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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Touch of Madness

   For the last month, I’ve been down the rabbit hole.  That is, I got back into acting and did a local performance of Alice in Wonderland for a community theater group.

   Now, it wasn’t Broadway or even Lewis Carroll for that matter.  It’s an adaptation that puts a group of actors on the hunt for a girl to play Alice.  They just ask her to pretend along with them and to Wonderland they go.  For my part, I was the leader of the actors and also The King of Hearts. 

   I haven’t acted on stage in about 10 or 11 years.  I gave it up along with all acting in order to settle down and have a full time job.  I simply couldn’t juggle it, work, and life.  But in light of recent events, I thought it would be nice to do a small show, about 18 rehearsals, and five performances.  I haven’t been this tired in a long time.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a kids’ show is easier.   It’s not the case. 

   But somewhere, in all the delirium of exhaustion and lack of sleep, I had a thought.  What if we’re looking at Alice the wrong way?  We all know the story.  Alice, a little girl in England, longs for something unusual to entertain her during her doldrums of lessons and boring life.  She follows a white rabbit into a hole and ends up in Wonderland where nothing makes sense.  All the while, the residents of Wonderland give her exactly what she wants, mostly to her dissatisfaction.    But is it all in her head?  And… who is actually being forced to do something they don’t want?

   So, one of the ideas we, as actors, thought about during the show is how sadistic we really are.  The characters NEED an Alice and when they find one, they don’t exactly ask her to play along.  They kind of rope her into playing their game.   They’re pretty much torture her with nonsense for an hour until she breaks and goes along with it.  Granted, by the end of OUR play she is the one calling the shots, the Queen’s gruff and psychotic demeanor softens as she forgives the Knave for stealing her tarts, and Alice returns to her world which has been there all along as we were all just pretending.  Still, the amount of crap we throw at an unsuspecting Alice all because she “asked” for it is rather sociopathic.   But what if we’re the ones who are being directed?

   By the end of the run, I had developed some pain in my knees from a particular scene where we pretend to be the rabbit hole, swirling about Alice.  Every so often, crouching down for her to deliver a line, we end with “Is she almost there?”   Giving that line I felt like, “Enough is enough, my poor knees can’t take too much more of this.”  The director actually wanted to re block the scene so that I wasn’t in pain.-  She didn’t realize all of my perceived difficulty with that scene was acting.   I hammed it up just for that line to come across as a game changer.     In the next scene, Alice complains about being too large to fit through the door to the garden and starts to cry.  We all look at each other in disgust and roll our eyes at her dramatic crying to which we give her a handkerchief.   Once again, Alice has the power and we are just going through the motions to satisfy her.    Those two moments made me think, “What if we’re all in an asylum and Alice is some sadistic puppeteer forcing us to endlessly pretend to be these characters every day just to appease her psychosis?”    It hearkened back to another show I was familiar with back in college, Marat/Sade, also called The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  The title alone sounds sadistic, right?  Now, I am not trying to say that the depiction of class struggle and human suffering can be compared to Alice in Wonderland but the idea of a play within a play and the sadistic tendencies of Sade directing inmates to perform for his amusement do.    Think of the little girl who forces a parent into having a tea party all the time, slowly driving them mad like the March Hare or Mad Hatter.

   My thoughts are not entirely original, I’m sure.  Other plays, movies, and television shows have questioned what is real and what is madness?  It’s a trope called Schrödinger's Butterfly.  

  • A direct reference is The Matrix where Morpheus uses the red and blue pill to signify Neo’s choice of leaving the fake world for the real one.  
  • American McGee’s Alice was a video game released 15 years ago that supposed that Alice was locked up in an asylum after witnessing the death of her family post Through the Looking Glass.  However, the character leaves to return to Wonderland.   
  • Total Recall (1990) asks the question, “Are you sure your life is real?”  After visiting a place that sells dreams as reality, Schwarzenegger’s character unlocks a memory of his alternate life.  Now, he can’t tell which is real, his boring life or the one where he’s a spy on the run from evil corporate giants. 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Normal Again did a stint where Buffy was infected by toxins from a monster that caused her to hallucinate that she was really locked up in an asylum and that her entire career as a Slayer, her friends, and all the supernatural events of six seasons were all in her mind.  She has been in a state of catatonia for six years with a brief period of lucidity right about the time she died in the show’s fifth season finale.  
  • Taming of the Shrew is a bit of a Schrödinger's Butterfly where a drunk is put into a performance of a play and is led to believe what he is a part of is real life.
  • Revolution used the nanotechnology as a way of convincing certain people that they were living in a Utopian dream world.  The dream would was a way to get them to give up specific information that could help the nano survive. 

   There are plenty more.

   What madness there could be with an idea that our daily lives are the dream and our dreams are our reality?  Or further yet, that someone else is pulling the strings and our lives are the figment of the imagination of someone else, kind of like Taming of the Shrew or St. Elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Bud

This past winter was pretty bad by all accounts.  It was one of those weather events that take place every decade.  You know where you have a shit ton of ice and snow for three months of the year and then the next 10, hardly any?   Yeah. That was what this past winter was like.  It reminded me of the last big winter we had.  That was back in 2003.    We got a lot of snow dumped on us.  So much in fact, most of my town pretty much shut down and I was able to walk up the middle of a major roadway to the grocery store in the early evening without encountering a vehicle.

It was February 2003 and also President’s Day Weekend.   I was living in a townhouse with a small patch of yard off my back stoop that ended in a chain link fence.  Beyond the fence was brush.  And In that brush there lived a rabbit, which we named Russell.  I don’t know if it was a boy or girl, but we were pretty sure the same rabbit kept coming to my back door.

We had been feeding Russell for a while and, at one point, were able to feed him/her directly from our hands.  And when the snow hit, we felt bad because we had sort of screwed Russell by feeding him/her.

(I’m going to just keep calling it a him for the sake of this story.  Any objections?  Good.)

So, because Russell had sort of become accustomed to us feeding him, he might have had trouble foraging for himself.   I got a box and some alfalfa hay and set up a little shelter on my back stoop.  I had hoped I would look outside my dining room door and see Russell asleep in the box, snuggled and warm.  But that Friday, when I looked out, I saw something else, a threat.

Instead of Russell, I saw this black and white cat sitting next to the box where some food had been placed for Russell.  Fearing this stray cat would attack Russell, I leaned out the door and tried to shoo it away.   The lanky cat looked up at me and mewed this long mew that seemed rather pathetic.  But I wasn’t about to doom Russell, so I continued to shoo away the cat and eventually, it left.  I went about my day and when my girlfriend came over that night, she looked out the back to see the cat had returned.

“There’s a cat out there!”

“Again?  Dammit, I shooed that thing away this morning.  I don’t want it eating Russell.”

“YOU DID WHAT?!?!?!”

“I shooed it away.”

“Oh my God!  What is wrong with you?  There’s like a foot of snow out there.  The poor thing!”

“Just leave it be, it will go back to its home.”

“I don’t think it has one.  I’m going to go get it.”

“Don’t do that!”

This was the normal routine.  She would see some animal outside roaming around, go get it and then we’d be stuck with a big ass dog or something… actually I would be stuck with it, while we located the owner.  I should mention that I am allergic to cats, by the way.   My eyes puff out, get itchy and watery, and I sneeze.  It’s not fun.  Also, my lease forbid cats unless I paid an extra fee, probably for cleaning.

But off she went, anyways.  I’d hear this exchange of her calling it and it mewing at her go back and forth for a few minutes.   Eventually, she got it to come to the door.  She opened the sliding glass door and waited.  Within a few minutes, the cat just slinked right into my dining room, snow up to its hips.

“Well, now what the hell am I going to do with it?”

“Name him.”

“You do realize I am allergic?  And that I am not allowed to have a cat?”


That was it.  That was her argument.  She excused herself and went to the store.  

“I’m just going to get a cheap litter box and some food.  We’ll figure out where he belongs in the morning.”

February 2003
She came back with a litter box, a mini cat tree, food, and treats.   I was livid.   But he looked pathetic.  He appeared to be emaciated and had been in a fight because he had fur missing and some scratches on his neck.   My girlfriend gave him some milk.  We determined it was a him, while Russell was just assumed to be one.  And we gave him some food.  And against better judgment I let the cat stay in my bedroom with the litter box next to my bed.   During the night, I heard him use the litter box and the stench was almost as bad as the sound.  It was like a scene out of Dumb and Dumber.  I could literally see his face in excruciating pain.  He looked like he was actually sweating from the duress. 

In the morning, we took him to the vet.  He was suffering from malnutrition, some cuts, a touch of frostbite, and he was riddled with worms.  Apparently, he had been on his own for a while.  He had now become my responsibility.    It helped that I had an extra day off from work to deal with this, but I still wasn’t happy about it.  I didn’t exactly have a say in the matter.  Still, the bastard was cute and had a lot of personality.  So, I kept him.  Now, I just needed a name.  Drake, Ash, Shadow.  All rejected.  Baxter?  No, too commercial.  I’m an actor and this was a tuxedo cat, so Oscar seemed to be the most appropriate.   

I spent the evenings with him sitting next to me on the couch and when I would go to bed, I would usually close my door.  Thankfully, I moved the litter box to another bedroom, but still, he wanted to be with me.  So, I’d leave the door open and he’d come in and get on the bed.  Then, he’d promptly, walk around my pillow, stepping on me and getting in my face.  He was a real pain in the ass.  Eventually, I figured out that if I sat with him on the couch long enough, he would fall asleep, and then I could sneak upstairs as long as I left the TV on with a timer set.   That way I could get a night’s sleep without his interruptions.   Some days, he figured out my plan and raced me to the steps.

He had some pretty interesting habits.  He would walk up to a toy and promptly stomp on it with his back paw.  He loved sitting on the tile at the bottom of my steps, where it was cool.  He would sit in the window and just chitter at the birds.  He also liked sitting on the arms of my couch with one leg dangling to the side.   He had these huge back legs that were white and resembled those socks you wore up to your knees in the 70s.    We also developed a bit of a rapport with each other.  I would see him in the morning before I’d go to work and would head boop him on my way out the door.  We even came up with a voice with him that was sort of a caricature of a friend’s.   It wasn’t until he came face to face with a dog at the back window that he made this noise that sounded like “Water, Water, Water, Water,” that made me realize that the voice I did was actually spot on as his own.

But he was also ornery.  And my then girlfriend now, at that moment, fiancée made the determination that he needed a playmate.  I needed to get another cat.  So, I adopted another tuxedo cat named Emmy.  Get it.  Oscar and Emmy.  He was never a huge eater but he was a big cat.  I want to say he was part Maine Coon except he was a short hair.   We had to keep Emmy separate from him because she would woof down her dinner and then go after his. 

I outgrew the townhouse and moved into a house with my fiancée and two cats, followed by two more, twins Willow and Lucy. Oscar was a bit of a puss and hid immediately, while Emmy explored.    He was burdened with being the only male cat in the house and even though he asserted his dominance, Emmy never submitted to him.  She was taken from her mother and litter mates too soon and developed an OCD about things like eating.  In fact, at one point, she tried and succeeded in nursing off of Oscar, though he never produced anything except self-shame over the matter.  I always said I had three cats, Emmy, Willow, and Oscar, and Oscar had a cat, Lucy.   Lucy seemed to follow him wherever he went.  If he lied on the couch, she snuggled up on top of him, almost.  If it was dinner time, he’d take his time coming to the kitchen and even wander through, but Lucy would cut him off or go round him up vocally and physically.   When we slept, he would lay on a pillow between us, and then of course, Lucy would come up and get in his face.  He put up with a lot.  For almost ten years he and I just shook our heads at each other over how we lost control of things.   Then again, I never wanted him in the first place.  

 Snuggle buds
After my daughter was born, Oscar started to become a lap cat.  He loved having his ears stroked as he sat on your lap.  He loved it.  He’d purr like an engine then he would shake his head out when you stopped.    Among his growing number of idiosyncrasies, he added busting down the unsecured bathroom door while you were in there, hopping up on the edge of the tub to watch the water droplets roll down the side, and not really eating the shreds or chunks of wet food, but eating the gravy.   He’d even get on the floor and roll on his back, enticing me to join him, only to move just out of reach when I would get down on the floor with him.  Still, every morning when I would go to work, I’d call him up on the piano bench and head boop him as I left.

Waiting for the head boop

Then, in 2012 and 2013, we were beset by fleas thanks to the strays in the neighborhood.  They somehow found their way onto our clothing and then onto our indoor only cats.   We wasted a lot of money on sprays and collars and eventually kicked the cats out of our bedroom at night because we were finding fleas in our bed.

After a while I noticed Oscar was losing weight.  He had always been big, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-14 lbs.   Now, I could feel his breastbone under his neck.  We took him to the vet and learned he had lost considerable weight.  I thought it was due to the stress of the fleas.  Turns out, it wasn’t.   One day, we noticed a pile of cat shit on the carpet.  We didn’t know who to blame, one of the drawbacks of having four cats.    Then, again, another pile.    Soon, we realized it was Oscar.  We also realized there was blood in the stool.   Another trip to the vet solidified my fears.  He had a mass in his stomach and he had lost more weight.

We treated him with metronidazole thinking it was simply a bacterial infection or parasite.  That and steroids should have done the trick, though it was hard to give him the metronidazole because he would instantly drool everywhere.  Two rounds and no change in his condition started to scare me.  They did a sonogram to confirm the mass and did a biopsy that showed no cancer, so the determination was Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD.  He would go, straining to do so, and then vomit from the effort.   He was now 7 lbs.  This once magnificent animal was half the cat he was a year ago.

There isn’t a cure and eventually it will cause him greater discomfort and more weight loss as the tissue builds up preventing the cat from getting nutrients.   Nausea sets in and he even refuses to eat.  This is what I had to look forward to.

So, I kept him on Prednisolone and he would get IV fluids to combat dehydration.   His urine was becoming dark and more pungent from the lack of water in his system.  Some days he would be just fine, playing and ornery. Others, he’d sit, uncomfortably, not laying on his side, like he was prone to do, curled up with his belly out, enticing me to just rub the shit out of it, showing me the shaved patch from his sonogram, a reminder of what was happening.

Last month, I went away for the weekend and I was informed that he simply refused to eat.  When I got him, he looked haggard, his fur not as silky as it used to be and there were cracks in his fur where I could see his skin between it.  Petting him, I could feel his skeleton under the skin.  This once beefy boy was not fragile and clumsy.  He didn’t slink around anymore.  He slipped around the floor with no weight to keep him grounded and solid.

My little girl went to the beach last week, and during our nightly calls, she asked if Oscar was still alive.  I said yes, he was right there next to me, but he was barely there.  He wouldn’t show interest in water or food, only responding to treats with very little success in chewing.  He wasn’t going to the bathroom that I could tell, but I would find brownish red splotches around the floor in the morning.  I was convinced that I wasn’t going to let him starve, so I grabbed a dropper and would take as many teaspoons of wet food gravy and water as I could get in him.   By Wednesday, he was scaring me.   I took him to the vet with the full expectation that I was going to put him down.  I cried most of the way there, cursing all the times I didn’t want him on my lap because I was busy or didn’t want to deal with the allergies.  Per usual, he waited until I was five minutes away to decide to shit in the car, mostly liquid.   

I arrived at the vet’s and took him inside.  He sat next to me, reeking of cat shit, which was now stuck to his tail.  I cleaned him up as best I could, but it was pretty bad.  Then, he started sniffing the air.   On the counter above us was a canister of treats.   I grabbed some and he began woofing them down, two, then three, then four more he ate.  I took him into the room.  5.58 pounds.  But now he was acting like there was nothing wrong with him.   There I was ready to make the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make and he rebounded on me.  It was like he simple needed to go.  I begin to think I should just drive him around every day before feeding him.  They gave him an IV of fluids, a vitamin B and anti-nausea shot.   He showed more life than he had all week. So, we went home. 

I had a night off from tech rehearsal but I was still exhausted.  I would wake up at 5:15am, give him his steroid pill, get a shower, go to work and leave at 4pm.  I would then go directly to my father-in-law’s to take care of his cats because he was also at the beach.   After feeding them, changing their water, and cleaning their litter, I’d go home, change, give Oscar his second pill, make myself a sandwich for dinner and then eat it on my way to the theater.   At 9:45pm, I’d return home, feed my cats, sit for a moment, and then take Oscar into the bathroom with the remaining dish of mostly gravy.  I would struggle to get that and water into him and then clean him up as best I could.  Then I would collapse and sleep for about five hours, ready to do it all again in the morning.

His marked improvement from the vet’s lasted all of 12 hours.  By Friday evening he was back to not eating anything.  In fact, he fought me more with the dropper.   I was worried more about him than ever.  So, I brought basket where he’d been sleeping most of the day into the bedroom and put him on the bed with a towel.  It was hard to get over that smell but I didn’t care.  I could reach out and rub his ears.   At one point, I even saw him cleaning himself.  Maybe, he was coming back from it.  I was at the point where I couldn’t take time off to deal with him in an extreme case.   I was screwed if he needed to go back to the vet, because I had a show on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.   All I wanted, at this point, was for him to make it until Sunday night, when my little girl got home.  I was determined to make sure he was fed and as comfortable as possible until her return.  A week ago, I almost prayed he went in his sleep.  That I could take care of it before she got home and spare her the pain of being here when it happened, but by Friday, I felt as if I wanted a return on my investment in him.  It was selfish, to be sure, but I already felt like I wasn’t giving him all I could and wanted him to hold out a little longer.

I was supposed to go out Saturday night but decided to stay in and look after him.  After all, I didn’t exactly have the energy or money to go out, so a nice quiet evening with him on my lap was in order.    I did my routine and took him to bed, again.  His breathing was raspier, now, and looked to take more effort to do so.  Around 3am, I heard this thump.  I shot up and looked around.  Hopefully, he just wanted a drink and decided to jump down and get one from the dish next to the bed.  I looked under the bed and he was just sitting there, like he normally did.  He acknowledged my presence and I kind of asked if he was OK, not really expecting an answer, but still looking for one.   He appeared to be fine, so I went back to bed. 

About 10 minutes later I heard this awful howl and cry.  I woke up again, and looked around.  I called out to him and then came around the other side and looked under the bed.  He was lying on his side, facing away from me, not moving.   He hadn’t been on his side in months.  I started to panic.  There was a small puddle of barf next to him.  I reached under and grabbed him and never acknowledged my presence.  I picked him up and lay him on the towel.   He was limp.  His eyes were blank.   I screamed out in shock but couldn’t understand why I wasn’t crying.   I just looked at him, calling his name in an empty house.   I leaned my ear to his chest and there was a release.    I’m by no means religious, but it was like I just heard his life leaving his body.   Then, there was nothing.  No beat, no movement, nothing.  He was gone.    

Then I wailed.  I screamed like a child.  I didn’t care.  I just looked at him, there on the bed, gone. 

I gathered him up and swaddled him in the towel, placing him gingerly in the basket.  I couldn’t leave him in here with me.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  So, I took him downstairs and placed him in the bathroom that nobody but myself actually uses.   He laid there with his face down into the basket, covered up.  His ears still poking out of the towel.  Those ears, that  I would I rub for hours, were the only thing left that I could look at.   It’s juvenile and silly, but I would bite them gently, at times, tugging just enough to get a purr out of him.  Now, that was gone, too.   All I could do was sleep.  It was the only thing I could do at 3:30am on a Sunday.

At 10:00am I called the vet’s and explained what happened.  They would be open until 12:00.  I still had a show to do.   So, I made that last drive, rubbing his still visible ear the whole way.  I wanted two things back from them.  The basket he slept in and his remains.  ONLY HIS REMAINS.  The towel and pad from inside the basket could be destroyed as far as I was concerned.    In about 7-10 days I’ll get a small oak box.  That’s all there will be. 

In the end, he made the decision I couldn’t.   I don’t know anything about awareness in animals but maybe he didn’t want me to struggle, thinking I made a mistake.  Maybe he didn’t want Bailey to see him go.    Truth is, he was gone a long time ago.  That big beefy boy that would rear up like a bronco against your leg stopped being Oscar at the end of April.    I leave in the morning, still expecting to see him on the bench.  I get a shower every morning, still expecting him to bust down the door.  I still sit there at night, expecting a visitor on my lap, or next to me, curled up like a cute little sonofabitch.

He went from my life, like he came in, all tail and ears.  He was emaciated then and he was at the time he called it for me.   He was an asshole that I loved like a child.  My sidekick, my Chewbacca, my friend, my Oscar.    I didn’t mind the allergies so much the last few years, but I know I didn’t pay him half the attention he deserved.  Life simply got in my way, like he would, walking through the kitchen.  And the others.   Bailey found out after she got home and cried terribly.   On Monday, Lucy, his cat, was wandering around looking for him downstairs, crying out.  At dinner time, she stood outside the kitchen, looking for him to show up.  I even forgot as I got down four bowls and realized what I had done.   Every drive home and every quiet moment is another reminder that he’s gone.  His favorite toys sit on the floor, no longer being stomped or batted around.    I miss him so much.  And he was the perfect cat.  No two ways about.  He was a social creature, always entertaining.  He was magnificent in his look and posture.  He was the height of too muchness.    

And I didn’t even want him.


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