You can’t shake your white cat because your white cat is you.

I hadn’t planned to write a post about cat books, but I guess it was inevitable. I wrote a cat book myself a few years ago, so it makes a kind of psychic sense that I was sent a review copy of a new book from Rizzoli, publisher of beautiful books about art, design, and photography. It’s called Cats & Books.

Layla Wobbles, Princess of Darkness, West Yorkshire, England. Photo credit: Meghan Mcconnell

Like all Rizzoli books I’ve seen, this one is beautifully made, a small, hardbound collection of photos found in the social media hashtag #CatsandBooks (which I didn’t follow before, but might now, and which puts me to mind of one of my favorite Reddit communities, Cats in Sinks). There are two pleasures here: the cats themselves, whose “details,” likes, and dislikes are listed alongside their photos like the pin-up boys in the teen magazines of my youth. (Milky loves to play with colorful elastic bands; Caedmon, from New Haven, is named after the earliest English poet whose name we know; Posie’s hobbies include sitting on top of magazines.) The other pleasure is the books, or rather the fact that you can’t easily see them because they’re part of the background, always behind or underneath the cats who lounge on piles of them or perch inside bookcases. Visiting someone’s house for the first time, I love to look at their books, though I sometimes have to do this quickly or on the sly if the person doesn’t seem all that into the idea of me pawing through their things. Getting glimpses of books in these photos gives me some of that same pleasure—head tilted, scanning the spines, looking at colors and titles and authors’ names to try to get an idea of who their owner is. I think I’d hit it off with Caedmon’s human companion, who has a David Crystal book on language and a little volume by Edward Gorey. But just the fact of having books and cats is meaningful in itself, a clue I’d understand and like a few crucial things about the person behind the camera (or, more likely, a phone).

It happens that around the same time I received this book, I attended a reading at Giovanni’s Room, which carries both old and new books, and I spied beside the register a secondhand photo book called Metal Cats for 2 or 3 dollars. Yes, yes I’ll take this one too. This book is a sheer delight to look through—page after page of Alexandra Crockett’s photos of guys (all of them guys) in bands and fans of metal music, posing with their beloved cats. The thing I like most about the pictures is not the pairing of tough-posturing people with sweet cats (though that is the book’s obvious appeal)—not precisely. It’s more about the sweetness that the cats bring out in the men. In almost every photo the guy is smiling or laughing at his cat, cradling a cat like a baby, sitting down with one at a kitchen table, or posing with it on his shoulder or arm or head in a position that’s clearly habitual for them. The photos are a reminder, for anyone who needs it: some of the toughest looking dudes have the squishiest insides—and cats, as soft and small as they are, can be fierce as fuck.

The cover image from Metal Cats. Photo credit: Alexandra Crockett

I have hundreds of books in my house, and I know if I dug around for awhile I’d find a few others about cats. Just the other day I was tidying the tall to-be-read pile on my office floor and found The Cat Inside, a slender book of short pieces by William Burroughs. I’d bought this book a few years ago, along with a copy for my mother and one for my sister, with the idea that we could read it and have a little book club discussion about it, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. The only time we successfully did this was with the trash-memoir Mommie Dearest, and I might have been the only one who read much of the book, but we laughed a lot.

Burroughs wrote little diary entries about the cats who came to live with him in the 80s, when he was in his 70s living in Lawrence, Kansas. Some of the pieces are as strange as you’d imagine, but most of them aren’t, and only sometimes does he let his thoughts take him to a dark place. All the writing is gentle and insightful, deep and tender. Until now I had spent more time thinking about William Burroughs than I ever had reading his writing, and the conclusion I tended to draw was ick, based mostly on the fact that he killed his young wife in a shitty, careless accident. But in these pages he is sensitive, deep, and thoughtful—a cat person. He takes his stewardship of the cats seriously, even has a stress dream from which he wakes up crying that his dear cat Ruski needed help, but he couldn’t get to him. Some of his accounts are prosaic and familiar to anyone who has lived with animals: feeding routines, the sharp pang of loss when a cat slips out the door and doesn’t return. Other times Burroughs sounds more like the mystic he may actually have been.

The white cat symbolizes the silvery moon prying into corners and cleansing the sky for the day to follow. … The white cat is the hunter and the killer, his path lighted but the silvery moon. All dark, hidden places and beings are revealed in that inexorably gentle light. You can’t shake your white cat because your white cat is you. You can’t hide from your white cat because your white cat hides with you.

Like me, Burroughs digs the histories of cats’ importance to people around the world. He writes that the ancient Egyptians went into mourning for their dead cats and shaved their eyebrows, a fact I remember once reading on a placard at the Penn Museum. Like Burroughs, I find the idea of deep grief for a lost cat friend entirely reasonable.

When he does get dark, Burroughs rages about environmental destruction and our “doomed planet,” or grapples with the fact of violence in his life in a way I find refreshing and useful, if hard to read. He recalls slapping a cat with a book. (“I can hear the cat’s ears ringing from the blow. I was literally hurting myself and I didn’t know it.”) Later, he reckons that a completely honest autobiography could probably never be written. “I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was an Evil River.” Eventually, he reveals the truth about the cats and the stories and himself:

This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.

2017 in Review

Hello, all, and happy new year. I love this time of year, even though I’m usually sick with a cold. I had one last year when I wrote my year-in-review, and I’m coming down with one now. Thanks, holiday get-togethers, public transportation, and germy old civilization in general. Thanks a lot.

I dislike Christmas hugely, for a number of reasons, only one of which is potentially worth discussing in public (capitalism; oh yeah also the forced cheer and heteronormativity of “family” get-togethers), but I’ll spare you. I do love the week between Christmas and New Year’s, though. It’s like the heart of winter: the perfect time to draw in, rest, and reflect. It’s dark outside but it’s warm and bright in here, and I’m calming my shattered Christmas nerves by misting frankincense in my diffuser and wearing my fat cozy socks, both of which I did, admittedly, get as gifts for fucking Christmas, so whatever. All griping and kidding aside, I am grateful for all of this. Every bit of my life, even the parts I don’t like.

I do an accounting of my year every year, and make plans in the form of resolutions for the year to come. I did my accounting publicly on this blog at the end of 2016 and it was a nice way for me to organize my thoughts and express my gratefulness, so I thought I’d do that again. If you’re still reading after that irritable—and some may say childish, but I say those people are sticking their heads in the sand—outburst, why don’t you come along with me?

A lot happened this year, and though I tried to make my writing life a focus when I selected the photos above, I had to represent a few other things too, including the hurt and outrage and righteous anger caused by the miserable Trump administration, and the fact that J & I bought a house and moved into it. (That’s why all those houseplants are sitting in a cardboard box up there.) That was nine months or so ago, and I still love the feeling of settling in here, decorating and making small changes one at a time. Today I painted one “accent wall” in my “home office” a shade of “millennial pink,” so how’s THAT for having your shit together? I love that room and now I really love that wall.

In October, Cats I’ve Known, the book of illustrated memoir stories I spent last year writing, came out. I asked the famous internet cat Lil BUB to write a blurb for the back cover and she did. Joy! I did a number of readings and other events to promote the book this fall, and I’ll continue to do so in 2018. If I can swing it I’ll do a tour of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) in the spring, and I plan to do in-store events in bookshops along the Delaware coast this summer. Look me up if you live in those places, would you?

I find it hard to do, to give readings from something I wrote, or to promote my work in any way, really. I have to push through a lot of self-consciousness, guilt, and anxiety to get to the place where I remember that I am proud of my writing and want to share it with other people. But share it I did. I launched Cats I’ve Known at a day-long show at a basement show space in West Philly called the Waiting Room, where I read a selection of the book’s lighter, funnier stories. (That’s me doing this in the second-to-last photo.) I felt very warmly welcomed, as I have at the other shows and events I’ve participated in there. Thanx, punx! I also forced myself to read the longest, saddest story in the book at a show I organized with J called SadFest. We did SadFest for the first time last year—his idea—and people responded really well to it. I kind of thought it was a weird idea, to be honest, but people loved it, I guess because everyone has sad stories, poems, or songs that they’re too embarrassed to trot out at a group reading for fear of bringing everyone else down or being seen as adolescently emo or whatever. I practiced my sad cat story several times before I performed it to keep from crying in front of everyone, but I did cry a little at the end.

So far the book has been reviewed warmly by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Broken Pencil, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. I sold it at several fairs throughout the year, including the cheerful and well attended Lehigh Valley Zine Fest in Easton, Pennsylvania and the Philly Zine Fest, which has always been my favorite zine event and this year was packed to the gills: very gratifying. I threw myself a party (!) and got a fancy cake from a bakery that was decorated to look like one of the cats Trista Vercher drew for the book. I gave more readings, almost always with J, who can be seen in the second row of photos getting ready to perform at Coffee House Without Limits in Allentown. I signed and sold copies of the book at other events, too, including ones in Portland, Oregon, where my publisher, Microcosm, is located. One of those was, drumroll, a women-only cannabis party with a DJ and vendors, who were selling things like cannabis tinctures and sex lube infused with cannabis and … books. Since Microcosm has a few weed titles, we went and set up a pop-up shop of zines and books there. I accompanied a very capable and impressive young employee of the publisher, who incidentally could smoke any of you under the table, and we spent a pleasant, if unusual, evening slinging books to friendly, intelligent women who were all kind of high. (I’m a lightweight myself, and just tried a few drops of the tincture. It was nice.)

So—go me. Seriously. None of this was easy for me, all of this performing and traveling and meeting new people, but I did it anyway, and lo and behold it was fun and rewarding. Thanks, world, for your kind reception of my cat book. As for the portion of the world that has not read it yet, what the heck?

In other categories of stuff, I made music with my experimental noise band A$$HOLEKNIFE, taught zine workshops to children, college students, and adults, and gave interviews about my work to the podcasts Collecting Culture and Design Conversations and a Japanese art and culture magazine called HEAPS. (The second two are forthcoming.)

The music thing has been interesting for me. I am not a musician, though I studied the flute as a kid and some classical guitar as an adult. I don’t know that I have much of a knack for it. But some friends and I started fiddling around together on a regular basis, using whatever instruments we could put our hands on to make a tremendous amount of noise that somehow becomes musical as we go. This is largely because a couple of the people involved are real musicians, I think, but also because that might be what happens when people communicate in this, or any other, way. Someone makes some sort of sound and someone else answers it, and it goes on like that, becoming a noisy and cathartic conversation. Forget catharsis: It’s an exorcism. It’s so engrossing and relaxing to lose yourself in making music, and it’s a wonderful release to make it that LOUD. I had no idea. We recorded our sessions and J edited them into distinct songs, and we even put out a tape! Does this mean I’m a rock star now? or just a slightly more well-rounded weirdo than I was before?

Let’s see, what else. J and I continued organizing and hosting shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room (the band Rabbits to Riches is shown playing the space in the top right corner) and we collaborated with a beautiful new performance space called Hauska that’s run by our friend Julia. The show at Hauska, which means funny in Finnish, was a comedy show in answer to SadFest, and both shows were lovely and lively and well attended. I have also undertaken the huge job of properly cataloging the EFZRR’s zine collection so that people can access it more easily. As I have in the past, I am enjoying being a hobbyist librarian. I love playing at things until they become real, or at least as real as I want them to be.

And last, I’m excited to announce that I edited a zine anthology of other people’s cat stories called Cat Party #2, which Microcosm will publish in the first month or two of 2018. It features both essays and comics and includes the artists Dame Darcy and Noelle Geniza, among others. It’s gonna be a beauty and I can’t wait to unveil it.

***

In the last week or so I’ve asked a few friends whether they make new year’s resolutions. One of them said she does an accounting for the year that includes the good AND bad things that happened, and another told me that she doesn’t do resolutions, exactly, but instead creates a mantra that she’ll try to live by in the coming year. I liked both of these variations and have incorporated them into my own practice. I probably shouldn’t share the bad things on my list (which I have named “bullshit and pointless stuff”) since I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but for the most part they have to do with jobs. Quelle surprise. And as for a mantra, I don’t know yet. The words simplify and let it go come to mind, but maybe I’ll go with thank you instead. Just a simple thank you, for every good and lucky thing in my life.