Thursday, September 10, 2009

Author Spotlight: Gwen Cooper and Homer's Odyssey

Once in nine lives,
something extraordinary happens...

The last thing Gwen Cooper wanted was another cat. She already had two, not to mention a phenomenally underpaying job and a recently broken heart. Then Gwen’s veterinarian called with a story about a three-week-old eyeless kitten who’d been abandoned. It was love at first sight.

Everyone warned that Homer would always be an “underachiever,” never as playful or independent as other cats. But the kitten nobody believed in quickly grew into a three-pound dynamo, a tiny daredevil with a giant heart who eagerly made friends with every human who crossed his path. Homer scaled seven-foot bookcases with ease and leapt five feet into the air to catch flies in mid-buzz. He survived being trapped alone for days after 9/11 in an apartment near the World Trade Center, and even saved Gwen’s life when he chased off an intruder who broke into their home in the middle of the night.

But it was Homer’s unswerving loyalty, his infinite capacity for love, and his joy in the face of all obstacles that inspired Gwen daily and transformed her life. And by the time she met the man she would marry, she realized Homer had taught her the most important lesson of all: Love isn’t something you see with your eyes.

Homer's Odyssey is the once-in-a-lifetime story of an extraordinary cat and his human companion. It celebrates the refusal to accept limits—on love, ability, or hope against overwhelming odds. By turns jubilant and moving, it’s a memoir for anybody who’s ever fallen completely and helplessly in love with a pet.


Prologue: The Cat Who Lived

Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide…
--Homer, The Odyssey

The routine when I get home at the end of the day is always the same.
The ding! of the elevator is the first cue to sensitive ears that my appearance is imminent, and by the time my key hits the lock I hear the soft press of paws on the other side of the door. I’ve found that I tend to open all doors—even those in other people’s homes—with enough caution to prevent any furry miscreants from tumbling outside. Rather than seeking the floor, however, it’s only a matter of seconds before those paws have found their way from the door to the front of my legs, and a tiny black cat makes his best effort to shimmy his way up my body as if I were a tree trunk.

To prevent injury to either my clothes or the skin beneath—his claws are small, but highly effective—I squat down with a cheerful, “Hi, Homer-Bear!” (A nickname given when he was a kitten on account of his glossy black fur, like a grizzly bear’s coat.) Homer takes this as his cue to jump onto my knees, placing his front paws on my shoulders and rubbing his nose against mine with much loud purring and a series of short, clipped mews that sound uncannily like the yips of a puppy. “Hey, little guy,” I say, scratching him behind his ears. This sends Homer into veritable convulsions of delight, and—no longer content with mere nose-to-nose contact—he presses his entire face to my forehead, sliding it down to my cheek and back up again.

Squatting in the high heels I typically wear (I’m only 5’1”, but I refuse to live life as a short person) is even more painful than it sounds, so I pick Homer up and deposit him back on the ground, rising to my feet and finally entering the apartment I share with my husband, Laurence. Keys, coat, and bags are quickly stowed away. When you live with three cats, you learn that the best way to prevent fur accumulation on the clothes you wear publicly is to change into “knock around the house” garb immediately upon arrival. So from there I head to the bedroom and make a quick change.

A fuzzy shadow trails my steps through the apartment, leaping to the tops of any and all furniture along the way. Homer jumps effortlessly from floor to chair, from chair to dining room table, then back to the floor again, like Q-bert on speed. As I make my way from the living/dining area to the hallway, Homer’s up on top of a side table, then hurls himself recklessly to the third shelf of the bookcase diagonally across the hall, perching for a precarious moment until I’ve passed. Then he’s down on the ground once more, zipping along ahead of me and occasionally, in his enthusiasm, running smack into one of my other two cats until he reaches the doorway to the bedroom. Stopping at precisely the same point each time, he pauses for an infinitesimal moment, then cuts a hard left through the bedroom door, as if he were drawing a large capital “L”. He jumps to the top of the bed, where he knows I’ll sit to remove my shoes, and crawls into my lap for another round of purring and face rubbing.

This routine is the same from day to day, but what changes is the closer survey of the apartment I take once I’ve changed clothes. Homer is a creature of many and varied hobbies, and it’s hard to know from one week to the next what new projects he’s decided to immerse himself in.

For a while, his goal seemed to be setting the world record for number of items pushed from the top of a coffee table in a single day. Laurence and I are both writers, so we have the usual writers’ effluvia—pens, pads, and scraps of paper with notes we’ve taken—scattered among the magazines, paperbacks, tissue boxes, ticket stubs, sunglasses, matchbooks, breath mints, remote controls, and takeout menus. One day we came home to find our coffee table swept entirely clean—books, pens, remote controls and all, spattered across the floor like a Jackson Pollock canvas. We restored the items to their rightful place (not without a certain amount of shamefaced tidying up), but this pattern continued for several weeks. We weren’t sure which of the cats was our phantom housekeeper until the night I came home and caught Homer in the very act, quivering with pride at his accomplishment and wholly unrepentant.

“Maybe he’s objecting to the clutter,” I suggested to Laurence. “It’s probably disconcerting for him to have everything in a different place whenever he jumps up onto the table.”

Laurence isn’t as prone as I am to examining the hidden motivations of our pets. “I think the cat just likes pushing things off the coffee table,” was his reply.

We’ve also learned to tie closed the sliding closet doors in our home. It’s apparently easier than one would think for a small cat to hoist the full weight of his body up a hanging pair of jeans (denim being a nice, sturdy material that’s well-suited to climbing), then propel himself onto a top shelf where boxes of old photos, wrapped birthday and holiday gifts (which make a delightful crinkling-paper sound when they’re clawed open), and comfy piles of soft clothes make their homes. Garbage cans—no matter how tall—can be leapt into and toppled onto their sides. Scratching posts made of coiled rope can be completely unraveled, given enough persistence. Bookcases can be scaled and hardcovers hurled from their highest shelves. The same goes for records, CDs, and DVDs stacked in an entertainment center. With enough imagination, the acts of general mischief and minor destruction that one small cat can discover over the course of an average workday are endless. If there’s one valuable life lesson I’ve learned from Homer, in fact, it’s the importance of finding worthwhile projects to occupy one’s time.

Most recently, Homer has trained himself to use the toilet. Why, at twelve years of age, he suddenly chose to add this feat to his bag of tricks, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve heard of cats being trained by their owners to use the bathroom instead of a litter box, but I’ve never heard of a cat taking the mastery of this particular task upon himself.

The first time I discovered his latest achievement was by accident. I awoke early one morning and stumbled into the bathroom. Flipping on the light, I found that it was…already occupied, Homer balancing on the edge of the toilet seat.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said automatically, still half asleep. It was only after I left, considerately closing the door behind me, that I thought, Wait a minute…

“Our cat’s a genius!” I gushed to Laurence later that day.

“When he teaches himself to flush, he’ll be a genius,” Laurence replied.

It’s true: The art of the flush is still beyond Homer’s grasp. So checking toilets is another item I’ve added to the mental checklist I go through when I get home at night, while I survey the apartment for overturned picture frames, pried-open cabinets, and knocked-over knick-knacks.

Because I never know exactly what to expect when I walk in the door—and because seeing Homer can be a startling sight all on its own for the uninitiated—I try to prepare guests when they visit for the first time. In the years since I met Laurence and stopped dating, and as I reach an age where the number of new friends I make becomes fewer, this is something I’ve had to do with less frequency.

Still, I remember one occasion when I failed to give a new boyfriend the run-down before a first-time visit. At the outset of the evening I hadn’t expected to invite my date back to my apartment. By the time the decision was made, talking about my cats seemed like the sort of thing that might kill a romantic mood.

Homer, in those days, was particularly enamored of playing with tampons. Having encountered one by chance, he was fascinated by the way they’d roll around, and by the string at the end. He liked them so much, he figured out where I kept them stored in the cabinet below the bathroom sink and—with unerring patience and accuracy—mastered the task of forcing open the cabinet door and raiding the tampon box.

When I walked in with my date, Homer ran to greet me at the door as usual. And there, hanging from his mouth, was a tampon. The whiteness of it stood out against his black fur in vivid, mortifying relief. He scampered around in gleeful triumph for a moment, then promptly ran over and sat expectantly on his haunches in front of me, tampon clutched between his jaws like a dog with a rawhide bone.

My date looked taken aback, to say the least. “What the…is that a…” He stammered for a moment, before finally managing, “Did something happen to your cat?”

I hunkered down on my heels, and Homer happily climbed into my lap, dropping the purloined tampon at my feet. “He’s fine,” I answered. “He doesn’t have any eyes, is all.”

My date appeared staggered by this piece of information. “No eyes?!” he asked.

“Well, he was born with eyes,” I explained. “But they had to be removed when he was a kitten.”

There are some ninety million cats residing in roughly thirty-eight million U.S. households, according to Humane Society estimates—and so, in a sense, Homer is entirely typical. He eats, sleeps, bats around crumpled-up balls of paper, and gets into more trouble than I can keep him out of half the time. And, just like any other cat, he has very fixed opinions when it comes to what he likes and what he doesn’t. Happiness, in Homer’s world, is tuna fresh out of the can, climbing anything that can support his weight, pouncing with mock ferocity on his two unsuspecting (and much, much larger) sisters, and napping in the patch of sunlight that falls into the living room just before sunset. Unhappiness is being the last of my cats to score a prime spot next to Mommy on the couch, a litter box that isn’t immaculately clean, permanent denial of access to our apartment’s balcony (blind cat, high ledge—it’s easy math), and the word “no.”

But Homer looms larger than life in my imagination, and I often think his story can only be thought of in epic terms. He’s the Cat Who Lived—an orphaned, half-starved stray who survived an illness grave enough to take his eyes at two weeks of age, and who nobody wanted to give a home to once it was clear he would pull through. He’s Daredevil, the famed Marvel Comics superhero who lost his sight in an accident while saving a blind man, but who gained superhuman use of all his other senses. Like Daredevil, Homer’s senses of hearing and smell, his ability to map and negotiate all obstacles in an unfamiliar room simply by walking through it once, border on the preternatural. He’s a cat who can smell a single flake of tuna fish from three rooms away, who can spring straight up, five feet into the air, and catch a buzzing fly in mid-flight. Every leap from a chair back or tabletop is taken on faith, a potential leap into the abyss. Every ball chased down a hallway is an act of implicit bravery. Every curtain or countertop climbed, every overture of friendship to a new person, every step forward taken without guidance into the dark void of the world around him is a miracle of courage. He has no guide dog, no cane, no language in which he can be reassured or made to understand the shape and nature of the hurdles he encounters. My other cats can see out of the windows of our home, and so they know the boundaries of the world they inhabit. But Homer’s world is boundless and ultimately unknowable; whatever room he’s in contains all there is to contain, and is therefore infinite. Having only the most glancing of relationships with time and space, he transcends them both.

Homer initially came into my home because nobody else wanted to take him. So it never fails to amaze me how fascinated people are—even people who aren’t particularly interested in cats—when they meet him, or even when they just hear about him. He’s the ultimate conversation starter, something I hadn’t anticipated when I first adopted him. Ninety million cats out there means there are at least ninety million cat stories, but—at the risk of sounding unbearably prejudiced—I’ve yet to encounter a cat as remarkable as mine. At least once a week, every week for the past twelve years, he’s done something that has amused me, infuriated me, or flat-out astonished me—and he’s never more astonishing than when I see him for the first time all over again through somebody else’s eyes.

Oh, how sad! is often the first thing people say when they hear that Homer’s eyes had to be removed at two weeks of age. I usually respond that if you can show me a happier, more rambunctious cat anywhere in the world, I’ll give you a hundred bucks just to get a look at him. How does he get around? they’ll ask. On his legs, I answer, just like any other healthy cat. On occasion, when he’s especially enthusiastic in his play, I’ll hear the bonk! of his little head bumping into a wall or table leg he’d forgotten was there. It’s something that always draws a laugh from me, even while my heart cracks down familiar lines. I laugh because anybody who’s witnessed a cat in a playful frenzy, falling backwards off a sofa or charging headfirst at a closed glass door, can’t help but chuckle. And my heart breaks because, in the best of all possible worlds, Homer would have been found a week earlier, when the eye infection he’d had might have been diagnosed as “serious” rather than “incurable.”

Of course, in that world, Homer almost certainly wouldn’t have entered my life in the first place.

My favorite moment in the celebration of Passover—the holiday commemorating God’s leading Moses and the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into the Promised Land—is always the Dayenu, a joyous song sung loudly and accompanied by much clapping of hands and stomping of feet. Hebrew for “It would have been enough,” the Dayenu recounts the miracles God performed on behalf of the Israelites, insisting after each one that it, all on its own, would have been enough: If He had brought us out from Egypt and not carried out judgments against them, dayenu! If He had carried out judgments against them and not parted the sea for us, dayenu! If He had parted the sea for us and not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, dayenu!

And so on.

Living with Homer, over the past twelve years, I’ve composed a Dayenu of my own. If Homer had simply managed to live beyond two weeks of age, it would have been enough. If he had simply learned to find his food bowl and his litter box all on his own, it would have been enough. If he had simply taught himself how to get from room to room in our home without any guidance, it would have been enough. If he had simply learned to run, jump, play, and fearlessly do all the things they told me he might never do, it would have been enough. If he had simply made me laugh out loud every single day for over a decade, it would have been enough.

And if he had done nothing more than become one of the most loyal, affectionate, and courageous sources of daily joy and inspiration I’ve ever known…well, that would have been more than enough.

In a seemingly hopeless situation, when no rational person could expect anything good, yet somehow ends up receiving everything good—these are things we call miracles and wonders. A few of us are lucky enough to see such wonders in our everyday lives.

So this book is for the others like me, but also for the ones who’ve given up on believing in everyday miracles and heroes; for people who love cats and for people who consider themselves firmly anti-cat; for those who think “normal” and “ideal” mean the same thing, and for those who know that, sometimes, stepping slightly to the left of what’s normal can enrich your whole life.

To all of you I introduce Homer, the Wondercat.


Praise for Homer's Odyssey

"I am certain it would be impossible to meet Homer without falling in love with him and it is just as difficult to read this loving account without coming away with a renewed faith in the unique bond that can sometimes arise between two alien species. Gwen Cooper writes with humor, with wit, with candor and most of all with irresistible warmth for this astonishing little feline who will steal your heart the way he stole hers."
—Jeffrey Moussaief Masson, New York Times bestselling author of The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats and When Elephants Weep

“This tender and affecting book reveals Homer's lessons about love and acceptance—and how he transformed Cooper into the woman she had always wanted to be.”
Publishers Weekly

Gwen Cooper is the author of the novel Diary of a South Beach Party Girl. A Miami native, she spent five years working in nonprofit administration, marketing, and fundraising. She coordinated volunteer activities on behalf of organizations such as Pet Rescue, the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, the Miami Rescue Mission, and His House Children’s Home. In conjunction with Hands on Miami and Barnes & Noble, Gwen initiated Reading Pen Pals, an elementary school-based-literacy program in Miami’s Little Haiti. Gwen currently lives in Manhattan with her husband, Laurence, and her three perfect cats—Scarlett, Vashti, and Homer, who aren’t impressed with any of it.

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