The Cats of Provence: Any Space is Refuge, All Space is Dominion

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes


Villecroze, le vieux village, June 2007

Nominally, the animal for which France is best known is not the coq, the cock or rooster that is the symbol for the country. It is the dog, for which the French have a legendary abiding affection, one that transcends even that most dog-loving of countries, the United States. In the U.S., we lavishly treat our pets with an unrivaled level of fiscal imprudence. We spend money on our dogs like there’s no future. We ostentatiously display our love for our animals for all the world to see and, presumably, envy for its manifestation of our national traits of grandiosity, generosity, and publicity.

I wish to take nothing away from Americans’ love of dogs. Most dog owners are serious and sincere lovers of their animals, and they treat them accordingly to the best of their ability.

However, we have nothing on the French for their sense of inclusion, and their undemonstrative (it is unconscious, the absolute opposite of ostentatious, not to mention vulgar, that is, the depths to which some Americans stoop to provide proof of their affection) willingness to make dogs part of every aspect of their lives. In America we tolerate barriers, especially in public, to the presence of dogs where humans gather, especially for purposes of nourishing themselves, imbibing, gathering socially, bathing or any number of quotidian activities that, within the constipated American sensibility are somehow vaguely private in nature, and, being private, their violation is tantamount to spreading a disease intentionally. Hence, we treat dogs like terrorists and exclude them from the most public of places.

The most familiar example is dining. In Cambridge, dogs are even excluded from sitting with their humans when they are seated outside, at tables and chairs that occupy space that is otherwise used as a public walkway.

In France, famously, the dog is welcome wherever his human is welcome (though there is a sinister and growing countervailing sentiment at work in France and certain establishments are beginning to exclude canine guests). The one disgusting and increasingly uncontrolled consequence of the casual acceptance of dogs in the lives of the French is the universal presence of dog shit wherever you go that has paved byways. It’s a sign of the ubiquity and the otherwise unparalleled acceptance of dogs as equals. You travel the roads in rural France, and hardly out of sight are men stopped at the side of the road, relieving themselves. I suggest the nonplussed (at worst) response to dogs relieving themselves, without constraint or self-consciousness (on the part of their humans, naturally — a dog’s gotta’ do what a dog’s gotta’ do, unless they’ve been trained to do it some other way: dogs are pretty much trained about the same way the men are) is the final proof of the fundamental identity of dog and human in the French sensibility. Dogs are merely a furrier, four-footed kind of human here in La Belle France.

Hence my thesis. The real king of the roost of the animal kingdom, at least here in rural France, is the cat. Cats rule. Every village, every town, every city throughout the great southern plains and the massifs that penetrate them is overrun by felines. Cats are everywhere, untamed and untrammeled. There are two, perhaps three, types of cats in the taxonomy of the domestic feline Français.

The house cat, that most pampered of beasts, who lives with its human, and stays indoors when not allowed gingerly out to lounge for a bit in the confines of the town square, take in a little sun, warm its interior organs is readily identified. It redefines clinical obesity. It is capable of no more than a waddle so fat is this creature with overindulgence. It disports itself in aloof regal splendor, magnified by its own bulk. Its importance is increased by its sheer physical mass, like some U.S. Senators. It disdains contact, and, as the quintessence of all cat behavior displays the greatest amount of sheer ignorance of the human presence. Its human, who supplies that overabundance of provender, is tolerated.

The other two types are almost indistinguishable. If the domestic household fat cat is somebody’s, very much so and exclusively, there is usually a bevy of beasts of somewhat a less definitive status, slightly tame, slightly domesticated, and clearly very much tolerant of the human presence (as they know whereof is the source of their dried bits of baguette, of their smidgens of table scrapings, of their anonymous small piles of kibble, which appear and reappear mysteriously in various spots in every neighborhood). These are, like that poor creature, one of the characters in "West Side Story," and the only female member of the gang of Jets, known as "Anybody’s." It is likely, though I am only speculating, that one of the more favorable of this breed, usually a matter of temperament or a comely appearance, that from time to time, one of these essentially unclaimed beasts becomes a house cat, trades up as it were, exchanging a far ranging freedom for the security of an assured supply of excessive grub at all hours of the day and night, only having to tolerate immoderate displays of affection from their adoptive human, who no doubt will actually expect to make frequent and, hard as it is to say, affectionate physical contact.

I used to be cat-tolerant, at worst ambivalent, allowing myself the delusion that these "pets" were actually capable of interacting in a way that engaged at some primal level the sharing of sympathetic feeling and attraction, if not an actual mammalian emotional interdependency. I am over that now. I do not delude myself that cats are capable of anything more than looking at me, sometimes with a gaze one can be persuaded by oneself is a gaze of gentle tolerance, if not the mildest of affection, but is actually the look of a predator pondering the ease or difficulty of converting a particularly large specimen of prey into meat.

The cats that are "anybody’s" are sustained by the community. The community consists of a certain number of permanent residents who see a superfluity of small, seemingly harmless creatures, covered with fur and so with the potentiality of being the recipients of loving caresses and hence being the willing receptacles for excess amounts of expressions of human kindness (dogs are not sufficient in this regard, especially as they are, as I say, essentially a four-legged form of human that actually seeks our company, no different than another companion, of the hominid two-legged variety, and we all know how fickle and unsatisfying and unpredictable those relationships can be). So deluded these members of the community make regular, if not frequent, and continual contributions to the kitty larder, that is, the paving stones and asphalt streets, the steps and walls and alleyways of the village. Scraps and crumbs, bits and pieces, manufactured feed and leftovers appear mysteriously, and without end, in the same places.

The cats have it made. Furthermore it would seem that all that is expected of them is that they reproduce. Which they do of course. And their prolificacy is prodigious (if I may use a redundancy to describe the legendary proportions of this animal’s ability to reproduce far beyond the biblical injunction regarding fruitfulness). Just as there is an endless supply of food, from unidentifiable sources, there is an endless supply of cats to consume it. This means that at any time, there is a vast population of adults, adolescents, and kittens that abound. They work in shifts. Some lounge on cars, on terraces, tabletops, chairs, chaise longues, benches, tops of stone walls, on steps, in archways, doorways, and on window sills. There are flower pots, flower boxes, gutters, drains… In short they are everywhere, sunning themselves, scampering, playing and pawing one another. These latter activities are the speciality of the kittens who seem to know they elicit the most heartfelt response to their seeming helplessness and diminutive stature.

But one should never mistake this temporary appearance for anything more than their part in the larger strategy of keeping the food chain open and full.

The cats, from kittens to doddering elders, are of every hue and variety (I refuse, despite the insistence of zoological experts, to differentiate one "breed" from another, purely on the basis of some insignificant superficial characteristics of coloring and abundance or lack thereof of fur, its thickness and length also notwithstanding). There are calicos, and money cats, there are tabbies of every possible variation of hue, there are brindled cats, palominos, pintos, all black, and all white, and all of every color in between. In short there’s a design choice for every possible taste. Again, an unscrupulous, if not brilliant strategy, to ensure that every susceptible human will respond favorably to one of these creatures, and leave out FOOD. Which is always commonly consumed, as it is impossible to single out your favorite for exclusive feeding rights, unless you have become so susceptible as to take the rash step of bringing one of these creatures into your home so you can treat it like a favorite duck or goose whose liver needs fattening to grotesque proportions.

Finally, there are what I suspect are the only real workers, and the only really worthwhile members of the species within this taxonomy. I speak of the essentially semi-feral cats, who are, admirably, so disdainful of humans, and sufficiently honest about it, that they avoid us altogether. They are visible, if at all, at best, as skulking shadows, running in an instant the opposite way if they suspect from your regard or your posture, or your sudden change in direction as you move, that you may show the slightest interest in lessening the distance between yourself and them.

Presumably these latter subsist on the meager leavings of their more duplicitous and narcissistic cousins, and as well by hunting for their natural prey, which, as we are, after all, in the country, is lying out there in abundance. They needn’t worry about the competition from their semi-civilized brethren, and not ever at all in the least from their fully domesticated relatives who, even if the instinct bestirred them, their sheer bulk would prevent them physically from taking the proper steps, never mind a proper pounce, so as to be able to catch the odd field mouse, or chipmunk, or baby rabbit, or whatever other disgusting forms of wild rodentia they feed upon.

So there it is. The Provençal cat. Ubiquitous, unavoidable, and hence the true animal of France.

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2007June17Sunday 8:36 AM The Boys in the Band are in AARP

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a story running in the NYTimes today, entitled “The Boys in the Band are in AARP,” about how middle-aged band members, reaching back to their younger years, and still playing in their suburban garages the same raucous music that stereotypically drove their parents crazy have now entered the age of retirement. To allude to another stereotype, I must suppose that the sub-text, the ironic sub-text, is that they are supposed to be grabbing shuffle boards, or perhaps tennis rackets, not their “axes.”

The story is here on the Times site: [may require registration to be read]

I guess if we had all taken up Mozart on period instruments in our teens, we’d all now be playing chamber music in the garage, and that would still be newsworthy, but not ironic… So the irony is the news, not the revivalism. What’s wrong with people continuing to play the music they played their entire lives? Why is it news? There was a story also about "tattoo regret" in the Times today. Maybe it would be news if former rockers had gone from the Monkees to Mendelssohn on period instruments.

Not that it would have made any difference to me. All of my parents’ entreaties to take up an instrument, meaning anything from the violin to the clarinet (I did toy with the idea of the oboe—I don’t know why the oboe, but there it is, though the Mozart oboe concerto is one great piece of music) had a resounding response from me, of “NO!” Most of my friends, from the age of ten on, had among their daily dose of chores music practice, and their weekly lessons. Some of them became quite proficient. Most not, and I never hear music played but rarely by my peers, I mean what has always been called classical music. There are no jazz players, alas, but one, and only a distant acquaintance, who is a famous blues and jazz pianist whom I met through another friend, and they knew one another, anomalously, because they all lived in the suburbs (now there’s a story, “Bebop Cats have moved to Belmont”).

When I was growing up, the only music to be taken seriously was classical music, and its study was as de rigeur as soccer team play now is in the affluent suburbs of most American cities, Boston included. Jazz was played by blacks, period, who smoked something called “reefer” that made you “high,” and it was all kind of arcane and forbidden, but not in a bad way so much as it was a mystery both not to be fathomed or explored.

The nature of musical preoccupations and the playing of it, even on a voluntary basis, with enthusiasm, began to change when I entered college in the early 60s, when rock ‘n roll began to enter the mainstream with the full effect on popular culture of the wild popularity of the Beatles, and the instantly legendary stories of their start in lower-class British “skifflle bands.” It was the music almost anyone could afford to play, and anyone could learn, it was so simple, at least at the start. And for boys, there was the cachet of being in a band, and more importantly the apparent allure to women (or girls, should I say, as we were all still gawky children, fondling and groping one another experimentally even as so many boys groped and fondled their instruments in the struggle to become proficient to the point of having something called “chops”).

For me, there was still no attraction, if anything greater repulsion, to the idea of learning to play even a guitar, with the aim of plunking away at folk or rock favorites. Perhaps if the prospect of playing Scarlatti keyboard sonatas with some grace and feeling were as easy as I was told it was to learn, say, the three basic universal chords of blues, I would have rushed out with the same avidity as my friends, and bought, well what? A used Steinway baby grand? They cost a great deal more than a Harmony Stratotone, and my budget didn’t allow that, not without a severe crimp in my vinyl record spending ability. And it was a lot easier to listen to records of great musicians, and took up a lot less timedoing so than trying to attain the same proficiency, less time than it would have taken first to begin and then to dedicate myself to learning, which I knew would have required years. Also I knew, that it was almost a hopeless case for anyone more than 10 years old, even those with the magical qualities called “prodigy,” to begin to learn with the expectation of being able to play anything seriously once you were well past that age. Some do it, but they do indeed have prodigious talent, and the attainment of their skills has taken what seems to me to be super-human concentration and dedication.

Of course, most of the people I knew, and the hordes I didn’t know, but only knew of, had neither the chops nor the zeal, nor the dedication to take their show on the road and try to make in the world of professional music, for even rock and blues and folk were serious and professional once making a living at it figured into one’s intentions. Indeed I have met far more classical musicians who took that road, meeting them later in their lives. Such individuals would not have been visible in my youth, being sequestered for hours of practice and further segregated into schools or among faculties far outside the ken of ordinary youths like myself.

One did hear about those garage bands however. And it never stopped. It has fallen out that, among my male friends today, at least, there are a number of former rock musicians—not professionals mind you, but many amateurs, and even a few who, in their past, reached a crossroads and chose the more mundane path of electrical engineering, let us say, than donning a motorcycle jacket, and greasing their hair (either with pomade or by the simple expedient of never washing it and never cutting it), and playing those immortal few chords on their six- or 12-string "axes" every night at “gigs,” fending off the “chicks“ (or it was the drums, or the bass, whatever, there was an enduring quality to the sense of kinship with the music and their instruments). Now that we are all thinking about the prospect becoming old and tattered, paltry things not so very long from now, it is not surprising to see stories, especially not surprising to see ironic ones, about how the music goes on.

Nevertheless, it is not such an unusual thing that people would cling to their music. Yet I wonder, aside from what I said, that is, it’s obvious that the playing into one’s seniority is not the news—classical musicians are notable for playing continually until they keel over, into their 80s and 90s; Vladimir Horowitz, the legendary Russian pianist, who played and lived into his 80s, said the playing kept him young—why it’s news. In fact it’s common.

From the headline to this story, the allusion to ”The Boys in the Band,“ I was sure the narrative, and the point, would be about closet gays, now in late middle age, being mainstream, utterly out of the closet. The play and movie with that name dates from the same garage band era, the late 60s and early 70s, that the news story about greying amateur garage musicians still rocking on alludes to. But it is not the story, of course, but should have been. Now that would have been news.

In my youth, everyone admitted to a love of rock, and, those who could, would broadcast their involvement with the playing of it. But no one admitted to being gay. That was a true forbidden zone. It’s not news that something so ordinary and quotidian — playing music, however raggedly or with finesse — has remained so for an entire generation. It is news, however, when the verboten has become so mainstream as no longer to be noticeable. The phenomenon itself, the transformation of the extraordinary and the banished to the ordinary, if not the mundane, gives eternal hope to the prospect that what is always so hard to accept today for the mainstream will become not only acceptable, but alluring.

This Times story reaches back not quite far enough, for the true bad boy days of rockers goes back to the 50s, when the few musicians who played the evil music called rock ‘n roll, the ones who originated the greaser image and the clothing emulated by those poor British boys who made such dress common and desirable, were themselves in their 20s and even 30s way back then (when we were merely children, or none even born yet, as some AARP members can attest), which means they are well into their dotage — not into their garages — if they are not already dead. And the death of old people, who used to do things that were outrageous in their day, but are commonplace now, especially among middle class respectable people with bulging waist lines and dust bunnies on their Stratocasters, isn’t front page. Not to me. It’s not even back of the book.

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