If Only Cats Would Talk

Does he miss me?

If Only Cats Would Talk

Susan Bass Marcus

My friend, Lyra, posts photos of her ginger cat, Panni on Facebook nearly every day. She describes his antics, especially whenever she returns home and he greets her at the door. After a day of multiple annoyances at work, Lyra tells her Facebook friends how much Panni’s welcome means to her. I often have wondered if Panni shares her emotions. Who knows how or what cats are thinking, really? If they could tell us, I doubt they would share.

Does Panni notice Lyra’s day-long absence? Does he feel loss? Does he anticipate her return as an end to his solitude? My own male cat rarely misses a chance to meet me at the door—actually, any door in the house, even the bathroom—with an effusion of joy more characteristic of long and despair-inducing separations. Where does he think I have been? I know he feels my absence, but is he aware of its duration? I am reluctant to anthropomorphize my cat’s mental processes, but sometimes he responds so…so humanly.

In his break-through tome on cat behavior, ‘Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet,’ Dr. John Bradshaw suggests cats just don’t care. An anthrozoologist who has been studying cats for more than a quarter century, Bradshaw suggests our cats do not think about us when we are not with them. Rather, he says a cat’s behavior is merely a response to cues alerting them to their guardians’ presence or imminent return. Hence, the cat guardian perceives a happy reunion while the feline perceives the presence of an agent for food and cuddling.

Dr. Bradshaw’s studies do not correlate with my own experience, especially regarding our cats’ behavior when we return from a one- or two-week vacation. Although well-tended by their pet sitter, both our cats seem to have missed us, but perhaps outside of time as we perceive it. Some studies show cats not only regard time differently from the way humans do we do; they are indifferent to it. Only cues matter. Cues guide cats through their daily routine.

Sometimes the cues mislead or confuse our cats. For example, the shift to Daylight Savings Time throws them off. In winter, when I emerge regularly from the bedroom—a no-cat zone—at 6:00 a.m., the cats expect me to march immediately to the kitchen to fill their bowl of kibble. Spring ahead to late March when 6:00 a.m. becomes 7:00 a.m. and the cats have been pacing the floor for an hour. Where have I been, they seem to complain. According to Bradshaw, my cues—sounds of my early morning routine like the FM radio switching on, my slippers scuffing the carpet, and water running in the sink–should have determined their behavior, not the clock change. I think they have, instead, an elusive inner rhythm governing their daily set of behaviors. Anyway, they adjust to Daylight Savings Time. Confusion returns when we shift back to Central Standard Time, which is also tough on humans.

I have learned to read my cats’ cues, too. I used to trip over the male cat, waiting for me just outside the bedroom door. Now, I anticipate his body draped across the threshold as he waits for my exit and I step over him.

Do cats watch for or miss our cues when we’re not around to supply them? Does a tree make a sound in the forest if it falls and no one is there? Does my cat lie at my bedroom door when I am not at home? Does he experience object permanence, which is, according to Wikipedia, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way).”  Dr. Bradshaw says no. He insists that they do not miss us. My husband bears witness to a frequent domestic cat phenomenon that contradicts Bradshaw. When the male cat discovers I am not at home, my husband soon hears the cat’s long lament, an aria lasting several minutes, although previously the cat was asleep and unaware of my departure, and, I assume, deaf to the door clicking shut.

That cat’s yowls and moans alternate with trilling glissandos. The rise and fall of his plaintive score appear to indicate his adverse reaction to my absence, reaffirmed by his appearance at the door upon my return. He picks up on some cue, perhaps my footsteps in the corridor, perhaps my voice as I greet a neighbor. I open the door and there he is. His tail vibrates madly and his purring resonates as his flank brushes my legs as if to say, “Long time no see. Welcome home.” As usual, we have a joyful reunion. Something is going on in that cat brain and it’s not indifference. Dr. Bradshaw, please account for that.

 

March 27, 2017. Revised 5/11/2017

Sources

By the light of my bedside lamp, I open a ponderous tome, the Vandermeers’ Big Book of Science Fiction. My bookmark rests between pages 270 and 271 where I intend to plunge into Arthur C. Clarke’s story, “The Star.” The editors say it is one of his darkest visions, but I will go there anyway. I am obsessed with literary escapism. My happiest read is one that takes place anywhere but in my hometown and preferably in the speculative fantasy fiction genre, which I’ve coined if it’s not yet an accepted term.

I have read only one-quarter of this edition and it promises to last me through the coming new year. Other books interrupt my journey through The Big Book such as Chernow’s Hamilton (another daunting project), Italian novellas, Celtic fairy tales, and the occasional Jodi Picoult, Karen Russell, or Sarah Gristwood work. Some of my Facebook friends are writers who promote their work and ideas through a group called Scribes & Bibliophiles. These authors have written sci-fi or fantasy work that I read online.

My own writing reflects my obsession with fantasy, but—caveat lector—I rarely write about elves, fairies, and dragons in my short stories. These works fall under a different rubric, also the working title of a collection of short stories I am assembling. In Death-Defying Acts, the stories explore notional and surreal scenarios. You will understand my perspective more easily by reading one of my oddest stories “Arbor Vitae,” at darkfire.epizy.com/fiction_Marcus0815.htm

The First Fifteen? Make That 120.

A Blank Page

Recently, a reader asked about my writing process, especially the way I prepare to write. The reader felt at a loss about plunging in during, say, those first 15 minutes before sitting in front of the computer and typing an opening sentence. I need more than 15 minutes–much more. I’ve read and absorbed some very good tips about this stage of the game. They suggest steps to take when a story seems like a ‘great’ idea, when characters insist on being represented, or when an Otherworld starts to gel in the imagination–when the writer is standing on the edge of a whole new adventure and does not know where to direct her feet.

I tried putting a few of those steps into practice when I wrote Malevir: Dragons Return, but not with confidence coming from experience.  At this point in my writer’s life, however,  two strategies work well for me. They have helped me organize a sequel, which is coming along splendidly.

The first strategy that organizes me is my sketchbook of doodles and drawings. I like to cartoon and invent grotesque images of creatures that may or may not inhabit our world. The act of drawing my characters helps me visualize them more clearly. I sketch them in different situations and in varying garb (or feathers, scales, whatever works). I go to image sites like Pinterest to see how other artists imagine similar characters, but I avoid outright imitation. My characters are my own invention.

Character profiles provide another, challenging way to flesh out my characters. Once I define them, sort out their powers, backstories, and their relationships to each other as well as to possible settings, I’m able to weave their stories together; they intersect and drive the narrative forward. When I force myself to imagine every interaction and possible outcome, a big surprise bubbles up—the story’s logical ending. I envision the ending at the outset of the process, of course, but by slowly building my characters’ every nuance and discovering their motivation, I can write a logical, magical, totally appropriate ending to the story.

Every writer approaches the process differently. The key is finding a playful approach that makes the prospect of writing an anticipated pleasure, not a dreaded chore.

A Nod to Pulver and Burke

Across the heath

A mild satire inspired by Pulver and Burke’s list of fantasy novel tropes and clichés

“And just what qualifies you?” the Priest of the Pram gods asked.

“We’re short, for one thing,” the half-meter tall, dumpling-shaped man replied.

“Not so little. I’ve seen smaller.”

“Small enough to be called Little People and we come from a land that’s like medieval England.”

“Could help. What else you got?”

“We have about five wins against a few corrupt wizards and…”

“Just five?”

“And an evil tyrant in an extremely difficult to reach kingdom, beyond the Pramidian Ocean and past the range of Dire Woe Mountains.”

“So?”

“Who just happened to be my father.”

“You battled your own father?”

“Not exactly. He died just as we stormed his castle’s keep.”

“Stormed?”

“Well, snuck into.”

“You and who else?”

“My twin—I met her for the first time in the village nestled beneath the castle walls.”

“Nestled beneath?”

“That’s how we talk.”

“Anyone else?”

“A knight on his last quest for the perfect…”

Impatient, the Priest of Pram interrupted again. “Your adventures lack a certain something.”

“Oh, sorry, wait. I nearly forgot her (how could I do that?): Shana of the East, the clever former royal servant who stole the throne of Mordred II of the Wolds and Bournes, a misguided sorcerer if there ever was one, who died from his own poison brew. She led us.”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” The Priest of Pram nodded to his acolytes gathered around him and the little dumpling spokesperson. “You are most suitable. Five lattes, one sugar, two no foam no sugar, two caramel syrup. Got that?”

“On it, Boss. I can call you, ‘Boss?’”

The Priest of Pram winked and dismissed the band of merry little ones with a wave of his hand.

 

 

Escape from Planet Earth

Across the heath

 

The Dilemma: should I pick up the paperback of Rutherford’s The Forest that I started a few weeks ago? I’d put the book down just as the narrative plunged me into a Georgian England setting. Or would I rather start another Terry Pratchett “Discworld” adventure, a wild ride into his magical realm of absurdities? Either choice will take me away from today’s news stories, importuning me from every media source. Should I feel badly about wanting to escape from those stories?

Earlier today, during my usual morning workout at the gym, I glanced up at the t.v. monitor just as the closed captions scrolled across images of scattered bodies after yet another massacre. The flames of eighty-plus souls, ten of them children, snuffed out in less than a minute. A commercial for fast food cut in just as I finished reading the caption. You saw the dead. Now buy a burger, dripping with cheese and bacon, waiting for you in a shiny bun; don’t forget your coffee and six or seven different doughnuts to go.

The messages were clear: yes, the news is horrifying but you need only buy a burger or a frosted pink doughnut to escape the world’s miseries and enter a more comforting zone of easy, warm treats that reassure your growing gut.

By choosing to continue reading The Forest, I escape into historical fiction, imagined in a way that persuades me temporarily that surely, in the past, people lived through worse times than our own. Certainly, if I don’t snack, the time I spend reading will be less harmful to my metabolism than a half dozen doughnuts; but neither opportunity to escape for a bit from the woes of Planet Earth excuses me from responding to crises reported in the media. The temporary relief I experience, however, gives me time to reflect and renew my commitment to be more generous and compassionate in the face of global road rage.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish all those murderous, angry folk responsible for so much grief would volunteer to man the Great Silver Cylinder destined to bring Earth’s first colonists to Mars. There, they could work out their anger and resentment or die for lack of cooperation. There, they might gain a new perspective of Planet Earth, rethink their plans, re-do their agendas, and eventually regret that they ever meant to harm, that they ever wanted to escape. Sounds like a good story waiting to be written.  

 

 

What I have learned from reviews

Waking in the back room of his lair, the warmest spot in his network of tunnels and chambers, Aurykk, the golden dragon, raised his head. He yawned and stretched his hind legs, then twisted his neck to inspect new patches of dusty, white scales on his side. Even after living for more than 400 World-Turns, Aurykk was surprised to see those dull patches, sure signs of entering his Twilight Time. Although he yearned for long naps and easy food, he was still a Protector and ready to help if called.

After thanking my readers who have reviewed Malevir: Dragons Return, I now will acknowledge a point one of them made. In love with a bevy of characters I thought were interesting and crucial to my narrative, I included so many of them in the book that it needed a list of names and creature types to relieve any confusion the reader might experience. Now, as I am crafting the second novel in this Malevir series, I have carried a few of the characters into the new narrative, but have greatly diminished the cast. In fact, just last evening, as I was reviewing what I’ve written so far, I contemplated giving the pink slip to a few more. I liken the experience to becoming an empty-nester. Perhaps, someday, maybe in the third and final novel, a few of the ‘laid-off’ characters, my offspring, will return. We shall see. All this cutting I hope will produce a lean (if not mean) text.

Did that Dragon Call My Name?

copper dragon

I am used to imagining the ways that dragons think and respond to  humans, to change, and to challenges. For years, I studied dragon lore and felt the need to write my own story about them, which I did; and while a novel about the dragons that inhabit my mind has been published, I am still writing. Why? Because I have more to say; I have just begun to tell their story. Aurykk, the golden dragon, is calling my name and I answer, but not without feeling some anxiety and hesitation.

Recently, a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association, Andrew Reynolds, posted a blog entry that summarized responses to a question he threw out to the membership: Why [do] we write? His post: “[W]hen the question popped up as part of a discussion about writing among a group of writers I am associated with online, I thought it might be a good idea to see what motivated my fellow writers.” Andrew elicited many writers’ interesting responses, which he published in his January 9, 2015 post. The answers to his question varied, but essentially they recognized that all of the writers needed to write.

I used to think that once I completed and published Malevir: Dragons Return I would feel I’d done it, tried it, liked it, would feel satisfied and move on; but now more than ever I, too, need to keep on writing. Ten thousand words into a second novel, I am committed to another long work, but in many ways, I enjoy the process of writing a blog post more. Here’s why:

A blog is shorter. My most recent novel has more than 400 pages, not including illustrations and glossary.

A blog is pithier. The sentences and paragraphs work at honing one idea. My novels have several themes, like loyalty, finding courage, and cooperation that contrast with themes of fear-mongering, deceit, and oppression.

Blogs focus on the writer, her processes, or her observations and as food blogger and author, David Lebovitz has said so well, blogs are about giving–to the reader. A blog is out there, immediately available to readers (if they choose to read it and, better yet, if they deign to comment on it). The process of publishing a book is long and arduous, at least the first time around.

Novels often explore a set of characters in depth, be they heroes or monsters, and describe their context, their motivations, and their choices as they drive the narrative.

Setting aside time to write a blog post gives me an excuse to put off working on that new novel. When Aurykk calls, I could wad cotton into my ears, say, “nah-nah-nah,” and ignore his trumpeting. That wouldn’t be right. I need to listen to him and write his story, without fear or hesitation. I have learned that much from dragons.