Waiting for Spring

This has been a long, wet, cool spring. We’ve had a lot of wet, cool [name your season] in Oregon over the past few years, probably because of global climate change. Whatever the case, it’s really taken a toll on my psyche. I’m an Oregon native, and I love it here, but even I get fed up with this weather eventually.

Over the past week, things have begun to improve. We’ve had some sunny days. (Or days that were sunny for part of the time, anyhow.) It feels very much like it ought to — if this were the middle of February. Basically, it’s as if our weather cycle is two months behind.

I’m not the only one who’s complaining about the weather, of course. Everyone I talk to is unhappy that temperatures are running about five degrees (centigrade — nine degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than normal. Kris wants to be out in the yard, for instance. And so do the cats.

Max and Simon have been spending more time outside, but they’re not happy about it. They want the rain to stop. They want the air to warm. A lot of the time, they just do this:

Waiting for Spring
Max and Simon are unhappy with the weather.

Yesterday, the morning was gorgeous. I had some errands to do, but I planned to work in the yard during the afternoon. Hahaha! It turned cool and rainy, and I wasn’t going to work in that again. No thank you.

This morning, it’s gorgeous again. The sun is out. The sky is (mostly) clear. I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m going to go pop some dandelions while the popping is good. And maybe I can convince some cats to help me.

Toto – Africa

I’ve had a rough 48 hours. Toto’s death has affected me more than you can probably guess. I knew it would. That cat was like a piece of me, and I feel her absence acutely. It hurts.

“It always amazes me how emotional you are,” Kris told me last night at dinner. “You’re so much more sentimental than I am about this stuff.”

“I know,” I said. “I can’t help it.”

I’ve always had a lot of empathy for those around me, whether human or animal, but especially for those who are close to me. In many ways, Toto was the creature I’ve been closest to in my entire life. Her death hurts me more than Paul’s did, and even more than my father’s.

On Friday, Jen (a trainer at my gym) wished me bon voyage by sending me a link to a music video: Africa by the group Toto.

“I felt so bad,” Jen said at the gym yesterday morning, after she learned I’d just had Toto put down. “I didn’t know your cat’s name was Toto, and there I sent you the video to that song.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I liked it.”

And I did. It’s a strange, strange coincidence, but now that song will forever remind me of this weekend. It forms a bridge between the bad — saying good-bye to Toto — and the good — my first trip to Africa. With its melancholy melody, it fits my mood perfectly.

I’ll do what I can to update this blog from the road, but no guarantees.

Toto Gates: 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

On 01 May 1994, Colors — the Custom Box Service shop cat — gave birth to a litter of kittens. I found them tucked in a corner of the paint room when they were just a few hours old. Because Colors seemed to consider me her “boyfriend”, she allowed me to touch the tiny, fragile babies.

Toto and her cat family
Toto is the little black ball in the bottom of this photo

Over the next few weeks, the kittens grew into explosive bundles of fur. One of the kittens, the black one, we named Shredder because he was always attacking things and trying to tear them apart.

About this time, Kris and I bought our first house. We made an offer, had it accepted, and prepared to close on 23 June 1994. On June 21st, on a whim, I brought the entire litter of kittens to spend the night in our apartment. Kris’ cat, Tintin, was taken aback by the little balls of fur; the kittens just ran and played. Well, except for Shredder. Shredder was more fascinated by the baked potato Kris was eating for dinner. When Kris’ back was turned, Shredder grabbed the peel and tried to run off with it.

“I want to keep one of the kittens,” I told Kris. “I want to keep Shredder.”

Toto was originally named Shredder
For a long time, Toto lived up to her original name, Shredder

Kris was reluctant, but agreed. So, when we moved into our new home a couple of days later, Shredder came to live with us. And about this time, we figured out Shredder was a she. She and Tintin spent the entire first day hiding in the back of the cupboard under the bathroom sink.

We decided we didn’t like the name Shredder, but couldn’t come up with anything better. It was Kris’ sister, Tiffany, who hit upon the name Toto, and it stuck.

Toto in the Grass

For the next seven years, the four of us — Tintin, Toto, Kris, and J.D. — lived happily in the Canby house. Tintin and Toto got along great. They never really snuggled, as some cats will, but they hung out together, and they played together. Toto loved curling up in a bowl on the kitchen table. She also loved Outside. She was a fearsome hunter, often bringing in birds for us to see.

Toto has a goldfinch; Satchel is jealous
Toto used to be hell on goldfinches

Once, while we were watching the Summer Olympics (in 1996?), Toto brought a live bird into the living room and released it. It scared the hell out of me. I was eating a bowl of brothy soup, which I promptly spilled all over my lap. The poor, bloody bird kept trying to fly up through the ceiling. It left a series of red marks on the paint before we were able to capture and release it. Toto was very, very proud.

Though she was fond of birds, Toto loved nothing more than a delicious complex carbohydrate. Especially if she could share it with Kris. She was always begging for baked potatoes, bagels with cream cheese, and — her favorite — corn on the cob. She also loved tuna fish. She and Kris were a dangerous pair. Kris would often leave half-full glasses of water sitting around; Toto would tip them over and drink the spill. (This continued Toto’s entire life.) If you’ve ever wondered why our dining-room table looks so distressed, it’s because of Kris and Toto and their glasses of water.

Toto Wants Pizza
Toto on Christmas Eve 2010, begging for Aunt Steph’s pizza

Toto was scared of few things in life. She was the Boss. But she had an irrational fear of bananas. No joke. If you held a banana to her, she would cower from it and hiss. I have no idea why.

In 2001, Toto’s best friend died. Tintin faded from diabetes and had to be put down in the fall. Toto never understood this, and she seemed to lose a part of herself once Tintin was gone. Though we acquired new cats — Satchel, Simon, Nemo, and Max — she never befriended them. (She hated Satchel and Nemo, had an uneasy truce with Simon, and tolerated Max, that lovable lug.) She always seemed to pine for Tintin.

Tintin was a beautiful cat
I don’t have a photo of Toto and Tintin handy, so here’s a photo of Tintin alone

When we moved to our new house in 2004, Toto didn’t adjust well. Whereas she used to love Outside, she now spent most of her time indoors. After just a few weeks here, we went on a cruise to Alaska with Kris’ parents. My cousin Nick acted as housesitter and cat caretaker. While we were gone, Toto had a veterinary crisis. She suffered from heat stroke, or something like it, and almost died.

After that, she was never quite the same. She had always been a bit of a grouch, but now her attitude was that of a constant crank. She growled and hissed and wasn’t very social. But I loved her anyhow.

Toto, enjoying the sun
Toto, enjoying the sun

In fact, I loved Toto more than I’ve ever loved an animal. I knew her from the day she was born. She and I had a sort of bond that I haven’t even experienced with another human, not even Kris. We seemed to understand each other. For much of the past seventeen years, she was my constant companion. When I was working from home, she was always by my side. When I ate dinner, she sat next to me, waiting for her turn at the plate. She may not have been friendly to others — especially Aunt Pam — but she loved me, and I loved her.

Toto and Max, helping me write about money

Last summer, Toto started showing signs that she was getting old. She had trouble getting around. She couldn’t jump as well as she used to. She started missing the litterbox — she couldn’t squat when she peed. So, we banished her Outside. She complained at first, but gradually learned to love it. In fact, it was like she had forgotten about Outside when we moved, but was now remembering all of its many charms.

Toto, racing across the lawn
Toto used to be an active cat

When the cold set in, she was less content to be Outside, though. But we couldn’t have her inside all the time, because she was peeing outside the litterbox. We compromised. She could be inside while we were home, but had to stay Outside when we were away (or asleep). We rigged up a box with a heating pad, which she seemed to like, though she preferred to sit on Kris’ computer…

Toto would often sit on Kris’ keyboard

What Toto loved, though, was the wicker basket that Kris gave her. We put a heating pad on the bottom of that, too, and set it on the kitchen floor. That’s where Toto lived from the time we returned from France in late October until just this morning.

Toto on the porch with her raccoon friends

Last night, I notice that Toto was lethargic. Also, she wouldn’t purr, even when I petted her in the sure-fire spots (like her chest — she loved to have her chest stroked). She didn’t want to lay down. She simply sat upright in her basket, staring ahead. She looked like she felt sick. Though I’d spent months trying to deny the inevitable, even I had to admit: Her time had come.

Toto on the Porch
Toto, remembering she loves Outside

This morning, I let Toto in from the front porch. She meowed and begged for food, just like always. I gave her some fresh water, some dry food, and her favorite flavor of wet food (Ocean Whitefish and Tuna). I sat at the dining-room table to do some work while she ate. When she finished, she hopped up on a chair, and then onto the table. But she grunted and growled as she did so. It hurt her. She came up to me by the computer and rubbed her head against me. I petted her, and she purred. But only for a little bit. Then she just sat there, letting me rub her, but not purring. Then she hopped down and curled up in her basket.

Toto's Final Night
Toto’s final night

It hurt me more than I can express, but I unplugged the heating pad and curled the cord next to her, picked up the basket, and carried it to the car. I drove her to the vet. Toto didn’t put up her usual fuss, though at one point she looked at the car ceiling and let out a yowl. At 9:10am, I sat with her and cried (oh, how I cried) as the vet put her to sleep.

And then I came home and buried my baby girl.

My favorite photo of Toto
Toto Gates, 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

Footnote: As choked up as I am by this, here’s a hilarious postscript. Just 30 minutes after they’d put her to sleep, the automated update system from the vet sent me a reminder to schedule Toto’s “senior comprehensive wellness exam”.

The Cat on the Table

While emptying my camera’s memory card the other day, I found a photo I’d forgotten I took. It’s funny.

My family generally celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. We get together for a pizza dinner before exchanging gifts. This year, Kris and I hosted. We bought several take-n-bake crusts and provided toppings so people could customize their pies.

When we sat down to eat, however, Toto decided she wanted in on the action. She hopped up on the table, and demanded that Aunt Stephanie share a slice of pizza:

Toto Wants Pizza

Toto has always sat on the table at meal times. I know this grosses some people out, but that’s just how it is with her, and Kris and I deal with it. (She’s not allowed to do this when company is around — though obviously, sometimes she breaks the rules.) Lately, though, she’s become brazen. Instead of waiting for a possible nibble or snack, she barges right in to take a bite.

It’s as if she’s trying to play the pity card: “Look at me: I’m dying. The least you can do is share your food.”

When Toto does die — and it’ll probably be in 2011 — this photo will be one of a handful I’ll flag to remember her by. This captures her personality and one of her trademark moves. I love it.

Born Free

When I was a boy, I loved nature films. We saw a lot of these in school, of course, but once in a while, Dad would actually take me to see one in the theater. My favorite nature film was Born Free, about Elsa, the lioness who was raised from a cub by humans in Kenya.

I saw Born Free several times before reaching high school — but never again since. I’ve never forgotten about it (and, in fact, think about it a couple of times each year), but I’ve never sought it out, either.

The other day, I was browsing at the always-chaotic (and not in a good way) Wallace Books, a local used book store. Looking through the Africa section, I stumbled upon a hardbound version of Born Free, complete with mylar book jacket cover. Just a quick glance through the book was all it took to know I’d buy it. I plunked down my $9.50 and went home happy.

Born Free

Born Free was written by Joy Adamson, whose husband was a Game Keeper for a region in Kenya during the 1950s. The book tells the story of Elsa, one of three newborn lion cubs rescued after their mother is shot. Joy and her husband George raise the cubs, keeping Elsa for several years before deciding to release her back to the wild. The book documents what it’s like to live with a lion, and is heavily illustrated with Adamson’s wonderful black-and-white photos.

I loved Born Free. It’s not the best-written book (and, in fact, it needs some editing for punctuation and grammar in spots), but it’s a fun story that comes alive thanks to the many photos. Plus, Adamson has a real affection and respect for the animals around her. She’s surrounded by elephants, rhinos, baboons, gazelle, crocodiles, gamefowl, snakes, and more. Born Free could actually be the source of my obsession with animal intelligence.

I’ll have to watch the film again soon. I couldn’t find an official movie trailer for Born Free, but I did find an amateur one:

Plus, the full film has been uploaded to YouTube. (Here’s part one.) As for myself, I’ll try to get the film from Netflix or buy it from Amazon. (Well, first I’ll check to see if the local CD exchange has it.)

Bill Travers, who starred in the film version of Born Free, went on to produce Christian the Lion at World’s End, the true-life story of a tame lion who is moved from London to Kenya, where George Adamson helps him integrate into the wild. I shared the story of Christian the Lion at Animal Intelligence in 2007. Here’s a short video clip that highlights Christian’s amazing reunion with his former companions:

In Born Free, Joy Adamson writes:

I really have no patience with people who maintain that an animal’s life and actions are governed by pure instinct and conditioned reflexes. Nothing except reasoning powers can explain the careful strategy used by a pride of lions in hunting, and the many examples we have had from Elsa of intelligent and thought-out behavior.


The Pleasures of Self-Sufficiency: A Cat’s Perspective

If I’m going to resume writing here regularly, I’ll obviously be writing more and more about my cats. After all, they rule the house, right? Kris and I are merely here to serve them. Besides, they do plenty of silly things worthy of blog posts.

For example, all four cats — Toto, Simon, Nemo, and Max — are of the firm belief that while human-provided food is great, the best food is the food you provide yourself.

In some cases, this means food they’ve hunted. Simon, as long-time readers will recall, sometimes catches squirrels. (We just put a poor, dead, fat rodent in the trash last week — Kris found it in the rose garden.) Nemo is a fearsome bird hunter, and he especially likes catching baby birds. And Max? Well, Max is an expert and seeking out and destroying unopened bags of cat food.

Because Simon is on an expensive prescription diet for his urinary-tract infection, all of the cats are on the same diet. They all eat the same expensive food. I have to buy this expensive food at the vet, which never has it in stock — they have to special-order it for me. So, to save hassle, I order three bags at a time and then store them in the basement.

Max, the fearsome hunter, likes to venture into the basement whenever possible. His mission? To stalk the bags of unopened cat food, and to tear them apart. He enjoys the thrill of the hunt, and he especially enjoys the seemingly endless supply of food once he’s killed a bag. (Nemo enjoys this, too. In fact, he invented this game. Lately, though, he lets Max do the killing.)

We do our best to keep Max away from the expensive cat-food bags, but it’s not always possible. And sometimes, we just forget.

This morning, I woke early and came downstairs in the dark. I opened the door for the Cat Swap. The Cat Swap occurs when Toto comes in from her nightly exile (since she started peeing outside the litterbox, she’s banished to a heating pad on the porch every night), and one or more of her brothers bolts to the freedom of Outside.

After the Cat Swap, Toto usually begins crying for food. Her bowl under the kitchen table is empty because Max has eaten it all during the night. (Max has no off switch. He will eat and eat and eat until there’s no food left.) But this morning was strangely different.

While I spent a few minutes in the bathroom, Toto was silent. There was no yowling, no insistent begging. Instead, I could actually hear her crunching on food. “That’s strange,” I thought. “Why didn’t Max eat it all overnight?” When I came out into the kitchen, I saw.

Toto enjoys breakfast from the bag
Toto is perturbed at being disturbed from her breakfast buffet.

Max had indeed made his best effort to eat all of the food overnight. But it wasn’t the food in the bowl he’d been consuming. Instead, he’d torn open the cat-food bag I brought home yesterday (and foolishly left in the kitchen). All night long, he’d been feasting from the bag, enjoying the fruits of self-sufficiency. And now, Toto and Simon were contentedly following in his pawsteps: They were crunching away from the never-ending fount of food pouring from the bag.

“Dad,” they seemed to say. “This is a fantastic idea. Can this be a regular thing?” Nothing seems better to a cat than an entire bag of cat food, just sitting there, ready to be eaten.



Cats Are Strange

It’s been a while since I’ve written about our cats. I know that disappoints many of you, so let me remedy that now.

Our cats are strange.

During the summer, we keep a window open for them so that they can go in and out at will. Last year, this window was in the dining room, and all of the cats (except Toto, who is old and frail) used it. The window was like a cat highway, with furry beasts shuffling in and out at all hours.

We did the same thing this year, but opened a window at the back of the house. Nemo — who I usually think of as stupid — is perfectly happy with this. He jumps in and out whenever he wants (although usually he’s asleep on the bed, or tormenting Max). But Simon? Simon won’t jump out the window. He’ll come in the window, but he refuses to go out, even if we carry him to it. He wants to go out a door. And Max? Max refuses to jump in the window. He’ll jump out the window, but even if we carry him to the back porch, he won’t jump in. Goofy beasts.

Meanwhile, Nemo is a complete jerk to Max. They used to get along great, but somewhere along the way, Nemo scared Max, and now it’s this terrible, terrible relationship. When Nemo sees Max, he bolts at him, and tries to take him down. Kris thinks Nemo is playing, and this is probably true (though he does use his claws), but Max doesn’t think it’s play. Max is truly frightened, and he cowers or runs away. In fact, he often runs out into the street. Nemo chases him straight out the door to the edge of the property, stopping to let Max cross to the neighbor’s yard.

While all this is going on, Toto isn’t dying. She was dying earlier in the summer, but she seems to have recovered. Now she’s just a colossal pest. I had been cuddling with her a lot because I love her and was sad that she’d soon be gone. Well, now she wants that all of the time. In fact, she just got up from her heating pad and ambled over to me at my keyboard, and she’s paw-paw-pawing my face, asking for me to pet her. She wants me all of the time.

On the food front, I’ve been feeding Toto wet food. She loves the food when it’s a new can and the food is warm. But if it’s been in the fridge? Or is a couple of days old? No way. She won’t eat it. Max will eat it, though. He’ll eat anything. That cat is a garbage disposal. Almost literally. He spends a lot of time in the kitchen sink, pulling out the rubber stopper that leads to the disposal, and then he’ll dig around inside to see if he can find any good morsels. What a meatball! Simon, who used to not like wet food, has decided that it’s actually pretty good stuff. He scavengers for anything Toto and Max haven’t eaten. And Nemo? Well, Nemo never eats anything. He always begs for fresh dry food in his bowl (never mind that the bowl is full and that the stuff in the bin is no fresher than the stuff that’s already out), but then he only eats a few morsels before tracking down Maxwell to thump on.

Goofy animals.

Two Bad Cats

Here’s a typical morning at Rosings Park: I get up at 5:30, spend a few minutes checking e-mail and blog comments, pull on my workout clothes, and then head out the door for the gym. At the gym, I strain and sweat, and then I drive home to take a shower. After the shower, I have a bite to eat.

And through it all, there are cats. Okay, there aren’t any cats at the gym or in the car, but the rest of the time, there are cats. Too many cats. And often the cats are being bad. Here, for example, are Toto and Max demonstrating their favorite badnesses:

Yes, Toto loves to be on Kris’ computer. Usually she just sits upright on it, in classic cat pose. Apparently she’s decided it makes a nice bed, too. And Max? Well, he loves to jump into the window box, stretch against the screen, and then stare at us as we work in the kitchen. What a meatball.

No wonder I leave home as soon as possible so I can go get some work done at the office.

Do Cats Love Water?

None of our cats drinks water the same way. Simon prefers to drink from the toilet. Max likes to drink from the sink — and from the faucet, if it’s running. Nemo drinks from the “kitty fountain” we bought for the spoiled brats. So does Toto, but apparently she doesn’t know how to do it right. Every time she uses the fountain, she comes away with a wet head.

Despite her wet head, Toto has nothing on this cat, who may be the world’s most inefficient drinker:

That’s Kris’ favorite video lately. She can watch it over and over, laughing the whole time. She shows it to friends and family. I admit it’s funny stuff. But there are other cats who are goofy with water. For example, here’s a cat just hanging around in the bathtub:

Here’s a cat content to lounge in a sink full of water:

Here’s a cat in the shower!

And as a cat, what do you do when you’re done playing in the water? You have your human give you a blow-dry, of course:

Cats are so goofy…

Cats Cats Cats. And More Cats.

So, I suspect most of you have already seen this fun YouTube clip of the ninja cat who seems to move without moving (if you get my drift):

Well, here’s a follow-up that shows the same cat’s ninja secrets:

It’s been a while since I gave an update on my own feline companions. Let’s examine each in turn:

Simon Loves Kris' Lap

Simon has become a mellow lug. He’s about seven now, and though he still enjoys Outside, he’d almost prefer to stay in most days. He’s quite fond the clothes basket. In fact, Kris has created a basket of clothes just for Simon. She even washes them once they get too furry. Simon loves cereal milk. That cat is spoiled.

Max is Very Serious

Max, however, is convinced that he’s meant to live Outside. He comes in to say “hello”, but then he wants right back out. He even stays out many nights. I’m paranoid that he’s going to get run over. We have a very low traffic street, but Max takes unnecessary risks. He doesn’t look before crossing — which he does often — but just darts across. Max loves human food of all sorts. That cat is spoiled.


I used to think Nemo was lame. In fact, I still think he’s pretty lame. But I’ve decided that I’m underestimating him. He’s a much better hunter than I give him credit for, that’s for sure. He’s kind of a jerk, too, though. For whatever reason, he’s decided that the best thing in the world is to beat up Max. We came down one morning last week to discover tufts of grey fur floating around the floor. But Nemo’s favorite thing is to curl in Kris’ lap while she watches Edwardian costume dramas. That cat is spoiled.

Toto and TS

Toto is basically a giant hairball. She licks herself constantly, which she has to do because she’s always shedding. I’m surprised she has any fur left. She spends most of her day on the bed when we let her, which isn’t often because she throws up a hairball once or twice a week. Toto’s favorite thing in the whole world are the three “greenies” cat snacks that Kris gives her before bed every night. Then we turn out the lights and she cuddles up between us, purring like crazy. That cat is spoiled.

And that, my friends, is all the cat news I can spare. Now I need to get back to writing my book!