A Very Special Agatha Christie Downton Abbey
Several months ago I read about this horrible, horrible disease. So horrible that I dare not speak its impossible to pronounce name. It features the emergence of small threads from under one’s skin, resembling the fibers of a cheap, plaid polyester sofa that someone’s rarely washed dog claimed ten years ago with no plans to surrender any time soon. A theory has been advanced that this disease comes from outer space. Is this possible? I have to say Yes, because ‘possibility’ is pretty much the cornerstone of hypochondria; and while I’m not a world class hypochondriac but more of a talented amateur, I should know. (This personal state of affairs is not helped by access to the Internet and possessing a novelist’s imagination.)
Which brings me to Dr. Clarkson, M.D., the preferred physician of the family and staff of Downton Abbey, at which point I’d like to refer you to the photograph. Take a good look, linger if you like, because when they eventually fall into the care of the esteemed Dr. Clarkson, you won’t be seeing their likes again. Dr. Clarkson is the exact locus where Downton Abbey and Ten Little Indians (the 1960s film adaption of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) meet.
In Ten Little Indians, ten people are invited to a mountain retreat by a mysterious host calling himself Mr. Owen, who never seems to arrive, exactly. Unless he is the person picking off all the guests, one by one, their deaths punishment for having literally gotten away with murder themselves. The whole thing is a basically a kind of low-budget, 1970s, New York City vigilante affair, if Charles Bronson were some sort of scold, greeting his guests with a taped voice that gets the accusatory tones of someone’s mother just right.
Predictably, the actors playing the ten guests react to the information that they are all killers by acting as if they had just enrolled in a beginning Method class and were told to “access the time in sixth grade when you were caught red-handed pulling a classmate’s chair out from under him as he went to sit down after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school assembly, landing hard on the floor. And even though your little hand still gripped the back of the folding chair, you still vehemently denied your guilt, which no one believed.” It may help, too, to know that three of the actors were Shirley Eaton, notable for her willingness to be naked in Goldfinger; Fabian, an American Idol contestant before American Idol existed (such is the sadness of peaking before the wave, creatively speaking), and Hugh O’Brien, one of those handsome-ish TV actors who starred in a series about Wyatt Earp during the Golden Age of Television and who, I discovered on Wikipedia, married for the first time at age eighty-one to a women not much older than I, with Debbie Reynolds singing at their Crystal Cathedral wedding—all of which sounds like a Disneyland attraction located in the New Orleans section between Frontierland and Adventureland. Spoiler Alert (if my memory serves): Shirley “Goldfinger” Eaton survives; Fabian “I’ll Never Achieve Cinematic Legitimacy” does not.
Mr. Owen Dr. Clarkson began the first season of “Downton Abbey” with a seriously ill young farmer in his care. Isobel Crawley, new to Downton and someone who knows her way around a surgery by virtue of her husband (a London doctor) and her position as a physician’s assistant, tells Dr. Clarkson that the young man needn’t necessarily die due to the amazing success with a revolutionary treatment now being used in London.
Dr. Clarkson rejects her suggestion (and the medical wisdom of the MDs in London), explaining that, no, this young man is going to die and they should simply allow him to die. The young man says, weakly, Uh, if I’m dying anyway, what’s the harm is giving it a go? This is met with the doctor’s patented condescension due to the man’s social status and, an admonishment that death is death and that’s your final destination, pal. Then his young wife, who is not at all taken with the prospect of being a destitute widow with children and the very real possibility that she’ll be selling herself on the street in no time thus shortening her own life span by about sixty years, also timidly asks if they might try it?
No, says Dr. Clarkson, sighing and vexed, as if to say, What part of I’m going to let this young fellow die are you not understanding? Do you not know the meaning of the word “expendable?” If you had gone to Oxford, you would, but instead you
were born to a life of decided to muck stalls. And now I must go dress for cocktails with Lord Grantham.
When Isobel Crawley cures the young farmer with the procedure she suggested is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He complains to Lord Grantham that “this sort of thing will not be tolerated in his surgery,” as if she had broken out the laudanum, then went for a joy ride in his brougham.
Next up in the Ten Little Downton Abbey: Matthew Crawley. Son of Isobel, hero of the first World War where he sustained a spine injury that left him unable to walk, and unable to “truly be a man.” Unfortunately, Matthew is engaged to Miss Swire, a delicate girl with whom he has no discernible sexual chemistry so it could be argued that she may not take the bad “man” news as hard as the doctor thinks.
Months of Matthew in a wheelchair pass, until the day in drawing room when Miss Swire trips on a corner of carpet and Matthew leaps from his chair to catch her. I’m no Doctor Clarkson but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some physical stage between paraplegic and leaping? Wouldn’t there be some small increments of change, some inkling of improvement that one would notice?
Is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He tells Lord Grantham and the rest of clan who are questioning him in the drawing room that upon reading the x-ray it was his educated opinion that the spine was severed. Severed, he explains, to the point where one will no longer truly be a man. However, a doctor in London (again with the London medical community) also read the x-ray at the same time as Dr. Clarkson and diagnosed a “bruised spine” meaning that recovery was possible. Yet Dr. Clarkson felt it would be cruel to offer Matthew any shred of hope. And, as you see, Dr. Clarkson finishes, It was, and it is, and what about those cocktails? Carry on being a man, Matthew.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu is laying everyone to waste. Lady Grantham gets sick. Very sick and who do they call? Dr. Clarkson tells the family that She’ll probably expire in the night. Unless, of course, she doesn’t. But I really think she will. Yes, look at her bent over the bed, sick and sweating and delirious. Gather round, Granthams, because it isn’t like she should be quarantined or anything because it isn’t like this flu is contagious and killing a third of the planet’s population and—oh, by the way—could you get a couple of the servants in here, too? If only because they eat in the kitchen, near the food.
Miss Swire takes ill at the same time but the doctor says she has just a touch, not even a cough and I’ll see you in the morning…when rigor mortis has set in.
As he stands with Matthew and other family members, looking at Miss Swire’s sweet, lifeless form while the doomed Lady Grantham is recovering nicely down the hall, is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He says Ah, yes. Tricky business flu. Hard to predict. Cocktails?
(At this point, one wonders why Bates didn’t refer his inconvenient and vindictive ex-wife to Dr. Clarkson for a check-up.)
In the Season Three opener, when Mrs. Hughes discovers a lump in her breast and it’s off to the man who cannot tell the difference between a bruised spine and a severed spine. As Mrs. Hughes sits in Dr. Clarkson’s office, Mrs. Patmore by her side getting increasingly agitated, Mrs. Hughes says, “Mrs. Patmore, please allow me to be the hysterical one.” Now I believe that Mrs. Patmore was attempting the verbal equivalent of kicking a spouse under the table when dining with friends that you really don’t like because of their pretentious utterances, and backhanded compliments yet you can’t avoid them because, you keep claiming to be too busy for dinner, they finally say, Okay, then when can we have dinner? and replying Never is never an option. There is Mrs. Patmore in Dr. Clarkson office, figuratively kicking Mrs. Hughes under the table, speaking with her foot, “Listen, Mrs. Hughes, remember when I was going blind in the first season and was trying to keep it a secret even though I was working all day with knives and boiling water and open flames and no one really noticed I was going blind and making culinary mistakes because I was cooking English cuisine? And when I was found out I said that I hid my condition because I was afraid I would lose my lucrative Downton Abbey kitchen job? Well, really it was because I’m friends with the young farmer’s wife and she told me what happened in the surgery, her fears of destitution and descent into that kind of really unsanitary Edwardian Era prostitution. Then there was the confab of overexposure in the sick room of someone with Spanish Flu. And maybe I didn’t go to Oxford but even I know a severed spine when I see one. After all, I work with joints of venison and butchered lambs and pheasant and it isn’t rocket science to see when something is severed. And, by the way, you’ll notice that Lord Grantham sent me to LONDON, where I was treated by doctors in LONDON and now I don’t even need contacts.”
But Mrs. Hughes, not unlike a spouse who turns to you and says, “Why are you kicking me?” causing you to smile nervously at your hosts while secretly feeling astonished as such cluelessness, says to Dr. Clarkson, “When can we do the biopsy?”
He tells her now, and Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “Will it hurt?”—trying desperately to get her friend on board here. Instead Mrs. Hughes replies, “It doesn’t matter. Whether it hurts or not, it must be done,” effectively releasing Dr. Clarkson from any pretense of medical competency.
Post-biopsy, Dr. Clarkson tells Mrs. Hughes that—big surprise—he can’t tell what’s what. He uses the word “inconclusive” the way other people say, “who the fuck knows?” He’s decided to send it on to London for a second opinion, which would be heartening except this is the same doctor who had a second opinion (from London) on the condition of Matthew’s spine. So, it doesn’t matter what the other doctor says since Dr. Clarkson Owen will be drawing his own conclusions anyway.
It will be over two months before he hears anything—long enough for Mrs. Hughes to be untreated and well on her way to becoming part of the cast of Ten Little Indians. His advice? Take it easy and don’t work too hard, clearly ignoring the fact that all those cocktails don’t pour themselves, something he may want to consider once he’s done “treating” everyone.
(Downton Update: As of last week Mrs Hughes has been given a
death warrant clean bill of health by Dr. Clarkson. Nice knowin’ ya, Mrs. H.)
September 5, 2012
How We Spent Our Labor Day Weekend (well, really just Sunday)
On Sunday, I was reading the paper when our dog, Milo went into the backyard to enjoy the dusty dirt pit that she excavated for herself two summers ago. It’s shaded by the bay of a bay window with a depth that leaves her head at ground level. Even when you know it’s there, it’s still a little disconcerting to walk past a dog’s head, especially when the eyes are open. I’m tempted to blame the album cover of ”Goat’s Head Soup.”
Milo is a shortish, pleasingly rotund dog who looks a little like something assembled from the leftovers of other breeds, though she is actually an Australian Cattle Dog/miniature Australian Shepherd mix. Her mother, the Australian Shepherd, was a show dog while her father was the caddish opportunist belonging to the neighbors who commenced his brief romance with the show dog after the owner asked her TV watching teenage son, in what can only be described as an epic moment of optimism, to “watch Bunny while I take a shower.”
Milo is adorable, with her loaf-like body on short, slender legs, causing strangers to constantly say things like “Someone needs to put the food bowl down” and “Whoa, someone never misses a meal” and the ever classic “Hey, Fat Dog.” ( A woman even once said to me repeatedly, as Milo sat patiently outside a store, “Your dog looks like a pig!”) For the record, Milo has been on more diets and calorie-restricted food than a supermodel; the only things missing are the Marlboros and bulimia. Additionally, she has led an unbelievably active life that has included day hikes, camping trips, vacations at the lake, walks around the neighborhood, and two extended trips to the park every day. In short, she is like her own part-time job. But I have a theory about this: Dogs are like the Internet. People say all kinds of shit on the internet because there is no personal consequence. Insulting a dog is the same rude, cowardly behavior. I say this so you’ll know exactly what I’m thinking if you see me with Milo in the park and mistake insults for conversation.
Milo, being fourteen years old and on medication, decided to skip breakfast (as supermodels do) which I didn’t bother to pick up (as negligent pet owners do), thus providing the ideal opportunity for our seventeen year old cat, Otis, to grab a quick bite before racing out the front door as if being pursued by jackals.
But here’s the thing about Otis: along with his many idiosyncrasies is the one that I call Bowl Recognition. Bowl Recognition means that Otis will only eat, or drink, out of one of three bowls. To wit, no matter how enticing the food, if it is in an unfamiliar bowl Otis develops a food paranoia on the level of a double agent at the height of the Cold War. He’ll stare at the food, then stare at you, then back to the food. Except on Sunday when, he decided to dine out and ended up eating Milo’s codeine.
This was the moment where, for some inexplicable reason, I suddenly turned into Joan Collins, who when asked about the thirty-two year difference between herself and her significantly younger husband, said, “If he dies, he dies,” because I found myself considering handling the situation on a “see what happens basis”—even though my much-loved seven pound cat just ingested the amount of codeine calibrated for a forty-two pound dog. Incredulous almost—though not quite—covered John’s reaction, voiced with “You’d let him die?” (Side note: Seeing how your loved one handles the care and treatment of other living things is only a short leap to see how they will treat you, the biggest living thing their lives, so John’s distress may, or may not, have been limited to Otis). I immediately answered, “Of course not,” now switching it up as if John were the one to cavalierly suggest the Let’s Get On With Our Day And See What Happens School of Pet Care.
We ended up racing out to a far off animal emergency hospital where they told us that they would have to keep him on an IV for at least 8 hours, along with “giving him something to make him throw up.” Fun fact: It’s not that easy to make a cat barf. I wanted to suggest placing something of value nearby like a cashmere sweater or something in silk as an incentive. Failing that, they could always drive him down to the gas station bathroom I had to use one night December before last in the middle of nowhere in Southern Oregon.
In the end, Otis was fine. On the upside, his very terrible day of nausea medicine, constant IVs, and living in a hospital cage pretty much played into his near constant belief that we are but abusers waiting to gleefully abuse him. For all I know, this validation was a kind of gift for him. For $406.00. Happy Birthday, Oats.
August 20, 2012
How much do I love Girls? I love it so much. I swoon a little over the rather brilliant dialog. I adore the perfection of the cast and characters. It’s breezy, oh-this-old-thing aspect is so convincing that it leaves no doubt as to how much work and artistry is actually involved. It’s a bit like the old Dolly Parton quote that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.
To be clear: I am not the demographic for Girls. If you want to locate my demographic imagine the weird wasteland that lay outside the house in the movie Beetljuice. Now picture Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin running in terror from the giant sand worm that roams this particular limbo. Now go ahead and replace the sand worm with that commercial about the woman who is portrayed as a stick figure of leaky pipes—you know the one where she goes to lunch, then rides an elevator, then walks down the street completely self-conscious because her entire urinary tract system is really just crappy plumping in a slumlord’s rental? Or try the commercial with the Cialis couple who spend their down time lounging outside in matching bathtubs while holding hands. (Fun Fact: When a friend of mine turned fifty, she asked her “landscaper”, a self-important, draw string pants-wearing, ah! India! feng shui gasbag if she could take a bath in the bathtub he had in his garden. So maybe there is a whole swath of middle-aged Americans with garden bathtubs that I was unaware of, though I suspect he had the tub in the garden for the same reason that we had an old claw foot tub in our yard when we bought our house: Because someone was too lazy or too cheap to haul its two-ton ass away. But, really, isn’t leaving your discarded bathtub on the lawn is really just one step from putting your car permanently on blocks.) Still not there? Then allow me to introduce Jamie Lee Curtis and her willingness to publicly announce her views on bowel evacuation. Really, toss in a Beano ad and I think all bases due south of your own personal border will be covered. In any case, it seems these are my people.
But the fact is that the emotional world of Girls is so sharp and true that it transcends age as it cuts to that elusive universal experience that is essential to art. The great thing about art is that it doesn’t just live in a single time zone or, to put it another way, the great thing about Girls is how much of it I recognize. It isn’t simply that these city girls and their adventures and sentimental educations recall my own city girl youth (that wouldn’t be art; that would be nostalgia) but that they depict a timelessness. You could probably find four young women in New York during World War II and one would be the girl who loves the man who loves her though she is no longer in love but is engaged to him anyway; the virgin; the glamor girl who is the resident free spirit; and the girl who is less definable because her primary quality is that of observer/writer/dreamer. Or, to take it back even further, the March sisters of Little Women comprise the pretty girl who finds love with the decent man (Meg), the adventurous, vaguely amoral girl trading on her pretty face (Amy), the saintly virgin (Beth), and Jo March, who is writing it all down.
So what else do I love? Hannah (“A voice of a generation”) who is involved with a guy who is all kinds of wrong with some aspects of all kinds of right thrown in, so what appears to be a questionable choice quietly becomes something less expected. The guy’s a terrific character, not to mention that the relationship is almost like a Rorschach in real time. In almost any other sitcom, Hannah would be limited to constant self-deprecation and irony, while the boyfriend would be less fundamentally strange. His actions and reactions would be tempered, as if his idiosyncrasies are no more than a persona he assumes; as if underneath all his sometimes difficult eccentricity is someone you could take home to mom. Dunham knows better. She understands that this character’s inner self isn’t less profane or selfish than we think—he is as he seems to be—but that along with the unvarnished sex and ego is tenderness. It’s an unexpected revelation when it comes, as is Hannah’s unexpected reaction. Their relationship, given what usually happens on shows like this, is realistic to the point of seeming almost radical.
Marnie is the responsible girl, self-supporting with the wonderful boyfriend. He’s the sweetheart who gives all the right gifts because he knows her that well and loves her that much; yet Marnie cannot admit that her love for him has lost its erotic charge and become familial. Even when she describes his touch as that “of a creepy uncle,” she’s still the Good Girl who can’t go back on her promise to love and cherish, unable can she admit that True Love just may have an expiration date after all.
Also radical is the nudity and the sex and the look of the actors—all of which play against the accepted (and expected) Hollywood-type. Not that the cast isn’t appealing by any standard, but the physical range is broader. In Girls, the writing and characterizations are the locus where we find attractiveness: no one is without his or her charms.
The best-party-of-your-life is the episode where everything shifts and deepens. Hannah moves beyond the tunnel-vision of how she is treated by her guy friend when she is forced to examine how she thinks of him (or doesn’t think of him). Marnie would rather whine and demand sympathy rather than acknowledge her own selfishness when it comes to the boy whose heart she just broke. Jessa’s cavalier attitude fails when she ends up in the emergency room with her employer who was jumped by two men that Jessa brazenly taunted. When she tells him, as thin consolation, that they can “still be friends,” he replies, now sadder and wiser himself, that they were never friends. It’s a sobering moment.
Shoshanna is the only one who isn’t made to face her flaws and is rewarded with the man who will finally relieve her of her virginity (her “biggest baggage”). That this cynical guy finds himself entranced by this sweet, slightly unconventional girl, is a terrific moment. It’s a sort of perfect illustration of how we fall for the least likely people in the space of an instant, when we weren’t even thinking about love at all. This is what makes Girls timeless. This is what makes it art.
And it’s so fucking funny.
August 14, 2012
Happy Birthday, Julia Child!
Like Julia, I was raised in Pasadena, albeit in a different era—but let me say that enough of the past lingered to understand why she wanted to leave (or why I believe she wanted to leave, though I couldn’t say for sure). I loved growing up in Pasadena for reasons I won’t go into here, and I wanted to get away as quickly as I could. So there you go.
I do not cook (I’m more of an assembler, that is to say, I’m a salad and sandwich maven). I did attempt cooking at one point in my life and was politely to asked by any and all who sat at my table, not to repeat the attempt. So I did the next best thing, and married an incredible cook who had worked as a professional chef.
While I did not in any way emulate Ms. Child in the kitchen, I did in another area of her life which is represented by this homemade valentine (anyone who knows John and me will know what I mean). I had always thought it was such a cool idea to send valentines to friends instead of Christmas cards. I once thought, many many years ago, that John and I would follow suit (he was unaware of this decision) but didn’t follow through because, really, isn’t Julia Child a hard enough act to follow?
One evening, my friend Esme and I were at South Coast Plaza in Orange County, when we noticed a rather long line coming out of the door of Rizzoli’s bookstore—which was a wonderful bookstore. We discovered that Julia Child was signing copies of her new book ”The Way To Cook” and decided to get in line. Neither of us cooked, but we had both grown up with Julia Child on TV.
A representative of the store told everyone in line that they were hold out their book, have Julia sign and move on. That she would not dedicate any of her signings was a disappointment since I was buying the book for John. It was in the spirit of maintaining absolute silence and no requests that I came to be standing in front of Julia. She watched me for a minute, with my book open before her, as if she expected me to say something. I wanted to; I think she would’ve signed it to John but I chickened out. It was a moment where I was thinking, This is Julia Child and Wow, she’s tall. Even sitting you could tell how big she was. After she signed, she waited, watching me again. (I have to say there were many people in front of me and many behind me, so I was aware of the need to keep things moving.) She seemed unconcerned with the line and asked, “How are you?” in that trademark trill. I think I mumbled, Fine, before blurting, “I think you’re great!” And she said, with a smile, “And you’re very nice.”
John loved the book, which is a First Edition, signed (though not to John), and a mess from all the years of use. The dust jacket is stained and spotted and worn; all the edges of the pages are stained. When you see it and realize the value of a signed First Edition w/dust jacket of what I believe was her bestselling book, then see the years it has spent in our various kitchens through all the stains and the occasional warped page and tiny tears, you have to think to yourself, this is how she would’ve wanted it.
August 6, 2012
A Brief History of Cats, Part 2
(The List of Cats I Have Live With in My Life continued)
7. Kali Mountain: She was a two-year old snowshoe, rescued from the SPCA in San Francisco by John. She was also the hippest cat I’ll ever know. A party cat, a shoulder-riding cat, an engaged audience who looked as if she cared when someone was trying on all the clothes in her closet and complaining about the body that she now, many years later, wishes she still had because, frankly, it would’ve been bathing suit season all year long. Kali was also smart and beautiful and excellent company. She’s the cat I’ll never quite get over.
8. JB: Also from the San Francisco SPCA. We got her at six weeks. She was a little white Manx, totally tailless, with one blue eye and one green eye and a permanent expression of worry on her little cat face.
We nicknamed her Investment Kitty because of the sixteen years of vet bills. Her list of ailments were: Ring worm, loss of tiny patches of hair due to a flea allergy even though she seldom had fleas; a brief, youthful flirtation with worms, and an alarming, rather creative anal issue that would’ve been funny had it been happening to someone else’s cat. We were told it was a “Manx thing” but I really must call bullshit because I’ve since had another Manx and there was no alarming anal business with him.
JB was shy and skittish; to wit, you couldn’t read in the same room with her or she would react to the turning of the page as if you were trying to staple her to the wall. Bolting From a Room was her primary form of exercise. She didn’t know how to play so if you dangled a cat toy in front of her, she was both fixated and terrified, as if she thought, “It begins with the dangled cat toy then progresses immediately to animal vivisection.”
She adhered to her own personal seasons. Winter found her sleeping behind a specific chair in the living room. In Spring she made her way into the upper cupboards in the kitchen in order to curl up on the stack of dinner plates. Summer, her peak season of inexplicable behavior, had her refusing to come inside the house to eat; she would mournfully meow through the open door while looking longingly inside, as if there our bungalow apartment had become a space pod with an invisible forcefield that prevented her from entering. Her days were spent sleeping under cars parked out on the baking California street, their warm oil dripping all over her snow white fur, creating a kind of furry Surrealist ice cream sundae effect. Thank god for Fall when her preferred sleeping spots were the wheel wells of trucks, alternating with getting trapped in various neighbors’ garages.
For all her time spent outside, she still needed a cat box since she only liked to use her own bathroom. We could’ve gotten rid of the box, but that wouldn’t have meant that she would take the hint and go outside. Bascially, the cat box was like an extortion payment for being urine, etc. hostages.
One final note about JB: Being tailless she hopped like a rabbit, instead of running like a normal cat, causing people to ask us if she was a “cabbit.” A cabbit. Related, I believe, to the jackalope. That many people believed our pet was the spawn of a rabbit and a cat eventually offered a a great deal of unwanted insight into some of the voting preferences in this country.
9. Pooh: Pooh was my roommate’s cat. He was an excellent cat until he went after my roommate’s parakeet, Pinot. She was out of town when the attack occurred (witnessed by Kali and JB who chose to act like urban crime witnesses who “didn’t want to get involved”). I rushed Pinot to the vet who assured me that, a few missing feathers aside, he would be “fine.” The vet should have added “for the next few hours.” When I checked on him after work, just before my roommate was due back, Pinot was as far from “fine” as a bird can get. While he was a good parakeet as parakeets go, I’m ashamed to confess that I wished he had decided to be not “fine” before I spent the time cleaning in and around his cage.
10. Otis: Our current cat. Another Manx because seemingly John and I are slow learners. Otis is a small, handsome cat with tiny Scottish Fold ears and beautiful striped markings. Though he is nearly seventeen years old, he looks remarkably young. He’s like Dorian Gray young. And like Dorian Gray, it appears that he traded his moral center for perpetual youth. The guy was a killer. Until he was thirteen, he treated our yard like private game reserve. John bagged so many tiny bodies he stopped even mentioning it; our property was a combination dog poop (we have a pair of dogs) and corpses.
Like JB, Otis is very hard to live with because he acts like a barely survived some particularly dreadful and ongoing abuse, always cringing and bolting and completely incapable of approaching an open door as anything other than a well-timed escape. (If he were abused, we would have to be the abusers since we’ve had him since he was eight weeks old and frankly, John and I are too easily bored to torture a cat. It isn’t exactly a challenge.) There is the terror of cat toys, and the inability of eating like a regular cat. First, he meows to be fed; then, after you’ve filled his bowl, you have to catch him to get him near his bowl (which we keep elevated because of our two dogs), even though he wants to eat. Petting poses another challenge in that he wants your attention but cannot tolerate your attention. So when he gets really desperate, he hunkers down and digs his nails into the rug to prevent himself from bolting. I’ll wait while you reread that phrase.
Also like JB, he has a seasonal schedule where he likes to begin his summer day at 3:30 am. (The winter schedule is 5:00 am.) He meows downstairs until he wakes one of us. Then, as one of us stumbles down the stairs, he briefly emerges from the shadows of the dining room, through the living room as if he is beelining it for the front door. BUT his fear of the open front door kicks in just in time for him to recede back into the shadows of the living room. So, you try sweet talk, then cursing, then chasing. The chase includes circling through the kitchen, dining room and living room—all of which open into each other. This must be done three times. Then one must hold the front screen open while standing as far from it as possible, while Otis keeps eyeing you with fear and suspicion. Suddenly, he will race out the door. All of this. At. 3 o’clock. In the morning. Every morning. Except in Winter, when it happens at 5 o’clock. In the morning.
The guy is a jerk. But you know how it is—he’s our jerk.
August 1, 2012
A Brief History of Cats, Part 1
Cats I have Lived With in My Entire Life
1. Kitty: Kitty was a tuxedo cat with a pair of black spots beneath her pink nose, whom my parents called “Kitty.” About a year later, Kitty had kittens and my parents renamed her “Mama Cat,” as if they were correcting a former misunderstanding (“Oh, she’s not a plain cat, but a parental cat”). These two names are clearly the sweat pants of nomenclature. Nothing says I Cannot Be Bothered. No, Really. Seriously, Don’t Ask Me Again like naming a cat Cat.
2. Kitty’s short-lived predessor, Chickie: Chickie, was also a tuxedo cat but one with a Charlie Chaplin mustache. I’ve since discovered that these cats are sometimes known as “Kitlers.” I’m not a fan of this description. Chickie, Kitty’s sibling, had a fatal accident two weeks after we got him, which is how we came to get Kitty, the future Mama Cat. The importance of Chickie’s name is that my parents did name her for an animal, even if it wasn’t a cat. The only thing I can imagine is that “Chickie” was a name-test run for “Kitty” where they somehow liked the idea of animals named for animals, but weren’t quite ready to be so minimalist. In this regard, “Chickie” can be considered part of their Baroque Period.
3. Squeaky: Here is a brief test to see if you can follow the naming logic of my parents.
Squeaky was so named because he:
A) Looked like a squeak
B) Acted like a squeak.
C) Sounded like a squeak.
I’ll help you: A) & B) make no sense.
Squeaky was a beautiful cat who was never allowed inside the house because he wasn’t neutered. If I wanted him, I had to track him down and love him outside in his urban habitat. As a kid, it was thrilling to see him up in the eucalyptus tree, or lounging around the driveway, or picking his way through the ferns or the ice plants. Days could pass without a sighting, then, suddenly, there he’d be! (As a child I had no way of knowing that this dynamic would impact my later dating life.) I thought he was the coolest cat ever, the way he lived outside and answered to no one. You’d think that given my family’s cavalier attitude toward him coupled with his banishment from our home, he find another family. Instead, he stayed and made a career of marking our house, our front door, our back door, every plant in our landscaping, the river stones in the landscaping, and the occasional, decorative boulders, every tree, the garage door, the car if it was parked in the driveway; if the garage door was left open, then he sprayed the washer and dryer, the milk bottles left by the milkman, my dad’s tool bench, and the interior walls. I once thought that he did this because he loved us so much that he didn’t want to share us with any other cat, but now I believe it was some kind of cat code, warning other cats to save themselves.
4. Mai Tai: When my parents divorced and my mother remarried, she and her new husband, in the long tradition of childless couples, got a pet—seal point Siamese, whom they named Mai Tai. Not that either of them were exactly childless, but this was the late sixties when parents were only marginally interested in their own children, and kids lived fairly unsupervised lives—you just had to be home when the streetlights came on. In those days parents were these weird sort of roommates who exploited your labor while explaining the financial realities of electricity. For example, my parents “did not own stock in the electric company.” This unasked for information would have been more helpful if I knew what “stock” was or “the electric company.”
Mai Tai was named Mai Tai because my mom and stepfather were in advertising and part of the cocktail culture and because Kitty/Mama Cat was taken and Singapore Sling was a mouthful.
5. Tai Tai: Poor Mai Tai. He was a sickly fellow who passed away within a few months. Enter Tai Tai, also a seal point Siamese. It was quickly apparent that my stepfather, along with his swinging Rusty Nail vibe, had a whole different set of pet issues: Instead of the lazy Calling a Spade a Spade approach of my parents, my stepfather was an aficionado of Repetition (Siamese) and Pattern. The naming of our consecutive Siamese cats resembled an SAT logic problem (“There are six gymnasts—Helga, Suli, Grete, Heidi, Katrina, Hanna, and Susan” then it goes on to give you limited information about their performance order, then asks you to predict the next gymnast): If Siamese One is called Mai Tai, and Siamese Two is called Tai Tai, what will Siamese Three be named?
6. Tai: Here’s your answer.
July 23, 2012
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a blog (tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, that thing where you share photos on your phone with strangers) will inevitably turn to cats. This is because the internet is pretty much cats and porn—with the occasional detour to Google Maps for directions on how best to extend the length of your journey while shortening the length of your marriage. I wonder if those twin interests define us as a culture—I mean, if we can’t have literature, ethics, critical thinking, wit, philosophy, art, music, compassion and a life of the mind, then at least we can have cats. The porn I cannot explain; I just accept it.
My friend, Padraig, warned me that once I began writing online it would only be a matter of time before I would turn to cats. I tried to fight it as long as I could (in this case, three weeks), but now I think it best to just get it over with. So Padriag, wherever you are—these next blogs are for you.
July 19, 2012
Too Much Pressure
As I ponder and fret over my next post, I’ll offer an anecdote so that my blog won’t begin to resemble our first apartment in San Francisco: A nearly empty studio (apologies to our roommates, the cockroaches—I didn’t mean to imply that your teaming hordes didn’t qualify as Something Taking Up Space) in what can only be described as a tenement, located on Lombard Street. Not the beautifully landscaped, hairpin-turns tourist Lombard Street, but the stretch of motels, cheap eateries and assorted small businesses that line the last mile or so before Golden Gate Bridge; a stretch that is also the link for the U.S.101 as it passes straight through San Francisco.
Our apartment building was a shabby three-story structure whose ground level studios had large unwashed windows with the requisite ratty curtains, and wedged between a dry cleaners and a Philippine restaurant that periodically opened long enough to allow all the tables, chairs, and heavy appliances to be moved out the front door and into a van. Two days later, all the tables, chairs and heavy appliances would be moved back inside. The same furniture and equipment. It was Ground Hog Day with lumpia.
Mostly, it was the kind of building that you would drive by and think My god, who lives there? What sort of life misstep lands you in such a place?
(Imagine my surprise when I learned the answer to the first question.)
But you know what they say, ‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s cautionary tale.’ Nothing says thank your lucky stars this isn’t you like sharing a modest apartment house with three generations of gypsies who liked to park their gutted Cadillac (complete with a wooden crate hammered to the floor for the driver) while shoehorning themselves into one of the storefront studios. We had a veritable food court of fellow tenants in addition to the gypsies: Mae La Sorta, the violent schizophrenic who liked to pour her urine out her windows and knew her way around a cane that doubled as a cudgel. She was like the ordinary late-middle-aged woman who invites you into her home for tea and you wake up three days later knowing that the chances of ending up in someone’s digestive tract are pretty good if you don’t leave, and soon.
The biker couple with the toddler parked their 1958 Harley Panhead in the middle of their street-level flat, enjoyed the occasional motorcycle “run” that included such friendly competitive events as “sausage sucking.” The wife once asked John if he thought that our neighbor—a New Wave/punk aficionado who dealt heroin from his apartment—would be interested in buying a dog collar, a costume from her former job. There was a woman who lay dead for several days before she was discovered, and a fellow with green teeth who John and I imaginatively nicknamed Green Teeth. And the quiet, bookish woman who liked her boyfriend to slap her around and lived above the two young women who insisted they were “sisters” even though they looked nothing alike and were clearly having sex with each other. They were like an incest koan.
We even had an arsonist. The clue to that guy should’ve been the time he knocked on our neighbor’s door (not the heroin dealer, or the masochist, or the “sisters” or the dead woman—she was the only other person much like ourselves, that is to say, obviously locked in some kind of karmic rental misunderstanding) looking for his sister ( one half of the Harley couple, who were also the apartment managers) convinced that she and her husband had met with “foul play” on the evidence of an old, petrified dishrag that had been clinging to life on the clothesline just outside their door. This fellow wanted to know if my neighbor had heard “anything unusual” before gazing over her shoulder into her studio apartment and making the casual observation “This looks like an extinguishing room.”
The problem with living in a place like this, is that your inner Maybe I Should Pay Attention compass no longer recognizes true north. Everything is true north: The gypsies and their weird music and weirder car that always found a parking space. In San Francisco. Where they haven’t had parking spaces since 1979. The “sisters.” Mrs. La Sorta and her bi-weekly golden shower. So when our neighbor (who was also our friend) mentioned it, we all shrugged, bid the roaches good-night and blissfully went to sleep, only to be awakened by the pounding fists of our New Wave/punk neighbor telling us there was a fire and we needed to Get out! NOW!
Instead, I rolled over to go back to sleep. Sure the building was a slum held together by wood, uncollected garbage in the basement (or what the arsonist liked to call “tinder’), and we lacked any kind of reliable fire escape, but I had to be at work by 6:30 in the morning. We didn’t live on a freeway for free.
Evacuating the premises presented another problem. Along with the roaches, we lived with a dog and two cats in a no-pet building. I believe the reasoning of our slumlord was that anything incapable of securing it’s own dinner or spreading illness, was not allowed. There were any number of housing and health violations, but you just knew that having an indoor cat would be the one to get you evicted. And saying that the cat helped keep the mice at bay, regardless of the truth of that statement, only made you sound like you had OCD.
John and my Leave-or-Stay Summit went on long enough for the firemen to locate the source of the smoke (smoldering garbage spread and lit beneath the wooden stairs leading to the basement), that we never had to gather up the pets and parade them outside where, I’m pretty sure they would’ve run off, having made the quick observation that living in the street looked like a better bet than our apartment; dooming them to a life of wondering why we didn’t choose the street too. I imagined them whispering to each other, “It’s like we don’t even know them at all, ” believing as they did that our animal pack was all in this survival business together.
About six weeks later, the sound of the sirens brought everyone in our apartment house back out into the parking area. Pedestrians walking by also came to the carport behind our building, joined by a couple of the employees from the Philippine restaurant taking, I’m guessing, a well-deserved break from relocating the furniture and kitchen appliances. Quite a crowd of onlookers had gathered. Including a pair of naked men who peered down from their darkened room to see what all the fuss was about, only to be hit by the firemen with a blinding spotlight. It was bad enough to be coitally interrupted, but to be on public display was a bridge too far. They dropped to the floor, then peeked over the window ledge like twin Kilroys, everyone’s eyes upon them confirming that yes, tonight it is all about you.
It seems that “someone” had called the fire department, because “someone” thought she “smelled smoke” coming from the building with the two naked men. She was also “someone” who sometimes smoked enough weed to have “heightened senses”, like that of hunger and humor and, it seems, olfaction. Our friend, since the night of the arson, had turned into a Phantom Smoke Smeller.
It was around this time that the neighbors made plain their irritation, and the firemen started wondering if they were the victims of a prank, that our friend made a subtle retreat on the pretext of “hearing a noise.”
I’ll try to think of something to write next time.
July 18, 2012
Some Fun Facts About My Social Media
I have five Twitter followers.
I know three of them in real life.
One of them is my boss.
I am extremely happy with these statistics.
I have 447 friends.
I consider 11% of them to be my friends.
14 are family.
I check my facebook once every 1-2 days.
75% of my messages are people asking me why I haven’t responded to them on Facebook.
100% of these people are not part of the 11% of people I consider to be my friends.
I am happy with these statistics.