Friday, January 29, 2010

From The Department of Irrelevant Plans

I have an unfortunate pre-sleep habit. Maybe it's my worrying nature, or over-active imagination, or that last cup of tea I drank, but, whatever it is, it plagues me. I often find myself planning intricate contingency plans - "just in case." When I was a child, the plans I developed ranged from the mundane (how I would escape from the house when it caught on fire) to the, hm, excessively heroic (what I would say to Saddam Hussein when I captured him - yes, I was a child during the first Gulf War). In a more recent example, I tossed and turned for forty-five minutes as my brain refused to relinquish consciousness until I had planned out the *entire script* for the toast I would make at my sister's wedding. Mind you, she is not even engaged. I was pretty irritated at my brain for that one.

The latest spawn of the Contingency Planning for Really Unlikely Scenarios Division stemmed from this panicked thought: What if I had to speak at the National Book Fair?? Obviously, the ego and presumption implied by that scenario is quite impressive, and I hope (but doubt) you will believe me when I say that the same ego (or lack thereof) has asked me to prepare for What If I Had to Prevent Pre-Teens From Mocking Me Incessantly on the Metro?

So, mental wheels a-whir in their unstoppable processes, I determined that I would speak (at the National Book Fair, that is, not the Metro, that would be a FAIL) on Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Human. Those of you (mostly my father-in-law and that one other guy I bribed) who read this regularly are familiar with my thoughts on this topic. (In brief: the empathetic value of shifting a perspective, the exposure to a broader realm of shared culture, the flexing of imagination, the primitive satisfaction of narrative.) Now, I've recently met a number of people who have told me they don't read any fiction. As a policy. They do not feel it's worth their time. I am astounded. I am appalled. I am wondering if it's possible to convince them that they are withering their little human souls by not reading fiction. Now, this might be a distinctly Washingtonian phenomenon, or perhaps I continue to make the wrong acquaintances (cue: pre-teens on the Metro contingency). But I'm interested in the question nonetheless - can we convince people to read good fiction? (And does it Make You a Better Human? I need to know before I have to make that speech!!)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Secret Power Ring and Other Hints to Yourself

I have a secret. A ring of mine, the precise nature of which I will not disclose, serves as a hidden source of power. Ok, I thought about lying here and saying that when I put it on, I lose ten pounds and write amazing stories. But you might call me on that one. In truth, its powers are a bit more prosaic, though arguably more important to me. The ring serves as a private reminder to me of who I am. So, when I'm sitting in some high-falutin' meeting where people are arguing about the minutae of international affairs as though the stakes were our own livers lying in the teeth of a rabbit trap, I look down at that ring. I take a deep breath and smile. I'm more than just facts and details and who's right and who's wrong. I'm someone who loves art, who reads literature, who writes for the joy of creation, who secretly wishes the meeting were being conducted with hand puppets. Maybe no one else at that meeting table knows it, but I do. Now that's zen.

Does anyone else out there have a secret power item? Or a secret tattoo? Or an imaginary mouse that lives in your pocket and squeaks to remind you of who you really are? (I'd like one of those, please. Complete with matchbox home.)

(Photo is from the ever-awesome etsy and the great person who made that lovely ring.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Structure is Important in Kitty Life

Our kitties are as regular as senior citizens on bran muffins and prunes - each day has the same rhythm and pattern, often down to the minute. They asked me to share, as they'd like to know if there are other kitties out there that prize their scheduled habits as much as these.
But first, some introductions.
Because the kitties' names are awful (yes, my fault), we'll keep it simple. We've got the Black Cat, our first kitty and therefore K1, and the White Cat, the newcomer and therefore K2. Since you can't have too many cat pictures:

We can identify which is which, yes? Good, moving along.
Our kitty morning starts bright and early, at 0630. This is approximately 15 minutes before Carrie's alarm goes off.

K2: Enough of this sleeping and treasuring your last few winks of sleep. Let's go! Meow!
K1: Sleeping.

After Carrie takes a shower and moves into the kitchen for breakfast, the kitties follow. They beg for food, they are denied. When Carrie prepares to leave, K2 takes up his customary position by the front door. This is similar to the position taken by one of those draft stoppers.

Repeat 30-45 minutes later, when husband departs. Then sleep. Also take advantage of humans' absence by doing things normally prohibited: prancing on countertops, running across the dining table, chewing any hardback books available.

But the day really gets going at 6pm when Carrie or husband returns home.
K2: Dear god I'm hungry I'm hungry I'm dying feed me!
K1: Dear god I'm hungry I'm hungry I'm dying feed me!

Food is given. Peace ensues.
* Once a week exception:
K1: I'm so so hungry I've gotta eat and eat and eat and eat and ... oh lord, here it comes, gag, gag, PUKE.
K2: Oooh, warm food too!

Exactly 30 minutes of peace ensue. Then the switch is thrown.

K2: Meow, meow, meow. (this happens preferably in front of the door to the HVAC, for some mysterious reason. Likely mouse ghosts behind door.)
K1: sleeping
K2's incessant meowing means one of three things. None of these are immediately apparent and only trial and error reveals the solution. 1) He is playful and would like to be entertained. 2) He is lonely and would like to be pet. 3) He is bored to tears and would like to be held against his will under the faucet so that he gets soaked and then can occupy himself with grooming.
K1: sleeping

Peace ensues.
When it's bedtime, K2 revs up the action again. This may include: meowing by the HVAC, chasing K1 as she howls in agony, or hunting. Hunting involves finding a door mat, sliding oneself under it, and remaining perfectly still so as to best catch unsuspecting prey (ie, K1). Hunting also requires complete focus, meaning that even if one is poked, spoken too, or laughed at in one's face, one maintains a stoic and impassive expression, gaze focused keenly at an unspecified point in the distance.
Immediately prior to bedtime, K2 takes up his sentry watch - under the bed. Should Carrie go to bed before husband and need to shut the door, K2 will refuse to abandon his post. That is, until ten minutes after lights-out at which point K2 crawls out and commences whining at the shut door.
Finally, sleep and the opportunity to share a bed with warm human bodies call.

K2: Sleeping on left side of human.
K1: Sleeping on right side of human.
Until 3:30am.

K2: Sleeping on right side of human.
K1: Pawing frantically at the closet door like a fat kid trying to climb a greased wall when pursued by a t-rex.
K2: Realizes it must be play time. Meow!
Fortunately, from 4:00am til 6:30am, peace ensues.

K2: Sleeping at stomach of human.
K1: Sleeping at feet of human.

And then it starts all over.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

This is a part of Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. D is for Dai!

Reading this brief novel is like gazing at an Ottoman miniature - all the more striking in its beauty for its precision and diminutive size. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy banished with a childhood friend to the mountainous hinterlands of China during the Cultural Revolution. Their crime: being children of doctors and a dentist or, in Maoist parlance, class enemies. In the course of their "re-education," performing manual labor under the watchful eye of the village headman, they do not learn what the Cultural Revolution would have them absorb. Instead of learning obedience, assimilation, and political homogeneity, they discover the beauty of literature. And, as they do, they cannot help but share it, sparking passion and changes in those around them.

Dai Sijie, who was himself "re-educated" during the Cultural Revolution, writes with a restrained lyrical style that suits the atmosphere, a collision of rural beauty and international sophistication. The story moves along nicely, propelled in equal parts by tension over the two friends' misadventures, humor at their antics, and anxiety over budding love interests. In sum, a most enjoyable read. (And a somewhat lighter take than the previous work I read on the Cultural Revolution, Nien Chang's fabulous Life and Death in Shanghai.)
As I was searching for a cover photo for this I learned, courtesy of Ye Wise Google that this book was made into a movie. Did anyone see it? Is it any good?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stand the Storm, by Breena Clarke

For the Historical Tapestry Blog Challenge - C is for Clarke

I have, like many people I assume, two contradictory tendencies as a reader: one, I am a coward and hate to see beloved characters submitted to trauma; two, I am a voyeur and love the thrill of adventure that comes from characters in danger. Ideally, these two spirits, one on each shoulder, can be satisfied simultaneously with a story that endangers the characters but doesn't dash them continuously to the rocks (Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis comes to mind). However, because I am more of a tender-heart than an ambulance-chaser, I am satisfied with books that are, on balance, gentle with their characters.

Which means that I was able to enjoy Breena Clarke's charming Stand the Storm. The story follows a slave, Sewing Annie, and her family as they use their prodigious sewing and knitting skills to weave their way through the treacherous antebellum world in Maryland and Georgetown. Halfway through the book Annie is called by her son Gabriel to see bodies floating down the Potomac River, jetsam from a nearby battle, and the narrator observes, "Of late, every day brought a sight to pull a soul from her chair." For the most part, Annie and her family are sideline observers, pulled from their chairs to watch the swirling changes around them, although they certainly aren't afraid of exercising their own agency when necessary. Those moments provide breaths of excitement, though the life of any black person during that time was fraught with tension regardless, and often that alone is enough to keep the reader going.

One of the loveliest themes of the book is Sewing Annie's fear of perfection - that a quilt, a line of stitches, a bit of embroidery, if too perfect will attract the attention of the Devil. She therefore slaps the hands of her talented children, throwing flaws into their work. Literature itself is a tapestry, a woven work, and in the end Clarke seems to give us a twist, throwing in an imperfection just when things seem too good to be true. It is beautifully done.

A note: Since this was the end-of-December challenge, I thought it appropriate to choose a book written by a black author, in honor of Carleen Brice's Buy a Book By a Black Author and Give it To Someone Who's Not Black Month. (Lots of great fiction written by black authors apparently get shelved in the African American Interest sections, where white folks like myself fear to tread, or at least never think to go. So here's for trying to break boundaries!)

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma