Black Holes

Not necessarily my better moments

Just a Cat

It was the shoe clawing that left me uncertain.

She was getting old, over 18 years old. Her arthritis was getting worse, but she could still make it upstairs: slowly and painfully, sometimes having to pull herself up with her front legs rather than push from behind.

She had good appetite, always wanting to have her tastes of whatever it was we were eating. She was particularly fond of the salmon steaks I made, and I must admit to having salmon more for her sake than ours.

Then, she stopped eating as much. It started with her midday treats, which began to go uneaten more often than not. Then it was her dry food, and her morning and evening wet food. By the time she lost interest in the salmon, we were desperately worried. She still chased her feather around, though slowly, and not for long. I sometimes think she chased the feather more for us than out of interest.

We knew that this would be her last year. It's something that lurks in the back of your mind, but you don't actively acknowledge in your thoughts. It manifested in little things, like whether I should buy a flat of her cat food, or just a few cans. I bought the flat.

Taking her into the vet was something we didn't do lightly. As a young cat, she was abandoned, twice, at the Humane Society. I think she equated the carrier and the vet with loss, and fought against any trips with a desperation that left us shaken. The only good thing about taking her to the vet was returning home, when she would bound out of her box with a gladness that shown like a ray of silver hued sunshine— tail high, she would explore every nook and cranny of her home, and claw my shoes, to mark possession.

When she stopped eating, though, and could barely drink her water, we knew we had to take her in. During the exam, the vet tried to determine how far we wanted to take tests, because of her age, and the costs. But we had to give her a chance so ordered up the tests.

The results weren't completely definitive. A beginning loss of kidney function was expected, but not the fluid around her lungs. Not good, and ultimately fatal, but neither of which would account for her loss of appetite. The doctor did think there was a good possibility of cancer, perhaps returning via her thyroid where she had a tumor once before. We had treated her for her thyroid tumor, but in rare cases the problems can return.

We took her home as we waited the blood tests, and to think about what we could do. At her age, surgery is a high risk, and anything else would require frequent visits to the vet, only to prolong her life a few months. She hated the vet though, and I hated the thought of her last months spent in an endless round of vet trips, needles, being force fed, and poked and prodded by strangers.

We tried hand feeding her using baby food. She'd take a lick or two, but that was it. Still, she purred when rubbed under her chin, snuggled in our arms, and clawed our shoes,

That last day was warm outside, and so I took her out on the front lawn. She was an indoor cat, so this was an extraordinary treat for her. She laid on the cement of the steps and felt the heat of the sun-warmed surface as it soaked into her stiff joints. She walked about on the grass, nibbling on the blades. People would stop when they walked past and comment on how beautiful she was. She was beautiful, silver stripes with white mittens, one eye green and one brown. They didn't see what I saw though: the effort it took for her just to get to her feet, the weakness of her steps.

When not outside, she slept on my lap. After my roommate came home, she slept on his lap. That evening when we talked, asking each other if we were sure, she got up, came over to claw my shoe, and then laid down with her head on my foot.

At ten that night, roommate said good-bye to her and I put her in the carrier and took her to the vet one last time. In the room while we waited the vet, I held her in my arms and talked to her. I thanked her for the joy she brought us for 18 years. I told her how much we loved her.

The vet came in and picked her up to prepare her for the final injection. It would be given through a catheter, which is the quickest, painless approach. Little girl looked up at the vet, thinking she was roommate, and then hissing when she realized she was held by this strange person. My little girl still had fight. I felt pride, and even a faint hint of humor.

In a few minutes, the vet returned with her wrapped in a soft white towel. She was placed in my arms, and the vet asked if I needed more time. I held her close, and said, no, we had said good-byes. One shot, one last breath, a sigh really, and she was gone.

I left with the empty carrier. As I drove through dark streets I screamed—raw, primal cries of grief that stripped my throat. I drove until I couldn't scream anymore and then went home.

I no longer see her shape out of the corner of my eye, and it's no longer strange not to see her water and food bowls. I told myself I wouldn't second guess the decision we made. I don't most of the time, but every once in a while, when I put my shoes on, I remember that last time she clawed my shoe.


Decisions, Decisions

There is nothing more implacable than a decision waiting to be made.

It can shake you out of sleep, pulling the covers off, forcing you out of bed and to your feet. It can hover around you during your waking hours, beating at you with tiny, subliminal fists of frustration.

As time passes the decision grows and swells, bulges from barely sensed speck to overshadowing monster. Your attempts to fend it off become weaker as it smothers you in it's soft folds, pushes you against the wall, and rolls over you as you try to run.

Poets write of Decision. In The Road Not Taken Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler

The poem ends with "…and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

In this poem Frost sees Decision as noble — Man choosing to follow his own path rather than following the crowd. Compare this to Dorothy Parker's caustic and brutally direct 'Resume':

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

No nobility here — life as a lesser of evils.

Not all decisions are the same. Whether to choose strawberry ice cream or chocolate is but a moment's thought; after all, one can choose chocolate tomorrow when choosing strawberry today. There are an infinite number of these decisions made in a life.

Some decisions, though, can only be made after sleepless nights, and days spent in thought—little scales in your mind working overtime. To have a child or not. To marry or not. To make this move, buy this house, take this job, follow this path. Or not.

Regardless of the magnitude or its impact, once the the decision is made, you're free of the weight, the monster has rolled on. This leaves plenty of room for Decision's younger brother, Regret.


Car Repair

Car repair is not a linear progression, with incidents sweetly spaced so as to remind us, gently, that nothing lasts forever.

It is an aggregation of aggravation, where one failure begets another, in clumps timed to crest when your wallet is flattest. Unlike that twinge in our side, or that odd pressure in our chests, we can't ignore the symptoms of pending failure when it is our cars that get sick. No matter how hollow the piggy bank, we can't disregard that tick, that bang, that odd noise coming from the wheel, or the window that will not raise.

The window that will not raise...once upon a time, before we got clever, whether a window would raise or lower was a cooperative effort between us and car: the car door window would exist, and we would apply our muscle to crank the window up or down.

Now, we've shifted all the burden to the car, and expect it to do our bidding when we flick a button. Handy when we're driving along and need more air; less so when you click the button and nothing happens. Worse, when nothing happens after the window is already down.

Then we're ripping plastic bag and holding sticky, grimy duct tape—to cover this hole that seemed so small yesterday, but is a veritable cavern mouth today. One puff of wind and the car is suddenly transformed into a Victorian street harlot, pocked with boils.

Cars. Cars free us. Cars take us places. They keep us dry in storms, cool in summer, warm in winter. They help us to get to seaside and forest, work and home.

They also attach themselves to our bank accounts, like a leech to a vein.

Cars. We wear them down, and they wear us down, in return.

Carfefully balanced pile or rocks on beach


RIP Thinker

If you've seen my photo titled The Thinker you've seen our zoo's favorite chimp, Cinder.

Cinder suffered from a hereditary disease that caused her to lose her hair when she was young, though her health was good despite the loss. She's a sweet tempered girl, and one of my favorite photo subjects, because her hairless state provides visual access to her fascinating physiology. Cinder also has the most expressive face.

The Thinker

Cinder and seven other of her chimp family members caught a cold last week. According to a press release, she looked like she was improving Sunday morning and that her appetite had returned. However, she suddenly collapsed Sunday afternoon, and couldn't be saved.

I've spent hours in her company—sharing glances through glass, across the fields outdoors, her posing for many photos. I'm really going to miss my Thinker.


Lifetime Discomfort

At a 'celebrity' graphic designer event, an audience member asked the all male participants the following question:

Why do you — all three of you — suppose there are so few female graphic designers — or at least so few female 'superstar' graphic designers? Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?

What was the response for one of the participants, Milton Glasner?

[Glaser said] that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that “women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.” He continued: "Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change." About day care and nannies, he said, "None of them are good solutions."

The crowd was silent except for a hiss or two and then Eggers piped up that he and his wife both work from home and share child care responsibilities — but added that maybe New York was different (although we don't think Eggers really believes this). Then it was clear to everyone in the room that it was time to move on.

We're brought up from birth to adapt to a standard of excellence that is derived from the male. We're taught to exclaim at male art, male cooking, male design; to admire male scientists and engineers and their behavior; to respect male assertiveness in politics or war. We hear about the male heroes of history, with only an occasional aside to some female character–usually a duplicitous one.

It starts early: the school boy who raises his hand in class is called on to answer 50% more frequently than the girl sitting next to him. No one ever assumes when a boy does poorly in math, it's because he's a boy.

We face blatant double-standards in the work place: being competitive is seen as necessary for 'manly' men, but being competitive makes a woman a 'ball buster'. Speaking out is commendable, if you're male; shrill, loud, abrasive if you're not. We have to yell just to be heard, but when we're heard, we're told to stop yelling.

When we're equally capable, we have to hide who we are just to get a chance at an opportunity. Orchestras have finally started hiding musicians behind screens during try outs, so that women would have an equal chance in auditions. It works, too.

If we're pretty, we're called 'hot' rather than intelligent, astute, erudite. If we want to be feminine we're not treated seriously. If we don't want to bind our breasts, flatten our shoes, lengthen our skirts, we're subtly assured that we're 'not committed enough'. Lipstick is the corporate kiss of death.

Managers don't want us in important positions during child rearing ages because we'll quit to have babies, though statistics show most women committed to a career, stay with the career. If we want the opportunities, if we show our earnestness they're still given to Sam or Joe or Don, because they'll 'stick' around. Yet Sam or Joe or Don is just as likely to leave as Sara or Jane.

We're dependable, but the guys are brilliant. We're cooperative, but the guys are innovative. We're nurturing, but the guys are powerful. Anything outside of this pattern just can't be seen.

In the fields where supposedly it's OK to be woman and capable, our work is judged as lesser. How many women artists display shows at major galleries, as compared to men? How many famous chefs are women? Other than Julia Child? Women now make up almost 50% of the law school graduates: how many judges are women? How many women on the Supreme Court?

How many women in Congress? In a free and egalitarian society, doesn't it strike you as odd when those who 'represent' us, don't look like us, don't act like us, and sure as hell, don't think like us?

We're told we're not good at tech, but we make great librarians. However, even in a field dominated by women, male librarians end up with most of the management positions.

We don't know how to write to appeal to a society dominated by male viewpoints. We don't know how to design for a society that is conditioned to a male perspective. We don't know how to debate when the rhetorical rules are derived by men for men. Even our technology: how do we know that women aren't put off from technology because the tools are customized for how a man thinks, works, programs?

We're told to cut along the lines, just like the boys, but then we're given scissors for the wrong hand and chastised for our clumsiness.

To tell a room full of people who ask, "Why are there no women", because we're home having babies should shame the speaker to a lifetime of silence and remorse. Mr. Glasner may love New York, but he doesn't love women. How can he, when he obviously respects us so little.

As for Michael Bierut, what was his response?

"Superstar" designers — and that's what we're talking about; read the question again — aren't just good designers. They're celebrity designers. And celebrity is a very specific commodity. It certainly helps to be good at what you do to be a celebrity designer (although celebrities in other fields don't always seem to have this requirement). But that's only a start. You also need to develop a vivid personality, an appetite for attention, and a knack for self-promotion. Accept every speaking engagement. Cough up a memorable mot juste for every interviewer. Make sure they spell your name right every time. This is time consuming work, particularly on top of your regular job, which presumably consists of doing good graphic design. Naturally, if you choose this route, it helps to be free of the distractions of ten to twenty years of caring for children, to say the least. In many ways, Milton Glaser's observations were shocking only in their obviousness.

That's interesting. I didn't know that celebrity designers were celibate monks with no family life and friends? Huh. Well, that's good to know for all the young women and men entering the field: you can't have a family if you want to make it to the top.

Bierut also wrote:

Yet, you have to start somewhere. Glaser answered the question on the card, but the real question was the unspoken one: "Why is it that you guys up there are always…guys?" There is no good answer for this, and it doesn't seem we should have to wait 150 years to come up with one. It's depressing for a profession that's more than half female to keep putting up 100% male rosters, at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else. And I say this with no small degree of self consciousness, as a member of a firm where only 10% of the partners are women. This is what made me squirm last Monday night, and it's what makes me squirm today.

So sorry you had a moment of discomfort. We women have a lifetime of it.



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