Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Compliment to Savor

“Well organized.” That’s how the woman from the moving company described my stuff as we toured the condo so she could estimate what moving to San Francisco might cost me. Every time she opened a closet or walked into a room, the phrase “well organized” came up again.

Organizing is easy when you’ve heaved out two-thirds of your stuff. The heaving – that’s not easy. I’ve written about it before, in earlier posts here. In today’s New York Times Magazine, Rick Marin writes about it, in “Lives: Objects of Accumulation.”

Marin’s dad has died, his mother is in a nursing home. An only child, he boldly goes into their home, filled with 50 years’ accumulation of stuff, and begins to sort and pitch. The project took him five 15-hour days, some of it spent discarding a drawer full of rubber bands, a closet where he found his grade school projects and rooms full of dusty, musty books.

I’ll pause now for a moment of gratitude from my son, because I have saved him 75 hours of toil by getting rid of so much of my stuff. (Note to son: I think this proves you owe me a four-day visit. I did the math using waking hours only.) When I’m in the nursing home – or have walked into the sea to go south with gray whales – he won’t have to do what Marin did. “Well organized.” That’s what the woman said about me when she looked at my condo.

Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States, addresses the topic of clearing out in a poem called “That Will to Divest,” which appeared in the April 12 issue of the New Yorker. Because I don’t have permission to print it here, I’ll just say that Ryan succinctly notes that the more stuff you get rid of, the more urgent it becomes to toss out most of the rest of it. Her poem includes this: “It gets harder…not to dismiss rooms, not to divest yourself of all the chairs but one.”

And why not?

Years ago, every time I announced I had bought a new pair of shoes, one male friend was incredulous. “You can only wear two shoes at any one time, and most likely, you will wear two that match,” he would say. The same is true of earrings – or was, until I started mixing up the pairs for an interesting look. I’m past that now, and I also own just 12 pairs of earrings. Even that seems too many.

“Want what you have.” That’s the mantra I repeated often after I took the buy-out from the Post-Dispatch. Then, when I decided to sell the condo and move, I discovered I didn’t even want much of what I had.

Now what I want is to live among family, the family my son joined when he married. Wonderful people, one and all, they wait patiently to welcome me in San Francisco while I wait in St. Louis for the condo to sell. The good news is that people are meandering through now, two or three a week, looking at the place.

Even better – I’m well organized.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Untold Story of Maggie the Cat

Countless times, I’ve asked Maggie, my cat, to tell me about her life before she came to live with me. She always declines. Perhaps the memories are too painful. Or maybe like all cats, Maggie lives in the present, and does not care to revisit times gone by.

I adopted Maggie through the St. Louis Cat Network 13 years ago to serve as a companion for Ginger (my big orange guy cat) a few months after Ginger's half-brother, Scoop, died. I thought it would perk up Ginger to have a friend, and the two could be company for one another when I was at work. This beautiful tortoise cat came with a name and a small pink-flowered bed. I allowed her to keep both. The vet estimated Maggie’s age at about 2.

For the first three months, Maggie hid under the couch. Ginger ignored her. When she emerged, she started following Ginger around, begging him to play. He ignored her. At long last, they became friends and eventually were inseparable. Ginger got diabetes and I treated him for three years before he reversed it. (Only cats can do that.) He lived a few more years and then, at 18, became senile and his health went downhill.

Maggie and I both grieved Ginger’s passing. About six months later, I brought home a tuxedo cat who needed a home. He had lost his siblings in a farm accident and was missing a foot, though you would never know it from how well he maneuvered. Tux was about 3 years old, and I thought he might cheer up Maggie. Instead, she was furious. Maggie yelled and cried. Tux yelled and cried. I yelled and cried. I took Tux back to the vet, who found a new home for him.

One day about four years ago, I was cleaning out my folder marked “Cats.” That’s where I keep vaccination records. Maggie’s adoption papers were in the folder, and tucked among the tips on how to care for a cat and feed a cat and love a cat was an envelope I had never opened. Inside were the papers from the day Maggie was turned in to the Cat Network.

“I don’t need these,” I thought and started to pitch them. I even wondered if I had been given the papers by mistake. Then for some reason, I unfolded the papers and read them. I discovered that longtime actor and director John Grassilli had brought Maggie to the Cat Network in early 1996. That explained her name! (Maggie is the lead character in the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”) I had known John slightly, as I was second-string theater critic at the Post-Dispatch at the time. I also knew John had left St. Louis some time ago, so I thought no more about the connection.

I did ask Maggie about John, but again, she had nothing to say. On Tuesday, my waking thought was that John Grassilli likely was on Facebook. I looked. He was. I sent him this note:

“Hi John -- I was at the Post much of the time you were in St. Louis, and often reviewed theater. More importantly -- and I didn't realize for a long time that you were involved -- I have Maggie the Cat, a tortoise-colored cat you turned in to the Cat Network rescue program. We've been together 13 years! I'd love to hear your story about her, and fill you in, if you are interested.”

Just hours later, this came back:

“Hi Pat. Maggie...after all these years..very good to hear. We (now ex-wife Sara and I) were walking in Tower Grove Park when we heard her cry from a sewer drain. She wouldn't come out so we went back home, got the car and some cat food and then coaxed her out and took her home. We were going to keep her but our female cat Rita would have none of it. She was a bit of a bully too so we looked around and found the shelter. We thought it was a great place and we trusted they would do good by her. (We didn't know how good as it turned out.) We always wondered what had happened to her. Thanks for letting me know. Her extended story would be great to know if you have the time. Rita, who is standing behind me now demanding supper, in her better moments would like to know too, I'm sure.”

I sent John more details and a handful of photos. Then I gathered Maggie up in my arms and said, “Tell me about the day you were in a sewer drain – how horrible! You must have been really scared! Thank goodness John and his wife rescued you!”

Maggie wriggled and squirmed, jumped down, flicked her tail and went into the kitchen for a snack.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cooking with Ed and Ross

Ed Myers has died.

Ed Myers – the man who was my boss at the Central Midwestern Regional Educational Laboratory (CEMREL) in 1981-82, the man whose low chuckle that would build and erupt into delighted laughter, the man who taught me not to defend or explain my decisions, the man who occasionally got me bumped up to first class when the CEMRELites went to Washington, D.C.

Ed Myers also was the man who challenged me to edit a huge government grant application and then write the executive summary. Later, it was Ed Myers who announced to a room full of staffers that what I wrote blew him away. When St. Louis got 14 inches of snow, Ed Myers came to my apartment and dug out my car. And he excelled at pointed asides, delivered quietly, with eyes averted so you weren’t always sure you’d heard what you thought you’d just heard. You had.

The last time we talked – maybe 18 months ago -- I told Ed Myers that I get to San Francisco from time to time because my son and his bride live there. We tried to work out a time to get together, but he was traveling when I was coming to town. We agreed to try again.

We didn’t. And now Ed Myers has died.

Ed Myers was my mentor and my friend. Early on, we made a pact: Ed would ignore that I was fat and I would ignore that he was short. That worked well for us both, and allowed us to spend time appreciating the big brains we both brought to our friendship.

He also introduced me to two of his best friends, men who changed my life in so many ways. E. Joseph Schneider was one of them. The first time I heard Joe speak, I was convinced he was the male manifestation of me, so what was not to like? We had many long-distance conversations about journalism, politics and Fargo, North Dakota.

Ross Winter was the other. Befriending Ross was a lot of work, because he was a loner by choice. The artistic director of a dance company, Ross knew things about art and life that I wanted to know, so I persisted. Over time, I wore him down. We ended up as family for one another for a decade, and I loved him with my whole heart. Ross died March 13, 1994.

Later that week, after spending two days cleaning out Ross’ condo with his two sons, I called Ed Myers. “You have to come to St. Louis and help me,” I said. “I’m trying to help Stephen and Alex, and no one is helping me. I'm a mess. I cannot do this alone.” Ed Myers came, and he helped.

And now Ed Myers has died.

Ross and Ed taught me to cook. They both knew a great deal about cooking, about good food, about wine. Occasionally on Sundays, we’d gather, and we’d cook and eat together. When Ed’s true love, Carol Thomas, moved to town, Ross and I continued the tradition of cooking and eating together. Since Ross died, I’ve done serious cooking only on rare occasions.

When the call came this afternoon that Ed Myers has died, my refrigerator was uncharacteristically full. The last big-deal meal I cooked was over 11 months ago, before I put the condo on the market. I just don’t do that anymore. But today, cooking was on my agenda. After I thanked Nada for the call, I reached out to Joe. I wrote a note to Carol. I called two former CEMRELites.

Then I headed into the kitchen and I started to cook. As I chopped and peeled and measured, I took a deep breath and invited in warm memories from long-ago afternoons cooking with two of my favorite people. And I cried. I’ve never gotten over losing Ross.

And now Ed Myers has died.