Friday, August 08, 2008


I once asked Cliff Lynch why he didn’t blog and he told me that it was too much of a commitment—that once you start, there’s so much pressure to keep going.

He’s right, of course. Cliff Lynch is always right. But I never regarded the commitment as being particularly dangerous: there’s almost always something to say, isn’t there?

I never picture myself being at a loss for words.

Not long ago, Lumpy and I spent a bachelor week together. Mark was off on a motorcycle ride to visit Reid and Kristina in Taos, so it was just the two of us. My Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger.

“This’d be a great time to write something,” I told Lumpy. “I haven’t blogged in over a month.”

“Nah,” he said, “it’d be a great time to open all of those cans of Fancy Feast in the pantry and pretend we’re at Old Country Buffet. Or maybe we could finish shredding the sofa arm—I could use your help for a change. Oh. Wait. I know: let’s pour a whole bag of catnip on the floor and roll in it until we get the hiccups and barf.”

The cat was ecstatic with possibilities, in tune with what to do when you’re left at home without adult supervision.

Didn’t I ever watch Ferris Bueller?

Apparently not. In fact, I don’t watch anything. I’ve had the same three Netflix movies for more than a year and a half now, and I’ve shown no signs that I’m ever going to watch them. I could’ve bought them by now.

Heck, I could’ve made the three movies by now. (I’m informed that this is the conceit of another recent film, Be Kind Rewind.)

See, the problem is that when you set up a Netflix queue, you think to yourself, “Which movies got good reviews in the New Yorker? I should rent those.”

But when it comes time to watch them, you think: “Boring. Boring. Boring. All I’ve got is these three boring movies.” And you switch on The Colbert Report. Or flip to an obscure cable channel and play “Hi, Bob,” the drinking game where you take a slug every time a character in the Bob Newhart Show says “Hi, Bob.”

That’s much more appealing than watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (DVD arrived 02/22/07; stored on top of the turntable thereafter) or Capote (DVD arrived 04/10/07; stored on top of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) or even Seraphim Falls, which features a cameo appearance by Reid Hayashi, an appearance in which he was bitch-slapped by Pierce Brosnan (DVD arrived 05/19/08; promptly stored on top of Capote).

I’m lying. I’m lying about Lumpy and Ferris Bueller.

Initially Lumpy was not ecstatic about our bachelor life together. Not at all. Instead he was alarmed.

“Shit,” he thought. “She won’t be able to provide for us. We’ll starve here without Mark. Does she even know how to open the cat door? I don’t think so. She’s kind of a retard, really. Have you ever watched her hunt? We will starve. WE WILL STARVE!”

There’s not much you can do when you get a vote of no-confidence from your cat. Not much at all.

Yet he stuck to me like Velcro.

I finally left the house to fetch some Dim Sum (shrimp dumplings for him; pot stickers for me) at our favorite cheap Chinese restaurant on Castro Street—an excursion that takes all of 20 minutes, door-to-door—while my little angel-cat snoozed on the sofa. But by the time I returned, I realized that Lumpy must’ve been out getting lunch too: a large mouse was cowering behind the potted rubber tree.

Was the victim really a large mouse? Let’s be clear: this was a rat. Lumpy crouched, hind end twitching, fixated on the ratty mouse when I walked in the dining room. The rat didn’t look damaged yet, but he did seem to be traumatized by whatever had transpired so far.

We stood there in the dining room in a frozen tableau. Me. The cat. The rodent.

I broke the silence. “Lumpy! I told you! NO MORE MOUSIES! No more catch-and-release indoors!”

Distracted momentarily, he glared over his shoulder at me. I could tell that he was thinking something along the lines of: Didn’t I tell you she was a retard? There she goes, making noise during the crucial part of the hunt.

During this interlude, the rodent summoned his courage, made a dash for the sofa, and disappeared underneath.

Lumpy spent the rest of the afternoon on edge, alert, ready, with his nose poked under the couch. He paused briefly to inhale most of a can of Fancy Feast Chunky Turkey, all except for one tablespoon. He customarily leaves a tablespoonful in his food bowl, perhaps for Elijah, perhaps anticipating 3am hunger pangs. Perhaps he just does it because it gives me the ass: why won’t he ever finish off the damn can. Why?

Or perhaps the tablespoon of rapidly-decaying cat food was bait to lure the rat out from under the sofa.

The rat was apparently smart enough to stay under the sofa. Lumpy eventually backed off, first to the middle of the living room floor, then later to his spot beside me on an overturned couch cushion. He did not relax his vigilance though; he kept a close watch on his invisible prisoner. I was mesmerized too in my misery. I hate watching him—or worse, listening to him—kill smaller animals. I knew from past experience that I probably wouldn’t be able to catch the rat on my own and that it was likely I’d prolong its squeaking misery if I fought Lumpy for custody.

There was still a slight—SLIGHT—chance I could shoo the rodent outside before Lumpy chewed his head off. A lottery-odds chance I think you would say.

So there we were, Lumpy and I, sitting on the other couch, torturing this poor creature, the guards over our own Rodent Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought I heard vague rustlings. But mostly it was quiet.

Around 10:30pm, Lumpy looked over at me and said, “You’re the one who fucked this up. If I’d have had my way, we’d have had a nice fresh dinner by now.” Then he muttered under his breath, “you ’tard. Mark never should have left us here alone. We’re going to starve, I tell you, STARVE.” Then he returned his attention to his prey.

Finally at about midnight, the rat decided he would make a break for it.

I couldn’t watch. I slunk downstairs and downloaded Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog while Lumpy went about his own horrible business. In the killing fields of our dining room.

I hate this.

I’m going to wind up being a vegetarian again. And it’ll be Lumpy’s fault.

I watched all three episodes of Dr. Horrible back-to-back. Who’d have thought young Doogie Howser, M.D. would end up like this? Toward the end of the segment where Captain Hammer is singing “Everyone’s a Hero (in their own not very heroic way),” Lumpy strode in and gave a short, assertive “Bed time. Now.” meow.

“C’mon. Wait a minute.” I told him. “I gotta watch Dr. Horrible use his death ray on Captain Hammer.”

I’m aware of the minor contradiction here: I can watch Captain Hammer be zapped but I can’t watch my cat have it out with the rat. But I can’t help it. I need to find out how it ends. This is what happens when writers go on strike. They double-down on the meds and write YouTube musicals, MMORPG soap operas, and genre-defying variety shows.

Lumpy will tolerate this not at all: “Did you not hear me? I’m only going to say it once more. Get upstairs!”

And he means it. He’s attacked my feet before when I’ve stalled. Bedtime means bedtime.

“Just one more minute, okay Lump?”

I had no desire to go back upstairs and see what he’d done with the rat. I need anesthesia before I look; or perhaps I can clean it up after I take out my contact lenses. That way I won’t be able to really focus on the carnage. I get queasy even thinking about it.

When I went upstairs, I cast a sidelong glance into the dining room, saw that the damage had been done, and decided I wouldn’t deal with it until morning. Too gross for right before bed; it’d make me have nightmares. That rat wasn’t going anywhere.

I was a vegetarian for three or four years when I was in my early twenties. My vegetarianism had no source I can point to. Maybe it’s just harder to poison yourself when you’re living on rice, seaweed, and Red Vines. Nothing really spoils.

I finally stopped out of boredom. I hated explaining why I was a vegetarian.

There’s no way of being a vegetarian without seeming just a little holier-than-thou. But now I’m a wimp, and there are plenty of incidents that make me contemplate going back to it.

Just a few weeks ago I was out on Cape Cod, at Woods Hole, in fact, confronted with a large (cooked) lobster.

It was supposed to be a treat.

My colleagues were tucking into their own crustaceans, lobster bibs askew in the evening ocean breeze, cracking, slurping, crunching, dunking, blissed-out by the traditional New England dinner. No lobster-part was going to waste. They were ripping off the little insect-like legs and digging at the soft thoraxes.

“Are you supposed to eat the green stuff?” one of my colleagues asked.

“I did.” another answered. “It was great!”

I had contemplated politely turning down the lobster when it was offered to me. But how would that look? I’d seem unappreciative. Like a prig. Like a dope. No-one else in the group was keeping kosher; no-one else had begged off as a vegan. And I’d already eaten meat several times in front of these people.

And I used to like eating lobster. What’s wrong with me these days?

I felt like shouting NO PRAWNS. NO PRAWNS! as a distraction. But I just poked meekly at beast, unable and unwilling to break through the carapace.

You can’t spread a lobster around your plate and pretend you’ve eaten some of it. The damned thing glared at me, intact, alone on my plate, because once I’d claimed my lobster, I started feeling ill enough that I didn’t want an ear of corn or any side dishes. It was only that evening ocean breeze that was keeping me from getting sick.

“It’s you or me, buddy.” I silently communed with my lobster. “It’s you or me.”

Of course they’d supplied us with all the implements that we would’ve needed to consume a several-pound lobster, the nutcrackers, picks, and forks: you’re really supposed to tear into the thing with some vigor, dismember it, dig at all the soft parts. A bathtub-sized dish of drawn butter sat beside my plate, waiting for me to address my lobster.

Gentlemen, address your lobsters.

I took a big gulp of wine. You can’t slip a lobster to the dog either. There is nothing you can do about a goddamned lobster. Nothing.

In the end, I made it through the meal without incident. But it was another close brush with vegetarianism.

And now the rat. The dead rat. At least I don’t have to pretend to Lumpy that I’m eating and enjoying it. He’s not even interested in the thing now that it’s dead. It’s about the thrill of the chase.

“Oh, I would’ve eaten it if you knew how to prepare them properly,” Lumpy told me. “Cooking them is an art—they can end up tough and stringy if you screw up. And you’ve got to season them right too. You know how many chefs can cook a fresh mouse in this country? I mean, one worth eating. Have you ever had mouse cheek ravioli? Delicious!”

I still didn’t feel like facing the stiff carcass the next morning, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere on its own. I pulled on latex medical examination gloves. Not enough. Over those I put on my leather gardening gloves. Still not enough, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to pick anything up if I put on another pair over those.

So I halfway closed my eyes and bent over to pick up the rat by the tail, trying to ignore how gross it was to be picking up a dead rat in my own dining room in the severe light of morning. The head stuck to the floor just a little bit when I tugged at the tail. Was this thing going fall apart where it was most deeply perforated? Ick. Ick. Ick. I put the small body in a plastic grocery bag and tried to tie it shut; this is actually hard to do wearing two pairs of gloves. I shuddered.

Did I mention that I have a weak stomach?

If you put a dead rat in your own garbage bin on Saturday, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it’ll stink by trash pickup on Thursday morning. So I walked the plastic bag down to the public trash can on the corner, the can in front of the comic book store. I’m sure that the trash can already has so much disgusting refuse in it—medical waste, used condoms, dog shit, two-week old burritos—that one dead rat more or less isn’t going to make much of a difference.

I was still wearing the two pairs of gloves, but people wear all kinds of things on Castro Street, so I doubt anybody paid much attention to me.

In fact, Lumpy watched the whole process with only casual interest.

“Hrmph,” he said, thumbing through his Zagat’s, browsing for a dinner venue, “I didn’t think you had the chops to cook up one of those. This one’s obviously no good now anyway. And I bet it’s too late to get reservations at a decent restaurant. No French Laundry for us. We’ll be eating Fancy Feast again tonight, thanks to you.”

I glared at him. “No more mousies, Lump. No more! You don’t have to do that again, okay?”

We were a whole day into our fabulous wild bachelor week. But we still didn’t seem to be having much fun. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t even painting.

Oh! I didn’t mention that, did I? That I’d planned to finish painting the back of the house while Mark was away.

Perhaps I forgot to mention that we were painting the house. Inside and out. Ourselves. In many different shades of white and off-white—ecru, eggshell, Swiss cream—plus a few medium grays for the outdoor bits. We started some weeks ago, more or less co-incident with when I stopped blogging.

I remember reading a magazine piece about porn stars in the San Fernando Valley. The writer went on and on about how their suburban houses, purchased with their fresh direct-to-video earnings, were always white-on-white affairs. The walls were eggshell; the shag carpeting was alpine snow; the drapes were ecru; the couches were beige; the small dog was white. Even the accent pillows were cream-colored.

The writer opined that all this whiteness stemmed from some sort of spiritual void, a lack of imagination and interior life.

I wondered whether I should take that personally.

Oh, I wish I were like my neighbor Evert. He painted his house an odd mud-color, the color you get when you mix lots of other interesting colors together. A color you don’t see very often. His own color. Then he painted red accents on the trim. And changed his mind and redid them a vibrant racing yellow. And painted over that twice when the yellow didn’t cover.

I’m lying again: Evert didn’t paint his house: he picked up his usual day laborer on Cesar Chavez and had him do the painting. Juan painted slowly and none too steadily—he apparently had a killer hangover—but he was fearless and patient. He was willing, for a price, to clamber up the 24 foot ladder and to paint everything once, twice, three times, more.

He painted until Evert said he could go.

Evert is assertive that way.

If you ask me why we’re painting the house ourselves, I’d tell you that the stucco in the light well was the last straw. It was done and redone. And it still looks crappy according to Mark. Unlike Evert, we could not keep the stucco guy on the roof until the stucco was just right. We meekly stepped aside when he switched off the classic rock station on his portable radio, and said it was fine.

But it wasn’t fine; it was crappy.

And Mark confirms this verdict with every visitor we have.

“Look there at the roof line. Look. Isn’t that a crappy stucco job? Can you believe that was done by a professional?”

If the visitor feigns ignorance, Mark explains it to them. He gives them pointers about what stucco should look like.

“Now look!” He tells our newly wised-up visitor. “See? It looks so cobby!”

The visitor peers skeptically through our kitchen window at the roof line.

“It looks like shit.” Mark tells them just to reaffirm their heightened judgment. “Really bad. I could do better myself.”

And this is why we decided that we’d paint the house—inside and out—by ourselves. We’d gone through the trauma of the windows; we’d gone through the trauma of the roof. If you’ll recall (and we do), the French doors in the back were a full two inches shy of the wall. And—while the new roof looks to be snug and tarry—there’s still the issue of the stucco. The stucco we examine and re-examine every day.

If we painted the house ourselves, Mark’d be sure the job was done correctly. Mark even has experience: he worked as a house painter for a couple of summers when he was in college.
He didn’t have an intern job; he didn’t spend his summers baffled by a series of ill-specified programming assignments supervised by mid-divorce bosses like some of us. No. Instead Mark did something useful. He learned a skill. He learned how to paint.

Foreman Mark and his trusty paint-spattered assistant Ecru Cathy.

Think of the money we’ll save! Think of the control we’ll have! Think of how nice the house will look! Think of a big job done just right!

There’s only one thing wrong with this formulation.


Not only am I lousy at catching mice; I’m also very poor at home repairs and improvements. And I did not paint during the summer when I was in college. Not for pay, anyway. I did help paint a number of rooms in Dabney House while I was at Caltech. I used gloss enamel. I was inventive with the color schemes back then too. Sunshine Yellow for the radiator? That’d be cheerful. Jungle Green (one of Gesine’s favorites)? Bring it on.

The problem with using gloss enamel indoors in lieu of flat paint is that you can’t really paint over a mistake. Gloss enamel is a commitment, just like blogging. I suspect Larry West still isn’t speaking to me because of my ill-conceived attempt at a Southwestern scene on his wall. It was butt-ugly. Why did the sketch look so good on a notecard, and so bad on a wall?

Yeah. You just can’t paint over gloss enamel. Not easily. Oh well. I’m sure someone installed shag carpeting on the walls after Larry moved on. The good thing about being in college is that there’s always someone whose taste is even more hideous than one’s own.

No wonder I haven’t painted since. No wonder I picked out Antique White, Swiss Creme, and Frost. No wonder Mark’s the foreman and I’m the assistant. No wonder I’m about to be fired.

“Are you still working on that?” Mark is incredulous. “You’re still doing that?”

“I’m slow.” I’m doing the prep work. There are gooey white streamers and piles of DAP Latex Caulk adhering to places that should be neither gooey nor white. I’m concentrating. The top’s off the tub of spackle, which is hardening far faster than I can apply it. Divots from pictures and shelves inexpertly hung have been replaced by three dimensional outcroppings of white DAP and beige spackle.

“I’m sorry.” I say. Mark, apoplectic, pries the caulk gun from my gooey fingers.

“Let me do this,” he says. “You get ready to roller the walls.”

And that’s why we weren’t finished before Mark left for New Mexico to see Reid and Kristina.

I planned to surprise Mark by painting the back exterior wall while he was gone. The whole thing, including the garage door.

How hard could it be? You just wipe off 11 years of accumulated cobwebs, spider cocoons and dust drifts, scrape a few blistered places, and slap on a coat of Kelly Moore paint, Keystone Gray. You hardly even need a ladder to paint the back of our house. And house paint has gotten so good that the whole job is a snap.

Which is why I don’t have a very good excuse for neither painting nor blogging while Mark was on the road: the paint is thick and lustrous, and I’m never out of things to say. I could probably blog while I painted.

It must’ve been the rat. I don’t know what else it could’ve been.

The week passed in a sleep-deprived blur.

You see, when you’re on Lumpy’s staff, you might find yourself short on sleep. What happens is that around 4am, he gets restless. If you had any foresight, you probably put the extra heap of cat food in his bowl before you went to sleep. But that’s only good until about 5am. By 5:30, after several interludes of feline conversation, he’s got you convinced that the only thing you can do is to open his cat door so he can prowl outside just as day is breaking.

It’s the optimal time to prowl, Lumpy tells me. Cops know that dawn is when the donuts are the freshest. And cats know that’s when it’s best to make your rounds. After I’ve stumbled downstairs in the near-dark and slid open his cat door, I lay back down in bed, unable to get back to sleep.

I can hear the first noises of the world awakening. The small dog up the hill in back of us yaps as Lumpy saunters through his yard. Evert starts up his Jeep and leaves for the gym. The San Francisco Chronicle delivery guy slaps papers on my neighbors’ back doorsteps. The 24 Muni bus labors up the Castro hill, sparking as it gets to the top.

And as I finally drift back to sleep, a small furry body that smells of morning, rosemary, and cat food organizes himself so that he’s curled up against my face. And goes to sleep himself.

I can sleep for an hour and a half more that way, inhaling fresh kitty dander.

I’m fit for neither writing nor painting when I arise. I am only fit for feeding the cat. And that’s just fine with him. I don’t have to tell you that it went on pretty much just like that until Mark came back from his motorcycle odyssey.

If I were Stephen Colbert, I could sum it up with Today’s Word:



Blogger Adam said...

Jesus Christ.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Cynthia G. said...

Just a hello and an expression of my appreciation for your piece on the Rolling Hills High School reunion. An old friend.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Holy Cow! Cynthia G.! It's been a couple of years... So glad I've heard from you.

7:42 PM  

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