Hannah – Bolero Magnets

Magnates, for instance, enjoy simple relationships.  A magnet is either attracted or repelled by the company of another.  In accordance with these feelings, they will either pull forcefully together or push in opposite directions as quickly as possible.  Magnates follow laws of electrical currents and elementary particles; no further interpretation is needed.

Superficially, this behavior resembles Bolero ballroom dance (in its most Spanish form).   Which explains why Ira and Lakshit were drawn together, but only initially.  The resemblance, as I said, is superficial.  In most ways people and magnates are dissimilar, as Ira and Lakshit demonstrated.

Lakshit studied physics at the University of Madras, where he learned (for he paid attention) that magnetism will only weaken when a combination of stray electromagnetic fields and heat destabilizes its alignment.  This is a slow process.  For example, a samarium-cobalt will withstand roughly 700 years of this strain before decreasing to half strength.  Lakshit remained faithful to Ira for seven months; during that time Lakshit and Ira were Bolero partners.  When Ira called from their sofa, “Lakshit! Who will you dance with tonight?” she ended her question with a sneeze.

“I’m not going tonight,” he replied.  “You are sick, so I am going to study.”

“You are sure? I don’t mind if you go.”

“That is something you and I do together.”

This was not the first lie that Ira told Lakshit; she did in fact mind if he went to dance without her.  She enjoyed those hours on the worn wood of the studio floor, when she faced the mirror over Lakshit’s shoulder and saw her hand rest on his waist just so and her heels snapped when she moved.  She felt she possessed him most powerfully, most femininely in those moments.

This was the first lie that Lakshit told Ira; he was in fact going to dance with another student in his physics department.  After they danced, Lakshit would follow her to an apartment and they would make love and talk about music and traveling to Spain someday to see the bulls.  When he left, Lakshit felt a pang of betrayal: Was it really so bad that Ira held so tightly to him when they were together, so that he must drag rather than glide with her on the worn wood of the studio floor?  And he felt a longing to revert: revert from his own reversion.  He turned at the door and announced to his new lover that this could never happen again.

But people do not follow laws of electrical currents and elementary particles, and if we betray X, for whom we betrayed Y, it does not necessarily follow that we have placated X.  The first inversion is irreparable.  It calls forth a chain reaction of further reversions, each of which takes us farther and farther away from the point of our original betrayal.

Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs, but if they meet when they are older, like Franze and Sabina, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.  If I were to make a record of all Sabina and Franz’s conversations, I could compile a long lexicon of their misunderstandings.  Let us be content, instead, with a short dictionary.

WOMAN

Being a woman is a fate Sabina did not choose. What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure.  Sabina believed that she had to assume the correct attitude to her unchosen fate.  To rebel against being born a woman seemed as foolish to her as to take pride in it.

During one of their first times together, Franz announced to her, in an oddly emphatic way, “Sabina, you are a woman.” She could not understand why he accentuated the obvious with the solemnity of Columbus who had just sighted land. Not until later did she understand that the word “woman,” on which he had placed such uncommon emphasis, did not, in his eyes, signify one of the two human sexes; it represented a value. Not every woman was worthy of being called a woman.

But if Sabina was, in Franz’s eyes, a woman, then what was his wife, Marie-Claude? More than twenty years earlier, several months after Franz met Marie-Claude, she had threatened to take her life if he abandoned her. Franz was bewitched by the threat. He was not particularly fond of Marie-Claude, but he was very much taken with her love. He felt himself unworthy of so great a love, and felt he owed her a low bow.

He bowed so low that he married her. And even though Marie-Claude never recaptured the emotional intensity that accompanied her suicide threat, in his heart he kept its memory alive with the thought that he must never hurt her and always respect the woman in her. It is an interesting formulation. Not “respect Marie-Claude,” but “respect the woman in Marie-Claude.” But if Marie-Claude is herself a woman, then who is that other woman hiding in her, the one he must always respect? The Platonic ideal of a woman, perhaps?

When he was twelve, his mother had found herself alone, abandoned by Franz’s father. The boy suspected something serious had happened, but his mother muted the drama with mild, insipid words so as not to upset him. The day his father left, Franz and his mother went into town together, and as they left home Franz noticed that she was wearing a different shoe on each foot. He was in a quandary: he wanted to point out her mistake, but was afraid he would hurt her. So during the two hours they spent walking through the city together he kept his eyes fixed on her feet. It was then he had his first inkling of what it means to suffer.

Casey – Earth Below

After the eruption of Vesuvius, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried under 25 meters of volcanic ash. Nothing more was known of it again until 1599. While digging an underground channel to divert the river Sarno, a group of workers ran into some ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. They called in the architect Domenico Fontana to examine the findings; Fontana unearthed several more frescoes, richly detailed, the colors still vibrant. After a few hours of careful examination, he ordered that the frescoes be reburied, bribed the workers to keep quiet, and never said anything else about them. The ruins of Pompeii were not touched again until their second rediscovery in 1738, during the construction of a summer palace for the King of Naples.


Whenever people ask me why I like to hide the wild mushrooms, I tell them about the architect Domenico Fontana, and his extraordinary sense of beauty. Except that no one will ever rediscover, for a second time, my buried wild mushrooms. They will rot back into the earth. Maybe, after many rains, other mushrooms will grow on top of them. And if I am still alive, I will bury those, too.

I have nothing against eating mushrooms. I quite enjoy them actually, especially the short plump ceps in a nice buttery sauce, the way my grandmother used to cook them. When I was a child, I would go hunt for mushrooms with my grandfather in the forest. He liked the Lions Manes and the Oysters best of all. He knew which ones were poisonous: the Flying Agaric, with their bright red caps and round white spots, were easy to identify.  He knew the difference between Shaggy Parasols and Green-Spored Parasols, between Chanterelles and Jack-o’Lanterns, between White Buttons and Destroying Angels–to me the most beautiful of all the mushrooms. Later I would go out alone and pick the poisonous ones. I kept them in big glass jars on my windowsill.

Of course here in this scruffy flat green square of a park, walled in on every side, there aren’t nearly as many mushrooms as in the forests of my childhood, but every now and then I’ll spot one, and, under heavily armed guard as always, I bring over my trowel and my little sack of dirt, and I cover up the mushroom. In the summer, after heavy rains, I look for mushrooms to bury up to three hours a day–the maximum time I am allowed to be outdoors. The strange thing is that I don’t enjoy covering up the mushrooms. I would much rather dry them and put them in jars for the winter (they would have to be plastic jars, I suppose.) Truth be told, often, once I am done covering up the wild mushroom with fresh dirt, I feel like I am at a funeral, and I become very sad. But that it why it must be done.

Mario Bellatín – The Beauty Parlor

Some years ago, my interest in aquariums inspired me to decorate my beauty parlor with different colored fish. Now that it has been transformed into a Death Ward, where those who have nowhere else to die come to end their days, it’s been very hard on me to watch the fish disappear, little by little.  Maybe the tap water has too much chlorine, or perhaps I do not have enough time to give them proper care.

I began with Guppies. The people in the pet store assured me that they were the hardiest fish and therefore the easiest to breed. (…) My co-workers didn’t approve of my fondness for fish. They said they brought bad luck. But I did not pay them the slightest attention and went along acquiring new aquariums and all the necessary gadgets that go with them. I bought little oxygenating motors that looked like treasure chests forgotten on the bottom of the sea. I also found some motors in the the shape of scuba divers whose air tanks constantly blew tiny bubbles. Once I attained a certain degree of control over the Guppies, I took a chance with more difficult fish. I was quite taken with Golden Carp. (…) In the pet store I learned that in some cultures, the mere contemplation of Carp was considered a pleasure. The same thing started happening to me. I could spend hours admiring how the light reflected off their scales and fins. Later someone told me that this was a foreign kind of entertainment.

What isn’t entertaining in the least, however, is the ever increasing number of people who have come to my beauty parlor in order to die. Now it’s not just friends in whom the sickness is advanced; the majority are strangers who have nowhere else to die. Their only alternative would be to perish on the streets. But back to the fish, at one time I managed to have dozens of aquariums decorating the salon. There were suitably small aquariums for the pregnant females, whom I would later move to other tanks to prevent them from devouring their young as soon as they were born. Now that I too am sick, only empty aquariums remain. Except for one, in whose interior I try my best to keep something alive.(…)

It’s interesting to see how fish can influence one’s mood. When I first got into Golden Carp, aside from the sense of peace I felt while watching them, I would always look for something gold to wear when I went out at night dressed as a woman–a scrunchy, some gloves, or one of the miniskirts I liked to wear on such occasions. I thought that wearing something gold might bring me luck. Maybe keep me from running into the Goat Killer Gang who roamed the downtown neighborhoods. They beat lots of people to death, but I think  it was even worse for those who got out alive. The hospitals insulted them, and often they didn’t let them in at all for fear of infection. But back to the fish, I soon got bored with only having Guppies and Golden Carp.(…) I wanted something colorful, but also something lively, so that I could spend my free time watching them chase each other or hide among the aquatic plants that I had distributed on the multicolored stones that lined the aquarium floor.

(My translation)

Hannah – The Beast of Gevaudan

The sun made the circular gates gleam, he thought, like polished silver.  The platform wasn’t rotating; it wouldn’t budge until the first cows were loaded at five minutes to six, but he stopped to admire, as he did every morning, it’s sterile, gleaming precision. He found his milking parlor beautiful; sometimes he was moved to tears at the sight of a full twenty-three cow load rotating ‘round its ghost-quiet motor.  “Wilhelm Gevaudan is a 20th century man, and he runs a 20th century dairy farm.” Wilhelm had never actually heard that said about him or his work, but, entering his office, he imagined it was the kind of thing people thought.

He enjoyed running his farm, and contributing, in his way, to developments in farming equipment and agricultural science.  His rotating dairy parlor might be labelled an oddity by shorter-sighted farmers, but it made him a member of the scientific community.  That was meaningful, that was substantive.  He knew that his colleagues at the Dairy Science Conference found it (and him) a little unorthodox, but he believed that they were secretly pleased to have in him a rock of unwavering principle.

He was not an amateur, or like many of his neighbors who were farmers because their fathers had farmed, because they had been born to it.  Wilhelm’s nail beds tingled, as they tended to when he grew excited, and for a panicked moment he glanced at his desk calendar, made special note of the date.  Reassured, he sipped his morning chamomile and sifted through yesterday’s mail.

Was it wrong to feel pride for building as he had built? For starting as he had started, the proverbial stranger in a strange land?   He didn’t listen any longer to the rumors he would once have overheard: that there was something wrong with him designing his dairy farm the way he had designed it.  That locals speculated poor production volume.  He had long given up his last remnants of uncertainty, which at one time, like flies on a carcass, could be scattered by the slightest wind, and would buzz inside him, cause him to clench his fists, knuckles white and bulbous, against his head.  Something had calmed the swarm; he liked to think it was the smooth, circulating breeze, generated from the turning wheels of his milking parlor.  The flies never flared up now. No, he never thought of it at all.

Mary Gordon – Eleanor’s Music

How she loved her mother! Still perfectly beautiful at eighty-six. The only concession she’d made to her age was a pair of hearing aids. “My ears,” she called them. Everything her mother touched she touched carefully, and left a little smoother, a little finer for her touch. Everything about her mother reminded her of walking through a glade, from the chestnut rinse that tinted what would be bright white hair, to the shadings of her clothes. Each garment some variety of leaf tone: the light green of spring with an underhint of yellow, the dark of full summer, occasionally a detail of bright autumn — an orange scarf, a red enamel brooch. Wool in winter cotton in summer; never an artificial fiber next to her skin. What she didn’t understand, she often said, was a kind of laziness, which in the name of convenience in the end made more work and deprived one of the small but real joys. The smell of a warm iron against damp cloth, the comfort of something that was once alive against your body. She was a great believer in not removing yourself from the kind of labor she considered natural. She wouldn’t own a Cuisinart or have a credit card. She liked, she said, chopping vegetables, and when she paid for something, she wanted to feel, on the tips of her fingers, on the palms of her hands, the cost.

Some people might have considered these things crotchets or affectations, but Eleanor considered them an entirely admirable assertion of her mother’s individuality. As she considered her father’s refusal to step outside their Park Avenue apartment without a jacket and tie, regardless of the heat of the day or the informality of the occasion.

She knew that many people thought it odd, to say nothing of unhealthy, for her to be living with her parents at the age of fifty-one. “Health,” said her father, “is the new orthodoxy. The new criterion by which we are judged of the fold or outside it. In the old days, they just tested people by trying to drown them, and if they survived they were allowed back in the community. But that’s too good for the health nags.”

And of course there was Billy. People thought it was peculiar that she should choose to be such close friends with her ex-husband, as they thought it was peculiar that she lived with her parents. But she was proud of that as well; she considered the shape of her life not peculiar, but original; she lived as she liked; real courage, she believed, was doing what you believed in, however it appeared.

He had come to her, weeping, confessing that his problems in bed with her had nothing to do with her, or with him, for that matter: it was just the way he was; he had fallen in love with Paul, and realized for the first time the way he had always been, the way he had always been made, what he had been afraid of, had repressed, but could no longer. Because love had come his way.

“Love,” she had said, as if she’d just picked up, between two fingers, an iridescent, slightly putrefying thing. “And what do you call what we have for each other, devotion, loyalty, shared interests, shared valued, joy in each other’s company, what do you call that if not love?”

She didn’t say, “Don’t you know that I would die for you,” because although she meant it, she didn’t want to mean it, and certainly, she would never say it. It sounded too operatic. Opera was the center of both their lives, she as a singer, he as an accompanist, but she had no interest in living at the intense, excessive temperatures opera suggested.

Casey – Woldemar Schumann: Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume

Schumann’s intense musical sensibility was often felt by his companions as an intense irritability. In Vienna, he depended financially upon a group of bohemian admirers whose rowdy lifestyle further destabilized him, prompting violent outbursts as well as long periods of near-catatonic depression. Alienating–or alienated by–his friends, in January of 1834 Schumann abandoned the capital for the small town of Mariazell, where he took on the modest job of organist in the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.   

Accustomed to the lively musical and theatrical world of 1830s Vienna, Schumann had trouble adapting to the life of a small-town church musician. He began drinking heavily, and in letters he often complained about the Kappelmeister, whom the composer described as “unpleasant, like a lizard, or a prison guard.” Upon arriving drunk to a mass one morning, so the legend goes, Schumann got into a fight with the cantor, and in the resulting tussle fell from the organ loft down into the pews below. Remarkably, his only injury was a broken arm, but this still left him unable to perform. The Baroness Wertmuller, a sympathetic parishioner vaguely aware of Schumann’s musical talents, offered him the use of a summerhouse on her estate while he convalesced. It was there that Schumann composed, without the use of any instrument, the Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume (the Life Cycle of a Marigold).

The sonata begins with a berceuse in lilting compound time, growing steadily from an andante to an adagio before bursting open, unexpectedly and yet inevitably, into the celebrated rhapsody of the second and central movement. The liberal use of glissando and varying intonations achieve a lively, vitalistic effect whose alterations of key prevent any one emotional tone from taking primacy. (In his notes, Schumman specified that the sonata ought to be played in late summer, at 5 in the afternoon.) The dramatic contrasts of the piano find balance only in the tripling accompaniment of the flute, the true obligatto of the piece. The codetta brings together elements of the nocturne–a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment–with the flute assuming an almost percussionary role, meant to evoke, wrote Schumann, the movement of fireflies or the chirping of crickets at twilight.

The Ringelblume is a sonata a dúo. To achieve its complex and tenuous harmonies, pianist and flutist will generally have performed together for many years. Schumann, who would live the remainder of his brief life alone in Mariazell, never performed the piece himself; indeed, it is doubtful that he ever heard it played at all.