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Me and Jeter in 2014

In Memoriam: Jeter (1999-2019)

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Me and Jeter in 2014
Me and Jeter in 2014

It’s not hard to know where to begin with Jeter. I know the exact date. October 26, 1999. It was game three of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. That morning, a co-worker of mine came into the office and said she had found a kitten underneath a refrigerator box behind her house. She had put him in a carrier and took him with her to the office in case someone might be interested in him. I went down with her to the parking garage, and there in her minivan was this tiny, flea-infested grey kitten. “I’ll take him,” I said. After work, with him in my car, I stopped at a pet shop to get flea shampoo. I took him to my apartment on Belmont Blvd. in Nashville and gave him a flea bath in the kitchen sink. He was miserable, and after I dried him, he ran under the bed. But it wasn’t long before he came back out and let me sit him on my lap. Together we watched the game on a little 3” portable TV that I set up on a music stand in the entryway of the apartment, which doubled as the living room.

In honor of the Yankees victory, I decided to name my new buddy after the team’s star shortstop, Derek Jeter. He would be Jeter, a.k.a. Jeets and sometimes Jeter Mosquitor.

Like his namesake, Jeter had a long and storied career. He was only about 8-weeks old when I brought him home that day, and he lived until he was almost 19 ½, passing away on Friday, February 8. He lived a long and extraordinary life, one that was marred by upheaval and near-tragedy almost from the beginning. My girlfriend and I moved the next year from that apartment on Belmont Blvd into a guest house in Green Hills. The following Thanksgiving, while I was visiting family back in New Jersey, she called me, frantic. While she was moving some things around, a metal shelf had fallen on Jeter’s tail. She rushed him to the emergency room but the doctors weren’t sure they could save the tail. I drove back to Nashville immediately. By the time I arrived, rigor mortis was already setting in. He’d have to lose half his tail. And so he did, and he was fine, even if everyone who ever met him immediately asked what happened to his tail.

Jeter c. 2000
Jeter c. 2000

More change came. My girlfriend moved out and I lived in a couple more apartments. A feline sister named Bobbie Girl arrived, who was sweet in her own way and went on to live for 15 years. I got married and moved into a house in East Nashville, and then a house in Brentwood. It was in the latter that he honed his hunting skills as an indoor and outdoor cat. It will appall wildlife and bird enthusiasts, but he spent years carrying all kinds of animals into the house in his mouth: moles, mice, bunnies, snakes, frogs, birds. Often times, I could get him to drop the prey and set it free with minimal damage being done. Other times it would be too late and I’d come home to blood and various parts of an animal all over the house. When he wasn’t hunting and killing things, he was sweet; the classic lap cat. He could wrap his paws around your neck and hug you. He kissed your nose if you asked him. And he loved sucking on your ear lobes, which sounds weird, but I think was the result of him not properly being weaned as a kitten. It was hard not to give in and give him the opportunity, even for a few minutes, when you see it that way. It’s a habit he never lost, even in his last days. Another habit he never lost was trying to steal sips of my bedside water, and pawing at me at night until I pet him to sleep.

One time, I came home to the realization that my marriage of 10 years had fallen apart. It was back to me and Jeter and Bobbie Girl and a series of apartments for the next few years, thus ending his indoor/outdoor ways. In retrospect, that likely extended his life. Animals are resilient, yet sometimes I wonder how Jeter and Bobbie Girl managed to handle those tumultuous years after my divorce. But I guess they had me. I was the constant. Like I had them. As tough as those years were, they were oddly good for us. We probably spent more time hanging out with each other—without someone else being there—than ever before. I have a disproportionate amount of selfies of me and Jeter from that time. Bobbie Girl couldn’t sit still that long.

Jeter c. 2013
Jeter c. 2013

I met my wife Keri in 2013, and in 2014, we married and moved to Donelson. Jeter and Bobbie Girl would have to get used to someone else in their lives again (and a dog), but Keri immediately loved them and they her. The house got emptier when Bobbie Girl died suddenly from cancer in 2015. It would soon get bigger with the arrival in the summer of 2016 of our twin girls. In the spring of that year, Jeter developed a serious urinary tract infection that required surgery if he were going to survive. He was already almost 17 years-old, and even him surviving the surgery was risky. I remember sitting in the consultation room with the doctor at the emergency clinic when he described the procedure, which in addition to the risk, would cost thousands of dollars I didn’t have. I don’t know what exactly was going through my head. I know I was worried about the money. But that’s not what came out. What I said, through my chest heaving and tears streaming down my face, was that my wife was pregnant, and we were expecting twins, and “he has to meet them.” That was all. He has to meet them. Do whatever you have to do. It’s important to me that he meet them.

I think we had been through so much together, broken relationships, failed marriages, multiple apartments and houses, not to mention just about every other life event (the death of my father, my mother’s dementia), that he needed to join me for the most important thing to ever happen to me: becoming a father. He needed to see this thing through with me. He needed to meet my daughters.

And he did, and then some. He went on to live almost three years after that. He was there when they came home as 4 lb premature babies, and there during all those late night feedings, and the colic and the screaming. But then the laughter and the joy and soon the petting and the hugging. He was already getting old and couldn’t get around as well, but my daughters loved feeding him and petting him gently on his head. Sometimes they would sit next to him and say, “Jeter’s my buddy, Jeter’s my boy.”

And he was. My buddy became their buddy. It doesn’t get any better than that. And to think, I wanted him to meet them.

the chair

The Chair (A Prose Poem)

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the chair

The Chair

We’re going. It’s 12 o’clock.
“Wait here until we come to get you. Here on this chair.”
The lone chair is in a long hallway in front of double doors that people walk in and out of; doctors and nurses and who knows who. I can only distinguish the maintenance people, with their bright yellow warning triangles, mopping the floor with deliberate figure eights, the tiles a symphony.

Saint Gerard is in my pocket.
He’s been there for days, the patron saint of expectant mothers, and today, expectant fathers.
You can do that. He doesn’t mind.
I hold my hand over my pocket, on top of the scrubs that cover me head to toe, and say a prayer. Somebody emerges from the double doors. Not for me.

I’m still waiting.
Three days ago I was waiting, but not like this.
The birth of my daughters was imminent, but not like this.
The safety of my wife not in question. The health of my daughters not in question.
None of it, in question.

So now I sit, on a chair, outside double doors that lead to a room where my wife and my daughters, my family, wait until they are ready.
For the doctors to be ready.
For everyone to be ready.
But not for me to be ready.
I’m ready when they’re ready.
I’m ready.

(Written as part of a class taught by Maria Browning at The Porch Writer’s Collective on what poetry can teach prose.)

Jim Ridley | In Remembrance and Gratitude

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I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Jim Ridley, the editor and long-time film critic of the Nashville Scene, who died today at age 50. He gave me a boost when I needed it, that I’ve carried with me for years.

I first got to know Jim in 2006, when I came on board as publicist for both Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Film Festival. It was a time of transition for me, as I was leaving the music business and just getting my feet wet as a publicist. He was one of the first people I had lunch with as I made my way around town meeting with journalists and other PR folks. He was already a fan and supporter of both NPT and NaFF, so I didn’t need to convince him of either’s value and newsworthiness. What I needed to do was convince him that I valued them as much as he did. That’s a tricky thing. I already had the job, but if I didn’t have Jim’s respect, I might as well go home. Fortunately for me, I truly loved public television and film, and I relished getting the opportunity to talk about and promote work that I admired and thought had significance. On top of that, I loved Nashville. I think Jim saw all that and gave me his blessing.

It was usually a given that Jim would dedicate a cover to the Film Festival every April, so again, I didn’t need to pitch him much. There’s a lot of pitching that goes on in publicity, but most good PR folks know the most important part of the job is delivering — on promises, information, interviews, statistics, screeners, promo shots and more. I made it my mission to deliver for Jim. Between January and April, while writing press releases and working with 200 other publicists who had films in the festival, and pitching and talking with every other TV, online, radio and print outlets in Nashville and the region (and a few key national places), I was constantly communicating with Jim, setting up interviews, getting him synopses of films, driving over stacks of DVDs to the Scene’s offices and finding film stills for him to use in the paper. One of my favorite times came in late February / early March when Brian Gordon and then Brian Owens would sit with Jim and give him the scoop on what to expect at the upcoming festival. It was thrilling to just be in the room, watching Jim get excited over some film I had never heard of by a director whose work I was going to quickly have to get acquainted with. It was a mini contemporary film master class every year. When the festival arrived, I’d cherish every opportunity to chat with Jim in the lobby of the theater or outside on the concourse, talking about whatever films we had seen.

A few years later in 2009, after the Festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary, then executive director Sallie Mayne asked me if I was going to the Scene’s “Best of” Party. I didn’t get an invitation, and hadn’t planned on it, but a few hours later, on my drive home, she called me again, and insisted I turn the car around and drive to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. She assured me I didn’t need an invitation. I arrived to hugs and cheers and congratulations. I was named the “The Best PR Guy” in Nashville. The paragraph that accompanied my selection was written by Jim. I couldn’t believe it. Other publicists will understand that things like that don’t happen to us. Unless you’re of a member of the PRSA (of which I was not), you don’t win things. Writers and producers and videographers win Emmy Awards; actors and screenwriters and directors win Film Festival awards. We publicists are behind-the-scenes people, and we like it that way. But there it was, all that hard work for the past four years, recognized.

Jim gave me one of his famous hugs when I found him at the party, but he refused to accept any gratitude for what he had done. It was all me and well deserved, he insisted. What Jim had done for me, with that one designation, has been immeasurable. Both organizations that I served were proud to have me working for them, but the recognition provided a little extra security and authority. I worked hard and believed I was good at what I did, but here was proof that maybe I really was. It raised my profile in the community. I was asked to sit on a number of panels about publicity and the arts, and invited to speak to students studying PR. One intern, who herself went on to work in PR, even put on her resume that she interned with the Best PR Guy in Nashville. All of it made me work even harder to live up to Jim’s endorsement.

Through it all, Jim and I had become friends too, sitting down over sandwiches at Savarino’s, talking about film and collectively mourning good friends from the restaurant that passed on. Becoming friends made it hard when things would happen and I’d have to take on a hardline/spokesman role for one of the organizations I represented. There were a few times that someone abruptly left one of the organizations I represented, and Jim called me to find out what happened. I would give him our statement and say that was all I could say on the matter. It was a difficult thing to do. I felt like an asshole, but it was the thing I was paid to do. Jim would continue to dig, because that was his job and he was very good at it, and I would continue to deflect, because that was my job. I never got the sense that Jim saw it any other way than two people doing their jobs.

In addition to motivating me as a publicist, Jim also made me a better writer. Twice he published an essay I wrote in the Nashville Scene, one a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, and one a personal account of taking care of my mother while she struggles with a mood disorder and early onset dementia. The latter was a particularly difficult piece to write and share, but Jim, as an editor, brought out the best in me. When the story was published to coincide with Mother’s Day, I received dozens of emails and messages from people I had never met who empathized with me and shared their own stories.

While I am no longer a publicist, at least not in the traditional sense, I have no doubt that Jim’s encouragement and support of my work not only made me better at what I did, but contributed to my being offered new opportunities. Being able to put “Best PR Guy” on your resume is not a bad thing. Just ask my old intern. One of the few things I brought from my old office at NPT to my new office at the Community Foundation is a framed copy of that Nashville Scene “Best of” piece. I look at it every day to remind myself of what’s possible when you really care about something and work hard. It’s also an invitation to pay it forward, and encourage others to be their best.

I continue to write and occasionally get published, encouraged by editors like Jim that my reflections matter. Reflections like this one, that I had hoped Jim would get to read and be embarrassed by when he woke up from his coma. Sadly, that didn’t happen. And so I share it now for the rest of us, in hopes we all live by Jim’s boundless enthusiasm, selfless example and supportive spirit.