Last Saturday, my 12-year-old cellist son and I played for a garden tour in Palo Alto. He’s going to be on tour with his school orchestra during his teacher’s regular recital in a couple of weeks, so this performance, also organized by his cello teacher, was like a mini-recital for him. He played 2 movements from the Vivaldi cello sonata in A minor that he’s been working on, and it went well. Continue reading Connections
My daughter and I are in Oregon this week, visiting some colleges. She’s a junior, it’s February break, and my Facebook feed is full of reports of my friends with kids the same age doing the same thing, all across the country.
We adopted a cat today. Or rather, we put down a deposit on adopting a cat tomorrow, from the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. Her name is Sadie, and she is 4 years old, part Siamese, very soft, and a little chubby. Her blue eyes are a little crossed. She is a sweet, mellow cat. Not one that is going to jump on you or lick your face. Continue reading UU Lent, Day 5: Love
In the past, I have referred to myself ironically as a “soccer mom.” Both my kids have played soccer, and one of them still does.
I say ironically, though, because it’s not a natural fit for me. Growing up, I never played any team sports. I was 2 years ahead of my school classmates and graduated high school when I was 16. I’m also old enough that there weren’t as many opportunities for girls to play youth sports back then. When talking, or even thinking, about why I didn’t play team sports, I tend to emphasize those aspects of the experience–that I was younger and smaller than everyone else, that there was sexism–with the fond hope in the back of my mind that if I had grown up in a different time or place, things might have been different for me too.
But that’s debatable. Furthermore, the past is the past. We’ll never know whether I could have successfully played a team sport as a kid. All I have is now. When I was in my mid-20’s, in graduate school, I went skiing in Lake Tahoe. I remember riding up the ski lift with a woman who told me that she was there because, for her 50th birthday, she had learned to ski. I also remember thinking something like, “wow, good for her, she’s still doing new things and putting herself out there at such an advanced age!” Well, I apologize now for any internal condescension I might have felt. Because here I am now, a few months before my own 50th birthday, learning to play soccer.
Before the move to CA, I felt I needed to make sure that my 12-year-old son had some activities outside of school when he got here. He played soccer in Belmont so I looked online for a soccer team. I found a couple: AYSO region 45 in Mountain View, and a private competitive league. Of those, AYSO seemed to be the most like what we were used to: a reasonably priced, recreational town league that competes with neighboring towns and has boys and girls divisions. And, just like back in Belmont, it was run by a small number of super-dedicated and amazing volunteers who had way too much to do. Furthermore, registration was already over and my son was on the wait list. I emailed the competitive team and let them know we were interested. But then, a few weeks later, I got a familiar-sounding email from AYSO: “Help, we need coaches!” And if you agree to coach, your child is guaranteed a spot on a team. I decided to do it.
Fast Forward a few months, and practices have started. My son’s team has bright yellow uniforms and is called the Wasps. I’m an Assistant Coach under a British Head Coach, Coach David, who likes to use words that sound like they are straight out of Harry Potter: striker, sweeper, stopper, keeper. (In Belmont, we just called the players forwards, midfielders, and defenders.) And he’s very experienced. Which is good, because our team has two assistant coaches, both of us moms with kids on the team, neither of us with soccer experience.
There are two major ways in which my soccer experience has been different here so far. The first is that individual teams have to paint the fields.
You mean fields don’t just magically paint themselves? Oh, right, this isn’t Quidditch. You use one of these little machines, put in a spray can, and follow the lines that someone else (hopefully) laid down last week. When I got to the field, there were still some people playing, but they understood what we needed to do, and let us have at it: three parents rolling these carts around in the fading twilight. One of the coaches on the field who didn’t know me even took the trouble to thank me for doing this, and he reminded me to be sure to paint the penalty spot. “That often gets forgotten!” It was fun. And it gives you a better idea of where all the lines are and how far they are from each other. I will also note that the school where this field is, which my son does not attend, is within walking distance of our house. Unlike the school he does attend. Such is the crazy school districting in CA.
The other aspect that is different from what I did before is the training classes. In Belmont I assisted too, and I got occasional emails about the existence of coaching classes but no one checked up if I took them or not, and I decided that I was too busy. Here, if you volunteer it’s required that you sign up and take a training class appropriate to your level. There was one on Labor Day weekend. When I signed up it seemed very far away, and “it’ll be good for me,” I thought. But as Labor Day approached, I got nervous. “Any plans for Labor Day weekend?” people were asking. “Uh . . . yeah.”
The weekend dawned and it soon became “so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Or maybe an EGBOPP. That was one of the many acronyms that they gave us so that we could remember equally many lists: lists of attacking principles, defending principles, mission statement, vision statement, red cards, yellow cards, laws of the game. It was a little like being back in high school. I even made flash cards, because there was a test at the end.
I chose to highlight that particular acronym here, because that is the acronym for the AYSO philosophies, which I think are worth memorizing, and repeating: Everybody Plays, Good Sportsmanship, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, and Player Development.
I support all of those philosophies and think they apply equally well to other youth sports and activities. So it’s an organization I’m proud to support and be involved with. I hope keeping these philosophies in mind can help me be a better educator wherever I am involved with youth. This is not the impression I had of most youth sports/activities when I was growing up. Everybody plays? Player Development for all players, even the less talented? Not really. Some things do appear to have changed for the better.
This weekend we drove to Poultney, VT, in the rain, to drop off our teenage daughter at German Camp. On the way we found a few geocaches.
The “German Camp” is more accurately called the Middlebury Monterey Language Academy, a 4-week immersion program for high-school-age students, taking place this summer at Green Mountain College.
My husband was born in Germany and is a native German speaker. I lived in Berlin for 8 months as part of a gap year between high school and college, studied the German language at Princeton, and worked in a medical lab one summer in Essen. Nonetheless, our efforts to raise our kids bilingual in New England have not been very successful, at least not yet. There aren’t all that many Germans here. Or at least those that are here are well assimilated and speak excellent English. That was my problem too, even in Germany, especially when I was starting out: their English was so much better than my German that everyone tended to just switch to English to avoid the struggle.
That’s not going to happen here at the MMLA. Students take a “language pledge” to only speak the target language for the entire 4 weeks. Their roommate speaks German, they speak German during meals and while playing soccer and board games. They watch German movies and put on German performance art. Once a week they are allowed to use their phones and speak English to their parents and friends. But we won’t even have to let her do that. And the Academy is pretty isolated. Vermont is beautiful and it’s easy to understand where the name comes from. But there aren’t many opportunities for socializing outside of your group on campus.
“You know,” our daughter said as we pulled into Poultney and followed the signs to Green Mountain College, “We could still turn the car around and go back to Boston.”
The sun came out, briefly, and signs directed us to check-in. Kids played soccer on the lawn. She got an ID, a T-shirt, and a key to the dorm. We went to a parent info session, where they discussed a concern that our daughter had been articulating on the way up. She had said, in consternation, “I can be funny in English. But I can’t be funny in German!” We were told that at first, when the students take the language pledge, the campus gets really quiet. The kids feel like they lose their personalities. But over the course of the month, they build them back up again in the new language. And the campus again comes alive with chatter and laughter.
This is the first time our daughter has been to a sleep-away camp. It wasn’t really a thing when my husband was growing up in Germany, and it wasn’t part of my childhood experience in Western NY, either. We planned this camp back in the fall, before we ever thought we might be moving. But that’s what we’ll be doing when she gets back. So, it was weird driving home without her.
Our 12-yo son sat alone in the back seat, quietly playing on his iPad or trying to sleep. He didn’t want to get out and try to find any geocaches. I did, though; my husband and I got into kind of a rhythm, where he would stop the car at the guard rail and I would jump out, find the container, and sign the log. It was a series of caches, mostly pill bottles covered with camouflage tape, and one small lock-and-lock containing a cute travel bug. We can’t identify him, but he looks Pixar-ish.
The last caches on our list were a travel bug hotel and a regular cache near “Kissing Bridge.” That is the name of a ski resort in New York state, near where I grew up, but it is also apparently the name of a covered bridge in Vermont. And the TB hotel has a really cute design that I won’t divulge here. A quick kiss on the bridge after the cache find, and we were on our way back to Boston.
For the most part, I won’t miss New England weather when we move to California. Today I could have done without the rain getting my sneakers wet, the humidity, the mud, and the mosquitoes around some of the caches. But the sunset over the Green Mountains really made the clouds look beautiful. I’ll miss this.
I used to think that cleaning up and organizing was fun, but that was also when I thought I was good at it. Unfortunately, my illusions have been shattered: I don’t feel good at it anymore.
MY HOUSE IS SO FULL OF STUFF! Where did it all come from? It can’t all go to California with us.
Yesterday we had a yard sale. We sold a lot and made almost a thousand dollars. The biggest item we sold was the snowblower we bought in February during snowmageddon. We had survived for almost 12 years with a little electric one and shovels, but this last winter we broke down and bought a gas-powered one. We used it once. It was kind of cool: with a 208 cc engine of its own, it was a bit like a small car. It practically drove itself along the sidewalk. Now somebody else owns it, and is a little more prepared for whatever next winter is going to throw at us. Them, I mean. Throw at them. We won’t be here.
The saddest part of the experience for me is the toys, and it’s not over yet. We sold quite a few toys at the yard sale, but we still have piles of them in the house: board games on shelves, Legos in boxes, dolls missing heads. Planes, trains, and automobiles. And stuffed animals. Oh, the stuffed animals.
I bawled watching Toy Story 3. I was a kid like Andy, or perhaps even more like Bonnie: someone who played with toys, often by myself, and made them come alive in my imagination. I was also an introvert and a bookworm, sometimes more comfortable with toys than with other people. My dolls had a government, they lived in a couple of doll beds/cradles, and each doll bed had its own elected leader. Blonde Cinderella shed her rags and became Mary from the LIttle House books. She was accompanied by the shorter, brown-haired Brownie doll who lost her uniform and beanie to become Laura. They liked to drink tea a lot. I played my violin for them at night as we crossed the living room prairie.
I didn’t realize until much later that not all kids would be like that. Nowadays, with my kids ages 12 and almost 16, they would have outgrown most of their toys no matter what. But even when they were younger, they played with toys much less than I did. For a while I saw this as a bad thing, and blamed the internet and computer games, which they do like and spend a fair amount of time on. “Kids need to play!” intone all these articles, bemoaning a loss of childhood imaginative play. And there have been times when I, like the mother bunny in Good night iPad, have wanted to take all the electronics away, dump them out by the curb, and leave them there in a grand gesture of protest and change. “Good night pop stars, good night MacBook Air. Good night gadgets everywhere.”
I still agree broadly with those sentiments, but as I survey the leftovers and try to come up with a plan that will satisfy my need for decluttering, my Toy Story angst, and my desire to keep junk out of landfills, I think the story is a little more complicated. We did try to shield our kids from a lot of commercial TV, and perhaps as a result they didn’t spend a lot of time lobbying us for toys. Sometimes they couldn’t even say what they wanted for Christmas or their birthdays. I remember being a little frustrated about this, and buying stuff–toys that I thought were beautiful, or interesting, or educational–anyway in hopes that they would warm up to it. Occasionally they did, but often not. Now I have to get it out of the house.
This is about the time when I suspect that someone reading this blog is going to mention Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe it will be on Facebook. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read reviews of it. The author’s main point seem to be that you keep only things that “spark joy.” While I find joy complicated and elusive even under the best of circumstances, I like the idea that you decide what to keep rather than deciding what to throw away. I also like her idea of thanking things for their service before you get rid of them. That makes the part of me happy that still thinks that toys have feelings. What I don’t like about her approach is that she seems not to care very much where the stuff goes when you get rid of it. The focus is all on the happiness of the person doing the discarding and not on the consequences of that discarding to the rest of the world. That bothers me.
So I realize that for a lot of this stuff, it would have been better to have not bought it in the first place. I bought many of the toys more for myself, and for my idea of what childhood should be like, rather than for my kids. I didn’t know, and I just assumed they’d be like me in their approach to toys. Maybe I should have listened better to them. In the intervening years I’ve heard much more about kids who don’t play with toys, kids who are overwhelmed by all the bells and whistles that modern toys have, why it’s better for kids to have fewer toys, and people of all ages who want to simplify by having less stuff. All of this is normal, and it doesn’t mean your kids are internet-addled automatons just because they don’t play with toys as intensely and imaginatively as Andy and Bonnie. In any case, it’s not too late for me to become a better listener and a better steward of the stuff we do have.
And if you want a gently used Sorry! board game or a Webkinz turtle or unicorn in good shape from a smoke-free, pet-free home, please let me know.
The past two weeks have been a . . . what? I’m tempted to lapse into cliches–“roller coaster,” “whirlwind,” or maybe “sh**storm” (as one friend from church described it).
My 12-year-old son had acute appendicitis, from which he now seems to be recovering nicely, thank goodness. And, while he was in the hospital, my German father-in-law passed away. While this was not unexpected, as he was almost 86 years old and his health had been declining, the timing was difficult. Thanks to my parents’ generosity in watching our kids, including our convalescent son, for a week, I was able to go to Germany with my husband, attend the memorial service, and help clean out old possessions. We’re back now. The 6-hour time difference between Germany and Boston has not yet fully worn off, leading me to wake up before the sun.
My husband grew up in a small midwestern town called Mülheim an der Ruhr, in the “Ruhrgebiet” near Düsseldorf. “Midwestern” actually connotes some qualities in Germany that are similar to those it brings to mind in the US: modest, hardworking, family-oriented, industrial, not given to religious or political extremism, and possessing of an accent that is easy to understand. I learned Hochdeutsch (“high German,” a standardized dialect used in education and commerce) at university, and it stands me in good stead in the Ruhrgebiet, unlike, say, in Bavaria.
We decided early on in our life together, after a rather harrowing overnight flight on our honeymoon (which we still refer to as being MÜDE IN MÜLHEIM), that our later trips back to visit his family and friends would go through London, would include an overnight stay there in an airport or other hotel after a day flight, and would continue on to Germany late the next morning. “But you waste a whole day that way!” some folks have protested. Perhaps, but our experience is that the day is wasted anyway after an overnight flight, and includes a wholly unpleasant (and in my case unsuccessful) struggle to stay awake that precludes doing virtually anything else.
After arriving in Mülheim with our rental car, we went to his stepmother’s house to see what was left. She had already taken care of many things, including the Memorial Service arrangements for the following day. But there were boxes–many boxes–up in the attic, in the basement, and in a room that my father-in-law had used as a study after retiring from his job as an English and French teacher in the Gymnasium my husband attended. In truth, the thought of all this “stuff” made me a little anxious: my father-in-law’s difficult life circumstances had taken their psychological toll and had made him want to hold on tight to things. Taken prisoner in Pomerania by the Russian army when he was only 15 and sent to a Siberian labor camp, he had lost everything in World War II. After the war, he had come to Mülheim with “nothing but a blanket and two left shoes,” and found happiness with his teaching career and his wife and son, until his wife–my husband’s mother–passed away in 1989, before we ever met. He had since remarried, to a lovely and loyal woman, my stepmother-in-law, and it was she we came to see now. She herself wasn’t sure what was in all those boxes.
As we talked, she pointed out a clock on the windowsill. We have a similar one at home, it is called an “Anniversary Clock.” This clock was a gift from him early in their marriage. It had stopped some time ago and nothing she could do–new batteries included–would start it up again. But the morning he passed, it had somehow mysteriously started again, and was still going. This clock now reminded us how late it was–already after 6 pm–time passed very quickly there up until the end of our visit, largely but not only because of the time difference.
We started going through some old folders and albums. Some of the folders were easy to dispatch: receipts from the 1970s and 1980s for furniture, appliances, and books; bank and insurance statements. These were no longer necessary to keep–the appliances themselves, and even the furniture, were long gone–but there were a lot of these papers, and they were pretty dusty and musty. We were looking for “treasures:” personal correspondence, photos, bank account and insurance verification that would make our task of closing out accounts easier. There weren’t many of these treasures to be had at the moment, so we took a break and went for a walk to look for some geocaches there in Mülheim around my stepmother-in-law’s house.
This search led us to an old school building down the street, which had some interesting carvings: “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund,” reads one. I had to ask my husband what that meant. According to him, it’s a popular folk saying in support of being an early riser, kind of like “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” is in the US. “The morning hour has gold in its mouth.” I’m reminded of the sunrise itself, the early morning when the golden sun makes its appearance. I can’t speak to the relevance of the turtle or the butterfly, but they’re sweet.
The second geocache we went looking for was on the ground of Kloster Saarn, a Cloister museum in Mülheim. The weather was cool and cloudy, and the grounds were a nice place for a walk. Nonetheless, these grounds were completely deserted on a Monday evening. This helped us avoid detection around the area of the cache, which was magnetic and located on a downspout on one of the buildings. The trees were managed creatively and cut into the shape of crosses:
There was also what looked on first glance like a large, green field. But on closer examination, this field was revealed to be a pond, complete with ducks swimming in it.
My husband mentioned that, despite having grown up in Mülheim, he had never been here before. His stepmother lives in a different part of town from where he grew up. We planned to visit his childhood home in the coming days too. It was sold a couple of years ago and a new young family is now living in it.
The greenery, the museum, the ducks, the clock, the river, the advice from some 20th century architect-sage. These all helped us feel part of the circle of life as we prepared mentally for the Memorial Service tomorrow.
“If April Showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?”
My co-instructor told that joke last time we were teaching science to 5th graders. The kids appreciated it, or at least they humored us. I associate jokes like that with an age that I feel like I never quite left: the age before eye rolling and banter with quick-witted sarcasm. The age when clean puns are still funny.
I also associate May flowers with my mother. She taught me how to say “for-sithy-uh” and “pack-a-sandra” and “impatience.” My Mother’s Day gift to her growing up was usually a flowering plant, but that was for her, not me. To my mind back then, it was only ladies of a certain age who belonged to garden clubs and spent a lot of time and effort and thought on something that didn’t really seem worth it. Vegetables, maybe–I mean, at least you can eat those. But flowers? They smelled, they made me sneeze. And even worse, people brought them inside, where they died and shriveled up and became creepy. Flowers for Algernon. A Rose for Emily. Thanks but no thanks.
I’ve been an on-and-off reader of Laura Vanderkam’s blog for years. As a business writer, she writes about managing time and money. Several years ago, she wrote a blog called “What does it mean to be frugal?” that resonated with me. In it, she describes moving into a new house, where the “landscaper had a great sense of the eastern Pennsylvania rainfall and seasons, because with no upkeep whatsoever, a series of flowers has bloomed in that yard from March until June. One sequence of flowers comes up, then when it dies, another takes its place” (italics mine). Ever since reading that blog, I realized: that’s the kind of yard, and those are the kind of flowers, I want. Flowers that stay outside and require no upkeep whatsoever, but that make your life better because of their beauty and harmony with the seasons.
Like Vanderkam’s house, our house had some landscaping done by the previous owner, but whether due to age or neglect, it was not blooming in an orderly series (or, sometimes, not blooming at all). Bushes got crushed or bent out of shape by snow during the winter. Perennials and bulbs got hidden by weeds or overgrown bushes. One year I ordered some plants from the Farmers’ Market. They were locally grown and supposed to be adapted to our New England environment. I planted them in the backyard and then one night they just disappeared–a critter’s meal. A big tree branch crushed a flowering rhododendron during a windstorm. My husband also managed to mow down a rose bush with the lawn mower. And on top of all that, our yard is mostly shady. It gets a little sun at certain times of day, in certain places. But tulips weren’t blooming, phlox died, and bunnies and squirrels continued to feast.
I decided I needed to lower my expectations. I was now myself a lady of a certain age, but unlike Mr. McGregor in a Beatrix Potter book, I wanted to co-exist with the bunnies, and with the squirrels, who have built at least 7 nests in the trees around our property, a few seen peeking above the roof when there are no leaves on the trees. And, like it or not, I needed to co-exist with the snow.
No upkeep? Well…
One thing I did was plant blooming perennials. First I planted daffodils, a free offer from the Breck’s catalog. Then I planted tulips (I bought those). Then I tried a couple of sorry-looking specimens from Home Depot, bought on sale at the end of their flowering season. One was called Dicentra spectabilis. At least that’s what I called it, “dicentra” for short. It had a lot of pretty leaves and it grew big and filled the space where I put it, only to die way back in the winter. There were also some ferns that grew along the garden border, from moss that I decided not to get rid of, because, at least it was green and didn’t have to be mowed. Hostas acted about the same as dicentra: started out small, but soon grew like gangbusters, without fertilizer and without watering. The daffodils and tulips, too. I didn’t water or fertilize them, and I didn’t cut them down for weeks, until the leaves themselves started to turn brown and shrivel up on their own.
This year I had 11 tulips, which was 10 1/2 more than last year. (I’m calling the one that lasted for 24 hours before becoming bunny food 1/2). They get their sun, but only at certain times of the day. These almost looked like they were genetically engineered with some kind of fluorescent protein, but it’s just the way the sun hits them for about an hour.
The rose bush that my husband accidentally mowed grew back, surprisingly, and yielded many pretty red roses. I made a few cuttings and put these under jars that someone else had discarded. This year I have 3 rose bushes instead of 1. We know that original rose bush is a survivor. We hope that its offspring are, too.
The daffodils have become my friends over the past several years. I see their little green shoots poking through, and I know the snow is going to end eventually. My garden blooming felt like a symbol of hope two years ago, just after the trauma of the Boston Marathon Bombings and the manhunt less than a mile from here.
On Mother’s Day, my mother just got back from Holland and we were discussing tulips, and dicentra. Both are blooming this year, in kind of a sequence, without much upkeep. “What’s dicentra?” she asked. It’s apparently called “Bleeding Heart,” but I rather prefer the Latin. I don’t want a garden that’s bleeding. Mother’s Day this year was all about chocolate. And flowers in the garden.
It’s called “See-Toe” or CITO, for “Cache In, Trash Out.” In honor of Earth Day, geocachers organize events to help clean up local parks and rivers. This was the second time my family and I have participated in one of these events on the Charles River in Cambridge.
The day was a little nippy, so fortunately they provided gloves–and T-shirts (for layers). (You can also see that I’m about to become the shortest one in my family! I’ve known this day was coming for years . . . )
There were about 25 of us, each ready to take a big plastic bag along the river and put in whatever trash we could find. It was a long, tough winter, and one might expect that the melting of the snow would reveal–what?
Actually, the river, with its daffodils along the banks, tree buds just opening, and geese swimming, looks pretty good already. But if you look a little closer, you’ll always find something. I didn’t find a geocache. But I did find one leftover stake from a tent, maybe a park festival last year. Wrappers, cigarette and cigar butts, especially around the benches. These are definitely rarer, though, than they were a generation ago when I was a kid. So are bottle caps. And particular spots in the river seem to accumulate trash. A soccer ball. Something that looks like it might have been a buoy at one time, before it broke free and floated down here. You pick up the big stuff and think you’re done, but keep looking and there’s always more. Snickers bar wrappers. Dunkin’ Donuts. Styrofoam, lots of styrofoam. It actually does look like it’s breaking down at least a little bit. I wonder if its ingredients have gotten more biodegradable than in the past.
Most of the group, except these geese, leaves me behind as I work on my little spot. But the sun feels nice and I warm up. An old church hymn comes to mind as I’m working:
I don’t know this at the time, but the next day, Sunday, we are going to sing this hymn in church. Some of my church friends are working on the same project, with another group, just downriver. Great minds think alike, I guess. Right now I feel like the lyrics have gotten a little ahead of us too. This river is gentle and tame, at least in this time and place. I usually imagine the Mississippi River when I hear this hymn, something great and wide and archetypal, a vision that might give hope to a person laboring under the yoke of disease, fear, or oppression. And there’s no getting around it: this hymn is about death, the imagery that of the Apocalypse. It’s what we all with our little trash bags and canvas gloves are working against.
This is what our whole group collected in about an hour and a half:
When we are finished, the river looks much the way it did when we came, teeming with early spring life. I hope we’ve done enough.
Last weekend on the violinist.com website where I keep my violin blog, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model?” The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend/colleague who passed away a few years ago. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which both then and today was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.
It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” comes in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (I’m not), cannot reasonably hope to emulate. As a spectator or consumer, one can taste and enjoy what they bring to the world on special occasions, but my day-to-day life, at least, flows on without many ripples from superstardom.
Music is “just” a hobby for me though. I didn’t go to music school, and I don’t usually make money at music. I had industrial-strength performance anxiety until at least my mid-20s, and while it has gradually waned since then–after much effort to combat it on my part—it has never fully gone away. To me, performing on the violin, especially solo, is rather like eating quinoa, or like vigorous exercise. I know it’s good for me, and I’m always glad to have done it. But that’s only if you ask me after it’s over.
So maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model on the violin because violin isn’t my passion and my everything. By profession, I am a PhD scientist and science educator. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw this article this morning?
After reading and mentally processing the article, I am filled with admiration for this young woman. It’s a short article, but in it she appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world.
But my first reaction was still, “yikes!”
The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . ‘she’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging we offer’ . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model.
Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so, who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty or so years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn’t a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.
A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw this one: Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier. A little put off by the title at first, I read it anyway when a friend summarized the contents. The author, Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, sees a lot of unhappy teens. She claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents provide them with opportunities and choices.
Her theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.”
Her antidote to the unbalanced “performance self” is the development of the “spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture. The spiritual self is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism.
“In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being.”
Miller is writing generally here; this is her life’s work, and she has book coming out. But I couldn’t help but think specifically about music, the violin, and the role of the performance self vs. the spiritual self. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. This is especially true for what we call “classical music” today, and for large parts of the violin, symphonic, and choral repertoire. Personally, its spiritual meaning is what drew me to this music, and is why I play the violin in the first place. Although I have been through several marked changes in religious and spiritual path along the way, the constant thread has been music. Music still makes me cry in embarrassing moments, mortifying my performance self.
It has actually taken me a long time to develop any kind of real performance self at all, and that which I do have is still fragile and easily injured. I regularly like to give the performance self a rest. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I feel pretty content in this approach, at least for myself. But I still wonder, especially as I look at the suffering this imbalance between personal and performance selves seems to create in our culture, how music can help it heal.