Monday, February 27, 2017

Conversations with the Almighty

Part of my Introduction to Judaism class that I have really appreciated is the requested reading. They don't really have required reading: just a list of books that they suggest that you read. In addition, each Rabbi has resources that they present to show us interesting ideas that develop whichever point they're presenting that week. I'm currently in the middle of a book called "What Do Jews Believe?" By David Ariel. Between that and the class materials, I came to a startling conclusion (for me): prayer, as a thing, is not about Gd. Prayer, as a thing, is about me. Gd doesn't need me to pray because His ego needs the validation.

I know, right? That is an amazing conclusion. That is even more amazing if you know me (and, gentle reader, at this point you probably should know me pretty well): EVERYTHING is about me. That's how I'm built. So, what took me so long to figure this out?

Prayer as a vehicle for personal affirmation and personal development is obviously not restricted to Judaism. I do understand that, and I am not denigrating any particular faith's made of prayer. I think you guys get this. I'm pretty sure that my grad school roommate and I had this exact discussion on several different occasions. Okay, AB, it took me twenty years to figure this out.

I love the concept of prayer as an affirmation of intent and as a reminder of the million little blessings with which we live on a daily basis. The second part, first: how many amazing things happen on a regular basis, that we just ignore? This morning, I had an amazing cup of coffee first thing upon waking. My oldest son had hopped into bed with us because he had a nightmare; how amazing is it, that we can provide support to him when he is fearful? I listened to an engaging podcast on my to work in the Cinemasins podcast. How many great things had to happen, to bring these friends together to create the Cinemasins YouTube channel, which spun off onto a podcast? Not to mention the whole thing of YouTube.... but you get the point. The rabbis talk about saying 100 blessings in a day, and this is a part of it: finding ways to be thankful for our little miracles and to find new little miracles to notice along the way.

This is something that I've tried to do for years and years and years. I have grown to like the concept of prayer as a vehicle to find these things. I think that I'm pretty good at finding these miracles regularly, although they mostly center around my children: The Boy's amazing growth as a trombone player; the sound of the ball off of Little Bear's bat; listening to The Baby read a book out loud to himself. Lately, though, I've been bogged down by worldly concerns: my own health issues, problems at work, and an unrelenting schedule in life. The concept of working to find 100 blessings in a day, to say 100 prayers through the course of a day, is a really neat goal.

The other thing has been a larger sticking point with me: prayer as an affirmation of intent or a request for assistance. Praying for strength. Praying for the ability to get a hit or make a pitch (or for your 7-year old to succeed). Praying that a cough will stop, or that our car will stop making that funny noise. I think this is the more common expression, and it always stuck in my craw. Why does Gd need to hear from me in those situations? How would this great, unknowable, powerful force of the universe need my little prayer or wish?

Well, he doesn't. Never did. Never will. It isn't about him.

My reframing (of my own issue) is that my racer is an expression to Gd of how I intend to behave. When I pray for strength, it's my intention to behave strongly and to persevere through the hardship in front of me. When I pray for success in an interview, I intend to do my research, find a great outfit, talk to the people for advice, get a decent night's sleep, and present myself as best as I can. Gd doesn't need that, but I do. As a human being, I feel better and more confident when I make a public pronouncement of my intentions. If I say often and loudly that I intend to behave like a good person, then I feel like I'm more likely to do so. (At this point, I do not need examples of the people who are hyper religious and vocal about it, but are complete d bags. I'm aware of them. This isn't about the flaws surrounding organized religion.)

As far as the petition for help thing goes, I'm not entirely sure about that. This is the start of my journey, not its conclusion (I hope). I believe that there is comfort available in asking for support and asking for help, even if the form in which help arrives isn't the form you expect. We prayed for help when The Boy got sick; who knew that the help we needed would lead us to selling our house (and getting lucky when the frozen ground prevented them from being able to further test the inground oil tank), living with our inlaws in Pittsburgh, where we got lucky enough to be noticed at our synagogue to a point where The Wife was asked to sing at services, a path which lead her to be the cantorial soloist and me to my journey into Judaism? (...and the banking industry, but that's why stereotypes are a thing.) The direct call for help - if The Boy would have been "lay Gd's hands on him" healed, then our path and careers likely would not be what they are now. To be honest, I'm happier and more fulfilled than I ever felt as a teacher. Gd is there, and he does help us, but life and his help are more different than we can imagine.

In short, I am in favor this whole prayer thing. I'm looking forward to more explanation and consideration as time continues.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Love St,Pittsburgh,United States

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How was your VD?

One of my co-workers asked me that this morning, which I found absolutely hysterical. I knew what he meant (how was your valentine's day?) immediately, but I appreciated the pun.

The Wife and I have a great relationship and very busy lives. Since she's a worship leader and a choir (x2) director, most of her actual work is during the times when I'm not at work. This makes for a great child-rearing situation (as one of us is almost always available to do parent things), but not such a great situation when it comes to scripting events to fall on specific days of a month. We don't get hung up on making sure that Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14, in other words. It's not urgent that our anniversary, or either of our birthdays, are celebrated on that specific calendar day, because most of the time, that's not feasible.

VD this year was on a Tuesday. I have vocal therapy at 5:45; the boys had group classes from 5 until 6:30 (back-to-back, cello then both violins). I met The Wife at home, she dropped the boys off, then hopped into the car for orchestra practice. I went to bed late last night (was having a bit of an existential crisis at bedtime, which is a thing that happens to me relatively regularly), but I was still asleep by 10:45 or so; she was home from orchestra around 10:20 in enough time to say good night and get some of her synagogue work done.

It's an interesting thing, now that I'm thinking about it, that we've agreed to move pretty much every non-religious holiday to whatever day winds up suiting us the best. I mean, the religious holidays happen when they happen, whether they're work days (like Rosh Hoshanah or Yom Kippur) or family days (like Channukah or Passover). You can't move them around. But the rest of them, we can keep the spirit alive when we are actually able to celebrate.

Monday, we're going to have a nice, romantic date.... in the morning, after we get the kids to school. I don't have work, but the kids do have school (their semester break was two weeks ago). We'll go to brunch somewhere in town and spend a nice morning together. There might even be a nap involved. (That's not a euphemism. I actually mean that sleep is likely to occur.) That's because we enjoy living the high life like that.

For our birthdays and anniversaries, same thing. During her birthday last year, I was away, so we celebrated three weeks earlier when I went with my chorus to Boston. It was a wonderful weekend together! For my birthday, I'm fairly sure that Little Bear had a baseball game; so I went to work, then went to baseball afterwards. I honestly could not have imagined a more pleasurable way to spend my day. Let's see what this year will bring. Honestly, probably more baseball. Maybe some violin and cello playing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Good News, Bad News

So, the three-months-and-counting coughing jag that I'm on is the gift that keeps on giving: aside from the weeks of time lost to bed rest and the literal thousands of dollars spent on medical care (thank you insanely-high-deductible-health-care-plan), my voice has taken an excessive pounding from the constant abuse of coughing. Two weeks ago, I went in for vocal testing at the Voice Center at Mercy Hospital, and I'm happy to say that there isn't any damage. Of course, there are issues and exhaustion and such; but everything's functioning the way they're supposed to function. I also got a couple of cool pictures of my voice box, but that's a side benefit.

It's a good thing that I don't work in a phone center or anything, or that I'm not a singer or anything. Otherwise having beat-up vocal cords would be really awkward. Oops.

The end result of the examination was the recommendation of vocal therapy, because my mechanism and how I use it was all fudged up and backwards. I just finished my third session tonight.

Good news: no structural damage.

Bad news: still pretty beat up, and everything that I've been doing, I've been doing backwards and in such a way that it's added tension to my vocal production.

Good news: I've been teaching it the right way, even using most of the same terminology and imagery that my voice therapist uses.

Bad news: How I've chosen to provide examples for groups of people in front of me (read: a chorus) has given me tons and tons of bad habits and bad practices.

Good news: I love my vocal therapist. He's starting me from the beginning, with easy-to-understand and gentle-to-use exercises to get me through the areas I need to pursue.

Bad news: I'm starting over, from the very beginning, which is frustrating as hell for somebody with a master's degree in music that has been a professional singer as recently as a few months ago.

Good news: maybe, if I'm ever in a speaking profession again, I can avoid the annual "week without a voice" in the middle of October.

Bad news: Because they didn't find anything weird or anything wrong, we're back to the drawing board with the cause of my current coughing other than "hyper-sensitivity," which is annoying as f***.

Good news: taking the relative vocal rest of not directing a chorus at this point, and not singing in a chorus, and not needing to sing professionally all give me the luxury of starting over and forming good habits.

I'm still struggling with a lot of personal demons in regards to this: the source of the physical tension I'm carrying around; the psychological burden of knowing that next December, we go through this all over again; trying to figure out how - if - when I'll start to sing again; is it WORTH it, for me to go through this, considering that we don't really need my singing voice for much around the house these days? I'll figure it out, though. I'm off to a good start.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Summer Plans?

The frightening is that, as the kids get older, the summers fill up quicker and more definitively. When they were younger, everything was based around our schedules: when do we need them to be watched so that we can do work-type things? Now, it's putting the puzzles together to make a comprehensive whole.

The Boy is doing a couple of weeks of J&R Camp, which is the day camp run by the JCC. Fun, games, swimming, songs, that sort of thing. He's doing a week of technology camp, and a week of gymnastics camp. Probably. Little Bear is doing Color Wars camp, technology camp, a week or two of baseball camp, soccer camp, and something undefined as of yet. The Baby is doing 5 weeks or so of J&R, and maybe a week of baseball camp, and maybe a week of gymnastics camp. There's also the potential for a week of "Cello Fury" camp - which is not open for just cellists, but for all string players. It's like a rock'n'roll camp for orchestra people.

Oh, and The Wife is traveling a week to Cincinnati for a worship music festival, and another week for a youth choral festival for the Hazamir chorus. One of those weeks - the shorter one that she's away - I'm taking off from work to spend some time with the boys (if their camp schedule allows). The other one, they're booked with before & after care to minimize the amount of downtime from work.

Also, we'd like to travel somewhere, if we can afford it this year. We're thinking about Colonial Williamsburg, because the boys have been so into Hamilton and the revolutionary war period. Maybe we spend a day or two there, spend a day at Yorktown, and hit any other revolutionary sites we can. (Where's Washington's home in Virginia?)

Also, there's the summer baseball schedule that Little Bear and The Baby will be playing - mostly Friday nights, Saturday days, and Sunday mornings (Sunday afternoons if we make "the playoffs" in any given tournament). I can't say that we will make the playoffs - but, I know the kids in our team, and I can't say that we WON'T, this year. It's going to be a GREAT year!

All of a sudden, those 10 weeks of summer vacation start shrinking really, really quickly. Remember when things used to be easy? I know that, in ten years, it'll be an entirely different kind of high-school crazy. Ten years after that, it'll be different as well, and then - if we're blessed with grandchildren - it starts over again. Thank G-d for grandparents and aunts & uncles who can help us send these kids to all the cool camps!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Incremental Practice

Over the course of my life, I've learned the value of slow, incremental practice. Take a phrase, one measure at a time. Learn to play it at 50 beats per minute, with as much perfection (articulation, dynamics, tuning) as possible. When it's mastered at that speed, increase the speed to 60 or so. Do it again. Put it away until tomorrow. The next day, do it at 50; then 60; then 65. 65 then 70. 70 then 75. After three weeks, when you've worked your way slowly to the final tempo of 100 beats per minute, you literally know of no other way to play the music than with perfection. Walter, the conductor with whom I played in December, said to me, "It sounds just like the score says!"

(...putting aside for the moment that, as a saxophonist, it's a surprise when I perform what's on the score...)

This is how music is learned, and how high levels of proficiency are achieved. It's not about being able to play a piece of music at a thousand beats per minute right away; it's having the patience to practice perfection, over and over and over and over again, for years at a time. I honestly gave up regular practice on my instrument in 2010 for that reason: I wasn't willing to devote the time to practicing to perfection. The concert this December was such a joy because I was able to devote the time to learning those pieces of music to a level that I haven't reached in some time. It's why I walked away from my chorus in July: I wasn't willing or able, any more, to demand the time and effort that I needed to refine my skills highly enough to stand in front of my chorus. They deserve someone who can put THEM first. I need to take that time, right now, to helping little boys practice their things, and do their homework, and play their sports.

Which leads me to a realization that I hit, about a month or so ago: baseball is exactly like music in that regards. Sports, as a whole, is like music in that way.

That's a HUGE realization. Sports, if played at a competitive and satisfying level, are exactly like music: both have a huge variety of skills that need to be developed and rigorously practiced over a period of years and years and years. Both have a level of artistry at their top: it is easy to look at a Mike Trout home run swing or Andleton Simmons field a backhand ground ball and make the throw to first and see the dance and the art inherent in the game.

Of course, I made this realization at the same time that I got sick and was flat on my back for five weeks. So, my attempts to make baseball a part of our daily practice sessions fell quickly to the wayside. When Daddy can't really stand up for long enough to set up the hitting net, then it's not going to get used. I've been in a much better place, health-wise, for about two weeks now, but I"m still pretty tender and prone to fatigue. I'm determined to take better care of myself and to avoid this as much as possible next December, but I digress.

This has lead me to wonder where the line between talent and training is, in sports. I think it's something that is more clearly defined than in music: after all, the head-to-head battles in sports are public, frequent, and scored carefully and relatively objectively. Still, I'm interested in our little experiment: if Little Bear and/or The Baby play baseball regularly, and if we practice the baseball equivalent of scales and vibrato exercises and etudes, then how far can they get as players? High school? College? How far do they WANT to get?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Baseball Season

If I've done one thing right as a parent, it's how I've managed to get the children up and moving as often as they do. Frankly, it's a selfish thing: I'm terrified of getting fat and old, so I want to be up and moving as often as possible. That makes it easy to motivate myself to get moving instead of parking on the couch and picking up the Playstation controller. The fact is, Little Bear (in particular) needs to move his body in order for his brain to start working. So, two birds and one stone, and all of that.

The other two usually do a pretty decent job of coming outside to spend time with me (particularly when threatened to leave the house). If I'm throwing with Little Bear, they'll grab a mitt and throw with us. This has lead The Boy to re-discover joy in baseball, as per the story from September of Little Bear's team needing BOTH The Boy and The Baby in order to avoid forfeiting the game. We made have lost the game, ultimately, but The Boy had an RBI groundout and made a nice stop at third base, and The Baby played a decent outfield and got on base via hit-by-pitch.

So, imagine my joy when all three boys said that they wanted to play baseball in the spring! Mazel tov all around.

Friday afternoon was the first practice of the spring, at the Shadyside Boys and Girls Club. They have a beautiful indoor baseball facility, with a couple of batting cages, a full size pitcher's mound, and an area for fly balls and throwing and such. We had about a dozen kids show up, and they fielded ground balls, did some throwing, caught some flies, hit off a tee, and hit some soft toss. It was a great night! I really like the kids that participate in the Squirrel Hill Baseball League, and - even more - I love and appreciate my fellow coaches. There's a strong understanding of baseball as a GAME: important, yes, but not as important as having fun, playing well, and making friends.

The Boy did quite well. His hitting is rusty, but it'll get there. He throws well, and he catches much better than he did last year at this time. The Baby has a strong arm, even if it's more scattershot than he would prefer. His batting isn't as natural as Little Bear's, but it's strong and enthusiastic. Little Bear is a star in the making: hard working, good form, good feet, great arm. He's learned a new batting stance this winter at Training Kamp, which is taking some time to master, but he'll get there.

Lots of Fitbit steps involved in baseball: catching, throwing, running, jogging to base coach spots... running down the outfield line to give advice and instructions to the kids in the field. Those kids, though.... they make it fun. It's a great group this year, and an even better set of men & women coaching them. Spring is arriving!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Waterless Wednesday

So, today, I was supposed to work at home. Little Bear had his orthopedics appointment, so The Wife would take him. I'd escort 1 & 3 to the bus stop, then work the remainder of the day at home. My manager has been very generous with letting me work at home on Wednesdays, to save my lungs from new carpet fumes. Anyway, he wasn't able to be in office, so plans changed. I'd take Little Bear to his appointment, then to school, and she'd take care of the others.

Then, we got notification on Tuesday night that our water was compromised. Flush & boil, they said; and that's what we've done. School was closed today, because they didn't have the ability to deal with the lack of potable water. I took Little Bear to his appointment, as planned, but things deviated; he came back with me to work, because I couldn't take him to school. He hung out for a few minutes while we waited for The Wife to pick him up on her way back from the south side of town and some unavoidable errands. He's a cute kid and very well mannered, so he made himself quiet while at work. He chatted about sports with my big boss, Pokemon cards with my friend Chris, and raided my food stores at my desk. In other words, behaved exactly like he worked there.

At the end of the day, like usual, the boys had Hebrew School at Rodef. The Wife brings 1 & 2, and she hangs out with 3 and prepares for her choir rehearsal. The Baby and I usually walk from Rodef to the comic book store, and we'll stop for a snack at Starbucks (which was closed because of the water issue) or Quiznos (which wasn't) for the walk back. Tonight, instead of coffee and a cake pop, we got a cookie and a soda.

After our walk, I sit with The Wife for a few minutes. It's one of the few times during the work week that she and I get to sit with each other, and I treasure that time. She's a cool lady, you know? I take the boys home afterwards, and I serve them dinner from the crock pot. Little Bear practices while I'm getting dinner ready, and after dinner the other two practice. If we have time - tonight, we didn't, because The Boy decided to be obnoxious and earned himself some upstairs-in-his-room-to-get-himself-together time - we'll watch something short, like the Simpsons.

The house is quiet. I like it quiet. I'm probably going to pour myself a small drink as a reward for making it through 60% of my week unscathed.


Progress report: made it back from December 31 to August 29. That's 1/4 of the year, in about two and a half weeks.


I'm not sure if you're the praying type, but good things might be happening. Think good thoughts for Friday.