Saturday, February 21, 2009

When Your Cat Is Abusive....

This is a difficult subject. I wanted this to be a happy blog, focused on beautiful things and Boston. But I feel an overwhelming urge to speak up about my personal demons.

My biggest (or at least most rotund) personal demon is called Bunny, pictured above.

We hear regularly about child abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, and other forms of physical and emotional pain and tyranny (such as working in an cubicle). These terrible things should call us to sorrow, outrage, and action to eradicate them entirely. But at least they are not forbidden topics any more.

But there is still one taboo that victims are too ashamed to talk about, except me: Cat abuse. As you see, it happens in my home. It's embarrassing, it's wrong. But there's nothing I will do, because I love Bunny, even though she has complete control over me. And whenever I get brave and try to report her abuse, the authorities just smirk at me. (You know how doctors are required to ask, "Do you feel safe at home?" Try explaining that your cat enjoys whacking you.)

It is vital to remember that not all cats are abusive. Most are decent, law-abiding, nice pussycats. (I once knew some like that, I suppose.) Let's not allow the minority to give the whole species a bad reputation. There are already too many nasty, ignorant cat-haters working on that.

I know I should seek counseling for me or for both of us, but I guess I haven't hit bottom yet. I still have a nose. (Perhaps Bunny will choose to get help for herself someday, but I doubt it.) Anyway, I hope you now realize that abusive cats are out there, hogging the sofa, and try to have some empathy for us victims. You can often identify us by these signs:

1. Scratch marks on and around the nose. This is caused by the cat repeatedly swatting its sleeping human to awaken it, so it can be petted and praised. The cat has acute self-esteem and separation-anxiety issues.

2. Bite marks on the feet. See above.

3. Yawning, fatigue, and other signs of sleep deprivation. The result of physical (see above) or psychological abuse on the part of the cat, intended to keep its human in a weakened state. The cat may sing, or recite poetry and speeches throughout the night. The cat may appropriate its sleeping human's pillow, or attempt to sit on its sleeping human's head. None of this is normal cat behavior; these are signs that the cat has taken control of the household.

4. Confusion. Abusive cats are adept at creative torture. It is common for their owners to exhibit the kind of "learned helplessness" experienced by lab rats in those electrified-cage experiments — they become incapable of decisive action, exhibit feelings of anxiety and worthlessness, and engage in abnormal grooming behavior (including scratching of head or tearing of hair). Here are some documented techniques of abusive cats: 
  • The cat wants to go in, and then out. Then in, and out, multiple times a day. Mostly it just wants to stand in the doorway, undecided and letting cold air in, while you miss Mad Men for the third time.
  • The cat demands food, so you provide its favorite meal. The cat stares at the bowl and at you in loathing and prepares to "bury" the food and stalk off. You try a series of other foods with similar results, until you run out of options and return to the original food. The cat eats heartily after sending clear signals that it considers you a moron.
  • The cat wants nothing to do with you until you are hard at work at your computer or deeply absorbed in reading. The cat then appropriates the keyboard or reading matter by lying upon it, pretending it wants to spend time with you — although it will not make eye contact.
5. Reeking of smoke, though a nonsmoker. Many abusive cats secretly smoke. (Bunny, for example, has never been caught, but has a telltale, rusty "smoker's meow.") Cat owners who are unaware of this find cigarette ashes, butts, and lighters hidden around the house and accuse innocent family members of lighting up.

Those are five common warning signs. Now, before confronting a cat you may think is abusive, keep in mind that the following are considered normal — not abusive — cat behavior: 
  • Clawing and biting children and defenseless older adults
  • Scratching upholstery and woodwork
  • Eating plants and quickly puking them up
  • Vomiting hairballs up to three times a day
  • Knocking over valued objects
  • Tearing around the house, chasing invisible prey
  • Occasionally emitting blood-curdling howls in the wee hours
  • Scowling
  • Raiding the kitchen for people food late at night
  • Displaying extreme affection toward people whom you've warned about the cat's antisocial ways
If you believe that someone among your family or friends has an abusive cat, urge him or her to get help. However, finding help is difficult. While cat shelters abound, there are no shelters or social services for their victims.

Efforts to halt the abuse vary in their effectiveness. Some victims get a dog, hoping to intimidate the cat into better behavior; this rarely works. Some try preaching religious or humanist sermons, hoping it will repent and change its heathen ways. This succeeds in rare cases. While there are many cat therapists, most cats just curl up and sleep on the therapy couch, making behavioral changes less likely. Retaliating during episodes of abuse, perhaps with a spray-bottle of water, produces mixed results and usually just makes the owner feel like a jerk. 

The only technique that has been proven to have some efficacy in clinical tests is becoming enslaved to the cat, lavishing it with constant affection and compliments, and anticipating its every desire. The more energy expended on this, the more successful the outcomes appear.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just Walking Past This Makes Me Happy

Please try to ignore the fluorescent tube reflections and focus on the sugar, buttercream, and non-nutritive calories in the pastry case at Shaw's supermarket in Back Bay. The head baker, a courtly Italian gentleman, and his dedicated crew have outdone themselves in ingenuity and the overuse of pastry tubes and candy in recent months. And I'm all for it, even though I can't stand marshmallow peeps (which are made right down the street from our house in Bethlehem, PA).

When was the last time that the fudge-frosted cake topped with chocolate-covered strawberries seemed like your tamest, healthiest, dessert option?

Let's have a closer look:

Here we have, left to right: M&M Brownies, Mixed Fruit Cups, Whoopie Pies, and... Cookie Monsters. 

Getting even closer: how would you eat one of these "Woopie" pies? And why is the inventor of this Cookie Monster creation laboring at Shaw's instead of exhibiting at the ICA? I'd take one of these cultural icons over Shepard Fairey's boring Obey Giant any day. Put the word "Obey" under one of these and I certainly will.

I'm sorry to say that I walked away empty-handed after admiring the scenery. We had truffle brownies waiting at home.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Big Valentine's Day Celebration

Twelve years ago, my husband proposed to me on Valentine's Day. He knew it was the one day of the year when I'd never expect anything romantic. We had never marked the holiday in the years we were together, partly because we saw it as unnecessary, silly, and commercial — why not express your feelings and do nice, romantic things all year long? — and partly in solidarity with many of our single friends, who find the holiday depressing. 

That night after work in 1997, we decided to have dinner in a restaurant/bar on the way home. After our cheeseburgers, he pulled out a ring box. With jazz blasting away and astonished diners sitting shoulder-to-shoulder beside us, I was too stunned to hear everything he said or to even reply. But I accepted the ring. The next day, I got another surprise: a charming "re-do" proposal at home, which I could hear.

Since we've been married, I don't think we've ever gone out to dinner on V.D., excluding burritos at Anna's. I've always thought red roses were predictable and dreary, and the long-stemmed ones are freaks. (Miniature organic sunflowers look better on our mantel, anyway.) We're far too money-conscious to enjoy eating in a restaurant that's raised it's already-overpriced prices just because it's February 14. So we might go out on the 13th. Or the 15th. And we are celebrating our engagement nowadays, not V.D.

This year, we had lunch on the 13th at our local favorite, Petit Robert, in Kenmore Square. It's a classic, classy, French bistro with a wondrously varied lunch menu that's served til 5 o'clock. The dining room is elegant but comfortable, with crisp linens and shining silver, attentive and friendly service, French background music, candlelight as soon as it's dark, and heaps of charm in general. 

We both had our usual, the Parisian Hot Dog, which is a thousand times better than any hot dog in Paris (and we tried 'em, so we know). This one arrives hidden in a warm and crusty homemade baguette, smothered under a quantity of melted cheese that even we find excessive — although we wouldn't dream of complaining! Also on the plate are a pile of slender pommes frites and a mesclun salad with mustardy vinaigrette. We always ask for their homemade mayo for the frites, and there are little sauceboats of all the other condiments, too. We ordered Cokes (what else can you have with a hot dog besides a Coke?). We lingered as the lunch crowd disappeared, and had a marvelous time. 

Finishing such a meal takes time and stamina. We were too full for dessert (the white chocolate bread pudding is excellent) so we ordered cocoa and capuccino to help us face the five-block walk home in the cold. The cost of this memorable afternoon: $30, including a good tip. If only Petit Robert had been around in 1997 — how I would have loved receiving a proposal there!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Worried Wealthy

I guess I've been reading too many articles about ordinary working people who are now saving $150 a month by brewing coffee at home to replace daily trips to Starbucks. For me, the idea of going there even once a week has always seemed decadent. I had a head start on everyone who recently realized that living frugally is not only sensible, it has its own rewards, including the sporting aspect of bargain hunting. (Forget the people who are so rich that they embrace The New Frugality just because it's trendy. Look under their Frette-covered bed, and you'll find a box of new Jimmy Choos.)

Being a semi-employed freelancer for the past 7 years, I already know many of the tricks and strategies of living within my means and buying carefully. We've always paid the monthly balances on our credit cards (one major card apiece, plus a seldom-used Banana Republic card that gives me many nice benefits). 

Our only debt is our mortgage, which costs less than our rent did 12 years ago. We ignored the advice we were given by our elders at the time: "Never buy a house you can afford, because your income will increase and you'll 'grow into' your mortgage." "Not with our lousy nonprofit salaries," we thought. And we turned out to be right. We have a 30-year mortgage we can manage.

I walk almost everywhere (I don't have a driver's license), and we don't drink, so we save a fortune on liquor. (And when I see homeless people smoking, I'm just amazed.) We have an inexpensive, somewhat fuel-efficient car, and paid cash for it. I buy most of our clothing at 60 to 70 percent off full price, according to the careful records I keep. We've both been going to the same charming stylist at SuperCuts for years, and I color my hair myself. Most of our furniture is antique (in other words, second-hand). I get most of my books from the library, and even my magazine subscriptions are heavily discounted, because I'm "in the business." We almost never go to plays, concerts, or even full-price movies; our cable package is basic; and we have the cheapest Netflix service. 

Yet we don't feel culturally deprived. We visit Newbury Street galleries, and we can get into any museum for free, because my husband works in one. We have this glorious downtown neighborhood, so an 800-square-foot condo seems like a good size when we have the whole city at our front door.

I have a somewhat pricey gym membership — $90/month — but it's right nearby and I use it about 10 times a month. I feel the cost is preventing me from becoming a slug; working out keeps me saner and healthier. My husband has an insanely expensive squash membership, but it's the only form of exercise, besides walking, that excites him. And it's his one splurge (besides his iPhone, the true love of his life). 

I was always a cheap date. We almost never eat in fancy restaurants (unless someone else is paying), mainly because we actually prefer burritos and certain hole-in-the-wall pizza places. I rarely buy organic food, although I feel bad about that, and we almost never eat red meat. I seldom buy the expensive kosher chicken we love, but I won't settle for less. We eat a lot of my home cooking: soups, pasta, salads, sandwiches, cookies. 

Still, when a loaf of good, multigrain bread costs close to $5, and one bag of groceries from Shaw's can set you back $40, I feel like a spendthrift. Our apartment is too small to allow us to stock up at wholesale outlets, so we rely on Trader Joe's, which has some bargains.

I've been wondering if we were simply too cheap to have kids. But not having them makes living in town and saving for retirement possible. We're cat people, not kid people, anyhow.

But I'm still worried that I'm spending too much and not saving enough. This economy is messing with everyone's heads. You can never save enough, and for many of us, there's no reason to live in deprivation. You can't go for a week not spending a dime: you need fresh food. Sometimes you actually need clothes. And sometimes you owe it to your community to buy stuff you don't need and eat meals in restaurants — because it keeps local businesses alive, helps provide paychecks to workers, puts food on the tables of cashiers' and dishwashers' families. 

But it's difficult to know how to behave as a consumer in this economy.  People with credit-card balances and other outstanding debt know what to do: pay it off. People who perpetually live from paycheck to paycheck have an even better incentive these days to find ways to economize — although they probably can't. They are already up against the wall.

But for those of us who are further away from that wall, what? Should we be paranoid and worry about the collapse of the world markets and utter poverty down the road?  Should we not take advantage of $200 coats selling for $35 when we could use one?

My dad, 94 and thriving,  thinks so. He lived through the Great Depression and I think he's been waiting for decades for this one. He keeps telling me I don't understand what it was like to be worried about having food, heat, and shoe leather. And although I've read up on the subject and heard his and other stories a hundred times — no, I haven't experienced that personally. (And neither did he: his father worked a couple of days a week, my grandmother became a seamstress, they grew vegetables and hunted, and no one came close to starving.) But my dad seems awfully eager for me to experience penury and want. He thinks it's time for all the spendthrift younger generations to suffer. It's only a matter of time, he tells me, before I'll be the one standing by the tracks after the train rolls by, looking for stray pieces of coal to burn in my stove. Except we only have commuter rails around here, and my oven doesn't burn coal. 

But I get his point. So I cheer him up by telling him that, since we own a parking space in the alley, we can always live in our car on that spot, tax-free. "And what will you use for a bathroom?" he asked. "The backyard, like the construction workers do now. It will take some getting used to, but if ya gotta go, ya gotta go," I said. "And what about food?" he asked. I said, "We have many very rich neighbors who throw out tons of food, dad. We'll find food in the trash." 

Now that he can imagine us subsisting in the alley, I think he feels better. But I don't! If I had a steady, secure job, I might relax. If our investments hadn't just dropped in value by 30 percent, I'd feel more secure, too. But does it make sense to become a fearful wreck when my husband still has two jobs, and health insurance, and we've saved plenty over the years — and I occasionally earn a very decent living myself? 

I just can't freak out as much as my dad and all the journalists think I should. And when cashmere socks go on sale for $7 at Banana Republic, and mine all have holes I can't darn, I'm buying.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Things I Did and Didn't Do This Week

I made some progress on that list in the previous post. I know it could have been more — or less:
  1. This apartment is a lot cleaner. My desk has a pretty marble top — who knew?
  2. The Christmas wreaths are finally gone, along with the dead narcissus bulbs.
  3. There was napping.
  4. I made it to two strength-training classes so far; #3 is on Saturday.
  5. Only took one long walk but, hey, it snowed. (Does walking count as figure skating.)
  6. I'm having lunch with the two friends at Petit Robert on Saturday.
  7. Did some job-hunting — and quasi-networking (on facebook, with long-lost college pals in no position to ever hire me).
  8. One full bag is ready for the Salvation Army.
  9. Started reading a mystery novel, those help me fill up my 50-books-a-year list quickly.
I also did a lot of stuff that wasn't on the list: mending (ugh!), baking (cookies, pumpkin bread), making dinner every night, and getting out of my bathrobe before noon every day. I paid bills, returned library books, went grocery shopping, and called all my elderly relatives. I persuaded an unwanted client to go elsewhere, in the gentlest possible way. Hunted for the spouse's missing glasses (he did not invoke St. Anthony). And found the perfect new dining room chairs for someday:
Two more days to make further progress. Now, where's that old Ovation guitar of mine?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Things I Do and Don't Want to Do This Week

My freelance writing assignments are finally finished and, with no more on the horizon, I'm back in the ranks of the unemployed freelancers. For weeks, I've been thinking about all the things I'd like to do when I have lots of free time again—and all the things I need to do. Here's a partial list:
  1. Nap (during breaks in construction noise)
  2. Have lunch with a friend at Cosí
  3. Have lunch with a friend in the North End
  4. Have lunch with a friend off Huntington Avenue
  5. Have lunch with 2 friends at Petit Robert
  6. Visit a friend's gallery in the South End (and have lunch)
  7. Take 3 evil strength-training classes per week
  8. Clean this filthy little apartment, starting with the piles on my desk
  9. Go ice skating on the Frog Pond
  10. Go for a long walk every day
  11. Get rid of the magazine pile (i.e., reading them all and clipping articles)
  12. Get rid of the last vestiges of Christmas (2 wreaths)
  13. Create a web site for my freelance writing 
  14. Job hunt and network
  15. Renew my passport
  16. Dust off my guitar and start playing again
  17. Start drawing again
  18. Start reading again: I'm way behind on my book-a-week goal for this year
  19. Fill a few shopping bags with stuff for the Salvation Army or Boomerang's
  20. Email some of my former clients, just in case
  21. Visit the Gardner Museum before they ruin it for good
  22. Waste a big chunk of an afternoon in a good bookstore
Whew! I'm exhausted just thinking about all this. But such a long list, and especially one that includes fun, it's inevitable that some big freelance project can't be far away. 

If I get only as far as #1 tomorrow, I'll be happy. Will keep you posted.