Richard Riehl 2 a.m., March 4
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An Attitude Adjustment
Before fleeing to Hillcrest, I lived off of misbehaving in New York City. Sex. Booze. Poetry. I had it all! Sure, my life was the envy of the Happy Hooker: I wrote naughty dialogues for experimental theater and lead a book club full of readers whose inclination for erotica rivaled Oprah Winfrey’s inclination for histrionica. But life took a surprising turn, and what was a woman with my fate to do? Move to San Diego and get into a new book club.
Back in New York, each month we would pick one dirty book. We chose classics like “Song of Songs” and Delta of Venus. We read titles like Tropic of Cancer and The Story of O. We would meet the last Saturday of each month from April to November on the rooftop of one member’s East Village tenement. We’d talk and drink and read smut aloud until the sun rose. To describe our book discussions as lively is an understatement, even the word heated doesn’t work. Steaming? Nah. Orgy-esque? Getting closer.
Then I had a child. Somehow—though my birth experience was orgasmic—I lost my sex appeal, and those sophisticated perverts whom I called friends dumped me. Sometime between my breathless third trimester and sleepless post partum, I forgot to recharge the batteries in my Hammerhead vibrator, and the dirty books collected dust. Consequently, a childless Dogwallker from the meatpacking district purloined my place as New York’s Impresario of Eroticism.
Couldn’t I just re-create that smut salon here in San Diego?
First, I needed an idea of what people like to read in this town. I’d heard on KPBS that the “One Book, One San Diego” selection was The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, so I bought that book to begin my quest to find new pals. When I dove into this story, I first met Antonina Zabinski, the book’s heroine; she is as savvy a housekeeper as she is a hyena whisperer. She’s got an admirable affinity with the animal world such that agitated beasts grow calm in her presence (these beasts included Nazis). Antonina is likable, but if I were going to find friends, I’d need to search beyond the page. So, when I went on walks around the block with my baby, I’d venture to ask any neighbors I ran into if they were reading Ackerman’s book. The unanimous reply? “No.” I wondered what it meant when no one in San Diego seemed to be reading the “One Book.”
So I did what any reasonable person would have done before asking neighbors—I searched the Internet. Online, I discovered that the local writers have a book club that was reading this very title. Last Sunday, I took a trip over to The Ink Spot, a cozy studio located in San Diego’s East Village Art Center Lofts on 13th Street, to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife with the San Diego Writers Read Book Club.
Now, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of a Jan Zabinski—his experiences working the underground resistance—and Antonina Zabinski’s work to appease Nazi interest in exotic animals. Meanwhile, beneath the brilliant ruse, the couple risked their lives in Warsaw during World War II to help Jews escape; they endured the challenge of secretive, high-risk behavior to protect against Nazi evil. Our book club focused on discussing this book from a writer’s perspective. As a writer of erotica, I couldn’t contribute much intelligent incite from a writer’s perspective. What was I supposed to say? “Um. There wasn’t enough sex in this book!” True, there may not be any orgasms in Ackerman’s book, but I can assure anyone who wants to read it that there are scenes in which Antonina’s cover is nearly blown that do quicken the pulse. But it’s we erotic writers who are most concerned with getting the rise out of readers. That’s not Diane Ackerman’s purpose.
Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and she writes with special attention to sensuality and human instinct. Though the other writers in the book group seemed less impressed, I marveled at Ackerman’s unique way of telling this slice of history through the experiences of zookeepers who are in sync with the natural world. Their story made me realize what a dolt I am when it comes to wildlife. For instance, I know the difference between a Mustang, a Tacoma, and an Accord better than I know the difference between a bullfinch, a waxwing, or a crossbill. I think I can tell the difference between Gangsta Rap and Bubble Gum Hip-Hop; however, ask me to match a bird to its song, and I’d just shrug.
I find myself asking who cares? What difference does it make whether I know pop culture better than birdcalls?
The answer to this question reveals itself when I embrace the wisdom given us in the diaries kept by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ackerman’s book vividly describes the dreariness of the Ghetto—no parks or trees, no bay or beach or playground. So how did parents give curious children ideas about the basic world? “In the Ghetto a mother is trying to explain to her child the concept of distance. Distance, she says is more than our Leszno Street. It is an open field, and a field is a large area where the grass grows, or ears of corn, and when one is standing in its midst, one does not see its beginning or its end…” The hard luck of Ghetto life and a mother’s struggle to satisfy her child’s appetite for knowledge makes me appreciate what San Diego offers to titillate a child’s mind.
For my daughter’s sake, I wish I knew the names of all the plants and flowers that we see on our walks. I do know, however, the names of neighborhood dogs; there’s Mungo, Mimmi, Joey, and Lucy. I know the names of some cats as well; there’s Ebony and Sammy and Cosmo. This is the first knowledge I’ve gained here, and these are the things my sixteenth-month-old daughter can name as well. But we’ll both be stumped if anyone should ask us the precise name of that bush across the street whose blossoms have a fragrance that attracts bees the way porn attracts some species of the human family.
But to discipline myself from digressing into the pornographic, let me return to the Warsaw Ghetto and one famous Rabbi who lived and taught during wartime. He said that “…before annihilation comes an exile from Nature, and then only through wonder and transcendence may one combat the psychic disintegration of everyday life.”
If I don’t transcend my current exile from nature, there’s no telling what could happen.
Ackerman’s book wakes me up to pay closer attention to nature. Hey, why shouldn’t I indulge in the sights, sounds, and smells of our backyard Buchanan Canyon as if each one contains the elixir? For instance, one morning we encountered a perfectly hung spider web with the spider lounging in the middle. Rays of sunrise trimmed each thread of the web, creating a glistening spectrum. I felt as if the spider, or some force of nature, had planned the whole spectacle, and it was our good fortune to have happened to glimpse her fine artistry. I envied Nature’s perfection and wished I could do such a fine job of housekeeping. All I could do was sing the Eensy Weensy Spider to my daughter. But she’ll grow out of that song, and she may ask more questions about that spider and its web. Does that spider bite people? What is the name of that particular species? How does it mate? How does it care for its babes?
I want to care for my babe by being able to answer such questions. Even if she never asks, I want to be able to call an Adobe Popcornflower by its common name. I want to know a desert five spot or a leopard lily when I see one. If I can tell her that a deerweed plant is from the legume family, perhaps that will be enough to keep my big mouth from gossiping about the Peterson family that lives next door. I know too much about things that I can’t tell my daughter. I have too much adult knowledge of the carnal. I want to know the exact name for the hummingbirds we see hovering about that whatchamacallit tree. I want to be patient and observant enough to tell whether we’re seeing a Broad-billed Hummingbird, a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, or a Black-chinned Hummingbird. And when my daughter is in wonder, spying on the hummingbirds, I’ll take my chance to lean closer to her to gently whisper, “See if that hummingbird notices what we noticed this morning. See if she snatches that unsuspecting spider out of its enviable hammock and feeds it to her young.”
While reading The Zookeper’s Wife, I was also reading to my daughter all these books with animals in them. We’d act up how the lion roars, the tiger snarls, and the owl hoots. Then I yearned to tell her about the flight pattern of the owl living in the canyon out back: does it use rapid wingbeats or does it glide? If Ackerman’s book could elevate my experience of reading animal picture books to a baby, think what it could do for those sex fiends back in NYC.
But I haven’t accomplished what I set out to do. The Writers Read Book Club didn’t introduce me to friends with indecent tastes. Instead, participating in One Book One San Diego gave my attitude a welcome adjustment. So long to the wild life, and hello to wildlife. Someday, when my daughter asks about “the birds and the bees,” I like to imagine myself able to wax eloquent about more than human copulation. I want to give orations about San Diego County’s Mediterranean climate that honor its biodiversity. I’d be stupid not to get more intimate with San Diego soil and desire it to get me dirty.
More like this:
- We're Back, Full Throttle — July 21, 2010
- Santogold — Oct. 8, 2008
- Life of Pi — Jan. 23, 2008
- How many spiders do you eat at night when you are sleeping? — March 9, 2000
- Old Skin — March 2, 2000