Monday, July 31, 2000

Hotaru No Haka

It is one of the most compelling and beautiful movies you'll ever see- that is if you ever see it. Grave of the Fireflies has a few things working against it in terms of who is actually going to watch it: it's a foreign film (Japanese); it's animated (although decidedly not a cartoon); and it is a strong contender for the saddest movie ever made.

The story the movie tells is of a brother and a sister who survive the incendiary napalm bombing of their Japanese village towards the end of World War II. The 14-year old boy, Seita, buries the family's most prized possessions in their front yard as his mother scurries toward the town bomb shelter as another air raid begins. He then carries his four-year old sister, Setsuko, to the shelter against her confused protests. As the fire bombs rain down unmercifully from the sky, the wide-eyed siblings watch as their town burns all around them.

Seita discovers that his mother has been badly burned in the attack, heavily wrapped in bloody bandages and sedated. He only recognizes her by her jewelry (he ends up giving her ring to his sister). Their mother dies and he is reluctant to tell Setsuko who keeps asking to go home and asking when she can see her mother.

The two are thus forced to live with a distant aunt who takes them in but treats them with little kindness. She convinces Seita to sell his mother's clothing for food and then scolds the children for eating too much. She also criticizes Seita for not joining the war effort. He decides that this uneasy living arrangement must come to an end as he tries to contact his father, who is in the Japanese navy, as well as other relatives.

The two children decide to live on their own in the caves at the edge of the town. They discover however that living outside the system leaves them little food or help. Seita takes to stealing food and clothing during air raids while the town folk are off seeking shelter. Setsuko's health deteriorates as Seita's desperation grows stronger and stronger. He takes her to a doctor only to be told that she is suffering from malnutrition. The doctor turns them away as Seita begs for food and guidance. He comes back to the cave to find his sister near death, hallucinating about her favorite food, and gently reminding Seita of her love and devotion (and dependence).

The film is starkly drawn, in a neo-traditional Japanese water color style. The movie pays great attention to detail and doesn't contain any big scenes- instead relying on small shared moments to elicit some of the most gripping emotional imagery I've ever seen. For a treat Seita gives Setsuko gum drops he carries in a small metal container. The look on her face when he gives her the first one is sheer delight- and the film's devotion to little life moments is demonstrated through her joy- she runs around and almost swallows the gum ball and a grave, scared look gives way to a wondrous smile as she discovers that the gum drop is still in her mouth. The day arrives when an absence of rattling indicates that the container is empty. Setsuko begins to cry as Seita pries off the top to reveal one gum ball stuck to the side. We share in her apprehensive delight at savoring this one last treat. It is familiar reminder of childhood, of finding simple splendor in the most difficult times- and it is one of pure bliss. Another wonderful scene is when the two children are taking a bath and Seita holds a wash cloth underneath the bathwater, capturing a small air bubble. He lets the air out just as Setsuko leans down to see what he is doing. She squeals as the water splashes in her face.

We're used to animation equating to children's movies but Grave of the Fireflies is far from that- it is a rich haunting movie that most adult viewers will carry with them for a long time. The images are so powerful they will change you in a indecipherable way- change the way you look at the world, and feel about life- and you won't be quite the same ever again. The obvious care given to the thought behind each scene gives the movie an enchanting effectiveness. The magic of animation is that everything becomes symbolic and we the viewer bring with us our own experiences and filtered emotions. In this sense the effective use of animation here seems almost more "real" than traditional filmed movies.

One scene that could never have been as powerful in a non-animated setting is a moment when Seita teaches Setsuko how to catch fireflies in her hands. They spend the night in the cave, faces splendidly illuminated by a ceiling full of fireflies. The next morning he finds his sister outside the cave burying the dead fireflies. He asks her what she is doing and she tells him in a matter of fact manner that she is putting them in a grave like their mother is in. He has not yet told his sister that their mother is dead and finds out that the aunt has betrayed what he had been protecting his sister from. He begins to sob, feeling for the first time his own true sorrow with the added burden of his sister's innocent emotionless sadness.

Grave of the Fireflies is a rewarding and captivating film that reminds us of the solitary path that life leads us on. The movie doesn't sugar coat its message- the death of a loved one is devastating and that all things beautiful inevitably fade- and it is truly a remarkable and profound piece of work.

Monday, July 24, 2000

Wayward Proximity

"And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him... and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was---I don't know how or why---but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way."
-Bob Dylan accepting the Best Album of the Year Grammy for Time Out of Mind

One definition of the line that separates sanity from madness is the ability or inability to distinguish between reality and your perception of reality. For some, more than others, this is a very narrow line indeed. Pencil thin, the reader might say. A much broader canyon is the one that distinguishes a breakdown from a meltdown. The end result may be the same but the process one uses to get from here to there must be distinguished for those scoring at home. Thus begins our fable about Elijah the nihilist, and Grace the survivor once known as the "cryptic mystic." The two friends were living in times where their highest elected official needed an explanation of what "is" is before he could reveal his side of the latest scandal to those he was supposedly representing.

Elijah was insufferably marginal, the type of person who was easily forgotten by even the best intentioned. Grace on the other hand, was adrift, occasionally displaying bursts of great manic exhilaration. The two shared a lot and had a lot in common. They spent much of their time together building crazy walls with sensible bricks.

What was the connection that brought the two of them together? About ten years ago Elijah had lost his muse. Grace told him she could relate for she had once lost her voice. She said that loss was ironic because a mere year ago she had marveled at how her neighbor's dog across the alley, despite its imposing size, never once barked at her. "What a nice doggy," she said with a emulating style. However that kindness evaporated and the situation reached a point where every time Grace took a mere step out of her brick house the dog would yelp in warning. What had she ever done? What had changed? It occurred to her that the dog had never been nice in the first place- perhaps it had a case of laryngitis that caused the silence.

It was a summery Saturday night in a blue collar bar in Northeast Minneapolis. The local polka band, Tubby Esquire was playing a set in front of an unsympathetic crowd. There was a middle aged couple sitting in the back corner whose evening seemed to be winding down. The woman rested her head comfortably on the man's shoulder, her eyes closed, her face far away. In the center of the room was a table that had two men sipping beer talking knowingly with a member of the band. To their right sat a fidgety Elijah trying to overcome his growing agoraphobia, trying his best to blend into the background. He was pretending to watch the TV in the back corner (facing away from the subdued couple). Scenes from Grumpy Old Men flashed unsaturated across his face.

The band started up powered by the jaunty sound of Harry Pulver Jr.'s accordion and John Schech's bass. The crowd looked on somewhat amused, somewhat tepidly. The set included terrific covers of two Hank Williams songs, Dear John and Honky Tonkin' along with a sprightly reading of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. The band took requests from the audience leading to definitive versions of The Beer Barrel Polka, Oklahoma and an infectious Happy Wanderer. By this point a few from people from the other room had trickled back and were dancing in front of the stage. A smile beamed on the Elijah's face. "Val or rie, val or rah, val or rie, val or rah hah hah hah hah hah hah hah ha..." His head bobbed along with a man dancing obscenely, remembering the delight of one of the first songs he learned to sing, a song he sang often when he was happy as a kid.

The highlight of the evening were consummate versions of two of the bands best songs, Tubby's Advice ("Don't ever cheat on your wife. She cooks your dinner with knives/If you break her heart you'll be missing a part/Be true to the love of your life/Unless someone looks like your wife...") and Saddest Hour of the Day ("Oh I hope and I pray that some night you will stay, past the saddest hour of the day...") Elijah was reminded of what he liked in the band for the first time he listened to their CD- the joyful mixture of observant melancholy with skeptical and sharp humor. The band was one of the few who could mix contrasting volatile emotions and be versatile enough musicians to pull it all off.

His mind turned to Grace the first to get him to dance in public since high school when he watusied with a chair. She appeared out of the haze one morning, an unexpected angel- a heartbreak waiting to happen. He was reminded that no matter how blue he was feeling he had been blessed enough to within days stand near his favorite writer, Bob Dylan, who had looked deep into his eyes with a searing intensity; a few hours before he had been in front of Ralph Nader, the man who would probably get his vote for president, and now he was lucky enough to hear his favorite band again. The lesson learned was that being close wasn't so much a matter of proximity but rather a condition of the heart. You can feel close to some people without even knowing it. You can feel closer than ever to some people without them even knowing it.

Monday, July 17, 2000

How A Fixed Fender Can Give You A Psychological Boost

After my Thursday night softball game I went out with Sue, our crass but quite effective high arcing pitcher. We had a really nice talk- her father passed away four months ago. We found that we shared a lot in common- the painful memories and reminders of losing a parent. We did differ in one significant aspect however. Sue said that she has found it impossible to be alone- that she needs company, otherwise she thinks about her father too much. I'm quite the opposite. I'm finding my most sane moments are the times I spend by myself. There's a lot of loss going on in my life at the moment and it's just easier to not have to feel the obligation of being sociable.

To isolate yourself in grief probably isn't the doctor recommended course to take. But there have been too many times recently when I don't feel up to seeing other people. I'm glad my conversation with Sue proved I can still be a valuable listener and can still connect at times. The events of the following night further proved the old adage if you put your mind to it, there is little you can't accomplish.

Already apprehensive about driving my pristine newly fixed car through downtown Minneapolis to the Target Center to see Bob Dylan I was told that the Hennepin Avenue Block Party was happening the very same night. Just the thought of driving through the aggressive snarly traffic was enough to make me want to stay home. But I decided if I got there really early, early enough to have dinner, that I'd find a place to park and I could always spend the extra time walking around downtown.

I wasn't planning on parking at the Target Center since the arena was right in the middle of the block party, but after driving around for a bit looking for a good lot I decided I might as well park where I was familiar and deal with the consequences after the concert. I was there well before five and the gates opened at 6:30. I wasn't really hungry and I thought I'd check out how many people were lined up at the doors since I had a general admission ticket on the floor.

There already were about 25 to 30 people lined up so I decided I would get in line. As people started to pour in behind me I realized I had a rather choice spot in line. So I sat there as my rear and my legs got sore reminiscing for some reason amongst the Deadheads, about my days at Macalester. I swear my roommate Spunky and I were the only "normal" people in our class. And it was probably typical that among the tie-died T-shirted I was the one wearing a CIA baseball cap.

I waited what literally seemed an eternity. I was now hungry and thirsty (I watched with envy as the quiet two guys in front of me snarfed down some appealing looking Subway sandwiches) but darned if I was going to give up my place in line. When the doors opened there was the expected nasty chaos of people trying to better their positions. I hung closely to those two guys- not daring to let anyone come between us. I got through that first set of doors and saw people running for the doors to the floor. So I followed suit. I was more than curious at this point to see how close to the stage I could get. A throng of people formed outside the next set of doors (barriers). After a bit of pushing and shoving the security people told us to line up single file (yeah right). Things somehow squeezed forward and I found myself on the other side of the doors after refusing to budge and give up any position.

From there it was another sprint to another security check point. At this stop they took our ticket stubs and gave us a bracelet (lord knows what that was about) and from there it was a race to the front of the stage. I used my sorely abused, and much out of shape Mama Cass legs to get me in position of the second row behind the barrier to the stage. I strategically tried to place myself behind a short person (who happened to be a very familiar looking and attractive blonde) so I could have a clear view to the stage.

None of this was exactly in character or what anyone who knows me would expect, as I was jostled and groped from front and behind, but I kept looking at the remarkably close stage setups and those microphones that would soon be used by the band and I wasn't about to relinquish any of my cherished territory at this point.

I stood there unwilling to budge for the next hour. The woman in front of me was sitting down, legs stretched out in front of me so she could clear some space and not be immediately squished against the barrier to the stage. At this point I turned to my recent study of Buddha and tried my best to remain calm among the inane conversation, chatter and bumping. The two youngsters next to me pulled out some finger length vials that I have no idea the contents of. I kept my focus on those remarkably close mikes and counted down the time. The stands surrounding us looked fairly empty. But at around 7:35 p.m. the smell of incense signaled that the time was near. The lights went down and there were the typical whistles of anticipation. I remembered back to the last time I saw Dylan at the Target Center, the LAST time I fell in love deeper than ever before- not with Bob but with the person I was with. It was during his second song, "I Remember You" when I looked over at her- and she was absolutely in the moment and how could I resist?

This time he opened with a terrific cover of a Leadbelly song, "Duncan and Brady." I couldn't believe how close Dylan stood from me- probably no more than 25 feet away. The look on his face was priceless. "Women all heard that Brady was dead. Goes back home and they dresses in red. Come a sniffin' and a sighin' down the street, in their big mother hubbards and their stockin' feet'. Cause he been on the job too long, been on the job too long."

Bob looked pensive as he concentrated on the atmosphere around him. He sang his heart out and it was a terrific opening number- a song about an outlaw who has walked into the wrong situation at the wrong time merely because he has been on the road for far too long.

As he ran through rather perfunctory performances of "Times They Are A-Changin" and "Desolation Row" I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the look on Bob's face. He was clearly lost in the music, in the moment. Even after all this time on the never ending tour the music is still the crux of the matter.

Concentration on the fourth song "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" was a bit difficult because a guy a couple feet behind me passed out and security tried to deal with the situation- but this was a new arrangement of one of Dylan's saddest songs. I looked at his eyes closely to try and detect if he was indeed feeling sad or if this was just another performance in another indistinguishable venue. But Bob was clearly pouring his heart out in the terrific lyrics. "Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you. Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you. The vagabond who's rapping at your door- is standing in the clothes that you once wore. Strike another match, go start anew. And it's all over now, Baby Blue."

The sixth song of the set, the rarely performed "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" was clearly the highlight of the evening. The light country background gave way to Dylan's piercing lyrics- one of his great and most intriguing song story efforts. "Well, the moral of the story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong. So when you see your neighbor carryin' something', help him with his load. And don't go mistaking paradise for that home across the road."

The timing of the song struck me personally. On my way into the concert I saw a young baseball capped man pushing his stalled Chevy Blazer in the Target Center ramp. I could have walked by- maybe should have seeing I have about as much ability to help with a stalled car as my cat, but I was feeling charitable so I asked if there was anything I could do. He had me push the vehicle as he tried to push start it. We got quite a ways down the ramp before he finally gave up. I left him stranded, but wished him well and felt good that I at least tried to help this stranger out.

The next song has become a regular in the rotation, "Country Pie" off Nashville Skyline. I heard the song last spring in Rochester but it really is a welcome addition to the set. The playful lyrics "Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime. What do I care? Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum all me for dinner, honey, I'll be there," play against the searing backing of the band. It was the first time all evening that Dylan allowed lead guitarist Charlie Sexton to really let loose. The look Bob shot Charlie after a ripping solo was priceless- like an old master scolding a prodigy for showing off in front of the masses.

Another highlight was the following "If Not For You" one of Dylan's most sentimental ballads. It was also the song from the evening that most perfectly touched on my mood these days. "If not for you my sky would fall. Rain would gather too. Without your love I'd be nowhere at all, I'd be lost if not for you. And you know it's true."

The most interesting juxtaposition of the setlist (far more than the pairing of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" with "Tangled Up In Blue") was the playful "I Don't Believe You" one of Dylan's most clever songs (containing one of my all time favorite lyrics- "From darkness, dreams are deserted. Am I still dreamin' yet? I wish she'd unlock her voice once and talk. 'Stead of acting like we never have met" ) with the bitter "Cold Irons Bound" (which got a new arrangement- substituting the trademark melodic bass pattern with nearly acapella verses punctuated with harsh beats on the last beat of each phrase). It was a stunning display of how far Dylan has traveled in the past forty years.

The song I was hoping and praying he would sing, was his latest composition, "Things Have Changed." He had been opening his encores during this leg of the tour with the song and I hoped that he would continue that trend. I was not disappointed. The opening chords signaled what was in store as even the loud fellow behind me indicated (he took great joy in identifying each song after the first few lines and then following up with a "Yeah BOB!" every few seconds).

"Things Have Changed" is a great song. It is the type of song that the thinning faithful wishes others would pay attention to- but that even the most respected people have stopped listening- is what the song at essence is about.

"A worried man with a worried mind. No one in front of me and nothing behind. There's a woman on my lap and she's drinking champagne. Got white skin, got assassin's eyes I'm looking up into the sapphire tinted skies. I'm well dressed, waiting on the last train."

In this performance Dylan struggled to get to the core of the sermon. He played around with the way he paused the phrasing during the killer refrain- "People are crazy and times are strange. I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range. I used to care, but things have changed."

To give up caring is to give up life. But the song is full of splendid irony as Dylan sums up life's sad plight so expertly- "I've been walking forty miles of bad road. If the Bible is right, the world will explode. I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can. Some things are too hot to touch. The human mind can only stand so much. You can't win with a losing hand ."

For his bows he stood there almost defiant as if to challenge anyone to top him. His face revealed a pride at the strength and the joy of the message just delivered. And when he gave me a killer skunk eyed look during a searing "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" I had to nod back appreciatively despite the fact I may never hear again having stood right in front of the speakers. I have to confess the words are still there. And I for one am still glad they were shared.

Monday, July 10, 2000

Out of the Woods- Exhuming $757's Worth of the Past

In the beginning there was
Cristabel the goat in the burned down barn
with Jazz the cat, who could silence her bell;
Before then was Caesar, a german shepherd,
steady as a three legged stool
and then there was Ginger,
the rediscovered cat let go in the same park
A walk around the river with Annie the retriever,
Toby who was a man trapped inside the dog;
and Cor a little girl's dream horse
Murphy who saved a life
Peabody I never quite met
but who must have been a white cat
Abby the wild one
who climbed up the drapes
and dear plump Lily;
It started with Lotus smart and shrewd
who proceeded Mr. Ralph
who lived up to his end of the bargain
Now there is Abaca who gives
lhasa apso a good name
Rose and Iris, more bunny than hare
Dear sweet Sammie, spinning in circles
and Ms. Mocha, gone too soon, touched by a rock
Kurbie the rat terrier who has seen more than most
But for me, none compare to Max
one wonderful idiosyncratic soul
who is puzzled now and again
but who knows more all the same
He's with me wherever I go
St. Francis may not get them to heaven,
but their spirit is stronger than most
Just ask those lucky enough to be touched
who don't know what they have
Until they learn what they have lost
that precious moment
when time doesn't matter
a look in the eye
like a lost skunk
that you'll never forget
in the end

We certainly didn't mean to mimic the orangutans at the Como Zoo.

Max is home now and everything is falling back into the routine. I was looking forward to the four day holiday weekend to spend time with my little friend. We haven't seen that much of each other this year (albeit more than the four times in six months that has been deemed "too demanding" by some). Unfortunately there was a little more excitement than we had originally planned. On our return drive home he hardly let out a peep which is highly unusual, and gave me the impression I'm in the proverbial doghouse. But hopefully the only pressing reminder of all that went down is the bottle of medicine I'm supposed to give him every eight hours. There's no greater joy than trying to get an animal to take medicine. They just love having their mouths pried open and have presumably "un-treat" like taste forced upon them. But at least he's home...

Ours is an Egyptian love, moving with an unconfident certainty through the unforgiving fragility of life's waves.

He managed to wedge his way through the strategically placed barrier of books, photographs and other deliberate clutter barricading the azalea plant. I thought I had heard something in the other room so I wandered to the kitchen where I saw him eating the plant. I immediately hollered at him as he scampered down off the table and ran into the other room. I followed him, pinned him down and severely scolded him. He is never allowed on the kitchen table and he knows he'll be punished if he goes near any plant I should happen to have. Thus he had broken two rules. His ears bent down in fear as I continued lecturing him.

I put him in my office with me and shut the door so he would have to remain in sight. He wasn't lacking for energy- he hopped up on the windowsill, he pranced over to the closed door, he hopped on the chair behind me. Eventually he threw up the leaves of the plant. We went to bed that night and he didn't lie with me, instead he chose to spend the night monitoring activities outside his favorite window.

I fed him in the morning after cleaning out his litter box. He had done his business.

I always said I wasn't going to be the type of pet owner who talked about his cat as if it were a human child. Living with an animal does not make one a surrogate parent. Those types of people always sort of annoyed me and besides a cat is too dignified for that.

But once Mr. Max became such a vital part of my life it was impossible to not become one who bragged about his exploits, laughed about his follies and shared his one in a million charm with those willing to listen. Think of all the songs inspired by pets. There's Henry Gross' "Shannon" and Paul McCartney's "Little Lamb Dragonfly" and um....

I remember the night I picked Max up at a small but spacious home off Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. His soon to be ex-owner called out his name and into the kitchen strolled a very large dog followed by a confident short haired, gray and black striped cat.

Max wandered over to me a bit sheepishly and I saw what a handsome cat he was- snow white under side, crystal clear green eyes. I put him in an oversized cage, grabbed his food and water dishes, loaded it all up in my little Honda and drove on back to my impossibly small efficiency. On the way home he let out several questioning meows as if he wasn't quite sure what was next but still anxious for it all to get going again whatever it was.

That night as he lie on my stomach and I watched his curious eyes scan his new home, I noticed my T-shirt was becoming externally damp. I immediately sat up and held Max away from my body. I tried to determine what end he was leaking from. He was deeply purring and I heard him making some odd slurping noises as he tried to swallow his excess saliva. I had myself a drooling kitty.

It was immediately apparent. Pulling into the fender bending one car garage I closed things up behind me and I didn't see him looking expectantly out the back window of the house. The window was ajar but there was not a sound. There has been many a night he is so anxious for my arrival that his meow is clear as a bell all the way across the yard.

I unlocked my front door and there was no independent yet hopeful, no happy to see you yet indifferent that it is actually you, face to greet me. I went through my nightly routine, checking my voice mail and my e-mail, turning on the TV, getting ready for bed. I kept expecting his face to pop around the corner, still expected to hear his bellowing meow call out ready to be fed. But none of it was there.

I missed sleeping with Max. Sure there wasn't the usual worry of rolling over on him, and being confined to the side of my bed as he somehow inevitably works his way to the middle of the mattress to claim it as his own. But I missed having him lay his head on my forearm and listening as his deep breathing turns into his distinct yet distinguished drooling guttural purr.

The longest we've been apart (both in distance and in time) was the two weeks I spent in Japan in 1997. Max stayed with my parents. Every night as I wound down in my tiny hotel room in that strange but familiar land, I would say a little prayer that included wishing things were going well for my little friend back home. I was worried that he would cause trouble for his grandma and grandpa- escaping, hiding, acting up. I was equally sure that he was providing as many smiles for them as he does for me. Entertaining, inspiring, tenderly loyal- what more can one ever ask? My eyes were wide open among a population density like none I'd ever known before- and yet my thoughts were often occupied by the little 14 pound irresistible ball of fur with the disproportionate belly that I'd left behind.

The most important life lesson I ever was exposed to came from my mom. It was during the time that she was undergoing a series of tests to determine why she wasn't feeling well. Those tests eventually diagnosed the terminal cancer that had spread from her colon to her liver. It was during this time that Max the cat also was not feeling well. A blood test had revealed his white blood cell count was abnormally low and there was a concern that he either had leukemia or he "only" had a feline version of AIDS.

As she was undergoing her own tests I remember how my mom asked me how Max was doing, expressing a deep concern over his health. The world was unraveling and yet that simple heartfelt concern for another was what came naturally for my mom.

It was late afternoon when my father called to tell me what they had diagnosed in mom, and that she probably had no more than half a year to live. After getting off the phone with dad I curled up in a ball on my sofa. Max who had been sitting at my feet immediately came to my side. I began sobbing and Max put his face right in mine. He lay down beside me. I couldn't move, couldn't even stroke his fur like usual, and yet he didn't leave my side. We sat there for what seemed forever as I tried to gather myself.

Coming home after visiting mom during the final few months of her life was hard. Coming home to an empty house would have been unbearable. To be greeted by Max was a small comfort but it was a comfort. He knew something was amiss, our usual routine had been blown to bits. I wasn't spending much time with him but the time we did share helped me endure the rest of the time. Our partnership, now eight years old had withstood many a dark night and a few apprehensive happy times too. He had seen me during my deepest despair and through my moments of triumph and had somehow remained consistently the same, steadfastly Mr. Max.

We have our quirks. On laundry night as I take the sheets off my bed Max will zoom onto the mattress. As I put on the clean sheets he'll hide underneath each layer, paw and bite at me as I try to rub his belly underneath the material. There are those unexplained times when his eyes will get as big as dimes and his tail starts to swish and for no apparent reason he'll race from room to room. I of course take this as my cue to play Inspector Clouseau to Max's Kato. I'll chase him from room to room, hiding around corners, flying, leaping lunging as he narrowly eludes my grasp. When we lived in our carpeted apartment Max could tear around at such speed that there was no way I could catch him unless he wanted me to. Now that we have a house with hardwood floors the traction isn't there and when he is in a hurry he spins his wheels like the roadrunner giving me enough time to sometimes reach him.

An old walking acquaintance told me she used to walk her cat, Jazz, on a leash. The picture of the two of them still rings inside me. Years later Max and I became famous in our own neighborhood for our strolls. He did his best cow imitation, munching on grass, while I, decked out in my wackiest hat, followed behind puffing on my pipe. Max loved the relative freedom of being outdoors, of finally being able to investigate the area he could only previously watch from his window. I was quite proud to show off my handsome friend.

My favorite Max story relates to my friend Alex who used to pick me up in her sporty Toyota MR-2. Max never got to ride in the car (not that he would have wanted to) but he certainly became part of the interior. I transferred his hair from my clothes to the otherwise pristine passenger seat inside Alex's car. When I got my first computer I shipped off my old electric typewriter to Alex who had just started grad school. She said when she opened it up and turned it on the first time a single solitary cat hair flew into the air- a little hello from Mr. Max.

Our newest "stupid pet trick" was discovered near my last birthday. We now both have hair growing out of our ears (only in Max's case it looks damn stately).

Nightly he'll come into the room where I'm working or watching TV or listening to music. He'll look up at me with his quizzical blank stare, simultaneously letting me know he's curious at what I'm up to but he doesn't really care one way or the other. "Just checking in," his furry feline face says.

I could tell the digested azalea plant was making him not feel well. He was moping around and when I tried to pick him up and keep him on my lap he sat there uneasy. I looked up information on the Internet and found something that made my own heart stop. It was a web page about plants that are toxic to pets and azalea was listed as one of the most poisonous to cats. I called up the vet and they gave me a number to an animal poison control center. The doctor there advised me to bring Max in to the vet immediately.

Max's usual protest about being forced to endure a car ride wasn't there. When we got to the waiting room he let out a few timid meows but unlike usual, he didn't want to leave his carrier. A vet student examined him and asked me questions. They took him in back and led me to another waiting area. After a long wait a vet finally came back to me and told me that they had started an IV to flush out his system. "50-50 chance," she grimly said trying to sound a little bit hopeful that his heart-rate was still normal.

When I came back the next day to visit they brought Max out and he had a tube in his nose to deliver the activated charcoal they were giving him to isolate the toxins in his body. He looked like he had been assimilated by the Borg from Star Trek. As I held Max in my arms for about half an hour he never once looked at me. I whispered to him that everything was going to be all right and that soon we'd both be home again (trying to convince myself as much as him). The sounds of the hospital- of doctors being paged, of the wounded howling out, mixed in with the pungent smell of sick animals. It somehow reminded me of my own haunted stay in a hospital years back. It was that experience that led to a lack of faith in the medical profession that I still carry with me. Max was shaking like a bunny and I felt an awful tightening of my stomach as I handed him back over to the student to take him back to the intensive care unit. "He has been so sweet," she said.

The three nights without him were difficult. I lie there in fear that the phone would ring. The vet told me they would call me if things were to take a turn for the worse. I lie there thinking of Max, of how scared he must be- of the pain he was in. I wanted to go to the hospital a mere few miles from my house, but I knew that there wasn't anything I could do. So I said another prayer.

Monday, July 3, 2000

The Third Greatest Song of All Time

For trivia buffs it was the first pop song that contained "God" in its title. Included on the Beach Boys' 1966 masterpiece (and probably the greatest LP ever made), Pet Sounds, "God Only Knows" isn't specifically about spirituality but there are few songs as sublimely convincing in communicating proof of a higher power.

Now 34 years later there is a new version of the song recorded for the first time with vocals by its composer, Brian Wilson. It is far and away the best CD track I've heard in 2000. The song is included on an Internet available only CD, Live at the Roxy, which is available on Wilson's own web site (

Indeed the entire CD is wonderful, and we are truly blessed to get to hear Brian deliver heartfelt versions of some of his most heartbreaking songs ("Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room," "Surfer Girl," and a devastating version of "Love and Mercy" with Brian accompanied only by his piano). Yet his "God Only Knows" stands apart and is spine tingling- goose bump raising stuff.

It is apparent on the CD that while Brian's voice retains much of the sweetness from his Beach Boys days, it doesn't have nearly the range it used to. He strains to hit the higher notes and his voice cracks every now and again. Yet it is this imperfection in singing such a perfect song that makes things work so well. The original version had Carl Wilson on vocals and here Brian's surviving voice pays tribute to Carl through the words once made so potent by his dutiful brother.

Like the rest of the Pet Sounds songs, "God Only Know" is about loss and singing to console one's broken heart. But somehow in its inherent simplicity it's about much more than that. The song opens with a gorgeous french horn intro, lightly backed by the clickety clack of a high hat that is joined shortly by Brian's wistful voice.

"I may not always love you. But long as there are stars above you. You'll never need to doubt it. I'll make you so sure about it. God only knows what I'd be without you."

When he wrote the song at the ripe old age of 24, nobody knew the depth of Brian's emotional anguish. Given the many lurid details of his nervous breakdown(s) since, the poignancy of "God Only Knows" is even more touching. This was a writer masterfully and quite inspirationally exorcising his demons in public song, but no matter the troubles the size of his heart and his talent can never be denied. The melody itself is unforgivingly haunting, added with the lyrics and performance make it an absolute must hear.

"If you should ever leave me. Though life would still go on believe me. The world could show nothing to me. So what good would living do me?"

The song is seemingly about loving someone, needing someone so much that the thought of their absence makes the purpose of continued existence questionable in itself. That the song more than effectively ponders this rather complex human dynamic in a deserving way says what a masterful song "God Only Knows" is. The soothing harmonies of the bridge effectively serve as a reminder that this is a communal experience, being alone doesn't mean that the others in our life aren't there.

To be fortunate enough to finally hear Brian sing this song for himself is akin to getting a chance to hear Chopin bang out one of his etudes solo on his piano. There are incomprehensible revelations all of us choose to share that go far beyond this world. The moment that Brian's voice crackles in revealing that his love for another is based on a whole other place, an entirely different plane and time is stunning. The secrets of our hearts may eventually end up with us at our graves but this single solitary performance indicates that may not be so wrong after all.