Living with a cat

A few months old, in her perch by the window

 

For much of my life, dogs were the preferred pet. Because most of my life I lived in apartments, I only had a few dogs over the years. My second wife wanted a cat, so I brought one home from the SPCA. We realized he had been born around the Autumnal equinox, so we named him Autumn. He was a blonde tabby, exceptionally clever and playful I even taught him to fetch. When we divorced my ex-wife kept him. I was called when he needed to go to the vet, and when he eventually died, I buried him.

My third wife was a dog person, when we met she had a rottweiler. She wasn’t exactly afraid of the dog, but she feared he would one day attack me. One night we were playing and he snarled, and she decided to have him euthanized. I do not believe I was ever in danger, but fear is not a rational thing. She had a deep scar on her face from the dog, and didn’t understand that dogs could snarl during play.

We went a few years without a pet, then we started to see mice in our apartment. Emma was unusually frightened by mice. She genuinely believed they were taunting her. One day she called me at work, from atop a chair, to tell me to come home immediately because the mouse was laughing at her. I arrived home a few hours later and she was still on the chair. This is a woman who threw a meat cleaver at me once. I called the landlord and got permission to have a cat.

A woman who frequented the restaurant where Emma cooked rescued cats, and had just found a litter in a box next to the highway in Delaware. We chose a little tortoiseshell furball, and Emma decided to name her Autumn because she looked like a pile of leaves. When we took Autumn, she fit in the palm of my hand. Today she weighs fifteen pounds.

Autumn proved to be an excellent mouser, although she didn’t always clean up after herself. I found a dried carcass under the sofa, and one time she entered the bedroom with one in her mouth, holding it by the tail. At first we thought it was one of her play mice, then she casually flipped her head, throwing the mouse onto the bed.

Autumn is a cave cat, she likes to hide in small spaces. When she was little she would climb under the covers. She has always slept with me, at first on my chest, then between my legs (try turning over with a ten pound cat on top of the covers between your legs), now at my feet. When we get in bed she follows me into the room, and once I’m settled she jumps up and finds a place to lie against me. I don’t know precisely which year we got Autumn, it must have been around 2005, making her about fourteen now. She bonded strongly to Emma, who was home most of the time, and Emma loved Autumn possibly more than she loved me. Autumn would hide whenever we had guests, one time when a home nurse was administering an IV of Methylprednisolone we heard a muffled “meow” from the sofa, Autumn was hiding inside. When Emma was preparing to leave the hospital for home hospice, all she could talk about was sleeping in her own bed with Autumn. She didn’t make it home, and with the first grieving visitor Autumn came out to the guests.

Since then she has moved with me to Princeton, to live with my new family and their cats. Rascal and Leroy were large males, used to living on the street. I once saw Rascal casually walk across the street to block the path of a bulldog walking down that side. The two males let Autumn know it was their house, and were rarely friendly to her. When we all moved to another house it was Autumn who was the first to explore every nook and cranny while the boys stayed huddled in the cat room. They accepted her as an equal.

Autumn has seen several women pass through my door, first Emma, then Lieve, then a couple of girlfriends, and now Sam. Sam was not an animal person at all, but she has come to adore Autumn. It is comforting to have another human to occupy Autumn, I am always the one who administers medicine and takes her to the vet, so at times she doesn’t trust me much.

One thing I have taught Autumn to do is whisper. Sam didn’t believe cats could whisper, and was amazed to see her do it on command. She “guards” me, according to cat body language folks; standing next to me and facing away. When I come out of the WC, there she will be standing guard. Following my TBI she rarely left my side. My psychiatrist wrote a letter identifying Autumn as my support cat, which came in handy when we moved to a no pets building.

Autumn provides a great deal of emotional support for me. I cannot consider losing her. I can not. But she is sick, and I have been forced to consider life without her. She started vomiting in October, so I took her to the vet, who did blood tests and X-rays and gave her anti=nausea meds. The vomiting returned after the meds wore off, so we tried it again, more tests and meds, this time when it returned the frequency had increased to more than once a day. The vet recommended an ultrasound, so we took her for that and they found a thickening of her intestinal wall, which could indicate irritable bowel syndrome, or lymphoma. To determine which it is, they want to do biopsies. I took her for the appointment, but the feline internist didn’t want to do the biopsies without more tests, so she ran those. When the results are in we will talk about biopsies. In the interim, we’re keeping Autumn on the anti-nausea meds.

The question that flashed by was “how much do you want to spend on a cat?” Autumn is far more than just a cat, and it really isn’t costing that much money. Yes, I’ve spent about $2000 so far and the biopsies will run closer to $3000, but in her lifetime she has cost me very little. Vets, food, and litter probably run about $250 a year, so an additional $5000 amortized over fourteen years slightly more than doubles that amount. My greatest fear is she might have a bad reaction to the anesthesia. Biopsy would be either through endoscopy or surgery, the internist seems to prefer surgery, but to me that is too big of a risk. I prefer the endoscopy.

I never thought she would live forever, I just didn’t think about her mortality at all. I am fairly sure she’ll pull through this, I just hope whatever meds she has to take taste good. She hates the anti-nausea pills, even when I crush them and dilute them with a can of food.

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I’m Batman

A few weeks ago, a friend brought up a program he had watched which stated you can tell everything you need to know about a person by their favorite super heroes. Yes, middle aged folks still have favorite super heroes. My favorite is Batman. To me, Batman is the epitome of duality. Bruce Wayne by day, Batman by night, both working towards the same goals.

 

Duality is central to my life. Sometimes I display it on purpose, other times it just occurs naturally. I have an androgynous personality, some tests identify me as male, others as female; a recent survey actually determined I was “undifferentiated – androgynous.” I was born and spent formative years in Texas, then moved to California, arriving in the bay area just in time for the Summer of Love. The cultures could not have been more different, I love them both. I was a peaceful little flower child who enlisted in the Air Force because I believed working in the Intelligence community would save lives. I embraced the duality, it works for me, most of my friends thought I had lost myself.

Following the superheroes conversation, along came Armed Forces Day, and in my group of Full Metal Jacket fans came the comments of millennials who failed to grasp the meaning of the film. Being millennials, they felt the need to lash out at other members, even the group itself, for failing to recognize what the film (made more than a decade before they were born about events from two decades prior to that) was about. It was about duality, children forced into the role of warrior. It was not necessarily an anti-war film, it was a war film, accurate in the effects of this duality on a range of personalities. In fact, the film resulted in increased enlistment. Being able to see more than one point of view is an advantage to those of us who embrace duality. Prior to the making of the film, near to the time reflected as I faced the possibility of conscription, I had a poster with a comment repeated in the film; “Join the Army, travel to exotic distant lands, meet exciting and unusual people…and kill them.”

A dark sense of humor is essential to dualism. The alternative is insanity. The rise of political correctness signaled the death of humor, dark humor is always the first target. I believe this speaks to almost all of the troubles of society, I had always heard that laughter is the best medicine, but cackling at the perceived weakness of others is not laughter. The dual mind sees absurdity standing hand in hand with necessity, laughter is the only sane response.

 

My bat, man 

 

The following week, I once again faced my inner bat. Clinging to a conduit in the hallway was a small (5 cm) red bat. I considered leaving it there, with the possibility he would never be noticed. Then I realized that when he woke up, he would have no way to escape, so I went back to capture him. Sam came out to watch, thinking I would need help mounting the step ladder to get close. My only caution to her was “I need you to stand here (2 meters away) and if he flies away just don’t freak out.” I have always been startled by people who are afraid of small animals, and if by chance she started screaming it would have drawn attention to the presence of the bat, which no doubt would have led to its demise. Everything went smoothly, the bat objected vocally to being moved but crawled into the coffee can I placed underneath it, I walked out to our balcony and released him. I think Sam was amazed that the little guy had such large wings, easily a 30cm wingspan. He stretched and glided into the woods.

At one time I was “Batman” for a group of communities outside Philadelphia, an Animal Control Officer, part “dog catcher” and part “Doctor Doolittle.” I would speak gently to animals and put them at ease, sometimes to capture them, sometimes to kill them. My acceptance of the duality of the position made it a positive experience. I earned the respect of every other member of the police department, not by being a tough guy, but by fulfilling my lifetime occupation of problem solver. Nothing was impossible, nothing required violence.

Most folks I meet cannot discern who I am, where I am from, what my motivations are. Pity, all they need to do is ask, I am the proverbial open book. Far too many people expect hidden agendas and deception, an honest and forthright person can hide in plain sight. Over the years I have never hidden my religious beliefs, but I have never insulted other religions, so most people think I share their beliefs. The other day Sam and I were on the balcony discussing the events of the year, and she mentioned how incredible it was I had found Dr. Wackym, who performed surgery on my inner ear. It was an indirect path, which allowed him time to arrive at the hospital where my neurosurgeon practices, who I asked for a referral just after he had arrived. Had I asked a month earlier he would not have been there, a month later and the waiting list would have been several months. Events in my life often work out that way, timing and connections. Sam, born Jewish and now a self described Hedge Witch, asked why I am so “lucky.” I told her. “Because my heart belongs to Jesus.” We don’t discuss religion often, she usually treats all religions with some level of disdain, I remain simple, direct, and devout.

As I welcome the return of my personality, clues to who I am come in waves, as these Batman/Duality clues have come. I am of the impression I was a gentle person, and I will be more so in the future. But I am still a warrior.

Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events

Days go by

Days turn into years, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

1 April 1999. April Fools day, a perfect choice for a wedding date for two people who were each married twice before. If, as Oscar Wilde had said, “Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience,” what are third marriages?

For Emma and I it was the triumph of passion over ego. There was not much we did not feel strongly about, for the most part we fell on the same sides of issues. There were a few things in which we found we held diametrically opposed viewpoints, but today, eighteen years and one brain injury later, I cannot recall anything to which we did not eventually find a peaceful resolution.

Our passions were intense. I recall meeting some friends at the winery a week before Emma and I met. I was in an unusually peaceful state, and Suzanne (there were five “Sues” at the winery, each addressed with a unique variant of the name) said “Blake must be with a new woman.” I smiled and shook my head “no.” I had no women in my life and was enjoying the freedom. I had just turned forty, and after a series of passionless relationships was happy to have nothing to complain about. She knew what I was looking for, Suzanne and I had talked about it so often she would drop into an imitation of John Lovitz as “Master Thespian” when she said “Passion!” The next week I took Emma on our first date, a Nouveau party at the winery. Suzanne saw us, and silently mouthed the word and thrust forth her hand. It was obvious from the moment Emma and I met.

Four months and two weeks later we married, another eleven years, three months and four days later I was holding Emma as she said “I can’t fight anymore” and stopped breathing. There was little I could do during those years other than to love her.

I truly did not believe I could continue without her. Depending on my state of cynicism I often believe I should not have tried. It has been six years and eight months since then; I remarried, divorced, and had a few relationships. My current girlfriend is similar to Emma in many ways, and radically different in many others. The passion is there. The ego is different, second generation American from Ukraine as opposed to Emma’s first generation American from Sicily, but they are both fierce.

This week, concluding with what would have been our eighteenth anniversary, I will be rebuilding Emma’s “shrine,” a glass case I prepared for her urn just after her death, which has been in a closet for the last six years. The spare bedroom at my new place will house both her shrine and her cat, Autumn. I was worried about keeping a cat in a “no pets” building, but there are provisions in the Fair Housing Act for therapy and support animals, and my doctors provided the required documentation. Autumn is all I have left of Emma, I suspect I will handle losing her much as I handled losing Emma.

As my memory has come into question, some memories seem stronger than ever. Weeks like this intensify Emma’s presence in my mind, although she is seldom distant from my heart. I picture her in her vision of heaven, with her mother and her first husband who she never stopped loving. My life has taken some strange turns of late, perhaps “stranger” would be more accurate; my life was never normal. I struggle to write, and recall that I started writing for the public for Emma. In the last year I have needed to redefine almost everything, Emma and Autumn have been my constants, my F if you will. After my injury Emma was heavily on my mind while little else was, as I prepare for cranial surgery reminders of her hospital experience surround me.

I don’t speak much now. Partially due to the effects of the SCD, partially due to my need to understand what everything, including my own thoughts, mean. Emma comes to me in the silence, and guides me towards light.

 

P3272402.JPG

Autumn, Therapy Cat

 

 

 

 

Life

I have not written in a month. A great deal has been happening, much of it beautiful, all of it fascinating. Someone else was making plans, I was living.

Today, 1 April, is the sixteenth anniversary of my wedding to Emma. So much has taken place since then, meeting her family, moving to South Philadelphia, discovering the mysteries of pancreatic cancer. Emma now watches over me from an urn on the shelf, having witnessed the five years of my life since her departure in relative silence. I would so like to hear her opinions.

After Emma left I retired, focusing on a life of writing, letting go of the stress of the world in which we had lived. You know me, the dreamer. I wrote a book, kept a daily blog going, learned a new language, and gained a score of pounds as I discovered Belgian beers.

New stresses were waiting around the corner. C’est la vie. This is, after all, where Emma wanted me to be, alive, doing what she could not. My retirement savings were designed for a solitary life in South Philadelphia, after watching them evaporate I find myself back in the workforce, writing less and less often, and once again single.

Today is also an intermediate step in the marriage I entered after Emma moved on. The divorce papers are being delivered, with which my current wife and I will attempt to convince the State of New Jersey to end our marriage. These are melancholy times, I do not have ill feelings towards my wife, in fact in many ways I still love her, but time and space never quite placed us on the same plane. It’s so much easier when your ex is the object of disgust, divorcing someone you love is counter intuitive.

Emma steps in to help again. I loved her, but I moved on. So again, I move on.

I had largely lost the desire to live alone, that has not changed. Other people have come into my life, one of them quite a bright star at the moment. I would like for that to develop into a relationship which would rival mine with Emma, but I have learned that promises are not always fulfilled. I have also learned that tomorrow is not even promised, so today is all I have. And today is far more interesting than I had expected it to be.

Which brings us to today, April Fool’s Day.

Emma and I were both the others third spouse. She had been widowed twice, we entered quoting Oscar Wilde, “Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” This being each of our third, April Fools day seemed a natural. She was supposed to out live me.

My friend used to love “practical jokes,” yet they were neither, usually just rude and crass. This was sad, because John was such a warm and loving family man and trusted friend. One year when he was at lunch I placed a “While you were out” note on his desk, saying a witness wanted him to call, the name was “Coati Mundi.” There was a phone number, that of the small mammal house at the Philadelphia Zoo. I happened to know the person who would answer the phone and hear him say “Hello, this is Detective Murphy, may I speak with Coati Mundi?”

Coatimundi, native to Brazil

Coatimundi, native to Brazil

 

They both laughed about it later. That’s what life is about. Being able to laugh about it later. Make it easier by laughing today. What purpose is served by any other action?

 

Laugh.

 

 

Humans made to order

I want to start his by saying I love science. I believe that through science we may understand more about life, and improve our lives.

I also need to say that blind faith in the goodness of “science” is foolish. The scientific method requires investigation, proof, and peer review. Science can be used for good and evil, Just a few quick examples:

The Chemist Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his work in synthesizing ammonia. His aim was to increase the availability of fertilizers for crops. He also worked on pesticides, using a cyanide derivative. Other uses of his work include the poison gas used in WW1 and Zyklon-b, the gas used to exterminate Jews by the NAZIs.

Gregor Mendel discovered the effects of genes. His work has been used to create monoclonal antibodies which can cure cancer. Hybrid crops produce more food, and can be resistant to pests, hybrid cattle survive in more extreme conditions and produce more beef. Knowing that a fetus has a genetic disease, or even is just the “wrong” sex, can allow for it being aborted.

Albert Einstein discovered the ratio of equivalency between mass and energy. His principles have been applied to advances in medical imaging and the production of clean, safe, energy. They have also been used to produce the most devastating weapons known to man.

Using these three men as examples, Today I am writing about genetic modifications.

A byproduct of science is that many people don’t understand it. “Radiation” even though it has many meanings and applications, means “radioactivity” in the minds of the public. “Nuclear”, meaning the center, or nucleus of a cell, is so associated with radioactivity that MNRI, or Magnetic Nuclear Resonance Imaging, in which the magnetic resonance of the nuclei of cells is imaged, changed its name to “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” or MRI. Mary Shelly’s portrayal of medical experimentation gone mad gave us Frankenstein, so that Chef Georges Perrier could refer to genetically modified food as “Frankenfood”.

Genetically modified food, in and of itself, is nothing to fear. We have been eating hybrids for a hundred years. It is the introduction of unnatural traits that causes fear. One strain of wheat crossed with another is nothing new, last week both strains were ingredients in different breads. A tobacco plant crossed with a firefly is a little scarier, blending plants and animals for consumption might affect our genes.

Firefly tobacco hybrid

Firefly tobacco hybrid

Monsanto, known for its “Adventure through inner space” ride at Disneyland and “House of the future” to my generation, also bears the legacy of Agent Orange. They are a chemical company well versed in public relations, now referring to themselves as a “sustainable agriculture company”. Not that I’m going to number each of them, but I’ll call that “Lie number one”. Their products are not only not sustainable, they are addictive, in that farmers must purchase the products every year.

While making a field fertile for corn or soybeans, it is also made fertile to weeds, which steal the nutrients from the desired crops. Following on the success of Agent Orange, Monsanto developed Roundup, herbicide extraordinaire. You might have some in your garage, it works great. It works so well, that it can end up damaging the very crops it’s supposed to be protecting. So Monsanto came up with a plan to genetically modify the crops so they would be resistant to Roundup. What better business model than to sell both the poison and the antidote?

These crops are not engineered to produce more or healthier food, they are designed to be resistant to a poison, so that more of that poison can be applied and enter the food chain (okay, the actual reason is to sell more poison, ending up in the food chain is a natural result). The point is, Monsanto is not in business for any other reason than to make money. The after effects of their products are of little or no concern to them. That doesn’t make them bad, it makes them capitalists.

You know that if you’re pregnant you shouldn’t smoke, and you should control your alcohol use. Certain drugs, even vitamins, should be avoided when pregnant. How about food? That’s right, the Roundup which is in your body affects your fetus. Your cell lines (or your partner’s) may have already been affected anyway. The solution? Stop eating. GMOs are in everything. You can try to avoid them, but the fact is corn, corn oil, corn syrup, and corn meal, is in almost everything you eat, and much of it is from GMO sources. The same applies to Soybeans, alfalfa, and wheat. If not directly in your food, it may be fed to the livestock you eat. You’re probably wearing GMO cotton.

Up until now I’ve been focusing on direct effects, your personal health. What about other species? Those that we might want to have around? Instead of reverse documenting (.1 mcg of roundup in a human relates to .007 zg in a honey bee), there is the direct evidence that these substances are severely toxic to insects. In fact, Monsanto’s Bt Corn (available at Walmart) is registered not as a food, but as an insecticide.

Just as we have observed with antibiotics, super weeds and super insects will evolve in the face of the rampant use of poisons. It is less likely that the tangential insects will rebound as well. Corn borers will evolve as long as there is corn, but what about honeybees and butterflies? What about the plants that honeybees pollinate, or the species that eat the butterflies? While focusing on the profits of Monsanto, the balance of ecology was overlooked.

Monsanto is a powerful corporate entity, and has managed to push through congress the “Farmer Assurance Provision”, also known as “The Monsanto Protection Act”. Understanding the fear of GMOs, Monsanto has fought hard and successfully to not label foods as being, or containing, GMOs. I always thought that pride in your work involved placing your name on it, apparently Monsanto isn’t terribly proud of their creations.

So after all that, we touch briefly on the title of the article. As we look at the relative complexity of the human genome compared to wheat, and the errors we have made in the laboratory with gene manipulation, why are we comfortable altering the genes in humans?

Beyond the moral questions of selecting a fetus based on it’s sex, is manipulating stem cells to create organs, or antibodies to fight diseases, or even designing children down to hair and eye colour wise?

Unexpected consequences is the history of genetic modifications, and there are people who seriously intend to try this on humans?

Perhaps the ultimate irony will be that genetically modified humans may only be able to survive on organically grown foods.

Christmas miracles

There are a number of reasons I’m writing this in July. One is because some recent debate has suggested that Jesus was born in July. There are for some unknown (though perhaps divinely inspired?) sales in America titled “Christmas in July”. And of course, when I first traveled to Belgium, my luggage took a different voyage, so that it was not until I returned in July that I was able to distribute Christmas gifts.

Miracles have no calendar, and there are many who would say that life, being a miracle in itself, happens everyday. There are certainly things that happen everyday that someone will call a miracle, even if it’s just finding their car keys.

C.S.Lewis said “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see”.

I think C.S.Lewis has it right. We tend not to notice the “everyday” miracles like the fact that life exists at all, or that we have the capability of understanding more than our individual needs. Our definition of special doesn’t include existence, but if we stand back for a moment to consider, it is quite amazing that everything, and by everything I mean everything, worked out so that life could exist through humanity surviving as long as it has to our parents meeting each other so that we as individuals could lose our car keys, and consider finding them a “miracle”. We don’t see the forest for the rock we stumble on.

So when I started to write this I was going to talk about waking up Christmas morning 2010 in the bedroom that had been my wife’s since she was a child and the first sight being a Russian Madonna icon, and my awareness of God’s presence. As things have worked out, other events have clouded my mind, or focused it. Two people I knew died this weekend, two very different people, and through their passing I am again reminded of God’s presence, and how at some level we are all the same.

Thomas Smith was my uncle. My father had been a late baby, his sisters much older than him, so Thomas was much older than my father. I didn’t realize this until later in life, you rarely consider the age of your relatives. I saw Thomas angry one time in my entire life. My parents’ other child was fighting with me and just wouldn’t stop, and Thomas could not stand for fighting family members. I can only speak for what I saw, but Thomas appeared to be the gentlest human being I have ever known. He had been a pilot, and flew from Dallas TX to Rio De Janero during the last years of his career. A joke about Thomas was that he recorded everything, there was always a camera in front of his face. When his parents died his siblings fought over the inheritance so much that he walked away and said he didn’t want anything, then when he got home he and my aunt planned out their wills, with the intention of being as equal as humanly possible with their children. A dozen or so years ago at my Grandfather’s funeral, I noticed the resemblance between Thomas and his oldest son, and realized that in his youth, Thomas must have been a very attractive man. My aunt is not an easy person to live with, and the two of them faced a couple of tragedies in their lives, yet he was always a kind and loving husband, and I cannot recall an ill word ever coming from him about anyone. He had been ill the last few years, and was on his way with his youngest son to vacation, when he died, sleeping in the car.

Annette (I won’t give more of a name, but she has commented on previous blog posts) was a few years younger than I. We had known each other in High School, and caught up on Face Book. She didn’t live far away and we had many of the same interests, so I felt that one day we would run into each other without a great deal of planning. That day will not arrive. Annette was forty nine years old when she passed away. A week or so ago she had commented on Face Book “my leg is broken, going to the doc to see if he can fix it”. Then this morning her husband posted that she had died. That is all I know. Annette was a wonderful person, she was very involved with dogs and helped create the first “No-Kill” shelter in the state where she lived. She was a thoughtful Christian, and from what I could tell from our brief conversations looked at her relationship with God much as I look at mine.

We do not know why we are here, other than to love one another. We do not know how much time we will have here, other than right now.

The conclusion is obvious. Love each other now.

Pet sitting

My neighbors have what we call a menagerie. Two dogs, three cats, two parakeets, two frogs, and a parrot. We trade off watching animals when we’re away. Last week was my turn, then next week they can watch our three cats.

lenaBelle

Lena, a one hundred eight pound golden retriever, and Belle, a ten pound Bichon Frise, are the dogs. Both are sweet, Lena preferring to lay still while you pet her, Belle always curious and exploring. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I found that Belle was the one tearing open our trash bags, not the cats. Both dogs get along well with the cats, which puts them at a disadvantage with our cats, who don’t get along with anyone. Belle is loud enough that her bark holds off Rascal, and Lena doesn’t seem to care, she just keeps trying to play even after Rascal scratches her.

teeTee, the parrot, is also friendly. One time she came out of her cage while I was feeding her and perched on my shoulder. She talks, but not when I’m in the room. I’ll hear her calling “Mom!Mom!” and it sounds like there’s someone around. She also imitates the voice of the young lady (I’ll call her “Beth”), I kept trying to tell the mother (I’ll call her “Liz”) that Beth was calling her and she said “That’s Tee,Beth is at work”. Tee will say “Gedep bedep” to me, so much that she has me saying it back after a few days. And then I found myself saying it to Lieve.

frogsThe frogs must have names, but they really don’t interact much. Even when they’re fed, they usually just sit still. Once in a while one will move about, but life seems pretty boring for them. They’re almost as old as Beth. twenty three years in still water eating freeze dried flies.

parakeetsThe parakeets are in Beth’s room, they don’t require much but since I’m upstairs feeding the frogs and emptying litter boxes, I stop in and say hello. They get fresh water and food each Wednesday, and whenever they seem to need it. The biggest rule is to never let Missy into the room, apparently there’s a tragic story concerning Missy and a previous parakeet.

missyMissy is usually the first cat you’re aware of, she’s very pretty and soft, and comes right up to you once she realizes that you’re there to feed her. The rest of the year she keeps her distance, but when I’m taking care of them she’s waiting on the step to rub her nose on mine. It’s not just me, all (except Minnie) and very loving animals, rubbing up against each other and licking each other. Lena and Missy walk around the yard together sometimes.

squishingtonIf Missy is outside, the first cat you’ll notice inside is Squishington. Also friendly, and vocal, Squishington weighs in at about twenty pounds. She doesn’t move very fast, and hadn’t been outdoors before, so I coaxed her out on the back porch and even got her to explore the woods a little last week. Fortunately she wanted to come back, because I wouldn’t have wanted to carry her. One day Rascal had come up the front steps while I was letting Belle in, and Squishington started to come out the door. The screen door was open, Rascal on one side Squishington on the other, and about three inches open underneath the door. The two cats sensed each other, and heir noses went to the same point on the opposite sides of the door. Either one could have reached underneath, but they slowly progressed in tandem towards the edge of the door. I wasn’t sure what to expect, in a minute they would be face to face. They got to the end, were nose to nose, and without a sound Rascal slowly turned and walked down the steps.

minnieThis is Minnie. You might never see her, she is not sociable at all. Even when giving her food she would hiss at me. Both times I’ve watched the animals though, she would come out on the steps on the last day, and act friendly. I would reach up to the spindle and she would nuzzle against the other side of the spindle, then she would bat at my hand, hiss, and run upstairs. Minnie is a tiny cat, and I had thought she was young, but she’s actually quite old, maybe eighteen years. She was the cat that was picked up by a Red-Tailed Hawk in the yard, and fought enough the hawk dropped her.

My Cats

The other players in the story are my cats. We have three, all with distinct personalities, but none who get along with each other. They’ve come to tolerate each other, and will occasionally share a couch, and then just start chasing each other about.

rascalRascal gets the most press. I have seen Rascal cross the street in order to confront a big dog. He’s aloof, but lately he follows me into the yard when I sit outside in the evening. Rascal prefers to be outside, and spends most of his time there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALeroy is actually the largest cat by weight, he’s solid, strong, and constantly shedding. Not a good thing in a home where folks tend to wear black. He prefers the top perch in the cat castle, mostly so he can lean over and throw up on the other cats (I may have found a food he can tolerate). He”s friendly with people, but only tolerant with the other cats.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is my cat, Autumn. The other two were Lieve’s. Autumn is a scaredy cat, she had never been outside before we moved to Princeton, and is just now getting the impulse to explore outdoors. She’s become friendly since Emma’s death, but that is only relative to the fact that she would never face other humans at all before.

I do wish that our cats could get along as well as the cats upstairs, but they are making progress, slowly.

Fear

I usually don’t tell people not to be afraid. Not because there is no reason to be afraid (sometimes there is) but because fear is irrational. Fear cannot be controlled, it can only be avoided. I worked with animals for a while, and having learned to avoid fear I was pretty good with the more aggressive ones. No matter how tough you are, if fear enters your system animals can tell. None of this is to say that I am fearless, or even brave. I just know when I can allow myself to display fear. With animals, it’s easy (for me), I’m bigger than they are. An animal usually judges how “big” you are by the distance between your eyes and the ground. He knows you’re bigger, and just wants to show that’s he’s dangerous. As long as you remember that you’re bigger, there is nothing to fear. It also helps to “speak” the language, don’t let your language betray your size.

I fear certain things. I fear losing loved ones, because I love them and want them near me. I fear falling (not heights, just falling), so I stay away from places from which I might fall. I fear hurting people, because I have learned that some hurts can’t be undone.

I do not fear death. I have no desire for a painful death, but I have no fear of leaving the living behind. I have a variety of opinions of what my consciousness will experience consist of once my body assumes room temperature, and none of them are frightening. Most are actually attractive.

Jesus speaks of fear in Matthew 10:26-31:

26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

There’s a lot going on there. Jesus is advising his apostles that there is nothing they should fear on Earth, damage to the body does not compare to damage to the soul. He tells them that their souls are safe with God.

This would be the definition of bravery. To recognize the danger and also the value of the “reward”. It’s why people run into burning buildings. Without regard, most humans will risk their lives to save another. And that is what Jesus was telling his apostles. They might risk their earthly lives, but they would be saving the eternal lives of others. There was no reason to be afraid, because their eternal lives were safe.

It’s not difficult to be brave. As long as you know what you are, and what you are not, risking. It sounds obvious, but it does require consideration. Consideration ahead of time, so that you’re prepared when the opportunity presents itself. So take a moment now to prepare yourself. Compare the risk and the reward for a couple of things you might hesitate to do.

What risk is involved in telling someone that you love them?

Smiling at a homeless person and looking them in the eye?

Holding the door open for a stranger?

Doing the right thing?

Now you’re ready.

Just do it.

Cats

I grew up with dogs. Big dogs. For the most part they were not terribly intelligent, but I didn’t expect much from an animal with a brain the size of an apple. They were always very affectionate, and that made up for a litany of transgressions. My last dog liked to wake me up, so I needed to move my chessboard farther from the bed as his tail swept it clean. He had no idea what playing fetch meant, he would cock his head and look at me as if to say “So, you don’t want that anymore?”, and even though we lived near the beach, he had no interest in playing in the surf.

My second wife was a “Cat person”, and as I’ve been mostly living in apartments since then I have found some benefits in cats as pets. They certainly take up less space (as do their brains), but they are largely parasitic, giving little to the relationship. They are affectionate, on their terms. That was also the issue with my second wife, but the cats don’t seem to realize the fine line they’re walking.

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My cat, “Autumn”, was born feral. She was rescued with her litter off of Interstate 495 near Wilmington Delaware, and clearly taken from her mother too early. Eight years later she is still a kitten in her mind, she tries to nurse from anything soft and warm, usually the shirt I’m wearing. My last wife and I got her as a “mouser“. Emma was deathly afraid of mice. One time she called me at work from atop a chair, where she remained until I arrived hours later, because she had seen a mouse. In Philadelphia, she was convinced that one mouse in particular was taunting her, she said it would come out, look directly at her, and dance in circles before disappearing behind the furniture. Enter Autumn. Autumn was a good mouser, and enjoyed the view from our apartment. She would sit in the window, watching the birds and the traffic on the street below. I had always thought that when we moved to Princeton, she’d want to go outside. Two years later and she is still hesitant.

Autumn has always been a “fraidy cat”. When Emma was alive, Autumn was always by her side, except when we had guest. Then Autumn would hide. Once when a nurse was visiting for my infusions, she sat down on the couch after spending maybe fifteen minutes of setting up the IV and all. It was maybe her third visit, and like everyone else she had never seen Autumn. As she sat down we heard Autumn yell from under the couch. A week after Emma died my neighbor visited, and Autumn came out. It was the first time she had ever been around another person.

RascalRascal - King of the Jungle

My wife has two cats, Leroy and Rascal. Alright, they’re really all my cats, because I take care of them, I’m just describing their origins. Rascal is actually fairly small, but he has long fluffy grey hair so he looks large. He was the dominant, “Alpha-Cat”. When I first moved to Princeton, Rascal was unsociable. He did not care to be petted, he would just stand by the door when he wanted to go out, and stare at you, as if to say “Whatever are you waiting for? Can’t you see I have an appointment?”. I have seen Rascal run across the street in order to confront a dog. The dog backed down. When Autumn first started getting to know “the boys”, Leroy and Autumn would hiss and run and swing at each other. Rascal might be bothered enough to look up to see what was going on.

When we first moved to the new place, we were coming home one night and saw Rascal trotting across the road and down the adjoining street. The “road” is a minor highway. Now he stays at home (he still goes outside, I just don’t think he roams as far). He has mellowed and has become very sociable. When I go outside he follows along, and will sit with me. He’s still the Alpha-Cat, he’s just confident. He doesn’t need to knock the other cats around, he just does as he wishes.

Leroy - 10150172843101587Blake and Leroy

Leroy is actually the largest of the cats. He’s a mostly white short hair and very muscular. I suspect he’s the cat that would bring small animals home, not entirely dead. One day he had brought home a living bird, and strewn the feathers all over the dining room. It’s amazing how many feathers are on a bird. Leroy has always been the “lovey cat”. Particularly when you’re wearing black, which we often do. No matter how much I brush him, he can still shed enough to turn a black shirt grey. He has an odd stomach condition, not hairballs surprisingly, but he just randomly vomits. I have changed his food, tried treats and medicines designed to ease weak stomachs, nothing works. Last week, he threw up the “sensitive stomach treats”. I also think he’s switched sides, and is now a mouse benefactor.

We had gotten tired of finding mice, or pieces of mice, in the hallway, so we decided to get a trap. We didn’t want a traditional mousetrap for a couple of reasons, they can hurt the cats, they’re gross, etc. So we got this live trap, with the intention of letting the mice loose outside in the presence of the cats. The cats still get to chase and kill the mouse, they just wouldn’t do it inside. The first time it worked perfectly. The next time, the mouse got away. The third time, I brought both Rascal and Leroy out together. Rascal had no interest, but when he saw Leroy pouncing on a spot in the ivy he pounced on Leroy. That mouse got away as well. Lately, I’ve found the trap knocked over and the bait gone. At first I thought that the cats were attracted to the sound of the mouse and in trying to get to it had set it free. I’m starting to think that Leroy is just letting the mice go on purpose.

When we moved to the new place, I went out and bought a “Cat Castle”, three beds and a platform connected by a scratching post. I placed it by the window so that the cats could see outside from the beds. They chose their positions. Leroy is usually on top. Rascal tends to take the centre position, because it’s even with the windowsill and he can just walk into it without climbing or jumping. Autumn sleeps under the china cabinet, but occasionally will sleep in the bottom bed. The cats get along reasonably well now, but once in a while when no one is looking, Autumn will take one of the other beds. Leroy won’t attack, he’ll just take a place on the sofa until she comes down. He will, at times, simply lay his head over his bed and vomit on the beds below. His brain might be the size of a peach pit, but he’s doing some of this on purpose.

We may have to make a decision when we move to Belgium. I have no idea what we will do.

My first week on the farm

One week at the farm and I’m still alive! I feel like it’s a perfect fit, I hope my boss does as well. I can feel the tension in my biceps, and the tan on my face, plus they pay me!

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I started off simple, gathering eggs. There are two hundred (more or less, free range means predators) chickens, and despite the provided roosts, sometimes they just leave eggs lying about in the weeds. The egg hunt everyday can be fun, although I hate stepping on eggs that I didn’t see. IMG00075-20130514-0922

Usually during the hunt, I’m joined by at least a few chickens. In the open they surround you, but most of them know you have no plans of feeding them when you’re wandering in the weeds. IMG00095-20130515-1214

After gathering and washing the eggs (for some reason we make no attempt to sort them, a dozen will include varying sizes) I fed the pigs. The pigs are fed a mixture of the whey (a byproduct of cheese making) and feed. Pigs are very friendly, but being rooting animals, it’s relatively difficult to get  them to look up, other than when you’re holding the first bucket of feed. IMG00071-20130513-1345

Once the pigs reach market weight (300 lbs) they are butchered (not my job). “Whey fed Pork” is apparently desirable. Next year’s little piglets are kept separately, or they would be crushed at feeding time.

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The cows are what the farm is all about, and the unconventional nature of the farm is one of the many things I find attractive. We don’t sell milk or beef. The milk the cows produce is used in cheese making (on site), and the whey left from the cheese feeds the pigs. The cows are mostly grass fed, supplemented by feed because our soil is low in calcium. Feed arrived yesterday.

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The feed arrives in a big truck, and is loaded into large bags (left). The bags are stored in one of the barns (right). You’re looking at one truckload, about two months of feed for eighty adult and twenty little pigs, two hundred chickens, and sixty cows.

You’ve been waiting for more pictures of cows? I didn’t take any pictures of the milking process, but since cows take up the most space, I wanted to start with the smaller guys first.

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We’re building the herd, so we’re hanging on to calves, which are normally sold. I had never before noticed how much baby calves look like deer.

Adult cows are pretty freaking big, I have owned smaller cars. Fortunately, they are very gentle.

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This one on the right has “brindle” markings, which I have never seen on a cow before. For the most part, the cows go where you ask them to go (it does help to speak cow), and they prefer not to be handled much. They will shy away so you can “push” the herd, and a minor amount of training has them entering the milking parlor on their own (there is feed in the stalls). They each have their own personality, and we have a device called a “kicker” for the few cows that kick when being milked. It’s a harness that goes on their legs and makes them feel unsteady on their feet, so they don’t kick.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG00081-20130515-1012The cows spend the majority of their time in our two hundred and thirty acres of certified organic pastures. This is a really peaceful space, and while working on the fences for the new pig enclosures on the South end of the farm, I came across a flock of wild turkeys. The wildlife is beautiful, but not always welcome. We have a couple of dozen cats to keep down the rodents around the feed, but there’s nothing we can do about the hawks and owls that swoop in for a chicken once in a while, although we are putting up more secure fences around the chickens to keep out fox and coyotes. I never thought about coyotes in New Jersey, they are bigger than the coyotes I’m used to, more wolf size.

Our source of water is a well, and our source of hot water, and heat in the winter, is a wood fueled boiler. We harvest the wood, largely fallen trees from the monstrous storms we’ve had the last few years, and split it (mechanically, I’m no Abe Lincoln).

IMG00074-20130513-1536There is another farm, “up the road a piece”, where we have sheep and goats, I haven’t been there yet. We do have a few goats and sheep on our property as part of a “petting zoo”, across from our market where we sell our artisan cheeses, eggs, and meats. We also sell honey, we don’t make it but we do have about six hives on the farm, and will be expanding in the coming years.

The overall concept is “sustainability”. The bees fertilize the grasses in the pasture, the Sun provides the energy for photosynthesis to create the grasses, the cows eat the grasses and provide milk for the cheese and whey for the pigs, as well as fertilizer for the pastures. The concept of cycles, the cycle of seasons, the cycle of life, the cycle of energy is all very appealing.

It’s good to feel like part of the cycle.