Thursday, January 31, 2013

Notions

When Toffee isn't trying to destroy our apartment, Harris, or himself, he will lie in our arms, on his back, purring loudly. Toffee believes this will be his Get-Out-of-Jail card for eternity, and he is correct:


Harris believes that if you wish hard enough, you become invisible so no one can see that you are in a forbidden spot. He is continually proven incorrect but he keeps trying:


Wendy believes that the FBI is after her for allegedly stealing her enormous tail from a purebred cat. Wendy is incorrect, but that doesn't stop me from telling her that I won't turn her in if she'll just let me pet her. I'll stoop to anything to win her favor. 


Possum has been troubled ever since we told him the plot of the movie Lincoln. Since Possum, like all cats, can't fathom history very well, he believes that Lincoln was assassinated recently and he was also shocked to discover the Civil War. Possum needs to stick to studying art history from now on. 


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

All (Relatively) Quiet on the Kitten Front

... Until sometime around midnight, when Harris figured out how to turn on the bathroom faucet at full blast.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Toffee Troubles

It's been a little over three weeks since our last emergency trip to the vet with Toffee. We're overdue.

I heard him retching the other day. I've kept a closer eye on him since, as retching can mean he's eaten another foreign object. I found him retching again yesterday, rather spectacularly, although nothing came up. He's still young enough that retching freaks him out. I was worried, naturally. And, naturally, it was a few minutes after 5 o'clock, because our vet's office closes at 5.

Normal cat owners hear a retching cat and think "hairball." We're nervous about Toffee since he bit off and ate a length of string and a fabric toy. Toffee does things that never occurred to any of our (many) other cats. I often wonder what might be inside his little belly. I'm careful about storing objects like hair elastics, twisties, and coins where he can't get to them. I've banned rubber bands from coming in with the mail. We've tried to cat-proof this apartment but Toffee-proofing is a different game altogether.

When he swallowed the toy and string, he had a strange reaction to the drugs that induced vomiting. He was barely conscious for about 12 hours and it was puzzling and scary. It's unlikely they'd give him those drugs again. They might start with X-rays and do an endoscopy.

I called my husband, who was in meetings until 7. No answer. I texted. He called back in seconds. If it's a Toffee-related message, I get instant results. Toffee is his precious darling. (In any other crisis, I must be sure to mention Toffee if I want a fast response. As in: "Zombies are invading Back Bay; Toffee seems concerned!")

We decided I'd call Angell Memorial Animal Center and get our kitten there myself if necessary. I kept looking around the apartment while all this was going on... for what? A partially eaten toy? A scrawled note from Toffee reading, "While U were OUT i ATE something BAD"?

I did find this:


That is not a fake-fur hamster, it is a mouse missing a tail. As you can see below, the tails on such mice (I guess gerbil is a more accurate term) are substantial, about 3" long and 1/2" wide. Toffee loves them.


It was snowing; the sidewalks and street were white. I wondered how long it would take a cab to arrive if I needed one in a hurry. I dialed Angell and reached a "liaison." Toffee's file was fresh and detailed, and the liaison contacted the vet who'd treated him during his last misadventure. Her instructions were to monitor him; if he retched again. we should bring him in. A long piece of fake fur could be trouble inside a kitten. Her next shift began at 7 am.

He seemed fine. An hour later, I discovered I was mistaken about that tail after all — I was still roaming around when I found another brown rodent that still had its tail. We must have nearly a hundred cat toys, and while I do keep track of many of them, I can't remember them all. At Christmas, I'd bought more fake-fur mice, including one with feathers for a tail. Toffee had ripped off the feathers very quickly. And I'd kept them, for no good reason. On the "hamster" in question, I detected a couple of tiny, broken white threads that matched the threads wrapped around the feathers:


Toffee may have swallowed something, but it was not a fake-fur tail. 

He curled up with us at bedtime after the usual foot-biting. Shortly before 5 am, we heard him throwing up in the bathroom. I was awake anyway, thanks to a muscle I'd pulled in my back the day before as I was looking out the window. (I should avoid such strenuous activities, but a new pain turned out to be a refreshing change after months of the same old aching muscles in my back, hips, and legs.)

My husband cleaned up the mess. He said it was "a lot of food, no sign of a toy." Damn. I got up to charge my phone and then lay awake mentally packing my bag with snacks and reading matter for a day at Angell. I decided I'd call our vet first; they know the Toffee story and I trust them to know what's best.

They open at 8 and I knew they'd want all the details. I pulled the paper towel with Toffee's puke from the trash to investigate. Inside (TMI warning) I found undigested vegetables from his dinner and a hairball.  It was small, garnished with a pine needle and a bit of mylar fringe from a sparkly pompom.

I could have confronted my husband, saying, perhaps: "Since when is a hairball the same thing as 'a lot of FOOD'? Shall I make you a hairball for dinner tonight?" I refrained. Age has mellowed me, given me wisdom and maturity. I can control my tongue at least 10 percent of the time these days. My husband is besotted with Toffee; I've never seen him like this with any other cat, not even his girls Snicky or Wendy. He'd lain awake beside me worrying, too. 

So I just showed him the hairball instead.

We will probably never be mellow where Toffee is concerned. We'll gather up all the cat toys and do a safety audit. While I'd never buy toys I'd consider unsafe for most cats, I will reexamine them with more paranoia. The toy mice may all become hamsters, although that would disappoint Wendy, Harris, and Possum, who like to carry toys by their tails. Wendy's tiniest sparkle pompoms will also have to go, and anything with yarn trim. We can't keep worrying like this. 

 Toffe contemplates future excitement beyond eating mouse tails.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bits & Pieces

Want to live in an English stone cottage bordering The Fells in Winchester? Sure you do. There's a modern addition that's disappointingly bland, but the kitchen has stone walls, wood beams, a brick floor, open shelving and no possibility of a damned island.


If you're not on Pinterest, you're missing out on lots of outrageously unwholesome recipes. Like this pretty easy one for Sky High Cookie Pie, found on Flour Me with Love:


I've been wandering the apartment looking for a spot to put this basket from Pottery Barn. I hope I figure it out while it's still on sale; I do know how I'd fill it. (I'm still not getting catalogs with promo codes):


If Dr. Seuss books were titled like academic journal articles...


Speaking of books, I love the sumptuous but simple design of this cover (although the book reveals that Dickens was a jerk in more ways than we even suspected). Surrounding the photos with  Victorian calligraphic flourishes and setting the text in five gorgeous fonts was a brilliant "period" solution. It would have turned out dull in other hands. I want to be a cover designer in my next life. (Bonus review of Marmee & Louisa at the same link):


Got cats? You need this:


This cabled cardigan from Anthropologie dresses up skirts and leggings and has pockets. I got mine for an extra 25% off before Christmas. I'd say it's time to offer deeper discounts again, Anthropologie, so please get on with it:


If you are as upset as I am about what happened to Lady Sybil Branson last night on Downton Abbey, you might console yourself by reliving better times here. You'll find a slight spoiler on this site, but nothing you didn't anticipate:


And, finally, homemade Goo Gone. The real stuff makes me nervous, so I'll try this two-ingredient recipe.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lazy Day... and Louisa May

I had every intention of going for a walk, but I spent the afternoon on the sofa covered by my cozy throw, in a coma. Now it's dinner time and I have a grand total of 60 of my proposed 10,000 steps.

That's what I get for staying up all night finishing an excellent book, Marmee & Louisa, by Eve LaPlante. I've read several biographies of Louisa May Alcott, and this one uses new source materials relating to Louisa's mother, Abigail May Alcott (and the illustrious, reforming May family) which were thought to have been burned by Louisa and her father Bronson in the years after her death. The author discovered much of these in her attic — she is a great-niece of Abigail and a cousin of Louisa, and inherited trunks of family memorabilia from an aunt. She tells the Alcott story in a fresh, compelling way, revealing Abigail May Alcott's profound and loving influence on Louisa.


Insisting that women were equal to men and capable of doing whatever they set their minds to, Abigail encouraged Louisa to express herself in words from an early age, buying her notebooks and blank journals so she could write every day. Abigail kept a daily journal herself and was a wonderful writer in her own right as well as a dedicated abolitionist and women's suffragist. The Alcott family was desperately poor as Louisa was growing up, since Bronson was incapable of providing for his family and left it to the womenfolk to beg, borrow, work at menial jobs, sew, teach, and take in boarders. Both Louisa and her mother led difficult, often disappointing lives, beset by family hardships and perpetual debt. They often felt trapped, not having the freedom men had to earn a living and work for human rights. Unlike Little Women, Louisa's family story didn't have a happy ending, where everyone finds love and fulfillment. But there's still a ribbon of joy that runs through their story, fed by Abigail's loving, generous spirit.

The family moved about 30 times in 30 years, often renting rooms in Boston. This doesn't include all the extra moves that daughters Anna, Louisa, and May made separately, to support their family by working as teachers or servants. Louisa preferred Boston as she was bored in Concord, especially in winter. Their Concord houses were cold and uncomfortable until she was successful with Little Women and could afford central heating and other improvements.

Now I want to watch the Susan Sarandon/Winona Ryder film of Little Women again. I always believed that Sarandon's portrayal of Marmee (who is Abigail) as a strong-minded reformer ahead of her time was an unusual, intelligent choice. This book confirms that as the truth.

I had forgotten that Abigail and Louisa were descendants of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730). He was the only one of the judges at the Salem witch trials who later publicly apologized and atoned for his decisions. He wore sackcloth in repentance for the rest of his life and wrote what was probably the first antislavery tract in the Colonies. LaPlante has also written his biography, which I plan to read.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Back in Business: Selling on Ebay

I've stopped procrastinating! I'm selling clothing and boots on eBay. I'm making money and getting rid of shopping bags full of things that I culled from my closet more than a year ago, which were just too expensive and nice to give away.

Goodbye, crazy boots. What was I thinking?

Taking clothing to a consignment store is easier — but I have a hard time with their "attitude" as they scrutinize everything while I wait. Plus you usually get only a fraction of what you can make on eBay.

If you have the same guilt feelings I have about pricey boots that hurt, good handbags you never use, fashion mistakes, and heirlooms or gifts you never loved, selling them is a surprisingly comforting solution. I keep my pricing realistic, and I tend to think collectively about what I sell: I might not get as much as I'd like for one item, but I'll sometimes get more than I expected for another. It evens out. And I feel much less guilt when I sell stuff — it's no longer personal, it's business.

While Ebay selling is simple, it can be time-consuming until you get the hang of it. Photography can be challenging. I shoot most of my clothing on a nice hanger on a white door. You'll also be making trips to the post office unless you go big-time and schedule pick-ups. (I don't mind the PO because it feels so good to get the stuff out of the apartment.)

If you're familiar with eBay, then you probably know how to research items that are similar to what you're selling to see what a good listing looks like, and determine a price — and that's often half the battle. Ebay guides you smoothly through the listing process, providing all kinds of info, templates, options, and tips. If you have a PayPal account, you are all set to accept payment.

Years ago, I sold scores of items on eBay; I was a more enthusiastic bargain hunter in those days and shopped specifically for items I knew I could sell at a profit. It helped that I'd worked for years as a retail copywriter. Writing sales copy comes naturally to me; my brain is packed with trivia about everything from thread counts to shoe heels. But you don't need to know that stuff; your descriptions will be shorter and pithier as a result.

It helps to be handy with a tape measure, another copywriting skill. Detailed measurements are reassuring to buyers. Along with accurate descriptions and clear photos, they help sell an item.

I stopped selling when eBay and PayPal increased their fees to the point where I felt it wasn't worth it anymore. Things have changed: your first 50 listings per month are "free," except for a percentage of the selling price when each item sells.

I don't know what I'm enjoying more: the cash or the lack of clutter in our bedroom. I do know I like both enough to keep going. I'll list between one and four items each week. That's manageable in terms of photography, setting up listings, and post office trips.

On Thursday, I listed a Barbour jacket I found lying on the sidewalk last spring. I'd posted an ad in Craigslist's "Lost & Found" for a week with no results. It wasn't my size, but it still took me nine months to get it out of my closet and onto eBay. It sold while I slept ("Buy It Now") to a woman in Virginia, who told me she prefers a soft, well broken-in Barbour, as I'd described it. I netted about $130 after the eBay and PayPal fees. I would have made less than half that at a consignment shop.

I'm tempted to start browsing stores and outlets for good items, just as millions of other sellers are doing. It's extra pocket money for some and an all-consuming business for others. I probably won't get into it seriously, but eBay has always suggested infinite possibilities to me. I have 28 antique Czech tropical bird pitchers to prove it, along with an extensive collection of a sterling pattern that went out of production more than a century ago. All courtesy of eBay. So one never knows.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Moving Right Along

It's quiz time, readers. If you don't celebrate Christmas, you get an automatic "Pass" unless your Festivus pole is still hanging around.

Today is January 25, one month after Christmas. Please answer the following questions with "Yes," "No," or your preferred, colorful equivalent of "Oh, shoot!" or "Oh, my God!"

1. Do you still have Christmas decorations on display? (Outdoor wreaths are exempt for about two more weeks unless they are brown shadows of their former selves.)

2. Have you found a place for each of your presents? (Extra points if that place is the Salvation Army.)

3. Do you still have leftover Christmas food? (Candy doesn't count unless you have a ridiculous amount. Fruit cake doesn't count if you are planning to give it as a gift next year.)

4. Are you still looking forward to sending out your Christmas cards?

5. Do you continue to hum, sing, or whistle Christmas carols or "All I Want for Christmas Is You"? (If the latter, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.)

6. Are you feeling smug because you took down your tree in the past week?  (Gotcha.)

7. Is your excuse for any of the above: "But Christmas will be here again before you know it!"?

8. Assuming you removed your decorations in a reasonable timeframe: are your floors still dusted in pine needles because you couldn't be bothered to vacuum afterward?

9. Are you the romantic type who enjoys having electric candles in your windows all year long? (Residents of downtown Bethlehem, PA, are exempt. It's an unofficial city law in the historic district.)

10. Is your excuse for any of the above, "But, like Mr. Scrooge, I say, 'I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.' So lay off my balsam fir and electric train set."?

11. Are you still wearing your Christmas sweater because it's "warm and cheerful." (Ten points deducted for owning a Christmas sweater.)

12. Is your excuse for any of the above a seasonal depression or post-Patriots-playoff trauma?

13. Is your excuse for any of the above, "But I have an egg-nog problem and I need help!"?

Scoring: 

A. Give yourself as many points as you want for each "No" answer.

B. Deduct twice as many points for any other answer.

C. If you answered "I don't know" to any questions, please take a self-guided tour of your residence and possibly your psyche.

D. If you have to go to the emergency room, don't forget to bring a sweater (NOT your Christmas sweater), reading matter, and snacks.

E. If you answered anything but "No" to #12, purchase some quality "daylight bulbs" or, if you're a Patriots fan, get over it. They deserved to lose that game; they sucked. If you answered anything but "No" to #13, go here. You are not alone, but I'm not sure you'll love the companionship.

F. If you can take immediate steps to eliminate any problem answers, get right to it. I won't tell.

How I Scored:



Not perfect. See above. How can we bear to eat those cute candy sleds, which took me so long to make and are mostly Hershey's bars, which aren't so tempting? (Some of my relatives are having the same problem.) The wreath doesn't look as dead as it is because it is so saturated with pinecones. I love pinecones as well as the fact that this overwrought design would get me permanently banned from the Garden Club's annual wreath-decorating fundraiser.

I threw out a second wreath and found a cache of Christmas cards (from other people) just two days ago. I'm not counting the Trader Joe's Candy Cane Cookies as a "Christmas" food stash because I'm deliberately hoarding them for year-round consumption. 

And I refuse to be responsible for Christmas-themed cat toys....

But I also confess I haven't found homes for a couple of presents. I plead extenuating circumstances: I received a giant LED camping lantern from a thoughtful relative (who has never seen this apartment) in case of another Hurricane Sandy-esque power outage. It's sitting on my bedroom floor along with a package of 12 "D" batteries because I have nowhere to put them. I'd given that same relative a tiny LED flashlight on a lanyard for the very same purpose (and he actually lost power for a week, as we did not). And then he refused to trade! During our first-ever neighborhood blackout last March, we managed nicely with tiny flashlights and candles. I may decide to award the lantern to the lowest scorer on the quiz... so let me know how you did.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Harris & R2D2

It's very cold in our drafty house. The kittens warmed up under the covers with me for a while this morning. Then they started fighting under my knees and had to be removed.

Harris discovered wind-up toys today. He knocked a tiny toy robot off my husband's desk and began smacking it around.


It became more exciting — even a little scary — after I wound it up. Harris dashed away at first but then got brave, especially when it fell over and stopped heading toward him:


He courageously smacked it around some more. But he had those "airplane ears" he gets when he's overwhelmed:


He thought the grinding noise it made was very nice, like a locust (a big, crunchy bug). But he was happiest after he "killed" it once and for all:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Crimes of the Bath (Developing)

We awoke up to mayhem this morning. In the night, an emotionally unstable roll of tissue had apparently gone berserk and unfurled itself into a mess on the bathroom floor:


We were very grateful that none of the cats had been injured during the roll's suicidal unraveling. 

Later that morning, Mr. Toffee practiced mountain-climbing on the lace curtains. Like Sherlock Holmes, he can be very annoying when he is bored. 

His exploits were too wild and short-lived for me to document with my slow camera, but I did get this photo of him preparing to launch himself:


Mr. Toffee likes to reflect on recent criminal developments even as he is devising catastrophes of his own. After rappelling down the curtains one last time, he suggested to Mr. Harris that a cat may have been, in fact, responsible for the bathroom carnage.

Mr Harris has an investigative mind. He quickly got down to business, identifying two possible suspects:


(This story is developing.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Crimes of the Hearth, Etc.

Those of you who've been reading here for a while know that I periodically complain about real estate, particularly about how so much of Boston's housing stock lacks character and taste. Even the loveliest 19th-century Boston townhouses, with beautifully preserved exteriors, are likely to be disappointing inside. Both developers and homeowners love to wreak havoc with historic details. Almost everywhere I look, I find that the details I cherish most — original fireplace mantels, wooden floors, paneled doors, staircases, hardware, moldings, wainscoting, plasterwork, built-ins — have been replaced with cheap, new, generic building materials just as you'd find in any recent suburban development.

Another surprising failure in taste is the lingering love of exposed brick, which began as a cheap alternative to replacing old plaster. Exposed brick's heyday was the 1970s, but while the Formica kitchens and colorful bath fixtures of those days are long gone, incongruous brick walls remain in otherwise stately Back Bay settings.

Below is a dining room in a newly listed penthouse condo in the Fanny Farmer Mansion on Hereford Street. A crystal chandelier and exposed brick? I don't think Fanny would have approved, at all. I'm going to visit her grave the next time we are at Mount Auburn Cemetery to see what's happened to the sod. All the rolling over she's been doing down below may have left some traces.


Many of Boston's townhouse condos also have frustrating layouts. While converting a single-family townhouse to apartments is challenging, it can often be accomplished gracefully if no one insists on carving out more bedrooms and bathrooms than a floor's footprint can support in the greedy quest for higher selling prices.

Here's an example from a 2-bedroom condo in Back Bay that recently went under agreement, with an asking price of more than a million dollars. Look at the master bedroom, below. It was originally the house's dining room, occupying the back half of the house's most formal, parlor level.


What you can't see in this carefully angled photo is the wall a developer added right behind the bed. It destroyed the elegant proportions of the room. The third bay window, which you imagine is behind the bed, isn't in this room anymore. It's been walled off, with about a quarter of the original room, to create a second bedroom. "And what a charming and practical room it is!" Said no one, ever:


I don't see how anyone could live here without constantly wishing this were a less awkward, rectangular room.

Let's return to the master bedroom photo and consider the fireplace. Under that bland white paint, there's probably magnificent walnut — the finest, old-forest walnut that could be bought in the 19th century, possibly inlaid with other rare woods of different colors. No one will probably ever see it again.

Fireplaces are commanding architectural elements. When a room has a fireplace, it's hard to make any other feature the focal point of the room. As you see in the bedroom, whoever furnished it bowed to that truth and installed the television above the mantel. Now that black screen is the most riveting thing in the room and indeed, television is the most riveting thing in many people's lives. At least it's easy to remove the TV and replace it with a nice work of art.

Let's try to imagine what was above the mantel more than a century ago: very likely a towering walnut mirror with a carved frame to match the mantel. It would have reflected the light of a multi-armed brass and crystal gas chandelier, suspended from an ornate plaster ceiling medallion over a massive dining room table. Matching pairs of sconces would have blazed around the room. That grand mirror would have made the room seem larger as well as brighter.

Oh, well. Now we can watch Oprah above the mantel instead.

Finally, here's a living room in a Marlborough Street parlor-level condominium that just went under agreement after being listed for $1.275 million.


This is a lovely room, or it will be when the TV goes away along with a horrible (fluorescent?) ceiling fixture that you can't see in this photo. (Most of the furniture clashes with the stately, English-style paneling, but I bet it's only rental furniture via the broker. No real homeowner would buy those vases or clog their sofa with all those drab pillows. Would she?)  Because this room had so much of its original detail intact, I went to the open house last week just to admire it. Apart from the lighting and the TV, this is a wonderful room. (I also hate recessed lighting in most rooms, and many professional decorators back me up, but I'll spare you that diatribe. It's easy to get rid of it.)

As I was leaving the open house, I heard the people behind me talking about how much better the living room would look when it was painted.

Just shoot me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

This and That

◊  Yes, my physical therapist noticed the giant holes in both of my socks last week. She said it was "no big deal" when I asked her. But she remembered.

◊  Are we in mourning for the Patriots? No much. Just a bit. It was a terrible game and they didn't deserve to win. I think we should get that Pollard fellow on our team so he'll stop injuring our best players.

◊  Both kittens have discovered the bathroom sink:


A drippy faucet is a big thrill for Harris, who likes to get wet. He has scientific curiosity and can spend half an hour investigating, fascinated. Toffee likes to go where Harris goes, but I think his interests are more literary. He watches Downton Abbey with attention. Perhaps he is an English Toffee.

◊  We saw Lincoln at the Kendall Square Cinema. We were warned that there was a problem with the heat in that theater, but we decided to tough it out. We wore our coats (and hats and gloves) while our feet froze. The characters also felt the cold; in many scenes, they were bundled into topcoats or huddled near the fireplace as they talked. If you enjoy hearing fine actors handling long, eloquent speeches, this is a film for you. Daniel Day-Lewis made unexpected choices — as you'd expect from him — and Sally Field managed to portray Mary Todd as a sympathetic character. Jared Harris was a surprise as Ulysses S. Grant, a big stretch from his pathetic Lane Pryce on Mad Men. Tommy Lee Jones stole each of his scenes as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. It was a Spielberg film so there were some maudlin, implausible touches that detracted from the story's power, but it was still a pleasure to hear so many actors making good use of the English language.

◊  We visited a couple of pet stores over the weekend (Fish + Bone on Newbury Street, Stinky's in Somerville) looking for brands on the Natural Cat Care Blog's Best Cat Foods List. The only canned food I found from was Nature's Variety Instinct, which we already buy by the case. Although it didn't make the list, I bought a few cans of By Nature Organics. I just discovered that it has menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite, which is a controversial, potentially toxic form of vitamin K. So that's probably why it's not on the list. (Sorry cats, I know you found it tasty.) There are some good frozen raw options available locally, so I'll buy one or two of those to try this week. I'll also be checking out the options at Brookline Grooming and Polka Dog.

◊  We also visited Mayflower Poultry in Cambridge, recommended by Penny of Boston Zest. These cheerful gentleman have seen it all in terms of requests for raw foods for cats and dogs, and make custom grinds of chicken, turkey, duck, and other animals. I will order from them if we decide we can handle making our own food. I'm still looking into the necessary supplements, costs, and logistics. I'd want to use a "complete" supplement so I don't have to spend time piercing vitamin capsules and so on. I've also been staring into our tiny freezer, packed with chicken stock, ravioli, homemade soups, vegetables, and other staples. I don't see how I can part with all that to make room for cat food if we're to feed ourselves too.

◊  The January sales are getting better. J. Crew is now offering 40% off items already marked down, and free shipping if you spend $100. They renew their stock in the wee hours, so early morning is the best time to shop. I just bought my winter-hating husband an English tweed topcoat lined with Thinsulate. It was $150, originally $455. And I can't resist a cashmere sweater (or two) on clearance every winter, so I ordered this for me:


◊  The Trader Joe's on Memorial Drive in Cambridge still had about a dozen tubs of (sweet and addictive) Candy Cane Cookies left as of Saturday afternoon. I was amazed to see them but restrained myself, buying just two. The customers at that store seem very chatty. As I waited in line, the guy in front of me dashed off to buy some Fancy Mexican Blend Shredded Cheese while I held his spot. He returned and we exclaimed about how good it is, which convinced the guy behind me to dash off to get a bag for his chili. Then he started proselytizing for Chocolate Covered Chocolate Chip Dunkers. Chatty store.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

More Soup

Someone jumped onto the kitchen counter and stole the little purple sponge we keep by the sink for cleaning the cats' dishes. Someone put it in the water dish, to make Sponge Soup. Now who could it have been?

Was it a deliberate act of sarcasm, since the kittens are always hungry, or am I reading too much into it?

Lately, at night, I lecture Harris sternly and repeatedly (in my Professor McGonagall voice) about kitten decorum because he is crazy about jumping onto the counters and knocking things around. I also caught Toffee exploring there tonight. He was supposed to have learned his lesson after his close encounter with a hot burner.

I know we'll have rig up something unpleasant, with double-stick carpet tape or noisy falling objects, to make the counters unappealing. (A boggart would be more effective. Or better yet, a house elf who'd spend the night making us breakfast and polishing the silver after Harris and Toffee were magically ejected from the premises.)

At the moment, Harris is inside our leather chair. He tore the fabric on the bottom so he can crawl into his own Crate & Barrel cave. We have to do something about that, too.

At least he started using his corrugated vertical scratching post this week. It was gathering dust in my husband's office since before he arrived, as we had been instructed that he would need it. I suspect he's only shredding it because he thinks he's not supposed to. If I praise him as he goes at it, he often stops.

Harris also jumped on our high wooden bookcases by himself tonight. I had to help Toffee, who was eager to join him. Wendy and Possum have no interest in going up there, so the kittens should always have this excellent, high perch to themselves, where they are at eye level with us. When I went over to Harris, he pressed his paws against my face affectionately and closed his eyes. Kittens can do no wrong.

I think Harris has "bedroom eyes" — what do you think?  
Compare him with Rudolph Valentino (below). 

Luckily, Harris doesn't have a monobrow or such flashy taste in clothes.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Annals of Stupidity 2013: Starting Early This Year

All day yesterday, as I walked around the apartment in a pair of thick black socks, I wondered at how cold the floor felt on my soles. "These socks must be getting thin," I thought. "Gee, it must be freezing outside because the floor feels so cold."

Sitting at the table after dinner, I put my right ankle over my left knee and finally discovered a hole the size of a half-dollar in the heel of my sock. Sure enough, there was a matching hole in the other sock. 

What the heck.

It wouldn't have mattered except that I'd had a physical therapy session in the morning, where I lay on the table in my stocking feet as the therapist did painful things to my shins and calves. How embarrassing! Cringe. 

I wonder what she thought. I won't have a chance to ask her until I see her next week.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fat Possum! Or, The Quest for the Ideal Cat Food, Part 2

The boys went to the vet tonight. Harris voluntarily climbed into his carrier; like Goldilocks, he checked out all three before choosing his favorite. He is an exceptional kitten. Toffee didn't object to being zipped into his carrier, either, although he cried plaintively in the car, no doubt remembering the horrors of his recent trip to the emergency center at Angell.

Possum resisted. Possum is large and strong, and he did not go gently. I seldom pick him up; I'm no fool. We rarely have disagreements — only about trimming his claws, and only then until my husband finds a way to hold him that he approves. But he wanted to stay home tonight, so it was hard work getting his big head and substantial rump down into the carrier, which is barely big enough to hold him. Once inside, he can easily roll it over. He tried to bite his way to freedom.

We ran into a neighbor, sitting by himself, in the vet's waiting room. I love Boston; in many ways, it's a small town, and our neighborhood really is a village. This neighbor happens to work at the museum where I freelance. He told me he'd put my 1099 Form in the mail today. See, Boston really is a small town.

Toffee's paws are healing; he got his FVRCP booster shot. Harris got his rabies shot, the annual vaccine that's thought to be the safest one for rabies. Both kittens are growing nicely; Harris is 6.2 pounds and Toffee is 6.8.

We'd brought Possum along just to be weighed. I had tried it this afternoon on our digital scale, which read 6.8 pounds. Ha. I don't want to imagine the lies it's been telling me about MY weight.

I was sorry to learn that Possum weighs 16 pounds. He hasn't lost any weight since we stopped free-feeding him kibble (grain-free) along with Natural Balance canned (with grain) in early November and switched him to a high-protein, all-canned diet. (As you can see, I'm a very new convert to the Anti-Kibble/Pro-Canned/Pro-Raw theories of feline nutrition, so judge my zeal accordingly.)

They say, "Stout has more to offer," and Possum is proof of that. 
Here, little Harris submits to a bath.

Poor Possum. He's still 1-1/2 pounds overweight, as I suspected. I suppose it's good news that he hasn't gained weight, and that he isn't considered "obese." It seems he was obese when he was 17.5 pounds a little over a year ago. In those days, I was feeding him a "light" formula of kibble that was loaded with grains, because it was supposed to help him lose weight. But he gained weight instead. This happens to lots of cats on "diet" food because it's full of carbohydrates, which they can't metabolize as efficiently as protein, and even fat.

Live, learn. We thought Possum's new diet would reduce his weight easily. But it didn't.

So, what are we going to do now? It will be hard to feed Possum less food because he already acts hungry much of the time, putting on a pathetic, melodramatic act that includes licking the floor. Each cat gets the equivalent of one 5.5-ounce can of food per day, about 225 calories. It doesn't seem like much. The kittens and Wendy seem to be fine with that much food although they'd certainly welcome more. But Possum is already getting far fewer calories than he's supposed to, given his size.

My theory is that his metabolism was wrecked because he was neutered at just a few weeks old. Having a theory does nothing to solve his problem, however. Finding even healthier food, feeding less of it, and giving him more frequent but smaller meals are three potential solutions.

I'm still researching canned and raw foods. I've gotten deeply mired in too much information. I have tied my brain in knots on the subject. Yet I'm unhappy with my current choices every single day (although all the cats chow them down). We feed Nature's Variety Instinct Duck and Lamb flavors (the cats rejected their Chicken flavor). This brand is widely considered to be safe and healthy, but these flavors still have a small percentage of "silly" vegetables, like artichokes, cranberries, tomatoes, and pumpkin. They are probably added to appeal to our human taste buds, not to nourish our cats; cats apparently lack the enzymes to metabolize any remaining nutrients in such vegetables. I will continue to put up with them until I can find some simpler foods that they'll eat. We're also feeding Wellness Core Chicken, although we're stopping as soon as the last can is gone (or well before that if I can find a replacement) because it contains carrageenan,* a potentially dangerous ingredient that you'll find in many premium "natural" foods.

I need to get busy tomorrow and find some new foods that I can test with a few meals and then buy in bulk. And that includes raw food, which is looking better and better. I've decided I will work from this rather excellent list at The Natural Cat Care Blog, since its author, Liz Eastwood, seems to have done much of the research homework I'd assigned myself. Many of the foods I researched and liked are on her list, too. I will keep you posted about the foods I find in local shops and how my cats are liking them. They've been willing to try new things so far. Wish us luck.


*Susan Thixton of TruthaboutPetFood is doing important, frustrating work to improve the pet food industry — her goals include more transparency and honesty to "petsumers" as well as safer and healthier ingredients. I subscribe to her newsletter and pay to read her pet food reviews. If you're interested in pet food, do check out her website.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Snow and Frosting

We awoke to a snowstorm and it seemed like a good day to hunker down inside the apartment.

Then we heard that a Crumbs Bake Shop kiosk had just opened in the Prudential Center, a couple of blocks from where we live. Previously, a Crumbs softball-sized cupcake was almost exactly 5,000 steps from my door — not a trek to be taken lightly, but also an enticing destination for a 5-mile walk. Now it's closer than the post office. We are doomed. So we figured we'd might as well make the best of it and succumb early. We went and gawked at all the fancy flavors, tried some samples, and bought one cupcake to split, in our favorite flavor, Monkey Business (banana cupcake with banana cream-cheese filling, caramel frosting, caramel-swirl topping, rolled in toffee bits).

Even half a cupcake seemed almost criminally decadent. I'm not sure if this new Crumbs will turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing about living in this neighborhood. My jeans will let me know if I have sufficient willpower. (I did survive Krispy Kreme when they had a shop in the Pru.)

In other news, Possum and Harris shared the velvet armchair for a nap tonight. They are such good friends, and look so sweet together. We're delighted that our males get along beautifully. Aside from a few daily petting sessions with my husband, Wendy keeps mostly to herself, even though the kittens are either deferential or oblivious to her as they play together. She watched me brush Harry and Toffee while she was on the bed near them and me this afternoon. They both enjoyed it; she observed this closely. Then I offered to brush her, and away she flew. After three years with us, I don't think she realizes that she is Our Cat, too, with all the rights and privileges that brings.

Oh, well. Wendy keeps things interesting.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

3:25 PM

I took photos of all four felines in the same minute this afternoon. It was a quiet moment but most of them were looking picturesque:

Possum the Patriarch, as we call him, although he's only 3, 
thinking deep thoughts, as usual.

Toffee had his 55th and 56th doses of worming antibiotic today; 
he's finally finished, although I think he was cured weeks ago.
Harris discovered the joys of a trickling bathroom sink faucet this morning, and got all wet.

Wendy, just roused from her nap, considers airing a few more of her grievances.

As for me, I had my first physical therapy session yesterday for the multiple aches and pains that run from my waist, lower back, and hips to my knees, shins, and calves; as with most PT, it was often painful but in a good way. I had my very first acupuncture treatment today. In 2013, I am trying to keep an open mind about things I don't understand. The needles felt strange but interesting, in indescribable ways; lying there in that condition was oddly relaxing, though. I was sorry to learn that almost all of my mainstay foods, including bananas, peanut butter, cow's milk, most cheese, all raw vegetables, and cold drinks are contributing to my problems, according to Chinese medicine. Finding other things to eat will prove much more challenging than becoming a pincushion once a week.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Today's Adorableness

Harris posed with a Christmas card from the Bodleian Library.



Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Quest for the Ideal Cat Food, Part 1

There is no optimally nutritious, affordable, easy-to-serve, commercial cat food. You'd think there would be, since cats' nutritional needs are not complicated. All a cat needs is freshly killed birds and mice, water, and maybe a little grass, and they are all set. But most of what passes for "quality" cat food is hardly that, and even the companies that are trying their best to make an ideal food still haven't gotten it right. (Or I haven't found it yet, probably because it's not available in the Boston area.)

Cats are obligate (strict) carnivores. Humans (and dogs) are omnivores. We benefit from the nutrients found in meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and grains, while cats only need little dead animals — high in protein, fat, and moisture. A little bit of grain in the stomach of a mouse might provide additional fiber or micronutrients. But the majority of cat kibble, and almost every other cat food you'll find in your supermarket, is loaded with cheap grain and vegetables, like corn and potatoes, instead of the animal protein and fat that cats need.

Rather than rehash all the arguments against dry food and in support of canned food — and against canned food and in favor of a raw diet, I welcome you to visit the sources that educated me. If you're curious and open-minded, as I was, I think you'll be powerfully persuaded:

Feeding Your Cat: The Basics of Feline Nutrition by Lisa Pierson, DVM

10 Reasons Why Dry Food is Bad for Cats and Dogs by Dr. Jean Hovfe

Canned Cat Food: Can Your Cat Afford to Live Without It? by Franny Syufy

Cats, Carbs, and Calories: An Obligate Carnivore's Perspective, by Tracy Dion

Deconstructing the Regulatory Facade: Why Confused Consumers Feed their Pets Ring Dings and Krispy Kremes by Justine S. Patrick (read this law student's exposé with caution: if you feed your cat grocery-story kibble, you won't believe what you may have been feeding your pet)

Complete your crash course in feline nutrition by browsing the topics on this excellent site: The Feline Nutrition Education Society.

If you work your way through a decent amount of this, you deserve a round of applause and a Scout Badge. You've just spent more time learning about how to feed your cat than your veterinarian probably spent throughout his or her training. I hope that's changed, but I keep reading that, not so long ago, vets received only one lecture about feline nutrition, presented by those wonderful folks at Hill's. That's why you see all that grain-based kibble for sale at your vet clinic.

I'm going to assume that we are all on the same page now, that we're in agreement with the idea that a raw diet is both the healthiest and the safest diet, while an all-canned diet is still far superior to kibble, at least. (If you're not there yet, go back and read some more, the evidence is pouring in and it's not all anecdotal, although even the anecdotal evidence is becoming overwhelming.)

Ideally, we'd all be standing around grinding up whole chickens, ducks, and lambs and mixing in supplements, or defrosting frozen mice so our cats could bat them around before they bit off their heads. In reality, it's a big, scary leap between pouring kibble to feeding raw. Fortunately, there's a middle ground: commercial frozen or dehydrated raw, sticking with canned food, or both.

So, what raw or canned foods should we buy?

Darned if I know, and I've been trying to figure that out for weeks. More coming soon.

Toffee and Harris contemplate the confusing world of commercial cat food. 
And wish they had some of it. In a bowl. Now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sock Snatcher ID'ed


I've been leaving my socks all over the floor and, sure enough, this morning I saw him dragging a knee sock from the bedroom toward the kitchen. He kept tripping over it but he was determined. I rescued it before it became sock soup in the water dish.

In other news, we refinanced our mortgage today. For years we were getting marketing packets about "zero-cost refinancing" from our mortgage company in fancy overnight mail envelopes. And I kept throwing them out, figuring that we were going to be moving in the next year or so, so why go to the trouble? Finally I called, partly out of curiosity, since it sounded like a scam, partly to ask them to stop bombarding us with junk mail, and partly because we've been house-hunting for three years and I think we could easily look for three to five more years before we find some old wreck that suits us.

The mortgage company made us an offer I couldn't refuse. And it was absurdly easy. I completed most of the application by answering questions during that same phone call. I was surprised when actual paperwork arrived; I was still half-convinced it was a scam. We had to sign and return a few forms by fax (so the refinancing did cost us about $4 in fax charges), and that was it. Then we waited about six weeks to be processed and approved.

This morning, a nice fellow from the mortgage company, who lives on a houseboat in East Boston (and likes cats), rang our bell. We three sat down, and Harris and Toffee kept us company on the table as we signed and initialed about fifty sheets of paper. And that was that. It really didn't cost us a cent to refinance; all the fees were credited back to us. I still suspect in my heart of hearts that it's a scam, but until we end up sobbing on 60 Minutes, we'll save a few hundred dollars a month — and much of it will go towards the cost of the best cat food I can find. More on that subject later.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Goodbye, Tree

The Christmas tree was dismantled and dragged to the alley tonight. It was long past due. I miss it, and the boughs and lights that decorate the mantels, but the wreaths are still up. Our many boxes of decorations are back in storage but a few thousand balsam fir needles remain because I'm too tired to vacuum.

Toffee, Harris, and I were playing with Da Bird this morning and Toffee sailed off the back of an armchair right into the middle of the tree. It was so dry that he was stuck there, attached to the branches as if they were Velcro. I had to pull him off and his belly had needles sticking out all over, like a little porcupine.

Toffee can't wait until we bring in the fresh, new tree. Since the tree arrived at the same time he was freed from his isolation room and got the run of the house, he thinks we always have a tree. Toffee has many things to learn.

Toffee enjoys his tree.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Itinerant Socks

Stray socks are roaming our apartment. A sock that I'd left on the coffee table last night turned up later on the bedroom rug. My husband handed it to me with raised eyebrows, silently accusing me of leaving clothes on the floor. (I was happy to correct him, although I'd just left a whole pile of clothes in the living room temporarily. After freezing to death in a hat, scarf, gloves and multiple layers half the evening, I'd gotten wise and turned up the heat.)

Another sock, which I'd draped over the bedroom fireplace screen to dry on Monday, turned up that evening in the kitchen, in the cats' water dish. Either we have itinerant socks or one of the kittens is a Sock Snatcher. I've never had one of those before, just as I've never had an Ear Nurser or a Toy Growler or a Christmas Tree Climber or a Stove Jumper.*

I'm usually up for new cat experiences, as long as they don't involve creative litter-box behavior or trips to the ER.

So, which kitten is the Sock Snatcher? 

It's a long shot that it's Wendy, although she does like to carry toys all over the place. It's definitely not Possum; he's too busy being lazy intellectual to do any work whatsoever. 

Pick the Sock Snatcher

I'll bet it's Harris. He likes to make soups from his toys in that dish. He makes a hearty catnip mouse broth, and a more delicate, clear consommé of plastic jingle ball. He makes a rustic potage of Christmas tree twigs almost every day. He will be sorry to see that tree go.

I'm going to start leaving socks everywhere to see who gets caught in the act.

It's also possible that we have two Sock Snatchers, of course. Stay tuned.


 * Snicky was a String Swallower like Toffee, but I always caught her in the act with that same toy, before I learned to store it out of reach. She was not as dedicated as our little Toffeepot — who swallowed about a foot of string long with the fabric "moth" tied to the end. The previous owner of this apartment left us that toy in 1998 and it survived until Toffee. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Little Things

Here's what making January tolerable, besides our cats, friends, and the final days of the Christmas decorations:

1. Italian cookies, from Maria's Bakery in the North End: a satisfying variety of traditional Rainbow bars, Florentines, leaves, petits fours, and other butter cookies, usually saturated with food coloring and/or frosted, sugared, or sprinkled. Mike's had a disappointing selection the last time we were there; both Mike's and Bova's sell similar cookies for $15 a pound. Maria's are just $10 a pound and just as nice as Mike's, maybe better. Having a box around makes it feel like Christmas all over again.

2. Candles, on sale at Bath & BodyWorks. We often burn scented candles to mask cooking smells that waft in from elsewhere. We ignore $60 Diptyque candles, $65 Jo Malones, and the Bond line that starts at $95. We breeze past them as we walk through Sak's because it's the warmest way to get to the supermarket. Instead, we stock up at B&B when their $20 candles are half price or less, so we can burn them with abandon. There are good scents in their winter line, and you can always find some kind of sale or deal. Most of the year, their candles smell like household cleaners, cupcakes, suntan lotion, tropical drinks, and variations on pumpkin pie. I shop only between November and January, when they offer Winter Night: a blend of cypress, clove, cedar, and incense. It smells like church, specifically Midnight Mass. So I stock up now for Christmas in August.

I'm branching out this year with Fireside, which smells like it sounds, Evergreen, and Chestnut and Clove. One more tip: their red candles tend to smell like fruit drinks. Look for gray or ivory candles, and you'll be happier.) Single-wick candles are marked down to $4 to $5 now and several of their better  scents are available online.
 
3. Downton Abbey. Ah, it's back. Last year, in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum compared it to Fiddler on the Roof, with a much fancier roof. Lord Grantham is Tevye, watching his world change, partly through the choices his three eligible daughters make. I love that metaphor. I know the show has turned into pure soap and gets awfully silly at times, but who cares? There's always entertainment in gorgeous actors, wonderful sets and costumes, and good acting even as you're rolling your eyes over the story. I got all teary as Mary came down the grand staircase in her wedding dress. Don't forget to read the clever recaps from Tom + Lorenzo each week.


4. Sparkly stuff. My new iPhone case in raspberry glitter from J. Crew. A steal on sale for $10. Full disclosure: I have the silver one, too. Anything that sparkles that much makes me unreasonably happy, and Christmas ornaments can't stay up forever.

5. So, naturally, I fell for J. Crew's glitter notebooks ($12.50), too, in pink gold and midnight blue. I'll keep one on my desk to jot down info as I'm talking to the vet or a family member's doctor, or doing other business that will slip my mind soon after I put down the phone.

6. A cozy throw. Mine is a knitted cashmere blend from Garnet Hill, a Christmas present from last year. I'm often ridiculously cold. Right now, I'm sporting fingerless gloves, cashmere socks (one with a giant hole at the big toe), a turtleneck, a cardigan, leggings, a wool muffler, my husband's sherpa fleece jacket, and a wool hat. My laptop is trying to keep me warm, too. These layers are a little extreme... but I'm still cold. Possum is purring nearby but not throwing off much heat. So I'm also bundled up in my throw. It's a winter necessity. I wrap up in in it bed, too, under the flannel sheets, the double-weight down comforter, and the quilts. You gotta have a throw in January.