Spending nights at the opera on my laptop

When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.

Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.

Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.

The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?

Back to the Live in HD.

Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.

Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.

As I was saying about these productions?

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My big city love-hate relationship

Considering all the places I’ve lived over the years, my fascination with big cities would seem an anomaly.

I mean, I grew up in what’s considered a medium-sized city but at the fringe of the city limits. We actually had a working dairy farm less than a block away from our house. As a teen I could ride my bicycle to the public library downtown or my grandparents beyond, though it was in heavy traffic. But that was before the suburban bloat that now engulfs its blot on the map.

I also lived on three farms, which make appearances in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, and the upcoming Nearly Canaan.

Most of the cities were in the 30,000 to 40,000 population range, with Baltimore being the metropolitan exception and Binghamton, New York, and Manchester, New Hampshire, each around 100,000 in the metropolitan area, coming in much smaller than my hometown.

These days I live an hour north of Boston – or more, depending on traffic.

Yes, I do have a certificate in urban studies as part of my college diploma, and cities are the home to high culture I find essential – symphony orchestras, opera companies, art museums and galleries, live theater, art movie houses.

Yet I rarely venture forth to these, in part because of the expense and in part because I find myself being nurtured by them in other ways. For instance, I habitually listen to live broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts and Metropolitan Opera performances. And I do sing in a choir in a Boston suburb and have wonderful memories of the city’s skyline after some of our concerts. That part’s magical. But all in all, it’s kind of like listening to the Sox games rather than actually going to Fenway … just part of life around here.

Each week, as I go to rehearsals, I’m always astonished at the lines of cars waiting ten or twenty minutes just to get off an expressway in afternoon rush hour traffic. Just think of the stress and precious time that’s expended daily. I’m so glad I’ve been spared that.

As for the packed subway trains at that hour? It’s a fascinating study in humanity, but for me it borders on claustrophobia plus. Somehow, I’ve survived those, uh, assaults of moving from one station to another. Nowadays I can walk to downtown.

My novel Subway Visions stands as an emblem of my relationship to a big city. Like Kenzie, I once thought I’d be living and working in cosmopolitan circles. I came close once, in Detroit – hardly my ideal, then or now. As for Baltimore, I was largely out on the road during the week and, when that ceased, I hunkered down in a self-awarded sabbatical. So events ultimately led me in other directions.

I do enjoy our trips into Boston and, these days, other New England cities. But candidly, I also relish returning home to our small historic mill town of 30,000, free of so much kinetic energy in the air. How else do you think I find time to write?

Don’t call me ‘Sir’

OK, we had an international student living with us and I understood that Jnana might be a difficult way to address me.

But being called “Sir” always came as a jolt.

It had me thinking of the cartoon strip – wait, you mean there’s a REAL Breathitt County in Kentucky? – where? Oh, it’s Bloom County! Who was that girl, anyway, the militant one?

Or was it Doonesbury?

Reminded me of the time at the library when I helped a high school student find the right LP of the “1812 Overture” and she called me “Sir” by way of thanking me. Made me feel old, indeed. And that must have been nearly 30 years ago.

At least she learned the piece in a performance with cannons. Hope it impressed the rest of her music appreciation class.

Well, let’s get back on focus.

Isn’t “Sir” what some men are called by their mistress? Or would want to be? Frankly, I find even that somewhat creepy.

Or the way soldiers address their officers? Still creepy.

The other day, though, someone was in the situation of trying to address me by something other than my name, and it rang right.

“Dude,” he said.

Yeah, I’ll puff up my chest at that and put a little gusto in my stride. Even at my age. Besides, it brings out the hippie in me, all these years later.

Even makes me start singing that Beatles tune. Wait, it’s not “Hey, Dude”? It’s “Hey, Jude”?

It doesn’t have cannons, does it? No siree bob!

Are you embraced fully into your mate’s family?

It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed repeatedly now, where a man finds his basic family connection through his wife’s siblings and parents, more than his own. He feels especially welcomed and embraced.

That’s the case with Cassia’s Baba in my novel What’s Left, when he becomes an active member of her mother’s extended clan. Well, it can also happen in the other direction, as it does with Cassia’s aunts Pia and Yin, or in Nearly Canaan, where Jaya grows especially close to her in-laws and vice versa.

This came up, too, when a friend and I were discussing our own lives and that of an important American figure we were examining. We realized it’s far more universal than we’d thought.

Can you tell me of a time you’ve seen this?

Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

Abundance versus scarcity in my life

Perhaps you’re familiar with the abundance versus scarcity question. You know, do you feel you’re blessed with enough – or do you instead feel you’re always lacking.

I’m programmed from early childhood to feel the latter. My parents were children of the Great Depression, after all, and handed the attitude down.

It tends to make me something tighter than frugal. Generosity doesn’t come easily, I don’t open up to others easily, either – not even to ask for help. It’s a long list of negatives.

As I returned to this concept recently, I’ve been feeling a lot more sense that I have more than enough in many ways, even on a very limited budget.

So much for material goods.

Curiously, it’s time where I’m feeling the scarcity kick in. There’s just never enough. Not for what I’m trying to do.

I’m realizing, often after the fact, how much that outlook crimps my relationships.

This is, ultimately, a spiritual matter. The one place I find time opening up is within the hour of mostly silent Quaker worship. Not that it’s always easy, not even after all of these years I’ve been doing it. But it is always refreshing and renewing.

To think, I started meditating to get naturally high, as in stoned. But somewhere along the way it became a practice to simply get natural – to breathe and get grounded again.

Oh, but I’m still on the internal clock, even there. How on earth am I supposed to cope with Eternity just around the corner?

I still don’t feel ‘retired’

Yes, it sounds whiny, even insensitive, but it’s true. Since taking the buyout nearly eight years ago and leaving the newsroom altogether a year later, I still have no idea of what kicking back full-time means. You know, like playing golf or sunbathing or heading for the mountains.

What it has allowed is more time to tackle projects I’ve felt are important – and more sustained focus. The fiction, especially, has gained depth in the process. Remember, in the past two years, I’ve thoroughly revised nearly all of my novels and pulled related volumes from public view.

Curiously, poetry has taken a backseat. I’m not attending readings or society meetings – the latter conflict with other obligations. Meanwhile, submissions to small-press journals and presses have ceased altogether, replaced by my blogging presentations, which I feel are far more effective in relation to the time involved. What I sometimes refer to as collecting rejection slips.

I hate to admit that despite early warnings, blogging takes up more time than I expected – and even then, I’m not reading as widely as I hoped. The WordPress Reader has tons of fine postings to always check out.

Related to blogging is the photography. I’ve always had a strong visual awareness, abetted by four years of strict art training in high school. When I launched the Red Barn at the end of 2011, I expected it to be fully text-driven, but you can see how far we’ve moved away from that. I’m still at a point-and-shoot rather than technically precise attitude – last thing I need is another obsession – but I am proud of much of what I’ve collected and shared.

Quaker picked up with service on the New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee and its deliberations throughout the year, but my anticipated daily early morning meditation and yoga haven’t materialized. Frankly, Quaker could become a full-time but unpaid job all its own.

Instead, the daily swimming at the indoor pool has been giving me a cardio workout and a half-hour for clearing my head, and my early-morning Spanish drills just may come in useful if I ever travel to fellow members of the Iglesia de los Amigos in Cuba. The language itself is harder than I remember it being in high school.

Well, I wasn’t planning on being a member of a solid choir, either, or of finally self-publishing as I have at Smashwords. In today’s literary scene, getting a book out is only the beginning of the labor – promotion and marketing, for all but the best-selling authors, is a task left to the creator. It’s a common lament.

Should I mention falling way behind in household chores, gardening tasks, and general maintenance?

On reflection, I still don’t know how I managed all I did while I was still duly employed.

So here we are, beginning year No. 8 at the Red Barn. Let’s see what really happens ahead.