Archive for the 'Little Victories' Category

what happens when you aren’t a piano prodigy

You have to understand, my dad is a brilliant pianist. He could always play, from the time he was a little kid. For no reason that anyone could explain or understand, he could sit down and make music. He never learned to read music, but if he heard something, he could play it right back, so when he finally took lessons from a local teacher, he fooled her for months. “Can you just play it for me so I can hear how it should sound?” he’d ask when she gave him a new assignment. She’d play the piece through, and he’d instantly memorize it. Later, he’d pretend to be studying the notes on the page. She was furious when she discovered his trick, or so the story goes.

When he grew up, my dad bought a grand piano and then was too poor to fix his car for a whole winter. My parents were barely in their twenties, proud of their tiny square house, running their own tiny business out of the basement, and there was this sleek, giant Yamaha grand filling the whole living room. Almost a decade before I was born, that piano was my dad’s baby.

When I was a baby, he sat me on his lap while he played, my hands on his hands.


(I don’t have a photo of that, but here I am as a baby, with my hair looking much like a wig, playing)

And of course, when I was old enough, he taught me some pieces, and eventually signed me up for lessons. He still couldn’t read music very well, but he wanted me to learn, so I was sent to a piano school that specialized in early classical training. The word “pedagogy” floated around in the halls.

I don’t know where my ferocious competitiveness came from. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, an engine too big for my body, eternally revving. It wasn’t enough to just play—I wanted to be the best.

I dreaded the finger exercises. I was bored by the endless arpeggios. The flick of the thumb under the third finger going up the scale—the movement had to be perfectly smooth, subtle, the arrangement of the hand needed to stay even. I wanted to play Rachmaninoff, with the crashing depths of the low register. Lush, chocolate-y Brahms. I wanted to play cascading Debussy, with the blur of rich sound, and Chopin, of course, with the delicate right hand trilling up at the very top while the left hand ran darkly around the bass. I wanted pounding drama and thunder and thrill. I wanted to close out the annual recital with a show-stopper. I was jealous of the kid who got to do it, while I was still playing in the middle of the pack. I was also terrified of performing.

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i wrote a book and it’s coming out (for preorder) today!

So I wrote a little book.

This is the story about it:

One night when I was four months pregnant I was lying in bed and feeling like a failure, as is my tendency. This time, I felt like a failure because I hadn’t yet published a book and I was going to have a baby and it was now too late to publish a book before having a baby. For a lot of my life, I told myself that I had to publish a book before having a baby because I was pretty sure that the rest of life ends when you have a baby. A baby is a lot like a cliff in the mist, I thought. One day you drive your car right over it, and you have to really believe that it’s just a short drop and then there’s an even better road right there to catch you. But, let’s be real, probably not.

I’m not sure why I’ve always thought that publishing a book was the most important, meaningful thing anyone could ever do. I think it has something to do with me being essentially uncreative. And reading a lot of books as a kid. And being self-centered. And sort of introverted. And snobby about literacy. But I’ve always been like this. All paths in my fantasy of my life lead to published books. For example, if I start a fantasy with “Let’s say I just won 100 million dollars,” the next thing is, “I could start my own publishing company and publish a book!” And then the thing after that is, “And I could hire really fancy publicists to advertise it. I could get a billboard!” And then the thing after that is, “And I could combat world hunger!” Shit. I’m a selfish prick.

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deciding to trust other women again

Sure, this counts as a Little Victory!

I got this text on Thanksgiving from a woman I haven’t really talked to in at least a year: Friend, today I am thankful for you. Hope your day is filled with gratitude and warmed by people who love you. 

She’s busy, in a writing program down south. I’m busy, here in NYC. We never really got the chance to get really close, but I’ve always liked her.

I thought there was some mistake. She’d probably meant the message for someone else. Or she’d sent it to a lot of people, and I was accidentally included. I felt awkward, responding, because what if I was too personal in return, and she was embarrassed for me and it was weird?

I am always waiting for women to leave me. Like the guy who doesn’t call back after what seemed like a perfect second date, like the breakup that never makes sense even though the other person seems to be trying to explain, I am never sure of the reasons, even though I dig through my memories, unearthing things that look like they might be clues. Things that have been broken a long time and are probably better off left there, underground.

(sorry, that was morbid. source)

I have fought passionately with boyfriends. I’ve yelled and stormed and stomped out and slammed the door and disappeared into the night for a while until I realize I’m just wandering around a parking lot and someone is probably going to rape and murder me and the fantastically successful dramatic exit is probably not worth all that. I have a flair for the dramatic with men. But with women, I am gentle. Since I was twelve or even sooner, I had best friends—girls I dressed up with in endless rounds of play acting, and had sleepovers with and wrote letters to and illustrated the envelopes. And they have tended to get mysteriously hurt or bored or something else and leave over the years, without telling me why. Or they’ve abruptly betrayed me in some teenaged, heartbreaking manner. The girl who I worshipped who was abruptly dating my boyfriend, just after I’d broken up with him. But she didn’t tell me—instead she showed up with him one day, just like that, and then she left the room while he berated me from his towering height of six foot four inches, telling me that I was stupid, ridiculous, pathetic– a little girl– that I didn’t know anything about the world. He was obviously in love with me, furious at me, and she was obviously letting him loom over me and tell me what a little fool I was. I couldn’t believe she’d chosen him over the stories I’d written with her about our shared future, where we had little farm houses down the road from each other in New Hampshire, and I came over for Christmas even though I am Jewish, and our kids played together and eventually married each other.

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already smart enough, without even trying

This piece is a part of my Little Victories series. 

I don’t know the names of the parts of grammar. I remember “prepositional phrase” from this big purple book I had growing up. I remember that there are articles that can be definite and indefinite, but I can’t remember which one is “the” and which one is “a.” And it’s been embarrassing for a long time, but not embarrassing enough to google.

There are all of these things I should probably know that I don’t, and I sort of wish I knew them, and I’m hoping no one will call me out on them, but I’m not exactly making an effort to learn them. Instead, I’m making mac and cheese. Instead, I’m writing the way I would talk if I was better at talking. And for the first time in a long time, I am OK with that. It’s a good sign—I think it means that there’s always hope. Unless it means that my inquisitiveness has curled up and died in a corner somewhere and I will be the counterexample in a future New York Times article about how intellectually active people can stave off Alzheimer’s.


No. It’s progress. It took me a long time to let myself feel smart enough, without making a huge effort to sound smarter. I am just now reaching the stage where I can make occasional small talk in an elevator without the evil voice in my head snarling, “Say something witty, you pathetic nitwit! Yes, the dog is shaggy and cute, but doubtless everyone makes that obvious observation. DISTINGUISH YOURSELF.”

(The voice in my head is like the British butler in movies about how Americans think England used to be, except he’s become unhinged and he’s about to kill everyone.)

My mom made an effort to teach me grammar. I recited “behind, beneath, before, on, in” and whatever else. But it didn’t stick. I was building a lean-to in the woods, and I got good at latticing the branches and packing the gaps with moss and leaves. I practiced sketching faces almost every day and finally I could make their eyes gleam and give them realistic expressions.  I was learning lots of things. People are always learning lots of things.

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getting better at being embarrassingly earnest in a snarky world

This post is a part of my sporadic Little Victories series. My mom really likes this series, because it forces me to be positive and I think she thinks that’s healthy. 

Once I fell for this guy who was very cool. We used to have these witty little conversations on Facebook and through strings of pithy text messages that spooled out for weeks on end. I tried to be funny, composing one-liners in my head and editing them several times before sending. I’d had a crush on him for a long time, but I kept calm and played my cards carefully. I felt gaspingly thankful that he wanted to talk. I felt like this was my chance.

Sometimes he edged closer to me, and it seemed like he might say something real. Something about caring about me. Something about the way he felt. But then instead he’d flip it over and there’d be this big joke underneath. Or he’d back suddenly away, busying his thumbs elsewhere, his voice quick and distant in our hurried phone conversations. He was always on his way somewhere. I was always just a brief break, an errand, a place he’d paused for a moment to stand, smoking a cigarette and squinting.

(don’t let them see your eyes! or your spy gear. source)

So I was always on my way somewhere, too. Even though really, I was just sitting at my keyboard, staring at a picture of him and writing a song about the miraculously perfect planes of his face. Yeah, it was like that.

It got to the point where I could feel the words stuck in my throat. I could taste them in my mouth. I was desperate to tell him how I felt about him. But I couldn’t, because it seemed like it was too late. Like our prolonged, playful flirtation, this game I had gotten tangled in, had become our whole relationship. To confess was to lose, to admit weakness, to rip open an awkward gaping opening where before there was some solid-looking sheetrock.

That was a long time ago. I’m better now, at being the way I am. I’ve shaved my head. I’ve told a few of my sadder stories.

I think I’m getting better at being earnest.

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Kate on September 5th 2012 in being different, life, Little Victories, new york

getting behind the wheel (of a real car. But it’s also a little bit of a metaphor)

This post is a part of the Little Victories series. 

I love to drive.

I mean, obviously. I grew up in the suburbs where everything was a half an hour away, and there was no way in the world to get to your boyfriend’s house unless your mom drove you there or you walked all night alongside the road and almost stepped on a lot of bloody possums and risked your life at the hands of the men who your parents were pretty sure drove around late at night in NJ suburbs, waiting to steal a girl.

I got my license on my seventeenth birthday. It was sleeting and I had already aced the written exam. I drove around the course with a very serious gentleman who I hoped desperately to impress with my ability to brake fully at the stop sign.  I passed. The parallel parking gods smiled upon me. Just that once (later that year, in the minivan I borrowed constantly from my mom, they would cruelly punish me again and again).

(this was the car my mom had. A Toyota Previa. Amazingly ugly. Incredibly difficult to parallel park. source)

And then I was free! I was blaring Smashmouth, or whatever I listened to back then, and swinging around breathtaking corners and tearing off into the openness of the world.

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little victories: the kind of beauty that stands out in a crowd

I like to stand out. I like to be different.

Writing the buzz cut piece reminded me.

Well, getting the buzz cut reminded me. And then writing about it. For me, everything is two-pronged: the doing and the writing.

As a little kid, I was shy, but I liked to stand out. People don’t think those things go together. They think when you’re shy you want to disappear. But I was just particular about the ways that I wanted to stand out.

I hear that kids are supposed to be afraid of being different from other kids. And I’ve definitely had those moments, of course. But for some reason, there weren’t many of them. Instead, there was this fierce pride. Like a little unquenchable flame, just inside my belly, a tiny eternal light like the one that hung over the ark where the Torahs are kept on the bima. But mine didn’t have cobwebs like the one at temple.


“Why doesn’t the school bus pick you up in the morning?” my neighbor, Benny, asked me when I was ten. He sounded a little accusing.

“Because my mom doesn’t let it,” I said.

“My mom says you probably go to school at a special school. At your Jewish church.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t go to any school. And it’s not a church, it’s called Temple Har Zion.” I felt important.

Benny made a face at me that said, “you aren’t saying real words.” “That’s weird,” he said.

“Do you want to learn a prayer in Hebrew?” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

So I taught him the Sh’ma, the central prayer. Sh’ma yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad. I sang it. I convinced him to sing it, too.

I was the weirdest kid on our street, of course. Jewish AND homeschooled, in a town where no one was either. In a town where once the boys down the street cut a swastika in a nearby cornfield. So I don’t know why I liked to stand out. Maybe because I was always with my mom, and she was always comfortable standing out.

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