Hannah Holmes – The Well-Dressed Ape

A word about the word: A “predator,” in biological terms, is an animal who kills another to eat it.  Although I kill both cows and cockroaches, I am a predator only of cows.  I, in turn, might be killed either by a whitetip shark or bad sushi, but only one of those qualifies as a predator.

The human’s peak predator is probably the crocodile. The exact number of humans that crocs eat each year is hard to pin down, because they tend to hunt in undeveloped areas where humans don’t keep detailed records. Human prey is a good choice for crocs. Our species is big enough to make a hearty meal but fee of sharp horns, claws, and teeth, and small enough to subdue quickly.  As with the other midsize animals they catch, crocs reduce human prey to bite-size pieces by biting onto a limb and rolling their entire bodies in the water until the twisted part tears free. A whole flock of crocks can feed on a single kill, with each animal latching onto a different piece and rolling until the prey disintegrates. It’s estimated they eat thousands of humans a year.

The crocodile isn’t the only reptile to view humans as prey.  The alligator is another, and so is the Komodo dragon.  Each can kill and eat humans of any size, but compared to crocodiles neither puts much of a dent in the human horde.  And then there are the fishes, sharks to be specific.  Most sharks don’t consider humans especially palatable. They might bite one if they mistake it for a flailing fish or seal, but they don’t seek humans out.  A few species, however–oceanic whitetip, great white, tiger, and bull–are happy to harvest humans.  I have seen the whitetips in action, and it’s a haunting phenomenon…

I recently encountered an insightful little piece of work at a conference. In the back of a room full of research summarized on large posters stood a psychologist from Pennsylvania State University.  His poster was deceptively simple but profound: He had combed the globe for stories of “wild beast attacks man.”  Studying 173 incidents, he concluded that humans with no tool in hand died two-thirds of the time, but those with a defensive device of any sort died only half the time.  That’s a big difference in survival rates.  It’s the kind of difference that can shove evolution rapidly in a new direction–an armed direction.  For what it’s worth, chimpanzees also use tools against snakes and other frightful animals.

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Hannah – Almond Crusted Catshark

Do not misconstrue me, Abby, there are acceptable instances of prey-offal.  Eastern Asia boasts some of the most enlightened preparations of oxtail, pigs feet, and other extremities that yon gastronomic adventurer might hope to encounter.  I, for one, shall always treasure my first encounter with ulo, that most expressive of Filipino dishes.  But crispy pig’s head aside, not all gristle is made equal.  And while our tongues are undoubtedly more nuanced than most, I’ve begun to suspect that the common man’s pallet–for all his pork chops and spare ribs awash in bottled caramel pigment number five–senses this truth.  How many receptacles of flour-coated and peanut-oiled avian can one consume before confronting it?  That tang of helplessness, that pungency of submission which no cook can disguise.  There is no hiding the taste of a prey animal.  You chuckle, Henry!  And well you might, God knows we’ve all seen you try!

Of course, and let there be no mistake, humans are also prey animals.  When one is walking alone in the woods and a stick breaks, one’s ears whip one’s head to engage one’s eyes in the search, and one stands as if frozen.  Adrenaline swirls in one’s blood to fuel a superhuman flurry of action, should one need to flee or fight.  One’s pupils dilate, to snare every photon’s worth of information.  If I surprise a deer in the woods, her reaction is the same.  This is the biological imperative of prey.

And on the note of color and shape, I direct your eyes to our centerpiece, which should be kept understated and with no more than one contrasting color.  Oh, and before I forget it, tonight’s menu.

Arugula with diced apples and almond crusted Catshark

Spring black bear steak with a Portobello demi glace accompanied with saffron risotto

Rhubarb tart

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.