10 November 2011

Fern the Fearless Adventurer

About a year ago I was living in a granny flat in Annandale (granny flat = garden flat; this was both, as it was built in the back garden for P's mother to live in, while P & J and their two sons lived in the main house).

Photo: foreground to back, Blanche, Fern, Charlie, Rosy

I'd told P & J before I moved in that I had two cats, but actually had five for about half the time I lived there (only 8 months, sadly) - the two street kittens I'd rescued and planned to keep as my forever cats, and three other street kittens who I intended to rehome. I eventually took darling Charlie and beautiful Blanche to the Cat Protection Society where they lived for a month or two before being adopted (separately, to my sorrow).

I ended up keeping Blanche and Charlie's sister Fern, as well as their cousins Treasure and Rosy, because Fern is so like her mother Sandy, who befriended me when I was a catless cat lover and she was a street cat. Actually, that similarity was the first reason I thought about keeping Fern, rather than either of her siblings, but then it was mostly because she is so brave, friendly, inquisitive, good at climbing, determined to get into every bag, box, drawer and shelf, playful, confident, and fond of snuggling. In other words, I fell in love with her. Also, Fern is quite petite, even as an adult, so she's the 'point five' of my 2.5 fur-children :-)

As the saying "Curiosity killed the cat" indicates, many cats are keen to explore nooks and crannies. Fern takes this to extremes, not only climbing into boxes and drawers, but once hopping into the back of a delivery truck that was picking up a rented fridge from next door. Fortunately the driver noticed her before he closed up and drove off. Fern is also an excellent climber; again, a feature common to many cats - but she is good at climbing down, as well as up - a rare skill.

She does everything whole-heartedly: eating, play-fighting, climbing, hunting, snuggling with her family (feline and human), even sleeping. Most other cats I've known will respond if you stroke them while they're sleeping, either with a friendly "mrrrp?" or by glaring blearily at you. Fern just remains in her neatly curled up sleeping pose and ignores you. If she's on her way to something important, you can click your fingers or call her name to no avail; she just keeps marching straight on to her destination. She is however quite amenable to being called to come in at night (unlike her cousins), and even though she generally Does Not Like Being Picked Up, she'll allow me to carry her inside in the evening.

Fern also likes to sleep at regular times, the most important of which is from around 5 or 6pm to about 11pm or midnight. Then she'll get up, stretch, have a snack, wash her face, then tear around the house attacking rugs, toy mice, and any available human feet, before settling down again for some snoozing and napping.

So when she was Absent Without Official Leave from our current home one evening last week, I was concerned. Having brought the other two in and closed any points of egress at 6pm, I checked for Fern and called her from the front and back yards, with no response. Not a big deal at that point. By 8pm I was a bit worried, and walked around the cul-de-sac where we now live, calling her and checking under shrubs. I started writing this blog post at about 9pm, to stop myself from worrying. After all, the last time she went missing, in November last year, she did come home safely. Eventually.

I am an over-anxious cat-mum, quite often - I have a tendency to anxiety anyway (and do work on strategies to manage that), and I've seen several of Fern's street cat cousins killed on the road, and friends' cats have suffered various alarums and excursions, including a probable spider bite that caused temporary paralysis in one cat's back legs. So my worries were not completely unfounded. At 10pm I walked round to the next street to our north. My route there was via the connecting road, a very busy one, but Fern, if she were there, would've gone via back yards - much safer in terms of traffic, but full of possible dangers such as Sheds and Garages. I walked along the street, calling and pausing to hear any response, intruding onto properties where I could see closed garages or sheds, hoping no one would catch me, but ready with the "my darling cat is missing" explanation.

Last year's disappearance involved a garage only three houses away. That time, I'd last seen Fern at about 4pm, then gone to have a rest. When I brought the others indoors at 6pm, there was no sign of her. I wasn't worried, just thought she was having a good time climbing somewhere. Later that night I was starting to imagine dire things, and checked up the laneway that was my point of access to the granny flat. No sight or sound of my little girl, so I went back home to bed, but slept intermittently, waking to check if Fern was outside wanting to come in.

Photo: Looking across the lane from our old place to a barn (not the guilty garage)

Early the next morning I checked along the laneway again, and heard meowing in response to my calls. It was 5am, so there was no traffic in the lane, which made it easier to hear. I meowed back, and worked out that the sound was coming from behind a light green garage door. When I sat right up against the door, and peered through the small opening at one side, I could see Fern! My darling girl yelled louder when she saw me, and poked one paw into the gap between the concrete wall and the metal roller door, trying to reach me. I didn't think it fair to try waking the residents of the house at 5am, so I sat with Fern, trying to stick my hand through to pat her for reassurance. We managed to touch paw tip to finger tip, but that didn't help get her out, or let her know why I was there but not helping her escape.

She'd missed her evening meal, and probably didn't have access to water. I didn't know what to do about water, but went and got a small tin of tuna (my food, not cat food) and flicked little bits of it to her through the gap. She ate enthusiastically, and meowed at me some more. This roller-door was a side-to-side one, not the usual kind that rolls upwards to open, so when the door was closed, there was space all down one side to allow for the big roll of metal that it would curl into when opening.

Some tradesmen came to work on the driveway of the house next door at 7am, jackhammering up the concrete, starting at the laneway end, right near where Fern and I were. Fern fled in terror at the noise, and I went round to the front door of the green-garage-place to ask the owners if I could retrieve my cat from their garage. A man answered, and when I explained the situation, said he was a guest, and the owners weren't up yet. I went back to try and comfort Fern, who was losing her voice from yelling.

One of the owners, who I'll call UnCatLover, eventually appeared; she said she had to go to work soon so didn't have time to let me through their house and garden to look in the garage, but she'd have a look herself, and I could go back around the block to the laneway entrance to the garage where she'd let me know what she found. UnCatLover reported that there was no sight or sound of a cat, and the garage hadn't been opened since 5pm the previous afternoon, so if it'd been in there at all, it must've run out through the door into the garden while she was looking for it. So I went off calling and looking along the street, back home to see if Fern had reappeared, and along the laneway again - no sign of her.

Later that day I went back to the house to ask if I could look in the garage myself, in case Fern was still in there, and hiding when people she didn't know were hunting for her. UnCatLover's partner took me through the house to the garage, where I discovered just how much stuff there was inside - plenty of scope for a small, traumatised cat to hide. I poked around a bit, as did Helpful Man, but neither of us could see or hear Fern. I showed Helpful Man where Fern had been when I saw her from outside, and he could see traces of the tuna that I'd flicked to her, but he thought she'd probably got out when UnCatLover opened the door into the garden - despite the fact there were dogs in the garden at the time. I asked if I might leave some water in case she was still trapped there, and Helpful Man said okay.

Friends on Facebook had been giving me lots of moral support since I'd posted about Fern being AWOL, and those who lived near enough and had time available offered to come and help me search. After another night of worrying, and hugging Treasure and Rosy rather more than they appreciated, I was out early the next morning calling along the laneway, and particularly outside that light green garage door. To my amazement, I heard Fern again, and was able to see her briefly through the gap between the wall and the roller door - only briefly because work on the next door driveway started up again, and Fern disappeared.

I rang a friend who lived nearby and asked if she could come and help. Julie was very happy to, but explained she was at a friend's place, so it would take her a while to get to the laneway - and then the friend offered to come too. While I waited, there was a lull in the driveway work, and Fern reappeared. After touching paws with her, I ducked back home to get some tuna, partly because I thought she'd be hungry, and partly to entice her to stay within sight.

It was wonderful to have Julie's and her friend's support. When they came, I asked them both to look through the gap, and tell me what they could see, thinking that UnCatLover might be even more sceptical about Fern being there. And halleluja! They both saw her - Julie had met Fern before and recognised her; the friend just saw a small pale shape with big eyes. So I asked Friend (wish I could remember her name!) to stay at the garage door, so she'd see if Fern got out that way, while Julie and I went round to the front door. As expected, UnCatLover was very sceptical, but with me pleading and Julie assuring her that there was indeed a small cat in the garage, she allowed me to go through the house, through the garden, and into the garage (which had been tidied a bit since I was last there).

Julie and I clambered around through the boxes, woodworking materials, and rolls of shadecloth, calling Fern. No response. I looked in the drawers of a desk, into any box that wasn't firmly sealed, and under piles of papers. Helpful Man came to see if he could assist, and offered to open the roller door to see if Fern would run out into the lane. I asked him not to, because I was sure the noise of the door opening would alarm Fern, especially if she was in the corner near the gap where I'd seen her (since the tidy-up, I couldn't see or reach that place from inside the garage). Helpful Man also offered to move some more stuff so I could get to that corner, but looked a bit dubious about it - it would've been a major operation to clear a path I could use to get there. So I found a space where I could sit on the floor, while Helpful Man and Julie waited just outside the garden door, in case my usually brave Fern was hiding from everyone except me. And I sang, because I often sing to my cats - fortunately they don't seem to mind whether I sing in tune or not.

I sang "Ferny is my darling girl, I love her so, I hope she's safe" over and over, and eventually Fern emerged from within a pile of stuff that I'd searched through. I refrained from pouncing on her, but picked her up gently, and started walking towards the garden door. Fern was very distressed, and tried to get away, so I sat down with her and let go, just stroked her and kept singing to her. Then I said to Helpful Man that I'd need to go back through their house and round the block to my place so I could get a carry cage (should've thought of that before!), and he told me there was an ordinary door off to one side that would take me straight out into the laneway. So I hugged Fern a bit more, nicked out the side door nice and quietly, ran home to grab a carry cage (patted Rosy and Trezh, telling them their cousin would be home soon - they seemed unconcerned), and dashed back to the garage.

When I sat and called Fern this time she came straight away. She wasn't pleased to be stuffed into the carry cage, but I didn't give her an option. I carried her to the garden door so I could show Helpful Man, who was pleased to see Fern was okay, and UnCatLover, who was very surprised to see an actual cat being brought out of her garage. I thanked them both very much (hoping that UnCatLover would be the one to find any poo or wee that Fern might've left behind), and went home (via the side door and laneway), accompanied by Julie and Friend, cradling a wailing Fern in the carry cage.

Darling fearless Fern was very jumpy after that, startled by loud noises, wary of strangers instead of friendly, and much less keen on getting into boxes and cupboards - for several months, anyway. She gradually regained her confidence and was back to climbing up, on and into everything, smooching visitors, and exploring our next new neighbourhood.

So last week, when she reappeared at midnight on the same day that she'd gone AWOL, I was hugely relieved. Neither of us wants to go through Fern Being Trapped In A Garage again.

08 November 2011

Pop-up books and paper engineering

When I was a kid I loved pop-up books. We didn't keep any of my childhood pop-up treasures, probably because the tabs had torn and bits no longer popped up. Now as an adult I'm collecting them in a new guise, starting with some amazing 'paper engineering' books by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart.

I first came across the term 'paper engineering' after I bought a couple of little gift books by Robert Sabuda one Christmas. I gave Winter in White to my aunt, and kept Christmas! for myself (my aunt probably would've preferred a specifically Christmassy book, and I really wanted to keep Winter in White, but the corner of Christmas! was dinged so I couldn't give it as a gift).

These books, while small and much simpler than many of Sabuda's works, were far more sophisticated than the pop-up books of my childhood. Those 1970s books had tabs that you pulled down, to make an image pop up from the page, or pulled sideways, to make an image slide across the page.

Christmas! has a double-spread page for each letter in the word Christmas, including an elaborate Snowflake, Icicles hanging from a building's eaves, and a pull-along Toy horse. Winter in White has a twirling skater on a foil pond, a reindeer with ornaments dangling from its antlers, two doves tying a red ribbon, and other gorgeous moving images.

I was so taken with these that I looked for more examples of this kind of work, and thus discovered that there was such a thing as 'paper engineering'. Since then I've bought a pop-up alphabet book, ABC3-D, two books from the trilogy Encyclopedia Mythologica by Reinhart and Sabuda - Gods & Heroes, and Dragons & Monsters...

Maurice Sendak's first pop-up book, Mummy? (co-created with Arthur Yorinks and Matthew Reinhardt)

a book of dots - abstract art, really - 600 Black Dots by David A. Carter,

and Snow White by Jane Ray.

And in a stroke of good fortune, I won a copy of Matthew Reinhardt's brilliant Star Wars: A Pop-up Guide to the Galaxy in a competition run by Infinitas Bookshop.

Some photos I took of my copy of Dragons & Monsters:

and a video (taken with my digital still camera) of one section of Dragons & Monsters unfolding.

06 November 2011

A Pocket Full of Eyes, by Lili Wilkinson

Taxidermy, gamers, lust and romance, a suspicious death - I don't know how Australian author Lili Wilkinson weaves these all into a coherent story, but she does. Published by Allen & Unwin in 2011, the tale has humour, lovely geeky moments, clever clues and tricky red herrings, suspense, and wonderful characters.

I would guess the title is a deliberate reference to Agatha Christie's A Pocketful of Rye, not just the words from the nursery rhyme 'Sing A Song of Sixpence'. The heroine, Beatrice May Ross, is much the same age as teenage private eye Veronica Mars, but her style of sleuthing is more like Miss Marple's - at least to start with. A fan of girl detectives Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, Bee is determined to solve the mysterious death at the museum where she's doing work experience in the summer before her final year of high school.

From just a description the characters might sound caricatured, but in the context of the story they are totally believable, multi-layered, and engaging. Bee's mother Angela is a Dungeons & Dragons gamer, who has a gaming buddy turned boyfriend known as the Celestial Badger. The romantic interest is Toby - an annoying, cute, mysterious medical student who spouts random facts about animals and insects, and is an excellent kisser. Gus, the senior taxidermist at the museum and Bee's mentor, is laconic, habit-bound, and dour - at least until shortly before his death.

In between sleuthing, discovering what Toby's motives really are, dealing with a duplicitous best friend, and becoming expert in various techniques of taxidermy, Bee realises why she is so addicted to reading classic crime fiction, with its logical plots and neat conclusions. Her precision, list-making and attention to detail help her find clues, but she needs a different approach to deal with the changes in her life.

Some useful information: Flesh-eating beetles are used to clean the more fragile skeletons of birds and small animals before the rest of the taxidermy process. Bee tells Toby that sometimes the beetles aren't keen on what they're offered, but spraying the corpse with a mixture of Vegemite and beer will whet their appetites because "They're good Australian beetles." :-P

05 November 2011

at the Speculative Fiction Festival 2011, NSW Writers' Centre

Keith Stevenson launches the anthology Anywhere But Earth

Richard Harland

Alan Baxter

Margo Lanagan

Judith Ridge and Margo Lanagan

me and Pamela Freeman

03 November 2011

For those who've come across the seas

The title of my post is a line from Australia's national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, which claims "For those who've come across the seas/ We've boundless plains to share".

I was going to post a book review today, or maybe blog about reading in general, but am so distressed by the recent deaths of yet more asylum seekers, and disgusted by the political bickering that is the only response from the government and the opposition, I'm going to write about that instead.

I know it's part of a politician's job to slag their opponents off and rubbish all their ideas, regardless of their actual merit. And I know that many intelligent, well-educated people can completely lack historical perspective - or maybe just become unable to use it when they're too absorbed in their own pains and gains. But how superficial are these politicians that their response to the recent drowning of at least six asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is to try to score points by blaming and finding fault with each other's policies and strategies? Especially given that the policies of each are basically the same - ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reject asylum seekers, prevent them reaching Australia if at all possible, and if they get here, mandatory detention for all, usually in privatised prisons in remote areas, or off-shore, for indefinite periods.

Neither the government nor the opposition denies that community detention would be cheaper than sending asylum seekers to detention centres. They are well aware that indefinite detention has a seriously detrimental effect on detainees, often causing major depression and self-harming, sometimes suicide. The majority of asylum seekers are eventually recognised as legitimate refugees.

Twenty-eight people drowned within sight of Christmas Island late last year. Six women and children died this week during their desperate voyage to find shelter from persecution. Prime Minister Gillard is quoted as saying the tragedy “tears at your heart", following that by saying that the way to prevent such tragedies is to deter asylum seekers. I imagine some of these people seeking protection from torture, wrongful imprisonment and the state-endorsed murder that is "ethnic cleansing" already know they're not welcome in Australia, but they must hope that we will be less cruel, less dangerous, than the situation they're fleeing. So if we can't stop them entrusting their lives to people smugglers with leaky boats, what should we do?

How about helping them get here? Close the detention centres, use the money saved to fund planes or sea-worthy boats to bring asylum seekers here. Keep them in community detention, run the usual checks to determine if their claims are valid, gain valuable new residents who will contribute to our nation, save hundreds of men, women and children from needless psychological damage, save lives...

This has all been said before. I don't expect my blog post to change the minds of the millions of Australians who believe the fear-mongering stories put out by so-called "current affairs" programs. I'm saying this so at least I'm not contributing my silence to the barriers that we, people privileged to live in safety and comfort, set up against those who are fleeing for their lives.

If you're not already angry about this tragic farce that politicians and bureaucrats have created for refugees, here's an open letter by author Tom Keneally to "Shooty", a Sri Lankan refugee who committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.

If you're angry to the point of despair, please take heart from the work done by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and the dozens of other organisations that offer support and advocacy to asylum seekers, refugees and detainees in Australia.

May we all live in peace.

Asylum, noun. The protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee.
Shelter or protection from danger.

Photo: A candlelight vigil at Villawood detention centre in memory of Shooty

Cagney & Lacey in the 21st Century

It's a cop show about two women detectives, their lives, their loves, and their work fighting crime. One woman has a husband and kids, the other is single. One is blonde, one is brunette. They both care deeply about their work, and their audience comes to care deeply about them.

Depending on when you were born, and whether you've seen American cop shows from the 1980s or British cops shows from the 20teens, the names that this description evokes for you might be Cagney & Lacey, or Scott & Bailey, or if you're lucky, both.

In my teens I was a great fan of Cagney & Lacey. It was the first cop show I'd seen with strong central female characters - and their gender wasn't even the central focus of the show. (If you're old enough, or interested in television history, you may remember the cop show starring Angie Dickinson, made when the mere existence of a female cop was remarkable enough that the show was called Police Woman.) Cagney & Lacey was about these women, their partnership, their contrasting personalities, the team they worked with, and the crimes that they solved.

When I first read about Scott & Bailey - I think in a recommendation from amazon.co.uk - I was excited to see there was a new series co-created by Sally Wainwright, because I love her earlier series, At Home with the Braithwaites. Seeing that the lead roles would be played by Lesley Sharp, who was awesome as Alison Mundy in Afterlife, and Suranne Jones, who I'd recently seen for the first time as Idris in the Doctor Who episode 'The Doctor's Wife', made me even more keen to watch the show.

It's a hard-hitting drama. The victims and their families suffer, the perpetrators suffer, the cops suffer... There are some horrendously gruesome murders, one of which, in context, leaves us feeling sympathy for the killer. There are only six episodes in this first season - not unusual for British television dramas - and I really hope that there'll be more episodes to come. Sometimes the grimness of the storylines made me think I wouldn't want to watch the show again; then there'd be such brilliant writing and acting that I'd want to watch it again straight away to appreciate it more, and rewatch the whole series to see how the characters change and grow, and sometimes revert to old bad habits.

Rachel Bailey is a brilliant detective, but as her partner Janet Scott says, clueless when it comes to relationships. Janet is compassionate, professional, and loyal - qualities that come into conflict a few times. All the supporting characters, from the other cops in the Major Incident Team, through families and friends, to the villains of the week, and the philandering barrister, are all believable, though often surprising. And Manchester makes a great backdrop for the drama.

Another joy of watching Scott & Bailey was discovering Amelia Bullmore, who plays the boss, DCI Gill Murray. I have actually seen Amelia Bullmore before, but only in her comic roles. As well as having written some episodes of This Life, Attachments, and Black Cab, Bullmore has played comedy roles in Linda Green and The IT Crowd, dramatic roles in series including State of Play and Ashes to Ashes, and satire in TwentyTwelve (for Australian viewers, TwentyTwelve is Britain's answer to John Clarke, Bryan Dawe & Gina Riley organising the Sydney Olympics in The Games). At first I thought Gill was simply the stereotypical police chief in a police procedural which is basically a two-hander: staying in the office, briefing the team, having the occasional word with the lead characters, and clapping them on the back at the end of the episode. But we gradually and naturally find out that there's a lot more to Gill than this, giving her the depth that makes her situation in episode six an agonising one for her, for Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, and for the audience. We want her to make the decision that will leave our heroes happy, but understand why that's almost impossible for Gill, a woman of great integrity who wants to believe that playing by the rules is best, and morality will always match with justice.

Also, the theme tune is fab. It's by Murray Gold, a film, television and theatre composer who has written music for Doctor Who since 2005. Part funky city track, part old-style Western theme, I'd listen to it for enjoyment on its own, and it works very well over the opening credits of Scott & Bailey.
I'm sure I've seen a youtube vid of the whole opening sequence, but can't find it now, so here's a trailer with part of the theme music.

Bonus extra: Here's a post about Amelia Bullmore's series Black Cab, from the blog Taxi-Mart News Blog

01 November 2011

Attention Seeking Behaviour

I'm starting Blogtoberfest now, even though I'm a month late. October was a fairly dire month for me, and I'm hoping November will be much better. Also, I'm going to ride the waves of NaNoWriMo energy, blogging every day as my NaNo buddies work on their novels and word counts. So hopefully you'll be seeing me here far, far more often than in recent months.

Recently I saw a conversation on twitter in which one tweep castigated another for moaning and attention seeking. This struck me as rather odd, as why would anyone tweet about anything if they didn't want someone to pay attention? Whether we're asking a question, venting about something, posting a cute picture, heckling a TV show, squeeing in fannish delight, boasting of an achievement, sobbing our heart out, or telling a joke, we're doing it on twitter because we hope someone will notice, and preferably care enough respond or retweet.

The term "attention seeking" seems to be mostly used about someone who is expressing an emotion that others aren't comfortable with - often pride, anger or despair - or voicing an opinion that others want to undermine. Rather than deal with "negative" emotions or ideas that we don't like but can't find an argument against, it's so much easier to just make the person wrong. Wrong not just in what they're saying or how they're saying it, but in what they're doing, even what they're being. And definitely undeserving of attention.

Well, bugger that. There are definitely times when I'm happy just pootling around in my own world, or interacting with my cats (they have no inhibitions about seeking attention when they want it, or rejecting it when they don't), but there are other times when if I'm not able to interact with another person, give them my attention and be the focus of theirs, I feel hunger for that exchange of attention. And if I spend a lot of time away from other people, with my only exchanges being online, and especially if I'm not honestly expressing what I'm feeling, then I feel starved, malnourished for lack of being noticed and responded to. And it gets harder to respond to others, almost as if I become out of practice, or my "able to heed others" muscle has atrophied. Too few demands for my heedfulness are as stressful as too many.

Thank you for reading this post. I hope you found it interesting. You may think I'm addressing these words to no one, or to some random person who googled on "heedfulness" or "NaNoWriMo" and scrolled down to the end to see if there was a conclusion... But I'm not. I'm talking to you. I'm noticing you.