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Golden Mediocrity

On not being very good at things.

I have started playing the piano again after a hiatus of a decade and a half. After a combination of parental moves, the family piano finally landed in my office, reviving adolescent dreams of holding little salons enchanted with my prowess (or, at least, bare competence). I paid to have it tuned, broke out the old yellow dog-eared Complete Hanon, and started pounding away.

Unfortunately for the would-be salons, I have the social life of a working man with young children—that is to say, close to nil—and my bare competence is a little barer even than I remember it. My brilliant plan was to work my way through Bach’s two-part inventions and sinfonias sequentially. At the current rate, I will be done sometime in the early Thirties.

I do not think I am appreciably worse than I was when I stopped taking lessons at fourteen; I am certainly not better. And there are new obstacles. My several children think the sound of pater on the pianoforte is an invitation to swarm my office and scream, bang xylophones, and sing loud songs. (Their tastes run more modern than Bach.) I jammed a finger on a coffee table while trying to capture an escaping toddler; it has been stiff and sore for a month, putting a real damper on my gruppetto. My wife thinks I should do things like “the dishes,” “mowing the lawn,” “paying the bills.” Carnegie Hall is going to have to wait for me a while.

This latest attack on the Parnassus has revived a long-dormant sense of technical haplessness. I’ve simply never been very good at all the parlor-trick displays of brain or talent. In middle school, at the same time and in the same way that I was plumbing the depths of musical unimpressiveness, I played chess competitively—but not very competitively. My scholastic U.S.C.F. rating peaked somewhere in the low 1000s; I remember in particular the look on a girl’s face as she dismembered me (not with anything very exotic, either—Sicilian Defense, Accelerated Dragon) at a tournament outside Baltimore. Why are you here? I didn’t know either. It was my last tournament.

Not that the mild failure stopped there. My childhood and adolescence was largely spent being not quite up to scratch at anything besides schoolwork—and even in that there was the unpleasant, sweaty residue of having to work at it. (My father would refer to me as “Charlie Hustle.” In retrospect, I do not know what to make of that—the man had a strong and explicit antipathy to Pete Rose.) Oh, to be one of the effortless chosen, the girls who could do handstands and cartwheels, or the boys who could do long division without writing anything down. (Even today, my relations with arithmetic remain highly formal, and mostly mediated by paper and pencil.) Oh, to bridge the impassable chasm between right field and third base, to rise above fifth in the batting order; to be able to say, “Watch this,” and then have a “this” for the audience to watch.

I did eventually come into my own; in college, it turned out that I could drink quite well for my weight class, and, even better, I proved quite resistant to hangovers. Still, that’s not quite the same as plinking out Chopin, is it? And, even as I embarked on the voyage of beery self-discovery, I was busily disappointing new Muses and being disappointed in turn. (A non-comprehensive list of things for which I failed to show any promise: salsa dancing, writing librettos for musical theater, acting, weightlifting, running, knife-throwing, getting into social clubs, and dressing like an adult.)

I wish I were able here to write about how I came to some kind of higher consciousness about the arts and leisure, about enjoying activities for their own sake, and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am in fact still mildly annoyed and even a little bummed that I have not shown any late-breaking flashes of genius at the keyboard or elsewhere. Contentment eludes me, and it’s a gentle compulsion that keeps me bashing away at the Bach, and I am fine with that, I suppose. It’s something to do. I guess this is what middle age is—accepting that you are settling into irritable, slightly disappointed respectability.

There’s something to be said for it. To mistranslate Horace a little,

auream quisquis mediocritatem
diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
sobrius aula.

Whoever loves golden mediocrity—
He safely avoids the shamefulness of a broken-down roof,
And quite prudently avoids a palace that is the object of envy.

—Ah, phooey on all that. Who believes this? I have a hunch that I’ve finally got something: a gift for the accordion. They’re going to call me the Polka King of Carroll County. Invidenda aula, here I come.