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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Church Music

I first saved this post in April, and I think about it periodically but haven't found the motivation to type it all out until today when two tracks converged. First Mrs Darwin mentioned on Facebook the abysmal songcraft of modern hymns which is made evident when the instrumental accompaniment is stripped away. Second, the resident 2yo is running a mystery fever. She is sick enough to catnap, but not sleep deeply enough for me to move away and do something else. So here I sit. I may as well tell you about the church music.

I mentioned a time or two a few years ago my general displeasure with the music selection at church, and my lingering guilt about not participating except from the pews. In the interim, the situation declined from there. Our regular cantor left the parish. All of our piano players left. No one from the congregation stepped up to fill the void. We were left with a capella hippie songs, one decent guitar player who alternated with one terrible guitar player, a choir who couldn't sing their way out of bucket, and an occasional beginner piano player who plunked out a bunch of fail. It was a very sad state of affairs. Notably, it was also all volunteer. Nobody was paid for anything.

Up until about a year ago, my parish priest was a believing elderly man who was a good confessor, but honestly did not give a second thought to the niceties of liturgy. He did his best and didn't worry about the rest of it. His best included singing loudly, off key and out of rhythm, into his mike. It was all part of his charm, bless him. The fact that the music program was in shambles didn't phase him much. He figured if the Lord wanted a nice choir, someone would eventually show up to make it happen. He had faith, if nothing else.

However a year ago that priest retired, and the new pastor appointed in his place had a very different life history. He had been married and had a kid and got divorced and annulled and pursued a late in life vocation. But primarily of interest to the audience here is that his prior education is in music and he spent twenty years teaching it.

When he arrived, I wasn't sure how he would address the music situation but felt sure he would do something. At first nothing changed at all. The weekly disaster unfolded without comment. But when the Sanctus was so thoroughly mangled during the Christmas Vigil Mass that Father decided to repeat it verbally to make sure it was said, I knew it wouldn't be long until he acted.

By the end of January, he made his move. He hired a singer/pianist who had previously been a member of the parish years ago, but left for greener musical pastures at the parish in the next town. The music situation immediately improved. The choir stopped falling apart. They finally had a leader who could teach them how to sing the melody, follow the piano prompts, actually play the piano. The change was so stark, it became hard to remember how poor the prior offering were within a handful of weeks. The choir is actually good.

Since this new pianst was hired, the number of people attending Mass exploded. It's hard to miss the correlation. At the beginning of the year, it was the same group it had always been, but by Ash Wednesday, there were hundreds of more people attending. The only thing that significantly changed in that stretch of weeks was the music. The Ash Wednesday Mass was one of the most incredible events I have ever witnessed. Hundreds and hundreds of people present, standing room only, even all the way back to the far side of the Narthex. There were so many people, I was worried about the Fire Marshal showing up. There were an amazing number of people. And this increased attendance continued through the summer and now into the fall. This is all an unalloyed good.

Because this is good, I feel like a heel for my following complaint.

Yall. It's all Jesus Is My Boyfriend music.

The person who was hired is a name in the Catholic music scene. He's published in OCP. He plays concerts with the current Catholic pop stars. He programs a variety of his own music along with the current hits. He is a very nice guy. He loves syncopation. We emote. A lot. So many feelz. The Agnus Dei is now permanently the Matt Maher call and response version.

I haven't been Gathered In in months, for which I am incredibly grateful, but I admit I am disappointed in the direction the music has taken. On a positive note, they have also added both the entrance and communion antiphons, which I have never, ever heard regularly in a Mass. The cantor sings them solo before launching into the scheduled song. I appreciate that effort.

Even though I am disappointed, I can't be upset about this musical direction. I wish we had more traditional music or even some chant, but I cannot compare some version of perfection in my head to our current reality. I have to compare what was and what is. What was was incredibly bad. What is is just not to my taste. There is a world of difference in that distinction. While I can argue about what "should" be, I first have to accept what's possible and who is available. It was very apparent nobody with my vision of church music was going to appear and implement such a program. It so happens within our parish boundary is a gifted musician with publishing credits, and he is willing to serve us every weekend. He is good at what he does. This is very good for our parish.

But sigh, P&W is not my thing.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Confessions of a Night Owl

I am not really a night owl, even though I claim the label. I have never been one to chase the 2am energy burst. Even in my high-flying college days, I was usually home before midnight and asleep before 1am. Although I may not be the classic night owl burning the midnight oils, one thing I definitely am not is a morning person.

Mornings come hard. It's difficult to focus. My brain feels like it is sitting in a thick fog. My eyes struggle to make sense of the words in the morning Magnificat reading. I don't bound out of bed with energy, but drag myself groggily to consciousness trying to hold the day's tasks in my mind.

When I was working full time and commuting, I never adjusted to the schedule. I could push my sleep cycle in the direction of earlier, but sunrise proved to be the hard stop on my ability to force the issue. Even while I could coax an earlier wake-up time, it only took a handful of schedule-less days to destroy the rhythm as my body slid back into its desired, later, schedule.

After I quit my job and started homeschooling the children, there was no pressing reason for me to get out of bed early in the morning so I didn't. I didn't sleep until noon, but sleeping until 8am was not unheard of. Or maybe 830. Probably not later than 9. I jest. A little. During the school year, I set my alarm for 730 with varying success. Ella complicated matters.

However, life has changed. Ever since Grace started high school two weeks ago, I have felt compelled to get up and greet her before she leaves for school in the morning. The bus runs at 630am now so I need to be out of bed by 620 in order to see her. The truth is there is nothing forcing me to do this. Dave gets up as early as he ever did, makes sure she is awake in the morning, assists in her final preparations, and sees her out the door. He is quite capable and doesn't need my help. I could sleep longer, but I want to get up. It feels wrong to continue to snooze while your child trudges off to an early morning bus.

I cannot say I am bursting with energy. I am not. I wake up and stumble to the living room. I see Grace off and then sit, drinking coffee, while praying Morning Prayer and checking in on the world. The funny thing is that even though I am as groggy as I ever was upon waking, the morning fog lifts about two hours after I wake up. This is true whether I am waking at 615 or 815. The clock strikes 8am. I have already finished my morning mental routine, and I am ready to physically get ready for the day. Oddly, this earlier start time means I am prepared for the rest of the day at an earlier time too. Mind-bending, I know.

As I work through the rest of the morning, I keep glancing at the clock, amazed at how early it is, astounded at where I am in my chore list. The day seems to stretch on beyond me and instead of having already slipped away. I am, unbelievably, finishing my daily chores relatively stress-free at a normal pace instead of cramming tasks into stolen bits of time. I still do not have copious amounts of free time, but my biggest problem has been decision paralysis in determining what to do next instead defeated resignation about what didn't get done. This is amazing.

I mean, I am not saying I am now a morning person. I'm not. I am never going to be. But I will say putting the day into motion around sunrise hasn't been half bad. I didn't quite expect that.




Monday, August 12, 2019

Luddite

Grace started high school last week. Thus far she is enjoying herself, and I think the structured schedule is going to do her a lot of good. I expected the transition to be stressful for me for a variety of reasons. It is hard to relinquish control to a bunch of strangers who may or may not share your vision of education. What I did not expect is how much technology would play a leading role in my stress.

Grace, gasp, does not have a smartphone. We did not intend for her to have a smartphone. I think smartphones for teenagers are a bad idea for a number of reasons, YMMV.

We do, however, understand that the expectations for communication are different now so she does need phone access. We intended, at the beginning of July before band camp started, to reactivate my old slider dumbphone that I used until 2015. The phone is in fine working order and would perfectly fit her need to make the occasional phone call and text as necessary. When we investigated getting my old phone re-added to our cell phone account, we discovered the 3G network is being discontinued, and thus they will not activate the phone. The only dumbphone on offer with our cellphone company is one and only one flip phone. The problem with this flipphone is that the main task she would use the device for--texting--is troublesome with the three letters per button setup. We temporarily tabled the decision essentially because I was mad and needed to calm down.

How can it be possible that the cell phone companies refuse to offer a decent, basic phone for the use of teenagers and others who do not need to carry a $700 mini-computer. They must know that many parents are hesitant to dump their children into the world of constant connection. They also must know that if they withhold the lesser devices a parent might be looking for, it will push parents, who do not want to deprive their children, into buying more expensive devices. Then they offer "parental controls" to assuage concern. Good Luck! And like the Disney Channel star who spectacularly melts down, it's a feature and not a bug when the controls inevitably fail.

Breathe.

School began this week with the phone decision still unmade. On the second day of school, Grace forgot her premade lunch due to the early hour and new routine. I ran it over to the school, and the secretary casually told me to text her so she'd know her lunch was in the office. That's ominous. Why would the secretary expect Grace to be able to receive a text? Shouldn't she, uh, not have her phone on during school hours? Of course, she doesn't have a phone and I told the secretary such. Not to worry, she reassured me. She'd get Grace her lunch.

Grace had to charge a hot lunch because they didn't bother to call her to the office until lunch was over.

Breathe.

Her classes, so far, are the expected assortment of enjoyable ones mixed with frustrating ones. However in two classes, there is a very distinct and distressing trend and it goes something like this:
Class, get your phone out and...
The first class, Speech, expects the students to look up whatever the teacher tells them to find, and then they are supposed to reference it as he continues his lecture. I am vexed. Is there a reason this has to be done on individual devices? Why can't the teacher project his own device on a screen? Is the lack of a personal phone an annoyance or a hindrance?

The second class, AP Human Geography, taught by the football coach, cough, has yet to issue a textbook or a class website or much of any source material at all. He has, however, given homework assignments and copious free time in class for the students to "research" their answers on their own personal phones. (Yes, they are randomly googling and writing down whatever they find.) There are two computers in the class for student use and about 25 students needing internet access. If you don't get a class computer and don't have a phone, you are then entitled to stare at the ceiling for 30 minutes and do homework later that night.

This is enraging to me. How dare they try to force my hand in this decision. They, the cell phone companies and the school, are happily skipping down the primrose path and expect me to just follow along. The very idea that a public high school would expect their students to all have access to their own personal smartphones so teachers can lazily avoid the basic tasks of teaching makes my blood boil.

I might be overreacting.

The current decision on the table is whether or not to get the substandard flipphone or acquiesce to popular expectation against my better judgement. Dave is more reasonable than I. I am stubborn. But I am not the one bearing the immediate consequences of the decision, even if I definitely think I am right in the long term.

So what do you do? Do you shell out a large sum of money for something you don't want to buy and think is actively harmful--even if the rest of the world thinks you are crazy? Or do you fight a losing battle, class after class after class, with your child having to continually identify herself as The One Who Does Not Have A SmartPhone? I wish I knew.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

You Did What In 30 Minutes?

I disappeared again. I didn't mean to. I probably need a tag.

May was very busy. Always busier than I expect or remember. We finished up school and then took a family vacation to Mammoth Cave. A series of children were sick over the course of about a month, which culminated in Marian being tentatively diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. She actually had some other moderately less horrible tick-borne disease. All's well that ends well and thank God for antibiotics.

When June rolled around and the endless rounds of sickness decided to give us a break, I began, again, my continuing purge project that spent most of this past school year on pause. I have found that my ability to clean and keep up with Ella the toddler and chauffeur kids around and type posts and maybe read a book is limited. Right now I am in book reading mode so there is not going to be an in-depth post about the epic battle with my room currently raging. Unless I change my mind. We'll see.

About my room. My room is generally the resting place of any stray paper item that wants to be kept but doesn't currently have a home. Generally the procedure is I find something I want to keep, toss it on my dresser for safe keeping, and say I'll deal with it later.

It's later:



It took me three days to get to the bottom of the giant pile where I discovered that it dates to Christmas 2016. This is immediately before I got pregnant with Ella and my cope-er collapsed. Yeah, it's bad. I am not finished yet, but the bulk of the paperwork has been dealt with. I need to figure a better system so it doesn't get this bad ever again.



***

As I whittled the pile down I found a copy of _A Mother's Rule of Life_ by Holly Pierlot that I borrowed from a friend in the Fall of 2016. This friend now lives out of state. Oops.

I never read the book, but I know people have strong feelings about it. They either love it or hate it. I am not sure which I'd be. I like structure, but massively fail at time management.

I flipped the book open, and my eyes landed on this paragraph:

     Somewhere around 10:00 on most evenings, I prepped for the next day. I emptied the dishwasher, quickly tidied up what was left to do downstairs, put away my laundry if Philip hadn't already done it, and took care of personal hygiene. I'd spend a few minutes in prayer and reading before bed at 10:30.

Wait, what? My eyes popped out of my head. How do you do all that in 30 minutes?

Let's see:

Empty the dishwasher: 10 minutes
Tidy the downstairs: Assuming it's mostly tame, 5 minutes
Put away laundry: Is this laundry already folded? 5 minutes.
                              Is this laundry in a heap in a basket? 15 minutes
Personal hygiene: Rushing, 10 minutes
                              Normal, 20 minutes
                              Does this involve a shower? 45 minutes
Prayer: 5 minutes
             Am I totally unfocused and rambling in my head? 10-15 minutes
Reading: 10 minutes or why bother?

So in my experience, her last minute 30 minute round-up prep takes me 45 minutes when everything is firing on all cylinders. If it's more like my normal, I'd expect her quick routine to take me at least 75 minutes.

I am thinking maybe I am not the target audience for this book.



Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Empty the Trash

Every trash can in this house is assigned to a child to empty as necessary. This is a part of their daily responsibilities that, in an ideal world, I'd use as part of a wider chore and allowance system, but as it is, it's just a thing they have to do, along with tending the cat, every day.

The requirement is that the assigned trash cans must be looked at every day, and if the trash is more than half full, it must be emptied. If the trash is less than half full, it can wait until tomorrow. There are two trash cans that are exceptions to the half-full rule. The diapers and the kitchen scrap trash can must be emptied daily no matter what.

I realize this "half-full" description involves a bit of discretion of the part of the child. I also realize this discretion is going to lean towards the "it can wait until tomorrow" end of the spectrum. I am okay with this. I'm not a trash Nazi.

But can someone explain to me why all the discretionary trash cans in my house are full to overflowing? There is not a trash can that is ever emptied without me first saying, "Your trash can is full and needs to be emptied. TONIGHT."

Every night I ask if the trash has been attended. Every night they all say yes. Every couple of days, I find some trash can far beyond full. As in trash sitting in the floor, full. I reiterate the half-full requirement and make them empty it that night. And then we do it all again a few days later.

This, friends, has been going on for years. Is it really so difficult for a child to see that the trash is so far gone that really and truly and surely, this is more than half-full and needs to be emptied? It must be. My standards must be awry. I guess? This is such a pain in my butt to keep up with, I'm better off doing it all myself, except for the habit of virtue I am imbuing in my children. Right? Right?

I suppose I could have them empty the trashcans every day, no matter what, but in reality, it would mean a bunch of empty bags going into the dumpster every night. I don't like that idea either. How about they just empty the trash when necessary?

Who takes care of the trash at your house? Do your children have trouble recognizing a full trash can, even as they look at it and are asked about it daily?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Taxes, Before and After

Another year's taxes are in the books so I thought I'd wheel back around to one of my old favorite conversation topics that nobody likes: money. (Reread that post. I'll wait.) It's been awhile since I broached the topic. Why so quiet?

Well. Let me give you the short story.

A few months after I quit work and we weren't really sure what our long term income was going to look like, Dave was offered the opportunity to work at a high end subdivision representing builders in new construction. Even though it meant working 13 out of 14 days a week, he accepted because he knew it would give us financial security for several years.

In 2016, we passed the 'money conversation' line for the first time ever in our lives. All of a sudden, talking about money felt constrained. Since this topic, the gaping silence, was already on my radar, I examined my sudden reticence. Why didn't I want to talk about money anymore?

For me, it came down to three reasons.

First, money just didn't occupy the same space in my brain. The most notable way this was true is that I stopped watching the price of gas. I don't mean I didn't know how much I paid for a tank of gas. I mean that I previously noted the price of gas at just about every gas station I passed, silently collecting data points about where I should fill up the tank. This habit of obsessive price watching was born in the gas spike ten years ago, when we came dangerously close to my not being able to afford to drive to work and also not being able to afford to not drive to work. The thought that I would just stop paying attention to gas prices was amazing. And yet it happened.

Second, I suddenly felt sheepish. I, too, didn't know what to say when someone would lament some expense when I knew I could write a similar check for myself in that situation without blinking. I, who have complained about getting a "mmm-hmm" for my troubles, could think of nothing except "mmm-hmm." What do you say without sounding hollow? I still don't know.

Third, it wasn't my money. It *is* my money and I know it, but it feels different to talk about income when your name isn't on the check. It's one thing to talk about money earned at your own job; it's different to talk about money earned by someone else at their job, even if you are married to that person.

That's what happened and I didn't talk about it.

So there we were, living the high life of filling up our gas tanks with reckless abandon whenever the need arose. We fully funded a generous emergency fund, which is vital when your income is as volatile as real estate. We put a nice down payment on a good piece of land close by. We decided to have a baby and paid for her pregnancy and birth. Thanks to our primo Obamacare insurance, that was only $9000 out of pocket. (I think Grace's birth cost us $500 back in the halcyon days of 2005). We started to save money to be able to build a house on the new property that would actually accommodate our family, instead of making do in our current, glorious, hallway house.

Then, in my ninth month of pregnancy with Ella, Dave's team leader had a falling out with the owner of the subdivision, and within a week, the team was summarily dismissed from the subdivision. Thus ended our foray in the land of comfortable budgeting. They were allowed to work all the houses that were under active buyer's contracts, which took most of the rest of 2017, but then we started 2018 essentially on our own. It was like starting all over again. We had no lead pipeline. We got paid once in the first five months of the year. We ate our house fund.

I'm not going to lie, 2018 was rough, but we eventually found our equilibrium and got to know our old friend, median income, once again. We have hopes of maybe breaking the conversation line again in the future and being able to save up for a new house. One day, right?

But I titled this post taxes, and I haven't mentioned them yet. Back in the years of my employment, I always felt vaguely guilty about our yearly tax refund because our federal withholding rate was usually $0. I am here to announce I don't feel guilty no more! As soon as the opportunity presented itself, our benefactor, Uncle Sam, took his full share and more. Packed down and flowing over, so to speak. The unearned crumbs I had agonized over have been paid back with interest.

The two years we made big money, we paid an eye-popping amount in taxes. Now, I don't have a philosophical problem with paying taxes--I think everyone should have some skin in the game--and I understand that the tax rates are set without regard to what you made the previous year or what you might make in a subsequent year, but it's hard not to feel like they took a punishing amount of money that we really could make use of in these latter days.

Wouldn't it be nice if your taxes took into account how likely it is that you will see this income amount again soon? Like a rolling weighted average or something. I am just spitballing ideas. I know tax tweaks get unwieldy fast. 

So how much did we pay in taxes? It's a little hard to compare a 1099 worker to a W2 employee because the calculations are done so differently from the perspective of the individual. (From the global perspective, it's not so different.) Probably the straightest comparison is the tax rate after subtracting the self employment taxes. It's a far cry from the 2% of old.

2016 AGI after self employment taxes: 16.1%
2017 AGI after self employment taxes: 14.5%

The problem, such as it is, with living in a low property tax state that has no income tax, in an inexpensive house mortgaged at a low interest rate is we almost never accumulate enough allowable expenses to itemize our taxes, even at the old $12,000 amount. In my adult life, I have only itemized one year. That year, we bought two cars, a refrigerator, and a hot water heater, in addition to our normal deductible expenses. Now that the deductible has doubled, I honestly don't ever see us ever itemizing again. The tax rate reflects our income after the standard deduction because there is not much else we can do to lower it. The rate from the top line, including all income and all taxes, were remarkably stable year over year:

2016 Top Line: 20.5%
2017 Top Line: 20.5%

The old top line was around 9%.

If we made approximately the same year in and year out, I don't think the tax rate would necessarily be all that out of line, but we don't. It was only two years. I see the money paid in taxes and think about the new (to us) van we need, and the down payment we need to fund a construction loan, and, and, and. It wasn't a lifestyle for us. It was a quick punch of money that left almost as quickly as it came.

I don't want it to seem like I am complaining. Well, I am not complaining too much. We are definitely better off for having two years of fine living. We did have the money to carry on as normal during the five month dry spell, and we saved enough that we could weather another dry spell if necessary. We were enabled to buy a good piece of land before the price of raw land skyrocketed up some more. I suppose I should be pleased we were able to repay our societal debt. I am grateful we were given such a solid platform to start sole proprietor life and that Dave had such a nice cushion while he thoroughly learned the business. We are in much better shape financially than we were before, but in our day to day expenses, we are back to treading water. Baby steps and patience.

So what does the new tax regime look like down here back around the median with five dependents?

2018 AGI after self employment taxes: 0%
2018 Top Line: 1.5%

Looks like we got a tax cut after all. 





Saturday, March 30, 2019

Spring Break

Spring Break is where dreams go to die in the light of cold, hard reality.

I decided this past week we would take Spring Break, even though the floor crisis ate the time I set aside for taking a school break. If Grace kept up a little bit with her math, no great harm would come from taking some time off.

What I intended to do over Spring Break:

Catch up on laundry
Write a blog post about the homeschooling conference I attended last weekend
Review the schoolwork completed in my absence
Clean out Sam and Marian's drawers and leave appropriate seasonal clothing
Give a couple of math lessons
Take Grace to band
Go to weekly tutorial
Go grocery shopping
Write the next post in my compelling kitchen floor series
Reorganize the pantry after the floor debacle
Pick up the downstairs
Take Ella to her doctor's appt
Clean out the fridge
Clean out and inventory the freezers
Pay the bills
Start the taxes

I realize some of this was pie in the sky, but you have to have a list, right?

What I actually did:

Laundry
Review previous schoolwork
Go over math
More laundry
Go over math
Take Grace to band
Wash the dishes once! (Hey, I didn't plan on this!)
Go over math
Go to weekly tutorial
Laundry again
Go grocery shopping
Go over math
Spend half a day on the phone arranging Grace's surprise math practice test
More laundry
Math here too
Spend half a day at the middle school while Grace took her surprise math practice test
Take Ella to her doctor's appt
Laundry

I am supposed to be paying bills at the moment. I guess I'll get to it.