(Trigger warning: This long post starts out terribly cute and ends up, from some people's perspective, just plain terrible. I can stand living it, so you can stand reading it...but be prepared.)
For bloggers who don't have a literal bench (a piano bench) one-third full of things they intend to post when they get the time, Tuesdays are "Tortie Tuesday." I don't normally participate in that, although my Queen Cat Heather can be called a "tortie." Heather does, however, have a mind of her own, and on Tuesday two of the other cats seemed to be joining her side of a debate she's been nonverbally carrying on with me this spring.
Officially, all resident cats at the Cat Sanctuary are outdoor cats. Cats who are in transit, in quarantine, ill or injured, rearing kittens, in need of a place to get out of the weather, or just eager to be as close as possible to anyone lighting a fire or cooking on the wood stove, have traditionally had access to the mud room (and been able to find ways into most of the older part of the house). Unfortunately, last winter's chimney fire made the wood stove unsafe to operate. I just chucked a lot of mothballs into the corners in the older part of the house, to discourage mold and vermin, and let those rooms freeze. Only my home office, or "warm room," was heated. Technically it's not my bedroom, but I'd often slept in it before the fire and have been sleeping in it since. During a few days of really cold weather the cats snuggled up with me in the warm room.
Cold weather, as defined by active, healthy, fur-covered animals, never lasts long in Virginia. Cats do need shelter when the temperature drops below freezing, but they won't stay in their shelter all day. In the years when we do get bitterly cold days, cats like to go out and mop up the little animals that succumbed to the cold. As the Washington Post mentioned last week...sometimes predator species do act like predators.
So the cats resumed their mostly outdoor life, using the deep earth-floored cellar as their shelter, as soon as temperatures crept back into the double digits on the Fahrenheit side of the thermometer. No complaints. They still have access to the mud room, but when nobody was using the wood stove they didn't want to use it. Not even for having kittens, which Heather and Irene have always done indoors. Too many mothballs.
Heather didn't think a nest of rags between storage bins on the porch was secure enough for her babies, even though we no longer have resident raccoons. Who knows when another raccoon might find its way into our corner of the Blue Ridge? Heather did quite a bit of planning and work to construct a more secure nest for both her kittens and Irene's. If I thought that was the end of this cat's calculating, I was mistaken. The kittens soon began to want to climb out of their nest, didn't want to go back in...and Heather launched a campaign to get me to stay home every day and move the kittens into the office room.
I am not making this up. I can't afford to take digital photos every week, nor will my cheap cell phone take decent ones in anything less than full sunshine, so you'll have to take my word...like this morning, when I started out the door, the cats had already had breakfast and the nursing mother cats had already had their snacks, so two senior cats, three junior cats, and four kittens formed a solid feline chain across the porch, nonverbally saying, "Stay here! Play in the garden with us! Maybe you might find another snack?"
Is it only my imagination that, this week, the cats have been demonstrating all the reasons why some people advocate keeping cats indoors even when the cats would rather go out? For years on end, all anyone would notice is how many cat behavior problems and "neuroses" my cats just don't ever have...and then...
First of all, on Monday Irene got into trouble. Irene is generally the quiet homebody cat. She has led a very sheltered life, seldom straying far enough from home even to explore the outbuildings. So, when she did venture out into the world--I'm not sure whether she was lured by a tomcat or just a whiff of food--she made a stupid kitten mistake.
Food manufacturers just love marketing this fad for Dainty Little Portions of food. If they can sell us the idea that the full standard measure of anything in a can, box, or bottle causes obesity, some people will tamely fork over the same price for the Dainty Portion that they'd pay for the full size. Personally I'd rather drink straight out of a 2-liter bottle in public than pay as much for a 20-ounce or even 10-ounce bottle as I do for the 2-liter bottle, but some people do fall for this marketing ploy. Apparently my Neighbor Grouchy is one of them. He has reasons to be concerned about obesity.
Irene found a Dainty Little Portion can of pork and beans in Neighbor Grouchy's recycling. She licked the yummy, meaty broth around the rim. She kept licking a little deeper into the tin, a little deeper, and before she knew it that little can had become her world. Sounds were muffled! She couldn't see anything! All she could smell were pork and beans, tin and saliva! Who wouldn't panic? She started blundering around in a circle, unable to call for help, with no idea how to get back home.
When Irene didn't report for breakfast on Tuesday I was worried. I called her name. Elmo, who was born to Heather but brought up by Heather, Irene, Ivy, and Sisawat communally in classic social-cat style, responded with "Meow? Meow!" and led me toward Neighbor Grouchy's shed, waving his tail high in that "follow me" signal so many animals use. Irene was that way, he meowed.
Neighbor Grouchy was a nice little kid once, before Gulf War Syndrome. Now he's subject to irrational hostile moods. He's less likely to give himself a heart attack over a surprise visit from an animal than one from a human. I decided to let Elmo deal with him, and continued off to work.
Elmo did deal with the situation in a really heroic way. Somehow, although Irene was still in an irrational state when I came home Tuesday night, Elmo had managed to guide, chase, or push her into the yard. She was still blundering around the yard in a panic, bumping into things, not responding to calls from me or the other cats, until I picked her up and slipped the little can off her head.
It slipped off easily. Irene could have pulled it off with her own paws; if she'd been a more adventurous kitten she would probably have learned how to do that. Heather and Ivy and Tickle and Elmo have done it many times. If Irene had even stopped running in circles, the other cats might have been able to rescue her, but apparently they couldn't! Well...Irene is intelligent in her own way, very sensitive and empathetic when it comes to what other cats need, a great foster mother, but she's not a problem-solver.
When she found herself back in the world outside the tin, Irene was very, very glad to see me. She wanted to rub her greasy face against me. Not particularly wanting that, myself, I fended her off and hastened up onto the front porch. Right where I intended to step, Inky was curled up, cuddling kittens. It was too dark to see them clearly until I'd gone inside and fetched cat food and a light. Turning the light toward Inky, I saw that she was licking one brand-new kitten of her own clean, while another clean, dry baby of her own was nursing, along with one of Heather's kittens, and a third kitten was slowly sliding out of Inky.
Normal cats want privacy when they give birth. I'd expected that Inky would act like a normal cat about this, anyway, no matter how well life among older social cats has "socialized" her...but no. Social cats welcome any help friends can give them. Inky stood up to rub against my hand and purr even at the moment when her standing up added gravity to the new kitten's emergence into the world.
Er. Um. I love her, but Inky has the Manx gene. Although cat breeders on the Isle of Man and in Japan have selectively bred for the distinctive look this gene produces, it is a lethal gene. Irene inherited the weakest form of the gene from her father, and as a result most of Irene's kittens have died young--screaming in pain--from birth defects associated with their chunky frames and short tails. If I'd been earning decent wages, Inky would have been spayed when she was checked for deadly diseases in December. That didn't happen, so by yesterday morning she'd brought five little Manx-mix kittens into the world.
Then...Irene and Heather had four kittens apiece this year. I was encouraged to touch them before Heather hid them away, and had picked out eight suggested names: Dandy and Lion, Peri and Winkle, Violet, Burr, Crocus, and Daffodil. Lion (if it had accepted that name) died before their eyes were open--presumably from "Manx Syndrome." On Wednesday, Heather's smallest kittens, Dandy and Daffodil, disappeared.
I'd left a small container of kibble where a raccoon, if one had been in the neighborhood, would have been unlikely to resist the temptation to steal some food. (Raccoons don't actually like eating kittens; when they kill kittens, the motive seems to be to reduce competition from fellow predators.) My house snake, however, can't eat kibble and can swallow very small kittens. Dandy and Daffodil were the smallest in the litter...the ones Gulegi, a big old snake, could still have eaten.
At least, if Gulegi was the culprit, the bigger kittens should be safe. They are too big for even Gulegi to swallow. Mostly he eats smaller, less human-friendly snakes, which is why I put up with him.
Anyway, this morning, when Heather was waiting for me on the front porch, nonverbally beckoning for Irene and the kittens to stampede into the office. "This is a good safe place for kittens! No other animals! No flies! No fleas! Smell that dried pennyroyal--isn't it better than mothballs? No cat door, but the human will get up and let me out when I tell her to! All we have to do is convince her to stay in all day, and we'll Have It Made!" she purred. She's only been doing this every morning since her kittens were born.
"No, Heather. Stay out, Heather. Back out, Burr! Irene, I said out! Teach these kittens right, can't you? Breakfast is outside!" I've only been saying this every morning since Heather's kittens were born.
"But you adore these kittens!" Heather nonverbally persists. "Irene and I have been training you to adore them! We've been teaching them to make themselves adorable! See how they're already starting to recognize their names? See how they climb onto your feet and hug your ankles and invite you to pick them up? The younger ones will pose and act cute any time you want to snap some more pictures! All of these kittens are going to be Real Pets! We've been doing market research on you for four years, and we've trained every one of these kittens to behave in exactly the ways that you find least ignore-able and most adorable. You're going to love having them curl up all around you and those objects you play with whenever you're indoors. Really! Let us show you!"
"It's bad enough living in the office, myself," I say. "Having a litter box, and tomkittens who think it's clever to 'claim territory' outside the said litter box, in the office, I will not endure. And wherever a cat can go, fleas can most definitely follow...and, in any case, you older cats aren't likely to tolerate being 'indoor pets' for even one hour at a time."
"Well, of course not, but that's the point," Heather persists. "As even thick-witted humans have observed over the years, I am a hunter, not a homemaker. I'm a better than average hunter all by myself, and neither Irene nor any of the junior cats is anywhere near as good a working partner for me as Ivy was, but I think I might be able to train Irene to hunt with me if we could just train you to sit around and guard the kittens all day. All you'd have to do is stay home and do whatever it is you do with all those boxy things and papery things and other objects for which no reasonable cat could ever invent any use whatsoever."
"The part of what I do with those objects that actually brings in kibble, and other things, only works in town," I say. "Wireless Internet and even radio transmission is extremely unreliable in the mountains in summer, nor do I want it in my home even if it would work."
"You don't actually like going into town every day," Heather persists. "Anyway the kittens would grow big enough to take care of themselves before midsummer."
"That allows plenty of time for miserably hot and humid weather, for a full-scale flea infestation, and for me to lose enough of my pathetic little income for all of us to starve to death."
"Not all of us," Heather persists. "Look at Sisawat. She doesn't want to nurse her siblings again this year, so she's basically moved out, and see how well she's feeding herself in the orchard! When she checks in with the rest of us every day, she doesn't hang around waiting for you to bring her a meal, does she? When I went on strike and lived in the woods for ten days, while I wasn't feeding kittens, I didn't lose much weight, either, did I? I only really need kibble and treats when I have kittens to feed! Even Tickle and Elmo are...learning to fend for themselves. Anyway, when you've written about us in the past, didn't you say that there were other humans who'd feed us?"
"Yes, but they don't want to feed you. Nor do you want them to. At the minimum they'd want to take you to their farm, where there are a lot of other cats, and have you all surgically sterilized so you wouldn't have any more kittens--ever. Very likely they'd want to let different people adopt you--by ones--so you'd never have the company of your own kind of animal again, either."
"Well...er...actually, of course, we'd all prefer to keep you here with us, our own dear cook and litter box cleaner, by far our favorite among your bizarre, unreasonable, and foul-smelling (but useful) slave species," Heather admits. But she is, by now, a middle-aged cat.
Being middle-aged means to humans, and probably means to a cat as close to rationality as Heather seems to be, that we understand that the option we prefer is not always available. Sometimes life forces us to "choose" something very different from anything we can honestly say we really choose.
I love my life--my home, my work, my cats. Apart from the fact that most of my favorite fellow humans are dead, in every other way I'd be living in Heaven on earth...if I were only receiving prompt, fair payment for what I've done. Given the options I should in theory be able to choose, I should be able to go on doing writing and odd jobs (the odder the better, and I like jobs that involve physical exercise) for another forty or fifty years...which is most definitely what I'd prefer to do.
Whether it's actually possible for me to do that depends on other humans' ability to detach from (1) their self-conceited attitude that they're somehow superior to me if they can avoid thanking or paying me for work I do, and (2) their irrational-conformist belief that they're somehow better off if they buy things that look like what they see advertised on television rather than paying for goods or services that are "different" because they're produced by individuals outside the corporations that advertise on television.
It's time to put together tomorrow's edition of the Portal Paper. Last week was a breakthrough week for the paper because somebody finally mailed in some ad funding. The cats and I ate full meals every single day. And this morning I used the bulk of the payment to pay a particularly inflated and detestable bill. And now, once again, I have $4.24 to last until I sell some papers. Just staying home, detaching from my own preference to eat and drink, indulging the cats for another week or so, and starving is not a plan that appeals to me at all. It is, however, a plan that looks more rational, feasible, and practicable than trying to live on what the Portal Paper has been bringing in.
And I did say that I wasn't going to try to scrounge through another month on the kind of income the Portal Paper has been bringing in, Gentle Readers. $19 for a week? Is that living? I promised you: $1000--in cash, in hand--or I'd stay home and give up eating and drinking. Am I a woman of my word?
In order for my life to continue to be my life, do I need to let it end with cute little kittens gnawing the cold flesh off my bones after I succumb to dehydration during this year's first real heat wave, expected next week?
A year or two ago I posted a story about a woman who was literally choking to death in a house full of dust and dirt because she didn't want to rearrange her budget so she could pay somebody like me to get her house clean (after which, who knows, she might still have been able to do a job--which might have been why she prefers to choke on dirt). I don't know whether she's still alive; I've heard of several other people in the same situation, and said, No, that's not the person I meant. More recently, I received a long-delayed, barely legible letter from another woman who, when I called her, admitted that she had in fact scrawled it out with a cast on her writing arm, which was why it had taken three weeks to reach the mailbox from an address to which I could have walked in a day--but she didn't want to rearrange her budget so she could pay somebody like me to write, or cook or clean or lift things, for her. (Do people like her deserve to have broken arms?)
The majority of people who visit this web site aren't in my part of the world and can't pay me to come to their houses and do physical work, but they jollywell can buy things from me. Anything you're likely to buy, including furniture, car parts, and nonperishable food, can be bought from Amazon. I'm an Amazon Affiliate; I've never even tried to advertise the full range of Stuff You Could Be Buying From Me, only a few of the books, but rest assured, Gentle Readers, it includes just about everything. It includes non-perishable groceries. Some of you who spend a lot of money driving from store to store could actually save money by paying me (per package) to find and mail out the name-brand items you buy in stores...or the ones you'd like to buy in stores, if stores near you stocked them. Like f'rinstance, to pick something a local lurker mentioned in a live conversation last year, Lundberg's heirloom organic rice:
Of course, you're not here to shop for groceries; you're here to read. Before the Internet existed, you would have had to pay five dollars a month to read whatever you've been reading. Once, one reader actually paid that amount. Do I have to starve to death, or more precisely speaking dehydrate to death, to get it into your minds that all of you are supposed to pay that amount, if you yourselves are not starving, each and every month?
I don't do welfare cheating; that's neither "living" nor "me." I don't have to go on playing out a real-world version of The Hunger Game, either. In fact, having publicly stated that I didn't plan to, I may be morally obligated not to do that.
I'll say this though. If I heard that you, "you" being anybody who's likely to visit this web site regularly--not a foreign spy or a child molester in a maximum-security prison or anything, but the sort of person with whom I interact online--were trying to live on US$19 for a week in the U.S., and I had $1000 or even $500 for a month, I would have found a decent, respectful way to have sent you some money by now. And thanked you for what you do, as writer, reader, postcard designer or whatever, rather than smarming on about what a favor Magnificent Me was doing for Pathetic You. (Blethered about your emotional mood? Judged you for mentioning the uncomfortable topic? Those reactions serve only one purpose--to identify those among us who really deserve to starve.) I would have done that much, without its having to be spelled out to me, merely because I am a Real Virginia Lady.
Apparently, I'm the last of the breed.
Therefore, these social cats are the closest I'm likely to come, in this lifetime, to companions whose opinions about anything I respect, and--unless somebody out there has sent some serious funding, really, it's just been delayed in the mail--there's no reason why I shouldn't indulge them next week.