Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Annie's Tale

The proper time to tell some stories is when they have come to an end. Our beautiful, tortoise shell, feral house guest, Annie, is gone. Our intention, and the vet's, had been that this very wild kitty should check out on her own terms. It proved to be impossible. Her decline had accelerated so much in the last fortnight that prolonging her life was just prolonging her pain.

The best estimate of her age is 24; 112 in human years. She first appeared in our lives in 1989, when a neighbour who fostered cats took in this youthful rescue cat. All any of us ever knew of her background was that Annie had had an exceptionally bad kittenhood. Beautiful as she was, Annie was totally wild, and remained so all her life. Our neighbour, who was very talented at gentling such animals, didn't succeed with Annie. A house with three young children, two dogs, and a traveling circus of smaller animals was not entirely to Annie's taste. She took off. She would take food and water from our neighbour's porch, but otherwise lived in the open space in the midst of our block. My daughter, who was friends with the daughter of that house, got to know Annie from these furtive porch visits. We would see her occasionally, crossing the back yard, and got used to her as a neighbourhood fixture.

Early in the winter of 2000-01, Annie began hanging out on our deck. We put out food and water, and I built her a small foam shelter. Our other cat, Spike, was still a kitten then. Bit by bit, the two cats bonded through the glass of our back slider. Finally, when a March snowstorm came, she looked interested in life on the other side of the glass. We opened the door, stepped quietly back, and Annie walked in. For a cat in her twelfth year, this was something like retirement.

Except for a day or two when we had a new furnace installed, she has been our guest ever since. As far as she was concerned, this was a strictly business proposition with the humans. For the first several years, with her joints and faculties intact, she wouldn't allow any human closer than about six feet. Any attempt to violate that space, and we learnt very fast how wild she really was. As Annie's eyesight and hearing began to fail, her perimeter of safety shrank, but contact remained off-limits.

The relationship with Spike was different. She had somehow established herself as dominant cat in their interactions through the glass. Although Spike could be macho, territorial and boorish, she still drew lines that he could not cross. Still, it was not until a few weeks ago that she had the satisfaction of knowing that he had finally figured out how to mouse.

Annie's world shrank with the decline in her faculties. For years, she had two vantage points: the cellar window of our front bay, and one of the ground floor windows of the same bay. For several years, she was such a fixture there that she developed a neighbourhood reputation as "the kitty in the window." Having come into the house when Em was already at college, she took Em's bedroom as her own, save when Em came home. As her eyesight, joints and coordination failed, she retreated one by one from her favourite spots, giving up the ground-floor windows only a few weeks ago.

Since then, she chiefly lived on the few square feet of floor inside the slider, the first view she had had of the home she chose. When she couldn't negotiate the cellar stairs, we brought up a litter box. When she couldn't climb into the litter box, we bought puppy pads. By then, it looked like it was time to take the exit decision out of Annie's paws.

She kept a measure of control to the end. Weak as she had become, she fought us when, for the first time in her life here, we put her into the cat box. She resisted the vet and the tech when it was time for the first, relaxing, shot, then leaped off the table when it had been administered. But her end came quietly and peacefully. Whatever in her first months had driven her to a lifetime of distance from the human race, fear that almost never yielded to love and care, was gone. We were finally able to pet this little lady in her final moments.

Recent studies in feline psychology have tended to the belief that cats experience something like grief when a companion is gone. This seems to be going on now. Spike has shown what seems to be the first stage of this: a restless prowling, mitigated somewhat by his understanding that he now gets all the food.

Spike is likely to remain an only cat. His welcome to strangers, ever since Annie came, has been rather sparse. That doesn't seem like a good thing to inflict on any shelter kitty.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mo clear on sidewalks

My conditional disapproval of bicycles on sidewalks could have been more clear, so let me try again.

It's OK when the sidewalk is explicitly marked for bicycle use (q.v. some of Boston's bridges over the Charles). That assumes the cyclist is going to yield right of way to pedestrians when necessary and otherwise behave responsibly. It may be OK in the example I mentioned in my reply. Salem's Riley Plaza is surrounded by sidewalks which are most often deserted, and has roadways distinctly unfriendly to bikes, but the alternatives on my route are even worse. When I take to the sidewalk here, it is at jogging speed and if it's empty. Otherwise I get off and walk.

What is never OK is what I infer is happening along Route 107, an undivided 4-lane road with both good paved shoulders and sidewalks. That is, cyclists ought not to use a sidewalk as a bike path just because it's there, and then operate at urban cruising speed (12 mph and up). It seems to me that the cyclist has rights on the roadway, but is a guest on the sidewalk, and ought to behave as such.

Still, heaven help us, too many Massachusetts cyclists ride like Massachusetts drivers drive, and Massachusetts pedestrians walk: chances are, they are both. Cluelessness and a reckless sense of entitlement, on the part of any users of Massachusetts' public ways, leave those of us trying to make this right tearing our hair out in despair. Inhabitants of many other states seem not to have this brain freeze when they hit the public pavement. Their example suggests that getting the mix right is possible for human beings.

I have an acquaintance who is known for aggressive vigilantism when he rides. I don't know if that's what it takes, in the absence of law enforcement that can't be bothered to keep the playing field level. It sounds worthwhile for me to take a look at 107 to see what's up.

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Observations from the saddle

I'm an equal-opportunity old fart cyclist, so I'm happy to to snark away in every direction. But I'm not only interested in what can happen on the road, but why.

For instance, why do cyclists ride the wrong way on one-way streets or, more generally, against traffic? One reason--which is sometimes valid--is that at times it may the only reasonable way for a cyclist to get from A to B. As I told a friend recently, I would make an exception for doing that on (for instance) Boston's Charles Street at almost any busy hour: that's just crazee. Another is that some cyclists identify more with pedestrians than with the vehicular world. And why is that?

Until the mid-1950s, when I first got on two wheels, safety instruction told cyclists to ride against traffic. Ideas like that, once implanted, don't die without aggressive promotion. if one were to poll wrong-way cyclists on this point, I think they'd react with innocent surprise when told they should be riding with traffic and that they are subject to the same laws as other vehicles. Recently, when I was riding home, there were three adult cyclists on one street. I was riding to the right, with traffic. A second was on my side of the street, riding against traffic, and a third was on the other side of the street, riding against traffic. This is frustrating but not grounds for homicide.

Another pet peeve of mine is Authority insisting that cyclists use a right-hand turn signal that dates back to horse and buggy days: literally. Although drivers are supposed to learn it, no one is road-tested on it, and I bet 98% of new drivers forget their hand signals five minutes after they pass the exam. As a cyclist, if I want someone to know I'm turning right, I point right: crystal clear.

The next complaint might be subtitled "lord save us from our loving friends." This too arises from ignorance. When I reach any sort of intersection, and stop, I expect to act like any other vehicle and wait my turn. At intersections, especially those between bike paths and roads or streets, this opportunity is the exception, not the rule. Sooner, not later, some helpful person will stop to allow the idiot cyclist to cross. Helpful Henry/Hetty is oblivious: the cyclist may have mechanical preoccupations and not be ready to cross, but may wind up feeling pressured to cross. HH/H does not notice and does not care that cars in the opposite lane show no inclination to stop for anybody. Above all, HH/H is totally unaware of what is going on behind him/her. In today's last confrontation, an HH/H stopped--and impatiently motioned me across, since a cyclist is clearly not bright enough to draw such conclusions. There was just one car behind this HH/H; at this moment both lanes were otherwise clear.

My earlier encounter with another HH/H shows the uglier side of this habit. I was patiently--sort of--waiting for my chance at a bike path/street intersection, when HH/H arrived. I primed to cross; but experienced cyclists develop the sense of motion of a cat. I detected motion to my left, and pulled up just in time to avoid one of the banes of Massachusetts roads, the imbecile who passes any stopped car on the right at full speed. But who's responsible here? The imbecile, or Helpful Hetty/Henry who has stopped contrary to the traffic laws and thus set up the situation?

The really scary thing is how often I've seen similar situations play out when all the vehicles involved were motor vehicles. If people want to be helpful drivers, they should observe traffic laws and behave predictably. But then, it's Massachusetts: what am I thinking?

Count me as one of those cyclists who regards bike paths with caution. I don't want a system that forces cyclists off the roads. I want a system that augments roads and helps everyone learn the art of sharing. But if we're going to have them, PLEASE don't let highway engineers design them. Most of the failures of the pitifully small "Salem Bike Path*" result from an infestation of highway engineers in its formative stages. (I write not only as a user, but as someone who was present at the creation and watched these clowns at work.) Characteristically, Salem's bike path connects with Salem, and sort of with Marblehead, if you're OK with being expected to be a pedestrian to reach the Marblehead path, and with the four zero-tolerance traffic barriers in the first 100 meters of the junction. Obviously they expected space aliens to drop Harleys between each set of barriers.

It can be done right. There is a new bike trail in Danvers, MA. It's surfaced in stone dust, not asphalt: cheaper and greener. It's planned: planned to connect with an adjoining trail in Topsfield, which will connect with Georgetown, and other trails which will connect with New Hampshire.

In Danvers, in contrast to Salem, they have signals, real flashing yellow signals, at least at the intersection I observed. That is how to do it: treat cyclists as equals, not as idiot children. If they had highway engineers involved in that project, they must have undergone a Maoist-style re-education course. I hope to try this route as soon as possible.

*Note that the article is a year old, and nothing further has happened to the Salem Trail. Meanwhile the route still has less than a mile off-road, and the remaining right-of-way is disappearing under encroachment.

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