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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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)

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.

Richard Rodda – Ludwig van Beethoven: Der Hammerklavier

Beethoven’s younger brother, Caspar Carl, a bank clerk of modest success in Vienna, died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1815. Though Caspar seems to have lived with her contentedly, his wife, Johanna, was a woman of sullied reputation whom the composer characterized as “wicked and vicious…The Queen of the Night.” Beethoven felt that she was unfit to rear the couple’s nine-year-old child, Karl, and he persuaded his brother to name him as the boy’s guardian. Two days before he died, Caspar Carl included this provision in his will. During the following hours, however, he had misgivings about taking Karl from his mother, and added a codicil that, in effect, named his wife and brother as co-guardians, thereby contradicting the earlier provision.

Thus ensued nearly five years of bitter legal battles between Beethoven and Johanna over the custody of Karl, who was mired in misery all the while by the unsettled state of his young life. The case was first decided in Beethoven’s favor in February 1816. Johanna instituted subsequent proceedings (usually after Karl had fled to her from the smothering attentions of his uncle), and the courts again formally took up the matter in 1818. Litigation dragged on for the next two years. The eventual settlement in 1820 was painful for Beethoven, even though he won the suite.

The proceedings also revealed that he was without noble ancestors, a lifelong belief that he held tenaciously until it was publicly exploded in court. With declining health, shattered hearing, and family turmoil sapping so much of Beethoven’s energy during that time, it is little wonder that half decade was the least productive period of his creative life…the only major works he completed were the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte and the piano sonata in B-flat, the Hammerklavier.

(…)

The Hammerklavier Sonata is epic in scale yet inexhaustibly subtle in detail. Its four movements– a sonata-form Allegro with a cantabile second theme, a scherzo with a contrasting central trio in quick duple meter, an Adagio in sonata form of almost unparalleled sublimity, and a vast fugue that employs virtually every contrapuntal technique–encompass and bring into balance an enormous range of emotional states that find no counterpart in mere words. Opposites are here joined. The sonata contains the broadest slow movement that Beethoven ever wrote, as well as one of his most minutely realized fugues; the work is firmly rooted in traditional formal procedures, yet seeks constantly to break their fetters; those who perform the Hammerklavier must bring to it both the physical endurance of an athlete and the most exalted interpretative skills of the artist.

(…)

 

T.R.Pearson – A Short History of a Small Place

He said Everet Little, the jailer’s boy, was riding the iron gate in and out of the yard and half the town was standing up snug against the fence watching her jig on the lawn and cut capers on the oak stump where the geraniums should have been.  She danced as tireless and light as a child all across the yard and up onto the stump and off again, and she brought the hem of the bedsheet up under her nose and played out what Daddy called the siege of Thebes, taking all of the voices herself and making the likes of a swordfight by beating together a hickory branch and a piece of a staub.  Folks were quiet, he said, and polite and they leaned up easy against the fence with their forearms through the palings and their faces drained of most every expression except for an unexcited and slightly critical strain of curiosity like they were seeing something they’d expected, maybe even paid for.

He said every so often she’d break off whatever she was in the middle of, be it swordplay or some puffed up oration on the agony of kingliness, and she’d work her arms up and down, quivering them in the air, and say, “Putrefaction, putrefaction, sniff it on the breeze, ripeness and death,” and Daddy said her voice was all shaky and inhuman.  It sounded ghostly, he said, and a little ominous too, so people obliged her by sniffing and snorting and got for their trouble the stink of the Dan River Paper Mill, which Daddy said was slightly more potent than a pile of carcasses.

Daddy said he didn’t imagine anybody sent after Sheriff Burton but that he had probably seen the crowd from his courthouse window and had come nosing in on his own.  He was a man who was fond of paraphernalia, Daddy said, and as he edged his way toward the gate he used his arms to clear out a berth for his pistol butt and the shaft of his nightstick.  He had a badge on his hat and a badge on his shirt pocket and a badge in a wallet on his left hip, and Daddy said he was dripping with bullets, festooned with them, he said.

Daddy said Sheriff Burton’s first official act was to tell Everet Little gates weren’t made to be swung on, and Daddy said that cowed Everet some and he stepped down onto the sidewalk where he made out to be enchanted with the workings of the latch. Miss Pettigrew was fresh off her stump, he said, and had just recently set out on a high-stepping tour of the front lawn which Daddy imagined was meant to serve as a kind of airy distraction from the ponderous and dismal goings on at Thebes. Sheriff Burton went after her, he said, chased her down along the side-yard, across the front of the house, up the walkway, and then back along the fence where Daddy said folks watched the two of them go by with the same sort of detached and curious expressions as before except for the hint of merriment, and he said the good money was on Miss Pettigrew who was pulling away from the sheriff with her bedsheet sailing and popping behind her.

Aside from being naturally soft and mealy, Daddy said Sheriff Burton was probably a little too much encumbered with the implements of law enforcement to have the chance of being nimble. He couldn’t take half a step without the leather creaking and the metal jangling, and when he tried to run, Daddy said he was extremely musical and put himself in some peril what with all of his free-swinging attachments threatening to beat him senseless. So he drew up short alongside of the fence, Daddy said, and took hold of his knees while he waited for Miss Pettigrew to sprint back around to him. This was an unpopular tactic with the crowd who considered it shameful enough for their sheriff to have been beaten in a footrace by a woman nearly twice his age and saw no call for him to become unsporting in defeat and humiliate himself further. So when he latched onto Miss Pettigrew’s arm as she tried to dash by him, Sheriff Burton had to suffer what Daddy called public ignominy.