The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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

 

 

 

 

Book’s End December 31, 2017

Bald Mountain, the old rooster whom we shall always love and remember.

 

Dear readers, are you still there?

I have never let so much time pass between posts in the past seven and a half years of this blog until now. It seems that finally, life has taken me over. I have experienced so many intense and challenging events this past year that I can hardly believe that it all actually happened. From the predictable (my young son finally growing taller than me in only a few weeks’ time) to the unimaginable (the Studio being struck by lightning) and so very many more things that I cannot hope to recall at this writing.

In January of this year, I, like many of my friends, watched with heartbreak and profound disbelief as our nation’s finest first couple surrendered the office to a narcissistic madman. Facebook blew up, friendships blew apart, and I learned early on that I had too much on my personal plate to lose myself in the fray. What was once a valuable tether to my previous life in Chicago became a drain on my heart every time I visited. When early on – even during the election season – I’d asked my Republican friends to please explain to me how Trump would benefit – and not hurt – the common man, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. There was no insight to be found, no ground to be shared. I still maintain that the vast majority of people on this goddam globe all seek the same things: safety, health, and the love of family and friends. I can never understand how these simple things have become so micromanaged, and in the process, become so utterly unmanageable.

The single digit temps of last March highlighted for me just how unprepared The Studio was to maintain indoor temps of 65 degrees – let alone a cozy 70 or higher. A huge group had booked the place for a long chunk of time, and they moved in. It was challenging to continue to run our own regular yoga classes alongside this program, but everyone cooperated, and in spite of my utterly freaking out in flat-out fear when I saw that our baseboard heaters and new mini splits were all “going to 11” but the room was hardly improving, the host was kind and forgiving. Again, everyone did what they could, we added space heaters til we blew circuits, tried new configurations until finally the room was livable. But stress, man, talk about stress. Add a good snowfall (as also happened concurrent with the heating issue) and then there’s the plowing situation. That’s its own ball of wax, believe me. It takes finesse to carve out room for 50 cars on the yard – without going over the septic tank! – and in spite of all that space lost to the piles at the property’s perimeter. We got our new guy now. Building the posse, one crisis at a time. !

Then more shit started happening. Quite literally. During a long-term rental of the venue the toilets suddenly stopped flushing. Although the building had only been used seasonally since its construction in 1974, the septic tank had finally reached its limit. Nothing was going down. The timing wasn’t great, and it was a stressful situation, but I knew that the job itself was fairly straightforward and simple. Either locate and clear a blockage (hoped for) or learn that the tank needed pumping (oh no, please, no). With no time to lose and a full house expected the following day I had no options but to call the local plumbing company for whatever help they could rustle up at 5:30 in the afternoon. Before long, two ambitious twenty-something plumber’s apprentices arrived and began poking and digging their way across the yard for several hours (at outrageous after-hours rates!) with not a single find. As a last resort tactic, they pulled out these flushable doo-dads which would emit a signal by which they could then be located with a receiver, thus showing us the exact point of the blockage (at that point we were still hoping it was a simple routing job and not a pump out.) Great idea! How clever! How practical! So the guys flushed all their doohickies down the toilets and began to wave their gieger counter thingees over the likely pathways. Not a signal was found. Not a blip, not a squeal, not a nothin. By this time it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were taking over, and there was nothing to do but shelve the mystery for the day.

The mystery continued for a while. To help fill in some missing clues, I pulled out a square, white-framed snapshot of me as a young, bucktoothed girl, standing by my mother’s rock garden which I knew to be above the site of the septic tank. I knew this well because mom would never let anyone forget that this area was NEVER TO BE DRIVEN OVER. The plumbers and I walked off what looked the right amount of paces… and no luck. Finally I got my local pal Al to come out with his bucket excavator, and his plan was to start digging on the spot where I had stood in that photo. Al is a good old local boy. Been in Greenfield his whole life. And he is a lot of other things too: clever, inventive, a pilot, a dog lover, an active, healthy guy – and he’s just plain got a good heart. He remembers coming to our house in the 70s when his grandfather did the stonework for the fireplaces here. I like that Al has those memories. I like that he flies, that Elihu loves flight. I like that he always charges me less than anyone else, and I trust his results without question. So I needn’t have panicked the morning I pulled up early and found Al and his assistant just about finished revealing the mystery tank: it had been buried six feet below grade when it should have rested a mere few inches from the surface. Wow, no one saw that coming. No matter. Live and learn. Forward we go. Tank located, then tank pumped. Job done? Kinda, but not.

Second phase: Open hole in front yard remains so all summer long as local excavators (Al included) are all tied up on jobs that actually pay real money. And it’s not as simple as back filling the hole. Nope. I need to construct a custom sleeve through which the top of the tank can be accessed for future pump outs. I spent hours on the phone with dozens of folks in all sorts of stone yards and metal shops, I learned deep shop talk and came to learn a lot about infrastructure and materials. But all I really wanted at the end of it all was a cheap, durable 4 foot sleeve. Al proposed a solution that sounded too simple. And our dear neighbor Zac took the time to actually make a mold and then pour the perfect concrete sleeve – but Al insisted it would be too heavy. I hated to refuse the custom, artfully made piece, but in the end, after a handful of cancelled showers, weddings and graduation parties (why, oh why did this happen at the height of our rental season??) it was Al’s plastic, 55 gallon drum with the ends cut off that saved the whole operation and allowed us to finally back fill our gaping hole and regain the venue’s dignity. (Toilets all still flushed, but for many it was the hole in the ground that was the deal-breaker. Not for everyone, but some folks were quite unhappy.) Hey. I’m just one person, and I’m always doing my best, but there’s only so much one woman can do. I can’t say my ego isn’t a bit wounded when people get angry that I can’t fix things in time, or that things aren’t as they should ideally be, but after this year I’ve grown thicker skin for sure. I can shake it off. From this chapter I learned that it doesn’t matter if you can’t please em all, so long as you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

Now the lightning strike – that happened somewhere in the middle of the gaping hole chapter. The two projects overlapped, and for a minute there sometime at the height of the summer, I was feeling mightily tried by these incredibly tedious and expensive setbacks. I might have lost all hope but for the fact that I had, during the cold months, lost three dress sizes and was now spending some child-free afternoons at the gorgeous Victoria Pool – sporting the very bathing suit I wore the summer before I got pregnant. Hoo-haw! Who cares if there’s a cesspool in your venue’s yard and the AC units are fried? I was lookin good! Gotta say, the summer – aside from the Studio crap – was magical. An old friend and guitarist invited me to the jazz fest at SPAC – and man it felt so good to hear good music again. Then by some miracle (the miracle is called “one seat only”) I got a front row seat for Earth, Wind and Fire. Mm-hmm. And that particular evening, I had it goin on. Even got backstage and had the privilege of meeting bassist Verdine White. I floated home that night.

While all this was going on, Elihu was becoming, to my heart’s lament, a young man. He is now in high school. The character and quality of his face transformed in a few months’ time, his height and voice, too. He didn’t always like it when during breakfast I’d go to the piano and try to find his new lowest pitch, but now we both run to the piano when we think he’s sounding lower, different. We marvel at this change together, and I am deeply grateful that he still values my input on these changes, physical and social. And it goes without question that he still enjoys my company. But ah, these are the teen years, and I have readied my heart for a while now; when the door clicks shut without a greeting, when silences stretch on and on, when he is off and gone to his workshop as soon as he is home – I let it be. After all, in less than a year Elihu will be studying in Germany for a semester. My work now is to learn how to let go. Elihu will do just fine. The low vision thing worries me, but he’s got technology. And smarts. His profile info on his Instagram account (Copterdude) says simply “aspiring overachiever”.

The Studio has hosted an ongoing high school open mic which has really helped the place to grow in the community. We’ve also hosted dinner concerts, middle school music jams, rock concerts, dances, yoga retreats, yoga classes, art exhibits, and finally we held a holiday brass concert in which Elihu played tuba with a quartet. I was beyond impressed with how they sounded. I’d told Elihu that after this he’d be off the hook – he’d satisfied the deal. He’d learned to play bass and tuba with proficiency, and now he was free to pursue aviation with all of his energy. But man, he just sounded so good. I told him how blown away I was (please, no pun) and it reached him. “Really?” he asked, as if it was hard to believe. I told him that a deal was a deal, but it made we want to weep. “If it makes you feel like that, I won’t quit. I won’t.” My kid is not one to go back on his word, so I’m fairly sure he’ll stay on the low brass path a while longer. I had told him that when you’re talented, you can’t take that shit lightly. Not everyone gets that gift. Another lesson for both of us. Do what you do, and do it with integrity. Yeah, and definitely have some fun while you’re at it.

I suppose I could’ve just summed up this past year by saying 1) infrastructure challenges at the Studio 2) first calendar year of continuous operation 3) kid’s taller than me and 4) kid speaks German and builds aircraft that blow my mind. Yes, it was an amazing year for us both. It’s always tempting at the end of a year to say that a chapter has been definitively closed, when in fact, an arbitrary date certainly, in reality, means no such thing. But it is possible to find demarcations along the way unrelated to any calendar – usually they’re easier to spot with a few years of hindsight – which do seem to signal the end of an era. Many folks have suggested I compile some of the Hillhouse writings into a book (oh so much easier said than done) and I’d always struggled with a time at which this book might close. When would this ‘journey of a mother and son’ actually end? Well, of course, it never truly will. However, the journey of a mother and her young son has ended.

Now I can identify with clarity what the ‘early’ years felt like. When there were no houses in the field, when Elihu and I would go to the coop at night and just sit there, sometimes for an hour, listening to the gentle cooing and gurgling sounds of our flock. The days on our tummies in the violet patch, the Easter Sunday walk to the stone wall in the woods, the out-of-time quality of it all. The this-is-how-it-always-will-be of it all. But even then, even in the midst of that idyllic childhood we were sharing, I began to get my heart ready. Just a year ago my imagination struggled to conjure an image of my son, taller than me. And now here we are. A piano student once asked me why I still had bath toys in the bathroom. I gasped a little, and paused… Some part of me, I suppose, really didn’t quite believe that the bath days weren’t coming back. I was shocked at myself. Shocked at how difficult this change might actually be.

Regular readers may remember our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin. He invited the neighborhood children to chase him in circles around the house, flying up to the roof for breaks, shrieking that singularly piercing call that both annoyed and charmed us so. He engaged us, he truly interacted with us, and if you will just believe me here, we have always believed that Austin honestly enjoyed our company. Just three weeks ago, before the snow fell, he and Baldie evaded a Cooper’s hawk attack and were found huddled together in the underbrush. I only found them because Austin responded to my calls and followed me at my heels all the way to the house after I freed them from the thicket. Only a week later he was stricken with some virus or infection (this is what we can now know in hindsight) and his behavior became strange. He spent his nights in the nesting boxes, and Elihu noted that he was no longer the first bird to fly from his perch in the mornings. Then one day, he disappeared. Thinking he’d gone off to die, I made several trips around the property calling for him, crying, calling… It broke my heart to think of him dying in the bitter cold, alone. And then at our Christmas party our neighbor boy Brandon (knowing Austin was missing) ran in and announced that he was back! Yes, he was, but hardly. He was a huddled clump at the bottom stair of the coop, frozen and unable to move. I wrapped him in my arms, so grateful that I finally got to hold him to my heart as I’d longed to, and we got him a cozy setup in the mudroom. He was acting strange; nearly paralyzed. We nursed him through two days. He would accept sips of water and in a flash he appeared to be himself again, but in our hearts we knew. Last Sunday morning we found him dead. Bald Mountain, also in the house due to his inability to hold his own against the drake, he spent a few hours beside his dead pal. He seemed to be waiting. Usually animals sense death, regard it for a moment, then move on. Not Baldie. This was even hard for him.

Now it’s Bald Mountain’s turn. His arthritic legs can no longer support him. In so many ways, his aging process reminds me of my father’s. He has taken to merely moving his food around more than eating it. He needs help to stand or sit, walking is almost impossible. Even grooming himself is a chore. Now he must be propped up otherwise he tumbles on the ground, his feet helplessly sticking out into the air. But when he is nicely settled into his bed, he looks serene enough, doesn’t appear to be in pain (how would we really know? And so I give him a baby aspirin each day just cuz) but as with my own aged father, he can startle or become suddenly agitated for no apparent reason, and then can be calmed relatively quickly to a point where he begins to nod off. I’m trying to keep him alive until Elihu returns from his father’s on Wednesday morning. I try to convey this thought to Baldie. I hope his heart understands me. Yeah, I kinda think he knows. He really is a tough old bird, and he’ll do his best to wait for Elihu. I thought I’d offer him a little inspiration this morning, so I brought a hen inside. The two of them chortled and shimmied side by side and she ended up creating a nest of rags next to him – where she proceeded to hunker down and lay an egg! Ha – a fresh egg right there in the kitchen. This really seemed to please dear Baldie, and if a chicken can experience a good mood, I’m pretty sure he did.

All afternoon I’ve been weepy and deeply, deeply sad. I couldn’t bring myself to clean and tidy as must be done, for each task brought me closer… I stalled, looking at the setting sun through the trees… this time of day seems to make all things so much sadder still… Elihu and I agreed that if he didn’t die on his own, we’d make arrangements. And so on Friday, the 5th, a kind vet from a neighboring town is coming to help us set our dearest Bald Mountain free. I sure hope he finds his buddy Austin to show him around when he gets where he’s goin. I will always have the image in my mind of the two of them, only weeks ago, walking a few paces apart, each one waiting to make sure the other was keeping up. Pals forever. We’ve had both of those dear birds since I began this blog! Elihu has grown up with them both; to him they were as his dogs. Every kid in the area knows (and has feared!) Baldie, as well as all of my piano students – in fact there’s nothing quite like a robust crow to mark the end of your lesson! There’s no need to embellish the story – this rooster ruled the Hillhouse for almost eight years along with his sidekick guinea fowl, and with the loss of these two beloved characters, things here are forever changed.

Our adventure began without warning, we had no idea what we were doing, what we were in for, or how any of it would turn out. There has been so much to worry over, there have been so many obstacles to surmount, so much crap to wade through, and yet it’s all been so much more than worth it. What a wonderful childhood my son has had, what a blessed time it has been for me, alongside him the whole way, and how lucky we were to have known and loved some amazing birds. Dear readers, I think that our book “The Hillhouse; the journey of a mother and young son” (and two very special avian friends) has come to its end.

But remember, with every ending comes a new beginning…

                                                                             Our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin.

 

Whirlwinds of March March 13, 2017

This past week we’ve experienced a good dose of dramatic and angry-sounding winds here in our corner of upstate New York; several mornings we’ve awoken to see fresh tree limbs scattered across the property. Daily the coop door bangs shut even after we’ve made an attempt to prop it open, and at night the wind through the forest that surrounds our house can sound like a swarm of enormous jet engines passing us on all sides. It’s been cold too, as in single-digit cold, which can make it feel like an all-out assault mounted against us by the elements. The snow is almost all gone now, due to a few unseasonably warm days, but the game is still on; winter is by no means done with us. Truly, we are exhausted by it, but at least we know that it won’t last much longer. Elihu’s birthday is on April 28th, and by then the snow will be gone for good. Each year at about this time, when our patience is at its very end, we remind ourselves of this definitive marker, which promises us unconditionally that there are just a few weeks left. !

Day before yesterday the air was a bit warmer, the wind had calmed down, and as I was outside fixing the fencing and making minor repairs to the coop I heard a new sound… At first it registered as familiar, but it took me a minute to really get it. The red-wing blackbirds were back! Every year our amazement at the turning of the seasons is refreshed; it’s nearly impossible to imagine how different things will feel in only a month’s time, and even harder to grasp that such a change will truly happen at all! Today it sure doesn’t seem as if anything will ever change, but before too long, a few early robins and a line of turtles sunning themselves on nearby pond banks will seal the deal for us. At the moment, however, I pray that all those dear creatures who presently remain suspended in winter’s torpor will stay there for just a little bit longer, as it is still bitter cold outside. (Also, our snow-less terrain will be changing again soon, as there is a winter storm warning for the next two days promising 12 – 18 inches of snowfall. Oh well.)

The recent weather in our interior lives has been a bit windy and dramatic too. A recent heated exchange with Elihu’s father over his attending the Waldorf School including some angry emails from him prompted me to pen a terse response. I knew, even as I posted my note to him on Facebook (polite, to-the-point and with a small degree of good humor), that it wasn’t likely to serve me in any productive way. Yeah, I knew it. But being told “Fuck you” by my son’s father as I tried to defend the importance of Elihu’s school, man, that was too much. Seriously not cool. In hindsight I can understand that he was stressed, and in no frame of mind to respond kindly. Lots on that guy’s plate: travelling internationally (and with a Muslim name no less in this crazy Trumped-up world), having his time with his son challenged (on account of reducing unexcused absences in high school), having to keep up with his financial commitments. Yeah, I get it. In future I think my own policy should be to wait at least 24 hours so I can cool down a bit before firing off a response to his angry communications. But regardless of the situation, regardless of how carefully I might intend to preserve what remains of our relationship, I will never get my props from that guy – and I think I understand that fully now. No well-written letter, no physical evidence, not even a happy and thriving child will get any witness – let alone gratitude – from him. But that’s OK. I have a full plate, and a happy kid. I had my life with Fareed, and in that wonderful life I made friends, I became part of a very unique family, I traveled, I became a better musician, and I learned things – and in the end I got a wonderful child out of it too. So that relationship fulfilled its role in our lives. Yes, it was a good chapter. (The transitional one that followed, er, uh… maybe not so much!) But I’ve been learning throughout the entire journey, so nothing has been lost. All is as it should be… OK. Next adventure?

Elihu himself has had a magical week. Yesterday he played an adjudicated tuba performance (NYSSMA – New York State School Music Association) and received a score of 97. As his teacher told him earlier today at his lesson, this is a pretty important accomplishment in that just over a year ago Elihu had only the most rudimentary reading skills. (Yes, he knew his bass clef, but finding the notes on the tuba made it a whole new ballgame.) The judge made some lovely comments about Elihu’s interpretation and musicality, and this, although perhaps not entirely surprising, still kind of shocked us both. We’d prepared for some level of disappointment, so this was a pretty thrilling conclusion.

Another magical element to the week was Elihu’s successful and short-lived GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy a collective pitch/3D RC heli. It’s been a while (in the helicopter world 1 year = 5 years of ‘normal’ time) since Elihu’s had a brand-new heli. He’s fixed up the old ones and done his best to keep everything in the air, but at the end of the day, many of his craft weren’t designed to be fixed, but rather simply replaced. And now that he’s got some skills, he really wanted a craft that could support him as he learned a new, more sophisticated technique of flying. But on a $5 weekly allowance, the $250 heli he wanted (by his 14th birthday) would take a loooong time to save for. I made the suggestion that he could start a campaign – but the content was on him. We posted a couple of pics and he wrote the text. It took about a half hour to create, and in a only few hours’ time after posting it he’d reached his goal. He was running around the house laughing and laughing and gleefully jumping over the furniture (well, he does that anyway, but still…).

He promptly ordered the heli, making sure the guy at Horizon Hobby knew of his past disappointments. And wouldn’t ya know, the box arrived FedEx like 2 days later… I missed the first delivery and had to cancel some appointments to make sure I was here to receive it the following day, but oh how worth it it was. !! A triumph, a moment, a rite of passage. Let’s just hope he goes slow and takes all the advice he’s given. This will take a whole new level of skill. I’m confident he’ll do fine, I just hope it doesn’t take him one broken-up craft to get there.

When Elihu told me at the age of six that he wanted to play tuba, I knew he meant it. But who coulda known just what that would mean a few years down the line? And when Elihu began his obsession with birds, and then in time aviation, how could I ever have known the adventures that would ensue as a result? When he was told he needed to play bass before he could play tuba, who woulda thunk he’d take care of business as he did? Me, I was always a path-of-least-resistance kind of person from the start. I did the bare minimum I had to in order to get by. My kid, he’s not like that. He’s one to face stuff head one, assess it, devise a strategy and then dive in. When Elihu does something, he fucking does it. And he does it with such deep interest, such integrity, and such modesty. And the thing is – he does things with true joy. Not the laugh-out-loud sort necessarily (although sometimes that is how it manifests – like when he’s flying a helicopter or playing his djembe and he just can’t stop grinning), but rather it’s something that’s deeper, more lasting. He spends a lot of time in thought, and a fair amount of time reflecting on all the things he’s learned. He’s a fun kid to have around, and many are the times I’ve thanked him for choosing me to be his mother. I’m learning right along side him, and I’m enjoying myself too.

It’s a good thing that things are going well on the kid front, because challenges abound regarding The Studio these days. Forget about updating the website (one can clearly see that I have indeed forgotten about that!), there are mechanical issues popping up as we pilot our way (we? Make that ‘me’) through our second winter. Pipes are freezing, despite my cranking the super-expensive baseboard electric heat, renters are still enjoying last year’s prices (oy, I started so low I cringe to think), the terrain is either too muddy, too icy or piled too high with snow, and mom is still essentially funding the balance. We had a productive board meeting recently, but until we have a larger board, and until I can start assigning people tasks (I suppose in the real world we’d call those ‘committees’) it’s going to remain just lil old me doing it all. But overall, things are so much better than last year at this time, and I have to constantly remind myself of that.

Over the past month I’ve experienced some personal exchanges with folks who’ve stepped up to tell me they think this Studio thing has been a big mistake, a personal detour of sorts, and that I should just let it go. Some folks have wondered why I don’t just work for someone else and give myself a break from all the stress. I myself had some similar thoughts recently, and it was my mother who quite angrily insisted that quitting wasn’t an option. I suppose an existential crisis is inevitable along the path to creating something new like this. All I need to do is read back over this blog through the past few years to see just how far I’ve come. It’s easy to miss in the thick of it. You know, forest for the trees. This weekend has been another in a series of challenges, and thankfully the renter was very kind about it. It’s all been a huge learning experience. From how to run a business to how to maintain a building – to learning how to deal with a variety of different personalities and expectations. Huge. Learning. Experience. (I’m not such a fan of that “word/period” technique, but it does kinda Make. The. Point.)

Now it’s late and I’m losing my recall for the events of the past few weeks. Now I need to summon the focus to wake bright and early tomorrow and start hittin it all again. Make lunch, breakfast, do the chickens, check in with renters at the Studio, get kid to school, hit the Y, do some fast grocery shopping, prepare for a new student, learn the new score for the kid’s musical, put the groceries away (sometimes that’s easy to overlook!). Then there’s the small matter of tweaking the Studio’s bylaws, CCing everyone on the changes, and a few other Studio-related items which are too mundane to list, but can easily eat up the hour I may (or may not) have left after all else is checked off the list. Not sure I’ll get to the website. My taxes and school tuition assistance forms and the monthly emailing will also have to wait another day or two. A girl can only do so much! Maybe after the kid’s in bed…

You too? Yeah, I kinda thought it wasn’t just me. Every last one of us in this contemporary world is busy, busy, busy. But what an adventure, huh? Just today Elihu remarked that neither one of us tended to do things by “half measure”. When I looked to him for his reasoning behind it, he swept his hand in an open gesture toward our small living room. “You don’t just have a piano, you also have a harpsichord. I don’t just have a tuba, I also have a bass. And I don’t just have an alto recorder – I have em all! And we play all of them, and we enjoy playing all of them. And I don’t just love aviation, I live aviation. You don’t just love meeting new people and experiencing new situations, you live for that. And we don’t just keep a couple of chickens – we actually hatch our own flocks right here in our own little incubator.” As I looked around the room with a fresh new perspective, I nodded in agreement. I told him I hadn’t thought of it like that, and I confessed that I often felt our simple life here had sometimes become way too complicated. “We just don’t do things by half-measure” Elihu repeated. We stood there together for a moment in silence, looking out at our cozy room. “But we love it that way, don’t we?”  Yup, I guess we do.

No, there’s nothing half-hearted or half-measured about our life here. And I’m sure my son is probably right. Neither one of us would truly enjoy a static, predictable life – even if it meant all the warmth and sunshine of Florida. And while we treasure our peaceful and quiet time at home, sometimes it’s still a lot of fun to live in the midst of a whirlwind.

The eighth grade class jokes and just kinda hangs out… Elihu, meanwhile is…

Teaching himself Japanese. Not a huge surprise. He’s got a handle on German, so it’s time to branch out.

Back home, Elihu brings Mr. Duck inside for a quick visit with Grandma.

Just look how this kid is growing! See how short both his pants and shirtsleeves have become!

We’ve finally discovered why hens like to park underneath Bald Moutain’s belly: he is covered with a huge number of poultry mites. No amount of topical treatments have rid him of these pests which cause him to itch all over, and without respite. Some hens like to crawl underneath him and pick off the mites as little snacks. I called the local vet and can you believe I have a $156 credit there?? That means that this coming Thursday Baldie will be getting the full-on salon treatment via some internal medication that will put an end to this 8 year old roo’s troubles.


Elihu loves so many animals. This tiny, dime-sized poison dart frog lives with two others of another variety in a vivarium that is self-sustaining. Elihu spent months researching the construction of this sophisticated environment online before putting it together himself. All I can say is God bless the internet, and go YouTube!

Elihu and a new craft made entirely of his own design.

It’s a ‘scale’ paper model. Looks nice and flies surprisingly well. Who knew?

This is the constant state of our kitchen table. I’m ok with it now, but check back with me in a couple of months. !!

This is the super-blah looking time of year. Sigh. And still so cold!Ah, but Sunday morning breakfast makes it better.

So does a quick smooch with Alden, Bald Mountain’s son and the father of future flocks.

Sundays around here mean tuba lessons! In this pic Elihu’s magnificent teacher, Mike Meidenbauer, goes over some smaller points regarding the interpretive aspects of the tuba concerto Elihu will be playing at NYSSMA, an adjudicated performance which is graded and requires scales, sight reading and performance. We adore Mike for many reasons, and perhaps top on our list (although he is a highly regarded low brass instructor) is his joyful and humorous way of interjecting colorful language into a lesson. (He also has chickens!) Mike, Elihu and I are cut from much the same sort of cloth. We find his natural, humanistic way of teaching beyond refreshing.

Warming up, Elihu said he felt like “an elephant in an aviary”.

Kid did well, and he wore my dad’s shoes, too. That made us both happy. Hope it made grandpa smile, too.

Who woulda thunk? Neither of us! Wow!!! and Phew!!!

Proud Mama keeps on boasting…

Back at home, I’ve missed the Fed Ex driver once already, and knowing how precious his delivery is, I make double sure he doesn’t pass us by a second time.

I realize that sometimes our ‘doorbell’ confuses folks. The real bell is an actual bell that hangs on the side of the door. It came from my father’s childhood summer home on Paradox Lake in upstate New York, and it was likely used to call my dad and his brother up to the house for dinner. I just love that the same sound is now a familiar part of our life here. So far, however, very few folks have been brave enough to actually use it.

The package did arrive. !!

Here it is!

Suh- WEET!

Elihu has lamented for a while now that he doesn’t have a YouTube channel, but he has so much information to impart, and he thinks his input could be of value to someone out there. Finally, I sat down and got to work creating a channel. We took his first-ever formal “video” of his heli’s unboxing (which I’m told is definitely a “thing”) and uploaded it. He is now probably the happiest boy that ever walked the face of this earth.

Whew! What a whirlwind this March has been!

Link to Elihu’s new YouTube channel: Copterdude

(For some reason the link cuts off the start of the video – scroll back to catch it from the top.)

P.S. Even though you don’t need one more item in your inbox, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Elihu’s channel. Thanks for considering!

 

And… Scene August 14, 2016

It’s taken me thirteen years to get back on the horse. Until day before yesterday, I hadn’t played piano and sung since before my son was born. Even so, regular readers and friends will know that the past decade has not been idly spent; I have learned so much and come so far. And it’s not as if I haven’t played piano over the past years, I’ve done plenty of that. Accompanying kids’ plays, choruses, dance classes, talent shows (and tonight you can add something new to my resume: Vacation Bible Camp. Oy!). It’s just the solo thing has been elusive. And I’m not kidding myself to think that playing one little date at a farmer’s market changes everything, and yet somehow, symbolically, it does. Plus I recently learned that the songs I enjoy playing (which heretofore I’d been labelling my “Guilty Pleasures Book”, sounding way too much like a condom ad for my comfort) are actually part of an identified genre. It’s called Yacht Rock. Those who know me from my ‘past’ life may know that I have crewed on boats, spent lots of time sailing, and yearn for the water like nothing else. Finally, something that marries my love of Pablo Cruise with the sea….

This past month I’ve also performed as a jazz singer for the first time in a long while. I’d been searching for a chord-melody style guitarist for years now, without much luck, and finally found my new pal Dan. Ok, not a glamorous start to our career perhaps, but a nursing home job is better than nothing. Plus he’s hipped me to a couple new tunes, some even with verses that were new to me – and that’s always like finding treasure. We rehearse once a week (in the Studio! Nice to have a joint of my own in which to work!) which gives us a nice momentum as we work on our book and our arrangements. I had forgotten how much I love to sing, and how natural it feels. As they say in showbiz: it’s good to be back. !

So that metaphoric hump has been traversed. I’ve got my gear, my book, my gameplan. All good. And today marks four years since I quit smoking. Nice. The Studio has a full calendar of rentals, including recording sessions, meditation workshops and weddings. Yes. My bedroom has been painted for the first time since the house was built in 1970. Whew! Elihu has been gone for one month, and I have been busy, busy, busy since he left. It’s a great relief not to have to make food three times a day, not to have to keep track of another person – and not moving that silly tuba every week is pretty nice, too. I’ll welcome the routines when they start up again in a few weeks, but for now I’m using every moment to its fullest and ticking the boxes off as best I can. The list, however, never, ever ends, and I’m realizing (have I not realized this before?) that I must somehow make peace with that reality of life. One project wraps successfully, and then something new pops up. One issue resolves, and another beckons for attention.

Like my weight, for example. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t toss my ‘fat’ clothes a year ago – cuz I’m back in em again. When I’m busy, I tend to eat crappy, carby, salty, fatty foods. Who wants to nibble on kale when filing? A bag of potato chips is so much more motivating! And my reduced-fare membership to the Y ran out, requiring a new application process that will take a month til I get in the system again. So that’s kinda fallen off the map. I have never been this large before in a non-pregnant state, and it’s really, really disheartening. I don’t know how I’ll find it in myself to find the discipline it’ll take to drop twenty-five pounds. I’ve done it half a dozen times before, I know I can do it, but each time it gets just a little harder to summon the oomph.

A week ago we Conants lost our eldest cat, Mina. That too was a major change in life for me. Mina was originally found in a junk yard in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and she’d come with me from Evanston to Dekalb to Greenfield. She was a tortie with tiny tufts of black whiskers on the top of each ear, and she always had sort of an annoyed look on her face, which was part of her charm, really. She was a sweetie to be sure. Not a big cuddler, but she always purred when you were near. She lived next door with my mother, as Elihu’s allergies are just too dire for us to share space with a cat. But in spite of the different address, she was a part of our life. I really think she resisted leaving us; it took her a long time to die. Finally, after a vigil of several days, and with no energy left to sit, she lay on the island in mom’s kitchen as we talked to her, soothing her as best we could, telling her how much we loved her. She would occasionally meow, something very uncharacteristic of her, and we knew she was in a disquieted state. (Mina also meowed twice just seconds after my father died. You can think what you will, but for me, I knew that she sensed his departure.) Finally, at 6:45, I bent over and looked into her glassy, tired eyes… I told her that she needed to leave us by 7 o’clock. I told her that it was ok, we’d see each other again, and that it would feel like no time had passed, I promised her that everything was honestly going to be fine. I thanked her for being such an important part of our lives, and I told her we loved her. Five minutes later her heart finally stopped. Mina was a living link to my past life. And now that link is finally gone. We buried her under the flowering quince bush, next to Thumbs Up.

The other night I finally spoke to Elihu. I’ve talked to him only three times since he left to be with his father. That’s ok though. He himself says that he’s fine until he talks with me, and then he starts to miss me and get a little homesick, so it’s just easier not to call. Which I totally get. It is hard to switch gears. While he was speaking to me the other night, I went to the piano and tried to match the pitch of his voice…. “You’re trying to figure out how much lower my voice, is, aren’t you?” he asked. I confessed. He laughed. When he left his eyes were level with the bridge of my nose. I almost dread how tall he’ll be when he comes home. Sometimes I wish that just for one moment he could be a five year old boy again, and that I could scoop him up in my arms and hold him tight…

There are just a few things left on my list. Then Elihu returns, and the new school year will start with many new elements; the eighth grade will now reside in the high school building, the Studio is now up and running as a real business, I have a duo partner for my jazz gigs and I’ve finally found a way to brand my solo act. That’s all got me feeling pretty hopeful for the future. Ok, so the arthritis is still an issue, so is my weight, and man I don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of the clerical crap that goes with life. But hey. Things are, from a wider perspective, much better than they’ve been in a long time.

And…. Scene!

 

 

 

Five Hundred and One October 21, 2014

This is my five hundred and first post. I hadn’t intended to pass up post number 500 on such a mundane subject as Spam, but very anticlimactically, there you have it. It seems the tally of my published posts was one behind, causing me to miss my landmark. But then that’s not so very important as is the fact that I’m still at it, over three years and five hundred posts (and dozens of unpublished posts) later. The result represents several thousand hours of writing, editing and re-writing. And while I don’t yet deign to claim that I’m a professional writer, I do however, with a small amount of confidence, now identify myself to people as a writer. Not a blogger. I’m a writer with a blog, not a blogger who writes just to generate content. (Lord knows generating content has never been my problem. !)

Bloggers enjoy making entire paragraphs out of one single sentence for effect.

Not me. Well at least not yet. Never say never.

That’s precisely what turns me off when I visit other blogs. That silly, truncated format, those tiny look-how-clever-I-am paragraphs, that sing-song, cutesy tone. Just doesn’t do it for me. Kinda like the Dead. You either dig them, or you don’t. The typical blog format either works for you or not. A particular style of music can either fill your heart with joy – or make you want to rip the radio out of the dashboard. Me, I don’t write in order to have a blog; I write because I’d probably go nuts if I didn’t have an outlet. To be entirely honest, I’ve come to rely on you guys. Having an audience – dare I even say a family? – with which to share my ruminations and experiences is what has motivated me to get out of bed on many a morning.

I don’t think my writing is necessarily great stuff (no false modesty here, I really do think it’s improved in some ways), but I believe what gives it integrity is that I actually write down the things that run through my head. I don’t believe that I’m terribly different from most folks – I just think aloud, that’s all. But in that lots of people get a kick out of watching other people’s tiny dramas – or in some cases rubbernecking at their worst train wrecks – I figure at the very least The Hillhouse offers up some form of entertainment, if nothing else.

Elihu and I went to see comedian Steven Wright the other night (first time I’d popped so much money on a ticket in my entire 51 years on the planet. Hope the kid treasures the memory, at least I know that I will…) and in the days that followed I began to think more critically about what made comedy compelling. What made writing compelling for that matter. And while it may seem simplistic, it seems to me it’s mainly about the truth. Why are some things so goddam funny? Why is some writing worth reading? Because either you’ve already thought the same crazy thought yourself (and thought it was just you thinking it) or have never heard a certain situation expressed before in such an obvious, truthful way that it gets your attention. It’s either been your truth at one point too – or at least you can feel the truth in it. You get it. And that’s why I’m here. Because I need to know that you’ve been here too. Or at least that somebody else gets it. I don’t have the immediate feedback of hearing your laughter, but I do feel the presence of somebody else in the room, and it feels nice.

I’m so glad you’ve stopped by here at The Hillhouse to share in a tiny portion of our life. You’ve given me such a gift in your audience, in your emotional support and input. It continually blows my mind that we’ve had visitors from over 170 countries now, many now regular readers (before this experience I wasn’t even aware that there were so many countries in the world!). I still wonder at who many of you are – expats lonely for home, far-flung childhood friends of mine, people who arrived here on a late night Google jag…? Just who, I wonder, are you? I do know one thing: you are my friends, wherever you are, whomever you are, and whatsoever brought you here. And in exchange for your love and support I send you my energetic good wishes for a life as free from emotional stress and strain as possible, and for many wonderful surprises in the future.

My grandma taught me that the best way to accept a gift is with sincere thanks. And so tonight I thank all of you with my very warmest regards, five hundred and one times over.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

IMG_4914

Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

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Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…