A fact is, I really enjoy posting political articles on my Facebook page. I’ve always enjoyed posting political articles on Facebook for any number of reasons. I’m a native New Yorker Sagittarius. And Sagittarians (like my Philly-guy pen pal Noam Chomsky [yeah, that one]) are truth tellers—especially the New Yorkers. Our ruling planet is Jupiter, called Jove by the Romans. Jovial people-people that we Sagittarians are, however, the Sanskrit name for our ruling planet is Guru: the clearest window to our souls that you’re gonna get. And you would think that that says it all about us, but it doesn’t exactly. We’re also shamanic performers. Truth is not just scientific to us, it is myth , magic, music, medicine, visual choreography, incantation, poetry, prayer. Sadgies (like Beethoven, Paracelsus, Spielberg, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bruce Lee, Maria Callas, Richard Pryor, Donald Byrd, Brad Pitt, Jaco Pastorius) know that truth can be told, but it must be performed to be truly revealed. None other than Aaron Sorkin discovered while researching his screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK that Facebook is a giant digital stage upon which no one is being themselves and everyone is performing; I have chosen the role I play and perform it on FB accordingly. In between rehearsals, gigs and bouts of boredom & insomnia, I seek truth online to corroborate truths I have discovered elsewhere. I share them with you, in my own mini-shamanic performances that coincide with my desire to be a good citizen of the world, at this time when the world itself is in jeopardy. Each article I post and comment on is a little truth dance that entertains me, and hopefully leads others to healing.
Another fact is, however, that I have always felt people share too much of their private lives in their public performances on Facebook. I’m an 80s kid. I remember when Madonna and countless other feminist artists first wore their underwear over their clothes as a sexual political statement more than an aesthetic one. It was jarring and exciting then. The vestigial remnants of that culture that is the digital exposure of ones intimate secrets, daily banalities and a six year-old’s excitement with the discovery of adult curse words on FB have always struck me as cute (at times), but utterly devoid of the meaning and relevance the original cultural statement had thirty years ago. To publicly do the ironic or the taboo every single day doesn’t kill irony or taboo, anymore than telling the same bad joke everyday kills comedy. It just makes you boring. Indeed, since everybody is doing it, it makes one complicit in the death of the very privacy and individuality we are supposedly celebrating; that for which this era may sadly be known, if there are any eras after this. Zuckerberg’s social media tool for bringing people together (and commodifying them), like all great inventions, came from his traumatized id as much as his brilliant ego. While he takes part in the creative restructuring of the collective Superego that is our new culture, he makes it so that the Frankenstinian nature of the tool he invented ironically serves to push us all further apart. The genius and the tragedy of it all is in the irony: as a result of the trading of intimacy for immediacy–and depth for concision–never before in human history have we been so globally interconnected and so lonely at the same time.
I still want to be connected–to friends, family, networks, leaders. (I still want to sit at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom.) But I still like wearing my underwear under my clothes; most of my personal life is still exactly that, and I like keeping it that way. Sharing political news articles and performing the role of investigative journalist on Facebook allows me to do both, in my own way.
Another fact, nonetheless, is that sometimes the only truths that matter are the personal ones. And at those times, it doesn’t take an exhibitionist streak, it takes courage to share them. Like the old saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
The fact is, Azriel, the beloved orange tabby cat of the little fur family I have with my wife Alexis, died this week. He was about fifteen years old. Named after Gargamel’s cat from (the classic 80s cartoon) THE SMURFS, he was found on the streets of Philadelphia as an abandoned, flea-covered kitten by Alexis’ best friend when he was mere months old. By all logical analysis, he shouldn’t have lived more than another few days, but the friend who saw him meowing on the sidewalk while driving one night (as the story I’m butchering goes) slammed on the brakes, scooped him up, and sat with him in the car overnight after driving to the parking lot of a veterinary clinic, waiting for it to open. It was only a couple of years later that this friend, in the early stages of what promised to be a long and torturous nervous breakdown, chose to move to Phoenix and bring her two cats with her. (Our black cat, Liebchen, who she found similarly, is the other.) When this friend found herself nearly overwhelmed by the maesltrom of mental illness within her—and overwhelming Alexis in the process—Alexis sent her home. But Alexis knew that even if the cats survived the flight back to Philly that she wouldn’t allow them to take (the second time they were saved from something that would have probably killed them), they would not survive long under her suffering friend’s care (the third time); nor would they survive the friend’s mother who lived nearby (the fourth); nor would they live long with a mutual animal-loving friend in the area, whose large home was already filled with angry, territory protecting felines (the fifth). They became Alexis’ cats days later, and adapted to a new life of Phoenix sunshine, with a new mistress.
Azriel, like his brother Liebchen, became an indoor/outdoor cat and survived any number of fights with the local felines in our apartment complex. He became, as he grew to almost twenty pounds (uh-huh), one of those cats that even the dogs in the neighborhood said their own comically canine version of “wassup” to without barking crazily. He owned the place: gangsta kitty. But while my mezzo-soprano wife Alexis and I were working for Utah Festival Opera last summer (with my brother in law Jared checking on them regularly from his apartment minutes away), Azriel contracted cancer in his GI tract; one that remained almost imperceptible by even his vet until weeks ago. Given his bloodwork came back normal months ago, we spent money and time treating him for what seemed to be basic kitty GI issues, only to discover the reason he lost half his body weight over this past year and never gained it back was far more serious less than 48 hours before he passed away.
The fact is, the first one to realize the depth of Azriel’s illness was Liebchen. Just days ago now, Alexis set out the new moist catfood we were trying out for him, angry that it was in chunks and not the pâté he seemed to like more. (The sales girl at the specialty pet food store got our Doctor-recommended order confused.) Inexplicably to us, however, and completely out of character, Azriel didn’t try any of it. We thought he was simply being his finicky, Walter Matthau/grumpy kitty self for a moment when Alexis noticed that Liebchen had decided, equally uncharacteristically, to eat it himself, while it was sitting in Azriel’s bowl and area. Cats play alpha dominance games with each other all the time, but this was different; he never ate Azriel’s food so brazenly before. It was if he was saying, “Don’t worry, Azriel, I will assume the role of Alpha cat now; rest,” and ate the food Azriel was too weak to eat accordingly.
I immediately called the Vet when Alexis brought this to my attention and had them jumble their busy schedule enough to sneak Azriel in, for a diagnosis of what was the matter with him. His countenance had changed literally overnight from the older cat taking it easy, to the tired kitty that looked like he was almost gone. It was because he was almost gone. His doctor told us then that it could be days; it could be hours.
The fact is, I made a decision. I saw myself quite possibly having to make this decision years ago, but blocked it out of my mind. The Vet gave us a choice of euthanizing our kitty right then and there, minutes after choosing to do so, or bringing him home with us for the last time. And while my wife Alexis tried to compose herself, I decided to bring him home. He would have known no pain had we euthanized him then, at least not obvious pain, but our little family would have never recovered, and he would have spent his last moments in sterile, lonely fear. He needed to be in his house; putting his overheated kitty belly, hot from the Phoenix in summertime sun, on the cool linoleum foyer floor in front of our kitchen; drinking water from his own water fountain; resting his weary head against the edge of the Persian area rug in our music room like it’s a pillow, while laying the rest of his body comfortably on the wall to wall carpeting beneath. (He lost interest in all the kitty beds we ever bought him within weeks, if not days.) My wife needed to pet him, hold him, talk to him several more times. Liebchen had to be in his presence in the home and know exactly why he would be the lone cat in the house from here on, not just the new Alpha. I had to tell him how much I loved him–how much I always loved him–and that I would be here with him to the end. And his uncle Jared, who knew him and took care of him before I married his fur-Mom and ever met him, needed to get off work from his second shift job, reconnect, and say good-bye.
The fact is, I am posting this on Father’s Day, 2017. Roughly six months ago, I reconnected and said good-bye to my Caribbean-Harlem grandfather, Emanuel. I’ve talked and written about that time before, but the most important parts of my final moments together with him I’ve barely discussed even with my wife. I will probably never discuss it with my family. My Grandfather and I, along with my father whom we both lost in my childhood, were part of a special club that made us something like a cross between bewildered adoptive children being sent to Catholic school against our will and billionaires inheriting a seat in the Illuminati. We have been the continual focus of envy and scorn in our families for both an assumed powerlessness and a corrupt omnipotence simultaneously—the passive/aggressive expression of which the family routinely confuses with love. Waking up one morning to the discovery that we became the Palestinians of a liberal Zionist family without our knowledge when we became fathers, whether we liked it or not, scarred our souls and colored the perception of our lives in ways only other curry scapegoats of a Caribbean family could understand. Only later generations of children, as the unwritten rule seems to go, even try. In this men’s club, which, like AA, has no secret handshake or mottos, there are stories shared only with the membership, for reasons as obvious as they are painful. In this men’s club–which, like AA, has no secret handshake or mottos–there are stories shared only with the membership, for reasons as obvious as they are painful.
I am one of the last living members of my extended family’s secret father club now. In me are the secrets held. In me, the truths lay.
And the fact is, my kitty Azriel was hopped up on steroids last week for his GI tract condition, which worked well enough to keep secret the severity of his cancer symptoms from even HIS awareness. Until a few days ago, that is, when the steroids wore off and he felt everything wrong within him that he could not explain. While laying out on the couch one morning last weekend, after one of the nights where both Alexis and I fell asleep in front of the TV, Azriel climbed up onto me and stared me in the eyes. Climbing onto me was not out of the ordinary, nor was looking at me for moral support for one of his little kitty agendas, but he had never looked at me like this. In his eyes—unnervingly confused, quizzical, sharp, poetic, earnest, wise and elegiac all at once—I saw he wanted to say to me all that my grandfather had said six months ago from his hospital bed, without having the words.
I didn’t realize that that’s what it was until about 48 hours later.
The fact is, I was about nine years old the last time I had a pet. It was a parakeet, whose name I don’t even remember. My parents were raising my first little sister and I in such poverty in the projects of the Bronx that, when the time came to buy him more bird seed, they seemed to have a choice between food for him and food for us. They naturally chose us…which meant that I had to feed him the treat food, used to train birds for tricks and to get them back in their cage when the flew around, as his only meals. His premature death as a result a couple of weeks later (which even at that age I should have predicted) hit me like three tons of bricks. When my artist father, a trained stone sculptor, took out his tools to chisel a grave from the frozen winter earth near a tree in front of our project building that late November night, we buried him together, as I keened. He held me and comforted me afterwards, the way a child needed his father to do, and yet I never got over it.
I grew older and went to junior high school and high school, and used my mother’s mortal fear of animals as an excuse for not having another pet. I went to college, moved out to a great apartment after graduating mere blocks away in the Inwood section of Manhattan, where pets were welcome. But I was a singer; far too busy working temp or full time by day and in show rehearsals by night (when I was actually in town) to take care of a cat or dog the way they needed. And my beloved son, who I pretended inherited a love of animals from anyone and everyone but me, simply couldn’t have a pet at my apartment for the same reason I couldn’t, of course. It all made sense. It made so much sense that all the women I dated with cats or dogs in my 20s & 30s pretended to believe it. Some actually did. The fact is, it was all true, but all irrelevant. I chose never to hurt that way again, to the point where I had little understanding of people who opened themselves to experiencing it, for the rest of my life. By the time I was an adult, I had an intellectual appreciation for the general idea of having a pet, and that was about it. Dogs took too much time & energy, I said; cats had too much attitude; exotic reptiles, fish and birds were just too pretentious…even racism allowed me to block out the innumerable Black, Latino, Muslim and Asian people with pets that I knew in New York City and pretend that owning animals, making them part of a family, was just a white thing. I buried all interest in having a pet from the moment my father and I finished burying my parakeet, when he got me ready for bed and I proceeded to cry myself to sleep. I never got over the loss of that little bird who died before his time, because I didn’t know how to take care of him.
Alexis, my wife, didn’t just choose to love me ten years ago. And she didn’t just love her cats. She followed a divine call to change all of that when she married me; a call to open my heart and teach me how to love, through her cats. And in so doing, her former best friend’s cats didn’t just become hers, they became mine.
The fact is, it’s been less than a week, and I am still in mourning. Writing helps me cope; writing helps me feel; writing helps me understand. I fell apart upon taking Azriel home from the Vet earlier this week, realizing that night that our weary kitty would probably never see another morning. And in falling apart, I held my wife in my arms and both inexplicably & uncontrollably admitted every personal failing I could think of since the day we met. It turns out that every fault, every mistake, every character weakness and every bad choice I ever made since the moment I met her formed a world unto itself; one that I could hold on my psyche’s back like Atlas and compartmentalize into a nearly repressed oblivion, until my grief over Azriel made me too weak to do so. I begged my wife to forgive me–not for being the cause of our beloved kitty dying, which was beyond our control, but for not being the man who could make all her anxieties disappear and all our dreams come true, the way I repeatedly failed at being for so many of the days of our life together. She consoled me, shocked, and told me everything I needed to hear; confused by my asking for forgiveness for being, in reality, the man she always wanted. A new level of love between us was discovered; one we rose to embrace while wiping away each other’s tears. We are both, nonetheless, still in mourning. We still hurt.
And the fact is, I treasure this hurt. I treasure the pain; I treasure the loss. I treasure the gaping hole in my heart that only seems to grow larger as I walk through our Tempe two-bedroom and discover just how many little things I did every day to give attention to, make room for, and take care of a cat that is no longer here. I treasure the inexplicable and wholly irrational power of love, which gave my heart peace and joy in the celebration of my 91-year old grandfather’s life, but broke it into pieces while with an animal who, in dying after a mere ten years of our acquaintance, was forcing me to say goodbye. I treasure the horror of seeing Azriel (who routinely jumped on our bed, on our couch and over the four foot patio wall of our first floor apartment when he was healthy) too weak to walk, to eat or even to drink water; of my having to pet him gently and stare at his shallow breathing belly in his final hours repeatedly, to even know whether or not he had given up the ghost. I treasure the glory and pain of it all, because it could only fill my heart with such agony if said heart had matured and expanded to fit the memories of loving him at his strongest, most affectionate and best. Azriel challenged me to love beyond my fear. He challenged me to embrace the coddled, broken heart of my childhood past and open it to be courageously broken again–as real life and true love demands. He challenged me to love him, and I did. And in accepting that challenge from a bouncy ten-pound (in the morning) turned huge eighteen-pound (in the midday) turned frail eight-pound (in the sunset of his life) cat, I learned how to be more human. I learned, from an animal, that to be human and humane, two things often thought to be independent concepts, are actually one and the same. You cannot be one without the other.
I learned from Azriel how to let love make me more human.
The fact is, there are really too many facts of life to say any of them is THE fact. But for today, three facts take priority:
1) Father’s Day is for fathers. Hence the term. It is a time to celebrate men who, in one way or another, have raised, are raising, have facilitated or are facilitating the protection and development of children. I know the world may be full of more fathers who failed miserably than the victims and veterans of all wars, but no one wants to talk to angry atheists on Christmas, or Islamophobes during the Hajj. Please don’t say some micro-aggressive, tone deaf version of “All Parents Matter” to anyone on this day, with a willful ignorance to both the excruciating irony and its effects on the fathers who tried.
2) Tears are teachers. They have a wisdom to them.
3) Animals and children (and wives) are servants of the Lord, who, as angels in physical form, will teach you how to love, if you let them. You probably won’t be fully human until you do.
I miss you, Azriel. Your Kitty Daddy loves you. Thank you, for the Father’s Day gift of teaching me how to love.