Saturday, December 29, 2012

Anniversary Cat

When discussing marriage, nearly as important as the question of children is the question of pets. Suppose one of you is a "cat person" and the other a "dog person"—worse yet, suppose one of you is an animal lover and the other can't stand the thought of having any sort of creature in the house. Fortunately, Loretta and I were in complete agreement on the subject. Dogs and cats had been an important part of both our lives. We both knew we wanted at least one pet. The only question was, would it be a cat or a dog?

Both of us work, and we both like to travel. Most cats have no problem with being left alone for hours or even a day or two. But dogs, the moment you are out of their sight, become convinced that they will never, ever see you again. At least, this was how it seemed with Christie, the Scottish terrier we pet sat shortly after we were married. She was sweet-tempered, intelligent, and seemingly well behaved. However, one evening while we were out, she apparently became filled with angst at the idea that we would never return—or possibly she just became bored. At any rate, she completely destroyed her dog bed and, when she was finished with that, proceeded to tear up the kitchen linoleum.

We decided to get a cat.

He was our "anniversary cat"—about a year old when he came into our lives, about a year after we were married.  He'd been rescued from beneath a porch in Buffalo, where some cruel children had driven him into hiding by pelting him with rocks. We were afraid the experience might have toughened him or made him mean, but at our first meeting we found him to be perfectly docile, if somewhat reserved. He was a beautiful cat, with golden eyes and thick, white fur, just like "the neighbor's polar cat" in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales or Cleveland Amory's Cat Who Came for Christmas. I suggested a literary name: "Mycroft," the brother of Sherlock Holmes. It seemed well-suited to such a dignified and regal animal.

Here's a picture of him a day or two after we brought him home to our Niagara Falls apartment:

As you can see, once he made himself at home he was anything but dignified and regal. He turned out to be quite sociable and—though not particularly affectionate himself—happy to sit on anyone's lap and accept affection from them. At times he could be mischievous. At times, as we discovered years later when we acquired a second cat, he could be downright ornery. And so the dignified and regal "Mycroft" became just plain "Mike" (or, occasionally, "The Little Bastard").

I shut him out of our bedroom his first night with us—or tried to. He scratched at the door until I was forced to let him in. He jumped up on the bed, went to Loretta to have his head rubbed (he loved having his head rubbed), then quietly settled down at our feet. From then on, this was his nightly routine.

Life on the mean streets of Buffalo had made him an excellent hunter, as we discovered when we moved into our first house. He quickly dispatched the few mice inside the house then moved on to the garage, where he caught them as quickly as they came in under the door. Usually he would leave the bodies—not a mark on them—neatly lined up in front of the kitchen door for us to find (or, if we weren't careful, step on). Once, however, he came in from a garage expedition with a small tail hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"MIKE!" I screamed. He dashed past me and dropped the mouse in the living room, where it quickly disappeared behind a bookshelf. He wanted to go back to the garage to find another one, but I grabbed him and thrust him behind the bookshelf, insisting that he take care of this one first. He soon emerged, the mouse's tail once more dangling from his mouth. He trotted into the kitchen and again deposited his little playmate on the floor. By now, the mouse was furious. It stood on its hind legs and waved its front paws in the air, as if challenging Mike to fisticuffs. I put a bucket over it, slid a piece of cardboard underneath, carried it out the front door, and dumped it in the yard.

Mike was six years old when we moved to California, and still a formidable hunter. Unfortunately, the mice were few and far between. He only encountered one, shortly after we moved into our townhouse, and it escaped. However, he soon found other small game in our tiny, walled-in garden. He preferred hummingbirds. He probably thought they were flying mice—they were roughly the same size. He also occasionally caught a lizard. Once, he came into the house proudly carrying something in his mouth—an alive something—just as he had carried the mouse in years before. This time, instead of a tail, a tiny webbed foot protruded from his mouth.

"WHAT the HELL is THAT?" I yelled. I gingerly pried it from his mouth—a small, pale-green tree frog. It immediately sprang out of my hand, hit the wall with a splat, and stuck there like a frog-shaped wad of snot. I quickly peeled it off the wall and threw it outside. I assume it escaped, because Mike never caught it—or any other frog—again.

Most of the time, we were able to rescue his prey or scare it away before he caught it. The one or two times I was unable to prevent him from killing a hummingbird, I was furious with him. He, of course, could not understand why. "I'm a cat," he seemed to say. "What do you expect?"

When we moved into our current house with its huge (by California standards) back yard, Mike was in heaven. By that time, he was fifteen and beginning to show his age. The day we moved in, he took off after a small flock of birds under the citrus trees. He didn't catch any of them; in fact, he never caught anything again. But he still enjoyed watching—and stalking—the wildlife in our yard. At his age, we didn't need to worry about him getting over the fence; we installed a cat door so that he could come and go as he pleased. I believe those were the happiest days of his life. It's the way I like to remember him—the fierce jungle cat slinking through the undergrowth, stalking its prey.

I often think of him this time of year. It was just after the holidays eight years ago that we took him to the veterinarian for the very last time. Later, we bought a small memorial stone for the garden. On it, there was only room for his name and lifespan, plus one or two additional words. After much deliberation, we settled on "Lovable Bastard."

It seemed appropriate.

Lovable Bastard

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas, 1961

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."—Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales

Like Dylan Thomas, I find the Christmases of my childhood tend to blend together. I can't recall how old I was when my new Vac-U-Form burst into flames on Christmas morning, or what year I got the chemistry set that allowed me to create gelatinous pink goo that exploded out of the test tube and stuck to the ceiling. However, the Christmas of 1961 stands apart from the others. It was the only Christmas without my father.

1961 was the year the Berlin Wall went up. Things were getting very tense with the Communists, and my father, along with many other reservists, was deployed to Europe. My mother, my sister, and I spent that Christmas with my grandmother and aunts in Fort Wayne.

I wasn't really expecting a call from him. We got regular letters on thin, translucent airmail paper, and once or twice we received a spool of audio tape, but never a phone call. Back then, it was unheard of to get a telephone call from Europe; it was much too expensive.

But Christmas was special, and on Christmas morning when the telephone rang at my grandmother's house, I knew it had to be him, and I raced to be the first to answer it.

"Merry Christmas!" I said, breathlessly.

"Merry Christmas!" said a man's voice. "Do you know who this is?"


"No, it's not your dad. It's your uncle."

"Oh... Hi."

I'm sure my uncle could hear the disappointment in my voice, and years later I felt badly about that, but at the time, all I could feel was the disappointment. I missed my father so much; I needed so much to hear the sound of his voice.

A few months later, he came home. Since then, there hasn't been a Christmas that I haven't heard his voice—until this year.

This will be the first Christmas since 1961 without my father. It will be the first Christmas ever without my mother.

But they will always live on in my memories—especially during the holidays, when so many of those memories come flooding back.

Like the memory of my mother sitting at the old piano at my grandmother's house, playing and singing Sleigh Ride while the rest of us try to keep up—all of us breaking down in laughter when we stumble over the nearly impossible phrase, "These wonderful things are the things we'll remember all through our lives."

So true.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pictures that Pop

I must have been only four or five years old when my grandparents gave me my first View-Master viewer, an old Bakelite "Model E." With it came a packet of picture reels from "Beautiful Rock City Gardens" in Tennessee—a souvenir from one of their vacations. Unfortunately, the viewer broke long ago (Bakelite is brittle and easily shattered), but I still have two of the picture reels, with photos of scenic mountain views, people with 1950's clothing and hairstyles, and weird statues of gnomes and fairytale characters. Nothing special.

Except that they're 3D.

I acquired more picture reels—most of them Easter or Christmas gifts from my parents—and, eventually, a lighted Model H viewer to replace my old broken Model E. Back then we didn't have DVDs or VCRs. The only way to re-experience a favorite movie or TV show was to purchase the paperback, comic book, or View-Master version. My chosen medium was View-Master, of course.

Because it was 3D.

Model H and Some Favorite Picture Reels

I loved 3D pictures. It didn't matter what the subject of the picture was. Some of my picture reels were pretty lame (Why do I even have a packet of pictures from Greece?), but I still loved to look at them, simply because they were 3D.

It never occurred to me that I could create my own 3D photos. I thought it must require special (not to mention incredibly expensive) equipment. Then, several years ago, we took a cruise to Alaska with Garrison Keillor and the cast and crew of A Prairie Home Companion. Aside from the many sightseeing excursions on land, there were plenty of activities to keep us entertained on board the ship: daily performances by the musicians and cast, lectures by naturalists, choir practice and story-telling sessions with Garrison, radio acting lessons from actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell—

And a class in 3D photography taught by Fred Newman, the show's "touring SFX guy."

It turns out that Fred, aside from being a master of funny voices and sound effects, is also a very good amateur 3D photographer. And he taught me that anyone can be a 3D photographer. No special equipment is needed. All you need is a digital camera. Take a picture, take a step to the left (or right), and take another picture.

I took my first 3D photos when we got to Glacier Bay. I didn't need to take a step to the left or right—I simply let the motion of the ship move my point of view. The great thing about digital cameras is that you don't have to worry about wasting film. With a high capacity memory card, you can afford to take lots of pictures, and I did.

When we got back from the trip, I found a company on the Internet (PokeScope) that sells software that makes it easy to line up pairs of 3D photos, as well as a viewer to make it easier to view them. (It's possible to "free view" them without a viewer; if you're good at those "Magic Eye" pictures, you may be able to do it.)

Of course, many of my experiments in 3D photography didn't turn out well at all. I found that anything moving—birds, waves, falling chunks of ice, etc.—ruins the 3D effect. I posted some of the best ones in a set on Flickr, and I've added several more since then. If you'd like to take a look at them, here's the link.

Now if I could just figure out how to get them into View-Master reels...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Who's a Hoosier?

Last week, in honor of the Tony Award-winning production of Anything Goes currently playing at the Ahmanson (which we're seeing tomorrow), the L.A. Times ran a quiz about Cole Porter. I like to flatter myself that I know something about the man. After all, we both came from Indiana.

It turns out the only thing I knew about Cole Porter was that he came from Indiana.

If there's one thing we Hoosiers know, it's who else is a Hoosier. (If there's one thing we don't know, it's where the word "Hoosier" comes from. There are many and widely-divergent theories, including: a corruption of the word "hussar," a corruption of the French word for "bailiff," and—strangest of all considering there are few hills in Indiana—a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "hill people." The only thing everyone can agree on is that it's a corruption of something.)

Besides songwriter Cole Porter, there have been many other talented Hoosiers, including fellow songwriters Hoagy Carmichael and John Mellencamp, writers Rex Stout and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and actors James Dean and Carole Lombard.

Comedian Red Skelton was a Hoosier, as was David Letterman, who was born in Indianapolis and went to college in Muncie, at Ball State. (Go ahead and laugh.)

Michael Jackson's entire family were Hoosiers, but Wilbur was the only Hoosier Wright Brother. (Orville was born in Ohio.) Abraham Lincoln grew up in Indiana, but he doesn't qualify; he was born in Kentucky.

Clothing designer Bill Blass was from Fort Wayne. He went to the same high school as my parents, uncles, and aunts.

Basketball star Larry Bird was from French Lick. (Go ahead and laugh.)

James Whitcomb Riley, from Greenfield, Indiana, was known as "The Hoosier Poet." He wrote:
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence...
I have no idea what a "kyouck" or "hallylooyer" is, but this, supposedly, is the way Hoosiers used to talk.

Which could explain the word "Hoosier."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

One Year Later

It's been just over a year since I started this blog. I thought this might be a good time to pause, reflect, and ask myself a few questions...

1. Why do I do it?

Why, on my day off, do I stumble out of bed an hour before Loretta, rack my brain for something to write about, contort my body to reach the keyboard over the cat in my lap (Excuse me, Zorra!)—all to produce a few miserable paragraphs that practically no one is interested in reading?

Because I need to write.

Both of Loretta's brothers build things—beautiful things—out of wood. They take great pleasure in finding just the right kind of wood, cutting it into pieces, and assembling those pieces into whatever objects they have pictured in their minds. In much the same way, I derive pleasure from finding the right words and assembling them into the sentences and paragraphs that will best convey my thoughts.

2. Yes, but why a blog?

Like most writers, I once dreamed of writing the "Great American Novel." (It was to have been set in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and to have featured the French and Indian war hero after whom the city is named, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who, finding himself mysteriously transported into the present day, takes a job impersonating himself in historical re-enactments.) I have written short stories and plays—even a few poems—but I don't think I could ever write a novel. In the words of one of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury, "I'm a sprinter, not a marathon runner."

Another dream I once had was to follow in the footsteps of my favorite newspaper humorists: Mike Royko, Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry, Dr. Gott. (What do you mean, Dr. Gott isn't a humorist? Have you read his columns on constipation?) As newspaper columnists—and newspapers—seem to be going the way of the dodo, a blog would seem to be the next best thing. The question was, did I have the discipline to write a weekly blog?

Apparently I did. However, the question now is...

2. How long can I keep it up?

Watch it! This isn't that kind of blog. I mean, of course, how long can I keep writing this blog?

I don't know. The Internet is littered with hundreds of thousands of abandoned blogs whose readers—and writers—simply lost interest. Don't be surprised if my regular weekly ramblings become increasingly irregular (as Dr. Gott might say) until they dwindle away to nothing. For now, I'll keep trying to come up with something new to write about each week.

Now if you'll excuse me, Zorra. I need to hit the Enter key.