Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review: Donna Van Straten Remmert's Head Over Heels: Stories from the 1950s

Title: Head Over Heels: Stories about the 1950s
Author: Donna Van Straten Remmert
Publisher: RemArt Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-9710959-6-0
Publication Year: 2012

One of my great jobs is to interview authors for the Story Circle Journal and to review their books for Story Circle Network's wonderful book review site,, a site devoted solely to books by, for and about women. In September, I had the pleasure of reading Donna Van Straten Remmert's latest hilarious memoir, Head Over Heels: Stories About the 1950s. Here is the review which first appeared on the SCBR site and in the quarterly journal. (When you're done reading it give the site a look-see. Donna's other two memoirs are reviewed there too.)

In this, the third installment of her memoir that began with The Littlest Big Kid and Jitterbug Girl, Donna Van Straten Remmert delights us with the lively tale of her exodus from her small Wisconsin hometown, Black Creek, to the “big city,” Madison, WI to begin life as a college co-ed in 1955. As she did in her first two memoirs, Donna allows her younger voice to speak in a down-to-earth conversational style that will have you roaring with laughter. Young Donna is as spunky as she is innocent, forging her father’s signature on her admission form. When she is accepted her father is far from pleased. He warns her she will be exposed to immoral ideas by liberal professors, anti-establishment bohemians and maybe even tricked by communists into signing something that would get her in trouble. Her mothers’ advice is more direct: to remember she’s a Van Straten, to say her prayers, go to Mass and do her laundry once a week.

Donna’s need-based scholarship doesn’t cover everything and a college education isn’t all she’s after. She hopes to meet “the one”, but in the meantime she’s got a chance to go to Europe and she’s saving every penny she can to make it happen. She has to work hard at a series of jobs—waiting tables, supervising the playground at an orphanage, and typing for a law firm. As Donna’s world view expands so do her questions about herself, her Catholic faith and her role as a woman in a male-dominated world. What is the most important quality in a woman? Is it more important to be pretty or smart? Sexy or sweet? Creative, curious, affectionate, clever in conversation, a good hostess?  Has going to college made men see Donna and her friends as too ambitious to make good wives and mothers? Is it possible to have a career as well as a husband and children? Is there such a thing as destiny and fate or do our choices shape our lives? Is morality relative or universal?

Whether she’s bargaining with God and the Virgin Mary for a good grade on her test, trying on a Bohemian tie-dyed tee over her Reindeer sweater in the back of a van, fighting off the advances of a German Baron, watching near-naked dancing girls with her brother and sister-in-law at the Moulin Rouge Theatre, or racing around Rome on the back of a scooter with a policeman she’s just met, Donna’s frankness and fresh-faced optimism, witty dialogue and touching inner thoughts will keep you turning pages.

Tune in next week for an interview with this gifted memoirist!

Note: Other than a copy of this book, I received no remuneration from the author or any other entity for this review.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Author Interview: Donna Van Straten Remmert

An Interview with Donna Van Straten Remmert*
By Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Donna Van Straten Remmert is the author of The Littlest Big Kid and The Jitterbug Girl. She is a long-time member of the Story Circle Network and past president of the Austin chapter. Her professional background includes teaching high school English and working as a journalist. For more than twenty years, she has pursued an informal study of Jungian psychology, especially as it relates to dreams. The hysterically funny third installment of her memoir, Head Over Heels: Stories about the 1950s, describes her transition from small town Catholic party girl to campus co-ed at UW-Madison. She and her husband live in Boulder, CO. Lisa Shirah-Hiers interviewed her via email for the Story Circle Journal.

SCJ: How do you get your stories/memories out of your head and onto paper? How do you organize them and when?

DVR: My process is quite random. When a memory pops into my head, I scribble it on a piece of paper, let the story marinate for a while, and then I start banging it out. I’m always amazed how one small memory triggers another and another until there’s a story that actually has a purpose. When I have several that are somewhat complete, I decide where they belong in the book and how they need to expand in order to reflect the era. I also add details about political or cultural events, clothes, hairstyles, movies or book titles. I could save myself a lot of time by outlining, but it’s just not in my nature to do so. I usually share a rough draft of each story with my writing circle and ask them to help me decide how to improve it and if it serves a purpose within the book. This kind of support is such a great motivator, and for an extravert like me it makes the writing process less lonely.

SCJ: What were some of the challenges you faced in writing your memoirs? How did you overcome them?

DVR: I didn’t want to offend people I wrote about, and I wanted my stories to have pizzazz and reflect the culture as much as tell my own story. When I wrote The Littlest Big Kid and The Jitterbug Girl, I used last names and got signed permission slips from everyone. I was amazed at how few objections I experienced; they understood my humor and liked having their names mentioned.  The “kid” voice I’d used in my first two memoirs had been such fun to remember and such a part of my humor yet inappropriate for Head Over Heels. My greatest challenge for this memoir was to find a voice that would be equally entertaining and also sound like the college student I remember myself being. Another challenge was to write the truth but limit the characters mentioned, so my reader could make sense of the story being told. My solution was to use only first names most of the time, allowing me to create composite characters. In my disclaimer, I explain that while everything I wrote about actually did happen, I’ve granted myself the freedom to invent characters when necessary, create dialogue that is representative, and amplify and embellish scenes when necessary for clarity and entertainment. My memoir is, therefore, creative nonfiction. I think it’s more fun to read and more representative of the era than if I had stuck too rigidly to the facts. Giving myself this freedom helped me express more truth about how things were in the late 1950s.

SCJ: You self-published all three of your memoirs. Can you speak about that process?

DVR: The new catch phrase for someone who self-publishes is “indie,” short for independent. Words matter, so that’s what I am––an indie; and from what I can tell, the process is far easier, less stressful, and much more fun than trying to find and then satisfy agents and publishers by laboring over one re-write after another, until your book starts to feel like it isn’t yours anymore. That’s my bias because that’s what I’ve witnessed from a few women in my writing circle. I haven’t sent proposals to agents and engaged in that process at all, but how would I respond if an agent or publisher approached me? I think every writer fantasizes that this could happen. It’s hard to say how I would respond.  My book was edited by SCN friends and by my siblings who did an advance read. My dear sister, Joan, is a former English teacher who published her own book a few years ago. She read my final draft three times to catch typos, punctuation errors, and tense mistakes. I printed with Morgan Printing in Austin, TX (now called Ginny’s Printing) twice before, and because I love and trust my contact person, Terry Sherrell, that’s what I’ve done again. The marketing of my book will, of course, be up to me. I’m told that that’s true when publishing with a small press as well.

SCJ: Can you talk about your decision to publish an e-version via Amazon Kindle?

DVR: I like reading e-books but felt an initial disappointment when I saw my own on my Kindle. My paperbacks look and feel so much better. However, e-books are inexpensive to publish, the market is extremely broad and the shelf life is forever. I’m not very computer savvy, so I paid someone to do the conversion. Then, since I’d ventured this far, I decided to pay for a website design. As you may have guessed by this time, I didn’t publish under the assumption that I’d make money, but based upon the experience of publishing my first two books, I expect to at least break even with both my paperback and my Kindle edition.

SCJ:  Initially your father and mother were reluctant to let you go to college. Your mother was worried you’d lapse from your Catholic faith and your father that you’d be tricked by communists into signing something incriminating. You even had to forge your father’s signature on your application!

DVR: It wasn’t only my parents who didn’t encourage me. My teachers also never suggested I go to college. I was a girl, and my intellectual capabilities seemed mediocre at best. I was encouraged to become a secretary for the short time period before I’d most likely get married and start having babies.  My wacky personality didn’t help much. And my dad was right about my gullibility; communists almost got me to sign something incriminating. It’s one of my favorite stories in Head Over Heels. Looking back I’m quite sure I had a learning disability of some kind, but no one diagnosed those when I was a kid in the 1940s, nor did anyone offer special help for kids struggling to learn. My self-esteem didn’t suffer that much since I was nevertheless loved, treated equally, allowed freedom, and was cute. Back then, cute counted for a whole lot more than now. Girls often wanted that label more than the smart one, strange as it seems.  I think I was motivated to try being a college student because I thought this was where I’d have the most fun and meet the right kind of guy to marry. I know how shallow this sounds in today’s world; even then it was something girls were reluctant to admit. But that’s how I was conditioned to think, having grown up in rural Wisconsin without much exposure to the rest of the world. People back then joked about girls going to college to get their MRS degree, but for many, including myself, it was true. While in college, I gradually woke up to my own ambitions to achieve and become more than just an appendage to “the man of my dreams.”

SCJ: You did some pretty daring things in your college years: getting drunk at a frat house full of horny pre-med males, touring Rome on the back of a motorbike with a policeman you’d just met, traveling with an older German Baron and fending off his advances. Were your father and mother’s objections to your going to college valid?

DVR: I’m laughing! Daring things? Yes, I did a few, but compare what I did to what young unmarried women are doing today! I think my 1950-style wildness was helpful to my development. It provided the adventure I craved, and it helped me discover what my values were through trial and error rather than by just listening to adult authorities. I actually did my wild things safely because I had boundaries, thanks to my family, community and religion. In Head Over Heels, I argued about the religious and societal rules that made no sense, but I rarely broke them. In addition, I always knew that I had to be responsible for my actions, and there was no rich daddy in my life to pick up the pieces and pay for my mistakes. Growing up poor has this advantage.  My parents had reason to worry about me leaving home and going to college. They saw my vulnerabilities, and they knew I wasn’t a serious student. Their skepticism helped in that I was determined to prove them wrong.     

SCJ: In your book you describe clothing in some detail. How does the clothing we wear define us in our own and other’s eyes? How can clothing details enhance a memoir?

DVR: I use clothing details to describe my characters’ personalities and their economic status, to evoke the era and show how few belongings most college kids had in the 50s compared to now. My favorite fashion statement belonging to the 1950’s is the spiral-stitched Maidenform bras we wore to push our breasts out to a peak, like the movie-star paper dolls we’d played with as kids. And the girdles that even skinny girls wore to eliminate the jiggling. No wonder the flower children of the 60s rebelled! How we look and what we wear contributes to our persona just like how we smile or frown. When I went to college, everything I owned fit into only three feet of hanging space, the shelf above it, and two dresser drawers. Later I’ll admit I splurged on clothes a bit too often, rationalizing that it was “artistic expression.” Now that I’m an elder and living in Boulder, I shop less and am content to have less, but I still think attire is an important way to show the identity you wish to project to the world. 

SCJ: What are some other techniques you used to set the scene, reveal character, themes etc.?

DVR: When I read books, lengthy scene descriptions bother me, and I keep wishing the author would just get to the point since I can create a satisfactory picture of the setting from only a few well-chosen words. An exception is when a scene description shows the era, like the one of my family’s kitchen. Otherwise I don’t see the point of lengthy descriptions of, for instance, a scene in nature. This is my bias, and other readers must love those long descriptions because they’re so often in award-winning books. I think the point of the stories in my memoirs is more about what people are saying and doing, not what the sky looked like.  I used a lot of dialogue to show the personalities of my characters because I think this is the best way to “show not tell” the story, and because I love using words that belong to the era. I love slang; it’s got pizzazz and it’s funny.

SCJ: Why do you write memoir?

DVR: Life review is a Jungian concept that I seem to do automatically, through refection and more specifically through dream work. That’s in-depth and solitary work, but since I was born with what’s called “the happy gene”, I felt compelled to put this work to another use by writing happy books about the value of having had a wholesome and ordinary upbringing. Returning to my roots through writing memoir has helped me remember who I really am and take pride in knowing that my life has been well lived. Reflecting on my childhood and young adult experiences has also served as an escape. Today’s world is not an easy one to comprehend or tolerate, especially as an elder. When I am experiencing sadness, disappointment, or crisis within my family, I find relief in writing about a time when everything was less complicated. It’s a better way to relax than popping a pill, isn’t it?

For more information on the author and her books visit Donna’s website:



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Finding Time

In a busy multi-faceted life I find I am always saying I "couldn't find time" for this or that. Too often the "this or that" is something small that might enrich my life. I subscribe to Composer's Datebook, a short daily story about a composer, that comes in my email inbox from American Public Radio. (  I can read it then and there, go to the website where I can not only read it but hear samples of the music, or download it to listen to later. I have been subscribing to this daily post for over a year. But I find that I am just saving and saving them without ever "getting around" to listening to them or even reading them. I have also discovered a wonderful website, that allows me to click on a particular spiritual practice ("awareness" for example) and to read snippets about it, to find books and movies and music and quotations about it. ( ) Theoretically it would take less than 15 minutes to look through and read and listen slowly and carefully, and come away with an insight for the new day. But I don't take that time. I tell my students that even on a busy day they can find 10 minutes to play scales or play through one of their assigned pieces four or five times. Progress in so many things is achieved in small increments. But I do not always practice what I preach.

We live in a sped-up world full of more distractions than ever. We have replaced hours and hours of work with labor-saving devices. But in their stead we have given ourselves enormous amounts of information to process and produce via email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs. I know my main reason for ignoring composer's datebook and spiritual practice is that I am overwhelmed when I open my email inbox. Just reading through everything can take over an hour. In a busy day I wind up practicing what I call "email triage", opening only those messages that urgently require a response. I delete what I can without reading it and leave the rest in my inbox to await processing when I "have more time". As the un-opened messages accumulate I feel more and more ill-at-ease, worried about what I might be missing, worried that I will fail to respond to a friend in a timely way and cause hurt feelings. I feel overwhelmed by the virtual mailbox on top of the snail mailbox, the papers on my desk, the virtual photos and videos that are trapped in my camera waiting to be uploaded, named, sorted, printed and distributed. I have stacks of books waiting to be read, papers that need processing and filing. It seems that the virtual world has not saved us time but only doubled the number of things we must sort through, read and respond to. It can be exhausting.

It never feels good to leave things undone, to allow papers to accumulate. But if I am to "find" time for walks, to listen to music, to read something enlightening, to practice my spiritual traditions, to play with the dog or respond to a family member or friend with full presence then I must let other things go. The multiplicity of demands on our time challenge us to practice discernment, self-discipline and mindfulness. They are an invitation to choose wisely when we decide how to spend the next hour, to do those things we know to be beneficial especially when they require effort, to learn not to rush but to be fully focused on whatever we are doing while we are doing it. It isn't easy to let things go. But we are not omnipotent and our time on Earth is limited. Virtual reality must not replace actual reality, and life is more than crossing things off the to do list. There must be space for physical engagement with each other and with the world. It is all the praying, walking and talking, hand-holding, music-making, out-loud laughing, flower-smelling, bread baking, ball catching moments alone and together that make life worth while.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In My Own Voice

When I began writing music as a young girl I was heavily influenced by the only modern music I was familiar with: Bartok’s Hungarian Folk Songs for Children, Kabalevsky’s Little Song, Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka, Copland and Debussy. My early pieces were folk-song like, sometimes impressionistic, always singable. When I switched my major to composition after my senior year at Lawrence University my composition teacher told me my ears were too conservative and suggested I start listening to more modern pieces. So I got my radio operator’s license and a spot on our campus radio station. I launched a new program I called “Brave New Worlds” highlighting music by women, lesser known historical and modern composers. I came to appreciate Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Joseph Schwantner, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Joan Tower, Nancy Van de Vate and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

And yes, my ears changed.

I abandoned the modes in favor of the octatonic scale or contrived scales composed of alternating minor thirds and seconds. I avoided major and minor triads and anything that sounded “too tonal.” I tried to compose like my graduate school professors, writing rhythmically pounding, driven, dissonant music that I came to associate with the masculine, penetrating force. But always in those pieces there was a yearning, achingly lyrical solo midway through by a viola or oboe or cello. I think it was my feminine aesthetic crying out, my own composer’s voice desperate to transcend, to be heard.

As I sought these last few years to return to composing again I have struggled to find my way back to “serious” music. The themes I invented which would have pleased my graduate school professors left me dry and uninspired until I let go of the ghost of their approval and, instead, wrote what I heard. And now my music flows again. It is lyrical and not so dissonant, not so self-consciously modern. I have given up the idea that I will or need to move and shake the musical world. I truly don’t care as I used to whether I influence anyone else or wind up in the history books or win a Pullitzer. It is enough that I am writing again, and that what I am writing pleases me. It is what I want to write, what I hear, my own lost voice. I obey my muse and write my music—mine and no one else’s. I am free to express myself my own way; there is no one looking over my shoulder. I cannot begin to explain the joy that brings me. When your soul has had its wings clipped you watch awestruck when it grows them back and begins to fly….

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Ideal State?

There is an ideal state between tension and relaxation that makes it possible to play the piano well. The shoulder, arm and hand must be relaxed but not limp to play smoothly and evenly without fatigue or injury. The same is true for singing. The throat must be open, but the diaphragm must be engaged and toned. Music itself is full of the balance between tension and release. As a piece progresses the listener searches for the familiar--the return of a melody or rhythm or harmony--and longs for something new. Skillful composers manipulate that need for unity and contrast so that just when you think the melody or rhythm will go one way it goes another. They introduce the element of happy surprise! Writers do the same thing as they strive to create a story that is logical and plausible but not predictable. They know readers love a cliff hanger or plot twist and they work hard to include them whenever they can.

So much of life is like that too. We need a little bit of stress, what people sometimes call "good stress", so that life is exciting and challenging and we have a reason to get up in the morning. But too much and we shut down. We get exhausted and cranky. As I go about my day I often think of this strange balancing act, the need to keep myself busy enough without overdoing it. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible. But I know that life is an art. I keep trying to add a cliffhanger or two to keep it interesting, but I'm always oh-so-glad when I arrive safely and metaphorically home.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Beauty in Diversity

My 13-year-old daughter asked me the other day whether she should pluck her eyebrows. Apparently a girl at school informed her that her eyebrows were too misshapen! She has a pretty solid sense of herself, so her first reaction was, "Why would I want to pluck my eyebrows? How ridiculous!" She thought plucking eyebrows was some weird fad that her seventh grade classmates had invented. I told her, no, women have been tweezing and bleaching and tweaking and picking on themselves for centuries. This led to a wonderful discussion of all the pressures on women to look a certain way. We talked about how commercials purposely set up women (and all of us) to feel bad or anxious about something and then try to convince us that the only cure/solution is to buy whatever product they are pushing. We talked about how women are literally chopped to pieces in print ads. How many times can you find a cropped picture of a woman's body part--a leg, a curvy hip, a hand--which does not include the rest of her body or at least her face! We talked about plastic surgery and the trend toward younger and younger recipients.

I thought about all those thousands of girls and women spending however many thousands of dollars trying to look the same--the same Pippa butt, the same Angelina Jolie plumped lip, the same Barbie figure. I thought about how sad it is that women can't see their own unique beauty. Then, as so often happens with me, I thought about music.

There have been tens of thousands of beautiful pieces of music written over the last three hundred years. Each is made up of the same elements: long and short notes, notes that step or skip, melody, harmony. Yet each is unique in its beauty, in the shape of its phrases. We are like that. Though we are created from the same template, though we each have a mouth and a nose and a chin, none of us looks exactly like anyone else. We are beautiful because we are unique. How we gaze into a child's face eagerly looking for dad's nose or mom's eyes! How we marvel at the way the child reflects both parents' faces, combining them somehow into a unique shape. How sad it is that so many women cannot see the beauty in their uniqueness and the uniqueness of their own particular beauty. It is that very diversity that makes us lovely.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Life is Too Short to Scrub

I never scrub. If there’s dried on/baked on muck on a pan I let it soak first. I wonder what else needs soaking in my life. Could I put some troublesome problems on hold? Would they get easier? What is the equivalent of soaking a set-in-stone habit? Is there any virtue in putting some things off for a more propitious time?

I have a “to do” folder—two actually—one for urgent tasks and one for things I need to “get around to” some day. It’s easy to figure out what goes in the “urgent tasks” folder: bills, insurance claim forms, letters that require a response. It’s harder to figure out what to do with other items: the college scholarship info that I will want to know about in four years when my daughter is old enough to apply for college, or the neat websites that I may want to check out some time, or the articles ripped out of magazines (how to turn my hobby into cash, American-made products I can buy to stimulate the economy, recipes I want to try but need to plug into my Weight Watchers website calculator so I know how many points they are.) My life is full of such tidbits that I can’t let go of but can’t yet deal with—hence the need for a “get around to it” folder. There are some things that are worth hanging onto just in case. Having a place to keep them makes me feel hopeful and organized.

Unfortunately, it invariably takes me so long to get around to the “get around to it” folder, that when I do, half the things in it are past date: concerts that already happened, coupons that are expired, business cards of people I met so long ago they will have no idea who I am. I always feel bad about the missed opportunities in the “get around to it” folder. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing to miss out once in a while. My life is pretty full as it is! Maybe by letting these tasks metaphorically soak I allow a natural selection process to weed out those things that really aren’t important after all. Maybe it is sometimes better to put off until tomorrow what you just can’t get to today. Life is simply to short for scrubbing anything that will get easier if you let it soak a while first.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Life's Eternal Spiral

Years ago I attended a women's spirituality conference where I had an astonishing experience during an exercise in opening ourselves up to the voice of Wisdom (however you define that.) We sat in a large circle, chairs facing inward, with our eyes closed. One by one we took turns circling along the outside and when we felt we had had a "message" for a particular woman, we would whisper it in her ear. I have no idea whether what popped in my head answered any questions for the woman I whispered it to, but it did answer questions I had at the time about what felt like a bout of failure. The message that popped into my head was "Life is a spiral. Don't be afraid to turn back along the way." It still gives me goosebumps. The image of a spiral is a very powerful one and a very feminine one as well. The power of a spiral lies in the fact that though we keep turning back we are never in the exact same place twice. Anyone who has walked a labyrinth as a spiritual practice has experienced this fact in a profound way. As we turn and head back in the direction we just left, our feet are in a new place. So there is both a sense of familiarity and a sense of something completely new.

Life is like that. Every beginning has certain characteristics--hope, fear, anticipation--that it shares with every other beginning though we might be talking about very different experiences. Reaching our thirteenth or eighteenth or fortieth or sixtieth birthday. Going away to college, or saying goodbye to children who are leaving for college. Getting married or getting divorced. Giving birth to or adopting a baby. Beginning a new career or a new phase of the same career. We think of these as very different experiences, yet they are similar too. Each time we experience a new beginning feels as though we are repeating a process we've been through before; beginnings carry an imprint or memory of every other beginning--ours and those of others who have been there before us.

It's been said that every ending is also a beginning. The reverse is true as well. In order for something to begin, something must end. When I married I was keenly aware that I was giving up a certain freedom as well as taking on a great responsibility. The moment I recognized my unborn baby's complete and total dependence on me for life and health was another epiphany. Each of these experiences was full of promise but also of loss, for I would no longer be free to do whatever I liked, someone would be depending on me.

The image of a spiral has come to me many times since that women's conference. It offers comfort when I feel like I'm in a rut. It offers the promise that a new experience I'm frightened of will have something in it I can understand, something familiar. The spiral is nothing more or less than the spiritual experience of our twisting DNA, the spiralling whirl of stars in our galaxy, the very stuff of life.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

An Anachronistic Excuse

Well, February has somehow disappeared without any blog posts making it out of my head and onto this site. I have a good excuse--really. I had mono. Yes, you heard me right. I know I'm 47 years old. No, I have no idea how I caught it. The only people I kiss on the mouth are my husband and sometimes, when no one is looking, my dog. (The cat won't let me and that stopped feeling like a good way to greet my daughter once she was out of diapers.)

I am, of course, a piano teacher. A small army of puny people march through my living room several times a week, use my potty and play my piano. They represent a dozen different elementary, middle and high schools and many of them have little brothers and sisters who go to another dozen different preschools and mothers-day-outs and frequent parks and playscapes where the equipment is probably sterilized once every decade or so (if we're lucky.) So in any given week I am probably exposed to more germs than many people encounter in a life-time. I am very careful to disinfect the piano keys, doorknobs and bathroom fixtures after my piano students have left for the day. I use so much sanitizer I have to buy in bulk. One never knows where those little fingers have been. I did actually witness a student pick his nose right before playing his piece once. It happens. But apparently, in spite of my usual vigilance some happy little Epstein-Barr virus took up residence and had a party in my throat for more than a month.

I started feeling symptoms right after the Zumba dance party I threw myself for my 47th birthday. I don't know whether there was any connection. I was pretty tired after the dance party, but I'd also had a Tae Kwon Do class right before so I guess that would be a normal reaction. What I do know is that I was certainly tired for far longer than one should be and when I started to feel like a golf ball had lodged itself irretrievably in the back of my throat I finally went to the walk-in clinic where a blood test confirmed the anachronistic diagnosis.

It has not been fun. Even having an excuse to sit on my behind and knit does not compensate for that icky feeling in my throat. I am sick and tired of cough drops. I am sick and tired of sitting. I am, well, sick and tired. So much for the "I will write a blog post every week without fail" plan. Oh well. In any endeavor worth doing set-backs are inevitable. This one really kicked my butt.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Say "Yes" to the Mess

As I've said before I am determined this year to do the things I say are important--like writing music again and blogging on a regular basis--goals I haven't been faithful to in the past few years. To keep myself from getting side-tracked I have been running a sort of motto in my mind from time to time: "First things first". That seems overly obvious but it is harder than it sounds. What is a first thing and what is a second thing? It depends on the moment and the day and how well I kept on task the day before. And it means making hard choices.

Today what "first things first" means is that I did manage to write some music (yeah!) I did manage to finish a crochet project that I need to mail off. I did manage to write out a list for my daughter of who gave her what for Christmas so she can finally write those thank you notes. I did manage to make the bed and straighten the living room and bathroom before my students started to arrive and did catch up on my email. But the dishes are still soaking in the sink, I barely got my shower in and there's a stack of unopened mail and bills to pay on my desk that is threatening to careen off onto the floor at any moment. Spending time on my music meant some other very important things just didn't get done. My conscience is bugging me a bit. Doesn't my husband deserve an immaculate and well-ordered home when he arrives after a busy and daunting day? Does my wish to provide that sound archaic? He has never been the sort to complain if things aren't done, and he is absolutely an equal partner in the work inside as well as outside of our home. But I realize my choice to "do my music" means I can't keep up with all the same chores I've been so careful to stay on top of in the past. It seems that to honor my dream I will occasionally just have to "say yes to the mess" and hope my family understands!

What were your "first things" today? Were they the ones that got you closer to your dreams and goals or the ones you felt obligated to do for the good of someone or something else?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Please Steal This!

From time to time I think of great ideas (at least I think they're great) for products or services or organizations etc. which I want access to without the actual work of creating them. So here is a list of ideas I wish you would steal....

1) Breakfast Delivery--like pizzas only home-delivered breakfast food like tacos, pancakes and bacon!
2) CARR--Citizens Against Road Rage--an organization (not yet in existance) dedicated to educating the public about road rage, offering public service announcements with reminders about rules of the road (like stopping for my daughter in the school cross walk!) and to encourage courteous driver behavior (like actually signaling your intentions and not honking at me just because I won't go when YOU think I ought to.)
3) Tivo for radio. I love my tivo for television shows, but I wish there were an easy way to record my favorite radio broadcasts so I could play them back, rewind when I wanted to hear something again etc. I'm so tivo-trained that when I'm listening to the radio in the car I'm always stunned to realize I can't hit the "back" button if I miss the title of the piece.
4) A purse with a built-in foot stool. I'm a bit short and standard-sized chairs sometimes sit high enough that I'm not really comfortable. If I try to cross my legs one leg always slides off, and only my toe-tips reach the floor.
5) A custom-bumper sticker business. (One may already exist. I haven't checked.) I keep thinking up ideas for bumper stickers and wish I could somehow print one. Like, when I owned a GEO I always wished I had a bumper sticker that read "Back Off. I'm pedaling as fast as I can." That would have been useful especially in the Texas Hill Country where I could go 30 at best when I floored it. Of course I can't actually put stickers on my car bumper because my husband thinks they look trashy. He won't even agree to post stickers from my favorite public radio station, (KMFA) my alma mater, (Lawrence University) or even my Phi Beta Kappa sticker. Of course he thinks Packer Gs are just dandy.

If you have an idea you'd like someone to steal let us know via a comment on this post. In the meantime, I wish one of you would steal mine!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks

I was messaging a former college friend on Facebook last Friday afternoon when she told me our old piano professor, Ted Rehl, had taken up the piano again after completely abandoning it in 1992 when he retired. She is thinking about playing again and is a bit intimidated by how much she will have to relearn but his story inspired her to try. Mr. Rehl told her she must be prepared to play an hour and a half a day and do as many exercises as possible to retrain her fingers, regain her dexterity and technique. I scurried to read the article and play the video clip myself. In the article that accompanies the clip Rehl explains that he is enjoying being able to play for pleasure without worrying about a professional reputation. When you are a music professor, he explains, you are concerned with "getting it right", with your reputation among your students and colleagues. Now, playing concerts for pleasure in his retirement community, Rehl has fallen in love with his instrument as he did when he began playing hymns by ear as a child.

If 81-year-old Ted Rehl can relearn then so can we all! I have always  maintained that it is never too late to learn something new, try something new or regain something lost though this sometimes requires reframing. Perhaps I will never teach at a university or finish my doctorate. But I can regain enough technique to play music I love and to compose something beautiful. I've added Rehl to my list of "old dog" heroes along with Rosina Lhevinne. Ms. Lhevinne earned high honors as a young pianist before she married the famous concert pianist, Joseph Lhevinne after which she abandoned her own solo career to become his helpmate (as so many women did at the time.) After his death she took up her own career again in her sixties, performing concerts and teaching at the Julliard School, a career that lasted well into her 90s! If these octo/nongenarians can jumpstart new careers maybe it isn't such a stretch for this soon-to-be 47 year old to do the same.

If you are trying to learn something new or regain something lost or if you have examples of other "old dog heroes" post a comment!,,20064248,00.html