Monday, April 25, 2005

Dangling Conversation

I filed for a metaphorical divorce.

Words fail me. They don't correspond or accurately describe feelings inside or thoughts bouncing around my noggin at night. A wannabe writer, I now have learned how to live legally separated from words. I envy my cats who can express plenty without saying a thing.

I remember a day in 11th grade band class where we had a substitute teacher for the day so instead of making music we had a study hall. I got into a conversation with fellow trumpeters Tim O'Keefe and Todd Libby. We talked about life, philosophy, religion, and trying to figure out what it all really meant. We truly were determined to sort it all out. Once the bell rang and we had to head our separate ways all three of us had to sit for a moment in silence, transfixed that we all had just participated in one of life's rarities- a serious and meaningful discourse full of ideas where each of us would throw out a concept, something that had bothered any and all of us for awhile, and the others would then share and add what they thought. The whole was greater than the parts.

I suppose that you can't have that deep a conversation every day. There just isn't the time or energy or the needed connection but it's a bit sad that it was the type of conversation that sticks out so clearly in my mind because there have been few others that were as meaningful to me.

A stellar conversation is at least 50 percent about listening. And what really strikes me when I think back to that day is how I have come to learn over the years that finding a good listener is rare. I keep thinking of the Bill Monroe quote where he said he did his best thinking while someone else was talking. Many people just don't seem to understand that in order to listen you have to know when to shut your own yap for a moment or two.

It was that same year when my best friend Steve Olson and I made our way to the Uptown theater and saw My Dinner with Andre, a movie that Siskel and Ebert had been raving about for months. The plot of the movie was about as simple as humanly possible- it was a movie about two guys who get together for dinner and have a conversation. There were bits in the movie that reminded me of my conversation with Tim and Todd. At the beginning of the movie Andre dominates the discussion with his dinner companion Wally telling about his recent travels and wacky life changing experiences (like getting buried alive as part of some tribal ritual).

The movie comes alive however when Wally begins to challenge some of what he perceives as the overall point to what Andre's experiences are getting at.

Steve and I loved the movie. It had more than lived up to its billing. I wanted to go back, sensing that I hadn't paid careful enough attention to earlier parts of the conversation that occurred while I was trying to get used to a movie that was all talk. This was pre-VCR (let alone DVD) days so I never imagined that one day I could actually own a copy of the movie when I could replay the conversation any time I wanted to. Somewhat ironically my favorite part of the movie is when the two men discuss whether modern conveniences like electric blankets are good or bad. Is technology deadening our senses and thus numbing us to what it means to really be alive?

So after having recently rewatched the movie again on my DVD player I have found myself in the mood for conversation based movies. I rented four Richard Linklater talk based films: Before Sunrise, Tape, Waking Life, and Before Sunset. All four films involve Ethan Hawke, not one of my favorite actors because I never felt he was good enough to marry one of my favorite actresses, Uma Thurman (who I would cast to play the part of my friend Alex in the movie of my life).

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are bookends. The former was made in the mid-90's and I didn't particularly like it when I first saw it. The concept of two young people falling in love as they talk and talk after a random meeting, interested me but the conversation quite frankly paled in comparison with Andre and Wally. The latter, made a decade later, is about what happened to the two characters in the first movie and is an entrancing update. I liked how the two have become a bit jaded over the years and the tone feels just right.

The two characters also appear in Waking Life, an animated movie that is all about the meaning of life. My favorite bit is when a woman explicates on how words are so inadequate in trying to communicate. When one person says they are in love can another person really understand what they mean? Does that word really mean the same thing to all of us? The movie may just be a cartoon but it's much more real than most other movies I've ever seen. It's a great example of what makes a great conversation movie great is that the viewer has to be an active listener to get it.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Scat Singing: How to Be a Cat Loving Scooter Rider

I've kind of wondered when I'd fall in love again. It's been quite a while, like seven years. But here I go again.

I haven't had a lot of time or much of a chance to ride my new scooter but the brief times I have had, I find I just can't get enough. There is nothing remotely like it in my life. It feels like I'm zooming a million miles an hour and quite frankly when I'm on my bike zipping around the side streets of my neighborhood I'm not exactly sure how fast I'm going since the speedometer measures speed in kilometers per hour. Damn it I knew I should have paid attention all those years ago when they tried to teach us the metric system!

I've gotten the scooter near 60 kilometers per hour and I've since learned that is about 37 miles per hour. It's both scary and exhilarating going that fast in the open air. While racing around town there have been a couple of times I've passed motorcycles headed the other direction where the motorcyclist gives me a secret hand signal as if to tell me they approve of my bike. Of course they're probably mocking me as they could ride circles around me but still I tell myself that I've joined a secret little fraternity that those loser car and SUV drivers will never understand.

Over the past few weeks I've also finally gotten a chance to spend some time with my kitties. It's nice to have good listeners around. (Upon further analysis I have discovered there are exactly two good human listeners in my life and one of those I don't get to talk to much anymore.) I love how I can tell by listening to their footsteps on the carpet which cat is approaching me. I love when Theolonius badgers Thompson and the two end up wrestling up a cloud of cat fur. I love how Diego will get his face right in mine and purr as deeply as a lion.

I've learned there is a connection between life as an honorary cat and as a scooter rider. Every little bump in the road presents a moment when I can lose control of my scooter and go flying into a world full of pain. Every corner of my house represents a similar obstacle for my three cats. Skid a little too fast across the wood floor and danger lurks right in front of your face.

The more significant connection however comes in learning to constantly live in the moment. For Thompson, Diego-san, and Theo, life forever exists in the here and now. Yes they are capable of taking a lesson learned and applying it later on so the same mistake isn't made over and over. For example, Theo used to greet me right at the front door. But one time he stood too close and I whacked him when I swung the door open and entered the house. He now hangs back, if not runs away, when I get home.

Likewise it's not that I don't pay attention when I'm driving my car because I am a rather careful driver. I signal every turn unlike 80 percent of the other dreadful drivers out there. But when driving my car I can drift off and think about other things. If I hit a pothole it's probably not like I'm going to lose control of my vehicle. The same cannot be said when riding my scooter. I have to pay extra attention to everything around me because if the car next to me drifts I'm not going to come out ahead in that battle.

I learned this lesson first hand the other day. I was scooting down Lexington Avenue during rush hour. My mind wasn't on the task at hand and I hit a bump in the road that almost caused me to lose control for a second. I didn't but my heart started beating bunny rabbit faster. The same thing hasn't happened again because believe you me I now am forever in the present whenever I ride my scooter. Yup just like my friend the Dalai Lama and my three splendid cats, riding my scooter is a great reminder of how a life is better lived living right now than worrying about what might happen tomorrow or what has already passed me by. I am in love again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

You Can Call Me Scooter

In 1966 Bob Dylan was at the top of the world and why shouldn't he have been? In less than a two-year period he released three stunning LPs, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Songs like "Like a Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Visions of Johanna" went to places seldom ventured before or since. His lyrics dove deep within his psyche with equal flashes of insightful brilliance and beauty. His music was wild and mercurial. It seemed as if Dylan was poised to change the world with the strum of his guitar and each and every one of his songs were deciphered for hidden messages.

Then it all came crashing down. News spread that Dylan had crashed his motorcycle and the rumored severity of his injuries ranged from death to disfigurement, from a broken neck and brain damage to a cut leg. Whatever it was (and many speculate it was his way of escaping the madness that was swallowing him up whole and allowing time for quiet recuperation) his music never quite was the same again. In a way seeing how Dylan was forced like many other artists to grow up in a vacuum at an accelerated rate, perhaps the crash was symbolic of his first mid-life crisis.

I'm centuries from the place Bob Dylan was in 1966 even though I feel about as tired as he must have felt back then. Having turned 40 it was probably well within time for me to have a similar crisis. And like much of my life the way this crisis manifested itself wasn't quite the same as is the norm for other people. You read every now and then about some folks my age who deal with a mid-life crisis by going out and buying a Porsche or a Corvette. I went out and bought me a scooter.

It's a fancy little green 49cc retro style scooter that can whip up to 40 miles per hour. Some may label it a moped but there is nothing mopey about my scooter. It zips and zooms and when I open up the throttle it races along like a bat out of hell.

A couple of my co-workers and I went to look at scooters last weekend having gotten sick of rising gas prices and inflated downtown Minneapolis parking rates. We got to test ride a raspberry colored Twist and Go Venice model at Scooterville near Dinkytown. I hadn't planned on plopping my stash of nickels on the counter but after having ridden the scooter I felt I had no choice. Yes the pencil width exhaust pipe might suggest that it putters more than powers along but believe me if I put my kitties on board they would howl mighty loud in sheer fear.

I had to wait four days to pick up my scooter and when my friend dropped me off at Scooterville I have to admit I was a bit nervous about riding it home in the rush hour traffic. I stayed well under the speed limit not wanting to feel overly confident about my riding abilities. I was soon reminded of one of the things that keeps me from riding my bike very often- I don't like making left turns in traffic with cars behind and in front of me. Having stayed to the far right it meant I had to cross over a few lanes and sit there in the middle of things as the far bigger vehicles buzzed in every direction.

After enduring my first left turn I decided I would try to come up with a makeshift route home that meant I didn't have to turn left anymore. Unfortunately this probably meant a detour through southern Afghanistan so I bit the bullet and did what I needed to do. Soon I was sailing along, the predictable Steppenwolf song playing in my head accompanied by my own sound effect of yelping "zoom, zoom!" at the top of my lungs.

I love the sensation of scootering. There is something quite liberating about turning back the handle, letting the gas flow and zipping ahead with the air briskly flowing by your face. It's quite possible that such a feeling was part of the inspiration Dylan felt all those years ago. Yes it was a by the gut impulse buy but even if it means an inevitable crash somewhere down the road, I think the road between here and there will be quite the fun filled journey.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Humble Home for Wayward Kitties

To live in my house you have to at least be versatile. But what we're really looking for is a strong acting ability.

The newcomer to the house, who his foster mother dubbed "Dribble" and since has been renamed Thelonious, is 100 percent cat although there are times like he doesn't quite seem to realize that yet. Theo is way too friendly. He wobbles when he walks, likely a side effect of having a child sit on him and injure his back legs. This same injury prevents him from jumping up on furniture. Instead he tends to pull himself up with his front two paws.

Yet Theo in a way is more fortunate than his roommate Thompson, the three-legged cat. Thompson is missing his front left leg, a victim of getting it caught in a trap. I continue to marvel at how this doesn't slow him down much. Indeed he always seems to be in a hurry since his balance seems much better when he is moving fast rather than hopping slowly along.

Theo and Thompson both adore Diego-san, the third cat in the house. Diego has long silky black fur, an impressive massive tail and he swaggers when he walks. His curiosity is relentless and whatever he seems to get into Theo and Thompson are sure to follow his lead. For example, Diego-san loves to drink his water straight out of the tap. Whenever I turn on water he comes prancing into the room, hops up on the sink and then has this routine of pawing at the porcelain as if he is actually digging for his water. He doesn't mind getting the top of his head wet and running water seems to fascinate him.

For a year and a half Thompson didn't have any interest in this activity until one day Diego's sheer enthusiasm got to be too much for Thompson to ignore. At first he would hop into the bathroom and sit on the back of the toilet or the bathtub and merely watch Diego drink. Eventually he got a little braver and soon he was precariously balancing himself on the rim of the sink. He wouldn't drink from the stream of water, instead waiting until I turned the faucet off and then he would lick the remaining drops of water from the surface of the sink. Soon he too put aside his aversion to getting his face a little wet and began licking the running water.

Theo was quick to pick up on this ritual in our home. Now every time I turn on a faucet three cats (ten and a half good legs between them) come scampering from various locations into whatever room I'm in. The other two boys often nudge poor Diego-san off the sink.

The difference between living with three cats and two is that there is now rarely a peaceful quiet moment to be had. One of the three is always up to something. Theo loves to badger Thompson- so much so that Thompson always seems to be looking over his shoulder sensing something is about to leap out at him. The two have daily wrestling sessions (Thompson also loves to wrestle with Diego) but at the end of the night, no matter how rough the fighting gets, Thompson takes it upon himself to clean the other two.

In the House for Wayward Kitties/This Feline Circus being one dimensional is not an option. Diego does a passable owl imitation with his sharp piercing stare. He also is the size of small black bear and despite his sometimes standoffish, I'm in charge here personality, he really does have a teddy bear of a personality. He loves to snuggle.

Thompson never seems to be at ease. Every unexpected noise causes him to take notice like a frightened little bunny rabbit. Yet I've never met a better napper. He'll lie on my chest for hours if I let him.

Theo's trick is that with a little help he can imitate a penguin. His white underside contrasts nicely with his soft black coat and as I rub his belly he'll sometimes waddle on his back legs. His coloring also could pass for that of a skunk although I'm not sure how he would develop that imitation and I'm not sure I'd want him to.

The latest health care crisis is that Theo has seemed to have developed a case of feline herpes. Who knew such a thing existed? He spent all of Tuesday night sneezing. He would try to clean his face and then spastically shiver as if he couldn't quite control his front legs. Every time he sneezed the other two boys jumped a foot in the air. I took him to the vet who said that as long as Theo continued eating he probably was OK. Now it was my turn to act. I pretended like I understood that these are just cats and that the sneezing was only a symptom that would someday go away. Still Theo in a very short time has won over my heart and I pray that he'll be healthy soon.