The Price of Unconditional Love

$  .69, Vinegar
$  .99, Baking Soda
$9.99, Nature’s Miracle Odor Remover
$7.50 (in quarters), “Super Wash” setting, Industrial Washer, Laundromat
Ability to breathe freely again? Priceless.

Watching water and suds go around and around through the Nautilus-like door of a laundromat’s extra-large washing machine, I’m wondering if Trouble peed on his fabric carrier while at the kitty hotel, or if his loud mewing on the ride home was telling us he needed a pit stop. Either way, we’re hoping this first accident is our last.

A friend recommended a product called Nature’s Miracle, which worked beautifully. At the pet store, there were spray bottles, shampoos, wipes, gallon jugs, and laundry boosters to choose from. They make a solution for skunk, too. These were nestled below wee-wee pads for puppies and above pad holders in multiple colors, some topped with fake grass. There were cat toys that stick on windows or hang from doors, and multiple versions of balls forever trapped inside boxes, tubes, or fabric—the cat-owner’s version of the mechanical arm that tosses balls to your dog so you never have to play with your pet.

20150809_142111 (2)I have been resisting the urge to add up the money we have spent on Lady and Trouble because I don’t want my kids to feel guilty; we knew what we were getting into, and most of the cost was laid out by choice, not necessity. When we took Lady to the vet, we considered the optional feline leukemia shot our gift to the outdoor cat community ($80). The licenses ($10/each), heart-shaped address tags ($18/ea.), and overpriced jingle bells ($2.49/ea.) were our effort to keep peace with neighbors. Recently, we bought a food-dispenser ball for Trouble because Caitlin said he looked fat in the pictures ($9.49) and a new “Infinity Cat Scratcher Lounge” because Lady took her dais with her when she left and Trouble was eyeing up our couch as a new scratching post ($29.95 + shipping).

Cat Costs

According to Visual Economics, the average annual cost of owning a cat is $500, which adds up to $7,640 over the lifetime of the cat. The numbers are sound, but we are outspending that pace in our short stint as cat sitters. Nationally, the American Pet Products Association estimates we will spend a record-breaking $60.59 billion on our pets in 2015Supermarket spending—more than three and a half times what we were spending on pets twenty years ago, and more than we currently spend at the grocery store. Click on this link for Retale’s eye-opening, real-time look at some of our other spending priorities.

There are many reasons for the increase, but with JFK International Airport installing an animal terminal that includes a canine swimming pool and the ability to buy ten-foot high fantasy cat trees online for a mere $2,000, it’s hard to deny things have gone a bit far.

JFK Canine Pool

The ARK, at JFK

The problem is, the dark side of overindulgence goes far beyond any embarrassment we might feel–or even the growing epidemic of pet obesity now affecting the majority of cats and dogs in the our country.

Recently The New York Times ran an in-depth article called “‘Sea Slaves’: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock,” It examined the brutal existence of men and boys in Southeast Asia who are kidnapped and forced into slavery on fishing boats that go years without touching land. One of the leading economic forces driving this abusive business is America’s insatiable appetite for cat food.

Of course, the food and distractions we shower on our pets are simply an extension of our own overindulgence, and striving for more–of everything–is as hard-wired into our brains as it is in the brains of the pets we love. It’s the instinct that pushes Lady to climb walls looking for a way outside so she can hunt, and moves Trouble to ask for more food even when he can’t possibly be hungry. Want is key to our survival; it marches incessantly on with or without actual need.

When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, his answer was human: “Just a little bit more.”

The world has always been interconnected, but it’s hard to imagine the average citizen of Rockefeller’s time being aware that the food they fed their pet had a concrete impact on the life of a 15 year-old boy in Cambodia. Today, we have laundromats with 24/7 cable and wireless. We have the ability to see and hear about lives on the other side of the world while waiting for a load of wash to finish. We have sons and daughters who cross oceans in hours, instead of days, and treat the entire world as though it were their own backyard–because it is.

Maybe it’s time we trained ourselves to strive for just a little bit less.

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Saying Good-bye to Lady

It’s hard to say goodbye.

Liam and Sarah with Lady

Last Sunday, after coming home from Catnip Hill, we packed up Lady’s things and sent her off to a new, cat-friendly apartment with Liam and Sarah. Their place is on the third floor. There is talk of cat hutches suspended from windows like swallows’ nests and cat ladders running up and down the house. Lady’s oblivious to the care and concern going into her happiness–on all sides. By Sunday night, I was texting to see how she was doing, and I’m a little embarrassed by how much I look forward to every new picture from Sarah. I miss her.

Lady wasn’t easy, but I loved the way she found us when we were outside and flopped at our feet like a slippery fish, and the way she came (almost) every time we called. Watching Terry’s heart melt the night she bounded across several yards at the sound of his voice will be with me always.

It took Lady a long time to accept us. After living with Sly—who talked and purred constantly—Lady’s near silence always seemed tense. The night before Trouble came to Lady Sleepingstay, she finally allowed herself to fall asleep on the couch next to me, sometimes resting one paw on my leg. That was after six months. The next day, she purred audibly in my arms for a full fifteen minutes while Trouble galumphed around upstairs. She never fully relaxed while inside again.

True, she got used to Trouble. Just last week she stretched out on the kitchen floor and pretended to sleep while Trouble crept past, settled nearby, crept back again—then pounced at the floor just behind her. When nothing happened, he walked away, bored. Then the phone rang. The minute I started talking he charged straight at her again and was promptly whisked away to his tower. It was probably entrapment.

It’s a shame we never got to see Lady and Trouble curled up together like soul mates, but if they had hit it off, I would have a large, bow-legged, despondent tom on my hands right now. Instead, when Liam took Lady out to the car, Trouble was sitting cheerfully upright in the second-floor window, mewing down at us the whole time. When we let him out of his room, he headed straight for the basement to examine the corner where Lady’s litter box had been, then he cased the whole house before spreading out regally in the middle of the living room for a bath.

All summer, PathI’ve been “planting” a stone walk alongside our house. Lady assumed it was for her. It was a favorite place to sun, bring prey, and sleep under the ferns. When I added my one step a day, she always came by, sometimes slinking toward me, sometimes leaping out of the brush.

There’s no question the path is lonelier this week.

But I know she’s with her people. Holy Sheboygan! gave us a private concert last June, and Lady was in heaven—rubbing against band members while the music played, contemplating climbing into the bass. When they left, she watched out the front window, clearly expecting to be the next one loaded into the car.

She watched them packing the car through the front window again last Sunday, and we know she was relieved when they came back for her this time. Lady

Terry and I wish them safe travels, warm nights, and even lots of bunnies. Who knows? Maybe Trouble was sending good wishes, too.

Portrait of a Cat Activist, Part I

My friend Bill is a wonderful poet and a teacher of many things. Lately he’s been teaching me how to ease newly-introduced cats into a peaceful existence. If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’m not the best student—but with seven cats coexisting peacefully inside his home, there is no doubt that Bill is an expert.

Alice, Bill's soulmate

Alice B. Toklas, Bill’s soulmate

Bill and his partner Jim didn’t set out to house seven cats. “When we moved in together we had three. Jim had Cameron, who was very old, and then we had the sisters, Alice and Gertie [aka Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein].” Losing Cameron and Alice was tough, but Gertrude is still their self-appointed Queen of the World.

Gertrude Stein, Queen of the World

Sometime around 2008, foreclosure signs started popping up in their St. Paul neighborhood, and the number of outdoor cats increased dramatically. “Some of these were feral, but others obviously were not. We don’t know what happened, of course, but it was as though people decided they couldn’t afford pets anymore, so they opened their door, and let them out before leaving the neighborhood.”

Bill and Jim started leaving the door to their garage open a crack so the cats could go inside during the long, cold Minnesota winters. Soon, Bill found himself digging a trench through his garden in order to run electricity into the garage so they could keep the water and food from freezing. Inexpensive warmers for the cats followed—then word seemed to get out in the cat community.

Josette, mother of Callie, Esme, Howard, and SteveMost of the cats that visit Bill’s garage are skittish, but one—now known as Josette Dupres—would approach Bill whenever he was outside, sit by his side and, eventually, allow him to pet her. Josette tamed Bill slowly. They worried when she disappeared, but soon found her in their garage nursing four kittens. It was a short trip into the house for all from there. A few other cats have chosen the garage to have their litters, while others remain loners. Bill and Jim work closely with Feline Rescue, Inc., in St. Paul to get the cats adopted or, minimally, to trap, neuter, and release them. They’re doing great work that I’ll be highlighting in my next blog.

Callie as a kitten

Esme, who embodies good and evil

Howard and Bob

Steve

Steve

When another mom had kittens in their garage, Bill and Jim were able to find homes for the entire litter except for a “sort of clumsy male” who Bill describes as, you know, not the brightest bulb in the pack—and that’s how Bob came to share a home with Bill, Jim, and six other cats.

Bob

Jim with Bob

During the Great Depression, hobos used to draw cat figures on fence posts outside homes to tell other lost souls that a kindhearted person lived there. I wonder if cats have hobo-signs-11 (3)drawn similar figures all around Bill’s house—on the sidewalk out front, in the trees bordering the yard. Maybe one was even scratched into the bark of the copper birch Bill sacrificed when he ran the electricity out to the garage. In any case, however they find him, it’s clear that a kind heart lives here.

 

Next Up: Feline Rescue, Inc., and their TNR program.
Find the entire blog at troublinglady.com.

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.

ovvps

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.

20150627_113109

My Semi-Feral Children, Part II: Caitlin (or how Trouble came to visit in the first place)

Caitlin

Caitlin in South Africa.

Halong-Bay

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Last Friday, Terry and I dropped Caitlin at O’Hare with a one-way ticket in her hand and a three-month itinerary that will take her through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia. As I write, it’s after midnight in Hanoi–and 97 degrees! By the time you read this, she will probably be kayaking in Ha Long Bay. Wow.

As a toddler, Caitlin was good at getting what she wanted on her own by climbing out of cribs, up chairs, onto cars…. At fourteen months, I found her on top of a baby gate that blocked a flight of stairs down to a concrete basement floor. She was balancing on her belly and rocking back and forth like one of those silly red drinking birds, trusting momentum was her friend. I grabbed her and rushed her to her crib–shutting the door behind me for good measure–then sunk to the kitchen floor and cried. When I was done, I knew the only rational thing to do was make sure she got damn good at climbing. I’ve been holding my breath ever since.

In High School, she participated in the practically-mandatory exchange program to Wales (my “big” school trip was Milwaukee!). She also paid her own way to visit a friend in France. Caitlin Having Fun in Cape TownIn college, a Peace Studies program took her to South Africa, where–reportedly for fun–she went shark cage diving (she took this picture) and jumped off a bridge!

On our much tamer annual trek to Spring Green, I have waited patiently on the wraparound porch of Global View and watched generations of swallows teach their little ones to fly as Caitlin wandered 20150621_112706-1 through the shop, running her fingers over every Balinese carving and Batik print owner Marion Nelson has collected.

It shouldn’t surprise me Caitlin would someday fly to the other side of the world. Yet, here I am, holding my breath again, waiting for her to come home and take Trouble back to their lives with the Casa community, only thirty minutes away.

Motherhood itself took me by surprise. I approached it somewhat reluctantly–careful to tuck my identity into other spaces, other titles–at least, I thought that’s what I was doing. The truth is, raising Liam and Caitlin has been the most humbling and profoundly rewarding experience of my life.

The thing about being a parent no one ever tells you is that every step is a good-bye. If you’re not putting your children on a plane to Hanoi or helping them fit their saxophone into the trunk of a car, you’re dropping them off at a dorm, or realizing–too late–that you’ve already said goodbye to them climbing onto your lap or asking for a song at bedtime.

I remember camping with them one night at Yellowstone years ago. All four of us were in the same tent, side by side under a nylon dome. I was the last to fall asleep and listened to them drop off, one by one. Sometimes, I close my eyes and think of that night–the cadence of their breathing almost but not quite matching–and try to tell myself they are never really far away.

Caitlin in Japan

Safe on the ground in Japan, en route to Hanoi.

My Semi-Feral Children, Part I: Liam (or, how Lady came to visit in the first place)

Holy Sheboygan, Playing Loud (2)Someone asked me recently how I raised Liam to be so creative, as if I had something to do with it–as if I had designed preschool activities or dinnertime conversations that led to Liam being…Liam. But when your fifth-grader comes home with an instrument he’s never touched before (in this case, a bassoon), puts it together and jumps into Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” you know you have nothing to do with your children’s gifts. The best thing to do is to stay out of their way.

Not that it was easy!

Liam doesn’t think outside the box, he lives outside the box–and loudly! As a child, he would tie a scarf around his neck, climb up on the arm of the couch, and declare himself Opera Man. In school, he worked best while singing or standing beside his desk, moving to whatever music was playing in his head. This didn’t always go over well.

“Tour starts todaaaay!!!”

In the early grades, we considered it a good year when the inevitable call from the teacher took two weeks. His famously cross third-grade teacher was concerned he had developmental problems because he had written a wonderful story about time-travelling cowboys in space who somehow ended up saving the day by skiing down a mountain. She slapped it onto a desk in front of Terry and I and said “This doesn’t even make sense”

Then, in the summer of his fifth-grade year, he wrote a symphony for twenty-one instruments in three movements and everyone went, “oooohhh.”

I’m not particularly fond of labels, but unlocking Liam’s ability to compose music with a simple computer game we gave him for Christmas changed his entire school experience–and therefore his life. Parent-teacher conferences weren’t brutal anymore. He had advocates to help deal with other famously cross teachers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every quirk of every child (and every adult) were treated as a gift?

Long story short, when my son isn’t back-packing through Bulgaria or Washington State, living in community in upstate New York, or bouncing from farm to farm to soak up sustainable farming, woodworking, building greenhouses, planting orchards, or managing volunteers, he is living on a bus as part of Holy Sheboygan! who just announced they’re playing Summerfest! (Shameless plug here, or go straight to their latest album, Three!)

Unless, of course, he is touring and performing solo:

You can follow Liam’s solo work here, or catch his latest album here.

Meanwhile, Terry and I believe we are much too quiet for Lady. As a kitten, she grew up surrounded by rehearsals and performances and sprawling “family” meals: a real-life wild rumpus. When Holy Sheboygan! played a special house concert here recently, she tried to climb into the bass in the middle of their set!

But she is here for now, waiting for Liam and Sarah to move back into a cat-friendly apartment and a life lived out loud.

Staying put: for Liam–and Lady–that will be a new adventure!