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Benched by Joe Mills

Joe Mills / String Figures

I love benches. I have spent hours of my life on them watching, writing, reading, dreaming, napping – in parks, on city streets, at airports, on sports teams — but there is one that I don’t like.

Our piano bench.

It’s puzzling because my time at the piano gives me great pleasure. In fact, what I love about benches is that they are an invitation to relax, to sit and spend time in contemplation, which is also what I appreciate about the piano. For me, playing serves as a time out from the day’s turbulence. So why do I like the piano, but not the bench?

Is it because the bench is one of the least interesting pieces of furniture in the house? Considering pianos have been around for roughly three hundred years, it’s surprising that, for the most part, their benches are so boring. They don’t have to be designed like Iron Thrones or something by Gaudi, but they could offer more variations than padded or non-padded seats.

Yet, to be fair, I recognize there is a paradox in my attitude. We used to have another piano bench, one that was even simpler than our current one, but that I liked because we were using it as a coffee table. Repurposing it made a difference in how I regarded it. This often happens. We don’t respect something that does its primary job well, but we’re charmed when it does a secondary one adequately. (Isn’t this the appeal of most “life hacks” and tips on the internet? Twelve Uses for Bread Bag Ties! Make Your Old Underwear Into Fun Funky Bird Nests!)

Precisely because of its functionality, its daily use, our current bench has yet to be stuffed with the random stuff that stuffs our lives. Every counter, drawer, and closest in the house is full – evidence of my theory that people are gases expanding to fill any container into which we are put – and stuff covers all the available surfaces including chairs, counters, dressers, and steps. At the moment, we rarely eat together as a family because of our differing schedules, so the dining room table has disappeared. As I write this, a quick inventory of what’s on it includes:

two remote-controlled cars, one remote control, my son’s book bag, my book bag, a giant box of matches, a new picture frame, a mini-Leatherman, a box of drill bits, three specialized screwdrivers, several paper tablets, a Darth Vader mask (which I like to put on and say to my son, “I’m your father!”), an empty metal spice rack, a vase of fresh flowers, a fedora, a stack of unopened mail, a stack of new and old unread books, the son’s wallet (probably empty), a can of Old Spice spray (definitely empty but the son insists isn’t), a music book for clarinet, an old grocery list, measuring spoons, a baseball hat, assorted pens and pencils, cold medicine, scraps of paper, a paint scraper, a coffee cup with used tea bag.

In contrast, the piano bench is bare, and inside it are only music books, a wrench (to assemble the bench), and the business card of our piano tuner. However, I’m sure that if we stopped playing regularly, the bench would immediately and almost magically start to become stuffed with non-music related stuff.

Since I constantly rail against clutter, and the way spaces accumulate what Philip K. Dick called “kibble,” the detritus and trash of our lives, I should love the bench with its clean lines and clear surface. The fact I don’t makes me wonder if my dissatisfaction resides not in the object, but in myself. Perhaps I don’t like some part of who I am on the bench, not as a player, but as a person.

Watching Danielle at the piano, she has terrific form. She’s upright. Composed. She looks like a piano player whereas I slouch and suspect that I look like a decomposing squash. The bench has no back, no lumbar support, no brace to keep me upright; no wonder I dislike it. It makes me feel… wizened.

But again, this isn’t the bench’s fault. I always have had terrible posture. When I first began teaching over two decades ago, a pre-med student wrote a paper on posture, analyzed mine (cleverly assigning me the pseudonym “Joe Sills”), and spent several pages explaining how bad it was. He insisted that I would be happier, healthier, and younger-looking if I would straighten up.

I didn’t doubt him.

But I didn’t do anything about it.

Again, the question is Why?

Why do we continue with behavior that we know is damaging and that might be easy to change? I’ve been thinking about this recently since multiple times in the last month I’ve heard professionals say, “I know that I shouldn’t do it this way, but…” or “studies have shown this isn’t ineffective, but …” and they then read their PowerPoint slides out loud (or do whatever it was they just said they shouldn’t do). Is this the equivalent of my saying, “I really shouldn’t have another donut” as I shove one into my mouth? Is it a laziness? A weakness? A self-defeating mechanism? I once spent hundreds of dollars going to a physical therapist to strengthen my back (which probably had been damaged by years of poor posture), but, as soon as the appointments stopped, I quit doing the exercises. What makes this behavior even more irrational is that for years afterwards I carried around a printout detailing those exercises as if one morning I would suddenly drop to the floor and start doing them.

Although I could resolve to improve my posture, I suspect that it’s not something I can do myself. Most likely I would end up enacting a stereotype of properness and rigidity, and I would look grotesque. To successfully change, I probably would need help, and yet help is something I dislike asking for.

This may be the crux of the matter.

I will wander a store aisle for an hour looking for something and then leave empty-handed rather than ask for assistance. I am teaching myself piano, not because I want to save money or I don’t have the time for lessons, but because I don’t want to submit to someone else’s authority and scrutiny. I hate to be told what to do, even if it’s something that I want to do. And I hate to be watched and evaluated. (My restaurant would not have an open kitchen.) So, although I could ask Danielle and she would be happy to help me, I know this would be hard on our relationship. She would take the request seriously, offer advice, and I would rebel. Just thinking about it now, I’m getting annoyed, imagining her comments to “straighten up” as I’m trying to play.

So maybe the issue with the bench is that it’s a bench and not a stool. A bench is designed for two people. A student and teacher. Or collaborators. Or a player and listener. Perhaps each time I sit on it, slouching over the keys, on some level, I’m reminded of my willful isolation, the go-it-alone obstinacy that hampers me, that often leaves me empty-handed with a sore back. Maybe I would like it more, or dislike it less, if I tried to change my ways.

I could ask for help . . . but I won’t. Not yet. That would be too drastic of a change.

But maybe I could straighten up a little at the keyboard. Not much. But a little. Just a little.


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 (2nd edition), 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.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

Read More Work by this Author

  • “Practicing to be a Poet ” in Issue 1.1
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