Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Cassandra Lineage

Whenever my uncle led the aged, utterly mellow cart horse out of the barn to be harnessed, my mother’s mother would come out of the kitchen and stand watching, her hands on her hips.

“This horse,” she would say, shaking her head, “is going to kill somebody one of these days.”

Like my grandmother, my mother worried constantly about potential catastrophes. “When your father and I married, and then you were born,” she confided to me years later, “I was happier than I’d ever thought possible. But even in the middle of so much happiness, I always felt that God was somewhere up in the clouds, with a big stick in his hand, waiting to hit me on the head.”

More years have passed, and now that I am my grandmother’s age I too spend way too much time looking out for murderous cart horses and wincing in anticipation of the next blow to rain down from heaven.

My grandmother’s and my mother’s persistent intimations of disaster were rooted in their experience of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. My grandmother was in her late thirties then, and my mother in her teens. Since they lived on a farm, they did not starve. But my grandfather, the village vet, sometimes had to hide from the bands of anarchists wreaking havoc in the countryside, and the family would frequently leave their beds in the middle of the night and crouch in a ditch to escape from bombardments.

“We all wore a little stick tied to a string around our neck, so that when the bombs came we could bite down on it and the shock waves would not burst our eardrums,” my mother remembered. The terror of the anarchist raids; the nights spent cowering in the ditch to escape the bombings; and, at the end of the war, the fear of the retreating soldiers left a mark on her psyche that lasted the rest of her life.

It’s not hard to see how those three years of living in constant fear would lead to my mother and her mother’s hyper-vigilance; their feeling that, if they let down their guard for a single moment, disaster would strike; and their bone-deep conviction that life was, at bottom, a tragic affair, and that passing moments of happiness were simply accidental flashes in the enveloping darkness, and not to be relied on.

My first decade passed against a chorus of cautions and warnings.

“This child isn’t eating enough.”
“Look! She has a fever again!”
“She’s pale. She should spend more time outdoors.”
“Don’t let her out of the house in the middle of the day. She’ll get sunstroke!”
“Quick! Shut that window. She’s standing in a draft.”
“Take that book away from her. She’ll get indigestion if she reads after lunch.”

While my mother was alive, I put a lot of energy into countering her apprehensions. When I was a teenager and she had her second child, I watched her live in fear that my vigorous little sister would waste away, and I tried to convince her of the basic sturdiness of babies. When my own children were born and she warned me against germs and other potential threats, I showed off my casual trust in their aptitude for survival. When she tried to talk me out of moving to a rural part of Vermont where hospitals are few and far between, I ignored her and did just that.

But now that both my grandmother and my mother are gone, my ability to put on that tough-woman act has deserted me, and I often shudder at the prospect of imminent doom. I envision endless tragic scenarios, ranging from a flat tire on a deserted dirt road to civil strife, fires, floods, and the extinction of honeybees. It is as if the rose-colored glasses that we all need to wear in order to function in the world have been suddenly ripped off my face, and life appears in all its meaningless gloom.

Just as, when passing in front of a mirror I sometimes think I’m catching a glimpse of my mother, I find myself reenacting the Cassandra role that she and her mother played so faithfully. But why? I didn’t live through the war. I didn’t have to cower in ditches in the middle of the night, or hide from anarchists, like my mother and her family. I didn’t starve, like my father and his family.

How, then, did I become infected with the Cassandra virus?

For years I assumed that my predisposition to see the dark side of things was something I had inherited from my mother and her mother, like my brown eyes and curly hair. But studies of the descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic events such as the American Civil War point to a different explanation.

Though still controversial, these studies suggest that the trauma undergone by individuals of one generation can change the way their genes are passed on and expressed in their offspring, even if the parents do not discuss their own traumatic experiences and the children lead normal lives. The most common manifestations of this trans-generational trauma are anxiety, depression, and lack of resilience.

I don’t remember my parents and grandparents discussing the war in front of me. There were passing references to my father having to stay hidden for three years to avoid execution, but he never talked about what it felt like as a twenty-two-year-old not to be able to go outside, or play the violin, or have enough to eat. Likewise, other than the story of the little sticks on a string, my mother did not say much about that time.

But whether unconsciously, through her own anxiety about my welfare, or through epigenetic transmission, she passed on to me Cassandra’s gift of foreseeing disaster, and I often tremble in anticipation of whatever blow the universe is about to deliver next.

There are many depictions of Cassandra in ancient Greek vases, and she is always shown with brown eyes and dark, curly hair.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Not Writing

In 1932, when she was at the peak of her fame, the French writer Colette opened a cosmetology shop in Paris. She blended lotions and potions and applied them to her clients' faces with, as it turned out, awful results. Her friends and the reading public thought that the shop was a terrible idea, and everyone was glad when it closed. But I know what Colette was after when she went into cosmetics: she was avoiding writing.

Over the years I too have tried many strategies to avoid writing: milking goats, training dogs, embroidering pillows. But now that the goats are gone and Bisou is well-behaved and the cottage is dotted with pillows, I have found a new method: whittling birds.

In October I attended a whittling workshop, whittled bird #1, and gave it away. What you see here is bird #2, and I’m about to start on #3.

As simple as this bird looks—it’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand--it took me approximately ten hours to make. How many pages of text could I have produced in ten hours?

In fact, whittling is a lot like writing--or rather, like the second stage of writing.
When I whittle, I start with a block of wood from the craft store. But when I sit down to write I have to make my own “block”: the first draft, where I type whatever comes to mind as fast as I can, not stopping to reread or revise, until a have a block of text to work on.

What I like about whittling—and used to love about stone carving, before my shoulder and arm rebelled—is the subtractive process, getting rid of what gets in the way of the real shape. For me, the best part of writing is making the second, third, and umpteenth drafts, in which, wielding the Delete key like a whittling knife, I eliminate unnecessary stuff until the piece reveals its true form, which is often different from what I thought it was going to be.

But both whittling and writing require an act of faith, that beneath the extra wood and the extra words what I want to find lies waiting.

When I’ve spent too long squeezing words out of my brain and flinging them up into the cloud, something in me clamors for the feel of wood in my hand, the ache of tired muscles, and the final reward of an object endowed with length and height and width, a thing that I can hold and touch. And I know exactly how Colette felt, slathering make-up on the cheeks of her chic clients, playing around with lipstick, rouge, and eye-shadow, not writing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Me and the String Quartet

In 1954 the government of Ecuador imported a string quartet from Barcelona. I spent the last years of my childhood in Quito, in a house that my father, my mother, and I shared with the three other players.

In those pre-pollution days, we all woke up each morning to the sight of five active volcanoes around the city: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Rucu Pichincha, and, the most apt to shower cars and sidewalks with ashes, Guagua Pichincha. After exclaiming about the beauty of the view and speculating on which volcano would erupt next, the quartet would rehearse.

This began with a lengthy session of meticulous tuning which the cellist, who had studied with Casals, insisted on. My father would play his A string, and the second violinist would try to match it exactly. This took a while. “Maybe it’s a touch flat,” the cellist would say. Then, “Perhaps you need to bring it down, just a hair.” The process was repeated with the viola and the cello, and finally the real playing would begin—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and what my father called a “piece of candy” for the audience: the Tchaikovsky quartet, Op. 1, with its saccharine second movement.

In the afternoon the musicians practiced individually, and my father gave violin lessons to the children of Quito’s Jewish community. On the weekends, we went adventuring—and in those days, the moment you left the capital you were sure to have adventures.

Only my father and the cellist knew how to drive. The cellist had a tiny blue Fiat, and my father drove a 1944 Dodge with a wonky second gear (my mother had to hold up the gear shift with a forked stick whenever we descended from the high Andes to a lower altitude).

We would pile into the two cars and set off for the páramos, vast barren plateaus so high above sea level that, even having grown accustomed to Quito’s nine-thousand-foot altitude, we would gasp for breath at the smallest exertion.

Time and time again we would pull off the stone-paved road, a legacy of the Incas, and everyone would get out and gaze with wonder at yet another set of volcanoes (Imbabura! Tungurahua! Sangay!). Everyone but me, that is. The more my parents exhorted me to appreciate the beauty all around, the less I saw to admire. If at least there had been some interesting animals, but other than the occasional high-flying condor or a herd of llamas haughtily ignoring us, all I could see was an endless expanse of beige barrenness.

The trips to the jungles of the Pacific or the Amazon were more entertaining—someone was always foisting a parrot or a monkey on us, and there were almost-naked Indians with painted bodies. We spent one Christmas as the only whites in a village populated by the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves. They were tall and majestic, very dark skinned, and dressed in immaculate white. All night long, on Christmas Eve, they drummed and chanted in ways that sounded just like the sound-track of King Solomon’s Mines.

Hotels were beyond rustic. On one trip to Puyo, in the Amazon jungle, the viola player, a courtly, balding, bespectacled Catalan, addressed the hotel owner. "Madam," he said, "would you be so kind as to direct me to the bathroom?" She led him to an open window and gestured with silent dignity to the verdant vista stretching uninterrupted all the way to Brazil. In the morning it was raining and, since there was no running water, my father and his three colleagues shaved under the downspout in front of the building.

Did I mind living with five adults? As an only child, in Spain I had made my aunts, my uncles and my grandfather into playmates. Now I did the same with the members of the quartet.

I didn’t much care for the cellist, whom I found vain and affected, with his upturned nose, his little mustache, and his obsession with tuning. But the viola player, despite his thick glasses and his jowly face, made an excellent playmate. Our bedrooms were adjoining, and at night we would communicate by knocking on the wall between our beds. My favorite, however, was the second violin, because he was the best-looking of all--tall and aristocratic, with an elegant Roman nose. Also, he had an ocelot kitten, named Pepita, that I coveted.

Not only did I find these men entertaining, I did my best to entertain them. I made jokes and invented games, one of which consisted of appending Italian endings  like -ella and -etto to Spanish words, which I found hilarious as well as clever. I showed off, sang loudly out of tune, giggled. They in turn teased me and called me Unita, which translates roughly as “Onesy,” referring to my only-child status. If they ever found me annoying, they didn’t show it.

I burst into puberty like one of the volcanoes that periodically erupted around us. There was no graceful flowering into demure young womanhood. Overnight I grew breasts, pimples, and hair on my legs. But my mind lagged behind my burgeoning anatomy, and I persisted in my childish ways. Or perhaps those ways weren’t so childish, and my fondness for the violist and the second violinist was more of an adolescent crush than the reaching out of a lonely child.

After a couple of years, the second violinist packed his bags and returned to Spain. The violist married his Catalan fiancée, a woman in her mid-thirties, by proxy. (This had to be done because her parents would not allow her to cross the Atlantic alone as an unmarried woman.) My parents sat drinking brandy with the groom on his brideless wedding night, and months later, when his wife finally arrived, I lost my remaining playmate. But by then I didn’t care: I had met a boy my age at a bar mitzvah, and fallen in love.

Me being kidnapped in the Amazon by the viola player (holding knife and using my braid as a mustache) and the second violinist

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Golfing Bees

I heard it on NPR, so it must be true: scientists trained bees to play a golf-like game in which the bee pushed a ball into a little hole in order to get a sugar-water reward. The trained bees then demonstrated before novice bees, who not only learned from them but quickly figured out ways to put the ball in the hole more efficiently than the trained bees.

Half a century ago Jane Goodall showed that chimpanzees used twigs to get tasty termites out of their mounds. Instances of tool use further “down” the evolutionary scale, among monkeys, birds, and even octopuses, soon followed.

One by one, the flags that once marked us as unique are going up in flames as animal behaviorists show that, when given appropriate tools such as computers, certain primates can use language, albeit in a rudimentary way. And if you paint a dot on the face of a monkey, an elephant, a dolphin, a magpie, or even an ant, and then stand them in front of a mirror, they will touch the paint spot, thus demonstrating a kind of self-awareness.

And now bees, despite their tiny brains, have shown that they can readily learn, and improve on, behaviors that in the wild are totally outside their repertoire.What are we supposed to do with all this information? Fret and feel guilty, obviously.

I can’t spray soapy water on the ants on my kitchen counter without feeling like some vengeful deity massacring innocent beings. And what about my nemesis, those mouse-sized, appalling wolf spiders that come into my warm house in the fall, hoping in their little spider hearts that this year I’ll let them hang out in a corner of the mud room? Am I a monster for going after them with a broom?

How can I justify anything but the strictest veganism when I know that eating eggs (even ones from free-range hens) and dairy is predicated on the sacrifice of male chickens and calves? Yet even vegans must think twice before sitting down to dinner, now that it has been revealed that trees communicate with each other, warning of dangers such as invasive insects. Mother trees, bless their hearts, do their best to protect and nourish their little saplings. If trees are sentient, what about other plants? How does a lettuce feel as it is yanked out of its native soil?

I don’t know where this will end, and perhaps some human-made disaster will close this chapter in the development of our consciousness. But one outcome is that, albeit slowly, our treatment of animals is improving.

Many years ago, before the advent of PETA, I worked for a few months in a respected laboratory where, with the goal of curing cancer, thousands of mice, hamsters, and rats were subjected to great suffering. Today those conditions would be unthinkable, and a place like that would be closed down.

Every spring, in Vermont, when the moon is in a certain phase and the salamanders march to their breeding grounds, hundreds of people spend the night at designated spots on country roads, acting as crossing guards for the amphibians.

Not so long ago, in both rich and poor neighborhoods , dogs and cats used to run loose, breeding, fighting, and getting run over. Leash laws and spay/neuter programs have rendered the lifestyle of our pets far less “natural” than in the old days, but as a result they live longer, healthier lives. It used to be that you never heard of a cat living into her late teens, but I now personally know of several.

Not a moment too soon, we humans are beginning to abandon our cherished spot at the top of the evolutionary scale. As science demonstrates that sentience and cognition are more widely distributed than we ever imagined, the great chain of being is morphing into a circle, a dance that Brother Wolf and Brother Rabbit (and even Sister Spider) can join in, along with us.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


As a musician, my father was seldom home in the evenings, but on his nights off he often led us in saying the Rosary. My mother, her two sisters, and I would sit in the dining room while he walked up and down, beads in hand. The Rosary consists of five Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys. How long does it take to say all those prayers? If you’re a kid, half your life.

“Why do I have to say those same words over and over?” I ask my mother.

“You’re supposed to meditate on the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” she says.

“But it’s boring!”

“Shhh. Your father’s about to begin.”

I stare at the bread crumbs from dinner that litter the yellow tiles under the table. The maid is waiting in her room for us to finish saying the Rosary so she can sweep and go to bed. I glance at my mother’s stockings, which she has rolled like donuts around her ankles to keep them from getting runs, and decide that when I’m allowed to wear stockings I will never roll them like that. I envy my father, who is allowed to walk while he prays, instead of having to sit still.

After the last Hail Mary is said, however, there is a reward: the Litany of the Virgin Mary, a list of fifty epithets of the Mother of God, which my father recites in Latin. After each name, we respond in chorus, ora pro nobis (pray for us).

Here is a sample:

Speculum iustitiae (Mirror of justice)
Sedes sapientiae (Seat of wisdom)
Causa nostrae laetitiae (Cause of our joy)
Rosa mystica (Mystical rose)
Turris eburnea (Tower of ivory)
Stella matutina (Morning star)

I don’t know why this list of names thrills me. Years later I realize that they have  something in common with Homeric epithets such as “white-armed Hera,” and “bright-eyed Athena.” At age nine, though, I have not yet heard of Homer, and I don’t know Latin. I can make out a few words, but even if I understood all of them I would find them puzzling: what is a tower of ivory, or a mirror of justice, and what do they have to do with the Virgin Mary?

But I love the rhythm of the Litany, my father with his raspy smoker’s voice pacing in synch with the names, and us responding ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis. On and on go the names, Mother of our Creator, Virgin most powerful….And this  extraordinary collection of praises is dedicated to a woman—one who as a teenager was visited by an angel, which was just the first of a series of amazing things that happened to her.

And now that She is in Heaven, sitting between God the Father and her Son, Jesus, with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovering above her head, She looks down upon me kindly (Virgin most merciful) and with special understanding, because she was once a girl like me.

The presence of this quasi-divine Lady in the heaven of my childhood gives me something that the images of God the Father, with his white beard, and God the Son, with his brown beard, could never give me: a sense of identification with the divine feminine that puts me in the ancient lineage of females—Babylonian girls praying to Ishtar, Egyptian mothers praising Isis, Greek wives sacrificing to Hera—who, from time immemorial, have sought help and consolation from the Mother of us all.