Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wardrobe Basics

There are some weeks of the year where between practicing with my own two kids and the piano studio kids and my own practicing I'm at the piano ten hours a day.  Occasionally under these circumstances I have indulged in a little retail therapy, which usually takes the form of internet shopping late at night.  One can hop from one children's clothes boutique to another without even leaving the desk.  The benefactor of these binges is almost always--you guessed it--Mary Ray.  Who doesn't get a small kick of adrenaline buying cute clothes for a little girl?  And I confess that in the past I have probably spent too much, but I'm not a teenage mother and well, I only have one little girl and well. . . I can pass the clothes on to certain other families with little girls. . .

But!  I'm changing my ways.  I, Sara Stephens Kotrba, do solemnly swear to remove certain four letter words from my daughter's wardrobe vocabulary.  Namely: WOOL.  Every Fall I buy the wool dress.  So European and cosy.  Not.  Itchy and hot, even for Minnesota.  What am I thinking.  She's not gonna touch it with a ten foot pole.  As if putting a turtle neck and tights under was going to make it tolerable.  Even hotter. I see the beads of sweat forming on her brow. Total waste of money.  Probably the sweet little girl it gets handed down to is not gonna wear it either.

The other items I'm vowing to give up (it is Lent after all) are long sleeve shirts, jeans and corduroys.  Don't even think about buying anymore turtlenecks. The girl is a walking heater.  She would run naked around the house all winter if we let her.  It's 57 degrees in the basement and she is barefoot on (other waste of money for cute fuzzy slippers) the concrete floor.  We're gonna get one heck of a Good-Will donation receipt for the stack of cosy turtle necks I'm turning over.  Some of these are hand-me-downs from cousin Savannah and I find myself wondering if she ever wore them.

All Mary really wants to wear is a short sleeve tee-shirt with snoopy on it and pink leggings.  We compromise and add a little short skirt over the leggings.  On those rare occasions when it's 30 below and she acknowledges that she might need a sweatshirt at school she leaves behind the Mini Boden microfleece zip-up with matching headband for--you guessed it--Lena's hand-me-down Life is Good hoody which by now is stained and a little too small.

I'm letting go.  From here on out it's short sleeve tee-shirts with peace/love and bunnies, bike shorts, and leggings--most of which you get at Target which does not give you the same high as clicking "check out now" at 11:45 p.m.  Perhaps I can still get the little skirts online.  Footless tights anyone?

I realize giving up internet clothes shopping for one's daughter for Lent is not really that virtuous, but I already cut back on caffeine and giving up chocolate in the winter in Minnesota is asking too much.

One more note to self: cute shoes?  Out.  Done.  All she wore the last two summers was a $3 pair of flip flops from Old Navy.

Some live and learn and some just live.  Bill--we can put her through college with the money I'll save.  Well--at least some books--or knowing her--party money.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

For Emmett

Tonight I dedicated my piano practice session to Emmett Mackenzie, long time Easter church member who passed away yesterday.  A little Beethoven goes a long way.

I didn't know Emmett as well as most long time Easter members probably knew him, but I loved him anyway.  I knew him as you know someone from chit chatting with them briefly after church for ten years.

You learned about his life in little pieces of conversation over dixie cups of church lemonade. Bill actually knew him better and bought and read the book Emmett wrote about his time in World War II as a B-24 nose gunner. Rumor has it Emmett also wrote a high school calculus textbook.  He was one smart and brave man.

He was a smart and brave man who also loved music.  He was still singing in the church choir during my first round as accompanist.  During those summer Sundays when Easter members share extra music, and I would play some Mozart or Chopin, he always had some insightful comment.  I always knew Emmett was listening out there.  Even when he had trouble hearing, he was listening.

God bless you Emmett.  Bill says you looked at him with the twinkling eyes of an eighteen-year-old right until the end. Bless you for protecting our country and for teaching math and for listening to my Mozart.  We'll miss you.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stop, Look and Listen

Did you see the sun?
Rising in the winter sky. 
It was pink and orange.
Kittens want to play.
Such fierce warriors are they.
Blink, they are asleep 
An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Splash? Silence again. (Basho)
Time for more Buechner.  In Listening to Your Life (pages 51-53) he quotes this Basho haiko.  The others are mine.  The poems describe a moment.  They invite our attention without hidden meaning or message.  I want to share this series of quotes from Buechner's meditation:

In effect Basho is putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity. . . The frame does not change the moment, but it changes our way of perceiving the moment.  It makes us NOTICE the moment, and that is what Basho wants above all else.  It is what literature in general wants above all else too.  From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel , literature in general is asking us to pay attention. . . The painter does the same thing of course. Rembrandt put a frame around an old woman's face. . . Unlike painters who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second. Listen! says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky.  Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time.  Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between sounds and to the silences themselves. Literature, painting, music--the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to supect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.    

Spirituality asks us to stop, look and listen as well.  Teaching too.  Dr. Suzuki suggests that student and teacher bow with each other before and after the lesson.  The bow frames the lesson.  In between the bows we are focused and working.  We only stay at the lesson as long as the child is focused.

Caroline Fraser is a Suzuki teacher trainer and she gave a workshop for SAM with some demonstration lessons.  Afterwards the teachers discussed the lessons with her.  She asked if we noticed that the children were paying extremely close attention to the lesson.  Caroline explained why--the children were focused because the teacher was focused.

I thought about that a lot. Occasionally, I have taught a lesson while my mind wandered.  The children were focused because the teacher was focused.  The bow is a call to attention--just like a beautiful sun rise, the nuzzling of a kitten, or a frog jumping into a pond.  Frame the moment. Frame the lesson. Stop, look and listen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Impact Craters

We spent the weekend in Iowa.  It is a little bleak there with no snow.  The crocus are a little confused, they don't know whether to come up yet or not.  Hang on little sprouts--we're not out of the woods yet.

Happy birthday Daddy.  We miss you.

He would be 72 today.  A young 72.

I was thinking about so many families I know, including my own, and how one teenage pregnancy, one divorce, one drug addiction, one mental illness or one untimely death can cause an impact crater so large it carries on for generations.  At times it seems the circle of pain from one incidence goes on in waves until it touches every persons it comes in contact with.  I started getting bummed out about this.  What if such and such just never happened?  Then where would we all be?  I know I'm not alone in thinking this way.

I thought about my dad and his cancer and how many people it affected.

And then I thought about his life and how many people it affected.

Impact craters go both ways.

One act of kindness, one act of generosity, one great teacher, one well written book, the right words at the right time--one person--in a moment or a lifetime can change the lives of countless people, or even just bring hope to one.

I found out that Tipton Rotary now has the Dave Stephens Community Member of the Year Award.

Daddy, you made a big impact.  I don't know exactly how to do that, but I'm gonna try--to make a difference with my words, my family, my friendships, my teaching--with everything I do.  It won't be the same as you, but with God's help I can be the very best me.  Signed, your Josie-May.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Suzuki Yoga

I'm trying to do yoga.  I take a class at the Eagan rec center when I can but most days I end up at home with my friend Tara.  Tara Stiles.  She's on my television.  I don't know how--I'm not the technology person of the house--but there she is with all her routines, just waiting patiently for me each day.  She is such a good friend to me.  She says things like, "great job"  and she says, "you can try to do this, but if you can't it's okay, you have your whole life for this stuff."  It's all about making it easy.  When it is easy you are ready for the next thing.  Never hurry but never quit.  If that feels comfortable you can try this. . .

This attitude has slipped over into piano practice with my kids.  Mary, that sounds great, as soon as you are ready you can think about keeping your fingers a little rounder.  Let's make that echo really easy.  Calvin, when you are ready and feel really comfortable with the notes, we can really dig into the phrasing.  It is the same with gymnastics--gosh Mary, you really have that cartwheel--pretty soon you'll be able to add those pretty hands. . .  I see the change instantly.

When things are easy and we are invited to do more, we are ready and we come of our own accord. I guess these are two different but valuable thoughts.

Making it easy is not my theme--it is Edmond Sprunger's.  If you don't have his book Helping Parents Practice, Ideas for Making it Easier please order it tonight.  It is a practice bible.  He is a violinist and a psychologist.  I think that's a dangerous combination, but I reach for this book every time I start to feel resistance from my child at the piano. Unconscious competence.  (Not my phrase either. . . ) It's all about making it easy.

The invitation to do more?  It is all in the tone of voice.  My husband and I have a joke phrase--in a trashy southern accent--how'm I supposed to (insert your own task) unload the dishwasher when yer so busy telling me to unload the dishwasher?  We want to do the task on our own, without being reminded or forced.  When I tell Mary, "when you are ready, the next thing will be the balance,"  she wants to be ready. She is ready.

Part of my understanding of yoga is being okay where you are, but always striving to do more.  And breathing. It is like that with health, and it is like that with life.  Music too.

Both my kids have been in a good groove with practice lately, and I think my yoga practice is part of the success.  Thanks, Tara. . . . you are such a good friend.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sleep, Baby, Sleep. . .

. . . our cottage vale is deep: 
the little lamb is on the green 
with woolly fleece so soft and clean--
Sleep, baby, sleep.  

I got a call from a prospective student last week. Great first impression, the mom had a four-year-old and a six-year-old she wanted to start.  I invited them to come observe.  That's when it started going down hill.  They could only come observe after 7:00 p.m.  I said I didn't have any young students in that time frame because most of them are going to bed.  She replied that her kids don't go to bed until after 10:00 p.m. so a later lesson would work fine for them.  We decided to keep in touch.

It could very well be that her kids are sleeping until 10:00 in the morning and waking well rested ready to start the day.  But, I sorta doubt it because she said they were both in school everyday.

Feel free to criticize any and all aspects of Kotrba parenting--except sleep.  This is one thing we've done right, out of necessity.  My kids are not pleasant creatures without adequate sleep.

Neither am I.  I was thinking about this at 2:00 a.m. this morning as I lay in bed in a caffeine induced frenzy.  Oooops, I did it again.  Coffee with breakfast, coffee after church, coffee with a friend, coffee scrap booking all afternoon.  I felt like a sorority girl who lost count of her draft beers and woke up with the room spinning.  Except different.  There is no legal limit of milligrams of caffeine.  There in bed I day-dreamed I was in the back of the squad car--the officer says, "M'am, you are going to have to stay here with this glass of milk and banana and chamomile tea until your heart rate goes back down to a safe level to drive."  Yes, sir.

So, to my mother and my husband and my in-laws and Casey and all you other people who have taken the caffeine free high road--and mentioned it quite frequently to me--I get it.  I need help.  Losing four night's sleep in the last month is a wake-up call.  I know I have said this before. I've tried before only to back slide.  A week ago my husband gently suggested I cut back. This man never tells me what to do--I took that as another sign.

There is another facet to the problem--being a night owl with rooster children. Well, rooster child.  I know I have used that metaphor before.  It's just true.  Fixing that might be harder than switching to decaf.  It means going to bed earlier.  It means we have less of that precious and sacred time when the kids are in bed and we are still up.

You can read everywhere about the merits of sleep--health--healthy weight--safe driving--memory--less depression--all good things and more.  Adequate sleep is more important than eating healthy and exercise. Why is it so elusive?  My 2011 New Year's Resolution was to get more sleep.  Failure. Oh, the guilt.  Oh, to look back and wonder what percentage of my life was sleep deprived.

Whatever number attempt this is. . . I'm cutting back.  No need for an intervention. I believe a little caffeine can be good for you. . . does that mean I'm not ready yet?   I'm going to buy some decaf and start with half and half.  Half caffeine that is.  I'm not giving up my half and half.  And I'm committing to an earlier bedtime.  The cabinet is stocked with ibuprofen.  Wish me luck. Bill is gone for the week, there is no better time than the present. Anyone to join me?  We can have our own little meetings?  Sleep, baby, sleep.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Religion and Politics

My dear friend Michele came over today to work on scrapbooks.  As often happens the conversation turned to theology.  We talk about this or that controversial book.  She tells her side.  I tell mine.  At the end of the discussion we both come out whole.  We didn't change each other's ideas, but we came out whole.  I love these afternoons.  Please pass the half and half.   I made it through the end of the 2009-2010 school year with enough double sided tape.  Praise the Lord!

Some of the most dear people in my life are staunch republicans.  And some are die-hard liberals.  Some are such-and-such denomination and some are not.  Some are Missouri Synod and some are ELCA.  Yikes.

I don't think I'm being wishy-washy when I say that I'm really not that interested.

We're are going into an election season and I'm staying quiet.  Switzerland.  Perhaps this is a survival tactic.  All I want is an acknowledgment that there are highly educated and God-loving people who take the same set of facts and come up with different values.  And they feel VERY strongly about them.  Very strongly. . .  

Folks--the other side is not stupid.  I know them.  I met them and they are just like you only on the other side.

I love the people in my life.  And my love for them trumps all their ideology and their theology.  Yes, even their politics.

The jokes on us when we meet Buddha at the pearly gates and he explains that communism really had it's merits.

Chamber Music 2012

This weekend was our Kotrba Piano Studio Chamber Music Festival.  That is a fancy way of saying that all the kids got to rehearse and perform with violin and cello accompaniment.  The arrangements are composed by Catherine McMichael and Joseph McSpadden.  Each student gets 15-25 minutes to practice with the trio and then we have an informal concert.  This year had Christina and Anne-Sophie, student string players, to play for us. I had the privilege of coaching. Some students have given me permission to upload their videos and I will add more links as requested.

Piano playing can be a lonely business.  Learning to play with other musicians is priceless. You can just see the wheels turning in these kids' ears as they try to absorb all the different sounds and harmonies that are going on.  For some it was enough to try to keep a steady beat and play together. We work on starting cues and ending cut-offs.  Coming in at the same tempo as the introduction is challenging for beginners.  Some of the more advanced kids were able to add excitement and nuances to their performances.  I was really pleased with their maturity and ability to discuss their musical goals with the strings.

These performances aren't going to be flawless, after all they only played together for a few minutes. There are some mistakes and some funky tempos but I believe there is value in sharing them--especially for grandparents and friends.  I think you can see that each student enjoyed the event and did his best to make some beautiful music. That is what we are all about.

Congratulations to everyone!  I'm very proud of you and every year gets better and better!

Elizabeth's Book One Selections

Peter's Book One Selections

Calvin's Fur Elise

Elizabeth's Book One Selections

Grace's Notturno

Mary's Arietta

Lena's Notturno

Aidan's Chopin Prelude

Samantha's Notturno

Jacqueline's A Short Story

Kathryn's Harmony of the Angels

Abe's Book One Selections

William's Cradle Song and Happy Farmer

Hope's Arietta

Hannah's Clementi Vivace

Monday, February 6, 2012

Birds and Beethoven

. . . and babies.  She's still my baby
What is it with the chickadees?  Ten minutes after I refill the feeder they are all there.  It may have been weeks since I remembered or had time to fill it, but the very moment I do, word gets out and fast.  It is as if they have a secret scout going around checking.  She filled it, she filled it, she filled it!  Chickadee-dee-dee!!!

Special birds have a way of showing up at special times.  I think they are in cahoots with the Holy Spirit. They bring peace. The spring my dad was sick he was hunting wild turkeys in Iowa.  Wild turkeys showed up in our Minnesota back yard and stayed for several weeks. During that same time, one morning when I was in a panic, I picked up the phone to call home, Daddy answered and hearing his voice I thought--everything is still okay.  As we made pleasant conversation and my panic subsided I looked out the window and there was a blue bird on my feeder.  Not a squawking blue jay, an actual blue bird.  I've not seen one since, but he calmed me with his beauty.  On the Wednesday afternoon at 5:00 when my mom called to tell me Daddy died, I let my students go and went down to the kitchen and stood at the sink and looked out the window.  There in the clouds was a perfect wild turkey.  Cloud seeing is not my normal thing--but there it was--it's little gobbly thing hanging down and it's body and tail and legs and long neck.  Turkeys in heaven. Moments later the turkey was gone. You might be relieved to know I haven't seen anything in the clouds since.

Again, after my grandma passed away two eagles came and stayed in our backyard for several weeks.  Memory of Mama and Grandpa?  I thought so.

We often have hawks in the tallest cottonwood by the lake.  They are so proud to oversee the valley.  Sometimes one will have a show down with a group of black crows.  Why does one hawk versus many crows feel like the ultimate battle of good and evil in the universe?  It's okay, he always wins--the crows fly to some other cottonwood by some other lake.  Today's battle won.  The world is safe.  The chickadees are safe.

Beethoven is like that too.  The struggle for the survival of the human spirit placed humbly in a sonata movement.  Darkness versus light.  The brotherhood of mankind resides in a final symphony movement.  Why do I cry so easily while listening?  Perhaps it is because even deafness could not stop him.  That harmonic battle goes on and on--and enlightenment wins--mostly.

Another reason I love Beethoven--in grad school I had a German professor who pretty much turned graduate romantic history into a full semester course on Beethoven.  I can't remember his name, but I remember the red ink on my papers.  I remember spending three whole classes on the epic struggle in the first few measures of the piano sonata in d minor, Op. 31 No. 2.  Tragic.  And beautiful.

So February 2012 is Beethoven month.  Bill put the complete piano sonatas played by Richard Goode on my itunes and it's all Beethoven all the time.  Here's to the resilience of the human spirit.

My dad had a very keen sense of humor--he might wink and say, "that's Goode Beethoven."

Daddy--it's all Goode.  Happy turkey hunting.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

Charlie, always there when you need him. . . 

He still loves me. . .he just won't admit it
Friday night we had dinner guests from Africa, Pastor Mwafute and Professor Ilomo.  Pastor Mwafute is the pastor of Easter's companion congregation in Tanzania and Professor Ilomo is guest professor at Luther Seminary this semester, he's also from Tanzania.

I'm not sure what possessed me to ask Pastor Paul if they needed anymore invitations.  Maybe I felt like any exposure we can give our kids to other cultures is good.  I like to cook and we like to entertain, so why not.  Maybe I just felt like it.  Pastor Paul fit us into their busy schedule.

I gave the kids the business beforehand.  I didn't say this to them exactly--but what I was trying to express was--you are gonna be spoiled suburban American kids no matter what--so you better be really, really, really nice and polite spoiled suburban Amercian kids.  They did good.  I was proud of them.

Calvin and Mary put on a little concert and we all sang some hymns we knew in common.  Pastor Paul, his wife Sally, Dan, Amelia and Annika Coyle joined us and I thought we had a lovely time.  The grown-ups sat around and table and talked after dinner.  We exchanged stories about our families and cultures and religion.  Dr. Ilomo turned out to know my Aunt Mary Jo very well and that was a nice connection--she had helped edit some papers for his thesis back in Africa.  Small world.  We overcame the language barriers and I really enjoyed the conversation!  We have so much in common--love of music, love of family, and of course love of God.  Everyone was pretty smiley and light hearted.

It came time for them to go and as often happens when you meet someone, we were all exchanging contact information and taking some pictures. Mary was huggy.  Dr. Ilomo requested my aunt's email and I gave him that.  It's not like we'll all be life long pen pals or anything, but it seems like the right thing to do to at least have a way to contact them if you ever wanted. I asked for Pastor Mwafute's email.  He didn't have one.  My first thought was that they must not have internet or a computer. No, I was reminded, it's that their village doesn't have power.  No electricity.  Well then.

The elephant in the room. . .

It was very lovely to sit around the table and share and focus on what we have in common but truly there are some fundamental things we don't have in common with our companion congregation--electricity. . . plumbing. . . adequate food and water. . . healthcare. . . . education for everyone.

I realize I'm late to the party--my aunt, my cousins and Pastor Paul have been involved with Africa for years and years.  But it does make you think, and maybe someday we will go and visit and we will need that contact information--that physical address--that we got.  Maybe by the time our children grow up and their children grow up they will have those same things in common--family, faith, music--but maybe even more things--like some of the basic needs we take for granted.  I hope so.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Corporate America

My brother-in-law lost his job last Friday.  A big company bought out the Iowa small town farm implement repair.  They assured the employees that nothing would change.  The day after they made the transition they let the employees go.  One asks oneself how this will go over with the farmers who bring their tractors in for repair--to have their long time buddies fired.

Paul, I'm sure you will find another job--and I pray that it is close by and soon and everything you need!

Bill and I have seen both sides of corporate america ourselves.  It would have thrown us around like a dog with a toy if we had let it.  Families we know sold their house and took their children from their schools, left churches and friends and moved down south to keep their jobs with that not-so-local airline.  Shortly after arrival and the purchase of an inflated dollar house they were let go.  Is there a fair severance for that?   I'm not sure I would've survived that very well, but that's just me.  I'm kind of a nester.

In Iowa when you drive by a hog farm and it stinks--the farmer says, "smells like money to me."  Likewise, when I heard jets over our house on a foggy day--I always said to myself--those jets are helping to pay our mortgage.  Now they are just noisy.

On the bright side--in March we are flying to Hawaii on the last of many free airline tickets Bill secured when he and the not-so-local airline parted ways. Eight of us are going--the Stephens side--for the second year in a row. Hawaii is pretty nice. I'm gonna miss those tickets.

Another bright side--Deerwood Elementary--of Eagan, Minnesota--school of Calvin and Mary--was the recipient of a grant from Target for $100,000 last week.  That's a lot of zeros. Can you believe that?  My understanding is that Target gave out fifty grants to schools.  Last year I was in charge of the plant sale and with all of us working together, and even with corporate america style spreadsheets, we only made around $3000.  So this grant is equal to about thirty-three years of me helping with the plant sale.  It is a heck of a lot of money.  Generous money.

When a Suzuki student can't read music, folks blame the method.  When a traditional student can't read music we say the student just had a bad teacher.  Labels are easy, the bigger the label the more people fit under the umbrella.  But they are still just people.  Individuals.  Good teachers.  Poor teachers.

Really there is no "corporate america." There is only people. There are good people and bad people, greedy people and generous people.  People who care about people and people who only care about the bottom line.

Here's to the good and generous!

Have to go now--need to make my Target shopping list for tomorrow. . .