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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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

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)

20150430_18181417687_879648862114045_811935487085169229_n

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.

20150702_112442

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!