Monday, December 26, 2011

Postscript to My Christmas Story

Well, it isn't quite over yet. Both Christmas Day and the day after--known as St. Stephen's Day by Catholics and Boxing Day by our British friends--were pretty exciting for Van Gogh and me.

When I left off yesterday morning, I'd removed Van Gogh's Elizabethan collar. For the past few days, he had been trying to rub the top of his head on furniture and anything with a protruding edge. I took that to mean that his nerve endings had revived and he was itching. I thought that if he could scratch the top of his head, he might leave the almost-closed wound alone.

Alas, it was not to be. After about an hour, fearful that he would scratch the healing hole in his head open again, I put the collar back on.

The day was nice and peaceful until about 9:30 last night. I was in bed reading with Bob when I heard a god-awful caterwauling coming from the hall bathroom. I jumped up and ran toward the noise. Van Gogh was screaming in what sounded like horrendous pain. For one incredible moment, I wondered if something had gotten into the bathroom and was attacking him.

When I tried to enter the bathroom, the door opened about half an inch and then stopped, blocked by something. I banged forward without success. I slammed my shoulder into the door, trying to move whatever was stopping me but bounced off.

The bathroom went silent. That scared me more than the screaming had. I ran toward the den where I keep a flashlight. Grabbing the portable lamp, I ran for the back door without bothering to stop for slippers or a robe.

I stood on tiptoe on the cold patio concrete, peering into the bathroom window.

No cat, but I could now see what was blocking the door. The bottom drawer of the bathroom vanity was pulled out about eight or nine inches. Since the door opens inward, the drawer served as a very effective barricade.

I returned to the hall outside the bathroom and examined the door. The hinges were on the inside.

For the next two hours, I tried everything I could to move that drawer. I twined metal clothes hangers together, I tried various knives, I inserted a potato masher under the door. If the object was thin enough to go under or around the side of the door, it wasn't strong enough to close the drawer.

By midnight, my patience was at an end. I decided to break in the double hung window outside the bathroom.

The upper half of the small window is safety glass (go here to read about my adventure which ended in replacing the glass). Therefore, the only way into the room was through the lower half, which was still ordinary window glass.

I was in better shape than during my previous adventure. I had tools and other conveniences that were not available when I had been locked out of the entire house in February. I changed into a set of warm sweats, put on shoes and retrieved some knives and a five-foot ladder from the garage.

My goal was to remove the glass without breaking it. I didn't want to be messing with a knife while standing on an unstable ladder so I worked from the ground reaching up. I started by removing the edging that framed the window.

Bob had followed me outside and stood nearby, chattering like an insane Greek chorus. He clearly remembered the last time I had tried to enter the house through the window and did not approve of a reprise effort.

I held my left hand above me to support the glass when it came free. What I did not expect was that the glass would pop out after I had slid my knife along only two edges of the window. The glass came crashing down, pausing only to hit my nose hard on the way down. Of course, it shattered to pieces on the concrete patio.

I swore in a most un-Christmas night-like way while Bob shouted, "I told you so!" in feline. But the window was now open. I pulled one of the wrought iron patio chairs over to the window and climbed up on it. I carefully threaded the five-foot ladder through the window. By leaning inside, I was able to set it up on the bathroom floor.

I had not as yet seen any sign of Van Gogh. Now I crooned to him, "Hey, guy, I'm here. Come on out."

As I had suspected, he was hiding in his cabinet. He came out immediately and, with my coaxing, climbed right up the ladder and into my arms. I jumped off the chair and carried him into the house, leaving Bob standing outside on the patio.

I brought him straight to the laundry room where I could put him on top of the washing machine and examine him. My suspicions were confirmed.

The drawer pulls on my bathroom vanity are the ornate metal kind used in houses built in the early '60s. There is a long twisted pull which extends out about an inch from the perpendicular pieces that hold it in place. My guess was that Van Gogh tried to scratch the top of his head on the pull, got his wound caught in it and then yanked the drawer open while trying to get free.

His wound was a mess. He'd torn it open about half an inch in both directions, and it was bleeding all over the place. I cleaned it up as best I could, using the first aid kit from my suitcase since I couldn't get to any of the stuff in my medicine cabinet.

By the time I was finished, it was after 1:00 AM, and I was drained both physically and emotionally. I set up another litter box (fortunately there was an extra in the garage) with a water dish and deposited Van Gogh in the guest bedroom.

I decided to leave the bathroom window as it was for the night. If a tall, skinny burglar got in, maybe he'd open the door for me. I did pull the ladder out of the room--no point in making things too easy for the burglar.

After collecting a very-ticked-off Bob, I tumbled into bed. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I'd worry about the rest in the morning.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The End of My Christmas Story

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Van Gogh's wound is all but closed. There is a tiny opening left on his head, which I expect to be sealed by tomorrow. He has a white scar about three inches long across the top of his head. I would never have believed that such an ugly wound could heal so beautifully.

The other amazing thing is how quickly an essentially feral cat could settle down into a loving companion. Whenever Bob is outside, I let Van Gogh roam the house. He's learned to come running when I call his name. He leaps into my arms and purrs up a storm. When he's back in the bathroom, all I have to do is open the door for him to begin purring and rubbing against me. I now shower and dress in that bathroom so he has company each morning. He hops up on the counter and watches while I get ready for the day.

To celebrate the holiday, I removed the Elizabethan collar that he' been wearing. After three weeks in that collar, he deserved to enjoy Christmas, too.

In honor of the day, I split a can of Bumble Bee tuna between the two cats. Bob licked the juice and left the tuna. Van Gogh inhaled the tuna.

Our next challenge is to see if I can integrate Van Gogh into our little household. The two males are testing my ingenuity and stamina. Van Gogh has an appointment with Tim to be neutered on January 5. I'm hoping that will help.

Bob is clearly more aggressive, but it's his home he's protecting.

Right now, they are two-for-two on outwitting me. Bob continues to try the bathroom door to see if he can get inside at Van Gogh. Fortunately, both times he's pulled it off, I was in the room and chased him out.

Van Gogh periodically tests the door from his side as well. He, too, has succeeded twice. Both times he's gone looking for Bob. He didn't attack either time; just stood and stared at Bob, who snarled and hissed. I heard the ruckus and intervened. While dragging Van Gogh away, I flicked my index finger against his forehead and scolded him.

I've had a few wins myself. I've put knots in knee socks and left them on the floor under the bathroom door with one knot on each side. The cats have shredded the sox while playing with them.

Whenever I let Bob back into the house, I'm holding Van Gogh. At first, Bob wouldn't enter the house. Now he just walks past us to check out his food dish.

I've tried holding Van Gogh on my chest on the bed while Bob is in the room. Since Van Gogh's the more unpredictable party, I've chosen to control him.

Bob always jumps up on the bed, too. The first time, he howled and growled at us. To my relief, Van Gogh didn't respond. Bob finally settled down and curled up in the opposite corner of the bed.

These days when Bob jumps up, he walks over to within a foot or so of us. I hold Van Gogh firmly, and the two cats just look at each other. Then Bob turns his back and curls up nearby.

I've been unsuccessful in finding a screen door to put in the bathroom doorway to allow them to see each other without disaster. My new plan is to purchase two baby gates and try putting them, one above the other, in the doorway so the cats can see each other without actually attacking. Not sure how that plan will work. I may have to secure a screen either above or between the two gates.

Bob weighs 17 pounds; Van Gogh has done from about 9 to about 13 pounds over the three weeks. If I can't get them to declare a truce, I'll find Van Gogh a good home.

At any rate, I've enjoyed telling the tale of Van Gogh. Today, on this holy day, I feel truly blessed. I'm grateful for my family and friends and also grateful that the Lord brought Van Gogh to my door when I could be of service.

God bless us, everyone.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Part IX of My Christmas Story

Eight days after I found Van Gogh on my windowsill, we returned to the vet. I was like a new mother, insecure and overly anxious about every little thing. The still frightful wound terrified me.

Tim came into the examining room and asked, "Okay, what are you doing here?"

I replied, "He doesn't seem to be improving very much."

He laughed and put the purring cat on the scales, "Well, he's gained almost three pounds in one week so you must be doing something right."

Tim manhandled Van Gogh, examining him thoroughly. "The second bit of good news is that we've saved his ear."

A burden I hadn't even realized I was carrying fell off my shoulders. "But the wound looks as bad as it did a week ago."

He shook his head. "You're looking, but not seeing." He angled Van Gogh so I was staring into that cavern of blood and mucus. "What do you see?"

"The wound just keeps weeping," I complained. "It's every bit as big as it was before."

"As wide, but not as deep. It's filling in from the bottom up."

I squinted. He was right. The walls of the pit on Van Gogh's head were not as deep or as steep as they had been. At the base, the perimeter of the wound was narrower than at the top. "What about all the goo?"

He grabbed a piece of gauze and swabbed the wound. "Before you apply the antibiotic, wipe it out." Then he turned and gave me a stern look. "Do not use water, peroxide or alcohol on this wound. I don't want anything interfering with the antibiotic's bond."

I nodded, without telling him how often I'd been tempted to apply alcohol--just to dry out the bleeding wound.

"And use only a tiny, tiny bit of the topical antibiotic."

"What happens if I use too much?" I asked anxiously.

"You'll have to pay for more. As it is, I'm going to have the tech mix up another bottle of oral antibiotic. I want you to keep him on it for two weeks total."

He smiled. "You're doing a great job. Come back whenever you need a pep talk. By mid-January, Vincent here will be ready to be neutered." He gave me a rough hug. "Merry Christmas."

Tim charged me just $15 for the antibiotic, no office visit charge. Van Gogh's total medical expenses so far had come to just over $100.

Over the next week, the wound began to close up almost magically fast. It started as a tiny white line of scar tissue where the narrowest part of the wound had sealed together behind Van Gogh's ear. Each day that white line grew by another quarter inch. At ten days, the white line ran the entire width of Van Gogh's right ear.

As he began to feel better, the problems between Van Gogh and Bob multiplied. Bob had stopped throwing himself on the bathroom door, but now Van Gogh was battering the door from the inside. Bob was more subtle. He'd cautiously test the door to see if he could push it open.

More later ...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Part VIII of My Christmas Story

It was already noon on Monday by the time Van Gogh and I left the veterinary clinic. Van Gogh was wearing one of those hard plastic Elizabethan collars to prevent him from clawing at his already fragile ear.

I'd emailed my boss early that morning to say I had a cat emergency and would let her know as soon as I could whether I would be able to make it into the office at all that day. As an exempt employee, if I couldn't work at least four hours, I needed to use my vacation accruals. When we left the vet, I phoned her voicemail from the car to say I would take the day off.

Of course, when I'd hauled the hated cat carrier out of the garage at 7:oo that morning, Bob the Cat had made himself very scarce. When I returned home at 12:30, he magically appeared, wanting to know what was going on.

I put the carrier on the floor of the den. He cautiously approached. Almost in unison, the two male cats began howling at each other. I yanked the carrier off the floor and brought it into the hall bathroom, shutting Bob out. This room would be Van Gogh's home until his wound healed. Fortunately, as bathrooms go, it's pretty large. Along one wall is a full-length closet with folding doors, the commode area and the bathtub. Along the other wall, are two sinks, each with its own counter, and a floor-to-ceiling cabinet with shelves. Although as narrow as most bathrooms are, the room is twenty feet long.

To my surprise, when I lifted Van Gogh out of the carrier, he began to purr. I took advantage of the moment to put him on the bathroom counter and do a tick inspection. Over the next half hour, with him purring like a Jaguar motor, I removed 19 ticks of various sizes. The Revolution Tim had applied would take care of the fleas.

By the time I finished looking for ticks, Bob was throwing himself at the bathroom door, howling "Let me at him!" I ignored the drama, recognizing it as pure hyperbole. However, Van Gogh was clearly unhappy about the barbarian at the gate. He prowled around the bathroom, looking for a place to hide.

I opened the cabinet where I keep two laundry baskets (there's a chute above through which I can drop the soiled garments). I removed one basket and put it into the bathtub. Van Gogh immediately tried to get into the opened space, but caught his collar on the cabinet door. I opened the door wider, and he entered and lay down.

If I left the cabinet door wide open, it blocked the litter box in the space underneath the adjacent counter. Clearly not a workable solution.

There is another cabinet above the commode where I keep a few tools so I don't have to go out to the garage every time I need a wrench or hammer. I grabbed a screwdriver and removed the door to Van Gogh's cabinet. I furnished his new space with one of the blankets he'd slept on the night before. Now he had two places to lie down: inside the cabinet or on the blanket in front of the closet.

I left him to get accustomed to his new digs and went out to confront Bob, who had worked himself into a major tizzy. It took me nearly 30 minutes to convince him he was still my main squeeze.

The next week established our pattern. When Bob was outside, I let Van Gogh have the run of the house. When Bob was inside, Van Gogh stayed in his bathroom.

Van Gogh's wound was still freaking me out. It wept constantly so there was always a thin layer of blood and mucus filling it. Each morning and each evening, I would blot the liquid with a Q-tip before applying the topical antibiotic. The good news was that Van Gogh had no feeling in the area of the wound at all. I could do whatever I wanted to it, and he would simply purr.

Unlike Bob, Van Gogh never fought me when I picked him up to doctor on him. Twice a day, I'd clean the wound and apply the antibiotic. Then I would fill an eyedropper with the oral antibiotic, tilt his head back and squirt the medicine into his mouth. By contrast, whenever I pick Bob up to dose him, he begins clawing and howling and fighting. I usually wrap him in a towel in order to give him meds. I never had to do anything with Van Gogh. He obviously hated the taste of the antibiotic, but never fought back.

After a week, I was getting panicky. I couldn't see any difference in the size of the wound at all. It still looked awful. The following Monday, I left work early to take Van Gogh back to the vet.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Part VII of My Christmas Story

I opened the door to the bathroom and switched on the light, not at all sure of what I would find. I was more than a little afraid that Dinah might have died during the intervening five hours.

Two things struck me immediately: a rancid smell and the sight of Dinah's shoe-button eyes staring up at me. With most cats, you notice the colored irises first. With Dinah, her prominent feature was two huge black pupils.

I stepped inside and shut the door behind me. Thinking that the odor came from the litter box, I glanced in that direction, but the sand remained undisturbed. It took several moments before I realized the smell's origin was Dinah's head wound. Now that her wet fur had dried, the underlying odor had surfaced.

Dinah was alive and alert. The only other positive I could see was that she'd eaten half of the wet food I'd left her. Uncertain of my next move, I knelt down next to the blankets and spoke softly to her. "Hey, little girl, how are you feeling?"

She was purring softly, but that didn't encourage me. I've had cats who never purred much, but who suddenly started to purr 24 to 48 hours before they died. I think it's a self-soothing mechanism.

Her eyes never moved from my face, not even to blink. I reached out a tentative hand to stroke her right side. She flinched ever so slightly. I continued to caress her long fur, noting the presence of some good-sized ticks. Now that she was dry, I could see the long twisted strands of dead skin and fur sticking from the wound to her everywhere.

Operating on instinct, I decided not to disturb her any further. If I could keep her warm and calm on Sunday, I'd bring her to see my vet Tim on Monday morning. She ate and drank during the day, but did not use the litter box, which worried me a bit. I checked on her frequently, crooning to her and petting her for very brief moments. She continued that strange passive behavior, but didn't seem to be deteriorating.

When I went into the bathroom early Monday morning, I noted with relief that she had finally used the litter box. Expecting difficulty, I scooped her up and put her into the pet carrier. She didn't fight me.

At the veterinary clinic, Tim's technician gasped and grimaced when she removed Dinah from the carrier. "Ohhh," she hissed. "That's not good."

Tim walked in and asked, "Have I seen this cat before?" I shook my head and launched into her backstory. While I talked, he used a scissors to cut off all the dead fur and skin. When I was finished, he said, "Where do you want to begin?"

I said, "I guess we need to test her for leukemia."

He nodded. "If she has leukemia, we need to put her down." By now he was handling Dinah, running his hands across her body, feeling her organs. A funny look crossed his face. "I think you need to change this cat's name to Dino."

"It's a male?" I asked, stunned.

He nodded. "An intact male."

"Was I at least right that she ... he's about a year old?"

"Yup, you got that one right. Want to call him Dino?"

"Absolutely not. I'll come up with another name before I leave. Did he get his head caught in a car fan belt?"

"Nope. Cat fight. He ran into a tom bigger than he was. Took a bad scratch and it abscessed. That wound is at least two weeks old. He's a pretty sick kitty. I don't know that we can save that ear."

The former Dinah stayed quietly on the exam table while we waited for the test results. I stroked him, and he began purring. This time it felt like he was happy to have me petting him.

In about 15 minutes, Tim came back. No leukemia or feline AIDS. He put Revolution on the cat to address all the fleas and ticks. Cleaned the wound and gave me a liquid antibiotic and a topical antibiotic to give twice a day.

"Have you come up with a name yet?"

I nodded. "I think I'll call him Van Gogh."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Part VI of My Christmas Story

I'd pulled Dinah out of a thunderstorm and into my house. Given her previous reluctance to be touched, she was strangely passive in my arms. I ran my hands over her wet fur and screamed in horror.

On the back of her head, beginning at the base of the right ear was an enormous wound. It looked as though someone had taken an ice cream scoop and just scraped out everything--all the way down to the leather of her skull. The canyon left behind was red and oozing. The walls of the pit looked like layers of lasagna: multiple stratums of fur, dermis, and muscle.

I'd never seen anything so awful on a live animal, and I was having trouble making sense of what I was seeing. No wonder Dinah was so quiet; she was probably in shock.

Fortunately, my long experience as a manager kicked in. When faced with a huge snarly ball of string with no beginning or end, you need to take a scissors, cut a single strand and begin unwinding. I left the cat on the counter and went to find dry cloths with which to dry her.

I also brought an electric space heater into the bathroom with me and a couple of blankets. I wanted to get her warm as quickly as possible.

She remained apathetic under my ministrations; it was both sad and creepy. While I worked, I tried to decide on a next step.

I've lived with cats for many years and have come to respect their fierce stamina and unexpected vulnerability. Felines are finely tuned creatures. Loud noises and unscheduled interruptions are much harder on them than on other animals. If Dinah wasn't in shock already, she was teetering on the narrow edge. A lot of activity was probably a mistake.

By the time I had her mostly dry, I'd decided to leave her alone in the dark, quiet bathroom for a while and see what happened. She might die, but I didn't want to make things worse by overwhelming her fragile system.

I put her on the pile of blankets on the floor with the heater nearby. I filled a bowl with the smelliest wet catfood I could find: Fancy Feast cod, sole and shrimp. As I left the bathroom, I turned off the lights and closed the door.

Back in my bedroom, Bob was still under my four-poster. The lightning had stopped, but it was still pouring outdoors. He was so preoccupied with the weather, he'd missed our new arrival.

I climbed into the bed, but sleep wouldn't come. My mind couldn't stop whirling. I wasn't sure I'd done the right thing by leaving her on her own. I didn't want her to die afraid and alone.

I kept trying to come up with an explanation for what had happened to her. The wound was in the shape of a teardrop--wide at one end and narrow at the other. The wide end was about two and a half inches in diameter, the narrow end tapered to nothing.

Forty minutes later, the only answer that seemed to make sense was that she had climbed up under the hood of a car and was still there when the driver started the vehicle. Twenty years earlier, I'd had a cat who did exactly that. When I found him, he was paralyzed, blind, deaf, and unable to taste or smell.

If Dinah was still alive, what should I do next? I could take her to the emergency vet, but I knew that trip would cost a minimum of $750, more likely $1,000.

I finally fell asleep around 5:20 AM.

Bob woke me at 7:30. I leaped out of bed and rushed to let him out the back door. The rain had stopped, and he didn't balk at going out.

I stood outside the bathroom and listened, but couldn't hear a thing. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

More later ...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Part V of My Christmas Story

I had hatched this cock-eyed plan to first capture Dinah and drag her to my vet and then board her for the week I would be away.

This scheme was doomed to failure from the first. Tim, my long-suffering vet, would be fine ... nothing fazes him. However, it was unlikely that my boarding place would want to deal with an semi-feral cat ... even if they had room for her. My fall-back plan was to ask Tim to keep her at his clinic for a week. I knew he'd do it if I asked--even though he doesn't offer boarding services. He'd boarded animals for me twice before when I was in desperate straits.

Of course, I hadn't figured on Dinah herself. I don't know if she sussed out my plan or just picked up on my anxiety. Either way, for the five days before I left for Florida, she didn't show her little pink nose--despite the fact that she had never gone more than three or four days without stopping by before. By Day Three, I was reduced to leaving food outside and hoping to catch her when she came by to feed. Nothing. The possum didn't even show up.

I finally packed Bob up and delivered him to the boarding place on my way out of town. I left my car with a friend who drove me to Love Field.

The weather in Florida was spectacular. I spent part of every day with my mother, visited with both my brothers and their families and went out to dinner with my college roommate. I also spent part of every day cutting back the four oleander bushes at the back of my mother's property. The damn things were 19-feet tall. It took me an entire week to cut them down to three feet using a hand saw ... and without having one crash down on Mom's house, the neighbor's house or the power lines. Some of those oleander trunks had a diameter of four inches!

I stayed at Mom's house where my darling youngest brother had reconnected the cable. Since I don't have cable at home in Dallas, I was looking forward to watching "True Blood" and "Dexter." My brother had other ideas. He came down one evening under the pretext of dinner on the beach but with the ulterior motive of making certain I watched at least the first hour of "Game of Thrones." He was right. After one hour, I was hooked. Over the course of the week, I watched the entire first season. Great show!

The day after Thanksgiving, I returned to Dallas. My friend picked me up at the airport, and we went to dinner. She said, while it had gotten cold, there had not been a major freeze while I was away. I breathed a sigh of relief.

For the next few days, I was hyper-vigilant, looking for some sign of Dinah. The first thing every morning, I ran to the French door to see if the box on the patio had been slept in. Nothing. Every evening, I rushed home from work to see if she had showed up. Nothing.

In the middle of the next week, the overnight temperatures took a nose dive. We had a hard freeze of 26 degrees for about 48 hours. While this temperature was nothing to someone living in the north, it was a dramatic change for north Texas. I had trouble sleeping both nights, waking at every sound and checking the patio for some sign of Dinah.

Gradually, I began to write a mental script with which I could live. Dinah had found a forever home that was feeding her and providing a warm corner in a garage. I stopped expecting to see her.

On my 8th night home--December 3--we had another tremendous rainstorm. The thunder and lightning drove Bob under my bed (he obviously doesn't trust me to protect him).

I woke at 2:00 AM with the sense that something was wrong. I had a similar feeling the night my water heater died and flooded the house and again the night thieves went through the alley behind my home burglarizing sheds and garages. The storm was still going strong, but I KNEW something was wrong. I grabbed the flashlight from my nightstand and started walking through the house.

I checked every room without finding anything. Then I began to look outside. I went from the front door to the kitchen to the den, switching on each outside light to peer out. When I got to the French door, I saw what I'd been looking for: hunched in a little ball on the same bathroom windowsill where she'd been months before was Dinah.

I didn't stop to think of what had happened the last time I plucked her off that sill. I opened the door, reached out and grabbed her.

She didn't fight me. She just slumped into my arms, a soaked bundle of wet fur. I carried her to the hall bathroom where Bob had a litterbox and bowl of water. Turning on the overhead light, I laid her on the white tiled counter. She didn't move.

Dinah was scaring me. She was too passive. I needed to get some rags to dry her off, but I was afraid to leave her. I ran my hands along her drenched and matted fur ... and screamed.

More later ...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Part IV of My Christmas Story

A couple of days went by with no sign of the young cat or the possum. Hopeful, I prayed they'd both found homes. For several nights, Bob and I enjoyed blissful sleep uninterrupted by midnight visitors.

After many months of drought, it had begun to rain in Texas. And it was raining with a vengeance. The water came down so hard, it ran off rather than soaking into the hard, parched ground. Rather than fight the traffic snarls created by the weather, one evening I stayed late at work to finish a project. It was nearly 9:00 PM when I pulled into my driveway. I got out of the car, opened the gate and followed the flagstone path to my patio where the mercury vapor light switched on as I approached.

There, huddled on my guest bathroom windowsill was the black-and-white kitten.

"Oh, baby, you really are homeless," I sighed, coming closer. She didn't budge. I reached out and plucked her off the sill.

She turned into a whirling dervish of fear and claws, spitting and slicing. I dropped her and backed up. She ran to the end of the patio, stopped, and turned to look at me.

I unlocked the back door, pushed Bob--who was screaming vitriol at her--out of the way with my foot and went into the house. In the kitchen, I filled two bowls with wet and dry food and carried them back outside. Since I'd already scared her, I just put the dishes down in a dry place and returned to my den where I could watch through the French door without further disturbing her.

By the time she'd cleaned the bowls, I'd found the right-sized box in the garage and filled it with an old pillow, a sheet and a couple of fluffy towels. I put the box outside the door in a corner where two walls met. I manually turned off the mercury vapor light to give her privacy and turned to deal with a very pissed-off Bob.

The next morning, it was clear the box had been slept in. I made the decision that the kitten would only get fed if she came and asked for food. There were two reasons for this strategy: (1) I didn't want to start the possum coming back for food, and (2) I needed to tame her before winter set in.

For about eight weeks, the young cat--whom I was now calling Dinah--and I did a dance. She would come to the French door and look in. Bob would alert me by spitting and hissing at her. I would fill a bowl with food and go outside to meet her. Progress was VERY slow. She did not come every day. Sometimes I wouldn't see her for three or four days. It was weeks before I could stand within three feet of her while she ate and two months before I could reach down and lightly rub her forehead. She would tolerate my touch for about five seconds and then run out of the yard.

As we entered November, I began having serious anxiety. Generally, freezing weather arrives in North Texas during the third week of November. And, this year, I would be going to Florida for a week during the holiday. I was concerned about what would happen to Dinah while I was away. I talked with a neighbor about putting food out for her while I was gone, but that didn't address the possibility of freezing weather.

I'd booked reservations for Bob at his feline boarding place months earlier. I toyed with the idea of boarding Dinah, too. That plan was fraught with problems: (1) She'd need shots before I could board her; (2) I'd have to catch her to put her in a carrier both for the trip to the vet and to the boarding place; and (3) I'd have to pay for a separate cage from Bob's which would double the cost.

I finally decided that worrying about her while I was away wasn't worth it. I would try to get her to the vet and to the boarding place. I'd either succeed or I wouldn't. At least I would know I tried.

My plan was that the next time Dinah showed up, I would put on heavy gloves and long sleeves and throw a blanket over her. I would carry her into my hall bathroom where, over a couple of days, I would try to calm her enough so I could get her in the carrier to go to the vet.

Of course, my plan went awry from the very first.

More later ...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Part III of Christmas Story

When I heard Bob the Cat screaming in the backyard, I crawled out from under the Burford holly where I'd been plugging the hole under my house's foundation. Burford holly has very sharp leaves, which is why I planted it outside my windows. In my rush to get out from under the bush, I got some ugly scratches on my cheeks and arms.

I ran to the backyard where the mercury vapor lamp cast a spotlight on Bob and the black-and-white kitten I'd caught in my humane trap the previous night. They were about twenty feet apart with Bob on my patio spitting threats, and the stranger standing motionless on the grass.

I probably need to 'fess up about Bob the Cat. He's a lover, not a fighter. If you want to read his backstory, go here. While he is a fearless hunter, he is socially inept when it comes to other cats. His companion cat, Tribble, was already old and frail when I brought Bob home from the SPCA, and he was only three when Tribble died at age 23.

Bob's just never had much experience with other cats beyond repeatedly getting beat up by the neighborhood's stray toms.

I say all this to justify why a 17-pound cat would be reduced to howling for help at the sight of a cat much smaller and younger than he.

The kitten wasn't growling or making any threatening moves. It was small--probably only ten pounds--and I guessed between eight and ten months old. Its lack of aggression and failure to run from Bob's over-the-top display of hostility suggested it needed something--either safety or food.

I scooped Bob up and carried him into the house. In the kitchen, I opened a cat of Fancy Feast food and dumped it into a bowl. I carried it outside and tried to approach the young cat. She--although I couldn't see the sex with the long hair, I'd decided it was female--backed up, poised to run.

I stopped, put the bowl on the ground and slowly backed away. "Go ahead," I crooned. "I won't hurt you."

She was clearly torn--wanting to come forward, but fearful of me. I sat in one of the patio chairs. "I won't bother you. Go ahead."

Hunger finally overcame anxiety, and she darted forward to eat. I continued to murmur soft nothings to her while she ate.

She inhaled the wet food. I realized she was famished and slowly got up to return to the house. I filled two more bowls--one with kibble and the other with water--and brought them out to her. This time, she let me approach to within six feet before she retreated. I put the new dish down and backed off.

While she ate the kibble, I studied her. She looked clean, no snarls or knots in her long fur. Her white chest and legs were pristine--no dirt or mud. "Are you lost, baby, or just waiting for your family to come home to feed you?"

She didn't answer. When the kibble was gone, she turned and left, without so much as a "thank you." I shrugged, picked up the dishes and went back inside to bed.

We didn't hear the possum in the walls that night. John Boy was shopping for a new residence. The free food handouts were over, too. It was time the little guy learned to fend for himself. It was early September; he had time to find new shelter before the cold weather set in.

The next day I lugged the humane trap into the garage. For the next few days, I waited for the mercury vapor light to be triggered by motion, expecting to see the young cat return, but nothing happened. I decided she was a local pet that had drifted in and out of my backyard.

Finally, after many months without rain, North Texas began to experience rainfall.

More later ...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Part II of My Christmas Story

Knowing I needed to transplant my little possum boarder, I'd asked the Animal Control officer to put me on the waiting list for a loaner humane trap. After a month of waiting without working my way to the top of the list, one Saturday in September, I went to Home Depot and purchased my own trap.

Since John Boy so clearly liked cat kibble, that was the bait I used when setting up the trap. I put the contraption near where I'd previously put the possum's bowls and removed the dishes I'd been using to feed him in order to provider further encourage-ment for him to enter the trap.

Sunday morning, I jumped out of bed and ran to the French doors, expecting to see John Boy in the trap.


Stifling my irritation, I opened the door to let Bob out. I was on my way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea when I heard a tremendous caterwauling (no pun intended). I ran to the back door to find Bob a prisoner in my trap.

Torn between laughter and exasperation, I went out and released him. He called me names in at least three different feline dialects as he tried to retreat with dignity.

I left the trap sitting there open all day. Sunday night, I set it again--after Bob was safely inside the house.

About midnight, I awoke to a commotion outside. I ran outside to find I'd made another catch ... yet another cat.

This one was a young long-haired black-and-white cat; an absolutely frantic black-and-white cat. It was thrashing around, trying to find a way out of the cage. I opened the door and got out of the way. The cat ran across the backyard and disappeared. Disheartened, I climbed back into bed with Bob only to be awakened about 45 minutes later when John Boy returned home. We listened as he scrambled up the inside of my bathroom wall to what seemed to be a perch about five feet off the floor.

Monday was Labor Day, and I labored. I went around the entire outside perimeter of my house, looking for places where the possum might be getting under my foundation. I found four holes of varying sizes. I spent a good part of my holiday lugging limestone rock from the rockpile in the northwest corner of my yard. Over the years that I've lived in my house, I've planted lots of bushes ... which meant digging up lots of rocks, some of them pretty sizable. I've made a habit of piling the rocks up in one place. You'd be surprised how often a good-sized rock comes in handy.

Anyway, I crawled behind my foundation bushes to plug up three of the four holes. I left the largest one open so John Boy would have a way to get out from under my house later that night. I marked the location of that fourth hole and set my alarm clock for 11 PM.

That night, using a flashlight and a bucket of rocks, I closed up the last of the holes under my house. While I was on my hands and knees behind the Burford holly bushes, I heard Bob issue a warning scream. I scrambled out and ran to the backyard, fearful that he was about to get into a confrontation with John Boy.

More later ...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Christmas Story

Ten days to Christmas.

Twice in my life, I've seen Christmas miracles. I'm going to lead up to the 25th by telling the story of one of a small miracle.

Like most tales, this one begins long before the actual event. It started about five months ago in the middle of the worst drought Texas had ever known. I've lived here for more than half my life and, in all those years, have never seen such a hot, miserable summer. Grass died, foundations cracked, and does abandoned their fawns.

One Saturday afternoon in mid-August I was in my backyard when I saw an unusual sight: a young possum staggering across the grass. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've seen a possum outside during daylight hours. This one was very small.

I'd heard on NPR that bats and other nocturnal creatures were being forced to hunt during the day because they could not find sufficient food to live on.

Being what my friends call a pushover, I went inside and filled a bowl with water and another one with cat kibble. I put the two dishes next to the house's foundation and went inside.

It didn't take the young possum very long to find the bowls. Bob the Cat and I watched from the French doors while our guest availed himself of both food and drink.

Thereafter, every night, once Bob was safely inside, I would leave food and water for the possum. I have a mercury vapor light on my patio. The possum would trigger the light whenever he came to feed. One night, after leaving my trash at the curb for the next morning's pickup, I almost stepped on the little guy. I nearly had a heart attack, and he turned and hissed at me, showing a very nasty set of teeth. Ungrateful little bastard.

As summer gave way to early fall, I watched with satisfaction as the little critter filled out. That feeling of well-being evaporated when I realized he had tunneled under my house's pier-and-beam foundation. I could hear his claws inside my walls between midnight and two every night as he returned home from dinner. It got to where I would turn out my bedside light and say, "Good night, Bob," to the cat and "Good night, John Boy," to the possum.

I realized this was not tenable solution and called my city's Animal Control to see if they would help. The officer who answered explained he would be happy to come out and trap the animal. When I asked what he would do with the little guy once he'd caught him, the officer became somewhat evasive. I hadn't spent all summer feeding John Boy for nothing, so I hung up.

The next day, I asked my brother what he thought a professional exterminator would do with John Boy. He laughed and said, "Oh, he'll take him to the same farm where Daddy took the dog."
I decided the only humane solution was for me to trap the possum and then re-locate him to a park or nature preserve where he would be safe.

More tomorrow ...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Relationship Dissonance

It's just after 4:30 in the morning, and the cat woke me up--the rain and thunder were scaring him. I tried to explain that rain in Texas during a drought is an excellent thing, but he wasn't having any. So, I'm up and writing, and he's curled at my feet, happy that I'm awake to guard him from the big, bad, loud thing outside.

We had an incident tonight that reminded me that no matter how much you care for those around you, you can still want to kill them.

Those of you who have been around for more than a minute will recall that I broke into my house through the guest bathroom window earlier this year (see post here). I never bothered to replace the screen in that window because it's turned out to be a convenient way for Bob the Cat to come and go when I'm home and working. I just leave the window open for him. From inside the house, he jumps up on the bathtub and then it's an easy three-foot jump to the window sill. From outside the house, it's closer to a five-foot jump, but he loves the easy in-and-out access and doesn't quibble about having to work for it.

I returned home from the gym around 8:00 PM last night, opened the window and sat down to write. A few minutes later, I heard Bob land on the sill rather heavily and then make an even louder bounce on the bathroom floor, but he's sixteen tons ... I mean, sixteen pounds ... and you've gotta expect a little noise.

I didn't look up from my manuscript when he whined at the study door. I was vaguely aware of him entering the room and sitting down at my feet. He continued to whinge, but I was engrossed and just shushed him. He made the grousing sound that means he's annoyed, and I responded with "Just a second, baby."

I finally finished the paragraph I was obsessing over, looked down at him and S*C*R*E*A*M*E*D!!!

Inches from my bare feet was a dead squirrel with a very proud Bob looming over it.

I leaped up and over both corpse and cat, wailing like a banshee.

And here's where the relationship dissonance comes in. Bob clearly intended the squirrel as a gift, one which showed off both his hunting prowess and his love for me. After all, he'd had to work very hard to get that squirrel up to the window and then all the way through the house to reach me.

I, on the other hand, could only see a dead body lying on my carpet. I'd already made the mental leap to, "OMG, I'm going to have to pick that thing up to get rid of it." I was not a happy camper and, as soon as he realized I wasn't going to coo over him with pride, neither was Bob.

I'll spare you the terrible details of cadaver removal beyond saying that it required rubber gloves, large black garbage bags (plural; we double bagged) , and a lot of girlish squeals. Bob moved from puzzlement to rage as I yelled a stream of abuse at him while discarding his prize outside the back fence where the trash men will pick it up.

I was still scrubbing my hands like Lady Macbeth when my youngest brother called. He (a liberal) was watching the Republican debate and wanted to tell me about Michele Bachmann ridiculing Herman Cain's 999 tax plan by saying, when "turned upside down" 999 becomes 666, Satan's number.

I vented about the cat and the squirrel only to have my brother express male solidarity with Bob, whom he felt was just trying to please me. My outrage made him laugh harder, and he suggested I should have hung the body outside as a warning to other squirrels who might trespass on my property.

He was still laughing when I hung up on him.

I called my middle brother to pass along the Bachmann comment. I was pretty sure that he--the hardline Republican--would be watching the baseball game while our youngest brother--the sports writer--would be watching the Republican debate. Go figure.

Sure enough, he was watching the Rangers play the third of their post-season games. I made some comment about the assorted nuts the Republicans had packaged for this election season. He, in turn, offered to come down and show me how to skin the squirrel Bob had scored.

I've decided that inter-gender dissonance is more aggravating than inter-species dissonance.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Hell of a Way to Exercise Beef

There is a video I want you to see, but you'll have to watch a short one (and a Butterfingers commercial) first.

I can't decide if this is an experiment in Pavlovian response (although I'm not sure what the reward is) or a new way to create leaner beef. Go here and you'll see a 16-second kitty video and then the most amazing thing I've seen in a while to the tune of the TV western show Rawhide.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Another Viewpoint on the National Debt

I first encountered Fareed Zakaria on ABC's Sunday news show, This Week With George Stephanopoulos. I was struck by both his clarity in thinking and in articulating his thoughts. Frankly, when he left the show, I missed him more than I did George Stephanopoulos, who turned the hosting job for This Week over to Christiane Amanpour last August.

Zakaria was born in India, but came to the U.S. to attend Yale, where he earned his B.A. degree. He later went on to earn a PhD from Harvard. He was formerly the editor for Newsweek International and is currently the editor-at-large for Time as well as the host of the CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS.

Foreign Policy magazine has begun doing an annual list--one in 2009 and another in 2010--on the Top 100 Global Thinkers. Zakaria was included on both lists.

I say all this as a lead-in to an interview Terry Gross did with Zakaria on Fresh Air this morning. The title of the show was "What Does a 'Post-American World' Look Like?"

Terry asked Zakaria, "... if the U.S. does not raise its debt ceiling, if we end up defaulting on debts, what impact do you think that would have on the U.S. and the global economy?"

Zakaria responded:

"I tend to think it would be catastrophic. And I think that, more importantly, there is a high enough risk here that this is surely a game we don't want to play. What have we learned over the last three years--whether you look at Lehman Brothers and the effect that that collapse had on the world economy? It's that there are these kinds of things that economists call low-probability, high-impact events that you don't want to test. You don't want to see whether this is one of those things that is an unlikely situation, but once it happens could have a huge seismic global effect, because then the cost of dealing with that--the after-effects--is just cataclysmic.

"I think it would be huge. The United States has never defaulted on its debt. It is the leading country in the world. It has the reserve currency of the world, and I think it is madness for us to be doing this when Congress is, in effect, already mandated that we borrow more money. This is what I don't understand. By choosing to spend money at a certain level and setting tax revenues at another level, a lower level, what Congress has implied is we're going to have to borrow the difference, right? So raising the debt ceiling is the logical consequence of Congress's decision to spend a certain amount of money and to tax at a lower level.

"How can you have second thoughts about this when you, Congress, was the one that set these levels in the first place? And besides which, it's unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment very clearly says the validity of America's credit and its debts cannot be questioned. I don't have the exact phrase, but it's about as clear as you can get. And so for people who believe in the Constitution, it is to me, beyond bizarre that they're doing this. And I think that President Obama should if he is forced to assert that what Congress is doing is unconstitutional and simply use his a executive authority to do what he needs to, to make sure that the United States makes good on its debts."

To listen to the entire interview, go here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

e-Book Reader Ownership Doubles in Six Months

The Pew Internet Project began keeping track of e-reader use two years ago in April, 2009.

Today they reported:
The share of adults in the United States who own an e-book reader doubled to 12% in May, 2011 from 6% in November 2010 ...

Both e-book reader and tablet computer adoption levels among U.S. adults are still well below that of other tech devices that have been on the market longer. Cell phones are far and away the most popular digital device among U.S. adults today, followed by desktop and laptop computers, DVRs, and MP3 players.
Go here to read the report.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Finding a Home for Grendel

Okay, I'm back again.

A challenging month. One made worse by my habit of acting like the Florence Nightingale of the animal world. This tendency of mine becomes more pronounced during hot weather. I've picked up a strange dog during June or July for the past three years.

A week after my surgery, on my way home from work, I saw a very large yellow lab on the road. He appeared to be trying to find a specific driver; he kept approaching moving cars near the driver side window.

I got half a mile down the road, arguing with myself. On the mind-your-own-business side: he was huge, didn't have a collar and I knew nothing about his temperament. On the other hand: he clearly was in distress and wanting help, it was dusk and soon to be dark and he was sure to get killed if he continued to stay in the middle of the road.

At the next opportunity, I turned around and headed back. I'd decided my involvement would be determined upon on whether he came when I called to him.

I stopped my car on the shoulder, rolled down my window and called to him.

He came bounding across two lanes of traffic toward me. I opened the door, and the fool animal tried to climb into my Toyota across my lap. I shouted, "No!" and he recoiled.

I climbed out of the car and offered my hand for him to smell. He sniffed once and immediately leaped into the car, settling himself into the passenger seat.

I was appalled. I guesstimated his weight at approximately 100 lbs. My vet later weighed him in at 110. He was so big, he knocked my transmission out of gear on the way home.

The next week was a blur of activity. I christened the behemoth "Grendel" for the monster in Beowulf. He was a mass of contradictions:
  • Friendly but not needy. He was content to lie quietly nearby wherever I was.
  • Obedient but unaware of simple commands. Fortunately, he was VERY food-oriented. He learned "sit" in about twenty minutes.
  • Beautifully kept but without a identity chip. I realized pretty quickly he had a nasty ear infection. He was also at least 30 lbs overweight.
  • A purebred lab who had been neutered at a very young age.
I took him to my vet to be scanned for a chip, weighed and treated. My very wonderful vet gave us 30 minutes and charged me only $19--the cost of the ear medicine. He told me Grendel was clearly a purebred who had been a house dog. His fur and paws showed no sign of his ever being an outside dog. He hypothesized that Grendel had belonged to an elderly person who overfed and didn't exercise him.

Being a writer, I took that story and ran with it. "An ill person might not have noticed the beginnings of his ear infection. Maybe Grendel's owner died or had to be hospitalized, and a relative put him in the backyard. He figured out how to open my gate in about five minutes. I'll bet he escaped from wherever and got lost."

The vet nodded. "He probably tried to return to his owner's house."

The bad news was that my vet told me Grendel could not be left in my yard. "He has no experience as a yard dog. With his weight, this heat will kill him."

That complicated my life unbelievably. My roommate was already furious. Undeterred by Grendel's size, my little 12-lb. cat took every opportunity to leap out and attack Grendel. The first time I shouted, "No," Grendel figured out his continued residence in my home was dependent upon getting along with this tiny, nasty, spitting creature. He studiously ignored Bob from that moment forward, which only infuriated my little kamikaze feline. Bob would slash at Grendel at every opportunity. Fortunately, the lab's thick fur protected him.

Leaving Grendel inside meant I had section the rooms off so each animal had his part of the house. It also meant I had to come straight home from work to let the dog out. Because of the heat, I confined our walks to 6:15 in the morning and 10:30 at night.

Nighttime was a nightmare. My bedroom became the battlefield. Grendel abandoned his calm exterior at bedtime. He WANTED to sleep in my bed. Of course, my four-poster belonged to Bob.

Like Solomon, I made an executive decision which offered a compromise to all parties involved. Grendel might want to sleep in my bed. I would allow him to sleep beside my bed. The bed belonged to Bob, who spent every night with his little triangular head hanging over the side of the mattress, hoping for a chance to slash at Grendel from above. I slept badly, waking up every couple of hours to see what was going on.

Desperate to get my life back, I hung "Found Dog" signs all over the neighborhood in which I'd found Grendel and knocked on doors, showing his photo to homeowners, hoping for a clue. I haunted the Internet. I contacted local vets. All to no avail. No one knew Grendel, and no one appeared to be looking for him. That only reinforced my belief that his owner had died.

After a week, I switched my efforts from "locate owner" to "locate new owner." I sent emails to a couple of people who belong to large, networked church communities in Dallas. Within two days, I began to do phone interviews of potential new owners. Last Sunday, I surrendered Grendel to a young minister at one of the largest churches in Dallas. He was originally looking for a dog for his sister, but during my home visit when his setter bitch and Grendel fell in love, he began to wonder if he should keep him.

Grendel and Sami played happily together while we watched, smiling. I got up to leave, and Grendel immediately followed me to the door. I kissed him goodbye, and his new owner held the lab tightly while I slipped outside.

Came home and collapsed into my bed with Bob purring contentedly beside me.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Quick Note

I had my surgery on Tuesday. Arrived at the surgeon's office at 9 AM and was home by 2 PM.

At the moment, my left eye is still nearly swollen shut. Since I have monovision contacts, it is difficult to read without my left eye.

I've been applying ice packs for about ten minutes of every hour and am hoping that tomorrow the swelling will be down enough that I will be back and posting again.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Beginning a Healthy Life

On the weekends, I'm going to start keeping a diary of my efforts to move toward a healthier life style. I want a written record for myself and decided some of you might be interested, too. If not, just skip the weekend blogs.

On March 1, I rejoined Snap Fitness, a local gym that is part of a national chain here. Snap Fitness has several things in its favor:
  1. It's not far from my home.

  2. It's open 24/7, which means I can work out after 9 PM at night--a time when I am wide awake and physically loose.

  3. I didn't have to sign a year's contract with all kinds of ugly clauses. I go month-to-month for about $35, and I can ask them to not bill me for several months if I know I'm not going to be able to attend.
I decided early on that I would do a mile a day on the treadmill and then mix up other exercises in addition. My internist recommended changing my routine every three weeks to keep my body from settling into a rut. She also recommended working out four or five times a week for 30 to 45 minutes.

After three months, I've found my pattern. Two weeks of the month I do five nights a week and, two weeks of the month, I do four nights a week. Which nights depend on my own schedule and preference. I'm not rigid about it. Right now I'm spending an hour each time I work out. I started at 40 minutes a visit the first month, went to 50 minutes the second month and am now at 60 minutes.

Diabetes doesn't run in my family; it gallops. I am controlled by diet with a pill a couple of times a day. I have made small changes to my diet over this three months. Initially, I started by having oatmeal with cinnamon and blueberries five days a week. Then I added a 10:30 AM snack (usually a Kind bar--they are fabulous--see here) and a 3:30 PM snack (usually an apple and cheese, or a banana and guacamole. I HATE peanut butter).

Lunch is where I concentrate my day's carbs. I'll have a loaded baked potato or--another favorite--Jimmy John's roast beef sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo.

The hardest thing for me has been giving up processed foods. I'll talk about that another time.

I started listening to my body more and learned that I NEED to eat between 5:00 and 6:00 PM. I usually have some protein (veal scallopine--the easiest thing in the world to make), or a piece of chicken or beef fajitas. If I'm going out to dinner with friends, I have the same thing.

I like a snack before I go to bed. I don't care if all the experts say you shouldn't eat before you go to sleep. My body demands a snack. My three most common snacks are the Kind dark chocolate and cherry cashew bar, or pineapple cream cheese on Ritz crackers or just grapes.

In three months, I've lost 15 pounds and overall about 12 inches. I do my own measurements so that the gym isn't giving me hooey in an effort to keep me as a member. I've gone down three pants sizes.

This is kind of a sad story to tell on myself, but here it is:

About six weeks into my little program, I noticed lines forming under my rib cage on either side. I realized they were the beginnings of abs. I started calling them my "baby abs." Each week the lines became more pronounced. My abdomen also started hurting almost all the time (largely because, during the day while I was walking or driving, I would suck in my gut and hold it for the count of 30).

This week, I got out of the shower and realized there was a vertical pouchy place in the shape of a diamond between my two horizontal ab lines.

I panicked. I thought, "Oh, my God, I've herniated myself!" Then I stared at it closer and ran to the Internet to pull up a diagram of a set of abs (see here). I quickly realized it was my linea alba making its first appearance. The linea alba is a long strip of fascia--fibrous tissue that runs down the middle of your abdomen, splitting the six-pack into its sections. So now I have a vertical baby ab in addition to my horizontal one.

Of course, I've been pulling up my shirts all week to show my baby abs to my nearest and dearest! My loved ones have been very tolerant.
That's it for this week.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Book Expo YA Buzz

BookExpo America 2011 took place last week in New York from May 23 to the 28th. One of the most popular sessions is the Young Adult Buzz panel where editors from various houses promote their upcoming books. This year's panel included five editors who summarized their books:

1) Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Alvina Ling, editor at Little Brown and Company

Alvina described the book as a story told backward with this tag line: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fall in love. It did not end well."

2) Carrier of the Mark by Leigh Fallon
Erica Sussman of HarperCollins

Erica explained that the book begins with Megan moving to Ireland with her father. She learns she carries the power of the element Air. She falls in love with Adam, who carries the mark for Water. She also meets his brother (who has the mark for Fire) and his sister (who has the mark for Earth). Megan and Adam are told that carriers of the mark cannot be together without disastrous consequences.

3) Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schrieber
Margaret Raymo from Houghton Mifflin

Margaret said the tag line for this humorous YA novel is "Ferris Bueller Meets La Femme Nikita." Perry is a senior in high school whose mother persuades him to take a Lithuanian girl named Gobi to the prom. He discovers to his horror that Gobi is really an assassin who has five targets on her hit list for the night.

4) The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Courtney Bongiolatti of Simon & Schuster

Mara Dyer is at a sleepover where she and her three friends play with a ouija board. She wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there and why she is not harmed although her friends were killed.

5) Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Susan Chang of Tor Forge

Susan described this book as a fable about a boy scout who wakes up in a woods where he meets a talking badger, barn cat and bear. The four are chased by a group of hunters known as the Blue Cutters (because of their swords).

It's pretty telling that four of the five books have paranormal themes and three of the five books have female protagonists. If I had to pick one of the five to read it would probably be Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick.

I'll talk about the Adult Buzz session later.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Paranormal Novels Continue to Sell.

There was an interesting article in Friday's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) which reports that the popularity of paranormal genre novels has not escaped the notice of the higher brow literary writers, now trying to cash in on this trend's success.
Following a string of supernatural successes, including last summer's hit "The Passage," a vampire epic by literary novelist Justin Cronin, and the recent surprise breakout "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness, novelists from across the literary spectrum are delivering fantasy-tinged narratives.
The article opens with Glen Duncan, described as "a 45-year-old novelist who lives in South London," and whose latest novel, The Last Werewolf will be released on July 12. It turns out that Mr. Duncan "invented Jake [his protagonist, a werewolf] out of desperation. His previous seven literary novels sold poorly, and his agent said the prospects for selling the next one were bleak. 'It was a rather mercenary and practical decision to try to write a straight genre novel,' Mr. Duncan says."

The WSJ goes on to describe four more paranormal novels with literary aspirations. I've written about one of the authors before. On September 22, 2008 here, I described a YA novel by Melissa Marr titled Wicked Lovely which I recommended. Her first adult novel, Graveminder, was released two weeks ago in hardcover. I don't recall seeing it, but plan to go looking for it this week.

Go here to read the Wall Street Journal story which includes a video of the article's writer describing this literary trend.

And, by the way, another YA which I highly recommended here, The Hunger Games, has been optioned as a movie. The protagonist Katniss will be played by Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for Winter's Bone. Jennifer Lawrence was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly last week with dark braids dressed as Katniss. Filming on The Hunger Games began on May 19 in North Carolina. I've heard Donald Sutherland will play the president, Woody Harrelson will play Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks will play Effie and Stanley Tucci will play Caesar. The Hunger Games was the first in a trilogy which ended last August with the release of the third book, Mockingjay.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

As I explained earlier this week, I've been feeling overwhelmed and more than a little anxious lately.

Everyone has coping skills that help them manage the stresses of daily life. Psychologists rate coping skills along a continuum from pathological to mature. I have a variety of defense mechanisms that I fall back on in a Chinese menu kind of way: one from column A, one from column B and another from column C.

When I'm behaving maturely, I tend to use humor to help me manage while, at the same time, I suppress the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. When the stress increases, I fall back on less mature mechanisms like intellectualization and magical thinking.

This month, I did not pass "go"; I went straight to those neurotic coping skills.

Since I was anxious about having to face yet another Mohs surgery for skin cancer, I fell back on my immature defense mechanisms. First, I upped my exercise routine from five nights a week to seven (thereby magically "undoing" the unhealthy situation by acting in a more healthy manner).

But because on the face (no pun intended) it was cancer that was frightening me, I intellectualized that a book would give me more information on the subject, theoretically increasing my sense of competence and control (while at the same time permitting me to suppress my fears related to my mother's steady deterioration).

Last November, I first heard about such a book during an interview on NPR's Fresh Air. Since that time, the book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. The title is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and the author is Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University.

I remembered the interview clearly and especially a segment in which Dr. Mukherjee was asked to describe what causes a cell to become cancerous. I went back to find that broadcast of Fresh Air, in which he said:
In cells, there are genes that are present whose normal function is to regulate the growth, the metabolism and the cell division of cells. And corruptions of these genes, mutations of these genes, essentially activate or inactivate critical processes that act like accelerators and brakes. So to rephrase this, you can imagine the cell as a molecular machine, and cell division is one of the activities it performs. And there are accelerators and brakes on cell division ...

By mutating genes, if you jam the accelerators or if you mess up the brakes, then the cell doesn't know how to stop dividing and it begins to divide incessantly. And part of that division also creates even more mutations. Sometimes there are genes that can be mutated which can accelerate the mutations of other genes, and this process goes on and on until you have a cell which is now capable of infinite cell division and does not know when to stop dividing. And that's what unleashes a cancer cell. But that said, I think that's just the beginning of an understanding ... there are many, many other features of cancer which are still in their infancy in terms of our understanding.
Two weeks into it, I'm a little more than halfway through the book, which is astonishing to me. I'm accustomed to reading most books--both novels and non-fiction--in a couple of days. However, my desire to understand this subject matter has me taking detours via the Internet to buttress my small store of high school science knowledge.

As an example, I remembered there were three kinds of cells (red, white and platelets), but couldn't for the life of me remember what platelets do (assist in the clotting of blood). And I absolutely did not remember where blood cells are manufactured (in the bone marrow). And I swear to God when I went through school, we were never taught that our immune systems have three major types of lymphocytes that fight infection: T cells (thymus), B cells (bone) and NK cells (natural killer).

Dr. Mukherjee is very thorough in his approach. He describes the history of the study of cancer from its earliest beginnings: a papyrus in which an Egyptian physician who lived around 2625 BC describes a case "having bulging masses on [the] breast that ... have spread over his breast." Under therapy, Imhotep says only "there is none."

The good doctor Mukherjee has a tendency to devolve into what I would describe as "purple prose" through his use of metaphors and similes. I laughed out loud at this sentence: "But Cole now wondered whether Halsted had tried to cleanse the Augean stables of cancer with all the right intentions, but with the wrong tools."

I am, however, struck by his humanity in recounting the story of cancer. He openly addresses the arrogance of physicians who refused to consider any theories of cancer which did not fit their own world views. In the early-1970s when an oncologist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) proposed a treatment regimen of surgery followed by chemotherapy, no American surgeons or chemotherapists could be located who would agree to such a protocol. As the result of all that hubris, the NCI was forced to sponsor that first clinical trial at the Istituto Tumori in Milan, Italy where "Bonadonna and Veronesi, the only surgeon-chemotherapist pair seemingly on talking terms with each other" agreed to accept an award for the NCI trial. The results of that trial shook "the terra firma" of cancer research. The combined treatment "prevented breast cancer relapses in about one in every six treated women," a stunning victory at that time.

I also sensed Dr. Mukherjee's outrage was genuine when he talked about the medical profession's failure to focus on symptom relief and comfort of the patients who were dying under their care. "The movement to restore sanity and sanctity to the end-of-life care of cancer patients emerged, predictably, not from cure-obsessed America but from Europe."

It is staggering to me to realize how far cancer treatment has come over the last forty years. Just this week, I read a newspaper article about an experimental drug that has killed a "rare, stubborn form of cancer called acute promyelocytic leukemia ... Tamibarotene ... is a retinoid drug that induces [immature] cancer cells to differentiate into mature cells and eventually die."

Bottom line, I'm feeling more optimistic and want to recommend this book to anyone dealing with (or simply interested in) the subject of cancer.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Next Challenge

I said I'd talk about the couple of things that derailed me earlier this month.

The second thing that threw me off course started one morning while I was washing my face. My fingers brushed a rough spot on the left side of my nose. I picked up my magnifying mirror and squinted at the tiny area of skin. It was barely noticeable, but irregular in shape and scaly. "Oh-oh," I thought.

As I drove to work, I called my dermatologist's office to ask for an appointment. The scheduler said, "You're coming to see us in July. Can't this wait until then?"

"Nope," I said. "I want an appointment this week."

Begrudgingly, she gave me a time for the next morning.

My dermatologist took one look at the spot and called his nurse to assist in a biopsy.

A week later, the nurse called to say they'd be referring me to a surgeon for Mohs surgery. Since I practically have a surgeon on retainer these days, I had no trouble scheduling the surgery.

If you want to know what Mohs is, or what to look for when checking your skin, go here to read an earlier blog on the subject.

I've had multiple skin cancers (both basal and squamous) removed over the years. However, the time between them seems to be getting much shorter. I had a lesion removed in June, 2007 and another one excised sixteen months later in November, 2009. Now eighteen months later, I have a new basal cell cancer. I don't know if it was this lesion's prominent location on my face or the fact that this is the third Mohs surgery I'll have had in four years, but this one bushwhacked me. My anxiety climbed, and my mood tanked.

As usual when I'm feeling out of control, I went looking for a way to re-establish my equilibrium.

I found a solution. I'm pretty excited about it, and I'll tell you all about it on Saturday.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Let's Try This Again

Three weeks ago, I announced I was back and then promptly disappeared again. I figure I owe an explanation.

Two things knocked me off my stride. I'll talk about one today and the other on Thursday.

The first was the need to reorganize my mother's finances to permit her continued residence in an Alzheimer's facility.

Fifteen months ago, my family moved Mom from the home she'd lived in for nearly fifty years to a residential facility (pictured below) devoted to patients with memory loss.

At the time we made the move, my three brothers and I were at varying degrees of acceptance that such action was even necessary. We were deep in discussion (AKA argument) when the police removed Mom from her home and took her to a hospital for evaluation. As you can imagine, this helped to move the conversation along.

The final decision came down to numbers. My youngest brother and I were in agreement that Mom could not return home. Our united front was enough to sway our middle brother. My oldest brother was not convinced, but chose to accept the majority rule.

This is a quote from the assisted living facility's brochure:
The layout is residential by design - small in scale and organized into four self-contained "houses." Each house has its own living room, dining room, kitchen, full bath and laundry. There's also a secured backyard for gardening and enjoying the outdoors.
"House" is a bit of a misnomer. The houses are wings off a central common area. The common area includes a library, hair salon, recreation room, music area, and large activities area.

Each wing has a max of thirteen residents, making the entire facility resemble a living deck of cards with 52 total. And, like a deck of cards, each suit has its own color scheme around which it is organized. The Green House, where Mom lives, has wallpaper with green borders and hints of green throughout the furnishings. Mom has a private corner room and half bath. Here's a photo of a house dining room with its three tables for the residents.

Note the door to the outside. Mom's house has at least three doors to the backyard that are kept unlocked until darkness. Multiply that times the four houses, and you realize just how open the living plan is. I walked out one of the doors early one evening and saw a deer on the other side of the back fence.

Of course, the setup is such that, although the residents are free to go outdoors, they cannot leave the backyard. There's a gazebo, and picnic tables and an old-fashioned porch swing.

One of my brothers--I don't remember which one--described the place as "Disney World for 80-year-olds."

Disney World doesn't come cheap. We're paying over $5,000 a month.

Understand, none of us begrudges the money. We recognize how lucky we are to be able to afford her care. Her occasional bouts of physical aggression and her very strong streak of independence would make it tough for one of us to keep her in our home although that possibility was the one we were entertaining when the police arrived at her house and forcibly removed her. She spent a week in the hospital tied to a bed.

However, when you add in the cost of the cocktail of medications Mom takes daily, we're running through her savings at quite a clip.

My youngest brother, who bears the burden of oversight, called me early this month. We had to do a review of her financial situation and move some money around to make arrangements for the next year of care.

My middle brother, his wife and daughter flew to Florida and spent last week visiting Mom.

She's good. She can hold it together in a social setting and waited until he had dropped his wife and daughter off at the hotel before asking, "Who were they?"

I call Mom almost every morning as I drive to work. I *think* she still recognizes my voice although I'm always careful to identify myself by name. In ten minutes of conversation, we talk about the weather about four times, and she asks me at least that many times how I'm doing.

It's hard to say whether I miss her more while we're talking together on the phone or when we are not.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

I'm Back

After two months off, I'm back. Sorry for being AWOL, but I needed some time to myself to regenerate.

I finally accepted that I will NEVER use my gym at 6:00 AM. It's just not gonna happen. I'm now exercising at 10 PM five nights a week, and it's working. I've got eight weeks behind me and am feeling great.

Thought I would start out with some fun.

Here are two clips from the White House Correspondents' dinner last night. The first is President Obama's speech.

The second is Seth Meyers' remarks. Seth is, of course, from Saturday Night Live. You can find his roast of everyone and everything in American politics on YouTube here.

Have a great day.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

California Jumps Into the Argument

California has joined those states pushing Amazon to pay sales taxes on Internet purchases made within their borders.

And Amazon is pushing back.

Yesterday, Dow Jones Newswires reported here:

In a letter to California's Board of Equalization, which oversees the collection of property taxes, sales taxes and other fees, Seattle-based Amazon said four bills introduced to the state legislature are unconstitutional because they would ultimately require sellers with no physical presence in California to collect sales tax merely on the basis of contracts with California advertisers.

"If any of these new tax collection schemes were adopted, Amazon would be compelled to end its advertising relationships with well over 10,000 California-based participants in the Amazon 'Associates Program'," wrote Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for Global Public Policy, in a letter dated Feb. 24.

This is in line with Amazon's previous stance toward other states that have tried to collect sales taxes because the company is operating within their borders.

I've written extensively about this subject before, including here, here and here.

States have gone after Amazon for sales taxes, claiming two different kinds of physical presence:
  • Amazon's Associates Program allows Internet users to advertise Amazon on their websites and earn money from any sales that result. When North Carolina, Rhode Island and Colorado argued that this program constitutes a physical presence in their states, Amazon shut down the program in those states. This is, of course, the same strategy the company is employing in California.
  • When Texas argued that Amazon's distribution center in Irving constituted a physical presence in the state, Amazon announced the distribution center was owned by its subsidiary, KYDC LLC, and not by Amazon itself ... even though the subsidiary is located at Amazon's corporate headquarters. Amazon announced it would close the distribution center next month if Texas doesn't back down.

I think that the second bullet above is going to become more of an issue in the future. Readers of this blog may recall that on January 31 here, I reported on the conference call between Amazon and its stock analysts. This is the answer from the Seeking Alpha transcript to a question posed by the analyst from Jefferies & Company who asked about the number of distribution centers Amazon had at the end of 2010:

We had approximately 52 at the end of 2010. We added 13 last year. We will add more fulfillment centers this year. We ... aren't saying how many yet because again we're trying to determine what the growth rate will be.

I doubt that the tax dodge of having a "subsidiary" operate the distribution center will continue to hold up as Amazon increases its physical presence around the country.

The open question is whether the states have the courage to face anger from their citizens when Amazon pulls jobs or, in the case of the Associates program, potential money away from people during a tough economy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Less-Than-Excellent Adventure

I'm too tired to take on a heavy subject tonight so I'm just going to tell what happened today. This tale will probably give a psychologist pause, but ...

I'm prone to allergies twice a year: hayfever in October and mountain cedar in February. There are years when allergies absolutely lay me low. However, February had seemed mild until very recently. I've had a nasty post-nasal drip which alternated with a pounding sinus headache all week.

I'd soldiered on until today when I had both the headache and stomach issues from the post-nasal drip. I emailed my boss to say I'd be at home, took a handful of meds and went back to bed.

I woke up to the sound of the garbage truck rumbling down my street. Like Pavlov's dog hearing the bell, I responded instantly, leaping out of bed. Grabbing my garbage, I ran out the back door. I flung the plastic bags over my fence to the curb on the street.

Pleased that I hadn't missed trash day, I returned to the house to find my back door locked.

There I stood in my Lanz of Salzburg blue-and-white full-length nightgown and my purple slippers ... without a way inside ... because I had used the spare key stored outside the house when I locked myself out about a week ago and had not yet returned the key to its hidey hole.

My next-door neighbor used to have a key to the house until I recently changed out a key cylinder that had begun to stick in the dead bolt. I'd been meaning to have extra keys made, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

I was not crazy about the idea of traipsing across the lawn dressed as I was to a neighbor--especially one with teenage boys--to borrow a phone.

I am an impulsive soul. I decided the fastest way to get back into my nice warm bed was to just break a window and worry about the repairs later. I picked up a decorative concrete cat from a flower bed and swung it at the bottom half of my double-hung bedroom window.

The cat bounced off the window.

I should mention that I'd broke into my house once before. I'd replaced the demolished glass pane with shatter-proof glass. I just hadn't realized how strong the new glass was.

I slammed the concrete cat into the window twice more before giving up. I viewed the rear of the house, trying to decide on a new plan.

Replacing the glass in the decorative French doors would be frightfully expensive. My bathroom has horizontal windows only a foot wide and ten feet above me.

That left the guest bathroom. Again the window was rather high--shoulder height for short me--and not really very big. I guessed each half of the double-hung window was about 18" X 22".

But beggars can't be choosers. I pulled a cast iron patio chair over and climbed onto it. Then I slammed the concrete cat into the top half of the window.

The glass shattered in a very loud and satisfying manner. I picked shards of glass out of the window frame. Once it was safe to reach in, I unlocked the window--grateful the alarm wasn't activated--and slid the window open.

The next problem was that the window was still too high and not wide enough for me to climb in feet first. I would have to go through face first, which meant a drop of about four and a half feet on the other side. Oh, well ... in for a penny, in for a pound.

I removed the planter sitting on the window sill along with my large bottle of Vita Bath (Original Spring Green Scent) and stuck my head through.

Fifty-four inches never looked so far. Especially since I would be landing on hard ceramic tile ... head first.

Making like a lizard moving down a wall, I slowly edged through: head, shoulders, chest, waist. I was VERY grateful for the privacy fence behind me. I didn't want to think about the rear view I was offering the world.

Once my hips made it through, I was over-balanced and things speeded up. I tumbled, tucking my head into my chest as I rolled.

Touchdown was painful. I heard a crack which I believe was my left thumb. Somehow my nightgown tore in multiple places, and the tops of my bare feet scraped across the bricks outside the window. I also cut my forehead and scratched my chin on the stray bits of glass on the floor.

But I was inside. I lay on the floor, assessing my injuries while Bob The Cat licked my face. He had been quite frantic watching my assault on his home from the hallway.

I suspected I'd broken my thumb but, like Scarlett O'Hara, decided to worry about it later. I washed my hands and face, put on a warm flannel nightgown, took some Motrin, and went to bed.

When I woke, my thumb was still painful and pretty swollen, but I've broken fingers before. It didn't hurt as much as some have, and I still had a window to fix. The weatherman said the temp would be 39 degrees overnight.

I measured the window: 21" x 16 1/8". Headed to Home Depot, which no longer cuts glass. Grrrr. Went to Lowe's where a teenage boy cut three different panes before he got one right. Came home, slapped the window in--perfect. In less than an hour, I had caulked the window and cleaned up the mess in the bathroom.

Still have to address the extra key situation. The only window left for me to break on the rear of the house is the bottom half of that bathroom window ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hey, Rush Limbaugh!!!

I hear you're taking swipes at the First Lady's diet and waist size.

I haven't heard that low-level commentary since I was back in the elementary schoolyard ... when I was maybe eight or nine years old.

Not only were your comments juvenile, they said a lot about how hard up you are for material. Against the ropes, are you? {LOL}

And I'm not going to take the low road I would have taken when I was eight years old. Back then, I would have laughed and said something about the pot and the kettle.

It's frightening how far my Republican Party has sunk into the mud. Sarah Palin's mocking breast milk and here you are, right down there with her.

Yuck! I'm going to take a shower.

If you can't argue ideas, don't get into the debate.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tools of Change 2011

Last week from Monday to Wednesday (February 14th thru 16th) the Tools of Change for Publishing 2011 took place at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers. This was the fifth year that O'Reilly Media presented the TOC.

I headed over to YouTube to see which presentations are offered and found a variety of interviews.

Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker. Here is the ~30 minute talk titled "The Publishing Pie: An Authors View":

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired did a ~26-minute presentation called "Better than Free: How Value is Generated in a Free Copy World" here:

Kassia Krozser of BookSquare was interviewed. Here's the ~6-minute video:

You can find other interviews and presentations on YouTube by entering TOC 2011 in the search window.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Meet Jane Yellowrock

A couple of years ago, I read Skinwalker, the first book in an urban fantasy series by author Faith Hunter.

The protagonist of Skinwalker is Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee shape-changer. Hunter's novels have some similarities to Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series. Both have Native-American skinwalkers as protagonists. Both heroines believe they may be the last of their kind.

But there are differences, too. Mercy is an auto mechanic who owns her own shop in the Pacific Northwest where she was raised by werewolves. Jane grew up in a orphan home and works as a killer-for-hire of rogue vampires.

Mercy changes into a coyote, but Jane is able to change into other forms if she has an object to help her suss out the creature's DNA. Her main form is that of Beast, a mountain lion who shares her body. When Beast is ascendant, the plot is told from her point-of-view in an untutored voice with her memories and sensations.

In Skinwalker, Jane is hired by New Orleans' vampire council to hunt down and kill a vampire serial killer. We meet a number of interesting characters: Molly, Jane's best friend who just happens to be a witch; Katie of Katie's Ladies brothel; Leo Pellissier, the Master Vampire of New Orleans; George Dumas, Leo's prime blood servant; and Rick LaFleur, a NO police detective.

I found the Beast sections of Skinwalker a little tiring, but liked Jane and the story enough that I purchased the second book in the series, Blood Cross.

In Blood Cross, Jane is still in New Orleans and has been hired by Leo to hunt down and kill a rogue vampire who is creating new, unchained vampires. Newly-made vampires are insane during their first ten years of existence and must be kept chained to protect both them and humankind.

Either Blood Cross was superior to the earlier book, or I'd gotten more comfortable with the Beast's POV because I thoroughly enjoyed Jane's new outing. I added Hunter's name to the calendar which I keep to track the forthcoming books of a short list of authors.

This past week I read Mercy Blade, the third in the Jane Yellowrock series.

Hunter just keeps getting better. I thought this was the best book of the three. The novel is nuanced: Hunter expands on her world-building, and Jane learns more of her heritage.

Vampires and witches are the only creatures who have "come out" of the supernatural closet. In Mercy Blade, Jane is still on retainer to Leo, and werewolves are about to come out to humans. When they do so, they allege Leo is a murderer.

Leo phones Jane with this instruction: "A persona non grata is encroaching upon my territory ... Meet with him, find out what he knows, and then send him packing." Booger's Scoot is the biker bar on the west bank where Jane goes to find this "persona non grata" and encounters a pack of very unfriendly werewolves.

The action is fast and furious, and I'm recommending this book and the series.