piano had traveled with them from the Bronx. In the
piano bench I found some of my sister's old sheet
music. So while I waited for Matsui-san, my first
wife, to return from Japan, I learned to play
Beethoven's Für Elise. When she arrive, Matsui-san,
who could play piano spectacularly, helped to correct
all my mistakes. Eventually I memorized the piece. It
never failed to impress at the first performance, but
it soon became a joke among my dearest friends and
the family that came with my second marriage to Ms
Keogh because it was all I could play.
I acquired the piano when I acquired my parents'
house in Levittown. That Otto Altenburg is gone now.
My father, when he was alive, insisted that it
possessed a Steinway harp, which, because of an
imperfection that didn't affect its performance, was
demoted to a second. This was never true. The piano
experts came to give us a quote. They opened a book
and could point to the piano's serial number. It
identified "our" piano and it was never a
Steinway. It wasn't even an Altenburg. Altenburg
bought it on the cheap and welded their name over the
original forgotten name. Also, that imperfection was
a crack. Also, with age and careless moving, a second
and more serious crack had developed, one which the
experts regarded dangerous. The harp was useless and
the piano experts would not buy it. They were willing
to take it for its beautiful fruitwood cabinet. The
price they offered covered the cost of having them
At my New Year's Eve party of 1982, my friendship
with Ms Keogh was expanded to something more,
underneath that piano. We fell asleep with her
wrapped in my arms and when we woke New Year's Day
1983 I was still embracing her. On the seventh of
March 2005 we will have been married eighteen years.