Tag Archives: pets

Magical Magnetic Noses

My cat has a magnet in her nose. My husband does not.

Dushenka is a wanderer. She wandered into our lives one day and decided to stay. Occasionally, the wanderlust still seizes her and she gives the phrase “Door Dash” new meaning. We’ve tried chasing her, with no success. She always comes back after she finishes with whatever she’s doing and strolls right into the house, where we call her “Naughty Grrl” and she remains completely unrepentant.

Then we moved, to a little apartment in a medium-sized complex. For six weeks, Dushenka showed no interest in the outdoors. Then one day, when our groceries were delivered and our attention diverted, out she raced. Naughty Grrl.

This time was even more panic-inducing. We had been in the apartment for only six weeks and we were quite sure Dushenka didn’t know her way around the neighborhood. Besides, it was 90 degrees outside and I pictured her lost and melted into a pitiful calico puddle somewhere, panting and expiring from heat exhaustion.

Imagine our surprise when 20 minutes or so later, she showed up on the doorstep (where I had put a bowl of water). I opened the door and Naughty Grrl strolled right in, as usual.

Admittedly, this story is not as dramatic as the ones about dogs whose families move away and track them down across the country. But it did get me to wondering. How did Dushenka find her way back?

Apparently, it has to do with the magnet in her nose.

Note that we didn’t put a magnet in her nose. It seems it was there all along. Scientists have discovered that various animals such as trout and migrating birds have in their nasal cells a mineral called magnetite, which, you might have guessed, is magnetic. Evidently, it allows them to sense magnetic fields such as those surrounding the Earth. How do salmon find their way every year to where the bears wait for them? Magnetic noses. (“Magnoreceptors,” if you want to get technical.)

Dushenka’s nose is tiny and pink (I have only ever seen one tinier and pinker, on a cat named Julia). You’d think there wouldn’t be room for a magnet up there. But apparently, it’s standard equipment.

Human beings ought to have the same sort of device lurking up their nasal passages, but we seem to have evolved away from that. There are tiny magnetic particles in the ethmoid bone in a person’s nose, but not enough to make a difference. Or at least not for some people.

Despite the fact that men are supposed to have a better sense of direction than women, my husband can’t find our car in a parking lot, or do that thing where you make three right turns to get back to where you started, or read directions in reverse in order to get home from an outing. He used to be embarrassed by this, but I think it’s comforting for him to know that he’s merely magnet-deficient and therefore (probably) more highly evolved. Or I as I think of it, topographically challenged.

Why don’t I get him a GPS, you ask? I did, but he never even installed it, much less used it. No, he prefers a human GPS (i.e., me) to go along with him whenever he has to trek to somewhere new. The magnets in my nose seem to work just fine, even though they can’t give directions in the voice of Han Solo.

Soon we’ll be moving back into the house where we lived when Dushenka came to us. I feel confident that when she inevitably makes a break for the great outdoors, her marvelous magnetic nose will bring her right back to us. Where we’ll tell her yet again that she’s a Naughty Grrl and she’ll flop down to rest up until her next expedition. I just hope Dan doesn’t get lost trying to chase her down.

Cat TV and Other Amenities

Moving is always a challenge. Moving with cats doubly so. Yet, we have accomplished it thrice in a month. And all of us, feline and human, survived. Not necessarily happily, but we survived. The cats were the least happy of all and we tried our best to remedy that situation.

When our house was destroyed by a tornado, at first the cats had to remain in the shell of the house, as we were unable to get them out until the way to our front door was cleared of some of the fallen trees and other debris. (There was a crap-ton of debris.) We made journeys through the wreckage every day to bring them food and water until we were finally able to stuff them in pet carriers and rescue them. They did not appreciate the abrupt transition.

They went from chaos to indignity. The motel we were staying at did not allow pets, so they boarded at the vet, where they were looked after, given shots and medication, and the occasional pets and skritchies any time a worker came through the door. It was better, but still not ideal. From a home to an entire wrecked house to roam in, they saw their environs shrink to cages.

The next hotel we stayed at was pet-friendly, though they were dubious about cats. As they began to waffle (“I dunno…”) I whipped out the paper they had made me sign. With my patented wide-eyed, innocent look, I pointed to the place on the form that specified dogs, cats, birds, and fish as being welcome, though subject to a surcharge in case of damages. (Try and tell me they wouldn’t take cats! We saw mostly dogs around the hotel, though I suppose birds and fish might have escaped our notice.)

We humans suddenly had amenities we had been missing – a huge TV, kitchenette and its accouterments, a laundry on the third floor. But for the cats, there was little in the way of normalcy or entertainment. We bought them scratching pads, which were moderately successful in keeping them from damaging the furniture. My husband put small potted plants on the windowsill where they could knock them off while admiring the fifth-floor view. And they loved the bed, where they took up residence. But all in all, there wasn’t much for an active cat to do.

At last we moved to a rental house nearby. Suddenly the cats had, if not what they had at our original house, a fair facsimile. The first thing my husband bought for the new place was a bird feeder, which he positioned squarely in front of the living room windows. Voilà! Cat TV and an opportunity to play “I wanna bite the birdie.”

Then Dushenka and Toby started exploring the house, busy-nosing and pussy-footing everywhere until they determined their favorite spots to crash. One was the multi-level cat tree, placed thoughtfully within viewing range of the all-bird channel. The other, of course, was our bed.

We knew the cats felt at home when Dushenka was brave enough to go walkabout. Scooting out a poorly guarded door, she led us all around the neighborhood, inspecting people’s yards, and cars, and gardens, as well as a stand of thick brush and fir trees that we humans couldn’t penetrate. We tried tempting her with food and water, to no avail.

Finally, we gave up. We were exhausted and decided to go home and make Wanted posters. As soon as we headed back to the house, there she was, following Dan trot-trot-trot down the street and into the house, since the game was clearly over. We told her she was a naughty girl and in disgrace, which she completely ignored.

Moving so many times within such a short period, a matter of weeks, was hard on us, but we tried our best to make it easier for the kitties. After all, their comfort was the most important. Just ask them.

 

From Hell They Came

From Hell It Came is one of my favorite bad movies – possibly the worst that I can actually stand to watch. (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a close second.  And I love The Blob‘s theme song.) The plot, according to IMDB: Tabonga, a killer spirit reincarnated as a scowling tree stump, comes back to life and kills a bunch of natives of a South Seas island. A pair of American scientists save the day.

It wasn’t just the fact that the threat was a scowling tree stump that made it so awful. It was the fact that the actor in the Tabonga suit could only move at a pace of a few steps a minute. All of the terrified natives who tried to run away from it could easily have sat on a rock for a few minutes, moved a foot or two, sat on another rock, and kept waiting for it. Conversely, a whole bunch of natives could easily have surrounded the Tabonga and dispatched it with their primitive weapons.

It wasn’t a case of “Run, Forest, Run!” but of “Shuffle, Stump, Shuffle!” I get the giggles every time it moves or catches someone.

eyes cat coach sofa
Photo by Ghost Presenter on Pexels.com

But the Tabonga is not the only creature from hell that I’ve ever encountered. Another was a cat. A kitten, really. The Devil Kitten From the Crawlspace of Hell.

My husband found the tiny feline under our house, too young really to be separated from its mother, who hadn’t hung around. Being a tender-hearted soul (read: sucker), Dan brought the little beast upstairs.

As always, when a new cat enters our house, we keep it isolated from the others until it can be vet-checked. The little guy decided that the floor of the bathroom closet was its favorite hidey-hole.

That was fine, except that when either one of us entered the bathroom, it would spring from its lair and savagely attack our ankles. Although the kitten was adorable, it had tiny needles for teeth and claws and could do a lot of damage. We had bleeding ankles. I had shredded pantyhose. That little sucker was fast (unlike its spiritual cousin, the Tabonga).

Again and again we detached the Devil Kitten from our tender flesh and – encouraged – it to retreat to the closet. We decided not to keep it, but when we took it to a no-kill shelter, they said it was too tiny for them to take. We’d have to bring it back once it grew some more and gained weight.

I did feel sorry for Devil Kitten. It obviously had what in humans would be called an attachment disorder – it had simply been taken from its mother too young and had never been socialized. It was left running on instinct and that instinct said, “Attack, shred, kill!”

I will admit that we considered feeding the little thing lead pellets to get its weight up more quickly, but that was just a passing fancy. We waited on its weight and then handed it over, quite thankfully, to the shelter.

I sometimes wonder whether the Devil Kitten ever found a substitute mama to show it the way to be a proper cat. I also wonder what family eventually took it home, and what the state of their ankles was, and whether they had to buy chainmail socks.

This all happened many years ago and I’m sure Devil Kitten (or whatever its adoptive family named it) is no longer around. Perhaps it is in the afterlife, using the Tabonga as its own personal scratching post. It would explain the scowling, anyway.

How I Learned I Was a Cat Person

cat-pet-furry-face-162319.jpegI looked around at the rooms full of cats. Black cats, white cats, orange cats, gray cats. Cats sleeping, playing, hiding. But I wasn’t a cat person. Or was I?

When I was a kid, we never had cats – only dogs. Back in those days, dogs didn’t live in the house but also weren’t allowed to run loose. So they usually had a length of chain or a fenced yard to circumscribe their limits. Only tiny fluff-dogs such as Pomeranians had the run of the house. My mom, it turned out later, liked little fluff-dogs, but my dad didn’t. So our dogs, first Blackie then Bootsie, lived in the garage, with a chain to run on.

I never really bonded with either one. Another thing that was uncommon back then was dog obedience school, so when I went out to feed the dog, he would jump all over me with muddy paws. And when he got to ride in the car for long weekends away, he would drool, track mud on the towel we laid down for him, and vomit (until we learned to give him half a Dramamine before we started).

I longed for a cuddly pet and one that I could call my own. My next pet was a rabbit, which I named Christina, the most beautiful name I could think of. This was also in the days before rabbits became indoor pets, so Christina lived in a wood and chicken-wire cage, in the yard in summer and in the garage in winter. No real opportunities for cuddling or bonding.

So it went. No pets in my college dorm. No pets in the apartment complex where I lived after I graduated. But I began to think more and more that what I needed was a cat. My father had hated cats because one had once bit his mother. Perhaps it was time for generations of antipathy to stop.

At last I got an apartment which was four rooms on the second floor of a house. I asked the landlady if I could have a cat – just one – and was given permission (if unenthusiastically).

The obvious place to find a cat was at the local Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals (SICSA). And the obvious person to bring along to help me was my fiancé.

SICSA had rooms full of cats (and other rooms full of dogs). Some were in individual cages and others shared larger rooms with other cats. I thought I might want a calico cat as I found them the most attractive, but there were none at the shelter that day. There were, however, a few tortoiseshell cats.

Tortoiseshells are a variety of calico with mostly black fur, mottled with some orange, thanks to the same genetic arrangement that causes the distinctive calico pattern. Some people find them unattractive, but I was drawn to a little tortie. She was shy and quiet and gentle, the opposite of the dogs my family had had.

But there were other cats that attracted me too, to the point that I was overwhelmed. “Which cat do you think I should get?” I asked my fiancé.

“I don’t know, honey. They’re all nice cats,” he replied, proving that I had indeed chosen the right man to marry.

I took the little tortie home and called her Bijou. (Her nametag said, “Bejeau,” but I assumed it was a typo.)  She spent the first night sleeping across my throat. She was otherwise so shy that she didn’t want to be picked up. But every day when I came home from work, I picked her up and gave her a kiss and set her back down. Eventually, she gained enough confidence to sit with me on the sofa and watch the Today Show and for me to carry her around.

Ever since, I have had up to five cats at a time, and almost always a calico or a tortie – or both – among them. Bijou, Anjou, Julia, Laurel, Louise, and Dushenka have fulfilled my need for a calico or tortie to call my own. Not that I haven’t loved the orange tabbies and gray tabbies that my husband favors and the tuxedo cat, the gray, and the black-and-white spotted cat we’ve also lived with.

But the calicos and torties hold a special place in my heart. They taught me that cats were what I really needed.

Adventures in Cat-Sitting

House-sitting is a great way to get away from home, relax, water a few plants, and scare off burglars who are frightened by lights turning on and off without a pattern.

Cat-sitting is an entirely different matter.

Most cats do all right if you leave them alone for a day or two – even a three-day weekend. Just set out extra food and water and maybe an extra litterbox (depending on how many cats you have). They’ll be fine. They’ll snub you when you get back, but they’ll be fine.

When you’ve got a special-needs cat, or your trip is longer, it’s a different story.

My friends were off to DisneyWorld for a ten-day stay and one of their cats is an insulin-dependent diabetic. I volunteered to sit house and cat. It was a house in a quiet country setting by a stream and the cats were pretty chill, even the diabetic one. Give him treats, I was told, and you can stick him easily. There were four of the critters, but I’ve had as many as five (I love cats), so I left our two in the tender care of my husband and headed for the north woods.

When I arrived, the cats assembled to sniff and greet me and I quickly discovered that they, having been described to me as “large,” were in fact small, medium, large and HUGE. (The small cat had somehow given birth to the other three, a feat I did not envy her in the least.)

P.J., my soon-to-be patient, flopped on his side and demanded a belly-rub. He was the large cat, easily 15 pounds. Maybe more. He was wearing a jaunty purple collar so I could tell him from his brother Red, the HUGE cat (upwards of 20 pounds, I would estimate). Both of them were orange tabbies and only a few pounds separated their heft.

The trial injection went well. I had experience giving cats subcutaneous fluids, which was one reason I was tapped for the job (the other being that I could do my work on the family’s computer instead of my own). Pinch up a fold of skin between the shoulder blades, stick the needle in, squirt, and voilà!

There was a packet of needles on the counter, a bottle of insulin in the fridge, and a handy sharps container for the used needles. Two water dishes and two food dishes, a huge plastic bin of dry cat food, four litter boxes, and several bags of treats stashed in the cabinet completed my cat-sitting kit.

For the most part, the cats ignored me. That was okay. Most cat owners are used to being ignored by their cats. On occasion, Red would accept an invitation to curl up on a blanket beside me on the sofa and allow me to stroke him, or demand treats. P.J. would do his belly-exhibiting routine on the dining room table, and Mama Cat and Vaughn (small and medium) wouldn’t give me the time of day.

Then one day, when I checked P.J.’s litter box (he had his own; he was the only cat in the household who would use the granules with an absorbent pad underneath them), I found a circle of pink around the yellow. Blood! I thought. I had instructions on what to do if the big boy looked lethargic and zoned out (rub corn syrup on his gums), but nothing had prepared me for this. Except when one of my own cats had a blocked urethra, which required surgery.

The vet’s number was on the refrigerator and on my list of instructions. But it was the weekend. I didn’t know if the vet’s office was open, or what the charge was for emergency visits, or where the cat carrier was, or whether I could get P.J. in it, or whether I could even pick up and carry the awkward thing with my bad back. (It was hard enough picking up Red when he wanted to be on the sofa but couldn’t be bothered to jump.)

Well, you all know what the next thing I had to do was: text DisneyWorld, or at least my friends there. They got back to me remarkably quickly (must have been waiting in a line). They discouraged me from running off to the vets and advised I just keep an eye on things, i.e., the pee-pad, and see whether P.J. pee-peed pink again. Or red. (Not Red.) Or some other color.

Two hours later I checked the pee-pad. Nothing. Not yellow, not pink. Nothing.

I had lunch. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

I did some work. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

I took a bath. I checked the pee-pad. Nothing.

By this time I was biting my nails. The next symptom of a blocked urethra is an inability to pee at all.

I checked the pee-pad. Nothing. I went to bed.

The first thing I did when I got up (after peeing) was check the pee-pad. There was pee and all was clear (or at least yellow).

Then P.J. flopped down on the dining room table and grinned at me.

Sometimes I hate cats.

 

 

The Things We Do for Cats

“Would you get me a beer, honey? I’d get it myself but there’s a cat on my lap.”

In our house, one of the things we do for cats is to give them priority seating. Often that seating is on top of us. And the person so sat upon is immune from chores or any activity that requires getting up. If the cat is sleepy, this condition can last for hours.

Other things we do for cats are less ridiculous. My husband and I, and a number of people we know, have been trained and trusted with our cats’ medical procedures. Most people can give pills or liquid medicines, eye drops or ear drops at home. (Although even these duties are not for the faint of heart. One of our cats invented the sport of projectile drooling when given a pill.)

Some go even further. When one of our beloved cats developed kidney disease, and vet visits and fluid treatments became prohibitively expensive, we were permitted to buy the supplies at cost and administer them at home.

What it takes is a dripset, a bag of fluids, and a disposable needle. You hold or hang the fluid bag higher than the cat’s head, attach the dripset (hose and controls), and carefully attach the needle. It resembles an IV for a human.

But the fluids are delivered not intravenously but subcutaneously – beneath the cat’s skin. The procedure is a little tricky. You pinch up a triangle of skin between the cat’s shoulder blades and insert the needle under the skin but above the muscle. Then you turn the little wheel and the fluids flow. You watch the bag carefully to make sure the right dose is given, and you hold the cat still.

That would be the tricky part, and the reason giving sub-cue fluids generally requires two people. Many people wrap the cat in a towel, which is supposed to be immobilizing, but isn’t. We prefer putting the cat in a pillowcase, which makes it easier to control all four paws. If kitty is feeling very poorly, she may not object strenuously, but a cat on her way back to health can be a handful.

Naturally, after the procedure, you dispose of the needle safely and give kitty a treat or let her go off by herself and sulk.

In order to do this level of cat care at home, you must have at least one person who is willing and able to stick the needle in the cat. My husband is an old softy, so I am the designated cat-poker in the family.

It’s a valuable skill. It isn’t just the cost savings that makes a person go through the sometimes distressing procedure. Ailing cats do better when they receive treatment at home from their loving, reassuring caregivers. And they avoid the stress of those extra visits to the vet.

Yes, it’s difficult (it gets easier with practice) and no, it’s not for everyone. But in our house it’s just one of the things we do for cats.

P.S. Even as I post this, I’m house- and cat-sitting for a friend whose cat needs insulin injections twice every day. I’m not suggesting this as a career, but it is nice to know someone you can trust with advanced home cat care.

Adventures in the Not-So-Deep Woods

The bird stopped chirping.

That was not a good sign.

All day my husband and I had been playing a game of “Where’s the damn bird?” and the cats had been playing “I wanna bite the birdie!”

Dushenka scored a point when she managed to get a tooth on it, leaving for us a lone feather and a spot of blood.

On our bed. It was an indoor game. And when the bird stopped chirping, the game was over.

How did the bird get into the house in the first place? It was a mystery. It could have taken advantage of a torn window screen or come down the chimney of the wood stove. It might even have squeezed in when the deck door was open a few inches for ventilation.

Various critters, some more welcome than others, visit us fairly regularly. We live in a house on an acre-and-a-half wooded lot with a tiny creek and a plethora of flora and fauna. (My husband believes it’s over three acres, but you know men and measuring.)

Our house is not really what you’d call rural. The property backs up to an off-ramp and is a mile and a half from a shopping mall. But tucked in our little corner of the plat is an isolated patch of green with few neighbors, except for the non-human kind. We’ve seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks, spiders, snakes, assorted insects, cats, dogs, frogs, and fish. The most problematic ones are those that make it inside the house.

Most of those critters are mice and moles, which the cats love to play with, eat, and leave half for us as a gift. (One cat was even so kind as to dispatch his prey in the bathtub, where at least the crime scene was easier to clean up.) A snake that made it indoors also proved a fun toy for flipping in the air, until we deprived the cat of it.

Another indoor visitor was a bat, which I discovered in the middle of the night in the downstairs hallway. I screamed for Dan, not because I was frightened of the bat (except for the knowledge that bats can carry rabies and few (well, none really) are vaccinated). But I knew I couldn’t capture it on my own, even if it was wounded. Dan threw a shirt over it, nabbed it, and escorted it outside.

Dan escorts most of our visitors outside (if they make it past the cats), except for stink bugs, which we catch in pill or water bottles and forget about. But spiders, bees, wasps, mice (the ones that survive, that is), and snakes all get a second chance at life on the outside.

When Dan’s away, I’m a little less Buddha-like. Bees and wasps terrify me (see “How I Faced My Fear…And Failed” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H) and if I must deal with them, they get mashed or stomped or hit with a wet towel and then mashed or stomped. Possums can also be a problem (see “How to Get Rid of a Possum” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46), but fortunately rarely come calling.

But, at any rate, the only remaining question about our invasive, game-playing bird: Did it exit the way it came in? Or did one of the cats dispatch it to the great beyond? And if so, did it leave the whole carcass or part of the carcass or even an eaten-and-spit-up carcass for us to find? (One of our cats would kill mice and save them “for later” in his little pantry, also known as the springs of the sofa bed. I suppose I need not tell you how we discovered his secret stash.)

Living in the almost-woods is nice. We don’t get many trick-or-treaters and Dan doesn’t have to mow or plant grass. He plants wildflowers and I sit on the deck and look at them and the animals that are polite enough to stay where they belong. We can’t see the off-ramp and pretend the sound is a rushing stream.

I’m just thinking we should invest in a heavy-duty butterfly net for the next time an avian visitor comes to call.

Who Would Spend Thousands on a Pet?

Me, for one. And quite a few other people I know. None of us is wealthy, but still we have laid out what some would consider extreme – even obscene – amounts on our pets.

First, let me say that these are regular cats and dogs, mostly rescues, strays, and shelter animals, not fancy, purebred show animals. The expense doesn’t come with the initial investment. Vet check, shots, worming, spaying and neutering – though shelters and local organizations sometimes offer lower-cost options on these – are just the cost of entry into pet guardianship.

Likewise, toys, beds, pet furniture, and other accouterments don’t need to be large investments. I’ve known cats that would ignore fancy toys to play with the plastic rings that come on milk jugs. Dogs can be amused for hours with a stick, tennis ball, or Frisbee.

No, the real expense comes with veterinarian bills. When I was a child, hardly anyone took pets to the vet, except to get the mandated yearly shots or to stitch up an injury from an attack by another animal.

My, how times have changed!

We know a lot more these days about heartworm, feline AIDS, urinary or intestinal blockage, fatty liver disease, kidney failure, and a host of illnesses that pets experience. We sympathize because we humans can get many of the same or similar ailments as well (though we don’t generally catch them from the animals).

So how do the costs scale up into the thousands? Well, veterinary training is as rigorous as medical school – perhaps more so because of the number of different animals a vet might be expected to treat. (A cow and a cat have different anatomy, after all.) Veterinary drugs can sometimes the same ones humans take, though usually at different doses. An x-ray is an x-ray and an ultrasound is an ultrasound. And you can expect to pay more for an after-hours emergency clinic visit than a regular office call.

Still, thousands?

Yes. We’ve been through it a number of times. When my cat Laurel had fatty liver disease, she needed, in addition to all the regular medical care, several weeks of intensive treatment – hand feedings, fluids, specially mixed vitamins. The vet actually took her to his home and treated her there for several weeks. I got a raise that year at work, and every cent of it went to that marvelous vet. He didn’t have to do what he did for Laurel – and I suppose not many people would have paid for the personal care. We did so willingly.

When our dog Bridget developed a tumor on her shoulder, the vet was honest. “We can operate on it, or we can do nothing.” Bridget was middle-aged, as dogs go, a formerly feral rescue dog.

“Do whatever it takes,” Dan said. “She deserves a chance.”

“She’s lucky to have you,” the vet replied.

Bridget came through the operation, never had a recurrence and died peacefully at the age of 17.

We’ve learned to give subcutaneous fluids to cats with kidney failure. We’ve taken them to specialty vets who have given them – literally – years of comfortable life with us. (Once we even had a parakeet that needed an operation – and pulled through.)

Every time we pulled out a checkbook or a credit card and paid willingly, though often with a wince. Some vets kindly allowed us, as long-time customers, to pay in installments.

But the question remains, why? Why do we spend this time, energy, care, worry, and especially money on maintaining the health of our pets or making them comfortable in their last days?

I don’t expect everyone to understand this, but these animals have become family to us. And as family members, they deserve our attention, care – including medical care – and love as long as they are capable of benefiting from it.

When the time comes that we have to let them go, when there is nothing we can do medically except prolong their misery, we take them to the vet for that final act of mercy, or let them pass quietly at home.

And the only cost we count is in our hearts.

SuperKlutz and Other Nicknames

These are not what my family members call each other.
These are not what my family members call each other.

My family has an appalling habit: appalling nicknames.

When I was a kid, I had some nicknames that I didn’t mind so much. One was “Cubby,” after the little guy in the Mouseketeers.(1) As I got older and my character and personal traits became more evident, I acquired another one.

SuperKlutz.

I’m not saying the nickname was unwarranted. I was, after all, the child who gave myself a fat lip (2) the day before a ballet recital where we were all supposed to wear red lipstick.(3) I was the teen who managed, while trying to get out of the back seat of a four-door car, managed to land stretched out on the pavement with both feet still in the car.(4)

These things happened in the days before self-esteem was invented, of course. No one would refer to a child as “SuperKlutz” or “Stinkpot” nowadays. I hope.

The odd thing was, my entire family had appalling nicknames. My father habitually called my mother “Old Squaw,” which at the time was not considered politically incorrect. (5) And she didn’t mind. I don’t know what she called my father in private, but I bet it was appalling as well. My sister was “Fuss-budget.” Our family also contained an “Uncle Spud” and an “Aunt Pete.” (6)

So, whom do you think I married? A man whose usual nickname for me is “Old Boot.” I’m not even sure how that one got started. We also have incomprehensible-to-others nicknames for each other, such as “Doodle,” “Ler,” and “Thing.”(7) His family included “One-Eyed Uncle Francis,” who of course, had two eyes. No explanation was ever given for that, either.

Of course, we make fun of “normal” nicknames, calling each other “honey-kissie-lambie-pie” or “sugar-cake-darling-dumpling” until everyone around gags and needs a quick hit of insulin.

The thing is, I think that most families have their own private languages that no one outside understands. They may include nicknames for foods (10), cars (11), exes (12), friends (13), acquaintances (14), restaurants (15), body parts (16), and probably technology, TV shows, and toys, for all I know.

Most of our nicknames don’t get used outside the family. The fact that Dan calls me “Bunny” has until now been as big a secret as that I once belonged to a sorority. (17) Let’s keep it just between us, shall we?

 

(1) My sister was “Buddy.” I couldn’t help thinking that my father really wanted boys. Or wasn’t restrained by gender norms. Or both, I guess.

(2) By bonking a chair I was carrying into a screen door. Geez, did you think I punched myself?

(3) The ballet lessons were supposed to make me more graceful. See how well that worked?

(4) No seatbelt involved, either, in case you were wondering.

(5) For any number of reasons.

(6) The reasons for Pete’s nickname are lost in the mists of time. Her real name was Edna Mae, which, come to think of it, may have been the reason.

(7) He also calls me Bunny, Rabbit, Rabbi, Baby Orange (which he also calls one of the cats) (8), Scooter, Boomameter (9) and, in a throwback to our younger days, Old Mesa Knees.

(8) I’ve written before about our cats’ nicknames (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8A). Some of them aren’t too flattering either, like Horrible Mr. Horrible Face.

(9) No. I have no idea what that means either. When asked, Dan says it is “something that measures boomas.”

(10) I had a recipe for a sweet baked good involving pastry crust, eggs, cream cheese, sugar, and optional fruit topping. My husband kept calling it “flan.” I told him that wasn’t the thing’s name. “What is it then?” he demanded. I was stumped. “Well, not flan!” I replied. “Not-flan” it has been ever since. After I thought it over, “Way-Too-Big Cheese Danish” would have been more accurate. But by then it was too late.

(11) “The Washing Machine” or “The Demon-Possessed Ventura.”

(12) “The Rotten Ex-Boyfriend Who Almost Ruined My Life,” to give a printable example.

(13) “Nearly Normal Beth,” “Jerk Boy,” “Michigan Dude.”

(14) “Fish-Face,” “Binky.”

(15) “Chateau Blanc,” “La Frisch,” “Waffle Ho.”

(16) General, like “wing-wing” or “gazongas,” or specific, like “throbbing purple-headed warrior” or “quivering love pudding.”

(17) I also used to go by Dusty. But never Dust Bunny, thank God.

Cat Visits From Beyond

First of all, let me say that I don’t believe in ghosts. I also don’t believe that dreams predict the future.

Still, when it comes to cats, spirits and dreams are definitely involved.

Whenever one of our cats dies, my husband and I take turns selecting the next cat – unless one simply shows up at our door and chooses us, which has been happening more and more lately. But if I’m the one to choose, how do I know when it’s time?

I’ve known plenty of people, including my mother and my mother-in-law, who, when a pet dies, swear they will never get another one. Unless they move into a small apartment that doesn’t allow pets – or requires an exorbitant fee for the right – they always do.

I don’t know how other people know when the time is right, but when it’s time for a new kitty, I have a cat dream that lets me know.

Once the cat was Shaker, a tuxedo cat we had for many years. Some time after she died I dreamed about her. She was sitting on the walkway in front of my grandmother’s house, looking just as beautiful and dignified as she did in life. She meowed, turned, and walked back up the sidewalk. I was happy to see her again. (I always am when dead friends visit me in dreams.) And I got the feeling that she was ready for her spirit to move on and make way for another cat in my heart and home.

Another time I dreamed of Chelsea, a black-and-white cat we lost to kidney failure. In the dream, she was curled up in a dresser drawer with assorted clothes – and five tiny kittens snuggled up to her, nursing. Real-life Chelsea was spayed (all our cats are neutered), so I remember thinking it was odd. But again, the message of the dream seemed to be that her visit was to reassure me that she was not alone in the afterlife, and that another kitten was to be welcomed.

Sometimes, however, phantom kitties appear in waking life.

Everyone who has owned cats has had the experience of seeing movement out of the corner of their eye and thinking for an instant that it’s a cat. But when you look around, there’s no cat there.

The strange part is that the half-seen cat is often not a cat that the person currently owns. It seems to be a cat from the past or future, or even an unknown cat, just visiting. Nor is it always just a figment of the imagination, a trick of vision. I have experienced standing still and feeling a cat brushing against the back of my leg. When I looked down, of course, again there was no cat present.

I think these “visitations” are caused by the cat energy that builds up in a house that has hosted felines. It gets tucked away in corners and closets, only appearing when you don’t expect it. I find these phantom kitties comforting, not scary. They are welcome in my house.

A friend of ours lived in a small apartment where he was not allowed to have pets. One day he told us that he would like to have a cat and we told him that his landlady could hardly object to a phantom cat. After a week or so, he told us that no phantom cat had appeared. “Well,” we said, “invite one in.”

“How do I do that?” he asked.

“Put out a mental call – roll out a spiritual welcome mat,” we said. If there’s a better way to describe it, I don’t know what it is.

So John put out a welcoming vibe directed at any spirit cats in the area. The next day, he told us, he saw some movement out of the corner of his eye – a cat he could never quite visualize but also could never ignore or deny. The spirit cat even moved with him when he went to a new apartment.

So are these really cats from beyond or tricks of the light? Wishes or fantasies of cats? Glitches and vagaries of human perception? The truth is, I don’t really care. These feline phenomena – whatever their source – comfort me and connect me with cat friends that I still love and badly miss. And that’s enough for me.