Tiny Country That Tells a Big Story
The Ragged Edge of the World
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rapid climate change
Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
HE WAS LOST AND NOW HE IS FOUND.
Friday September 15, 2006
HE WAS LOST AND NOW HE IS FOUND.
On Saturday, August 12, we were having a family barbecue in Pelham New York, having just moved up from Washington, DC a week earlier. It was just my wife and our two kids and her brother, his wife and their twins. The evening was thoroughly pleasant. We'd let Murghatroyd, our 11 year-old Bengal, out of the house for the first time that day, and he was overjoyed. Murghy was an outdoor cat in the extreme, and he'd made our life a living hell while he was cooped up during the week as we tried to habituate him to the new surroundings. Now outside, he rolled luxuriantly in the grass and repeatedly showed up during dinner to hop on the lap of various guests, and play the role of host. Midway through the evening we heard a scuffle off in the bushes, and then the smell of skunk spray wafted our way. Murghy didn't return to the party, but we didn't think much of it. He was our smartest cat by far, and we trusted him (Lucy, another Bengal was definitely more suburban in her inclinations, and, after a Oliver Twist kittenhood, our two other adopted strays were never going to venture far from the food bowl). But then Murghy didn't show up the next day, the next, nor the next, and with each passing day, a pall deepened over the remainder of the summer and an ache took hold somewhere deep.
I've always considered myself level headed about animals. Nothing is more elegant and interesting than the genius of evolution, and I have spent many years investigating evidence that the evolutionary forces that produced consciousness and other higher mental abilities in humans also produced those abilities in other species. But, I've always shied from some of the more radical ideas about alternative intelligences in other animals, e.g. the notion that cats communicate with us by planting images directly in our subconscious - “mind bombs” as one woman wrote when explaining how her cat had alerted her that the house was on fire. That is, I tended to discount these ideas until my wife and I began receiving missives very much like what the woman had described.
While I've been accused of being apocalyptic in some of my writing, on a daily basis I tend to be optimistic. Mary, by contrast, likes to prepare herself for bad news. Our rented house in Pelham was not far off a golf course. I tried to take comfort when one of my neighbors described the course as “cat heaven,” with vast troves of small animals for a cat to feast on. I envisioned Murghy's walkabout as something like a Tahitian vacation. Besides, Murghy had a collar with our phone number on it. There was always a chance that a Good Samaritan would give us a call.
Mary spoke to another neighbor, however, who told of a surge of pet disappearances in the neighborhood, and mentioned rumors of a pet-killing coyote in the vicinity. We got a call about the body of a cat that someone had found near the golf course, and Mary reported that the much worked-over corpse bore some resemblance to Murghy. There was a resemblance, but I convinced myself that the color was a bit too light.
We put up posters and followed up leads when people called in. Every time our hopes were dashed. In some ways news was worse than no news. One ostensibly sighting placed him near the deadly confluence of two parkways. Reconnoitering following one phone call revealed that a very cute kitten was making a go of it as a stray (her welfare was being monitored by solicitous neighbors), and we were never able to run down the sightings of a larger cat that fit Murghy's description.
After about ten days, the dreams began. I had them, Mary had them, even the kids had them. They were intense and good dreams: Murghy coming home, Murghy curled up in my lap. Ever the optimist, I thought of them as postcards - Murghy was telling us that he was alright; the Tahitian vacation was going well. I tried to send return messages as well, helpfully beaming out an image the landmarks in our neighborhood. Overcoming her instinct to protect herself against bad news, Mary put a positive spin on the dreams as well: Murghy was telling us that he was alive.
Still, at eleven Murghy was no spring chicken, and beyond the golf course lay a rough world if you were a lost cat. Moreover, there was always the chance he'd set off with some hare-brained plan to get back to DC. I was outwardly optimistic, but deep down I started preparing myself for life without Murghy.
August turned into September, and although there were pleasant moments, at some level I was holding my breath as my subconscious tried to figure out how to resolve my feelings about Murghy, who played a far larger role in my thoughts than you might expect of an animal that weighed 10 pounds and slept most of the day. Mary and I replayed every heartbreaking missed opportunity. None was more anguished than the discovery on Sept. 10 of a message from just the Good Samaritan we had been hoping for. The woman caller said that she had encountered a very friendly cat on the grounds of a hospital and that he let her see his collar and read the phone number.
The problem was that the message was ten days old. We'd set up voice mail on our new phone, but, unbeknownst to us, some of our missed calls were recorded by the phone itself rather than voice mail. Mary discovered the message at one in the morning. I was long asleep since I had to get up at 6:45 in the morning. She woke me up however, and I felt a surge of hope and adrenaline, which, unfortunately, kept me up most of the short remainder of the night. Murghy was alive, but the idea that we might have missed our opportunity to find him was too painful to contemplate.
The sighting placed Murghy about 15 miles north of Pelham. I was there by 7:30 on Sept 11, the next morning, calling for Murghy, handing out posters, and badgering everyone I could. Settling down I decided to think like a cat, and that led me to the back of the sprawling main building where the garbage was stored. I did a walk through and it looked promising, but I had handed out all my posters by this point, and I was also very late for work. Dejectedly, I left to get my car. On the floor of the car, I saw one last poster and so I drove back to the garbage area to leave it with one of the workers. I found someone who looked like he worked there and showed him the poster. He glanced at it, and then did a double-take. He said that a cat that looked like this had been hanging around for a week. He'd seen it as recently as the previous Friday. Other workmen came by and confirmed the sighting, pointing to a fenced-off area where the cat had been seen.
Before leaving, I decided to walk over to the spot and try calling one more time. I saw movement on the other side of the fence. Then I saw a tail, and then I saw Murghy's beautiful face. I said, “Murghy,” and he, being a cat, said, “meow.” Then he said, “meow' about 25 times. There ensued a farcical series of maneuvers as I got inside the fence even as Murghy got out, but only a minute later we were re-united. He was skin and bone (putting paid to my reassuring delusion that he was off on a cat's version of a Tahitian vacation), but still very much Murghy. As I drove home, I called Mary and said, “somebody wants to talk to you.”
In the days since we've tried to figure out how he got there. I know he's tried to tell me, but despite years of effort I still don't understand cat beyond a few rudimentary phrases. My best guess is that he somehow got to the Hutchison River Parkway and wandered north in the sward of wood and grass that borders the road. As for those messages, who knows? It would have been helpful had they have conveyed more information, but the sender was a cat (if in fact they were sent), and not Jack Bauer, and he was lost to boot. The key thing though is that they convinced us to retain hope, and perhaps our messages kept Murghy's hopes up as well. What matters most is that against all odds he's back, and our world was set right on again on, of all days, Sept. 11.
[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]
The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath.
Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.
Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.
Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.
It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.
That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.
The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.
All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.
My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.
The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.
On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.