Grandma's Cat Hotel




I was a lonely little boy.

My father was a traveling salesman and a workaholic. He was from the generation that believed children should not be seen or heard. My mother was a spoiled only child who thought having a boy and a girl was the socially correct thing to do. Things didn’t quite work out. My older sister and I were adopted.

My sister Martha was adopted first, as an infant. About five years later I was adopted shortly before my second birthday. I was a troubled child, wounded by homelessness, adopted by a mother who soon decided she didn’t really enjoy being a mother at all. Her children were supposed to be ornaments, but we turned out to be flesh and blood.

I lived in a house surrounded by my grandfather’s orange grove, next door to his wonderful two-story, Spanish-style home. His orange grove became the enchanted forest of my childhood, and my grandparents were wise, saintly people who gave me the love and guidance missing from my parents.

Yet I was a lonely boy. I was generations away from my parents and grandparents. I was born in 1950. My grandparents were born in 1885. The neighborhood kids had little use for me. They lived on a crowded street of lower-middle-class homes, while I was from a wealthy and privileged family on acres of land. I didn’t fit in, even though I wanted to. I was not allowed to try.

So what does a lonely boy do? I became friends with my grandmother’s cats. She was such a kindhearted soul. Not only would she make sandwiches for homeless men who showed up at her back door now and then, but she also fed every stray cat in the neighborhood. The orange grove was a sanctuary for strays, and they eventually made their way to my grandmother’s back door. But grandmother was a worrier, so she had my grandfather construct an elaborate extension onto a tool shed with lumber and chicken wire which became grandma’s cat hotel.

Grandma’s cat hotel had shelves at all different levels and handmade beds and walkways and all manner of places for the cats to hide in, to feel safe and secure in. She lured them in every afternoon before dark by filling up a wide, flat basket with pie pans of cat food. They were always waiting for her, gathered at her back door. But still, she called, “Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty,” using a high-pitched voice that sounded like something you’d hear on the Texas farm where both my grandparents were raised. The cats were so hungry that even the wildest of them raced inside grandma’s cat hotel to get their food. This was her way of protecting them from the perils of the night.

Each cat had a name and a particular set of habits and peculiarities which my grandmother taught me. One short-haired gray cat with a white ring around her neck and white paws was named Trippy, after her habit of rubbing against my grandmother’s ankles, threatening to trip her. Bobo Blackie was a solid black tomcat with many battle scars, named after a television wrestler. Most evenings I would visit the cat hotel and talk with each of my friends—petting the friendliest and trying my best to tame the wildest. There were always at least about a dozen cats in grandma’s cat hotel, sometimes nearly twenty or more.

The wildest cats were so afraid, nothing could tame them. They were driven into the cat hotel by hunger, but no matter how many times I spoke kindly to them, no matter how many treats I gave them, they remained fiercely wild. They shivered and hissed as if attacked when I tried to pet them.

After dinnertime was through, each of them settled into a place of repose, despite their uncertain and sometimes fearful lives. Often, I spent an hour or more just watching them curl their paws, narrow their eyes and commune with the eternal. We had a lot in common. I was also a stray, saved by the love of my grandmother.



~ Text and photograph by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

After I Died I Saw My Dog



The first thing I saw after I died was my dog Nova, wagging her tail madly and wriggling like a salamander with delight.


She was the only dog I ever had, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix given to my family when I was twelve years old. There were two puppies, Nova and Scotia.

We got Nova.

Nova was a gift from friends of my parents. The dog donors were people of wealth and standing in the community and so my parents felt they could not refuse, accepting the gift with feigned appreciation.

About a year earlier my parents' English bulldog died. He was a snorting bowlegged drooler named Charlie. He did not enjoy going for walks or companionship of any kind. Charlie was an ornamental dog. Eating, scratching, snoring and rubbing his genitals on the back of an old black cat too feeble to escape his advances—that was Charlie’s life.

I essentially grew up a dogless boy until Nova came into my life. She was my dog by default due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of my late middle-age parents whose hobbies were dining out, ice cream and television. My older sister was too busy with the demands of high school society to spend time with a dog. But I was in dire need of canine companionship. I was an indifferent student on the low end of the popularity totem pole in a snooty private school that was a freeway away from my neighborhood. My only friends were our three family cats, and they could take me or leave me.

Nova and I were boy-dog, dog-boy soul mates. We were constant companions; the Lewis and Clark of our neighborhood. By summer Nova had grown and loved to run. We were creatures of the summer, awakened early by the excitement of eternal youth. We would never grow old and the day would never end. I see us still, taking the long hike to the foothills, running through unsubdivided fields, collapsing under a shady tree, finding secret places. We will be there forever.

Nova was smart. I taught her dozens of tricks. I'd place a cracker on her nose and she would hold perfectly still until I said, “OK!”, then she’d toss the morsel into the air, catch it and eat it. Each trick she learned reinforced the fact that we could communicate directly with each other. We knew how to say all the things that dogs and boys need to say to one another. We were sincere, and our sincerity was a river of love that flowed between us, through us.

The years went by and I moved away from home, no longer a boy. Nova was always overjoyed to see me when I returned for a visit and she never forgot any of her tricks, always so proud to perform them. One day, I returned home to take her on a last car ride, to the veterinarian. She was dying and my parents decided they could no longer take care of her. When I led her into the verterinarian’s office she was nervous and shaking as I had never seen her shake before. She knew, somehow. I never forgave myself for not being with her when the assistant led her away for that fatal injection.

~ ~ ~

"Welcome to heaven,” Nova said, extraordinarily delighted to see me, yet still remembering her manners and restraining the impulse to jump on me. I’d been in the hospital, sixty-seven years old, with a bleeding ulcer, my skin turned too, too white. After days of weakness and decline I awoke in a place between life and death. I heard a dog barking. I saw her. I crossed over.




~ Text and photograph by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved




Youth Has An Expiration Date


It is somewhat amusing to older folks to hear pop song lyrics and see pop song videos in which handsome young men worship at the altar of beautiful young women. Oh those words of eternal passion, pledged by the young. How quickly terms and conditions come into play as familiarity grows, as obligations mount, as the marriage ties that bind, bind.

And what of the aging process, that chronological decay of flesh that robs us all of youth’s bounty? I find it hard to visualize a wrinkled old man and woman in a pop song video, singing to each other:

Almost paradise
We're knockin' on heaven's door
Almost paradise
How could we ask for more?
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes
Paradise*


Herman, Marjorie & Bess Allison ~ Redondo Beach, California 1917

Youth passes, passion passes and we move on. Yet I remember spending the night at my grandparents’ house many years ago when they were in their seventies. I woke up early the next morning and peeked into their bedroom to see if they were still sleeping. I just happened to see them waking up. My old, wrinkled grandfather gave my old, wrinkled grandmother a kiss and said “Good morning.”

Almost paradise.



*From the song “Almost Paradise” written by Eric Carmen and Dean Pitchford



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Tuesday


















I found a piece of paper in a parking lot.

It had been run over numerous times, torn and trampled, faded by the sun and still damp from a light morning mist.

Because I was not in a hurry; because I was not wearing earbuds and distracted by music; because I was not staring at a cell phone screen; because I was not talking to anyone; because everything has design, color, shape and texture, I picked up the square piece of paper.

It had been some kind of glossy, card-stock advertisement for a nightclub, probably stuck under the windshield wiper of a parked car long ago.

Looking closer, I saw the face of my lost love, a strand of her curly long auburn hair falling across her bare, thin shoulder and finely sculpted collar bone.

She was smiling and looking skyward, as if she could see all the way to heaven.

That was Tuesday.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Artwork by a parking lot
© All Rights Reserved

Gigs — Part Two



When I first began performing in public, it was at high school sock hops—yes, they called them sock hops because they were held in the gymnasium where you had to remove your shoes so you wouldn’t scuff the polished wooden floor. One of our high school gigs was called the “Heaven and Hell Dance.” The gymnasium was partitioned in half, and a loud, raucous, rock-and-roll band played the Hell side. We were the heavenly band, the Crescendos, playing soft, romantic songs for amorous young high-schoolers who wanted to dance close together. Very close together.

I will always remember my best friend and piano player John Baer pounding away on an old upright piano that had been moved onto the stage for us. Its only amplification was by way of a bad microphone. It would be a long time before he actually owned an amplified keyboard. He had to hit the keys so hard for the sound not to be buried by the drums and electric guitar that his fingers bled.

After a year spent learning how to sing in Men’s Chorus, I joined the high school folk music group called the Travelers. In addition to numerous school and community functions, we also played a few gigs at local folk music clubs, including a one-nighter at the relatively famous Ice House in Pasadena, owned by the husband of my half-sister who I did not know existed. I would meet her for the first time 39 years later.

After high school I formed a rock band named Pride (Click here for website), playing my original music at various high school and college concerts. Then it was on to various nightclub and hotel gigs playing the popular songs of the time. I cannot count the number of times I played “Proud Mary” during my gigging years. But the most intricate torture came from repeated performances of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Ole Oak Tree,” a tune that stubbornly resisted any kind of creative interpretation.

I spent six months on the road playing in the Midwest and Alaska, but soon tired of living in hotels. Perhaps the worst part of the six-nights-a-week life of a club musician was playing the same sets of tunes with no variation, no improvisation at all. And so I left the road and went back to performing at nightclubs and hotels in Southern California, interspersed with many recording sessions and concerts of original music at small clubs around Hollywood.


I’d always written songs and short compositions, and was under contract for a while as a songwriter after high school, but nothing came of it. I eventually asked to be let out of my contract, as I could not manufacture the inspiration to write the kind of commercial tunes my producer was so fond of. He’d had successful artists in the past, and years later transformed his Southern California schoolteacher wife into the popular country western persona known as Donna Fargo.

In the years that followed I wrote and recorded hundreds of songs and compositions, but never launched an actual career as an artist. Nobody was interested, and I’ve always been rather unambitious. The fun of creating and playing music always seemed like enough for me. The only way I made money from music was as a guitar player doing gigs.

As I approached the age of thirty, I’d been doing one-nighters for about five years with a group that was consistently booked by some very high-end clients. It was great fun and on occasion some very accomplished and famous players joined our group.

On one particularly memorable evening, we were playing at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, an exclusive restaurant and watering hole whose parking lot was filled with Rolls Royce automobiles. Our drummer that night was studio musician Ralph Humphrey (Click here for website), who had played on Frank Zappa's "Overnight Sensation" album. The Bistro was the hangout of Johnny Carson, who just happened to be in the bar that night. We were playing for a private function in a banquet room. Anyone from the bar who wanted to use the restroom had to pass through a corner of the room where we were playing. When Johnny Carson suddenly appeared on his way to the restroom we were in the middle of a song, but piano player John Baer quickly jumped into the Tonight Show theme. Johnny laughed and pointed at us as if to say, “OK, you got me.”

The musician years were great fun and there is a special kind of bliss one feels being inside an energy-filled, spirit-filled musical performance, playing with other inspired musicians for an appreciative and sometimes intoxicated audience. Unlike club and hotel gigs, the one-nighters allowed us to do far more improvising. With no club owner or hotel manager looking over our shoulders, we were very free to have a lot of fun with the music.


At some point, adolescence, no matter how protracted, must end. For me, it was the approach of the birth of my first son, Joshua, that signaled I was overdue for a life change.


There are so many illusions the amateur and professional artist share, making it especially hard to objectively measure one’s talents and potential for success. But by working with so many talented musicians, I knew I was not among the more gifted or accomplished players. I remember sitting up late one night, taking a cold, hard look at what I’d been doing all those years, trying to see where it all would lead. I could not see a future for myself in music.


My best talents were in composing, yet I was self-taught and way too esoteric to achieve any kind of real success as a popular songwriter. So at age 28, the only way forward for me was to return to college. I eventually decided to major in journalism, knowing I had greater gifts as a writer than as a musician. I was determined to study the most intricate details of writing, not to skip any steps, to dissect the craft as I’d never done with music.


Music was always more of a lifestyle than a career for me, an adolescent lifestyle. I’d put it off as long as I could, but alas, it was finally time to grow up. Yet after my journalism career came to an end, I started composing and recording again, made so much easier this time by the advent of keyboards that can emulate so many different instruments, and digital recording technology: Russ Loar Music.com (Click here for website) I've even been under contract to a sound library and had some of my music used for cable television. And so music is not completely absent from my life, although as the years go by, it is receding.

Music has always been one of the toughest life lessons for me, in that no matter how strong my passion, no matter how strong my desire, there is no substitute for talent.

It's the hard, hard lesson all aspiring artists eventually learn—especially hard for those of us who have not been struck by lightning.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved