Radiance of the pet rat

If you want to see a rat drink beer, click HERE. I’ll wait.

That’s Becky, my long-ago pet rat, whose both alarming and comical omnivorousness knew no bounds. Seriously: zero. 

She’d chomp broccoli, rubber bands, towels, chickpeas, cheese, books, dog food, t-shirts, pizza, gecko lizards and crawly cockroaches. She’d guzzle wine and the above beer. 

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Becky shares pizza with a pal.

She once bit into a small tube of Super Glue. In a miraculous stroke, the glue was so old it had evaporated. The alternate results would have been grisly, even fatal, I’m certain.

Rats, like honey badgers, don’t give a crap.

But they are as smart, sweet, social, endlessly curious and affectionate as any animal, be it a dog, cat, piranha or wildebeest. 

They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, build crafty nests from newspapers and less innocuous sources (like the fluffy guts of your sofa or that pricey box of Q-Tips), play fetch, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back, and so much more. Oh, and hoard. How they hoard. Hide all small valuables. (Becky stole my watch once. It took days to find.)

They’re like super pets that delight, entertain and nourish the heart and soul. As I’ve quoted in these pages before, rats are “cleaner than cats, smarter than dogs.” Whoever said that is just about spot-on and probably lives with a thousand rats and the authorities are onto him or her. A reality TV show is coming soon.

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Becky going head-first into the glass, tippling a fine (cheap) cabernet.

Pets hold spiritual qualities with their power to elevate and expand one’s being. But, like dogs and cats, rats do it with a special, irresistible elan, magnetism and downright adorableness. Still, it’s different. For one, they don’t fart.

With their silky, curling pink paws (tiny starfish), twitching whiskers, itty-bitty tongue and translucent ears, gently nibbling buck teeth and enormous hearts, they’re lovable buggers.

Those thick wiry tails that whip around, made strictly for balance, are something else. The creatures squeak in pleasure and, science has proven, giggle like little girls. When treated right, Prozac they don’t need. (Though they’ll eat that as well.)

Like sharks, rats are exquisitely evolved specimens. Get this: They can collapse parts of their skeleton to squeeze under doors and through tight cracks. I’ve seen it. They are quicksilver with fur, superheroes with a super power, lacking only a cape and a ridiculous moniker.

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Still life: Becky

An image I cannot shake: Becky drinking wine by dipping a paw in the liquid and licking the paw, like a cowboy drinking from the Rio Grande after days without water. (Her boozing was judiciously supervised — I only let her get a nice taste.)

And yet … well, rats will obliterate you. With a life-span of an average of two and a half years, they desert you far too quickly. They become your best friend and then, like a relationship gone bad, they end it, they vanish. They die. Usually it’s a respiratory disease or, more likely, cancer. It rips you to shreds.

Becky’s death was excruciating. I spent a lot of time and money on her, all of it beautifully worth it. Still, she had to go. She’s probably tearing up heaven, nibbling angel tunics, nesting in holy beards, gulping sacred wine. Being a worthy rat, not giving a crap.

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RIP Becky

Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

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From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

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Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

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Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

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From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

Of mouse and man

It’s hot outside, I’m hot, the dog is hot, the backyard plants are hot, and that reminds me, I need to water them. But not until it cools down, around dusk, say. Then that luxuriant jungle of exotic flora will get a soaking and gratitude will beam from the firmament.

A heat wave they’re calling this. It’s only 93 degrees right now but, coupled with sopping humidity, it feels like cruel triple digits. Within a minute of stepping below the blazing skies and into the muggy soup you break a sweat, rivulets down the cheeks, puddles in the small of your back. It’s disgusting. Right, this isn’t New Delhi or Bangkok, but still. Anyone who says they like this weather is either a liar or a twit or both.

Speaking of delightfulness, I recently destroyed a mouse. I did not want to, but my conscience got the better of me. So I held it by its gummy-worm tail and dunked it in the toilet and held it there until it drowned. It took fewer than two minutes, if that. Still, it made me kind of sick.

Why such horror? Thank the accursed cat, the tubby charcoal-gray tom with the white Hitler mustache. There he was, playing with a squirming, grievously wounded mouse, brown with a pink belly, in the dining room. It was the natural world in action, a realm Woody Allen, noting the pitiless animal food chain, dubbed “an enormous restaurant.”

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One might applaud the cat for capturing and maiming a crafty little house mouse, a ravaging rodent. I’m not giving ovations. I’m known for protecting and pampering animals, a latter-day St. Francis sans the amazing tunic, sneaking the dog table scraps and keeping sweet, smart rats as long-term pets. I rescued a baby squirrel from the maw of a snarling cur and a mauled bird from a godless outdoor cat (the bird didn’t make it).

And so I snatched the writhing, oddly bloodless mouse from the cat’s paws, carrying the creature by its silken tail. I wanted to save it, take it outside and let it scamper to freedom.

It scampered, but sideways, in a corkscrewy dance, clearly in pain and despair. It got away, crippled, ruined. I went back inside, crestfallen, wishing I had put it out of its misery. I figured it’d be out there, suffering a slow death for hours, maybe days.

Hours passed before it struck me to go and look for the mouse in the summer blaze. I promptly found it. It was motionless, hopefully dead. But when I touched it, it spun again in corkscrews, its whole body knotting in pain. This would not do. I pinched it by the tail, took it to the bathroom and snuffed what was left of its tiny life.

It was fast, but horrible. I held it moments longer than necessary to make sure the poor animal was out, gone. Then I carried the still, matted body back to the yard and set it behind the shrubs and covered it in mulch. I only wish I had done that five hours earlier.

These things aren’t simple. Even a mercy killing is troubling, against my nature. Pesky vermin — big deal, you say. Big deal, you bet.

Yet there’s no moral here. I don’t like what I did. Not one bit. But I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.

Tough and tearjerking, ‘The Rider’ might be the best movie of the year

If you want to have your heart gently removed from your chest and dropped softly into a Cuisinart that’s switched to purée, go see the quietly devastating rodeo western “The Rider,” now in select theaters, mainly arthouses, which are so often repositories for rich, challenging, downcast dramas reeking of raw humanity so true it sears.  

Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama — the Dakota prairie lushly shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards — moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. A terrible accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. His skill and sensitivity with the beasts are sublime to behold.

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Brady Jandreau and pal Apollo in “The Rider.”

Brady (played by crisp, affectless non-actor Brady Jandreau) lives with his drinking and gambling father (gruff Tim Jandreau) and mentally challenged little sister Lilly (an extraordinary Lilly Jandreau, who is actually disabled) in a ramshackle trailer. It’s a hardscrabble existence with scant room for creativity or reinvention.

“The Rider” is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. This is Brady’s task, and he goes at it with gimlet-eyed resolve and a proudly perched ten-gallon hat.

th.jpegWe see Brady drinking beer with his cowboy bros, working valiantly in a drug store and, most exquisitely, visiting his best friend Lane (Lane Scott), another former rodeo luminary, who, now severely paralyzed from a car accident, lives at a rehab center. Scott, who is really paralyzed and non-verbal, is spectacular in a turn of heartbreaking clarity. He’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Elegiac and painful, wreathed in dusty, grassy beauty, the film wears a gritty, documentary patina. It’s been called “American regional-realist,” which sounds about right.

“The Rider” is easily one of the best movies of the year — it has a 97% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — partly because it doesn’t rub your nose in sadness; the emotion just organically, effortlessly surfaces. It’s driven by an ensemble of untrained actors behaving like actual people — people so achingly authentic, it sort of tears you up.

Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.