Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Despoiling the Amazon

When my parents and I lived in Quito, Ecuador in the 1950s, the Amazon jungle wasn't what it is now: fragile, endangered, dying the death of a thousand cuts. Instead, it was a dangerous, fierce, human-hating place that you had to vanquish, or die.

The Ecuadorian government would sell you hundreds of acres of forest for a few sucres. But only fools took up the offer. One of them, the husband of my math tutor, had accepted the government's deal and was now rotting alive (mosquitoes, amoebas, leeches, niguas that would crawl under your toenails and there expand until the nails fell off), getting drunk and going mad in his hacienda in the sweltering forest east of the Andes. Every night, while he slept exhausted after a day of chopping  paths with his machete, the jungle would stretch green tendrils over the newly-cleared ground, and within a couple of days, the path had vanished.

The only people who could survive in the forest, we were told, were the native tribes--some of which had never been seen by white people--who were forever fighting each other and shrinking the heads of their decapitated enemies.

Nevertheless, my parents and I did occasionally dip our toes in the ocean of green that extended from the eastern slopes of the Andes all the way to the Pacific. And whenever we parked our 1944 Dodge on a village square, the inhabitants would approach, offering samples of the local fauna for us to buy.

For the first trip, however, my parents decided to trust the public transportation system rather than the old Dodge. We rode in a colectivo, a kind of minibus crammed with people and their parcels and  chickens. As soon as we arrived at our destination, a scarlet macaw was thrust into my mother's hands by its eager owner. The bird was the size of a half-grown hen, all head and massive beak and trailing tail feathers. His plumage exuded a curious, acidic smell. He perched on a broom handle, and when jostled uttered blood-curdling shrieks. To us Europeans, accustomed to starlings, sparrows, and the occasional hoopoe, this was the most extraordinary bird we had ever seen.

As for the macaw, the moment he saw my mother he fell passionately in love. All the way back to Quito, as the colectivo bounced on the cobbled Inca roads, whenever we tried to relieve my mother of the bird and the broomstick he would begin his ear-splitting protests, not stopping until he was restored to her.

In Quito, he lived on a perch in the backyard. Whenever my mother came out the kitchen door he would flutter down from his perch, waddle over to her, and rub his head against her leg, his eyes half-closed in ecstasy. He never had much use for the rest of us. He lived for a good while, and then we found him one morning, dead of a chill, or of longing for his native jungle, or of unrequited passion for my mother.

On another trip to the Amazon we ended up with a pair of toucans in a cage made of twigs. They were very young and obviously sick, and they barely made it back to Quito before expiring. They were succeeded by a sloth, who was so disconcertingly slow-moving that one day we concluded he was dead. My father drove him to a taxidermist to be stuffed but, just in time, the sloth blinked and languidly extended one long arm, and was reprieved.

At about this time the second violinist of my father's quartet was given a meltingly adorable ocelot kitten, all broad paws and wide eyes. Since the three single members of the quartet shared a house with my parents and me, I was sometimes allowed to pet Pepita, who all too soon morphed into an intractable dragon, spitting and clawing at whomever approached her. At one point she contracted an infection, and it took the entire quartet to hold her down (taking care not to injure their musician's hands) and administer the sulfa drugs that the vet had prescribed.

The final, most extraordinary acquisition was a marmoset. We had just arrived in the then small village of Puyo and were standing in the perennial tropical drizzle when a man approached and said, pointing to a woman behind him, "I have an animal for you." My parents, in the course of our travels through those impoverished regions, had occasionally been offered children, and they thought for an alarming moment that he was referring to the woman. But when she lifted her long, black hair we saw, perched on her shoulder, a tiny monkey the size of my hand.

I was so instantly besotted that I couldn't utter a sound. My father looked at me, handed the man some coins and, wonder of wonders, the little monkey was mine.

In the jungle between Puyo and Baños, February, 1956 
Back in Quito, the marmoset turned our house into her personal amusement park, swinging from coat to coat in the hall closet, detaching with great effort the inner soles from our shoes, undoing my shoelaces as I sat doing my homework, and stealing pencils which she would heft over her shoulder and hide in a corner. At mealtimes, she would hold a single banana slice with both hands like a hamburger and munch away. When the sun went down she would snuggle under my sweater, uttering soft, bird-like twitters. At night she slept next to me on a doll bed, inside a sheepskin bag that my mother had made for her.

She lived with us for two years and then, one day while my mother and I were at home, she fell into the toilet and drowned before we could rescue her. Her death left me as bereft as if I had lost a sibling.

Often at night I think about that trail of little dead bodies that we left behind during our years in Ecuador. What were we thinking? The fact is, we weren't. Or not in the way that we now think about animals. We fed them and housed them and gave them rudimentary veterinary care. But we didn't think about their needs as truly sentient beings, capable, like us, of missing the companionship of their own species, of languishing for lack of freedom, of perishing of nostalgia for home.

Except for some breeds of marmoset, all our former pets are now on the endangered species list. By 2030, if the present rate of deforestation continues, more than a quarter of their jungle will be lost to logging, mining and oil drilling. If you think of the planet as a living, breathing organism, the desecration of the Amazon will be equivalent to cutting off half of one of its lungs.

The macaws, toucans, sloths, ocelots, and marmosets will die, not one by one like they did at our house, but by the millions. And when all the green has turned to brown, we will know that the human race has finally vanquished the Amazon.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Why Concerts Make Me Sad

When my father died of lung cancer at fifty-three, his death wrenched me out of the ocean of music that I'd been swimming in since infancy. Even as a toddler, I was so immersed in his music that my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the third movement of the Beethoven violin concerto, which my father was preparing to perform.

I spent a major part of my childhood attending--more like being dragged to--concerts. Sunday mornings, in Barcelona, my mother would take me to Mass, and then to the symphony concert in the Palau de la música catalana. There, in the hallucinatory Art Nouveau hall, swinging my legs, which were too short to reach the floor, I would sit through endless programs. Once I'd located my father in the violin section, I would entertain myself by gazing at the plaster busts of long-haired muses that emerged out of the wall behind the orchestra.

When the Ecuadorian government imported a quartet of Catalan players to Quito, with my father as first violin, we all--the second violinist, the violist, the cellist, my parents and I--shared a house so the quartet could spend mornings practicing for their bi-weekly performances, which I was required to attend. At twelve years old, even though by then my feet did reach the floor, a late Beethoven quartet seemed to last an eternity.

By the time we came to the U.S. I was in high school, and had been playing the violin for several years. By sheer dint of exposure, I was finding it easier to sit through and even enjoy my father's symphony concerts, and his chamber music and solo performances.

Then, as I was finally maturing musically, my father died, and I stopped going to concerts. Half a century later, I still find it painful to attend live performances. As a result, over the years I have missed a lot of good music. In Vermont, there is a vibrant musical community, and magnificent players regularly spill out of New York looking for venues, but it's all wasted on me. I can enjoy listening to music on the car radio, or on CDs in my living room. But live performances bring tears to my eyes, and so I avoid them.

Why, I've been wondering, shouldn't I get the same joy out of going to concerts as so many of my friends do? What is it about live performances that plunges me back into a state of mourning, as if my father had just died? Why can I listen to music in my car but not in a concert hall?

And then it came to me. There is one sound that is never heard on a recorded piece, but that you always hear whenever a string player picks up his or her instrument, whether preparing to practice scales or to perform at Carnegie Hall: the sound of tuning up.

For the violin, it starts with the two highest strings, A and E, played together, then A and D, and finally D and G, the tones growing sharper or flatter with each turn of the pegs, the adjustments finer and finer until the three perfect fifths are reached.

Together with my parents' voices, the sound of a violin being tuned, that homely wah-wah without which no music can begin, was one of the first vibrations to reach me as I swam in my mother's womb. So that, to this day, hearing the search for those perfect fifths immerses me in my father's presence: his hyper-flexible, tobacco-stained fingers, the circular sore on his left jaw from too many hours of playing, the aroma of cigarettes that enveloped him.

But if I open my eyes and see someone else tuning the strings, my father is suddenly wrenched away from me, replaced by a stranger who may well be a better violinist than he was, but is not him. And I am plunged into mourning once again.

If for me my father's persona was inextricably identified with music, it's little wonder that music, which like smell bypasses the obtrusive medium of language, can bring him back so vividly. And just as vividly--since it's no longer him playing, nor will ever be--snatch him away. I don't suppose that there's much I can do to alter this, nor at this stage do I really want to. I simply accept it as a fair price for all the years that I spent floating in the warm currents of my father's music.

My father (mustache, violin) and the Catalan quartet in Quito, 1955

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Meditation Blues

It was the start of the new millennium, and I was in my first yoga class. The teacher kept saying things like "focus on the breath!" "relax your muscles!" "clear your mind!" What was she talking about? In those days the slightest attention to my breath instantly caused me to clench my diaphragm, which would in turn plunge me into a frenzy of analysis about my failure to achieve a meditative state.

Twenty years of semi-faithful meditation practice later, what do I have to show for my efforts?

I have gotten better at sitting in half-lotus, but as for clearing my head, let alone "going into a deep place," pshaw! The problem is my monkey mind, the Buddhists' term for the mind's tendency to flit from topic to topic like a troop of monkeys leaping through the forest.

When I started meditating all those years ago, the monkeys in my mind were an adolescent troop, erupting out of nowhere as soon as I sat down on my cushion. They had long, agile bodies covered in tawny fur, and cunning little white faces. They swung by their long tails. They chittered and screeched and fought over the fruits hanging from the branches of the trees inside my brain. If they ever slept, they only did so when I wasn't meditating.

Give them time, I said to myself, they'll settle down. They can't possibly keep this up.

And sure enough, over the years, the monkeys matured and slowed down a tiny bit...but then they started having babies. So now I have the original troop, endlessly squabbling over dominance and mating hierarchies, plus their spoiled, demanding offspring, who are forever wandering off and getting into trouble, stealing food, and screaming for attention.

If my meditating brain started out as a tree inhabited by a single troop, it has now become one of those ruined Indian temples in the jungle that are home to an entire nation of monkeys.

I know what the Buddhists would say: don't fight the monkeys--just watch them swing by, and gently let them go. So I try to sit patiently while the monkeys do their thing, not judging them, pretending that I'm watching a National Geographic special on TV.

Will my monkeys ever vanish? Will they at least calm down? I'm not counting on it. But occasionally a couple of them settle down on a crumbling stone wall and briefly groom each other. The chaos then subsides, and I feel myself breathe.




Wednesday, April 3, 2019

My Cat, Master of Intermittent Reinforcement

All my life, in my loves and in my friendships, I have preferred a reliable stream of constant affection to sudden passionate outpourings followed by unpredictable periods of silent withdrawal.

So why, you ask, do I have a cat?

My little red dog, Bisou, provides the constancy. Whether I'm happy, sad, bored, or impatient, she's right there, next to me, quietly waiting for my next move. On the other hand,Telemann, the gray cat, treats me in ways that I would never tolerate in a member of my own species.

Take, for example, nap time. When they see me put the special siesta afghan on the bed in the afternoon, Telemann and Bisou come running. I lie down, pull the blanket up to my shoulders, and Bisou subsides by my right leg.

But now where is Telemann? He's on the windowsill, looking at the clouds as if he's never seen them before.

I really want him to get settled before I doze off, because it's upsetting to be awakened by eleven pounds of cat landing on my chest like an asteroid crashing into Siberia. So I call him, using my best coloratura tones, and if I'm lucky he comes to the bed. He clomps around on my torso, digging his adorable white paws into my ribs until things feel just right, and then curls like a skein of alpaca wool on top of my diaphragm and slowly, slowly closes his eyes.

As long as I lie like a stone effigy on a tomb, all is well. But what if I have to answer the phone, or get a drink of water, or add something I just remembered to my to-do list? No matter how gently I try to slither out from under the afghan, Telemann gives me an offended glare--how COULD you do this to ME!--and departs for the bathroom rug, which is soft and fluffy and (since the bathroom floor is heated) warmer than I. Plus, unlike me, it can be counted on to stay put.

Every time this happens, and it happens a lot, I feel a little hurt, and embarrassed that I feel hurt. For crying out loud, he's just a cat.What do I expect? If he's annoyed at me, and he must be, because I haven't seen him for a while now, I can respond with cool indifference. I'm certainly not going to go looking for him and make amends. He can darn well make the first move.

In the evening, I'm lying on the sofa reading when Wham! Telemann lands on me, all slitty-eyed and  purring like an eighteen wheeler at a truck stop. And it's o.k. I'll forgive him. After all, I'm the human here. I will lie quietly and let him have his pre-bedtime nap.

But now it seems that he's not in the mood for a nap. He's in the mood for putting his cold wet nose against mine and patting my cheek with that damned little white paw, and turning around and around with his tail high and his rosy derrière two inches from my nose. And there's nothing for it but he must settle not on my belly or my diaphragm or my chest, but on my neck, right between me and my book.

Reader, I let him. What can I do? That cat literally walks all over me--such is the power of intermittent reinforcement, a skill that he mastered in infancy. Like some character out of Dangerous Liaisons, Telemann figured out that, to make a human your love slave, all you have to do is run emotionally hot and cold, overwhelming your victim with passion one moment and turning away disdainfully the next. If you never give affection, the victim loses interest. If, on the other hand, you are constant and reliable, she takes you for granted and may even gain the upper hand in the relationship.

For a cat, that would be the ultimate disgrace, and Telemann is not about to let it happen in our house. So we hobble along, he and I, squabbling and reconciling. I don't know where this relationship is headed. I'm certainly not the one in control here. All I can say is, thank heaven for Bisou's quiet reliability. Which leads me to this bit of advice for those who are thinking of getting a cat: go ahead and get one, but, if you want to retain your sanity, get a dog as well.