Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Careful on the Ice

A common saying in Minnesota during the winter, especially and perhaps particularly addressed to senior citizens, is “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”  It's good advice since winter in Minnesota lasts from November to April and often snow and ice cover the sidewalks and steps and make them incredibly slippery.  The advice also rhymes, and senior citizens often experience memory loss, so the rhyme helps them remember this important safety reminder that could save their lives.  Seriously.  A study I recently read in Tom Rath's fantastic book, Eat, Move, Sleep, stated that within a year of breaking a hip more senior citizens die from a hip fracture than any other injury or illness.

So I often say to myself, despite the fact that I'm only forty four years old and in excellent health with strong legs, “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”  I walk gingerly, taking tiny steps, and always assuming what deceptively looks like snow is deceitfully ice.  I continue the story in my head for a while and say, “If you slip and break a hip it's all downhill from there.  It's not a fun downhill either.  No, it's a slippery slope sliding full speed on a thin plastic toboggan with the cold Arctic air lashing at your face and your feet cold despite the fact that you're wearing wool socks and thermal insulated boots."

Then I give myself an optimistic pep talk because you need to do that often during this near Siberian and almost Dostoevskian winter.  I tell myself, “If I slip and fall, I will recover.  Better yet, I won't slip and fall!”  

Then I continue walking gingerly, taking tiny steps, and always assuming what deceptively looks like snow is deceitfully ice while I tell myself, “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lawrence Welk

I'm a forty-four year old man and often on Saturday nights I watch The Lawrence Welk Show.  My local PBS station airs it from six o'clock to seven o'clock.  Most people would say it's a show for senior citizens, but I thoroughly enjoy it.  I look forward to it.  Right before it starts, I usually open a bottle of wine and sip a glass as I watch and have a gay time. 

I love the 1950s and 60s jazz and musical numbers.  I love the visible orchestra seated in the background.  I love the smiling female singers with their perfectly curled up at the ends hair and the smiling male singers with their perfectly parted to the side hair.  I love their outfits and costumes. I love the choreographed dancing.  I love the sets suggesting a scene and the cyclorama lighting the back wall. I love Lawrence Welk's Norwegian American accent. I love the gayness of the men dancing in effeminate costumes.  I love the campy, cheesy, happy wholesomeness of the mid-century Hollywood production.   

The show beckons me to another era, another reality, both of them artificially constructed through the magical escape that is The Lawrence Welk Show. 

I watched the show as a boy on Saturday nights and so perhaps there is a nostalgic quality to it for me.  The happy theatricality Lawrence Welk created and shared with the world seemed glamorous compared to the small farming town in which I grew up.  The show made me realize that there are other realities out there, realities that people create for themselves, realities that I can create for myself. 

Too some extent, life is a performance.  As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We create our lives.”   

Even now the show appeals to me for the same reason: shiny, happy people singing and dancing and acting and making their living through performance and I assume loving their living.  Maybe that's why I love it.  The Lawrence Welk Show is a reminder to me of people living joyfully because they have followed their passion.  I know it's an illusion.  They had their suffering just like we all do.  It wasn't all bubble and champagne and waltzes and colorful blinking lights.  But for the sake of their art, they set aside their discontent and faked it if they had to, because that is what performers often must do to create the illusion.

So if you're looking for a surprisingly good time, open a bottle of wine, kick back, relax, and get happy with The Lawrence Welk Show.  Or better yet, come on over, and we'll party together, Lawrence Welk Style!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Scooter the Buddha Cat

We first looked for a cat to adopt in the house of a middle aged woman in Iowa City who rescued cats.  Lots of cats.  At least twenty five cats lived in her house.  Cats were everywhere.  Cats laying on couches, cats curled up in chairs, cats lounging on rugs, cats snoozing on cat trees, cats looking out windows, cats sleeping on tables, cats walking on counters, cats darting across rooms, cats eating food, cats using litter boxes.  There were enough cats in that house to make it the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  The house smelled like cats: cat fur, cat litter, cat pee.  We looked around for a while, not sure what cat or kitten we wanted, but certain the right cat would jump out at us, and in this house that was literally possible.  No matter where we walked there were a trail of cats following us and rubbing against our legs.  Every couple of feet a cat jumped off a chair or table or couch and startled us.  Most of the cats meowed as we passed them.  A few of them hissed at us.   

Then Adam, my partner at the time, saw the cat he wanted.  A white cat with brown spots who walked with a limp because he was missing his front left leg.  He also twitched every several seconds with what looked like a total body spasm.  Crazy Cat Lady told us that this cat had been hit by a car, and in addition to losing his leg, he also suffered brain damage which left him with the twitch.  Adam told me he thought we should get this cat because nobody else would take the three legged twitching cat.  It was just like Adam to do something kind like this.  

It's the reason he adopted Deke, that cat who had died six months ago and the reason we were adopting a cat.  Deke was deaf and Adam was certain no one would want the deaf cat.  It's one of the traits I loved most about Adam: he had a big heart for the less fortunate.    

But I had never had a cat before and I wanted an able bodied cat with no brain damage.  I wanted a kitten, a cute kitten with all its legs and nerves in tact.  Adam understood and we decided not to get the three-legged, brain damaged cat that twitched.  We left the pet rescue house without a cat.  

Our next stop was The Iowa City Humane Society.  We looked at several cats and then I saw a woman holding an orange and white kitten that looked absolutely cute and cuddly and soft and adorable.  I asked the woman if I could hold him and immediately fell in love with him.  I rubbed his soft fur against the skin of my face.  He purred loudly and happily.  

“This one,” I said to Adam.  “This is the one.”  

I handed the kitten to Adam and Adam cradled him like a little baby.  “Ohhhh,” he said in a daddy talking to a baby voice, “you're so cute.”  

I looked at the lady who was holding him before me.  “Were you thinking of getting this kitten?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “if you're interested in getting him you can.  I'm just happy to see cats adopted.”

I was ready to cat fight her for this cute kitten if she said yes.  

So that Saturday in March of 2000 we adopted the kitten named “Kitten” by the vet at Human Society.  The name was so generic it made us laugh every time we said it and we knew we would  change it.  The woman who sold him to us told us he had been a stray cat for awhile because someone found him in an alley.  He also had a BB from gun in his lower back.  She told us where to touch the muscle of his back, and sure enough, through his orange fur and under his skin, we could feel the BB.  We got him vaccinated and his ears cleaned for mites and the BB removed from his back.  He had a large square of fur, about two inches wide and two inches deep, cut from where the BB had been. 

Adam and I brought “Kitten” home to our two story duplex on Market Street.  Adam had another cat, Zazu, who, in Adam's words, “might not take a keen likin' to another cat in the house, nonetheless a kitten gettin' all the attention because he's cute and adorable and playful.”  He insisted we separate the two cats and gradually expose them to each other.  We had a large walk in closet right off the living room so we kept “Kitten” in this temporary space.  We placed a chair, blanket, cat bed, litter box, water, and food bowl in there.  Zazu knew new kitten, probably cute and definitely competition, lived behind that door and in that closet.  She smelled him. She heard him. She saw his tiny paws poke out from under the door.  She batted them with her paws when she saw them like an uptight nun slapping the attention seeking student with the ruler.  

Adam's plan worked, however, because after letting still unnamed kitten out of the closet and free to roam around the living room while we kept Zazu in the upstairs bedroom with the door closed, and then placing unnamed kitten back into the closet and letting Zazu out of the bedroom and into the living room to smell his scent, Zazu acclimated to his presence.  After several days later, we introduced the two of them to each other without any hissing or posturing from either cat, and for the most part, Zazu liked the kitten.  

Adam named the kitten.  We were sitting in the living room on our couch, the gray one designed with black and white lines in the shape of spattered brushstrokes like a Jackson Pollack painting.  Unnamed kitten played in the living room, chasing a yarn ball, pulling a piece of red wrapping ribbon, bouncing in and out of a cardboard box.  I had spices on my mind for his name, all the color of his fur:  Ginger?  Curry?  Cinnamon?  Cardamom?  Coriander?  None seemed right to me and Adam agreed.  I played with Doctor Who character names: Turlough because Turlough had red hair and I thought he was cute.  Maybe Adric.  Ace?  I toyed with Buddhist nomenclature:  Karma?  Sutra?  Buddha? 

And then Adam said, “Scooter.  Like the muppet from The Muppets.  The one with the orange mop of hair on the top of his head.”  

Yes. He was right. It was perfect.  We named him Scooter that sweet spring evening.  

This isn't stated as pining or waxing nostalgic or longing for something that has long passed, but those days, those three years living with Adam and Scooter and Zazu were the happiest days of my life.  

It was for the best then that after Adam and I went our separate ways and I had taken care of Scooter and Zazu and lived alone with them for a year in Iowa City that I didn't take Zazu with me when I accepted my current teaching position and moved to Eagan.  Scooter had always felt like my cat; Zazu like Adam's.  Adam wasn't able to have pets in his apartment, however, so his friend Jeremy, who had lived with Adam when Adam had adopted Zazu as a kitten, took her.

So it was Scooter and me.  Well, Scooter and me and my friend and roommate Mike for two years in our two bedroom apartment, and then Scooter and me for five years in my one bedroom apartment, and then Scooter and me and my roommate and friend Janine for a year in the townhouse where I now live.  

My townhouse has a deck with a wooden fence about eight feet tall enclosing it.  Almost daily, in good weather, I let Scooter onto the deck.  He loved being outside: smelling the fresh air, hearing the birds, laying in the sun, chasing an occasional bug and once a mouse, which he caught and presented proudly to me.  He couldn't get out because he couldn't climb the fence and there were no spaces wide enough for him to exit.  Then one October night, around eight o'clock, I opened the deck door to call him in for bedtime and he didn't come running to the warmth of the house.  I stepped out, looked for him, called his name, and realized he wasn't on the deck.  I walked around the yard calling his name and extended my search into the neighborhood.  He didn't come to my my call and I couldn't find him.  

The next day I placed several signs on community mailboxes with his picture and name and my phone number.  I decided it was impossible for Scooter to leap over the fence and that a falcon from the nearby Minnesota River had swooped down from the sky, snatched Scooter into its talons, and flew away with him.  Scooter was terrified and then elated: he was in the air, he was flying!  Yes, he was in the death grip of a fierce falcon, but he was free! Free from the confines of house and deck.  Free to see the world from a bird's view, even if his life was going to end in a terrible, painful death.  How many cats can tell their cat friends in their next life that they got to fly because they were scooped up by a falcon?  My friend Dale, an animal and bird enthusiast, quickly disavowed me of my theory of what happened to Scooter, informing me that a falcon was not strong enough to carry a  twelve pound cat.

New story then: Scooter's last hurrah.  He stood on the top of the deck table, eyed the top of the fence about eight feet away and told himself he was not just a cat, he was a leopard.  He could summon the strength and agility of his jungle cousins and launch himself from the table to the fence ledge, balancing with feline proclivity for a split second, and then leap to the ground..  He's seen life through windows for so long.  Once, a long time ago, when he was an abandoned kitten, he lived in that world.  There was the whole neighborhood to explore.  There were other cats.  Some of them were mean; some of them were nice.  He didn't have food and water provided to him on a daily basis, but he scrounged and scraped by and found scraps here and there, and caught mice, and survived.  Now he was going to do it again. What he discovered, however, was this life in the wild, on his own, without a shelter and no food or water and not a human friend to love him was really difficult.  There is ease in comfort.  There is contentment in security.  There is fulfillment in being loved and loving.  And yet, the outdoors, the wild, the unknown was exhilarating  Chasing and being chased, stalking and being stalked, hunting and being hunted, killing and almost  being killed—all those feline instincts, dormant but not dead, surfaced and took over his brain and his reason for being and he loved it.  

Five days had passed.  I assumed he was dead.  If not eaten by a falcon, then hit by a car.  I walked the streets of my neighborhood looking for his dead body splayed out on the pavement.  If not a falcon or a car, then attacked and killed by another cat, perhaps a pack of cats, a feline gang.  Or maybe a fox.  Eagan frequently alerted residents of fox sightings.  Once even a cougar.  

He went missing in action Monday and then late Friday night around nine o'clock, darkness enveloping the day, I came home from a friend's house, walked to my front door, and near the steps heard a meow, a meow that sounded like Scooter.  I had heard this meow often over the last five days.  I called it the phantom meow, like the missing leg the pirate still feels despite a wooden peg for a leg.  I called it wishful thinking.  I called it hearing his meow because I was so used to hearing it in my life that I still heard it.  But this meow came with a body, came with a cat, came with Scooter.  Scooter!  He was alive!  I scooped him up in my arms.

He looked fine.  No missing legs or twitches like that rescue cat in Iowa City.  No scratches from a feral cat with razor sharp claws.  Not even a burr stuck to his fur.  I gave him a bath, which usually he hated but this time he relished.  I think he was so happy and grateful to be home that he didn't care about his body being completely wet.  It had rained most of the week he had escaped so he was probably used to wet fur, although certainly the warmth of the bath I gave him in the comfort of his home was like a spa at a celebrity retreat.  He slept with me that night, as he did every night.  He cuddled up right next to me left side, against my stomach, and then later my left leg.  

About four days later, I was at work and my roommate Janine called me around seven in the morning.  Scooter wasn't doing well.  He was pulling his body along the carpet and meowing in pain.  She took him to my vet and the vet called me about an hour later.  Things weren't looking good, she said.  He wasn't breathing properly and she had him affixed to an oxygen mask and it looked like his lungs were filled with pneumonia-like fluids.  I explained to her that he was missing for five days, but had come home four days ago.  “It's possible,” she said, “that his time outside in the cold and rain placed too great a toll on his body and weakened his respiratory and immune system.”  She would keep me updated.  An hour later she called back.  His heart rate had significantly and seriously dropped.  He was barely breathing.  She believed he was dying and I should come immediately to the clinic.  I found other teachers to substitute for me for the rest of the day and drove to the cat clinic about thirty minutes away.  When I got to there, I went to a private room.  Scooter laid on a table, oxygen mask on his face, eyelids have closed, stomach showing no sign of expansion and contraction to indicate breathing.  

“He's not going to make it,” the vet said.  “I've seen this before in cats.  They never make it.  I'm sorry.”  She had white and gray hair pulled back into a long ponytail.  Wrinkles showed her age.  She seemed down to earth and wise.  Yes, I thought, she's been doing this for a long time.  She knows.  She's seen dying.  She's seen death.  “You could take him to The University of Minnesota if you wanted a second opinion,” she said, “but you should know that's expensive and I don't think there's anything they could do for him.”  I trusted her.  I believed her. I appreciated her honesty.  

“No, we don't have to do that,” I said.  

“He's not going to recover and he's in a lot of pain.  He's struggling to breathe. At this point, he's struggling to stay alive and that instinct is strong in cats, but not strong enough to make it happen in his case.”

It was if he was staying alive to see me one last time.  

“I recommend euthanasia," she said.  "It's a painless process for him.  A shot, a sedative, and then a toxin that kills him painlessly.”

“Yes.  Okay.”  The  words formed without the aid of the mind, the decision made without the thinking about the decision.  

“I'll let you say your goodbyes.  Just come out to the front when you're ready.”  

When you're ready.  When are you ever ready?  A goodbye to a life.  How long should that last?  What do you say?  

My goodbye with Scooter lasted for about ten minutes.  I held him in my arms and petted him. I told him all of the fond memories I had of him.  I told him he was lucky, because he was cat and he was going to have another life and I didn't know how many he's already had, but he's Scooter the Buddha, the Awakened Cat, and I suspect a Bodhisattva who has vowed not to enter nirvana until all sentient beings are awakened, and therefore, he has an infinite number of lives. 

I stepped out into the lobby and told the veterinarian I was ready.  “Do you want to be there with him when he dies?” she asked.  “Do you want to watch?”

“Yes,” I said.  We went back into the room. She injected a short needle into his skin.  He blinked his weary eyes several more times and then closed them.  He was dead. 

Scooter had lived twelve good years.  He exuded warm calm and kitten charm.  He possessed infinite patience.  He looked contently out the window for hours at a time.  He watched and appreciated the stillness.  Perhaps an autumn leaf rustled across the grass, perhaps a tree's branches waved in the wind, perhaps a squirrel scurried across the ground and up an Elm, and best of all, perhaps a sparrow lighted sprightly on the sidewalk, unaware of Scooter, watching attentively like a Zen monk, a peaceful warrior, ready to pounce on his unsuspecting prey, if only he could get beyond the confines of this house and the glass window that creates the illusion, and yet, the possibility of another world beyond this one he loves.  

The yang to his yin, Scooter exhibited playfulness.  Totally in the moment, he loved chasing Zazu or the red point of a laser pen or an imaginary critter running through the house.  Totally in the moment, he loved fetching and bringing back a small ball, more like a dog than a cat.  Totally in the moment, he loved playing with a string on a pole or a bouncy wire on a stick or his favorite, his two stuffed toy mouses, one pink, one gray, both filled with catnip.  He loved batting around those two rodents and showing them who's boss and then dropping them off with a satisfied plop into his white water bowl.  

Scooter exemplified love and appreciation and tenderness and cuddliness.  He preferred anybody's lamp, purring contentedly.  He loved being petted.  When I came home, usually within fifteen minutes, I found time to let him hop on my lap where I would pet him.  He calmed me.  He brought me love.  

He taught me how to stay calm.  He taught me how to be playful and to enjoy playing for the the simple and sacred reason that it keeps us young in mind and heart.  He taught me how to appreciate the moment, how to slow down and sit, and in that sitting, appreciate the stillness and the silence.   He taught me how to care, how to be kind, how to be compassionate.  
I am a better person because of Scooter. I am an enlightened individual because a wise soul in the guise of a cat taught me what I needed to know the most when he was in my life.  

His death saddened me at the time.  I wasn't ready for him to leave me.  And yet, are we ever ready for any sentient being—human or animal—to die when we love them and they love us?  When we have become used to and ideally appreciative of them in our lives—and us in theirs—and then, one day, that sentient being is dead?  Here today, gone today.  This is the reality of death.  This is the reality of life.  Life cannot exist without death and death cannot exist without death.  The one exists only because the other exists.  Death, like life, and life, like death, is an ever present reality.  The more we accept and understand and acknowledge death, the more we can accept and understand and acknowledge life.  

Thanks for all the memories, Scooter.  I hope in your life now you're chasing mice, both imaginary and real.  I hope you're giving all the love you gave me and getting all the love I gave you.  And I hope we meet again.  If not in this lifetime, then in the next.