Pink Brains

April 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

My cat is a complete wuss. My niece, Ramona, came to visit yesterday and he hid in the closet. I opened a can of food for him and he crept out—but as soon as he saw the back of her head on the couch, he fled back to the safety of my dirty laundry and old shoes. Ramona’s a strong young woman but she has a kindly nature and wasn’t even wearing her signature belt of cat skulls.

I named him Fitzroy, after the bastard son of Henry VIII, because he’s my 8th cat (Herman’s Hermits, anyone?), and because, in the vampire series Blood Ties, by Tanya Huff, Fitzroy is the name of the vampire romance writer who happens, in fact, to be King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. It was a picture of his teeth that inspired that, but now I’m thinking more of the romance writer part of the character. My Fitz hasn’t shown much talent or discipline. But he certainly likes to be romanced.

Sometimes I call him other things. Today it’s Pink Brains. This was inspired partly by a Frederick Seidel poem*, and partly by the Glass Cat in the Oz series. When Dorothy first meets the Glass Cat, she says:

Dear me, I hadn’t noticed you before. Are you glass, or what?”

“I’m glass, and transparent, too, which is more than can be said of some folks,” answered the cat. “Also I have some lovely pink brains; you can see ’em work.”**

I’ve seen Fitz’s brains work. He’s patiently destroying my windowscreen inch by inch so he can have the pleasure of plunging to his death. He waits by mouse holes, and grows frustrated when they remain indoors. He sniffs them beneath the refrigerator and since he can’t fit under there he tries to find a way in through the fridge. Yes, I too mistook his intent for a while. But it became clear to me after he’d refused every kind of meat and dairy I have, when he seemed too interested in pushing down through the leeks and apples, looking for a trapdoor.

I don’t spoil him, letting him in the fridge. I observe.

But there is hope—

“Iain McGregor and colleagues from the University of Sydney, Australia, found that rats would stop reacting to the smell of a cat that they had been exposed to repeatedly. Yet when they sniffed a new cat, the rats bolted back into their burrows and became extra vigilant. Dissecting the rats’ brains showed that the part that responds to cat pheromones became less active the more familiar they became with each cat. However, the brains of rats presented with the odour of a new cat became more active, confirming that the rodents reacted differently to the smells of individual cats” —New Scientist, 24 September 2008

The rats learned the risks of each feline one by one. So maybe the mice will start experimenting soon. See if they can get past Pink Brains. I hope not. If they run rings around him, I’ll have to get out the mousetraps again and Mouse-Loser will spend his nights in a cage, gnashing his teeth, while I hope to remember to disarm the traps every morning. How likely is that? 

On the way to finding the article about rats and cats, I found this one, in an earlier issue of New Scientist (July 27, 2007)

Oscar, a stray kitten adopted by staff members at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence about two years ago, lives in the home’s end-stage dementia unit.

I thought this was an end-stage dementia home for cats, but apparently not.

But unlike the unit’s other resident cat, Oscar is not particularly affectionate. “The truth of the matter is, this cat is extremely unfriendly for the most part,” says Dosa. “He shows very little interest unless you bribe him. The only time he seems to become friendly, or the only time he seems to spend time with people, is when they are about to die.”

He will curl up on the bed with someone who has just a few hours left to live, expressing no interest in other patients. “It may be half a day, sometimes two, three, four hours, but he’s always there when the patient dies,” says Dosa, who has written an article about Oscar in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Oscar has been observed to do this at least 25 times. But rather than view his presence as frightening, staff have come to value the knowledge that a certain patient may be near death, and Oscar has provided companionship to those who would otherwise have passed away alone. “We really are able to key into some of his insights and be able to let family know that patients might be nearing the end,” says Dosa. “Invariably, he’s right – much more so than we are.”

I can see how Oscar’s prescience might be helpful to the staff. But as for providing companionship, I’m not so sure. Given the personality of this particular cat, it’s much more likely that’s he’s waiting until the moment of death so he can eat the soul of the departed. 

*  * * * *

Here’s a poem by Frederick Seidel, about youth and age and how we kill ourselves. When I read it now, there are cats superimposed: a young cat like mine, and an old one like Oscar (Oscar isn’t really old, but he takes that part).


* A Fresh Stick of Chewing Gum


A pink stick of gum unwrapped from the foil,

That you hold between your fingers on the way home from dance class,

And you look at its pink.  But you know what.

I like your brain.  Your pink.  It’s sweet.


My brain is the wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar

Instead of being sweet pink like yours.

It could be the nicotine.  It could be the Johnnie Walker Black.

Mine thought too many cigarettes for too many years.


My brain is the size of the largest living thing, mais oui, a blue whale,

Blue instead of pink like yours.

It’s what I’ve done

To make it huge that made it huge.


The violent sweetness in the air is the pink rain

Which continues achingly almost to fall.

This is the closest it has come.

This can’t go on.


Twenty-six years old is not childhood.

You are not trying to stop smoking.

You smoke and drink

And still it is pink.


The answer is you can drink and smoke 

Too much at twenty-six,

And stink of cigarettes,

And stand outside on the sidewalk outside the bar to have a cigarette,


As the law now requires, and it is paradise,

And be the most beautiful girl in the world,

And be moral,

And vibrate into blank.


— from Oooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel


 **The Patchwork Girl of Oz


In the Belly of the Beast

April 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

babylonian-liverUtterly fatigued today. I paid a bill or two, did the laundry. Looked again for my mammogram films, which I’m sure were lost at a doctor’s office, but the office denies it. It’s astonishing. My liver doctor’s office has no record of my CT scan in 2007, which is okay because after my own files were thrown all over the living room and I was frantic, I called back and asked, “Well, if I did have one in 2007—which I understand you’re saying I didn’t—where would the doctor have sent me?” This peculiar question was one the nice young lady managed to answer, and the radiology place does in fact have a record.

And my gynecologist insists I never had a cervical biopsy because it’s not in the chart (I had two, in his office, pain and blood and all, which I know because I have a brain which also keeps records, and for the record the doctor had no curiosity about the anomaly in our respective record-keeping devices); tit films go missing—

And they will yell at me at the mammogram place for the missing films and tell me they can’t interpret the results now, so they’ll just have to cut off my breasts and be done with it.

Fine. I’ll put them back on with krazy glue.

I’m thinking of my making my sister my personal physician. She’s a veterinarian, but that’s already way ahead of what most of the human race has in the way of health care. Whatever she doesn’t know, she can learn on youtube. The only problem is, my insurance wouldn’t pay. I’d have to catch her on a Sunday, when she’s bored, give her a couple of drinks and say, “Would you mind operating on my liver, while Bob’s grilling the fish? There’s a cyst that needs draining. No biggie.”

That’s how she did acupuncture on my neck once. Of course it hurt for six months, but that was because of the third drink. I’d only let her have two before the liver.

I hate being middle aged and needing preventative screening all the time! If we were in the future already, the one I’m taking my job as a writer seriously to invent, I would just stand on the special beam-me-up-Scotty place on the clinic floor and at the flick of a switch 

an all-over deep mapping would occur, with and without contrast, color balance, hue saturation, and all the cell-to-cell chatter and bacterial conspiracies captured

and it would feel like being licked by a cat on the bottom of your foot—if your foot was in your brain as was the case with a baby born recently, don’t let me digress too far, but the baby lived

or so it said on some other wordpress blog I read today—

forget the baby, just think about the cat, its sandpaper tongue on your sandpapery foot, and you’re reading a novel and the cat keeps licking for an inordinately long time, like a minute

and once the mapping was done, the results would never be lost, and computers in their spare time would peruse millions of them and cogitate on the connections and implications, and diseases would wink out like species going extinct

and doctors would have hours to sit and talk about life, dealing with the little things, the odd symptoms with no cause, parsing anxiety’s new costumes, and those who were not worth talking to would go out of business

and patients not worth talking to would be referred to robots who would seem entirely human

and if you wanted cosmetic surgery on the order of a long furry tail and the face of Cleopatra, you could have it, but it would only last a week and then you would have to spend some time as a tadpole

I can’t wait.


Here’s a charming bit about the liver from The Iliad, Book XX, Homer,  translated by Samuel Butler

There was also Tros the son of Alastor- he came up to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the same age. Fool, he might have known that he should not prevail with him, for the man was in no mood for pity or forbearance but was in grim earnest. Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver, and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with the black blood that welled from the wound. Thus did death close his eyes as he lay lifeless.

I guess I remember now why I liked the Odyssey so much better.

Lady of the Flies

April 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Love on the flyPeople are frequently interested in my romantic situation (husband in Florida, boyfriend in over his head). It is peculiar and not without advantages, though the good stuff tends to add up while the bad multiplies, but the oddest thing that’s happened, and this concerns me as a writer, is that I’ve wrung so much drama from the past 9 years (or it’s wrung me; I haven’t always been the prime mover of the theatrics), that sex, love and romance, while still powerful in my life, are no longer the heavyweights in my imagination. I’m far less curious about what other people are up to, about the ‘mystery’ of someone’s marriage or arrangement. I don’t think I know everything—I just think I know everything that matters to me.

And having said such a vainglorious thing, I’m not sure if I want to be right or wrong about this. It’s nice to think the future holds surprises (she said tepidly, sitting in a hardback chair on the stage, hands folded in her lap, as abysses yawn and monsters stalk), but then surprises aren’t always nice, are they?

From one of my favorite science blogs—this is about flies—

“The influence of crowds can even sway a female’s decision based on completely arbitrary factors. To show this, Mery dusted two groups of males with either green or pink powder, creating bodies that no female would ever come across in the wild.  She placed a voyeur female in a glass tube, and in an adjoining tube, she put a coloured male and a second virgin female. Inevitably, the two flies mated, providing a sex show for the lone female to study. Later, the couple were replaced with another pair – a male of the other colour, and a female that had recently mated and wasn’t up for it. 

After all this voyeurism, Mery gave the solitary female a choice between pink or green males. She found that the female was twice as likely to mate with males from the colour that she had seen having sex before. If she watched green males getting lucky, she favoured green males; if pink seemed to be the colour-of-choice for other females, she went with pink. If the partition between the two tubes was opaque, so she couldn’t see the neighbouring shenanigans, she didn’t have any preferences for either colour.”*

Fashion always wins. The other woman knows something you don’t. We’re all confused about what we’re supposed to find attractive. Choose your lesson.

It’s interesting how science, which would never have advanced so far so fast without our hyper-rational, individualist civilization, is quickly tearing down the intellectual foundations of same. The human brain, not much more advanced than the fly brain, is impulse-driven, fast and sloppy, and expert at making up justifications after the fact. This is the rule, not the exception. Economists have just learned this; it’s a big eureka moment for them. No wonder the market doesn’t work! People are nuts!

Reason and considered choice are on the way out as the trusted foundation for human behavior. We can handle this for now. Scientists can genially say they don’t believe in free will, in the self, or even in consciousness, yet have no problem using those sturdy constructs to function and thrive. Apples and oranges, they say. My work, my life.

Because they are scientists, and not writers or artists, this isn’t hard for them; they tend not to have spent so much time hanging around with their demons. They haven’t given them names and histories, or ceded them territory; haven’t created symbiotic relationships to coax a win from a lose; they haven’t, in short, fooled themselves that they’ve corralled their irrational side into a binding agreement (renegotiated every one to three years).

Once those of us with the big crazies stop believing in progress of the emotional kind, in incremental acquisition of control, once we realize we’ll always like the guy with the pink dandruff if the other females do, and no power in heaven or on earth cares, or thinks it’s fate, or is saving us jewels of happiness for later—then I think we’ll storm the laboratories, grill the scientists for dinner along with their experimental animals, and erect temples to Asmodeus (lechery), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Belphegor (sloth).

And the whole thing will start again in several hundred years.

* Ed Yong, flies get the buzz on sexy mates from each other


Easter, Spring

April 12, 2009 § 2 Comments

bernini-proserpina-730844I was going to write about Easter but I don’t have much to say. My mother used to provide perfect Easter baskets, with lots of chocolate, twined with colored ribbons. Every spring I got an Easter bonnet. My cousins often visited.

As for the religious side, when I first really paid attention to the story of Jesus’s resurrection, I thought: so what? The Greeks and Egyptians thought of that centuries before. The Osiris story is pretty great. And nothing could beat the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the young daughter picking flowers, kidnapped by a chariot driven by Hades himself, tricked into eating 6 pomegranate seeds and so having to spend 6 months of every year in the Land of the Dead while her mother, Goddess of Grain and the Harvest, punishes Earth with winter (Earth was to blame for telling Hades where the girl was picking flowers). That story has meant a lot of things to me over the years, but right from the beginning one fact stood out: Persephone, adored by husband and mother, never gets to decide anything for herself past those initial choices of picking flowers and eating seeds. She’s Queen of the Dead, she’s Beloved Daughter, she’s the reason for the seasons—she never gets to be a woman turning her answering machine off and escaping for a few weeks to the tropics with the kind of man of whom you remember only what he smelled like when he was drunk, and that it amused him to shorten your name to Phony (once you made the mistake of introducing yourself as the Queen of the Dead), and that was just fine.

So, putting Easter aside, here’s a poem about Spring.

 The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.

Their yearly trick of looking new

Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh

Philip Larkin (9 August 1922 – 2 December 1985) is known as a poet of great dourness and gloom. He wrote a lot of poems about death and old age—starting when he was still what most people would call young—without any romantic or spiritual gloss whatsoever.

And yet he didn’t kill himself, as many more exuberant poets have. He demonstrated the value of life over and over by the discipline and beauty of his work. He was the epitome of the depressive as realist, and the realist as one who is all too aware that life very often isn’t fun or pretty, even among the so-called privileged, but that any sane being, absent excruciating torment, prefers it to nothingness.

Basho, 1644 – November 28, 1694) the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan might have appreciated Larkin’s sensibility. Here’s one of his haiku.

First day of spring—

I keep thinking about

the end of autumn.



Joyce Carol Oates and the Cat Detective

April 11, 2009 § 3 Comments

“If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write Moby Dick than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art.”—Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 2009

a good detective consults many sources of information

a good detective consults many sources of information

This is the sort of remark that raises hackles, like Hilary Clinton and the famous, “I guess I could have stayed home and baked cookies” line. Having just acquired a cat, and not being of a mind to write Moby Dick, though I do like a good pirate story, I took exception.

a) Joyce Carol Oates has never written Moby Dick. As far as I know, nobody has but a guy named Melville.

b) If you wrote a truly convincing cat detective novel, it would be a literary triumph of the highest order. My cat, for example, would make a terrible detective. He’s basically clueless about the world and if a murder took place in my living room while I was busy writing this blog, and it was in my best interest, and therefore his, to find another suspect than myself, I doubt he would draw my attention to a salient detail overlooked by the police. Possibly if the killer got out the window and took the screen with him, the cat would take the opportunity of getting on the ledge again, in which case I would scream, he would fall—12 stories—and probably not survive for the next volume in the series.

Or else, given that cats have 9 lives, etc, he’d come back to me missing several body parts, one eye hanging from a thread, his liver in his chest cavity, his heart pumping out his ear—and the series would devolve into the gross-out supernatural, which I don’t think is what Oates meant, though she’d probably like that better than whatever cat detective she has in mind. It could even be tragic: a cat who is neither alive nor dead solving mysteries out of existential despair.

It could be, but it would be difficult to write. It’s difficult to do anything well.

For all her devotion to the art of tragedy, Oates is not inclined to let it have its place in the normal course of things. In the same interview, she said, referring both to the fact that she does her own cleaning and to the recent death of her husband, which has inspired an interest in writing a memoir about widowhood that would be the opposite of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, “Mine would be filled with all sorts of slapstick, demeaning and humiliating things. Like trash cans whose bottoms are falling out…Didion took it on a very high plane, and she does have assistants and maybe a maid. But it’s actually a very hardscrabble experience. It’s not placid and tragic so much as it’s physically arduous.”

Now, really. Was he doing all the work? Did he create no mess? Men on trains will lift your suitcase if you ask them. I know something about doing household tasks without a husband, and if it’s unseemly to brag about cleaning the gutters myself because I was younger 3 years ago, when I last had a house, than Oates is now, my guess is I was also younger than her husband.

After my husband left—for Florida—I suffered more from  sorrow than from the necessity of killing all the mice myself and flirting with the plumber so he’d try harder to figure out why the antifreeze wouldn’t drain out of the system. (Not a job my husband could do, by the way. Either my part, or the plumber’s.)

And just on a word-use note, can you call a life ‘hardscrabble’ if the owner of that life has plenty of money and doesn’t hire help because she’s too shy? I think we need a cat detective to find out what the story is. Why wasn’t the man’s death tragic, at least to his longtime wife? Reader, I’m sorry; she murdered him.


Brain Edits

April 7, 2009 § 3 Comments

“Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.”  The New York Times, April 6, 2009the-brain

Or to be more precise—they are now poised to alter human nature in ways artists and writers have not.

I’m used to the revision process. When I was young, I resisted it, too attached to my words, especially the bits that stuck out like shiny metal from a teenager’s face. Eventually, it became my favorite part. I liked knowing I could improve something; I liked the deft snips and rearrangements that could keep the body of a story intact while making it mean something entirely different. Revision becomes fun when you realize it’s not only work but play. That’s where the scientists are now. But what drives change in the world? Necessity, utility and boredom—perhaps most importantly, consumer boredom. Birds have brilliant plumage for the same reason designers create new styles: Buy me. 

My brain, edited, would not only be less of a minefield for me, it would be a different aesthetic experience for you. Maybe you enjoy my writing but wish you could just tilt the tone a bit, or shake out the parts you’re sick of.  I wish she’d stop writing about THAT so much. Stop trying to be funny. Stop trying to be serious. Be the same but surprise me more.

 I can think of many discrete ways of editing my husband, mother, lover, siblings—not for better or worse, but for change and highlight. If you’ve ever worked in Photoshop, you know what I mean. It’s not that you’re changing the soul of the image. Of course not. But: lighter or darker?  What if you dialed up the blue of her eyes—and turned that guy behind her into wallpaper?

I might go a little nuts editing myself. Weed out all the memories that hold me back with their whisper of failure and the ones that embarrass me with their generic drone. Take out the days and months I was bored; the hangovers; most of 1983. I’d be sleek and wily, smart, ready to pounce on the future and bat it from paw to the outfield. I’d be happy to inform you I’d forgotten when we met, that we met, what you were like on the job or in bed, and why you think you matter.

Naturally someday I’d want to return to the trashed bits, sift through them like the stuff you leave in boxes in your parents’ attic. I mean, maybe you do matter, 1983. I know there were some good days; otherwise I would have slit my wrists. There must be vast pages of forgotten hours adding to parts of myself I treasure. You know how it is when you learn something so thoroughly you forget what it was like not to know it? You feel ignorant again; only being confronted with a real novice does the awareness of expertise return. If you can never see the base of the mountain, how do you know what counts?

Trauma reappearing in dreams and phobias sounds grim, and is, but think about that other complaint we have, that human life is too short for the species to learn much—for example, that war sucks. The only reason teenagers know this even vaguely is the horrifying stories told by their elders. These stories haven’t stopped war (partly because they’re often dishonest). On the other hand, we’re not starting a war every five minutes. Not quite.

Think of the Binghamton carnage. Watching TV coverage, for the susceptible, is drama and action without emotional consequence. What if that happened to you when you were told, We excised this memory at your request, but for your information, here are the facts. Maybe you’d take the stripped skeleton and over time feel nostalgia for imaginary flesh. Maybe you’d say, I wonder what that felt like? Maybe I should let myself be raped again.

If this sounds implausible, remember that lots of women have rape fantasies, just as lots of men and women have murder fantasies. We know we don’t want our fantasies to become true because we’ve heard the unvarnished stories. There are so many of these, we think we don’t need them; we can imagine how we’d feel. But are you sure that’s true? What if personal stories of horrors disappeared, or became very, very old?


Francisco Goya, Great Deeds Against the Dead

Francisco Goya, Great Deeds Against the Dead





Memento Mori

April 5, 2009 § 1 Comment

I just watched the 60 Minutes segment on the cancer patients in Nevada denied treatment because the legislature cut funds to the public hospital. Nevada has been hit by the economic crisis worse than most states; the tax base is narrow, focused on entertainment and real estate.

The hospital CEO, with state cuts topping 70 a million year, made the choice to cut the outpatient oncology program, rather than programs, like the Trauma center, that can’t be duplicated at other hospitals and clinics in the area. After seeing the patients whose loss of access to chemotherapy means almost certain death, one can question her decision. But it’s clear that the villain is here is not the hotel administrator.

We all know the usual villains—health insurance companies, drug companies, self-interested politicians and so forth. But the villain is more properly every one of us who fears ‘socialism’ more than the possibility of losing a job (this is a group that is shrinking fast). It’s the middle-class person who couldn’t afford the best doctors on his own, but doesn’t want to settle for what he might get if care was distributed more evenly.

I live in New York and currently have health insurance; if I got cancer or any other life-threatening illness I’ll go to the best doctors. Who wouldn’t? I already go to very good ones for situations that might become dangerous someday, and I’m thrilled and comforted that they’re good.

The patients I saw on 60 minutes may not have been getting care equal to what one gets at Sloan-Kettering. I doubt they’d complain about that. Many of these cancers have poor prognoses in the best hospitals. But to know there is a chance, but you won’t get it, to know you might live, but nobody’s going to help, to know that in the most frightening of circumstances, you’re on your own—that’s not what post-Bush, 21st America should be.

Those who think Obama should wait on health care until after the economy revives should consider how much bad luck it would take for them to lose their job, to not be able to afford Cobra or private insurance premiums. Think of the many illnesses that make you unable to work for years. Think of the sorts of accidents that happen to spouses riding in the same car. Could you raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, or a million dollars, in a crisis? Is your house worth that much? Would your siblings and friends sell all they have and live in tents to give you a 20 % chance at living? You’re not a cute 8 year old anymore.

How much would it take?

One of the patients interviewed, Roy Scales, who’d gone for five months without treatment after being diagnosed with lung cancer, was asked what would he would do if he didn’t find a doctor. “Die peacefully,” he said. I went on the CBS site to find out the exact wording of this quote and read a reader comment about Roy, posted just a little while ago.

Hello CBS – how do I get a hold of Roy Scales? He helped through some of the most difficult days of my life. When he was in Pittsburgh about 14 years ago we were both down on our luck. We worked for a temp agency called Labor World and we worked together at a plastics factory. He would let me read his copy of Our Daily Bread, so I could just get my head around the day. Please – help me reach out to him now. I don’t know what I can do for him but I have to tell him how much I appreciated what he did for me and see if there is anything I can do for him now. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him on the screen. I’ve often wondered over the years what ever became of Roy – please – let him know Renee who worked with him at Mitchells is trying to reach him. — please –


He looked like the sort of man who’d make people feel that way.

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