Learn something new …

In the “Learn Something New Every Day” category, here are a few things I learned this week:

– A cafe au lait is brewed coffee and steamed milk and a latte is espresso and steamed milk. (Thank you, Julie, as the Penfield Starbucks, for my coffee lesson)

– Starbucks calls a cafe au lait a “misto”.

– Some varieties of the apples at the grocery store have been stored for up to a year in a temperature-controlled environment where the oxygen has been replaced with nitrogen. (Thanks to the Wegman’s produce manager and staff for taking time to educate me about apples, onions and importing fruits and vegetables – and coffee bean roasting …)

– A Vidalia onion can’t be called a Vidalia onion unless it’s been grown in Vidalia, Georgia.

– The more you roast a coffee bean, the less caffeine it has. (As opposed to a tea leaf, which is opposite; green tea has less caffeine than black tea. Tea still has less caffeine than coffee. This I know from my days owning a tea shop, and that comes right from some Indian tea growers.)

– It’s important to care about your family tree and save letters, journals, photos and family memorabilia – even when you don’t really care about your family tree, because someday you’re going to care and you’ll want stuff and kick yourself for not saving things than can help you trace your heritage.

– Cats are very strange animals.

A Day at the Dairy Farm

I took a tour of a dairy farm on Sunday, and I have to tell you that I have a whole new respect for the milk I pour into my tea several times a day.

The Post family has been farming for three generations. Currently, they have 400 cows, 250 of which they milk. They farm about 750 acres; 200 or so are beans and peas that they supply to a cannery nearby, and the rest is corn that feeds the cows.

While we were walking around, a baby calf was born out in the fields. We learned that the calves are sold if they’re males and kept if they’re female. I also learned that a heifer is a female cow that hasn’t had a calf. (See, you learn something new every day!)

We also learned that the farmer keeps track of every single cow, their fertility and gestation periods, how much milk they produce, what they eat in an exact recipe and everything else that keeps a cow healthy.

The cows are milked three times a day; each milking takes 4 or 5 hours. The milking is done by machine. The cows parade into the milking room, where a person hooks the machine up to the cow’s udder. They’re milked for maybe 5 minutes and when the milk is done the machine automatically releases. It’s a messy job, and someone on the farm spends 12 hours a day milking cows.

They collect about 2,000 gallons of milk a day, which is sold to the Upstate Milk cooperative. It’s turned into milk, ice cream and cultured products like cottage cheese and yogurt.

I’m not going to lie: a cow farm stinks. But I was amazed at what goes into producing milk. I never knew how much work it takes to run a dairy farm, or how much personal family life is invested in the success of that farm.

Farmers get a bad rap from PETA-nuts, are taxed into oblivion, and most the city folk would rather turn farmland into subdivisions. But the thing most Americans forget is that their food comes from somewhere, and I’d sure as heck get my milk from a local dairy farmer than from China. (As you already know, I’ve stopped using canned mandarin oranges because they’re imported from China.) We need to start giving farmers some respect, because without them we’d starve. And I mean that literally.

So the next time you go to Starbucks, remember that somewhere in America, a farmer toiled over acres of cow corn, shoveled more manure than you can imagine a cow can produce, kept track of fertility and gestation periods of hundreds of cows, and generally spent his entire life farming – so you could have a latte.

Petit mal kitty cat

Murphy was acting funny today, kind of slinking across the floor unsteadily, and his eyes were darting back and forth. I took him to the vet, and while we were there it happened several times again. The vet things he’s having petit mal seizures. They have him for the day and give him some phenobarbitol and then we’ll pick him up to come home because there’s no one overnight at the vet’s.

It was so weird – one minute the cat was fine, the next he was all out of sorts, couldnt’ walk straight or hold his head upright. And it only got worse. The last episode I saw lasted for a couple of minutes. I’m trying to find something he might have eaten or gotten into. That cat is everywhere. I came home the other day and he’d lost his breakaway collar. If I can find where he’d gotten tangled up I might be able to find what he got into. Although the vet says it’s likely just epilepsy and not a toxin, but the blood work should give us more clues.

Travels with Charley

This summer, we were supposed to take a road trip to Wyoming to visit friends. The trip had to be cancelled for various reasons, and I admit that I’m still not over it.

I’m reading “Travels with Charley,” John Steinbeck’s account of his cross country trip in a truck and cab/camper with his poodle Charley. I’ve never read the book before (which is odd, because I’ve read almost everything else he’s written) but it’s got me yearning again to pack the car with the bare necessities, including the dog, and hit the road to … somewhere. The friends we were supposed to visit in Wyoming are now in South Carolina, and that’s a drive I can go by myself. So there’s the possibility of that.

And yet I ask myself how much I do right in my own backyard. I haven’t been to Letchworth since I was a child. I haven’t pitched a tent and slept outside in two years, and even then only at the amusement park during Kingdom Bound. I went to the art gallery two years ago for the first time since high school, spent four hours looking at art and loved it, but haven’t been back. I love the Butterfly Conservatory in Key West, and yet a larger one is down the thruway in Niagara Falls – in fact, they just built one right in Rochester. I haven’t visited the zoo, or sat for hours watching my favorite river otters, in years.

I’m writing a column for ByLine Magazine about where I get my story ideas, and as I listed places – do something different, so the same thing differently, walk the mail route with your mailman, spend a day shadowing a high school freshman, for example – I realize I’m good at giving advice but not so great at taking it myself. Doing something once doesn’t mean you never do it again, and yearning for the open road when you rarely travel past your own block is like wishing for the moon while sitting on a star.

Mischievious Murphy

When I took Murphy to the vet last week for his second leukemia shot, I told Dr. Hawkins I was a little bit worried, because Murphy didn’t seem to be eating as much as he normal. (Normal for him is to meow every time anyone goes into the kitchen, and to scarf down his food without chewing.) She thought that he was actually younger than a year when we adopted him, since he’d gained almost a pound and a half since his last visit, but since the worms were cleared up his appetite was probably back to normal for his age.

Well, the mystery has been solved. When David went into the basement the next day, he found a hole chewed in the 25# bag of Purina One Cat Food, a hole just big enough for a 7 1/2 pound cat to stick his head in and eat whenever he was hungry. Which apparently was often, considering the amount of food that was gone. We know it’s not the dog eating the food, because Scout doesn’t go in the basement (although he might if he knew there was a free buffet down there).

Anyway, we cut off Murphy’s on-demand food source and he’s back to his normal self: meowing every time someone goes into the kitchen, and stationing himself next to his food dish in the hopes that someone will feed him.

Alien Cloggers

Our bathtub had a clog yesterday that didn’t respond to either liquid drain cleaners or this lovely metal snake that you jam down the drain to try and dislodge the blockage. Being the quick thinker that he is, David got out the Shop Vac, shoved the hose down the drain, and sucked the clog out.

I was in the kitchen while he was doing this, making dinner and trying to ignore the clanging and banging and whirring coming from overhead. I only know he got the clog out because he brought it down to show me.

Our drain had been blocked with a wad of hair about the size of a fist, hair the color of which is not found in the natural world. I don’t have hair that color. David doesn’t have hair that color. Cassie doesn’t have hair that color. Not even the dog has hair that color. And if any of us shed that much hair in the shower we’d be completely bald. Which can only mean one thing: when we’re not looking, aliens are sneaking into the house to shower.

I would say that they came while we aren’t home but since I almost never leave the house they have to be sneaking in wearing a cloaking device. (I know they don’t come disguised as bats, because we haven’t seen any bats this summer.) Those noises that I’ve attributed to the cat rummaging through my closet? Probably aliens looking for something to wear. The scratching I hear coming from inside the walls? Must be them sneaking out after their spa treatment. The dog’s penchant for barking at nothing? Aliens must be visible to dogs.

Their presence actually explains a lot. While they’re here, they obviously take the clean clothes out of the dryer and throw them on the floor. They use our daughter’s cell phone to call all over the U.S. during peak hours. They drink all the milk and put the empty jug back into the fridge.

And clearly, they don’t clean their hair out of the drain.

Where is Kelsey wearing?

Following up on my post yesterday about where my food comes from, I want to recommend that you stop over to Where Am I Wearing?, a site hosted by my friend Kelsey Timmerman.

I met Kelsey at the ’06 Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop and was immediately intrigued by his writing. He’s a traveler, which makes me jealous. But mostly, it was the story he told about traveling to (I think) Honduras to track down the person who made his t-shirt and actually meeting the worker who sewed the shirt. Since then, he’s been all over the world visiting factories and actually talking to the workers who make the clothes we import. He’s also a window into global culture. He’s funny, and his work has a point.

I wonder if he travels to China if can find out who cans my mandarin oranges.

Love A Farmer: Buy Local

Mattel today announced a recall on toys made in China because the levels of lead in the paint used on some toys could exceed permissible levels. In the past year we’ve had recalls on toothpaste, pet food, juice, costume jewelry and more.

As the list of tainted products from China grew I decided that, along with my personal ban on artificial colors, artificial flavors and sodium benzoate, I would stop buying any product made in China.

Once again, I’m amazed to learn that we’re importing products from China that we’re producing right here in our own country.

Case in point? Mandarin oranges.

You know, those little orange sections that come in a can with syrup. I use them on salads and when I make chicken. Imagine my surprise to find that they’re a product of China.

Uh, just in case anyone at any of the companies that can those sweet little oranges hasn’t noticed, we have oranges right here in America.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, last year American farmers produced 11.6 million tons of citrus fruits, so why in God’s name are we importing oranges from China?

Is the problem that 11.6 million tons isn’t enough for our own use? Do we need to supplement our own citrus consumption with fruit from China?

Hardly. According to the Florida Department of Citrus, in May of 2007 alone we exported to other countries 62.56 million pounds of oranges (and that includes mandarins) and almost 18 million gallons of citrus juice.

I’m not a farmer and I’m not an expert on international business, but does it seem a little odd to anyone else that we’d grow our own food, sell it to other countries, and then import it back from a country with quality control standards as low a China’s?

Rather than spending so much time and money trying to get China to increase their quality control standards, why don’t Americans simply stop buying those products? We import them because Americans buy them. I’ve heard the argument that China can produce the products more cheaply, but in the end, how much less expensive is it to import tainted products and then have a recall? I’d rather pay a little more for a Florida orange than worry about where the fruit came from and what harm it could do.

Anyway, I don’t suppose that it’s even possible to completely avoid tainted products. As my sister-in-law reminded me, look at the e-coli problem with spinach grown right in California.

Oh well, I’m off to make myself a sandwich with some lovely tomatoes purchased at my local grocery store and grown by a local farmer. It’s a start, right?

Flying kittens

When I brought Murphy home from the Humane Society, all he wanted to do was snuggle and purr and cuddle. Then the doctor gave him some medicine to get rid of his worms, he also got over his cold, and suddenly he became a completely different cat. He’s still snuggly and cuddly and purry, but he’s also emerged as a sort of fearless Feline Flying Wallenda.

Last week I came home from the store and was greeted at the door by both Scout and Murphy. They were both licking their lips, Scout with a slightly ashamed countance. Turns out the cat had gotten onto the counter and thrashed around in the sugar bowl, tossing down a bit so the dog could join in the fun.

Then I found Murphy in the kitchen sink licking the dirty dishes. When I turned the faucet on him he sat there until his head was soaked. Then he jumped down to lick himself dry.

A day later, I was washing the dishes (not the same dishes, just to be clear) and he leapt up and splashed into the sink.

Later, I was cooking dinner and he suddenly sprang from a sitting position onto my back, digging his front claws into my waist and using his back legs to scramble up. (Ouch)

The next day, I was sitting at the computer when I heard a thump and turned to see that Murphy had jumped onto the stove, snagged a lovely tomato that I’d just cut one slice out of, pushed it onto the floor and was dragging it around the kitchen. (Ick)

He’s gotten into the garbage. He’s climbed onto the stove and torn apart shortcakes I’d just baked. He’s climbed the bookcase like a ladder. Like a bolt of lightning, he flies out from nowhere to thrust his paw into the middle of my dinner plate.

Scout has grown into a great dog. I can leave a bowl of dog biscuits out and he won’t touch them, even if I’m not in the room. Murphy found an unopened bag of cat treats, dragged it under the bed to the farthest corner, ripped it open and ate every treat.

He’s afraid of nothing -not the vacuum, a spray bottle, the dog. He’s content anywhere he is. He’s never scratched anyone, although he’s constantly staging surprise attacks on Scout, pouncing out from under the couch to hang onto his tail or back leg and gnaw on him like a turkey leg.

I can train a dog. Scout’s a good dog. But I don’t know how to train a cat. Is that normal? Or should I put Murphy in the circus?

Random Musings on the Freelance Life #102: The good and the really frustrating

The benefit of having a real job is that you get a real paycheck on the same day every week. Even if your hours vary every week, you have a pretty good idea of how much money you have coming in on payday. If you work 30 hours this week, you can pretty much be assured you’ll be paid for them the next time you’re scheduled for a paycheck.

The problem with freelancing is that you’re at the mercy of the publications you write for, who tend to send your money after they’ve paid everyone else, including the exterminator. Which means that if you work 30 hours this week writing an article, it might be 60 or 90 or 120 days before you see that money. Even if you’re supposed to get it in 30 days.

Hence the reason why we’ve had to cancel our trip to Wyoming.

While we had plenty of money saved, about $1,000 in payments I’d been expecting since May still hadn’t come in by July 1st, meaning that we had to spend the Wyoming money in May and June to cover normal expenses and conference fees. When it came time for us to take off on our trip the first week in July, the money we’d saved was spent on other things and it’s replacement was nowhere in site

I got check a couple of weeks ago; apparently the magazine had a computer snafu and lost all of their invoices, and mine was one that got lost in the shuffle. I can live with that. This magazine usually pays very quickly and mishaps happen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us to still take our trip.

And the rest of the money is still tied up at publications who have ignored by repeated requests for payment, who have give me myriad excuses ranging from “we don’t have any money” to “we’re waiting for payment from someone else so we can pay you.”

It’s a frustrating business, freelancing. I love it, don’t get me wrong. I have freedom and flexibility, and get to be creative and interact with lots of different people every day. I couldn’t take my dog to a real job.

But it’s extremely frustrating to do the job for which you’ve been hired, to turn in your work on time and to the editor’s specs, and then wait for 3 or 4 months past the invoice date to get paid because they’re running short on operating cash.

So a piece of advice for newbie freelancers: remember that there’s more to your career than writing. Freelancing is a business. You not only do the work but you’re the accounting department, marketing department, and chief operating officer. Work with those people who help make your job easier, not more difficult.

The down side of cleaning

I spent much of this weekend cleaning. I know, and it didn’t even trigger earthquakes, tsunamis or the apoloclypse.

The last time our house was “spic and span, invite the neighbors over” was when Cassie graduated from high school and we had her graduation party. That she’s turning 22 in September will give you an idea of how long that’s been.

It’s not that the house is completely unpresentable. It’s just that things kind of took on a life of their own, and after a while it was easier to let the clutter take over than fight it.

When Cassie went to college, I decided to paint and add shelves in my office, so I moved my computer in to the dining room. Soon, the office became the “someone’s coming, quick, throw the junk in the office” room. The dining room became my office, which doesn’t really lend itself to dinner parties, not that we ever had dinner parties anyway.

Each of Cassie’s returns from college – for breaks and finally for good – brought a few more boxes of stuff. We set her computer up in the dining room with mine, and viola! Instant double office mess, and boxes stored in the spare room and her bedroom (and the hallway …)

When she moved to Florida, I did clean the spare room and was just contemplating moving my office upstairs when she came home. With a lot more stuff. Stuff that’s been sitting in my foyer and dining room for a year.

Making probably the biggest mess is all of the review materials. I have crates (and crates and crates) of CDs, DVDs and books, a lot of which can be given away. But there’s a lot in there I want to keep. I just need to spend a day going through it all.

The problem is that when you let a mess grow it gets harder and harder to know where to begin to start cleaning it up. Just the thought of diving into piles of files or boxes of household item or stacks of old bills is exhausting. Much easier to simply shove it in a closet – or the office.

So yesterday, I started to tackle the mess. I put together two new filing cabinets, and spent hours sifting through file crates of old papers, folders, notes and other stuff. I organized missions stuff and magazines. My desk area is looking much neater. We’re getting the garage roof done next month, and David has taken a week off to supervise the project and help me haul everything out of my former office/junk room, and paint, put up shelves, and move me back in there.

But for now, my makeshift office in the dining room looks pretty good.

The problem, of course, is that now I can’t find anything.

Sitting at my nice, neat desk I was holding some notes for my dog book that I needed to file. Only I couldn’t remember what I did with the dog book file. Normally, it would be on the right hand pile on my desk, the one the cat loves to topple on his way to the window sill.

Except now I’m an organized writer. Where would an organized writer put a dog book file?

It wasn’t in the filing cabinet (actually, there’s not much in either cabinet yet). It wasn’t on my desk. It wasn’t in the wire rack on my desk. Any of those are place that a dog book file should be, at least that’s where they should be in a clean office.

After a bit of searching, I found it in my book bag.

“The problem with cleaning,” I told my husband later, “is that you can’t find anything. Even though this looks like a mess, I know exactly where everything is. Or at least I did before I started cleaning. That’s why I don’t clean.”

What’s a day without one good rationalization?

Meet Murphy

Last Saturday, I did something I thought I’d never do: I got another cat.

I didn’t intend to get another cat, at least not yet. But Lollypop farm, our local Humane Society, was running a “summer special” on cats and kittens ($50 off, and they were spayed or neutered, had shots, were flea’d, wormed and microchipped, and came with a vet visit and 30 days of pet insurance) so I figured it was at least worth checking out. Any cat more than 5 months old was only $25.

The process at Lollypop Farm is long. I mean, reeeeeally long. There were hundreds of people there to see the cats and dogs, and I spent about 4 hour deciding which cats I wanted to see, then filling out the adoption paperwork and waiting for my turn to see 3 cats (the max they’ll let you see).

I sat on the floor in the “meet and greet” room as Joy, the adoption counselor, showed me first two 9 month old cats (cute, but busy with each other), then a cage full of playful kittens (cute, but they didn’t even realize I was in the room) and finally a 4-year-old cat named Jasmine. The cats crawled under the bench, scratched at the walls, chased a ball around, and tumbled over each other. Jasmine was probably the best match, temperment-wise; she was calm but a bit unsure of me. I wasn’t sure I wanted a cat that old.

Let me state for the record that I am not a cat-person. I loved MY cat. And if I was going to get another cat, it had to be the right cat. Not a nice cat or a cute cat or a pretty cat but THE cat. Penny had a difficult temperment, was moody, and sometimes not the most pleasant cat to have around. That’s why I loved her so much. She was just like me. And while I was eager to rescue a cat and Lollypop Farm had a great deal, it had to the perfect match. And so far, I wasn’t feeling it with any of the cats I’d seen.

After I’d seen my alotted three cages, Joy said she was very happy to spend a few more minutes with me, so she went to put Jasmine back into her cage and get one more cat that another attendent, Katie, insisted I see.

While Joy was gone I started tearing up a bit, because I was really missing Penny and it was looking like I’d never find another cat I could bond with the same way. I asked God that when the time was right to send me the right cat, and I started to gather my purse, ready to tell Joy I didn’t want to see any more cats. Then she came back in with a cat they called Zoro.

Zoro was about a year old, and had been brought in as a stray. They’d randomly picked a name from a book so they could put something on the information card. He was snuggled in Joy’s arm’s, purring, as she carried him in. “This one’s a lover,” she laughed.

She put him on my lap, where he immediately settled in and started kneading his paws on my arms. I sat on the floor and took him off my lap, thinking he might like to check out the room, and instead he climbed back onto my lap, licking my arm and kneading his paws. When I reached under his chin to scratch, he stretched up and rubbed his face on mine.

“That’s the way cats mark their territory,” Joy said with a smile. But I already knew for sure what she was trying to imply: this was my cat.

After filling out paperwork, I brought the cat home – I already knew we were changing his name – and prayed that he and Scout would get along. I had been torn about getting another cat because I thought maybe Scout was enjoying his time as the only pet in the house. Then again, he’d lived his whole life with us with a cat and if we were going to add another one now was a good time.

When we brought Scout home last year, Penny high-tailed it for the basement, where she stayed for a month. Gradually, she made her way up and joined the family, and while she and Scout find a way to co-exist there was always some tension between them. Scout was constantly scratched across his nose from Penny’s attacks.

This cat, on the other hand, popped out of his carrying box and settled in quite nicely with the dog. Once, when Cassie was holding the cat, Scout lunged at them both, causing the cat to scratch Cassie. But he never fled and soon they were both tolerating each other, if not happily enjoying each other.

We named the cat Murphy. He’s been with us for four days, and except for the first night, when we locked him in the kitchen (with basement access) until we were sure he knew where his litter box was and that he was using it, he and Scout have slept in our bed. Right now, they’re curled up about two feet from each other, sound asleep. Scout’s accidentally entered Murphy’s personal space a few times, usually trying to retrieve a ball, but hasn’t bled even once from the experience.

Murphy seems quite content in his new home. He’s eating, cuddling, purring, using his litter box, and generally making it known that living with us is much more enjoyable than the streets.

The balance of fur in the household finally feels normal again.

(PHOTOS: Cassie bonds with Murphy the cat. Let me assure you – he’s most at home when part of his body is lounging on part of your body. Or when he’s eating. If he can do both, he’s in cat heaven.)

The last days of Penny

It’s been 9 days since my cat Penny ate anything, and 10 days since she came home from the vet with a diagnosis of “something untreatable”, which is another way for the vet to say, “That’ll be $436.12 to keep her overnight, take an x ray, do blood work and give her some fluids, and if I’m being honest it’ll cost another $8,734.29 to diagnose and treat whatever it is that’s wrong, assuming it’s something we can treat, which I don’t think it is.” (OK, so $8,743.29 might be a slight exaggeration. Slight. The $436.12 is the exact amount I paid last week.)

Anyway, the vet said there’s a chance that if Penny stopped eating and drinking she might just curl up and go to sleep on her own, which would save us from having to put her down, or as our daughter so politely refers to it, becoming “cat murderers.” (“Can we just stop the senseless killing of innocent housepets, please?”)

I’ve checked on Penny several times a day this week and been afraid to touch her because I thought she might be … eternally sleeping. But she’s not, and in fact wanders into the kitchen with look that seems to say, “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

Which I don’t want to anyway. But I’m feeling very sorry for her. The fluid has come back in her abdomen (they drew 1/2 a liter out last week) so she’s waddling uncomfortably. And she can’t have much strength left after 9 days with no food and very little water. But as long as she can get around, I’m not taking her to the vet.

Here’s to the prayers that she curls up and goes to sleep peacefully, all on her own, closing her eyes in this life to open on the next and find Natasha there, ready chase her through the pearly gates.

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