Cat Mysteries

001[with apologies for two cat postings in a row]

There’s an old saying that you never really own a cat. It’s the kind of adage that’s usually attributed to Mark Twain, whether he actually said it or not. Whoever originated it, I’m finding it becoming truer every day. Even after adopting four cats, fostering many others, and feeding a multitude of strays that have come to our front doorstep and gone, cats continue to be a mystery to me. Sometimes happy mysteries, sometimes sad ones.

Louise. Louise is the saddest mystery of all. She belonged to a family on the street behind our house, but her territory was broad and her mien friendly. She would walk right into anyone’s house. Sometimes we would come home and find her in the house, because the housekeepers had assumed her comfort in walking in meant that she actually lived here.

But in truth, Louise yearned to be an only cat. Her original owners (and I hesitate to say original, because they told us they had adopted her from the humane society) had other cats and dogs, and she disdained that. Sometimes, in an attempt to educate her as to her true home, I would pick her up, drive around the corner, and drop her off in front of her house – only to find her waiting in my driveway by the time I’d driven back home. Our next-door neighbors eventually ended up adopting her, and that suited her fine. Us too – we loved her as one of our own.

But there came a day when our neighbors were on vacation and I was feeding her. Louise was sitting on the fence between our houses when Monica went to work, as if to see her off. And that was the last that anyone ever saw of her.

That was almost a year ago. Several other cats disappeared around the same time, as if someone had driven into the neighborhood and scooped them up for some nefarious deed, but in checking with the other owners, Louise seemed to be the only one friendly enough to walk up to a stranger and expect petting and nothing else. One owner postulated that, given the drought, coyotes may have wandered down a nearby creek in search of food, but I couldn’t imagine a coyote in the neighborhood in the harsh light of day. Louise’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Zachary. A couple of years ago, we adopted a litter of three feral kittens. Our previous experience with ferals led us to believe that if you socialized them to humans early enough, they would become loving and affectionate. This hasn’t happened. One of the ferals, Rose, is still petrified of us, although she accepts food and treats (we’ve called in a cat behaviorist, and that seems to be helping). Another one, Max, will accept petting, but only as long as we’re lying down in bed; otherwise, we’re apparently big monsters more likely to torture him. And don’t even try to pick him up.

Zachary is the biggest mystery of the three. Earlier this year, when the weather was nice, we opened the door for them to enjoy the yard. Big mistake. Having been born in a yard, they had no interest in coming back in. Nor were they enticed by traps. I had to concoct Rube Goldberg-like rope contraptions and lie in wait in the dark to lure them back in the house, and then yank the door closed before they could sprint back out. This worked with all three, until the day that I accidentally failed to secure the door to the garage securely, and left the outside garage door slightly raised so that another stray (see below) could go in and out. Zachary discovered my error and hightailed it outside. Since then, all the ruses I’d previously used have been unsuccessful.

We gave up on trying to lure him in in the dead of night, and now leave food for him so he knows that this is his home. I’ve seen him come to the food, take a bite, look around furtively for predators, and eat some more. What mystifies us is that he’s obviously afraid of the outdoors, and yet he prefers it to the terrors of living with us. It’s enough to give you a complex when you give a creature food, water, warmth, and comfort, and he rejects it cavalierly.

Billy. I’ve saved the happy mystery for last. That’s Billy. Billy showed up in the backyard one day last December, curiously strolling through in search of who knows what. Of course we put out food, assuming he was lost and that we would reunite him with his owner.

But Billy was an enigma from day one. For one thing, his ear was tipped. That meant he had been in a feral colony at one time, trapped, neutered, and then released. The eartip indicates for any subsequent colony manager that there’s no need to take the cat in to be fixed again; if it finds its way into a trap, it can be released immediately. But Billy meowed – loudly. Feral cats don’t meow because their mommies train them not to, in order to avoid attracting human attention. Billy was absent from cat school that day.

There’s more. If Billy is indeed a feral, he’s the least accomplished one I’ve ever met. He comes when he’s called, with a loping, excited gait. He loves being cuddled. He will wrap himself around your neck like a soft boa and purr loud enough to drown out the television.

So where did he come from? How did he end up in our yard? I know of no feral colonies nearby. If he had a home, what idiot allowed this affectionate little guy to run off without putting up “lost cat” posters? We took him to the vet and discovered he had a microchip. We called the registry and the woman on the phone sadly revealed that no one had ever registered him. She thought that meant we would take him to a shelter. Little did she know.

He is frankly the kind of kitty we expected when we adopted the litter of three, the kind that appreciates going from being homeless and scrabbling for food to having a mom and dad who love him and always provides treats and a warm place to sleep. As I write this, he’s curled up in a cat bed on my desk (see photograph), sound asleep, his past a mystery but his future assured.

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Take Your Serendipity Where You Find It

Fluffy Tiletuxedo tile

This is a trivial story with a happy ending. It is meant to be no more than that, just a flower poking from the caked ground that the world seems to be today. Sometimes that’s all you get, and it’s important to be grateful.

At an art and wine festival back in the 20th century, I ran across a vendor selling decorative tiles and house numbers. The deal was that if you bought the appropriate numbers for your house and the decorative tiles – showing flowers, animals, more than I can remember now – the vendor would put them together into a wooden frame that you could hang on the front of your house.

Among the tiles the vendor was selling were representations of both an orange tabby cat and a black-and-white cat. Our first cats were an orange tabby named Tuxedo and a black-and-white cat named Fluffy. So of course I paid the money and soon had an indication on the front of our first townhouse that we were proud owners of two rascally felines.

Time passed.

We outgrew the townhouse and its confining backyard, and did something that still seems rather silly: we packed up all of our belongings and moved them less than a mile away, except to a bigger house that had more room for more cats. We moved everything except the house numbers, which I never thought of taking down from the front of the garage. But the woman who bought the townhouse from us didn’t think about taking them down either, and whenever we passed by, we could see the images of our beloved kitties still guarding their first home.

More time passed.

The woman who bought the townhouse moved away. Having been in our “new house” more than ten years, we decided it was time to paint the exterior. But the trim color we chose was dark, and the house numbers we had were almost indistinguishable. In the hopes of finding the equivalent to the cat tiles on our townhouse, I took to the Internet, without success.

The name of that art-and-wine festival vendor was lost to history. I felt thwarted, until I remembered that the original tiles I’d bought were still less than a mile away … assuming the new owner hadn’t thought about them anymore than the two previous owners. I drove back to the old townhouse.

And that’s when serendipity reigned. It was mid-afternoon, but the new owner was there waiting for the phone repairman. He recognized my name because junk mail of ours still arrived in his mailbox. I told him that I’d be happy to buy him new house numbers if I could have the old ones, and he said, “My wife hates cats. Let me get new house numbers, and then you can have the old ones.” It was one of those things that was apparently just meant to be.

So eleven years after we moved away, and even more years after I first found the tiles, I bought new house numbers and asked my far-more-talented-at-woodworking-than-me brother-in-law to fashion a new wooden frame for the tiles on the “new house.” And there they hang today.

Though Tuxedo and Fluffy have long ago gone to the Rainbow Bridge, their images still guard the entrance to our home, just as they did so many years ago.

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In The City That Might Have Been Home

Very few of my friends know this, but my first choice for a college education wasn’t even in California. I don’t remember when or how I first discovered Boston’s Emerson College, but knowing that it had both a theatre and a journalism department made me think it was perfect for me. Another little-known tidbit from the past: I was torn between writing and acting before I realized that I was much better at one than the other.

My plans were thwarted when my mother informed me she had no intention of allowing me go back east for school. It wasn’t a question of money – she did, after all, eventually spring for a Stanford education, an outcome for which I deserve no sympathy. She suspected that, just as she and my father had come out to California and loved it, I would go back to Boston and fall in love with its history, seasons, architecture, and pick a reason.

And she was right.

Monica and I spent last week in Boston, site of this year’s American College of Physicians Conference. Before the conference began, we rode the T, wandered through Harvard Yard, shopped at Lord & Taylor, ate lobster and Boston cream pie – all the usual touristy things. As Californians, we also took long, luxuriant showers – something we can’t do at home. And while Monica was stuck in the convention center, learning, I went out and rode the T again. Yes, I was having lunch with clients, but I was also thinking about how much I loved that town.

Would I have loved it so much this past winter, which apparently only ended just last week? One colleague told me that he still had snow in his backyard. I don’t know. I do know that the biggest problem I have with snow is driving in it, and with a transportation system like the T, who needs a car? I love descending underground, buying a day pass, and flitting from green line to red line to silver line like a subterranean butterfly. I love the old brick buildings with the promenades down the middle of the street. I love the cobblestone streets. I love lobster.

It would have been better, perhaps, for me to be away from my family, to have established myself sooner – to have actually not acquiesced to my mother’s wishes because though they might have been what was right for her, it might not have been right for me. I would have probably ended up in the computer publishing industry, just as I did in the west. That might have turned out the same. But my friends, my memories, my wife, my life – all that would have been different. Perhaps not better, but certainly different.

None of that happened, of course, and I never will know a life of discovering Boston as a college student. But I wonder about the guy who would have lived that life and wish I could sit down with him for a long chat.




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Is It Time To Go?

On one of the most memorable mornings of my teen-age life, I climbed a small hill in eastern Wyoming with a group of friends to watch the sun rise over the plain. On the way back down, traipsing across a golf course, we were accosted by a sheriff’s deputy informing us that we were trespassing. Our explanation that we were from California seemed to mollify him, as if he were quite confident that everyone was California was either very special or very crazy.

Some years after that, when I was still caught up in the fantasy that the only real publishing jobs were in New York City, I was visiting a recruiter there. I gave my resume – my name and California address prominently at the top – to the receptionist, and a few minutes later, the recruiter burst into the lobby to greet me. Her first words were not “hello” but “Why would anyone want to leave Palo Alto?”

And so my life progressed. I eventually did leave Palo Alto, but only because housing was cheaper ten miles away. I’m still back there – for dinner, for shopping, for dentistry – enough that it feels comfortable. And California did eventually develop its own publishing industry, which helped finance that house in Silicon Valley.

Not only that, but California has always remained a special place. The California Dream may have morphed from the days of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – now the dream is not just a job, but a job with a potential IPO attached. But people still flock here with stars in their eyes – the population has increased by more than 4 percent, from 37.2 million to 38.8 million between 2010 and 2014.

And I have always loved being able to say I was a native Californian. Who wouldn’t want to have grown up in paradise, with Disneyland on one side, Yosemite on the other, and an endless beach on the third?

But as time goes on, I am less confident. Here’s why:

Boomtown. As Silicon Valley keeps reinventing itself, from a mecca of defense to electronics to computers to software to biotech to social media and other apps that only make sense to 25-year-olds, it just keeps getting more popular. That’s fine for housing prices (assuming you already have one), but the resulting traffic, financial impact on service workers, and the diminishing comfort and joy begins to take its toll.

Nature. The worst drought that most of us have lived through was in 1977, the year I graduated from college. (I solved that problem by moving to Seattle, where water fountains on the street gushed constantly.) The snowpack in 1977 was measured at a scarily low 27 inches; when they went back to measure the same place last week, there was no snow. If it doesn’t start raining soon – and it shows no sign of doing so – it’s going to be like that Twilight Zone episode where the earth starts moving closer to the sun.

Government. One of the side effects of the drought is that rain doesn’t wash nasty stuff out of the air as often. Here in the Bay Area, we already have to suffer through what are known as “spare the air” days when we can’t use the fireplace. Unfortunately, they’re usually the days you’d most like to use the fireplace. Now what is derisively referred to as “the nanny state” is talking about going a step further, and banning fireplaces altogether. If this stupid law passes, no one will be able to sell or rent a domicile without removing the fireplace or installing a gas insert. Even as a liberal, I find that wholly intrusive.

And so, after all these years, I’m beginning to wonder … is it time to go? Has California finally played out its wonder? What’s the point of paradise if the result is road rage, aggravation, and the inability to take a shower?

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Southern Discomfort

Dancing in the Streets during San Telmo Street Fair

Dancing in the Streets during San Telmo Street Fair

I wrote a couple of weeks ago of our adventures in Antarctica. Given our somewhat lukewarm reaction to this destination that sits on so many others’ bucket lists, you may wonder how we ended up there. To be honest, it wasn’t our idea. It was the desire of friends who – between the time we made our reservations and the time of our departure – had the vagaries of life intervene so decisively that they were unable to go.

Though we had been told by Grand Circle Travel, our tour company, that purchasing trip insurance would allow us to cancel the trip “even if we just changed our minds,” it turned out that little piece of verbiage was a blatant falsehood. There is a slight possibility that that canard may have colored our reaction to the rest of the trip.

But there was a saving grace, and that was, prior to boarding the ship in Tierra del Fuego, several days in Buenos Aires. Monica had always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. We had friends who’d honeymooned in Buenos Aires and loved it. Touching down in South America would represent my sixth continent, and Antarctica would be my seventh. But as Harry Anderson used to say on Night Court, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The trouble really started at our hotel, which shall remain nameless. Given the cost of our Antarctica cruise, we naturally assumed that the associated hotel prior to the voyage would be of equivalent value. Suffice to say, it was one of those places that aspired to be a five-star hotel, and claim to be a five-star hotel, but only if it was actually five stars on a scale of ten.

For instance, we had never stayed at a five-star hotel that didn’t have bellmen. Or a concierge. Or a ramp to roll luggage up. We’d never encountered a swimming pool that was too small to be a pool and too big to be a hot tub. We’d never seen a system that required you to insert your room key into a slot to get the lights and the air conditioning to work (this is apparently increasingly common, but signage indicating this requirement for visitors from countries like the U.S. that waste electricity with impunity would have been helpful).

Nor had we stayed at a hotel where no one ever picked up the telephone. Every time we had a problem, we had to get in the elevator and head downstairs. This is where a concierge really would have helped. This is not to say that the staff wasn’t helpful once you were standing face-to-face with them, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to see one staffer lift a ringing telephone and then immediately drop it back into the cradle when he was helping me.

Buenos Aires also took a little getting used to. When I’ve traveled internationally in the past, I’d been accustomed to calling the Bank of America several weeks ahead and ordering foreign currency. You can’t do that with Argentine pesos, because in addition to dealing with mysterious prosecutorial deaths and other pesky political issues, the government doesn’t seem to be able to get a handle on its currency’s volatility. You can’t change dollars into pesos until you’re actually in Argentina.

This requirement was eased by the fact that most entities that deal with tourists are happy to accept American dollars. Except when they don’t. After dealing with multiple cab drivers that accepted dollars, I felt badly for the one who didn’t, because I hadn’t exchanged any money for pesos. He finally reluctantly accepted a five dollar bill.

Now, you’d think that you’d be able to do what most people do when they need cash – visit an ATM. Too bad no one at our tour operator thought to suggest that we update our credit cards to the latest technology, which requires both a PIN and a chip to get money out of most ATMs outside the United States (the U.S. is not at the forefront of everything, it turns out). Multiple weekend visits to multiple vestibules using multiple cards all resulted in the same message: You cannot use this card in this ATM.

Buenos Aires was also incredibly humid, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the bodegas selling bottled water were among those merchants that refused to accept American dollars. Even the prospects of tourists melting into puddles on their doorsteps wouldn’t persuade them.

I eventually did what most people do, which is ask the front desk at the hotel for a recommendation of a black market dealer in pesos – whose exchange rate, it turns out for still murky reasons, was much better than the one I would have gotten walking into a bank. Once I had a little local currency in my wallet, I felt much better.

But on the whole, Buenos Aires was very much a mixed bag. We loved the wide streets, but we were disconcerted by the graffiti and the fact that it looked like – when it came to throwing garbage into dumpsters – people simply aimed and hoped. The result had the effect of looking like a dumpster had exploded.

We enjoyed some wonderful walking tours, led by a local woman we contacted through Vayable, a clearinghouse for such experts. We enjoyed the San Telmo street fair (see photo).

The rampant tributes to Eva Peron were slightly disconcerting. We even visited her burial site in La Recoleta, a cemetery known for its above-ground crypts. Imagine walking around New York City and seeing images of Eleanor Roosevelt everywhere you turned. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, never had her own musical, although time will tell.

We saw a tango performance. We figured out how to use the subway. My high school Spanish came back with more accuracy than I ever would have expected. We found multiple Starbucks.

But ultimately, I have to say that the next time I have the hankering to visit a city with good food, wide boulevards, architecture derived from both French and Spanish influences, above-ground cemeteries, and sweltering humidity, I’m just going to New Orleans.

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That Noise You Just Heard Was The First Chink In Hillary’s Inevitability

Oops. A lot of people in the Democratic party (and probably some in the Republican party too) had expected that come January 20, 2016, Hillary Clinton would be on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., while Chief Justice John Roberts swore her in through gritted teeth. I know I did.

But this e-mail thing – eeehhh (not sure how to type a cross “ick” and “yeah”). The fact that she used personal e-mail for government business. We were riding on a fantasy balloon, thinking that maybe she’s different than he is, maybe she’s really not one of those people who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. We wanted to think that Clinton II would be different than Clinton I because she really is smarter than he is.

Now, Clinton herself has managed to put more than a hint of doubt into people’s minds about what kind of politician she is. Here’s why.

No one understands Benghazi – what happened, what went wrong, and why. The Republicans’ attempts to discredit her on this have failed because there’s so much murk surrounding it. It’s too easy for the Republicans to say black and the Democrats to say, well, no, if you look at it this way, gray.

But everyone understands e-mail. Don’t forget, my real job is writing about technology. A big component of that is security and audit. What should be in e-mail, what shouldn’t be in e-mail, how long should they be archived, how do you search them in an e-discovery effort to uncover what happened and when.

Everyone in corporate America understands there are rules about e-mail. They have IT staff banging on them constantly about passwords and paper trails and how they have to clean out their in-box because their e-mail is hogging too many megabytes. So when Clinton suddenly, completely, extravagantly – especially as a member of an administration yammering about “transparency” – ignores rules that everyone can relate to, it really makes people stop and wonder if she’s just as secretive and corrupt and opaque as other candidates contemplating the presidency (Chris Christie, please call your office – your E-ZPass bill is overdue).

Clinton has never been my favorite candidate. Even as a Californian, I contributed to the New York Senate campaign of Rick Lazio, her opponent when she initially ran. But I admired her poise when Barack Obama beat her. I admired her commitment to the country when she accepted the Secretary of State nomination. I was completely won over when I saw her speak to a software vendor’s user conference last year.

One of my editors asked me to go to see what, if anything, Clinton actually knew about the topic of “software-defined networking.” She immediately admitted that she knew absolutely nothing. She stopped short of saying that the only reason she was there was for the $150,000 speaking fee. But … she spoke for 30 minutes on a variety of topics of interest to the tech audience: immigration, intellectual property, net neutrality, Internet security. She was eloquent. She was articulate.

Thinking back to times I’d seen Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden get tangled up in the simplest sentence structures and eventually dying from exhaustion, watching Clinton was a breath of fresh air. I was impressed.

Then the CEO of the company that invited her segued to the Q&A. Again, more eloquence. They wrapped up with what he called “the lightning round” (a term I found humorous since Password has been off the air since 1989). Among the rapid-fire questions were her favorite book, her favorite movie, her favorite food. This was the best part – even as Bill has slimmed down, Hillary had clearly gained weight. She was wearing a dress that looked like she was wearing a coat. But with a great deal of self-deprecation, she said, “Well, as you can see, I have a lot of favorite foods.”

That’s what we like to see in politicians – a sense of humanity, humility. I was won over.

But now, what has she done? In a world where it’s almost impossible for a Democrat to lose a Presidential election, because of the solid Democratic majorities in urban areas, she’s managed to plant a seed of doubt about that humanity and humility in everybody’s mind. It was already in the Republicans’ mind, but now, with this, I suspect it’s seeping into independents’ minds as well. How does someone so smart chip a chink in her own armor of inevitability?

Granted, the Republicans may still nominate a right-wing fruitcake, or worse, a moderate masquerading through the primaries as a right-wing fruitcake. But the sad part is that Hillary Clinton has, in a horribly self-inflicted, bungling way, managed to do to herself what the Republicans have been trying to do for years – make people wonder about what kind of a politician she really is.

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Won’t You Find It In Your Heart To Help?

Friends, your neighbors are suffering. They may act like they are bearing up well, but in reality, they are fearful. Fearful and tired and worried. Many of them in the west have not the rain for weeks. Many of them in the east have not seen the sun for weeks. Some of them are overwhelmed by the prospect of so much sun on so many consecutive days. Others are overwhelmed by the prospect of so much snow on so many consecutive days. They are not sure how much more they can stand. Many are at the breaking point.

Now is the time to act. Now is the time to step up and ease their suffering.

Those of you in the west, please take an empty watertight container – a jar, a jug, a soda bottle – and clean it thoroughly. Then ship the empty container to a friend in the East, with return postage.

Those of you in the east, please take the watertight container and pack it full of snow. Then ship it back to your friend in the west. It will melt along the way. The mailmen will wonder how a package that got mailed with so little postage is now really heavy, but they’ll figure that their counterparts back east are morons or they wouldn’t be spending their lives tramping through snow that’s piled higher than they are tall.

Those of you in the west, take the container to your nearest local reservoir and pour it in.

If we all step up, we can exact astonishing social and hydraulic change. The level of the snow in the east will go down. The level of the reservoirs in the west will go up. The people of the east can walk their streets again without fear of avalanche. The people of the west can swim in their pools again without fear of rationing. The tradeoff may not seem fair, but so be it.

Think of the transcontinental goodwill we can inspire. We will be a nation united in solving each other’s problems. We will engender a higher level of tolerance and understanding. No longer will westerners want to reach through the phone lines on conference calls and strangle their eastern colleagues bragging about how hardy they are. No longer will easterners want to reach through the phone lines on conference calls and strangle their western colleagues bragging about driving to work with the top down.

We will remember anew that we are one nation, one commonwealth, one country, working together to solve each other’s most pressing problems.

Won’t YOU find it in your heart to help?


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