Sunday, March 25, 2012

Swanning Around

I have no memory of ever seeing a real live swan when I was growing up. Swans existed only in books and music. And they were always something out of the ordinary in those books and music. In fact, swans were so out of the main stream for me that I didn’t even understand the significance of “The Ugly Duckling” when I first heard it. I don’t know who was reading it to me, but she must have had dim hopes for my intellectual development when she came to the end of the story with the words, “He looked at his reflection in the pond and saw that he was… A SWAN.” I sat there dumb, uncomprehending and unmoved. She had to show me the pictures of how cute the little ducklings were and how dull the little protagonist of the story, until the last page, when he was now a glorious specimen, glowing brilliant white with elegant curves and clearly far superior to all the brown ducks paddling about in the pond.

Later on I read the story of Leda and the Swan. Now the swan was not only gorgeous but also powerful and liked to get his own way (to put it politely). This myth gave a whole new meaning to “swanning around.” About the same time, “Swan Lake” introduced me to female swans. While they may not have been powerful, they had come into being through magic. So I got to my 20th year with only myth and magic associated with swans.

The summer before my senior year in college I went to England for the first time as part of a summer program geared to English majors and hosted by Trinity College, Oxford. I saw live swans for the first time. I might as well have been seeing unicorns; swans still seemed that unreal. Of course there would be swans and unicorns in England, which was (and, if I am honest, still is) the magic kingdom for me. Kings and queens. Castles and moats. Sherwood Forest. They’re all there! As for swans, in England they are royal in addition to being magical. The Queen annually counts her swans at the July Swan Upping ceremony. Twelve years later, when Jon and I did our first trip to England together, we stayed at the Swan Inn in Bibury, in the heart of the Cotswolds. At the Swan Inn, which is right at the junction of the B4425 and the county lane going up to Ablington Grove, we could look out our window to see swans gliding around in the River Coln. But that wasn’t real either, because we had clearly been dropped into a Constable painting, or a postcard, the long, low dwellings dripping with honey, the green swards the color of smoky emeralds. Soon we were back at Heathrow, heading home. (Note: There is nothing magical about the mess at Heathrow.)

Then…last year we had a stroke of good fortune, and we purchased a small cottage on Cape Cod, our vacation destination on and off for 30+ years. The cottage is on a narrow dirt lane that runs between two ponds before dead-ending into a summer camp for city kids.  The first weekend that we owned the cottage I walked down to the nearer pond with one of our new neighbors and—there they were. A family of swans just meandering about the pond. Our pond! Our swans! I was dumbstruck and stared and stared at the magnificent mother and father, with their trail of “ugly ducklings” close behind, gliding next to the shoreline, heading our way. I didn’t even need binoculars!

We’ve now been going up to the cottage for nearly a year and I’ve learned that there are swans all over the place on Cape Cod. How I missed that for the previous 30 years, I do not know. If you Google “swans, Cape Cod,” you get 2.8 million search results. I am not kidding. Just within a 6-mile radius of our cottage we came upon Swan Lake and Swan River. There is even a Swan Inn. In its February 24 issue, "The Cape Codder" ran a front-page photo of two grown swans literally necking, looking silly, while their nearly grown cygnet stood behind them, looking embarrassed. (Typical teenager.) And I have learned that swans can be a royal pain in the neck, especially if you are trying to take a swim and they think you’ve gotten a little too close to their territory.

Nevertheless, when I walk down to our pond’s overgrown landing early in the morning and the mist is still rising and all is quiet and I see gliding along the far shore “our” swans – they are still magical to me.

Swans, at summer's end...

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I had a good piano lesson on Monday.

Yes, a piano lesson. I have been playing the piano since kindergarten, when I would pick out nursery tunes by ear. One of my most vivid kindergarten memories—next to the time I ate the crayoned cut-outs of fruit that we made—was the day a very large blind man came to our classroom and played “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I am not being politically correct when I say that his size was inconsequential. What awed me was that he sat there at the old upright piano in the basement of the small Methodist Church with his tawny dog sitting next to him and he played big chords without mistakes and he couldn’t even see the keyboard.

I started piano lessons in 1st grade with Miss Leighty. Not only had she taught my older brother, she had also taught my father. (My grandmother liked to say that “the Taylors put Alma Leighty on the map.” I don’t know what map that was.) I took piano lessons with Miss Leighty for nine years, up until I went away to school. Every year was a roller coaster for Miss Leighty and me. I hated to practice, and week after week Miss Leighty graciously hid her disappointment about what I had not accomplished. Then Spring would come, bringing the annual certifications by some national musicians’ organization followed closely by her pupils’ recitals. Would I get through them? The certifications involved proving that I had mastered the appropriate levels of technique, arpeggios and the like. The recitals meant performing a piece of music.

A harbinger of term papers to come, at the last minute I would work like mad and pull off an A-/B+ production. Good enough for the little pins the certification organization awarded (tiny gold-plated pianos I still have in an old jewelry box) and the applause from the parents gathered in Miss Leighty’s living room. Of those recitals I can recall only one piece, the last one: Carl Sinding’s “Rustle of Spring.” Much more clear is the reward after each recital: We (my father, mother, little sister and I; my two older brothers were excused from attending the recital) would go to Seward’s Drugstore on the way home and I could order a chocolate soda.

And then I was the one with children. It must be the curse of parents that they perpetrate upon their children the very things that they themselves had dreaded as children. We insisted that both Jay and Annie take some kind of music lesson. After a disastrous try at piano, Jay took up guitar lessons. Annie took up piano lessons. After several false starts for Annie with less than satisfactory teachers, we found Miss Priscilla. Annie settled in contentedly—practicing only 24 hours before each lesson. Like mother, like daughter.

Annie at 11, looking pleased
Of course, there were recitals. How to reward the effort of recitals became a question. Stopping at a drugstore for chocolate sodas wasn’t going to work. For one thing, you can’t get a chocolate soda at a drugstore anymore. Not to mention that anyone can get a metallic-tasting chocolate soda anytime at a fast-food emporium—an opportunity that (blessedly) did not exist in 1960’s Hollidaysburg, PA.  So I watched. For Annie, I saw parents bringing bouquets. And that’s what I did. I’d sneak away the morning of the recital to buy a lovely bunch of flowers, which we would hide in the car. Once at the recital location we’d get Annie situated, then I’d again sneak out to the car to collect the flowers to present at the end of the program. She always seemed pleased.

For Jay it was a different story. He was learning electric guitar that, in sharp contrast to his sister and mother, he practiced diligently. His teacher was in a band. Recitals featured “Sweet Home, Alabama.” He was a boy. We went through a couple recitals when the reward was that he could pick what we ate for dinner. I finally did hit on an equivalent of flowers. For his last two recitals, I wrapped up a family-sized bag of Doritos Nacho Cheese chips (Jay’s favorite) and presented them like a bouquet at the end of the recitals.

Now for the past three or four years I have been taking piano lessons from Annie’s teacher, Miss Priscilla. My lessons are every two weeks, and I am doing much better than when I was a kid: I actually practice three or four times between lessons. I recently nailed Chopin’s Prelude in B minor (Opus 28, No. 6). I grinned like a maniac when Miss Priscilla praised me, and I almost said, “I could do this one for the recital!”

There aren’t any recitals for 59-year-old piano students. But that’s okay, I guess. Anyway, where would Jon take me to get a chocolate soda?

Mendelssohn's next...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Unmovable Objects

Not long ago an envelope appeared in our mailbox from a realtor. It was addressed by hand—really by hand, not “by hand” by a machine. The writer identified herself as a local agent working with clients in search of a “special home” in our neighborhood. She designated the preferred streets and noted the desired square footage, the hoped for excellent condition, “nice back yard and unique character.” Gosh. What a coincidence! Their “special home” description sounded just like our house! (Especially the part where she allowed that if the house had “unique character” but wasn’t in excellent condition the clients would feel comfortable making moderate updates.) 

I recognized this maneuver, as years ago my sister-in-law wrangled her dream house by going straight to the owners, who initially had had no thought of selling. (My brother and his wife have now been living in that house for over 25 years.) I confess that I was flattered that someone might want our house that much; it confirmed that I was an excellent judge of houses! Moreover, it was heartening, in this vale of depressed housing prices after having purchased our house at the peak of the market in 2005, to see the proposed price range. The offer would be very attractive-- if we had any interest in selling.
But we don’t have any interest in selling. More accurately, we don’t have any interest in moving. At least, I don’t. The last time we moved it almost did me in. And I thought we had been so organized. I had even contracted with a “moving manager,” someone who specialized primarily in helping “older folks" downsize from their rambling piles in Chestnut Hill into their new cottages in Main Line retirement communities. Our situation wasn’t quite like that, of course, but I gauged that I was going to feel the same trauma level. She sent her minions to help us pack up 225 cartons of books and unnumbered boxes of our mix-and-match glassware and the various sets of Wedgewood and Lenox handed down to us from various branches of our families. Everything she scheduled went off as planned. But I made a significant tactical error: I left too many odds and ends behind to deal with after the main move. We didn’t have a deadline to get out of the old house, so I thought, “Why push it if we don’t have to?”
Well, you push it so that everything gets done in the old house at the same time that you are ready to settle in and recuperate from the move in your new house. So there we were, one toe still in our former home, with kitchen drawers filled with rubber bands and paper clips, shoeboxes full of loose photos, clothes trees with two out of three legs toppled onto empty bedroom floors, and more. All in a house of dust once hidden but now painfully apparent and inducing sneezes and itchy eyes.  For four long weeks after our move, every day, after work and on the weekends, we went back and forth between the houses, loading things out of the old place into the back of the Jeep and hauling them over to the new place. Finally, in a fit of desperate exhaustion, we rented a dumpster and just started throwing things away. We swore we had learned our lesson about stuff.
We have now been in our current house 6½ years. The 225 cartons of books are still in the garage, and down in the basement we have box after box of old vinyl records, Annie’s artwork from lower school, files of W-2’s going back to Jon’s and my college years. A fine film of dust covers gym bags containing Jay’s lacrosse gear from upper school, which he last used in 2003. Under the ping-pong table is a duffel with roller blades and kneepads purchased for a 2001 trip to Key West. (Neither ever came in contact with asphalt—in Florida or elsewhere.) Against a crumbling wall lean towers of stereo equipment so old that the components are a turntable, tape deck, and tuner. A T8200 Vision Fitness treadmill, purchased in 1999 and broken since 2009, blocks the way to the old bureau whose drawers house VCR tapes of Disney movies. There’s no way we could move with all that stuff down there.
Scary stuff
Last fall we were visiting with my brother and his wife when, over drinks, she turned to him and wailed, “Don’t you dare die before I do! I couldn’t possibly clean out the basement by myself!”

I know just how she feels.