Monday, October 31, 2011

Missing My Furry Friend

We had to have the Vet euthanize our cat, Felis, recently. He was with us for almost 17 years. It’s been several weeks now and I still look for him when I come home and then that sharp pain somewhere between my chest and throat reminds me, he’s gone. He wasn’t sick very long, but I suppose the cancerous tumor had been growing on his kidney for a long time. We just didn’t know it. It was only in the last few weeks of his life that we realized something was wrong.
My son, Ben, and I picked him out of the litter along with his long gone sister, Flower. It was at Christmastime in 1994. Flower was cute, white and black hair with a shy demeanor. Katie picked her out as the one, right away. We planned on taking just one kitten from the litter, but Felis had so much spunk and personality that Ben and I agreed we had to take him too.
We lived at the time in a two story Victorian home and the two kittens had the run of the place. Flower was a natural athlete and that seemed to bother Felis. He was tooFelis & Flower aggressive for her and their fights always ended with Flower squealing for mercy as Felis pinned her to the floor, biting her neck. There was a big wooden ball on the bannister at the bottom of our hall stairs. In self defense, Flower learned to jump from the bottom stair onto this varnished ball.  Felis couldn’t get to her. He tried many times to jump onto that ball, but always slid off, crash landing on the floor in a undignified manner.

Later we moved to a condo across town. The kittens got out one evening and I found Flower dead by the side of the road. She’d been hit by a car and the driver must have placed her up on the grass. I think I know what happened. Felis probably dashed across the street in front of the car with Flower following him. She always followed him. We buried Flower across the street in a field and Felis became our only pet. I was irrationally mad at him for a while for not taking care of his little sister.

He started doing string art shortly after that. Katie is a knitter and would make a small ball of yarn for him to bat around. He discovered that if he knocked it under the kitchen table, the yarn made interesting patterns, or perhaps he just enjoyed watching me untangle the mess when he was through. He sat patiently as I wound the yarn back up into a ball and then threw it for him so he could start the process all over again. Sometimes when he was finished, he put the string ball in one of my shoes, so I’d find it later and throw it out to him.
When we moved from Washington to New York, he got used to being on a harness and leash. On the trip across country we feared he might jump out of the truck when we opened the door. He became accustomed to my taking him over to the grassy areas at rest stops to sniff around. He became an old hand at traveling, because we moved from New York to Arizona, back to Washington and then back to Arizona. I can’t say that he enjoyed traveling, but as long as we were all together, he was content.
The best place we lived, from Felis’s perspective, was our friend Sally’s add-on apartment in Sequim, Wa. We stayed there for 4 or 5 months after we sold our house and just before moving back to Arizona. Her house is in the country and has an acre of lawn rimmed by thick trees. Sally had 3 cats at the time and we had adopted a stray named Farley. The cats ruled this acre of land. Felis loved to wander and explore the acreage. Sometimes the cats would sit around close to each other just watching and listening to the world around them.
Felis’s training on the harness came in handy when we moved to Green Valley. I didn’t dare let him out because of the many wild animals that roam the area. Maybe I was over protective, but we’ve seen bobcats, coyotes, huge owls, rattle snakes and herds of javelina on the grounds. So I started walking him on the leash. He loved it. “Walking him” is not the right term though, rolling on the sidewalk, sniffing bushes and chewing grass with a little bit of walking in between would be more accurate. We usually went out in the evening, when the light was starting to fade. The birds are very active at this time, but their chirping was engulfed by an expansive stillness as twilight approached. Felis and I spent many a sunset together on the sidewalks around the Villas. In the evenings now I feel sad that he’s not with me to enjoy it. Or maybe
he is, who knows?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Chinese Performance Group

Tucson Meet Yourself 10-2011

Saturday, I performed with the Tucson Sino Martial Arts Group. I only had two minutes of performance time, out of more than an hour. The performance was at the Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival. This festival happens every year and brings together all the diverse cultural and ethnic groups of the Tucson area. Their website describes the festival as follows:

Tucson Meet Yourself is different from other large events: it is a “folklife” festival. This means that our focus is on presenting artists and communities that carry on living traditions rooted in a group’s own definition of identity, artistry and cultural significance. The festival has been held each year in Downtown Tucson, Arizona since 1974.
It’s a three day event and our performance took place on the morning of the second day. The weather has been hot recently in southern Arizona, and thankfully the performance was over before the heat reached its peak. I’ve been practicing and teaching Tai Chi for over 30 years and just recently joined this Martial Arts Club. My motivation for joining was to learn Chen style Tai Chi from a qualified teacher. As far as I can tell, all of the members of the club are Chinese except for me and another guy named Rob. We are referred to as the two “Americans” in the club. I assume that the Chinese members are Americans too, but they don’t refer to themselves that way. I’ve only been to one practice so far, but all of the members were very gracious and welcoming.

 I’ve belonged to numerous martial arts clubs over the years, but this one is unlike any of those. The focus of my previous clubs has always been the self-defense aspects of the Kung Fu and Tai Chi movements. This group’s orientation seems to be on performance. The forms I already know come out of southern China and Hong Kong, brought to the US by teachers who long ago left China. The forms that I’m being introduced to at TSMAG have been more recently standardized in China for performance purposes.

 In Chinese history, the years from 1912-1949 are known as the “Republican Period”. During this time the traditional Martial Arts were encouraged. They were taught and performed as a means to promote national pride.  All the various styles of Martial Arts flourished throughout China. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, a group of Chinese Martial artists demonstrated for the first time to an international audience. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China came to power and the Martial Arts were transformed. The PRC did not like the martial quality of the art and changed it to a regulated sport called Wushu. To quote an article in Wikipedia, “The new competition sport was disassociated from what was seen as the potentially subversive self-defense aspects and family lineages of the Chinese Martial Arts.” In 1958 the government established the All-China Wushu Association as the umbrella organization that regulates Martial Arts training. The traditional forms were standardized and regulated for performance and competition purposes.

My new Martial Arts club appears to be from this later period. I was the fifth act to perform at the Festival. During all the performances, music was played in the background. Some of the music sounded like revolutionary worker songs. Thankfully the music played  during my performance was more traditional stringed instrument Chinese music. I was asked by Shuping, the Sifu of the club, to perform a two minute version of Sun Tai Chi. Sun is the newest of the five main family styles of Tai Chi. It was created in the early 1900’s by Sun Lu Tang. He was a practitioner of all three internal styles of Chinese Martial Arts, Tai Chi, Bagua and Hsing Yi. The Sun form was patterned after the Tai Chi long form and contains elements of all three internal styles. I’ve been practicing this style for about 15 years. My main Tai Chi style is the Yang family style which the troupe already knows. The Sun style adds something new to this performance troupe, so that’s probably why I was asked to do it.

When I arrived at the festival Shuping handed me a white silk uniform she brought for me to wear for the performance. I had cleaned and pressed my more traditional black uniform the night before, and Shuping said I didn’t have to change if I didn’t want to. I tried it on and it felt very sheer and silky. So this is how Hugh Hefner must feel all the time. Most of the other men wore their black uniforms and looked quite macho. At least I didn’t have flowers on my jacket like the women. The others said I looked good in it and I felt pleased and honored to be accepted as part of this Martial Arts Troupe.
I think the performance went well. Shuping and a few of the other women performed the Yang 24 form behind me while I did my two minutes of Sun style. I am not a seasoned performer, but this new club will definitely force me to work to become a better practitioner of both Kung Fu and Tai Chi.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Playing in the Khoury League

It’s the end of the baseball season and I still feel excited about the upcoming playoffs and World Series, even though I don’t follow baseball very closely any more. I probably won’t watch many of the games. The Cardinals are still in it as of this writing. St. Louis has been a baseball town since the St. Louis Brown Stockings were formed in 1882. Being a Cardinals’ fan over the years pays off unlike being fans of other teams who are rarely contenders come October.
The 50s and 60s were good times to be a Cardinals fan. Like most boys back then I collected baseball cards. On the back of each card was a wealth of information about the player. My favorite Cardinal was “Stan the Man” Musial. He played for the Cardinals from 1941-1963, a 22-year career, with one year out to fight in WWII. He was a consistently good player and set many records that are still on the books. He loved his fans and treated them with respect. Stan had a career batting average of .331. He was the Cardinals yearly batting champion 7 times, the most of any Cardinal,  one more than Rogers Hornsby who played in the 20s. Stan had a very distinctive way of batting, keeping his feet close together while moving his body and his bat around in small circles.
One of the great missed opportunities of my life was the night some friends went downtown to Stan’s restaurant to meet him. I got sick and couldn’t go and felt extremely disappointed. My buddies did bring me back an autographed picture of Stan, which, of course, is long gone. I think my friend, Paul, still has his. In February of this year, Stan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. It couldn’t have gone to a more deserving guy. Watch him receive it on the following link. (Cut & Paste)
As a kid I played baseball every summer. Little league baseball in the St. Louis area was called the Khoury League. It was founded in 1934 by George M. Khoury. The motto was, “The Khoury League is interested in the child that nobody else wants.” It rapidly spread throughout the St. Louis area and included spoiled county suburbanites like me. Participation was not on a try-out basis, but Mr. Khoury wanted all kids of various skill levels to get a chance to play.
There were six divisions, Atom, Bantam, Midget, Juvenile and Senior. The baseball diamonds were smaller than regulation size and even the ball sizes were adjusted for the age of the players.  There was an all star game at the end of each season. This game was played at the major league ball park, Sportsman Field, which later became the first Busch Stadium.
I started out in the Bantam league on a very good team sponsored by Van Zant Realty. In the Atom division many of the players picked weeds in the outfield while fly balls dropped around them or ran the wrong way as their parents and fellow players screamed. But in the Bantam league the kids were more skilled and started to take the game seriously.  I was totally intimidated by the skills of the other players. The best pitcher on my team was a boy named Jimmy. He could throw a variety of pitches including a wicked curve ball. If the pitch was a little to the outside, Billy Bob, the catcher, would quickly move his glove back to the center of the strike zone, attempting to fool the umpire. It never worked, but I thought it was extremely sophisticated and crafty.
Our manager forgot about Mr. Khoury’s dictum that all kids get to play, because that first year, I spent most games sitting on the bench. My dad must have felt sorry for me, because he decided to manage his own team. The sponsor was Barbay's Market. Unlike most other managers, DBarbay's Market Khoury League Teamad stayed true to the Khoury League spirit and let all the kids have a chance to play.Consequently, we didn't win many games. His other rule was, whether we won or lost, we all went out for ice cream. For the other teams, ice cream was a reward for winning. We often ran into our old teammates at North Hills Dairy Creamery and I wondered if they thought we were winning as many games as they were, probably not. Even though my dad knew near to nothing about managing a baseball team, he did know something about kids and ice cream.
I got better as a ball player and one year I even got a chance to play in the All Star Game at Busch stadium. I was definitely outclassed by the other players. My goal was not to screw up too badly and I didn’t. I usually played 3rd base and fancied myself a junior Ken Boyer, the Cardinals fantastic 3rd baseman, but in that game I was placed in the outfield. I didn’t get a chance to catch a fly ball, but fielded a few successfully and I was up to bat two times. I walked once and hit a single.
I’ll try to catch some of the post season games this year, but I always liked playing baseball better than watching it. I’d take more interest in the sport if I knew more of the players. Each season it seems I have to learn a whole bunch of new players. Very few stay with the same team for very long, unlike “Stan the Man” who spent his entire career with the Cardinals. I am familiar with Albert Pujols and it will be worth it just watching him play. Go Cardinals!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

To Be Brave

When I was in the 6th grade and began having trouble keeping up with my school work in public school, my parents sent me to a private Christian school. The kids were nice at the new school and the classes were small. I didn’t have any trouble making friends. David was one of them. He didn't look like the other kids. His hair was short, cut close to the scalp. He wore flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, tight jeans and tan suede combat boots. Hanging out of his back pocket was a red bandanna that swayed like a horse's tail when he walked.
On my first day, he came right up to me and put his fist close to my face. I thought he was threatening to beat me up.
"Do you know how I got these marks?" He pointed with his other hand to the back part of his fist. I had to look closely, but then I saw what he was referring to, four tiny holes lined up in a row and evenly spaced.
"No." I replied, relieved he wasn't going to hit me.
"A high school kid stabbed me with a fork." He explained.
Sure enough that's what the little holes looked like.
"Why did he do that?" He had definitely gotten my interest.
"I squirted him with catsup."
I could tell he was enjoying telling me about this, but he kept becoming quiet, waiting for me to ask him questions.
"Why did you squirt him with catsup?"
He continued. "I was sitting on a stool at the counter in the drug store right next to this guy. He was eating a piece of apple pie and Frank, the guy that worked the counter, had just brought me my hot dog.  I asked the guy if he could pass me the catsup, which was sitting right there in front of him. But he just kept on eating his pie like he hadn't heard me. I know he had, so I asked him again. I said, ‘Hey buddy pass me that catsup would you?’"
There was another long pause, which was my cue to ask another question. "Did he?"
"Nope, he just kept shoving pie in his mouth. So I said, ‘What’s the matter, are you deaf?’ and this got his attention. He looked over at me and said 'Get it yourself jerk'. But the catsup was all the way on the other side of him where I couldn't reach." Again David stopped and waited.
"What did you do next?"
"I got up, walked all the way behind him, grabbed the catsup and then around again to where I was sitting."
"Is that when you squirted him?" I asked this time without waiting for him to pause.
"No, not yet, first I slowly put catsup on my hot dog. Then I turned to him and in my nicest voice said, 'Hey buddy, here's some catsup for you,' and I squirted it all over his shirt." He smiled and kept looking right at me, I guess to see my reaction.
"Is that when he stabbed you with his fork?"
"Yep.He grabbed my arm while I was squirting him, slammed it down on the counter and jabbed the fork right there." He again pointed to the tiny holes on the back of his hand. I must have made a face because he laughed.
"Then what happened?"
It took him a while to answer. He was admiring his battle wound, moving his hand around until the light captured it at just the right angle. "I pushed him hard and he fell backwards off the stool and I ran like hell out of the drug store. By the time he picked his butt up off the floor, I was long gone."
I liked his story. I was amazed that after being stabbed by this big high school guy, he still had enough presence of mind to push him off the stool.
"Have you ever been in a fight?” David asked me.
I could only think of one incident. It wasn't really a fight. "One time, a kid at public school had a jar crammed full of grasshoppers. He was taking it around, showing it to everybody. I felt sorry for the grasshoppers. They could barely move in there. I asked him to let them go, but he refused, so I pushed him down, grabbed the jar, opened it and let the grasshoppers out."
David liked my story and told me that like him, I too was a warrior. But I didn’t really believe I was a warrior. I didn't mention that the kid was small and in the grade below me. I also didn’t tell him about the time a bigger kid punched me in the face at the public swimming pool and I was scared and spent the rest of the day hiding out to avoid him.
David said he was excited about a book he was reading. It was all about Vikings. They sailed around conquering other lands, fighting their enemies with axes and swords. “Can you imagine fighting some guy with a razor sharp axe or a sword?”
He looked at me as if I should respond, but then quickly added. “Now that is brave.”
David and I became good friends. We hung out together during recess for the rest of the school year. I loved listening to his exploits. When I was around him, I felt I could be brave too.