Category Archives: friends

Not the sort to carry on

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After it ended, I saw the tragedy. It isn’t death, it’s loss. So let me tell you this story.

I had a marvelous round soft black cat that understood me, as is given to few, especially cross-species between human and feline. When my mother entered the mean stage of Hospice, when things come from a beloved mouth that were never meant to, I passed across the yard from her bedroom in the next house, into our place, and blind to all details, I walked one foot at a time into the bedroom. There on the bed a small black blot of a cat rolled over, fixed me with his pure green eyes and said “Oh, wow!”

It broke me out of a bad place. I bent over his black fur self and knew I had my ‘oh wow’ cat.

That was Porthos. He saw me through fraught times, miseries, nightmares of legal complications (that actually never matured, thank God,) family misunderstandings,  parent troubles, coping, coping, coping, and somehow I could whisper all into his dense plush and feel he absorbed how I felt. Understood, and cared that I cared. Feral from the start, he would let me hold him until it became too much, and with an apologetic purr he’d walk away,  look back, smiling a cat smile, torn by the demands of instinct and affection.

In a year of tending both parents, mother in Hospice at home, and father with multiple brain hemorrhages, I damaged my back catching my father or trying to, whenever he fell, (and he fell a lot.) When my back was hurting I’d get up five times in the night to go to the bathroom or walk about the house, trying to ease the pain with motion. There Porthos would be, my tugboat, bumping my ankle with his round black head in the dark, making sure I’d not get lost, that I’d find my way back to a bed that some nights felt more like a rack than comfort. 

Porthos never took time off. I couldn’t ease my way from under the covers without hearing the solid plop of his strong little body hitting the floor so he could guide me yet again between the bathroom and the bed, or from the main rooms for a limping walk, back to the bed again. I could slip out without my husband knowing, but Porthos, no.

He loved me and I, him, of that I have no doubt. But he also loved Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce. 

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A little orange tabby with golden eyes, WWW had more health problems than he had limbs. But from the first week, Porthos adored him. He would sit and look over little Willy with his features softened into adoration, a besotted lover gazing at his own golden kitten. However sick WWW might be, Porthos forgave the snarls and hisses, the siren growls and swats, the smell, and simply stepped aside so that Willy could eat the food from Porthos’ bowl, bent his black head to wash Willy’s defiant neck. They wrestled and chased and tussled over the years, and Porthos never hurt Willy, however hard Willie hit or bit him. I’d pass by their shared chair with a pause to stroke the smooth conmingled furs, gold and coal black. I found the thought passing in my head that if Willie died from one of his elaborate genetic complications, what would we do to comfort Porthos? But I had the wrong end of the problem.

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One shocking week one summer, and Porthos was gone, from a polycystic liver disorder, genetic in origin, previously undiagnosed. Some of us had called him fat— but I always corrected it to ‘burly’.  The night before he died, he surprised me by coming far up the bed and taking my hand in both his paws. We slept like that several hours, or at least I did, until my back made me get up and walk around. Porthos returned to a pile of soft things we’d arranged on the floor for him, but he didn’t guide me to and fro. When I settled  down again, it was on the floor by him, with my hand close to him, but he didn’t hold my hand again. I think he was too uncomfortable, though he purred a little. Those black morning hours passed slowly. 

When we came back from the vet’s  I curled up my ten-year-old black cat in a soft-lined basket and placed him on the bed for hours, so Willie could see and smell and understand that Porthos was dead. Willie came and washed Porthos’ ears. Then I buried my black blot cat by the studio door and splashed some champagne on the grave. Porthos loved champagne every time I’d given him a drop off the tip of my finger, pink tongue flicking avidly, his eyes slitted in pleasure at the taste.

About this same time our daughter headed off to grad school in Arizona. This may seem unconnected, but I’ll connect it later.

Willie seemed lost, disordered, after Porthos went. He purred anxiously, followed us about. We decided —a new cat. Kitsune, an older flame and snow shelter cat came to us. Then two kittens. None of them were the cat Willie wanted. Not acceptable housemates, much less anything more intimate. 

At Christmas our daughter returned. Willie greeted her with astonishing clear pleasure, his head lifted, his face happy as only cats’ faces can express happiness. You know how when you smile, your eyes narrow and uplift at the outside corners? Cats do that also. Willie moved with light anticipation, joy, his orange striped body eager. We hadn’t realized how depressed he was until we watched him dance about and jump blithely up into her lap, looking about as though expecting something. 

Perhaps three hours later, Willie crashed into a deeper despondency than ever. All we can imagine, and we admit it’s imagination, was that he associated our daughter’s departure with Porthos going, and thought her return meant Porthos’ return. When he found it wasn’t so, he fell back into his depression. However you look at it, whatever your interpretation, Willie-cat never rose again to that level of happiness, no matter what attentions we might provide.

Yesterday, September 20th, 2018, we had to let Willie go. The best guess is he had a cancer, causing cachexia and a myriad of other symptoms. The vet came to the house and Willie went to his final sleep upon my lap. We buried him by Porthos near the studio and I poured a salute of champagne to them both. 

I realized a few hours after the last shovelful of dirt, the full sense of tragedy. It isn’t that Willie died, it’s that he never recovered from his loss. Three years and a month after losing Porthos, now he’s gone. My dream is that he’s back with his gentle black beloved again, loved as no one but his Porthos ever could love him, tangling in wrestling joy with his black best beloved friend. Batting and rolling about in mock combat.

 Animals. Where after all, do we come from? What does it tell us that they may share with us deep strains of what we humans name as most noble and high? Affection, selflessness, love, loyalty. I keep hearing Phillip Phillips  singing “Gone, Gone, Gone…” I heard it when I was losing Porthos, and how clearly I heard it yesterday.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oozQ4yV__Vw    Not my usual music, but it fits these cat friends.                     

 Where do you suppose we should go from here, to become our best selves under this night sky? In a time of stress, public disloyalty and strife, of threat and domination praised as though it were righteousness, can we back off from our food bowls to let a younger weaker friend eat? Can we tend to a sick friend, even when he’s dirty and rude and stinks? Can we wait and love, even in absence being faithful? Give me reason to believe.

Porthos and www copy

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Afterwards

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What a week that was; Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018.

In the mornings I tried to reach the room of Matt Pallamary’s Phantastic Fiction before it started. In that session, I knew I’d hear marvels from  writers, each reading about five pages of a work. Novels, flash fiction, short stories, all welcome. Winged creatures and monsters, science and magic, humans in new worlds, with challenges ranging from apocalypse to love. Wonderful material, in so many different voices. I’d half-close my eyes to be transported to another place and time. After each one read would come the entirely different exercise of hearing a critique offered by the group . As I’ve said before, I try to write my comments so that I don’t hold up the process of storytelling, and also because it can be a good thing to put thoughts onto paper and let the author have them to take home and consider at a more relaxed time.

In the afternoons I went to a couple of different sessions, but ended up repeatedly where I was last year, in Monte Schulz’s exploration of voice and style. He has a love of reading which infects, (if you’re not already a hopeless case.) Eclectic, creative reading, not the passive act they drummed into you in public school. Listening to how, considering why and which– leaning in close, to better understand how to hone techniques into a perfect set of tools for powerful individual expression. Moving from craft to art.

Tucked in every day were talks by authors, agents and publishers, a rich array to choose from so long as you could stay awake, because none of us got enough sleep! Friends thronged in all the hallways and out on the steps of the conference center. The main cantina room had transformed into a book store with the registration desk at one side. Imagine clusters of people debating, and happy voices, with exclamations and laughter.

At nine thirty, after the evening talk, I had a choice of pirate sessions. I say a choice, but it was the hardest thing of all, deciding where to be. I wanted to be in both. In fact I had happy fantasies about creating clones of myself who could allow me to attend everything through each day and night and not have to make a choice. Do you suppose though, that the sleep debt would be multiplied as well? Some mornings we didn’t leave the rooms until after two.

You never know what you’ll hear in a pirate session. I had a friend read for me. (You sometimes hear errors and problems in pacing you’d never pick up any other way when someone else reads your work.) One of my short stories entitled Orphans,  told in close third person point of view of a beetle from a very special tribe of Coleoptera, received keen valuable critique. Then we heard a play, showing Shakespearean lovers in a nursing home. Towards the end, a mass murderer revealed secrets.

The first time you attend a conference like this you often feel exposed, concerned that you will not satisfy the requirements, or if you are another type, you will expect people to fall down and worship when they hear the superb prose that you and only you can create. Both are delusional. What a group like this is doing, is trying to make each and every writer better, and to that purpose and labor there is no end.

Listening to fragments of stories, searching for useful input to share, trying to articulate cogently, still have my brain thrumming. Being in such company, with generosity the wine of our shared time, has me yet inebriated.  Now you understand why I picked the photo of my little cat to head this blog post.

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Of friendship and death

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We are too little moved at parting, blunting our feelings with the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. We will never say goodbye forever, not like this, on a sidewalk without warning. Tomorrow we will meet again, or perhaps the day after. There will be time enough.

Reading of Lincoln’s first meeting with Speed and the quick emphatic friendship that sprang out of that encounter, is full of pleasure to me, but I flinch back when the writer reports theories that they had sex and were lovers. The fact that they shared a bed is given as suspicious. The tone of open tender affection in their correspondence is interpreted as carnal.

I have a different take.

Two things I want to note. Aside from the historical economically enforced intimacy of whole families sharing beds in Lincoln and Speed’s times, (as well as with so many people today, who cannot afford privacy,) we’re looking at the fact that one feels differently in worlds of the past and present, when we know our time is driven by death, and filled with loss. We should know we have no time for dissembling. In Lincoln’s time, ignoring that urgency was an unaffordable luxury.

I remember same sex couples strolling down a village street in Africa arms entwined, fingers interlaced. I think that, yes, there is more than a mere difference in customs displayed. But, sorry, all you curious prurient-minded Americans, it’s not only carnal desire that drives expressions of love. It’s a mistake to reduce this closeness, this passion of feeling for the comrade, the friend, the chum, to an allegation of venereal desire.

In America these days, we feel we can afford to indulge our wish to forget mortality. By comparison the losses a twenty-year old man in Lincoln’s time suffered, I suspect, to be very like in number to the human losses suffered by the young Africans walking, arms entwined. We are talking about brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts dying young, often suddenly. We are talking about lives wrenched by death, a death that triumphs usually without a hospital battle, that springs by surprise out of a fever, an infected cut, a lorry running off the road, or a heart murmur from measles.

Friendship is a bond full of risk, taken at the edge of loss. When the average life-span before the Civil War for a white male was late thirties to mid forties, childhood through young adult mortality ran appallingly high. You found your friends and cleaved to them, because you knew your time was short. The next meeting might not come.

What in these days in this country do we know of death? Who among you readers who live in America have touched your beloved carrion? We have hospitals and nurses, morgues, caskets and the crematoriums to keep our hands clean. Death when it happens, we luxuriously consider an unnatural insult, unless the lost companion happens to be very old indeed. Then, we say it’s natural. That’s a lovely conceit. We all know at some level, our sense of protection isn’t solid at all. We’ve seen the evidence—cancer, automobile accidents, suicide, murder—the young die also.

So perhaps a dear friend may be held all the closer when you know you live under shadow. The rage of protective love might be allowed expression without embarrassment, because of this knowledge. All of us are like soldiers in trenches, death ever hungry, lurking underfoot, within, coming in from the sky, or from a side road. Pay attention. If you will stop looking away from death, it may lead you to share another hug on the street corner, to look with honest love upon a friend’s face, to watch the parting stride— saving images deep in memory long before this meeting is the last.

As for Joshua Fry Speed? He saw his beloved friend buried, years before his time.

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Post SBWC 2017

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The above photo represents what I came home to, and with, after the writers conference.

After six days of intense interaction, and staying up late after rising early, I’m back at home feeling rather odd. What happens when you put a collection of mainly introverted writers in small rooms and invite them to help each other? Wonders, that’s what.

Yes, I went through strangely lonely and dark periods during the writers conference. I panicked I’d lost my touch, that I couldn’t see well enough to put one word after another in a worthy fashion. I heard marvelous, apparently perfect works by my fellow writers, and I doubted. I felt out of step, not so much with others, although that happened sometimes, but with my self. I was afraid I’d mislaid or damaged my writing voice. I felt like that person at a party who has no one to talk with, standing not quite part of any group, but trying to pretend he is, who keeps a smile on his lips because to do otherwise is to be pitiful, and to fall that low, is too far.

Terrifying the silence when you finish reading and you hear not a single response. You rearrange the sheets of your paper and all you can hear is them sliding on the polished wood of the conference table. Was I clear, did I commit cliches, or is even the action in my short story so obscure that no one dares begin a critique– oh hell, was I even speaking English? It’s two AM and what do I imagine I’m doing here? That man over there is yawning.

It’s terrifying to feel that other creators are trying to be kind–but they see you haven’t kept and nurtured the gift. It’s horrid to feel they lean over and speak the encouraging word because they are reflecting their own hearts, not any quality of yours.

I have been trying to create my whole life. That’s nice; we all know it’s a long apprenticeship. But what some part of my monkey brain forgot was this– a writer’s conference is never about you. Nor your work. It’s about the community of writers. I didn’t go in to win anything– I did at least understand that, long before the conference began,  but I did go in to regain my footing. That was my error– the wrong goal.

The goal? It’s to engage in the purpose of helping everyone regain his or her footing. I rediscovered that at last. By helping others, I began to see my own way. I started then to really hear what was said and made and shared. There is a rhythm to creation and sharing, and since creativity is meant for communication, there is a need to step deep into that shifting tide. No dabbling at the edge in the froth. For writers and artists there is an infinity ahead of making, and what that takes is humility and hard work together. This is not the time for selfish doubts, for in-turning.

Introverts or not, now, we break barriers. We swim, far out of our depth.

I am swamped with sensations of loneliness and encouragement, with a gratitude to all my fellow travelers that thickens my voice, with a sense of loss, because I now sit alone. But that may be the biggest mistake. I don’t sit alone.

Now to work, while the remembered voices of friends sound in my brain, while their kindness and engagement glow in my mind. Enough light at last, to let me see my way.

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2017 Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference

I’m going. It’s been eleven years since I last had the free time to attend the conference in full, because when your husband is the dean of a little college inside a university, you have a lot of responsibilities that come due at the end of the year, and the indulgence of immersing yourself in a seethe of writers just isn’t possible.

 

Well this is 2017. I am looking forward to this. I want to meet writers full of that wild joy of wanting to share their creations, wanting to hone their craft, wanting to spend time in critique and experiencing new adventures in other creators’ writings. I will probably never forget the late night pirate session I attended at my first writers’ conference when an older gentleman rose from his seat with his musical to give us roles. Anne Boleyn was one character, stepping forth with her head tucked under one elbow…that didn’t impair her singing, you may be sure.

Those late night sessions hold some of my best memories of writing. I laughed so hard tears came down inside my nose when one woman read us her story of a skunk with its head trapped in  Peach Yoplait container, and how at the end of a sequence of risible but heart-twisting efforts, she succeeded in freeing it to live a peach-free life. After it sprayed her from purple bathrobe to fluffy pink slippers, that is.

Oh yes, Sunday night imagine me among these wonderful people, drawing a deep breath in anticipation at the table of the first pirate session. Starts at nine, goes to whenever. (Some years I’be managed to stay at it until four AM. I kid you not.) See you there?

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The Woodland Wedding Cake

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I do not bake as a professional. I simply like food, and enjoy playing with my food despite my mother’s early strictures, much more than perhaps I ought. When my daughter’s friend Amanda became engaged, she and her fiancé came and requested me to make their wedding cake. I have done a few other wedding cakes over the years, so I asked what they had in mind. Well, they said, the theme is a Woodland Wedding.

Ah, I said, a bit like a Buche de Noel? And what are your flavors? So we worked it out.

The product stands above, a Golden Wedding Cake soaked with a simple syrup to maintain moistness, with a Blackberry Cheesecake filling between the layers, a Burgundy Chocolate Ganache bark, white chocolate and marzipan mushrooms, and fondant roses, violets and leaves. The wedding cake basics came from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s classic  The Cake Bible. However, let me admit up front that not one of her recipes escaped my hands unchanged. For one, I do not like a super fine texture of cake– I find it too powdery to use cake flour. Yet a cake made with all-purpose flour is too coarse. So I made a compromise, and adjusted the ‘cake flour substitution’ formula Berenbaum provides, to my tastes. Less cornstarch, more flour.

What I find most interesting about a cake like the one here — which I sub-sected into twelve layers as I built it with the blackberry filling, is how much of the structural supports do not show at all. Every four layers I inserted four plastic straws to act as “rebar” for that section so the pieces would not slide off when the cake was moved. Atop these straws, who were well-hidden in the cake, went a cardboard round (available from cake decorating sources.) If I didn’t do this, the bottom layers would liquefy into soft pudding under the accumulated weight of the upper layers. So the weight is thus held section on section by the straws which support each major section of four cake layers and fillings on the cardboard round below.

Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband made a dowel support because we worried that even with straws and cardboard rounds we might have a mishap when driving the cake through Los Angeles traffic to the wedding site. Below is his construct.

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You see that we pre-drilled the cardboard rounds for the two primary “stumps”. The boat-like object is a nice wooden tray made of plywood (for strength) that I had found months before in a thrift store and claimed with glee for this project in mind. My husband rounded another section of plywood, polished and finished it, then drilled the holes for two food-quality dowels (also from the decorating equipment folk.)

In the twelve days before the wedding I colored batches of fondant and marzipan then cut and shaped leaves, flowers, and made white chocolate mushrooms. For you botanists, yes, I made the woodland eclectic, with everything from beech and Eastern oak, violets, sugar maples and sassafras, to gingko!

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I ended up using the tablespoon and teaspoon measuring spoons for molds to make the white chocolate mushroom caps.

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I also cast my two milk chocolate hedgehogs using a silicone mold I purchased on ebay. Their faces got painted with white chocolate and I placed black glitter sugar in for the eyes and noses. (Black glitter sugar, you say? Think Halloween.) I made their hats of fondant.

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These wedding cakes can be stored if you follow Rose Berenbaum’s directions, so I baked my cakes on Wednesday, cooled and wrapped them and let them chill overnight for easier handling. The next day, Thursday, I took them out, crumbed them, sliced each layer in half so it made two layers, drizzled each layer with the prepared syrup,filled with the blackberry cheesecake filling, then set four layers together on cardboard rounds with straws for rebar. After that, I used a simple frosting to cover the basic cake to prevent crumbs from running loose and to make my next day’s work easier. I wrapped all these in plastic and stored them overnight. The next thing I did was sprain my knee. But that’s another story that includes an x-ray and some fuss, a walker and a cane.

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Friday morning I made the ganache because it needs to be formulated with nearly boiling cream and then must softly cool — at room temperature is best, until you can beat in the butter and it becomes spreadable. That cooling took about six hours, even though I put the bowl of hot ganache in a larger one of cool water to urge it along a bit. Sure, I could have put it in the fridge but I have never had luck with these things when I’ve been impatient– I end up with half the ganache solid and the other half liquid and then the whole thing becomes too stiff to spread!

The wooden base got covered with a food-safe golden foil, then I used strips of wax paper to protect that from the mess I knew placing the cake layers and spreading the ganache would produce. Yes, I was very very nervous getting the wooden dowels through my cakes, but it all worked. On the big cake I centered the monster well, then came down from the top with the dowel, finding the hole in the base by holding my breath. The slanted smaller second stump, I dared to thread on to the dowel because the smaller cakes had greater structural integrity. The ganache went on like a dream, thick rich and super chocolatey.

By the way, the ‘cut’ tops of the stumps were made with a cheesecake white frosting.

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Here I am, after putting on the bark, having some fun with the fondant leaves. I also placed some but not all of the flowers and a few of the mushrooms, using ganache as a glue.

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Then I wrestled the considerable weight of this assemblage into my cleared fridge. There it chilled for about two hours to set the frosting before I wound it all up in plastic wrap for the night.

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It was important that the entire cake be totally chilled for food safety reasons of course– indeed I worked fast enough that after that initial chilling of the new-baked cakes, the cakes never warmed to room temperature until the time of the serving on Saturday. But it is also important to have the construct cold for transport and we indeed had to drive with the cake for about two and a half hours to get it to its destination.

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So there you have it…and yes, it was a wonderful wedding!

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Peace on Earth

So the kid arrived home with her little new dog and this is what happened in the first forty minutes.

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And no, this dog came from the shelter and so far as anyone knows has never socialized with a cat before. And yes, this is our most difficult cat of four, who chummed with no one but his old, and most sadly now deceased friend Porthos, a feral black cat.  This golden tabby cat is Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce and we’ve had him thorough terrible health problems, mainly genetic. We’ve had WWW since he was seven weeks, so we know no dogs were in his past. He was a bullying sort of little friend to Porthos who was older and doted upon him and excused his vagaries. Porthos was a wonderful fellow, he would gaze with melting affection in his big green eyes upon this little kitten in his care and wash the little rascal with tenderness. When Porthos died, WWW became very depressed, so we acquired a five year old male cat, then some months later two bonded kittens.

Willie had difficulties accommodating our new three cats and so when he walked right into the lap that held this little new dog, we held our breaths and wondered if we ought to interfere! Guess not. It’s been about ten days and for all we can fantasize, WWW imagines that the little black dog is some oddly mis-made reincarnation of his dear old friend Porthos. After all, we excuse our dear friends a lot of oddities. Coming back as a dog is okay– the point is you came back….

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