Monday, January 16, 2012

Emoticon, Emoticon, Emoticon

Chris Hunt is my uncle, and he wrote a book. It's called My Life with the Scorpion Kitten and it's about his life over the five-year period he spent with Mathias, a cat he adopted with his wife, my mom's sister, my aunt Tina.

Early in kitten-hood Mathias got a severe eye infection that cost him an eye, and left him blind in the eye he still had. He also had the feline leukemia virus, so I'll tell you straight up, dudes -- the book can carry the sadness at times. But from my personal perspective, what I found most interesting was the insight it offered into my family and some of the people in it.

The book covers the 5 years of Mathias's life, from 2003 to 2008. I lived in Chicago when it started and was just starting to wade back into the life of an undergrad. I started college right out of high school (CLASS OF 97 RULES), but after two years of bopping through the University of Cincinnati, I gradually dropped out of all of my classes. My last semester at UC had basically been a money pit, where my body knew I had dropped out (sleeping til 2pm or so) long before my brain had accepted it (obviously, blowing off my English Lit classes was simply the first the step toward changing my major to anthropology). But in 2003 I was attending classes at Columbia College Chicago as a Fiction Writing major. By the spring of 2008 I had earned my BA, left Chicago, and was wrapping up my MFA in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Which is to say -- it was an eventful time in my life and I probably wasn't paying the best attention to family goings-on in Ohio. So in a lot of ways reading Chris's book was like reading one of those novels that gives a parallel view to stories you think you know well.

My grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve of 2004, and the way Chris writes about that night is different from the way I remember it. Chris is probably right -- I'm just surprised that I'd filled in so many details so incorrectly. I remembered our entire family being at Chris & Tina's that night -- my folks, my brother's family, my mom's older brother John and all of his kids. Grandma Mathews had been sick for a long time, and she'd been moved from hospice to Chris and Tina's, and she passed away while we were all there in the house. It was a strange, significant, sad Christmas. But Chris writes that John and his kids weren't there at all, and that John only came after Grandma had passed. I think that's probably true, but in my memory I'd created an entirely different sequence of events. Without reading Chris's book, I never would have entertained the thought I was wrong.

Mathias, the Scorpion Kitten in question.

Chris's book has rippled quietly through the family, if it's even fair to say that much. I've been writing my novel for -- yikes dudes -- almost ten years now. I'm certainly near the end, but it's more than a little humbling for Chris's book to start off by saying that he's writing the first words in 2008, and for it to include a section in which he reads my novel-in-progress, and wondering when the end will come. All of which is to say, I've known for a while he was writing a memoir of his life with Mathias, but it was still a surprise when my mom called one day to say that it was available on Amazon. She sounded kind of excited, but not in a pleasing way. I think it's fair to say that my family doesn't always talk to each other easily about -- you know -- feelings. It's always been that way, and it's always felt uncomfortable (at best) or even like an act of great contrary will to talk to each other about things that we feel, or about things that someone else feels. Chris married into our family, but I get the feeling that this could be true of his family life too. So for him to write and publish a book that is almost entirely a journey through his inner life, examining what he feels and why, and how he feels about others, is, I think, causing some turmoil around the Jent/Mathews axis.
I don't think it's bad or wrong of him to do this. But my mom was nervous about the book, I think Aunt Tina is too. My writing about him writing about it is probably a cause for tense nerves too, but what I read in Chris's book is an attempt to have a conversation with his friends and family about things that are hard to talk about. The bulk of the book is about Mathias and the other cats Chris & Tina have lived with and cared for, but an undercurrent of it is their attempts -- or, Chris's wishes -- to have children. They never did, and in the book's afterword he simply states that "We also learned that we are unable to have children." I feel like that's what the book is really about -- much of it is concerned with the passage of time, with family and friends who have passed on. The cats Chris and Tina adopt are loved by them, but people live a lot longer than cats. They are born and live and pass on while people are still around. Children are meant to survive their parents, to carry on and to be part of a continuity of family and love. Cats are loved -- I have one of my own -- but they're not comparable to children or what children represent. They just can't be. When I asked my mom if she'd ever talked to Tina about their desire or ability to have kids, she said she'd never asked. She didn't think it was her business. 

And I guess that's kind of true? But the truth of that statement is getting in the way of a deeper kind of connection that I think everyone in my family lacks, yet desires very much. I was home for a week and half this Christmas, and it was good to be home, but it was a tense time. The specific reason is difficult to pinpoint. But it seems like everyone walks on spiderwebs -- not putting too much pressure on any specific place, or else the whole thing might fall apart. We joke with each other and watch TV together or Christmas shop together, but it's hard to have a conversation that runs deeper than surface concerns. 

My dad and my brother in particular are having trouble connecting, because when they talk they have a hard time getting beyond "here are the ways you've wronged me." Both have strong points of view, and their relationship goes back 40 years, you know? Chris writes in his book about times he's been angry with people in our family, or his mother, but in a way that I think is remarkable healthy and honest. I hope it's not something that causes a rift or a fight, and I don't think he ever says anything that anyone should be offended by. But the act of communication can be offensive to some -- or, at least, it is alien in a way that causes gut-level offense, due to its strangeness. I think the best thing that could happen to my brother and my dad is for them to get caught in a log cabin during a snowstorm.

Or, you know when Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson used to get handcuffed to a bomb together and they learn to set aside their differences and work together? Something like that could work.
They only need to talk, but they need to talk for a long time. Like when you're having a fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, and the talk goes over peaks and valleys that are good, then bad, then good again, and you wind up in a place where you're exhausted, but emotionally vulnerable, and saying things that are honest and straightforward and hopefully helpful to everyone.

Well. I've definitely gotten off track here, and the entirety of this post falls under the realm of Things We Don't Talk About in Public, but surely one of the things that's kept me from blogging ever since I read Chris's book is that I knew in order to write about it I'd have to write about things my family doesn't like to talk about. Chris's book is really good and I'm really proud of him for writing it and putting it out in the world. And it could be that saying it here is better than not saying it at all?

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