Sunday, August 30, 2009

the 80s: reckoning

As I've said here a couple of times, the summer between my freshman and sophomore year wasn't the best of my life. By summer's end I felt so down on myself that I couldn't bear to look at my own shadow, much less mirrors. No kidding. After that night staring at my whole, miserable life reflected in a plate-glass window I didn't want to have to be reminded of myself ever again.

So I was a pretty freaked out, hurtin' unit going into my sophomore year. On the other hand, I was just crackling with creative energy. I was drawing pictures, designing silkscreen t-shirts, publishing a new fanzine, writing articles for the school paper and scheming band ideas with my buddy Dave.

And my emotional rawness rendered music more beautiful than ever.

I still liked hardcore punk, of course. But now it was part of a spectrum of music I could draw on depending on my mood. In an instant, my taste had skewed eclectic. One minute I might be listening to Lightnin' Hopkins, the next caught in un-ironic admiration for The Romantics.

Still, I was in a lot of pain, and my top comfort album was R.E.M.'s Reckoning. I listened to that thing constantly. And every time I did I felt as though it was hugging me and reminding me that life is full of beauty.

That fall I went to see them by myself at the Mackey Auditorium on the CU Campus. As I drove there I remember listening to Peter Buck sit in as a guest DJ on KBCO. He played a wide range of music, but the one I remember was a song from The Band. I made a mental note to check them out.

The funniest thing about this whole period is that despite my extremely low self esteem, this was the only period of high school when I had a girlfriend. A senior, no less -- a really pretty one. I guess it's because I really was kind of suicidal so I wasn't really hung up about what girls thought of me. And that's attractive.

Anyway, her name was Rachel and she was on the newspaper. She was kind of goth before goth was goth, I guess. A little punk and a little new wave. She liked Bauhaus and I think Joy Division. But she also liked R.E.M. and that was kind of our band. We'd talk on the phone late into the night with Reckoning playing in the background, or the next album, Fables of the Reconstruction.

It wasn't long before I was back to my old self, whatever that was.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

new gig

I've got a new gig as a column writer for start-up info site. Check out my first story.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

flipping out

Allie and I bought a new toy today.

And so:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

just do it

This is encouraging.

Monday, August 17, 2009

scamp's last days

At some point during the last couple days of Scamp’s life I said to Allie that I was surprised by the experience. I expected it to be unbearable and monolithically awful. And I’d even before this all started to go down, been thinking about the inevitability of our animals’ deaths, and absolutely dreading it. I’d even taken to saying that the only downside of pet ownership is that they don’t live as long as we do. Now, having gone through it, I have to say that it’s one of its greatest gifts.

Throughout the spring and summer, Scamp seemed to be doing great. She just loved the raw meat we were giving her and she was gaining weight and acting like her old self, not barfing near as much. But then a couple of weeks ago I noticed she wasn’t eating. Then she started puking up bile. I petted her and felt her bony back. She was losing weight again.

We took her to the vet and a blood test revealed her liver was out of whack again. For the first time we noticed that her skin under her fur had turned yellow. We took her to a specialist and they ran a sonogram and a fine-needle aspirate. We had to wait 48 hours for the results, so we force-fed her and hydrated her with a drip back during the interim.

When the results came back, we felt hopeful because they told us it was fatty liver disease. All we’d need to do, according to the stuff we’d read online, was make sure to get plenty of nutrients in her. To do that, we’d have a feeding tube installed. But shortly after we dropped her off for the procedure, the doctor called us back to say something didn’t look quite right with the results. He ran a couple of tests and found that she also had colangiohepatitis. But still, his assessment was encouraging. He gave us a prescription and said she should get better in a few days.

Well, she didn’t. We fed her six or seven times a day, which she hated. At first I just held her while Allie shot pasty Hills Prescription Diet into her mouth with a large-gauge syringe. I had to hold her little head firmly in my hand and then tilt her head back so she wouldn’t spit it out. Allie was constantly worried that I was strangling Scamp, or that I would cause her to inhale some of it and make matters a whole lot worse. Scamp just plain hated it. She bit at us and growled while she chewed, making this hilariously adorable gnawing sound. As we honed our technique we started wrapping her with a blanket, which only added to her adorableness, with her tiny alien head peeking angrily out of the bundle.

For days we clung to the tiniest sign she was getting better. Under certain light it would seem as though the yellow was fading from her skin, but at other times it would seem darker than ever. Sometimes she seemed to like the food. On one occasion, she hopped on my desk as if she were looking for some food. I quickly grabbed a can and opened it. But she passed it up after a couple of sniffs. One morning I saw her on her old perch on the top of my desk chair and I was so excited I posted the good news on Facebook.

But it was obvious that she was only getting weaker. She spent most of her time cowered behind the couch or under my desk. And when she collapsed while vomiting, spewing all over her paws, I just knew.

On Wednesday I called the specialist and he said she most certainly should be improving. And if she’s not improving, he went on to say, there isn’t really much as that can be done. All the other possible problems, he explained, are incurable. I was out having coffee then with some friends at that moment, and I just felt devastated. I told Allie, and on the drive home I cried for the first of what would be many, many times over the next five days.

The next day I had a full day of orientation at KU, so Allie kept up the feeding schedule on her own. During my lunch break I called a friend to tell him about the Scamp ordeal and a bunch of other stuff I was sweating and he told me not to sweat any of the other stuff, that I was going through a major experience with the loss of Scamp and that I should cut myself some slack and just focus on getting through that. That call just unleashed me. During the break between lunch and my next session I wandered off on my own, found a spot in the grass and just bawled. Then during the afternoon break I stole away to the bathroom and cried some more. And then again at the end of the day on my walk back to my car and on the whole drive home.

We kept up the feeding schedule for the rest of that night, but it was hard to because she hated it so much. I was of the mind to give her a last few days without stress. On the way home I had stopped off to buy a beef heart and some liver, thinking she might enjoy some of her favorite tastes, but she wasn’t having any of it. So Allie and I spent the rest of the evening with her, listening to sad and lovely music and occasionally pulling her out from under the bed so I could lay with her body draped along my side and her shin rested on my shoulder while I very gently petted her head. Scamp was always a loud purer, but her purr was so quiet now. She seemed to like it. But after a while she’d slowly get up and return to her spot beneath the bed.

I wanted to let her know I was with her, so I decided to sing to her, with me laying on top of the bed and her down below. I started singing “Brokedown Palace” and “Box of Rain,” but I didn’t know the words, so I went to the computer and found them and copied them down. The lyrics to those songs are such good writing, so simple yet just as deep and true as can possibly be. Like, what could be truer than “fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.” And Box of Rain seems as if it was written specifically for hospice. It's tone is so gentle and loving, not at all overwrought. Just how can I help you? and It's gonna be OK. I made an iTunes playlist with every version I have of both songs, set it to shuffle and repeat, and Scamp and Jazz and I went to sleep listening to it. For a while, Jazz slept under the bed with Scamp, which is not her usual sleeping place.

The next morning, I plucked Scamp out from hiding and placed her in the window by my desk and to my delight she stayed there for several hours. It was a spectacularly beautiful morning, not too hot but sunny as can be and just enough breeze to set everything into motion. We listened to the Dead together and the music spoke to me even more deeply, on levels of meaning words can't get to. Garcia is so brilliant at this. I was astounded, and I continue to be astounded, at how clearly his playing articulates the mix of emotions that accompany life and death. It's the best art because it has all of it, the all the extremes of joy and pain and all the shades in between, yet it's easy and natural, not the least bit pretentious.

After I left at noon for the last of my orientation sessions at KU, Allie set a piece of heart meat in front of Scamp. She sniffed it, gave it a couple of licks and then chomped it down. Allie was so excited that she immediately called me. But I must have been in a dead zone, because I didn’t hear the phone ring. No matter, though: Scamp threw up a few minutes later and Allie’s hopes were dashed.

Well, not totally. Nor were mine. Seeing Scamp in the window again, looking as happy and relaxed as ever, made me think maybe she had a chance. So Allie and I chatted during one of my breaks at school and agreed we would take her to the specialist that night. Still, I went ahead and made an appointment with the mobile vet for the next day, to put her to sleep. And while I had home on the phone I pulled a second opinion out of him. After hearing all of Scamp’s symptoms he agreed with the specialist that Scamp had no chance of survival and that it would probably best just to give her one last stress-free night. At the same time, Allie got pretty much the same word from the specialist.

On the way home I stopped off to get some catnip. I was hoping to give her one last little rush of pleasure. When I got home, I couldn’t wait to see her, of course, so I rushed upstairs while Allie fed the dogs. I opened up the catnip and went to lay some down for Jazz, so as to keep her from pouncing on Scamp when I fished her out to give her some. But Scamp came prancing out from under the bed to get some on her own! She munch down a few bites and then licked her chops. It was such an awesome moment. My only regret was that Allie wasn’t there to see it.

Allie and I both slept in the office that night, listening to Bill Evans, Kind of Blue and some more Dead with Scamp, pulling her out from under the bed to give her a little more love therapy (or to make her give some to us).

The next morning, we put her in the window again, but she didn’t stay as long. She was moving very slowly, as if she was calculating each move to determine if she had the energy to complete it. So it took her a while to descend from the sill to my desk and then to inch her way to the edge of it, right beside where my feet were propped up. Then she gingerly stepped into my lap one last time and settled down into it to let me pet her.

We took a break to walk the dogs and I think this is when I told Allie that I was surprised by how incredible the experience had been. I confided to her that for several months I’d noticed little aging signs in Maddy, our oldest dog, and these had aroused dread of her inevitable death. I reminded her that I’d been saying recently that the short lives of pets are their only drawbacks. And while I would certainly prefer them to be immortal, I had to concede a tremendous value in being there for their passage out of this world. She agreed, saying that it’s incredible to be able to care for a being throughout its life and all the way through to its end. And I said that the variety and intensity of emotions I was experienced were without equal at any other point in my life, and they all boiled down to a powerful core: love.

During Scamp’s last hour, we sat on either side of her and petted her as we sang “Brokedown Palace” and “Box of Rain” to her. While we did, Jazz came along and squeezed in between us, nestled right next to her sister. Then I played the version of “Dark Star” from February 13, 1970, setting it to repeat. I laid down on the couch and set Scamp the nook between my chest and arm, her chin resting on my shoulder. For a long time we looked into each other’s eyes.

When the doctor came into the room, her eyes widened, but she didn’t try to bolt. Allie drew from the doctor one last confirmation of our decision, and he told us about his animals, and his experiences with euthanasia, and Allie felt comforted that we were doing the right thing.

Scamp jumped a little bit when the vet poked the needle in to sedate her, and as the drug kicked in she tried to escape to her hiding place, but I held her close and finally she collapsed sideways across my chest. I couldn’t see her eyes but I felt her weight and her breath.

The doctor shaved part of her front right leg. “She’s yellow all over,” he said. “There’s no way she would have recovered. You are doing the right thing.” And at that I felt once and for all that I was doing the right thing.

He looked a turnicut around her thigh and tightened it. As he struck for a veign, she put up a fight, twisting her body and snapping with teeth. She got me just above the thumb.

But just as quickly she collapsed across my chest.

I asked if she was gone. The vet listened for her heatbeat and hearing none said she was gone.

I slowly rose, cradling her in my arms, and she folded gently into a ball, the way she used to when she slept, and I laid her in a whicker basket Allie had inlayed with my pillow case. At first her head was cocked at a garish angle, with her teeth all snarly like a possum, so I turned it and she looked like herself again, peaceful, but gone.

We took her to Wayside Waifs to be cremated. I’d never been to the place before and certainly didn’t expect what I found. It sprawls across a compound on the rural southern edge of the metro area with an off-leash dog park and a cemetery.

We had to wait for someone to arrive at the mortuary. Allie asked if we could set her down and look at her once more. I placed the basket in a patch of sunlight and opened it. She was laying there just as she had been when I closed it, undisturbed by the ride. I noticed orange fluid dripping from her nose and I turned away.

After we left her body behind, Allie and I walked through the cemetery, reading the names on the tombstones. I kept calculating the lengths of the lives, feeling jealous of the folks with upwards of 17. Having just twelve with Scamp, I felt robbed. But I also felt a kinship with all the people who’d bought these monuments, had them inscribed with their pats’ names, and, in some cases, lovely sayings like, “If love could have kept you alive, you’d have lived forever.”

On the way home we took a walk on a trail by a river and we sat for a while on a cliff over looking it. I sang “Brokedown Palace” again and felt with such profoundness the the depth of the line "Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll." We were so very sad, obviously, but we also felt some comfort in knowing that despite the transitiveness of physical things there's this continuum of life and spirit. And that sense of flow continues to build as time passes.

I’m going to miss Scamp forever more. She was such a weird, alien, monkey-butt little freak cat. But I’m also going to carry forward with me the completeness of her life, and all the things she’s taught me. And the bittersweet truth is that I probably wouldn’t have learned any of those lessons, or realized that I’d learn them, if she hadn’t have died. And I guess in that way it’s another instance of life imitating art. The greatest masterpieces are the ones that have it all – the joy and tragedy and the downright goofy – but have it in a package that seems so simple you could almost pass it by without ever having known.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

kind words

We've been getting lots of support from family and friends. One friend sent me a note that i really appreciated:

I remember when we lived in Denver, I went over to your house one day to hang out. At one point during our conversation you stopped in mid sentence, bent over to pick Scamp up off the couch and held her up over your head with one hand. Scamp was looking at you and was very calm. You said, "look at this creature" with true wonder and marvel in your voice. The gesture, words, and the tone of your voice together seemed to perfectly express excitement, love, and appreciation. Even though it was a small moment, it was a great moment.
Anyway, I'm sad to hear the news about Scamp.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Scamp was a little too young when I got her. For our first couple of days together, I fed her baby animal food from a bottle. She gnawed the rubbery tip to shreds. At night I slept with my hand draped over her body like a blanket. She wasn’t much bigger than a guinea pig.

Because of the early weaning, and the bottle, I think, Scamp lived her whole life thinking I was her mother and that my body was covered with nipples. At every chance, she’d nuzzle up and lick and bite me, usually in an unbearably ticklish spot, like under my arm or where my neck meets my chin. Sometimes I’d lick her face to tease her, and she’d cock her head and think it over for a second before diving back in for another try. One time when she was real little I put her whole head in my mouth.

Yesterday morning, on the last full day of her life, she sat for about four hours in the window by my desk looking out over the yard. Off in the distance a neighbor was mowing his yard. Leaves waved gently on the breeze. Every once in a while a bird flew by. I sat at my desk with my feet up, writing. We listened to sad and lovely music together.

In days past, she would’ve gotten up and inched her way onto my lap as I sat back, but she was too tired for that now. I wished she would one last time, but I felt grateful she was in the sunlight and not cowered behind the file cabinet. The image of her there all relaxed and taking in the colors and sounds of the world will stick with me for many years to come.

There are lots of images, of course, and a few stories. The one I kept going back to last week was the time I loaded up everything I owned into a Toyota minivan and put Scamp and Jazz together in a carrier on the front seat and headed west to Kansas. As with any move, I was most concerned about how the cats would take it. I’d never driven with them for more than an hour in the car, and I feared more than ten hours of cats crying in anguish. Especially Scamp, who completely freaks out in cars. And, true to form, she was a complete wreck as we made our way through Denver, screaming and fidgeting back and forth until we were finally flying down the highway through open landscape, when she suddenly took a massive dump that filled the car with a stench so godawful I can still smell it today. I pulled over and took the pad out of the cage and tossed it into the prairie and Scamp and Jazz were quiet as can be for the rest of the way.

She lived up to her name. She never saw a glass of liquid she didn’t want to knock over, including the glass of water that fried my laptop late last year. If she wanted something I was eating, she would prance right up and try to take it out of my hand, or off my fork, or out of my mouth. She looked part alien, with a classic alien-shaped head and those yellow, and part monkey, especially when she jumped up on the sink every morning to drink out of the faucet. She purred loudly.

At my old house in Denver, I had a wall unit with staggered shelves that she liked to climb. For a while, I had a bowl of Hershey’s kisses on one of the top shelves. I had a friend visiting and we sat there amazed as Scamp leapt from the back of a chair and onto a shelf, and then up a few more shelves to the bowl, where she’d fish out a kiss with her snout and drop it all the way to the floor. Then she’d climb down and bat the thing across the floor into some corner or behind a speaker. Then she’d climb up and do it again. Over and over until the bowl was empty.

I was almost 30 when I got Scamp. She was my second adoptee. Jazz, the first, came right after I got my first one-bedroom apartment, right after I landed a graphic design job that paid $24,000 a year, which seemed like an awful lot to me. And Scamp joined the family as we were getting ready to move into the first house I owned, and as I was about to take a job for $36,000 plus overtime. She was barely a year old when I decided to take a pay cut, a big one, for my first writing gig.

If Jazz was my first tentative claim at total independence, Scamp was the exclamation point. Independence isn’t the right word, though. Family is better. My family. Not the family I was borne into, but the one that I set out to create, or that I was meant to create. Now that family is big indeed, eight of us in all, counting Scamp – two humans, two dogs and four cats.

I’d be lying if I said it was all happy. It wasn’t. There’ve been tough times for all of us, but especially, I think, for the cats. For one, the feline Millers and Johnsons fought viciously for months, maybe years. They couldn’t be in the same space together, and for a while each pair suffered a stint in the basement. And the adoption of Gobo made it much worse, because he not only wanted to kill them – he actually could. One time he snagged Scamp off my desk and had her locked in his fangs until I ran in screaming for him to drop her.

So Scamp and Jazz have spent most of the last six years of their lives in my office and the upstairs bathroom. And during times when I was really busy, they were stuck there in that tiny space all by themselves, with little more than brief pettings from me in guilt-ridden moments every now and then. I felt so bad about it that on more than one occasion I suggested to Allie that we find a better home for them. “They just seem so unhappy,” I’d say.

But we never did, and I’m glad because there were a number of stretches where I worked full-time in my office, so Scamp and Jazz had me around more than at any other point in their lives. One such time was the last nine months. Since I quit the mayor’s office, I’ve been in this office nearly every day, and on each of those days Scamp has climbed into my lap several times. Sometimes I’d take a break and lay down on the coach and both she and Jazz would run over and leap up to be with me, Jazz nestled in the nook of my arm and Scamp on my chest, sniffing my chin, inching her way in to find the teat she just knew had to be there.

Scamp’s always been a little frail. She never grew out of that lanky post-kitten stage, when cats look like they’re wearing pajamas. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t piss outside the box, and I’ve taken her in for urinary tract infections several times. And she and Jazz both seem to cough up an awful lot of hairballs. Hell, now that I think of it, all of our cats puke a ton. Every square foot of our upstairs floor is marred with splat marks from when we couldn’t wipe it up quick enough to prevent the acid burn. So I didn’t notice at first when Scamp started throwing up everyday. Took maybe a week, give or take a day. Then once I started noticing that I could tell that she was skinnier than usual. One day I picked her up and saw that she was a lot skinnier. You could really see her hip bones jutting out, and feel her spine when petting her.

That was back in February. We took her to her vet. And then an internal medicine specialist. And then a holistic vet, who suggested we start feeding her raw food. And thus began what might well have been the best period of her life. Several times a day I’d come marching up the stairs with two bowls of raw chicken, lamb, liver, or her favorite, beef heart for she and Jazz to scarf down. She’d be up at the top of the steps waiting for me. I always cracked up at her standing there with her tail standing tall and twitching, her head pivoting back and forth as she looked from bowl to bowl with a look of instinctive blood thirstiness and true connoisseurship.

She started gaining weight. Spring settled in and I fixed the screens she had shredded years ago so I could have breeze and she could reclaim her perch at the top of the world.

And you know what, I’m going to stop there for today. I’ll recount the last few weeks some day soon, I’m sure. But not today. Scamp passed away today.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

interesting stats

I did a couple of queries on the Kansas City Star's article database at the library's site to see how many hits I would get on Mark Funkhouser and Alvin Brooks between November 1, 2006 and March 28, 2007, when the race for mayor was dominating local news. Out of curiosity, I also threw in Albert Riederer, the third-place finisher in the primary.

Here's what I got:

Funkhouser - 424
Brooks - 387
Riederer - 88

Brooks was serving on the City Council at the time, so a number of the articles containing his name were unrelated to the race. So I ran a query of his name along with "mayor" and I got 295.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

the 80s: rellik

The summer after my freshman year wasn't the best of my life. I spent it in Elkhart, Indiana, living mostly with my grandparents on my dad's side of the family. I guess I hadn't yet fully accepted Denver as my new home, and I wanted to take one last run at being a big fish in the little Indiana pond.

That's the only time in my life that I've been in a band. And we were only a real, full band for one night.

Andy was the guitarist and I was the singer, or yeller, or whatever. And it took most of the summer to find a decent drummer and bass player.

We finally found them a little after the Fourth of July, and Andy's parents were out, so we had the place to ourselves, so we celebrated and jammed all night.

Well, they did anyway. I got distracted by my reflection in a sliding glass door.

Not being a mirror, the image wasn't precise, so my imagination painted details into it. I watched my face shift across the years, appearing at one moment to be five or six years old and the next wrinkly and old, as if I were eighty. In rapid succession I turned 25, 12, 56 and back to 16, my actual age at the time. And at each stage I saw myself to be a pathetic fool.

I went upstairs to the room where the band was practicing and sat down on the floor with my back against a wall, lowering my head between my knees, with my eyes closed, and I started spinning, head over foot, through deep, black space, at a horrifying velocity.

I'm pretty sure that was my last day with the band. I don't recall ever picking up the mic.

For the next several days I slept nearly around the clock. Then one day I got up and went for a run, not sure how far I'd go. Before I knew it, I was sprinting all out. I kept sprinting until I collapsed and I laid there in the grass, feeling my heart pump blood through my body as quickly as it could. The sky above me was brilliant blue. I felt so alive.

From there, I embarked on one of the most interesting and creative periods in my life -- back in Colorado, where a new school year awaited, and I was eager to start over again.

monkey and cat making out

a moment of zen