Sunday, July 31, 2016

Feline Energy

I’m a cat person. Dogs are OK. They’re sweet. But they’re too desperate for attention for my tastes. They would sell their teeth for a scratch behind the ears. So drooly, doofy, stinky, eager to please. And what is it with smelling people-crotches and dog-butts? Dogs need to chill. Cats are born chill. They’re clean, clever, and aloof. They do not beg. They play hard-to-get. I find it more tolerable to clean up the poo of an animal I respect. With dogs I’d be like, “what? you pooed? well clean that up.” But with cats, I’m like, “how considerate of you to poo in a box of kitty litter, of course I can scoop it out for you with my handy pooper-scooper and flush it.” Some cats have even been potty-trained, I’m told. Not surprised.

My cats are unapologetic for sleeping most of the day. The lazy bums expect me to work my little typing fingers to the bone just to buy them tuna and kitty-treats. Sometimes when their food bowls are empty, they look at me reproachfully, as if to say, “We will write you up for this and you will not get that annual salary increase you were expecting.” But I can deal with that attitude. I tell them, “No more food for you today because you’re too fat. Go hunt a mouse, vacuum the living room, do the laundry, or run around the block or something. If you insist on sleeping all afternoon, then you can’t have more food tonight.” If someone as strict as I am with them controlled the appearance of food in my own dinner bowl, then I would have the body of a model or an athlete. My cats will thank me later, when they need to shop for a swimsuit. Forgive me, I doth anthropomorphize.

In my lifetime, I have had more than a dozen cats as roommates. My two current feline roommates, Golda and Ella, are sisters with almost no family resemblance. Ella is the smartest cat I have ever known and Golda is the dumbest. Since cats from the same litter can have different fathers, I must assume Ella’s dad graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford and Golda’s dad was a Disney cartoon. They both have green eyes, but their physical resemblance ends there. Ella is black and Golda is an orange tabby (what the English call a marmalade cat). Ella is sleek and graceful. Golda sheds without respite and galumphs about. Ella slinks as if wearing a $400 pair of high heels, while Golda plods as if clumping around in clogs. Ella is a hipster. Golda is a bag lady. If they were human, Ella would have millions of people following her witty and trendy tweets on Twitter, while Golda would write notes to herself in pencil on used paper grocery bags.

But Golda is no wimp. She’s bloodthirsty and vicious. She carries a big gun. By comparison, Ella is a pacifist. Ella watches in horrified fascination while Golda catches and gruesomely eats mice, birds, and moles (leaving behind only a small organ that she does not care for, feet, and an occasional beak—so gross). Golda would devour a wild turkey if she could catch one (I have seen her stalk them). The only thing Ella hunts is a catnip toy. Golda is so territorial that she will stand her ground and fight off other cats that come into our yard, even if they’re bigger than she is. I have seen her chase foxes out of the yard. She would probably take on a bear if one appeared. She would win too, because she usually wins in battle. By contrast, Ella flees from invading critters. She runs to the back door of the house and pees on herself in terror. Meanwhile, Golda spits fire, hisses, swears, and shrieks insults. I have to dial 1-800-Excorcist.

When we moved to this house, Ella figured out how to open the sliding screen door to the deck within minutes, so she could let herself in and out. Golda has watched Ella open that door for years, and the dummy still can’t figure out how to do it herself. She sits in front of it like a dunce in a corner and waits for Ella to appear and open it for her. If I’m not vigilant with the door thing, they do this fancy trick where Ella opens the screen door and Golda brings a live mouse into the house, where she proceeds to chase it around as a prelude to consuming it. Ella makes popcorn and pulls up a comfy chair to watch, of course. I could definitely do without my cats’ obsession with rodents. But I’m bigger than that; I’m able to get past the rodent thing.

Ella spends much of her day in the space between my computer and the window in my study. Sometimes she watches the birds in the bottlebrush tree with concentration. You would think she is hunting them in her head, but we have already established the fact that she is not a hunter. So perhaps she is simply contemplating what they would look like in red heels. Most of the time she sleeps, stretching out, kicking my computer screen so that it wobbles. Behind my computer is her happy place. When I take her to the vet, she jumps up on the counter and hides behind the vet’s computer. Perhaps she thinks the electromagnetic field (EMF) makes her invisible (or invincible). Perhaps she spends so much time in an EMF that she gravitates to it. I am beginning to think that she converts EMF to creative energy and imparts it to me.

My life would be empty without feline energy. What would I do with my time if I didn’t have to speculate about what is going through my cats’ minds? Well, actually, just Ella’s. I know what’s going through Golda’s mind, which contains little more than a couple of mice trotting around, a dinner bowl, wads of cat hair, and a few stray apostrophes. Meanwhile, Ella is writing treatises on social change and the great American novel, considering sustainable agricultural methods, and figuring out how to cure cancer. If only she could speak a human language and had an opposable thumb. (That thumb would wreak havoc because then she would have the ability to open all the doors in the house.)

My children tease me, saying that if I hadn’t met their dad then I would be the neighborhood cat lady; living in a hoarder’s house that smells like tuna and sleeping with 20 cats. But they are full of poo. I only need two cats, as long as one of them is Ella. My muse. My familiar. She is sitting in my lap as I write this, absorbing the EMF from my computer before it reaches me. Research shows that people who have cats live longer. Thank you sweet and clever Ella with the huge green eyes for prolonging my life.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What You Need to Know to Start Your Day

In this tech age, I still have a newspaper delivered to my door daily. Amendment:  My husband has a newspaper delivered to our door, and I read some of it. I also read the online news every morning. I have one foot in the last century and one foot in this one. That’s encouraging because I thought I had lost the dexterity to straddle anything. I set up my landing page in my Google account with links to top stories at an array of media outlets, blah-dy-blah-dy-blah. Sorry. I will put a quarter in the jar for talking Geek. Suffice it to say that I check a variety of media newsfeeds every morning with hyperlinks to articles that change throughout the day. One of them displays a hyperlink every morning that reads, What you need to know to start your day:  news item A, news item B, news item C, news item D.

For example, What you need to know to start your day:  Munich, Bozo, Watermelon cures erectile dysfunction, Dogs in costumes at Comi-Con. You can see the importance of reading these articles to start your day. Sometimes the list is so cryptic in its brevity that I click out of curiosity. For instance, Pajamas, Vikings, Cigars, Caterpillars. If you kind of squint and tilt your head to the left, that strongly resembles an SAT test question. Pajamas are to Vikings as Cigars are to Caterpillars. Vikings don’t wear pajamas, caterpillars don’t smoke cigars. Could work. Or maybe the person who selected those items was a renegade intern who was up all night partying and decided to start her day with a mimosa followed by random thoughts.

I wonder how a media outlet selects which news bytes stand out above all others, requiring our attention, to inform the day. How do these factoids rate as the priority factoids we must know to have an informed, productive, fulfilling, successful, positive, blah-dy-blah-dy-blah day? I must turn to my own experience, because I live in my own head. (Which is a good thing because I think that when you live in someone else’s head they call it schizophrenia and it requires some type of medication I would hesitate to take.) When I woke up this morning, I thought (in my own head), “If I don’t find out, real soon, how many peaches to put in a peach cobbler, tricks to putting nail polish on my toenails, why a duck, and whether Keith Richards is still alive, then I am in danger of having a terrible, horrible, ill-informed, no-good day.” Not. I would like to know those things. But knowing is not critical to the progress of my day. (Well, maybe the peaches.)

Question to ponder:  What things do you need to know to start your day?

I’ll go first. What things do I need to know to start my day?
1) My husband is still alive. (I check on him every morning because he has Type I diabetes and an unaddressed low blood sugar episode could do him in – so far we have dodged that bullet.) I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to know about Keith Richards too.
2) How much I weigh before my shower. How much I weigh after my shower. How much weight I lost in the shower.
3) We have coffee.
4) The cat did not barf on a rug. The other cat did not barf on a rug either.
5) My dress is not inside-out. (Will fix if not.)
6) There is no bird trapped in the kitchen (you would be surprised at how often this situation may occur in real life so be prepared).
7) The weather report.
8) What came in on my email. (Especially from my children.)
9) What fruit is in season.
10) Is there money in my bank account?
11) How big the zucchinis got overnight and how many I need to pick, eat, or give away. (This is a summer fact.)
12) Something to laugh about.

And, but this is not 13, because 13 would be an unlucky way to start a day. I need to know good news to start my day. Not news about tragedies and violence in the world. Not news about the latest bad decisions made by numbskulls who mismanage the leadership of countries (or who aspire to do so) and the idiots who vote for them. Not news about celebrities, high finance, and, let’s be honest, physics (because I don’t get physics). I need to know news about acts of kindness, increased access to nutritional food, my friends’ grandchildren, music, people who plant trees, advances in environmental preservation and renewal, spontaneous drumming, rainbow fireworks, and unicorns farting violets. I need to know where I put the dark chocolate.

Number 12 on my hypothetical list above:  I need to laugh, I need to know something funny to start my day. I work at coming up with something funny to write on this blog so that I can give you, my reader, a laugh. Laughter is a powerful healer, a force for good. Because I want my children to start their week on a laugh, I send them a corny joke every Monday morning. Last week’s joke was my biggest hit yet. Now that I beta-tested it on my children, I feel comfortable sharing it with you. It goes like this:  “A man walks up to a blind man and hands him a piece of matzah. The blind man asks, ‘Who wrote this nonsense?’”

Have a great start to your day. Have a great start to your week. Have a laugh.

I googled “zucchini on matzah” to find an image for this blog post and this is the best I could find. 
Arugula on matzah is funnier than zucchini on matzah. I suppose the caption should read,
 “Who put arugula on this nonsense?”

Sunday, July 17, 2016


My garden has peached me. I give. How can one little peach tree make so much fruit? Next year, I plan to skimp on the mango mulch and maybe take the fruit tree fertilizer down a notch. I love peaches, but I would like to eat something else now, please. Pass the hot sauce. (That gives me an idea for peach salsa.)

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver claims that the small rural community in which she lives has so little crime that residents rarely lock their cars. The only time of year when they routinely lock their cars is during July and August. They do this to prevent their neighbors from leaving zucchini squashes on their front seat as an anonymous gift. Country living. I can testify that keeping the car locked only partially works, because it does not prevent people from leaving zucchinis on the doorstep, ringing the bell, and running away. Or in the mailbox. Or on the porch swing. Or jammed into your handbag, back pocket, hat.

A couple of weeks ago, when planning a get-together with friends, I said I would bring zucchini because “I have a zucchini situation.” My home girl Jessica responded, “You planted more than one zucchini plant, didn’t you?” She’s right, but I can explain. Last year I planted two zucchini plants. One died and the other didn’t produce much. So this year I planted three (in case one died) and all of them are thriving, no slackers. Then, on top of that, a butternut squash that I bought was mislabeled by the grower and turned out to be a zucchini. So I have four prolific zucchini plants.

Despite the bumper crop, I have managed to stay on top of the zucchini by picking them when small, giving plenty of them away, and eating them in everything. Fortunately, zucchini is the most versatile vegetable on the planet. Take my word for it. I can find a way to put it into anything:  ratatouille, egg salad, coleslaw, fritters, butter, salsa, rice, pancakes, pasta, lemonade, ice cream; you name it, I can get a zucchini into it. I have tried just about everything except rolling it and smoking it. Zucchini is the chameleon of produce. But I am getting carried away, and I did not intend to wax poetic about the zucchini. It was not the zucchinis that created the need for an intervention this past week, but the yellow peaches. In fact, I don’t really want to talk about zucchini. They have hijacked this conversation. They take over if you let them. I really want to talk about peaches.

When one person in a country community has a bumper crop of peaches, chances are everyone does. That’s how it goes. If it’s a good year for peaches (or plums, or green beans, or sweet peppers, or whatever) then everyone has the same overabundance. I took an enormous bowl of sliced peaches to a brunch on Friday morning and put my bowl on the table next to two other bowls from other gardeners. It was a peach-off. I fared well. Mine got gobbled up. When houseguests arrived late Thursday night from out of town, they found a note I left on the countertop that read, “Take pity on me. Help yourself to peaches.” In the morning, I discovered, to my dismay, that my houseguests had brought a small bag of peaches to my house. That’s what people refer to as bringing sand to the beach. The guests said someone from around here gave them the peaches. How dare someone else get to them first? They were my houseguests. I had first dibs.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon picking, prepping, and preserving peaches (say that three times fast). I might actually now be down to a mere 30 lbs. of peaches, which does not include the peaches in the two peach crisps that I baked. Inspired by my creativity with zucchini, I am hatching creative recipes for peaches. Grilled peach sandwich. Peach loaf. Poached peach. I wonder if there is any beautification benefit to putting peach slices on one’s eyes. How about carving a peach-o-lantern for the front porch? I’m sure I could dry them in my food dehydrator. If they come out too dry, I can use them as bookmarks. I can always use more bookmarks. Too bad bookmarks don’t grow on trees.

Up next:  My garden is poised to produce a bumper crop of lemon cucumbers. How much do you want to bet I can come up with a viable recipe for cucumber pie?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Be But a Minute

My sister-in-law and her husband came from Chicago to visit us last week. We spent a glorious day Thursday at the Avenue of the Giants, in the presence of the ancient redwoods. On Friday evening, after a long leisurely dinner, I went to my study for but a minute to check my email. Three steps into the room I slipped in cat vomit. I hopped into the laundry room, donned cleaning gloves, washed my flip-flop off in the utility sink, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, transferred the cat’s artwork to the toilet, and sprayed the rug with carpet cleaner. Then I thought, how rude of me to disappear like that, better go explain. So, while waiting for the carpet cleaner to sink in, I returned to the kitchen for the explainin’. I barely got five words out of my mouth before Ron-and-family busted out laughing at the vision of me in my bright yellow rubber gloves.

Never mind. I returned to the study to scrub away at the spot in question and promptly slipped in cat vomit again. I had previously failed to notice that the cat had two episodes of indigestion on my carpet. That’s when I opened the throttle and got out my binoculars, magnifying glass, sponge mop, vacuum cleaner, garden hose, pneumatic scrub brush, and Lysol spray. My brief minute of absence from visiting with my houseguests stretched into half an hour. When I finally finished cleaning up the kitty-cat’s re-dinner, I discovered that the internet was down and I couldn’t check email anyway. Mission fail. I took the episode as a reminder that “but a minute” is all relative because anything can (and does) happen.

Last week, an acquaintance of mine, let’s call her Mary, went to play a round of golf. On the second fairway, an errant golf ball escaped from the nearby driving range and hit Mary in the head. She was taken by ambulance to the trauma center and treated for hematoma and concussion. She also managed to acquire ten staples in her head (because she had lacerations), a whopping headache, and a souvenir golf ball. Afternoon and evening plans were canceled. We plan how to use our time and the minutes pile onto a hayride and head for the meadow.

I have often witnessed my husband stretching a minute into an hour. The worst situation to befall his efforts at keeping to a schedule is the need to find something. Anything. A shoelace, lab order, jacket, camera, CD. Why would he be looking for his water-aerobic-shoes in the garden? Or for his flash drive under the sink in the guest bathroom? Or for soap under the couch? Last week I watched him open a drawer to remove a prescription so he could phone the pharmacy for a refill and instead of picking up the prescription, he plucked a stray receipt out of the drawer and pondered it. So I said, “Slowly put the receipt down and pick up the prescription, then step away from the drawer.” If distraction were an Olympic sport, he would have a gold medal. So I often think we are leaving the house in a minute and I wind up reading half of Cloud Atlas before he is ready to get in the car.

Sometimes but a minute takes us the long way around. Sometimes the long way around goes by in but a minute.

I wasn’t sure I would even write a blog post this week, with violence devouring my country, and the news so sad, so hard to absorb, so disturbing, so full of death and grief. I try to write humor on the blog, to give my readers a break from all that stuff going on outside. But this week was un-funny. This week the news was so bad that it made my cat throw up. Twice. Current events have me reflecting on how all of life is but a minute. I am thinking back on my life in the context of time. Dinner will be on the table in a minute, kids. Just give me a minute to change into my swimsuit and I’ll take you to the pool. One minute for me to make popcorn and then we can start the movie. Then, in but a minute, the kids are grown and gone. I put on my sturdy sneakers, take my walking stick, and do my daily hike behind the lake to gather my thoughts so I can face the day. It seems like a minute ago that I had three children hopping along beside me wherever I went, but now I am a solitary walker. In but a minute my life will be finished. Life is fragile and brief, filled with precious minutes. Stay safe out there. Cherish the moment.

Lovely visit with my in-laws. Here we are amidst the ancient redwoods. 
They are by the overturned tree and I am in the background looking up and up and up, 
out of myself, out of the strife in the world, into the beauty and peace of the trees.

(Photo by Ron Reed)

Sunday, July 3, 2016


I have my suspicions about the motives of my Tom-Tom, which, yes, does have a distinctive personality. I don’t have a smartphone, so if I need to find my way in unfamiliar territory, I rely on the Tom-Tom. For those of you who don’t remember, a Tom-Tom is a navigation device from before phones had a GPS, which happened relatively recently, but it never ceases to amaze me how much everyone seems to forget. For instance, a lot of people visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum every year. Evidently they have forgotten that the man was virtually illiterate. Although, it just occurred to me that possibly the library houses all picture books.

My children have invested considerable energy into pressuring me to trade in my GoPhone for a smartphone, and I have resisted admirably. The only thing that causes me waver the slightest bit is that I admire the navigation system in my husband’s smartphone, which is clearly more sophisticated than my Tom-Tom. I have noticed my Tom-Tom laughing diabolically from time to time. Like when the device tried to convince me to drive from Richmond, CA to Oakland, CA by way of Arizona, promising that the route would avoid toll roads. I think a malicious spirit occasionally hijacks the Tom-Tom and crouches inside, gleefully giving wrong directions. I need to find an authentic shaman to chase that spirit out. There are definitely malicious navigation system spirits among us. I have read news articles about people who drove off cliffs, into lakes, and deep into remote wilderness areas beyond the reach of civilization while mindlessly following the directions of a diabolical GPS. This phenomenon is a bizarre disease of our time. People trust the cybersphere implicitly, shut their brains off, and disconnect from real life. If I forget my mother’s maiden name, I’ll just ask my phone.

In May, Ron and I took a road trip through PA, NJ, NY, CT, and MA. We used the GPS in his phone, and it won my heart by warning us one day not to drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge, which was actually, astonishingly, closed on our day of travel because of a terrible crash. An extremely rare occurrence. But the problem with relying on a phone for directions is that it sometimes loses service and the screen goes dark. Then what? Laugh if you must, but I still like AAA maps; you know, those paper diagrams of geographic areas. I know, so last century. News flash:  I was born in the last century. As a member of AAA, I can get all the maps I want for free. Getting excited about anything that’s free is so last century too. Maps don’t depend on satellites in space to tell me where I am, where I’m going, and how to reach my desired destination; which may sound theological, even mystical, but actually it’s pretty much just practical. Maps don’t tell me who I am, just where I am. A map would never promise to take me to the Salem Waterfront Hotel and then drive me in circles for 45 minutes until I had to run into the Salem Witch Museum to use the bathroom, like Ron’s brilliant phone GPS did.

Speaking of the last century, I’m going to step back there for a moment of historical reflection. Edward Tolman, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, coined the term “cognitive map” in 1948. He used the term to describe the way rats in mazes demonstrated their ability to envision the totality of the maze (how the parts of the maze fit together to make the whole maze). Fast forward to this century, where research shows that when people depend on a GPS, it causes deterioration in the ability of their brain to build a cognitive map (which would account for how a person might jump in a lake because the GPS said so). A cognitive map is a mental representation of a physical location. Cognitive maps help us find our way and help us to recall features of our physical environment. We retain cognitive maps of spaces of all sizes, from our bedroom to Planet Earth. A GPS removes a person from relationship with the environment, destroying the ability of the brain to comprehend spatial concepts or connect locations in the physical environment and impairing the ability to construct cognitive maps. In other words, a GPS prevents us from having any clue where we are. We just follow the moving arrow on a computer screen. It’s a virtual journey. We could do it wearing virtual reality goggles while sitting in the living room. How do we know we even went anywhere? Or that we ever arrived? Or that we exist? I GPS therefore I am.

In an experiment conducted in Japan in 2008, scientists measured how long it took people to go from Point A to Point B using three different methods:  GPS, paper map, and being shown (by walking the path) the way by a guide before trying to find it again without the guide. Participants walked six different routes using these three types of directions. GPS-users took the longest to complete each journey (they traveled slower), made more stops along the way to figure out where they were and where they were going, made larger directional errors, and somehow managed to travel a greater distance during each of the routes than the other two kinds of participants. Afterward, the GPS-users could not sketch a map of their route with the level of accuracy that the map-users and direct-experience participants could. Researchers conclude that the GPSs cause people to disengage from the environment. I think this means that finding one’s way becomes more like a video game than real life.

I don’t imagine that folks who use a GPS don’t notice their surroundings or enjoy the scenery. Ron and I took great delight in the gorgeous springtime landscapes we traveled on our vacation while using his phone GPS to find places. But I do think that GPS-users lose an important dimension of their overall spatial sense because locations are no longer in context. GPS-users reduce their ability to form a full-bodied cognitive map. There is even research evidence that indicates that, over time, using a GPS diminishes the amount of gray matter in the brain (Maguire and Woollett, 2006). I wonder how much of my gray matter my Tom-Tom has sucked out of my head.

When we were on our Northeast road trip in May, Ron navigated our route with his phone GPS. When I was at the wheel, he gave me excellent directions and we didn’t get lost. Super super good. But whenever he was driving, I took out my trusty AAA maps and followed along on the route. I loved watching the road signs correspond to the locations on my maps. So the younger generation can use their GPS until Dubya reads War and Peace, and I suppose they will always arrive perfectly at their destination, but as for me, I’m building gray matter, thank you very much.