The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Summer, Defenestrated September 27, 2020

Even though the outside temps are pleasant and the cold hasn’t fully arrived, in this first week of fall, summer is certainly out the window. But it kinda feels like the whole year, the whole nation, maybe even the whole planet itself has gone out the proverbial window along with it.

For me personally, in this long stretch of time since I last wrote a post, both enormously great things have happened in my life alongside tiny tragedies. Where to even begin?

The pandemic took away some amazing opportunities for my son, who had won a concerto competition and was to have played as a soloist with a symphony orchestra. It took away a South American tour with the orchestra too. But in the space that a home-bound experience provided, my son was able to study in preparation for his hopeful college, as well as create some beautiful aircraft and a new website. He likes to be alone, he loves to learn and to study. He’s been in heaven with extra time to work on Japanese, on Mandarin, and on advancing his understanding of German. Frankly, this time has been a huge gift for Elihu.

And me? Firstly I’m back on the diet train. As with every time before, I assure myself that things will be different this time. That I’ll keep those goddam thirty-five extra pounds off my frame for good. I’d been going to the Y several times a week for the past few years, so things were good on that front, but when the virus hit and people were staying inside, sharing recipes and cooking up all those carby treats, I was already well ahead of them. I’d been eating like a teenage boy all winter, and by the time of quarantine my face was doughy and I was inching my way out of my wardrobe. Since May I’ve lost seventeen pounds, which feels great, but I’m only halfway to my goal. And it’s the second half of the process that always kicks my ass, and it’s often when the whole program goes, well, out the window. We shall see how I fare this time around. Existential angst, a fresh round of panic attacks and a desperation for a respite from constantly being on the hook for what feels like everything, all this propels me to break free and move onward into a better future for myself. Perhaps this time it’ll be different. Perhaps.

The Studio has experienced a renaissance during this pandemic, a true re-birth. It’s been a small miracle, and it’s been the happy answer to my now seven-year search for sustainable programming – and income. Until now the venue has rarely even paid for itself. Magical concerts and gatherings take money to produce, and net very little. As a single mom, teaching, keeping house and farm, I have never had the time to figure out the fundraising thing. And as a NFP, that should be the venue’s main source of income. Anyone who truly knows me knows that I haven’t got it in me to do all the insanely tedious administrative work it takes to get grants. Back in the day – a few decades ago – in Chicago I was able to easily get a couple of grants for my music, but the world is a very different place now, and arts organizations are fighting tooth and nail for every penny. And because there are already so many live venues in my area, I’m up against too many contenders. Hey, I’m fighting just to exist on this goddam planet, I ain’t got it in me to take on any other battles. But thankfully, I won’t need to…

Last summer a friend suggested I rent out the place on Airbnb. At first the startup costs had me stopped, and I wasn’t sure how it might work legally. My accountant advised me of the parameters; personally I could take some money for management and cleaning fees, but the income was for the Studio. Fine by me. And how would I tie it in to our mission? I billed it as a “midcentury artist’s retreat in the woods”. No wifi, but deer right outside the window, a great live hall with an in-tune Steinway, lots of instruments and gear, and trees all around. Perfect. There was a lot of stuff to buy in order to set the place up properly. But mom stepped in as she always has to cover the gaps, and I crossed my fingers this was the final time I’d ever need her help. I made a few tweaks and made the former green room into a very cozy little apartment. Bookings started soon after, and I have been dark for only 3 days since I opened. It’s been exhausting – I’m a maintenance and cleaning staff of one for a big space – but at least the place is finally making money, not a lot, but the building is paying for its expenses, which is huge. Next year I’ll raise my prices and who knows, it might even get into the black. Folks have recorded albums, finished novels and choreographed dances in the space. Soon I’ll revamp the website and direct folks to all of the work created there. It’s a whole new chapter, and a productive one, which pleases me deeply. You should see the guest book, so much love and gratitude expressed there. A miracle, truly.

But personally, I’ve been hit hard by a few things, one more literal than metaphorical, and I shall get to that in a moment. Friends may know I broke my neck when I was eighteen, and for years docs have warned me that arthritis would likely follow as I aged. But secretly I felt like I was somehow a badass for whom this fate was too pedestrian, somehow I just knew that that would never be my fate. However, it has finally come back to haunt me just as the professionals had warned, and tirelessly so. My neck aches nearly all the time, and it makes all sorts of gruesome sounds; grinding, popping… And occasionally there are tingling and electrical sensations down my left arm (I broke that shoulder too, so…) So far the feelings aren’t severe, but I no longer think that Nature knows that I am exceptional, and she will continue to mete out the consequences of my previous injuries according to her plan.

I also have nine nodules in my thyroid which are continuing to grow in size. Thankfully the growths are benign – and I know this as I had nine fine needle aspirations, one in every nodule. Oy! I cancelled my appointment twice before I acquiesced and did the right thing. (When I broke my wrist years ago and needed surgery while pregnant, I had to have local anesthesia administered in both my neck and armpits, and this was reminiscent of that scary and vulnerable procedure. Long-ass needles in very tender parts while you are fully awake are no fun.) My neck is almost always tight, tight, tight. I’ll even gag out of nowhere, and of course it’s downhill from there if I don’t just force myself to chill out immediately. I must breathe deeply and slowly and use great restraint so that the gagging doesn’t take me over. Not an hour goes by when I don’t have to physically pinch the tissue on my neck and pull it out to provide some relief. It’s nearly 24/7. It’s bearable, but I can’t see how I can live like this for the rest of my life, certainly not if it gets worse. I was to have had a contrast MRI a while back, but my panic came on in spades, even with three xanax in my system, when they locked me into the neck scan apparatus for the MRI. It’s even tighter than the tube, and we all know how small that bore is. I tapped my foot to help, but it ruined the images. It tried, I did. I just couldn’t. Those who live with panic know what I mean. So now ultra sound and x-ray happen this week. Hope they shed light. I’m a singer, I can’t fuck with my voice. This neck stuff scares me deeply.

So now to the event that has changed my life forever. I was hit in the eye by a log kicked back from a wood chipper in early June. What the hell was I doing loading a wood chipper without eye protection? I don’t know. Being a badass again. I hired a crew to help me clean up the downed branches after a long winter, and not a one of them was wearing glasses, so I didn’t have cause to worry I thought, and besides, I always thought the danger lay in the impelling, not the expelling. And subsequently I’ve heard that the new, current machines have safety mechanisms to prevent that. But looking for the cheapest outfit to get the job done, naturally the gear they brought was old school and just as sketchy as the band that did the work. In fact, I donned my work boots and gloves and joined alongside them cuz they just weren’t kicking ass. And I hired them to kick ass! I worked alongside them in the heat and humidity. After about the third hour I loaded a huge, thick branch into the machine, and wham! it kicked out and into my left eye. “I gotta go to the emergency room” I said, covered my eye, ran back to the house, grabbed the kid and hightailed it to the hospital.

So. Where do I stand now? I lost a chunk of my sclera, the white part, and I have not only crazy annoying floaters which have dulled my vision to a slight blur, but I also have now a constant feeling that something is in my eye. Or as if I had a contact in backwards. I damaged my sinuses and have a constant tightness in my left orbit, and sometimes it hurts. At night, when I turn my eyes to the right, I see a flash of white light, something similar to an ocular migraine, and while at first it was really creepy, now, thankfully, it is something I’ve come to expect and it’s somewhat easier to live with. But it’s still creepy. Daily, hourly, I lament this accident, my part in it, my stupidity. Again, I was trying to take care of everything myself. I am so disappointed in the choice I made that day, in my fate. And I don’t like that I’m always feeling so self-sorry. Cuz I am.

But in order to diminish my self-pity and to “make lemonade” of the situation, I decided to throw my focus somewhere else every time I’d start to whine internally. I memorized all 195 countries in the world. I learned each one not only by their location, but also by their shape. I learned most of the capitals. Ok. So that took a week. What next? I picked up a book in French and started to read aloud, occasionally asking my precocious, French-speaking son where my pronunciation mistakes were. With so little vocabulary this became too frustrating, and I was back to feeling sorry for myself. What next? I started to walk. I live on a fairly busy road so had never considered this simple activity. I’d had an old friend from high school come to visit mid summer (a deviation from my diet certainly occurred then!) and we had gone for a walk one evening. It had seemed so foreign an idea, but how perfect, how simple! And how good it felt to move…

I have misrepresented myself on Facebook as I’ve shared my recent physical activity. Yes, I can do a lot of miles now (nine yesterday – my own mind was blown) and yes, I go fast. Not the 5.5 mph I did ten years ago, but I move, I cover ground. But I don’t run. I can’t. My neck could never take it. I’ve been a tad too embarrassed to reveal it, both for the way in which it looks to most, and for the way in which it is greatly misunderstood, but I, dear readers, am a racewalker. Have been for thirty years. And I kick ass at it, this I know. And it feels awesome. I love it. And I don’t love running. When I run, my boobs bounce, my neck hurts and I can’t wait for it to be over. But racewalking? It’s sexy. Very. It’s elegant, it’s control, it’s groove. I could balance a teacup on my head and not spill a drop. The movement is about the hips taking the stress, and dispersing it by moving with it, not against it. There are no heavy footfalls; each step is exponentially less stressful than a jogger’s step. And I can groove. I get my music going, I find my form (which I must always tweak as I go, lest I get lazy and hang my neck down thereby defeating the purpose of keeping stress off) and I go. I fucking go. And it feels so good, cuz I’m moving, I’m sweating, I’m dancing. Really. That’s what it feels like to me, it’s like a forward-moving dance. And when I sink into it, and realize that it’s not the destination, it’s the right now, it’s where I am right at this moment – that’s when I’m in the proverbial zone. It’s what kept me going yesterday, up and down grades – that each take a shifting of gears and form – seeing not the end, but just the going, the going… It helps keep me sane, distracted, breathing deep. I still have to pull at my neck, sometimes I need a lozenge to keep my throat itself distracted and moving, but I do it. It’s been a long time since I’ve racewalked, but it definitely feels as right now as it used to. Even though I love the solitude, I wish I knew others who felt as I do about it. I don’t have a tribe, I’ve never in my life met anyone who also racewalked, hell I’ve never even seen another racewalker but for on YouTube. I’ve done 5Ks and 10Ks and never seen another soul racewalking. But that’s ok. I’ve always been good at being alone.

Although I do get fairly personal here in this forum (one friend even referred to my writing as “brazen” – my goodness that seems a bit extreme, does it seem so to you?) I have never once mentioned the subject of relationships. There have simply been none. These past twelve years here I have given my all, and happily so, to my son, who shall forever remain the brightest light in my life and my reason for being here on this globe. I have declined many a romantic overture over the years; many fine men have made attempts to woo me, but I have given none of them a chance – yet at the same time, I’ve always been completely frank with them. I simply have never had the energy to give. I gave it all to my kid. But now, as I contemplate a new life without my child at my side, I am beginning to yearn for something else. I’ve never missed having love, sex, romance, any of that – I’ve simply been too slammed with life for anything else. But now, my mind wanders. My heart hopes, and I wonder at a post-child life and what opportunities might appear. But I have mixed feelings; I love my solitude. Can one have both, I wonder? That window might open again. Who knows.

As a proud mother nearly ending her tenure at childrearing, I must also share an update on my son Elihu. I will clear up now the way in which his name is pronounced as I have been asked many times (hey, I wouldn’t know either if my dad hadn’t been a Yale man). It’s “EL ih hyoo”. Not “el AYE hoo”. Granted, in its original day (think Old Testament) it was probably more like the latter, but the accepted pronunciation changed a few hundred years ago. (Look for Elihu’s story in the book of Job, it’s very moving. Without even intending it, my son got the name that fit the man he would become. Sometimes the world truly is magical.) My son has his sights set on MIT. We visited the school last October, and it just felt right immediately. I had thought the city atmosphere and large scale of the buildings would be too much for my legally blind kid, but no. He was charged up, thrilled at every corridor, every turn, every lecture hall. He was home. And although I’ve been told by numerous friends not to get our hopes up, I’m sorry. They already are. Elihu was awarded the Rensselaer Medal from RPI, and should he choose to go there (he’s already in), it would be pretty much a free ride. Nice to have that in our back pocket, but MIT is the goal. Elihu has taken on the applications all himself (he knows his flaky mom can barely get her taxes together – I would’ve been a definite hinderance to the process!) and I just learned his final list: MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Princeton, Georgia Tech and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He said he might add Yale just to make grandma happy. Thankfully our financial situation waives application fees for all, so I say what the hell, kid. Add Yale. Elihu Yale and grandpa would both smile down on you.

As Elihu’s final years here at home come to a close, so too will our chicken-raising chapter. It may not seem a lot of work, but it’s yet another thing to do. Winters are long. The flock can’t be left for even a day, they need constant tending. Making arrangements to leave town even for a weekend is an imposition on neighbors who step in to help. I don’t know what we would’ve done without their amazing help through the years. Farming does not allow for vacation days. Even when you’re sick as a dog and can’t get out of bed – you must. For the past eleven years our process has been this: each year we’ve stocked the incubator with eggs precisely twenty-one days before Elihu’s birthday in late April (yes, all of them are viable thanks to lucky Jack, our one resident rooster) and we’ve always hatched them out on Elihu’s birthday, which has fallen several times on weekends, making our parties fun and memorable. In the fall we’ve butchered the roosters (only one rooster is needed for a flock of twenty-five hens) as well as the non-laying hens, thereby wintering over a modest-sized flock of a dozen or so birds, and generously stocking our freezer. This year we lost our first flock in one fell swoop by a raccoon who accidentally got closed in after our automatic coop door shut for the night. It was brutal. There was blood everywhere. Determined to raise one last flock, we re-stocked the incubator, not once, but twice, yielding some 40 new birds. What in hell were we thinking? My kid is a prudent fellow, and even he has no idea why we went overboard as we did. I guess we just felt the sting of our loss and wanted to fight back. You know, be badass at the chicken thing one last time.

This is the week when we take our roos to the Amish butcher. Even though we’re not personally doing the butchering (been there, not doin that again!) it’s never easy. Especially cuz now we’ve had them a little longer and we can see individual personalities taking shape (yes, chickens are people too) and we have to remind ourselves that their lives were good, and that their dispatch will be swift and humane. And for the next year we’ll have that most heavenly chicken stock ever. So. This fall is it. I took down the fence, scrapped the metal and cut down the weeds around the run. Soon it will be back to grass. We’ll let the hens live out their lives; some will die of old age, some will go out for the day and won’t come back. It may yet be a few years yet before the last gal leaves us, so it’ll be a gentle goodbye. I suppose by the time Elihu graduates from college we’ll be wrapped up for good. But that’s all fine, because we’ve learned so much from raising them, and we’ve so enjoyed the lovely energy they’ve added to our homestead. Elihu will be studying aerospace engineering ALL because of his close experience with our birds. I thank them for my son’s growth and transformation. Our flock has helped my own son to take flight.

That should bring you, dear readers. up to date on the goings-on at the Hillhouse. I’m tiring of preparing meals, of driving to and from school, of figuring out all things domestic. I’m tired, but I know I’ll be singing a song of lament one year hence when I find myself in a truly quiet house with all the time in the world to rest. I like being alone, but soon it’s gonna be a different kind of alone. It’ll be hard for me to see this chapter closed. You know. Out the window.

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You can see Elihu’s work on the following links:

Elihu created this site just this week for his high school senior project, an endeavor which will likely continue into his college years:

AeroCraftco.com

Here’s the font of all things aviation in my kid’s life:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiVVhQtWp7v-VP6tmUQ3Z0w/videos

And here is his tuba work, soon to contain his compositions:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCllXXtqBrYgYexW4F2YIytQ/videos

I crafted this site a while ago; it now seems out of date, although there are some nice images:

https://copterdude.com/

And finally, my Airbnb listing:

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/37592189

 

Vanity Pandemic April 22, 2020

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got it that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

 

Slowing April 15, 2020

A few years ago Elihu and I listened to an audio book entitled “The Slowing”. It was a science fiction story which took place in the US, in our own contemporary time. The main characters were a teenage boy and girl, their families, and the other families of their suburban neighborhood. The basic premise of the story was that the earth’s rotation had begun to slow down. It conveyed a dreamlike sense of ungrounding at the start – but that was only the start. As the story developed we began to understand just how deeply horrific a situation this really was, and how fundamentally powerless were the planet’s entire living populations. When charts began showing exponential growth of the Coronavirus just a few days ago, I felt a profound fear in my gut, and a queer lightness in my head. I was not safe, my son wasn’t safe – none of us were safe. We were embedded in our very own science fiction story come to life.

Our ability to communicate with each other instantly makes our experience of this pandemic different from previous such plagues on the earth – some may say it stirs the pot, that it exacerbates people’s fears, that it feeds rumor and speculation… Perhaps it does. But it also puts us in instant communication with friends and family no matter the geographic distance between us. Our connectivity provides us with a toolkit for survival. We are privy to the most current information; graphs and maps keep us informed, we learn ways in which we may safely move when out in the world, sanitary ways to unpack our groceries, activities to keep our children busy and happy, opportunities to hear music, even visit with our friends, and classrooms have moved fairly easily to home computers (but certainly not all have; I fear this disparity will become something of a real problem if the situation persists until the fall).

Without making light of anything, I gotta say our own experience thus far has been enjoyable. I am hearing musicians I haven’t in years, folks I was resolved never to hear or see again – and yet here I am in their living rooms right there with them! How lovely! Virtual one-room venues and old fashioned salons are popping up everywhere, creating an earth-wide a la carte smorgasbord of entertainment. And this is but the first week – if this ‘thing’ lasts a few months, as it may, this new online culture will begin to organize itself. Patterns will arise – regular showtimes, regular features – and as with anything new, the novelty will fade and the new routines will begin to show themselves.

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I resume this post after our first two weeks into this new life. I’ve penned a couple of novelty songs, started seedlings for the garden, and will be embarking on my first online lessons soon. My son has been finding a whole new presence in his musical community, easily learning how to teach, compose, edit and perform his own pieces with other students from throughout the country. It’s with no small amount of pride that I share that the conductor of Elihu’s youth orchestra held him up as an example of how players should be regularly documenting their practice. My kid is way ahead of the curve on this front; he’s been keeping a daily video log of his tuba practicing for nearly a year. (The kid puts me to shame – inspired by the healthy routine he was developing, I tried to meditate for 30 days in a row, but tanked by day 11. Regrettably I created a Facebook page in order to create some public accountability, but that meaningless banner yet hangs limp in the virtual irons, my shameful lack of personal stamina forever documented….)

Personally, I enjoy being solitary. I definitely prefer it to a house full of people. And the wonderful thing about living with my son is that while I have my privacy, I’m not completely alone. I can go for long stretches of time in my own personal space, content to know that my dearest one is never far away. Elihu is also content in keeping to himself, ever-engaged in any number of things from building airplanes to teaching himself trumpet, learning to write Japanese kanji or practicing his tuba. We check in with each other every so often, comparing our progress, discussing the things that we’re learning, maybe sharing a cup of tea before heading back to our private worlds. I too am mostly always in motion – but with nothing so weighty as the interests of my kid, rather my time is taken up mostly by things domestic; preparing for the chicks, mending things outside, doing yard work, cleaning gutters or filling feed bins, doing laundry and cooking meals, and keeping a country house from being overrun with dust, dirt and cobwebs. (I continue, however, to turn a blind eye to the greasy kitchen walls and oil splattered ceiling).

My main current interest in this early pandemic chapter has been to maintain some structure in our days by providing three balanced and nutritious meals each day. While not the meticulous planner that my mother is, I do spend a good amount of time trying to find new and interesting things to make. But truthfully this is mostly a diversion for me; eating has always been my single favorite experience on the planet – yet for my son, it is simply something that needs to be done. My kid – at 5’11” and 110 pounds – he dutifully eats what’s given to him, but really and truly, he doesn’t care. (Aside from the roasted quail at Reza’s in Chicago, the kid could give a hoot how his calories are delivered.) Still, I’ve been trying for years to find a food that he looks forward to, and this stuck-at-home life has provided me with the perfect excuse to dig down deep into some new culinary experiences. But dig as I might, I haven’t found any particular dish which I can create that excites him (can you believe pizza and mac and cheese are actually his least favorite foods?) and soon I think I’m going to revert back I to more modest meals, because I’m gaining weight rapidly and I’m sure there are more productive ways in which I could be using this gift of time.

How many days into this are we? I’m never quite sure; I’m experiencing time in a more gestural way at present. Personally my son and I are past the first free-form phase. I languished for a few days in bed (I am prone to depression so it was understandable) and so now I feel I’m able to make a list of goals for the next phase. My son and I are very lucky to have space, food, internet and basic equipment. This can be anything I’d like to to be. It will remain deeply tempting for me to make sumptuous dinners washed down with entire bottles of wine (I’m not entirely convinced that phase is over yet) but the opportunity to take hikes and bike rides and finally attend to my ‘to file’ pile exists now as never before. I pray things don’t end up going the way of my failed meditation project, but I’ve carved out some new to-do lists, and I feel a tiny seed of promise waiting to germinate.

And as we all know by now, given the right circumstances, tiny things can grow to become a force of nature.

 

 

 

 

Lemonade Lockdown March 21, 2020

As of tomorrow night, Sunday, March 22nd, the state of New York will be on lockdown. Some folks are miffed at the order and see it as much too extreme (perhaps they also see it as an invasion of their personal freedom – and isn’t that what this great country is all about?), and some folks have just been wondering when the order would finally come. For the two of us, the news brings relief.

In my personal life I know folks on both sides, and while I usually keep silent about such rifts, this time I’m in a mildly precarious situation regarding a student. She is one of the most musically precocious and talented kids I’ve ever had – in over 25 years of teaching – and her parents pay me generously. Her MD father revealed his feelings on the matter when I told him I was going to hold off on lessons for two weeks (in my mind thinking – no wait, make that four...). The parents had been to Florida the week before, and the eight year old younger brother has a habit of sucking on his lower lip, and spit on the keys is a predictable byproduct. With three kids home all day and a medical practice to run, I can understand how frustrating this news is, especially when personally, this fellow doesn’t support the lockdown. (How is it that the MD doesn’t see the value of self isolation? Nothing is self-evident anymore. Fundamentally, I think this shit is driven far more by emotion than by science.) I offered the best olive branch I could think of; would he be OK if I took his daughter along for a walk in the woods sometime? His face lightened, and he agreed. So that helped to defuse the situation.

Last night I thought I’d double-down and do things right. I set out to load up our pantry. Having just organized it the week before (a huge project I undertake but twice a year) I felt empowered by knowing its contents, and by knowing the things we might benefit from adding to it. The stores – at six in the evening – were a bizarre sight: four aisles completely empty – not a single item left standing in paper products. (I’d kinda blown off stocking up, thinking the toilet paper hysteria would blow over soon. Apparently it hasn’t as of yet. We’re down to a couple of rolls, but I’m still considering this to be a first-world problem.) The aisle with the canned vegetables, soups and dried beans was a wasteland, with just a few cans of pickled beets remaining. And pasta? Only the uber-pricey organic stuff from Italy remained. (At this writing it just occurred to me – was this out of fear? Was the perception of safety tainted by the country’s sky-high Corona cases? Oh dear…) Though usually I am a bottom-of-the-barrel shopper, buying house brands and no-name products, the situation sort of forced my hand and I ended up grabbing the remaining lone boxes – things I otherwise would have passed up. My $250 grocery bill – much more than my usual biweekly tab – attested to the boutique items in my haul. Pasta made from chick peas, wild rice, prepared rice side dishes (tasty, but so much crap and sodium in ’em), “theater style” microwave popcorn (we almost never have popcorn – but I have this romantic notion that Elihu and I just might watch a movie together!! Almost unheard of here in this always-busy household). Sadly, the two main things I’d come to get were both completely gone. Meat and toilet paper.  I guess I can finally scrap any hopes of going low carb this spring.

Wearing plastic gloves as I shopped, I was in the minority. And when I asked a clerk, frantically re-stocking cans of diced tomatoes if he worried at all, given his exposure to so many people, he answered “no” without any hesitation. “See the way I’m moving and sweating? I wouldn’t get it – I would sweat it out right away!” Hmm. Of course I laughed and agreed with him… But I was taken aback; does someone really think they can simply sweat a virus out of their system? I guess a person might not feel symptoms as acutely as others, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sweating it away.

Many on the street are cavalier. There is a feeling here in our town’s local convenient store that it’s all made up, that it’s all hype. There is a divide becoming visible, and it seems closely aligned with politics. Folks of the blue persuasion are keeping safe, respecting the rules of hygiene and social distancing. Folks in the red population tend to think that this is all hyped-up bullshit and they enjoy sharing a good chuckle about it all.

If you feel, as I and so many others do, that Trump is not only erratic and unintelligent, but most importantly dangerous – then you will likely be keeping that social distance, staying at home and practicing vigilant hand washing. But if you feel it’s our patriotic duty to fully stand behind everything that 45 says, you are likely still not convinced that Covid19 is your problem. Yeah, there might be lip service now, but Trump supporters are still stuck somewhere behind his original, flippant rhetoric. No matter what Donald might say going forward, deep in their hearts, the true Trumpers – at least the good ol’ boys who live all around me here in the hills – will continue to live life as usual, while complaining loudly about the imposition in hopes that the rest of us will overhear.

And me? Elihu? What are we feeling and thinking right now? There is a deep sadness at all of the things that are gone in an instant. Elihu was on the brink of litigating his team’s way to the winning spot in our region’s mock trial competition. Elihu was preparing for his tuba concerto with the orchestra on May 2nd. Elihu was looking forward to a tour of South America with the symphony, to studying at MIT in August, to traveling to Europe with his father. Elihu was at the very doorstep of an incredibly thrilling summer, and now… He has none of it. All of it cancelled or postponed.

When the reality sank in, I cannot tell you how deeply crushed my heart was. But a mix of stoicism and an innate positive attitude turned Elihu’s thinking away from the heartbreak, and instead toward a new future made possible by this sudden window of opportunity. Last night, when I returned from a day of errands, I found a young man who was now able to string together simple sentences in Japanese. It is a safe bet that by the end of May this kid will have four languages under his belt. And he’s started to compose music, he’s building new planes, he’s keeping his Instagram and YouTube accounts full of fresh material. He’s sharing his compositions with other young musicians who are themselves learning them and in turn posting their performances. Elihu’s even started to figure out how to teach tuba lessons online.

How do I feel about all of this newly-instituted isolation? I am thrilled. THRILLED to have nowhere to go. Thrilled to pause my exhaustive mom taxi service (remember, Elihu is legally blind and will never drive. Most moms begin to experience a little break from shuttling duty about now, but my job won’t cease until the kid’s away at college). I am thrilled to have a window of time in which to simply live. Thrilled that my son is close by, thrilled that this will give me an opportunity to see what a structure-less life feels like (before it descends on me in the fall of 2021). I’m thrilled to have this chance to actively shape our own life, and I’m relieved that for a short while we are mostly off the hook.

Facebook, the modern-day well at which the community gathers, is a tumble of chaotic chatter lately. Everyone is all aflutter about everything from the impending isolation to new bread recipes. People are apprehensive about being cooped up, and our feeds are endlessly stocked by fear-inducing images and news clips. Lines of people in their cars, waiting to have their nostrils swabbed to test for the virus, photos of iconic plazas and sites known for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are now vast and vacant, video clips show people in Italy leaning out of their windows and singing to each other…

I admit that I spent the past few days (our first days with NO tuba, NO tutor, NO rehearsals, NO excursions, NO students) in bed. I just treated the abyss as a couple of full-on sick days. I propped myself up so perfectly with my favorite down pillows, grabbed a pair of reading glasses and pulled the phone to my face, joining my virtual tribe at the well until my poor phone got almost too hot to touch. I’m a bit embarrassed at how eagerly I too threw myself into the Corona-fray. I unintentionally hosted three redundant watch parties in my newbie enthusiasm to participate in the new online culture. I posted way too much, and way too frequently. I even joined Tik Tok in an effort to add variety to my amusements. (Elihu told me soberly, and out of love for his mother and in protection of her integrity, that people my age who engaged in Tik Tok were kinda looked at as losers. Just so I knew. I will be deleting my account shortly.)

When things are new, when they are novel (pun intended, sorry) it’s easy to see the possibility, to imagine what it feels like to live in a new and improved reality. But we humans all know that what follows behind the initial breath of hope and promise is usually nothing but a pale shadow of the inspiring first vision. My hope for this initial two-week quarantine is to 1) organize and clean my mudroom and kitchen, 2) take a hike on a local trail once a week if not more (yeah, right…), 3) get up and going with online lessons, 4) shovel out the coop and mend the fences, and finally 5) assess the winter’s damage on the property and begin to make piles of downed branches.

This may all seem easy enough – but everything takes gobs more time and energy than one might think. And I, late in my 56th year and missing some core strength I had only a few years ago, simply can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting I once used to do by myself. But thankfully Elihu is eager to help. It seems his increasingly strong young body needs and wants the physical work, for he bats not an eye when I share with him the tasks on our list. In fact, he cheers me on and tells me how easy it will all be. Could I be a luckier mom?

At this very specific moment in time I am as content as is possible. Somehow it feels like things will be alright. Hardly seems logical though! The list of things ever-running in the back of my mind is enough to make a sane woman weep…

I am fat (again) and have very few clothes into which I can still fit, my hair is thinning and my arthritic fingers continue to get thicker and more painful… I’ve had a sharp pain in my left breast and armpit for over a month, but I don’t want to look into it for fear of making a fuss over nothing, especially at this delicate time for the health system… There are fallen trees and enormous branches crisscrossing our property, mature and substantial weeds have grown up after last year’s absence of lawn-cutting, a huge pile of winter’s garbage flayed open by ravens and now wind-strewn across the grass awaits cleanup, there are bags upon bags of containers waiting to be shuttled to the recycling stations, there are cobwebs on every inside wall of my house and the basement is now taking on water with the melting of spring. And I have no income.

But what we do have here at the Hillhouse is space – blessed, wide-open space in which to move and breathe. We also have our freedom, our health, opportunity, nature, fresh air, fields, woods, chickens, grandma next door, great neighbors close by, a reliable internet connection, a full pantry and 150 gallons of fuel oil.

And now, to make some lemonade.

 

 

Tenure November 10, 2018


Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.

I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)

Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)

Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.

There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.

There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).

There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).

Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.

Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two people here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.

Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking…  Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.

This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…

This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.

I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.

The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.

I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…

My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! Fareed and I stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.

Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.

In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.

This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.

 

 

Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Two Days’ Time June 28, 2018

 

“It happens to you about two days out of every two weeks” my son said as we sat together at the kitchen island, me with my face in my hands. “A couple days in a row, that’s all”. I don’t cry often, but hot tears were welling up without any effort. It’s not possible to describe it in words, but the pain is real. So real, so acute. The feeling of despair and hopelessness is so complete in those moments that it’s impossible to envision life feeling otherwise. But at least it helped to have a number. I considered the data. Four days out of a month. One day a week. Yeah, I guess that wasn’t so bad. If that’s really all it was, I guessed that I could deal with that. I was so glad my son was there with me, because he helped to take the edge off, to give me a ray of hope. Sometimes I wonder what I’d do without him. No, I would never kill myself, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, I couldn’t. Too much is riding on me in this lifetime. But therein lies the main issue. This is precisely what pushes me over the edge. It feels like it’s all on me. The Studio, my falling-apart old house, the chickens, my kid’s needs, the arthritis in my fingers which gets worse all the time, the bills that are never, ever paid in full… It’s all of that, and also perhaps a smidge of my family’s genetic predisposition to mental health issues. It’s a good thing I can express myself, that I can identify my feelings and issues and put a voice to it all; it’s essential to my sanity and my ability to soldier on.

My brother and only sibling is an alcoholic, a hoarder and social hermit. Hasn’t had a job or a girlfriend in over twenty five years. Without a diagnosis one can only guess at the problem, but that’s not important. His reality is all the evidence needed to indicate his deep distress. My brother is paralyzed by his illness, and angry at the world for it. My mother plays her own role in this drama too; she pays all of his bills and allows him to use her car. She opens her house to him so that he can prepare food and use the internet. A heavy hush falls about her household when my brother is present, sulking and tapping away at his laptop in fruitless labor. She cannot speak freely with her son about this unhealthy situation – the only conversation that passes between them is small talk to fill the space, if even that – and it’s my suspicion that my mother feels guilty about his inability to function in the world, as if it were all her fault. It isn’t, of course, because dysfunction has many moving parts, but I don’t think she’ll ever truly feel it’s not all on her. And so to assuage her guilt and provide her son the best life possible, she gives him all the support he needs to get his booze, eat, do his laundry, live and continue the unwell routines of his life.

This, as anyone can see, is helping to perpetuate the dysfunction, but as long as she lives it won’t be any different. The two have a mutually beneficial relationship; my brother’s needs are met as he continues his efforts to numb the pain that can never go away without proper attention. And my mother enjoys her solitude without having to be completely alone. They are each others companions, whether they talk to each other or not. Whether they even realize it or not. It’s not my place to rock the boat that sustains them, and so I don’t try to fix things anymore. My mom likes to boast of her generation’s frugality and prudence, but along with that gift has come the burden of secrecy and an innate discomfort with speaking aloud deep truths, thereby exposing vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Hopefully I’ve managed to create a much healthier and self-aware future for my son. If Elihu makes it into adulthood with some optimism and skills to identify the things that trouble him, then I feel the Conants have made it out of the woods.

But for now, three of us are still trying to find our way through the forest of life, each dealing with our own situation the best we are able. I can’t fault my brother for self medicating, and I can’t fault my mother for putting her head in the sand. Everyone behaves according to their abilities, experience and insights. Some folks desire a deeper and more honest understanding of their lives, and some don’t. Hopefully I will find a way to keep my panic attacks and bay and my spirits uplifted as I move into the challenges ahead. Maybe I can still get some new insights, some new skills, new confidence… In the old days it took good old fashioned muscle to get through panic attacks and depression, but at least these days I have the power of pharmaceuticals. By whatever means necessary I say…

Elihu will be leaving in a week for a long summer away. He will visit his father and half brothers in Chicago, and then that family will be traveling to China. He’ll return at the end of August for a week here at home before he then departs for a three month-long school exchange with a host family in Germany. He has a lot on his plate. Internally he’s switching gears, getting ready. He shares my propensity for anxiety, and when he reaches a certain threshold of stress, behavioral ticks can begin to arise. And so I don’t bother him with extra tasks or house rules. He’s a good kid, he’s a kind and thoughtful person. All he desires is to make airplanes and learn more about aviation, how to conjugate verbs in German, play his recorders and tuba. He helps when I ask him, and helps keep me from falling into despair when life feels bleak and relentless. And so I give my kid space, time, freedom. I can’t think of anyone who’s earned it as he has. Elihu will be fine. Me? Still not so sure…

Sometimes I get excited about all the possibility ahead, but sadly that spark doesn’t last long. But on the other side of the coin, that dark wave that crashes over my head every so often doesn’t last long either. I just have to keep going, just have to make it through that tunnel. Just gotta make it thru the tough days. Two days at a time, that’s all. Makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw once: “Just remember, in two days, tomorrow will be yesterday”.

 

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Post Script: How strange it is that I should write this post and only moments after I finished the draft, my mother called saying that my brother had taken the car and hidden it? The keys were there in her kitchen, along with a cryptic note from him. My suspicion was that the recent landscaping job at the Studio had put him in a rage of jealousy, and that in order to let his feelings be known, he’d stashed the car somewhere nearby and walked home to return the keys, knowing that mom in her limited mobility wouldn’t be able to find it. Never let it be said that my brother isn’t clever. He had parked mom’s Prius on an angle at the foot of the shared driveway, making entrance to the venue (as well as both her house and his) inaccessible. Well done, brother. Well done. Before we knew the location of the car, my mother had called the sheriff. The sergeant remembered my brother well from previous incidents and encouraged my mother to call if she ever felt she was in danger. (I was satisfied to know a report had been filed, because documentation will help me at some future time when I need to have him removed from the dilapidated farm house, which is legally property of The Studio.) The writing is on the wall, but who cares? In a metaphoric “two days’ time” this too will shift, and the new normal will assert itself. For the time being however, the resting state of “normal” around here is anything but.

 

The Monster Smiles March 24, 2018

 

It seems the monster has smiled at me. At the very least, he’s given me a knowing wink.

Finally, for the first time since before my son was born, I have landed a piano single job. It happened in the blink of an eye. On a temperate day, week before last, I’d made up my mind to hit the streets of Saratoga until I found a job (playing piano, that is). After I’d visited all the places on my list I had some lunch and considered my next move. It seemed I’d done all I could, so I had planned to head back to the car, when I remembered one place I hadn’t been yet. It was just a few store fronts down, so I headed there – not expecting much – but in my mind imagining that downstairs piano, the one I’d thought myself perfect for last summer… In a few minutes’ time I was chatting with a woman who’d opened the door for me – we were discussing foot surgery and other middle-aged topics before I realized that she was the owner. She asked if I would like to play and sing for her – and I told her most enthusiastically that yes, I would love to. Within a few minutes I was playing, and shortly after that we were looking at the calendar. “Can you start day after tomorrow?” she asked to my complete and utter amazement. I said that I could.

My second Saturday (in what I hope to be a long line of regular jobs there) happens tonight. I think I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, and a small part of me hesitates to even disclose this tiny victory for fear of jinxing it. Let’s hope the monster likes me well enough to leave me alone for a bit longer.

Professionally speaking, the past two weeks have seen new opportunities emerging, the likes of which I’d been dreaming of for the past several years, but which have always eluded me. How can I get the Studio on the radar? How can I produce quality shows there? How do I personally get in with the local musicians? How do I get a gig? How do I get people to call me? Why is it that no one seems to understand that I’ve done this all before??  Who do I have to **** to get a drink around here? Thankfully, somehow, things seem to be changing. Like a dam that’s been breached, things are happening, and all at once. I suppose it’s not a bad problem to have, but now my challenge going forward will be to learn which offers to accept, and which to decline.

Time is something I’ll need to manage more carefully too. Things on the domestic front are all fairly organized and streamlined; most importantly my son can be left alone for long stretches of time (days even, if necessary as proven by my recent last-minute trip to Chicago) and he can even make his own food in a pinch. When our new chicks and ducklings hatch out in the next month there will be a few more chores every day (in the first month it is rather a pain in the ass) and it does make me a little apprehensive, but on the whole life is so much easier now that my son is older. Hard to believe that he’ll be 15 in little over a month. While I can still see the small child in his smooth skin and slender body, he is undeniably more young man than boy. And as all parents can understand, it’s a time of conflicting emotions. While I’m thrilled to finally be released from supermom duties, it makes me wistful to remember the baths and books that ended each day for so many years.

While things on the professional front have been looking up, on the home front we’ve had a few setbacks. A burst pipe cost me $50 more than I’d just made at my new gig (but at least I had the cash on hand to fix it). Then the same day the pipe broke, we lost our male duck to an attack from above. Earlier that morning Elihu had heard the sounds of a hawk mother and her babies above our heads in the white pine at the edge of the woods. This is a Cooper’s hawk; a tiny creature really, and certainly not one you’d picture taking out a sixteen pound drake in a single hit, but that’s what happened. She was likely scared off by my driving in and has subsequently left her kill untouched. In the past when she’s nailed one of our hens, she’s come by each day to pick off small meals. I sure hope she does that of Mr. Duck. Elihu and I have deeply saddened hearts which will be eased in knowing he didn’t die in vain. We’re getting much better at accepting the loss of an animal, but it always hurts. This fellow stood watch every single day at the door of the coop, and seeing that dark and empty doorway brings a dull ache inside. But as with all the unexpected disappointments and challenges with my career and the Studio, I know that things in our domestic life won’t always be sad; in fact we have an incubator full of viable duck eggs, and by Elihu’s birthday come the end of April, we’ll be seeing a whole new flock join the homestead.

Tonight we’ve each got great plans to spend our time; Elihu will fly his creations alongside like-minded aviation enthusiasts in an indoor arena, and I will be playing piano and singing. How perfect is that? It’s almost too good to be true, but I’d sure like a chance to get used to it. Let’s hope the monster has made other plans for the weekend…

 

To see what Elihu’s creating these days, click here to visit his YouTube channel, Copterdude.

 

 

 

 

Words of Wisdom Won March 10, 2018

I know, right? Who am I to be offering up words of wisdom? For one, I just blew one of the cardinal rules of blogging for the first time in my 616 posts here: never begin a post with the personal pronoun “I”. Off to a good start…

Lying on my side in bed this morning, ruminating over the many things I have to do, and working on defining the most effective ways in which to execute them, I was inspired. Ah, you know that fragile window in time, don’t you? Those first fleeting moments of the morning when just a hint of inspiration overcomes you, and for a split second all things feel possible – and the stirrings of these possibilities begin to motivate you… But like a dream which one struggles to remember upon waking, the spark begins to fade the harder you try to bring it into view. And then you realize, fully, what you are in for. Yes indeed. You’re back. Phooey.

Yeah, it’s easy to feel inspired when you’re horizontal, when you’re warm, when you’re not hungry. That brief moment before anything really starts to hurt, before you remember that you forgot to wheel the garbage out to the side of the road… it’s easy to feel that lifting of spirit when your mind is empty of static, and the fragments of possibility sparkle there in your thoughts, beckoning you to rise from your bed and do, do, do, be, be, be… The challenge then becomes somehow holding on to that feeling, and coaxing it alive as you move through your day.

The idea that best helps me out when I want to forget the whole affair and just go back to bed is this: Face the Monster. Lately I’ve been taking the single most frightening thing I have to do each day and putting it on top of my list. It’s actually brought some impressive results. I’m still really scared, but I’m forcing myself to do things that I dread, and it’s not all that bad of an experience. I’m still rather consumed by insecurity and trepidation about my future survival, but I’m wading forward through the muck in spite of it. I’m in absolute awe of the human beings for whom this earthly life is but a trifle. Those folks who find their path, make a livable wage and own late-model cars. How in the world do they do it? I sometimes wonder if I will ever get it. Will I ever be unafraid? Will I ever earn a living wage? Sigh. Back to the list…

So, today “Facing the Monster” will entail going out to schmooze, where I will meet some artists and non profit types (they intimidate me greatly as they all seem to know exactly what they’re doing; they write grant proposals and deal with all that administrative nonsense while continuing to produce their art, uncompromised) and hopefully sit in at a local piano bar. Now if this doesn’t sound all that daunting, you’re probably right. But from where I exist, here on the inside of my skin, it has “panic attack” all over it. Really? Meh, not as bad as once upon a time, but still…

As many may know, The Studio has experienced some tremendous milestones over the past few weeks. Firstly, a local news channel produced a lovely piece on the venue, which was just what we needed. But then? A day before it aired we lost ALL of our power to the free-standing venue. After forty years the original underground power line went kaput. Who knows how, who know why – and at this point, who cares? Bottom line: ALL programs had to be cancelled as I set to figuring out how – or even if – I was going to make this pricey repair. At the end of the day it’s still just me piloting this silly ship, and I was completely out of money and answers. For several days I chose not to even think about it, because I was just plain out of steam. Metaphorically speaking, I went back to bed.

Then one morning, I said ‘fuck it’, and I Faced the Monster. I created a GoFundMe page for The Studio, held my breath in and hit send. I had no idea, really, that it would work. I knew a couple of folks would help out, but in fact the response has turned out to be so much more than I’d ever expected. It’s been deeply touching, yes – that would seem pretty obvious – but what this experience is also helping me to understand is that this venue, while ‘mine’ in some ways at this point in time – is not really mine. And soon, in order to survive and thrive, it must be handed over to a greater population. At some point, this simply cannot be my baby anymore. It needs to belong to a community. Seems obvious, right? I mean it’s a ‘community arts center’. But until now, it’s been basically my personal pet project (and my mother’s too; she would very much like to see the Conant/Studio legacy live on). And I won’t lie; surrendering control and seeing other folks come in and make it their place too seems a little scary. I need to learn how to keep my vision for the place clear and evident while at the same time sharing the reins with others. It’s obvious that I, by myself, cannot do all of the things which successfully running an operation like this entails, so I’ll need to Face the Monster once again. Next up, I need to find my posse…

But first comes today. Art opening, piano bar. Sounds fun. I get to wear nice clothes for once. Even sparkly things, which I secretly love. I’ll meet some people, share my vision for The Studio, sing some songs and make some people happy. And I’ll remember today’s piece of wisdom; Face the Monster and scare him back under the bed – at least for now.

 

 

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