Saturday, March 31, 2012

Admin Cat

Last week I wrote about Dickens. Now Zorra is up here on the desk, demanding that I give her equal time. The desk is her favorite spot, which is why we call her our "Admin Cat." We think she must have been an administrative assistant in a past life because, whenever either of us sits down at the computer, Zorra is right there to "assist."

Six years ago, when our sweet old calico died, it didn't take long for us to decide to adopt another cat. We missed Cleo's shy, quiet presence in the house, and so did Dickens. At the suggestion of the receptionist at our veterinarian's office, we visited the Agoura Hills Animal Shelter. They have a large, airy room (the "Habicat") with lots of toys and cat furniture, where prospective adopters can meet, play, and socialize with the cats.

We were looking for a female with a personality similar to Cleo's. We quickly narrowed it down to two: a little white Persian and Zorra. Because the Persian was sleeping, we couldn't really tell what her personality was like. Zorra seemed shy and quiet, so we picked her.

We were told by the animal shelter that her name was Zorra (clearly for her black "Zorro" mask, although she can certainly be a vixen at times). I don't think anyone ever told her what her name was. It was months before she responded to it. (Of course, much of the time she doesn't respond to anything, as if she's in her own little world. We call it "Zorra world.")

At the animal shelter, they practice full disclosure. They told us that Zorra had been adopted—and returned—twice. Her file stated that the reason the adopter returned her was because she kept them awake at night. The file also stated that she was lazy. The only thing the file didn't tell us was that she had fleas. The fleas were easy to get rid of, but her other quirks took some getting used to.

She is definitely not quiet. For such a little cat, she has a very big mouth, and she is at her most vocal at night. Her purring alone can wake you up. It's like a bus idling next to your ear. It's also quite true that she's lazy. Her favorite thing to do is sleep—preferably on top of Loretta or me. She makes things difficult on laundry day, by bedding down on the laundry before we can put it away or on the bed before we can make it.

And there's the admin thing. Right now, I am having to contort myself to type around her.

But she's a sweet cat—with just enough of the vixen in her to keep Dickens on his toes. I can't understand why anyone would return her—or any animal—to a shelter. Adoption should be "for keeps."

Oh, well. Their loss is our gain.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dream Cat

Every Saturday morning, as soon as my feet hit the floor, Dickens gets up and races to his living room "cat table." It used to be a coffee table, but when Dickens came into our home, it became a cat table. It's the only spot where, when I am sitting in my recliner and Loretta is on the couch, Dickens can see both of us. More importantly from his point of view, because he loves attention, we can see him. It also puts him on the same level as people, and he loves people. I'm pretty sure he thinks he is one. It's a little difficult to explain to guests who are used to a coffee table being a place for beverages and snacks, and are surprised to have an enormous cat jump up and introduce himself, nose to nose.

Saturday mornings, when Loretta and Zorra are still in bed—that's when Dickens and I have our weekly meetings. After I get my coffee, I sit on the couch, he sits on the cat table, and we talk. (I'm perfectly serious. Dickens is very vocal. If you talk to him, he talks back. I have no idea what he's saying, but I suppose it makes sense to him.) I give him a few cat treats, brush him, and sometimes, if he will allow it, give him a manicure.

I call Dickens my "dream cat." When our first cat, Mycroft, died, we talked about adopting another cat. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. It would be like trying to replace Mike, and to me, Mike was irreplaceable. Then, about a year after Mike died, I had a dream. In it, I was cradling a small ginger tabby in my arms. The next morning, I told Loretta I thought I was ready to adopt another cat.

Shortly after that, we were at PetsMart shopping for supplies for Cleo (our little old lady calico). A rescue group was holding an adoption event, and I decided it wouldn't hurt to check out the kittens. There were about a dozen of them, but the one that immediately caught my attention was a little ginger tabby that stuck his paw out through the bars of the cage to get my attention. I asked one of the volunteers if I could hold him. When I cradled him in my arms, he looked up into my face, just like the cat in my dream. He still likes to be held that way. Every morning, before I go out to get the paper, I have to pick him up and give him a cuddle. It's not easy, now that he weighs 20 pounds.

Mycroft was our first cat, and for years he was an only cat. When we adopted Cleo, he resented her presence in the house. There were terrible fights between the two of them before they reached the point where they could barely tolerate each other. Cleo had now gotten used to being an only cat. Also, she was a bit old to be asked to put up with a frisky kitten. Understandably, we were concerned about bringing another cat into the house. But we needn't have worried. Dickens loves other cats as much as he loves people. He was eager to make friends with Cleo, but when she had enough of his antics and hissed at him, he knew to back off. When Cleo died and we adopted Zorra, Dickens and she quickly became best friends.

Zorra and Dickens

Dickens was not always the easiest cat to love. When he was a kitten, he suffered from a chronic respiratory illness. His nose was constantly running, and he would have terrible sneezing fits. He would spin in a circle, spraying snot all around him like a lawn sprinkler. He also had frequent, explosive bouts of diarrhea. (One unforgettable episode occurred under the Christmas tree a few days before his first Christmas.)

Fortunately, Dickens outgrew his kittenhood illnesses to become a healthy, happy cat. He still loves attention, people, and other cats. He is always glad to see me—every morning when I get up, every afternoon when I come home from work, and especially at our Saturday morning meetings. I love him like the dickens.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Irish Bucket List

My last name may be Irish, but I have at least as much English, Scottish, Dutch, and German blood in me, not to mention a drop or two of Spanish and Native American. Nevertheless, the country I most identify with (other than my own) is Ireland. Someday I plan to visit it. When I go, here are some of the things I hope to do...

1. Tour the Guinness Brewery

As a child, one of my favorite books was The Guinness Book of World Records. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the picture of the man with the world's longest fingernails. (I also wondered how he was able to do anything with those hands, such as...well, never mind.) It wasn't until years later that I discovered that Guinness also makes beer. I like Guinness Stout, but one of my favorite beers is Smithwick's Irish Ale, also brewed by Guinness. For a beer aficionado, no visit to Ireland would be complete without a trip to Ireland's number one tourist attraction.

2. Listen to Live Irish Music

I love Irish music, especially the drinking songs my friend David Hawthorne and I used to listen to in college. It was David who introduced me to the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and the Irish Rovers. One of our favorite songs was Finnegan's Wake. It tells the story of Tim Finnegan, a "gentle Irishman" who falls from a ladder—apparently to his death—only to revive during a drunken brawl at his own wake:
Then Mickey Maloney ducked his head,
When a noggin of whiskey flew at him.
It missed, and falling on the bed,
The liquor scattered over Tim.
The corpse revives! See how he rises!
Timothy, rising from the bed,
Says, "Whirl your whiskey around like blazes!
Thanum an Dhul! Do you think I'm dead?"
My friend David Hawthorne was felled by a heart attack six years ago. Unfortunately, unlike Finnegan, he did not rise again. I miss him. If I ever get to Ireland, I will find a band and request Finnegan's Wake in his memory.

3. Follow in the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom

Speaking of Finnegan's Wake, famed Irish author James Joyce wrote a book by that same title. I have never read it. I understand it is a very difficult book to read. I did read Ulysses (well, parts of it) in college. It, too, is a difficult read, but rewarding if you can get through it. It chronicles, in approximately 265,000 words, a single, ordinary day (June 16, 1904) in the life of Leopold Bloom, whose meandering journey through Dublin in some ways parallels the voyage of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey. Every year on June 16th—"Bloomsday"—Joyce fans gather from all over the world to retrace Bloom's route. Of course, one of the stops is a pub, which brings me to the fourth item on my list...

4. Buy a Round at a Real Irish Pub

I love Irish pubs—the dark cozy atmosphere, the good Irish beer. Of course, a real Irish pub is probably nothing like the Irish pubs we have here, and the Irish pub of my dreams probably never existed. It's the pub in the John Ford classic, The Quiet Man, full of charming locals who sing songs, buy each other rounds of drinks, and take a break from the occasional fist fight to throw beer in each others' faces. If I found such a place, I would buy everyone a round (provided the place wasn't too crowded) and ask them to join me in a rousing chorus of Galway Bay or The Wild Colonial Boy. Or maybe something by U2. I don't care, as long as it's Irish.

5. Visit the Grave of William Butler Yeats

My favorite poet is William Butler Yeats. Nobel prize-winning poet, playwright, and folklorist, he probably did more to define and promote Irish literature and culture than anyone in history. In the last stanza of one of his last poems, "Under Ben Bulben," Yeats describes the place where he would soon be laid to rest:
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Someday, I will make that pilgrimage to the island of Yeats, Joyce, Guinness, and at least one of my ancestors. Until I do, I will continue to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in my usual way: sipping a pint of Guinness or Smithwick's, while watching John Wayne and Victor McLaglen resolve their differences in true Irish fashion.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dark Rides

When I was about three years old, my parents took me to Vincennes, Indiana, to meet my great-grandmother—my father's Grandma Bierhaus. Here's a picture from that visit...

Dad, Me, and Grandma Bierhaus

My father tells the story that, while we were in Vincennes, he took me to a "fun house" at a local fair. He thought it would be like the fun houses of his childhood, with slides, mirrors, and moving floors. Instead, it turned out to be a dark ride, with monsters and ghosts popping up to scare the bejeebers out of you. I don't remember anything about it, but according to my father, I was terrified. He said that, for a long time afterwards, if anyone said that something was "fun," I wanted nothing to do with it. He felt terrible about it, but I couldn't have been too traumatized. My father was with me, and I must have known that he would keep me safe. He's the strongest, bravest man I've ever known.

I soon grew to love dark rides, and I still do. My favorite is Disney's Haunted Mansion. I saw a preview of the attraction on Disney's Wonderful World of Color in the 1960's, shortly before it opened. I begged my parents to take me to Disneyland to see it, but it wasn't until Loretta and I moved to California seventeen years ago that I finally got the chance. Since then, I've ridden the "Doom Buggies" many times, and, on our recent trip to Florida, I was finally able to visit the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion and compare it to the Disneyland version. Here's a picture of me with some old friends...

After our vacation in Florida, we took the Amtrak Silver Meteor from Orlando to Virginia to visit my folks for a few days. The train was supposed to leave Orlando at 1:30 pm on Saturday and arrive early Sunday morning in Richmond. From Richmond, we would take another train to Woodbridge, where my sister and brother-in-law live. The train was five hours late arriving in Orlando. We later learned from fellow passengers that a pickup truck had run into it. Shortly after we boarded, it made two unscheduled stops—one to switch engines and another because a car was supposedly stuck on the tracks somewhere in front of us. ("Ram it!" yelled an impatient passenger in the dining car when the announcement was made.) By the time we left Florida, we were six hours behind schedule, and most of our journey had been in the dark. It occurred to me that we were on another dark ride—albeit a very long and boring one.

Fortunately, we were not on a tight schedule. My sister and brother-in-law could pick us up whenever we arrived in Woodbridge, and, if we missed our connection, they could drive down to Richmond to get us. Many of our fellow passengers were not so lucky. One was a retired veteran who had served three tours in Iraq. His ex-wife was in jail in a remote town in Virginia, and he was on his way to retrieve his daughter from foster care. He had to catch another train and a bus to get there, and he had to be there in time for the custody hearing. I hope he made it.

Some rides are darker than others. Soon, my father will be taking the darkest ride of all. I wish I could ride with him and make sure he's safe, just like he did all those years ago in the fun house. But he'll be all right. As I said, he's the strongest, bravest man I've ever known.

I love you, Dad.