It’s like having a Christmas tree with a particular (you hope) longed-for present underneath, and you are lying in bed at 4AM on Christmas morning unable to sleep.

That is: having an enormous grey-brown tabby crouching in misery under the wardrobe while it gets used to your house.

Sorry for another animal post. I like to keep on with with a thing once I’ve started it. As I said, the pregnant kitten has moved on to greener pastures, literally or figuratively. I have been spending every waking moment doing chores connected with the dirt around our house. In the midst of my zombie-like adrenaline push, I found myself looking at the cat profiles on craigslist and the local shelters. Der Mann was just as bad; he got me to the Petsmart for visiting hours with some shelter cats. You know, for fun–we thought. As Pooh says, it was terrible and sad. We are too empathetic with animals in cages.

So we got serious about craigslist kitties. By day I was putting in full days of standing in the sun with our new excavator, hauling around concrete post footings, filling bags with unearthed drainage rock, uncovering the sewer line with a shovel. By night I was all about search terms. “Big cat -lost” “brothers cats” “large cat” “litter mates.”

On craigslist I found a grey mother-daughter pair. The people who own them live an hour away. After a couple of odd reschedulings (one time they called and asked if we could let them keep the cats another two weeks “because the kitten was just at that really fun stage,” then called back and allowed that we could take them immediately if we wanted), we went to see them.

It was an old country neighborhood, the kind with 60’s ranch houses and pet goats and little vineyards on 1 and 2 acre lots. The family gave off an air of ruddy Elizabethan prosperity. The mama cat was only a year and a half old, this kitten was the whole of her third litter. “We meant to get her spayed, but kittens are just so much fun,” the father explained, jolly and unapologetic. He showed us his backyard chicken coop. It slowly became clear that they were disposing of their kitten factory because she had exiled their older male cats from the house. She was a tiny, reserved cat, totally wrapped up in her kitten. But we like reserved cats, and what can be better than a kitten? We couldn’t figure out why we weren’t more excited about them.

I believe the problem was that it was hard to visualize them being our cats because they were so clearly someone else’s. It felt like trespassing to offer a home to cats who so clearly HAD one they liked very well, thank you. More like cat theft than adoption. Certainly from the cats’ perspective.

Before we said yes or no to the grey ones, we thought we ought to look at the shelter cats. When Der Mann got off work last night, we went to the small local one.   The cats were in an even smaller cement block room with cages three high. We were allowed to open the cages and take the cats out as we pleased, but it was impossible to focus (much less compare and choose!) in that atmosphere, and we didn’t like to add to the creatures’ misery by invading their space. I was attracted to a year old male they were calling Kajiji, for his large head and stillness. The shelter volunteer said he was new, opened his cage, and gave him some head rubbing, which the cat warily accepted without leaving his corner. He took a sniff of our hands, stood up, looked us over, allowed us to pet his head purely out of politeness. Then he was done with us and with the stress of having his cage open, and said so by going back to his corner and lying down.

We hurried off to the big, new fancy shelter across the river. It has “play rooms” where attendants will bring you the cats, some of which are displayed in big shop-window cases with perches and stage-set suggestions of furniture. To our surprise, it was hard to find any cats that attracted us there.

But we managed to pick out two. The play rooms are claustrophobic triangular booths with cold floors and a bench. Either they are a very bad idea, or we have an eye for neurotic cats. The first cat ignored us and spent the entire time trying to get out of the room, scrabbling up the walls. The second cat peed all over the attendant as soon as she was brought in, then proceeded to jump five feet straight up in the air, over and over, trying to get a hold of the blind-cord and presumably out the window. I have never seen such terror.

Scratching a mutual itch, we shot back to the smaller shelter for a last look at Kajiji, even though it was too close to closing time to adopt him. Der Mann has an obligation that requires the car this weekend, so we asked if they would hold him until Monday. They said they couldn’t. I tried to think of a way to get back without a car (no bus runs on the weekend), and I think that made them take pity on us. “Just fill out an application and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

So, the nice shelter employee squeezed us in before quitting time on a Friday night. The huffy one gave us dirty looks and pointedly started turning off lights and drawing blinds as we waited for our cat to be brought out.

Here’s the funny thing. The cat seems to be more scared of our house than he is of us. We set him up in the guest room/office and left him alone to come out in his own time like the books say. At the end of the evening he started crying for us. We went in and sat down, he marked us with crazy head rubbings, purred, collapsed, and was petted–all while staying extremely wary. This went on until Der Mann (I warned him!) committed the venal sins of Standing Up and Transporting Wicker Objects. The cat hissed and was back under the wardrobe until we went to bed. Then more crying. He even worked up his nerve to come into our bedroom and jump up on the bed, which because of Der Mann’s allergies is going to have to be off limits. Plus, it was kind of scary to have a huge cat we don’t know twining around our bed in the dark; we don’t have a headboard at the moment, and our bed is pushed into an alcove under the slope of the roof. There are a few feet of dead space between the knee-wall and our heads there, and the cat seemed to want to occupy that area, crying, and standing up on his hind legs to with his nose at a level with our faces. Extremely unnerving. In the end I got him to follow me out of the bedroom. I petted him a little more in the hall, went back in the bedroom, shut the door, and went to bed–too exhausted for any more cat therapy. I could still hear him crying on and off through the night.

I wonder what his old family was like. They say he was left behind after a move, and is used to children and other animals. He was only at the shelter for two days. Maybe he is looking for the rest of the people and pets who should be here.

By this morning he had disappeared. He is probably under the basement stairs behind a stack of boxes. I am letting him alone, so no picture.  Do you think that is an okay strategy?  Should I try to draw him out?

We think his name may be Owen (or Ulf, or Knut), though we are not sure, not knowing his character. If things go badly we can name him Owen Mistake.

Any name ideas? How did you name your pets?

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No Man’s Land

June 19, 2009

I owe you good people an update. I’m not sure how to go about it. I’d like to blog about cheerful things, but the cheerful things are thin on the ground right now. In fact I’d have to crawl around our wilderness of gouged clay with a magnifying glass to find them, and I am too tired. My granny has a habit of saying, sonorously and self-mockingly, “This too shall pass…” Which is the frame of mind I’m in. In my better moments.

First, we do not have a cat. We had a cat (officially) for three days then she left and didn’t come back. It’s been two weeks. We think she went looking for a more secluded hidey-hole to have her kittens in and didn’t survive the birth.

Second, the yard is now a mess far, far beyond our ability to fix ourselves. After his two men on bobcats were here for 4 1/2 days doing terrible work slowly, the contractor left. By then we were happy be rid of him before he did more damage. Der Mann missed a day and a half of work to supervise the tail end job and try to get him to fulfill the most important terms of his contract. When final check-writing time rolled around and Der Mann refused to pay more than the contract specified, this contractor, who’d been jollying him along all this time (taking Der mild-mannered Mann for the Good Cop) accused of him of being a shyster and, basically, evil. “You just wanted to get me over a barrel,” were among his choice words.

This was more disturbing than all the rest of the mess, crushed gutter and all. The last thing we wanted to do was to make an enemy in the small town we just moved to! My aunt’s take is, “He was a skunk, and when he was cornered, he did what a skunk does: he sprayed.” If you can believe it, until that moment we were still going to get his bid to complete the unfinished work we’d hired him to complete in the first place, treating it as a second job–provided he drove the bobcat himself instead of having his balky crew do it. The horror show was making us that crazy!

Yesterday I found 3 negative Angie’s List reviews by someone who’d had pretty much the same experience with this guy as we did, only worse. I was so embarrassed. We subscribed to Angie’s List specifically to help us choose an excavator; I hadn’t figured out that you had to look up each contractor by each separate category of work he does, in order to see all his reviews.

So, now we have to find another excavator. The ones who’ve come so far look around with big, round eyes and estimate another 4 days of work. It’s kind of funny. We can see them making an effort not to badmouth the colleague who put us in this fix. They scratch their heads and ask things like, “And what kind of machine was he using?” Before we had anyone out Der Mann and I spent about 11 hours (collectively) digging trenches with a pick and a mattock to show where the final soil levels are supposed to be on various slopes. It’s impossible to dig through the pure clay with a shovel alone. In the back, where the really bad fill from the previous owners is still in place, even the mattock bounces.

I also made a point-by-point typed list of every place we want dirt taken away, and put out a forest of beribboned stakes to show them exactly what areas we are talking about. I gave a copy of the list to each excavator “to use when you’re making up your bid.” I went out to see one of their job sites, and talked with the woman who was having the work done. If I’m going to play the fussy bitch, I figure I might as well play it to the hilt. I also watch to see if they talk to me or Der Mann or both of us, and when they talk to me, whether they do it in fatuous way or a businesslike way. I am fed up with the Male Pattern Deafness, and Der Mann can’t take more days off work.

My dad and mom and made a special trip to see the mess. My dad wants to be here when we have the rest of the work done, which is probably just as well. Then we hosted my aunt for the weekend.

Actually I am thinking of starting a business. I’m going to call it “Rent-a-Male.” That way, women whose spouses, fathers, sons, or male friends can’t make it to the job site will always have someone on hand to stand on the porch with his arms folded and spit in the dirt, menacingly.

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It’s official as of last night.  We are the proud owners of a pregnant cat.  I keep wanting say, “Pregnant-but-it’s-not-our-fault!”

Since we realized she was pregnant, Der Mann and I had been hashing out the issue of cat ownership in constant, exhausting little conversations that went nowhere.  The decision was wearing us out even more than a strong-willed cat could have done, and I suspected part of not being able to decide was not wanting the finality of saying no.

We tend to be excessively responsible when it comes to animals.  That’s why we are so careful about acquiring them.  Finding out the cat is pregnant makes everything so much harder and yet we both had the response: “Well, now she needs a good place to have her kittens. And at least we would get them all neutered and farm them out sensibly, unlike some people.”  Suddenly we are running a home for unwed teenage mother cats.

In fact, it all seemed like such a bizarre project and such horrible timing, I guess we couldn’t resist making our insanity complete with a basket of kittens–like the banana-covered turban on the exotic dancer.  Our yard looks like No Man’s Land.   In about a month, my dad and sundry family members will come tear the basement apart.  They will need the basement workroom with the outside access door.  They will be sleeping in all the rooms and clomping around with heavy shoes.

Nonetheless, we are going to steer the cat toward having her kittens in the workroom.  She’s already appropriated a basket.  We’re going to install a cat door and start feeding her and making much over her down there.  I’m hoping the kittens will be old enough to move by the time my family comes to start the demolition.

Most cats I have known hate upheaval more than anything and would have disappeared for the full duration of the mess.  This one was gone during the day, but in the evenings she would come right back and settle on her canvas chair, unworried by the changed landscape and the rotten boards, rusty deck nails, and rescued plants cluttering up the porch.  Last night I was walking around the piles of dirt to show Der Mann all the places the excavator ignored the markers his boss set out.  (Der Mann is going to stay home from work this morning to have a word with the boss.  The digging his crew does today it is our last chance to save ourselves days of  backbreaking labor with a shovel to clean up the places they went wrong.)  I was not in a happy mood.  Suddenly the cat trotted up to me as if to say.  “Well, here I am.”  Expecting me to be pleased.  And I sort of was.  We let her in the house and went over to tell our neighbor that we’d take her.

Note to Self

June 4, 2009

Note to self:

Next time a misbehaving half-grown cat tries to adopt you, get her spayed immediately, even though you’re not sure you want her and she is far to young to have kittens.  She may turn out to be one of those, “but in some cases as young as 4 months” cats you’d never heard about.

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I’m Traumatized

June 3, 2009

Reading is not enough to keep my mind off the destruction outside. They started it yesterday.

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One thing I noticed as I was taking the “before” pictures is that it is almost impossible to capture topography with a camera. The flattening effect of photography. I think painting and drawing do a lot better.

Anyway, they are digging great honking mountains of dirt out of our yard with Big Machines. Pretty much no area of our lot will be untouched.  They are going to dig deeper than what you see now, too. My front yard will be a pit when they’re done. I’m thinking a drawbridge and a crocodile moat would be about right.

A long series of events led to this. At first we thought the “slight negative grading” around the foundation that the inspector mentioned could be corrected with shovels and wheelbarrows and our own muscle. Then we discovered what a mess the soil was. Beyond awful. The house is 96 years old, but most of the dirt is much newer. Generations of yahoos thought the answer to the fact that it was built on a slope was to haul in truckloads cheap fill and gravel and at various times, allowing them more places to park their cars. The fill caused water to flow toward the basement. In one place, right under a mis-laid pipe from the downspout, a non-draining cinder block retaining wall held it against the foundation like a dam.

We only discovered the extent of the water problem when we started taking down the raw, cheap tongue-and-groove that had been nailed to the basement ceiling and the 1/4 inch unfinished plywood that had been nailed to the sheet rock walls as wainscotting. We knew about the small moldy wall by the cinder-block dam, but we thought the rest of the basement was okay. They had done such horrible things to the rest of the house for no apparent reason–except possibly laziness–that we were willing to believe they had gone crazy with the rough wood in the basement both because they had no taste and found it easier to use a nail gun than to sand and paint the sheet rock. We called it The Man Cave and laughed, thinking it would be an easy fix–at least compared to the rest of the house.

But no. The basement had only been finished recently, and it turns out the former owners didn’t use any kind of a moisture barrier–the studs were in direct contact with the foundation and floor. Naturally, the walls were soon infested with mold. What to do? Cut the sheetrock away to a height of two feet off the floor in a laughable attempt at mold abatement, then cover the gaping holes holes in the sheet rock and moldy studs with plywood to fool prospective buyers.

Then didn’t we feel dumb! We were even looking for mold when we first came to look at the house.  I thought my bloodhound-nose for mold was infallible.  Because of the moldy farmhouse we lived in, and my resulting allergies and first-hand knowledge of the near impossibility of eradicating mold, it was our deal-breaker.  Only it didn’t.

My dad is going to help us re-frame the whole basement. Or rather, help Der Mann do it, because my allergy is really bad. Just the one patch we uncovered has made it hard for me to spend time there. I try to run up and downstairs with my loads of laundry before I start to cough.

We reasoned that it wouldn’t to do any good to re-frame the basement if ground- and roof-water was still being directed toward the foundation. That’s where the big machines come in.  I would have liked a cheaper and less intrusive fix, but once I started looking at the lay of the land, I could see it just wasn’t possible. In order to take away as much dirt as you need to take here, you have to take even more there. Which is basically what the experts said.

Also, we have to unbury the porch to keep it from rotting, which meant removing the cement walkway that led to the buried porch.

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The only good part about this mess is that there was no remainder of the original landscaping to worry about, after the depredations of the former owners. I love old gardens. It would have been hard for me to make the decision to grade properly if it had involved tearing out antique snowball bushes, bridal wreath, lilacs, or the decendents of flowers and herbs planted back when the house was new. (Actually, I should correct myself. There is one old Rose of Sharon and one lilac. Luckily, they are in places where the machines can word around them (knock on wood).

I am learning that it is hard to communicate with equipment operators. I’m having the opposite problem from what I expected: it’s hard to get them to take away as much dirt as needs to go, as much as they agreed to (I thought.) I say 4 inches, they take 2. I’m afraid this is because we chose to pay a set price, rather than hourly plus dump fees–and they had already underbid the job in their eagerness to get work. The more dirt they take away, the less profit. Politeness plus directness seems not to be effective. It’s like I’m talking to the air, if the air could get annoyed. Maybe they are so used to bullying and cajoling, that unless I bully and cajole, they think I’m not serious?

One, maybe two more days of this.