Regarding Slasher and his sad demise (part II)

Over the years, my feisty cat Slasher slowed significantly, for which my five-year-old daughter was particularly grateful.  They had spent her first four and a half years as sworn enemies, but now, too old to hunt or even make it to the top bunk, he stayed in and spent the whole night on Josie’s bed. Sometimes, the whole day as well.  Those two were suddenly inseparable.

By late February, we knew we had an old, ailing cat, but we didn’t realize he was dying, so we headed to paradise for a family vacation. By the second night away, the catsitter was calling.  Slasher wasn’t getting up much at all anymore.  She brought his water dish onto Josie’s bed and called me to express concern.  I spent the next few days anxiously touring volcanoes or pretending to relax on the beach…then hurrying back to the rental to phone the sitter and sob.  Poor Hannah.  This was not the first time a pet tried to kick the bucket on her watch.  She stopped by twice a day and called with updates.  Since he was 18 with few systems functioning properly, we all knew what was coming.  We just wanted him to hold on until we got there.

When we arrived home, sandy and bleary-eyed, it was four in the morning.  I saw immediately that he was skin and bones, lying in a pool of urine.  I stripped the bed and cleaned him up as best I could.  I tucked Josie in fresh sheets and made a pile of baby blankets beside her for Slasher.  In the morning, I tried to move him to a cozy, waterproof spot downstairs where I could comfort him and make vet calls at the same time, but when he collapsed trying to drag himself back to Josie’s bed, I relented.

The next couple of days are a sad, sad blur.  Crying while driving.  Crying in the grocery store.  Crying at NPR stories, at the funnies, and anytime someone asked, “how are you?”  Acknowledging his distaste for the vet, we had him put to sleep at home, while we held him and stroked him.  No one could get his eyes to close, though, so he continued to stare at me in his scrappy, crusty way.  For days.

In my house, it takes quite a while to prepare for an appropriate burial.  Photographs must be taken.  A coffin must be made…and decorated…and further embellished with sparkly items.  A grave marker is necessary, as is the name plaque.  This all takes time, as you can imagine.  Time when said dead pet remains lying around our house.  I noticed that this seemed to cause other parents some anxiety, so I started to tell them about the dead cat before the playdate, and reassure them about proper handwashing, et cetera.  That only made things worse.

Where are you keeping him?” one mother asked, completely perplexed.  As I was answering, I realized that letting your child sleep with a dead cat was a little unorthodox. Believe it or not, it didn’t feel anywhere near as creepy as that must sound.  He was swaddled in his favorite little blanket, in a shallow wooden box, with a couple of cat toys and a fairly peaceful expression.  Except for the staring, I mean.  Josie couldn’t sleep without him there, and Slasher wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, so it just made sense at the time.  I knew it wasn’t a long-term plan.  I think Josie got a couple of nights with him after he was sealed in his coffin, as well, while we prepared for the burial, but then we had to transition her to a stuffed cat, and lots of extra bedtime stories.  “Who will bury me when I die?” she asked the night after we finally laid him to rest.  I couldn’t answer.

We still miss that guy like crazy, but there’s a new cat now.  Elsie plays fetch and sleeps on my head.  She squawks and perches on my shoulder and often does that Halloween cat pose with fur on end and back humped into the air. She’s worming her way into my heart, too, but there’s no telling if she’ll schmooze and head to the bars like her predecessor.  Just got her outdoor shots and her tags, though, so we’ll know soon enough.

Regarding Slasher

I once begged a ride home from Death Valley and the guy driving kept asking: “Wait. Where do you live? Which cross street? Where on that block? Which side of the street?” Since we were still about ten hours from the city, I started getting a little nervous. Finally he said, “Then YOU must know that cat Slasher.” ”Well, yeah,” I said, surprised. ”He’s my cat.” Ed had to pull over and call his wife. ”You’ll NEVER BELIEVE this!” he yelled into his phone. ”I JUST MET SLASHER’S OWNER!”

You may think I am exaggerating, but it was not uncommon for complete strangers to greet my cat by name as we passed by, while ignoring me altogether.  That furry guy knew everyone.  He hung out in folks’ garages while they tinkered, and lolled on their stoops on sunny afternoons.  He knew where to go for tuna and extra love, and I tried not to get too jealous when I saw him coming out of other houses.  He was quite a gentleman, after all, taking me on walks, spending time with the elderly, and escorting one woman home from public transport every evening. He was even mentioned in the student guidebook for the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine:  ”Absolutely no pets allowed, except guide dogs and Slasher.” Meanwhile, we got phone calls from bars and restaurants that he frequented, often late at night.  ”Do you have a cat named Slasher?” they would ask.  “That depends,” my husband would say.  ”What’s his tab?”

Not everyone loved him, though. As evidence, he was missing quite a bit of both ears. German Shepherds feared him. Dog walkers couldn’t stand him. And if you had a cat allergy, he made sure to bite your ankles and shed all over you.  Some lawyer actually threatened some vague sort of legal action, claiming that he had terrorized her and her dog and then followed them “in attack mode.” While I found that letter endlessly entertaining and hung it on the fridge, even I had to admit a healthy fear of him, fueled mostly by our frequent trips to the vet for his hyperthyroidism.  Have you ever tried to lovingly shove a ferocious beast into the side door of a cat carrier?  Slasher would get so worked up clawing my arm for half an hour that he never failed to excrete a giant, malodorous turd on the way to the vet.  I assume this was an expression of dismay regarding my disrespectful behavior.  Thank goodness I discovered a top-loading cat carrier before losing a limb.

Love or hate, you had to admit he was an exceptional cat, and until March 2, I had the honor of catering to his every need.

Here’s where the story gets sad and a bit demented.  In my defense, there is a lot of gray area in parenting, and sometimes it’s hard to decide which path will lead to a greater need for therapy.  Tune in tomorrow…

What I have learned from the Tenderloin

Having two children and a husband who travels frequently, I don’t get out much.  The other day, I looked at where I was and what I was doing and had a complete conniption.  I turned to the woman next to me and demanded, “When and how did I turn into a f*cking soccer mom?!”  She may have laughed weakly before changing the subject to PTA memos, or box top collections, or some other topic to fuel my identity crisis.  Thank god one of the soccer dads started bringing comfortable chairs and adult beverages to practice.  That has really made my descent into personal hell more tolerable.

In light of this realization, I have been making a concerted effort to get out into the wide world once in a while.  A few days ago, that brought me to the Tenderloin.  There are definitely a few things to be learned from the seedy parts of San Francisco.

1.  Do not tell a gigantic, inebriated man that his Rottweiler is cute.

Though I’ve always assumed that, luckily I didn’t have to be the one to test the theory out. I did have to cross the street, however.  What a ruckus.

2.  The Tenderloin is a good place to be invisible.

I saw a man hobbling horribly on a crutch suddenly tuck it under his arm and ride off on a bicycle.  No one batted an eye.  If that sort of behavior passes under the radar, I imagine no one would notice if you fixed your bra-strap, or took care of that annoying crusty bit flapping around your left nostril.  Hell, you could have a whole garden variety melt-down there, and you’d blend right in.  It’s cheaper than therapy.

3.  Fancy shmancy organic-type Whole Paycheck markets are just as ridiculously expensive in economically under-resourced parts of town.

While I am thankful to find something besides del Taco for my snack emergencies, how do these places stay in business?  Where are the tasty food trucks?  The tamale lady? Happy hour?  That’s right.  Not here.  Might be time to head to Tu Lan.  Definitely don’t use the bathroom, but the food is tasty and cheap, and if I remember correctly, Julia Child used to slum it here when she wasn’t partying in her limo.  I’ve heard some stories.

4.  Seedy parts of town foster creativity.

I saw the most pathetically amusing and/or revolting painting of my entire life hanging in a place of prominence in a loin-y gallery.  Imagine a tiny, cluttered venue–art crammed into every cranny–devoting an entire wall to one enormous canvas.  Mostly it is a giant color field of oil paint, with a shit-brown lump at the bottom, and a little white unicorn in the the center.  I think the unicorn was crying; I might have made that part up, though.  At the top, in swirly, girly hand lettering, it says:  “I’ll never find true love…” followed by a very melancholic curlicue.  That thing is burned on my retinas.  It was awesome.  I dare you to find something like that at 49 Geary.

5.  In dire times, the first thing to go are your dreams for the future.

For some reason, I decided it would be cool to look at people’s old funky stuff.  I meandered into some pawn shops.  Have you noticed?  All of the pawn shops are clustered around the courthouse.  I had never thought about that before.  And guess what people hock to get out of jail?  Musical instruments and engagement rings.  Almost exclusively.  It is deeply depressing.  Why not get rid of…I don’t know…some technological gadget? A Blackberry?  The wii?  Or a TV?  Why not guns?  Get rid of that thing!  It didn’t help you out this time, did it?  And where you’re going, they’ll probably take it away at check-in. But no.  Love and music.

I suppose there are a lot of other lessons to be learned out there, but right now, I need to get some healthy snacks together for practice today.  And a big jug of wine.

5 topics I’m afraid to write about

My unabridged list is too long and unwieldy to share–even with myself–but after a minimal amount of thinking, here are five topics I’m afraid to write about:

1.  This one.

Seriously.  Anytime I sit down and stare at a blank page, I am terrified.  What if this time, NOTHING COMES OUT?  It could happen.  It happened yesterday, as a matter of fact, and there is absolutely no guarantee that today will be any different.

2.  Things I don’t know much about.

This is an alarmingly large category.  I really wish I had started a blog a few years ago when I knew everything.

3.  Really Big Topics.

Some people seem to get a thrill from tackling the big topics:  abortion, gun control, peace in the Middle East, that sort of thing.  Not me.  The other day, Scott Berkun prompted us Daily Post-ers to write about capital punishment, and that was the beginning of my writer’s block.  It’s not that I don’t have an opinion.  I do, and maybe that is all that’s necessary to start spewing, but I am always second-guessing myself.  These debates have been raging for decades; what could I possibly add to the conversation that would turn the tide?

4.  Cats.

As topic for any sort of discourse, pets dwell at the bottom of the barrel–right on top of the weather.  I used to read Jon Carrell on a regular basis back when I had a two-hour commute, and every time he wrote a column on his cat I thought, “This poor guy had no idea what to write today.”  On the other hand, I enjoy reading posts about pets when they are particularly amusing and well-written, and I do have quite a few seriously deranged pet stories once I screw up the courage.  You may be dubious.  Here’s something to whet your palate:  Guess which dead pet I allowed my five-year-old to sleep with?

5.  Love.

This is a freaking intense topic.  And complicated.  Jim Goldberg made me create a book about love one time and it was absolute garbage.  An embarrassment.  Probably the worst thing I’ve ever written and photographed.  I think it is nearly impossible to try to capture love without seeming annoying or cloying.  Or cynical.  Love has been watered down for the masses into a Hallmark-y mess.  Love is not just the doey-eyed rantings of horny teenagers.  But still, I am a great believer.  And I am thankful that there are books out there like The Year of Magical Thinking and The Age of Grief that start to get it right.  I’m just not ready for the big time yet.

A few things I wish I’d learned the easy way (part two)

     If you are wondering what this post is about and why it is called part two, it would be swell if you took a look at yesterday’s post.  Of course, I could just tell you that I’m passing on a few things I’ve discovered the hard way so you don’t have to.  I could even mention that on Sunday, I discussed poor vision, dumb cats, and boobs…but I think I’ll let you figure it all out for yourself.
4.  Avoiding conflict is not a long-term solution.
     Don’t get me wrong.  This is the secret to surviving the holidays and prolonged car trips.  I should know.  My family used to drive across the country every year with six people, a cat, and a very bad dog crammed into the car.  I learned how to get changed without flashing truckers, how to read inappropriate books without attracting any attention, and most importantly, how to keep my mouth shut.  Most of this I gleaned from watching my sister do it all wrong.
     One heated altercation ended abruptly when she rolled down the window of the Gran Torino and sat in the sill clinging to the car-top carrier.  Dad didn’t even slow down.  As we careened through the mountains with her ass dangling off the side of a cliff, I made a mental note:  never do what she had done.  I figured, why risk life and limb just to make your lousy point?  What good is making your parents so mad that they won’t pull over to make peace and/or save your crappy teenage life? It’s not like she got her way or anything.  (F.Y.I.:  She’s alive!  And she’s not crappy; I meant that being a teenager feels kind of crappy sometimes).
     While the lesson here seems obvious now–avoid confrontation while piled in the family truckster–I processed this lesson in a much broader sense.  I came to the unfortunate conclusion that conflict was to be avoided at all costs and inany situation.  Though I was probably only 7 or 8 at the time, it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to re-evaluate.
     There are plenty of times when I still suck it up.  I continue to do whatever is necessary to endure five days in the car–like buy a plane ticket instead.  What I am saying is that over a long period of time, avoiding conflict is bad for the digestive system, the quality of life, and the very relationships you are trying to protect.  If you are afraid that broaching a topic might drive a wedge between you and someone you love, remember that your silence has already formed a wedge.  Avoiding the truth ensures that real connection cannot occur.
     Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

A few things I wish I’d learned the easy way (part one)

     You’re probably smart.  Well, you can read, anyway.  That’s something.  You probably listened to your mother, finished what you started, and paid your bills on time.  Or maybe you’re a dog owner.  The disciplined kind.  You kennel Fido at night so no one needs to worry about life and limb.  In that case, you may find the information below completely superfluous.  Feel free to add a few lessons of your own to the list for my benefit.  But for those of you who insist on learning things the hard way like me, I thought I would contribute my two cents over the next couple of days.  Perhaps it will save you some trouble.
     I’ll start with a simple one.
1.  Black cats are hard to see at night.
     Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But it didn’t occur to me until after a number of very unfortunate incidents.  I bet my cat wishes I had figured this one out faster as well.  Maybe folks who are near-sighted should not be allowed to adopt black cats.  Still, it might behoove her to avoid lolling on the stairs or around the base of the toilet after dark.
     I would make a snide comment about Darwinism here except that she is often quite charming, and reasonably intelligent about other matters–like how to get the mouse cage off the top shelf, for example.
2.  Projecting self-confidence may have less to do with Dale Carnegie and more to do with proper carriage.  
     Despite years of ballet and constant admonishment from my mother, my terrible posture endures.  I naturally slump and slide my neck out like a chicken, and though it drives me crazy, I cannot seem to fix it. When I do actively focus on alignment it makes me sound and feel more confident, and it is amazing how people respond.  My theory is that this is the physical side of “acting as if.” (My apologies.  That phrase bugs the crap out of me, too.)
     What seemed to get good posture off the back burner was when my exasperated yoga teacher finally said:  “It’s not about pulling your shoulders down or back; it’s about leading with your sternum.”  And as I was trying to internalize her words, I realized that what she was suggesting actually feels like sticking your boobs out into the great unknown.  What’s more, it works.  Everything magically falls into place.  Seriously, if you have them, it’s worth a try.
     Unfortunately, I have also discovered some truth in “the bigger, the better,” and the first time I stood up straight and wore a wonderbra simultaneously, the response was a little frightening.  My jokes were funnier, my comments carried more weight.  Both men and women complimented me profusely and asked, “What’s different, though?  Did you change your hair?”  That was all a bit depressing, so I shelved that wiry contraption, but I guess it’s useful information to have in case of an emergency.
     Extra bonus of better posture:  fewer lectures from the cranky chiropractor.
     Downside:  It’s hard for me to concentrate on what I’m saying while working so hard to align the spine.  Now I look smarter, but sound insipid.  Oh, well.  See #3.
3.  Deep down we are all a bit shallow.
Now I should probably parent a little.  More tomorrow.

Looking for the Cure

It’s pretty sad that I am already experiencing writer’s block a mere 3 days into the Post-a-Day Challenge.  Luckily, I happened upon this nugget of wisdom as I was fishing for inspiration on other folks’ blogs:  “Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.  Just write poorly.  Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.” -Seth Godin

While Godin does have a point, I’m not completely convinced it’s necessary to write poorly in public–and I have a hunch that my readers might have some reservations as well.  Consequently, I will take this moment to write a bunch of crap in my little notebook instead.  You’re welcome.

Mastering the Art of Fine

I came from a family where excerpts of Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette were read with alarming frequency at the dining table.  We must have been slow learners.  Though it seems unlikely Amy would have condoned the fork jabbing I got for interrupting my father, I was certainly programmed to follow the rules.  Consequently, I know what I’m supposed to say when people ask me how I am.  But why ask at all if no one really expects a meaningful answer?

There are those awkward moments, of course–standing next to someone too lurky, quick-witted, or dashing for me to concentrate properly–when I find myself saying, “How are you?”as desperate filler.  In such instances, even if I might possibly care about the answer, most likely I cannot even hear it.  I am too busy plotting how to weasel out of my clammy-handed corner without drawing too much attention to myself.

But usually I genuinely want to know.  Therefore I feel some sort of moral imperative to answer frankly.  This can be a very bad idea.

The other day, I was really in the abyss, but I decided to drag myself out for some Culture and Shmoozing.  I have no clue why this seemed important in my state, but I got a sitter and shoved myself into something fancy-ish.  Hurtling across town, I practiced, “Fine.  And you?” in a relaxed and self-confident manner.  I knew I was going to see someone who intimidates me terribly.  Someone who makes me sweat but could totally change my life if I could just get her attention and assistance.  My plan was to have a casual chat, perhaps fawn just enough, and then hit her up for a wee bit of advice and support.

The moment of truth.  She turned and smiled when she saw me.  “How are things going?” she asked.  Guess what?  Not well.  My oldest child is depressed and anxious.  A good friend recently betrayed me.  My projects have completely stalled, my husband is out of town, and everything at home is in meltdown mode.  To top it off, I threw my back out vomiting repeatedly while dangling from the driver’s seat.  (My apologies to the kind people on Reposa Street).  I looked at her and started having an out-of-body sort of moment.  I saw myself manage a weak smile.

“It’s a mixed bag,” I squeaked before disappearing into the crowd.  I figure that’s progress.

Don’t get me started

What is wrong with how public education is structured for kids?

I don’t know where to start with this question.  The original structure of the school day was devised to prepare people for factory work–hence the length of the subject periods, regular breaks, that sort of thing.  Accordingly, as a teacher I had to schedule a certain number of MINUTES PER DAY for Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, et cetera.  Nevermind that good investigations, projects, and discussions do NOT conform to those sorts of timeframes, and that it is much more engaging and meaningful to learn to read through the arts or social studies…or learn to write and do math in order to complete scientific explorations.  The results of segregated subjects and truncated work times are often superficial and interfere with real learning.  How can we ever go deep in any particular direction?

About a decade ago, a study (the TIMMS report) revealed that in Japanese schools, 9 and 10-year-olds were exposed to an average of four topics in mathematics over the course of an entire YEAR of instruction.  That means that children might spend months exploring fractions in a meaningful and comprehensive way.  Furthermore, teachers had release time on a daily basis to plan together and discuss how to reach children who might be struggling, as well as those who needed more of a challenge.  What a concept–teachers could work together to hone their skills.  In contrast, a fourth grader in U.S. schools was expected to cover 35 or 40 topics in the same amount of time, and there was NO paid time to collaborate with colleagues.  Here’s your teaching guide, buddy.  Sink or swim. Oof.  There is nothing lonelier than the first year of teaching.

To top it off, No Child Left Behind forced us to focus an egregious amount of our time and energy on TEST TAKING, particularly in “at-risk” schools.  I was told to throw out most subjects and focus on the very basics of language arts and math.  Seriously.  Oh well.  Funding had already been cut for all of the “extras” anyway: art, music, physical education went by the wayside.  What is the goal here?  Test-taking drones?  To be clear, visual, performing arts, P.E. are all still included in the state standards, they just are not supported by funding, resources, teacher training programs and personnel.  And no one is thinking about your school’s play or integrated visual arts projects when they peruse the standardized test scores in the paper.

To make matters worse, every few years the textbook industry fuels an overhaul and we have to introduce a new math or language arts curriculum:  buy all new texts and supporting materials, get new training, and then, just as we start to reach proficiency with any particular set of materials, we start over with new ones.  Furthermore, the pendulum swings wildly between the pedagogy du jour, when the most obvious truth is that not all children learn by the same mechanism, and we need an approach which addresses many different learning styles.

A friend of mine–a teacher and a scientist–mentioned to me that the way we teach science is all backwards.  “To prepare students to be scientists,”  he mused, “we need to set out questions without knowing the answers.  THAT’S what science in the world is all about.  Pose the questions–better yet, solicit the questions–and investigate together.”  Nevermind, if we set aside time for science, we won’t meet the API goals for this year anyway.

Over My Head

Well, it looks like I may have lost my mind.  Decided to sign up for Post a Day to MAKE myself start writing on a regular basis…mainly because there are only 30 more days until Novel Writing Month!  November’s going to be a fucking self-imposed nightmare, so apparently I’m going to try and stress myself out all through October and use up all of my good ideas before the real writing needs to happen.