Monday, February 23, 2009

The Cats' Debut into Literary Society

Catullus Ascendant

The latest adventures of the Cats began with the trials and tribulations of Martial, who had a scratched cornea - probably something from her abandoned youth, that flared up lately when she rubbed it. The vet put an Instrument of Torture upon her, known as an Elizabethan Bonnet. It was the saddest sight to be seen for many a day. The poor creature could not walk. She could not see. She could only stumble backwards and slither sideways, like a lame raccoon. And she slid into alarming depression - she became completely limp, lying there, mute, except for when she emitted her signature plaintive cries of "Squee! Squee! Squee!"

Martial Agonistes

If you are one of those who think cats cannot feel compassion and sympathy, disabuse yourself. Martial's sisters gave up all squabbling and play-fighting. They were visibly disturbed by the sad plight that had come to her. Valiant little Pindar never left her side; she sat by her at all times, wherever poor Martial stumbled, and when she was in misery because she could not wash, Pindar washed and licked her all over, with many kisses. Catullus was not so valiant, but equally disturbed: she hid away terrified by the awful sight of her sister with the horrible object on her head. After some hours, she crept out, and tentatively advanced toward her, looking for all the world like a small child approaching its mother on her deathbed. She patted her once, and retreated again. My picture of the moment should put paid to the idea that cats don't care about each other.

Sisterly Feelings

Martial's ordeal was somewhat enlivened by my cousin Anne's husband Jim, an artist, who sent a get-well drawing. I thought at first the drawing was done by their daughter Joanna, 11, but it was explained to me that the image of Martial was wobblified on purpose to make it look like the work of a cat.

From a Secret Admirer

On the third morning, Martial could endure no more. She was sitting on my desk, when suddenly she started to shake all over, and pull and scratch at her Iron Maiden with astonishing violence. "What are you doing, you silly thing?" I asked, just as the torture device was fiercely ripped off, and Martial outburst with joy! She spent the next hour washing her entire self and scratching particularly where the collar had confined her. I knew I ought to replace the device - be cruel to be kind - Peter and Paul and I talked it over - but it was impossible. None of us could bring ourselves to do it. The poor little animal had been so miserably depressed; she had no idea the thing wasn't forever, and she was so purely blissful in her freedom. So we took her back to the vet, and she was pronounced doing well and in no more need of torture.

Now that she was recovering, the serious spoiling began. We bought the cats shearling beds:

"What, no satin sheets?"

And toys, and toys, and more toys: the house is so strewn with feathers and shocking pink pompom sticks that it looks like the Copacabana. American cat decor is not tasteful. Possibly they do things better in Japan, or Paris.

Midnight at the Copacabana

The three little queens lie on the floor, like Eastern Crescents

Then came the most wonderful purchase of all: A Lazy Cat Kitty Window Ledge Seat (um, are you keeping a running tab on the expenses here? By all means include the vet). You know how they love sitting together looking out of Peter's study window at the birds and the squirrels. How much better to have a shearling window seat and look out in luxury? But we did not reckon on the degree to which Martial had become spoiled and entitled. Immediately after I installed the seat, she took command of it, and lay there at her sprawled-out ease, like Cleopatra on her barge. The look on the face was a silly, cross-eyed cat version of "Look at me, I deserve this throne."

In emphasis of this, when hapless Pindar tried to hop onto the ledge with her, she firmly pushed her off, even bit her (not hard) on her little striped leg! She repeated this performance with Catullus. We were appalled. Instead of giving the three cats more comfort in their window, we had deprived two of them of even climbing up to look out of the window at all!

The Shelf of Contention: Martial Ascendant

Cleocatra's Barge

Matters had to change, so Peter firmly laid down the law to Martial, removed her from the shelf and placed the other two upon it. Martial learned her lesson, and a somewhat sadder and wiser cat learned to share with her sweet sisters.

In Sober Sadness: Martial Learns to Share

Then it was time to celebrate, so we had a party. Actually, it was a meeting of my reading group, to discuss Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, a slightly dated but still interesting examination of several varyingly dysfunctional Victorian marriages among literary figures, such as Carlyle and Jane, Ruskin and Effie, Dickens and his wife, George Eliot and Lewes. I decided that this would be an appropriate occasion for a coming-out party, the Debut of the Cats into Good Literary Society. It would not be necessary for them to talk, for as Mary Crawford said in Mansfield Park,

"A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance; looks very demure, and never says a word."

Of course, Martial's bonnet was gone, but I could answer for it she would say nothing more objectionable than "Squee." So, I commissioned editor friend Jennifer, who has a penchant for baking and has been turning out wonders (the espresso shortbread cookies with butterscotch glaze were my favorite) to make chocolate cat-shaped cookies, and cupcakes with cats on top. She produced some delightful treats, though afterward allowing that cupcake designs were fiendishly difficult and she wouldn't attempt that again. Here's what she baked:

Susan with cat, and Jennifer

Chocolate Shortbread Cats

The party was a great success, and the three debutantes behaved themselves perfectly. It turns out that they are very sociable animals. I thought they'd retreat into the back of the house, or be annoyingly underfoot, but they did neither. They preened on their rug, showing off their lovely selves; they hopped onto laps and made love; and they allowed Paul to put them through their jumping paces, as at a circus. They did not interfere with the food either when I was preparing it or when we were eating, and in short, they showed very fine manners indeed.

The menu:

Little mini-bagels, lox and cream cheese for the Goyim
Hot sausage rolls for the Jewish guests
Devilled eggs
Jennifer's chocolate shortbread cat cookies
Jennifer's cat-themed cupcakes
Queen Anne Tea, and Martinelli's

Much was said, and much was ate.

Forsythia for spring, to remind us of Central Park

My Martial and Me

Daffodils, White Iris, and Pindar

We decided that at our next meeting, on March 29th, we will compare and contrast Mansfield Park and Silas Marner, as the Ventura Jane Austen reading group has done that and it seems like an interesting idea; and for our April 26th meeting we will read Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle by Kathleen Jones.

In other news, I've been asked to appear as a guest on the MLA's (Modern Language Association) radio show, "What's the Word?", talking about the Eaton sisters. I'll have to read my own book again, it's been so long!

Meanwhile, the Miscreant Martial has silently and stealthily taken up possession of her Ledge again, biting all comers...

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Reunion of the Beatniks...45 Years Later

Patrick and me at the Novel Cafe...after 45 years

1962, New York City. I am a sophomore at the High School of Music and Art, a beatnik in training. My best friend, Dianne, is a little older, and a street smart girl from an even more dysfunctional home than mine. We "bop" around Greenwich Village together, and the infinitely more knowing Dianne instructs innocent me about guys.

Patrick and Dianne at the Start of Forever

Me in Washington Square Park, 1962

For a year and a half she was in love, literally joined at the hip, with Patrick, a Jamaican boy who wanted to become an architect. Their passionate romance lasted a year and a half (a long time, at that age), and broke up badly. I was the tag-along, the third wheel, but Patrick, a natural gentleman, was always very kind to me. Wanting to show my wit, and get some attention, I wrote a nasty poem about this kind boy (every word is still seared into my memory and worlds would not compel me to repeat them), and I could see from his face how hurt he was. "I always thought you liked me," he said. I wanted to say, "Of course I do! I was only being funny!" but at that age I still did not know how to say what I thought and felt. I was silent, and he turned away.

The High School of Music and Art, one day in 1962

Beatnik girl. Cafe Caricature, MacDougal Street

After Pat and Dianne broke up, we went wild in the Village, but I soon stopped following her, for her path led to drugs and scary things in the night. Senseless as I was at that age and with that upbringing, I didn't want to ride the train that was taking her away. Not that my path was, perhaps, the wisest or easiest one. The year I was seventeen, the following happened: I got pregnant, got married, graduated from high school, gave birth to my son Paul, and started college. Dianne came to visit me once, soon after Paul was born. I showed him off, gave him a bath while she watched. She looked quizzical, silently observing, but finally commented, in shocked surprise, "You like him!" "Well, yes," I said, still inarticulate, "he's a nice little baby."

Teenage mom

Two months later, she was pregnant herself, married (for a few weeks), and the last I heard of her, her mother called to say she'd had a baby she called Dianne like herself, and it was healthy, no trace of drugs. I said I'd visit her, but she lived in Canarsie, and I never did. Sometimes I thought about her and wondered if she'd made something of her life (we were both art students at Music & Art, and she was talented), but I never tried to contact her, and after awhile didn't know where she could be found. I always had a feeling that the news would not be good.

Patrick also lingered in my mind, and I felt that I would like to write him an apology some day. When Google first appeared, I looked for him, without result; but last year, I finally did find him. He'd gone back to Jamaica, where he was indeed an architect. So I wrote him a letter of apology, and received a very beautiful letter back. He was so glad to hear from me. And he didn't remember the poem at all!

He had never searched for Dianne either, despite the intensity of their romance, but now I used my Google skills and found her daughter, who was, of course, almost Paul's age. I called her up: she was a pleasant businesswoman, married, with two children. But we were too late in making contact with Dianne, who died two years ago, following knee replacement surgery. What kind of life had she led? Not so terrible as we might have imagined. Worked odd jobs, had a couple of serious relationships, and was a devoted grandmother. Her own mother was still alive. Nothing too scary. Pat and I were both sad, and wished we'd looked earlier. Perhaps we'd been too busy becoming respectable. But that was what we needed to do.

Yet today, we had our own reunion! Pat, en route from Jamaica to Australia for a conference, stopped for five hours in Los Angeles. I picked him up at the airport, took him to my home (in pouring rain), and he met Peter, Paul and the cats, and saw our books. It was like the world he had left behind, in New York, he commented. And the visit was like sailing at night, which he used to do, and pulling into another port, another world, for a few hours. We went out to a Vietnamese restaurant and stopped at the Novel Cafe for coffee, before I took him back to the airport. It was a lovely, warm meeting. We recognized each other instantly even though we hadn't seen each other since age 16 and 17, forty-odd years ago. He's still handsome, with the wry twinkle in his eye and the gentle smile. Somebody who is very comfortable in the world and in his own skin. Talented, thoughtful, sane. The only thing that took me by surprise was that he speaks now in a Jamaican accent, when he spoke pure New York back in the day! One of the warm and wonderful experiences in life's treasure chest.

To conclude in times present, how could I have forgotten a picture of a cat?

Martial in a Box

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The News is Good - and the Cats are Bad

Pindar, Martial, and Other Knickknacks

News first: I'm going to England this summer, to speak at the New Directions in Austen Studies conference to be held at Chawton House Library in England this July, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen coming to Chawton! Imagine that! Here is the conference announcement:

Starry names in the field - Deirdre LeFaye, Juliet McMaster, Claudia Johnson, Janet Todd, Isobel that lineup I will certainly be like Fanny Price, the lowliest and last, but only think, I will be there!

Chawton House Library in summer

Such unlooked-for delight - after all the economic insecurity and layoffs of recent weeks, we've been told that our department is safe, and I felt able to venture upon the conference. I expect to be in England from around July 5 - 15, not wanting to be away from family and Cats longer, and will spend some time in Cambridge and Oxford visiting friends. Like Emma, I am in dancing, singing, exclaiming spirits!

Chawton House in 1833

Now, back to the cats. Since we believe they were born around the beginning of August, we now estimate them to be carolling and squee-ing (their characteristic sound) in celebration of their momentous six month birthday. Little darlings! Their breakages grow but so does their beauty, and the three humans fall more catastrophically in love with their feline familiars by the week. Here is a new picture gallery of the naughtiest angels on Montana Avenue.

Martial and the Lamp

Martial in the Kitchen, her Most Beloved Milieu (near the Food, don'tcha know)

Catullus and the Little New Mexican Cat Figure

Girls in the bathroom. Don't they have expressive faces? said their doting mamma

Pindar's questionable sense of adventure - eight lives left