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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Catnip Hill: Kitty Hotel

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Big St. Germain Lake, Saint Germain, WI

Every August, we rent a cabin up north where we water ski, fish, dive into the deep center of the lake, then wake up sunburned to the high-pitched bickering of bald eagles and do it all over again. This year, that meant our two bickering house guests would have to share a room at a cat-boarding facility for an entire week. We’ve never boarded before, relying on a nearly endless stream of neighborhood kids to give Sly food, water, and love when we were gone. But Lady and Trouble don’t always behave–and we wanted our neighbors to still like us a little when we returned–so we decided Catnip Hill’s very reasonable prices were well worth the investment.

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Catnip Hill, catnip-hill.com

Christine, owner of Catnip Hill is a bona fide cat whisperer who assured me our two house guests would be fine once on neutral turf. Christine has been running Catnip Hill for over ten years, having picked up the idea while living in the United Kingdom where, as she put it, they don’t have a culture of handing keys over to neighbors when they go on holiday. Since so many U.S. boarding facilities are designed for dogs, she thought a cats-only boarding house might be well-received. Judging by how quickly her rooms fill up, she was right.

I was still worried. Lady and Trouble don’t play at fighting; they fight. And since we want to return the two cats to our two kids unscathed, we have abandoned our intensive program to help them make friends. They have been leading separate lives, like roommates with a line drawn down the center of the room.

But Christine has so much experience, that when she told us all would be well, we believed that not only would they make it through the week, but they would be returned to us grooming each other and sleeping in each other’s arms the way I’ve always dreamed it would be if only I owned two cats.

The day we took them to the Kitty Hotel, the cats were not as optimistic. It was a forty-minute drive. Lady glared at us from her carrier the entire time while Trouble threw himself into a Houdini-like escape plan, which involved turning his mesh-and-fabric carrier inside out while he was still inside.

Still, as soon as we turned up the driveway and drove past the rolling fields surrounding Catnip Hill, we knew it was perfect. Inside, 20150809_084143each of the twelve rooms had a window, a chair, and three long perches. There was room enough for Terry and I to move freely as we unloaded cats and sacks. We put Lady’s favorite blanket on the highest perch so she’d feel comfortable, but she didn’t appreciate the kindness and let me know we were no longer on speaking terms. Meanwhile, Trouble was up and down the perches and chairs, checking out every corner. He kept jumping from the window to the door and back and didn’t even notice when we left.

20150809_084840 (2)For the first few days at the cabin, we watched our phone, waiting for Christine’s call…but it never came. When we picked the two of them up at the end of the week, not only were they both out of their carriers and enjoying the window sort of almost together from two different perches, they even interacted in cat “smalltalk.” It would be a stretch to say the conversation was pleasant. Still, no death threats were involved.

20150809_08454420150809_085152We packed them up and headed home, foolish enough to think the fact they were wailing in harmony was a good sign. What could be better after a week at a cat spa than a common enemy?

But once home, it took less time than the drive for Trouble to charge Lady and wind up locked in his room yet again.

Do you think Christine hires out?

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

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Caitlin in South Africa.

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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.

Trouble Arrives!

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The first thing I noticed about Trouble when he got here last Friday is that he’s a BIG cat! He’s twice Lady’s size, and although twelve pounds is average for domestics, it’s the largest cat we’ve ever had in the house. When he jumps from perch to perch on the second floor, it sounds as though an adolescent oak has been felled.

Trouble also assumes everything exists for his enjoyment. While Lady tip-toed into our house, creeping around the edges and hiding in the basement, Trouble was eating Lady’s food and stretching out in “her” window in no time.

He arrived while Lady was outside, so he could check out the house in peace for awhile. But Lady wasn’t gone long, and when she came back, it turned out she remembered him from Christmas.

Lady and Trouble 2

Within seconds, Trouble was locked in a bedroom so Lady could adjust to his scent. Neither of them was happy. They held these positions for hours.

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Trouble reaching out from underneath a bedroom door.

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Lady on guard at the other end of the hallway.

Months earlier, before we even knew Cat Boarding Houses existed, much less that we would become one, Terry had given his blessing to a mother/daughter getaway on Father’s Day weekend. So while we were enjoying the American Players Theatre‘s productions of Pride and Prejudice and Streetcar NameWisconsin River, near Arena, 6.19.15d Desire, Terry was struggling to get two angry cats into two separate rooms. While we were paddling the Wisconsin (thank you, Wisconsin Canoe Company) Terry and Trouble were watching out the front window in horror as Lady taught them the sound a distressed baby bunny makes. Happy Father’s Day!

Gruesome as it was, it would be wise for Trouble to pay attention to Lady’s demonstration of strength.  She’s a killer–a fact some of my neighbors celebrate while others…well…more on that later.

But Lady is also half Trouble’s size and has gone back to hiding in the basement. When we got home, I found her there when I went to do laundry. She demanded to be picked up, then sat in my arms for a far-and-away record of fifteen minutes before I had to put her down and get back to work.

It’s true that she does most of the hissing and growling and swiping in the house…but I’ve seen Trouble hide gleefully around a corner when he heard her tags jingling up the stairs. Little angel. Pfft!

Trouble Napping

So here we are. Terry and I have only recently learned to embrace empty-nesting and have a long list of things we want to explore together, but we’ve already canceled one trip. Our town’s 4th of July fireworks go off outside our front window and we’d like to make sure no animals are harmed in the making of that particular weekend.

Sigh.

So where are my cat-loving, semi-feral children while we’re watching Trouble and Lady? More on that next time!

Introducing Trouble

This is Trouble.

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Actually, this is Trouble after chewing through our daughter Caitlin’s computer cord, seen here after being operated on with duct tape.

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While Lady was intentionally raised outdoors, Caitlin tried hard to convert her stray kitten into an indoor cat. The effort cost her a pair of winter boots, some favorite sweaters, and the good will of a few roommates before a vet proclaimed that Trouble needs to roam.

Trouble is a big black Tom with the highest pitched cat voice I have ever heard (think Rosie Perez on helium). He is fond of lifting up one paw to neighbors, as though it’s hurt, in order to get food or attention. When Lady wants to communicate her displeasure with humans, she rakes her claws across something they care about–a couch, or an ankle. Trouble has the same ability to zero in on cherished items; he just pees on things instead.

Trouble

Trouble trying to keep Caitlin from going to work.

A while back I pointed out to my daughter that she had been working since high school and could use a break. I was picturing a month in the British Isles, where our roots run deep and they speak our language–or France, where she speaks theirs.

Somehow this led to us putting her on a plane to Hanoi next week with a one-way ticket in her hand, a wide-open, multi-country itinerary, and Trouble waiting for us back home.

Clearly, I have raised semi-feral children.

Trouble and Lady did meet once before over the holidays, when all great family throw-downs take place. We did everything books, blogs, and friends advised. We introduced them through closed doors. We allowed them out of separate rooms one at a time so they could adjust to each other’s smell. We placed them side by side in travel cages to chat. (I’m not fluent in cat, but I’m pretty sure this was a disaster.)

The end result was that Lady hid in the basement for Trouble’s entire visit while he bounced around gleefully looking for her. When he did find her, 20141227_115702 (2)his favorite thing to do was sneak up from behind and tap her playfully with his paw. For a cat, he does a remarkable impression of Odie.

Last night, for maybe the third time in six months, Lady sought me out and curled up at my side, stretching out one paw to touch me while she slept. It’s taken a lot of time and patience on all our parts, but we have become part of her small circle of trusted humans. I stayed up later than I should have to sit with her, worried she might banish herself to the basement yet again until Caitlin returns from some yet-to-be-found location on some yet-to-be-determined date and whisks Trouble away.

For now it’s time to get ready for the inevitable arrival.

Tune in next week to see how we survived Our Brilliant Weekend Plan!