Samantha Warwick


Got a Headache? Put a Cat on Your Head. Thank you, Margaret Atwood

Posted Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

With Margaret Atwood Oct 2013Margaret Atwood was the Wordfest/Banff Distinguished Author in 2005 while I was an aspiring writer enrolled in the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Program. One night, after Margaret’s reading, a wine-infused gaggle of us was somehow (I don’t know how) invited into the festival’s hospitality suite, where rumour circulated that Margaret was analyzing palms.

“Margaret Atwood reads palms?” I shouted over the loud and crowded hospitality suite.
“Yeah!” my friend Jessica Westhead shouted back, “Go ask her to do yours.”
“No, no, no.” I shook my head. I was too intimidated to approach a woman whose wit could flatten me in T-minus 2.  So I didn’t.
Not until eight years later in October 2013.

There is a chronology to this story, however—beginning with her sold-out event the night before, where Mayor Nenshi introduced Margaret, punctuating his intro with a beam, “If you don’t know who Margaret Atwood is,” he said, “shouldn’t you be running for City Council in Toronto?”

Margaret, once on stage, threatened to zip Nenshi into a plush costume and take him back to Toronto claiming she’d ‘won’ him at darts.  Eloquent as always, she delivered some backstory on her dystopian trilogy that began with Oryx & Crake in 2003, and read from the freshly-minted third installment, MaddAddam. A lively interview with CBC Radio’s Jim Brown evolved into a riveting discussion of science, the future, biology, genetic modifications, and potentials that surround the extinction of the human race.

Atwood with Nenshi

Atwood with Nenshi

“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” William Gibson once said, and Margaret, expanding on this quote, talked about how “futuristic” some parts of society currently are—high tech, accessible communications, instant access to global information—while other parts live a censored existence without access to even cell phones.  One of the reasons she appreciated the movie Blade Runner so much is because parts of the speculative future in the movie looked just like slums, which is true. And what might cause us to finally go extinct? Lack of food, one way or another.

In her trilogy, the Crakers are genetically-modified humans with built-in sunscreen and bug repellant. They all have green eyes and no need for clothing. They are leaf and grass-eating herbivores without a need for agriculture to sustain their diets. They can self-heal by purring. There is, she explained, scientific evidence that shows a purring cat can help humans heal. “Should you have a migraine,” she said, “put a cat on your head. How you will keep it there is another question.”

In MaddAdam, there are vitamins with germs deliberately put into the pills. The same company that manufactures the pills also produces the only available remedy to the treat the infection. “If you really want to know what’s going on with some of these plot lines,” she recommends Bad Pharma and Bad Science by British physician and academic Ben Goldacre. She also mentioned the recent development of “Prostibots” in Holland. I looked this up later and yes—this is exactly what it sounds like—android prostitutes whose prices would be controlled by City Council. “Think of all the female trafficking that could be avoided,” she said. To which Jim laughed, “The Dutch are always ahead of us on everything!”

By the end of this interview I can’t imagine anyone in the room would disagree that we live in an astonishing time. After the event came to a close, a tide of readers lined up to speak with Margaret and have their books signed. Not exactly an opportune moment to ask her to look at my hand. I accepted that I would just have to wait another few years for a different opportunity to present itself.  And then… I was invited to accompany Jo Steffens (the festival’s creative director) on the drive to take Margaret Atwood back to the airport. “10:15 at the Westin,” Jo said.  My heart swelled.

I walked into the Westin at 10am and ran immediately into Margaret.  “Hi,” I said.  “We met briefly last night. I’m coming along to the airport this morning.”  It’s difficult to quote the rest of this experience exactly, but I will do my best. “Let’s go wait in the Starbucks,” she suggested. We entered the busy coffee shop. She ordered a latte for the road. We sat together at a small table and I asked her if she had a good time last night. She said yes.  Was this the right moment to ask her about my palm?
Could I wait another two, five or eight years?
“So,” I said. “You read palms…”
“Yes,” she said. “Would you like me to have a look now?”
Elated, I leaned forward and put my right hand on the table.
She peered at the lines, “Sensitive!”
I laughed.
She explained that the left hand is “the hand we are dealt” and the right is “the one we are playing.” Despite my sensitive nature I am stubborn. Some difficulties in early life. My Apollo line could be stronger. I will never be a military leader, but my managerial skills are decent. “Not so practical,” she said.
“Not so practical?”
“You won’t be an auto-mechanic.”
“You mean I don’t fix toilets.”
“Right.”  She paused. “And good for you.”
She gave me a generous reading and explained some of the various components of palmistry. And quite simply: Margaret Atwood touched my hands. I felt just a little bit smarter already.
“Anything jump out on the health line?” I asked.
“A little bumpy right here, but you’ll be okay.  How are you feeling now?”
“I’m getting headaches.”
“You have a cat?”
“I’d put one on my head if I did.”
We smiled, and just like that, it was time to beat it to the airport. Jo and I dropped her off at her terminal. We all hugged goodbye, and as she walked away toward the pneumatic doors, she looked back at me, “I hope to hear good things,” she said.

Select Stories Written for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Blog

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