My earliest memory is secretly watching my eldest sister being lowered into a bath of oatmeal to relieve the pain and itching of her chicken pox while feeling guilty because I also had chicken pox but at 3 years old, they were way less intense than hers.
My second earliest memory is of me “playing drums” to Kokomo on our dining room table while my dad told me to slow down and try to play an actual beat. I thought I sounded awesome and was envisioning myself taking over for Animal in the Muppets band.
All throughout my youth, my dad, an Optometrist who took over his father’s practice, had an electric red bass on a stand in our living room and would play it from time to time after dinner. It was a quintessential looking bass, the kind a cartoon character would play. I loved drawing it. And I loved playing with the stand too, which drove my dad nuts. I would put lay it on its side and steer it like an airplane. One day he put it away and stopped playing it, favoring his keyboard in the den. He later upgraded to a piano, which got ruined in Hurricane Sandy. My Mom bought him a baby grand recently and he still plays, sometimes now with his grandson. Granted he plays the same 5 songs over and over again and he drives my mother nuts, but he does it, y’know?
Despite having a passion for music and decent taste (Motown, Do-Wop, classic rock, 60’s garage rock) my dad was never musically great, and stopped playing with other people after high school. He isolated himself creatively which I think is secretly his biggest frustration in life. My eldest sister and I both grew up to work in creative fields, and my dad is constantly asking questions, intrigued and starved for a creative process. At 65, he has a lot of energy left that he doesn’t seem to know what to do with.
Anyway, I think in some way because of him, I’ve always had an interest in music. I was always drawn to the physicality of drumming, and felt I inherently had a sense of timing and rhythm that I didn’t see reflected in others around me. It’s why I’m good at sports and why gay dudes always compliment me on my dancing. But it took me almost 30 years to admit that to myself and bite the bullet and start taking lessons.
In 1993 I was in 3rd grade. My teacher was Ms. Cusamano, a slightly frumpier early-Seinfeld Elaine Benes type with big curly hair, round wire-rimmed glasses and floral, floor length dresses. I was in love with her. Essentially my root, it made me pretty self-conscious in her class. One time she asked me what kind of shampoo I used because my hair always smelled so good and I basically died because I was using Johnson + Johnson’s baby shampoo, which seemed so unsophisticated. I remember lying, but I don’t know what I said.
Anyway, we were required to select some sort of musical instrument to study at the beginning of the school year. We could choose between chorus, orchestra or band. It was a lottery system and drums were a popular choice amongst the 9-year-old set. I was nervous about getting a crappy lottery number and not getting what I wanted: the elusive snare drum. The big day comes and lo and behold I’m in the single digits! This gives me a good chance, right? The chumps before me all choose crappy things like the viola and the flute (for christ sake) and I’m shocked and amazed that everyone else isn’t chomping at the bit for that drum. My turn comes and, drumroll: I fucking choke. Hard. In what is to this day one of the biggest regrets in my life, I chicken out and pick the fucking alto saxophone. I never practice and I drop out mid way through the school year and join chorus, where all of the people who don’t give a shit about music go to let their creativity die. (btw chorus was also really fucking fun and fostered a love of singing in me so it wasn’t a total waste. Silver linings, amarite?!)
I often think back on this moment and wonder why I did this to myself. Popular belief would be that I thought drums weren’t for girls, but I don’t think that ever really entered my mind in a conscious way. Reanna Armellino wound up taking the snare drum; she was one lottery number after me. Despite being a generally nice person, it made me un-justifyably hate her for the rest of elementary school and middle school. She disappeared from my periphery in high school allowing me to pretend I was generally an evolved person, despite never having an actual conversation with her other than one about how amazing the Lion King was in like 5th grade.
I think it was more that I didn’t think I deserved to take something I wanted. It felt selfish to me to potentially block other people from getting something they wanted. So I sacrificed for the greater good and let some other kid have their moment in the sun. While that tendency can lead to a sense of generosity and community, it can also be damaging to yourself, your growth and your future.
I’m not sure where this intrinsic sense of guilt came from (pretend there’s a clever callback to the chickenpox/oatmeal story here) but it’s definitely followed me throughout my life. Maybe it’s just a product of growing up Italian?
Wanting something is a powerful and vulnerable feeling. It’s scary to admit your own desires to yourself sometimes, let alone your entire 3rd grade class and your foxy teacher. At 9 I wasn’t up to the task. A sense of needing to be less has followed me throughout my life. I opted out of Project Extra, a gifted children program that also started in 3rd grade, because I felt bad for the kids that didn’t get to go. Solidarity! I felt guilty for being the best lacrosse player on my team in high school because I didn’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves in comparison. I scored on average 2 goals a game and felt shitty about it. Every roller derby captain/coach I’ve ever had in told me in some way or another to tone down my skills so I didn’t seem like such an arrogant asshole, and I begrudgingly attempted to oblige.
Not hearing or internalizing this shit is why males feel comfortable playing music louder, competing harder, making gigantic mediocre paintings and generally feeling comfortable taking up visual, physical and auditory space.
So I started taking drum lessons last month. I’m going to take up space and be loud and be the best I can be without guilt. Because fuck that. And Reanna Armellino wherever you are, I hope you’re rocking out. Be bold and bang on.