Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Opportunistic Garden

This morning I spent 45 minutes weeding our garden in an attempt to prepare to plant something. I know, it's July 4th! Most people's gardens are planted and flourishing by now. However, I'm a teacher and the spring planting time is also end-of-school time, with the rush to finish everything, write report cards... It's a runaway train. So gardening falls to the wayside. On top of that, Chicago has had a lot of bad weather -- torrential rains especially.

I am also not a good gardener. I love plants. I can do pots quite well and we have a lovely array of flowers and herbs in pots on our patio. It's low stakes gardening.

The garden that challenges me is the plot in our back yard that used to be our vegetable garden. We planted tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, and so on, until our trees grew so large and shady that the garden no longer got enough sun to grow vegetables. It sat rather neglected, gathering weeds and fallen branches, with a lone rhubarb plant in one corner.

However, it does include a few accidental "crops." About ten years ago I made the mistake of putting a mint plant at one end of the garden. If you've ever planted mint you know that once in the ground you will never get rid of it! So at one end of the garden we have a mint crop. I pull plants regularly to keep it from taking over everything and they smell nice. Mint tea, anyone?

About 15 or so years ago, our then next door neighbor decided to plant tiger lilies on his side of the fence. We have had a couple new families in that house since then and the tiger lilies have disappeared from that side of the fence but have taken up residence in our garden. I have dug them out in the past only to have them return, so this year I decided to let them have a little space in the plot. They are pretty.

Our last unexpected squatter is strawberries. I think they probably migrated from the composter into the garden and are now established in one corner of the garden. They are pretty with tiny red berries, and the squirrels and birds enjoy eating them.

What about the rest of the garden? Some more work and then hopefully some new, shade-loving plants will join the opportunistic residents.

Our potted patio garden

Our shady garden with the opportunistic residents

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer - what's the plan?

Many people had their summer goals and plans in place several weeks ago. Actually, I did too. But today I feel like summer is really beginning.

Last week my husband, daughter and I, along with much of our extended family, made our yearly trip to the Twin Cities for my mother's birthday. This year she turned 95, a milestone requiring more than the average visit with a cake and visits to her favorite restaurants. So we planned a small party. We reserved a room at her assisted living place, invited some extra relatives and friends, and got two cakes. It was a lively party with lots of conversations. My brother, sister and I got to talk with cousins we hadn't seen in quite a few years and were reminded of what a nice family we have. My mom had a lovely time and did not not get exhausted.

We're now back in Illinois after 4 days in Minnesota. With no other trips on the horizon, it's time to actually do something about those goals.

The big one: writing. The other summer goals -- cleaning, organizing, updating some curriculum -- will all fall into place. Writing, though, is like the dark hill up ahead of you. You see it vaguely. Maybe it's even shrouded in fog. How will you approach it? Will you approach it? Is there a feeling of trepidation? For all of my thinking about my plan, there's still a lot of mystery involved. Will I be able to accomplish this goal?

I've been thinking about this project for a long time. Every year when my students research and write a report about some topic related to the American Revolution, I am struck by the lack of biographies about some interesting people of that time. Or sometimes I find that the biographies, in my opinion, don't fit the bill. So after mulling this over and considering the biographies I wish existed, I picked a person to research and write a biography of -- Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Highlights of her life include horticulture (experimenting and discovering how to grow indigo in South Carolina, thus creating the first really profitable crop for that colony), running three plantations at age 17, and raising two sons who were important in the American Revolution. She was obviously not what we think of as the typical colonial lady.

The challenges are finding enough information about her, as well as about Antigua, where she was born, in the 18th century. Another challenge will be writing an interesting biography for middle grade readers. And of course the ever-present challenge of sitting down and doing the work!

Time to take the plunge.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Perceptions, youth, and humor

My friends all know that when I'm not teaching I am likely to be playing my horn in some community group. Besides getting to play some pretty great music I have loved meeting people I would not have known otherwise.

A couple months ago one of my horn-playing friends from a community orchestra asked if I wanted to play Mahler's Symphony #2 in another community orchestra. What a great opportunity, I thought! I have never played any Mahler in concert. Gustav Mahler was a giant of the early 20th century, composing 9 symphonies, plus many songs and other works. He was also a top conductor. His symphonies are all large works, usually calling for many extra players beyond the usual symphony roster. So to get a chance to play any Mahler symphony was awesome.

A standard symphony calls for 4 horns. Some early symphonies call for only two. Mahler 2 calls for 8 horns on stage and 4 off-stage! It also calls for extra trumpets, woodwinds, and a full chorus. I am playing one of the off-stage parts, though it turns out that we start off-stage, then go on stage to play for a bit, then back off-stage, then on stage to end the symphony. We've had one rehearsal and it is so much fun!

My Slice of Life today, though, is about perceptions, surprises, and finally, humor, while rehearsing Mahler. I had met one of the other off-stage horn players earlier this year while we were both playing a concert with a different community orchestra. She is a young woman getting started in her music career after graduating college. She is charming, friendly, and a good colleague. Before our first rehearsal of the off-stage players last week, we were chatting with another of the horn players, who neither of us knew. He was very friendly and asked me what I do when I'm not playing horn.

"I teach 4th grade," I said. We chatted about my school and the university where he is teaching.

A bit later my young hornist friend said to me, "Wow, I didn't know you were still working!" Ouch! Yes, I am the oldest off-stage horn player, though not the oldest of all the hornists. I didn't think I looked so old, but many people are retiring younger these days, I said to myself. In the end I decided it was a funny story to share with friends also in my age range. My friends winced a little and chuckled.

Then... a former student and her mother stopped by my school to visit. After chatting and catching up, the mom said to me, "Let us know when you're retiring. We want to come to the party."

Really, I'm not that old. I have at least a few more years in me!


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Super Power - Listening

If I were going to be a character in the Star Trek universe, I would be one of Guinan's people.

Guinan is in Start Trek: The Next Generation, the one with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Her people are described as a race of listeners. She comes on board the Enterprise as a bartender in the lounge, a wonderful place for a listener. Her people are also very long-lived. In the one episode that she takes a contral role, several crew members have to travel back in time, where they meet Mark Twain and a young Guinan. Meeting Picard, she at first thinks he was sent by her father to tell her to come home. She says, "Tell him I'm not done listening." (And if Mark Twain is around, maybe one would never be done listneing!)

She is a better listener than talker. She seems to have trouble explaining herself at times, giving partial information (which often helps the plot more than if she had told everything she knows!).

I would fit in so well with Guinan and her people. I love to listen to people, I love to hear their stories and appreciate other people's lives and experiences. I also am not the best conversationist. I frequently can't think of anything to say. I would rather be listening.

In another Star Trek storyline, we learn that Guinan's people were attacked and driven out of their home. They are now scattered across the galaxy. So sadly, even if they were real, I couldn't go find them. On the other hand, maybe they are here, among us, listening intently and sympathetically.

And Guinan is played by Whoopee Goldberg! So cool!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Memories of Opera

I'm finishing my spring break week by visiting my mom in Minnesota. My mom is 94 and slowing down. She complains of not feeling well, of stomach problems and losing weight, and most of all, of being tired. Though I've only been here a few hours I can already see the positive change that having company, especially family, visit is doing.

My mother has also told stories about her childhood and her family. She grew up in western Minnesota in a very small town surrounded by farms. A lot happens in small towns, as any number of novels and biographies can testify.

As children, my sister and I loved to hear the story of her white cat with the green eyes. One day when my mother was about 10, the neighborhood children found that I white cat had been killed by a passing car. It was my mother's cat and she was distressed. The kids decided to have a proper funeral, and buried the unfortunate feline with a ceremony and lots of crying, especially from my mother. After the funeral what should stroll around the corner of the house, but a white cat with green eyes. It was my mother's cat. The cat that they had just buried was a white cat with blue eyes belonging to a girl down the street. This started a new cycle of weeping. Maybe this type of thing is where the idea of cats having nine lives comes from?

However, today's story is about opera, not cats. I previously wrote about opera, in particular the opera Carmen, so I think this an appropriate way to bring the month of blogging to a close. After college, which my mother was able to attend because my grandmother was determined that her daughter would get a good education, my mother became a math teacher. She taught in Duluth and Elbow Lake, in the Iron Range. This was not an area known for its culture. But, my mother told me, every year the Metropolitan Opera would go on tour and would present several operas in Minneapolis. She and her best friend would catch a bus from Duluth after school on Friday and take it to Minneapolis, where they would see several operas. They would take the bus back to Duluth on Sunday evening.

The first opera she ever saw was Faust by Gounod. She remembers how Mephistopheles wore a black cape that opened up to a dramatic red lining. After that first opera, she said, she was hooked. She remembers seeing Carmen (my first ever opera), Pagliacci, and Cavallerio Rusticana. As I listened, I thought, how wonderful that the Metropolitan Opera, one of the greatest opera companies in the world, would tour the country every year. They also had a radio broadcast of the Saturday afternoon opera for decades.

Today it's not as difficult to actually travel to New York City. But even you can't go there, the Met now simulcasts some of their operas to movie houses across the country -- not equivalent to getting to see a live production, but a benefit to opera lovers who don't live close to NYC. But there's still magic in the idea of the traveling opera company. And in the thought of my young mother spending hours on a bus in order to have her weekend at the opera in Minneapolis.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thoughts on Traveling

I'm in O'Hare Airport waiting for my flight to Minnesota to visit my mom. My check-in this morning was remarkably quick and easy -- I checked my suitcase with the skycaps, went through the Pre-check security line without taking off my shoes or taking out my laptop, and here I am waiting at my gate an hour in advance.

Even though this time was easy, I was remembering the "old days," before security measures. The days when your family could walk with you to the gate and wave as the plane took off. No x-rays of your stuff, no metal detectors. You could take liquids onto the plane without incident. You could change your tickets without paying a huge penalty. I usually feel like I'm signing my future away when I buy a plane ticket. You walked to your gate and got on the plane. Sometimes you actually walked out onto the tarmac and climbed stairs onto the plane.

I also remember the first hijacking of a plane and how scary that was, especially when other hijackers jumped on the bandwagon.

My children have never experienced the days before these regulations and precautions. We'll never go back to those days, and really these days are not so bad.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Girl's Trip

Tomorrow I will fly to Minneapolis to visit my mom for a few days. On Friday, my daughter will fly up from Houston to join us. We thought that would be our girls' weekend - mother-daughter-grandma - and that would be great! My daughter hasn't been able to get away to see her grandma in over a year. We planned a quiet trip, visiting with my mom, doing some errands for her, maybe taking her out to eat if she's up to it.

Then we found out yesterday that my niece will also be coming up to Minneapolis from Iowa, so we'll get to visit with her as well! She is starting grad school in the fall at the University of Minnesota, so I imagine her visit has something to do with that. And, oh yeah, her boyfriend lives in the twin cities. It will be fun to see the cousins together - they are only about a year apart in age.

It will also be very good to see how my mom is doing. She is 94 and one her last birthday it was evident that time was catching up to her. She was much more tired by going out to eat and would nod off while the rest of us were chatting. Recently she has begun to complain that she can't keep track of things like taxes, and that she's having more health issues. My brother and I keep reassuring her that she has people to take care of things like taxes and that we are always willing to come up if she needs us. She seems to have bounced back a little since then, so I'm hoping she is comfortable and happy. She is a survivor, but getting to be a tired survivor.

On another note, I'm hoping I can post my last two blog entries for SOL2017. There's no wifi in her assisted living! Hopefully a quick trip to Starbucks will do it.