Fanzine of Herbivorous Youth
There's not much you can really say about them. When you first see them in a shopwindow, you squint, and then you turn from side to side to check if anyone is standing near you to whom you can say, "Incroyable!" or whatever. Usually when I see things in shop windows I'm walking alone, methodically ripping pieces off some baked good I keep concealed in a bag where no one can see how big it is, so I've never had the opportunity to direct a comment at anyone in their presence, but I did manage to ask Andrea, last May. I said, "Andrea, why are there chocolate-covered cockroaches in all the shopwindows?"
"They aren't cockroaches. They're May beetles. It's May," she replied. Pressed for further details, she described the cockroach depicted on the foil May beetle wrapping paper. Immediately I suspected a mass hallucination reified by consensus, and ventured to ask if she had ever seen one.
"No," she said firmly.
(At least that's how I remember the conversation. Maybe she said at first, "Thousands. They're everywhere. It's May." But it was May, and I hadn't seen a beetle of any kind in months. There was no way she could put one over on me.) I undertook to consider the possible origins of the May-beetle myth. There are places where cockroaches spend the month of May flying around batting against the windows looking for places to lay their eggs and making an indelible impression on the institutional memory of chocolatiers, but Germany isn't one of them. Even the German cockroach is unknown here, plus there's nothing German about it and this American term smacks of propaganda, I am told. There are no cockroaches, period. Corollary: If there were, they would very likely be May beetles. But there already are May beetles. You never see them, but they're out there, and since they seem probable enough and it doesn't require a high degree of credulity to believe in them, there's no particular age at which the belief fades into archaism as with, e.g., the tooth fairy. The age at which doubts regarding the May beetle first arise is an age at which most people have long since ceased looking hard at bugs.
I had my first chocolate-covered hedgehog yesterday. It was made of dry, light hazelnut cake, glazed bittersweet and festooned with slivers of almond, from Walker in the Herrenberger Strasse. First I ate its little nose, then continued towards the rear, devouring approximately half before pausing several hours to finish at midnight after an improv show (niet, Club Voltaire) to which I would give a mixed review, if I dared. I thought, "This cake is so light and dry, it would go wonderfully well with ice cream. You could take a scoop and make a little hollow in the hedgehog's back," etc. Morbid, I know.
A hedgehog is the subject of a classic Israeli children's book, 'Shmulikipod.' Gadi is sick. No one keeps him company but the donkeys on his pajamas. He hears a noise at the window. Shmulikipod has come! Gadi and Shmulikipod play all day and eat berries together. In the morning Shmulikipod awakes with a fearsome frown -- berries are stuck to his spines. By the next page he is smiling again, but his relationship with Gadi never seems to quite get over the berry event, and after he leaves among reassurances that he will come again soon, his footprints span two wide pages with the caption "And Shmulikipod went away, and went away, and went away, and went away ...." There's no sequel, no 'Return of Shmulikipod,' even though the book was written in 1960 or so. There's only all of modern Israeli literature, in which Gadi, still sick, watching cable TV and hopped up on white wine and psuedoephedrine, suddenly stands and goes to the window. A layer of fine grey sand coats his fingers as he opens the sash. The air, stained orange by the mercury vapor lamps, smells of cigarettes and rotting fruit. He hears singing from the synagogue two houses down and orgasmic cries (a socialist team is playing a right-wing team and the right-wing team is winning) from somewhere behind and beyond his house, near the carrot fields. He is watching and waiting for someone, but he can't remember why or for whom. A cockroach flies in unnoticed and nestles under his pillow.
I first heard of glow worms while attending a card game -- "two heads." There's a strong animal element in "two heads" -- players are compelled, on first seeing their hands, to cry, "Pig!" or "Deer!" Although I have seen the game played many times, I have no idea why they do this. I think you're supposed to predict that the game will assume the form of a pig or deer, and when it does, you get points. The points themselves mystify me in the extreme, as the counting always goes like this: "75, 140, 81 plus she had 12 and a pig -- that makes three." It's like Europeans watching baseball, I suppose.
There are two photoluminescent insects in Germany, the glow worm and the firefly. No one has ever seen a firefly, but one "two heads" player described the glow worm as casting an eight-inch circle of green light on the forest floor, a rare and radiant event.
Another provided details: The glow worm is a sort of male beetle, but its girlfriends are tiny worms. That's why it has to sit motionless for hours, glowing inexorably, as the minuscule potential mates make their way single-mindedly hour after hour and night after night through jungles of pine mulch and up and down blades of grass, just like the Magi following the Star, if the Magi had been phototactic like paramecia and not learned astrologers.
Not long after, I chose for some stupid reason to go walking in the woods in the middle of the night, and there it was, in the ditch. Maybe it was a beetle. I didn't have a flashlight and I wasn't about to pick it up in my bare hands, so all I can say is that it resembled a green LED, and compared to millions of fireflies weaving like drunken stars on a Southern summer night in a bramble, it was pretty anti-climactic. But I managed to get home without stepping on any slugs, so I'd call the walk a success.
Readers of 'Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats' may recall that slugs are not exactly my favorite thing about Germany. I know supposedly slugs live just about everywhere, but somehow I missed them growing up, possibly because our sandy, piney, rustic Tidewater Virginia home featured four-inch cylindrical red millipedes, legless newts with external gills, gypsy moth caterpillars, tobacco bugs, and the sort of nightcrawlers that cost $.25 wholesale. Slugs were an afterthought -- tiny, unassuming, featureless, almost abstract. So that when in 1983 I first spent a night outdoors in Germany (in a tent in a deep meadow by an Autobahn cloverleaf) and awoke to see the massive black slug that had chomped its way through a paper bag to put a major hurting on my baguette, I was ill-prepared. It was May, and all that spring and summer, as I wandered the roads of South Central Germany, I was confronted by serried ranks -- actually, the worst thing about Germany isn't the slugs, it's the way you never speak English to anyone and then find yourself writing cliches like "serried ranks" that you picked up in 1973 from Dumas fils or the Baroness Orczy.
Anyway, there were slugs everywhere, and there's a reason Germans are always vacationing on Crete and Tenerife and other hot, dry places, and why my own visions of natural beauty don't involve rain forests anymore but rather White Sands National Monument and Wadi Tsin, places where a slug wouldn't last five minutes. Deserts are clean, dry, smooth, and rhythmic. A German forest joins hard, heavy, irregularly spaced trees, unforgiving as bridge pilings and bristling with broken limbs, to deep, damp, slug-infested mud. Foliage and blackberries distract the eye by day, but at night the truth of the forest is all too painfully clear: Slug country.
It's legal to hunt slugs -- I mean, there's no limit and no season, they're like squirrels in the U.S. -- so why are there so many? This question tortured me for several minutes once or twice a year until I finally picked up at random the front section of the local paper and learned the following: (1) The black slugs are no problem, they're native woodland slugs, eat woodland things, and hedgehogs eat them, yum! (2) The red slugs are the problem. They're Japanese and eat lettuce, mangold, etc. (3) Slug hunters make one key mistake: They leave the carcasses for other slugs to find. According to the article's author, a slug contains, in concentrated form, all the nutrients necessary to make another slug, and there's no better way to get a really big slug, really fast, than to let it eat dead slugs. (4) Of course there aren't enough hedgehogs anymore. (5) It's not really true that unicorns are slugs' extinct predator. (The author didn't treat the issue explicitly, but as he went on for column after column trying to be as inclusive as possible without getting to unicorns, I now assume they and slugs had nothing to do with each other.)
Now it's autumn, and they're gone. The mud is obscured by a fluffy layer of brightly colored leaves, and the woods seem as wide open as a golf course. Plus, this is Germany, not Virginia, so no one shoots at you, even if you really do look and act like a turkey.
The Hawaiian cane toad occupies a place of honor at the university botanical garden. The botanical garden is located on top of the hill near the Hagelloch hunt club, where you can eat a good lunch before proceeding to the spacious, attractive greenhouses and picturesque rock garden. The toad lives in the tropical section and supposedly has some ecologically proper role in controlling pest larvae. I didn't see him, but I admired the sign about him, which said roughly: "If you see a great big toad, don't touch it. Alert the greenhouse keeper, who will return the toad to his hiding place." In the text, the toad figures as a pathetic, lonely monster, whose ministrations for the good of visitors are met with rank ingratitude. However, I never feel sorry for toads, since they will fuck anything that doesn't beg them to stop (they can't let go until they hear a certain tone, so once they start in on an inanimate object or a dead lady toad, they're goners) until they die of starvation. Now that I think about it, this behavior accords perfectly with the character of the toad as suggested in the sign, but I still don't want to feel sorry for it.
I realize Tuebingen is too small for me to make even the vaguest allusions to my friends without everyone's immediately knowing who I am talking about. This is a bit like back at Computer Associates where I had to refer to Oren on the phone as "Sne" (the kind of bush that Moses saw burning, or at least there's a general consensus that "Sne" was a bush -- no one knows what sort) to avoid my coworkers' getting the idea that I was obsessed with him.
So it's probably better that I avoid writing about Bruno (I picked this name for him because he lives, supposedly, in a sort of magical curiosity shop, and keeps the same hours as the patients in the Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass) and stick to people from West Philly. So I think I'll tell one of Jamie's stories. Jamie, who might not object to my naming him correctly and in full, has an accurate and precise memory and a vastly informed intelligence. His sincere and beautiful belief that human beings are not so bad after all leads him into acquaintanceships from which I would fly, for reasons of taste and also because I am a girl and would regard a single friendly smile bestowed on some of these people as an unacceptable risk. Here's the story I want to tell, which I'll call "Fuck Magazine." Some day I intend to spend several thousand hours recording Jamie, since he does not find time to write his stories down. He'd probably love it if I used his entire name, but I insist on protecting his privacy, since I see him ultimately not as the 21st century's best-loved raconteur but as the future director of the Southern Poverty Law Project.
'Fuck' magazine is (or was, I don't know anymore -- this story is two or three years old) published by a tall man who dyes his hair blond and calls himself Randall Phillips because his real name is what you might call "ethnic." It's one of those transgressive things where people who purport to be just the sweetest and cutest write about ugly, violent, racist, misogynist, tacky things, supposedly for an audience of other cute, sweet people who enjoy the sophisticated postmodern manipulation of forbidden symbols as they would a fine champagne. Of course he sells a lot of it and can almost make a living, probably because it's hard for 14-year-olds to buy 'Penthouse Forum,' while 'Fuck' is on the rack at Tower next to 'Guns & Ammo.'
So one day Jamie was out walking with Rob the crusty (unwashed squatter punk). They were on their way to a fraternity party at the University of Pennsylvania. Rob was in a sentimental, confidential mood and he chose to tell Jamie about a warm, satori-like therapeutic experience that had made him feel worthwhile for the first time in his life. It is well-known that crusty punks may occasionally suffer from low self-esteem, and Rob was no exception. As a rapist, he had patiently borne and even internalized the cruel prejudices of both society and the law. It was not until he first read 'Fuck' that he felt able to stand tall and tell the world, "Yes, I am a rapist! My father was a rapist, my grandfather was a rapist, I've raped all my girlfriends and I always will!" At this point Jamie suddenly remembered that the party had been canceled. They bought 40s to drink in an environment free of middle-class 18-year old girls while pondering the sometimes mysterious indirect benefits of our first amendment (I'm making up that last part).
There's a certain ineffable charm to a life spent seriously fucked up on hard drugs -- I mean not my life but the lives of people like Rob, who lose their shyness and begin to provide the rest of us with entertainment at exactly the moment when we first despair of them forever.
Someone in Tuebingen, the only man ever to identify me as a masochist (usually it's women who tell me I'm a masochist -- men always say I manipulate and dominate them and get exactly what I want every time), gave me a copy of 'Dangerous Liaisons' by Choderlos de Laclos. Immediately I felt a deep spiritual kinship to the Marquise de Merteuil, who I supposed was played in the movie by Glenn Close, of all people (I never saw the movie, but I'd want her to be played by someone better looking), and to the French enlightenment in general. I think I am an enlightenment sort of person -- thought predominates in me over feeling so that my feelings, which are actually quite simple and predictable, seem to me to require long, carefully qualified, complex explanations. Other people's feelings, on the other hand, seem to me simple, manipulable, predictable and fateful as pet hamsters -- fat and glossy or gummy-eyed and shivering, it's up to you, but they'll be gone in three years either way. Ok, I'm exaggerating, a lot. Anyhow, 'Dangerous Liaisons' may have back-cover blurbs from Andre Gide, Hermann Hesse, and Thomas Mann, but that's not its fault. It's as psychologically precise as Dostoyevsky, but with selfish and destructive whims standing in for tragic and sappy idees fixes, like in real life, so it's less beautiful and melancholy. Also, it has a tacked-on unhappy ending (just like 'The Mill on the Floss,' 'The Idiot,' and every other novel ever written about a loose woman -- I feel safe saying that even now, since probably the loose women in the novels of today, which I never read because I never read contemporary literature, not on principle but because where would I get any and also, to be honest, because almost everything anyone recommends to me turns out to suck out loud, end by getting married, which begs the question) which I find especially depressing -- the Marquise gets smallpox and loses an eye. Illness with its random cruelty is dramatically unsound in literature as in life, a deus ex machina contrivance, but now I have to stop writing and start again tomorrow, since I'm supposed to go out.
Between Tuebingen and Stuttgart to the north lies the "Nature Park" Schoenbuch. "Schoenbuch" can be roughly translated "attractive beech." The bright, mossy, ecologically diverse tree farm, criss-crossed by busy logging roads, is home to several animals, including the elk and the wild pigs. My first and last attempt to see the elk occurred in 1984. On that particular winter day, it was not standing near the fence. The wild pigs, luckily, are drawn to rabbit lettuce, which no longer grows inside their enclosure. Presumably, they ate it all. So they stand by the fence as horses do, patiently waiting for whatever is outside to grow enough so that they can reach it. They are not especially tall or threatening, and much less massive than domestic hogs, but I suppose if one were charging at me, I would run away, as there are few trees in the Schoenbuch I can imagine climbing (most have their first limbs a ways above the ground) and it seems to me that if you just stood there, it would knock you down and go for your face. When walking among the trees, you sometimes see places where the wild pigs have been rooting about, looking for God knows what, since this is not exactly truffle country. Their noses were unappealingly muddy, but then again, so were my shoes.
Perhaps it was an act of penance for my consumption, at a party the night before, of a cabbage dish containing marble-sized chunks of the gentle and peaceful animal Hinduism teaches us most to revere for its patience, its sweet nature, and its many services to mankind -- among others, its daily offering of 7 or 8 gallons of milk originally destined for a son or daughter long since eaten or similarly enslaved. "Bleah," I said, noticing the still familiar flavor of our loyal friend and provider of Parmesan, Comte, Tsfatit and many another of the tasty cheese varieties that help us supply ourselves with adequate salt and fat. Whatever the motive, I insisted, having left the art opening "Already Traveled," a self-infatuated, derivative -- wait, I forgot I'm in a small town now and have to suck up to everyone without exception -- on entering the Deutsches Fleischermuseum of Boeblingen.
I lasted a good ten minutes. I imagine quite a few people get only as far as I did before feeling compelled to turn and flee. At least, I hope so. The first few exhibits depict Butcher Shops of Old -- mere nostalgia. Enameled signs announce prices for various euphemistically titled body parts. Attractive counters in tin and majolica are surmounted by ceramic pig figurines and attended by mannequins. So far, so good. On the walls, old engravings show early versions of assembly-line slaughter (bloodless and schematic, even then) and a placard informs us that Jewish practice spares the victims' suffering. The dizziness and nausea started, strangely enough, with the undated dioramas by Frau Stuempf of Memmingen. Her dollhouse scenes showed butchers through the ages at a scale where a dead piglet, hanging headless upside-down on a hook and rendered in shiny glazed pink clay that to my mind reflected all too accurately the slimy, snotty, lymphy texture and appearance of raw meat, comes out about five inches high. Turning the corner, I entered the Wurst Kitchen. I won't describe the strange machines, bathtub-like contrivances, and intestines I saw there. It was the display of things that had been found in calves' stomachs -- and right after that, a mask you strap on a cow, with big leather eye coverings so it can't see anything, and in the center of the forehead, a bolt, sticking out like a unicorn's horn, which, I presume, you can easily hit with a sledgehammer. My penance was complete and I swear by everything I hold sacred (1) to stay off meat forever and (2) to reduce my use of milk and cheese to trace amounts that don't make any difference to anyone. I like ethical grey areas, just as I enjoy leading others into them. As Dmitry Karamazov says (I think it was him), if there is no God, then everything is permitted -- but who needs ethics anyway? Aesthetics alone should be enough to tell you it's wrong to drive a bolt through a cow's head, reduce her to slurry in a bathtub, hang the result out to dry and pay money for a chance to put it in your mouth.
- Nell 19/11/00
When Zohar and I arrived at the Jerusalem zoo it was a beautiful spring morning. Within seconds of our arrival the sun lurched to its zenith and began to pour down its radiant light and warmth in quantities that were too much for everyone except the ibex. The ibex, for some reason, just sat there. The rest of us looked desperately for shade. The trees there are not much help. An olive tree has few leaves. You'll notice God always sticks to the sands of the seashore and the stars of the sky when trying to convey large numbers. The sun in Israel often made me think of a friend's story about an insane ten-year-old whose mother, to save babysitting expenses, had told him that if he left the house, God would fry him like an egg on the sidewalk.
The zoo is almost brand new. (The olive trees apparently came free with the property, and nothing else has had time to grow.) It is quite ordinary, except for one unique and delightful feature: Lemurland. Among all the peoples of the world, only Israelis can keep their hands off lemurs, so they are blessed with a spacious enclosure where lemurs and children run free, like an aviary. The keeper explained that Americans, Australians, and I think Danes (it was some Scandinavian country) had all demonstrated that no matter how explicitly and how often they were warned, they could not keep themselves from fondling, and from being bitten by, free-ranging lemurs. Israelis, in contrast, stroll peacefully among even the most adorable young lemurs, their hands firmly in their pockets.
Israelis often surprised me with their general skepticism about cute animals. Koalas, I was told again and again, stink to high heaven. Hugging one long enough to get a photo is an ordeal. Kittens are the rats of the Middle East -- filthy, sick, desperate. Neither are dogs in Israel cute. Generally, they are miserable and frightening. They guard everything from military installations to chicken farms, chained to cables on the ground. Israelis appear to prefer cute human beings, specifically babies and young women. Or at least, the typical Israeli office worker has two pictures in his cubicle: his baby, and an anonymous 18-year-old in a bathing suit. I know pinups are supposed to create a hostile work environment, but I prefer them strongly to the aesthetic harassment constituted by posters of dolphins, young orangutans, and Jesus Christ.
The Israeli preference for babies led directly to the safety and order of Lemurland: Any baby attempting to touch a lemur would be immediately and gently pulled back and its hands washed with moist towelettes.
Actually there are two cute dogs in Israel. Actually three: Zoe and the dog that looks just like Zoe (I think her name is Sophie), plus the cute dog. The cute dog lived on our street. It was small, fuzzy, and dirty. Zoe is a sort of tiny wonderdog who defected from Palestine to live with Zohar's sister, refusing to leave the car on her departure from East Jerusalem. Anyone who considers the sinful crime of purchasing a purebred dog should meet a wild gamine like Zoe. Resourceful, insightful, clever, communicative and tidy, Zoe brightens the lives of all who know her. Plus, she does amazing things, like crossing Jerusalem to visit places she's only been in the back seat of the car. The cute dog plays a role in my best Zohar-mind-reading story. He came home from the university and said, "Guess who I saw today!" "The cute dog?" I replied. I couldn't think why else he would be smiling.
Mongoose resemble river otters, but without the rivers. Once at midday and once at sunset, they frisk their way to the back lawn of the apartment building in Haifa where one visits Avner Shats. Seen from the fourth floor, looking straight down, they run and play in long, wiggling S-curves. They are shaped more or less like slugs, with fat tails and stumpy heads. Sometimes they roll, just like otters. If you try to throw food to them, the prevailing wind blows it on to the downstairs neighbors' laundry and in their windows, so it is currently not known how mongoose react to gifts of food.
Rock hyrax were seen exactly once, at the playground across the street. I never saw them there. I saw hyrax in Ein Gedi (oasis by the Dead Sea) and they were very sweet, with darling hooves and friendly smiles. The French Carmel probably offers a little too much street life for them, and they moved back down into the Wadi.
The attractive, clumsy quail appeared on the sidewalk leading from Computer Associates to Raoul Wallenberg Boulevard, between a high wall and an active construction site. I picked it up and took it back to the office, where my colleagues made a number of jokes about good eatin'. A receptionist gave me a cardboard box, and the head of human resources gave me a ride home. The next morning, Zohar took it to the university zoo, and I never thought of it or worried about it again.
The zoo in Ramat Gan sits in the middle of the "safari," where hippos, zebra, Thompson's gazelles, some sort of attractive large antelope I was never able to identify, and ostriches roam free. You can't visit the zoo without driving through the safari. Ostriches make me nervous. Apparently people like to give them Bamba, the national food of Israel (powdery peanut Cheetos). As a result, they come right up to the window and beg. Their immense, heavy bodies, punctuated with sharp bones and looming five feet up in the air, sway over hideously muscular legs and terrifying sharp-clawed feet. They scan each car's occupants for edibles with looks of penetrating dullness. Their grotesquely oversized racks of feathers fail to disguise the pink, wrinkly obscenity of their skin. What's worse, people make crafts out of their eggs and sell them in the market on Nachalat Binyamin on Friday mornings. I would rather not be reminded that an ostrich's cloaca regularly passes eggs the size of footballs, and I am glad, so very glad, that the largest wild animals anywhere near Tuebingen, for all practical purposes, are squirrels. Wild pigs recently attacked hikers near Bad Urach, but what would I be doing in the woods near Bad Urach? In summer there are 48-hour Goa parties up there and I've been told it's an experience no one should miss, but (I hope) Goa trance scares wild pigs.
Inside the zoo, I heard a 14-month-old baby speak clear, coherent Hebrew. "It's nothing," the grandfather said. "All babies do it, sooner or later." Optimism and pride tend to excite the envy of the Evil Eye, and are studiously avoided.
I took a day trip from Taos to a hot spring that was theoretically a two-hour hike back in the woods from where you park. I made it in one hour, an uphill sprint, goaded by the minivan-full of yuppies behind me. I wanted to be alone, floating in the crystalline hot water where, I had read, neon tetras swim in abundance. It was only as I was preparing to step in and found myself with a used tampon in my hand that I somewhat regretted my decision to walk deep into lion country alone. As I ran stupidly in circles, naked as Bambi and searching for a place to dispose of the bloody, dripping tampon, I was reminded of the classic zine 'Shark Fear, Shark Awareness' and its accounts of World War II naval battles. Eventually I buried it with my hands, crouched under a rock. What the hell was I thinking? But at least I was alone, high in the wilderness, in an elegant stone-lined WPA bathtub. The water wasn't especially warm and I got out again after three minutes. While I squatted in the water, the guppies (there were no neon tetras) nibbled incessantly at air bubbles trapped under the tiny hairs on my skin. On the way back down I passed all the yuppies heading up. It had started to rain and I started running again. I saw one of those Kebab squirrels or whatever they're called. Now I can't even remember what makes them special.
Yorkies! That's all I have to say. (Poodles live in Darmstadt.) You see grown men carrying them in little handbags. Lots of people have those harness leashes, where two tiny Yorkies trot linked side by each as if they were pulling a sled. I also thought there were lots of good-looking guys in Paris and few beautiful women (i.e., the anti-Tel-Aviv), but since Andrea and Luis categorically denied the part about the good-looking men, I can't guarantee it.
Paris also has a historic carousel (or at least it predates liability law) in the Luxembourg Gardens. The horses hang loosely on hooks. Each child in the outer row is presented with a dowel rod and instructed to catch brass rings, just like in an old novel. The rings dangle from a gourd held by a courageous Vietnamese man. The carousel spins quickly and children run freely all around it, courting macabre accidents. Luckily there is no prize for the child who impales the most rings. A prize would be terribly unfair. The Vietnamese man can only reload the gourd but so fast, so if you're behind some eagle-eyed little girl who's been practicing for six years solid, you're not likely to see any action.
- Nell 11/11/00