Week Three: Shields and Scars

My assignment this week is to write about the parts of me that I like. Today is not that ideal day for this task; nor was yesterday or the day before that. For weeks my flaws graffiti the walls of my thoughts. Every weakness and failing highlighted in neon. I could write an encyclopedia of failures, from the mundane to the spectacular. But I am to write about attributes I like…about…me.

At my core, a hard nub of self-doubt resides in a warm little pool of humor. Without the humor, I would at best be Eeyore, and at worst be the human black hole sucking joy out of every moment of my life. Thank the gods (you should say, right now, in your most devout way) for that little bit of laughter. It has been my shield and my comfort for all my adult life. I don’t overstate when I say that without my deflecting wit, I would not have been able to navigate the overwhelming chasm between my introversion and the grand society of The Others. In that carbon blot of self-doubt, I have always known that I know nothing, that I have no grace, that I cannot compare, that I will never catch up to where The Others started, that I am no more special than a grain of sand, that I have nothing to say. And then, while not nullifying that knowledge, my humor allows that a person who knows nothing, and yet embraces that as true, in fact has possession of some quantity of information. And then I smile, knowing that while graceless I may be, the argument was perhaps a little elegant. And then I self-efface my ignorance, while pointing out that The Others might in truth have missed something that only a fool might see.

There. I do treasure my shield and use it daily.

And then there are the two long scars on my knees. The right one runs vertically to the right of center. The left one is more equidistant, but less vertical. One puckers a little. The other is finer, and its lower inches are barely visible. I adore them both. My fingers often massage them when I’m thinking hard about something. It is a motion that evolved over the years of the increasing pain, when the cartilage stripped away and each femur ground into the top the tibias, leaving the living bone pocked and degraded. These were the years my knees gave out climbing into the bleachers, and I fell onto strangers, the years when I could not move from my seat at a Broadway show until the joint snapped back into working order. And these were the years my gait changed into equal parts sideways motion combined with forward motion. My duck years.

Knee replacement surgery is violent. The surgeon cut my bones off and fitted joints of titanium and plastic over the truncated ends. Everything else involved – muscle, nerve, blood vessels, skin – was thoroughly man-handled in the two operations, which each lasted only a few minutes. Two small areas of numbness remain to this day, each on the outer sides of the joints, where the nerves never quite recovered. My fingers rub those areas too, without conscious thought, as if the digits are confused by these lost places within my body, and entertain hope that prodding will make everything right again. Nerves don’t work that way.

So there are two impressive scars on my fat knees. I wasn’t going to start wearing short skirts anyways, so my vanity is not ruffled. Instead, I climb stairs fluidly, I merge into the concert crowds without hesitation, and I can walk from Boston’s Commons all the way to Chinatown for noodles. And only a shadow of my old companion, the chronic pain of the joints grinding away, stays in my memory, and stirs my fingers to rub, rub, rub the pale white lines.

Posted in Kim Hannigan | Tagged | 6 Comments

Duet, March 1987

The woman rides the escalator up from the Red Line. Her plastic rain coat matches her red glasses. It billows around her, filling with a damp gust of subway air. She wraps the coat around her chest, catching her silhouette reflected in the glass of a Calvin Klein advertisement. She likes the way that the red coat is dramatic, the length hitting mid-calf, the shoulders padded. She almost looks thin within its folds.

The subway dumps her into the canyonlands of suburban Maryland. Bland high-rise condos sprout up everywhere, their horizontal lines of windows blinking against the damp night. Reflected light stains the sky maroon to gray. It is getting late for a Monday night. She walks across the puddled stones, her feet splashing reflected neon and traffic lights. She puts up her hood, and waits to cross the street. His building is two blocks, that way.

The man walks out of Alice’s in Old Town. There isn’t a line at Hard Times. He thinks about walking across the street; chili makes sense on a night like this. But he doesn’t. His car is back at the office, and he was expected home hours ago. Crazy wife number two waits in a two bedroom apartment in Fairfax County. Their development is called Meadow Woods. He usually jokes that it has neither one, but his wife never gets it. The rain picks up as he walks down King Street toward his office.

At least there’s no traffic at this hour. He drives down Route 1, past the lights of the Dixie Pig. Past the Bombay Donut Shop. The Donut Hole of Calcutta, he thinks, and smiles. His wife wouldn’t get that either. The car lights bleed into pillars on the highway. He shouldn’t have stayed for one more drink. And the one after that. It would be simpler to just continue driving, let the road lead him down into the darkness of Virginia. He thinks about doing that as he turns into Meadow Woods.

Posted in Kim Hannigan | Tagged | 7 Comments

No, That’s Not a Chocolate (A Revenge Tale)

A new blogging challenge has started, with weekly topics suggested by bloggers in the group.

The topic for the first week of February: crimes, misdemeanors, mischievous acts, acts of revenge, revenge fantasies, or felony murders. Any length. Puns or other forms of wordplay optional. Killing adjectives prohibited, unless that’s part of some twisted revenge fantasy.

Here goes.


Cats understand the purpose of revenge, purrfectly.*

I once knew a cat named Emily who lived with two lovely humans in a gorgeous apartment in Nyack, New York. Emily, a neat-pawed tabby, also lived with another feline companion whose name has not survived in my memory. This other cat, obviously, lacked the certain qualities that made Emily indelible: her dramatic flare for creating horror, her nonchalance in the face of death, and her impeccable acts of revenge.

The apartment was one-half of the second floor of an old Tudor-style mansion. I remember the rooms filled with light during the days, the sun streaming through little diamonds of glass. At one end of the apartment, just off the living room, a French door opened onto a stone balcony. The bedrooms were at the opposite end, down a long hallway. Emily’s people owned beautiful art, mostly paintings, and had a knack for collecting and displaying interesting objects. Plants climbed around the window frames and curled into the dark places. In the living room there were no curtains, so the effect was airy, almost like a conservatory room, and a glorious place for cats to thrive.

I spent one summer apartment-sitting, and theoretically cat-sitting, for Emily’s people. I had never lived around architectural beauty, having been raised in a house coated with sheet paneling and lowered, Styrofoam ceilings. The plaster walls and dark ceiling timbers, the iron leading the windowpanes together, the warm, polished wood floors – this apartment woke some part of my soul to the possibility of living within beauty, rather than outside of it. I spent the whole summer wandering about the rooms as if in a museum, barely daring to touch and worried that I would inevitably break something.

Emily watched, and didn’t care one bit.

I came in one night from my horrible summer job at a small diner attached to a motel. It was the kind of place with one “regular” guy hanging out at the counter drinking coffee, poking fun at “the girls” working there, while few actual customers straggled in during the shift. I had no car, so I had walked up from downtown Nyack to the residential neighborhoods in the dark. The odor of grease followed me like a shadow. When I opened the apartment door, Emily announced she had never been fed. She stalked ahead of me down the hallway to the kitchen, her tail straight up like a flag over her back. I emptied cat food into the small bowls, and then made my own uninspired late supper. I carried my plate into the living room, to the small table against the wall. A modernist painting hung over the table, a hollow-eyed Madonna and child inspired by exhausted 20th century pessimism. I understood her sad despair, this poor woman. I sat with the wall to my shoulder and opened a book to read while eating.

Emily jumped onto the table and watched me, then looked at the wall, her gaze slipping over my head a bit now and then. She licked her paws, carefully. She looked at my plate and then let her eyes drift up over my head again. She stared. Her golden eyes widened. Everything about her small cat body stiffened; she quaked slightly, and her nose twitched. I could not take my eyes off this obviously terrified creature. There was something behind me, just over my shoulder, that had reduced this normally self-assured cat to a rictus of fear. Suddenly I was terribly aware that there were no curtains on these windows and that each small dark pane was open to the eyes of all evil hosts to look in, to see me, bathed in a small, silly little bit of weak light. I could die in this light, reeking still of fry oil and cigarettes. Slowly I gathered my strength and turned my head, ever so slightly.

Just the Madonna and her lifeless child. Nothing else was behind me.

When I turned back, Emily yawned and washed her paws again.

Lesson learned: It is best to not give way to the terrors a cat can dream up.

When Emily’s people returned, I stayed on for a couple of weeks. I thought I was extending my visit because they would enjoy my company. In fact, I was unable to leave their beautiful home just yet and return to my uglier world. The fact that I had no responsibility for Emily was a great relief.

The on a Saturday morning, Emily attacked the leg of a chair with her claws, and her human sprayed her with the water bottle. This was normal behavior by both. Emily would threaten total destruction, and the humans would tell her “not now” in the most nonlethal way possible. Usually this resolved by Emily hiding out in a cubby hole for a bit, maybe a shoe might be attacked, but then treats would be given and all forgotten. Only this Saturday was anything but usual. Something burrowed down into Emily’s soul that day and awoke a litany of wrongs suffered at the hands of her people. She could not forget and chew on a shoelace. Plans had to be made.

I heard his voice echoing down the hall from their bedroom. These were not people who yelled. I heard him swearing all the way as he stormed toward the living room. The Madonna heard him. Her child almost woke. He clutched Emily in his arms, and she was yowling. He threw open the French door and tossed Emily right off the end of the balcony into a tree. He was not a storming sort of person, nor a throwing a cat into a tree sort of person. Emily, totally unhurt, raged from the center of a Hemlock. Her human raged back.

Emily’s revenge had been two-fold. She had vomited a hairball into a nice pair of wing-tipped shoes. But more importantly, she had deposited the most singularly smelly poop to the center of a pillow on her humans’ bed. This cat had monstrous skill, and an apparent ability to control her bodily functions beyond normal cat capabilities.

Lesson learned: Revenge might have been invented by cats.

And yes, she survived the toss into the tree. She climbed down and met her humans at the door; then she stalked up the stairs with her tail waving over her back. She strolled through the apartment as if nothing had conspired, no yelling, no yowling. Had she met Death himself right then, she would have just dismissed him with a flick of an ear. She sat in the beautiful squares of sunlight that fell through old windows, and her golden eyes blinked slowly as she purred.


*That was intended, by the way, just to show that I can stoop to that lowest of verbal humor, the pun. I usually rely on sarcasm, irony, or absurdity to get a laugh. But I married a punster, and therefore find my life chock full of puns. And groans.

Posted in beauty, cats, Kim Hannigan, Musings | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Proof That I Cannot Write A Valentine

I sat down yesterday to write about Valentine’s Day, and this happened. Perhaps another day, I will sit down to write about heartbreak, and a bubblegum pop lyric will erupt. Who knows? This is still not finished, but I’m “airing it out.” Figure if I shake it hard, like a throw rug, the dust and cat hair will fly loose, and perhaps there will be a poem in the end. Eventually there will be a title.

The tide kept changing the cream-colored foam line
in a little, back a little, a subtle dent forming in the sand
where each lick ended and the next didn’t quite meet.

The dull sky and a cold wind, full of wet and salt, a breath
beating on my face, which was good. I had an excuse
to wipe my eyes now and then. It was too hard to speak

so I walked away south toward a ruined jetty, the rocks
floundering in low tide, seaweed flossed between them,
barnacles and crabs contending with a tangle of trash.

The beach was empty except for us, and the seagulls
of course, who found us wanting. We had nothing to give
and they stalked further out into the surf looking for better

for worse, for something alive enough to break the surface
with bubbles of air. The Atlantic rolled tiny black mussel shells
smooth as eyes; a blink of iridescence cupped in my hands.

You reclined on cold sand, long lines of blue and green and white,
a marker left, an x to indicate where beginning starts. And I
turned back into biting wind, and wet salt, and birds crying.

Posted in Kim Hannigan, language, Poetry, Writer | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

There Will Be Spring

January, the month of reckoning. Whatever we have managed to skate by in November and December, the little indulgences that we have taken lightly, entertained, excused…all of those come home, like angry bantam cocks, to roost in our lives. With the calendar change, I brace for the onslaught of car repairs, fuel bills, doctor’s visits, appliance replacements, college book ransom payments (there is no appropriate word for the extortion of one loose-leaf workbook rented for $182.00), and the expected collapse of our bank account. It happens. January, while not the cruelest month, reigns as the month that teaches us the meaning of consequences. Then she drops a foot of snow on us, rains a little, and blows arctic kisses down our backs.

We begin to dream of spring.

Our acre-plus-a-little is carved out of the 20th-century woodland, which 300 years ago was part of the real forest, full of thick hemlocks, oaks, and chestnuts. The trees here are spindly, as you would expect, mostly baby-boomers clustered around sturdier depression-era oaks. Under the canopy, the thick leaf mold cushions every step. If you scrape it away, the decayed mulch barely covers the first layer of rock. Soil is scarce; rocks are plentiful. When the builders excavated the basement, the stones were strewn in a line up the property border, much to the benefit of chipmunks. We call it the rock wall, but it has more architectural affinity with a cairn or a hedgerow. The expanse of land logged for the septic mounds, and the scarce lawn, simply had the trees removed, with no attempts made to improve the top layer. Every year, rocks break through to the surface, through the non-grass cover of ferns, mosses, scrabbly wild strawberries, and clover. Topsoil? None. Pavers? Everywhere.

Nothing grows here, except that which belongs, or those interlopers no one wants. When we bought the house, the previous owners had planted nothing around it. We pried a ton or so of rock out of the perimeter and tried shrubbery. The rhododendron thrived (a pampered cousin to the wild ones populating our gully land), and two mountain laurels would be succeeding if we could just keep the deer from munching their tender bits. But the pretty cypress failed, as did the evergreens, the Andromeda, and various shade-friendly ground covers. Invasive Japanese bayberry and stiltgrass apparently need no topsoil; they grow rampantly anywhere there is a bit of room. The jury is still out on the most recent plantings of hostas and ferns. If we can keep the deer from them, then they might take hold. But again, even with buckets of good earth dumped around them, this place seems fundamentally averse to tender roots or any plants transplanted from a garden center.

vintage-butterfly2-523x1024Yet, when I dream of spring, I dream of seed catalogs. I begin to covet the black trays from Lowes and Home Depot, the entire systems of grow lights and plastic humidity shields, the peat pots and bags of seed starter mixes, the vermiculite. I want to check my growing zone against a Rodale Institute map, and I pull out my ancient copy of a Mother Jones published planting guide. I look at the deer-proof, raised garden plans that should require a building permit from any town council, and with them the equally wonderful chicken coops that anyone (except my husband) must find charming. I think about corn growing tall and thick enough to hide multitudes of scary creatures, I imagine squashes and cucumbers vining around cedar teepees, and I breathe in the reek of imaginary tomato plants and basil, growing into one another with abandon. My seed dreams are Eden come to fruition again.

However I live on this shadowy, rocky land with rules of its own. The reality will be, again, sturdy plantings in pots of tolerant species that demand little sun. The pots will be on the deck where, if we are lucky, six hours of sunlight might be captured, or the front porch where the morning sun falls for only three hours. I will spray Deer Off almost daily on the hostas and astilbe, the day lilies and the coneflowers – all were heavily pruned by the deer last year, so I may lose this particular war. I will start no seedlings, though I will probably buy a packet or two of basil and cilantro. They will languish, unopened, in the garage waiting for enough warmth, and I will forget that I have them. Sometime in August, I will happen upon the dusty envelopes while looking for something else, perhaps the elusive jug of evergreen fertilizer, and I will plant the seeds too late to amount to much more than the first true leaves. I will buy a Thai pepper plant, and nurse it obsessively until it fades due to the fact that nothing is less like Thailand than our back deck.

Oh, the rhododendron will put out new foliage, and perhaps the mountain laurels will slowly regain their leaves as well, if we keep them caged in boxes of deer netting. Rich will pull up the newly born stones from the weedy lawn, and still miss a few, which will dent the lawnmower blade anew. The mosses will suddenly brighten the dark places, and Rufus will nose and nibble on tiny, red strawberries. It will be spring, come whatever January and the rest of winter throws at us. There will be spring peepers singing love songs from the damp hollows, and brown bats will slip in and out of the crack by our chimney to flit among the oak and hemlock limbs. The world around us, these difficult woodlands, will be as full of life as can be imagined, though little of it will have anything to do with me or my labors. For that is what I have learned living here: much of life is simply a gift, unearned, unplanned. The farmer inside me yearns to make my imprint on this land, and yet I am over-ruled. I can only appreciate and protect, and take time to wonder at things beyond my ability to control.

January settles deeply about us. Tomorrow another half of a foot or more of snow will cover the glacier forming in our back yard. We are not through this, not even halfway. The woods sleep; the trees groan and complain in dreams. I wonder about the trickles of melted ice that slip between the rocks and freeze far below the surface, and the things that will be moved about by the simple cycle of thaw and frost. I ponder the sleeping world beneath the ice, the grubs and hibernating creatures, the realm that has been stopped, almost, and the amphibian hearts caught between beats. Everything waits, in this pause of winter, but in that rests all the stored energy of spring. Waiting.

Spring cannot arrive fast enough for me.

mt airy june 3

Mountain laurel, June.

Posted in gardening, Kim Hannigan, Musings, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , | 11 Comments

High Time to Skip the Pleasantries

First, I watched the entire 19 minutes and 17 seconds of Michelle Wolf’s speech.

Clearly that was something that the vast majority of the people talking about it did not do.

Then, just to be clear, I checked the most expansive definitions of “roast” in the context of humor, and “satire.” A precision with words might help when discussing a piece of art made entirely by words.

Roast, it turns out, has more of a range of meaning than I thought. Conventional old Merriam Webster says that it can mean “to subject to severe criticism or ridicule” or “to honor (a person) at a roast.” So that covers just about any humor from Lenny Bruce to your drunk Uncle at his boss’s retirement party at the VFW. The Urban Dictionary is less broad; to roast is to “humorously mock or humiliate someone with a well-timed joke, diss or comeback.” No honor involved in the more street-cred definition.

swiftSatire, an old friend of mine, always brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Yes, that essay where the satirist suggested curing poverty and that damn Irish problem in a two-for-one solution of eating Irish children, who were described as very tender meat at the age of one. (Luckily for Swift, the reading public of his time did seem to actually read his essay before trashing it and him, unlike the current viewing public that is too busy to spend 19:17 to verify what was said by a comic satirist.) So according to the venerated Oxford English Dictionary, stodgy olde satire is “(a) poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.” To be fair, I also checked the Urban Dictionary to see if any new meanings have evolved. I was surprised at the restrained tone it presented by defining satire as “(t)he art of sarcasm typically directed from events that take place in the world. Much like a caricature of the human race. Usually it is done through comedy, but sometimes it is just as serious as the event itself.”

By now you might sense where I am headed.

First, clearly Michelle Wolf roasted a wide variety of people during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats – she ridiculed them severely, she humiliated them, she roundly dissed them. Her monologue however was not of that second definition from Merriam Webster; she came to praise no one. So she cannot be compared to the gentle nudge-nudge, wink-wink comics that ruffle no feathers while telling the masses that the powerful are “just like us.”

Was the monologue satiric? Did she use humor and irony to exaggerate, expose and criticize prevailing immorality and foolishness? Yes. Did she present a caricature of the human race? Yes. And under it all, was it serious? Yes.

If you have watched it, you will know that the entire monologue, surprisingly, was not about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, nor was it about her looks. (There was a joke about Chris Christie, and it was about his looks, his size. He laughed.) If you are relying on the reporting about the event, you must assume that Michelle focused almost entirely on the women of the Trump administration: Kellyanne, Ivanka, and Sarah. That leaves out her jabs at Congress, Hillary Clinton, pussy hats, Ann Coulter, Jack Tapper, CNN, Fox News, Harvey Weinstein, the Me-Too movement, Roy Moore, Michael Cohen and $130,000, Reince Priebus as a porn star name, Trump’s economic worth, Trump’s virility, white nationalists, arming teachers, Mike Pence, Bear Stearns, Al Franken, Ted Kennedy, Starbucks, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Democrats, Scott Pruitt, Sean Hannity, MSNBC, Mika and Joe, Rachel Maddow, Megyn Kelly, print media, the general media, immigrants, and Flint, MI.

For the almost three minutes that Michelle spoke about the women in the Trump administration, there was a definite theme: lying, active deception, and how facts/truth are treated (note, this is where the criticizing “prevailing immorality or foolishness” part of the definition plays well). There were swipes about appearance for both Ivanka and Sarah, but how Michelle used it was interesting. Ivanka was not criticized for being lovely, but for using her loveliness to hide political corruptness. Sarah and Kellyanne are major players in the current destruction of the public’s belief in facts and truth as norms. The “smoky eyes” comment wasn’t about makeup, or Sarah’s face, it was about her role in the immolation of truth. The swipe about resembling Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was accurate, because she does resemble the actress, and it was potent because Aunt Lydia’s character is a repudiation of wacked out fundamentalist beliefs. If evangelical Sarah had taken a page out of Chris Christie’s playbook, a smile might have won some critics over to her side. But the Trump White House is at its core an administration of thin skins. They love to toss insults, but don’t like to have any lobbed back.

Especially at the womenfolk.

Yes, this was bound to come around to that. You can talk trash about the men, but leave the ladies alone. That is what I have been seeing from the conservative side ranting about this monologue. How can we tolerate a Woman being Humiliated Publicly this way? And a Christian Mother, at that! How Noble that she took the Humiliation, and was so Brave, so Stalwart! (No comment on how if she had been a man, then she would have shrugged it off, because men have to suffer the slings and arrows, after all.) A Woman Must Be Protected! So many valiant men are frustrated that they could not get up and just shut that damn woman up. (Women are, after all, fragile things, tender things, dare I say snowflakes?)

“Yeah. You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” Michelle warned. And “don’t count your chickens!”

But there is more criticism of her monologue coming from a certain uncomfortable liberal camp. It turns out that the problem was that Michelle did not uphold core ideals, including civility. Liberals, especially ones who are firmly rooted into the mainstream power grid, are having trouble with a woman satirically roasting women. It does not feel pleasant. There are few enough women who have clawed their way into national office in our country; currently 23% and 19.3% of the US Senate and House of Representatives are women. And it is a safe guess that not a single one of them got there by getting “into someone’s face” or “getting down in the dirt” like your average male politician might. And here was Michelle, going after successful women, treating them with exactly the same intensity of jokes that have been lobbed at successful men forever. Why was her joke about McConnell’s neck being circumcised (yes, he’s a dickhead) not as offensive as Sander’s smoky eyes being created by ashes of truth?

Liberal women cannot do certain things to other women, it turns out.

Michelle Wolf spoke for a little over 19 minutes about the state of our political world, to a gathering of journalists, and yet the most important bit, the part when she spoke about the way that news has failed us, has received less attention. (Cue the video up on your computer, and go to about 17:37; listen.) This has been bothering me increasingly over the last few years. We live in a media saturated world and hear almost none of the news. “Trump has helped all of you,” she says, noting that the money generated by reporting about his dumpster fire administration has made the media millions in profits. Spokespeople for the administration – yes, Kellyanne and Sarah in predominant roles – keep the news cycle spinning along with outrageous complicity from the press. Rather than keeping journalistic eyes trained on the real, sometimes non-porn-related news, CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and the rest are off chowing down on the buffet of Trump scandals.

“Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”

That is the real news.

Oh where is a great satirist when you need one?


CSPAN. “Michelle Wolf COMPLETE REMARKS at 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (C-SPAN).” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDbx1uArVOM.
“Roast.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/roast.
“Roast.” Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Roast.
“Satire, n.” Satire, n.: Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/171207.
“Satire.” Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=satire.
“Women in the U.S. Senate 2018.” Women in the U.S. Senate 2018 | CAWP, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-senate-2018.
Posted in feminism, Freedom of the press, Kim Hannigan, language, racism, religion, Satire | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A Butter Dish, Cats, and Mr. Updike

I ate a piece of salt-rising toast today and forgot to set the cover back on the butter dish. We have a charming teal green cow-shaped butter dish, so for an hour or two the cow reclined next to the green base. When I walked through the kitchen I noticed the butter and the tell-tale rounded gouge at the end. Exactly as a cat’s tongue would work the soft butter. Exactly as Seneca’s tongue, I should specify. And Seneca, satiated, slept in his cat tower dreaming buttery dreams.

seneca sleeps on a cookbook

Seneca curls up on Julia Child.

I tell everyone that I am both a cat person and a dog person. I believe that to be true. But when it comes to writing about my life, I find that the cats always own more pages than the dogs. It isn’t original of me to note that cats are intrinsically literary beasts. Their bodies, so elegant and expressive, even suggest alphabets and punctuation. I find myself speaking of the comma of a cat’s sleeping body, the exclamation point of a tail, the fluid S of a purring beast wrapping around my ankles. Cats and books also get along tolerably well. The best used bookstores have resident cats sleeping on stacked inventory. In my house, any book worth reading is also the book worth sleeping on, or sitting in front of, preferably when a human is trying to read it. Cats recognize the importance of the written word.

Perhaps because of that, just about everyone seems to write about them.

Today I read “The Cats” by John Updike, published in The New Yorker over twenty years ago. Updike is not one of the pillars of my literary world, and I do not remember when I last read something he wrote. Perhaps the reason for my disinterest is that I find it hard to give a damn about his characters; they always seem to be white men, suburban men, and frustrated middle-aged men. So I had forgotten the reasons he is a modern literary giant.

“When my mother died, I inherited eighty acres of Pennsylvania and forty cats. Eighty-two and a half acres, to be exact; the cats were beyond precise counting.”

With that, he got me. I fell into his story of a white, middle-aged, now-suburban man dealing with the death of his mother and his inheritance of a tidal wave of cats, which grew symbolically into the threatening, inundating, and yet nurturing nature of rural life. As I read the rather longish short story, I thought, “This is why I cannot write.” When people ask me, as they do, why I’ve never amounted to a hill of beans as a writer, it is right here in this story, in these words. Updike is spinning an entire universe of a life within a short story. Read it slowly, and then reread it. You will see what I mean.

When I reached the end of “The Cats,” I rejoiced that nothing tied up neatly. In that, the great mid-century novelists made their stories true. Things don’t end with the sun setting and problems resolved. Protagonists learn something, and that’s enough. The world is not going to end well, at least not for most of us. These cats are not going back to the halcyon days of yore. But oh the words he uses! The poetry of simple, direct language, and the sounds that are made! And through it all, I can see the cats clearly:

“As I drifted across the lank grass, a few shadows filtered out of the orchard and flickered toward the house, eagerly loping. Several more materialized from the direction of the woods. The cats had survived. They thought I was my mother and good times had returned.”

Perhaps it is time to revisit the Updike novels on my shelves.


Source for quotes:
Updike, John. “The Cats.” The Big New Yorker Book of Cats. New York: Random House, 2013. 77-90. Print

Posted in cats, Kim Hannigan, language, Writer | Tagged , | 1 Comment