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.