Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Naming of Cats


Yesterday I picked up my new kitten.  She’s pretty young to be out on her own (just six or seven weeks), but I’m glad to have her this little.  My other cat was already about six months old when I got him, and he’s always been shy because of that.  This little one has already adopted me as mom and mews piteously when I put her in her crate. 

Anyway, the necessity of naming the new pet has been on my mind since she was born and I decided to adopt her. 

Do these endless eyes say 'shoes' to you?
I had several options to think about.  Among cat lovers in my area, you see, there’s a tendency to name cats after footwear.  A family friend named their cats Boots and Shoes.  An old classmate of mine dubbed hers Sneakers.  So my brother and I discussed the name ‘Flip-flop,’ which we thought would be a hilarious commentary on the trend (cats as shoes doesn’t make much sense, you must admit). 

However, Flip-flop is sort of an awkward name, so we started considering the idea of naming her after a wacky philosopher. One of the family cats when we were kids proudly bore the name of Hobbes.  His namesake was the cartoon character, but anyone who knows their Calvin and Hobbes will be able to tell you that the tiger is named after the philosopher.  A famous quote of his is that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’ – which seems to be the outlook of a predator like a cat. 

Cats, also, however, are well known for their private belief in their divinity. 

They’ve never quite forgotten that in Egypt they were worshipped as familiars of the goddess Bastet.  Since this is the case, it seemed suitable to look for a name that referenced their old status.  Hegel was an option, because he taught that the progress of the world would culminate in its divinization.  Pursuing a different tack, I could have gone with Nietzsche, since all cats are nihilists and believe in the supremacy of their will (the name is hard to spell for veterinarians, though…).  I thought of Hume, too, who believed all knowledge is sensual.  All of these had their appeal, but none were quite right

She walks like she remembers her godhead
My brother at last suggested the philosopher Spinoza, whose basic premise seems to have been that Nature and God are the same.  As cats certainly seem to believe that feline nature is divine, the name was perfect.  My little kitten would be named Spinoza.  Moreover, the second time I saw her, when she was big enough to have a personality, somehow the name stuck. 

The several weeks which I spent debating all this reminded me how much I love to choose names.

All those who are writers know the challenge of coming up with an almost endless amount of suitable names – not to mention the necessity of titling books, stories and poems.  Non-writers probably know the challenge from their own pets and even from the simple obligation to label things for organizational purposes.  It can be hard to come up with just the right words with which to identify something. 

And yet the process is enjoyable.  We like to be able to sum up something in just a word or two.  It’s a good feeling to no longer refer to ‘the kitten I’ll be adopting in a few weeks’ or ‘the novel I’m working on right now’, but to mention ‘Spinoza’ and ‘House of Mirrors’ (or what have you), simply and directly. 

Spinoza deigns to attack my shoes!
In the biblical book of Genesis, not to mention Kipling’s Just So Story, How the Alphabet Was Made, the texts refer to the joy of discovery and solution which comes when someone is allowed to name all the unknowns.  Adam has the job of naming everything he sees; the father and daughter in the tale are overflowing with excitement to define sounds by a letter name.  I feel the same excitement when I know that I have the right title or the right character name, or the right way to address a wee kitten. 

I’m sure other people share my enjoyment.  I’d love to hear your stories of how you came up with an important name for a pet or a character (even a child!).  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Little Baby Things

During spring, it’s easy to feel very tender toward everything.  Tiny, yellow-green buds and leaves are tentatively peeking out on tree branches; birds are fluttering about preparing nests; the early flowers (crocuses, daffodils, even some intrepid tulips) are shyly, yet bravely flowering.  The sky arches overhead streaked with cottony clouds and displaying a baby blue which no other time of the year possesses.

While I appreciate each season equally, there is something particularly moving about the soft vitality of spring.  It inspires me to join it in its work of bringing new things to life. 

The result of this inspiration is my preparation of new herb pots for the summer. 

New herbs and old herbs!
Last year was the first year I’d undertaken growing herbs.  Since I think it’s always safer to start small, I only planted three things: basil, oregano and parsley.  Those are the herbs I use most frequently in cooking, so they seemed a good choice.  They turned out very successfully.  From July to January I bought no basil to speak of, since I overwintered a pot in a sunny window.  From August until now I’ve had to buy parsley only once, when I needed a huge amount of it for a party recipe.  From September to December, my oregano kept me supplied until it went dormant for the winter.

Well, with such success, as you might imagine, I’ve decided to expand my repertoire (if herbs can have a repertoire, that is!).  I also use plenty of cilantro in Mexican cooking, plus thyme and rosemary for seasoning my preferred Mediterranean cuisine.  Plus, I want to grow hot chilis and bell peppers, and basil is an annual so it has to be replanted.  Since I had my trimester break at the beginning of April, I decided to get things started.  

There’s something so happy about burying your hands in soil and laying out the tiny seeds.

Look how cute I am!
It is essentially a creative act – the beginning of creativity, when time and care and patience are needed to nurture the small being (of whatever kind) into life.  I think that much of creativity is absorbed in the act of preservation.  It’s easy to have instantaneous inspirations of all kinds, but not so easy to take care of that inspiration until it has the vigor and strength to survive on its own.  Similarly with seeds and baby animals – also human babies: the fruit of our creative impulses, even the most basic, biological ones, always demand our care and love and long labor. 

Besides starting my herb pots, I’ve also arranged to adopt a kitten from a friend of mine.  It’s probably a girl, and she’ll be ready in a week or two.  And of course, I’m a teacher currently, so I have plenty of children under my care.  There is much responsibility that comes along with the endeavor to raise a small, young creature to its proper state of existence.  That responsibility can seem like a burden at times, but it also can bring out the best part of our humanity. 

 For this reason, I’d argue that creation in some form or other is the vocation of each human being

There’s an essay on fairy tales by J. R. R. Tolkien in which he talks about sub-creation.  Basically he argues that in a universe which continually engenders and preserves new life in multiple different forms, human beings (who have the ability to acknowledge this universal activity) feel the drive to partake in it.  They take different elements of the overall creativity of being and reconfigure them in ways that suit the human character.  Of course, he was specifically talking about stories and especially fantasy stories, but I think the principle can be applied to all good human endeavors. 

Seeds are part of a universal pattern!
Whether they be farms or gardens or quilts or woodworking or food or poems or stories, in all our creations, we’re doing our best to mimic the overarching patterns of life unfolding around us.  This mimicry may seem silly, until we realize that the products of our labors actually end up becoming part of that overarching pattern.  The agriculturalist cooperates with the fertility of nature and enhances it; the cook provides sustenance for living beings; the artist reveals the pattern to others so that they can participate in it more consciously. 

Sometimes it can be easy to feel discouraged by the monotony and responsibility of pursuing our various professions and hobbies.  However, during the springtime, when the renewal of the yearly patterns is visible around us, we can take heart and refresh our commitment to that undertakings with love.  In every cycle of creation there is a time of dryness and dormancy.  After such a period, though, life returns to delight and inspire us again to continue.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Being Conscious


I’ve been reading a lot since I downloaded the Kindle app on my laptop, and because one of my abiding interests is food….you can probably guess that I’ve been reading a lot about it!

First there was the boldly titled French Women Don’t Get Fat.  Then came Real Food: What to Eat and Why.  Next was French Kids Eat Everything.  Currently I’m in the midst of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  So my focus has ranged from weight management, to healthy, organic eating, to the development of kids as non-picky eaters, to an analysis of the modern food system.  That’s a pretty broad range, but I’ve drawn one overarching principle from even such varied topics. 

All these writers tell us to eat consciously. 

It's not hard to eat lemon tart consciously!
There’s a tendency to live in a hurried, even thoughtless manner, never taking time to assess oneself and see where one stands in life.  I’m as guilty of this tendency as the next person, since I like to be efficient and load myself with projects.  I end up feeling like I’m rushing from one thing to the next, with hardly a chance to take a breath. 

This attitude ends up affecting the way we eat, as well.  In fact, in many ways, I think that our approach to food mirrors the way we approach everything else, since eating is such a fundamental activity.  If we’re not willing to pause and consider the healthfulness and quantity and quality of what we’re putting into our bodies to sustain our cells and our minds, it seems we’ll also be careless in the activities we take on or the work we try to accomplish. 

Sometimes people have to slow down and think about even the most basic elements of life. 

Each of the authors in the books I’ve read had a different reason for encouraging conscious eating.  The chic Frenchwomen says, ‘Stop and consider how much you’re eating, and perhaps you’ll hear your body say it’s full sooner.’  The real food advocate says, ‘Think for a moment about whether it’s really healthy to consume the chemicals of processed food.’  The American with picky kids says, ‘If you consider your own approach to eating, perhaps you’ll better understand your child’s.’  Finally, Mr. Pollan the omnivore seems to be declaring, ‘Think about the social, moral, ecological and political factors of what's on your plate.’ 

If we think well of food, we think well of everything!
All this contemplation of food and our individual interactions with it serve as a good analogy for how we should think about even bigger issues than nourishment.  We must self-analyze and self-correct; we must evaluate exterior influences upon us; we must reflect on the message our behavior gives others; we must realize that each individual choice has wide social repercussions. 

How can we be conscious of all this if we’re always busy and rushing from one thing to the next? 

There’s a movement I’ve read about in at least two of the food books, called ‘Slow Food.’  The basic principle seems to be that if we shun the fast food mentality, we’ll rediscover flavor, pleasure, friendship and even health.  I would advocate a new movement called ‘Slow Life.’  I appreciate having plenty of activities, and I also think that a steady level of business (especially if it involves projects which truly interest us) is good for the soul, but overall, a slower pace is a happier pace.

I think many of us have a critical mental commentary going at all times.  We wake up in the morning and think, ‘Well, today I’ve got to exercise and cook meals for my family, squeeze in a shower and a doctor’s appointment, plus the kids have music lessons and sports in the afternoon, and I was thinking of working on a craft project for a friend’s birthday, plus I need to do some online shopping and run errands in town, oh, and I have emails to answer and calls to return, there’s work as always, and maybe I’ll manage to get a little writing or reading in just before bed.’  With that list playing in the back of our minds all day, we chastise ourselves for not getting to everything, and perhaps go to bed disappointed since we had to sacrifice whatever was least pressing (but perhaps most important for our well-being). 

Perhaps we all need remove two or three things while we’re making our daily lists.

I’ve found that there’s almost always enough time.  Perhaps not everything gets done as soon as expected; perhaps some things just get forgotten altogether.  That’s okay.  It will get done eventually or else it wasn’t important enough to worry about in the first place.  By taking off a little of the pressure, we can gain greater perspective and also have time to consider what we’re doing before, during and after it happens. 

Know thyself while the tomatoes roast!
I’m a great believer in the dictum, ‘Know thyself.’ It’s hard to know yourself in a hurry, though.  If I do make myself slow down and think, I discover that some things are more important than I thought, and other things can be postponed to give me some space.  I’ve been trying to follow this method lately with my daily activities.  It lead to the discovery that if I do my writing first, rather than my giant to-do list, I feel more inspired and calmer and find the other duties less daunting and irritating. 

In the end, what I’m trying to say, I think, is that by encouraging a lively consciousness of what we’re doing each day—each moment, even—we can end up living a happier, more balanced life.  And after all, when life’s as tricky as it is, you’ve got to take every chance to maintain a good balance!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gift Giving


I don’t know if anyone else has this experience, but among my family and friends, all the birthdays seem to be concentrated in just one time of the year.  From June until February, there’s maybe one or two birthdays a month (sometimes none at all, like July, December and February).  Then March arrives...queue the birth of everyone I know! 

This is how I celebrate MY birthday!
My goddaughter, my Mom, Vasnefy, my older brother and my sister-in-law all have birthdays within a two month period, with Mother’s Day thrown in for good measure. (I was also born in this period, but luckily I don’t have to find presents for myself!)  As you might imagine this means that I tend to have gifts on the mind from about the middle of February onward.  It takes a while to find just the right thing for each person!  

Luckily gift-giving can be something very enjoyable.

When I was in high school, I read a novel called Pilgrim’s Inn (which I highly recommend, if you ever stumble across a copy).  At one point the female protagonist, Sally, is shopping for Christmas presents.  The narrator makes a point of observing that she always took great pains to find a present that the recipient would like, even if she herself did not like it.  For example, she buys a friend interested in medicine a book of anatomical diagrams, even though she herself finds them gruesome and disgusting. 

This tiny scene made a great impact on my fifteen-year-old mind.  It’s actually quite a challenge to find gifts which are neither just generically likeable, nor specifically to the giver’s tastes, but solely and completely driven by the recipient’s interests and desires.  Being able to meet that last qualification implies a considerable degree of closeness between giver and recipient, since otherwise the latter’s tastes are much harder to discover accurately. 

From this I’ve concluded that the best gifts are inspired by love.

Our gifts should be as refreshing as nature's!
In this case, I don’t mean love in a romantic sense, or in any specific sense of the word, in fact.  Rather, I think that true gifts arise from the most general attitude of love: a focus outward on other people.  If we’re willing to spend time observing others and thinking about their needs and wishes – and what’s more, exerting the effort to remember what we thought and observed – then the process of gift-giving becomes something meaningful and enriching to both the giver and recipient. 

This is one of the reasons why in my adult years I’ve been as much delighted by finding presents for others as by receiving them myself (I’m not going to lie and pretend I don’t thoroughly enjoy getting gifts – but giving them is an equal and sometimes greater pleasure).  There’s something so refreshing about forgetting one’s own concerns for a moment now and then, in order to think of something nice which could be done for or given to a dear friend or family member or loved one.  Making presents can purify us, at least for a little while, from our personal concerns.  After all, these can become too burdensome and absorbing if we don’t sometimes look outside ourselves at others. 

This realization brought me also to a new idea for writing. 

You see, if gift-giving implies a great deal of intimacy and a deep knowledge of another person, I think it can be used to help us fiction writers with our characters.  It’s always fun to ask oneself, ‘What’s my character’s favorite color? What does he like to eat? What does he think when he walks into a roomful of strangers?’  The answer to each of these questions gives us a better-rounded conception of the character as a person. 

My new question is, ‘What would you get your character for his or her birthday?’

Perhaps your character might like a tea party...
I know it sounds silly, but if you can answer the question, it implies you’re really in touch with your character.  After all, if someone asks what present you're giving to your best friend, your ability to answer, ‘I’m getting her CD’s because she’s really into music right now,’ (for example), tells us that you're attuned to your friend’s tastes.  If you can answer the same question about your character – maybe even giving specific presents for specific birthdays, based on development in his or her personality – you're also attuned to the defining elements which make him a realistic person for a story. 

If I take the novel I’m (almost finished) editing and pick the main character—Charles, a blind sculptor—I’d probably be inclined to give him recordings of poetry readings.  He never learned Braille, he’s often bored, he struggles with depression, and he loves art.  Readings of beautiful poems would give him some relief from his various personal demons, plus occasional moments of much needed enjoyment. 

So there you have an example.  If you have an original character you write about (or hope to write about), I’d love to know what gift you’d choose for their birthday!