Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Kaboodle of Kittens: Day 6

Some years ago, a friend of mine, adopting a stray kitten that had only recently been weaned, told me she had often had cats but had never started one “from scratch.” Several of my cats over the years came to me as kittens or ‘teen-aged’ cats (and all but the first two, strays), yet even though I may have missed the exact “miracle of birth” only by minutes, I have never had the chance to watch kittens grow up from Day One. It has been amazing!

And the opportunities for catblogging on a grand scale!

This morning is “Kittens: Day 6." Of course, I’ve been taking pictures of them every day, documenting their growth even though it’s been a little difficult trying not to disturb them. Frieda, the proud and wary mother of five, is still not used to me or to being in a house. Compared to her last litter, I wonder how this one is faring: with food placed twice a day in a bowl a few feet from her, she at least doesn’t have to wander far to forage and leave the kittens unattended for very long. I also had hoped she would have moved them over to a section of the floor covered with a towel since I imagine the bathroom tiles must be chilly for little kittens, but she chose this corner (which hadn’t occurred to the resident human) just because of its security and basic inaccessibility (at least as far as the resident human is concerned).
So far, everything seems to be going well. While I was sure there had been two black ones, perhaps the darkest of the three orange tabbies looked even darker on those first two days. On the other hand, perhaps there had been two black ones and one didn’t make it. I was more concerned about not spooking the mother than counting how many furballs surrounded her that Monday morning. I certainly haven’t tried examining them – with my scent on them, it’s possible the mother may refuse to nurse them any more – so I don’t know what genders they may be.

The cream-colored tabby and the black one (which one night, in the flash light, didn’t look all that black – could it be a black tabby? I haven’t noticed that he (or she) has any white anywhere) are the ones I’ve thought about keeping (once before, I’d adopted a mother and her one surviving kitten – the kitten is now 12). If the genders are right, they could end up being named Blanche and Guy Noir.

It seems appropriate starting off life in the house (not a new house to me but a new chapter in my life in it) with an arm-load of kittens. My mother would be fascinated to observe this (at least for a while) if not mighty peeved to realize they’ve taken over her bathroom (as in “they’re so cute, but do they have to be there?”).

The other cats, filtered from them by the space of the bedroom as well, have not registered any curiosity beyond wondering why I keep disappearing behind this door with a can of food. It will be a challenge, introducing Frieda to the three cats already here, but I want to hold off on that little surprise until the kittens are old enough she won’t feel they’re quite so vulnerable: who knows how many of her kittens were killed before by other stray tomcats? It’s not an easy world out there for newborn cats on the street, all the more reason to consider spaying and neutering your pets!!

But meanwhile, there’s work to do and I must head into it. I think I’m ready, now, to start moving my stuff in – the scores and CDs, the books and OMG the piano, how I miss having that piano!

On Wednesday afternoon, seeing WITF’s nine-foot grand open in the studio, I went in and practiced – well, played through a couple of stock pieces that had been in my repertoire since college days, perhaps, but rarely practiced (I think the last time I seriously practiced was maybe a year and five months ago) – a few Scarlatti sonatas, a few pieces by Schumann (the Arabesque, the Romance in F-sharp, the last movement of the Fantasy in C), some Chopin (selected mazurkas, nocturnes and preludes), some of the Beethoven bagatelles from Op.126.

While I don’t think I’m going to be ready to be performing in public any time soon, at this rate, it was good to know the wounds on my index fingers – incurred last week while snagging a certain stray cat flying around the kitchen – didn’t keep me from getting around the keys. Oh, the scales were rough and the voicing maybe a little more uneven than usual, but at least they were still moving. With signs of arthritis developing, playing the piano more regularly will be good therapy if not for the soul at least for the hands.

And there’s a new piece working its way into my head: I need to start jotting down ideas (some of which I can do without a piano) but I also need to finish these violin and piano pieces I’d stopped working on in December. John Clare and I had talked about having them ready to perform in May but that’s not going to happen...

And tomorrow is Family Day at WITF – I can’t wait for “Take Your Kittens to Work Day”!

Dr. Dick

Photo credits: from Dr. Dick's collection -- (top) Day 4; (center) Day 5; (bottom) Day 6...

Monday, April 23, 2007

A House-Warming Present

With all the usual joys of moving, one of the things I determined would be going with me would be the Stray Cat.

Last summer, perhaps even in early June, a small orange tabby appeared on my back porch in town, clearly a feral street-born cat. Naturally, I put food out for it and after it had kept coming back every night, I decided I should probably try rescuing it except I already had three cats in a small, already cramped one-bedroom apartment. Regardless, this cat was immediately named Farrell. And they say when you start naming the strays, the next step is to adopt them.

One night the cat showed up twice, which was unusual: “but I just fed you,” I argued. Still, my cats had not eaten everything of theirs, so I put some ‘left-overs’ out thinking this cat was really really hungry.

The next night, there were TWO cats on my porch, identical, side by side like bookends! Apparently they were from the same litter. As the summer wore on, they would both appear either together or fairly close together and I realized there was a pattern here: the one would head out to the street in front of my house; the other one would always head out through my back yard and across the neighbor’s lot toward 2nd Street. Later, it turned out one was pregnant. So I named her Frieda and was wondering if Farrell was going to be Uncle Dad...

No matter how much I fed them or stayed out on the porch with them while they ate – and they always were waiting for me and ran to the door when I’d come home from work – they never allowed me to get close to them. I had to be at least four feet away from the bowl before they’d come in closer to eat. Thoughts of catching either of them were pretty slim and what was I going to do with TWO cats and a litter of kittens?

Sometime toward the end of July, the female stopped coming around. I assumed Frieda may have gone off to have her litter and she’d be back. At the end of August, she returned but now I was afraid to catch her for fear the kittens, though probably weaned, may not be ready to be on their own. It was over Labor Day weekend that she stopped coming around again: Farrell kept coming by until 10 nights later, then I saw him for the last time. Small as he was, he bushed himself up as much as he could and chased a big black bruiser of a tomcat off the porch. Once chasing him off, he turned right when the tom turned left and just kept going. Never saw him again.

All through the fall and winter, I wondered if they’d ever come back. What is the shelf-life of a city stray cat? I figured someone may have caught them, or they may have been killed by other, larger cats or perhaps the dogs that kids sometimes sic on street-cats (I rescued one stray from that fate in 1985 and had her for 15 years) - or perhaps they had become road-kill on a city street. I preferred thinking the first option.

So it was much to my surprise that a not-quite-as-small orange tabby appeared at my back-door, waiting to be fed, in early March just a week or so after my mother’s funeral. I immediately put food out for it and recognized the scar on its tail, though I couldn’t remember if that was the way I could tell which one was Farrell or which one was Frieda. She came by, often greeting me on my porch, every night when I’d get home.

Well, I figured out it was the female – she was getting a little fuller around the belly, clearly pregnant again. I hadn’t noticed she’d been in heat at any time, so I don’t know when she might have gotten “hit” but she was still the same, wary street-wise cat she’d been before. Sometimes she’d dash in to start eating if I sat beside the food bowl but I still couldn’t touch her: she’d turn and run, even run away without eating if she thought I was trying to catch her. She’d come back minutes later, waiting until I was safely inside before she’d approach the bowl.

Fair enough.

Then, when I started moving out of the apartment and into the house, now that I’d taken my own cats with me, I could try just leaving the kitchen door open in hopes she’d come inside to eat. Every night after work, I’d come into town just to feed her (and do a little sorting and packing) and finally she’d hop up on the step and eat there... then maybe inside as far as the doormat but no farther.

I had caught one stray years ago by making a bread-crumb trail of ground-beef which I’d happened to be cooking at the time, and that cat was so hungry, despite any misgivings, she followed the trail into the center of my kitchen before I shut the door behind her (I had her for 15 years, also).

Frieda, however, turned out not to like ground beef. She became warier and ran off. The next night she wouldn’t even come close to the door and even ran off before I put the food outside for her (the ‘possum got that dishful).

Which brings me to last Friday night – and I had decided (a) maybe I’m not supposed to have this cat even though I’ve now got room for her and (b) I’d wait until Sunday night because I knew with the symphony’s pre-concert talks, I’d probably be too busy with everything else to deal with settling a stray cat into a spare bathroom.

But Friday night, she decided to come in. She hadn’t eaten much the past two nights and it seems like she hardly eats anything anywhere else, for all I know. She looked longingly at the dish. I moved it in further – far enough to be able to shut the door behind her. I was able to block off the hallway out of the kitchen: once the door was closed, she’d be trapped. Then I’d grab her and put her in the carrier, already waiting for her.

It took maybe 20 minutes but she worked up enough courage to come in – first a bite, then a dash back to the porch... then another bite or two, then a retreat to the step. Then she settled down to eat. That’s when I shut the door behind her, hoping I’d be faster than she’d be and that I wouldn’t cut her in half in the process.

Slam! Bam! Gotcha, ma’am!

After she took two laps around the kitchen, during which I was afraid she might start spitting out kittens left and right, I managed to corral her. I have the bite-marks on both index fingers to prove it. Once in the carrier, she was quiet – wide-eyed but quiet, no yowling or crying. In fact, I didn’t hear a peep from her all the way out to the house (which is more than I could say for two of my long-domesticated cats). I stopped to buy some band-aids and peroxide, having already taken some time to wash out the wounds and add a little Neosporin.

But Frieda was now mine. I’m not sure either of us were really ready for this.

I figured I couldn’t put this off any longer because I didn’t know when she’d have the kittens: after they’d be born, I would be long gone from the apartment if she should return. I would never see her again.

I put her in a spare bathroom at the back of the house, out of the way from general traffic and isolated from the other cats. Once out of the carrier, she immediately flew up the wall and hung (by one claw) from the curtains. Then she settled down on the counter-top. She sat in front of the mirror (see picture, left), finding some comfort, apparently, in this other cat. Did she think it was Farrell? She actually allowed me to pet her and I spent a few minutes nuzzling her behind her ears and down her neck, under the chin, down over the back but not too close to the mound of kittens deep inside her. She eventually curled up in the sink (see picture, below). After sitting with her for a while, it was now past 3am and I decided to get some sleep.

When I checked her in the morning, she settled into a corner under the counter. She would not let me pet her – and I have claw-marks to prove it – and I figured, okay, she’s pregnant and she’s very defensive, so I’d just let her alone. It might take a week for her to adapt. Okay, I could handle that.

On Sunday, she’d moved over to a different corner, even more inaccessible: behind the toilet.

The plan was to try catching her again to take her out to the vets, have her checked out, get her what shots she could have, given her condition, and see how the kittens are progressing.

Monday morning, when I woke up around 8:45, I discovered she had no intention of going to the vets. She had just given birth to what will be her last litter of kittens.

She was still licking one off. They were all soaking wet, looked more like hairballs with rat-tails except they were squirming and mewing. I wasn’t sure but I think there were four or five. I decided she needed to be left alone: the more I check in on her, she might feel threatened and destroy them.

About an hour later, I cleaned the litter box (so relieved to discover she actually was using it) and put down fresh water, trying to be quiet and non-aggressive. She was now on her other side and the kittens were out-of-view behind her. There was a pile of dark something-or-other about six inches from her which I took to mean one of them didn’t make it but I wasn’t about to reach back and try taking it away.

Meanwhile, I had called the vets, asked “OMG WHAT NOW?!” and they said basically just let her raise them, I don’t need to do anything except make sure she has lots of food and water and to clean the litter box a couple times a day. And then wait until they're weaned – uhm, maybe 4-6 weeks.

If this had happened at the old apartment, she would’ve been in the only bathroom I have which would be a real disaster trying to accommodate her. Fortunately, I’d gotten her out to the house in time where it won’t be anywhere near the inconvenience. But still...

Out of cat food, I made a quick dash to the store, then just put a can of food down for her, the kittens mewing and crawling around. They were now dried-off and looking more like cats than drowned mice. Earlier, I thought there were two dark ones, one orange tabby like her and another one kind of nondescript but partly hidden. But now I could see three orange tabbies and one so pale it looked like a white kitten with pale orange tabby markings (I decided, okay, if everything works out, I’m keeping that one). And the one I thought was dead may be the dark one I now see nursing from her. By the time I got the camera, I could now see only three (or maybe four) of them.

So there you have it – Frieda Plus Four, Maybe Five. The excitement continues to build!

Dr. Dick

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Past as a Present

Since this was intended as a "creativity" blog and I haven't been very creative recently, following my mother's death, there hasn't been anything to write about except I am very agitated about not being able to compose right now which I guess is a good sign. In the past, going a few months without feeling like writing made me question whether I was a composer or not.

Back in December, nearly finished with three of the pieces for violin and piano I'd been working on, I decided to take a break and write something else. Since it was Christmastime, a Christmas piece seemed logical, but that came to a halt on January 16th (and that after three days of inactivity) because of numerous distractions mostly related to the apartment and the constantly barking doberneighborman. I had decided it was time to move -- a hateful occupation of time that is sure to destroy the creative impulse as everything else falls before it.

The question was where? It would be a spring-time project.

In the past, most of my moves came toward the end of summer: in fact, the last move took place over the hottest week of the summer of 2001 and I refuse to get stuck with that again.

And not in winter: a former co-worker told me stories of moving into Central PA during the Blizzards of January 1996 -- she moved the weekend of the Flood, however, the one with the ice jam that took out the Walnut Street Bridge -- and I didn't want to risk scheduling movers only to tempt Mother Nature into coming up with something equally memorable in this otherwise unmemorable winter.

Since my mother's death in February, much of the time has been spent dealing with the grief and the changes one senses, even at my age, in losing one's mother. It has not been a weepy, mournful grief (trying to avoid those who've been weepy and mournful has helped) but a quiet, contemplative one that at times is sad and wistful, at others joyful and humorous, mostly depending on the memory of the moment or something I may have found as we clean through the stuff-congested house with its accumulation of not only my parents' lifetime but their parents as well.

A few weeks ago, a friend showed me a book he had just gotten back after loaning it out and I said I had to read it: it was called "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!" by Teller, the shorter, quiet half of the master magicians Penn & Teller, a portrait of his dad (primarily) and the memories he discovered going through some of their stuff while, fortunately, both his parents were alive to tell him its significance. Through this "stuff" the son discovers aspects of his parents' lives he was unaware of before.

The cover shows a very wary Teller sitting in the midst of his dad's shop, a dusty broken victrola on his lap, his father emphatically expounding on the importance of some rusted contraption he's handing him. They're surrounded by tools, mops, jars full of nails, a porcelain pitcher, what looks like a stuffed raven but also paintings and what may be the cartoons Joe Teller had drawn in 1939 which become the focus of the book: these cartoons are The Discovery, something the son never even knew existed, and this leads to letters and reminiscences about the years his dad had gone tramping across the country (quite literally) before becoming an artist, meeting his future wife at an art school, then getting married just before World War II. After the war, Joe Teller settled into the world of commercial art, primarily as a "letter man" doing the wording for ads in the Philadelphia newspapers.

So far, I have not found a box of cartoons, but I did just find a box of india inks and paints, brushes and pen-nibs my dad used when he'd do the lettering for the ads he designed for "The Boston Store," one of the Greenberg stores in Harrisburg where he'd worked since graduating from high school (or perhaps even before) and had long been the manager. I found a card he had made for my mom's 60th birthday in which he wrote about how they met:

"It was the summer of '38 at Hershey Park when I saw 'Ginny' Hartman for the first time. I didn't know then that God had a plan for everyone's life from beginning to end, so on this special day I didn't know I was looking at the girl God had chosen for my life!

A few days later, in Pomeroy's Department Store, I saw the most beautiful, wholesome-looking girl I had ever seen. It was Ginny Hartman!! My heart 'pounded with excitement' on June 17, 1938 when I asked her for a date and she accepted. And on March 17, 1940, her name became Ginny Strawser."

As I remember the story, my dad, two years out of Hummelstown High School, was working at Greenberg's clothing store at 5th & Market in downtown Harrisburg. My mother, a '37 graduate of John Harris High School, was working at Pomeroy's at 4th & Market. The story goes that dad went back to Greenberg's, told a co-worker named Duke about the girl he'd just seen and wanted him to go back and find out her name: "she's wearing a white blouse and black skirt." When Duke got there, it turned out ALL the sales clerks wore white blouses and black skirts. It must've worked out okay, though: Duke's in the wedding photo as Best Man.

My dad was a natural-born musician, teaching himself to play the piano and eventually the Hammond organ. He couldn't read music but had perfect pitch and could play a thousand songs if you could hum a few bars. I found dozens of reel-to-reel tapes made in 1954 when my dad had a 15-minute radio show once a week, broadcast live from the Blue Mountain Hotel (now Felicita). I was 5 years old and thought everybody's dad had a radio show. Funny how I've just passed my 17th anniversary working at WITF-FM...

But I also knew somewhere there was a record. We have many recordings -- 45s, 78s and then the long-playing 33s. But this one was different: my dad made this recording and it was a song he wrote and sang while he was in San Diego during the War and sent to Mom back home. It was one of those things where servicemen could go to this studio and record greetings their loved ones back home could listen to -- think about it: they were on the verge of being shipped off to the Pacific Front -- but my dad wrote a song and performed it himself.

Last night, I found the record.

It was unmarked, just a blank label in a blank sleeve but I just knew it had to be that song. I haven't listened to it yet because I'm afraid one time may be the last time it would play or I'd break it. I want to wait till I can transfer it onto a CD just to make sure I can hear it again. It may not have been a box of cartoons, but it was a discovery all the same.

There was a story my mother told me shortly after Dad died in 1985. When he was in San Diego, he and a bunch of his Navy buddies were on a train that had an old piano on it. If there was a piano in a room, my dad wanted to play it, so he and his friends went over to the piano and he played while they all sang along to the popular songs of the day.

One of the passengers in that car was the wife of actor Raymond Massey who went up and complimented him, introducing herself and saying she had some "connections" (some guy named Crosby, I believe) if he'd be interested in playing in a band for Hollywood.

My dad, a Hollywood studio musician!

I wonder how different things would've been if he'd followed up on that. The war was over not long after that and the first thought in his mind was getting home to his family -- not just his wife but also his 4-year-old son, my older brother. He remembered the problems his parents had had, his father a trumpet player in numerous bands in the area and as family legend has it subbed in the Sousa band for part of a year. This became a bone of contention with my grandmother who didn't want to be stuck home with the kids while he travelled around playing music all over the place, so he gave it up.

My dad didn't "give it up," though. He stayed here in Harrisburg and became a well-known musician "on the side," maintaining his day job (one newspaper article about him when he was active in the Uptown Business Men's Association, described him as "shoe salesman to the poor") earning a kind of fame. True, it was not without its issues: if my folks went out on their anniversary, it was always a St. Patrick's Day party where Dad was playing the organ and Mom would sit there and listen to him. New Years Eve, she was always alone with the kids, ushering in the new year with a toast of homemade egg nog.

My parents built this house and we moved into it in March of 1960, around the time of their 20th wedding anniversary.

Now 47 years later, I will be moving into it myself. It's not a "new" place because I grew up here, though now it's "my" place even if it is still (and will always be to an extent) "their" place. It is not perfect -- there are aspects of "deferred maintenance" to contend with -- but it is a far cry from the cramped little apartments I have been renting all my life.

Once the piano is back in my old childhood bedroom, I can compose again. I won't have to worry about the sleeping (or fighting) schedules of upstairs neighbors, the noise of boom-boxes from the street, the loud music pounding through the walls from next door, the doberneighborman barking all day long as I'm trying to write. I can play the piano when I want and compose whenever I feel like it.

And I already have some pieces in mind to work on. But more of that, later.

Dr. Dick