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Archive for June, 2009

bye-bye, baby cat

Our Trixie died this afternoon.  She was a few weeks shy of five years old.

We had wanted a second cat and were bewildered by all the unusual conditions New England adoption centers had for taking on cats.  Home size was important, as they recommended all cats be indoor cats for their own safety and a large home was necessary to keep them from feeling cooped up.  We lived in an apartment, with a cat that was raised outdoors in the wilds of California, with kids, and were therefore considered less desirable.

We were discouraged about a number of things I recall, though not specifically what they were, until finally finding a litter of kittens that had been abandoned by their mother in the woods south of the city.  A little black ball of fluff was available, and we met the rescuers at a train station and brought her home.

She was nervous to the point of shaking, quick to startle but just as quick to purr.  On the final leg of our trip home I removed her from the carrier and carried her home tucked inside my coat where she burrowed deep, curled into a ball, and rumbled low and slow.  I named her Trixie.

What we initially took to be skittishness over her new situation clearly revealed itself to be her normal personality.  She would hide for hours at a time. She would run from room to room as if under pursuit.  Any attempt to pet her was cause to run and hide.  She didn’t like loud noises.  She had a series of hidey-holes and wouldn’t come out while there were strangers in the house.  It was months before some regular visitors ever caught a glimpse of our phantoma, although she willingly came out to be petted at the sound of some children’s voices.

Trixie was smallish, almost kitten-sized.  She would saunter into a room with a wiggle-waggle walk and jump up for a frantic session of head rubbing and belly-flopping, but could sense the most minute shift in position and be out of the room before any attempt could be made to pick her up.  Trixie would not be caught, not be held, but she was affectionate and friendly as long as the terms were hers.

She always seemed to need to be coerced to eat.  She would show up to be fed with our other cat, she knew (or learned) enough to circle between my legs, and she’d follow me as I put her food bowl on the floor but then she’d look at the bowl as if she was confused about what to do.  I thought it was her subservience to the alpha cat, but she behaved that way every day for five years, whether the boy cat was there or not.  I would have to scoot her to the edge of the bowl and stroke her back and she would relax and eat.  At the slightest noise she would dart away from the bowl, only to casually return to the kitchen hours later when she thought no one was around, to finish off whatever food was left behind by our boy cat.

Truth be told, she never seemed very bright.

But she had her moments.  She loved catnip more than any cat I’ve ever known.  She loved to tear her cardboard scratch pad to tiny shreds.  She had a perverse fondness for nesting in unlit places or among dark clothes so that all of a sudden you would notice her green eyes staring you down.  Occasionally she would bring small objects back to her hiding places like a thieving magpie.  Some flip-flops she could not resist grappling with; some flips-flops she would walk by as if they did not exist.

Lately she had taken up residency on the back of a chair next to a window overlooking the street.  From this perch she could watch the millions of bird that flock to the feeder our neighbor has in their front year.  She could occasionally watch out boy cat on the prowl around the edges of the bushes.  She would talk to the pigeons on the rain gutters – she never really learned how to meow properly – and otherwise would just nap.

Today she jumped off the back of the couch, ran in two tight circles, and then dropped right there in front of me.  Though she rarely responded to her name I called it out twice before moving closer.  I fully expected her to suddenly jump up and run off as if possessed, like she normally did when caught off guard.  She had never exhibited any symptoms of seizures but the thought of narcolepsy sprang to mind.  I want to pick her up and I was afraid to touch her at the same time.  I lifted her tail to test for response, then a leg, and letting each drop into my free hand to test for weight, resistance, anything.

Once I was sure she was gone I carefully picked her up and placed her in a box curled into her favorite position: tail tucked under and along her belly, head tucked down with a paw over her eyes.  She fit perfectly in the box and looked as natural as if she had simply crawled into it for a nap.

I called Zuska at work and told her.  I thought I sounded together but she has since told me otherwise.  She left work early so she could be home before we told the girls.  Nobody believed it at first word.  It seemed impossible that the member of the family forever called the baby cat could be gone from us.

In some ways I think I always knew she was living on borrowed time.  As part of a littler abandoned by her mother there was always that thought in my mind that they had been abandoned for a reason, that her mother’s feline intuition knew something humans never could.  In that light I like to think that we gave Trixie five years she might not have had otherwise.  She had her moments, odd and idiosyncratic and quirky, and I hope that up until the last she was able to find some peace among us in some of those moments.

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bye bye, baby cat

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Recently I’ve taken to carrying a notebook while on my morning “run” around the reservoir.  The quotes around the word reflect the fact that (a) my knees can’t take the pounding they did when I ran cross country in high school, (b) that I tend to do interval running for the cardio and, (c) I’m just an out of shape old man.  After a bit my brain sort of shuts down the hardcore thinking and I start to get ideas.  That’s what the notebook is for.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much fun it was to Tweet poems during National Poetry Month but how it seems like everyone and their pet parakeet is doing haiku.  Certainly there has to be another format that fits the Twitter limitations that could be fun.  I initially thought of the Limick but those aren’t as easy to do on the fly (or on the run, as it were) and then I found myself sort of grunting out the rhythm of the old Burma Shave roadside poems.  You know, stuff like:

train approaching
whistle squealing
pause!
avoid that
rundown feeling!

spring
has sprung
the grass has riz
where last year’s
careless driver is

red chariot
raced 80 per
they hauled away
what had
ben hur

For 36 years, between 1927 and 1963, Burma Shave advertised its “brushless” shaving cream on a series of roadside rhymes along American highways.  Divided over six planks on posts spaced out along the road, they served not only as an advertisement but as a roadside attraction that banked on poetry and humor to give motorists something to remember the product by. Many of the messages had to do with driver safety and staying neatly shaved to win over he babes, though occasionally they plied their humor toward current trends or general auto humor.

Rhythm is a tricky thing to parcel out, especially when you’re trying for the attention of a driver who also needs to keep their eye on the road.  These signs were primarily along open stretches of road where there was little competition for eyeballs (besides the landscape) and invited passengers to read along.

I’ve seen a few attempts by people to capture this in Twitter, sending each line as an individual tweet, but the problem is that the Twitter road is crowded with other messages.  The rhythm can be broken or interrupted by other mini posts along the way, sort of like having billboards in the middle of the Burma Shave posts.  Without a dedicated, unbroken stream of lines the “Burma Tweet” gets rudely interrupted and is difficult to follow.

But the format is still good.  Mostly it’s a rhyming couplet broken into five parts (the sixth was always the words Burma Shave), and generally each line of the couplet was eight syllables.  There were exceptions that played with the five lines or that altered the meter by adding or subtracting a foot here and there, but overall what mattered was humor and flow.

I managed two of my own this past week, which oddly both utilized a seven syllable line.

the fisherman
will claim his spot
precisely where
the fish
are not

summer evening
musty funk
who
alarmed
a den of skunk?

I keep thinking there’s one about the end of the school year tumbling around inside my head.  Ever get that feeling, like you can tell something in up there moving around but you can’t quite see it?  Anyway, as a change of pace from the haiku, I’m digging the Burma Shave.

Poetry Friday this week is at Carol’s Corner.

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This cracks me up.  Amazon is selling folks a membership to create blog accounts.  These blogs are then made available to other members to pay for downloads to their Kindle e-readers.  I mean, no one gets into blogging for the money, but what could Amazon hope to gain by controlling content of…

Wait.

Controlling content.  Proprietary digital book readers.  Is this why a former MIT grad I spoke to was predicting publishing as we knew it would be dead within five years, why people in the tech industry are laying bets on it?

It’s not about the blogs, it’s about testing out the means by which they can control content.  Signing up “members” is no different from signing “authors.”  One look at a POD vanity digital publishing site like Scribd or WeBooks confirms that a lot of people feel that traditional publishing serves to keep out more people that it accepts, leading frustrated writers elsewhere (even if it means signing away digital rights in perpetuity).  Right now Amazon is working with publishers to legitimize their Kindle readers, but what happens when they’ve sold hundreds of millions of these ugly white units and have the clout to demand more of a cut?  How much more?

Sky’s the limit.

Publish your blog right now and Amazon will take a 70% cut.  Nice.  So lets say you’ve got people hungry for books, authors itching to be published, and you get tired of having to share profits with publishers (and pesky authors) then what do you do?

Easy.  Hire some recently fired editors, have them bring some authors on board, skip the publishing aspects of producing a physical book, and sell directly and exclusively to Kindle owners.

No, I’m not being chicken little.  Publishing houses are practically giving away their business to Amazon right now because they don’t feel they have a choice.  There is talk that the pub industry doesn’t want to go through what the music industry did (and has) with iTunes and the popularity of MP3 file sharing.  But iTunes never aspired to become anything more than a gadget producer and retailer of content.  Amazon looks to be positioning itself as the owner and controller of content, essentially able to replace the role of the publisher and keep the monies they are currently sharing.

A 30/70 split between author and Amazon might sound better than current contracts, but once there’s no one else to negotiate with Amazon can make that split anything they want it to be.  Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t digital readers I have a problem with, it’s proprietary readers from a company easily poised to put an entire industry out of business within half a decade.  If Sony and other developers cannot nail down a digital standard that allows readers to download e-books from multiple sources, and if publishers don’t demand it, Amazon will quickly become the only game in town.

Tell me I’m wrong, tell me Amazon is perfectly happy to create these digital readers to help publishers and authors generate more income for themselves, and that they don’t have a vested interest in securing a near monopoly on how people acquire and view book content in the future.

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Uh huh.  Back in 1981.  Sort of.

PostSecret is the confessional website and book collection of secrets sent in anonymously by strangers to be shared with the world.  It began as a blog back in the 90s and has since taken off and invited imitators the world over.  It’s an odd world where confessional goes public, turning us all into voyeurs and participants, and I read the weekly posts for a variety of reasons.  I won’t pretend that I don’t occasionally read these confessions for story seeds.  Also, I like to play a game where I imagine one of the submitted “secrets” is actually fake and try to guess which seems least likely.

But back to me – it is a blog after all – I was in college and staring down my first summer away from home.  I was working, but what I was really craving was to come home to some mail that wasn’t a bill or a magazine.  The local free weekly paper, The East Bay Express, had 25 word free personal ads and on a whim I decided to find a way to plea for mail.  Digging up an old high school nickname I filed the following personal:

I want all knowledge NOW!  Send me everything you know.  Mr. All Knowledge, 2424 Haste Street, Berkeley, CA.

I didn’t have high expectations, but because the deadline for the following week’s ads would come before I figured to see a response I sent in an ad for the following week as well.  The day I mailed my second ad I received a postcard with the following:

Peggy S. is not a virgin.  She slept with a man on Novemeber 19, 1980.  Peggy S. is a bitch.

What the hell?!

This was the only piece of “knowledge” I received from my first ad, but it was exciting.  I read it several times during the week and each time I felt a jolt of adrenaline.  Was it real?  did the person who sent it imagine I knew this Peggy, and that she had been lying about her virginity?  What would compel a person to want to share that information, why tell a stranger?

Obviously, if the Internet had been invented back in 1981 (okay, so there was an internet, but not the one we currently know and love) I would have done all this electronically and posted the results, and, essentially, have invented PostSecret.  Because it didn’t stop with that one postcard.  For the next two years I posted ads in the Express and received responses from strangers, sometimes as many as 10 letters and postcards a day.  There were crazy cranks who wrote their tortured life stories in minuscule print from one edge of the page to another.  There were regulars who sent in their updates of what they had for lunch the previous week.  And there were those who, in the spirit of expression, provided me with drawings and collages that entertained more than they informed.  Some contributors became regulars who would send me trivia and general letters about their lives, and I actually met a half dozen people who wanted to meet me in person.

One day I came home and found a business card tucked into my mailbox.  A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner had handwritten a request to interview Mr. All Knowledge.  After a few days of phone tag we finally spoke.  The reporter asked me why I did it, what I was planning to do with all this knowledge.  I don’t remember what I said but it seemed she was bored with the conversation from the word go, almost as if she had been assigned a task she detested.  The call didn’t last five minutes and she hung up without so much as a suggestion of a follow-up or the promise of a news feature.  I was a 22 year old kid without a clue and over 1000 pieces of mail sent to me anonymously containing any matter of strange information.

Three years into the Reagan presidency the mood of frivolity seemed to evaporate.  I kept placing ads but people stopped participating.  I went weeks without anything but the occasional contact with regulars.  I filled out one final personal ad thanking everyone for all the knowledge they sent and moved on.

A few years later I was teaching in the public schools.  It didn’t take long before I began noticing wadded up pieces of paper in odd corners of my classroom, some of them not far from trash cans.  Where I once might have grumbled as I tidied up at the end of the day something compelled me to open one of these paper bombs.

Notes.  Notes passed back and forth in class.  Notes too dangerous to be seen throwing out or caught reading so they were tossed into corners of the room when no one was looking.  I began looking.

The availability of notes waxed and waned, with little rhyme or reason.  Sometimes they were short blasts back and forth confirming plans or making snide comments, no different than today’s text and IMs. Once in a while there’d be a full on letter, explaining why young lovers could no longer go on seeing one another, or flat out warnings that someone was going to get hurt if things didn’t change.  I was never able to make out the authors of these notes.  It was almost as if the writers took on a different persona in their penmanship when not writing for class assignments.

There was only one note that prompted me to respond.  In it, one boy informs another boy how to possess an illegal junk gun and where they will meet to “take down” a certain other boy.  There was a day, and an “after school,” but not a time or place.  I photocopied the note and left it anonymously for the principal, I kept the original for myself.  There was some very convoluted thinking on my part, but the last thing I wanted was for word to go out that it came from me picking up notes found on the floor and be fingered as the “untrustworthy” teacher.  Teaching is hard enough.  The principal notified the authorities, the police had undercover officers who took care of the rest.  Apparently it was drug related.

When I “retired” from teaching I decided to join the burgeoning ‘zine revolution and was going to publish selections from the letters I’d collected into four digest-sized volumes.  Notes in Class was sent out to review publications like Factsheet Five and other ‘zines in the hopes I could generate some interest and maybe – just maybe – turn it into some kind of a book.  I photocopied a print run of 50 and at waited for people respond.

I sold three and gave away about twenty for the word-of-mouth.  Then I moved and lost the original letters and the three remaining volumes of Notes in Class.  It was okay, though, no one seemed to miss it.

From all this one might assume that I am bitter about these experiences, about my failure and the success of others to do what I once tried.  I am not.  These ventures were not my destiny, they were not what my life has been building toward.  And there are plenty more examples that, I’m fairly certain, we all share where our ideas become manifest in the hands of others.  I know so many people who at some point in their lives have had the opportunity to say “I had an idea for a movie exactly like that eight years ago” or “I just finished researching a book about that last week, and now Publisher’s Weekly says two houses are putting out similar books this fall!” This is so common that a season doesn’t pass where someone is taking someone else to court to sue of the theft of their “original” idea.  Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they win, but mostly they don’t because, well…

Because it happens.  You could run with Jung’s theory of synchronicity and the collective unconscious or the idea that the muses like to hedge their bets and spread the love in the hopes that one of their seeds will bear fruit.Ideas are out there, and everyone has them, and sometimes “originality” is simply a question perspective.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t “invent” PostSecret.  Perhaps I was merely one of it’s caretakers along the way, waiting for time and technology to catch up and make it possible.  But it doesn’t surprise me that it’s as popular as it is.  We are social animals, and we like to share what we have.  Our secrets may be the one thing truly ours no one can lay claim to.  Though we may occasionally sit at home and play games imagining they are fake, our memories and experiences cannot be taken away or made invalid.

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I have spent the better part of the day – maybe six hours all told but it could be pushing eight – writing a total of five pages.  They obviously did not come easy.  Every word in every line feels wrong, every motivation stilted.  It’s pushing 1 AM and I am reluctant to quit for the day despite my fatigue because I don’t feel I’ve done enough to justify sleep.

I  write a few lines, I back up several paragraphs to regain momentum, scrawl another line, stop.  I read and reread.  I see where I’ll have to go back and work dialogue, make the characters voices distinct.  I spot details I will have to back-fill.

I so want to quit this story.

I cannot beleive this simple story doesn’t want to be told, at least not at this time.

I feel like one of my freakin’ characters, trapped in the darkest part of their journey, steeped in bleek and certain I’ll never find my way out.  All well and good, because I need to be able to feel that in order to properly convey that same feeling through my character, but why the hell can’t I get the characters into this spot?  Why am I on the inside and they’re on the outside?

These are the moments where we go in search of the impossible, the ridiculous.  I want a mysterious stranger to deliver the magic pebble, or secret map.  A little personal deus ex machina, if you will.  Just this once, just to get over the hump.

I know, I signed up for this.  No one said it would be easy.  I know.  I know.

Crap.

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the enemy within

Many a folk I have seen these last few days redirecting to Maria Kalman’s blog at the NYT discussing the lives of soldiers in these modern times.  Take a moment to look it over.

You notice the oath at the beginning, the “soldier’s oath” as it is called?  That’s the military version of the standard loyalty oath for this country, the one issued to government officials and employees who are charged with the responsibilities and duties that affect the lives of other citizens.

It is similar to the oath public school teachers are asked to take.  And as a former teacher I took exception to the wording of this oath.

In particular, to the phrase “uphold and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  Defend how?  What enemies, and who decides?  Who will dictate and interpret how I will carry out this oath?

These questions haunted me.  I was about to enter a classroom and be charged with the moral, ethical, emotional, and intellectual education of young minds, and yet I was also being asked to take an oath to defend the constitution from potential enemies.  Would my students and their beliefs be the enemies I was to address in battle?  Would I find myself advocating on their behalf against the administration and parents in battles over their constitutional freedoms?

If it sounds like I am making light of this, trust me, I am not.  When I was first confronted with this oath I was nearing my 25th birthday.  The Cold War was very much with us, communists were still a major threat to our way of life in some people’s minds.  I studied the language of that oath hard, recognizing it for what it was: a contract.  Above all else I was expected to do – the lesson plans and hall monitoring, the classroom displays and parent conferences – I was being told up front that nothing was more important that defending and upholding the tenants of our country’s founding document.

And I couldn’t do it.  At least not the way it was worded.

If it weren’t for my youthful idealism – that same idealism that drives people into the military – I would not have gone into teaching in the first place.  It was that same idealism that finally pushed me to modify the language of the oath before signing it and handing it in with my first contract.  I crossed out “uphold and defend” and wrote in “teach and explain,” and crossed out “enemies” and wrote in “students” so in the end the line read:

I swear to teach and explain the Constitution of the United States to all students, foreign and domestic…

There was a chance they would not allow any alteration of the wording, or more likely, that they simply wouldn’t hire me for fear of my being a troublemaker.  But my papers were accepted without question.

As I read Maria Kalman’s piece I found myself getting angrier and angrier for all the attention the military receives for its efforts that our education does not.  Soldiers are trained not to walk blindly through a doorway but we expect our teachers to enter hostile territory every day.  Where is the specialized training that prepares teachers to “defend” this Constitution?  How are teachers expected to “uphold” our rights to free speech when they themselves are denied it in the classroom?  And who determines which of our students are enemies of the state?

Our teachers get no holiday in memorial for their services, they get no body armor or trauma centers thoguh they are expected to enter war zones and accept combat pay, they are not given the latest tools in their defense, nor does their funding come with the same priority as our military.  Yet every soldier serving in defense of our nation must pass through our educational system first.  I would hope that our public education system was something more than the childcare center for future soldiers, instilling within them the basics of order and discipline and the basic training necessary to become fighting, non-thinking machines, but I fear that is all we have become.

The argument for our current war is that if we do not fight the enemy abroad we will be forced to fight them at home.  The fact is, the enemy is here.  The enemy is fear and ignorance.  And we will never be successful abroad unless we can prove to be successful at home.

I’d like to see our military spend more time defending and upholding the Constitution here at home.

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