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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Everyday racism at Staples

Since I am writing this as an example of everyday racism, I will need to identify people by their perceived colors. So, let me begin with myself. I am African American, and I look black as the word is used to define races. Now to my story:

1501 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, CA 90291
I've been shopping on-line for a new laptop, and since I had a little time before work this morning, I thought I'd see if I couldn't give a local brick-n-mortar establishment a little love instead. So I drove down to our local Staples, on Lincoln Blvd. in Venice, CA.

It didn't take me long to decide to buy a HP laptop they had on sale for less than $300, and this was the last day of the sale.

There was no stock around the sample, but it was in the brochure I had picked up when I entered the store, so with that folded to highlighted to the item I was interested in, I went towards the front of the store looking for someone who could get it for me.

Venice Staples inside on typical day
The store is laid out with many obstacles. Some are designed to invited you to buy. Others are designed to create a queue of customers for the cashiers to checkout. But this Saturday morning there was no one in line, and the lone cashier, a brown woman, wasn't helping anyone. However there was a white woman waiting at the adjacent service counter.

I approached this cashier in such a way that the obstacles designed to create their customer queue became a barrier to me. She saw my dilemma and signaled that I needed to come around to the other side. I am not a slow walker, but before a could get around the barrier and approach her, she had discovered the woman at the service counter and was asking her if she could help her.

How Staples provides shelter for the homeless in Venice
I spoke up, and pointed out that she knew I was headed towards her before she walked to the end of her area to lean over and ask the woman waiting at the service counter if she could help her first.

Later, when I asked her why she hadn't asked that woman if she needed help earlier, before she saw me approaching her, she said it was because another employee had been helping her, but had gone off to look for something.

By now, they were checking inventory for the laptop I wanted, and the store manager had gotten involved.

I was told that they were out of stock on that laptop. I asked for a rain-check to guarantee that price, since it was the last day of the sale. I was told that they don't do rain-checks, but that I could order it at the kiosk. I asked could I also order it from home online and was told that I could.

So imagine my surprise when I got home and looked it up at https://www.staples.com and found out that the $299.99 price was an in-store only deal!


They, did however, have the same laptop available online for a few dollars more. {$30 to be exact} They could ship it to me and I could receive it in a few days, or lucky me! I could pick it up at my local store on Lincoln in Venice, CA in a hour because they had stock there according to staples.com.



Go figure.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Rest in Peace Somer Cat

Somer cat was my partner for more than 17 years. Continuing the iconic style and timing that characterised her life, she died on New Year Eve.

We got her as a kitten in June 2001. We picked her because of her beautiful coloration and feisty attitude. My daughter Candice suggested the name Somer, saying "she's some of this and some of that." Somer was so young I had to hand feed her special food myself. She ended the same way.

She was a confident cat that would fiercely face challenges from all comers, large or small. For a brief spell in 2004, I had a housemate with a German shepherd. While my other cat, Cyrstal, would cower, Somer stood her ground, and let the big dog know that if he messed with her, there would be pain involved. She was also a very gentle cat that could exercise extraordinary control over her sharp instruments. I rarely received scratches from her, even when playing roughly with her in the nude. If I did, it was because she panicked in trying to hang on. Mostly, she trusted me.

She only bit me twice in all those years. The first time was shortly after we brought her home. She went into hiding. Her tiny meow seemed to reverberate throughout the apartment as we looked for her. I found the tiny creature in the space between the back of the kitchen cabinet drawers and the wall. As I reached over and down to scoop her up in the palm of my hand, she sunk her tiny teeth into me. Ouch! A kitten's teeth are at their sharpest. They were like needles. She was then so small that she easily fit into the palm of my hand, and as I bought her up, our eyes met. When she realized that I wasn't going to crush her in my hand, and I wasn't going to eat her, she released her bite and began a bond that would last a lifetime. The second time she bit me, just snapped at me really, was only a few days before she died, while I has trying to force feed her a food and medicine mix I had been preparing and giving to her each morning. I think she was trying to tell me it was time to give up and face the inevitable end of life.

Somer's scale
In April of this year I noticed that she had lost a lot of weight, and I started weighing her. I devised a system that used a hanging scale hung from a C-clamp on the edge of a kitchen counter. A clothe Google bag was hung from the scale. The bag weighed 0.18 lbs., and that had to be subtracted from the reading on the scale. The trick was always in getting her into the bag, and with her arms down, so that she would be still long enough to get a reading.

In my imagination I built another system. It put an electronic scale attached to a computer under her kitty litter pan. It would effortlessly, and regularly record the cat's weight by measuring the increased pressure when it got in it to do its business. Such a system would also record the frequency and timing of such visits, as well as the weight of the deposit left behind, all information a vet would find useful, and all gathered without having to wrestle a cat into a bag. I had no time to create such a system, I just had to learn how to get the cat into the bag. Fortunately, she was gentle, like I said.

I was surprised to find that she had slipped to about two-thirds her normal adult weight before I really noticed. It was only after my doctor alerted me to some of my own health problems back in April, that I started to look at her's as well. It begin with reading up on the care of geriatric cats, combined with adjustments to diet, I tried a lot of different foods, and a lot of weigh ins to monitor the results. That first alarming day, 7 April, I ordered Pet Ag Catsure Powder, 4 oz, Purina Pro Plan FOCUS Adult 11+ Indoor Care, and Tomlyn High Calorie Nutritional Gel for Cats. If you use Amazon, the way I do, you can use your order history to build a timeline of your life. For the record, these are the weights I recorded on a wall calender in the kitchen in the last nine months of her life.

April 78.08 lb. April 98.14 lb. April 118.34 lb. April 148.26 lb.
April 248.44 lb. April 288.38 lb. May 18.54 lb. May 78.44 lb.

For a few months it seemed like progress was being made. Her weight came up about a half pound and seemed to stabilize, although I did notice that she was drinking increasing amounts of water. What I noticed first was that she developed the new habit of lapping up water from the bathtub whenever I would run the shower. As soon as she heard water running in the bathroom, she would come to drink. At first I took it to be something special about licking up water from the porcelain, or the sound of the running water, because she had ready access to all the water she needed in her bowl. It was only later that I came to understand that this excessive drinking was her way of fighting the effects of kidney failure. Armed with this understanding, I started making sure she had ready access to water at multiple locations, and doing whatever I could to encourage her drinking habit.

One regular transaction that developed between us went like this: My morning routine would find me sitting on the toilet, and while on the toilet, I would start water running in the wash bowl so that I might soon have hot water for shaving. Somer would hear this and come rushing into the bathroom looking for some water. What to do? I'm still stuck on the toilet. But I could reach over and fill my bathroom glass with water and put that on the floor for her. It got so she would come into the bathroom whenever I was on the toilet and patiently wait for me to fill or refill the glass that more often than not, could be found on the floor. I think the sound of running water did trigger a desire to drink, and I was happy to encourage that at every opportunity. I think she also liked the idea drinking from the same glass as me, or maybe I just liked it.

By example, she taught me the importance of drinking more water. My doctors have been telling me this forever. Somer finally drove home the message that its no joke when your kidneys give out.



She also showed new interest in the foods I ate. I think she was looking for sources of high quality protein.

For 17 years she was the easiest cat in the world to feed. Friskies Seafood Sensations dry food was her staple. I fed her that almost exclusively, and she strived. I never could get her to cotton to canned foods until the last years of her life. I think the reason was that for so many years she lived in the shadow of Crystal, my older cat, who also died at age 17, in 2010. Crystal loved her canned Friskies, so I think to keep the peace, Somer stuck to the dry food, even long after Crystal was gone.

Now it was becoming increasing difficult to find anything that she would eat. She would eat some chicken, turkey or crab meat, if I was having some. Even then, not enough. Other foods, even canned tuna and chicken, let alone a countless variety of can and dry cat food, were also failing to turn the tide. For a long while, about the only thing she seemed interested in eating was kitty treats fed to her on the bed. I went through a lot of bags of kitty treats knowing that when she stopped eating those, we would really be in trouble.

May 268.56 lb. May 318.52 lb. June 78.42 lb. July 98.66 lb.
July 208.64 lb.

Then, in late August, that's what happened. She'd lost a half pound from what I was starting to think of as her new normal, and then another 0.42 lb. in just a week! She stopped eating entirely. She had found a quiet corner on the balcony and was waiting to die. I couldn't get her to eat anything, and for days no solid waste was to be found in her kitty litter. I knew that a few more days without food would seal her fate for sure. Emergency time! What to do? With the encouragement of a neighbor, I decided to try to force feed her. I had gotten the Catsure nutriment when I first noticed the problem in early April, but after Somer turned her nose up at it, I set it aside. Now I mixed up a batch and fed it to her with a large eye dropper. It had the desired effect! I had never been so happy to find solid waste in the kitty litter. Finally, she had found a way to make me love her shit.

While it bought her back from the edge, she was never to regain much weight again. It was all downhill from there. In September, I went through 28 ozs. of Catsure in twice daily feedings with the eye dropper, but I knew that wasn't sustainable.

I became concerned that she might have lost her sense of smell, and realized that this could amount to a death sentence for a cat. They depend on smell to make food choices. As one veterinary blogger put it, to a cat that's lost its sense of smell, that just as well could be a pile of rocks you have put before it. Armed with this understanding, I was able to give a new interpretation to observed behavior.


Somer always loved her kitty treats. She could zero in on crinkling of the bag and come bounding up on the bed. Sometimes it would be problematic because no matter how quietly I tried to move the bag, if only to remove it from the bed, she would invariably become alerted. But if I wanted to treat her, or even to retrieve her from whatever hiding place, it was only enough to krinkle the kitty treats bag. If only I could have taught her to find my bluetooth earbud and bring it with her.

Then this behavior changed. At first, she would still bound up onto the bed at the sound, but them she would just sniff around, but not eat any of the treats. Then, increasingly, she wouldn't even be called by the sound. At first I just assumed she was losing her appetite for them. Then it occurred to me that what might be happening was that the sound was alerting her to the presence of the treats, but she depended on smell to actually find them. If she had lost her sense of smell, she wasn't finding the treats even as she was sniffing at them, and maybe that's why she wasn't eating them.

I had no way to test her sense of smell, but assuming it was gone or going, her life depended on finding a new way of identify food. The old cat had to learn a new trick. I discovered that if I krinkled the bag, while she could see the treats coming out of the bag and still next to the bag, rather than being tossed out on the bed, she would again start eating the treats. She was able to make a direct association between the sound and the treats. Once she started tasting them, that took over.

I stopped the Catsure feedings after she ran away by leaping to my neighbor's balcony about four feet away. We're on the second floor. I was so afraid that she was going to die over there before I could retrieve her. When she returned on her own, I built a cardboard wall to try to stop her from doing it again, but she so imperiled herself trying to get over my wall that I took it down. I promised then to stop trying to force feed her and let her die on her own terms.

Although she looked to be little more than skin and bones, it didn't seem to bother her too much. She didn't appear to be suffering. She spent her days as she usually had, relaxing in the sun or watching the world from the balcony wall. Still, there was always this nagging question: Was I trying to keep her alive for her or for me?

Although she regained some appetite, and I managed to get a variety of foods into her, she continued to lose weight over the next three months.

August 228.14 lb. August 297.72 lb. September 107.5 lb. September 207.34 lb.
October 17.1 lb. November 15.94 lb. November 116.06 lb. November 205.84 lb.

By late November she was little more than skin & bones, but still having fun
On this Sunday morning, 25 November, I woke up smelling of cat piss. Somer had peed on the bed. This is something she hadn't done before. She was sending me a very powerful message. Although, because of the renal issues, the piss was weak. It was time to take her to the vet. The $377 bill I received for the vet visit confirmed my reason putting it off for so long. The vet weighed her at 5.7 lb. and confirmed the renal failure I already suspected and added hyperthyroidism to the mix. These are the things cats die from if they are lucky enough to die from old age. There is no cure for old age, nor these organ failures, but their deterioration can be retarded. The drug recommended to treat the thyroid condition is bad for the kidneys, so monthly vet visits and lab tests to the tune of +$300/month for as long as we could keep her alive were prescribed. The vet's price for his recommended pharmaceuticals and such came $103 for the first order. I found an online pet pharmacy that could deliver the goods for half that price. It took 3 requests from them, and 2 requests from me directly to the vet to get that approval, but when I cc'd some of my local friends on the second request, the vet finally relented and allowed the low cost pharmacy to fill the order. Then they took their sweet time. The upshot was that I received this medication more than two weeks after it had been ordered. This didn't help matters.

There were four or five medications that I was to deliver orally. This proved to be a problem as it made for some very stressful times for Somer and me. Also, she became very good at holding the pills in her month calmly for however long I chose to hold her upside down with her mouth closed, until I finally would release her, and then she would spit out the pill, or what was left of it. Finally, I settled on the method of grinding all the pills up and mixing with the Catsure power and water into a surrey I could feed to her with the dropper. I never felt sure all these drugs were necessary. I was sure each had its own cost.

I bought a Christmas tree this year. I hadn't done so in many years. Not since my children had grown up, but I missed the pine smell, I remember how fascinated Somer was by the sparkling Christmas tree when she was a kitten, and I was pretty sure this would be her last Christmas. She made a home for herself under that tree. She spent her last days their, drinking from large pan watering the tree, and hiding in its seclusion.


Probably the most effective therapy, the one that showed the most visible results was giving her subcutaneous fluids to relieve dehydration. I found a couple of YouTube videos that gave good guidance. The fluid comes in 1000ml. bags and is delivered 50 - 100ml per treatment with an IV tube set and a needle, except you don't actually stick the needle into a vein. I wouldn't even know how to find a vein on a cat. You stick it into a tent you make by pulling up the skin on the back of the neck. The fluid goes under the skin and from there to where it is needed in the body. At first, the idea of sticking a needle into my cat scared me, but she didn't seem to mind at all. I made a place for the treatment in a old blue plastic parts bin. I lined it with old towels so she could be comfortable. It had a sloped lower wall on the front, as such bids do, so she could put her head on it and look out, but the other walls were higher, affording me good control. That hardly seemed necessary. She seemed to know these treatments were keeping her alive. Probably she felt better immediately after. Her last recorded weight was 5.98lb. on December 26. She finally had gained a little weight, probably because of the hydration.

Finding time for her medicine prep, feeding, and hydration became part of my regular schedule in December. For the hydration, I would put her in the bin and stoke her until she became comfortable and started to purr. She could still raise a purr till the end. She would give almost not reaction when I stuck the needle in. I don't think they feel pain there the way we do. That is where their mothers pick them up, and that is where they must be able to throw off the pain of battle to survive. In anycase, only once did she get away from me and throw off the needle. Most of the time she would rest there patiently while I administered the fluids. I would stroke her back and massage the area to speed the fluid flow until the determined amount was given. It became a special period of daily bonding in the last weeks of her life. She died while I was attempting the last such treatment on New Year eve morning.

I woke up that morning to find Somer in the bed with me again. Although that is where she slept for most of her life, not so much recently, so I was surprised to find that for the second morning in a row, I awoke to find her sitting on the bed watching the morning sun come up. After I got coffee, she went out onto the balcony to warm herself in the sun.

Balcony cat door
When I moved into this apartment thirteen years ago, I invented a way to create a cat door for Somer through the two large sliding glass doors without breaking any glass. As is usual with such patio or balcony doors, one door was fixed in its track, while the other was allowed to slide open or shut, and could be locked. I was surprised to find the non-sliding panel was fixed into place with just a few sheet metal screws. Creating the cat door then became a matter fitting a piece of wood about 4" wide and about 10" shorter than the height of the door. The non-sliding door was then slid over 4" and wood piece put in place so that the 10" gap provided a cat door at the bottom. This position and the wood piece were then fixed with screws. The other sliding door could then function as it normally would, but the cats could have access to the balcony no matter what. This made it very convenient to keep the kitty litter box on the balcony. It also gave this house cat access to a safe outside area. She even caught an unlucky bird there once and brought the present to me through that cat door. I have gone into such detail about this cat door arrangement because I invented it, but have never written about it before, and I know there are other people with cats [and dogs] that might find this trick useful.

Death Scene
I had a leisurely morning New Year Eve. Made breakfast, then laid in bed watching the morning news. As noon approached, I decided it was time to give Somer her medicine mix. I wanted to do it before I showered, in case it got messy.

It didn't go well. For the third day in a row she was really fighting it. I started out determined to make up for lost ground by giving her more than the daily dose, but by the third dropper full, it was clear that that wasn't happening. She had worked herself up into such a distressful state that I stopped entirely. This had happen before and I knew to let her catch her breath and normalize herself. I took her over to the bed and lay with her, she didn't seem to be recovering this time. What to do? I had planned to hydrate her after she did normalize herself. Since that didn't seem to be happening, I thought I would do it now and maybe that would help, I knew I was losing her. I took her over to the bin. I made the tent and got the needle in. I massaged the area and saw the fluid was flowing. Then I looked down and Somer was biting her paw! I forced her mouth open and removed it, but she immediately bit down on her tongue. There was a shutter, and then the life flowed right out of her. She looked peaceful in the end.

I always related to how Ernest Hemingway talked about cats in Islands in the Stream. Like when he wrote about a man who had inherited his son's cat:
Now the boy was gone and the kitten had grown into an old cat and had outlived him. The way he and Boise felt now, he thought, neither one wanted to outlive the other. I don't know how many people and animals have been in love before, he thought. It probably is a very comic situation. But I don't find it comic at all.
But now I had outlived Somer, and my grieving process began. The first stage, Denial, both passed very quickly, and in some sense, lingers to this day.

There was a moment, after she first went silent, when I wondered if she hadn't suddenly fallen into some sort of sleep state. I tried to see if I could detect shallow breathing, or any signs of life. I knew with a human, I would be trying CPR right now, or using the paddles if they were available. I had given no thought to implementing such emergency measures on a cat, and I quickly realized that even if I could somehow revive her, what would be the point given her advanced age and everything else? So, on a very basic gut level, I accepted her death within minutes. Long before the rigor mortis had set in, I knew that she was fully and irretrievable dead. Touching that rigid, cold body gave it a visceral feel I will never forget. I know this, and yet an element of denial lingers on because when the wind rustles the blinds just right, and makes the sound of Somer coming through the cat door, I still half expect to see her.

The second stage of the Five Stages of Grief: Anger, was easy. Both the vet and the pet pharmacy saw in Somer's geriatric issues, and my concerns, an opportunity for profit. If there was a silver lining to the way we had been treated by them, it was that they made ready targets for my anger. Consider this, one crucial thyroid medicine the vet prescribed for life, but the script was only for a 30 day supply and required new lab work before it could be refilled. Now there may have been very valid medical reasons for stipulating that, but the practical financial effect would have been that had Somer outlived that initial supply, another $300+ vet visit would be required for a refill. Consider also the vet's markup. He wanted to sell me 10 18gx1 needles for $6.00. I was able to purchase 20 of those needles for $2.15 from the CVS pharmacy across the street. Still, the anger subsided quickly, probably because I saw this coming for a long time and I have only myself to blame for bringing her to the vet so late in the game.

That brings us to Bargaining. I did a lot of that. What if I had taken her to the vet sooner? What if I knew that the uptick in water drinking heralded renal failure right away? What if I hadn't tried to force that third dropper of food/medicine on her? What if I had hydrated her first? I know that seventeen and a half is quite old for a cat. Still, I know that some get past twenty. Why couldn't Somer be one of those? And there were questions on the other side too: Would she have been better off if I had let her go in August? I do think that had she lasted another month, it would have been the worst month of her life, with the constant needle pricking and forced medication, but it would have been another month of life.

I think Somer showed great style by dying when she did on New Year Eve. It makes the date easy to remember, and it also meant that the weights I was recording on the calendar ended with the year. Later, I rang in the New Year at the Venice Beach Bar with old friends, and while I was sorry to have to bring them such a downer, I was grateful for their love and support. It was somehow quite fitting that she went out with the old year.

I also thought it showed great consideration in as much as I had that day and the next one off from work. I work from home as a Linux Systems Administrator for a large Internet Cloud company with facilities all over the globe and headquarters in San Antonio, TX. If I don't mention the name, I don't think I have to run this by anybody. Anyway, we have team meetings every Wednesday, I participate via video conference. At a meeting earlier in the year, another team member had to take some time off from work because of a death in the family, and I took that opportunity to warn everyone that I would probably need some time off also, when Somer died, even though she was only a cat. They all knew Somer because sometimes I would post pictures of her to our Slack channel, and occasionally I would even sit with her in my lap, Godfather style, at team meetings.

With a full two days to deal with it, I thought I should be able to put it enough behind me to be fit for work on Wednesday, but I knew I would need to tell people and that would bring the pain roaring back. I posted a death notice with a picture and a video on the Enterprise Linux Slack channel as soon as I got in. I spoke about it again in our team meeting and people gave me much support. I had to get through a second team leadership meeting, and then my manger scheduled a one-on-one after that, I think just to check on how I was doing. Fortunately for me, the second half of that day was self study time. I spent it reading about the Kessler-Ross theory on the Five Stages of Grief, which isn't exactly computer science, but was what I needed to understand in the moment.

Leave a dresser drawer open just a little and Somer would do the rest. Cat hair on my shirts before I even wore them.

The next morning, the forth stage, Depression, set in.

I don't start work until noon Pacific time, and initially I was looking forward to it. People already knew about the death of Somer, so that trama was dealt with. Plus no pesky meetings. I was looking forward to a rather ordinary day of working tickets and answering phone calls. Make it go away with work. Then it hit me, and I couldn't stop crying.

Flowers from my co-workers
There was a time most mornings, after I finally had my shave and shower and what have you, and I am settling down with my first cup of coffee to catch the morning news, that I could expect to first hear Somer coming through the cat door from the balcony and bounding up to say good morning. When I realized that was never going to happen again, the depression really set it. I told the Slack channel I would be taking the day for myself, and spent most of it listening to the blues, and crying. I also watched movies about grieving. James Bond in Quantum of Solace, and James Rockford in an episode of the Rockford Files in which he lost a girlfriend.

By Friday, I felt ready to go to work. After I checked in, my manager started asking had I received a package yet. When I did receive it, I found that my team members had sent me a bouquet of Peruvian Lilies for Somer. This kind gesture will always be remembered because it has helped me immensely with the final stage of grief - Acceptance.

I don't believe I have ever written about Somer in this blog before, but she has been here in every post. Her love and companionship have supported me in everything I have done over the last seventeen years. She lay at my feet through the long hours of editing Vietnam: American Holocaust. She provided much needed comic relief and diversion as I was researching horror stories in MENA. And she was always standing by to reward me with warm fur and a purr whenever I was ready to take a break from the work. In that sense, Somer's contributions live on in mine. May she rest in peace.

I took this video on Christmas Eve 2017



Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!

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