Things I Do in the Night

I was awake to see the torrential downpour that flooded the National Road on Saturday night. At 1:30 AM I pulled back the curtains beside my bed to watch sheets of rain coming down and ponding on the road. I watched for a long time, listened, and counted the seconds as the traffic light down the road changed from red to green to yellow to red.

I do that a lot, in all kinds of weather. I watched the ice storm the night before. Sometimes I watch our local deer herd pick or race their way across the four-lane road and filter down into the neighborhood via my yard. If it happens between one and four-thirty AM, I’ve seen it, heard it, felt it, or smelt it. (That includes dog farts. They happen more than you think when the dog is asleep, which begs questions about our own fortunate obliviousness.)

My name is Laura and I am an insomniac.

There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who cannot fall asleep and those who cannot stay asleep. I fall into the latter category. My ability to fall asleep is almost super-human; most nights it takes less than a minute. It’s as though I’m a light switch: either on or off. Ben and my father are like that too; we all fall asleep instantly and wake up in the same manner. Shawn and Andy, however, are like irons (the kind I never use because my family doesn’t give a shit about going to school or work looking like they just fell out of the overhead bin on an Airbus A318). They take a while to wind up and a while to unwind. Shawn’s falling-asleep routine takes over an hour. He’s got to shower and get into bed. He reads on his phone and reads his Kindle. He rolls around and thinks Shawnly thoughts. He pets the dog. He pets the cat. And by 12:30 a.m., he’s finally asleep. (Years ago I banished Shawn to another bed because he snores and kicks, so this routine doesn’t affect me at all.)

I consider myself the more fortunate of the two of us. That is, until 2 AM rolls around.

So why is it that I cannot stay asleep? This bizarre pattern began three or four years ago, and I blame my bladder. Everything was going to well until it decided that it could no longer do its job for a full night. I strongly suspect that it’s protesting the fact that I incubated two life forms in its personal space. Bladders are sensitive creatures. They get huffy, and once they’re mad, it seems they stay mad for the rest of our lives: Oh, you’re planning a road trip? How cute. Better allow an extra hour for all of the stops you’ll be making. Caught in a stand-still on the interstate? Hope you have tinted windows and a wide-mouthed water bottle. Oh, do you have to sneeze? Good luck with that because I’m gonna let loose like a pack of kindergarteners at a Christmas cookie party. 

So when the little jerk wakes me up to pee, I’m up. That’s it. I can’t fall back to sleep. I pee and then I go back to bed and listen to the dog snore (or fart) and watch whatever varmints are prowling around outside and sometimes eat a box of cookies  handful of carrots and eventually succumb to the blinding light of my phone and the deplorable torrent of social media. It’s proven that the bright screens of our handheld technology keep our brains awake rather than putting them to sleep. In fact, scientists who study insomnia recommend vacating the bedroom entirely when sleeplessness hits. Get up, they say. Leave the scene. The worst thing to do is to lie there and roll around for hours and stare at the clock.

Are you people serious? Show me one person in the entire world who follows this advice. Find me a person who actually gets out of bed and goes downstairs and polishes the silver or scrubs the algae off the side of the fish tank. (Reminder to self: scrub the algae off the side of the fish tank. You don’t even know what’s in there these days.) None of us go any farther than the fridge, and then we take whatever we’ve snatched back to bed and fill our sheets with crumbs and then roll around in the crumbs and look at besweatered basset hounds on YouTube.

My doctor doesn’t know if my insomnia is due to anxiety or my autoimmune issues or just general bad luck, but he prescribed me Ambien.

Don’t flood me with Ambien warnings. Yes, I’ve tried melatonin and it affects me adversely. Yes, I’ve tried chamomile tea–did you read the part about the peeing? How do you people drink a cup of liquid before bed? My kidneys and bladder get together after dinner every night and triple-dog dare me to put the kettle on the stove. Just one cup. It’s only Sleepytime. Everybody’s doing it. You’ll feel great. 

So when I really can’t sleep and I really need to sleep, I bite an Ambien in half at 2 AM and swaller that sucker down. Usually it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, but it works. I don’t take them often, but once a week or so, I’m really glad to have that Rx bottle there.

There is, of course, a down side to Ambien. Perhaps you’ve read about people who do things when they take Ambien? In 2006, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy crashed his car near Capitol Hill. He had taken Ambien.

Why the hell would you take Ambien and then get into your car, you ask. But the news reports answer back that many motorists have no memory of getting behind the wheel to begin with, that the Ambien made them do it. These people are called “Ambien Zombies” and use the “Ambien Defense” in court, often successfully. In 2009 a flight attendant from Texas took Ambien and woke up in jail, having run over three people. She was sentenced to only 6 months. Other people have figured out that if they can stay awake, the drug gives them a freaky high, complete with flashing lights and moving walls.

Okay, maybe you should be flooding me with Ambien warnings. Fortunately, these side effects and these incidents are extremely rare. But there is one thing I have been known to do on Ambien: I shop online.

In those brief moments before the drug has completely taken hold of me, when I’m irresistibly drowsy but for some reason fighting to stay awake, I get on Amazon. And damn you, Amazon, for storing my credit card information and providing users with that super-convenient Buy It With One Click button. You suck almost as much as my bladder. And at least my bladder only ruins interstate travel. You cost me hard-earned money.

There is, however, an upside. You know that feeling when you come home and there’s a package waiting on your porch? It’s like Christmas. It’s out there, it’s waiting to be brought in and opened, and it’s even more exciting when you have no fucking idea what’s in it. What the crap is that box doing there, you ask yourself. I don’t remember ordering anything. And then you wonder who might have sent you a little surprise. Your mom? Your best friend? Your spouse?

Nope. In fact, it’s you who have sent yourself a present. How thoughtful of you to think of you! You’re such a good person, always thinking of you.

I have no answer to my insomnia problem. Indeed, I don’t even know the cause. I do know that I read some really fantastic articles in the night. I get ideas for essays, I find knitting projects I want to attempt and pasta dishes to try. And I bookmark all of them. And then I forget about them entirely when I wake up quite naturally on my own at 5:30 a.m., no matter how rough the night has been (yet another sign of a sleep issue).

Perhaps I need a sleep study. Perhaps I need a long-term solution that doesn’t depend on pharmaceuticals and cookies carrots. But my insomnia problem evaporates from the forefront of my mind during the day. I forget all about it until 2AM rolls around again and I remember that, dammit, I should have called somebody or done some research or at the very least purchased a chamber pot. Insomnia is a chronic problem for an estimated 10% of adults, and far more have bouts of sleeplessness. $63 billion is lost in work performance every year due to insomnia. America is losing its health, its productivity, and its sanity to an inability to rest. I’m not quite sure when I’m going to get some.

On the other hand, those three 12-inch nonstick skillets I ordered in the wee hours of Cyber Monday 2014 cook a hell of an omelet.

Hiker, Be Healed

This blog has been sitting in the pipe for two weeks, so it’s outdated already. But since you’re here….

Winter has come early to West Virginia, and with the arrival of the bitter weather comes the end of hiking season for me. Oh sure, I could drag my sorry self out into the woods in the frigid cold; sometimes I do. However, I’m finding myself more and more affected by the chill. A companion to my Sjogren’s Syndrome is Raynaud’s Phenomenon, characterized by hands and feet that turn white when exposed to cold. It’s exceedingly painful, and when I run them under warm water to revive them, the sensation is agony. My feet freeze in my ski boots now, and gloves are an absolute necessity, even when taking out the trash. Thus, hiking in the winter isn’t just a matter of donning a hat or an extra layer; it’s a matter of keeping my extremities from suffering actual vascular damage, and I haven’t really figured out how to combat that particular foe, yet.

The extreme cold appeared early this year. It’s only December. We still have oak leaves clinging desperately to the grove in the backyard, and so it looks more like fall than winter, but the ice has crept across the surface of the fish pond, and the flurries have been flying for two days now. I’m sorry to say that my hiking routine suffers with the falling mercury.

Just moss. Lovely, soothing moss.

My Nature Writing class a few years ago was immensely valuable because it forced me outside, and in so doing I made a discovery about myself: I need the forest. 

I know that’s the most obvious thing in the entire world. But it wasn’t to me. 

My father has known this very thing about himself for 70 years. He, too, needs the forest. He disappears into it every weekend with the dogs. As a child, I always went along. The forest was a part of my life. Saturdays and Sundays were for dog-hikes. Hundreds of hikes. Hundreds of hours over the years, one walk at a time. He never really had to ask me if I was coming along; it was understood that I would. Looking back, I’m not sure I ever asked myself if I wanted to go. I just went, as if by default. Saturday, Sunday, woods.

Birch bark is the best bark.

Of course, I took it for granted, as you do as a youngster. And it wasn’t until I was surrounded by ocean and concrete in St. Petersburg, Florida, that I began to realize the emotional and spiritual value of the forest. For the first time in my life I couldn’t just disappear into the trees. Certainly, there are parks in St. Pete, places with sandy paths through scrubland and cypress where you can spot an endangered Gopher Tortoise if you’re lucky. But the wild? The deep forest? It was a world away, tucked inland, and most unfriendly to hikers. Florida isn’t a land where you hike around. Rather, it’s a collection of snake and skeeter, and this is probably why Florida hasn’t lost all of its wilderness entirely. It’s inhospitable. You can’t really live in Florida’s forests.

You’d think a woman who wants to be a nature writer would have realized the healing power of the woods long before her 36th year, but that’s exactly how long it took me. Of course I knew I liked being there. Of course I had fun. And of course that unmistakable hemlock and spruce smell–the very scent of West Virginia itself–worked its way into my heart before my 10th birthday. But before my thirties I didn’t really carry burdens heavy enough to warrant true healing. I hadn’t yet met the enemy that is anxiety, the demon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They’re both big and heavy, and while a little white pill goes a long way, it doesn’t take me to the finish line.

I keep Xanax in my purse, just in case things suddenly feel out of control. I’m not ashamed of it, but I certainly wish I were instead one of those people who walks around with Cheez-Its in her handbag. I also wish I were a person who sits in the passenger seat of the car and thinks, “Wow, there is absolutely no chance of being crushed under the wheel of an Ocean Spray truck today.” But I’m not. In fact, on most days, I’m quite certain something is going to crush, smash, or flatten me.

Enter the woods.

No, seriously. Get off your ass and literally enter the woods. Go. Need a kick in the pants? Read about how nature affects mood. How it affects the pulmonary system. The kids‘ brains. Read and read and read, or just take my word for it and get your boots on.

Because when I enter the woods frantically scanning for an oncoming delivery of cranberry juice (sometimes those guys just pop out of the forsythia bushes, you know), I come out feeling so much better. Science will back me up on this one, over and over again. It will also assure you that a walk in the woods will boost your creativity and help you get un-stuck in your stupid brain.

A few weeks ago we had a quick warm spell before the temps plunged, and I took that opportunity to disappear into the forest to burn off some anxiety. I’ve been struggling with big-picture things like my unfinished book and my nonexistent writing career, as well as smaller tidbits like a moody 10-year-old and the fact that the cat won’t stop trying to fornicate with my heated throw.

I didn’t have time to travel to distant lands, but I did make it to the Serpentine Trail at Oglebay Park. It’s a recently re-discovered trail made suitable for woodsy types who have to be back at school by 5 to pick up their rugrats from kung fu class. Ironically, you have to park in the lot of a loud tourist trap: a series of buildings draped in Christmas lights and adorned with speakers blaring Bing and Elvis and anyone who ever stepped up to the mic to get their holiday rum-pum-pum-pum on. 

Perhaps because I could still hear the traffic on Rt. 88 as I descended into the woods, I felt the need to leave the trail almost immediately. The choice was to either walk on the path and feel a moderate level of natureyness, or to bushwhack my way through the tangle of brush, fall down the hill, and land in a muddy gulch. I chose to land in a gulch, and though it didn’t shut out the noise of traffic, it made me feel pretty good. And just a little wilder. (Because there’s nothing so badass as a 37-year-old woman in a pink Columbia jacket who grabs life by the nads and leaves the trail in a city park for a whopping six minutes.)

Hey, it helped.

Despite the tameness of the afternoon’s adventure–I tried to spice up the rawness of the experience by fording a few streams and leaping out at a startled runner a la Ursus americans, but he didn’t see the humor in it at all–the forest did what I had asked. Like a mossy green Xanax, the smell of the earth and the hemlock stand I found at the bottom of the trail worked its way through my sinuses and into the pit of my stomach. And despite the fact that I was underdressed for the temperature, I stayed well past the moment when the sun dove beneath the hillside. I stayed until I was calm again, until the live wires in my brain fizzled and died, snuffed out by the fern grove and the soggy peat.

Did you know soggy peat does that? It actually snuffs out anxiety. 

I felt so much better, in fact, that when I re-emerged from the woods, I had completely forgotten about the consumer paradise that awaited me in the parking lot. One moment I was swinging on a monkey vine (far less embarrassing if you do it in private) and the next I was enduring a cruel rebirth. I popped out of the deciduous forest and landed in a fog of exhaust. Seven tour buses were lined up beside the tourist trap, and elderly visitors stood about the lot and on the grass vaping and stuffing fudge and ice cream into their gobs. I could no longer hear the chirp of the pileated woodpecker I’d seen, and I smelled carbon monoxide rather than earthy peat. Brilliant red and green lights flashed around a manger scene, and Bing sang about that genetically-mutated flying caribou we all seem so obsessed with. As I stood and surveyed the scene, I felt both saddened that these old smokers had come from afar only to miss the best part of the park, and relieved for the same reason.

I’ve learned to go to the forest when I’m overwhelmed, when I’m feeling too much. That’s often, of late. I haven’t always been impressed with the eastern hardwood forest–in the winter it’s so dreary–but it’s easy to dismiss the value of nature if you don’t realize it’s capabilities. How human of me to brush it off until I learned what it could do for me. How sad. Nevertheless, I am reborn a believer. 

Sometimes I think the world offers little outside of the forest. Go, and be in it. 

Just keep your distance. Sometimes I have to pee out there.

The Infuriating Thing About Un-Readiness

“Excuse me, how’s the book coming?”

The idea of grad school is to fine tune your education. When you apply, you do so because you’ve found the thing. Your thing. The path you want to follow. When I finally decided I wanted to be a writer, I found a program, and people, who would teach me, and they did. I learned, and am still learning, how to write.

I’ve been finished with graduate school for several months now. I have a few publications scheduled in the next half-year, but most days are quiet. Most writing days are solitary, and they end on a cliffhanger: will she finish this book? Will Varmints be worth revisiting tomorrow?

Cliffhangers suck. Nobody likes them, and yet they keep the audience coming back for more. When a television show ends in a cliffhanger, the cast and crew have to come back for the next season. The audience is waiting because they know the plot–they’re invested in it. They watched the buildup, the climax, and the abrupt ending. Not so with writers. Nobody gives a crap if I come back tomorrow, because nobody has any idea that I’m here today. Nobody can see me on this Sunday morning, sitting here in my unicorn onesie with mismatched socks and hair that looks like I just crawled out of a badger hole because cooking Thanksgiving dinner wore me out.

“What do you mean by not done?”

I can tweet the hastag #amwriting until the cows come home, but now, nobody cares until I produce a publication. Nobody is waiting for my draft. Nobody wants to know about the essays I start that fail, or the extensive amount of time it’s taking me to find the proper voice for a middle-aged possum who’s trying to fill out an eHarmony profile in what is starting to feel like the most ridiculous thing I have ever written.

And this leads me to the ever-growing worry that occupies a larger and larger chunk of my brain: What if I’m just not ready?

To my left sits a metal bookshelf I bought at a consignment store for $20. It’s seafoam green and it holds every book I’ve read in the past two years of school. Forty or fifty. Each book bears an author’s name and a publisher’s imprint. Those people did it. They wrote the damn book, they published the damn book.

They were ready. I do not think that I am. And the infuriating thing about un-readiness is that it won’t be moved by force. And while I agree that a writer must, simply, shut the door and write, every single day, the practice of writing may or may not nudge the ready-meter to the left or right. Readiness comes when it will.

“Stop pushing my butt, lady.”

Ever try to move a dog who doesn’t want to? Nugget is a collie-doodle, according to the mutt genetic test. I’ve never thought of either breed as being especially strong-willed, and she’s not, unless I push her butt. Applying force to Nugget’s rump causes her to plant her front paws and push back against me, even when I push her away from things like a knife-wielding Benjamin or a clawed-feline looking to snag a chunk of fluffy tail. And likewise, pulling on Nugget has an equal and opposite reaction: she instinctively pulls away from me. No matter which direction I try to force my doodle to go, she resists me. And yet, it takes only the slightest patience, a brief hint of a kind word (“Come ‘ere, Nuggie”) to move collie-mountains.

If I’m interpreting my own metaphor correctly (and I’m not sure that I am), it would seem that I need to stop pushing my own butt. To be kind to my hindquarters. But also to continually nudge. (And offer treats.)

The book I’m writing has taken several iterations. I have big decisions to make about it, not the least of which revolve around genre. This book doesn’t yet have a home on any shelf, but it will, someday, and at the moment, I’ve written some truths and I’ve written some (fun) lies. I don’t know if those two states of honesty can coexist on a publisher’s desk, on a bookstore shelf. Thus, on any given day, I pick a direction and push myself. A week later I might reverse my course and pull myself another way. And all the while, my inner doodle is planting her feet.

Here, I lose the metaphor. Is the doodle my writing? Is the doodle me? Is the doodle the universe?

Hell if I know. And so I’m forced to wait, to get comfortable with un-readiness while friends around me finish manuscripts and win awards and remove the collars from their necks. And no matter how many essays I read about writers who also were not ready, I find no comfort in this perpetual state of uncertainty.

“We’ll just wait here while you finish the book.”

It’s Schrodinger’s varmint. Until I open the box, the book is both fiction and nonfiction. The book is both complete and incomplete.

And yet, I’m not sitting alone all day, every day, wringing my hands. I’m doing things I’ve wanted to do for two years. I’m out of my office more than I’m in it. I’m having the experiences I need to have, being with people rather than with a computer screen. Until I go out, I’ll have nothing about which to come back and write. My kids missed me when I was in school. Weekend trips were postponed. Walks in the woods put off. Finally, I can and will do these things, despite the fact that they limit my writing time. I’m finding joy in a more open schedule.

Still, the unreadiness clings to me like the scent of wet dog. I get whiffs of it even when I’m out and about, but I can’t seem to wash it off with a definitive end-date. I try to scrub myself clean with pep talks and mindfulness, but these are like the candles I burn to cover up the scent of the foyer carpeting where Nugget poops on rainy days.

I’m not ready to finish the book. I’m not ready to finish anything, today. I’m kind of thinking about chewing a sneaker, though.


Note to readers: I wrote this blog on Monday, the day before the election, but didn’t finish editing it until Friday. I won’t be addressing the election because this is a nature blog, a sacred place.

When I began this blog, I did so for a class called Nature Writing that I took my second semester of graduate school. I loved that class because one of the requirements was to keep this nature blog. We had to choose a spot in nature and visit it every other week. What we wrote about was up to us. Naturally, I chose Piedmont Lake, though everyone else was a lot smarter, choosing a spot close to home. I had to drive an hour each way. Totally worth it though. That’s how Piedmont Peace, The Blog was born. And though I didn’t know exactly what revelations would come to me as I visited the lake by myself, over and over again, in the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to have more than enough to write and think about every time I went. And it made me wish I’d been blogging for decades rather than weeks because I’d have a Piedmont book written by now. No place in my life is more deserving.

November weenie roast on Fall Chore Day.

I was at the lake, the cabin, yesterday for the annual fall cleanup day. As a child I hated fall chore day. It signaled the finish line for fun. While an adult with a boat can entertain herself via fall fishing well into October (and thanks to climate change, now November), a kid loses at least 50% of his interest as soon as the water becomes too cold for swimming. Fall cleanup day means putting the porch furniture in the house, blowing the leaves out of the gutters and off the roof, hiding beadspreads from mice in Rubbermain containers, and winterizeing the dock. That means Dad has to put on his hip waders and enter the 60-degree water (and this is a warm year) to take the float off the end. The rest of the dock is supported and will sit quietly above the sand when the conservancy lets down the lake, but the float has to find its way to the shoreline for the winter.

The dock moves out.

This year, though, the dock ritual incorporated much more detailed efforts. Some months ago, Dad received a letter from the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District (henceforth MCWD or “the bastards”) telling him that he and every other resident of Goodrich Road had to have their docks out of the water by the end of December. Completely out, at our own expense and effort. The reason? MCWD has aerially visualized shoreline erosion in the vicinity of our docks. That means somebody went up in a plane and saw muddy water flowing out from our cove, most specifically from our dock and a few other docks. The letter went on to say that the Conservancy will be riprapping the shoreline in January to combat this problem.

Riprap at the dam

You’ve seen riprap. It’s a wall of rock piled upon the shoreline to stabilize and prevent erosion. I’ve seen it in the ocean as well as in fresh water. I’ve seen it on riverbanks. It prevents erosion from both wave action (of which there is very little in Piedmont due to the 9.9 horsepower limit) and runoff. It’s not a new concept. Robert E. Lee was assigned to an island riprapping project when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers. The poet and nature writer Gary Snyder spent time in his younger days as a trail crew member in the Sierra Nevada riprapping mountain trails for horse travel; in 1965 he published a book of poetry called Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems.

November on the lake

The titular poem, Riprap:

Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks.

             placed solid, by hands   

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

             in space and time:

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

             riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

             straying planets,

These poems, people,

             lost ponies with

Dragging saddles —

             and rocky sure-foot trails.   

The worlds like an endless   


Game of Go.

             ants and pebbles

In the thin loam, each rock a word   

             a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

             with torment of fire and weight   

Crystal and sediment linked hot

             all change, in thoughts,   

As well as things.

Snyder’s riprap comes together, rock by rock, word by word, to form a beautiful trail of language leading us to a higher state. When we read it we actually ooze metaphor out of our pores: poetry is a riprap of words, carefully constructed for maximum strength and impact.

But the reaction to the MCWD’s decision to riprap our shoreline wasn’t poetic in my family at all; it was a real shit show. In fact, the whole of Goodrich Road rose up in angry protest. First of all, people just plain hate to be ordered around. Life at Piedmont Lake is good, but life at Piedmont Lake is also tremendously frustrating because the residents don’t own the land. You can’t cut down a tree without permission. Houses may be olive green or dark brown or gray, only. When you get a letter ordering you to paint the concrete blocks of your foundation, you do it. When you build a deck and forget to ask permission first, you pay a fine. Swimmers may not swim past the end of their docks, nor may they jump off their boats or rocks. We all do it anyway (because screw MCWD), but there have been times when the ranger has busted us and ordered us to behave ourselves. You can enjoy yourself at an MCWD lake, but actual fun isn’t encouraged. We go out of our way to project the appearance of compliance while at the same time doing all kinds of rotten things like diving off the boat at the dam and paddling an unlicensed kayak. And sometimes I’ve had to pay for it. But eff the Conservancy.

This time, though, we don’t have a choice. On January 1, the riprapping begins.

The shoreline in mid-spring.

Let me take a moment to describe our shoreline. The Eastern deciduous forest gives way to a gentle slope of grass about 15 feet wide. My father has encouraged small trees to take hold along the embankment, offering gentle privacy from passing fishermen and dappled shade in the heat of the day. Canada geese rest on the grass in the morning sun and, in May and June, cattails emerge and yellow water iris spring from the water’s edge, drawing bees and butterflies. The lake’s gentle waves lap the faces of small boulders, some overgrown with tree roots where thin water snakes make their summer homes. A rock sits just offshore, waiting to teach little children to jump and swim, a perch where I once counted dragonflies and dangled my toes in the lake, where my sons now practice their circus leaps. Leafy water plants begin to grow in the shallows as the water warms, and minnows and shiners dart to safety whenever a largemouth bass passes by. The mother bass spawn in the shade of the forest, endlessly guarding their nests until the fry hatch and move to the weed beds in the shadow of the saplings on the shore. In deeper water, bluegill and sunfish hide under the dock, guarding their own nests in the sub-aquatic vegetation, and even further out, saugeye lurk near the bottom and patrol the edge of the underwater forest.

In two months those bulldozers are going to roll up and maul the ever-loving shit out of our shoreline. Viva la riprap!

The MCWD agreed to send an engineer to a Goodrich Road meeting of the minds, and to his credit, he came prepared and he came in peace. I did not attend, but Dad did, and he reported back that this young professional truly listened to the concerns of the residents. In fact, he took a fair amount of abuse from an angry group of old men. He explained that the erosion had become a problem, but he took to heart the concerns of the dock owners. Someone had already riprapped his own shoreline with natural-looking boulders many years ago, and this engineer conceded that it was as good a job as any engineer could do. He agreed not to riprap that man’s shoreline. Moreover, he went back to the Conservancy and presented the Goodrich Road residents’ cases so successfully that MCWD decided not to riprap the entire shoreline of the cove. The new plan involves riprapping only some areas. Alas, our shoreline is the one in greatest need of reinforcement, due in part to a neighbor who ripped all of his trees out of the embankment several years ago in order to improve his view. One can hardly blame him for wanting a nice view, but the consequences have been direct and severe.

Yellow Iris and the jump rock

Bring in the bulldozers. If only I had had the forethought to dig up those water iris when I could still
find their bulbs, I could have overwintered them in my fish pond and replanted them in the spring.

But the shoreline won’t be the same in the spring–where would I plant them? It’ll be a massive wall of rocks, and any vegetation that had grown in the mud or in the water will have been crushed by the machinery. Forget for a moment the fact that we had to take apart the dock yesterday so Dad could walk it through the water and anchor it on a nearby shoreline where it can sit, undisturbed, for the winter. Forget for a moment that when we reassemble the dock it will have to be rebuilt to go up and over the riprap. Forget for a moment that no adult, dog, or child will be able to access the water without breaking a leg or an ankle. I don’t love those components of this process, but I can live with them. We can use ladders. The dogs will find a way.

My biggest concerns revolve around the riparian zone. What is going to happen to the shoreline habitat? The sub- and emergent-aquatic vegetation? The animals like turtles who may be trapped as they try to enter the water?

That’s a real question that’s milling around in my head. I don’t know the answer. What will happen? Thus far I’ve written this piece with a rather dour tone, haven’t I? Research into other states’ DNR pages indicates that riprap isn’t going to be the end of the world. If done properly, it will stop the erosion and still provide fish habitat. If erosion due to runoff is reduced, so too will be pollutants carried in that runoff, thereby reducing algae blooms. Additionally, riprap may protect wetlands by preventing floating vegetation from being stripped away.

Still, I don’t look forward to the riprapping.

Enter the marital disagreement. My husband, the fisherman, is whoop-whooping the incoming riprap with boundless enthusiasm.

“You know how many fish we catch at the dam,” he always reminds me. “Have you not read about the smallmouth and largemouth populations that gather around a rock wall?” I have read about them, and he’s right. Craw love a rock wall. Where there are craw, there will be smallies. Where there are cracks and holes, fish will hide and spawn. This project has the potential to create bountiful fishing opportunities if they do it right. Algae grows on rocks. Small fish eat algae. Big fish eat small fish. Bigger fish patrol the shoreline.

Bass magazines back this up. Anglers never pass up a good stretch of riprap.

If they do it right.

Thus, the family remains a hung jury. My father mourns the swift death of his shoreline, of his trees, and of the way it’s been for 40-some years. Shawn is eager to reap the benefits of a bouldered habitat. And I find myself torn, both hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It’s difficult to find ourselves “in the way” of a judgment that’s already been passed. Might we have been able to bring in more natural rocks? To plant shrubbery and more trees? I think I’d have more faith in the engineers were they not working for the organization that sold its soul to Antero, the frackers, for $95 million dollars.

Passing our dock around the neighbor’s.

“We’re doing this for you for free,” they told the residents at the Goodrich Road meeting. You don’t have to pay a dime. We’re fixing things for you.”

Fixing. I’m suspicious of that word when it comes to environmental engineering.

I know that in this world we have to trust some people and suspect others. But only hindsight reveals how we did with our gut feeling, if we chose wisely or poorly. I find myself fighting the urge to cling to the way it’s always been, to rebel against riprap simply because it’s a change. Change is not a bad thing, usually. Nature herself is not static. But riprap isn’t nature. Show me a time when man tinkered with nature that ended with a result better than one nature could have achieved itself.

Then again, the whole lake is manmade, the fish dumped in out of the backs of trucks, the water levels raised and lowered by a set of steel doors. Perhaps this entire experiment is just one wild adventure in commerce. As of the posting of this blog, I remain doubtfully hopeful.

The future, for now, looks rocky.

*Roy Blount Jr., Robert E. Lee

The Pee Problem: Making a Mockery of My Horror

I’ve got a cat pee problem.

The cat in question is Putter (pronounced “put-her”), an 11-year-old tortoiseshell female we adopted the day before I found out I was pregnant with Andy. At the time we had a Doberman and a business of ferrets–four, to be exact. She was a tiny kitten and she took her share of abuse from the weasels who thought she was one of them. Ferrets have tough skin and bite each other hard, and they used to drag her around by the scruff of her neck. They toughened her up. Then Andy arrived and rocked her world. The dobie died, we adopted Nugget, our collie mix, and Gimli came along as a stray kitten shortly thereafter. And then–Heaven help her–Ben was born. A few months after Ben came along we rescued Maya, our German shepherd. Now, Panther has moved in too, and through it all Putter has been more tolerant than I’d have expected a cat to be. She does seem to try. She bonded with Gimli, ignores Nugget, hates Benjamin, and hides from Maya. She despises Panther and adores both Shawn and my electric blanket.

Needless to say, the cat has endured a lifetime of inconsistency. Animals, children, and chaos all coming and going. It’s not ideal. But the urinating is only a recent development. She’s hung on for a long time. Like all female cats, Putter’s been under the impression that this is her house and that she’s the monarch. At times she appeared so stately that we were convinced the urinator was Gimli. I’d yell at him and run him off and grumble about selling him down the river, and I feel pretty bad about this, in hindsight. Only in the last year did we figure out who the real culprit was.

There’s always a reason for an animal’s physical attributes, and evolution had a plan for cat pee. Unneutered male cats have a high concentration of Felinine in their urine so that when they mark a tree in the wild, the scent can power through rain and still act as a stinking, blinking beacon in the yard for any other dude who decides to wander through. Nature, you sly genius. However, Putter’s girly urine still contains more than enough Felinine to ruin my carpet.

The pet stores are happy to sell me a variety of cat pee products. Things that crystallize. Things that de-funkify. Things that repel. The Nature’s Miracle people would have me believe that their enzyme formula is the way to go, that enzymes are really the only tool for combating the smell. I’m not so sure. I’ve spent several hundred dollars on big gallon jugs of Nature’s Miracle, saturating the carpet over and over again. The smell always remains. And if I can smell it, Putter can smell it. That stink is a big flashing cat sign: Liked it the first time? Come on back! 

While I’m fighting this battle with the world’s rudest amino acid, I’m also going slowly insane. The pee has gotten into my head. In the first few months, I could easily detect the smell of cat pee. I’d walk up the stairs and get a whiff. I’d announce to Shawn that there was fresh cat pee somewhere. He’d never be able to smell it, but I’d get down on my hands and knees and crawl around with my schnoz smashed into the carpet until I found the wet spot. Then, like a pointer, I’d tense and alert the family. Pee! I found pee!

But after a few months, I guess I went a little nose-blind. In Pavlovian style, I learned to associate the smell of Nature’s Miracle with the presence of feline urine, and the two scents blended together to form a ball of confused frustration in my sinuses. Had I or had I not treated that particular swatch of carpet? Was it damp because I had just cleaned it the day before or was it damp because Putter had peed on it again? I started spending more time on the floor, bloodhounding my way around the room, baying when I thought I found another wet spot.

These days, it goes like this: Walk up the stairs, stop in my tracks. Do I smell something? Is that cat pee? Enter Ben’s room, drop to my hands and knees. Smush my nostrils into the carpet and proceed to hoover around the room. Sniff. Fresh pee or old pee? Damp or dry? Felinine or Nature’s Miracle? Can’t decide. Get in the car and drive to Petco. Purchase a gallon of enzymatic cleaner for $42.99. Return to the room and pour the entire bottle into the corner. Sit and watch the puddle. Sniff the puddle. Sniff my pants. Ask myself if they smell, too. Remove my pants. Sniff the knees of the pant legs and decide they reek of pee. Wash the pants with enzymatic cleaner. Sit in Ben’s room with no pants and watch the puddle dry. Open a window. Air out the room. Sniff the cuff of my shirt. Imagine it smells like pee. Remove the shirt. Wash the shirt. Sit in Ben’s room in my underwear and watch the puddle dry. Leave the house in clean clothing to go to Ben’s Halloween party at school. Ask my friend if I smell like cat pee. When she says no, decide she’s wrong. Subtly remove myself from the group and retreat to the corner of the classroom so nobody can smell me. When Shawn arrives, ask him if he smells cat pee on me. Tell him he’s wrong when he says no. Go home. Notice the yard smells like cat pee. Take off my clothing again. Notice the dog smells like cat pee. Notice the shower smells like cat pee. Drive to Petco in clean clothing. Buy another gallon of enzymatic cleaner. Pour it on the rug and watch the puddle dry in my underwear. Sniff my hair. Wash my hair. Ask the mailman to come upstairs and tell me if he smells pee. Argue with him when he says no.

I bought Putter an expensive self-cleaning litterbox. She likes it. She uses it. There’s no evidence that she’s peed on the rug since I gave it to her. She seems to be happy.

But I still smell pee everywhere. On me, on you. It clings to the curtains, to the trees. It blows in on the wind. I smell pee in the car, on the kids. The plates come out of the dishwasher reeking of urine. When people come to the house I turn on fans and open windows. I light candles and flick on my Scentsy warmers. I bake a turkey so the house smells like roasting bird flesh rather than cat whiz. I ask Shawn and the children to smell the rugs, the wood, and my own body over and over again. I inhale until my lungs hurt and I get woozy.

And nobody else can smell it. Nobody believes me.

They say that if you can question your sanity, then you’re still sane, but I’m not sure if that applies to someone who spends half of the day on her stomach inhaling a faceful of ammonia.


I Won’t Stand for This

I’m typing this blog standing up.

And I hate it.

Sure, it worked for Hemmingway and Kierkegaard. Smithsonian Magazine says the average office worker spends five hours and forty-one minutes each day sitting, sending those sitters hurtling towards diabetes and cancer, and that sitting is the new smoking. But still I’ve tried to ignore the growing movement to get us all to stand while we write/work/type. Standing is an awful pastime. Whether or not it aligns my spine, it hurts my lower back. It hurts my knees and the bottoms of my feet. I’ve never been a stander but rather that awkward adult in the corner of the waiting area outside the restaurant who’s plopped herself down on the dirty floor.

Hey Chairy! Today’s secret
word is “chiropractor.”

I got the most wonderful writers’ chair for Christmas a few years ago, to get me through some serious computer time in grad school, and I’ve finally reached the point where my ass has hollowed out just the slightest impression (not because I have a small ass but because it’s a really good chair that doesn’t cave under my weight) and I fit all snugly (and snuggly) in there. This chair comforted me during the long hours of grad school, when I sat staring at my unfinished thesis feeling like a loser and a hack. This chair held me in its warm leathery embrace for two years. It supported me during my thesis defense, quietly, in the background, gently rubbing my gluteal muscles that had tensed into lumps of granite.

God dammit, this chair loves me. And now I’m just supposed to stand up and shove it away? I’m supposed to shun it? To turn my back quite literally upon it while I go on with the work it carried me through?

That’s cold, man.

But the chiropractor won’t have it any other way. Stand, he told me. You will stand. That’s your homework assignment. Stand. Stand and write, lest ye be hunchbacked and askew. Sure, I’m still supposed to sit, sometimes, and this caveat actually further complicates his orders. Now, not only do I have to have a stand-up desk, but I have to have a place where I can retreat to sit as well.

I’ve been getting massages for several years now for my wretched neck. Perhaps this falls under my fibromyalgia diagnosis, perhaps it’s just a function of poor spinal health, but at any given time my neck is quietly harboring a minimum of four giant knots. Most people’s knots can be rubbed out, broken up with pressure, an iron will, and the Lamaze breathing one massage therapist told me to implement during her “therapy.” Ever had a giant knot worked on with intensity? It brought me to the point of tears and puke. I’m thankful to have found a massage therapist now who believes that pain does not heal pain, and she takes a far softer approach and really keeps me running (metaphorically). The thing about these knots is that they don’t break up very well. The big ones have been squatting on the property for so long that the tissue has grown accustomed to being knotted and seems to have some sort of sadomasochistic desire to remain in a state of perverse contortion, which of course brings me nothing but intense pain most of the time.

Two stools and four copies of my thesis work pretty well.

My neck has swallowed up a huge chunk of my life since it began acting up right after Andy was born. I’ve gotten hundreds of massages. I’ve had cortizone injected into the hearts of the knots. I’ve had acupuncture and been dry needled–a procedure during which a physical therapist inserts an acupuncture needle into the knot and jerks it up and down, eliciting a twitch response in the muscle (i.e. it contracts like a mother fucker and then is supposed to chill out and relax, but of course mine never do). I’ve had therapy and been given stretches. I’ve rolled on balls. I’ve rolled on foam rollers. I’ve bought an s-shaped green thingy that allows me to dig into my own knots. I’ve taken enough muscle relaxers to stop a heifer’s heart and enough ibuprofen that the lining of my stomach is sending me signals that it’s ready to die with dignity. I’ve seen four chiropractors (one of whom went on to break my mother’s rib when I recommended him to her), been heated and electrically stimulated. I’ve said, “I feel much better, thank you” and then gone home to lift nothing more than a kitchen chair and ended up in agony again. I’ve lain in traction and hung upside down. I’ve put my legs up a wall. I’ve had my kid rub my neck for a quarter and slathered expensive essential oils all over my skin. I’ve burned the imprint of a heating pad into my flesh.

Nothing has ever offered me permanent relief. After ten years, that really starts to bog a person down. Long drive? Neck pain. Rough night of sleep? Neck pain. Spent 2 seconds looking under the bed for a shoe at a weird angle? Neck pain. Planted a flower? Neck pain. Walked the dog? Neck pain.

And of course, the neck pain has evolved into severe headaches, pinched nerves, shoulder pain, and TMJ disorder (for which an oral surgeon happily offered to break my jaw and reposition it on my face to correct the problem). I’ve swiped so many cards and written so many checks that I could have bought a catamaran by now. A big one. With one of those fun nets in the front where you bounce up and down.

This is utterly ridiculous.

But ultimately, nobody can tell me why this is happening on repeat. The rheumatologist mutters about fibromyalgia. The chiropractor tells me I spend my life with my neck in flexion–bent forward and down. He says, “You’re a writer. That’s bad.”

Tell me about it, dude.

I can’t do much about an autoimmune issue, but I can work on my spine. Technology is evolving far faster than the human body ever could. We’ve taken hundreds of thousands of years to reach this point in our physicality. Cell phones went from flimsy, flippy things to tiny computer screens overnight. Shorter laptops became more popular than taller desktops. Texting. Candy crush. Facebook mobile app. All we ever do is look down, all the time. And for those of us who work on a computer, who spend hours every day working on some god-forsaken essay or tax document or legal brief, there’s no way around flexion.

So, in addition to the $79 keyboard I’ve added to my laptop so I can raise the computer itself to eye level, and in addition to the stand-up desk I’m going to buy for some ridiculous price, I’ve been working–as instructed–on standing erect. (Eat your heart out, Homo habilis.) The result of constrant flexion, it would seem, is a head that sits too far forward on the shoulders. We’re all out of alignment, out of whack. My massage therapist notes my weak neck muscles and has given me an exercise to strengthen them, and I also work at simply standing straight. That’s a tall order for a head that’s been leaning forward for 20 years. Those back muscles are terribly weak, and when I remain in that proper position for more than 10 minutes they start to scream and throb. Small steps I take in this position, small increments of time. After all, you don’t build beefy pecs by grabbing 400 pounds and holding it up over your chest for three weeks because eventually, you’ll tire and break your face.

It’s a shame to think that human bodies are all eventually going to crap out due to our lifestyles. There’s really no way to avoid it, unless we’re off in the New Guinea jungle squatting to poop and climbing trees and doing things evolution designed our bodies for. And if we are there, we’d better watch the fuck out because there are cannibals lurking under every rock. I hear they won’t eat American necks, though. Too ropey. Anyway, we convenience ourselves more and more, make our lives comfier and more efficient. And the time we save Googling on our new LG V20 rather than driving to the library to look it up? We can apply that to our biweekly hour in physical therapy.


Eye of round roast cooking in a California red blend.

But back to this standing desk bullshit. While I’m hemming and hawing about what I’m going to buy, and if I am willing to pay for such a seemingly ridiculous setup, I’m working on cheap alternatives. I’ve got an angled stool and an Ikea uber-stool (it’s high) set up on the kitchen counter. For now, it’s the perfect height, and I fully expect my cheap ass to write this way for six more months before settling on a proper standing desk. Perhaps I’ll eventually learn to love my erectness, but for now, I absolutely hate it.

Except for the part about writing next to the crock pot. Every few paragraphs I can season my roast.

The Problem With Panther

Another cat post. Boy, this lady must really dig her cats, huh?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m a true cat person. I like cats. I enjoy cats. But my beating heart is 100% dog. While the rest of you are watching cat gifs, I’m watching dog gifs. I think perhaps it’s because my OCD brain–which tries so hard to figure each and every one of you out, and analyze why you just said to me what you did, for better or worse–needs a dog, an animal who, though not simple by any means, is not complicated in a moody teenager way. I understand dog. I speak dog. For years I’ve read about dog behavior. On a most fundamental level, dogs truly want to belong to us. Dogs are no longer wolves. Their society is our society; we came together 40,000 years ago. And though it was a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually spawned the collie mix snoring on the pillow beside me as I write this, let us not ever believe that the dog is a foolish creature because she is not a cat.

The domestic doodle

The dog showed up in wolf-form at an ancient human encampment, or more likely on the edge of it, to scavenge the scraps. In so doing, they deterred other predators from approaching. Gradually, both canid and hominid recognized the potential benefits of this relationship, and as braver and tamer wolves got closer to humans, the two species forged quite possibly the oldest interspecies relationship built on trust and love. It’s foolish to say that humans domesticated dogs; I think it’s far more likely that dogs saw humans as a very workable project. They’re a most opportunistic species–just look at the way Maya can’t stop herself from snatching a hot dog off the counter, the way Nugget cleaned out a bag of butterscotch chips the other day. If a dog sees a benefit, she’s not about to wait around, and no matter how much she wants to please, her dogginess tells her that she needs that wiener, just in case there won’t be another meal coming. Eat while you can, and trust that your soft ears and wagging tail will earn you the forgiveness of your person.

The dog fits well into our lives because she chooses to, because humans and dogs grew up together over the last forty thousand or so years. And thus, I think humans are good at speaking dog. I understand dog. I know why a dog does what she does. They fundamentally make sense to me, and the dog wants to make sense to her human. (Because if she makes sense, the human is happy, and a happy human offers food and love. And food.)
Cat, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit. 
This is where cat loses me. Why, cat? Why don’t you give a shit?
Cats are opportunistic too. It’s just that ancient cats didn’t see us as a necessary part of the equation. William S. Burroughs wrote that “the cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.” How true. And while dog genetics are distinguishable from wolf genetics, cat and wildcat genes don’t offer the same level of distinction. They’re blurrier, indicating that the cat is only kinda, sorta domesticated. Any cat owner will confirm this. I have a cat-loving friend who refers to herself as her cats’ staff.
Cats don’t need us, really. They’ve been content to drift in and out of human lives, to cross paths with us when coincidence so dictates, making appearances on pyramid walls and in oil paintings from eras bygone. The dog in those paintings sits at the side of the monarch, his head in a lap, leaning, as they do, on a human leg. The cat in those paintings is off to the side, and probably disappeared long before the artist even finished opening his paints.
I have cats. I had two, until recently: Putter (Put-her, as in putter tat) and Gimli (Son of Gloin). I like the cats. They’re soft and meowy. Gimli is neurotic; Putter is more of a cuddle bug. She has moments of catly joy. But Putter also likes to pee on Ben’s rug when she gets angry. She likes to play and play and play and then bite. She gets offended when I sneeze and stalks out of the room with her butt parts exposed in my direction. 
She’s a cat. 
Now, enter Panther, who is a different sort of beast than my family is used to. The other two cats live strictly indoors, but Panther came to us as a homeless chap who had been living outdoors. He uses the bathroom outdoors. Like all indoor/outdoor cats, he must roam. He simply must. His urge to come inside is driven not by his desire to find love and physical contact with his humans (who have grown to love him) but to find his bowl filled upon demand. Let us not kid ourselves by thinking that Panther would have stayed with my family if we weren’t providing piles of food. 
And I do mean piles: he’s 18.5 pounds. 
I really do enjoy Putter and Gimli, but not on the same level that I love my dogs. Hence, the “dog person” label I’ve always worn. If the kids are the heart and soul of our family, the dogs are the lungs. We need them to help us take a moment to breathe. They’re right there in our midst, rolling on the floor with and snuggled up to our precious children. And now, suddenly, so is Panther. Unlike Putter and Gimli, Panther has inserted himself directly into the middle of the family unit. He’s here with the dogs. He doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be involved in our activities, in our living room moments. And like the employee who makes himself invaluable to the company by refusing to leave the office, Panther has so become a member of the inner sanctum in fewer than two months.
No matter his motives, that’s very dog-like, in a way.

But Panther isn’t a dog. Though he’s made it onto the living room couch, he still succumbs to his need to do cat things. The problem with Panther is that he’s a killer. In the last week I’ve pried a (sort of) live Goldfinch from his mouth and discovered a quivering, chewed chipmunk under the television stand. I hate this part of cats. I’ve always fed wild birds and squirrels. The activity at the feeders gets me through the long winters. Now, I hesitate to fill them up, as it might be akin to a flashing arrow that reads: Buffet Line Begins Here. Our yard, a hidden acre in the middle of Wheeling sheltered by silver maples, poplar, pine, and oaks, provides sanctuary for a huge range of wildlife, most of which is edible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, statistics indicate that domestic housecats kill between 3.7 and 6 billion wild birds each year. Billions.  
Frantic chipmunk in the bathroom

I don’t like those numbers. At times I think that Panther’s presence in our lives has ruined the chance for a healthy wild bird population out there. At times, I wish he’d bypassed our house altogether. 

He didn’t come home yesterday morning. Nightly, he vanishes into the yard when Shawn goes to bed, and I welcome him home in the morning with a bowl of meat. So when I blindly opened the door in the foggy dark and no warm form came barreling past my legs, announcing himself with a loud squawk, I was surprised. The sky lightened, and I drank my coffee and waited for him. As the kids ate breakfast I kept a vigil at the door (as much as I hate to admit that it was a vigil, I would be lying if I said otherwise). When the sun rose high, I walked the neighborhood, looking for a carcass on the streets around the house, but I found no trace of Panther. 

Since his arrival in our lives, I’ve warned the children that cats who go outdoors rarely live as long as indoor cats. They must run the nightly gauntlet of cars, coyotes, and other cats. Things happen. Some never come home, leaving their families always uncertain of their fate. But Panther is New Hampshire Cat: he chooses to Live Free or Die. And knowing this gave me a tiny but palpable slice of consolation as I waited for him to appear in the kitchen. At 2pm he finally limped in, crying. His breakaway collar was gone and x-rays revealed no visible fractures but did show a twisted ulna. He purred while they worked on him, while the techs shaved his paw and wrapped him in a splint. I saw a burly, furry-faced vet tech carrying him like a baby. (Cats purr when they are happy and content, but they also purr when they’re injured. This article in Animal Wellness talks about the idea that the vibration of the purr may actually induce healing in the cat body. “Interestingly, research has shown that exposure to frequencies at that same 20 to 50 Hz [as a cat’s purr] induces increased bone density, relieves pain and heals tendons and muscles.”
Miserable cat still manages to find his appetite

There’s nothing more pathetic than a cat in a cast. He hobbles around the house, desperate to get outdoors, back to his catly routine, but his pain levels keep him subdued. The evening after the injury, his breathing was sharp and ragged. He panted and drooled until his pain meds kicked in, and yet, every time I moved him, he purred as he endured the process. Thankfully, he’s accepted the litterbox as a substitute for the neighbor’s garden. 

The real problem with Panther is that I’ve developed feelings for him, stronger feelings than I expected. He gives me no indication that I am particularly high on his priority list. My number one job is to be at the back door no later than 6am with a can of Fancy Feast dished out and waiting. (The price for tardiness is steep: he trips me as I try to prepare his meal.) And yet, he appeals to me in a way that no other cat has before. He’s huge, and he’s butch, with his testosterone-fueled stud jowls. In every way he’s disrupted our lives. But he’s got a quality that my other cats lack, and I wonder if it’s a product of his former life as an orphan. There’s something about Panther that’s genuine, a quality I don’t see in a lot of cats. It’s not that they’re necessarily disingenuous because cats don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. Panther, however, seems to possess a quiet gratitude for his recent adoption into our lives. Sometimes he looks at me, his eyes constantly runny and watering from what the vet thinks are allergies, and I see acknowledgment. And when I bend to kiss his forehead–something I have never done with Putter and Gimli because I’ve never been much of a cat-kisser–he bows his head down and parts his ears and offers up a robust purr. I think it’s a thank you.
Blissful domestication
and uneasy tolerance

Panther and I both feel uncomfortable with labels. I’m not willing to commit to a cat-person label, and he’s not sure he wants to wear the mantle of semi-domestication. As I type, his pupils are huge because he’s watching falling leaves and mistaking them for fluttering songbirds. Though he’s comfortable here on the couch, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back out there looking for his inner wildcat.

Cast a Wide Net

My life has changed considerably.

Two months ago today, I walked off Chatham University property for the last time as a student. It was great, and it was sad. So ended the stress. So ended the process of getting where I wanted to go. So ended my immediate and easy ability to connect with a community of like-minded people.

And so began something new.

But that ending and all of its sweet relief was deceptive. Now, I’m adrift. Now, I realize that I have no immediate goals, no pressing deadlines. And more importantly, I have no one to direct me. It’s been a long time since I was my own boss. On July 25, 2006, my most demanding superior was born, and until the day I began at Chatham in the fall of 2014, he (and his brother) dictated my every action. I met their deadlines. I did what they asked of me. I gave them what they required. So, while moving from that sort of environment to one in which I worked for teachers felt different, it really wasn’t different at all. I still had to get things done. I still had to complete my job. Plug away.

Grad school taught me how well I work under a deadline. Now, I’m just sort of floating around out here. The kids are in their school. I’m left to gather the things I’ve learned about writing and about myself in the last decade and mold some sort of life for myself. And, being just a bit anxiety-ridden and a tad impatient, I’m not handling it very well.


I decided to cast a wide net. I’m one of the blog editors for Literary Mama. I do freelance blogging. I help a friend teach third graders how to write personal narratives. I try to write on my own, too, while fighting off the difficulties of Sjogren’s Syndrome that really flare up in the fall. I haven’t seen other human beings for two years, so I’m trying to do that, and I’m a little squishy in the midsection too. So, yoga. Rather than a singular focus (thesis), I’ve divided myself up into many varied parts. I know I want to write. It took me 35 years to narrow my existence down to that singularity. Of all the things in the world I could do, writing was it.

But now that I’ve arrived in this place, I realize that the horizon has just expanded exponentially again, to a world almost as big as the one I knew three years ago. Do I want to stay at home and work on my book? Teach little kids? Teach big kids? Freelance for money? Focus on blog editing and publishing? The singularity exploded into an unexpected field of choices, all of which baffle me and tempt me. Thus, the wide net, or as my friend Amanda said, “Throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks.”

The problem is that I’ve caught too many fish in the net. Some keepers, some trash fish, some tin cans. And now I’ve got this heavy-ass net slung over my back and not enough time to deal with the contents. I have fewer free moments in the day than I did during thesis time, and I’m getting paid for very few of my efforts.

Shawn tells me I need to pay my dues. Write, publish, teach, help out. Casually toss my name out there. Work on my book but not kill myself. Fight to stay ahead of my autoimmune problems. Go outside. He’s right, of course. I stayed in my office, writing for school, for two years. In that time I amassed very few life experiences. The idea jar is empty. I need to fill it back up.

I fish. I know how many times I have to cast before I get a bite. I know how many lures I lose, how many snags take my rig. Fishing infuriates me. Some days I don’t catch shit. Once in a blue moon, I land a whopper.

I may need a little help getting this jig out of the tree.

Things Happen

I like even numbers. They comfort an OCD, Type A adult like me. I never have to worry about an extra element. Four members of the Roberts family. Two adults; two kids. Two in the back seat, two in the front.

I repeated the pattern with our critters. We had four ferrets, four guinea pigs. (Don’t get me started.) Two cats, two dogs. It’s just enough. No more than any couple needs. Shawn and I have a house full of life that can be paired off, divided up, and simply calculated. Sometimes I wonder if we stopped our family at two kids just so I could ease my brain with soothing numbers.

That, and the terror of accidentally creating another Ben.

My time in grad school has ended, and over the summer, life began to show me hints of settling into normalcy. Ben has largely stopped trying to kill himself. Andy’s Tourette Syndrome is under control. Work for me is slow but steady, and the household budget has become predictable and even now that I no longer have to write tuition checks.

But nature doesn’t like things to be all wrapped up in a neat package. It prefers entropy. A gradual descent into chaos.

Enter: the monkey wrench.

We returned home from our Fort Myers Beach vacation in the dark due to delays and storms. The pet sitters had left the dog bowls out on the porch, and as we lugged suitcases in the darkness, a round form humped its way off the deck and into the shadows. Whatever the varmint was – no doubt one of them trash pandas – it had been snacking on leftover chow, as varmints do.

But my mom reported a cat sighting to me the next day.

“Your dad saw a big, gray cat on the porch before dawn,” she said.

“No,” I corrected. “That wasn’t a cat. It was huge. Definitely a raccoon.” No feral cat would be so large or so bold.

Gargantuan cat

But it was a cat, and the next evening as we worked on dinner, I went out onto the deck and there he was. He was a great beast of an animal, one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen. He had what the cat books refer to as stud jowls: puffy cheeks and the solid block of a head that come from a lengthy exposure to testosterone. Though Maya, the ever-vigilant critter-catcher was lurking nearby, waiting for her chance to terrorize him (our own cats live on the second and third floors of our house while Maya occupies the first floor and basement because she’s such a notorious cat-chaser), I put her inside before she had a chance to attack him. He followed me and the kids up onto the back porch and quite literally dove into a bowl of cat food, face-first. He ate for well over half an hour. Though he was enormous and solid, his spine and hip bones stuck out and he was flea-bitten and wormy. Unloved.

When he was finished with his enormous meal, he stayed with me and the boys, purring and soliciting attention. Shawn, who is far more of a cat person than I, came to the doorway occasionally and shook his head, not wanting to get attached, but knowing that the odds of avoiding it were slim. When the sun went down and the moon came up, the cat was still there, sitting with Andy and me. He’d eaten no fewer than three times, and showed no signs of wanting to leave.

Shawn picked him up and hugged him. “What’s his name?” he asked me.

“Oh come on,” I said. “I don’t want another cat.”

“What’s his name, Laura?”


*     *    *
Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, I wasn’t necessarily in favor of keeping Panther. Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, it was actually Shawn and the boys who pushed me to keep him. I would have been happy to find him a family. Bottomly inspection revealed that he was neutered at some point in his life (late, due to the stud jowls), and his friendliness and patience with our dogs and our boys indicates he belonged to someone who loved him, once. Poor cat.
What do you do when the universe sends you an animal? It happens all the time, especially with cats. My spirituality these days wavers between strong faith and complete disbelief, depending on the day, but this cat chose us, for whatever reason. What do you do when an animal chooses you? Panther simply refused to leave. Within 24 hours he had waltzed into the kitchen and found his way to the living room sofa. Within 3 days he’d established his preferred meal times, arriving before dawn on the back porch for breakfast and between 4 and 6pm for dinner. Panther is 100% comfortable with us and in the notion that this is now his house.
There’s no such thing as a free cat, though. When a cat first shows up, it seems so easy. Oh, a cat, you think. A relatively self-sufficient animal. They use the bathroom outside, so no litter box costs. I’m already buying cat food for the other two, so that won’t go up too much. Just a rabies shot and he’s good. Right?

Wrong. Panther required rabies, distemper, flea control, worming, and FIV and feline leukemia testing. Panther still requires a rabies booster and a microchip. Panther’s first vet bill ran us over $300. 

Free cat my ass. 
*     *     *
I suppose that, as an animal lover, I had two choices: keep the cat or ditch the cat. Older cats have little chance of being adopted out of shelters. And it was clear that Panther considered our house his home, so if we found a family to take him, who knows if he would have stayed or if he would have bailed out and found his way back to us. I’ve given away two cats, and though it was the right call for at least one, I wish I hadn’t. But Panther has been an expensive endeavor. His vet bills, the enormous amount of food that he eats (he ate for 17 straight minutes this morning), the scratching posts (we declawed our other cats, and no, we won’t do that again), the flea meds, and the coup de grâce: the cat door. Because Panther is an indoor-outdoor cat, he goes to the bathroom outside, and when one of us isn’t here to open the door for His Highness, he needs to be able to leave. So we had a cat door install in a basement window, which required precision work from our contractors and will undoubtedly result in a $300+ bill. All so a free cat can barge in and eat our food and sleep on our furniture.

Panther is a real monkey wrench. He’s upset the balance. He’s the odd number. Three cats. Five animals. Nine living creatures in the house. It’s all very uneven. Moreover, I now find that my attention is required not just by differing species (human, canine, feline), but also on different floors. Panther arrives for his breakfast no later than 5:45am. Often I’m up to service him, but when I want to sleep in until 6:30, he’s perturbed by the time I’m up and goes out of his way to trip me as I prepare his morning meal. He’s one of those trippy cats.

But morning used to belong to Putter and Gimli. Maya sleeps in the basement and those early hours provided them with time to come down to the living room and visit with me. They hate Panther. They lurk on the kitchen landing and growl at him while he eats his breakfast, oblivious to their wrath. So now I need to schedule extra Putter/Gimli time upstairs because Panther’s breakfast overlaps with their pre-dawn social hour.

And of course, when I’m upstairs with Putter and Gimli, Maya is downstairs alone. Maya’s sole purpose in life is to watch over her humans, and she gets so lonely that she creeps up the front staircase, trying to rejoin the family on the second floor. When I’m with the dog, the cats are ignored. When I’m with the cats, the dog is ignored. Nugget, at least, can and does follow me anywhere. And until Panther’s arrival, I had a pretty regular routine. Cat up, dog down. Now it’s a free-for-all. Any animal may appear on any other animal’s floor at any given time, triggering snarls and growls and hurt feelings. Yesterday, in fact, Putter was so disgusted by something one of us had done that she took a large and obvious dump on Benjamin’s rug. I just can’t please all of the animals all of the time, and even if I wanted to, I’m a little busy pleasing all of the humans all of the time. As the person who generally runs the household and manages the living beings within it, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the sudden disruption of what was already a tenuous balance.

Go ahead, lady. Try to write this blog.

But the universe sent me a cat. The Universe, capital U. When the Universe sends you an animal, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to take it in.

Maybe Panther is here for a reasons. Maybe he will fight off a wild band of rabid basement weasels when they decide to invade during the frigid winter of 2018. Then again, maybe he’s just here because we smelled like suckers.


Last night at dinner, Panther slunk through the kitchen. I caught a glimpse of something in his mouth and a flash of yellow: one of my cherished goldfinches, the sweet, peeping souls who gather at the drying echinacea flowers in the fall to pick at the seeds. Horrible beast! Shawn took Panther out and pried his jaws open, whereupon the tiny bird flopped out, furious, but seemingly uninjured. I carried it to my parents’ house next door and set it among the flowers where it had a few moments to recuperate.

“Bad cat!” I shouted at him, and he ran away as we all settled back down at the table.

Fewer than ten minutes later, Panther slunk in again with the same bird in his mouth. Dammit! This time he dropped the finch on the foyer rug and it sat there miserably, clearly in worse shape than it had been a few moments ago. Back to the garden it went, but this time I was pretty sure the bird wasn’t long for this world. We covered the cat door to prevent Panther from leaving, told him he was a bad cat, again, and went back to dinner. Which wasn’t warm, any longer.

It took Panther approximately 19 seconds to find his way back to the basement and pry the cover off the cat door. I ran to the finch’s last location and there he was, only a few feet from the poor animal, stalking it. I hollered at him and he darted under the car, watching as I picked up the damn finch. This time, I took it elsewhere, to the neighbor’s yard, and put it up high in a tangled mess of grapevines. Clearly on its last legs, I left it there. Panther did not bring it into the house a third time.

This is the downside of having an outdoor cat. I don’t generally approve of outdoor cats. My own cats are strictly indoor felines for this very reason. I value my bird life tremendously. Now I’m left to wonder if I should suspend my bird-feeding activities for the duration of his tenure with us. If I fill the feeder, aren’t I just ringing the dinner bell?

Perhaps he will eventually transition to an indoor cat. Outdoor cats account for up to 3.7 billion bird deaths annually. I’m a bird person, moreso than a cat person, really. This disturbs me.

It’s an extra dose of monkey wrench in a life I thought was settled.

Andy’s Update

The summer got away from me before I could continue the blog, shamefully. After our trip to the mountains of West Virginia, we had a birthday for Andy, and I left for Summer Community of Writers at Chatham University in Pittsburgh to finish my MFA. When I came home, Shawn left for Boston for a week and we reconvened in Fort Myers Beach for ten days of vacation. I’d started to forget what my bed felt like. As with all summers, this one went quickly. I look forward to writing about it.
But for now, I find myself reflecting on the changes our family underwent this summer, changes I have not yet written about. It’s difficult to find the appropriate manner in which to write about your kids, isn’t it? I published an essay about Benjamin, and in it, I shared with the world both his propensity for calamity and, more importantly, my shortcomings as a mother. They are many, and in “Calamity Ben,” I tried to connect with readers about my struggles. Humor writers derive pleasure from their own failures, in a way, because they see each disastrous escapade as fodder for another piece, and thus another way to reach out into the world. I think that’s why I write about my failures, anyway. It’s how I want to touch the world. My children have been the dominant force in my life for the last ten years; thus, they are a fount of inspiration. 
But now, I find that Andy is more than capable of telling his own stories. More importantly, he has a say in whether I may tell them. Often, when I take his photo, he says with trepidation, “You’re not going to put that on Facebook, are you?” I don’t know if he’s yet reached the stage where he’s embarrassed by me, but he’s certainly aware that, as the child of a writer, he’s on a stage of sorts. While things like Calamity Ben-fires and -knives still feel like fair game to me, the adventures and struggles of an older child are no longer mine to share. A great deal has been written lately about parents who share their children’s lives on social media. And while I have yet to decide precisely where the line is (and have done my share of sharing), I do agree that when a child is old enough to object to the idea of his presence on Facebook, he has every right not to be there.
That said, I’ve spoken with Andy about telling his story, here. He gave me his permission and told me it was about time.
In June, we learned that Andy has Tourette Syndrome. 
Andy’s first tic appeared when he was four, I think. Like most kids, it began with a blink. I did the prudent thing and had his eyesight checked, and the doctor told me it was indeed a tic, a very common occurrence for a little kid. Many children will have a tic in their lifetime. But Andy’s tics didn’t disappear as he grew. Though the blinking came and went, at age 7—first grade—we began to notice other tics. Head jerks, often, and there was a grimace. Each time I mentioned it to his teachers they told me they’d never noticed the tics, and this relieved me a great deal. Nevertheless, I was aware of Tourette Syndrome and, being the anxiety-prone crackpot that I am, began to worry about it more than I should have. 

Tics cannot be controlled. It’s difficult to understand, but it’s been likened to the need to blink. It’s an undeniable urge, and though patients can suppress them for short periods, they must come out eventually.

There are multiple tic disorders. The difference between Tourette and Transient Tic Disorder (TTD) is a matter of small degrees. Transient Tic is categorized by one or more tics that have been continuously present for longer than 4 weeks but less than a year. Often, the pediatrician referred to Andy’s tics as TTD. He told me in a frank and calm manner that even if Andy did have Tourette Syndrome, there were far worse conditions with which to be faced. And while that might have come across as patronizing from another mouth, another person, when I heard him say it, I felt relief. I am grateful for our pediatrician for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to properly categorize the seriousness of a child’s condition when faced with an adverse parental reaction. (Translation: He calms batshit crazy moms down.)
The tics continued to increase through 2nd and 3rd grade, though, and I admit my anxiety ran away with me. In my heart, I knew we’d moved beyond the textbook definition of Transient Tic Disorder, and that we were only one vocal tic away from a Tourette diagnosis. Looking back, I want to laugh at myself a bit. I spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying about something far beyond my control. I worried about Andy, and his feelings, and his education, but, if I’m to be honest, I worried the most for myself. How was this going to affect me? How hard was this going to be for me? How was I going to handle it? How was I going to get Andy through it?
What an arrogant ass, right?
Well, yeah, sort of. I spent a few months beating myself up for those feelings. And then, in May, when the first vocal tic appeared (a loud voice that sounded much like Fozzie Bear), my anxieties became realities. It was Tourette Syndrome, the doctor confirmed. And suddenly, all those hours of worry and dread no longer mattered, because the here and now had arrived, and nothing I’d obsessed about had any bearing on the next step. Whether or not I was tightly wound from three years of fearing what if, I still had to make one decision at a time.
I need to be honest about the preceding statement, though. That “one step at a time” stuff came from Shawn and my father: my two, rational rocks. I’m not a “one step at a time” gal. I’m the kind of person who sees a gray cloud and goes down into the basement to restock canned beans in the tornado shelter. I’m twelve steps ahead, well on my way to apocalyptic apoplexy, when really, all I need to do is make one small decision: What’s the very next thing I have to do?
I never remember to think that way, though.
The next thing we did was to start Andy on a low dose of a medicine that may or may not help him. He does not take medicine for his ADHD, and we—Andy included—don’t like the idea of meds that aren’t necessary. Often, such meds have side effects far more unpleasant than any tic. What he’s taking now is a tiny dose of a simple drug that has the potential to calm physical symptoms, but the jury is still out on its efficacy. The thing about Tourette Syndrome is that it will likely worsen during his adolescence, peaking sometime in his teenage years. Often the tics wane as the child enters adulthood; sometimes they do not. Andy will always have Tourette Syndrome, but it’s unknown how it will affect him, and how it will change over time.
And of course, I must address the elephant in the room: the cursing. Coprolalia, as it is called, is rare, affecting only 10% of Tourette Syndromers. It’s the pop culture signifier of the disease. It’s funny to some and it’s a comedic favorite—Tourette’s Guy, I think he’s called. The symptom pops up in movies and television sketches. Mention Tourette and that’s what comes to mind. But the vast majority of Tourette patients will never utter a curse word unless they stub their toe. Alternately, some will repeat words they’ve heard (echolalia) or words they themselves have just said (palilalia). There’s no way to know what tics will manifest in a patient. There’s no way for me to know if Andy will ever have to suffer in that rare 10%. Truth: I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about coprolalia. I have yet to tell him about it; he doesn’t know that there’s a cursing element to Tourette. I can’t bring myself to share it with him, lest the very act of speaking the words strike the tic up within him.
It’s a silly fear, I know. I have to take medicine too.  
On the first day of school, Andy asked me to come into his classroom and explain Tourette Syndrome to his friends. He’s been with his classmates since he was a wee man of four. He’s not the only kid with tics, and I’ve noticed that they aren’t particularly aware of each other’s tics anyway. When I ask him about other kids’ tics, he just shrugs, as do they. The wonder of young children is their ability to accept whatever is presented to them as normal. 
When exactly do we outgrow that? When do we start to perceive each other’s eccentricities and categorize them as flaws? How long before some mean-spirited jerk makes fun of my son?
It was permissible to worry about both Andy and myself. It was human. I’ve let myself off the hook, and in so doing, I’ve realized that Andy is far more capable of handling this obstacle than I ever could be. He thanked me for talking to his class. I worried all day that I’d said something that might embarrass him (What, me? Worry?) but he gave me a tight hug and said I’d done a great thing. His classmates were both accepting and non-nonplussed. They already knew Andy had motor tics and barely paid the movements any mind. Now, it is Andy’s and my hope that they will understand any vocal tics that might manifest. 
Andy’s Tourette Syndrome hasn’t changed life as I feared it would. I make that statement with the caveat that we are lucky: many Tourette patients have behavioral difficulties, but Andy is the same sweet, loving kid he has always been. I try not to worry too much about those what-ifs; life is teaching me far more lessons right now than it is Andy. He is in a loving environment at school, blessed with teachers who will work with him in whatever capacity he requires, no matter how that capacity changes from week to week. We are slated to visit UPMC Children’s Movement Disorder Clinic in November and have been taking him for cranio-sacral work that has minimized his vocal tics for up to a week after treatment.
It’s hard for me, as a parent, to accept that something about my child’s body doesn’t function properly. This seems silly, on paper, doesn’t it? Nobody’s body works perfectly. Look at me: an autoimmune mess. My husband has ADHD and crackly ankles. My dad’s feet turn out too far. And yet, no mother pictures her unborn child with an imperfection. No mother anticipates complications. The challenges come as a surprise to us. 
I do not believe that all challenges have hidden blessings. There is not a good, divine reason for every crappy thing we endure. Sometimes, shit just happens. That said, Andy’s diagnosis has brought me closer to him in a way I’d been seeking for some years. It forced me to strip away everything but the present moment, what I have to do right now, for Andy, today. No, I haven’t stopped worrying or obsessing—that’s part of my own syndrome. But I do see the lack of value in worry, and this helps me to push past it as best I can. If my child must endure tics both annoying, humiliating, and sometimes painful, at least I am now better equipped to support him in our newfound closeness.
I don’t write about Andy’s Tourette Syndrome so that he can receive a pass or sympathy. I write about it because this is our family challenge, for now, and he seems unphased by it. No, he doesn’t like his tics—he despises them. “I would give anything to get rid of these tics,” he told me. But still, he’s unapologetically Andy. The notion that Tourette Syndrome could hinder him even a fraction has never entered his mind. 
I hope that it never does.