Piano Kiss

Copy­right 2008, Ben S. Pollock

Unex­pect the Expected

Liv­ing up to your poten­tial means fail­ure if you drop out early. There have been moments, or a lit­tle longer, maybe moments and a half, in the last two weeks where I pon­der, “I almost died,” which moves to, “I almost got crazy bad hurt. Now what?”

Peo­ple keep ask­ing, or half-stating, “You must have been scared.” Yet it seems a war-movie cliche to reply, “I didn’t have time to be scared,” even if it’s God’s truth.

I am head­ing to work for the 5 p.m to 1 a.m. proof­read­ing shift so I am well-rested despite the set­ting late-fall sun. Because I am not late, for a change, I am not speed­ing. Still I am alert and wary. It is North­west Arkansas after all, with both goobers and big-city trans­plants on the area’s only free­way. Rush hour on the basic four-lane inter­state is revving up. Being ready for any­thing means for the usual sur­prises. They aren’t sur­pris­ing, then. You can’t expect what you don’t expect, out­side of lots of prac­tice at good dri­ving in var­i­ous situations.

The dark sedan in front of me sud­denly swerves then straight­ens. The lone, large, rolling-and-bouncing truck tire moves fast toward my 1995 white Geo Prizm four-door directly but at a lit­tle angle. The wheel broke off from a wrecker trav­el­ing the other way then bounced across the median. I have to cut my turn quicker, harder. But the follow-up twist of the steer­ing wheel to the right to straighten into the left lane only makes the Prizm fish­tail on a dry road at dusk.

I think that if this was wet or icy I would switch, turn back left “into the turn,” like you’re taught in driver’s ed. There was no time. I see: the inside shoul­der, the wide grassy median and oncom­ing cars past that. Means my car spun 360 degrees.

I think: I’m head­ing into the ravine-carved median where I might roll over and if I don’t roll then I’m head­ing into all those cars and die.

Thunk. Pop. Whoosh.

Guardrail. Airbags. Smoke. The car’s front hit a rail I had not seen, stop­ping the spin or any other motion; the claims adjuster will call it totaled. It’s hard to breathe, and stinks — pow­dery gas from the now-deflated airbags plus steam from radi­a­tor fluid splash­ing onto the engine. My door doesn’t want to open but I push harder and squeeze out. As I do so, I grab my satchel, turn off the igni­tion and pocket my keys (though I go back later for the keys, hav­ing for­got­ten). I push eject on the CD player to get disc 2 of the Richard Price audio book whose case is in my bag; I remem­ber think­ing that I don’t want the library to charge me.

More Than Most

When Fort Smith’s vis­it­ing rabbi — the con­gre­ga­tion was too small for a full-time one — whis­pered his Con­fir­ma­tion bless­ing toward the end of the cer­e­mony on Shavuot (start of sum­mer) when I was 16, I felt hon­ored with the praise. Ever since, though, Sol Kaplan’s advice has haunted me. With one chubby warm hand on each of my shoul­ders, the rabbi told me that I had tremen­dous poten­tial, more than most, and that I should find that poten­tial and use it well.

Some­day I’ll ask my co-confirmand Jill what he told her. He might have said the same to her, to each year’s crop of teens. Still, our stand­ing before the Holy Ark, wit­nessed by the con­gre­ga­tion, and our mutual fond­ness, I felt this was a sacred and unique vow I for­ever was bound to keep.

I don’t know if my wreck on Dec. 4 was a near-death expe­ri­ence. All the alter­na­tives that could have hap­pened –besides my walk­ing away with airbag bruises that showed up imme­di­ately and whiplash that took a few days to appear — seem clear: Either my car straight­ened out (next car will have ABS brakes) and I drove on, or I met up with the Big D. Short of that I real­is­ti­cally could have suf­fered injuries all the way up to per­sis­tent veg­e­ta­tive coma, which you can perk up with a lit­tle but­ter and lemon juice.

Now, the bruises’ color is mostly gone. A follow-up visit with a neu­ro­sur­geon two days ago con­firms that the wreck had no impact on an old neck ver­te­bra frac­ture, whose dis­cov­ery in ER X-rays and CT scan two weeks ago was a sur­prise and a mys­tery, as doc­tors never men­tioned it after the few sim­i­lar trau­mas I’ve suf­fered, then had X-rayed. A phys­i­cal ther­a­pist is to train me in neck strength­en­ing exer­cises, and I’m back to where I was, wher­ever that is.

Dec. 4 was as close to death as I think as I have come, and I do feel that shock. My writer’s reflex is to become reflec­tive. If I leave now, have I used my earthly jour­ney well?

A counter-image appears: Surely my life has had many moments that resem­ble some goofy 1920s silent movie where Buster or Harold walk along a city side­walk and a piano drops from an upper-story win­dow, where he just passed. The come­dian turns, shrugs, moves on.

We all drive past the occa­sional wreck. This then is the best rea­son for pro­cras­ti­na­tion. Not just that some drive was slowed due to traf­fic tie-ups around an acci­dent scene, but if I started the trip 10 min­utes ear­lier, it might have been me in the pile-up. Bet­ter late than never.

Schmucket List

My Beloved finally rented a DVD of The Bucket List a cou­ple of months ago. It’s the pop­u­lar but crit­i­cally panned Mor­gan Freeman-Jack Nichol­son vehi­cle, where wealthy Jack and working-class Mor­gan “meet cute” in a hos­pi­tal can­cer wing. What have they always wanted to do before dying? That agenda — mak­ing this a road movie — the screen­play calls a Bucket List, as in Kick The -. The flick enter­tained me, but I like ‘em either deep or shal­low, not in between.

I am to my con­tin­u­ing sur­prise mid­dle aged, and in the first days after the inter­state twirl I won­der — and am asked — about my list, whether I want to race hot cars, jump from planes and climb Himalayan moun­tains. While I can see hang-gliding and return trips to Europe and a first visit to NYC — all long­stand­ing day­dreams — if I wake up tomor­row dead or oth­er­wise unable to run off a bluff or board a jet, I can accept miss­ing these.

Car after 12/4/2008 wreck, on 12/7/2008.

Car after 12/4/2008 wreck, on 12/7/2008. That’s me in my foam cer­vi­cal col­lar. Photo by Christy K. Pollock

What I would regret is not doing more with this poten­tial that’s still both uniden­ti­fied and there­fore unuti­lized. Poten­tial loads my pail. I keep buy­ing plas­tic Wal-Mart buck­ets for my out­door pot­ted plants, and every win­ter ice cracks them (I keep them filled because cats and opos­sums pass­ing through drink from them). The few times I come across gal­va­nized steel buck­ets, they’re over­priced, and I walk on. As I stroll by, a piano crashes behind me with a tum­ble of painted hard­wood, wires, and ivory and ebony dyed plas­tic keys. Like the old reels, you can’t hear the thump and jangle.

Peo­ple younger than 40 or so didn’t grow up with poten­tial as a front­let between their eyes. They have been taught self-esteem as moti­va­tor. Effort counts more then the achieve­ment. Every child gets a tro­phy, every par­ent a bumper sticker and every 20-something who com­pletes the assign­ments a diploma. I see bril­liance in younger peo­ple and rage when they fail, proof self-esteem works no worse than potential.

My mom-in-law, a Chris­t­ian, called Thurs­day from Iowa for an update. MB pre­vi­ously had told her about my bucket of poten­tial. So on the phone she told me the wreck’s won­der­ful out­come demon­strates God has a plan for me yet to accom­plish. Does this argue that poten­tial stems from deter­min­ism? What I said, and meant it, was, she may be right, cit­ing my lack of grave injury and the kind and qual­i­fied peo­ple — a fire cap­tain, off-duty EMT — who pulled over to help after the impact.

I’ve thought over these two weeks who do I know who’s tapped their poten­tial. I know a few incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful peo­ple. Surely though they would deny reach­ing that goal. They strive, appar­ently to the end.

The pen­sion­ers among them find new endeav­ors or con­tinue to per­fect long­stand­ing avo­ca­tions: a bet­ter tele­scope for star-gazing, tougher Baroque music to mas­ter. My friend Joe, a retired pro­fes­sor who died ear­lier this year at 89, took com­puter classes at UA almost to the end. At his ser­vice in May, I sat behind the instruc­tor, who wet-eyed and smil­ing told me Joe took the same course over and over, because he for­got parts each time.

There’s two friends a bit younger than me who have pub­lished best-selling books. Both have plans for future projects. We would agree we’re friends but not close — e-mail addresses are book­marked and used a few times a year but nei­ther would rec­og­nize my voice on the phone — and I wouldn’t feel com­fort­able ask­ing how they feel about hit­ting their poten­tial. It’s obvi­ous they see lots of things left to do.

Salary Cel­ery

That rabbi from long ago would not have dared to sug­gest where a 16-year-old’s poten­tial might lay. Sol wouldn’t want to limit me, and he’d know his ora­cle pow­ers were ordi­nary, which is to say nil.

I am not, and never was, on the way to being Albert Schweitzer, Albert Ein­stein or even Albert Gore Jr.

I make marks on paper or pix­els on screens but don’t know how big they have to be to count.

Poten­tial remains beyond the grasp of all who were brain­washed to wor­ship it.

Like the bread crumbs the boy in the for­est should leave behind to find the path back home, I leave a trail of smashed pianos that I can’t see, even when I look for them.

Fif­teen days of whiplash aren’t enough to recal­cu­late my poten­tial, except to shock myself into a check-off sys­tem. With this fort­night, I con­sider each sen­tence I con­ceive, write or speak, and each action: “Is it for­ward?” “Is it a waste or use­ful?” Poten­tially use­ful is allowed. “Does it sap my drive?” Mov­ing toward poten­tial increases energy by and large, though doubt crops in some­times that flags motivation.

In a twist of the cal­en­dar, today is my father’s 23rd yahrzeit, the anniver­sary of his death in 1985. I always pon­der on Dec. 19, and many other days through the year, what he would think of me at this or that point. As time passes I grow less sure what he’d say. Come to think of it, those who rec­og­nized his bril­liance and pitied the small-town busi­ness­man he became would call Dad, in so many words, the poster child of unre­al­ized potential.

Poten­tial though can’t be every­thing. Replac­ing the Prizm with a “green” Prius is noble yet irrel­e­vant to poten­tial. I’ve got­ten damned good at bread bak­ing, but food is such a tran­sient endeavor. Poten­tial implies per­ma­nency; chis­el­ing down a 1 ton block of mar­ble is the only way. A book shows more poten­tial than a mag­a­zine arti­cle than, surely, a blog. Nec­es­sary tasks like not shirk­ing the day job and tooth-brushing rarely play in find­ing and exploit­ing poten­tial. Floss­ing, how­ever, shows I want to keep my teeth for many years, which I will need for my potential.

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