Vital Signs by Sherri Frank

Maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. With my other cat, Cleo, it was clear when I needed to put her to sleep. She’d had surgery to remove tumors in her belly. A year later, cancer filled her lungs with fluid and she was panting, her mouth hanging open as she breathed. At the animal hospital, they drained the fluid but said it would come back. I had three more weeks with her before she started panting again. When an animal is in pain and struggling to breathe, the decision is clear—though never easy. I called the hospital and took her in.

But with Gino, it’s not so clear. For months, he’d been losing strength in his back legs. He went from limping, to falling over, to not being able to stand at all within a year. Diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder, he dragged himself around the house using his front paws, his lifeless legs trailing behind. But his appetite was the same, his energy was the same, his spirit was the same. Surgery wouldn’t fix it, a specialist said, and his functionality would only get worse. But he wasn’t in any pain.Gino 2014

So be it, I thought. He just needs a little help.

I helped him walk upright by looping a cotton sling beneath his back legs and walking alongside of him. When he had trouble getting into the litter box, I cut the front part of it so he could drag himself in and out. I held up his hind quarters while he did his business: Love, it seemed, had no limits.

But little by little he became incontinent, leaving a trail of urine—and sometimes feces—wherever he went. Soon, he bypassed the litter box altogether. I tried puppy diapers, but they slipped off his skinny haunch no matter how tightly I secured them. Most of the time, he stunk like piss and shit, so I bathed him on a towel in the bathtub, holding him so he wouldn’t fall over; soothing him while he cried.

“Maybe it’s time to put him down,” a friend said.

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

I spent a fortune on paper towels, bleach, and Swiffer wet cloths, wiping up urine and disinfecting floors. It was a lot of work and took up a lot of time.

Still, he was my “Gino Love.” The same “Little Man.” “Handsome Boy.” “Sweet Potato Fellow” whom I’d loved for 17 years. Eating his food with gusto; sitting on my lap with a puppy pad beneath him. How could I consider ending his life just because it was getting difficult to care for him?

At night, I used plastic garbage bags and towels on my bed so he could continue sleeping with me. Good thing I was single. I’d lift him onto the bed and he’d pull his body up to my pillow. Nuzzling his head in my neck, he’d fall asleep purring. Several times each night he’d slide off the bed for food or water, crying when he was ready to get back up again. I kept a flashlight nearby so I could find him in the dark.

To be honest, there were days when I couldn’t take anymore. Days when work had been too long and too demanding, and when others in my life were also clamoring for attention. Coming home to a house that reeked of piss, and a cat that kept pissing even as I tried to clean him up, was more than I could handle. I’ve yelled at him. I’ve picked him up roughly to move him to another spot in the house. I’ve wished he were gone. Though I know those feelings are normal for anyone who’s taking care of a sick person or animal, they left me with a guilt that was difficult to shake.

“It’s selfish to keep him alive,” my friend said. “You need to think about his well-being, not yours.”

But it felt selfish to even think about putting Gino to sleep. I worried that I’d be doing it for my own sake: So that my house would smell clean again. So that I could come home, drink a beer, and eat dinner right away instead of mopping floors and washing towels. So that I could go out after work and not fear the mess I’d find when I returned late at night. In short, I worried that I’d be putting my cat to sleep because it would make my life easier; not because it was the best thing for him.

In the absence of pain—or other obvious signs like vomiting, listlessness, and loss of appetite—what constitutes suffering? What constitutes a diminished quality of life for an animal who can’t tell us what he thinks or feels? That’s what it came down to.

According to the American Humane Association (AHA), it’s a judgment call. “You may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude.” I wasn’t sure I trusted my own judgment, which was blinded by love and (sometimes) exhaustion. Yet, because I knew Gino so well, there was no one more qualified to make the decision. The AHA provides a list of signs that might indicate a pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Gino displayed two of the seven signs:

  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself

Rather than help, this only made it more complicated. We don’t put people to sleep when they can no longer walk, or when they’ve lost control of their bladders and bowels. Should it be any different with our pets? The answer is debatable, of course.

These days, I remain diligent about watching for signs of Gino’s deteriorating health. I take him to the vet for regular check ups, where we no longer talk about treatments, just palliative care. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep him clean, keep the house clean. But he still enjoys lying in the sun curled up next to my other cat, Josie. They groom each other. If I’m late feeding him, he slides over to the electrical outlet and gnaws on my computer cord until I pay attention. He paws at my feet when he wants to sit on my lap. He purrs while I pet him and bats at the ties on my sweatpants. He wants to investigate any new box I bring into the house.

When I look at him, I see an animal still engaged in living and loving, despite his disabilities. And perhaps that’s the best indicator of what he wants.

For now, it’s all I have to go on.


It’s right before the quarter-finals of the World Cup and I’m shaking my head while staring at the remaining teams. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to be a sports fan. People I know generally root for their hometown teams past or present—sometimes both. Those are almost always long-term relationships that usually last a lifetime whether the team does well or, in the case of the hapless and hopeless, Chicago Cubs’ fans—need I say more?

World Cup soccer isn’t as simple. I’m a sports fan and where I do appreciate the beauty of play, I gotta root for someone. That’s the fun. When I’ve got no personal loyalty I usually find out who the underdog is and take its back. I just can’t imagine being neutral watching sports. I’ve never watched any game as a dispassionate observer.

This isn’t my first head shake since the tournament began. We’re talking country against country here, which trumps my underdog fallback policy. Most Americans who follow the Cup simply root for the US unless they had a different country of origin. Even then I’d guess most root for both. And while I love a whole lot of stuff about this country, it’s too difficult to tease out my nation’s team from the horror our government (both Republican and Democrat) has inflicted upon the Iraqis, Afghans, and every country against which it has waged outright and covert war since World War Two.

Yeah, I’m the same guy who has argued it’s okay to separate a person’s achievements from his or her personal life. Never had a problem enjoying Picasso paintings despite his misogyny. Or laughing out loud during Woody Allen films despite his controversial marriage. So why not do the same thing here?

Because I just couldn’t. I know the team had no hand in our ugly. But I still couldn’t stop cringing every time I heard the chant, “USA! USA! USA!

Since I was watching a lot of Cup games and gotta root, I began my quest to find a country in each match to support. And, while I have no doubt that Mexico’s corrupt government has committed egregious acts of injustice and violence, I’d just spent a terrific couple of weeks there (see my last two posts). Hypocritical perhaps, but that experience allowed me to inexplicably push their crimes out of my mind and cheer. I had a team. For a little while, anyway. Unfortunately they didn’t get out of the Round of 16, but I did and wasn’t done with the Cup.

So, as I write this, I’m left with the following teams to root for: Brazil, that spent billions to host the tournament while just out of sight from tourists there are people who live in shacks without running water and about 15% of the country’s deaths are due to transportation accidents, violence, or suicide.

Gonna pass on Brazil.

And so it goes. No full face public burkas in France despite a Social Democratic government. Germany, well, I have historical problems there. Argentina, whose government slaughtered 15,000 to 30,000 political dissidents including trade unionists, students, and journalists in its “Dirty War” (Guerra Sucia).

I don’t think so.

That leaves me Columbia, Netherlands, Belgium, and Costa Rica.

I could probably find historical or contemporary fault with each of these countries but I have a personal connection with one. My older son Matthew spent a high-school summer with a Costa Rican family learning Spanish. Plus, Costa Rica has no military. So, for the time being (at least until they play the Netherlands, the clear cut favorite) I have an underdog team to root for.

Ain’t I the lucky one?

Truth is, I’ve learned something important writing this. There was a guy, a regular customer in my father’s tavern, who had a jones for betting on horses. His method?  Spread The Racing Form on the bar in front of him, take a needle, close his eyes, and dot the day’s races with pinpricks. He’d note the horses he’d hit, go to the telephone booth and call his bookie. I could do the same with the world map and find that every country I touched would leave me feeling sick. Some more than others, but very few without some quease. Even the ones I’ve never heard of.

Maybe that USA chant isn’t as bad as I first thought.

“This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but to say that it is the worst is mere petulant nonsense.” - Thomas Henry Huxley


After last week’s column about Mexico, a close friend pointed out that Sue and I had been in Mexico as tourists (true) and, as such, saw the best face of the country (also true). Went on to express her admiration of Mexican peoples’ working and family ethos. Then added that Mexico’s judicial system is based upon “guilty until proven innocent,” something that is radically different (unless you’re a person of color in the US) than our own “innocent until proven guilty.” I immediately searched Google. Evidently, in June 2008 Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, signed a law of national reforms of both federal and state level justice systems which included the presumption of innocence and a defendant’s right to a public trial. The entire series of reforms are to be completely implemented throughout the country by 2016. Also, my friend neglected to mention that Mexico has no death penalty, an attitude a hell of a lot more civilized than here.

She also wrote about the high level of violence due to drug cartels and named a number of areas that included a high proportion of border towns. Absolutely true and horrible for ANYWHERE, but here’s the rub. Cartels in Mexico control approximately 70% of the foreign narcotics that flow into the United States which includes, according to the US State Department estimates, 90% of the cocaine that enters our country. Let’s get real here, we’re the cartels’ consumers. How about a sane drug policy that would significantly reduce the associated violence both in Mexico and the United States?

But these columns were never intended to bite into Mexico’s social structure, legal system, immigration issues, or violence—as real as they are. We were tourists and my hope is simply to present facets of our neighbor most Americans never get to see. Believe me, there will be plenty of political posts from this seat. Just not today.


IMG_2587We chose to visit Oaxaca because Sue had been there a number of times (long ago) and thought I’d love the town, people, and its amazing history. Luckily we ended up with a high octane dose of all these things by chance. Turns out we visited Oaxaca City during the highlight week of the State’s 482nd birthday. With huge posters announcing their “Cultural Blockade,” streets were closed to cars to allow for a multitude of events including public story-telling,



street sculptures,


marimba jazz bands,

a 482 piece orchestra,





and outdoor fashion shows,

and even outdoor fashion shows.

We had stumbled into an amazing 24/7 party where entire families, from infants to grandparents, participated together. No spring chickens, even we realized that 482 years is something to celebrate.  And so we did.


While the festival was an incredible rush, it was Oaxaca State’s complex history that was truly an eye-opener. Three millennia before the 1521 Spanish invasion, this region contained about16 different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, and traditions. Monte Alban had been inhabited over 1,500 years by a succession of peoples—Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs and served as the Zapotec capital for thirteen centuries. Tough to swallow but Monte Alban was a city of 40 to 50 thousand people that, for no known reason, was abandoned beginning around 850 A.D. No known reason. That’s one long term head-scratcher. Now Monte Alban along with Mitla (the second largest city in Oaxaca during the Zapotec heyday) are two of Mexico’s most famous archeological ruins.

The Aztec capital of Gran Tenochtitlan — (which eventually became Mexico City) — fell in 1521 to Hernan Cortes of Spain. After the fall of the Aztecs, Oaxacan Zapotecs attempted alliances with the Spaniards. Instead Spain set out to conquer Oaxaca and grab all the gold and silver in its mountains–a shitload of money in them thar hills. But 20140425_172229the Oaxacan peoples were conquered, not by Spanish arms and soldiers, but by religious psychological warfare and an army of priests and friars. In 1560, the Dominicans reported that the natives were converted, completely docile and submissive.

Or dead. It’s estimated that in 1519 when Cortes arrived the population of Mesoamerica was around 25,000,000 people. By 1605 75% to 90% were gone—primarily to European diseases against which the natives had no immunity.  A pretty grim annihilation.


Spices that create mole

We spent eight days in Oaxaca City and barely scratched its surface but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that two of its most famous products are many different types of mole and a particular type of black pottery.







The last part of our trip was four days in Mexico City. Since we’d been there before and had visited most of the major tourist IMG_2746sights and museums, we decided to stay at a small hotel located between two interesting neighborhoods—La Condesa and Roma. Although recently known to be artsy, the architecture is an incredible mix of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and modern. (This mix is partly due to earthquakes which destroyed some buildings and left others standing so the rebuild created a mélange.) In fact, one of Mexico City’s most famous Nouveau buildings is located in Roma.IMG_2780






There are many art galleries in the two neighborhoods and we found one small museum that was presenting an exhibit of artifacts donated by individuals that represented their broken relationships, along with the person’s accompanying story. 2Rasta2773


As if in contrast to the exhibit, on the sidewalk outside the museum, people kept putting locks proclaiming their love for each other on iron fences.







There were a ton of hidden treasures in both neighborhoodsIMG_2811 and, despite one trip outside to the city’s new modern art museum, Museo Soumaya, after four days there was still more to see in these two neighborhoods; restaurants, parks, and walks.IMG_2736



I’m an urban guy with concrete in my blood so cities fascinate me. And Mexico City sits right up there with Paris (my favorite), New York, and San Francisco.

I’ll end this piece where I began. I know there’s an ugly underside to Mexico. An ugly underside to every country, really, and I hate those horrors. But there are times to grab hold of life’s pleasures, and some of life’s greatest pleasures exist south of our border. I just wish everyone had a chance to enjoy them.

The world is like that — incomprehensible and full of surprises~Jorge Amado


Sue and I have been to Mexico a half-dozen times over the past twenty years. Before we go people always warn us about horrible healthcare, kidnappings, drug cartels, pickpockets, and murder. Although these things can occur, they do much less frequently than people believe and we’ve never had a speck of trouble.

For example, fear of the Mexican health system doesn’t carry much weight. According to Felicia Knaul, Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, “As of April of 2012, every Mexican, regardless of their socioeconomic situation, has access to the financial protection in health that shields them from facing the terrible choice between impoverishment and suffering or even death.”.

What never hits the news is that thousands of Americans retire to Mexico because of its healthcare system, which is of high quality and low cost.

Be nice if we could say the same about here.

Truth is, for many reasons that only begin with immigration issues, most Americans have a distorted view of our neighbor. One that really only sees Mexico as home to beach resorts, and a jump-off for illegal migrant workers.

Mexico is so, so much more.

It’s the experience of visiting a country that had multiple cultures coalesce into an exciting, often mind-blowing blend. A blend that includes the beliefs, customs, accomplishments and esthetics of past Mesoamerican empires with cultures thousands of years old, Spanish rule, Catholicism, land grabs, and revolutions. For example: On one of our trips we visited San Cristobal de las Casas, a mountaintop city considered Cristobalthe “cultural capital” of the state of Chiapas.

Here we saw glimpses of ancient Mayan culture as well as the city’s Spanish influences. We visited Casa Na Bolom museum, an anthropological center dedicated to the protection of the Lacandon Maya and the preservation of the Chiapas rain forest.

It was outside the Center when Jake and I made our first indigenous friend. Jake was just learning to read, sitting in the courtyard studying his book. I don’t remember its title but the cover picture showed a sled dog in snowy Alaskan terrain. A local resident was entranced. He had never before seen snow. Jake saw the amazement in his eyes—so much so that he offered the man the book to keep. A couple of days later we saw him carrying his textiles on his back while tightly grasping the book in his hand. When he noticed us, he rushed over and leafed through the pages, excitedly showing us each of the pictures. It was a sweet, sweet moment.

P’atzcuaro, located in the state of Michoacán (home of the amazing Monarch butterfly migration), was founded in the 1320s. After the Spanish conquest, this beautiful mountain/lakeside town briefly became the capital of New Spain. History moved on, which might have been a good thing for Patzcuaro’s indigenous population, given the cruel, relentless domination by the Spanish.

patzz1Instead, Lake Pátzcuaro became the area where Pátzcuaro’s first bishop Don Vasco de Quiroga (known as Tata or father) ignored the Spanish demand to enslave the rebellious native population. As an alternative, he encouraged a system of town-based, self-created craft specialization for economic survival in this Brave New World. Those specializations still remain and make the region around the lake home to some of the IgnatioWithCopper1most beautiful crafts in Mexico.

Walk into Santa Clara de los Cobres and you hear the sounds of hammers beating copper into beautiful plates, vases, and table tops. Move on to Capula for intricately painted pottery. Lace from Aranzo, and ceramic devil creatures come from Ocumicho-to name just a few.

This is not a country of sombreros and machete-swinging San migueldesperadoes as so often portrayed. In fact, San Miguel de Allende is home to 12,000 to 14,000 US expatriates and retirees out of a population of about 80,000. Not an insignificant number. Its marketplace is filled with shops owned by some Americans as well as Mexicans. There we had an apartment on a hill above the city center and at night the entire town looked like wondrous jewel.

But for all St. Miguel’s beauty we prefer areas with fewer Americans. So on that trip we also spent time in nearby Guanajuato.

Guanajuato is not a jewel-like city. Capital of the state with the same name, there’s no aesthetic comparison to San Miguel de Allende. It’s a bustling town located in a narrow valley. Many of its streets run underground through tunnels built centuries ago as attempts to protect the city from floods. Unfortunately the tunnel system didn’t work so floods have left high-water marks on numerous of its really old buildings. But it was the best Guanajuato could do (and had to since the surrounding mountains contained gold and silver that were being mined to empty by the Spaniards) so tunnels were rebuilt over the existing ones. Eventually modern technology allowed flood waters to run under the tunnels which are now used for roadways.Tunnels Since they kept building on top of ruined, flooded buildings as well, driving underground often gave us an opportunity to see foundations and cellars that are hundreds of years old. For the historians among us, the first War of Independence began in the state of Guanajuato.

I’m writing about Mexico because, first, it’s a country I love, but also because I think we, as Americans, have a terribly inaccurate understanding of its greatness. We’ve bought into stereotypes that have little or no basis in reality. Our national refrain about Mexico is “don’t drink the water.”

And while that’s true, it misses the beauty, history, and different ways of life. How about buying bottled water and drink the beauty of Mexico’s diverse culture and countryside instead?

My next post will talk about Mexico City and Oaxaca.

The future has an ancient heart ~ Carlo Levi


Before I explain fracturing one of the great literary openings, I want to apologize for the extended period I’ve taken off from writing Monday posts. We’re way past my planned reappearance in January when I said I’d re-open. There have been deaths, potential lives (I’m going to be a grandfather to twin girls), a son moving out of the house, a rescheduled release date of my first three Matt Jacob novels by Polis Books, a decision to issue the fourth (TIES THAT BLIND) in fall of 2015 as both a print and e-book, and a great vacation in Mexico. From here on in I intend to post every other Monday and occasionally have different interesting and talented writers filling in on the off week.

As for the post’s title, it popped while watching an episode of Cosmos. I don’t have many regrets about my lack of formal education and perhaps that lack has added to my incredible delight and amazement as I begin to discern the scope of information and understanding we, as humans, have at our fingertips. In fact, it will take decades to decipher the raw data we receive every day from the rovers and probes that have been sent to space. It makes me tingle the same as listening to Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Nocturnes, Miles, reading Raymond Chandler, or seeing a Eugene O’Neill play.

It’s not just astronomers who might be living in the best of times. We’ve been discovering new species that survive at the ocean’s depths via modern submersible technology. And what of neurologists and neuropsychologists mapping the electrical pathways of the brain and the implications for treating diseases like Parkinson’s, for example. Hell, it’s only been about a decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project and we’re already reaping its benefits, and not just in medicine. Frankly, the discoveries that have occurred during my lifetime have dropped my jaw.

And let’s not ignore technology and the Internet, which has changed the way people interact, the ‘size’ of our world, politics all over the planet, and offers the opportunity to disseminate information faster than our wildest dreams.

Yeah, I know. A lot of people won’t like the paragraph above. I often hear complaints about the loss of the “real” world to the “virtual.” The massive erosion of privacy. Have listened as people derided the “Arab Spring” since the results have been considerably less than desired. I understand the issues, see the complications, appreciate the downsides, but continue to say bring it on.

From where I sit, the potential far outweighs the negative. Furthermore, whenever societies go through seismic change, many people decry the loss of the past. I’m just not one of them. Does anyone really believe the world would have known about the kidnapping of 250 Nigerian girls without the Internet?

That last fact brings me to the second half of the title. With all this great knowledge tumbling into our lives, we still live in a world better known for atrocities than humanity. That, to me, is a sick mind fuck.

People are going to tell me “twas ever thus” and they may be accurate. But until my dying day I’m never going to believe it has to stay this way, that we’re not better than this. That the gentle acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity we see between individuals every day can’t be translated into the greater society everywhere.

Why? It’s isn’t because of anything rose colored. I’ve been lucky to have seen some serious change for the better over the course of my life. From changing attitudes toward Trans*, LGBs, and women to issues that include income inequality–(1% versus 90)–and, to a much lesser degree, institutional racism.

Then add to that the commitment and work being done by those coming after my generation. Despite the economic hardships that younger people now face, they are still growing Teach For America. Still finding ways, inside and outside the system, to work for social change. Again, not just in the U.S., but places where it’s even more difficult and the risks much, much greater.

But yeah, you gotta be blind not to see that way, way too much totally sucks—and it behooves us to never forget. But however ugly it is and/or becomes, there’s really is an awful lot of wonder, awe, art, music, science, and good, good people to love and respect.

(Please remind me of this column when I get into one of my negative rants. Thanks.)

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.
Langston Hughes