The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Mix June 4, 2017

Our eldest hen Specks is gone. The fox got her in one of the many rounds she’s made on our property this spring on the quest to feed her new litter of kits. How can I begrudge her? Again and again she takes birds from our fast-dwindling flock. We take the hits in stride; we cannot truly shed tears, but our hearts become so very heavy at times with the losses. Specks was the last descendant of our original flock, and her sudden departure two weeks ago still causes me grief. A large bird, she was white with odd little flecks of black and brown, heavy-lidded eyes and a gentle demeanor which allowed for one to easily scoop her up for a quick passing smooch. She was sister to our beloved Thumbs Up (who died on Christmas day of 2016) and her death marks the end of an era for us here at the Hillhouse.

But our losses have not stopped there. The tenacious mother fox has come to visit – and in broad daylight – repeatedly, sometimes several times in one afternoon. Day before yesterday, when we were just at our neighbors and Elihu was happily flying his favorite new helicopter, we lost our young rooster Alden (son of Bald Mountain and hopeful new king and father of future generations) as well as a few other girls. Not all of our hens have names, and that does make it easier when one of them turns up missing, however now we are down to a bare-bones flock of just eight hens, half of whom have endeared themselves to us with charming traits and distinctive personalities. I hold my breath every time we do a count; is chatty Christie still with us? Laid-back Gildie and curious Scottie? These three are the ones I watch now, staying my heart for what seems the inevitable loss to come.

Bald Mountain is still here. Though no longer the robust, take-no-prisoners eleven pound bird he once was, he manages to hold his head erect (although his arthritic tail often flags) and continues to crow in the face of being beat up by the drake and chased by the fox. He is a survivor. Truth be told, he is our family dog and when he finally goes there will be a huge shift here. All of my students and all of our friends know Baldie. He is still the reigning king. But even a king must meet his maker, and we hold out hope that when his time comes, he goes peacefully in his sleep. It would be a hugely bitter pill for us to swallow if he should lose his life to the fox. But we know it’s a possibility, and so every day we proceed with guarded hearts, hoping for the best but on the ready for anything.

So much has happened since my last post that the prospect of catching friends and readers up has felt like an impossible task. Our lives have been jam-packed with deep conversations, medical emergencies, end of year concerts and exams, gigs, gear malfunctions, car drama, epiphanies, mounting electric bills and overflowing septic tanks. But along the way we’ve experienced the incredible and sometimes completely surprising generosity of friends and neighbors that have offered critical relief and support just when we needed it most. And we’ve enjoyed tiny little revelations and gifts that have kept our spirits up while other events threatened to drag us into despair. (Perhaps I should really be saying “I” here instead of “we” to be more truthful; Elihu is far more even-keeled in the face of sudden challenges than I am.)

There are moments when I know that our life is magical and that we are lucky, and there are moments when I just wish that it were fucking over already, cuz I’m tired. And sometimes I just don’t know how much more of this crap I can take. But then I remind myself that I still have work to do here on this earth. I remind myself that Elihu’s tiny years are over, and that the years he’ll remain here at home will be short and I will want to savor them as best I can. And certainly, it will be easier from here on in. As a friend and father of six children had noted to me when I told him that my son was now 14: “the heavy lifting is over”. Yes, it is. And I have a capable child – and more important, he is a child who is willing and eager to assist me in any way he can. Finally he understands how much work it is to keep a house, a menagerie of animals and a plot of land. How much work it is to make sure that food is made, that laundry is done, that the house is kept clean. That the tuba lessons cost a dear chunk of my income. That his mother doesn’t have quite the energy that she did when we started this whole adventure in the country nine years ago. Yeah, my kid gets all of this, and he’s helping out more and more, which is something that I doubly treasure when I hear tales of the disengaged, screen-addicted children with whom parents can hardly make a connection. There’s no doubt that I’m fortunate.

Today I took Elihu to a gig with me. A few times a month I host a karaoke singalong at a nursing home, and I’d promised to bring him along to sing and perform a couple of songs on his recorders. When he’d finished his short set, he sat down at the resident train table and began to tinker with the unworking engines and track while I entertained the crowd. Before I had finished, he had the N scale train running again around the table, through the tiny mountain and switching successfully in the tiny model downtown. Trains were Elihu’s very first love, and his time with this train set put him in a very happy mood. We said our goodbyes and then, as we’d planned, we made our way to a small airfield just a few miles up the road so he could look at the planes there.

It was a tidy, well-kept place, the main road in lined with blooming dwarf lilac bushes and neatly cut grass all around. We could see a handful of small high wing planes (most of which Elihu readily named for me) and after we’d walked the perimeter, we found a man fueling his own small craft. We began to chat, and he lead us around the sheds where we took a closer look at the handful of planes. This fellow and Elihu became engaged in the usual shop talk, and it was soon apparent to this man that the kid really knew aviation. So while I chatted with Joe, another very personable fellow there who had been doing some work on his vintage Cessna (the only other person at the airport) he and I watched as pilot Doug and Elihu taxied away on the grassy runway for an impromptu flight. Within minutes of arriving at an unfamiliar airfield here I was sending my one and only child into the air with a man whom I’d only just met moments before. And whose last name I didn’t know. But this is how Elizabeth and Elihu live. Magically guided are we.

Doug was a sweetie and let Elihu fly the plane. Doug told him to pay attention to the horizon and not the gauges. To look at his relationship to the land… Then Doug turned his attention to his phone, letting Elihu savor that rare moment, that longed-for experience. They were up for fifteen minutes or so, and as they made a pass to the west, silhouetted against the expanse of cumulous clouds behind, all I could think was  “There he is. My boy. My boy, up there in the sky!”

On the way home we stopped to visit a friend from Chicago who’s in town to assess the health and living situation of her older parents. Not a happy, easy occasion. My son was hopped up on his recent flying ‘high’ and wished for us to get home, but the detour was necessary. After a little pow-pow with my friend and her parents’ neighbor, Elihu and I had my out-of-town friend follow us to the retirement home that was on our route home. Linda leaned into the car window and kissed me goodbye. When we pulled away Elihu said “Yeah, I can feel how she’s thinking about other things.” He had been anxious to get home, but he understood the seriousness of the situation and was patient with the extra time the errand had added to our day.

The waning sun cast a yellowish glow on the treetops and created a olive green tone to the shadows. The countryside on our short drive home looked like a painting, like a dramatic exaggeration of its own beauty. Lovely as it was though, this short drive was feeling much too long for both of us. But finally the golden trees alongside the road were ours.  After such a long day away, we were deeply relieved to finally be returning home.

Like the old days, when Bald Mountain’s own son Alden would beat him up and leave him bloody, stumbling, hurting and missing a good portion of his feathers, the old rooster had suffered a violent night in the coop, and we’d taken him back into the kitchen for some TLC and recuperation time (it was the drake who had attacked him this time). He greeted us with a loud crow, made even louder in the natural amplifier of our tiny kitchen. Yup, this was home. A rooster in the corner, poison dart frogs and tree frogs in the kid’s room, a half dozen week old chicks in the basement, and some overgrown goldfish who desperately need to be moved to the outside pond before they grow too big to turn around inside their tank.

I like to think I have a tidy, organized house. And if you visit our living room or bedrooms, it does look pretty peaceful and orderly. But add some critters, and things change. The animals, they’re just messy. And stinky. There’s no denying the stink. Most of them don’t always live here, though. Only when they can’t live outside. And for the moment, that’s the situation. The tiny chicks that our mama duck hatched out (to our complete surprise) still live in the damp, ever-flooding basement. It won’t always be thus, but for now, it’s the reality. I tell ya, one day you’re living like a proper lady from town, enjoying the finer things in life and making plans to go to the ballet, and the next your in your nightgown, offing a raccoon in the pouring rain with a sledgehammer. Yeah, things tend to swing from one extreme to the next around here.

We just never know. Gut wrenching emergencies and stunning, irreversible changes threaten our hopes for a happy future, and then certain other little events which we have long dreamed of and hoped for suddenly drop into our lives, and we find some problems solved and new opportunities opening up…. Lean years, rich years, sick years, healthy years, dismal years, hopeful years… so much of it all mixes together in even shorter, smaller nuggets that it’s hard to organize it all. Does life suck and is it unfair? Yes! Does life thrill you and even let you win every now and then in the most exciting way? Yes!

I am convinced most folks in this privileged, Western world can experience an incredibly full, expansive life. I might even go so far as to say that it might just be possible for a person to have it all. However, I don’t believe it is ever possible to have it all at the same time. !

So – savor what you have, deal with what needs dealing with. Avoid the stuff that the God voice warns against, and do the stuff that the God voice recommends. Enjoy the free and unstructured moments in between all the rest. Cuz life sucks. Cuz life rocks. Cuz life does all the other stuff too. And aren’t we glad of it? Imagine how boring life would be without these little surprises and challenges.

Life is what it is. It’s a little of everything. Highs, lows. It’s a little bit airplane, it’s a little bit sky… A perfect mix.

My boy Elihu, piloting his way through the clouds…

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Elihu and I want to thank Paul, Elinor, Priscilla, Heather and Doug.

Thanks for your kindness, it’s made all the difference.

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Post Script: Photographs from the past several weeks may appear soon in an all-image offering…

 

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!

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

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