Sunday, December 29, 2013


Oh, and by the way, it's my birthday today. Having a birthday sandwiched halfway between Christmas and New Year's Day has always been a strange mix of good and bad. It gets forgotten a lot, and I spent many a birthday (both as a child and adult) in the car en route from holiday visits, but on the other hand, I never did have to go to school or take a test on my birthday, and there were a couple years I got a nice, big Christmas-birthday combo present if I wanted something too extravagant for either holiday.

Today I'm 35, which feels completely unremarkable in every way. My mom and dad, who are here for the holidays, pointed out that I'm getting close to middle age. Thanks for the reminder. I don't really feel like it. I feel healthy and spry for the most part, unless I've spent two hours shoveling snow the previous day. I'm not so good at staying up past 11pm but thanks to my caffeine addiction, I can muddle through. Also, I never thought I'd be a housewife/SAHM at this age, but surprise! Here I am.

Anyway, to celebrate 35 years of the world with me in it (which I hope is a good thing), here are 35 things about me. Some of these things you may already know, some may be a surprise. Some may be interesting. Many are not. Welcome to my world.

1. I am a Capricorn. We're supposed to be mysterious.

2. I don't know that I'm really so mysterious, though I am rather shy. Does that count?

3. I do have a hard time masking my feelings, try though I might. I remember once in high school I made it to the all-state chorus. During a rehearsal break, the other students from my school and I were chatting in a group, and a girl from another school showed up and announced that she had a dime of marijuana stashed in her shoe in case any of us would like to join her later to enjoy it. She was clearly under the influence of something already. I prided myself in maintaining what I thought was a neutral expression, but the other girls in my group were doubled over in laughter at the look on my face, which was apparently one of horror and repulsion. There's a reason I've never been good at poker.

4. I like to run. I don't do marathons or anything. Heck, I've never even run a race. But I have a 4.5-mile route I like to do 3-5 times per week when possible.

5. I discovered a few years ago that it is actually possible to run through the winter in Wisconsin as long as you're dressed for it. I'll even run when it's in the single digits.

6. Not that I particularly enjoy it. I really enjoy running in temps between 25 and 70 degrees. Anything warmer or colder is uncomfortable. Below zero is unbearable and I won't do it.

7. On that note, I was pretty stoked to get a super deal on a new pair of running shoes this afternoon. Because it's my birthday and I haven't bought new running shoes (or any new shoes, for that matter) for myself in over two years.

8. I'm not really a shoe person. You know how the stereotypical woman has like 100 pairs of shoes? Not me. I have about a half dozen total: couple pairs of running shoes, snow boots, rain boots, cool boots, dress heels which I wear so rarely I literally have to dust them off for performances, and my everyday sneakers, which I got for 15 bucks off the clearance rack 6 years ago and are literally falling apart. I'm still searching for that perfect pair of cool boots. I haven't found them yet, but I'll know when I do.

9. I am not a pet person. At all. I don't even want a goldfish in my house. Ew. Ewwwww.

10. I did have to take care of my cousin's goldfish when I was a junior in college. He was a misshapen fellow named Gilbert who made lots of blub-blub noises and frequently floated at the top of his bowl pretending to be dead. We'd be on the verge of sending him down the drain when suddenly he would start swimming around blub-blubbing like nothing was wrong. Gilbert, you fickle fish, you! One day he kicked the bucket for real, and since one of my roommates was laid up with a broken wrist, I was tasked with carrying the bowl of water with his bloated carcass at arm's length down to the creek for a quick, though elegant, eulogy and burial.

11. I have many years of training as a classical musician under my belt. Many.

12. But I'm not very good at playing by ear. My little brother is better at it, and he earns his keep as an electrical engineer.

13. My only real regrets in life are that I never seriously considered pursuing a career in science instead of the humanities, and that I never got really good at speaking any foreign languages, though I've studied several.

14. I used to speak German fairly well, but alas, ich habe ganz vergessen. It's just been too long.

15. I knit. A lot. I have a whole blog about it.

16. I learned to knit in 4-H, with my mom teaching, when I was in fourth grade. I stuck with it pretty well for two or three years, then lost interest and gained it back a couple of times over the next many years. Finally my best friend in grad school (with whom I haven't been in touch for a while, sadly) taught me to knit socks in 2002 and I was hooked for good.

17. I didn't know about collecting yarn or building a stash until Daniel was born. Then, I was almost done with my doctorate and stuck at home with a baby and no chance to practice so I nursed and knit and collected yarn and suddenly, my stash exploded. It's obvious to me now (though it wasn't then) that I was making up for my lack of productivity in one area (music/grad school) with the expectation of productivity in another (knitting), without factoring in the enormous time-suck that is caring for an infant. Now I have more yarn than I know what to do with and I am making a true and conscientious effort to use it up instead of buying more.

18. I know I'm doing really well when I go to a yarn store with my mom on my birthday and don't buy any yarn. That happened today.

19. I hardly ever do my own designing. I mean, I can make a hat or a pair of socks without a pattern and throw in some color work or a cable or two, but that's about it. I've been doing some test knitting for a professional designer the last couple years, though, and that's been fun. I'm working on a pullover sweater in bulky yarn for her right now and I'm afraid it's turning out a tad small (my fault, not hers.) Bummer.

20.  I mentioned I'm a musician, right? I play the piano. I have professional degrees in teaching and collaborative performance.

21. I can play anything that isn't improvised (I don't do jazz, in other words, and that's not a shortcoming, just a whole field of study I never explored). Lately I've been playing a lot of concerto reductions, music for French horn and art song and musical theatre.

22. I really love playing art song. If I could be gainfully employed playing and coaching art song I'd be in paradise.

23. But that's never gonna happen, so I'm okay with taking the opportunities that come my way. I do really like playing orchestral reductions, and I get a fair amount of work doing that come concerto audition season for the local orchestras. (For those who don't know, orchestral reductions are when you take the music written for an entire orchestra, such as for a concerto for solo instrument with orchestra, and squeeze it all into a piano score for two hands. They are often difficult to play and not always suited to pianistic technique.) It's strangely satisfying and freeing to puzzle out what should be played and what should be left out.

24. I like to cook. I even love it sometimes.

25. I was vegetarian for a while. I started eating meat again when I got pregnant with Daniel and craved turkey sandwiches and grapes and ice cubes.

26. Now I eat meat regularly, but not often. This Christmas has been quite the exception, what with all the festivity and extra people around. I could happily go a month without meat now, I think. Ugh.

27. I bake nearly all of the bread we eat.

28. I also grill flatbreads like tortillas and pita.

29. Sometimes I even make bagels. They are fun and so good when made fresh.

30. Come to think of it, I should do some tutorials on those things sometime. I think I promised to do that a few years ago and never got around to it.

31. I'm not ordinarily a procrastinator.

32. Dear lord, I'm only at #32?  I'm not sure I can think of another 3 interesting things to write about myself. Or even semi-interesting. Seriously. I'm wracking my brain here.  Hmmmmmmmmm. I really like the color red.

33. I'm type A in a lot of ways, but I'm a so-so housekeeper. That said, one of my pet peeves is dirty socks on the floor.

34. I can't stand wearing bracelets, so I never do.

35. I've never once dyed my hair (that attempt with red kool-aid in high school didn't work, so it doesn't count). All those gray hairs are 100% NATURAL, dammit!

fun in the snow

We had a lot of fun in the snow this past week. Christmas morning Stuart and my brother spent several hours covering the climbing dome in our back yard with cardboard and sheets, then piling snow on top of it to make an igloo. My dad "supervised."


We did a lot of sledding.

And yesterday, when it actually warmed up to 40 degrees, the snow got wet and sticky enough to make a couple of snow people!

We really had fun with the upside down guy.

Sadly, our snow dudes didn't make it through the night. Melty temps and questionable construction made them unstable and both fell over by this morning. We have a major cold snap coming (expected lows tomorrow morning are well below zero!), so it's a good thing we've been enjoying the outdoors while we can.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


In the last 20 hours we've gotten about 8" of snow here in Madison. It's our piece of the crap weather that is all over the country. The city declared a snow emergency this morning. Our street has yet to be cleared, but I really hope they get to it soon because I have to drive to Milwaukee late tonight to pick up my brother and SIL from the airport! We spent the day cleaning up in preparation for holiday company (Joe and MJ arrive tonight, my parents drive up tomorrow) and shoveling the driveway. Late this afternoon we went to the park for a snowball fight and general frolicking.

It seems like a good way to welcome winter!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


The one thing that isn't coming together so smoothly for Anya's kindergarten year is making friends. Her class is full of lovely, interesting children, most of whom are quite friendly, and as far as I can tell, they like her and she likes them. She's even been to a few birthday parties already. But she has yet to form a connection with any one particular person. You know, the one kid you always play with at recess and want to sit next to at carpet time and invite over after school? She doesn't have that yet, and she is starting to feel a little lonely. She can be quite shy, and it's difficult for her to go up to a group of kids and join in their play.

I know just how she feels. I was a shy kid, especially in late elementary school (I skipped third grade so I was kind of starting over socially my fourth grade year, and it wasn't all moonbeams and penny whistles, let me tell you). Going up to a kid or two or four and asking to join them is terrifying. What if they say no or ignore you? The prospect of that potential rejection and humiliation can make the whole effort not even worth it. Then seeing everyone else pair up at recess or free choice time is a lonely feeling.

I've told her to be patient. I know she is a wonderful person, intelligent and caring and sensitive and intensely loyal, a person worth knowing and being friends with. I told her that the people around her know that, too. I've told her she can try to be brave and go up to ask someone to play with her, but that it's okay to feel nervous about it because there is nothing wrong with you for being shy. It just means you have to work a little harder (or a lot harder) to make friends.

We do have a play date scheduled with one of the kids in her class after school tomorrow. Doing things like that more often should help, I hope.

What I have not told her is to "be more outgoing" or "don't be so shy" or any of the things people told me when I was a kid. That sort of advice is worthless and succeeds only in making a person feel like being introverted and shy (two separate qualities, though they often go together) are character flaws that must be corrected. It took me years, years, to accept that 1) I am an introvert and 2) that is not a bad thing. Once I truly accepted that about myself (and I was well into my 20s before I did), I shed some of that shyness and stopped worrying about trying to be bubbly and extroverted. I was never good at faking that in the first place. For the record, my parents are both introverts and knew better than to give me advice like "be more outgoing"; it was everyone else who seemed to think that was something about me that needed fixing.

To tell the truth, I'm not entirely comfortable writing about this here. It's something very personal about my daughter and it feels like a breach of privacy revealing this about her on a public blog. This is something she will have to figure out how to work through herself (with our support, obviously). But as someone who went through some serious bouts of shyness, I do feel it's important to point out how difficult that can be, like a public service announcement. Being shy can make various social situations feel anywhere from slightly awkward to completely paralyzing. We could all benefit from being a little more understanding about that.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Six years ago today, we welcomed this little lady to the world.

She's been lighting up the room with her smile ever since.

Happy birthday, Anya!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

N'Kosi Sikeleli

When Stuart and I were on our way to South Africa to visit his parents way back in 2000, there was a large group of South African exchange students on their way home from time studying abroad. When we crossed into South African territory, they broke out into their national anthem. They were all white and Stuart leaned over and told me they weren't pronouncing the words correctly. Still, it was quite a moment. It's a beautiful anthem. Take a few minutes to have a listen, won't you?

The first video is a rather old recording with Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon. The second is by the Soweto Gospel Choir. They are both moving.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

long walk to freedom

I wasn't shocked to hear that Nelson Mandela died today. After all, he was 95 and had been fighting pneumonia for months now. But I am still sad that the world lost such a great man.

My husband spent much of his childhood and adolescent years in South Africa in the late 1980s and early-mid 1990s, just when apartheid was ending. He attended the first racially integrated high school in South Africa (Umtata High School). At least once, if not twice, his family's home was fire-bombed when times were particularly tense, politically. No one in his family was hurt, fortunately, but it was still frightening. They celebrated when Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

In early 2000, just before Stuart's parents retired from their work in Umtata, he and I took a two-week trip to visit them. I saw wild animals in a game park, swam in the Indian Ocean at the Wild Coast, drove past miles upon miles of shanty towns with shacks pieced together from tin and cardboard outside Cape Town, went to a church service conducted in Xhosa (with my FIL translating) in a mud hut, drove through some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever seen (South Africa's landscape inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, in fact) dotted with villages and far too many brightly colored funeral tents. We also toured Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27 years in prison. It was all an eye-opening, beautiful, humbling experience.

After that trip I read his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. I don't claim to have any special knowledge about the history of South Africa or insight into the lives of people there. But I happen to live with someone who spent his formative years there, and his parents carry a lot of knowledge about that place.

I know this: the world lost a great man today. Rest in peace, Madiba.

File:Nelson Mandela-2008 (edit).jpg

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

santa issues

Here we are hurtling towards Christmas and Thanksgiving, though it was just last week, already feels a bit like a distant memory. The company has left, the leftovers have been eaten except for that one last bowl of turkey noodle soup, and Daniel keeps adding to his Christmas wish list like he thinks we're millionaires or something.

Apparently there has been some lively discussion amongst the second graders regarding whether or not Santa is real. Daniel told me that some of the kids in his math group think Santa exists, and some don't.

The kids who believe in Santa were quite insistent about it. One girl devised a test. She knows where the presents are in her house, and she intends to sneak into their hiding place and draw a little dot on every single one. If the dots are gone on Christmas morning when her presents appear, she says, it means Santa is real. If the dots are still there, he is not real. (Please do not ask me to explain the logic of this plan. There are some definite gaps.)

Daniel and Anya know that Santa isn't real. We've never told them otherwise. (Ditto the tooth fairy, for that matter.) I personally think it's mean to string a kid along on a fantasy and then later reveal that you knew the truth all along and kept him deliberately ignorant, but that's just me. I'm not judging. I don't think I ever believed Santa was real, or if I did, I must have found out the truth at such a young age I've forgotten. I am pretty sure I didn't enjoy the presents I opened at Christmas any less.

I also never once had my picture taken with Santa at the mall or what-have-you and I don't regret that for one tiny instant. I've never taken my kids to have their pictures taken with Santa either. I find that whole tradition rather creepy, actually. But again, that's just me. No judging here.

According to Daniel, the student teacher who spends a lot of time in the classroom was participating in this discussion and fell into the "Santa is real" camp. She's a grown woman, so obviously she knows better, but I suspect she didn't want to be the one responsible for shattering what is apparently a strongly held belief for some of these kids. I don't blame her. This whole Santa thing is between these kids and their parents…

...which is exactly why I told Daniel not to argue too much about Santa with his classmates. He has a tendency to be a little bit of a know-it-all to begin with (sad, but true), and I told him that even though Santa isn't a real person who flies around the world leaving presents for everyone, it's still fun to pretend. That's why, when I was a kid, we left a plate of cookies out on Christmas Eve for Santa's snack, even though we knew it was just my mom and dad who were going to eat those cookies and then put treats in our stockings. It was still really special.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

a little pensive

After a week of company for Thanksgiving (which was just lovely, by the way), my in-laws have left, Stuart hopped on a plane at some ungodly hour this morning for a work trip, and it's just me and the kids for a few days. For the moment, I'm enjoying the quiet (kids are asleep), sipping a glass of wine and thinking to myself for only the hundredth time that time marches on, or rather, races on. When did they get so tall anyway? When did my hair start showing those specks of gray (which I hate but I also refuse to dye)? When did I become the person who finds conversations about things like household appliances interesting?

It's not that I am old, or that I feel old. I just realize I've reached a certain phase of life where I have to accept, to some extent, the way things are and the fact that there are things I will likely never do. I will never backpack across Europe (too cliché anyway, right?) or learn Korean or live in New York City. I will probably never have a meaningful career, at least, not by any standards outside of my own.

Right now, I am okay with all of this. I have a good life. I have a good family. I live in a beautiful city. It's enough, and I'm thankful.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

cold snap

All of a sudden it feels like winter. We all took a walk this afternoon to a nearby park and found sheets of brittle ice frozen over the rocky creek bed. It looked like just like glass and shattered as easily. 

The kids took great pleasure in stomping sheets of ice into tiny bits. 

The crinkling, crunch was a satisfying sound. 

Daniel, especially, enjoyed wielding large chunks and tossing them onto the rocks to watch them shatter.


I often claim that I've gotten accustomed to the Wisconsin climate, but after a half hour of being outside, I couldn't stand it any longer and headed home for a hot cup of tea. Tomorrow it's going to be even colder and so windy it will feel like the temperature is below zero, all day long. I'm not quite ready for it, but like it or not, winter is coming. Bring out the long johns!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

all's well that ends well

We lost Daniel for about 5 minutes tonight. Maybe it was less, but it felt like forever. The four of us were coming back from an evening event at the elementary school, and he ran ahead down the hill like he always does. Only this time, when we thought we'd caught up with him and started calling his name, he didn't answer. We called and called and got no response. I didn't know how he could have possibly disappeared in that single minute between when he took off and when we should have caught up with him, so I didn't know whether I should panic or not.

But after a minute or two of calling his name, I did panic. I was shouting, Stuart was calling, Anya was sobbing, the sheriff deputy who lives across the road (thank goodness) from where we were looking came out of his house with his teenage daughters and told them to get flashlights and head for the park. Just as I was describing Daniel (7 years old, short brown hair, blue coat) and answering no he would never cross the street by himself, no he would never go to the park alone, no he would never intentionally hide and try to scare us - there he was. He'd heard us calling but thought we were behind him, so he went back up the hill and met up with another family (we know them) and was leisurely making his way down to us, oblivious to our panic until I saw him and yelled at him out of my fear and panic and we both started to cry.

Now we are fine. He was not in danger after all. We should have thought to look behind us instead of ahead. We should have known he was much more likely to backtrack than to cross the street and head home. I shouldn't have panicked. I shouldn't have gotten hysterical and yelled at him when we did find him. I cooled down and gave him a big hug and we were all okay by the time we got back to our warm, safe house.

Well, we are mostly fine. Anya was whimpering a bit, still, and she will probably end up in my bed with a nightmare a few hours from now. I will probably have trouble sleeping, too (more than usual). And I'm still feeling bad about being so shortsighted and reactionary when Daniel was only doing what felt safe and logical.

It's hard being a parent, knowing just how easy it is to rip your heart in two.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

chris hadfield is my new boyfriend

I'm a little late to the party, I know, but how awesome is this?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

happy halloween!

Two kids in costume,

lots (and lots) of candy,

plus the annual neighborhood bonfire:

We're lucky the rain stopped just in time for trick-or-treating. 

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 25, 2013

soccer mom

My kids are playing soccer. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I'm one minivan away from becoming one of THOSE MOMS, the kind I swore I would never ever be.

But no, don't worry. I will never, ever drive a minivan. To me, it's a matter of principle, and I know how ridiculous this all sounds because I know the third row of seats and extra trunk space is so very convenient, not just for soccer but cello and other large musical instruments. Many of my friends drive minivans, and I'm talking about people I know well and love dearly and have the utmost respect for. But me? I just can't go there.

So anyway, both of my kids are doing soccer this fall and so help me, they love it. They love it because it's fun and every practice and game is an opportunity to run around with their friends and the coaches are wonderful, supportive dads who emphasis playing as a team and learning skills and Not Keeping Score. I'll be damned if both of them aren't getting rather good at it. Notice I said kind of good, not great; still, this happens when you like something and practice it diligently.

Daniel has always been fast and assertive and competitive, so I am not surprised that he had a steep and quick learning curve in this game. Anya's the surprise, though. She is most definitely not assertive in her personality, but there is a deep-seated determination in her that has been playing out in a big way this fall soccer season. Plus, she is a really good runner, which helps a lot. (I look forward to when she's old enough to join Girls On The Run.)

I love to watch them play. I love to watch them play. They are fast and confident and in control, things I never was at that age. Actually, I was a pretty fast runner, but since it was the 1980s and I was a girl and shy and not physically assertive in the least, not a single person encouraged me to play soccer or any other sport. I tried soccer when I was 5, but being a shy child with no sense of physical competition, I didn't see the point of chasing the ball down the field when everybody else seemed more determined to get there first. Team sports did not suit me.

By the time I was old enough for a track or cross country team, I had long decided that I was not an athlete, so joining with one of those teams didn't even cross my mind. Now I run 4.5 miles 4-5 days every week, something I never dreamed of doing two decades ago.

Anya's final practice of the fall season was this evening. Her coach thought it would be fun to have an informal parents vs. kids scrimmage to round off the season. I barely know the rules of the game: ball, goal, no hands, something about corner kicks, that's about it. Anyway, since I was one of the few parents who showed up for practice without younger kids to attend to, I didn't have much choice but to join the scrimmage.

And guess what? I still suck at soccer. I am no better now than 30 years ago when I first tried it. Mostly, I hung out at the end of the field "playing defense," aka "watching." The one time the ball came my way, it was being chased by a clump of five-year-old children all wearing cleats, so I simply shrieked and jumped out of the way. (I still think that was a smart move. Those kids are fast.)

I'm proud that my kids are [kind of] good at soccer. I'm glad they're enjoying it. I admit that I hope their interests move on before it gets competitive and risky (the concussion thing FREAKS ME OUT), but for now I'm just glad they have this opportunity.

I'll still never drive a minivan.

Friday, October 18, 2013

friday photo

I snapped this picture with my phone the other day at the playground. There's something a little jarring about the sight of so many beautiful autumn leaves against the backdrop of shredded tire mulch.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

apple pie

I have my grandma's copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. This particular one is copyrighted about a decade before I was born, and it is literally falling apart. The front cover is long gone, many of the pages have come loose, and at least one page of the index is simply gone. It's amusing sometimes to look through the recipes and note how dated they are; most of the main dishes are meat-based and there is a rather large number of gelatin salads featured. 

The book is divided into categories like "Main Dishes," "Salads," and so on, but mostly, I use it for desserts, and in the 1975 Betty Crocker Cookbook, desserts abound! There are separate chapters for "Cakes and Frostings," "Cookies and Candies," "Pies," and finally, "Desserts." Lest you think the first three didn't cover the "dessert" category, you would be forgetting such classics as "Grapes and Pineapple in Sour Cream" (pretty much what it sounds like), "Captivating Canteloupe" (in which you halve a cantaloupe, scoop out the seeds, and fill the cavity with cream cheese, canned sweet cherries, lemon peel and almonds) and "Strawberry Shortcake." The latter is actually a fantastic recipe and I make it as many times as I can in early summer when strawberries are in season.

In all seriousness, I do actually consult Ms. Crocker more often than not when I want to bake a simple pie or cake. The recipes in there are tried-and-true, basic, no frills, no funny ingredients (mostly), and the instructions are straightforward and easy to follow. This morning at the farmers' market I went by an apple vendor and decided to buy some tart apples and make a pie. When I got home, I got out my trusty Betty Crocker Cookbook, flipped - carefully, so as not to lose any more pages - to the "Pies" section, and found the standard pastry recipe for a 2-crust 9" pie. I've done this dozens of times, but never before had I stopped to read the introduction to the pie section. It is as follows:

What's the American man's favorite dessert? Most people would agree - it's pie. And heading the list is apple pie. Followed closely by cherry pie and peach pie and lemon meringue and a lot of others. If you care about pleasing a man - bake a pie. But make sure it's a perfect pie...

You might think I would have been infuriated by this, but I wasn't. More than anything, I was amused. Then I had to email Stuart about it, during which he expressed both his enthusiasm about the promise of apple pie (I make pie, like, twice a year, so it is a rarity to be celebrated), and then admitted that he must not be an all-American man since apple pie isn't his very favorite dessert. Would he be less of a man if he declared flan to be his favorite, he wondered? The conversation got even sillier from there...

Anyway. We have to remember that these are words from 40+ years ago, after all, and even if our society has a ways to go in terms of gender equality at home and in the workplace, you're not likely to find the phrase, "If you want to please a man, bake a pie!" in many bestselling cookbooks these days, especially followed up with that ominous qualifier: "Make sure it's a perfect pie." I mean, can you imagine Mark Bittman writing that in his next How to Cook Everything?

Here's the truth of the matter. I totally baked that apple pie to please. Mostly, I made it to please myself. I happen to love apple pie and today I had the time to make one. But the rest of my family will love it too, and I had all of us - me, my husband, our kids - in mind when I sliced the apples and rolled out the pastry and slid the whole thing in the oven. We will enjoy it together, and if I prompt the kids they might even thank me for making it (I'm not above that.)


Monday, October 14, 2013

85 keys

Last week, for the first time, I encountered a piano with only 85 keys. The standard, of course, is 88, but this instrument was missing a few at the top.

Last week my friend Dr. Julia came to town to visit her family and to do one last performance of the recital we put together last year. Our venue was a local unitarian church, famous because its building is a Frank Lloyd Wright design. They have regular concerts every Friday at noon, and we got booked for last week. The program was a shortened version of the recital we did in Wisconsin, Kansas and Florida last year, only this time something special was added - a piece written just for us by a colleague of Julia's. The piece wasn't finished for any of our performances last year, and as a matter of fact, after he heard us perform, the composer rewrote the piano part to be longer and much more difficult. Thanks, dude.

Truly, I did take that rewrite as a compliment. But learning it was a bitch. It's a short song, but there is a devilish solo piano interlude in the middle that took me weeks to learn. The text is an Emily Dickinson poem, and this solo interlude evokes swarms of blackbirds against the backdrop of the poet's anxiety about the desolation of winter, and by extension, her anxiety about death. At least, that's how I interpreted it. It's fast and anxious and there are a lot of notes way up high on the piano. In fact, the climax of the whole thing goes all the way up to the tippy top of the keyboard in a ferocious, fortissimo swirl of sixteenth notes and jagged rests.

Alas, I did not discover the key shortage on this particular piano until the dress rehearsal when my right hand suddenly struck the hard, black wood of the piano's frame instead of the high C and B-flat that I needed. "Julia, there's a problem," I announced when we finished running through it, and I showed her how this piano, this lovely instrument with a beautiful sound and an elaborately carved music stand, simply stopped at the high A. It had only 85 keys instead of the standard 88. I only needed those high notes for one measure - one rather crucial measure, to be sure, but still, it was only one. There was nothing for it but to just make due and take some small comfort knowing the audience wouldn't know the difference anyway. Mostly, it was disappointing knowing that the first performance of this piece would be on an instrument that didn't have enough keys to play the notes as written.

Strange things happen in performance sometimes. I remember when I was on tour with Opera for the Young, we once left a rather critical piece of the pirate ship at a school in Beloit and had to begin The Pirates of Penzance with our student chorus holding up the sides of their pirate ship like an ill-fitting skirt. I've covered for many a singer's memory slip and chased errant loose pages of music across a stage. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in the marching band and once my pants fell down in the middle of our routine. Shrug. Stuff just happens.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

10 minute writing prompt: leaves

I read somewhere about picking a prompt word and writing down everything you can think of about it for  10 minutes. It's a good exercise, even if not everything that comes out of it is good writing. Here's one I just wrote today and I'm posting for the heck of it. My topic is "leaves"


Is there anything more cliché about fall than leaves? Pumpkins, maybe. But the image that comes to my mind more often than any other when I think about fall is that of leaves. Some leaves change color so dramatically. There is a large, old maple tree a few blocks away from my house that is magnificent right now, ablaze with orange and red and still some hints of green. It’s remarkable to see, but rather unremarkable to write about. There is a pretty tree in my neighborhood‼ Isn’t that fascinating??!

The large maple tree in my backyard is gone. At the end of the summer, a crew came with a bucket truck and chainsaws, and in the space of six hours, sliced off each sprawling limb, dismembered the trunk, and took it away in pieces. The tree is gone, and to be honest I don’t even miss it as much as I thought I would. Especially now. That maple tree did not turn pretty colors at all. The leaves were dotted with some sort of fungus, though the tree itself was surprisingly healthy, and they turned a nondescript brown in the middle of November every year, before defoliating en masse onto the roof and into the gutters of our house and into the backyard, where we would rake them into piles and fill the compost and mulch the garden and mow them into the lawn and still have so much leftover we didn’t know where to put them all. Now that tree is gone and we don’t have to deal with the leaves anymore. And we can see the stars at night.

I think about the leaves I like to eat. I grow arugula in my garden. It’s so spicy and bitter, I sometimes wonder why I like to grow so much of it, and I think it’s mostly because the sharp flavor keeps the bunnies, who would happily munch away at lettuce and parsley and carrot greens, at bay. I grow chard, always from a package of rainbow seeds so the stems are vibrant red, yellow, purple. By now the leaves are large as flags and pock-marked with holes where something is eating them, but I pick a few anyway and slip them into dishes for dinner and hope the kids won’t notice. Or if they do notice, they won’t care.

Last week I went outside with Anya’s kindergarten class to pick flowers from the school garden. We also took a walk through the woods on the school grounds, and as we were coming out, the children started picking up oak leaves from the ground. The oak leaves are big, brown, intricately shaped. Fascinated by the intricate shape, the curves and points, and by the crinkly texture, the kids wanted to keep them and make bouquets.

Friday, October 04, 2013


I'm starting to go a little stir-crazy. If I had a nickel every time someone asked me what I'm doing with "all that free time" now that Anya is in public school, I'd be, well, not rich, but I'd be making more money than I am now, which is pretty much zilch.

I'd really been hoping to pick up more freelance work, now that I have more availability during the day. Alas, the semester has gotten off to a slow start, to put it kindly. From what I understand, it's a problem of supply and demand; suddenly there are more pianists in town looking to earn their living doing what I do, so now there isn't enough work to go around, whereas usually it's the other way around. Of course, well-qualified musicians have every right to take the gigs that come their way, but from my standpoint it's terrible timing. Just when I have the time to work more, there isn't enough work, plus I still have kids' schedules to work around (it's not like them being in school means I don't have any parental responsibility anymore, something that non-parents don't always understand).

I have one gig next week (it's going to be great, actually, another performance with my friend Dr. Julia), and maybe one more low-key recital in December, and that's it. I honestly don't know what to do.

The first couple weeks of school, when I was suddenly awash with kid-free time, were great. The house was clean, I made meal plans, I practiced my little bit of recital music, I puttered around with some sewing. But the euphoria didn't last long. Now, given too many hours and too few responsibilities to fill them up, I feel anxious, mildly depressed, and, frankly, useless. This is unsustainable for me. For me, being a mom/housewife has had its ups and downs, but it has also worked okay up to this point.

Now it is not okay. Now I am thinking about turning 35 at the end of the year,. Now I am staring into my future, and if it keeps going on this track, I don't like what I see. I need to challenge myself, I need to feel like I'm worth something, I need to feel like I'm capable of financial independence, and right now none of those things are happening. It's not that parenting and planning meals and volunteering in the classroom isn't challenging - heavens no! - but that stuff alone just isn't doing it for me right now. The way I see it, my options are:

1.) Give it a year, try to find more gigs, hope this all eventually works out. This is what I am good at, after all. Drawbacks: freelance work is already unreliable; the slow start now does not bode well for the future.

2.) Throw myself into volunteering at the school. Teachers welcome the help, and it's good to see how the kids' classes operate. Drawbacks: I don't want to become one of those moms who all the kids think works at the school because I'm there so much. Also, it's exhausting. And it's working for free, which I should limit.

3.) Start over. Seriously, throw out the music career, which got derailed anyway once I had kids. Go back to school and study statistics or animal behavior or social work or something. Drawbacks: Because all I ever studied or worked in was music, it would truly be starting over. I'd be starting menopause by the time I get done.

I went to school, I followed my passion, I got really good at the things I like best...and now I'm starting to regret it. I feel like I should have known better. I should have kept my options open. I didn't plan on having kids when I did, but I know I can't blame my perpetual career crisis on them forever. Right now, I just don't know what to do.

Friday, September 27, 2013

life lessons learned in piano

Daniel and I often butt heads during his piano practice time. He likes playing the piano well enough, and he loves his teacher, so getting him to practice in the first place isn't the big challenge. We clash whenever I - how to put this delicately - offer suggestions to help the practicing go a little more smoothly.

I am really and truly trying not to interfere. He is good at learning independently, and having Mom breathing down your neck pointing out every little mistake is only going to make the whole thing stressful instead of fun and enriching. I get that. And I want his teacher (who is excellent, and whom I completely trust to work with him on all the things that might give him trouble) to be the authority figure, not me.

But every once in a while, he'll hit a wall with something like scale fingering or playing a rhythm incorrectly for the second week in a row, and when that happens it's impossible for me to keep my mouth shut. It goes the same way every time. "Daniel, I see you're frustrated with this scale. Can I show you a little trick I know?" "Nooooo! Stop it, mom, don't DO THAT!"

In general, this has gotten better (except for the scale fingering - that's a big hurdle when you start adding octaves), and I believe a big reason for this is that Daniel is learning the value of putting real, actual effort into learning a skill. He's a kid who naturally does well in school. He's a good reader, quick with math, and being only in second grade, has yet to encounter a project or subject that is truly difficult for him.

I've had many piano students like this in the past - smart kids who do well in school without having to try exceptionally hard, and then after the first few months of piano lessons, it takes actual work and repetition to learn the assigned pieces, no matter how smart or talented they are. It's kind of a shock to the system for those kids who, for the first time, have to put repeated effort into learning something well, and they often want to give up trying.

That's the danger of telling kids "You're so smart! This is easy for you!" Because then when it's not easy, they don't see the value of putting in the effort to learn. I know I'm not to first person to point this out, but I've known it for a long time.

Anyway, now that Daniel has been taking piano lessons for over a year and has experienced the satisfaction of working hard on pieces that seem difficult, he doesn't get so frustrated when he can't play something perfectly right out of the gate.

I believe this particular life lesson (if I may be so bold), that of granting patience to yourself as you put in quality time and effort into learning a skill or completing a project, is hard to learn. It takes practice. It takes repetition. But the satisfaction and confidence to be gained once the effort pays off in a successful performance or really great science fair project, or what-have-you, is well worth it. And as someone who spent so many years studying the piano and other keyboard instruments, I feel like I've learned it over and over again.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

good smells

I like to come home to a house that smells good. Like fresh air and something baking. Or onions cooking in butter - that's really one of the best smells there is, if you ask me.Good smells don't always happen in my house. As often as not, I walk through the kitchen door and I smell the trash that really needs to go out, or the fruit on the counter that has started to turn, or the compost that should have gone outside yesterday, or the tired smell of stale laundry.

But today my house smelled good. I bought raspberries at the farmers market and made muffins. I made soup for supper and left it on the stove before taking the kids to soccer practice, so when we got home it smelled like something fresh baking and cooked tomatoes. It was nice.

This evening my house smells vaguely like something burning. Stuart has taken to roasting coffee in the basement. Sometimes this sets off the smoke alarm, sometimes it's doesn't. Tonight, it did. Poor Daniel had just gotten to sleep when the vile beeping woke him right back up. Not to worry, we assured him. It's just dad roasting coffee again. Everything's all right. And everything is all right, a little smoky, but all right.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

conversations with a 7-year-old

Me: Daniel, come up here for a minute!
Me: Daniel, come up here for a minute!
Me: Daniel!!!
Stuart: Daniel, your mom is calling you. Go upstairs.
Daniel comes upstairs: What?
Me, pointing to an opened juice bag lying on the floor of the living room: What's the problem here?
Daniel: It's juice.
Me: Right, and it's open. On the floor of the living room. So there's sticky puddle here. It's your juice from your soccer game and I need you to clean it up. Get a rag and put water AND DISH SOAP on it or the floor will be sticky. If you don't want to finish juice, you should pour the rest out in the sink and throw the container away. Don't leave it on the floor.
Daniel grabs a rag out of the closet and drops three more on the floor of the hallway. He gets it barely damp in the bathroom sink and heads for the spill.
Me: You need to pick up the extra rags you dropped on the floor.
Daniel: (blinks)
Me: Pick up those rags, please.
Daniel picks up the rags, then heads for the juice spill.
Me: You forgot something.
Daniel: What?
Me: I told you to get a rag and what else?
Daniel: What?
Me: No, I said water and what else?
Daniel: Ummmm, a towel??
Me: (exasperated sigh) No, a rag with water and soap. Otherwise, the floor will be sticky.
Daniel stands helplessly by the kitchen sink.
Me: I said dish soap, remember? Here. I'll help you with the soap. By the way, what should you do if you don't want to finish the juice?
Daniel: Throw it away?
Me: No. What should you do first?
Daniel: What.
Me: What should you do with the rest of the juice?
Daniel: Pour it out?
Me: Yes, pour it out. Then throw away the container.
Daniel: Oh.

I'm sorry to say the rest of the day didn't go much better. By this evening I was out of patience and cranky and I'm sorry to say I let him know it. I know his ears work (now) and I know his brain works, but when I talk to him there's a short circuit in there. Or something.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

new year

This week marks the start of school. Daniel is in second grade, which he is totally taking in stride. He brought home his first homework assignment this afternoon. He felt quite proud and important to have homework and immediately took it to his room to complete before he even asked for his after-school snack. (You think that enthusiasm will last for the next ten years? As if.)

Anya, of course, started kindergarten, and after three days...well, she and I are still adjusting. She has been excited about starting school all summer. She was placed with the teacher she wanted, and while we didn't know any of the other kids in her class already, it seems to be a really good, interesting group of children. She's been a kindergartener for three days now, and for all three days she has woken up early, been ready and eager to walk out the door, has run up the hill to school with her big brother and his best friend...and promptly fallen apart when it was time to say goodbye at the sound of the morning bell.

Honestly, I fully anticipated that I would melt into tears, too. I barely kept it together her last day of preschool in June. I've been nervous about the start of KG all summer long. But the first day of school, despite her anxiety at saying goodbye, I was pretty okay with all of it. Stuart, not so much. When her lower lip started to quiver and she reached out for yet another hug, he went right back again and again, and I think if I hadn't said, "We just need to go," he might have followed her into the classroom.

Yesterday and today, the same thing happened. Getting to school was just fine, but then saying goodbye was a little rough. I went into her classroom this morning to volunteer for an hour or so, and when I left we had to go through it all for a second time: "Bye mom. *sniff* I love you mom. *sniffle* Bye mom. *voice quavering* I really love you, mom."

At the end of the day, she had a giant grin on her face, and happily ran off to play with another kid while we waited for Daniel's class to come out of the school. I don't know how long this separation anxiety will go on, but I know she'll be fine. The same thing happened for months when she was in preschool, so it could take a while. I guess having been through this already, I'm not too worried about it.

I'm already sick of the question, "So what are you doing with all your hours of free time now??!!" As if I suddenly have nothing to do but sit around eating bonbons all day. As if the laundry suddenly started washing itself, dinner appeared on the table on its own, the plumber showed up to fix that leak in the basement on his own, and after nearly six years out of school/the workforce a job suddenly fell in my lap. People, it's only day 3. I'm still figuring this out, too.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Monday, September 02, 2013

goodbye, old tree

The big tree is gone. They came last Thursday to take it out. The crew showed up at 9:00 in the morning, took down the power and phone lines, and then slowly and carefully backed this baby into the back yard: 

Getting the bucket truck back there was a nail biter, let me tell you. Between the trunk of the tree they had to remove (not in the picture) and the deck, there was not a single inch to spare. 

Then, they started to cut it down:


This went on for several hours. It was loud and messy. Since we had no power, I had to go elsewhere with the kids to entertain them and find something to eat. We ended up watching a movie and hanging out at a friend's house until the tree guy called to tell me that the tree was down, the stump was being ground, and they were cleaning up. When we got home, this is what was left of that silver maple tree:

And this:

Also, there was another large pile of firewood in the back yard (way more than I asked for, but that's okay), and yet another pile of large logs by the street that didn't fit in the first truckload. That was one damn big tree! It was tempting to keep this nice big log as a bench:

But we didn't. It probably weighed a ton (no exaggeration) and I don't know how we would have gotten rid of it when we didn't want it anymore. So after the kids posed for a picture, the tree guys hauled it off.

Now we have a lot more sunshine in the back, enough, I hope, for a garden someday, if we can clear out the invasive shrubs and old tree stumps and persistent weeds.

We also have one of these new dome climbers:

Can you believe how big these kids have gotten? They used to be so little! Sorry to get all nostalgic, but  Anya starts kindergarten tomorrow. She's ready. I'm ready. But it might be a little tough for me to leave her at the door.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

big tree

By this time tomorrow, our big tree will be a pile of firewood and mulch:

It's a silver maple, a big one, probably as old as or older than the house we live in (built in 1952). The canopy of this tree covers the whole sky in our back yard.

I have a love-hate relationship with this tree, to be honest. It's big and provides lots of shade in the summer. It's home to more than a few wild critters like squirrels and nuthatches and more than enough crows. But it also sprawls over neighboring roofs, drops sticks everywhere and makes a complete mess of the gutters every fall and spring. 

I'm told that this tree is surprisingly healthy, given its age, but all silver maples reach a point where they become a menace to their surroundings. Their wood is weak, and the trunks divide low to the ground, so every time we have a thunderstorm or a particularly windy night, I worry that a big piece of it will break off and wreak havoc on our roof or someone else's. 

We've been debating having the silver maple taken out for a couple of years now, but now it really is time. We are planning a major remodeling/addition project next year, and the tree wouldn't survive the excavation. Taking it out now means no leaf mess in the fall, and gives us more driveway space.

Last night we told the next-door neighbors (the nice ones, not the one who calls her lawyer when we ask her to please move her flower pots out of the driveway), and they asked "Will you miss it?" I said I wasn't sure. I think for all the reasons listed above, we'll be glad it's gone. But it will make the yard feel empty, naked, exposed. It's going to be, for lack of a better word, ugly, back there before we can build it up to be nice again. Eventually I want a nice vegetable garden, a patio, a stone path with irish moss growing in the cracks and flowers along the sides, perhaps even a shed that isn't sheltering 8,000 chipmunks (the one we have is rather decrepit and just sitting atop some concrete blocks - critter heaven).

We'll also need to replace the tree, but that won't happen until after the construction is done. Like everything else we want to do with the house, we'll have to plan that carefully - what species and variety of tree to get, where exactly to plant it. It's hard to be patient, but I know our back yard won't be bare and ugly forever.