All content on this blog is copyright by Marci Andrews Wahlquist as of its date of publication.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yellowstone Magic

The summer of 1916 in Yellowstone Park was a very strange time in history—the whole of Europe and half the rest of the world had become involved in a desperate war, but the staff of the Wylie Camping Company seemed oblivious of it. The young men and women cleaning the tents and cabins and the drivers of horse-drawn wagons who took tourists around the Park spent their free time hiking, picnicking, dancing, entertaining, and all the while flirting with one another, and on the part of the young women at least, looking for potential marriage partners.

I read a diary kept by a newspaper reporter who was on a leave of absence from the paper and working as one of the “Wylie Savages” that summer. She was my grandmother, bent on adventure and romance and finding both in bucketsful.

Their parties consisted of food, lots of sweets, singing, joking, talking, much laughter and staying up late, but everybody stayed in the same room and couples did not indulge in public displays of affection. There were lots of fudge parties at which fudge was cooked in a scoured-out washing basin over the pot-bellied stove in one or another tent occupied by the young women, using sugar filched from the kitchen and cocoa that one young lady had brought from home—someone with remarkable foresight. Their favored young men were invited over to wait for the fudge to be done while everyone would sing, joke, talk, and laugh together. Then they would feast, and invariably someone would have filched more snacks from the kitchen to eke out the feast.

Every evening the staff members were expected to participate in a campfire program followed by dancing in the pavilion. Several were singers, some were known for readings, and some performed skits. After the campfire was over, dancing began, and the staff members were expected to dance with the tourists. They also danced a lot with each other and made dates for that and for other things.

The young men and women did go off alone in pairs—it was called “rotten logging” after the practice of finding a place in the woods to sit together.

The double standard was in full force in 1916. The young women were expected to control the physical side of their relationships, and the young men were expected to take whatever liberties they were allowed. Everybody knew that a woman’s reputation could be irrevocably ruined if she allowed too much. The men could gain a reputation too, but they would not be treated the same way women would. The women would let it be known among themselves that this or that man was one whom they shouldn’t go out with alone. They developed a telegraphic system for advising each other, and they took turns acting as an unofficial chaperone for various activities.

Drunkenness among the men was strongly disapproved and barely tolerated. When a woman found out her companion was drunk, she made every excuse to rejoin others in order to better control her situation, and she’d ditch him if she could.

All the elements were in line for romance to bloom: plenty of moonlight, geysers erupting, paths through the woods, conveniently large rocks in the river to sit upon, beauty spot after beauty spot to visit, and plenty of time after chores were finished in which to indulge in cultivating friendships.

It was a magical summer, and seen against that backdrop of world history, something very like magic kept the tragedy of war—which would deeply affect their lives in only a few months—from intruding on those brief, shining months in Yellowstone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Riddles, part 2

Here are the answers to my riddles, along with my thoughts.

1. I don’t know why things hide when you want them. Probably it has to do with patience.

2. A blossoming cherry tree is the usual answer, but when I carefully remove the stones so that someone without dexterity can eat the cherries, I think there’s another valid instance.

3. An egg, or the chicken I buy at the store, because I no longer like to save a penny by deboning the chicken myself. Somehow after doing that, I lose my appetite for the meat.

4. I love you (and you know who you are!) has no end!

5. A sleeping baby is the answer, but there are babies I know of who rarely cried: one was me. My mother tells the tale that when I was a newborn, I never cried to be fed. I would just wait, looking around, even in the middle of the night when she didn’t wake up on time. Apparently I had full confidence that it was coming and was justified.

6. A bookworm is what I have always been. I’ve been reading since I was five; books, magazines, cereal boxes, notes, letters, everything online, and on and on. I never can stop reading, unless I’m writing. I love that the OE word for the bug can be moth or worm, and wyrm can also be a dragon. I love that!

7. Like my meals, tomorrow has always come and for now I expect it will continue. However, I know that there will come a time when tomorrow will no longer be coming.

8. In the early evening sitting outside watching the stars start appearing is a miracle to me that I never tire of seeing. Then in the early morning watching the growing light blot them from the sky is another miracle.

9. Jane Austen’s Emma is one of my favorite novels, and this riddle is one of my favorite riddles, when Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s clever courtship for the wrong target.

10. In Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, class divisions are undercut by Nutkin’s cheeky attitude toward Old Brown. And we really are back to the cherry here.

What are your favorite riddles?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Limelighters and Other Riddles

This evening we were looking for a CD that has been missing for several weeks, The Limelighters: Through Children’s Eyes. My husband walked over to the CD case, plucked it right out, and handed it to us. “Why do things hide whenever they find out you’re looking for them?”

It’s true. When you want a book or a CD or something like that, you can’t find it. They know they are wanted and they disappear.

I loved that CD—or rather, album—my parents gave me the LP record album for my birthday when I was a child, and I played it and played it. I had all the songs memorized. When I found it in a CD a few months ago, I found that I could still sing along on all the tracks.

Tonight somebody remarked what a beautiful song “I Gave My Love a Cherry” is. Something clicked and I started to think about my master’s degree, and how, when I was researching the Old English charms, I ended up reading an awful lot about Old English riddles.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a story that has no end?
How can there be a baby with no crying?

Those aren’t very hard to answer, but I love some of the harder ones. Here are some of my favorites. The first really is Old English:
Moððe word fræt—me þæt þuhte wrætlicu wyrd þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn, þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs wihte þy gleawra þe he þam wordum swealg.Moth gobbled songs—it seemed to me marvelous when I learned that wonder, the worm swallowing songs of men, a thief in darkness with glorious cud and that base of strength. The stealthy guest was none the wiser for his word-feast.

I never was, am always to be,
No one ever saw me, nor ever will
And yet I am the confidence of all
To live and breathe on this terrestrial ball.

At night they come without being fetched,
And by day they are lost without being stolen.

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But ah! united what reverse we have!
Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown:
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!
—Jane Austen

Riddle me, riddle me, rot-tot-tote!
A little wee man, in a red red coat!
A staff in his hand, and a stone in his throat;
If you’ll tell me this riddle, I’ll give you a groat.
—Beatrix Potter

And we are now back to the cherry and the riddles posed in the Limelighters CD. There is an answer to all the riddles in this posting except the first one. Do you have an answer?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Fan Letter

Dear Mr. Plácido Domingo:

For the ninety-eleventh time I am listening to De mi alma Latina and marveling at your ability to evoke all the Latin memories at once in my Latina-wannabe soul. Where does my connection to Latin life come from? The closest to Latin blood in me is a distant French ancestor who fled to England and then North America when Louis XIV soaked the soil of France with the blood of the Protestants. Other than that one distant line, all my ancestors are English and Scottish and Welsh, with some Germans in the mix. I think my connection to these songs must be from my having been born and reared in California.

In California when I was growing up we did not find it at all odd that our Japanese fourth-grade teacher taught us to salute the U.S. flag each morning in Spanish. California’s Spanish heritage and history was my heritage and history.

I remember clearly feeling frustrated as Señor Amaya strode around our eighth-grade classroom with his head bent in concentration, listening to us, and barking “¡Otra vez!” In those days we were supposed to learn to speak Spanish by memorizing silly dialogues that nobody we knew would really say to their friends. I also remember struggling like a non-swimmer in the deep end of the pool with Spanish grammar rules in high school. Now if they had only given us heart-wrenching love songs to decode, I’m pretty sure that at least all the adolescent girls with typical adolescent yearnings for Great Romance would have found their motivation to learn the language soaring with no trouble at all.

But if you were recording heart-wrenching love songs when I was an adolescent attempting to learn Spanish, I did not know about it. My folks played Rogers and Hammerstein music, and big bands, and jazz, and pop. And because I had older siblings, I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll.

I discovered your voice and music years ago when my dear friend brought home a record album on which was a duet you sang with John Denver, Perhaps Love. I loved that song. Most of the other songs were sung by you alone, and I was enthralled. I played that album over and over and sang along, ignoring the effects of blending my thin little voice with your grand rich one.

I began to look for your other recordings. I took a dive into opera, rediscovering the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcast of their Saturday matinees. I saw your film of La Traviata. I saw a local production of Carmen. I saw your film of Otello. Much later I saw your film of Carmen. Wow.

My friend and I took a summer course in England in the early 1980s and went to Covent Garden one night to be captivated by your colleague José Carreras singing Rodolfo in La Bohème. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. But at the time we wished it were you up there on stage. It was your voice we preferred.

My husband and I collected your songs on CDs. You were our children’s first favorite singer. Our enthralled 3-year-old watched the original broadcast of The Three Tenors and wanted a recording for Christmas. It wore out.

When we bought this CD, De mi alma Latina, I rediscovered an intense desire to learn to understand the nuances of Spanish grammar. Not even a trip in the late 1980s to Spain to visit my sister, then serving with the U.S. military and stationed near Madrid, had made me this anxious. Back then, as we toured cathedrals and castles, I could understand about 40% of what people said to me and could not answer more than a word or two—something like a toddler who has yet to pronounce that first amazing full sentence. But this album got me searching the dictionary, studying grammar, decoding with all my energy. I wanted to know what exactly you were singing so beautifully, so powerfully, so emotively (if that’s a word)!

Before I knew what the words meant, I imagined being sung to in that way. But of course most of the songs are sad. So now I do not put myself in the role of the object of the songs so much! Instead, I see in my mind’s eye an old Spanish California ranch, with lemon trees and golden hills and beautiful horses and ladies and gentlemen in Spanish dress enacting the dramas you sing. There is peace in the scenes of my imagination, and Great Romance.

Thank you for making music your life and for sharing it with me. Thank you for all the music, and right now for recording De mi alma Latina. Even if I do not have a real Latin soul, I love to hear you singing, “Sin ti no podré vivir jamás/ ni pensar que nunca más/ estarás junto a mi”—and since I’m happy to admit that there’s someone else who to me is the epitome of creation for the past million or so years, even if I am haunting you, I’m content to remain sin ti—only I do have your voice, forever.