Thursday, January 31, 2019

Bad Poetry: Fear of Free Verse


(Regular readers may remember this one from Associated Content.)

well if archy the cockroach
was once a vers libre bard
(a writer of free verse)
and he came back as a cockroach
even though he wrote good free verse
and someone stepped on him
and he came back as another cockroach,
what’s going to
become of

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Phenology Memory: The Daubers

I started writing this one in June 2018, when it wasn't sponsored and posted. I’m posting it now because what I observed may still interest anyone dealing with other members of the mostly solitary wasp family called mud daubers. They are native to North America and become active whenever the weather is not really cold.

In the spring of 2018, to my dismay, the Polistes fuscatus colony who've lived with me for years suddenly collapsed. Young wasps hatched by the dozens—and then they all flew away, probably because the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug has moved in. These large aggressive bugs don’t attack humans, but they suck wasps’ eggs. Whether the native wasps realized that the imported stinkbugs were a threat to their reproductive success, or merely hate the sweetish odor of stinkbugs, who can say? (Giving the devil its due, stinkbugs eat several kinds of small nuisance insects when they can get them—but they don’t fly well enough to have a chance to catch gnats, flies, or mosquitoes, which paper wasps kill very efficiently. I sorely miss my paper wasps.)

So then a mud-dauber moved into the office room.

Mud-daubers generally are undergoing scientific review, so although the wasps are common, not much species-specific information is available as what's been published is reconsidered; species names have changed, subtle identifying details have been used to classify individuals by species. I don't know. I've always assumed that what we had were all one species, and the Wikipedia post for Trypoxylon politum, especially the "organ pipe" arrangement of their nests, seemed to match what I'd observed in past years, as here: 

(Though "5mm" has to be either a typo, or a description of the males only, if we're talking about the same animals. All the female mud-daubers I know are about 25mm, or one inch, from head to tail.)

However, according to the flashier "scientific" web pages like , what came to live with me were not Trypoxylon; they were Chalybion, probably Chalybion californicum, which (despite its name) is found all across North America. They had to be Chalybion because they reflected a deep, bright, metallic blue under strong light. The wings, like some birds' feathers, reflect blue in some light and dark drab in other light. 

Chalybion californicum, _side, I_SD6774
Photo by Jason D. Roberts at : page URL ; image URL,_side,I_SD6774.jpg

Chalybion californicum, F, side, MD, PG County 2013-08-08-14.01.04 ZS PMax (9557305454).jpg
Sam Droege had permission to use Jason D. Roberts' photo of a living Chalybion californicum queen at the site where I found it, but could not automatically share that permission. So, in case JDR objected to the pretty picture above, I pasted in SD's less flattering, closer-up photo of a dead specimen. In real life I've never been able to see the tiny hairs that even mud-daubers have; in motion they look slick and glossy, and I've not handled a dead one, which is one reason why it's hard for me to use the "scientific" sites that rely on the information you get by examining dead or frozen animals.  On consideration, since both photographers were so nice about it, why not keep both links? The full-size photo is on Wikipedia, By Sam Droege from Beltsville, USA - Chalybion californicum, F, side, MD, PG County_2013-08-08-14.01.04 ZS PMaxUploaded by tm, Public Domain, , or on Flickr . 

Sam Droege's e-mail signed off with a tagline that's also worth sharing:

How Can you Save the Bees if You Don't Even Know Their Names?

Mud-daubers can be distinguished from paper wasps, before they build different types of nests, by their longer “waists.” Their tail segments hang by threads. Chalybion flash iridescent cobalt-blue under fluorescent light; much gaudier than the modest little Polistes fuscatus. Adult female sizes range from a little less to a little more than one inch from head to tail.

My perception of them has hitherto been that, as a species, mud-daubers are less lovable than fuscatus. To be fair, mud-dauber queens almost never attack. (In both species, queens’ tail ends have pointy bits they can use to stab enemies, but no venom,) Mud-daubers do, however, take many days to learn to recognize and trust you, the way a paper wasp queen learns to do in minutes (and the workers, who are full of venom, then take their cue from their queen). For all practical purposes they don’t bond with humans, because humans, even serious Green humans like this writer, get tired of their constant challenges. Eventually the mud-daubers I’d known challenged me when I was near a fire, and I swatted them into it.

Last year, feeling that any queen wasp was better than none, I allowed one mud-dauber queen at a time to stay in the office room. To my surprise, I did not have to put up with constant challenges. Each learned to recognize me, and both queens became such congenial office mates that I even gave them names: in the spring I called my office companion Cobalt, and in the fall I called her heir, presumably a daughter or granddaughter, Shimmer.

Cobalt basically seemed to learn to recognize me in one day; we got on well. Shimmer made threat displays with decreasing frequency over the first three days, then settled in as peacefully as a paper wasp.

I have no scientific explanation for this. Wasps have highly developed senses of smell and taste; probably they react to the scents of rival wasps in the environment. Possibly other mud-daubers weren’t able to calm down and accept humans because being in paper wasps’ territory made them nervous. Possibly Chalybion are less wary than Trypoxylon. Mud-daubers, like paper wasps, are equipped with a very elaborate set of survival instincts that produce an illusion of intelligence, astonishing in an animal of their size. Actually they’re slow learners with little problem-solving intelligence. I was surprised and pleased to see that they did learn, albeit slowly.

They did not, of course, learn their names; giving them names was purely a whim of mine, because each behaved differently from others that presumably belonged to the same species, even the same local family. Wasps’ perceptions are very acute but probably alien to ours. They probably hear a lot of things humans don’t hear; but they probably don’t hear most ordinary human speech. They definitely recognize human moods, probably by a combination of sight and scent. They probably can hear the louder, shriller pitches of humans shouting angrily; they recognize those sounds as different from children’s squeaking or happier humans’ singing. 

Wasps don’t like people who are tense, angry, or nervous. They accept and may even defend people who are calm. Wasps will chase people who panic and run away; it’s probably unfair to suggest that they are bullies, probably closer to the truth to imagine that they perceive all tense behavior as a potential threat and respond with their own threat displays. (The ones who chase people are mostly queens, and for these species their threat display is mostly bluff. They can jab, nip, and scratch, but not really sting.) If you want to work in the vicinity of a wasp’s nest, mellow out and move slowly.

Each little queen flew around the office once or twice a day. If I were inside and could look, I could usually see the gnat or mosquito she was pursuing. They did most of their hunting and nest building outdoors, going in and out through a crack between window panes. On wet days they sheltered in a crevice in the window sill. (Mud-daubers daub mud on walls, trees, etc., to build little houses for their eggs to hatch in; they don’t live in these houses, themselves.) Both Cobalt and Shimmer brought their mates indoors too.

The social wasps, like paper wasps, can fairly be said to have three sexes; male, female, and “workers” have different body shapes and social roles. Unlike a bee colony, which has one queen and hundreds of workers, a paper wasp colony can have multiple queens and no workers. Also unlike a bee colony, where the workers can sting once in their lifetimes but the queen can sting repeatedly, in a paper wasp colony only the workers have venomous stings. Male and female parts have sharp points the wasps use to stab attackers at the same time they scratch and bite in self-defense, producing a sensation humans find unpleasant, but harmless. Mud-daubers don’t form colonies; some sources suggest that they may have workers, but I’ve not seen any.

That may be due to lack of careful observation. Worker wasps are almost as big as queens. It can be hard to tell which is which without seeing them together. What I know for sure is that neither Cobalt nor Shimmer brought in a daughter, but each brought in a mate--I think Shimmer had two.

Male wasps are tiny. Without looking them up, anyone would think they were a separate species. Females can and do carry the males around, sometimes while mating, as easily as a woman carries a baby. My office-mates brought their mates into the office room. I’m not sure exactly where the male mud-daubers spent most of their time or what they did, apart from catching an occasional gnat and, from my perspective, impersonating malnourished houseflies. I suspect the females shared food with them. Certainly they encouraged the little fellows to stay in the office, that nice safe dry place they had found.

Several times I thought the male wasps were flies, but before swatting them I noticed that their tiny tail ends hung by threads, and their antennae, almost as long as their mates’, looked absurdly out of proportion to their heads, so I left them alone. Their whole bodies were about as long as their mates’ tail segments, and thinner. They didn’t look as if they were built to last even eight weeks, but Cobalt’s mate lived with us for at least five weeks. Wary at first, as most males are, he seemed to become familiar with me as something that attracted prey species for him to chase.

It didn’t pay off. Eventually I felt something like a mosquito landing on my shoulder, swatted, and—whether or not I’d also killed a gnat or mosquito—realized I’d killed Cobalt’s mate. Whether she was tired of him anyway, realized it had all been a misunderstanding, lacked the instinct to investigate a fellow Hymenopteran's death, or had the instinct to investigate only in the case of more valuable females, she did not go into the sort of investigation and threat routine I’ve seen mud-daubers do when a paper wasp or carpenter bee was killed. She was growing old, for a wasp, and did not bring in another mate.

Shimmer, however, kept one male mud-dauber in the office for about two weeks. He was small enough to fly through the crack between windowpanes. When I stopped seeing him, I guessed that he’d been eaten by a bird. Then again, Shimmer seemed to spend less time in the office after he disappeared; possibly he’d found a place to stay outdoors. In any case, after a few more weeks Shimmer brought a male mud-dauber into the office again. He didn’t seem to know his way around, even in the witless way mud-daubers know what little information their microscopic minds store. Either the original male completely forgot his former home, or Shimmer lost one mate, lived alone for about a month,. and found another mate.

I think it’s possible that the little male wasps, whom I often saw on the floor, were eating the microscopic larvae of the previous summer’s cat fleas. Certainly the cats had been bothered by fleas, and certainly, even after Traveller moved in with that stinky flea collar merely motivating the fleas to cluster on his back end, the office remained flea-free. There are no house plants in the office room, so if the wasps ate plant sap or nectar, they went in and out to get it. There were plenty of spiders, gnats, tiger mosquitoes, and the occasional fly for these mostly carnivorous wasps to eat.

Mud-daubers are usually perceived as solitary animals, dying of old age before their eggs hatch, and they don’t usually seem clever enough to have much of a social life. I now wonder, though, to what extent they experience themselves as couples.

As companion insects I found them very inferior to Polistes fuscatus, the species nature seems to have destined for dominance in my part of the world. Polistes fuscatus eat a wide range of nuisance insects, from gnats to human-toxic hairy caterpillars, and control nuisance insect populations with incredible efficiency. Paper wasps build their nests out of the chewed-up solid parts of nuisance insects, so they kill more than they actually eat, and live in large colonies of avid nuisance-insect eaters. Mud-daubers spend a lot of their time literally mucking about beside streams and puddles, selecting just the right mix of mud and sand for their cement works. However, people who live in fear of being stung by other wasps might like daubers as companions, since they don’t really sting.

Can we get an Amazon link in here? Why not? Since we're talking about wasps who may be said to have stingers, but don't have venom, Florence King's study of the Anglo-American Protestant subculture in the 1970s at least has a suitable title:

That's a funny book, but Amazon should be able to do better...I've never seen or read this 1949 book about a real individual mud-dauber, obviously not a Chalybion, but now I want to.

How Much Does Format Matter?

How much do you, Gentle Readers, care about the way a document looks? When you look at web sites, brochures, books, do you think “Oh, what a beautiful (or ugly) type font”? (Probably not.) Even though the Futura font became associated with nasty people in the past, do you think less of someone who cluelessly chose Futura as his or her personal font? If you can read the words, is that good enough? Did you ever bother learning rules about the “meanings” of indented first lines, extra spaces between paragraphs, ragged or even right margins?

Probably not. Probably, if you do notice formatting, what you notice is that the combination of pale-colored type and “sans serif” fonts like Arial make things hard to read. If you cared a great deal about formatting you probably wouldn’t read anything on the Internet, where formatting is almost always sooo ugly.

I should begin by saying that most blog hosting sites, and social media sites, have their own formats they impose on users. I understand this and actually thank people for not trying to fix the default formatting imposed by the public sites they use, because it's easier for readers to fix the default formatting when we paste it into Word and print it, anyway. In this post I'm scolding Microsoft, not my e-friends. But I am scolding Microsoft, and HP, and Open Office.

Formatting is used to communicate, not just to make a personal statement. Here are some rules you may or may not have formally learned:

* On a printed page, small type generally says “I respect you; I’m not trying to deliver less than your money’s worth.” Large type is fine for headings, or in books specially marked as “Large Print” for weaker eyes. Otherwise, bigger letters say “I’m using more space to deliver less content.” (See Florence King, as in When Sisterhood Was in Flower, for (hilarious, not-family-filtered) descriptions of bored hack writers using bigger type and other devices to crank out more variations on what they typed last week.) This is also applicable to extra spaces between and among lines, words, or letters.

* On a computer screen, however, the screen itself is tiring to the eye, and larger print seems easier to read faster. Web sites normally display content in type sizes that would be obnoxious in a book. On the Internet people are only scanning; if we really want to read a document we can resize the type to whatever we prefer when we print the document.

* In a bound book, uneven right margins say “This is meant to be a poem.” (And if it is, in fact, the instructions for using a gadget, it will be unfavorably judged for that reason. Ragged-edged prose is annnoying.)

* On loose leaves of paper, uneven right margins say “This is a draft, a student’s paper, or a personal letter, hand written or typed on a typewriter, not yet ready to be printed and published.” Extra space between lines says “This draft is being submitted for corrections.”

* On a computer screen, uneven right margins say “This is a web page. Even if the document is ready to be printed, it’s too complicated to get the right side nice and even when we have to use extra-large type.”

* On a printed page, a paragraph that follows immediately after the preceding paragraph is not separated by extra spaces, but by a line break and an indented first line. This says, “Here is step two (after step one), or what B said in reply to A, or the next point the reviewer wanted to raise in discussing the book.”

* On a printed page, extra spaces between paragraphs say, “Here is a separate thought...maybe what happened to a different character in the story, or what happened hours or days later, or the number to call if steps one through ten don’t work.”

* On a computer screen, extra spaces between paragraphs say, “This may or may not be a following thought, a separate thought, or a whole different document. Extra spaces have no real meaning because many web designers still have trouble designing pages that display paragraphs properly. Both extra spaces and strange characters may mean that the computer was scanning the document as it was typed in on a different computer, and inserted stuff where the original document formed line breaks.”

* On a printed page, either the first line of each paragraph, or all the successive lines, are indented. This says “This is a paragraph.” The first line is indented in ordinary prose; the following lines are indented in lists. The very first line of a book or chapter is not indented and may feature an extra-large first letter, graphic, or some other sort of fancy formatting; this says “This is a new document.” Paragraphs that lack indentation, after the first line, say “This is a mistake.”

* In a business letter, there is a traditional “block style” that uses extra lines in between unindented paragraphs. This, along with funky-looking fonts like Futura, is associated with early twentieth century “progressivism” and with Europe. These features say different things to different people depending on their politics, but in any case they’re not a beautiful style. Americans favor typefonts with serifs and paragraphs with indentation.

* On a computer screen, paragraphs that lack indentation say “This is the careless mistake of Web designers who, by and large, were not book editors and didn’t know how to get paragraphs to look right.” (Or did they? Some of them were, in fact, left-wingnuts.)

* If a printed document has more than one page, printing on only one side of each page says either “Use this side for notes, answers, comments, etc.,” or else “We waste a lot of space and paper, and probably other things.” The convention of single-sided business documents goes back to the nineteenth century, when quill pens and fresh typewriter ribbons used liquid ink that could soak through the thin, cheap paper many people used, so that documents typed on the paper many businesses used could become unreadable. People who developed their style before 1970 became accustomed to reading single-sided documents and are confused by text printed on both sides of the paper. For baby-boomers, however, one-sided printing has never been necessary.

* If a document prints from a computer on only one side of each page, that says “Despite all the blather you used to hear from computer people about saving paper, and despite the fact that writing on a word processor does save professional writers a lot of paper, the computer printer industry is still a greedhead business that’s more concerned about making people buy more paper than it is about saving any trees.”

* Despite the potential different typefonts and colored inks offer for organizing material—identifying different levels of headings in nonfiction, different narrators in fiction, etc.—generally, “special effects” beyond a header font and a main text font say “I’m a child playing with a toy.”

* In handwritten documents, underlining says, “This is either a word someone emphasized when speaking, or a foreign word, or a book title.” In hand-typed documents underlining was supposed to serve the same purpose, but that took a lot of time and wasted a lot of single-use film ribbon, so capital letters were sometimes used to say the same thing.

* In printed documents, italic type normally says the same thing as underlining.

* On a computer screen, all capitals says, “I’m screaming.” No capitals says, “I’m mumbling.” Nearly all web sites will display italics, and nearly all online writers have learned to type “< i >” and “< /i >,” so italics have generally been adopted for use in identifying emphasized words, foreign words, and book titles in online documents. But not always. There’s no consistent rule. Young readers may need to be told that typing words between *asterisks* or /slanted lines/ were older ways to get either bold or italic type to display on a screen; they still work at a few sites and are still often used where they don’t work because that’s a habit older people developed. Baby-boomers, at least, “hear” a word being emphasized differently if it’s typed between asterisks (usually to show harmless contrastive stress, as in “Please note, I want to do this on Monday (rather than Tuesday as usual)” ) or in capital letters (usually to show the more unpleasant kind of stress, as in “You agreed to do this on MONDAY!”).

In the 1980s, a person could make a decent living just by learning how to make the clunky word processing systems of those days print documents that looked as if they’d been printed by people who knew these rules, and others, which we’d probably not studied in school but absorbed by studying printed books. It was possible to establish a real trademark “style” through formatting in sophisticated programs like Word Perfect or Microsoft Word. I did. While some favored styles that proclaimed “I am trendy and arty,” mine proclaimed “I can make your software manual look like a real book that Houghton Mifflin might have printed.” I made more money than the trendy and arty typists in the 1980s.

Newer versions of Word actually came out with some of my preferences, which were also the preferences of many federal agencies and contractors, set as defaults (after it had taken us years to get them into computers as options). My trademark formatting no longer displays in Word at the length it once did. It has variations, but basically...

* Margins: 0.5” all sides

* Font: Times New Roman 8 pt

* Line spacing: Single

* Tab stops: 0.25”, 0.5”, 1”, 1.5” (etc.)

* Paragraphs: first line indented by 0.25”

* Alignment: Justified

* Font color: Black

* DON’T (waste a line to avoid printing the last line of a paragraph on a separate page)

* DON’T (add spaces between paragraphs)

* DON’T automatically “correct” ANYthing.

* DON’T automatically number lists

Deviations from this norm serve special purposes and are done by hand. Even I don’t always format everything exactly the same way, and in fact I have templates for “list,” “poem,” “manuscript,” “business letter,” and “large print” documents that are different from the basic prose document, but basically, if it’s prose and I wrote or typed it, there are specific reasons for any deviation from my norm; this is generally the way I want my documents to look. Clean, classic, conservative, with no wasted space. A glance should make it clear that they’re meant to be read on paper, by people who know the difference between sections and paragraphs.

I’d been setting up documents like this before Word existed, so I was dismayed when I took documents to a certain computer center to print and found that everything I uploaded was coming up in what I see as a horrid, nasty, ugly...Webby-looking format. New versions of Word were overriding all my own formatting and mangling my documents into big ugly type fonts with unindented paragraphs and extra lines everywhere. Urgh! Ick! Where was this garbage coming from? Nothing typed by me should ever look like that, I silently screamed.

Whence, I asked myself, all this passionate intensity? I’ve typed all kinds of things that don’t look like my default Word settings. I type things to fit other people’s specifications. I type things that aren’t normal prose documents. When I focus more intensely on something by “reading it into the computer,” I don’t always bother to print the samizdat copy I’ve made, but when I do I long ago formed the habit of printing samizdat in all those other fonts, if only to have a sample of what they look like in case I type something for someone who wants it to look a bit different. Some fonts, as the main fonts for an entire document, look ridiculous—so now I know that, too. I would not, ever, recommend Arial or Calibri or Tahoma or any other sans-serif font for anything that anyone needs actually to read, because not only i’s and l’s and 1’s and I’s but also f’s and t’s come out looking exactly alike to most people, as do 3's and 5's and 6's and 8's and 9's, but how hard is it to type CTRL+A, click on the Font menu, and click on “Times New Roman”?

Well, for one thing, I should not ever need to do that. People who upload documents onto public-access computers are uploading the documents they want, the way they want those documents to look. Their time is usually limited, and they’re not there to clean up Microsoft’s mess. It’s really a point of common courtesy, given that other people may be waiting in line to use a public-access computer, to program the public-access computer not to change a document in any way.

For another thing, though, why are the new versions of Word so determined to change formatting designed for printing into formatting designed for online viewing? I don’t want my documents to be viewed online. I want to get them printed out so I can read them, myself. Who else wants to read my documents online, and wants me to know they’re reading my documents online, and wants to expose their nefarious activity by something as rude and clumsy as changing my formatting?

Why would Microsoft annoy customers in this way if someone weren’t paying for the information they hope to gank out of our private documents?

Who would pay for the Word documents of private people is an even murkier question. Frustrated advertisers, hoping that if they keep reading our mail they’ll find the magic keyword that will motivate us to buy something we’ve never wanted to own? Local telephone company employees, hoping to find tidbits of gossip they’ve not been able to overhear on the phone?

Word’s obnoxious “Styles” feature is obviously not designed for the convenience of typists, who have never needed a computer to tell them that in a business letter the dateline should be aligned right, the address aligned left. We can do that with one keystroke so why would we want to bother programming it into a bunch of burdensome “Style” buttons? The only explanation for the “Styles” feature that makes any sense at all is that someone you’ve never been told about really wants to read the letters you don’t trust to e-mail.

Such things have their uses if they remind us never to type anything that mentions real names or physical addresses on a computer that has a modem. Still, they’re a pain. When I print something I typed for my own benefit, I do not want it to screech nonverbally “This is an ugly, amateurish-looking web page”—it’s not a web page. I did not take the trouble to center the chapter headings so that a computer could left-align them, or to fit a tidy little document into fifteen neat-looking pages of Times Roman so that a computer could spread it out into forty ugly pages of Calibri. (Funny thing, if Microsoft hadn’t started messing up my documents with its idiotic preset “Styles,” I wouldn’t hate Calibri.) I did not type a document in Spanish so that a computer could suggest English words that look similar to the words I mean. I want a computer to “know” that it’s a machine, not a nanny.

Recently, I’ve started seeing a message when I open Word that “Word has saved changes to the ‘Normal’ template.” I didn’t make those changes. Somebody Out There in cyberspace wants to take back the benefit people bought Word for: the way even two-finger typists can use Word to make documents look the way they like. Something I downloaded contained an embedded command to “update the template” and restore some aspect of that tacky Webby look to my documents.

Stop it right now, Microsoft. No document of mine contains wasted spaces between paragraphs. A blank line after a paragraph is a section break and there should not usually be more than one on a page. Maybe you could upgrade whatever the other person was using to embed a permanent setting that Does Not Allow the Document to Alter a User’s “Normal” Template.

Better yet, when you roll out Windows Respects the Customers Edition with Minimized Connectivity, Physical Data Storage, and Text-Only Browsing, don’t have “Styles” buttons at all. Early adopters still remember how to set up their own templates as document forms. If we, the Honorable Customers to Whom You Owe Thanks for the Shirts on Your Backs, want to use those templates we can use them. Keep your silly “Styles” to yourself. Whoever’s unofficially monitoring my private word processing system can jollywell enlarge the type manually.

Program this into Word, Microsoft: The computer owner’s commands shall prevail, even if the computer owner were foolish enough to want to use webby-looking formatting. The spyware that doesn’t like the owner’s formatting choices shall vaporize.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Kindness: To Smile or Not to Smile?

Why why whyyy, I wondered, do people keep wimping out by adding "Smile" to the list of things people can do to practice kindness?

Part of the answer is that cheap gestures of good will should not be mistaken for real acts of kindness. People waiting behind you in line are not likely to be impressed by your efforts to cheer up a tired cashier, and people who are trying to read or work do not want to be interrupted by your offer to bring them a drink, and offering to do chores or errands in the wrong way can be as obnoxious as handing people cash on the street. Once in a while I do find it helpful when someone opens the door for me, although most of the time I think that's a quaint courtship ritual going back to the days when (only rich and fashionable) women wore white kid gloves, and men fell all over themselves to protect young women from having to touch a doorknob while callously allowing older women to lug chamberpots and coal-scuttles around. Hello? I don't think I've ever worn white kid gloves. If you're going through a door immediately ahead of someone else, hold it, and if not, no probs--unless it is part of a courtship ritual, or unless the other person's hands are full.

Basically, meaningful practices of kindness require us (1) to go out of our way (2) to do what the other person wants to have done, as distinct from what we might imagine would be fun for us to do, (3) to serve the Highest Good of the other person. (Flattering someone's selfish vanity is, in the long run, an unkindness. Do it if you think you have to do it to keep a job, but never imagine that it's an act of kindness.)

Most of us can think of forty or fifty things we could do that would be acts of kindness, if directed to the right individuals we know. Most of us should do more of those things. What we should not do is misdirect an effort that might have been an act of kindness, if we'd extended it toward one person at one time, toward someone for whom it's not an act of kindness.

Maybe pushing A's wheelchair around the lake would be an act of kindness, because A really loves birdwatching at the lake, and is only going to be a wheelchair dweller for another three weeks or so, and hasn't built up the muscles to push a cheap loaner wheelchair around the lake without help. Maybe pushing B's wheelchair around the lake would be a stupid idea, because B has a motorized wheelchair, thanks just the same...and C is now fully capable of walking all the way around the lake on crutches, and if you mention the wheelchair C sent back last week C might whack you with a crutch.

Maybe D would love it if you offered to scrub and vacuum her house so she can go somewhere with the children. Maybe E would love it if you offered to go somewhere with the children so she can tidy her own house. Maybe F would appreciate it if you offered to pick up things from the store when you go downtown, but doesn't really want to entrust either the house or the children to anyone else, even an old friend.

Maybe G would actually be able to work, walk, even see better if you gave G a good back massage. Maybe H doesn't like back rubs, and the mere idea of someone touching I's back from behind sends I's blood pressure into the danger zone.

What would be an act of kindness to one person you know would be a bad joke or an insult to some other person you know.

Most acts of kindness involve either physical exertion or money. You can always ask your friends, but unless you are a professional-quality singer, are reading aloud to blind people or children, or can do simultaneous translation for people who don't speak the same language, you'll probably get no requests to exercise your mouth. If anything, friends who want "someone to talk to" about their own problems want you to shut up and listen to them.

So where does anyone get this bizarre idea that pulling faces at people would ever be construed as an act of kindness? Not even running your mouth, but just stretching your mouth at an act of kindness? Say what? Do even dentists really enjoy looking at teeth?

Once again this week's news story calls attention to the fact that people do not actually love those who tell themselves to smile. This time, the image on every news site doesn't even feature a big toothy grin, but a big "friendly" smile from a cute teenager who undoubtedly has school friends who'd trade their newest game and most expensive shoes for any chance of being looked at, like that, by him.

Note, please, writers about "kindness," that the boy's beaming face has not stopped his political opponents from posting death threats to him and his parents and sending suspicious packages to his school. The kid was rude, right? Granted the scene was one of those demonstration-counter-demonstration events that unite the city of Washington, D.C., in a common dream of being able to order everybody on the street to go home right now and that means their home and if they're from Kentucky, or somewhere out on the Great Plains, that is where they should go, right now. I lived in Washington long enough that I don't need to watch the video to say whether the kid and his pals, or the older man, was being rude. I know they were all being rude and should have gone home. Marching on Washington is a rude thing to do. No facial expression made these people more tolerant of one another.

When people are in fact friendly, are enjoying each other's company, are singing or laughing together, then the unfaked, unforced expressions on their faces communicate pleasure and good will. This is good. When people are in fact hostile, trying to fake a real smile never works, and communicates a combination of ill will with dishonesty that, as Douglas Adams observes, makes people want to hit their "smiles" with a brick.

Think about it, Gentle Readers. What's the first thing about the famous photo that hit your consciousness? Before you knew which side which one was on, what they were quarrelling about, or what ethnic group the older man identified with, you saw a young person whose physical attitude mixed aggressive confrontation with a big grin of self-satisfaction. Without even thinking about it you wanted to see the older man wipe that smirk off that brat's face, whether with a withering retort or with a brick.When schoolboys have to confront grandfather-types about anything, their body language should unequivocally convey that they're very sorry that you don't realize, Sir, that this life-and-death emergency requires...

Out of curiosity I glanced at a few of the claims that Smiling Boy was "racist." Bosh. No, he wasn't spewing hatewords at the older man. No, he's not been accused of cruising through Black neighborhoods throwing eggs. About the dumbest stunt of which he seems to have been accused was dressing "all in black" to the extent of blackening his face. But he did get up in that older man's face with an expression on his own face that nonverbally says, to an unbiased observer, "I like talking back to older people! Oh clever me!" and that makes it easy to perceive him as a hater.

After watching then-President Bush formally open the Gulf War with a sickly, fish-eyed, toothy grin, I was told that some people force a fake smile when they're trying very hard not to cry. Hello? When the message is "I am sending your husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons into war, over a dispute between foreign countries that interests us only in the sense that we want their stuff, and meanwhile I am going to chill out in Kennebunkport," even bawling like a baby would have been less repulsive than that supremely brickable smile.

Then there was the hurricane that hit the territory of a TV preacher known for looking as toothy as a possum, if not a shark, after which I wrote this little ditty:

Toothiness is not mistaken for kindness toward people who are really suffering. So why does this bizarre idea, that telling ourselves to smile is an act of kindness, refuse to die?

This post, with which I quibbled yesterday...

...linked to a useful clue:

To people who need, or might need, a real act of kindness, showing our teeth is ugly and hateful and hypocritical and likely to get our teeth realigned with a brick some day. On the other hand, to sycophants--the even younger girls who undoubtedly have crushes on Smiling Boy, or the fanatical fans of an actor or musician, or people trying to climb the office ladder faster by flattering anyone further up the ladder--the moment it takes to force a fake smile is, well, a crumb of attention! And they want attention! So that kind of people might actually like being on the receiving end of a fake smile...

I say that hypothetically because, as an introvert, I naturally focus on tasks and ignore the little social hierarchies extroverts fabricate wherever they go, and a fake smile, even from the president of the company, is an unpleasant sight and nothing more as far as I'm concerned.

Not that I haven't got into the social act that fake smile is intended to counterfeit. When we are in fact willing to listen to a lecture or enjoy a song, we tend to lean toward and look toward the speaker or singer. If the speaker or singer is disappointing us with a tired, lackluster performance, one way to stimulate per energy is to maintain eye contact, hang on the person's every word, move in synchrony with the person. When you're doing this, if the person notices it and looks at you, you will naturally smile. If the person smiles back, that's a clear message that you've succeeded. Of course the person sitting behind you might have been nonverbally encouraging the speaker too, and might be the real target of the speaker's smile, but who cares? Success is gratifying. If you are in fact rocking out at a concert, it can be more gratifying than membership in the Aunts' Union allows me to mention...

...But, most of the time, trust me: even if you are further up the office hierarchy, if people are doing their jobs, they are not going to feel particularly gratified by your forcing a fake-smile at them. They may flash an eyebrow back, out of politeness, but what they're thinking is "What does that person want? Go away, interruption, go away."

And if there's no hierarchy involved, if you're passing a stranger on the street, pinning on a grin can attract hostility because it might suggest that you think there is a hierarchy and you think you are higher up it than the stranger is. That may account for some of those news stories where some young and/or brain-damaged person "just walked up to the plaintiff, trying to 'be friendly,' and the plaintiff violently..."

Or for the experiences many of us have had, where a self-introduction, sales pitch, appeal for a promotion, etc., generated a withering blast of hostility. Did we imagine ourselves to be so special that we could hand this person a fake smile and expect it to be received as a gift? Who the bleep did we think we were?!

Like many middle-aged people I enjoy laughing and chatting, even with the young, but I don't feel obliged to reward or even tolerate a bumptious brat who thinks s/he is "giving me a smile." You're not giving me anything, brat; you're taking up my time and energy. Speak your piece and go your way! And the way to open a conversation is not a fake-friendly greeting, but a humble, downcast-eyed "Excuse me, Ma'am." I like young people. I do not like presumptuous people. Even the poor dying patients in nursing homes are human beings who've lived long enough that demands for their attention should show humility and gratitude, not bossiness. In a picture of someone over age 70 and someone under age 25, if only one of them is smiling, it had jollywell better be the older one.

Get a grip on your grins, Gentle Readers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Pet Blogging Challenge

This meme came from Go Pet Friendly, shared at :

Q. For new readers, how long have you been blogging and what is your main topic?

A. The full archive since 2011 is indexed on your right. This is primarily a book and writing blog, but it's also about cats, nature, activism, needlework and other things.

Q. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2018?

A. Not one, but several: when clients read my blog and hired me to contribute to their blogs or books.

Q. What was your biggest blogging challenge of 2018?

A. Making time for the blog! People were paying for posts here and for posts elsewhere, and while the actual writing on my home computer was no problem, checking links and uploading posts took time.

Q. Which of your 2018 blog posts was your favorite and why?

A. That would be this book review, written in aid of a nice little independent start-up publisher. I regret that Amazon wouldn't post the short version of this review because Jee Leong Koh didn't buy the review copy he sent me with a CREDIT CARD--which is nothing less than religious discrimination! But I'm glad I was able to boost his first book in the U.S., a reprint, and I'm glad it's done well with U.S. fiction readers.

Q. Which was most popular with readers? Why do you think it did so well?

A. Blogspot tracks which posts are visited and makes it possible to tell to some extent when and why they were visited. This gives the popularity contest three clear winners in separate categories.

The post that seems to have done best with readers-for-pleasure was a nice, jokey little song parody that I would imagine inspires people to add more verses:

The one that attracted most readers overall is a serious reference post to which I keep steering people.

I am The Celiactivist. I observe that glyphosate is the common factor in ALL the health problems I've had since midlife, which I reached about the time different manufacturers started aggressively, competitively encouraging farmers and gardeners to use more and more of this poison. Even when bacteria were going around, I've not been ill unless I've also been exposed to glyphosate! And then while working my town's Friday Market I watched just a faint whiff of good ol' "Roundup" (the glyphosate formula sold in garden supply departments everywhere) make a good half of my townsfolk ill too. It's incredible even to these people themselves. Everyone reacts to glyphosate in a different way, and that reaction has become familiar to them over the years. They say "age" or "allergies" or "something going around," but that is very obviously not the true explanation.

So I found documentation of the different effects glyphosate has in each of the studies manufacturers submitted to the EPA as (they thought) proof that this chemical is not the sole and whole cause of cancer. Well, it's a factor in cancer, but if you're exposed to enough of it, it can kill you in lots of other ways before cancer has a chance to form! I have all the documents stored on my laptop, but as long as they're up on the EPA web site I urge people to read them and comment on them there. This is the post where I tell readers what's in which link, so they can read them selectively if they don't have much time, and order copies from me if the EPA pulls the studies off their site. The title warns people this one is not meant to be a fun read--spinach, not strawberries. But it's a useful read; it just might save somebody's life.

All good activists maintain communication with our elected officials, so posts from politicians have always been a favorite with some of our readers. Some people visit this web site to get printouts of their elected officials' newsletters and press releases. They can get those directly from the officials but, if they trust Google's cookies more than the officials' own web sites' cookies, they're welcome to read this web site too. Some of these people are out-of-state readers considering candidates for national office and, if this web site helped Senator Kaine get picked as a vice-presidential candidate in 2016, that would be a proud moment indeed! In 2018 this was the readers' favorite guest post from a politician:

And finally, in the "pets" category...I suspect readers like this one because the story about the tomkitten (which is true) becomes a sort of encouragement to young men.

Q. Did you implement a new feature on your blog in 2018?

A. I did not. One thing I like about Blogspot is that it automatically set up this web site looking pretty much the way I think a blog ought to look. It'll do flashier formats, but I don't like flashier formats; they use up too much memory. The improvements I'd like to make at this blog, like cross-posting everything to Live Journal (where everyone can comment and I use no live Amazon links), involve more human attention. That is why those improvements have been so slow in being made.

Q. As the social media landscape changes, how are you promoting your blog posts and connecting to new readers?

A. I'm not, really. I like to see the numbers grow, but realistically this is not a big commercial web site and never will be. I've learned that most people read this web site on work or school days, which tells me something about where they do their Internet reading, and readership drops in summer. Well, that's good. Even tablet computers put out a lot of heat; it's good to unplug from them and go outdoors in warm weather.

I knew before I started a live chat about Glyphosate Awareness, on Twitter, that a lot of people don't want to know any more about a person who mentions any digestive problems. In fact, while doing research for a paid writing job, I'd seen how a few tweets about yucky health problems had helped a young rising starlet fade right off the movie scene. There's a quick fix for that. Instead of backing away from Twitter in shame she could have gone back to Twitter and posted lots of cute fluffy things that would have buried the squick. She didn't do that. Well, maybe she was too sick to care. Personally, I can think of nothing that would make me happier than to get glyphosate banned, stop having yucky health news to report about myself or anyone else, and post only nice things on Twitter. Animals definitely help people do that.

There are a lot of pet blogs out there. I'm partial to Mudpie, and Abby at the "Book of Barkley" blog, because I've been following those blogs so long. Other animal e-friends, like Leelee, have grown old and died while I've been reading their web sites...and a lot of pet blogs, including this one as well as Barkley's Human's, are about the pets the human currently lives with as a sort of memorial to a great pet who died long ago, like Barkley, or like our Founding Queen Black Magic. Some pet blogs die when the animals do; the great ones carry on with the stories of the younger animals bloggers adopt in memory of the ones we've lost, recognizing that most humans are likely to outlive at least ten favorite cats or dogs. I can't follow all of them, and I can empathize when a pet blogger feels discouraged by the thought, "What use is one more pet blog among so many."

So I'd like to say this to people who may not feel free to enliven their sweet generic animal posts with more comments on human events, as I do. Animal blogs are fluff. You post one more picture of your cat posing adorably, one more story of your dog cleverly breaking into something you've tried to keep him out of, or maybe a wild animal where just being able to snap a recognizable photo is the news item. Somehow neither Iams nor Purina nor Sam's picks it up...they have so many cute images to choose from. What good are you doing in this world? you ask. Well, some of us go online primarily in order to do grim and boring stuff, and animal posts do much to relieve our grim and boring journeys through cyberspace. On Tuesdays, when I've been banging on about glyphosate all day prior to the live chat between 2 and 3 p.m. (Eastern/NYC time), that first cute, fluffy animal story I read after the clock ticks past 3 always feels like pulling off wet boots and drying my feet by the fire. Carry on, pet bloggers of the world, carry on!

Q. If your blog accomplishes only one thing in 2019, what do you hope it is?

A. To get glyphosate banned. Of course the blog's original purpose was to encourage writers--myself and others--and that's still its goal. Encouraging legislators and their staff to do the right thing, generally, is another goal. And I sell real physical books in my home town; any time the blog encourages local people to buy a book, or other people to visit my town, that's excellent. (We may be an insular little town, full of oldies trying to revive or perpetuate sixth grade social cliques, but we love visitors.) But those things lack the life-and-death urgency that getting glyphosate banned necessarily has for anyone with the celiac gene.

Q. What steps are you planning to take toward that goal?

A. Oh I would love for anyone to come up with a more interesting alternative, or supplement, to "Just keep nagging everybody about it." One of my more popular posts in 2018 was a short story, where I projected current issues into the remote future and wrote about the one way I've ever seen something that "little" citizens needed defeat big financial interests. That was for a beautiful, promising young person, the teenager every parent wants, to die. I'd really like to see something else defeat the glyphosate lobby, rather than that.

Q. Is there an area where you could use some advice or would welcome comments?

A. I'd like readers to know that I welcome all comments, although I'll "mute" the ones that link to commercial sites (as distinct from linking to academic sites or your own personal blogs). Google has its own agenda. If you don't want to have a Google account of any kind, you can always tweet to @5PriscillaKing .There's also an e-mail address at the bottom of the page, for those who don't like Twitter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tortie Tuesday Book Review: A Conversation with a Cat

A Conversation with a Cat

Author: Stephen Spotte

Date: 2018

Publisher: Open Books

ISBN: 978-1948598040

Length: 154 pages

Quote: “This is a work of fiction. I invented the narrative, although the recounting of my surgery and its subsequent effects on my mental state are true.”
[Stephen Spotte. A Conversation with a Cat (Kindle Locations 24-25). Open Books.]’s an oddly shaped novel. That’s the first thing. According to the narrative of this book, a man who’s coming off prescription painkillers with a lot of wine and marijuana imagines his cat retelling the whole history of Cleopatra, then telling two short stories about the cat’s own life. About 75% of the book is about Cleopatra, framed by a plausible story of a beach dude and the cat he rescued from a shelter.

I was stone-cold sober while reading this book. Important note: You do not need drugs to have conversations with cats. Not even catnip, which grows near the Cat Sanctuary but which my cats usually ignore. You need to pay attention to their body language and write with an open mind and a whimsical sense of humor. It is my considered opinion that Spotte would have done a better job with this book if he’d been sober while writing it. It reads like the work of a writer who’s not stoned out of his mind, like a minor character in the book, but too stoned to drive or operate heavy machinery.

Anyway,I read this book on the coldest day we’ve had all winter. The hot-air fan was turned to its lowest setting (Comfort Zone heaters have efficient little thermostats), the setting that on other days this year has allowed it to rest at least half the time. This day and the previous night it had been running constantly. My cat Samantha, who is not normally a lap cat, wanted to come in and bask. I brought in her daughter Serena and foster son Traveller, too, to discuss the book in a mostly nonverbal way. The discussion didn't go the way I expected...

Serena: “ thing? How did it get inside that little flat object? I don’t like it!”

PK: “That’s your reflection in the dark screen of the laptop computer, Serena! Have you never noticed how pretty you are?”

Serena: “It looks like a cat in a place where no cat can possibly be! It gives me the creeps! How did you get that cat, or whatever it is, into that box? Let me out of here!”

PK: “No, look, Serena, it’s our reflections. See me scratching behind your ear?”

Serena: “How horrid of you to have a thing like that in a place where I used to play with your yarn when I was a kitten! Let me out I say! I don’t like you any more!”

PK: “Oh, honestly. Look. No more reflections. I’m turning on the laptop to read this e-book my e-friend sent me. Now you see words, just like the words on my real computer and on all those papers. Is that better?”

Serena: “It’s hot in here. My paws are perspiring. I am not interested in lap poopers or whatever you call that thing, and if it does poop on your lap it’ll serve you right. Maybe if you put it out of the house I’ll come in and hang out with you again some time.”

Traveller: “She’ll freeze out there if she doesn’t have me to play with. Later, ’tater! Lots of love! Mwah!”

Samantha: “Cozier in here without those two, isn’t it?

PK: “Perhaps you can help me write a review of this book. My e-friend wants a review of her friend’s book while it is still new.”

Samantha: “Whatever. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve been in the deep back part of the cellar where it’s not quite so cold, with the earth floor, and my coat is full of dust.”

PK: “That’s all right. You lick, I knit, and we’ll read this e-book. I wish it were a real book but we’ll not complain. It is nice that the Kindle software reactivates when publishers send me e-books. I didn’t know whether it would...Here we are. This writer in Florida was very sick and took a lot of medicine. While he was in the hospital he thought he heard a cat, or maybe it was another patient whining like a cat in the hospital. After he came home he started easing off the pills by smoking marijuana, and suddenly it seemed to him that his cat was telling him a story about a cat who lived two thousand years ago. This cat lived with Cleopatra, a great queen who made her country rich through an alliance with Julius Caesar. Then he died. Caesar had three possible heirs, a grand-nephew he’d adopted, a general who’d made his army great, and Cleopatra’s son Caesarion, who was probably Caesar’s son but was too young and too foreign to be Emperor. Cleopatra tried to keep the good times rolling by working with the general, Antony. That worked for a while. They liked each other and had a lot of money to splash around where it trickled back down to Cleopatra’s people. But then Antony lost a battle and started drinking, then Caesar’s nephew ascended the throne, and Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves rather than be political prisoners in their enemy’s kingdom.”

Samantha: “What stupidity human vanity leads to. Cats certainly wouldn’t kill each other just over the question of who was Queen Cat. And a king cat? It is to laugh.”

PK: “Well, our Mackerel was at least a full partner to Queen Polly, but that was before your time. Anyway, the writer goes on to ask his cat to tell its own story. He lives with a very normal cat. His cat sounds like the type of big lazy black tomcat our little Traveller is growing up to be, except that Traveller loves to cuddle and the writer’s cat, Jinx, never cuddles. He says his cat was caught by some of the kind of people who claim to be ‘rescuing’ feral cats, which means trapping them and sterilizing them. At least they didn’t put Jinx in a shelter right away. Jinx drifted around Bradenton, Florida, eating out of dumpsters. Jinx was born feral but he befriended a homeless man, a failed teacher who was drinking himself to death on the beach. When the police took the man to jail, they took Jinx to a shelter, and there the writer and his wife adopted Jinx. They thought Jinx rolled over because he wanted to be tickled and petted. They found out otherwise.”

Samantha: “Humans should know what they’re getting into, even when cats like Traveller and Serena do like having their tummies tickled—a bit. There are a lot of nerves and reflexes down there. Tickling our tummies can make us want to fight, or have sex, or squat in the sand pit. Most of us try to keep your hands near the nerves involved in the fighting reflexes, and we’ll even try to remember that we’re only practicing for a real fight and not take all the skin off your hands, but you have no idea how difficult that is. Our instincts tell us to practice fighting with other people who have fur. We have to remind ourselves to be careful with your bare fragile skin. It ruins a good practice fight, I think, even if Serena feels differently.”

PK: “What do you think of Jinx’s Human saying cats are not social?”

Samantha: “Why did you call the long-ago Cat Queen Mogwai “Glenn Cunningcat”?”

PK: “Because when she was ill the vet didn’t think she’d be able to walk, but she was able to run, jump, and climb. Once in my grandparents’ time there was a man called Glenn Cunningham. When he was young his legs were badly burned. People thought he would never be able to walk. He was able to run. He ran a mile in exactly four minutes, which was faster than anyone else on Earth for many years.”

Samantha: “Would it be true to say that humans run a mile in four minutes?”

PK: “It would not. Twelve minutes is my best time ever. I know a lot of humans can’t run a mile at all. Some humans don’t even have feet.”

Samantha: “Yes, wheelchairs are one thing I did learn about when I was an indoor kitten in town. But some humans run very fast?”

PK: “Yes; by now a few people have even run a mile faster than Glenn Cunningham.”

Samantha: “So, is that a way humans can understand about cats’ social lives?”

PK: “Possibly. I know most of the cats who’ve been residents here have been very social animals, usually in a nicer way than the average dog or than some humans. I also know some cats are completely indifferent to other cats, some have only one friend, some seem to be drawn into a social cat family like you, and some are antisocial and hostile and mean. Really mean cats are, in my experience, much less common than really social cats, but both are rare. Most cats either have no noticeable social life beyond staying out of other cats’ way, like Jinx, or they have one friend—usually two sisters, or a mother and daughter, rather than a couple, because male cats roam and fight more than females. I thought my first social cat Magic was unique. I used to wonder whether she really was a cat at all. I’m glad to see that she was actually one of a tribe or breed of social cats who hunt and rear their kittens in teams. I’ve known and heard of so many social cats by now that I tend to forget how unusual they are.”

Samantha: “In one way Jinx was like Burr and Tickle. He says that male cats wait their turn, when we want to start kittens, and if anybody claws a male cat’s face enough to damage his skin, it’s likely to be the female. Well, he also says Jinx weighs fifteen pounds. That would make other males want to wait their turn. Burr and Tickle do fight when they meet, to practice and show off their moves, but they remember that they're cousins. Burr’s heavier, like his mother Irene. Tickle’s longer and more agile, like his mother Heather. There are advantages to having either kind of body shape if you know how to work them. So with them it’s not that one backs off because the other would be sure to win a fight; it’s that, although they’ve never been close, neither of them wants to hurt the other. By practicing to use the strengths they have, they're a well matched pair. They show me that my kittens wouldn't necessarily do too badly to resemble either one of them. I know you thought Burr couldn't have healthy kittens, but just look at Serena now!

They don’t really hurt me, either. Well, you know, or do humans know? That writer didn’t seem to know. When a lot of nerve endings are activated at the same time it can be hard to say whether they’re feeling pleasure or pain. You scream ‘Stop! That’s enough!’ and a minute later you want to do it again. We all get on better than some cats do. I have heard of cats who actually hurt each other, though. Some of the others who lived at the house where I was born had been hurt, and old Heather said you once invited a cat to come here and it hurt her sister and her daughter.”

PK: “Yes, I admit it. Sometimes letting cats interact naturally can be a mistake. And even in social cat families you never know for sure that every kitten is going to be a social cat. We had one kitten born here, Paley, who was antisocial and unfriendly in the way Jinx claims to be—never thinking about anything but food or maybe hunting. And Heather’s own daughter, Gwai, was antisocial, even mean; she wasn’t big enough to hurt anyone but she bit hard if anyone tried to pet her or be friends with her. Most of you lot have been such a close-knit family that I imagine that if you weren’t born social cats, the others would have ‘socialized’ you...but it didn’t work with those two kittens.”

Samantha: “Jinx says we don’t think about our friends and relatives after we grow up. He says mother cats nurse kittens for three months and then send them on their way. Well...I didn’t nurse Serena and Traveller for very long beyond three months...but I still do think about them. (Mostly I think they’re a nuisance, but then sometimes, like in cold weather, they are nice to have around.) Jinx says mother cats don’t teach kittens to hunt, that we learn from instinct and practice. mother could hardly teach me much, indoors in town...but old Heather showed me some moves when I came here, and Burr and Tickle have taught me a lot. And Jinx says male cats are interested in females only when we’re having sex. Well...that’s when we invite them, and that’s about all I ever see of Tickle and I really don't mind if he's not around, but Burr hunts with me, and sometimes we snuggle up in the cellar together when it’s cold. My parents were not a couple, and Heather and her’Meezer were not a couple, but Burr and I are a couple. And so are Traveller and Serena. Only when they're having sex? Hah! Only every minute of every day, they want to be together!”

PK: “I remember Bisquit singing, positively singing, when her daughter Candice caught a mouse. I could tell she was pleased and proud! You, on the other hand, don’t seem to be showing Serena anything.”

Samantha: “What's to show her? She’s bigger than I am. She has Burr’s body shape; if she learned from either of us, she learned from him. But she’s strong and tough, a natural hunter. Whereas Traveller, on the other hand, may never catch anything that’s more of a challenge than that toy mouse he and Serena bat about sometimes.”

PK: “Would you consider yourself a social cat?”

Samantha: “Well...I put up with my half-grown offspring rather than pushing them away. I didn’t slap them, the way Jinx says his mother did. I just walked away and said I was tired of lactating, and let them eat kibble. But I know Heather and Tickle hunted together, and Burr showed me how I could catch more interesting prey when we hunted together, and I suppose it’s nice that the young ones hunt together. Well...Heather was still mourning for her sister, who’d been dead for a year, when I met her, and Tickle still thought that Inky cat hung the moon in the sky, when she’d been sent away a year ago. I’m not sentimental like that. If I think about other cats, except for explaining to you what I’ve learned, I think about the ones who are here now. Heather even threatened to leave you if you didn’t keep Tickle, and Tickle cried out loud when Heather wanted to have sex and he wasn’t invited; I don’t think I’d be like that. It's always fun when Burr’s around but you don’t see me grieving when he’s not. Maybe all cats live in the present moment more than humans do, at least when we’re awake. Certainly our social lives are simpler. I suppose I’ve found a happy medium point. I’m basically a solitary cat but I’ve learned social skills.”

PK: “What do you think about Jinx’s theory that cats absorb knowledge from other cats via telepathy, or from human writing via sitting on it?”

Samantha: “Obviously that writer was dreaming. What kind of knowledge could possibly be contained in human writing? Most of what humans call telepathic communication is body language. Cats use that more than we use words. If you want to call it telepathy you may, but if ‘tele’ means ‘far away’ that’s a funny thing to call the way we communicate only when we’re face to face.”

PK: “Thank you, Samantha. Readers, although I wouldn’t enjoy living with the cat called Jinx, I enjoyed reading his human’s book." 

A Conversation with a Cat is written the way a real stoner would be likely to tell the story, with bad language, explicit sex, and marijuana. Some aunts wouldn't want to keep it around the house when their nieces and nephews might see it.

I could have wished that the Cleopatra story would turn out to be relevant to Jinx’s story or his human’s story in some way. It isn’t, which I think is a fault in a novel. If you read it as a blog post, no need for a plot, just a writer becomes interested in a piece of history and also rescues a cat from what sounds like a relatively less horrible shelter, it’s well done; a nice short summary of a story for the ages. 

I think Jinx generalizes from himself too much and denies my cats’ reality, but I may also need to remind somebody Out There that there are more cats like Jinx than there are cats like Burr. People read about my social cats and ask "Are they really as interesting as that?" They are, they really are, but whether even the social cats' kittens are going to be as clever, as social, or as friendly as my Purrmanent Residents is still anybody's guess. Sometimes they're not.

Sleeping time is an imperfect way to tell the age of a cat whose scars may make it look old, or whose slim build may make it seem young. Older cats sleep longer and more soundly than young ones do. This can be a good reason to adopt a senior cat if you trust your local shelter. Apart from the fact that senior cats aren't often stolen, they're much calmer and less likely to destroy your stuff than bored, restless young cats might be! Many senior cats actually like being kept indoors most of the time. With cats who've grown up with me, I've observed that after about age six or seven even the ones who didn't like to be indoors as kittens will start begging to be let in for more and longer naps. This is the stage in life where keeping them indoors really is good for their health. Cats who are kept indoors before their time will sleep as much as possible because they're bored, but senior cats really do sleep most of the day; they become less able to bounce right up out of a nap, and need a safe place to sleep in. They are the cats who make super soothing foot warmers. Jinx sounds like a middle-aged cat who'll become more comforting, if less entertaining, to his humans every year.

I like young, active, outdoor cats, though I doubt I'd ever banish a cat from the Cat Sanctuary for growing old and dozy. I like social cats who positively grieve and complain if they don't have a close cat friend. I laugh at the line, "All cats would prefer to be alone with you," remembering how Heather mourned for her family and acted as if she had any idea what she was typing when she pounded on my computer keyboard "66666 byyyy 66666666666"--Heather and her relatives all seemed happiest when they were kept "by sixes," in large extended cat families! But a lot of cats Out There would prefer to be alone with you. Jinx does a better job than my cats do at explaining what life with those cats is going to be like and why, if you're not up to the demands of a social cat family, you should adopt a normal cat today. Preferably a senior cat, plus a kitten it can ignore most of the time as an emergency backup pet.

Mark Warner's Accomplishments

From U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)...the survey is for Virginians only of course.

As Congress begins its new session, I want to share some of the highlights from the past year and get your input on what you want to see me working on in 2019. Over the past year, we’ve made progress on strengthening Virginia’s economy, combatting the opioid epidemic, and supporting our national defense. I’ve shared a partial list of some of the successes of the past year below.
While I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in the past year, I also recognize we’re facing some challenging times as a country. I’m writing you in the midst of a disastrous, pointless government shutdown that has thrown the lives of thousands of Virginians into chaos. I’ve set up a special page on my website with updates on my work to end the shutdown and resources for federal workers and contractors affected by it. I remain committed to ending this unnecessary shutdown and making sure the workers impacted by it are made whole.
But right now, I want to hear from you. What would you like to see me work on in the coming year? I’ve prepared a brief survey for you to share your thoughts, and I hope you’ll take a moment to let me know what’s on your mind.
I look forward to hearing from you.

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2018 Accomplishments

The President signed into law several bills I sponsored or co-authored:
As Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee:
Working with Senator Kaine, we had success on a number of Virginia priorities, including:
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