Monday, May 26, 2003

The Newsletter Reloaded

Just so you know, I must admit that everything that has appeared on this page for the past eleven years has been made up make believe. While most of it certainly has not been true, almost all of it has been honest.

Thus it is time to come clean with some confessions/corrections. For example, I've never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't own any Bob Dylan CDs. Sandra Bullock tends to annoy the crap out of me. I don't have, nor have I ever owned any kitties. I think baseball is dull, and I'd rather buy pretty porcelain figurines than ever lay a hand on a bobblehead. Far from a fan of JD Salinger's writing I instead look at his work as juvenile.

In reality (or at least in this matrix), I am not a 38-year-old Japanese American government worker but instead I'm a 63-year-old Danish pastry maker. I own a poodle named Paramour and a cow named Boo. (Unfortunately Boo has been sick lately. I know you all know what it's like to have a mild case of the flu? Well Boo has a mild case of Mad Cow disease. She's suffering from Sorta Pissed Off Cow disease.)

Those fancy silk ties I've been reputed to wear? Nothing more than clip-ons. I'm heavily into colognes and I'm built like an Italian bricklayer. I much preferred Siskel to Ebert, and my favorite Beatle was Pete.

So for the fistful of readers who have read my crap over the years and felt like you knew me, I apologize. I doubt I'll write much about myself anymore and I've made a promise to my friends to make it up to them and also not write about them anymore as well. More than a few are sick of seeing themselves in these pages.

Thus being reborn this week what follows is what you can come to expect from here on out...

The great Patrick James Steven Reusse has often said he doesn't like fruit that squirts. It's a matter of public record. Let me be the first to say that this is where Mr. Reusse and myself are far, far different. If there is but one thing I live for these days it is my daily dose of grapefruit. Last week some moron wrote in these pages that he knew God existed because he was able to experience the feeling of love. I'm here to say I know God exists because of the existence of grapefruit. There is no better food. It tastes good whether you are hungry or hungover; happy or horny; hapless or hiccupy. It's tangy, it's tart and it's just a delight to eat each and every morning (and sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning).

Besides grapefruit the one other thing I really love it is Suzanne Vega's 1992 CD 99.9 F. In fact my whole life philosophy comes from Ms. Vega's terrific writing on this particular disc.

"Fall in love with a bright idea/And the way a world is revealed to you/Fat man and dancing girl/And most of the show is concealed from view/Monkey in the middle/Deep singing that tune/I don't want to hear it..."

Like many of you I'm sure, I dismissed Ms. Vega when she was first gaining attention, particularly after hearing that most annoying song "Luka." This world doesn't need anymore of those ultra-sensitive folky types and that is what she most definitely came across as. So I was shocked when I listened to the dazzling 99.9F that revealed a woman with a way with words. And believe you me I'm somewhat of a sucker for that.

The disc rocks (well as much as folk can rock) and the words blitz the brain like candy coated shrapnel. Even Ms. Vega's vocals, expression-less as usual aren't precious and soothing but rather mysterious and ominous. So when she sings, "How did one life fall so far and fast?" I know exactly what she means.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Zeppo: The Boy that had No Cool

I'm used to being in love. For the longest while, starting in junior high when my hormones kicked in (and probably even before that), I thought it was my natural state of being. Love was being inspired, love was being uplifted, love was proof of God's existence because who else would have us and how else could we ever experience such a powerful all encompassing feeling?

So there I was a boy becoming a man (or at least faking it) trying to find something to explain this new feeling that only seemed like it had always existed. And that's where I discovered the power of art comes in. Not trusting my suburban raised claustrophobic (closed?) mind, I turned to the critics; art's critics to affirm those pieces of music, literature and cinema that transcend time, that come to mean more and more over the years. I read about Citizen Kane, Pet Sounds, and The Great Gatsby long before they became my favorite movie, LP, and book of all time. I was told they were great even though the first time through I didn't think any of them was all that special, though I most certainly saw that they were peculiarly different from what at the time was my favorite movie, music and/or book.

Called by some the best movie of all time, the first time I saw Citizen Kane was in 10th grade and after it was done I was bored and thought to myself, "what the hell was so special about that?" But since then I've watched it more than any other movie (well except for Speed) and each time I watch it I'm amazed because it's like I've never really seen it before. The use of shadows, the cryptic storyline ("don't trespass" "Rosebud") are as intriguing as director/star Orson Welles' use of shadows and spaces. It's a beautiful film full of understated beauty and power. I see more each time I watch it.

Called by some the best LP of our time, the first time I heard the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was in my freshman year of college and I thought it was rather bland and less than challenging music. But upon repeated listening I can't believe how much one can hear anew through song after song. This is the brilliant Brian Wilson's masterpiece and the care and effort is inspiring enough- that there are so many great songs, so many great sounds- it's a song cycle I never grow tired from hearing over and over.

Called by some the greatest American novel, the first time I read The Great Gatsby was for my 12th grade literature class. I wrote a scathing review, so critical that my teacher, Mr. Houts, told me I may want to re-read the book some day. So I did. And I have every year since. After each and every read I'm absolutely overcome by Fitzgerald's writing- his wondrous use of language and feeling that conveyed such a personal yet universal story. Wow.

The day I discovered Bob Dylan's music was the day everything would never quite be the same as ever before. The creativity, the originality, the cryptic mysticism, an admiration for the universal insight that comes from revealing one's heart- if that's what I take from this grounded too worldly place it would almost be enough. Great art, the thing about it is it doesn't change. By it's nature, being captured at a particular place in history, being a snapshot of time it can't change. But it changes you.

After being inspired by such great works of art I knew, just knew that our purpose in this world was to try to make a difference, big or small, significant or unnoticed, in someone else's life. Equal to that noble mission was to find someone, anyone who could inspire the same things within me. If both were ever accomplished then the meaninglessness of the every day tedium, of the temptation of just doing what we need to do to get by without making the effort to think about "greater" things, would somehow be all worthwhile.

The first time I fell in love in junior high was deeper (and darker?) than ever since. A lot of the feeling was feeling like she knew me as no one else ever had. It helped that she seemed to like my attempts at writing but it went far beyond the words. At the time I wasn't even sure she noticed me (and it felt like she didn't even know I was alive despite how alive she made me feel). With all the surging emotions, all the unexplainable confusion none of it made any sense until I got home and before bed I would write in my journal and somehow the process of writing just felt right. There were times I thought I was chronicling greatness- some kind of feeling no one had ever felt before- but reading my journals these days makes me cringe in pain. It is proof positive that I was a teenager at one time.

The "last" time I fell in love was five years ago when I actually had the courage to mutter the words to her for one of the few times in my life. And those three little words took more out of me than what was left of my heart. I highly doubt I'll ever feel the same again and that doubt has taken its toll. As I read on the Internet, Beauty was once an escape mechanism but if this Muse of mine were to show me an ultimate and transcendent Beauty, after which nothing else would appear beautiful at all, then I'd have no choice but to remain with her. And yet, my whole witness now is that she has disappeared. In her absence, nothing else will ever satisfy. The ones you love the most are the ones that hurt you the deepest.

Now as I somehow find myself a 38-year-old somewhat respectable working professional I can most of the time thankfully look back upon those years of development and not cringe so much. Perhaps that background can explain why I became an immediate fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the show debut seven years ago. The initial premise of the seemingly silly show on its surface was about a bubble headed California blonde who happened to be the chosen one saving humanity against the attacks of the undead.

But the show, with its constantly witty writing and sharp humor proved to be about something much deeper. In its first few seasons it became the best show about growing up that the medium has ever seen. Buffy and her friends were not only fighting fanged toothed vampires, they were fighting the "normal" teenage demons of not being popular enough, of falling in love with someone who doesn't love you back, of not being smart enough or pretty enough or something enough to ever find true happiness.

Over the years the show has blossomed even further into something much much deeper. With his unmatched ability to create a fluid storyline where one never quite knows where the characters will end up going next, Buffy's creator Joss Whedon created a world full of vampires, werewolves, and witches, that was not only more of a reflection of the "real" world than the current spate of reality TV shows, but also skillfully anticipated the scary place this society has somehow come to and we all find ourselves in.

Great art helps make sense out of nonsense and chaos. For me and many other fans of the show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the one TV show that can fall into that high art transcendental category. Unlike any other show I've ever seen, at it's best, it is that good. Yes with its mixture of campy martial arts action and Beauty and the Beast style fantasy, the show can at times live up to its awful title in a manner that those who have never seen it assume it is about. But by creating a world full of vampires and slayers, Whedon has created a canvass where he can weave his masterful storytelling in a way that incorporates philosophical themes seldom dealt with very well on the small screen. The show regularly asks questions about what a soul is, what love is, and whether where those two intertwine is what the meaning of life is all about.

In Buffy's world things are rarely if ever the way they seem let alone black and white. In its initial season Buffy struggled mightily with balancing the life of a "normal" teenager with trying to accept the responsibility of saving the world from vampires. Things were thrown further askew when she met and fell in love with Angel, a vampire who was cursed by having his soul restored so he could feel the weight of all the pain and death he had caused. Falling in love with the person (thing) that can hurt you the most has been a constant theme throughout the series.

How artful the series became can perhaps best be seen in the episode in season five when Buffy's mom died unexpectedly from complications from a brain tumor. In a stark subtle Bergmanesque style Whedon through use of light and silence captured the essence of dealing with the death of a loved one in an achingly accurate fashion. For years Buffy's mission involved killing but with the death of her mother we see that the end of life for any living creature isn't something to be so blithely dismissed. Key characters of the show have been named Angel, Faith, and Glory and not superficially so. Above all the rest it is the deep dark look into spirituality that separates this show from the rest.

In the next season Whedon gave us a masterful musical episode that had the characters of the show singing their hearts out in a perfectly logical way. The world of Buffy is so rich and so unpredictable yet at the same time utterly recognizable, that the moment the characters break out into song it isn't a gimmick like it might be on other TV shows but something that everyone who appreciates great writing and performing should see.

Entering her final season Buffy continues to struggle with what being a slayer is all about. It is easy to kill when the enemy is demonized to such a degree that we don't even see them as human. It becomes a little more difficult when we consider part of human nature is inherently selfish if not "evil" that in the end it's part of us that wants what's best for us over what's best for the rest of the world. We can justify extremes like going to war that involves killing innocent people in the name of freeing them as long as the enemy offers something even more demonic.

Last winter during her winter break the Duke senior, the intern, terribly impressed me because she reaffirmed another meaning of life (or life meaning) by demonstrating that above all else one doesn't ever really get old as long as one keeps an open mind and makes the effort to continue the effort to try and learn and expose one's self to new and different experiences. Most my friends dismiss my love of Buffy as somehow being smitten with the star of the show (who I actually think is one of the weakest parts of the series- at it's core Buffy has always worked best when focusing on the friendship between co-stars Xander and Willow- and all the "minor" characters so richly fleshed out that each and every one could have an interesting series developed for them). The blue-eyed intern told me she wanted me to share with her my favorite Buffy episodes because many of the people she most respected had told her how great the series is.

So we got together over the Christmas break for a Buffy marathon. Picking out a handful of episodes for her to see was extremely difficult but she seemed dutifully impressed by what we watched. Unfortunately I don't know of anyone else willing to listen and watch so carefully over something as silly as I can be (and have been accused of being) and somehow that thought saddens me as deeply as how grateful I was at sharing a love of mine.

A show about killing vampires probably can't ever be justified as respectable as shows about the inner workings of the White House or of neurotic members of the mob yet to dismiss Buffy the Vampire Slayer as ignorable fluff is a great loss to TV viewers who aren't paying close enough attention.

This final season has set up the ultimate finale- Buffy facing off against the origin of evil. After last season's heart wrenching dark season in which Buffy is pulled out of a heavenly bliss only to be betrayed by her best friend the show has turned back to one of its most redeeming qualities- a wicked sense of humor. Whether Buffy can finally figure out her place in this short term world is one of the penultimate moments in the history of TV, perhaps a great exaggeration but one that should not be missed. It's been a masterful run, one that is as perceptive as it is enlightening, and it's a rare TV show that rises above all that has come before. God I'm gonna miss this true love of mine.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Pet Sounds

A bill introduced into the State Senate would prohibit Minnesotans from owning monkeys as pets. I discovered the bill while in the middle of pondering my own personal pet options. One of the things I was contemplating was getting a pet monkey. Outrage doesn't even begin to describe my opposition to the proposed prohibition. This state just has too many darn laws and this would be one of them. If we outlaw owning pet monkeys than only outlaws will own pet monkeys. Law abiding citizens like myself would either have to go monkeyless or conceal our monkey ownership after obtaining a primate friend from some seedy underground black market monkey emporium.

Yup, I'll confess that all this is proof positive that losing my best buddy for the past dozen years sent part of me reeling over the edge. This whole grieving over the loss of a pet thing is a brand new animal for me. But I've mostly thankfully discovered it seems to be familiar territory for many others. After Mr. Max died, well meaning people comforted me with various forms of advice. Some advised getting another cat immediately to help me through the sadness. Others thought I should allow myself time to grieve. "You'll know when you are ready" I was told. And the inner ongoing dialogue bounced back and forth seemingly every minute or so from never wanting another cat to wanting 17 so I wouldn't get quite so attached to any single one.

Months after Max's death I couldn't quite find it within myself to put away his dishes, his toys, or his bed. I looked at the pictures a most talented photographer took of him in his senior years and I'm so glad that his many wonderful and wondrous faces were captured so memorably on film. I've never been a been fan of photography but these pictures have come to mean more and more to me each day. And as much as they remind me of how much I miss him they also remind me of the stability he helped bring into my life. Didn't matter how good or bad a day I was having, didn't matter how tolerable a year's worth of events were, Max was always there to come home to and rely on. He had his quirks but he was consistent and in a significant way he read me like no one else ever has. Losing Max was like losing a limb. Kinda taken for granted at times, always a remarkable thing to have, the loss of which causes you to lose balance.

In my mind I knew I had to find a way to separate how much I missed Max from how much I missed having a cat around. I went to a cat shelter a few weeks back not because I thought I was going to bring home another cat but almost because I missed Max so and wanted to be around his species, a species he wasn't at all fond of. It was another thing we kinda shared in common - I find myself not always so fond of my own species. I had to sneer whenever someone told me "Max would want you to have another cat." I know that isn't true- the other found comfort words "He would want you to be happy" most certainly are true but my happiness and allowing another cat into his house are two distinct things. Max disliked other cats so much that whenever I tossed him a ball of his own fur he would mercilessly attack it.

While I was at the shelter a beautiful calico cat named Kat hopped up on a stack of bags of kitty litter next to me. She reached her paw out to me and meowed. She kept at it until I touched her. She even followed me into the next room. The shelter guy said he had never seen her do that before that she tended to be the anti-social type (birds of a feather). He asked if I had tuna in my pocket or something. My only thought was Max had possessed her soul for a moment. Later a rational reassuring voice told me it was perhaps a sign I wasn't quite ready for another cat quite yet.

My friend Stooey emailed me web sites for a couple of local cat shelters. Reading the stories of some of the cats in the shelters brought a tear or two to my eyes. There seems to be no shortage of abandoned or abused kitties in our area. With the monkey option becoming less viable, my pet plan was becoming a little more focused. I thought it might be a good idea to adopt a mother cat and one of her kittens. This would ensure I'd get cats of different ages (meaning they'd reach various stages of their lives and decay at different times). It would also increase the odd the two cats would get along with each other. I also decided that I would adopt two female cats to try to make them as different as Max as I could. The plan of getting two cats was hopefully also a way to not get so attached to any one of them making any upcoming loss a little bit more palatable. Practical? Probably not but that has never exactly been my middle name.

I talked with a woman at one of the shelters. She didn't seem too keen on the mother/kitten idea and she sent me to a foster home that had three female cats that were bonding fairly well. One of them, Mamie was ultra-friendly. Another, Savannah couldn't get away from me fast enough. I never saw the third, Baby Cakes, who left me asking an obvious question of the foster mom, "If I adopt them is it all right to change their names?" Yup, she said, that's quite a normal thing to do. I could live with Savannah and even Mamie but somehow despite my obvious lack of mature manliness and attachment to felines I could never picture myself living with a cat named Baby Cakes.

A few days later I visited Mamie again at an adoption held at the Roseville Petco. The rational voice of reassurance came along. While at the store we saw some sweet and mellow greyhounds that got me thinking again about a completely different course of action. The cat adoption lady had also told me about a pair of male cats living in another foster home, Thompson and Diego. I had remembered reading about Thompson on the web page- how he had one of his front legs amputated after getting his paw caught in a trap. He had bonded with Diego so the shelter wanted to adopt the two of them together. Seeing I wanted two cats the adoption lady asked me if getting two female cats was my absolute number one criteria. Being as wishy washy and Charlie Brown-like (in my always annoying way) as ever I wasn't quite sure. Seeing the two boys at the store changed my way of thinking.

I felt an immediate sympathy for Thompson. When I was a kid I had a pink stuffed cat. I'm sure like all of you I named all my stuffed animals after baseball players. The pink cat's name was Hefty Thompson- named after Twins' shortstop Danny Thompson who died of Leukemia (a disease that plagues the cat community). The thought of having a cat named Thompson seemed reasonable. And Diego was as advertised- an extremely social and friendly cat. The foster mom told me that someone had wanted to adopt Diego by himself but she remained firm the two of them go together.

Men are often accused of thinking with a certain body part other than the brain but as I told my soulmate many moons back I couldn't be any lesser a man without somehow disappearing altogether. As a battery of analysts might someday attest (or testify depending on the circumstances) I tend to think with my heart (or maybe it's my spleen... whatever). I liked the idea of bringing in another ultra friendly cat along with another cat who has something special about him. That the two got along so well and somehow needed each other almost made me want to adopt Thompson and Diego on the spot.

My friend sensed I was rushing things. I did too. She was kind enough to invite me over to her house to spend time alone with her two cats, Maya and Marabou. I went over one night and was glad I did. Yes it was weird to spend significant time with cats again, but the look in their eyes was as reassuring as it was amusing. Marabou is the queen of the house- and she greeted me at the door as I suspected she would. Maya, who seems to have seen it all in her short lifetime, eventually came out and ultimately spent most of the evening in the bathtub. She sat beneath the tub's faucet quite clearly expecting me to know enough to turn it on so she could get a drink. I picked up on the vibe but didn't want to splash her with water. She pawed at the metal and lapped up any drop of water that dripped out. And after winning a staring contest with Marabou I somehow knew what I had to do next.

I made a visit to the foster home where Diego and Thompson were staying. Diego nearly leapt into my arms and was purring within seconds. Thompson was a bit more reserved but I was won over by how intently he watched Diego's every move as if he needed reassurance before he tried anything. I could see quite clearly why those who knew the two insisted that they be kept together. And I knew a certain fellow who was quite willing to do so. I called the adoption lady a few days later. She told me before I made any final decision that I should visit the two again. So I did. Again Diego was as friendly as could be and I watched as my heart intrinsically marveled at how well Thompson got around on his three legs. The thought of letting other cats in my home, in Max's home, still played on my mind but the thought of taking in a pair of compadres, one of whom was especially idiosyncratic made me think that maybe I was ready despite how faraway all this made me feel Max was. Approaching Mother's Day another unexpected feeling welled up inside. Somehow it didn't seem right to be able to replace Max knowing I'll never be in a similar position of replacing my Mom. And I so wished my Mom could meet Thompson and Diego. One of the last things I whispered in Max's ear was I expected he had to be sure to go and keep Mom company.

I brought Thompson and Diego into their new home. Diego immediately ran away and hid in my basement for the next two days. Thompson surprised me by being the braver of the two- exploring every room and sitting with me before he too went somewhere downstairs not to be seen. When I finally drew Diego out he almost immediately reverted into the uber friendly cat I saw at the foster home. Yet the first few days were about bonding with Thompson, marveling at how his handicap isn't a handicap- he does what he has to do to enjoy his life.

Max and I had several stupid pet tricks. We sounded alike when we ate corn chips. On laundry night he would scamper underneath my bed's clean sheets and paw at me. Once in awhile he'd get so wound up that we would chase each other around the house like Inspector Clouseau and Cato. I miss him so. Thompson and Diego, only a year old, are a bundle of energy but we will have to work on our bag of tricks. They love to play, love to chase each other around. Diego who's a big black teddy bear of a guy loves the sound of flowing water for a reason I've yet to figure out. Thompson loves to talk- all the time, anywhere. Before their arrival I put away most of Max's toys out of respect leaving out a select few as if to acknowledge the transition. We've had a fun first week getting to know each other. I wouldn't think of changing their names or anything else about them.