This story begins and ends with deeply felt loss. But what about the in between? Yes, that’s what really matters.
In the summer of 1996, I had two dear cats, Lenny and Elvis. They were buddies. Bookends. They completed each other and filled my life with fun and my home with love. By the end of the summer, Lenny succumbed to respiratory illness. Up until that time, I had no idea that our pets grieve and sometimes very deeply. Such was the case with Elvis.
I watched him mope around the apartment for 4 months, his countenance growing sadder and sadder as he looked for – but could not find – his best friend. Elvis had a heart condition and, to my eyes, he seemed on the verge of giving up. Obviously, he needed a companion.
Coincidentally my neighbor told me she had two 6-week old kittens and that I could have one of them. As I watched the ginger boy with white paws tumble around with his calico sister, I decided on the fuzzy pink-bellied boy. He was small enough to carry upstairs in the palms of my hands. He had no name but he definitely brought new life to my dear Elvis.
What to name him? What to name him? I tried out three or four names over a 2-week period but they were all non-starters. He didn’t respond to any of them and none seemed to fit. It was nearing Christmas when it hit me: this kitten was a gift and his name should reflect that in some way. I hit on the Russian variant of the name Nicholas (as in St. Nick) and Nikita was his name-o!
Elvis quickly took Nik under his wing, teaching the boy about the best places to perch, how to get to and from the bathroom sink where I kept a trickle of water running, and who was really the boss of the house. Sadly, Nik’s time with Elvis was cut short. Within 3 months, pneumonia took my beloved Elvis. All of a sudden, I had a feisty and playful kitten in need of an older hand to teach him the ropes. Fate once again intervened.
A couple I knew had taken in a well-fed but frightened green-eyed beauty. They searched around the neighborhood for her owners. In the meantime, the girl was so afraid of their small dog that she took up residence in the hall closet. Clearly she needed a home. I said I would take her, thinking she would provide the nurturing Nikita needed. Yeah. Not so much.
It took Sylvia six days to come out of the bathroom. Once she did, she decided that I was okay but that kitten? That kitten was a pest and would only be tolerated in small doses. Nik, on the other hand, was completely devoted to her. Whenever Sylvia wrapped her sturdy paw around his neck, Nik never complained. He groomed her and kept her warm. Whenever I saw a new scratch on his little pink nose, I knew at once it was Sylvia’s doing. Nik remained glued to her for the rest of her life.
Sorry. I skipped ahead 10 years or so.
Sylvia was pretty bossy but that didn’t stop Nik from coming into his own clever self. He would jump and climb everywhere. So much so that I called him my little monkey. He loved to have his tummy rubbed and would flop down on his back as soon as I said, “Who’s got the belly?” He was so observant that he learned how to open drawers and doors by pulling the handles, where most cats will swat at the door or reach underneath. Nik would stand up on his hind legs and flip the lever handles on my bedroom door. It became impossible to shut the cat out at night. I actually had to resort to putting baby locks on cabinets and drawers – that is unless I wanted some curious creature to find his way under the sink or inside the bathroom vanity. Once, he even trapped Sylvia in the hall closet.
I was out of town and my Mom came over to watch the cats. For the life of her, she could not find Sylvia. Eventually she heard this gruff little sound coming from the closet. Apparently, Nik stood up and pushed the door closed on the poor girl.
His other proclivity? Plastic bags. Oh, my pica baby LOVED his plastic bags. He would sniff them out even when they were all the way at the bottom of another bag, climb inside and drag out his prey. He was right by my side anytime I cleaned the litter box, so much so that I called him my little helper. He’d bite and hold one side of the bag open while I cleaned the tray.
He had his favorite toys. He overcame his fear of strangers. The one thing Nik lacked was a buddy. A real buddy. By the time Sylvia left us, Nik was already 10 years old but still very kittenish, with his soft, fluffy furs and innocent face. Rocky was just what the doctor ordered.
Rocky was only 4 years old so the zoomies and rough and tumble were the order of the day. It did my heart so good to see these two boys become bookends as well – each occupying the opposite end of the sofa; laying back to back like yin and yang; playing straw hockey until the darn thing was lost in the land underneath the buffet.
This went on for 4 or 5 years before Nik began to show signs of becoming a senior citizen. No more jumping, not much rough and tumble, no more straw hockey. Even though he began a physical and cognitive decline, there were bright spots that showed me my forever kitten was still in there. He might not be able to jump or climb or even sit comfortably but that’s what the kitty stairs were for. He might have gone deaf but I still sang his favorite songs right into his ear so he could feel my rhythmic breath. And he still had his favorite toy: the bird on a wire! Even though Nik had lost 6 pounds from his adult high of 14.5, he still carried that thing wherever he went, crowing proudly all the way. My friend JZ called him The Mighty Hunter. I would say, “bring me the toy!” and he’d drop it at my feet.
When the arthritis in his back end got so bad, he couldn’t stand to have his tail end touched. I scratched it a bit, sang the “Scratchy Butt Kitty” song and watched as he raised his tail – just the tiniest bit in that happy cat pose. I was forever coming up with silly things like that. Nightime was the same ritual. I would say, “Time for bed” and he would trot along, jump up on his side of the bed and wait for me to turn out the light and climb in. He’d sit on my chest and, as I scratched his chin and petted him, I’d sing “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was A Bear” and “C is for Cookie” until he laid down against my left side, his tail curling onto my shoulder and his head laying on my hand. I loved that little guy like nobody’s business. Sometimes so much that the thought of losing him made my heart ache.
I hate that our companions lives are on fast-forward but I suppose that’s part of the deal. One takes the bitter portion with the greater portion of comfort and delight they bring. I don’t define Nik’s last period of life as a list of maladies. I rather think I did everything I could to make him happy and comfortable; that I loved and respected him enough to let him go. There were tears. There still are. I’m hit by a wave of choking sadness then something will make me smile. Something will bring to mind the day he decided my birthday cookie bouquet had to be taste-tested first. That my shoes were the perfect recepticles for his fluff ball toys. That there was no way to defeat a kitty determined to shred the paper towel or the toilet paper.
He’s gone ahead, meeting up with his teacher, Elvis, his bossy girl, Sylvia, and his wife, Bianca. Nik may have originally come home as a kitten for my cat but he quickly became so much more. Nik became my buddy.
29 October 1996 — 26 December 2015
Life is a book that we study
Some of its leaves bring a sigh
There it was written by a buddy
That we must part, you and I
My buddy, my buddy
Nobody quite so true
My buddy, my buddy
Your buddy misses you
– Lyrics by Gus Kahn, 1922
It was a stupendously boring night. I was within twenty minutes of escaping the radio station and ending my 2 pm to midnight shift. Usually when you hear the police and fire radios crackle to life with a possible story, you’re on edge until you get confirmation from the authorities saying there’s nothing to worry about, which was almost always the case. “News narrowly averted!” we’d say. News narrowly averted.
Oh, but not this night. Within 60 seconds, the call went from a still-in-box with “some visible smoke” to a five-alarm inferno prompting frantic requests for specialty trucks, demolition crews, additional battalion chiefs, and extra ambulances. The overnight producer stabbed his pudgy index finger in my direction and croaked his orders. “Roll! I want a presence on this in the next 15 minutes!” Heart pumping, I grab my go bag, make sure I have my credentials, and head out into the unwelcoming dark, swearing every step of the way and knowing this night will likely not end well.
Fires. I hate fires. The smell of burnt things curling through my nose directly into my brain and fouling my dreams with death. My death. I almost succumbed to smoke inhalation caused by an electrical fire when I was two. My mother found me unconscious near the back door of our basement apartment. By the time I was 6 years old, I was having a recurring dream in which I watched myself from a nearby window being burned alive. No screams. No trying to escape. Just a flat resignation to certain death. But no one talks about emotional problems. It’s simply not allowed in a place whose motto is “Readjust your attitude. Everyone’s happy in MeatCity!”
By now, I’d covered so many fires that I could neatly tuck my anxiety tail between my legs, put on my “attitude-adjusted” public face, and tell the story of what I saw and heard with a smile in my voice. And it wasn’t easy because this one was a stabbing winter wind of a horror show. Black-tipped orange and yellow flames leaped into MeatCity’s sodium-light sky, silhouetting what remained of the last flophouse in this fashionable former slum. Fat, water-fed hoses crisscrossed the street from a half dozen fire plugs, each giving their full-throated power to the pumping trucks’ geysers. Worst of all was having to watch helplessly as the people caught up in this nightmare of heat and smoke became fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.
The living chose to jump rather than wait for the flames. The anonymous dead were treated to an ignominy reserved for the underclasses: the woman who cleans the offices at night; the delivery man, or the impoverished widower. They didn’t matter to city officials or to the giant metal claws grabbing at sections of the falling, partially-extinguished husk. Toilets, bathtubs, mattresses, and someone’s legs dangled callously, indiscriminately from the beast’s teeth. I wanted to look away; to erase what I’d seen falling to the ground along with the charred bricks and poor man’s detritus. But I had a job to do, so I went on the air in my usual “as-it’s-happening” style, avoiding any direct mention of burned corpses. No one needs that unbidden needle to the brain.
As black smoke turned pale, ghostly white, a MeatCity Fire Department spokesman tried to quash rumors that the powerful consortium that owned most of the area’s property (as well as several MeatCity committeemen) was at the root of this tragedy of poverty. Some of the affluent robe-and-pajama looky-loos crowed that GentriCon had finally wiped out the last remnants of blight marring their glass houses. Not directly, mind you. GentriCon would never do their own dirty work. A pad-locked exit door, iron-barred windows on the lower floors, and a few in-pocket electrical inspectors logging non-existent visits made it easy to blame careless residents smoking in beds next to cheap space heaters for this burning midnight caller.
That was the party line and, although I might have believed otherwise, I dully reported the conclusion that the cause of MeatCity’s largest fire in 50 years was the fault of the dead and dispossessed. I filed a couple of sound bites and waited for the 5 am guy to greet the morning listeners with the sanitized mop-up of the overnight sensation. In the revistionist version, GentriCon and MeatCity officials were the heroes, having limited further loss of life and providing temporary shelter and warm clothing to those fortunate few. “There but for the grace of GentriCon…” is how his report began. I had to repeatedly swallow the bile rising up in my mouth.
I dropped my bag – and my clothes stinking of soot and damp – just inside the front door. After a good scrub and two cold beers, I collapsed into a fitful sleep, emotionally exhausted. This time as I dreamed, a little girl watched me from the red brick apartment building across the courtyard. She was about my age, I think. She neither cried nor shrank back as my fiery end approached. It was her wordless calm that stilled the anxiety within and left me, once again, to accept my deadly fate.
Suppose you’re digging in the back of the fridge, and you come across forgotten pints of strawberries. You look in the package and see that one or two of them have seen better days. Instead of chucking the whole lot of the them or heating up a summer kitchen baking a pie, consider using the perfectly good strawberries to make cool and refreshing Agua Fresca!
La Cabeza’s Strawberry Aqua Fresca
2 cups of hulled and sliced strawberries
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of water
4 cups of carbonated water
1/3 cup lime juice
First, we macerate. Put strawberries, sugar, and the 1/2 cup of water in a mixing bowl. Mash the strawberries with a fork or potato masher, mixing well with the water and sugar. Either cover the bowl with plastic wrap or transfer the mixture to another covered container. Refrigerate the berries for 3 to 4 hours, giving the sugar time to soften the fruit.
Remove the mixture from the fridge and pour into the blender, along with the lime juice. Pulse the sugared fruit and juice for about 30 seconds until it resembles a slurry. Pour the well-blended mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove seeds and pulp. You may either discard the seeds and pulp or do what I did: use a spatula to scrape these usable leftovers into plain yogurt. Voila! No waste except for the hulls.
Place the remaining liquid into a pitcher, carefully adding the carbonated water. If you want to make this an adult beverage, consider stirring in 3 shots of top shelf tequila or vodka to the pitcher before adding the carbonated water. Chill your agua fresca for a bit or pour it over cubed or shaved ice. Garnish with a twist of lime. Enjoy!
By the way, you can use this same recipe with cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber, papaya or pineapple; almost any seasonal fruit will do. Let me know how you make your own Aqua Fresca!
Of late, I’ve been thinking of acorn squash. About slicing, then baking each half to a deep golden color. Alas, it’s not the season for acorn squash. But, for me, there is a nutritious substitute for the taste and texture of baked acorn squash: sweet potatoes!
Admittedly, prime time for sweet potatoes is in the fall but it’s worth eating them out of season when you find 3 or 4 good-looking tubers. Here’s what I did, from start to buttery finish.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F)
Scrub potatoes under running water; remove the pointed ends. If they’re large, save some cooking time by cutting them in half. Place potatoes in a foil-lined pan.
Make some sugar
Place 3-4 tablespoons of brown sugar or cane sugar in a small bowl
Toss in a teaspoon or so of ground cinnamon
Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ground ginger for a little zip
Mix thoroughly and taste. Adjust proportions to your liking, then set aside.
Bake the potatoes for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the thickness of the potato. Check on them after about an hour. If the skin is dark and the flesh is tender, then your spuds are done. Let them cool a bit before handling.
The big finish
Cut the potato in half, scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. I chose to keep the skin on mine, so I cut each potato into small sections then mashed it with a fork. If you want a smoother finish, use a potato masher or a ricer. Before serving, dot your sweet potatoes with butter or your favorite butter substitute, then sprinkle the cinnamon-ginger sugar on top. The oohs, aahs, and yums are sure to follow.
Insect fiddles play.
Hidden from their audience,
They screech their night tunes.
Naught cuts the still air
But the neighbor’s crying child.
And chirping crickets.
Hopes of cool air dim
Storms, then heat bring no relief
And the A/C hums.
Did you know that there’s a whole Meatless Monday movement sweeping the nation? Neither did I. The founders of this effort say their goal is, “…to help reduce meat consumption by 15% to improve personal health and the health of the planet.” They had me at “improving personal health.”
There’s a company that produces a line of garden-protein based meat, called Gardein. They’re traveling around the country for a month hosting Gardein parties to convince people that going meatless can be tasty and easy. Let’s just say I was skeptical about the “tasty” part. I don’t generally care for mock meat but I figured I had nothing to lose by trying a couple of the frozen and refrigerated entrees.
First up was the Chick’n Scallopini. I sauteed the each piece of chick’n in olive oil, 2-3 minutes per side. Next, I poured in a half-cup or so of vegetable broth, about 2 tablespoons of capers (who measures?), and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Turn off the heat and let the chick’n rest in the juices. From what I gather, it’s easy to overcook vegetable protein so watch the heat and timing closely.
I removed one piece and cut into it with my fork. I wanted to see if the look of the garden protein matched that of a regulation chicken breast. I have to say that they did a pretty good job of replicating the shredding texture. How does it taste? Honestly, it’s a little squeaky on the teeth but once you get past that, the lightly seasoned chick’n scallopini isn’t half-bad.
Although I love my dairy, I am not a big meat eater. That’s why it’s not very likely that I’d turn to meat-free options to satisfy an already-minimal craving. Should the need arise though, it is good to know that there are products like Gardein readily available.
Gardein provided free coupons for the product review.
For some, “getting baked” means over-indulging in your partying agent of choice; forgetting it all and let the day flow by until mañana. Naturally, I didn’t resort to anything illegal but I’m thinking there ought to be a law against muffins this moist and tender and bursting with fruit. No, they don’t taste like commercial baked goods – partly because I used less sugar. They’re also free of preservatives and contain no unpronounceable ingredients. I think they’re better but I plead guilty to bias.
These muffins were born of fresh blueberries, butter, eggs, spelt flour and whole cane sugar (I used Sucanat). It’s the spelt that gives these muffins a slightly nutty, grainy taste. Between using less sugar and the high-fiber, nutrient-dense flour, these muffins could serve as a healthier, homemade alternative if you’re really jonesing for something sweet to munch. See Whole Foods for the Blueberry Spelt Muffins recipe. I found helpful ideas for modifications in the comment section. Might be worth taking a look.
They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with one fork. Maybe not precisely that but you get where I’m headed. I have rediscovered my love of cooking! Part of the reason has to do with the fabulous and inspiring selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The rest has to do with my journey toward better health. I want to own my menu choices and the food I put in my body – not just sort of default to whatever’s there.
This is the “why” behind a new section in The Wordinghood called, “Fresh Food, Fresh Outlook.” The “what” is still evolving. That, my friends, is the journey.
I should have known better than to linger at the fresh fish counter once they told me that the whitefish I wanted was not currently available. The “danger, danger” signs should have been clanging loud and clear when the totally cute fishmonger said, “Want to try some swordfish with mango salsa?” What can I say? I fall down, go boom. Looks beautiful. Tastes great and super easy to make.
Prepare fish: pat each steak with paper towel until dry, then rub the fish with the seasoning mix of your choice. I used Pike Place Fish Market’s “Our Own Rub.” Put the fish back in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Heat olive oil and a little butter until your skillet is just hot enough to make water droplets dance. Sear the steaks about 4 minutes per side. Remove from the skillet while fish is still firm to avoid overcooking. Let the fish rest for minute or two. Before serving, squeeze a little fresh lemon juice on the fish, then spoon on a bit of mango salsa for a colorful finishing touché!