Opera

Here comes the sun….

Our New Solar Panels!

Our New Solar Panels!

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A time of crazy travel, just how it worked out. Back from a delightful week in Puerto Vallarta with my sister and her dear friend and colleague from Poland – his first visit to Mexico, and great fun was had eating and lying in the sun and swimming with dolphins and trying different kinds of margaritas. Many people believe that Puerto Vallarta is uninhabitable in the summer because of the heat and humidity, so there were very few people at the resort, and that made it even nicer. Yes, it was hot, but we were never more than a few steps from the pool or the beach, so we didn’t care!

We came home for just a few days, then we head out again for New Jersey and New York for my Aunt Kay’s 90th birthday party, a couple of performances in New York (Netrebko in MacBeth, one could not resist, and Audra MacDonald’s Billie Holiday show) and restocking some supplies to get ready for the harsh Mexican winter. The most urgent thing – since we don’t have any heat in our house – is a new electric blanket since ours died and the controls and cables were somehow lost in the move to the new house. It doesn’t get terribly cold here, maybe down into the forties or even the high thirties in the middle of the night during the coldest part of January – but without any heat in the house you do feel it. Electricity is expensive, though, and it’s controlled by the Mexican federal government – they can basically charge whatever they like – so running that nice warm electric blanket or the space heater in your bedroom becomes quite a luxury.

Thus it is hard to live in Mexico, where it is sunny pretty much all the time, and not have the thought at least cross your mind that if you could harness all the energy the blazing sun just gives us, especially in the winters when you use more electricity in the shorter and colder days (ironically, it is sunnier in the winter months) you could realize a huge savings in utility bills over time. We have never had enough hot water, and even with our old hot water heater cranked up to “max”, the water, especially at the far ends of the house, was never really hot enough. Friends and our architect all commented that with solar hot water we would have water that was so hot we might well have to install a gizmo that mixes some cold into it so we wouldn’t burn ourselves, and we both became intrigued with the idea. Indeed several friends who have done this have told us that they are delighted with the result; both because your electrical bills go down to virtually nothing and that you really can generate enough heat to have plenty of hot water without needing to be continually purchasing propane. And we have been consuming a LOT.

After a year of lukewarm showers and not-quite-clean dishes from the dishwasher, I was ready to give the whole solar idea a try.  So, in a mad impulse we decided to have solar panels installed on our roof to generate electricity and added a solar hot water heater as well. The solar hot water tank should reduce our consumption of propane very dramatically. Poor Francisco the propane guy will be very sad when he stops by next time to fill our propane tank and we won’t be needing any — hopefully, not for months to come. Not only will it be fun to use all the electricity I bloody well want (keep the fountain running, which keeps it from getting full of algae, have the pool heater on more frequently, all those little things where you are conscious of turning switches off all the time….) since we are generating our own power now, but we can feel smug about doing the right thing to get off the grid and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. While it is a big investment upfront, one can calculate that after a few years the investment will have repaid itself in reduced utility bills and from that point forward, most of your electricity and hot water (except for the few cloudy periods we have here) are basically free.

So we now have a big array of sixteen solar panels, plus the solar hot water heater, up on our roof, and it will definitely get in the way of my planned New York-style roof garden, but there is still plenty of open space up there so whenever I do get around to dragging some flowerpots and plants up there, it’ll still look nice. The solar guys still have some tweaking and adjusting and cleanup to do, but it is kind of amazing to see how it works. After some preparatory laying of cable and making new connections to our electrical boxes, a very efficient team of maybe ten young guys from the solar energy company climbed up to our roof and in one day they had the whole system installed. After it was done, they told me to come out to the street and stand in front of the electrical meter to watch what was going to happen as they flipped the switch and turned the new solar system on. “Watch; your meter will begin running backwards, Señora”, they said. “At that point you will be generating power and sending it BACK to CFE (the federal electricity commission). Sure enough, all of us crowded eagerly around the meter stuck in our cement front wall and the second they turned the system on, the little wheel inside the meter obediently reversed direction just as they said it would. I can hardly wait, now, to get our next electrical bill!

A Calm Few Minutes

Day One

Day One

Jesus Garcia house construction 003

My Future Laundry Room!

Arnold calls it "the new wing"...somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

Arnold calls it “the new wing”…somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

With everything that has gone on, this is the first moment I have had to sit down and write something. It’s been a while, I know – we did manage to get ourselves moved into the new house, which of course meant I was distracted for awhile with all sorts of things ranging from a much-loved houseguest, travel that just couldn’t be rescheduled, and finding the carton where the coffeepot had ended up. We did go for a week to Puerto Vallarta for our long-planned Mirkin Cousins’ Reunion, which was great fun and actually went off, more or less, without a hitch. I had hoped that all the young cousins would get to know one another, some never having met, and by the week’s end they were pretty much inseparable after hours playing together on the beach and in the pool, so mission accomplished there, thankfully.

Meanwhile back at the (new) ranch, it certainly is true when they say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do, even if the house you are moving into is one you know you are going to love, and you were more than ready to leave the old one behind. With all the uncertainties of the visa situation, the scheduling of the movers, our crazy travel plans right in the middle of all of it, we have just had to hang on and hope for the best. Like Rosa says about the rattly bus that lurches up and down the main highway here, “agarrate como puedas….” (Hang on as best you can!”)

We are a bit overwhelmed at this point with everything that has to be done, and getting settled and unpacked we now can see will take us months – maybe by the end of the year we will be able to see daylight. And of course, since we are crazy, we launched into the new construction – an upstairs office for me and a new laundry/utility room – the first week we were in the new house. Why not just dive in and get it over with? we thought. So on top of the move we signed up for a good three or four months of building madness. All complicated to some extent by being in a foreign country, where no matter how much you feel you’ve adapted, there are weird little surprises everywhere that leave you scratching your head.

I remain convinced that the “let’s get it over with” approach is best, at least for us, but as a practical matter we face months still living with boxes and piles of stuff all over the place and incessant clatter from the guys out there working. And they start promptly at 8 a.m. and work till 6. Since in Mexico virtually all the construction is masonry, there is a constant din of chisels and hammers and concrete nails being pounded in. There are huge delivery trucks with loads of bricks, long steel girders, conduit, bags of concrete and other materials, a huge yellow bulldozer thing that comes every few days to clear away the current six-foot-high pile of debris (Reina barks at it every time), and so it goes. It will be a long time till we are able to easily find whatever we are looking for and there isn’t space yet for many of my clothes or my books, files, and boxes of other items, till my office is done. I know it will be wonderful – but getting from here to there is harder this time for some reason…maybe just because I’m older and I’ve done the remodeling gig so many times, who knows. I joke and say “this is it, no more moves for me, they’re gonna carry me out of here feet first! ” and I am laughing but there is this flickering, somber sense in the background that it might just be true this time.

The outlines of the new addition now are starting to take shape – while it’s still basically just bricks, I can now walk out into the space that will be my office and I can tell that when it’s done I will love my new aerie with its beautiful view, through the rooftops and trees, of Lake Chapala. But meanwhile, we both feel like we’re in one of those first-act curtain-closer Rossini ensembles where everyone is holding their heads from the chaos and confusion. There are probably eight or ten guys working out there, Monday through Friday and a half day Saturday. In addition to the electrician and plumber and their assistants, there is the usual Maestro who supervises the actual construction guys, several “peones” who fetch and carry water, cement, bricks, whatever is needed day in and day out, up and down ladders and across boards perilously placed across various trenches. They are unbelievably cheerful all day long. Maybe it is because they are in such good physical condition, who knows? They have an amazing way of accepting their lot, it seems to me, from my admittedly privileged perch as “La Señora”. A couple of them have taken quite a liking to Reina, who manages to show up right when they are about to take their one-hour “comida” break – she’s gone through enough construction projects in our other house so that she knows the right time to wander outside looking cute, tail wagging at half mast (just the right degree of pathos) and scam tortillas, bread, tacos, whatever she can get, from their lunches. They play with her before they start their day, and if she wanders outside the open gate to the street they call her to get her back inside the garden….”Reinita, ven”…

It seems so counterproductive to us but they build the whole room or house or whatever out of bricks and cement and then afterward they go in and chip out all the channels for the electrical and plumbing conduits with chisels and mallets. Bang, bang, bang, all the live-long day, now, for every single electrical outlet and light switch. You end up at six p.m. with spirals in your eyes just from hearing it everywhere, even out in the street. There is no escape from it other than putting on your noise-cancelling headphones (Thank You For These, O Great Bose Gods) but then you can’t hear them if they are looking for you to ask you a question or something, so one uses these judiciously.

And somehow, In the middle of all this chaos, life trundles forward. Miraculously, last week our visas came, so we now are permanent residents and we can leave Mexico and come back into the country whenever and however we wish. With these new visas, we can even work (heaven forfend!) if we file the necessary paperwork. The cuatro gatos, amazingly enough, had their little kitty motherboards reset when we brought them over here. We ferried all four of them over at once in an assortment of carriers, and Rosie, who had been utterly terrified of the two newcomers for the past year, has amazed us by coming out of hiding here, striding around the new digs, claiming her territory, perching on high places she likes, eating with the others in the kitchen. That has been really gratifying. Though there are still occasional hissing matches, it is much, much better with all of them. When they arrived, they were all so busy being disoriented that they apparently forgot that they were supposed to be fighting.

Yesterday afternoon, a Saturday, the guys all worked their usual half day. I realized as the whole crew walked, chattering and laughing, out the gate and into the street to begin their own weekend, or what was left of it, that at least for a day and a half no one else was coming over, no workers, no friends, no maids, no gardeners, and I could actually just BE here quietly and listen to some music (Fauré, as it turned out). A good moment to unwind a bit from the constant invasion and racket. While I battled guilt for daring to stop unpacking boxes and organizing things, I thought I’d bake some cookies and enjoy the relative tranquility (notwithstanding a huge, till 3 a.m. party down the block last night) at least till Monday morning when it all starts up again. Well, the cookies I baked burned to a crisp in the completely useless oven I have inherited, and then while I was angrily throwing them all out, there was a mighty crash from upstairs when Arnold overloaded a shelf with too many books and it broke and came thundering down to the floor. Probably wisely, we both decided it was time to break for the cocktail hour. I fixed dinner on the aforementioned wretched stove (soon to be replaced, of course), and I am looking forward to my first hopefully peaceful Sunday here.

Several times over the past couple of weeks I have had this flash that my parents, each for different reasons and in different ways, probably would have liked this house a lot and enjoyed watching us remodel it and settle down here. If my mother is looking down on all this, she is loving the fact that I have inherited her proclivity for remodeling (though she is probably annoyed that I have a bunch of her furniture now); my dad the Depression baby, I feel, would have been particularly proud that we could have afforded it; we know he felt that way about his ownership of their big, rambling house back in Santa Fe. But these would have been the “my parents” of fifteen years ago, though, before their various ailments and psychological issues overtook them. It is those parents of so long ago that I miss, and it is still rough knowing how both of them met their respective endings, even as we press forward with our lives, toward our own inevitable exits, undeterred.

Ghosts of Dinner Invitations Past

My mother has been gone now for just over a month; I am adjusting to life without her, and life is definitely going on.  Arnold and I are both dealing with mountains of paperwork, the closing of accounts and opening of new, retitled accounts, the various bureaucracies one has to deal with at a time like this, ending some things, starting new things. In retrospect, it is a good thing I was a financial adviser all those years; the required procedures and paperwork are all at least somewhat familiar. Looks like we will have to head back up to Santa Fe for a few days to have some meetings about the final closing down of my parents’ estate. Arnold thinks it’ll be weird to be back there, staying in the guest house on their property which is now inhabited by renters; but I’m actually looking forward to it.  Things do change, the old saw about one door closing so that another one can open was never truer than in our case just now. We are still numb from it all – not only the fact of her death but my father’s death and the two years leading up to her passing, and we cannot even begin to imagine what our lives might look like going forward, when hopefully things have shaken out somewhat.

So a trip “outta Dodge” will be a good idea for us, not only because we really do have to have these meetings, but it will be a break in the routine. We’ll see old friends, eat at some of our favorite old haunts, check out what’s new in town, and see what is gone – some much-loved old stores and restaurants have disappeared; gone out of business, victims of awful tourist economy up there. But friends tell us there are some new places to eat and shop and such in between our appointments. There has been absolutely zero activity on the sale of our house, so nobody is moving any time soon. No buyers, everyone still scared to move to Mexico, or having trouble selling whatever house they have to sell to purchase a new one; no nada. We might as well head up to Santa Fe, and have some sopaipillas and green chile stew!

One odd thing about my mother’s death is that while I haven’t had “visits” from her, I don’t think, like Maria has, touching me or communicating some kind of reassurance, I have lately remembered her phone calls to my office, or to our house in Santa Fe, over the years. She would always announce herself by saying, cheerily, “this is your mother calling”….and now several times since she died, I have heard her voice in my head – exactly as she used to sound when she was far younger and far healthier – identifying herself that way. I am wondering if it really IS my mother calling, and how I’m supposed to pick up the psychic phone, and what am I supposed to say? If she’s calling from The Other Side, she probably already knows I’m okay, and all that. In the old days, in this life, she would have been calling to invite us to join her and my dad for dinner, or some such thing. Unless it’s a rehash of Don Giovanni, THAT isn’t the reason for her call. The weird thing is, I never thought about her phone calls till she died and I began hearing her voice in my head. As a practical matter, she didn’t even call all that often. On top of which I’ve never seen, felt, heard, been around or encountered anything even remotely resembling a spirit or a ghost, so I’m at a loss to interpret any of it. Perhaps  something is going on but I am so hopeless at interpreting other-worldly phenomena that I have no clue what it might mean. Where is John Edward when I need him?

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.

Podando (pruning)

This week, we had a crew of guys crawling all over the garden in hard hats and tree gear pruning our trees. They grow like weeds here, especially during the rainy season, so this monster haircutting has to be done once a year at least. There was a huge wood chipper parked outside, partially blocking the calle, and our gate stayed open all day long so they could haul debris out to put in the chipper. Adding to the stress, chain saws and pruners were everywhere, with branches falling all over the place, so we and the animals all had to be locked inside all day. We have the “nicest” house in a very Mexican neighborhood, and I am always a little jumpy about who can peer in and check out the property. Having the driveway gates open makes me nervous since I don’t like passers-by being able to see into our garden.

Then the plumber was here trying to figure out exactly where our septic tank is located; we have never had a set of plans for the house and no one ever has known exactly where it is.  “It’s by the back wall somewhere” was the best the guy who painted the house originally could do, trying to remember back to when the house was built in 2003. Thus no one had ever inspected it or cleaned it out. So, fearing a seriously unpleasant disaster somewhere down the line (literally and figuratively), I said, if this plumber has one of those cameras – as he said he did – and can figure out where the bloody thing is and look at it and tell us it either needs cleaning out or is okay, that would be well worth the investment.

So he also was out there banging and running drills and equipment, poking holes in the lawn and chipping out our exterior walls every few feet trying to locate the septic tank itself and the lines that lead to it. He did locate it out back, finalmente, and put a nice new sort of manhole cover on it, so now, if there are problems, it’ll be easy to get septic cleaning equipment down there. This new plumber is replacing the guy we’d used for years, who – sadly – has developed just a little bit too much of a drinking problem. The terrific new plumber-designate, is gradually working his way through all our temperamental and problematic plumbing and electrical systems, correcting all sorts of things that – as it turns out – had been done halfway, or totally wrong. It’s costing a fortune but step by step, things are undeniably improving around here. Or so we like to think.

But we still are suffering the ongoing battles of the cuatro gatos, which adds to the craziness. The new arrivals are still fighting to establish territory, mercilessly chasing and ganging up on our original two. Poor little Rosie got cornered on the kitchen counter by Taby this morning and took a flying leap down into the open empty dishwasher. The poor kitty, who is tiny, landed right on all the upright prongs in the lower rack. She seems okay, but pobrecita, who knows. I decided enough is enough and I called our vet, Dr. Jesus, to come over and a) give them all the shots they need, especially rabies for Group 2 who are venturing outside now into the enclosed garden with its high walls. I asked if he could prescribe some calmantes (tranquilizers) for all of them so maybe we can ratchet down the inter-gato tension a bit. Group 1 is completely stressed out and maybe Group 2 will be less aggressive with a little relaxant. He said he’s going to try some natural remedies first and see if that helps the situation. He says some Vitamin B will help with all their stress (in their water bowl!) and there are herbal remedies to try to see if it helps the territorial battles before we go to real drugs. Thank god he makes house calls – we did not look forward to bundling four yowling cats, plus Reina the dog, who also needs booster shots, into carriers and going into the village to his office.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, we had one of those Perfect Mexican Moments when Dr. Jesus did come to the house. He arrived with only half the vaccinations he needed, however, having forgotten the others. He gave the kitties what shots he had with him, and then our house call came to a screeching halt. Oh well, mañana. He is a wonderful veterinarian and much-loved by pet owners here, but in his other life he is a very serious classical guitarist and everyone in his family is musical. When he realized that he could go no farther with the vaccination project, we began chatting, as we often do, about music. In passing, he mentioned that he had his guitar in his car.  Well, we said, since you don’t have the other vacunas with you, how about you play us something? A little Sor or Tarrega etude, or perhaps some Bach? Claro que si, and he ran out to his car and brought in the guitar and serenaded us for a half hour with several pieces.  It was just delightful, hearing the music float through our house as the afternoon began to fade. The kitties, having been spared for the moment, ran off and hid for the rest of the day.

Then he had to go to minister to some other cats and dogs and took his leave, saying he’d come back tomorrow with the missing vaccinations – which he did.  But no recital on the second trip.  Sadly, he said he had to get back to his office because two guys had a very old, much-loved Rottweiler he was going to have to put to sleep, and he said “I know I will have to stay with them for awhile, it will be very hard for them to say goodbye to this poor old perro, even though they know his time has come.” This is how he is; he consoled both of us so wonderfully when we had to put our much-loved Korat cat, Achille, to sleep a couple of years ago. I said to Arnold, “So typical, he forgets half of what he is supposed to do but then, also SO typical –something completely delightful and unexpected happens instead.”  If you can just let go of your assumptions about precisely how things are to be done and in which order – difficult for us gringo types – sometimes you get really nice surprises, like the sound of a guitar  echoing against the masonry walls of your house for awhile.

In all the chaos and noise of our week of home maintenance, I tore a contact lens and without even knowing it really scratched up one of my eyes. Looks like I was in a bar fight. It’ll be okay in a few days but who needs it? But the good news is that the crew is all down there singing and bantering back and forth over the horrific racket of the chainsaws, drills, and the chipper outside. Without being too colonial about it, it is good to hear them belting out Mexican favorites at the tops of their lungs as they work. It reminds me so much of one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the chorus of sailors in Act I of Britten’s Billy Budd, the sea chantey they sing while they are fixing the sails, readying the cannons, and scrubbing the decks of their ship, the Indomitable.

Music Education

Things must indeed be calming down a bit because our neighbors are having friends over again with their awful music playing (speakers aimed directly over our garden wall, of course), and the plumber never showed up, which tells me he has enough work now to keep him busy. Or else there’s a fiesta (Saturday night?) and that took priority. But the fact of a fiesta is a positive sign; for several weeks it has been dead as a doornail ‘round these parts.

Meanwhile it was a gorgeous day and the pool guy came so once again it was sparkling. These are the luxuries I try not to take for granted – but there they are. So I went outside and got in the water and enjoyed the brief respite from the blaring radios and racket that usually emanates from the evento place up on the highway most weekends. I had to myself the sound of the birds and the horses clopping by outside our garden walls on the street, Saturday afternoon being – since most people quit work at 2 p.m. – when the local horse folk take their steeds out for a walk or for charro training or whatever. That includes a lot of expats who have horses too, but most of them are retired and you can see them out pretty much any old time during the week.

Part of our now-weekly weekend ritual is that José, my mother’s full time and wonderful caregiver – along with his wife Sandra – stops by to give us a report on how she’s doing, and get whatever he needs from us for the week, the most important part of which is a new supply of opera DVDs to watch. José loves opera and since he quickly figured out that Arnold was not only possessed of tremendous expertise but an enormous collection, they now get together every week for their opera conversation. Since my mother is now – horribly – blind and bedridden, can no longer really talk, and sleeps most of the time, both José and Sandra have time on their hands between changing her diapers, giving her meds, turning her, and feeding her.

So José comes back with last week’s plastic bag full of opera DVDs and with a list of questions for Arnold – what is the significance of this or that in this or that opera, why are the sets and costumes so weird (this requires a long essay answer about current trends in opera production) or what was the composer trying to do here? We both enthusiastically try to answer his questions. Then the watched DVDs are returned and Arnold carefully selects this week’s crop – some old, some new, perhaps a French one, perhaps a Russian one, an early Verdi, one with something new and challenging for José, like a countertenor; maybe a vintage recording with a long-gone singer Arnold thinks was terrific. Inevitably José picks out the singer in question and when he comes back the following week for the Opera Exchange he says “Wow, that Madam So-and-So, she really had an incredible voice!” And Arnold beams as his protégé has nailed it. José has a great ear for voices, tremendous curiosity about the performing arts, and in another life, with a couple of degrees in music history or musicology, he might have been a helluva critic. He would have probably loved the experience I had, in my twenties, of working for a time for a major opera company and seeing firsthand how it all goes together magically on performance nights, with hundreds of people scurrying around that gigantic stage in the darkness, as they say, “up close and personal”.

But that of course is part of the tragedy of Mexico – so many wonderful people could have been so many different things. Our gardener, Carlos, whom we do tease about being the bearer, for good or ill, of whatever the news is in town, is actually really curious about the economy and how things work in the world. I have asked him innumerable times “Why, oh why, didn’t you stay in school? You would have been a great journalist or economist – you’re always commenting on this or that story that you’ve read in the news or heard on TV…”  To which he always replies with a sigh, “Señora, half my friends did finish their educations and none of them could find the jobs they had trained for. They also all ended up as gardeners or construction people or laborers. So I figured, I might as well get started early if I was destined to be a gardener anyway, so I could get more clients”.  (And sadly, one thing he is definitely NOT curious about is horticulture.)  When he says that, I’m never sure if that’s just his fatalistic Mexican nature and whether, if he had actually made an effort, things might have turned out differently for him. But my point of view is so terribly American, it is completely marinated in that Horatio Alger stuff that is part of my cultural legacy.  And I totally lucked out: I was also born into a family that valued education and expected me to become some sort of professional. As part of the deal, they willingly paid for my college education, as well as music, art and dance lessons throughout my childhood.

I’m aware, of course, that the America of today is also full of unemployed young lawyers and liberal arts majors staggering under six-figure student loan debt and waiting tables. But for Mexicans, who have been beaten down again and again by corruption, invading armies, ruthless dictators enslaving and robbing them in the name of “democracy” or “revolution”, it’s a whole different ballgame. So maybe all we can do is hope that the next generation makes some progress and that things are better for them as more and more are born into Mexico’s relatively new and aspiring middle class. We found out about a music education program for kids here in town, specializing in teaching them stringed instruments (easier to carry, no one has pianos anyway, and they tend to love violin because of the mariachi tradition). They have a little orchestra and we thought maybe we’d see if Baby Carlos (as opposed to Gardener Carlos) might like to try out violin lessons. I called them and they said, yes, of course, four is the perfect age to start on the violin – which I knew because that’s when my mother had started her violin studies back in the 1920’s.

So we are going to take Baby Carlos over to the auditorium on Monday and see if he likes the idea. His mother thinks he will, because he loves the little toy xylophone we got him a couple of years ago, and he has some kiddie drums he likes to play. Maybe he will grow up to be the Mexican Joshua Bell. Yeah, maybe it’ll be the NEXT generation. Meanwhile, José has a spate of new operas to listen to and we’ll just keep on lending him operas until he’s gone though Arnold’s entire collection. Each week he learns more and by the time he is ready to begin listening to them all again, starting from the beginning, he will be hearing them all with a much more finely tuned ear. If we can manage to find someone to cover for him one Saturday at my mother’s house, perhaps when the Met live telecasts start up again in the fall, we will be able to take him into the city to see one.