Tunics and piano lessons

Remember medical school, when I didn’t have time to knit because I was “too busy” with things like anatomy and clinical rotations and having white friends (i went to maine!) and falling in love? Well, (cue eyeroll) that was so dumb because residency is like that but times a hundred plus notes on notes (PEE BREAK) on notes and other shenanigans like figuring out how disability insurance works. Seriously, sometimes, when I’m in the elevator by myself, I’ll stop at every floor just so I have some extra time to breathe or text a friend or check my snaps (or fart, cuz let’s be real #WedAMbreakfastburritos) before my time is swept away again.

Anyway, superior busy-ness aside (i think it’s safe to say that i am the most busy and have the most call nights and get the least sleep and receive the most frustrating text pages (YES, KAREN, THANK YOU I KNOW HE’S GETTING FUSSY)), my knitting has slowed down considerably since started residency. I’m still settling in, establishing a routine (netflix + hummus – pants) and troubleshooting how to live by myself (windshield wipers come in sizes WHAT?!), and, sadly, I’ve only just recently been able to go browsing the Denver yarn scene for supplies.

So, that’s just the long way of explaining why this latest project is coming to you many months later than I originally intended. But here it is! Finally! It’s a wrap-around tunic/apron from cocoknits that is cool and weird-looking and novel and completely outside my typical fare (i.e. herringbone scarves and japanese anime characters). It also has a pocket, which I’m kind of obsessed with.

Since this is one of my more oddball projects (that’s also p revealing) and I’m still new here and trying to convince people I’m normal (currently taking it easy on the estway ingway…), I felt like this probably wasn’t the best time to go asking around for volunteers to model this for me. So, in a pinch, I opted for a chair instead, which, all things considered, worked out pretty well. It caught the light perfectly and took instructions like a champ, the only drawback being that it has a bust size of like, 10, and two less arms (and two more legs) than I’m used to seeing. Also it’s a chair.

This tunic is for my friend, Connie, who sends me Instagram posts even though I never respond to any of them (literally didn’t even know instagram had an inbox until less than a year ago). She shares my love of Ken Liu and lets me swipe her Tinder and her current wardrobe aesthetic can best be described as potato-sack chique, so I’m hoping this draping, shapeless, grey blob of a top will fit right in!

Oh yeah, I also knit a hat because I was feeling iffy about my abilities halfway through that tunic (it was looking real rough for a while) and this ecru-speckled-with-black worsted yarn was the perfect knit-me-up. Not exciting enough to merit its own post or backstory, but I will probably love this pattern until the day I die (chevrons forevrons) so I’m throwing it in here anyway. Fun fact: this is a throwback from a pattern I designed (almost 4 years ago to the day!), which you can download from my Ravelry store!

Another also (because I swear I have more friends than kitchen chairs), this is Christi, who, in an unprecedented move, agreed to let me take pictures of her wearing my hat despite having no clue what they would be used for. Equally boss-like, Christi took her boards on like, the second day of residency, so while we were all dicking around playing ice-breakers and going to trivia, she became certified(ish) and is more of a doctor than the rest of us (she sucks at trivia tho).

Lastly, I am still trying to write everyday, which has been a challenge, especially after long days of staring at screens and F2ing my way through notes just waiting to be read (lol) by my attendings. But mostly, I look forward to the time when I can write about whatever I want in whatever style I want (wearing whatever i want aka nothing), when I’m free to write as well or poorly or fast or slowly as I want, and I don’t have to worry about accuracy or technicalities because if I can’t decide between fact or fiction I can easily make an ice cream swirl of the two.

So continue below to check out the least co-signable, most unbillable, non-note I’ve written since starting residency.

Oh yeah, I also like being able to pee whenever I want (you would think that wouldn’t be a problem but it turns out that is like, the biggest problem).

Piano Lessons

“Lighter, lighter.”

A listening pause.

“Yes, yes—no!” I passed perfection by an inch without even knowing it.

My ten little dancers formed a rather unimpressive troupe. My thumb tucked obediently beneath my middle finger, the other eight arced and poised. My left hand in the splits and my right—a risky leap of the fourth followed by a dainty landing by the fifth. One tripped on the cracks between the keys and I fell on the A too hard. My fingernails clacked obnoxiously.

 “Keep it full! Make it sing!” And then, with an edge to her voice, “What are you doing?!”

Rhetorical, obviously, but in annoyed defiance I gave the slightest of shrugs, masked beneath a dramatic arm swing. No clue, I shrugged. I would have said more had my hands not been doing a million different things—inadequately, as it were. I was frustrated, with Angela, with Beethoven, but also with myself, because it didn’t make sense. I practiced everyday and yet somehow every Saturday it all fell apart. Looking down, my left hand was replaced by a great, big elephant’s foot. Just two fingers glommed together with a palm the size of a cantaloupe. “Not so heavy,” Angela would say, flinching, looking injured and offended, as if I’d brought a sledgehammer to practice. My right hand had the opposite problem—the keys like eighty-eight cement walls beneath my twiggish fingers. I missed an E flat two octaves above middle C. A sudden drop like a lump in my throat. A silence that made me blush.

“Make it sing!”

Sing! I shrugged. Whatever that means.

My foot accidentally slid off the pedal and it came up hard, transmitting a sonorant thud through the piano’s wooden frame. An audible sigh came from my right. Another hurt exasperation.

Angela was a large, perpetually unimpressed, Chinese woman, with short, black hair that fell in a flaccid bob and swished back and forth every time she shook her head, which she did often. She dressed in variations on a theme: A silk blouse in pastel and wide, flowing black pants without shoes. She never wore shoes, because she liked to sit at the couch by the window and tuck her left leg beneath her while listening to us play, her arms splayed out along the couch’s back. It was her throne. And her kingdom was miniscule. She held lessons out of her living room, in a comically small house—though, technically, it was cozy bordering on roomy when held to San Francisco standards—that sat shoulder to shoulder with her neighbors, all of them tucked together tighter than Chinatown grandmothers on the 30 Stockton at rush hour. With two couches and two baby grand pianos, there was room for little else other than a shallow bookshelf against the far wall and a line of crystalline plaques and accolades standing tall along the mantle. Between the pianos was just enough room for a tall and dying houseplant with stubby green shoots that stuck out like arms.

Angela lived in the Outer Sunset, just three blocks from Ocean Beach. So close that the sidewalk cement had bits of sand in it and if you were quiet you could hear the waves rushing like from the inside of a seashell. It was often windy and cold until well past noon, with heaps of clouds filling the sky and bumbling about with nowhere to go. We lived thirty minutes away in North Beach, where the sun melted away the clouds reliably in the early morning and the only things in the sky were the spires of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral and the rare flock of parrots trying to locate the treetops of Telegraph Hill, so driving to her house often felt like going back in time, chasing the path of clouds as we traveled across the city, going from one side of the thumb to the other.

(“You see it now?” Ally asked me once, on her tip toes so she could hold her hand against the map that hung over her bed. With her right hand she made an ‘OK’ sign. “That’s what a peninsula is.” She overlaid her hand on top the map so her thumb occluded the city and her pointer finger arced around East Bay and covered the Marin, with just a sliver of space between them across which spanned the Golden Gate Bridge. I nodded, begrudgingly.

“Yeah, I guess.” Just a year older than her, but I hated when she taught me something I didn’t already know.)

I should admit, however, that typically our trips to Angela were rarely so observant: my mother would be driving, with one hand on the wheel and alternating fixing her hair and shifting gears of our 1995 Honda Civic with the other, and Ally and I would still be waking up in the backseat, just in time to bicker over the radio station or fill the car with nervous hums while skimming the final bars of something we were supposed to have memorized a month ago. This particular Saturday was my turn to go first, which required some mental preparation of its own, since I would receive the brunt of Angela’s dissatisfaction—for my heavy handedness and my untrimmed fingernails. For my inelegance. Angela was always particularly mean during the first lesson, requiring an initial punching bag to utterly demolish, after which she became noticeably less critical—her standards sufficiently lowered, we guessed—by the time the second one started.

A long chord, requiring all of my fingers. Played with my arms instead of my fingers just like she taught me. This time without a secret shrug. I counted two whole rests in my head. As the sound died, the light rail outside came to a stuttering stop—a crash of arthritic joints and accordion hinges as the L line took a wheezy breath before attempting a wide turn onto 46th Avenue. Angela remained unfazed. She didn’t hear it, it seemed. She only had ears for me.

This was our fifth year with Angela. Before her was Soo Ling, a prim yet eccentric older woman who wore pencil skirts that, from the looks of it, were made of the same material as her couch cushions. I didn’t dare touch, but the matching embroidery was all but confirmatory in my mind. She had a variety of strange behaviors, and we pressed our mother for an explanation (“There has to be a reason,” Ally would insist) during the car rides home after our lessons. “She’s a particular woman, isn’t she?” my mother would ask back sometimes, ignoring our questions. Or, more commonly: “Now don’t be rude,” after which she’d tap on the radio with a swift knuckle jab and drown us out in the backseat with light, Christian rock.

Soo Ling was dictatorial about posture. Some days she would have us sit at the piano with our hands on the keys and play nothing at all, just so she could see how quickly our shoulders slumped and backs curled in. She made us practice bowing, which was customary at our recitals: “A true bow comes from the waist,” she said after I tried to get away with a quick nod. Then she put an icy hand on my back and forced me into a ninety-degree angle. “None of this head bobbing business. I’m training pianists, not pigeons!” And she felt strongly that one should never touch, let alone play, a piano until seated for at least a full three seconds at the bench. Her behaviors ranged from odd to pathologic, all of which I can only describe as—to use my mother’s word—particular. She collected our eraser shavings in an old candy tin and sent us home with tape cassettes of Prokofiev and Clementi to listen to while we slept. When we first started with her, Soo Ling measured our heights (tch tch, she’d cluck holding her measuring tape, as if we had voluntarily forgone those final few inches) and the angles of our arms when we played. After her assessment, she instructed my mother to buy a specific mat for me to sit on, since, apparently, I was too short for her piano bench. “Yes, yes, this will do,” she said when we brought it in for her inspection, putting on her reading glasses to investigate the fabric and height, analyzing each pilus that would invariably be mowed flat beneath my indiscriminatory behind.

As might be expected from someone like her, Soo Ling moved frequently for seemingly no reason, though we followed her faithfully for years. When we first met her, she was living in the Richmond, in a boxy house on Anza Street, which I’ve all but forgotten except for the tall gate and curling stone stairs that led up to her front door, and then some years later, together with her quiet, bespectacled Caucasian husband, she moved to Laurel Heights, to a third story condo around the corner from the Noah’s Bagels on California Street. Even when she moved to San Rafael, in Marin County—just beneath the cuticle of Ally’s pointer finger held up against her bedroom map—we followed her, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge every week and weaving the Marin headlands just so we could have someone listen to our Minuets and Etudes.

“It’s worth it,” my mother would say while sitting in traffic on the bridge, stalled behind lolling tourists leaning out their windows to take photographs of Alcatraz’s dramatic protrusion from the Pacific. “You two really have a gift, you know? And Soo Ling knows it; I’m sure you’re her favorite students.”

Soo Ling fired us after six years. I wasn’t even aware teachers could do that to their students. At the time, my mother had said it was because she lived too far away. It wasn’t until later, when I realized that Angela’s house in the Outer Sunset was as equally an inconvenient trek every week that I took the time to really think about it. It came back like repressed memories, the way I used to track in pebbles from running around in her Japanese zen garden and dig through her bookshelves with sticky hands, leafing through hefty tomes in search of pictures of naked men (The only nudity I’d been exposed to by that time was on accident, stumbling on images in my parents’ old college textbooks. So, naturally, I was most drawn to those serious, hard-covered books, excited by black-and-white images hidden between blocks of inscrutable text.). And then there was that one time I removed the ivory-colored ferns from the marble vase in her study as props in a game with my sister that loosely resembled a combination of tag, spell-casting imaginary play, and amateur fencing.

“She’s just too particular a woman for us,” my mother tried to explain, sweetening her words as mothers do. And I left thinking about the word “particular”—a term my mother had exclusively used to describe Soo Ling—and, without the lather of honey that she so often used to coat her words, who was actually too particular for whom.

Angela was everything Soo Ling wasn’t. Blunt and practical. Matte and dull where Soo Ling was glossy and gleaming. I cried after my first lesson with her. I felt foolish, because I was in middle school and hadn’t cried in years, and yet I couldn’t even make it to the car before breaking down. She had a way of getting to me, which would never go away even after years of lessons with her. Thinking back now, it’s obvious: she was disappointed in me, frequently, and she was perhaps the only person I knew to have no hesitation telling me exactly that.

Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor. Second movement. Adagio e cantabile, which means slow and in a singing style according to her tiny book of music notations and terminology. My favorite of the three. The first and third movements were loud and flashy, difficult in a technical way but, in my head, little more than an iconic melody atop a busy bass. The second movement was smoldering. Patient and understated. With the kind of melody you could recognize but, for some reason, never quite hum right. Practicing this one hardly felt like practicing. It felt more like stretching, a tension that slowly faded into ease with time. Adagio e cantabile, which means slowing down the mechanisms of a watch and observing each wheel turn step-wise inside, setting off the bits and cogs in synchrony. Adagio e cantabile, in which everything is heard.

“Make this part melooooodic!” Angela sung, trying to match my pitch as my right hand skated higher. She thrust a fleshy arm upward and traced a slow arc in the air. I closed my eyes and let my shoulders relax (without slumping, feeling the cold ghost touch of Soo Ling against my back). I put an end to all the protests in my head, allowing my elephant foot and bird-boned hands to melt into the keys. My thoughts slowed to a steady walk, and then came to a rare standstill. And then, just the ten fleeting sensations of fingertip on smooth, lacquered enamel. I was home again, skilled again, practicing on our tiny Kawai buried beneath pictures frames and regifted trinkets that buzzed when we played.

To sing on the piano felt like opening a ripe peach. A slow and deliberate twist and pull, with a delicate touch that didn’t wring out the bleeding flesh. And quietly, underneath, beneath my hands, feeling the fibers hugging the pit give way in deep, satisfying vibrations.

“Yes, that’s it.” Softer, pleased. I was doing something right. And I could feel it, too. I stole a quick glance. Her head was rolled back against the window, and her eyes partway closed.

I balanced each note on the belly of a sleeping bear.

A knock on the door interrupted her reverie.

And mine. An hour lasts forever until the last five minutes.

“Keep playing.” Angela hoisted herself up off the couch. Whenever she moved, the house became noticeably small again. She shimmied past her old, wooden Baldwin & Sons to open the front door and a faint ocean breeze accompanied my sister as she entered. I was always uncomfortable playing in front of anyone other than Angela. Even Ally, who heard me practice at home all the time. She sat on the other couch against the wall with her books in a Joshua Tree canvas bag. My fingers sticky like dough again, my foot a pile of cinder blocks, but Angela held her tongue. Our time was over. She didn’t care anymore.

But I wanted her to. Secretly.

I dreaded the hour until it was over, and then it was never enough.


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