Mozart be lit.

So, my choir kids had a concert today.  It’s a big deal.  First of all, because we are still a baby program (when I took over two years ago, the program had a membership of twelve kids), so anytime we manage to pull anything off, people are still kind of surprised.  But, more importantly, because I teach middle school so literally EVERYTHING is a big deal.  My fellow M.S. educators know where I’m coming from.  Just watch the greeting ritual of two seventh grade girls who haven’t seen each other in ten minutes–let’s just say there is a lot of squealing and hugging.  You’d think one of them had literally just come back from the dead.

It felt like an accomplishment to me, too.  I have high standards, and (unlike my colleagues) I understand where a middle school choral program should be.  I look at where we are and can only think of how far we have to go.  There is so much they don’t know.  In so many ways, I am sending kids unprepared for high school choral programs out of my program.  We have such a long road ahead!  It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is undone, how many times I feel like I’m failing them as their teacher and not doing the job as well as I would like to because of the simple fact that I am a One doing the job of Two.

I feel the constant pressure from my students to sing music they already know.  (Not sometimes.  Literally ALL THE TIME.)  Middle schoolers, unlike their high school counterparts, have very little interest in trying new things.  They want to do what they know.  If they don’t know it, well, then just forget it.  It’s probably garbage, as far as they’re concerned.  So doing the music that I know is best for them is the musical equivalent of trying to convince your average six year old to eat spinach.  It is a losing battle.

But there are victories, small ones, when I force feed them enough real choral music that they actually hear the potential that is there–how what sounds best in a choir is not what sounds best on the radio.  My 8th grade girls choir is in the middle of an Epiphany Month.  Every few days, it’s like a new light bulb comes on, and they become a little bit more like the choral singers I hope they will be.

After our concert today, they showed up for class ready to watch a movie.  “Nice try,” said I, their mean, cruel and generally nasty director, “We only have two months until our last concert.  We have work to do.”  They groused.  I preened their egos about their great job a bit, and then I let them choose between two different (non-pop) pieces.  The one they picked (which I really hoped they would) is lush and full and truly choral.   We listened to a recording, and at the moment in the music where I first fell in love with the piece, one of my girls breathes, “Oh, this is awesome.”  Little tittering whispers around the choir, as they write on scraps of paper which song they want to do.  The vote is so far in favor of The Lass from the Low Countree I don’t even have to bother to properly count.

My school has a strong minority representation–which is really cool, because there is a richness in having so many different backgrounds in my classroom.  I have had many (administrators, mostly) who don’t know music well, who insist that choral music doesn’t have a place in culturally responsive education.  I point out that Mozart is just as foreign to my Caucasian students as Spirituals are to my African-American students–both are important, and both help make them better performers.  (I site candy–eat too much candy, your teeth will fall out and you will get sick.  Too much pop music makes it hard to breed a good and healthy young singer. But this is a soap box for another day…)  

Anyway, so we are doing a choral arrangement of a piece from Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” titled Papageno-Papagena.  You don’t need to know about it, really (but it’s an awesome piece, in my unbiased opinion…), but you just have to know it’s Mozart.  It was written by some Austrian guy over 200 years ago.  It is light years away from my 8th grade choir and their American ideas and smart phones and instant gratification culture.

But we worked on it today, because I’m “mean” and expect them to sing in choir, like, all the time.  (The nerve, I mean, really…) But we started going, and guess what?  Lo, and behold, it sounded pretty good.  “Why?” you ask.  “Because Mozart wrote music for real, human voices without any digital help,” say I.  Well, that and because my girls are finally starting to listen to one another and are singing as an ensemble, rather than a bunch of soloists all singing at the same time.  They are finally beginning to make music.

We finish the section–at the same time, in the right key.

One of my girls, “Aria,” does a quick improve dance off of the dab.  “Awww, yeah,” she says, “This be lit!”

You heard it here first, folks.  Just remember, the next time you hear a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…he may be a lot of things, but for some Midwestern, middle school singers, he be lit!

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Confessions of a Sometimes Hipster

I live in the hipster Mecca of my city.  That may not be a big deal to my West Coast friends, but it’s kind of a thing if you’re in the Midwest–we are into things like snowblowing and tater tot casserole.  I did not move to this area intentionally.  I did it because it’s a really cute apartment with nifty 1920’s period features and cheap rent that included free heat…  But, nonetheless, I live in a place with quirky restaurants that cater to whatever weird diet you may have.  (Vegan? No problem.  Gluten free?  Everything on the menu fits the bill.  Something as blasé as vegetarianism or lactose intolerance doesn’t even warrant an honorable mention.)  We have nary a big box store to be found, but I can think of three different vintage record shops off the top of my head.  We are also known in our city for our hip dive bars where all the cool kids (so cool that we don’t bother with the “usual” party clubs, you see–we are hipsters here, after all…) like to go.  There’s this one bar that is literally open randomly, and only when the owner feels like opening it–there are no posted hours.  So it’s open now, randomly, on a Wednesday night, but there is a real possibility it will be closed when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around this Friday–go figure.  I once saw a guy in a purple leisure suit ride past on his unicycle.  I live in that kind of neighborhood.

My friends (especially the ones who got married in their twenties and now live in the suburbs with their SUV’s and 2.5 kids) have started telling me that I’m kind of a hipster.  I used to deny it, but I’m beginning to think that maybe this would be false advertising.  I wear a lot of leggings and the messy topknot is the my Saturday hair jam.  I’m a big fan of baggy sweaters, scarves, and Converse.  I even own a pair of fake Buddy Holly style glasses that I wear when I want to look smart and get people to take me seriously.  My house is full of secondhand treasures and random retro kitsch that nobody really likes except for me.  I own a picnic basket and use it on the regular in the summer months.

Right now, I am wearing a burnt orange puffy vest, circa 1974.  I like old movies and classic red lipstick.  I like to make stuff from scratch and have at various points tried to make my own: shaving cream, candles, lip balm, and face masks.  I read poems.  I have toyed with the idea of getting an old typewriter because it just sounds so romantic to write letters on a typewriter.  (My mom talked me out of it because she said it hurts your wrists after a while.  That, and I didn’t know where to get tape for one if I bought it…)

I feel like, though, hipster-dom has robbed me of my nerdiness.  I liked all that stuff back before the hipster movement made it cool, and watching black and white movies and Glenn Miller were things only nerds like me did.  I simply refuse to allow some early  20-somethings rob me of my nerd-dom!  In the words of my sister, “Emily, you’re a natural born hipster–you always liked that stuff, so it doesn’t really count.  You’re not being ironic.  You’re just being you.”

Plus, I do have my little passive-aggressive, anti-hipster jibs.  Let the record state that I absolutely despise quinoa.  I think the texture is weird and it tastes like what I imagine prison food must taste like (i.e. like absolutely nothing.)  And while we’re at it, I think kale is gross, too.  (Unless its slathered in olive oil and sea salt and baked into kale chips, thereby completely nullifying any intrinsic health value…)  I can’t get into the heavily made-up eye look.  It’s just way too much work, let’s be real, here.  I also hate beer as a general rule, so something crappy like P.B.R. is definitely not part of my world.

And at the end of the day, I’m just not ironic enough.  And when I say “enough,” I mean, “at all.”  I mean, I’m a child of the 1990’s who still associates the word “ironic” with Alanis Morissette.  And, anyway, I actually really like all the weird hobbies I have and old clothes I wear, and I don’t really have enough cares to be bothered by what other people may think about it.  If that makes me a hipster, well, then I’m in.  I figure it just makes me “Me.”  I’ll still be like that when hipsters go the way of Hammer Pants and The Rachel.  And I’m good with it that way.  And there’s nothing ironic about that…don’t ya think?

Illusion of daylight

Daylight savings always throws me for a loop in the spring.  I’m so used to leaving work at dusk (or worse, the dead of night), that I have a very pressing and urgent sense of time.  I know that I need to get things done so that I can go to bed, because night is a reality.

Daylight savings happens, and suddenly, I feel like I have all the time in the world.  When I left work today at 4:30, it was still mid-day bright.  So I ran a few (non-essential) errands, and then got home, and decided to go and get some yarn for a project which I didn’t really need to get.  Even now, it’s after 6:30, and the sun is finally sinking behind my neighbors’ houses, but I don’t feel any sort of urgency.  I know I need to get dinner made, to finish this, to clean the bathroom, and try to get to bed before 11.00 tonight, because I’m exhausted.

But it’s still daylight outside–I have all the time in the world!  There’s still time to sit and stare out the window and let my mind wander.  There’s still time to mindlessly half-do tasks and fantasize about spring break.  And it’s all an illusion!

So, I’m going to keep this post short, and get to it!  Get things done, because now it is nearly dark, and the reality of how late it is is starting to sink in.  Daylight is gone, and so is the illusion.  Back to reality I go!

 

FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.  

The Quest for Hygge

Hygge.  Before you waste five minutes trying to figure out  how to say that, it’s pronounced HOO-guh, and it is basically the philosophy that puts the Danes routinely at the top of every study as the happiest nation in the world, despite the fact that it is dark and cold there for most of the year.  Basically, hygge is a concept of family- and home-oriented coziness that strongly features homemade food, comfy clothes, warm socks, blankets, candles, and spending intentional time with the people you care about.  The Danish people have elevated this to a national standard, around which the whole culture revolves.

I started out on my quest for hygge on a whim, really.  Work life was functioning at a resting temperature of HIGH STRESS ALL THE TIME, which left me without the emotional motivation to go out or “be social.”  I just wanted to retreat into the hobbit hole of my apartment and shut out the world.  Wandering around social media in a quest to not do whatever I was supposed to be doing, I stumbled upon this article about hygge.  That article led to several more, which led to a Pinterest board, which led to the purchase (and reading) of The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking.

I read all about the importance of light (and good lighting–no hospital-style, industrial lighting for the Danes, oh no.)  I read about the importance of creating a comfortable and cozy place to relax and simply be. I read about a cultural way of thinking that put the process and journey of spending time with people you care about before anything else.  It’s the idea of “less is more.”  “Quality over quantity.”  The Little Book of Hygge threw out examples like making food with a few friends (even if the end product is a disaster), sitting around the kitchen table and playing games while drinking hot chocolate and eating homemade cookies, snuggling up in sweats with a blanket and a good book.

I was hooked.  I wanted that.  I wanted my home to be a place that was warm and cozy, where people came, and we made memories and shared each other’s lives.  I wanted to slow down my life to make time for things like board games.  I wanted hygge.

My first attempts started out small.  I made the pilgrimage to IKEA and bought a bunch of candles and invited a friend over to make fondue.  We spent a ridiculous amount of money on all the right cheeses to make a real Swiss fondue–and then we sat for two hours around the fondue pot and caught up on the past three months of life.  It was slow.  It was natural.  It was amazing.  And I wanted more.

Armed with this first small success, my book about hygge, and an article from thekichn.com about how to host a crappy dinner party,  (it’s a great article–read it here!), I started making it a part of my life.  Whenever someone suggested getting together–the unspoken American subtext being “at a restaurant or coffee shop”–I always jumped at the opportunity, and offered to host as my house.  I sent out text message invitations for “B.Y.O.S.” (Bring Your Own Slippers) events.  I got out a big pile of blankets whenever people were coming over.  I stocked up on hot chocolate and coffee.  I lit candles–so many candles!  I bought some games at Goodwill and had people over to play Scrabble.  I got really good at fifteen minute cleaning, and told people that, while my house may be a little dirty, it was full of love.

And do you know what?  All my friends really liked it.  They didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t sweep my kitchen floor or that the cream cheese, cherry hand pies didn’t really turn out.  Everyone agreed toward the end of the night that it was fun, and we really should do it again.

I think our lives are so fast and so Instagram-ed, that we’ve forgotten that everyone else is imperfect, too.  Oh, I know when I say it, you think, “Well, duh.  Of course nobody’s perfect,” but in practice, it’s easy to believe that the pictures we see on social media are the way everyone’s life actually is.  You find yourself thinking, “I must be the only person who can’t get it together and leaves my purse and shoes right by the door as soon as I come in” and “I must be the only person who can’t figure out how to hang a really nifty, chic portrait collage wall…”

But really–we’re all in that boat.  We’re all standing and looking at the picture of the cupcakes on Pinterest, then the disaster on our counters and thinking, “Well.  That didn’t work.”  We’re all just little, imperfect people, doing what we can. Messing up.  Making mistakes.  Trying again anyway.

What we need, more than perfect lives, are people who share our imperfect lives with us. I think that, at its core, is what makes hygge so powerful to me.  It’s inviting people in.  It’s dropping masks of things none of us can be, anyway.  It’s putting people ahead of image.  It’s making real memories–not an airbrushed Instagram version.  It’s just–hygge.

Bag Lady

My friend, “Abby,” is our school’s art teacher, and never, but never leaves work with any less then three bags–and I’m not talking about little “fits three pieces of paper bags.”  Oh no.  I’m talking about those giant, metal reinforced Thirty-One bags with monograms and stuff on the side.  Even her purse weighs about a ton because it’s made out of seat belts.

But Abby is not alone.  My mother, also a teacher, has a bag with those suitcase wheels because it’s so big, and half the time, I think my dad has to get it out of the trunk for her because it’s too heavy.  I have secret theory that one of our sixth grade teachers converts each of her children’s old diaper bags into an additional “for work” bag–needless to say, I think she’s got four kids.  My male colleagues (not enamored of the Thirty-One fad of their female counterparts) still walk out of work with a bulging messenger bag or backpack.  Not even I, myself, am immune.  In my defense, I only have one teacher bag…and that bag of music for my voice lessons…and the bag with all the scores for choir rehearsal…and the reusable grocery store bags in my trunk…Okay, okay! So I have a problem!

Conclusion?  Teachers are bag junkies.

I don’t know why, really, since the common thread I glean from most teachers is that we never do any of what we bring home in those bags.  We choose to do other things, feel mildly, naggingly guilty about it, but we don’t actually do it.  You think we’d get wise–leave it at school for when we head back into work where we will actually do this stuff.  But no.  We keep lugging the same seventy-five pounds of student work and professional textbooks and school laptops back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Maybe it’s just that we’re eternal optimists, who truly believe that this time, this time, we’ll decide we’d rather dive into those forty essays on Of Mice and Men than go out to coffee with our girlfriends.  Or go to the grocery store.  Or sit in a semi-catatonic state on the sofa and binge watch Parks and Rec for the fifteenth time.  Seriously.  What is wrong with us?

Mostly, I just think we’re nuts.

I’ve been reading a lot about minimalism and the minimalist movement lately.  And while I think some of it is kind of extreme (skip having a bed frame and just have mattress on the floor…don’t have anything hanging on your walls anywhere…) there are some things I really think resonate.  The theory behind minimalism is that the more stuff you have in your life (the more stuff on your counters, in your closet, in your head, in your heart) the more stressed and the less happy you actually are.

There’s a really valid point here, I think.  So many people I know live in these crowded worlds.  Dresser drawers crammed with clothes they can’t find and don’t like, rooms cluttered with the dross of a “them” that vanished years ago,  minds crowded with regrets about pasts they can’t change and worries about futures they can’t control.  I find myself doing it, too.  I take home work I “should do” sometimes.  I let myself get talked into doing things that absorb the few precious hours of free time I had earmarked for “me” in the week.  I pray that I will be less stressed out about X-Y-Z, and be able to just allow God to do His thing and be in charge of it.  But then, rather than trusting the God I purport to believe implicitly, I find myself lugging all my little worries around with me–just like my bags.

It’s really exhausting being a bag lady–the physical or the emotional kind.  So lately I have been trying to not be one.  Throwing out that stack of old papers on my desk.  Actually folding the blanket I’ve just used (even though I know I will use it again tomorrow.)  Sticking to my guns and not letting myself stress out about things I can’t control, and I know that God’s in charge of, anyway.  Not feeling guilty for saying no to things I am too busy (or don’t want) to do.  Looking at the things in my teacher bag and think, “Am I actually going to do any of this?” And when the answer is, “No,” just leaving it at school.  Because it will keep.  The sun will still rise.

So take the challenge.  Stop freaking out about the stuff that you have no control over for just the time it takes you to drink your morning coffee.  Clear out one dresser drawer of all the clothes you keep “just in case” you need them, but secretly hate.  Just for one night, leave the teacher bags at school.

Try it out.  You might just like not being a bag lady.

Old Fashioned Birthday Cards

img_1127I have a wall calendar hanging in my kitchen.  It’s hanging right over my coffee maker, so
I’m guaranteed to look at it at least once a week.  This is an important calendar to my life, because the only dates marked on it are birthdays.

And once a month, I make the pilgrimage and buy birthday cards for all the birthdays on my calendar.  I bring them home, write a little birthday note, address the envelope, put on a REAL stamp and put it in the REAL mail.

There’s nothing really special about them.  They’re not expensive or particularly special, but they’re real, paper-and-ink cards.  And in our social media-saturated world, in which we are absolved of any responsibility for actually remembering the birthdays of anyone remotely close to us, and a flippant “Happy Birthday!” on a digital wall lets us feel we’ve “remembered” people, there is something nice about a good ol’ fashioned birthday card.

In my view, putting it in the mail is also important, even for the people who I see at work on a daily basis.  I know there are some of my fellow Frugal Peeps out there who will say, “But you could save 49¢ and just hand it to them!”  This is true.  But there is a certain amount of forward planning and intentionality involved in the traditional mail.  What I hope people think when they get my birthday cards is that there is someone who cares about them–who went out and bought the card, who looked up their address, and put it in the mail so that it could be there by their birthday.  I don’t have money to buy nice gifts for all the people who are important to me, but I am hopeful that thoughtfulness can make up for a lack of finances.

It’s old-fashioned, but that’s okay, I reckon.  Sometimes the old ways are good ways.

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