Monday, February 23, 2015

Ode to a Fireplace

Winter finally hit Colorado this weekend, dumping 10 inches around me and cancelling any plans that I had. Now the cold is here, and any desire that I had to be outside has vanished. Now, I just want to curl up by my fireplace.

The fireplace was not one of the first things I had on my checklist when looking at apartments three years ago. As a matter of fact, it wasn't on my checklist at all. But when my perfect apartment just so happened to come with a gas fireplace, I was excited at the idea of having a fireplace.

You see, in my childhood home, the fireplace was built in the basement for some reason. It's a beautiful fireplace, but no one ever saw it, except for my brothers and their friends. I can count the number of times my father fired up the...fireplace on one hand. It was just too hard to maintain.

My grandmother had a fireplace in the Cottage that she owned in Dousman, Wisconsin, and that was a lot of fun to have on when we visited in the off seasons. It's something that I could stare at for hours.

Now I have my own, and I'm not necessarily staring into my fireplace. Instead, I'm appreciating its warmth. Although it's a gas fireplace, I'm thankful that it just takes a flip of a switch to turn it on. My cat Quinley also loves the fireplace, even hanging around after the fire has been turned off to enjoy the remaining warmth.  (She's curled up next to me right now as I type.)

So even though I had to give up my garage (which I regretted every day of this snow-filled weekend), I still appreciate the wonderful warmth of my fireplace. I hope you have somewhere warm tonight, too.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Best of Days

There are crappy days. And there are awesome days. Sometimes awesome days are few and far between, which makes them even more awesome. And Friday was an awesome day.

I had Friday off from school, and I decided to go up to my cousin's condo in Breckenridge and ski for a couple of days. Unfortunately she and her family couldn't come up this weekend, but she still let me stay there by myself.

I went up Thursday night after rush hour, and I was relieved to find the traffic was light heading up into the mountains. Three weeks ago, I went up on Saturday morning and was in three-hour traffic hell. I didn't want to repeat that again.

Since I was spending the night, I didn't have to worry about an early morning wake-up call and 2-hour drive before I made it to the mountain. Instead, I woke up around 7:30 (that's sleeping in for me!), made myself some chocolate chip pancakes, suited up, and went out in back of the condo with my skis. You see, their condo goes right up against one of the ski runs, and you can just follow the path down to a chair lift. No gondolas or transportation necessary!

I was up on the slopes with the early birds, which is the only way to ski. The chair lift took me to Peak 8, but I immediately took the connecting runs to Peak 9, where my cousins had introduced me to some great blue runs near the top. I spent time on the familiar slopes working on my turns and squaring my shoulders down the hill.

After some work, I decided to try something new. I took the SuperConnect chair lift up to Peak 8, then crossed over to Peaks 7 and 6, which I had never been on before. Peak 6's runs only opened last year, and it was made up of a couple of blues (moderate) and lots of blacks (difficult). I skied down to the Zendo chairlift, which was very slow (I'd been warned about that), and then decided, on a whim, to take the Kensho chair that went up near the summit of Peak 6. Actually, the excellent skiers and snowboarders had to hike up a few hundred feet if they wanted to start at the top.

I wasn't one of those people.

I decided to take Bliss down, but up near the top (past the treeline and in very open space) there wasn't a lot of signage. What ended up being Bliss was a giant steep open basin, and it was incredibly taxing and trying and a bit terrifying, but I did it!

My trip down Peak 7 was much less stressful, but by the time that was done, I was pretty beat. I went back to Peak 8 and skied down to the condo from there. According to my ski pass, which got scanned each time I went on a chairlift, I did 12,831 vertical feet and 11 lift rides.

Even though I was on my own, there was plenty of opportunities to talk to people on the chairlifts. One guy was complaining about his boot rentals. A mom was taking her kids and a bunch of other kids on the slopes for her son's birthday. And another woman told me all about her day in Vail on Monday.

For those of you that aren't aware, Vail and Beaver Creek are hosting the 2015 World Ski Championships, which take place every odd year. The woman said that she and her friends parked at a free lot, took two free shuttles to the race finish, and watched Lindsay Vonn mess up during the Alpined Combined event from the giant bleachers that were constructed specifically for the Championships. She had a wonderful time!

That was in the back of my mind when I returned to the condo and had a couple hours to kill before I was going to head down to town for dinner. I checked the Championship's website and saw that men's giant slalom was going on about an hour from that point, with US skier Ted Ligety in the mix. I saw that Vail was about a 45 minute drive from where I was, and I thought, "Just go! Everything is working out in your favor!" So I did!

I've never driven that far west on I-70, so I was seeing new scenery all around me. The Rodeo Lot at which spectators were parking was actually in Avon, west of Beaver Creek, but as soon as I parked and got to the bus lot a "special" bus pulled up and a group of us got on. We stopped in Beaver Creek village first and transferred onto another bus that had chains on its tires to take us to the race finish.

There was a reason there were chains on that bus - it was muddy! The temperature was in the upper-30s and people were shedding their jackets and standing around in sweatshirts and t-shirts! Quite a few people at the finish line were in their ski and snowboard gear, complete with boots, but they had to leave their skis and snowboards near the bottom.

After I got off the bus, I was informed that the bleacher seating was full, but they were allowing people to sit on the sides of the run...but you had to hike up there. They had created steps with the snow and with board ladders to make it a little easier, but it was still quite a climb!

By the time I made it to the finish, they were about 10 skiers into the final round of 30, so I hightailed it to a spot near the big screen and the slope. Since this was giant slalom, they don't scream past the spectators at insane speeds (like downhill) but have to make turns around the red and blue gates, which allows for a little more viewing of the skiers as they come down the hill.

The spectators would all watch the big screens as the athletes started, and then usually the announcers would mention that the skier was coming into view, and people would watch them for the last leg and cross the finish line. Then their eyes would return to the screen to see if it said "NEW LEADER!" in big green letters.

Ted Ligety was the 26th skier to go in the group of 30, and the place erupted when he started, even though he was still up at the top! The announcers did mention that the skiers could hear the crowd from the top, though I'm not sure I believe that.

He raced past me, and I managed to snag a video of his finish. We watched him cross the line, and checked the screen, and sure enough, "NEW LEADER!" had appeared over his face. The crowd went wild! It was so cool. People were shaking little cowbells and blowing horns and waving flags for all the countries. It was an amazing atmosphere.

Unfortunately, there were three skiers still to go! The two skiers after Ligety didn't do well at all, but the last racer, Austrian Marcel Hirscher, had already won gold earlier in the week in the super combined, and had the fastest time in the first round (slalom combines the time of two runs for the final results).

I was screaming at him to "Slow down!" as he sped past, and even though he was ahead at the top, he lost time near the bottom, and everyone checked the board as Hirscher crossed, and there was no green words over his face - he had placed second! We all cheered crazily - this was the first American gold in these World Championships. (I was so glad I was there for it!)

Now although Ligety had won, there were technically 60 competitors, and only half of them had gone. The other 30 were the slowest times after the first run, and would have mathematically no chance to get into the top 3. Instead of making the crowd watch those slowest 30 go first, they actually have them go after the fastest 30. So Ligety was announced as the world champion, the course was cleared, and the slow 30 started coming down. But most of the crowds were leaving.

I slowly inched my way down the hill, which was a very tedious process. Lots of people were falling on their butts (some kids were wisely sliding their way down), but I didn't fall. I made it to behind the bleachers and saw the massive crowd of people waiting for the chained buses to come back, and I thought, "Why leave now? I've got time!" So I turned and climbed like a salmon swimming upstream as people were leaving the bleachers. There was still a small group of people cheering the slow 30, and I found myself a cowbell and cheered along with them.

I was rewarded for sticking around when all the competitors had finished. They didn't have the medal ceremony (that was later in Vail), but they did have a flower ceremony with a podium and presentation. I was excited to see that. Best of all, they played the US National Anthem and everyone sang along. The feeling I got was probably the closest I'll ever get to feeling like I was at the Olympics.

The crowd had thinned out, so it didn't take too long to crowd on a bus back to Beaver Creek village. As I waited, it was neat to watch some of the competitors ski by and gather their stuff. Croatian Elias Kolega passed right in front of me to get his spare skis!

While it didn't take long to take a bus to the village, the line to get back to the parking lots was long. It took a while, and by this time people's happy attitudes were starting to wane. I was just glad that the bus I got on had an open seat, since they had to stop at three different parking lots before making it back to the Rodeo Lot in Avon!

To my surprise, it was only 5:30 by the time I made it back to my car, so by the time I made it back to Breckenridge, it was dinnertime. I'd been planning my dinner for a good month before my trip - a place called The Lost Cajun that was in downtown Breckenridge. My parents and I had gone there twice when we were up in the summer, and I loved the place. It wasn't fancy at all - there were long tables and benches and the kitchen was right off the dining room, divided only by half a wall. The waitresses don't write your order down. Instead, right after you make your complete order, they yell it right at the cooks, and the cooks yell it right back!

The best part about The Lost Cajun is the samples that they give you right when you get there. On a small wooden board are five small cups with some of their best food. There was seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo, lobster bisque, red beans and rice, and shrimp etoufee. Last time I was there I ordered the chicken and sausage gumbo, but after tasting the samples this time around, I really wanted the seafood gumbo! I also ordered a catfish po boy sandwich - I saved half of it for later.

I finally returned to the condo full, sleepy, and happy. It was a heck of a day, and not a sour note from sunup to sundown. It was a day I'll remember for a long time!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Plan B

Everyone has had to resort to a Plan B sometime in their life. It could be as big as a career or relationship, or as petty as a vacation or dinner. It's unfortunate that not all our Plan As work out in our lives, but that just means that we get a chance to re-think our futures and determine if Plan A really was the best plan.

I hate dealing with Plan Bs. I am a Type-A person, so Plan A should always work. This weekend, for example, I am expecting the weather to be nice. I will get my paycheck and deposit it. I will return the DVD to the library before it's due on Friday. And I won't forget anything when I go skiing.

Thanks to my family, my friends, and my job, however, I have begun to be less strict on following Plan A. Usually in the shadows I've already formed a Plan B for when something that I can't control gets in the way of Plan A - like a snowstorm, the bank being stupid, or being so concerned about a crying child that I lock my keys in the car (which happened this weekend - the child was fine).

A big Plan A in my life was grad school. I am a teacher, but pursuing my Master's degree in education has never been in the cards for me. I double majored in college in education and what is called Parish Music (music for the church and church-school, essentially). I did one semester of student teaching at a school, but I also did a one-semester internship at a giant church and church-school where I didn't teach Math or Social Studies. Instead, I went around doing Music class, directing all the choirs, and spending hours at a time practicing organ.

In short, it was magnificent.

There are Master's degrees out there for musicians, and that's what I wanted to pursue. Plan A was a program I discovered two years ago at Michigan State University: a three-year summer program for a Master's in music. In my case, I wanted to apply for the choral conducting program.

In the conferences I've attended and choirs in which I've been involved, I have developed a deep respect for conductors. They hold down the fort in rehearsals, get dozens of people to do exactly the same thing, and get their interpretation of the piece to be the version everyone sees and hears. In my own choirs I love that commanding presence that I can convey. I love finding a part of a song, nitpicking it, and hearing it transform in the mouths of my choir members.

So over the summer of 2014 I researched the MSU program and got valuable input from alumni ("It's the best program out there") and colleagues ("You wouldn't miss teaching, right?") and family ("You'd be so close to home! What would your cats do?"). The deadline to apply was December 1, and there was a ton of information that needed to be submitted.

First would be two applications - one to MSU and one to the College of Music - and it was expensive! I would have to take video of myself in rehearsals and a performance - and the guidelines were very specific (front-facing camera, no more than 20 minutes, etc.). I had one of my choir members take the video and I told him which parts to edit down - he did a great job. I needed a transcript from my college, and three letters of recommendation. Those were a lot more difficult to finagle than I'd anticipated, mostly because it was hard for me to think of three musically-talented people that know me and my musical skills well enough from the past 6 years! (This would have been much easier in high school or college is what I'm saying.)

Everything was in on time, although the MLC transcript got in a few days late - but that was one of the things that didn't have a set due date like everything else. I didn't worry about it too much.

I spent all of December waiting to hear back from MSU. I'd already started thinking about what I could do if I got accepted to audition (step 2 before official acceptance) in February. One of their available dates was my 4-day weekend - perfect! I could throw my sister's baby shower that weekend too! I could stay with my parents and drive up to East Lansing for the day! I need to buy a suit jacket to look more professional - I've never had one of those before!

More than that, I was already thinking ahead to the summer. I got permission from my pastor and principal to pursue this degree, even though it would mean I couldn't be working over the summer like I usually do. Maybe I could get someone to intern from MLC and they could stay at my apartment and watch my cats while getting a stipend from my church to teach piano lessons and play organ! I could drive my car for 24 hours to get back home and have my car with me in Michigan - no big deal!

But then it all kind of stopped. I'd just finished rehearsing for a wedding in Michigan over Christmas break, and was in a good mood since the other musicians in the wedding were super nice, and I'd been worried that they'd be stuck up snobs.

So I get home and check my e-mail, and finally! There's something from MSU! I open the e-mail to see if they'll let me request an audition for the weekend of February 14.



With the large number of applicants, we will not be asking you to audition for our program at this time.


I moped. I cried. I looked into three other universities that night. Then I came to the conclusion that Plan B was just going to have to happen.

Luckily, it wasn't very hard to plan. I just wouldn't be leaving Colorado for eight weeks like I'd been anticipating. Instead, I'd stay for another hot, dry summer. There were no major weddings planned (like the past 2 summers), so I had no commitments. For me not to have any summer plans in January is pretty insane.

A long road trip with my mother is in the works, culminating with us in Rapid City, SD for the Lutheran Women's Missionary Society National Convention. Even though it's only 6 hours from here, I figured Mom would like the company while she drives 20 hours from Michigan.

Instead of using every last cent I own for tuition, I could store some of it aside for a new First for me: my first half marathon. If I'm going to run a half marathon, I'm going to do a RunDisney half marathon, and I'm going to do a Star Wars half marathon, if they hold it on MLK weekend like they did this year. It kind of times out perfectly.

And what about grad school? There was a point for a while there where I just figured I wasn't good enough to go to the next level - that I would be resigned to directing my school kids and my dwindling group of senior choir members for the next 20 years and not progress. But then I remembered Concordia.

A large chunk of WELS musicians have taken the short trip to Mequon, Wisconsin to attend Concordia's own three-year summer music program. While this would be far from my parents, I would be able to spend some of those summers with my brother, who would be in Mequon for a few years.

I wanted to blaze my own path by trying something outside the WELS circle. But when MSU squashed that dream, it was time to downgrade my outlook. Why not try Concordia? While other schools have great programs that only run during the "normal" school year (CU-Boulder and Carnegie Mellon, I'm looking at you), Concordia has programs meant for full-time teachers. Why not give it a shot?

This fall I'll probably give it a go. I'll pay the application fees, send in the videos, purchase a transcript, and wait in front of my computer for the reply.

...And while I'm waiting, I'll probably be preparing Plan C.


And Plan D.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Czeching It Out in Retrospect

Four years ago I was able to take an incredible trip to the Czech Republic and do a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at a Christian school in Plzen. While the VBS only lasted five days, I still have tons of great memories from that vacation.

My purpose in the VBS was to put together the music portions of the day, as well as teach songs that the kids would sing for a final devotion for their parents. One of the other helpers in the VBS, Jon, brought his guitar along, so I found songs that would work with him accompanying us. We sang "They'll Know We Are Christians" and "Tell About Jesus", both of which were hits with the kids. I'd learned from experience not to pick songs for the final performance until the kids had a chance to sing all the songs, and it was clear that these were the favorites. 

I also had the chance to help with Bible lessons and amazing art projects that were coordinated by Ed, the leader of our group, play on the playground court during "gym," and get to know the two pastors of the church, Petr and Martin. Both of them were such huge helps putting everything together, and they helped us understand the relaxed nature of the Czech people. It took me a bit to get used to (I'm a Type A for sure), but I mellowed out over the trip. 

One of my favorite memories of the trip was snacktime. The kids would bring in whole lunches for snack, which surprised me the first day! But when some of the girls were done, they gathered around the keyboard with me and we sang a bunch of songs together. I wasn't asking them to do it - they just wanted to. It gave me joy to be able to do that with them.

Another favorite memory of mine was the Sunday afternoon before the VBS started. All the helpers were gathered in our spacious apartment at the school getting everything ready. Jon was practicing guitar chords, Ed was gathering the materials for the art projects, I was organizing all my sheet music, and Jenni and Clara were studying lessons. We were focused on the upcoming adventure, and all had the same goal in mind: to share God's Word with these wonderful Czech children. It was a great moment of togetherness. 

Now we didn't just spend a few weeks in the Czech Republic and only teach a VBS! We also did a lot of sightseeing. One day we took the train to Prague, which is currently my favorite European city, full of history and modern culture. On another day we went to Karlstein castle, which has beautiful views of the hills surrounding it, as well as a fascinating background. In the afternoons during the VBS we would take shorter trips closer to Plzen. One day we saw the Pilsner-Urquell brewery, another day we went to the Kozel Castle, and another day we went to Petr's family's home and hiked around the neighborhood. 

While I had spent time in China and ate some unique foods there, the Czech Republic served a lot of meat and potatoes, which I didn't mind at all. I tried to have some sort of potato dumplings at every meal, since I discovered on my first day that I loved them a lot. We also had pizza, which seemed to be something that the locals wanted you to eat, even though you can have it any time back home! I enjoyed the food, but having beer at almost every meal took some getting used to. 

I was so thankful to get the experience to take such a trip, and hope that someday my finances will allow me to take it again. I'm thrilled to hear how the VBS is still going strong, and that there are many ambitious plans in the works for future trips. It warms my heart to know that these kids are getting a chance to hear about Jesus in such a wonderful way!