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Animal Review for January 25
Four Kinds |
 January 7
|  January 21


Four Kinds


This morning as I put on my hat, preparing to go shopping, I looked out the window and saw a bird. Then I saw another bird, etc. In the end, I saw four kinds. The birds were close to me, and close together, framed in the square window like a diorama in the Museum of Natural History. There are no birdfeeders where I live -- they were all just casually going about their business in the same two square meters for the sake of biodiversity.


The first I would call "song sparrow." A song sparrow is an American sparrow with a bit of pink on its head. The German version, as baptized by me, had a pinkish chest. I remember my initial dismay when I learned that there is more than one kind of sparrow. Theoretically they could all interbreed and have fertile offspring and achieve mutual understanding in a glorious sparrow "melting pot," but they don't, as they speak different languages and have different ideas about real estate. It seems to me if you divided people this way you would get six or eight different species in Tuebingen alone.


The second was a "possible cowbird." The cowbird is an East coast songbird, large, slender and deep brown, who says, "Moo!" The window was closed, so I don't know what the German one says.


The third bird was magnificent, fascinating, sickly stunning and made me wish for a video camera. Its color was the perfect non-color: the gray that is neither gray nor brown, a color devoid of warmth, of coolness, of clarity, and of every other property. Its beak was a bit darker, the shadow of a shadow, and on its head was a red spot that cannot be described as properly red. It was a woodpecker, but instead of perching and jabbing like a proper woodpecker, it seemed to cling, creep and wriggle. Woodpeckers usually sit as erect and move as stiffly as though they were made of tin and you could wind them up with keys. This one stayed very close to the tree, and each tiny jump forward was accompanied by a diving motion of the head that sent a ripple through the entire body. The body was round, so densely feathered it suggested heaviness and flesh. I could swear I saw whiskers, as on the notorious whippoorwill. I hereby christen this bird the "writhing softball woodpecker."


The fourth was a "magpie," which might really be its name, if I have correctly understood the English novelists. I think a magpie is supposed to be a sort of colorful crow. This one was black and white. There's also a sort with blue, which might be the real magpie, unless a magpie is really a sort of jay..

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It's strange (or maybe not) that in all my years of writing animal reviews I never mentioned my career in taxidermy. It was around 1974 when my elder brother mounted a rabbit that had been killed expressly for the purpose. It looked pretty bad and was quickly suppressed.


As is well known, all children are drawn to kitsch and bad taste, but I like to think I was an exceptional child, at 11 already inhabiting a nebulous inner space where fastidiousness and a native lust for the extreme swirled in an endless dialectic yin-yang. The terms change, but the pattern lives on in every overwritten sentence, such as the one preceding this. My hamster, Pup, died, and although taxidermy textbooks strongly recommend the Eastern Grey Squirrel as a first project (its skin is thick and strong), there was no way on God's earth I was going to kill a squirrel, so I put Pup in the freezer and bided my time until I was ready for stage 1: Skinning.


It was the side porch, a warm day, a scalpel, and before me the body of Pup, who had lived too long, until his or her teeth were loose. I touched Pup with the blade again and again, pressing a tiny bit harder each time, turning my head and closing my eyes. After a while I realized I was not going to be penetrating Pup's belly with a scalpel anytime soon, so I fetched scissors. For some reason with scissors I was able to snip Pup right open, and then the scalpel was just the thing for peeling the skin off his/her raw, red corpse.


To mount a mammal, you need the feet (still attached, with the bone scraped bare) and the skull. There's a family story about the skull: I boiled it in a saucepan, and according to my mother, that was the last time my father ever looked into a pot to see what was for dinner. The smell that arose from the cloud of steam was unique and disgusting. You'd never think such a strong smell could come from such a tiny brain.


And soon afterwards, Pup was finished, an eyeless, balding monster stalking who knows what prey across a tiny rectangle of bare plywood. His skeleton was of wire, padded with a sort of wooden wool called "Excelsior." The pose was "hamster walking." Pound for pound, Grzimek tells us, the hamster is the most aggressive mammal in nature. Within days all Pup's hair was gone. I had forgotten to salt the skin. I remembered borax, so no flies came. S/He dried all crisp and glossy.


I looked through a taxidermists' catalog for suitable eyes. Strangely enough, hamster eyes were not on offer, but round black push pins did the trick.


The horror of what I had done was not lost on me, and I tucked the hairless spectre into a small cardboard box, took it to school, and hid it in a supply closet, thinking even then what an interesting surprise someone would have, possibly years after I had left school. Maybe I got credit for it -- I'm sure there was a report, too, scribbled in blue ball-point. My first report ("Ballistics"), typed on onion-skin thesis paper, had raised suspicions of parental involvement, so I had resolved to aim lower and in fact have succeeded to this day.


I've retailed the following fact again and again, but no one ever believes it: There is no such thing as a stuffed fish. A big marlin hanging on the wall is nothing more than a 1:1 model of a big marlin someone once caught. You can recycle occasional fins or teeth, but a fish, as is clear to anyone who's ever eaten one, isn't a sack of discrete organs hanging in a bag. You can't peel it -- the skin rips, the scales fall off, the colors fade, and in the end you're stuck dabbing bright colors on plaster with a brush. After all these years, I hardly believe it myself.

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Animal Review for January 21
Absence of Goldfish | Lack of slugs 


Absence of Goldfish


I went walking again on the Schlossberg, hoping to see the goldfish. A dusting of snow had fallen. It lay like frost in the shadows and clung to the thin shoots of bushes. The air was filled with moisture and warm from the sun.


Until I went for my walk (around 1:30, I think) I hadn't even looked outside, so the snow surprised me. Other more alert citizens had jumped right on it, and the paths through the woods were trampled wide with many footprints. Families, couples, and a few solitary wanderers circulated in random spirals over the well-used trails, so that I kept seeing the same people over and over. As one young couple approached me, I reached suddenly into my pocket, pulled out a little square of toilet paper, and blew my nose. The couple passed me, then stopped and turned around. "By any chance might you have a Kleenex?" the woman called out politely.


"That was my only one," I said. "It must have been ESP. I've been walking for a long time without thinking of my nose, but as soon as I saw you, I thought, 'I could blow my nose now.'"


A few hundred yards beyond them, a beautiful girl was getting a dance lesson from a possible Cuban.


I ran head on into the same rather appealing young man three times -- a challenge, even in such a labyrinth.


But the goldfish -- I mean its absence -- was right where it had always been, concealed under an inch-thick layer of opaque, grainy ice and snow. I hunted around for a stick, thinking to break the ice and see the fish. (I couldn't break the ice with my boots because it was on the other side of a fence.) I found a dead branch and jabbed at the ice over and over, hammering but getting nowhere. When I stopped the hammering continued, behind me. A woodpecker was scampering in slow motion over the dead crown of a tree, thrusting his beak into its heart with intense force, speed and concentration. He had a head like a kingfisher with red earmuffs, and many piebald alternations of black and white. There were two more red spots on his shoulders, and he had a red rear below, like the Israeli "yellowbutt" (I had to invent names for Israeli birds, because I never cared what they were really called, except for the wonderful Duchifat and the unassuming but very A.-of-Z. Nachlieli) or Burroughs' "purple-assed baboon," only red.


My names for Israeli birds were for my own consumption, so they weren't especially clever. The only good name was "flit," a tiny pale-fawn bird with a long, perky tail. It lived in hedgerows and called out, "Squeak!" The Duchifat seems to enjoy the lifestyle of an American robin while appearing 1,000 times more beautiful. On its head is a circular crest with a pattern of radiating stripes that it can raise like a flag. When it flies, its wings flash like a mockingbird's. To be perfectly honest, I also knew the names of Snunit (swallow), Schachaf (seagull), and Dror (sparrow): Snunit because Avner and I once saw huge numbers of them swooping like panicked fish over downtown Tel Aviv, Schachaf because I knew people on Shachaf Street, one of whom was named Dror.


The woodpecker threw his head into the wood with inspiring directness and gravity a hundred times, and then he seemed to have found something, which he swallowed after a brief pause to ask himself something -- I don't know -- maybe what kind of worm it was, or what he had done to deserve to eat it.

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Lack of Slugs


I went to a party in Fichtehaus, one of the big dorms on my street. My friend who lives there has pet slugs. I arrived ridiculously early, hoping to be introduced. He did not disappoint me. We mounted many stairs into the warm upper layers of Fichtehaus, and there he turned his key in the door and let me into his jungle dressing room.


That is, I didn't see anything but a large clothes rack, a welter of plants in varying stages of disrepair, skylights, and on the floor in front of me, a plate of kiwi-fruit skins, lettuce, and transparent slime. "It's too cold for them," he said, searching the floor for signs of life. He showed me which potted plant he thinks is their HQ. In summer they were very active, swarming all over the room and leaving silvery trails everywhere but (he likes to think) his bed. In winter they only come out around 8 p.m. to eat. It was 10:30, and they had already called it quits. He pointed to a book with a matte black cover, over which they had crawled so much that it had developed an artistic pattern of interweaving silver lines. The book lay on the floor next to the plate, as though my friend had not dared touch it since realizing how beautiful it had become.


He did not acquire his slugs voluntarily. They appeared one day, and since it is unlikely that they made it up all those stairs, he assumes they came in potting soil. He admits that they bothered him for the first couple of days. I know that some of my readers will be thinking at this point, "Germans are totally fucking weird," but really, he's the only one keeping slugs, to my knowledge.


Fichte was a not-particularly-contemporary philosopher from some century or another. His Haus has some connection to Rudolf Steiner and the anthroposophical movement, about which I know nothing, although I suspect it of yea-saying pseudo-scientific popular crankiness a la Swedenborg or Mary Baker Eddy. My friend with the slugs bought a four-volume set of Madame Blavatsky for the Fichtehaus library, and fully expects to have his $50 reimbursed. Fichtehaus parties are known for the ease and frequency with which couples perform intricate dances in pairs. A young man (motionless, with a comforting beer in his hand) from Bremerhaven described with horror how middle-class 13-year-olds there are made to dance in pairs; the trauma lasts a lifetime, and they never touch-dance again. My finishing school didn't feature Cotillion, but rather a club called "Juanitas" where we learned to bump and grind to "Brick House" and "Cocaine." At 1:00 my acquaintances took over as DJs, and then I hopped and writhed like a stripper (but modestly, as befits a stripper no longer in her first youth) until 3:30.  I forgot about the slugs.  The music, which had been God-awful, improved.  One offering from Eminem did nothing to discredit my thesis that Europeans enjoy listening to really nasty, unpleasant hiphop merely because they don't understand it.  "I'm gonna fucking kill you," the singer told me again and again, in a pinched, bitter, whining voice until I begged my acquaintances to play something else.

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Animal Review for January 7
The Goldfish  | Siddhartha


The Goldfish 


I took a walk with the Aesthetician of Zionism. We stopped in a grassy lane to admire a goldfish. I had never noticed it before, but in the dull, brown surroundings of a wet winter day, it glowed conspicuously.  As we approached the fence it ducked under a leaf. Its pond, about six square feet, was also home to several water lilies.


"I think there's another fish in there," said the A. of Z.


I looked but didn't see any fish at all, not even the first fish. I imagined the other fish, a large rainbow trout, and was satisfied. It reminded me of sitting next to a creek near Taos one day two springs ago. The creek was lovely, but so consistently light grey and dark green that I began to fantasize about fat, heavy pink-and-yellow flowers that would drop from bushes upstream and glide towards Taos, dragging a diaphanous network of roots through the water and eventually ripening into soccer-ball-sized pine-cone-type objects that would give birth to immense cycads somewhere on the lower Rio Grande. In other words, I was bored out of my mind. I mean, I wasn't bored one bit looking at invisible goldfish with the A. of Z., but I was terribly bored in a pristine natural setting 3,000 miles from the nearest acquaintance. I even saw a ground squirrel on a sunny creek bank, but I didn't care. They say squirrels have complex and challenging family lives, and I'm sure if they could talk they would entertain us with hair-raising stories of passion and betrayal, but they can't. I have come to realize that what really interests me is essentially gossip. I look constantly for evidence that this makes me just like everyone else, or rather, that it makes me just like certain really smart people and talented artists (it's clear that it doesn't do much to distinguish me from the masses). I.e., I take comfort in the fact that Kubrick's last film was about dopey orgies, and that Marcel Duchamp spent his last years modeling a life-sized naked babe out of wax. "The other stuff was a cover," they seem to be saying. "It all boils down to sex." Or maybe, "Now that I'm nearly done being alive, I have to admit that sex was my favorite thing about it." But sadly, the truth about humanity is also its lowest common denominator, plus it's plain as day. What can the artist add to the accurate portrait of the truth most of us offer with flashing neon explicitness every other minute, besides fussiness and indirection? Of course delicacy and hesitation can be very nice, and a picturesque setting adds a certain charm.


We slid and stumbled through the red mud. Long blades of bright green grass lay tousled and crumpled in pools of milky slime, while the hills opposite seemed close enough to touch or infinitely far away, depending on how you squinted. On the way back, we took the paved road.

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Siddhartha or, Sweetness and Decency


[I wrote this on Christmas day, but hesitated to publish it for reasons that will quickly become obvious. - ed.]


I first saw him at the deli counter. (I'm attempting to write this while listening to The Association's "Songs That Made Them Famous" -- an advanced literary experiment; in case of its failure, please excuse any lapses in style.) Wait -- it fails already; struggling to find a phrase to describe Siddhartha's demeanor while buying cheese, I began to find the music distracting, and turned it off.


Siddhartha stood at the counter, peering at the cheese, for a long time. Finally he saw which cheese is least expensive. He ordered a vanishingly small amount of young gouda, in one piece please, not sliced. The counterperson heaved the cheese into the machine and prepared to shave his order from its margins.  "Please, I need a piece, not a slice," he explained earnestly. "I want to grate it." I was so delighted I could have clapped my hands. How darling it is when young people, fresh to the world, receive their first impressions of a universe unmediated by their mothers! Siddhartha was helpless, but he didn't feel helpless -- he felt like a thwarted prince.


Later he stood behind me in the checkout line with his noodles, his tomato, his onion, and his slice of cheese, counting his change. "You could just cut it into strips with a knife," I pointed out. He didn't react. He wore neat, expensive clothes and had lamb-like, radiant, curling, golden hair. His skin was pale as a baroque angel's, touched with pink. He was as righteous and fragile as Little Lord Fauntleroy, and thin, as though he'd already been away from home for several weeks.


I looked forward to seeing him again and again (after all, I thought, we must be neighbors; there are huge dorms all down my street; he must live in one of them), but it took months, to wit: I happened to enter the Marquardtei (a student bar next to the grocery store) on a Wednesday, and there he sat, in the corner, reading a book and drinking water.


My companion was initially as intrigued as I, taken in by the elaborate world of lonely mysticism I painted big and vivid as a mural, my fantasy of Siddhartha's upbringing and condition, but soon forgot him in the excitement of seeing a journalist from Puddleby. I kept sneaking glances at Siddhartha, and thought of sending him a beer. But to my amazement the waitress soon brought him something to eat. He must have given up on cooking. "What is he reading?  What is he reading?" I demanded to know, but my companion's eyes are no better than mine, and Siddhartha was on the opposite wall, with his book flat on the table. An American in his position would have been reading Euripides, Anne Sexton, Italo Calvino or Victor Frankl, but what do German Siddharthas read, besides 'Siddhartha'?


After that I never saw him again and am tempted to think he gave up the study of theology (the dorms are full of aspiring pastors) for accounting and left Tuebingen forever. Men are driven by hunger to do desperate things, especially if they can't cook.


'Siddhartha' is an important guide for young post-Christians interested in renouncing the world of appearances. The temporal, accidental world consistently deceives and disappoints us with inessential shadows which can include everything from tap water to bad cheese and lonely masturbation. But with contempt for everything in existence as his shield, Hesse's Siddhartha gets hotter babes than even St. Augustine, plus he's not required to regret it afterwards, since they were illusions. When he's had enough, he retires to an idyllic riverside estate and becomes the Buddha, of all things, as though enlightenment were a lifestyle story in 'Forbes.'


My relationship with Siddhartha's namesake would make a good jumping-off point for my career in erotic fiction. "Sebastian?" I would say (I assume that's what he's really called), sidling up to him in the Marquardtei. He turns his huge blue eyes on me (I feel excited and faint, he smells of damp cashmere and Eau Sauvage) and lights a Lucky from the candle on the table. His fingernails need trimming; he rolls the cigarette between his fingertips like a girl, and takes one deep drag after another, then leans back against the wall, closing his eyes.  I start leafing through his book (Buber's 'I and Thou'), but he stops me, placing his hand on mine. The awkwardness of the gesture brings his foot into contact with my shin (he has his legs crossed at the knee, again like a girl). I flinch. He says, "I'm sorry," over and over, his voice pitched low and choked to a whisper. He is blushing pink as a matador's cape, and I realize that my companion has paid the bill and left us alone ....


But I'm not going to write any erotic fiction. Passable taste is already a daily struggle for me -- there's no reason to go and complicate it any more.

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