Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Angels We Have Heard

I sat happily among the choir seats in the chapel on Sunday morning. Our family had completed its annual Christmas Day tradition of breakfast cereal and gift opening. (Each child gets a personal box of whichever cereal they most desire.) Gifts had been enjoyed and all had had plenty of opportunity to indulge in a broad variety of holiday treats.

We had managed to get everyone through the shower and properly dressed and groomed in plenty of time for church. Those of our children that were not in the choir were seated with their two grandmothers on the second row of the chapel. So all was good.

The choir director handed out a flyer outlining the Christmas program for our worship service. I was, of course, quite familiar with the five numbers the choir would be singing. But I also saw on the program two numbers of which I had been previously unaware. A talented soloist was singing a number and the Primary children would be singing Angels We Have Heard On High.

I wondered how the children's number would work out, logistically speaking. We have enough children in our congregation that they would fill the choir seats. It would make for an odd spectacle to have the choir members move out temporarily while the children sang.

But the director said nothing about the matter, so I assumed she knew what she was doing. She did. And so did the children. When the moment arrived, the children throughout the congregation stood in place as the director led them in singing this familiar Christmas hymn.

Ordinarily the children in our congregation sing this hymn with tremendous gusto, but this performance was rather weak. From my vantage point in the choir seats I saw many of the children that would normally be singing powerfully singing rather timidly. Some seemed to be so horridly embarrassed to be standing at all that they stood uncomfortably without singing.

One of the reasons you can get more volume from a group of singers standing near each other is that each derives confidence from his fellows as they identify together as a group and can more easily hear each other sing. Unless one is a particularly confident singer, standing apart will make him feel like an individual rather than part of a group.

Despite the overall lackluster rendition of the hymn, there were a few clear and sweet tones coming from some of the children throughout the chapel. The great reward for me was that my youngest son and my daughter were among these. They sang strongly, purely, and earnestly from the second row of the chapel, seemingly undaunted by the timidness of their companions

It was a powerful and sweet experience for me that will become a cherished Christmas memory for years to come.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Puppy Wars

My wife and I both grew up as dog owners. But throughout our marriage we have managed to refrain from owning fur bearing pets of any kind. Until now.

It's not that our kids haven't pestered us for pets of various kinds. They have. And we have had pets—mostly fish and amphibians. But, as my kids have frequently reminded me, you can't really cuddle a fish. The level of interaction with a fish in an aquarium is far different from that of a pet with which you can hold, talk to, and play with.

Although I have Multiple Sclerosis, I work very hard at maintaining the best level of health possible. Years ago a series of studies looked into the affects of pets on the health of people with MS. From my study of the research, it seemed to me that fur bearing house pets somewhat adversely affected the physical progress of MS, but that those that had pets were psychologically happier.

I surmised that I'd rather be able to continue to walk, talk, and provide for my family than enjoy the warm fuzzies I felt as a pet owner. Of course, it is quite possible to have an outdoor pet. But most residential outdoor pets end up in the house sooner or later. So for years we demurred each time a child would put forth arguments for getting a fur bearing pet.

A couple of months ago, we discovered that pet ownership can be beneficial for people that deal with certain challenges faced by my youngest son. My boy immediately latched onto that as license—or more correctly, a prescription—for getting a "real" pet. Given that it would have to be an outdoor pet, that meant something like a rabbit, cat, or dog.

I didn't think much of this to begin with, but then I noticed that my wife was giving the matter serious consideration. She was doing real research into various pets. My son was consulting closely with friends and neighbors that were pet owners.

I immediately started putting up arguments for why we should maintain our long-term policy of not welcoming fur bearing pets into our home. Pets can impose a rather significant expense on a family's budget. I repeated my longstanding arguments against owning such pets.

But I privately told my wife that if we had to get a pet, it would have to be a dog. I get along just fine with cats. But I am not a cat person. My wife agreed. But she could see the chink in my armor that translated into tacit approval to get a dog.

Soon more members of the family got into the research. They were exploring various breeds and checking for availability of puppies. At first they were looking at mini Dachshunds. While this breed doesn't shed, it seems more like an indoor breed.

Eventually they were looking at hardier outdoor breeds. Some family members liked the Shiba Inu breed, which originated in Japan. It was my understanding, however, that this breed can tend to be somewhat ornery. Then my oldest son discovered a breed that was a cross between an American Eskimo and a Shiba Inu called an Imo-Inu. This breed can live outdoors, doesn't get too big, is not too noisy, tends to have a decent temperament, and self grooms.

Before long, my wife located a family with a litter of six Imo-Inu puppies. She, my youngest son, and my daughter recently visited this family and returned with an eight-week-old puppy that is mostly white. Per my oldest son's suggestion, the dog has been dubbed Shiranui—a Japanese term for Will-o'-the-whisp. But in the instance cited by my son (who is a fan of Anime), Shiranui means White Star and is ascribed to a legendary white wolf that performed a heroic deed.
We've only had the puppy for three days. Although he seems to be quite smart and is doing fair at eliminating outdoors, he has already tinkled on the carpet a dozen times. As I predicted, we have already spent loads of unbudgeted money for shelter, food, shots, toys, etc. Our whole family's schedule is now being controlled by caring for a puppy. And the dog is inside the house a lot of the time.

But the puppy has already captured the hearts of every family member. Including mine.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

School Music Programs

I have attended many junior high and middle school band and choir concerts over the years, including the years in which I played in school bands. Most of the performances at these concerts have ranged from extremely awful to tolerable. But that's to be expected. After all, we're talking about beginning musicians for the most part.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the band concert at my son's charter school. It was a vast departure from the normal fare offered by band students in his age group. But in the 3+ years our children have been attending this school, we have come to expect a higher level of excellence.

Although most of the students in the beginning band had never played a band instrument before school began this year, they played remarkably well last night. I'd say that they did at least as well as any 'advanced' junior high band I have heard in standard public schools. The advanced band was actually quite superb.

While Utah's charter schools are public schools, they function differently than schools in standard public school districts because they minimize administration and overhead in favor of focusing resources on the students. Charter schools are usually too small to offer some of the features available in standard public schools, but they also offer many opportunities that simply don't exist in those schools.

My son's band director handles all music related duties at the charter school he attends. She elicits a high degree of quality from the students. It is interesting to watch how well even young children enthusiastically step up and perform songs at school events (sometimes even in foreign languages). This music teacher is demanding, but the students obviously respond well to her methods.

Of course, it is rare for a Kindergartener or a middle-schooler to have a music teacher that has master and doctorate degrees in music, has been a professional symphony orchestra musician, can play many instruments, and can relate well with children. Musical teachers of that caliber aren't often found teaching children in public schools. I suspect that it's more of a labor of love for this music teacher, as she obviously has opportunity for greater earning and notoriety outside of this venue.

Another son began studying band with this same teacher a few years ago before transitioning to a junior high where he played in the advanced band. Before long he dropped out of this band because its general quality was far below the beginning band at the charter school. He simply couldn't stand it.

He transitioned to choir. That turned out to be great, because the choir director was energetic and demanding. Sadly, she moved on to a different school this year because my son's school cut back on funding for music programs. The new choir director is a very nice lady. She has tremendous vocal talent.

But once again, my son has gotten to where he can't stand the class because his new teacher seems incapable of demanding excellence from her students. It's amazing what students will do when excellence is demanded. Lack of this reduces student motivation.

I have noticed that the percentage of students involved in choir and band has dropped off since my day. I think that part of this is because students now have more options available than we did a generation ago. Perhaps this has diffused funding to the point that schools are less able to pay for quality music instruction.

Some argue that arts funding should be pulled from public schools completely in favor of focusing on core curriculum. Given the deplorable state of student performance in core subjects even while greater focus and funding have been directed at those subjects, I am dubious that this would prove to be a productive approach. Especially in light of the fact that IQ universally improves in students that engage in music.

If the argument is that parents should fund musical and arts instruction themselves, then let me have part of my tax dollars back and let my children spend more time away from the school so that they can get this instruction. After all, having students spend more time on core subjects at school isn't helping.

Since I won't get my wish, I will be happy for now that my charter schoolers get high quality musical instruction. I will also continue to make sure that my kids can take private music lessons—even if they sometimes grouse about practicing.

Monday, December 05, 2011

My Dream

I love music, but I don't listen to recorded music very much. The other day was an exception.  As I drove down the road flipping through channels, I found nothing in which I was interested. Finally I landed on a station playing music that was benign enough that I didn't find it obnoxious.

Soon I was listening to a love song where the artist was singing about his love interest being his "dream." This made me think about my dreams in life.

I can honestly say that all of these years later, my wife is still my dream. A few years ago I wrote a poem for my wife suggesting that we have become so intertwined that she is involved in every thought that I think. My wonderful wife is a grand match for me. She inspires and uplifts me. She puts up with me and helps me be better than I could ever be without her.

While my wife is my dream, my dreams expand in multiple directions. My children are my dream. It is tremendously fulfilling (and sometimes tremendously frustrating) to see them grow and become more themselves.

My work is my dream. I am blessed with a good job that employs creative and technical skills. Interestingly, I had no idea during my youth that I had interest and ability in these kinds of skills. These developed over time.

My spiritual life is my dream. It is difficult for me to publicly address this issue because it is so sacred to me. Mere words cannot adequately convey this sentiment. But it occupies a significant measure of my life.

My country is my dream. The older I get the more things I see wrong with my country. But I also see much that is right—some things that are more right than ever. I dream of this place still being a great place for my children and their children in the future.

As we decorated the Christmas tree over the weekend, my daughter pulled out an ornament that includes a timely message: "The most important things in life ... aren't things." The more I think about it, the more I realize that my dreams are not really wrapped up in "things," but in matters of much deeper value.