With all the worries about Russia these days, one fact seems truly remarkable: Vladimir Putin plays the piano.
Let’s take that in for a moment, shall we?
This would be the same V. Putin accused in the press of crimes ranging from interfering with the U.S. presidential election to eliminating a domestic opponent via lethal dose of radioactive polonium.
So when it was reported that, during a China visit, President Putin sat at a grand piano and played two numbers recalled from childhood, “Evening Song” and “Moscow Windows,” a eureka moment had arrived.
Vladimir Putin a pianist? Yes, and perhaps Kim Jong Un of North Korea is a master quilter or the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The eminent Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel noted in a book that even the greatest scoundrels can “delight in the cadence of a poem, the composition of a painting.” But it’s not so much that a shady macho-man like Putin — he also plays ice hockey and enjoys shirtless horseback riding — revealed an unexpected side but that he mastered a skill beyond his job description.
As a steadfastly one-dimensional person, I hate that.
Really, is there anything worse than finding that someone you thought equally humdrum plays jazz guitar or travels to Buenos Aires each year for tango instruction?
Along those lines, I remember one occasion at Newsday — I was a reporter there for years — when a top editor thought it would be grand to organize an office dance contest.
Signing up were a lanky science writer in late middle age and a younger, attractive woman from another editorial department. I thought highly of the lanky science writer but said to myself, what is this guy doing? Why subject himself to endless newsroom razzing, not to mention the likely dismay of his comely dance partner? The music started — some 1940s bebop number — and I half turned away, almost afraid to watch.
From the first beat, it was clear these people were more than ready for prime time.
They did the Lindy. They jitterbugged. They flung arms and legs in exactly the right directions. He twirled her, she fell appropriately into his arms. The music went on and on and so did our Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When the recording stopped, the applause was endless. Whoops of appreciation went up. The couple took an appreciative bow. To say the least, they won the dance contest.
On the sidelines, my response was: Huh?
I mean, really? A mild-mannered reporter known mainly for terrific stories about global warming and medical breakthroughs turns out to be a hoofer who maybe should have considered Broadway?
Despair quickly follows a moment like this.
It is bad form to wallow in one’s own shortcomings — woe, is the poor, unsurprising me — but if you have no secret aspects to your life, if what you present to the world is all there is, if you stumble when even attempting the Fox Trot, it will not be good news that the fellow at the next desk is a regular Arthur Murray.
Regrets of this sort lead to a familiar review of opportunities missed and risks not taken.
Mom told me I one day would regret not practicing after piano lessons, and, brother, she was right. I wanted to play baseball not “Turkey in the Straw” but it was a bad bet. I wasn’t much better around second base than at the keyboard. “You would have been popular at parties,” Mom mentioned in despair. I should have listened.
Later in life, I gave guitar lessons a try. That didn’t work either. “You practice this week?” the instructor asked. “Yeah, sure,” I said, hedging a little. “Then you must have been practicing your mistakes.”
Stuck in the back of my mind was that Bernie Williams, the former Yankee center fielder, played classical guitar — not exactly what you’d expect from a fellow making millions shagging fly balls. Something made Williams go beyond the ordinary. I’m a serious Mets fan — still, hats off to Bernie.
But, OK, already, let’s not make too much of all this. We are what we are — and aren’t. Sure, it would be nice to have an astonishing skill to roll out at the next barbecue — ventriloquism or sleight of hand — but at this point in life, probably not going to happen. Live with it.
I’m me. You’re you. Neither one of us is Vladimir Putin.