About six months ago, I was running on the treadmill listening to Thelonious Monk, and I was suddenly overcome by one of the profoundest revelations of my lifetime to date. It wasn’t about the existence of God, the meaning of life and death, or about love. It was much simpler yet just as significant. Here it is:
I should have been a pianist.
I am moved by the piano, mainly jazz piano, and preferably the piano trio format. I work best when typing to piano music. I pretend that it is me, not Herbie, not Wynton, not the Duke, but me thinking with my fingers. I think that is what I love the most about the piano – how the pianist thinks with her fingers.
In January, I had a similar epiphany. This time it occurred in Paris. I was there for my friend Waya’s birthday. I was walking through the streets, looking at people and not understanding a word. I would sit in a café, act uninterested, nod my head, and grunt “wua” every now and then. This let me get away with not knowing more than two words of French. (If you do need to know, let me say that I do have a hidden fantasy about running through the streets of Paris yelling out stereotypical French phrases in the voice of Sammy Davis Jr.). Anyways, back to the revelation. I realized that the difference between me just being me and me being really, really cool was the ability to speak French. I spent most of the day imaging how really cool I would be if I could speak French. I would become incredibly stand-offish, arrogant, and short-tempered, and I would be speaking French. Then that evening at Waya’s birthday, her brother, William, surprised her with a Jazz band. They were great and the entire party was a total success. But, I was distraught. I recognized that even if I were to learn French, I would still be one step away from achieving actual coolness. French wouldn’t be enough (I know plenty of French speakers who are definitely not cool). I would still have to learn to play an instrument in a Jazz band, preferably the piano. French is cool, but speaking French and playing Jazz is real cool.
About the same time I had my Thelonious Monk/treadmill episode, I also began to think a lot about clouds, and specifically about the fact that I knew almost nothing about them. I don’t remember their exact titles and can’t tell how a particular cloud formation is going to predict upcoming weather. In other words, I really can’t have an interesting conversation about clouds, at least not a cocktail party or to impress a girl. Now I know this is very cliché, but when I was a kid, probably around 5 years old, I enjoyed rolling down the grassy hill in front of my family’s house and then looking up at the clouds. As a matter of fact, I liked this so much that I made my parents put in green carpet in my bedroom when we moved. There was something about clouds that was very soothing to me as a child, and I believe that there is a contemplative attractiveness to clouds that draws the attention and stimulates the imagination of all children.
Unlike French which I never studied, I did study clouds and meteorology in Earth Science in 8th Grade (with Mr. Gillespie), and my mother forced me to take piano lessons probably in 2nd or 3rd grade. For various reasons that I don’t need to get into now, I just was not interested at either time to learn about clouds or to study the piano. In general, I consider myself a fairly well adjusted and happy person. Nevertheless, I often find myself typing away at my computer keyboard and knowing that no matter what I write or how fast I type, the music is coming from the speakers and not from my fingers. And as often as I look up at the clouds, I still have no idea what they are called or what they are telling me. French I can live without. I think it is probably more fun to pretend to speak French than to actually speak it. But, clouds and the piano are different.
What really amazed me, though, was that right when I started thinking about my own deficiencies, shortcomings and ignorance when it comes to clouds, I came across Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. And you know what? She’s looked at clouds from both sides, from up and down, and she still didn’t know clouds at all.
I have spent hours staring up at clouds. I have flown up into and through clouds, and I have looked down upon them from high in the sky. I am even pretty sure that if I stepped into a cloud, I would fall right through it. And if I ever embraced a cloud, I would probably be left with nothing in my arms. I have even looked out an airplane window while over the Mediterranean and without a single cloud to put the world into perspective, I was incapable of distinguishing the sky from the sea. So, Joni, don’t worry, I know nothing about clouds either. At least with a piano, I could probably make a lot of noise, if not music. But, I won’t let my ignorance bother me. I am not ready to give up on clouds all together. At least not yet.