The Turtle Vs. the Hare or Who Have I Favored in this Life?

Swimming

They watch the clock on the pool deck. They must time the intervals exactly. Double zero, 15, 30, 45. Leave every 15 seconds for the warmup. Later, start on the 35 and calculate how many seconds have passed when you return. Leave on the 5, leave on the 40, leave on the 15, the 50. My daughters have lived by that clock for years now. They are nine and twelve and have been swimming for five years, six days a week, two hours a day. This amount of exertion is concerning to me. I once worried it would keep them from listening to their own bodies, from knowing when it was time to slow down. I feared this exertion would keep them from getting their menstruation cycles when they were older. I have never asked their swimming times or urged them to go faster. I do not yell at the swim meets; I do not scream maniacally at the splashing water where the swimmers cannot even hear as they race, “Go, Go, Go! You’ve got it! Ugghhhh! Oh yes, Oh my God! Ayyyyyyeeeee!” I just want them to relax in a bath when they arrive home, to clear their bodies of the chlorine, to unwind their muscles. Have a snack.

Antonyms for hurry up:

 dull. inessential. optional. trivial. uncritical. unimportant. insignificant.

Violin and the metronome

That numbing pendulum hypnotic machine. Or the one with the flashing lights. To increase the tempo of a piece of music marked Allegro or God forbid Presto, I used to ask my students to gradually increase the numbers on the metronome from 60 beats per minute one day, to 62 the next day, to 64 the next day and so on. 120 is the number designated as the slowest Allegro, so it would take 30 days or roughly a month of daily practice to increase the speed to the desired tempo. Students don’t usually have a month-because of a school competition or chair test. They must move faster. So, they practiced 60, then 64, then 68. They could get to 120 beats per minute in 15 days at that rate. This is the slowest way to play faster.

Sometimes, they need to get to 120 or more in one practice session. They set the metronome at 120 and play four notes in a row, pause, play four more notes, pause, four more notes through an excerpt of the piece of music. Once they have achieved that, they play eight notes, pause, the next eight notes, pause…Then they try to play the passage without pause. This is the fastest way to play fast. Most of my students start out hating the metronome. The click click clicking, or beep beep beeping without end. They feel like they are being interrupted, their flow is hindered; there is no room for variation, or breath, no ritardando or rallentando-an extreme slowing down-, or accelerando-speeding up the tempo-, or fermata where the note is held beyond its designated number of beats, indefinitely suspended in time. No. The metronome demands robotic precision. The German inventor Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel developed a “musical chronometer” in 1814, inspired by the pendulum and the pendulum clock in the 16th and 17th centuries. What did musicians do before the metronome? Orchestral conductors once held a large staff which they pounded into the floor, vibrating the room with the boom of the beat. This kept the musicians together, until the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself in the foot.

Most of my students use the metronome to get faster, not just consistent. Following their own heartbeat or breath or sense of the tempo ends up being faulty in the beginning. Their hearts beat faster when nervous, slower when tired. The metronome is meant to give them a sense of control, but they feel controlled by it. They play faster when the passage is easy and slower when it is more difficult. They do not notice that this is happening until they use the metronome. It compounds their mistakes. It forces them to face what they wish to ignore. Their faces get tight and serious. The muscles in their hands constrict, making it harder to stretch their fingers across the violin. The metronome, once a harmless rectangular device or tiny pyramid coach, looms larger: a sergeant barking orders, pushing them into an army-like march, leading them faster and faster into the war of performance. Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome. So instead of just writing the vague Allegro, ma non troppo– fast but not too much so- Beethoven also wrote 88 as the beats per minute to follow for his last Symphony No. 9, famous for the last movement, whose theme is known as Ode to Joy. There are musicians today who believe that Beethoven’s metronome was broken, because many of his tempo markings seem too fast for performance. Even though the tempo helps to hold the music together, I tell my students there are more important things than speed: phrasing, musicality, tone, intonation, and most importantly, what they feel as they are playing the music.

Antonyms for speed:

check. clog. delay. drag. hinder. impede. obstruct. retard.

Marrying at age 17

My mother married my father fresh out of high school. She was pregnant with my sister. Both of my parents were Catholic, and they loved each other, but this was not planned. My father wanted to go to college to become an engineer. My mother wanted to get her degree in piano performance. They would try to attend college, but both had to drop out within a year or two. My dad worked at Jack in the Box and got a certificate in welding at age 18. To prove to herself and the world that she knew what it took to be a mother, my mother started the long business of denying herself- clothes, food, etc. She still had my father at night and that was enough. However brief the ecstasy, she longed for that feeling as proof of love. My mother became pregnant with me just a few months after she gave birth to my sister. The doctor took me out early, so he could go on Christmas vacation- I was due in January. I didn’t cry when he lifted me from my mother’s abdomen; I was sleeping. My parents didn’t have any money; my mother was overwhelmed with two babies, so the obstetrician insisted my father get a vasectomy at age 19.

Where is the wisdom in waiting when they insisted that was the life they wanted? The planning seemed beside the point. My mother said, “I saw your father and I knew he was the one.” When she has talked about this over the years, it sounds as if she was afraid to lose him. It is possible to feel like you are in a race against time, even when you are a teenager.

                                    Antonyms for hasty:

                                                slow. considered.

Skipping a grade

I do not remember skipping a grade. My mother tells me when I was in kindergarten, I sat in front of the class and read to them. She said I “wasn’t being stimulated enough,” that I was “teaching the class.” Did she ask me if I wanted to skip a grade? She may have said, you will be with your sister, won’t that be nice? I remember being the youngest and sometimes smallest person in my grade. I felt left out, underdeveloped, not emotionally ready, all the way through high school. But I quickly realized that doing things ahead of time was admired by others, and I aimed to please. There was the life plan I illustrated with colorful pictures of me publishing a book before I was 20, playing violin in a professional orchestra, having children and various other milestones before I was in my late twenties. What a rush. What a burden. So much expectation I had of myself. I was sure to fail. I shrunk in the face of my own shortened timeline. Graduating early did not ensure my success. It just made me feel that I was running out of time.

Antonyms for skip:     

attend to. stay in place.

Going to School

When she was not yet two years of age, my oldest daughter saw children entering a classroom at a church. “Where are those children going?” she asked. “To school,” I answered.

“What do they do there?”

“They learn how to read and write and count numbers.”

“I want to go to school!”

“Mommy’s not ready for that yet.”

On the first day of preschool, my daughter walked past me into her classroom without hugging me. She raised her toddler hand and said, “Bye Mommy.” I sat in my car in the parking lot, crying.

                                    Antonyms for ready:

unwilling. incapable. disinclined. unprepared.

Sleep

When my daughters were in kindergarten, I thought the proper amount of sleep was more important than school. If they kept sleeping, even after I had opened the doors to their bedrooms in the morning, I let them sleep. We were late so many times to school, I received a note saying that I could be contacted by the police department for failing to comply with the school schedule. Most mornings, we ran out of the house in a rush, with me yelling, “Hurry!” How ironic. My daughters brushed their hair in the car, crying, hearts racing. “Why didn’t you wake us up earlier?” This is not what I wanted.

It was a torture for me to wake my sleeping beauties from their dreams. I asked them when they were waking, “Do you remember your dreams?” I still ask them this to this day and they are nine and twelve. They do not remember. I do not remember my dreams. This is sad to me. How I wish to know what my subconscious is trying to tell me. What am I hiding from myself in trying to fit into the schedule of the work-a-day world? How I wish to be a dreamer who honors her dreams. There are scientific charts that say that a kindergarten age child should get 10-12 hours of sleep. When I let them sleep, my daughters sleep twelve hours or more; their rosy cheeks and smiles are beautiful to behold. When they wake up early for school, there are days when they have dark circles under their eyes. I feel like a horrible mother for this. Those twelve hours matter more to me than a single A on any test.

Antonyms for sleep:

consciousness. action. energy. awakening.

Running

When I was in college, I started running. Running increased my oxygen intake, released a surge of energy throughout my body, flooded me with temporary peace. After studying for hours, cramming more and more information into my mind, writing so much my hands cramped, I longed to physically exhaust myself, so I could truly relax. I ran miles and miles without counting, without caring in which direction I was going or what time of day or night it was. My mind seemed to grow still and calm within my constantly moving body. I ran on New York City Streets at three in the morning. I ran alongside country roads and in the ditches of small towns where my parents moved to be closer to my sister and me. I ran up and down the stairwells of the apartment buildings and dilapidated hotels I lived in, where I also ran my fingers up and down my violin playing endless scales, 17 floors up, where people used the elevators and I could be sure to be alone.

Twenty years later, I am no longer in college, but I still feel this need to learn and to run. As I write, our beautiful part Russian blue cat runs across the living room and back again, chasing nothing, but she is urgent in her pursuit. She looks like a mini, grey panther. There is no predator for her to run from and no prey to capture. She does not have to save her life, nor take the life of another. But something deep inside her, a memory from her ancestors says, “Something is chasing you. You must run to save your life. You must chase something in order to live. Keep running.”

I have sprained both my ankles in the last year, being distracted- when I was walking across a parking lot I tripped over an unseen curb; on a trail, I fell where there was a hole in the ground. I cannot run anymore. I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner. My own body has forced me to stop for a time. My mind races even as I sleep, but I don’t know where it’s running.

                                    Antonyms for running:

apathetic. inactive. broken. unexciting.

Starting an instrument early

When I was 15, I auditioned for a performing arts high school for my junior and senior years. I started playing the violin when I was 11 years old in my public junior high school orchestra program. The students in the performing arts high school, I soon found out, started when they were four years of age. Their parents and teachers taught them through the Suzuki method, a method I now teach, whose philosophy is it is never too early or too late to play an instrument.  I soon realized I was behind. I would not catch up. That is what I told myself. I was placed in the back of the second violin section, which seemed like I was sitting in the nosebleed seats at every orchestra concert. I watched the first violinists, with their flawless technique, fingers soaring, bows ricocheting consistently, while my fingers and bow floundered on the strings. Even though I practiced hours every day, and thought that I was giving my all, in my heart I already believed that a life as a professional musician was out of my reach. I secretly lamented all those years of climbing trees and watching television in elementary school.

Fifteen years later, in a Suzuki teacher training course, I met a young woman who started playing the viola when she was 16 years old. She had wanted to play for years, but as her family moved often for the military, she never got the chance. She bought her own viola and started teaching herself. Then, she applied to study music at a university and practiced diligently. She is now a professional musician for an orchestra in Germany. She has made a life out of music because that was the life she wanted and worked for. She knew everyone at the university had started a decade before her, but what she lacked in experience, she made up for with passion.

A few years later, I received a call from a mother whose son had just turned three. No violin teacher in her neighborhood would take her son as a student. They said she had to wait until he was four or five years old. I said I would try. I used a carrot and a stalk of celery to teach him how to hold a bow. Every skill took weeks and months longer for his muscles to get used to. So that he would not lose interest, I made everything into a game. I broke lessons into smaller, easier learning steps so his level of frustration would not overwhelm him. I am not certain if it is correct to start so young or not. He is now seven years old and my goal for him is not to fly through the repertoire, but to make sure he is enjoying the process and continuing to love music.

I’ll never forget one Suzuki training where a world-renowned violin teacher exclaimed, “Our students are not getting any younger! They must practice now, or they won’t make it in the professional world of music.” This returns me to my former frame of mind as a high school student, I will never make it. How can I inspire my students to reach their potential, if I am still haunted by what I perceive as my own failure to not learn faster? Do I still have time to catch up, even now?

A few years ago, I read about a revered surgeon, who upon retirement, decided to take up the violin. In his seventies at the time, he said he didn’t know how fast his progress would be. It didn’t matter. He had always wanted to learn and would do it for his own enjoyment.

                        Antonyms for early:

late. worn. old. overdue.

Bicycling

After we married, my husband and I joined a cycling club. At first, we stayed with the slowest group, watching the cows grazing in the pastures as we pedaled by, looking at wildflowers, talking as we rode. We all met in a large parking lot three hours later, where people passed out protein bars and bananas, fixed their bicycles, and talked about the glories and pitfalls of cycling. It was fun for a short time, but I soon found myself thinking more about preparing my body to have children than about cycling. Even though we rode with the slower group, we were still cycling for hours; I often felt exhausted afterwards. My husband and I had been trying to conceive for months without results. My kindergarten through 8th grade music teaching position left me without breaks during the week and without energy on the weekends. Saturdays, I decided to stay at home, while my husband went cycling. After a few weeks, my husband hustled into the fastest group, riding 50 miles in just a few hours, going 14-16 miles per hour. The men and women he rode with, also rode during the week, maintaining a regular schedule which their bodies were used to. With my husband’s work schedule, he couldn’t exercise during the week. He was a weekend warrior.

I noticed my husband looked thinner than usual; I wondered if he was eating enough for the number of calories he was burning. Perhaps he wasn’t getting the right amount of sleep. One day he came home from work looking like a skeleton; he hadn’t just lost most of his normal body fat, but muscle mass as well. It happened all at once. As I read about the details of his sudden change on the internet, I realized that he had all the symptoms of hyperthyroidism or Graves’ Disease: bulging eyes, irritability, tiredness, muscle weakness, heat sensitivity, shaky hands, rapid and irregular heartbeat, weight loss without dieting. A visit to an endocrinologist confirmed this fear. The doctor said it was hard to say what had caused this to happen. Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system overworks and attacks the thyroid. The endocrinologist hesitated to guess what had triggered this. My husband spoke proudly of his immune system. It is strong, he insisted, it is working overtime. As a precaution, my husband stopped cycling for several years. The bicycles collected dust in the garage.

Antonyms for fast:

clumsy. sluggish. insecure.

Instant Pot

Since I teach violin from late afternoon until it is time to go to bed, I am looking for a quick solution to making meals for my family. While grocery shopping, I see a mountain of Instant Pots, one on top of the other, all with coupons that say, “$50 off!” I take one home. Inside the box, there is a color laminated sheet that tells me how few minutes it takes to cook all manner of food items- when using the pressure cooker function: Ground meat, 5 minutes. Carrots, 2 to 3 minutes. Rice, 4 minutes. Potatoes, 3 to 4 minutes. Boneless porkchops, 4 to 5 minutes. Whole chicken, 8 minutes per pound. Asparagus, 1 to 2 minutes. Lentils, 1 to 2 minutes. This makes me believe that dinner will take me 15 minutes tops to prepare, including preparation time. Wow. In my mind, I begin preparing elaborate meals with the touch of an electronic button. Pressure cooker, where have you been all my life? Today, I will make a pot roast.

As I read the safety manual, I prepare myself to lock the lid in place, make sure the steam valve is open, not clogged, to not put my face or hands over escaping steam, to not put too much water, to not put too little water, to not fill the inner cooker past 2/3 full, to not put too little in it, to wait 25 minutes to make sure all the steam has escaped before trying to open the lid. The directions say to wait 5 to 25 minutes, but I read reviews that say to wait longer or the pressure that is contained within the cooker could explode in your face. I find a photo of a nine-year old girl in Colorado whose face and body are covered in third degree burns. My youngest daughter is nine years old. I see a woman whose entire chest and arms are candle apple red after making beef stew (which she had already made several times before, all in the same way with the same machine). Another woman reports that there is soup on the ceiling, cabinets and floor of her kitchen after the liquid erupted like a volcano when she took the lid off. On these websites, people recount stories of how they or their mothers have been burned from using pressure cookers. The most common complaint is the lid comes off when it isn’t supposed to.

One woman writes how she let the steam escape for 25 minutes, unplugged the machine from the outlet, and took the lid off the pressure cooker. Everything was fine. As she was removing the roast from the cooker, she heard a pop! and the meat exploded in her face. There was pressure built up in the meat and it released when she stuck the fork in it.

There were defenders of the instant pot calling these people idiots. They obviously used the machine incorrectly. I love my instant pot, they said. The pressure retains more nutrients, it saves time, they can have dinner on the table in a fraction of the time.

I hang my head, placing all the recipes, user manual, safety precautions, back into the box. I spent two days reading over all the pros and cons of this machine. I imagine putting myself under the same amount of pressure that this pot takes to cook something faster. I think about how slow I read, sometimes reading the same sentence two or three times. How I listen to the same section of a music recording multiple times to hear how the musician created a particular sound which caused me to feel the music more deeply. How I stare into space so I can think more clearly, how time passes without my realizing it, how I stop to catch my breath when I am not even running. My husband says, “There is a cost for everything.”

What is the cost of the pressure cooker? How will I pay for this in ways that are not monetary? I will worry that if my children, who love the kitchen, who bake and open cabinets and make slime and art at the kitchen table will be near to this pressure cooker every day. A faster dinner is not worth more than my peace of mind.

I pull out my slow cooker. I tell my family dinner will be ready in several hours.

                                    Antonyms for instant:

delayed. old fashioned. eventual.

Swimming again

We are at my daughters’ swim meet. My youngest daughter, eight years old at the time, is swimming breaststroke. Around me, I hear people screaming, but I feel like I am in a bubble watching my daughter streamline across the water. It is the opposite of racing; her strokes are so smooth and serene. This is her favorite stroke. No water is splashed. She seems at peace. The tips of her toes are ahead of all the other swimmers. I feel my heart flutter. Something inside me is reaching out with her, wanting to call out her name, but I do not, because I know she will not hear me. I am no different from the other parents in my delight in seeing my daughter swim so well. Even though I am not the one swimming, I feel as if I am in the pool, head ducked just under the surface of the water, exhaling deeply, my hands reaching to touch the wall at the same time, hoping to not get disqualified.

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