A Heart-Breakingly Good Story

My husband loves to read the comics.  While I was raised to believe cartoons were simultaneously the lowest form of art and literature, they helped him learn how to read.  Before the Internet, he read the comics page before he read anything else in the paper.  Now he follows them online.  One strip, Mom’s Cancer, has made such an impact on him that I got him the complete graphic novel but I wasn’t going read it. Like everyone else, I’ve lost loved ones to this awful disease and the idea of reading about some poor woman’s struggle didn’t send me.  Add that feeling to what I was taught about comics as a kid and I decided this was a book to avoid.  Well, I was wrong, not just a little bit wrong, but WRONG with whip cream and cherries.   Mom’s Cancer is a story that needs to be shared and a strip was the best way to tell it.
In 2004 Brian Fies was just one more baby-boomer in the sandwich generation part of his life (That’s when your kids see you as an adult but your parents still react like you’re a kid.) His parents and his siblings were living mostly separate lives.  Then his mother had what seemed like a seizure and the medical searchers found not one tumor but two.  A brain tumor (no surprise) caused by metastasized lung cancer.  Stage Four.  The only reason his mother wasn’t dismayed at first was because she thought there were ten stages of cancer.  Her children changed the rhythm of their lives to help her fight the disease.
This kind of story only works (I think) when it’s told with marrow-deep honesty and Mr. Fries pulls no punches.  He and his sisters became their Mom’s support system but there were times they found it difficult to pull together.  Serious illness makes families want to pull together while their anxiety tears them apart.  And since responsibility for Mom was apportioned between three siblings, conflict was inevitable.  In the end, the mutual support of their mother was the over-riding factor and that support evidently continued into the creation of this volume.   Families can be wonderful, that way.
The words and art quickly point out that the health-care industry could use some improvement. Mom’s initial diagnosis came seriously late because an osteopath didn’t put the evidence together. The family doesn’t get the referral support they need to find appropriate specialists. Then the specialists tend to face this seriously ill and depressed woman wearing jack-o-lantern grins and expressionless eyes.  (My husband, a long-time health-care worker himself, thinks these drawings are incredibly accurate and scary.)  In the fight to prolong their patient’s life, her quality of life sometimes gets overlooked and cancer victims don’t always learn the degree of permanent change they face, even if they recover.  If nothing else, Mom’s Cancer lifts that shade of ignorance a bit. It should be required reading for cancer patients, their families and their doctors.
The art of the book is spectacular in explaining some complex parts of the story (like how a one/fifth decrease in a tumor’s size is really a fifty percent improvement) and highlights some electrifying moments.  But at heart it’s a story of people negotiating some of their most difficult days with humor, anger and the occasional moment of grace.  It’s full of life, hope and humanity. That’s what makes Mom’s Cancer so worthwhile.  

Trickiest Heroes

Certain literary academic types like to search for the roots of stories.  Get a bunch of them together and pretty soon you’ll start hearing terms like “origin myth” and “archetype” being bandied about. (Well, that’s what you hear when you serve them tea and coffee. Serve booze and you may get something entirely different)   That’s because these thinkers spend a lot of their lives trying to understand humanity and culture through its literature and art.  Stories and characters are created to answer needs in the human psyche and some needs are so deeply rooted we don’t completely understand how or why they exist.  But because they exist, each generation makes up its own stories that revive or reinvent these characters and their adventures.  The stories gain or lose shades of complexity that correspond to aspects of the era it was hatched in but certain characters (or archetypes) reappear from one generation to the next and in stories from very different cultures.  Look anywhere in the pages World Literature and you’ll find the Wise Old Mentor or the terrifying Shade. You’ll also find my personal favorite there: the Trickster, the wildest, most entertaining Hero in the pack.

Separating the Heroes from the Trickster Heroes

Heroes are usually stalwart guys (well, they’re girls too) who beat the bad guys with bravery and nobility of soul.  Don’t get me wrong, those guys are all great.  Young and inexperienced like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, or mysterious and cynical like Shane or Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, they face down terrors and save the world, even if they die in the process.  They’re admirable folks but aren’t they also the tiniest bit, well….boring?   Courage and Nobility are great when your life’s in danger but they’re not much fun on a date.   If wit and entertainment are what you want in a companion, you’d be much better off with ……Bugs Bunny.[amazon_link asins=’0805011900′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e2ef9645-9a9f-11e8-a3f0-9d99ae094243′]

The Wascally-est Wabbit of them All

Think about it, Bugs is the coolest member of the Warner Brothers cast.  Fast-talking, fast thinking and nimble, he runs circles around Elmer Fudd and anyone else who stands in his way.  He continually turns the plot upside down and fools his opponent at every turn, sometimes with rhythmic patter, (Rabbit Season/Duck Season) and sometimes by dressing in drag (Bugs as Brunhilde in What’s Opera, Doc introduced most of us to Wagner and cross-dressing) With Bugs, the ending is always the same.  Bugs wins by trickery and never dies.  He exchanges nobility of soul for a brilliant brain and becomes the hero that’s cool.  Not bad for a “rascally rabbit”.
Actually the list of trickster heroes includes more than one rabbit and several of them are animals. The Trickster Heroes in Native American literature appear as raccoons, coyotes, foxes and other animals.  African tribes also created stories starring animal tricksters who overcame authority with their wits, the essential quality of the trickster.  The trickster is always an outsider who subverts and overcomes authority by outwitting the ruling powers.  Thank heavens some trickster heroes are human (or human-shaped) as well.

Human Trickster Heroes

Who’s the fellow who robbed the rich and rescued the poor until the rightful King returned to England?  Robin Hood of course and a trickier, more attractive man there never was.  Who upsets Oberon and Titania and steals the good scenes of a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream?  Puck, a/k/a  Robin Goodfellow.  Sometimes the Trickster captures the heroine’s (and the reader’s) interest and is somewhat domesticated by marriage. (Think of Harold Hill or Hans Solo) but most Tricksters evade capture.  They just go on from tale to tale (like Captain Jack Sparrow, one of the more successful recent trickster heroes) enjoying their lives. living by their wits and subverting authority.
The one thing we’re still a bit short on are trickster heroines although there are a few. Scheherezade tricked the king into keeping her alive with her wealth of stories and Pippi Longstocking qualifies, even if I don’t like her.  Ramona the Pest might also make the list.  Either way, we need more girls with the smarts to turn authority upside down and over on itself.  That’s what tricksters do.  That’s why we like them.   They’re the heroes that are “too cool for school”.

A Eulogy for Moosie

My cat died yesterday.  In a world where terrorists gleefully bomb capital cities and spree killers ruin communities with a single gun clip, this seems like such a small event, I almost hesitate to mention it.  A cat’s death, what’s a cat’s death, occurring (as it did) on Good Friday?  A large percentage of the earth was already mourning a man who changed much of civilization.  So, from one point of view, Moosie’s passing was not really worthy of note.  On the other hand, it is important because Moose was no ordinary cat.
The first everyone noticed about Moosie was his size. While the average domestic cat weighs between 8 and 10 pounds, Moosie more than doubled that weight and his fluffy coat made him look even bigger. He came to our home as a stray,but he fit many of the characteristics of Ragdoll breed with his outsized frame, short legs and sweet temperament. It was clear from the start that he liked being close to people.  “We’re going to need a bigger couch” my husband muttered after Moosie jumped up on the cushions. “He takes up half the space.”  
He irritated the two resident cats with his size, appetite and lack of feline guile.  While Charlie and Brindle Lee backed up and hissed, the big fluffy boy went over to the communal food dish and started to eat.  And eat, and eat….and eat.  Thinking him starved, I refilled the bowl with five cups of dry food and he polished that off as well as a can of wet food and two slices of bologna.  Then he tried to make friends with the two senior cats who were seriously offended by a friendly stranger that was twice their size.  Unperturbed, the big guy took a nap and five hours later he was hungry again.  “He hasn’t got worms” a vet friend later affirmed.  “This boy’s just afraid he won’t find a next meal.” 
Even for a “big-boned” cat, Moosie carried a plus-sized body that he ran on comparatively tiny feet.   It created an issue in naming him.  “Bustopher Jones?” I asked, thinking of the Eliot’s “25 pounder” in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  “Orson Welles?”  I knew better than that.  My husband dislikes fanciful names for pets and won’t use any he thinks are too silly.  I, on the other hand, believe that a cat will recognize his/her name once you’ve guessed it correctly and will respond when you call.  So the big cat remained nameless and sweet until one afternoon when he was getting a fur rub from the wrong direction.  Other cats will hiss and leave if you rub their fur against the grain but this creature loved it, the harder the better, so eventually we were pushing him across the floor with our feet.  “What a big lummox” I said, looking down at the animal, flat on his back, eyes closed and  grinning “doesn’t he know cats aren’t supposed to like this?”   “Don’t think he cares.” my husband replied.  And it came to me.  Who else intimidated people with his size, not his IQ, but was actually a gentle soul?  Moose Mason of course, the football player from the pages of Archie comic books.  And so our newest feline became Moose, the cat who acted more like a dog.
Charlie and Brindle-Lee honored the cat code of behavior while Moose liked to ignore it.  The two of them curled up in fur circles to sleep; Moose stretched out full length on the floor.  Aloof and self-sufficient, the older cats express affection when they see fit to dispense it and only when we hold them as they wished.  Moose was always up for having his fur scritchled and it didn’t matter how he was held.  At one point, I slung him over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and toted him around the house.  Moose was thrilled.  Hanging right side up or upside down didn’t matter, having  humans close to him did.  He liked all humans, even strangers because Moose believed he was making new friends.  When our roof was installed, Moose made friends with the crew, met them at work every morning and followed their cars up the road when they left. Other cats could be wary of people.  Moosed believed treats and kindness were automatic gifts from humanity.  That belief may have cost him his life.
Moose hadn’t shown up a couple of days when I went to work yesterday morning but I wasn’t overly concerned.  Cats like to roam and there are about five women on the mountain who feed our roving clowder of strays so Moosie could always cadge a free meal.  So my husband’s mid-morning phone call surprised me.  “Moose came home” he said “and I’ve taken him to the vet.”
“What’s wrong?” I said.  “Did he get in a fight?  Has he been bitten?”  
“No, but I think he may have been hit by a car.” My husband paused. “He came in and went right to the food dish but he’s carrying a back leg all wrong.  I took him to the vet and they’ll x-ray him as soon as he can be sedated.  They have to wait because he’s too full of food.  They’ll call you with the report.  It will probably be about four hours.”
That was a long four hours.  When the vet called she was kind but concerned.
“Mrs. Golden, your cat has been shot.  I’m seeing multiple fractures on both of his back legs and the wounds have become infected….”
“Oh God.” I whimpered.  “That’s why he didn’t home when I called….”
“I’m afraid so” she said “And I don’t think he can recover, even if we do everything possible.  And that would be very expensive.”
“I don’t care about expense.”  My throat locked shut for a moment.  “Is my Moosie in pain?”
“He isn’t right now, he’s under anesthetic.  But he has been for awhile now and with his injuries…”
I gripped the phone. “Then please put him to sleep, Doctor. If you don’t think he can recover, please don’t let him hurt any more.”
She offered to keep him alive until we could get to her office and tell the sweet boy good-bye but what good would that do?  Moosie’s last days had been terrible and a return to consciousness now would only reawaken his agony, even if we were there.  I wouldn’t do that to our sweet boy.   He had made the monumental journey back home and enjoyed one last massive meal in my husband’s company.  I know my husband, the vet and her staff cared for him as gently as they could so his last hours at least held some sweetness.  Maybe Moosie felt that kindness before he slipped away instead of the terror and pain that came from humans with guns.  I hope so.  He really was a warm, loving cat.
But we all deserve kindness, even those not so easy to love.  I’ll try to remember that instead of looking for a black-and-white face that will never return.  And I’ll try to remember each day is an adventure to be enjoyed and explored instead wished away because it’s not something else. I’ll remember that love is a gift, no matter how it’s offered and every stranger may be a new friend.  It’s worth taking a chance to find out.  Those are the Precepts of Moosie. Consider them Life Lessons  from A Generous Cat. 

Where Spring (and Murder) are in Session

According the calendar, it’s Springtime at last, although my thermometer begs to differ.  Well, I don’t depend on the weather to foretell the seasons.  I have television for that, or at least I used to.  Once upon a time I reckoned summer by the return of Mad Men  and knew fall was coming when Sleepy Hollow reappeared.  I could count on spending the coldest weeks of winter with the Crawley family at Downton Abbey but they and Don Draper have shut up shop.  At least Grantchester returns with the Easter weekend.  Since this begins the second season, (and, as a rule, the books are better than adaptations) it’s seems only right to have a look at the source material.
The Television Adaptation
Grantchester is based on a series of mysteries by James Runcie, all of whom center around a delightfully unpredictable vicar of the 1950’s named Sidney Chambers.  On the one hand, Sidney is exactly what Central Casting taught Americans to expect of a British clergyman.  He’s kind, well-mannered, thoughtful (if a bit obtuse when it comes to attractive females) genuinely concerned about God and anxious to help his burdened parishioners with the difficulties in their lives.  On the other hand, he’s far more modern than 1950’s England seems to expect.  Here is a Canon who chooses Scotch over Sherry (one reason I liked him immediately), is fairly athletic and he adores American Jazz.  If that’s not enough, Sidney doesn’t socialize with the Bishop or even the members of the faith. His best pal is the local police detective, Geordie Keating, although even they don’t seem to have much in common.  Keating is the traditional family man and Englishman, who attends church only for family functions.  Sidney is single, modern and spiritual. These polar opposites make a great team in solving crime.
The Original
Each volume of stories has a Character/Phrase title (similar to the Harry Potter series) and contains several mini-mysteries between the covers. The first in the series, (Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death) set the scene and period as well as create a wonderful set of supporting figures: Sidney’s redoubtable housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire, his Dostoyevsky loving curate, Leonard and the two women able to turn Sidney’s head: Hildegard and Amanda. In Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, Sidney and his returning cast get the chance to solve a half dozen murders in and around Cambridge while they look at the changing face of England.  Memories of The Cambridge Five (a group of college graduates that were recruited as Soviet Agents) haunt the backdrop of the first and last tales, a conflicted romance between an Indian emigre and a British Miss reflect the wave of immigration England faced at the time and even the USA/USSR Space Race becomes part of the tale, “The Uncertainty Principle”. Through these and the closing of the Berlin Wall, Sidney Chambers follows the measured pace of a man who hopes for the best from people but accepts the inevitability of our failures. Sidney sees everyone is a work in progress, and himself as the chap who needs the most help.
If you miss the world of Inspector Morse or want a place like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, or if you just want to imagine England in Spring, give these stories of James Runcie the eye.  They’re just the thing for the Season.

The Mechanism That Makes Art look Easy

Some people love to watch swans on the water.  I can’t blame them, it’s a gorgeous sight.   There, on the flat surface of a pond or lake, beautiful birds glide by, graceful and long-necked, pristine and white.  They lift their wings more than flap. They don’t splash.  There’s something perfect about the above-surface swan.

Okay, but I like what makes it glide.  Underneath that smooth surface, wide, waddling feet are peddling like mad to achieve what looks like effortless motion. The submerged part of the bird looks ungainly but it’s what makes the surface appearance work. That’s what I like about creative structure.  Instead of the eye-capturing, realized vision, it’s the mechanism that made the imagined vision real.

That mechanism is what Jack Viertel talks about in  The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built.  Like any other devotee of musical theatre, Mr. Viertel adores being swept away by a show and he’s been one of those lucky audience members for more than sixty years.  He’s also been a theatrical critic, an artistic director, a producer, a dramaturg (Mr. Viertel explains a dramaturg is the “noodge” who asks questions about a developing theatrical piece that either improve the production or get him killed) a writer and teacher of the American Musical Form.  And, as much as he loves the perfect production of a musical spectacle, he also loves taking a show apart to see what makes it work.  Or, with some shows, why it doesn’t.

It turns out that a large part of any musical’s success depends on understanding what the audience needs at any point in the show.  After the overture, an audience needs to know the who, where and when of the story.  You could tell them but nothing is more boring than bald exposition so musicals have opening songs to set the tone and the scene of their stories.  Next, an audience needs to meet the central characters and learn what makes them tick so the leads sing  “I need” songs to tell the crowd their greatest desires.  After that, the plot needs to ease back a notch so it’s time for a few loud, crowd-pleasing numbers.  What seems like an effortless story is actually a well-structured form.
But art pushes form and as times and tastes change, Broadway musicals have changed as well.  The plot-shy, song heavy vehicles my grandmother knew changed into the integrated story/song/dance vehicles my mother adored.  The standard boy/girl plot was dropped as a requirement in my day (Thank God!) and the current Broadway hit has contemporary music styles integrated into a history-based plot to show just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was.  Viertel tracks how each decade of musicals reinvented and redefined the form while honoring the internal guidelines from the overture through the eleven o’clock number that brings down the house.  His enlightening  narrative is shot full of show-business anecdotes and examples that affirm musical theatre isn’t just a consciousness-elevating art-form; it’s very big business as well.  It’s the quintessential blend of high and low art; thought provoking but entertaining and, at best, accessible to everyone.  Mr. Viertel helps us understand why that is.
Sure, there are folks who insist they don’t like musicals just as there are people who simply loathe swans. The world is big enough to contain all types.  Nevertheless, the greatest anatidaephomes must admit those long-necked birds look great on the water.  And when a production flows with grace and joy, seated musical haters have been known to stand up and cheer.  Thanks to Mr. Viertel, we can cheer along with them and never let the haters know the show that got past their prejudices was constructed to be easy to love.