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.

4 thoughts on “Piano Kiss

  1. Ben,

    You’re “best,” and you can’t be better than that. You have achieved at the highest levels of human potential in friendship, integrity and decency.

    For most of us, our mark is not made on the broad public consciousness. The Mozarts are few and far between, but there can be no symphony without the unremarked players in the back chairs.

    So, trust me once again my friend, you have done well by the many of us whose lives you have touched. We couldn’t ask for more from anyone.

    Also, I should like to point out that your missus would not settle for a slacker.

    Best wishes for the coming year.

  2. Ben, when you question your potential, I replace that word with “purpose.” Unlocking potential will continue to the day we die (happily, your number was NOT up that day). But putting into practice our purpose, our gift to the world, might be the mystery you are suddenly trying to unravel.

  3. “The greatest love stories are always measured against the specter of death,” David Fincher, of Benj. Buttons. Your piano kiss with the “Big D.” awakened old memories and fresh actions in you; but you, dear Ben, are a fabulous guy, and your “potential” isn’t nor wasn’t ever lost. It is in fact practiced generously each day. That is your love story to me.
    Much Love, C.

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