CATS I HAVE KNOWN OR THE MENSTELL MONSTER

My father hated cats. He said they were creepy, dangerous, and dirty. He even insisted that they were rodents, related to rats and other despicable creatures. This came, we were told, from an experience his mother had as a child. My grandmother told this tale: As she was entering a barn, a cat fell or leapt on her head, scaring the bejesus out of her and resulting in a trauma that she carried and passed on to her children. Lucky for me, it wasn’t passed on to the next generation. I loved cats, but you can guess that we were never permitted to have one.

The first cat I remember was Pustel, so named by my mother’s father, Grandpa Dierickx. He lived with us for a while, in our house on Bryce Street in Portland, after he and my grandmother divorced. This was around 1935, when I was four. Pustel, probably spelled Pusstl, was a raunchy male cat, probably a stray who made his home with us between courting adventures. About all I remember about him was that they tried to get rid of him once by dropping him off far out of town. He returned a few days later, somewhat the worse for wear, scratched up and with one eye badly damaged. Like other cats I have known he would find his way back home whether he was wanted there or not. I don’t know what his fate might have been after that.

In those days, Grandpa Dierickx was very kind to me. He repaired my tricycle and took me to the movies (“The Last Days of Pompeii” and Westerns with Richard Dix). When I said I didn’t like ice cream because it was too cold, he joked that he would heat it up for me. One Christmas, he constructed a little building in the fireplace with kindling and stood by with my toy firetruck as it started to burn. The best part, though, was the time when I was occupying the one toilet in the house. He blustered in, turned on both taps in the sink, pissed, and said, “Dot’s de vay vee do it in the old country!” I may not have the accent exactly right, but he was Belgian of Flemish origin while my grandmother Marie was Walloon French. No wonder they were divorced. Peter Dierickx was wonderfully coarse, earthy and loud. My father’s New England family was appalled by his table manners. On the rare occasions when there were combined family dinners, a silence would fall on the table as he was observed mixing together all the food on his plate. Realizing that he was the object of attention, he blurted out, laughing, “It all goes to the same place!” Grandma Dierickx, before long she became Grandma Johnson after marrying a well-to-do Swedish house painter, had great domestic and culinary pretensions. She had butter and eggs delivered to her door by farmers, and prepared rich and sumptuous meals. Come to think of it, there was a time when she had a cat, too. As you might expect, it had a French name: Minou, probably a corruption of minet, kitty. For some reason my brother and I found this to be very funny. Imagine a cat with a French name!

Back again when I was four years old, on Bryce Street, I was known for paying visits to various ladies in our neighbourhood. Yes, “ladies”—I was too young to know of them as “women”. Though I was told there were many, I remember only two. One of these was Mrs. Markworth. She lived next door. My recollection is of sitting in her living room talking and hearing strange noises from deep within the house. She explained that it was her cat prowling around through the air vents. None too quietly. Maybe it was looking for mice or just enjoyed the spirit of adventure. I never saw this cat, but it lives on in my imagination.

Once, when I was six or seven, I carried a kitten around with me for a whole day. I don’t know where it came from or where it went, but it was ever so cuddly. At least that’s what I thought in spite of its many efforts to escape. This took place when we were living in a fine old house on Tenth Street, close enough to downtown so the neighbourhood kids could walk to the movies on Saturday. Everyone was looking forward to the first movie about Blondie and Dagwood. How would they portray Daisy and Baby Dumpling? We weren’t disappointed. Did you ever see “Union Pacific” with Joel McCrae and Barbara Stanwyck? The part I remember is where they mapped out a route over a snow bank. It was risky but Joel McCrea was courageous. You can bet that we also saw cowboy movies, and who could forget Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan?

After we moved to our fine house at 1915 S.E. 21st, I used to play with Georgie Poole when he was visiting his grandmother who lived across the street from us. A common pastime was building mazes for sow bugs out of Mahjong pieces, but one time, in the basement, we constructed a palace, made of cardboard boxes, for the cat. Truly we didn’t think much of this cat because of its sucky name: Babette. In return, Babette, who did not appreciate our architectural efforts, spent most of her time trying to escape through the windows.

Now here comes the title part of this story. In the 1940s, Dolores Menstell was a good friend of mine from St. Philip Neri, the Catholic school we attended. Part of what brought us together was that we both played the piano. Her mother was even a piano teacher. She must have been quite the task mistress because the black keys on the Steinway grand showed signs of serious wear. I haven’t mentioned that their house had a distinctive smell. I imagined it was from cooking cabbage. After all they were German, if that had anything to do with it. Saturdays, I usually went to her house, a few blocks away from ours. There, in the backyard, we would create Happy Valley, a miniature paradise for toy cars and mud houses. We picked and ate cherries, though Delores was careful to instruct me not to eat too many because they would surely swell up and give you a stomach ache. The point, though, is that they had a rather large, serious looking grey tabby male cat.

It was my father who called him “The Menstell Monster”, this in response to my enthusiastic description of what I was convinced would be an intrepid mouse catcher. You see, we had mice, due I’m sure, to the fact that a portion of the basement was unfinished. There was this curious area under the kitchen that was unexcavated earth, a convenient means of coming and going for mice. After much persuasion, my father agreed to allow The Menstell Monster to visit our basement on mouse patrol. You can guess that he had no desire to see the animal in person, so I took charge of transporting and installing The Menstell Monster in hopes that the mouse problem would be solved with deadly efficiency.

Alas, The Menstell Monster did not live up to his name. After being released into the unfinished basement area, he lay crouched in a far dark corner, showing not the slightest interest in whatever mice might be scurrying about. I could only assume that he was not only uncoöperative but also terrified, so after a couple of days he was returned home to familiar surroundings. I’ll bet he revelled in the renewed attentions of Dolores and her family, enthusiastically resuming his mouse control activities on the home turf. If The Menstell Monster had been able to get out of our basement, he would have returned on his own in all haste to his home. You may know that cats are particularly attached to places, unlike dogs, who are attached to persons. A bit later, I’ll have a story about a cat’s persistence in finding its way back to the place it called home.

Through the ensuing years there were other cats. One was a brief visitor to our dorm rooms at Reed College. All I remember is Richard Udell gingerly stroking the cat and saying, “Yee!” Later on there was Georgie, a large dark-coloured animal with independent habits. I’m not sure where he came from, but he lived with Gretel and me, in Santa Barbara, after we were married, then in Los Angeles, where I was going to graduate school at USC. When I got my first teaching job in Santa Paula, we moved some of our stuff in my delightful Austin A10 (that’s another story). Georgie occupied the gear shift area between the two front seats. Somewhere along the way, he had to pee so badly that he couldn’t wait, so braced himself firmly on front paws and let it flow, a massive pee it was, too. For a while after that he was with us in Santa Paula. We lived just out of town in a Quonset hut in the middle of an avocado grove. Sometime in there he must have disappeared because he was not with us when we moved, in 1960, to Canada.

For two years, I was teaching in a two room school in a remote village on the Skeena River in British Columbia. Cats were plentiful, both as strays and off-loaded kittens. I know we usually had several knocking about. My son Miles, then four years old was a great namer of cats. We had Petrika and Fordentus, among others. Then, in Williams Lake, there was a flock of cats, appearing as donations from neighbours and offspring of the barn cats. I think two of them were given to us by a girl from the school where I taught. One, named Dishface, didn’t last long, succumbing to what we called the falling-down disease. But the other was Ringo, aptly named by Miles because of the design of his tail, this was also the year of the Beatles. Ringo was a stalwart fellow, a master of passive resistance to any kind of man- (rather child-) handling. He was with us when we moved to Vancouver so I could take a position at The New School. He had a fondness for occupying the drained bathtub after the kids had had a warm bath. One day, however, he miscalculated and jumped into a tub full of soapy water. Having thus lost all dignity he ran madly through the house, drenched, scrawny, and miserable, until he could find a hiding place and lick himself back to a presentable state.

When I lived alone in North Burnaby in the early 1970s, Ringo was master-guardian of the back yard, ferociously attacking with tooth and claw any dog that foolishly traversed his territory. Indoors, like most cats, he was a relentless pursuer of laps and pats. He avoided the bathtub, but did enjoy the kitchen sink when it was warm—and dry. It is in that backyard that Ringo lies buried, still guarding in spirit all that is rightfully his.

Moving to Rose Street in 1977, I acquired two kittens, male and female, Cromwell and Cookie. Cromwell, an orange tabby, disappeared early on, but Cookie remained with me for years to come. She was a lovely calico, sweet-tempered and bonded to house and home. When I went over to Hornby Island, intending to stay for a summer and ending up there for eleven years, Cookie naturally came along with me. She rapidly adapted to country life, spending her days basking in the sun or hunting for whatever small animals she could envision as prey. The mice were dispatched with haste, and I rescued any number of birds. One day she came dashing into the house proudly bearing a garter snake wiggling frantically from both sides of her mouth. This I dealt with by ushering her back outside as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to know what happened after that.

Before that, in the summer of 1974, on Hornby, I had constructed, I should probably say assembled because it was a pre-fab, a log cabin for my friend Janet Summerton. It was understood that I could stay there whenever she wasn’t using it. So, ten years later, that’s where I spent my first summer and winter on the island. The summer was rapturously warm, quiet, and peaceful. At that time there were very few houses or cabins in that area, so I felt as though I had it all to myself. At night I slept in the loft with a big open window over my head. It didn’t take long to realize that bats were flying in and out during the night. I happily accepted this as a fact of wilderness living. One night, I awoke to the sound of crunching. It was clear that Cookie had caught something. I climbed down the ladder with a flashlight and saw her just polishing off the wing of a bat she had caught. How did she do this? I’ll never know. She must have grabbed it out of the air—and in the dark! Though somewhat appalled, I had to admire her deadly prowess and undeniable skill.

It wasn’t long before I discovered, also at night, another cat that climbed in the kitchen window to eat what was left of Cookie’s food. I could see that this scrawny dirty yellow short-haired cat had been somebody’s pet (she had one of those flea collars around her neck), probably abandoned by campers who couldn’t find her when they were ready to depart. She was obviously starving. After scaring her away the first few times, I thought Why not let her stay, no harm in that. Once invited in she ate and ate and ate, sometimes falling asleep with her face in the cat food dish. Cookie didn’t seem to mind, so OP (for Other Pussy) took up residence. Before long she became very fat and very complacent, taking to her new home as though she had always lived there. So now I had two cats.

Later on, as I moved from house to house, she was a regular part of the family. The human family that is because she and Cookie never got along. They didn’t scrap but there were warning hisses if their paths happened to cross. This went on for years, there was never a truce.

Then there was Hitler. Yes, a black and white cat named Hitler because of a distinctive Hitler style moustache marking. He joined the household as a kitten, ignored by and ignoring the other cats. This happened when I was living in the Pink House on Central Road. It was next door to Joe Lowery’s place. Joe was getting on in years and didn’t do much of the rather casual auto repairs that he was known for. One time, he was busted for growing marijuana among his tomato plants. He found it helpful for glaucoma. He was fond of cats and amused to know that there was one named Hitler.

After a few years of renting there, the place was sold, and I had to move. The best I could do was to find temporary housing at Whaling Station Bay, about ten miles away from the Pink House. I was careful to keep the cats indoors, not knowing what they might do if free in a strange new place. All three of them would try to sleep on my bed at night until I became fed up with their hissing at each other and kicked them off. One day—I had probably left a window open—Hitler escaped. He was nowhere to be found until, around five days later, Joe phoned me to say that Hitler had turned up at his place. Ten miles! How did he do it? I put him in a cardboard box and took him home, thinking that if he couldn’t see where he was going he might not be so confident about escaping. Wrong! He did get out again and, sure enough, arrived at Joe’s five days later. You see what I mean about cats being attached to places.

After I bought and moved to the place at Phipp’s Point, Hitler was not happy and eventually was found dead not far away. Cookie and OP lived on.

To fill out the family, I adopted a kitten and named her Wally Wilkins. You’ll remember that the opera “La Wally” is named after the female lead. Wally was very cute and soon became the household trickster, young enough to give the other cats a ride for their money. OP persisted in hissing at her as she still did with Cookie. Wally, however, was not easily put off. Suppose OP was walking casually along the kitchen cupboard island, Wally would wait around the corner and leap out just in time to startle OP who, by this time, was getting rather old and set in her ways. So it went. I installed a cat door so they could come and go at will. This was fine, and I paid little attention to the occasional raccoon or ‘possum that came in to dine. It was pretty ideal for cats because they had indoor and outdoor privileges and, in evenings, access to whatever laps they could commandeer.

I moved back to the city in 1996. My friend Nora Goold found a new home for Wally. Earlier, Cookie had died of an unknown ailment, and OP lived on some time longer, staying in the house with new occupants. OP was a wise old cat, and Cookie kept her youthful frivolity to the end. They both have resting places there on Phipp’s Point Corner.

Throughout my years on Hornby Island, I was travelling back and forth for various jobs and commitments in Vancouver. I often stayed with my dear friend Cath. She had two cats, SPCA rescues. They were replacements for her calico Callie, who had bit the dust not long after she moved to the basement suite on West 20th. The SPCA kittens were named after opera singers Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle. Lily was a grey tabby with the cutest pink nose you’ve ever seen. She was playful and ever friendly. Black and white Rosa, on the other hand, was reserved and concentrated on getting out the window to pursue birds and other prey. In later life, after Cath had moved to a third floor apartment, she spent most of her time under the bed, especially when company, me, happened to be present. Their ashes now repose in two little containers on a shelf in Cath’s living room.

My daughter Emily and her husband Mark also have cats. Any number of them. Since they live in the country, they have some cats that live indoors, some that live outdoors, and some that occupy both spheres. Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say “any number of them.” There is Abigail, a small tabby and long term resident. She never goes out doors, mainly because it is her job to keep the household in order. The cat that has the run of outside and inside happens to have six toes on his front paws. He’s a muscular hunter, no doubt the terror of the barn-dwelling mice. When he’s in the house, he likes to watch birds out the window, snapping his jaws and chattering at them. Now Max is another matter. He is a rescue cat that is ever wary of strangers. When I’m there he never comes out of the bedroom or from under the bed. I may have caught a glimpse of him once or twice but that’s it. I’m told he sleeps on the bed with Mark and Emily, having gained trust through custom, using them, as cats will, for his own comfort and convenience. Stimpy was another rescue cat, as different in temperament from Max as night is to day. Dark and very furry, he was ever seeking a lap or a patting hand. As he grew more and more scrawny in his declining years, Emily arranged a heating pad under a blanket on one of the living room chairs for his special indulgence. And indulge he did.

This whole story started when I was sitting outside one beautiful warm evening, enjoying a drink or two, watching the sun set behind the mountains. I was musing about the past and about my family and friends. This is when memories of The Menstell Monster emerged. When was the last time I thought about The Menstell Monster? The memory must have been there all the time, though I hadn’t thought about that incident for many years, if ever. At the same time, I know it really happened pretty well as I’ve described it. And what about all those other cats? As Anna Russell says about the story of the Ring Cycle “I’m not making this up you know!” With the exception of the cat who wandered through the cool air ducts, they’re all fairly recent, taking age and the passing of years into account. Memories wander in and out without any particular reason, sort of like cats wandering around the house, napping out of sight, pursuing their own inscrutable purposes, and demanding attention when they want it.

Whenever I recall things about 1915 S.E. 21st, I also think about my father. Perhaps the cat who shirked his mouse-catching assignment shared some characteristics of my father. He, too, could never settle down to accepting his role in life, and like The Menstell Monster in our basement, always longing for a home he couldn’t see a way back to.

Posted in Allurophobia, Cats, Mice, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ANOTHER LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON

I’ve had this one sitting on my desk for several months, always intending to post it but then distracted by various other activities. Now that I’ve moved far away from the city, I have more time to myself. Consequently, I turn to this interesting bit of trivia. Or is it trivia? Why, I ask, do we find these rhyming words so useful and expressive, and where did they come from? Like many now vernacular expressions, I’ll be at least some of these come from Shakespeare, though I confess to being too lazy to do the research.(Nevertheless, see “Henny-penny” below.) But I wasn’t too lazy to compile this list. Maybe you can add some that I haven’t thought of.

Helter skelter

Lovey dovey

Easy peasy

Shilly shally

Super duper

Razzle dazzle

Fancy schmancy

Loosey goosey

Turkey-lurkey   [this one comes from Henny-penny (“the sky is falling”) and includes Cocky-locky, Goosey-poosey, Foxy-woxy and the less rhythmically inclined Ducky-daddles. A great tale of, no doubt, political origin.]

Killer diller

Willy nilly

Harum scarum

Hanky panky

Hugger mugger

Teeny weeny

Roly poly

Artsy fartsy

Mumbo jumbo

So much for a few days random amusement. Now, I must think of something serious to write about.

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IT’S INCREDIBLE!

Have you noticed how everything these days is “incredible”? It’s now the all-purpose adjective or adverb—essentially meaningless.

 Here are just a few examples I have heard in the last few days:
… an incredibly talented pool of people …
… incredible talent off-stage and on …
… it was kind of incredible …
… an incredibly long period of time …
… an incredible public momentum …
… an incredible reputation …
… Vancouver is incredible …
… absolutely incredible …
… that ginger flavour is incredible …
… incredibly beautiful country …
… it’s an incredibly beautiful song …
… incredibly dextrous with their paws …
… an incredible admission …
… he’s incredibly prolific …
… that rainfall was incredible …
… an absolutely incredible sunset …
… it’s an incredible story …

So much, or too much, for that. Talk about over-used words! Once everything that might be startling, amazing, horrifying, heroic, delicious, remarkable, thrilling, interesting, or special is called “incredible” we are left with a word that has simply become an all-purpose intensifier. It even sounds like an important word and as though we know what it means, serving about the same purpose as the over-used “f” word. ‘Tis thus we lose the nuance of expression and the value of language to express the infinite variety of human experience and diction. From my old-age sceptical perspective, it looks like we are giving up the ability to express and communicate our more complex and valuable thoughts and experiences. Maybe we don’t even care anymore as we become increasingly homogeneous, listening to the same music, excited by the same sports, eating the same so-called food, and adopting the same fashions. After all, who would want to be some kind of stuffy, nose-in-the-air intellectual? You can’t make any money that way. Or get elected, as our politicians have found out. 

Does the future consist of text messages, tweets, abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons? Even “incredible” will have to be abbreviated–way too long for texting. If so, we can forget the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Shaw, and even W.S. Gilbert. So what? Your school will probably have more computers than books anyway, and it only takes two thumbs to text, why bother with handwriting and printed words? Maybe the high point of human civilization was Athens in 500 BC, and it’s been downhill ever since.

Incredible!

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HOW TO AVOID EMBARASSING QUESTIONS

HOW TO AVOID EMBARASSING QUESTIONS

At least the wild fires around Kelowna have provided Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Stephen Harper with some great photo ops. They are ever so concerned about the devastation that their constituents are facing—in the riding that handily provided the premier her seat after she lost it in her Vancouver-Point-Grey riding. While the Prime Minster is shamelessly handing out pre-election goodies, Ms. Clark is eager (desperate?) to divert attention from a serious issue that could very well threaten her government. I’m referring to the firing, in 2012, of eight health researchers who had been working for the government. One of the workers, a young PhD candidate, his career ruined, subsequently killed himself. The government said that the workers were fired because of “an alleged breach in the handling of confidential public health data”. It was also announced that the RCMP were investigating possible criminal wrongdoing. However, no information was ever given to the RCMP and no investigation was ever carried out. The most damning possibility is that these researchers were finding that there were serious side-effects, including death, from certain drugs approved by the province’s Pharmacare program. Incidentally, the companies that provide these drugs are major contributors to the Liberal party and its election campaigns. This is a matter that could drastically affect the government’s credibility. No wonder distraction is the order of the day!

Among others, the seven remaining workers and the sister of the deceased, have filed requests for a public inquiry. The government has simply turned the matter over to the provincial ombudsman, saying that a public inquiry would be too costly, and the matter has quietly slipped into obscurity. Several distractions have conveniently come onto the provincial agenda.

Most recently, a case of child abuse, allegedly mishandled by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and, of course, the “sensational” announcement of the deal negotiated with Petronas regarding the multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas project that has been so dear to Ms. Clark’s heart. Remember her election campaign mantra “Grow the economy”? This is a massive give-away of publicly-owned natural resources with very doubtful economic gains for the province, not to mention the environmental depredations of the fracking that produces the gas to be liquefied, then shipped to foreign countries that don’t need it. Whoopee! We’ll all be rolling money and thousands of jobs will be created. Well, at least for temporary foreign workers. After all, who wants to pay unionized BC labour?

Reacting to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s scathing report about the Ministry’s mishandling of a child abuse case, the Premier has expressed her very deep concern and has called for a public inquiry. According to CTV News: “This is a terrible, tragic case,” said Clark. “Of course (a review) is going to have to be independent. It needs to be done by someone who isn’t inside government.” Hmmm. She obviously felt differently about the health researchers—or did she just hope that we would forget?

Like the Harper Government (he prefers that instead of “Government of Canada”), the BC government is faced with economic downturns (recession?) and climate change disasters. So much better to keep the public amused and diverted from major issues ignored or mishandled by government. Panem et circenses (bread and circuses), the Roman emperors knew how to do it. When may we expect Christians—or would it be Socialists—to be fed to lions in BC Place?

Posted in Christy Clark, Government of British Columbia, Health care researchers, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Ministry of Children and Family Deveopment, Public Inquiry, Stephen Harper | Tagged | 1 Comment

TRAVELLING BY TRAIN

People of an age will remember when if you wanted to go somewhere you took a train. It was inexpensive, convenient, comfortable, and civilized. Being of an age myself, I dislike air travel: being herded like cattle, and then being encased in a metal cigar for miserable hours on end, pathetically looking forward to the next tasteless meal.

So, when I was recently planning a trip to San Francisco (from Vancouver, BC), I decided to take the train. Way back in the late 1940s, when I fled home in Portland and lived in San Francisco, I travelled back and forth by train many times. It was always pleasant, fun, and very inexpensive. Imagine, even as a kid, being treated nicely by polite attendants, having one’s luggage looked after, and being able to walk about, have a drink, have breakfast, lunch or dinner, and enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.

I can say right now that nothing about train travel has changed much. The Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Oakland, is beautiful, quiet, and—dare I say it—civilized. Unlike the way it used to be, the train does not depart from Vancouver, so one must get on a bus (at 5.30 a.m.) to connect with the train that departs from Seattle at 9.00. Not too bad, really, because the Amtrak bus is considerably better than the Greyhound, and it’s quite easy to snooze most of the way.

Once on the train, you find your assigned seat—yes, I went by coach because of the price, not just reasonable, but cheap—then you are free to walk about, have breakfast, sit in a special “observation” car (comfortable seats, some tables, and plenty of company), have a drink or snack in the bar, or chat with your seat mate. I certainly did all of the above, meeting and talking with any number of interesting and varied travellers, having a beer or two (or three), and several excellent and inexpensive meals. I needn’t remind you that these are activities that you cannot perform on an airplane. (Ivan Illich said that flying is not travelling, it is being shipped from one place to another.)

If cost is no object to you, you can have a sleeping compartment, meals included, for around $500. The round-trip coach fare was under $200. For sure I didn’t get much sleep, but enough so that when I was dropped off, by bus from Oakland to downtown San Francisco, I happily walked the ten blocks or so to the hotel and was ready to enjoy a delightful dinner with friends.

The only thing you have to have in order to travel by train is time. That is something we had plenty of back in the 1940s and 1950s—time and civility. The airlines and contemporary life have convinced us to be in a big hurry all the time. As a result, we’ve lost the ability to enjoy getting from one place to another, actually traversing geography and sharing the company of fellow travellers. Highly recommended!

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SAN FRANCISCO REPORT

This will be a brief report on my experience attending opera in San Francisco, June 23-25, 2015.

First of all the opera house. The War Memorial Opera House is as beautiful and engaging as ever. Built in 1932, this opera house was the first municipally owned and funded building of its kind in North America. The design is of French Beaux Arts and reflects the elegance and even grandeur of that architectural style. I might mention that the opera house is directly across from San Francisco’s very grand city hall from the same period. Being at the War Memorial Opera House seems like being home to me, since I have been there many times over the years. The first time I entered those marvellous doors was in 1947!

THE OPERAS

TWO WOMEN (LA CIOCIARA)

This was a brand new opera, commissioned by San Francisco Opera, by Marco Tutino. The composer has written several operas and has had considerable success in Italy. It was truly a no-holds-barred production, magnificently well sung and dramatically staged. In other words, San Francisco Opera gave it their very best shot. It was certainly worth it, though perhaps with some reservations. My friends and I felt that it was over-composed, over-orchestrated. While the orchestral playing was of the highest possible standard, the music was thick and dense throughout, though there were many beautiful lyrical moments. It’s hardly possible or fair to judge such a work on only one hearing, and I would happily see or hear it again. The music is what I what I would call post-modern late Puccini. If Puccini had lived he might well have written something like “Two Women”. The lead role of Cesira was sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci. What a discovery! Here is a woman with a glorious voice and powerful acting skills. She also sang Cassandra in “Les Troyens”. More of that later. Nicola Luisoti conducted and Francesa Zambello directed.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better production, maybe equals but never better. The production is a mainstay of San Francisco Opera, the sets and costumes are fitting to the rather shabby state of Almaviva’s Villa, a place where the nobility freely associate with the servants and wander, without compunction, into their quarters. The cast included Philippe Sly as a vigorous and attractive Figaro, Lisette Oropesa, a delightful Susanna, Kate Lindsay as a love-crazed teenager, with Luca Pisaroni and Nadine Sierra as the Count and Countess. All were outstanding, both vocally and dramatically. Of special delight were the characters of Marcellina (Catherine Cook), Dr. Bartolo (John Del Carlo), and Basilio (Greg Fedderly). The gentle and always-tasteful humour kept the audience engaged and amused throughout. The superb orchestra was conducted by Patrick Summers, and the staging was by Robin Guarino.

LES TROYENS (THE TROJANS)

Seeing this seldom performed masterpiece was our main reason for making the trip, and, without question, it was worth every minute and every penny (Yes, they still use those in the U.S.A.). We saw the next to the last of six sold out performances, and it was glorious! The performance and the huge orchestra were conducted by Donald Runnicles in a style befitting the grandeur of Berlioz’s score. The gigantic set, complete with the Trojan horse and numerous fires, was most spectacular, matching what is a truly spectacular score. The chorus was also the largest I’ve ever seen on any stage, producing when called upon a sound of overwhelming majesty. As I mentioned earlier Anna Caterina Antonacci delivered a flawless and emotional Cassandra, well matched by other member of the cast of the first part of the opera. We were sorry that Bryan Hymel was indisposed and replaced by Cory Bix. Bix, stepping in at the last moment, gave a fine a valiant performance. This meant that the peerless Susan Graham as Dido carried the show through the second half. Many of us have seen her in this role in the Met in HD performances, but live on the stage she was a force of nature. This was an unforgettable experience, one of the highlights of my opera-attending career.

Opera is alive and well in San Francisco!

And I should mention that we also attended a concert performance of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The enlarged chorus and orchestra delivered a splendid and trnasparent sound, while Nina Stemme as Leonora and Brandon Jovanovich as Florestan sang magnificently. I would also mention Alan Held as a very strong and threatening Pizarro.

If I sound rapturous about the entire experience, I can only say that it was!

And I travelled by train. I’ll create a post about that pretty soon.

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Nineteen Fifteen South East Twenty-First

Nineteen Fifteen South East Twenty-First

This is the address in Portland, Oregon of the house my parents bought in 1940. It was the first house that ever actually belonged to us, and I lived there from the time I was nine years old until I was eighteen when I left home to search for my self in San Francisco. By the time I was back in Portland, about three years later, they had sold the house and moved to an apartment. I never entered the place again.

The years that we lived there were the most important coming-of-age years in my life, so I have many memories of the house, some loving and some painful. Hardly what you’d call a happy teenager, I was tortured by longings for unattainable love; I struggled over my love-hate relationship with the piano; I had my first sexual experiences; I absorbed myself in discoveries of great music and opera; I prayed with religious fervour; and, I spent a lot of time alone in the basement inventing things.

I often wonder what it would have been like to have lived the rest of my life in that house. There are people, after all, who have lived in the same house their entire lives, even as a part of a parade of generations, preceded by parents and grandparents and followed by children and grandchildren. Think of the wealth of memories and the comfort of the familiar. Perhaps even the absence of the ache of nostalgia.

Up to 1940, we had lived in five different places: Farragut Street, where I was born; Bryce Street, where at age four I visited Mrs. Markworth, whose cat to our amusement circulated around in the ventilation pipes; then Forty-first Street where I started school and fell off a cement wall onto the sidewalk, splitting open my chin (I still have a scar); from there we moved out in the country, 105th Street, two acres of walnut trees, potatoes, a garden, and chickens. We had a faithful German Shepherd named Sport. We were right across the road from the railroad tracks, and I came to know every train, whence it came and wither it was bound. If you waved at the people as the train sped by quite often someone would wave back. After this rural sojourn we moved to a wonderful old house on Tenth Street, very near downtown. Next door was a boarding house frequented by people like Cliff, a real cowboy from Eastern Oregon. My brother and I shared a double bed in an upstairs bedroom. I remember once that we strung some wires across to the boarding house so we could communicate with the kids there by means of our toy telegraph sets.

But all these adventures paled against 1915 S.E. 21st. For me, at nine, it was indeed a house of wonders. If you wanted hot water, all you had to do was to pull a chain in the dining room and the gas heater in the basement would ignite by itself. But you had to remember to release the chain in due time or the water would come boiling out of the taps. Suppose you felt a bit chilly, just adjust the magic thermostat, also in the dining room, and the oil furnace was soon pushing warm air up through the registers. There were also the brand new O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove (no matches required) and the Gilfillan refrigerator, our first real electric refrigerator. Imagine!, you could have ice cubes whenever you felt like it. I don’t know how my mother and father managed to pay for all this, but I suppose they assumed various debts and mortgages. (I think they paid $9000 for the house.) I know that my mother worked all the time at various money-making schemes: she sold Fashion Frocks and she did alterations on ladies’ garments. By the time I was eleven, though, she was working full time at Meier and Franks department store in Ladies’ Coats and Suits.

The consequence was that I spent quite a lot of time at home by myself. Every day, after school, I was supposed to practise the piano, but I rarely did, preferring to listen to opera records, work on my inventions, talk on the phone with Richard Griggs, or climb the cherry trees in the back yard. Another of my favourite things was to construct a small creek along the edge of the flower bed and, using the garden hose to create a current, let the one or two goldfish that we always seemed to have go for a swim. I figured it was quite an adventure for them. If I still lived there I probably would not make fanciful waterways, but I would certainly tend the flower garden and the roses that grew on four trellises against the wall of the garage.

Of course, summers were endless, and with little or no parental supervision, we came and went as we pleased. I don’t think we—and by “we” I mean my brother and I and the other neighbourhood kids—ever did much which would have displeased the grown-ups, but if we did, they never knew about it.

If I were still there, I would want most everything to be the same, though by now I would have replaced the Gilfillan and the O’Keefe and Merritt. The oil furnace would long ago have been supplanted by gas, and the buried oil tank in the back yard removed at great expense.. Maybe I would even have air conditioning. In the 1940s, air conditioning was an unimaginable luxury. But I would certainly have the heavy and ornate dining table and chairs, the table draped with the crocheted cover my mother made for it, and against the wall, under the window would be the buffet piece, or “side-table” as my mother called it. Because the front leading edge was rounded, she said it was of “waterfall” design. Always on display, there, was the silver-plated coffee urn on its tray, flanked by the cream and sugar. I never knew that glorious appliance to be used, but its presence was as appropriate and necessary as the draperies and curtains on the windows. We even had Venetian blinds, the height of 1940s domestic fashion. In the living room (we called it the “front room”), there were three curious objects that would certainly still be there: a bronze statue of an armoured warrior swinging a battle-axe which could be slid out of the warrior’s grasp and held as an object of wonder. Another was a small detailed model of a sailing vessel, its starched sails permanently wind-blown. And, the strangest of all, a sepia-coloured, three-quarter size bust of George Washington. One time, my brother and I arranged this, with pillows for its body, in my parents’ bed. We were convulsed with laughter when we heard them being momentarily taken in, thinking it was one us in an alarming state of illness.

The family “den” which adjoined the kitchen was where my father kept his books and where we spent most of our spare time. The living room was used rarely by the family, well, except for me because that was where the piano was. Even though, to conserve heat, it was kept closed off during the winter, I alone was allowed to turn on the heat so I could practise. I freely admit that when everyone else was out—and this was fairly often—I opened the glass doors, turned up the heat and the record player—Pagliacci, Il Trovatore—and revelled in solitary splendour. It was also there on one of these occasions, without the music, that I confessed to a startled Bob Shields that I was in love with him. I was, what?, thirteen. Such occasions are still alive and secure within the wood and plaster bones of the house.

I should mention, though, that the front room became the focal point of family activity around Christmas time, what with the tree, the crèche, and various other decorations which my mother, usually with my help, created. I know I would have continued over the years to observe Christmas in this way. Getting back to the den, there was also the desk at which my brother and I did our homework, and, even more important, there was the telephone. I probably used that device more than anyone else. As I mentioned, Richard Griggs and I would talk for hours. One time, we were on the phone when my brother went out to attend a movie, and we were still talking when he came back. Beside the phone was that wonderful old stained glass lamp. How can I describe it? It was one of those with a heavy round shade composed of suitably curved pieces of streaky milky light blue glass. If I lived there, it would definitely still be in its place.

The den. There was a time, around 1943, when my father quit drinking for a while and took up painting again. As a self-taught painter, he was pretty good and created a number of canvases during those few months. On Saturday evenings, my mother would read aloud while my father painted and my brother and I listened and built things with our Meccano set. There was always a point in the evening when we would have a special meal of homemade hamburgers or Stidd’s Tamales. Precious evenings, when the house was warm and everything seemed at rights.

The memories come flooding back. If I still lived there, I would be surrounded, immersed, in the richness of the past, the people I knew. I’m pretty sure that, by now, no one in the neighbourhood in the 1940s would be there any longer. Bob Smithson, who was my age, moved away while I was still living there, as did Morry Reisbeck, a favourite playmate who was younger than me. Delores Kangas, the first girl I ever “necked” with, lived next door for a while. Pat Miller and Sidney Mills, who were older, are probably long gone, as would be Mrs. Bennett, with whom I spent many hours listening to records: the Grieg Piano Concerto, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, Tchaikovsky Symphonies and, for sure, the B-flat Minor Piano Concerto. My other grade-school friends and playmates were David Miller, Danny Ventrola, and Joe Galarneau. Whatever lives they have lived or are living, I imagine that they have long since moved out of the neighbourhood. My highschool friends—John Fairbanks, George Ryan, Richard Griggs—lived in other parts of town. The houses around ours would by now be inhabited by other people, unless some one person, perhaps an offspring of a 1940s neighbour, is now permanently situated in his or her ancestral home.

I’ll bet, though, that I alone would now be an established 21st Street presence. Known to those around as That old guy that has lived in that house for over seventy years.

The last time I walked that street and saw the house was in 2002 during a visit to Portland. I walked the route I used to take to Saint Philip Neri School, and I walked up the hill to Dickson Janowski’s house, where I used to wait at night for him to come home so I could spend even a few minutes with him, treasuring those moments when I could imagine I was one of his friends. Those were the sidewalks I knew best when I was a teenager. And, you know what, they have hardly changed at all. The house that was our house looks very much the same. As I stood looking at it, a woman came out of the front door, checking for something on the porch. I brazenly approached her and asked if she lived there. Yes, she did. I told her that I had grown up there and had always loved the place. I wonder, I said, if it has changed very much. She didn’t appear to be at all interested and went back in, closing the door. I think that I had had a faint hope that she would invite me in. No such luck.

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