I’ve been largely resting my arm since February, playing with students and practicing in 20 minute increments. Although it hurt after each session, it would quickly fade and seemed receptive to the usual tendinitis protocol. Writing work has picked up, and of course, typing hurts, too. I’m trying to edit before I compose. You tell me if my tone is suddenly as wooden as it feels. Sorry about that.
I went to see a specialist last week. I described the pain, she took some x rays and then she did a bunch of physical tests. Push! Pull! Lift! Squeeze! “Does this hurt?”
Um, YES?!? 30 seconds later I was in tears as my entire left forearm, wrist, palm and fingers exploded in pain, worse than the initial cello-induced injury. What’s the point of resting if the diagnostic tests are going to set you back months? Now everything pisses my arm off. I’m sleeping in strange positions with pillows cradling my sorry appendage so it’s not too bent, not too straight, just like so.
The diagnosis: I have extensive wrist flexor tendinopathy and possible carpal tunnel syndrome. I’m set to start PT 3 times a week for 6 weeks starting in a few days. For now, I’ve been asked to wear a brace and hammer my kidneys with Motrin. I hate the brace. It’s uncomfortable, doesn’t reduce the pain and is a visual reminder of how dicey things are. In response, I have begun to wear red lipstick (again) because it makes me feel strong and maybe a little Parisian. Paris always makes things better.
Been playing a little bit- just a passage here and there with students. It still hurts and I am without a diagnosis, but can stagger through Go Tell Aunt Rhody and some Lee Duets, which is better than nothing.
Thank you for all of the kind comments, emails and text messages. I still feel like a rudderless ship, but I’d be nowhere without these gusts of support.
Lovely sailboat painting here.
For better or worse, moving east was a fresh start for me. The list of pros and cons is long, with the leading con being a drastically lessened performance career until very recently. 2014 saw a resurgence in ensemble playing, and I relished every rehearsal and performance, soaking in the sound and bringing that part of my heart back to life like some shriveled fruit suddenly doused in warm liquid.
2015 thus far has continued this trend, and I was so excited last week when a colleague asked me to fill in for him and play with the NPO at Strathmore. Great venue, excellent ensemble, and a monster program culminating in Beethoven 9, a.k.a Chops for 70 minutes with that one long slow movement that still manages to kick your ass. I immediately began to practice it, taking special care to not shock my hand with a sudden uptick in repertoire intensity. I’ve been playing hard stuff (Popper, Dvorak, some Britten for my lessons with Shirl) for months, so I felt prepared.
Part of the “fresh start” out here involves my identity as cellist with injuries. In LA, pretty much everybody who knew me professionally knew about my struggles with nerve and tendon damage. Hell, half of the studio pros grew up with me and witnessed first-hand as I limped through performances, withdrew from competitions (mid-performance! that was fun!) and fail miserably to hold back tears as my fingers grew ever more numb. Out here, nobody knew. I had surgery Christmas Eve 2009 and was out here a little over 6 months later. My arm felt better, and my time at Hopkins gave me a little bit of a break from needing to use the thing all the time. In effect, I had a year and a half to heal, and through the beginning of 2013, it felt better every day.
That all changed Wednesday night, when I managed to re-injure my hand to such a degree that I had to withdraw from the wonderful Beethoven program. As I write this, my wrist is hot with pain; my hand, swollen and weak. I waited until Thursday morning, hoping aggressive ibuprofen and ice might restore things, but it was worse. I delivered the music to the orchestra director early, before the other musicians could see me in my disgrace.
Today, I received an email from my father (who does not yet know of this development) finally telling me what my childhood self has been wanting to hear: that he was proud of me for persevering through the pain. Of course I’ve done nothing of the sort. Pride: cancelled. Wound: still bleeding. Once again, just as something wonderful was starting to take shape, my body has other plans.
I can’t put on a brave face and claim anything other than abject disappointment. These things make me ask the big questions, and although decisions are usually best made after the tears have dried, I have little faith in medical intervention- and I’m running out of places I can run to make a fresh start.
So if your teacher tells you your hand is too tense, that the way you’re using your body will cause injury, is only a short term fix, or is unsustainable: please take it seriously, while you still have the option to play without pain. I would give anything to go back and do it all differently if I could.
I am absolutely grief stricken and humiliated.
This used to be a blog almost exclusively about the cello. It began in 2007, when I was starting to hit my stride as an instructor, and I experienced this huge high when I could help walk folks through the physical and emotional minefield learning the cello can be. I used this space as a place to work through ideas, evangelize for my beloved adult students, and keep myself accountable through the writing process.
The cello related posts have been dwindling, but not for lack of something to say: it’s just that I’ve said much of what I want to say about this subject, and if you search through the archives, there really is a hell of a lot of material. Yes, there’s a second book in the works (along with more practice guides). But for now, instrumentalists who are new to the site can dig through the archives via the tags in the sidebar. Here, I’ll get you started:
So this blog is going to open up a bit. I’ve felt hemmed in by “Stark Raving Cello“, because I want to write and learn about and discuss lots of stuff, but it seems weird on a cello blog. It’s kind of like my Twitter feed: lots of hockey, some music, airplane stuff, the occasional cat. I used to apologize for the strangeness of my posts. What musician wants to read one tweet a minute during a Caps game. What’s a Cap anyway? What hockey blogger wants a closeup of a Ligeti score? What pilot wants to see any of it? In the end, I find solace in the words of Herbert Bayard Swope: “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”
Gorgeous shrine photo courtesy of DaveHagerman.
Ever since I can remember, fall has been my favorite season. Growing up in southern California, it was blessed relief from summer’s persistent cloudless urgency. Not a lot of color to be had; perhaps a liquid-ambar would make an ass of itself in the grocery store parking lot, maybe the citrus groves would develop a shy streak, but nothing spectacular. The real thing about LA in autumn is the sublime angle of the light, a cool yellowed blue, mixed with the most wonderful crispness in the air that of course never really makes you cold, but you could totally throw on a scarf and dress like you were in starring in a movie about being “back east”. Plus, my birthday is in the fall, so it’s like a massive kick off: birthday, Halloween (woo!), Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s, St. Paddy’s, Easter.
Then we’re back to summer. (boo!)
Here’s a picture of a tree I got used to looking at during standing yoga poses. Lovely little thing.
Beebee recently stopped being 100% snuggly 100% of the time. This fall, she started showing shades of adolescence. She still wakes me up nearly every night to squeak, and knead, and sometimes even to nurse on my neck or earlobe. Funny, how everything changes at night and comfort becomes the most desperate and precious thing.
She’s an excellent writing buddy.
2014 may have begun meekly, but it ended with an arm half full of artwork, courtesy of Liaa Walter, who I am lucky enough to call a friend as well as the artist responsible for my aviation themed piece. Every time I look at it, at the compass guiding my favorite plane surely to its destination, I am reminded that it’s important to do things that you love. To steer for yourself. To listen when your guts call for a change in direction. Getting a tattoo that everyone can see can seem scary: people judge or make assumptions. Some jobs are not available to me because of them.
Part of the reason I decided to start getting work done where it can be seen was to reaffirm my choices in life. To acknowledge that it is possible to be making good decisions and still find struggle. To make sure I don’t do something truly foolish like give it all up for the safety of a job that would not bring my best into the world. My best might not amount to much, I’ll admit. But it’s what I’ve got- what we’ve all got- and it’s important to find work that sees that potential realized.
Which also explains this.
2014 is over, and I’m grateful for another turn around the sun. 2015 is already trying to make me flinch, but I’m having absolutely none of it.
Summer has always been my least favorite season, even though many wonderful things have happened during the June-September interval. It’s better when there are thunderstorms, but this summer seemed dry and without much character of its own.
In June, my friend Diana and I passed time and anticipated hockey season by going to some public skates. She’s the concertmaster of PASO, and a few weeks into June, we played at the Library of Congress together. I met some wonderful musicians, brushed up my waltz chops, and enjoyed the view. Apparently Sergio, the conductor, never resists the opportunity to photobomb someoene. That’s what I get for taking a selfie.
On the last day of June, Goony got very sick. The morning of July 1, they told me she only had a few weeks to live, as they had found cancer in her mouth, stomach and liver. When I arrived at the vet, her condition quickly worsened: she had waited for me to arrive, and it was clear that she was in great distress. Without hesitation, I asked them to put her to sleep. Her limbs were bent in strange ways, her breathing quick and strained, her eyes dim. It seemed like an eternity between my decision and the procedure. P was speeding up 495 to try and catch her, but I put her pain ahead of P’s desire for a proper goodbye, and a few minutes before he burst through the door, the doctor gently administered the medicine. There is still a Goony-shaped hole in our hearts. What a magnificent little beast she was.
Almost exactly a month after Lucy died, P and I decided to adopt another cat. No sense having one more animal in a shelter when there’s a house with room in it, right? We got Bella, who was described by her foster as “…a quintessential lady. The quietest thing ever.”
I have no idea where these descriptors come from. This cat meows like a cannon and craps like a Marine. And we love her. A few weeks after she had settled in, we got Hermione, aka Beebee, because research seems to indicate that cats are happier in multiples. They get along, for the most part. They’ve both grown exponentially since these pictures were taken.
Summer also began my volunteer work at Walter Reed. I thought I would have more time to devote, but the way it’s worked out, I do a few hours a week, and I have to be happy with that. Or not. It’s not about me, is it?
One ritual that has followed me east is the beach trip. The closest approximation of seaside is Sandy Point, a manmade spot underneath the Bay Bridge on the Chesapeake. The sand is weird- the grains are big and round, and halfway between red and tan. The water is brackish, but still serves as a baptism enough, refreshing my connection to the largeness of nature. Sometimes I lie there and listen to the wash of sound: kids playing, waves sloshing, container ships mournfully hooting in the near distance. This summer was the summer of Radiolab, and as I saw the year begin to close with little relief from the restlessness that has been the signature of my time in DC, I found comfort in learning, in listening.
At the end of July, I taught at SCOR! Chesapeake, a duty I will be reprising in 2015, should any of you adult string players feel the inclination to join me. I am so grateful to Beth and Kyle, who run the camp, for trusting me with their students. I also enjoyed the drive through Baltimore and under the Bay to get to camp. One drive home, I listened to Björk’s Homogenic end to end and was reminded of how nice it is to immerse yourself in a single album. Our iTunes a la carte listening has made us such impatient consumers of music.
Summer took forever to end, with warm temperatures continuing into October. In August, I returned to the college, teaching two new courses and feeling back on my heels once again, the march of time simultaneously grinding me down and bringing assurances that this too, shall pass. The good and the bad, like it or not.
Spring was punctuated by two jarring events: a move into a house that needed extensive work to be habitable, and a trip across the country to visit LA and teach at a camp in Texas.
I had been feeling what I thought was homesickness for a few months, so I was thrilled to fly back to LA, play for my cousin Natalie’s wedding, and visit a few of the haunts that had been calling my name. The first place we went was Birds (pictured above), a restaurant I love so much that I lived in 5 apartments within a few blocks of it, with walking distance to it a major criterion. We were set to hit Hollywood Billiards afterward, but discovered it abandoned and the corner it had dominated, decimated. It made me sadder than it should have.
The wedding was wonderful, the streets were a reassuring grid, and the sushi remains why I bitch and moan about how terrible the fish is here in DC. It really is not even a close call, and in DC, places charge you more and act like they hate you unless you have one of those White House credentials dangling on a lanyard.
But LA is no longer home. I’m still looking for a place to love, for it to love me back.
Still, it’s nice to know that the soju mojitos at Hugo’s and the observation area at Van Nuys will be there for me.
Then it was on to Lone Star SCOR!, which was an incredibly rewarding experience. A proper academic, I was instantly able to run down the list of inadequacies delivered in my lectures, but managed to stay positive: were it possible to address every aspect of a complex topic in a single go, you wouldn’t need a workshop in the first place.
I got back to DC and busied myself during the college-less, hockey-less, virtually student-less months leading up to summer with a sense of foreboding.
I was right. By the time summer was in full swing, I would lose my beloved “cello mama” and darling cat to cancer, which has run like a thorned vine through the last 30 years, taking with it more than a few pieces of my heart.
2014 began on crutches, as I recovered from knee surgery after a beer-league hockey accident. The highlight of the experience was having Caps defenseman Mike Green hold the door to Kettler open for me, and without thinking, I said, “Aw cheers, Greenie!”
…Cheers Greenie. I’m such an idiot.
Since I couldn’t skate much, I was left in the stands while my team played without me. I took pictures. I took notes. I played defenseman in my head, imagining the feel of the choppy ice underfoot, correcting for bad habits acquired under duress, like using my bottom arm to power the shot instead of the top and stopping only on one skate.
Strangely, the surgeon prescribed no rehab, no regimen to get back my strength and mobility. I consulted the internet and made my own, with some yoga, pilates and weights. Like a fencer, my right leg got big, compensating for its atrophying, permanently bent partner. It seemed like that knee would never fully straighten again. Like, I considered what life would be like with a weird little elbow-y leg. It felt so wrong to force it straight, but eventually, it found its way.
After the holiday break, I went back to the college, teaching a few sections of EN 102, including one at 8am. I got to see a bunch of sunrises. It snowed a lot. Attendance was sparse. Half the class either withdrew or failed.
I saw one of the students I failed a few weeks ago at Target, where he works. He called out to me from across the store and offered me a warm hug and a smile. I was glad to see him, and said something to the effect that his demeanor made it very hard to give him such a tough grade. He said, “Man, your class was hard…really hard. But it was the best class. I learned so much.”
I love teaching, and I love writing, but it sometimes feels like a surrendering of my identity as a musician to acknowledge how much of my time it takes up. It was wonderful to have friends like Alexis, who came by after a flute event to read through The Jet Whistle and let the wisdom contained in prosecco bubbles burst behind our wide grins.
It snowed some more. I got into cooking with new ingredients. I tried to skate again too soon.
Part of seeing the world as a teacher is a constant need to find lessons, to find something teachable and productive in every experience. I try to make this blog walk the line: I refuse to turn this place into a curated bunch of photos depicting some unrealistically fabulous life and a career in music that is glamorous and never dicey. I also refuse to allow myself to complain without purpose, to make this my own little dumping ground where I can make sure that all I add to the internet is more crummy entitlement, less insight, less restraint. This stupid blog has been so good for me because, even though the readership ebbs and flows, I have a sense that I should work through things as if someone is watching, and in doing that, I am reminded that there is a better me available, should I only pause to ruminate a little while and wait for her to appear.
Looking back at the first part of 2014, the thing I came away with is to listen to the discomfort that remains after you’ve done your best to be reasonable, tolerant, decent and kind. I pushed myself hard last winter and was at first convinced that my discontentment was a result of a lack of character, intestinal fortitude and virtue. Upon reflection, I was just stocking up on the fuel that powers nearly all concentrated artistic venture: deferement of purpose. I like to think of these early months of 2014 as insurance against entitlement to happiness.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
In the basement, a rare inter-seasonal meeting of S.N.O.W (Society of Neat Ornaments, Washington DC) convenes to determine the fate of Olivier and Sebastian. Put forth as evidence are the weapons used in the attempted assault on Piney, as well as eyewitness accounts from the cats, who saw the whole thing from the window and were really hoping to see some violence that day. As the new house appears to be mouse-free, they instead quenched their bloodlust by savaging several elastic bands, a bag of cotton balls, and a yoga mat. No trial date has been set for said offenses, but word on the street is that the little one is just too cute to stay mad at and the big one had nothing to do with any of it.
Tomorrow: the verdict.