Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Birds And Cats

First, a confession: I am the previous owner of several outdoor cats. I believed I was doing the right thing. My cats were neutered. They had food, shelter, and regular vet visits. They were free to climb trees and chase butterflies. I loved to watch them stalking in the garden like miniature tigers.

When the first one, black Grendel, came back from one of his nights on the town with one ear and half his face torn off, I rushed him to the vet, who managed to sew him back together. Soon after that, Grendel went away again and never came back.

The next one, an orange kitten named Gato, somehow broke his leg while playing in the garden. The vet put it in a cast. When the cast came off, Gato went exploring, and we never saw him again.

Mitsou was an exquisite chocolate-point Siamese. Her head and face were round, a throwback to the days before anorexic-looking, sunken-cheeked cats reminiscent of runway models became fashionable. In love with her looks, and tired of losing cats, I kept her indoors, where she ruled the household, especially the dogs, for seventeen years.

I adopted Pascal, a black and white kitten who had been abandoned by his mother, before his eyes opened. He had to be fed every two hours, so I put him in a cardboard box and took him to the office. After each feeding I would take him to the bathroom where I would enact a mother cat’s attentions by wiping his nether regions with a washcloth dipped in warm water.

As Pascal grew, and grew, so did his affection for me. I could not sit down without huge, rangy Pascal flinging himself on top of me, purring and kneading and drooling, eyes half-closed in bliss. If I had left the back door open, I doubt that he would have chosen to leave my side. But I didn’t. Pascal was an indoor cat.

But then we moved to a suburb of DC and I had a long commute, which meant that we had to install a dog door so the dog could let himself out to the fenced-in yard during the day, which also meant that Pascal became an indoor-outdoor cat.

He had a grand time, and became an expert hunter of moles, something that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him. His record was nine moles in a single evening, which he laid in a row next to my lawn chair while I sat watching the sunset.

But within six months he was dead--poisoned, we think, by licking antifreeze off somebody’s driveway.

You see where this is going?

While many an indoor cat lives as long as twenty years, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is two to three years. Needless to say, my present top-predator-in-residence, Telemann, lives strictly indoors.

But Telemann’s safety is only half the reason why I keep him in the house. The other half is the welfare of the innocent chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and woodpeckers who come to our feeders.

There is no doubt in my mind that, despite his exquisite diet of raw turkey, given five minutes in the yard sweet Telemann would turn into a bird-killing machine. According to the Bird Conservancy, in the U.S. cats kill approximately 2.4 BILLION birds a year. This makes cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds (human-caused because we’re the ones who let the cats outside).

With a pane of glass between them, however, Telemann and my birds coexist peacefully. It didn’t take long for the birds to figure out that the kitten swatting at them just inches away from the feeder was prevented by some invisible magic from catching them.

For Telemann, the birds outside the window are just another joy in the joy-filled life that we strive to provide for him. When they are eating, he leaps from windowsill to windowsill to get the best view, looking fierce and waving his tail like a tiger on the hunt.

And then there are the squirrels, gray like him and almost his size, bold enough to “touch” noses through the glass. They are the big game, the zebras and wildebeest of Telemann’s savannas.

Is Telemann frustrated because he can’t crunch on the neck of a titmouse, or sever a squirrel’s spine? Probably. It is in Telemann’s nature to enjoy killing things, just as it is in mine to enjoy eating the flesh of lobsters boiled alive. But I don’t, and I survive the deprivation, and so does he. Telemann and I already have almost too much pleasure in our lives.

But the birds, those little harmless beautiful bits of Nature, are threatened everywhere by the loss of woods and fields and bugs and wildflowers. They suffer from sudden and bizarre weather events. And they are eaten by the small tigers that we love. They need all the help they can get. 

So Telemann does his bit by staying inside, and I do mine every morning, when I clean his litter box.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Camels, Not Reindeer

In my Catalan childhood Christmas was a time of manger scenes (the manger left empty until midnight Mass, when the long-awaited  Baby was placed in it); ancient carols (some of them funny, having to do with misbehaving shepherds); and my favorite dessert, turrons d’Alicant, the almond nougat bars that required a hammer to break them into individual portions.

Gifts were out of the question until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, el dia dels Reis. The night before, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar guided by a star came swaying atop their camels to leave gifts on the balconies of apartment houses all over Barcelona.

As the days after Christmas passed—the feast of the Holy Innocents, those poor babies slaughtered by paranoid Herod; the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr--my anticipation grew. It was the culmination of a months’ long pregnancy-like state, which began every autumn with my spotting the doll of my dreams in the window of a toy shop.

Like a lover, I would bring up this doll in every conversation, point her out to my mother whenever we passed the toy store, and meditate on her every night before going to sleep. Finally, towards the end of Advent, I would write my letter to the three Kings, humbly imploring them to bring me my longed-for child.

After that, it was out of my hands, and all I could do was pray and wait until the night of January 5th, when the ceremony of “the laying of the trays” took place.

There were two of these trays, one for the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, and one for our own balcony. First, we went to my grandparents.  After my grandmother finished entreating my father not to kill himself by working so hard; my father’s younger sisters asked his opinion about some musical performance they’d just heard on the radio; and everyone had a glass of sherry “because it was such a cold night,” I was buttoned into my stiff winter coat and my grandfather flung open the balcony.

My father would lead me out on the balcony and point toward the heavens. “You see that bright star up there? That, I am almost certain, is the star of the Three Kings. It is especially bright to help the camels find our balconies tonight.”

My little black-clad grandmother (she had just lost her eldest son to cancer and malnutrition following the Spanish Civil War) would totter in on her high heels, bearing the tray, which held a dish with three pieces of nougat for the Magi and another with three leaves of lettuce for the camels. She handed me the tray, I set it down carefully on the balcony floor, and we all knelt while my grandfather led us in an Our Father.

Back in our apartment, my parents and I laid out another tray and, after another Our Father, I was sent to bed. There I would lie in a fever of excitement only equaled by what I experienced the night before my daughters’ births. Would the Reis really come, and would I find my doll, my child, on one of those trays in the morning?

Despite the anticipation, I always managed to fall asleep. But one year—I must have been five or six—I awoke in the dark and saw, standing at the foot of my bed, none other than Balthasar, el rei moro, the Moorish king, the most exotic of the three. He had a thin face and dark brown skin, and wore a turban and robe of a fine, scintillating green material. I still remember the look of otherworldly kindness in his eyes.

Although my night visitation only happened once, in the morning there was always the doll. One year it was a rubber doll with a hole in her mouth and another between her thighs. I could pour water out of a tiny baby bottle into the mouth and then experience the thrill of changing diapers. Another year it was a Black doll, dressed in ruffled white organdy. And one year there were two dolls, Pituco and Pituca, with arms and legs made of a spongy material that could be bent in all directions.
Those dolls were, without exception, infant or toddler dolls on which I could vent my maternal instincts and practice for what everyone anticipated would be my future career. If someone had handed me a doll with breasts and hips and feet in tiny high-heeled shoes I wouldn’t have known what to do with her. The last thing that Barbie looks like she needs is a mother.

The year I turned eleven we were living in Ecuador. That Christmas there were no grandparents, no turrons or manger scenes.  No laying of trays on January 5th. I was growing faster than my mother could let down the hems of my dresses, and puberty was around the corner. My mother thought it was time to have a talk.

 “You do realize,” she said, “that the gifts of the Magi actually come from the parents?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know. Of course.”

But I was appalled. Appalled that that world of ceremony, mystery, and feverish anticipation--and also the world in which I was la nena, the center of a watchful, loving circle of grandparents and aunts and uncles--had suddenly vanished forever.

 And I was embarrassed, of course, that I was eleven years old and starting to grow breasts and my mother had had to break the news about the Magi. But I was a backward kid, reluctant to grow up. I wonder now if my mother felt sad to dash my illusions, or if she was irritated by my stubborn naivety.

Either way, she did what she had to do, and I’m grateful she spoke up. But around this time of year I always wonder what it would be like to wake up in the night and once again see the Moorish King standing at the foot of my bed.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bisou in Winter

It was 8F the other morning, so before taking my little red Cavalier Bisou out for a walk I dressed her for the weather. By the time I had zipped her into her coat and stuffed her limp feet into her booties and fastened the Velcro straps around her ankles and loosened them so she wouldn’t get gangrene and then tightened them again so they’d stay on, twenty minutes had elapsed.

Once we got outside, she felt so encumbered by all that gear that she just wanted to go back indoors.

This is why on days when it is too cold/snowy/icy/rainy I exercise Bisou indoors. It is one of the  joys of having a small dog: you can give her a real workout even in a space as small as our cottage. After fifteen minutes of running and jumping after her ball, Bisou considers herself well entertained.

I get a little workout too, doing forward bends to pick up the ball and perfecting my throws with both right and left arms, avoiding hitting the glass-fronted china cabinet and my spouse’s head. And the cat Telemann, who if Bisou and I went for a walk would be left staring forlornly out the window, also gets a workout during these sessions.

Sometimes he runs after the ball along with Bisou. Or he perches on the back of the sofa and bats at the ball as it flies past him. But what he likes best is to hide behind one of the side doors. Then, as Bisou runs past him, he leaps out like Nureyev and executes a grand jeté over her back.

When we’re done, Bisou flings herself panting on the sofa, where I join her with my book. Soon we hear a thunderous purr and Telemann is upon us, literally, kissing and nosing and kneading both of us until he finally dozes off.

These are dark days, in more ways than one, but the weight of two contented animals on my lap grounds me and keeps me from obsessing fruitlessly about the state of the planet. 2017 has not been an encouraging year, and its waning moments are as soul bruising as its beginning.

How to get through this bleak midwinter?  Let's try to be kind and generous, and then let us find comfort in the good things at hand: the chickadee at the suet, the geranium on the sill, and the certain knowledge that tomorrow the earth, bless her, will once again tilt her face toward the sun.

Happy solstice, everyone!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How I Write

I write on a recliner, with a laptop on a lap desk on my lap. Because my little red dog, Bisou, thinks that whenever I'm out of sight I cease to exist, and her mission is to keep me alive by being with me at all times, when I bought the recliner I made sure that the seat was wide enough to accommodate both me and her. It was a tight fit, but it worked.

But that was before the arrival of Telemann, the cat. As a kitten, he would squeeze himself between Bisou and my hip and take a nap while I wrote. Now, at ten months,  he's a ten-pound mass of assertive affection, and he too thinks that I cease to exist if he can't see me, which means that he has to be with me at all times.

So whenever I settle down to write, with Bisou next to me and the computer on my lap, he jumps up and insinuates himself in the space between my, um, breasts and the keyboard. He wiggles around a bit, taps my cheek with his little white paw, rolls onto his back and falls asleep.

His head rests on my right elbow, and his hind legs are splayed on my left elbow. It's hard for me to reach the keyboard, but I really don't want to wake him up because that will mean another session of feline lovemaking, with much purring and cheek patting and nose licking. So I hold my elbows out, and try to see the screen over his four white paws, which are sticking up in the air and occasionally twitching. Needless to say, if it weren't for spell-checker, you wouldn't be able to understand a word of what I write.

You know how writers are: we look for any excuse to get away from the blank page or screen. A cup of coffee or an extra sweater suddenly become urgent necessities. In my case, however, that means getting out from under Telemann, and the thirstier, colder, antsier I get, the more deeply he sleeps. I shift my hips and move my right elbow tentatively, but he is a dead weight, draped across me like those lead aprons they put on you when you're getting an x-ray.

If I somehow manage to get both the computer and the cat off my lap, and get that cup of coffee, I'll have to face it all again, the purring, the greeting, the turning around and settling down and going back to sleep. Plus, with all this going on,I'll probably spill hot coffee on poor innocent Bisou, or the computer, or Telemann himself.

So in the end I decide to forego the coffee and the extra sweater, and just keep writing.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


There is rage in the air these days, the rage of women. Young women, old women, tall/short/fat/thin/gorgeous/ordinary-looking women are telling their stories and shaking their fists and demanding justice. And because in this culture sweetness and passivity have always been expected of women, their rage when it emerges is doubly scary--kind of like having your pet bunny turn and bare its teeth at you.

The Greeks knew about female fury. Their mythology is full of over-the-top angry women like Medea and Clytemnestra. They even had goddesses who specialized in rage and vengeance, the Furies. Three of them, because one wasn't enough.

Outside of Greek mythology there haven't been many models for female anger, so we're making it up as we go along, from pussy hats and marches to pointing fingers at sexual harassers. And the latter are toppling like nine-pins, "good" guys along with bad.

Et tu Garrison, Al, John C.? But this is not a time to play favorites.

Remember Trump’s reaction to the accusations against Roy Moore, "He says it didn't happen. You have to listen to him, also"? Until practically yesterday, that was the response that any woman complaining of harassment would have expected to hear. Now, for the first time in human history, the victims are being listened to. They’ve even been named “Persons of the Year” by Time.

It is a kind of miracle, but will it last?

After rampaging through Ancient Greece, the Furies faded into the mists of time. And if we aren’t careful, so will the labors of today’s Furies, those who marched and protested and risked everything to speak out. The only way to ensure that this achievement isn’t lost is to put masses of women in positions of power, in the boardroom and the village council, the courts and the Congress.

Fortunately (thank Gaia, Artemis, Isis, Astarte, Sophia, and the Blessed Virgin Mary), masses of women these days are running for office, or planning to. All we have to do is elect them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Were They Thinking?

If you were a plump middle-aged person with a comb-over, wouldn't you think twice about disrobing in front of a colleague, a job applicant, or an impressionable teenager? The photos of sexual harassers that decorate the news these days show that none of these men is physically attractive. If Michelangelo's David is a 10, Harvey Weinstein et al., on a good day, score a 2.

These guys must, at some point, have stood in front of a mirror, but apparently they didn't let what they saw hold them back.You have to admire their confidence, their optimism, their touching certainty that they would be adored, no matter how they looked or what they did. In fact many of them, in self defense, claim that the encounters were consensual, for what woman could fail to be enraptured by the sight of their nakedness?

Perhaps this blissful self-assurance was the fault of an overly fond  mother, who thought that whatever her little boy did was a sign of genius. But there I go, blaming the  woman.

One possible explanation is that these gruesome Peter Pans lack a trait that even some higher animals possess: theory of mind, the ability to put oneself in the other's place and imagine what she is thinking. Enveloped in a rosy fog of infant narcissism, they literally cannot see the woman in front of them. The root of the disrobing and the groping and the sexual jokes and insults is the inability, or the refusal, to see the desired object as not just a scaffolding for T&A, but as a fellow human, with ideas, tastes, and especially distastes, of her own.

But there is an even darker possibility: that these men do see the women they harass as real persons, but ones to be degraded and humiliated, precisely because they are female.

I go back and forth between these two explanations. If the first is correct, a good set of laws and penalties plus education might bring about a culture shift. But what if the second explanation is the right one? In the face of such hatred, what response can we even begin to imagine?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Temples of the Holy Ghost/Occasions of Sin

In the 1960's, long before bra straps became a fashion statement, we girls used to sew little tabs on the inside shoulder seams of our dresses to keep bra straps out of sight. To hide our incipient cleavage we used a dickey--a triangular piece of cloth that snapped into the center of a too-revealing neckline. At prom time in our Catholic high school, we were warned that if we showed up in a gown with spaghetti straps (or, God forbid, strapless), we would be sent back home. Our bodies were Temples of the Holy Ghost, but unless we were ever watchful, they could also be Occasions of Sin. 
1962 Senior Prom. Note the sin-avoiding straps on my dress.
 It was a difficult message for our hormone-marinated brains to disentangle because those same bodies, as our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and the entire culture never ceased to remind us, were our passport to the main if not the only source of personal fulfillment for women: marriage and motherhood.

Beauty and modesty were supposed to coexist in an eternally precarious equilibrium. Neglect your looks for a single day and you risked passing unnoticed by the Brylcreem-anointed boy who might have been your ticket to happiness. Disregard modesty and who knew what might happen? We certainly didn't, because it was never spelled out--nobody said the words pregnancy, or venereal disease, or rape as they might apply to us. But the consequences of immodesty were all the more alarming for being unspoken.

It was drilled into us that we had to make the most of whatever portion of beauty Providence had bestowed on us. Hair was supremely important. It had to balloon off the scalp to give us the wide-eyed, neotenic look that made us seem vulnerable and attractive. This required nightly work with brush rollers--I used to sleep with twenty-seven of them digging into my scalp--many cans of spray, and prayers for dry, windless weather.

Our skin gave us fits, being liable to erupt in pimples when we least wanted it to, despite copious applications of Clearasil. But breasts constituted the ultimate dilemma. From the movies--Sophia Loren! Marilyn Monroe! Jayne Mansfield!--we figured that they were a major asset, a helpful tool in luring the father of our future children. Yet because they also had the potential to provoke unbridled lust, they needed to be completely covered, although they could be hinted at by the artful positioning of darts in our bodices.

Legs were less of a liability, though we worried that our nylons would develop runs, a disgrace comparable to having our slip show. Until the blessed invention of pantyhose, stockings were held up by garter belts, an item that has since acquired fetishistic status but that I remember mostly as giving me severe pain in the lower back.

Sacred vessels on the one hand, agents of disgrace on the other, our bodies came to feel like two-edged swords, or UXBs that might go off unpredictably. It is a miracle that we managed to learn anything in school, worried as we were that the "rats" might be showing under the upper layers of our hair, or that the middle button on our uniform blouse might have popped open.

And yet we did learn, despite all the distractions, and ours became the first generation to aspire to having both meaningful work and a guy. And when the pill, the pantyhose, and the second wave of feminism burst simultaneously on the scene a few years later, we put away our dickeys, our garter belts and sometimes even our bras, and believed, at least for a while, that we could have it all.