Saturday, July 15, 2017

Intertwined

Family is interesting because you don't get to choose.  You get what you get.

Sure, you can choose to interact or not, to be an active participant in different lives or not, but who you are and where you fit, in an objective sense, is out of your control.

When I had my first baby, I became a mom.  My husband became a dad.  Whether my brothers were interested or not, they became uncles.  My parents became grandparents regardless of whether they were ready to think of themselves that way yet.  A new life creates labels like "cousin" and "great-aunt" and "niece" automatically.  When I chose to become a parent it imposed new levels of identity up and down my family tree forever and always.

I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a cousin (in all its varieties of removed and numerated), an aunt, a niece, a sister-in-law, a half-sister-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and at one time a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.  By choosing to become a wife I turned other people into in-laws without their consent and in some cases without their knowledge.

Family means being intertwined in history in a way that friendships and working relationships can't match, regardless of the true meaning and relevance of it all.  You become part of someone's future genealogy research as a branch of a tree you did not plant.

I am who I am, but what I mean to others is up to them and changes with the context of the role.  If I say, "I love you" to my husband it means something different than if I say it to my mom or my children or my cousin or dear friend or my oblivious dog.  I do not get to decide how they interpret it.  I do not get to decide if they love me back.

I also, in a very real sense, don't get to write my own narrative.  I make my own decisions and choose how to behave in the world, but others ultimately determine what parts of my story are told and how to describe what I've done.  I may try to make someone feel at ease, but my success in doing so is solely the right of the other person to conclude.  I am not the one who gets to announce that I am a good daughter or sister.  I do my best, but I don't get the final say.  If I look like a good parent to others, but my children don't think so, theirs is the only vote that matters, because in that role they are the only ones in a position to judge. 

I can console myself if I think someone's judgement is wrong, because often it can be, since no one has all the information necessary to truly understand another.  I can tell myself I'm good enough in any particular role in order to get through the day, and maybe I am, but ultimately someone else's truth may be what's handed down as the official version.

I don't offer advice much anymore, because the older I've gotten the fewer things I'm certain of.  But this I know:  Do not take love for granted, however casually it seems to be offered at times.  I've always known this, but it's the single point in my life that gets driven home again and again in new ways with each passing year and each new loss. 

When I think back to my teenage years and how easily I dismissed expressions of love because they seemed too common, I cringe.  I was embarrassed when my grandpa wanted to help me on my paper route, but he understood and loved me anyway.  I want that moment back to do over.  I want another round of cards with my grandma at her kitchen table that I'm sure at some point I felt I didn't have time for.  I want a day to sit and draw with my dad in my dining room when he was no longer very mobile, but I left him to go to work.  I should have taken off work.  As my children slip into adulthood I should take more days off work now.

We always think there will be more time, or more hugs or more "I love you"s.  Those gropey toddler hugs that seemed suffocating way back when--those are golden.  I miss those.  Everything ends and we don't get a say about it.

Those casual "I love you" moments, where they feel cast off and out of habit--those are a gift.  Those moments when love is easy like breathing, those are where life is best.  Because we are intertwined with others regardless, but when there is love in the mix--particularly both directions--we are truly among the most fortunate on earth.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading the Bill of Rights

When I work in the kitchen or drive somewhere I usually listen to the news on the radio.  Quinn, if he's helping me out or along for a ride, listens too.  We used to play a game on the drive to Latin where before I would turn on the news we would each guess what the topic might be and see who got closer.  But now it's all Trump all the time, so that game has lost its appeal.

Usually when we listen to the news Quinn has questions.  Some of them are obvious, many are not, and too often I can't answer them as well as I'd like.  (That's where Google comes in handy.)

The other day during a particular news story they kept talking about first amendment rights and Quinn asked what that meant.  I explained that the first ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States are referred to as the Bill of Rights, and the first one guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, and assembly.  We had an interesting discussion about what the exceptions were.  We talked about different ways people have found to confront speech they didn't like.

In any case, the thing that surprised me as I had this conversation with my son in the kitchen as I was chopping vegetables, was that I realized as I was talking to him that I couldn't name all ten amendments.  I can name all ten commandments from the bible even though it's not my thing.  I apparently use the Jewish numbering which I didn't realize until I looked it up to explain to Quinn that different religions using those same commandments actually number then differently.  (This is something I wonder about when people put up ten commandment monuments since however they get numbered is a nod to a particular sect, not just to Judeo-Christian culture in general, but whatever.)  The average person I run into who claims to construct their life around those commandments can't actually name them, which I find either amusing or irritating depending upon the day.

But then I claim to hold up the Constitution as central to the choices I have available to me as a citizen of this country, and yet I wouldn't be able to tell someone what was in the entire Bill of Rights.

I had Quinn Google it and read me each amendment aloud.  I was sort of stunned by how much of it was unfamiliar.  So for anyone else on this American holiday who wants a refresher course on the Bill of Rights, here they are along with a few notes about what Quinn and I discussed as we read through them:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Another Two Weeks

Today was our 20th wedding anniversary.

We didn't do anything particularly special today other than share a sandwich at lunch.

Ian got up early to run, I swam.  There was an appointment with a roofer to get another estimate on the latest house project that needs to be tended to sooner rather than later.  When I left for work all the kids were nestled into spots on couches and cuddled together to do things on laptops.

I did a lot of bow work today at the store.  Ian brought me lunch and did work on his side of the store which is so different from my side.  His thing is all Quickbooks and bills and rental lists, and mine is all chisels and knives and planes.  It's a good thing we have each other because each of us is lost on the wrong side of the store.

In the afternoon he picked up this week's farm share box on the way home where he had to do an Army conference call.  I finished my last few appointments and then swung by the house to grab the kids to go volunteer at the soup kitchen downtown.  Then we stopped at Michael's and Goodwill to poke around for stuff for a project I'm doing, and then home where we were unsuccessful at coaxing the dog out from under the couch for a walk.  (Chipper currently remembers how to do stairs, but has forgotten he likes to go for walks.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day 2017

Dear Dad,

You've been gone almost two years now.  It still hasn't really sunk in that I won't see you again, or get a hug from you anymore.  I miss making you laugh on the phone.  I miss being able to ask you questions when I'm having a grammar moment.  I don't automatically reach for the phone now when those moments happen, but I still haven't quite let go of the belief that you are out there and I just haven't seen you in too long.

When I haven't seen someone in a long time I'm usually a little surprised when we are reunited that there are details I forgot--bits of mannerisms or scents or motions that go with a person that you don't hold onto well at a distance.  I'm still adjusting to the idea that my perceptions of you will not be updated or renewed, but I'm left with whatever I already have.  It's not enough, but it will have to be.

What would I tell you today, this Father's Day without you again, if I could call?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Varnish Workshop 2017

I went to my third varnish workshop in April and this was the best one yet.  I went for the first time in 2013 when it was in Boston (during which the marathon bombing occurred, so that was memorable even without all the cool new information about turpentine), and again last year when the workshop moved to Chicago.

This year it was in Chicago for the second time, using the facilities of the Chicago School of Violin Making while the regular students were away on break.  (It was a long commute from Milwaukee, but it was nice to sleep in my own bed at night.)



I think the most natural question of the uninitiated at this point would be, "What is there still to learn by going to this workshop for a third time?"  And someone who has never varnished a violin or doesn't know anything about it probably assumes there can't be that many ways to do it, so it would be hard to imagine a whole week of it yet again.

But the better you become at anything the more capable you are of learning new things.  It's great to feel you are improving your skill set while also adding to it.

The first varnish workshop was a revelation about how to see violin varnish, how to read the wood as you progress, to understand ground in more depth, and how to use materials very different from what I was initially trained with in school.

By the second workshop I was able to move past more general ideas and focus on finer details.  I learned a huge amount about preparing an instrument while it was still in the white in order to influence the look of the varnish later.  I was led by the hand through explorations in color in ways I never would have conceived of on my own.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Other Mothers

I've always been irritated with people who are quick to dismiss Mother's Day as a greeting card holiday.  Holidays are what you choose to make them.  The commercialization of certain holidays can indeed get out of hand to the point where the real sentiments get lost, but that's the fault of capitalism and the juvenile insistence of the average person in this country that everything be fun or dramatic rather than meaningful.

Major Christian holidays in this country get a lot of attention, and I know members of minority faiths who resent how little the mainstream knows about other holidays when they come around, but I've often felt they should be a bit grateful that the relative obscurity shields them from some of the nonsense, and they don't see important traditions reduced to another excuse to buy unnecessary things.  My kids were surprised to learn Easter was a religious holiday at all, because they've only known it as egg hunts and candy.  For us that works, again, because we can make holidays what we like, and for some of them that means making them silly.

But even secular holidays aren't immune from further secularization.  Mother's Day in this country was eventually denounced by its creator who found its reduction from something meaningful to something used as a marketing ploy to be deplorable.  However, we can pick what we like and reject the rest, just as we can on any other day.  The tricky part is navigating the larger context and being prepared for the various meanings any holiday has for others.  We can't assume it's the same for everyone.

Mother's Day can be complicated because mothers are complicated.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Half-Staff

Quinn (and consequently I) have been taking Latin lessons once a week at the local university for a couple of years now.  I love having an activity that I get to do with just him where we can chat in the car and walk together to the library and maybe share a snack if there's time.  Plus the Latin is fun, too.  All of that I sort of pictured ahead of time when we signed up.

What I hadn't pictured was our regular inspection of the flags.

We fly an inordinate number of flags in our country.  Quinn loves flags (or, at least, he loves anything related to geography that can be put into an orderly list) and can currently identify all 197 country flags we found on an online quiz.  He pays attention to them in a way I normally don't.  On our short commute to the university we pass many flags flying outside of schools and government buildings and people's homes.

It seems more often than not anymore, those flags are at half-staff.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fudge and Moccasins

So much to write about, so little time to write.  I am so behind here!  I just finished an incredible week at this year's varnish workshop, but I need a bit more time to process it all before I can share any of it in a post.  The kids just had their science and multi-cultural fair, Aden played in the pit orchestra for her first musical, work has been busy, I've performed in a couple of great concerts, but I don't think I will get a chance to write about any of it.

However, I do want to take a second to describe a bit of our recent trip to The Wisconsin Dells over Easter weekend.  It wasn't possible to go to New York this year for our tradition of staying in my brother's apartment and setting up egg hunts in the nearby rose garden.  So instead we headed west for my other brother's home in LaCrosse and on the way stayed a couple of nights in The Dells.  It's something we've been meaning to do with our kids at some point, and now was apparently the time.
Trojan Horse on the way to our hotel

The Wisconsin Dells, for those who are not familiar, is a small town not far from Madison with a small local population but a ton of visitors during vacation season.  It was a spot where in the past river traffic had to stop at the falls in order for people to change boats, and as a result tourist attractions were born.  Today it's a kitchy place full of water parks and different theme hotels.  There are various boat tours (including the famous "ducks" and we saw intriguing ads for something called "Ghost Boat"), lots of mini golf, go carts, ice cream and restaurants, and goofy souvenirs.  It's the sort of place that always seems to have fudge and moccasins.  (We got both.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Peeps Art

My kids, my mom, and I all have pieces on display in this year's annual Peeps Art show at the Racine Art Museum.  None of us won a prize, but when a TV station interviewed the artist who took first place and asked her what things in the show she liked, she singled out Mona's bird (which got a nice close up).  And this morning my Peeps orchestra was featured in the paper!

I liked all the things we entered so I thought I'd share them here for some pre-Easter fun:

The first person to finish the Peeps Art project was Quinn.  He likes maps and decided to do the United Peeps of America (Land of the Peeps, Home of the Other Peeps).  Note the different types of Peeps for the different oceans.  He also did the map outline freehand (because tracing would be cheating, even though there is no one anywhere who expects a ten year old to draw the U.S. freehand).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The mechanic whose car doesn't run

Earlier this week I finally rehaired my bow.

Violin family instruments use horsehair on their bows, and that has to be replaced periodically.  Bow hair is coated with rosin (which is sort of a refined block of tree sap that looks like a white powder on the bow, and that you reapply about every four hours of play), which makes it sticky and able to grip the strings.  The physics of what's happening is kind of like plucking a string really fast over and over--the rosined hair grabs the string and lets go repeatedly causing the string to vibrate.  The hair itself is covered in little scales that hold the rosin.  Over time and use the hair gets stripped and won't hold rosin well, and the hair even if you don't use it eventually loses elasticity.  I have some customers who play aggressively enough their bow hair only lasts a couple of weeks.  Most full-time professionals don't usually let their bow hair get older than six months.  The average person should get a rehair once a year.  No horsehair works well longer than two.

It's easy to forget the last time you got your bow rehaired.  I often hand out little reminder cards like the ones people get for oil changes so my customers can remember.  The part that's tricky is you don't feel the changes from one day to the next.  The wear sneaks up on you.  It's insidious, because when you play your bow doesn't feel that different from how it felt the day before, but if you were to jump back six months to compare you would definitely feel the change.

Anyway, last week at rehearsal I realized that I had just let my own bow go too long.  Bow rehairs are not my favorite part of my job and I'm already swamped with work, so the idea of taking time to do my own bow is not appealing.  I tend to put it off as long as I can, which makes me feel like a hypocrite as I chastise others about doing timely maintenance on their equipment.  But my own bow was well overdue and I couldn't ignore it anymore.

What a difference.  Good grief, playing at rehearsal last night was so much easier.  And I wondered the same way I do every time why I don't rehair my bow more often since I can do it whenever I like.

The same thing happens with sharpening my tools.  There is nothing more satisfying than the first few cuts with a freshly sharpened plane blade or a well-honed knife.  You don't realize how much you've been struggling with your tools until you take the time to get them back into optimal condition.  In an ideal world I would set aside an official sharpening day every two weeks and keep everything up to snuff, but real life doesn't work like that.

There is just so much to do and so many unexpected things that come up.  Maintenance takes time and gets annoying.  It doesn't feel like progress, but it facilitates it.

I'm trying to do better about applying that lesson to my health and my mental well-being.  There is a lot that wears you down day to day that you don't notice, but would if you could step back.  It's hard, because a lot like the mechanic whose car doesn't run, we don't always take care of ourselves first even if we are the most obvious choice to do it.  We expend all our energy on work for others.  The last thing we want to do at the end of the day is more work with no external appreciation or compensation for it.

But it's worth it.  I just keep forgetting.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Packets

One of the lovely things about my dad was he collected packets of articles for people he cared about.  He lived to file articles.  There are still dozens of large boxes of them to sort through since he died, and it will be a long term project to go through the raw feed of material he meant to separate out into particular piles, but I have in my possession about fifteen packets just for me and my family.

From the time I left for college to about a year or so before he died, my dad assembled collections of articles for me in big yellow envelopes.  He did that for my brothers.  He did that for other friends and family as relevant articles presented themselves.  If you expressed an interest in a topic around him you might get a file of papers in the mail.  It was his obsession to clip and save from printed material, and in its distilled form the packets were personal filing masterpieces.  I don't know anyone who got one who didn't feel special for receiving it.

If he really deeply loved you, though, you got a lot of packets.  And my dad deeply loved me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Clean Sweep

In recent weeks (months?) the house has really gotten away from me.

I don't think I was mentally built to be a full time stay-at-home parent, but at least back during Ian's two deployments when the kids were much smaller I adapted well enough.  There was no real upside to Ian being away, but there was some satisfaction in staying on top of most of the basic chores while stuck at home.  With another responsible adult around there is always the hope that the other person will do some of what needs to be done and you can sidestep a chore, but when you are on your own you just have to do it.  I had a pretty good system of starting laundry in the morning and folding it all at night, of making meals and cleaning up with a certain rhythm, and keeping things fairly organized and tidy.  When Ian goes away for brief Army obligations now, I still fall back into those old patterns.  But lately my schedule has been rough and my work days long, which means the kinds of things that are important to me in running a house have kind of suffered.

So between Ian having just been out of state for a few days for more Army stuff, and my mom coming to visit soon, I had a lot of incentive to buckle down and try to get the house back in order.  I do what I think of as a Baryon Sweep (which is a Star Trek TNG reference for those who don't try to give house cleaning geeky connotations) where I start at one end of the house and clean thoroughly, pushing misplaced things into the next room until eventually I get to the other end and everything in my wake is clean.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bated Breath

All of my kids at some point when they were babies had croup.  Each time it was awful.  Each of them made a trip to the emergency room at Children's Hospital for it.  Each time we were told there really was nothing they could do.  But when your baby struggles with each breath and won't stop crying and coughing it's nightmarish and you just want help.

The thing about those times I remember best was the drive to the hospital with the baby rear facing in the backseat, always in the dark, out of reach.  And I couldn't tell what was worse: Hearing each tortured inhale, or the silence in between breaths.  Each strangled breath was bad, but wondering if something worse had befallen my baby to cause the silence was equally bad.  Times like that when your imagination is spinning out of control and your instincts are hyperactive make for a very long drive (even when it's only 10.7 miles).

We are far from the baby stage now.  Those parenting challenges are hard, and some things do get easier as your kids grow, but somethings don't.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Escape the Room

This past weekend we decided to try Escape the Room.  It was really fun.

Escape the Room is a game where you are in a room filled with puzzles and locks and have one hour to figure how to get out.  We managed to escape (with lots of hints from the Clue-Master) with over three minutes to spare!

I'm not going to give anything away because it would be a lot less fun for anyone who wants to try it to know much in advance, but I will mention a few general things, and some that were unique to our experience.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Now What?

It's taken some time since election night to get my thoughts in order.

Watching the returns made me panicky.  The next morning I felt ill.  For the most part over the past several weeks I've gone back and forth between trying to stay informed (which alarms me with each new headline) and avoiding the news (which preserves my sanity and any good faith I have left toward my fellow citizens).

Donald Trump is the new president of the United States.  This says some unflattering things about ourselves as a nation, and reveals some important truths we must come to grips with.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Luna Moth Dream

If I really wanted this blog to be entertaining I would simply write about my brothers all the time.  Either of them is an easy go-to topic for me at parties because there are endless interesting stories available, and in case I'm in a situation where the company is boring, talking about Arno or Barrett keeps me amused.  I love them and could not have asked for kinder, funnier, or more intelligent siblings.

Arno is a neuroscientist who currently works at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.  He always talks to me about his work as if I'm a knowledgeable colleague, which is flattering, but consequently I have no clear idea what he does.  The bits I can follow are fascinating, and he does important research that will improve people's lives, but don't ask me to explain any of it.

But this post relates to a project coordinated by my other brother.  The baby of the family by four minutes, Barrett is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse where he specializes in entomology and insect sleep research.  He's also a talented artist who has done lots of model making and scientific illustration, and he is particularly interested in cultural entomology which is where insects meet art.

Last year he commissioned 30 artists to make small books with the theme "Insect Dreams."  He was generous enough to invite me to participate, and despite the limits on my time there are moments when an intense little project is a good distraction from other things so I recently buckled down over a weekend and made my contribution.

Want to see?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who We Want to Be

When I was in high school I remember walking out of a local grocery store past a man collecting donations.  He may have been a Shriner, and he asked me as I stepped through the door if I would, "Help the retarded* children?" and having no change on me I simply said, "No" and walked on.  But then I felt terrible.  What kind of person was I that I didn't want to help the retarded children?  Wouldn't a decent human being go find some change to give that man?  I nearly cried I felt so guilty.  I felt guilty enough I obviously still remember it to this day.
[*please see the comments]

Of course, this is kind of silly because we are bombarded with requests from all levels of charity all the time.  Most of us don't want to live the kind of life where we give everything away, but each of us needs to find a balance where we maintain the life we want while still sacrificing for others.

The part of this that interests me is the narrative we tell ourselves about how good we are or want to be.  Feeling sad about "the retarded children" is not the same as actually helping them, although it can feel that way.  Being sad about it makes me a good person, right?  Not really.  It's only the potential for good.  Without action it's not tested or true.  It's fine in your head to decide you approve of helping others, but if you don't do something with that feeling it makes the same impact on the world as if in your head you loathed the idea.  It's great to make up your mind to be against racism or bigotry or sexism or cruelty, and another for that to become real.

The problem for me is day to day life is busy with mundane activities and I'm exposed to the same situations and people over and over.  Most of our time is consumed by little bits of necessary routine, such as getting dressed and brushing our teeth and moving around dishes and laundry.  Being a parent means managing other people's daily routines as well, which often feels like falling behind while simply trying to stay one step ahead so appointments aren't missed and things are signed and everyone is fed.  There is a lot to do just to feel like we're even treading water rather than going under, let alone moving forward.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Dear Child of Mine

You are beautiful and talented and smart and amazing and funny and kind and the world is better for having you in it.

You are right when you say I think those things because I am your mom.  But it's not because I am blinded by my love or exaggerating your worth because you are mine.

My love means I see you with greater clarity, not less.  I have studied you since before you took your first breath.  I have watched you grow and change, and I remember you before you remember yourself.  I care enough to examine you to a degree of detail unmatched by anyone.  I know you, I see you, and I adore you.

I'm sorry the backlash against using the word "special" in our society has robbed you of the chance to rightly own it.  I'm sorry there have been other parents who somehow labeled their children special while equating it with entitlement, and without tempering it with the idea of humility and respect for others.  They have tainted the word and made it unfairly wrong to use earnestly.

But you are special.  And worthy.  And loved.

If I could have anything on this day, it would be for you to see yourself the way I see you.  Then you would know how right you would be to love yourself too.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Looking Back on the 2016 VSA Convention

Before the past year slips too far from memory I want to take a moment to reflect upon the VSA convention I attended back in November.  It was quite an experience and I'm very glad I got to go.

2016 was a competition year.  The Violin Society of America (VSA) has an annual convention that moves around the country, and every other year they hold a competition for violin making with awards for workmanship and tone.  This year I entered my latest commissioned violin.

Renaissance Hotel, Cleveland
The convention was in Cleveland again.  I drove myself out there, and shared the drive back with my friend Robyn.  I loved having a few days alone in a hotel room where the bed magically got made every day and new towels just appeared.  (There are few things I envy the rich for, but maid service is one of them.)  I also enjoyed Robyn's company the last few days of the convention and sharing a room with someone who didn't need me for anything other than occasional grown-up conversations.