Monday, April 30, 2012

old challenges

Thanks for all the supportive comments on that last post, everyone! I want to point out that I'm hardly the first person to bring fresh, healthy snacks to the classroom. In fact, there is a larger Healthy Snack Initiative that provides the entire school with fresh, local food about once a month, and I've helped out with distributing that in the past. I just wish I'd committed to bringing healthy snacks to Daniel's class earlier in the year; they certainly could have used it!


During my one hour this afternoon while both kids were at school (these early release days are killing me...), I spent some time reading through piano music. I've agreed to play for a benefit concert to raise funds for Anya's preschool. Another parent is a classically trained violist, so I'll be accompanying him on a few things, as well as playing some solo pieces. At this point I only have a month left to prepare, so I won't be playing anything memorized, nor will I be able to learn anything new. Stuck inside my book of Schubert Impromtus was a copy of the poster I had for my degree recital when I did my first M.M. ten years ago. I have no idea why I kept the poster, or why, for that matter, it was in the Schubert book, seeing as the program didn't include any Schubert Impromptus.

The program did include a couple of the late Brahms Stücke, though, which I had completely forgotten about - an ethereal and chromatic Intermezzo from op. 117, and the Romanze from op. 118, which is sublimely beautiful and entirely content. Can I still play these, I wondered? So I dug up the score and read through them. I'm rusty, to be sure, and some of those harmonies are so complex and surprising.

What really brought on the nostalgia, though, was seeing the handwriting of the professor I studied with my first two years at the music school. He'd written in some notes about articulation and voicing and, of course, some really bizarre fingering suggestions.

Those days seem so long ago. I haven't performed any solo repertoire in years, and boy is it different from collaborative playing. Of course, I've played tons of recitals as an accompanist and chamber musician, but it's not the same.  With solo playing, you have to find all the energy and musicality within yourself. There's no one else there to take cues from or communicate with, no other instrument's sound to respond to. I don't want to say one is harder than the other, though it's obvious which I'm more comfortable with!

I always knew I wouldn't turn out to be a concert pianist. So many other pianists out there can out-practice and out-technique me (I know "technique" isn't really a verb, but whatever.) How many hundreds of people graduate from conservatories every year able to practice eight hours  day and bang out the Rachmaninoff concertos like it's no big deal? It used to bother me that I'm not one of them, but not anymore. I have other talents.

Still, I think it would be a good exercise for me to try and work up some solo repertoire, even if I have no plans to perform it (other than this benefit, of course.) It's important to keep the chops in shape, for one thing, and for another, there's just so much great music out there. Great music is why I wanted to be a professional musician, after all.

So I'm going to play one, possibly both, of those Brahms pieces on the benefit recital, along with some other, shorter pieces from way back when. (There will be children in the audience, so I can't play anything too long or too heavy or they'll get restless.) I have a feeling it's going to be a challenge. That's okay. Challenge is good.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

snack time

The kids in Daniel's kindergarten class have a snack set out every morning to eat while they're working on projects. Every family is supposed to contribute at least one large box of crackers every month, but half (or more) of the kids in Daniel's class don't contribute, and I suspect it's because they can't afford to. Many of these children eat breakfast and lunch at school every day, which means that the lion's share of their nutritional intake is what the district provides.

This alarms me. We have a copy of the school menu posted on the fridge so that Daniel knows  when his favorites are being offered  (predictably, cheese pizza, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese), though he usually just brings a cold lunch from home. But every month I look at that menu and I see what some kids are  eating at school every single day, and frankly, it's not great. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the lack of vegetables being served. Sometimes, vegetables only appear once or twice per week on the menu, unless you count baked french fries and chocolate beet muffins, which I don't.

Now, I know that the Madison school district is doing what it can, given tight budgets and the challenge of creating and distributing thousands of meals to kids every single day. This year they stopped offering sugar cereals and chocolate milk at breakfast. I think some kids might have complained, but it was certainly the right thing to do. Usually sandwiches and hot dogs are served with whole grain bread/buns. This is a step in the right direction. Also, menus sometimes feature produce from local farms, like carrots and apples in the fall. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Given Governor Walker's budget-slashing to education (Wisconsin leads the nation in dollar-per-student cuts), and given the years-long tradition of terrible school lunches in this country, I don't expect big improvements in the near future. I remember some of the gag-worthy options I grew up with (tater tot casserole, anyone?), and I think Madison's doing better than that, at least.

But it's still not good enough. Good nutrition for growing children is one of my soap box topics lately. Fortunately, we have some highly respected people taking on the cause of better eating, people like Michelle Obama (how I revere her, I really do) and Mark Bittman of the New York Times. (I saw the latter speak downtown last  weekend, and it was downright inspiring. The man is just so full of common sense! We need to eat more plants and way less processed food, he said. We need to make real, whole food affordable for everyone. We need to stop subsidizing huge producers of junk food and support sustainable agriculture. And so on...if the kids hadn't been so tired and squirmy, I would have stayed long enough to buy his latest book and have him sign it.)

Well, anyway. Short of winning the lottery and donating fresh produce for the entire school district every day (which I would do if I could), I can't change the lunch menu, and I certainly can't convince everyone to eat better. I can, however, offer some decent snacks for my son's kindergarten class. Think globally, act locally, y'know. So because many children in this classroom can't afford to bring snacks, and because so many of the snacks they have are highly processed foods (like crackers, understandably), I'm going to try to bring something whole and healthy once a week from now until the end of the school year. This morning, for example, I washed two quarts of organic strawberries and sliced a loaf of homemade bread for the class. I was afraid the kids might think it was a little weird getting slices of bread instead of townhouse crackers, but later in the morning I got an email from the teacher saying Thank you, The kids loved the snack, and hardly a crumb was left. It was encouraging. Next week I think I'll bring cornmeal muffins and apple slices.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

kitchen life

Today we received our property assessment in the mail. It's just a postcard from the city telling you the market value of your house, presumably so you can anticipate the amount of property taxes for the coming year. Normally, the assessment isn't something we look forward to. It just shows up and we glance at it, and that is that. But this one was the first official assessment of our home's value since the Very Expensive and Time-Consuming basement renovations last year. Now, I know that you never get back dollar for dollar what you put into home improvements, but we were hoping for a decent fraction of it, like half, or even a third. Alas, adding a second bathroom and 600 square feet of living space in our now-finished basement amounts to, according to the city of Madison, roughly the cost of replacing the furnace and buying a few new towels for the bathroom.

It was discouraging, to say the least. Not because we are eager to pay so much more in property taxes, mind you, but because we were really hoping there would be enough added worth that we could borrow more to extend the kitchen. I believe I've bitched and moaned mentioned in the past that our kitchen is rather cramped and badly in need of some updates. I can live with no garage, I can live with small bedrooms and shallow closets, and I can live with the narrow upstairs bathroom and the wobbly pedestal sink therein, but I was really, really hoping we could improve and embiggen the kitchen. (According to blogger, "embiggen" isn't a word, but I say it is. So there.)

It's just that I spend so much time in there. You can call me a SAHM, you can call me a housewife (though I'd rather you didn't), you can call me what you like, but the truth is, the most important and challenging aspect of my work at home is feeding my family. To say that it's important for us to eat healthily and eat well is an understatement. And since I have young children who are both rather finicky eaters and constantly in need of snacks and meals, well, it means I spend a lot of time and effort planning and preparing what we eat every day. It's a good thing I enjoy it. I mean, I love good food, and I love cooking good food, and I consider eating well one of the great joys of life. This means, though, that most of the time I spend at home is in my kitchen, and I was looking forward to making it bigger and nicer and also replacing our dying, held-together-with-duct-tape-and-cardboard fridge with a better one. And having a better place to store the breakfast cereal than on top of the microwave, which is on top of the sucky fridge. But it is not to be, at least for now.

It's okay. We're okay. I mean, it's better to eat well in a pain-in-the-ass kitchen than spend so much money on a nicer, bigger house that we can't afford good food. Or be working so hard to pay for it that we wouldn't have the time to prepare and enjoy meals together. I have things in perspective. I'm just kind of bummed about it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Sorry for the lapse in blogging of late, folks. I seem to have a lot to think about, but nothing to say, for some reason. I've been preoccupied with the minutia of life, settling back into routine after a week away with the kids, and thinking ahead to summer plans (nothing earth-shattering, but I need to make sure we have enough to do, the kids and I).

I've also been a little busier than normal with freelance work, which is generally a good thing, but I'm feeling a bit restless, like I need a good, challenging project to motivate me. What comes my way for the most part these days is playing concerto reductions for young, talented string players for all their various auditions and masterclasses. It's not bad work, and there is plenty of it, especially if you get a good reputation among the better teachers in town, but it's not my real passion. I don't really want to spend my whole career as a pianist doing this and nothing else.

I need a project I can really sink my teeth into, something where I'm an equal player, so to speak! The problem is, I'm not sure how to pursue the sort of performance opportunity I'm most interested in right now when I've got so many things to keep up with at home. I still don't have the time or ability to concentrate like I did when I was a graduate student. I thought I was busy in those days - ha! At least my time was my own and I could decide how I spent it in practice and rehearsals and all that. But then Daniel was born and I was able - just - to keep my head above water to finish my degree. Then I got pregnant with Anya and that was that.

I know that was almost five years ago and I should have worked through all this by now, but something about having two kids less than two years apart in the middle of a doctoral program sets you back a little. I've been trying to catch up ever since, and I don't think I've succeeded yet.

I'm very often frustrated, not because I'm really so unhappy with my lot in life overall, but because I feel so lopsided. I am not a career woman, at least not in the sense we're accustomed to hearing about. But I am also not a woman who thinks my education is best used solely in raising my children. I actually don't think having advanced degrees in music makes me a better mother, and I'd rather not let all that training go to waste, especially since it's still my passion. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it's the honest truth.

My next step, I suppose, is to swallow up this frustration and channel it into something more productive than periodical bouts of self-pity. I think a good first step would be to enter the 21st century and get myself a website. That sounds like a good summer challenge, don't you think?

Friday, April 06, 2012


We did make it to Kentucky after all! We left a day late because Anya needed to see the doctor (good news: she didn't have the flu; bad news: she did have an ear infection), but the trip went smoothly, so I'd say it all worked out. I always lose track of time here, in a good way. My parents are retired, and we cross over one time zone, so we tend to sleep in and laze about. It's nice.

A couple of days ago, it was pretty hot outside, so we had ice cream cones for dessert after lunch. Ice cream cones are best when eaten on the front porch:

Daniel wanted to make a quilt with my mom, so he's been hard at work on that all week. He's been tickled pink to use the sewing machine:

I thought it would be good to get out of the house for a little while, so we spent the afternoon today in Lexington. Mostly, we were downtown at the Explorium, which isn't nearly as big as the Madison Children's Museum, but full of fun stuff anyway. There were lots of giant things, like a giant brain and a giant mouth full of teeth. Anya enclosed herself in a giant bubble:

Daniel enclosed himself in a giant lego wall:

I think Daniel's favorite thing was the model of a river with a dam and lockes and little model boats. He probably spent a whole hour there:

I got the kids to stand still just long enough for one picture at Triangle Park:

We drive back to Wisconsin Easter Sunday, so there is one more day to enjoy here in Kentucky. I think we'll make the most of it.