Friday, May 31, 2013

Goodbye, little friend

Allie Cat
(This blog temporarily coming out of retirement because I wanted to write about this.)

Even though our ancient cat, Allie, had been in declining health for more than a year, I was shockingly unprepared for the moment I found her sprawled unnaturally on the bathroom rug -- weak, head-bobbing and meekly meowing. This fierce little cat seemed suddenly broken and fragile.

I pretty much went into a state of barely directed panic. Dashing up and down the hallway, trying to reach my wife, Karen, on the phone, searching for the spare car keys, practically re-learning the Google search function to find the number of the vet and then calling their voicemail three times so I could accurately record the number of the pet ER they recommended.

I collected up her numerous medications, got her into her carrier and tore off into the night, not even sure she would make it the mile to the hospital.


I came into Allie's life almost four years ago, when Karen and I began dating. I'll never forget the impression I had in those early days coming over to the house. Karen would be scrunched up on a two-cushion love seat while the cat enjoyed the full-sized couch all to herself. It was her favorite spot. Back to the wall, facing the door, right-hand cushion. King of the Castle.

Defending her territory.

She was not what you'd call a gregarious cat, if there is such a thing. Far from it. She was hostile to everyone but her owner. Her disposition was attributed either to the fact that she was born feral or to an indeterminate illness in her kittenhood.

Either way, she was one hard cat. Nobody cracked her. Not Karen's parents, her cat-owning sister, not even a longtime roommate. So I took this on as a special challenge. I was determined to win this cat over.

I started right away on my goodwill tour. Every time I saw her I tried to pet her. And every time she reacted the same way, as she did for everyone but Karen: with a furious hiss, followed quickly (if I persisted) with swatting, scratching, then biting.

After a while, I switched tactics. I decided to give her the cold shoulder. My elusiveness would render me irresistible. But her withering stare was unchanged, and I eventually broke down and reached out to her, only to get the same response I got before.

The withering stare.

Then, without a particular strategy in mind, I just started playing with her. She would hide out under an upholstered chair and I would wave this wand with a bell or catnip toy at the end back and forth across the carpet and her little cotton-white paws would shoot out and bat it, grab it, pull it in. We'd carry on like that for 20 or 30 minutes until she got tired. I'm proud to say that she was usually the one who got bored first -- I'd play as long as she was up for it.

Eventually that became our thing. As soon as I walked in the door, she'd run straight under the chair, waiting for me to start the game. That went on for quite some time. Karen would also let me feed Allie her favorite treat -- baby food (yup, human baby food) -- off a spoon or even the end of my finger.

The cat was no purist when it came to principle. She hated me, but she'd deign to take baby food from me.

Over time it got to where I could actually get several pets in before she struck out. Progress!


The real change came when I moved in. Which was also -- wholly coincidentally, I'm sure -- about the time she started to get sick. First it was liver cancer, which was actually fairly easily managed with a host of meds, and later on, kidney disease, which turned out to be more serious.

But either way I was clearly there to stay. I began sharing in the feeding duties and even helped administer her medications. I'll never know whether her increasing tolerance of me was related to her flagging energy levels or my stepped-up role in her life (I even scooped her litterbox), but the fact remains that over time we became closer.

She let me sit on the same couch, she let me pet her, and finally, finally, it got to where I could pick her up and hold her, carrying her around the house over my shoulder, giving her a tour of the high places she could no longer reach. When Karen's family came to visit they were floored by the breakthrough.


The cat became my reluctant companion. We were both around the house during the day, so we had plenty of time to develop our own routine. When I came out into the living room each morning, she'd get up from her spot on the couch to go wait by her bowl and I'd sit in the warm spot she left. Then I'd surrender it back to her at breakfast.

Sometimes she'd sit in the window next to my workspace, or call out to me over her shoulder as she trotted down the hall to the back of the house -- this was her signal to be let outside on the deck to loll in the sun and munch on the grass that Karen grew for her.

I want to be left alone.
She had a pretty accurate internal clock and would perk up whenever it was feeding or treat time. And by the end as she got sicker, we spoiled her rotten, giving her table scraps and any human food she would eat. At this point it was not about long-term nutrition but short-term calories to keep her going.

Allie never seemed to be in pain. She just slowed down. Her jumping ability was affected. She didn't play very much. And Karen definitely noticed a difference -- the cat just wasn't as affectionate.


Last good photo.
The morning we left for a short four-day vacation, Allie seemed a little more "off" than usual. I said that she knew we were going away. Karen noticed she was clingier that morning, following her around from room to room like in the old days. The picture above was the last photo I snapped of her healthy, just a few minutes before we left the house. On Facebook I captioned it, "How can I leave this behind? So sad to leave the cat when she's illing."

Whenever we went out of town we had a decision to make. Do we board her at the vet's where she's sure to get all her medications and any emergency care necessary? Or do we save her the stress of being in a cage away from home, and take our chances with the sitter? It's a dilemma we always fretted over.


I came home alone that Sunday night (Karen moved on from our vacation to a business trip) and I knew something was wrong the moment I got in the door. Allie wasn't in her usual spot on the couch or in her secondary location, the kitchen.

When I found her on the rug, she was barely the cat I knew. She seemed so fragile. Her head was bobbing and she couldn't seem to focus her eyes. While I was on the phone with the ER, she tried to get to her feet and fell over and I cried out in shock and they told me to bring her in right away.

The ER vet said he wanted to run some tests and give her fluids to stabilize her. He gave me the option of taking her home or leaving her there overnight. I didn't know what to do -- I still couldn't reach Karen -- and he said if it were his cat he'd want her there where she could be monitored and I immediately agreed.

They got her in a cage and put a tube in her to give her fluids and I went in to say goodnight and pet her, wondering if she'd make it to the morning.


On a prior trip to the vet.
When I got home I finally reached Karen and I had to tell her what was going on. We sat on the phone and Facetime for nearly an hour, freaked out and sad together.

We determined that Karen would call Allie's regular vet in the morning and I would transport her up there. Karen arranged to cut short her business trip and come home a day early, the next night around 11. Which she felt silly for doing, but everyone understood. She'd had this cat for 17 years, after all. We just needed her to hang on for another 24 hours.

Neither of us got much sleep that night.


In the morning when I sprung Allie, she looked more stable, but was still exhibiting the unsettling symptoms from the night before. I got her up to her regular vet and we got Karen on the phone and the doctor told us the story: that Allie had probably had a stroke, her kidney numbers were sky high, and she could go anytime. And as she broached the subject of letting her go, the doctor actually choked up, which really hit me.

This is the vet you call when your pet is in advanced stages of sickness. She was responsible for extending Allie's life a full year, and not with any crazy heroic measures -- just medication, without which Allie would have been gone within six weeks of her diagnosis.

In any case, this vet, who has surely seen it all, couldn't help becoming emotional in that moment and we'd like to think that Allie's very distinct "personality" maybe touched her in some way.

So our best hope was for Allie to hold on, resting comfortably until Karen and I could get there in the middle of the night to say goodbye.

I went home to try to get some work done and it occurred to me that Allie was up there in Skokie in a little cage, away from home and the people she knows and I realized I should have brought something familiar for her -- a towel or a toy. So I grabbed a couple of her favorite things -- a catnip banana and a little fabric Spiderman -- and went back up to Skokie.

Arriving at the front desk I could barely get the words out and they let me go back and see Allie. She looked comfortable in her little cage, with a heated blanket and towels. I petted her again and gave her her toys. I had no idea where her senses were at that point, but I thought maybe a familiar smell or feel might give her some comfort. And then I went back home to wait for Karen's flight to come in.


Her plane was a little delayed, so we arrived at the vet after midnight to do the terrible deed. One of the techs came out and showed me a couple of pictures she'd taken of Allie resting her head on her Spiderman toy, which right then I felt was the greatest humanitarian gesture since Oskar Schindler's list. I was so grateful.

Her last day.

We spent almost an hour with the cat, petting her and talking to her. The vet who was working that night was incredibly compassionate and explained everything that would happen. Karen held the cat and I held Karen and then it was over.

We made the drive home to our empty house and got to sleep sometime after 2.


The hardest part of dealing with a pet's illness or death is not being able to understand what they're going through and not being able to communicate to them what's going on. That's a lot of not knowing. And a lot of guilt comes with that.

But I'm comforted by two things. That morning at the vet with Karen on the line, I explained to the doctor our dilemma -- whether to board the cat or keep her in her familiar surroundings with a sitter -- and I tried to ask whether that had anything to do with this, her not having proper medical care when it counted. I choked on the words but she understood immediately and assured us that that had nothing to do with it. It was just one of those things.

The other assurance came when I picked Allie up from the ER. I was much calmer than the night before and I felt compelled to explain to the young woman at the desk that I was kind of a mess because it was my wife's cat, and we just got married, and she wasn't there. And the girl said that I did everything right, and that I was a good husband.

And that, I guess, is all you can expect in the end. It's selfish but it's human -- you want to know you did the right thing, that you did your best for this little helpless being whose life you literally hold in your hands. And that in her last moments, maybe she understood she was loved.


She liked sitting on luggage.
It's been a few weeks now but the house still seems awfully quiet without Allie. I keep catching glances of her out of the corner of my eye, realizing it's just a pillow or blanket. Whenever I go into the kitchen I unconsciously expect her to follow me in as she always did, waiting for a handout.

The little spaces where her bowls and her litterbox used to be seem cavernously empty. This weekend Karen pulled out the couches to do a big cleaning and found a long-lost catnip mouse and two of her favorite toys -- a plastic milk ring and a twist tie from a loaf of bread.

And fur. Lots and lots of fur. We elected not to keep her remains, and kind of regretted it. But now we have this bit of her fur and when we get a new house we're going to plant a tree in the back yard and bury some of it there. It sounds silly, but it's what I feel. What we feel.

And no doubt what I feel is a fraction of what Karen's going through, losing her devoted friend of 17 years.

Allie was stingy with her love, but every bit she had to give she gave to Karen. I was just lucky enough to collect the runoff.

Goodbye, little meatball.

Catching rays.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Facebook Killed My Blog

I started this blog almost 8 years ago, back before I really knew what a blog was (or what it was supposed to be).

It started as a "short-term thing," designed to capture my experiences producing a show -- my little collection of 10-minute plays called The One-Eyed Cat & Other Tales of Need. I thought it might be helpful to others, as I was helped by similar blogs when I was trying to figure this all out.

When the show was done it became my Acting Blog, where I recorded my frustrations, fears, hopes and exhilarations on stage and screen. It never became big, probably in part because I tried to keep things somewhat professional -- like not saying anything about people that I'd be embarrassed for them to read.

And other topics seeped in. The personal -- my Dad's long battle with Alzheimer's, vacations, breakups and various calamities large and small. The daily frustrations of living. Your basic everyday nonsense. The Great Pinky Catastrophe of 2011.

When my life moved in new directions, like writing the book, those issues began to dominate. I started investing my attention in my other blog. I've been working a lot on launching my speaking career. I got married.

And with all of that, this blog took a backseat. But ultimately it was Facebook that spelled the end of things. I really enjoy the Facebook. It seems like the medium that was made for me. A place to indulge my inner (and very outer) exhibitionist/narcissist and where the feedback was immediate. It's a lot less pressure and a lot more fun.

So I think I'm done here for now. Someday I imagine it will be fun to look back on these old posts and the life I was living during this time. I do love documentation. And there may be some future writings to be adapted from some of the material here -- especially about my father.

I've never been big on finality and goodbyes, so I'll just say, "See ya!"

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2012 Acting Roundup

It was a hell of a year overall, with a lot going on outside my acting work.

I moved, got married, and spent time going back and forth to DC for the final stages of my Dad's illness and his funeral services. On top of that, I had a major long-term client engagement that had me working on-site in Virginia over several months.

Yes, yes -- excuses, excuses. But together with vacation all that stuff took me out of town for the equivalent of 10 weeks, which is not very conducive to auditioning.

As a result, my numbers were a bit off this year:

  • 49 total auditions, including 5 callbacks
    • That's 33 commercial auditions, 10 print, 5 industrial and 1 voiceover.
  • 8 total bookings
    • That includes 3 commercials, 3 industrials and 2 print jobs.
    • 4 of those bookings were the result of auditions; I was picked for the other 4 through headshots and past work.
I also did extra work in 2 commercials, which I don't count. And, in the Gifts That Keep on Giving Department, the buyouts for 3 jobs from past years were extended.

And in terms of visibility, I was on TV a lot. The Scottrade and Gazelle commercials got a lot of play nationally (including print for Scottrade) and a lot of people saw my online work for Walgreens. My last job of the year -- a commercial I shot in December -- was played on a nationally televised bowl game the day of my wedding.

And sometime in the spring I'll make my TV debut as a farmer.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Waiting on a Sunny Day -- My Wedding Toast

I got married Saturday and gave this toast, which wrapped together my feelings about my father's death, my new bride and the emotional Bruce Springsteen concert we went to in September.

This is how it was planned in my head. I was a little overcome in the moment, though, so it came out a little differently.

In one of those sad ironies, just as Karen and I began planning our new life together, my father was going through the last days of his life.

The week before he died in September, I was at his bedside with my family. And it was, of course, a difficult time. So it was nice toward the end of week to come back to Chicago to my own little family – Karen … and the cat. (In that order!) 

That Saturday night we had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field. It seemed an inappropriate thing to do, given the circumstances, but it turned out to be entirely appropriate, because Bruce worked the crowd that night like an old-time gospel preacher.

During one extended song, he sang this refrain over and over: “Are you missing anybody?” Are you missing anybody? Of course, foremost in his mind was his old friend and bandmate Clarence Clemons, but it felt like he was speaking directly to me – just as I’m sure it did for many others that night who were experiencing their own loss.

Then he said, “Think of who you’re missing, and let ‘em stand alongside you a while.” Think of who you’re missing, and let ‘em stand alongside you a while. It was an incredibly powerful moment.

A few songs later, the skies opened up and it started pouring down rain. And it didn’t stop. And neither did Bruce. He kept right on playing, and he greeted the storm with this song, which has become special to us.

It’s called “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” and it speaks to those times in our lives when we’re confronted with great joy and great sadness simultaneously, and each has the effect of etching the other a little more deeply in our experience. And I know we’re not the only ones to have felt that.

So then a toast: to my father, Lt. Col. Donald Edward Biesenbach. May he always stand alongside us when we need him. To my new bride, Karen, and the lifetime we’ll share alongside each other. And for everyone here: to the rainy days we’ve seen, and the bright, sunny days that always follow.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Picking Up, Dusting Off

I got some feedback recently on my public speaking that was, honestly, devastating.
But, as is my habit with almost any setback or loss, whether in my career or personal life, I was figuratively (and almost literally) picking myself up within minutes and putting together a plan to make it all better. I only hope that's a sign of good coping skills and not delusion.
Here's what happened. I did a presentation to a colleague's employees and he absolutely loved it. He was so taken with it that he vowed to adopt my lessons and change the way they do their own presentations. He thought so highly of it that he recommended me to one of his contacts at a professional speakers bureau.
Now I've applied to a few speakers bureaus and it's a tough, tough field to break into. I thought acting was a competitive field, but getting a talent agent was far, far easier than getting representation for my speaking. Hell, getting a publisher for my book was easier, and the publishing world is insane.
But there are tons and tons of speakers out there and relatively few gigs. Most people want to book a celebrity or athlete or political figure or bestselling author. And most speakers bureaus want to represents those kinds of speakers, because they make a bigger commission from $50,000 engagements than they do from $3,000 engagements.
Still, I have been confident from the beginning (which, I must remind myself, was about 16 months ago) that I have a unique and compelling story to tell and a way of delivering that story that truly stands out.
But the feedback I got on my video was surprising. On the positive side, he said I come across as a nice guy and he was sure that audiences must like me. He could tell that I do well in front of audiences, and that's true. The feedback I get, in both formal ratings and direct feedback from people who come up to me afterwards (many buying my book), is very, very positive.
But he said the industry was getting away from hiring speakers who make audiences feel good. They want someone who will challenge and provoke them, push them in a new direction.
He also said my opening story was too long, which is true. I like the video because it captures my entire book in about 10 minutes. But it needs to be just three or four minutes.
Finally, he said I need a harder edge in my speaking style. I need to come on stronger --  not jerky, but forceful.
So I've got a whole new gameplan. I've been working on a new introduction, something that makes a strong statement right up front. I've come up with a new opening story that's shorter and more pointed. And I'm taking the rest of the speech and giving it all a sharper edge. Less coddling, more provoking.
And then I'm going to hire a videographer for my next big speech and create a whole new video. And then I'm going to start all over again with my marketing.
That all sounds very constructive and positive, but it's taken me a few weeks to move from resignation to grim determination to glimmers of excitement.

And who knows? This guy could be completely wrong. But the more I've thought about it, the more I agree with him. To progress *clink*

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Veteran's Funeral

Two weeks ago we had the service for my father at Arlington National Cemetery. 

It was a crazy time. Sunday morning I flew from Chicago to San Francisco, where I gave a speech Monday morning. Then Monday night I got on the redeye to DC for the Tuesday morning service. No sleep 'til that night, then a flight back to Chicago Wednesday morning.

So I was a bit groggy, but it was still a very moving ceremony. An honor guard served as pall bearers.

He got a 21-gun salute.

A lone bugler played Taps in the distance.

Lots of family and friends on hand for the service.

I'm not really a big gung-ho military patriot type person, but it was really a very nice honor. Even after all these years, with all this time to prepare, it was tough.

Deb has a lifetime entrance pass to drive up to his gravesite anytime we want to visit. The headstone should be up in a month or two, and I'm looking forward to seeing that.

Also looking forward to not traveling for a month or so. Time to take care of things close to home.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Eulogy for My Father

I didn't want to just do a laundry list of my Dad's many qualities, so I talked about fishing.

It was harder to deliver than I thought.


My father taught me many things. The importance of standing on principle, the value of a good joke and even better, a bad joke.

And he taught me how to fish.

One of my earliest memories was when I was about five years old. Out on a pier in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the end of the day and Dad gave me the last piece of bait from the bucket: half a shrimp. We put it on the hook and I lowered the cane pole in the water and I got a bite. It felt huge. I struggled to wrestle it up onto the pier.

And when I saw it, I thought it was some kind of monster. A great big fish the size and shape of a pizza pan with both eyes on one side. Turns out it was a flounder. Dad assured me it was a very good catch, and another adult there was so enamored of the fish he offered to take it off our hands.

I thought, Wow, Ive done something here that not only pleased my father, but was of value to this complete stranger who was under no obligation to think everything I did was adorable. The power of fishing.

Fishing can be a very affirming, very spiritual experience. Almost religious. Allow me to quote from the Good Book A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.

When Im alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.

Fishing is about ritual and mystery. Its about acknowledging a power greater than our own. Recognizing that we play a small part in the scheme of things. Its about faith. Faith that the next cast will be the one, that the fish on the line will make it into the boat, and that if this day didnt go well the next would be better. Its about our connection to each other, taking comfort in each others company and joy in each others success.

My father and I spent countless hours on the water the Occoquan River, Lake Anna. Early, early mornings together, the sun barely up, in a small boat. We talked about different things and many times we didnt talk at all. We just sat, casting our lines in the water, waiting, waiting, with the hope that a fish would rise enjoying the beauty and the quiet.

But then I grew up, went to college, got a job, and my father and I didnt fish a lot after that. But about 10 years ago, at the wedding of Mara and Jeff, Jeff was kind enough to arrange a fly fishing excursion to a stunning, picture-perfect canyon, with the South Platte River running through it. We waded into the stream up to our waists and cast our lines out into the water and reenacted that old ritual of faith.

It turns out I didnt catch a thing that day but that was okay, because Dad landed a beautiful trout. And it made us both very happy. Thank you to Jeff and Mara for that gift.

I recently started fishing again, with my new fiancé, Karen, and her family. And when Im up there in Alaska, on the beautiful waters of the Kenai River, casting to that four-count rhythm, I think of my father and how much hed love fishing those waters. I hear him advising me on my form. Keep your rod tip up, son.

And so the tradition continues. Maybe someday Ill have the opportunity to teach someone how to fish. And the cycle will go on. Which brings me to another quote this one is from the actual Good Book. Ecclesiastes one of my favorites. (And forgive me, father, for I have edited.)

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peace at last

My father finally lost his struggle with Alzheimer's. He died on September 11, of all days, bringing an extra poignance to that day.

I was prepared and totally unprepared.

Still sorting a lot of things out, but one thing that's occurred to me: I said goodbye to my Dad a long time ago. I realize now I was defining "dad" in narrow, traditional terms.

That is, he was no longer able to fill the "job description" -- answering questions about finances and household repairs and life decisions and generally being there for me and being supportive.

But, of course, he was more than the sum of his job responsibilities. And he was about more than simply fulfilling my self-interest and needs.

They should teach this stuff somewhere.

Anyway, he went fairly peacefully and, importantly, at home, with people who loved him.