For the Love of Cats

Annabel Shay

I made one of the best decisions of my life in September of 2010, when I adopted Annabel.

I’d been thinking about getting a pet for a while. But my long work hours and high-rise apartment building wasn’t really conducive to having a dog. A cat seemed like the obvious solution: a pet that was a little more independent and easy to maintain than dogs tend to be, yet still could be cuddly and affectionate.

Here was the problem: I was terrified of cats.

Years earlier, I was attacked by two Siamese cats that belonged to my then-boyfriend’s brother and sister-in-law. I was getting ready to take a shower, and their litter box was in the bathroom. The cats were all freaked out by the addition of a dog into their household, and I’m sure the two strange humans (i.e. me and my boyfriend) who were invading their territory didn’t help matters. To this day, I don’t know what triggered it specifically. One second, I was getting ready for my shower, and the next, I was shoving two bitey, clawing cats away from me and taking refuge behind the shower curtain. If I said it was like something out of a Hitchcock movie—cue the blood running down the shower drain—I wouldn’t be exaggerating much.

After that experience, I avoided cats. For years. If I entered the home of someone who owned a cat, I’d be hugging the wall at best and zipping out of there at worst. I still can’t explain why, after all that, I decided it would be a good idea to adopt a cat is beyond me.

But I went to the shelter, specifically the Animal Welfare League of Arlington in Arlington, Virginia. I explained that I wanted to adopt a cat, but that I’d had a bad experience and I was a little nervous around them sometimes. (I may have downplayed exactly how nervous I was.)

I’d seen Annabel’s profile on the shelter website. They described her as shy, sweet, and affectionate. She was what they call a dilute calico—a calico with lighter colors than a regular calico—and she had this little smoosh face and emerald green eyes that I just fell in love with.

How could I not fall in love with Annabel? She is ridiculously adorable.

How could I not fall in love with Annabel? She is ridiculously adorable.

When they took her out of the cage and set her in my lap, she immediately started rubbing up against me and purring. She had claimed me, and I knew I would be taking her home.

The first few days weren’t easy. She didn’t eat or use the litter box at first, and that freaked me out. Then, even though she had a soft, cozy cat bed on the floor, she decided that the best place to sleep was on top of my chest. Have you ever tried to sleep with nine pounds of cat on your sternum? It’s not easy if you’re not used to it, particularly when you’re terrified that you’ll roll over and crush the poor thing.

But then, after a few bribes with wet food and tuna, she started to eat. And when she ate, she used the litter box. And then eventually, I got so tired that I fell asleep with her on top of my chest…and as it turns out, cats are pretty fast, and they can move out of the way if you roll over in your sleep. Things got easier from there.

Fast forward almost five years. Annabel is my best friend. I don’t know how to describe it better. When she was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2013, I was devastated. Kidney disease is degenerative, and incurable, and at the time she was diagnosed my vet said the longest they’d managed a cat with kidney disease was two years.

So I switched vets. She passed the two year mark in March. Between a wet food diet, and vigilant monitoring, her primary kidney value (creatinine) is actually lower than it was in 2013, back down in the high normal range. She gets sick more than I’d like, and I’ve spent literally thousands of dollars on her in vet bills…but she’s a trooper.

But the story that I’ll always tell to explain why Annabel means so much to me is this one: my mother died in November of 2013. I spent that day on the phone with relatives and friends, and later that evening I had a friend come over so I wouldn’t have to be alone. But around 10:00 or so she had to go home to her family and kids. By that time, the barrage of phone calls I’d been getting all day had stopped, so I was left truly…alone.

Except not really. That night, as I struggled in vain to sleep, Annabel stayed with me. By then, Annabel had learned that I tossed and turned too much to be a comfortable sleeping location, so most nights she spent the night on the end of the bed after her evening cuddles. But that night, she plopped herself on my chest and wouldn’t leave. Even when I rolled over on my side, she’d just dig herself in next to me and burrow into my body. She didn’t purr at all—Annabel normally purrs at the slightest bit of affection or attention—but she stayed next to me until morning. It was like she knew I needed her to be there.

She’s a sweet, affectionate cat. My boyfriend says she’s the most affectionate cat he’s ever seen—and he’s much more experienced with cats than I am! Speaking of my boyfriend, she adores him, and the feeling is mutual. She’s got him wrapped around her paw like you wouldn’t believe, and some of my favorite pictures are the ones I get of the two of them cuddling together. (Note to men: cuddling with animals = super-duper sexy.)

I could list all the reasons why Annabel is an amazing cat, because she is. But for that night after my mom died, I can never repay her.

Shay, on the other hand, was a harder cat for me to fall in love with. My boyfriend “inherited” Shay from his mother, for lack of a better word: Shay had originally belonged to his sister, who was away at school. Their mother was watching him, but when she adopted a puppy she realized that the two could not live together. The puppy was exuberant, playful, and big, and she feared he would hurt Shay. So my boyfriend ended up taking care of Shay, in an arrangement that was originally supposed to be temporary.

So when my boyfriend and I moved in together last June, we had two cats—and we didn’t know how long we’d be keeping Shay. Annabel had been the only cat I had ever owned, so I was used to her personality, her temperament, her behavior. Unfortunately, Shay was almost the exact opposite of Annabel.

Where Annabel was very cuddly and affectionate, Shay was rarely patient enough to be petted. Where Annabel had always been very low-key, Shay was energetic and playful. Whereas I never worried about Annabel eating or drinking anything she wasn’t supposed to, Shay has a bad habit of putting anything into his mouth, including pills that have dropped on the floor, Post-It Notes, aluminum foil, and—my favorite—dry pancake mix. Like, he didn’t bother going for actual cooked pancakes, but the dry mix that had fallen onto the counter during cooking was irresistible.

Yes, Shay will eat aluminum foil. He's not ashamed.

Yes, Shay will eat aluminum foil. He’s not ashamed.

Shay and Annabel quickly developed a big sister/little brother relationship. Shay was the little brother who wanted nothing more than to play with Annabel, and Annabel is the big sister who only grudgingly tolerates him. Annabel has never been a very playful cat, and at 11, she’s definitely on the low-energy end of the spectrum. Many times we’ve seen her hissing or swatting at him when he tries, insistently, to play with her. Plus, he has a bad habit—which we still have not been able to break—of eating her food. (He gobbles, while she tends to nibble slowly.)

I am, as you can imagine, very protective of Annabel, and so at first I worried that the stress of having another cat in the household would hurt her, particularly a much younger, more playful cat. Instead, something else happened. Yeah, she’d hiss and growl at him sometimes, but other times they play with each other, chasing each other back and forth across the apartment. Shay’s food habits are persistent, and annoying, but feeding them in separate rooms with the doors closed has pretty much eliminated it as an issue.

I tried to get to know Shay on his terms. While he’s not cuddly like Annabel, he loves to be the center of things, and will demand your attention by rubbing against you, meowing loudly, and even sometimes jumping on top of you. His tendency to put things in his mouth stems from curiosity: he sees or smells something new, thinks, “What’s this?” and then proceeds to investigate it further by tasting it. It’s part of how he explores the universe. He loves to play, and he’ll play fight with my foot and ankles if I don’t give him enough playtime.

When I leave for work in the morning, he plops himself down in front of me and rolls onto his back, demanding my attention and affection, and I’m always a little disappointed in myself when I don’t have time to give it to him. And Annabel may be the more outwardly affectionate cat, but it’s Shay who greets me at the door first when I get home in the afternoon.

At approximately three years old, Shay is considered an adult cat. Everyone seems to know this…but Shay. He’s got the personality of a five-year-old boy, packed into the body of a gray-and-white cat. He’s a little bit Dennis the Menace sometimes. But then as soon as a stranger comes into the apartment, he hides as if someone is trying to kill him. It’s quite funny. He goes from being bold and brave to the biggest scaredy-cat I’ve ever seen. (On the other hand, Annabel—who’s eight years older and three pounds lighter than Shay—has a tendency to plant herself in strangers’ laps and demand to be petted. I told you they were opposites.)

Shay, I realized finally, was this incredibly funny, sweet, affectionate cat…in his own way. He wasn’t like Annabel, but I couldn’t expect him to be. My experience with him helped widen my understanding of cats.

About six months after we moved in together, I said to my boyfriend, “I think we should tell your mom and sister that we’re keeping Shay. Forever.”

He agreed. And now Shay is one of us.

Maybe this is my imagination, but I felt like there was a shift in Shay after we decided to keep him forever, like he finally decided to let down his guard and really warm up to us. (Or maybe the change was in us, and Shay was just sensing it with whatever animal intuition he has.) But in the last several months, Shay has become warmer, friendlier, and more affectionate with us. He tolerates being held, and he likes to be petted…sometimes. He’s never going to be a cuddle-monster like Annabel is, but he’s just as warm and loving in his own way. He’s a cool cat, and I never tire of laughing at his antics and his kitten-y meow.

Adopting Annabel and Shay changed my life in more ways than I ever realized it would. I went from being just tolerant of animals to being an animal lover. I’ve volunteered in a couple of local shelters, and I’m currently volunteering at the AWLA, where I adopted Annabel. I love knowing that I get to be a small part of making sure local animals find their way to their forever homes.

June is National Adopt-a-Cat Month. In honor of that, AWLA is waiving all adoption fees on cats six months and older until June 29. So if you’re thinking about it, and you live in the DC/Northern Virginia area, now is a great time to adopt. Even if you’re not, there are probably some great animal shelters and rescues near you where you can find your own Annabel or Shay.

Adopting Annabel (and then Shay) changed my life for the better. I don’t know what caused me to walk into the shelter that afternoon in September, but I’m so glad I did. It was the most worthwhile decision I’ve ever made.

An Open Letter to David Tennant

david-tennant

Dear Mr. Tennant,

This weekend, I am attending Wizard World Comic Con in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I will be meeting you. I already have my ticket to get your autograph, though me being the worst-case scenario type that I am, I’m a little nervous that something will go wrong. But I’m not going to give that possibility any more power than I have to. This weekend, I’m going to Wizard World, and I’m going to meet you.

I’ll be nervous.  Hopefully I won’t do something completely embarrassing, like ask you to have my babies, because that would just be weird. I hope there’s time for me to at least say hello and tell you thank you for being such a big part of “Doctor Who,” for being part of a show that has been such a big part of my life.

But I know I won’t get a chance to tell you why. Even if I had time—which I won’t, since there will be hundreds of other people waiting to get your autograph, I’m sure—I don’t think I could manage to untie my tongue long enough to get through the words. So, on the off chance that you peruse blogs of soon-to-be-published American urban fantasy writers in your spare time, I’m writing you an open letter.

I started watching “Doctor Who” in November of 2013. It was the month that the 50th anniversary episode aired, so everyone was talking about it, and my cable company had all the episodes of the rebooted series airing through their video-on-demand system. It was also the month my mother died.

My mom and I were close. My father died when I was 13, leaving just my mom, my younger brother, and me. We had a rough time when I was a teenager, but as I became an adult we grew closer. My brother and I never quite saw eye to eye on things, so my mother was the one I talked to and relied upon. She was my best friend and closest confidant. Her death was sudden. I was 30, and she had just passed her 65th birthday—not young, but my grandmother (her mother) lived to be 90, so I was expecting many more years with her. Then again, she had heart problems caused by a bout of rheumatic fever when she was a child, and I’d been asking her for years to quit smoking, so maybe it shouldn’t have been so unexpected. But these things always seem clearer in retrospect, I think.

My mom, my brother, and me, a few weeks before her death.

My mom, my brother, and me, a few weeks before her death.

I don’t know if you know what it feels like to wake up every morning with a piece of yourself missing, a big gaping hole where you expect there to be something. But that’s what it was like. I had trouble sleeping. I vacillated between binge-eating and nausea that left me nearly unable to eat at all. I became prone to episodes of extreme anxiety and panic, especially at night. My health suffered.

But, without the luxury of being independently wealthy, I had to go on. I had to go to work. I had to pay my bills. I had to deal with my mom’s estate business. I had to feed the cat. I told everyone I was okay, not because I really was, but because I had to be. I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

I had been binge-watching “Homeland” prior to my mom’s death, but afterwards I found I just couldn’t stomach another seen of Damien Lewis going through violent withdrawals or Claire Danes going crazy (again). So I started watching “Doctor Who.” I was immediately captivated by the Time Lord in the funny blue box and all of his intrepid companions.

As a kid, I used to imagine myself as characters in my favorite television shows. At 30, I found myself doing it again. I wanted to be the Doctor’s companion, to travel all of time and space with a two-hearted alien. I promised myself that I wouldn’t be silly enough to fall in love with the nearly-immortal alien; that kind of thing never ends well. But at least I’d have a friend who was there for me, a friend who could take me on adventures, a friend who could whisk me away from the endless bleakness of my life and allow me to forget the real world for a while.

But in retrospect, I wonder if it was the Doctor I actually identified with more: the last of the Time Lords, surrounded by people but always truly alone, making friends he always had to say good-bye to. It really got me in “School Reunion,” when the Doctor told Rose how he had to watch his companions—all the people he loved best in the world—wither and die. I may not be a near-immortal Time Lord…but I got it.

Watching “Doctor Who,” escaping to that place where I didn’t have to face my troubles for half an hour, kept me afloat when I was drowning. It kept me company when I was alone. And even though things are better now, the show is still special to me: I was all by myself, telling the world I was fine. But, silly as it may seem, the Doctor got to be there for me during one of the most difficult times of my life.

So what I’m really trying to say here is: thank you. Thank you for being there with me, if only through a television screen, during the hardest months of my life. Thank you for being part of a show that has meant so much to so many people. Thank you for coming to conventions and indulging blubbering fans like me. Thank you for being my favorite Doctor—because you really are, you know.

Thank you for everything.

Sincerely,

Beth Woodward

Jessica Williams, Impostor Syndrome, and Me

JessicaWilliams

So the latest kerfuffle on the interwebs: Jessica Williams, correspondent for “The Daily Show,” was put forward by fans as a possible replacement for departing host Jon Stewart.  Williams told fans via Twitter that she would not be hosting, partially because she was “under-qualified.”  A writer for the Billfold then accused Williams of being a victim of “Impostor Syndrome.”  I’m not going to get into the whole thing, but this Salon article spells out what happened pretty well, and it has links back to the original Billfold article and Williams’ Twitter responses.

Upon reading this, my thoughts were:

1) HOLY SHIT, JESSICA WILLIAMS IS ONLY 25?!?!?  She just seems so incredibly mature and self-possessed during her segments on “The Daily Show” that I never would have guessed.  Many of the 25 year olds I know can barely use a microwave without supervision.

2) I don’t blame her for being pissed.  The Billfold article is very condescending, and it puts the onus on Williams to ensure that “The Daily Show” breaks the white male monopoly over late night–rather than putting the onus on Comedy Central to look beyond white male comedians for Stewart’s replacement.  Basically, it implies that Williams is not intelligent or self-aware enough to know what’s good for her, and good for her career.  All she needs is a pep talk?  Yikes.  In fairness, the author has since conversed with Williams on Twitter and apologized for the article, and she now seems to get why it garnered the reaction it did.

3) What exactly is Impostor Syndrome (which I keep wanting to spell as “Imposture Syndrome”)?  Let me read about it.  And read some more on Wikipedia, the source for all things everything.  Do I have that?  Do I feel like my success has more to do with luck than professional competence?  Was I just in the right place in the right time?  Do I feel like I might be exposed as a fraud?  Do I demean or belittle my successes?  Do I stop myself from going for things because I think I’m not accomplished enough or skilled enough to get them?  No, I never do that!

Except…when I do.

I’ve gotten to the point in my day job where I feel confident and secure in my abilities.  When I change jobs, I always have this moment of anxiety where I worry that I might not be able to pull it off, but I’ve always been of the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality.  But when it comes to my writing, I’m not there.  At all.

I have been writing fiction since I was six years old.  I have literally been writing stories since I had the ability to string sentences together.  Now here I am, on the verge of achieving one of my biggest dreams–becoming a professionally published author–and my mind is swirling with doubts that I don’t deserve to be at the grownups’ table.

I was speaking to Robert Peterson, my editor over at California Coldblood, yesterday.  I made a self-deprecating comment about how I needed to “make my case that I deserved to be here.”  Bob responded with, “Beth, of course you deserve to be here!”  He seemed aghast that I would even think otherwise.

Except that I can’t help but think about how long these rewrites are taking me.  A real writer should have been done a long time ago.  And how many times I have hated this book, and wanted to throw my computer out the window.  How much I’ve wondered whether I even could finish the rewrites.  How much I have wondered whether I have the capability of building an audience, in this social mediated landscape where authors are expected to really connect with their readers.  Whether anyone is even going to like the book once it’s out there.

Long before this publication deal materialized, long before I even wrote The Demon Within, I often held myself back from submitting manuscripts to publishers and agents.  I often tried to push myself to do it, with a little success–but not as much as I would have liked.  I just couldn’t do it.  My mom could never understand it, kept pushing me to do more, but it came down to a few things: I didn’t think I was good enough, and I feared rejection.

I didn’t get my publishing contract at California Coldblood because I spent months or years in the slush pile.  I knew Bob professionally long before any of this came up.  I was the Book Editor for CC2Konline–a pop culture website Bob founded–for five years.  Bob and I talked a lot about our own fiction writing, and Bob gave me a beta read of The Demon Within about three years ago.  After Bob founded California Coldblood, and it became an imprint of Rare Bird Books, he contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in publishing The Demon Within with them.

I know, logically, Bob didn’t reach out to me just because he thought I was a cool person; he reached out to me because he had read my writing, and he felt it would be a good fit for his company.  He believes I have a good story that will sell well.  I can also attest that he has not gone any easier on me because he knows me.  He can be a tough editor.  He’s pushed me hard, and the rewrite process has been harrowing at times.  But he’s also helped me make the story better and stronger than it ever was before, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Logically, rationally, intellectually, I know all this.    I’m not “lucky” to know Bob, to have a contact in the publishing world; I know Bob because I took a professional opportunity years ago that I thought could be good for my career–and it was.  I didn’t do anything that anyone else isn’t capable of doing.  And yet, there’s this part of me that feels undeserving because I didn’t go through a process that every writer hates, that many of them would give up their firstborn child to avoid.

I think this is probably a common phenomenon among creative types, and I think (and my reading has confirmed) that it’s more common among women.  As women, society teaches us to minimize our talents and skills, that guys won’t like us if we outshine them, that our accomplishments aren’t really worth as much as our ability to look pretty and attract a high-status mate.

I’ve been very lucky in that I never got this message directly from my parents.  In fact, I think they both would have been horrified to know how much I still denigrate myself.  “You can be anything you want to be,” they always told me.  They allowed me to dream, and in doing so, enabled me to become the person–and the writer–I am today.  But the world, society, exists, and it has affected my outlook whether I want it to or not.  (And certainly, there were plenty of other people along the way who basically told me that I should give up such childish dreams, as if I wanted to be a fairy princess or a unicorn.)

I don’t know that there’s a solution, and I’m not looking for sympathy.  It is what it is, and I’m speaking about it because I know I’m not the only person affected by this.

Jessica Williams may not have Impostor Syndrome, but I do, but the hell with it.  The hell with all those timid voices in my head and belittling thoughts.  I have Impostor Syndrome, but I’m following my dreams, anyway.