Lately many things have been coming together for us here at the Hillhouse. My kid has finally found his people – he’s met the local RC flying club, and ever since he’s been happier and more hopeful than I have ever known him to be. Last week The Studio had its first-ever board meeting, and as regular readers will understand, this is a very big deal for me. So yeah, things are going well here. You might say that for the first time in a long, long while, the things that Elihu and I have been after finally feel like they’re within our grasp.

This is not to say that life is not without its hiccups and unforeseen challenges. Because they’re keeping pace with us as we move into our future. The arthritis in my hands has gotten dramatically worse over the past couple of months, so much so that I noticed the other morning that I can no longer make a fist with either hand. Also, my hands ache almost all the time. Last week I remember noticing that I felt ‘better’ in some way, but I wasn’t sure just how I felt better. I did a little scan of my body and came to realize that my hands did not hurt. For a few hours I soaked up how good it felt to be absent of discomfort. But the last couple of days my fingers have started hurting again, and in new places too.

This bums me out, of course, but I’m grateful for the technique I was taught all those years ago, because it’s what’s saving my ability to play at this point. I accepted the job of playing piano for the traveling Missoula Children’s Theatre again this year, but I admit that I hesitated. I knew I could play, but it wasn’t comfortable. But hell, I may as well play until I can’t. I still love playing music, and for now the reward outweighs the discomfort. Who knows – maybe my hands will plateau here for a while – maybe forever – and I can simply adjust to the new normal and put the concern aside. I wish I were able to forget the issue altogether, but every morning when my fingers hurt, and every time I drop something because I can no longer grip well, I admit that I worry. If things are like this at the age of 52, how will they be 20 years from now? I try to let it go, but still…

Elihu’s doing very well in everything except the odd math test, which continues to be something we need to keep an eye on. Although tutoring has sometimes seemed to me a last-ditch effort made by those doomed to academic failure, (maybe my own personal experience with high school algebra has had something to do with this idea!) we’ve decided to get him into an after-school program a couple days a week. The main reason for this is not so much to keep him up to speed – for he very much understands the subject – but rather he needs help showing his process on the page. Having low vision means that the kid tends to do a lot of stuff in his head – he reads a passage of music once and memorizes it, he sees a problem done once and memorizes the path to the answer, he hears a poem read once and can recite it back. He doesn’t see well, so his brain makes up for it in other ways. Which, in the case of math, isn’t always a good thing.

We wouldn’t even care quite so much if it weren’t for his interest in a two-week residential summer camp on nano sciences held at a local technical college which will require finely-honed math skills. The 250 word essay that Elihu must write to demonstrate his desire to learn will be a piece of cake. The rest will take a little brushing up. If Elihu is accepted, this will prove to be a life-changing summer for him. Me, I hope he gets in because it will finally give him an opportunity to negotiate his way through the world without an adult helping him at every turn. Vision problems? Trouble navigating across campus? You’re a smart kid, figure it out. It’ll teach him to realize when he needs help (which he hates to admit) and it’ll give him the opportunity to learn how to ask for help. As a mother who is there at every turn for her child and who goes to bat for him more than anyone else in the world, I can assure you that this kind of surrender is a real challenge for me. But I can see the lasting value it will have, and if the kid decides he’d like to go to college there, it’ll be less of an unknown. Plus, this campus is only a forty-five minute drive, and if he ever did truly need me, I could be there for him.

Yesterday my computer was hacked, my backup laptop was pronounced dead by the guy at Geek Squad, and I got two scary but bogus calls informing me that I was being investigated for tax fraud. The bizarre confluence of these events – all within an hour or two – was disarming. It also cost me the cushion of $100 I’d managed to pull together from a few recent lessons to have a tech team fix the problem and get me up and running again. It was a bit deflating, even in the face of all the recent good news. When shit hits the fan, even though I shouldn’t take it personally, I often do. Seriously, I am so fucking broke. Why me? I was just about to sink into a deep funk when perusing Facebook for some distraction, I heard the news that an old friend in Chicago had lost her home to a fire. She, her daughter and mother had made it out ok, and so did the many animals they have (they rescue and foster lots of critters), but they’re now living in a hotel, and lack all the basics one needs. I quickly gave the dregs of what was left in my combined accounts to the Gofundme page someone had set up for her. I stopped pouting and counted my blessings.

The whole afternoon I was trying to understand how something so tragic could happen to so good a person. And then I got a call from another friend – here in Greenfield – and learned that a twelve-year-old boy we knew had just died in an accident on his ATV. This kid was very close to Elihu’s childhood pal Keithie, and immediately I worried for our friend. Apparently, Keith was with the boy when he died. Man. His parents had gone through a very bitter divorce just a couple of years ago; his mother moved out, his dad’s young girlfriend moved in, and shortly thereafter a new baby arrived. And now this. Shit. After considering whether or not to share the news with Elihu or wait, I gave in and told him. We sat at the island in the kitchen for a moment and wondered at the unreality of the news. We sat and we sat, unable to comprehend it. Then, for a moment, we cried. How and why shit like this happens is impossible to justify or understand. All the ‘manifest your reality’ crap, and ‘it was meant to be’ sort of thinking just doesn’t come close to cutting it in situations like this. Whenever I feel as if I’ve had an unfair go of things, I step back for a moment and I can see how lucky and blessed I am. I know I’m not the only parent who tortures herself with visions of their child dying or tragedy befalling them in some ghastly way, but it’s things like this that breathe life into those fears all over again. You try to dismiss the concerns, you tell yourself those things happen to other people, but you know that however miniscule, the chances for catastrophe do exist. You can hold on as tight as you wish, but that’s still no guarantee that you won’t lose your grip on what you hold dear.

Today Elihu and I are enjoying a nothing day. It’s after five and neither one of us has gotten out of our pajamas, and likely we won’t be changing before bedtime either. Tomorrow morning he has his tuba lesson, so the day has been spent practicing, taking breaks to fly helicopters and visit with our rooster. A laid-back day in which the two of us have spent a lot of time on the couch, laughing, being silly and doing a whole lot of nothing. I drank it in. His still-high, young boy voice, his smooth, baby-perfect skin, his skinny boy legs, his undying love for me, all of it so very precious. One day, I tell myself, one day this will be a distant memory…. I savor every moment, I push away thoughts of Billy, his mother and father and all those who loved him so, and how acute their pain is at the very same moment that I am here enjoying the company of my own cherished son. I look at my sore, distorted knuckles, and I sigh. How closely intertwined are the good and the bad.

It seems this life is like a very challenging game in which the stakes are high, the potential for suffering great, and yet there is at the same time opportunity for great moments of love, happiness and joy. And when those precious times do come to us, we must hold on tightly while we’re able.

IMG_4117Drilling for gold – the maple sap variety, that is.

IMG_4130Hammering in the spile (a fancy word for tap).

IMG_4155The sap runs when the sun shines, it freezes up at night.

IMG_4171While I tapped the trees, Elihu flew paper airplanes from the trampoline. He is in absolute heaven when flying crafts of his own creation. (One is stuck in the top branches of the apple tree.)

IMG_4292A sure sign of Spring. How on earth do they do it? A hope-restoring sight.

IMG_4815Ah, a male Cowbird has returned. (I’ll be sure to share some of their crazy courting dances over the next couple of weeks.)

IMG_4820The boiling operation on the porch. Sadly, my weather-worn grill wasn’t hot enough so the job moved indoors, leaving my walls and stove coated in a sticky film.

IMG_4915The product of our labors! It’s a good feeling to eat pancakes made with your own eggs and topped with syrup from the trees right outside your window.

IMG_4312The Missoula Children’s Theatre’s ‘little red truck’ and The Studio’s ‘vintage CRV’.

IMG_4425The Missoula directors are amazing. They take 60 kids on Monday and have a fully produced, choreographed show with songs, dialogue, makeup, costumes, props and scenery up and running by Friday night.

IMG_4400Little Miss Coco, one of my piano students, has her turn at the makeup station.

IMG_4443Next-door-neighbor Ava listens to pre-show instructions.

IMG_4320The pit orchestra is ready…

IMG_4325Here they are! Samantha, center, in yellow, will soon be living in Martha Carver’s old farmhouse. Abby, on the left and looking over her shoulder, is another neighbor and piano student. Her house is a straight shot down the hill and through the woods from our place.

IMG_4354A fine production of Peter and Wendy (copyright issues prevent them from using “Peter Pan” as the title). I don’t know as many kids in the Greenfield Elementary School these days as I once did. Already many of my young friends whom I first met here are in high school now. The progress of time is hard to comprehend.

IMG_4601Elihu’s arsenal is assembled and ready for his first “Fly Jam”.

IMG_4602Finally, Elihu meets his brethren.

IMG_4671The Flying Tigers are directly in our flight path. Time to grab the controls and take to the air…

IMG_4960Elihu catches me dozing off with Bald Mountain on my lap.

IMG_4955Elihu works on his entrance essay for RPI while I give Baldie some attention.

IMG_4940Just look at that spur on Baldie’s left foot! He’s missing the other one, and we so wish he could tell us the story of how it happened. He’s defended the flock and been injured so many times. He’s a good rooster. He’s with us because one year at culling time Elihu decided he was too pretty to butcher, so he picked him up and hid him until we returned from the Amish farmer. I remember him busting up with laughter at how well he had fooled me. Glad he grabbed this handsome fella to be our homestead roo, because the Hillhouse wouldn’t be the same without him.



All That Jazz

There are a few things my son will likely remember me for long after I’m gone; a handful of annoying habits, some exaggerated facial expressions and hopefully, a couple of unique and insightful locutions.

Starting when he was teeny, I have always strived to condense matters, facts and various life lessons into concise, easy-to-remember phrases that when spoken will instantly conjure the matter at hand and remind one of the lesson to be learned. One of these such sayings is “Everything is a thing.” While its meaning may not be instantly gleaned by the reader, I think you’ll understand it easily enough if I expand a bit: I offer that within every seemingly commonplace thing or event, there exists a huge back story belonging to that thing; an industry, the thought and careful consideration of many human beings, and certainly the investment of time and money. To some certain folk, the mundane things we so easily take for granted may be the very cornerstones of their lives and careers.

You can take just about anything that is fashioned by the hand of man and find this to be so. The upshot of this idea? That one should take nothing for granted; the toil and thoughtful consideration of many of our fellow human beings are represented in every imaginable thing we enjoy or use. It’s easy to overlook how much was involved in the making of the chewed-up pencil which lies long-forgotten in the detritus of your junk drawer. But someone owns the factory which makes the little metal band which holds the eraser in place. Someone had to buy the materials to make the eraser, someone had to insure the trucks which drove the materials to the factory, and so on. One can take this tack with virtually everything on this earth which is not naturally existing, without the influence of man.

Years ago, when I was in the barfly chapter of my life, there was a charming neighborhood tavern I frequented in which a handsome young man with long, gently-curling, red-blonde hair tended bar. (He himself was not a drinker, and I often wondered how ridiculous we hard-drinking, hard-smoking patrons must have appeared to him as the night progressed.) It was a small thrill to watch him at his work, and as he was a kind and intelligent fellow, I wished I’d had a better opportunity to speak with him outside of the bar environment. One night I got my wish, and the young man agreed to join a small gang of friends whom I’d rallied to meet up after hours at the Green Mill Lounge. With live and top-drawer music every night of the week, there was almost never a bad night to stop in.

The bartender looked quizzically at me. He wanted a bit more information about the proposed destination, so I tried to explain. “It’s a jazz club. There’s live music.” He looked at me, appearing unsure of my meaning. “You know, jazz.” A light of some sort went on in his head and he responded, almost incredulously; “Is that the place where they do all that improvising?”  Yes, yes, that was it! I agreed with great excitement by shaking my head; yes, that was it precisely! He looked almost pained at my confirmation. He shook his head to decline the invitation. “No, I’m not going. Nooo. I don’t like all that improvising“. I didn’t press the matter, the crowd was moving, and he couldn’t be talked into it. There was so much I wanted to add – I wanted to explain the context, the framework of the music so it might have made more sense to him, so he might’ve taken interest. In that moment I realized something: even though people may have some things in common – perhaps even a lot in common, culturally speaking – they can live in radically different private worlds. Jazz was a foreign country to him, but it felt like my home town. Something that acted as a cornerstone and primary identifier for my life was nothing but an annoyance to this guy. There wasn’t any point to trying to sway him, so I took my new lesson as a consolation.

From that point on, I have never taken any of my experiences or values for granted. And even though I may overlook things, or never truly demystify them for myself (case in point: I still have no idea how the game of football works; to me it just looks like a laborious, injury-prone and war-like game of chess which takes way too long), I still give these other worlds their due. When someone tells me they’re into something, or they collect something or play some game I know nothing about, I have a certain amount of respect for all that that might represent. It’s easy to take for granted all the time and energy that things take. Hobbies and careers alike require a lot of behind-the-scenes investment. And I try to make sure that Elihu recognizes that too. Thankfully I think I’ve been successful imparting that to him. (I myself have a lot of my life invested in that kid for sure, and lest anyone toss off the role of mother as a sidebar to a ‘real job’ – my child would certainly prove otherwise on that account!)

But not everyone does fully appreciate the value of another’s skills or accomplishments. The other day I had an adult piano student with whom I had the most unusual experience… He arrived at his lesson with an amp, a guitar, a huge boom box and a bag full of CDs. That much wasn’t so crazy; he was primarily a guitar player and wanted a chance to learn how to play on piano what he did on guitar. I got that. Seemed like a lot of work just for an hour’s lesson, but I’ve moved more gear for shorter jobs. But then the ‘lesson’ began to drag on, and almost three hours later I’d hardly given him any instruction, but rather we’d spent the time playing small parts of songs along with the CDs on the boom box (I had my own boom box, but it wasn’t substantial enough in his estimation). We’d essentially just been jamming on half-bits of songs, piddling around, getting nowhere with neither one of us learning much in the process. (I did learn that one of these country artists he liked chose to play a lot in Db, which I found curious.) He’d wanted me to have the boom box – on which great rings of red light flashed like an annoying karaoke machine in a bar – and he’d been most enthusiastic about giving it to me. I said politely that it was “too generous”, at which he agreed and said that we could just call it a trade. My heart sank to my feet. Food stamps were two weeks out, my ex’s payment was late, and I had a $50 tuba lesson in a few days’ time. What the fuck was I going to do? And how could I politely refuse this horrible machine that made it look as if a small spaceship had landed in my living room? I smiled my way to the end of my wasted afternoon and saw him out.

When you play an instrument – and you play well enough to join in pretty much any situation – but you don’t play like a virtuoso – I find it’s easy for people to take your skill for granted. They might think “you’re talented”, or “you’re lucky cuz it comes easy to you”, so therefore it’s no big deal. Something like that. As if you hadn’t spent hundreds of hours supporting that talent or skill. As if somehow, since what you did was “fun”, it wasn’t worth as much. It wasn’t in the same category of the necessary services like litigating, filing taxes or cleaning teeth. Here was a guy who’d somehow thought that because he was having such a good time, and because I was playing along so effortlessly – that somehow my time no longer had as much value. I don’t quite know how a person can come to such a conclusion, but how else to account for his oversight? He even left me with the request that I learn some of the songs on the pile of CDs he gave me. I lightheartedly suggested that he get a gig for us, and then I’d gladly learn them. He reasoned that you need to ‘work up the material’ before you book the gig. He was a nice guy, but he was missing something here. Everything is a thing. And this was my thing.

After stewing over it for a while, I ended up sending him an email. Cuz I honestly feed my son with my teaching income. I couldn’t overlook it. Happily, the fellow had had some similar thoughts in hindsight of our lesson, and he was more than gracious enough to not only pay me for the lesson, but to also tip me $10. That was very kind of him, and I told him how much I appreciated it. I got a little lesson about my self-worth through this experience, and I think he did too. Yup, sometimes there really is more to the story than one thinks at first.

I’d like to get myself a piano single gig this upcoming tourist season, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be happening. I’ll give it a try, but I have a good idea of what I’m up against now, and I’m still unconvinced I’ll land a job. Last year I’d made a pretty good effort, but in hitting the streets after so many years, I learned all over again how involved the whole process was. Again, there’s so much more to getting a job as a pianist and singer than you’d think; you must have dozens, if not hundreds of tunes ready to go. That means charts in your key (or charts on a tablet – that’s light years beyond my capabilities and budget at this point), it means gear, sometimes it means childcare (thankfully I’m out of those woods now!) and it means chutzpah, tenacity and salesmanship, not to mention the hours of playing and learning technique and theory. And these days, it usually means you need a nicely produced video of your performance too. Videos from over a decade ago won’t cut it, nor will your story about ‘taking time out to have a baby’. Nope, none of this will buy you an easier entree into this elusive world of the single, working musician. I suppose eventually one breaks down the barrier through sheer tenacity and a relentless drive – that seems to be the missing element in my method – but as of yet, I have not.

Nothing is every as easy as it seems upon closer inspection. Me, I’ve only ever been just good enough to play; I’ve admittedly used my ears and natural talent to cover me when hard work may have been lacking. And while I can sing and play, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, what we often call ‘jazz standards’ (which are really just pop tunes from the 20s thru the 60s which jazz instrumentalists have improvised over) I am not a jazz pianist. I can fake my way through some 2-5-1s (the chord progression upon which much of popular music is written), enough to get myself through a hotel lobby gig, but to hold that post all night at a singalong piano bar – I’m not so sure I could do that with unyielding vigor for a full three or four sets. Yeah, I could get there, and I suppose in a pinch I could possibly sub – but again, there’s a lot of infrastructure and time involved. Right now, my time’s needed in other places; I don’t have the time to make the proper investment.

There’s a joke about musicians that goes like this: How many musicians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: 100. One to do it, and 99 to say ‘I could have done that.’ ! Next time you hear a musician, stop and try to imagine yourself doing the same thing. Hell, next time you see anyone doing anything that you don’t currently do yourself, and ask yourself how you’d fare at the task. How comfortable would you be? How long would it take you to do the same thing with moderate proficiency? It’s easy to say you’d do it better than the other guy – but honestly, would you? Everything is definitely a thing. You can play guitar in your living room, but try doing it in front of a room full of people. Completely different. It takes skill to do anything well, no matter whether it’s cutting a lawn or writing a computer program. Everything is a thing – including all that other, unfamiliar jazz.

Here’s a link to Elihu’s performance of Ghost from Hamlet, which he performed last week at school, and again over the weekend at the Greenfield Talent Show, where he won third place for the same monologue. This too represents a good deal of unseen work. I myself don’t have a clue how or when he learned his lines. But I know they didn’t learn themselves! Proud Mama am I…