MICHELE NORRIS, host:
As a psychiatrist, commentator Elissa Ely knows the limits of her skill, and when she needs help from another professional, she's anxious to extend the proper courtesy.
The piano tuner is an artist and a surgeon, whether he's running through a diagnostic etude or performing an orthopedic miracle on some dislocated black key. Sometimes he lets me watch him. I stand over his shoulder after he has popped the keyboard out of the upright and sits inspecting it at the dining room table. Occasionally, without looking up, he holds a palm out and asks for a tool. It is an honor to scrub in with him.
His needs are ingenious, yet simple. He uses ordinary instruments and household supplies. For instance, he lubricates the space between keys with a tiny insulin syringe filled with a certain kind of cooking oil. One of his diabetic customers donates the syringes; he supplies the oil himself. The other day he was trying to dissolve a sticky mess between two notes near middle C. The keys were sticking from what was, no doubt, some domestic substance, possibly the residue of a recent snack. Though no one said it out loud, we both knew I had been the snacker. I wanted to help set it right.
The piano tuner looked up. `I need Heinz vinegar,' he said. `Vinegar?' `Heinz.' `Of course. Right away.' I ran to the cabinet and threw the doors open. I pulled out bottles. `I see balsamic vinegar. Is that OK?' I said. `Heinz,' he said. `Red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar?' `No.' `Apple cider vinegar, white rice vinegar, organic brown rice vinegar?' `Just Heinz,' he said. He was trying to keep judgment out of his voice, but it was there for the taking. `I don't think I have Heinz,' I said.
It was a disaster. I had caused the problem, and now I was preventing the solution. I reached to the edge of Mongolia and pulled out one final bottle. `I do have cooking sherry,' I called. There was silence from the dining room. I remembered that surgeons are not famous for tolerance. `Never mind,' he said finally. `I will fix it myself.' My days scrubbing in were over.
NORRIS: Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist living in Massachusetts.
(Soundbite of piano music)
NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK (Host): And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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