Friday, 31 May 2013

The Step-Cat

When the Butler and I married nearly six years ago, his three kids still lived with him and his ex-wife hung upside down in a belfry across the football pitch from our house.  Certainly a challenge to any new wife, but eventually dealt with via a restraining order against the ex (who subsequently melted in a sudden rain storm) and an all-sales-are-final deal with a passing circus for the three kids.  The one challenge I hadn’t come prepared for was the step-cat, Binks. 

Fourteen pounds of muscle, claws, and pure evil dressed in a fur tuxedo who’d jump into a lap under the guise of affection and then draw blood.  The Butler doted on the beast.  Pud Pud, he called him, as if he were a crème brulee instead of the vicious killing machine whose favourite trick was attacking me in my sleep.  I’m not a gentle soul (ask the Wild Kids of Borneo, next time the circus passes through town) and Binks got many a flying lesson for the night time death raids.

Then the Butler went on deployment.  His lift came at 2:00 a.m. and I waved him off from the end of the drive.  When I turned back to the house, there Binks sat, gold eyes staring at me, the tip of his tail twitching. 

I am in control, his posture said, and I think you should die

 Fortunately my opposable thumbs were needed for important cat services such as letting him into the house and opening the cat food.

I might not be gentle, but neither am I aggressive.  I gave Binks a wide berth and went about my normal activities.  In the kitchen making dinner, the small black corner of cat ear visible just past the doorjamb.  Hanging up laundry, a feline silhouette at the end of the footpath.  Weeding the flowerbeds and two golden eyes peer through the dahlias like the German officer from Laugh In.  One night at the computer, I looked down and there he sat, not stalking me; being companionable.  I reached down and scratched his jaw.  No blood was drawn.

When the Butler came back from deployment in the wee hours one morning, Binks and I stood together at the end of the drive to welcome him home.  The military operation had ended for all three of us.

Here in the Writing Closet, we think of Binks as Sean Connery’s James Bond.  A black cat with a dinner-shirt-white breast, he’s poised, dignified, old enough to no longer have psychotic episodes.  He doesn’t have much of a voice, so his demands are meted out with silent perseverance.  He takes no issue with the neighbour cats and is often seen sitting on the lawn with local toms, pondering.

Binks & Bast ponder.
 Then we took care of my son’s cat temporarily.  A slightly built black and white female of a similar age, known to stare down attack dogs and sleep with a large pet iguana.  When Binks saw her, he did a pole dance on his scratching post.  She threw a glimpse of disgust at his embarrassing contortions as she sauntered by.  After several months and Binks’ many attempts, the most attention she gave him was to play footsie on either side of an electric heater.

But his loyalty to her never wavered.  Once when they were both outside, one of Binks’ pondering fellows wandered into the flowerbed.  A third black and white cat.  The female went for him, although he was twice her size (which to be honest, most cats are).  Binks flew to her rescue.  There I was with three black and white cats clawing and hissing, limbs and tails and fur mixed together, a glimpse of Binks’ eyes showing white with fear from the bottom of the heap, sickening me.  I clapped and yelled and stamped until the pal took off.  Our cats were ruffled but unharmed.

Binks & Bast help El Punko study.
Once my son took his cat home, we humans thought Binks needed feline company, so adopted a calico (tortoiseshell and white) kitten.  Calypso.  Binks was twelve at the time.  My advice, don’t ever do this to an older animal.  Calypso attacked and killed everything in sight and some things that weren’t visible to the human eye.  We’d wake to her in the dark above us, having climbed the posts of our four poster bed; or to Binks squeaking in outrage as she wouldn’t give him peace.  During her first heat when she was kept inside and unsuitable suitors roamed the garden, Binks took them on, his former pondering pals, and suffered a battle scar or two in her name.

Calypso & Monster
At fourteen years old, Binks has arthritis in his hip with subsequent muscle loss and is down to thirteen pounds.  When he darts across the garden, he rarely goes up a tree, often hugs it, looks to see if we notice, and if we do, hides under the peonies until the memory fades.  He wrestles with Calypso, ponders the garden with my son’s cat when she visits.  Often sleeps in our bed and never draws blood.  He’s the stable and sane animal in the household.

A few weeks ago, he developed runny eyes.  Off to the vet, a place he usually only goes once a year, having a dirty protest in the car on the way.  A few applications of drops and his eyes look better but not great.  A few days later, he starts to shake his paws and lose the hair from his dinner shirt.  Back to the vet, who thinks he’s over-grooming.  A few medications and we’re sent home.  Things worsen.  He’s got dander all over his coat, the hair loss increasing.  The Butler thinks we should get a gold medallion for Binks’ bare chest.

And so back to the vet.  When we put him on the examining table, he leaves scales from his paw pads on the metallic surface.  They do blood tests and take skin biopsies.  They consult with a feline dermatologist.  They argue among themselves.  We bathe him in case he’s walked through something toxic, canvass our neighbours for chemicals in sheds.  Binks loses more weight but still comes out each morning, leaving a trail of dander and hair to visit the litter tray, then stand silently in front of the fridge and demand milk.  Other than that trip, he stays on a chair in my office, shedding, losing more weight.  I groom him and bring him food several times a day.

Binks & Calypso then.

Binks is now just a little over eight pounds and nearly bald from behind his ears, down his chin, all along his belly to his tail.  His front legs have been shaved for the blood tests and skin biopsies.  He’s bare around each claw on all four feet.  And still he’s dignified in a Sean Connery’s James Bond sort of way. 

Yesterday they admitted him to vet hospital to do an ultrasound on his liver.  There are some shadows there, so they hope to build him up over the weekend to prepare for surgery on Monday.  It’s for diagnostic purposes only.  If he’s got a tumour, there’s nothing they can do.  If there’s no tumour, then they go on treating an illness they can’t diagnose.

I’m not sure we should let Binks have surgery, but I’m the step-human.  It’s the Butler’s decision, not mine and for this, I’m glad.  Because even though he’s ill, Binks is still there in his nest of dermatological debris, interacting in his dignified way, making the epic journey to the fridge every day.  If they find a tumour on Monday, I won’t be the one who has to say it’s over.  I can sit on the side and grieve, leave the hard decisions to someone else.

Big Nose gives his bed to sick Binks, with El Punko & Bast.
My very first memory is of a cat.  This is true.  A wet night in Texas and a young cat wails to be let in.  I’m two years old and stand in front of my father who sits on a bench.  I pat his leg and he bends over to meet my eyes, a smile on his face.  I point to the cat on the other side of the screen door, ask my father to let the cat in.  I don’t remember the rest but I’m told that the cat, a stray, came in and gave everyone but me ringworm.

Binks & Calypso now.

I’ve spent my life making cat memories, have met some extraordinary cats, and come to the conclusion there are no ordinary cats.  You could say I’m rich in cat memories so shouldn’t be so selfish, but I just didn’t think Binks and I were done yet.  There is something more enduring in a love you have to earn, even if it comes from a cat.  An intimacy and a bargaining.  It’s a joint effort that either party can back away from at any time.  When neither of you choose to end it, when something else comes between you such as a dodgy liver, then an invisible hatchet cuts away at tender parts of your emotional being.

Bink's empty chair.
Tonight we go visit Binks.  Both my son’s cat and Calypso have had overnight stays at the vet hospital so we’re well versed in its ignominy.  Sean Connery’s James Bond deserves better than this but to be honest, we’re not ready to let him go.  As long as his cathood still looks out of those golden eyes, I don’t think I ever will be ready.  I count on the Butler who was brave enough to make this decision for his own father whom he cherished; will surely do the right thing by Binks.  A shadow lurks on the edges of this, of what happens to the two of us as we grow older.  A whisper that I may have to make these decisions on my own in the decades to come, and not for a cat or a dog.  I wonder where the bravery comes for living life.  I wonder if I have it at all.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Keep the T-Bird

Twice this week, I’ve read that we physically need creativity, play and rest.  Considering that last week, I posited the mental health issues of writers, this is good news.  The caveat here is that when we downgrade writing from creativity and play into work, it’s like what happens after Daddy took the T-Bird away.

A few months ago, Amanda Palmer used her TED talk to urge the arts community to give their work back to the people, asking for only what we need.  Then Palmer paid her local front bands with hugs and beer, which drew comparisons between the financially successful musician and the record labels she meant to combat. 

What Palmer suggests does appeal on an emotional level, but practically speaking, someone has to pay for our beans on toast.  In response to Palmer’s TED Talk, Cord Jefferson writes that the voice of American journalism now comes from the ‘trust fund babies’, as entry level jobs in the field have dried up in favour of unpaid internships.  To build a writing portfolio, the budding journalist must have financial back-up to allow her to give her words away.  Not only does this practice silence voices from lower economic brackets, usually voices of colour, but it devalues the work of writing.

This dilemma isn’t the sole prize of writers.  The entire crop of fledgling artists face the choice of putting all their eggs in the arts basket or having a day job while trying to enter the arts work force through an after-hours doorway.  A young friend of mine who chose the former path, still lives with his parents, puts all his energy into breaking into his field, and says he has no social life outside of contacts in the arts community.  While we can admire his dedication, this time of his life isn’t balanced; it forces him to make decisions about his life that his age peers in other professions don’t have to make, and pressures him to succeed or give up his chosen career. 

Doesn’t sound much like creativity, play and rest.  More like grappling for survival.  While the general consensus outside the creative community is that artists should live a life of deprivation in order to create, I say, bullshit.  There are things we can do to lobby for more support of the arts, a long but needed process.  In the meantime, let’s also take care of ourselves. 

Creative people are great for thinking outside the box.  Ellen Langer in her book, On Becoming An Artist, suggests we remember to ‘pursue art for life’s sake’.  As a writer, you know the feeling of your senses opening up in order to transform external stimulus into art.  Creativity makes us more aware of our life, which improves its quality, but also lets us see possibilities and solutions that a non-creative approach doesn't illuminate.  The trick is to step outside the box, but not lose sight of the practicalities involved.  In other words, pay the front bands more than hugs.

Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection that we should make a list of things that we think will improve our lives, then reduce from that list the number of ‘accomplishments and acquisitions’, replace them with things that provide ‘joy and meaning’.  Once we’ve adjusted the list, it’s important that we also implement the list.  In other words, do we really need to submit work to forty-five magazines in the space of six weeks or would we have better mental health and practice greater creativity if we only wrote one kickass piece in that time? 

 Okay, so one piece doesn’t pay the bills.  I don’t suggest that we eliminate the accomplishment and acquisitions list.  We subdue it slightly.  We change our focus from what we do, to what we experience and feel.  From what job we hold, what awards we win, what publications we’ve broken into, to who we are as people, what voice we cultivate as writers, what stories we tell, what messages we relate, how well we create, play and rest.  It is the creative person’s equivalent to an athlete’s fitness regime.

Research from the National Institute for Play in California shows that play shapes our brains in a way that promotes empathy, helps us understand complex social interactions, underlies creativity and innovation in the arts, science, maths and more.
What that means is play makes us higher functioning human beings who can understand the internal life of others better, move successfully through difficult social situations, think outside the box AND communicate this information in an artistic way that can be understood and assimilated by other people.  Creativity, play and rest could actually be the salvation not just of writers, but of the race.  

Go forth and ply your trade.  Write, submit, worry about deadlines, build your writing history.  But play.  Be silly.  Laugh.  Crack silly jokes.  Dress in costume.  Sing in the grocery store.  Hang on to your T-Bird.  Have fun, fun, fun while eating your beans and toast.

Friday, 17 May 2013

How Big is Your Brave?

Notice the guy in blue plaid.
Being a writer can make you feel the most universally unwanted person in the world.  When your friends get shortlisted and you don’t, or the writer of that crap play wins an award you deserved, when you start the morning with another email rejection that spells your name incorrectly, all you feel fit for is lying spread-eagled on the floor and having a good ol’ wail.  

Go ahead.  Give yourself fifteen seconds of despair.  We’re creatures of expression, after all.

 I once read an article that said the mental health of writers isn’t great.  We spend a lot of time by ourselves creating fantasies, without the intermittent positive response or even a pay cheque to keep us going.  We have to ignore the constant rejection, improve our craft without losing our voice, yet still be able to hear the truth about our work.  It takes a particularly fine sorting skill to achieve all that. 

Apparently the difference between us and other artistic media is that in addition to the isolated nature of the work, we don’t have a tangible product unless we’re published.  No song to hum to ourselves.  No still life to hang on the wall.  Just a ream of paper tucked in a cupboard or a file on our desktop.  We have to believe in the intangible while living in a materialistic society.  What do you suppose the end result of that’s going to be?  It doesn’t take a mental health professional to see creature-of-expression plus no-audience equals spread-eagled-wailing. 

Big deal, eh?  Every life has sorrow built into it.  That’s a fact, right?  Well I say, anyone who believes that life only gives what we can handle, that person isn’t really paying attention.  Sometimes life punches back too hard and changes who you are.  Sometimes that change isn’t for the better.  Sometimes it damages you in ways you’ll never recover from.  That’s not something any of us want to have happen.

Happiness isn’t a passive activity.  When you see the laser dot of ego destruction on your chest, get to work.  The first and easiest thing is to ‘reframe’.  In other words, don’t let your mind downslide into negative thought.  Your friend getting shortlisted or winning that award?  Not about you.  The inability for someone to spell your name right when they’re crushing your dreams?  That’s about them.  Don’t interpret the world as out to get you.  At the most, the world outside of our immediate circle is indifferent to us.

When you do get knocked down, promise yourself to get back up again.  Eventually.  In due time.  When the wailing is done.  Keep this promise to yourself.  Do Not Give Up.

Check out your social environment.  Do the people closest to you support your writing or do they invade your writing time, not show up to readings, ‘inadvertently’ shred your latest collection of poems?  Do you meet with other writers?  Do you attend literary events in your community?  Do other writers know you in the flesh or only on Twitter and Facebook?  If your social environment is failing you, rethink it.  You are doing one of the most challenging things in the arts world.  Social science confirms this.  You cannot do it if you don’t have a warm and loving nest.  

Now comes the hard part.  Know in the depths of your marrow that you have the right to be here.  You have the right to express yourself.  You deserve to be heard.  You contribute something to this world that no other person, writer or non-writer, contributes.  You are your contribution and this is the only time you have to offer it.  Right here.  Right now.

Okay, so now watch this Sara Bareilles music video, Brave.  While you’re watching it, pay attention to the guy in the blue plaid shirt.  That’s what you’re striving for.  An unreserved commitment to enjoying your own expression.

Show me your brave.

Friday, 10 May 2013


Two bad tempered deadlines stand outside the window in front of my desk.  Rather than give into intimidation, I went to London for a few days, wrote nary a word.  Not so much a stance against terrorism as being led into temptation by a friend; she posted a trailer of Once the musical on Facebook.  If you’ve not seen either the film or the musical but want to, then avert your gaze now. 

For me, Once the film, was a volunteer handing out water bottles along the marathon route.  Although I’m American, I’d lived in Galway for years, a city where culture sits on a kerb holding a pint and singing music that makes the hair on your head stand at attention.  The years of absorbing Hiberno-English, witnessing dramas happening on the high stool next to me, these were a writer’s baklava. 

When my application for Irish residency finished its third year of languishing on someone’s desk, Tánaiste Mary Harney put a moratorium on work permits.  Good-bye Galway.  I went from a people who called a child, ‘vein of my heart’ to a place that thought a teenage mother having her child stolen was a ‘twee Irish story’.  There seemed an impenetrable resistance here to portraying the Irish as anything but caricature.  I put my twee Irish stories to the side and wrote about war.

Ah, but there was Once the film.  Here, was an Irish story, not of Paddy and Biddy, but of real human narratives found every day at the Spanish Arch or walking past Lynch’s Castle or on the bus to Salt Hill.  When the male lead sang, he stripped his throat with angry music that a Dublin street didn’t stop to hear.  So The Guy, as the male lead is referred to, meets The Girl.  Her heart and her voice sing harmony to his, then she takes the melody and coaxes him off the ledge in a quiet and compassionate way.  The film ends, not according to formula, but as life often proceeds.  It asks the difficult questions and gives the less than acceptable but honest answers. 

Then there’s Once the musical, a fantastic production with tremendous talent that prompted a well deserved standing ovation on the night we attended.  The musical has a different tone than the film.  The bleeding vocal chords are gone.  There are jokes.  There is dancing.  The Guy is more of a Lad and The Girl is not so quiet.  Their creative reverberation that was palatable in the movie, is missing in the musical.  The Girl becomes an expendable artifice to help The Guy find the woman who broke his heart.  And as the script tortuously resolves the conflicts of even minor characters, The Girl’s story is cut off mid-refrain.

It’s testament to the story’s strength that it’s just as good a musical as it is a film.  The Guy’s conclusions about life in the beginning are ones many of us reach at some point, whether we’re musicians or lovers or stock brokers.  The universe gave him a heart that ached for beauty and the ability to create a way of releasing all he experienced to a larger world, only to find the world determined not to listen.  The Girl listened and gave him courage to keep singing. 

But in the film, The Girl’s song was every bit as evident, and she led the plot in a direction which challenged the audience.  She is, in many ways, a more admirable character.  Her resolution shouldn’t come from sending The Guy off to New York to find his happiness at her sacrifice.  She’s not his mother, after all.  While the musical does well as His story, it missed an opportunity by not being Their story.  In doing so, the musical confirms for The Girl and all other Girls that regardless how much their heart aches to communicate, the world still isn’t ready to listen.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Art of Not Cooking

A phone conversation with my Irish mother-in-law is like reciting the Nicene Creed during Mass, only with not as much feeling.  No matter what I’ve been up to since last we spoke – bringing about world peace, finding a cure for HIV, successfully hiding several bodies under the floor boards – the only question she really wants me to answer is how my cooking’s coming along.

I don’t cook, as you may remember, but that’s not the point.  I’m the wifey.  And it’s not just mothers-in-law who come armed with paring knives and Vaseline to fill those round holes in life.  As a writer, you will be gendered and genre-ed.  Which actually seems contra-indicated since the most important thing about a writer is her voice. 

Follow me briefly down another of my Appalachian side roads.  A boreen, as my mother-in-law might call it.  A few weeks ago, I’d been meant to write here about the audience collaborating with the performance of my play, Cats in a Pipe.  Unfortunately, I developed a new super power and made the entire audience disappear while the actors performed.  There was a Q&A afterwards though, for which I was fully present.  And THE question was raised.

Why would a woman write . . .  Yes, considering the odds against us, that’s a good question but in this case, why would a woman write only male military characters?  One young female actor got the question so firmly in her feminist teeth that the director intervened.  My son mentioned afterwards that though his current work is about war, no one has ever asked him why, nor has anyone blinked when he writes something with a female protagonist. 

We’re used to men speaking for all of us and still aren’t sure we want women to have a voice.  I read recently that J.K. Rowling was advised to use her initials with her first Harry Potter books.  It boggles that within the last fifteen years, a major literary talent had to disguise her gender in order for her work to be published.  She wasn’t a major literary talent, then, though, was she?  Nope.  She was a woman.  If she wasn’t writing chick lit, then she should be at home with her children.  And cooking.  Definitely cooking.

If you take your craft seriously, whether you’re a woman, a person of colour or a member of the hegemony, being gendered and genre-ed stops you from stretching your skills.  It’s a fact of life, however, that the world at large wants to categorise you.  Recently, a prolific male author complimented my narrative skill but said, although I wrote convincing male protagonists, I should write women’s fiction.  Oh, and my dialogue is too American.  (Yes, American readers, ‘American’ isn’t a nationality but a negative adjective.) 

There’s a contradictory message when someone tells me not to step outside my gender but to get rid of my native linguistic rhythms.  I’m meant to be me but not be me.  In other words, get into the damned round hole.  So how do we cope?

Well, you could rail at the unfairness of it and hope to change the system.  Or you can stick to your guns, be an activist by acting.  In other words, write what you want to write and use your own voice to do it.  That’s not an easy thing to do.  There is an art to not cooking.  In my case, that art is supported by people who care about me; I highly recommend having people around you who want you to be the way that you are.  But it takes more than outside support to counteract the twice-daily tide against using your unique voice.

So, know yourself.  If you don’t like the exercises I’ve suggested in other posts, look for other ways to know yourself.  Think about who you are, where on the map you’ve come from, what your life experiences are, what makes you curious, what angers you, what sexual fantasies you’ll never enact in the flesh.  Peer inside dark places where you keep the things you never want to write about.  Listen to people whose religious or political views make you see red, then create an empathetic character who also holds those views.  Take a different route for your big nosed dog’s walk and stop several times to look at the world around you without comment; just let the world be itself and perceive it.  And for every ‘don’t write’ or ‘why’ that comes your way, duck.

Most of all, write.  In your voice.  With your linguistic rhythms.  About whatever the hell you want to write about.  Write.