At Any Age

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BY MARE SWALLOW

I have no children.

I am not going to have children.

This fact struck me full force after my grandmother’s debilitating stroke. I got to witness firsthand the after-effects a stroke had on a woman who was once so full of life, and I also got to witness the opposite of my life.

Gram had four children and six grandchildren. Ten people who were always around once she could no longer drive a car, get her own groceries, or make and take her to her now-regular doctor’s appointments.

Those ten people would show up, post-stroke, to her house on weekends to give the in-home health care nurse a break. Aunt Karen would take Gram to speech therapy; an exercise in futility. The same ten would rotate in and out of her hospital bedside once the strokes kept coming. They would whisper in her sterile hospital room when she was sleeping, talking about would she get better and go home? She wouldn’t. She would move to a hospice room, just as sterile, and a tiny bit cheerier. It didn’t matter, because Gram couldn’t tell. Those same ten descendants took turns in and out of the hospice, gazing sadly at the now skeleton-like body with hollow, empty eyes that no longer recognized them. When she died, those ten, myself included, would show up at the funeral, along with many other distant relatives.

I would then realize the major difference between Gram’s life and mine: she had children, who gave her grandchildren. I didn’t, and I wouldn’t, on either count.

I am not close, geographically or emotionally, with any of my relatives. Who will take me to the hospital when I have a stroke, dementia, or Alzheimer’s? I am married, but who’s to say my marriage will last, or that my husband will outlive me? This last question spurred me to look up actuarial tables for the answer. White males in Illinois usually die at age 80. White females, age 85. So I either needed to figure out a game plan of caretakers, or a game plan for my brain.

I chose the brain. Ever since Gram died, I do all I can to insulate myself against aging diseases, as if it’s my hobby. I stopped wearing antiperspirant in 1994 because there were studies linking the aluminum in such products to Alzheimer’s. I switched to deodorant. These studies have been debunked, but it’s still not enough to convince me to rub aluminum into my sweat glands. I attend art museums and concerts regularly — two things I would do anyway, but if you Google either one plus the word “Alzheimer’s” you’ll see there are studies galore touting the benefits of live art for staving off dementia.

Then there was the BBC report that sent me into a panic.

I was 44 years old, sitting in a Whole Foods parking lot, having a famed National Public Radio “driveway moment.” Researchers found that learning and playing music helped ward off aging diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, even if you started later in life.

This news hit me to the core. As soon as I got home, I flung my grocery bags onto the counter, leaving the deli meat to go warm while the ice cream melted. I made a beeline for my laptop and hastily pulled up the Adult Class listings at the Old Town School of Music. This wasn’t my first foray into music lessons. I had attempted musicianship before. It had not gone well.

In fifth grade, we had the option of taking band class. I signed up, eagerly wanting to play French horn. I didn’t even know what a French horn was — I just was obsessed with anything “French.” My mom informed me if I wanted to take up an instrument, it would be either the clarinet or the trumpet in my grandma’s closet, both abandoned there in 1956 by my Aunt Kathy. I chose the trumpet. A close relative of the French horn, I figured. I began Band with the eagerness and willingness all teachers wish to see in their students.

I tried and struggled to learn the notes. Mr. Hoek, our teacher, didn’t teach us how to read music; he merely handed out a dittoed sheet of notes on a staff. I always had to count the lines to tell if I was looking at an “E” or “B” note. I swear I saw a look of “oh, shit,” on his face each time I showed up.

Whenever he heard me playing a bad note (i.e., most of class), he’d stop everyone and say, “Mare, you’re off. This is C.” Then he’d play “C.”

“Do you hear that?” he’d ask.

“Yes,” I would lie.

I couldn’t tell the difference between any notes. After three months, I was frustrated and behind. Band class wasn’t fun, Mr. Hoek was constantly reprimanding me, and I wasn’t learning a thing. It became a weekly exercise in self-esteem reduction. I began conveniently “forgetting” my trumpet every Thursday. Then I just stopped going.

At age 27, I took voice lessons at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. For a year, I studied the basics, learning breathing techniques and how to make singing “effortless.” I came away from the workshop with more knowledge, but still unable to carry a tune. Nevertheless, I signed up for the Performance class the following year. In that class, you worked on a song for six weeks, then sang it before an audience at the student showcase. I chose Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” a song that resonated with me deeply. I was 28, living far away from Chicago, and on my ninth apartment in four years. I missed my hometown desperately. The song opens with:

Home

It’s where I want to be

Pick me up and turn me ’round

I thought by choosing an emotionally meaningful song, that I’d easily sing it with passion and grace. That was not the case. I warbled my way through the lyrics while my classmates — including a folk singer, a singer-songwriter, and a classical guitarist — breezed through their songs, not a hint of tone-deafness on display. On breaks they’d talk about the underappreciated genius of Jonatha Brooke while I sat silently and wondered, “Who’s Jonathan Brook?” I wished I had a friend in class. At the showcase, their songs received applause and cheers. When I sang my Talking Heads song, the room was silent. Thin, polite applause followed.

Seventeen years later, there I was on my laptop, perusing the Old Town School of Music offerings, praying for some kind of “music for idiots” class that would save my brain. And I found it.

Piano Bar 101: Come explore your inner Sinatra with a veteran of the piano bar scene. In this eight-week class, you’ll sing through piano bar standards and find your key. Sing with others in a group or alone. All are welcome! The only prerequisite is fun and willingness to share the mic.

No music to read. A group to sing with and cover up my warbly voice. All I needed was “fun and a willingness to share.” Perfect.

On the first night of class, I arrive on time at 6:30. The classroom makes me smile: the tables are draped with black tablecloths, and a rotating ball shoots red and green lights around the room. A microphone stands next to a keyboard, and twinkling ropes of light circle the floor. It looks like fun!

Our instructor and piano player, Nick, walks in holding a large Dunkin Donuts iced coffee. He is a portly man in his early 60s, with hair so black, lush, and unmoving, it must be a toupee. He wears khaki dress pants with a loose Hawaiian shirt, which he will wear every week. There are no introductions, and he doesn’t ask our names. We receive a one-page bio about Nick, which says he’s had paying music gigs since he was in eighth grade. We stand for a vocal warm-up and sing a few “A-E-I-O-U”s, and after two times through, Nick yells:

“EXAGGERATE your vowels! Like this: Fly-I-I-I-I MEEEEEEEEE TOOOOOOOO TheUhUHHHHHH Mooooooooon! UNDERLINE your vowels on your sheet music!”

and then:

“I don’t want to hear myself talk, I want us to SING! Who’s up?”

Up? Shouldn’t we be discussing music theory, or the best way to sing at a piano bar? Shouldn’t he teach us something first? Apparently, that’s not how this class works. Jackie, a 50-something woman with straw-like orange hair and heavy makeup hands a sheet of music to Nick and steps to the mic. She tells him her key is “C”. Wait, I thought we were supposed to sing in a group? What about all the other voices to cover up mine?

I’m baffled. I don’t know what my key is! And I don’t want to sing alone! I only brought a pen and paper to take notes. I look around the room: Lorna and Sylvia, 50-somethings from the suburbs, also friends of Jackie, are poking at their iPads, pulling up sheet music. Lois, a woman in her 70s, is flipping through a five-inch binder, stuffed full of every song she wants to learn. Katie, a middle-aged woman wearing trendy glasses and a stocking cap, has a folder full of sheet music. I lean over and ask, “Were we supposed to bring songs?”

“Yeah, you have to bring your own music for Nick to play.”

“No one told me that!”

It wasn’t in the class description, and it seems fairly presumptuous on the part of our teacher. How come everyone knew this except me? Turns out everyone except me has taken this class, with Nick, four times before.

And they are comfortable. Jackie, Sylvia, and Lorna bring Barefoot Chardonnay or Beringer White Zinfandel to drink, and will do so every week. I silently dub them “The Cheap Wine Three.” They do not talk to Lois, or Katie, or me. They only talk to each other, and they talk throughout class. It’s annoying. It’s even more annoying when Jackie, who is seated to my left, leans behind my chair to talk to Sylvia, seated to my right. They literally talk behind my back:

“Where’s Marissa? Isn’t Marissa coming?”

“Her family’s visiting. She’s coming next week. Did you go to the recital on Sunday?”

“Yeah, but Janine wasn’t there.”

“Let’s keep the chatter down!” Nick yells. Nick has only one volume: yelling.

When it’s my turn, I timidly step to the mic. I’m racking my brain for some piano song to sing. Then it hits me.

“Do you know ‘Is She Really Going Out with Him’?” I ask Nick.

“By Joe Jackson? Hell yeah! I LOVE that song! I play the SHIT out of that song!” he booms.

Nick plays, sitting bolt upright, his eyes closed in a spasm of concentration and seriousness. Every time there’s a chord change, he bobs his head forward toward the keyboard, as if saying, “Yes, go on with this next part!” I sing, and it isn’t too terrible. Katie tells me I have a beautiful voice. I thank her. I’m sure it’s not true, but I’ll take it.

The second week, I discover everything that was in place last week was a fluke. The tables are not set up, the colorful lights are not spinning around and we do not start on time. Nick is in the room finishing up a private lesson with a student, and he will do so until 6:45. When he finally unlocks the door, he informs us that we must set up the tables and lights because he has to “go move his car.” We’re in a residential neighborhood with no permitted parking, so what he really means is he needs a coffee. Because he returns 15 minutes later with a fresh Starbucks Venti Iced Coffee, waving his hand and saying “Don’t worry about starting late because you can stay for the 8 o’clock class.” I silently seethe at the disrespect for our time.

Class proceeds in a jumbled fashion. There is no instruction. This week, Nick hands us a sheet with a brief history of Motown Records and one of its stars, Diane (sic) Ross. “Diane Ross” is mentioned five times in the mini-history. And that’s it — Nick never makes mention of this piece of paper. Maybe this is supposed to be the “education” part? Nick then yells (of course): “Who’s up? Let’s go, I want us to SING!” The only coaching you get — tonight or on any other night — comes in the form of Nick barking directives at you. So while I tried Joe Jackson again. . .

Me (Singing): Is she really going OWWWT—

Nick: You’re too high, go to B!

Me: What’s ‘B’?

Nick: JUST GO THERE!

This is how class goes every week: nothing is explained, it is just yelled, on the fly. I finish my song, and Lois steps up. She gives Nick her sheet music and starts to sing “Beautiful Dreamer.” Nick has trouble following along; his playing is clunky and behind. He hunches toward the keyboard, squinting at the music. Suddenly, he stops, stands, and thrusts Lois’s sheet music at her. “I am a MUSICIAN; not a psychic! There are no lyrics or melody here! I don’t know how to play this!”

Lois takes back her music, and sits down, chastened.

On the third week, as I enter the classroom, I pull a chair next to Jackie. She lays her hand over it and says, “This is saved for Sylvia.”

“Saved???”

She says, “Sorry,” as I take a chair at the far end of the table. “Don’t worry about it, I’m a big girl,” I say. Unlike you, I think.

And then class followed its usual template, as it would for the remaining weeks: Nick would “move his car,” then walk back in at 7 o’clock with a Venti Iced Coffee, starting late. You’d sing a song while Nick would yell instruction:

Me, Singing: Nick:
“Is she rea-lly gon-na—” “Open your mouth!”
“—take him home—” “Unclench your fist!”
“—toniiight?” “Go to F sharp!”

In between singers, and apropos of nothing, Nick would announce that he couldn’t possibly take any of us for private lessons, what with the holidays coming up, because he had so many paying gigs in the suburbs. The Cheap Wine Three would cluster together, share a bottle of Barefoot wine, and whisper and giggle throughout class, even when other people were singing. It was another learning experience in which I was the outcast.

To deal with the back-to-eighth-grade feelings, I would remind myself that class was only 80 minutes long (65 if you subtracted Nick’s coffee-run-disguised-as-car-moving), and I was doing this for me. I’m doing this for fun, and to keep my brain healthy, I told myself. To pass the time, I pretended I was a cultural anthropologist and took notes on the Cheap Wine Three:

Jackie: Caked-on makeup in the creases of her face.

Lorna: Wears glasses from the ’80s.

Sylvia: Mixes cheap wine with a can of Diet Squirt.

I never said I was a compassionate anthropologist. I wrote reminders to myself on my sheet music:

Find ‘Gold Dust Woman.’

Pick up cheese at Trader Joe’s.

Maybe should start bringing wine.

My coping mechanisms didn’t erase the fact that I had no friends in the classroom, and I was the misfit, like I had been most of my life. It was like being in junior high again, when Nancy Balicki and her friends made fun of the legwarmers I wore high over my knees. It was like  band class, when I was the only one who couldn’t hear the difference between C and D. And it was like Performance class when I was the only one who couldn’t carry a tune.

So by age 44, you’d think I’d be used to this, right? I don’t think you ever get used to feeling unliked. And the truth is, I wasn’t having fun.

On the fourth week, I arrive late because I know we won’t start until 7. Nick greets me with, “Hey, Joe Jackson Girl!” He clearly doesn’t know my name. Because he calls me “Joe Jackson Girl” every time he sees me. Lois does not show up, and will not for the remaining weeks. I think she was either annoyed by the Cheap Wine Three, or tired of being yelled at. Katie is now sitting with the Cheap Wine Three, scrolling through iPhone photos, but she does not drink. I am sitting alone, at the end of the table.

Nick tells us that instead of having us perform at the student showcase on December 20, like we are supposed to, he wants us to meet him in Schaumburg and sing a song on his buddy’s cable access show. Then he leads us through a group sing-along — our first so far — of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I despise this song. My father used to sing it to me when he and my mom were divorcing. I pretend to sing, while I think about how I will not drive out to Schaumburg five days before Christmas. The song ends, and Nick passes around holiday music books. “Everyone should know at least one Christmas song!” he admonishes. “Pick out a Christmas song!”

Katie and the Cheap Wine Three are flipping through songbooks. I pull up the calculator on my iPhone and figure out how much this class is costing per week. I can still get a refund if I drop out tonight. If I quit tonight, I’ll get $82 back in my bank account. My thoughts are interrupted.

Katie calls: “Nick, I want to sing ‘Santa Baby.’ Do you know that one?”

Jackie yells back: “You can’t do ‘Santa Baby’! I’m doing ‘Santa Baby’!”

Katie: “I want to do ‘Santa Baby’.

Nick: “Can’t you both do ‘Santa Baby’?”

Both: “NO!”

Jackie: “I picked it first. I already said I was doing it.”

Katie: “Hey, my husband is in the hospital.”

The room goes: “Oooooh.”

Jackie: “Oh, you’re gonna play that one with me?”

Katie: “Yes I am!”

Jackie runs up to the mic, as much as one can run in a cluttered classroom, and in true mean-girl fashion, sings “Santa Baby.” Katie then gives her rendition. Both times, Nick plays without ever once consulting the sheet music. He rocks side-to-side in time with the music, almost like a Hawaiian-shirted metronome. I stick with the song I brought for tonight, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” I sing it twice through, the Cheap Wine Three talking to each other, and ignoring my song the whole time. When I finish my second rendition, the room applauds, and Nick bellows, “That was 100% better than last time!”

So I must be learning something. The rational me starts talking in my brain. I took this class to sing, and to have fun. Truth, I took it to stave off Alzheimer’s. I didn’t take this class to make friends. But the ever-present annoyances, like the always-tardy teacher and the gossipy women, bother me. I remind myself, This is life, and life isn’t always 100% enjoyable.  If I’m going to be a big girl, I may as well stick it out. I decide just to stick with the class at least for tonight. I don’t ask for a refund.

The fifth week of class is more of the same.

When Lorna steps up to sing, Nick says, loudly, “Can you please close that closet door? I want to make this room as beautiful as possible!”

When Sylvia gets up with an iPad in hand, Nick yells, “Do not bring an iPad up here! Your lyrics should be MEMORIZED!”

And when Jackie carries a piece of paper, with lyrics, up to the mic, you-know-who yells: “Singing off a piece of paper is BULLSHIT! You want to sing the poem that’s in your heart!”

Yes, I think, but what if that poem is written by someone else and you don’t have it memorized?

When it’s my turn to sing, I make sure to go hands-free. As I sing, Katie and Nick are the only two paying attention. The Cheap Wine Three whisper and giggle amongst themselves. They pour more Beringer White Zinfandel and look up songs on their iPads. If their whispering makes me uncomfortable while I sing, I hope that my note-taking makes them uncomfortable while they sing. Silently, I repeat my mantra in my head: “It’s only 80 minutes. You’re doing this for you. It’s only 80 minutes. You’re doing this for you.”

The sixth class falls on December 11. Not that close to Christmas, but not that far, either. It is one day before my annual Christmas Party. I have taken the day off from work to shop for all my party needs: Trader Joe’s for appetizers, Binny’s for a case of wine and that gin I can’t find anywhere else, Whole Foods for that cheese we like and a gluten-free dessert, and Mariano’s for baguettes and a case of beer.

At 4 p.m., I trudge all my party goods up three flights of stairs to my apartment. I’m exhausted. I plop on the couch, and allow myself 30 minutes of Judge Judy. The couch feels good after a day of running around. I don’t want to get up. I glance at the clock. In two hours, I need to go to my Piano Bar class.

Or I’m supposed to.

The thought of leaving my comfortable couch is unpleasant. But I promised myself to see this class through. I told myself I was going to stick it out. I need to finish. Finishing is a problem I’ve had my whole life. I’m a natural-born procrastinator, and when I don’t complete something, I see it as a horrible reflection on myself and my character.

Then I asked myself, What do you really want to do? I had two choices: I could either grit my teeth through class, where I would listen to Nick yell, or I could order Thai food, take off my bra, and watch Shark Tank. I gave myself permission to do whatever I wanted — because I was a 40-something woman, not an eighth-grader who needed a lesson in not quitting.

I didn’t do my aging brain any favors that night. I opened a $15 bottle of Malbec and watched entrepreneurs ask rich people for money.

It was delightful.


Mare Swallow is the Executive Director of the Chicago Writers Conference, and as such was named to NewCity’s Lit 50 list twice. She has been keeping a diary for over 30 years, and has written plays, screenplays, and essays. She shares her stories on the live lit circuit in Chicago, and has performed at events such as Tuesday Funk, Mortified, and That’s All She Wrote. She’s completing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. She is a novice ukulele player, and enjoys craft gin and red wine. She lives in Chicago.

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