Sunday, December 25, 2011

'Tis the Season (For Some Wonderful Music) (Babble)

Look where I got to perform this weekend:
(In the light of the morning rehearsal)
(At the end of the midnight mass)
I was asked by a friend if I would play the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of St Josaphat here in Milwaukee.  It’s only about a mile from our house, and I knew the kids would be done opening presents long before I had to go back to play the mass again on Christmas morning, so I agreed to the gig.  The place is simply beautiful.

What a wonderful experience to play with talented musicians in such a setting.  The orchestra was up in the choir loft with the singers and organ, which is nice because you can concentrate on the music without feeling like you are on display.
When we’d finish a piece on a big chord of strings and trumpets and timpani the sound would reverberate for at least another full bar afterward.  It was amazing, and I wish my family could have been there.  My parents in particular would have loved it.

In some ways performing music is just a job that involves parking and lugging things around and concentration and just plain work, but what marvelous work!  (Although for the choir director/organist who has to lead everyone and also play music with his feet, I think it was less marvelous and just plain work.  But I’m a viola player!  I play my part when I’m supposed to and Sudoku the rest of the time.)  Christmas Eve is a magical night to get to make great music, even for those of us who don’t claim the holiday in a religious sense.

The line between the personal and the sacred is an issue I think about a lot during this season.

I believe each of us is tasked with deciding for ourselves what is meaningful and right and true in this life.  Even if you subscribe to a particular religion, you have to weigh all the information you are provided from many sources and use your own judgment about how to interpret all of it.  Each of us has to come to peace with what we think our place is in the universe on our own no matter what markers we choose to guide us.

Are there really people who get worked up about others using more inclusive phrases like ‘happy holidays’ this time of year?  I wonder about people who would be so insecure in their own belief systems that they find offense where none was intended.  I had people wishing me Merry Christmas at my store the whole week of Hanukkah and I appreciated it, even though it didn’t make a lot of sense.  It was meant with good will and I accepted it in that light.  I’m mystified by people who are supposedly upset by the phrase ‘happy holidays’ because when I was growing up it was shorthand for Christmas and New Year’s and they could simply take it in that light if it suits them.  But it’s a handy term to use when you don’t know what people believe, and that’s respectful in my opinion.  No one should be using the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ as a verbal weapon or a means to intimidate people.  How is that a reflection on what the season is supposed to be about?  Thankfully in my own community this does not seem to be the case and I think that whole controversy is constructed for TV ratings and not of concern to actual people.

I myself am not Christian, but I like having a tree and a tradition of gift giving.  It’s part of my heritage and it’s fun and it makes my kids happy.  My father’s side of the family is Jewish, my mother was raised Christian Science but her father was raised Catholic, my sister-in-law is from India….  There are lots of interesting traditions to draw from in our home if we wish.  I don’t see any point in fighting the tide of Christmas cheer at the end of December so we put up lights and hang stockings and enjoy it all, but it’s one of many possible choices.

So I may be neutral when it comes to a lot of things about this season, but the one place where I have a decided allegiance is with music.  This I have a strong opinion about.
There was a fascinating piece on 60 Minutes back when I was in college that I remember watching with my grandmother in her family room one evening.  The story was about a high school girl in Utah who planned to major in music as a singer so she needed to participate in her school’s choir, but the area being predominantly Mormon meant that most of the music they did had Christian themes.  She and her family sued.  She didn’t believe she should be coerced into worship of a faith that wasn’t hers in a public school in order to fulfill her educational needs.

I found this riveting.  Because on the one hand I don’t think it’s fair to force a single religion onto people in a publicly funded place.  If a government building puts up a nativity scene because a lot of people in the community want it, I think that’s okay, as long as they make room for things minorities in the community want as well, because that’s fair.  Christians should not get in a tizzy because someone else in the community wants a menorah there too, or an atheist manifesto, etc.  But people do get upset when they see things they hold sacred juxtaposed with things they do not, so I think in most communities it makes more sense to leave such displays to private individuals and institutions.  The majority needs to put themselves in other people’s shoes better.

But as much as I wanted to support the girl in Utah for being able to hold her own against the majority religion, from a musician’s point of view I can’t, for two reasons:
First, from a practical standpoint, she will starve.  No one asks me if I am a Catholic before I go perform in a Catholic church.  No one asks if I am Baptist or Muslim or Jewish.  They only ask if I can be there on time.  If I had to screen every couple who needed a string quartet for their wedding to make sure their beliefs matched my own before I could accept the gig, I would never get to play.  If you sing for money, chances are good you will be offered work in a church.  And unless there is some extreme circumstance that makes it impossible or too distasteful, you take it.  Because if people are willing to pay you to make music you should be appreciative.

Second, from a musical standpoint, she will be actively denying herself the opportunity to sing some of the greatest music ever written.  Both inspiration and funding have come from religious institutions over the centuries, so some of the best music people have created have religious themes.  I don’t care if you are Christian or not, if you can get a part in a production of The Messiah by Handel you take it.  It’s transcendent in its beauty.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve performed the Hallelujah Chorus and it’s always a privilege and a thrill.  Would she really turn down the Mozart Requiem or a Bach Cantata due to Christian themes?  Insanity.  A musician on some level must be like an actor.  If actors only chose roles that specifically reflected their own personal beliefs then that’s not even acting.  The arts are more expansive than that.  There is beauty to appreciate in all cultures.  What a shallow, worthless life as a musician you would have if you cut yourself off from most of it.

I love traditional Christmas music.  I love The Holly And The Ivy, and Deck The Halls, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and Joy To The World, and Angels We Have Heard On High….  My favorite is Silent Night.  I may not be a Christian, but I am a musician, and I know sacred when I hear it.  I love playing this music.

I don’t know what ever became of the girl in that story.  I’d be curious to find out.  I hope she was able to find a career in music if it’s what she wanted.  But I hope if she’s still singing that maybe somewhere out there this season she’s not denied herself the chance to sing some really lovely music.

I wish all of you peace and joy this season, regardless of what you believe.  And I wish you whatever music makes you smile.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Personal Touch, or Just Touched? (Babble)

It took an entire day, but I finished all our holiday cards this weekend.  When we have time I run my own little sweatshop (fueled with Christmas cookies) and the kids help me crank out about 90 cards to send.  Last year we did potato print trees decorated with stickers (and if you didn’t see the post about it the first time around, it’s worth clicking on just to scroll down and see the hilariously horrific card Quinn accidentally came up with).
When we don’t have time to make our own we do a photo card of the kids or the whole family.  This was a busy year, so we hired my friend Carol to come photograph us at home, which worked out well since the kids really wanted our new dog in the picture.
I think in the era of email and texting and facebook and people feeling hyper in touch with phones on them all the time, holiday cards have lost a lot of significance and many people no longer bother.  I understand that, and would never resent anyone for not sending us a card, but I like to send them.  To me it’s important.

Several months back I read a piece on Motherlode that I believe was about gifts and/or thank you notes.  (I would link to it except I don’t remember enough specifics to do a useful search in order to find it again.)  The post basically asked why it is that in most families women are the ones tasked with finding gifts and writing thank you cards.  I thought it was a good question, because those sorts of formal nice touches in the service of connecting people do tend to be neglected more by men than women.  I know in my home if I don’t do them, they do not get done.

As often happens the most entertaining reading was in the comments, and one man’s writing in particular really bugged me.  He essentially said that if women feel like wasting time by preparing little gift bags and writing notes it was no skin off his nose but that it was a pointless exercise.  He made it sound silly.  But it’s not silly.  People need connections for fun, comfort, happiness, safety, support, protection, and meaning.  Those connections are what make up our lives.

The gender component of this is interesting to me.  I think it comes down to the fact that typically a man’s status is based more on measurable accomplishments, and a woman’s on the success of her relationships.  For many of the couples I know it’s the woman who tends to be in charge of the social calendar and who keeps a running tally in mind of what kinds of interactions are taking place among family and friends.  I do think women in general are more attuned to this than men (although there are certainly exceptions) and monitoring and maintaining relationships of all sorts is something women place a high priority on.  This instinct makes sense to me because physically women are more vulnerable than men on average, and to counter that women tend to prefer groups.  Maintaining connections is a way of securing a group.

So how do we maintain connections between people?  By acknowledging that they matter to us and there are many ways to do that.  One of the ways I like to do it is with holiday cards.  I hand write each and every one.  (The only exception was during Ian’s first deployment when everyone wanted an update about how he was doing in Iraq and the kids were 5, 3, and a month old and I had to print out a mass letter because there are limits to my ambition.)

I like going through my address book and stopping to think about all kinds of people from different points in my life.  I want them to know I still think of them, and that the role they played or continue to play in my life means something.  I like to think when they see their names written in my own cursive hand that they feel that connection, that they know I was thinking specifically of them.  My list includes childhood friends and old professors, relatives both near and far, neighbors and business associates.  It’s a list of my life from many angles.

Some people I never hear back from.  Every year I weigh certain names in my book in front of me and decide if they are people who maybe don’t want to hear about my family anymore.  When the effort to maintain even a slight connection is entirely one sided it’s hard to know.  But then I will cross paths with one of these people unexpectedly, and I’ve been surprised when more than one of them has said they’ve kept every card we’ve ever sent, and they can’t wait to see what we’ll do next.  So I think it’s worth the effort, even in cases where I’m not sure.  The effect is sometimes made more lopsided by the fact that I blog.  I’ve had many people apologize for not doing more to stay in touch and say they have a false sense that we are because they read my posts and feel up to date about my life.  They forget that I’m still in the dark about what’s going on in theirs.

The man on the Motherlode thread who thinks his wife’s pretty gift bags and thank you cards are frivolous is wrong.  And the part that bothered me was that he’s likely benefiting from his wife’s work in that regard and not giving it the proper respect.  Those aren’t just gift bags and notes, they are ties to other people.  Ties that are kept active and relevant and alive through something as simple as hand written cards.  Does he expect a safety net to be in place among the people he knows in case of an emergency?  In case he’s ill and needs help?  To rejoice with him in his triumphs?  To care that he exists at all?  That doesn’t just magically happen.  That takes some investment and effort, and different people find ways to do that differently.  It sounded to me like he was mindlessly reaping the benefits of someone else’s work and that on some level he felt entitled to those benefits regardless.  That’s arrogant, and I’m hoping in real life he’s less so.

Every year I wonder if I’m crazy to bother with all those cards.  And every year I conclude no and sit down to address dozens of envelopes.  I don’t expect my children to carry on the exact same tradition themselves, but I hope they each find a way that works for them to take a moment at least once a year to acknowledge the special individuals in their lives in a personal manner.  Accessibility is not always the same as being in touch.  Meaning requires intention.  A day is not much to spend, really, in the service of maintaining those connections.  Especially if it can be done with something as simple as a pen and a roll of stamps.
(Family portrait by Carol Kraco)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Double Digits (Babble)

I have a kid who is ten.  I’m having trouble settling my mind around that idea.  Ten years is such a substantial number.  If you say you’re going to put something off for ten years it sounds like it may as well be a million.  But now I can look back ten years and I’m still a mom then.  How crazy to think back that far to myself in my early thirties with one tiny baby who somehow dominated all my time.

Aden was a great training baby, though.  She was easy and healthy and sweet.  We still had to deal with vomit and diapers and poop and spit up and sleepless nights and croup and weird rashes and teething and all the other things that go into life with a baby–I have not forgotten the endless work of new parenting and am not romanticizing it, but Aden was unusually patient for a baby.  Whatever mistakes we made she was kind to us about.  She looked at us trustingly with her beautiful blue eyes and forgave us with smiles as we tried to figure out what we were doing.  She gave lovely little hugs that barely reached around part of my neck.

Now that tiny little baby comes up to my chin and jabbers on the phone with her friends and watches her little brother for short stretches if her dad and I both need to go out.  It’s…. unbelievable sometimes.

Aden just hosted her first sleepover for her party.  It went exceedingly well.  Well enough that I won’t try to talk her out of another one.  It helped that the girls were all on the first floor at the back of the house, and Ian and I sleep on the second floor in the front.  Rumor has it they stayed up until 2, but I didn’t hear anything and all the girls took care of themselves just fine.  It also helps that I genuinely like all of Aden’s friends.  I was even impressed as we were making pizza and eating cake to discover that most of them were fans of Dr Who, liked the Marx Brothers, and the movie they put in to watch when the rest of us went to bed was The Princess Bride.  (I was tempted to stay up and watch it with them, but I know I would have just brought down the mood by being unable to resist coming up with boring rules about where they could or could not spray their silly string.)  We keep a mirror ball in our living room (what? you don’t?), so that got some use in a game of freeze dancing.
There was also a game Aden invented called ‘Clemen-toss’ that involved rolling clementines onto a target.  (The rule in our house is yes, you may juggle the clementines, but you must then eat whatever you drop.)

I had trouble with the cake this time, though.  I wanted to try something new and it wound up being a learning experience.  Which is another way of saying a time consuming annoyance, but one I volunteered for so I can’t really complain.  (Although at the time I got very whiny, and Aden was the mature one saying, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it will still taste good!”)

Aden didn’t have any ideas at first for her own cake, so I suggested we do a checkerboard cake, but with all different colors inside instead of just two.  Sort of a rainbow checkerboard.  The idea is you have three round layers, each with three concentric circles in them that when stacked the right way look like a checkerboard when you cut into the whole thing.  I did that once for Aden when she was two back before there were kits for doing it, and I just piped the batter into the pans using a ziploc bag.  I picked up an actual jig for making checkerboard cakes a while back and wanted to try it, and doing it in lots of colors sounded fun.
We just made some basic white cake from a box and added food coloring.  But white cake is not as hearty as something like chocolate, and the top layer just fell apart when I put it on.  Not good.  I ended up scraping it off, along with the custard filling between the layers and had to send Ian out to the store for more cake mix.  I remade the custard and the top layer, but you can see the failed bit on the table.
The original plan was to pour chocolate ganache over the whole thing, but it was all too lumpy and gappy to try that with, so I found a chocolate butter cream frosting recipe online to use instead.  The frosting spread like a dream but tasted a little strong, and that particular recipe made a TON of frosting.  (But I was glad I saved it because I had to make a last minute cake for Mona to take to class for a party.)
Frosting hides a lot of sins.
After I suggested the checkerboard cake, Aden came up with some concept of a sheet cake in the shape of a dragon, but not like her sister had last year.  She wanted to draw a shape and cut it out, but she wanted the checkerboard thing too, even though I said that wouldn’t really work right that way.  She ended up drawing a dragon with frosting onto the finished cake.  (Which WordPress isn’t letting me download a photo of for some reason….)

Aden’s getting pretty good with her own baking and decorating skills.  She made her own cupcakes to take to school this year.  White cupcakes dipped in chocolate ganache, and then she made butter cream frosting and did all the decorating herself.  I showed her how to use different piping tips and then she did it all on her own (with some help from Quinn in the chocolate quality control department).

Anyway, the checkerboard cake sort of worked.  I think I know how to do it better next time with less grumbling and fewer trips to the store.
The kids all liked it and it tasted good, so that was all that really mattered.  It was a tasty kind of experiment.

And did I mention my daughter is ten?  Wow I love that girl.  Best decade ever.  Can’t wait to see what the next one holds in store.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Special (Babble)

(Mona on the school playground, Oct 30, 2006)

One of the most difficult days I experienced during my husband’s first deployment was on November 1, 2006.  I remember the date because the weather had been fairly pleasant and warm right up through Halloween, but the next morning the temperature dropped dramatically and it was officially cold out.  The reason this was a problem is that Mona, at the time still two years old, would not wear shoes or a coat, and I was only a couple of weeks from giving birth to Quinn.  If I wrestled shoes onto Mona she just kicked them off.  I could not get her into a coat.  I was too pregnant, too exhausted, too stressed, and in too much pain to physically do what needed to be done with Mona to keep her in shoes and a coat.  I was stuck.  I carried her shoes and coat everywhere in the hopes she would come to her senses and ask for them when she got cold, but that never happened.

Every morning when I would take Aden to half-day kindergarten at the public Montessori school I would be caught between a rock and a hard place, because Aden would not walk herself into the building and down to her classroom, which meant Mona had to get out of the car, too.  If I only had to walk Aden across the playground to the building I could have lived with leaving Mona buckled in her car seat, but not if I was going inside the building.  I pleaded with Aden to go alone and she would not.  I pleaded with Mona to at least put on her shoes and she would not.  So I would walk with Mona and Aden into the building and try to figure out what I was supposed to do when it got really cold.  On November 1st when it reached that point, I decided to go to the office after delivering Aden to her classroom to find out if anyone could help me out for just two more weeks until Ian came home for the birth of the baby.

But on my way into the building a woman (I’m assuming a parent otherwise why would she be on the playground?) chastised me for putting Mona in danger by not having her in a coat.  The meanness of her tone startled me and I held out Mona’s coat and said, “Fine, you do it!”  She snapped back that no, I was the parent and I was being irresponsible exposing my child to the cold which was tantamount to abuse and she should report me to Child Protective Services.  By the time I got into the building I was crying uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to be crying but I was so upset and embarrassed and frustrated and at my limit with everything that it was too much.  I cried on and off the entire day.

Now, the upside to that particular story is I met some wonderful people who came to my rescue (including my friend Carol who volunteered to pick Aden up at my house every morning and let her walk into the school with her own daughter, thus solving my dilemma for the rest of the school year), and I learned a valuable lesson about not judging other parents but trying to help when possible.  That woman could have offered to get Mona into the coat and shoes, or at least carried her into the building for me which I couldn’t do while nine months pregnant.  Calling me a bad parent was not helpful to anyone, and to essentially kick a pregnant woman (whose husband was in a war zone) while she’s down was just cruel, no matter how justified she felt.

But that’s not actually what I want to focus on with this post.  I’ve got a whole other piece in the works about judgment and parenting that I will finish tinkering with someday and will put up, but in the meantime I’ve got something else rattling around my brain with a lot of odd tangents to it.  Indulge me while I try to sort some of those thoughts out here.
While I was inside the building that day, trying to pull myself together, I had a talk with an important figure at the school about what solutions there might be to my problem.  I was trying to arrange to have someone meet me at my car in the mornings to help walk Aden to class, or something along those lines.  But this person I was talking to was fixated on the problem of Mona and her shoes.   I got nothing but suggestions for getting Mona into shoes.

Mona is not like anyone I’ve ever known.  At age two she was very much in her own little world.  She didn’t talk much, nothing we said to her seemed to register, she did not exhibit empathy yet, and she was not interested in objects or physical things.  Her favorite toy was her shadow.  She was adorable and brilliant but unpredictable and difficult to manipulate.

The school official didn’t want to hear any of that.  I had to listen to a lecture about sticker charts.  The solution to all my problems with Mona apparently lay in the proper use of sticker charts.  Now, I may not have been able to control my youngest daughter as well as I would have liked, but I still knew her better than anyone else could.  And Mona wouldn’t have noticed a sticker chart if I taped it to her face.  She also would have paid no attention to attempts at reverse psychology or anything resembling logic.  Mona just didn’t want to wear shoes.  I knew the only way to make her do it was to be consistent and force them back on her over and over and over until she realized I was not going to back down on the issue, and I was too pregnant to do that right then.

When I protested and said that the techniques being suggested would not work on Mona, the person got exasperated, eventually saying, “Every parent thinks their child is special.  I’ve seen this work on a thousand children.”  I was not in any emotional state to argue at that point, but I remember thinking very clearly at the time, “Well, every child IS special, and meet child number one-thousand-and-ONE, because you are wrong.”

That line about everyone thinking his or her child is special has stayed with me.  I think about it often.  Every parent should think his or her child is special.  Because every child is special.  And this is an issue I’ve struggled with a little bit, especially when talking with certain people who have differing views from my own.

There is a line in the movie The Incredibles that is central to the point of the film about how “If everyone is special, then nobody is.”  I agree that there needs to be room for people to be extraordinary.  We are not all equal in our abilities or talents or willingness to work.

But I believe that the extraordinary among us with the right encouragement and resources will rise to the top.  I don’t think that just because some people have a specific genius for art or music, etc., the rest of us aren’t worthy to have a go at those things and we benefit from that experience in different ways.  I know artists and musicians who are weary of seeing bad art and hearing inadequate music and wish sometimes others without innate talent would just stop.  I don’t see the mediocre as a threat to the brilliant so it doesn’t bother me particularly, and I accept that the audience for the truly great is sometimes small.  But just because I will never be singer in any official sense does not mean I should never sing.

When I started team teaching violin lessons for clients in music therapy I had to rethink the whole point of playing music.  Normally when I teach the goal is to improve performance on the violin.  I have materials and techniques I use to get students from point A to point B to point C, with the purpose of working toward more complicated music and wider opportunities.  Among the side effects of that kind of training are greater confidence, developing self-discipline, relaxation, and interacting with new people.  In music therapy this is kind of flipped on its head.  The goal is the side effects, and learning to play violin specifically is the vehicle.  So if I happen to have a student who never improves on a technical level because of some obstacle or another, it doesn’t matter.  I see the benefits of playing violin, I just have to think about my part in the equation in a new way.

I have never had a single music therapy student who I did not think benefited from playing violin.  Will any of them go on to great professional careers in music?  Unlikely.  But the same is true of my regular students.  I talk to adults who come in my store all the time who wished they could play violin and somehow think it’s too late to start.  I tell them it’s too late to be a child prodigy, but there is no ‘too late’ for music.  What difference does it make if someone else started younger?  Starting younger did not mean that person went on to do it forever or even be very good.  All that matters is that it brings you joy.  Everyone should be allowed that.  The people who want to put in the exhaustive work of going pro will do so.  They will be exceptional and rightly admired for it.  That doesn’t mean average players have to forgo the fun of making their own music.  So I don’t believe giving everyone a chance to be included somehow negates the exceptional.  It just opens up the possibility for everyone to make it their own.

So is every child special?  I think yes.  Because I don’t mean it in a dopey silly way that suggests we bow down to children or not expect them to behave, I mean that every person–particularly at the beginning of life when they are still learning to make responsible choices–deserves respect and care.  Every child should have a fair chance to be the unique individual he or she is supposed to be.  Every child should be entitled to decent medical care, good nutrition, education, exposure to the arts, a safe environment, and love.  It’s heartbreaking to me that this isn’t the case for even most of the children in this world.  How different things would be if all children were raised as if we are glad they are here.  I don’t understand people or policies that write children born into bad circumstances off as if they don’t deserve better.

I most often hear people griping about the ‘Everyone is special’ problem when it comes to competition or ceremony.  There are people who whine if kindergarteners get a little graduation, or if everyone receives a ribbon or trophy.  Many people want there to be a winner and a loser I suppose.  I think that’s too narrow.  For one kid maybe being the best at something was easy.  For another, maybe grappling with a learning disability made the same journey much harder.  Who really deserves the praise?  The person who worked or the one who didn’t have to?  I never practiced viola in high school.  I didn’t need to.  The music we performed had to be accessible to strong and weak players alike so it was easy for me, and praise for my part in it didn’t mean much.  However, the classical guitar solo I put together to perform onstage with the orchestra my senior year–THAT was work.  Terrifying, nail-biting, worry-up-to-the-last-minute-will-she-get-through-it-without-falling-apart work.  The praise I got for that was earned and I knew the difference.

The truth is, life is hard for everyone at some point.  There are enough real lessons in success and failure to go around without inventing more.  Why not change the rules to Candy Land so everyone wins?  So what?  I don’t think important character building lessons about being a good sport happen at age three for most people.  No one likes losing, but little kids can’t grasp the big picture in order to take losing well.  So why bother?  My kids hate losing at Chutes and Ladders so we don’t play it.  I remember hating when I lost at Chutes and Ladders as a kid.  It didn’t make me a better person to suffer through that.  Eventually you put things in perspective and now I don’t care if I win at it or not, and my kids will get there too.  The point of playing games together is to have fun.  If finding ways to play together without someone losing makes it more fun, great.

The point of little ceremonies and all those little trophies is to acknowledge everyone on whatever terms are meaningful to them.  There is no way to know whom that will touch.  There are too many kids among us who do not feel special at home.  That ribbon one person sees as a worthless gesture may mean the difference for someone else between feeling school is a good place to be or not.  Between feeling special or not.  Between feeling like they are worth anything or not.

So, back to Mona and her shoes.  When her dad came home on leave from Iraq he simply told her to wear them.  She knew it was pointless to fight him on the concept, so she did it.  No sticker charts.  Just because you have techniques that seem to work universally, you have to leave room for the possibility of the new.  The times I’ve failed my own violin students were all cases where I neglected to take the individual into account and tried to force them into a mold that worked for others.  Seeing what is special in everyone takes imagination.  It can be hard.  But when we don’t make that effort, that’s when life becomes cheap.  When we don’t see everyone as special we write others off too easily, and that’s a mistake.

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”  —Albert Einstein

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Down, One to Go, Then We Get a Tree (Babble)

This is the point in the season where I remind myself to just breathe.  We’ve had Quinn’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Mona’s birthday….  Just Aden’s sleepover to go and I can finally concentrate on Christmas.  It would be so nice to spread out some of the festivities and parties and gifts over other parts of the year, but that’s just not how it works for us.  We have a month and a half that feels like an avalanche of wrapping paper and sugar and then the calendar looks like a desert until piddly things like Valentine’s Day or 4th of July show up.

Quinn just turned five.  Five!  And he seems older.  I mean, of course he’s older, but there is something less small and fragile about him now that feels new.  He’s taller and he moves like a bigger kid.  His toddler proportions are gone.  He still gloms onto me like the baby boy I’ve always known, but Quinn has crossed some threshold into a leaner more capable state of being that startles me sometimes.  Five just seems so grown up.
(Okay, so looking at that sweet face he doesn’t seem old.  But it seems old compared to this:
So I guess it’s all relative.) For his party this year Quinn invited kids from his class at school, and he wanted a chocolate cake that was silver with pink hearts on top and a candle in the shape of a 5.  I looked around the cake decorating section at Michael’s and found silver, edible spray paint, and sugar paper in different colors.  So I baked a basic chocolate cake layer cake with butter cream frosting, spray painted it, cut out hearts in various sizes, and let Quinn arrange them wherever he liked.  It came out just like he wanted, so we were both happy.
His party involved pizza, a hunt for paper candies redeemable for actual candies that kept the kids busy, and a game with balloons and a parachute that was just a thinly veiled excuse to bop balloons around until the parents returned to pick everyone back up.  All the kids looked sad to leave so that counts as a successful party.

Mona’s party was a bit more work and very loud.  My little girl is eight!  Wow.  She used to look like this:
And now she’s eight.  (And Aden is about to turn ten which is really kind of boggling my mind, but back to Mona….)

Mona wanted a fish theme, with a cake that looked like an aquarium.  This was easier than the dragon cake from last year, but I still had to think about it.  We ended up with four layers of sheet cake and lots of frosting, and Mona cut out all the fish and plants herself from sugar paper.  We used a bit of brown sugar along the bottom to look like sand, and Mona added details with some piping gel.  I finished it off with a little bit of leftover silver spray paint so it might look more like it was behind glass.

Mona’s party included a game where the kids got to hunt repeatedly for clams she’d made out of duct tape.  When anyone found a clam with his or her name inside they got to ‘fish’ in the fishing hole where Aden was waiting on the other side with a bag of prizes.  Everyone had a fish bowl that they could pile their prizes into, and Quinn, Ian, and Mona just kept hiding the same clams again and again until the party was over.  It was an easier game than actually trying to organize all those kids into doing something together, but it made all of them happy and kept them busily moving around.
(Mona’s friend Sammy busy fishing.)
Mona got some great gifts, including a big roll of yellow duct tape (which I always have trouble finding for her) and an optical illusion ornament from Ian’s mom that had everyone mesmerized.  Her big gift from us this year was we finally told her she could have a real fish.
We walked over to the neighborhood pet store after most of her guests had gone and she picked out a pretty Beta that she immediately named Rainbow.
(Mona and her friend Sammy at the pet store.)

Overall a lovely day, but I’m worn out.  One more cake to make, and our first ever sleepover coming up, and then I promised the kids we could finally get a tree.  And then after figuring out what birthday gifts to get all my kids, I get to start looking for more gifts.  Because there is another event with gifts coming up, right?  Yeah, that.  If I only I could convince them that half-birthdays are cooler than actual birthdays….

Monday, November 28, 2011

Odds, Ends, and a Hopeless Challenge (Babble)

Did you have a good Thanksgiving?  I hope so.  We had a lovely time here with friends over and lots of food and it was great.

But first thing the next morning I drove to Detroit to visit my parents.  My dad has been back in the hospital, and it was hard to decide what to do.  I felt I should go out there but didn’t know if bringing the kids would be too much, and I didn’t want to be apart from them during Thanksgiving (or a birthday).  I finally decided it made more sense to go alone right after turkey day.

I always try to take a picture of my kids right before I leave for a trip by myself, and this was Friday’s:
They are all in the glow of the computer because Mona didn’t want to stop the game she was in the middle of, so rather than have her quit I had Quinn and Aden pose on either side and told Mona she had to look at me when I counted to three.

Anyway, my dad’s health problems are posing all kinds of difficulties for my parents at the moment, mostly because his mobility is limited.  But we played Scrabble and I read to him a little, showed him photos of the kids and pictures of our new porch, and talked about our new dog.  It was a nice visit.

However, I’m still feeling out of sorts after the long drive there and back and frazzled about Mona’s upcoming party and a concert I have to play this week and about a million other things that are making it hard to focus on one coherent blog post, so here is a hodgepodge of things for your consideration.

Let’s start with a couple of Mona Creations.  The first is a Firebird that I actually convinced her to let me keep so it doesn’t get destroyed.  She offered me shared custody for about a week, but then recently told me I could just have it.
Then there is this Squid, which is just cool.  My kid can make a squid.  I am beyond proud.
Next, the dog went to the groomer and came back looking like a different (if equally cute) dog.  It’s hard to get a good picture of the dog because he just comes out a black blur most of the time.  I got the most satisfying crazy happy greeting from the dog when I returned from Detroit.  It’s ridiculous how much I love this dog after only two weeks.
And now a challenge!  My dad asked me when I was visiting if I would please go out into the library and get his Escher book.  It was in the shelves on the wall on the right side of the room.  Which looks like this:


My dad said it wouldn’t be hard because it was all in alphabetical order.  I don’t know what alphabet he’s using but it’s not one with which I’m familiar.  So the book on Escher is supposedly in this section, so if you spot it let me know:
And that’s about all I have time for because I am already late for a rehearsal.  Take care and enjoy your leftovers!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Good List (Babble)

There are lots of different reasons why I write the blog posts I do.  Sometimes I want input.  Sometimes I want to share news.  There are concepts that bump around my brain and writing them down helps me get better clarity on them.  Often when I write about my kids it’s purely to document something for myself so I don’t forget.  When Ian was deployed many posts were to keep him up to speed with how things were going here at home.  Now that he’s back, it’s more to help faraway friends and family to check in.  I’ve made new friends through this blog.  I’ve developed better writing habits.  I’ve made interesting connections.  I love writing this blog.

Today’s post is purely selfish.  As we reflect at this time of year about what we are thankful for, I realize I have more to be thankful for than in any other time in my life.  I just want to take a moment to jot down what many of those things are so that during the silly self-pitying moments that will inevitably creep into my life in the future I will have a place to refer to and remind myself to get some perspective.  So here is my list of things I am thankful for:

My health.  Health is always one of those things generally healthy people use as a last resort when trying to muster gratitude, but honestly?  Everything hinges on it.  And I have had numerous reminders lately from my dad’s struggles with cancer to simply a friend with pink eye to not remember to appreciate my health.  Because I am healthy I feel limitless.

The health of my kids and husband.

Aden’s kindness.

Mona’s creativity.

Quinn’s curiosity and interest in learning.
My husband is home.  In one piece.  When I was swimming this morning I was listening to some old podcasts of Fresh Air and wound up hearing their Veteran’s Day program.  I’d listened to it when it aired and was not in the mood to hear it again, but sometimes the buttons on my waterproof ipod freeze up in odd ways and I couldn’t change any settings.  So as I went back and forth in the pool at the Y I listened to the whole show again about soldiers injured by IEDs and the effects of brain injuries and PTSD and the number of suicides vets commit every day and the number of ways our country lets its soldiers down when they return home.  Those kinds of stories still affect me deeply, but don’t hit me with the stark sensation of abject terror that they did while Ian was in Iraq both times.  My soldier is home.  I wish every family with a soldier could say the same this Thanksgiving.

I love our house and still can’t believe we get to live in it.  There is nothing like waking up every day in the right space.  And we just had a roof put over our front porch, so a nice place just got even nicer.

Our business is doing fine.  I’m proud of us that during tough economic times our small business can provide for our family, and that we can even afford a couple of part time employees.

I’m fortunate that the number of customers I’ve dealt with that have caused me distress or disappointment I can count on one hand.  The vast majority of people who walk into my store give me faith in the kindness and creativity in my community, from small children excited to start violin to their parents who are excited for them, to symphony players who dedicate their lives to beauty, to fiddle players who light up when they find the right bow….  It’s hard not to feel good about people in general when you meet them in a violin store.

I’m thankful that I still have both my parents.

I miss my grandma, but I’m glad we were able to keep her cottage in the family.  We’ll be making her recipe for orange jello for Thanksgiving.  I have her jello mold and the glass serving dish for it.  Normally it’s a Christmas thing, but my kids love it as much as my brothers and I did when we were little, so better to err on the side of more orange jello.  Grandma would approve.  I was lucky to have had a grandma like that even though it hurts now that she’s gone.

I’m thankful for music.  All music.  Some well meaning Christian ladies came into my violin store a few weeks back to give me some tracts about God and music, saying something about how awful certain kinds of music could be like that ‘heavy metal’ stuff, thinking they were on safe ground with such statements in a cozy shop that caters to classically trained musicians.  I smiled and said, “Oh, but I love heavy metal.  I think all music is sacred.”  They looked so confused and stricken, but I loved the hours I spent in college learning Fade to Black on my guitar.
(Quinn’s drawing of a radio playing music.)

I’m thankful for our new dog.

And that my husband still thinks I’m pretty and fun to talk to.

And that my kids still want my company.

I’m thankful for decent woodworking tools and having a room of my own in the house just for building violins.

I’m thankful for my hands.

I like the school my kids go to.  I like all of their teachers and am so impressed with the patience they show toward the kids.  It bothers me that people don’t value education in a community enough that our school had to cut both art and gym, but I’m still thankful that Montessori is an option in our public school system even with budget cuts.

I’m thankful for flashlights and Rubik’s cubes and for living within about two miles of nearly everything we need.

I’m thankful for having the two best brothers in the world and for the people they’ve brought into our family.

I’m thankful for every day that I get to do things that interest me, and be with the people I love most.

I’m thankful for being alive at this particular moment and place in the world.  I get tired of the gloom and doom and people who pine for some magical yesteryear that was not the sparkling land of perfection and innocence they imagine it to have been.  There is still a lot to work toward and improve, but I will take modern dentistry and the internet and my right to equal treatment under the law over anything you want to offer me from the past.  I still believe these are the good old days.

I am fed.

I am warm.

I have friends I can count on.

I’m thankful that my problems right now really don’t qualify as problems.

And I’m thankful for my readers!  You are the final step that turns what I write into something meaningful.  Thank you for that.  And I hope all of you have as much to be thankful for this season.  I wish you the best.
(I asked Quinn once this summer what he wanted to learn to write, and he said, “Everything!”  So I wrote down everything.  And I guess that sums up what I’m thankful for.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

On the Radio (Babble)

In 2005 when I made a conscious decision to try my hand at writing the first thing I wrote was an essay for the This I Believe project.  It felt like a school assignment, and since the last place I’d formally written anything was in school it seemed like a good way to get my feet wet.  I posted the essay on my blog last year when it was selected for inclusion in a book.  This year I’m pleased to announce that they recorded my reading of the essay for broadcast on public radio.  If you happen to catch The Bob Edwards Show anytime the weekend of the 25th through the 27th you might hear me!

The show is not, however, broadcast in Wisconsin, so I won’t be able to hear it.  But they did send me a link if anyone wants to hear me read on the This I Believe website:

Amazing Grace by Korinthia Klein

It was interesting doing the recording.  I went into the local studio here in Milwaukee and worked with someone over the phone.  I would read, and they would record, and then the person on the phone would ask me to repeat a particular line with a different inflection or ask me to pause in a new place.  All the reading went fine.  It was the guitar playing that freaked me out.

It makes perfect sense that the producers would read my essay and then want me to actually play “Amazing Grace” on the guitar.  What a natural moment for radio!  Except that I don’t really play guitar.  I took some lessons in high school, kept a guitar nearby to mess around on in college, but I don’t really play.  Not the way I play viola in any case.  So when they asked if I would bring an instrument with me to the studio I got very nervous.  The stings on my acoustic guitar I’m pretty sure are the same ones I actually learned “Amazing Grace” on the first time.  There’s nostalgia and then there is simply ridiculous.  So I borrowed a guitar, practiced for a week, and then stumbled my way through the song in a real recording studio feeling rather guilty.  There are actual guitar players who slave away at what they do who will never get the kind of exposure my pitiful little plunking could get, even if it is just on a public radio show that I won’t even hear in my own state.  But it is what it is.  I did my best and I hope it works.
The link above does not include my guitar playing, just my words, but if I find a new link after the broadcast that does include my playing I will put it up.

Reviewing that essay again has put me in the proper frame of mind for the upcoming holiday.  I love Thanksgiving.  I love that it’s about making a grand meal and sharing it with others and remembering to be thankful.  This year we are having friends over to our home and we will eat too much and the kids will play, and our new dog will follow Ian around (Chipper gazing at Ian is the embodiment of ‘thankful’) and it will be great.
Then first thing on Friday morning I’m driving off alone to visit my parents for a couple of days.  My dad has been back in the hospital. He’s currently doing rehab again.  With luck he will be home by the time I visit so we can spend time at the house instead of in a hospital.  I don’t like associating Thanksgiving with cancer.  But I still like the holiday.  And I am thankful every single day.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Want to See Our New Dog? (Babble)

The kids (particularly Aden–well, almost exclusively Aden) have been begging for a dog for a while.  We’ve been putting it off until certain milestones were met because there’s a limit to how many small mammals we really want to care for in the house, but we recently reached a point where a dog seemed doable.  If we found the right dog.

Ian has allergies, primarily to cats, but sometimes to dogs.  We had rabbits for years.  I didn’t realize just how many years until I was filling out an application for adoption at a local animal control center and I had to list all former pets.  Our first bunny we had for about six years.  Her name was Cujo and she taught us a great deal about learning not to become too attached to possessions.  Rabbits chew EVERYTHING and you can’t yell at a bunny, so eventually you acquire a zen sort of attitude of “they are just things….”  Cujo was killed by a cat in our backyard not long after we bought our first house.  We had to go out and buy a shovel specifically for burying her which was awful.

About six months later we adopted a bonded pair of bunny sisters from the humane society, and we wanted to name them Polka and Dot, but Polka turned out to be more of a Scout.  They were supposedly a couple of years old when we got them and they lived another six years or so.  Dot died of bladder cancer, but we think Scout died a couple of months later from grief.  They really didn’t know what to do apart from one another.

We’ve lived long enough without pets that I had stopped thinking of us as pet people.  (Although I toyed with the idea during a brief period a year ago when we weren’t sure if we owned a cat.)  Ian told me he’s always thought of us as pet people, just pet people on a hiatus.

So last week our neighbor (who takes in foster dogs) forwarded us a picture of a little Lhasa Apso/Miniature Poodle mix that had just come into the rescue shelter that she thought might be a good fit for us.

He’s two years old and very sweet.  We wanted to find a dog through a rescue shelter if we could, but it had to be one that didn’t make my husband sneeze. We set up a meet and greet on Friday.  I couldn’t decide if it made more sense for us to go alone and check out Ian’s reaction to the dog, or if the kids should come too.  We decided since it was so important to see how the dog was with the kids that it was worth risking it not working out, so we surprised them with the trip to the shelter.

The poor dog was so traumatized by the shelter experience that he was pretty skittish and nervous, and he barked at Aden at first.  But eventually he climbed happily into my lap and let everyone pet him and he warmed up rather quickly.  We all fell in love with the dog.

But Ian seemed to be having some kind of reaction after we left, which gave us concern.  The dog wasn’t officially available for adoption until he’d seen a vet on Sunday, so we went about our weekend and on Sunday afternoon Ian went out by himself to spend some time with the dog.  I told him if he had any kind of allergic reaction to leave the dog there and bring home ice cream instead to soften the blow.  But if he was sure the dog wouldn’t be a problem to bring him home.  There was a possibility that the cats at the shelter were what caused Ian’s reaction before, but it was hard to know.  The kids and I spent a tense couple of hours while we waited and wondered what would happen.

Then, in the middle of dinner we heard Ian come in the back door.  At first I braced for disappointment because all I heard was Ian (not that Ian’s arrival is ever disappointing, don’t get me wrong), but then there was the little clicking sound of dog nails on the kitchen floor and I realized we now owned a dog.

The kids were beyond thrilled.  Aden immediately abandoned her dinner in order to walk the dog.  She and Ian and Mona all took the dog out.  The sweet thing was when it was time to head home the dog ran to our front door as if he’d done that a million times before.  Within a couple of hours it felt as if we’d always had this dog.  It’s weird.  I know there will be lots of adjustments as we all get used to each other and figure things out, but honestly the dog already looks settled in and this feels very natural.

Aden and I walked to Target to pick up a dog dish and some food and a collar.  It was fun taking the dog out for one last evening walk tonight, and the girls are excited about taking him for a walk in the morning before breakfast.  Quinn still seems slightly uncertain about the whole thing, but I think was won over by an unexpectedly hilarious game of fetch with a rubber ball before bed.  Currently the dog likes me, probably because I gave him a bit of leftover chicken from dinner, and he LOVES Ian, probably because he is the pack leader and the hero who saved him from the shelter.  This is Ian’s first dog, so I’m glad he’s getting so much of that sweet puppy adoration.

We’re still not completely settled on a name, but at the moment we seem to be going with Chipper for a first name and Biscuit for the middle one.

Whatever we call him, the dog is darned cute:

And he’s ours!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Suspense! (Babble)

So, today we may or may not be getting a dog.

We went to visit a stray at the rescue center on Friday night that looked like he might be a good match for our family.  Our next door neighbor takes in foster dogs, and she’s been keeping an eye out for one for us, and sent us a picture of a cute little guy who needs a home.

The tricky part is Ian has allergies.  Mostly to cats, but to a lot of dogs as well.  This particular dog is a poodle mix, and from what I’ve been able learn about different dog breeds, those tend to be a bit more allergy friendly.  So we did a meet and greet with the dog at the shelter, and the dog is adorable and warmed up to us quickly, but afterward when we went out for pizza Ian said his eye felt itchy.  Then his face didn’t feel good where he’d touched it with his hands.

The dog wasn’t officially available for adoption until today, so the plan is for Ian to go back to the shelter, spend an hour alone playing with the dog, and if he feels confident that the dog won’t make him sick he’ll bring it home.  If it does, he’ll have to leave the dog there and bring home ice cream instead.

So we’re all on pins and needles here.  The kids and I really want the dog.  But if it’s not the right one for us we’ll keep looking.  The dog is adorable and I have complete faith that someone else will adopt him quickly if it can’t be us, so that’s something.  Because it was so sad to see how unsettled the dog was at the shelter, and how desperately it needed love.  I hope we’re able to be the ones to provide it.

We’ll find out soon.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gender Expectations (Babble)

(Quinn art: girls and boys with balloons)

I’ve written something about this before. I will probably write something about it again.  Few topics interest me more than people’s thoughts on gender, both as it relates to their own personal lives and to society at large.  I think it’s something many of us implicitly believe we all agree on to a certain extent, until we actually ask someone and discover how much variability there really is.  Sort of like the notion of ‘common sense,’ which is not always so common because what may seem perfectly reasonable to me could sound like a terrible idea to someone else.  People’s beliefs about gender are all over the map, despite whatever tacit agreement we may believe we share.

Personally, I’m rather torn.  Because there are some basic ways in which I believe men and women, boys and girls, tend to be different.  I just can’t decide how important we should think those differences are.

For instance, I remember very clearly when seeing the movie Gladiator (back before children when Ian and I were able to see movies in an actual theater) having an uncomfortable revelation during the opening scene.  Men on either side of a clearing are preparing for battle, and when the signal is given, they rush at one another killing anyone they come close to.  It’s brutal, and it’s horrible, and even though it’s only a movie, it doesn’t show anything that hasn’t happened in human history countless times over.  It struck me as I sat there in the theater that I would not be capable of running toward that kind of carnage on someone’s order.  But my husband could.  I believe if someone were inflicting harm on my children I would be capable of killing that person if necessary, but I cannot fathom rushing into a battlefield and simply killing whomever.  I think the trait of choosing to run toward a battle rather than away from it is more typical in males.

But just because a behavior is exhibited more often in one sex than the other does not give it exclusive claim to that trait.  There are many soldiers who happen to be women who are prepared to kill and die on someone’s order.  That does not make them lesser women or more like men in my opinion.  Men who wish to avoid violence are not lesser men.  I can’t think of any one trait that should be held up as a standard by which either sex should be specifically judged.  This is probably where the opinions about gender diverge, because most people I talk to seem to draw a line somewhere about what is masculine and and what is feminine, and that line is in different place for everyone I meet.

When I was in high school I had a biology teacher who asked us to make a lists of characteristics that we defined as either masculine or feminine, but we were not allowed to include anything physical.  This was a hard assignment, and one I still ponder from time to time.  Both sexes are capable of strength, compassion, humor, aggression, weakness, caring…. I honestly would not know what to put on those lists today.  But that same teacher once made a stereotypical comment in class about either boys or girls, and when someone spoke up in protest he said, “Quick!  Everyone point north!” and all the boys did, and all the girls looked around at the boys first before following their example.  I found that fascinating, but is it important?

Innocently offered statements about ‘what girls are like’ or ‘what boys are like’ almost always get my hackles up.  Of course there are generalizations you can make about girls and boys.  But generalizations are not laws, nor standards by which individuals should necessarily be judged.  When people start repeating things like, “Girls are nurturing” and “Boys are active” I feel as if it sets up artificial definitions that imply someone is anywhere from different to freakish if they don’t fit within those limits.  I have two girls and a boy.  All three of them are nurturing.  The most active of the bunch happens to be a girl.  I don’t see any of them as stepping over any lines in these ways.  They just are who they are.

When I was pregnant with Quinn after having two girls I was shocked at the number of people who jumped to the conclusion we were ‘trying for that boy.’  I honestly didn’t care which sex my child was, but I started to almost wish for a girl out of a weird sense of spite.  I know nobody meant anything remotely bad by it, but it seemed insulting to my girls somehow, and presumptuous about what a boy would be.  I worry when people express desire for one sex of a child over another, because what if the child doesn’t conform to certain expectations?  I don’t understand people who want a girl because they say they want to dress them in pink, because plenty of girls don’t like pink, and it doesn’t make them failures as girls.  I hoped to be able to play music with any of my children, but I wouldn’t be disappointed in them if their interests lay elsewhere.  We can’t tell our children who they are.  They’re supposed to tell us.

I’m not saying there aren’t differences between boys and girls, I’m just saying that the differences that exist within the group that is girls and the group that is boys are wider than the differences between the two groups.  Why anyone cares about the sex of another person beyond themselves or a potential sexual partner is a mystery to me.

I think on issues of gender (and many other characteristics for that matter) people need to recognize that a need for conformity has more to do with personal insecurity than some greater good.  We feel safer in our own choices when we can relate to the choices and behaviors of others around us, but we need to realize our own comfort is not enough to dictate what others must do or be.  The sex of each of my children is an interesting and important part of who each of them is.  But it’s far from the most important.