I have just buried my cat – my friend for the past 15 years. I’ve been consoling myself with the rationalization that Whitey had lived a long life and was loved by the entire family. But  that brings little solace.  Nothing can make up for the little, less than a pound ball of white fluff that found his way through the pet door early one fall evening. I had come downstairs and was surprised at our new pet who was intently watching the post-season ball game on the television. My son was immediately taken with this feisty bundle of energy and proclaimed his name to be Whitey – his buddy. And buddy he was. For many nights, the only thing that kept my son ‘safe’ in his dark bedroom was knowing that Whitey was sleeping at the foot of his bed. Whitey grew and grew into a playful friend for his people and a terror for Fifi, the family cat quite unwilling to give up her space in the hierarchy of the Feldman household. Fifi had lived outdoors for many years being out of reach of the ignorant hound dogs that moved with us from California. She was okay hanging out in the workshop and patting our heads with a soft paw as we passed by her perch atop the platform that held the lights over the spring planting table. With the hound dogs gone, Fifi was ready to claim her indoor seniority which kept she and Whitey at odds. Many a summer afternoon was punctuated with the sound then sight of cat screeching and streaking across the old orchard; Whitey’s white fluff – a noisy blur on wheels followed by Fifi’s silent, gray tabby fury. The tables turned as Whitey gained weight and the flash of colors traded places; Fifi first then Whitey on the chase. But always, it was Whitey doing the screeching. I have many pictures that speak to the presence of Whitey in the household; there’s one of him being held still in front of vegetables from the garden to show just how tiny he was. The picture that best does this is one of him asleep in the pumpkin patch dwarfed by two medium sized pumpkins. Christmas pictures abound with my nine-year-old son, his new skis and Whitey curled up, sleeping inside a bag of ribbons.

It seems you can take the cat out of the wild but not the other way around for Whitey was wild with size and attitude. He came to tolerate Fifi but not the many cats who would show up uninvited. The dairy farm down the road seemed to burst at the seams with new kitties that, by the fall, would find their way here, one half mile down the road. Many times Whitey would appear for his morning milk, ears spliced and head gouged from victorious combat. He was a fighter and neutering him made little difference. He got bigger but that only served to make him even more the pugilist with other cats. It wasn’t long before a neutered Whitey hit the 15-pound mark and seemed to celebrate by taking the days off – preferring to sleep. Making the beds became a special hassle as he refused to move even after shaking the corner of the mattress, something that would have sent a more unsettled cat packing. But not Whitey. If the beds were to be made, Whitey had to be picked up and moved to some other equally comfy place. In late January 2001, Whitey did get up long enough to leave home – for six months! I thought maybe it was because of Cookie, the sweet dog we acquired from the animal shelter (Cookie had taken his place at the foot of my son’s bed). But, more likely he was on his night rambles and remained in the neighbor’s dairy barn – stuck there by the heavy snows that had fallen for two days straight. We were heartsick thinking he must have been caught by a Goodyear or Michelin; traffic had claimed many of the cats that had found us over the years. Imagine the surprise when the neighbor called to ask if we were missing a skinny white cat who seemed fairly happy to live off the milk from dairy cows and the plentiful barn mice. Well, Whitey came back – got sassier and fatter – refusing to help rid the garage of the field mice that had threatened to overrun it. It wasn’t long before our fairly calm housecat tipped the scale at 20 pounds. He ruled the roost by sheer presence and even the two new cats that had found their way to the back door didn’t threaten his position. And his position was anywhere he wanted to be – as long as it was in the sun in winter and in the shade in summer. Like an aging fighter, Whitey found comfort in shadowboxing; reaching out with a non-threatening paw as the other younger cats happened to cross his path. By the time he was 12 he had acquired a rocking horse gait as he descended the stairs – the first clue that his vertebrae above his tailbone was fusing in arthritic stiffness. Whitey’s movement wasn’t truly compromised until a year ago when our vet showed the X-rays. I bought him a new, larger pet bed and moved him around the house and yard – following the sun in winter and the shade in summer. In spite of this, all the glucosomine and prednisone in the world couldn’t stave off the inevitable. And Whitey must have known when he took off for two days moving further from the house than he had in many, many weeks. His first day gone was close to 100 degrees followed by a day of rain – prime weather for the flesh-eating pests that burrow into any damp skin that can’t be reached by a more fastidious cat-tongue. He was found across the road, next to the barn – his hindquarters bald and dark with necrotic tissue. Whitey’s once beautiful, pristine coat was a weak and deathly gray even as his cries were strong with a desire to live. The vet worked feverishly to accommodate, gently shaving his dead fur that fell to the floor in clusters clotted with baby maggots.  I watched, crying as the vet began flushing out the fly larvae that seemed to multiply as we stood there. At the sight of his exposed spine I knew that Whitey had lost this fight   –   and we had lost our friend.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Then Again – Maybe Not

The French, I had heard, were a fairly snotty lot. But I am loath to make such a blanket generalization for I certainly found some Parisians helpful and pleasant to talk to just – not that many. My negative encounters stand out in relief of decency. Why? I don’t know, which leaves me at a loss to understand why people choose to be difficult when being decent seems so easy. Human nature – what to do with it?

I arrived in Paris feeling quite positive. I marveled at the beauty of high-speed rail – London to Paris in two hours. Exiting the train station was familiar enough as Paris is like most crowded major cities replete with horns blaring and people impatient with purpose. The taxi service is made up of Mercedes, Volvos and some other cars of suspect provenance. Our driver spoke not a word as he fairly snatched my suitcase from me putting it in the trunk. Only later did I learn that there is the expectation of one Euro for every bag a driver handles. I wanted to put my own bag in the trunk – beginning a 14 day adventure of unknowingly pissing off the French. The silent drive wasn’t as short as it could have been. It seems Paris traffic officials make it intentionally difficult on car drivers in an attempt to lessen the auto vs. pedestrian tumult. It was just as well, as the Paris Metro system, like London’s Tube, is one of the best (if not interesting) forms of getting around the city. Our driver remained mute until we reached our destination. Upon being given the cost of the fare and told to keep the remainder as tip he found his voice long enough to make sure we understood the one Euro per bag-touching rule. Stunned at the rudeness in the driver’s voice, I shook my head unaware that this was only the beginning. The flat, which was home base, is in the 2nd arrondissement and three blocks from the Louvre and the Seine. After dropping off the bags we strolled down to the Seine and while sitting in the shade of the plane trees, I was overcome with a visceral leftover – London calling; letting me know that the large cup of Costa coffee I drank before getting on the train was preparing to have its way with me. Feeling faint from walking in the sun I turned down an offer for more sight-seeing preferring to return to the flat. Later, feeling better and wanting to prolong the experience of a warm late-night Paris meal being served by friendly French waiters – ethnic French waiters (there’s a difference believe me), I ordered a cup of coffee. By the next morning I was completely worn out from a night of fighting with acidic European coffee and losing – the contents of my stomach and the battle with a real social drink. The next day I spent alone wandering the small flat with nothing but French magazines to entertain me. That was when I wished I had paid more attention in French class instead of talking to Lynn Spraggins.

My command of the French language is embarrassing. “Command” sounds as if I speak enough French to at least survive in this city. But no – what little I do know suddenly became non –existent in the face of need. I truly tried to engage the language, at a café in Montmartre I was prepared at the end of a very slow to arrive meal, asking for the check, “L’addition si’l vous plait.” The waiter nodded impatiently before passing my table seven times (I counted) smiling and speaking happily to his surrounding customers who spoke fluent French. So, in that universal language of the coin, I left no tip. I am sure my response simply reinforced the waiter’s rationale for his behavior. According to Howard Tomb, author of Wicked French, some French waiters see Americans as Stone Age pagans and all it takes to set this prejudice in motion is an American accent. I was doomed the minute I sat down. Later that same day, I entered a consignment shop and, piecing together my English, French and woman-speak I asked the proprietor if she had my size. The slim woman, about my age, gave me the up-and-down, withering look of disdain. “No grand,” she replied putting, it seemed, extra emphasis on “grand.” For a split second (and that is all it takes for someone from Compton) I fashioned my internal response: I’m glad I didn’t waste my time learning your throat-clearing, mucus hocking language. And you French pick your noses with impunity too! So lady, in the words of Cee Lo Green, F… you! In reality, I nodded, backing out of the door as she returned to arranging her racks of clothes for SLIM women.

I run the risk of sounding like an old crank but I’ve seen the newsreels of Nazi soldiers marching under the Arc de Triomphe and I’m aware of the liberation forces and the many Americans who died so that French people could speak their own language and not German. This begs the question, if I know this then why not French shopkeepers and waiters?

Thank you readers for letting me vent.

The Crash of “Free Will”

Who protects the innocent from free will? Who protects against a free will that would visit a freakish horror upon pure and vulnerable children and by extension their parents? It is a question to which I cannot find an answer; no Wikipedia, Google, Word Help, Cathedral, or Constitution serves up an answer that could save our progeny – our future. And it is this knowledge that drives parents into the night, wild-eyed with fear and grief – all marching under the same arc of concern. It is the concern that the “crash principle” has come home to manifest. That as our universe widens, spinning more and more beyond control we hunger even stronger for simple touch. This hunger persists even as we are driven to the street – no! – dragged down vile steps by our hair into the nightmare of someone else’s twisted take on touch.

Touch offers silent messages of love, concern and desire. Touch, in all its frailty and promise conquers the challenge of the Rosetta Stone; a universal language. And we know this. It is the knowledge that pours from every fiber as we lift our naked young to our shoulders burying our faces in the innocent flesh in vain attempts to inhale and harness (forever) an unvarnished goodness and purity that, deep down, we fear won’t last.

Part Seven: Time – In London

I’ve come to understand (one day after turning 60) that Time is only useful for the purposes of organizing things. Really, how do we place our memories if not in chronological order? As we age there is always the mirror to highlight gray hair and receding  scalps (the forehead gets bigger) while Time is silent in its organized attack on the shell speaking only through the good black dress in the closet that has, mysteriously,   gotten two sizes smaller since last it was worn.  Time is never without employment.

In capturing my experiences in London, I have found Time useful but I have come to my logical end – not the end dictated by Time. What did I learn, with Time, in London?  I learned to respect the indestructible London Cab. I learned that Londoners have pretty much the same life-complaints as their American counterparts. I learned that museums offer much more for posterity than the simple ingredients about which I chose to complain and whine – beauty being one. I learned to keep walking through Kensington Gardens in search of Princess Di’s memorial. I never found it but, as the light turned to hues of rose and gray silhouetting whispering couples on the occasional bench, I became a bit apprehensive walking in a foreign city park. That’s when I saw the light – the rose-yellow and gold, surely this must be the Princess’s monument – but no, I was moving north which put me on path to the gilded celebration that is the monument to Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria. Approach from the rear of the monument allowed for guessing the subject of such opulence. The outline, which figured shoulders and arms of substantial heft, could not be a woman’s. The sight of the luminously domed Albert Hall across the street told part of the story while the 176 foot Albert memorial told the rest. Albert died in 1861 of typhoid and the Queen, in her grief wanted a monument in the common sense of the word – no university or other building – bearing the name of her royal lover. The Queen wanted and received a monumentally impressive sculpture including a Frieze of Parnassus (Mount Parnassus being the resting place for the Greek muses)  honoring 169 painter, poets and composers among others. All of this in display of Prince Albert’s love of the arts. The allegorical sculptures, each at the four corners of the monument, seem to command a world-unity that remains late in coming.

I have a new appreciation for great fish, chips and Guinness after eating at Fuller’s Swan.  The Swan is an ancient establishment on the edge of the park at 66 Bayswater Road. The menu itself was worthy of a few pictures. I captured the history of the 1721 Coaching  Inn for posterity learning, as I did, that the Swan’s early operations were responsible for some well-used expressions. Early prisoner transport or the prison wagons taking prisoners to the gallows (now Marble Arch) would pull up in front of the inn and the jailer would come in and ask for “one for the road” on behalf of the doomed man. And when the wagon pulled away those left at the bar would say, “he’s on the wagon” – meaning he’ll never drink again. Sitting on the upper deck in the late afternoon sun I toasted those who are ‘forever’ on the wagon.

I have learned that Stonehenge has been keeping Time well before modern timepieces. The monoliths of Stonehenge provide Time-filling puzzles to occupy the scientist and layperson alike into the next  millennium.  But, maybe there are some puzzles that should not be solved – perhaps for fear of extracting the element of ‘free will’ from the human condition. For fear that truth will be left naked and wanting; this is it. What you see is what you get and when the end comes, it is simply that – the end – leaving the sad dominions of Time and Decay.

Part Six – The British Library: Can’t Bury Tales

Housed at a different location from the actual museum, the Library of the British Museum or the British Library is a place where my critical heart and whining demeanor have no place. I am arrested upon entry by the sign bearing a quote by Marie Curie claiming that nothing is to be feared, only understood. Can “understanding” really be the cure for all that ails we who have inherited a nature that defies free will? Will understanding take us to the hearts of the evil and allow us to twist, adjust a cog here a fly-wheel there correcting misspent intellect? Oh, if that were the case…

I stood in the doorway of the room that held literary artifacts of great antiquity admitting that, when it comes to literature, the British still maintain the empire. I was consumed with the knowledge that I was in a place that housed Shakespeare’s sonnets right next to those of the Beatles! Not being a true lineal thinker I stopped at the closest display that contained the fewest people – forgoing the first position Canterbury Tales & Gilgamesh until the crowd dissipated. I was given space and time to contemplate the original manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Written as he was serving a two-year prison sentence of hard labor for gross indecency – the wages of homosexuality in  Victorian Era England. The poem is a multi-page narrative of the days leading up the execution of a man who murdered his wife for her unfaithfulness; it begins with Wilde’s simple observation of his fellow prisoner’s seemingly casual observance of his last days of life – the sun, sky, a walk in step with the sound of the building of the gallows that will put an end to him. The poem turns from benign observation to internal personalization of the dead man walking. Every prisoner holds in common an execution; symbolic or otherwise because, …each man kills the thing he loves.

For Wilde, the world was a place of suffering and yet he did not relent when his own http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/Oscar_Wilde_portrait.jpgjailhouse suffering was at its peak; To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul. Wilde’s decline came fast upon his release from prison. In spite of making corrections to his famous play, “The Importance of Being Ernest” and other prior writings, Wilde had lost his love of writing.

Feared and misunderstood, Wilde died November 30, 1900 exiled in his dingy Paris hotel room, without his health and without money. But his rapier wit and humor were in abundance.  My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go. The wallpaper won even as the world was left without the brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

Thank you readers for bearing with me in my re-telling of a tale that can’t be buried.