Missing (one of) the Cats

For cats in the Hart home, Monday is the cruelest day of the week. It was a Monday night in the fall of 2008 when we took Skip to the Vet to be “put down.” Then last Monday, en route to the coast of Maine, our dear Isabelle succumbed to the cancer that made her little more than fur and bones (despite her voracious appetite). We brought Isabelle into our Philadelphia home to fill the void left by Skip, who had been an elegant presence for eighteen years. Isabelle saw us through a number of arresting transitions, from losing a job to moving out of our favorite city. (Thankfully, we still have Cordelia, though hers is a strange comfort since she did not find Isabelle to be a welcome housemate.)

Though a pretentious name it is, Isabelle was actually named not for a queen or writer but another cat. Joseph Epstein wrote an essay almost two decades ago, “Livestock,” about his seven-year-old cat, Isabelle. Because he is one of our favorite living writers and because the essay is full of charm and mirth about the virtues of cats, we decided to give our second pet the name of Epstein’s feline.

As a tribute to our Isabelle, here is an excerpt from Epstein’s essay about his Isabelle:

I hope that I have not given the impression that Isabelle is a genius among cats, for it is not so. If cats had IQs, hers, my guess is, would fall somewhere in the middle range; if cats took SATs, we should have to look for a small school somewhere in the Middle West for her where discipline is not emphasized. Isabelle eats flowers — though for some reason not African violets — and cannot be convinced to refrain. We consequently don’t keep flowers in the apartment. Although my wife and I love flowers, we have decided that we love this cat more, and the deprivation of one of life’s several little pleasures is worth it.

I am, then, prepared to allow that Isabelle isn’t brilliant but not that she isn’t dear. She is, as I have mentioned, currently seven years old, yet already — perhaps it is a habit of my own middle age — I begin to think of the shortness of her life, even stretched to its fullest potential. Owing to the companionship of this cat, I have begun to understand friends who, having lost a dog or cat through age or illness, choose not to replace it, saying that they can’t bear to go through it all again.

Solzhenitsyn remarks in one of his novels that people who cannot be kind to animals are unlikely to be kind to human beings. A charming sentiment but far, I suspect, from generally true. (“I wanted you to see why I work with animals,” says a female veterinarian in a novel by Jim Harrison. “I can’t stand people.”) Yet genuine kindness to animals is always impressive. One of the finest stories told about Mohammed has to do with his having to answer the call to prayer while a cat is asleep on the hem of his cloak; with scissors he cuts off the hem, lest he wake the cat, and proceeds on his way. (With My Trousers Rolled, 30)

Belief Suspended

I believe Chesterton said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” I suppose he wrote that before the advent of motion pictures. But after watching Sky Fall last night, I am thinking he had a point.

If chase scenes and narrow escapes make the resurrection look plausible, then why do more people (seemingly) love James Bond than Jesus Christ? I supposed a lot more is on the line with Christ, not merely the fortunes of a former world empire. And then there is that business of human nature and the need for the work of the Holy Spirit for someone to believe in the resurrection. But a guy who never dies, no matter how battered, shot, cut, submerged, or infected with STDs (okay, made that one up).

So I guess we chalk up the Bond series to escapism. It still seems odd that people find the Bible incredible when they’ll sit through two hours of one unbelievable scenario after another. How about some character development? How about witty or poignant dialogue? How about fighting evil empires?

Breaking Implausibly Bad

The missus and I continue to persevere with the series but after last night’s two episodes (we are now late in Season Three) any comparison between Breaking Bad and The Wire is baffling. After what happens to Hank, for instance, in the parking lot with the slasher hit-men, do you think the writers would be pleased to know that my wife laughed when Netflix flipped (as it does) to the synopsis of the next episode and revealed that Hank survives? But that reaction is what the writers deserve since they seem to keep writing right up to the edge of having to conclude the series — a character’s death, discovery by the law, abandonment in the dessert — and then find a way to keep the characters in play and the production of meth active. It feels like a Warner Bros. cartoon where Wyle E. Coyote keeps falling off the cliff or blowing himself up, only to survive. What might have been really clever would have been to extend the chemistry theme throughout the story line so that Walt can (like Superman) disentangle himself from almost any dire situation by concocting some chemical combination. If he can do that by creating a battery to start the RV, why not also by creating some mist that will, while he and Jesse are hiding from Hank inside the RV, put Hank to sleep and allow them to escape and destroy the vehicle?

As it is, Breaking Bad does not reveal much about the layers of crystal meth production or even the characters themselves. In Traffic, for instance, what was happening on the Tijuanna border had reverberations in Mexico and in Washington D.C. And of course, what happened in The Wire with Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell wound up unwinding through the layers of Baltimore politics and society. And though some have faulted The Wire for not really developing its characters, Breaking Bad’s Walt and Schuyler seem to be persons who are whom they are mainly to fit what the cartoonish plot demands. Apologies to those who love the series. The wife and I will continue just to see what the writers concoct next. We are hooked in that sense and are glad to know something about the buzz the show has created. But a production akin to The Wire? Not!

Speaking of television series comparisons, over the holidays we watched the BBC production, The Hour (which features the star of The Wire, Dominic West). Some have compared it to Mad Men. It is so much better that it the comparison is actually damning. The Hour is a combination of Good Night and Good Luck and Broadcast News with a measure of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy thrown in. It makes Mad Men look like all style and no substance.

And while I’m in the mood of making recommendations, over the holidays we visited the theaters to see Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson, and Hitchcock. The latest was arguably the best of the lot, at least if you like behind the scenes portrayals of Hollywood. Performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren sure help. Hyde Park on the Hudson is worth seeing if only because of Bill Murray’s performance (which is good). But it’s also depressing to see (in a theme echoed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) the formerly great British Empire having to depend on its political and cultural wayward son. Anna Karenina has its moments and anyone who enjoys the work of Tom Stoppard (I do, particularly his play, The Invention of Love) should see how his screenplay comes to life on the big screen. But the story itself, a case of marital and sexual infidelity, looks like just one more account of romantic love gone illegitimate — the Russian equivalent of Madame Bovary or An American Tragedy. Maybe Tolstoy deserves credit for writing about this theme before Dreiser (but after Flaubert). But on this side of 2012, Tolstoy’s narrative, even as rendered by Stoppard and company, does little to separate itself from the adulterous pack.

What the Cats Missed this Week

I am a fan of Canadian cinema and a lover of cats. This combination made Good Neighbors a reasonably good pick. The movie is set in Montreal and is film noir lite, with cats playing important parts in the story line. I could have done without the slasher aspect of a couple scenes, aging metrosexual that I am. But still worthwhile.

I also took a look at the original movie version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It is set in 1950s Saigon and explores dimensions of the civil war that will entice the United States to fight communism in Southeast Asia. Greene’s depiction of American idealism and naivete about foreign policy is particularly astute, though it may also stem from resentment that the Brits are no longer running the world. This is a better movie than the remake, though Craig Armstrong’s soundtrack for the 2002 version may tip the scales in the other direction.

For anyone who cares about Breaking Bad, I took another try at episode five of season one. I began to see a little more of the appeal. But I also identified two reservations that may prevent me from jumping on the BB bandwagon, and they are related. First, unlike The Wire, Breaking Bad has no urban credibility. I understand it is not supposed to be set in a city or in the Northeast. But without an urban dimension, the show so far lacks an edge. Meth in the suburbs just doesn’t grip the way that heroine in the city does. And this leads to the second reservation. The show has no obvious sense of place. If Breaking Bad doesn’t want to tap the rhythms and sense of Baltimore drug-running, or the New Orleans music scene (Treme), fine. But how about giving us a feel for the Southwest? Maybe I have not paid close enough attention, but I have not yet identified the actual city, suburb, or state in which the show takes place. For (all about) me, without this sense of place, Breaking Bad will always come up short compared to The Wire.

One last comment. Isabelle and Cordelia do not sleep through my listening to Phil Hendrie, the funniest man in North America. I subscribe to his website and so can stream his shows whenever I want, which is usually at the end of the day before dinner. It a talk-radio show where Phil is the voice both of the host and guest who talk about a crazy premise and elicit flabbergasted callers who think the interview is real. He has almost 60 different characters, from Margaret Grey, a syndicated columnist who writes “A Little Bird Told Me,” to Jay Santos, a Brigadier General in the Citizens Auxiliary Police. Phil does three hours of comedy gold every weeknight, which means he does more material in one week than Larry David does in an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Anyone interested should know that Phil now has a free website where people can listen to clips from old shows. I also hear that you can make Phil Hendrie a radio station at Pandora.com.

What the Cats Missed This Week

Disruptions in routines this week reduced the opportunities for viewing movies. Those challenges did not prevent Isabelle and Cordelia from sleeping every night after dinner.

The week started with a Turkish movie, Distant, from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, one of Turkey’s leading directors according to The New Republic‘s Stanley Kaufmann. It is slow in the manner of a Krzysztof Kieslowski but not as full of dialogue as the Polish director’s films. Its portrayal of Turks coming to terms with modernization is understated but thoughtful. Worth seeing even if you have not recently taken a trip to Turkey.

Then we reverted to the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm — our first disk from Netflix. We had seen these six episodes before but I had not remembered them very well. They are clearly funny and their humor is all the more catchy because of the nervous tension created by embarrassment for Larry David (much like you cannot believe how impolite David Brent is in The Office). What I find remarkable is Larry David’s observations about etiquette and manners, and his defense of them in many occasions. This is not Henry James’ study of morals and manners, of course, but when Larry discusses with Jerry Seinfeld whether he needs to call back a friend after his cell signal dropped, he is putting his finger on precisely the ambiguities that lurk in so many contemporary interactions among people. (My favorite from an earlier season is when Larry is walking with Ted Danson — as if they ever walk in So Cal — and wants to put an apple core — the remainder of what he has just eaten — in a neighbor’s trash can positioned by the curb and discovers that notions of private property extend not simply to not littering on someone else’s yard but to not even having access to their trash can.)

With the Mrs. away for part of the week, I decided to give Breaking Bad another try. I thought starting with episode three of Season One would get me past the removal of the bodies. But it did not. I persisted, but the series has not yet gripped me. I do remember that it was not until the sixth episode or so of The Wire that I was hooked. So I will not give up yet. But I am doubtful.

Finally, I watched This is England, again without the better half, suspecting that she would not have much of an interest in a movie about skinheads in the U.K. during the early 1980s. I’m sure if I knew more about English history and politics, the writer’s decision to surround this story of a 12-year old boy drawn into a gang with clips from the Falkland War would have made more sense. The most I could pick up was the same kind of disapproval for skinheads as for Maggie Thatcher’s foreign policy. Without the politics, the movie might have been really good. As it was, it was kind of good.

Taking Every Cat Captive

Partly to help out a friend, and also to acknowledge the pleasant companionship of our two felines, Isabelle and Cordelia, I reprint below a piece from the Spring 2009 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal that followed the death of my first and my wife’s favorite pet, Skippie. Despite all their charms, our current cat models cannot compare with the original article. But thankfully they are a pleasant ectype of the archetype.

Soulless but Spirit-Filled

The first time I took notice of pet-death grief was when I ran into a cynical, sarcastic, and thoroughly unsentimental friend during a late night visit to the market for milk. He was clearly down – not full of the one-liners or antics that characterized his banter. When I asked what was wrong, this scruffy hard-edged man began to choke up. He explained that his family’s pet dog – some mix with strong German Shepherd lines – had died.

I was dumbfounded. Not only could I barely process the disparity between this emotional response and my friend’s normal demeanor, but I also had trouble understanding such affection for an animal. Granted, I had no pets growing up and so the experience was foreign. Still, as a person who took delight in all sorts of dogs and cats, and who always intended to acquire one once housing circumstances would allow, I was not completely without emotions for dogs or cats. I had cried as a kid over Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even Flipper.

Little did I realize then that the cat with whom my wife and I were then sharing space when my friend’s dog died would have a similar effect on me. When we put her down after eighteen years, I knew exactly how my seemingly cold friend felt. My wife and I cried for days, only consoled by memories.

Of course, people anthropomorphize pets in ways that hypothetical Martians would find strange. (One also wonders what the angels think.) And the effort to detect human ways and feelings in a cat can be as pathetic as sentimental. But even after discounting the human propensity for making creation and its occupants conform to man and his ways, the bond between pets and their care givers (“owner” implies a contractual relationship) is natural and even healthy. And it need not trespass into the eery world of pet cemeteries, the resurrection of pets, or even pet heaven. (Why do people never posit a pet hell? I guess that is where Michael Vick will go.)

Our pet’s remains now lie underneath a couple feet of sand and dirt, and a big piece of slate next to the home where she lived the longest with her peripatetic companions. Skippah arguably had the prettiest face and eyes of any feline we had seen (a faux Maine Coon), and at a playing weight of roughly seven pounds her entire life (except for the end when she dipped below four), she matched her beauty with an elegantly petite frame and bushy tail. She was always solicitous of sun light and at night the warmth of a lap or a lamp would have to suffice. Now what remains of her after six months is likely only bones and fur. Her material existence is virtually nil.

After she died the most palpable feeling was that of emptiness. How could such a little creature fill a three-story town house? It was as if we had removed a big couch from the front room. Upon walking into the home, we immediately detected the hole of not having another living being in the house. This emptiness was not confined to a room or space. The difference pervaded the entire house, from the basement, which was off limits to Skip, to the third floor where she only occasionally slept. In fact, comparing the loss of a pet to a favorite piece of furniture graphically highlighted the spiritual dimension of pet-having, and gave a measure of plausibility to human affection for, in H. L. Mencken’s terms, “domesticated live stock.”

A man may have many warm feelings for a recliner. He may recall watching a favorite team’s championship from the cushion afforded in that chair. He may remember watching his son take his first steps as a toddler. He may even look at various stains on the upholstery and recollect any number of juicy sandwiches or bowls of ice cream consumed from that comfortable seat. But a chair, no matter how many cushions and levers make it a part of one’s domestic delights, is inanimate. It has no life, no personality, no will. Its qualities are fixed and those can be arranged to suit the needs and pleasures of the sitter. The recliner does not change its user. When it wears out, the sitter will find another comfortable chair in which to enjoy reading, watching, smoking, conversing, and eating.

An animal is palpably different. It has a spirit and a personality and these features differ not only from inanimate objects but also from other critters of the same species. A companion of a pet must make allowances for the willfulness of the creature, from managing a cat’s waste to determining whether to leave flowers on the dining room table (and risk an overturned vase and harmful puddle of water). Some of this willfulness can easily be annoying. Even so, the point is that a creature with no more claim to a soul than a much beloved piece of furniture has a spirit and disposition that make it much more like a man or woman, boy or girl than an inanimate object or even a plant. In fact, the remains of a pet have no real use, but the parts of a chair could be turned into other useful objects. (Anyone for a neck tie made from the upholstery to honor the recliner’s memory?)

So even if an animal has no soul, even if it cannot worship its maker, even if it will not be resurrected either for eternal life or destruction – even if it is an it – it is way more spiritual than many of the creations with which humans share the planet. The proof text for this assertion comes from Psalm 49, a passage providentially read the Lord’s Day before we said good-bye to our beloved Skip. Twice in that Psalm of the Sons of Korah comes the refrain, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” On the one hand, this comparison is not meant to convey good news about the happy, well fed, and powerful man who, without his possessions has as much to fall back on as an animal. On the other hand, it does liken an animal to man, the crown of the created order. Granted, the beast is only as good as man without his dignity. But that is obviously an upgrade from those parts of creation without souls or spirits.

The consolation for those who lived with her is that Skip was full of spirit, an endless source of delight, and so fully worthy of affection. The anguish is that the object of our fancy no longer has the spirit that made her so adorable.