Drunken Memories of Fear and Learning on a Piano in Muskoka

My parents used to take me to a place called Cedar Grove Lodge. It’s a resort type place in Muskoka where you stay in your own cabin and go to the dining room for meals. You can ski and skate and play hockey in the winter. You can swim and bike and canoe in the summer. It’s just another tiny slice of heaven in cottage country.

There’s a games room in the basement. It has a pinball machine called Alien Poker, with space monsters huddled around a table gambling. There’s a pool table with games for $1.25 where I learned to play before we moved and bought our own table. We played ping pong and bingo there every winter and a few summers too.

Every night in the dining room Bonnie would serve us. Every night she would greet us like old friends she hadn’t seen in nearly forever. She would laugh at my jokes and make nice conversation with my parents. She would be cool about letting me massage the dessert menu to my tastes, and was generous with double chocolate sundaes.

In the lodge, just outside the dining room, there was a living room area with a big projection TV. There were many movie nights put on there and I remember watching NFL playoff games between the Cowboys and 49ers, and the first game of the lockout-shortened season in 1995 between the Leafs and Canucks. The guests would mingle and joke around. One year there was a man who thought my name was Doug, because my parents call me Dunc all the time. So he called me Douglas. I didn’t have it in me to correct him.

In the room with the couches and the big TV and the guy who called me Douglas, there’s a piano too. And when I was a kid who didn’t care about annoying people I would sit at the piano and acquaint myself with keys and notes. I never took piano lessons. I regret that now because I love music and wish I immersed myself in it. The blissfully ignorant experimentation is something to treasure when looked back upon, though. I would trip and fall and fumble through notes, making a nice chord once in a while, then not being able to replicate it for another several tries. Eventually I might figure out Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and the people in the room would politely applaud, even though I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it again if I left and came back in 10 minutes.

Becoming acquainted with an instrument is a beautiful struggle. Touching and hearing and timing and learning is all happening at once and there’s no hiding what you do. There’s no faking it when you learn in front of people. I think that’s a level of vulnerability, a level of fearlessness that only kids can truly operate within. No one will be so annoyed with the child that they’ll tell them to fuck off, least of all in front of the kid’s parents. Most people, even if they’re not engaged and enjoying it (understandably so), will tough it out and maybe before all’s said and done, something pretty good will come out of that time at the end.

That kind of understanding – that kind of latitude is almost never afforded to anyone so much as approaching adulthood. Stereotypes and anchored concepts bleed in when you reach a certain age. People start thinking you’re entitled, or too old for this or that, or wasting time, or just plain shitty. There is a line, at one impossibly fine and seemingly invisible, where publicly learning a skill goes from tolerable, albeit perhaps begrudging, and completely unbecoming.

No one wants to watch someone struggle, even though it’s what we all relate to. We want to watch someone who’s already figured out all the notes, and see them excel, making the journey to that moment disappear. Magic tricks that erase the work are my favourite, because it makes me think I can do something spectacular in the next moment, with nothing but shitty old me. A lot of people like that idea. A lot of people love to see that trick again, and again, and again.

Every so often, I mess around on Garage Band. I imagine this is pretty common, because Garage Band exists, after all. I only ever play piano. Sometimes, through the clumsy crashing of keys and chords, I mindlessly produce some nice sounding tunes, and I think, shit…I should have recorded that. Then I remember to record the next time, and nothing comes together like when I’m in the moment. So it goes. I don’t know if I’d have the same enthusiasm for messing around with notes, or any unfamiliar skill in a public space, though. That’s shitty, because there’s lots of stuff I’d love to learn, like kickboxing, that requires an audience, even one that’s passive. It’s not so much fear of judgment, but the concept of impropriety that comes with doing that as an adult that dissuades me. I think a lot of people must feel that about pursuits they never begin. I’d like to dip into what made me sit down at that piano in Muskoka, get to know it, and just try.


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