The Artful Cat

Attitude Is Everything
Attitude Is Everything

Some people like cats for their frisky playfulness. Others admire their sleek style, or their affectionate natures (where applicable). And of course some people loathe cats. You know who you are. Get out now while the getting’s good. Because today’s topic is the way art imitates cats, and vice versa.

I have worked for a succession of various cats over the years. Some were loveable. Some not so much. But in one area they were all equally endowed. For those of us who are susceptible to it, cats possess a degree of glamour unmatched in the human sphere except in the case of babies and super-models. But while most babies eventually lose their charm, and even super-models fade with time, cats retain their decorative quality for years.

I’m a sucker for the way cats fit themselves into the landscape. To me, a garden without a cat lacks something fundamental. Not everyone looks at the world through this furcentric lens, but some artists seem to share my view.

In the months leading up to our move out here, we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, and there I saw an oil painting that spoke to me on every level. Painted by William Raphael in 1908, the work , titled “Hollyhocks,” captures the lovely untidiness and happy colors of a flower which has always reminded me of the rural Virginia countryside where I first saw it bloom. But what made the painting irresistible for me was the understated presence of a cat, lurking on a fence above the blooms.

Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael
Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael

Well, I knew I could never own the painting, but I thought maybe someday I could recreate the image and photograph it. After all, I had a cat. All I had to do was grow some hollyhocks and wait, right?

So it’s been almost five years since I got that bright idea, and I’ve come to accept that it’s much easier for art to imitate life than for life to imitate art. Because, while I have managed to grow some pretty swell hollyhocks in the last couple of years, the cat has been less than cooperative. There’s a fence right behind the flowers, just right for cat sitting. And many’s the time she has sat upon it. Just never when the damned hollyhocks are in bloom.

Today she deigned to offer a compromise and lounged on the bench which sits in front of the hollyhocks. The image I managed to capture in no way matches the arresting beauty of Raphael’s canvas. If you want to see that you’ll have to visit Vancouver. As for me, I’ll be waiting by the bench. Sooner or later the cat will come back.

Loosly Blonde

When you are a girl like I it seems very important to get educated. Because there is a lot to learn, such as French, which is very hard because it seems only French gentlemen speak it and they are very hard to understand for a girl like I. So I am always interested in books because you can learn a lot just by reading them and not have to listen to any French gentlemen.

So yesterday my girlfriend Gladys and I went shopping and we went into a delightful store which had lots of books and one of them was called “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and it was only two dollars which is quite a bargain because it turned out to be two books inside of one. And the really intreeging thing is that I learned they are both by the same arthur who is a lady named Anita Loos.

A Bargain Blonde
A Bargain Blonde

So I thought this would be a really interesting book for a girl like I because I was blonde for many years and it always seemed that gentlemen were preferring me quite a lot. But it turns out the book is not really about hair but is all about a very refined girl like I who likes to go shopping and drink champagne with gentlemen who buy diamond tiaras for girls like I.

But I was surprised to learn that the book is an anteek, because it was written in 1925, which was before I was even born blonde. Usually anteeks cost ever so much money, which always seems strange to a girl like I because new things seem so much nicer, but this anteek book was quite a bargain even though I have not learned any French from it yet. But maybe that will happen in the second book, which is called “But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” and is a sort of  seequell, which is when more things happen, which it seems to me is very true to life.

And so I wreckommend this book to any girls which are interested in getting educated about how to act refined, even if they are not blonde, because in this life you never know when a tiara might come in handy.

Walking and Gawking


Among the pleasures on our frequent walks around Seattle are discoveries of unexpected art, some designed and installed by humans, some the work of Nature, some the transitory miracles of a unique moment.

My attempts to capture the sense of wonder that these sightings inspire are doomed from the start. Two dimensions are almost always trumped by three, or four, and at times it seems to me that there are far more than that. But that’s probably just the flashbacks talking.

Anyway. In this season when the city is besieged by pirates, Vikings, and tourists, the urge to get out and explore tempts us off the beaten paths. Most recently that led us over to Alki and the Whale Tail Playground, where the undersea theme is played out in three dimensions. I was drawn to the life-size cast-bronze octopus, which anchors one edge of the “Swimming Stars” entry plaza designed by Seattle artist Lezlie Jane. The children clambering over the nearby whale tail slide and the replica lighthouse may be unaware of the thoughtful elements at work in the colored and stamped concrete design studded with yellow mirrored stars in Jane’s tribute to Cetus, “The Great Whale Constellation,” but surely the sparkle of creative fire must catch in some young minds while playing there.

Come up and see me sometime.
Come up and see me sometime.

At Lincoln Park, a short distance south of Alki, we came upon an example of Nature’s artful sense of humor in a striking Madrona tree. Classic mythology tells of dryads, tree nymphs whose life depends on the trees to which they are connected. Admittedly, the first thought that went through my mind at the sight of this tree was that it called out for a caption contest. But bawdy subtext aside, it’s a work of art. And if you have the time to listen, it will speak to you.


I had thought I was finished with vampires.

You know how it is. One minute you’re obsessed with the whole ‘creature-of-the-night-immortal-love-hunk’ idea and the next . . . not so much.

And with the plethora of vampire-related novels, television shows, and films glutting the marketplace, it seemed inevitable that the mania for all things fangish would play itself out. And I was fine with that. Until I took one last bite. Now I’m ready for more.

Or rather, Moore, as in Christopher Moore, whose hilariously snarky Bite Me simply won my heart. Yes, it’s wildly inventive, raunchy and irreverent, as are all of Moore’s works. But there’s also a cleverly hidden soft delicious core of sappy goodness that—well, I’m a sucker for sappy goodness, what can I say?

It’s not a book designed to appeal to the masses, which is probably just as well. Nor is it likely to win any awards from highbrow literary types who sneer at pop fiction. But, you know what? There are times when I don’t want to read a book that’s going to break my heart, or completely hammer me with the unrelenting misery of much of the world. Yeah, I know it all needs to be fixed. But every now and then, we who hope to make things better need a break from all the angst and anguish. And for that, I’m deeply, truly grateful for Christopher Moore and his brilliant comic gift.

My advice for the world weary? Next time the news makes you want to do something unhealthy, try Bite Me instead. It may surprise you.

Lurching Toward Freedom

All right, so the U.S. is out of the World Cup again, and Andy Roddick went down swinging before the semifinal at Wimbledon, and the Mariners, well, they’re still trying. But we still have one thing to celebrate, right?

That’s right, the freedom to dress up as a zombie and lurch through the streets with thousands of like-minded undead neighbors all united in the common drive to wrest the world record back from the Brits. And what record would that be, you ask? Why, the record number of zombies gathered in one place at one time, of course.

The proudly independent Fremont neighborhood in Seattle held the record last year with a tally of 3,894, but later they were usurped by the British, who mustered 4,026 zombies to claim the title. Organizers of this year’s Zombie Walk, slated for tomorrow, July 3, in Fremont, are hoping to smash the record with a massive turnout of gruesome participants.

It’s more than just the fun of creeping people out with homemade gory effects. There’s also a blood drive (hah), a food drive to benefit Solid Ground, a zombie concert and a screening of a classic zombie film.

The fact that zombie walks have become a regular feature of the modern cultural landscape worldwide, with annual events taking place from Brisbane to Pittsburgh in an atmosphere of friendly, albeit twisted, competition, says something about our species. I’m not sure what. But for some reason I find it cheering.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan of the genre, or that I’ve succumbed to the anti-charm of zombie chic, but rather I like that it’s a game without rules that anyone can play. It takes a lot of coordination, dedication and effort to master most games. But anyone can be a zombie. You just have to stumble along, aimlessly, moaning a bit from time to time. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the idea. There’s a little zombie in all of us.


Poppy, opiate of a gardener.
Poppy, opiate of a gardener.

Karl Marx once wrote that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If he were alive today I think he might be tempted to alter that assessment.

Here and now, as I find myself caught up in the enthusiasm for World Cup, Wimbledon, and baseball, it seems to me that an argument could be made that sports are the modern opiate of the masses.

It’s understandable. As the world we live in grows increasingly complex, its problems more critical, its resources more threatened, its human population more recklessly contentious, sports offer an escape from the conflicts of the real world. How much easier to simply concentrate on a game. And if you need a frisson of conflict to add savor to your sports, you can always indulge in the ever-popular critiquing of the players, or questioning the line calls, or finding fault with the umpire’s decisions.

While the bludgeoning continues in the world outside, in the ballpark, on the playing fields, on the green lawns of Wimbledon, a level of decorum, balance and harmony prevails.

I’m no expert on politics or sports. But I have played a game or two, and I know how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball. That’s really the secret to most sports, and to much of life as well. Distractions multiply. Some think only the young are prone to distraction. But the older you get, the more vulnerable you become, as memory banks overflow with associations and emotions. You never know when some stray sight will trigger a cascade of memory that will utterly floor you.

The trick is to stay alert, stay nimble, and keep your eye on the ball. Even when it’s not a ball.

What’s News?

The news is old as humankind. It moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to report.

We feed on it, stoke the fires of rumor, inhale the smoke of conjecture. We are a species who thrive on stories. We respond to drama. We want heroes.

For the last few centuries the primary vector of news was paper, but since the advent of the electronic age the medium has undergone a series of rapid changes which for better or for worse have changed, it seems irrevocably, the way in which news is shared.

I am saddened by the diminished power of newspapers in our time. The once great papers of the past are fighting for their economic lives in a world increasingly swayed by the glib sophistry of ranting opinionists on television, radio and internet. Few media outlets have the budget or the time for thoughtful, in-depth analysis anymore. Everyone seems in a race to jump to conclusions, which are refashioned daily, sometimes hourly, depending on the pace of events.

Such flexibility has its virtues. But on the whole, the credibility of the entire news media has been sorely damaged by continuing compromise with economic and social reality. We are no longer a nation of readers, if we ever truly were. A nation of viewers is far more easily misled it seems.

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia I was spoiled by The Washington Post, a great international paper which has somehow managed to survive, so far. To maintain correspondents around the world, on the ground, doing actual reporting, is a luxury few modern papers can afford. Most crib their news from the wire services. They reheat the stories with a slab of opinion, serve them with a side of “who cares, it’s not happening here,” and get on with the important news of what happened at the local school board meeting last night. Because, the truth is, for most of us, the news that matters most is the news that hits home. In our schools, on our streets, in our communities.

I learned this when I  worked at a small local newspaper in Warrenton, Virginia, where I had the good fortune to see how much work it takes to provide news coverage that was honestly fair and balanced (as opposed to the much-touted and completely bogus “fair and balanced” product so widely dispersed these days). The Fauquier Citizen was an independent newspaper in a county where the leading news source was firmly in the pocket, and lining the pockets, of the old money, who wanted the news, and the county, to stay just the way it had always been, since before the Civil War.

The rivalry was intense between the newspapers, and competition lent zest to our quiet little rural life. But, eventually, after some fifteen years, The Citizen packed up its tents and closed its doors, following the route of hundreds of small independent papers around the nation in the last twenty years.

It saddens me to think there will come a day when no news will be printed on paper. And not just because I will miss all the little things about newspapers, although I will – the sounds alone – the slap of the daily hitting the porch, the rustle of pages over coffee, the snap and crackle of folded sections.

Yet a newspaper is so much more than an information delivery system. A newspaper organization is an ecosystem. An endangered one.

I just read a wonderful book called The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman about one such marvelously complex and perilously fragile newspaper organization. Rachman, a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, also worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and his familiarity with the drama, the dark humor and the human foibles that make newspaper work so maddening and yet so addictive lends authority to the novel. Covering a hundred year period in a series of interelated stories, the novel builds a brilliant portrait of the intricate organism that is a newspaper. The writing is crisp, evocative, moving and even funny at times.

But, ultimately it’s an obituary, mourning and celebrating the extraordinary life of a newspaper. We who have known them must count ourselves lucky.

The Dragons of Summer

Summer’s almost here. The ice cream truck has already made a few tentative sweeps of the neighborhood, tootling its signature “Bicycle Built For Two” theme song. Lawn chairs have been wiped free of spiders, and umbrellas lowered to half mast. Any day now the rains will taper off and the glorious Seattle sunshine will triumph over the gray sky for a few blissful months.

Many people choose summer as a time to travel, to leave home and see exotic new lands. But it’s hard to leave Seattle in the summer, when for two straight months it’s a non-stop hiking, biking, sailing, gardening, ball playing, fireworks dazzling, festival dancing in the street kind of place. The sun comes up around four a.m. and the sky stays light until ten. You have to pace yourself so that you don’t burn out by two in the afternoon. Coffee helps. But for me the best strategy to get the most out of the summer marathon is to partake of a shady spot and a good book midway through the long afternoons.

Currently I’m savoring His Majesty’s Dragon, an exceptional fantasy by Naomi Novik, whose interest in Napoleonic history and experience as a computer programmer working on game design is reflected in the smart plotting and clear vision of her writing. The dragon at the heart of her novel is a fully realized character, and the alternate history in which dragons form an integral part of the military force is brilliantly evoked. I’m so in.

It helps, of course, that the day before I started reading the book I went to see How To Train Your Dragon. The bulk of the matinee audience was made up of fidgeting four-year-olds, a few parents, and a handful of college-age dragon enthusiasts. And then there was me – absolutely mesmerized from start to finish. And not just by the dragon, who is as cute as a kitten, if a kitten were the size of a seaplane. What keeps HTTYD in the air is the snarky humor, the sleight of hand plot exposition, and a core of timeless themes – the tension between father and son, the desire to fit in, to stand out, to find love/acceptance, etc. Yeah. I liked it. It’s a kids’ movie and I liked it. So there.

The common denominator in Novik’s dragon series and the animated film is that the dragons conflate expectations. By avoiding the pitfalls of conventional conceptions of dragons as mere one-dimensional fire-breathing monsters, the author and filmmakers succeed in making dragons heroic. And that’s what I’m looking for these days. The world seems all too well supplied with real monsters. It’s hard to get away from them.

This summer, when I want relief, I’ll take dragons.

Folk Life


The power of nature is rooted in its diversity. The same can be said of the human race. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the annual Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle.

One Nation Under Trees
One Nation Under Trees

During this four day celebration spanning the Memorial Day weekend Seattle’s always vibrant music community explodes with talent, old and new.

The known performers get their names in the program and for the most part enjoy dry places to perform no matter what Seattle’s capricious weather gods deign to provide. But out on the sprawling clamorous grounds the raw stuff of folklife is free to take root and reach for the light. On a sunny weekend  there’s hardly a square foot without some fearless performer playing mostly real good for free, as the lady once wrote.

Boys Love Noise
Boys Love Noise

It takes more than persistent showers to dampen the creative spirit of the folk. At this year’s event the non-stop precipitation hasn’t stopped the feast of fiddling and the flow of soul. There’s something for everyone, whether your tastes run to pirate punk or sweet swing music or free-form drumming or heartfelt crooning.

Grunge Folk
Grunge Folk

It’s downright encouraging to see so many diverse peoples cheering one another on, embracing their differences, sharing their umbrellas. Gives you hope for the species.

Music hath charms, of course. Throughout human history various people have tried, without success, to get the whole world to sing the same song. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. If we could just learn to value our remarkable diversity, perhaps we would be one step closer to world harmony.

Can it ever happen? Stay tuned.

Swinging Marimbas
Swinging Marimbas
Piping in the Rain
Piping in the Rain
All Ears
All Ears