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71° Good Evening

Notes of fresh activity in time and space

What an 8-year-old at the keyboard and a faraway spacecraft have in common

Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / eriyalim

We sit at the piano, my grandson and I, side by side, every weekday morning.

My daughter drops him off on her way to work. I taught her how to play until she got too good and needed another teacher. Now she’s a pro and teaching her son. And I get to help him practice, before we have breakfast and I bring him to the bus stop for school.

It’s precious time, and I know it. He’s 8 years old. And those 10 minutes, sometimes 15, a good 20 minutes on a really lucky day, won’t last forever.

We share a little small talk, a hug. We go through his pieces and exercises. I offer a palm for him to slap when he does well. If we have time, we fool around a little, musically speaking. We see how the photos on top of the piano quiver when he plays loud. We remember an old piece he used to love and now finds terribly easy. And we always try to improvise a little, learning how to use music to convey an emotion or trying to tap out a song or soundtrack we know.

Lately, he’s been getting taller and the piano bench has been shrinking. I asked him recently whether I should move to a second bench beside him, and he quickly agreed. Turns out he’d been thinking about it, too.

In truth, he needs the room. The pieces he plays have more range now, and he slides along the bench as the music rises into the upper register or plummets into the low notes he loves. When he plays a glissando from the highest D to the lowest D, his index finger scraping the furious flurry of notes, he comes off the bench a little, rising in the air with a flourish for the final note.

So I watch him now from a little more to the side, just off his right shoulder, still there but not quite as much there.

Life is a long journey of giving a little more freedom to the ones you help guide. You always navigate the guardrails of roots and the runway of wings. Planting roots is easy, giving wings much harder.

And the process never ends. It has its lulls, then revs up with ferocious and profound poignancy at the other end of life with our elders. Now it’s just guardrails for the ones who once guided you. The limits have to do with the wings that must be taken back, like the keys to the car, and the new roots that must be planted, like the provision of meals and an emergency alert system.

The changes hit hard as one year closes and another begins, a time when so many of us take stock and reflect. At one end, it’s exhilarating. At the other, sobering. And there is no escaping it.

A similar drama is playing out deep in space, 4 billion miles from Earth. On New Year’s Day, a NASA spacecraft called New Horizons will pass by a small icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule. It dates back to the origin of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Humans have never explored something that primitive. There is much to learn.

This is the same spacecraft that took amazing photos of Pluto in 2015. It’s scheduled to do the same with Ultima Thule. It’s all part of humankind’s long journey for knowledge. But New Horizons is aging. It was launched in 2006 and has a lot of miles on it. NASA has to decide whether to approve a continuation of its mission, as the agency did after it passed Pluto, or let New Horizons go.

You might be surprised at the modest dimensions of a spacecraft that remains intact and functioning so far from Earth and so long after its birth. New Horizons, it turns out, is about the size of a baby grand piano.

I think about that as I sit at my own upright and contemplate the places it will take us, and has already. We had a little break over the holiday. But we’ll be back at the piano this week, my grandson and I, together on our separate benches but still traveling on our own path of discovery.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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