Cellist Who Tries Ballet

This summer, I’m trying something new. Ballet. I know, mom envy. Right? Wrong. Although I admire Ballet Boy enormously, I don’t want to be him.

So why ballet?

Simply because it was free. The small liberal arts college I teach cello at is offering a free intermediate class for any staff who have had at least one year of ballet. Which I have; forty years ago. The clincher was we don’t have to wear leotards and tights. Just ballet shoes.

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The first ballet shoes that have come to our house for me; I’m used to sewing my son’s elastics on his black or white shoes.

You’d think I’d have watched enough ballet classes to learn by osmosis. It doesn’t work that way, just as someone can’t learn cello by watching a bunch of videos.

I’m so horribly out of shape and lacking motivation to train for a race or triathlon that I decided I need to get off my duff and try something new. Ballet could bring me core strength, grace (ha!), or at the least, good posture. All of these things are true.

After two classes, I’m feeling truly humbled. The teacher is in her 70’s and seems to have some sort of early Alzheimer’s (no joke), so she often forgets where she is a combination mid-stream. A few of the ladies are middle-aged and pretty novice like me, and a few have definitely had quite a bit of ballet in the past and still look the part. I find it hard to keep my head up and not look down at what my feet are doing, a big no-no in ballet. I often have a strange sensation of deja-vu, but not because I have done this before. It is truly deja-vu (“vu” means viewed): I have seen Ballet Boy do these steps over and over again, yet I have no clue how to execute them physically.

There are several merits to this less-than-skinny (I believe the PC thing to say is curvy), middle-aged Mom doing ballet:

  1. The Suzuki Parent factor: In the musical method of learning founded by Dr. Suzuki, parents attend classes and learn how some basics of the instrument alongside their children. This is partially so they can help the children practice at home, but also so that they know it is NOT easy. It is important to have a kinesthetic sense of how to play, as well as aural/visual. I feel like taking ballet deepens my understanding of what my son does. I have a better sense of how steps and movements can build into a more complicated jump or combination.
  2. To become a better cello teacher: As a pedagogue, it is important to put yourself in the learner’s shoes again. I said this about my swimming lessons in this blog, and I will say it again here. Being on the other side of the teacher/student model is a reminder of how hard it is to set aside pride and self-deprecation in order to learn. It also makes me remember that it is important to break down steps and relay information in manageable steps so that the student can process the idea you are trying to teach.
  3. To learn to love myself: It is hard to stand in front of a mirror in close-fitting clothing for an hour. I’ve put on more weight this year than is healthy, and most of the time that manifests itself in “clothing crisis” where nothing fits that I’d actually like to wear. I just decluttered my closet, and it felt good to get rid of ill-fitting clothes or things that I had held onto for sentimental reasons. This summer I’m trying to also declutter my brain and make time to grow stronger again. Instead of focusing on my weight or wrinkles around my eyes, I’m turning my attention towards exercise that makes me stronger, more flexible and releases endorphins that make me happier. Last week I returned to the gym with Candy Ass and did biking, run/walking and weight training. With the addition of ballet, I’m trying to get into a groove of cardio/strength and movement. Ballet is has an artistic aspect that gives it a certain discipline and flair; anyone can go out and run with good or bad form, but ballet demands precision and flow. I have to forgive myself when it’s not quite right and keep trying, which takes a lot of humility.
  4. To present myself with confidence: Ballet creates better posture. The head looks up and out, not down, the back is straight and your shoulders don’t slouch. There is not tension in the neck or shoulders. Today I learned that trying to point my toes I was actually scrunching them up. Much of my tension in cello playing goes to my feet, and my back and shoulders sometimes get very sore. Ballet will help strengthen my core and make me more aware of tension.

There are different types of dancing that require less rigor, and might feel like more “fun” or more of a release, but I’m really enjoying my class, even if a beginning ballet class would have been more appropriate than intermediate.

Never pass up a chance to try something new! You won’t regret it.Right now I’m lying on the couch, feeling my quads and glutes and every part of my feet hurt, and savoring a homemade almond-milk and berry protein shake. Bring on the pain…

Ballet Boy shows us where it’s at. My leg will never be that high.



Work of Art

As a professional cellist, there is always a moment when I’m talking to someone when they say, “That is SO amazing that you can make a living as a musician.”They mean well.

Inevitably this comes at a time when I am having ends meet, or feel completely worked to the bone. I used to mutter something to that effect under my breath, but I’ve learned in middle age to be more gracious and respond, “You’re right. I’ve very lucky.”

Sometimes it is very easy to lose track of why we are putting a lot of effort into something that isn’t easy. Often it’s not fun to spend hours at my instrument trying to learn a difficult passage, or sitting in a rehearsal with a conductor who is stopping us every two notes to tweak something until we get it exactly the way they want it. My back hurts, my wrist hurts and even my fingers hurt sometimes after 5 hours of orchestra rehearsals in one day.

There is always a point in the  year that many musicians feel “burnout.” Right now, for instance, the Brewmaster and I have no free weekends looming on our calendar for two months. There are three folders of music in my cello case that I need to learn for the next sets, and I feel like I have no time to practice. My students don’t seem to be at all ready for their end of semester juries and are not actually implementing the changes we discuss every lesson.

When I was in college, I went to one of the top music schools, Oberlin Conservatory. It took lots of practicing and time with my cello away from other social activities in high school to get in to Oberlin. I didn’t mind too much at the time as I found a lot of things like school dances, sporting events and going to the mall mundane and boring. But when I got to Oberlin, it felt like I had already made a career choice. Although I was double-majoring because my father and I to some degree had doubts about whether I could make a decent living in just music alone, my heart was in music.

But all of a sudden I found myself among lots of other really fine musicians. The self-doubts became stronger, especially when I realized that I couldn’t physically put the same amount of time in that they were because of my double-major. So I switched my college major from pre-med to French, which came easily.

In spite of French being kind of fun (especially when I finally got to travel to France during a semester abroad in London), I couldn’t imagine making a career around teaching or translating. It was less work, but soon I realized that I had no satisfaction from doing something that wasn’t rewarding in any way.

And that is simply because art changes us. You can walk into a concert in one mood and walk out completely transformed because you were moved by one musical passage. I can’t say that about many other professions outside of music, art and dance. Perhaps literature and poetry; other professions that make people shake their heads and say, “Wow, that is really cool that you can make a living as a writer.”

Ballet Boy is facing some serious challenges as a dancer and justifiably questioning why he is getting up every day and beating up his body from 9-4 or later. It’s hard to see the carrot when you are in a daily grind, and mom-bias aside, he is a bright young man who could do anything he wants in life. When he entered Houston Ballet Academy’s pre-professional program last fall, he had to leave any sense of normalcy for a teen ager and start work, at a very young age.

And work is not fun. Recently I accepted to do some temporary work at a scheduling job I did ten years ago. There is nothing fun about sitting in front of a computer entering data, or feeling like the messenger who is being shot when you follow protocol. There is really nothing meaningful about being a secretary for me, and I thank the people who can do it graciously.

I don’t think the POTUS gets up every morning, looks at his agenda, and says, “Let’s see how I can make this more fun.” But I do know that he probably cherishes those family trips to Hawaii or shooting hoops with his Secret Service men. We all need an outlet for stress.

At one point, I found exercise as an outlet. In middle age, running remains very hard work and not a lot of fun for me. But the satisfaction that I get from feeling stronger and better mentally after running makes it worth it. We all need to find balance in life, which is even harder for athletes because they can’t just go out and exercise more to relieve their stress. This is where finding something else, like cooking, gardening, singing, walking a dog or volunteering at a shelter brings balance.

The little things in life that bring us peace like laughing with friends, doing yoga or meditation, having a great meal with loved ones are not work, but they lighten the load so that I can face my workload again.

Last night I was fortunate to play Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It is a very long and complex work that puts musicians through their paces technically and endurance-wise, as it lasts almost two hours with no break. After 5 rehearsals and a concert in 3 days, I’m wondering if I have the energy to go play with as much passion as I did last night at today’s matinee. But I know that not only the collective desire of my colleagues to do well will carry me today, it’s the knowledge that I’m truly blessed to be able to share this music with a live audience. Many people listening today will be moved by Mahler’s incredibly haunting melodies for the first time, and I know that everyone in the hall will leave transformed in some way.

So this morning I will sit in the sun a while, look at my beautiful hyacinths and daffodils which are bursting into bloom, and be thankful that today work is art.

Flowers with Cello and Canaries, 5/18/10, 4:35 PM, 16C, 4174×8000 (885+0), 100%, Repro 2.2 v2, 1/8 s, R93.5, G69.3, B88.8





Crock Psychology

Today my therapy is tagine. Beef tagine with prunes by Jamie Oliver, precisely. In a crock pot. Mr. Oliver didn’t prescribe this. The real meaning of tagine is an actual clay pot the Berbers cook the food in over in North Africa. My slow cooker is just more appropriate for my day, which has gone in all directions. The beauty of the crock pot is that you throw everything in together instead of properly cooking things in stages so the flavors have time to mingle.

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Paprika, cinnamon, ginger and Ras-el-hanout spices for tajine

Does it replace real cooking? No. Is it a lifesaver? You bet. Like pop psychology, crock pots are not a substitute for the real thing, yet I don’t know how I’ve lived without one. I had to turn 48 to buy one.

Lately life has been stressful and hectic. If you live in Iowa around caucus time, it’s hard to ignore political discourse. And you shouldn’t. I’ve had lively conversations with friends about which candidate can actually get the job done, about voting on issues or principals, and about what might happen if it doesn’t go as planned.

That hype has moved on. In the middle of it all, an uninsured driver backed into me at an intersection. Chevy Tahoe vs. Honda Fit. Guess who won? Not me. Fortunately my insurance paid for the repairs, but a hefty deductible came out of my bank account. Will they get her to pay up? Who knows. My insurance company wants their money and has a whole subrogation department working on that.

So today the Brewmaster and I had massages. It felt so good to have someone rub out all the pain and tension from so many orchestra rehearsals, the accident, the tension of a mama with her teenage Ballet Boy living miles away.

And tonight we will eat stew. Moroccan tagine made from Iowa grass-fed beef purchased from an Amish farmer.

Grass-fed arm roast. Almost time to order another quarter cow.

The smells wafting out of the crock pot remind me of another time, some twenty some years ago in France. There was an Arab grocer below our apartment in downtown Marseille that had gorgeous burlap bags full of colorful spices, bins of olives and feta cheese, exotic sausages and pickled lemons. Even though I felt shamefully white and Iowan every time I entered, I exited that store feeling brave and excited about trying out new recipes.

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My dog waiting for that hunk of meat to fall on her head. She is not discerning about grass-fed or junky meat. Meat is meat to her.

Tomorrow I start training for a temporary scheduling job with the local university music department. Ten years ago, during the year of my divorce (otherwise known as the Year of Great Unpleasantness) I worked in the same office in a similar position. This time it is temporary until they create a full-time position, but it will be very helpful to supplement my adjunct professor/part-time musician income. I’m afraid of having no time for myself, and losing my new drive that I’ve found to exercise and get back in shape.

Maybe I’m afraid of taking a step backwards.

But we all know that sometimes you have to do that to move forwards. This weekend I’m sad that I have free time and yet can’t afford a trip to see Ballet Boy perform in Houston. It’s beginning to feel like a long time since I hugged my 15 year-old and put him on a plane January 6. It’s time to up the ante and make enough money to be able to choose some extras in life.

And in the meantime, the crock pot bubbles on. There will be delicious stew to share with the Brewmaster as we catch up on Downton Abbey after I teach cello lessons to middle-schoolers tonight. As I look back on that terribly stressful time of my life, I know I have it good now. The Brewmaster and I are getting married in June and I couldn’t be happier. And for right now, that is enough.

The meat marinated in the spices all morning. Now it is simmering with butternut squash, prunes, tomatoes and cilantro.


Teetering. The Art of Balance.

In yoga class we often work on balance, sometimes choosing poses that either provide a challenge or relief. I often teeter, sometimes grow stronger, but never give up hope that one day I will find perfect balance, even if it is a fleeting moment.standing-poses-index-single-leg-balancing.jpg

I’ve been hard-pressed to blog lately. I feel like I teeter between the happiness I garner from my life with the Brewmaster and my career, and Ballet Boy’s departure for Houston. Striving for balance, I weave dizzily between the comfort of hugs from the Brewmaster and a warm home to feeling desperately sad about my adolescent son being too far to visit regularly or to give a daily hug at a time in his life that he needs to know more than ever that I am fully 100% behind him.

Ballet Boy isn’t gone forever. Like a college student, he will be home for some short breaks. Unlike a college student, he will never come home for extended periods in the summer due to the fact that he needs to keep intensively dancing. He will also visit his father in France. Sometimes I walk into his room or look at his toiletries in the bathroom and cry, realizing that there will be so few moments that we will share the same proximity that I thought we would have until he was a normal age to fly the coop.

Unlike a college student, my son is young to be on his own. Like most teenagers, he wants to stretch his wings and do things on his own. Like most mothers, I struggle between being ready to grant him that liberty and being scared to death that I will lose him. Recently we’ve conversed about him taking the light rail in Houston by himself after dusk to a hair appointment that he made on his own.

Deep down, I am very proud that he wants to do these things on his own, and that he can do them successfully. I can’t help but remind him to be aware of his surroundings, to put his phone away and look like he has a purpose when he is out on his own in a big city. He reminds me that I can track him on the iPhone FindMyFriends app. I remind him that the app only tracks his phone, not him, and that I want him in one piece. I wobble between letting him go and wanting to shield him from any bad things that can happen. Then I realize he needs his own practice, and I try to let go.

I’ve lived all over the world: London, Paris, Marseille. I’ve traveled to Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, the Netherlands…and done more than my share of stupid things. I’ve had my wallet stolen in Paris and been surrounded by a gang of taunting teenagers on a bus in Marseille, France’s second largest city. I survived. Ballet Boy will survive. It is so hard to know how to help him become independent, way before most sons would have to take that step.

The recent terrorist attacks all over the world this past week have thrown a blanket of darkness over all of us. We teeter between our comfortable American lives and realizing that for many, that comfort can blow up in a second, at the whim of a fanatic whose sole purpose is fear-mongering.darkness.jpg

We can choose to teeter into the abyss, giving into fear, hatred and revenge.

Or we can pull ourselves up, be brave and choose to see that light and happiness will prevail. Like my yoga poses, this is work. Courage takes practice and dedication.

Today’s practice involves baking banana bread for Ballet Boy and my niece who is in her first semester at Yale. Packing a care package of cough drops, snacks, Emergence-C and other items to get Ballet Boy through finals and multiple Nutcracker performances makes me feel useful again. He knows I always think of him, but sometimes it is nice to get a physical reminder on a hard day.IMG_4710.JPG

In the meantime, I will send Ballet Boy cyber hugs and hug the Brewmaster even closer, give my dog, who just had a second surgery but came out cancer-free, some extra love, and try to remain a positive, motivational force for my cello students. I am so proud of what Ballet Boy is accomplishing that it makes up for any selfish desires to keep him nearby.  There are many ways to balance, and I will keep looking for them.

There are days where finding the balance is hard, whether it is a work in progress or an accomplishment. But balancing never involves caving to fear or sadness and somehow I feel if I practice it every day, I will teeter closer and closer to the right side. The bright side.teetering rock.jpg



Piece of Mind

Sometimes we need to be a certain place and time to appreciate a good book.

En route from Houston, I finished an inspiring book about a 94 year-old track star. “What Makes Olga Run,” a gift from Ironcelloman. Although I had started it this summer on another road trip, my mind was far too preoccupied with Ballet Boy leaving to enjoy it. In short, I was very stressed out this summer and let that override any fascination I’ve had with exercise and its effects on my own well-being.


Bruce Grierson’s book delves into all the complex aspects of what make elderly athletes capable of competing while others get glued to their walkers or wheel chairs. Is it environment (upbringing, hardships, careers), physiological make up (certain blood capacity or superior cell repair) or mental (ability to focus, stick to a goal, etc)?

There is also a chicken and egg aspect to the studies he surveys–do these elderly athletes have younger brains because they exercise or because they are wired differently?

It’s a great read, and it’s fun to see Olga break world records over and over again. Of course, there are sometimes no competitors in her age group. Read it even if you aren’t athletic, because it explores a lot of the facets of what keeps us ticking and happy.

The book made me think a lot about my own goals. One of the main conclusions was that all of the athletes competing well in the older age brackets started late. Like in their  70’s! Their bodies were not worn down by repeated movement and physical stress. They have time to train as their kids age or they are retired. Olga didn’t start until she was 77. She was bored and decided to try track events like shot put, javelin throwing and high jump.

The studies cited in the book do all point to the idea that ANY exercise, but especially continual, short bouts of taxing exercise (more than marathon or endurance sports), have the amazing to not only slow aging in our brain, but to reverse aging.

Imagine the day when they can put that in a bottle and charge us for it.


However, the mental make up of Olga also was important. She was very nonchalant. She did not worry about the outcome, even though she enjoyed winning. She did not worry about events around her, but just was basically a pretty happy person. Olga’s easy going personality trait let her release control over events or problems that she couldn’t solve, and focus on her own training, which she could control.

I sometimes feel the opposite of this. I worry WAY too much. I wonder if Ballet Boy is doing his homework and I worry about the new cyst my dog has on her butt. I wake up at night worrying about finances. I worry about an interaction I’ve had with someone that day and stew about how to make it better.

Yoga has helped me recenter my thoughts. Every yoga practice I strive to stay in the moment and accept where I am that day, and that every day doesn’t quite feel the same.

I need to apply that practice to the rest of my life.

Reading Olga’s story, I realized on my plane trip home that I don’t need to worry about Ballet Boy. He is incredibly happy doing what he is gifted at, in a place full of people qualified to help him on his path in life. We saw a wonderful, varied program by the Houston Ballet of contemporary dance. Ballet Boy is surrounded by inspiration, motivation and creation. His brain must be exploding as it stretches and grows with knowledge and creativity. Of course he needs someone to make sure he is on track with his academic work, but he also needs to know that I trust him to take care of that on his own.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that in his 40s, he was no longer worried about fixing himself. He is centering on loving himself. I think a lot of us shift our focus beyond looking like a fashion model or being perfect at this point in our lives.

For the first time in months, I feel peaceful. It’s like a piece of my mind cleared and a fog lifted. I felt honestly happy that I had the Brewmaster to come home to, that I can perform and teach cello to a pretty great group of students, and that I am doing lots of wonderful things to take care of my health.

For the first time in months, I feel healthy mentally. My body might not be healed, but I am respecting it by not giving it sugar or other foods that increase my inflammation and stir up my Hashimoto’s. I’m okay with the changes I’ve made and no longer see them as a punishment.

I’ve decided to approach running differently. I will stop comparing myself to where I was a few years ago, I will enjoy the moment and even turn off my timer. I think I few runs a week I will leave my Runkeeping app off and just enjoy the run and listen to my body.

And although I will continue to miss Ballet Boy, I will embrace this new stage. A huge silver lining has been more sleep since I don’t have to drive him to school early in the morning!

Yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve found the road to Peace of Mind. I’ll keep on it.


There’s this thing called Iowa nice. You know, we are so happy out here in the midwest that we wave at strangers, smile at everyone and are just downright nice.

People being awfully nice in Iowa City
People being awfully nice in Iowa City

Right. BIG stereotype.

There is even a funny video about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLZZ6JD0g9Y

Honestly, people are friendly here. So friendly that growing up, I felt like I was not taught that conflict was a good thing. When I moved to France, everyone fought. They argued for the sake of arguing. The French just like playing the Devil’s Advocate, and I learned to embrace that.

This shy little Iowa girl got a little less nice, and a little more assertive. And that was not a bad thing.iowa tshirt

However, sometimes the French just go too far. In the middle of the night, I had an exchange with my ex-husband who is trying to get a form notarized in France so that I can get Ballet Boy’s American passport renewed. Apparently it is not common to have notaries, and the ex tried to go to the American Consulate to get some answers. They were on lockdown, which is not a surprise given the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other recent terrorist attacks in France.

The Ex still tried to push the guard at the gate to give him answers or let him in as a walk-in appointment. I can just imagine the scene: American military guard doesn’t give a crap about the angry Frenchman pushing for special treatment. Did the Ex get anywhere? No way. He had to go home and make an appointment online like everyone else.

This made think a little today about ways in which to get what you want. I was pretty angry yesterday at my gym. They added a $49 enhancement fee on my bill with no warning. When I went to ask about it, I told the poor attendant at the desk that I knew it wasn’t his fault. He smiled meaningfully and told me it was his last day.

When I spoke to the manager today, she was fielding tons of phone calls about the same issue. I applauded her patience and told her she must be having a horrible week. By the end of our discussion, she had given me the general manager’s email with the apology that she couldn’t personally authorize reimbursements.

So, Iowa nice goes a long way. I may not have resolved my gym problem, but at least I didn’t take my anger out on the wrong people. I wrote a killer email to the manager firmly expressing my disappointment in his lack of transparency and poor business practices. As a grown up Iowa girl, I’ve learned to be assertive yet kind to people, and I prefer this to being pushy and overly critical.

We will see what the outcome will be. I’m going to switch back to my old gym as I prefer the Olympic pool to the 18 yard disaster at my local gym, and I miss the state of the art Expresso bikes with fun videos to keep me going in the winter. And I miss my gym buddies who are at the old gym. Candy Ass and Inroncelloman, I’ll be back! And I’ll be nice.

Tightening our belts.

So this went up on the fridge today:

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The Brewmaster’s not going to be happy. I was not supposed to clutter up the new fridge.

He may not be too happy about the rest, either. This is the kind of stuff that goes through my head in yoga when I am simultaneously worrying about how I will have enough money to go visit Ballet Boy and why I look pudgy in the mirror.

This way, I figure, we can kill two birds with one stone.

Literally and figuratively tightening our belts.