The Right Hand, The Left Hand, and the Failure to Communicate by Joe Mills

When I was younger, I was proud of my balance. I skied. I skateboarded. I walked curbs without falling. In retrospect, I suspect my self-esteem was unjustified. I probably was a kid with average coordination. Studies suggest people can be poor judges of their own abilities. For example, many students who believe themselves good at math actually have deficient skills. There can be an inverse correlation between self-esteem and abilities.

As I’ve aged, however, it has become impossible to ignore the overwhelming evidence that, rather than being agile, I am quite clumsy. From the coffee and food stains on my clothes to the chipped dishware in the kitchen, I can’t get through a day without knocking something, usually myself, around. I no longer skateboard and I limit my ladder climbing, so this lack of coordination isn’t dangerous; it’s just embarrassing. When I run into a door jamb, I’m not hurt; I just hope no one is watching and I move on.

I have developed strategies and behaviors to deal with this. I use travel cups with lids. I wear a hat so the inevitable head-bumping won’t leave a scar. I put down my grocery sacks before opening the door. I’ve stopped using the office chair with wheels as a step-stool. In short, I’ve learned to live with who I am, and who I am hasn’t bothered me. Until recently. But now it does, everyday, at approximately 8 pm when I practice the piano.

When I was working my way through the one-note-at-a time lessons, I enjoyed myself. It was fun. Now, I’m past those. And, although I can get both hands to play the same melody or sequence, or I can play a left hand part, or I can play a right hand part, I have difficulty playing a left hand part and a right hand part at the same time. No matter how smoothly I start, it deteriorates into a discordant mess and often ends with me slamming my hands on the keys and trying not to swear. (I suspect my children think “Danny Boy” goes “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling Goddamnargghh!”) If I was playing John Cage’s pieces for prepared piano, or something avant-garde or punk, it would be fine. But I’m not.

I stare at my hands and quote Cool Hand Luke to them: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

I’m fine with incompetence. My fear is that there is something more going on. My brother and I play chess whenever we get together. Although we’re evenly matched, our wins and losses go in streaks. Sometimes I beat him repeatedly, usually in periods when I’m intensely focused and productive (for example, when I’m in the middle of a book project). Sometimes he dominates, and I make bone-headed mistakes, usually in periods when I’m emotionally or mentally agitated. In short, my play reflects my mind. So my fear is that my lack of coordination at the piano indicates some larger issue.

If I practiced more, I probably would get better. Until now I have been dabbling, but where would I find the time? As it is, my wife and I seem to see one another mostly at the doorway or driveway as we pass on the way to another activity – work, soccer, track, doctor appointments, etc. Despite a whiteboard schedule in the kitchen, Google calendar, and daytimers, we keep saying, “There’s that thing today. Remember? I told you.” It used to be we would protest, “No you didn’t”; now we shrug, “Yeah, you probably did. I forgot.”

What I cannot seem to coordinate is my life. I cannot get the teaching and writing and fathering and husbanding in sync. I can do each piece, but I can’t seem to put them together in a coherent whole. It feels like everything keeps devolving into a mess of wrong notes and off tempo crashings.

I watch others move smoothly through their days while I plink plink plink away, slam my hands down and try not to swear.

Maybe something needs to change. If so, the solution seems obvious.


Not my life, but the piano. I’ve been doing it because it gave me pleasure. If it has begun to make me anxious and dissatisfied, shouldn’t I stop?

Of course, it would be a public failure. There are these columns, and, more importantly there is my family. I imagine the conversation.

“Daddy, why did you stop playing piano?”

“Because I suck… because I’m a mess… because I got to a point that my limitations made the future look like a yawning abyss with no way across … because it made me feel bad about my life.”


But I suspect quitting isn’t the answer because the problem isn’t the piano. Or my schedule. Or my life. The problem is being a writer and literature professor and seeing everything as symbolic or metaphorical. Sometimes it’s not. When my brother beats me at chess, it might not be because I’m in an emotional rough patch, but, as difficult as it is to believe, it might be that he’s better than me that night. If, while washing the dishes, I break a wine glass that we’ve had for years, it’s probably not a portent for our marriage.

So what needs to change may be my thinking about what needs to change. Supposedly Sigmund Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Yes, I lack coordination at the piano and can’t get all the way through “Erie Canal.” Maybe that isn’t an indication I’m failing as a human being. Maybe it just means I’m a klutz.

Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2ndedition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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