Wednesday, December 14, 2016

brrrrrthday


Winter came in kicking and screaming a full week before the solstice. We've had two snowstorms in as many weeks and another one coming. And it's cold. It's REALLY cold. Like, wind-chill-advisory-is-coming cold. (This means it will feel like -15 to -25F tonight and all day tomorrow. Will the district cancel school, even though kids could get frostbite waiting for the bus? NOPE. They said they changed their policy, but apparently it's a lie.) Today, when it was 12 degrees but felt like 0, I waffled between biking and not biking to campus, then opted to bike after all because tomorrow it really will be too cold (see above re: wind chill advisory) and we're maybe getting 10" of snow on Friday, so today was my last chance to get outside and move. 


Phone screen shot of the weather forecast.
Getting to campus was okay. It was still daylight and the wind was at my back. Oddly, though the bike paths were more or less clear, the bike lanes in the regular street were thick with ice and snow pack so I had to be careful.

Getting home, though? Getting home was brutal. It was dark and the snow was blowing across the road, and the wind was blowing me around. My fingers were in agony despite being encased in thick gloves under bulky alpaca mittens. I could feel the droplets from my breath freezing on my double-looped alpaca cowl (note to readers who are not knitters: wool is warm, but alpaca is actually quite a bit warmer! something about how the fibers trap more air because alpacas are indigenous to the mountains of South America where it benefits them to have extra-warm fleece). I thought I was bundled up and sealed tight, but I could feel the wind cutting through the zipper teeth of my coat and snaking through my cowl and down the back of my neck. It was easily the most miserable bike ride I have had in 16 years of living and biking in this town. It's a toss-up, actually, between today and two years ago when I wiped out on black ice on my first day of teaching in the spring (ha) semester and had to limp/ride the rest of the way with a bent wheel and bloody knee. 

When Stuart complained that it was cold outside because he had to go all the way from his car to the house, I gave him the stink eye.

The big news at our house today is that Anya turned 9. 9!! She's amazing: a kind, thoughtful, caring, smart-as-blazes, sweet, delight of a human being, the kind of person who brightens your mood with her mere presence. This is all true AND I'm biased of course.

The birthday festivities were just right. Last Friday (between snowstorms) she invited a couple friends  to go see Moana (it's really good, go see it) and then we came home for homemade pizza and cupcakes. It was a small party, very low-key, and very much our style. Today, for Anya's actual birthday Daniel made scrambled eggs for breakfast and promised her a whole day of not annoying her (not today, apparently, but some day in the future). She got to pass out chocolates at school. We braved the bitter cold and went out to dinner at a brand new restaurant called Morris Ramen and everything was quite delicious and the service was excellent and gracious (full disclosure: I know the owners and their family so again I'm biased, but it really was good). Birthday girl got to ride shotgun in the car, and got dessert comped. 

Once I thawed out, it was a good day.


Monday, December 05, 2016

first snow

We had our first snow of the year in Madison yesterday. We awoke to about 1" on the ground, and by the end of the day around 4" had accumulated, which is more than I expected. Since no one had any work obligations or outside commitments, we treated the day rather like a Snow Day, and it was wonderful. I can't remember the last time I was able to forget about work-related responsibilities for almost a whole day (I say "almost" because I did sit down to do some editing work late in the afternoon). It was the perfect kind of snowfall: beautiful and gentle like in a snow globe, enough for a snowball fight and impromptu game of snow baseball in the front yard in the morning, and then in the afternoon we headed to our favorite park to break in the sledding hill. In between we indulged in card games, popcorn and cocoa. We shoveled snow off the porch and patio and part of the driveway. The kids watched old episodes of Star Trek. Stuart made dinner, so after all that family fun I even got about an hour to putz around by myself without feeling guilty about it.

I'd say we were indulging in a snow day, but we really needed it, so I'm not going to call it an indulgence because that implies we were doing something we shouldn't have. We had fun. We were happy. By the end of the day we were worn out.

Today was a regular old Monday. No one really wanted to get up and go to school. It was wet and cold and dreary (though the snow is still pretty). But I do think our snow day yesterday made it just a little easier to get through.

xoxo,
S

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

not okay

Dear readers,

I'm still going about my daily life, but it doesn't feel normal. This is the case for many people around me, too. I work with college students, some of which are devastated and frightened.

I don't hide my political opinions here, nor do I think I should. In fact, I can't stand it when someone claims to be "apolitical" because the truth is, public policy affects every single damn one of us, and anyone who claims to be apolitical signals to me that he or she is a person privileged enough to ignore it. Which is infuriating.

The president-elect is a horrifying man who represents the worst of America. I will not accept his rhetoric or his policies and I will do everything I can to fight them. Shame on everyone who voted this racist into office and don't even try to tell me it's the economy. The only thing Trump has ever been consistent about in his decades of public life is his disdain for women, minorities and immigrants; a vote for him was a vote for institutional discrimination no matter how you try to spin it.  (I have yet to see a black analyst try to explain away Trump's racist comments, and that should tell you something.)

Thank you, Jamelle Bouie, for putting the above into words so much better than I can.

Thank you, Van Jones, for calling out media pundits for their complicity in this whole mess.

Thank you to Whitney, whose eloquent, beautiful post inspired my own clumsy one today.

Thank you to every citizen who will stand up tall and refuse to accept Donald Trump as normal.

This is not okay. Will we be okay? Perhaps, but only if we face the road ahead of us and know that there is a lot of work to do.

I'm still angry. And if you're paying attention, you should be, too.

Gritting my teeth in solidarity with the struggle,
Susan

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

the day after

I'm still reeling and functioning on only a few hours of sleep. Around midnight when things were looking really bad, I gave up and went to bed, but I kept waking up and panicking. 

After watching state after state turn red on the electoral maps as the night wore on, I began to wonder what I'm going to tell my children in the morning. Bullies win. Experience and expertise don't matter. The American electorate is desperately short-sighted and uninformed and frighteningly okay with racism, misogyny, bigotry and threats of assault from its own president-elect.

I can also tell them this: take nothing for granted. Take one day at a time. And - as trite and cliché as this sounds - be the change you wish to see in the world. Today, I would expand that to say don't depend on others to do that for you.

Well, that's democracy. 

Monday, November 07, 2016

I'm with her

So, tomorrow is the general election and like most other voting Americans, I'm kind of tied up in knots about it. Thanks to early voting, I have already cast my vote for Hillary Clinton and I did so gladly. My vote wasn't just a vote against Donald Trump - someone who embodies the very worst of bigotry and narrow-minded fear in our country - but for a woman who has spent most of her adult life advocating for the rights of women and children across the United States and the world. Who else who has run for the office of president can say the same thing? No one in living memory, as far as I know. 

The Bush vs. Gore election in 2000 was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in (I turned 18 a month after Clinton was re-elected in 1996). I was so nervous I screwed up the first ballot and had to redo it (it was the kind where you fill in the arrow, so confusing!) but it was a big deal. 

That fall was hard. My grandpa, a Kansas farmer and lifelong Democrat (yes, they do exist), had hernia surgery on Election Day and stopped to vote on his way to the hospital for surgery. The next day in recovery, when he asked the nurses who won, he didn't believe them when they told him they didn't know who the next president would be. He never found out because he passed away the day after Thanksgiving, before SCOTUS gave Florida, and thus the presidency, to George W. Bush.

As nervous as I am about this election, I do feel reasonably confident that come January, we'll be referring to Hillary Clinton as Madam President. This means my kids won't know a white male president in their lifetimes. It means that they might even think that someone who wouldn't have even had the legal right to vote less than 100 years ago can now be elected to the highest office in the land. That's pretty amazing. As flawed as the two-party system is, as flawed as the candidates are, I'm glad that my kids are seeing this piece of history happen.

I'm with her.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

screen time and wanderlust

Remember those bumper stickers that said "Kill your TV"? I get that now, only in my house it's not about the TV, it's about the computer. Since when did daily screen time become a God-given right that should not be sacrificed for any reason whatsoever? This evening my 10yo complained that he didn't get enough computer time because his homework took too long. So unfair and unjust that he was limited to less than his usual time watching gamers on YouTube and playing whatever scrolling video game is the latest because his math took an extra 20 minutes.

My kids have limits on screen time and they're not allowed to have it until certain tasks are complete (homework if they have it, cleaning out their lunch box from school, setting the table for dinner, general pick up of their crap on the floor, and they also help with clean up after dinner), but still, I feel like I am failing as a parent in this regard. Like maybe they (the boy, especially) wouldn't be so insistent on getting screen time if they had more hobbies, or played more sports, or had lots of friends to roam the neighborhood with. Alas, I can't force them to have hobbies, I'm not a big fan of organized sports, and all the neighborhood kids are similarly busy or spending their time playing computer games, too. 

Taking away screen time would seem like a punishment, and that's not what I'm after. I just wish I could find a way to draw their interest to more productive activities in a positive and organic way. The first thing that comes to mind is that they should help more with dinner, but my late afternoon schedule is so crazy Monday through Thursday that we're lucky I haven't resorted to take out yet. If I had to allow even more time to have them help, we wouldn't eat until bedtime. 

Another thing I've thought of is just sending them outside. But that doesn't always work, like when it's raining, or when it's dark by 5:00 (which will be the case soon enough.) Much as I would like to have more or less free range kids, that just doesn't always work.

You know what I really want to do? Take off on a road trip. Spend a couple weeks driving someplace completely new, maybe out west. Go camping or rent a cabin (bears kind of freak me out), hike up a mountain, paddle around in a kayak, huddle around the campfire on a chilly evening. 

It seems I've got a touch of the wanderlust and I think it's a natural reaction to feeling bogged down and emotionally drained (not dangerously so, just a little spent) with daily life and the election and the more gnarly issues of parenting a soon-to-be teenager.







Sunday, October 09, 2016

snapshot: cello

5th grade strings started a couple weeks ago, and Daniel is enamored with the cello. Yes, my heart is a puddle. This is an opportunity I never had, and even if he's over it by the end of the year, I'm glad he got to try it and is enjoying it so much now.


Friday, October 07, 2016

Snapshot: I voted! (And a PSA)


I popped over to the library this afternoon and saw a huge sign outside that read: "VOTE HERE!" It turns out you can vote early - any time between now and November 4 - at any library location in the city, no matter what your usual polling place is. Tuesday can be a very busy day of the week for me, and while I always vote in every election, I was relieved to get it done with now. I am happy to see that the city of Madison has made it more convenient for people to vote. It's one bright spot in the scourge of voter ID laws blighting the state of Wisconsin.


******

In the middle of writing this brief post, I received a robocall from the school district that there has been a shooting in a neighborhood where many students who attend my kids' school happen to live. The shooter is still at large, and those kids can't ride the bus home until later in the afternoon, and can only go home if an authorized adult is there to pick them up. Imagine living in a neighborhood where it's not safe to go home. My heart is heavy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

this isn't easy

I wouldn't say that parenting gets any easier, exactly, as my kids get older. It's certainly true that as Daniel and Anya are more self-sufficient about various aspects of their day (getting to and from school, helping with after dinner cleanup), the other stuff is getting more complicated. 

Daniel is starting to have trouble getting to sleep, which has me a little anxious. Is it because he's ten years old and his internal clock is shifting (he also usually gets up later than the rest of us)? Is it because he's getting too much computer time? Is it because he doesn't get enough time outside? Is it because he's still adjusting to the school routine, even though he says nothing causes him anxiety? All of the above?  

Most [middle class] kids have the problem of being over scheduled, but I fear that in my efforts to keep our lives from being overrun with extra activities, I swung the other way. Daniel's soccer team dissolved last year and he's not doing another organized sport, so other than piano practice and homework (which there isn't much of at all) he doesn't have much to keep him busy. There aren't many kids his age in the immediate neighborhood, and a lot of them aren't available to hang out after school because they are playing sports and whatnot themselves. 

Well, I'm not comfortable saying much more for the sake of my kid's privacy. I probably revealed too much already. 

It's just that I'm not sure what to do. I'd love to see him get on his bike and spend the whole afternoon building a fort in the woods nearby or playing pickup soccer games with his friends but these days that doesn't happen so easily. Other kids are too busy, parents are too protective, or something. Maybe we need more structure after all.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

planning meals

I'm more or less an organized person. It's true that I misplace my keys several times a day, but I never actually lose stuff for more than a few minutes at a time and I'm pretty good about remembering where I need to be and when. That qualifies as organized in my book.

When it comes to fixing meals, though, I fall short in the planning department, and more often than not I tend to see what's in the fridge and cook by the seat of my pants, or I'll think of something on my bike ride home from work and stop at the store if I need to fill in any gaps. When I've really got it together, I'll have things figured out a day or two in advance, but that's usually as far ahead as I plan. 


There are two main reasons I have resisted making a weekly meal plan. First, I find the idea rather stifling. How, on Sunday, could I possibly anticipate what we'll be in the mood to eat (or, more accurately, what I'll be in the mood to cook) on Thursday evening? Second, cooking is all about the ingredients for me. I use what is fresh and in season, including whatever is in our weekly CSA box. We get an e-newsletter with veggie forecast so we know more or less what to anticipate every week, but until I see the amount and quality of what's there on Wednesday afternoon, it's hard to plan around it ahead of time.


This has worked so far because - like many, many people now and for many generations before this - I've been cooking for my family on a daily basis for a long time, so I'm pretty good at it. (Daily practice has that effect.)


The problem is that this approach, while it allows for flexibility and creativity and all those wonderful things, is not very efficient. And it turns out that this school year the various kid activities and my own freelance schedule will make me busiest in the late afternoons several days a week, right when I need to make dinner.


I'm squirming at that last statement. I've got two little Susans sitting on my shoulders right now. One Susan is the practical get-it-done mom/part-time employee/freelancer fretting and frazzled about the crazy late afternoons she is going to have at least three days a week and wondering how she can manage being in two places at once, much less in the kitchen cooking supper. The other Susan just indignantly pulled on her feminist power pants suit (this is my imagination, remember; I do not actually own a pants suit of any kind) and wonders why, just why, Frazzled Susan does not call upon other members of her family to help make the food that they help eat up every night. 


Sigh. Indignant Feminist Susan, your family should help, but remember that 8 and 10 year old kids should probably not be using a gas stove without supervision. Also, Stuart just can't get out of work early enough on a regular basis to be counted on for full meal prep (though he does help out when called upon.) So Frazzled Susan shall remain in charge and let's be honest, she'll complain about it more than she should.

Some weeks will be worse than others, depending on the needs of the students I'm accompanying this semester. There will be evenings where I'll have to pull soup out of the freezer or get takeout. But I'm hoping that with some more careful planning, it will be less stressful getting dinner made every night in between all the running around.


Yes, that's right. I said "careful planning." This means that I have decided on a weekly meal plan, and I'm really hoping it helps the weekly routine go a little more smoothly, especially when work ramps up later in the semester. I've tried this before and usually abandon it a couple weeks in. This time, though, I'm writing menus on the chalkboard in the kitchen and I'm making the grocery list based on those menus and I'm trying to come up with ideas for meal prep that are compatible with our daily lives.


I'm also asking my family for their input. "Any special requests before I plan the week and go to the store?" but that's only minimally helpful because they always say the same things. Lasagna. Meatballs. Noodles. Nothing that helps me figure out how to use up the giant beets we got in our vegetable box two weeks ago, alas.

I know, I know. This is what working parents do. This is what organized people do. There are whole books written about this, entire blogs devoted to meal plans and cooking. I'm  probably the last person to figure out that a little more work early on will save me stress later in the week, and I'm finally on board. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

fall routine

Just kickin' the dandelions.

I took this photo at the beginning of the summer, or maybe it was even before school was out. Since then Daniel got a haircut (thankfully) and he's grown at least an inch, maybe two. He used to come up to my chin, and now he's nearly reached my nose. We wear the same shoe size now, almost. Give him a year, two tops, and he'll be taller than I am.

Bit by bit, we're trying to get into a fall routine. My teaching job started two weeks ago, and the kids went back to school last Thursday. University students didn't start classes until this week, so I'm just now hearing from students looking for accompanists this semester. The work isn't exactly pouring in, but it's pretty early yet, and there's a steady trickle so far. 

I'm trying to make my schedule manageable. I need chunks of time at home to practice and prep for my own students. I'm hoping to line up most of my accompanying work three days a week so that I don't spend half of the working day either commuting to and from campus or twiddling my thumbs in between rehearsals. And of course I'm needed at home in the early morning and late afternoon to get Daniel and Anya where they need to be and make dinner and all those things parents have to do. To be honest, working all that out is a total pain but I wouldn't have it any other way right now.

Actually, that's a lie. I would have it another way. I would totally love to do what I'm already doing, only with more regular and predictable work hours and a salary with benefits. (My teaching job comes with an office and small salary but it is very part time, hence the supplemental freelance work and resulting scheduling headaches.) But since such a position does not exist here at this moment, I am my own boss and I that's the best I can do.

It occurred to me last week that at this time a year ago, the remodeling project on our house started. Heavy trucks were going in and out, piles of mud were everywhere, there were giant holes dug in the ground, holes cut into the sides of my house, and the territorial neighbor trotted out her own special brand of mean and nasty behavior just for us and our contractors more or less on a daily basis. I'm so glad that's done and over with. (And it turned out beautiful; we're really happy with it! If you've been reading for the last several months you already know that, yeah?) Actually, I'm still ecstatic that it's over and done with. We got through it all in one piece but man, that was a long haul, and very stressful.

Now we are easing into fall. School seems to have started smoothly for the kids. I think they're grateful for the routine, too, and the opportunity to see their friends on a daily basis. Little by little, my work schedule is coming together, and even though it's a total pain figuring out the logistics of my own life, it's all good. As much as I love spending all that free time in the summer with Daniel and Anya, I really do much better in terms of self-esteem and productivity when I am doing paid work that I find fulfilling, even when the pay isn't very good and the work is erratic.  As for Stuart, he just keeps on keepin' on! He runs in the early morning, goes to work, comes home in time for dinner, then spends the early evening cleaning up with the kids, roasting coffee, farting around on Twitter and watching a little TV with the kids. (They're into Star Trek these days.)

Life is good.






Thursday, September 01, 2016

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

so, September

School starts tomorrow and I have mixed feelings about it. Mostly, I'm relieved that we'll be back in a regular routine but the start of the new school year means they and I are another year older and life is going too quickly and all that stuff.

It's the last year of elementary school for Daniel. 5th grade! He has to wear deodorant. He grew two inches over the summer and comes up to my nose now, when he stands up straight. He's asking for a phone (the answer is no.) He wants a YouTube account (the answer is NO.) He doesn't hear me when it's time to stop playing computer games, but he still gets totally excited about playing putt putt golf (we've made it a tradition to putt putt and go out for ice cream the last day of summer vacation) and needs a good night kiss.

Anya starts 3rd grade tomorrow and she's nervous. 3rd grade is when everyone gets more social, and she is shy so I am nervous for her. She's in a class of other smart, sensitive kids and she's got a cracker jack teacher, so I'm not really worried about her.

I think one of the hardest things about parenting so far is coming to the realization that you can't be responsible for your kids' happiness. You can provide a stable, secure home. You can enforce routine and set the standards for good habits. You can be the one they complain to, cling to, push away, puke on, demand snacks from, play endless games with, but you can't BE them. You can't fix their emotions or solve their problems or take away their pain. You can just be the buffer and gently steer them in what you hope is the right direction.

My mom told me the other day that worrying doesn't do any good, so I might as well stop. Worry doesn't change anything for the better or fix anything. Stop worrying and just take things as they come. It's good advice. I'm trying to follow it. Worry is a part of modern parenting that I actively have to work against, though. It's hard.

Today I was trying to remember what it was like going back to school when I was a kid. I remember being excited about back to school shopping. New clothes, new pencils, that stuff was exciting. I don't remember if there was a lot of fanfare otherwise. I think we just went to school without a whole lot of fuss. My mom took pictures the first day of kindergarten, but that might have been it. Or I just don't remember. Who knows.)

I think there is a danger in being so completely invested in your children that you can't distance yourself from them when they need it. We've spent SO much time together this summer, my kids and I. It's not unhealthy, but I think structured time spent away from each other will be a good thing for all of us.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

snapshots: sunflower days

School starts next week, and I'm both relieved and sorry that summer is coming to an end. Enjoy these snapshots from a month ago when summer and the sunflowers were at their peak.







Thursday, August 11, 2016

still summer

The end of summer seems to be a period of relatively high anxiety for me. Mostly, I handle it fine, but I have many moments where I let all the little worries blow up into big ones, and before I know it, I'm freaking out about absolutely nothing. I don't have any big Problems with a capital "P" right now (we're all healthy and keepin' on), but it's still emotionally difficult for me to see my kids growing up and my parents getting older and the globe getting warmer and my hair getting grayer. In other words, time is passing like it always has and there is nothing I can do about it. Being all grateful and in the moment ain't all bad, but it does tend to add to the melancholy.

So now I'm going to cheer myself up with a random list of things that calm me, and stuff I can look forward to:


  1. School starts in a few weeks. Of course I have lots of feelings about my kids growing up and all, but at the same time it will be nice to have us out of each other's hair all day long.
  2. To that end I'll be going back to work with the start of the school year. My teaching job is only a few hours a week, and the freelance work can be unpredictable, but work is good for me. I'm good at it, and it keeps me out of my head.
  3. My front yard garden is bursting with wildflowers. It's a little messy and overgrown at the moment, but that's just how I like it.
    So do the birds and bees and butterflies. The flowers are literally buzzing with activity all day.
  4. Fingers crossed some of the visiting monarchs will lay eggs on the milkweed.
  5. I do love to pull weeds and stir my compost pile. The mosquitoes are so thick and aggressive right now, they take the joy out of it somewhat, but there is something about getting my hands in the dirt, even for just a few minutes, that makes me feel better about everything.
  6. This makes me wonder if I should pursue my interest in the outdoors more seriously as an option for side job, or possibly second career. This would mean going back to school (anxiety trigger), but urban planning or urban land management or urban garden programs are all areas I could see myself in. I'm all about the urban outdoors, clearly. It probably doesn't pay any better than music, but it can't be much worse, and it's just as valuable to society and the greater good. Something to contemplate at any rate.
  7. Stuart and I really want to take a big road trip out west. We're thinking of taking the kids out of school for a few weeks (to avoid peak season crowds and heat) and either renting a camper or booking cabins and campsites in Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, and who knows where else. This is probably two years away, but just the thought of planning it is pretty exciting. The U.S. is so big and beautiful, and we want Daniel and Anya to experience as much of it as we can afford to before they are all grown up.
  8. It helps to remind myself that a year ago we were just beginning to gear up for the giant remodeling project at our house. In fact, a few weeks ago I gave our contractor the final payment for his part of the project; that was a good feeling! No more giant holes in the ground and piles of mud and irate letters with insane demands from the chronically crabby and pathologically territorial next door neighbor. It's done. Over. We can just enjoy living here (and continue ignoring the neighbor.)
  9. It's hot and muggy outside and the mosquitoes are wretched, but twenty minutes of Yoga With Adrienne (I'm a fan of the 30 day challenge series) is always a good thing. After getting rained out of swim lessons this morning, I made the kids do a video with me today and it wasn't as terrible as I expected it would be.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

randomly on Wednesday

Oh, the random list blog post. It's just so very mid-oughts, don't you think? And maybe a little lazy? Still, it can be a useful way to get the creative juices flowing when you're a little behind on posts. And behind I am because this summer, while not especially busy as summers go, has still been flying by even as sometimes the days creep along.

I hardly signed the kids up for any activities, aside from piano and  a few weeks of swim lessons. No camps, no team sports, not even the summer reading program at the library. I like to think it's because my hippie self wants them to explore their creativity and learn to be bored and roam free, but it's mostly because I'm a slacker and all the fun stuff was booked up months before I even thought about signing them up. (I believe I mentioned this before. I must have a complex. Or a tendency to repeat myself.) Who's ready to think about canoeing camp in early March anyway? Not me. Still, I vow to do better next year. We've had fun, though, frequenting the public pool (it's been hot and muggy more days than not), picking wild berries, biking when the weather isn't miserable, and checking out stacks of books from the library, everything from the Little House on the Prairie series (Anya) to Garfield comics (sigh, Daniel) to instructions on making kombucha (me, though I have yet to try it).

It's been a nice summer, relaxing and relatively drama-free, though we're starting to get a little bit bored with each other and twitchy. I know my patience is running shorter than usual. I had considered taking the kids on a road/camping trip this month so we would have something to look forward to in our last weeks of summer, but that's not going to work out because I have a gig next weekend. It's not particularly high pressure, but I did get the music rather late and I need to stick around so I can learn it and rehearse with the soloist. Also, camping is totally miserable this time of summer because by now the mosquitoes are in full force and insatiable, the beastly little vampires.

Anyhoo, here is a random list of some stuff I keep thinking of blogging about but haven't taken the time to do it. If you follow me on Instagram you've seen some of the pics, I'm sure:

1.) 

Early last week we went to Pope Farm Conservancy along with gosh knows how many people (thousands) for Sunflower Days. Pope Farm is a special, beautiful place for sure. We've visited many times in different seasons, but this year was the first time we made it during the peak of the blooming sunflowers (they plant 9 acres of sunflowers every year at different locations; this year it was on a hillside on the western most part of the park) and it. was. absolutely. stunning. It was also completely overrun with other people, mostly families trying to get portraits of their sweaty, uncooperative toddlers...I look forward to going back when it's a little less crowded, but I'm glad I could see the flowers in full splendor.

2.) 

Swimming has been the main activity of the summer, and I'm not sad about that. The kids aren't interested in swim team, thank goodness (I know it's a great experience for a lot of people, but that much time commitment and compulsory volunteer hours do not mesh with my summer vibe, yo) but they had several weeks of swim lessons and want to visit the pool during open swim most afternoons. For the first time ever, they are independent in the water, which means when I get tired of playing pool tag and ring toss or whatever we're doing, I can go swim laps and they can play on their own. Heaven.

3.) 

We went to Kansas for a family reunion over the past weekend and spent a few days in the company of my mom's side of the family. We stayed at a rural Baptist retreat center, the grounds of which were resplendent with wildlife and Bible verses; on an evening walk I saw at least as many skunks as references to the lamb of God carved above stone benches. The last time I saw most of these relatives was over three years ago, and a lot has happened in that time - serious illness, cross-country moves, new babies. It was truly wonderful seeing everyone, and I got homesick for Kansas like I always do until I remember about the politics (their governor is even worse than ours) and searing summer heat.

4.) 

One evening in Kansas we squeezed in a sunset visit to the family farm to see the goats! The goats joined the farm just a few weeks ago and were procured in order to, as my cousin John put it, "turn weeds into dollars." Goats, you see, are the single most effective way to control wild blackberries that are taking over the pastureland where the cattle graze. I presume the goats will eventually be sold for meat, but in the meantime, they are pretty damn cute. They also really like my dad, who generously pulled down a few branches of a mulberry tree so they could nibble the leaves. It was utterly bucolic.


Once he did that, they kept following him around until we sidled out of the fenced area and left.

5.) I keep going round and round and round again about whether I should expand my career options. My teaching job is only a few hours a week and doesn't pay well, and freelancing is stressful and unpredictable. I have a website with my professional bio and contact information that I've been meaning to revamp and update for over a year, if that tells you anything about how discouraged I am about the path I'm currently on. Or maybe instead of a path I should call it a treadmill because it feels like I'm not getting anywhere. I love what I do, but I wish it were more reliable. So then is it worth giving up to pursue something else? I can't decide. I'm also not getting any younger. Ho hum.

6.) Remember how I have been taking voice lessons? I've had three so far and it's going well. I'm having loads of fun with it, both because Jane (my teacher) is wonderful in so many ways, and also because there's no pressure for me to be any good. I'm not going to be a singer. I'm just learning how to sing better for no one's benefit but my own and it's a blast. It's still hard, but I'm getting better. It helps to breathe through a straw.

Well, I think that's it for tonight. My knitting beckons, and Stuart and I are finally catching up on the final season of The Good Wife.  I promise I won't be a stranger. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

piano, man


By some miracle, it has not been a struggle getting the kids to keep up with piano practice this summer. They didn't have a lesson this past week because of the 4th of July holiday, so Daniel even assigned himself a couple new pieces  because he wanted to play something different and he enjoys the challenge.

I make my living - however meagre - as a piano teacher and accompanist, so of course my children take piano lessons. For right now, they do not have a choice about this. I am careful, however, to let them set their own expectations with their teacher and I try very, very hard not to interfere with their practicing unless they specifically ask for help. Missed notes, funky rhythms, I bite my tongue (usually). They do often ask, "Mom, what do you think?" and I respond with something bland and encouraging ("Gets better every time you play it!") rather than critique. 

Because my job requires me to be a perfectionist, it's hard to bite my tongue when I hear mistakes. I certainly don't always succeed. More than a few times I've come over to point out - gently, I hope - a glaring error, and it's usually met with rolled eyes and/or "I KNOW, mom. Stop it!" 

Of course, you can always make the philosophical argument that musical perfection is subjective. I agree with that to a point, though a missed F sharp is still a missed F sharp, and try as you might, you can't squeeze four quarter note beats into a measure of 3/4 time. Just saying.

I do not expect perfection from them, and I don't want them to expect perfection, either. I want them to enjoy making music, and so far, they do.

In fact, this past spring, Daniel's music class was practicing "The Rainbow Connection" for their spring program, and he suddenly said to the teacher, "I think this needs piano with it." (The teacher usually has recorded accompaniments or plays guitar with the kids for their concerts.) She, being the excellent and flexible and understanding teacher that she is (seriously, our school is LUCKY to have her), said OK you can give it a try and sent him home with the music. 

This was a mere three weeks before the music program, and y'all, The Rainbow Connection is not a particularly easy piece to play. The music she had was far too difficult (too many sharps, a modulation, the left hand jumped around too much) so I found a simpler version online. Still, I was nervous. For a 10yo in possession of a fair amount of talent but not necessarily prodigy, learning to play a 3-minute long song is hard enough, but to accompany 100 kids in a music program on a few weeks' notice? I'll admit, I was nervous that he would have a hard time pulling it off, that he would be stressed or overwhelmed, that he couldn't do it and would be disappointed in himself.

So I gave him the music and talked to the teacher. We agreed he would learn it the best he could and if he was ready to play with the concert, fabulous, but if not, no big deal. He could always play it for his music class later if he wanted. No pressure, in other words.

For a week after I got him the music, all he did was practice. I found myself humming it constantly, and had dreams about "The Rainbow Connection." And he learned it. I helped him practice a couple tricky spots and sang it with him at home so he could get used to the fast tempo and the fact that you CAN NOT stop to find a note or hesitate for any reason.

And wouldn't you know, he did it. He pulled it off. He played it through many times with his class when they were in music class, but only got to do it twice with everyone: once for the dress rehearsal in front of the whole school, and then again for the parents the next morning. When it came time for that song in the music program, they rolled out the little upright piano and set the mic next to it, and he played it through without a hitch along with 100 squirmy kids singing along. Afterwards his buddies gave him hugs and high fives, and it was all I could do not to sit in the back and blubber with pride. 

There is magic in being so young and naive. It did not occur to Daniel that this would be difficult, that it was something he probably should have been nervous about. He wasn't showing off, even. He just thought that particular song needed piano, and he wanted to do it, so he did it. That's it. No big deal.



Sunday, July 03, 2016

snapshot: herbs


Dill and cilantro against a bright, hazy background of sunflower stalks. It's high summer now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

summer

We made it through the first three days of summer vacation at home (not counting the first week of travel) before I snapped. It was 8:30 in the morning on Day Four, and Anya flopped on my bed and sighed, "I'm bored." I looked at her. I might have glared. "Good," I said, "go clean your room." I thought she might cry but instead she glared back and me and stalked off to her room, where she messed around with a pile of papers from school for about 20 minutes and called it good.

Daniel, having learned from observing this exchange, has been making frequent statements over the last week, like "Mom, I'm not bored at all! I have a new hobby, in fact. It's staring at the ceiling." Or, "I have another new hobby: seeing how long it takes to melt an ice cube in my mouth without chewing it!"

I used to roll my eyes at parents who didn't know what to do with their kids all day because of a school holiday. I never get a break, I wanted to snap, and is it really so bad finding something to do with your own child/ren for a whole FIVE DAYS IN A ROW?! Big deal. But, you know, I kind of get it. Parents and kids get used to whatever routine they have going, whether it's full-time daycare or school or preschool or summer camp and then when that changes abruptly, everybody gets a little tense.

Lots of us are pretty sick of the question "What are you doing this summer?" This question has a lot of meanings. The subtext ranges from, "What on earth are you doing with your kids this summer?" to "How the hell are you going to get any work done?" to "Please tell me you're going to be around all the time because we really need play dates to get through it" to "Aren't you lucky you're a stay at home mom and get to go to the pool every day and sit around while the rest of us earn a living" I mean, most of the time the question is innocent enough, but it can be pretty loaded.

Me? I'm the slacker mom who didn't sign her children up for a single camp because by the time she checked on the fun ones (months late) they were full. Good thing there were spots left for swimming lessons two weeks ago or we wouldn't even be doing that.

I could write a whole manifesto here about my half-assed free range parenting style and how it's good for kids to be bored because it stimulates creativity and we're developing our relationship with all the time we spend together, but ugh, that's just too precocious. Mostly, I didn't want to spend the money on camps and I was too disorganized anyway. They're out of school all summer and I barely get any  paid work so time with mom it is!*

This week is going better. We're starting to establish a rhythm and they're getting better at finding things to do (but it's only Tuesday). The weather is nice so we've picked berries and gone on bike rides and there is a stack of library books to read and board games to play. They do have swimming and music lessons, so there is that bit of structure, and I have grand plans to go canoeing and teach them to cook. Life could be worse.

If I'm going crazy by mid-July I might take the kids camping somewhere. We've done it before, just the three of us, so I know we can do it!

* If I wanted to work in the summer, I would have to teach at music camps, which would vastly complicate child care, so I just don't bother. Because apparently I'm a slacker musician in addition to being a slacker mom. Or I'm well rounded. Take your pick.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

landscape

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.


Sorrel

Purple Siberian Iris.

Daisies and sorrel in the sprinkler

Chives



More daisies 

Milkweed

(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

worth

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.