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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Two Barbershop Stories

First one sad, second one funny.

My friend George Bailey passed away over the weekend. He was in his 90's, so - while we mourn the loss of a friend in our lives - we can celebrate a man who lived a long, full life; had a big, loving family; made wonderful music; and had many friends who loved him dearly. George sang enthusiastically for many, many years, and even got to sing a couple of songs with his favorite quartet (Gimme Four) a couple of days before he passed. He was a sweet guy who always asked about The Boy's health and about me when he saw my father; he went to mass every day, and he always said a special prayer for The Boy's health. It was an honor to know him, to sing with him, and to have directed him in chorus.

Today, my father's Valentine's Day quartet was rehearsing. They are doing Singing Valentines - pay your $50 or so, and a quartet will go to your S.O.'s place, sing a song or two, and gift a rose. Dad and three of his buddies do this every year as a fund raiser for the chorus. This was their first rehearsal, and it was at Dad's house. Anyway, they were singing, and they hit a pungent chord - just an out-of-tune stinker. (Not an expression of judgment - we all do it occasionally. Barbershop is a human art.) And, apparently at the same time, the picture of me tipped and fell over, as a response to the chord. Therefore, I was scolding them from 360 miles away.

That's awesome, and it made my night that Dad told me that.


Today I had a great sit-down with my Rabbi, and a great first session of vocal therapy. I need processing time for both, and I'm not in an emotional place to process it right now. I'll figure it out and let you know.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Reading time

I'm starting to mandate more "family reading time," particularly now that The Baby is starting to read independently. It's called, turn off the devices, take out a book, and spend an uninterrupted fifteen to thirty minutes just reading.

It's good for the soul.

My reading time is different than it used to be. I'm making an honest effort to advance to my Jewish studies by reading religious-style books; I'm currently working through "Gates of Shabbat," which is a description of how to have various religious events in the sanctity of the home and how to adopt various events into the fabric of home life. I'm also working my way through a Reform Responsa book, written by Rabbi Jacobs, which is a set of question and answer style writings about various religious interpretations from a reform jewish perspective. Tonight, I read about the "official" feelings in a mixed marriage, when a parent decides to baptize a child out of spite after an acrimonious split.

Baptism as a weapon: not just a Simpsons theme. Circumcision as a weapon? The mind boggles.

Don't get me wrong; I've managed to find time to re-read Warren Ellis's "Planetary" series last month, and I just finished the first three volumes of the most recent Batman series. One needs some dessert to go with a main course.

The Boy is an easy mark when it comes to reading. He loves it. His only difficulty is choosing which particular book to read. He loves Little Bear's baseball lessons, because it gives him unrestricted access to a library for an hour and a half. I'm certain that the librarians love him, because he's honestly enthusiastic over everything literary! Of course, Calvin & Hobbes and Peanuts are big features, as is Big Nate, the Captain Underpants books, and the Secret Series by "Psuedonyminous Bosch."

The Baby sometimes likes reading small people books (like Elephant and Piggy), sometimes likes paging through a comic book (we're big fans of Art and Franco's stuff - Teeny Tiny Titans, and Superman Family Adventures, and Super Powers), sometimes through  level 1 or level 2 readers, like the Empire Strikes Back book he got for Channukah.

Little Bear, though, is a greater challenge. He's more interested in Pokemon cards and sports to read, and I've even had issues getting him to crack open a sports book. I've bought a couple of the Matt Christopher sports stories, which he hasn't read yet since Channukah. He's read one of the Derek Jeter kids' books and enjoyed it; and he's done 1.5 Harry Potter books. He likes stories, and he's a good reader, he's just a physically active kid that doesn't like sitting in one place and reading. We'll get him, though.


Broken pinky update: he had no issues at baseball practice on Saturday with the fielding days. He did basketball on Sunday, with a think padded wrap on his hand and strict instructions not to use his left hand; he scored one basket en route to a 22-12 loss. Ortho appointment on Wednesday morning, and we'll see. Baseball practice with the 7 & 8 year old team on Friday, and baseball lessons on Saturday, which is a hitting day. I'm interested to see what happens.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


Saturdays, we rest. Sort of. We will generally bum around the house until about 8 or 8:30, when I'll motivate the children to clean up something in the house: their room, or the living room, or the kitchen, or somewhere that they have contributed the lion's share of the mess. Today, it was their room. Little Bear clean while The Boy and The Baby were screwing around; when we left the house, the two boys did not get our usual Sunday donut treat. They were warned, and I'm mean like that. If you don't at least meet me half way, you're out of luck. They had an hour to do 25 minutes of work, and it didn't get done.

This winter, Little Bear is taking baseball lessons at the Training Kamp site, which is part of the Athletic Club at the Carnegie Library in Homestead. The Carnegie Library in Homestead is not your typical local library: it's got a nice library, for sure, but it also has an 800-ish seat concert hall (where The Wife and I saw Kevin Smith a few years ago), an indoor pool, and I think there's a weight room in the building somewhere. There are also definitely some dance studios. So, not your typical place.

I'll get into Training Kamp later; suffice it to say, we love it.

So, Little Bear's lessons are 10:30-12:00 on Saturday mornings, from the beginning of October until the end of March. They work on footwork, glove drills, ball handling drills, swinging off a tee, hand position on the bat, turning the barrel the right way, that sort of thing. Tiny, detail-oriented items that, normally, it's hard to find time to do during the actual season.

The Boy loves it, because I let him go (by himself) upstairs to the library. He checks out a few books, and sits and reads them, or he plays his school math game on the computer (he's number one in the third grade at his school). The Baby hangs out with me and plays on my iPad, usually, or plays with some toys or books on days like today, when his lack of cleaning denied him the right to play on a device.

After, we went home, and I prepared a quick lunch while the boys cleaned off the kitchen table. The Wife came home and finished lunch with the boys, while I went upstairs and took a quick nap. We swapped places after an hour, and The Boy and I played our game.

My New Year's Resolution was to find some video gaming time with The Boy. Not competitive, but cooperative gaming time. This year, we're working on the Simpsons game from 2007. It's a fun platform puzzler, and there are funny situations in which the Simpsons get involved.

After that, we watched some television, and Grandma and Grandpa picked the boys up to take them out to dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year (with sushi). The Wife and I stayed home; she worked on a music project, and I watched "Max Max: Fury Road." After we picked the boys up, I finished the movie, and here I am.

This was a nice, relaxing Saturday. I didn't crack 4,000 steps on my fitbit, and it's almost 11 PM. I haven't historically been used to that; but, since my body decided to entirely fail on a regular basis since Thanksgiving, I've been forced to take days like today. Tomorrow, with my normal morning exercise and with the boys' basketball games and The Wife's multiple rehearsals, life gets back to normal.

I wonder if this is what a regular shabbat is like - a day of rest. Kind of boring. Baseball season starts at the end of March, so things will get interesting soon.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Progress Towards Goal

This morning, which was my 7th weight workout since I resumed exercising post-illness, I actually started to add real weight to my exercises. Prior to today, I was doing very light weights, to prepare myself and allow myself to ease back into a rigorous exercise routine. It was a nice feeling this morning: while I'm nowhere close to where I was in November (pre-illness), I took a baby step back towards getting where I want to be.

When I was cleaning up for work, I was realizing exactly how many things that we, as a family, do that consists of tiny steps towards a larger goal - or simply for the sake of improving something. The boys practice their instruments daily: they get home from school, do their homework, practice their instruments, eat dinner. It's just part of the everyday routine, and we build it into their schedule. Even if they don't have time to do a full, thorough practice session, we still do a little bit to make sure that something makes positive progress. The boys' reading is the same way: they're asked to read on a daily basis, which is easy for The Boy and easy (somewhat) for The Baby. Little Bear still struggles with making the time, even though he is an exceptional reader.

For me, I've got a bunch of things on which I'm working: writing in the blog; reading books for my Jewish class on Thursday nights; organizing our family photos on the iMac; before I got sick, playing my saxophone again. It's a lot, and there are plenty of nights (like after my class on Thursday) when I realize I won't be able to get to everything. The trick, for me, is to pick up right where I left off and not let it entirely derail me.

The one that's the hardest, ironically, is the one I've being doing the longest: practicing saxophone. I really do enjoy playing, and my experience playing saxophone with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra (that's The Wife's group, with whom she has been playing since we moved out here) in December was sublime. I really liked the people in the orchestra, and I enjoyed playing for the director, Walter Morales. He's a neat musician and an engaging conductor: he's very easy to watch and to follow, and the emotions he wants are very clear.

I really miss(ed) playing my instrument - waaaay more than I realized. After my first rehearsal, I actually had to sit in the car for about 5 minutes and collect myself: I was literally shaking with adrenaline and emotion! It was a nice, albeit overwhelming, feeling. The practice and preparation for playing the piece (Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite) was rewarding and fun. After the concert, I drew up a practice plan for myself to try to keep myself engaged in playing: scales and such, and finally re-attack the Glasunov Saxophone Concerto for the first time in almost 20 years. But G-d had other plans, and I got sick and spent most of the next month lying on a chair, coughing a LOT.

Careening off topic, tomorrow morning is my vocal scope at the Voice Center at Mercy Hospital. They're going to stick a camera down my throat and see if there are any triggers in my vocal folds for my coughing. In a weird way, I hope that they DO find something wrong - even if it's untreatable, because then I'd know what's been causing this ceaseless cough, because it isn't really typical asthma. The good news is, the cough had been going away but has returned in full force. Hooray. Just in time.

Hm. I need to re-attack this topic, of baby steps and tiny bits of work. I got off topic pretty quickly. I'll get there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Historically, I've never been a religious person. My father is a religious man, and we went to church every week when I was growing up. I never felt particularly connected to our church; the kids in my school went to the Catholic church on the other side of town, and the kids in our church already knew each other from school. The people were very nice, but church was a chore. My honest strong memory is getting kicked out of a special Sunday school service in 1986 so I could go home and listen to the World Series on the radio - which I don't know if it was a real memory, because I don't know what day of the week it was and I can't really imagine that the game was early enough to make a difference. I've tried, at various points, to connect with the faith into which I was born, and it's never worked. I was a paid member of a couple different church choirs, which isn't really the same thing as attending services; I would not have gone (and didn't go) when I wasn't paid.

Long story short, I'm walking away from my Christian roots. I stopped identifying myself as a Christian several years ago, and this past September, I began taking classes at Rodef Shalom (our family synagogue) which will ultimately result in conversion to the Jewish faith. Once I'm done with my classes and complete the other required items, I will officially be a Jewish man.

It's taken me a long time to figure out why my feelings have developed. I've met truly delightful and caring people everywhere I've met, and the people with whom I've sung in church choir (and the ministers and reverends for whom I've sung) have been amazing people. I have nothing but respect and love for them (my St. Peter's Choir picture - with whom I spent three great years - hangs in a prominent place in my singing wall), but that isn't where my heart lies.

Ultimately, the biggest difference, to me, is the focus on this life instead of the next one. I love the concept of "tikkun olam:" "Heal the world." Doing good, and making things better, because it's the right thing to do; not because of the threat of hell and reward of heaven. Doing good is its own reward. I love that our leaders are active in making the world a better place. I love that my wife fights and marches and calls and petitions and works hard to improve things.

I like how being Jewish isn't just a thing that I do on Sunday mornings. It's lighting candles on Friday night; it's making Saturdays special. It's eating a specific way, because it's a sign of my commitment to G-d (and this one, I'm going to have a problem with - I love bacon, and Taylor ham is one of the primary reasons I go back to New Jersey - but I'll figure it out). It's Sunday school, and Hebrew school for the kids, and reading and studying things in my new faith, and learning lots more songs to sing, and - eventually - reading Torah in the original Hebrew. It's lots of holidays that revolve around the concept: "They tried to kill us; they failed; let's eat."

I like our Jewish community; I like how so many of our activities and friends revolve around our synagogue, from baseball to weekend time to youth activities to preschool and so on. When The Wife and I were discussing how to raise our children, I stated that, if we were going to bother pursuing religion for our children and our family, that we were going to find a community and dive in. When we got to Pittsburgh, we found an amazing community of people at Rodef Shalom. It made it easy to dive in. The fact that The Wife started working there later was icing on the cake; we found a home when we started pre-school.

I hope my friends won't read this as a criticism of their beliefs. That's not my intention. I'm certainly not saying that people of other faiths don't make the world a better place, and I'm not naive enough to think that my newly chosen faith is perfect. We're all human, and anything human is, by definition, imperfect. Still, it's the right fit for me, and I've been a happier human being since I made the commitment to go down this path.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Giving Me The Finger

Saturday was an amazing spring day, stuck right in the middle of the winter. It was 65 degrees and a little damp; it had rained for most of the week. We made plans to go to the ball field to throw some, catch with a mitt, and hit in the cage; if we could get onto the field, so much the better. The Wife packed three baseball bags and 7 or 8 mitts, a handful of balls, a big box of granola bars, a case of juice boxes, and some bottles of water into the car, and - after my nap - we went to Frick Park / Lederman Field.

The cool thing was that there were a host of people with the exact same idea: no fewer than six baseball families came to the park to hit, throw, and catch. I played catch with The Baby, who does a nice job catching with the glove if you can throw it high enough that palm-up catching is impossible. He throws with his left hand (made him learn that, because he wouldn't commit to writing with one hand until fairly late) with some accuracy. Little Bear caught for a few minutes before wandering off to join a football game on an adjacent blacktop. I caught with some of the other kids that were there, and one of the other dads threw a ton of batting practice.

The Baby is coming along nicely with his swing. He'll be able to smack a few good hits this summer, I'm sure. The Boy is getting back into shape: he has a nice swing, and he's reasonably athletic, but he's out of practice.

I like the people who play with the Squirrel Hill Baseball League. They're good people, and they understand the game, and they understand that it's about the kids. Of course they want to win, because they want to provide a fun time with the young people; but it is not winning at the expense of learning, camaraderie, and playing good, hard baseball. This fall, I'll have Little Bear playing "D2" ball, which is kid-pitch, 8-10 year old baseball; The Boy has decided to come back and play as well, which is GREAT!!! The Baby will be playing coach-pitch Junior Pirates. The Baby and Little Bear will be playing for the 7 & under tournament team, assuming The Baby makes it (I figure he will, because - at minimum - we always need people to play on Saturdays because of the Shomer Shabbos families). Little Bear will also play for the 8's. I'm not sure which his "home" team will be; we'll figure that out when we need to.

So, we hit around, and we threw around, and we spent a great afternoon at the park, until I saw Little Bear standing by a tree holding his left hand and wincing. Turns out, one of the kids punted the ball into the air, and Little Bear decided to make a jumping circus catch on the asphalt. The tip of the football caught his left pinky, and it started to swell almost immediately.You know what that means: a likely trip to the emergency room at Children's Hospital. Sigh.

The finger is problematical, as everything he does requires 10 good fingers: cello, baseball practice, etc. We iced it all night, and wrapped it up as soon as possible. When it had swollen to twice its normal size on Sunday morning, he and I dropped his brothers at Sunday school and visited the ER at Children's.

Long story reduced to medium length, he went for x-rays, and the scans were inconclusive. They think there's a shadow or an angle on the finger, but they can't be certain that it's an actual break. Their instructions were to keep it in a splint and wait a few days; if it still hurt, then call orthopedics and make an appointment. So, he rested all day yesterday.

Good sportsman award: he chose to go to basketball, still, and sit on the bench and cheer his team. I'm really proud that he did that; he didn't have to, and he could have stayed home and sulked. His teammates appreciated it, and the coaches were all very nice and sympathetic to him.

Day two didn't go as easy: he had off from school and had some friends over, and he was not as gentle as he should be. Sigh.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ninja Warrior

Have you every watched the show "American Ninja Warrior?" Or, better yet: the original Ninja Warrior show from earlier this century (...still feels weird to type that...) from Japan, which was frequently played on the now-defunct G4 channel? They make this crazy, crazy obstacle course, that takes near-superhuman strength and stamina to complete, and run a whole bunch of people through it. After four stages (the last of which is a direct vertical rope climb), any "survivors" who complete the courses are crowned the American Ninja Warrior and win a jillion dollars or something. The Wife and I used to watch the show whenever it was on, and I rediscovered it this spring. The Boy, in particular, was entirely captivated.

This was a BIG DEAL, by the by. The Boy has not, historically, been a particularly attentive athlete. Little Bear is an athlete and hyper-competitive: find a group of people with a ball of some sort, and he'll be right in the middle. Doesn't matter how old or young the group is, he's there. The Baby is still little, but he trends towards the social: he likes being around people, and he will do what he needs to do to find friends and play with them.

The Boy has not been motivated to be particularly active, particularly since he discovered books and discovered that his doting parents will allow him to read any thing at any time, just about. When we would go to the playground, he would bring a book with him and sit on a bench or sit on the merry go-round or sit on a swing and read patiently until it was time to go home.

That changed immediately upon discovering American Ninja Warrior. This show captured his imagination like nothing athletic has before. He began to pester us to build an American Ninja Warrior obstacle or two in our backyard (which is nowhere near big enough for something like that, not to mention that nothing in my history would indicate that I could safely build that). He trained himself on the playground: from barely being able to hold himself up on the monkey bars, he was able to make it forwards and backwards across the monkey bars. It was astonishing: I've never really seen Motivated The Boy like this!

We signed him up for a gymnastic class at the end of the summer, something he has been enthusiastic about. He loves his "Gemini Tough Guy" shirt and wears it frequently; the name of the studio is Gemini Gymnastics and Dance. He began to hear a pattern from the American Ninja Warrior guys on the television: they all did gymnastics in high school and/or college. I've been able to get out there for a parent observation once, and I watched him do a pretty decent straight-arm cartwheel and walk a few steps on his hands, two things that I have never done.

On Monday, we went to the Flight Trampoline Park in Bridgeville, PA, because they have an American Ninja Warrior course, in addition to the other cool trampoline stuff (trampolines, obviously; dodge ball on trampolines; a laser-dodging course; and a cool little tiny kid area). They had four "courses" of three obstacles each, which includes Ninja Warrior "favorites" like the swinging steps, and the narrow finger grip ledges, and the trapezes, and such. We found a Groupon of reasonable price, and Daddy got to be a hero for a day. The humbling thing for all of us was how difficult those obstacles were - and they were small versions of the television show. I know that I have terrible grip strength, so I wasn't going to be good at them. I still tried, and I have the strained abs and sore legs of someone who doesn't quite know when to quit. The boys did somewhat better (they weigh a third as much) but still struggled.

The downfall part of the day was that I entirely spaced on The Boy's gymnastics class for the week. Sigh. But, it was still an awfully fun day, and I'm still proud of The Boy for pushing himself as fast and as far as he did.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Good Burn

Yesterday, I had off from work. The Wife was in Boston for a rehearsal of her new chorus (well, new to her - more on that at a different time), and I was home with the boys. This was a turnabout of previous years, when I would be away with my chorus (usually in Cleveland or Toledo) while she was home; but, I digress. The Boy and I were the only two ones who were awake, and we began to discuss what we would do for the day. I debated about taking them to the movies, so we reviewed what was playing at the local cinema. The only things that were particularly kid appropriate (because I wasn't exactly going to leave The Baby in the car) were Rogue One (which we've already seen), the new Harry Potter movie (we haven't seen enough Harry Potter to appreciate this one), and Monster Trucks.

Monster Trucks just looks awful. I said as much to The Boy. His response: "You know, Dad, a movie doesn't have to come from a comic book to be good." Apply ointment to the burned area.

But, it makes sense. My media consumption time has been extremely limited lately: television, movies, video games, and books all take time to consume. I get home from work around 5:45 on a given night, and the boys are usually in bed at 8:30. I'm in bed not too long after - 10:00 on a normal night, a little earlier whenever possible. So, if I want to do things with the family, that leaves a very narrow window. If it's a night with an activity, that makes it even harder - and most nights have an activity, like violin and cello lessons, or group class, or Hebrew school, or baseball games (spring / summer / fall), or basketball (winter), or gymnastics (The Boy, during the school year). Then, factor in basic housework and dishes and homework and writing in a blog and organizing some pictures and reading for my class.... it gets harder and harder to find a little "me" time for media consumption.

All of that is to say, I get to go to the movies more rarely than I would prefer. So, I tend to choose movies that most closely parallel my interests. This past year, I went to the movies nine times: to see Deadpool, Florence Foster Jenkins, Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman (twice), Suicide Squad, Dr Strange, and Rogue One (twice). One of these things is not like the other. I've watched other movies; but those other movies, I tend to watch at home. When I get to watch TV, it's usually in the mornings when I exercise. These days, I'm watching Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Lucifer, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Walking Dead.... and most of my reading, outside of the class I'm taking, tends to be of comic book form.

Here's what really floors me: The Boy, in one sentence, dissected my television and movie habits from the past several years. That's an astonishing observation from somebody who doesn't seem to notice much outside of himself. And, it was a witty observation that happened in a truly off-the-cuff fashion. Well played, Boy. Well played.


We did go to the Flight Trampoline Park in Bridgeville, PA, which has an American Ninja Warrior course inside of it. More on that later, but it was an awful lot of fun.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Turning the Corner

I'm finally turning the corner, physically and emotionally, on 2016 and preparing for the future.

It's been a rough six weeks. Basically, around Thanksgiving, I began to have my normal annual entertainment: persistent coughing, a little bit of wheezing, and a tremendous amount of physical discomfort. This is every year, although December 2015 was a remarkably easy one. This year, though, they were changing 30-plus year old carpets in my office. Best part: they were doing it one cubicle area at a time, which meant that every day, a new round of dust, dirt, and mold were flung into the air for me to enjoy. So, my usual annual issues were exacerbated immensely by my work environment, in which I usually spend 9 hours per day or so.

Long and boring story short, the cough got worse, which included wracking physical pains because of 24-hours of nonstop coughing; lack of sleep; lack of appetite. I was in bed, straight, from 12/27 through 1/3, only getting up to do a little bit of work at home for the bank. New Year's was spent in bed - I knocked myself out with a sleeping pill around 10. The Wife and the boys had a slumber party downstairs. The Boy and The Wife made it through midnight; the other two didn't. I went to the ER the next day and given an ineffective breathing treatment and some cough medicine (which was also ineffective). I went to my PCP the next day, who said the magic words: beats me, we're doing everything we know to do, let's see what happens in a few days.

So, when I went back to the breathing doctor, I did hear some nice words. It's the weirdest cough, because my lungs are essentially clear (when listened through the stethoscope), and the chest x-ray is always clear. The breathing function test is essentially normal. Heck, once the wracking pain went away, I knew that I could jump on the treadmill and run three or four miles without issues (...albeit coughing the entire time). He's decided that we're not going to treat this like asthma, but he's going to try to figure out the underlying cause of the cough.

I have an appointment at the Voice Center in a week and a half for a scope & check up. He thinks that it might be laryngospasms, which can trigger the airway irritation (which he said he could see) and cough. It also explains why the albuterol breathing medicine is entirely ineffective, and why cough medicine isn't effective, either. I'm hopeful about this, because maaaaaaaaybe this could also explain some of the singing issues that I've had for the last fifteen years or so. For whatever reason, when my voice hits a middle C or above, it entirely locks up - regardless of how much vocal instruction I've had, regardless of how much practice I'm doing, regardless of the amount and quality of air I use. That would be nice, if we could discover that the same underlying cause. Two birds, one stone, and an enormous quality of life improvement. My pessimistic nature says no way it's that easy, that I get to enjoy a nose/vocal fold scope to find out that everything is entirely normal and the cause of my persistent cough is a medical mystery.

However, over the past week or so, things are finally starting to subside. I'm eating normally, and I'm sleeping relatively normally. I'm coming off the steroids (best part: doctor thinks that the steroids aren't really helping, so I'm destroying my liver for no real reason) at the end of this week. I'm fortunate, in that my manager has been incredibly compassionate and accommodating - he certainly didn't have to, and I thank G-d for it. The members of our team have also been great and patient with me. I enjoy the people with whom I work - the biggest thing that's kept me at the bank is the people in my department.

I'm incredibly thankful for my wife, who has cared for me, patiently and lovingly, for the past month and a half. She's been truly amazing all the way through this ordeal, staying by my side and ministering to me at any and all hours of the day and night. I know that friends have had spouses who have not been as patient and kind; but The Wife truly understands and exemplifies " sickness and in health." I hit the lottery when I met her - one in a billion, without a doubt.

My New Year's resolutions include more writing this year. One would think that I have the time to do it these days, without a musical ensemble to call my own. It was an eventful end of year, with Little Bear playing two years up in kid-pitch baseball, and the boys starting at a new school, and The Boy taking up trombone (...and excelling beyond anybody's expectations), and me playing saxophone with The Wife's orchestra, and The Baby learning to read and playing his violin well (...and throwing really, really hard with his left arm, also a huge plus), and The Wife's new chorus, and some early spring cleaning, and my father turning 81 (and what that means), and decorating my house for the holidays, and my pending religious changes..... there's a bunch of things that are happening, waaaay more than seasonal blog updates so that Google doesn't think I disappeared.

I did just register "," so that's a thing that happened.