The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Book Two Begins March 1, 2018

The new year, thus far, has been an unrelenting game of good news/bad news. Somehow, in spite of some personal sorrows we weathered in the first weeks of January, it seemed that things in general were looking up. The Studio appeared to be crossing a line into new territory; I was starting to book events that had been on my mind for months. The time was finally here, and things were happening. I was making connections, meeting people. We were getting press – we were in the paper and on the news. Poised for some exciting things ahead. And yet, here we are today, so close and yet so far…

At this writing I am so very close to wanting to pack it all in. Forget the whole thing. Park my kid with a host family in town, move to Florida, get a gig house sitting or dog walking and just never come back. That idea is really appealing right now. No more snow, no more meals to make, no more food stamps to run out of, no more furnaces grinding to a halt in freezing temps, no more piano students cancelling in the 11th hour, no more venue emergencies, no more having to go to my mother for the money to fix it all. (At the age of 54 you’d think that shit would be behind me. Apparently not. It’s incredibly demoralizing and has me wondering if a job at Walmart might not be a more dignified situation.)

Not too long after we lost our ancient rooster Bald Mountain, an unidentified neighbor dog came through our property, killing five hens (two of whom were elders and quite dear to us) and injuring one of our laying ducks. She was hurt, but not so badly as to warrant butchering her – so we took her to the vet. Having acquired my very first credit card in the nine years I’ve lived here (when your ex leaves you holding the bag on family credit cards but you live on welfare, it makes starting over a very lengthy process) I was in a position to actually take an animal to a vet and pay the almost $200 in care and meds. A small financial setback, but our duck healed well and now stands to hatch out her own ducklings this spring. So it was a happy ending. Sort of.

As nature abhors a vacuum, apparently so too does an unused credit card balance; I found myself making an unplanned, last-minute trip (the timing and short duration of which made it unusually costly) to Chicago in order to visit an old friend who was diagnosed with a rapidly advancing, early onset form of dementia. (It’s called FTD for short, there are two links below to videos which describe the disease in more detail.) I’d told her I’d visit in the fall, then again made the promise at Christmas, and most recently I suggested a summer trip. In reality there would never be a good time to go, and it appeared that my friend as I’d known her was fast-disappearing. So I chose the winter school break, when I could leave Elihu alone for a few days without concern, and I’d be back by the time we held our Friday night dance performance at The Studio. The day before I was to leave, I came down with a fever, and during my two-day trip (the most expensive two days of my life since I moved to New York nine years ago) I completely lost my voice. So there I was, in the company of my oldest and dearest friends, nearly unable to speak, and physically wrecked. It didn’t diminish my happiness at seeing everyone, but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. I was lucky to have the use of a friend’s car, and luckier still to experience some unplanned visits and serendipitous meetings, so at its core, it was a successful trip. Just not a very comfortable one.

And I got to spend two days with my friend, a woman who I will most likely never see again. And even if I do see her again in this lifetime, she won’t be herself anymore. Whenever my mother complains about the expense of an outing, the thinking I always share with her is that she’ll always remember the event, but years down the line she won’t remember the bill. I also had to remind myself of this over and over. Visiting a friend is more important than money. The time was now, and I did what was right, I know it. But still. It’s gonna take a few years to knock this balance down again. Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself. I’ll get over it. Just not today…

While I was visiting with my friend, on that rainy day in Evanston, Illinois, I got a call from the woman who teaches yoga at The Studio. The power in the building was off. That was strange; I’d gone to great lengths to make sure the electric bill was paid in full, that everything would run without incident during my three-day leave. But no, the main breaker had been flipped, and nothing was changing. I was whispering with great difficulty over the phone, my throat already on fire, my stress level rising as I realized I needed next to call the electric company and navigate the automated system on 10% battery, and without a voice. Shit. I bounced back and forth down the long hallway of my friend’s new downtown condo, visiting with her while on hold, then retreating to the bedroom to explain my situation to the customer service folks. After some time and several different calls, I was able to arrange for a lineman to assess the problem the following day.

The next day I also juggled personal visits with more follow-up calls; apparently no one had been to the property yet as they’d promised. And my mother, she had thrown herself and a last-minute solution into the mix in the form of a rented a generator to power the place (we still needed to find an electrician who could tie the damn thing into the main circuit board) for the rehearsal and subsequent performance. My mother was trying to fix a situation which needed much more than a band-aid approach. Missing the forest for the trees, she was trying to revive a non-revenue earning event at no small expense. She was so persistent, and I was in such physical discomfort and so unable to even speak, that countering her on the phone was infuriating. There I was, at the iconic Blind Faith Cafe for the first time in over a decade, with a waitress asking for my order, an overly enthusiastic friend trying to interpret for me, and my mother telling me I needed to confirm the generator rental NOW. I don’t relish hanging up on anyone, but there was no other out. I told my mother to CANCEL the damn generator, and pushed the red button. Done, done, done. I was in no place to keep this event together. Even if I hadn’t been sick, I was 900 miles away. Not a good idea. I don’t like giving up, but sometimes ya just gotta wave that white flag.

Before I’d gone to Chicago, I made sure to have my hair done. Karen, the woman whom I was going to visit, had been a very talented hairdresser, and if she would resonate with anything at all, it would be my hair. So I had my regular hair gal Wendy pimp my ride. The highlights were over the top, the curls beyond natural and the lift almost 80s music video ready. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it wasn’t for me anyway. I was thrilled that Karen loved my hair. I was thrilled that she was still recognizable as herself. And I was thrilled, that after an eight year hiatus, she and I and some dear friends were going to meet at a restaurant we’d been going to together for over twenty years. Old home week was on. It was why I had traveled so far…

I was the first to arrive at the place, and somehow it seemed different. Ah, but that’s what nearly a decade can do, I thought to myself. Shortly before we convened at the weary-looking table we learned the reason: only four days earlier our pals Tony and Vatsana had sold the thirty-year old business. If only I’d come out a week before. If only, if only…. All we could do was laugh. Poor Karen, who partly due to her condition, partly due to the anticipation, had been repeating “Crispy Basket” all afternoon, continued her refrain, only now it took on the tone of a small, sad child. “No more Crispy Basket” she said, laughing, but still sounding rather pitiful. In the end we all had to laugh. The whole situation was ridiculous. No more Panang Beef the way only Vatsana ever made it. And the cucumber salad? There was no redeeming it. The magic was gone. I couldn’t help but think how this was one of those defining moments in all of our lives. One of us was on a fast-track to death, none of us was looking any younger, and never again would we gather together around a table, all of us together.

Karen was still able to have a laugh over her situation, and by the end of the night we had created a new ‘in’ joke which would surely last… She and her sister Debbie had recently gone to the hit show Hamilton and during intermission they’d gone to use the bathroom. This was before either woman was aware of the extent to which Karen was prone to wander, and by the end of intermission, when her sister was nowhere to be found, Debbie sent her a text. “Where are you?” she asked. “I went to use the bathroom” Karen texted back. “Where?” her sister asked, to which Karen very matter-of-factly responded “Target”. Apparently, finding the lines too long, she had meandered outside and down the street, ending up at nearby Target store where she used the bathroom and then dutifully waited outside for her sister. And so for the rest of the visit, a trip to the bathroom was referred to as “going to Target”. Good to be able to laugh about it. It’s a frightening enough situation to warrant tears, but what good would it do to cry?

“I just want to know if you’re worried, if you’re stressed. How are you feeling? Are you scared?” Although I’d intended to get a little deeper into my inquiry of her experience, that was as far as I got. “Liz, do I look stressed? No, I’m not stressed. I’m not scared. It’s just weird is all.” We talked a bit more about the strangeness of it. I was secretly relieved that the very disease itself had robbed her of the ability to fully comprehend the severity of things. She had taken on a certain childlike quality which seemed to take the edge off of her reality. Karen was in a bizarre place to say the least; she would warn me of her inability to filter her language and impulses and ask me to intervene. She knew when she was about to approach a stranger with an inappropriate question, she knew when the impulse to chew something grew too strong and so her teething toy needed to be within reach lest she gnaw her debit card beyond use (which she did while I was there). Again and again I asked if she was scared. I didn’t want to lead the witness, I just wanted her to know I would be there for her as best I could.

“You’re such a country girl” Karen would say many times that afternoon at her apartment. She’d laugh at my wide-eyed assessment of all the change that had taken place over the past few years. Lyfts and Ubers swarmed all around us on the streets and appeared like tiny bugs on our phones, ready to drive us across town without so much as a bill passing hands. People were everywhere, lobbies were huge and involved falling water. There were crazy themed restaurants everywhere, and there were as many brown people as white. It was probably a good idea that I’d taken this trip. My little cocoon in upstate New York did not present an accurate glimpse into modern urban life. “Yeah, I may be a country girl, but you’ve still never ridden the el!” I joked back. Indeed, my friend had been a real Jewish American Princess, complete with a two seater sports car and folks who wintered in Boca. “Yeah, but you’re still such a country girl”. Karen always had to have the final word. I remember thinking at that point that she was probably right. This was not a world to which I would choose to return.

We spent a rainy Wednesday afternoon inside her beautiful new condo with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls watching TV, playing her keyboard, singing and looking at photos. She was adamant that we go across the street to World Market and pick out the perfect frame for a photo I’d sent her of my father and her at the piano in our old Evanston home. Karen loved my dad. And he had loved her. They flirted in French and cracked each other up. “I kiss everyone goodnight, like this” she said, kissing her index finger and placing it on the photos of friends and family members that sat atop her bureau. “We need to have Bob up there.” By the end of our day together, a beautifully framed picture of Karen and my father rested among all the others, and we were both very satisfied. I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending to our visit.

The afternoon finally turned into evening, and although the previous incarnation of my friend would never have admitted to such a thing, this woman told me several times that she was getting sad as my departure grew closer. I was too. Never a good time for goodbye, especially the kind that truly might be the last. But thanks to my true and spazzy form, the poignancy of our goodbye was somewhat diluted; once by my returning to leave her my CD, and secondly by a crazed digging through my bag to find my hat – which was loud enough to have Karen open the door and check on me. Finally, when the elevator arrived, she turned and closed the door without waving. It wasn’t really goodbye, just see ya. Better that way.

The el squeaked its way through old, familiar neighborhoods. Nighttime was always a good time to ride the train. Lights sparkle everywhere and interiors become tiny tableaus. I’d noticed on this trip that apartments were all becoming so über hip. Growing up I remember shabby apartments, one after another. Now it seemed that the entire city was made of upwardly mobile thirty-somethings. On the train another adult also unable to censor his speech appropriately made a loud observation which made me laugh: “I’ll bet the train will lose a whole bunch of millennials at Belmont”. There sure did seem to be a lot of em.

I’ve always loved to fly, so this rare opportunity to experience commercial flights again had become another great disappointment; on the way there the entire flight had been above the clouds, and my seat was on the aisle. Upon returning, I found myself in a middle seat, which might have been fine, only there was no window at the end of the row. In all my years of travel I have never before been in a windowless row. My head cold made the ascent the most miserable I have ever experienced, so it really didn’t matter anyhow. This trip had been about seeing my friends, and that had been accomplished. The quality of my flights wasn’t really the issue, expensive though they may have been.

The two-day whirlwind of $12 airport beers, visiting old friends and eating out at favorite restaurants was done. I relished the final moments of the flight, the landing, the awesome power of the engines braking the craft. I savored every moment I was not yet back. A horrible feeling of dread filled my gut when we turned the corner and I saw the lights of the tarmac. The detour was over. A muddy driveway piled high with a winter’s uncollected garbage, a fourteen year old boy who needed to be fed, and a venue without power awaited me at the end of my eight-hour commute.

It’s been one week tonight since I got back home, and shit hasn’t stopped. Still need to cancel a few more events, have yet to ascertain how and why the power cut out, and my poor kid has been really sick for the past two days. I just got the dishwasher repaired with the last remaining available credit on my ‘new’ card, and all but three piano students have stopped taking lessons. But there’s been good news too. Not without a hitch, though…

A very nicely produced piece on The Studio appeared on the local news only a few days after we lost power, and here the irony continues. Just the day before it aired I had discontinued my cable service in order to save some money, so I wasn’t able to actually watch it live on TV from my house. Oh, the timing. And the piece itself is lovely; it pays a very sweet tribute to my dad and to my mom, it shines a bit of hope on the future of the venue, but sadly when they’d come out to interview me I was at my annual heaviest, and on camera I read like Ann Wilson in the early 80s. Deeply embarrassed, I’ve had a very hard time seeing the generous shares and comments in the Facebook world. I can’t bear to watch it ever again. I need a serious do-over. I’m down eleven pounds since the interview, and my personal goal, if nothing else, is to establish some online video presence with some short music vids to help redeem myself. I’m very nearly on the bottom of my personal barrel right now. So not where I imagined myself to be in this new and until now, promising new year.

Entropy. My kid likes to remind me that’s the direction we’re all headed anyway, so don’t sweat it too much. It is kinda like the great playing field-leveler. Yeah, we have our glory years (if you’re anywhere from 20 to 40 as you read this, consider yourself in the undeniable sweet spot) but then the physical shit eventually hits the fan. I’m almost at peace with that idea. Certainly closer than a year ago. I’m slowly acquiescing to my mortality. It feels as if I still have a small chunk of work yet to do here on this planet; the kid’s not fully launched yet, and I do have a vision for The Studio which at the very least I’d like to see set sail before I’m done, and yes, my ego would like to see the blog turned into a book. (However I’m wise enough to know that nobody truly cares. And please, don’t protest, I get it. I sat next to an author on the plane who provided me another reality check on that count: I gave her what I thought to be a pretty compelling elevator pitch, and she just smiled and said “Everybody has drama, and lots of people write well.” Nuff said.)

“Your fingers are freaking me out” Karen said as she stared at my knobby distal joints. “Yeah, I really don’t like having arthritis this bad” I had responded. A moment passed. Karen looked at me, and she seemed tired. “I’d rather have what you have.” Another space landed between us. “Yeah,” I answered. “I know.”

Guess it’s time to quit griping about all the stuff I don’t have, and instead, concentrate on all the things that I do have. I guess it’s time to start writing that new book…

 

Link to WNYT Channel 13 piece on The Studio

Link #1 to shorter video on Frontotemporal Dementia

Link #2 to longer video on Frontotemporal Dementia

 

 

 

 

All Saints (Go Cubs) November 2, 2016

Were it not for the directives written on the kitchen’s dry erase board, yesterday I would have had no idea what to do first.

The morning had the distinct feel of a ‘morning after’. Clothes laid draped over every single basket and chair back, contents from purse and backpack had been hastily dumped to make mad, last-minute searches for lost objects, and both Elihu and I had comically bad bed hair. Me, I still wore a raccoon’s mask of the previous night’s witchy kohled eyes. Finally, we were there. The day after; November first.

Halloween night had seemed like a distant dream – like a storm arriving after great anticipation, it had caught us up in its frenzy of costumes and clutter, pumped our systems full of sugar and then swept off into the distant night leaving us exhausted and in great need of a long night’s sleep. On the morning after I awoke in a cold, motionless space. My head was free of to-do lists, free of immediate concerns. For one rare moment, I was not in a state of mild panic. It was just me and a silent house. The day was sunny and clear, and there were almost no leaves remaining on the trees. My head was as still as my room, as bare as the branches. After stalling for a good long while in my horizontal position, I finally rose and walked, bare feet on the cold floor, to the kitchen and turned the kettle on. The quiet had seemed somehow extra quiet. I tried to think, but no thoughts came to me. I must have had things on my mind – things that desperately needed doing… but what on earth were they? Thankfully, the me from the day before – the one going a hundred miles an hour – that thoughtful woman, she had written a list. What a relief. As I cupped a warm mug of coffee in my hands, I allowed my mind to remain vacant for a good long while as I stared out of the window to the mountains beyond. And then I dove back in.

Although it was a mere day and night ago, the morning after, All Saint’s Day and day of the dead, the day of the thinnest veil between the here and the hereafter – it seems already to have been last month. So much has happened in the past thirty-six hours. Many wonderful and serendipitous meetings have occurred. There have been dozens of tiny errands, a handful of new financial scares and a few stressful concerns, but the final take is that things are off to a pretty good start. I’ve made some mistakes, but I suppose none are for naught. I am definitely learning.

Yesterday is what I personally consider to my own New Year’s Day. For me, Halloween is always the raucous end to a long, long year, and the cold and silent morning after is the quiet beginning of a new one. This coming year promises to hold some fine surprises. The challenges – especially the financial ones – are not over, but I’m beginning to feel a little hope. Some friends encourage me to embrace only the possibility; they insist that my holding onto fear and ‘scarcity’ thinking will only bring more of the same. Maybe so, but my hope is still guarded and a bit weary. One never knows though. And certainly one should always hope for the best…

The Studio is taking on a new life; people are finding me – and the space – and becoming excited for the potential. I’m beginning to realize a couple of things in the process: firstly, that I am clearly not my father and must dispel for once and for all the romantic notion that the space will continue in the same manner in which it began (namely a performance space for early music) and secondly, that I must embrace the new programs that are now coming to the venue. There will come a day when Baroque music will resound again within those walls, but the reality doesn’t indicate it to be anytime soon. But that’s ok, because a great new adventure is beginning.

Oh ye saints, if you can still hear me on this day after, I pray that you will watch over me and my new friends as we pilot this little community arts center into the future. And, please, while you’re at it, do you think that you could see to it that the Cubs win the World Series? If you could, it would be really nice. Don’t fret too much over it though. Whatever happens, I’m sure it’ll be ok. But still..

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Post Script: A heartfelt thanks to all Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. 108 years is a long time to wait. So thanks. Really. Thanks from all of us. Down here we’re grateful and happy as we’ve never been before. We appreciate any energetic help you may have tossed our way… After all this time, it seems that we really needed it! Luck, skill, tenacity or divine assistance, howsoever it came our way, we’re delighted to the heavens for having had it in our grasp when we needed it most. Saints be praised….

 

 

Gone One Year December 27, 2014

My dad died one year ago tonight. As I sit here, I try to remember the feeling of the day, the order in which things happened. I’ve lost track of some details – some things are fuzzy, and that bothers me. But I’m lucky to recall this distinctly: I remember most how normal the day had felt. For the first time in years, it was just we four Conants together in the house. All of us at our posts, a low level of activity and busyness going one which had created a feeling of normalcy and well, comfort. My mom was in the kitchen puttering about, my brother at the dining room table on his computer, my father was sleeping in his hospice bed in the side room, and I sat in between them, on the couch in the living room, taking it all in. Feeling how homey it was. I knew we were waiting for dad to die, we all did, but still, it felt good to be there. All of us together, one last time. I can’t know how mom and Andrew were truly feeling, but I remember that I was quietly petrified, but somehow doing ok. In spite of what we where there for, it was a good afternoon. One year ago today.

We were all touching dad when he went; mom and Andrew holding his hands, I was holding both his feet. After sleeping quietly for hours and hours, it was a little after eleven at night when dad uttered two loud vocalizations. I alerted my brother and mom, and then it began. The final half hour. And at the very end, he faked us out three times – we’d thought he’d taken his final breath when he’d take another breath in… By the third one we were actually laughing – and crying of course too – because here was dad, in his last moments on earth, taking a curtain call. When he finally passed, our cat Mina, who stays on dad’s desk in his office (and had gotten up on his bed earlier that day – a move very uncharacteristic of her) meowed twice, as if to confirm that dad had finally left us. Finally, we could cry. Mom, who I’ve seldom seen cry in my entire life, allowed herself tears. Andrew too. And after years of being at the receiving end of my brother’s hate and venom (it’s not his fault, he is not well), I hugged him, told him I loved him and that he was the best brother ever. So thanks, dad, for helping each of us find a little closure in your passing.

When you finally lose a parent, it feels like an initiation. Having two parents – especially two who are still under the same roof – feels a bit like a bonus these days. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures and videos of us all while we were together, and I’m tempted to indulge in regret. It just kinda felt as if it would always be thus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again more than a few times: this is a hard planet to live on. Even when you have it good, it’s still not easy.

My agnostic friends will think I’m making stuff up in order to feel better about the whole thing – but me, I know that we move on to another plane of existence after this. I know it aint over, and that I’ll see my dad again. I even know he’s aware of me here and now, and that when I think of him, I send him my love and energy through the ether, and he receives it where he is. I know this. For my friends who don’t believe there’s anything beyond our simple, earth-bound lives, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see the look on your face when we meet again…

Here are some photos I’ve been digging up all morning. I’m missing a chunk of time in between when Elihu was little and now – but for some reason, life must have taken over and I just neglected to take pictures for a while. I guess I just kinda forgot that it’s the everyday things that are more worth remembering than the exceptional. But I’m lucky to have these. And so lucky that I got to be the daughter of Robert Conant.

Some pics from dad’s professional life…

IMG_4697An early promo shot.

Early Promo Shot 001Dig this one. !

Fort Dix, 1951Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)

the first Baroque Fest with mom and dadThe Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

robert shaw choraleWorking with Robert Shaw.

dad and Paul DoktorThis may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.

IMG_4682Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

IMG_4685Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

IMG_4667The Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel, Switzerland was an important part of dad’s professional life for many years. (With August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller.)

IMG_4704Always loved this one.

IMG_4692Dad as conductor.

IMG_4668Taken from the balcony of the Studio.

IMG_4678Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.

IMG_4672Kenneth Slowik was a huge part of our lives growing up as well as a very important part of dad’s professional life, and we still count the Slowiks as family.

FBM's 50thThe Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.

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Now some pics from dad’s personal life…

Dad as a young boy 001Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.

mom and dad wedding

Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.

dad and me at harpsichord in Hamden

1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?

me dad afc at orch hallAndrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.

Conants by the StudioWe four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.

dad and me in the StudioDad and me at the Studio, early nineties.

IMG_5756A snapshot of the many talented young men who helped dad to run the Festival of Baroque Music through the years; they’re all really like family to us, and the Slowiks, Ken (far left) and Peter (3rd from the left) have been part of our family for over three decades.

IMG_6547_0001Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.

IMG_6527Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.

IMG_0553This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.

Dad's 80th Birthday 103Since Elihu could talk, he and his grandpa enjoyed speaking to each other in this made-up, Eastern-European-sounding language, complete with hand gestures and lots of crazy nuances. It was incredibly funny, and amazing to behold. Dad himself was extremely gifted at doing impressions and speaking in accents, and was known for his ever-present sense of humor. There was a lot of profound hilarity through the years in this household!

Dad's 80th Birthday 112Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.

elihu, grandpa and duckA few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.

IMG_4660I like this one of these three.

IMG_6519_0001Grandpa, winding the Grandfather’s clock. ! (This clock is the same one behind dad and me in that first shot of me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord.)

the Studio new signThe ‘new’ sign. Can’t believe it was four years ago now. Deep down I think that I just couldn’t bear to do anything with the place until he was gone. It still feels like his place; just putting up the new sign (replacing his Baroque Foundation sign) was kind of a big step.

the studioThe Studio that dad built in 1974 – architect, Michael Curtis. The place has looked a bit cheerier in years past, but it will once again. All in time.

Dad's 80th Birthday 050Dad and ‘the two Jims’ at dad’s 80th birthday. These guys have been around the Festival for over twenty-five years. The stories they retold at dad’s ‘living wake’ last year had us all but peeing in our pants. It was a perfect send-off for dad. (That’s Martha, seated at left.)

Dad's 80th Birthday 016And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.

1231102110This is how dad spent much of his last few years, resting on the couch. The lamp in the background hung in his childhood home in Passaic, New Jersey.

Elihu with hand over heartAlmost as if a sign of things to come, young Elihu reverently puts his hand over his heart in the same room in which his grandfather would leave this world.

Dad's HeadshotThere is just never a good time for goodbye.

As Elihu said to you in his final parting: see you shortly…

Robert Scott Conant, January 6th, 1928 – December 27th, 2013.

Post Script: Here’s a recording of dad playing – granted, his is the 3rd of 4 harpsichord parts (I know, four harpsichords? Wow) and it’s impossible to know what exactly he’s playing, but nonetheless, he’s in there somewhere… 

 

Dream Gift December 25, 2014

For the most part, my dreams aren’t that mysterious. While they take place in some fabulously surreal landscapes, the subjects are easy to recognize. My dreams are a Dadaesque montage of various and sundry events from my current life, taking place in the settings of my earlier life. Usually things happen alongside modified versions of a vast lake (Michigan), in a place under a canopy of trees (Evanston) or beside a modern city on that same lake (Chicago). My inherent nostalgic bent thrives as I sleep, and upon waking I feel a hazy sort of satisfaction to have returned ‘home’ for a visit. My dreams look backward, not forward. I see no sense in keeping a dream journal to glean hints of powerful hidden foreshadowing, because from stem to stern, I’m just not the kind of gal who thinks a whole lot about the future.

Until last night. I slept in fits and starts, due to a stubborn cold which made my breathing difficult and irregular, and as a result I was able to awaken in the midst of several dream sequences, all of which I can easily recall. And the thing that struck me, as I reviewed the scenes in my head before rising, was that they took place here. And now. And – more intriguing to me – was the fact that they were all somehow centered on the Studio. There was construction, industry, there were people working together, sharing the vision… Hammering, drilling, the smell of lumber, the sight of studs awaiting drywall… At one point I awoke in a start, yelling out loud “We must have two bathrooms!”, and found my heart pounding as I sat up in bed, still panicked that the contractors had overlooked this very important feature…. When I came to, and realized that we did have two bathrooms, I was greatly relieved. I pulled the scene back into my mind’s eye and studied it more closely. Now this was interesting; there were some design ideas there I hadn’t considered before that just might work… Merry Christmas indeed. This felt like a gift.

People may tire of my manic swings, hell, I myself can’t believe how low and high I can go in such short order, and how endlessly I can do so… But I’ve long been mulling over the idea of what’s missing in my life these days, and how I need to redefine myself and live into the future ahead. A lack of planning skills is in some way why I’m here, now, in this present funk. So I need to start envisioning how it all might look one day… Elihu will be gone into the world in too little time, and if I think I’m having an existential crisis now, just imagine how it’ll hit me then!

I know, as well as everyone does, that the main objective of life is to express love in the world, and that expression takes its form in service to others. I’m not a big fan of hard work, or methodical process, so I’ve chosen to do my part in the service sector in the guise of smiles to strangers, small talk to disenfranchised-looking folks and such. Not meaning to sound too full of my self, I do admit a certain ease when it comes to expressing compassion and connecting with people. Elihu once remarked about me that I seemed to make friends wherever I go. Yeah, kinda. But that’s easy. I kinda feel I need to step it up a bit more.

I love teaching, I love coaching kids, and it’s the best feeling in the world when they get something. Hell, I love it when my adult students get something. I have never been a particularly hard worker, so I’m keen on sharing my slacker shortcuts with anyone. If I can save anyone else from all the time spent not understanding what the hell was going on – in music, in life, in any endeavor – then I feel I’ve done something of service to my fellow humans. That’s all well and good, but somehow, I gotta cast a bigger net. But I’m so afraid. I try to identify what imaginary, invisible thing it is that holds me back. After spending the last two days reading the memoirs of three successful women writers, I can identify one thing right off the bat: I don’t have an insatiable drive for success. Seriously. I am fucking lazy. I’m not being all needlessly self-effacing here; I’ll admit that when I’m in it, I’m in it. And I can work my ass off. I can produce tangible results like crazy. I’m good at organizing, assessing and restoring visual order (when given the wide-open space and freedom from parenting duties). So yeah, I can work. But it’s private. There’s no one to judge, to witness. And like I said, I don’t experience this kind of work ethic until the place is clear of kid duty. And see, that’s one big problem. These other women did it fine with kids in the mix. Me, I just don’t get that. Plus they had spouses, boyfriends, even goddam deadlines. I do remember the adage “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”, and I can vaguely remember a time in my life when that might have been said of me, but right now, the way I feel here and now – forget it. I get panicky just trying to envision coaching a small ensemble, never mind running a series of educational programs and making sure that our 501(c)3 papers are in order. Shit. How will this work? I can’t do this. Can I?

I gotta. The key to ridding myself of panic, of that paralyzing horror, the key to wanting to wake up in the morning and not distracting myself all day long by keeping a super-tidy house and making a killer tasty supper – the key to all of this is to be of service in the world. I thrive on being a good mother, and I thrive on buoying the spirits of those who seem to have withered under the weight of it all – cuz I so get it – but I think it’s time to be brave and take on more. This cold I’m currently experiencing has done a nice job of presenting me with a swath of guilt-free down time. Time in which to read, to learn what it feels like in someone else’s head, to get a new perspective, to digest… It’s been a good couple of days. My nose is sore as hell, I can hardly hear a thing in my right ear and my eyes are still disgustingly red and watery, but it’s all good. In a way, this miserable cold has kinda been a gift.

It’s hard to imagine that my position at Waldorf is over, at my choice, and that I have no tether. With an audience to witness this internal struggle, I haven’t left myself an opportunity for escape. (Believe me, I wrestle with whether or not to even include the whole Studio story here. I am so tempted to pretend these thoughts never happened, so tempted to continue teaching, being a mother, collecting eggs, all as if nothing else mattered. Who knows, I still might do that. Just sayin.) If nothing else stands to motivate me, I must remember my father. I cannot allow this amazing gift of such a beautiful venue go to waste. If nothing else, I must continue his legacy. It’s taken a year (and even so, I’m still not completely there) to realize that I can never, ever hope to come close to doing what he did. His gift was early music, and it’s not mine. To try and continue as before is impossible. Hard as it is to come to terms with, it’s true. I can only do what I do. My gift is connecting people, uplifting people, sharing insights, being a host. So I need to follow the spirit of my gift, in whatever form it needs to manifest.

It was last year on the 27th that dad died, and a year ago January that the Studio flooded and ruined the gorgeous oak floor on which so many performances had taken place. A year since my heart was doubly broken. While I haven’t done as much as maybe I’d originally thought I would in the year since, I have to understand that this has been an important year, a necessary year. Like my cold, this stopping-in-my-tracks business of the flood, the demo and the slow start to rebuilding, this seemingly fucked up situation has actually turned to reveal itself as a gift. The gift of time for inner adjustment, the time to let go of what things were, to begin to nurture an idea of what things might yet be…

Recently, the forester called me to say they were ready to put the landing in for the logging equipment. Two years behind schedule, the logging of my family’s woods was finally scheduled to happen – which would not only put some money in the coffers to continue rebuilding, but it would, in the process, provide the Studio with its own parking lot. I can’t remember feeling as happy, joyful and hopeful in years as when he told me the news. We’re waiting on a good deep freeze to get the heavy equipment in, and because it’s been so warm and rainy lately, I almost feel as if it’ll never happen. As if the call from the forester might just have been a dream. When I get super down, I try to conjure that feeling of excitement, of progress. Not sure I’ll believe it til I see it. The drive is marked, I’ve circled the keeper trees with nylon tape, and the crew will call me when they’re on the way. I’ve been told that when it starts, it’ll happen fast. Which is good, cuz I could use some forward movement just about now.

In such unsuspecting ways do these life gifts reveal themselves. And in so many ways, this waking life itself is kinda like a dream. It meanders around new corners and pushes you into strange, unanticipated situations. And sometimes, I think, it might just be better to be surprised. Isn’t it more fun sometimes not to know what happens next? After all, it’s the element of surprise that makes it so exciting to unwrap a gift…

 

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Post Script:  Speaking of service, today I remembered Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. as I searched my shelves for some new inspirational reading. My father and he were friends at Yale, where Rev. Sloane was chaplain – the two of them also sang in the Yale Glee Club – and I had Bill’s last book “Credo” autographed one year as a Christmas gift for my father. I was fortunate to enjoy a few conversations with Reverend Sloane; at the time I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to have spoken with him. In revisiting some YouTube videos of him recently, I have a new appreciation for the fellow. In person he was just as warm and supportive as you’d imagine him to be. Here’s a short clip of Bill receiving an honor for his service, and some of this thoughts on the state of our world…

 

Saratoga Streets September 2, 2014

Well, it’s here. The end of the tourist season in Saratoga Springs, New York. Elihu was away for much of the summer, but he still got a little time in busking and meeting folks. I keep telling him to rake it in while he’s still relatively little and cute, cuz the tips just don’t come as easily when you’re a pimply-faced teenager (or an adult!). But in the end, he does it because he loves it, and the money is really just icing on the cake. He will likely continue to play into the cold months, but the sweet season is over for this year. Here are some highlights of our final weeks on the streets of Saratoga…

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I’m always extra proud of my son when he tips the other street performers without a word from me (and he always does).

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This is chalk art by Alexis Broz, now billing herself as the ‘original’ chalk artist of Saratoga. You go, sister, we know you are!

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Here Alexis left her imprint on a T-shirt artist’s street space.

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We ran into some fellow Waldorf School students and everyone hung out for a bit.

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Here’s the charismatic Eryn (and also a former student of Elihu’s teacher at Waldorf) doing her thing, shortly before jetting off to attend The American University in Paris.

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Another view of the same scene.

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Cecil Myrie’s a Jamaican banjo player who’s been a staple of the Saratoga street scene for the past three decades. (Here he’s showing Elihu how to play this resonant bass box.) He has bone cancer now, and in spite of his desire to, he just wasn’t able to muster the physical strength he needed to join us out on the town. As we chatted about life – and about Chicago – imagine my surprise when he recounted for me his memories of hanging out at the “Step-Hi Lounge” on Wabash… the very haunt in which I myself passed away many hours in my days as a film student at Columbia College. (CCC is right across the street, but the Step-Hi is now no longer: a parking lot takes its place.)

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Cecil’s trying to give me a lesson, but I’m having a hard time here…

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Okay, I’m pulling it together now…

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But my lil man has it down. Just look at that left hand!

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And speaking of mentors, here’s our dear pal Ed, at Saratoga Guitar, giving Elihu a little impromptu lesson.

IMG_0883Looking good Elihu! Maybe next year you’ll have another trick up your sleeve when busking season arrives.

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Here he is on the final day of racing at the track (the major tourist attraction here since 1863).

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Here Elihu is playing alongside Skidmore music degree grad Paul, who plays the Gyile from Ghana, West Africa. It’s tuned in a crowd-pleasing pentatonic scale, and thanks to Paul’s great feel, he rocked those five notes hard all afternoon. Goodbye til next year, all you fellow buskers… it’s been a lovely season.

 

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Just a friendly reminder that if you’ve enjoyed my posts and would like to buy me a cup of coffee (that’s a blogger’s euphemistic way of saying ‘give me a small tip’) you can click on the tip jar icon at the top right of this page and it will allow you to do so rather effortlessly through Paypal. Thanks for considering, and thanks even more for contributing to the coffers of this writer and mother.

 

Dream Gene July 23, 2014

Woke up in a sort of zombie-like state this morning. As usual, my dreams had taken me to far-off places full of fantasy, and in waking my heart sunk to remember the mundane reality I’d returned to once again. Not mundane in that it itself isn’t full of its own unique twists and turns or even challenges and new experiences, but rather mundane in the sense that the feeling is the same; my surroundings look the same as they did yesterday – and many hundreds of days before yesterday, too. The smell of my room is the same, the sounds of cars passing on the distant road, the birds, the whistling of the teapot – all of these are just the same as they have been all of my life. In short, my waking world hardly changes from day-to-day, while my dream state each night takes me to far off places and fascinating scenarios which almost always make waking a disappointing experience. How can waking life compete with a Mad Max futurescape in which handfuls of near-vacant apartment buildings with abandoned pools and gardens sit aside a vast, inland sea waiting to be explored? Or a mysterious, urgent migration to a dusty, desert country surrounded by masses of people and filled with amazing new landscapes? Just two of my several dreams last night. Just two places of the many thousands I’ve visited. I suppose I’d rather have those memories than not, it’s just that it makes coming back something of a bummer.

“You get that from your father”, my mom has always said when I begin to try to describe any one of my dreams. And it makes me smile to think of it. Yeah, my dad would be as confounded as I am when he’d vainly try to tell us about his previous night’s travels. “Oh sweetie boopis, I had a dream,” he’d start, smiling and trying my mother for an interested ear, and she’d almost always wave him off, saying “oh daddy”… Regardless, he’d make an attempt to draw us into his dreams; he’d begin to tell us bits and pieces of his recollections… He, like me, would struggle to convey the detail, the nuance, the essence of the dreams – with near fruitless results. I always felt bad for him that we couldn’t share in his visions with the enthusiasm he so desired, because I knew how he felt. Many times I’d raise my eyebrows and tilt my head in apology, telling dad that we sincerely wanted to share in his excitement, but we couldn’t possibly ever know what he’d seen. In the end we’d wind up chuckling at whatever humorous or fantastical remnants he could recall for us. Dad was a charming and funny man, and he could make just about any story, however incomplete, a delightfully entertaining little piece.

For years I’ve stated, in all sincerity, that my dreams are the better part of my life. Usually folks protest when I say this – some even seem to take offense from my remark – and they’ll remind me how much I have to be grateful for, how exciting my life here really is. I point out to them that I don’t disagree with them; I’ve had a wonderful variety of experiences in my life, and as most lives go, I’d say it was one of the more interesting ones to have lived. But still…. there is simply no way that this earth-bound life can compete, no matter how many places I visit, no matter how many lovely, serendipitous moments I experience, no matter how many delicious foods I taste or how much gorgeous music I may hear or how many beautiful pieces of art I may observe or how much exquisite weather I feel – none of it can possibly stack up to my dreams.

Usually, it’s the sense of place that strikes me first in my dreams. A landscape, the architecture, the light and mood, and mostly, the sense of space. It’s nearly impossible to describe, but my surroundings can be expansive and yet intimate at the same time. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it’s a bit like looking over a toy train set. In one glance you can see the town, the countryside beyond, you can understand the scope of the land to its horizon, and yet at the same time you can see the components that make up the town; the buildings, the cars, the signs, the tiny windows – and even the people inside the windows. You’re able to take all of it in and understand the whole scene from the minutiae to the monumental, all in one fell swoop. And it’s like that with my dreamscapes too. Often I visit a place on the edge of a large body of water. Often there are buildings, pools, gardens, pathways and plazas… I can trace the general components back to my hometown of Chicago; it seems to be the inspiration for this reoccurring theme. Lord knows I miss that lake and that city. I miss water dearly too, and so seem to make up for it in my dreams. But there are the adventures too – not always pleasant, but still compelling. Last night, for example, I suffered through a chapter of a ‘not prepared for the gig’ dream (which will no doubt have musicians smiling, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to me!) and while it was not pleasant, the feeling that was ever-present as a backdrop to the nasty situation more than made up for it. I was in a plastic, phenomenal place, and it promised to morph soon enough, taking me away and into a more agreeable situation. Truly, it’s more about that elusive feeling than the specifics. Language cannot convey this essence, this feeling. It simply can’t be shared with anyone else on the planet. Its memory can be savored, but only alone. Dreams, as transporting and restorative as they might be, remind me of how isolated each one of us truly is here on this earth. Dreams are my salvation, and sometimes my prison, too.

I have many memories of dreams that are for me as real as any memories of this world. When you get right down to it – what’s the different between one memory and the next? They are both no longer current experiences; they are simply recollections of a past experience, whether real or imagined, and they both now live solely in your memory. The dream and the ‘real world’ memories are, therefore, equally real. I have learned so much from my dreams and traveled so extensively, that knowing I can’t choose to revisit these places and circumstances again – under my direct control, that is – often gives me a profound sense of loss and sorrow. How can I hope to make anyone understand? I’ve yet to meet another person, except for my father, whose dreams were so rich and vivid and full of detail. So real. Who yearned deeply to return to these places. Whose heart broke upon waking from them.

On mornings like this, it can take me a little extra time to get going. To shake it off, to come to, to get back to the to-do list. Maybe that’s why this morning’s unfolding a little slower than usual. I’ve completed all of the domestic projects I’d intended, my garden is as finished as it’s going to be (and looking rather pretty too), my coop is doing fine, the flock is blended, my house is clean and my basement organized. With nothing pressing in on me this morning (except the Studio – but that’s a whole new chapter which requires entirely new to-do lists) I find myself rather stuck. Not a bad place to be, I guess. It’s kinda like a pause in the flow. This morning it’s taking me a little bit longer coming to terms with this reality again. A couple of phone calls have come in as I’ve been writing this, and they’ve helped pull me back into the physical world. And today I could use a little help in waking up, because the dream thing in me runs deep. After all, it’s in my genes.

 

Toddlin’ Town July 14, 2013

Man, did we toddle around town. We saw so much in one short week. Still weren’t able to do some things on our list, but we did a lot… Again, might be too many pics for some folks’ interest, but thought I’d share em anyhow. I still can hardly believe I was in Chicago just a week ago. I kinda need these photos to remind me that yes, I was. (Btw – this is my final post on our trip. I promise.)

July 2013 trip B 016First thing we see as we step outside Union Station.

July 2013 trip B 019First thing Elihu does is whip out his drum and join a busker on the station steps.

July 2013 trip B 033Next, our friend Marja invites us up to her office on Michigan Avenue for a look at the city from the 21st story.

July 2013 trip B 042This view has what’s known in my family as a ‘high pucker factor’. I won’t mention which part of the body it is that puckers up at this dreadfully alarming height. I’ll leave the answer up to your fertile imaginations.

July 2013 trip B 091The view South down Michigan Avenue.

July 2013 trip B 101See that pointy building with the ‘bump’ on top? Some locals call it the ‘buglamp’. It’s a giant, blue light that has been part of the skyline since the ’30s. And I’m lucky to have been one of the few to have actually been inside the thing. Another enchanted story of a more innocent time… I had merely expressed my interest in visiting the dome to an employee of the building, and within minutes I was inside the two-story lamp, climbing a ladder to a makeshift plywood floor beside a giant blue light bulb. We swung open a large panel of glass and then sat with our legs dangling out and over the side, while we took in the breathtaking view of Grant Park to the East. In this day and age that sounds unbelievable. But it happened. And it’s a memory I treasure.

July 2013 trip B 109Now we’re looking East. Navy Pier visible just between the buildings on the far left. And speaking of that leftmost building, at 82 stories it’s the tallest building in the world designed by a woman-lead architectural team. “Aqua” has a lovely, continuous curving shape delineated by its balconies, and which gives the building the feeling of a wonderful, twisting sort of movement. I’m a fan of Jeanne Gang!

July 2013 trip B 074It’s the bean! Still think of this as a new part of Chicago, but it’s already been there since 2006. Oh, and it’s actually entitled ‘Cloud Gate’. Just so ya know.

July 2013 trip B 063That’s me and Marja waving. She’s got the bright yellow-green pants.

July 2013 trip B 065One of those classic tourist pics…

July 2013 trip B 753And now, to Evanston. This is my old, beloved home. Miss that living room and its enormous windows. In keeping with the former family’s traditions, each year we put up a giant, 20 foot Christmas tree that could be seen by all who passed. The place has been known to generations as ‘the Christmas tree house’, and in fact that’s how I first knew this place as a young girl.

July 2013 trip B 693Also miss the treasure hunts in those awesome city thrift stores. Dig that telephone!

July 2013 trip B 881We’re at The Guitar Works in Evanston. Owner Terry Straker is a pilot. Planes are more exciting than guitars any day. !

July 2013 trip B 932This is the shit that makes me miss Chicago. Saratoga is nice, but sometimes I really miss all the funk of a city.

summer trip 2013 A 006Inside at the Green Mill. Like coming home.

summer trip 2013 A 002Looking up and seeing Von so unexpectedly made me tear up. Hard to believe he’s been gone almost a year. Bless you, Vonski. Thanks for helping us all to ‘express’ ourselves.

summer trip 2013 A 026Closest thing I have to proof I sang there that night. My kid forgot to snap a pic of Mama. Sure had a good time. A line down the street and around the corner, and shoulder-to-shoulder inside. Fun for a night, but not quite my speed anymore.

summer trip 2013 A 061Back in Rogers Park, the northernmost neighborhood in Chicago, where Fareed and I lived  for 12 years. We had a great little two bedroom co-op right on the beach, with a balcony and view of the city. (Evanston is the next town up the shore from here). The title of Fareed’s album ‘Manresa’ was not inspired by some exotic destination, but rather from the name of this very apartment building. (I have a similarly-posed pic of his dad from the 80s on the same spot.)

summer trip 2013 A 130At Evanston’s beautiful (and expensive!) South Boulevard beach.

summer trip 2013 A 071Ah, wind and water. Nothing comes close to that feeling.

summer trip 2013 A 119Folks who’ve never been to Chicago rarely think of beaches. But some of the very best are here.

summer trip 2013 A 117Just sand, water and horizon. And two pretty seagull feathers.

summer trip 2013 A 133Good-bye for now, dear beach!

summer trip 2013 A 136At our old next-door neighbor’s 4th of July party. That’s Barbara, the new resident of our old home resting on the fence.

summer trip 2013 A 152Chicago’s fireworks on Navy Pier, as seen from the Chicago Yacht Club. Not a great experience when you compare it to Saratoga. In a small-ish town it’s possible to get right up close and under the action. Here, the display was a good quarter of a mile away.

summer trip 2013 A 166But Elihu’s not really here for the fireworks…

summer trip 2013 A 179He was rockin it. Had a big crowd nearly the whole time – and dozens of folks recording him too…

summer trip 2013 A 184Tried busking at the bean but got shut down by the fuzz. We kinda thought it might happen. But they were nice about it.

July 2013 trip B 860Elihu was pooped! Lil man did really well. We packed a lot into a short time. (Note the Ben 10 Omnitrix watch. Elihu is usually so precocious and grown-up that I can sometimes forget he’s still a little boy. He wore that thing day and night for the whole week. So adorable. !)

summer trip 2013 A 214Our final stop in Evanston; the rose garden and crane fountain. Shortly thereafter Elihu and I parted ways, as he went to spend the next month with his father, and I left to catch the train back to New York. This was a phenomenal trip. Elihu will never forget his tenth summer. And it’s still not half over! Chicago’s finished for us this year, but no doubt there’ll be a few more summer adventures to come…