Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Piano Lessons

I took piano lessons, and I didn't love them, so why do I feel compelled to pass on piano lessons to my boys?

I took piano lessons first with Mrs. Knapp, a petite blonde woman with three daughters, who gave us rubber busts of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven as we progressed through various pieces. I dutifully did scales, and felt tortured when my parents made me practice. When my parents told me I could give up piano at 12 if I learned to play Fur Elise and promised to play the clarinet in the school band, I agreed.

Later I wanted to take piano lessons again, and I did. Again, I was not a stellar student, though I liked it better.

Still, though I cannot sit down and tinkle the ivories, or get a room full of people singing, I am grateful. I can play a few little pieces that make me happy. I can read music well enough to almost sight read when I sing. I can jump in fast with other instruments. And, I think, piano lessons hugely enhanced my love of every kind of music--even if all I remember was the torture of practice.

Yesterday I took my boys for their first piano lessons. Unlike me, they have been begging to play. Theo has already taken violin for a year, at a super cool place run by Flea that would have blown my mind at seven. There were concerts and young cool teachers and trumpets and bands and camps. And Flea.

But maybe this was better. A sweet, young teacher, who is using different methods with my two boys. A simple Mozart Mouse method with Benji, and songs and a move towards reading music with Theo.

Our teacher, Gigi, is married to a Japanese sculptor and lives in a house perched on a hillside with spectacular views over all of Los Angeles. She has an upright and a grand piano. She starts the boys on the upright, then moves them to the Grand so they can hear how grand it really is. There is even a mischievous dog and a basket full of squeaky tennis balls. When the dog gets too frisky Gigi yells out, "Piano lesson! Ball down!" And Chilo drops the ball and skulks sadly over to his big cushion beside the grand piano. The boys thought that was hilarious. Chilo reminded them of themselves.

By the end of the first lesson Theo was playing Hot Cross Buns and Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, and Benji was improvising with Gigi at the piano, playing beautiful jazzy improvisations to her beat, on the black keys. When we walked out they said, "Can we come back tomorrow?"

Another mother said she would only consider a teacher that came to the house. I get that.

But there is something so special about going to a place that is a shrine to music.

Flea and his Silverlake Conservatory made music feel like a social mission--a joyous, wonderful, community thing that everyone should know. Prices reflect that. It is affordable and there are scholarships.

Gigi has created a perfect aerie with magical pianos. It is a sacred place, with no distractions. You feel like musical music can happen there.

What do you think about piano lessons for little ones? Is it worth it?

Jamie Oliver is so cool!

Jaime Oliver's show about his food revolution in West Virginia--the unhealthiest state in the Union--starts March 26.

Here he is receiving his TED award, talking about food and kids.

Check it out.

He would love the ESY program. I wish he could come for lunch at LCW.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Musings on Stories

I am working my third time through on a memoir, which is now a novel. But as I keep writing, I wonder if I should return to memoir. Even if I can say less. I feel my voice is stronger as a memoirist than as a fiction writer. And sometimes I wonder if we are just living in the age of the memoir--no longer the novel. Though I love novels.

I just finished Patti Smith's memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It was fascinating for many reasons--a great portrait of NYC in the seventies. (And I should add that I did not come to this book a crazy Patti Smith fan. I had seen her commenting on other people, and was struck by her insights and articulate way of speaking, but really knew her only as muse to a generation of rock n roll guys before my time). But one thing I admired is that she -- at least in the recalling--tried every form of artistic maneuver. She tried drawing, writing, poetry, acting, poetry and rock n roll, rock n roll, playwriting, photography, and I am sure more. But as she did each thing, she was very conscious. She noted what felt good, what felt wooden and off track. Being on stage felt good, acting felt bad. Rock n roll felt good, poetry felt best.

She watched her reactions to others, too. Watching her reaction to Jim Morrison she felt, I could do that. Reacting to others she thought, I don't want to do that.

I am trying to look critically at what feels good to me. And what is hard, but also feels good. And what just doesn't feel good. Interest in watching does not correspond to interest in doing.

Just musings, as I put off rereading my latest submission John Rechy's writing class for the 116th time before printing out. I know it has problems, but I can't figure out exactly what they are. Humbling.

OK, I am stopping now because my son has set up a short wave radio right next to me at top volume.

Do you think he is trying to get my attention?

Alcatraz II

I signed up. It's official.

I promised last year that if I did Alcatraz this year, it would be skin--that is, no wetsuit. But sitting here, bundled in my post-yoga sweat shirt, I just could not bring myself to check the "skin" box.

If it is warm enough--that is 62 degrees or higher--I will try. But I cannot swim in 55 degree water without a wetsuit. I do not have a frigid enough body of water to practice in. That is my excuse! And, after last year, and reading Lynn Cox's amazing book, Swimming to Antarctica, I now know that getting your body used to cold water is a serious undertaking that takes commitment, and, to the truly dedicated, perhaps a month without hot tubs or warm showers. No!

I am swimming again because this year my brother will swim, and my aunt (again) and my cousin (I hope) and my soon-to-be 70 year old father. I worry about him a little. He tends to overestimate how far he can swim, and believe the water he trains in is colder than it is, and go into various kinds of shocks during extreme athletic events. But to not do this event, I think, would kill him. Last year it crushed him that three members of his family did this crazy endeavor without him. So this year he will swim. And my gift to him on his 70th birthday, is that I will swim, too. I believe he will live. And he will do it. But, I tell myself, because I worry just a little, if he does get in over his head, he will be threatening his life doing something that he dreams of doing, and that makes him feel alive. I want to be like that. So I am lending my support.

So I am in!

Sharks, cold, Alcatraz, waves, lightning, San Francisco, here I come again!!!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Gift From Natalie

This is a story about how things keep coming around.

I began this blog the weekend my friend died. I had wanted to start a blog--probably about mothering, about life--but she died, and so much of my blog in the first year was about her, our friendship, my mourning, and, I suppose in retrospect, my question of how I could honor her spirit in my life, in how I choose to live.

She comes to me often, with advice, and little nudges, and sometimes clucks of disappointment.

But this week she appeared with a gift.

We are not exactly feeling financially flush right now. Not bankrupt, but struggling a little, like everyone.

Still, I am longing for time away. My little one is about to go to kindergarten, my impatience to have time to work is growing, but my realization that my time as full time stay at home mama is coming to an end is also stressing me a little. I am stirred up. And know that I am about to set off in a new direction--after sitting in this camp for three years or so. Three years I would not trade for anything.

In a month I go to NYC. I am going with one of my oldest friends--my neighbor from the next village in Japan--just a three mile bikeride through the rice fields away. My only English speaking company for a long, lonely year in rural Shiga ken. She knew Natalie, and Doug. We have been far away. But if you meet when you are 21 and go on a grand adventure, I think that is a friendship that can never be broken.

After Japan we traveled for six months in Asia together--through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ladakh, India and Nepal.

I have been dying to have a break. To have a few days to clear my head of children and husband. Not days to attend a memorial, a death, an ash scattering. Days to regenerate, and return to my former self. To re-acquaint myself with her.

I have sunk so far it took me weeks to even get up the courage to ask Jonathan. I earn so little money now, it felt wrong, despite all I do. Athena kept egging me on--ask him, tell him this is imperative for your mental health, just do it! Finally I did, and he said yes.

I booked my flight (great fares!) and Athena took charge and found a great hotel. Sometimes I worry I am spending too much money on this grand weekend with no point but friendship, recovery, wandering, lazy mornings, walking without pushing a stroller or pulling a child. Drinking too much, eating spicy food. staying up too late, walking through a museum as slow as I want with no one to explain anything to. Seeing a dear old friend and talking about life, and where we are.

But I booked it, and we are going. Each day I feel a little happier, a little more excited. People ask what I will do. I don't know. It is the luxury of not knowing that is half the sweetness. Perhaps we will lie all day long on our backs in Central Park reading books in the sunshine. Perhaps we will eat pretzels all day and have the best Italian food int he world at night. Maybe I will visit my Columbia apartment, walk through St. John the Divine, sing at a gay night club.

I made my leap.

Then, out of the blue, it looks as if some money will appear. When Natalie died there was no one to pay. We were told some day some money would come through, but Jonathan warned me, whatever you give, expect to never see it again. I reserved the community center in Stinson Beach and put down the payment and deposit. I wrote the obit and got it published and paid for it. It was $1,000 in all. A lot. But then, nothing for a friend I loved. I never regretted it.

But suddenly, two days ago, her sister called to tell me they are ready to pay out expenses. Who knows, it could take another year to arrive. But it made me feel like Natalie was reaching out from beyond the grave saying: "Hilary, here is your money. Thank you for taking care of me. For helping to make sure I was remembered the way I wanted to be remembered. I know you didn't expect anything. But here is money for you. Take this money and travel. Go see a friend. Take care of yourself. I would call you if I could--but I am just sending this money for you. Don't skimp on yourself. Tend to your soul. Do what you need to do."

Doesn't life work in mysterious ways?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Adore Adoree

Over Christmas I did a little retreat meant to set your new year out on the right foot. It was no Madeline Blau workshop, but thinking about where you are going is always good.

That day we danced. One of our dances was with a woman named Adoree (or, as she is known on Pico Blvd., Dorie). I loved her, and after the workshop she appeared at my side and said, "You need to dance. It doesn't need to be with me, but you need to do that. You are a dancer."

So little time. But her words stuck with me, and at the end of February I signed up for a bellydancing class with her. I know little about her, except that she traveled the world bellydancing, and her stage name is Adoree.

She is so beautiful to watch that standing in the room with her and trying to emulate her I can feel her casting her spell on me. It is a trance, or a form of meditation. Sometimes my body follows. Sometimes it can't.

In an early class she promised us our bodies would open up with the dance, as we used muscles we had not used, and stretched areas we had not stretched, and our lives would begin to change.

I don't know about that. But I do know that when I come out of the class I feel refreshed, supple, smooth, slithery, grounded.

I have gotten superstitious about it. The dance sets my week off right. And when I fall asleep after class I hear the drums, and feel my body moving, still--like that feeling after you get off rollerskates but you are still rolling. That is a wonderful feeling.


Chicken Shit

That's what I needed to find for my secret soil formula for my garden-to-be. I searched at OSH (no more) then Home Depot (you want what?) and then finally found the final four bags at Anawalt Lumber.

The gardening man said people are going crazy planting this year. Everyone is planting--including those who have never gardened before--like me. But I got my chicken manure, and all the rest of my soil, and carried it on my back up 90 stairs to the top of our garden--with some help from Jonathan.

Then Jonathan trimmed our giant weed of a tree in back and made some light for our garden boxes, and it is starting to look ready. It is a secret place, hidden away, where only the hardiest of visitors will be able to go--and even then, only if they have the right foot-wear. (Hiking boots, preferably)

But it is in, and it looks great. So far we have all pitched in and our daily loads of compost are going up to the composter. Every day the boys look in and say "It looks the same." Still, I confess there is a wonderful feeling to taking your organic trash, and knowing it is going to make your garden grow. I am part of the circle of life.

The boys are excited. The other morning Theo ran to the top of the garden with his backpack before school to check progress.

This weekend the plants go in...

Friday, March 12, 2010


They say poems, great music, art, literature, take you back to some universal place. They push you beyond the ordinary to a magical place we all share--simple, one.

I believe this.

But do you think this can happen with smells?

In the last week Jonathan has cooked a few fantastic meals. They are meals the boys have never eaten before in their lives. And yet, both times, Theo, who has a pretty impressive palate, and can pick out lemon, basil, nutmeg or olive oil in a dish, said, "I feel like I have tasted this before..."

Is it possible that some smells and tastes are so fundamental, so satisfying, so much a part of our human craving, that we believe we have tasted them before, even if that taste has never crossed our lips?

Do they make us feel that everything is OK, do they feel deeply familiar because there is something divine and universal in them?

What do you think?

Coq au Vin in the Schnoz

My summer Parisian fantasy (on hold for now, more on that later) continued with adventures in French cooking. Jonathan has taken over, because he is the one who turns out to have a real gift for those deep, nuanced, rich, finger-lickingly good sauces. Last Sunday, as the stars arrived for the Oscars, he pulled out Julia Child's Art of French Cooking--a gift from my mother--and announced he was going to make Coq au Vin.

How could I refuse?

He started cooking and the house smelled so good I was wandering around salivating. There was chicken, there was wine, there were mushrooms, butter, and other essential, but unidentifiable smells.

He hacked open the chicken and threw it in. This fabulous smelling brown stew just filled our house. Even the boys straggled in saying, "That smells good! What IS that?"

But for the first night, it was all for us. No sharing.

As I had the boys in the bath Jonathan shouted out.

"Come down!" he said. "Watch this!"

I rushed down. He was about to pour the brandy on top of the coq to do a little flambe.

"Closer," he said. "Just watch!"

I came closer. It smelled divine.

He poured in the brandy with a flourish. The flames leapt up. He leapt back, and threw his hand back to avoid getting burned. He got me right in the nose, with his beautiful 24 karat Lord of the Rings ring, which acted as an iron knuckle.

I grabbed my nose and my knees buckled.

It hurt so much I couldn't even cry.

He threw down his cooking implements and tried to comfort me. I didn't know if I would ever smell again.

But I could, and I did. My nose is still a little sore. But that may have been my favorite meal in five years. I don't even need the chicken. Just that magnificent sauce, sipped down by the spoonful. With a little red table wine.

Sacre bleu. Ooh La La.

J'aime beaucoup le coq au vin!

My Gardening Muse

One of my goals for my 43rd year on this earth was to plant a vegetable garden.

I do not just NOT have a green thumb. I have a brown thumb. I have a psychological block against gardening. Not gardens. I love them. I regard them as among the most beautiful places in the world. Especially when they are full of sweet smells, and fruits and vegetables you can pick and eat right there standing in the dirt. That, for me, is happiness.

Two years ago Jonathan tried to work me through it. He encouraged me to plant wild flowers. I love them, AND they are wild, and require virtually no care. He bought the seeds. Mixed them in with the manure and fertilizer. All I had to do was slosh around the gunk, then smear it in the front yard.

What joy it brought me.

Months later we had California poppies, which you know I adore, and Baby Blue Eyes, and other delicate, sweet wild flowers. EAch day as I walked down the 43 stairs to our house they made me happy. And though I had done little -- like children you plant them and look out for them, but the rest is up to the Gods--I felt I had grown them.

Still, my block against gardens is deep. I have even talked about it in therapy--why Jonathan can plunge in, plant, love, nurture--while I, who love to nurture people, will not touch the dirt. My gifted shamanic healer told me that of course I did not want to plant a garden. My life was about being uprooted. About leaving. To plant a garden, which takes time, is not a logical expenditure of energy for someone who is constantly leaving. Which is what I have always done.

I knew I needed help.

So this year I enlisted Jill Tanner, a dear family friend who nurtures a family, and multiple gardens. I love her tomatoes so much I stand by her pool in the summer and eat them warm off the vine in the sunshine. Last year I was bitten by a bee as the sweet yellow juice dribbled down my arm. I swelled up to my elbow, but that didn't stop me from eating them again the next time I was over.

Jill came over and walked our property with me. Our yard is on a 45 degree angle, mostly bedrock with a thin layer of sandy soil, and most of the available dirt and sun is up about 90 stairs. For our garden, she picked the most distant corner of the yard. A patch of open sandy soil and sunlight that is reasonably flat. Getting fertilizer, dirt and top soil up there will give me thighs like Eric Heiden. Jill suggested getting the gardeners to carry the soil up, but Jonathan said that just would not be fair to them. So it will be us, climbing like Peruvians up the terraces to farm.

Yesterday we went and got wood. I built my gardening boxes with the boys.

This morning I went and bought my discount Smith and Hawkens composter for 45 dollars, with a discount from the city who wants to encourage citizens to do backyard composting and recycling. How cool! Who knew!

There on a forgotten driveway in Griffith Park a cool guy named Steve sold me my composter and walked me through how to use it. The world smelled like mulch and eucalyptus and me gardening felt possible.

Jill has promised to be my gardening muse/life coach (for life is a gardening metaphor, is it not?)

If I get my dirt in, she said, she will give some of her tomato seedlings: Sungold, Nyagous, and who knows what else.

Just building my boxes, getting ready to build my composter, and beginning my bag of coffee grinds and cooked oatmeal to compost in the kitchen, had already made me feel hope.

Let's see if this gypsy can settle down and grow a plant or two. I know I can cook a feast if I do.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Southern Me

I don't make a big deal of this, or even think about it very often, but I am from the South.

Not the Deep South. Not the land of lynchings and continued confederate fantasies. But I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in a town I don't remember and have never visited. And I did go to high school in Virginia--Northern Virginia--which is not really Virginia, as anyone who is really from Virginia can tell you. But it is below the Mason-Dixon Line. And my High School history class was called: Virginia and U.S. History. Note the order. Virginia thinks it is a big deal. And I was brainwashed like a true Virginian. A.P. History style.

So mostly this part of me is dead. Forgotten. It lays inside me and does not stir.

But then, suddenly, it does.

Like, when I hear a Van Morrison song, I feel like weeping, picking up a banjo, and hopping on the Appalachian trail and hiking down to North Carolina. When I hear a man smart man speak with a Southern drawl--my heart just melts. Just keep talking. That is all I want to say.

I like Madras. I like the Blue Ridge Mountains. I like Charlottesville. I like Nag's Head. I like the Chesapeake Bay and I like Old Bay Seasoning. And soft-shell crabs pulled out of the Chesapeake in June. And though my parents are back in New England where they belong, some part of me still belongs to the south. To my Maryland grandmother, to oysters, to Thomas Jefferson, the Potomac River and dogwoods in springtime. You won't hear me speak of it again. But it is there, inside me, in suspended animation.

Do you have a place like that inside you? A place you deny to the point you forget it exists, but every once in awhile it pokes its head through and shocks you?

Tell me, dear reader: What is it?