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Taking a Leap of Faith

Well readers, at the end of my previous entry, I mentioned that there were other events that transpired in the absence of my braillenote but which needed a separate entry. Well, the most important of these events that came to mind first was my leap of faith, literally. I think I have mentioned in past entries that I was Catholic? Well, this is no longer true. I now officially consider myself a non-denominational Christian. It was a somewhat wrenching decision, as I knew it would upset my grandmother, who was also my confirmation sponsor. But as I transition in to adulthood, it occurred to me that while respecting elders is important, I could no longer ignore the yearning for a more meaningful church experience. I am so blessed to have a mother who understood where I was coming from and felt the same way herself. We had been going to this non-denominational church full-time for about a year, but perhaps out of guilt, we kept putting off making the plunge, so to speak, by becoming official members of this church. But in February when we found out about a membership class being held February 28, we decided we were ready. So I guess it is fair to say, ironically enough that Pope Benedict and I both resigned that day.

     It was a three hour class with speakers who discussed the history of this church, what this church believes and what it means to be a member. Then the day after the class, I filled out my membership candidate form, which asked for general stuff like contact information, but also a testimonial about our life before faith, how we came to find our faith and what life is like now. At first I wasn’t going to publish my testimonial on this blog because it is personal, but when we met with our group leader to discuss it last Sunday, fulfilling the final step of the membership process, and the leader said it was really well written, I thought it might inspire others to reflect on their own faith journey as I did, and give them the courage to make a change in their own spiritual lives if necessary.

     It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have faith in Christ. I was raised Catholic and had wonderful moments where I felt Christ’s presence in my life. I was also inspired by my grandmother whose devoutly catholic practices gave her peace which got her through the tragic loss of two sons. But unfortunately, as I got older, I started to notice that I was viewing faith as a one hour a week obligation. I was just going through the motions to respect my family, especially the previously mentioned grandmother who has a strong bias against other Christian traditions. I think this negative attitude intensified when this church’s leaders wanted to renovate the church and school but were having difficulty raising the funding because it was the height of the recession. The priest often spent sermon time showing videos about how great these renovations would be and pleading with the congregation to “prayerfully consider donating more money.” When there was a proper sermon, I often felt like the priest was just rambling about how the readings can be applied to the mission of that particular church, but not really using the bible to go deeper. I felt like I wasn’t growing at all and in fact was possibly regressing. I would rattle off the prayers with the congregation while in my heart I wanted to roll my eyes. When mass was over, I left with a “glad that’s over with for the week” attitude. Something had to change.

     I came to a Sunday morning service at Elmbrook Church for the first time on August 31, 2008. I had just moved in to the dorm at Carroll University and heard that a lot of students went to Elmbrook Church. I had heard wonderful things about Elmbrook from my mom who was also looking to grow in her faith and quietly discovered and joined a Tuesday morning women’s bible study. I couldn’t wait to get home from school on Tuesdays and hear about the dynamic speakers she heard that morning, and we were both inspired by the global mission mindset of Elmbrook. Hearing about all this made me secretly want to attend a church service at Elmbrook and see if this church might bring my faith back to life. But in an effort to respect his mother, my dad did not want to try a different church, and since Mom worked weekends and I am blind and thus cannot drive, my only choices were the Catholic church or no church at all, so I decided to stick it out at the Catholic church. But when an older girl in the dorm offered to take me to Elmbrook that first weekend in the dorm, I joyfully accepted.

     From the moment the service started, I loved it! The music was more modern and way more joyful. Even though I didn’t know the words to the songs at the time, just hearing everyone else singing them made me feel more awake and alive than I had felt in a long time. After the singing, some church members who had just returned from a mission trip came forward to speak and I remember thinking “wow! I wish our church did that!” Our catholic church would take up a collection for a school or church in another part of the world each lent and send teenagers to rural, impoverished areas of this country in the summer to help poor families with home repairs and things like that, but nothing to the extent of Elmbrook’s mission work. And I was awake and engaged through the whole sermon, one based solely on the bible. When that service ended, something told me I would be coming back.

     Unfortunately, I could not come back as soon as I would have liked. Living in the dorm proved to be difficult for me and my new service dog, so my parents and I came to the consensus that I would have a much less stressful college experience if I moved back home. While this was a wise decision for the majority of the week, unfortunately it meant going back to my old church every week. It would have been too much of an imposition to ask the student to pick me up at my house or Dad to take me to Carroll to meet up with the student. Even a year later when my mom got a different job and didn’t have to work as many weekends, she wanted to try and stick it out at the Catholic church, even though she also wanted to grow more in her faith, simply for the sake of family unity. Occasionally if Grandma was out of town, we would sneak off to Elmbrook and Dad would go to the Catholic church by himself, but mostly we still felt obligated to stay with the catholic church.

     But with each passing week, I was feeling more and more frustrated and disengaged. When I confided to Mom that as soon as it was financially possible, I couldn’t wait to try living on my own again, ideally in an apartment close to Elmbrook so I could arrange transportation and go to Elmbrook by myself, Mom and I decided it was time to go where we felt called. We both felt guilty that Dad was going to church by himself, but we decided we couldn’t put our faith life on hold any longer. By the time Elmbrook started the Famous Last Words series (a series that delved deeper in to the significance of the last words Jesus spoke before his crucifixion), we were going to Elmbrook full-time.

     Taking the leap and switching to Elmbrook full-time was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made because my faith life has changed dramatically. Church is no longer an obligation. It is an hour I look forward to all week. And when the service is over, I think I can speak for both Mom and me and say that we are so inspired that our worship continues all week. In the car on the way home from Elmbrook, we always feel compelled to discuss how that day’s message is relevant for our own lives, whereas I pretty much forgot about the catholic sermon by the time I got to the car and the discussion was on to “what’s for lunch?” The songs Elmbrook chooses for worship continue to fill me with joy the way they did that first service I attended, but now that I know the words to many of them, I’ll catch myself singing them with passion all week as I go about the house. My favorite is Beautiful (a powerful song about how we can see God in everything from the sunrise to the galaxies and how we will soon be “coming home.”) While I still fall in to sinful behavior sometimes, I have become more aware of when I am being sinful and pray for guidance and forgiveness on a much more regular basis.

     But the most dramatic and probably important way my faith has been transformed by Elmbrook has been in the revelation that being a follower of Christ is not about observing the right rituals, memorizing the right prayers or donating enough money. It is about following God’s commands laid out in the bible, having a personal relationship with Christ and praying from the heart. Or in the Pastor’s words from the Stuck series (where he talked about sinful patterns believers get stuck in) that still stick with me, “it’s not about religion. It’s about faith.”

     I’m still not the devoted follower I would like to be. I will be the first to admit that sometimes when I am faced with a difficult situation, I forget to pray and instead rely on my own strength, and as a member of Elmbrook Church, I will need to make a more concerted effort to take my worship beyond the church service out in to the local and global community. I will even admit that when watching the news or encountering people skeptical about the existence of a god, I have questions sometimes. But I have come a long way, and as a member of such a large, loving and supportive Christian community as Elmbrook Church, I know my faith can only grow stronger.


Back in the Game

Well hello readers! Long time no see, I know! But it has been an eventful three months. First, there were the Christmas festivities, and the gift of an iPhone. It was such a thrill to be able to send my first text messages and give Siri voice commands that I forgot all about blogging. Then on New Year’s Day, I came down with a nasty virus that required my parents to call 911 because of underlying medical issues. It knocked me down for almost a week. But as soon as I was well, Mom caught it too. She didn’t have to go to the hospital since she doesn’t have other medical issues like me, but it still packed a punch for her too, so I did the dishes and nursed to her. But the largest contributor to the delay was my braille notetaker. Ever since the cable company came out to our house and installed an updated modem so we would have more reliable internet access with our iPhones, my braille notetaker wouldn’t connect to the internet. The network was detected when I scanned for it, and I triple checked to make sure I typed the password correctly and in the right field, but when I would try to connect to the internet, it would say “not connected.” So I contacted my local vendor and when I mentioned that I had never successfully upgraded the computer, (see Trusty Rusty post about that frustration), I was told that I needed the upgraded version to connect to the internet. So I hung up the phone, got brave and figured out how to download the upgrade installation files on my desktop computer and transfer them to a thumb drive which is compatible with the braille notetaker, as the vendor suspected that my braille notetaker couldn’t handle downloading such large files. Nope, still didn’t work! So I called the vendor back and he suggested getting the files from a different site as they could be corrupted. When this didn’t work either, I was so frustrated I threw in the towel and on January 17, shipped the braille notetaker back to the vendor via the UPS store. I figured it was probably a simple procedural thing I was doing wrong, and the vendor would install the upgrade in a snap with an exasperated sigh and mail it back before I even missed it. The good news was I wasn’t incompetent after all! Somehow my flash disk had become corrupted and he couldn’t install the upgrade either. It was shipped off to Humanware headquarters right away for more extensive repairs, but because my DVR counselor was swamped with cases, it took two weeks for the purchase order to be authorized. I admit I was getting pretty restless and bored toward the end of this time, but I actually coped with the absence of my favorite piece of technology better than I thought I would. Working in my favor was the fact that I am no longer in school. If I had to read textbooks using synthetic speech or haul a Perkins brailler to class for notetaking, I probably would have lost my mind. But in this current transitional time of my life, the braillenote is more of a luxury than a necessity. In fact, my vendor offered to loan me another notetaker until mine was fixed, and I almost accepted the offer. But a second later, my conscience prevailed as it occurred to me that the vendor probably only had a limited number of units, and I think he serves the whole state. It would be unethical for me to take a unit just to goof off when someone who is actually contributing to society through their job, or pursuing an education may need their unit repaired and would need the loaned unit more. So I decided I could do without, especially given that I had plenty of other technology alternatives to keep me occupied.

     So how did I stay occupied in the absence of my best friend, technology speaking? Well, I guess you could say I got better acquainted with other friends, figuratively and literally. Early on, I entertained myself by listening to audio books. In October, I met with a friend from middle school who said she listens to books on tape while she drives, and she gave me a book she had finished listening to called Forgive Me. It was a really good book about a journalist who couldn’t wait to leave her boring hometown near Nan Tucket and tragic childhood behind. Her mother died of cancer when she was six years old and her father coped by burying himself in his job. She thought she loved traveling the world and covering horrible stories like apartheid in South Africa, but as she grew older, she realized she longed to spend the rest of her life with a doctor she fell in love with and live a simple life back in Nan Tucket. I had forgotten about this book since I usually just default to downloading books from Bookshare. Before Bookshare, I had listened to books on tape frequently, but since then I have forgotten about the power a good reader has to bring a story to life. I also listened to Monday Mornings, a novel written by Dr. Sanje Gupta about the lives of doctors and nurses, and coping with medical mistakes.

     Each day, I also enjoyed keeping up with friends on Facebook using my iPhone, although I don’t miss the iPhone Facebook app at all! Voiceover would sometimes pronounce words really weird, so I would have to use the arrows to read statuses letter by letter. I also had to think carefully before writing anything, be it a Facebook status, a comment or an e-mail because without cursor buttons, it was very tedious to go back and change a word or sentence! And as if that weren’t enough, an “upgrade” to the app ended up being a downgrade for the blind because instead of the traditional text box to write what’s on your mind, they changed it to a system that voiceover doesn’t interact as well with. I could read what I wrote as a whole, but not letter by letter as I typed. After typing very carefully for a few days, it occurred to me that I could e-mail my status to Facebook, which I did for the duration of my braillenote’s absence. But all of this tedium and frustration renewed my appreciation of how beautiful braille really is, and I said as much on Facebook as soon as my braillenote arrived!

     But best (or maybe worst) of all, I became addicted to Hanging with Friends, a delightfully accessible virtual version of the classic Hangman, with really cute sound effects. When I get a word right, there is happy music, and when I have used up all my strikes and get a word wrong, there is what I think of as “aw, bummer!” music which is followed by the sound of one of my balloons being popped. These sound effects are built in to the game, so they are the same ones sighted people hear. The iPhone’s voiceover reads blank spaces in my opponent’s word as question marks and when I select a letter by scrolling to it on my keyboard and then double tapping the phone, voiceover will say “strike” meaning it’s wrong, or “played” meaning it’s right. The game also makes a happy “ding” when a letter is played, and does a faint drum roll when I only need one more letter to solve the word. When it is my turn to make a word, voiceover reads all the letters randomly assigned to me, tells me how many points each letter is worth, and indicates clearly which slot is a double letter, triple letter, double word or triple word. Unlike Words with Friends which is not accessible to totally blind folks like me because you have to drag the letter to the appropriate square with your finger, Hanging with Friends automatically puts the first letter I tap in the first slot, the second letter in the second slot and so on. I apologize if I am boring blind readers who are familiar with this game, but I wanted sighted readers who stumbled on this blog to understand it.

     Each player starts out with five balloons and the objective is to pop all of your opponent’s balloons by stumping them with tricky words. When I got my first braillenote in high school and discovered it had text adventure games, I was thrilled. I had always wondered what it was like to play a computer game, and I guess it was kind of fun navigating fictional worlds and encountering virtual danger. But despite hours of effort, I never fully figured out how to play these games because the objective often wasn’t clear, at least not to me. Maybe it was crystal clear to people whose minds like adventure and I was meant to be a wordsmith instead. I think Hanging with Friends is also more fun because it is a mainstream game I can play with sighted friends, whereas Text Adventure games are designed to be single player games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if only blind people have heard of them. Anyway, the point is, I quickly fell in love with this game and six weeks later, the addiction is still strong! In fact, even with my braillenote back, I find myself playing that game more than I am using my braillenote!

I’ve gotten good too! In the beginning, I was getting every word an opponent threw my way wrong, but with practice, I have figured out a strategy and use logic to my advantage! I probably shouldn’t reveal trade secrets, but I guess if readers want to use them to fool me, that’s alright because then I can develop new strategies, sharpen my brain and become even better! So when I get a word, I first see how long it is, and see which vowel is already filled in for me. Then, you know how at the end of Wheel of Fortune when there is a bonus round and the host reminds contestants of “r, s, t, l, n and e” the most commonly used letters in words? Well I would use up all my strikes if I tested all those letters, but through experience, I figured out that the words opponents send me almost always have an r, an s or a t, or occasionally all three! So I always test those letters right off the bat. After that, I just carefully analyze the length of the word, which letters are filled in, which spaces are still blank, and sift through my brain and think about letter sequences that would make sense. For example, if an e is in the second slot, I always test A next because there are a tun of ea words in the english language. If e is the second to last slot and the last slot is blank, there is a strong chance that the last slot will be a d because there are a tun of ed words. In this way, I gradually piece together the word. Of course, I get words wrong, especially when tricky opponents send me words I have never heard of before. I have lost games, but I have won a lot too! I have also gotten more creative about making sure to utilize the double and triple word and letter slots to accumulate points faster too. For every 200 points you score by creating words, you earn 20 coins which can be spent on lifelines or items in the virtual shop like fancier balloons for your character, or they can be saved. When I reached 400 coins, I bought or should I say “unlocked” fancier balloons, but I started over after that and plan to save them because I think once you reach 5,000 coins, you advance to a more challenging level, which sounds exciting! Wow, I really need a job, don’t I!

     Anyway, while I was getting addicted to this game, Humanware made my old braillenote seem shiny and new again. When Humanware received my braillenote, they also discovered that the braille display and keys were dirty. In fact the braille display was so dirty according to the report from my vendor, that it had to be cleaned twice! I couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he was just stating the facts like an objective reporter, or if he thinks I’m a slob, but that’s alright. However my mom, who knows I’m a slob in other areas (like my blanket that I always find neatly folded on the couch in the morning when it was tossed aside in a heap on the couch before bed the night before) but loves me anyway, laughed. In my defense, I tried cleaning the braille display with what I thought was a soft damp cloth once as the manual instructs, but the cloth was either too rough or too damp and one of the braille dots never worked again, so I decided from then on that cleaning such an expensive unit is better left to the professionals! At the time I attempted to clean the display, Mom had a very demanding job, so Dad and I tried as much as possible not to trouble her with trivial matters like the most appropriate cloth to use in cleaning braille displays and since this happened during my internship in the governor’s office, I couldn’t afford to be without my braillenote. Since the damage to the braille cell was caused by my own hand, I decided I could live with the consequences. When I was reading and a word didn’t make sense, I was able to just fill in the missing dot in my mind and eventually pretty much forgot it was missing at all, so I could have accepted it if Humanware only fixed the corrupt flash drive, which I don’t think I caused, and left my braille display as is. But it is such a joy to have all the dots crisp and clear and in working order that I am treating the braille display like a baby, being extra diligent about making sure my hands are clean and sliding my fingers as lightly as possible. But when I told Mom about the mishap just recently, she informed me that there are special cloths designed specifically for cleaning electronic equipment, so when the braille display needs to be cleaned, I should not be afraid!

     A couple of other exciting events took place in my braillenote’s absence, but this entry is getting long, and since they relate to a different subject entirely, I should talk about them in a future entry. So for now I just want to say that while I didn’t mind listening to audio books or learning a new game, it feels good to be back in the braille reading and blogging game again.

A Different Kind of Joy

It is no secret that I love Christmas. I think I have blogged about it before, but I have noticed that this year, what brings me this joy is different.

     I used to think this joy came from the magical poems and stories like The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But as I have grown in to my adult self, I still smile when I hear these stories, but they don’t enchant me as they once did.

     I used to think it came from the baking. I still smile as I lick chocolate remnants from bowls and eat our special cookies, and still plan to this year, but this year, the idea of baking no longer consumes me with joy to the point where I can hardly sleep or concentrate on anything else during the month of December, which baking once did.

     I used to think my unusual joy came from the Christmas songs on the radio, but just this year, it seems as though most of the songs are stupid, and the overplaying of songs like Santa Baby epitomizes everything wrong with Christmas in America.

     I admit I am still a little enchanted by the Christmas tree. The family tradition is to go to a Christmas tree farm each year soon after Thanksgiving and cut down a real fir tree! Frankly, the spectacular enormity and complexity of so many branches, and the heavenly aroma of fresh pine leaves me baffled as to why so many people settle for unfolding an artificial tree from the attic. I am the only child still living with my parents, and the only one who still enjoys bringing home the Christmas tree, but as I saw my parents struggling to figure out how to hold the tree, carry it to the car and tie it to the roof, feats of strength for which I am not equipped, for the first time this year, I felt a little guilty.

     It’s kind of fun to open presents on Christmas morning, and I appreciate everything I am given, but since I am too old for toys now and learned long ago that there isn’t a Santa Claus, it no longer enchants me and keeps me up all night Christmas Eve. Besides, the commercialism which I never paid attention to as a kid is pathetic to me now.

     I love when the whole family comes home and we spend the afternoon playing board games, but two of my siblings live far away and could only make it home for Thanksgiving this year, and the one who lives locally usually doesn’t come until dinner time. I will still enjoy playing board games with Mom, and possibly Dad if we can talk him in to it, but with the house being so quiet in recent years, it just isn’t the same.

     I apologize if I am bringing you down on this most wonderful time of the year. I admit I am mildly depressed and not in the holiday spirit that I usually am. Part of it could be due to some stressful medical situations in my family which have us all a little worried. In addition, the scarcity of jobs, and a total absence of passion for the job postings I have seen has been discouraging. But this same discouragement has caused me to think about my life from a more spiritual, not just economic perspective (more on that in my next post). But maybe this pull to think more spiritually is why there is still one aspect of Christmas that enchants me: in fact it enchants me on a deeper level than the commercialism that I thought was so magical as a child. Actually, it is not a Christmas tradition, but a beautiful choir memory. Just thinking about it melts all depression and anxiety away.

     I know I haven’t written much about my passion for singing in this blog. I don’t know why. I guess maybe in college I was just so busy that it was easier to write about Gilbert and college life than find the inspiration to describe my passion for singing with the beauty it deserves. But now with no responsibilities, I am ready to try.

     I started singing in choir as a fifth grader in a school chorus that rehearsed during the lunch recess, and sang every year through high school. In seventh grade I also joined a community choir, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Unfortunately in college, my classes were so demanding I burned out and couldn’t motivate myself to join choir every semester, but I sang with the college choir two semesters and performed with a really cool women’s barbershop chorus one semester.

     All of these choirs have given me beautiful memories to associate with all seasons of the year, but Christmas, a season defined by music brings an abundance of special memories, especially in high school.

     My sophomore year of high school, my community choir had the opportunity to sing a piece called the Christmas Sweet, arranged by Mark Brymer in Carnegie Hall. The whole trip was magical; the excuse to get out of school; the chance to experience New York City, the largest city in America that is romanticized in so many television shows and movies; and of course the chance to sing in Carnegie Hall, the dream of every musician. But singing that piece was the most spectacular moment of all. It was beautiful when we rehearsed it with only the piano for accompaniment, but when we sang this piece with a professional orchestra, it was stunning! The orchestra brought the piece to life as we sang about everything that makes Christmas beautiful. In the first movement when the beautiful voice of an adult soloist sings “When the frost starts to glisten / And the nights blush with cold / And the streets shimmer gold / It’s Christmas” and the orchestra accompaniment is soft and light, I could just imagine that beautiful image, despite having no memory of being able to see. When the children (who were as young as ten and as old as 17) came in, I was transported in my mind to a cozy livingroom and imagined a child looking out the window and seeing the images we sang of with awe and wonder. In the third movement called Rejoice, the soloist sings “Rise up shepherds and follow,” and when a soft drum accompaniment that sounded both excited and urgent follows this solo and then us children sing “Follow! Follow! Rejoice! oh Israel!” I remember thinking how perfectly this song depicted the excitement and sense of urgency that was probably felt by the shepherds two thousand years ago. In the fifth movement, Snow, I remember being transported to childhood days of playing in the snow. It began with the orchestra mimicking blowing and drifting. Then the younger children sang “snow, snow!” soft and slow as if they had just woken up and looked out the window to see the first real snow of the season. Then different parts of the choir shouted back and forth “SNOW! SNOW! SNOW!” mimicking that child we all remember who can barely contain themselves as they are so excited to go out and play in the snow. Then there is fast joyous singing and accompaniment as the kids play in the snow. But just like in real life, the end of the piece is soft, as the children are sleepy and glad to be back in their cozy home. “All the world is safe tonight / underneath this quilt of white…Look around and know, the wonder of snow.”

     It is easier to write about the wonder of snow than the wonder of music because the beauty of a melody  or the spectacular harmony of voices and instruments is beyond words. To fully appreciate the beauty of this piece, you will have to find a recording, but take my word for it that it was absolutely enchanting! I wasn’t able to get a recording of our actual performance, but I have an old recording the choir produced before I had even joined, and every year since then, hearing it would enchant me anew as it would bring back the memory of what an incredible experience singing it onstage with a spectacular professional orchestra in front of us was. But this year for some reason, while I smiled at some of my favorite parts of the piece mentioned above, it didn’t enchant me to the point that I had to stop what I was doing, stand transfixed by the stereo as the magic came flooding back to me, which it used to.

     Two years later, the fall semester of my senior year of high school, school was rough for me. I was in the process of applying for college the next year, and meanwhile, to prepare me for college, the aide that worked with me wanted me to be better at thinking for myself and being independent, so she raised my expectations and I wasn’t doing a very good job of meeting them. On top of that, Math concepts covered around Thanksgiving were so hard for me to grasp that it took me hours every night to get my homework done, so I had to take a leave of absence from Present Music, an annual concert featuring unusual pieces from modern composers which the choir participated in at that time, which required extra rehearsals. But to my relief, things lightened up just in time for the holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which that year was conducted by award-winning screen composer Bill Conti.

     I had the privilege of performing with Doc Severinsen four years earlier, but unfortunately, I couldn’t fully relax and enjoy it because I had been sick most of that week and had to miss school, and thus I dreaded the mountain of make-up work that awaited me when I got home from the concert. But if that holiday pops concert was marred, the joy of this concert four years later was double! It was absolutely enchanting!

     For one thing, instead of traditional risers, this venue uses bleachers onstage so that singers can sit during instrumental pieces. But the Children’s Choir was supposed to climb up to the back rows of bleachers and my choir director agreed with my mother that I had no business climbing up bleachers, so I got to stand in the front row with the adult choir! I loved this choir, and the director accepted high schoolers, but it did skew young, so what a thrill it was to be surrounded by power-packed full-grown voices! In addition, there were a couple songs where the children’s choir had limited parts. For example, in The Twelve Days of Christmas, the children’s choir was only supposed to sing “and a partridge in a pear tree”, but I wanted to sing with the adults around me so bad, and figured it would look silly if one person wasn’t singing with everyone else around her, so I quickly learned the adult parts of that song, and all the versus of Jingle Bells! Oh what fun it was indeed!

     And just like in the Christmas Sweet, the stunning accompaniment of this community’s outstanding professional orchestra transported me and reminded me of the childhood magic of Christmas. I will especially cherish the children’s choir solo piece Candles in the Window. Played on piano I never noticed this, but a professional orchestra can play notes with such emotions that when combined with the words, especially “all of the music, all of the magic, all of the family home here with me,” it was all I could do to keep my composure and sing. It was so beautiful and magical it was all I could do not to cry. And the sound effects for Santa Claus is Coming to Town were so awesome it was all I could do not to jump for joy like I did as a child on Christmas morning!

     I don’t know if it was the fact that I was sitting with the adult choir, or even the knowledge that this would be my last holiday concert of my legal childhood, or just the fact that school had been so stressful lately that I was starving for joy. But I am not sure I had ever smiled so big for so long before or since. I savored every moment and would have loved that experience to last forever.

     I’m sure the other singers were smiling too. How could you not? But when we were in a room backstage between songs, while the other kids moved on, talked about unrelated things or played cards, much of that time I was in a trance-like state. When I did manage to speak, it was to tell anyone who would listen how much I would love to join the Symphony Chorus next year (forget college choirs) and have this joy every Christmas for the rest of my life!

     I was not able to get a recording of this performance. Part of me now wishes I would have had the nerve to break the number one theater rule, you know that announcement made before any professional performance that “recording equipment of any kind is prohibited.” My choir uniform had deep pockets, and I had a really small tape recorder I used for student newspaper interviews. Just kidding. As a musician, I understand why this rule is in place. If everyone recorded performances, and a few people pirated them, musicians might no longer have jobs. Why pay to see future holiday pops concerts if past ones are readily available online? But sometimes, I think memories are even more beautiful without a recording to spark them.

     The announcement that Mom had bought two tickets for this year’s holiday pops concert conducted by Doc Severinsen was all that was needed to bring these magical memories back to life. But while the concert was beautiful and Doc Severinsen was an exceptional trumpeter and entertainer, the concert just didn’t live up to my memories of 2007. To be fair, there could be many explanations for this. For one thing, the children’s choir wasn’t in the concert this year, and perhaps for that reason, none of the songs that so enchanted me were in the repertoire. It was beautiful, and I can understand the reasoning behind changing it up every year, but I am a traditionalist and was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t hear the cute orchestra arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Candles in the Window or Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. For another, being in the audience is a lot different than being onstage because in the audience, you are far removed from the orchestra, so it is possible that had I been onstage, this year’s songs would have enchanted me, and if the old songs were played, they would not have been as powerful as they were onstage. Or it could simply be the fact that since I was so stressed by school back in 2007 and was starving for joy, the emotions of that concert were magnified beyond normal. But either way, by the next morning, my mild depression and lack of holiday spirit had returned.

     But the one memory that has cut through my blues this year started out as a much simpler affair than the grandeur of a symphony orchestra. It was November 2006, my junior year of high school.

     At the beginning of the year, the choir director told us we would be going to Minnesota to sing with the Saint Olaf College in their annual choral festival, along with a few other high schools from Minnesota. I was excited because the Saint Olaf choir came to our area the year before for a concert and their choir is fabulous and their director well-renowned in the choral world. But as we rehearsed the songs, I didn’t have the degree of eager anticipation that I had the year before singing the Christmas Sweet because the only accompaniment for these songs was going to be piano, which is of course a beautiful instrument but not as magical as a full orchestra. And as we rehearsed our songs, especially Joy to the World, the finale of the festival that would combine all of the choirs (which I would find out on the day of the festival meant a total of over 1,000 singers), I just wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit of that song. It could have been because even by choir standards, we were rehearsing Christmas songs unusually early, or it could have been the fact that drilling notes, even for students who love choir is tedious. Since choir was the last hour of the day and I had a very full schedule that semester, I was usually already spent before choir even started. But in retrospect, I think the biggest reason for my lack of spirit was that I honestly had no idea how joyful Joy to the World could be.

     Our church sang it every Christmas, and it was a pretty enough simple carol, but in church, it just never really moved me. It could have been that at my church, the organ player played really loud and drowned out the congregation singing, but also as with any church, a lot of people don’t know all the words to the songs and still more are shy about singing, so even though the church easily had over 1,000 people in the pews (and aisles on Christmas Eve), the carol always seemed a little lackluster. Somehow, it just never registered with me that I wasn’t in the company of shy church parishioners anymore. I was at a choral festival with over a thousand people who loved to sing, rehearsed the words well and weren’t shy at all. It didn’t register that is, until the first chord “joy!” rang out. It was loud and confident and joyous beyond words! Because our group was too large to fit on a stage, we sat in rows of folding chairs in a gymnasium, which almost made it feel like I was sitting in a church congregation. When a small choir sings onstage, the sound is still wonderful but because the choir is much smaller, and the traditional arrangement is to be crammed on to small risers, the sound is more crammed too. But in a church congregation kind of arrangement with a thousand singers spread over a whole gym, there is sound everywhere, as if the whole world were singing! Oh was it heavenly!

     In fact, a year later, my grandfather passed away and at his funeral, a cousin who I don’t see very often sat next to me and we started talking. One thing led to another and I think I told her about my involvement with choir. That’s when inexplicably, that finale of the Saint Olaf festival flashed in my mind. Many accounts of heaven I had heard talked about a choir of angels, and it occurred to me that if true, it was possible that at that moment, my grandfather was singing songs with the same joyful sentiments as Joy to the World with a choir of potentially billions. If an earthly choir of a thousand people in a gym can fill me to bursting with joy, imagine a heavenly choir of billions of souls, free of earthly distractions and self-consciousness! I am kind of a stoic person. I was sad when both my grandfathers died, but I just am not the type to cry openly at funerals. But the beauty of that image that flashed through my mind almost made me tear up.

     Of course, our worldly life has a way of distracting us, and as I plunged back in to the school routine, I forgot about this image. But around Christmas when my mom finds the recording I was able to purchase of this festival, that image comes back to fill me to bursting with joy again and makes me want to live a holy life so I might join a heavenly choir one day too.

     As with the Christmas Sweet and the Bill Conti holiday pops concert, that finale left me in a joyous trance as I got on the bus to return home, but unlike the other concerts, this memory has yet to lose its luster, and something tells me it never will.

     The summer before I started high school, my mom and I went to Rome with my children’s choir, and of course when we weren’t performing or eating delicious Italian food, we were touring all of the famous Roman landmarks, especially the Vatican. It was in the Vatican that I remember my mom commenting to another mom something to the effect of, “all this marble and artwork is beautiful, but it’s a far cry from a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem isn’t it?” Maybe it is the same feeling with me and music. The thought of singing with an orchestra in front of me is still beautiful. But a lot of what we were singing related to the commercial elements of Christmas. Add to that the fact that the orchestra instruments are man-made and very expensive– (I once was told in a talk given by members of this orchestra that one violin costs a million dollars)–and I also realize that performing with an orchestra is in its way a far cry from the sentiments of a baby in a manger.

     As I mentioned earlier in this long post, the lack of jobs in general, and the absence of any passion for jobs I have seen has caused me to think more spiritually about my life. I know so many people who are in jobs they don’t like, but stay with them because “they pay well.” Having money to buy fancy toys may bring you happiness for awhile, but eventually the novelty of a new toy will wear off. I know it will because the man-made joys of cookies and toys were beautiful for awhile, but the novelty wore off as I matured. But the simple beauty of a whole bunch of people in a gym making full use of their God-given musical instruments, their voices, and singing a song that epitomizes the true meaning of Christmas which is Christ’s birth, that is the one element of Christmas joy that remains as magical as ever.

     I know that every moment of life is not meant to be bursting with joy, but I cannot help wonder if the fact that this song continues to overwhelm me with joy all these years later is a symbolic sign from the spirit that a prestigious title or great paycheck in a man-made corporation whose only goal is profit might be exciting for awhile. But like a simple song in a simple setting, it is the simple life with a career devoted to a higher purpose that will foster a life that is joyful overall because joyful moments created by God never fade.

‘Tis Better to Live an Uncensored Childhood

Well readers, last week I saw an article online about a small publisher which was editing the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to “meet the needs of today’s children.” I guess some parents have been frantically tearing out pages of children’s books because of the stanza about the pipe Santa held tight in his teeth, and the smoke that encircled his head like a wreath. Yes, parents are afraid that hearing these two lines in a fictional children’s poem will corrupt their children and they will grow up to be smokers.

     How fitting that I should see this article during Banned Books Week because while controversy over this poem didn’t get the media saturation that The Hunger Games and Harry Potter received, to me such altering of a classic is just as troubling as banning a book.

     ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was my absolute favorite poem as a child, and still is today. We have a Christmas CD that my mom purchased to support the Make a Wish foundation even before I was born, on which Rush Limbaugh recites the poem. (Yes, I know all about him and don’t condone his views, especially his recent commentary at all, but I put politics aside at Christmas because he does an amazing job with this classic). And guess what? Despite hearing the unabridged poem all my life, I have never touched a cigarette or pipe and have no plans to start. Maybe it could be argued that this poem is different for sighted children because when they get this poem from children’s books, they aren’t just hearing the words but also having them re-enforced by an illustration of Santa’s pipe. But I don’t think that makes a difference because my sighted peers who heard this poem as a child aren’t all smoking either. That is why even though I am the furthest thing from a parenting expert, I wish I could tell parents just from my experience as a recent child that the opportunity to live an uncensored childhood is among the best gifts my parents gave my siblings and me. The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t purposefully declare “our children will have an uncensored childhood!” or make a conscious point of exposing us to all kinds of influences. We simply lived our lives.

     If my parents or teenage siblings wanted to watch a movie or TV show with violence or profanity, I was never sent out of the room. Those “due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised” warnings meant nothing. When it came to profanity, my parents instilled in me from as young as I can remember that “these words are out there in the world but they are not nice words and you should never repeat them.” (I do find it unfair that my parents let my older siblings get away with a little swearing, but if I so much as say “dammit” when I stub my toe on something, they freak out. When I mentioned it to Mom once she laughed and admitted that she didn’t want her youngest precious angel to take up swearing, which I can understand. I’ll probably be that way with my youngest child, but that’s besides the point). The point is by being allowed to hear these words all my life, it wasn’t a big deal when I got in to the less innocent world of high school and college where I heard them right and left.

     Violent movies never scared me because I never had much of an imagination, so I knew the plots were fictional. But my parents even let me watch stories of real violence; Dateline murder mysteries, the local news, even America’s Most Wanted which occasionally mentioned cases of children kidnapped from their bedrooms or backyards and brutally murdered. These cases scared me the most, especially when John Walsh would say, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be under my bed, or lurking outside my window? I would wonder. Sure it may have been nice to grow up in blissful innocence, never hearing these stories, but I have heard that children sheltered from such stories grow up to be too trusting of the world, do foolish things like get in a car with a stranger and thus they are more likely to be victimized. But instead of turning off the program when I seemed troubled by it, they would use the opportunity to remind me that most people are good. There are just a few bad people out there. If I took basic precautions–never trust a stranger that tries to lure you with candy or a lost puppy; scream loud to attract attention if someone grabs you; never answer the door alone, etc.), it was statistically unlikely that anything would ever happen to me, and nothing ever did. I have heard experts say that children are innocent and delicate and shouldn’t be exposed to such things, but by being exposed to these things, I feel like I am safer. As my parents hoped, I believe that most people are good, but I have a healthy awareness and respect for the dangers of the world which keeps me from doing foolish things.

     Maybe I was unusually airheaded as a child, but somehow I really don’t think I was that unusual in the fact that as small children, you are often in your own little world of play and innocence where the last thing that occurs to you is to analyze poems and even songs you hear. Getting back to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for example, I completely overlooked the implications of Santa smoking a pipe. (As a matter of fact, I never even thought about them until reading that article last week). As a child, the visions of sugarplumbs and the child witnessing the arrival of Santa and his reindeer were all that I noticed. As an older child (young adult), I loved the poem for its fun rhyme and rhythm and the expressiveness of Limbaugh’s recitation. The same is true of many songs I loved as a child. In preschool, one of my absolute favorite songs was Reba MacEntire’s song Fancy. I loved the sound of Reba’s voice and just the beat and almost theatrical quality of the song that I would want Mom to play it over and over on our CD to the point that my older siblings told me when I was older that they longed to bash the CD player in with a hammer. Eventually, my obsession with this song waned and I even forgot about the song until the summer after sixth grade, the first summer I had my very own CD player in my bedroom. That was also the summer when a whole bunch of old CD’s that had been misplaced re-surfaced, including the once beloved Reba CD! Just for the nostalgia, I asked Mom to hand me the Reba CD so I could hear Fancy again. She didn’t have to tell me what track the song was. I recognized it instantly. Instantly, I remembered how much I loved the sound of the song, but the nostalgia was tainted by the fact that as an older child who knew more about the world and paid better attention to lyrics, it occurred to me that this song I loved so much as a preschooler was about a poor mother who spent every last penny she had on a fancy dress for her teenage daughter whom she turned out of the house, encouraging her to go in to prostitution! But you know what? My mom with her wisdom knew I wasn’t paying attention to the words, that even if I was, the adult ideas of the song would just glide right over my little head. (We were discussing this just the other day and she told me that if I had asked questions about the song, she would have explained it in an age appropriate way because it is a reality of the world we live in.) But she knew that while little children are generally oblivious to adult lyrics, they are very aware of how their parents react, and thus frantically rushing over to the CD player to skip over that track would have only gotten my curiosity up. “Why do you always skip that song Mommy?” I likely would have asked, backing her in to an unnecessary, awkward corner. She understood that children just play and live in their own little world, so if you just go about life and not frantically tear out pages, skip tracks on a CD, change a channel, shoo kids out of the room or yell “hey! little ears!” if a guest tells an inappropriate joke or something, children likely won’t even notice and no harm will be done. After all, how can you be corrupted by something you are not even paying attention to because you are too young to understand?

     Getting back to the article on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it occurred to me while reading it that just the previous weekend, I had another experience in which I had never really paid attention to a song I had heard a million times. My parents and I were in the car running an errand listening to the oldies station as usual when it dawned on me, “Whoa! Did that song just say I get high with a little help from my friends?”

“Yep!” they answered, “it was written in a different time, the Hippie era when many didn’t know or perhaps knew but didn’t care, about how harmful drugs were.”

     Of course, as an adult it was no longer necessary to approach subjects delicately, but what a perfect way to address a situation, one which any parent could use if their child did notice the lines about Santa’s smoking. They could just gently explain, “this poem was written long, long ago when people didn’t know that smoking was harmful to health.” This could also be a perfect opportunity for a rudimentary “just because you read about something in some poem or book doesn’t mean it’s right” discussion. If a parent isn’t interested in deep discussions, they could even just say that since Santa is a magical, immortal being, he can get away with smoking, but regular humans don’t have this power.

     I am already thinking about hoarding copies of this and other controversial classics in case this editing becomes the trend because I want my kids to have the privilege I enjoyed of an uncensored childhood. Because to be honest, I would rather risk my children taking up smoking when they grow up than raise them on censored poems and risk them growing up to accept without question a George Orwell type world where erasing and re-writing history “to suit the needs of people today” is the norm.

     But the risk is low of them growing up to take up smoking anyway for other reasons; education about the dangers most importantly; the fact that it is now banned in so many places; the cost of the habit–(I saw a Facebook status just today from a boy who decided to quit when he saw that with all the taxes, one pack of cigarettes now costs over $8)–and the positive example of non-smoking parents which as I said earlier, kids pay much more attention to than lines in a poem or song. And although I haven’t officially researched this, it seems as though people I know of who do smoke do so out of a natural college thrill of rebelling against parents, and a feeling of invincibility. I never was tempted to smoke because it smells disgusting to me, but I rebelled in other stupid ways as a college freshman–eating spectacularly unhealthy meals in the dining room, and walking to class on single-digit days with no coat on for instance–so while I don’t understand the appeal of smoking, I can understand the thrill of doing something your parents don’t condone and feeling invincible while doing it. I understand how out of love, parents would want to do everything in their power to keep their children from doing stupid things, especially since smoking is addictive and one cigarette in college quickly can become a lifetime habit. But the hard truth is, the natural desire of young adults to rebel against their parents is out of any parent’s control, and has nothing to do with Santa, so I predict that even if this censored poem takes hold, it will make absolutely no difference in smoking statistics.

     But more importantly, as I have said so many times already, it is what the parents do, not the media children are exposed to that matters. Reba’s song Fancy did not spark an interest in prostitution because by the time I understood the implications of the song, my parents had cemented values of honest work, Christian morals and self-respect. Despite hearing profanity at an early age, I don’t curse like a sailor–in fact I hardly curse at all, only when I stub my toe and my parents aren’t in earshot–because my parents have talked with my siblings and me about how people who curse on television go for the cheap laugh, but being funny or making a statement without using a stream of curse words takes more creativity and intelligence.

     I hear a lot about parents who are very strict about what their children are exposed to and think that in this way, they are teaching good values. But blocking any references to violence, profanity, prostitution, smoking or drug use also blocks teachable moments. An uncensored childhood and good values can go hand in hand, and in fact, I think that by taking advantage of these teachable moments and not trying to shelter me from the realities of the world we live in, my parents shaped my values more firmly.

I Witnessed History

Well readers, this past Saturday, I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream I have had since 2004, the first Presidential election that I paid attention to. I got to see a small piece of history through the experience of a campaign rally!

We have all seen them on television, and if you are passionate about one candidate or another, you may have even cheered or clapped along with the crowds as the candidate shouted words of inspiration on television as I have. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but ever since I started paying attention to these rallies, I longed to not just cheer along with a television crowd, but be in the crowd, to not just listen to a reporter trying to capture the experience, but experience a rally for myself. Of course, when there is something you really want to experience, the candidates would always come to town when I had school, and when I was off, the campaign rallies were too far away. My freshman year of college in 2008, John McCain held a rally just blocks from my college, and my mom had the audacity to attend the rally with my grandmothers, but insist that I go to class! If I were sighted, I might have fooled her and walked in the door of the building where I had class, waited until the car was gone and then walked to the rally where I would have blended in with the masses and she would have never known. It wasn’t high school anymore, so the school wouldn’t have contacted her or given me a detention. As it was, Gilbert and I didn’t know the route to the rally and I didn’t know of any friends who were going, so I went to class like a good student. But as I listened to the professor, it occurred to me that the 2012 campaign season would be in full swing the summer I graduated college. If the economy was still shaky then, I might even be able to enjoy a few months without a job. If this turned out to be the case, I vowed that 2012 would be the year to fulfill this dream.

Well, 2012 came in the blink of an eye, and I did graduate and the economy is still bad, so I still don’t have a job. Given that, last Monday September 17, Mom was trying to talk me in to going with her to Indiana for a family reunion on Saturday. I was a little reluctant, fearing that finding something gluten-free at a potluck-style family reunion would be a nightmare. When she promised we would get to Grandmas house in time to go to a grocery store and make gluten-free food, I was starting to cave. And then I found out that Barack Obama was coming to Milwaukee for a rally on Saturday. It was officially decided. Sorry Mom, but I have to go to that rally. I have waited years for this experience. Perhaps remembering how I envied her in 2008, she understood.

The rally was free and open to the public, but tickets were required. So after a career fair last Thursday morning, the kind of event when we would usually be tired and hungry and thus choose to go straight home, we bypassed the home exit on the freeway and made a special trip to one of four Organizing for America offices in our area to pick up two tickets. We had to fill out a form with our contact information to obtain the tickets, and as long as they had lured us in, the form asked if we would be interested in doing anything on a list of volunteer opportunities for Obama’s campaign, and Obama T-shirts and buttons were on display for purchase with a donation. Boy are politicians clever and opportunistic! We didn’t want to commit to volunteering, but I fell for the Obama button for a donation ploy. I had to have something to show off at the rally after all! Everyone else probably would too! So I got a Women for Obama button with a $1 donation.

Mom put the tickets on the little kitchen table when we got home so we would see them Saturday morning, and every time I would walk by that table, I would feel for the tickets to verify that they were still there, that they hadn’t been accidentally lost amidst other paperwork or gotten anything spilled on them and because I just couldn’t believe that the opportunity I had patiently waited eight years to experience was just two days away now and touching the tickets confirmed this was actually for real!

Last Friday I got a reminder call from a volunteer, as if I would forget to show up for such an opportunity. The volunteer said the doors to the park where the rally was to be held would open at 2:30 in the afternoon, so we should try to get there around then to get a better spot in line and get through security in time for the President. So on Saturday at around 1:30, sporting blue jeans, a white T-shirt, a red fleece jacket on which Mom helped me pin the button and a pair of good walking shoes, and with both of our tickets in my excited little hands, we headed for the rally.

Now I knew there would be a long line. This was the president of the United States after all, and not just any president but the first African-American president and an inspiring speaker. But when an organizer of the event spoke on the news Friday casually predicting “a couple thousand people”, I imagined a line that was blocks, rather than miles long. Dad had the car parked right at 2:30 and already when we took our place at the back of the line, Dad said we were a mile from the park. And as we stood in line, people were still coming in waves, until Dad told me that the line wound around buildings and extended all the way to the lakefront miles away.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to get in on time,” Dad confessed when he saw where we were in a line that didn’t budge for over an hour, “we’ll try to get in, but don’t be too disappointed. I think someone near us in line said they heard people who were closer to the gate had been there since 9:00 in the morning. I wouldn’t have had the patience to hold a place in line for that long, even if it was to see the president. But I will say it was the most pleasant, festive line I ever waited in. It was nothing like waiting in line to get on an amusement park ride, where everyone is in a tight single-file line with the hot sun beating down and little kids getting tired and upset. It was around 56 degrees, a cool Autumn afternoon. I think it was a pretty cloudy day too. I did feel the sun occasionally, but it wasn’t oppressive at all. Since the line didn’t move very fast, people could step out of the line and sit in the grass or on a bench and then get up when the line moved. Since I was running on adrenaline, and since I am used to standing for insane lengths of time from when I was in choirs, I could have stood the whole time. But Dad insisted that I should be one of the people sitting down because if we managed to get in to the rally, it would likely be standing room only so I should pace myself.

Surprisingly, at least where I was, I didn’t hear any protesters, and Dad didn’t see any protest signs either. Perhaps in the aftermath of last year’s Capital chaos in Madison, police have been cracking down, so protesters decided to stay home. But at different times, random people would come around selling Obama merchandise. “Obama buttons! Obama buttons! 2 for $5!” or “T-shirts for $10! Others are charging $15!” When the line progressed a little further, someone was even selling Obama underwear! I’m not kidding!

Just behind us was a mother and her little boy who ran around and played a little while we waited, although the mother basically said to be careful because if he got hurt, they weren’t leaving. He complained a little about the long wait, but overall was a great sport, behaving much better than I would have at his age. On the one hand, he seemed a little young to be at an event like this, but he seemed old enough that he would remember the event and while he may not appreciate it now, when he grows up he will understand that he got to witness history.

After over an hour in which time the line hardly budged, all of the sudden it was moving fast and we pretty much walked without stopping until we reached security. Since it was the President, it was airport style security where we had to empty our pockets of metal, throw away any liquids, and even remove our Obama buttons. To my relief though, we did not have to take off our shoes!

And then at about 5:00, we were in the gate! Dad was right. By the time we got in, all of the seats were filled and we were standing crammed like sardines ten rows back. The outdoor venue where this rally was held is a popular venue for summer festivals. I’m not a fan of outdoor concerts so I had never been to this venue, but my dad had and said it wasn’t very big. Someone else said it seated around 5,000 people, but the next day, I read a recounting of the event from a blogger who reported there were 18,000 people there. At first I thought that whoever organized this rally seriously underestimated Obama’s popularity, until Dad explained the politics of perception to me. Organizers of rallies like this intentionally use smaller venues to create an overflow crowd because if the event was hosted in a big venue and there were empty seats, it would look bad.

My dad had to stand on his tiptoes to see because there were tall people standing in front of us and I had to strain to hear the speakers because people around us were talking, but we were there! When a former Democratic Senator, a woman running for senate and a union firefighter gave speeches, the crowd seemed enthusiastic but relatively subdued. But when the president of the United States stepped on to the stage, that all changed. The audience erupted in deafening cheers, mirroring the spirit of the rallies I had seen on television. And if you thought he could give a rousing, inspiring speech on television, they are ten times as rousing when you hear them in person! It’s one thing to hear a crowd “boo!” on television when Obama talks about Romney’s vision for the country. It’s quite another to be in the booing crowd and then hear him say “don’t boo! VOTE!” From then on, every time Obama said “Don’t boo!” the crowd would shout “VOTE!” After awhile this cheering and booing gets boring when you have to listen to it from the other side of the television screen. As a passive television viewer, I have accused these crowds of being silly and overly dramatic. I admit to fantasizing about getting “good seats,” or maybe even having the opportunity to shake the president’s hand, so I was a little disappointed about how far back we were, fearing that the experience would be no different than if I had watched it on television. In fact, Dad and I probably could have seen and heard the president better on television. But as soon as the whole venue exploded in cheers, I realized that the back of a live audience is still part of a live audience through which energy and emotions spread like wildfire. And no matter how far away we were in the venue, if you put it in to perspective, you realize you are still closer to the president than many will ever have the opportunity to be, making the long line well worth the trouble.

Two favorite lines from this rally that were re-played by reporters and which I liked too:

“We are not Bears fans first or Packers fans first. We are Americans first.” I don’t care about football, but it is common knowledge that Obama is a Bears fan. It made me think how nice it would be if a few extremely partisan bullheaded politicians on both sides were listening to this speech and took a hint, perhaps taking it a step further and changing the words in their head to “we are not democrats first or republicans first. We are Americans first.”

“I don’t see a lot of victims here today. I see hardworking Wisconsinites.” Alright, politicians are human and since even I, an average person feel terrible when I have occasionally said things that got misinterpreted, I cannot imagine how much worse politicians must feel when their every word is scrutinized across the country. Unfortunately, I have the sneaking suspicion–based on the fact that Mitt Romney defended that statement last week rather than apologizing for how it was interpreted–that he was not misinterpreted. Of course there probably are a few people out there who don’t have any desire to pull their weight and expect the government to take care of them when they are perfectly capable of working. But I believe that people are basically good and therefore I am sure that 46.99% of them are hardworking Americans who simply cannot find jobs that pay enough to provide for their families, let alone pay taxes. Or perhaps they desperately want to work but cannot find jobs at all because so many companies were encouraged to outsource jobs to China with tax breaks under the republican leadership of George W. Bush? The thought of having a president so excessively wealthy he is out of touch with this reality scares me.

But the most thrilling moment of the rally to me was when Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It started with just a few people toward the front, but within seconds, it reached the back of the venue. “USA! USA! USA!” Despite all that is wrong with our country, it is amazing to see such contagious patriotism is still alive. If any Obama opponents hidden in the audience weren’t woken up by the “we are not Bears fans or Packers fans first. We are Americans first” comment, maybe this swell of patriotism got their attention. No matter who is president, we are Americans first and we should all want terrorists brought to justice and work together to secure a bright future for our country.

I try to keep political preferences off my blog as much as possible because I want to express myself, but I am not the kind of blogger who wishes to alienate anyone or ignite a fight in the comments. But I am sure some of you noticed my little jab at the republican party earlier. So while I would never go as far as buying Obama underwear, I admit that this election, I am for Obama all the way. I don’t worship Obama as if he will save the world, nor do I believe that republicans are evil. Both candidates are mere imperfect humans. After the Republican convention, I was appalled to hear that Mitt Romney’s campaign was supported by donors whose identities were top-secret, only to find out a week later after the democratic convention that Obama had secret donors too. And my internship with my state’s republican governor last summer woke me up to the corrupt behavior of unions which I admire republicans for trying to end.

I would not rule out someday voting for a republican if he/she was intelligent, well-spoken, had reasonable and moderate views and was specific about their plans. But I had a bad feeling about John McCain, and I have an even worse feeling about Mitt Romney. As an observant journalist, I have noticed that every time a reporter asks Mitt Romney a tough question, he dodges it with a blatantly scripted statement, whereas Obama answers tough questions more directly. Mitt Romney seems to pander to his party, promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whereas Obama isn’t afraid to do something politically unpopular. I’m sure the transition toward more government control of healthcare won’t be perfectly smooth, but something had to be done to hold insurance companies accountable for unethical behavior like denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (like me once I can no longer be covered by my parents). Mitt Romney said he would make sure people with pre-existing conditions are covered, but since he won’t be specific, I worry he is just saying that to lull people in to thinking he will be moderate, and then once elected, he will return us to the status quo where insurance companies are in charge. And as far as republican scare tactics like telling us this will mean “socialized medicine”, we already have socialized medicine. Everybody who comes to the emergency room is cared for whether they are ensured or not, but the cost of caring for people who won’t pay for insurance because they never thought they would get sick is passed on to those with insurance making their healthcare costs higher. The provision of the Affordable Care Act which requires everyone to have insurance or pay a penalty will simply distribute healthcare costs more fairly. I am also aware that Romney passed a very similar Universal Healthcare plan as governor of Massachusetts, making me wonder if the one and only reason he is vowing to repeal it is because a democrat passed it.

My point in saying all this is that at least when it comes to this dream come true, as cliche as it sounds, patience is bitter but its fruit really is sweet. Sure the immature student in me would have loved to play hooky to see a campaign rally so close to my college. But John McCain lost the election of 2008 and was quickly forgotten by the media, and likely would have been forgotten by me too, especially since he wasn’t a candidate I was fond of. I would have just been going to the rally to experience a rally. But having the opportunity to experience a rally for the president of the United States, and realize that I didn’t just experience a rally but was inspired by it, made this an experience I will never forget.

I’m Dreaming of a Good Pizza, Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

In the old days before Celiac, there was at least one night every week or two when it was a long day of school or work and we had no energy left to cook an involved dinner, a day when someone was feeling under the weather and needed quick easy comfort food, or nights when we just wanted a yummy dinner that was befitting of a Friday or Saturday movie night. In all of these cases, someone would say, “let’s get a pizza.”

     My parents and I liked to go to a sit-down restaurant for pizza occasionally, and occasionally we would carry out pizza from Pizza Hut or Rosati’s. But as we matured and became (slightly) more health conscious, we became fans of the take-and-bake revolution. When we baked pizzas, not only were they fresher and hotter. They also seemed less greasy. Come to think of it, that was around the time that a Papa Murphy’s opened up just five minutes from our house.

     It wasn’t long before we had the cooking instructions for Papa Murphy’s pizza memorized, so when Mom or Dad called to indicate they were on their way home from work and almost to Papa Murphy’s, whoever was home would set the oven to preheat. If it was a weekend and we were all home, someone would set the oven before we left. (We have one of the new energy efficient ovens that takes forever to be ready, but we had the timing for Papa Murphy’s down like clockwork. If we preheated the oven before we left, or when Mom or Dad was close to Papa Murphy’s, we could hear the “Beep beep beep” announcement from the oven that it was ready as soon as we walked in the door with the pizza.

     Unless there was an irresistible special pizza we had to try, or a silly, cute novelty like the thick-crusted pizza designed to look like a Jack-o-lantern for Halloween, we would almost always get a family size delite pizza (with Papa Murphy’s signature cracker-thin crust). Usually, we ordered it with canadian bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. If Dad found a coupon that was only good for one or two toppings, he would quickly slice up our own vegetables and add them to the pizza. This was delicious too. Occasionally, we also enjoyed trying something unusual like the chicken parmesan delite or chicken artichoke bacon delite.

     The name sure suited these pizzas well. Just carrying them in to the house when they were still a giant cold paper plate of uncooked dough and toppings wrapped in saran wrap was a delight. When we got the fully loaded pizza, I swear that plate weighed five pounds, and it was the kind of pizza you had to carry cradled in the flat palms of both hands or else the plate would buckle under the weight of all the deliciousness it was carrying.

     It only got more delightful from there. In the few minutes when the pizza smelled wonderful but wasn’t quite done yet, I would be salivating like a dog. When Mom or Dad pulled the pizza out of the oven and placed it in the center of the table, those seated at the table would go “ah!” the same expression of contentment as when a cool breeze comes through an open window. Each slice felt like eating a delicious work of art too. They were the kind of slices that fit perfectly on a dinner plate. The crust of each triangular slice fanned out like wings across the whole width of the plate, and each slice also had to be cradled in both hands while being eaten because the thin crust would buckle under the weight of all the delightful toppings. From the crust that actually crunched like a cracker, to the crispy yet moist center where the cheese stretched with every bite and the tomato sauce oozed over the edge onto my face, each slice was a delight from start to finish, and there was always enough for us each to have two or three. In the early days, we would just get a 14-inch large pizza or get the 16-inch family size and have leftovers. But as time went on, we came to love the pizzas so much that we didn’t bother saving leftovers and would go ahead and eat ourselves in to a delightful stupor. With each pizza costing under $10 for my parents, the price was delightful too. What a perfect pairing of gluten and glutton that was!

     We were once loyal customers of Papa Murphy’s with a punch card that rewarded us with a free pizza when it was full, but last weekend, we had to accept reality and give our punch cards to my brother when he came home to visit. Papa Murphy’s does not have gluten-free pizzas and the gluten-free pizzas we have had just aren’t the same.

     On Friday July 20, just two days after my Celiac diagnosis, I was already hit with a pizza craving.

     “We can still have pizza,” my mom said, “we’ll just make it ourselves.” That night, she rolled out two pizza crusts from a Bob’s Red Mill kit. We all agreed it was too thick, doughy and dry. A couple weeks later, we tried putting toppings on pre-made crusts. I think they were from Schar. They were better in that they were thinner than Bob’s Red Mill, but still they seemed dry and doughy to me. The same was true of pizza I had at three local places that offer gluten-free pizza.

     I later found out that these pizza places don’t handcraft a gluten-free crust but throw their toppings on gluten-free crusts from companies like Schar as well. I don’t fault these restaurants for doing this. At this point in time at least, the Celiac population is still relatively small, so I suppose it would be impractical for these businesses to invest in the training and materials needed to make a gluten-free crust from scratch, and I suppose a hand-crafted crust would raise the risk of accidental cross-contamination. I liken it to the availability of Braille menus at restaurants. Since the blind population is also very small, very few restaurants offer braille menus, but when a restaurant does have one, I get a warm fuzzy feeling. This restaurant thought of people with special needs like me! I know I could read the menu online and decide on what to order before leaving home, but it is so exciting to be able to page through a menu with the rest of the family and read mouth-watering descriptions of their dishes rather than sitting with nothing to do while everyone else looks over the print menu. I get flustered when on occasion, I will place my order only to find out that the braille menu is out of date and the restaurant doesn’t offer that dish anymore. But once I recover and find something else, I don’t hold any hard feelings toward the restaurant. Ideally, it would be nice if they kept the braille menu up to date, but the blind population is so small I can understand how a restaurant just wouldn’t think of it, or maybe found it too impractical and expensive to update braille menus all the time for such a small market. It’s the thought that counts. Since a lot of places, including good old Papa Murphy’s, still don’t offer gluten-free options, I will gladly patronize pizza places that do have gluten-free options even if they aren’t spectacular, handcrafted creations because they thought of people with special needs like me! I would much rather eat a less than ideal pizza than live a life where I had to eat dinner at home before going to dinner with family or friends because restaurants didn’t have anything safe for people with Celiac to enjoy. Some people with Celiac have told me this was often the story of life even just five years ago.

     To be fair, there is still one more local pizza place yet to try, Transfer Pizzeria, which some friends I made in a celiac support group said is the best. It is kind of far from where we live so it hasn’t been convenient for us to get there yet, but I cannot wait to try it, especially when I found out that they get their crusts from Molly’s Gluten-free Bakery, a locally popular bakery about twenty minutes from our house that also supplies gluten-free items to stores and restaurants in our area. Their sandwich bread was the best I have had since going gluten-free, and their mint brownies are heavenly too, so I have high hopes for their pizza crusts. If we like the pizza we get at Transfer, we could go to Molly’s and buy their crusts to fill with our own toppings.

     We also have yet to test the truth of the advertising on a kit for Hodgson’s Mill pizza crusts that claims they come out light and crispy. We have a pizza crust recipe on a box of Betty Crocker gluten-free Bisquick we haven’t tried either, and I have high hopes for this crust too because it made the best banana bread I have ever had, including my life before Celiac, and it makes for excellent dipping batter that I never would have guessed was gluten-free. This has caused my parents and I to suspect that while many gluten-free product lines clearly taste gluten-free and cater to people who want to give up gluten for weight loss or a desire to go organic, Betty Crocker’s products must have been scientifically tested (and probably infused with chemicals, but oh well), to make them appealing to Celiacs and their families who are going gluten-free because they have to.

     I have an aunt who doesn’t have Celiac but goes gluten-free most of the time because she is sensitive to it. She has been a wonderful trail blazer giving Mom and I advice. She prefers thin pizza crusts too and told my mom to try rolling the pizza dough out on parchment paper instead of using a greased pan as the directions for these kits say. Mom found that when using the greased pan, she couldn’t get the dough thin because when she rolled it out, it would just spring back like a rubber band. But my aunt said this doesn’t happen with parchment paper so she can roll the dough thinner that way. And once the family comes to a consensus on the best type of flour for a gluten-free pizza crust, she wants to start making them from scratch.

     For now when we want a quick easy pizza, we turn to Udi’s. My parents bought two Udi’s frozen pizzas, an uncured pepperoni pizza, and a four-cheese pizza. Of course these pizzas lacked the delightful freshness and flavor of a fully loaded Papa Murphy’s pizza, but the crust crunched like a cracker! That’s a wonderful start!

     Although less important in the grand scheme of things, I look forward to the day when we–(or Papa Murphy’s? If you are an owner or CEO for Papa Murphy’s and you found this blog, I urge you to think about it)–get the confidence to make pizza crusts from scratch to resolve another disappointment our family has experienced with gluten-free pizza crusts. They don’t come in family size. The standard seems to be 12-inch crusts, the equivalent of a medium size pizza at Papa Murphy’s (and more expensive than the Papa Murphy’s family size too). This is just not enough for our family of big eaters. Of course we can and do make two pizzas which actually amounts to more pizza than the family size as two 12-inch pizzas means we can now indulge in 24 inches of pizza! But our oven can only cook one pizza at a time, so while we start on the first pizza, someone has to check the progress of the second one in the oven. And the presentation just isn’t the same either. We still go “Ah!” as each pizza is put on the table because it still smells wonderful, but 12-inch pizzas don’t cut beautiful masterpieces of slices that spread the entire width of a dinner plate. I can hold gluten-free pizza slices in one hand like a football, and even though we get more pizza, it seems like less because we have started using smaller plates. These skinny slices would look pitiful on a dinner plate. I don’t know why companies make gluten-free pizza crusts so small. Maybe it has something to do with the chemistry of gluten-free dough and the pizza may not hold together if it is too big, or more likely, most gluten-free clientele probably aren’t as gluttonous as I am. But whatever the reason, I have been dreaming of the day when I can enjoy the perfect gluten-free, family size pizza on a cracker-thin pizza crust that would make pizza nights a delite once again.

Remembering Trusty Rusty

I never could understand people who hate owning stuff once it gets old. I know someone for example who bought a beautiful fancy car, drove it for a few years and loved it, but then traded it in. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the car. This person just wanted it off his/her hands before it got old and things started going wrong with it, decreasing its value. It’s a free country, so I have nothing against this person’s decision. But to me, there is a certain special joy in owning something old. I am thinking about this in light of this past weekend when we traded in the minivan we drove for seven years.

     Except for some squeaking and rattling, it drove beautifully. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Mom and I took a trip to Virginia Beach with it. Dad wanted us to fly, fearing that our old car would give out on some treacherous mountain road in West Virginia, but Mom and I much prefer the pleasures of the open road over the inconveniences of airport security, luggage limits and flight delays, not to mention the outrageous costs of airfare and hidden fees that add up these days. There was a little more stress than we anticipated. When we drove through West Virginia, it was raining so hard that at one point, a state trooper was directing cars because part of the road had washed away and if you weren’t familiar with the area, you could drive right over the cliff! But that had nothing to do with the car. The car never once let us down!

     Because of this, part of us thought it would be fun to see how many more miles we could squeeze out of it, but the last time Mom went to get tires, she was told by the mechanic that this was the last time he would recommend putting it on the lift because the underbody had rusted. And on our trip to Virginia, I opened the glove box to get something for my mom and noticed that everything was wet. My sister’s husband said it was likely because some firewall that protects the glove box had also rusted. It was starting to get pretty squeaky and rattly too, so we realized it wouldn’t be too much longer before repairs would cost more than the car was worth. But because of the car’s amazing reliability for its age, even when we did some pretty rugged driving, my parents and I dubbed that car Trusty Rusty.

     Just like my parents, I would never buy a used car (or any other expensive appliance in my case). It is fun to experience appliances that are shiny and new after all, and of course when you buy a used item, you could be buying someone else’s problems too. But when your brand-new appliance gets old, I love how our family savors the joy of driving the old car until it is no longer practical, rather than rushing out to buy a new one.

     Sure, it is fun to touch the clean, shiny unblemished finish of a new car, but on the other hand, you love its shininess so much you cannot relax in it. You feel like you shouldn’t park too close to another car whose driver might fling the door open and put the first ding on the new car. With every new car, we have found ourselves hesitant to eat or drink in it and risk spilling something and putting that first stain in the shiny new carpet or seats. My parents didn’t want Gilbert to ride in our new minivan until they bought a pad for the floor that can be easily washed so that maybe the car won’t smell like him, at least for awhile. But when the car gets to be a Trusty Rusty, you relax and park anywhere. Once it’s starting to rust, a ding is no big deal. And once the car is rusted and dinged on the outside, a little spilled beverage or dog puke incident on the inside is no big deal either.

     Sure, it is fun to play with new features that weren’t available when you bought your last car. But once your car becomes a Trusty Rusty, you forget the frustration of trying to read the manual and figure out how the new features work. On Saturday for example, I took my first spin in our new minivan to the farmer’s market. All was going great until we got to the market, I opened my newfangled automatic door to get out, but when I pushed the button to close it, it just beeped at me and wouldn’t close. So for what seemed like forever, we sat in the car combing the manual, finally figuring out that for safety, it won’t respond if two people are pushing the button at the same time. At the same time I was pushing the button on my door, Dad was pushing it remotely from the front seat. When we couldn’t figure out how to cancel and start over, we collectively sighed and closed it manually, the Trusty Rusty way we had been doing our whole life. Sometimes I think driving around with a Trusty Rusty is less embarrassing than the first few days of a new car when we maybe could have been done buying our produce in the time it took us to figure out how to close the automatic door! But the good new is, since we parked far away from other cars, it is likely no one noticed.

     I love that distinctive new car smell, and it is fun to break in the new seats. But I am never sad when the seats are broken in and the car starts to smell like us; a mingling of Gilbert, and the meals we eventually give in and enjoy on that first roadtrip. When the seats feel unfamiliar and the car hasn’t smelled like us yet, I have always had a strange feeling like I am riding in someone else’s car. But by the time that car becomes a Trusty Rusty, it smells and feels like home.

     It is comforting to drive a car with the latest and greatest safety features, and while there hasn’t been much difference between Trusty Rusty and our new car in that regard, I remember how fun it was when I was younger and we lived on the edge for a while with a not-quite-as-trusty, and probably much rustier old car.

     In 1999 when my grandpa’s health had been failing for awhile and he could not drive anymore, Grandma gave us an old car of his. I think it was a 1984 Eagle, but our family affectionately referred to it as the Ghetto Cruiser. Sorry for the lack of political correctness, but the name was fitting. I don’t know what the car looked like of course, but it must have been pretty embarrassing since my teenage siblings forbid Dad to pick them up from extra curricular activities in it. And Dad said he never feared for his safety driving through bad neighborhoods in it because it blended right in. If by some strange chance someone stole it, it would not have been a hardship because in its condition, it wasn’t worth much.

     On the inside, I guess it was trusty in that it was reliable. I don’t ever remember hearing that it died on the side of the road. But I remember finding it strange when it was time to drive it back with us from Indiana, but both parents insisted I ride home with Mom in the minivan rather than with Dad in the new-to-me car. In fact now that I think about it, I only remember riding in it on short trips to school or the grocery store. I later learned there was a reason for that. I don’t understand car mechanics, but there was something wrong with it where if the car was driven too fast, it would bounce all over the road and it was all Dad could do to control it. He didn’t mind living on the edge and driving it on the freeway to work every day, or by himself to Indiana and back, but it wasn’t a risk he was comfortable taking with his precious children in the back.

     For awhile, Dad was even reluctant to allow Mom to drive it. Eventually, Mom convinced Dad she could handle it and he gave in and let her drive it a little bit. But I will never forget how before handing over the keys, Dad gave Mom a firm warning on the bouncing issue, and the importance of using pliers to turn on the windshield wipers, or else the car could catch fire!

     A couple years later, my parents decided that while the car had served us well as a cheap means of transportation across the city to work for Dad, they were getting tired of putting their lives at risk, so Dad sold it to a work buddy for $500 and bought an inexpensive, safe new car. But I don’t know if it was because I am blind and had no idea how awful the car looked, or just the fact that when you are little, Daddy is cool no matter what he drives, but I loved the distinctive old smell and feel of that car. Of course, being blind means I will never need to buy a car, but the nostalgia and laughs that still come to mind when I think of that car make me think that if I were sighted, I would be the kind of person that would get a thrill out of buying a brand-new car or procuring an old car from a trusted family member, and proudly driving it for twenty years to ghetto cruiser condition and beyond.

To the extent my parents put up with it, I already do this in a figurative sense with other things. I will continue to wear gym shoes, even when they have holes forming in the soles and are giving my feet blisters, until my parents notice and drag me kicking and screaming to the shoe store. Just like with the seats in a new car, I feel like I am wearing shoes meant for someone else until I break them in. Unlike most people, I have always brushed my teeth with my mouth closed. (Maybe I was traumatized from gagging on toothpaste that slid to the back of my throat or something when I was really little.) Anyway, this quirk means that as it is, my toothbrushes get worn out faster than they do for normal people. With my mouth closed, I cannot help chewing on the bristles until they are all bent. But bent bristles never bothered me. I only get a new toothbrush when Mom happens to see it on the counter if I forget to put it away and says “You need a new toothbrush,” as she simultaneously chucks it in to the garbage can, allowing no opportunities for argument. That new toothbrush never feels right the first week or two.

I am still running JAWS 9.0–I think the rest of the blind world is up to version 13 now–and an outdated version of internet explorer on what people these days would call a Trusty Rusty four-year-old computer. I often get pop-up alerts that I would have a better web experience if I upgraded my browser, and some sites I cannot access at all. But I don’t want to upgrade! For one thing, the few times I have attempted upgrades, the upgrade process never went smoothly. I have tried several times to upgrade my brailleNote from keysoft 9.0 to version 9.1 and 9.2, but every time, I am told the installation failed, despite doing EXACTLY what the directions said! The last time I attempted and failed last Sunday, I decided I am not wasting another minute of my life on something that always ends in defeat and frustration. Some of the features available with the upgrade would be awesome, I admit. Supposedly, Keysoft 9.1 could recognize files with the .docx extension and version 9.2 can convert PDF files. It sure would be wonderful to have these features on my BrailleNote rather than having to use JAWS to read these files. But unless I happen to meet someone with a magic touch who can do the upgrade successfully, I would rather be stuck in 2003 with .doc files than waste any more time being frustrated. Who really needs the newfangled features anyway when the old ones work just fine? And with my luck being so bad just upgrading my simple blind-friendly BrailleNote, there is no way I am attempting an upgrade on the much more complex desktop computer. And don’t even get me started on how much I hate Windows 7 which my college upgraded to my senior year. Maybe it has some cool features for sighted people, but for me, it made processes that were once simple, such as opening e-mail attachments and saving documents, much more complicated. Every time I had to work on an assignment at school, I came home with a renewed commitment to take extra good care of my Trusty Rusty, easy-to-use Windows XP, so I can put off upgrading as long as possible.

     But the best example of my loyalty to old appliances is my first treadmill. In eighth grade, I wasn’t very diligent about healthy eating, but I was at least trying to take better care of myself by exercising more regularly. When my parents noticed me doing jumping jacks or marching in place every day, they got me an inexpensive treadmill for Christmas which I loved.

One day the summer after my sophomore year, the part of the emergency stop pin that hooks to me broke. My parents and I had no idea if or how it could be replaced. Mom thought about improvising with duct tape, but I assured her I would be careful and that this wouldn’t be necessary. I kept my word and never once fell. Then one day during my junior year of college, my dad came down to the basement to do something else and came up concerned because he saw the treadmill belt slowly moving even though I wasn’t on it. This wasn’t news to me though. It had been doing that for awhile. I don’t remember exactly when, but one day I remember finishing my workout, unplugging the other end of the pin (there was an actual stop button too, but on that treadmill the pin was easier and safer for me to find), taking my shoes off and then casually plugging the pin back in for the next day as I always had. With my workout done, my guard was down and I wasn’t holding on when the motor started humming and the belt started moving slowly. Fortunately I have excellent reflexes and I grabbed the handle before I fell. I knew if I told my parents that in addition to the broken safety pin, the treadmill had started moving when it wasn’t supposed to be, they would freak out and I didn’t want to get rid of a treadmill that was just starting to have a few quirks but “drove” just fine. So I just quietly adapted. Instead of plugging the pin in to have it ready for the next day right away, I would either drape it over the handle, or hold the pin while I took my shoes off and then plug it back in once I was safely off the treadmill. Either way, I would make sure that at least one hand was holding on to a handlebar at all times until both feet were safely off the treadmill.

On the days I draped it over the handle, I would have to remember to be careful the next day because the belt would sometimes, but not always, jerk to life before I set a speed. Even though the speed lever was on zero, I was always able to stop the belt by calmly pulling down on the lever. Since it didn’t happen every day, the start of each treadmill walk was suspenseful. On the days when the motor started humming before I was ready, I would just hold on tight and pray, then laugh about how much fun unpredictable old appliances are once I was safely walking.

Once Dad found out the treadmill was doing that, he went treadmill shopping right away and both parents gave me a firm “be careful!” as I headed downstairs to work out on the old treadmill until the new one could be delivered.

I have had my “new” treadmill, complete with a new intact safety pin for a year and a half. I don’t mourn the old treadmill because for one thing, I love the new features of this one like the ability to set an incline for even better workouts, and nice big blind-friendly buttons for setting speed so I know exactly what speed I am walking. (If Mom or Dad set my speed on the old treadmill, they could see the speed the lever was set to on a print display, but when I set it myself, it was less scientific. I would just gently push the lever up until I liked the pace.) But more importantly, I have had it long enough that it feels like home now, and it won’t be long until the minivan will too. And the way the years seem to fly by, it won’t be long before my family and I will get to relish the joys and advantages of owning a Trusty Rusty once again.