The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

The Birds Are Back In Town March 14, 2013

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Ok. So maybe not in this picture. (I didn’t want to feel the past half hour spent waiting for the aforementioned birds to have been in vain, so I felt I had to include a photo of some sort. ) But this is the table feeder where we do see em when they visit. And there most definitely were some long-awaited, newly-arrived avian subjects visiting quite recently. (In fact there were a few milling about just a few moments before I pulled out the camera.) Yesterday, in a delightfully Spring-like teaser of a day, with sunshine and temperatures in the low fifties, there was an impressive reunion of birds at our feeder all day long. But today, nearly imperceptible flakes of snow swirl about in the air, and the world is winter-cold again. We all know it won’t last, but it’s a bit disappointing nonetheless. I’m less inspired to do my outdoor chores, and it seems the birds themselves are no more inclined to move about unnecessarily than I.

While Elihu usually hears the new arrivals long before I do, it’s obviously me who’s the one most likely to spot them first. It’s not often that Elihu actually sees a bird in the wild – and not on our kitchen window feeder. Such a small object at such a distance just doesn’t register in his limited vision. But this year – just two days ago – we were able to share a Spring first. My heart was so full of joy that Elihu finally, for the first time ever, in fact, truly saw a Red Winged Blackbird with his own eyes. We had pulled the car over to spend some time watching our neighborhood juvenile Red Tailed Hawk, and were taking turns with the binoculars, when we heard it. That shrill, unmistakeable trilling sound. Instantly a feeling of mid summer washed over us – I almost couldn’t believe my own ears and asked Elihu for confirmation. Yes! That was a Red Winged Blackbird – so he must be very close… I looked to the hedges that ringed the close-by field, and sure enough, there he was, atop a young tree, like a perfectly placed Christmas tree ornament. “I see it!” Elihu exclaimed. So many times Elihu claims to see a bird because he doesn’t want to admit he can’t – but this time there was no mistaking it. I knew he saw it. And I could hear it in his voice. What a glorious moment. Hallelujah, Spring is almost here!

And then there are the Cowbirds. My mother may not feel such warmth for them (they have a nasty practice of laying their oversized eggs in other’s nests, thereby ensuring the success of their offspring and a result, the demise of the hosts’ little ones) but no matter, we are thrilled to see them return each year. The males arrive first and begin to practice their courtship dances. Sometimes we’ll see five males on the feeder at once, all trying to outdo each other. Watching their dances is like watching a piece of hard-won nature footage on a PBS program… We can never quite believe we’re seeing this in real life. They puff up the ruffs around their heads, spread their wings out and appear to grow in size by a good 30%. Then they emit this ultra-high pitched warble which sounds like a computer-generated sound from a video game. They strut about, taking a few steps toward the object of their dance, which may be the competing males or a possible mate. The display lasts all of a few seconds, but they’ll often repeat it a half dozen times in a single trip to the feeder. Absolutely fascinating to watch. We don’t like to think of the predatory way in which they keep the species going, but hey. As Elihu would say, they’re just doing what God made em to do.

I can’t imagine living in a climate where the resident birds never changed. We here at the Hillhouse feel the march of time so much more intimately by seeing the birds that stop by our kitchen window. Spring is a time of both passers-by and return residents; some species stay only a day or two, some stay for a few weeks before leaving again, and sometimes seasonal residents just disappear altogether almost overnight. Lastly, there are those who return to take up permanent residence for the warmer months. All in all, there is a lot of renewed activity on our feeder from March through May.

There are the roadside appearances too. Besides the Red Winged Blackbird, just this week I’ve spotted some newly returned Robins poking around in the short, winter-weary grass. And although I haven’t seen a Bluebird yet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one swoop past over my car as I wind down the steep hill at the top of Braim Road. And of course, there’s the return of the Hummingbirds sometime around the first week in May near my birthday, and usually the week before – the week of Elihu’s birthday – we begin to hear that unmistakeable buzzing chirp of the male Woodcock from the middle of the big field as he searches for his mate.

Yup, the birds are back in town, and this thin Lizzy (almost, still workin on it) is most certainly happier for it. Ahh, finally. Spring is nigh…


Household Help March 12, 2013

It can’t just be me. Each morning, after I’ve been washing dishes for about a half an hour and remember the laundry that still waits after the dishes are done, I wonder. Am I being grumpier about this than I ought? Course I know the answer; most likely. I know that I ought to be joyful as I go about my daily domestic work. That would be the good, Godly way in which to behave. But crap, it just seems like I spend an awful lot of time doing, well, just plain stuff. Not stuff that adds in any quantifiable way to the quality of my life, not stuff that makes me better fit, smarter or necessarily happier. I’m just doing crap that needs to get done – just so that I can exist. Some days this really pisses me off. But although I might get crabby about it, I’m not ignorant; I realize that I do not have it bad by any stretch of the imagination.

I remember visiting my family by marriage in Pakistan – middle class folks by their standards – and witnessing how some two dozen people lived in a four room house devoid of anything aside from the basic necessities and who were, in their experience, all quite happy. I also saw how the women worked tirelessly both day and night to keep the brood in clean clothes and fed (their kitchen was hardly six by ten feet, and they only had two burners!). I’m not so sure those women were themselves too crazy about their never-ending workload, but sadly, in that culture they weren’t exactly in a position to question it. At least I can pause for reflection. Yeah. I know that folks all around the globe work a hell of a lot harder than I do, and they have less to work with too. I get it. But still…

I wonder to myself, do other people really spend an hour or more a day just dealing with the silly dishes? Really? It kinda feels like I’m the only one. It feels like I’m always cleaning up or putting things away. It seems like it takes me so much more time and effort to feed just two people than it should. Am I being incredibly inefficient here? Am I missing something? I can’t help but feel like I am. But I know it’s an illusion born of my isolation. I really do know I can’t be the only one putting in the time. I know it. At least intellectually. Just doesn’t feel like it. Living in such a way as we privileged Westerners do, each of is our own island and it’s easy to feel like we’re each on our own, unique treadmill. That we are each one of us alone in our toil. That’s certainly how I feel most days after Elihu’s at school and our days begin in earnest. It takes me a good two hours – if not more – just to get the laundry done, the dishes done, the house picked up, the birds fed, the eggs collected, washed and put away… And God help me that I might need to actually clean – as in wipe away the little boy smell around the toilet, or maybe vacuum the forgotten corners… there goes another hour. Was it always thus?

No, not always. For many years I had help. I, like my mother in ‘her day’, had a cleaning lady. At first it seemed a crazy-pretentious thing to do, but I acclimated without too much trouble. Not hard to get used to someone helping you, especially if it’s well within your budget and you’re faced with a lot of house. Sometimes I like to joke that I went from having a cleaning lady to being one. Not really a joke. I have cleaned a few houses for cash since moving here. A bit humbling, yes. But then again, I was never the kind of gal to sit idly by as my cleaning lady was working; nay, I worked right alongside Marianna as she helped to keep my fine Evanston home looking fine. I never took her for granted. Nope. And now, as I face the task of keeping on top of it all (ok, so there is a lot less indoor real estate now) I look back with even still more gratitude. Oh, to have Marianna’s help now.

Thankfully, my son is getting older and much more able to help. I’ve probably let him off the hook more than most moms would. But then again, having only one child – one baby – and knowing there will never be another one coming along, I think that’s contributed to my going soft on Elihu til now. But I’ve relaxed lately. It’s good for him to do things for himself. And also – it’s good for me. I’m happy to have the help. (I can see why folks used to have so many kids! Built-in work force and life insurance. !) No longer do I tell my son that I’ll put the water on for tea, that I’ll empty the dryer…  And if I ask him, he generally jumps with enthusiasm to help. Thankfully, I have a child who very much appreciates the work it takes to keep a household. And thankfully, he is beginning to participate in its upkeep. And no longer do I feel badly – or guilty – about that. Instead, I feel good. Elihu is feeling empowered, and finally, once again, I have a little help around the house.


Missoula Time March 8, 2013

Each spring around this time (hmm, did I say spring? Not so sure about that today; currently writing on time borrowed from a two hour snow delay…) I play piano for a production of the Missoula Children’s Theatre at my son’s former school, Greenfield Elementary. I offered myself up for the job because I was absolutely fascinated to see exactly how this touring company of two managed to get some 50 kids rehearsed and ready for a full-blown musical theater production in just four days. Yup. You heard right. Even after having played for four such productions and seen much of the prep myself, it still seems like magic to me.

Look on YouTube for the documentary on “The Little Red Truck” and I think you might well be crying before long. What this company does is not only extraordinary just in terms of the logistics alone – but it brings children throughout the county an opportunity for personal self-discovery and confidence-building as nothing else can. Truly, the Missoula Children’s Theatre is something not to be missed if your school is presented with the chance to participate.

Here are some pics from last year’s production…

(This year’s show is later tonight and tomorrow)

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My post for the show

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The Missoula folks go over production details with the kids

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That famous “Little Red Truck”. All the scenery, costumes, script and score – plus the two actors who lead the whole shebang – all of it fits perfectly into the back. Wow. Talk about economy! Truly, this whole production is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.


System Failure March 6, 2013

After months and months of phone calls, emails, forms and faxes, today was the day. It’s been a veritable part-time job. Making call after call, inquiry after inquiry, figuring out my way through the maze turn by turn as I searched for a legal way in which to intercede on behalf of my brother. A dry drunk no longer, he threatens more than his own life as he drives home each day from helping Martha with her nightly routine. Finally, in what feels to me like the eleventh hour, Andrew managed (with the help of the only friend he has in town) to get himself to the local mental health facility at the hospital for an appointment that I’d set up for him (he thinks our mother did it. If he knew I did, he certainly would not have gone). In spite of being the one person who made today possible – in spite of my being his only proactive advocate – I cannot be given an update. Legally, as a protective measure (how this protects me or Elihu when Andrew flies into a violent rage or prevents him from taking someone out as he drives drunk along a country road is beyond me) I cannot be told a thing. Yeah, I knew to expect that. I get it. So then I call the hospital. I hope to find his name in patient information. But no. He has not been admitted. Shit, shit, shit. My spirits sink to my shoes to learn it. Now what?

I understand that he’ll go back next week for another meeting with this woman. I’ve spoken to this counselor myself, I’ve given her some background, and for all the many people I’ve met throughout my life in the mental health field, I like her more than many. At least I got a good impression. The feeling that she understood the futility of the system; how it got in its own way, preventing the very help it was established to provide. Yeah, I had a pretty good amount of hope in my heart this morning. But now, it’s just gone. How the hell can a depressed drunk get better when faced with a filthy house, no income to speak of, no friends and daily access to a full liquor cabinet? I don’t think it’s possible. At least not for my brother. As self-determined as he can be, this is one thing that I don’t see him doing for himself. The last time he sobered up, it was under peril of possibly never having his driver’s license returned to him. And the next time it happens? He will never drive again. And more than likely, he’ll be locked up. No joking.

I have a feeling he’ll make an attempt to cool it. At least before he drives. But he can’t sustain it. No way. He lives in absolute filth (think the worst episode of the cable show “Hoarders”). He has no reason to live. Really. He is chronically depressed, blames the whole goddam world for his misfortune and just jumps at the chance to corner someone and talk their ear off about the whole mess. I know he’s my only sibling, he’s my brother, I love him and shouldn’t talk like this, but right now he hasn’t got a whole lot of reason to be here on the planet. He could, but right now he doesn’t. And reaching him will take finesse. I sure hope he comes to like and trust this counselor and finds himself on the start of an upward path. Goddam it! I wish I could help, but I’m nearly as stuck as I was at the start of this whole thing.

Mental illness is a fucking hard issue to tackle in this day and age. The laws bind your hands to help, and for as hip and understanding a culture as we think we are, the stigma continues to exist. The field of mental health is not sexy. One look at the waiting rooms in just about any mental health facility will confirm for you that this is not a money-maker for the health care industry. And we all know it’s a business. Don’t we now?

Sometimes the system absolutely sucks.


Atkins, Six Weeks In March 4, 2013

Could it be only six weeks? My immediate impressions are thus: I feel like I’ve been on this ridiculous, low carb diet for years (yes, it gets very boring), and secondly? I am pretty happy with my success. So onward I go…

I have lost ten – maybe even eleven – pounds so far. My scale’s not terribly accurate, nor can I quite see the needle from five feet above. Several people have told me this week that they can see a difference in my face. These unsolicited remarks have given me just the bit of evidence and morale-boosting I needed. That, plus the ability to finally get into, zip up and actually wear a pair of my ‘in between jeans’ (from my collection of not quite fat, yet not quite skinny clothes). I’m wearin’ em now, in fact. And I’m sitting in them too – that, for me, is the true test of whether I’m truly in the next size down or not. Yup, last night I was finally able to zip up three new pairs of pants that I haven’t been able to even consider wearing since shortly after I moved here, four and a half years ago. One might then go on to question the fashionable relevance of these garments in 2013, but not to worry. It’s all kind of era-neutral stuff that will work just fine. I think.

What might not work fine a month down the road are my bras. Whoda thunk? I guess I never really and truly believed that I’d get smaller again – I’ve just been doing the old ‘fake it til you make it’ thing these past few weeks. Now that there’s proof that I just might get into the old ‘skinny’ clothes after all – I’ve got a few things to address. I don’t need to run out and spend money I don’t have just yet – I’m still doing fine in my old undertogs. But they are a decade or more old (buying things for me virtually came to a stop when Elihu was born). Regardless of weight, my spirit seems to crave a few nice, new underthings. All part of this chrysalis thing. Slow and steady…

Although I really miss crunchy, salty snacks and some good, hard-core sweet stuff now and again, I’ve learned something pretty amazing for me: a very tiny amount of the craved foot can really hit the spot. ! Just two potato chips, for example. I know, I know! You don’t believe me! Hell, I wouldn’t believe me! But just a bite or two sates me, calms me. It reminds me of the flavor and crunch. And just two dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds can take the edge off a sweet craving. In eating less of these foods, when I do have them, they’re much ‘punchier’; saltier, sweeter somehow… Plus now that my goal seems closer, it’s easier still to keep it to just a quick taste. Course I can then enjoy a burger pattie for supper, so that takes the sting off. Yeah, for as boring as this Atkins thing is, it does make dieting so so much easier. And in the future, when I disembark from this carb-less routine, I will be so much more aware of what I eat. Much more aware of gratuitous eating and empty calories.

All of those carbs are going to taste so much better ten more pounds from now, I just know it. And hopefully, I’ll be able to enjoy my life just fine with fewer of em.


Gray Area March 2, 2013

A few months back, I posted a question on Facebook: to color or not to color? I was wondering what the current cultural concensus was about covering up the gray hair. My young son had been hoping that I’d give up coloring my hair for two reasons; first, because of the potentially dangerous chemicals, and second, it was not natural. If my hair was now turning gray, that was how it should be. To Elihu, interfering almost seemed like questioning a divine natural plan. He really wished I’d just leave it be and accept the change… And so for several months I have let it be. I’ve entered into the experiment with an open mind. And after all, winter is a good time to go into chrysalis mode and try things out; grow out hairstyles, lose a few extra pounds, rethink the wardrobe… But each day, when I take a peek into the rear view mirror and see that ever-lightening pate of mine, I wonder. Am I big enough to do this? Am I laid back enough, accepting enough, natural enough? Can my ego handle this, I mean, really? At first I was invigorated – just think how free this will feel! No more roots to stay on top of… my look would be proud, natural, all me… I was beginning to see it… and wouldn’t ya know, there were even folks out there cheering me on! Just not the women.

That Facebook tally? Just about half and half – out of dozens upon dozens of responses, it really was split down the middle. Surprisingly, all the men voted for going gray. And all but just a couple of women voted to keep on coloring. We women just can’t seem to give it up. The thinking is, as best as I can understand, that if we have the means to look younger, and if culture is accepting of our doing so… then why not? Hmm. Well, I guess my kid came up with two good reasons not to. But the more I look at the top of my silvering head in the rear view, the more I falter…  I can understand why the men vote for going gray and the woman don’t; our culture doesn’t really support men dying their hair, so they’re more at peace with the idea of turning gray. (Hell, many of em have to deal with losing all of their hair! Makes going gray seem easy.) When you see a guy whose face says 70 but whose hair is a rich, dark brown – don’t you wonder about him? Don’t you kinda wonder if he thinks it actually looks good? I mean, does he think he’s fooling us? But then again – look at his wife. She’s the same age, and her hair is also an unnaturally dark and even color. But we allow that – and think little of it. Interesting. We’ve definitely got a double standard going. So why would I want to play into this whole charade? Am I really so shallow?? After living with my witchy gray hairs for a few months, I can now answer that question with a definitive ‘yes’.

Another thing about growing out your gray is that it can take a long time. My hair grows terribly slowly, so it might take four years to get to the length it is now. And I really don’t want to wait that long for the ‘complete’ look, nor do I want to cut my hair off. I’ve given this lots of consideration. There have been days when I’ve worn my new gray proudly, but in the end, it aint working for me. There are those for whom the graying process turns into quite a boon, resulting in a gorgeous new look for later in life – but that’s not my story for sure. I am not aging like Emmy Lou Harris here. I had a dear friend who once said that ‘men go gray, but women go silver’, yet despite that gentlemanly thought – and despite my own son today laughing with delight at the way my ‘silver’ hairs sparkled against the dark ones… I’m not feeling it. So I’ve decided that when I’ve lost 15 pounds, I will allow myself the royal treatment; a professional cut and color. And if my wallet can support it – maybe even a blow out. Whoo – gawd that’s gonna feel good. And I’m not a spa kind of gal. Never once in my life had a manicure – never mind a pedicure. Had a massage once, when I was eight months pregnant. No, I don’t spend money on extras like that. But it’s time. I’ll be fifty in May, and my fragile ego needs a good send-off into the second half of the century. A good cut and color should help – and since God apparently means to have me age in the usual way (although I still think there’s been a huge mistake here somewhere), I’m going to need to do what I can to soften the transition. 

So how jive is beauty that is so ill-gotten? Can one have a somewhat manufactured sort of beauty and still maintain one’s integrity? I struggle with this still, but have come upon a few more clues to help me sort it all out… The Waldorf School presents the perfect, supportive environment in which to ‘grow out ones grays’, and yet there are more than a few women there who continue to color – and who make no bones about it, either. We all know that Dolly Parton has been nipping and tucking for years – and has never been anything less that honest about it. And does this woman not have integrity? Good Lord I should say so. Integrity – and wigs, too. That’s a whole ‘nother level altogether.

So I guess I’m feeling better about my decision now. I feel empowered just imagining how I’ll feel with fifteen pounds shed and new, beautiful hair. And quite honestly, I’ve been feeling just about anything but empowered these past few years. I could use a little boost. A little pretty time. So after a good deal of thought on this subject, it’s with great relief that I can now say it’s no longer a gray area for me.

Or is that grey area? Hmm…