Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Domestic Bestiary


First there is the TABBY, seventeen years old, spry but of poor temper. She will tolerate petting for only a moment, then it’s nature red in tooth and claw. She has a restroom all her own while the four human residents of the house must share one between them. She eats nuggets of dry cat food one at a time, fishing them out of a bowl with her paw. After several minutes she will vomit up the mess and eat it a second time. She is a connoisseur of banana and cantaloupe, and of whistling.

Until recently, six EARTHWORMS lived in a styrofoam bowl kept in the refrigerator. This past week they moved to large plastic water bottle filled with alternating layers of soil and sand and capped off with wilting lettuce. Their life and habits will be studied by the children who have, so far, named only one of them (“Wormy”).

Since time immemorial, the daughter of the house has kept SNAILS. We have two of them now and neither one cares for arugula. One of our former snails managed to escape from his jar. He made a slow-motion midnight dash across the countertop undetected and was never seen again.

The occasional HOUSEFLY slips in the front door for the purpose of keeping yours truly from sleep until I’ve risen in my pajamas to stalk the intruder with bow and lantern. After a half-hour of desperate combat, by a lucky shot with a rubber band, the infiltrator is blasted to fragments. The smudge of his spent biography is wiped from the wall without remorse.

In the kitchen is a mason jar of very small GUPPIES. These are pretty fish with nervous manners. They sparkle somewhat in the afternoon light and move by a strange choreography: keeping still for a moment, making a quarter turn, keeping still, turning, etc. If they are worried, they’re right to be. These guppies are maintained in our home only to serve as food for

The baby GARTER SNAKE recently purchased for my son, which is proving itself as poor a sport as the household cat. Garter snakes, we were told at the pet shop, do not bite. This is a lie. “Edward Shoelace” hadn’t been at home with us for fifteen minutes when he bit my daughter hard enough to draw blood. Half the day and all night long, the little snake buries himself in the dirt of his terrarium.

Finally, on the windowsill by the record player we have a colony of SEA MONKEYS (which is a heraldic name for brine shrimp). These live in a state of utter savagery and dissolution, constantly engaged in acts of cannibalism and incest. Their colony was founded a year ago and untold generations have come and gone. The population fluctuates between two and eight adults. Children are hard to count since they’re so small on hatching and are generally eaten by their parents. The few that make it to adulthood are the most depraved and enter wholeheartedly into perpetual sexual congress with their siblings and feasting after the style of Kronos.

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“He said that a leper passing through it with a gold coin in his mouth would be turned into a king.”

The Gateway to Hoosainabad, Lucknow. Photograph by Samuel Bourne, 1866.

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Marginalia, no.222

What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

~ William James, Of a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

James imagines a dog puzzled by his master’s behavior reading a book. When dogs insist on cheeky questions like this it’s easy to take offense and demand, in return, why they insist on licking their own exits. But don’t give in to impatience. Remember that your pet, for all his fluent English, has only a very small brain. Smile indulgently, pat him on the head, and explain that it’s just your way of sniffing around for scents left by others.

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Kennel Ink

At the end of a letter to John Payne Collier dated May 6, 1820, Charles Lamb adds the complaint:

I write in misery. N.B. the best pen I could borrow at our butcher’s: the ink, I verily believe, came out of the kennel.

The “kennel” here is the gutter down which blood flows at the butcher’s shop. Lamb was writing away from home and his more reliable instruments. But he seems to like the analogy of ink and blood. In another letter of the same year, he assures Coleridge that, despite appearances, he hasn’t opened his veins for something to write with but was forced to use a cheap red ink commonly known as “clerk’s blood.”

This past weekend I bought a British two-volume Everyman’s Library edition of Lamb’s letters. Though in tolerable shape (even retaining their yellow and white dust jackets), the books are more cheaply made than usual. This is explained by the publication date of 1945 and the stamped image of a lion couchant atop the announcement: “BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD.”

Though I’ve been a (more often than not) distant admirer of Lamb’s since a college course on the Romantics twenty years ago, I was moved to pick up his letters on the warm endorsement of Patrick Kurp. Like Kurp, I find Lamb’s letters an awful lot of fun. Within a mere ten pages in either direction of the quote above, you will find passages like this from an 1821 letter to Mrs William Ayrton:

My sister desires me, as being a more expert penman than herself, to say that she saw Mrs Paris yesterday, and that she is very much out of spirits, and has expressed a great wish to see your son William, and Fanny

– I like to write that word Fanny. I do not know but it was one reason of taking upon me this pleasant task –

From an 1820 letter to Joseph Cottle we get the following:

I am quite ashamed of not having acknowledg’d your second kind present earlier. But that unknown something, which was never yet discover’d, though so often speculated upon, which stands in the way of Lazy folks’ answering letters, has presented its usual obstacle.

Lamb goes on in the same letter to sympathize with Cottle’s personal distaste for Byron:

It was quite a mistake that I could dislike anything you should write against Lord Byron, for I have a thorough aversion to his character, and a very moderate admiration of his genius – he is great in so little a way – To be a Poet is to be The Man, the whole Man – not a petty portion of occasional low passion worked up into a permanent form of Humanity.

There’s a judgment that might have drawn blood.

But nothing could seem less likely to cost the author himself any blood than Lamb’s letters. They are full of impressive gaiety and ease. For all his kennel ink and clerk’s blood, you don’t imagine Lamb toiling painfully at his correspondence, though I suspect he must have. From letter to letter he reads like a circus performer so well practiced that he makes the high wire look like a stroll down the lawn – only this performer is wearing a clown’s nose.

If, as I sometimes think, laughter is the most precious human commodity, then precious indeed is the blood of the Lamb.

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Marginalia, no.221

… as if to be caught happy in a world of misery was for an honest man the most despicable of crimes.

~ Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

It may have been stolen from others but I can feel no guilt for my own happiness. Martin Gardner once wrote (in a sort of Chestertonian ecstasy) that “all the evils of the world are a small price to pay for the privilege of existing.” The phrase is perhaps miscalculated; Gardner can’t very well pay for evils suffered by others, even if he wanted to. Still, loot is for spending. An honest thief never thinks twice.

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“They had moved, he was sure of it now. He was a prisoner of architecture.”

Paper theater backdrop, 1891.

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Marginalia, no.220

Contribution to the Understanding of the Color of Water

~ Title of a book by Franz Boas

It sometimes happens that you meet a person obsessed with an idea or problem the interest in which is inconceivable to you. Sometimes (you are surprised to find) this person is your own past self, met again in the reminiscence of a friend or the page of a journal. The object that so utterly blocked your light five years ago has been made invisible by a trick of time. New objects press in from the sides and distract from the old one or re-frame it into an irrelevant bit of distant scenery. You are only temporarily acquainted with yourself.

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