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Queen o’ the May

May 1, 2015 | by

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The Elfin May-Pole, a Mardi Gras float design for Krewe of Proteus, New Orleans, 1887.

The other day, I received the sweetest note from an old neighbor of my family’s commenting on the beauty of spring in the town where I grew up. She recalled something I’d done many years ago: “The first year I lived here, you walked up and down the street, perhaps alone, perhaps with a friend, on May 1, to celebrate May Day. Perhaps you left a little bunch of flowers by my door?”

Perhaps I did. In any case, I’m going to guess that I was alone. I can’t imagine anyone joining me in this practice. I’d like to say it was rooted in some precocious notion of workers’ solidarity, but in fact my touchstone was more Kate Greenaway than International Socialism. (Especially given the maypole and hurdy-gurdy I requested for my eighth birthday.) Read More »

Save the Date

April 30, 2015 | by

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Photo: Dafne Cholet

Let’s say you’re going about your day, footloose and fancy-free. Let’s say a friend e-mails you. “I’m so sorry,” she writes. “I’m really not feeling well. Can we reschedule?”

It comes back to you in a rush: the long-ago volley of e-mails; the consensus on a date that, at the time, seemed impossibly far away; the failure to note said date on the calendar. Maybe you have even made other plans for the same time. But you write back with magnanimity: “No problem. Just concentrate on feeling better!” Read More »

World Dream in Six Words

April 29, 2015 | by

Hashtag

If you look at the trending hashtag #WorldDreamin6Words you’ll see such tweets as: “Less ‘Them’ and ‘They’, more Us.” And “No More Violence in the Streets.” And “Self love and acceptance for all.” And “Ending the Stigma on Mental Health.” And “We all get a hamburger today.” And “A world free of animal abuse.” And “Love each other NOT imaginary dictators.” And (from the same person) “International Casual Friday with Keg Parties.” “Ham, eggs, and corncob pipes for everyone.” (That last one is from “Mark Twainz.”) Read More »

Almond Joy

April 28, 2015 | by

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From a 1905 sheet-music cover.

“That parrot,” he said at last. “You know something? It had me completely fooled when I first saw it through the window. I could have sworn it was alive.” “Alas, no longer.” “It’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done,” he said. “It doesn’t look in the least bit dead. Who did it?” “I did.” “You did?” “Of course,” she said. “And have you met my little Basil as well?” She nodded toward the dachshund curled up so comfortably in front of the fire. Billy looked at it. And suddenly, he realized that this animal had all the time been just as silent and motionless as the parrot. He put out a hand and touched it gently on the top of its back. The back was hard and cold, and when he pushed the hair to one side with his fingers, he could see the skin underneath, grayish black and dry and perfectly preserved. “Good gracious me,” he said. “How absolutely fascinating.” He turned away from the dog and stared with deep admiration at the little woman beside him on the sofa. “It must be most awfully difficult to do a thing like that.” “Not in the least,” she said. “I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away. Will you have another cup of tea?” “No, thank you,” Billy said. The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn’t much care for it. “You did sign the book, didn’t you?” “Oh, yes.” “That’s good. Because later on, if I happen to forget what you were called, then I could always come down here and look it up. I still do that almost every day with Mr. Mulholland and Mr. … Mr. …” “Temple,” Billy said, “Gregory Temple. Excuse my asking, but haven’t there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?” Holding her teacup high in one hand, inclining her head slightly to the left, she looked up at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile. “No, my dear,” she said. “Only you.” —Roald Dahl, “The Landlady”

We all know that cyanide tastes like almonds. If something is almond-y, and you’re somewhere sinister, well, mister, look out! You’ve been poisoned. I first learned this from the Dahl story cited above–or, more accurately, from the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on the story. 

But generally, one assumes, writers only know this themselves via hearsay. They know—like the rest of us—that cyanide smells like “bitter almonds.” As one article explains it, “in murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse.” In its pure form, cyanide apparently does have an almond-like scent—and this makes sense, since the toxin is found in the wild form of the nut. Read More »

The Talking Cure

April 27, 2015 | by

Commuters in Lower Manhattan, 1973.

Urban life is full of glorious opportunities to hear people talking to themselves. I don’t mean mentally ill people; it doesn’t delight me to see somebody visibly ill. No, what I mean is the triumph of unself-consciousness that you can regularly witness on the streets, where all of us reliably utter short, throwaway remarks to no one in particular. We don’t do this for others’ benefit, but when someone else overhears such a remark, everything comes together and harmonizes and, for all the world, it’s as if life has a narrator. E.g.: Read More »

Regrets Only

April 24, 2015 | by

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Edvard Munch, Jealousy, 1907.

For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. —Swann’s Way

Regret is a waste of time. Everybody knows that. But there are still times when I regret the energy I wasted through many years of undermining my boyfriends’ exes.

I was young and jealous and insecure. Even at the time it felt bad. But in low moments, I would hear the poison oozing out of me, petty and pathetic and sad. “I’ve always thought people who said they preferred early Fleetwood Mac were trying a little hard,” I might remark, idly, while looking at records. Because six months ago he had mentioned in passing that his old girlfriend felt that way!
Read More »