The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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…

 

May Day Pics May 8, 2012

Waldorf School kids dance around the maypole… complete with flowered crowns on their heads, recorders and drums playing… a delightfully anachronistic feel to the day.

Elihu in blue

Later that fine May day… glow-in-the-dark stars dry on the trampoline for use that night at the Greenfield Elementary School talent show.

Fifty stars in all. Lots of time with an X-Acto knife.

The beautiful and talented Ginley Girls sing “Sweet Child O Mine” in honor of their blue-eyed baby sister

The traditional half time chicken dance. Elihu is the pit orchestra and rim shot guy and plays along with the track. A chicken and a duck dance wing-in-wing on stage

In the vast field just beyond our house we discovered literally hundreds of these Comma Butterflies passing by… note the interesting, curvy silhouette of the wings

Orange and brown and pretty on the inside

Elihu smooches our gregarious hen, Thumbs Up

Hello, Thumbs Up!

One more surprise from the incubator

On May 7th, my 49th birthday, I realized that my childhood friend’s mother died at 49.  She seemed like a real grown-up to me back then. I don’t feel like such a grown up. Age and perspective. Interesting.

Oh, little Rose Breasted Grosbeak, we have waited to see you for lo these past three years!

 

Country Boys April 2, 2012

I feel a bit disappointed that we’d forgotten it was April first today, and as such missed out on the opportunity for some good April Fool’s day trickery, but in the end that hardly matters when I look back on the joy of our weekend.

On a whim I’d driven Elihu ten miles across town to visit a friend on Saturday afternoon. No one had been answering the phone at his friend’s place, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be home. Elihu’s pal has three siblings and just about any given day there’d be at least half a dozen kids outside in the tiny yard riding bikes or kicking a ball around. I figured it was worth taking a chance. My ultimate goal had been to pick up Keith then swing by another classmate’s house, thereby getting all three boys together to try out an idea I’d had for an act they might do at this year’s talent show (I’m in charge of running the thing this year – I’ll undoubtedly be making a post or two on that experience. While I’m confident I can bring out the best in the kids’ performances, the logistics have me more than a little nervous.) We were surprised to find the whole family out – but his Aunt Sharon emerged from the tiny house, cigarette in hand, and told us to check back in about an hour. So up the road we went to pay a visit on his other pal.

Ever since I was a small kid I can remember being intrigued by the ramshackle homesteads scattered throughout the community here. Tiny compounds made up of various outbuildings, ancient rusting cars and every manner of household cast-offs laying broken and unused in every direction, weeds and brambles growing up around the whole mess. At the center of the property there would most often be an ancient, equally neglected trailer. I remember thinking how incredibly depressing it looked, how desolate and hopeless a place in which to live. It made me literally sick in the stomach to imagine what that reality might feel like. But did these people think so too? Were they trapped by their own hopelessness? Could they find no inner resolve to tidy up their land? Or – were they actually perfectly content to live like this?

Shortly after we moved here three years ago and befriended some of Elihu’s poorer, more rural classmates I finally got to know some of these places from the inside. Finally, my anthropological curiosity would get some answers. Elihu’s pal Colty lives in such a place. And you’d never guess. This boy is just about the cutest, most charming little kid you could ever hope to meet. He is one in millions. Cheerful, loving, sweet and unedited in his joy for life, he is clearly not bothered by the place in which he lives; I believe he is inspired by it.

He lives in a trailer, one which has been added on to over the years, resulting in a choppy profile from the outside which leaves the first time visitor wondering which door to approach. Even after having been there several times, I ended up choosing the wrong door. This is Colty’s dad’s place – and I know he stays here on the weekends. During the week he lives with his mother across town. His dad is out right now, and the kid is thrilled to see us, as some teenager has been left in charge and sits on a sagging couch mindlessly watching The Suite Life on Deck on an enormous flat screen tv. Colty immediately begins to give us a tour of the place. He takes off down the dark corridor and beckons us to follow. We arrive in a room (added onto the trailer to the side) where his dad keeps all his hunting stuff. It is filled with things I can’t quite identify and the windows are covered with ratty pieces of cloth. There is a lot of camouflage about. I can’t make out much in my quick look around, but at once I can recognize the smell of wet linoleum and mildew. It is a scent that I have known since I was little. A smell that has always reminded me of my own childhood when I too would visit my poorer neighbors and tour the interiors of their musty homes. After showing us this side porch he returns to the main room where a mounted ten point buck’s head serves as a hat rack for an assortment of brimmed caps. I remember that once his dad had made an old 60’s console tv into a fish tank. I didn’t see it on this visit, but forgot to ask about it as I was so busy taking in all the other details. Now our inside tour is finished, so Colty asks the teenager on the couch if he can go out and play. I assure him I’ll stay with the boys. He nods his ok, so off we go, leaving the blaring tv behind.

Colty is lucky to live on one very fine piece of property. Once you leave the trailer, the hound dog in his kennel, the chicken coop, garage and assorted vehicles behind, a vast field stretches out before you, gradually sloping down to a good sized pond at the far end. The sight conveys a thrilling sense of being in the wide-open. The horizon is hilly and pine-covered, and with everything visible in one frame, it almost seems as if you’re looking at a tiny diorama. The trails that his father has carved thru the brush for his four wheeler invite the adventurer on. Colty is thrilled to give us a tour. “I know this place like the back of my hand” he says, and begins to list off the sights he can show us; his worm farm, his pet mouse hole, the coyote den, the best place to find crayfish – he assures us he’ll be happy to show us anything we want to see.

We come upon a pile of old chairs and other household garbage. I can’t help but notice these are some very nice mid century pieces, and I lament their state of ruin. No fixing these. I sit in one as Colty and Elihu run off to look for things that only eight year old boys can fully appreciate. After a while they return and we head for the pond. A nicely-flowing creek runs out of the pond, and the boys run across the bridge and slip down the banks to look for creatures. I sit with my feet dangling over the planks and I drink in the sound of running water, I breathe in the cool, clean air. The boys return with salamanders. For a good half hour they run up and down the banks, creating rules and setting agendas in a world all their own. I lay down on the bridge and look up at the branches just beginning to bud. I like this. Cool, not hot, fresh but not cold. And no mosquitoes. A rare slice of perfection.

The water segment of our tour comes to a close and the boys follow a path through the tall pine trees towards the other side of the pond. I follow. We come out of the woods onto the foot of a great hill of lawn surrounded by giant oaks. Robins are everywhere on the grass. Elihu can’t see them and so I tell him to run – and he startles dozens of them. Happily he sees them as they fly away. As we walk up the hill we discover tiny round fungus of some sort in the grass. Each looks like a tiny stove top jiffy pop container with a hole in the middle. We discover that by either stepping on them or squeezing them between our fingers they emit a poof of dust. The boys do a tap dance on the lawn and millions of spores cloud the air. When this diversion is finished, Colty leads us further up the hill and points out a huge wall of sand in the distance. It appears to be a mountain cut in half, it’s sandy contents spilling out and onto the grass.

At first I hadn’t planned on following the boys all the way up the hill, but in the end it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I took my time, taking the crude road up the side of the hill while the boys, shoes and coats now flung off, started up the nearly vertical wall of sand to the top. Once at the top of the hill, I was stunned to realize how high up we were. From our elevation I could see my friend’s saltbox house a half mile away, and I could identify the ridge she always mentions when the coyotes call in the evenings. I was on one branch of that ridge. Not quite as high, but from here I could see what felt like forever. I stood on a spot that was now far above the tops of the great oak trees we’d just stood underneath. I found a good spot to sit, my feet braced against a root, and I watched the boys. They tumbled down, they tackled each other, they dug great holes in the sand, they laughed and laughed.

We took a break from the sand and explored the woods atop the ridge. We came upon a spot where each pine tree trunk was virtually identical. It looked simply mysterious and we couldn’t resist leaving the path and meandering through the forest for awhile. Not wanting to end up lost or too far away, we headed back to the sandy wall of the mountain before long. The boys then passed another half hour tumbling down the hill when I decided it really looked like way too much fun to pass up myself. And so I too tumbled down, walked back up and tumbled down again. We three had the most wonderful time; the kind of fun that epitomizes all our recollections of what childhood should be. And in the midst of one joyful moment of many that afternoon, Colty burst out “this is the best day ever!” and Elihu and I agreed.

After a couple hours’ play we headed back to the house. On the way up from the pond we met Colty’s dad, who gave the boys a ride back through the field on his four wheeler. Remembering why we’d come in the first place, we asked his dad if we could visit Keith for a bit. Colty’s got an impressive talent – he’s one hell of a dancer who moves with the kind of ease that no amount of lessons can teach. I’d hoped to get Elihu playing hand drum, Keith doing his beatboxing, and Colty doing his thing as the other two played. So we all piled into my car and went back down the mountain to  see Keith. When we pulled in there was a confusion of kids, cars and dirt bikes swirling about. Keith’s dad offered to give Elihu a ride on the four wheeler while Keith and his brother made jumps and wheelies to impress us. While all manner of bikes and balls were flying about I decided to seize the moment. I ran to my car, returning to the garage with a small amp, microphone and djembe. I wasted no time setting it up. I made an announcement in the mic and thankfully could be heard over the whining engines. It worked. All three boys came to the garage, and in a few minutes I was finally able to test out my idea for the talent show. And it even looked promising. This just might work. Elihu got his signature groove going on the djembe, Keithie did his beatbox thing on the mic, and lil Colty did what he could in the small, dirty space, his head, arms and shoulders popping out a cross-body wave to the music.

We set on a plan to get together over the next few weekends to work up an act and practice. I was happy that it would work. Happier still – because it was my deeper, more honest goal in this endeavor – that I’d managed to get two boys to participate in something they wouldn’t have otherwise. Theirs is a world different from Elihu’s and mine. A world of dirt bikes and atv trails, of long, unscheduled time outdoors, a life of rough and tumble boys who wear camouflage and go hunting with their fathers. It’s not a world where moms and dads sign their kids up for talent shows or after school drama club.

Even though this was not our own world, we were always made to feel welcome. And hopefully, I would make these boys feel welcome in our world too. Although these three boys may have grown up differently, they have one thing in common for sure. They are country boys. And what a great thing to be.

 

Like A Rhinestone October 25, 2011

I’ve had a long-term ear worm the past month. Through the ether this little gem reached me, inspired by what I cannot tell. That I even know the song is somewhat of a mystery; I was after all I was just about eleven or so when it came out. While I do have memories of sitting in the back seat of our Plymouth station wagon, hanging my chin over the front bench seat and begging my mother to please turn on the radio, I don’t think I encountered the song there. At school, perhaps? On the playground? Did my hip-looking fourth grade teacher play it for us in our progressive, 70s classroom? These were the days when music was an elusive treasure; a pre-walkman, pre-ipod culture, so the sources were few. Ah, perhaps I heard it first on my yellow, doughnut-shaped AM wrist radio… yes, that might be it. Imagine this simple little melody, absolutely fixed in my brain after all these years. Well, Glen, kudos to you; you chose to record one sticky little tune.

In an effort to exorcise the nugget from my head I awake early and pull out my tether to the world – my now rather ancient, yet essential G4 I Book – and I cast my line out into the ocean of information. What will I find? My friend Joan told me recently that he doesn’t look so good these days. I’m emotionally prepared. How old must he be? My mom’s age? Hmm… Then there it is. A page of head shots past and present. First, my eyes are drawn to the Glen Campbell I remember, the helmet of perfectly feathered hair, the cleft chin – the classic 70s handsome good guy look shared by the likes of Mac Davis and Bobby Sherman. This wasn’t the type I had gone for back then. I preferred the curling, long black hair of Donovan and Marc Bolan (so much so that decades later I crafted my own look to resemble Marc’s as closely as possible). Then there are the full body shots. The iconic belt buckle, long thin legs, cowboy boots, thumbs hooked onto belt loops with one hip cocked to the side. One groovy, sexy silhouette. I continue my quest. Just what is he up to these days? Soon I begin to collect a tidy list of tidbits on the man. I realize that I know very little of the guy.

My first impression upon seeing the first photo that comes up on his website is that he looks a little Sting-like, only with a wider nose. In the next shot he evokes a little Willy Nelson. All in all, not bad for a fellow who’s been around so long. I learn he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has recorded his latest record “Ghost on the Canvas” and plans to do a farewell tour. Sort of. He doesn’t commit to this, but for the time being it appears this is the plan. I look elsewhere and learn that he played rhythm guitar as a sideman on Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Strangers In The Night”. Apparently, he was starstruck and admitted to the producer that it was the reason he kept staring at the maestro. Irked at young Glen’s stares (also perhaps at the session itself as later Frank called the single ‘a piece of shit’) the crooner asked his producer ‘who is that fag guitar player?’ and told him he’d slap Glen if he did it again. Love it. I move on…

I am taken on a brief detour as I chase a link to Anne Murray – and discover that she is probably aging the very best of her generation. She looks gorgeous. After a quick foray into her history and current life I wander back to my man. I visit You Tube and find his song covered by school-age kids in Thailand, in a David Hasselhoff concert in Germany, by a homeless guy in the States and a marching flute band in Ireland. Nuff said. This is an earworm shared by a worldwide family. Lest I make the mistake that I disdain in so many and assume that he himself wrote it, I wonder: who really did write this song? I admit that I was quick to assume that Glen himself did, yet a quick check shows that is not the case. I must remember that the time in which this song was recorded was one in which performers themselves were not necessarily songwriters. This era was on the cusp of change; until that time singers had recorded and performed material created by folks whose sole job was that of songwriter. Even more specifically music and lyrics were two separate occupations. Although the music world was certainly changing by that time, the old architecture still existed; songwriters wrote, managers assisted the artists in choosing material and anonymous session musicians played on the tracks.

Larry Weiss of Newark, New Jersey wrote it. And poor guy, while he’s had a long and varied career since then, he has ultimately hung his hat on that one little song, and is even still actively wresting the life out of it in his current work on the theme for Broadway. Sheesh. But then again, if ‘Mama Mia’, why not ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’? Give the people what they want – redo your kitchen and buy a new car while the iron’s still hot. Why not? I would. I still love my old band The Aluminum Group’s ‘Chocolates’ and never minded playing it at every single show. I admit I was never sorely tested on that front; I really do wonder how folks are able to play their hits night after night after night and still bring it the life their audience deserves. Could I? Don’t know. That Larry and Glen continue to have an interested audience, and that they and thousands more can still make an income off that one two-minute song impresses me.

My tappy-tap tap sounds from the keyboard awaken my son. I greet him with the first line of the song. He finishes it. I guess I’ve been singing it around the house this past week more than I’d thought. He likes the song too. I’m surprised to learn he knows just about all of it. Elihu has a nice singing voice, I get a kick out of hearing him. It gives me an idea. I suggest he might want to sing it at this year’s Talent Show. He laughs and says he’d love to. I can play the piano for him… yes, and he can wear a big belt buckle… I’m getting excited now. Maybe this will be what clears my head of the hit. Hair of the dog, right?

We finish our breakfast and head to the school bus singing. The bus arrives, and my little cowboy rides off to his star-spangled rodeo.