Friday, April 27, 2007

Leonardo C. (for Cat) Moser

We put our cat Leo down today. I held him while the Vet, bless her, quietly shaved his leg and injected Peace. Here’s his story.

Twelve years ago we got a black and white tuxedo cat. Our Leo was, to coin a phrase, a pussycat at home. But he was mean at the vet’s, so the staff nicknamed him Adolph because of his little black mustache. They didn’t mean any harm, and when a kitten is feisty no one ever remembers that his life is finite.

We got Leo because our dog Moriah (They call the wind Moriah, and she broke wind all the way home when we picked her up.) was old and ill. One of my student’s mama cat had had a litter and then been run over. I went out to the farm to just look. I didn’t choose Leo, he chose me. He walked out of a dark corner of the barn, said, “You are my new servant,” and I took him home. We fed him at first from an eyedropper, he was so tiny.

Leo learned dog things from Moriah. He came to the door when someone knocked or rang the bell, and he Hoovered when we were cooking. He never ate the people food he picked up (except a can of tuna once when our backs were turned), but he learned the behavior. And he always wanted to be petted. Especially by non-cat people. The only person I ever remember him biting was a lady we nicknamed Madam. She petted him against the grain. He didn’t like it and told her so by hissing. We told her how to pet him, but she continued. He bit her, and she was gracious about it despite the bleeding.

Soon we had to put Moriah down, and Leo, despite being a cat, became Top Dog. He established a routine. When I graded papers he draped himself around my neck. When I wrote lesson plans, he sat where I was trying to write. When I spread out the newspaper on the floor to read the funnies, he always plonked his butt down on the cartoon I tried to read. He always walked across the computer keyboard when I was writing, creating chaos. Each night he crept along our headboard, jumped on my head, kissed me goodnight, and then slept at my feet. Each morning he walked up my wife’s legs and torso to stare at her face and lick her nose to wake her up. Somehow, he knew better than to wake me.

After Moriah died Leo seemed lonely, so we got him Mona, short for Mona Lisa. What else would we name Leonardo’s companion? Mona was frail from the start and didn’t live long. Leo, perhaps sensing her illness, constantly attacked and abused her. When Mona succumbed to duodenal cancer, we got a cute little orange tiger, our grandson Jonathan’s cat at our house, to be Leo’s companion. Jonathan named her Poppy. I thought that was a clever name considering her color, and he remembered Poppy the cat in a book he read. Leo and Poppy had a much different relationship than Leo and Mona. They cuddled, napped together, played hide and seek, kept each other warm. He protected her, or thought he did.

Every morning when I got up and went downstairs, Leo talked to me. “Mrrow.” I always spoke back. “Mrrow, morrow.” We had long conversations.

Life goes on. Yesterday morning, when my wife Ann checked the cats’ food and litter boxes, Leo couldn’t stand up. “I think Leo’s had a stroke,” she told me. He had failed to use the litter box and pooped on the floor, a first in his whole life.

We called the vet, got an appointment, and took him in. His blood tests, kidney function, and heart x-ray were fine. His pulse and blood pressure were normal, even strong. But he moved his head back and forth constantly. The vet checked his eyes – he was blind. His bladder was distended – he hadn’t peed because he couldn’t find the litter box and he had good manners. His urine, when she squeezed him, was very concentrated. But the worst part was that with every breath he growled.

He looked as if he had had a seizure or a stroke. “Take him home and keep an eye on him. You’ll do better than I could,” she told us. “I leave at six.” If he’d had a seizure he’d improve in twenty-four hours.

This morning, twenty-four hours later, he hadn’t improved. He was still disoriented and angry. He had finally peed where we put him on blankets, but covered himself with urine. He continued to growl every time he exhaled. We had to make a decision about quality of life versus quantity of life. Quality won.

I took him to the vet and didn’t have to say a word. “Is that Leo?” the technician asked. I nodded. “Room three.” The vet came in. The tech and I held him. The vet shaved his leg and injected him. Mercifully, he stopped growling, he relaxed his head, and he went to sleep. Shortly his heart stopped. "He wasn't in there any more," she said.

He is survived by his faithful companion Poppy, and his servants – us.

Are there lessons here? Yes. Leo was a good cat whose time had come. Beyond that, however, is this: I want someone to treat me as well as we treated Leo. When I get old and no longer inhabit my body, I want someone to hold me with love and give me an injection that puts me permanently to sleep. Do not treat me with less kindness and humanity than you would treat a pet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mine Is Bigger

Perhaps I travel in the wrong circles, when I travel at all. In my experience, people talk about ideas, about politics, about places we’ve been or plan to go, about how to help others, about the books we are reading or have read, about spirituality, about the environment. (And of course we gossip occasionally, I can’t deny that. In fact, let me tell you about the man down the street. . .)

Lately, as I wander into the public thoroughfares, however, I find myself distracted by the self-absorption of people around me. When did Americans stop dealing with ideas and focus only on themselves? Perhaps we never did. In any event, I’m tired of having to listen to guys, who apparently feel they have wee little penises, playing Mine Is Bigger.

These people come in all shapes, sizes, ages – and genders – but mostly they work to annoy others (by others, I mean Me). They draw attention to themselves in a variety of obnoxious ways. For example, I recently overheard two couples loudly playing Mine Is Bigger at a table next to us in a lounge.

Man one, whom I’ll name George for fun: “Well, of course, we gave our sons the house and rent it from them now. It gives them extra income. And we can well afford it.”

Man two, whom I named Gregory for no apparent reason. “Yes. Well. We gave our children our house AND the vacation cottage.” Chopped and channeled wife nods vigorously. “We rent the house from them, but they have twice as much income because the cottage is so popular with our friends.”

George: “How nice. Even as we age, we don’t plan to move because I can just go down to the dock and jump in my kayak and take off any time I want.”

Simon: Silent, but possibly thinking, “Damn. IS yours bigger?”

Perhaps his is bigger, perhaps it isn’t. I never looked. And I don’t care. But people have to have some substance in their lives that goes beyond money, houses, and dick size. Even a discussion of ‘Dancing With the Stars’ would be a welcome respite. A brief discussion, anyway.

Example two: At the drug store parking lot yesterday I waited in the car while my wife went in. A guy (BOOM) drove in with the (BOOM) volume on his music (BOOM) so loud the fenders were (BOOM MINE) vibrating, and I got an (BOOM MINE) instant headache. He parked (BOOM MINE) the car, and lest (BOOM MINE) he miss even a downbeat (BOOM MINE), left the thrumming (BOOM MINE, BOOM MINE, BOOM MINE) on while he walked around (BOOM MINE) to the passenger door and (BOOM MINE) took a toddler from the (BOOM MINE IS) front seat – no car seat! – and (BOOM MINE IS) strode to the ATM. The little boy must (BOOM MINE IS BIGGER) have hearing loss, just (BOOM MINE IS BIGGER) as his driver must, just (BOOM MINE IS BIGGER) as I did, briefly. My wife returned from the (BOOM MINE IS BIGGER) drugstore, and we pulled out (BOOM) into traffic (boom).

Driving next to us was another (BOOM NO) guy whose fenders also (BOOM NO MINE) vibrated from his music (BOOM NO MINE IS). As we drove down the (BOOM NO MINE IS BIGGER) four lane street toward (BOOM NO MINE IS BIGGER THAN) our home, he pulled up (BOOM NO MINE IS BIGGER THAN THE OTHER GUY’S) beside us at every light (BOOM NO MINE IS BIGGER THAN THE OTHER GUY’S). Finally, he turned into (BOOM) a fast food joint, (boom) and our hearing gradually returned.

[I must hasten to point out that I like most kinds of music. Generally I listen to opera or classical or jazz, but I also like rock, and my all-time favorite singer is Tom Waits. I have my car radio tuned to both rap in English and in Spanish, and I listen to that occasionally, too.]

Why am I so annoyed when other people play Mine Is Bigger? Is it that mine is smaller? Perhaps. Is it that I value my hearing? Absolutely. That I value public discourse about ideas, even profane or disgusting ones like the one in this blog? Yes. That the less people think, the less they examine the world, the less they consider and merely react, the more they want others to act in the same way? Of course.

Each time we fail to work at thinking, we endanger ourselves and our world because we lose the ability to think clearly. And today, more than ever, we need clarity of thought if we are to survive.

Senator Obama

I voted for Barack Hussein Obama for Senator from Illinois. I would like to vote for him for President of the United States.

At some time in the idealized past, perhaps during the FDR years when “dollar a year” men were the rule in government, elected officials ran out of a sense of altruism. I am sure that such people exist today, and they may well be in the majority in political circles. It may well be that CNN airs only negative sound bites and focuses only on conflict rather than the true patriots in public office who work hard to improve life in the United States -- rather than to line their pockets.

I would like to think that’s true.

And I would like to believe that Candidate for President and Illinois’ favorite son Barack Obama is just such a virtuous politician. I don’t care whether Obama is white enough or black enough to win. I like his charisma. And I would hope that he is competent enough to be president even though he lacks experience. Lacking experience seems to be a strike against him, certainly, but it worked for George W. Bush, who spun himself as “a Washington Outsider.” On the other hand, Bush’s lack of competence, his smugness at his lack of scholarship, his blind trust in the antediluvian neo-cons he surrounded himself with, and his rigidity all work against him.

Donors with big bucks have put their trust in Senator Obama. I don’t know whether that means he will have the financial means to run a thoughtful campaign and end up a thoughtful president, or whether he will merely be struggling to escape from donors’ pockets.

Lacking experience need not be a problem. Sen. Obama has a year and a half before the election to gain experience. Experience in statesmanship, Experience in political (in the best sense of the word) give and take, Experience in legislation that works for the American citizenry rather than Democrats or Republicans. The opportunity to become a great senator is at his door step. All he has to do is work in the Senate instead of spending his time campaigning and fund-raising. He could well start by introducing legislation that has been ignored somehow in the political back stabbing that is characteristic of politics today.

Here are a five issues he could address that I pulled off the top of my head.
• Veterans’ health issues. The diminishing budgets for Veterans since President Bush took office are immoral, scandalous, obscene. Maneuvering the Veterans’ health system should not be an obstacle course for our aging veterans or for those newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Universal Health Care, including mental health care (consider Virginia Tech). Too many people in these United States do not have health insurance. Too many of these too many people are children. When Bill Clinton first took office, Hillary tried to spearhead this issue and was shot down. The health insurance lobby and the pharmaceutical manufacturing lobby may well scream and cry and withdraw their funding of Sen. Obama’s campaign, but this is an issue that affects us all in one way or another, even if it means our premiums are high already because those of us who have insurance end up subsidizing those who do not.
• A carefully thought-out plan for withdrawing from Iraq that has the least consequences on the Iraqi people and the fewest casualties for American and United Nations (are there any left in Iraq?) troops. Maybe even armoring (you can verb anything) the troops already there until they withdraw.
• Revamping of FEMA so that it works for those who need help after disasters instead of lining the pockets of Bush cronies (Heckuva job, Brownie).
• A considered plan, in conjunction with both state and local authorities, for New Orleans. I don’t know whether that means re-locating the citizenry, building a new New Orleans on higher ground, installing levees that actually protect the existing city, or something totally innovative.

Senator Obama has a wonderful chance to gain experience and do well by the American people at the same time. Perhaps becoming a great senator will spoil his chances of becoming president, at least in 2008.

On the other hand, being a great senator isn’t a bad calling.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

American Evita

In America we teach our children that with hard work and desire they can become anything they want to be. But there was never a chance that I could have become a Lakers’ center when I was growing up in Minneapolis and, not to date myself too much, the Lakers were the basketball franchise there. There was never a chance that I would get to be an operatic baritone. In fact, my sixth grade teacher (Mrs. Empie, are you still alive?) told my buddy Albert Thompson and me just to mouth the words instead of singing because we were always horribly off key. I had the talent for neither of those vocations, no matter how hard I tried nor how much I loved them. By telling our children they can be anything, we lie. And in doing so, we foster magical thinking and passivity.
When I was a growing up, one of my mother’s favorite daytime programs was “Queen For A Day,” hosted by Jack Bailey. He interviewed several women with sob stories (no doubt legitimate), and the audience voted for the most heart-rending. That woman was chosen Queen for a Day, and the show fulfilled her wish. I could never figure out if the producers had four solutions ready or if they rigged the “applause-o-meter” that tallied the audience reaction. At this point it doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that even back then anyone down on her luck could aspire to be on “Queen For A Day” (work hard enough and want it?), and her dreams might come true.
Long after “Queen for a Day,” our grandkids’ mother grew up largely in Argentina, and went to a school built by the Eva Peron Foundation. Like many of the things Evita did, it was kind of half-assed. The building was beautiful, d-in-l says, but there was no infrastructure – water, sewer, electricity, like that. Evita was known for her largess, a kind of thoughtless generosity that often invoked the law of unintended consequences. And she certainly fostered magical thinking in Argentina, brought to an abrupt halt by los disaparecidos, the disappeared ones. Their mothers still gather every Thursday night in front of the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, to march in memory of their children, spouses, and parents. And to wait for word of what happened to their loved ones. Perhaps that is magical thinking, but more likely it is hope tempered with grief and frustration.
In America, we practice magical thinking on television every day on the talk-reality shows. If you want it enough, and are cute enough, you can be the next American Idol.
If your problem is big enough and you write to Dr. Phil or Oprah, they may put you on their shows and award you psychotherapy, a stint in rehab, or perhaps a second honeymoon to make up for the one that someone messed up. Certainly you’ll get the book of the hour under your chair if you’re in the audience.
If you write “Extreme Makeover,” and your plight is sad enough, you could well be spirited off to a hotel for a week while an army of volunteers dismantle your home and rebuild it. Sponsors donate all products, of course, and get extra commercial time with blatant product placement. This is not to disparage the good works any of the reality-talk shows undertake. But they’re random, they reek of Evita’s arbitrary works, they encourage passivity and magical thinking. And a minute percentage of us will receive any bounty from reality-talk television.
Can we be anything we want to be? We can if we have the talent, the brains, the perseverance, the work ethic, the connections, the timing, and the occasional run of luck. In short, maybe. Does that mean we should we stop hoping? Of course not! But we must recognize magical thinking for what it is and temper hope with reality – and action.