Friday, October 24, 2008

Blood Sugar, Snacks, Magic: A Short Biography of Spalding, the Most Expensive Free Cat Ever

One Sunday morning this August, our daughter Lilah woke us just before dawn saying that she felt like she was going to “make barfies.” This had happened before: Lilah is a skinny five-year-old with minimal body-fat reserves, so if she doesn’t eat well at dinner, her blood sugar drops overnight and she wakes up feeling queasy. The bedtime snack prescribed by our pediatrician had mostly eliminated the problem, but somehow, we’d missed the snack the previous night.

I carried Lilah downstairs, hoping that some crackers, apple juice, and PBS Kids would fend off the barfies. As we passed the kitchen though, I noticed our 15-year-old cat Spalding lying motionless on the floor—not quite dead, but not far from it either.

Unfortunately, this had also happened before. Spalding is diabetic, and if he doesn’t eat enough after his insulin injection, his blood sugar plummets toward unconsciousness and death. This kind of cause-and-effect is hard to explain to a cat though, and Spalding has become finicky in his old age. On two occasions now he has obviously decided that he’d rather die than eat the specially-formulated diabetic yuck that I’ve put down for him.

The first time, I’d come home on my lunch hour to find Spalding lying on his side in the kitchen, unable to use his legs but still howling mournfully. Certain that he was a goner, I’d rushed him to the vet where they’d given him a blast of intravenous glucose. In fifteen minutes, he was back—really pissed-off, but fully functional. The vet said that he would’ve died within the hour.

But this second time, at 5:00 AM on a Sunday, our neighborhood vet’s office was closed. With my wife trying to get some sleep and Lilah battling the barfies, I just wasn’t prepared to haul Spalding to the 24-hour emergency clinic…not yet anyway. I decided that I’d try to coax Spalding back from the brink without professional assistance, and preferably without Lilah noticing what I was doing.

I will admit that money factored into my decision. We’d gotten Spalding as a “free” kitten from a local shelter, but in the nine years since his diabetes diagnosis, we’d spent roughly $15,000 on him. I also knew from experience that, once you enter the emergency clinic, there’s virtually no way to escape without giving them $500, a number that can rise to $2,000 in a blink.

Maybe you’re now wondering how anyone in his right mind could’ve spent $15,000 on a cat in the first place. Or maybe you’re even thinking that I’ve exaggerated the amount for dramatic effect. To that, I say simply: I wish. Each little bottle of insulin costs about $120, and we’ve gone through them every 25-30 days for the last 113 months. The sad truth is that if Spalding had been a non-diabetic cat, I could’ve sent him to UMass Boston (my alma mater) for a full year and still have some cash left for his books and a commuter rail pass (despite countless trips to the vet, Spalding has never adapted to car travel).

I really don’t think of myself as a crazy cat person though. If Spalding had needed a procedure that cost $15,000—or even $5,000—we would’ve said goodbye to him long ago. But feline diabetes isn’t all-or-nothing like that—it’s a medical disaster with a built-in payment plan. In giving us his diagnosis, our vet had told us specifically, “Diabetes in cats is very manageable. This is not something you put a cat down for.”

I’d actually been thinking that this seemed like precisely the kind of thing that you put a cat down for. Shots twice a day? The idea sounded about as plausible as shampooing Spalding in the sink every morning. But I was in no condition to argue with the vet—I just tried to comfort myself with the thought that, no matter how awful it seemed now, it would eventually end. Spalding’s condition sounded so precarious, I couldn’t imagine him hanging on for more than a few years.

As luck would have it though, Spalding is indestructible. I probably should’ve recognized this when, a year before becoming diabetic, Spalding snuck out of our house and disappeared for almost three weeks. We feared the worst—he’d always been an indoor cat and we lived near a very busy intersection—but somehow he survived his walkabout completely unscathed. At this point, Spalding has outlived not only his feline brother Theo, but also his human namesake, Spalding Gray, a truly sad turn of events that I never would’ve predicted.*

But anyway…

With Lilah settled in front of the TV, I prepared a fresh plate of cat food and held it under Spalding’s nose. He just meowed at me though, showing no interest in the food even when I tried lifting him up to get a better angle. Knowing that the food itself might be the problem, I also tried a saucer of milk, but with no better results. As I was doing all this, I kept looking back over my shoulder at Lilah, but she remained oblivious, lost in her TV fog.

Then I had a little flash: Apple juice. Apple juice is pure sugar.

It took me a minute to figure out how to get the juice into Spalding, but then I remembered that we had a stockpile of those little plastic squirt-syringes that come with infant medications. I filled one with apple juice, wedged it into Spalding’s mouth, and gave him a couple quick blasts. He definitely didn’t like it—he shook his head and tried to spit it out—but I knew he must’ve ingested it because there was no juice on the floor. So I kept going, giving him one dose after another, with Spalding getting progressively more and more irritated with me in the process.

What happened next was like something you’d see in a movie:

First I noticed that Spalding was moving his head around a little more, and soon after that, he started trying to prop himself up on his front legs. With his front end righted, he then started pushing up unsteadily with his hind legs. Once he had lifted himself completely off the floor, he started to walk, one wobbling step at a time, toward our coat rack about ten feet away.

I was so happy to see Spalding get up that I didn’t even think about where he was going or why. Once he reached the coat rack though, his purpose became clear: he wedged himself head-first into the shelter of its four-legged base and lay down there, safe from me and my infernal apple juice.

I have to say…I felt pretty darn good about myself, and after two “Dragon Tales” and a “Curious George,” Lilah seemed to have improved as well. She was hungry, so I got her another cup of the magical apple juice and a plain waffle. She ate everything and really seemed to be in much better spirits…right up until she barfed it all back up again.

Spalding was fine though. I’ve stopped trying to feed him the special diabetic food recommended by the vet. It might be better for him in some abstract sense, but I would argue that the supermarket stuff, which he wolfs down without hesitation, saves his life on a daily basis.

I do sometimes daydream about what we could’ve done with the money we’ve invested in Spalding, but part of me suspects that we would’ve just frittered it away, letting it fall between the proverbial couch cushions of our life. And although there are plenty of cool things that you can buy for $15,000—a month in Bhutan, fifty-thousand Twinkees, a 2007 Toyota Corolla with low miles—almost none of them will curl up beside you on the couch and purr while you’re writing. In fact, if somebody offered me $15,000 for Spalding today, I probably wouldn’t take it. (Though please…don’t let that stop you from trying.)

*Epilogue: The Two Spaldings

In 1993, when we first adopted our cats—one gray, one orange—we briefly considered naming them Vincent and Theo, after the brothers Van Gogh. And while we did like the name “Theo” for the orange one, we ultimately decided that “Vincent” wouldn’t do. As much as we appreciated Vincent’s work, it didn’t seem fair to name a kitten after someone who had suffered so much and ultimately killed himself.

For a day or two, we referred to the gray kitten as “Mr. Gray,” but that soon became “Spalding Gray,” in honor of the writer/actor/monologist, whom we’d recently seen perform in Cambridge. Like Van Gogh, Gray had battled depression, but there was no sign of it on stage—he was a hilarious, ecstatic force of nature in a flannel shirt and chinos. And somehow his name seemed to fit this new cat of ours, even if most people assumed that we’d named him after a company that manufactures basketballs.

Just over ten years later, the human Spalding Gray’s family reported him missing. His body was eventually found in New York’s East River, the speculation being that he’d jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. In reading about his disappearance, I learned that he’d been fighting severe depression in the aftermath of a debilitating 2001 car accident. I also learned that he now had a six-year-old son named Theo, who was the last person he’d spoken to.

Our Theo got sick in October of 2006. He’d always been an outgoing cat—the one who greeted visitors at the door, and who snuggled with Lilah every morning while she ate breakfast. But we arrived home late one Tuesday night to find that Theo had peed on the couch and then hidden himself away in the basement, a place where he normally spent little time.

I knew that this wasn’t a good sign, that animals often hide when they get sick. I hung out in the basement with Theo for a while that night, trying to get him to purr. He just tolerated my presence though, eventually walking away and settling down facing the other direction. I planned to take him to the vet the next day, but I also had a feeling that he wouldn’t last the night.

In the morning, I found Theo on the floor near the bottom of the basement stairs. I knew that he was dead, but I couldn’t help thinking how curiously relaxed he looked, lying on his side with his legs stretched out, as if luxuriating in the sun. As I squatted beside him, trying to figure out how I was going to tell Lilah that her breakfast buddy was gone, Spalding emerged from wherever he’d been sleeping. He brushed himself back and forth against my leg and then, stepping directly across Theo’s body, trotted blithely over to his food bowl.

I really didn’t know what to make of that. Spalding had lived with Theo for all of his 13 years, often sleeping side-by-side with him, but now Theo was apparently just an obstacle between Spalding and his breakfast. For a moment, I just sat and watched him eat.

I’ve chosen not to see Spalding’s behavior as callous, partly because doing so would call into question the whole idea of keeping pets in the first place. I prefer to see it as an instructive act—his demonstration that this lifeless body had little to do with the Theo we’d all known, the Theo who had left sometime in the night. I choose to think that Spalding understood exactly what had happened, and that he knew that Theo had been ready to go. Life continues, whether we enjoy it or not.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Windows Vista

Being a seasoned IT professional, people often ask me for computer-buying advice. Lately, people have been asking whether or not they should get a system with “that new Vista thing.”

It’s sad, really: Vista has gotten so much bad press that it’s made even lifelong Windows users think about switching to Macs. Not me though. I’ve been using Vista—and its evil fraternal twin, Office 2007—for six months now, and I’m happy to report that the latest version of Windows has dozens of stunning new features* that you will never, ever find on a Mac. Here are just a few:

One of the very first things that I noticed about Vista was its improved crash sequence. Earlier versions of Windows crashed with ugly dialog boxes or boring blue screens, but Vista crashes in the most dramatic, cinematic way: the screen is suffused in otherworldly white light, and although you can still see all of your hard work right there on the screen, you can’t touch it (or click “save”). Meanwhile, the mysterious little Vista disc spins before you like a shining halo. It really takes your breath away, which is nice, given how often you end up seeing it. One time, I swear I even saw the ghostly form of my original computer, an IBM PCjr, beckoning me toward the light.

Then it occurred to me: if Microsoft can design such an aesthetically pleasing crash, they could undoubtedly keep Vista from crashing in the first place. So clearly, these are not really “crashes,” but reminders of our own mortality. Microsoft wants us to remember that nothing lasts forever….it could all end at any time. So enjoy your life, spend time with your loved ones, and back up your data frequently.

Take A Minute. Now Take A Few More Minutes.™
In replacing my old Windows XP system, one thing that I was looking forward to was a quicker startup process. So let’s just say that I was “surprised” when my new Vista laptop—which I’d outfitted with a screaming dual-core processor and tons of memory—actually look longer to boot than my old one.

This really puzzled me at first. My new laptop was sooo much more powerful than my old one…how could it be slower? Then I remembered the Microsoft Infallibility Principle (implied above): Microsoft is the largest, most successful software company in the world, and darn-it-all, if they wanted Vista to start quickly, it would.

So why doesn’t it? My theory is that Microsoft wants to give us the gifts of peace and tranquility. We all rush through our lives, obsessed with illusions like "productivity," but here Microsoft is giving us a moment—a whole bunch of them actually—to take some deep cleansing breaths and center ourselves. Yes, it does require a time investment on our parts: I’ve calculated that I will spend roughly 24 hours per year booting my computer, assuming that I only have to do it once a day (which is rare--see Impermanence above). But regardless, I’m sure that all of this lost time will be amply offset by my expanded sense of well-being.

But I’ll admit that, so far, I’ve had trouble waiting through the whole excruciating boot-up process without getting up to do something else.** But at least now I understand that the problem is my own inability to relax, rather than any failing of Vista's. I know I’ll be a better person when I can just sit and breathe…I’m just not there yet.

Everything Old Is New Again.™
When discussing software—particularly the whole Mac vs. Windows thing—the issue of what is or isn’t “intuitive” comes up a lot. Personally, I think this is all a bunch of crap-talk because human beings aren’t born with instincts about computers—what’s “intuitive” is really just what some gigantic corporation has conditioned us to expect.

Which is precisely what makes Vista so revolutionary. Microsoft took the familiar interface of Windows XP—known to hundreds of millions of people around the world—and shuffled everything around so effectively that even seasoned IT professionals like myself were disoriented by it. With Office 2007, Microsoft took this approach a step further, eliminating all of the text menus and hiding the most-used buttons deep within the new Office “ribbon,” whatever that is. Try finding that “Save” button now!

You see, Microsoft recognized that Windows and Office had just become too familiar to us. These products were so successful and ubiquitous that we just weren’t seeing them anymore. We took them for granted, so their only option was to radically rearrange everything. And believe me, I’m not taking anything for granted anymore.

I’ve enjoyed this aspect of Vista so much that I think Microsoft should offer this feature in the real world. You would pay them a nominal fee—say $25,000—and while you’re away on vacation, they would break into your home and rearrange everything: put the kitchen sink in the bedroom closet, move the toilet to the attic, and relocate all of the light switches to the basement freezer. Just imagine the joy of getting to know your own home all over again…the joy that can be yours just by purchasing Windows Vista and Office 2007.

Don’t Touch That. I said, DON’T TOUCH THAT! ™
Okay, so I did encounter a few hiccups when I was setting up my new Vista machine, but as a seasoned IT professional, I knew that these issues could be addressed by downloading software updates for my various programs and peripherals.

So I fired up Internet Explorer, located the software I needed, and started downloading. One of these packages was rather large, so it took about 45 minutes to download over my broadband connection. When IE told me that my download was complete, I went looking for the file, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched the whole computer for the filename in question, but…nothing.

Assuming that I’d done something wrong, I started the download again. Forty-five minutes later though, I was back in the same spot: searching for this file that I knew must be somewhere, but just wasn’t.

After doing some online research, I found the answer. A new Windows Vista security feature called “User Account Control” was actually deleting my download immediately upon completion…over and over and over again. Having decided that this download from HP or Canon was clearly unsafe, UAC destroyed it without even notifying me…probably because it sensed that I couldn’t be trusted either.

I have to say, this experience brought me right back to childhood—you’d reach for something really cool or interesting, only to have an adult slap your sticky little hand away. I may not live with my parents anymore, but I do feel better knowing that Vista is there to protect me from myself.

Not Your Best Work™
I had an interesting experience while preparing my first post for this blog. I was typing away in Word 2007 when I saw a little message appear at the bottom of the screen—something about Word saving an AutoRecovery file. I’d seen this message before, but it lingered there longer than usual, and then the whole computer froze for a really long time…like, forever.

In case you’re not familiar with it, AutoRecovery is a feature of Word that automatically saves your work so you don’t lose everything in the event of a crash. Well, in my case, AutoRecovery itself actually crashed the whole computer and didn’t save a word of my work. Ironic? Well, not if you understand what was really going on.

This is what I think happened: Word’s AutoRecovery feature detected that my recent changes were not an improvement to the document. Obviously, I was not in the right place mentally to be writing this post, so Word took evasive action, rendering the whole machine so unresponsive that I had to use the power button to shut it down.

I can't tell you how glad I am that Word was looking out for me. Sure, I was a little disappointed that the crash also corrupted my Vista user profile, which required an additional three hours of digging through the system registry to fix, but I know that it was worth it. I mean, if I’d been able to get right back in, I probably would’ve just continued with whatever substandard crap I’d been writing in the first place. And then the whole exercise would’ve been a waste of time, right?

Make Your Family Appreciate You™
As I said, it took me a few hours to get my computer functioning again after the above Word crash-and-burn. I was in the kitchen with my five-year-old daughter Lilah when Vista finally came back to life. (Apparently she’d been in the house all morning; I’d only just noticed.)

“I got my computer back!” I exclaimed, arms raised in triumph.
“Finally…” Lilah muttered, totally exasperated.
“What was that, sweetie?”
“I said FINALLY…and that’s really a relief for me because now you can play with me more.”

And that’s when it came to me, a new marketing slogan:

“Windows Vista: Bringing families together…right after it rips them apart.”

Finally…the Conclusion
So there they are: Vista features that go way beyond computing as we know it. They aren’t always fun, but neither is life. And frankly, it you don’t like the sound of them, well, maybe you just can’t handle the Vista.

Seriously. Maybe you should just go down to that fancy-schmancy Apple store at the mall and buy that stupid iMac after all. And then give me a call because I might want to come over and check it out.

*Admittedly, these are not “features” in the traditional sense; they’re just things that I’ve observed while using Vista. Windows Vista and Office 2007 are obviously trademarks of Microsoft. All of the other names™ are things that I made up, but which I will gladly license to Microsoft if they ever wise-up and decide to market them.

** My usual Windows Vista startup procedure:

1. Press power button on laptop.
2. Measure out five units of pork insulin in a U-40 syringe.
3. Capture Spalding (gray diabetic cat), pin him to the floor, and give him his evening shot. Dispose of syringe in designated medical waste container.
4. Take a saucer and spoon from the kitchen and head down to the basement, being careful not to trip on the stairs. (Spalding will be underfoot and meowing, and the stairs are very steep. You will likely die if you fall).
5. In the basement, place the saucer in Spalding’s food area, open a can of Friskees Selects, and scoop its contents onto the saucer (try not to breathe while doing this). Pause for a moment to ensure that Spalding is enjoying your choice (once he’s had his shot, he must eat or he will die).
6. Take the dirty saucer from the morning feeding and, using a putty knife, scrape nearby cat barf onto the dirty plate.
7. Back upstairs, rinse the saucer, empty food can, barf scrapings, and spoon into the garbage disposal, and put the empty can in the recycling bin.
8. Return to computer and…it’s almost ready to use!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My Confession

Okay, so I have a confession to make: I fell off the wagon and saw my friend Matt last night. Yes, my old friend Matt, the one I’d sworn off for the sake of this blog.

I didn’t mean for it to happen, but he read the post about him, and we got to e-mailing. The next thing I knew, we were having dinner…and we even spoke a little French.

Actually, that’s a lie—we didn’t speak any French, because neither of us can remember enough to have a conversation. But we did speak, in English, about how much fun it would be to speak French, if we could remember any.

And while I was there with Matt, I also had a Diet Coke…which I guess is okay, because I never said I was giving that up. Although, it wasn’t really a Diet Coke, because the bar we went to doesn’t sell Coca-Cola products. It was this local micro-brewed diet cola equivalent, which I used to sort of hate, but now I sort of like. Go figure.

Regardless…I’m climbing back on the wagon now, I promise, no matter how fast it’s barreling away from me. And once I’m back up there, I’ll fight my way through the army of bad guys riding on the back of the wagon, tossing them off the sides, one by one. And when I get to the last bad guy up front—the big one who’s holding the reins—I’ll say something like, “Au revoir, Monsieur Bad Guy,” and I’ll kick him right in his big greasy handlebar moustache. And as he falls screaming off the wagon, I’ll grab the reins, drive that wagon straight home, and write another blog post.

Soon. I promise.