The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Real Ideal October 28, 2017

Ever since some friends and I found ourselves painting the walls of my new home in a mad dash to finish the project on the eve of our wedding, I have adopted a phrase which has served me well through the years: “Lower your standards and you’ll always be pleased with the results”. (Jokes have subsequently been made that I may have brought the divorce on myself by setting the bar so low at the very start. !)

Nearly every endeavor of some significance seems to involve more plots twists and surprises than one could ever anticipate at the outset. These little ‘spanners in the works’ can leave one ready to throw a laptop out of a window or just stay in bed and hope the world outside might forget all about you. But the impulses are brief; after all you couldn’t get your work done without the laptop – however old it may be – and by 8 o’clock your child would be be desperately pleading with you not to make him late. And then there are always the roosters. They never let you forget it’s time to start all over again and get things done.

Initially, a great new idea buzzes with possibility. The idea inspires, promotes new ideas, it sheds light on a potential path into the future. For a moment, everything seems right. A vision emerges, a plan to bring the idea to life takes shape. But the reality that follows is so seldom as pure, easy and straightforward. And therein lies the challenge.

Traffic, spilled coffee, sick pets, sticking brakes, cancelled students, lost music, failing technology. Those are the fairly mundane bumps in the road. Then you have the state returning your non-profit forms repeatedly when you, your attorney and your accountant had thought it looked good and was ready to go. You have board members that don’t respond to emails. Your emerging business has needs, but no money. Your venue looks so lovely, and the calendar of events is starting to fill up, but then the new AC units get hit by lightning in the middle of the cooling season and the septic tank cracks. Yes, these things can happen. And yes, they happened to me. And I have staved off tears and desperation by reminding myself to lower my standards. To relax a little, because somehow, (as Martha Carver always said) “Things always work out.” That, and a little Monty Python skit here and there have helped tremendously over the past few months as I’ve watched how quickly an ideal situation can become a real one.

If my son remembers me for nothing else, he’ll remember me for saying this time and time again: “It’s not a mistake if you learn something from it”. There are so many tiny heart breaks in the craft of building model airplanes – the kind of model that actually flies, not the kind that sits on a shelf looking pretty. The practice of building and then flying a craft inevitably results in crashing. There’s a slogan model aircraft enthusiasts enjoy sharing: “Build, Fly, Crash, Repeat”. This is not a hobby for the faint of heart. It is not a hobby for mentally flabby folks like me, either. There’s a lot of analytical thinking that goes into the building and repair. It’s a hobby that involves a mix of unlikely gifts; the appreciation for aesthetics and beauty, the ability to physically assemble delicate parts, a knowledge of mechanics and technology, and the understanding of basic physics. And the underpinning of the whole hobby is that deep, unquenchable desire to know what it feels like to fly… A tall order, and thanks to the unrelenting properties of this physical planet, a plan that’s bound to fail at some point. I can think of no other undertaking that better illustrates the relationship of ideal and real. And let me tell you, the undaunted spirit of these flight enthusiasts is inspiring. We can all take a lesson from these folks. A crash is just a means to a repair, and who’s to say the new craft might not be an improvement upon its former self?

Another saying my son will remember me for is “You never know until you go”. Been saying that to him since he was a toddler. Truly, you can hear about something, but until you experience it for yourself firsthand, you can never really know it. Recalling to myself the several aforementioned philosophies has helped me to traverse a very challenging chapter in our lives over the past few months. An absence of posts here on this blog will attest to our busy life (never before in the 6+ year history of this blog have I let more than four weeks go between posts. Talk about ‘lowering ones standards’. !).

Readers may enjoy a little update on the Studio, and I am pleased to tell everyone that things are indeed a whole lot better than they were a year ago. I was glad for our insurance, because it helped pay for some of the AC repair – but at the end of the day it’s still mom who fills in the gaps. The deductible, the electric bill. The stuff for which I cannot find a grant to help subsidize. It’s easy to find a small bit of grant money for a sexy project – everyone loves to see high school kids performing and ‘staying out of trouble’, but no one – that I’ve come across yet – is interested in funding the repair of a septic system, much less helping to pay the monthly operating costs. I can’t provide a platform for things to happen until the basic costs are met, but that point doesn’t seem to matter to the folks giving out money. It may seem hard to believe, but just to keep the venue open, insured and heated/cooled, it costs me – out of my own, impoverished pocket – around $800 a month. Slowly some events are starting to help me cover those costs, but it will probably be another year before “we” (I have to bite my tongue all the time – I want to shout “We is actually just ME!”) break even. I’m going to boldly suggest that in a year’s time I might even glean a tiny income from the place. Maybe. I’ll set my standards low, so that I’ll be more than thrilled when the money does finally come in…

Last week I took our roos (and also our 12 pound duck whom we named Christmas Dinner) to the Amish farmer to be butchered. It was a fine, sunny fall day and every last corner of the hilly countryside and winding road looked like a perfect magazine shot. After I got home and the birds were tucked inside the chest freezer, it was off to the Studio for a sound check. Then I picked the kid up at school, made sure he had something to eat and a plan for his evening. Homework, tuba, building, get the birds in and collect eggs. Oh, and please don’t spend too much time at your workshop, I cautioned him as I left. I paused for a moment in the driveway to take it all in. I could’ve listed a dozen things that needed tending, fixing, or replacing, but for one moment I let them all rest, and I turned my attention to the miraculous moment in which I was existing. My son was happy, thriving and well-taken care of (and probably pretty psyched to have the house to himself once again), and I was about to join dozens of happy and excited kids at The Studio. What? Amazing. For just a moment it all seemed perfect. Maybe even ideal.

The life that I’m living now was certainly never part of the plan. If you’d have told me that one day I’d be a single mom living in the country, that my kid would play tuba, build airplanes and speak German, that I’d be raising chickens and selling eggs, that I’d be running a community arts venue on my own… If you’d have told me any of this a decade ago, there’s no way I would’ve believed you. Cute story – but not mine. But look, here we are.

Trips to the emergency room, cancelled events, governmental red tape and failing cars can wear a gal down, but honestly, this life has turned out to pretty close to ideal. Really.

 

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Here’s a link to the gallery page of The Studio’s site. The main page is not current – I will endeavor to make updates after I publish this post and before I finish the grant proposal which is due this coming week. ! Don’t even get me started about the annual Halloween party happening tonite – I will cobble together a costume in the 11th hour. Elihu however is well prepared and is thrilled to be going as Otto Lilienthal. Elihu will be proudly declaring the German aviator’s last words “Opfer müssen gebracht warden” throughout the evening. (Otto died of a broken neck after falling from one of his thousands of flights. His final words translate as “Sacrifices must be made.” Indeed.)

 

Highs, Lows and Loss April 2, 2016

We’ve had a lot of fun mini adventures here lately. However, tempering the moments of fun and light come the inevitable moments of drudgery, the tasks fundamental to the maintenance of physical life here on this planet. There are very few idle moments around here, and while generally I’m thankful for the brisk pace and new experiences that we’re fortunate to enjoy, it’s the other crap that often puts me in a crabby mood. Taxes must be filed, applications for summer programs must be filled out, applications for tuition assistance, for heating assistance, for food stamps, for teaching proposals, for class descriptions, email addresses must be entered into the database, old ones culled, websites must be maintained, chickens, frogs and fish must be fed and cleaned up after. And a twelve-year-old boy always seems to be hungry. And don’t get me started about dust bunnies or laundry or leaf-filled gutters. Yeah, there is never an end to it all. And yeah, I’m grateful for all we have, but still…

It was my Uncle Paul’s birthday on March 31st, and in that my mother doesn’t keep up with her only sibling and family, I thought it might be a good idea to check in. My Uncle Paul had a stroke a few years back, and so his speech is slow – combine that with Aunt Sandy’s proclivity for endless small-talk and chatter, and poor Paul is relegated to a virtually speech-free existence. Thankfully, it being his birthday, Sandy passed the phone over to him and I had a brief exchange with my only living uncle. I heard him speak long enough to understand a certain gentle humor, as well as a fatigued sense of surrender. This was understandable, as I’d learned (this is a good example of how little my family members communicate with each other) that his daughter, my cousin Janice, had finally lost her battle with colon cancer last summer.

Summer before last I’d insisted that mom, Elihu and I visit the Jackson family, and now I was especially glad that we did. In spite of having virtually nothing in common with my newly re-met cousin, I’d liked her. She’d battled cancer for six years, ever-smiling, ever sweet of demeanor. I’d admired her for that alone. She’d even demonstrated her kindness to me in a thoughtful, hand-written letter at Christmastime. To learn she’d died was, although distantly sad, no deep heartbreak for me. Instead I felt relief for her – because she’d been through the wringer over the past few years, with six-hour commutes once a week for chemo treatments to the daily indignity of living with a permanent colostomy bag. But more than all of this, her death left me wondering once again at the deep level of chronic heartbreak with which so many of my fellow humans must live out their time here on earth. It should just not be that a man should lose his physical faculties, live until old age, and then witness the slow death of his only daughter. Fuck that. No matter whether one believes in destiny, the wisdom of God’s choices or the necessity of working out karmic debt, seriously, how in hell does one make sense of this?

Recently, a local man went out for his nightly walk, suffered a fall, and subsequently died, alone, on the trail in the woods behind his house. His wife had gone to bed just as he had gone out for this routine stroll, and he had likely laid there on the ground, in the cold of night, long before he finally succumbed to his fate. A former president of local Skidmore College, mom told me that he once played harpsichord as part of an event at dad’s Baroque Festival in which five harpsichordists all performed… This morning, as I awoke fresh to a new day of possibility, my greatest challenges being tidying my home and feeding a growing boy, I remembered the news of this man’s death, and thought immediately of his wife. How must she be feeling on this very morning? She had laid sleeping in her bed as her husband, mere yards away, laid on the cold ground, dying. Man. It’s stuff like this that tempers my frustration with the toil of the everyday and helps to quiet my bitchy outbursts as I get back to this precious business of everyday life.

The other morning, on the way to school and in the absence of the usual polka soundtrack, Elihu began some intense existential rumination. He’d recently noted that every physical thing – outside the natural world, that is – had first existed in a person’s mind before it came to take form in physical reality. While I’d offered this concept to him in the past, apparently the corresponding light bulb moment had only just arrived. “So literally, we are living in other people’s minds. We live in the creations of other people’s thoughts!” He laughed, he shook his head in amazement. He had a half-dozen other threads of thought beginning to germinate too and he struggled to identify them. He’d begun to express his new ideas just recently on the long drive to Schenectady for a flying meet, and clearly in the five minutes of commute that remained there was little time to make headway with any of them. “Yeah, it’s true.” I summed up. “Every structure you see out the window existed first in someone’s imagination.” I paused for a moment, wondering how to bring the conversation to a tidy close. “It does take a while to get things physically manifested here on this physical plane, but in time, and with tenacity,” I said, as much to remind myself as to inspire my child, “just about anything can be realized.” He sat there, quiet, looking out of the window. He was clearly deep in thought, because he didn’t ask for me to turn on any polka music before we arrived at school.

The past few weeks have been a tangled flurry of life, death, simple pleasures and challenging tasks. So far, real heartbreak and tragedy are not ours personally, and for this we’re both appreciative. Elihu has recently met a gentleman that we readily refer to as his new flying mentor, and in the short time we’ve known him he’s already opened up a whole new world to us. So this particular adventure has begun, if you’ll pardon the pun, to take flight. ! From the lowest notes on Elihu’s C tuba to the ceiling of the Schenectady Armory, we’ve had some truly exhilarating experiences lately. And since one never knows when the whole affair may come crashing to a close, we’re savoring the whole shebang –  we’re flying along on the current of our life, learning from the highs, the lows and all that stuff that fits somewhere in between.

IMG_4985Our weeks end on Sunday, which is tuba lesson day. Can you imagine that Elihu’s tuba teacher not only lives in our town, but he has chickens? (And goats and horses, and he built his own house, and he has six children – including a set of quadruplets – and he’s one of the best low brass players and teachers in the region. And he’s a super nice guy. Say what??)

IMG_4993Imagine a tuba lesson that starts like this. !!

IMG_4997Yup, Elihu is a lucky, happy boy.

IMG_5018Finally Elihu’s reading has gotten to the point where it’s not the focus of the lesson – but technique and sound are.

IMG_5078We went to the high school’s performance of Bye Bye Birdie, where, as our usual serendipitous good luck would have it, we enjoyed front row seats, in spite of our having arrived late. ! Elihu’s tuba teacher’s eldest daughter played trombone in the pit orchestra, as did an old friend. The fellow conducting and playing keyboards is the music teacher here; I use his classroom to teach my adult ed class entitled “Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher”. Oh – and one of my piano students did the lighting. An extremely impressive production, as always. Truly, more than top-notch all the way around.

IMG_5028Later on we Skyped with some dear friends in France. Regular readers may remember young Lilas and her mother, Mary. Mary’s the daughter of old family friends from Greenfield – Mary’s mother was an actor and performed at my father’s Baroque Fest ages ago – so it’s nice to keep this connection. Mary also teaches at the Waldorf School there – so we’ve got that in common too.

IMG_5177I have new friends who’ve moved here from Sicily – and they kindly gave us this Easter treat. There’s a boiled egg baked inside! Apparently this is traditional in many European cultures, but for us it was a first.

IMG_5544It seems the Easter Bunny is still visiting the Hillhouse…

IMG_5549Which made one big kid very happy.

IMG_5560Since Elihu sees no color whatsoever, eggs need high-contrast decorations to stand out. Why the blue? you ask. To add some depth, I suppose. Also cuz I thought it was pretty.

IMG_5673A tradition for many years now (and which we skipped last year as he was with his father), we visited what we call “the lightning tree”. Every year Elihu adds a bit to the primitive stone structure at the base of the charred-out tree. I was happy to see the ‘mom and son’ cairns from three years ago had survived the wind and weather. We passed two hours there as if it were ten minutes. So much fun.

IMG_5681A closer look at the rocks… A winding hillside road is off to the left, the woods directly ahead and to the South, our house a bit off to Southwest, and the big field is just out of the frame to the right.

IMG_5692This tree hangs precipitously over the edge of a good fifteen foot drop to the road; you can see the pavement through the roots where the tree has been burned away.

IMG_5734During our fort-making we found several surprises…

IMG_5742Remainders of a time when this was all cow pasture and farm. We also found a garden rake and remnants of a small shack.

IMG_5800Heading home. There’s a break in the stone wall (which divides our property from the field) where the birch tree leans out. Just out of frame (sigh) and to the right is the new construction house, the sight of which still depresses us both.

IMG_5825Elihu regaled mom and me with some pretty funny new jokes during Easter supper.

IMG_5987While out and about I saw this license plate. !!

IMG_5429Got myself my biannual hair cut. Old friends have chided me for maintaining something of an ’80s’ hairstyle, but I argue that it’s best to work with what one has. Me, I’ve got curl. This is my perennial, scrunch-n-go favorite. Think what you will. It works.

IMG_5536Ah, the endless battle against the hardest water known to man. This stain was created in less than two weeks’ time. Yup. Many times it’s been posited that we should bottle the stuff and sell it. Saratoga Water – meh! How about some Greenfield Gold?

IMG_5514My favorite visitor to the platform feeder, our beloved guinea fowl, Austin. He is a real goofburger.

IMG_5205Elihu has a loaner C concert tuba at home (Ed, we can never, ever thank you enough!) and what we affectionately call a “B flat beater” tuba, which we own, and which is kept at school in order to prolong mom’s back health. !! My kid must play in two different tunings – me, I’m immensely impressed by that. Btw – musician joke digest: Guy hears the breaking of glass… Runs to his car…. Finds TWO tubas in the back seat…

IMG_5301We’re at the Schenectady Armory – the huge and gorgeous room where local model aircraft enthusiasts meet weekly to enjoy windless, indoor flying.

IMG_5233And this is Jesse. It’s safe to say that this man has forever changed Elihu’s life.

IMG_5225Jesse’s old school; he’s got a rubber band winder with a 1:15 ratio. That loads a lot of power onto the band. His crafts in flight are something rare to witness; as one circled gently around the room high over our heads on a nearly one minute-long flight, there was simply not a work spoken by anyone present. It is a thing of such magic and beauty that no comment can accurately express the delight one feels to watch as it soars…

IMG_5360Jesse even let Elihu fly some of his RC planes. A gentleman and a wonderful teacher, the trust he put in Elihu was a real gift. It enabled my son to finally get the feel of flying a plane.

IMG_5356Hanging with the new posse. Click here to watch Elihu’s first walkalong glider experience, and click here to watch mom give it a try the following week.

IMG_5376Ok, this almost made my head explode. Elihu loves, loves, loves the German language, and of all things – there’s a German restaurant on the way home… So we stop in for a bite of bratwurst…

IMG_5378…and wait, you’re kidding me, right? There’s a friggin tuba player arriving just at the same time as us!!

IMG_5379 This is what lil man has to look forward to… (Let me tell you – a soft case is a walk in the park compared to the hard case I move every Sunday!)

IMG_5399OMG – the charts are even in German. !!

IMG_5406An afternoon of flying followed by live polka music with a tuba player in a German restaurant?!?! WHAT? (Oh – and we learned later that Elihu and Jeremy the tuba player both study with Mike Meidenbauer!)

IMG_5996Recently The Studio was host to an event. A success I suppose, in spite of the fact that the host’s car got stuck in the mud and she needed a tow truck to get her out and now I gotta figure out how to fix the lawn. Sigh. Two steps forward, one step back… Overhead’s still killing me at the moment, but all in due time, I suppose…

IMG_5999Elihu donned his Grandpa Robert’s madras bow tie for his school Spring Assembly for the Waldorf School.

IMG_6038How I wish I had a better picture, but from way in the back this was the best I could do. Elihu and pal Drake performed a tongue-twister sketch which they wrote, the last line of which was “Fancy froggy fanciers feed my farmed, frivolous, furry, frightened, fluttering, flightless fruit flies to phyllobates frogs from Florida forests.” !

IMG_6125A bow-tied man is a man of good character, no matter the age. (The fellow on the left even plays tuba. !) A fine performance, and a fine conclusion to a fun and full couple of weeks.