Sometimes we confuse slow learning with fear of failure

Grace Lam

My back was hurting and after being in bed sick for two days, I wanted a massage. I wanted the most painful type of massage a person can get, one of those deep tissue ones. My piano bench might be too high because my back always hurts after I play.

I was calling around to see which clinics would book me in a deep tissue massage today, but there was none available.

I text Pan, “I can’t find anyone that does deep tissue massages today. do you think it’s ok if I get one of those masseuses that come to your house, kind of like uber for massages?”

“It should be fine.”

I think he’s preoccupied with something.

After I book it, I say, “If I don’t text you at 4:45, call my neighbour. Ask him to knock on my door. then call 911 I suppose.”

“Why do you have to sound so depressing?”

“Ok, forget I said all that. I’ll text you at 4:45.”

I’m waiting downstairs for her, in case she’s an axe murderer, so I can… detect axe vibes?–before she gets upstairs and I’m half undressed.

Pan texts, “When are you leaving for the massage?”

“Dude. She’s coming here. I told you and you said it was fine.”

Ok so she’s bringing a table. Do I offer water? Do I help her carry the table? what will she think of the bits of fluff on the ground from my fluffy blanket that I forgot to sweep?

How much of my clothing do I take off? I’m wearing shorts and a loose shirt. I read online that some people are naked for their massage. that’s a bit silly. but what if my clothes make it so that she can’t get inside my deep tissue? I have so many questions and I can’t do anything but write and look around for her car right now.

This is causing me a lot more anxiety than if I’d just stopped by a clinic on the way home tomorrow.

Pan had shown me videos about chiropractors cracking people’s joints and it is satisfying to watch. we must’ve seen at least twenty of those videos by now and people seem to be so relaxed, but a lot of the lawsuits on the legal subreddit are about the chiropractor messing up someone’s bones.

I wanted to have a treatment today that would help my back pain go away, not break my spine.

The massage therapist is late because she’s lost. I text Pan, “My palms are sweaty. I’m walking around downstairs.”

“Just keep me updated.”

When she finally gets here, she is an older woman with large curly hair tied in a loose ponytail and looks like she’s vegan and does yoga every morning. No axe vibes. We walk upstairs and I keep thinking about offering her water and how much of my clothing I get to keep on.

She sets up her table and I grab a glass of water and set on the table which she never touches, and finally she says that she will step out while I disrobe.

“Should I take off my shirt or…?” I say.

“You can wear whatever you’re comfortable with,” she says.

“What do people normally wear?”

“Well, on top, people usually take it all off, and on the bottom, it’s up to you.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”

“We’ll start facing the ceiling.”

She’s probably left handed because the left side is stronger when she’s massaging my neck. She’s also prone to digging her elbow into the side of my spine by accident. It grinds in but not in a good way and I don’t know how to tell her.

After the massage, I walk her downstairs and I pick up my phone to text Pan and see that he’d sent four texts.

“It’s okay,” I text. “Sorry, I forgot to look at my phone before it started. It was fine.”

“I know, you started late.”

A big part of how difficult that massage was, was not knowing how to act or what to do.

I’ve been thinking this is why there’s a high chance I have Asperger’s. I have been in enough social situations that if you break down each of the tiny interactions in getting that massage, I should know how to act.

If I’m meeting someone new, or opening the door for someone, or introducing someone to the apartment, or trying to make it sound like I’m not home alone when I really am, or getting a deep tissue massage, I have done all these things. But when all of these are put together, I don’t know how to act. I need a play-by-play of the whole situation in order to feel comfortable.

I have taught pianists who have arthritis, or pianists who started piano as older adults, and we do finger exercises each week so they build up a repository of patterns that they’re familiar with. Sometimes, when they are sight reading a familiar pattern but with a different right hand, or new rhythm, they might struggle.

So, they often say, “I should be able to play this. It’s an easy passage. There’s nothing hard about it.”

We break it into small pieces, starting with the part they do know, which might be the left hand from Hanon or an Alberti bass, and then play the right hand rhythm or notes. They already know the tiny pieces that make up the whole passage.

We run through it a few times then put it together and it always sounds better than before.

I’m intrigued on how older adults interpret and play music. There are situations where they know all the patterns in the music but the patterns are arranged differently and so they have difficulty sightreading. In fact, sometimes, they refuse to play the passage. I’ve never had a kid refuse to play a passage.

Maybe I am like someone trying to learn social skills later in life because I didn’t realize I was supposed to be learning social skills as a kid. I can’t predict social situations unless it’s happened before in the exact same order because I’m not wired to detect or interpret them.

If I were to get a massage at a spa next, for example, I’d be nervous again. What happens at a spa? Do they put hot stones on you? Is everyone wealthy? Are you expected to tip everyone?

I don’t think I have no social skills, but I think that I struggle to piece together interactions into a familiar pattern, more than a lot of other people. I’m constantly learning new patterns and rearranging them in my brain. It’s not a very efficient way of processing information, but we never said I was efficient at social interactions, did we?

I think social skills, for most people, is something you pick up naturally over time, like, how a person figures out how to walk and run and talk to strangers. For me, it’s something I constantly have to teach myself, where I’m supposed to stand or sit or what to say in which circumstances.

A lot of my online students are older adults either picking up music for the first time or coming back to it later in life. Week after week, I’m seeing improvement even if they don’t notice it themselves.

I teach online because there are a lot of students that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to teach and they have been part of the community for a long time. It’s a joy to help someone learn how to express themselves using music. If you don’t find it in yourself to express more than words, then maybe you haven’t found a way to get it out yet. I have been expressing myself using music for years. When I help someone with music, I remind myself that I’m also learning how to express myself using spoken word, so I don’t get upset when it doesn’t come out right.


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  • Reply Rosie September 10, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    “When I help someone with music, I remind myself that I’m also learning how to express myself using spoken word…”

    You’re so good at seeing–and expressing–these musical parallels to your experiences, Grace. I feel your discomfort and even confusion in how to handle interactions. May I make some suggestions?

    Perhaps learning how to express yourself using spoken word could include asking questions when you’re not sure what’s expected, as you did so well in the massage disrobing situation. Letting people know your uncertainties about unfamiliar circumstances is perfectly fine. Even questions can be asked with confidence. You have a right to know what to expect and to be in charge of the persons you hire to help. Telling the masseuse about her elbow digging into you in a not-good way would have been a good thing. I’ve done similarly.

    Since you’re proficient at writing, might writing an imaginary dialog ahead of an event help–if you’re feeling well enough to think it through? Or have someone else respond as the masseuse (or whomever else) while you text or talk back and forth. While the real-life experience will have its own play-by-play, this could still give you some advance insight, practice, and the support of another person.

    Also, an online search could fill in some missing blanks in your mind for what’s customarily done under certain (or uncertain ;) ) circumstances.

    “Maybe I am like someone trying to learn social skills later in life because I didn’t realize I was supposed to be learning social skills as a kid.”

    With you being so brave to write about your life, may I ask some more detailed questions? Maybe they’ll be food for thought, and I’d like to understand you better.

    Did you have friends as a kid, or in looking back, would you consider yourself to have been a loner?
    Was independence and freedom of expression encouraged in your growing up? Were you shy?
    Was there ever a time when you felt better about personal interactions than you do now?

    Please, answer them publicly only if you feel comfortable doing so. You’re in charge. And you’re doing a good job!


    • Reply Grace Lam September 10, 2019 at 4:36 pm

      I do well in situations that I have been in. For example, I am very familiar with teaching. But not at massages.

      Did you have friends as a kid, or in looking back, would you consider yourself to have been a loner? – I always had a few close friends at a time, and we would be stuck together like butter and glue. Or something. :)

      Was independence and freedom of expression encouraged in your growing up? Were you shy? – I was shy. Not at my house, but outside of the house and in class. But i did a lot of performances. I pretended the audience were chunks of rocks chillin’ like a villain.

      Was there ever a time when you felt better about personal interactions than you do now? – I feel like being on top of a table underneath someone’s elbow is kind of a vulnerable position. I think I feel more comfortable when I know what is going to happen and when I don’t feel vulnerable.

  • Reply Mike September 13, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Wow Grace – you don’t half make it all complicated! I understand where you’re coming from, because I have some issues like that, too. But I’m a lot older than you, and I’ve learned that I can never know enough to protect myself from people problems. All I can do is to try and be kind and helpful, and then just STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT ALL.

    You’re worrying may eventually make you ill.

    By the way, has anyone ever taught you about statements?


    • Reply Grace Lam September 13, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      I think you’re right, Mike! Hm, now that you mention it, what are statements! :D

    What do you think?