Thoughts about my Future Dog

Last Friday June 22 should have been an idyllic evening. Mom, Dad and I all had uneventful workdays and enjoyed a delicious dinner of shrimp marinated in teriyaki sauce. Them Mom took Dad to pick up his car that had some routine maintenance done, but when he got back, he offered to take me for a walk. I jumped at the chance as it was one of those perfect, cool summer evenings Wisconsinites wait all year for, and sometimes Mom is tired and does not feel like going for a walk, and Dad has so much work to do he cannot take me for a walk and I have to go on the treadmill. Unfortunately, as I have written about in the past, our street is a quiet country road, but my parents don’t think it is a safe road for me to walk by myself. There is a spot known as the hairpin curve where cars cannot see pedestrians and pedestrians cannot see the cars until they are about to run you over. Mom and Dad have almost been run over at other spots too because drivers don’t expect pedestrians and go flying down our street not even watching out for pedestrians.

Gilbert has had a little bit of arthritis since 2014, but in the past year and a half or so, it has become more pronounced. In the early days of his arthritis, he had no problem walking the two miles to Calhoun and back with Dad and me, but last spring, he would start limping on these walks, so we started taking him on shorter walks. This summer, we have developed a routine where Dad and I walk to Calhoun, and then as we are turning around to come back home, Dad calls Mom on his cell phone, and she brings Gilbert and meets up with us. It has been a win-win for everyone. Dad wants to get back to his work rather than have to go back out to take Gilbert and me for another shorter walk, and Mom prefers shorter walks as she is tired by evening. But last Friday night as Dad and I were walking, I was inexplicably overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and frustration. “This is such a quiet street. I don’t understand why you and Mom won’t let me walk it by myself,” I said. Forgetting about the stories both my parents have told of almost being run over, and a time when Mom had to practically throw Gilbert and me into the ditch, I explained how I could hold Gilbert’s leash and walk him as I would a pet dog, and shoreline the grass on the left side of the street with my cane to eliminate the danger of Gilbert drifting to the middle of the street without me noticing as has happened in the past. Dad sighed in frustration himself and said, “we live just a short drive from tons of nice park trails where you wouldn’t have to worry about cars, but you never want to get in the car and use them.” He has a point. I will go to one of these trails on a Saturday every now and then, but it is so stupid and frustrating to me that we have to drive somewhere to take a walk. To me, it takes something that should be simple and turns it into a chore. In addition, while it is true that I don’t have to worry about cars on these trails, the trails aren’t completely stress free either. A lot of people walk their pet dogs on these trails, and while Gilbert is an amazing guide dog in all other situations, he has always had a bad habit of going bonkers when he sees other dogs, something I have never figured out how to break him of completely. And then you’ve got crazy bikers who think the park trail is a racetrack and come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and not wanting to slow down, they shout “left!” and there is this split second where neither my parents or I are sure if they want me to move to the left or if they want to go around me and want me to move to the middle. At the last moment, we always figure out what to do and I have never been run over by a biker, but that split second of panic is aggravating. Bikers are allowed on the trails we use, but these trails are meant to be strolling trails, or trails where little children can safely ride their bikes. If these crazy bikers want a trail where they can fly, my parents said there are hundreds of miles of bike trails in the country for this, so my dad and I have decided we will not feel intimidated by these bikers this year when we use the trails. If a biker tries to intimidate us, we have decided we will stay our course and force them to slow down. If I could walk right out the door of the house and be on a walking trail, I would be more than happy to put up with the annoyances of other dogs and these crazy bikers. The joy of being able to go for a walk independently would be worth it. But the way I look at it is since for the time being, neither the park trail nor our street are completely peaceful and neither allow me to feel independent as my parents have to drive me to the trail, I prefer to just walk on our street.

When Mom met up with us and I explained how restless I was feeling, she thought maybe I had become too much of a homebody and just needed a vacation. No, a crappy night’s sleep, a gross hotel breakfast, and a complete loss of independence was definitely not the solution I was going for. I love our quiet, off-the-beaten-track neighborhood, and until that night, the fact that there were no sidewalks or safe trails for me to walk independently had been in the mildly inconvenient and annoying category of my mind. But last Friday night, by the time we got home, I was so enraged by the inability to travel independently where we live that I was in tears. And then it occurred to me that this was the weekend the program that trained Gilbert was holding Jog for Guide Dogs, the fundraiser where I met Gilbert ten years before. Remembering some psychology from the communication courses I took in college, it occurred to me that what I expressed outwardly as anger over where we lived was actually just sadness as it struck me how old Gilbert is now. He will likely need to retire soon. He can still go to work with me, but his stiffness is very apparent now and he cannot walk to Calhoun and back with Dad and me like he used to. And his retirement and inevitable passing will also mark the end of an era. Ten years ago, I was young and full of dreams and ambitions. I couldn’t be as independent as I had hoped because the college dorms were just too stressful for both of us, and little did we know that the sidewalks we had practiced so well would be torn up by construction equipment the first week of school. So Mom or Dad would drive me to school, but Gilbert and I still cruised all over campus independently. I felt especially blessed to have him on a frequently used route through a tunnel full of twists and turns that went from the technology center where I had several night classes and study sessions, to the main campus center which included the dining room. I would get hopelessly lost when I tried to do this route with my cane, but he breezed through this tunnel with such grace. I am at peace with my current job, and it is a perfect job for Gilbert’s age as there is hardly any walking. Every Spring since 2015, the Guide Dog trainer (a different person than the one who trained Gilbert) gives me a call to discuss how Gilbert and I are doing. This trainer is extremely compassionate and back in 2015, he told me that while he knew of a guide dog that worked until he was fourteen years old, the average retirement age for guide dogs is nine years old. He wanted me to be emotionally prepared for the reality that Gilbert will eventually need to retire. But he sees nothing wrong with me continuing to work Gilbert even with his arthritis since my job doesn’t require him to walk a lot. Both last year and this year, we considered retiring Gilbert and training with a new guide dog, but the trainer thought, understandably that my current job would not provide enough physical activity for a young dog. This year, I mentioned that my parents were eventually planning to move to a smaller, lower-maintenance house and one thing they were going to prioritize when deciding where to move was a safe location where I could step out the door and go for a walk independently. In my mind, I was thinking along the lines of a long peaceful nature path, but the dog trainer hinted that ideally I should try to find an urban setting where I can learn routes to restaurants or stores. I didn’t tell the dog trainer this, but after we hung up from this call, it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to live in an urban setting. There are very few restaurants I trust given my Celiac Disease, and while I suppose I should know how to get to a grocery store in the event of an emergency, when my parents are no longer able to handle grocery shopping, I plan to join the modern age and order all my groceries online and have them delivered. Why struggle trying to maneuver heavy grocery bags and a dog when even sighted people are increasingly having their groceries delivered? I felt safe crossing the streets of my college campus because my college campus was in a smaller city where the streets weren’t terribly busy, and the streets had those beeping crossing lights for the blind. But given that I grew up in a suburban setting, busier streets, especially if they don’t have the beeping lights, are just too intimidating for me. So my parents and I have come to the decision that when they are no longer able to drive me to work, there is no reason for me to navigate bus routes and busy streets in the age of Uber and Lyft. I do concede that I will need to live a little closer to an urban center than where we live now because where we live now is so off-the-beaten-track that cab service costs a fortune. I researched the cost of having a cab take me to work and back in January 2016 when my mom had to go to New York for a few weeks to help my sister who had just had surgery, and found out that I would essentially have to pay two days worth of my wages for every day of cab service. Fortunately, my dad was able to adjust his schedule with another co-worker and drive me to work in the morning, and my brother who lived with us at that time was able to pick me up in the afternoon. So I recognize that eventually, I will have to live closer to the city where cab fare is more reasonable, but I still want a quiet neighborhood where you can open the windows in the spring and hear birds, not a constant flow of cars and trucks. But last Friday, it occurred to me that the consequence of these lifestyle choices might be that once Gilbert retires, I may never hold the handle of a guide dog harness again.

It costs over $20,000 to train a guide dog. Since no one would be able to afford a guide dog on his/her own, guide dog programs, with the help of generous donors, provide guide dogs to blind people free of charge. But since these schools are accountable to donors, they all require verification that the person would really utilize a guide dog. Each program enquires about a candidate’s lifestyle, daily routine, and living situation and requires that candidates are independent and confident cane users before they will match them with a guide dog. Gilbert had a productive career through 2014. He was with me as I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree at Carroll University, did an internship at the Milwaukee Public Library which also had whindy hallways I would have gotten lost in without him, and earned my Paralegal certificate at a technical college in downtown Milwaukee. By 2015 when I landed the job at the law firm where I still work today, he was showing signs of arthritis so the timing was perfect. My parents thought I might have been too humble when talking to the guide dog trainer, but I can see where the program is coming from. Since so much time and expense goes into training a guide dog, it makes sense to prioritize the blind person who lives independently and would benefit from a dog to navigate bus routes and cross busy streets to get to work each day over the person who gets driven to work at a very small office that is easy to navigate with my cane when Gilbert is sick, and would mostly use the dog for recreational walks on park trails, church and maybe the occasional outing with family and friends. I am the kind of person who has delayed emotional reactions to some things. I am the kind of person who doesn’t cry during a funeral, but a couple hours after it has ended. So when the dog trainer indicated back in May that I wouldn’t be eligible to train with a new guide dog until my lifestyle changed and I lived in a more urban setting, I was fine with this reality. But it wasn’t until June 22 that the sad implications of this hit me full-force.

Another realization that has struck me recently is that I get the impression that my parents want a break from pets. When Snickers passed away, my parents both indicated they did not want another cat, at least not for awhile. Mom wanted a break from washing cat hair off of every counter and table, and wanted to find out if some of our allergies cleared up by no longer having cat dander in the house. I was fine with this as Snickers was one-of-a-kind and it would be hard for any new kitten to measure up. And I still had Gilbert who was especially sweet after Snickers’ passing. I think he sensed I was sad, and maybe he was sad too because they had a lot of fun times together. But Snickers’ passing brought into sharper focus the realization that Gilbert is getting old too. Dad loved our German Shepherd, Indy who passed away when I was in seventh grade, but after she passed away, he wanted our next dog to be my guide dog. I was sad about having to wait so long for a dog, and my sister and I even made the mistake of convincing Mom and Dad to adopt a dog who had behavior problems we couldn’t handle, so we had to return him to the Humane Society. I was devastated for a few days but soon came to terms with it, and I still had Snickers and my brother’s dog Mojo whom we got to dogsit often. My dad has talked half-heartedly about maybe getting a German Shepherd when he retires, but he has also indicated that he wants a break from the responsibility of a dog so we can all travel without having to make arrangements for a dog. They are fully supportive of me working with another guide dog because the dog is my responsibility, and he is not just a frivolous pet but a dog with a job who would travel with us. I have had pets in my life since I was four years old, but it occurred to me that once Gilbert passes away, if the program determines that my lifestyle cannot justify the need for a guide dog, there will be no furry companions in my life.

Even if Gilbert is the only guide dog I ever work with, I had made up my mind that when we move to the house with the walking trail, I would adopt an easy-to-care-for pet dog to hit the trail with, his leash in my left hand and my cane in my right hand. My parents have talked about getting a house with a walk-in basement where I could have even more independence and privacy, so I could confine this dog to my basement area and he wouldn’t bother my parents at all. It wouldn’t be the same as holding a guide dog harness, but at least I would have more companionship on my walks than just a white stick. But on June 22, it struck me how much I wanted to walk park trails independently with a guide dog. That Friday night, Mom and I decided that rather than having her meet up with us Mom would go for a walk with Gilbert and me earlier in the day to the hairpin curve and back every day the weather permitted (Neither Gilbert or I do well when it is over 90 degrees). She would walk behind us and just alert me if Gilbert was drifting to the middle of the road, or rescue us if a car came upon us suddenly. It was wonderful to walk this route together again. The first half of the walk, he does pretty well, keeping to the left side of the road most of the time. On the second half of the walk, Mom and I speculate that he is either tired and loses focus, or just wants to get home so I have to correct him more the second half. But on this first peaceful walk last Saturday morning, I had a revelation.

A few days earlier, I was snooping around Facebook curious about what some old friends were up to as I had gone off the grid for awhile. When I was working full-time, I was so burnt out I didn’t feel like being online after work, and then I heard about all the political nastiness going on. But that day like I said, curiosity got the best of me and I discovered that one of my friends had trained her own guide dog, and she joined another blind friend of mine to start an owner-trained service dog academy to support people in training their own service dog. That day I was impressed, but shrugged it off as something beyond my abilities. But last Saturday, it occurred to me that before dismissing it as something I couldn’t do, I should give it some consideration.

I have been reading articles about owner-trained service dogs all week and plan to read a lot more and talk to people I know who will be honest with me. I recognize that choosing to train your own service dog is not a decision to make lightly. There are advantages and disadvantages to training your own service dog. The biggest advantage is that you can choose the training method that works best for you. When I received Gilbert, I had never heard of clicker training or the concept of positive re-enforcement. Gilbert was trained using the “choke collar.” If he obeyed my commands, I was taught to praise him, but if he disobeyed or got distracted by another dog, I was supposed to administer a correction. The dog trainer showed me how if the collar was put on right, it doesn’t choke the dog. He just feels a pinch when you administer a correction. Even when the dog trainer was still working with us, Gilbert got distracted by other dogs a couple times. The trainer would tell me to correct him and I honestly thought I was but Gilbert wouldn’t be fazed by it. So one time, the trainer took the leash from me and gave Gilbert a correction himself. I could tell by the sound that his correction had more strength behind it than I was capable of. I tried to be more forceful but my corrections were never as effective as the corrections administered by the dog trainer, and a couple times my dad. I would love to have my next dog trained according to the positive re-enforcement philosophy, not only because dogs trained this way are happier since they obey out of true eagerness to please rather than out of fear of punishment, but also because this style sounds more compatible with my personality and physical ability.

In traditional training programs, the dogs have passed through many hands before they are matched with a blind person. First they are matched with a puppy raiser, and sometimes are passed around to multiple puppy raisers their first year of life to expose them to many experiences. Then they spend a few months with the guide dog trainer learning formal harness commands, and then they are matched with a blind person. So just when a dog has forged a bond with someone, they are sent to a new person. For this reason I was not surprised when I learned that it can take a year or longer for a guide dog team to really feel as though they are bonded. I realize that formal training programs have to operate this way as these programs would be drastically limited in the number of people they could serve if the guide dog trainer had to raise every puppy himself, but if an owner raised her own guide dog and then just consulted with a trainer when it came time for formal harness training, think how bonded the dog and handler would already be before even putting on the harness for the first time. I would imagine that with this lifelong bond, the guide dog team would have smoother training sessions and the dog would be ready to work at an earlier age. Also although guide dog programs have procedures and reporting requirements for puppy raisers to try and ensure consistency and continuity, it is impossible for the program or the new blind handler to know everything regarding how the puppy was raised. So for example, if the handler is walking through a store one day and the dog won’t go down an aisle where there are small children, a person with a guide dog from a program will not know why the dog is acting this way, but a blind person who raised the dog from puppyhood would remember a specific negative experience involving children and this may make it easier to overcome said issue. On a similar note, by raising your own service dog, the handler gets to set the rules most important to them and make sure they are enforced from the start. For example, if it is very important to a handler that the dog doesn’t get overly excited when he sees other dogs, the handler can enforce right from the start that the dog must wait for handler’s permission before socializing with other dogs. But if handlers in the dog’s past allowed the dog to do things you don’t want them to do, it is a lot more difficult to re-train the dog when he is older.

The final and perhaps most obvious advantage to owner training that I have thought about is that the owner gets to find their own dog. The most common breed used for guide dog work seems to be the Labrador Retriever. Poodles and German Shepherds are also used for guide dog work but there seem to be fewer of these dogs. Most guide dog handlers I know have Labrador Retrievers. I absolutely love Labs. Gilbert’s happy nature and sweet personality makes me smile every day, and as long as he doesn’t spot another dog, especially a potential playmate his size, he has been a fabulous guide dog. Labs are also great for public relations as their friendly disposition means they are adored by almost everyone. But this can also be a disadvantage. In 2008 when I received Gilbert, the program encouraged, and I fully supported the idea of being friendly by letting people pet Gilbert as long as I wasn’t holding the handle of the harness and actually walking with him. I have no regrets about allowing this as Gilbert helped break the ice when starting college and meeting new people, which helped me quickly make new friends. Gilbert could sense who some of my closest friends were and would occasionally get distracted if he saw them while we were walking, but for the most part, this friendliness did not interfere with his work. But now that I am more mature and in the professional world, I would like to experience working with a Poodle or German Shepherd (ideally a Poodle) as these breeds have a less friendly, more aloof disposition that would draw less attention from the public, thus making it easier for both of us to stay focused on getting where we need to be. If I applied for a dog through a program, I could indicate that I would like a Poodle or German Shepherd if possible, but the program has the final say in the breed of dog I receive.

The biggest disadvantage to owner training is that you are largely on your own. Of course in my case, I could receive some support from the owner-trained service dog academy my blind friends started. If I enrolled in this program, I would need to go to Madison once a month for classes, but the rest of the month it would be up to me to make sure the dog was socialized and trained properly. In the early days of training, this would be no different than socializing a typical pet puppy. The challenge will come when I am ready to train the puppy in places where dogs aren’t typically allowed. Puppies-in-training don’t have the same legal protection as fully-trained service dogs and even puppy raisers who volunteer with recognized training programs are advised to ask permission before bringing the puppy into an establishment where dogs aren’t typically allowed. But owner-trainers can have more difficulty securing this permission because they don’t have the rapport of a recognized program behind them. If getting permission from businesses proved too difficult, I could always just use the guide dog only for outdoor walks and places like the Farmers Market where dogs are allowed. But ideally, I would like to be able to have my guide dog at work, church and the occasional outing with family or friends.

Another important disadvantage to consider with owner-training is the financial aspect. In addition to the cost of acquiring a dog from a reputable breeder, I would also have to purchase my own guide dog harness and any other necessary training equipment because all programs I am aware of require that the harness the program provided be returned when the dog retires. In addition, at least for the first dog I owner-train, I would have to pay for the assistance of a freelance guide dog trainer since I have never really trained a pet dog, let alone a service dog from the ground up. If I worked with the Academy my friends started, they would assist me in fundraising, but this would still be a huge financial investment that I would need to pray about and consider carefully.

Training a service dog from the ground up would also require discipline and a huge investment of time. Unfortunately, when college life got demanding, I fell off the wagon in regard to daily obedience sessions with Gilbert. Just like with a New Year’s Resolution, I would resolve to do obedience every day and would be great for a couple weeks, but then would fall off the wagon again. I will never know if some of Gilbert’s minor behavioral problems, even his craziness when he sees other dogs could have been lessened had I been more diligent with this discipline. Now I am doing an obedience session right before Gilbert and I set out for our walk to the hairpin curve. But now that I am ten years wiser than I was when I started working Gilbert, I regret not being more diligent with obedience sessions. So regardless of who trains my next dog, I WILL be diligent from day one and do obedience every day before I allow myself to eat breakfast. But a guide dog trained by a program has already been molded into a well-behaved dog when the blind handler receives him. Thus the daily obedience sessions can be short as the purpose is simply to remind an already good dog that you are the leader. But if I trained my own dog, the training sessions would need to be longer until he is mature and well-behaved, and falling off the wagon of daily discipline with a puppy would have catastrophic consequences. Also, while I worked him in all kinds of weather during college, now that Gilbert has arthritis which is worse in the winter, I don’t have to go out for walks in nasty weather which is fine by me. But for young dogs, daily exercise is crucial. So if I took the leap into owner-training, I would have to just tell myself that even if it is below zero outside, that’s just too bad. I have to suck it up and walk my dog. If I was able to get a dog trained by a program, I could at least take the dog to indoor places for exercise like the mall since he would already be a full-fledged service dog.

Finally, perhaps the biggest disadvantage I have read about with owner-training is that after pouring your heart into training the dog, the dog may need to be “washed out” meaning that the owner realizes the dog is not able to be a service dog, due to a health issue like hip dysplasia or a temperament issue that was missed when the owner selected the dog. Owners often enlist the help of a behaviorist, and they carefully research breeders to reduce the risk of such problems, but still there are no garuntees. The requirements for my dog would be less stringent than a traditional guide dog since the dog wouldn’t have to cross streets or handle stressful urban situations like public transportation, and if the dog didn’t work out as a service dog, he would still be kept as a pet. But it would be emotionally difficult to come to terms with the fact that after all the time and money you invested in training him, he couldn’t be a service dog after all.

Some people say I overthink things, but in a matter as important as this, I think this is a good thing. I plan to do a lot more thinking and talking to people I know who are both for and against owner-training, like a judge listening to both sides of a legal argument. Before making a final decision, I would also volunteer at an animal shelter to build confidence handling other dogs. Any puppy I adopt, especially one I want to train to be my guide dog, would be my responsibility. My goal if I chose to owner-train would be to only ask my parents for help when it came to driving me to the vet or obedience school. But I realize that since I really only have experience handling well-behaved dogs, handling a puppy at this point would be quite a culture shock that I honestly don’t feel ready for at this point. I need to make sure I can confidently handle being nipped, jumped on, peed on, you name It, by other dogs, and would appreciate feedback from staff on things I could do better, feedback I could apply to a puppy. And if the six month commitment is a horrible experience for me, then I will know for sure that I am not equipped for the daunting task of owner-training and will try for a dog trained by a program or just adopt an old, well-behaved trail buddy. Actually even if I do get a program trained dog, I still might volunteer at the animal shelter as gaining confidence never hurt anyone even if the dog will already be well behaved. I might even ask the staff if I can bring the guide dog to work with me so that he would have regular opportunities to practice ignoring all kinds of dogs.I will keep you readers updated on my thought process and what I ultimately choose to do. But if anyone stumbles on this blog who has owner-trained a service dog, feel free to share your thoughts.

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Singing in College and Beyond

Looking back, it’s ironic to realize that when I was a child, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. I loved the mature, full sound of adult choirs when we collaborated with them. But now that I am an adult, I long for the children’s choir and school choir days again. I know I ended my last entry touting the fact that unlike athletic activities which can only be enjoyed in youth, I can sing in choir my whole life. This is wonderful and true, and it is inspiring to sit with retired people who still enjoy singing. My best friend in the choir, a retired music teacher can hit the high notes better than I can. But I was a little sad to discover when I got to college that performing concerts in adult choirs isn’t quite as exciting as I had imagined. I think a large reason for this is that after high school, the number of people who choose to continue singing in college and adulthood drops dramatically. While peer pressure has negative implications in many arenas, one area where peer pressure may actually be good in my opinion is when friends convince friends to join choir with them. In high school, choir is popular and fun, and even students who know they wouldn’t want to actually study music in college, and don’t sing walking down the hallway like I did, still join choir because it is fun. I think this is why in our school concerts, there were always hundreds of singers, enough to have a well-balanced tenor and bass section, and have a wonderfully full sound onstage even if our voices weren’t as mature as adult voices. But after high school, these same students understandably focus on their own majors and the demands of adult life so that only music majors, and a few people like me that just have a deep passion for singing continue to sing in choir. In one sense, this was what I always wanted. In school I used to get so frustrated by students who didn’t take singing seriously and were disruptive. This was less of a problem in high school as music wasn’t a requirement so everyone in the choir seemed to have some passion for music. But even in high school, there was some disruptive behavior. I was a little sad when the choir director told us she was going to enter us into a more intensive singing competition, but decided we weren’t mature enough for it. So in one sense it is wonderful to be an adult singer where only people with a deep passion for music make time for choir. But this also means that choirs are smaller, and although even in childhood, most choir singers were girls, the disparity between men and women becomes even more pronounced in adulthood, so that in some concerts, we may only have two tenors and two basses, so the thirty or so of us soppranoes have to be cognizant that we are not drowning them out.

 

Audiences are smaller too. In both the children’s choir and the school choir, it was a full house for every performance. At Carroll University, there is a long-standing tradition called Christmas at Carroll where the choirs and orchestra would collaborate for a beautiful Christmas program. This program is a favorite of music alumni and even the larger community, so the house would be full for that performance. But for the other performances I could tell by the sound of the applause after each song that there were a lot of empty seats. I realize that in childhood, the majority of the audience was proud parents and grandparents. Even parents who weren’t fond of choral music would attend just to support their sons and daughters. But in college, many of the choir members came from other states so their parents were unable to come, and in the adult choir I sing with now, for many of the choir members their parents are no longer living. Unlike Donald Trump, I don’t really care about the size of the audience. That’s not why I sing. I would perform with the choir to an empty auditorium because I just love the emotional experience of singing itself. Furthermore, the audience, just like the adult choir, may be small, but the senior citizens and occasional community members that do attend truly enjoy the music and the applause is boisterous. But there was just something exciting about singing for a full house that was exciting, and I admit sometimes I am nostalgic for those days.

 

After the incredibly magical holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I wanted to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus in college. But Mom convinced me that I should sing in the college choir. Carroll University’s music program isn’t as large as it once was as the university has focused more on fields like nursing, but they still have an excellent music program, and Mom pointed out that while I had my whole life to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus if I wanted to, I could only be in college choir for this relatively brief time of my life. I am glad I listened to Mom’s wisdom because looking back, I realize that commuting to downtown Milwaukee for rehearsals would have added a lot more stress to an already stressful time trying to adjust to college and working with Gilbert. Furthermore, I made some wonderful friends and fond memories through the college choir experience. I actually only sang with the college choir for two semesters because the classes I needed for my Journalism major often conflicted with choir rehearsal times and since I wasn’t a music major, even I had to make the courses necessary for my degree the priority.

 

First semester of freshman year, I sang in a women’s choir that rehearsed from 4:00 to 6:00 Tuesdays and Thursdays. In hindsight, I wish I would have foregone choir that first semester because I had so much going on that semester adjusting to college and Gilbert that I was exhausted by 4:00 and actually started dreading rehearsals. It didn’t help that since I had 3 hours between an English class and choir, Mom would often take me home for lunch and to start reading some textbook chapters to me that weren’t accessible yet, and since I was already home, I hated having to go back to school. That semester we spent the bulk of rehearsal time learning Vivaldi’s Gloria, but I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of this piece until 2014 when I had the chance to sing it again in the Waukesha Choral Union. But at that time, after singing in choir every semester since fifth grade, I could not imagine doing school without choir. One nice thing about this choir though was that the director was someone I knew. In my high school, the choral program was staffed by two choir directors. The head director worked full-time at the school and directed both the freshmen girls choir and Chamber Choir so I had her all four years of high school. The other director divided her time between the concert choir at my high school, and the other high school in our district. But she would direct us occasionally when we collaborated with concert choir for a performance, and I would say hi to her in the hallway. This director also taught the women’s choir at Carroll University. In a world where everything and everyone else was new, it was comforting to hear a familiar voice and have a connection to high school. But after singing four years in Chamber choir with that wonderful mix of male and female voices, I missed that full sound and decided that if I ever sang in college choir another semester, I would join Concert Choir.

 

I think I could have sang in concert choir second semester as I don’t think I had class at noon when this choir rehearsed. But after the craziness of first semester, I decided to take a semester off. Then sophomore year, I wanted to sing, but I wanted to try something different too. As beautiful as challenging classical music is, I wanted to try singing a different style of music that would require less tedious drilling. I wanted to sing only in English and wanted upbeat songs that would make me smile. Remembering how much I loved Moses Hogan, I looked for a choir that sang exclusively gospel music but could not find one in the area. Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee had gospel choirs but only for their students. I had visited both of these universities in high school and knew that overall, these schools would have been too large and overwhelming for me, but for a short time, I regretted not choosing one of these schools so that I could sing in a gospel choir. In December of that year shortly before Christmas, I auditioned for the Milwaukee Choristers, a traditional choir but one I thought I would enjoy that year at least because for their spring concert, they were going to be singing Broadway show tunes which I remember as being relatively easy and fun to sing. But for the first time ever, I was rejected. It so happened that my almost-boyfriend from Cantorei choir was there to audition as well. We had a great time catching up as we waited for our appointments, and met at a coffee shop a few days later. At this meeting, I found out that he had been accepted, but he said his sight-reading wasn’t very good, so he speculated that this choir takes balancing of voice parts very seriously. Like all choirs, they were short on men and had too many women interested in joining, so the competition was a lot tougher for women. But then I discovered Sweet Adeline’s, an international organization promoting women’s barbershop! For those of you who may not know, barbershop is a cappella (no instruments) four-part harmony and is the perfect style for many gospel and pop songs. Shortly before I had found out about Sweet Adeline’s, I watched The Sing-Off, an a capella music competition that ran on NBC for a few seasons, and it was so much fun to watch! I couldn’t wait to explore this style of music for myself.

 

So in January 2010, I started attending Monday night rehearsals with Crosstown Harmony Chorus, a local choir affiliated with Sweet Adelines. I became good friends with several members of this chorus, one of whom said she had been singing in this chorus for sixty years. This choir was an interesting mix of fun and serious. Instead of the traditional stretching and formal warming up that marked the start of a traditional choir rehearsal, this choir would warm up by dancing to an upbeat song like Rockytop Tennessee. After choir rehearsals, I had to get home because I was tired and often had school the next day, but a lot of the choir would go to the bar after rehearsal. Several of the singers were smokers, but the funny thing was that their gravelly voices after years of smoking made them excellent bass singers. For about the first year, this choir was loads of fun. Barbershop singing required more drilling than I expected especially when it came to singing in tune. We would think we were in tune, until the last note of the song when the director would play the note we were supposed to be on and we would all laugh because we were way off. But it was fun singing pop songs and a few gospel songs all in English. I learned from a long-time member that English is the only language allowed in barbershop music. Sweet Adeline’s is an international organization so I had always assumed that choirs from other countries sang this style of music with songs in their own language, but this is not the case. This member who had been to competitions said it is very interesting to hear choirs from other countries sing barbershop because since English is not their native language, the sing some words differently. This makes sense. In traditional choirs when we would sing songs in French, Italian or German, the choir director would carefully research proper pronunciation of words and when I was in Cantorei choir, a guest language coach came to rehearsal a couple times to help us with pronunciation. But I am sure if we went to France, Italy or Germany to sing these songs, the people there would be able to tell it wasn’t our native language.

 

I had to leave this choir temporarily the fall 2010 semester because the Feature Writing class I needed for my major was only offered Monday evenings. But when I returned in January 2011, I gradually started finding it more difficult to motivate myself to go to rehearsals. I think it was a combination of the fact that my courses were more demanding and the lack of energy that I now realize was probably the progression of Celiac Disease, was becoming even more pronounced. Just like Chamber choir, we stood on risers for rehearsal, but these rehearsals were two and a half hours long instead of just fifty minutes. I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I started dreading these exhausting rehearsals. Another thing that I hadn’t anticipated when I joined but which made this choir less feasible for me was when they started adding choreography to the songs. I had done simple choreography to a few songs when I was in school and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, but this choreography seemed a lot more complex. People tried to show me the choreography but I just wasn’t getting it, and when guest coaches would come and talk about how choreography was about showmanship, not just doing the moves, I was lost for good. The choir planned to compete in Houston. I had school the week of that competition, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway because I wouldn’t have wanted to bring down the choir’s score given that I probably wouldn’t have been in sync with the choreography and didn’t understand the nuances of showmanship. But I had fun performing these songs at a Cabaret the chorus put together to raise money for the trip to Houston. I just sang the songs while the rest of the chorus did the choreography. I also sang a Christmas concert with them in 2011, but didn’t return in January because I was starting to have headaches all the time and was barely keeping my head above water with my school work.

 

Since I could not be in Crosstown Harmony Chorus in Fall 2010, and didn’t have to take any classes at noon that semester, I decided to join Carroll University’s Concert Choir. I really enjoyed this choir because while the director took choral music very seriously, she was also a lot of fun and her demeanor didn’t seem as stern as the typical choir director. I also liked the fact that unlike past choirs where we had to get measured for special uniforms that were either dresses or long skirts with cumberbuns that had to be tied, and/or earrings that were painful on my sensitive ears. The thought of getting my ears pierced never appealed to me so I had to wear clip-on earrings. Crosstown Harmony and all the choirs at my high school required earrings. Thank goodness the choir I sing in now doesn’t require earrings. I was getting pretty tired of having a constant stinging feeling on my earlobe at concerts. Anyway, the director of Carroll University’s concert choir just told us to wear dressy black pants and a white top. For her, the music was more important than uniformity which I liked. Rehearsals met four days a week but for only 50 minutes a day, and our classroom was on the stage of Shattuck Auditorium. This was perfect because all of our concerts would be performed in Shattuck Auditorium, so unlike most choirs who rehearse in a smaller space and then have to have a special rehearsal to get used to the acoustics of the performance venue, this choir rehearsed in the performance venue every day. Just before the concert, we would practice singing on risers, but most days, chairs were arranged onstage so there wasn’t the exhaustion of standing on risers for fifty minutes. But most importantly after being away from classical music for awhile, I had a renewed appreciation for its beauty and loved every song we sang, especially Benjamin Britain’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Incidentally, we collaborated with the Waukesha Choral Union for this piece, the choir I would join as an adult. I was sad to see this semester end and in retrospect, maybe I should have foregone the Public Policy course that conflicted with choir the following semester and stuck with choir. But then again, Public Policy was something I was interested in and something that would benefit me if I decided to be a political reporter after college. And I never would have thought to apply to the amazing internship experience with the governor’s office if I hadn’t taken this class and been encouraged to pursue this opportunity by the professor. So I guess everything worked out as it was supposed to.

 

I stopped attending Crosstown Harmony rehearsals after the Christmas concert in December 2011, but officially resigned my membership in 2012 shortly before college graduation. After graduation, the rest of 2012 and the winter of 2013 were a blur of medical crises. My Celiac Disease was diagnosed in July 2012 and once I started eating a strict gluten free diet, the frequency and severity of my headaches decreased dramatically. But in August when it would have been time to audition for choir, I just didn’t feel ready to commit to anything. My energy level was improving but after years of school, homework and crazy schedules, I just wanted to relish the chance to rest and have no real responsibilities. As the winter 2013 semester approached, I thought about the many exhausting years of going out in the cold and driving through snow and ice to choir rehearsals and decided to take the winter off as well. This was a wise decision as my mom needed to go to Oregon to take care of my brother who needed surgery. She was away for almost a month, and it would have been very difficult for my dad to get off work in time to take me to choir rehearsals. But by August of 2013, I was feeling restless and life had settled down. I was ready to sing again.

 

So in the fall of 2013, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Waukesha Choral Union a community choir that performs four concerts a year at churches or schools in the Waukesha area. It has been the perfect fit. I am one of only a few young people in the choir, but the older I get, the more I appreciate how little age matters when it comes to singing because the camaraderie that comes from getting together to sing every Tuesday night, and the passion of singing the songs themselves gives every rehearsal a youthful vibe. Everyone in the choir is passionate about singing, but not so overly serious that we cannot stop rehearsal and laugh every now and then. In fact, not a rehearsal goes by without a singer, or the director himself saying something witty, and one long-time member keeps track of all the witty things the director says all year and then reads them at our end-of-season banquet. I also love the fact that this choir is welcoming and inclusive. Most of the singers read music, but I am not the only one who doesn’t, and there are a couple of singers on the autism spectrum who might have had a difficult time fitting into other choirs, but whom this choir warmly embraces. In fact, they are an asset to the choir as they have perfect pitch!

 

I still enjoy being an audience member at the Milwaukee Symphony’s Holiday pops concert every year. In fact ever since I became employed, I have been buying the tickets for Mom and I to go to this concert, and she considers it her Christmas present. That is how much we both enjoy it. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus is a bigger choir, and when I hear the full orchestra and that big choir sound, I have a fleeting moment where I admit I long to be up there singing with them. But the rehearsal schedule and even the audition process is much more intense, and this is the kind of choir that probably would have required me to read music. I loved, and am occasionally nostalgic for the prestigious opportunities and huge audiences that defined my choral experience as a child. But the further I get into adulthood, the more I realize that as wonderful as these childhood opportunities were, the flame of passion for singing that has always been in my heart doesn’t need prestigious opportunities or large audiences to keep burning bright. My passion is fueled simply by singing those songs that are so joyful I feel as though I am in heaven, or so beautiful I almost cry. And I know that this passion is real because when I stopped singing to address health concerns in 2012, and put my career ahead of singing in 2016, in both cases it wasn’t long before I felt a spiritual void in my life. But when I returned to choir, I felt a renewed sense of joy and purpose. In Crosstown Harmony, we sang a beautiful piece part of which said “What would I do without my music? What would I do without my song? What would I do without my music, to make things right when everything seems wrong?” I honestly don’t know what I would do without my music. As a child, it was a source of stress relief, comfort and joy when school was difficult, and as an adult, it is my favorite way to pray. Our culture likes to focus on what people “do for a living.” In other words, how do you earn money? I decided not to make a living through music, fearing that the demands of making music my livelihood would tarnish my passion for it. Nonetheless, every time I thought I could live without music, I don’t feel alive.

High School Singing

In middle school, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of college. I wasn’t wild about school, and wasn’t looking forward to another four years of school after high school, especially if I had to take math. But I was beginning to think that if my parents and teachers insisted I go to college, I would study music. In my immaturity and blissful ignorance of reality, I figured that after college, I could then audition for a paid singing position in some prestigious choir that travels the world. There’s that subconscious longing for the restoration again. I longed for something more than the boring day jobs the adults around me talked about and thought that a unique and prestigious life was what I longed for.

But then I found out that if I wanted to really pursue a music career, I would need to learn to read music. All of my life, I had been learning choir songs by ear. I would just sit and listen to the rest of the choir sight-read a new song the first few times and then gradually join in. If I had trouble deciphering the words to a song, either because the song was in a foreign language, or the words were old English words I wasn’t used to, or the words were stretched out over many notes making them difficult to decipher when sung, my mom would read the words from the print music to me and I would transcribe them into braille. If practice CDs were available, I would take one home to review. The school choirs never had practice CDs, but the Milwaukee Children’s Choir often did, as does the choir I sing in today. I wish all choirs put together practice CDs because even for sighted people who can read music, they are helpful. Of course, nowadays, it is so easy to find another choir singing any song on iTunes or Youtube. There is a braille music code, and in eighth grade when I expressed interest in a music career, my vision teacher gave me a little introduction into it. A couple months later, I ordered a braille music tutorial from National Braille Press with the intention of teaching myself. But it was so complicated with many different symbols to denote every detail of a note—like whether it was a quarter note, half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, and the dynamic of the note (loud or soft)—that I quickly became overwhelmed. And even if I persevered and mastered this code, I couldn’t see how it would be practical in a real choir setting. When choir directors introduce a new song, they start by having the choir sight-read it, meaning that the choir has never seen that piece of music before but just reads it and muddles through the best they can the first time. I couldn’t see how I would be able to keep up with the choir when sight-reading it, so I would need to get the music ahead of time, study it at my own pace and maybe plunk out the notes on the piano, which I could have done if I really wanted to. But learning by ear the way I always had seemed so much more efficient and so I still learn my choir music by ear today.

As a side note, while sheet music is useful for learning a new piece of music, I wish that memorizing the music before concert time was a requirement in all choirs. In elementary school and middle school when the songs were relatively simple, memorization was required, but in high school when we started singing more challenging music, both my school choir and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir directors started allowing the choir to bring concert folders onstage so they could refer to their music. The choir I sing with now also brings their music onstage. I will confess that I don’t always practice what I preach myself. In fact in our most recent choir concert this past May 5, I referred to the words of two german pieces we sang that night because letters are pronounced differently in German and when I tried to sing from memory during rehearsal, I forgot the words and feared goofing up royally if I tried to sing from memory at the concert. But when I don’t refer to my “music” I find that I enjoy the concert experience more. For my fellow sighted choir members, singing a concert using music is a carefully choreographed art that the choir director has to discuss with the choir at every dress rehearsal before a concert. They must find that balance between looking at their music enough to help them, but not so much that they aren’t watching the choir director and thus miss important cues. They must also practice quiet page turning, and make sure they are still engaging with the audience, not just burying their faces in their music. With all these logistics they have to focus on at every concert, sometimes, I fear that my choir mates are nervous and view the concert as something to survive without any major blunders, and thus cannot truly enjoy the experience of engaging with the audience, or letting the beautiful words and melodies of each song transport them.

In high school, music theory, which meant practicing drawing notes on a musical staff and sight-reading took on a larger role in choral classes. I was delighted when the director of the Cantorei Choir created a Cantorei Chamber choir for older students which I was able to join my junior year of high school. But for this choir, the director gave everyone music theory workbooks and time was set aside in most rehearsals to do exercises out of this book. The high school choir director gave music theory assignments as well. Fortunately both choir directors were fine with the fact that I did not read music and let me sit these exercises out, but I kind of felt bad for my sighted choir members as I felt it took something that was supposed to be a joyful pursuit and turned it into drudgery. So in high school, I began to have second thoughts about majoring in music when I got to college. Then, in my sophomore year, I visited the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which had a special event for prospective college students with disabilities. After a general large group meeting, we had the opportunity to split up and go to presentations about admission requirements for programs we might be interested in, so my vision teacher took me to the presentation for the music program. During this presentation, when the director outlined the requirements for submitting a portfolio with samples of work in areas that included musical theory and performance, I decided I did not want to major in music after all. I had this fear that the stress of trying to assemble such a portfolio, and just the drudgery of four years of music theory and performing recitals for a grade would burn me out to the point that I would lose my passion for music. I was all for challenging myself and learning new music, and I absolutely still wanted to sing with people who took music seriously and wouldn’t goof off and be disruptive, but ultimately I just wanted to sing for the joy of singing and keep that child-like flame of true passion for music alive. I ended up studying journalism, something I enjoy, but in a different way, and I am not as emotionally attached to it as I am to singing.

Unlike middle school, music was not a requirement in high school. I think only one semester of fine arts was required in high school, and students who had no interest in music could fulfill this requirement with things like art, photography, or woodworking. For this reason, although there was still disruptive behavior on occasion, it didn’t reach the level that it did in middle school because everyone who chose to join the choir had at least some passion for singing and was thus willing to take rehearsals seriously. Freshman year, all girls who wanted to be in choir started in a choir solely for freshmen girls. At the time, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t go right to the big leagues when after all, I had already sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and been to Italy, but I ended up really enjoying this choir. Because the choir just comprised freshmen women, it was a smaller choir, only around thirty of us, which meant that the director could give us one-on-one attention. I thought we sounded like a children’s choir at the beginning of the year, but over the course of that year, the director worked with us a lot on having a fuller, more mature sound. Now I realize this choir was a good idea as women’s voices change at this age and it was a great way to get used to singing in the high school setting. At the end of freshman year, we could audition for Chamber Choir, the most advanced choir which was open to both men and women sophomore, junior and senior year. If we were not accepted into Chamber Choir, we could still sing in Concert Choir, an excellent choir that just sang less challenging music. I auditioned for Chamber Choir at the end of freshman year and to my delight, I was accepted!

Chamber choir rehearsed the last hour of the school day which at first I thought would be wonderful. After a hard day of academic classes, I would end the day with singing. But the demands of my other classes kept me up late every night, and some semesters I did not have a study hall to work out math or technology challenges, so I had to have a working lunch in the library or the office where my teacher’s aid produced class materials for me. So by the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. I also had a lot of headaches at that time of my life. Usually they were not severe enough that I had to stay home, but they were just those relentless nagging headaches that sap you of all ambition. Looking back I realize this was probably the beginning of my body’s intolerance to gluten. The headaches increased in frequency and severity over the years until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease shortly after college graduation. Anyway, this combination of factors made it very difficult to maintain a positive attitude when we had to tediously drill notes day after day, and were stopped constantly by the choir director to correct a stylistic mistake or wrong note. To add insult to injury, instead of sitting in rows of chairs to drill notes, and standing intermittently to sing, this director had us stand on rows of risers pretty much the entire rehearsal, so by the end of class, my feet hurt. This was probably a good thing though because if we had had chairs, I am sure I would have fallen asleep. My energy level was usually much improved by evening when I would often recline on the couch intending to watch a television program but would end up falling asleep. I had Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals once a week, and even when I had to go back to school for the occasional evening rehearsal before a couple big concerts, my energy level and attitude were much improved. I was scared and sad when during my junior year, the choir director noticed this negativity, especially when I started leaving a little bit too early to catch the bus. How had I come so far from that little kid with such passion for singing? To my high school choir director if you ever find this blog: I want you to know I am sorry for my negative attitude back then. I still hate the process of drilling notes (who doesn’t?). But I am still singing in choir today because when the drilling is done and a beautiful concert comes together, the child within me comes alive again.

One particularly difficult rehearsal when the director got the sense that the whole class had a negative attitude about all the drilling and nagging about stylistic mistakes, the director said that although it seemed like she was being mean, she was being tough on us because she loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be, and in the long run, we wouldn’t really want a choir director that didn’t push us when she sensed we could do better. That’s when I really understood the importance of teachers setting high expectations. The teacher who settles for “good enough” in the moment may seem kinder, but it is the teacher who pushes you to be better who really cares about her students. Perhaps to drive this point home, this choir director required us to attend a choral concert at another high school in the area each semester and write a paper critiquing their concert. Most of the schools I went to also had excellent music programs. I still thought our choir was the best, but I was a bit biased. But a couple schools left me feeling sad because I got the sense from the song selection and the kind of mistakes that were made that these programs did not set high expectations for their students, and I actually felt kind of sorry for these students who weren’t getting the incredible rewarding experience of singing challenging music.

This hard work yielded wonderful opportunities. My sophomore and senior years, all the school choirs participated in a choral competition: sophomore year the competition was held in San Diego, and senior year it was in Williamsburg, Virginia. We swept both of these competitions, and got a nice vacation from school as well. Sophomore year, all of the choirs also had the opportunity to perform a holiday concert with the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited for my peers to have the amazing experience of hearing songs come alive in a whole new way with a full orchestra as I had already gotten to experience with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I loved getting this experience again too as that kind of magic never gets old. My junior year, just the Chamber Choir was invited to sing in a choral festival at Saint Olaf College. Our choir was the first to perform and every time I listen to the CD from that festival, I still feel amazed and blessed that I had the opportunity to be part of a choir that sounded so amazing. There were also a few songs that all of the choirs in attendance at the festival sang together. Since there were around a thousand of us in all, we could not all fit onto a stage, so we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium while individual choirs performed onstage, and then stood up for the combined songs. This was the most amazing and truly joyful rendition of Joy to the World that I have ever or probably will ever sing this side of the restoration. Since we were spread out instead of crammed onto a small stage, our sound filled the room. It felt like a big happy church service, except unlike church where a lot of people are too shy to sing, everyone in that room was a choir singer, and we sang loud and joyful. It really was heavenly!

My sophomore year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was invited to sing a Christmas piece in Carnegie Hall. The piece was called the Christmas Sweet, and it was so much fun to sing. When I first heard a recording of this piece, I was enchanted because it sounded so “New York during the holiday season” even though at that time, I had never been to New York, during the holidays or otherwise. But when an adult soloist accompanied by a soft orchestra in the background sang “when the frost starts to glisten, and the nights flush with cold, and the streets shimmer gold, it’s Christmas,” I was transported by this song. From that first movement, through movements about shepherds in the field, to a movement about children playing in the snow, and even a silly movement in which we simply sang the words Merry Christmas to different melodies, this choral work was magical from the first note to the last, capturing the essence of everything that makes Christmas so special. The last concert I ever sang with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir was the holiday pops concert my senior year. I actually didn’t know this would be my last concert with this choir, at the time, but second semester, there were several extra school rehearsals to prepare for the competition in Williamsburg which conflicted with Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals. But looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a more magical last memory of my children’s choir days. Part of the reason I think it was so magical was that I could truly enjoy it as school was going smoothly and for once I understood the math concept we were studying so homework didn’t take me quite so long. At the same time, I had just come through a really difficult math unit and singing a joyful concert was just the breath of fresh air I needed. But I also loved it because Bill Conti, the guest conductor of this concert selected the most amazing set of songs that captured the childhood magic of Christmas. The Cantorei Chamber Choir started the concert with Candles in the Window from Home Alone the words of which are beautiful by themselves, but come alive even more accompanied by the full orchestra, especially the beautiful silky tones of the violin. Then we collaborated with the adults of the Symphony Chorus and sang all the Christmas favorites including Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, complete with instrumental sound effects for the horses and toys from the orchestra. For my last concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and my second-to-last concert as a minor—I turned eighteen the following March—I could not have asked for a more magical farewell to childhood. But the beautiful thing about music is that unlike athletic pursuits which can only be enjoyed in youth, choir is a passion that I can enjoy my whole life. In the next post, I will talk about my college choir experience and the choir I sing in now.

On Memorial Day Weekend and Ultimate Hope

Well readers, remember this post in which I talk about how even for people who believe in the Restoration, it is all too easy to slip up and place our ultimate hope in the wrong things? I told you I would update you on whether I could adopt this eternal perspective when faced with disappointment, and unfortunately this weekend, I slipped up again.

I am not a huge fan of summer itself. My favorite season is Spring. We will get a few perfect summer days, but often times, summer days are too hot, humid and buggy for me. I start getting a headache and feeling weak after just a short time in the sun, and after dark especially, the mosquitoes eat me alive. If it is below 75 degrees or so, I love nothing more than going for a walk or taking a braille book outside to read on my porch swing, but above 80 degrees, I just want to read or write in the comfort of air conditioning. But I love Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. Oftentimes, the weather is absolutely perfect on Memorial Day weekend, not hot or humid the way it usually is on the fourth of July. I love the festive atmosphere of Memorial Day weekend as our neighborhood which was frozen and quiet all winter, which often onofficially extends into May, comes alive again with happy voices of children playing and people having bonfires and picnics. Memorial Day weekend is sometimes the first weekend you can ride in the car with the windows rolled down. I also love the fact that Memorial Day is always on a Monday, so rather than preparing for work or school Sunday night, we can have a leisurely cookout, and then take a late evening walk to smell the lilacs and hear the beautiful sounds of late spring, especially the mating calls of the frogs from my neighbor’s pond up close, rather than just through the window as I get ready for bed. Then on Memorial Day itself, we have a leisurely breakfast and then we dust off our lawn chairs, load them into our van and drive to a neighboring community to see a parade. I know parades are somewhat visual, but I love just the festive atmosphere, and the moments when a marching band or a bagpipe and bugle corps march by are so spectacular it is worth waiting through the visual stuff.

But in 2016, this idyllic weekend was shattered by a rejection letter. As I discussed in this post, my job was causing me a tremendous amount of anxiety, but I was so excited about a position with the State of Wisconsin as an Equal Rights Officer. It would have been a higher level position investigating cases of employment discrimination and it was located in Madison so I would get to experience living on my own. When I woke up the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend 2016, I was on top of the world. I hadn’t had a long weekend off since New Year’s Day except for one Monday I requested off to go to Madison to interview for a position in the Public Defender’s office, but that doesn’t really count as a day off since getting suited up and mentally preparing for an interview is nerveracking. In those dark days, it seemed as though Memorial Day Weekend would never come, but at last, it was here! I remember waking up and having a leisurely breakfast, and then having a wonderful bible study with my Jehovah’s Witness friends. After that, Dad and I went to Chipotle, our favorite Saturday lunch spot and had a peaceful lunch. Mom usually went with us, but she didn’t feel like going for some reason. I forget why, but Dad and I wanted to go, so we went out just the two of us. On the way home, I distinctly remember driving slow with the windows rolled down enjoying a glorious warm spring breeze. Jimmy Buffett’s song Volcano came on the radio, which is one of my favorite songs to sing along too. When we got home, I planned to sit on the porch swing and read My Side of the Mountain. I remember loving this book when I read it in fifth grade, but had kind of forgotten what exactly happened in the story. I remembered the basic premise of a boy living in the city who ran away from home and taught himself to live in the wilderness, but couldn’t remember a lot of detail, so when I saw that this book was available from Seedlings, a company that produces braille books for children at a reasonable price, I felt compelled to order it for Memorial Day weekend thinking it would be a therapeutic, fun, easy read. But then Dad pulled up to the mailbox to get the mail, and in that pile of mail was the rejection letter. I thought I had interviewed well for this position, and while the rejection letter for the public defender position came pretty quickly after that interview, I thought it was promising that the Equal Rights Position hadn’t responded yet. Hope was still alive Saturday morning, but now that hope was dashed, and I had looked at the job boards Friday evening and there were no promising prospects. Would I be stuck in this miserable position forever? I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to stand it. All around me, the rest of the world was enjoying an idyllic Memorial Day Weekend. I went through the motions of enjoying the weekend. Saturday afternoon, I went out to the swing and tried to read My Side of the Mountain, but after reading the first paragraph ten times, it was clear I couldn’t focus, so I gave up. I went to church with Mom and came down from my room for meals with my family. My dad cooked steak and baked potatoes on the grill Sunday evening, and we ate in our dining room with the window open enjoying a pleasant cool evening breeze, but my heart wasn’t in this moment. In high school I discovered that on the eve of Memorial Day each year, PBS broadcasts a Memorial Day concert from Washington DC. The music in this concert is always beautiful and the solemn reading of letters from soldiers who were killed or wounded, or their loved ones really put life into perspective. It became a tradition for my parents and I to watch this concert every year, but as I despondently sat down to watch this concert in 2016, I just couldn’t pay attention to these soldiers and their families who really had something to cry about. All I could think about was my feeling of hopelessness, and this made me feel even worse. By Monday evening, I realized I needed to get myself together because I had to work the next day, so to give myself hope, I made two resolutions. The first one was healthy and positive. The second one I now realize, was bizarre and petty. The first resolution was that by next Memorial Day weekend, one way or another, my circumstances would be different. If I couldn’t find another job and my current job was the same, I would quit. If I burned through my savings paying for insurance and could no longer afford it, then I would be uninsured. This first resolution was achieved. After Christmas, I exclusively handled appeals for other case managers and my anxiety soon melted away, and then in February 2017, I switched to a part-time schedule and have been at peace with this decision ever since. But the second petty resolution was that I was bound and determined that next year, I would have a do-over of this ruined weekend and have the perfect Memorial Day Weekend.

In March 2017, Mom went down to Indiana to take my grandma to a doctor appointment. She planned to go down on Thursday March 23 and come home on Saturday, but ended up having to rush back on Friday because of my seizure. Then in April, my mom needed shoulder surgery and was not able to drive, or sit in a car for a long period of time. By May, Mom was not comfortable driving yet, but she felt she could handle sitting in the car, so she wanted to make a trip back to Indiana. The original plan was to make a quick trip to Indiana the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, but that week, Dad came down with a really nasty cold and was still coughing up a lung Saturday morning. Mom and Dad decided rightly that it wouldn’t be smart to go to Indiana with him in this condition, especially since Grandma’s immunity might be weak. So they decided Memorial Day weekend was the most sensible plan B, especially since with my new part-time schedule, I had a four day weekend. We could leave Saturday morning, stay for a parade my cousin would be marching in, after which my aunt always hosts a cookout, and then come home late Monday evening.

But the older I get, the more I hate overnight travel of any kind. I hate the commotion of packing for the trip, the difficulty of cooking a gluten free breakfast in an unfamiliar kitchen, the loss of freedom and independence I feel in an unfamiliar setting, everything. I would not have enjoyed it the weekend before either, but the fact that I had to travel on my precious, long-awaited Memorial Day weekend made me even more disappointed. I could have stayed home, but I could tell my parents were nervous about leaving me home alone for that long after my seizure incident, and if I did stay home, there would be no cookout, parade, or pleasant outdoor walks because I don’t know how to use the grill, and where we live, there are no sidewalks so someone needs to go with me for walks, and we have to drive to our parade route. Either way, I wouldn’t be getting the idyllic Memorial Day weekend I had hoped for, but I decided all in all, I would have more fun if I came along than if I was stuck home alone. So instead of a leisurely breakfast that Saturday morning, we ate a quick breakfast as we analyzed what we still needed to pack. I could tell it was going to be a glorious day outside, but instead of racing out to the swing with a book to savor it, I was preparing pre-measured bags with everything I would need to cook gluten free oatmeal for breakfast Sunday and Monday morning. Since Grandma now needed to live in an assisted living facility, there was no longer food in her refrigerator and we weren’t going to be staying long enough to warrant buying food to cook when we got there. While there are a few gluten free restaurant options for lunch and dinner, I would have to make breakfast myself.

On the trip down, we had a pleasant lunch at Cracker Barrel, and I enjoyed catching up with Grandma when we arrived that evening. Sunday was a peaceful day too. Per usual when cooking breakfast away from home, my oatmeal didn’t turn out right, but my mood improved when we went back to see Grandma and she showed me some of the things the therapist wanted her to do. We played catch together with a soft ball to work on coordination, and we laughed as we both kept missing the ball. And we would hear a THUNK as the ball hit the wall. In the afternoon, Dad and I went to an Italian restaurant in a town nearby that advertised gluten free options. It was delicious, and I especially enjoyed the sautéed spinach, something unique that I had never had before. Then we took a long walk on a nature trail. But in the evening, I started getting a headache, probably because I wasn’t used to the weather which was ten degrees warmer than it was at home. So we went back to Grandma’s house where I cooked a can of soup and went to bed early. Because Grandma was no longer living in her house, cable and internet service were cancelled. I tried to stream the Memorial Day Concert on my phone as I lay in bed using data but had no luck. I wanted to keep with tradition and watch it live, but it was being taped at home, so I accepted that I would just have to wait until then.

Mom brought a crockpot and all the ingredients to make a cherry cobbler to take to my aunt’s cookout. So on Memorial Day, she assembled the cobbler which she planned to cook at my aunt’s house during the parade. Then we proceeded to pack the car because after enjoying my aunt’s cookout and visiting Grandma one more time, we planned to head home. But that morning, it had rained a little, and this made the wooden ramp that leads down to the driveway of Grandma’s house very slippery. So while carrying something to the car, Mom fell. She had been warned that if she fell, she could undo her surgery, thus requiring another surgery, and Mom was in a lot of pain after this fall. We ended up quickly visiting Grandma, dropping the crockpot off at my aunt’s house and telling her to enjoy the cobbler without us, and then heading home early. We tried to make the best of things, going to Chipotle on the way home and then having a peaceful evening watching the Memorial Day Concert. But I felt so bad seeing Mom so upset and in so much pain, and there was such a palpable fear that she would have to undergo another surgery when recovery from the first one had been so rough that I was glad to see this Memorial Day Weekend come to an end. Next year, I vowed to myself, we are going to have the perfect Memorial Day weekend!

And so the countdown to Memorial Day weekend 2018 began, especially after New Year’s Day when we all desperately need some hope to get us through the long cold winter. Then at the end of April with just five weeks until Memorial Day, Dad and I were taking a walk when Dad suggested, “I was thinking for Memorial Day, the three of us could take a trip…” “No!” I said before he could even finish. “You know I would plan everything out and make sure there were good gluten free options and everything. And we would come back Sunday so we could still go to the parade Monday,” he said. My dad does do a great job planning things and sniffing out gluten free restaurants, but there was to be no stress, no packing hassles, no gross bowls of oatmeal in a hotel, no troubles of that sort marring this perfect Memorial Day weekend I had waited three years for. I just wanted a peaceful weekend at home, and I wanted to replicate the activities I was too sad to enjoy in 2016. Then a couple weeks later, we celebrated the birthday of the grandma on my dad’s side. For the past several years, my parents have been taking Grandma to a play, ballet performance or concert for her birthday and Christmas presents rather than buying stuff. She enjoys the arts but would not be able to get to these venues herself, and because I love the arts, I almost always come along as well. This year for her birthday, my parents decided to get tickets to a patriotic concert the Milwaukee Symphony Pops orchestra was performing in honor of Memorial Day. Now I absolutely love the Milwaukee Symphony Pops orchestra. I even got to perform with them when I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, so I was looking forward to hearing them again and reliving memories of when I was onstage with them in this very venue. What I didn’t like was the show time my parents chose. They thought about inviting Grandma over for a quick dinner and then going to the 8:00 show Friday evening, but instead decided to get tickets for the Sunday afternoon show and then have dinner afterwards. Normally I wouldn’t mind this arrangement either, but I knew Grandma would want to take us out to eat and since we would get home from the concert right at dinnertime, going out to eat would make more sense than cooking. Of course we could have the cookout Monday, and Mom said that is actually what people traditionally do, but in 2016 when we had the cookout Sunday, it seemed as though my parents enjoyed it more because their minds were not already thinking about work the next day, whereas the evening of Memorial Day itself has that Sunday night feel. I also wanted to be home in time to watch the National Memorial Day Concert since sometimes our DVR malfunctions.

On Thursday, we had to turn on our air conditioner for the first time this season, and the weather forecast said we would be in the 90s all weekend which is unusual for Memorial Day. So as I got ready for work Friday morning, I realized I would need to re-think my plan of reading on the porch swing all afternoon. Then on the way to work, Mom invited me to come along on a quick trip to visit my brother who lived about an hour and a half away, as we needed to give him some important mail that came to our house. As long as we were there, we would go out for brunch and then when we got home, we could go swimming in the afternoon. At first, sibling rivalry reared its ugly head and I was annoyed that we needed to visit him when he had come home and taken over the house the previous three Saturdays (more about this in a future post), but I really do love my brother, and we are a lot alike. The town where he lives has a surprising number of gluten free restaurants given that it is a smaller town than Milwaukee, and it was going to be too hot to sit on the swing and read so what else would I do. And I liked the idea of swimming in the afternoon. Swimming was my favorite summer pastime as a child, but as an adult, I was tired of the public pools over-run with screaming kids and too packed to move freely. About two years ago, my parents joined a gym with a really nice outdoor swimming pool, and after Christmas this past year, I decided to join too. Between nasty weather that sapped me of all motivation, and other family commitments, I had only been to the pool once in April, but now that it was unofficially summer, I resolved to start swimming regularly, ideally three days a week. But then after work Friday, I decided I better doublecheck the pool’s hours since their website indicated special hours for the holiday weekend, and to my fury, the pool was only open until 3:30. By the time we got back from visiting my brother, the pool would be closed, or it would be so close to closing time it wouldn’t make sense to try and get there! For heaven’s sake I had waited three years for a perfect, idyllic Memorial Day weekend and it was going to be screwed up again! My dad wanted to get to my brother’s place early because there are two bakeries he likes to visit there. (One of them is a gluten free bakery which I like too). He wanted to get there before all the good stuff was sold out. But when I informed Mom of the pool hours, we decided to swim for 45 minutes or so in the morning and then go visit my brother, but that meant inhaling breakfast and hurriedly changing into my swimsuit. Hurry was not supposed to be in the vocabulary of this idyllic Memorial Day weekend. I was absolutely furious that the universe wasn’t aligning in my favor. What kind of gym has such ridiculous swimming hours the first weekend of summer? ANY other weekend would have been a wonderful weekend to take the road trip to visit my brother. If only I were sighted, I could take myself swimming while my parents went to visit my brother. This first outdoor swim of the season was pleasant I guess, but I couldn’t fully enjoy it because I felt like I had to watch the clock, and my stomach was a tiny bit upset from having to inhale breakfast.

My mood gradually improved on the pleasant drive to visit my brother as my mom described the rolling countryside. We stocked up on goodies from both bakeries. Even my brother who does not have to eat gluten free food and would complain about the gluten free baked goods my mom and I would make when he lived at home, likes this bakery, so he picked out a few things too! Then we had a nice lunch at an Asian restaurant with a lot of gluten free options, which was exciting because while there is gluten free soy sauce on the market, most Asian restaurants use regular soy sauce and don’t say a word about gluten free options on their web sites. But as we were driving home from this pleasant afternoon with my brother, I was hit with three realizations, all having to do with how petty and stupid my behavior had been.

First, the original intention of Memorial Day was to remember soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. It is supposed to be a solemn time, but as is the case with many holidays that started with good intentions, our culture has corrupted it, with picnics, festivities and store sales taking center-stage and the solemn remembrance of fallen soldiers becoming secondary. With that in mind, watching the solemn National Memorial Day concert is really the only tradition that is truly in the spirit of Memorial Day. Related to that, I had made Memorial Day Weekend all about me, as if it were my birthday, not that it would have been okay to behave childishly on my birthday either, but at least if it were my birthday, I might have ben able to rationalize my disappointment a little bit. As it was, my behavior was nothing but petty and stupid because the holiday is not about me. I have this weird photographic memory where when major events of my life take place, I remember the exact date they occurred when no one else in the family does. My parents come to me with questions like “When did we adopt Snickers?” Sunday August 20, 2000. So while August 20 is just another day for the rest of the family, I am thinking about the happy moment we brought Snickers home. But this photographic memory applies to unhappy events too, so even though I am in a happier place now, I feel a little melancholy every year on May 28, the day I received that rejection letter. Perhaps I thought that if I had a super happy Memorial Day weekend the following year, I could in a sense blot out this sad moment from my memory. But rather than fixating on dates, I should just live life one moment at a time. Saturday May 28, 2016 was a sad day that will always be stored in my memory, but life is better now, and I have had many idyllic weekends, and idyllic Tuesdays and Thursdays since then. It’s not dates that matter, so after this past Memorial Day weekend, I am making it my goal not to fixate on dates anymore but just take life one moment at a time.

Second, my behavior was a shameful example of first-world problems. While I was furious because the pool hours weren’t convenient for what our family needed to do, and we were going out to dinner instead of having the cookout I envisioned Sunday, there are millions of people for whom just finding food and safe drinking water is a daily struggle, and yet according to one of our church pastors who had visited Africa, these people worship with a more genuine joy than people in developed countries. I have heard that in third-world countries, allergies don’t exist. The reason people in the developed world have allergies is because our environment is so sterilized that our immune systems have nothing to attack. But our immune systems were designed to fight and so in the absence of bacteria and parasites to fight off, the immune system reacts to harmless things like peanuts, gluten, eggs, or tree pollen. I think this is an excellent metaphor for life perspective too. Since we don’t have to struggle to meet our basic needs, and in fact live a life of luxury compared to most of the world, we take this comfort for granted when we worship, and since we have no major problems, we overreact to little annoyances, like the Wifi signal being weak, or the pool not being open when we want. As recent blog posts show, I have been glowing with joy over my spiritual growth these past two years, but through my self-centered behavior this past Memorial Day Weekend, God showed me I still have a lot of work to do. I cannot do anything about my immune system’s overreaction to gluten and tree pollin, but I can strive to change my mind’s overreaction to first-world problems. I cannot promise I won’t slip up again in the heat of a moment, but it is my goal to work harder in this area, and if my Jehovah’s Witness friends, or any of my bible study friends read this, please pray for me.

But finally and most importantly, I realized that by setting such ridiculous expectations for Memorial Day Weekend, I had put my ultimate hope in the wrong thing. While this life has moments of joy—for me, many moments of joy—God never intended for life to be perfect in this fallen world, even on Memorial Day weekend. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasurable moments of this life, and while it is human nature to cry at sad times like the death of a loved one even if we know we will see them again, our ultimate hope should be reserved for the Restoration. Once I had calmed down and remembered this, my mood lifted permanently the rest of the weekend. The concert was fabulous. My dad didn’t realize he had gotten front row seats, but while the sighted people were complaining that they had to strain their necks to see the stage, I loved it because I felt up close to the orchestra, almost as if I were onstage with them. After the concert, we went to a favorite restaurant of ours called Blackfinn Ameripub, where I ordered the California Naked Bird, a super flavorful turkey burger loaded with toppings in a lettuce wrap. We got home just in time to watch the National Memorial Day Concert Live. After the concert, my parents were too tired to take a walk, but I found some good music I had forgotten about and went on the treadmill. The next day, I woke up with a headache, but it went away in time for the parade. We even found a spot in a performance zone this year, meaning that instead of just getting drums which are all that plays much of the parade route, we got the full bagpipe and band performances right in front of us which was exciting. Then after the parade, Mom and Dad prepared burgers, potato salad and baked beans for lunch. So while this past Memorial Day weekend didn’t meet my bizarre expectations, once I put things into a more mature prospective, I realized that every moment this past weekend was a happy moment and in this way, it was a perfect Memorial Day Weekend after all.

The Tenth Good Thing About Snickers

Well readers, yesterday was a sad day as our beloved kitty Snickers passed away. I knew this sad day would come eventually. I just didn’t expect it to come so soon. As I mentioned in this post, the vet told us in March that her kidneys were failing, and a special diet would help temporarily, but ultimately nothing could be done to reverse the inevitable progression of kidney failure. But on the special diet, Snickers turned into a kitten again, jumping on the table and counters. She even started sticking her head in Gilbert’s food bowl while he was eating to try and steal some of his food! When Gilbert would growl at her, she would back away for a second, but then come right back! Maybe Snickers wanted to get even for the times Gilbert used to steal her food before we cleaned out a space in the basement for her to eat that Gilbert couldn’t reach. This new behavior also brought back funny memories of when Snickers was a kitten and would torment Indy who was almost twice Gilbert’s size. Nevertheless, I did start holding Snickers while Gilbert ate his food because growling is very uncharacteristic for Gilbert, so Snickers was clearly getting on his nerves, and I feared that one day, Gilbert would decide that enough was enough and bite her.

But on Friday, Snickers stopped eating, and on Saturday morning, Mom found her sitting in the sink. She wasn’t drinking the water though, just letting it flow over her. Mom dried her off, laid a blanket on her favorite easy chair in the living room, and laid her down on it. She slept there for awhile, and then came into the kitchen intending to jump onto the table, but she missed, and fell to the hard floor with a loud thump. She didn’t cry out in pain, but she didn’t feel like getting up and walking away, or trying again either. So I picked her up gently and carried her back to her easy chair, where she slept the rest of the day. Sometime Saturday night, she limped to her water dish and drank a tiny bit of water, and then Sunday morning, we found her sleeping on Gilbert’s bed on the floor. On Saturday, I told Gilbert “No!” when I was petting Snickers and he came up to the easy chair and wanted to sniff her. I didn’t think he would hurt her, but I didn’t want Snickers to feel stressed when a dog was sniffing her and she was too weak to run or swat at him like she used to.

By Sunday night when she hadn’t gotten out of bed the entire day, it became clear she wouldn’t be with us much longer, and with this realization, the sadness started to well up in me. I remembered a book from when I was a child called The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, a story about a child grieving the passing of her beloved cat. When I was a child, this book didn’t stir emotions in me as I read it because I hadn’t gone through the loss of a beloved pet. We didn’t have a cat at the time and Indy was still a rambunctious puppy. But my subconscious mind must have known I would need this book later in life because the title of this book just came to me.

I felt compelled to download this book from Bookshare and read it pre-emptively Sunday night in the hopes that the simple language of a children’s book would bring me comfort, which it has. First it has been comforting in how relatable it has been. Like the child in the story, I didn’t want to eat, write or do anything I usually enjoy. All day at work Monday, I was thinking about her, and on Monday evening when Snickers left the bed Mom created for her on the fireplace in the family room and tried to hide from us, a common behavior cats exhibit when they are about to die, I didn’t want to join my young adult bible study group I host Monday nights. All I wanted to do was stay downstairs and hold her. I tried to be an adult and not let myself cry, but Tuesday evening my resolve broke and I cried. I think no matter how old we are, every now and then we all need to return to the simple, comforting language of a book written for children to be reminded that it is natural and okay to cry over the loss of a beloved pet.

On Monday night and Tuesday night, Mom put a soft pillow inside one of Snickers’ favorite whicker laundry baskets she liked to sleep in when she was younger, which we hoped would make her feel secure in her final hours. Mom slept with her in the guest bedroom and we made sure to keep the door closed so Gilbert would not bother her. On Wednesday morning before leaving for work, I went into the guest room and pet her for what I sensed would be the last time. By the time Mom got home from driving me to work, Snickers had passed away.

I have also found comfort in this children’s book because it suggested a very healthy way to grieve the loss of a pet. In the story, the mom suggests that the child think of ten good things about Barney, which in adult language means that rather than dwelling on the sadness of the pet’s absence, we should focus on all the happy memories we had with the pet. In the story, the cat passes away on Friday and Mom tells the child they will have a funeral for the cat in the morning. The child can only think of nine things before falling asleep, but the next day when his father plants flower seeds over Barney’s grave, the child thinks of a tenth good thing about Barney. He will go back to the earth and help the flowers grow. This is such a poignant story I feel myself tearing up a bit even now as I recount it. Last night when I got home from work, Mom, Dad and I had a funeral for Snickers too. We buried her in our backyard, and Mom bought a lilac bush which we planted over her grave, so she will help flowers grow too. We each said a few words about how much love and joy Snickers brought to our lives, and although Dad wasn’t a cat person eighteen years ago, Snickers won Dad over with her charm and I swear I heard his voice crack as he remembered her. I couldn’t help crying again last night, but today I am starting to heal and focus on all the good times we had together. To that end, I have created my own list of ten happy memories of Snickers.

  1. Snickers was brave. She tormented Indy and Mojo ruthlessly despite the fact that they were big dogs who could have taken her out with one snap. In her younger days, she would hide and wait for someone to open a door so she could dart outside and a couple times once outside, she climbed way up high in a pine tree.
  2. . Snickers was smart. In 2008 when we were hosting a party, we tried to lock her in a storage room with food, water and her litter box so she wouldn’t jump on the table and cause trouble, and so that the cousins could play ping-pong in the basement. Well Snickers found a secret passage out of that room, jumping up into the rafters which went above the door of this room, jumped down when she reached the main basement and ran back upstairs to investigate the table!
  3. . She was naughty in an endearing way. We tried squirt guns to keep her off tables and counters when she was younger, but she didn’t fear the squirt gun so eventually we gave up and just made sure to wash the table religiously and lock her up with her food, water and litter box when we were expecting company. Sometimes, she would lick things on the table, but sometimes she would just sit in the middle of the table and purr as if she were laughing at us.
  4. She didn’t purr softly. She purred so loudly I could hear her purring clear across the room. She would purr when we pet her, especially behind the ears, and she would purr when we prepared her food.
  5. She would run to the door to greet people just like a dog. She wouldn’t run up and smother the visitor with kisses like a dog, but she was always there standing back a little ways sizing them up and if they sat down, she would come to them purring, but wouldn’t be shy about biting them too if the mood struck her, just to make sure they understood who was in charge at our house.
  6. When we occasionally had visitors who said they didn’t like cats, Snickers could tell who these people were too, and would work extra hard trying to charm them, trying to sit in their laps while ignoring the pleas of those who loved cats and would have loved to hold her. Toward the end of her life, Snickers had this weird affection for Dad. He loved her and enjoyed her antics, but rarely fed her and did not hold her or use baby-talk on her near as much as Mom and I had. But she started ignoring us in the evening and jumping into Dad’s lap with an adorable meow of love as soon as Dad sat down to watch television. I wonder if she could always sense that Dad wasn’t as fond of cats as the women in the house were, and she was bound and determined to win Dad over before she left us, which she did
  7. She was aware of every new appliance, piece of furniture or package that came to the house and was the first at the scene to investigate it. When I received my braille edition of Reader’s Digest, I would barely finish opening it and she would be there eager to climb in the box. Sometimes if I was lazy, I would pull one volume out of the box to start reading and when I went back for the second volume, she was sleeping on top of it. I would often find something else to read as she looked so cute in that box I didn’t have the heart to move her.
  8. She was unpredictable in an adorable way that made every moment with her interesting. One moment she would be as sweet as can be, snuggling into your arms or the blanket on your lap and purring. And then on a dime, she would haul off and bite you.
  9. She hated to be brushed. We tried brushing her a couple times but quickly learned we needed to wear body armor (long sleeves, thick gloves) as she scratched us up good. One day when she was really young, Mom, my sister and I were brushing her in the livingroom and Indy, or big german shepherd was watching on a rug nearby with what Mom and my sister described as a grin on her face. Indy was enjoying the spectacle this naughty cat was creating. Well as soon as we gave up trying to brush her and set her free, Snickers lunged straight for Indy and attacked as if to say, “I saw you laughing at me and I am not pleased!”
  10. She was active right to the end, chasing bugs, and jumping on tables and counters. In fact, I still smile when I think about Saturday. The last thing she did before she succumbed to her kidney failure was attempt to jump onto the table. Visitors would be in disbelief when I told them how old she was.

In the children’s story, Annie, the narrator’s friend who came over for the cat’s funeral, believed Barney would go to heaven, but the narrator didn’t believe there was a heaven for cats. The narrator’s parents weren’t sure either. I like to think that Snickers is in heaven, perhaps playing with Indy and Mojo. But even if pets don’t go to heaven, she will always live in my heart. Rest in peace Snickers. You were loved and even if we adopt another kitten down the road, you will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Taking My Passion to the Next Level

Fifth grade was a tough year academically for me, but when it came to my chorus experience, I would have loved to stay in fifth grade forever. But I was optimistic about the transition to middle school because in sixth grade, choir was a class, not an extracurricular activity which I thought would give it more legitimacy. In sixth grade, music was a required part of the curriculum, but students could choose to meet this requirement with band, orchestra, choir, or general music. Of course, I chose choir. What I hadn’t anticipated in my young mind however was that choir would attract students looking for something more interesting than general music, and perceived choir as an “easy” class. The choir teacher was planning to retire after my sixth grade year, and I think our class re-enforced this decision. Some students were so disruptive and made choir rehearsals so chaotic that she lost her cool a couple times and shouted at the top of her lungs “Stop talking.” Maybe this wasn’t the most professional approach to the situation, but I cannot blame her for this reaction because if I were her, I might have reacted the same way. Just as I am sure classmates who took sports seriously and loved gym class must have hated having me on their team because I am not the slightest bit athletic, I was the athlete of choir and longed to be with people who took singing more seriously. My dream actually came true temporarily that year the Wednesday after Labor Day when the teacher announced an event called Singing in Wisconsin where serious singers from all over the metro area would rehearse a set of songs, and then we would meet on a Saturday morning that November at Carroll College, rehearse the songs together all day and then give a performance that evening. I signed up for this opportunity right away. The small group of us interested in this event rehearsed these special songs after school, so while I still had to put up with my disruptive peers during the regular class, these rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school were so peaceful and productive that they became the highlight of my week. I don’t remember all of the songs we performed that day, but I do remember this was the first time I ever sang For the Beauty of the Earth, a song I would sing a lot in the years to come and which is still one of my favorites for its simple beauty and inspiring message.

On that Saturday at Carroll College, all of the groups represented were introduced and I heard them announce the Waukesha Children’s Choir. I perked up when I heard this choir announced, not because I knew anything about them but because that was what planted the idea in my mind of how exciting it would be to sing in a choir not affiliated with school, a choir for serious singers, just like my brother’s club volleyball team. Shortly thereafter, I expressed this to the choir teacher who suggested auditioning for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, as it was bigger and would give me all sorts of exciting opportunities, including the chance to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. So on a Monday night in August before my seventh grade year, Dad took me to an office downtown where I auditioned for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir.

Although it was called an audition, I remember the director saying that no one is rejected. After all, if you didn’t care for singing, why would you audition for this kind of choir in the first place? The purpose of the audition was more about the director evaluating our voice and vocal range to determine what part we would sing. Because it was my first year with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I was accepted into the Concert choir, which was the middle ground between the choir for really young children, and the advanced Cantorei Choir, or as the director said once when reminding us of proper posture for standing on the risers which included not fidgeting or scratching itches nervously, “you are in between the scratchers and the statures.” At first I was embarrassed because at the first rehearsal when we went around introducing ourselves, I realized I was the oldest one there, with most students being in the fourth and fifth grade, and a few students as young as third grade. But I quickly came to realize that unlike school where everything is so segregated, age difference really didn’t matter in this choir and I quickly made friends.

But despite being a choir for younger children, the director was not soft on us. I will never forget the first rehearsal when the director was teaching us the choir scale “do re mi fa so la ti do.” She wanted us to sing the scale and do hand motions to go along with it, but of course I couldn’t see the hand motions. So I practiced the advocacy my teachers always encouraged at school and raised my hand to ask the choir director to show me the hand motions I was supposed to be doing, to which she responded “that’s your homework.” I think this shocked me into silence the rest of rehearsal. That year, the choir rehearsed at a church downtown and that first year, Mom sat quietly in the back during rehearsals. This was partly due to the fact that it didn’t make sense for her to go home since rehearsals were only an hour and a half once a week. But she also just wanted to be available in case I needed anything, especially if I needed the restroom, which by evening I often did due to the medication I had to take at the time. So Mom heard this exchange between me and the choir director, and in the car on the way home, she explained that in the public school setting I was accustomed to, the teachers had to accommodate me, but in a private organization like this choir, they did not have to. This didn’t mean I couldn’t be in this choir. It just meant that I would need to handle things more on my own. So Mom showed me how to do the hand motions that week, and while my teacher’s aid would transcribe the words of the songs for the school choir into braille for me, Mom read the words of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir songs to me and I transcribed them into braille myself. At the second rehearsal, the choir director asked me a question about something we were singing and in this way caught me dozing off as I was not used to evening activities yet. But after that, I found my footing and Milwaukee Children’s Choir rehearsals became the highlight of my week.

Disruptive behavior was extremely rare in this choir because everyone in it was serious about singing and wanted to be there. On the rare occasion someone did get carried away and misbehave, the director would march over to where they were sitting and reprimand them sternly. Even when no one was misbehaving, this director had a stern demeanor, and I remember one Saturday when Mom had to work and Dad took me to a special rehearsal, I heard him tell Mom later he couldn’t believe how stern she was with us because compared to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops my parents used to chaperone, cthese choir students were angels! This director actually was a lot of fun. You could tell she loved working with young people and as the year progressed, she seemed less stern to me. Maybe it was because I liked this sternness and had gotten used to it as it was refreshing compared to the chaos that often defined school rehearsals. (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir had a policy that if your school had a choral program, you were expected to participate in it as well because we could be valuable assets to the choir with the advanced training we were getting, and because they didn’t want us to develop a snobby attitude and think of ourselves as being too good for our school choir.) But I also think this director was intentionally more stern than usual at the beginning of the year to scare off any singers who weren’t going to take singing seriously, and to establish high expectations.

I didn’t get to sing a full-fledged concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that year. That opportunity was reserved for the “statures.” But I did get to sing with the symphony for an educational program they put on for second graders all over the metro area. I actually remembered going to this program when I was in second grade, so it was exciting to come full-circle, knowing that quite possibly, there were future choir members sitting in that audience just as I had been five years earlier.

The following year I auditioned for and was accepted into the Cantorei choir, and this is where my passion for singing blossomed the most. The director of this choir worked for a music publishing company and thus was nationally renowned. My aunt who was a music teacher in Indiana at the time knew of her. I loved how this director made us feele grownup by giving us fancy leather folders for our music, and when it was time for rehearsals to begin, all she had to do was raise her hand and hum the C above Middle C and the room would snap to attention. Many singing dreams were realized that year, including the opportunity to perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. That holiday season, we collaborated with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the adult Symphony Chorus to perform Hansel and Gretel, and the Holiday Pops concert which was conducted by Doc Severinsen. In the summer following that year, I went to Italy with this choir where we had the privilege of singing at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was always appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made for me to have these opportunities. In addition to driving me to the many rehearsals these opportunities required, I remember Mom picking up a lot of over-time shifts so that we could go to Italy. I tried to convince her to let me go by myself so she would only have to pay for one person, as traveling abroad was never a draw for her anyway. But she didn’t feel comfortable sending me alone given my special medical situation, and she wanted me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was older that I found out how expensive the tuition was for each semester in this choir, and now that I am more aware of how much poverty and inequality there is right in my metro area, I have a deeper awareness of how blessed I was to have these opportunities.

The church we rehearsed in that year is still my all-time favorite rehearsal site as well. It was an old Lutheran church that had that old wood smell that I love. But what was most interesting about this site was that on the wood floor of the room where we rehearsed was a painted labyrinth. At one time I knew what the labyrinth signified, but now I forget. Anyway to protect this labyrinth, the church leadership did not want anyone wearing shoes in this room, so before rehearsal, we all took off our shoes in an entry-way on the lower level before climbing a flight of stairs to the rehearsal room. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this in past posts, but I love being barefoot. The first thing I have always done when returning home from school or work is take off my shoes, and I switch to sandals as soon as the snow melts, and wear them until the first snowflakes in fall. I would wear them in the snow too if Mom allowed me to. If I were a prairie girl living in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time, I would not have liked the bugs coming right into the house through windows with no screens, but I would have loved being barefoot all the time! I just feel so much lighter and freer without shoes, or when I can at least wear shoes that let my toes breathe. Now that I am in an adult choir where most of the other singers are senior citizens, we are seated the entire time on a typical rehearsal night, only standing for long periods of time at the dress rehearsal before a concert, and for the performance itself. But in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the director had us standing a lot, and I honestly think my feet hurt less after rehearsal that year than in the years that followed. But more importantly, I loved this rehearsal site because I think the room had a high ceiling because our sound echoed beautifully in this room, so I essentially got to sing in a cathedral once a week that year.

This choir also made my eighth grade year an amazing year from a social perspective as well. In elementary school, there were a few bullies in the before-school daycare I had to go to a few mornings a week from third grade through fifth grade, but overall, I had a lot of friends. In fact, since I was the only blind student in the whole school at the time, I sort of had celebrity status with even students in other grades asking me questions about being blind, and sometimes if I was walking somewhere by myself and another class was processing down the hall on their way to gym, art or music, the whole class would say hi as they walked by. I didn’t know what to make of this celebrity treatment at the time but looking back now, the teachers must have found it adorable and maybe even kind of funny. In these years, I never had a problem finding a partner when we had group assignments. But in middle school when puberty strikes, it was as if a switch flipped. I still had a couple of close friends, but mostly I was ignored. Teachers would have to assign students to work with me for group projects, and I could go whole days in a kind of silent bubble, walking from class to class quietly minding my own business but not speaking to a single peer all day. One of my close friends was in the school choir with me, and we both helped each other. She was new to the area, and because cliques were already well-established by seventh grade, I got the impression she felt ignored to, so we provided mutual companionship and moral support. She was also extremely helpful with logistical things like getting me to my spot on the risers at concert time which was a huge relief for me because the choir director was new to teaching and was not helping me as much as past choir directors had. So I have good memories of school choir in middle school too. But eighth grade in Cantorei choir was like stepping into another world. Once a week, I got to be with “my people!” I felt like a rockstar again surrounded by a happy group of friends at breaktime, and when we would take bus trips, I wasn’t the only one singing on the bus anymore! Even the boys were more mature in Cantorei choir. There was one boy in particular whom I especially enjoyed spending time with. We never officially declared ourselves a couple, maybe because we were both mature beyond our years and didn’t go for the silliness associated with this declaration. But he always came to talk to me at break times and if there was a special event, we would often sit together at lunch or on the bus and talk about religion, politics and music. Life took us in different directions and I haven’t kept in touch with him, but the time I spent talking to him in this choir was the closest I ever felt to having a boyfriend.

Perhaps because this director was nationally renowned for her work publishing music for children, I loved most of the songs she selected for us to sing. Perhaps because she came from Texas, her taste for gospel music was especially amazing. There was one song especially, Music Down in My Soul composed by Moses Hogan that was a favorite of the choir, and on concert days when this song was in the program, we raised the roof and got audiences hollering with joy. Rehearsing this song and others similar to it also filled me with joy that carried me through the week even if school was tough. My parents never had to worry about me turning to drugs or alcohol for happiness, because who needs drugs or alcohol when you can be high on song, floating down the hall between classes singing “Love in my heart! Oh yes I’ve got peace in my soul! Oh yes I’ve got joy in my heart! Joy today!” I even started a new tradition with this song. One rehearsal shortly before the spring concert when we were going to perform this song, I remember singing it and thinking that adding clapping into the refrain would be the icing on the cake of this amazing song. But this wasn’t part of the music, and there is an unwritten rule all serious choral singers know. That rule is that you don’t dare do anything to upset a choir director when concert day is near. I love and respect choir directors, but they are as a rule perfectionistic, especially the last week or two before a concert, and therefore, their fuses are very short. I feared incurring the wrath of the choir director more than I feared God. But a week after the concert, there was a final send-off rehearsal where the choir director would recognize the students who were aging out, and also give us a chance to sing the songs one more time, just for fun. This I decided would be a safe time to clap. So when we got to the refrain, I started clapping to the beat, and then a couple friends around me started clapping, then a few more, and before long, the whole choir of 100 or so singers was clapping! At first I was a little embarrassed when I asked and a friend confirmed that I had indeed instigated this, but that embarrassment didn’t last long as we were all having a blast. The choir director must have loved it too because the following year when we sang this song, the director told us we could clap for part of the refrain when the piano stops playing.

I would continue to sing in this choir my freshman year of high school as well, but unfortunately some of my best friends, including my almost boyfriend aged out of the choir as they were a year older than me, and the director quipped at the time that she did not want to teach students old enough to drive themselves to rehearsal. In addition, my freshman year, the choir rehearsals moved to a newly built Youth Art Center which most saw as a better rehearsal site, but I missed the acoustics of this old church, and the chance to rehearse barefoot. But I still had friends in the choir, and the director was still amazing so I had a blast my freshman year too.

Well I thought I could talk about my childhood choral experience in two posts, but I had so much to say that this post is already long and I haven’t even gotten to my high school experiences. So I will need another post or two. I think I ended my previous post with the director of the fifth grade chorus saying “I hope this is just the beginning for you.” I think it hit me when singing in Saint Peter’s Basilica that this teacher’s hope for me had been realized. Three years earlier, singing for parents in the school gym was a big stage, and now here I was singing in the most famous and beautiful church in the world. And I was still young, with many more opportunities and years of singing ahead of me.

Convicted: The Mother’s Day I Threw the Book At Mom

I know I said I was going to write two posts about choir, but the second post is not finished yet, and with today being Mother’s Day, I felt compelled to re-post an essay I wrote on Medium for a contest in 2014. I heard about this site from a Facebook friend and then shortly thereafter, I saw an article in Reader’s Digest that was originally published on this site, so I decided to give it a try. I decided I much preferred writing here, and my Medium posts didn’t seem to get much traffic. I am not going to re-post the other essays I wrote there, but you are welcome to read them here. But below is my favorite of the essays I wrote on Medium, and a perfect one for Mother’s Day. The theme of the contest that week was “I shouldn’t have written that.” Enjoy!

The year I was in third grade was a difficult year for my mother. She had started a new job in October that required her to work rotating shifts, one week of days and one week of nights. Just when she had adjusted to one shift, it was time to switch again so she was always tired. But my mother never complained. Despite being exhausted, she plugged right on, cooking dinner every night, never missing my older siblings’ school activities and still finding time to play with me. But the week leading up to Mother’s Day, my mother caught a nasty cold that normally might not have stopped her, but on top of day-night rotation, almost knocked her down. She did the household stuff she had to do, but was too tired to play. “I’m really tired right now. I promise I’ll play with you later,” she had said every day that week as she took another sip of tea and continued watching some boring grown-up TV show.

This disappointment was all forgotten, I thought when toward the end of the week, the teacher announced that we were all going to make special picture books to give to our mothers for Mother’s Day. I loved my mother dearly and despite how much I probably drove her crazy whining for her to stop watching those boring grown-up shows and play with me, I knew she loved me too. I couldn’t wait to tell her through this book how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. The teacher gave us prompts to fill in for each page of the book like “my mother enjoys ____,” or “if I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her ____.” The teacher’s aid helped me write my messages in both print and braille, and helped me make line drawings with puffy paint. Then the books were sent to an office in the school called the publishing center where they were given beautiful glossy covers.

I was so giddy with excitement over giving my mother this beautiful book I knew she would treasure forever that I couldn’t stand waiting any longer than Saturday night to present it. I ran up to her the way little kids do and threw it in to her hands and said “Happy Mother’s Day,” in a voice quivering with eager anticipation. As I expected, she gushed over the beautiful book when she peeled back the wrapping paper, but I didn’t expect what happened next. With all my siblings around the table, she opened it up and started reading, and laughing, hysterically. “What’s so funny?” I asked, a bit confused. It turned out that without even realizing it, I had written a book that was really more of an indictment. “My mother enjoys drinking tea and watching TV on the couch.” (picture of a tea cup) “My mother looks prettiest in her soft silk nightgown.” (picture of a nightgown) “If I could give my mother anything in the world, I would give her a cottage and a boat on a lake so she can relax.” (picture of a boat on a peaceful lake) I forget what the other prompts were, but basically every page made reference to how lazy I thought she had been lately.

I apologized repeatedly for that book over the years as I matured and came to have a better appreciation of how hard she worked and how selflessly she tended to us. “I could throw it on the next bonfire I attend,” I said once. “Don’t you dare,” she said, “I love it. It is a cute book I will treasure forever. I just laughed because all of your teachers who helped you with it probably think I am a lazy bum, and because I had been convicted.” Perhaps the lesson my third grade teacher had intended was for us to practice our writing while also learning about the joy that comes from a hand-made gift a mother will treasure forever. But the lesson I came away with that I still keep in mind today in everything I write is that the subconscious mind is a powerful thing.