Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Real Victims

I've been reading the sad stories of rich people who put all their eggs in the Madoff basket and lost everything. I'm sorry for anyone whose world falls apart but from what I've read most of these folk have family and friends to help deal with the pain of their loss. These are well-connected folk who will get back on their feet soon.

There are other, less fortunate victims in these hard times, who never had money to invest in hedge funds, but who are paying the price for human greed, and are left with no resources at all. One of these unfortunates came to stay with us for a few days last week and her plight has left me heartbroken at the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering on the innocent.

One morning I noticed we had a visitor in the back yard who had taken up residence in the gazebo. Our other cats steered clear of her, which was unusual, Any intruder is usually greeted with curiosity and a few warning growls from the males: "You can stay but follow the rules".

This visiting little homeless cat curled up on the old wool flokati rug I'd thrown on one of the wicker chairs and slept there for hours. Occasionally I would look out and the chair would be empty and I figured I might not see her again. We live in the city, near a crossroads, in a neighborhood with its own share of foreclosures. The free-roaming domestic animal population has always fluctuated. At the end of the school year, when students move on, when summer heat raises temperatures to 115 and above, when renters leave their apartments, when people lose their foreclosed homes, all these factors contribute to the steady parade of lost and abandoned animals that show up regularly here.

Bewildered, these poor creatures seek shelter from the passing traffic and harsh weather. In summer, water is a must, in winter, shelter is sought from the biting cold at night. All animals seek these basic needs. One year, a few days after Easter, as we turned up our street I spotted a little white rabbit nibbling on the strip of grass that lines the sidewalk. She calmly adopted us and became the much loved Bunnygirl. Her habits of eating carpet and chewing through the spines of our record albums and anything else within reach of her razor sharp teeth were all overlooked due to her magisterial temperament. When she gently rested her head on your foot for a nap all was right in her world.

I keep a heat lamp and a small space heater on the gazebo to keep off the night chill. In the morning our guest was still curled up in her chair so I thought I'd get a closer look. I didn't want to upset her as stray cats are very wary. They don't like to check in at the desk, you might say. From a few feet away I could see her looking at me with steady gaze, not fearful, but a bit wary. I left food and water on a nearby table and told her she was welcome to help herself. We left food in another sheltered area for the other cats, so there wouldn't be a contest over resources. It looked like homeless kitty just wanted to rest, and she seemed grateful to be left in peace.

I never saw her actually get in and out of the chair. Sometimes she would be gone, probably for a bathroom break. While refilling her water dish I noticed odd yellow smudges on the rug where she'd been sleeping and an unpleasant,unfamiliar tangy smell. I started to suspect something was wrong but nothing prepared me for what I found the next time I saw her.

She had stretched out on her side near her food, and flies were buzzing about her. The smell I'd noticed before was coming from a wound oozing with pale yellow pus. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Bits of bark and dirt were mixed in with the pus. It was the worst injury I'd ever seen. I flashed back on how she had been favoring this side, always sleeping against it to keep it covered, and how painful that must have been. She trusted me to take a closer look. I got q-tips and warm water and tried to clean the wound, constantly brushing away the flies. I thought she might snap at me but she just lay there as I tried to soak up the noxious fluid seeping from her shoulder.

I learned that you can do this, that you can suspend your impulse to vomit, that you block out the horrible smell, that you can hold back your tears, that you can focus on the one thing you have to do, to try to aid a creature in pain. But I could see it was hopeless. The depth of the wound was hidden by matted fur that fused together in ropes. We gently lifted her into a basket and started dialing local vets and animal hospitals until we found one open on Saturday.

The vet who examined her said this was an old injury that had abscessed and on top of that it was likely that homeless kitty had feline leukemia, which is contagious to other unvaccinated cats. A likely scenario was that her former owner had abandoned her, unprepared to deal with this costly heartbreak, financially or emotionally. They might like to know how brave she was, how even in her demolished condition she sought out and found love, that she was cared for until the end, she never lost her dignity, never cried at her loss, but with the great stoicism of cats, she carried on.

Even with much expensive care it was unlikely she would survive as the wound was already totally necrotic, hence the smell. If she hadn't found us she would have died a slow agonizing death, alone and cold. She trusted us to do the right thing for her and I hope we did. With great reluctance we decided to let her go, knowing the vet would help her pass away peacefully.

It seems unlikely to me that she had run away in her condition. There were no "lost cat" signs posted in the neighborhood. Almost all our neighbors have dogs who produce an unending chorus of barks and howls, unlikely places to seek shelter by an injured feline. I suspect she ended up here because she had nowhere else to go. She had a sustained injury that had been neglected for some time, so it's difficult to imagine a caring home. There is no way to know.

There have been many stories in the press of animals abandoned in foreclosed homes. It's wrong and tragic and it makes me feel that there must be a better way to handle this whole situation, because this is starting to feel like we are living in a war zone, with total chaos, and no one wanting to be accountable. These innocent creatures have allowed themselves to become dependent on us, and so they need us to be responsible for them. Their owners need to man up and do the right thing.

It's nice that our leaders are adopting puppies and I won't be cynical and say they are just for photo ops. But if they really want to make a difference, let them adopt one of the animals that have lost the only life they knew due to foreclosure of their family's home. Lead the way by encouraging people to be brave and take their pets to a shelter where at least the poor animals won't be wandering the streets, alone, cold, and vulnerable to predators. The mean streets are no place for pets.

And for those humans who have lost great wealth, stop whining. Show a little dignity. If a poor wounded little cat with no home of her own can do that much, so can you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

All the things that were down...

This summer I read a MySpace post by a teenager here who was struggling to find his own identity while his parents were losing theirs. As I recall, he described how his parents' shrinking income was leading to new household spending rules. At Christmas his father had said not to expect presents. He overheard his mother contemplating divorce. His father always looked grim. The kid got a part-time job at Mickey D's to help the family out. He was hoping he would be able to afford a new video game but thought maybe this wasn't a good time. He was laying these thoughts out to the world on a public space where anyone could comment, but sadly, no one had much to say.

The affluent life of the young in this town was most obvious when you drove past the high school parking lots. The teachers' lots were filled with 10-year old Accords, Dodge minivans, and VWs. Over in the student parking lots the leased BMWs, Lexi, and Escalades lined up one after another in neat rows, glistening under the Arizona sun. In many families the older teens were responsible for picking up their younger siblings after school, or doing the family grocery shopping. It made sense for the older kids to be the family chauffeurs.

The rushed lifestyle of the upwardly mobile created a sort of concierge class among their young. We first noticed this phenomenon in California, when our landlord sent his teenage son over to collect our rent check. The landlord had several ranch houses built in the 70s which had become his property ladder to a Simi Valley mansion. His young adult children all lived at home, providing that essential ingredient to an oversized dwelling, life. When a tenant or maintenance man stopped by the landlord's house, one of the children would always appear at the front door with a friendly greeting.

This became typical in many homes. While Moms and Dads put in long hours at the office their kids took charge at home. Thus it was the children who let in the Merry Maids who cleaned the two-story, 2500-square foot houses, it was the children who unlocked the gates for the gardener and the pool man, who signed for packages delivered by UPS, who filled the fridge with groceries from AJs and Whole Foods, and it was the children who drove the younger kids to soccer practice or the orthodontist. In this way the children acquired a sense of ownership, status, and responsibility from the wealth provided by their parents.

But in many, many of these homes we know now that Mom and Dad were living on borrowed money in order to keep maintaining the illusion of wealth. The middle class hoped that with the appearance of prosperity they and their children would never suffer from a lack of self-confidence, as this is the most highly desired American virtue. "Fake it until you make it" was the much repeated mantra of recent decades. Or as Virgil said long ago, "They are able because they think they are able."

During the years of funny money the middle-class children of Phoenix and Scottsdale were snuggled in their parents' safety nets. For those who have never known a life driven by necessity the nets were taken for granted, part of the fabric of life. This comfortable illusion was not seen as a handicap in a world where competition for basic necessities becomes ever more extreme but rather as an invisible cloak worn against poverty, like something donned by a superhero.

The primary selling point of the suburbs was the suggestion of an untroubled, harmonious world, a safe place to raise children who got out of school several hours before their parents left work. The 'burbs were always more of a dream than a reality. The suburban kids who watched their families' fortunes change because of divorce may be psychologically better prepared for the adjustment in identity that comes when family fortunes fall apart. Children of divorce already know that great sadness can emerge from behind the facade of carefully groomed houses and that chaos can spill out onto silent sunlit streets.

And some lucky kids are born anchored in reality with gifts of humor, empathy, and common sense that will help see them through tough times, no matter what. No less an authority than Dr. Seuss promised that the children can cope:

"Have no fear of this mess,"
Said the Cat in the Hat.
"I always pick up all my playthings
And so...
I will show you a another
Good trick that I know!"

Then we saw him pick up
All the things that were down.
He picked up the cake,
And the rake, and the gown,
And the milk, and the strings,
And the books, and the dish,
And the fan, and the cup,
And the ship, and the fish.
And he put them away.
Then he said, "That is that."
And then he was gone
With a tip of his hat...'

We are all Cat in the Hat now, picking up the things that are down.