A short fictional account

Victor Hamlisch was not a gymnast. He wasn’t trained as a gymnast. He wasn’t built like a gymnast. And unlike a gymnast, Victor lost all awareness of his body and its position in the air whenever he broke connection with the earth, such as when he jumped off a diving board as a young boy. But five years ago in Fairmount Park, not long after sunrise, Victor broke a gymnastics record—by a stunning margin. With no equipment and no safety gear, Victor landed a tumbling move that no other gymnast in history had even thought to imagine—a forward flip in layout position with twelve rotations and eight full twists.

On the last rotation, Victor bent his knees to absorb the impact on the grass. His eyes pointed sharply downward searching for the ground to return to his field of vision, because the forward motion meant Victor’s landing would be blind and sudden. Victor hit the ground hard. He used all of the strength that remained in his body to stop the flipping and twisting. It worked. When Victor finally stood up, he stretched out his arms and opened his eyes wide. The park was empty at this hour. He heard the leaves in the nearby trees still shaking from the commotion. He looked back where he had started and traced each footprint along his path to the deep grooves where his feet were now firmly planted.

Victor would never tell anyone what he had done. In the years that followed, his friends and family noticed something different in Victor, and Victor also noticed that he saw the people close to him in a new light. But what amazed Victor the most, what he couldn’t explain, was the joy he began experiencing when talking with strangers.




Los Angeles, California

If you arrive for the weekend at Chris and Kory’s house on Windsor Boulevard in Los Angeles after 10:00 p.m., don’t expect this old married couple to greet you at the door. They’re fast asleep. But you will be greeted by Copycat, a Burmese cat who assumes that two dark figures pushing past the locked gate and through the front door in the dead of night are his new best friends. Copycat seemed to be expecting us. He stood on the wood stairs of this authentically restored Arts and Crafts house as if waiting to escort us to our assigned room. And that he did, helpfully standing on our bags as we tried to unpack and gently getting in the way of our attempts to sort out the bed for sleep. There’s no getting to know Copycat. He’s immediately all in.

Copycat earned his name by mimicking the behavior of two other Burmese cats, brothers, who had a year’s tenure when Copycat arrived on Windsor Boulevard 14 years ago. Gavin was named after Gavin Newsom, because before he was dining at the French Laundry during COVID-19, Newsom was handing out same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco, making civil rights history. As I recall the story, Chris and Kory jumped in their car in February 2004 and drove from LA to San Francisco City Hall to get married, becoming one of just a few thousand couples whose marriages survived the legal challenges to Newsom’s defiance. Linus was Gavin’s brother. He was named after Linus Van Pelt, the emotive blanket-hugging, piano-playing member of the Peanuts gang. Linus apparently had a lot to express, mostly his opinions over not receiving the things he wanted at the very moment he wanted them. Linus died a few weeks before our visit. Tragically, his parents found him outside with indications that he may have died in a struggle with another animal–a difficult contrast to his peaceful existence.

There is no doubt cats rule in this house, but they are hardly alone. The first thing we noticed when arriving was the cacophony of frogs. I thought it was such a nice touch to pipe in sounds of nature in the middle of Los Angeles, but alas, there’s an actual frog pond by the entrance. While we were there, a neighbor handed a new frog he had just found over the fence and we coaxed it into the pond. There’s another pond in the back with three large koi. If you’re bored, you can make them think your finger is food. There’s also an enclosure for a turtle that was rescued from a glass aquarium. The enclosure kept getting more and more elaborate; now, this turtle gets treated better than Harry and Meghan. And there’s a beehive, which comes with a story of the cab of Kory’s truck filling up with bees unexpectedly on the highway. I would have steered into oncoming traffic to solve that problem. And all of these creatures are surrounded by a stunning growth of California native plants, stunning enough that Chris and Kory earned a spot on the local native plant garden tour years ago. I asked how they could stand having people traipsing through the house, but they love it. One year, Chris told me, a young woman brought her mother on the tour and Chris overheard her say, “see mom, this is what you could do in your backyard.”

One might conclude that all this is the byproduct of having too much time on your hands. That’s not quite right, but if your house isn’t on the local garden tour, it can make it easier to cope. Chris retired early a few years ago, and I have found that spending time with him provides abundant opportunities to pretend to be happy for another person. And Chris really rubs it in your face too. One moment you’ll see his feet dangling off a lounge chair while he reads in the sun; then later you’ll figure out he’s napping on the sunporch or doing barre work in the extra bedroom (that’s ballet; I had to look it up!). He’s always forwarding stuff he finds funny, starting at 5 a.m., and he thinks an open laptop means it’s time for conversation because you must be exploring something that interests you. I asked him what kind of wine we could buy to say thanks and at first he brushed off the question so as not to be a handful, but then he decided to explain, in case it would help, that they really like minerally whites (not buttery, not flowery, but minerally) from some country and some specific region I don’t recall. Ugh. Retired people. Kory at least has a respectable job and the common decency to spend time in his office on conference calls.

And then there are the friends and neighbors who seem so at home visiting Chris and Kory. We left one night to go to a birthday party just as the neighbors were arriving to sit outside for drinks. When we arrived back home around 11 p.m., the four of them were sitting at the kitchen table with enough Indian takeout to feed 20 people. What were they doing? We made fun of them, and they made fun of us, while Gavin and Copycat angled for some of the food. It felt good to be back in the kitchen with everyone.

A part of me wondered before arriving how Linus would figure into the weekend. While I saw the neighbors’ sad reactions when what happened was mentioned, mostly we talked and laughed about Linus and Gavin and Copycat and how quirky and entertaining and charming they are. But there was a moment when Gavin went missing during a gathering at the house (for like two minutes) and Kory took immediate notice, the calm urgency with which he searched for Gavin revealing the hole left in his heart. Every pet owner will one day feel the weight of their inability to ensure the immortality of these innocent creatures who become fixtures in our homes and our lives. As mere weekend guests, we were free from the burden of thinking about the circumstances of Linus’s departure and able to reflect instead on how he must have lived.

And oh boy, what a life he had for 15 years on Windsor Boulevard, side by side with his brother Gavin, his protégé Copycat, and his adoring fathers. If Copycat was aptly named, Tony and I know for a fact that every single day of those many years Linus sought out the warmth of the sun and the love and attention of people, all the while silently navigating the creaky floors as only a cat can do.

Ecco and The Birds

Truckee, California

I was disappointed to learn this week that the bright blue birds circling our house in Truckee as if they own the place aren’t in fact the blue jays familiar to me from my childhood in Kansas City. They are Steller’s jays, a totally different and inferior species. But this is hardly where my disappointment in these creatures ends. Let me first say to the numerous Steller’s jays I can see from my window right now, you should by happy you can’t connect to the Internet because you wouldn’t like what people are saying about you. Words like “raspy,” “pesky,” and “pigeon-sized” are ones you’d have to grapple with. Sure, compared to blue jays you have longer legs and a more slender bill, but from what I’ve seen that comparison is charitable at best.

I’ve been watching these guys every morning and afternoon fly around with twigs in their bills trying to rebuild a nest left over from last year on an outdoor speaker, and I’m not very impressed. To be perfectly blunt, I don’t think it’s that difficult of a task. Twigs are easy to find in the forest (go figure) and it’s not like these jays have anything else to do, especially given that we cater all of their meals. Why then is the nest still such a disaster, with twigs raining down onto the ground? But god love these jays, they keep bringing more twigs.

By contrast, the white-headed woodpecker is a bird to admire. Unlike the messed up paint job that passes for a Steller’s jay, these woodpeckers are stunning, with sleek black bodies and white heads. The male woodpecker I’m currently at loggerheads with has a bright red spot on its head. With those looks he could get away with anything, and he knows it. Every afternoon, when we are obviously trying to work from home, this little narcissist hammers away thoughtlessly on the side of the house … really loudly. The first time this happened I poked my head out the bathroom window and not three feet away this woodpecker turns his head and just stares at me, as if to say, “is there something I can help you with?” My clear recollection is that he had reading glasses and uttered these words condescendingly over the top of them. What really unnerved me about this staring contest was that I had to look away first! The numerous deep holes in the side of the house are a tribute to this bird’s industriousness. The Steller’s jays still haplessly trying to stitch together a simple nest should be taking notes.

I joke with Steller’s jays because we have that kind of rapport. The truth is, other than the stark reminder of a surreal year at home gone by, we’re happy to see them back. Last year when COVID-19 blessed us with plenty of free time, we first noticed nests around the house and watched the jays circle the trees and deliver food to the chicks . . . until one day when the commotion stopped and the nests were empty. This year, there’s a new level of comfort. They don’t fly away or make “raspy” noises when we go outside, and they fly low over our heads to the nest.

In the survival category, animals take most of the top prizes. Ecco is a senior dog I only know from a friend’s post on Facebook. “Today,” the April 5th post said, “I did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I adopted a senior dog that had been abandoned by its owners.” When Ecco first met his new owner (read, hero), he apparently jumped into the trunk of the car and was so scared he wouldn’t come out. Heartbreaking. But at home hours later Ecco was snoring away on his new dog bed. And then a few days later a new post: life at home with Ecco “is now a series of walks to see new vistas, naps and meals to recharge, and reminders to sit and smell the breeze.”

Our dog Harvey lived the early years of his life dedicated to balls and sticks and swimming and running. But his body betrayed him and he had surgery on both of his back knees. A few years later he got off the couch to find he couldn’t walk. That led to another surgery, this time on his spine, and more extended confinement at home. But even though we know he lives in pain, Harvey is always game for whatever we will allow him to do. He’d swim until he sank if we let him.

After losing the things they love, dogs experience fear and pain, just like we do. But they don’t waste a moment. “This is my life now.”

It will be 5:00 here soon and time to pack up the car. I know this because Harvey has risen from his cushy bed to start angling for dinner—always like clockwork. Outside he finishes his food and takes a rambling walk around the patio, no longer bothering to notice the jays busily finishing their nests as the wind picks up. Personification is a poet’s trick to ascribe human qualities to nonhumans. What is it called when a human aspires to the traits of animals, in this case, their perseverance?