Thursday, December 31, 2009

Possum Warms Up

Possum has begun visiting me before dawn, purring away and curling up on me as I try to fall back asleep. But he knows how to stick his cold little nose up my nostril to wake me up so I'll pet him.

I love it, of course. But no wonder I'm so sleepy all day long.

A couple of mornings ago, our bedroom was very cold, and I was very tired. I stopped petting him and rolled over, feigning sleep. Then I felt him crawling under the blankets; soon he was stretched out against me, warming my back. He napped under there for quite a while. So he's a burrower: I never had one of those heat-seeking cats before. It's going to be like having a fluffy hot water bottle!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wendy Warms Up

I am delighted to report that Wendy voluntarily jumped on my lap today, purring and asking to be petted. This is what we were hoping for, but not counting on, when we brought her home almost exactly three months ago. In recent days, she's been joining us at the dinner table (keeping a polite distance but also keeping us company), and allowing us to pet her without flinching or cringing (much) as she's lying on the bed. She hangs out with my husband there while he watches football:

She still flees each time we put her food dish on the floor but quickly returns, eyeing us suspiciously. I'm sure that's her mother's early training, and I expect we have at least a few more months ahead of us before we can begin to forget that she was born feral. She is terrified of strangers, for example. We had planned to introduce to her to a variety of cat-minded people when she was still tiny to help her over her fear. But between the calicivirus and the ringworm plague, we've all been in isolation here practically since she arrived. And I continue to feel she's perfectly right to be fearful, given all the nasty medical treatments she's been subjected to almost her entire life. It's a wonder she likes us at all.

So it was a triumph to have her rubbing her face against my hand today, loudly purring, gazing at me with her mysterious amber kitten eyes, her enormous tail swaying over her head like a fluffy parasol.

A Journal of the Plague Year, 6

It was so frigid and blustery today that it was far better to stay in Casa Ringworm, despite the strong scent of gunpowder emitting from four freshly lime-sulfur-dipped cats, than to brave the Back Bay road grit flying into my contact lenses. (I'm sleepy and wiped-out today, and my sinuses bother me. I was so out-of-it yesterday, too, that I lost a contact lens in the shower and only realized it after I was dried off and dressed in the next room. And my eyesight is terrible. I found the lens on the bathtub drain next to Possum, who never sits in the tub.)

These days, all I really want to do is hibernate, curled up with my cats. And eat cookies.

We finally got the results of the first set of ringworm cultures done on all four cats. These were technically supposed to be finished on Christmas Day, and it turns out they are still not entirely complete. We know that three cats — Wendy, Possum, Snictoria — are negative. But Snalbert, who is sort of  a Persian dust-mop, has an unidentified "contaminant" in his culture that won't be identifiable until next week. It could be ringworm, or not. By then, the second set of cultures (negative so far) on just the kittens should be ready, too. If everything is negative, we can stop getting everyone dipped and have them bathed instead, to try to remove the stinky sulfur that's accumulated on them over many weeks.

There is yet a third set of cultures for the kittens, but I can't think about that. I'm too excited to be near the possible end of living like a semi-refugee in Casa Ringworm. I miss my curtains, cushions, and carpets: the windows look naked, the chairs are uncomfortable, the floors are chilly. I miss my Ralph Lauren paisley sofa slipcover: Indian bedspreads are a poor substitute, no matter how cute they are. I miss our super-heavy down comforter on these freezing nights, when breezes blow through our bedroom from the caulked but still-leaky windows. We've been making do with a cheap, washable, fleece blanket. I miss having friends over for a cup of tea. I miss everything — except my vacuum cleaner. We've become very close since October. I think of my Miele fondly, my staunch ally in the Ringworm Wars.

The groomer who has been dipping our cats — the only one in all of Greater Boston willing to commit to this messy, smelly, potentially hazardous weekly treatment — is apparently a witch. At least she wears a Wiccan pentagram pendant. Spotting it around her neck it made me feel strangely relieved. I trust her even more now. Wiccans are supposed to be more attuned to nature than the rest of us, because their religion revolves around observing, understanding, and celebrating all living things, the cycles of nature, and the changing seasons. So it makes perfect sense that she doesn't shy away from the stinky chemicals and invisible (living) spores of this world. It's all one to a good, wise witch. I respect that. I haven't mentioned any of this to her, but if an opportunity arises, I'd like to ask her about it. Modern witchcraft intrigues me.

She's told us that Possum is her favorite of our cats. Of course he is — he's a purring, snuggling, feline version of Johnny Depp, with his huge dark eyes. (He's begun visiting me in bed before dawn, purring and demanding attention, sticking his sweet little nose up my nostril to wake me up. I can't refuse.)

The groomer's second favorite is Snicky; she says Snicky is "girly" and sweet. It's true: Snicky even walks with her front paws turned out in First Position, like a ballerina. The groomer is looking forward to bathing her, fluffing up her Persian coat, and sticking a bow on her head. I don't know how I feel about this. Okay, I know; I hate bows on cats' heads. But after all she's done for us, at some personal cost, she can stick bows all over all of them if it makes her happy.

I suspect that Snalbert is her least favorite; he howls his head off nonstop the whole time he's there, and wriggles like crazy as he's being dipped. As for Wendy, she's always a well-behaved young lady even if her two little spotty ears are what started all this fuss and expense.

Let's hope we've smelled the last of fresh lime-sulfur. The kittens probably think it's just the normal routine, being too young to know anything else. (Perhaps the older cats have told them otherwise.) I don't know how we'll ever get all that smelly residue off of everything in the house — we have to wash our hands several times to get them sulfur-free after we pet someone, and everything comes out of the dryer reeking of baked sulfur. But I can't wait to even try to get this place back to normal.

Maybe in just about two more weeks....

Sunday, December 27, 2009

We Love Bova's

It's been our tradition to spend the afternoon of Christmas Eve in the North End, doing some last-minute shopping for food (Pace's, Mike's, Salumeria Italiana) and gifts (torrone and pistachios for my dad, turtles and chocolate-covered cherries from the late, lamented Dairy Fresh). Then we split a large pizza from Regina's. With Christmas lights twinkling around the bar and all the windows, the lighted St. Anthony statue in the corner, the wait staff in holiday moods, and the jukebox blasting old songs, there's no happier place in my opinion than a booth in Regina's. And there's no better pizza, either.

You have to have a large pizza, however. A small one doesn't provide the same satisfaction. Our theory is that when you take your first bite, you need to be a certain distance from the crust to feel that all is right with the world. Split at least one large and take home any leftovers.

Last year, it was snowing and cold, and we stumbled into Bova's to warm up before getting in line at Regina's. And they had frosting-decorated gingerbread men, and we thought they were out of this world. We went back and got some for dessert after Regina's and ate them on the walk home. And we've been thinking about them ever since.

This year, since the presents for my family had been shipped days earlier, we didn't need to do any last-minute shopping, so we we thought about having our pizza on the day after Christmas instead. I called Bova's on Christmas Eve morning and discovered they were already out of gingerbread men, which clinched our decision. The young woman on the phone said she would set aside six of them for me on Saturday. Perfect!

But Bova's had no gingerbread men for us on Saturday. Because it was quiet, a young man, the son of one of the owners offered to bake some just for us. "Are you sure?" we said.  "Sure, it's no problem. Can you come back in about a half hour?" We said we'd return after we ate at Regina's, which would give them time to frost them, too.

The Christmas lights were dark at Regina's — a blown fuse, the waitress explained. But the pizza was still perfect and who cared if we were listening to Madonna instead of Andy Williams?  We had a great time.

When we went back to Bova's, the nice young fellow explained that it had gotten busy, and he had burned the batch of gingerbread men, and had had to bake another. He went in the back to frost them. His father stepped up to the register to ring them up.

"How many did you want?" he asked.

"Six." I said.

"No, you need two and a half dozen!" he said in mock alarm. "Six is nothing!"

"Two and a half dozen is too much!" I replied, puffing up my cheeks to their fullest, to show him me as an exploding fat lady.

He laughed and rang up six, while I asked him why he didn't make mostacciola.

"Do you know what mostacciola is?"  he asked, looking a little confused.

"I know it's a pasta dish," I said, as he nodded. "But it is also a sort of gingerbread or spice cookie, dipped in chocolate, that I only see around at Christmastime."

"Mostacciola!" he said. "Of course! Yes, I haven't really had that since I was growing up in Calabria. They make it there and it was the taste of Christmas for me. It isn't as good over here. Mostacciola. How could I forget that?"

"They make it at Maria's," I said. "But I bet you could make it better."

We were interrupted as an older couple came in, looking puzzled. As they continued to look around, undecided, I helpfully said, "Everything is good here."

The wife replied, "We know, but he can't have dairy, and we want bread." As she went to the counter to discuss bread, the husband — tall, rangy, white-haired, bespectacled — turned to me. "No dairy." he said. "Drives me crazy."

"I know." I replied. "I can't have cream or alcohol and it's such a pain."

"No ALCOHOL!" he exclaimed. "That's terrible! I couldn't survive. You can't have ANY? How do you live?"

"Well, I never drank much. Red wine is the worst. I sometimes add a splash of sherry when I cook, but that's all..."

He said, "Red wine? Who cares. I told them: 'You can take away anything but not my Jack Daniels.' As long as I can have that, I'm okay."

"So what do you have for breakfast?" I asked. "Fruit and Jack Daniels? Cereal and Jack Daniels? Pop-Tarts and Jack Daniels?"

He laughed and asked us what we did. I introduced my husband as a future tenured professor and he congratulated us. We asked what he did, and he said that he and his wife owned a financial services firm in Chestnut Hill. She turned and smiled, and ordered two almond biscotti to go with their bread. "Wow," I said. "We might actually have a reason to come and talk to you someday. We might finally have finances for a change!"

"Oh, you will!" he said, as two boxes of warm gingerbread men were put into my hands. We said goodbye, thank you, and Merry Christmas, and went our way. I felt perfectly rich and content with those gingerbread men in my possession. I love the North End. Everyone is family.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Here at Casa Ringworm, Christmas was very merry. There is nothing like the promise of tenure to make the season bright. Besides having that big dream come true, we have our lovely tree, and our two mantels are decorated with lights, fir boughs, and ornaments. The back of our front door is covered in greeting cards from friends and family, and I used all my wreath-decorating powers to deck one with pinecones and glass balls. And there are lots of cookies. Our swell new Denon bookshelf stereo plays my iPod's Christmas playlist of hundreds of tunes from morning to bedtime. There was even a kissing ball taped in the kitchen doorway, but it fell down one afternoon while we were out and I worry that it beaned a cat. We (and any remaining spores) are making the most of the season.

Because we couldn't drive to Pennsylvania to celebrate with my family (you can't hire cat sitters or board at the vet when your cats have ringworm), we exchanged presents by mail. My sister sent a large brown box marked "Do NOT open until Christmas." When I opened it, I was delighted to find an old joke of ours, which I thought she had lost or tossed out a couple of years ago. We call it The Present. It is a two-piece wrapped gift box covered with the detritus of every Christmas since her grown daughters were babies.

Here is Possum with The Present. It looks like a messy pile of Christmas-themed trash — because it is.

Our tradition began when I began attaching scraps of exceptionally ugly wrapping paper to decorate one of my presents to her. She saved it and gave it back to me on a present the next year, with the addition of some McDonald's fast-food bags that her kids had colored. I added ugly little package decorations the following year and sent it her way. She reciprocated by adding a string of electric lights with a battery pack. One year, I added red Mardi Gras beads from a Gay Pride parade.  You can see Possy trying to bite them here:

The Christmas after our mother died, I found a plastic-protected card with my mother's holiday tollhouse cookie recipe in her handwriting. In other years we added tangles of messy ribbons, creepy elves, and a Bing Crosby Christmas cassette. Lately it's been dominated by a large, weirdo Santa doll.

At some point the whole mess fell apart and my sister painstakingly reattached everything to a sturdy, wrapped, two-piece gift box.

The Present hadn't appeared for a couple of years; my sister made vague excuses. I thought she had either lost it or decided it was too much trouble to keep up the habit of adding more crap to it. So I was very surprised to open that giant box on Friday morning and find It buried in there, under piles of protective wrappings.

It was the most wonderful surprise, perhaps better than the Uggs my husband gave me, which look like fleece-lined motorcycle boots instead of ugly Uggs. (When it snows again, I'll be extremely grateful for the boots.)

I think we will definitely have to move out of this small apartment because we have Nowhere to store The Present for a whole year. (I suppose I could ship it back to her, but she is the type to turn around and ship it right back to me....)

My husband took photos of me in my robe, holding the box in front of the tree, with several appalled facial expressions. We emailed them to my sister, along with photos of Possum's encounter.

In other news, the four cats received 20 presents between them (half came from a handsome stocking sold at PetSmart; my sister always provides high-quality catnip toys, too). By now, almost all of them are stuck under furniture because I have taken a three-day leave from vacuuming as we await the first set of ringworm culture results (tomorrow — it was supposed to be yesterday, but the lab was closed for the holidays). While some of those toys were pretty nifty — especially the Kitty Hoots toys we got for Wendy, with long neon-colored feather tails — the cats most enjoy playing with scraps of wrapping paper and tree ornaments they remove for themselves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Furry Woodland Creatures

Our cats have always enjoyed camping under the Christmas tree. They rearrange the lights and ornaments on the lower branches to suit their tastes, push the presents out of the way, and curl up in a ball to nap on the skirt. It's obvious that they are pretending to be wild animals hiding in the woods. Wendy and Possum are naturals at this, and at stalking and subduing the wild stick-on bow, which is native to this particular forest.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Not every-day-of-the-week news...."

"Once-in-a-lifetime news!"

That line from Fiddler on the Roof (I was Chava in our college production) keeps coming to mind.

Because Christmas came early to our house even though we believed it would not come at all.

Last Thursday morning, the phone rang, and caller ID listed a name we didn't recognize. I thought it was the plasterer, because, "Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles" (the song in Fidder that follows the line above) our building manager had finally succeeded in getting the contractor from the big renovation project in the building to come over and discuss repairing all our damaged walls, ceilings, doors, woodwork, and floors. And he had agreed to send guys over to fix them. And, as usual, they were late.

But the caller turned out to be the head of search committee for the Academic Job of My Husband's Dreams at a local university. He was using someone else's cell phone.

Two weeks after their very-top-secret, strictly confidential selection meeting — which we knew all about, of course — they had finally chosen my husband over the other candidate, a very accomplished, tenured professor at an Ivy League.

Never mind that we'd been told that the winning candidate would be notified within 24 hours of the meeting. Never mind that we'd spent those two weeks in the worst kind of suspense, gyrating through hope, anguish, pessimism, despair, frustration, hope, confusion, resignation, sadness, defeat, annoyance, and hope.

But those two awful weeks changed us. We spent sleepless nights watching movie after movie because it was better than lying in bed, staring into darkness side-by-side all night. We did so much soul-searching that we actually located our souls. We realized that we weren't handling this blow very gracefully, and we went to some pains to try to become better people and get grips on ourselves. Our biggest worry was that his current university was cutting his salary in half next year because their rules for full- and part-time faculty had changed. How would we survive on half a salary? We didn't know. Instead we discussed how very lucky we were to have our families and friends, to have come as far as we have, to be healthy and still young enough that we could start over in some other state if another job came along.

But then the call came, and we didn't have to become better people after all. The country's most prestigious university likes him just the way he is. So do I. They said they were thrilled to have chosen him (I won't ask why it took them 22 months). We are thrilled, too.

It took awhile for the news to sink in, and at first I had to sit down and take deep breaths to get over the faintness. Then I remembered the line I'd been secretly rehearsing through all the despair and melodrama.

"I knew it all along! I never doubted it!" I said. He looked at me in disbelief.

This position means tenure (security), paid sabbaticals (time), and better compensation (freedom). It's a great honor. Scholars all over the world applied for it. My scholar really deserves it. He's been working hard and well in his chosen field since he was 15.

We've been walking on a cloud for days, sharing the news with friends and colleagues far and wide and receiving the most eloquent and excited congratulations. They keep telling him that it's a wonderful Christmas gift for them because they wanted this for him so much.

In other words, we find ourselves living a 21st-century-academic version of It's a Wonderful Life. Every time we hear a bell ring, a professor gets his wings.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Water and Snow

We're spending a quiet day, doing Plague-related housecleaning and watching the snow fly.  After the Patriots' game, we'll put up the tree and try to ignore the odd, Plague-inspired, Indian-bedspread decor marring our traditional holiday living room.

My mother-in-law called us frantically a few hours ago. She asked if her son would drive to her house if he possibly could. She said she had a bad leak in her ceiling from the snow and needed help soaking up the water. She was using rugs to sop up the water pouring into her study. I could hear a sound like rain in the background as we spoke.

With heavy snow falling and no plowing in the alley where he parks, there was no safe, easy way for him to get there. It normally takes 20 to 25 minutes; today it would take well more than an hour. Normally, we'd dash over there to help her, but this morning a storm was raging. His sportscar is not great in snow, and there's a long hill up to her house. "Never mind," she said when I told her how difficult it would be. "It's okay. I'll deal with it."

"Don't use rugs," I said. "Use plastic. Anything absorbent will get moldy. Like those skirts you used last time." We hung up.

"Like last time...." I thought. When she called back a few minutes later (and she always calls us back shortly after she hangs up), it all made sense.

She said, "Can he take a cab? I'll pay. I can't stop this leak!" I said that, if it wasn't safe for him to drive, it wasn't safe for him to be in a cab, either.

"Are you sure the water isn't coming from a plumbing leak?" I asked. "Isn't there a bathroom over your study? I think you might really need a plumber. Because it's cold out. The snow can't be melting unless you have a huge hole in your roof."

"Oh, no!" she yelled. "You're right! I've gotta go!" And slammed down the phone.

When she called again, she told us she'd gotten distracted while running the water in her bathtub. She was trying to soak the special humidifier-rod for her grand piano but it needed a weight, so she went downstairs to look for something, and got sidetracked.

"You're so smart!" she said. "So smart, so smart, so smart! Thank you! The leak is stopping and I've got a big cardboard box underneath it." "Use PLASTIC!" I said.

"All my buckets are so full of stuff that I can't use them," she said.

If I'm so smart, why can't I persuade my mother-in-law to move out of that house into a place where someone can look after her? Her family has been telling her for a long time that she's got a lot of age-related issues and she shouldn't be living alone anymore. Her house is piled with papers knee-high in every room; it's a fire trap. We worry about her falling all the time.

We've been told by several people with professional experience in these situations that we all can do is to wait for the big crisis — the one she can't mop up with rugs, something catastrophic like a fire — before we can finally take action and move her into some kind of senior housing where she'll be safer.

Until then, all we can do is worry.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas After All

I took an informal survey about whether we should get a Christmas tree despite having two lively kittens and a Plague. I have many fears about possible kitten poisoning, electrocution, stomach perforations, etc.

One friend who knows us well pointed out that if we are crazy enough to have two cats and two kittens in this tiny apartment, we are crazy enough to have a tree. That made a lot of sense.

My older sister said:
Geez, you sound like a new mother with worrying about eating pine needles and lights. I've never heard of a cat doing either of those things. Snalbert is just weird. I doubt the kittens will eat pine needles. They'll just think Snalbert has a screw loose. So if they SHOULD start to eat lights, you can pull them off from the bottom of the tree.

Kittens are supposed to knock trees down. Then you have a baby story to remember them by forever. It's part of the kitten tradition.

GET A TREE, FOR PETE'S SAKE. It won't seem much like Christmas without one.
Don't disagree with my sister unless you're looking to get verbally pummeled. And she's nailed it, of course. I was out doing some shopping last night, and as I walked home, the lights from the trees in Marlborough Street's bay windows looked sweet and romantic. I was sad not to see one twinkling in our window.

Spores be damned.

So we drove to Wilson Farm and selected a slender balsam fir that will fit nicely in a corner. I now feel it's too short — but all of our trees have been too short, in my opinion. This one is perhaps 8 feet tall, and that's pushing it. I prefer a 10-foot tree. But my husband prefers a very smelly, 7-footer, and I am always in the mood to humor him these days.

We're going to put it in our Mother of All Tree Stands, attach it to the window frame with fishing line, and decorate it tomorrow. No matter how short it looks in the stand, we won't be returning it in the snowstorm. I'll be stringing both colored and white lights using a technique refined in my hometown, The Christmas City of the USA. Then I will add only a few, kitten-safe ornaments instead of my many hundreds of glass balls, Santas, snowmen, carrots, trumpets, churches, strawberries, etc. We also bought pine boughs to decorate the living room mantel and a wreath. I'll begin decorating as soon as I finish another big, ceiling-to-floor, antifungal housecleaning. I'm hoping it will be the last one before we get a negative ringworm culture result. (We're a week away from the first set of results, and each day feels a little more tense as we wait for the vet's office not to call us with a positive result from one of the four felines.)

I hope the kittens enjoy it more than Snalbert does. Why he spends a few days each year eating pine needles and puking them back up baffles us. It would be more fun to climb the thing or pull off ornaments and chase them around the apartment. We sort of hope the kittens do climb it. They're only kittens for a short time and we want them to make the most of it. (This doesn't include running off with scraps of curling ribbon. Hazardous.)

 *  *  *  *  *

As we stood in line at the cashier to pay for our greens, the guy in line behind us hoisted two old-fashioned glass bottles of egg nog onto the counter. "Wow," I said, "Good for you. We buy the light stuff and it isn't the same. Tastes like melted ice cream."

He replied, "I cut this by filling half the glass with bourbon, so it lasts twice as long and it's not as heavy."

"Good idea!" I said. "You cut the cholesterol in half that way, so you're really doing the healthy thing."

"Yeah?" he said. "It's healthier?"

"Oh, it is!" I said. "The alcohol will kill any lingering germs from pasturizing or the eggs. And since there are eggs in it, it would actually be a good breakfast drink."

"You think so? You think it's good for me? I don't know how I'd feel, drinking it in the morning. It would be a really long day," He said."

The cashier chimed in: "A really long, happy day."

"Or a really short day that you totally missed, " I said.

We all agreed we'd like to try it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Don't Believe in Myself

We received this card today from our favorite neighbor, and it made us both laugh:

It's time we stopped whining, brightened up, and focused on the issues at hand: shopping, wrapping, mailing, and stuffing our faces with cookies. We hooked up our new Denon mini stereo (plus an iPod dock) today, so we can finally play my extensive Christmas playlist. I'd been wishing for a decent stereo for about four years. And the kittens need a musical education, so it became imperative. And J&R offered me 25% off and free shipping.

The kittens now know many classic carols as well as some Roy Orbison, Jethro Tull, and Louis Armstrong. When my husband isn't around, I will introduce them to The Clash. (He wouldn't approve.) When I'm not around, he will subject them to Yes and various hip, nubile vocalists whose voices are so high-pitched and babyish that only dogs can hear some of their warbling.

We don't have a lot of musical common ground, beyond for the Beatles, Liz Phair, Nora Jones, Al Stewart, Sting, U2, and the Ditty Bops. Heavens, the kittens need to learn about U2 pronto! We are terrible parents.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Not in the Christmas Mood

Every year, when the Commonwealth Avenue mall becomes an illuminated broccoli forest after sundown, I feel the holiday spirit descending on me with the force of a toppling Christmas tree.

Wreath-making with the Back Bay Garden Club usually puts me even more in the mood. All those bright plaid bows and shiny balls and holly sprigs.... But, so far, not this year.

By mid-December, I usually have lots of gifts to wrap for husband, friends, and family. I'd be out shopping in the neighborhoods, heading to the North End for my dad's torrone, and over to Lord & Taylor for his special socks. I'd be walking up and down Back Bay's streets admiring the trees sparkling in the windows. I'd have tickets for the Chorus Pro Musica's annual holiday concert at Old South. And this is traditionally the weekend that we'd drive out to Wilson Farm to choose a tall balsam fir and a stack of wreaths and pine boughs for mantels and doors. Not this year. I began my shopping yesterday. I have a large family and a long, long list. It's not going to be pretty.

I'm baking my mom's traditional Christmas cookies (oatmeal chocolate chip) as I'm writing this, but I do not feel jolly. Our cookie cravings span the seasons.

I'm trying. I've played our favorite seasonal CD, George Winston's "December." It made us both sad.

There are two reasons for this, and I can't fix either of them, although I try.

First, there's the cats' ringworm plague, which has made our home messy and uncomfortable, disfigured my adorable Possum, forces me to clean endlessly, and costs us hundreds of dollars weekly in treatments and cultures. This will go on for at least a few more weeks, or for months if we're unlucky (we tend to be). In lieu of nicer gifts this year, my husband and I are exchanging bills for lime-sulfur dips, cultures, and bottles of fungal medicines. Considering that I willingly received the gift of payment for our late cat Bunny's chemo treatments for my birthday present, I should be cheered by the fact that, while ringworm is even more expensive, at least it isn't fatal. But it's all too depressing. And we can't have a tree, or any decorations that can't be vacuumed or scrubbed, or even drive home to see my family while the cats are being treated.

I can't imagine Christmas without a tree and decorations, but that's how it will be.

The second reason is worse. It's the lack of hope for the future. Christmas spirit is built on hope, especially for those of us who don't relate to the Christian aspects of the holiday. I love the Druidic Mithras aspects: trees, lights, carols, food, merry-making. And I have to say, the consumer aspects aren't all bad, either. But there's nothing without hope.

As a kid you hope for Santa, and as an adult you hope for a happy celebration with the people you love most, with no bad news or big dramas. You hope for more good memories and a better New Year. You might hope for a white Christmas, and a little old-fashioned romance. And we secretly hope for that magic that makes time slow down, the way it did when we were small, so we can look at every wonderful thing and take mental pictures to remember, as the minutes slip by. And I hope that you hope that all the kids in the world are filling their hearts with good memories, too.

Bah. Humbug. We are out of hope in this house, which can't be stockpiled like sugar and chocolate chips.

Twenty-two months ago, my husband applied for the Academic Job of His Dreams. He's brilliant, accomplished, and has unique skills. He's an excellent, caring, dedicated teacher. He's published plenty and has impeccable credentials. But in his field, people have to wait for others to retire or die so jobs will finally open up. There are a couple of openings every year, somewhere in the world. This opening was brand new, in the Boston area, and seemed written for him. Best of all, it offered tenure — security! An almost unimaginable possibility, given that his future employment has been uncertain for the past 15 years. His interview for the position took place more than a year ago, and we began waiting and hoping in earnest when we heard last May that he was one of two finalists. We hoped that he would finally get the recognition he deserved. We hoped that we could relax and stop worrying about money and the future. We hoped he could finally stop working at two jobs and his freelance work, and focus on teaching and research, like any professor. We hoped and hoped.

Last week, we found out by accident that the top-secret committee was finally meeting to choose between the finalists. And we heard that the winning candidate would be notified right away. That was more than 10 days ago. The other guy is tenured at an Ivy League university, so we assume that more riches are now being heaped upon his current riches. And, day by day, life grows bleaker and sadder around here. Because as our lives changed for the worse, that job looked more and more like the Promised Land. Besides my own inability to find steady work for the last 18 months, my husband was just socked with a 50 percent pay cut at his current university. They basically said, "Yeah, you're an internationally renowned scholar and a popular teacher, but you're not tenured, you're only a lecturer, and we don't have to pay you for that." His grant at his other job ends in a year and a half.

Bah, humbug, indeed. Now we begin to wait again, to see who will die or retire next, leaving an open position. There's one in Chicago; I've never been there, but maybe I'll have to live there. Some fun. I think I'm too old to be facing this kind of upheaval, but I don't have a choice.

In the meantime, there's Christmas and a world expecting us to have days that are merry and bright. I can't wait for January. We will get over this, we'll move on, and we'll eventually feel gratitude again for our health, family and friends, cats, the roof over our heads, and all the other good things in our lives. Just not now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Conversation Seldom Heard in a Four-Cat Household

At least in my four-cat household:

Husband:   There's a piece of cat fur on the floor!

Me:             Oh, my god! Pick it up!

This is a quick example of how dramatically things have changed in this formerly slovenly apartment since the Great Ringworm Plague of 2009 hath smote us.

Be Fruitful and Multiply?

Once upon a time, there was Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail. It was pretty good.

Years later, a new flavor came along, Ocean Spray Cran-Apple. This, too, was tasty. Then there was Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry — best of all. It became very popular. Cheap, sensible people, like me, add a splash of it to water or seltzer for a refreshing pinkish beverage that lacks the heavy after-taste of filtered tap water. A bottle lasts a long time.

But, unfortunately, things went all to pieces in the Ocean Spray marketing department, where people must incessantly develop new products to hold onto their jobs. Understandable for them; annoying for us. And a confusing mess for the re-stocking teams at supermarkets, like my local Shaw's.

Because now there are Ocean Spray Cran-Strawberry, Cran-Grape, Cran-Tangerine, Cran-Cherry, Cran-Pomegranate, Cran-Potato, Cran-Banana, Cran-Broccoli, and Cran-Tomato.

At any rate, those are the flavors I remember seeing on the shelves last week.

Then there are 100% juice versions: Ocean Spray Cranberry, Cranberry-Blueberry, Cranberry-Pacific Raspberry (never try an Atlantic raspberry, just don't do it), Cranberry-Pomegranate, and Cranberry-Concord Grape.

In a strange bid to appeal to racial purists, I suppose, Ocean Spray created White Cranberry, White Cranberry-Strawberry, White Cranberry-Peach, and so on. This information comes from the Ocean Spray website, an exhaustively complex survey of all things cran-juicical. Personally, I find this unethical and loathesome. I hope I have misjudged their motives, but I don't see any other reason to remove the color from the juice. Ease of stain-removal, you say? Even I, who spills things spectacularly all the time, wouldn't stoop to buying these pallid excuses for a beverage. I own a comprehensive arsenal of Carbona stain removers; I can freely drink juices of color. (And it makes sense for stain removers to come in many, many varieties. After all, people like me find new things to spill on ourselves all the time.)

And then practically all of these Ocean Spray varieties appeared in "Diet" versions. And then in "Light" versions.

And then lots of other name brands, and store generic brands piled juice clones upon the shelves. In similar-looking bottles, with similar label designs.

And suddenly, a line of scary Ocean Spray "Cranergy" drinks appeared, full of Splenda, vitamins, other weird chemicals, and a splash of green tea to make it seem wholesome and permit drinkers to imagine it would help them live forever: Cranberry  Lift, Cranberry-Pomegranate Lift, and Cranberry-Raspberry Lift.

"Oh, who cares?" you say. "Chacun à son goût," you trill, in your best Julia Child accent. Let everyone have their choice.

Well, I care. I like plain old Cran-Raspberry, and it takes me 10 damn minutes to locate it on the shelves these days because there are 37 other cran-varieties stinking up the joint. And because each of those pathetic mutations requires its own square-footage of shelf real estate, that means that the popular flavors, the ones people seek out and buy — like Cran-Raspberry and Cran-Apple — are always sold out. Leaving the rest of us stuck with Super-Light White Cranergy-Carrot.

Can we get back to basics, please? I'm thirsty, and all I've got is a stupid bottle of Cran-Strawberry, which I had to buy in defeat on my second trip to the story to find Cran-Raspberry. Buying juice shouldn't be so exhausting and time-consuming. Isn't that what the cereal aisle is for?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wreath-Making, Day 2

Here are a couple of the wreaths I decorated yesterday for the Garden Club of the Back Bay. I was assigned to work on a few of the large, "fully decorated" wreaths that we offer for $125.

This one will be displayed in a gallery on Newbury Street and I plan to visit it:

They requested a gold bow and gold accents, so I got to go wild with a spray-paint can in the alley, which I enjoyed way too much. I sprayed juniper, lotus pods, baby's breath, my right hand, and a couple of plant species I can't identify. I came back inside light-headed and dazed from fumes. The giant feathers sticking out of the bow are genuine, glittery gold plastic.

The wreath below is perhaps my all-time favorite. It will hang on a door on Louisburg Square:

Someone brought the Garden Club a few bags of the most gorgeous holly I've ever seen: the leaves were huge and perfect; the berries big, bright, and abundant. I christened it "Hollywood Holly," because it looks cosmetically enhanced. Using it in this wreath still hurt like crazy, however, and I wired up a ton of it, along with juniper, pine, and pinecones. I usually decorate only one wreath with holly each year because of the puncture wounds, and I'm glad this one turned out so well. I designed it to be extra lush and three-dimensional, with more holly, boughs, and pinecones filling in the perimeter of the wreath, which is usually left bare.

This is the only wreath photo I've seen that captures much of the beauty of the real thing. In all of our other photos, the wreaths look disappointingly flattened, gaudy, and weird — when they are actually stunning in person.

My third wreath featured a "bordello" burgundy and gold bow — very big and over-the-top. The buyer had requested "feathers," and all we had were peacock and pheasant. I chose pheasant and created a base of gold-dusted pincones, the rust-colored backs of magnolia leaves, gold-sprayed juniper, and tiny matte-burgundy and shiny tan glass balls. The result was moody but strangely appealing and the ladies insisted on documenting it with a photo. My own photos were dreadful, so you'll have to imagine the effect, or take a stroll down the shady-side of Marlborough Street, because that's where it will be.

I had to take care of a back-log of housecleaning today, because of the Cat Plague, so I didn't get to the wreath workshop. But I will go tomorrow — the final day — when it's crunch time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Every day, our feral kitten Wendy becomes a bit braver. She's been with us for 10 weeks, and she has been a perfect, if elusive, lady the entire time. She is polite no matter how frightened or unhappy she is — and because of her ringworm and other illnesses, she's had to endure many weeks of nasty medicines and car trips to the groomer, where she is covered with a gallon of liquid that reeks of rotten eggs and turns her yellow.

Imagine how you'd react if you were soaked with a gallon of bright yellow liquid that stank to high heaven every Friday. Wendelina Pantherina, the feral rescue, seems to have had the upbringing of a pedigreed princess.

Which I find interesting. Here is a photo of her mother, which the nice woman at her shelter took for me:

A very nice-looking alley cat, certainly. But an aristocat? It's hard to say. But I can tell that Wendy will be a big cat, like her mom. And she is a beautiful kitten, with her deep amber eyes, sweet expression, and that bustle of a tail. I'm glad her mom taught her good manners to match her elegant looks.

We noticed that Wendy was warming up to us, verrrry slowly, about a month ago. She was always happy to see us and be cuddled when she was living in her crate, when she first arrived. But when we let her have the run of the apartment, she began to run from us and hide. For the first few weeks, we almost never saw her. If we had to catch her, to give her medication or some socializing attention, it took both of us awhile to corner her. When we did, she surrendered without hissing, growling, scratching, or biting. As the weeks went by, she began making herself at home on the bed instead of underneath it. And she became easier to catch, in the most minute increments. She also spent a lot of time playing and wrestling with Possum, so we saw a lot more of her, with him.

When we would catch her to cuddle, she'd melt into a loudly purring "sausage" as my husband refers to her, lying contentedly in our arms. But 10 seconds after she'd get down, she'd run from us in pseudo-fear. If she was lying on the bed, napping with the other three cats, she'd be the only one to dash under the bed as we'd enter the room. Eventually she stopped doing that. Then she'd watch us pet the other cats and only dash off if we reached over toward her. Now she occasionally lets us pet her, briefly, before leaving the bed. She watches us stroke and talk to the other cats as they purr — and it's finally sinking in for her that she's safe with us, just like them.

Today she wandered out of my husband's arms and then back onto his lap and into them. She also played with my fingers this morning while I was bed. She's progressed from attacking my toes to getting close enough to bite my thumb under the coverlet (actually it's our old shower curtain, to protect the rest of the bed from the lime-sulfur residue).

Catching her is much easier these days. She makes a token run for it, then crouches under the bed or table and lets us pick her up. She remains in that same crouchy ball shape as we dose her with medicine and put cream on her ears. Then she runs away and comes back in a few seconds to eat her breakfast.

When Possum and I play with a mouse on a string, Wendy will join us on the couch now, and get within a couple of feet of me. The other day, I felt someone paw my backside as I sat here at my laptop, and it was Wendy. She will occasionally swat at my toe if I'm wearing a sock. She's slowly, slowly melting out of her fear and reserve. Will she ever be a lapcat? I'm still hopeful.

Her favorite fluffy ball got stuck on her toe yesterday, and I had to follow her around the living as she limped away from me, to help her remove it. I think she's beginning to realize we weirdo humans are essentially harmless despite the car trips and the cherry-flavored liquid we shoot into her mouth every morning.

I often notice her watching me intently. I talk to her all the time and sing her little songs, which she doesn't seem to mind. I've also started speaking to her in a high-pitched, bogus French accent, because I read in My Life in France that Julia Child's cat responded powerfully to the phrase, "Oui, Oui, j'ecoute!" Wendy is definitely interested when I talk like this, but so far she has not jumped on my and started licking me, as Minette did to Julia. But I am not giving up. Maybe I can find the right phrase that will send Wendy leaping into my lap.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting All Christmasy

My fingernails are black. It must be Christmastime.

Today, the Garden Club of the Back Bay began its annual holiday wreath-making event. Headquarters is the basement of the Lutheran Church on Marlborough and Berkeley Streets. We take orders through the fall for scores of fresh wreaths — plain, with just a bow, or decorated to the point where even Martha Stewart would fling up her hands and cry for mercy — to people of taste and good cheer all over the Boston area. Sales support the care of Back Bay's trees.

Many members of the Garden Club have second homes, where they gather everything from holly, pods, pine boughs, and pinecones to dried hydrangea, roses, and moss to decorate the wreaths. Exciting purchases at the Flower Market supplement the natural materials with shiny glass balls, fake birds and berries, and glittery branches. Boxes holding dozens of rolls of beautiful ribbons sit in one corner, waiting for one of the designated bow-makers. The tables are covered with pine needles, clippers, wire cutters, and baskets of materials.

The designs are generally elaborate and inspired. Since the large, fully decorated wreaths cost $150, it's not unusual for a wreath artist to spend most of a day working on just one.

The club's president pressed me into service as a volunteer even before I joined the club. I am praised less for my good eye and decorating skills than for my remarkable speed. I decorated seven wreaths yesterday, which is viewed as impressive.

I do have one talent: I can pick two messy, leggy wreaths out of a stack, hang them side by side, and clip and shape them into an elegant set of twins, ready for bows or an elaborate decorating scheme. I am the Frederic Fekkai of the holiday wreath.

I also love spraying. There's nothing more exciting than hanging around in a freezing Back Bay alley, waving a can of spray paint and inhaling the fumes from a tray of glittering pinecones and pods.

The other members think I'm nuts, but I come from a different background.

Everyone oohs and aahs at the creations of the most experienced designers. We learn from each other.

Everyone (and we had our first — and highly skilled — male wreath-maker yesterday) wears an apron, brings pruning shears and wire cutters from home, and expects to have black, pitch-covered hands by the end of her first wreath. At lunchtime, everyone cleans up with a glob of Crisco, which is the best thing for removing pine tar. And there is good food: coffee, scones, and mini cinnamon buns in the morning; a catered lunch; and tea breads, biscotti, and cookies in the afternoon. I eat all of it: decorating is surprisingly hard work. Standing over a hot wreath makes me ravenous for sugar. Jabbing florist picks into a tight wreath sometimes requires pliers and all my strength. My hands are sore and scratched at the end of the day.

Here are a couple of my efforts from the morning. The first order requested a red-and-gold bow with gold accents; the second one let my choose my own bow and materials.

I'll be there again tomorrow — there are three more days of fun and pincones ahead.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Boot Theory

We're getting the first snow of the season tonight — lovely! But I have a date to meet some friends for brunch and head over to the SoWa Antiques Fair tomorrow. And I don't have decent snow boots.  I am in the habit of wiping out on Boston's icy brick sidewalks even when I'm wearing snow boots, and I've been hunting for some with better traction. But it seems to be impossible to find a good-looking pair of waterproof boots with a warm lining and gripping soles.

I still see a lot of Uggs out there, and they do look better with jeans than with shorts these days. But I think you need to be no older than high-school age for those.

There are rubber boots that have equestrian style, like these Hunters, but they aren't warm:

There are stylish leather waterproof "snow boots" with high heels, like those from La Canadienne and Sudini, but I have something like these and they are terrifying on the icy bricks of Marlborough Street:

Then there are Uggs. But most of them are wicked ugly and I can't help but think they belong on the high school and college set. And anyway, for optimum walking, I like a bit of a heel:

A lot of boots should come with a sled and a team of huskies:

Then there are boots that only belong on Santa:

Or grandma (or possibly Frau Frankenstein):

Or an astronaut:

Or a retired astronaut who still likes to dress for après-ski on Mars:

But nothing much for me. I challenge you to find a pair of great snow boots that doesn't fit into one of the above categories. By the time you succeed, I predict that we'll all be ready for the grandma genre.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Burger King

The teenaged son of a friend of ours, T., was in Boston last weekend, during his prep school's holiday, to look at colleges. We invited him to lunch at the Warren Tavern, one of our favorite Lunch Spots Where You Can Park. We like the antique charm of the small front room and the cozy fireplace in the back room. We also like the burgers and sandwiches, which come with excellent fries (or homemade potato chips, if you like that sort of thing). Since T. was staying in the Seaport Hotel by the Convention Center, he hadn't seen much of Quaint Olde Boston. He said the winding, gaslit streets of Charlestown reminded him of villages in Germany, where he'd grown up before moving to back to Egypt with his family.

Quiet but confident —and smart, curious, articulate, charming, and handsome — T. is full of promise. I'll bet Obama was a lot like him at that age. T. speaks English and Arabic well, but is most fluent in German. He doesn't know if he wants to study medicine, engineering, acting, or archaeology. We told him to ignore whatever anyone — parents, teachers — might push him toward, and to follow his heart. He said his older brother had been telling him the same thing for years. He just wasn't sure yet.

T. asked us to explain the Boston Tea Party and we did our best. We also stumbled over the history of the Bunker Hill Monument, an Egyptian obelisk that he found puzzling. As we perused the menu options, we all agreed on the illogic of putting Swiss cheese on the Paul Revere burger. Only American cheese belongs on a patriot's sandwich.

Speaking of Patriots, T. is an ardent fan. My husband, who shares this malady, gets a kick out of talking about Wes Welker with an Egyptian.

Our sandwiches arrived, and T. told us he was going to have the "best burger in Boston" for dinner, at a restaurant that had been exhaustively researched by some of his fellow students. "Where?" I asked. He said he couldn't remember the name, but that it was unequivocally "the best!" and he would let us know afterward. I mentioned Abe and Louis, where at lunchtime you can get burgers that rival their steaks. But Uburger would fit better in a high-schooler's budget.

T. was planning to explore several in-town colleges and was curious to also see Tufts, so we drove there after lunch. It was a sunny, very windy day and the deserted campus looked romantic. T. said it reminded him of Hogwarts, and decided he would apply. We tried to assure him that, as a bright, English-speaking foreign student, he may have more opportunities for admission and scholarships —which he'll need — than he might expect. I hope we're right. It would be great to treat him to more burgers as an undergraduate in Boston.

And where was Boston's Best Burger? Bartley's Burger Cottage. I dunno. But T. said it was "like butter!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Worry and Wonder List

Sometimes, it just helps to get it all down in one list:

1. Will the ringworm ever go away?

2. Will my husband finally get the job of his dreams?

3. Will I ever get any job?

4. What is this weird rash on both sides of my neck, which broke out while I sweating at the gym today?

5. Why is Possum coughing? (Coughing can be a serious symptom in cats. He's had three spells in three days, which isn't enough to concern the vet yet, she says, although she has permitted me to freak out. But one or two more fits, Possy, and you're on the exam table for X-rays and blood work.)

6. Why does Wendy breathe so fast sometimes? Does she have heart trouble? Are both of my kittens going to drop dead on me? (Not on me exactly, but you get the idea.)

7. What is this weird rash on my neck? Could it be something other than what I think it is?

8. Why does Snalbert stick one foot up in the air when he sits down? He is neither a gymnast nor a dancing Cossack. (And while I'm at it, I've convinced myself that Snicky has something fatal, too.)

9. Were there typos in the thank-you notes I just sent after the job interview? This occurred to me after I sent them.... I did check them but you should always check twice. Can't bear to look now.

10. Why did I refer to the Pyramids as "slag heaps with edges" during my interview, after one woman said she's always wanted to see them? This and other bizarre utterances of mine kept me up through the wee hours last night. At least I didn't mention ringworm.

11. How will I screw up during the Garden Club's annual wreath decorating next week? I offered to help make bows or do deliveries but I'm being compelled to decorate. The pressure is so intense.

12. Then there's this rash, or something, on my neck.

13. Is the triclosan, which I've been spraying around the house on every surface and putting into every load of laundry for the past month, going to kill the ringworm — or us?

14. What does everyone in my family want for Christmas? And how do I ship it all to them since we'll be in exile up here?

15. Why do my friends put up with me?

16. If the neck rash is ringworm and if it eventually makes all my hair fall out, can I get a thin, stringy wig with gray roots and a crooked part, so no one can tell?

17. Why do I worry so much? Is this normal? Is something wrong with my brain beyond all the stuff I already know about?

18. Does triclosan cause neck rashes?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Greatest Weakness....

I have a job interview tomorrow morning. I can't remember the last time I had one, but I think it was more than three years ago. At that one, I reminded the woman interviewing me that she had received and ignored a cover letter and resume I'd sent her for a position at another organization several years earlier. I had noticed her name in an old Word document of cover letters as I was writing the one for this job. Startled, she said, "Honey, I'm sure I was just trying to protect you from that place." Then she hired me and we became great pals.

I hope I'm as lucky this time. I've scrutinized the company Web site and blog, and Googled a couple of the principals. I became a fan of their Facebook page. I've printed extra copies of my resume, pulled out my weighty portfolio of writing samples, re-familiarized myself with my own experience, and made sure my elegant brown riding boots aren't scuffed. I plan to be myself, so I haven't been wearing myself out with composing bogus answers about my greatest weakness (which, as we all know, is layer cake) or strength (which, as we all know, is finding four-leaf clovers).

The woman who is interviewing me confessed on the phone that she is hoping to clone herself. So I found her bio and photo online. In looks and experience, we couldn't be more different. She's smart, professional, crisp, and tailored, with cropped curly hair, and has loads of interesting work, life, and travel experience. I can probably fake the smart part, but not the crisp, cropped, curly, tailored, experienced stuff. I'm incorrigibly limp, rumpled, and long and stringy. Maybe she won't notice.

The posting said they are looking for a "grown-up," meaning someone over 25, I suppose. This is the first time I've ever seen the word "grown-up" in a job description, and I'm not sure it isn't discriminatory. But it's a welcome reversal of the usual "fresh, recent grad" kind of discriminatory language I find every time I look for work.

I'm not sure what experience they want most because they haven't been specific about what the the new person will be doing. There isn't a job description, in other words. So I expect our conversation will be more exploratory, to figure out how my experience and skills might fit in with their various needs.

But we all know that the most important aspect of a job interview is to see if we will hit it off as congenial colleagues. Do I seem normal and nice — or neurotic and weird? Skills and experience often don't matter as much as being generally bright, capable, and pleasant to be around. And everyone they've chosen to interview (out of more than 100 applications) clearly has some kind of desirable experience and skills, so I suspect we'll both really be hoping for "chemistry" tomorrow.

When she asks me what I've been up to lately, I wonder if I'll be inclined to say, "Oh, vacuuming up spores, stuffing syringes with food, and misting a deadly chemical on my entire apartment," or, "Finishing up a portion of a symptom assessor for a very rare disease for a major pharmaceutical company." If we're a good match, I'll probably tell her the latter plus a tamer version of former. Might as well go for full disclosure. It's a very small company and if, by some crazy stroke of fortune, they hire me, they're going to get to know me quickly.