Monthly Archives: January 2014

Weia in her favorite cuddle pose

Dogs in my life – Part 1 / Dogs 1 and 2

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.
― Milan Kundera

When I was a kid we had a German Schauzer named “Whiskers” and if you know the breed and you know how they are clipped you’ll know why. He was a little dog but he was full of spunk and stronger than an ox. He used to drag us all down the street. He was really my mom’s dog, although she wasn’t particularly fond of dogs in the first place. But we all loved him and cried when he died.

For a long time, I couldn’t have a dog. Too busy, too much moving, living in an apartment, never at home. But when my husband and I moved into a house in the country together, suddenly my desire to have a dog got really strong. I talked to Wolfgang about it and he said, “It will cost too much”, and I said, “If it’s too expensive, I will pay for everything”. He said, “We don’t have time, we’ll be tied down…” and my response was to cry and that did the trick!

I wanted to rescue a dog and so we went to animal shelters in the area. This was shortly after the law in Germany changed and you had to pay more tax to own a pitbull – yes in Germany you pay taxes on owning a dog although not on cats – and the shelter mostly had pitbulls and that kind of breed. I have nothing against terriers, etc. but I prefer long-haired dogs. There was one cute German Shepherd mix but the woman in the shelter said that we couldn’t possibly let him from the leash and that was something Wolfgang was determined to be able to do with his dog.

So we went to another animal shelter and there they didn’t seem to want to get rid of any dogs. With every dog that we named to the woman in charge, she came up with some reason why that dog couldn’t be placed. With one dog, she said it was sick and when we asked if they would call us when they knew that is was going to be ok, she said no. And when we asked if we could call to find out, she said no. We decided to try another place.

At the third shelter, they were very strict about people getting near the dogs so we had to be led around the place in a group of 6 to look at the dogs. When we finally got to the cages holding the dogs, there was one large, shining, white dog who seemed to be looking directly at us and calling to us. We weren’t allowed to get next to the cages so we could only stand several feet away and look at this beautiful creature from a distance. At the end of the tour, we were asked if we had an interest in any dog and we said we would be interested in the white one. Suddenly it was ok to get really close. Wolfgang left his ID and we took the dog for a walk.

She was big and had unbelievably soft curly fur. Her name was “Halina” at the time, a Polish name. She was so incredibly sweet, she came when we called and we fell in love immediately. We went back to the shelter and it turned out that we couldn’t take her with. I had assumed we would just pay the money and get to take her home. They told us that they would need to check our living situation before they could give her to us, which actually seemed very responsible especially because she had been returned twice already. We asked how long it would take to get an appointment and they said two weeks. I was shocked. We begged them to come earlier and they finally gave in and made an appointment within the week. That appointment only lasted 5 minutes and the next day we picked her up. We changed her name to “Weia” (pronounced like Vaya) because I was singing the Ring at the time and the song of the Rhein maidens “Weialaia, laia la laia” was ringing in my ears. It didn’t really matter, she didn’t listen to her name anyway.

She became Wolfgang’s dog. After all my drama about wanting a dog, she was much more attached to him than to me. It turned out that she was already four years old and a pure bread Kuvasz, a Hungarian herd protection dog. Her instincts told her to protect us, protect the house from any danger. We lived where sheep grazed in the field and her instincts told her that those sheep were meant to be kept in a group and so she would run towards the sheep, not realizing that they were protected by an electric fence. One time she misjudged her speed and touched her nose on the fence by accident. It took us weeks to convince her to walk that way again. She thought it was too dangerous!

She was herself somewhat dangerous. After paying a few Vet bills, we decided that we couldn’t allow her from the leash except when we were absolutely sure there was no other dogs around. She also had a knack for catching hedge hogs, grabbing them on the neck, shaking them and throwing them away. Her mouth would be full of spines but she wouldn’t stop. We tried to keep her from it but she would always find them before we saw them. Unfortunately, hedge hogs are a protected species in Germany and we had to cover up her killing as best we could.

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

She was unbelievable sweet with people though. Everybody loved Weia and she went everywhere with us. She radiated a kind of peace and love that drew people to her. Everywhere we went, people wanted to take a picture of our dog. She was always the star. Once we left her with a colleague outside of Notre Dame in Paris so we could go inside. When we came out, he was furious because more people seemed to want to take a picture of our dog than of Notre Dame. When I taught, she lay under the table in my studio all day long. I think she must have been a little deaf. When a tenor friend came to coach with Wolfgang – she especially loved men – she rolled herself around his feet and stared up at him most of the time he was singing. We used to joke that the only reason a Polish orchestra hired Wolfgang to conduct was because they all loved the dog so much. When we were there, she had free reign of all the orchestra offices backstage.

She lived till she was over 14, a “Methuselah” age for a large dog according to our Vet. In the end she had cancer in a front leg which couldn’t be operated because her back legs were weak from a nerve problem in her back. The doctor convinced us to “put her down”, something I regret doing. At the time, it seemed like what we had to do. The Vet was kind enough to come to our house, which is not usual in Germany . I asked him to because she had always been so petrified of the Vet’s office and I didn’t want her to be afraid at the end. We both held her as she drew her last breath.

I was devastated. I thought I didn’t want a dog again for a really long time. But the heart is unbelievably elastic. After only a couple months I was looking in the internet for dogs. But that is another story.

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Playing Frau Holle

The German Air

Fresh air is good if you do not take too much of it; most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Germans have a very special relationship with “air”. Air is a thing for the Germany that is measurable and recognizable, that has a “flavor” and a smell, almost like a good wine. There are many cities in Germany that have a special distinction because of their “air” that is supposed to have healing properties. Before I moved to Germany I never really thought about “air”. Maybe when the local meat packing plant was doing something that smelled bad but the “quality” of air? Went by me.

Germans can immediately notice the quality of “air” in a room and ask for the windows to be opened if they don’t find it good. I have to admit, I hardly notice it myself but I have gotten into the habit of “airing” the bedroom in the morning. I also open the window in the studio where I teach after every lesson just so that no one complains. They also “air” their bedding by hanging it out the window in the morning, something I have also taken on. One of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – who lived most of their lives in the German state of Hessen where we live – tells the story of a girl who is put through many tests. When she comes to “Frau Holle”, she has to shake the bedding out of the window and that is why it snows. When the Germans hang their bedding out the window, they sometimes say they are playing “Frau Holle”.

The other thing that Germans are obsessed about is “draft”. I never really thought about this concept before either. Draft to me was a good thing. Until I got an air conditioner, I learned to sleep with a fan on to drown out the noise of the New York streets. When I moved to Germany, I was so used to the flowing air, I bought a fan and had it on even though the nights were really quiet. When I met Wolfgang and we spent the first night together at my place he went ballistic. “How can you have that on? There is a draft!” He drove a little convertible at the time, a Mazda Miata. I found it confusing that when we had the top down, everything was all fine but when we had the top “up”, we couldn’t have the windows “down” because then there would be a “draft” and he would get a cold. It may sound crazy but I have experienced the truth that he indeed gets a cold if the windows are open in the car. Makes for hot driving in the summer since we don’t have air conditioning in the car.

Germans know no pity when it comes to “draft”. Many’s the time when riding on the train with the window open because the air conditioning didn’t work, I would be amazed that someone would come from a seat some way away and demonstratively shut the window by my head muttering the word “draft” as if that would explain being so rude. They have unbelievable antennae for such things.

But the funniest thing is that after living almost twenty years in Germany, I now feel a “draft” and ask people to shut doors or windows. I rarely open the window in the car or in the train anymore. And I may even be noticing the quality of air in some of the rooms or places I walk into. I don’t know if it is my imagination or indoctrination but there you are. Air had become a “thing” for me, too.

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Fork in the Road

Forks in the Road

Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back – Robert Frost

I got started with this because I had been thinking of the forks in the road, the choices of my life and how they have formed “the path I’m on”. Deciding not to stay at a party after meeting someone with whom I felt like I had an immediate and deep connection. Deciding to keep a promise to a student which probably contributed to my not singing an important performance at my best. Choosing to speak my mind instead of keeping my mouth shut. I can’t say that I always chose “the road less traveled by” but the choices I made have made up my life.

Of all the things that seemed to offer themselves to me as possible professions when I was in high school, I chose singing without any idea of what I was getting myself into. I chose my undergrad school because a friend from high school was going there, it wasn’t that expensive and they took me. I never tried any of the big schools or conservatories. That all seemed out of the question for what reason I am not really sure. Somehow it turned out to be exactly the right to be for me I think. I chose the grad school I applied to – and I only applied to the one – because they didn’t require an oral exam to graduate – something I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do or at least that I was too lazy to consider. I “chose” to go to Washington, D.C. after grad school because my father was against me going to New York City. Six months after he died, I moved up there.

Not long after I moved to New York, it was suggested to me that I try getting a singing job in Germany. I resisted. After about 4-5 years, the suggestion came again. Again I resisted. It felt like failure, like Germany was second best. Then I got a job in Germany from an audition in New York. At that time, I was singing regionally in the States but not that often. While I was in Germany for the first contract, I did auditions and got a second contract for the next year. While I was there singing my first Senta in the Flying Dutchman, I did an audition and got another job singing Senta. Suddenly, being, living and singing in Germany didn’t feel like failure, it felt great! Living in New York City no longer felt like something I wanted to keep doing. Lucky for me my mother was in a financial position to help me and I moved to Germany. I was there illegally at least in part but I decided to settle in Gießen where I had sung twice already. The woman who was renting the apartment recognized me from the theater and made an exception with the formalities.

Was that a “choice”? What would have been different if I had gone to Germany the very first time it was suggested, or even the second? Would my singing career been the same or different? Would I have met my husband, who is German, or would I still be searching for the right person in my life? If I hadn’t met him, would I have done what a lot of other Americans I know have done, thrown in the towel and gone back?

At times in my life, I have felt impelled, pushed, driven but not like I was making a choice even though in reality I suppose I was. I just watched a video where a scientist explained that there is no “free will”, there is no “choice”. We are responding to signals that come from somewhere inside the brain. What they don’t explain is where do the signals come from? What generates them? Is that God? Is that the “Universe” telling us what to do? Somehow the “Universe” wanted me move to Germany and here I am almost 20 years later, married, owning a house, happy. I don’t regret any of it but what how would it have been different? What would have happened if…

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View from the window

Over the Rooftops

I knew my father had done the best he could, and I had no regrets about the way I’d turned out. Regrets about journey, maybe, but not the destination.
― Nicholas Sparks

This is a shout out to Kathy Kingston Gordy whose family was our neighbors for many years. Our parents were friends, our brothers played sandlot football and we hung out together when we were young. Kathy’s dad, Clayton, was an ex-marine (Kathy tells me now he was a captain in the army). I believe he fought at Guadalcanal, one of the fiercest battles in the Pacific in World War II. He never spoke to us about his war memories but I think his time as a marine shaped him. I believe he was a strong but loving father and I know the whole neighborhood missed him when he died.

My fondest memory of Clayton Kingston is when he was up on his roof across the street. He seemed to need some help and he wanted his youngest son, Bill, to help. I think Bill was around 15 or 16 at the time and he was a big guy even then but he had no experience walking on a roof. At any rate, I couldn’t see them but I could hear them from across the street and I heard Clayton yell, “Get up on the roof, Bill!” and Bill yelled, “I can’t Dad, I can’t.” This exchange went on for a couple of minutes and then came this marine bark, “BULLSHIT BILL, BULLSHIT!” Apparently, that inspired Bill to get up on the roof because I didn’t hear anymore out of them.

The only problem about writing about this story is you can’t hear me imitate Clayton. I have told it many times to my colleagues in rehearsals and everyone has laughed, recognizing the power of that command.

There are people in Europe who have never been to America, who remember Clayton Kingston and repeat his words.

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Glass half full?

The Perfect Proverb for Today

An ageing master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. One morning, he sent him to get some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.

“How does it taste?” the master asked.

“Bitter,” said the apprentice….

The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”

As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”

“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.

“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.

“No,” said the young man. At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly.

“The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

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