Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Cats

                I am not a cat person. I am a world person.
                I feel the need to clarify. I promise this blog isn’t going to descend into some kind of bizarre pagan worship of my cats. If I’m going to start worshipping animals, frankly it will be my dog. My wife likes to joke that I love my dog better than her. At least, I think she’s joking.
                I say ‘world person’ because it doesn’t even seem right to say ‘animal person,’ since I also love plants, people, mountains, beaches, language, architecture…you get the picture.
                Anyway, I was going to write about my cats today. I’ll apologize to those who find other people’s pet stories tedious. I never have. This brain of mine has catalogued the many pet stories people have shared with me. They are all wonderful because animals are just as funny, strange, and notorious as human beings. These secondhand pet stories are probably burning up valuable space on my cranial harddrive, space which could be used for other things. I can never remember, for instance, which one’s the radius and which is the diameter. In the end, though, I guess my brain-attic (if I can paraphrase Sherlock Holmes) is really a storage area for things that make me laugh.
                So I have these cats. Two to be precise, though at times it feels like more. They are both “rescues.” One was the runty kitten of a feral cat—her mom abandoned her one rainy day, probably because she had an eye infection. Maybe it’s because of her feral genes or perhaps because she never got breastmilk, but she’s got a bad case of kitty ADD, if there is such a thing. We took her in while I was working on my Master’s thesis. I can still recall, as I typed away on my computer, the jingle-jingle-jingle of her collar as she blitzed from room to room to room. All. Day. Long. She’s gotten a little bigger and a lot fluffier, but I would never say she’s “grown up.” She’s also high-strung and easily ruffled, a dainty princess with claws.
It’s impossible to imagine my other cat being a kitten. Ever. He was probably born fully-grown with a scarred face and fire in his belly. He’s a fat brown stray that dominated the neighborhood until we locked him up in our old apartment (he’s never really forgiven us for that). He’s got that sort of gravitas bigger cats have, like he’s a half-ton lion instead of a sixteen pound tabby. When I vacuum, I’ve known dogs to flee the room. My tom, however, will not move until I threaten to suck up his tail along with the dust. Even then, he’s slow and deliberate, making it clear that it was his choice to get up.
His ears are notched and he managed to get fat living on the street. Taken together these indicate he was a practiced bully long before we took him in. Naturally, he intimidated our other cat whenever he got the chance. When she was younger and unable to outrun him, he would catch her, push her to the ground, and sit on her. She would claw at his face like an angry little sister, but he could pin her and keep his face away at the same time because his legs were so long. This would go on until she erupted into feverish screeching and a human (or sometimes a dog) would intervene.
                This dynamic changed, however, when the tom lost his sight.
                If I can be sanctimonious for a moment, I’d like to say something about letting cats outside. Cats are killing machines honed by millions of years of evolution. Letting them out destroys your local fauna. Here in Florida, for instance, our green anoles are in trouble and letting cats out doesn’t help. In Hawaii, cats rained devastation on the beautiful indigenous birds.
                Aside from environmental concerns (“yeah, shut up hippie” you’re saying to me now), you might also want to keep your cat indoors for their health. I say this because my tom’s time on the streets came at a heavy toll: he carries the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). For those that don’t know, FIV is the cat version of AIDS. It’s an elegant example of viral opportunism. Whereas HIV passes through humans’ favorite behavior—sex—FIV is transmitted through cats’ favorite behavior: fighting.
                His brawling days left a lot more than scars. The FIV robbed him of all his back teeth (despite some expensive dental work). But it wasn’t done yet.
                One day he was being quiet. I noticed his irises looked very strange. I rushed him to several different vets with varying degrees of helpfulness before the ophthalmologist could see him. (Yes, by the way, there are veterinary ophthalmologists…and they’re great).
                I learned he has glaucoma (I also learned a little about anatomy/physiology, with comparisons between cat, dog, and human eyeballs. I must say: A good practitioner is as much teacher as healer). It’s likely my cat’s weakened immune system let something in, though the exact cause was never found (despite some pricey testing). The pressure built up in his right eye so quickly that the lens popped out from behind the iris, giving his eye an eerie appearance. The lesson here, boys and girls, is that if somebody’s eye looks weird get them to a doctor. I probably don’t have to tell most of you that, though. As soon as I saw his pupils weren’t dilating I threw him in a darkened room and called the vet. There are some things you just don’t dawdle over. Eyes are one of them.
                We tried very hard to save his sight—but the damage was done. The ophthalmologist said it would take a couple months for him to adjust. Evidently cats adapt very well to going blind. Their standard equipment—long whiskers, sharp hearing, excellent smell—are designed to keep them operational on moonless nights anyway. Obviously, this doesn’t mean they can survive on their own—but in a controlled environment like a house, they’re fine.
                So we brought our battered old tom home. He was cautious, not like his usual self at all. He became a two dimensional creature, keeping to the floors. Within a couple weeks, he was friendly and outgoing again, but quieter and no longer a bully. He’d always enjoyed cuddling with whoever was available: people, dogs, even shiftless toddlers (though almost never the other cat). Here was evidence that he was okay with life again, that his old personality had reasserted itself.
                Huh, I thought. The vet was wrong. My stubborn ol’ tom adjusted in just two weeks!
                I figured that the new sedate behavior and slow movements were permanent changes. As is often the case, I should have listened to the expert.
                A couple months after he went blind, I found him on my kitchen table. I thought it was pretty rash of him, so I picked him up and put him on the floor. Later I came back and the furry lunatic was up there again.
                He started climbing up the couch, too. He’d even rest on the back, with his furry paunch hanging off the side. Nevermind that he couldn’t see—he’d feel the damn edges with his paws, thank you very much.
                Pretty soon he was running. Not sprinting or anything—he wasn’t a hasty cat to begin with—but he’d get a good head of steam going and charge across the house as if he saw perfectly. If something were in his way—like a toddler toy—his whiskers would detect it seconds before an impact and he would “bounce” away without touching it.
                The eeriest thing, though, was how he would “watch” people. He’d come into a room and, I assume from our breathing and subtle shifting of clothes, deduce where a person was. Then he would stare. With that creepy lens-out eye of his. He can follow a person so astutely that several times I wondered if he had his sight back.
                Then, of course, he’d run into something, which still happens once in a while when he’s just rolled out of bed and is still groggy (Of course I often run into things when I get out of bed and I can’t blame glaucoma).
                One day my tom came into the living room at canine dinner time. He followed the crunching sounds and then tried to take the food. Despite the snarling mongrel. (Before you pity the dog, know that he tries to steal the cat’s dinner whenever possible. Food has always been—and probably always will be—a stressful subject in the Beats household.)
                The final development came not long after he irritated the dog. I was sitting on the sofa watching TV. In came the old blind cat. He smelled the floor, felt around with his whiskers, and found the fluffy princess. He paused over her and sniffed. She didn’t run. The bully had been replaced by this gentle old tom, right?
                Wrong. The blind cat raised his paw and delivered a solid swat to her face.
                She hissed and ran away.
                That was when I realized what the vet meant when he said two months for the adjustment.
                My cat was truly back—bad habits and all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Your First Serving of Word-Mousse

Have you seen Lindsey Stirling? If you answered in the negative, you should. Now.

Or maybe you shouldn’t. I have a strong suspicion she’s not human. She’s probably some kind of changling-pixie that slipped over to our world so we foolish mortals could amuse her. Don’t believe me? Look at her in elf ears.

Case closed.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, she dances around exotic places on YouTube while sawing away on a violin. She works out harder playing music than I do when I’m actually working out.

There’s something wonderful about fiddling and dancing. I felt the same way when I first saw Vanessa Mae. You’d think I’d be inured by now. But I’m not. It’s bizarre because when pop divas dance around, it irritates me. I guess that’s because anyone can run around and yell something—toddlers do it all the time. But run around and play a violin? That takes skill. The only way Stirling could top herself is if she juggled citrus with her feet while playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” (For those of you that didn’t know, “Flight of the Bumblebee” is capital H, capital C, Hard Core.)

Her violin does more than just impress musically, though. It somehow makes the videos more sensuous. When I watch them I feel like I should keep one eye on the door and my mouse-icon over the Close Window option. Her movies are one of the most sensuous things on the internet, in spite of or perhaps because she keeps her clothes on.

Yes, we’re talking about the same internet.

I know a tiny bit about instruments. I give my saxophone mouth-to-mouth from time to time and I’m even able, on occasion, to revive it. I've always felt there’s something intimate about them. It’s easy to forget this with concert music, but it’s glaringly obvious when you see the blues. Those guys aren’t just sweating because of the stage-lights, my friend.

The reason I said you probably shouldn’t see her is because these fairy-musician incidents never end well. We mortals inevitably come out looking like idiots. I keep expecting to wake up one morning and discover that the pixie-fiddler has absconded with our nation’s children—all forty million of them—à la the Pied Piper. Let’s be honest: if that woman played the Come Hither, could you say no?

I sure as hell wouldn’t. I mean couldn’t. I meant to say couldn’t.

It’s the pixie-glamour talking, I swear.

Jesus, I hope my wife doesn’t read this one.

Next Week: I may go back to musings on dark stuff, which seems to happen anyway. I realize now that my "pixie-child-abduction-conspiracy" piece may not be so light after all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

French for "black"

Noir has always been a tenacious trend in literature and film. It never really dies. When it goes out of fashion it just retreats to a back alley somewhere and skulks, patient as a mugger. Since I conceived Cruel Numbers I’ve become more and more interested in it. It’s as if the act of writing a noir novella was what finally cued me to how much I love the style.

Noir started in the 1940s as gritty, cynical, and more than a little angry. Classic noir is about jaded characters in trench coats and fedoras swapping bullets and fists with gangsters or corrupt cops. An attractive dame—the quintessential femme fatale—is a must. The hero can’t trust her. In fact, he can’t trust anyone, as evidenced in the convoluted, almost disorienting plots of most noir.

Over time the style has grown and matured. Authors realized that rainy skies, filthy streets, and fedoras weren’t essential. These helped, of course, but noir is about attitude, language, and plot. This is epitomized in the movie Brick. If you haven’t seen Brick, you need to. It’s quintessential noir…except that it’s in a high school, which proves that attitude is always more important than setting.

Personally, I feel first person narration is vital. The best film noir always has wry voiceovers. Payback and Sin City are great recent examples. Noir is black humor, gallows humor. It chuckles at how unfair life is without getting sanctimonious. The characters are survivors, not crusaders. They do the right thing sometimes—but it usually bites them in the ass.

When I was younger, I felt a little embarrassed by my affection for first person prose. Most stories nowadays are in the third person. When I encountered the brilliant science fiction writings of Roger Zelazny, however, I read an author who also loved the first person and in a way, this freed me. Zelazny’s narrators showed that to really understand a world, you need to view it through a native's eyes.

First person also lets a writer do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally do. The only way to deliver the gritty observations about human nature essential to noir is to have the story told by a hard-boiled protagonist. By going into the protagonist’s head, we stumble across those weird connections that inevitably crop up in someone’s mind. That makes for wild similes and metaphors that would never—and I mean never—fly in other books or movies. At least one person who read my book said he “winced” when he read certain lines. My response? Good. Ever see Casablanca? Julius Epstein said that Casablanca had “more corn than the states of Iowa and Kansas combined. But when corn works, there’s nothing better.”

I love Casablanca. I especially love it because it’s noir without a detective or a mystery or almost any action. It demonstrates that in the end, the best stories are about characters. Aside from flashbacks, all of Casablanca takes place in a few nightclubs and briefly at an airstrip. The bulk of the movie centers around intense personal struggle. Which makes it about people. And their cheesy one-liners.

The newest wave of noir has done more than change the setting. It has shifted the very world it takes place in. Noir has mated with magic to create the wizard Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) and mashed every genre imaginable in the Nightside’s John Taylor (Simon Green).  The cross pollination of Steampunk and noir was inevitable. There’s a movie coming out with Mark Hamill along these lines. I would argue though that it’s not the first. Gerard Depardieu appeared in a film that blended the two styles well, though I suppose some might argue it wasn’t really Steampunk, since that element was pretty light.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was worried how well Steampunk Noir would go over. In some ways, Steampunk is optimistic, upper class oriented, and perhaps a bit logical. Noir is cynical, delightfully lowbrow and above all, about guts. Noir heroes prevail because they ignore all conventions and trust their instincts. They work outside or against the system, a sort of lingering admission that laws, governments—most other humans in fact—cannot be trusted. If you don’t look out for yourself, who will?

That’s why noir keeps coming back. Periodically we realize that the guys in charge really don’t know what they’re doing. No one does. We’re all groping along, children lost in the woods. Some of us have good ideas, but those ideas never seem to survive the cacophony of greed and stupidity that dominates wider society.

Which brings me to the final aspect of noir: rage. Noir protagonists always seem to have rage. Sometimes it’s a cool, controlled rage like Porter planning his intricate revenge in Payback. Other times, it’s a detective like Bud White in LA Confidential ripping chairs apart with his bare hands. Whatever the temperature, it’s always there.

I found a reason for this, oddly enough, in Eije Yoshikawa’s epic Musashi. A Zen priest named Takuan states that wise men don’t get angry over small things. They only rage about injustice. In that context, a noir protagonist can be seen as the only wise man in the story. His anger is inversely correlated to the drooling, sheep-eyed apathy of those around him.

In Donovan’s case, the anger comes from the rapid, seemingly soulless change of his world. Steampunk naturally becomes a conduit for noir when it acknowledges the horrific injustices of the 19th century. In the 1800s, a handful of men acquired grotesque levels of wealth while thousands starved or rotted away from disease. The ancient human safety net of the traditional village system—tens of thousands of years old—gave way to the Darwinian struggle of urban jungles. In a word, the problem was modernity. To paraphrase Steven King’s Gunslinger series: “the world moved on.” That isn’t a slam on progress, it’s a frank assessment that when society changes, people suffer. If you want to feel better about 19th century America or England, by the way, read up on the USSR’s forced transition into modernity. That was so brutal that our transition looked gentle by comparison.

In a way, my attempt to highlight changing society is an homage to original film noir, which started around World War II. Many people today see the 1950s as a ‘golden age,’ but for most folks, it was anything but. The economy stagnated in three separate recessions between 1945 and 1960 despite the postwar building boom and programs like the Marshal Plan. After “saving the world,” WWII veterans returned to humdrum, seemingly purposeless lives, surrounded by people who didn’t understand what they went through (think Frodo when he returns to the Shire after his jaunt to Mordor). Despite partly running the economy while many young men were away at war, despite the fact many of them received educations and wanted to develop careers, women were largely forced into the domestic sphere by returning GIs, though not without complaint. Farming became mechanized and family operations were devoured by corporate mega-agriculture.  The American city population finally outgrew the rural. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeomen farmers was dead. We became a nation of cities, with all the good and bad that implied.

Although not all noir deals with change, I’ve come to associate the two. This is because as a historian, I’ve studied dramatic changes across time. Sweeping economic trends like the plantation or industrial systems shatter old methods and ruin lives. In the face of these monumental developments, the individual seems powerless, like an ant looking up at a steamroller. That powerlessness is perfect for noir. The protagonist doesn’t so much change history as mitigate the damage. In noir, simple survival is often victory enough.

Please note that not all the links above are noir. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Feminine Mystique are just there to illustrate a point about changing society. And Alan Greenspan is just Alan Greenspan.

Next week: To illustrate that I'm not always this dreary, I'll write something fun. Like about fairies or something.