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.

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

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.”

Finding Peace

Since our very bad day with the cats last Thursday, we have pulled out all the stops to make peace. It feels urgent since Lady and Trouble are boarding together for a week come August in a room the size of a queen bed. Right now, that seems an impossible dream.

20150701_121507Lady would prefer to remain strangers, but Trouble is not cooperating. When she’s inside, he follows her around. When she’s outside, he uses her litter box, eats her food, and drinks her water. The dazed where’d-Caitlin-go look is gone and his daily to-do list seems to read:

  1. Get food
  2. Get more food
  3. Harass that other cat
  4. Get food

Our Vet wants him kept inside. He’s afraid one might chase the other away from the yard. This means the only time they share space is at night, so unless Trouble is chasing Lady (which happens), we let him stay out of his room.

This means light sleeping as we listen to them squabble and jockey for position (why did we put those bells on them??); there haven’t been any injuries or blood-curdling 20150706_155111cries…yet. Lady seems mostly annoyed and exhausted. I’m hoping her patience holds. Trouble is twice her size, but she definitely has more killer instinct. We’d rather not see who takes who in that fight.

Meanwhile, on the advice of both the Vet and the all-knowing internet, we are piping Kitty Pheromones through our house, hoping to make them like each other. Basically, we’re trying to keep them stoned, but given all the angry protests of the ’60s, this may be misguided.

Our efforts to create “positive associations” between the two cats may be equally misguided. We’ve been offering them a special treat once a day and inching their bowls closer together. (One website actually recommended rubbing them down with tuna oil.)20150707_16274520150707_115503Trouble will eat anything, but it took awhile to find something for Lady that made being in Trouble’s presence worthwhile. A local chi-chi pet store carries rabbit in a can (who knew?), and that seems to be doing the trick. Slowly but surely, Trouble has made it all the way across the room until they’re almost even sort of next to each other.

They eye each other while eating. Lady doesn’t trust Trouble. Trouble is watching to see if she’s going to leave any food for him.

But now whenever Trouble hears Lady, he thinks it’s time to eat and comes running–which is just a hop and skip shy of a chase. And no matter how much I give him, he gulps it down before she’s done and tries to eat hers.

Can you imagine if she were covered in tuna?

So this is what it’s come to. My son’s playing bluegrass in New York state and my daughter’s kayaking Ha Long Bay…and I’m standing between two ill-behaved three-year-old cats thinking I really need to raise the bar on Mother’s Day next year.

I hope my children read that last part.

Flying Fur

Our impression of Trouble as the lovable, clueless Odie to Lady’s constantly-hissing Garfield has been officially shredded after watching him stalk, corner, and flat out attack her.

20150701_183652 (2)He’s “stalked” her before, but there was always a playful bounce in his step (just look at that innocent face!). He’s even rolled a ball in her direction–but yesterday he waited outside the laundry room, cut off her escape route, cornered her against the chalkboard wall–and Thwack! Ears flat and everything!

Trouble!

No blood was drawn, and the fight was easily broken up, but my optimism about this cat-sitting gig has been mortally wounded and Terry’s was utterly destroyed this morning. First, Trouble threw himself at Lady from a20150702_100749 perch, banishing himself to prison again. Then Lady bit her way out of Terry’s grasp as he was putting her in a travel carrier for an unrelated Vet appointment. It took half an hour, one can of tuna, and a swaddling towel to get her there. By then, we were late, Terry was upset about wasting his vacation wrestling cats, and I was angry at the implication that I should have handled this alone because somehow my time is less valuable.

Hmm. This all sounds familiar!

The whole experience reminds us of jumping at the chance to watch a friend’s children a few years back. They were five and two; we were new, misty-eyed empty-nesters. Time had washed away sleepless nights and belligerent confrontations with toddlers, leaving us with memories like giggles floating in from another room, naps in overstuffed chairs, and building the tallest Lego tower ever.

Imagine our surprise when these genuinely well-behaved girls required snack after snack after snack (and wiping down faces, hands, tables, and floors after every one). They cried over bees (who wouldn’t??) and couldn’t sleep in the strange house (who could??). When we hugged them goodbye and packed them into their parent’s car, we practically ran back to our clean, quiet, empty nest.

The real problem with the cats is we were patting ourselves on the back for how smoothly things were going. Trouble started out in Caitlin’s room, with Lady standing guard down the hall…but once we let him out, things seemed to be going well.

They even appeared to play together now and then.20150621_215615 (3)

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A few cat scratches and fur balls later and we’re wondering why we offered to watch the cats while our kids run off on their grand adventures. We’re wondering why we spoil the kids, why we spoil the cats–why we had children in the first place!

Then we got to meet Pang, who lives with the vet. At seventeen, Pang is old enough to know where the best laps are and to understand why we do the things we do. With Lady outside hunting rabbits, Trouble basking in the afternoon sun, and Terry asleep at my side, I’m inclined to agree with Pang’s view of the world.

We even think we found a solution to our problems. More on that next time.

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