Monday, January 31, 2005

My Hero

The world became a profoundly sadder place this past week.

I remember watching an early 1980's special where Johnny Carson went back to his boyhood home in Nebraska. The show showed us what we already knew- that despite his millionaire Hollywood status Johnny was still one of us.

And even though he wasn't a major league baseball player or a rock star, Johnny Carson was my first hero. My Mom used to let me stay up late to watch Johnny's monologue and the comedy bit that followed the first set of commercials. This is where I learned my stock tangible defense of the power of a one liner, a quip to defuse any and all situations.

My freshman year at Macalester was a long lost year and towards the end of the spring I was eating dinner with the group I had somehow hung around with even though I never truly felt a part of. Shawnee Khosbin, the pre-law body builder sat the entire meal giving me a look. This was months after we had done our duet, Shawnee on guitar, me on keyboard, of Paul Simon's "American Tune." Something was on Shawnee's mind this evening and it wasn't the regular Wednesday night fare of catfish that somebody donated to the college. Nope, Shawnee was not shy and never one to let whatever was on his mind become the focus of our group's conversation.

"Why do you always have to make a joke out of everything?" Shawnee said looking me dead in the eye. "Can't you ever be serious?

With all eyes on me I did what I always do when I'm not certain to do. I gave him the old skunk eye and shrugged. When I got back to my dorm I actually contemplated what Shawnee had asked. Why did I always find the need to come up with a joke?

Blame it on Johnny Carson.

As I was recently sitting through Martin Scorsese's masterful film, The Aviator, I was reminded of my favorite Scorsese movie, The King of Comedy. There are certain similarities between the very different movies- recurring themes that run through much of Scorsese's work.

His newest film a bright biography about the neurotic Howard Hughes asks cinematic questions about what separates genius from insanity. What separates the normal from that which we admire and hold up for fame and stardom? The King of Comedy which starred Robert DeNiro as a wannabe comic named Rupert Pupkin, was about a man so lonely and alienated that his life revolved around getting his act on the late night talk show of the biggest talk show host played by Jerry Lewis who was obviously modeled on some level after Johnny Carson.

Pupkin eventually ends up kidnapping the Lewis character and the ransom demand is to get to perform his act on Lewis' show.

So there I was as a teenager watching The King of Comedy painfully relating to a very painful movie practicing my own five minute stand up act making sure I did what I saw Johnny do so masterfully- turning the jokes that didn't work, that didn't draw a laugh back on himself often times by a facial expression, by a gesture, by a body movement. That was Johnny's act and it soon became part of mine as well. It still exists today as part of my ever predictable but reliable repertoire, my bag of tricks.

For years I got my news from Johnny's monologue. If he felt something was worth a mention, worth making fun of, it probably was. Even when I discovered the hipper humor of David Letterman and Saturday Nite Live I found myself tuning in to Johnny. It was the comfortable routine thing to do, and it was comforting to watch an old friend do his thing. To this day every time I tell a joke, lame as it often is, it can be traced back to all I learned from Johnny.

Alias Anything You Want

Those who know me well know if I've had one life long goal it is to coin a clever numerical catch phrase that one day becomes a part of the American vernacular.

I've always been fond of phrases like "it takes two to tangle/tango" and "two's company, three's a crowd" and "it's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, four to go."

So here's my latest attempt: "It takes four to curl." Yes the phrase probably doesn't mean much to anyone but me and a few thousand Canadians but it has become my favorite motto of the day.

In my struggles to learn the nuances of the game of curling I have learned that it is advantageous to play with a full squad even though the rules allow you to play with three. You lose sweeping if you have get by with a trio however.

My phrase took on meaning beyond the slippery tonight as membership to my household grew by one to four. Yes I know if I can only teach my now compliment of three cats to curl, I'll really be on to something.

I've been told a two cat owner is no big deal but a three cat owner has sped way past the line that separates the eccentric from the crazy. But for me that line was obliterated a long time ago and it has nothing to do with my growing fondness for all things feline.

The idea of adopting another cat came to me this past summer when I added an upper wing to my house. There certainly was more than enough room and though I irritate myself even more than I seem to irritate my best friends, there is something I have found personally gratifying about taking in another soul in need of a good home. If that is to be my purpose I can live with that.

After the late great Mr. Max passed away the thought of another cat in this house seemed to be difficult to fathom. But when I met Thompson and Diego-san my feelings for adding some purring company to my life seemed to be something I wanted to do. That Thompson was a "special needs" cat with his missing front leg inspired me. Still reeling from Max's death I could never go through losing a cat again unless of course I had two cats so there would be one around to help me cope. So was the theory.

To find two who play together all the time was exactly what I had in mind. But after a couple of years together it occurred to me that if something were to happen to one of the boys- the other one would be devastated. Thus the idea of taking in a third was hatched.

Yes it's been pointed out by more than a couple friends that what I essentially was proposing was creating some type of emotional backup system. And where would it stop? If three why not four? All I could picture was myself as an elderly man with a household of fifty cats. Then one evening on my drive home a cat darted in front of my car and I heard the dreadful sound of the THUMP of my tire rolling over the body. I got out and the cat was limp. There really wasn't anything I could have done- I hadn't left myself the mandatory out. And I vowed that in memory of this strange (but I'm sure sweet) soul I'd make it up by taking in another in need of a good home.

I didn't do much looking (let alone deep thinking about what I was doing) but I knew if I was going to do this what I was going to do was adopt a kitten. I had heard it might be easier assimilating another cat into the home if it was younger rather than struggle with three adults bickering about who really is in charge (sounds like every meeting I've ever been in).

I read about a litter of kitties all born with extra toes. So I called and was told about another kitten who had been brought into the shelter having been abused- apparently injured by a child the cat's back leg was lame. Now mended I was told how sweet Dribble was. So sweet that he had a stalker who caused him to be removed from the web site and renamed "Stevie" to throw the stalker off.

I was told he was sweet and watching how much he enjoys others company, whether feline or human, I was immediately won over. Tonight is his first night in his new home and though he has been segregated in the downstairs bedroom, exploring his new surroundings while hearing the curious sounds of his soon to be full fledged roommates- he can't stop purring. He's a playful little guy with a little limp- a reminder of his recent past. This place now has three cats with 10 1/2 good legs between them. That's plenty to someday become the town's most fearsome curling team. You can bet on it.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Combo Platters

When you're outside at 6 a.m. on a dark, cold morning with the wind howling, biting your dry rosy cheeks, and you look and see endless inches of snow to shovel off feet of sidewalk and driveway, it's natural if the words that get muttered aren't sweet and thankful but more of the vulgar variety.

So when I found myself in that situation already exhausted from months of sleepless nights the absurdity of being a lifelong Minnesotan smacked me upside the head and my thoughts turned from jarring to giddy and bounced around like a dropped marble on a wood floor. It was then that I was calmed by the notion of how much I enjoy whenever I stumble across unexpected combinations.

For example one of the first things I do every morning after my Tae-bo workout is read my favorite comic strip, Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy that features the antics of a grumpy pet owner and his dim but thersitical and theatrical cat Bucky, and his equally dim but forever sweet dog Satchel. This past week featured a strip where Bucky, having been locked up in his carrier cage to prevent him from ruining the house with his ferret fighting training, threatens his human keeper, Rob, by mocking Rob's love of Sandra Bullock. In the few years I've been reading Get Fuzzy this was the first reference to Sandra Bullock I've seen and it hit even closer to home than the strip usually already does. It was like breaking open an egg and finding an extra yolk.

I was also enjoying the shuffle feature of my iPod with the 3,800 songs I've loaded when up came Neil Young's "Rockin in the Free World." That particular song played over the closing credits of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 and as obvious as the movie was, the sledgehammer song hit the perfect note of what is underlying all that is terrifying about our current path. It also seemed highly appropriate after listening to our President's inaugural speech that less than subtly hit upon the administration's latest corrupted fad phrase: freedom.

"There's colors on the street red, white and blue/People shufflin' their feet/People sleepin' in their shoes/But there's a warnin' sign on the road ahead/There's a lot of people sayin' we'd be better off dead/Don't feel like Satan, but I am to them/So I try to forget it, any way I can..."

To top things off I soon enjoyed another great movie from a pretty good year of movies, last year's Hero. The film was an abject attempt by Chinese director Zhang Yimou to top the mesmerizing great Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And Hero does just that.

Both movies transcend their martial arts material (and genre) to be cinematic artistry at its best- telling great stories against the backdrop of stunning visuals and blissful ballet. But for me (and maybe me alone) Hero tops the incredible Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because among the many philosophical nuggets of its story is that the pen may not be mightier than the sword but it comes awfully darn close. (It doesn't hurt matters that both movies feature the work of the most beautiful actress of today's cinema, Zhang Ziyi.)

The writing message is delivered by the nameless one (Jet Li) to the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) when he describes how he beat one of his unbeatable foes by studying the way he writes. The strokes of his pen give away his strengths and weaknesses by all that is revealed by his mere movements.

At the heart of the movie is of course the fight scenes but there is one in particular that is both breathtaking and heartstopping and wholly original. In this scene the two warriors battle each other across the surface of a lake. As they skim their way atop the water the camera follows them swooping from above to beneath the surface ultimately creating something akin to a great painting. The colors swirl and the imagery blends together in an enlightening and dazzling fashion. The scene is one of many that transcends the passive act of sitting in the dark watching a movie, and is one that snow shovelers everywhere would be well advised to take the time to watch at some point in their life if only to forget their current troubles and appreciate how things sometimes mix well in a take the time to love this moment way.

Monday, January 17, 2005

When It's OK to Call a Cat an Underdog

After living with the late great Mr. Maximoto for over a dozen years it wasn't long that I came to marvel at his winsome personality and many of his quirky antics. Indeed my appreciation for him was so great that I became quite known for being a feline sympathizer to the extent I'd likely sell out my own species should the great kitty world takeover ever occur.

Now that I live with two other wonderful representatives of the feline world I am continuing to learn that though I'm the one with a fancy college degree I may not be the one in this household that has the wisest life philosophy. There's a lot to be said for a life of lying in splotches of sun, forever living in the moment, and occupying an hour of time swatting a sponge ball around the room.

Living with two cats creates as different a dynamic as their personalities are different from Max's. Diego-san and Thompson not only have learned to co-exist but there are times when they team up to show that in this house majority rules and it's not so much about who is responsible for bringing home the food and paying the heating bill.

Take for example the great box conundrum. For years I stored in my basement several cardboard boxes I used when I moved into my house along with some of the better boxes I had gotten in the ensuing years. Max never seemed to pay any attention to them. Days after I brought Thompson and Diego-san to their new home someone had gone downstairs and ripped holes in just about every box. Bite sized pieces of cardboard littered the basement floor. Yet I couldn't exactly yell or punish either one of the boys since I wasn't sure who was responsible.

It only took me a year and a half to figure it out. I recently bought a new futon bed for the upper wing and the frame arrived in a big box. I immediately cut up one side of the box and put it out on the sidewalk for recycling. The other side of the box I put in my office figuring I'd cut it up and put it out during the next recycling cycle.

Diego-san immediately saw the boxtop as the perfect place to rest. He stretched out his impressive black fur covered frame making the cardboard seem as comfortable as the futon itself. Thompson came in and gave away his one true misbehavior. He began gnawing at the edges of the box. If it had been the ever mischievous Diego-san I would have probably scolded him but it's hard to yell at Thompson because he takes it so personal. (He even seems to get upset when I'm hollering at Diego). Plus because the box was going to be ripped up anyway who was I to say that Thompson just wasn't doing his part to help out?

And I gotta say I continue to marvel at how Thompson overcomes his handicap of a missing leg. He not only keeps up with the ever energetic Diego, he often is the one to instigate their dual romps. I swear there are things that Diego does just because he knows that it will be difficult for Thompson to do the same. Diego has taken to drinking his water straight out of the bathroom sink tap. The sink's rim is a couple of inches wide so it is not something that Thompson can easily jump up on to and balance himself on. Plus Thompson is quite satisfied with doing like the rest of us and drinking his water out of a bowl.

Still with Diego's constant race into the bathroom every time I go near the room Thompson's curiosity got the better of him. One night he just had to see why Diego insisted at jumping up on the sink. He started by hopping on the toilet. From there he looked at Diego-san lapping up the trickling water flow. The next night Thompson sat on the edge of the bathtub and as Diego finished his drink he turned startled to see the nearby Thompson gazing up at him. Quite unexpectedly Diego reached over and patted Thompson on the back. I'm not sure if it was out of encouragement or if Diego needed at that moment to determine if it was indeed Thompson sitting ready to jump up on to the sink.

The next evening I was upstairs in the upper wing bathroom brushing my teeth. This fancy new room has a vanity counter and Thompson came moseying up and leaped on to the vanity. He looked at the running water and he looked at his and my reflections in the mirror. Diego-san came racing around the corner, preparing to leap up on to the vanity when he saw that someone else had beaten him to his usual spot. He looked a little confused as he pranced away in the other direction.

Thompson waited until the water was shut off and then he began licking the surface of the sink. Diego-san eventually returned and waited until Thompson was finished and had left the room and then he hopped up onto the vanity, let out a squeal to let me know it was his turn and it was time to turn the water back on. I patted him on the back. It may have been just another night in this household but it was also a reminder of how lucky I am to be sharing these times with these boys.

Monday, January 10, 2005

On the Sunny Side of the Street

In the end not much good came from writing my novel all those years ago but one thing that did was coining the adage that it is much easier tearing something down than it is building something up. Yup I'm quite sure I was the first one to think of that.

So as I struggle to think of something to jot down this week I thought I'd mention the few life moments from the past week where things seemed so perfect and in tune. Yes I could have followed the alternative and whined about things that didn't quite go as well as expected but that would be too easy. Instead while I didn't exactly find any moments of pure bliss I did find a couple of seconds that brought quite a smile to my face (and no it wasn't a smirk).

I returned to work Monday after taking the previous week off to recuperate from a difficult fall. I was sitting hunched over my computer in my small office, wrapped in my fleece Sports Illustrated sweatshirt and my favorite scarf that was knitted for me by a co-worker, listening to the shuffled songs on my iPod. Up came Frank Sinatra's live version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" from his 1974 concert in Madison Square Garden captured in all its splendor on the CD, The Main Event. It's a schmaltzy performance of a near perfect Cole Porter song and at the end Frank hams it up by introducing the next song, "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by asking the musical question, "Are you ready?" at which point my iPod shuffled to a song from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical soundtrack Once More with Feeling. The song has Giles singing the opening line, "You're not ready for the world outside/You keep pretending but you just can't hide..."

It was like one song answered the other in perfect synchronicity. I sat there at my desk with a weary grin on my face and thought that somebody somewhere was responsible.

The next night I was lying in my brand new futon/bed watching the boys in their own worlds. Thompson was sitting peacefully on the ground nearby keeping an eye on me. Diego-san was a few feet away up to no good. He was clearly in playful pounce mode as his impressive tail was wagging like the tongue of a sailor on shore leave and sure enough he soon launched his massive frame airborne towards the unaware Thompson. I had a flying kitty and I had to chuckle as he missed his mark and fell far short of his victim.

Another perfect moment presented itself at dinner one night. I had just finished my unimpressive meal of processed grocery store ramen noodles (enhanced by my sister's homemade Japanese mochi rice cake) when I splurged and had some dessert- cookies made from two friends- tasty toffee/Heath bar like goodness from one of my favorite mothers of two, and cookies with white chocolate chips made from the Public Health scholar. Oh boy, I couldn't help but appreciate the baking mercy.

I threw my most perfect curling shot ever too this week. There were two of the opponent's rocks laying right in the home target and I flung my last rock of that particular inn as hard as I could aiming right down the middle. I split the rocks and sent them flying out of scoring range. Their curler came over and playfully cursed me and said he could do no better and I had spoiled it all. Indeed I did. It was quite intentional.

Then there was Wilco's performance of their spiffy song, "Late Greats" on the Late Show with David Letterman. There's something magical about the simplicity of the song- it's the type of composition that seems to have always existed yet it's truly original and out of its time. Watching the band have lots of fun with the stops and starts that drive the tune was something grin inducing. Even Paul Schaffer went out of his way to praise the band and its performance.

Finally I enjoyed the perfect big ass burrito (BAB) from the county cafeteria downstairs. The chicken was flavored just right and the preparer added just the right amount of cheese, pinto beans and rice, topped off with jalopeno peppers and spicy salsa. I woofed the BAB down in no time flat.

Monday, January 3, 2005

2004 Woman of the Year

Previous Winners: 1992: H. Ross Perot, 1993: St. Francis of Assisi, 1994: Newt Gingrich, 1995: Cal Ripken Jr., 1996: The Bob Dole Campaign, 1997: Dolly the Sheep, 1998: El Nino, 1999: Belinda Jensen, 2000: The Taco Bell Chihuahua, 2001: Randy Moss, 2002: The Cheapo Newsletter, 2003: Lindsay Whalen

Because of the fiasco of last year's Newsletter Woman of the Year process, Congress passed several law changes to address some of the issues that caused such controversy. The laws were meant to eliminate shoddy voting equipment and discriminatory administrative practices that kept committee members from casting their votes.

The result? More scrutiny over the process and less scrutiny over the actual candidates. As usual there were two major candidates (and as it will be revealed- no major differences between the two) and several minor candidates. The minor candidates were dismissed almost immediately because they weren't seen as having a viable chance winning even though they were the ones raising the important issues though they might as well been spitting into the wind for all the good it did them.

Among this group of candidates were all those involved in the BALCO steroids scandal. Regular readers of the newsletter, once they awaken from their naps, likely have noticed an obvious change in these pages since around 1996. For those wondering how the newsletter has kept appearing week after week for going on to 13 years- use of performance enhancing substances long rumored became obvious and confirmed publicly this fall. The editor's ensuing excuse of not knowing what the cream he's been rubbing on his belly seemed disingenuous at best.

Another candidate that the committee considered if only for a brief moment was George W. Bush. What is the deal with the endearing if not goofy way he over enunciates certain words as if he is learning them for the first time? David Letterman had a one off video spot called "Bush Shows Off" that showed our President speaking to a crowd saying that he had eaten KOYHBAY beef with Prime Minister KWIIZOOMEE. And then he breaks into his goofy smirk. It was the darndest video clip of the campaign- a reminder that we should all just grin at this lil affable fellow's antics.

Yet another minor candidate considered for the top honor was former indie-rocker Liz Phair. Just as her music almost tries too hard to get her hardcore fans to label her as the penultimate sellout, her clothes get skimpier and skimpier as if there's some perverse connection between the two. Yet she still has a way with words and her minor league wannabe Madonna act is quite charming because who can actually resist the catchy "Why Can't I" that informs us she was already wet before she went swimming?

Dan Rather was also considered because of the notion that bloggers brought him down that has spread from the Internet to mainstream media much like much of the news from campaign 2004 did. The basis of Rather's undoing was reporting on a story of our President's military career that was based on what turned out to be phony documents. Ironically just when Rather got the frequency right it was just then his wacky homespun Texas metaphors were too liberal, went a bit too far. In other words who cares about the story if what led us from here to there is more interesting?

So despite all the blogging and vote fixing it came down to two. The runner up was Ms. Martha Stewart herself, the queen of artificial homespun goodness because each and every one of the committee members felt bad that Martha was sent away for lying about a crime she never committed. Yes there are more legitimate political prisoners (Thank You! Mr. Ashcroft!) but Martha was the classic example of how our government has to make an example out of somebody in times of trouble. Yes the boys and gals from Enron destroyed actual people, and yes there might actually be just as much indifference in corporate America as there is in the much maligned public sector but goll darn it we gotta lock up Martha because someone's gotta pay! Besides, she's got seven kitties so how bad can she really be?

So the Newsletter Woman of the Year Selection Committee rifled through the hanging chads grassroots impassioned, yet ultimately hot air blown pleas, and came to a decision that could almost be called a mandate what with 50.0001 percent of the committee's support- a decision that will reverberate through the years what with the judicial subcommittee's appointment to the ultimate Newsletter Woman of the Year's Committee process hanging in the balance... Our winner in 2004? The Apple iPod. Why? Because it allows us all to tune everything out and just listen to our music. Repeat- OUR MUSIC. That it allows us to do that while changing the music biz itself should be seen as less a threat to the retail portion (and social strata) of our society as it is the opportunity that it really is. Take your iPod ladies and germs, and take your music with you wherever you wanna go. Shuffle Sinatra and Hole. Mix Dylan with Bananarama. Go ahead and listen to all that can and already has change(d) you. Just do it.