Self-improvement fancies may falter but hope must not

Disorder and confusion ... It’s a jungle out there, and Randy Newman knows it. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Disorder and confusion ... It’s a jungle out there, and Randy Newman knows it. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Extra thinking time because I have almost no work has been a mixed blessing.

There have been pointless ponderings about how many consecutive days it is acceptable to wear the same outer garments.  Many a tree will fall in the forest before bigger philosophical questions are settled.  For example, if chocolate slops down the front of my clothes and nobody outside my bubble sees it, does it exist?

After my carefully counted out four squares of post-prandial chocolate were delivered the other night, I ate two and became agitated at not being able to locate the others. 

Morphing further into one of those  marbles-losers insisting everyone is stealing their stuff, I promptly accused my companion.  It got uglier. He counter-accused me of scoffing the chocolate and forgetting.

Raising my mug of hot tea to my lips for a sullen sip, I noticed there was molten chocolate dripping off the bottom of it. Slops/no slops? You decide.

My thinking in early lockdown days turned to fantasies of self-improvement. Now was the time to drag out the piano music bought at least a year ago for Randy Newman’s It’s a Jungle Out There and have a crack at it.

The instruction ‘‘moderate shuffle’’  sounded more like my normal gait than a tempo I could play. From the first bar I had to work out the notes for the left hand and write their names on the music. 

‘‘Why are there only five lines on the staff? How the hell does anyone work out what those notes are way below the lines?’’ I bleated to the music student in the family.

He suggested that anyone who read music frequently would quickly come to recognise those notes. I was not that anyone.

My piano teacher mother has not been far from my mind during the lockdown, not just because I want to believe I might have progressed beyond the fourth bar on Randy’s masterpiece by now had she not died when I was 4.

It’s her death I have been thinking about. At 32, she died in a private hospital from the asthma which had afflicted her since childhood.

In my head I picture the traumatic scene — her futile and frightening struggle for breath. I wonder how long it takes before she loses consciousness and who, if anyone, is with her as she crashes from life to death. Dad isn’t. He is at least two hours’ drive away and is only summoned afterwards.

One young woman’s death. Nothing in the grand scheme, but everything to those affected in that moment and beyond. 

When people ask if we should just let Covid-19 run its course now because it may not kill too many people and most of them weren’t far from death anyway, I wonder if the concept of someone dear dying a terrifying and unexpected death in the dedicated care of  strangers is still too abstract for them to grasp. It isn’t for me.

As the lockdown has progressed, my need to think hopeful thoughts has increased. Maybe it is too early to dream we might evaluate anew how we have been treating each other and the earth and that a better society might emerge.

Instead, I am finding succour in hope writ small — for the eventual fate of our family pianola, Dad’s wedding gift to his bride, sold recently in Auckland for $1.

Buyers Anthony Vesey and Sheryl Steele are a couple with a vision to restore old pianos and rent them to learners.

Sheryl, who has been an itinerant music teacher in schools, observed  that while students could borrow/rent other instruments for practising, piano students could find it difficult to afford a decent piano. Pianos for sale are plentiful but are often in a poor state.

In the last few years, the couple have amassed a collection of 25 pianos and 11 pianolas, most bought for $1 each. They have researched how to repair them and hope to produce some of the more expensive parts themselves.

They want to restore a few pianolas to show condition and rent them out for performances at rest-homes or special occasions. They are also keen to preserve the paper rolls (used in pianolas to produce the music) and get involved in cutting new rolls for enthusiasts.

However, life and pandemic have intervened.  Both Anthony and Sheryl have had health setbacks and changes of direction in their day-to-day work. Piano plans are on hold.

Anthony says they are ‘‘just past the dream stage’’ with one piano  restored and not leased out  yet.

‘‘We obviously have plenty of ideas — and have probably taken on too much — but hope is still there.’’

I need to cling to that hope when, as Randy sings, there’s disorder and confusion everywhere.

■Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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