Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gratitude (or how the karma fairy spanked me twice)

I thought I was doing pretty well expressing my gratitude in November. I posted daily status updates to Facebook detailing the things I appreciate most: warm blankets, the library (where fines are only ten cents), my dog Pippi on her twelfth birthday, friends old and new, and music. In fact, I appreciated various forms of music more than once, because it’s such a big part of my life. I even “liked” my friends’ gratitudinal offerings. I was just that thankful. And then about the middle of the month, the ever-vigilant Karma Fairy noticed the itchy hubris in my constant demonstrations of gratitude and zipped merrily over from where she plays among the cowslips and marigolds just to spank me with her sexy pink wand.

It was week ten, the last week of fall quarter. Many of my students had decided now was the time to pass college composition, so I had stacks of revisions begging for my comments. I made it through the entire quarter without getting sick only to suffer an allergy attack from something I inhaled at the dog groomer. And, no, that wasn’t enough. I found out sometime into the week that somebody needed to provide music during the offering Sunday morning at church. When the request comes that late, somebody is me.

Normally it’s not that difficult to find something suitable to play, but the service was on Sufism and Rumi, and Indian music is not one of my genres. I played through a dozen or more possibilities before I found something that wouldn‘t clash heinously with the rest of the service. If I played a sitar the choice would have been so much easier, but I didn’t have time to learn a new instrument and a new piece of music. Of the instruments I do play, the piano is my first love, but I don‘t play often these days. The guitar is so much more portable and social. And playing the piano for a quiet, captive congregation requires more practice than backing someone up on guitar. Strumming three or four chords in a repetitive pattern isn’t a precise art; add in a couple of voices, maybe a bass, and a few mistakes won’t even register on the average listener. Playing a Baldwin concert grand in a room that’s silent except for the rustle of bills and checks being placed in offering plates leaves no room for mistakes. Every note counts. I would have to practice a lot to be ready by Sunday morning.

And so I started to feel a little put out, a little taken advantage of. Enough so that I sent a whiny, snarky email to another musician friend that said “Why do people think I can pull music out of my ass? If I could fart Mozart don’t you think I’d be playing for bigger audiences?” I’m not proud that I wanted him to think I was clever and sarcastic and a fine musical savior, which he did. Validation is so vital to petty displays of self-importance, don’t you think?

Along with his sympathy, he also sent me a link to an article about Joseph Pujol, who actually could fart music. I’m not sure if he already knew about Pujol, whose stage name was Le P├ętomane, or if he googled “fart Mozart” and found this wonder of all wonders in Wikipedia. I didn’t ask. Let’s just say it let some of the air out of my self-importance to find out somebody really could fart Mozart…and I can’t.

I chose music from one of my daughter’s late intermediate piano solo books, so it wasn’t Chopin or Mozart, but still it’s a lovely piece of music. I knew I could make it sound just fine by exaggerating the dynamics: dramatizing the ritards, speeding up the arpeggios at the crescendos, doing some bob and weave theatrics as I played. Nevertheless, it would take all of the four days I had to get it ready.

And so when I wasn’t at school teaching and conferencing with students, I was at home following my new week-ten routine: I’d read and comment on a couple of papers, blow my nose, play the piano, blow my nose, and then go back to reading and commenting on papers. Read, blow, play, blow, read, blow, play…. By late Saturday night, I was a day away from having the song memorized, which was better than good enough. In other words, I practiced more than I really need to. Sunday morning I went in half an hour early to warm up on the church piano, to get a feel for the action, which is significantly different from my piano.

Halfway through the service, the worship leader said, “We will now receive the offering in grateful appreciation…” (redundant I know, but you can’t overdo the gratitude, as I’m about to show), and I slid onto the piano bench, placing my hands lightly on the keys. I leaned forward slightly and flexed my wrists, preparing to lift and then bring my fingers down on the first arpeggio. I took a deep breath and as I looked up at my music, noticed Dan reaching for his guitar. I paused. He lifted his guitar onto his lap and introduced the song he was going to sing…during the offering.

The entire congregation was watching and listening to him, so I’m sure nobody noticed that quick twinkle as the Karma Fairy flew into the sanctuary and planted her sparkling little wand on the very part of my anatomy I had so elegantly threatened to pull music from. Ouch! I tried to swat her but she was too quick, so I slipped off the bench and returned to my seat to enjoy the rest of the service.

But I couldn’t help thinking how very ungrateful I’d been for the opportunity, during a particularly stressful week, to do something I love and rarely get a chance to do. After all the times I’ve bitched about not getting enough time to play the piano, there I was complaining that I had to play a lovely, soothing piece of music. All I could do at that point was offer Mistress Fairy the other cheek.

In my van on the way home, I thought about all the other times I’ve complained about having to do things that really deserved my gratitude. I’m not talking about being grateful for Pippi as I’m cleaning up a puke stain on the carpet. Or being thankful for dumpsters on wheels as I’m hauling the trash to the curb. This wasn’t an “embrace the suck” situation. Playing the piano doesn’t suck; it’s a privilege and I should face every opportunity to do it with joy. And yet I’m also not talking about being grateful because I’m so lucky to have a piano and the ability to play it, although the argument can be made. My mom suffered a stroke ten years ago at age 62, and she would be grateful to play half as well as she used to. It does her no good for me to practice some kind of vicarious gratitude for the pleasure she’s lost though.

No, I’m talking about those times when I complain (and please tell me you do this too) about having to do something I really like to do. Like exercise. I really do like to exercise. Years ago when I played basketball, I liked the practice every bit as much as the games. I like the feeling of muscles working; I even like the sweat and the soreness the next day. It makes me feel like I'm going somewhere...and leaving something behind. And yet, I not only complain about doing it, I actually avoid it—to my detriment.

And then there’s writing. I love to write, but I hate to write at the same time. I spent my entire stint in graduate school bitching about the papers I had to write. And yet, an assignment for a seven-page paper inevitably elicited from me a 28-page paper. My professors were the ones who should have been complaining (and probably did). I love writing so much, I can be compulsive about it. I sleep with a legal pad on the bed next to me in case I want to write something down after I’ve turned off the light. Often my muse—more about her later—visits me just as I’m about to fall asleep and I wake up long enough to write down some notes. And sometimes I just get up and give in to it. Yet, you wouldn’t believe how much I complain about having to face that blank page—so much so that I was an utter NaNoWriMo failure this year. As if my track record with this blog hadn't already blown my cover as a writer.

And sex! C'mon, who hasn't had an "oh, no, not again" moment about sex? And yet, why does a hot, juicy tumble on a soft bed, even at the end of a long, trying day...especially at the end of a long, trying day!...cause an Excedrin moment? Is it so much better to watch Desperate Housewives or to play Farmville on Facebook?

Anyway, I promised myself I would be more grateful for the chance and the ability to do those things I love to do, starting with playing music. Or if I didn’t remember to be thankful, at least I would stop complaining about those things. And last week I got a chance to put my commitment to the test. I said I would play the hymns for Sunday’s service so the choir director could have the morning off because she would be playing our big holiday program and carol sing-along that evening. Only three hymns, but one of them was a little tricky and again I had to practice. OK, I’m going to say it because the damage, as you will see, has already been done…I don’t like playing hymns. They’re all block chords played in a marchy tempo with weird passing notes. I find them challenging and not very rewarding to play.

But I tried. I did. I really tried to face those practice sessions with an attitude of gratitude and joy. Yes, I did catch myself sighing and eyeing the Christmas music with longing, wishing I didn’t have to spend my piano time on those hymns, but I always ended the wish with “but I’m not complaining.” I was sure I’d learned my lesson well enough. More hubris, I’m afraid.

Sunday morning I arrived early to warm up. The guest musician, a classical guitar player, was getting a sound check and running through his music. I opened the piano, set my music on the stand, hoped I wouldn’t screw the hymns up too badly (not that I was complaining), sat down on our nice, padded, adjustable piano bench and…you guessed it. The Karma Fairy darted in and stripped one of the screws in the adjustment mechanism so the entire right side collapsed. I caught myself just before I was dumped on my butt, and then I played those three hymns sitting on the phone book on a chair. I didn’t swat at the pixie this time.

Now I don’t really believe there’s a karma fairy circling my head waiting to whop me every time I need a lesson in humility. I’m sure karma, if it exists, has evolved into a more subtle form of punishment and reward. But I do think this is a valuable lesson I need to learn. Some things really do suck, and I’m going to bitch about them as much as I want to. For example, I love and appreciate my dog, but when she pukes on the carpet, I’m not going to clean it up with a joyful heart. I’m going to gag and whine and bathe in self-pity. However, those things I do love--playing music, writing, working out--I plan to greet with a better attitude, even if I don’t get as many points for being a long-suffering, music-farting savior.


  1. I am just delighted the muse woke up. What a great read.

    As far as the hymns on Sunday -- they were played just fine -- I didn't know about the bench until after the service -- but it didn't affect your playing at all.

    Playing hymns was the favorite sight-reading training of one of my piano coaches. She would also make sure they had at least 4 verses between the clefs so it was harder to read. I still hate to play hymns to this day. Plus, I never did play comfortably if the signature was in sharps.

    Dear Reticula -- well, I could make this comment one big "gush" about your value to everyone -- just suffice it to know you are highly valued.

    Oh -- and please keep the muse awake --

    Peace ....

  2. Thanks for a great read, laugh and an opportunity to see humility in action. wonderful.

  3. I think you're a talented writer, a grateful one too.