Saturday, January 24, 2015

Running in Circles

This week, twice, I have had the pleasure of an exquisite experience: running laps with my oldest son.

The Boy and Little Bear are taking part in the Steel Kids Marathon, which is a Pittsburgh schools thing. Basically, they have to run 25 miles between January 1 and the Pittsburgh marathon in April. They run the last 1.2 miles the day of the marathon, and everybody makes a big fuss at the end. There are t-shots, prizes, and games and such. It's a wonderful, positive experience.

Last year was not the most positive experience. It was supposed to be a Mom and The Boy bonding thing, where they would go to the JCC to run or to the Saturday morning thing to run together, just the two of them. But, she then got hired on as a cantorial soloist for her temple, which meant that Saturday mornings were out. She would occasionally take him during the week, but it took a crash sequence of running at the end of March to catch him up enough to finish the entire marathon.

Plus, the day of the marathon, he had a complete and epic meltdown. He was screaming and crying all the way through to the end of the run. Combine that with bringing Little Bear along with, and it wasn't a great experience.

This year, we resolved for it to be different. Since multiple children are now in school, multiple children participated. We talked about how to run distances: take a medium speed and hold yourself back. That way, you can run for much, much longer than just setting off and running as fast as you can.

Thus, my wonderful moment: going for a nice run with my son. We just ran. We'd race each other for a bit, every once in a while. We'd talk a little bit, but we mostly just ran for the mile. It was very blissful for me.

I've tried to run with Little Bear, but he's tough. He's competitive. He wants to beat you. He'll run with me for short distances, then he remembers who he is and has to be ahead of me.

It's caused some issues when we all run. If I let the two start the mile at the same time, inevitably one breaks down crying by lap three, which means twelve laps of me pushing and prodding them to finish. Usually, that's Little Bear. The Boy is two years older than he is, which is a lot of development and muscle time.

Now, I send one of the kids to get about three quarters of a lap ahead before I send the other one. That way, they're both equally unhappy, when they're not the one ahead. Whatever.

They're at 9.91 miles right now. The odd number is because the indoor track at the JCC requires 15 laps per mile, which means some weird things if they decide to do 16 laps or something like that. They'll cross the ten mile barrier tomorrow, which will be celebrate by donuts.

It's nice to be able to run with my sons. I enjoy it.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Collision of Galaxies

Tonight, I showed The Boy a cool little story (on a photographic story application called Storehouse) about the Andromeda Galaxy. It had recent pictures from the Hubble showing the millions of stars. It also had a scientist's hypothesis that, in four billion years, the Andromeda Galaxy and our Galaxy would pass through each other. I figured that he had been into space stuff lately and would think this cool.

Instead, it triggered an episode of existential angst. He came to the conclusion that, in four billion years, he would be dead and not able to see that stuff of which I spoke. I had a hard time dealing with that one, mostly because the time span of four billion years is a little bit outside of our comprehension. Four billion years ago, the earth wasn't a thing, and life wasn't life. In four billion years, we won't exist as a species - or, if we do, we'll be so changed and evolved that we won't recognize ourselves.

In an hour, it worked its way through his psyche and emerged as a more common "I don't want to die, someone might shoot me," set of fears. That, I can help. I gave reassurances and reminders that I've been so far successful in keeping him safe, and I reminded him that Daddy rules in all things, including protection. I gave a few extra snuggles, and he drifted off to sleep. I hope he was comforted.


Grandma fell while she was cleaning her room last week, leading to a minor fracture of a leg bone. I mean, as minor as a fracture can actually be. The important bit is, she will be okay and this should have no lasting damage. But, she's on crutches and in a brace.

On Friday, at temple, we were waiting in the preschool room for services to start. The Baby used some toys to make some "metal legs" for himself, so he could be just like Grandma. It was very cute.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Remembering Michael

Obituary of Michael Whitcombe

He was the right teacher, in the right place, at the right time, when I most needed somebody to guide me and to support me. Literally, everything important in my life exists because I met this man and studied saxophone with him for two glorious, wonderful years. My teacher and my mentor passed away, and I'm mourning for him. Michael Whitcombe taught me saxophone - and so much more - from September 1995 until June 1997, at Rutgers University. That was my senior year and my fifth year at college.

To say that I had had a rough time in my first three years would be an understatement. I was studying a discipline - classical saxophone - that was basically unknown at Rutgers at the time, with only one other person in that major before me. I was directionless; worse, I did not know what questions I needed to ask. My teacher before Michael was not the right personality for what I needed. I had been put on artistic probation twice, thrown out of the performance program, and was struggling with my direction in life in general. I was on my last legs as a music education student, and I was searching for any kind of answers or guidance.

When Michael was hired to teach the saxophone students (classical, not the jazz guys), my life instantly changed direction. He helped me find focus and guided me towards the answers I was seeking. He showed me that there was an amazing world of music out there, once you left the shadow of central New Jersey, and he showed me how to access it.

He helped fix my sound. He taught me how to practice. He showed me where to find saxophone recordings. This was before the internet was The Internet, and you had to know where to search. I found out about the record stores in New York City that carried classical saxophone, and the music stores in New York City and Iowa City (don't ask) that carried classical saxophone music, and about great saxophone quartets (like the PRISM Quartet), and about modern music (post-1980), and about the wondrous Mecca of saxophone called the University of Michigan, with Donald J. Sinta, the master, presiding.

I had a Purpose. I was practicing 10-12 hours per day, and I was happier than I had ever been.

I'm fairly sure (but was never able to confirm) that the biggest reason I made it into the University of Michigan as a graduate student was because he called Mr. Sinta and told him about my drive and my desire to play - a diamond in the (very) rough. But, a year and a half after I met Michael, I was accepted into the University of Michigan School of Music to study saxophone performance.

Without Michael, I don't go to Michigan. I don't learn about music and life from Don Sinta and Marianne Ploger. I don't meet my wife, get married, and have these three wonderful boys and beautiful house in Pittsburgh. I don't learn the musical lessons I need to learn to become the barbershopper, director, and teacher that I've become.

Even my social interactions are influenced by him: his email address was "michaelsax(at)," and I have used that formula of email address ever since. My Facebook page address, my YouTube channel, all have my first name and "sax" afterwards. To show his influence, even my wife's email address is her initials and "bass" at the end, in the same formula.

I've been blessed through my life with wonderful, wonderful teachers. When Paul Larsen passes, or Michael Tomczak, or Donald Sinta, or Marianne Ploger, or William Berz, or James Tapia, or any one of a few dozen teachers that I could name, I'm sure I'm mourn similarly. But, Michael, unlike any of them, was exactly the right person at exactly the right time in exactly the right place. My life is utterly and completely altered because of him.

The worst part about this whole thing was that he passed away two years ago, in February of 2013, and that makes my mourning somewhat more difficult. Not that I would have been able to attend his funeral, but I could possibly have gotten a nice note to his partner about how much Michael has meant to my life. I owe him more than he likely knows.

I haven't seen or spoken to him in more than ten years. I had exchanged a few emails with him over the years, but he was never a very communicative person, digitally. I guess, like always, I figured that I'd be able to reestablish contact with him eventually.

Thank you, Michael. I hope you're proud of me and what I've accomplished. My life is richer and happier for having known you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Life and Violins

This past weekend brought a lot of questions into our lives, number one being: how much longer can I continue to blog about my experiences as a parent? Also, where is the line between blogging about our parental experiences and actually interfering / causing issues with some of the individuals involved? As the kids get older, more and more of their experiences relate around their relationships - friends, girlfriends/boyfriends/BFFs, teachers, workmates, bosses, mentors, etc. My talking about my view of my sons' experiences winds up increasingly talking about their relationships with other people, which is - frankly - none of my business.

For instance, The Boy had an argument with one of his friends a month or two ago which caused a sizeable rift between them and caused him quite a bit of personal pain. I'd love to blog about my response to that - my feelings watching that and knowing that I can't really help, and our attempts to manage the relationships of young kids without telling them how to behave. I can't, though. For one, it might affect our relationship with an amazingly cool family, and that ISN'T okay - they're great people, and their kids are awesome kids, and I treasure the time I can spend with them. Jeopardizing our relationship with friends for the sake of the little writing I do is not smart.  For another, as my sons grow up, it isn't my place to put their emotional issues up on a website.

Last weekend, we were at a party where a young man (not my kid) was behaving very poorly: screaming at another kid who had some emotional issues and was incapable of response or changing his actions. The grownups in charge of him were not intervening to help the other kid and redirect the young man, and the young man continued to act and to whine very petulantly for quite some time afterwards. I would love to talk about that, and my feelings, and my discussions with my sons about that kid's behavior and how it was wrong and how they could avoid that. I won't, because 1) my kids aren't perfect and 2) the extended family involved are, again, really cool people and have really cool kids otherwise, and 2) I can very easily seeing one or more of my kids acting like that in public. Words have consequences. I keep things relatively anonymous on the blog, but enough people read this that I can cause issues.

The best part of that: Little Bear was playing with a toy, and the bigger kid came over and took it from him without asking. The Baby - all of his 3-year-old bad self - marched up to him, snatched the toy away, and gave it back to Little Bear. It was sooooo badass, I don't even have words.

On top of all of that, my work schedule seems to have changed to not allow me the small breaks during the day to do a little bit of writing. My responsibilities with my chorus and assorted activities (quartet contest, my quartet, chorus festival, et al) have increased substantially, leading to a distinct lack of free time in the evening. Yes, I can choose to spend less time with my children to do some of the writing, but that seems counterintuitive. Besides, I'm spending more time with my wife, lately, which is really nice. I don't want to say rekindling our relationship - it's not like either one of us went anywhere - but we're working pretty hard to rediscover each other as people and as friends. Those things can get buried underneath the layers of job, parenting, and other responsibilities. It's nice to have conversations, you know?

So, no answers to the questions as of yet, mostly because an irregular writing schedule that contains a loose report on what we do might be fun for the kids to read when they're older.


Over the weekend, I took Little Bear and The Baby to Sesame Street Live. It was awesome. We left Sunday school a little bit early so we could have a nice lunch at the TGIFriday's by the Consol Center, then we walked to the performance. Since it was Sunday, the parking was free, which was even better. There were no baseball games, hockey games, football games or anything going on, so we parked about 100 yards from the front door of the arena. The Baby ordered a burger for lunch, which he didn't touch, instead eating the fries and fruit cup and being satisfied. Little Bear had chicken fingers, which he shared with The Baby.

Grandma had given them a little money for souvenirs, which they chose to spend on Elmo fuzzies and a big picture program. Our seats were okay but much higher than last year. Interesting bits: on the car ride over, The Baby said, thoughtfully: "Daddy, do you remember that last year, it was just you and me at the show?" I think that's pretty cool that he seems to remember that. I'm not sure that he actually remembers it, or the pre-show conversations we had stuck with him. We did tell the kids for 10 days beforehand that we were going to the show together. That might be what he remembered. Either way, it was pretty neat.

The show itself was not as good as last year, but the dancing and effects were better. Last year had a few more familiar songs; this year only had one besides the Sesame Street theme itself. But, this year had an elephant prop onstage, and that was pretty neat. The highlight for me: watching The Baby absorb the show and fit that into his worldview: Sesame Street, real life vs television.

On the way home, he asked, "Daddy, on tv, Elmo and Abby are little, Cookie Monster and Telly are bigger. Today, they were all the same size." That's a pretty good observation from a little person. He also noticed that the dancing people were much, much smaller than the little monsters he sees on television.


The Boy played his violin recital later that afternoon. He did a magnificent job. I'm very pleased with his progress. He was dressed to the nines, and he took the stage with a very endearing awkward command. There is no stage fright in this child.

Next up: trying to figure out how to fit spring baseball into a schedule with violin lessons, chorus rehearsal for me and The Wife and The Boy (separate times for all), quartet rehearsals, et al. Much, much easier said than done. Plus, the groups are 4-6 and 6-8 years old, and we're trying to figure out where to put Little Bear. We're probably going to put him in the upper group - he plays with such a ferocity, I think I'd rather overreach for him.

Thank you!

Charles May

Underwriting Analyst, High Touch Underwriting

Bank Officer

Direct Originations

Mail Stop P5-PCLC-02-E

Fax: 412-762-8051

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Home Improvements


The metal railings that surrounded the front porch on the house, and bordered the stairs going to our front door, had rusted through pretty darn well. The stair railings, in particular, were wobbly enough to be dangerous. The railings on the border of the patio actually WERE dangerous, and we worked hard on not letting the kids lean on them, even accidentally. So, something had to be done.

We had already signed contracts to get the retaining walls redone for next spring. We have a lot of retaining wall: both sides of the entire length of the driveway, and bordering the back yard. We also have a wooden retaining wall up in the garden which is going to need attention sooner than later, but that is a discussion for another day. We needed something that was going to hold up, if you excuse the pun, at least until we sell the house in thirty years or so, when we're too old to do the steps.

Pittsburgh is one of the towns that, being comprised mostly of steep hills, has a large chunk of its architecture built directly into the side of hills. Our house is three quarters built into the hillside, which means that everything is vertical. The nice part about that is that the basement is also cool and insulated. Th bad part is, everything requires steps and everything below ground level is damp and needs a dehumidifier running always.

So, lots of retaining walls, lots of moisture, lots of stairs, and therefore, new railings. Since the railings guys get things done faster - and we less weather dependent than the wall guys - they got done. Of course, it was a week and a half after we did the Christmas lights outside, but what are you going to do?

Spring: new walls. Also, a new set of grass in the backyard, judging from the mud pit after the boys have discovered football.



Little Bear went with me tonight to pick up clearance Christmas lights for next year's display. This year's highlights: Yoda in a Santa outfit, and Spider Man sitting on a chimney. He was great to talk with and to walk with - just an engaging fellow. Very patient when we had to wait for fifteen minutes for the people at the register who were trying to buy $100 of items with a $60 gift card.


Tomorrow night is our New Year's party. Should be fun. I'm looking forward to hanging out with our friends. My quarter is at three separate gatherings, which is a bit disappointing; I miss my friends. Cie la vie. I'm singing Thursday night, and I'm off on Friday, so all is not lost.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Our New Metal Family Member

In November, when it was time to get the oil changed again in the minivan, it wound up running up to an $884 tab. The oil change turned into brakes and other stuff. The van, which was a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country, had served us faithfully for a few years. I picked it up in August 2009, soon after Little Bear was born. I bought it to replace the lemon of a Ford Taurus that I was driving around.

The first time I drove the car out was to a Westfield marching band rehearsal - which was one week before the idiot who was directing the band would "fire" me from the marching band for questioning his teaching methods. Because, after all, what the hell did I know? I had only taught for ten years and brought three marching bands to double-digit point increases, whereas he had been out of college for about six weeks. But, I digress. Bottom line is, we got five good years out of that car.

In recent months, it had been starting to accelerate its demise: we had been dumping around $400 into it monthly at the shop (when averaged out). The brake light started coming on regularly about two weeks after that, and when we were told that it would be a $1,200 cost to fix.....

One of the benefits of having a good friend who is a car salesman is that the whole process gets streamlined. He's going to hunt out the bargains, help with the trade-in, and push everything through quickly. We went from taking the car into the shop Friday morning to a new vehicle on Saturday afternoon with no headaches. Would have been done by lunchtime on Friday except for that whole "work" thing for me.

So, our new family member: a 2011 Kia Sedlna, which is a minivan that's about 125% the size of our previous one. It's got lots of cool bells and whistles: DVD player, automatic doors, aux port for iPhones, that sort of thing. The kids like it a lot, even if we haven't gone anywhere far enough to watch a movie.

We like it okay. Gets around the same gas mileage as the T&C. Have to get another key made, which is a bit of a pain in the butt, and turns out that a recall happened on the same day we bought it. So, that was annoying. Out of our control, though.

More fights about who sits in the front and the back for The Boy and Little Bear. Shrug. Gives them something to talk about.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy Channukah!

The first night of Channukah was a Tuesday night, which was a normal chorus rehearsal night. The previous week was a singing performance at a nursing home - holiday stuff - followed by our holiday party, which was a nice $500 swing for me. A deer ran smack into the side of my car, taking with it my rear view mirror and a bunch of dente panels. The frustrating thing? Never saw it, and I was traveling about 20 mph at the time, having just turned onto the road from the driveway of the nursing home. Considering I'm driving a 2006 Pontiac Vibe, I had no actual acceleration power, so the darn thing just crashed into me and ran off.

The first night of Hannukah was a nice night with grandma and grandpa, and the kids got nice pajamas and some toys. They had a nice dinner and spent nice time together, which is the most important bit. In the Jewish calendar, Hannukah is not a particularly important holiday - putting it into perspective, it's somewhere between All Saints Day and Maundy Thursday in importance. However, because Christmas is such a big deal, Hannukah now becomes a big deal in response. Consumerism is very, very American.

We did not have a tree this year. The excuse that I've used is that I didn't want to continually play goalie to The Baby during the month of December. In reality, the tree is stuck in the attic, and my health (having been crappy at best for the last month) wasn't really up to unscrewing the ceiling and taking it down. Plus, there's the whole thing about my wife making a living as a cantorial soloist in our temple, and while I enjoy my Christmas celebration, we haven't quite reconciled the two.

I know that The Boy had some difficulties this year - something that deserves some exploration in a related post, not a news dump. Christmas is a fun holiday, and it's hard for a little kid in his situation not to be a little resentful that we don't do more Christmas stuff. I mean, it's all over town, all over school, all over television.... even Netflix has a section specifically devoted to Christmas specials.

However, we did put up lights outside the house. This was made somewhat more challenging by the fact that the outside railings and pillars in front of the house were replaced at the beginning of the month, so we redid some of th sections of lights, only to have a couple strings burn out in the middle. Cie la vie. The lights are fun, and I enjoy them.

Hannukah came and went, and we did the candles every night and sang the prayers. We went to The Wife's services on Friday night in the middle, and then we went to a congregation Hannukah dinner, which was nice. Not so much a small child event - the boys were kind of out of place - but at least I got to show off the spiffy t-shirt that my mother in law bought for me. It's fairly epic.

Christmas week, I finally got to give The Wife her present. This year, I really tried to surprise her with something she wouldn't expect. They had a photographer from the Tribune at the Rosh Hoshanah services, and they took a beautiful picture of her and the rabbi on the bima. I figured that I would buy a nice print of that picture, frame it, and give it. She wouldn't expect that - not normally something I do - and I'd be good. So, the picture arrives at the house in the mail a week later, and she opens the picture to see what it was. Now, this lady has not opened a piece of mail since we got married.... and that was the first piece. Sigh. So much for that surprise.

So, I go stealth mode again. Groupon had tickets to see the pianist Jim Brickman, who The Wife has loved since high school. I picked up a couple of tickets and recruited a number of people: since I didn't have chorus rehearsal, I got my chorus to add a special "social night" that she was going to attend. We would meet at my office and I'd surprise her with the plans change. I recruited my mother in law to watch the kids that night so that we'd have a show date for the first time in forever.

So, The Wife takes a singing job for Tuesday night.

At least, she had planned a singing engagement until I broke stealth and told her what the present was. Surprise, crushed; but the brownie points still won out. We had a nice dinner at a place called Olive R Twist. The show was great - solo piano, with some singing. I would categorize it as easy listening / new age / smooth jazz sort of music. It's nice. Check him out on YouTube - it's worth it. Not necessarily my first choice in music, but it's a nice way to spend an evening.

Christmas Eve, I let the boys open up their last presents: a set of Roald Dahl books for all of them, a sticker book for The Boy, a hat and toy for The Baby, and a baseball book for Little Bear. The Wife gave me the first of three presents: beautiful meals cooked from scratch, served on our china, with the whole family. That night, we had beef meatloaf, sweet potatoes, and rice pudding. For breakfast, we had pancakes (gluten free) and eggs. For lunch, we had turkey, mashed potatoes, and more rice pudding, with fresh cranberry sauce. They were beautifully cooked and greatly appreciated.

I also picked up a football for the boys - found it on sale for $5, which I couldn't resist. Since it was 60 degrees for a couple of days last week, we played football in the backyard, street, and playground. Modified rules: didn't have to catch the ball, whomever grabbed it first either counted as a complete pass or incomplete pass; four downs and the other guy got the ball; and two handed touch. Mostly, the games were Little Bear vs The Boy, with me as quarterback for both. A few times. the Baby and I took on the other two, which was about even of a match. They're little, and the football is too big.

This weekend, we lazed about the house and did a little straightening and cleaning. We're having a small gathering on New Year's Eve again.

Also not mentioned: the Pittsburgh Chai Lifeline party; our new car; my scope test follow up from november's issues.

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