Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Feline Certainty

Dear Prof. Bouldrey,

I took your Fundamentals of Prose class the first semester that you taught at Northwestern, and the first assignment, if I remember correctly, was to write a five-page essay about cats.  I think the purpose of the exercise was to prove that a writer can find meaning even in an arbitrarily chosen subject, and a seminar room full of writers can therefore find twelve different meanings.  I can’t remember exactly what I wrote about, something about the grace of cats.  I know that the grade you gave it was probably overly generous.  And I know that if I were rewriting it today (and perhaps this was your point all along), it would be a very different essay.

I’ve decided that my best shot, if the Buddhist worldview turns out to be true, if we really are stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth, is to hope that I come back as a cat next time around.  I decided this when our friend Savuth came to our house for lunch last weekend and told us that most monks want to be reborn as monks, since they will never reach enlightenment in this lifetime and their best chance is to keep getting closer, life after life.  Being impatient, I found the idea of hundreds of future lives as a monk sort of a downer.   There are other options.  You can be reborn in paradise, but I think too many nasty things about people for that to happen, or you can be reborn in hell, though since I don’t make a habit of killing people or stealing things, I might be able to avoid that one.  Or you can be reborn as an animal, which I have heard is mostly reserved for humans who are lazy in this life.  (Am I lazy?  Possibly.  Even though my brain is wrung thoroughly dry at the end of every day from working on a book about Cambodia, even though I have not been this mentally tired since the days when I was in your class and stayed up late writing papers about renaissance drama and 20th Century British cinema, I still feel vaguely guilty about the fact that I sit around for long periods of time, thinking and staring into space and calling it work.  I even found a name for this phenomenon in a Paul Theroux book—K├╝nstlerschuld, or artist’s guilt.)  At any rate, I am angling for what is supposedly the most fortunate of animal births, that of the housecat.

For anyone who has ever had a housecat, it will not be hard to imagine why Buddhists consider them lucky.  Even in Cambodia, where animals usually lead a fairly dismal existence, our two cats, Bissou and Soma, have managed to hit pay dirt.  When their original barang owner couldn’t keep them anymore because of the landlord’s dogs, she convinced us to take them in for the duration of our stay.  They are scrappy and lovable.  They hide dead lizards under our rugs and piss on our pillows if we’re away too long, and we still find them entirely adorable.  I find myself watching their movements, mesmerized, for long periods of time, a phenomenon my friend Narisa calls Cat TV.

I envy their lifestyle, one of rest and close observation.  I envy their purring, which they do loudly and often.  When they squeeze their eyes shut and purr, it looks as though their entire beings, both body and mind, have been given over to concentrating fully on the pleasure of the present moment, something I have always had trouble doing.  Some experts have speculated that purring is like meditation or prayer, since even the act of purring seems to soothe sick or stressed cats. 

I envy most, though, how snug an evolutionary niche they have found.   When they open their mouths, gaping pink yaws of toothy weaponry, it is easy to imagine that they are only a few genes away from panther.  They are tiny killing machines—all fangs and claws and stringy muscles—and they exercise this predisposition by terrorizing the insects, spiders, rodents, lizards and birds of our yard.  The other day, I wandered onto the porch and witnessed Soma staring down a coiled snake.  Worried it was poisonous, I tried in vain to call her away from it, until she threw me a look as though I was insane, slit its throat with her claws and began to pulverize its skull with her teeth like some sort of feline Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.  And yet, despite this inborn stealth and brutality, cats have managed to appear as something wholly different to a specific species of mammal, ingratiating themselves to the humans who can make their lives easier.  Soma and Bissou can widen their teddy-bear eyes and curl up like little furry doughnuts in my armpit in the middle of the night, and I feel as though they are tiny, vulnerable creatures, reliant on my petting and kibble, even though they have already proven otherwise.  It is nothing short of genius.

What of my own evolutionary niche as a writer?  I am a nervous journalist, an immature novelist.  Sometimes I think that my niche is the bizarre life I have right now, living in a place long enough to love it and hate it in equal measure and trying to capture the whys and wherefores of that duality on the page.  I wonder, though, if that will even turn out to be a niche at all.  And if it is, do I (and Jason, too, especially with me in tow) have the fortitude to do this all over again?  Reading Paul Theroux or Jonathon Raban or Robert Kaplan, I have a hard time imagining myself at fifty-something traveling the Mediterranean and beyond by myself.  When that fantasy fails, I find myself worrying that I have missed my niche altogether—maybe I would have been an excellent carpenter or dental hygienist and I have gone to all this trouble for nothing.  The only comfort is that I might still have some time in this life to figure it out, and that next time, in feline form, I might be better equipped to find a secure place in the world.

With fondness,

Shannon Dunlap, School of Communication ‘03

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Re: the Swiss Family Robinson

To: Martha Bowen / the Fruitful Present

From: Jason Leahey / the Green Crown of the World

Dear Marf,

It’s sometime in the first week of September and I’m naked in a hammock in a treehouse in the top of the jungle canopy somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Bokeo Nature Preserve in the northwest corner of Laos. I can walk all 360 degrees of this little deck, with its mattress and its oiled canvas mosquito net, its mosquito coils and stacks of thin white candles, and see nothing but mountain after mountain off into the horizon and the sun setting pink in the clouds.

The air is wet and cool and the sound of thousands of humming, cricket-ed, barked, buzzing songs. The original world’s or, rather, our original world’s, white noise. And that puts me to wondering if it is also the beeps and thrumming and rocketing, ratcheting code of some other thing’s assembled digital playground. If I could play in our digital universe and give something as wondrous as this singing, peaceful dusk to some other conscious life form, I would happily leap into the Twenty-first Century and all of our keystrokes and double-clicks and ergonomic chairs.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Dear Zachary,

Even when you were barely two years old, you had a gift for the mechanics of getting from here to there.  When we were snoozing in the early morning while your parents were at the hospital with the very newly born Ally, you woke in time to drag me to the window for an event that was essential to your happiness.  “Trash truck,” you told me authoritatively as said vehicle made its anticipated appearance.  And I think that I have never impressed you so much as when, several years after the trash truck ceased to enthrall you, I told you that in New York I took a train to work every day in an underwater tunnel.

And so it is you that I think of whenever I find something better or more unusual than that NJ PATH train—Vietnamese sleeper buses, Asian tuk-tuks, even our own wheezing but intrepid motorbike in Siem Reap.  How marvelous it was to board a night train in Bangkok for the exotic mystery of Chiang Mai, knowing how much you would love the waffle stands, the rainy train station, the attendants in smart uniforms helping us to find the correct car.

What is it about train travel that so captures the imagination?  I find particularly wonderful the sleeper trains that keep doggedly chugging ahead while I am off in some dreamworld.  Even the process of changing my rather ordinary seat into a curtained little bed, complete with reading light, was somehow magical when performed in under sixty seconds by an erstwhile servant of the Thai railway system.

And then, after nodding off in the rhythmic darkness, there is the wonder of awakening in a different landscape altogether.  First the foggy softness of dawn, and then the lush green tunnel of vegetation through which you stumble to the end of the car to brush your teeth and then, just as you begin to feel claustrophobic, the jungle subsides enough to show you that you are in the mountains.  The blurred tree trunks outside the window are actually only the canopy, the height of them falling far below down the steep sides of misty mountains that will never seem anything but unfathomable to someone born in the comforting open flatness of the American Midwest.  I think, perhaps, you would even have been fascinated with the baby cockroach that I discovered flirting with the cuff of my pants, and with that in mind, I tried to approach him with the same adventurous spirit.

Onward, onward, we pressed through the early morning, through small towns just waking up, entire lives unfolding before my eyes in the instant the train rushed past them—market sellers setting up their stalls, siblings struggling into their rain ponchos, the sleeves of a moto driver flapping with his gaining speed.  Do people glimpse me like this sometimes, catching me in some ordinary moment that gives them an intrinsic understanding of the shape and rhythm of my life?  Do the people outside the window ever glance up and see my pale face pressed against the glass, caught in a supremely unordinary moment?

That, perhaps, is why train travel is so special, the way it so defies the mundane.  Unlike car travel which can be lengthened or shortened, sped up or slowed down at our will, trains are only ours for the time it takes to get from here to there, and no matter how much a part of me wanted to stay on the rails, another part itched for an endpoint, a destination, a disembarkation.  A final stop always marks the beginning of something new, whether I am climbing the platform stairs into Manhattan or stumbling into the bright warmth of the Chiang Mai train station.  Endpoints are what assure us that we are moving forward.  What All aboards and Last stops—milestones, celebrations, commencements, deaths—await both of us are beyond my speculation.  I only know that even now, there are real and metaphorical trains ahead, some of them already pulling into the station.

With love,

Aunt Shannon