Bowlly. Two years later.

It was two years ago this week that we brought Bowlly home. Just weeks before, he had been rescued from living on the street in Paris near Palais Garnier, chained to a chair, helping beg for money that was probably never used to feed him or care for him properly. If the terrified and defensive emotional state we received him in is any indication, he was surely, as the woman who rescued him described, living life as a function and an object, not as an animal.

And yet, given the right behavioural nurturing and healthy food, one of the benefits animals have over us is that they can be rehabilitated to a point where they don’t retain the memory of their past in the same way that humans do. Removing the conditions that have caused pain and fear in the past is usually enough to make an animal regain confidence. Though Bowlly isn’t, of course, capable of this level of introspection, I do think where he is today is a way of remembering to remain positive. And so this song posted below, sung by the man he was named after (due to both of them having light, trilled voices and a similar sharply parted ‘hairstyle’) has come to be for us a sort of anthem for him and his way of being so rambunctiously joyful today despite having spent his first three years in such deplorably horrible circumstances. Historically, the song is an anthem of its era. A 1930s popular song from a musical of the same name expressing a commonly felt sentiment of its British Depression times and while generally upbeat, there’s a bitter sweetness to its tender longing. But that’s for another blog post…

It was a relatively difficult few months last summer in the events leading up to us leaving France and all its associated annoyances and challenges, some of which still linger today like a crackle in one’s breathing from a weeks old chest infection. Bowlly in our lives helps us in ways he’ll never understand, keeping us positive by remembering that nothing we’ve gone through is as bad as what he went through and to remember that one can not change what has happened, nor can one always design the options one is given. But one can choose how one reacts.

Now when we hear this song we think of our Bowlly and how despite what he went through, he’s happy today nevertheless due to our efforts and the efforts of friends in two countries who have met him who probably don’t realise how much their understanding and gentle touch have helped him come out of his shell. The only way we can thank him for what we’ve learned observing him over the last two years is to make sure he lives like a star. A small in stature, unassuming star, like his namesake.

“I’m looking on the bright side, though today’s all care and strife.
I can wear a grin, keeping up my chin, looking on the bright side of life.”

A new home for a new friend…

There is a new addition to our home who only recently became officially ours. He is a rescue cat that had been living on the streets in Paris, we don’t know for how long but it’s safe to assume that it had been for some time.

We found out about him online when we came across a post on an animal rescue forum from a woman who acts as an independent rescue shelter and was trying to find him a home. This cat and another cat he was with had been used on the street by a homeless man, as happens often in Paris, and had been chained (to not get away, I imagine). These are not often loving companions, but rather a means to get people’s sympathy. As this woman went to her full time day job every day and passed this man she began to see this cat in a state of declining health to the point where one day she even had to check to see if the cat was breathing because he was so lifeless. She began befriending the homeless man in the hopes of convincing him to give up the two cats. She told him that if he ever got tired of having them to let her know. One day, he told her he was leaving Paris and asked whether she wanted to take the two cats and she agreed. The two first went to stay in a veterinary office. The other cat, a gorgeous long haired persian was adopted very quickly. But this guy went so long without being adopted that he needed new lodgings because it was taking too long to find him a home. I can’t imagine why nobody was interested in him for several months. Perhaps people thought he looked too common, perhaps people are afraid of a cat that’s been on the street having problems of some kind. If you know us, we have a bit of a mission to find shelter cats or those with difficulties in finding a home because several cats over several years have turned us into rather well versed cat behaviourists. That’s the part in the story where we came along. We spoke with this woman, followed a very professional adoption process and after a one month trial period (in truth, after about an hour) we decided this cat would be fine with our current cat and just this past week we became his official owners.

This cat needed a home that knew how to address his fear issues, his high sensitivity to people, and his slightly defensive behaviour. In our experience with cats, we don’t think he was abused but he was clearly treated as an object and very roughly physically. It is at once a particularly alarming and heart breaking thing to see a cat react so abruptly and so full of fear upon just seeing a hand move. He definitely was never given anything resembling affection or care or proper food. What’s most important today is that he and Susie, our current cat, are fine together. This of course was after a strict and detailed process of proper cat introduction to which they both responded well. He adapts more each day and we hope he continues to do so. What we can promise him is that he’ll never sleep on sidewalks night after night, he’ll not feel weak from a lack of food, he’ll not hide during rainstorms and cower from thunder, he’ll not fear hundreds of noisy footsteps and buses as he tries to sleep through the day outdoors. The cat in him will be nurtured so he can be who he’s really meant to be and not who a human is forcing him to be.

While I’ve had cats in my life since childhood, there haven’t been that many. Learning how to properly care for them and give them what they need to be happy and balanced has afforded me the privileged company of three cats who lived well into their late teens, with the exception of my first who died at 14. Susie, our current cat, turns 18 this summer. My life has been accompanied at all times by cats and wherever I’ve gone they’ve gone with me. They’ve all been very lucky to have such a caring home but ironically it’s we that feel lucky to have had their company as late-night study partners and screenwriting partners, sous-chefs (albeit only observing and never helping), and all around companions. There isn’t a part of our lives our cats haven’t touched; lying on instructions while building Ikea furniture, diving into boxes while packing for a move, coyly commanding the attention of all our friends during dinner parties, watching as video game worlds are explored, sleeping and waking and then sleeping again through countless films, living not only through the agony of defeat during sports events (this is, after all, a Toronto Maple Leafs household) but also through the thrill of victory and the excitement of being raised in the air like trophies for what to them must seem absolutely ridiculous. Even if you were to have a momentary lapse and think your existence was little more than survival to them, it is in the moments when you wake in the middle of the night to turn over or adjust your pillow and find one of your cats joined as if magnetically to your body that you realise that the completely exposed and vulnerable belly, the limp paws, and the slightly ajar mouth with dangling tongue are all signs that you are, in terms any animal would understand, trusted. And that ability of an animal (be it feline, canine, or ‘otherwise-ine’) to sleep so defenselessly and deeply next to you is, even mid-sleep, capable of touching a part of you that few things know how to even reach.

Because of the little marking on his head that we immediately thought looked like a hairstyle with a strong part on one side from the 1930s and because of the delicately high-pitched voice that he has, we named him ‘Bowlly’ after one of our favourite singers from the ’30s, Al Bowlly, who possessed the same hairstyle and a similarly high-pitched tenor voice and strong vibrato. Al Bowlly was English and grew up in South Africa but spent the majority of his life in London. Though he’s not widely known today, if you study the development of popular music vocalists,  he is essentially the first real solo ‘crooner’ or singer in the world. I’ve always loved his music and as you may have noticed from my film work and other social media ramblings I’m particularly obsessed with music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In our home, we’ve always thought of him as someone truly special. Guys like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée started out by singing as part of a band or vocal group, but Al Bowlly was the first to be just a solo artist and found bands to sing in front of and record with. He was one of the first artists to have his records sold around the world and often found as he toured early in his career that people already knew the songs because of his records. While this is something that’s normal today, that degree of distribution was rarely heard of 100 years ago. It’s shocking when you know his music, that he’s only known today by scholars and aficionados but one reason is surely because he didn’t live long. Al Bowlly died tragically in 1941 in his sleep during a Nazi raid on London, when a parachute mine detonated outside his flat in the middle of the night. He was only in his forties. Time hasn’t been kind to the pioneers of what we today call popular music so I like to pay tribute when and how I can. Bowlly, the cat, has a grand name and we’ll see that he gets an equally grand life. I’ll be sharing some of his moments online in addition to those I already share of Susie with those of you who are kind enough to keep in touch via social media. Welcome, Bowlly!

For those of you that are curious, here’s a recording of Al Bowlly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bw5h-WPYBQ

Bowlly.. (you’re moving along quite nicely, pal)
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…and Al Bowlly.
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Happy Birthday, Mr. Lorenz Hart

Composer Lorenz Hart Wearing Suit

When I think of writers like Lorenz Hart, and find myself listening intently to lyrics I’ve heard thousands of times, if not more, as though they were words I was hearing for the first time, I often wonder if people at the time were aware just how rare it was to be witnessing a lyricist with his talents.

Loneliness is one of the themes perhaps most explored by popular song and thoroughly so in the infinite stacks of sheet music that comprise the American popular music songbook. But in all those thousands of songs, did anyone ever write a line that summarises the discovery of being alone after a failed relationship more than, “Now I even have to scratch my back myself…”

Harlem born and raised to Jewish immigrant parents who gave him every tool possible for that ‘better life’ so many arrived in New York seeking, he made his way from the halls of Columbia University to the floodlights of Broadway where his career flourished. But his own dissatisfaction with his appearance and with his life, and the pain of society telling him that being a homosexual made him unacceptable could only be drowned out by crippling amounts of alcohol. It is a stark reminder not only of the brutality of intolerance but of what it is to suffer from depression. As Stephen Fry often puts it, people tell you to just snap out of it and find a silver lining and that’s simply not how it works.

It seems almost wrong to find joy in the creations of such a sad person but if there is a silver lining in this story it is that the work of Lorenz Hart exists today for us to enjoy, and that his lyrics represent some of the finest words ever crafted in popular song. Good lyrics go beyond technical brilliance and strike that chord deep within us that make us feel like someone else understands. The song below, “It Never Entered My Mind” is one such example which has been recorded countless times, but in my opinion nobody makes you listen to its lyrics like Frank Sinatra does. Please listen to it again, or for the first time.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lorenz Hart.