Tibetan Book of the Dead Cats – Mooshu

A great kitty, our orange tabby Mooshu, passed away peacefully on November 22, at home, after battling lymphoma and hind-leg paralysis for six months. It’s been too hard to write about ’til now. But he deserves it.
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Mooshu was tough.

Our vet once said he’d met only one tougher—a rescue cat from Mogadishu(!) Mooshie was rescued from a housing project in the Bronx, via City Critters, about eleven years ago. And it’s not Mooshu’s last illness that sticks in my mind, it’s his toughness. And sweetness. Because although Mooshu never had much time for me, he was fiercely attached to my husband, Mark, and Mark loved him back.
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In 1998, when we went to adopt a cat at Metro Pets on Ninth Ave. and 42nd St., Mark immediately was drawn to a biggish orange tabby in a cage. We didn’t even pick him up or cuddle—Mark looked in his eyes and said, “That’s the one.” City Critters delivered “Moses,” as he was then named, to our vet on the East Side; I picked him up after work and introduced him to our goofy tuxedo boy, Shinsan (who passed away last year).
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We renamed the tabby Mooshu, partly in memory of our old Chinatown delivery guy who used to see our cat Goat and say with gusto, “BIG cat!”
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Mooshu accepted his name, but not much else. He never sat on my lap. We couldn’t even pick him up for the first three years. He padded silently around the apt., occasionally deigning to consort with the incredibly clumsy and enthusiastic Shinsan. Mooshu preferred high perches, looking down regally at us smaller folk.
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He delighted in jumping from cabinet to cabinet in the kitchen, finally reaching a totally isolated aerie atop the spice cabinet. We never saw him leap, just him sitting there, self-satisfied.

But one day I saw him sit on Mark’s stomach, contentedly kneading Mark’s chest.
My jaw dropped.
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He liked to sit near Shinsan, the two of them like a set of parentheses.

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Mooshu took to curling up in a round cat pillow, tucked into Mark’s side, as they watched SportsCenter from the bed or the couch.

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No room for me. The looks that cat used to give me if I tried to squeeze in! He would sit on the edge of the bath, swatting the bubbles, for Mark. His tail would trail into the bathwater, and he could not care less.

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He was with his favorite human, and that’s all that mattered.

Mooshu softened toward me during his last days, when I served him like a slave. I bound up his paralyzed legs. I groomed him. I cured his bedsore. I washed him in the tub and then blowdried him. He began to enjoy my head scratching.

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He probably let me pet him more in the last three months than in the previous ten years. And “let me” is the right term.

Mooshie lived his life on his terms, and nobody else’s.

And he passed away on his terms too, on his own, when he wanted. No vet. We took good care of him, and he of us. It was the end of an era when he passed. Maybe he and Shinsan are a pair of cat parentheses somewhere, if only in our memory. Good-bye, Mooshu, and thank you.

mooshuregal


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David Foster Wallace – “The only choice we get is what to worship”

I loved David Foster Wallace, and I’m so upset he killed himself. He was my favorite writer of my own generation. His suicide makes me truly sad. And a little scared.

Kakutani’s appreciation in the New York Times is as good as any, describing Wallace’s
“manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.” Read it if you want; it’s very good. It neglects to mention his deep love of hip hop, whose dense layers of allusions were just another way of doing what he was doing. (see his work with Mark Costello, Signifing Rappers.

Wallace’s death got to me on a personal level. In my first job in publishing, at Scribner’s, his manuscript, The Broom of the System stayed on our submission list for months. It wound up being published by another house, but oddly enough, when one of the Scribners’ editors went to Little, Brown, Wallace went with him, and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown went on to publish Wallace’s gargantuan masterwork, Infinite Jest. With its tales of personal addiction to drugs and a whole culture’s death-spiral addiction to entertainment, its dense layered prose, blackest of absurdist humor, and insanely great wordplay pushed all my buttons. I love that book, messy as it is.

I’m fond of layered allusions and reference, irony and word games, seeing patterns in widely scattered shards of culture — and believing, underneath it all, that there is something about being human that cannot be denied, or commercialized, or numbed. I think many of us are like that — maybe all of us 40-something, perhaps-too-well-read, despairing idealist/cynics raised with our mouths glued to the the biggest information pipelines humans have ever known. And he’s not the only writer my age who hanged himself, unfortunately; so did a very good friend of mine, also a writer, at an earlier age. All three of us shared certain addictive, depressive habits of thought with our peers – but their talent made them great creators, while my appreciation made me one of their fans.

I always felt like Wallace wrote the way I and many of my friends think–with a crazy-wide and deep range of references and allusions to both high and pop culture, playing games with words, sentence structure, punctuation — all the building blocks of written communication. But he had something to communicate beyond mere style points–just like the best hiphop, in fact. In his great 1987 piece on irony and TV — a sort of “Is Fiction Dead?/Why are we all writing piece?” he wrote about how irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and lamented that we can no longer talk about real moral issues – not without “air quotes,” as it were. Ha.

I kind of wonder if what’s happening in politics now, when we have an electorate animated by “American Idol”-like preferences for candidates based on their character’s entertainment factor, their likeablity . . . I kind of wonder if that wasn’t the last straw. Who knows. He was clinically depressed. Who knows. He wrote a great piece about McCain in 2000. Who knows.

I do know he wrote some true stuff.

from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech:

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

“Getting more and more selective about about what you see and how you measure value” – I saw a lot in him, and I measured that value pretty highly. And he did not.

I wonder what Wallace worshiped, in the end.

Wire you still here?

Wire

band.

Post-punk.
1977-79.
British.
Wire was more referenced than listened to–typical of bands modified by adjectives such as “seminal” “cerebral” “hugely influential” (i.e. weird brainiac art punk)

Pink Flag

Chairs Missing

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Not only due to their most excellent post-punk album covers, I love this band. So did the Minutemen, Minor Threat, R.E.M., the guy from Guided by Voices, Robt E. Smith of the Cure, Elastica, Blur, My Bloody Valentine, and Fischerspooner, amongst others.

anyway they are playing for free in nyc @ South Street Seaport on Friday, but no one apparently remembers them but me.

I’m gonna go, but I freely admit I haven’t actually listened to a Wire song for at least 5 years. til now!

anyone out there also recall these guys? south st seaport, here we come!

The Tibetan Book of the Dead . . . Cats

[note: this post was written for the buddhist blog “One City” and is also posted there.]

My cat Shinsan died around midnight on Thursday, Dec. 13.
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His terminal illness came on suddenly, three weeks ago. We rushed him to the vet hospital on Monday morning, Nov 19th; they told us he was terminal, so we took him home to die Tuesday night, Nov. 20th, several thousand dollars later. (note to self: If reincarnated as an animal, pick a devoted owner and pick Manhattan. The three major vet hospitals in NYC probably have more life-saving technology than several countries in Africa put together. But that’s another blog. And I donate money to hospitals in Africa, too.) Shinsan lasted three more weeks, very ill, very well loved, very well cared for. Exhaustingly, excruciatingly cared for. Everybody suffered.

His was the second cat death I’ve been thru. Hmm, death, attachment, suffering. Seemed like a job for my buddhist meditation practice. One friend reminded me of George Carlin’s advice: “Remember, every time you buy a pet, you’re purchasing a small tragedy.” When I asked a buddhist friend for some words of wisdom, I heard, “Impermanence: not just a word anymore.” Yup. Facing the imminent physical reality of a dying being – animal, human, even a plant! – is very, very real. Impermanence, attachment, aversion – it’s all there.

So after a couple of years of buddhist study and practice, what did I find? Witnessing suffering and death and trying to alleviate it is quite intense and horrible. All the empathy and compassion I cultivate in my practice on the cushion and the sidewalk is both beautiful and magical, when I can connect with someone or some being, and excruciatingly painful that being is ripped away in pain. Duh. The more you love the more you grieve. It doesn’t take a buddhist to figure that one out. I coulda got it from a Hallmark card.

I remembered seeing a question about death on http://gudoblog-e.blogspot.com/2007/11/how-should-we-face-death.html Gudo Nishijima’s blog. (He’s a Zen buddhist teacher, rather iconoclastic, as far as I can tell.) Here’s a question from a student, and his answer:

Student (Isahito San): [A]nd what should we do, when death is coming to our life?

Teacher (Gudo): I think that I should wait for death quietly, and I think that there is nothing to do preparing for death.

preparing?

There really isn’t. Nothing except life and practice. Death happens; I decided to try to just watch the emotions, and feel them. I know I was attached; I know it hurts. I just decided to go with it. Hurt, grieve, cry, feel. I sat every day. I was thoroughly, deeply miserable. In the moment.

I tried to take the practice off the cushion. On the streets I walked around looking at people, and wishing them peace and contentment. I thought of how many had suffered the far worse pain of losing a person close to them; I wished them solace. Tried a little tonglen practice on the subway. Gave money to beggars. All that buddhist stuff. Truly it is better to be miserable in a crowd; One City is a good place to grieve.

When we took him to the hospital the last time, to be killed humanely, I held him as the vet pushed the plunger on the final injection. I had more than a little trouble aiding the death of a sentient being, but I thought about ahimsa – nonviolence; it wasn’t violence, technically. He was too sick; the compassionate action was not spending thousands of dollars for 24 more hours of labored breath; it was letting him go.

As the vet’s thumb went down, I whispered the parts that seemed at least somewhat applicable from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Everyone has to die” and “Don’t be afraid.” I freely admit I have never been into that book, unlike many of my buddhist friends, who discuss it at length and make promises to read it over each other’s bodies. I had never even read it. I had to look up a free translation online: http://reluctant-messenger.com/Tibetan-Book-Dead_Houston1.htm

(On another friend’s advice, I admit I did some preparation.)

The TBD instructions are not terrifically applicable to animals; the note: “I will let go of the illusion of instinctive terror. . . . I will recognize all objects as my mind’s own visions” did not seem too great. I doubt Shinsan’s little cat “mind’s own visions” had ever included lethal injection.

Ah well. Everyone does have to die and I hope he wasn’t afraid. When it was over, the next day I went to work, went to yoga, ate a giant Dragon Bowl macro plate from Angelica Kitchen and went to bed early. And I felt the emotion of relief. Deep relief. But as I sat the next morning I started the torturous guilt; I could feel it coming on – the pain of recrimination – had we done enough, too little, too much, too soon, too late. . . and I checked my email. Every morning I get a little lojong slogan and explication from some http://lojongmindtraining.com thing I signed up for. That morning it was “Regard all dharmas as dreams” and the commentary was by Pema Chodron. She wrote:

“More simply, regard everything as a dream. Life is a dream. Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream. Another way to put this is: ‘Every situation is a passing memory’. . . .

Have you ever been caught in the heavy-duty scenario of feeling defeated and hurt, and then somehow, for no particular reason, you just drop it? It just goes, and you wonder why you made ‘Much ado about nothing.’ What was that all about? It also happens when you fall in love with somebody; you’re so completely into thinking about the person twenty-four hours a day. You are haunted and you want him or her so badly. Then a little while later, ‘I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.’ We all know this feeling of how we make things a big deal and then realize that we’re making a lot out of nothing.”

At first I felt awful reading this. It CERTAINLY did not apply to the death of a loved one! “making a lot out of nothing” – Oh PU-LEEEZE! what utter crap. If Pema had been in front of me I would have smacked her upside the head for that one.

But I realized I could see those guilt thoughts. They were thoughts. I could drop ‘em. I didn’t actually have to be thinking them. They did nothing. They would only be the root of more suffering. I was making a big deal of nothing. So I dropped ‘em.

I feel a hell of a lot better now. I felt awful in the moment; I feel different now. And in January I’m going to purchase another small tragedy. (Actually, I’ll adopt one.)

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RIP, Shinsan. Every experience is an opportunity to wake up. Be grateful for everything. Even death.

Environmentalism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Recently, I read a post on Maximum Bob, via a link from another friend’s site (Cardboard Gods). Bob was writing about how the installation of wood-burning stoves, a commendable action when it comes to reducing dependence on foreign oil, could basically re-smogify Britain.

The issue reminded me of the Destroilet, an artefact of my engineer dad’s 1970s Mother Earth News/Euell Gibbons-reading era:

We had a little place in Vermont, a tiny vacation house for skiing, fishing, rusticating, and such. It was on a small pond, and rather than contribute to runoff and wastewater problems, my dad, an engineer who had designed numerous wastewater treatment plants (He used to tell people “Your shit is my bread and butter!”, much to the mortification of my mom) decided to act with awareness. So to prevent sewage runoff and protect the pond, he ordered an expensive new toilet from Sweden for the Vermont house.

The Destroilet.

I kid you not.

This toilet rid the world of human waste by incinerating it. After use, when the top lid was closed, a small, thick metal lid would also close over the well at the bottom. A jet of burning gas would incinerate the solid waste and vaporize the liquid. A chimney to the outdoors carried away the vapors.

Not very far, it didn’t. The air quality in the vicinity after use of the Destroilet was, um, not high. God only knows what was floating around. Imagine if all our neighbors had installed the same? No one would have been able to go outdoors.

We children gleefully terrorized our youngest brother with the Destroilet from the age of about 4 onward. All too often, raising the lid before the recommended 5 minutes would reveal burning embers of human shit, glowing and pulsing horridly red. I’m surprised the kid was ever successfully trained.

Anyway, those damn Swedes. . . . watch out how environmental you are. Or how big you think your environment is. It DOES include the neighbors. Ask what Kant would ask; consider the categorical imperative.

Would you want all to behave — or burn — as you do? that’s the question I ask myself. Ever since the Destroilet.

palimpsest

An overused word in regard to NYC, perhaps, but there’s not really any good replacement.

okay, maybe overused only by word geeks and classics students, but still . . .

In the olden days, parchment (stretched and dyed sheep or goat skin) was expensive and thus sometimes reused. Palimpsests are parchment manuscripts that were used two or more times. The initial writing was scraped off, then a new manuscript was written over it. Often the parchment was turned 90 degrees, so the the new writing wouldn’t be too messed up by the old writing, which tended to peek thru or reemerge over time. Many classical manuscripts are known only or partially thru palimpsests – scholars look for readable traces of the old (often pagan i.e. Greek or Latin) manuscript under the newer (often Christian, early medieval) manuscript.

Palimpsest has come to be used for anything composed of layers of information over time. Information that is only partially obscured by new layers, or that peeks out. Voila – a perfect image for NYC streets, where facades fall to reveal the old signs beneath, posters are layered over posters and tear and wash away over time, graf gets written over and written over. Regular NYC walls.

When I first came to NYC, I worked in the Flatiron building for one of the world’s worst- paying publishers. We were paid $200 a week – $10,400 a year. In the mid-1980s.

But the Flatiron district was pretty dismal, then. Both Madison Square Park and Union Square park were full of needles, bums, and the like. There was the occasional lunchtime shootings at the lone sandwich spot on B’way, a Subway just north of Paragon Sports.

This meant there were lots of cheap places to eat. Right across the street was an Andrews Coffee Shop, Eisenberg’s, and Squires, to name just three of the greasy spoons that fueled us eager young publishing assholes with digusting hamburgers, BLTs of highly questionable LT, grilled cheeses fried in all manners of grease, and my favorite – the Squires baloney sandwich, a construction of such foulness and amplitude that one sandwich could feed me for three days – not that I ever really wanted to eat it. But as I recall, it cost $1, or $.33 a meal. That was almost as good as the 4/$1 Kraft mac and cheese deal.

Squires, which shared more than its first three letters with “squalid” disappeared years ago. I forgot about it and its life-sustaining (or shortening) baloney sandwiches. I came back to the area. Across the street from the Flatiron building was a large Italian deli called Marino’s, which was replaced by one of sketchiest of Asian delis I have ever frequented.

This deli was staffed by the sullen and stocked with Potemkin villages of unbought, unsought cereal boxes, soy nuts, Pringles, rice cakes, Nescafe jars, and more. Towering dustily over the pallid salad bar, the walls of boxes gradually faded and sagged toward history. I bought and returned at least two cartons of moldy yogurt there before quitting the place entirely. It was cursed. The deli closed and opened several times in the last year alone, each time gathering another “Closed by Order of the Marshall” sticker on the door.

Finally, it closed up shop entirely. Workers were seen emptying the place, probably shipping the dusty Pringles, Cocoa Puffs, and Count Chocula off to some hungry Belarussians.

I walked by last week and there it was:

The aluminum and canvas canopies were gone, and suddenly the continuity of evil food and business failure in the place all made sense. It was Squires.

I just hope they don’t open a sushi place there now.