Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Training Wheels.

This morning while on my way to fetch cat food and pay the water bill I caught most of Diane Rhem's interview with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Dinnerstein is an accomplished pianist and writer who has taken to teaching children music using Bach as inspiration, she calls it "Bach-packing." One of the bits that stood out most for me was her explanation of how to create separate "voices" with the left and right hand on the piano, taking two different songs essentially and weaving them together to make a cohesive piece. The way she teaches children this idea is to ask half her classroom sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a loop and the other half sings Row, Row, Row your Boat. As a relative dumb-dumb on how music really works, it's was as surprising to me as it was to these kids hearing how well the combo works. One of the callers during the interview joked about how he couldn't convince his hands to play different tunes which is why he now plays the saxophone. It's a riveting interview and you can check it out here. She explains that everyone has a dominant hand and teaching even seasoned adults how to bolster their secondary hand can expose a vulnerability that can be devastating to morale'.

When I was in third grade or so my folks realized I had some balance issues. I guess it stemmed from my inability to figure out how to ride a bicycle without training-wheels. While most of my neighborhood peers had it down several years before, I couldn't get it. This, paired with poor grades and a distractibility in the classroom at school, worried them. As fate would have it, a business called Sensory Systems Integration was renting the basement classrooms of our church during the week. I don't remember much about the technical side of their practice, but they ran all sorts of exciting tests on me trying to figure out where my brain was having its complications. I remember getting messy playing in shaving cream, sifting through a giant box of dried beans for pennies I was allowed to keep, pulling myself through obstacle courses on a little wheeled-block, looking at Rorschach test images, and swinging in a chair hanging in the center of the room. Along with christmas ornaments and other prominent knickknacks from my childhood, a few years ago my folks bequeathed the "Occupational Therapy Evaluation of Sensory Integration" official test results from 1988. It summarized my issues in cold, calculating language, that sort of hurts to read now, ultimately assessing I had a mild learning disability. But all I remember from that time is the fun I had trying to make my body do and feel things.

After this assessment, an occupational therapy plan was approved and the therapies I mention above took place, to get my mind syncing more with my body. I remember enjoying the hell out of therapy! Play in shaving cream? Sounds great! Every time I see it I envy the dude who jumps into a pool of caramel in some candy bar commercial on TV, sounds like a hoot! I think therapy lasted for 6 months or so and was discontinued in the summer after the therapists saw the progress they wanted to see.

Since first grade I had been playing "Dad's Club Softball" as well. Given my sensory complications...I had a pretty hard time with various facets of the game. Namely, all of them. In the spring of third grade, amidst the therapies, it was suggested I try playing softball left handed. My mom and sister were lefties and though I seemed to favor my right side, writing was the only advantage it concretely had, so it didn't seem like too much from left-field to try it. (you like that? left field...left handed...eh? come on!)
And so, as I had with my sister's jeans in the past (what, we were about the same size and it was the 80s), I borrowed her left-handed glove mid-season just to see how it'd feel. I don't remember much about the first game as a lefty up until the final inning. The opposing team was at bat with 2 outs, they were down 3 runs, and the big kid known for big hits was at bat, one giant hit and the game was over.
Like they did with all the scrubs in DCSB, I was in the outfield, right-field specifically. As Casey came to bat (probably not his name, but might should've been) all of us scrubs crapped our pants. Low and behold he hits a humdinger right in my direction, the game is over because, what, I'm going to catch it? Right. And wouldn't you know it, my skinny, lacking-in-musculature-according-to-the-test-results, right arm with a newly acquired left-hander glove worn for the first time, MADE THE CATCH! I didn't hear it, but my dad recounts the story with him yelling from the bleachers: "THAT'S MY BOY!!!" And for the first time my teammates pat me on the back for something.

Hearing Simone Dinnerstein playing Bach's "inventions and sinfonias" with battling "voices" tit-for-tatting each other on the piano in perfect harmony blows my mind. Imagine the synapses that must be happening in the brain to get the body to do such things! I can only dream of playing an instrument that well. As well, I can only dream of having the ambition to try and play an instrument that well. But that's another topic for another day. I feel like a pretty self-aware person, but I still wonder if these sensory issues play out in ways I'm unaware. Their spectre haunted me for a moment my first semester in college when I flunked a Psych. 101 test. Graciously, my folks talked me into using a tutor and I got past it. These days I tend to see it as a lack of effort and improper understanding of consequences, but that may be some denial on my part. I got through the rest of school just fine after that and hit my best stride in my last year. Perhaps I just needed to feel failure. Luckily, through it all, I'm a pretty sweet bike-rider and whenever the topic of ambidexterity comes up, I'm able to say "well, i'm not properly ambidextrous, but I play baseball and anything with swinging left handed" followed by my best Goofy "Ah-Hilllt" laugh. Who knows where I'd be or what I'd be doing without that shaving-cream...

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