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.