The Secret of Cats: Elephants

The Secret of Cats: You Can’t Drive Your House But You Can Live In Your Car

The wild animal show was a chapter of my life that I don’t return to often. I am now living quietly in near suburban quietude in a large mid Twenties house but once I was living in a rest area, in the back of a white Rambler station wagon. They have a saying in my home town: you can’t drive your house, but you can live in your car. Rambler, American Motors, a noble mid-century American automobile corporation led by George Romney who then became governor of my home state, father of a presidential hopeful nowadays making up stories in his own way as I write. The currency of these stories, when details you cannot imagine will be significant, coalesce into what might be called a fearful symmetry.

The back of the Rambler was comfortable enough for the necessity of sleep in the rest area of a city on the western deserts of the United States of America during a period referred to as recession. The Rambler was more suitable at that time for sleeping than driving; driving required planning and patience, to wait in lines often miles long for a limit of gas which was close to becoming rationed. It was that kind of time in the United States of America. Jobs were not easy to come by.

I had found a job in a way of finding work that was so abstruse there would not be a glut of applicants. I had come from the unemployment office where I qualified as an unemployed puppeteer. Even the bureaucrats who worked the office got a kick out of me: It says on your application that your occupation is Puppeteer? That’s correct. Did you seek work this month? Yes, I did. And they issued me a check.

From unemployed puppeteer I had found a position working in a wild animal show. My job was to tend the animals, which mostly meant sweeping up their poo poo. I could discourse for a while about big cat poo, but I won’t. And I was privileged to bathe the elephant.

There was one elephant in the show. The elephant was not actually a performer in the show, just a presence, as the training of elephants is an entirely different matter and required skills that no one in this show had. But our elephant was a she baby, a cow, in the show as a kind of decorative feature, and once maybe twice a week, I bathed the elephant. She took to me and I was rewarded with alone time. This was an era before there was much attention given to the animal show concept, which could be brutal on the animals and I doubt could exist today.

Bathing the elephant was a mesmerizing activity for me. I bathed her with a long hose and loaves of white bread which I carefully fed her during the water ceremony of the bath. She curled a loaf at a time with her trunk into her taciturn mouth. Hunky tongue within her giant jaws. No crumbs.

The undulating roll of the elephant hypnotized me. It was her bulk and that movement that drew me into a moving mantra of stability within instability. Something that large moving that inexorably that close to your physical being with absolute certainty of safety, I often felt melted into the desert floor in the heat of the sun bathing that beloved elephant. Each watering took between one and two hours.

There was a well-known animal trainer in circus circles who came by now and again to consult on the welfare of the elephant. He was a curious man who twitched and punctuated his speech with a medley of movements with his hands, spastic motor gestures toward his mouth as he punctuated every sentence with profanity that he clearIy had not intended. I suppose it was some sort of motor impairment and one didn’t communicate much with him verbally anyway. But he tried to teach me a few things about our girl.

She was African, not Asian, I hadn’t known that. I was able to discern fragments of elephant stories if I listened to him carefully. There was something about an elephant that died from drinking too much wine, another about an elephant one of the Popes owned, and oh – the greatest lesson – the secret to working with elephants was to become elephant. He knew right away that I was the right guy to bathe our cow and he convinced the head trainer I could be trusted to do it alone. But what about the elephant? I thought.

He knew all about elephants and instructed me in feeding, in washing, what the elephant preferred and what she did not prefer, in his own fashion of gesture and repetition, his hand shooting up toward his mouth in a rat-a-tat-tat of words profane and sacred and swipes at the air.

I came to love my time with the elephant; it was a privilege given to me and after having to sit and listen to war stories, murderous tales of soldiers (which side was always unclear) and civilians, my mind over-taxed with trying to discern clues of exactly where in the story of the War he figured. I had never heard war stories from a German soldier before. The elephant was a respite from the sinister atmosphere backstage of our little show.

Thankfully, she was not a part of the show. The principle of dominance in training also held for elephants and I was grateful we did not have to witness that.

The Secret of Cats Cont’d

There are many squirrels around my house, I don’t find then that interesting unless I am trying to explain them to visitors from other countries who have no squirrels. My friend from Australia thought a squirrel was a big rat, which I do too after a few played house in my attic.

The first time I saw a squirrel do something memorable was when I was a little boy and my magical grandfather fed them nuts from his open hand. They scampered up and plucked nuts from his hand, I saw it, have never seen it since, never saw anyone else feed a squirrel that way, never succeeded myself, but Art Stone routinely fed squirrels from the palm of his hand. And then there was the encounter with my cat.

My cat has an across-the-board disdain for all other creatures as far as I can tell. On the balcony of the porch upstairs, one autumn day, a squirrel came scampering across the porch and my cat jumped down off its chair and paralyzed the squirrel with its stare. The squirrel froze for a long series of moments and then fell over dead. I waited a good hour and then scraped it up with a shovel and stuck it in a plastic garbage bag.

I couldn’t parse what I had seen: two species facing off like it was a gunfight, frozen for a moment as I watched my cat paralyze the squirrel with its preternatural stare. The squirrel did not move and I am certain that greasy cat sucked the life out of the squirrel.

I continued to wonder: what is this cat’s attachment to me?

The Love of the Game

Everybody loved baseball in my neighborhood. On summer nights, from the front porches of the houses came the tinny voices of the announcers out of hand-held transistor radios. Everywhere you went, you asked the same question, “what’s the score?”

We loved to play baseball, too. There was a big field in an undeveloped part of town where we played every day, every evening. I was never a great player, but it wasn’t a performance concept. It was the pure love of the game and though I never excelled at baseball, I played with devotion from the first warm breaths of the Michigan spring to the chilly frost of late autumn.

I left home at eighteen and my baseball-playing days seemed to be over. I missed baseball in my life. Ten years later, I was living in exile on the Arizona desert when a friend from my place of employment asked me to join a softball team. This was serious softball, uniforms, batting averages, scorecards, two games per night, one evening per week, a season of twelve games in duration.

At first I declined. I was never that good at playing baseball and here it was ten years later and these guys were a little serious for me. Then I remembered how much I loved the game, and I suited up and showed up. Game one.

They put me on first base so I couldn’t do too much damage in the field. I wasn’t worried about hitting, I could always hit the ball and this was slow pitch softball. Anyone could hit a fat softball on the downward cusp of its leisurely arc. I went zero for four that first game, no hits, no contact, I even struck out once. To strike out in slow pitch softball qualifies as a humiliation in any location.

That’s the way it went for the first six games. Every time I got up to bat, I sat down again. My batting average, kept dutifully by the team’s statistician and displayed on a scoreboard when I went up to bat, was zero zero zero. That means in the first six games of the season, I did not get a single hit. I resented coming to the ballpark and I began to rue the day I agreed to play.

The evening of the seventh game I came to the ballpark early. I stood behind the backstop and watched the first game. I remembered how much I love baseball, I became the boy who played from the first blush of spring to the first frost of autumn, I remembered the exalted crack of the bat connecting with the ball, the smell of the leather, the purity of the sports page, the roar of the crowd, I remembered how much I loved baseball.

Game seven that night, I came to bat with both a new humility and a new confidence. I didn’t much care what or how I hit, I loved baseball and I was there to play. The bonus is that I went four for four that night, every time I came up to bat I hit a clean single over second base just to the right field side. Four for four.

I went four for four that night, and the next game four for four, and the next, and for the last six games of the season, I got a hit every time I came to bat. Every single time. That means for the first six games I hit zero zero zero and the last six games I hit a thousand. I was the hero of the team. I had fans who came to see me play.

What’s the lesson? It’s not that anyone can hit a thousand if they remember their childhood. Hitting a thousand is beside the point. The point is that I showed up, the point is that I remembered how much I loved baseball, the point is that it didn’t matter to me what I hit, I loved the game. I let go and I didn’t care if I spent the whole season hitting zero zero zero. I loved the game. And the point is, if you can hit zero zero zero, you can also hit a thousand.

You gotta love the game to play it, but just to love the game doesn’t mean you will hit a thousand. That kind of thinking sells a lot of self-help books but I do not think it is accurate or helpful to people struggling with real life where few of us hit either zero zero zero or a thousand. There is, however, the deep wisdom of just showing up. Every human meeting, every time you suit up and go, you sit there and remember how much you love living, for this is something that we can forget. And the way to remember is just to suit up and show up.

When you suit up and show up, anything is possible. You may lose the dirt that buried your love of the game, you dust off your heart and open it up to the wonder of your existence, you may even hit a thousand.

Anything is possible when you love the game.

Mystery of Cats cont’d

The Mystery of Cats Cont’d

Also in the wild animal show were chimpanzees and a former Wehrmacht soldier [so he said] who ended up with the Ringling Brothers circus and then this small show on the deserts of the American west. He founded a primate recovery network where he kept chimps in cages.

He told us war stories; in the context of the sinister charade of the wild animal show, this became one of the strangest metaphor chapters of my developing image rich life.

One assumes chimps are sweet pets when they are small. People used to buy them and dress them up like little boys and girls. They grow up to be ferocious if you keep them in cages and once I came too close to a chimp cage and I was a couple of seconds from having the life choked out of me. I was saved by the trainer viciously whipping the animal on its offending arm with a metal pipe he kept for just such occasions, and others. Adult chimps can be dangerous. The secret to our trainer was a metal spike he concealed in his hand that every little nudge of the animal in overalls on stage was a reminder by spike who’s the boss.

The same principle applied to the lions and tigers. The animals were convinced that the trainer was dominant. There was always someone backstage with a loaded gun in case the animal turned against the trainer. If the animals sensed opportunity – lunch. Still, there were the eyes of the big cats that to me expressed a deeper intelligence than hunger and the hierarchy of the jungle. Those eyes froze me in space more than once and I had the feeling on several occasions they were devouring me, the eyes, drawing the life force out of me as I stood just outside the perimeter of the cage. I had to withdraw.

The greasy cat who lives in my basement has such a power. Once I saw her kill a squirrel with her stare on my upper balcony.

Big Cats Small Cats

October 27, 2011

I had that greasy cat who lives in my basement shaved today. She is beautiful, as I mentioned in another story I have written about her, called Meeting Billie Holiday or something similar. When I had that cat shaved for the first time, it was a drama. I may have written that the cat stylist was thoroughly intimidated by my cat, though they have experience with many animals at that emporium, my cat makes a lot of noise is quite contrary and has no sympathy for creatures that are intimidated by her bluster.

She is beautiful, however, a detail I never noticed until I had her shaved. I have her shaved regularly now but by someone who comes to my house and is not intimidated by her. “She makes a lot of noise, doesn’t she –“ yes, that’s it entirely. Big noise but no real threat. She is a true animal person, my friend who takes care of the beasts. She even put red and white feathers in my doggie’s hair today.

The cat again looks beautiful, the colors of her fur expressed now in a way that cannot be seen beneath her greasy hair/fur/whatever it’s called. She has gotten a little porky so she is not as conscientious as a cat should be about self-grooming. When shaved she is a spotted sausage.

My experience with cats began with big cats. I took care of lions and tigers in a wild animal show [I do not generally share this part of my life easily] but it was during one of the chapters of my so-called youth and I tended the animals in such a show in the western deserts of our beloved United States of America. I was a young man on a conventionally unconventional search.

I was the first person in the morning to open the hut which held the cages of the big cats. It was a temporary metal building, and I opened it a peeking distance so I could ascertain every cat was secure in its cage before I entered. The cats never took their eyes off me as I moved around their cages. They didn’t twitch a muscle but their eyes followed my every move. I had no doubt they would eat me if I came too close and there was a ferocious intelligence I read in their eyes that I will never forget.

Every time I see a cat, I recall the stare of the big cats in our show. I do not understand cats the way I think I understand dogs. Cats seem to know this about me and they take advantage of both my interest in their existence and my cluelessness.

I often teach Hebrew to students on the porch of my house. I encourage my greasy cat to come outside; I have given her the freedom to find a life outside my home but she follows me like a dog. There are two other orange cats that live next door. They are outside cats.

All three cats have taken to sitting on the railing of my porch and stare at me when I am teaching Hebrew. What they are doing, I do not imagine. They settle down onto their haunches and watch me. My students are forever asking me “what are those cats doing?” I have no idea but I invent stories: the language of cats is a holy language much like Hebrew, they are Jerusalem cats and only respond to the sound of Hebrew, we smell like fish, they are wild cats and contain the soul of great sages from the past [the divine Ari I have heard spoke the language of cats], etc.

They follow me with their eyes, much like the great cats I remember from my [misspent] youth. They have that same tracking as if behind their eyes they are alert to something rooted and wild I cannot share.

Their presence in my life is an appreciated and a de-stabilizing influence. My children claim to love all these cats, but they are grown my children, have left our home, and I am the remnant – sitting on my porch, teaching Hebrew, enchanted by the secret inter-species relation which has retained its mystery, after all these years.

Jewish Prayer for St. Francis

Written for the Twenty Year Commemoration
of World Day of Prayer for Peace
Convened in Assisi by Pope John Paul II
October 27, 1986

From his big bulky pockets
he gave away everything he owned
they laughed at him
before he found his purpose.
He prayed for that —
a sense of purpose.
Go and repair My house
he heard
it is falling into ruins.
He sat with the lepers
changing their bandages
one by one.
He gave everything away.
He had what everybody wanted
— nothing.
He had nothing
and it was the very thing everyone needed.

The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us
he heard.
He began to preach repentance
(there were eleven of them within a year).
Clare heard him in Asissi and joined him too.
The little brothers walked the mountains around Umbria,

that’s where I saw them.
Just outside Spello
we were sitting with Francesca by her
grove of olive trees.
She pointed up at the mountains behind Asissi.
I had just told her about the Sabbath Bride
a Queen we welcome on Friday night
who brings the quiet presence of G*dliness.
She comes looking for us
every Sabbath when the sun goes down

yes, Francesca said, it’s like San Francesco
I see him walking there in the evening

Francesca pointed toward the mountains behind Assisi,
look — there are his goats.
It was just the time when he appears
between the suns.

We were gazing up towards the mountains
as the sun began to find its way home in the west
I told her about the Jewish legend that in every generation
there are thirty six righteous persons
who sustain the world.
They are anonymous
hidden even
we look for them everywhere —
without them the world cannot endure.

Where are they when we need them. . .

said Francesca.

The righteous. . .I said
we yearn for them to be manifest
but they are hidden —

Like San Francesco, she said,
and she cocked her head toward the mountains
while the sun went down
we sat, waiting.

jsg, usa

Come In

Into the Ark
The Word
The basket
I am saved by the word ark basket
But I would not be so

Come into the word
Hide there

How true
How many
How beautiful
How large enough the ark

God loves me squeezed
God loves all the partial

God wanted me
So I was invited within

Make a window
I was told

Come into the word
God said

Save everyone

What Do We Know About Beginnings and Ends

This is the beginning and the end
As if the linear does not apply
It’s a circle a cycle a spiral
We ascend with the ending of one chapter
We begin another
The end implies the beginning
By the beginning we are not naïve to the end.

Ouroboros, the self-devouring serpent
By Plato the first living being
Turn it and turn it
For everything is contained within
By Yochanan Ben Bag Bag
Who knew the chambers of the Torah
Chambers of the heart.

There is a life force
A point existing within each thing
A sign of divine origin
When you attach to this point
You become partners in creation
Ha-chayot she-m’cha-yeh chol davar
The life force that enlivens every single thing.

You who attach to it
Ha-adam ha-di-buk b’ne-ku-dah zeh
A human being who becomes glued to this point

When we meet
We are bonded

I belong
to you —

You belong
to me.

jsg, usa

The Thing of the Joy

The Thing of the Joy

To David a song
first the Shekhinah came and sat on his shoulder
then David sang and played flat out on that axe of his too

A song to David
first David started to scat
THEN the Shekhinah came and kissed his face

so sweet he sang the secret bird
song of King Solomon
who knew the

Shekhinah will not descend
when there is laziness or sadness
silliness light talk but

when there is joy
the deep joy of the mitzvah
then WOW your mind Is Blown like

when the slow hand player came to play
the hand of God came
UPON him

I heard this when the wind
came and blew through David’s singing
harp one midnight in the palace of the King

jsg, usa

LeDavid mizmor – the Shekhinah rested upon him and then he uttered the song,
Mizmor leDavid — he lifted up his voice in song first, and then the Shekhinah
descended upon him afterwards. The Shekhinah rests upon a person neither
when there is laziness, sadness, laughter, levity or idle talk, but where there is a
thing of the joy of the mitzvah. — BT Pesachim 117a