A Few Words on Worry

Last night, as Terry and I were walking around the block in the dark, calling Lady’s name, I was thinking about this blog. I was wondering how the story might end, and how I would write about it.

It was a gorgeous night. The sky was clear. The moon will be full by tomorrow; it felt as though it was full last night. A gibbous moon: more than half, but less than full, and growing. Such a specific word.

There are probably other words to describe the evening. I wonder what the word would be for my husband’s outward calm as he walked into the road to examine a pile of leaves, in case it was a hurt animal, or the particular kind of imagination that leaves you trying out phrases like, “We lost your cat.” This is different from the kind of worry you feel when your adult child is struggling with things they don’t want to name–at least not in front of you. Different still from when they broke curfew and didn’t answer their phone, or came home crying because no one played with them at recess. Then there were those nights, barely an adult yourself, when you crept out of bed and placed one hand on your newborn to make sure she was still breathing.

My daughter is travelling alone in Cambodia, where the language barrier is considerable and internet is spotty. There is no way to rest my hand on her while she sleeps. There really ought to be a word for this as well.

When linguists write about northern tribes who have fifty–even one hundred–words for snow and ice, the translations are beautiful: fine snow; fallen snow; soft, deep fallen snow on the ground. Of course, these are necessary for survival, but they are also words of love. Why, then, is there only one word–one phrase–for a mother’s worry? And what of the father? There’s another word we need: the concern I see in my husband’s eyes that he does not want to show.

Over time, there are temporary thaws in the arctic, but there is no turning off what we feel for our children. My guess is that even when parenting goes horribly wrong, this overpowering, hard-wired instinct–or the need to push against it–lurks somewhere at the core.

Of course, the reason we resist–even demonize–mother’s worry is that we are all afraid. Fear is a constant companion, basic as the need to secure air and food. Fear has kept humans alive through eons of forces stacked against them. The voices in our head warning us not to follow our friends over the quarry’s edge into the water or climb too high in that tree are as all-encompassing as snow and ice in Grise Fiord, Canada. Mothers make an easy scapegoat. Overwhelmingly in charge of helping children navigate their prolonged infancy, childhood, and adolescence (unlike Lady, already breaking curfew at three), a mother’s long list of instructions likely outweigh any other influence post-birth. But the truth is, our fears come pre-installed, just as we know how to root for our mother’s breast before opening our eyes.

I hope my children learn to embrace their fears as their own, even as they conquer them, even as they accept their mother’s worry as a constant that cannot be turned off. I hope they learn this is worry born of love, not any lack of confidence in their abilities. Maybe they will find new words. I don’t know what these words will be, but I already know hundreds of translations by heart: hand placed on newborn’s back; tendril of a question; fingers brushing child’s hair away from his forehead; the silence that fills the house when waiting for a call.

It was one a.m. when Lady came home last night. Her meow at the door was carefree. It could have been three in the afternoon, or dusk, when she usually comes home. She asked for food, then settled in for a nap, the concern we’d had for her all night entirely unnoticed. There ought to be a word for that.



Real Trouble

Having just put Trouble in his room again for stalking Lady (because we know how that will end), I’m concerned he’s emerging as the villain in this story and wanted to make clear that he’s actually a sweet and well-behaved cat.

In the beginning, we were worried because he has peed on things in the past to express unhappiness, but even though he has spent long hours locked in a small room alone and is obviously unhappy about sharing the house with another cat, we haven’t had any difficulties on that front. In addition, Trouble rarely scratches furniture, jumps on counters, bites, or bats. Even when he misbehaves, simply telling him “no” or blowing gently in his face is enough to get him to stop.

Early on, he discovered an empty basket in our front hall (empty because I was slow to20150702_135812 (2) move hats, mittens, and scarves to their new home) and decided to make this his time-out spot. The few times we’ve raised our voices to him, he has banished himself to this basket or gone up to his room on his own. When he does this, we just give him his space and let him rejoin us when he’s ready. Lady has never felt the need to go into Caitlin’s bedroom, so it is the one place in the house that is truly his own, and he seems happiest there, surrounded by his person’s things and his person’s smells.

Trouble is the kind of cat that makes the strongest argument for keeping cats indoors and allowing them to live a longer, disease-free life out of harm’s way. In the morning, his first 20150728_152613perch is in one of our front windows. They overlook a busy sidewalk and almost always have a nice breeze blowing through them. He’s very interested in Lady’s comings and goings, so he also spends a great deal of time at the back door, but mostly he moves around the house to different windows, perches, blankets, chairs, and other ideal nap spots throughout the day.

Before he and Lady got into an actual fight, he’d cuddle with us now and then, and even sleep in our bed. When he cuddles, he has an odd habit of kneading the open air in front of him with one paw. He also lifts one paw slightly when hungry, as though he has read the famous fable, and we are more likely to care for him and give him food if we think his paw is hurt.

But he hasn’t been cuddling at all since we started separating them and, of course, he spends every night shut into his own room. He hasn’t become hostile toward us in any way, but there’s no question he’s confused about why we don’t want him getting rid of that other cat. Never mind that she was here first.

Trouble is an easy companion. We’re just hoping he doesn’t try to get rid of us once Lady leaves!

Bad Blood

Things are not going well. According to the experts, we have been doing everything right, but things are not going well.

We took Lady for booster shots this morning. The Vet’s assistant told me her mother introduced a feral cat to a genuinely mean tom and by the end of six weeks they were cuddling like the stunt doubles on my home page. Tomorrow marks the end of week five, and we’ve still got haters in the house.

We have tried keeping them separate; we have tried putting them together. We have tried supervising interactions; we have tried walking away. We have rubbed them down with towels, swapped towels, and rubbed them again until they hate every towel in the house and Terry and I are the only ones getting used to their smell. We have given them treats together then used treats to lure them as far apart as possible–all while pumping sixty-dollar kitty pheromones through the house.

They hate each other.
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As Trouble gets more comfortable here, he has become more territorial. He spends a large part of his day rolling around like a kitten in catnip to mark every inch of the house with saliva–and he is constantly on guard. Lady can’t even come into the house without him giving chasing.20150701_192124 (2)

Soon, they’ll be sharing a room at Catnip Hill, where all the cats in all the pictures are happy and above average. We’ve never boarded before, but with Lady’s penchant for shredding and Trouble’s reputation for peeing, we don’t have much choice.

Our first instinct was to drop them off without a word about their behavior and drive fast enough to outrun our cellphone reception, but we decided the kitty hotel deserved a heads-up.

On the phone, the owner told me that she’s been at this for ten years and has only separated cats three times. She assured me she was well-equipped to help Lady and Trouble get along and that we would not get called back from vacation. She also gave us advice to step back and let them sort things out, “They’re just cats being cats.”

Listening to her calm, confident voice, I wanted to believe all would be well.

For one glorious week, we embraced her advice. We didn’t follow cats around the house or jump up from dinner when we heard growling. Most importantly, I got to tell Terry he was right all along, which made him very happy.

Then, a week ago, the annoying swats and growls turned into an all-out, rolling, caterwauling, giant-ball-of-fur fight three whole feet from the kitty pheromones! (Pfft!) and just like that, Trouble is locked in his room again unless Lady is out chasing bunnies.

In eight days they will be in a 5×6 room together for an entire week. We can’t imagine what it will be like, but we are hoping the Catnip Hill cat-whisperers can negotiate a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, Lady is free to inhabit as many bags and boxes as she likes untroubled..

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An Anxious Night

Lady didn’t come home at her usual time last night, even after we called–and she always comes running when we call. In fact, we’ve settled into a polite and respectful schedule.


Sly, 1998-2014

After sixteen years of waking up to Sly knocking over glasses of water or whacking us on the head, the fact that Lady waits until we’re up and dressed before asking to go outside is a delight. She comes back several times during the day for a snack or short nap, then always comes home for good around dusk.

When we have to call her in, she usually comes running, throws herself at our feet, and does her signature belly-up wriggle. It’s hard to resist.

Last night, we called her name several times over the course of several hours with no luck.


Terry decided to walk around the block. I did the same in and around the yard. She gets excited when she sees me outside and always comes to say hello before running off again. It’s a wild, unkempt yard, with sturdy ferns and overgrown brush, paradise for bunnies, chipmunks, chickadees, and Lady–but also for a neighborhood red-tailed hawk and the occasional owl or bald eagle.

Last night was gorgeous, with whole constellations of fireflies floating all around. Back when we called them lightning bugs, we caught them in jars to watch them light up in our hands. Sometimes we’d try to keep them forever by poking holes in the lid. Then we got older and wiser and threw grass and drops of water inside, knowing bugs needed more than air to survive. Of course, these stories always had sad endings, no matter how hard we tried.


Trouble on Lady’s former favorite spot.

In the yard, I tried to tell myself that if anything happened to Lady, I could take comfort in the fact that her short life was fully lived. This is the logic the kids give me, knowing I live happily on the indoor-cat side of the fence. I understand what they’re saying, but Sly was genuinely happy. For that matter, Trouble seems to be adjusting to life outside the food chain as well.

We were about to give up when I heard a cat wail at the side of the house. Lady was ten feet up her favorite tree, and a familiar Siamese was running back to his yard.

She climbed down and flopped at my feet, out of breath. After making sure she wasn’t injured, I took her inside and texted Terry I had found her. I am older now than I was when I first took the lid off the jar and let the fireflies go–older, even, than when I stopped catching them altogether–but with every year, I have more questions and fewer answers. That was unexpected.

But I do know Lady was grateful for the safety of the house last night, and we were both grateful to have her safely tucked inside.

The Science Behind Why Herding Cats is Like…Well…Herding Cats

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Trouble jumps into our basket for mittens wheneveer he knows he’s done something wrong.

Lady and Trouble have spent their entire lives with my children, who don’t care much for the few worldy goods they own. There were no couches that couldn’t be shredded or shelves of heirloom china. Renters (my former self included) don’t think twice about how perfectly a cat’s claws fit into screens–or how much they cost to replace. So “training” has been an ongoing struggle.

Before we allowed Lady outside, she clawed indiscriminately on leather, upholstery, and one antique cherry wood secretary. She would also look directly at us while knocking things to the floor, or hooking things with one claw to toss them. My house has been stripped bare of breakable things, just like the last time we had three-year-olds around.20150717_083046 Marking, so far, has been limited to claws and saliva (knock on wood, spit three times, throw salt over my shoulder). Now that the cats are both roaming freely, day and night, they seem more determined to scratch. This is why I found myself cross-legged on our deck this morning, patiently applying strips of tape to our screen door–sticky side out, a trick that has limited damage to the secretary.

To quote Caitlin, “Cats: helping disencumber humans of belongings for 5,300 years.”

Actually, humans and cats have hung out together for nearly 10,000 years, if not more. It’s no illusion they are difficult to train–some would say impossible. A great article from The Atlantic explains the reason “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Cat” is that they’re still wild. Ten thousand years of treats and squirt guns and tongue clicks that have brought mighty Orcas to their metaphorical knees have failed to domesticate the domestic cat.

On the flip side, cats have shown an incredible knack for training us. Adult cats never mew to each other when left to their own devices; this is an adaptation developed only for human companions. In fact, over a lifetime, each cat develops a launguage that is unique and specific to their particular human.20150712_184204

It gets better.

Purring doesn’t exist in the wild either. It’s now known to be something cats save only for humans, and was flat-out called manipulative in one Washington Post article:

Purring….seems to be what behavioral ecologists refer to as a manipulative signal, conveying a general request: “Please settle down next to me.”

All this has me feeling proud of the training we have accomplished. By going against advice to feed the cats together and only feeding Trouble far from Lady, we’ve stopped him haunting her doorway and significantly cut down confrontations. For her part, Lady comes in every night for dinner. In fact, we’ve seen her bounding excitedly across several backyards when we call.

It seems as long as we keep the food coming for Trouble and open the door whenever Lady mews, peace reigns over our household.

So slowly, in spite of the science, we’ve–I mean they’ve–been trained fairly well.

A Dangerous Life

I begin with an apology to the neighbor who called several times to complain about Lady driving her dogs crazy. She called last week because Lady had climbed into her car, so I walked down to introduce myself, a bag of squirt guns in hand to discourage Lady when needed. Turns out the neighbor was sane and mosty concerned about Lady’s safety.

We bonded, unexpectedly, over watching our adult children’s pets for the summer as two quart-sized Yorkies came yapping to the door (yes, they do go crazy), but I left20150411_153018-1 feeling unsettled. She made a strong case for keeping Lady indoors–one I am familiar with, which is why we tried so hard to keep her inside. This picture, which I’ve shared before, was taken the day we gave up and let her go outside.

Over the years, Vets and Humane Society workers have helped us memorize the dangers, quoting the lifespan of outdoor cats as 4-5 years. Outside, cats become part of a food chain that includes other cats, dogs, birds of prey and, sadly, humans who mean them harm. There are diseases, parasites, and the straightforward dangers like eating the wrong thing, or sudden storms–like the one Lady was caught in the other day, raindrops fat and heavy as hail.

There are other arguments for keeping cats indoors, but I’ll leave the debate about whether cats are a serious threat to the environment or a scapegoat diverting our attention from the rampant destruction of habitats alone, except to note that “Felis Catus” is officially listed as an invasive species.

So why do I find myself wondering if we should have allowed our family cat, Sly, outdoors during his time with us?

The answer is simple and unscientific: Joy.

Whether she is leaping from our deck into nearby trees or sleeping under a canopy of ferns, Lady throws herself into the outside with an abandon I long for–delighted with the world, never doubting it was made just for her. 20150627_112702It makes me feel guilty for every moment spent inside. It makes me long for the days I used to climb up the maple in front of our house and read for hours, or bike miles in one day, going “no hands,” the wind streaming across my face.

I had no knowlege of disease or parasites on those bike rides–or car accidents that could take the life of someone you love in less time than it took to breath their name. I hadn’t learned about how life could change on a sunny Tuesday over lunch, or while biking a riverfront trail with your brother. I could not imagine that other humans would ever mean to do me harm. I had no fear of birds of prey.

All of this protectiveness of our lives, our children, our pets.

I find myself grateful the decision has been made for me–that Lady refused to play nicely indoors and insisted she be allowed outside.

I find myself hoping she can teach me how to climb again.


Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

We live in a quiet neighborhood. Most days, we could hear groups of children playing blocks away, if groups of children still did that kind of thing.

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People in my neighborhood worry about their yards and walk around the lake. We swap ladders and occasional garden tomatoes…but in general, we keep to ourselves.

Along comes Lady–as likely to chase a limping chipmunk past your feet as she is to flop on her back and wriggle until you pet her belly.

Luckily, our closest neighbors are cat owners and have been losing battles to bunnies and chipmunks for years. They greet Lady by name and watch out for her when dogs or toms are around. Our neighbors further out aren’t so sure.

Lady’s range is about one block in every direction. We know this because of the calls. We’ve received calls from people who had her in their arms, and calls from people who tied her up, and one alarming voicemail from two elderly women with Lady caterwauling in the background–She scratched my friend. (Everything has turned out okay.)

I’m surprised by how much control people think I have over this Queen of the Suburban Jungle. It’s not like I google a daily route and tell her which animals are fair game before 20150704_102507 (2)sliding the screen door open. It reminds me of school conferences and dreaded phone calls home–the pressure to make sure our children were perfect, and the judgement when they proved to be inevitably, humanly, beautifully flawed. The nature/nurture debate has been squarely settled over coffees and in classrooms across the country. It’s always the parent’s fault.

At first, my apologies for Lady embraced her entire history: We tried to keep her indoors, but she was raised as an outdoor cat…. Then I tried explaining why outdoor cats don’t stay in their yards. Clearly, I’m expected to answer for all of Lady’s sins. No one gives me credit for her cute wriggles-for-rubs routine.

The bird lovers are the angriest. Their yards are filled with feeders and oranges and special plants pressed up against picture windows. After an anonymous but vague I-love-animals-but threat was left on our machine, we added a bell to her collar.

One call was from a woman so concerned about Lady’s safety that we had to come pick her up. Her real goal was to scold us in person. In addition to harassing the birds, Lady was making her dogs bark. We’re not fond of bait and switch tactics in our house, so forgive us for smiling, now, every time those dogs launch into their chorus.

The other day, just after 6 am, a young man drove Lady home in his pick-up. He introduced himself as Jake and said Lady had been on Pine Street. I was still in my pajamas. I know Jake from Pine Street didn’t notice or care that I broke the code and sold out parents everywhere, but I still feel guilty about my short, that-explains-everything answer:

“Yeah. She’s my son’s cat.”

Just for fun…

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”