Old Cuate

[Author’s note: this is the first of three short stories in the collection Santa Fe Dogs, which I wrote in 1995 but never published. I am revising them and will post the other two in succession]

Cuate wasn’t really old. Nothing about him was old, except his name.  Cuate, in two syllables, means buddy in the Spanish slang of old folks.  Cuate was Jack’s buddy, and Jack, though not Hispanic, was old.  Old but punctual, and if Jack’s pace was slow one couldn’t put it down to age, for he circled the park’s perimeter every morning between nine and nine-thirty with contained vigor.  Old Cuate, as I persisted in thinking of him, ambled along at Jack’s side, his pace the result of a phlegmatic nature and a thick middle.  The leash between them seemed a useless contrivance, a concession to law and custom.

            Sunny the pup and I were also punctual in our after-breakfast outings, and as there was rarely anyone else in the park at that time of morning, I grew to look forward to crossing the old man and his golden retriever in their counter-clockwise passage.  They would be emerging from the shadows of the riverbank cottonwoods as we were approaching them.  Our paths always intersected at the same spot, a sunny stretch of turf between two concrete picnic tables whose forms linger less in my memory than do their sharply-etched shadows.  Sunny and I and Cuate and Jack would each nod in our own fashion as we passed in a sort of pavane.  There was a gritty courtliness about Jack in the way he nodded, touched his straw Stetson, and moved on.  Much later, after we had spoken a few times, I asked permission to take their picture.  Jack allowed it by standing back from Cuate, who sits splay-footed and grinning in the photograph.  Jack is looking at Cuate.  His face is in the shadow of his Stetson.  It is my only souvenir of old Cuate and the cowboy.

            Santa Fe is full of “cowboys”, but it was in Taos to the north that I saw my first real silver-plated, Wild Bill Hickok-haired, high heel-booted specimen.  There in the tiny timbered plaza he strode magnificently past the boutique displays, a man with the ability to scowl and preen simultaneously.  Finding such a self-styled cowboy in those parts was, I suppose, like sighting one’s first macaw in the Amazon, all dazzling plumage and bravado.  Santa Fe is different from Taos.  Cowboy chic there demands a certain amount of understatement.  One morning while poring over the breakfast menu at Celebrations Café on Canyon Road I spotted two of the local variety, subspecies “Old Desert Coot”.  Each one had a beard and iron-grey hair that would have waved in the wind were it not so well scissored.  Cowboy boots and concha belts a little too new, denims a little too newly faded—all conspired to achieve the desired effect:  Gabby Hayes reinvented by Ralph Lauren. The two were leaning toward each other over a low adobe wall, spitting monosyllables through gritted teeth, when something caught their attention. With glinty-eyed authority they tracked a swiftly receding object, which elicited this gravel-voiced exchange:

            “That a Lhasa?”

“Nah, it’s a Shih-Tzu.”

            I missed Jack that day, for breakfast at the café mellowed out into brunch, and Sunny and I got off schedule.  Our walks in the park were the only schedule I had that summer, and when we missed one the whole day seemed out of kilter.  On such days I would be cross with Sunny for no good reason, and liable to snap at my husband with little provocation.  The best course of action was to get back to the park as soon as possible, not only for Sunny’s sake, but for mine.

            My Santa Fe summer had followed several seasons of upheaval.  In the spring of the previous year I had moved with my husband Francois from France to Connecticut, from a land-locked pocket of rural poverty foreign even to the French to a middle-class enclave surrounded by wealth bordering Long Island Sound.  My own roots were in northern Virginia, the forward-looking region of a backward-loving state.  The first courageous act of my life, the decision that altered my destiny, if one can imagine that destiny figures at all in ordinary lives, was to marry, at the age of thirty, a foreigner: a serious-minded singer of comic operas.  Come away with me, he urged, and we shall live not safely, but well.  And because he awoke in me not just feelings of love, but Feeling itself, it seemed, I breathed deeply and followed him.  Together we travelled the zig-zag route of itinerant opera singers, reveling in spontaneity, and in each other.  Eventually despite, or perhaps because of, our nomadic routine of no routine, we grew to share the dream of a home somewhere.

            His career in those days kept us on the road between provincial theaters of France.  In tired towns we lay on double beds in nondescript hotel rooms and gazed in perfect unison at the vision of our dream house outlined against ceiling after cracked ceiling.  It was always a farm we imagined, with a little land and a house in need of repair, and therefore within our means.  We were sure to discover it one day, see its shining potential, and transform it with love and a reverence for authenticity.  In gratitude our farm would welcome us home from the shocks imposed by transience and urban culture.

            It was in this state of mind that Francois saw the advertisement.  Curiously, he was onstage at the time, playing the role of a grumpy old man reading a newspaper.  That was how he discovered the farm for sale.  So excited that he nearly missed his cue, he bounded offstage at intermission to telephone for an appointment to visit the property.  We bought it breathlessly, feeling fated to have found it; in those days we could still afford such quaint notions.  Fate ultimately revealed the folly of our impulse. By the time the arduous, money-draining renovations were completed, the house stood empty most of the year, as my husband’s career took us away from France and more and more to America.  Finally we conceded the obvious, sold the farm for the little we could get, and adapted ourselves into a snug split level in the outlying suburbs of New York.

            By our first Christmas in Connecticut we were forced to adapt to a new change: seemingly from one day to the next I had lost my health.  Cancer called for chemotherapy, so through a winter of nineteen snowstorms and on into spring I learned a third language after French: of doctors and nurses and statistical studies, while life droned on in a dramatic way to the cyclical rhythm of side effects.  Just as suddenly as it all began, the treatment was over.  I was pronounced in remission, and the very next day we boarded a plane for Albuquerque, because the Santa Fe Opera liked the way Francois sang.  His summer-long contract there afforded us adobe lodgings on Canyon Road, and it was our proximity to the park coupled with my love of dogs that gave me the idea of acquiring Sunny, who tumbled raucously out of a roiling mass of Collie puppies and into our family. Through the mundane rituals of housebreaking I could focus outside myself on a task that was not too demanding.  Sunny’s puppy antics were refreshing, and our walks almost convinced me I was well again.

            The morning following my café brunch I resolved to speak to Jack.  The sun had risen to its same degree of altitude when our shadows intersected, as if foreordained, between the two immovable picnic tables.  We and our dogs were the only animate beings in the flat expanse of the park at that hour.  So acutely did the sun bisect us into hemispheres of light and darkness that we could have been raised figures on a sundial, or, it occurred to me, two moving second hands on Nature’s timepiece, though fated by our normal orbits to sweep past each other in contrary motion.  I hesitated to break the stately rhythm of our passing by engaging him in conversation, for over the past weeks I had come inexplicably to feel that something in the predictability of our daily countermarch contributed in its own infinitesimal way to the celestial mechanics of time itself.  Santa Fe can do that to you.

            Yet I spoke, and thereby learned his name.  Jack wasn’t one to volunteer too much about himself, at least not at first, so I asked about his dog. Cuate started out life as part of a litter for sale in front of Wild Oates Market.  Jack bought him when his other golden retriever, Brandy, was an old girl.  She accepted the puppy, letting him finish off her food, and when she died Cuate took her place beside Jack’s bed.  Jack’s voice got a little rough when he talked about having to decide to put her to sleep, so rather than look in his eyes I shifted my gaze to his belt buckle, which was a sober silver-rimmed turquoise rectangle.  His Levis were well broken in and his blue work shirt had paint spatters on it, yet both were clean and freshly pressed.  There was an air of worn decency about Jack, as of a man who didn’t need a wife to tell him to change his shirt, but might have needed one to tell him when to throw it out.  On his feet were dark canvas running shoes.

            Sunny’s inventory of Cuate was more direct and more dramatic.  First she fell over in stunned disbelief at the random nature of the universe.  She had accepted one routine, one precise itinerary whose elliptical course habitually approached, yet excluded one certain dog from the set of all possible canine acquaintances, and on one particular morning which in every way resembled all others, I, the decider of all arbitrary directions, had stopped in my tracks.  Being but ten weeks old and not human, she could not formulate such thoughts, much less extrapolate meaning from them; she could only seize the essential fact of the matter, and wriggle her delight.  Here was the unhoped-for chance to play.  They say younger dogs will instinctively show their underbellies to older dogs as a sign of submission, but I knew Sunny to be an incipient bully already aware of the distinct advantages a bitch could deploy against the touchingly archaic chivalry of dogs, especially her elders.  For her a prone position meant a better look at her opponent’s underbelly, and her cutely twisting head allowed her to size up Cuate from all angles.  Her instinct was unerring: Cuate might be bigger, stronger, and wiser, but he was a sentimental marshmallow, the epitome of gallantry, a plaything to despise and dispatch.

            And there he stood so foursquare in the sun, wagging his tail in the same tentative way that his far-off brain was dimly perceiving a change in his surroundings.  Methodically he acknowledged Jack’s halt, then turned liquid eyes set in silk toward the shock waves emanating from somewhere near his feet.  He slapped his jowls shut to swallow, started to pant, and before his flaccid tongue could emerge Sunny was on him.  On him, under him, hanging off him, slashing and snapping, she quickly found her target of choice.  While the rest of his burnished coat was impervious to her charges, it covered so thinly his legs that she seized and gnawed on them, alternating with such speed that she soon toppled him.  Cuate could have squashed her.  He knew it and thought she didn’t, and just as she knew it would, the thought of her feminine fury melted his heart.  For her sake he roused himself to an honorable imitation of menace, in homage to her puppy pride.  Gently pinning her down between his outstretched legs, he curled back his lips in a snarl, yet the velvet flesh of his muzzle wrinkled up above his nose so comically as to completely defeat the purpose.  Sunny, all but immobilized beneath a heaving chest, craned her neck like a snapping turtle and latched on to the loose folds of his jugular.  Cuate threw his blunt head back melodramatically, naively pleased with her prowess and his own performance.

            So they went, and so for want of anything better to say, I admired Cuate’s collar.  Jack said a lady friend of his had found it stuffed into a brown paper bag along with men’s clothes and left on the riverbank.  It had been a man’s concha belt.  She had asked Jack to help her look around, in case a dead body might be lurking nearby, but all they found was an empty wallet.  He suggested she keep the belt for herself, as it was real quality work, but she thought the silver medallions encrusting the  smoothed-down leather would suit Cuate just fine, and so she had it cut down to fit him.

            “I used to have a little farm up near Ojo Caliente.”  Jack had tired of looking at the dogs and was squinting off into the distance.  “Just five acres.  I planted it in alfalfa, and a big vegetable garden.  Then while I was farming I bought some land up in Colorado.  Ridgeway?”  His sharp glance at me was met with blankness, so he went on.  “I bought it for $15,000 and sold it four years later for $49,000.  Then I retired to Santa Fe.  Got a little house over on Acequia Madre.”  Now that he had loosened up he had more to say, but first looked at me in what I took to be a cagey sort of way.  He spoke quietly, though no one else was around to catch the undercurrent of feeling behind his measured words.  “I’ve just about closed on a deal in South Fork.  You see, what’s good about this parcel is that one side borders irrigated ranch land, and the other three sides are surrounded by National Forest land, so that limits development.  It’s got a cabin that brings in $1500 a month winter and summer.  In winter there’s skiing, and in summer there’s trout fishing.”

            That was all I learned about Jack.  He didn’t ask about me, and I wouldn’t have known what to tell him.  I wished him luck and we parted.  Cuate followed Jack with no regrets and no visible wounds.  Sunny snorted and trotted off, oblivious to her own sorry state, the result of Cuate’s mock ferocious mouthing.  She needed cleaning up, but I steered her away from the steep-banked Santa Fe River.  We headed instead diagonally across the field and up the opposite slope toward the backs of the houses that faced Canyon Road.  Forming the boundary for a short distance between park and back yards was the narrowly rushing irrigation ditch called Acequia Madre.  I supposed it joined the river but never bothered to follow it.  The acequia came from under the houses and across Canyon Road, following the street of the same name, as rich in history and real estate value as Canyon Road itself.

            At that time of morning the shade of trees surrounding the acequia was a welcome relief from the dry heat of the open field.  Sunny at first distrusted the swiftly moving water but when she saw it was shallow she readily waded in.  After she was good and soaked, I herded her out and toward the cottonwood tree near our entrance to the park.  As she rested from bath and battle, I eased my back against the rough-barked trunk and began to muse over that shrewd kind of expression that had come over Jack when he talked about his land.  I had seen that look before.  Of course Jack was no cowboy; he was a farmer, and that was a farmer’s patented gleam in the eye.  I had seen it often enough in France, first in the eyes of the farmer who sold us our land.  Well, not the farmer himself—his eyes were too bleared from alcoholism to register subtle gradations.  His wife was the canny one.  She arranged all the details of the sale and convened us in the notary’s office to sign the farm over, which was only her right, as the land descended from her side of the family.  The rheumy wreck of grizzled sinews in an oversized suit sitting beside her had no say and seemed to know it.  He emerged from his stupor only once, venturing to remark that the farm ought to be worth more than the figure the notary had just dryly rattled off, and we were embarrassed for him, as it was only a down payment she was talking about.  But his wife relived us of the burden by saying “Mais non, mais non” in the slightly impatient tone one might use to correct a child, and as it was clear that he was beyond embarrassment for himself, we took no more notice of him until she slid the contract under his trembling hand, and with a rather touching tolerance inclined her straight back to show him where to sign.

            We didn’t see much of them after taking possession.  They had already bought their little house in the village, thanks to a singular stroke of luck.  One day while hoeing the potato patch just fifty yards from the house, the farmer had broken his hoe on the corner of a buried chest that turned out to be full of Roman coins.  We saw a few of them which they had kept as souvenirs.  The rest had brought them enough money, after the State took its share, to fulfill their dream, hers anyway, of a house in town.  The story of the coins enchanted us, and while we never found any more, Francois did unearth an ancient-looking well in the far corner of the potato patch that he solemnly declared to be of Roman origin.

            Disappointments had followed.  At first I would traipse through our fields and tiny vineyard in hopeful rhythm with the line of poetry that came back again and again: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”  The land was ours but we were never the land’s.  Whether it was because of frequent absences dictated by opera, or because of our nationalities—I was American, my husband Swiss—this land would not embrace us.  How many a farmer since Roman times had broken himself to know every furrow and hedgerow more thoroughly than the dents and creases of his woman’s face?  And what cunning it had required of them, a cunning and shrewdness beyond the scope of our pale romantic illusions.  We were not worthy of the land, and finally turned our dream over to the uncallused hands of other foreigners, even more romantic than we.

            By the time we sold out the old farmer was dead and his wife was relieved, I suppose.  Even while he lived I could never remember his face, until I once visited the cathedral of Bourges.  Shunning the vast crypt which was the funeral chapel for the fabulously wealthy benefactor and art patron Jean, Duc de Berry, I strolled the outer nave, stopping short before the duke’s likeness in a cathedral apse.  There, under filtered stained glass light he knelt in weathered polychrome opposite his duchess.  Both were properly reverential in attitude.  The duke’s hands were artfully arranged in prayer, but his face beamed an inner glee that to me was a picture of avarice revised as religious fervor.  No statue ever looked more real, more ready to raise property taxes than this apple-cheeked, snub-nosed aristocrat.  Those cheeks, that nose, that face—they all belonged to our farmer, as they must have been before alcohol erased the gleam in his eye.  Across the span of five centuries, Jean and his descendants, legitimate or otherwise, claimed features that were molded from the red clay of the Berry, and dissipated by the fruit of its vines.  I inclined my head to the duke, humble in defeat.

            Abruptly Sunny jolted me back to the present.  Tumbling across my legs, she galloped toward a little girl who was just settling down with her father a respectful distance away within the shadow of our tree.  He was in his twenties, Hispanic looking to my unpracticed eye.  As puppy and child made their raucous acquaintance he smiled benevolently.  Now that they had a house with a yard, he said, he hoped to get a dog or two.  His name was Ortiz, I have forgotten his first name.  The Ortiz family, he told me shyly but proudly, was a great family of Santa Fe.  He talked about their exploits in a soft tone that coursed on like the Acequia Madre.  Later I wished I had listened more closely, and in atonement I looked up the name Ortiz in Origins of New Mexico Families, by Fray Angelico Chavez, himself a descendant of early colonists.  Ortiz family history was confusing.  One sixteenth century ancestor had come up from Mexico City to settle Santa Fe, but he escaped hanging after assassinating the regional governor for alleged infidelity with his wife, and sank into obscurity.  Another had fought the Ute and Picuris tribes with the great DeVargas, who cited this Ortiz for military valor.  There were no pictures of early patriarchs, and by the time I read the accounts my memory of meeting the young man was already dimming.

            What I do remember of that late morning in July is the grass and the trees and the shadows bounded on two sides by water, a ludicrous green field carved out of the high desert and called a public park.  Alone again after our chance encounters, Sunny and I surveyed the familiar landmarks.  We belonged here, in this place and time; for what purpose I did not know and Sunny did not care.  I would keep bringing her back many times a day, and train my brain, which was beginning to tingle as after a long sleep, on every shade and contour and creature that crossed our path,  accompanied by the silence of the Utes, the Picuris, and the Santa Fe dogs.

 

Original short story by Mary Beth Loup written in 1995, revised August 2011

© 2011 Mary Beth Loup.  All rights reserved

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Birth Certificate

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once told me my baby would never be president.

Imagine how that feels.

It was the spring of 1988 and we were attending a fundraising dinner for the Washington Opera, where my husband Francois was a perennial favorite. Once the opera season was over, we would be heading back to our farm in France to prepare for the next long absence, to the Glyndebourne Festival for the summer, where our baby was due to be born in early August. We would later calculate that Celine crossed the Atlantic Ocean five times before even being born. She was conceived in Galveston during a weekend getaway from the Houston Grand Opera; I learned I was pregnant in Toulouse during a run of “Cosi fan Tutte” with a very young Cecelia Bartolli; and I believe we came to Washington shortly after some production in San Diego. What a happy, hectic time it was.

The Lawyers Committee of the Washington Opera hosted the fundraiser, and showed their esteem for Francois by seating us at a round table with noted legal luminaries Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Harry Edwards, both at that time Federal judges on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and the aforementioned Justice Scalia, who had two years before been elevated to the Supreme Court. I was quite shy in such company, but Judge Edwards on my right seemed friendly and approachable, so I worked up the courage to address him:

“Excuse me, Judge Edwards, but I wonder if you can answer a question for us. I am an American by birth and also Swiss by naturalization. My husband is Swiss by birth and also French by naturalization. We live in France but our baby will be born in England. Do you know what our baby’s nationality will be?”

His eyes lit up and he excitedly called across the table. “Ruth! Here’s a situation for you: the mother’s American and Swiss, the father’s Swiss and French, they live in France but they’re having a baby in England: what’s the baby’s nationality?” His voice was loud enough so that all other conversations stopped and the assembled legal minds began to avidly weigh in on the issue. It was soon clear that no one knew the answer. That was when Justice Scalia asserted “Your baby will never be president”, with a twinkle in his eye and a tone that disinvited all contradiction. “I know”, I sighed meekly (while secretly harboring hopes for the European Union). Ruth Bader Ginsburg peered thoughtfully through her oversized glasses and suggested “You know, you ought to contact Abe Sofaer. He’s the general counsel at the State Department and I’m sure he could help you.” I thanked her and that ended the discussion.

It also ended my thinking on the matter, except for one call to the British Embassy, where an officious representative, apparently suspecting that we were concocting an elaborate ploy to give birth in the UK just for the purpose of obtaining precious British citizenship for our offspring, replied to my timid query, “No, in NO WAY will your child be British.” “Oh GOOD!” was my response to that. I couldn’t imagine bothering the general counsel of the State Department, nor had I any idea who else in that enormous bureaucracy I might address with our particular situation, so just put it out of my mind with the confidence of an American sure that if foreign babies born on American soil merit US citizenship, then the US citizenship of one parent must be strong enough to attach to an American baby born abroad, even if foreign soils weren’t “fertile” enough to confer their own nationalities by birth.

My naive confidence was borne out a month later when an official-looking envelope arrived at the farm. It was from Mr. Sofaer at the State Department. He included the letter that Ms Ginsburg had sent him: she had remembered our conversation and, no doubt correctly interpreting my diffidence, had taken it upon herself to inquire on our behalf. Mr. Sofaer informed us that our baby would be American, Swiss and French. And so it was that when Celine was born on Aug. 2, 1988 at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, she was issued a lovely birth certificate that in NO WAY conferred British citizenship. At the tender age of two weeks we were required to take her to the US Embassy in London, so that she could receive an Official Report of a US Citizen Born Abroad that has served in all situations where a US birth certificate has been required. She was propped up to pose for her passport picture so that we could take her back to France with us; Swiss and French passports followed later. The fact that she will never be president does not weigh on her or hamper her actual ambitions at the age of 22–although I happen to think it’s the country’s loss!

Today seemed like a good day to trot out my little name-dropping story. President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate, surely knowing that it will have little effect on the “carnival barkers” and conspiracy-addled brains of the haters. Now they will clamor for his college transcripts, as if graduating magna cum laude from Harvard as editor of the Law Review and writing two best-selling books by himself, and giving detailed off the cuff answers to unscreened questions at press conferences, town halls, and Republican pow-wows–all that doesn’t prove his intelligence and worthiness–to DONALD TRUMP?  

I invite your comments and thank you for reading my posts.

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Figaro, part two

Now where did I leave off with “The Marriage of Figaro”? Let’s see: writing in English about an opera sung in Italian, composed by an Austrian, based on a French play which is set in Spain. Yep.

But first, a word to my conservative friends who may have been offended by the snarky little dig in my previous post. I do apologize, not just because liberal principles demand it; not even because old-fashioned liberals in the 21st centry feel constrained to implicitly apologize for their very existence. No, it was just a cheap shot. Whatever truth in it applicable to some conservatives could surely not apply to all. Surely. Not. Besides, what could leave oneself more open to ridicule than writing about opera, that most elite of art forms, which depends for its own existence on the support of wealthy patrons? So the Metropolitan Opera can expand its HD simulcasts all over the world, and promote singers into superstars, thanks to bailed-out, bonus-heavy backers in the financial world–who manage to do pretty well for themselves whatever party is in power. Wealth trickles up and culture trickles down.  Matinee orchestra section seats at the Met run between $135 and $330 each. But the opera-loving masses (oxymoron?) can troop on down to a select multiplex, where ALL the seats are orchestra seats, and feel virtually wealthy for the low, low price of $22. (Well, you didn’t think it would be as cheap as the latest Big Momma movie, did you?) The common folk of Versailles could only hope to glimpse the courtly aristocrats from behind a screen; we can watch their world set to music while seated comfortably in front of one. It isn’t the same as a live theatre experience, but super-sized sodas and Twizzlers and Dolby-enhanced high definition Surroundsound, or whatever current technology heightens the simulated experience, is some compensation.

If the music and magic of opera projected on a screen move some moviegoers to want an authentic experience that meets their more modest means, they can turn to productions by such companies as Annapolis Opera, venue for “The Marriage of Figaro”, or even smaller local companies like Bel Cantanti Opera or Opera Vivente, to name three accessible to opera lovers in the DC/Baltimore area.

http://www.annapolisopera.org/

http://www.belcantanti.com/

http://www.operavivente.org/currentseason.html

Look around in your area for companies achieving the nobly absurd goal of presenting grand opera on a shoestring. Ticket prices will be only twice the cost of a Met simulcast seat, not ten times as much for the actual Met orchestra seat. Parking is often free. You will be pleasantly surprised by the calibre of singing: superstar fees at the big ticket houses suck up so much available funds that many excellent singers below the tip of that pyramid feed their eating habit while filling their resumes with polished performances in obscure places for a pittance. Trickle, trickle….

Even small-scale opera on a budget can strain the wallets of the shrinking middle class. I don’t know how much babysitting rates have increased since the eighties, but CNN announced today that college tuition has risen 400% in the same period. Unless your employee retirement portfolios have blessed you with increased shareholder wealth, you have seen your productivity go up while your share of the profits in the form of wages has gone down. And speaking of retirement, the Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill that would change the out-of-pocket health expenses for retired state employees: co-pays would double from $25 to $50, and prescription drug benefit expenses for retired employee and spouse would increase from $700 to $9,100. That was seven hundred, not seven thousand.  Of course, we can all take heart that the housing industry is surely on the brink of recovery, now that a Russian billionaire has paid $100,000,000 (yes, one hundred million dollars) for a fake French chateau in Silicon Valley. Trickle, trickle ….

The area where I used to live in France was called the Berry and its castles were rather drab affairs, built in the Middle Ages as fortifications to protect fiefdoms–that feudal system of revenue-producing resources granted by lords to vassels in return for fealty, or loyalty. The loyalty ran in both directions: serfs at the bottom worked for lords at the top and lords protected serfs from attacks by rival lords. [If you want to know more than this gross oversimplification, go read a treatise. I’m no medieval historian; I couldn’t even get through the whole Wikipedia entry!] Today’s employees show loyalty by working more for less, and are rewarded by their corporate lords with the opportunity to spend more quality time with their families through layoffs and outsourcing. But back to France: west of the Berry is the Loire Valley, home of excellent wines and the show-off castles of a later generation of lords: McMansions on a grand scale. These aristocrats couldn’t be bothered with their local issues, busy as they were hanging out with royalty and lordly riff-raff at Versailles. It all caught up with them in time. How many of them, seeing the Beaumarchais play in 1784, or the opera in 1786, saw the writing on the wall?

What do we see? Trickle, trickle….

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Figaro, part one

Attracting attention is easier than holding it: thus the challenge for a second blog post. Still, I must make the effort: I owe it to my fan!* **

[*ironical reference, for those readers who take everything literally, see the world in black and white, and for whom abstract thinking is, sadly, not an option (see also conservatives); never mind the fact that, literally speaking, I really DO have only one fan**]

{**self-deprecating humor, for the benefit of any French readers, for whom this concept is foreign. It means mocking oneself rather than …. oh never mind, just skip the ** parts}

Last Sunday my husband Francois and I attended the Annapolis Opera production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. Francois has sung the role of Bartolo in countless productions

Figaro has always been my favorite opera. Three geniuses — Beaumarchais the playright, Da Ponte the librettist, and Mozart the composer– create a timeless world within a world on the verge of revolution. All the characters, both aristocrats and servants, are so utterly human, and the music they voice so sublime, that we forget how far that world seems from ours. Now that all productions feature projected translations, it is easy to follow the moral dilemma faced by the Count: follow his better nature and abolish the traditional droit du seigneur: the master’s right to rape his servant before her wedding night; or, give in to his lust for his wife’s maid Susanna, the intended bride of his valet, Figaro. Such an ugly prospect and the absolute power to enforce it puts the coming French Revolution into very personal terms. No wonder the play was banned in its time.

What ultimately saves Susanna from the Count’s sexual prerogative is not his better nature but his hapless entrapment by the Countess disguised as Susanna meeting him in the moonlight. Faced with undeniable proof of his faithless intentions, the Count drops to his knees and begs her pardon, and she, revealing the true meaning of aristocratic magnanimity, forgives him. Their exchange is set to the most soaring, yet simplest music Mozart ever wrote. At that moment all action is suspended–only Mozart can stop the world with melody. And I wonder: did Mozart anticipate that audiences, especially Americans, would laugh at the Count and mar the moment? They never believe his sincerity, and the more convincingly the singer plays the role, the harder it is for audiences to accept his sudden change of character. Yet I believe that the Count really does repent, at least for that moment, and the music tells me that Mozart believes it, too. I also believe that if Mozart did anticipate the public’s skepticism of the Count’s sincerity, he intended his music to petition Heaven directly on behalf of poor, flawed humanity, audiences included.

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Hello world!

Well, why not? Even if Lincoln said it best: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”, our little blogs on WordPress serve some higher purpose, known not even to ourselves at times. Between Twitter and Tolstoy, there must be some number of words sufficient to encircle a life. Ah, but even quiet lives may defy circumscription!

So, I admit I don’t know yet how to manage a blog, much less how to put a life in order. The parameters of mine are this: I sit surrounded by sewing machines, both general and specialized: all allies in making fabric creations and teaching others to create. I love to synthesize machine and handwork, especially knitting. So expect musings on the process of creating. I also nurture the rebirth of my singing voice, mysteriously absent for many years. What joy to literally channel the voices of great composers! My goal is to regain as much professionalism as possible while preparing to give a recital in March 2012 on my  60th birthday. This blog will also chart that journey, and I welcome comments from all who set themselves artistic challenges on a deadline.

Some posts will be musical, some will be material, and some will be surprising, such as:

  • the world’s strangest museum–in Switzerland!
  • how French farmers play Monopoly
  • opera singers I have known and fed
  • my Maestro was a Morgan horse
  • mothering, not smothering, an independent artist (suggestions welcome)

So thank you to any and all who find this space. I promise to do my best not to bore.

Malou (Mary Beth Loup)

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