Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Group: Smart Chick Lit

I wasn't sure what to make of Mary McCarthy's The Group when my mom picked it up at a used book store and handed it to me saying, "Here, I think you should get this." I looked at it puzzled for minute, shrugged, and added it to my respectable stack. Why didn't I tell her to get the book herself if she thought it looked good? Because after 30 years and multiple advanced degrees, "I think you should get that" still means, "don't even try paying for that if I'm around." So it sat in my "to read" pile for over a year. At almost 500 pages, I didn't think I could concentrate on a story for that long with so many other distractions in my life right now.

Interestingly, I picked it up just to reread the back - like I do with so many books when making the important decision of what to read next - shortly after my visit to the JFK Presidential Museum. I noticed that the book was about a group of Vassar graduates, the same college Jackie Kennedy graduated from. Intrigued, and struck by the coincidence, I decided to read it. Rarely do I read a book that I enthusiastically recommend just because reading a book is a commitment and people have such different tastes. I was so pleasantly surprised by this book that I just had to write up a review and recommend this book to those of you, who like me, may have never been exposed to it.

The Group is chick lit before chick lit as we know it existed, let alone became the homogenized retelling of the same story and marketed for beach goers and only the most casual readers. It is about eight friends who, after growing up privileged, graduate from Vassar college in 1933 and find themselves in a whole different world, namely New York City at the height of the depression. It was written in 1963, an odd time from my perspective. Not only is this book sort of "old" but it was written itself about an older period. Maybe this is why it escaped my attention, though just a little bit of internet searching revealed Mary McCarthy to be a literary force in the 1960s. If the story line as I'm describing it is failing to grab you, don't feel bad. I wasn't taken in immediately either. But once I started reading it, I was hooked.

The book drifts in and out of the lives of these eight woman, who after graduation all choose different paths that span between immediately marrying, going abroad, and aggressively pursuing careers. And let me just tell you that for the 1930s, I found their lives much more full of intrigue than I had ever expected (e.g. you learn a great deal about 1930s birth control than you could ever hope to). The way life unfolds for each of these girls is fascinating. But what I really loved about this book was that the characters actually had depth and dimension, something you don't find in female-oriented novels these days. While it would have been easy to allow one girl to be the prude, one the ditz, one the slut, one the brainiac and so on, each girl was complex, facing her own set of problems and making decisions that then re-shaped her character as she aged.

One caveat - I'm not sure if you guys out there would like this book very much. It is, after all, about women with female protagonists, and well, male antagonists. There's the roaming husband, the egotistical doctor husband, and the bachelor seducer. I forgive Mary McCarthy for this, because she managed to portray the educated woman as such a complex creature. Plenty of books out there do the same for men.

And lest you think this book is only about women and relationships, there is still the back drop of the depression including life during the implementation of the New Deal. The characters are constantly engaged with each other over the state of a country nursing its wounds after being brought back from the brink of collapse and how the foreign concepts of the New Deal will shape their lives. Sound familiar? It's nearly uncanny, the only difference being that the two sides actually converse and exchange ideas rather than carry out two divergent monologues.

If you are looking for a book with a great story line, told by an interesting literary voice that challenges you while entertains you, I highly recommend this book.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Happy One-Year Anniversary to McLovin, the Three-Legged Wonderkitty

I can't believe it's been a full year since we acquired McLovin. I know I filled you in shortly after we rescued him and I let you know when we decided to keep him (even though you knew already). One year later, McLovin is such a joy and so big and healthy I marvel at him after remembering the beginning. Since that was such a stressful and hectic time, I don't think I ever really conveyed to you what a heap of a mess he was. For awhile I honestly didn't think he was going to make it.

I remember so clearly the night I first met McLovin. It was mid-July and we were in a particularly rainy spell. The kitties weren't regularly coming out for feedings and on that night I was feeding at a later time after working late. The food from that morning was still sitting out and soaked through to the point of becoming a soup. I went back there and he was sitting all by himself eating. My first thought was "shit, how many are there and who can I talk into taking them?" I was puzzled because he seemed about 12 weeks (yes, I got that good at it) and I had never not seen kittens before around aged 4 to 5 weeks. How could he have escaped my attention? So my second thought was perhaps he was dumped. I was hoping he was dumped because that would mean he was not scared of people and I'd have a much easier time getting him into foster. No one I knew of at the time would even consider take a 12 week old feral. So I slowly approached him and saw the classic signs of feral kittens. He watched me closely with ears reared all the way back and ran away just as I got within arm's reach. And not only that, he hopped away, dragging his front foreleg. Double shit. I also knew from experience that leg dragging is about the worst sign you can see in an injured animal. Functional injured legs - twists, sprains - the animal limps or lifts it above the ground. Dragging means a break, a dislocation or paralysis. I freaked out and called a friend who sent her boyfriend over with a net. We tried for two hours in the pouring rain to lure him out and catch him but didn't see him again.

For three more days I looked for him at regular feeding times and anytime in between. I'd wake up at 6:30 in the morning and right away go look. On my way home from work. Late at night. One night I woke up around 2 am and couldn't get back to sleep so I went out and looked. I asked all the maintenance men if they had seen him and they told me the same thing, yeah they'd seen him but not for a few days. I was distraught, certain a raccoon had gotten at him. Or he'd been hit by a car. Or worse, had wandered far from the colony and was starving to death.

That weekend, Dean had booked a night for us right by Tropicana field so we could enjoy the game and the after concert without driving the hour home as my birthday present. Being the patient, wonderful husband he is, he gave me the out so I could stay home and obsess over the kitten, which was what I had wanted to do. But my friend encouraged me to go. She and her boyfriend had Saturday free and were going to sit outside and wait for him. "If he's still out there, we'll get him," she promised me.

That night at the game, which in itself was one of the best games I've ever been to, I got a text message from her that simply said, "Got him!" I was thrilled. I had no idea what came next and for the moment I didn't care. But I did know I was going to do everything I could to find him the perfect home, even if it was ours.

Since he wasn't in obvious pain, we decided that rather than taking him to the emergency vet that night or even the next day (Sunday) she'd keep him in a holding cage in her house and I'd take him to the vet associated with one of the local rescue groups. They had offered to pick up the medical expenses if we dealt with the foster and adoption on our end. I remember on Monday morning I got up early to take him in. I was encouraged by how he behaved. Again, typical of feral kittens, he shied away from my outstretched hand, but let me grab him out of his cage when he saw there was no place else to go. I gently wrapped him in a towel and put him in my lap. He began purring immediately.

He was totally disgusting. Mud and probably poop all over that limp little paw that had been dragged all over God knows where. Mud on his face. I could see the fleas jumping on him and the dark paste in his ears that was certainly mites. But of course it was that leg I was worried about, though it didn't really seem to bother him.

I brought him all the way across town to the special vet and was completely terrified. The nurses of course snuggled him gently (despite his filthy appearance) and took his blood to test for FIV and feline leukemia. The doctor came in and started examining him, his ears, his teeth, his heart beat and finally his leg. He moved it around in its socket (it wasn't dislocated) and verified all the tendons were in place and said he couldn't find a break. Then he took the kitten's little paw between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed as hard as could. Then he murmured to the nurse, "no sensory response." He told me it was likely nerve damage but couldn't be sure. What he didn't know was if the problem was in his leg or in his head. That freaked me the hell out and I almost began to cry. He left the room with the nurse for a few minutes and I sat there just looking at the poor pathetic kitten purring in my lap. I imagined him having some awful degenerative disease and needing to decide to euthanize him immediately or watch him progressively get worse. Then the nurse came back in took him from me and put him on the floor. She said she wanted to see how he moved and if he could walk in a straight line. I thought he did okay, but I was still badly shaken.

Next the doctor came in and said he was satisfied that the injury was localized and due to trauma, not disease. But we were still waiting on the blood tests. In the meantime, the nurses had taken several "samples" from him and the doctor informed me that he had 5 types of stomach parasites, ear mites, fleas and an infected cut in his mouth. He said he didn't want to give him his first set of shots until after he had done a course of antibiotics. After about another eternity of anxiety, the blood tests came back negative so he was ready to go home.

Because of the deal they had with the rescue group, I had to go to them for the medicine. I went to the rescue lady's house and she had a look at the kitten. She gave him his first dose of de-wormer and gave me enough for him and my other three kitties to have three months worth of doses (giving Wrigley de-wormed is NOT a fun experience, by the way). She also gave me flea medicine, antibiotics, pro-biotics (to promote stomach health while on the antibiotics) and Pepto-Bismol to counter the diarrhea he'd get from the antibiotics. She also suggested that before I apply the flea medicine I should try giving him a bath. The baby shampoo would wash off most of the adult fleas, it would clean up his muddy paw and it might "stun" him into socializing a little easier. But she warned me socializing him would be tough and at 12 weeks he could go either way. She said there was a small market for people who wanted to adopt special needs pets but being feral wasn't going to help his case.

This is where you came in. After he had been nursed back to health, bathed, doted upon and taken into the fold with our other kitties, "Ray" felt like part of the family.

Here's what I never confessed to you: After a couple of weeks of hard work getting him patched up, my same friend who trapped him said that she had a friend who might be interested in adopting him. She had recently adopted another tuxedo kitten and was looking for a playmate for him and since she worked with animals, the little bit of leftover feral tendencies wouldn't bother her a bit. This sent me into an absolute tizzy because I realized at that point I just couldn't give him up. She said she would ask her friend about taking him after the weekend.

That weekend, I didn't tell Dean that I had potentially found a home for Ray. But after weeks of beating around the bush I asked him outright if he thought we could give him up at this point. He could see in my face that I didn't think I could and I didn't think he could either. And then he told me something I'll never forget, one of the best things he has ever told me. He said, "These past couple years I've seen you do a lot of things I never thought you could do. When you brought the first kitten into this house I thought we were doomed. But you did what was best for it and for us and you gave it up. And you did it so many times without ever putting me in the position to tell you no. I know this is almost over and I know you love this kitten. He's your reward for all you've done for those cats." I started crying and hugging him I was so happy. And then he said, "All I ask is that we change his name from Ray to McLovin." Well, all his records are still in the name Ray, because it is admittedly a little strange. But I thought it was a fair trade off.

The next day I emailed my friend and told her we were keeping Ray, her friend couldn't have him. I never told Dean that someone might have been interested. It turns out this friend was a vet tech at the clinic that ended up doing his amputation. Seeing the feral tuxedo kitten with the bum arm, she asked if this was the kitten she had heard about from our mutual friend. I confirmed and we had a good laugh over it. She spent two days with him while he was in recovery before I came and got him. When I picked him up, she made a point to send him off and told me, "You know, I definitely would have taken him."

You all followed his amputation and recovery and know that it stressed me out. Every step of the way with him I have talked myself into the certainty that he won't make it. That I'll have my heart broken. Even now I know his one year checkup is coming up and I am a little more anxious about taking him in (after we move and settle) than I would be for the rest. But for the most part, after his surgery, his healing, and his maturation into a big (!) healthy, happy adult cat I have learned to accept that I have myself a survivor.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Birthday at the Cape

Dean and I celebrated my 30th birthday in style at Cape Cod, as opposed to wallowing in self pity and despair as was my initial plan.

Dean made all the arrangements, and we stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast on the beach.

The owner said a lot of people won't advertise for her because they don't want all the rooms to be taken when they come to visit. Since we probably are not going to make it back anytime soon, I'll gladly let you know that if you want to stay at a great place close to the water and lots of fun restaurants, the Inn at Lewis Bay is perfect. Thanks, Janet!

We chilled at the beach, watched the sailboats in the bay and the kids building sand castles. Once I got past my initial snobbery that the beach wasn't anything like the white sand and green water of the gulf, it was quite nice. This is the type of beach everyone else is used to going to, and probably close to what we'll be by in Maryland.

Like everything else in New England, Cape Cod is crowded, compact and expensive. But beautiful, and full of rich history. We were only a short ways away from where the Kennedys stayed when they vacationed frequently in Hyannis. And we watched another piece of tradition, Cape Cod league baseball. I didn't know much about it, and was surprised to learn that so many people turn out to go to a high school baseball field to watch the top college players (and certainly soon-to-be top draft picks) play some pretty good ball. They come from all over the country and stay with volunteer host families for the summer, often times taking on daytime jobs for spending money for their summer at the Cape. The owner of the B&B said that she had friends that routinely took in players and said that despite a couple bad apples, they are usually gracious and polite. Plus it gives the host family a player to watch for their whole career.

We also had some amazing food and we even snuck out late for a midnight picnic (bottle of wine) at the beach under the stars. We are not usually an overly romantic couple, but that was picturesque, complete with people shooting off fireworks, and watching the lighthouses light up over the bay.

And I was delighted by my souvenir, a t-shirt from Cape Cat!

But most of all, it provided a much needed couple of days away from the stress of putting together another move, Dean trying to find another job and me trying to still excel at this one to keep up my contacts and reputation. It's going to get very busy over the next several weeks, best to face it all with a clear mind and a fully charged battery.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Big Three-Oh

It's here. My thirtieth birthday. I am handling it in my patented mixture of grace and anxiety with which I handle most of life's events. Yes, like everyone who has come before me, I'll admit it snuck up on me. For awhile I was experiencing the existential crisis that many 30 year old women in my position experience. The feeling that I should have kids by now. I should own my home by now. I should be driving a car that is less than ten years old. Okay, some of these goals haven't been met. Some are barely on the horizon. Sure, ten years ago this definitely is not what I had in mind for myself. But in a lot of ways, this is better than what I had in mind. So instead of dwelling on what I don't have today, I'm going to put together a short list of all the things I've experienced that I would never have imagined doing by the time I was 30.

  • Eloping in Vegas.

  • Getting a Ph.D. In Physics.

  • Going to Europe. By myself.

  • Living in 3 different states, just a few weeks shy of moving to my 4th.

  • Seeing baseball games at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Miller Park, Nationals Stadium, Pro Player Stadium, Tropicana Field, and the Metrodome.

  • Publishing 15 papers in academic journals and one book chapter.

  • Eating beignets at Cafe du Monde.

  • Looking out over the Grand Canyon, hiking in the French Alps and the Great Smokey Mountains.

  • Walking along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Lake Superior.

  • Listening to jazz music at the Village Vanguard.

  • Sterilizing over 30 cats and placing about 15 cats and kittens in loving homes (including Dixie, Sauvi, and McLovin).

  • Teaching Girl Scouts about Astronomy and how to find the North Star.

  • Seeing Canada and Mexico.

  • Giving talks to magnetism experts in Los Angeles, Denver, New Orleans, Baltimore, Boston, and Montreal.

  • Meeting a Munchkin.

  • Bombing a job interview.

  • Owning a three-legged cat.

  • Having a little sister.

  • Seeing two presidents speak in person.

  • Eating lunch with a Nobel Laureate.

  • Climbing the steps to the Bell Tower at Notre Dame.

Now it's your turn. What were you proud experiencing when you turned 30? For those youngsters, what do you hope to experience by the time you're my age?