0-7627-9176-4The author Andre Dubus, whose books I publicized in the ’90s when I worked at David R. Godine, a small literary press in Boston, once told me that he thought short story writers had more in common with poets than they did with novelists. I think he was right. But I’ve always seen an even stronger connection between poets and painters—always thought they were cut from the same cloth. Both create something that’s painstakingly exact yet open to interpretation.

3SezwIbx_400x400Can you explain the significance of the title of your new book, The Good Luck Cat?

My cat, Ting—the subject of my book—is a Korat. They’re the “good luck cat” of Thailand. So there’s that. But, as the book goes on and bad things happen, the term becomes ironic…until, at the end, it comes to represent all the good fortune that comes from loving and being loved.

0-2Peter Trachtenberg, author of  Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (DaCapo Press) explores love, marriage, death and longing through his relationships with both cats and people. The narrative begins when his cat Biscuit, the golden kitty, goes missing while his wife is abroad and he is teaching in North Carolina. While Trachtenberg deliberates whether to travel the 1400 miles round-trip to search for her (spoiler alert—he does) he begins to unravel the beginning of the end of his marriage.

Listen, dear readers, I want to discuss the records that exist only in my mind. You know, the ones that would be perfect if you added one key component, or the ones that could never exist no matter what, but they should. Like if you poured glue all over the shitty Zeppelin record and then played it at 45 speed while the glue dried. Or if Alice Cooper scatted over Coltrane’s Ascension.

These, then, are those records.

While numbered, this order is contextual only—it can be rearranged by whim.

Proceed.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today’s story is dedicated to my friend Amanda, who, earlier today, wouldn’t stop telling me what an asshole our friend’s cat is.

First of all, I know he’s an asshole. I used to live with that cat. You don’t need to tell me.

Second of all, even an asshole cat is just a cat. You are still bigger and better than him. Why do you let him get to you?

And so, I present:

 

Nine Reasons Why Being You is Better Than Being That Cat
(And One Reason Why It’s Not)

You’re better than that cat because…

1. You’re taller. According to science, basketball, and all the guys I’ve ever dated, taller is always better. Always.

2. You can open the fridge. That cat can open doors. He can open pizza boxes. He can open a vein with one swift swipe. But he can’t open the fridge. Oh, I am sure that he has tried. That cat is a fucking pig. Remember when Betsy’s six-year-old son asked, “Is your cat a walrus?” It wasn’t because Betsy’s six-year-old son didn’t understand how walruses work. It’s because that cat is fucking fat, like a big blubbery walrus. And that cat is always hungry. And he can’t open the fridge, which is where all the good food is kept. And you totally can.

3. Toilet paper. That cat licks his own ass.

4. You know the other day when you were like, “Mmm, you know what sounds delicious? Spaghetti. I should make spaghetti,” and then you made spaghetti? And you ate the spaghetti and it was, in fact, delicious? And remember how you can do that any time you fucking feel like it? That cat never gets to make spaghetti! He doesn’t get to be “in the mood for Thai” or “feel like chicken tonight.” He eats the same dried-up mealy fish flavored cat food every single day. And you get to make spaghetti.

5. You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design from the School of Visual Arts at the University of North Texas. That cat can’t even spell “meow.”

6. You can drive a car and ride a bike and roller-skate. That cat can only roller blade.

7. I’ve heard that sex with you is awesome, whereas sex with that cat is pretty gross.

8. Remember that time you saw Built to Spill at SxSW? You waited in line all day for tickets, but then you got in and saw them play with Excene Cervenka from X and The Old 97s and they rocked your fucking face off? Remember how you laughed when they started playing “Freebird” but then it turned out to be surprisingly awesome? And then the next night they played a secret show, but you found out and snuck in and saw them again? That cat has never even heard of Built to Spill. What a loser!

9. You only sleep in a dude’s basement when you want to. That cat does it every damn night.

***

That cat is better than you because…

1. He is still on Facebook.

In Miranda July’s latest film we are asked to identify with a cat in a cage that could potentially be euthanized.While many film critics cite using a cat as a narrator as another one of July’s drives toward sentimentality, I actually view this move as incredibly, unequivocally ballsy.A recent New York Times write up of July cites her as a somewhat polarizing figure, and, indeed, many reviews of July’s latest film, The Future, characterize the film as being contemplative while also imperfect and uncomfortably sentimental.

The following are descriptions of six books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.


1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.

And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.

He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.

The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.

The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.


The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.

Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.

Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.


***


2. Bunnicula by James Howe


Summary: This family finds a cute baby bunny in a theater during a Dracula movie and brings it home, where a dog and cat with the miraculous ability to read reside. The dog and cat soon realize the bunny can magically escape his cage at night to suck the juice out of household vegetables, turning them ghostly white. Despite naming the rabbit Bunnicula, the family is too dumb to realize what is going on, blaming the obviously bitten and drained vegetables on some sort of plant fungus.

The cat researches a book about vampires, becomes super paranoid, and tries to kill the baby bunny by trapping it in its cage via vampire-repelling garlic fencing. We watch the rabbit suffer as it slowly starves, until the dog finally gets all aggro with the cat and saves the poor dying bunny. The dimwitted humans never figure it out.


The moral: Sometimes your adorable pets will try to kill each other while you sleep.

Hidden message: Animals are smarter than people.

Bonus trauma: Sketches throughout the book of a bunny with fangs and a malevolent gleam in its eyes.


***


3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers. One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.


The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.

Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.

Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.


***


4. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck


Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.

The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.

I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.

They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.


The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.

Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.

Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.'”


***


5. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.

Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.

He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.


The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.

Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.


***


6. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson


Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.

A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it. After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites. (It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)

The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”

Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.

Got it?

Now who wants cookies?


The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.

Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?


***



In August of 1997, my Swiss roommate Romana and I dined al fresco under a pergola in an East Jerusalm hotel, a bower of grapes overhead as water babbled in a small fountain. It was a respite after four weeks of checkpoints: A suicide bomb had exploded in an open air market in July—the first in eighteen months, ending the restive but hopeful calm which captured the imagination of Israelis and Palestinians alike. The bomb ensured the full military closure of the Occupied Territories. It was also the definitive collapse of their nascent, tentative peace.

After two months living in the West Bank town of Birzeit, and one month of defying Israeli soldiers, cultural misunderstandings and witnessing true privation, we ate quietly.

We had shared these two months trying to sleep in our dingy room with bad electricity, mosquitoes, and packs of feral dogs outside our window who howled until dawn, when the Call to Prayer took over where the dogs left off.

We attended classes together on the empty Birzeit University campus, save for the fifty international students who remained there after Israel instated the complete military lockdown. Our Palestinian professors often traveled hours to and from the campus, finding ways around checkpoints, sneaking through farmers’ fields; or were hassled by teenage soldiers, who menaced and humiliated them from behind their Oakley sunglasses, machine guns at the ready and chips on their shoulders. All the Palestinian students were forced back to their home villages, postponing their education another month, two. Six.

We floated like ghosts through their dusty, abandoned campus.

Now we sat in East Jerusalem. The program was concluded. We were going home.

Our Palestinian friends could not leave. These were the terms of living in these few square miles of land: militant radicals wreaking havoc on their lives in an instant, calling down the wrath of the stronger, more well-equipped adversary. The stress of living under military shut-down was constant and non-negotiable.

A kitten sat at my feet, mewling.

I was going to see my own cat, in my own dingy apartment, which now seemed the epitome of Western excess with our second-hand furniture and motley set of chipped Ikea dishes. I absently pulled a piece of turkey from my sandwich and dropped it in the dust at my feet.

A pregnant cat leapt from a hiding spot and pounced on the kitten, hissing as she scarfed the meat. Then she climbed up my jeans, into my lap and onto the table while the kitten cried on the ground. She climbed onto my plate to steal the meat from my sandwich. I laughed, scraping the queen off of me, but she was hungry and I was an idiot. She scratched me with her claws, too desperate for the turkey to let me get between it and her unborn, hungry kittens.

The kitten mewled, the tender morsel of food so tantalizingly close and then stolen, while dining Palestinians politely turned away, noting the general foolishness of the Western tourist.

My roommate and I dropped shekels on the table and fled, laughing as we went, forced from the restaurant by hunger.

Here, even the cats were living under terms we didn’t understand.

Last Saturday was sunny and hot for the first time all month. This, plus pollen motes churning in the air, tree trunks soaked by Friday night’s lawn sprinklers, and the necessity for sunglasses built the perfect July day. And so, I got up, got dressed, got out the door, market list in my pocket and satchel (big enough for greens, cheese, wine and probably a whole chicken) slung over my shoulder.

My birthday is a good time to inventory my accumulated wisdom. Sadly, there ain’t much. The longer I live, the less I know. But what I do know will fit quite comfortably here.

I will spare you the obvious. If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you. I will omit those issues that divide us, such as whose politics rocks harder and which religion has the most vengeful god. And I won’t go anywhere near the stockpile of trivia that chokes my brain, things that would only appeal to specialists, like batting averages, chess openings, and how to put a positive spin on disco.

What’s left? The Magnificent 7: Seven items that I hope will have some practical use for someone other than me. Keep in mind that everything I’m about to say flows from the perspective of a heterosexual, Jewish, innately lazy married male with no children and you should be fine.

Ready? Here we go!

Item 1: Get a dog. No matter how you feel about life on any given day, if you own a dog you will have to feed the dog. You’ll have to walk the dog. You’ll have to adopt a schedule that benefits the dog. When you’re standing in the rain and the cold searching your pockets for a plastic bag, you won’t be mired in existential dread, you’ll be thinking about how good it’ll be to get back inside where it’s warm and dry. A dog will teach you to savor the little things that make this life so sweet.

Don’t like dogs? Get a cat. A cat has a very different lesson to teach, and that lesson is: You are not important.

Item 2: Volunteer. When you’re younger it’s difficult to find the time and the motivation to volunteer. It gets easier as you get older. This is why retired people often claim they’re so busy, they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. Finding the volunteer activity that suits you best could be a lengthy process, but I’ve found a way to speed it up. Volunteer for three to six things over the next year or two. At the end of that time you’ll know which one you want to pursue. Do that one and drop the rest.

Remember the secret to volunteering: It’s not true that we get more from volunteering than what we put in. Sometimes we feel we’re getting very little back. Sometimes we feel empty. Sometimes we feel aggravated. No matter what you feel, volunteering always does someone some good. That’s why you should do it. Don’t feel appreciated after a particularly tough effort? Remember what the cat taught you.

Item 3: Wide world of men. Women: Stop complaining that men are simple. Granted, my gender is not as complicated as yours. But if men were as complicated as women, there’d be no human race. And stop reading Cosmo. They say they can explain men, but they’re lying.

Item 4: Women 101. Men: Listen up, simpletons. Stop wondering what women want and ask them. The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!

Item 5: What to do after you say “I do.” On the day I got married, we had two friends in attendance who’d been married for 23 years. We thought they were an old married couple. Today, they’ve been married 46 years and we’ve been married 23. What makes a marriage work? All I can tell you is that you should never spend a dollar on a book, a class, a seminar, or on anyone who promises you the answer, because there is none. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. It might not even work for me next year. I suggest you take the money you were going to spend on the book, class, etc. and take your partner to dinner or dancing or to the beach. That I know will work.

Item 6: How to go to bed. Every day, do one thing you give a damn about. It may take you an hour, it make take you a few minutes. Do it. When you shut your eyes at night, the next-to-the-last thing you think of should be that thing you did. The last thing should be expressing your thanks to whatever or whomever you thank when the lights go out. Accomplishment and gratitude are two of the three most important ingredients for a good night’s sleep. (The third is exiling the person who snores.)

Item 7: Your 3am panic attack. What do you do when you can’t sleep, you can’t stop thinking about what you haven’t done or may never do or the people you’ve lost, the walls are closing in and you can’t breathe? Get out of bed. Move. Do not activate anything with a screen. Wash the dishes. Play the piano. Brush your teeth. Go for a walk. You can walk in your neighborhood at 3am. Statistically, it’s the safest time of the day to walk.

Don’t want to walk alone? Item 1: Get a dog!

I am so hung over Sunday that I vomit and then inexplicably urinate all over my right hand and my right leg.

Also inexplicable is my friend, Whore Bones’, interest in hanging out with me while I’m in this state. Not only does Whore Bones want to hang out but she wants to drive me around town to seek out food and listen to me moan and groan about my headache, while demolishing a 1,000 calorie coffee drink.

I have paused my rant long enough for her to tell me an abbreviated version of her fourth break up with her boyfriend and I’m having trouble following… which is fairly understandable considering I peed all over myself less than a half an hour earlier. What I do hear though is this: “Roman is dead.”

Let me just say this about Roman: he was beautiful. He was cross eyed, but he was beautiful. Let me say this about myself: I like beautiful things. I covet them. I like to spend money on them, wear them once and then grow bored of them. It makes me feel good like a person that’s really done something with her life and not a person that judges people for having stupid ringtones and using cursive fonts in emails. Anyway, Roman is a cat. Roman was my cat and I probably regretted his existence before I even got him in the door. He had looked so much more awesome behind that cage as someone else’s responsibility rather than on the other side of the cage and my responsibility.

Roman did not disappoint. Not only did he take to shitting on the kitchen counter and urinating on my bed when slighted, but he was also a midnight rapist of legs that often took violent exception to one suggesting the sexual assault was unwelcomed.

As the lies of my youth have proven, I have a big heart for animals, but this was enough. An anonymous ad for a new home for Roman posted on Craig’s List resulted in a single response that declared matter-of-factly: “YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT.” I returned with, “But do you want the cat?” and I got nothing back. As amusing as it was to be degraded by a total stranger in a foul mouthed email, I still needed a home for Roman.

I was lucky to find out then that Whore Bones was vulnerable that week. Lonely might even sum it up better. Little did she know that her polite interest would result in non-stop harassment from me until her will buckled and she agreed to adopt a cat that had been described to her as “sweet, beautiful and needy” rather than “malicious, cross eyed and bad for furniture.”

Whore Bones was into this cat for about a week. Whore Bones purchased him a bed and sent out an enthused email about her new pet. I felt like Whore Bones and Roman could really have something until a week later when Whore Bones confessed to me that she felt nothing for the cat. Like myself, not only did she not love this cat, but she could hardly bring herself to acknowledge its existence on this earth. On a positive note, she did not mention Roman soiling any of her furniture.

One week later, I receive a text stating that she had better luck on Craig’s List and Roman now resided with a family in the suburbs that might, possibly, be able to love him. Or acknowledge him.

This is why I am confused when I catch her saying, “Roman is dead.”

“Roman is dead?” I ask.

“No,” Whore Bones is shaking her head back and forth, “No. I don’t know why, but I just told him that.”

“You told your x-boyfriend Roman was dead?”

“Yeah.” Whore Bones is shaking her head back and forth and shrugging. “I don’t know why. I don’t know where it came from, but once I said it I couldn’t take it back. I just told him I came home and he was dead and that it made me really sad.” Pause. “Really sad.”

“Wow, Whore Bones, that is so fucked up.”

“I know!” Her attitude brightens a little bit though and she proceeds to explain to me, “but he bought me all these drinks and dinner and shit because he thought that my cat died.”

“It wasn’t enough for you that neither you nor myself could possibly ever hope to love this animal? In your mind, and more importantly, in your boyfriend’s mind, you had to kill him?”

“I guess.”

“Can I come to your next therapy session?”

“No, and don’t be a bitch.”

“Can I blog about it?”

“Yes.”

“Can I call you Whore Bones just because I like the way it sounds?”

“Sure.”


 

This month quite possibly marks the third birthday of my cat, Berry. Amy and I adopted her in December 2008 and we were told by a(n admittedly incompetent) vet that she was around seven months old.

We don’t know what happened to her in those seven months and we rarely speculate. She was found on the streets of Seoul by an insane American woman not long before we adopted her, and as she was healthy and fairly amicable towards people, we assume she wasn’t on the street for long. The first thing we ever knew about her was that she was playful; incredibly boundlessly energetically playful. We think she probably had a home but was thrown out on the street once she became too old to be considered cute.

A few years ago, I put a bird feeder in the back yard. I had landscaped everything to verdant idyll, making it a perfect sanctuary for my avian pals, save for the cats. But one was a scaredy-cat who had no backbone for hunting, and one was so fat from her eating disorder that she posed no threat as she and her impressive girth thundered across the yard. The birds could see her coming a mile away.

This is the face of pure evil. Her name is Eddie. We call her Special Ed.

I know what you’re thinking. Ah, she’s soooo cute. Wrong. She’s deceiving. Those big dumb eyes are no more than fishing lures. She wants you to pet her, to feed her, to tolerate her. “Please,” she’s saying. “Treat me like a princess.”

Which is all well and good, you might say. She’s a cat. Cats are instinctively selfish beings. They do what it takes to make us love them, because love means food and warmth and tummy rubs. They feign interest because it gets them the attention they need.