For most youngsters, weekends are a time to sleep in, relax, and have fun.  Growing up, for my sister and I, it was anything but.  My parents signed us up for so many extracurricular activities – judo, yoga, bomb disposal – that they’d drop us off early Saturday morning and we wouldn’t see them again until late Sunday night.  Part of me wants to believe it was born of a concerted effort to make us more rounded individuals, but I suspect it was really just a way of getting us out of the house.

This was especially true during the summers when my sister and I would have to take full advantage of our membership at a local pool. Full advantage in this case meant getting there for the 10:00 a.m. opening and staying there until 5:00 p.m. closing – every weekday and every weekend, rain or shine (It was up to the pool authorities to decide whether it was too dangerous to swim and, more often than not, they were spot judgement calls that required us to be on standby, quite literally standing by the pool house, for the green light).  If we were ever late leaving the house, came home early, or lingered too long at lunch (we had approximately 40 minutes, like in most Japanese prisons), they’d suggest the one hundred dollars spent on the pool membership had been wasted and that, maybe, next year they would have to reconsider the expense.  And so, duly chastised, my sister and I would trudge back – she with her nose plugs, goggles, and bathing cap, an ensemble that gave her the appearance of a subaquatic creature (in a one-piece dark blue swim suit) every time she broke surface; me with my goggles, Raiders towel, and whatever book I’d brought along to rescue me from the prospect of terminal pruning.

Truth be told, for all the time we spent at Heights Swimming Pool, I spent very little time in the actual pool, preferring to read or chat with friends over braving the crowd.  I remember once standing poolside for a good fifteen minutes, waiting for an opening in the churning sea of bodies before deciding “What the hell” and jumping in, quite literally, feet first.  I recall the coolness of the water, then the yielding softness of some hapless swimmer’s back as I unwittingly pinned her to the bottom of the pool.

Given all the opportunities, it’s surprising that I didn’t actually learn to swim until my early teen years.  Before that, much of my pool time was spent wading, lounging, and participating in (dare I say it) horseplay. At some point, my father got fed up and paid for private lessons. Every Friday night, I’d go to the Pointe Claire YMCA where Gary, my instructor, would attempt to initiate me in the mechanics of swimming. It was a slow frustrating process.  For him, I mean.  Whereas my sister was a natural, mastering and honing her skills early enroute to attaining that loftiest of swimmer’s achievements, the position of summer lifeguard, I was about as comfortable in the water as C-3PO making love for the first time.  I’d thrash my legs wildly, splash about, and generally try to avoid getting any of the corrosive pool water in my eyes.  And, all the while, my father would sit forlornly up in the bleachers, watching and waiting.  And then, one night, it happened. Gary cancelled late (I like to think that he’d finally given up and was going to let us down easy by maybe faking his own death, until he heard about my abrupt turnaround) and I decided to spend the hour going over what I’d learned.  I lowered myself into the deep end, steeled myself, pushed off from the ladder and, suddenly, I was treading water.  The treading became a breaststroke and, before I knew it, I was swimming.  I swam all the way to the other side of the pool.  Then I swam back.  Then I swam front crawl.  Then backstroke. By hour’s end, I pulled myself out of the pool to find my father waiting for me.  Bursting with pride, he congratulated me.  And handed me five dollars.

In addition to all the swimming, there were the piano lessons.  When my sister and I first started, our instructor had done me the great disservice of informing my mother I had “piano fingers”.  I’m not sure what that meant exactly but was fairly certain that its marked characteristics would have suited any of various other descriptors like, say, “surgeon fingers” or “origami fingers” or “pick pocket fingers”.  To my mother, however, it denoted a genetic predisposition to musical genius.  And so, while my sister, with her short, inelegant fingers better suited to t.v. remote manipulation, got a pass, I was pressured to make the most of my God-given talent.

Next to trampoline week in Phys. Ed., there was nothing I hated more and, perhaps sensing this, my instructor prescribed a practice regimen to help things along: thirty minutes a day for the six days between lessons.  I was given a special chart to take home that my mother was to check off and sign at the end of each week.  “You probably won’ t be able to practice for half an hour every single day,”my piano teacher conceded.  “Some days a little more; some days a little less.  Just as long as you get your hours in.”  I returned home, my seven year old self embittered by the prospect of all this piano practice cutting into my non-existent plans.  I mean, sure, my week was pretty wide open but what if something came up on Friday afternoon and I’d have to miss out on account of that final half hour owing?  Well, the solution became readily apparent.  I could just front load my practice at the beginning of the week and have the rest of the week free – just in case. And so, the following day, I sat down in front of our home piano – an antique, discordant monstrosity so enormous that it probably necessitated the house be built around it – and started banking practice time.  Thirty minutes, then sixty, then an hour and a half. After two hours, I was beyond exhausted.  Dazed, fingers cramped, I played on.  Two and a half hours in, I had attained an otherworldly transcendence, what the Native Americans call “a vision quest”.  I was one with the music, the metronome, and my poodle, Snoopy’s, sporadic howls.  At one point, I was floating above it all like one of those out-of-body experiences where the spirit of the soon-to-be-undeceased looks down at himself and thinks “Poor sonovabitch”.  And then, finally, it was over.  Three and a half hours later.  I trotted upstairs, had mom sign my practice schedule – which she did without even bothering to ask what the hell she was signing – and had the rest of the week off.  I thought it a brilliant plan; my piano teacher less so when she checked out my practice schedule the following day.

Eventually, I grew tired of the piano and, after considerable thought, elected to stand up to my mother and tell her I was giving it up.  It was my first adult decision.  And a memorable one.  I told her I was quitting.  She burst into tears and tore my piano exercise book in half. My little sister cried.  I apologized.  The next day, my mother bought me a new piano exercise book and assured me that it would be our little secret and she would not be telling my dad what had happened.

It was another two years before I quit for good.

48 thoughts on “May 21, 2013: Childhood memories! Pools, piano, and parents!

  1. I think my husband’s childhood was like that in some ways. It’d be his adulthood, too, if he let it.

  2. My Mum was a swimming teacher and would take me to the pool when I was a baby. So I literally could swim before I could walk. Then, when I was 5 or 6 my parents installed an above-ground pool in the backyard. This was upgraded a couple of times until an in-ground pool was put in. Alas, my parents sold the family home a couple of years ago after 40+ years. A lot of good memories swimming and playing in that pool.

    Thankfully I managed to avoid the music lessons although I sometimes regret not being able to play an instrument.

  3. i can’t “really” swim. fat floats though.
    in high school they made us have swimming (along with gym) for a semester in freshman & sophomore year. 9 weeks (in in each year) of paddling around, learning the different strokes, lifesaving techniques (how to throw one of those round life preservers to a drowning victim) & general water safety. after all of that i could do a half-way decent backstroke, but couldn’t do a scissor kick (part of the sidestroke) or the frog kick (part of the breaststroke) to save my life.
    and i haven’t been in anything deeper than the average puddle since.

  4. Bwuahahahaha!! Thanks. I needed that. 🙂 I mostly read my summers away. My parents didn’t believe in keeping kids really busy during the summer–we’d worked hard during the school year and had earned time off!

    BTW, smashing swim trunks!

    🙂 LJ

  5. I loved swimming as a kid, more so when when you’re having fun in the pool lol. Speaking about that, jeez, you know when you have to jump in the pool and not remember to check how cold it can be? LOL

    Swimming is a very simple thing to pick up, you just need the confidence to do what’s asked of you, be it swimming on your front, back, floating, diving under water, it really isn’t difficult.

  6. That was a truly delightful glimpse of your childhood, Joe. My piano teacher was a tall, elegant woman with steel-gray hair pulled back in a bun. She wore a wide-brimmed hat (complete with hatpin) and gloves when she came to my house to give me my lessons. She gave a lesson at the house across the street and I still remember the sinking feeling I would get in the pit of my stomach if I hadn’t practiced as much as I was supposed to. And how wonderful it was to really do something well – like play a Bach fugue. I was excellent at exercises, but my memorization of performance pieces was not so great. But I’m glad I did it.

  7. This was one of your best blogs and you’ve had some good ones lately! Thanks for this view into your childhood. You were a lucky kid. Did your mom read today’s blog entry?

  8. It could have been worse…

    ..the instructor could have quipped, “He has bomb disposal fingers.”

  9. Joe, that post was brilliant. Writing like that is why they (should be) pay(ing) you the big bucks! In fact, I think those reminiscences would make the basis for an excellent TV show. Maybe call it, “The Wonderful Years” or something.

    In other news, I’m finally back home after my weekend in NH (and last night in Maine, fly fishing – 5 trout!) I have to catch up on last night’s movie that I missed!

  10. We were too poor to afford anything organized like swimming or piano lessons. We had a camper and would pay $4 to get into state parks and camp all weekend, exploring everything they had to offer like a lake, trails, fishing, building camp fires, and moon pies from the gift shop. It was a blast. Is that you in the picture looking like your fixing to do a back flip into the pool? What kind of swimming pants do you have on skinny boy? 😆

  11. Great story!

    So, can you play the piano? Hubby was forced to take piano lessons, too, but his ADD won over and he never learned. I will have him read this story, I’m thinking he may be able to relate in some ways.

    Also…who’s the skinny little fart standing on the pool step?

    I’ve lived at the shore all my life and can’t swim a stroke. One problem is I hate getting my face wet. Another problem is that my folks traumatized me when I was a toddler by taking me out into deep water. I’d totally freak out until they brought me in shallow enough for me to touch sand and run like the dickens back to the beach blanket. Third problem is that when they took me to a swimming class there were loads of people in the pool, and I felt like everyone was looking at me and I’ve never been able to perform in front of an audience. Then I saw Jaws. 😛 I also sink like a brink – I think I literally have a lead ass. I like being in water…nice, calm, shallow, shark-free water. 🙂


  12. G’day

    Love swimming. Growing up in the tropics and swimming go hand in hand. Never had proper lessons, a few through school, just mostly self taught. Not very good but I get by.
    As for music, my parents never had money for that. Air guitar is all I can manage 😛

  13. Did your mom really tear your exercise book in half?!? (Or were you taking poetic license in writing that?) Was she THAT angry at you for quitting, or was the book-tear merely a clever dramatic show intended to guilt you into keeping on with your piano lessons? Have you discussed this with your mother since you’ve become an adult, to get her side of the story? Does she even remember this incident? I am fascinated with this story. I want to know more.

  14. @Joe:

    Funny you should bring up swimming…we just finished our above ground pool installation (the pump ran for the first time tonight) and I’m wiped.

    As for my own “learning to swim” experience: at 5 years old, I just decided I wanted to swim and I taught myself at the public pool over a few days one summer. I’ve been swimming ever since and I haven’t had a single day of instruction (unless you count scuba lessons in my 20’s).

    I also failed at a musical instrument, in my case it was the guitar. A third-grade music teacher told my mother I was a “natural” for guitar. I’m not sure where this evaluation came from since I didn’t really have the desire and my fingers were fat…errr, strong and thick, and I couldn’t really work the frets well (maybe I should have switched to bass guitar). I did think the electric guitar she bought on the music teacher’s recommendation was cool though.

    Also, has anyone else tried Shiny’s Sancocho? We made it last night…it reminded me of a mild gumbo.


    How’s the patio coming along?

  15. Today was my son’s birthday. He doesn’t joke much about being over 40. 😉

  16. Sigh. As a mother with a child who hated practicing but loved music, I feel your mother’s pain. Ditto on swimming. She told me I could take her to swimming lessons but I couldn’t make her swim. Her teacher, who also taught school, helped her see the error of her ways by allowing her to go under water a few times. She learned to swim. I grew up on the lake, love swimming. I also took piano til my father died, then tried as an adult. I regret not sticking to it. I regret letting my daughter quit after 6 yrs (she took up the flute which she also quit after 2 yrs). I had these dreams of my child paying Moonlight Sonata, Exodus, and other favorite piano pieces, but alas. You are a bad seed and a terrible disappointment to your mother, lol. Tell her I feel her pain and to spank you next time she sees you.

  17. My dad bought me a piano, but I just couldn’t get my head around all those funny squiggles.Now I realise I didn’t have piano fingers like you did! My nana used to play. She was self taught and during WW2 she invited visiting troops to come in for a meal with the family. I wasn’t around then, but mum tells me they ended up having a sing along and getting a few brief happy hours before going back to the front. That alone makes me wish I’d stuck in and mastered it.

    But I wasn’t really one for hobbies. I did try a few but they ended in spectacular failure. My after school recorder lessons were downright painful (the author of the lesson book was Freda Dinn, I often wonder if she made that name up.)
    Next came tap. I’ve always had trouble telling my left from my right, and I gave up in lesson five as I was tired of ending up at the opposite side of the room from everyone else. Singing was more my thing. When I was young I could reach the really high notes. I joined a variety of choirs for a while but when it became clear I wasn’t going to be the next Tina Turner I gave up. I’m still looking for my niche but I’m not too worried – at least my dog loves me!

    Loved your reminisces Joe. Makes me think you’re a writer or something…

  18. I never took lessons, but I can play chopsticks, does that count? I don’t remember learning how to swim, just did it I think, and I even took a class to swim in college,(can u say easy) biggest problem there was that I had a speech class(having to stand in front of class) right after and my hair was always kinda wet and wild. What a rookie mistake. Thanks for the insight into young Joe, enjoyed it very much. Your dad sounds cool and thanks to you we know how great mom and sis are. thanks for sharing!!

  19. I’d like to get on my soapbox for a second: IF YOU RIDE,A BIKE, WITH OR WITHOUT A MOTOR, WEAR A HELMET!

    I just spent two days in the hospital.I was doing a 35 mile road ride this past weekend to prepare for an upcoming 50 mile charity ride to benefit multiple sclerosis. I hit a patch of gravel and my front wheel hit a curb sideways, So the bike stopped and I didn’t. I went over the handlebars and landed on the concrete on my head and left shoulder. I ended up with only a concussion, a tiny little superficial hemorrhage in my brain (which was nearly gone the second day) and a broken collarbone.

    Thank God I was wearing a helmet, or it would have been a lot worse.

  20. Great story Joe.

    I learned to swim when I was 6. My mom signed me up for lessons at our local Y. I was a natural, and took to it very easily.

    Once I went to summer camp, I was pretty excited because they had a band system that ranked your swimming ability, denoted by a colored wrist band. From what I can recall, red was for beginners, blue for intermediate and white for expert.

    I received my white band the first day. I was pretty proud of myself.

    I still love swimming, and will at any opportunity, spend all day in the water. Not the ocean, mind you. I prefer to be on the top of the food chain.

    I was never forced into any activity. I got the impression that my mother would just as soon have me do nothing so that she was not bothered with the activity. Although I did play baseball, hockey and football until my early teens.

    Fortunately, she never guilted me into doing any activity. I don’t react well to that.

  21. 7 LOL moments… yes 7! Thanks Joe… you always make me smile.

    I can swim fairly well I just can’t dive. I also have no musical talent. I sing flat, so flat that my high school music teacher asked me to mime in class. Just regular high school music, nothing fancy. It did get me out of singing in church though. A teacher once tapped me on the shoulder and told me to sing. A classmate told him, “Ms Jacobs said she’s not allowed to sing”.

    Cheers, Chev

  22. Lewis: I read your comment and spewed tea all over everything. Thanks! 😆 I have to remember not to take a big drink before I read comments next time.

    My son asked for piano lessons at four. I thought it would be a big waste of money but he didn’t get bored with the lessons until he turned eleven. That’s when the lessons started getting hard. I still miss hearing piano music in the background while I’m cooking dinner.

    My kid switched to saxophone lessons and it sounded like a cat being tortured. He’s on year four of sax lessons and he sounds pretty good now. One big thing that came out of these music lessons is my kid appreciates all kinds of music. When I go past his room I’ll hear jazz, classical or pop coming from his computer. Most of the other teens I’m around only listen to mainstream music.

    I never could afford lessons vacations either Ponytail. There are so many things my kid takes for granted but I don’t.

    I was too petrified of getting my head under water to swim as a kid. When I married my hubby, he encouraged me to learn swimming. We had a pool at our apartment complex and I learned to swim with his coaching. Now I’m swimming 1 ½ miles Monday-Friday at the YMCA. I still can’t get my head completely underwater but I can do the backstroke. Swimming has been a gift from God when I’m feeling bad. The cool water helps my headaches, body aches and my blood pressure went down to 112/70. My bp wasn’t terrible before but higher than it should have been.

    I remember once standing poolside for a good fifteen minutes, waiting for an opening in the churning sea of bodies before deciding “What the hell” and jumping in, quite literally, feet first. I recall the coolness of the water, then the yielding softness of some hapless swimmer’s back as I unwittingly pinned her to the bottom of the pool. It amazes me that you jumped in without knowing how to swim. Very brave kid! I could have never done that. Also, I could picture that poor girl pinned to the bottom of the pool. Assuming she was ok, it was pretty funny. Thanks for the laugh and sorry for the booklet I’m posting.

    Have a g’day all!

  23. @ LJ – That’s really nice! And sweet. 🙂

    @ JeffW – The patio is done, for now. I still have to get my potted plants sorted out – I just kind of placed them around so we could mow the grass. I need to get herbs that didn’t survive the winter re-planted, and find a good place for my swallowtail butterfly hatchery – a.k.a. the parsley. I think I may just relocate them to a sunnier part of the yard that’s a bit out of the way.

    I haven’t decided on the edge yet (I wanted the patio flush with the grass, but made it a little higher to allow for settling). I just couldn’t afford – in time, effort, and money – to do it any better. The ‘professional’ edging would make it seem too finished, and I don’t want a perfect looking patio. Hopefully it will settle and age and look more like this (only less bumpy):


    We’re expecting heavy rains over the next two days, so that may create some settling and shifting. I have extra sand to make corrections and fill in any cracks that wash out. It cost me about $500 (I think the sand cost more than the pavers!), and that’s really all I could afford (technically couldn’t even afford that, but…). To do it ‘properly’ it would have cost at least $1500 in materials alone, and probably would have taken an extra week to do. This will last the summer, maybe two…three if I’m lucky. After that, we sell the house! 😀

    Here’s a picture of the patio:


    The big wood thingy is the feral cat house, which needs some freshening up (and a new roof), but it fits in okay with the whole rustic feel of the patio. It would have been more rustic if Mr. Das had let me keep some of the roots, but as it is he cut them all out save for one, which I worked around nicely, filling in any gaps with soft, fluffy moss. The root is right in front of the cat house entrance, so not where we walk, only the putty tats. 🙂 I’m also considering taking up a couple pavers in the less traveled areas and replacing them with either old bricks, or plants, but not now – I want to wait to see how the whole thing settles first.

    I had to sweep off the sand prematurely because the feral cats thought it was their new litter pan. 😛 I will add and sweep in new sand as necessary. I’m happy with it. Now, to do something about the mosquitoes… 😡


  24. @ Sparrowhawk – Geez. The things some people will do for a blog dedication. 🙄


    (Glad you’re okay, buddy!! I’ll send Todd right over for a little rejuvenating suck and puke! 😀 )


  25. @ Sparrowhawk – OMGoshes…glad you are ok.

    @ Das – that is one heck of a “pool” crammed full of people. Definitely not my choice of a place to get some water splashes. It looks like it could be a hoot to try but with 99% fewer people.

  26. I’m ADD today, sorry Mr. M.. I meant Sparrow_hawk. Love the patio Das! Great job.

  27. I love the description of jumping into the too-full pool! I didn’t learn to swim despite years and years of classes because we preffered to gossip in the shallow end. We also never finished sewing anything in home ec; too busy obessing over General Hospital and John Travolta.

    Yot to do all the stuff me and my siblings wished we could have done as kids, but with six of us my folks left all the extras to our school and let us go bonkers in the backyard instead of paying for ballet, tap or piano.

  28. @das: The patio looks great! All I could think of when I saw the pool was “oh, the humanity!” I could never be in a pool (or anywhere) with that many people.

    Sylvia, Tam, and das, thanks for the get well wishes. I’m on the mend. I could really use Todd, though. 😉

  29. @dasndanger

    Good effort with your patio there, it looks nice. Can’t say I’ve done much in the way of gardening lately, did pick up a Japanese Maple plant lol(Aka Acer palmatum), a lovely looking plant to have in your garden imo. I love the color.

    They can have red/pinky color leaves and stuff.

  30. I think thats awful nice of Das to share Todd with you. Hope you are all better soon Sparrow_hawk, ouchie! I did the fall off the bicycle 2 weeks ago, was turning it around, dumb dumb, guess I should give that up as a bad idea..
    Nice Patio Das, multi talented.

  31. @Sparrow_hawk:

    Barb and I are so sorry to hear about your injury and we’re praying for a speedy recovery. A friend of ours broke her collar bone a few years ago and had a terrible time (it wasn’t healing properly and needed to be re-broken and re-set, and then she needed months of physical therapy). We’re hoping your recovery goes much much smoother! Let us know how you’re doing.

    On the foodie tour, I’ve been waiting on my various business trip dates to be settled (which finally got settled today) before sending out some prospective dates for the foodie event. I should be able to send out our available dates tomorrow. Since Barb and I will be visiting Vancouver again between June 18th and 24th, we should be able to bring you some “get well macarons” from Soirette’s if we do the foodie event after that. 😀


    Beautiful looking patio! For our project, we finished filling the pool yesterday and got the pump running last night, just in time for…50 degree weather this weekend?!? 😯 I guess we’ll get to use it sometime in June.

    The feral cat thing I understand; I grew up in the country. We didn’t have a feral cat house though, we had a green house. My mom’s favorite feral cat would sleep in there and during thunderstorms it would climb on top of the green house and dig its claws into the plastic sheathing and ride the billows as the storm blew. Every time my grandmother had to patch the plastic, she would threaten to shoot the cat with the shotgun during the next thunderstorm “billows ride”; she never did though.

  32. @JeffW: Thanks! The orthopedic surgeon I saw in the hospital was pretty confident that, since the fracture was “non-displaced” it would heal very well. I’ll see him again in a couple of weeks. And I love the feral cat story – great image.

    @das: Todd! I feel better already.

  33. @ Das – Love your patio. It looks so relaxing…

    @ Sparrow_hawk – Were you on a motor bike or bicycle? The (female) Mayor of Fort Worth (or maybe Dallas) recently did the exact same thing on her bicycle. Exact same injuries too! She recovered to ride again. Hope you get better quickly, but take it easy for awhile.

  34. Great childhood memory Joe! Love to reminisce! My summers were spent in on a yellow school bus going to YMCA Arrowhead Day Camp. The bus would pick me up at 7am and I’d get home by 5pm. I loved it though! It was best years of my life. Always made lots of friends, but it was hard to say goodbye when summer was over.

  35. What a nice childhood memory. Love the picture, too. I have great memories from my childhood like that. We had a pool but I did not learn how to swim (real swimming) until the 5th grade. Then by 7th grade I was on the swim team. The junior high I attended in Omaha had an indoor swimming pool. We could take swimming stuff as part of our physical education minicourses. That is when I took first-aid (lifeguard like stuff). We would have to bring in clothes and learn how to take off our clothes in the water (with swimsuit underneath, of course) and tie them off to make flotation devices, then how to save someone, especially the person who was fighting. I loved playing the person others had to save. I gave them such a difficult time thrashing about. We had to drag a certain amount of weight a certain distance. I was stupid enough to take diving one quarter. I was one backdive short of an A. Just could not do it. With swim team, we’d practice after school and I remember walking home in the freezing cold with wet hair. The stupid things people do, right? I was mostly in academic stuff. I was discovered to be gifted and talented so I was in this club called Challenger with all the other smart kids. We were allowed to study at our own pace during school hours. It was pretty cool. It’s how I was able to get at least a year ahead in academics. I also was involved in singing. My sister taught me how to play guitar. I didn’t take piano until I was an adult. I tried to be in band in my early elementary years but I was scarred by the teacher who told me I would never learn how to play the flute and I had to give that up. I got a flute as an adult and thought I could teach myself. I was able to finally blow correctly into the instrument, but I’m having problems figuring out the rest. Maybe I’ll take formal lessons. I was also president of my class as a sophomore and was an early inductee into National Honor Society. Was also a beach bum during the summer in my high school years. I was terrified of boats for many of my early years, having almost capsized on the Statue of Liberty boat in rough seas. But my father had a remedy for that when I refused to get on someone’s speed boat — pick me up kicking and screaming and plop me in the boat when I was frozen in terror. That seemed to allow me to live for the summer on a boat for two years in my teenager years. I had a lot of sucky childhood memories that involved my family, but all the happy ones are the good ones to hold onto.

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