I can never watch Casablanca without feeling a personal sadness and lingering longing. I’m not talking about the tragedy of Rick and Ilsa’s lost love. They’ll always have Paris. And she did have to get on that plane, for the good of everyone who wasn’t a Nazi. And we were buoyed as her plane climbed into the night, by the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Rick and Louie as they strolled off into the fog to do their part in the battle against Hitler’s tyranny.
No, my melancholy reaction to the film is that I would have loved to be Sam, the piano player. Oh to tickle those ivories with “As Time Goes By.” I could have, too. My parents gifted me with piano lessons. My teacher thought I had wonderful potential. But children can be a short-sighted lot, clueless as to what’s best for them and what they really want in life. And so I convinced my parents to let me abandon the piano lessons in favor of a irresistible new fad, Saturday morning television. I have regretted it countless times since, most especially when I hear that song. “A kiss is just a kiss…” could have been the kiss of my fingers on the ivories. Could have been. So many beautiful and memorable songs could have been mine to play. Could have been. So many times have I wished I had committed to studying, and mastering, that beautiful instrument. So many times I have failed to act upon the wish.
I grew up in the tail end of what I think of as the great piano age. From jazz to romance songs to classical music, from movie screens to radio, the piano was the sound of the soul. Oh the clarinet was that, too, and he coronet had some nice moments, softer and more mellow than its brash cousin the trumpet. So did the saxophone. The violin, the harp, and other string instruments sang from the heart as well. But everything revolved around the piano, with its incredible range, its ability to frame our dreams and loves and memories softly one moment and drive our excitement and impetuosity the next, to lightly tinkle like the drops of a gentle spring shower and in an eyelid’s blink crash with the thunder of a summer storm. The piano was both king and queen of music before the electric guitar mugged it, before rock and roll and its successors pushed it aside, before synthesizers stole and distorted the beauty of its sound, before heavy metal and gangsta rap dragged the beauty of music into the alley and choked the life out of it, replacing it with yelling and screeching and angry pounding not knowing where it wanted to go, but determined to get there as loudly and offensively as possible.
How I wish I had not abandoned that beautiful instrument. My sister played piano, (she still does), My parents urged me to continue my lessons. My teacher loved my long fingers, prophesized that I could be exceptional. I was proud. My mother beamed. My father was glad the money seemed well-spent. But the endless study of scales and mechanics and drawing (badly) notes on paper ultimately bored me. The simple, and old, songs that were my ‘curriculum’ did not excite. And then there was that television show. It was black and white and somewhat grainy, but it was a cowboy show and much more exciting than scales and paper notes and repetition of boring ‘beginning pieces.’ I was very young, very short-sighted with an attention span to match, undoubtedly somewhat stupid, so I convinced my parents to let me give up the lessons.
Now, please understand that my parents were wonderful, loving, considerate, and wanted more than anything for me to be happy. I have wished, though. countless times during the intervening years, that just once, one time in my young life, they had put their two pair of feet down very firmly, directly on my short-sighted and stupid little head if necessary. But they didn’t, and it would be wrong of me, wrong and petty and ungrateful, to blame them for trying to make me happy. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in thy parents…..so on and so forth.
Sadly, I didn’t get any smarter as the years went by. I could have returned to study the piano at any time. Many people do. In my defense I can offer only the classic tepid explanations. I was too busy, or I didn’t want to spend the money. Or this. Or that. Even though I frequently, during my collegiate and young adult professional years found myself having a drink in a lounge, and being drawn to the sound of the piano playing softly in the background, or attending a party or other social gathering where someone sat down at the piano and immediately drew a crowd of appreciative listeners. In spite of wishing I had that skill, I never found the gumption, as my grandmother would have said, to follow through on the wish. Oh sure, I wanted to play, but I consistently found excuses to put aside the desire. Was I afraid, rather deep down, that I wouldn’t rise to the level of excellence I admired in others? Or was I making excuses for just not wanting to commit to the work? I would always circle back to remembering that I had attempted the task at a young age and not had the will to follow through with the effort and determination required. It’s a long journey from that first scale to the opening notes of a Gershwin piece. I had been given the opportunity once, and defaulted on the challenge. I would, the little voice whispered, likely do the same thing again. The surest way not to fail, is after all, not to begin.
Now the years have gone by. My fingers are not as supple as once they were, though they seem serviceable enough. I say to myself that the point of the whole thing has by now become lost, that even if I decided to take lessons, the long and uphill process would be doubly steep at this point in my life, so long a journey before I could begin to play well. And without being able to play well, without being able to play well enough that someone would start to sing, or maybe whisper, “… a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh…” there really would be no point at all. Chopsticks is fun I guess, but if you can’t play some Gershwin, why bother? I’d like to find someone to blame. I’d love to be able to write an indignant letter to the editor about the villain that cost me the beautiful experience of making lovely music on those keys. But I know too well who is to blame for my loss. I know him intimately. I wish him no ill, but I doubt that I will ever be able, quite, to forgive him. Our regrets, it seems, do indeed float beside us, taunting us, whispering their melancholy rebuke of our failure into our ear, as time goes by.