Thursday, December 15, 2016

10 Tips for the Annual Bake-Off, by Suzy Crocker

Today is the annual bake-off for all the teachers and staff at the school where I teach. I'm new. So, like, I figured I'd show a bit of team spirit since I skipped the mannequin challenge. The rules were: Select a celebrity chef. Find a recipe. Bake enough for 52 people, and we'll have a grand old time eating everything on Thursday, December 16.

So: Some tips to keep in mind for next year:

Today's colossal fail from the new music teacher.
  1. Sometimes it is better NOT to start baking at 3:37 a.m. the night before the bake-off with a recipe you've never tried before.
  2. Sometimes, it is best to try the recipe first, period.
  3. Recipes made to be cooked by chefs are sometimes best left to chefs. Pre-toast the walnuts? Pulverize the oatmeal?
  4. When the recipe says, "Place dough balls 3 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet," it does actually mean 3".
  5. When the recipe says, "Bake at 325F," do consider NOT baking at something close to 350, even if your oven is from 1961 and all temperatures are approximate anyway.
  6. Ideally, do not cool cookie sheets on back deck to speed the cooling process, especially when it's windy.
  7. When the art teacher says, "Oh yeah, the bakeoff. I never do that," heed her words more carefully. Be less cynical of cynical people. Sometimes they are right.
  8. When asked to make enough for 52 people, consider baking something that only requires one oven insertion, not something that gets divided and baked in 12-piece increments.
  9. Consider the role of "taster," rather than "baker."
  10. Duncan Hines is a fabulous chef. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, or Possibly Insanity

Dear Friend:

Since I last wrote to you, many things worth writing about have occurred. Musical events that brought us to tears. Insights on practice and performance. Parenting revelations. Brief moments of spiritual enlightenment. Family joy. Horrible self-realizations and the tiny little triumphs over self-doubt that occur like, oh, every five minutes. None, however, have inspired me to write to you like the realization I had today.

With a big concert behind us, no immediate freelance deadlines, little worry about this week's music lesson plans, and one sleeping toddler, I looked around my house and decided that I'd fill my two precious hours alone by cleaning the kitchen. Five minutes in, I experienced an a-ha! moment. I realized why the house is always more messy than I'd like.

I. Freaking. Hate. Cleaning.

You who can afford a house cleaner, I do envy you.

And you who cannot afford a house cleaner but who have found ways to achieve both personal and spiritual satisfaction from transforming chaos into order, I respect you immensely. (I do not understand you, but I think we're still friends, right?)

As for the rest of you who live in clutter and mess, and kind of hate it but can't seem to get around to cleaning on a regular basis, this blog is for you. I want you to know you're not alone.

Are you out there? Gawd, I hope so. If not, I'm going to be REALLY embarrassed.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Parenting," and Other First World Problems

My friend Ellen Lubin-Sherman* wrote to me after yesterday's blog with some helpful advice. (She also advised me not to listen to advice.) She said:

About being a good mother...are you present?  That's all that matters." 

Being present may not be so simple, but the advice is. And here's the thing:
"In Yemen's war, trapped families ask: Which child should we save?" Presence, like the concept of "parenting," is a first-world problem. Given Yemen, and Aleppo, and also the kids in my school who get free lunch and donated clothing, whose parents are in jail, who have suffered trauma in one way or another, I'd say that we can probably all stop worrying and start having fun by accepting the chaos and unpredictability of parenthood. It's not a science. If you do "this," you won't necessarily get "that." So, just keep doing this, be sure there is love, and then hope for the best.

Still, there's no harm in trying to be a little more present, so I tried today. Present, as in aware of what the hell you are doing. It started with my morning practice session. It's a struggle for me, as I get back into practicing, to start slow. To start with playing long tones: deep inhalations, followed by the longest exhaled note I can muster. If we believe all those centuries of Buddhist knowledge, we don't doubt that deep breathing and slow exhales are yogically valuable. However, as a wind player, it's also physically valuable. As you exhale, you become aware of all the places you hold tension in your body. You attend to your posture. You focus on what it feels like to make a good sound. You develop the muscles in your face and in your core that support a strong, steady tone. You focus on your body, and you drop your shoulders, straighten your back, release your neck. Your body has to be relaxed to make beautiful music. God. That's hard.

With Irish music, we have very notey tunes. Like bebop, these fast runs are unbelievably satisfying to tear through for goal-oriented maniacs like me. It's really freaking fun to fly through the notes in solid rhythmic time... especially when you can... but sometimes the quality of sound suffers. Or the groove becomes shallow. Lower notes don't speak fully, and triplets get a little automated. Your body remembers the tune through muscle memory and your brain actually has no frigging idea what notes you just played, in what order, and why.

So, despite a good start, this is the reason that my practice session ended with a failure of presence. After a nice half hour of playing through the tunes for our Christmas concert on Sunday, I couldn't help myself. I started blasting through a tune to finish up my practice session, because it FEELS GOOD. The sprint to end the run, it is a satisfying catharsis. Today, I didn't think about it; I just started doing it. Partway through the tune, I realized that though my body was executing the tune correctly, I actually had no idea what tune I was playing. I had to think for a moment. Man in the Bog. Of course.

Nope, I wasn't entirely present. Oh well. But somewhere in there was a solid intention, and that is what keeps the boat afloat.

*Hat tip to Ellen, as the one who dubbed Marie Kondo as a sadist. Who talks to socks?