July 28th, 2004


Arid Days

Thirty feet or more from my house, the noise of the fans in the windows still drowns out the sound of crickets. None are chirping nearby, and I must go out to the street before I hear their song from other yards. I don't know why they have abandoned my year this year, but I think it might have to do with the poisoning of the wasp's nest and the black widow. The crickets no longer trust us. We are murderers of insects! The ghosts of arachnid and hymenoptera haunt this place.

From end of the driveway, I can see a dim light shining through the window belonging to the early-rising neighbor across the street. She leaves her house every morning before dawn. She is quite old and bent, and I doubt that she has a paying job. I have no idea where she goes so early every day. I suppose she might be volunteering at the hospital, or looking after someone for a few hours each day, but I like to imagine something more exciting. Perhaps she is the commander of a group of secret agents, and holds meetings with them to plan their daily activities. Maybe she is a disc jockey with a morning drive time show. Maybe she drives into the mountains, parks her car in some secluded vale, climbs a nearby peak and transforms into a hawk who spends the morning flying over the canyons, diving down to devour various small, hapless creatures. Maybe she is a priestess of a Sun cult who must perform a daily dawn ritual in some secret temple, lest the world be frozen in eternal night. Any of these would please my sense of drama.

I have (as I undoubtedly say far too often) long since grown weary of the monotonous days of summer. Summer was more enjoyable to me when I lived near the ocean, and could walk along the bluffs of Santa Monica, watching the kites loop and swirl and fill the blue sky with transient patterns as the blustery breezes made the chilly Pacific waters frothy with whitecaps. Sometimes I would look at the hazy outline of Catalina and imagine the buffalo grazing the isolated hillsides and canyons of their alien island and looking out on a blue green aquatic prairie they could not traverse. Sometimes I would go out onto the pier and inhale the stink of fish, and listen to the wheezing barrel organ of the carousel. Sometimes I would just watch the sails of small pleasure boats tacking through the swells, or the gray forms of large tankers and container ships farther out, passing up or down the channel. Here, I have only the sea of trees and the empty sky, and the relentless inland heat. I miss the summer beach.
caillebotte_man at his window

Second-hand Nostalgia

The sun settles among the trees, and for a while bright flashes of gold can be seen, filtered by leaves and branches. Then it is dusk. The western windows are still warm to the touch. The still air is filled with small insects which whirl and glide and, by their numbers, make a faint hum.

I have spent much of the afternoon listening to Albeniz- in particular, to an arrangement for piano and violin of the Tango in D. Albeniz died young, in 1909. In fact, quite a few of the Spanish composers of that era died young, of various causes. Granados died in 1916, when the ship on which he was returning to the continent from England was torpedoed by a German submarine. I don't think Albeniz' death was from such a violent cause, but, along with those of his often short-lived countrymen of that time, it has always struck me as a prefigurement of the disastrous interruption which was to befall Spain's early attempt to rejoin the modern world following that once-powerful nation's long, post-imperial nap.

That period of transition from the proto-modern world of the Victorians to the early modern world of the twentieth century has long fascinated me. The art, the literature, and the music of the time display a combination of exuberance, trepidation, anticipation, rebelliousness and nostalgia not quite like anything else in history. Albeniz' tango, like Satie's Gymnopedies or Louis Armstrong's recording of West End Blues, one of the short pieces that captures an image of its time, evoking a vanished moment with remarkable clarity. Listening to music of this sort is like opening an old book and finding, pressed between yellowing, brittle pages filled with old thoughts, a dried and faded flower, and then discovering with astonishment that it still exudes a powerful fragrance.

The images such songs conjure up for me are often so vivid as to be akin to memories. When I was very young, many of the older people I saw on the streets of Los Angeles were the children of that era. My own grandparents were children of Albeniz' contemporaries, and occupied that tumultuous transitional world. Now, the nineteenth century has passed from living memory, and the early years of the twentieth century exist only in the minds of those who were then very young. What I once knew as living history has become history indeed. But whenever I listen to some work of that era, I am amazed at how it sounds at once so fresh and so ancient.