Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Special note: If you sent me a package at my PO Box in the past month, I didn’t get it. I got the notice in my box, but the PO droids only shrug when I ask where the actual prize is. I’m fairly certain this is not how it’s supposed to work, so if you did send me something, say the word (to firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll break out the torches and pitchforks. I know, I know, it was probably just a review copy of something, but sometimes people send me really neat stuff, and it must have been neat, because who steals books from a post office? Maybe it was a Thinkpad T-440, eh? That would figure.
Onward. Yeah, OK, there was no September issue. Keep in mind that most people hate September, so I was actually doing y’all a favor. It was a crummy month anyway, of which more in a moment.
Elsewhere in the news, Weird Cat is still weird. I mentioned last time (can’t really say “last month,” amirite?) that we had been followed home from a nocturnal walk by The Implacable Cat, a strange little creature of no discernible provenance who was apparently firmly convinced that she was fated to live with us. We fed her on the front porch for more than a month while we searched for her real keepers, with no success, and finally let her in when the weather changed and the only alternative was feline hypothermia. She doesn’t have a proper name because we’re still trying to find her a home, so we’ve been calling her CatCat. We seem to be having a problem with cat names around here; CatCat joins Little Girl Cat and Lady Cat in the pathetic name fails of our resident herd.
The strange part of this saga is that we’re not entirely sure that CatCat is, in fact, a cat. She looks like a cat dreamed up by Edward Gorey, mottled brown and gray with orange patches and strangely piercing eyes, a very Victorian-looking critter. But her demeanor is the weird part. As Kathy says, she behaves like something else that is taking the shape of a cat at the moment, but doesn’t have “catness” down quite right. She’s exceptionally placid; within a day of letting her inside we found her stretched out on the living room couch on her back, sound asleep, while several of the resident cats sat nearby staring at her. Sit down and she’s instantly in your lap for a nap, purring with a strange low hum. When dinnertime comes, she doesn’t mill around yowling in the kitchen with the mob, but zips into the other room and waits sedately by her plate. (If she decides to leave a room, she doesn’t walk or trot — she scurries in a weirdly robotic fashion, like a wind-up toy, moving very quickly with no apparent effort.)
Edward Gorey and cat (© Jill Krementz, 1972)
She never fights with the other cats — if they try to intimidate her, she looks at them calmly and hisses softly and they back off. She doesn’t even put her ears back or crouch in a fighting stance; she just sits there. I think it’s safe to say that the other cats are seriously weirded out. Even Marley, who regards himself as the guardian of my office and frequently chases his own brother out of the room, leaves and waits in the hall when CatCat wanders in. Anyhow, stay tuned. I can’t say more right now because she just walked in and I don’t wanna get wished into the cornfield so conveniently located right across the street.
Meanwhile, on the You-Call-This-a-Culture? beat, Homeland is apparently back on Showtime, taking a stab at rebooting after its ludicrous and repulsive third season. And at some point we’ll have another season of The Americans on FX. No one above the age of fifteen takes Homeland seriously (I hope), but I’m sure we’ll be treated to more glowing articles in the Washington Post and NY Times praising The Americans for its meticulous attention to detail in its portrayal of the struggle between Soviet spies and the FBI in the mid-1980s DC suburbs. That is, of course, insane, because the show is a bad joke, mixing wooden acting with absurd Tom Clancy-esque melodrama. Nearly every episode involves someone being tortured in one of the multitude of vacant warehouses that apparently dot the DC landscape. It’s a painfully stupid show, which is sad, because US/USSR espionage during the Cold War has produced some riveting stories (e.g., those by John le Carre).
The real Aldrich Ames in FBI mugshot
All of which brings me to an eight-part ABC TV miniseries called “The Assets,” now available on Netflix Streaming. It originally aired in January 2014, but was, get this, cancelled after two episodes. Ouch. ABC ran a few more parts last summer at odd hours, but ratings stank and the remaining episodes were never aired. This is a crime. The Assets is a truly fascinating “docudrama” about the detection and exposure of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence analyst who sold secrets (mostly the identities of CIA “assets” working inside the Soviet military and KGB) to the USSR in the 1980s. As for authenticity, it’s based on a book by the two female CIA analysts who actually led the effort to unmask Ames. This series is better than Homeland or The Americans by a country mile, and if it had been on a cable channel it probably would have gained the large audience it deserves. I honestly think the show went over the head of the average ABC viewer; it required a willingness to listen closely to dialogue. It lacks car chases, shoot-outs with automatic weapons, supermodels, bombs with big red countdown timers, and all the other cartoonish accoutrements of successful network TV. It does offer a strikingly realistic portrayal of the spycraft actually used in that period and a nuanced and humane view of the Soviets spying for the US who were betrayed by Ames. It’s a very well-made series. You should watch it.
OK, so why was September such a bad month? I’m not really up for explaining what happened yet, but the bottom line (literally) is that our income, already anemic due to my disability, has abruptly been cut by about 70%. We were strapped before; now we’re totally screwed.
And there are, it turns out, limits to how many lights you can turn off, both literally and metaphorically. One of the reasons we want to find a home for CatCat is that now we really can’t afford to feed another cat. And all the things were were working on fixing in the near future (car, my teeth, water softener, computer, etc.) are now in the column marked “maybe never.” So your subscriptions and support, in whatever amount you can afford, will be deeply appreciated.
And now, on with the show…
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Well, there you go. Sic transit gloria Aestatis. As Groucho Marx is said to have said, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” Speaking of which, what the hell have they done to bananas? I know I’m late to the party on this, but when I was a kid bananas were a staple of my diet, along with baloney sandwiches on white bread with yellow mustard. I ate baloney sandwiches for lunch literally every school day until I was 14; according to my mother, I insisted on it. Eventually we must have run out of baloney, because one day I woke up in some tattered Dickensian academy where they expected us to eat huge meals of roast beef and potatoes while wearing jackets and ties. Not my style, though the Boston Cream pie was nice. Anyway, bananas today are truly awful. They used to be smooth and slightly sticky with a strong pure banana flavor. Now they taste like cardboard and have a weird, grainy texture like damp styrofoam. Don’t get me started on cantaloupe.
Elsewhere in the news, we went for a walk down our road about a month ago, just as it was getting dark. This road is a typical rural two-lane blacktop, fairly level and straight, houses separated by huge corn and soybean fields, and without a lot of traffic, so it’s a good place to walk for exercise. I have a hard time walking around in stores without a cane or cart to lean on, but I do OK in a straight line. I now walk more slowly than I have ever seen anyone walk, but I plan to keep doing it as long as I can. Sometimes I wonder how I’d get around if we still lived in Manhattan. I used to love to walk home from work (Midtown East 50s to Upper West Side) in all kinds of weather. I could probably manage on the sidewalks, but I can’t imagine trying to cross the street. Anyway, walking is my best bet to be able to keep walking and avoid a wheelchair.
So we were passing some of the houses down toward the state highway when a gang of three cats suddenly appeared next to us from nowhere. Very weird. They clustered around my feet, meowing, while Kathy, who was about 30 feet from me, trudged on. I shooed them away as best I could and kept going. Last I saw of them they were running into the yard of a nearby house. A few minutes later, however, as it became completely dark and we were nearly at our own driveway, I heard the patter of feet behind me and one of the cats — just one — came racing up next to me. She (as it turned out) must have run for quite a ways at top speed to catch up. I noticed she was wearing a braided cloth collar and didn’t seem at all feral, and she was purring so loudly I could hear it from six feet away. But the last thing we need is another cat, and this one looked like it belonged to someone, so I did my best to shoo it away, clapping my hands and shouting, “Go home!” in a stern voice. It didn’t work. At all. She moved sideways a bit but kept pace with us, and when we reached our driveway she marched right up like she was going home after a nice walk. So, long story short, she’s now living on our front porch while we try to find her owners (yeah, checked PetFBI.com, vet checked for a chip, yadda yadda). It makes me sad because she’s such a nice, placid lap cat. Purrs constantly, maybe 4- 5 yrs old. I’m afraid somebody died or moved and she just got booted out of a car. That happens a lot out here.
This looks very cool. It’s a $49 TiVo DVR that lets you schedule recordings of free over-the-air (broadcast) TV programs, as well as stuff on Netflix Streaming, Hulu Plus, etc. The digital OTA sub-channel market is exploding, primarily due to soaring cable and satellite charges in an economy where many people are experiencing serious financial hardship. We get five broadcast channels where we are, with a total of six sub-channels, most of which show stuff like either Bachelor Father and Mister Ed or old movies you’ve never heard of — lotta minor noir, which is cool. I could definitely do without 99% of cable/satellite TV. I’d miss Al Jazeera, which does some very good real reporting, although in my darker moments I’ve taken to calling it The Misery Channel. But CNN is a bad joke, MSNBC & Fox are flat-out unwatchable, and that leaves what … House Hunters? It’s moot anyway, because we have to cancel the satellite next week.
As usual, thanks to all the wonderful people who support this little circus with subscriptions and donations. If you can spare a few doubloons, please consider subscribing. And yes, it mortifies me to say that every month. But your support literally keeps the lights on around here.
And now, on with the show….
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Ahem. This is actually the June issue. It was ready to go up about ten days ago, but then I woke up one morning and discovered that my desktop computer, the one attached to the ginormous monitor I use when my eyes aren’t working very well (which is frequently the case), was dead as a mackerel. Monitor OK, power supply functioning, fans fine, various drives OK, but it’s d-e-a-d, Jim.
It’s not like I ever really liked the thing; it was a cheapo sub-$400 Dell I picked up on clearance about three years ago. But it was quiet (I have tinnitus already, thanks), and did have an i5 quad-core processor, so it was pleasingly zippy. Plus which it came with Windows 7, which can be handy, so I set it up to dual-boot with Linux. I’m pretty sure the motherboard just croaked. The ethernet network subsystem had died for no good reason about a year after I bought it, which suggests sub-standard soldering. A little Googling indicated that this particular crapoid Dell model — Vostro 260 — has an astronomical failure rate, usually manifested (often shortly after warranty expiration, of course) as a refusal to boot when every test shows it should.
I back stuff up, so I didn’t lose much aside from several days of trying to get the damn thing to work. You’d think I’d have learned not to trust Dell (I now own four dead Dells, dating back to the early 90s), but it was cheap. Now I’m relying on a ten-year old reconditioned laptop that’s gonna have to last another ten years the way things are going. This is all immensely depressing.
Gus and Phoebe, in that order.
On a cheerier note, as promised, here’s Gus the Cat, boxed and ready to ship along with his sister Phoebe. Gus and Phoebe arrived as tiny kittens one day in our yard, along with their brother Harry, ate some leftover pizza, and decided to stay. Their wayward mother, Kiki, wandered in a few months later, bearing such a remarkable resemblance to the crew that the familial relationship was never in doubt. Sadly, Harry died of a respiratory problem a few years ago, but Gus and Phoebe carry on, each with their own unique and sometimes disturbing personality.
The first hint we had that Gus wasn’t your normal couch-cat came when we caught him trying to open the sun porch door with the car keys clenched in his teeth. That’s only a slight exaggeration; early on Gus demonstrated such awesome door-opening skills that we replaced the European lever-style doorknob on that door with a conventional round one. Gus still opens doors occasionally (we keep the outdoor ones locked now), but for the most part confines himself to opening cupboards and closets.
Gus is famous among the other cats for inventing Cat Chow Hockey when he was just a kitten. This sport involves carefully lifting a single bit of chow out of the bowl (optimally located on a high table), placing it on a flat surface, and slapping it with one’s paw so it flies across the room. This gives Gus something to chase and a nice reward at the end. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gus has been known to amuse himself this way for hours at a time. While our dog Pokey was still with us (she died of lymphoma last year), Gus had to race to beat her to the prize. Pokey loved cat chow almost as much as she loved grazing for raccoon scat in the yard.
Gus is also the only cat we have ever had that took pride in teaching tricks to other cats. When we bought a touch-sensitive robot mouse for the gang, they sat around staring at it in torpid puzzlement until Gus stepped forward, tapped the thing to activate its routine (running in circles and cackling maniacally), and then stepped back and looked at the other cats with a “your turn” expression until they got it. Gus is also a master of the “I am everywhere” routine. You’ll see him sound asleep on the bed as you leave the room to go downstairs, but when you get to the living room, there he’ll be, sound asleep (or pretending to be) on the couch. Gus also does this “silent cry” thing where he’ll look at you beseechingly, open his mouth as if to cry, but make no sound. It’s as if he’s too weakened by hunger even to meow. Mama Kiki does exactly the same thing. No shame, any of them. Gus is, incidentally, the reason we unplug the toaster every night.
To return to the computer thing for a moment, I have come to realize lately that any kind of debilitating long-term illness is pretty much a passport to the poorhouse. About nine years ago I signed a deal with a major publisher to write what would be my fifth book, for an advance of, let’s say, enough to buy an economy car new. It was a very good advance at that time; today it would be unheard of for a book on language. Yay! Most money anyone ever offered to pay me for anything! (It’s worth noting, however, that the amount is less impressive when you consider that actually writing the book would probably take 18 months.)
In any case, my euphoria (and the $$$) evaporated a few months later when I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis and I couldn’t finish the book. (I suddenly couldn’t lift my left leg or focus my eyes, among other disturbing symptoms.) Since then it’s been an increasing struggle to a) keep up with my columns and this site, which produces just enough revenue to pay hosting fees and feed a few of the cats, and b) deal with financial emergencies I can’t begin to cover. Our sole car, a trusty Toyota we bought used, is 17 years old (!) and clearly needs some serious repair. After decades of bad dentistry and worse advice, I need full upper and lower dentures, to the tune of ~$5,000. The chances of me ever having $5,000 at one time are pretty clearly zero. I think I’ve figured out why so many folks at the lower end of the economy play Lotto. I’ve considered starting a Kickstarter campaign or something, but it’s not like I need a new kidney. Your contributions and subscriptions, however, will be deeply appreciated.
And now, on with the show….