The First Lesson

She stands, quietly, trying to keep attention. But her eyes keep darting away. The Christmas Tree still stands, in all its glory, and there are ornaments yet to be discovered.The manger scene on the nearby table is another distraction: “We have one just like that at home,” she informs the woman trying so patiently, gently, to give her instruction.

Well, yes, I think. Apart from the fact that the one at home is made by Fisher-Price, apart from the fact that Mary, Joseph, and company are interchangeable with other Little People figurines in other Little People sets, and apart from the fact that Wonder Woman and Santa Claus frequently takes their places alongside the three kings and the shepherd boy, we do have one just like that at home.

But we are not here to discuss manger scenes. We are here to see if she’s ready to begin lessons on the violin. The gift she asked for last summer, the gift she forgot she asked for, the gift she fell in love with all over again on Christmas morning.

Her attention, as it is prone to do, fades in and out. I can see so much of myself in her: she is easily distracted by her new surroundings. As with so many past pursuits, she is reluctant to receive instruction, eager to just dive in; she thinks she already knows what she’s doing. As the teacher tries showing her, simply, the proper way to hold the violin to her chin, her hands are already moving down the neck, feeling the strings. As she tries gently to place Nora’s fingers around the bow, to simply hold it, Nora wants to draw it across the strings. The impatience is achingly familiar.

I hope she’s more like her mother than like me, I think. I hope she enjoys this. I hope she wants to learn.

The teacher pauses with the hands-on instruction, addresses her directly, with rapid-fire questions: “You have to practice every day. Are you willing to do that? Playing the violin is hard work. Will you work hard?”

With every question, her head nods. “Uh-huh… M-hmmm… Yes… Yeah… I will.”

I wonder.

Mrs. Brown’s hands were always cold. I remember that. It was a Wednesday afternoon, which meant we were seated at her piano, which stood at the top of the stairway just inside front door to their split-level home. As always, she was trying to give me instruction. As usual, I thought I already knew how to do it.

I’d been taking lessons from her for at least a year. The music book was open to the Marine Corps Hymn. I knew this song, and so I began to play. Not three bars in, she would stop me, and attempt to explain what I was doing incorrectly. I am very sure Mrs. Brown saw the same faint attention, and heard the same half-whispered “yes, yes, uh-huh” that I see and hear from Nora now.

It would be years before I understood what Mrs. Brown was trying to explain: I was playing the song in the wrong key. I was playing the Marine Corps Hymn, I just wasn’t playing the notes that were on the page in front of me. I never understood that at the time, never understood why it sounded right if it was wrong. I remember frustration — or perhaps it was desperation — in Mrs. Brown’s voice as she tried to hold my attention and explain the difference to me. It was, for her, a losing battle. My attention was already on the clock. The little hand was nearly to the six. Almost 4:30. Mom would be there any minute to pick me up. I’m not sure I heard a single word Mrs. Brown said, but I’m sure I nodded my head at all the appropriate times. I’m sure I told her I understood and would practice harder.

I think we both knew I was lying.

I don’t know if that was the very last lesson I had with Mrs. Brown, but I know it was among the last.

We walk to the car, and begin to drive away. I ask Nora all the same questions the teacher just asked her.

“I’m ready,” she tells me. And I’m sure she believes she is.

I think we’ll wait a year.

Teaching my children to swear

They caught and drowned the front man

Of the world’s worst rock and roll band.

He was out of luck

Because nobody gave a…

…My hand aimlessly fumbles for the iPhone in the center console. The iPhone that automatically connected to the car’s Bluetooth Audio system and began playing. On shuffle.

From the 1,571 songs available, it selected track number four from the 1995 album “Vee Vee”, by my favorite band of the 90’s, Archers of Loaf.

Despite the literally hundreds (thousands?) of times I have sung along with this song, the impending profanity does not register in my brain until it is too late. As Eric Bachman sings the inevitable F-bomb, I finally screech to a stop sign and find the right button to stop the song (having completely forgotten about the volume control on the steering wheel). Too late. The last thing anyone in the car hears is that word, clear as crystal. An eerie silence follows. A silence finally broken by Nora’s voice in the back:

“We sing that song at circle time at school.”

Rather than ask for further details about the musical program at Nora’s school, I toggle forward to the next album on the player, and drive off.

Nora turned four a little more than six weeks ago. To my knowledge, she has said a swear word twice. Goddammit and Shit. She learned the former from me, the latter from her Pop-Pop. Since those occasions, both around two years ago, Carolyn and I have engaged in an unspoken contest: neither of us wants to be the one to teach her the dreaded “F” word. It was losing this competition that frightened me most about this morning’s incident in the car. Then again, perhaps she’s been singing that word at circle time without my knowledge…

Swearing has a rich history in my family. My mother used the word “shit” like most people drink water. I say “used” because she gave up use of that word when my brother Paul, all of two years old, casually dropped that word (in a completely textual fashion) in front of grandparents and friends at a family function of some sort. This was before I was born, but remains one of my Dad’s favorite family stories.

Left without parental guidance in the art of swearing, I was left to learn from my brothers and their friends. Following Geoff as he mowed the lawn with an old electric mower, watching him fight with the hopelessly tangled extension cord, provided a rich education. Further lessons were imparted from Paul and his friends. There seemingly wasn’t a word Jay and (especially) Charlie didn’t know. And no occasion was inappropriate, no offense too minor, no frustration too inconsequential to let fly. The more creative, the better.

With all the newfound linguistic skills, the challenge became not getting caught. Of course, I did get caught a few times, and the fear of punishment was always worse than the punishment itself. On one occasion, a simple “I heard that” from my mother sent waves of panic through me. And while no formal punishment ever came, the glare she fixed me with when I turned to face her sent me quietly skulking off in search of a safer environment.

With the shoe now firmly on the other foot, I find myself engaged in a battle against myself to ensure that Nora’s number of swear words remains at two for as long as possible. “Goddammit” has been replaced with “Dagnabbit” in my personal vernacular. Other favorite oaths have simply been phased out. There are still slip ups, of course. One does not, after all, shed a 38 year habit without occasional lapses (my Mother will attest). But Nora either hasn’t heard, or has some intuitive, inborn knowledge that those words aren’t for her.

Back in the present day, the very next album on the player happens to be the Very Best of Willie Nelson. I am comfortable with the selection. Willie may sing of heartbroken despair, mercenary cowboys, and drunken carousing and womanizing, but at least he will not curse in front of my children. I appreciate him for that.