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Marlon and cat

At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company.  ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked.  Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side.  ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.

Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they.  In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they.  So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’  Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise.  ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’  But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does.  It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family.  We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy.  Then we can act.

Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering.  They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both.  Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate.  We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way.  Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering.  Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example.  So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).  Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.

Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind.  So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar.  In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)

A bathtub. Regrettably not filled with words.

A good friend of mine, an accomplished writer, once told me that she loved words so much she’d like to bathe in them.  It may be slightly wacky but it certainly is a brilliant image: you turn on the tap and out come your favourite words, rushing and swirling, the bath every so slowly filling up until it’s time to take off your clothes and lie down amongst the little bits of language, soaking in it, all those wonderful sounds and meanings touching your skin, perhaps even seeping through to your bones.

I have a handful of favourite words.  Home is one, in fact I saw it on a book cover in a bookshop last week and it made me stop, not because the cover was especially well designed or the font was eye-catching but because the word itself.  Home. It is such a complete word, which I know is a problematic thing to say as all words are complete, even one like arrivin’ as in ‘arrivin’ home after a big day out’, even when it’s missing its ‘g’, but still home as a word really gets me going.  It’s the sound, it’s the shape, it’s the meaning, and it’s the fact that for ever and a day it’s something that I’ll be searching out.

Community is another personal favourite.  Derived from the Middle English and Old French of ‘communitas’, meaning ‘common’, as in ‘have something in common’, this is truly a very special word.  (Now I think about it, common is another word that I like very much, partly because of its almost symmetry – it’s such an architectural word – but also because of the sound, as if it’s a spice, as if it’s a way of moving.)  But back to community.  Like home, this is a word that can stop me in my tracks; it can make my body tingle as if I’ve just swigged something very pleasant.  Yes, if it was possible to bathe in this word, then I would, I’d get naked and immerse myself in it.

Another word I’d love to immerse myself in is acquiesce.  This is a funny one, strange funny not hilarious funny, because I don’t use it very often, actually I can’t recall the last time I used acquiesce, but my God it’s a winning word.  It may mean ‘to agree’ or ‘submit’ or even ‘comply’, but with this one it’s entirely the sound.  Listen: ack-wee-ess.  It could be a bird call, or something on a menu, as in ‘Roasted half spatchcock with Potato and Chive Gnocchi with Acquiesce Sauce’.

Yes, it would be great to be able to lower myself into a bath filled to the brim with words, although I’m sure if I told non-writer/reader friends that I’d tried to do this then they’d probably wrap me up in a sleeping bag and drop me off at a hospital for special people.  But heck, what’s life without a bit of risk.  I’m going to head to the bathroom right now and do it: put in the plug, turn on the tap, and close my eyes.  If words come out, favourite words, you may never see me again – I’ll be pruning up in a lovely mix of home, community and acquiesce, with a touch of common to make it anything but.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, December 6 2008)

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