If I could talk to the animals (oh wait, I do that)

Yes, I talk to animals. I can’t say that they listen to or understand me, and they don’t talk back to me in a language that is clear, like with Doctor John Dolittle in the children’s books from the 1920s by civil engineer Hugh Lofting (born in 1886 in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England).

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Hugh Lofting

Lofting died in 1947, so any Doctor Dolittle shenanigans after that point are not his fault. The original stories are set in Victorian England in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, a place I wanted desperately to live when I read my mother’s old copies of the books in the 1960s. To tell the truth, I still want to live there.

I’ve written about perfect moments.  In  my memories, reading Doctor Dolittle as a child, curled up in my pajamas in the comfy chair with the nubby green upholstery, the sun shining through a window of the den on a cold day and dust just visible floating in the stream of sunlight, smelling the old-paper smell of the books my mother had also read as a child–that’s a perfect moment.

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The movie version I am familiar with is the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison as the doctor, and also starring Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, and Richard Attenborough.

 

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It was, surprisingly in retrospect, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, and won the Oscars for Best Original Song (for Talk to the Animals) and Best Original Effects. Of course, I at age 6, loved the movie, but I don’t think it was actually very good. I mostly remember Anthony Newley singing (not necessarily in a good way) and the voyage in the Giant Pink Sea Snail.

 

 

It never occured to me as a child to ask why, if the Giant Pink Sea Snail is a living creature, it has no insides and the humans can live in its (his? her?) hollow shell without problems. When you are 6 you go with your imagination and don’t question these things.

 

I have never seen the Eddie Murphy version of Doctor Dolittle (1998) and have no intention of ever seeing it. Sorry, Mr. Murphy, but in my mind Doctor Dolittle will always be English, Victorian, and Rex Harrison-ish, although I applaud the concept of introducing said doctor to a new generation and a diverse audience. Plus, I don’t think fart jokes are all that funny and just have no place in my world of Doctor Dolittle and Puddleby-on-the Marsh. And neither does a PG rating.

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But as usual I digress. I talk to the animals. Frequently. And I talk for them. I have voices I use for the animals who live with me, and they often are very sassy when speaking through me. We sing, too. Each animal has a story and a song, and there are songs that go with different ocassions, like meals and bedtime.

This version of Talk to the Animals by Sammy Davis Jr. makes me happy in some way I can’t explain. Sammy always reminds me of my mother’s second husband, Van, who was extremely thin and liked to dance and had a style a lot like Sammy’s when he was in happy drunk mode. That was less frequent than mean drunk mode, but we don’t need to go into that here.

 

And before you think you need to have me committed, let me tell you that I know I am not alone in the world. I know very rational people who sing and talk to animals, and have voices and special songs assigned to particular animals. Maybe it’s a little quirky, but it’s fun and harmless. I have no illusions that the animals are actually listening to, understanding, or responding to me. I think my marbles are all still with me.

 

 

Each of my resident companion animals has a special song. For Sara, it’s obviously Sara Smile (1976) by Hall and Oates. I’ve had Sara (brown tabby) since she was a newborn kitten, and I sang that to her when I bottle-fed her. She’s 19 years old now, and it’s still her song. Her brother Ben (orange tabby), who passed away at 15, was subjected to me singing the Michael Jackson song Ben from the horror movie Ben (1971), sequel to Willard. Yes, it’s about a rat, but it’s still a good song. I’ll spare you my singing and go right to the sources.

 

 

Misty, who I sometimes call Mystical, gets to hear me warble on with The Beatle’s song Magical Mystery Tour (1967) with the lyrics changed to “She’s the magical mystical cat, she’s going to eat your face…” She won’t really eat your face, but she on the moody side, shall we say.

Misty

Here is the song performed by Sir Paul McCartney:

 

Alternatively, Misty also gets Windy, the 1967 hit by The Association, alltered to “Everyone knows it’s Misty…And Misty has stormy eyes…”

 

Marble, lively young lad, I decided gets the the old Ballad of Davy Crockett (1955), with the line changed to “Marby, Marby Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”. It suits him, can’t explain why. I won’t make you listen to it. You’re welcome.

 

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Einstein is the odd one out, the only dog. He feels misunderstood and put upon by all of the cat activity in the house. Middle child syndrome, in a way. I don’t know why I started singing Petula Clark’s Downtown (1964) to him. Maybe because it’s fun to say Einstein to the “downtown” spots, and I make the main line “Einstein, everyone’s waiting for Einstein…” And he does look a little like Petula Clark, now that I think about it.

Einstein

 

And then we have songs to mark times of day. From A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) comes Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here, changed to “Breakfast time is here” or “Dinner time is here”, depending. Breakfast can also be signified by changing It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1951) to “It’s beginning to look a lot like breakfast”.

 

I won’t go into all of the songs I’ve sung to different foster kittens. But I could use suggestions for foster #56, Dapper. He’s a very affectionate 1-year old boy. I’ve been calling him Dapper Dan in honor of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) and George Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill’s obssession with Dapper Dan hair pomade.

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I’ll have to listen to the movie soundtrack and pick out a song. They do sing You Are My Sunshine in the movie. Sounds like I’ve found a winner!

 

Peace and hugs, and keep singing! I’ll be out there looking for that magical place, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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The Perfect Moment (starring an orange tabby cat)

The artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997), known for conceptual works and performance art, did a piece called The Perfect Moment.

Not A perfect moment, but THE perfect moment. Byars seemed to like the word perfect; among his works are The Perfect Love Letter, The Perfect Kiss, The Perfect Performance is to Stand Still, The Exhibition of Perfect, The Perfect Quiet, The Perfect Death, The Perfect Thought, The Perfect Moment, Perfect is My Death Word, and The Palace of Perfect. That’s a lot of perfection! So when I thought of the idea of a perfect moment in my own life, as a former museum professional my thoughts went to Byars.

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Byars: The Perfect Smile, 1994 performance, Ludwig Museum, Cologne
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The Perfect Love Letter (is I write I love you backwards), 1974, performance, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

In my personal experience, I think on the smaller level of having perfect moments, plural. Every now and then, there is a moment when all seems right with world. It doesn’t have to be something big and grand or momentous. It doesn’t even have to seem special to anyone but you. It can be fleeting, or it can stick around for a while. But in that moment, however long it lasts, all feels right and good and just the way it should. It speaks to the rarity of such moments that they are memorable. They can happen in the midst of tedium or of turmoil or, of course, when everything seems perfect already and then that one more thing happens, that cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae sits perfectly and beautifully, beckoning you and making it all worthwhile.

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I had such a moment recently on a long-awaited trip to Iceland. My interest in Iceland, a trendy travel spot currently, dates back from my days as a graduate student at UC Davis, back in the early 1990s. One of my textile department classmates was a beautiful young Icelandic woman, Thorbjörg, with her pixie-like features and cheerful attitude. During one of our graduate seminars, she presented some slides and facts about the Icelandic textile industry. The images of Iceland were so captivating—the color and the light and the natural beauty took my breath away. And animals—sheep, horses, marine birds like puffins—caught my attention as well.

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We finally made it to Iceland all of these years later. On my wish list, amongst other things, was to see these animals. And I did. But I kept wondering, where are all of the dogs and cats in Iceland? I saw very few dogs being walked around the city, and absolutely no cats. Zero. NO CATS. How is this possible? I was told that there were lots of cats in Reykjvik. I bought a t-shirt that shows the cats of Reykjavik. In one shop, I saw a sign regarding proceeds going to help Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) efforts for the stray cats of the city. But they remained invisible to me.

cats rule

 

On our last day in Iceland, we made a trek to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west coast.

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It was a perfect day. The towns of Borgarnes and Stykkishólmur were charming and picturesque.

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Stykkishólmur

We had good coffee and good food. We had sunshine. I saw sheep and horses on the road driving in. We booked a boat excursion to see puffins, and saw them as well as gray seals and a white-backed dolphin. I was thinking it had been the best day ever, and I was happy. It felt like a fitting and satisfying end to a wonderful week.

 

And then it happened. My moment. In an empty church parking lot on the edge of a small town on the west coast of Iceland, the friendliest orange tabby cat walked right up to us, like he knew us and was expecting us. He was clearly loved and well-fed. He had a collar and a lot of self-confidence. And he wanted affection. I immediately sat down on the asphalt and gave it to him. It made me ridiculously happy. It was a perfect moment.

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Looking back on such perfect moments, I find they often involve sunshine, animals, and/or books. The first that comes to mind was when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I must have had perfect moments before that, but this is the one that stands out in my memory. It was a winter day, and I was snuggled up in the den of our house in Atlanta. I can see the green nubby fabric of the upholstery on the chair and the tones of browns in the braided rug on the floor. A beam of sunlight has cut through the air and settled on me in the chair, where I am reading Hugh Lofting’s 1920 The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an old copy that was my mother’s in her childhood and had that particular smell and feel of old paper and old books. I was warm and sleepy and enjoying my book, the room was quiet, I was alone, and there was nowhere to go or be. I was just there, a little girl doing what she loved, perfectly happy. I might have had our cat Whiskers in the chair with me, but oddly I don’t remember. It would make sense. And he was an orange tabby.

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And yes, I came to find out that the author, Hugh Lofting, really was an animal lover. Forget the silly movie adaptations of Doctor Dolittle. Go to the original.

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Hugh Lofting

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Another time, much later in my life, I was terribly jet-lagged and unable to sleep on a very hot night in Istanbul. Tossing and turning and hating life, I was cursing pretty much everything and everyone. I could hear the beginnings of the call for prayer coming from the loudspeaker at the local mosque. Great. I was about to put a pillow over my head when I listened instead to the most beautiful male voice I had ever heard, singing out the call. The gorgeous yet haunting song gave me the shivers. I can still hear the voice and feel the sense of the beauty in the moment. I am not religious, and for me this had nothing to do with anyone’s God or piety. It was about beauty in unexpected times and places, and the realization that I am just a really small part of this world, not its center. My soul was soothed, and I eventually went to sleep.

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There are no expectations attached to these moments. No preconceived ideas or possible disappointment. They just are. You can’t make them happen or predict them. That’s what is so beautiful about them. I know some will disagree; I see lots of articles along the lines of “Don’t wait for the perfect moment—make it happen now!” But I think they have to sneak up on you unawares; if you are trying to make it happen, that kind of defeats the perfection of it.

I am not a performer. I don’t know if Byars felt what he performed. Classical musician Bob tells me that the feeling that he’s played just the way he wanted is more rare than I might think. But that’s his idea of a perfect moment. Dabbling in art, I am usually dissatisfied at some level with the drawings and painting I produce. Once in a very great while, I think I’ve done just what I meant to or even more. It is rare. But this is something a little different; this is about self-satisfaction—something internal and based on when we expect from ourselves. These are from the inside out.

My perfect moments have come from the outside in. A friend put it that in that moment in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, the cat found me. I was, in a sense, perfectly happy already. And then I got that one more thing, the more than I could ask for, the cherry on the hot fudge sundae—I got my perfect moment. And I felt blessed.

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Peace and hugs.