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Learning New Things: No Audience Required

For writer Elaine Soloway, improving on later-life skills is best done solo

By Elaine Soloway

As the instructor was assembling foam dumbbells for her upcoming water aerobics class, I was grateful her busyness kept her from looking my way.

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Because I was wearing goggles instead of my eyeglasses, her image had a soft blur, as if she were a figure in an impressionist painting. But there was no mistaking the steel grey hair, her body as slim and muscled as someone decades younger, and her air of drill sergeant.

"Please don't watch me," I sent silently through the moist air of the indoor pool. For I knew if she did, my long-ago YMCA Beginning Swim teacher wouldn't be able to resist striding over to tell me what I was doing wrong.

As I lowered myself into the pool, I was relieved the instructor had settled into a lounge chair far from my lane. "Surely, she can't see me here," I told myself as I took a calming breath and ducked under the water.

My reluctance to be viewed, to perform for others, moves out of water to my bench at the piano keyboard.

Without her eyes on me, I slid slowly through my lane, reminding myself to face the pool's bottom as if it were a mirror, and pretend I was laying my head on my left arm as my face lifted out to the right. Then, I sent myself a REMEMBER to close your mouth after an intake of air, and once under water, blow out through mouth AND nose.

The Lecture I Hoped to Avoid

This was my inelegant stroke, taught to me by a coach I discovered two years ago who helped me learn to swim at age 78, after my many attempts with other coaches, including the taskmaster lounging nearby. After several lengths, I emerged and quickly wrapped myself in towels, grateful my iWatch had credited me for the 30-minute routine.

As I removed my cap, goggles and fins, I heard: "You've got to move your left arm more, Elaine." It came from a sharp voice on a lounge chair. How had she seen me from that distance?

"Um, I have arthritis in that shoulder," I said, as apologetic as a student who had once again forgotten homework.

By now, she had risen from her chair and delivered the lecture I had hoped to avoid: How that pained arm would only get worse if I didn't activate it, how uneven my stroke would be without a powerful left arm, how awkward....

"Oh, okay, sure," I mumbled as I gathered my gear and waved goodbye.


Expertise Was Never My Zenith

Back home, after playing the film of our morning's encounter in my head, I realized I loathe anyone watching me when I perform any of my lifetime goals, which are: to swim and breathe on one side, play Rodgers and Hart on the piano and speak Spanish in the first tense.

As long as I can remember, I envied those who could perform that trio of tasks and wondered why they didn't crow about their achievements — that's how glorious I thought these talents are.

Of course, those individuals had skills that were much more proficient than the basement level targets I set. But I never aspired to reach their levels. Expertise was never my zenith. Mediocrity would satisfy me, just as much as a slim slice of my favorite pecan pie.

My reluctance to be viewed, to perform for others, moves out of water to the bench at my piano keyboard. I AM playing Rodgers and Hart, but likely quite differently than they envisioned when the lyrics and notes danced through their talented heads. Often, although the sheet music calls for F Major 7, I may decide to have only the A and C link hands. And sometimes, just to see if I can hear a difference, I'll allow the F to stand alone.

Not as Shy as You Might Think

As for Spanish language, I've come up with the ideal way to practice and improve — sans teacher or classmates swiveling their heads to signal errors. Every evening, seated with a glass of wine, a spiral notebook and a pen, and my Apple device open to Google Translate, I record my daily activities in Spanish. Because I tend to do the same things most days, I learn how to write and read vocabulary that applies to me.  Desperté a las 4 am después de un buen sueño.  ("I woke up at 4 a.m. after a good sleep.") You get the idea.

Based on my seeming embarrassment to be viewed as I splash, tap and roll my R's, you might tag me as shy. But you'd be wrong. Read my close-to-the- bone writing, or listen to me at an event where I'm a saucy, but comfortable, speaker.

The difference between those scenarios and my undercover endeavors is that my late-in-life trio was hard-won and too precious to risk abandonment if critiqued. I won't take that chance.

Elaine Soloway Elaine Soloway is a PR consultant, writing coach and tech tutor, and the author of Bad Grandma and Other Chapters in a Life Lived Out Loud and Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss. The Emmy Award-winning television series 'Transparent' was created by Elaine Soloway's child Joey and inspired by their family. Follow Elaine on Facebook, Twitter @elainesoloway and Instagram. Read More
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