For a while, in graduate school, I dated a surgical resident. It made a sort of sense; I had years in the operating room; she was an MD on a surgical residency; we could talk shop.
I was not working in the OR but was picking up some extra cash transporting patients at her hospital. One night I wound up in the perpetually short-staffed EW opening up minor surgical packs, instrument kits and tossing sterile sutures onto the operative field. She said it was love at first sight, a man who was not an MD who understood her world and who didn’t object when she came home after a thirty-six-hour shift smelling like spilled blood and septic cases. Such was life.

Not so thrilled with the arrangement was the Gray Menace, Clancy J Bümps. She referred to him as her sweet little cattywampus. Being sensitive to how things are said, he sensed an insult. There was nothing in disarray, askew or out of order with the Menace – It was he who disarrayed, put askew, and disordered. If you wanted to retain your O negative blood, you remembered this.
She accused him of having the reverse of myalgic encephalopathy. Instead of a chronic fatigue problem, he was overactive. His daily ambit was a prowl around the old mansion on Tulpehocken St., where we lived, to visit friends, enemies, and make trouble.
Things fell apart as her residency ended. She started planning our wedding. It came as news to me that she wanted to make our arrangement permanent. She announced our move back to her hometown of Charleston. I reminded her I had grad work to finish and got reminded that she’d be the breadwinner in the family. I maintained that I was not Trophy Husband material. The Menace began to stalk her. She told me that it was her or the cat. I shrugged well if that was how it was to be.

Later that spring, I prepared for my annual summer return to Boston, confirmed my housing, summer job, and renewed my membership for sailing at Community Boating. The Menace sharpened his claws in expectations of many Boston cats to be made cattywampus.


There was a mouse aboard. The Cap’n was indifferent. My wife and mother in law adamant; it had to go. On this point, they would not capitulate. Traps got set; the cheese disappears. Then the Cap’n becomes upset – mouse droppings have appeared on his chart table and Captain’s Digest.
The mouse must have found its way aboard by chance at Spinney’s yard while Psyche was on the hard for some repairs. But no matter how the lading had occurred, it had to go. As the human servant of the best mouser in the cove, aka the Grey Menace – Clancy J Bümps, I was informed by the Cap’n that seaman Bümps was to report aboard at 0800 hours for mouse patrol.
By lucky chance, seaman Bümps was napping when I grabbed him, tossed him in the seabag, and shanghaied him for duty aboard the good ketch Psyche.
I did not have him salute the colors as he came aboard, nor did I have him request permission to come aboard. I took him to the fo’castle right off. Like a typical sea lawyer, he complained that the press-gang had illegally detained him. He demanded his liberty. I allowed him to go on deck. The waters of the cove surrounded us. Seaman Bümps went below on mousing duty – grumble you may but go you shall.
Over the following days, we discovered that it was an invasion of mice. Seaman Bümps was promoted to Master at Arms Bümps and now received a daily ration of hard cheddar from the Cap’ns own hand. Their once frosty relationship warming.
The Grey Menace could now also clamber up the companionway to the deck. Finding a spot on the foredeck, he could comfortably nap in the sun between hunting expeditions. The day came when all the mice were gone, and new orders were cut for duty ashore. No seabag was needed. The little brat had cozied up to the Cap’n. He was now used to rowing about the cove in the skiff.
Like any sailor just ashore, his walk had a sure roll to it; the first catnip toot of shore leave left him lying on the couch in a stupor, and he had many tales to tell the land-loving cats.
Home is the sailor from the sea.

Flashback Friday – Pint XXV

I’m posting this as part of Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Originally published on April 2 of last year:

I sealed Pint XXV shut last night, and that marked the close of another sapping season for the little sugarbush behind our house. Just a bit over three gallons of syrup, enough for family needs.
This morning the dog, cat, and I went out to survey the slow opening of spring in our tiny woodland garden. Hepatica, still not quite in bloom, trout lily slowly emerging from last fall’s leaves.
The opening of the maple buds and chorus of peepers marked the end of sapping, while the slow progress of the plants that we call spring ephemerals began the opening of the next phase of spring.

After the cat gets settled into her spot in my greenhouse workshop, and the dog wanders off to harass some early chipmunks, I settle down to woodcarving while listening to the radio.

A Cat’s Work

A cat’s job in the shop is to supervise the careless human. Remind him when treats are due. Stay clear of the jagged edges of tools. And to display just the right amount of cheek to keep him in his place. Eventually, I’ll find some inconvenient ( for him) place to nap until mother calls me into the house for dinner.
A cat’s work is never done!


People who know me well enough know that I don’t do a great job of long-term anger. I complain loudly, but it passes rapidly. Stoic I am not. I like to discuss, and if not persuaded be left alone. When I was younger, this meant that I was taken advantage of by people who didn’t know the meaning of the word “no.” I had no strategies for handling people who’d continually tried to get to “yes” no matter what I said or did.

I’ve learned the hard lessons, though. Some people need periodic reminders the sunny skies can disappear rapidly. Like a thunderstorm approaching on the coast, it builds slowly to the northwest and sweeps in. The sound and fury are frightening but pass. You’d prefer to avoid repeats. I’d love to say that I learned this tactic, and a tactic it is, from my mother, father, or some sage tactician of human behavior. Well. I guess I did. I learned from my cat, Clancy.

We were living at my studio in Charlestown. The big old mill building was right alongside the Boston & Maine railroad tracks and was home to a colony of semi-feral cats. The building had a long yard alongside which the cats would use to sun themselves, the lords of creation. Clancy established his rank in this crew near the very top. He enjoyed being among the elite, but not the work involved in maintaining it on a day-to-day basis. He loved his catnip toots and naps in the sun too much to put that much effort into it. His strategy was to meet challenges with measured intimidation. One day a scruffy tom named Rufus decided that he wanted Clancy’s spot in the sun.
What ensued was a cat standoff. Rufus yowled, inched forward, yowled again, and hissed. Clancy ignored him, stretched out in the sun, and purred. Enraged at being ignored, Rufus repeated his actions but now added an open pawed swat. Clancy rolled over, took a long look at Rufus, and got up. Clancy stretched, licked his paw, examined it, and then growled a warning. Before Rufus could lift a foot off the ground, Clancy used his extra bodyweight to tumble Rufus over, grab the surprised cat by the back of the neck and bite down hard. Clancy calmly walked back to his place in the sun with nary a flick of his tail, stretched, and carefully cleaned a few drops of Rufus’ blood from his claws. While licking, he looked directly at Rufus, who rapidly ran away. It took several repetitions for Rufus to learn that you didn’t bother Clancy at naptime. But being a cat and thereby smarter than some people, he did understand.
Some people only respond to the storm, and unlike a cat, don’t learn.

Body Language

The cat’s mouth cannot smirk. But most cat owners will tell you that cat’s smirk all the time. They use body language to smirk. They sit, poised and posed, looking at you with self-satisfaction.
One particular time I came into the house to find the Grey Menace delicately cleaning his paws. In front of him was the fat from the edges of several roast beef slices. Dinner. Looking at me with a cat smirk, he seemed to be quoting Saint Augustine: “It was wicked. But I loved it.”
It was during my grad school days. The roast beef was a splurge on a very tight budget. As soon as I reached for him, another “cat’s can’t make that expression.” appeared on the Gray Menace – “shit! He’s crazy!” He was running, looking for a hidey-hole, and not finding one deep enough to stop me from grabbing him by the back of the neck and uttering one word: “Cooler!” If he could have spoken, it would have been to say “I dissent!” as he twisted to bite my hand. But I slowly walked towards the room he hated most -the “Cooler,” AKA the bathroom.
I tossed him into the “Cooler.” He promptly lay down on the bathmat and glared at me. “You’ll slap me? You slap me in a dream; you better wake up and apologize.” The Jimmy Cagney act, I was in trouble. Closing the door, I went and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. About ten minutes later, I opened the door to the Cooler. He was stretched out on the mat, and his body language was all – “yeah, I’m in here ’cause I want to be, and I’ll come out when I’m good and ready. You got that Copper!”
A few minutes later, he strolled out, hopped up on the table, and disdainfully examined the peanut butter and jelly. Sitting there, looking at the sandwich, his body language said it all – “pitiful, just pitiful.”

The Cat By The Door

The little brown cat sat there cleaning itself. It was so unassuming you’d almost assume it wasn’t there. My girlfriend and I were visiting Claire, and Claire ignored the little cat. I bent over to make some kitty come here noises. Claire gave me an annoyed look: “what’re you doing?” “I was trying to get your cat’s attention,” “Cat? I don’t own a cat.” I pointed at the small brown cat sitting by the door looking intently at me. Claire glared, “why does everyone think I own a cat? I’ve never owned a cat!” “Well,” I pointed out, “one never really owns a cat; you live with one. Kind of like roommates.”
My girlfriend extricated us from the unpleasant visit, but her look told me that there’d be a heartfelt talk later on about my seeing things again. We returned to our apartment downstairs, and I stopped thinking about it.
Later that evening, I noticed Clancy, the Gray Menace, running about the room, rolling and chasing about, as if he was playing with another cat, but just one people couldn’t see. As I looked away from the otherwise empty room, I thought I caught just the faintest hint of brown streaking across it.

The Good, The Bad, And The Kitty

If Clancy, the Gray Menace, could have selected his favorite actor, it would have been hands down Clint Eastwood. A Fist Full of Dollars, Dirty Harry that would have been the model, the Gray Menace would have emulated. He even had the moves down: idly sitting there licking the blood from the paw while waiting for you to make a counter move, cue the Enricci Morricone music in the background. Or him sitting in the doorway backlit seeming to say: “The heart, Ramon. Don’t forget the heart. Aim for the heart, or you’ll never stop me.”– A Fistful of Dollars

But of course, the very central part of the feline strategy is the stalk. It can be subtle in a master’s paws, ending in a stroke of raking claws. Or it can be the prelude to a broad swath of destruction that Kurasawa would have emulated in a Samurai movie ( have I mentioned that the Gray Menace sat still and intent through an entire showing of the Seven Samurai?). In either case, the technique requires endless practice. And targets to stalk. 

While living in Arlington, there were some particularly obnoxious neighbors. You know the sort. They put their garbage into your already full recycle containers. When they have company, the company drives up onto your lawn to park. The loud cookouts last till 3 AM on Sunday. Have you had neighbors like this? Calling the police solves nothing. You seem to have few alternatives. “Who you going to call?” – the Gray Menace. 

The neighbors had an obnoxious German Shephard named Schultz. It had terrorized every cat in the neighborhood and had set its sights on Clancy. 

Clancy had already taught Schultz one terrible lesson, but Schultz decided to come back for more, and more and more. One night while the neighbors had their usual noisy late Saturday evening cookout, the “master” decided to direct the dog to attack the Gray Menace. The guests seemed to think this was a great sport. The great Gray one was sitting on top of the chimney of an unused brick fireplace. At the convenient height of about seven feet, he could survey his domain. Once Schultz was within range, he dived onto the dog. The dog swerved at the last instant, and instead of a full-body crash, sustained raking claws to his legs. Schultz wanted no more, and the pursuit began. Schlutz tore through my yard and back into his own. Dog and cat nipped and scratched their way through the crowd of guests. A riot ensued as everyone scattered to evade the combatants. There was a “friendly fire” incident as Schultz nipped his master while the master tried to grab a collar. The grill fell over, and hot coals added to the chaos.

Deciding to declare victory, the Gray Menace returned home and triumphantly sat on the fireplace, licking his paws.

The police arrived responding to several calls of a disturbance at the neighbor’s house. As the officers stepped out of the cruiser, the Gray Menace eagerly ran to them. He was purring loudly, rubbing against their legs, and rolling over to show his belly.

The neighbors described the unbridled viciousness of the invasion of their peaceful abode. But, the cat was receiving scratches behind his ears, belly rubs, and pets. One police officer, now holding the Gray Menace in his arms, seemed dubious of the charges against such a sweet cat.

Putting the cat down, the officer mentioned to the neighbor that there’d be a citation for violating the noise ordnances if they received any more calls. While this happened, the Gray menace nonchalantly strolled back towards me; a little victory strut was evident. He always liked authority.

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