for August 12
The snake lay on the bicycle path that I take to work. He wore an attractive outfit in the colors that were my conscious favorites around 1982: black and gold. His stripes ran lengthwise. He was about the size of a pencil.
I stopped and put down the kickstand, torn between a desire to move the snake off the road and a wish to play with him while moving him off the road. In the end I picked him up and moved him off the road, but not without first holding his naked elegance up for my admiration. Stealthily and without comment he shit on me in two colors, but I noticed only after he had ducked under a leaf. I wiped my hand on many blades of grass still wet with dew until it was pretty much clean.
At the suggestion of a sexy young man, I am reading Rilke. Bruno Schulz tried for years to turn me on to Rilke, but after his death in 1942 he just didn't have the influence over me that a slightly brazen student with bedroom eyes can gain without even particularly trying. He pushed '100 Poems' open to "I live my life in growing rings" at me across the table. "It's beautiful, it's a metaphor of I know not what, it's symbolic," I said, in ecstasy over the first four lines. In the second four lines, the poet determines that he is circling around a tower also known as God and isn't quite sure whether he's a falcon, a storm, or a song. "Hmm," I added. Rilke was only 24 at the time, so I can excuse it as juvenilia. At 40 he wrote:
I hope my intended hasn't read that far.
Rat Brains in Extremely Thin Slices
Rat brains in extremely thin slices have become a theme of my current brief and voyeuristic sojourn in the tübinger Forschungselite (research elite). They are more common than you'd think. "The Animal Liberation Front let loose the wild bunnies we had living natural, well-fed, carefree lives as beloved pets in a meadow the size of a football field, but they didn't think to look in the windows of the caretaker's hut in the middle where we sat cutting rat brains into thin slices," a scientist told me, by way of example. Another held up two fingers to show me just how small they are -- like a bean, I'd say. But scientists are undeterred by small size, since they have microscopes. They even cut butterfly brains into thin slices. If you put the slices into sugar water, they go on working for a while, and you can look to see what the neurons are up to. Putting the whole brain into sugar water won't keep it alive, luckily. It dries out. So every morning after coffee, you kill a rat. "You get used to taking life," a scientist explained. "I could never torture an animal. Besides, if the animals are afraid of you, they won't run the mazes. Monkeys? Forget it. One little torture session, and a monkey never trusts you again." It's all very reassuring. To my joy, the current experimental subjects in the department that employs me are robots made of Legos.
The Golden Hamster
The golden hamster, i.e., the hamster we all know, originated in Syria, where it is now extinct in the wild. A biologist liberated a nest containing the last five or six, and took them somewhere, I have no idea where (England?). Reproducing like wildfire, they exchanged the certainty of collective local annihilation for a myriad of uncertain individual fates spread across the globe. Some ended as pets, where, according to rumor, controlled breeding was able to produce the distinctive black-and-white pattern of the "panda hamster," which doesn't exist. If it did, it would have black eyes and ears and a black ring around its middle, but it doesn't. When I think of the panda hamster, I think of his wearing a backpack, because the first time the Flightless Ibis and I set off to walk in Wadi Tsin, he wanted to wear a backpack. I, on the other hand, wanted to carry a thin plastic bag. When the sandwiches were gone, it would vanish into my pocket as though it had never existed, whereas the panda hamster (as the conflict escalated, I was forbidden to say the word "backpack") would still be 60cm by 40cm and weighing five pounds. I see a tiny panda (not a hamster) bowed over by the weight of a backpack as large as his body. A solution was soon found: The Ibis bought a backpack that would carry a two-liter bottle of water and nothing else, and I convinced him there was no one there in the desert wilderness to see how uncool I looked carrying a plastic bag. It's true that we saw more animals than people, which is saying a lot, except for the time we hiked to a famous and popular oasis (it has a natural swimming pool) on Purim.
German culture sidesteps the panda hamster problem by providing thin, strong broadcloth shopping bags with long straps. You can dangle them in your hand, wear them on one shoulder or both, or (if you're me) stuff them in your pocket. You could probably get rich selling them to Americans mail order.
Animal Review for August 8
A. of Z.: Waflim
Now that I'm doing a temp job with a fast connection, I sometimes read 'Haaretz' online. It is a mistake to read the news from the Zionist entity, just as the news itself is generally one big mistake.
A more pleasing image of Israel is suggested by "bella" brand Neapolitaner, which resemble the Waflim of Man. Israel is known (to Israelis) for its cornucopia of meat-and-dairy free synthetic desserts and candy bars, which found their origins in the austerity of the 1950s but continue to be manufactured today because meat-and-dairy-free is another way of saying (assuming the factory workers are observant) Kosher Parve. The really gluey gelatin you need to make marshmallows is a form of meat, so Israeli marshmallows are tender, diaphanous creatures, melting easily under the pressure of six or eight photons of infrared. The Waflim (waffle cookies) offered by the venerable firm of Man are held together not by the adhesive powers of animal protein, but by an exceptionally viscous filling of mysterious origin applied in the thinnest possible layers. I say the origin is mysterious, but it's safe to assume it's granulated beet sugar creamed with margarine, or hot-pressed sunflower oil and molasses, or feldspar and lanolin -- the mystery is that, in combination with the brittle, transparent waffles, it tastes so delicately and perfectly of chocolate.
Our landlord (from Baghdad), offering me a quince jelly, explained to me once that the pitiable laughability of Western sweets stems from their compulsive inclusion of bitter elements. An Arab would never dream of making dessert in any other way than by accretion of sweet, delicious things into sheets or balls, but when a Westerner sees something sweet and delicious, he feels obliged to fuck it up with cocoa powder, sour fruit, alcohol, etc. etc. Maybe this is a relatively recent development. There are all those old songs that say "sweeter than wine," but no Westerner after 1957 except Richard Nixon ever admitted publicly to drinking sweet wine. Or at least every time I buy wine that is only demi-brut and my friends laugh at me, I think of Richard Nixon with longing, and wish he were here to help me. He was a benevolent, reassuring icon of my childhood, like Gulf Oil or the Walt Disney Company.
The Neapolitaner of bella come in a 65g package costing (Israelis should brace themselves) NIS 0,8. There is nothing in Israel, nothing, that costs less than a sheqel. They are sold only in the Aldi chain of supermarkets, which I sometimes suspect of being government-sponsored like the warehouses where hungry Americans acquire their famous (to Americans) cheese. On this theory, Aldi masks the underfunding of social welfare programs as food stamps mask the inadequacy of the minimum wage. A bottle of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene costs NIS 4,0 at Aldi. Nothing from Aldi tastes quite the way it should, in conformity with the Victorian principle of "less eligibility," which argued that no one on public assistance should live less miserably than the poorest working person -- a principle still alive and kicking today.
There's an Aldi in Oswego, but I suspect it will soon go under, as American foods are already manufactured more cheaply than an Aldi executive dares to imagine. Where do you cut corners on ramen noodles sold with a packet of salt for $0.25, or dry macaroni with safety-orange anticoagulant powdered cheese food and corn starch for $.33? The German Aldi has it easy -- they can sell shrink-wrapped smoked trout (a working German goes to the deli counter), or creme fraiche with cracked instead of whole peppercorns, and come across as the home of unbeatable, if occasionally inedible, bargains. Grocers in New York can't sell alcohol, but in my Aldi, it takes up one-sixth of the store. (Another sixth is devoted to chocolate.)
I remember when a factory in Jersey was busted for synthesizing orange juice. Their product had been created with loving care and was chemically and aesthetically indistinguishable from real orange juice, a bit like the food in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' Germans tell analogous stories about the French.
I should probably start another series, "Aesthetics of Manifest Destiny," to explain things like government cheese.