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.

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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.

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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.

20150702_112442

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!