The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Wake November 29, 2013

My ex used to say that I spent more of my life’s energy looking backwards than I did looking forwards. In part, I would tend to agree. Ever since I can remember – at around the age of eleven or so – I’ve always felt a low-grade, persistent sense of melancholia around me. (Maybe it started with my Grandma’s death, I don’t know. But an awareness of things becoming irreconcilably gone seems to have become part of my thinking around that time.) In writing this down I’m struck by the irony of it; I’m a fairly humorous gal and never shy about being vocal. I keep things light, and I always try my best to make a connection of some sort with every person I come into contact with. And yet… and yet I do a lot of things in life on my own, solo. I did as a kid too. Of course I’d play with children as a kid, and of course I interact with folks easily as an adult. But beyond the cursory and cheerfully polite interactions throughout my rather average, ‘small’ days, I don’t spend much time with friends. And this I suppose, is mostly by choice. Mostly, I enjoy being alone. I have a handful of friends in my life whom I love dearly yet only see them infrequently (that’s mostly logistics!). And that’s fine for me. But what is not so fine – what has me waxing melancholic at times – is the absence of some folks who have simply disappeared from the landscape of my life altogether. Having moved a thousand miles away from the town my heart still feels is home, I understand well how life changes, how it comes to pass that you may never again see some people who were once virtual fixtures in your life, but it’s still sad to know you’ve lost some forever. However, this is a connected, info-drenched world in which we live, and it’s that which gives me hope. In the back of my mind, I am comforted to know that if I try, I stand a pretty good chance of getting back in touch with the folks I miss.

This past week a Chicago-based bass player died. He’d been one of a handful of folks I’d tried to locate after losing touch, so hearing of his death just floored me. This man had a great sense of humor and he always had a twinkle in his eye. His passing has shocked a lot of friends who also hadn’t seen him around for a while. He’d just about dropped out of the music scene over the past couple of years as he’d had his hands full battling some personal demons. He was a relatively young guy too – but no matter, in the end he couldn’t get ahead of em. Seeing the Facebook posts popping up all day yesterday, I could feel the community’s need to share their sadness with each other. And precisely because so many of us live in far-flung places now, there can be no wake – no one gathering of friends to say goodbye to provide a healthy sense of closure we’d all probably like. And as I understand it, his family does not want to hold a memorial service either. I guess I can understand. It might be far too painful for them. I don’t know. But I do know that his death has got me missing my old friends, longing for those long-gone idealistic years as a young musician in Chicago, and feeling the added sorrow of living in a world where old friends don’t necessarily live in the same physical communities any more. It’s at a time like this when I lament having left my heart-home. But then I think of the dozens of dear friends who themselves have since moved on, away, some of them even living on the other side of the globe…

And it starts up again. Rob’s dying reminds me of other friends who’d also died too soon. And I realize I’ve lost a lot of friends. And I think of my parents – how must it feel to routinely hear of the deaths of their contemporaries? Just what is that place in one’s life like? To know that very few who remain are older than you, that most are in fact much, much younger, and that you are one of the few remaining of your age to still be here? Man, just how does that feel? If one goes into the experience, is it frightening as hell? Or does one just accept it, with a gradual dimming of the senses, a dulling of the heart in order to protect itself from such deep sorrow or fear? Or, perhaps (as is definitely not the case with many of my agnostic friends) does one take a certain relief in knowing that those who have left us have themselves gone to a much easier, happier place where we too will one day see them again? Either way it doesn’t change the fact that your friend is not here anymore. So our sorrow for their departure is honestly just about us. Our being sad is our being selfish. Which I think, from time to time, is actually a necessary thing. Crying it out is healthy and right.

But to live with a constant, low-grade sense of the sorrows of this world, to have this mist of melancholia float around you while you go through your day, that’s probably not terribly healthy. Yet I find myself haunted, as if by the merest vapor of a thought, throughout my days, by the faintest tugging… a vague, undefinable sensation of things not being as they should – and thereby not being quite as happy as they might otherwise. I can’t say that I’m sad, per se, but I can say that I do not always live in a heightened state of happy alert. Having said that, I readily admit to being a person who’s quick to find the humor or irony in a situation; I’m quick to turn a mishap into something useful. A lemonade from lemons sort of approach. But still. I suppose you might say that I’m a cheerful person – who knows better.

And I know better than to think Rob – or any of my friends who’ve passed on – would want me to mope around in a tearful funk over them for very long. Sure, I’d kinda expect my friends to cry at my own death, but by all means I want them to move things along when they’re done… Shake themselves back to life with a little Richard Pryor or Monty Python or Louis CK. Something, anything. Keep going. Cuz it’s gonna be alright. Somehow, it will be. But we just all gotta keep moving.  After we say our goodbyes, and dry our eyes, it’s time to wake up and get back to it.

In Loving Memory of “Jazzman”

Rob Amster

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Link to a performance of “The Waking” with Kurt Elling

 

Out, Away, Over November 28, 2013

A lot has happened in the past twenty-four hours. Just yesterday Elihu and I awoke to a cold house. I knew we were approaching the witching hour, and had begun to keep the house at a brisk fifty-five degrees in order to stall the inevitable. I’d done my paperwork and made the calls to receive our long-anticipated annual heating oil grant, so now it was just a waiting game. My heart positively sank to think I might have to live out the holiday weekend in a cold house. I had lots to do, and doing it in forty degrees did not appeal. Thankfully, I learned I’d been relieved of this fate when we returned home from school yesterday to find footprints in the snow and a respectable seventeen inches of oil in our tank. You know that feeling when your paycheck first hits your checking account? That blissful moment of security, of hope… of possibility? That’s exactly what I felt when I retrieved the oil-soaked yardstick from the tank. To know that we’ll be warm for the next couple of months gives me the greatest relief. This oil is a gift I fully appreciate. I no longer take something as basic as this for granted – the way I did in my previous life. In my fine, suburban Northshore home, going without heat never once appeared on my radar – not even close. But here, now, it’s a real concern. There’s no pipe that magically delivers fuel into your home. The thermostat no longer hovers endlessly, mindlessly, in the mid seventies all winter long. (I remember my mother telling me as a youngster to go and put a sweater on if I was cold. Now, my kid tells me the same thing when I begin to complain about the chill inside our house!) There are consequences here in the country for not properly budgeting your resources. And even while I admire the replenished level in my tank, I do that know I’ll have to start saving for my next tank soon. But this does give me a week or two of respite. And that’s pretty big. Definitely something I’m thankful for.

And Elihu is gone now too. No longer a bittersweet event, instead it’s a time I savor and use wisely. Like my fuel oil, it too won’t last, so I must use it as efficiently as possible. Last night I allowed myself some veg time, as I waited for his father to call and let me know he’d arrived ok in Florida. With about two hours to kill, I grazed my way through the leftovers in the fridge as the comedy channel played. I surfed the internet, seeking out all the information I could on the culture of Orlando. With Steven Colbert in the background, I perused Wikipedia articles and poured over images. It struck me that this place was very sci-fi like in its growth. It reminded me of the bizarre city of Benidorm, Spain. Once a nothing little coastal town, it sprung up virtually overnight, growing into a cluster of vertical glass hotels and artificially created tropical gardens. I first saw the place when I awoke from a nap in the backseat of our car. It was nighttime, and we were driving north to Barcelona. I thought I was dreaming at first; in the middle of a vast, black nothingness arose the futuristic vision of a gleaming city. When I figured out that I wasn’t still dreaming I awoke the others and alerted the driver. This we had to see. Glad we did – it was probably the most surreal place I’ve ever visited. Nothing natural about it. No evidence (that we could see) of any history or organic pattern of growth. This was a cancer on the land that had struck quickly. It strikes me that Orlando is much the same. First came the early settlers and later the orange farm magnates (Dr. Phillip Phillips, crazy!) and finally giant tourism-based corporations (Walt and friends) and then boom! – from the 1980s til now the place has exploded. It’s a manufactured destination, like its Spanish cousin. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. And if one goes there with that in mind, and one visits not for the indigenous, historical characteristics, but instead goes with the goal of experiencing a fantastically fabricated, commercial smorgasbord, then I suppose it’s a fine place to visit. I’m not a fan of the whole Disney/theme park thing in general, but I readily cop to enjoying the luxury of a five-star hotel. I remember well what it was to travel, stay and dine in top-tier luxury. And no matter one’s ethics or values, I believe few humans would ever disdain such an experience. And that’s likely what Orlando is built upon. Transient luxury and faux finery are better than none at all, I suppose.

Elihu called around eleven. He was beyond thrilled to finally be in Florida. (A couple of hours earlier in the Albany airport he’d said to me “I think I’ve been to all fifty states now.” And yes, after a seven thousand mile tour with his dad this past summer, plus all of his previous travels, I agreed he’d come close. “How about Hawaii?” I asked. “No” he answered, “that doesn’t count; because Hawaii is its own country”. I assured him it was not, that it was the fiftieth state. Impressed by this fact, he added it to the list of places he aspired to visit, coming in right behind New Zealand and Australia.) He was beside himself with anticipation being in a place where it was not only warm (when just this afternoon he’d been lobbing snowballs at me) but where there was also an abundance of wildlife. His father had told us that the place was “sick with water birds”, so he was stoked. I’d even packed Elihu our favorite pair of binoculars – this was an opportunity no self-respecting birder could miss. And dad had reported seeing a golden-colored tree frog in his friend’s pool. This trip promised some serious stuff for a nature-loving young man.

He and his father had called me from their table at a restaurant in the Orlando airport. It was situated inside a giant atrium with both an enormous palm tree and a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and holiday decorations. The height of the ceiling impressed him as did the panoramic view of the airport beyond. It being nighttime, he could finally see outside – and was aware of distance in a way that he cannot perceive at all by day’s light. He told me he could see lights twinkling in all directions. “The ceiling here is like nine stories tall and I can see outside for miles!” he told me excitedly. My heart rose in my chest at his joy. How happy I was that he got it; that he was fully getting his sense of place. I was also very thankful that his first vision of this place was at night. I would never have told him that, as it would bring attention to the vision thing, and likely turn our conversation sour. But this was all I could think as he continued to tell me with great, childish excitement, about all the new and wonderful things he was seeing for the first time. I was so grateful for the dark of night, for the sparkling lights and the promise of a magical stay to come. ‘Enjoy this my dearest son’, I thought to myself, ‘because like your most fantastic dreams, before long this too will be nothing but a memory.’

Elihu safely and happily off in his own world for the next few days, I went next door to see how life had been going for mom and dad. Andrew had spent much of the past week drunk, and dad had just had a particularly bad episode. Following a long and challenging night, mom had finally gotten to bed after four a.m. With these two variables in the mix, plus a visit that needed to be made to housebound friend Martha, we agreed that our Thanksgiving would not be a sit down dinner at a given time, but rather we’d adjust ourselves to things as they happened. Mom agreed that she’d still make all the food (this gives her joy and purpose, believe me) and she’d just set it out for us to eat as we showed up. I’m still not sure how this will all happen; a trip to Martha’s means that dad is left alone. If Andrew and I go along as well, that is. Maybe I’ll stay back with dad. Not sure. Might have to bring some Scarlatti along with me! Hm. I begin to think that this might be a nice little opportunity to spend some time alone with dad – without others (namely mom) around. Mom tends to speak for him more and more… taking away what little voice he has left. He’s much more himself when she’s not around (no mystery there – she’s been hen-pecking at him for fifty years!) Yeeks, such a relationship they have. Symbiotic, I guess. They each seem to stoke the other in ways that work. Not saying it’s healthy, but it’s been going for decades. On some levels it obviously works for them. Who am I to judge? Happy or not, they are deeply linked and dependant upon each other. I guess it’s getting scarier for mom these days, and that’s upping her need to control things. She’s not from a generation that expresses themselves well – or at all – so that makes things all the more difficult at this stage of their lives. At least she’s giving in to it slowly and is finally accepting help (been pushing the in-home respite caregiver thing well over a year and only this week has she had someone to the house!!). Yeah, tomorrow will be a strange day for all of us Conants.

Fareed’s family is beginning to turn a corner too. Nelly, I understand, is now living with Fareed and his new wife (in our old home – and in the very room we’d once planned for his folks to live in as they aged. Same plan, different spouse.) She’s receiving some in-home care too. As both she and Martha have begun to have in-home care, my own mother is finally coming around to the idea that this is a good solution. Far cheaper than a full-on nursing home. And, though no one likes to talk about it, I added today that it increases the likelihood of Nelly or dad dying at home. I know neither of us – my ex’s family nor mine – have ever spoken in such specific language about this final stage, but at the very least I am confident that all four of them would hope to die at home rather than at an old folks’ home. Imagine them comfy at home, with a nurse to visit and make sure they’re taken care of, family around to visit and keep them connected… until that final time when they  just become too tired to stay around much longer…. could one wish for a better end?

Most of us contemporary American types aren’t good at talking or thinking about death. But it’s a-comin no matter. So I’m readying myself as best I can. Almost envy my peers who had no warning. Whose parents went quickly, tidily. Yeah, right. That’s easy for me to say. I don’t suppose any one way of losing a parent is easier than any other. No easy way to see this through, no matter what happens. But it will happen. And for those folks who are living through a lingering, meandering process, it can give those final holidays and landmarks a surreal and almost sickeningly poignant feel… knowing damn well this is the last time, knowing damn well that by Spring he either won’t know you any more… or he’ll be gone. Or maybe he’ll live another ten years knowing no one. Maybe. Anyway, you’re getting there. And you look back on last year and realize that it was your last, real Thanksgiving. Wow. It’s over. And yet, somehow, it’s not. Not yet. Not quite. A strange netherworld in which to live.

Being out of a resource, being far from home, or seeing a long-standing tradition come to a close are all things that get one to thinking. Thinking about the things we cherish, the things we take for granted, and the very transient nature of life. I know it’s hard to convince a teenager or a twenty-something that life is fleeting, but that’s ok. You’re not supposed to think that way when you’re young. You shouldn’t be thinking like that, or at least I don’t think so. Instead, you should be living those moments, feeling what it is to be in that experience, smack in the middle of your life. It’s that first half of life that gives you the standards by which you make your later-in-life observations (you know, like the ones I’m making here!). You can’t truly realize how precious things are until you know different. I do realize that life doesn’t always work like this for everyone, but it seems the usual course for most. Me, I find myself looking back and marveling over the routines I’d always taken for granted as the ordinary landscape of my life. And actually, I’m finding a lot of extraordinary in my past that I hadn’t quite noticed before. Never know what ya got til it’s gone… or til it’s almost gone, I should say.

Tonite I’m thinking to myself how blessed is the ordinary. How thankful I am for all of the ordinary I’ve ever known. I may go without for a time, or I may go for a time knowing true abundance, but either way, I must find as much contentment as I can with whatever it is that I have. If things aren’t going so well at present, at least I know that I have a future to look forward to. (Sometimes it’s nice to know that things keep changing.) Happily, I can say that in this moment, on this day, I’m thankful to have just enough.

 

Kitchen Sink Day November 24, 2013

As Elihu talks to his dad I sneak to my room for a break. I haven’t stopped getting things done since I awoke this morning, early as any weekday. And although I’m pooped, I feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction at all I finally managed to address. September and October tend to be busy months for me, and things hadn’t quite slowed down til now. There was a fall assembly for our school just this past Friday, and it had become an energetic marker of sorts in our calendar. Now that it was over, we found ourselves feeling a bit more free. Plus things had become just a tad more stressful this past week as I had somehow sprained my right wrist turning jump rope for the lower school girls. (Guess I’m not in top shape, huh?) I wasn’t sure just how bad it was until I absolutely tanked trying to play some Bach for a high school class. The lateral, side-to-side movement of the wrist that’s necessary for crossing over and under and thereby moving horizontally across a piano was nearly impossible. (I realized only after trying the piece during class how bad it was; in mere seconds I as covered in sweat. Apparently, I’d been playing – albeit badly – at a rather brisk tempo and had everyone quite out of breath trying to keep up! All I was aware of was that it hurt and I wanted to get through it as soon as I could. It was good of them all to have a sense of humor about it. I was a bit embarrassed.) It seems a bit better today; I favored the left hand as I cleaned and had the bad wrist tightly bound for most of the day. We’ll see. Tomorrow I’m on again. Thank goodness it’s a short week due to the holiday.

Oh the things I got done, and yet my mind won’t release the things I didn’t quite manage: re-caulking the bathroom, moving the nesting boxes, adding fresh bedding to the coop, cleaning the gutters, sorting out the junk drawer… I don’t fret too much, because the house, at the very least, looks tidy – and every last surface has been wiped down, every cobweb swept, every inch of floor vacuumed and/or washed, every doorknob and handle is ick-free, every framed object now crystal clear. I even took back the kitchen sinks, bleached and rubbed til they became white again! The wood has been oiled, the vinyl Eames knockoff chair has been Armor-Alled. I even walked around the outside of the house with a rubber mallet and coaxed those sticking windows shut for winter. Finally. Elihu’s collection of RC helicopters of the past few years had a good going-over and we ascertained which ones worked, and sadly, which ones could never hope to fly again. We dusted off his bird collection, we sorted thru all of his clothes, we made executive decisions, tossing books, games, things we once loved but had no need for now…. He was even able to set up the tank for his soon-to-be-arriving tree frogs (the next mom/son adventure here at The Hillhouse). Elihu’s been waiting for this shipment of vines, substrate and corkwood for weeks and he was thrilled to see his vision come together today.

We like to think we live simple lives, yet so much stuff finds us anyway… But today we tamed much of it. So much that had been taunting me for the past two months is now off the list. My summer dresses and clothes were removed from my closet and taken to my downstairs office (and gown emporium) for over-winter storage. Art materials for the Halloween costumes have finally made it down to the basement, too. Truth be told, the metaphoric ‘bump under the rug’ is gone from sight only because most of it has simply been taken downstairs to the basement, where it waits for the Next Phase. Nice thing is, it can’t taunt me quite as loudly if I’m not walking past it every day, ya know?

Now sorting it all out – that ‘Next Phase’ of which I speak – that is an enormous task that waits for my upcoming child-free week, a time which both Elihu and I are very much looking forward to. He’s joining his dad on the road in Orlando, Florida for some hotel-style Thanksgiving action with the boys in the band, while I am going to hunker down up here in the Great Northeast and Put Stuff Away. I know other folks must also face this job from time to time, but I swear it feels like my cross alone to bear, like I must be the only one in the world doing this fruitless-feeling activity. Somehow, stuff always finds its way into our house. And if mommy don’t put it away – it’ll likely still be sitting here by the time the kid goes off to college. Ah well, I got myself the right kid. He actually does notice when things have been put away, tidied. And he appreciates it. He’ll thank me for it without the slightest prompting. (And he enjoys actually being able to find things when he’s looking for them!) Yeah, he’s a good kid when it comes to sharing in the tasks as he’s able, and being grateful for what it is that I do. But still, he’s just not quite old enough to help out much when it comes to boxing it all up, labeling it and getting it put away just so. That, in the end, is still for now a strictly mommy job. Not for ever, but for now.

Feeling like something different for supper – something truly flavorful and fun, kinda like a reward for such a long and productive day – I threw together a bunch of things in a pot with lots and lots of spices. Chick peas, tomatoes, onions and garlic, olive oil, generous with the salt (my thing) plus the leftover chicken that I wasn’t able to partake of the other night – our first bird. I did not show her any respect the other night; just couldn’t bring myself to eat. Seeing her parts still made it too personal. But all chopped up and stewing in a tasty brew, this was somehow more easily acceptable to me. Mentally, I could eat this and feel much better about it; it wasn’t beckoning to be identified. Plus, truth be told, it was pretty good, which helped to distract me from my concern as to who it was I might be dining on. While I thought it delicious, it was a bit too much for my son, who complained that it was ‘thick with flavor’ (exactly what I was going for!) and ate it just cuz there weren’t any options. (Good kid. Eat what your mom makes.) As I’d been adding generous spoonfuls of this and that, simmering, tasting and finding it all working quite well, I laughed to myself when I thought of a name for this new stew. Rather like my day, it had a good deal of things in it, and rather like my day it brought a good deal of satisfaction. Chock full of just about everything I had on hand – but the kitchen sink. And so I dubbed my new concoction “Kitchen Sink Curry”. If only we had some mango pickle! (This also reminded me of a friend who, years and years ago when digital keyboards were in their infancy, had dubbed a custom-made sound of his the ‘kitchen sink’ patch, for similar reasons. Cute.)

Dinner done, dishes done, laundry done…. well, almost. A small, non-threatening pile remains on my bed. I’ll knock it out in no time. Might be a good idea to see how well the right hand’s working on the piano, but the house is so quiet that I don’t think I’ll manage that tonight. I’ll get the last of the clothes put away, hit ‘publish’ on this post, then finally, snuggle down into my bed feeling pretty good about this day on which I got just about every last little thing done – including the kitchen sink.

 

Dressing Down November 22, 2013

I dress for bed with relish. I can’t wait to be nothing but comfortable. It’s long underwear season for me (a season which takes but a mere two month hiatus in the height of summer) and if I can just find my XL gray fleece pants I’ll be in business. I don a zip front bathrobe on top of the whole affair, and with these three layers (plus knee socks and wrist warmers and maybe even a scarf for the neck) I am done. As I add each piece, I marvel to myself that I’ve been wearing this particular ensemble since my pregnancy, now over ten years ago. The older one gets, the less of an impact time seems to have, so for me it has become a number of little significance. At first it sounds kinda comforting even. Yeah, this go-to set of pajamas has been part of my life for ten years now…. ten years….a decade…. infant to fifth grader…. Hmm. I begin to wonder if this isn’t actually something I should announce to too many people. I stop for a second and look down at my own clothes. I begin to take a slower and more critical look at them and begin to see some obvious shortcomings: the robe is full of pills and is nothing close to soft anymore, the pants have the very weakest elastic left in the waist, and the fabric itself is thinning in small, penny-sized spots. Just a few days ago I chided my mother for wearing a sweater simply riddled with holes. She readily copped to it but said it was by far the warmest sweater she’d ever, ever worn and she kept it for that reason alone. “What’s it made of?” I asked her, truly curious, and expecting it to be made of the finest wool or some high-end fiber. “Oh, it’s just a polyester blend of some sort.” What?! I couldn’t help but think ‘cashmere anyone’? Likely as simple as picking up an LL Bean catalogue…It’s not as if she doesn’t have a stack of em somewhere in her many piles. And I’m thinking her budget could handle one such purchase without much trouble. So, as my mind flashes onto my mother’s holey sweater for which she really has no valid excuses, I wonder, am I as bad as that??

Good Lord, please say I’m not. But then I remember all the episodes of “What Not To Wear” and realize that yes, I am as bad as that. But I can’t justify spending a hundred dollars on new pajamas and long underwear when I run out of food money before the month’s end. And even if I did come into a bonus windfall of cash, why in hell should I spend it on clothes that no one ever sees? Wait. Is this also my mom? She’s got the cash but wouldn’t dare to ever spend it on herself. (Naw, I’m not that bad by any means. Give me a couple hundred bucks and I’ll find something pretty to take home. Just not sure I could blow it on pajamas and underwear.) Phooey. I feel a little less than comfortable in my comfy clothes now. They’re reminding me a little too much of my parents’ place. Old and worn. Man. Is this how it starts?

My ex and I used to marvel over the strange arc of our parents’ lives with respect to fashion – of their clothes, their home decor, hairstyles, accessories… We both noticed that our parents – both pairs being about the same ages – had somehow ceased being stylish at some point in their middle adult years. We’d look at gorgeous black and white prints of them in the sixties and ooh and ahh over our mother’s suits, the perfect hair, our father’s ties and crisp trousers…. they all looked so damned fine. And their houses were tidy and tasteful too. Then we moved into the 70s, and both pairs seemed to keep pace alright. Ties became wider, colors leaned towards harvest golds, browns and yellows, women’s hair got bigger. They still presented themselves well. Then came the 80s. It was that decade in which our parents seemed to slow a bit. (Granted, if you were going to miss a decade of fashion, this was the one to pass on!) Our homes no longer received cosmetic upgrades, our mothers no longer looked sharp and put together, our fathers no longer seemed hip and cool. When we looked at what was going on concurrently in our lives, we realized that our parents were knee-deep in the kid/family/career thing by then, and so the fashion side of life just sort of stalled in the shadow of everything else. I even noticed a time – when I was very young – when mom and dad would have parties, or even go to parties, but that too seemed to come to an end the older we kids got.

And then there came a time – I think around when I was in high school – when my parents just seemed to become cut off from their peers altogether. They had absolutely no social life. They hadn’t much of one to begin with, but by the time I was a senior, they had no life other than their work and the summer music festival they hosted here in Greenfield. My ex had noticed the same behavior in his folks. The only common thread we could find that made sense was the stages at which they were in their lives. They just sort of disconnected from the culture sometime in middle age, never to truly return. And if it was happening to our folks, it had to be happening to others’, too.

This brings me back to my present meditation: Is this decline a natural characteristic of one’s middle years? Is this a real danger – a statistically supported phenomenon of middle age? I realize that not all events are inevitable, and the more one questions and scrutinizes something the better one understands it and the more empowered one becomes to change things… but honestly, are my comfy clothes a warning sign of my increasing cluelessness? Is the ease with which I don my twelve-year-old pill-y bathrobe an indication that I’m tuning out? I do know that I don’t care as much – we all know that aging-related phenomenon. Super-old folks often dress like crap cuz they don’t f*ing care anymore. Why should they? They no longer have anything to prove. Plus – they’re not out to get laid. And frankly, it does seem that most self-beautification is about getting some. Or at least having someone else consider you being a person worth getting some with. And doesn’t there finally come a time when one stops caring about that kind of stuff at all?? I know I hardly do. And maybe that in of itself is just giving up. I don’t know. But hey, how can you miss what you don’t even want? My life is so different these days from my life of two decades ago, I’m not sure it makes sense to even compare the two. (When people ask me if I’m not interested in dating, I reply that I’m already dating a ten year old boy. !) Joking aside, there are moments when I’m a bit worried that I’m losing my touch, my oomph. Yeeps. Me, rockstar Liz, an old lady. Never woulda thought.

I do miss one thing though. And there is one thing I do continue to wish for as I muddle through my middle years out here in the country. I miss looking good. Dressing up. Just for the joy of it. I may be a chicken farmer these days, but I still want to feel like I look good from time to time. I want to know that even if most nights I hunker down in some really crappy looking threads, that even if I do pull out the high rise mommy jeans when I’m carrying around an extra ten pounds, that somewhere in my closet there is an outfit or two that I feel slammin in. Usually that goes with a smaller dress size. Off the no-carb wagon some four months, I’m almost where I was at the start of my weight loss last Spring. So maybe that’s part of it. Hard to get psyched about dressing a body you’re not keen on showing off to begin with. So was that part of the mix for our mothers? Did those extra ten or twenty pounds seal the deal for them? Not sure. For one reason or another – or a bunch of em all together – they just kinda tuned out and settled into a holding pattern of non-style. And it seems as if they were oblivious to their departure from the world. But I am most definitely not oblivious. Only wish I were. Then my crappy sweatpants wouldn’t seem like such a mark of shame. And I could forgive my mommy pants. But I can’t. And I don’t want to give in yet.

So please call ahead if you’re planning to stop by for a visit, because while I’m old enough to enjoy lounging all day in elastic waist pants, I’m not keen on you seeing that for yourself. And although my chickens don’t give me much of a reason to clean up my act these days, I think I still remember a little something about dressing up…

 

Done November 20, 2013

Yesterday was one long day. When I awoke early, it was pitch black outside with a full moon in the western sky. The winds were so strong – and loud – that I opened the door to see if was just the wind and not a truck mistakenly roaring down my driveway. The dark, combined with the roaring winds, made me feel just a bit uneasy. A quick peek out the window showed the coop dark for the first time since the warmer months. Whether the heat bulb had burned out or the wind had somehow had a hand in it, it didn’t matter – the scene was eery. The timing, ironic. Not much freaks me out in my life these days, and I don’t fear for much, even if we do live a bit off the road. But for some reason, with the combination of darkness, violent weather, the full moon and the task at hand, I was not feeling my full confidence. But we had a date at 7:30 with the Amish farmer. On we went…

To make things even a bit more harsh, when I opened the door I noticed we’d had our first snow. Not much, but enough to cast a slight white over the frosty leaves. It was so cold, and I just wasn’t ready for it. We had work to do, and this would make it less pleasant still. I handled the boxes in thick gloves, but Elihu’s job required bare hands. His job was to vent the hens to find the non-layers. It was easy pickins; they were still on the roosting bars tucked up into fluffy breasts and resting when we entered. A couple of the new roosters insisted on crowing (very loud in such a small space) and it helped further my resolve in getting them gone. But getting Shirley Nelson? And Judson? He was named after my beloved home in Evanston. One of our first guys. And all the rest, too. Each had some story. Jessie was our very first-ever hatched chicken. Man, for me this was hard stuff. But Elihu honestly didn’t seem to feel the same. In fact, he was light hearted as he plucked the hens from the bars and checked their vents. “Nope” he said, brightly, “She’s a non-layer. Goodbye, Gabriella. Goodbye, Inca. Sorry girls. But thanks.” he handed them down to me, and I proceeded to shove them, protesting and squawking, into a box.

We took the longer but less winding road. We wanted to give them as stress-free a ride as possible. I got into the groove, and began to get myself mentally ready. About halfway through the thirty mile drive the car began to smell of fresh chicken poop, and it helped motivate me to stay the course. When we arrived at the farm, Ben was just starting up. He was in a good mood and amenable to my chat. I always had questions, and thankfully, he was happy to answer them. A lot had changed since my first visit to his place almost five years ago. I remembered the adrenaline that pumped through my system the first time. It was still a sad place, it still had me a bit on edge as I listened to the mad flapping of the protesting birds, the clack-clack-clack of their legs kicking against the metal cones as they bled out. Ich. I tried to be a professional farmer this time, I tried to keep my focus on our end goal here. I distracted myself by sharing some of our experiences with him. I laughed casually at the two of us from a few years back. I tried to act like this was nothing at all to me now. Like this stuff was natural to us, like we were now somehow peers of this man. As if. He commended us on how far we’d come, how much we’d learned. “Some folks come in here and kiss the birds one last time”, he laughed to me. “And some of em even cry.”  I just shook my head with him in shared amazement. Some people…

The birds came back home in the same boxes they left in. Only this time they were in plastic bags and covered in ice. As I hauled the boxes off to the car, I was impressed with how much heavier they seemed now. Of course they were almost all in one box, and there was the ice, but nonetheless they felt different. We all know the phenomenon of living weight being easier to lift, the animal in question – whether human or not – always helps out a bit. Whether it’s in the form of a struggle or a simple willingness to be lifted, the animation of life just seems to lessen the weight. Wow. It was a lot of bird. Let’s see, if we were walking away with over fifty pounds of chicken, we should be eating for quite a few months. If I could actually eat these guys. I wasn’t still convinced. Even after all this. Yeah, I was still a little sad, and this was harder than I’d thought it would be.

Just an hour ago I made peace with cutting up and roasting our first bird. I inspected the legs and saw the few feathers that were left were dark. Cora? Choco? Missy? Forget it. Just forget it, I told myself again and again. Keep going… Although these were all old birds, and they’d probably be better made into soup, I still wanted to try and see just how tender or tough these old birds were. I went online and watched a quick tutorial on cutting up a whole chicken. I sharpened my knife. And I began. Oh boy. Some of the goop inside was still there. And so too was a tract full of tiny, undeveloped eggs. Oh dear. What to do? I googled for answers but none came. Anyway, what exactly does one google for in this case? “Lungs and bits of intestine left inside chicken, ok to bake as is?” Yeeps. Ok, keep going. I fairly mangled this poor dear. All this progress, and now it comes to a clunky halt at the hands of the chef? Julia Child would freak out if she saw what I was doing to this poor bird! I did my best, however, and decided to make up for the lack of butchering skill with a tasty rub. I created an impromptu, Pakistani-inspired mix of spices, mixed it with butter (fat always improves things, doesn’t it?) and I spread the pieces in a pan. Rubbed and smothered them as best I could, put them in the oven and hoped for the best.

To be honest, I don’t know why it should freak me out that the tiny eggs were still there. Nor that some of the intestine was still there either. Really, I love chicken liver. And I eat their eggs. And the meat, of course. It’s all the same stuff really. Most important, there’s no poop here. That’s the only real potential problem I guess. My hope is that the smell of the roasting bird will help me overcome my ambivalence about dinner. And as I sit here now and write, that scent is now filling the house. While most often it’s a welcome thing, I cannot say that I’m feeling the same tonight. If only we hadn’t named them. If only the cavity had been entirely clean. If only. But what on earth am I whining about? Half of the world eats birds like this. I’m gonna guess not every cook in every corner of the world cleans the bird as perfectly as possible. And many a grandmother has wrung the neck of her own dinner.

I’m clearly still a beginner at all of this, and I have a long way to go til this feels completely right. I know unquestionably that this is the way to go, but there’s a lot of cultural stuff to overcome. My bird might be done soon, but it’ll take me just a little bit longer.

 

Last Night November 18, 2013

I must remember that they’re just chickens. My ten year old boy has no room – or tolerance – for the sentiment I’m succumbing to now that the Amish farmer has finally found time for us in his schedule. The appointment came rather suddenly after months of setbacks, and perhaps just a teensy bit of stalling. Maybe I wasn’t exactly consciously stalling, but I suppose I may have dropped the ball a time or two when we might otherwise have gotten it done. But then again, we truly have been busy, and it takes more than a little planning to check this off the list. (Serendipity must be on one’s side as well.) But each time we get close, I do get a little wimpy about it all. I start taking photos of them, I make them endure enforced smooches, I look on at the marked gals in a mixture of love and nostalgia – for most of them have been here since the start of our adventure as chicken farmers (hence the current lack of egg production). We’ve been thru a lot together. The gals who are here today have survived half a dozen animal attacks. They’ve graduated from international shipping crate-as-coop to a legitimate, framed-in structure, and they’ve now seen some sixteen seasons. That’s a lotta happy living. Happy, happy birds they’ve always been. So for as much as I may anthropomorphize em and raise them to heights of character sophistication they’re probably far from ever achieving, and whatever the reality of their intelligence (or lack thereof), it can still be said that these particular girls have been with us for the whole ride. So saying goodbye, for me, at least, is just a little hard.

There won’t be much time for sentiment tomorrow. Mr. Shaw has no time for that. He’s a farmer. Got a dozen or more kids, half of whom work the line, and there’s a lot to do in one day. Calls me m’am, treats me kindly, and has my birds returned to me in tidy bags within a half an hour. Plus we’re doing another ‘chicken removal’ service for some friends and must arrive there super early to box up their girls too. I even wonder at the pure logistics of the operation; just how will we fit all these living birds into my car? Coming back they’re in bags, and they’ll fit in a cooler or two. But we must be able to fit these coolers as well as these boxes in the vehicle. Haven’t rehearsed it, so we have our fingers crossed. Ironically, I got a bunch of boxes from the grocery store today in which Thanksgiving turkeys had just arrived. Perfect. Each would carry four birds. Got some taller boxes at the wine store. Good for roosters. So we’re ready. Up at 5, a quick breakfast, then under early-morning dark it’s out to the coop where Elihu will pluck each bird off their roost, one by one, and check their vents to see if they’re currently in production or not. I tell ya, this kid’s a natural. No hesitation, plus pure confidence. And at this point, a good year’s experience sorting out the layers from the dead ends. Yeah, not sure I’d have the oomph to do all this without him. In this case he more than carries his own. Tomorrow he’s a true partner.

We both shut the birds in tonite. He indulged me. These days it’s not the event it was when he was younger. Some nights he’d be in the coop, smooching, petting, crooning and talking softly to his flock for a good hour before I could get him to come in. Now, what with homework and practicing and getting older and such, he runs out, does a quick head count, then shuts em up. I kinda miss the innocence of just a few months ago. ! But it’s all good. While I will miss the crazy, loud and goofy chicken population meandering all about the property, and the lovely little interjection of energy they provide here, I will also be greatly relieved to see my food bills cut by more than half, and to find far fewer fresh poops on my doorstep. And finally, the gals will get a break. Only one horny rooster around. And he’s getting old, too. You’re welcome, ladies.

So it’s goodnight, farewell and thank you to our first ever hatched, Jessie, our nods to twins Cora and Sophia, of course the new roos – including the bravest and most resilient rooster we’ve ever known, Julius Caesar (first-born of ’13) – and, last, but never least, my favorite: Shirley Nelson, our green egg-laying Araucana. She stopped laying months ago. She is still flighty, and has never let me pick her up without a fuss, but I just love her beard, and I just love her most curious habit of crawling underneath alpha rooster Bald Mountain as he stands in one place. She likes to sit underneath him, and he is most content to have her there. Never seen such a strange and cooperative arrangement before, and it is one more reason I’m  just a bit sad about seeing her go. Never got it on film, but I hope my brief description here will inspire long-lasting mental images thru which she may be ‘immortalized’. Elihu, knowing her to be one of the tiniest birds, is looking forward to trying out a buffalo-style chicken wing recipe on her, so at least she’ll be remembered (can one be ‘immortalized’ by simply being a meal?) for that. And the door. The back door on the coop has a diamond pattern in the glass. Elihu said it looked like it belonged in a house of someone named ‘Shirley Nelson’. And actually, he’s kinda right. First came the bird, then the door. And we still refer to it as the Shirley Nelson door. So, let her time come. She leaves behind a legacy, and maybe even a good new recipe for the book.

I need to get to sleep. My little farmer has been out for almost an hour. Five am will be here sooner than I’d like, and I gotta be on when I get up. (Plus I have a full day of school immediately after that adventure, and so does the kid.)

Thanks so much you dear girls and guys. You had probably the best lives that chickens could ever hope to have. Freedom, food, fresh air and the love of a boy and his mom. We appreciate your gift to our stomachs and to our growing bodies. Enjoy those cozy roosts one last night, and we’ll see you one last time in the morning.

Post Script: Shortly past five and the winds outside sound like a passing freight train. I look out the window for a quick coop check and see that the light is out. Wow. That almost never happens. (Likely the power line was pulled down by the weather.) A real-life metaphor for what’s shortly to come. Here we go…

 

Stop, Go November 17, 2013

At first her tone sounded potentially cheerful, ‘upbeat polite’, I suppose one might say. Having just had her son over for an afternoon playdate, I listened expectantly for a thank-you, an invitation for future such dates or some such gesture of routine civility. But within a micro second I heard the tone change, and after a slightly hesitant preamble, it came. The verbal cease and desist order. And then, abruptly, a hangup. Holy crap. I had not seen anything like this coming. My body flooded with a dull, sick feeling. And then, in another wave, came the cold shot of adrenaline. It reminded me of the way I’d felt in the wake of the flipper’s news that soon there’d be a house at the foot of our driveway. But worse. This was the mother of a child my son would likely spend the next eight years in a classroom with. And these kids really, really like each other. Oh no. A terrible, nauseous feeling began to grow in my stomach. It was nearing midnight when I heard the message. Sleeping pill or not, this would likely be a horrible night of sleep, and some unpleasant dreams were surely ahead.

In my past life as part of the public school community, my blog and its contents were never an issue. A casual mention of a classmate or pal perhaps accompanied by a pic wasn’t seen as something invasive or threatening; in fact, just about the opposite. It was a social thing, a bright and cheerful pause in one’s day, an online photo album for sharing. Granted, in the past year I’ve become aware how very different the feelings are in our insular community at Elihu’s new school, and I understand the stance on media in general, but I truly never worried – or even thought twice – about any controversy or disapproval over including my son’s classmates in brief mentions. Cameo roles and passing comments, smiling group shots or occasional close-ups of childhood moments hardly seemed threatening. But I do realize it’s a parent’s right to opt not to have their child’s image or information posted on an international bulletin board. Me, I’m fairly transparent, as readers will know. I kinda feel like you’re either pregnant or you’re not. Some information is already out there, irretrievably so, for the eons. You’ve already jumped in the pool, like it or not, so why not enjoy the water? But I suppose there’s the other side too – why give folks more information if there’s only a modest amount out there to begin with? Having one’s data on an insurance form (never mind the folks that list has been sold to) isn’t quite the same as the smiling countenance of one’s child shining as a beacon for all to see. (For a moment I consider the fear that indigenous people have about the camera stealing their souls. Could this be it? I laugh to myself.) I still don’t feel the threat personally, but I concede that I just might be missing something.

Anyway, I get it. And in an instant I was piloting my eight year old G4 thru all the fixes and retractions that I could find. At first I didn’t see much of anything – no name associated with his picture directly – and found his name mentioned only three times. But I changed the text right away. Deleted the pics too, although I did so with some sadness, as the joy just radiated off the screen. Really? I thought. I pondered at the threat these posed; was I putting the two of us in harm’s way on the blog? What wasn’t I getting here? I just couldn’t see it myself, but it didn’t matter. Keep going, get it all gone. I combed thru till I was satisfied he was gone, then emailed his mom an apology. She’s outwardly an affable person, but I don’t have an exceptional feeling of warmth or connection with her. I think I’ve tried, but granted, everyone’s busy, and most are trying to keep up some measure of professional demeanor on the outside. So I factor that in, and in retrospect I can’t say I’m entirely surprised at the situation. But I’m anxious about things now. Cuz this is our world, and we will live in it side-by-side with this family for a while yet. I just don’t want ill feelings in the air. I don’t need warm and cozy with everyone (although I’ll always try for it!), but I need a level playing field for sure.

Having a blog is a lot like hosting a radio program. You go on doing your thing in one small room, to nobody, for no apparent reason other than to hear your voice in the headphones, crisp and clear and perfectly equalized. It feels like it’s just you; there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s not. Then the phone rings. And once again, you’re almost dumbfounded that it’s not just you, alone there in the room playing music and recounting obscure anecdotes about the songs. You’ve got an audience! Of thousands! And one of em is calling to let you know how much they enjoy what you do! Really?? It’s still humbling and flattering, and of course, that one call (representative of the hundreds of others who aren’t so motivated – or geeky – as to actually call in) establishes for you that you are connected to your human family. You are. To your relief, you’re reminded that you’re not alone. And although it doesn’t happen often, something else also happens every now and again. That one other call. That one person against whom you’ve unwittingly caused offense, the person who for some reason has reacted to your broadcast in just the opposite way from the majority. And of course, since the perceived affront was the last thing on your mind or your agenda, you’re stopped in your tracks for a moment. But then you realize that this is a big planet, and it stands to reason that not everyone will feel the same way about things. So you shake it off. And then you get back to sitting alone at your desk, doing your thing – simply because you enjoy doing it – and hoping that somewhere out there just one other human being is smiling along with you.

Sometimes all you can do in the wake of a mistake or misjudgement is stop and apologize, make right your actions as best you can, and keep on going. And just when you think you know better, you’ll find you don’t. Funny how surprises can still be surprising, even when you know to expect them! I guess it’s all part of the adventure. You can plan all you like, but you can’t be prepared for everything. And life is certainly different in action than it is on paper.

As my son and I are often fond of saying, ‘you never know until you go’.