The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

One More May 6, 2020

Another year? Really? Do I have the energy for it?!

Fifty-six was something of a surprise. I mighta known stuff was coming down the pike, but somehow a lot of it threw me for a loop. I wasn’t the only one who had some challenges to face this past year; my son has also had a few life-changing events – some really good, and some hard and unfair. But we’ve learned from it all, and onward we go. Elihu turned 17 last week, and tomorrow I turn 57. Wait, fifty-seven? What?? Somehow to me that just plain sounds wrong. Liz Conant is 34, isn’t she? Most adults have a favorite age; family friend Martha always liked 42, and my mom touts her 50s as the best decade ever. But for me, my 40s and 50s were given over to single motherhood. It just hasn’t been about me for a while.

The ironic thing about this earthly existence is that those who grow old are regarded as the lucky ones. And yet growing old brings a list of unpleasant deficiencies (please hold your protestations) like diminishing physical abilities, crepey skin, strange new chin hairs, an inability to recall a particular word in real time, and most disappointing for me, a sagging neck and a second chin that no amount of scarves can obscure.

Lest it sound like I’m a vain, self-sorry sort (well, actually, in part I am), I will happily agree that I’ve had a wonderful life thus far – and I’ve been luckier and more privileged than a great majority of the world’s population. I’m aware of this and think on it often. I’m healthy, I’m housed, I’m loved. All is well, truly it is. But lately my neck has been making these very distressing popping and grinding noises from inside (my arthritis doctor may have made things worse by admitting that my neck Xray was “abnormal”. I try to play it off by remembering the “Abby Normal” scene in “Young Frankenstein”, but it doesn’t quite work), and I’ve begun to feel sensations in my limbs that are likely linked to my old injury. Also this confinement has just added to the extra pounds I carry around. And I’m not digging any of it. I’m just self-comforting with food and booze. Simple as that.

It seems I may also have some sort of low-grade depression playing in the background of my life, because for no real identifiable reason some days are just very hard. There are days when I don’t even know how to get out of bed – truly, I mean it. There are days when I don’t know where the hell it’s gonna come from today… How will I feed my kid, deal with the chickens, return the emails, teach the students, run the errands – if I can’t even get dressed? And I’m not just talking quarantine-related angst. It’s shit that’s been with me for years. Most pronounced in these past eleven years here at the Hillhouse. And yet – the flip side of that coin is that I’ve done more for myself this past decade than any other time in my life. I’ve raised my son, rediscovered how to make music (this time without a band – my worst fear, truly), I’ve learned about starting a business, about farming, about fixing things, making things work, making do… And it helps to remember that. Seeing it in print is a good reminder. I suppose we all need reminders. And second chances, third chances, fourth chances…

A birthday always seems to me like a secondary New Year; it’s that perfect opportunity to try again, to pull oneself up and hit that to-do list with new enthusiasm. This is my hope for tomorrow. Maybe it will prove to be a new seed, that new bit of inspiration that I so need now…

Perhaps I’ll end up reading this tomorrow, and in the light of a new day maybe I’ll think better about sharing all of this negative talk and decide to pull it. It does sound a little self-sorry for a woman who has her wits and her health about her. It shames me to voice any complaints at all – because I have some very dear friends who are suffering from some hugely challenging health issues, and their paths are so much harder than mine. And I suppose a birthday is a gift. If nothing else, it’s another chance to do good work and get things right.

This year will be a gift. It will be my last year with Elihu here by my side. In one year, by my next birthday, we will know where Elihu is going to college. By then we’ll be preparing for him to leave, and I will be preparing for my first year out of the only job I’ve known for the last 17 years! It’s a good thing I have a year to get ready. For as many changes as we’ve shared here through the years, this last major shift will be the biggest of all. And with that in mind, I intend to cherish every moment of my 57th year. The best gift of all is to have one more year with my son.

Ok. I’m on board again. One more year? Yes, please.

 

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.

 

 

All That Jazz March 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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