Friday, June 18, 2010

Summertime, and the livin' is queasy; Fish are dyin',water is black -- and I love my friends

What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening?
Actually, I borrow that line from rock opera about the original “Superstar,” although when I saw it first, Ben Vereen, the guy with the bag o’ silver, stole the show.
That was maybe 1970 or so at Ravinia, outside Chicago. The young woman who took me turned out to be some sort of Republican judge in Florida. Obviously we had little in common, as I’m not particularly judgmental nor, well, Republican. Although I know some of both. I'm not even overly judgmental toward Republicans. I know some and enjoy their warped sense of tomfoolery.
Anyway, the reason for this thought today is that I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on. What’s going on… heck I should’ve used a little Marvin Gaye to open this particular segment, but it’s too late. Don’t want some Florida conservative judge questioning my judgment.
“What’s the buzz?” or something that sounded a lot like that -- though perhaps more guttural -- was a line I uttered to myself the other day when I stood outside and looked down at the pile of building materials that are in my driveway. Just scraps really. The contractors are doing a good job.
Looks like we’re maybe a week removed from having the lower level of our house restored to something resembling the lower level my wife, my father-in-law and I constructed all those years ago. I was the “muscle,” as I got out of most of the real tool-wielding by powering up a drill full-speed through my index finger. It hurt.
My cousin Jeff, an electrical wizard who came to Nashville because he was taking part in the plastic cars experiment down in Spring Hill, helped too.
Heck, I even bought one of those little toy cars. They were nice unless you worry about durability and resale value. They had the basic composition of a Corvette, which means that if you ever were in an accident, you probably would be as dead as a guy is who’s in an accident in a Corvette… except the news story would read “Tim Ghianni died when his Saturn was T-boned by a Kia” rather than “Tim Ghianni perished when his red Corvette burst into glorious flames after it was T-boned by a Kia.”
Of course, dead is dead. But wouldn’t you rather your last ride be in a Corvette rather than a Saturn. Or a Porsche, like James Dean. Note I said “James” rather than Jimmy, who apparently keeled over from too much sausage. I didn’t know him well. Although I did buy “Big Bad John” when it came out. It was OK, but I was more into Elvis, Duane Eddy, those Everly boys and Chuck Berry.
Of course I’m getting off the point again. That happens to me. My friends say it’s dementia… no “demented.” That’s it.
I counter it’s just that I’ve got “too much in my head.” My high school football helmet, back in the days when I had to shave my head to play football and I took out future Republican judges – in short before I let my hair begin growing and growing and growing … occasionally succumbing to a buzzsaw so I could cash in at graduation and whatnot … was 7-7/8. They had to order it from the Chicago Bears. That’s true.
Anyway, the point of this story, which is all so obvious by now, is luck and friendship and oil.
My luck has not been, well, swell lately.
To recap:
I am underemployed. That means I fight for every little job I can get as a writer or as a journalism adviser in order to feed my family. But I like it, in that the only real jerk I have to answer to is the guy I look at in the mirror when I shave. And, that dude’s scary, as I shave in the shower.
I love my work with the young people though. They need to learn journalism and communication skills from people who know them and have practiced them before the business became mechanized, push-button and autopilot.
Things seemed to be turning some sort of professional corner when 20 inches of rain fell in my front yard a few weeks ago. The basement that I’d toiled in, my office, my little fortress of solitude, was washed away.
Of course, the first thing I did was contact my insurance company, where a couple of different high-ranking and over-achieving bottom-liners told me – tongues obviously deep in cheek -- to “begin remediation immediately” and they’d get back to me to help. What they didn’t tell me was they were going to deny my claim for the remediation or for the rebuild.
Then began my three weeks of dealing with FEMA and the SBA. The end result? Well, it may not be in yet, because I seem to get a new letter every other day in which FEMA denies my claim and the SBA says it can’t help me. But it looks like I’m stuck with the tab. A lot of you out there know how this feels. I’m not alone.
I mean, this isn’t Bangladesh, but it might help if the late George Harrison would host a fund-raiser for me. “My friend came to me, sadness in his eyes, told me that he needed help before his house dies.”
Course it’s not that bad. At least I have a house to rebuild … with the $424.24 check FEMA sent me. OK, I live in a pretty nice middle-class neighborhood. I lost my lower level and all of its contents, other than my books and music. And it’s worth $424.24 according to the government. Oh yeah, it’s not just the Feds who are denying any help. Old Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen puts his signature on each denial. I can imagine him sitting in that stupid massive bunker he and Andrea built over there on Curtiswood, looking at FEMA applications and laughingly stamping his signature on them. I wonder if that bunker leaked all over the oil barons and the like that are entertained there?
Other things have happened in my “what’s goin’ on” ponderings.
Of course, the worst thing was that my cat died. I loved him as much as anything, and anyone who wants to find out more about that should read the two preceding blogs. I can’t go there tonight. Tomorrow I should be getting his ashes.
But this isn’t one of those “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” tales.
First of all, I’ve really found out how blessed I am… well, I’m not a “blessed” kinda guy … how about “fortunate” instead. As in “Fortunate Son,” from the same guy who sang “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Middle Tennessee’s collective anthem early last month.
But I truly am fortunate to have good friends.
One of my oldest and dearest friends, Rob Dollar, has assisted by providing good vibes from his home in Hopkinsville and from the road where he is a secret agent and head counter for the federal government. Well, actually he’s a Census Bureau leader of some sort and as soon as the counting stops, well, maybe he can become governor of Kentucky … or work for FEMA.
He also is the driving force behind this blog. “Why don’t you write a blog, Flapjacks?” he’s been saying for two years. Finally I had something to say and a need to say some of it and he worked to make it happen.
Another great friend who has stepped forward has asked to remain anonymous as to what he’s done. All I can say is that he was one of the few bosses I ever had that I not only liked but who still is alive. I’m glad about that latter in particular. A good friend, even though a little unassuming, who knew when real newspapers roamed the earth.
And then there’s Captain Kirk, who reemerged in my life after about a 30-year absence. Somehow, Cappy, a sailor from the Vietnam war who has turned sort of religious on me (not that there’s anything wrong with that), came upon my entries on Facebook about the flood and he began contacting me from his headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. Back in college, I occasionally would “beat” him in pool at the bars, so others would want to take him on. Pool hustler and his pal chased into the dark night. Laughing.
Cappy reminds me that I once led the charge as we rode the range at Iowa State University, where I had fun while also getting good grades and sometimes only shaving half my face. Even if I had a full beard. I’d shave half the face and see how it felt before shaving the other.
More about him later. Suffice it to say he spent 35 years as a carny sideshow T-shirt air-brusher before he figured out he’d hit a dead end. … My friends, like me, can be stubborn. Even the humblest dreams die hard.
And while reconnecting with Cappy, I also reconnected with a guy I knew in Iowa who was going to vet school. Now he’s a part of a veterinary hospital in the L.A. area. He runs marathons and takes care of his family. He says he sleeps with his banker … who is his wife. Anyway, he has offered me long-distance advice and consolation when I’ve been going through the trauma of losing my cat. This vet is named Tom Carpenter. I’m not sure the lessons I taught him back in the dorm were always good for him, but he generally was game. And he’s a darned good vet, by all accounts.
Oh sure, there are other friends who haven’t touched base, but that’s OK. They have their own lives to lead.
I do have to say that Peter Cooper, one of the few journalists working at 1100 Broadway who‘s not afraid to be seen in my company, has been among my best supporters. He’s purchased several platters of lamb souvlaki for me and made me laugh. Gonna lick the platter, the gravy doesn’t matter. I keep telling him my luck will change and I can buy. He keeps on patiently waiting.
He’s also talked music with me, which is something I need. Music is important. I’m not talking about that Miley Cyrus chick who wears no underwear and sings like her underwear is too tight. I’m talking about Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash.
And then there’s Bush Bernard, a true supporter, who provided me CD-playing equipment -- mine died in the flood --and gave me a big boost. He also said he lived through hurricanes and built back, so I would return as well.
The great Radney Foster spent time detailing his own flood foibles with me. And he also listened intently when I told him my own.
And then there’s Brad Schmitt. I don’t hear from him much. But that’s OK, as long as he’s in his meetings. He’s a good guy. He also had to rebuild. He’s got a new gig with the CVB. No we’re not talking about “Barefoot Jerry and the CDB, gather round children, get down.” The CVB is the Convention and Visitors Bureau here in Guitar Town and Brad is writing for them. I still hope he gets back on TV. Maybe he can talk big boss Butch down at the CVB into returning the promised calls to discuss what writing I could do for his fine organization.
There have been others who have stepped forward as well, so I have come to really appreciate the value of a few good friends. And some are basically Facebook friends, like Jerry Flowers, who has become something like an electronic brother. Oh, he’s a little more conservative than I am (most people in this particular human race are), but he’s a great guy. Even offered me and my family shelter from the storms of life.
Speaking of the storms of life, I had encouraging words from Randy Travis during a long and wide-ranging conversation. We had 15 minutes scheduled, but we both had so much fun talking, we went on for 45. He’s a great guy.
And then there’s the President of the United States of America. I began to fantasize back in my early flood ramblings, about the Prez visiting me to cheer me up.
Of course, he wasn’t here at all. The Secret Service has called to make sure I say this for sure. They don’t want the word to spread that the President of the United States of America was playing basketball here with me, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty and the late Richard Manuel of the Band. Sometimes Jerry Garcia stopped by to play mandolin while Hendrix played acoustic guitar and Vassar played his fiddle.
Anyway, even IF he was here, demonstrating his basketball form on my driveway and cussing like Jay-Z, I kept telling him he should be down in the Gulf Coast States taking care of the oil leak.
“Coast Guard admiral says there’s no leak,” he’d say, driving toward the hoop, using his butt to clear my son, Joe, out of the way.
He didn’t listen to me, and proved, as a result, that he’s just as good at ignoring a problem until it becomes an epic disaster as was his poker-playing pal and mentor George W. Bush.
So, what’s the buzz? What’s goin’ on?
This summer was going to be glorious. There was going to be a time at the beach in late May, early June. That had to be canceled because furniture had been floating around my ankles. Course, as it turns out, I wouldn’t have gone anyway, because my cat turned so ill.
The vacation was rescheduled for later in the summer…..By then the crystal white sands of the Redneck Riviera ought to be nice and black and covered with dead wildlife and the occasional rotting BP executive. Sometimes I see Kenny Stabler down there. If you don't know who he is, I guess you are younger.
And then tonight Ringo Starr decided he wasn’t going to talk with me.
Hope your summer is going well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A kid, a prayer, a goldfinch, Hendrix and Buddy help me say goodbye to my best Pal

The young woman talked soothingly of “your baby” as she took Pal from my arms and put him on a cart.
He was going to be stored in a walk-in refrigerator for a couple of days, awaiting cremation.
I picked out a little cedar box, a miniature version of the one that holds Buddy’s remains, for Pal’s ashes. My son has instructions to put the little cedar boxes in with me. Heck, I don’t care if they cremate me too, and mix my ashes with my Buddy and Pal.
“I’m going to be 79 when you die,” said Joe, indicating that he believes I’m going to far outlive the odds my oldest friends would offer. Many of them are dead and others are highly medicated.
But regardless of the point when I do die and Joe mixes up my ashes or puts me in a Hefty bag at the curb or whatever, as long as the two boxes of my animals are with me, that won’t matter. Because, by that point, of course, I’ll be holding the cat in my arms and letting the dog run across some sweet meadow, with that laughing bark.
Yeah, these are my dreams. I gotta admit I’m having a lot of trouble now that my Pal is gone. As he’s been bunking in the bedroom since the flood, I am accustomed to leaving the bathroom after showering and walking across my room, reaching into the little upholstered cube bed and petting him. Course, in recent weeks, I always was aware the gentle stroking of his head could well be the last. And Sunday, I did give him that final stroke.
I still feel his light jump onto the edge of the bed in the middle of the night. Then realize it’s not any more real than the barking I hear many nights, a somehow reassuring sound, like Buddy used to make when he stood at the door downstairs and begged me to wake up and come down to take him out. Of course, if I didn’t hear those barks, I’d be licked in the face by the dog who could stand dead-even with the raised queen mattress and stick his brownish-pink nose right in my face.
Pal’s not here. Nor is Buddy. Or perhaps they're both here in spirit. The other day, as I leaned over Pal's body at the crematory and said goodbye for the last time, admiring his beauty, the proud face, his almost regal bearing – even though his once solid body had been ravaged by the cancer – I knew I would see him no more, at least for now.
Except in those dreams. The circle of life and death. Or however that works. I’m not sure. I used to have a black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix, I purchased it right after his death: “Meet me in the next world: Don’t be late,” it read.
I have no idea how that works. Perhaps Jimi’s playing “Little Wing” while Buddy and Pal listen. That’d be nice.
It’s just strange around here. The house is in disarray, ever since the flood. It’s clean, but cluttered, as I try to conduct my business from the living room, stacked with books and music.
Every time I catch a sideways glance at one of the piles, I at first think it is Pal, sitting on the floor and watching me type.
The contractors are good guys and they are in the basement, bringing it back.
I just wish that someone could bring my cat back.
"Good luck with that, old buddy," my son will say, making me smile at just the right time. He's a lot like me. Poor kid.
I remember one time, years ago, when I talked about my cat and my dear friend, Peter Cooper, said I didn’t seem like a cat kind of guy. He wasn’t saying anything negative, just that I seemed more like a big-animal guy (course Peter has these really weenie little pocket dachshunds, Russell and Loretta, who are beautiful and special animals.)
But when Peter made the cat comment, I told him the story of Buddy and Pal and how they became part of my family before I ever went to Romania to pick up Emily and long before the second trip to get Joe.
Speaking of Joe, he asked me if it was his fault Pal died. He said he had prayed that Pal would die quietly and not suffer. He was afraid that the request had been granted and he had given his old dad too much heartache to handle, given the many other recent challenges.
I told him that it was a good prayer. That it didn’t cause the cat to die. That age just caught up with him. And that Pal loved him. And he didn't suffer.
“You should pray, Dad. It would make you feel better.”
I told him that in my own way I do, every time I stare at the stars and wish … and dream… and marvel at the universe and at the sound of tree frogs and cicadas and tires squealing in the night.
“Joe, why don’t you add a couple of lines to your prayers for me, would you?”
“Dad, I pray for you every day.”
Figure I can’t do much better than have this young fellow, who is either going to be a weatherman (probably) or a cop (his backup plan), who has this pure soul, put in a few good words for me.
He then asked if cats go to heaven.
I could have gotten into all kinds of philosophical discussion with him. I had a deeply religious grandmother who said no animals go to heaven.
I remember the old movie “All Dogs Go To Heaven” that I bought for Suzanne after Pepper, the dog she had when we married, died, also of cancer.
I don’t have the answer. But I can’t see why not.
As I was mulling this today, the most beautiful goldfinch – if you don’t know me, goldfinches are my favorite wild bird – landed on the bubbling fountain out on the deck. I watched it as I drank my coffee. I don’t know if I’d ever seen a prettier bird before, even in goldfinch terms.
And the way it stayed there and looked into the window seemed oddly satisfying and enriching. Then he spread his wings and flew into the tree-line filled with hackberry trees.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Loving and losing my best Pal

Pal Kitty was about 6 months old, but his growth stunted by living on his own when I pulled him from the top of the shrubbery where he was hiding from bigger cats.
I’d seen the little cat the morning before, when I took my dog, Buddy, then a mere 30 pounds on his way to the 120 pounds he became in his 11 years, out for a walk before I drove to work at the Nashville Banner.
I just figured it was a kitten, wandered away from its mama, so I left the little pink animal alone. Besides that, my wife had just a month or two before rescued the dog, we named Buddy, over on Nolensville Road.
Didn’t really need another pet right now. Busy enough trying to make sure the puppy becomes housebroken and quits chewing up the linoleum in the kitchen.
At night, though, there was a horrible howling and growling outside, so I climbed from bed and went to the front of the house where the little pink animal, terrified, clung to the highest, thinnest branches of the evergreen shrub. The bigger cats were after it. But they couldn’t climb that high.
I reached in and grabbed the few ounces of fur and took him inside. First I told my wife I was going to put him in a box in the garage. Which I did. I also said we would try to find the cat a good home.
She laughed at me, because she knew I already had. The next day, after leaving work, I drove the little cat out to the vet. He was the one who told me the animal was probably 6 months old, judging by his adult teeth. He’d be stunted and perhaps unhealthy for life.
That night, the little cat slept on the foot of the bed, with Buddy. As we’d named the dog after a line in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when George Bailey hollers after his “Ol’ Buddy, Ol’ Pal,” it was pretty easy to choose a name for the cat.
We were afraid that the bigger dog would not take to the cat. Instead, they quickly became best of friends. We’d close the cat up in the bedroom during the day at first, thinking this would keep him from pestering the dog. Until I came home one day to find the cat was wrestling with the dog. Seems Pal was small enough to crawl beneath the door. He also could pin the dog to the ground. Good thing Buddy was a nice animal.
No need to separate them again. For the rest of their lives they were best of friends.
Buddy grew to be 120 pounds. He was apparently a mix of German Shepherd and Chocolate Lab and was a handsome fellow and great friend.
When he died six years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever feel that heartache again. But I did. Today. When Pal’s long fight with bone cancer finally ended.
Pal was a small cat, but he did flourish despite the early odds. He grew to what the vet called “a perfect 10-pound cat,” a weight he carried until a couple of years ago.
That 2008 physical showed him down to nine pounds. But he still apparently was healthy.
Last August, during his annual physical, the vet noted that the cat had dropped a couple more pounds.
Without going into detail, it basically was determined that he had bone cancer. Tumors began to grow on his jaw. Then on his chest.
He was 16. Too old for chemo. She said she could put him to sleep, but as long as his quality of life was OK, she’d let us determine that.
So we began a 10-month process of watching the cat lose weight, but still remain happy and loving. Most mornings, if he was hungry – which was frequently until the last couple of days – he’d wake me up with licks in the middle of the night.
He could jump up on the bed OK, but it was more difficult to get down, so I’d grab him and set him on the floor. He’d follow me into the kitchen. Or sometimes Suzanne would tire of listening to the licking and do the feeding duties.
His days were spent doling out love. Before the flood of early May, my office was on the lower level of the house. Pal didn’t much like that. He’d come down and howl at the doorway into my office. I’d grab him and pull him onto my lap. Sometimes he'd climb onto the window ledge to watch the goldfinches just outside. But he quickly jumped down and howled at me some more.
I think he just thought that since his litter box was downstairs – over in the laundry room – a guy shouldn’t come down there unless it was for a bathroom break.
My relative “underemployment” in the last three years allowed me to grow even closer to the cat, if that was even possible. It's not like there ever was much emotional distance between us. When he was younger, and I was still taking naps when the kids were, he’d climb on my stomach and sleep right with me. Buddy would sleep against my legs.
But Pal had grown old and bony. It was tough for him to get on the bed. He’d prefer to remain in his own bed, an upholstered little cube thing with a couple of openings, that was on a blue wingback chair in the living room.
He would visit during the night, drop off a few licks, and then climb back in the box.
Evenings and football Saturdays and Sundays were spent either in my lap, Suzanne’s lap or on the back of the couch. He enjoyed being around his family. He actually seemed to like sports a lot, particularly baseball – when his eyes would follow the ball.
We knew his health was failing, that he was living out cancer's death sentence. And we knew his time was getting short. At Christmas time, he hardly fiddled with the special yarn ornaments that were placed on the lower branches just for him to play with.
He used to run with them all over the house. We knew it was his last Christmas. We knew it was his last New Year. We knew that when he turned 17 a couple of months ago – a rough-guess birth date we figured by the vet’s reckoning – he would have no more birthdays.
Still, he enjoyed his special food, a crunchy kind that is good for urinary health in males. He crunched away with gusto and was especially happy when a new bag was brought in the house. His elimination processes were fine. His breathing good, though on humid nights increasingly shallow. Despite his ailments, he was as happy as he made us.
He enjoyed the small scraps from the table, the ham or turkey, even the piece of cake or chips – tastes he’d probably acquired during his rough, scavenging first six months of life, before we found each other in the front yard shrubbery.
Like us all, his life was altered by the flood.
But in his case, and now in retrospect, ours, it was good. When all of the furniture needed to be moved to make room for my piles of books, music, my computer and the paraphernalia from the office downstairs, Pal’s chair – the blue wingback that held his little cubical bed – was moved into our bedroom. He just had to navigate the footstool to step on the bed and continue to dole out his licks, although they were accompanied by a gruffer purring.
His litter box, which had been downstairs in the laundry, was moved into a corner in our room. We also put his food and water there. He was free to roam the upstairs, but he was happiest in the bedroom. Especially when we were there with him.
The cat himself, who still was loving, dropped to 3 pounds or less and he no longer had to climb downstairs or jump off beds. Since May 2, he had everything – including the two people he loved most – within 10 feet.
And since my office was relocated into the living room, he could come in here, climb on the couch, even climb on the desk and watch my fingers on the keys.
He enjoyed his life. We often thought when he had a bad day that perhaps it was time to call the vet for the lethal dose. But he’d bounce back, be happy. And he continued to eat and drink. And lick. He was slow and ailing, but in the same good spirits that captured my heart when I met him back when I was 41 years old.
Until Friday morning. Suddenly the cancer caught up to him with frightening fury. He fell onto the floor when bound for his litter box. His hindquarters suddenly failed. He had bounced back before, so we fed him and gave him water and hoped for the best. Of course, we knew the worst was more likely.
Saturday morning, he got up, drank and ate. For the last time on his own.
Then he fell down. For the first time, he obviously was uncomfortable. After holding him up while he used the litter box, my wife and I put him back in his bed. I called the vet. It was time.
But the vet didn’t return my call. And now I’m glad.
This morning, Pal’s breathing was strained as he fought for oxygen through his open mouth. Suzanne and I loved him, cleaned him up and gently dried his fur. He had not been able to make it from his bed to the litter box during the night. He'd always taken pride in being well groomed. We weren't going to allow him to leave us in condition that he wouldn't like. We comforted him. I called him "Honey-boy," a term I used for both Buddy and Pal, when they roamed the house on Rochelle Drive like Butch and Sundance.
But this morning, he would neither eat nor drink. He turned his head away from the spoon of soft food that had been his favorite 3 a.m. treat. He wouldn't even allow an eyedropper of water in his mouth.
We put him in his bed, next to ours. And we told him to go to sleep. That we loved him. That it was OK.
He died quietly in his bed. Surrounded by people who only hope we’ve returned the love he gave us.
Some philosopher, maybe it was me, once said that loving animals and watching them die is a gift they give us, that they actually help prepare us for the losses of parents and other human loved ones.
It doesn’t get any easier though.
He was my best Pal.