Thursday, February 16, 2017

IT'S BEAUTIFUL, AND I THINK IT'S WHAT I WANT TO BE

As she started explaining the details of the chemo, my mind wandered, because that was my defense mechanism.  Anytime she talked as if she had limited time left, I pretended she and the doctors and everybody else was wrong, because it was the only way the world made sense.  I didn't want to live in a world without my mom, and I tried to will it so.

But I wasn't listening in another sense.  As she explained the possible side effects, what chemo could and couldn't do, she was also expressing her own ambivalence about the whole thing.  The cancer was fatal.  There was no doubt about that--it had spread too far, and her body was too old and weak to fight it.  All the chemo could do was slow it down, give her another few months or weeks or days.

Well, you have to do it, I said.  You have to live as long as you can.

So she did.  The first round went okay, but the second round was much worse.  She was violently ill and physically weak, and since she lived alone, she took a nasty fall.  Her medical team had somehow neglected to take her off her blood pressure meds, and they combined with the chemo to limit the flow of blood to her brain.  She started hallucinating giant scarecrows and fissures in the earth.  Her body weakened.  Her heart stopped.  She died, and the chemo hadn't extended her time on earth, and in fact only made her final days miserable.

And I realize now that she never wanted any of it in the first place.  Living with cancer was uncomfortable, but she was still herself, still eating and going out to movies (and complaining about them), and she probably saw the end coming and just wanted to be done with it.  To make a comparison I'm sure Mom would have appreciated, she wanted to end like Season Five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, at the top of her game and like she'd always been, but the chemo made her more like Season Seven, muddled and weird and somewhat out of character.  

How dangerous it is to play the "what if?" game.  What if she hadn't had chemo?  Would her final days have been less painful?  Would her mind have been clearer, her body more steady?  Would she have not fallen, and fallen again, with welts and lumps on her face?  Would she have seemed less small and sad when the time came?  Could she have spent her final hours at home, surrounded by her beloved cats and dog, instead of an anonymous hospital room?

No.  Or, put another way, maybe, but so what?  She died, and she would have died either way, and it wouldn't have been pretty because death never is.  And none of that means anything, because the important thing is that she laughed and cried and sang to her cats and marveled at rainbows and loved her children with the intensity of a thousand suns.

She lived.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

IT MAKES IT BETTER, I KNOW

The flimsy cardboard kitty carrier may not be strong enough to hold him if he starts to struggle.  Delmar is a very strong cat, and can be very determined.  But he simply eases in and rests there.  He knows.

He and I have such history.  I've had him since he was born, the first cat I owned after my protracted, painful divorce.  I had to move back in with my mom for awhile, and Delmar was there.  I got a job, moved into a tiny apartment, got a better job, kept the same apartment, and he remained my constant companion.  Mom died, I was in despair, he comforted me as best he could, mostly just by being there, which was always enough.

It's a gray day.  Not cold, but a dampness in the air.  Not that I notice it as I take him out to the car.  I reach through the airholes of the carrier and touch his coarse, spiky fur. "It's okay, Buddy.  We're going for a ride."

A few blocks later, we're at the vet's office.  They wave me right in to the exam room.  The table is covered with a little blue blanket, and it looks so much like the penguin blanket my mom had, the one I inherited, the one Delmar so frequently used for naps.  I start to lose it.

Del was born pretty much fully-formed.  He never had a cute kitten phase.  He was awkward and gangly from the very beginning, and always would be.  He could be cranky, he could be sweet, he was never quiet and restful.  I could usually anticipate his moods.  But he couldn't tell me when his kidneys started failing, not until he started drinking massive amounts of water and eating less, and by then it was too late.

I set him on the table and he immediately curls up, as if he's bypassed all the other stages and gone straight to acceptance.  The doctor comes in and explains the procedure, asks if I'm okay with it, has me sign some forms.  I hold Del as they give him a sedative, then they leave the room while it takes effect.

I talk to Del, I sing the lyrics I invented for the first season instrumental theme from Walker, Texas Ranger ("Hey!  It's Delmar and he's great!  It's Delmar and he's grea-ea-eat!").  The doc comes back in, shaves some fur from his hind leg and administers the IV.  Del puts his paw in my hand.  I grip it as tight as I can.

And he's gone.

"Do you need some time?" the vet asks, and I nod.  "We don't need this room for the rest of the day.  Take as long as you need."

I still have his paw in my hand.  He looks like he's asleep.  I don't know what I expected.  I talk to him some more, running through the many, many nicknames I had for him.  (Del Star, Delmar Von Delmington, Li'l Feller, My Special Little Guy...)  My tears are falling uncontrolled, hitting the table, dotting the blanket all around him.

There is a thoughtfully provided box of tissues on a stool beside the table.  I blow my nose, then again, and i turn back to Del.  "Not so bad, was it?" I say.  "See you, Buddy.  See you whenever I can."  A final tissue to wipe my eyes, and I leave.

Driving home, I'm listening to Ben Folds' Songs For Silverman because it's the album that happens to be playing, and I know I will always unfortunately associate it with this.  Janie will be there when I get home, and two other wonderful cats, and my beloved beagle.

But Delmar won't be, and he never will be there again.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

COMMON CLAY

It was burnoff season in the summer of 1980, when the Big 3 networks aired all the failed pilots and unloved theatrical releases to which they owned the rights, and which would inevitably get terrible ratings.  But they had these things, so when they knew no one was watching, they'd go ahead and show them, these pathetic Bob Denver sitcoms and terrible variety shows, and these movies like The Little Prince.

A failed, little-loved adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, it was airing in a ninety minute time slot as part of The CBS Saturday Night Movie.  Though a short film, it would have been extensively cut to fit in that time slot, which shows how little the network cared about it.

Nonetheless, my brother and I made sure to watch.  We didn't know Saint-Exupery's book at all, or care about the fact that it had an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  We just watched because it featured an appearance by Bob Fosse, and we were both huge admirers of Fosse's All That Jazz, and the chance to watch the man himself, as opposed to Roy Scheider portraying him, was just to strong a lure.  Plus, hey Stanley Donen directed!  Singin' In The Rain, Bedazzled.  How bad could it be?

Well, it wasn't very good, and even Fosse's sequence is kind of disappointing.  But it does have Gene Wilder as a fox, a wild fox tamed by the title character.


This scene was followed by a commercial break.  We were watching this in my brother's room upstairs, and during the break, I went downstairs to the kitchen to get a drink.  Turns out Mom was watching it, too.  She'd exiled herself to the kitchen to watch it on a small black-and-white TV, because she knew it wasn't anything Dad would like.

And she was crying.  I asked her if she was okay.  "Oh, honey," she said.  "The poor fox," then continued crying.

I could talk and talk and talk about the greatness of Gene Wilder, who died Sunday at the fine age of 83.  I could explain how his surprisingly melancholic performance in Blazing Saddles anchors that film's anarchy, how his meticulous preparation for the role of Willy Wonka, a role many actors would have tossed off, resulted in a film that is rediscovered and loved by every new generation.  I could tell you that the screenplay he co-wrote with Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein is a masterpiece of carefully-escalated comic madness, or that his performance, descending from barely-controlled calm to outright madness, in a brief segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex is one of the greatest things ever put on film.

I could tell you all that, and it would be true.  But more important than any of that, at least to me, is this: Once upon a time, he made Mom cry.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

'CAUSE YOU MEAN THAT MUCH TO ME

One of the many unfortunate side effects of the successful 1983 film The Big Chill was the way it turned the recorded legacy of Motown into a soundtrack for Boomer nostalgia.  Suddenly "The Sound Of Young America", some of the most important and influential music ever performed and, more importantly, written and produced by black artists was being used to soundtrack the lives of well-to-do white people.  The Four Tops were used to sell luxury cars, Smokey Robinson became a karaoke favorite and, worst of all, Marvin Gaye's indelible I Heard It Through The Grapevine was rerecorded in a soundalike version and used to sell raisins.

But in honor of what would have been Gaye's 77th birthday, let's reclaim it and recognize if for what it was, is, and will always be: One of the greatest singles ever released.



Let's start with the beginning: That first snap of a drum, leading into Johnny Griffith's slightly ominous keyboards, their terrible portent joined by the rattlesnake tambourine.  This is not an upbeat pop song, or a heartbreak song.  This is something else.



Next, a solid groove is laid down by James Jamerson's bass.  Whatever else is going on here, there will definitely be funk.



And then.  Oh, and then.



The sheer majesty of Gaye's vocal performance simply can't be overstated.  With this one song, he went from being one of Motown's most reliable crooners to something else entirely, an artist fully in charge of his instrument, able to whiplash from paranoia to anger to aching vulnerability, all in service of the song, or, more accurately, the emotion of the song.

And he does this all without showing off.  There are so many times here when Gaye deploys a falsetto ("losing YOOUU would end my life you see"), and it could come off as shameless showboating of the Whitney/Mariah school.  But it never does.  He knows how to use his voice not for effect but for truth.  His voice can do anything, but he only takes it where the song needs it to go, not where he wants it to go.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine was produced--magnificently--by Norman Whitfield.  The musicians and arrangers at Motown were second to none, but the actual recording techniques used by the label tended to be utilitarian.  But Whitfield clearly took extra care here, in mike placement (the drum sound is amazing) and in his handling of his singer.  He didn't just record Gaye's vocals, he directed him, and helped him follow his emotions while singing, wherever they may lead.

And those emotions could lead to some dark places.  It's obvious in the vocal track that Gaye is wrestling with some personal demons, the paranoia and pride and arrogance that would unfortunately define his personal life, but would also lead him to explore those emotions on record, and how to harness all that to the astounding instrument of his voice.  He took charge of his own career after this song, and wrote, produced and arranged his own material.  The results were What's Going On, I Want You, and Here, My Dear--some of the greatest recordings ever made, by arguably (inarguably, if you ask me) the greatest singer who ever lived.

And that's a pretty good legacy for a song that too many people associate with dancing raisins.

Monday, February 08, 2016

WANTED TO BE SURE WE WANT THE SAME THING

We had issues, she and I.  I'd never been in love, and had only fairly recently emerged from a decade-long struggle with crippling depression.  So when things were good with us, I felt something akin to ecstasy, and I never wanted the high to end.  Consequently, every little spat, every minor issue, felt like it could bring everything tumbling down.  I was confused a lot, and the confusion tended to manifest itself as anger.  She was bipolar, only she hadn't been diagnosed as such, and in fact wouldn't be until after we split.  She acknowledged she had issues, but never wanted to admit they were as serious and deep as they very clearly were.  At her worst moments she would lash out at me, claiming I was intentionally trying to make her believe she was crazy, but I knew I just wanted her to feel better.  But even in that, I was selfish--I wanted her to feel better so my life would be easier.

Time passed.  Most days were status quo.  Issues were dealt with my ignoring them, hoping they'd go away.  When they didn't, they would reemerge at the worst possible times, leading to evenings resembling a badly improvised take on Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?  The rest of our time was spent like something out of a nineties sitcom, all snappy one-liners and random pop cultural references, which in a way was more exhausting than fighting.

Either way, we were always on, always performing.  Our emotions were kept on the surface, operatic and overwrought, and we fed off each other, in good ways and bad.  There were more good days than bad, but the bad ones stood out, and tended to skew the curve.  We kept going even after it should have been obvious the marriage had ended.  And then it ended for real.

The thing is, we were only together for five years, and yet it felt like it went on forever.  Not in a bad way--I lived an entire life in time with her.  I've had my beloved cat Staley for five years, and I still think of her as "the new cat".  But time moves differently now, more slowly, it seems.  Or maybe I've just finally learned how to relax.

I'm happy now with Janie, with the dog and cats and the odd little life I've made for myself.  But I'm grateful for the journey that brought me here, and the defining moment of that trip occurred nineteen years ago when I met Sue Ellen.  Until that moment, I could never imagine myself getting married.  After that moment, I could never imagine myself getting divorced.  But then, nothing about life is ever what we imagine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THAT IS, I THINK IT'S NOT TOO BAD

Have you ever heard a band you really like cover a song you love, but somehow been tremendously disappointed with the result?  Sure you have!  Covers are a dime a dozen, but good ones are as rare as...I dunno, something less common than dimes.

Consider this:


That, of course, was R.E.M. with a why-bother version of Richard Thompson's great Wall Of Death.  It's not bad, really, but it just kind of sits there--there's a half-assed attempt at making it their own, but they don't seem to want to try too hard, and what's more, they don't really commit to the song.

And maybe it's not really a song for them.  Thompson's original has a sing-along feel that makes it seem like some traditional melody, but as is usual for him, it's also very personal, with a heavy dose of anxiety and angst at its core.  To do it justice, you'd really need to embrace both its sunny melody and hidden darkness, and R.E.M. by nature tend to be a little more detached. 

In other words, they didn't connect to the song.  It happens, and usually in far worse ways.  After all, there are too many bad versions of great songs to count.  This time of year, you can't walk into a public place without hearing some generic easy-listening crooner murdering Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.  The problem is always the same: They make the song about themselves, about their show-offy styles and melismas and grandstanding.  They're not performing a song, they're demanding attention like a little kid having a hissy fit.  If you can get all the way through this, you're stronger than me:


Obviously, Aguilera can sing, but she wants to make damn well sure you know it.  The song is incidental.

Which brings us to the worst kind of cover: The clueless version.  The version performed by an artist who obviously has no idea what the song is about, but for whatever reason, does it anyway.  The popularity of karaoke shows like The Voice seem to encourage this sort of thing, but it's a long and ignoble tradition, sometimes done with actual malicious intent (Pat Boone removing any trace of soul from classic R&B songs, and somehow reaping profits that the actual creators of the material were denied), but most often it just happens because the music industry is a terrible thing that must constantly feed on itself.

Nothing illustrates this better than the endless string of Beatles covers.  There have been countless albums full of the damned things, jukebox musicals on stage, and terrible, terrible movies.  And the worst of these by far is the 1978 disaster Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as ersatz Mop Tops.  Inexplicably produced by George Martin, the Fifth Beatle himself, the soundtrack was one dreadful misjudgement after another, performed by artists who simply don't seem to understand the basic emotions of the songs they're performing.  Let's take a listen to Sandy Farina's version of Strawberry Fields Forever, and observe John Lennon's wistful classic turned into some faux-Olivia Newton-John styled pop                                                                                                




 Ugh.  Well, we won't do that again.

But obviously, there are good covers.  But even then, they sometimes try too hard.




Great song, good cover.  I mean, Tom Jones sings the hell out of it--that's what he does--but Art Of Noise approaches the material as something to be deconstructed, and includes so many distracting bells and whistles that the actual song is almost secondary.  Which is kind of ironic, really, because Prince is often prone to over-producing his own work, but Kiss in its original form is one of the few times he lets the song do the work.

And that's really what it comes down to.  Marshall Crenshaw's version of Abba's Knowing Me, Knowing You is one of my all-time favorites, simply because Crenshaw has the good sense to leave well enough alone.  Nothing here is significantly different than the original recording; even the keening, minor-chord guitar solo comes straight out of the Benny & Bjorn playbook.  But simply by singing it in a straightforward manner, in his own sad, resigned voice, Crenshaw makes it sound like it came straight out of his own repertoire.  It's an approach all singers should take: Always trust the song.


Friday, August 14, 2015

I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW IT MAY BE THE LAST

I don't even remember how many mulberry trees we had on the farm.  The one on the fence row of the old orchard was the best, and closest to the house.  The one behind the pump house would do in a pinch, if I was playing in the corn crib and needed my fix.  The other trees tended to be scraggly, and most of the berries they bore were more pinkish than purple.  But I might eat them anyway, because they were mulberries, and they were there.

Because soon they would be gone.  Mulberries were at their ripest in June and July, the prime days of summer, when every day was a string of endless possibilities.  The farm had essentially ceased functioning as a farm around the time I was born, so the chicken coop, the barn, all the buildings and abandoned equipment were mine to do with as I would.  Of course a hay rack was made to be a pirate ship; what other purpose could it serve?

Then August would come, and the mulberries would be gone.  The whirr-whirr-whirr of cicadas and the Greene County Fair served as annual reminders that summer was coming to an end.  School would be starting again, and dread gnawed at my stomach.  Precious weeks, then days, were all that remained of my freedom.  But how could I enjoy them when I knew they had to end?

The very concept of things ending haunted me as a kid.  I was prone to depression, but not to philosophical musings, or I may have realized that it is the very fact that all happiness has a sell-by date is also the thing that makes it so precious.  Seasons, at least, are predictable.  We know when they will end.  Life itself is more wonderful than all the glorious days of summer, better even than a handful of mulberries, but it could all be over any time.

Which is OK.  Everything needs an ending.  And really, good things are lessened when they run too long.  (It's why the earlier, shorter James Bond movies are more satisfying.)  Trees change color, school starts again.  People grow older, people die.  But they were good while they were here, and we'll have fond memories, until it's our time to go, and hopefully others will have fond memories.

There's a mulberry tree in my back yard.  Everyday while it was in bloom, I would stop while taking the dog out and pluck some berries from the branches.  They were always delicious.