Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sentient? Hell Yes...and Divine

“Loving is a habit and takes practice, like any other,” Martha Gellhorn said when she rescued a small cat on a West Indian island. She bought it a little basket and carried it with her as she hopped about by boat in the Atlantic during WWII. Before flying back to the States, she realized the absurdity of what she had done and gave the cat to an Air Force base while realizing it had been much happier in its original forest home.

A judge recently decided that a dog was a sentient being, not a lesser creature, which is a fine thing to recognize, and high time too. But still that dog is subjugated to the whims of its owner. What and when to eat, where to sleep, even the elimination of its body waste is on somebody else’s schedule--and then there’s the true crusher. Dogs and other animals aren’t admitted to into heaven. Even Buddhism allows that to happen only after a human incarnation, although dogs, far more than many people, exemplify the Buddha nature like nobody’s business.

Cats of course go way beyond sentience into omniscience and divinity, a state that no doubt existed long before humans could record their speech in writing. Among modern deities, Shiva is the one they are most closely related to, but cats would rather destroy worlds that others have created than to take that energy to create one themselves. That is what humans are for, and lurking in the dispassionate gaze of any cat is the sad truth that we are doing a piss-poor job in that ongoing act of creation.  Still we are the best that they’ve got for the task and they continue with their silent directions which we ineptly follow.

People who dislike cats are the ones who are most closely attuned to the power that felines wield, although they fail to articulate that vague knowledge. “Dogs love their owners; cats tolerate them,” is usually as close as they get to voicing their unexamined knowledge that cats rule the universe. And what’s more, cats are certainly not going to let us into whatever heaven they may have constructed.

Like Martha Gellhorn, my life feels incomplete unless it includes a cat for me to love. Still I have never really believed that my love is reciprocated in the same way that I bestow it upon any of the felines that have shared my bed and board. When I do their bidding, they emit approval that at times I can almost convince myself is affection. Even the small black feral kitten that I adopted in Bangkok never gave me the same regard that he had for his counterpart, another small black kitten who found him and became his partner in crime. I was always the warm lap, the pair of opposable thumbs, the imperfect instrument who made sure that he had what he wanted.

In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson just about sums it up when she describes the hopeless passion that a little girl feels for an impervious tomcat. For a long time I thought this was the perfect depiction of the flawed nature of human love, but now I know I was wrong. It’s a recognition of the despair that we feel when we realize that our divinities are impervious to human demands and desires, especially the feline variety.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Story for Every Wrinkle

When Jacob persuaded Esau to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage, my sympathies were with Esau. I had to ask what it was that exchanged hands and although pottage sounded unappetizing, let alone a mess of it, it was obvious that Jacob was the conniving little chiseler who would be shunned in any schoolyard. Only a weasel would convince his brother to relinquish something he had the right to own for a temporary pleasure. It violated every rule I’d been taught about fair play and I was shocked that Esau, not Jacob, was punished.

I read the Old Testament in the same way that I devoured Grimm’s Fairy Tales and after encountering Esau, I absorbed its lessons in a twisted fashion, tempered with moral outrage and skepticism. The foolish virgins made complete sense to me; why save that damned lamp oil for a day that might never come when there was a party going on right now? I lived in a household of lamps, fueled with a byproduct of oil, and nobody ever said turn out the lights to save fuel for tomorrow. We used what we had and did without when it was gone.

It is probably a stretch to blame the Old Testament for what’s going on with me as I approach my 68th birthday but I’m fairly certain that it comes into play as an influence in my formative years. Wiser virgins flossed and used sunscreen. Moisturizers were part of their daily rituals, and as information emerged about skin cancer and sun damage, they cultivated pallor, not a solar-induced tan. But not me.

I took great pleasure in absorbing as much sunlight as I could and only burned on tropical beaches, when light bounced off saltwater. I went beyond bronze to brown in a nanosecond and soaked up direct sunlight every chance that I had. Sunscreen seemed to be a big waste of time and counterproductive to a woman who felt that summer began only when her tan was secured.

When the subject of wrinkles arose, I countered with the unassailable beauty of Georgia O’Keefe.

Then came the day that I smiled at myself in a mirror and almost screamed. The crowsfeet that I had always thought brought character to my face had become pterodactyl tracks and below them on either cheek were small lines that had gone rogue. It was as though on the night before, as I slept, my skin had been sprayed with battery acid.

Moisturizer, I discovered is not retroactive, although I have wondered more than once about glycolic chemical peels. When I do, Germaine Greer comes to mind, scoffing that in fending off the effects of age, women run the risk of turning into petulant, querulous old girls. Two images come to mind: Georgia O’Keefe and a curdled old Scarlett O’Hara, still flashing her earbobs and stamping her feet, and I know it’s time to ante up. I bet and I lost. That particular lamp is out of oil.

High blood pressure has turned me into that dreary old broad who squints at sodium labels in the aisles of grocery stores. Loss of bone mass makes me spend the equivalent of a perfectly good Happy Hour on a single pill that I swallow once a month. But that is not the worst of it.

The best that can be said about the worst is that it is temporary and it certainly isn’t life-threatening. The worst is that it will have lasted for three months by the time that it’s finally over and those three months have been a portion of my life that has been truncated as never before.

When spring burst into flower, I was diagnosed with gum disease and because of it, two of my teeth had to be removed. Since they were my two front teeth on the bottom, I have not smiled since the beginning of April and their replacements won’t be ready until mid-July.

My face has never been my fortune but my personality has. I’ve always had a voice and I’ve used it, getting by on wit of sorts and a smile. Now I dip my head when I speak in public and my smile is closed-lipped and inauthentic. I had to restrain myself from buying a burka to wear on trips to Trader Joe’s and I only spend time with the people whom I know best. Not only has my travel been curtailed, so have my local excursions, and that is difficult.

Paying for past sins is one way of looking at this, so are those foolish virgins, and poor old Esau staring at an empty plate and a bartered future. But the only sane point of view, as far as I’m concerned, is this is my life, all of it. Some women use sunscreen, some women don’t floss. Whether we have spent our days being prudent or happily squandering everything we have, we all face vanished waistlines and sagging necks. Some of us however come away with much better stories than our wiser sisters. And for some of us, the stories are worth the physical loss that comes with reckless adventures or satisfied appetites, and I’m positive Esau would agree with me.