Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sick in Discworld

Today's post is brought to you by NyQuil®, which is why it's late and probably less than coherent.

Is there anything worse than being sick on the weekend? Being sick during the week, now that's another story. When you're having a particularly hectic work week, it's kind of nice to take a day off to just kick back and be sick. Of course, I'm not talking about "running to the bathroom every five minutes" sick. I'm talking about "common cold or flu" sick, where your worst symptoms are a headache and a head full of snot.

That's why yesterday I decided to stay home in my recliner with my fleece blanket, a couple of boxes of Kleenex, a cup of peppermint tea, and a cat in my lap. I napped, watched a couple of DVDs, and did some reading. I love reading a good book when I'm sick—unless my nose is dripping on the book, which with a Kindle is not even a problem, because the snot wipes right off.

When I was a kid, there were no DVDs or videotapes, and—difficult as this is to imagine—daytime TV was even worse than it is today. When I was sick, my mother would go to the library and bring me a stack of books. My favorites were the stories of Ray Bradbury and the collections of scary stories for kids edited by Alfred Hitchcock. One of my favorites from one of those collections (I wish I could remember which collection or the name of the story or its author) was about a feverish child who overhears his parents gossiping about the people in town and somehow transforms their figures of speech ("her tongue wags at both ends," "he has eyes in the back of his head," etc.) into reality. The whole town goes crazy for a day then, when the child's fever breaks, everything changes back to normal. You can imagine the effect of reading such a story when I, myself, had a fever. I became convinced that I, too, might have the power to transform reality.

Speaking of transforming reality...

The book I have been currently reading is Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Pratchett, he is a brilliant, prolific writer of humorous fantasy. Terry Pratchett doesn't need to worry about transforming reality. He has created his own reality: a place called Discworld. Discworld is a world that is round and flat (hence the name "Discworld") and is carried through space on the backs of four enormous elephants, which, in turn, stand on the back of an enormous turtle. As you might surmise about such a place, anything can happen there.

Over a decade before J.K. Rowling gave us Hogwarts, Terry Pratchett introduced us to Unseen University, Discworld's school for wizards (and, eventually, witches). However, unlike the wizards of Rowling's world, Discworld's wizards are hilariously inept, and their magic nearly always has disastrous results. There is an entire series of Discworld novels devoted to them—as well as a series about Discworld's less inept witches, a series of mysteries involving the City Watch (the police of Ankh-Morpork, capital city of Discworld), and a series of award-winning young adult novels about a young witch named Tiffany Aching.

My favorite Discworld character is Death, who has his own series of novels and also appears as a minor character in nearly every other Discworld book. He is, in his own words (which are always expressed without quotes and in caps), AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION. Stereotypically, he is a skeleton who wears a black robe and carries a scythe. Unstereotypically, he rides a horse named "Binky," is fond of cats, and has an adopted family. (Downton Abbey fans may be interested to know that, several years before playing Lady Mary Crawley, actress Michelle Dockery played Death's granddaughter Susan in a superb TV adaptation of Hogfather, the fourth Discworld novel about Death.)

Death also has a sense of humor. In the following scene from Men at Arms, he has come to collect the soul of a dwarf named Bjorn:
'I believe in reincarnation,' he said.
'I tried to live a good life. Does that help?'

All told, there are forty Discworld novels, of which I have only read seven.

It's a good thing I'm sick. I have a lot of reading to do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ghosts I've Never Met

I'm not sure when I first became interested in the spirit world. I know I was very young. I had not yet learned to read when my grandparents began collecting the Golden Book Encyclopedia for me, one volume at a time, from the local supermarket. When they presented me with Volume 7 (Ghosts to Houseplants), I immediately asked my grandfather to read me the article on ghosts. I was fascinated by the accompanying illustration of Marley's ghost, from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Marley's Ghost (original illustration by John Leech)

Although the Golden Book Encyclopedia and my grandfather both assured me that there were no such things as ghosts, I preferred to believe otherwise.

I was obsessed with the Haunted Mansion decades before I finally got the opportunity to ride in a Doom Buggy. My favorite children's record was Disney's Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. It featured realistic sound effects accompanying such lighthearted "let's pretend" scenarios as "The Unsafe Bridge," "Chinese Water Torture," and "The Very Long Fuse." My favorite, of course, was "The Haunted House," which began:
You are a bold and courageous person, afraid of nothing. High on a hilltop near your home, there stands a dilapidated old mansion. Some say the place is haunted, but you don't believe in such myths. One night, a light appears in the topmost window in a tower of the old house. You decide to investigate, and you never return...

I was a bold and courageous person, and I longed to prove it by meeting a ghost face-to-face.

I must have been eleven or twelve when I discovered the books of professional ghost hunter, Hans Holzer. (My favorite story, chronicled in Ghosts I've Met, concerned decapitated railroad conductor Joe Baldwin, who is said to wander along the railroad tracks in Maco, North Carolina, searching for his head.) I wanted to be a professional ghost hunter too, but I had no idea how to go about it. Somehow, I doubted one would show up for Career Day at my school.

I may never have realized my dream of becoming a professional ghost hunter, but in 2004 I did meet one. I met Richard Senate when some friends and I were asked to perform a murder mystery at Ventura's reputedly extremely haunted Olivas Adobe. Richard conducts ghost tours in Ventura and has written numerous books about the ghosts hereabouts. I asked him if he had ever seen any ghosts at the Adobe. He told me he had witnessed several manifestations of the infamous "lady in black."

I spent many fall evenings rehearsing and performing at Olivas Adobe over the course of the next two years, and during that time I never once saw anything ghostly. Neither did I see any manifestations on three separate visits (one at night, two during the day) to San Diego's famous Whaley House, said to be one of the most haunted houses in America. And, as I previously chronicled in this blog, my overnight stay at a reputedly haunted bed and breakfast in Lake Arrowhead also proved to be disappointing.

I have become increasingly skeptical in my old age.

However, I have not given up hope. One of these days, I plan to visit Ireland. I hear there are plenty of ghosts there.

Until then, there's always the Haunted Mansion.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The King of the Cats

Yesterday morning, shortly after Loretta left for work, I was startled by a surprisingly loud "MROW-YOW!" from Dickens, who had leaped onto the window sill of the dining room window and was clearly agitated by something outside. I am not ordinarily startled by the sounds our cats make (and they make all sorts of sounds), but Dickens is usually fairly quiet, even when agitated. And it didn't help matters that I happened to be reading a horror story in which a cat is agitated by what turns out to be a horde of rats in the walls.

It was still dark, so I turned on the outside light. I was relieved to see not a horde of rats, but the orange cat we have come to call Julius sitting beneath the dining room window.

I wrote about Julius and his sibling, Greyjoy, last year. Greyjoy no longer comes around, and we fear the worst. Outdoor cats do not survive long in Southern California, where it is not unusual to see coyotes, mountain lions, and even the occasional bear. (Once we even had a Bengal tiger prowling near our neighborhood, but that's another story.) Julius, however, is still around, and spends much of his time in our back yard. He used to keep a safe distance from the house, but lately he has been coming right up on the patio to visit with our cats through the window. I imagine that he is telling Dickens and Zorra, who are strictly indoor cats, what is going on in the outside world.

Which reminds me of a story I came across many years ago.

"The King of the Cats" is an old English folk tale. Like all folk tales, there are many versions. Probably the best known is the one recorded by Joseph Jacobs in his 1894 collection, More English Fairy Tales (in the public domain and available as a free download from Project Gutenberg):

The King o' the Cats

One winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, "Who's Tommy Tildrum?" in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.

"Why, what's the matter?" said his wife, "and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?"

"Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr. Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou."

"Miaou!" said Old Tom in answer.

"Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?"

"Now, how can I tell?" said the sexton's wife.

"Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that!" said the Sexton; "and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly, because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like—but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou!—"

"Miaou!" said Old Tom again.

"Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr. Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did."

"Go on, go on," said his wife; "never mind Old Tom."

"Where was I? Oh, they all stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me—yes, I tell 'ee, said to me, with a squeaky voice, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead,' and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?"

"Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!" screamed his wife.

And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, "What—old Tim dead! Then I'm the King o' the Cats!" and rushed up the chimney and was never more seen.

Illustration by John D. Batten

Saturday, January 4, 2014

O Tannenbaum

Dickens and I got up extra early this morning to sit in the dark and admire the Christmas tree. Today is the day we take it down. I hate to see it go, but it's time. It's as dry and prickly as a desert cactus.

It seems like we just put it up. The holidays went by much too quickly, and we never really had a chance to enjoy it. Dickens did, though. Every year he spends hours lying on his back, looking up at the tree. I remember doing that as a child—lying on my back under the tree, breathing in the piney fragrance (at least until my parents got an artificial tree), gazing up at the lights and my distorted reflection in an ornament.

I wish I could do that now, but there just doesn't seem to be time. Also, it's difficult to get down on the floor these days (and even harder to get back up).

Our tree is more than a symbol of the holidays; it's a journal of the years Loretta and I have been together. The oldest ornaments—some of them antiques which had been in the family for decades when we got them—were a gift from my Aunt Vonna and Aunt Sheila. They brought them to our wedding twenty-five years ago, carefully packed in an old hat box from Wolf & Dessauer's department store.

The first decorations we purchased as a couple were a set of rose-colored glass ornaments (still complete, in spite of being frequently mistaken for cat toys) and an elegant Victorian lady who has not aged a day since she topped our first Christmas tree twenty-five years ago.

There are pictures of cats past and present, and souvenirs of the many trips we have taken together: a cloisonné cat from China, a cable car from San Francisco, a tyrannosaurus skeleton from the Field Museum in Chicago. There are gifts from friends and family, including commemorative ornaments from Mount Vernon and Hearst Castle from my parents, and one from my aunts commemorating the Santa display that lit up the side of the Wolf & Dessauer building when I was a child.

Every year these ornaments bring back joyful memories as we unpack them and hang them on the tree. Now, all too soon, it's time to pack them up again.

But we look forward to the coming year, and to making new memories to hang on next year's tree.