Wednesday, June 22, 2016


It's a beautiful morning, and I'd like nothing more than to take my kids to the park, but instead I'm waiting at my house for the landscaping crew to show up.* I was told they would be here by now and so far there is no sign of them. I'm also in desperate need of a post-run shower, but I know that as soon as I get that started, they'll get here and it will be awkward. At least Daniel is wearing pants today.

This is the last stage of the renovation, which started the first week of September last year, so we're a good nine months in to the actual work, though the planning and mulling and sorting of finances to make it all possible took years. Large holes were dug, concrete was poured, the kitchen was ripped apart and put back together, the exterior got a total redo, but right now, finally, the inside of the house is really, really nice. The house is a little bigger than before by a couple of hundred square feet and much, much more functional and comfortable. Our bedroom is still badly in need of a refresh, and we need new furniture and a rug for the living room, but those things can wait. 

Last month the new shed was built in the back yard and permanent steps and railing were installed off the front porch and back landing to replace the temporary ones we'd been using all winter. Now we just need a patio and retaining wall instead of the sea of mud that is our back yard, and a smaller patio and retaining wall off the front porch, and we'll finally be done paying other people many well-deserved dollars to do these various improvements to the property.**

Once the hardscape work is done, all that remains is the yard and garden. Right now it looks pretty terrible to be honest, especially in the back. With most of the construction junk out of the yard - including the old shed, which took an entire Saturday morning to haul out, but it remained intact and has gone to another home! (that's a whole post right there) - and the new shed all done, the back yard looks better now than it did ten months ago. Still, I have a long way to go before we're living in the urban homestead edible landscaped utopia I've been daydreaming about since we moved here.

Want a tour, then? Let's start in the front yard, which is a bit eccentric, but not so terrible, really.

Here is the front of my house. Note the new covered front porch. Note the dark gray siding. Note the unwieldy shrubs. The lighter colored one is some kind of Japanese willow; I planted two of them five or six years ago, but the second one didn't survive its first winter with hungry rabbits, and now this one is getting too tall. The other thing is a scraggly wyzalea (or something like that) and I'm not attached to it at all. Underneath are boring hosta plants and a crazy invasion of snow-on-the-mountain that is absolutely impossible to get rid of. 

You know what I really, really want growing here instead? Low-bush blueberries. I'm going to try and make that happen.

If you turn around and look towards the street, you see all kinds of stuff growing. My goal is less lawn, more wild plants and edibles. The perennial bed, once a carefully curated collection of boring cultivated flowers, is now crammed full of aggressive native prairie plants vying for space. I have common milkweed, bee's balm, two kinds of echinacea, daisies, lemon balm (that may not be native, but it's doing JUST FINE), phlox and brown-eyed Susans growing so densely that even the Creeping Charlie has a hard time finding room. A few other not-so-aggressive native plants live there, too, and periodically I clear space around them to grow, but otherwise I basically leave it all alone. It's a little jumbled, a little wild and not so organized, but I've decided this is actually a pretty accurate reflection of my gardener personality, so I'm okay with it. This part of my yard also tends to attract many beneficial winged creatures (bees, butterflies, finches, and more), especially later in the summer, and that makes me very happy indeed.

As you can see, I also have potted mint perched atop a birch log from the tree we had removed about a year ago. That mint is just dying to get out and take over, I can tell, so I set it up high, further out of reach from the ground.

Another section of my front yard is more or less devoted to edible plants. I have four raised beds in which I ostensibly grow herbs and greens, but right now it's more of a forest of sunflowers that have managed to reseed themselves the last couple years, and I don't have the heart to pull them up.

Tucked under the wild flowers are nasturtiums, dill, cilantro, parsley, kale, spinach and chard. They all seem to live together pretty well.

Now, the back yard is the real mess. LITERALLY. The picture below shows the climbing dome in a temporary spot while we wait for the landscaping to get done. You can see the junk and the pile of firewood in front of the brand new shed. The new shed is actually really quite nice, and SO much more spacious and sturdy than the old one.

The picture below is my attempt at getting creative with a raised bed for vegetables. The back half of our back yard used to have 7 spruce trees and a giant silver maple. Now we're down to two spindly spruce and a giant patch of that cursed snow-on-the-mountain and creeping Charlie, both of which I think I'll be fighting for the rest of my life. You can't even use weed killer on those things (not that I would, being the all organic hippie that I am when it comes to weed control) because they grow back so quickly. I've resorted to piling thick layers of cardboard over the worst spots, which is every bit as attractive as you can imagine.

Anyway, the raised bed has landscape cloth AND cardboard under the good soil, and I edged everything with random stuff I found in the yard. Not wanting to spend good money and time on something permanent, I thought it better to use logs and planters and concrete cinder blocks, all of which were lying around the yard, instead. It would look a lot better if the vegetables were growing better, but it's a little slow going. 

Next to the raised beds I have a new asparagus patch, planted early in May. Perhaps it wasn't the wisest thing to plant a perennial smack in the middle of my garden space that is still in flux, but I was eager and the time was right. An online search for a companion planting guide tells me that asparagus grows well with tomatoes and basil, so I have those very things growing amongst its spindly spears. Those are growing well, actually.

Ugh, cardboard is ugly.

And here? Here is the back of my house. It's a vast improvement from a year ago, but you can see the uneven ground and the bare patches. What you see is actually just a fraction of the bare spots, ravaged from excavation and heavy equipment going in and out. Within the next two weeks a lovely and expensive patio will be built, and then we'll have the perfect place to grill burgers in the scorching sun with no table to eat them at. One thing at a time, am I right?

I truly did not mean for this post to get so long, and I guess the laundry list of goals and improvements might be boring for some of you. If you've made it this far, you deserve a prize of some sort. I'll be sure to post an update when the patio work is done. Even if the weeds are insurmountable, at least it will be progress!

*I started this post yesterday.The crew finally did show up, five hours late, to drop off equipment before leaving for the day. They called a rain day for today because we were supposed to get heavy storms all day, but the storms never materialized, and neither did the crew because it was too late to call them back.

**When it comes to home improvement, we're more than happy to pay actual professionals to do the work. They do it far better and faster than we ever could. I know that DIY is the thing to do now, that you can supposedly learn everything on YouTube, but I just know better than to try and install flooring or level a countertop on my own. You know how people go through years of training to get licensing for that stuff? There's a good reason for that.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

snapshot: up north

We just got back from a week of vacation up north. I have loads of pictures, but I'll just say briefly that it was beautiful and we had a good time.

Sea caves on the north shore of Lake Superior at Tettegouche State Park in MN.

Family photo along the Union Mine interpretative trail in Porcupine Mountains State Park in the Michigan UP.

Yeah, we get around.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

snapshots: in bloom

Indulge me in more than a couple photos of my front yard garden. It's a messy mix of herbs and wildflowers that attract many winged creatures, especially in late summer.


Purple Siberian Iris.

Daisies and sorrel in the sprinkler


More daisies 


(I can't help it, they're so photogenic!)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

singing is hard

A couple years ago I got the idea to take voice lessons. This is something I had been thinking about for a long time. After all, I frequently work with singers, so it makes sense professionally to learn more about the actual technique and physicality of vocal performance. My real reasons are more personal, though. I am deeply moved by beautiful singing. I'm such a sap, I get all choked up at the most random stuff, like Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year (seriously, she was pretty good) or an exceptionally good performance of Der Hölle Rache (Diana Damrau totally owns this). I can sing but never had any real training, and I guess I just want to get better at it.

So back when I first got this idea to study voice, I contacted a teacher I know in town, and tentatively set something up with her. Then I promptly got a rotten cold and lost my voice completely, and once I got better the teacher in question didn't get back to me (I don't think she was trying to avoid me; I think she was just really busy), so I put the whole thing on a back burner for a while.

Last summer, I decided to have another go. I had a trial lesson with another teacher (my friend Jane, whose students I've accompanied on many occasions), and the one lesson was fantastic! But then the house remodeling started and I got busy with work in the fall. Not only did I feel quite self-conscious about practicing singing with burly contractor sorts going in and out of my house with their country music blaring on the portable radios, I was spending every spare minute either answering their questions about stuff like where did I want the light switches or practicing my own collaborative piano repertoire to a noisy background of air compressors and nail guns.

Now, finally, my semester is over, the inside of the house is done (another time we'll discuss the landscaping that hasn't yet happened) and I've started voice lessons with Jane for real. It's so much fun, and in just those two lessons, I learned SO MUCH. Jane is a wonderful teacher. She is a warm and kind person who can put anyone at ease, which is really quite important when you're about to do something vulnerable like sing. At the same time, she is extremely knowledgeable and has decades of teaching experience under her belt, so she doesn't miss a thing. She can tell in an instant just where I'm holding tension and has a dozen suggestions for how to fix it.

Singing is hard, and doing it right does not come naturally. I have certain advantages over many beginning singers in that I already read music fluently and have a basic knowledge of the major languages of vocal literature (German, French, Italian). I also have a pretty good handle on breathing and a fair start on breath control. Beyond that, though, I'm a total novice. Here are a few basic principles of singing I have to work on over the next month before my next lesson:

1. Open your mouth. I know this sounds obvious, but it's very strange to open your mouth enough for the sound to come out. We don't open our mouths that much when we talk, so it feels like a huge exaggeration to open it wide enough to sing. Wow, does it make a difference, though.

2. Stand up straight. I tend to shift my weight from side to side. It's better to be centered.

3. Relax. This applies to pretty much everything but the diaphragm, which controls the breath. It's nearly freaking impossible, still, for me to relax all the parts that need to relax. I have body parts I didn't even realize could even be tense until Jane pointed them out. I tend to point my shoulders forward, jut my chin out, tighten my jaw (this is common among singers; I hear voice teachers tell their students to drop the jaw all the time), pull my tongue back and try to control everything with my neck. This leads to breaks and squeaks and other embarrassing noises.

4. Warming up is fun. I think I'm enjoying the purely technical exercises more than anything at this early stage. I did not expect this. I expected that I'd want to get right to the repertoire and sing some lovely Schubert already. Instead, experimenting with scales and arpeggios on different vowels and nonsense syllables is the best way to find my voice, focus on all those physical challenges like posture and tension, and figure out how to make the sounds I want. I've ordered a couple of vocal method books (this one and this one) to change it up a bit.

5. If you do all that stuff right, you can even sing through phlegm.  The pollen count is really high. I don't need to elaborate further, do I?

6. Stop while it still feels good. There's no reason to sing yourself hoarse. Better to stop early and stay healthy.

Who knows where all this is going? I have no particular desire to sing in public. Heck, I don't have an end goal with voice lessons at this point, and that's okay. I have enough goals and deadlines in the rest of my life that it feels good to do something purely for the joy of doing it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Michael: Is this about the money?
Gob: No.
Michael: What do you want?
Gob: I mean, it's not about money in the sense that I'm coming here saying, "Here, Michael. Take some money." It's just more of a "may I have some" kind of visit.

So, money. This has always been an uncomfortable topic for me, but I have to talk about it a lot. Most of my income is from freelance work. This means I set my own rates and I constantly tell people how much money they are supposed to give me at the end of the month, or after an audition, or when I'm done editing a paper, or whatever it is that I have done and in turn need to be paid for.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel okay about charging what I'm worth. (Actually, I'm probably still lowballing it, but I'm getting there.) There are many reasons for this: I'm a woman freelancing part time in a field that is chronically underpaid and undervalued, where every move you make is scrutinized and your reputation hangs by a thread at any time. There are also a lot of gender divides within the field of music, and areas in the "helper/nurturer" category such as teaching piano or working collaboratively, are predominantly women. Additionally, I'm a mom with lots of family responsibilities that take up a lot of my time, and my meagre earnings are not our primary income, not by a long shot. 

Furthermore, I am still living and working in the same city and community where I went to school, so even now, years after finishing, I'm still trying to shake that feeling of being a student and all the inferiority and self-consciousness that comes with that. 

There's a whole lot to unpack up there. Basically, I am still working on maintaining my professional integrity, and a lot of that has to do with how much I get paid to do stuff that I'm trained to do and am good at.

In recent months it's really been a struggle. I've had several situations in which people balk at the fee I quote, or even the request to be paid at all. I can't get into any specifics, obviously. But the really sad thing is that the most problems I've had are with people who really should know better, like other musicians and colleagues. 

I have learned that I have to stick to my principles, even when it makes me feel like a jerk. I charge a rate that I think reflects my professional training and expertise. I almost never do gigs for free. I don't have written agreements with most of the individuals I work with, but I'm thinking it's time to implement, if not an official contract, at least policies in writing so the expectations are clear on all sides. In return, I deliver. I come prepared, I show up on time, and I never, ever commit to anything I'm not absolutely sure I can handle. 

It's still hard. I've had students pay me in installments because they have to wait for loans to come through. I've had parents post-date checks until after payday. I've had people skimp on rehearsal time to save money (and then panic during performance because we haven't rehearsed enough). I've had to turn away gigs because certain individuals or entities could or would not pay a fair rate. 

This whole professional self-worth thing is so complicated. After all that, the truth is that what I earn is a fraction of Stuart's salary, even though I feel like I work all the time.  Recently, someone pointed out that my work at home has value, that being available for our children before and after school (and during, sometimes), and cooking dinner every night, and generally keeping our lives organized and running smoothly is every bit as important as going to some office and bringing home a paycheck. I appreciate that sentiment in theory, and I know that having me as the primary caretaker saved us thousands upon thousands of dollars in daycare expenses. But not paying for daycare does not equal actual income that I'm earning. That does not make me economically equal to my spouse.

I love what I do, but it contributes exactly zero dollars to a pension or retirement fund.  We have a retirement investment account set up for me that gets a contribution every month from his salary, and you can imagine how I feel about that (not very comfortable). I will have to work until I die.

Friday, April 15, 2016


There was no school today (teachers had PD) and for the first time in I can't remember how long, I had no obligations aside from hanging out with my kids. No rehearsals, no lessons, no papers to edit. Sure, there is music to practice (always, always), but this week I've hit a point where I feel more or less caught up with the music I've got. (This could mean one of two things: I need more work, or I've somehow developed such superb time management skills that the end of the semester isn't making me as nuts as everyone else. Alas, I think it's more the former.)

We had a very low key morning, then took Stuart out for a long lunch, and then, because today is the first warm, sunny day we've had since, oh, last September, we spent the afternoon at the park. Several friends from school showed up, along with what seemed like half the neighborhood. I swear in over a decade living in this neighborhood I've never seen so many people at the park at one time. I guess a day off and some sunshine brings us all out of hibernation.

The afternoon was not without drama. I think fourth grade is the new adolescence. As I watch my son's social relationships develop and evolve, I try to remember what it was like when I was 10 years old and trying to decipher the hierarchy among my peers. It wasn't easy, I can tell you that much, and I spent most of my years of late elementary school and early adolescence feeling left out and isolated. Daniel is certainly more socially adept than I ever was, but he is still sensitive and vulnerable and I wonder sometimes how he feels about fitting in.

But then, most people feel like they don't fit in, right? It's just that some are better at hiding it than others.

So there we are at the park, Anya is wandering around with her friend, Daniel has gone home already because he's hot and tired, and I'm chatting with the other moms, and a couple of police cars pull up. At first, my friend is worried and thinks maybe she parked illegally, but no, the cops don't seem concerned with her car at all. Plus, there are two of them - definitely overkill for a parking violation. A few minutes later, another car pulls up and a woman gets out with a little kid, and chats a while with the police officers. Those of us clustered at the "mom bench" wonder what's going on and try not to stare. There isn't any evidence of anything that would warrant a call to the police (no traffic accident, no shifty teenagers!), though we can't help but notice an older couple loitering in the picnic shelter; they are watching the police very carefully, and even have a phone out to take pictures, plus they have a wagon full of toys and snacks but no children with them. Eventually, another man approaches the woman with her kid and the cops. She hands over the kid, he starts to walk away, and then she charges at him and tries to grab the kid back. In a flash, the policemen pull her back, yell at her to stop and step back and seconds later she's in handcuffs. The kid is screaming as he is carried away by the man who by now we all presume is his father.

Of course by this time we have given up any pretense of not noticing. It's full-on gawking. There are over a dozen people on the playground, all staring up the hill and wondering what had just happened. Of the moms grouped by the bench, our best guess is a contentious hand-over of custody, thus the police  presence and public space.

We took a moment, all of us, and shook our heads and wondered what will happen to that mother, what will happen to that child, what must it be like to be a police officer in that situation.  What is it like to see families in distress on a daily basis? Sure, each family has its problems (what's the Anna Karenina quote? Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way...or something like that) but of all of us huddled awkwardly around the park bench this afternoon, witnesses to this scene of what must be a profoundly dysfunctional family situation, we're all ok. Our kids are all ok. Even when things at school are not ok, their homes are safe and loving and supportive. At the very least, the police are not involved in our family lives.

Sometimes it's hard living among humans.  Sometimes I want to go build a yurt in the boonies and live there with my family (and decent wifi) and just forget the rest of the world and the awful things people do to each other.