Is watching the game on tv, while simultaneously kissing the girl, efficient or rude? And does my cat have a monkey-mind? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star:

You know that scene in a movie where the guy is making out with his girlfriend on the couch, while surreptitiously watching a televised football game at the same time? My cat Briscoe does that.

He has become inclined to awaken me with kisses — seriously — pressing his mouth on mine, depositing a nice cold layer of drool — and I don’t want to know what else — on my face in the process. Not exactly like being lulled from restful dreaming by gentle kisses from George Clooney, but I hesitate to traumatize the male of any species who attempts to express affection. So I try not to recoil too visibly, and wipe away the drool when he’s not looking.

But lately he has started kissing me awake while surreptitiously glancing wide-eyed and twitchy-whiskered out the window at the birds and squirrels playing outside; the feline equivalent of watching the game while kissing the girl. I find this behavior mildly insulting, if not downright rude. You’d think that I could command the rapt attention of a creature that is completely dependent upon me for his gourmet wet and dry food, his filtered water, and his frequently changed unscented-clumping-litter-filled box, located in the special annex I had built onto the house for his sole and exclusive use. But being a cat and male and all, he doesn’t quite look at it that way.

And to be fair, this may be less a matter of strategic multitasking by a caddish cat, but rather evidence of his decreasing ability to focus on the task at hand. If so, I must admit to being equally afflicted. For although I am perfectly capable of attention to detail in my work and writing, I find my mind wandering at many other times, such that a significant portion of any stroll from Point A to Point B includes trying to remember not to step out into the street and into the path of a UPS truck.

I think the Buddhists call this a monkey mind — random thoughts swinging from branch to branch in a haphazard fashion. It was not always thus. I was once an English major, which explains the vast fortune I have amassed, and which required the ability to read a book — or at least a short story — straight through at a sitting. As the recipient of a liberal-arts Jesuit college education, I plowed through the misogynistic ham-fisted Hemmingways and the joyless Joycean journeys to nowhere, not to mention consuming the classics from cover to cover, without my mind wandering too far afield.

Now I’m hard-pressed to read one page of the New Yorker, or even to flip through Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party celebrity photos, without taking a long, leisurely mental detour to la-la-land. I noticed this again the other day while listening to the audiobook version of “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, as narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons (unabridged). I settled in to hear Jeremy fill up his lungs and start up about first-floor rooms at Oxford, dove-grey flannel with white crepe-de-chine, and plover eggs from Mummy’s hens. Then suddenly it seemed I must have missed a chunk of the story, because Jeremy was on about some character I vaguely remembered from the television version, but who surely wasn’t due to put in an appearance for another 20 minutes.

So I hit rewind to fill in the blanks, but no sooner did I hit play than I would be off again — composing my grocery list or compiling my workplace grievances or wondering whether that thing I said earlier to that person sounded stupid — until Jeremy piped in to remind me that things really hadn’t been the same in England since the start of the war in 1914. I started to panic — was this early-ish evidence of dementia? Or was I always this addled, unable to complete a chapter’s reading, but never noticing because I could absentmindedly turn back the page on a physical book?

Having identified yet another opportunity for personal improvement, what to do? Should I take a page from the cat’s manual and practice paying equal enthusiastic attention to multiple tasks: playing with a spongy ball while terrorizing a trapped housefly while energetically grooming myself from head-to-toe? Or better to focus laser-like on one thing at a time; being there now, as it were, assuming I can remember where “there” is? Or is nothingness the ticket — the ability to stay silent and empty-headed for extended periods — which signifies the highest achievement in harnessing the human brain?

Multi-tasking may be most efficient, but I don’t recall Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder ever surreptitiously watching a cricket match while picnicking on oysters and champagne with Sebastian Flyte. Perhaps Briscoe’s boorish behavior could best be chalked up to the inevitable conflict between an animal’s natural killer instincts and his environmentally-influenced desire for affection. Perhaps the same can be said for the guy watching the game while groping his girl. But being a human and female and all, I don’t quite look at it that way.

Members of the neighborhood’s animal kingdom have become my dependents. Does this make birdseed tax deductible? Is pet acupuncture covered by ObamaCare? My latest column in the Star.

Each New Year brings renewed opportunity for sober reflection and frank self-assessment. And one particularly problematic personal shortcoming stood out during this year’s mirror-gazing: I’ve made far too many of God’s creatures dependent upon my efforts.

The problem is most pronounced in my dealings with the animal kingdom. Regular readers of these scribblings may recall my beloved but brain damaged Tibetan Spaniel, my uncontrollably hyperactive mini-Aussie, and my criminal mastermind of a cat.

Each time I return home, I am accosted by all three in the cramped entryway even before I can slip my body through the door. They lunge with paws outstretched and mouths open, demanding instantaneous feeding and rapt attention. Well, the Tibetan doesn’t really demand, and he couldn’t quite muster a lunge. He just bumps around randomly in all directions like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners, hoping he’ll run into me, then wedges himself against the door so I can’t open it without clunking his head — earning himself the fond nickname among my visitors of “Doggie Doorstop.”

Neighborhood pets not my own nonetheless seek my patronage, frequently presenting themselves at my doorstep requesting assistance in locating their owners. Even some baby bunnies converge on my front porch each spring, requiring temporary daycare while waiting for their irresponsible mothers to collect them at dusk.

Other representatives of the local wildlife community have declared themselves my dependents, from the songbirds and the squirrels to the homeless cats who chase them. Unfortunately, the following expenses are not tax-deductible on Form 1040 Schedule A: wild bird food, Nyjer seed, hummingbird nectar, the latest anti-ant and squirrel-resistant birdfeeders, nuts for the squirrels, “natural” repellent for the ants, microwave pads to keep a feral cat warm on a freezing night, and sterile gauze and disinfectant to treat a bite sustained while placing a feral cat on a heated pad.

And where is my tax credit for the following: dog food, cat food, the new cat food because the cat woke up today and decided to stop eating the old food, heartworm medicine, de-worming formulas, flea and tick protection, MRI’s, X-rays, anal gland clearings, and newfangled fur removal products? If corporations can deduct employee training and health insurance, why can’t I deduct dog training classes, cat psychologists, pet acupuncturists, and anxiety-taming Thundershirt purchases?

A creature needn’t be in-residence to demand that I snap-to. One red breasted hummingbird travels from the west side of the house to the north whenever the feeder is empty, buzzing my kitchen window and staring me down until I refill it. I recognize that noted hummingbirdologists and representatives of the Nature Channel might doubt whether a birdbrain is capable of this level of thoughtful planning and execution, but as my grandmother used to say: “I know what I know.”

Her tendency toward firmly-held knowledge without regard to actual fact is a genetic trait I seem to have inherited. I know, for example, that God sends me insane pets because I am a spinster with the time and inclination to care for them, while couples busily raising actual human children might regretfully consign such four-legged unfortunates to the pound or the afterlife. I also know that animal shelters use the same system, entrusting the crazed, drooling, sensitive-skinned, barking biters with irritable bowel syndrome to us singletons, while gifting the even-tempered, un-finicky, trainable, non-shedders to families with children.

I hold other unsupported but unshakable beliefs. I believe that my friend Joan can cause it to rain. I believe that by washing my car, I can cause it to rain. I believe that God sometimes makes it rain on my birthday just to mess with me. And I firmly believe that God is not going to finish me off until I’m happy, rich, thin, in love, or some combination of all four.

I also, apparently, hold the unconscious but equally baseless belief that if I take care of nature’s creatures in need, the universe will take care of me. Time will tell, but so far, the universe has greeted my efforts with a resounding silence, accompanied by a plethora of bills payable and Petco rewards points.

Still, what can you do when a critter comes calling with soulful eyes, a growling tummy and a Ph.D. in the exploitation of human weakness? A recent study suggested that a cat’s cry was genetically engineered to sound like a human baby’s in order to trigger our protective instincts. I believe that the cat’s personality has been genetically engineered to make us feel inferior, like math prodigies, swimsuit models, and members of the British royal family.

I’ll doubtless end up spending my fortune maintaining my own little eco-system, living out my dotage escorting squirrels across the street, broadcasting predator warnings to baby quail, and transporting spiders, flying bugs and rainfall-stranded worms to safer territory.

And I will always believe that God recognizes and appreciates human kindness toward innocent animals, and that He or She maintains a particularly unpleasant place in Hell for animal abusers, despite a total lack of evidence to support such a theory. Because I know what I know.

Up the Valley: Male Men

April 18, 2013

In today’s column in the Star, I dive headlong into the murky waters of the male mind…

Take, for example, my male pets: Briscoe the cat, and Winston the dog. The two have lived together in an uneasy harmony, the former barely tolerating the latter, for over two years. On a good day, the dog will vigorously scrub the insides of the cat’s ears with his tongue. More often mild horseplay erupts into fierce battle, my stunned cat eventually staggering out of a headlock, his fur spiked with dog spit, while the dog sits gleefully panting and drooling nearby.

But suddenly it seems that the balance of power has shifted. A recent wrestling match ended abruptly with a high-pitched yelp from the dog, who limped away as the cat sauntered off wearing a self-satisfied smirk across his face. I’ve even observed my dog streaking past me at a full gallop, followed closely by the cat in hot pursuit, in a role reversal I had only seen previously in Warner Bros. cartoons.

And most surprisingly, Winston and Briscoe — who have never occupied the same room without giving chase — have started sleeping together. Sharing an oversized round sherpa-lined pouf, they slumber peacefully side by side in a perfect yin-and-yang formation. I gather that, having had his butt kicked in battle, my male dog has become what in prison and kennel lingo would be called my cat’s “bitch.” Which leads me to conclude, once again, that I find male-to-male relationship dynamics unfathomable.

I came to a similar conclusion a few years ago, when a buddy was suffering from multiple concurrent crises. His marriage, his health, his business, all seemed to be in serious simultaneous meltdown. I tried to cheer him up, taking him out, drawing him out, and encouraging the full expression of his feelings. I listened patiently, even to the self-pitying protestations, delivered some good solid advice, but still never seemed to make much of an impact. Then one day, miraculously, my friend reported that he was feeling much better. It seems that he had spent the prior weekend with his male best friend, the proximity to whom had benefited him enormously.

“What did he say to you?” I asked, anxious to learn — for future reference — what wise counsel would be most beneficial to male friends in need.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“He said nothing to you?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you two do all weekend?”

“Nothing. We hung out, grabbed some beers, and watched a couple of games.”

“Did you tell him about your problems at all?” I asked.

“I mentioned what was going on, and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders and let me know that he understood.”

“And this made you feel better?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk.”

Now I’m no sociologist, psychotherapist or communications expert, but the only conclusion I could draw from this was that men are really strange. We women rely on constant conversation as talk therapy, endlessly replaying and dissecting our every painful interaction until the sting of it subsides. Men, on the contrary, appear to communicate their feelings to one another via (a) the shared observation of other men engaged in sweaty pursuits, accompanied by (b) the shared consumption of alcoholic beverages, followed by (c) some reassuring exchange of manly grunts and guttural sounds which are inaudible to the female ear.

A group of my male co-workers at a law firm would, in their 20s and 30s, engage in male bonding by randomly picking drunken fights with similar groups of men, emerging slightly bloodied but immensely buoyed. As they became older and out of condition, these same men would take their aggressions out on the baseball field and basketball court, their spirits barely dampened by the fact that one of them turned up with a broken bone or busted head nearly every weekend. And although, like other males, they spent scant time discussing serious feelings, they would spend hours sharing anecdotes illustrating irritation with the women in their lives. By the time I moved to an in-house law job, I was grateful to be barred from the executive, male-only, washroom. I can only imagine what anatomically aggressive forms of competition-as-communication went on in there.

My dog similarly hates to hear about my feelings, particularly when he’s trying to sleep. The other day, as he curled up on the opposite end of the couch, I reached over to pat his rump and whispered “I love you, Winston.” The irritated pooch lifted up his head and glared at me, then exhaled a deep, exaggerated sigh as if to say: “Leave me alone, woman.” Not surprisingly, neither the cat nor the dog has any interest in sleeping anywhere near me anymore. Still, I don’t think — as some friends have suggested — that my pets have gone all “Brokeback Mountain” on me. It’s just a guy thing.

Up The Valley: Fuzzball

September 27, 2012

Those of us who live with pets share a dark, well — often light actually — secret. Read today’s column in the Star:

One of the great things about living here in the Napa Valley is the number of months each year when you can entertain guests outdoors. There is nothing quite like the summer party on a warm evening out in the garden, with friends admiring the landscape design while nibbling your cherry tomatoes off the vine. Toss some light strings in the trees, and the backyard becomes a grand ballroom — one that you have only to mow and blow once a week.

But eventually, guests will want to come into your house — to use the restroom, to make a phone call, or to verify whether the manufacturer of your window treatments is the name brand or a cheap imitator. And that’s where it gets dicey for me.

You see, my house hides a terrible secret, and fear of discovery prevents me from inviting friends over on a more regular basis.

It’s not anything scary, like a refrigerator full of human heads, a sex dungeon, or a Gingrich for President poster. But it is something undesirable, insidious and inescapable. Something that can make guests uncomfortable, bother them long after they’ve left, and even discourage them from returning.

I’m talking, of course, about pet hair.

I live with two dogs and a cat, and they collectively produce more fuzz than your average sheep farmer shears in a year. Despite my best efforts at housekeeping, loose fur seems to live freely and multiply unchecked. Both dogs are breeds that blow their coats periodically, which means that they molt like birds. Twice yearly, giant chunks of their fur spontaneously detach and deposit in clumps on the furniture, the walls, or whatever unfortunate object or person they happen to brush past.

Still, the prime offender is my cat: a white fluffball with wispy Angora fur that utterly defies capture, except by the grates on my black Viking range, where the combination of grease and grit provides a welcoming pet hair preserve. The cat’s strands are so stealthy, they even get under the stick-um on Post-it notes, causing important reminders like “Buy more vacuum bags” or “Shave cat” to become unstuck and lost forever.

Whenever company is coming, I go into full furradication mode. Out come the vacuums with attachments, the sticky rollers, the miracle brushes, the 3M-Scotch Fur Fighter and the Pledge Fabric Sweeper for Pet Hair. With sufficient advance notice, I attack the source, applying special shampoos, grooming gloves and Furminators to slow the shedding. One final quick lick with a wet mop, and a last minute touch-up with the Swiffer, and my home is pronounced sufficiently defurred. Then the front door opens or a ceiling fan turns on, and suddenly random globs of dusty fuzz pop out from wherever they were hiding, congeal to form balls, and roll down the halls like giant tumbleweeds traversing the prairie.

Returning guests know that visiting my house involves two things: selecting an outfit in a light color, and pairing the evening’s alcohol consumption with a nice decongestant and antihistamine chaser. I rarely wear black anymore, so if I wear hot pink to your funeral, it’s not because I’m happy. It is just too demoralizing to extract the black dress from its protective plastic sheath, don and dash for the door, only to find that pet hair has already inextricably woven itself into the garment’s DNA.

Sometimes wisps of hair will spontaneously waft toward me while remaining invisible, so that my wild gesticulations to brush them away make me look like a deranged Tippi Hedren swatting at imaginary birds. According to my calculations, I spend 180 hours per annum trying and retrying to remove fur from my contact lenses and unwinding pet hair from the wheels of my electric toothbrush. I fear that my eventual autopsy will reveal the cause of death to be a hairball the size of a basketball.

I dream of a fuzz-free life, luxuriating in my sleek marble-floored palace of leather, steel and glass where I stroke my hairless Chinese Crested dog while a Sphynx cat purrs on my lap. I’ll be dressed head-to-toe in slenderizing black jersey and shod in spotless dark velvet slippers.

Of course, in the real world, I could fashion a fine pair of slippers out of the pet hair sticking to the bottoms of my feet. And much as I curse their coats, I would miss my furry family. So I will resign myself to a lifetime of picking pet hairs out of newly applied nail polish, extracting it from my mascara brush, and trying to figure out precisely how it seeps through the refrigerator door and into the vegetable bin. And for the foreseeable future, I’ll be entertaining outdoors whenever possible.

Flashback: Home Alone

June 23, 2012

The following column originally appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on April 14, 2011.  It brings back happy memories.  With the retail store now online-only, I do miss meeting visiting customers.  But I think my shopdogs prefer blissful retirement.

Women often visit the Napa Valley in groups, and groups of women often go shopping, so I get a regular opportunity to meet them in my store.

One thing I’ve noticed about these women, whether they come from Europe, the South, or the South Bay, is that they have similar stories to tell. And you’d be amazed how many of them are excited and full of praise for St. Helena, while expressing homesickness, longing and regret for having to be parted, however briefly, from their most dearly beloved: The dog they left at home.

My shopdog Winston gets the brunt of it. Dropping to their knees, these lovelorn ladies shower my dog with hugs, pets, even kisses, so that he comes home bathed in the aroma of a dozen dueling perfumes, lotions, lipsticks and tears, smelling as I’d imagine a French gigolo might.

Three women who came in last week were fairly typical.

“Oh, I miss my dog at home so badly,” cried one, displaying a phone screensaver with her dog’s picture on it. “I could hardly sleep in the hotel last night because he wasn’t snuggling next to me.”

“I know what you mean,” sighed her friend, exhibiting a phone screensaver of her dog’s picture. “She’s my little baby girl and I hope she’s OK without mommy.”

“I miss my kids, too,” the third girlfriend agreed, displaying her phone screensaver with children hugging a dog on it, “but I’m sure they’re being spoiled by their grandparents. I also have a husband at home,” she added as an afterthought, with which the other two nodded in nonchalant agreement.

Why, one might ask, do these women suffer such passionate feelings of deprivation for the absence of their dogs, and less so for the absence of their husbands? One would think that the average husband could provide ample snuggling, snoring and shedding to stir feelings of separation anxiety in the average wife.

And I would have assumed that dogs and husbands would raise identical concerns for an absent pet owner/spouse, what with the unsupervised wandering, the unauthorized chewing and the indiscriminate peeing.

I suspect one reason the wives seem to miss their husbands less than their dogs is that they can — and do — constantly communicate with their husbands by cell phone, even when they are on different continents and time zones, or when their husband is — or was — working, sleeping, or struggling with the aforementioned pet left behind.

Judging by overheard cellular conversations these women have with their husbands, which center on how much fun they are having apart, how much the wife promises not to spend in my store, and why a man with a degree in engineering can’t operate a can opener, they could both use this nice little break from in-person interaction.

Meanwhile, the dog-loving vacationer is in complete communications blackout from her beloved pet, who is obviously languishing at home, crying doggie tears, wondering why she abandoned it (actually the dog has completely forgotten her existence at this point, and is now busily seducing the petsitter while figuring out how to get the closet door open so that it can finally mate with the UGG shearling slipper that’s been giving it the come-hither look for months.)

I think that Apple could make a fortune by inventing an iPooch communications device allowing owners to interact with and monitor their pets 24/7. Of course, in my dog Winston’s case, I would be monitoring his stomach and lower intestine, as his desire to chew and swallow any item is in direct proportion to its purchase price.

In this respect, I would think that husbands would have a leg up on dogs, as I’ve observed husbands to be fairly vigorous in tug-of-war games over the remote control, but have never seen one actually chew and swallow it.

I realize that you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned people missing their cats. As a cat lover myself, I can understand why this is almost never heard.  Although I do miss my cat Briscoe terribly when we’re apart, it’s embarrassing to confess such a one-sided longing to strangers. No self-respecting cat would ever admit to missing his human companion; indeed, his attitude is that of a wise but weary professor who feels genuine affection toward his pupil (me) but is relieved that the summer break gives him a temporary respite from having to suffer my colossal ignorance and incompetence with the quiet dignity required.

Plus, he can operate the can opener.