Saturday, April 12, 2014

Predators, Metaphors, and Surprise Story Lines

Being a cat owner in a city such as Santa Barbara is not a problem if you are comfortable with the notion of an indoor cat.  Cats who prefer the outdoor life are another matter.  Predators abound.  Lost Cat posters and predators abound.  You might say they are two parallel lines which make for story.  You might also say there is a metaphor here involving story.

It begins with your sighting this morning of what you consider to be an adult possum in the garden next door, giving itself a meticulous grooming.

Previous to your recent dwelling place, you lived for a little over ten years in a section of Santa Barbara where it was not an uncommon event to see one or more deer or one or more coyote.  Not quite often enough to be a common sighting, but on the other hand, often enough not to be uncommon.

Often enough to feel a pang each time you saw Lost or Missing Cat notices tacked to trees.  Rule out the thought of the deer being the predator in such ventures.  Deer are well enough known to be herbivores for even you to know their foraging tastes.

The coyote is another matter, ditto the occasional bobcat and the even more occasional mountain lion.  In the ten or so years you lived within this area, you'd seen ample appearances of all the above and had a neighbor who'd been hauled off by the police for firing a handgun at a mountain lion.  You'd seen numerous raccoons and, to your delight and the landlord's dismay, legions of squirrels, for whom you bought peanuts in fifty-pound bags.

Not to forget the presence of owls, which rank among predators, especially after you'd been told by a friend in the nearby city of Ojai, that a cat of hers had been considered too good to resist by an owl.

At the time of your former residence, you had a significant population of feral cats, thanks to the fact of their mother, Madam Ovary, deciding she liked your cuisine.  The feral cats all did well against the predator demographic.  Not until your last year on Hot Springs Road did a cat disappear beyond the idiosyncratic disappearance times of most cats.  And she, Camper, was not a feral cat, rather one foisted on you by a dissatisfied short story writer.

The metaphor is simple enough.  You would not know what to do with an indoor cat anymore than you'd know what to do with a safe story.  A feral cat knows a few things about how to earn a living, how to make it in the jungle-like atmosphere fraught with predation.  A short story should be imbued with the same self-preservation sensors.  Risk is an essential ingredient.  Without some sense of risk, a short story takes on the canned sentimentality and wisdom of a massmarket greeting card.  The intentions of the safe story and the greeting card are sincere, but sincere stories have a habit of turning into sermons.

An hour or so after you saw the possum in the garden next door, it appeared closer to home, directly across the narrow path leading to your patio.  The possum and your cat, Goldfarb, came to a momentary sit-down cum face-off for a few moments, whereupon, as if by some inner signal, each lifted to its full height and went on its way in what you thought was an exchange remarkable for its civility.

You'd seen enough possums before to have recognized it on the spot, but this was your first chance to watch one long enough to have some feelings about it.  One such feeling was the hope it returns.  As an inducement, you have left a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and nuts.

Later in the day, as you arranged the chairs and seating arrangement for your Saturday writing group, you recalled an exchange you'd had with an individual who'd bought two copies of your book, intending one only at first, as a gift for his daughter.  After browsing, he'd wanted one for himself.  Luck had it that you'd arrived at the Cafe Luna while he was breakfasting.  He asked if he could bring his daughter to your group.

What you picked up from him was the image of a young, starting-out writer, who'd want instruction on such basics as point-of-view, dialogue, and narration.

She was neither and, in the bargain, perhaps twice the age you'd expected.

You will probably never see either again, given he lives near Northwestern University in Illinois, and she is a working musician, newly moved to Oakland (for reasons not entirely clear to you).

She left you with a remarkable narrative, somewhere between memoir, short story, and exploration of the sort an essayist would write or a musician would improvise.  Listening to here read the material and, later, engaging her and her father in conversation, you found yourself becoming fonder of the possum, in part for reasons you expect will become clear to you in the future but which are not now.  In addition, in both cases, you were drawn to the things-are-not-what-they-seem-to-be landscape, where expectations and preconceived notions are turned on their heads.

Goldfarb has finished his supper, brushed his glistening chops against your trouser legs, and petitioned to go outside.  You, too, are about to go outside, for your evening walk.

Is there any wonder why the evening seems ablaze with potential?

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