". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Spider Wisdom

"What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge--bugs?" asked Wilbur.

"No," said Charlotte. "They don't catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they'd hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no--with men it's rush, rush, rush, every minute. I'm glad I'm a sedentary spider."

"What does sedentary mean?" asked Wilbur.

"Means I sit still a good part of the time and don't go wandering all over creation. I know a good thing when I see it, and my web is a good thing. I stay put and wait for what comes. Gives me a chance to think."

--Charlotte's Web, Chapter 9

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Eight-Year-Olds

Today as we were driving home from church Evan asked, "Mom, why do we have toll roads?" I explained that often city and/or state governments will build a new road to make automobile travel easier but will then install toll booths so as to collect fees to pay for the new road. I further explained that while those tolls are often represented as temporary measures, lasting for a set period of time until the road is paid for, they typically become permanent fixtures that ultimately extend in perpetuity, collecting money indefinitely. "Governments like to take as much money from the people as they can, and once they start taking it, they don't like to stop," I said.

My eight-year-old briefly pondered this statement, and then disdainfully responded:

"Government brutality."

Friday, October 26, 2012

An October Surprise

I have been out of town the last few days, visiting my son in Nebraska. Yesterday he competed in the MTNA Young Artist Competition, playing a 30-minute program that included works by Bach, Brahms, and 20th-century composer Lowell Liebermann. The video below is of Trevor's performance of the Liebermann piece, entitled "Gargoyles." I love this work because although it is modern in style and harmonic vocabulary, it is highly melodic and therefore quite accessible, not to mention haunting and exciting. It is a four-movement work; included here are the first, third, and fourth movements.

"Gargoyles" - Op. 29 by Lowell Liebermann from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Trevor received Honorable Mention for this performance; the previous night, in Lincoln, he won the University of Nebraska's undergraduate concerto competition! In February he will be performing the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the University of Nebraska Symphony Orchestra.    If you had asked Trevor a few days ago which of the two competitions he thought he had the best chance of winning, he would have said MTNA, not the concerto competition. Such is live music: one never knows when all the elements are going to come together in just the right way to create a truly memorable performance. Sometimes it happens when you least expect it (and conversely doesn't happen when you thought it would).

It has been a long three days of driving--about nine hours on the road both Wednesday and today and five hours yesterday as Trevor and I drove from Lincoln to Kearney and back again. I am tired but so thankful I was able to go and see my son perform and to spend some time with him. It was my first time to see him since he left for the fall term over two months ago. I didn't go along on that trip so had not even seen his room yet this year. Can you believe he was able to get moved in without his mother directing him every step of the way?

Time to start counting the days until Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


From Today's Treasury of Daily Prayer, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess--he builds. We must proclaim--he builds. We must pray to him--that he may build.

We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don't ask for judgments. Don't always be calculating what will happen. Don't always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.

I know these words are concerned with building the church. And indeed, they are a good reminder to those who look to the visible and tangible aspects of a church--the fancy building or top notch staff or great programs or perfect practice--as evidence of the church's health and strength. But I think these words about the church can be applied equally to the individual in his everyday life. If you are anything like me, you could benefit from reading this passage on a daily basis. For if you are anything like me, you love nothing better than to think you are in control. You spend endless hours calculating, planning, and trying to ensure things work out as you think they ought. Yet what so often happens is that the thing you have worked so hard to build crumbles before your eyes, and all those opinions and judgments and calculations come to naught. The comforting reminder here is that even when that happens, God is in charge. He is always building. When we think things are at their most hopeless, that is when He is hardest at work, drawing up the blueprint for His next work of art. And conversely, when we think we have produced something that is untouchable, we find that its shiny exterior belies the rot within. My prayer for myself this day, and for you, dear reader, is that even in the face of the constant and unrelenting setbacks of this life, we might take encouragement from the blessing of vocation: "Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough." I am enough and you are enough because we are in Christ, and Christ is always enough. So take heart and rest, and let Him build.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fish Fail

Back in July we purchased a 20-gallon aquarium for my mother. She lives with us, but although she is ambulatory and in generally good health, she does not get out of the house much and no longer reads or pursues any hobbies. My husband thought the fish tank might provide a pleasing alternative to television as well as turn into something that my youngest child would be able to share with his grandma. I remember our having an aquarium when I was growing up and don't recall its being that complicated. So when my husband suggested one for my mom's birthday I agreed. How hard could it be?

A lot harder, it turns out, than I ever imagined. I have lost track of the number of times I have carried water samples to the pet store. When we first set up the tank, we followed the instructions perfectly. We added all the recommended water treatments and let the filter work for a week before we took in the first water sample. That sample tested too high on the pH scale. We added "pH down," waited a few days, and tested again. Still too high. After several more trips on the pH merry-go-round, we finally achieved safe range and got the green light to buy our first fish. We took home three of the red wag platy specimen, a hardy, tropical fish marketed as an excellent choice for beginners like us. We were excited to finally have fish and thought we were on our way! The salesgirl cautioned us about overfeeding, a common newbie mistake. Instead of feeding the fish twice per day, as the fish food container suggested, we limited feedings to one pinch of fish food per day. Our platies (platys?) seemed to be happy.

Within a week, however, we could tell something was wrong. Our fish were not as active as they had been. We noticed what looked like tiny white specks on several of them. Back to the pet store we went. It turned out our fish had Ichthyopthirius multifiliis, a parasite more commonly known as "Ick." Not to worry--there is a treatment for that. We bought a bottle of "Super Ick Cure" and added as directed. But within a week all the fish were dead. We returned them to the pet store to collect on our two-week money-back guarantee and also took back another water sample. Upon dipping the test strip into our baggie of water, the salesgirl's mouth fell open: "That is the highest ammonia level I have ever seen." (For the record, a few years ago the city of Chicago became our water source, so if it's the tap water we are not alone in our toxicity.) We went back home armed with ammonia remover and did several rounds of treatment over the course of a week before retesting. The ammonia was still incredibly high. This time it was suggested that we replace most but not all the water. I purchased a tank vacuum and suctioned out about 2/3 of the water, cleaning the gravel at the same time. I replaced the water I had removed, starting from scratch with a new filter cartridge and the usual additives. I have been back to the pet store several more times, and while the pH level is fine, the ammonia level is still unacceptably high. The last time I went, the salesgirl (there are actually at least three, and they all recognize me now) looked at me with an expression of puzzled pity and suggested we totally empty the the tank and start from scratch.

We are three months into our fish odyssey and I am tired. I have run out of both money and motivation. I don't want to carry the plastic bag of shame to the pet store anymore only to have a pretty, young salesgirl sadly shake her head at me. I don't want to continue sneaking into my mother's room when she is not there in order to steal water samples from the tank without having to endure her knowing looks. "It will be easy," I told her all those months ago. "You don't have to do anything. I'll take care of it." Three months later her tank sits, pretty and gurgling, but devoid of life. Maybe I need to buy some of these. Do you think she would notice?

In other news, I am happy to report our puppy is still alive.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Undecided Voters

I am sorry if this post offends anyone. But I just have to say that I find this animal known as the "undecided voter" to be a bit confusing, particularly when one is talking about the two major party candidates at this point in the presidential election. Those two candidates are as different as they can be, in style as well as in substance, and they have offered two highly contrasting visions for this country's next four years. One of them has a four-year record that indicates exactly what his approach will be if he gets four more years to act. I know there are those who in general dismiss politicians, particularly major party ones, professing the belief that "they are all alike" and that none of them can be trusted. I don't subscribe to that view, but if I did, I would probably find myself not undecided but apathetic, deciding to eschew the voting booth, period, or like some of my friends, vote third-party. But if one has not given up completely on the two major parties, one cannot look at the two current candidates without seeing a clear demarcation between them. They are very, very different in their backgrounds, philosophies, and values. They have been promoting their agendas for years. There is a wealth of information readily available for anyone who wants to learn more about them. They have now participated in two debates. How can one still be undecided?

I heard an undecided voter on television yesterday morning explaining that he remains undecided because according to him both major candidates speak only in generalities, offering no specifics about what they want to do and how they would do it. I don't understand how anyone who has been paying the slightest attention could come to this conclusion. It strikes me that the aforementioned undecided voter is doing the very same thing he accuses the candidates of doing; speaking in cliches and generalities as he comes up with rationalizations for why he does not see the difference between these two. He based that assessment on the most recent debate. I would suggest to that voter that a debate is not the ideal format for a candidate to get into the nuts and bolts of how he is going to execute his broader vision. Not only does the time limit prevent such detail, but any candidate who started engaging in that kind of minutiae would be derided as boring and tedious, or more kindly, "wonky," the morning after the debate. These candidates really can't win for losing. We tell them we want them to tell the truth but the truth is we don't want to hear it. 

To that voter on the morning talk show who complained that he can't make up his mind yet because the candidates aren't offering enough specifics about what they would do, I commend several documents for his perusal. First, Mitt Romney's 5-point plan, available in a one-page summary or a more detailed eight-page version. It is available here

Second, a fuller fleshing out of Romney's economic plan, available here. It is 160 pages long and includes discussion of 59 specific points.

And anyone who is still unclear about what Obama would do might consider taking a few days off and reading the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, which, depending on which version you read, runs anywhere from 900-something pages to well over two thousand. That act has not yet been fully implemented. If Obama wins a second term it will be.

And dear, undecided voters, those are just for starters. The information you seek is out there if you really want to avail yourself of it. The question is, do you? Or do you just want to continue complaining while clinging to your ignorance?

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Writer

This beautiful young woman is 17 years old today. She was a little reluctant to make her entrance into the world, so at almost two weeks overdue she was induced. To make it convenient for the delivering doctor we checked into the hospital at about 7:00 p.m. Caitlin kept me up all night and is a night owl to this day. She was born at about 6:00 in the morning, my biggest baby at 9 pounds, 12 ounces. She had a head full of black hair and I wondered if she was mine. Indeed she was, and for that I will be ever thankful. What a blessing is a daughter who loves, cares, and thinks as deeply as this one does and who lives in a way that honors both her parents and her God. One of my birdies has already left the nest and this one is not far behind. I will miss her so.

I wish I could write a poem for my daughter, the writer. Maybe some day I will. For now, I will borrow the words of another. For you, Caitlin. Happy birthday with love.

 "The Writer"

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

--Richard Wilbur

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


One of my Facebook friends recently posted a slightly different version of this poem on her wall. The words are often attributed to Mother Theresa, but according to this source they are probably based on something by another writer called "The Paradoxical Commandments."

People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
When I first read this post on Facebook I found myself cheering. It sounds so simple. And I have so often seen what is described here: kindness and generosity perceived as selfish self-promoting; a person's honesty used against him; selfless acts quickly forgotten; someone's best effort pronounced as still not enough; the product of many years of work and sweat torn down, ignored or summarily set aside. The problem is that as beautiful as the poem's sentiment is, I can't follow it. I find it very difficult to forgive those who have hurt me or to not be discouraged when something I have worked hard to build or accomplish is disregarded or unappreciated. I want to be thanked when I have helped someone. I want to be appreciated when I have given my best. As I read these words, I again and again come face to face with my sinful condition. I find it impossible to do all the things the poem says I should do. And the reason is that I am not just the victim of the behaviors described in the poem; I am the perpetrator. I am not just the one of whom others are jealous; I am the jealous one. I am not just the one whose good deeds go unnoticed; I am the one who fails to notice the sacrifices of others. I am not only the builder; I am also the destroyer.

Thank goodness for the final line of the poem, which reminds us that while our relationships with others are dependent on sinful human beings, our relationship with God is dependent only on Him. While others let us down, He never does. He looks at us in all our unreasonable, self-centered, deceitful, destructive selfishness and He does what we are unable to do: He loves and forgives us anyway. And ultimately that is the only "anyway" that matters and the one to which we should all desperately cling.

Wordless Wednesday

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Eye Crossing 101

Scene: Today while driving home from church.

Caitlin: "I'm getting better at crossing my eyes, Dad. I can do it with my eyelids shut now."

Phillip: "You're making progress! Good work, sweetie!"

That's how we roll here at Philipp Nicolai Lutheran Academy.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"The readiness is all"

We are not a big swimming family. My husband likes water; I don't. I took enough swimming lessons as a child to be able to keep myself from drowning if I fall in, but I would not mind if I never had to go to the beach or pool again. (My husband and I are well matched in many ways, but this is not one of them--he adores the beach.)

Anyway, due to my lack of interest and my husband's sensitivity to chlorine, we don't go to the pool much, and since we don't live by the seashore, it has always taken some effort to turn our children into swimmers. We believe everyone should know how to swim, though, so we have made sure they had lessons to attain some measure of competence. Neither of our older children is an extremely good swimmer, but they manage. Three years ago, when he was five, we enrolled our youngest in swimming class. The first day started out relatively well, but from that point everything went down hill. He liked the teacher that he had that first day, but on the second day the teaching assignments were shuffled, and he got a different teacher. He adjusted, but his sense of safety and security with the undertaking was gone. Then, on the third day there was a further different teacher (sigh). This one had a crew cut, multiple facial piercings, and tattoos (she was female but Evan kept calling her "him"). The child whom I have since come to understand as highly sensitive did not respond well, refusing to even get in the water. We tried for a few more days but ultimately gave up. It wasn't worth the grief.

Since then we have continued going to the pool or beach when the opportunity arises, but as of a few weeks ago Evan had still not  learned to swim. We decided this year it was time to try again. Here he is last week after only three lessons (I found out yesterday that at the first lesson he told his teacher he hated it and never wanted to swim again,):

video-2012-09-28-15-36-07 from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Here he is yesterday, after only the fourth lesson:

video-2012-10-05-15-35-30 from Cheryl on Vimeo.

The video doesn't show it, but yesterday he was also swimming (not just floating) on his back, after only the first try.

So much of learning, whether it's swimming, music, math, or reading, has to do with readiness. People are different. They aren't all ready to do or learn the same things at the same time. It is one of the things I love about homeschooling--it allows my child the freedom to develop at his own pace without pressure from those in "authority" to meet the determined objectives on a preset schedule. Evan was reading when he was five. He was not ready to learn to swim until he was almost nine. There are other ways that he is right now both "ahead" of and "behind" what would be considered typical or average for his age. We could have spent the last three years going to swimming lessons every week and still be where we are right now. Maybe he was ready last year and we just didn't seize the opportunity. But he was not ready three years ago. We would have wasted several years worth of time and money if we had pressed the issue. I see the same thing in music lessons. Some children are ready when they are five, some not until they're eight or nine. If we wait until that magical moment when they are truly ready, they will make such swift progress that very often they will catch up and surpass their peers who started learning the same thing three years before.

I am not saying that parents should give up at the slightest hint of difficulty or challenge. But parents know their children best. They are best equipped to judge whether a child is truly struggling or just being resistant. Even for parents it can sometimes be hard to tell. So as parents we weigh all the variables--the traits of the child we know and the particulars of the situation at hand--and we make our best call. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don't. And sometimes we don't know whether we got it right or not, and you know what? That's okay, too.

*The quote is from Hamlet, Act 5, scene ii: If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” Of course, this post is about swimming lessons, not dying, although at one time Evan didn't see much difference. :-)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

He's Twenty

Twenty years ago today I was experiencing some discomfort but didn't know if it was time to go to the hospital yet. You see, I had never had a baby before and I didn't want to be one of those pregnant ladies who goes to the hospital only to be sent back home. Was this labor? I wasn't sure. So I waited until finally my husband would let me wait no more. We headed to St. John's in Nassau Bay, Texas, but on the way we stopped for frozen yogurt at TCBY. Isn't that what everyone does on the way to have a baby? Whatever. By the time we arrived I was dilated to 5 cm. Trevor was born at 10:43 p.m. and weighed in at 9 pounds, 7 ounces (must have been all that brain matter). We celebrated by ordering pizza.

This is the second year in a row we won't be able to be with Trevor on his birthday. Thank God for Skype. Tonight after he gets back to his dorm room following piano lit class he will video call us and open the package that (I hope) will arrive in his mailbox today.

Where have the years gone?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's Time

For the last few weeks we have had a cat showing up in our back yard on a regular basis. (Sorry, cat people, but we don't consider this to be a positive thing.) Sunday my friend Melody was here with her husband and daughter and I mentioned this new development, expressing my puzzlement as to why it was suddenly occurring. Melody, wise farm woman that she is, quickly responded, "You don't have a dog anymore."

Duh. Of course. The absence of a dog equates not only to a lonely 8-year-old and dirtier floors but also to more strays and wild animals on the property. We decided this morning as a family that the waiting period is over. We are officially in the market for a puppy. In morning prayers we asked God to lead us to the right one. Let the search begin!