The Cat’s Meow

I’m not sure why I’m on the boat.

It seemed like a good idea at the time – the seas were relatively calm and the wind seemed favorable. I came aboard to swab the decks and I worked hard; I finally made my way up to deck hand. Of course there were times we all thought the captain was a little off-balance, but the ship was still afloat so no one said too much.   It was a bit strange to be on a steamship in the age of technology, but you don’t fix what’s not broken, and after all we were chugging along and keeping up. We often saw wreckage from the high tech-ships that weren’t as sea-worthy as everyone thought. It wasn’t pretty. Occasionally we could pick up a stray crew member here or there, but let’s face it, you can only carry so many people on board.

The real danger was running out of steam. Or, more precisely, coal. In case that ever happened someone had to know how to sail. We had a plan – you know, like a backup plan – to ensure that if we ever ran out of coal, we’d still be able to navigate and move in the water by using the sails we had stored below decks. At least until we got more coal. There was a team of people assigned to the care and maintenance of the sails, to make sure they were always in top working order. It didn’t matter that we’d never actually tested the sails – we were confident they’d work, and the fact we had a backup plan was really the point anyway.

So it seemed like a good thing when I was able to move into a position on the wind team. We would learn about the elements, check what was going on around us, and make sure that plans were in place in case we ever needed to unfurl our sails. It was theoretical work for the most part, but that’s always been a plus for me. I mean how can your theory ever be wrong if you never have to put it to the test? You can be completely unskilled and have no idea what you’re talking about, but still be considered a genius. I just had to pray that we’d never run out of coal.

I was feeling pretty good about my new job when I was invited to a meeting. The Captain’s Third-in-Command, right-hand-man’s best girl Barb wanted to meet with me one-on-one. This was a big deal, and I needed to be on my game. In the meeting invite I was informed that it had been decided I was the perfect person to implement our new Cat’s Meow Strategy for wind detection.

My guess was this new strategy had to do with the fact that we had no vet on board and the two cats we brought with us to control mice turned out to be a male and a female. It’s really hard to tell with a cat until one of them is pregnant. So we now had a lot of cats and I figured someone was trying to keep it from looking like an accident. Which is easy if you just make it a strategy. I mean, what else can you do? You can’t start heaving cats overboard willy-nilly. You just look like a bad guy and the press has a field day. We had to find a purpose for the cats.

Although I was still fairly new to the concepts of wind direction, I felt confident  we would fare just fine if we ran out of coal. If nothing else I could just put my finger in my mouth, hold it up, and figure out which side got cold first. That would be the wind direction. That and a basic compass were all I needed. And if the sails failed to perform that really wasn’t my problem. All the same, I was feeling just a little anxious when I got to the meeting room. Barb came in and started talking before she sat down.

“I’m glad you were able to meet today. This project is of the utmost importance and we have a very short time frame to get it done. In fact, this has to be up and running within a week.”

“Really?” I ask, “Why? At the last check we had plenty of coal, so there’s no reason to think that we’ll be needing to use our sails anytime soon.”

She smiles, and I know I’ve asked something so elementary she’s wondering how I ever achieved my current position.

“Because there’s a deadline,” she says, quietly, patiently, kindly.

“Oh,” I’m feeling a little dense, but want to make sure I understand, “why is there a deadline for next week when we know we won’t run out of coal next week?”

She looks pleased. I assume it’s because I’ve shown an ability for following a line of reasoning. “Great question. There’s a deadline for next week because that’s when I said we could get this done.”

“O.k.” I’m pretty sure she can see my confusion, but her smile is designed to give me confidence, let me know my incompetence is not a problem, and that she’s is in charge and will lead us where we need to go.

“Well, let’s just get started and I’m sure this will make more sense once we get into it.” She settles into the chair across from me, folds her hands, places her arms on the table and leans forward. Her eyes are serious.

“You know about the cats.” It’s not really a question, more of a statement, but she is obviously waiting for a response. I want to make up for my earlier failings, so I’m eager to show off what I do know.

“Yes, I know that we’ve really got more cats than we need. Of course there really isn’t an offboarding strategy this far out to sea, so if we want to maximize cost effectiveness we need to ensure we’re leveraging all of our resources in the most appropriate manner possible.” I am rewarded with a beaming smile.

“Exactly. And that’s just what this project will do. I have every confidence you’ll be able to have this up and running by the deadline.” I don’t share her confidence, but I’m not bringing up the arbitrary deadline again. I just nod so she can continue.

“We’ve decided that the best way to utilize the cats is to have them help predict future wind direction. Using the cats, you’ll check the wind direction each day at 2-hour intervals, and then record the results. You’ll need to graph the wind direction and be able to make predictions based on statistical data. You’ll want to determine if the height of the water has any impact, and you’ll need to ensure that the sails are in operable condition.”

Now my head is reeling. Although my finger and a compass seem unbelievably unsophisticated, I know they’ll work. I’m not bringing it up. Instead I try to think this through, integrate the knowledge I have of the other working areas. All I can manage is, “But, I don’t work with the sails. The people who work with the sails are all in an upper echelon of the ship’s hierarchy. They only talk to me when they’re demonstrating that we don’t really have a hierarchy.”

She frowns and I realize I shouldn’t have said that to her. Now she’ll probably wonder who I’m talking to and what they’re saying. Fortunately she doesn’t go after that tangent – probably one of the reasons she’s in her current position. She simply says, “Well, you’ll need to tell them what information they need to provide you. You need to measure sail readiness and include that in your graph.”

I’m starting to feel like I’m not a problem solver. “O.k., I guess I’m just a little confused as to how I’m going to do that. The sails are kept below in a restricted area I don’t have access to, and anyway the sail readiness team runs regular testing to ensure the sails are wind worthy. Can’t I just use the work they’ve done?”

She is starting to look a little strained. I know she’s way ahead of me here and I’m just not keeping up. I’m really trying, but I’m just not seeing the value add.

“Don’t worry about access to the sails. I’ve got a meeting scheduled with the sail master and I’m just going to tell him he’s giving you access. Just trust me on this and don’t worry about that part.” I nod, thinking it’s not going to be that simple, and still not understanding why I can’t just use their data, but I’m going with it and assuming it will all start to make sense. Eventually. And hopefully before the deadline.

“So once you have the readiness data you can herd the cats and start the meow analysis.”

“I’ll call it the ‘Meowalysis,’” I smile. She looks at me with a frown and says, “The what?”

“Nothing,” I say and remind myself to stop talking and keep nodding. She pauses a beat and then continues.

“So once you’ve herded the cats it’s a simple matter of gathering the data. I would recommend you start individually. Take a cat to the bow and wait for it to meow. Then capture the meow data on the matrix. Make sure you get a good sample, and then analyze the meow data with the other data, and prepare your findings for the meeting. I’ll need to see your first draft with enough time to make changes before I present. Is two days from now fair?”

“O.k.,” I’m not feeling confident at all. But I’m going to make this work. It doesn’t matter what they ask, I’m going to make this work. She nods, once, briskly.

“So, I’m sorry,” I say, wondering if I’m sorry for my obtuseness, my presence on the ship, or just my life choices in general, “but can you help me understand the big picture on this strategy?”

“The cat will meow and then you’ll record what direction the wind is blowing. Eventually we’ll be able to predict wind direction by the cat’s meow.” This is said perfectly reasonably, perfectly calmly. It simply makes no sense to me whatsoever and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this. I need to signal my understanding while clarifying what I’m supposed to do with another question.

“Got it, but I’m not sure how I’m going to determine the direction the wind will blow by the cat meowing. I mean, it might meow when there’s no wind at all.”

She nods. She looks very serious and thoughtful. This is, of course, a good point. Let’s face it, there’s no one on the face of the planet that has any idea what’s going on here.

“I’ve anticipated you would need help with that, so I’ve prepared some tools to help you.” She hands me a page of handwritten notes and hand drawn pictures of kitty faces with various un-catlike expressions. “This document can used as a guide to the meaning of meowing. Of course, each cat will have its own individual vocalizations, so the guide is really a framework – a starting point if you will – for you to develop your own meowing meaning chart. You’ll also need to ensure you track any new cats that provide input, or cats that for whatever reason,” and here her voice fades a little, “are no longer providing data.”

I run my hands through my hair. I know I’m starting to come apart a little, but this is getting crazy. “But, I don’t think cats can predict which way the wind will blow.” There. That’s a better argument. Now I’m thinking this through and focusing on the result we’re trying to achieve.

“Well, we’ve noticed that the cats don’t like getting their fur ruffled up the wrong way. You’ve seen that, right?” This is said in a ‘you’re part of the team’ tone of voice. Now she’s feeling sorry for me. This doesn’t bode well. I just nod.

“So since they don’t like it, they’ll meow in displeasure and turn to face the wind, thus providing us with information on the direction the wind is blowing.”

“Well, yeah, at that moment. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about future direction.”

She sighs. “That is why you have to analyze the meow.” The depth of my stupidity is now starting to annoy her. I just give up. I’ll figure out a way to herd the damn cats – if one or two escape no one will know unless I say something, and why would I do that? I’ll take them on the deck, wait till they meow, and somehow put together a matrix with all the data. Maybe if I use a lot of charts, graphs and illustrations it won’t matter if the data makes any sense.

“Great!” I take the guide and give her what I hope is a confident and winning smile. “I’ll have the draft ready for your review in two days.”

She smiles and rises. “Perfect! Just let me know if you have any questions in the meantime. Now I’ve got to go meet with Johnson. Those damn goats we brought on board aren’t milk goats after all, so we’ve got to figure out what to do with them. He’s got some kind of strategy he thinks will help. He’s calling it the Great Goat Rodeo. Sounds like it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck event.”

I just nod. A goat rodeo. Should be fun.




Bo Vine Gets Her Wings – Part 1

My husband Steve is from a small town in Iowa called Fairfield, and when his boys were young we used to go there every summer to visit his folks. They had a house on a few acres of land, and two very large buildings where his dad used to keep his milk trucks. When Steve was growing up, his dad had a milk distribution business – in other words, his dad was the milkman.

Steve and his siblings had to help with the business by running milk routes. And oh the stories they tell…. You’ll find bits and pieces of them in the short story below. I began writing this for my youngest step-son Brandon when he was around six or seven (I think). If I’m recalling correctly he suggested the subject of a flying cow, and the below is Part I of the result.

(For those of you who end up wondering what in the hell golden domes and pillows have to do with flying, you can get the full scoop from Google, but basically there’s a community of folks in Fairfield who practice Transcendental Meditation in big golden domes. It includes a practice called “yogic flying,” where they sit on pillows and then do these crazy butt hops. Like really high, long butt hops. They must have some serious glutes on them. But it’s not really flying. True story. Look it up.)


Bo Vine Gets Her Wings

Once upon a time there was a cow named Bo who lived on a very nice farm with a very nice farmer named Vine. The farm sat in the middle of a beautiful green field that was somewhere very close to, but not exactly in, Fairfield, Iowa.

Bo had a good life on the farm; Farmer Vine was very kind and the grass was very green and abundant so Bo always had plenty to eat. When Farmer Vine came to milk her in the morning and then again at the end of the day, she would contentedly chew her cud, knowing that the milk she was giving would go to feed children in schools, and people in hospitals.

In fact, every morning she would see the milkman drive by, delivering her milk all over Fairfield and all of Jefferson County. She would wave her ears and swish her tail and give him a big Moo to say good morning, but the milkman never seemed to notice her. He did, however, notice the farm dog who would run from the field to chase the truck. Each morning the milkman would call out, “Hi dog!” But he never said anything to Bo.

Bo wished that people would notice her more. But, after all, she was just a cow and people living somewhere very close to, but not exactly in, Fairfield, Iowa didn’t normally notice cows very much. Sometimes while she was chewing on the grass in the field she would wonder if anyone other than Farmer Vine would ever notice her.

And one day, while she was eating and wondering that very thing, a small bird flew down and began pulling a worm out of the wet grass in front of her. Bo said, through the grass in her mouth (because cows don’t have very good manners and often talk with their mouths full), “It must be wonderful to fly.”

The bird cocked his head and looked at her with his shiny round eye. “Well,” he said, “I’ve never not been able to fly, so I wouldn’t know what not flying is like. But I would have to guess it is wonderful. I can go pretty much anywhere I want, I can get there quickly, and I can see everything that’s on the ground.” And to demonstrate he quickly flew up to the branch of a nearby tree, over to a phone line, landed on Bo’s back for a moment, then lighted back on the ground in front of her.

If Bo could have clapped, she would have. But being a cow all she could do was sigh, which just sounded like a long moo. “That was wonderful,” she said. “I would love to do that.” She chewed quietly for a moment, then asked, “You don’t think you could teach me to fly, do you?”

The bird considered it a moment. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s not like I really had to learn. It would be like me asking you to teach me how to give milk.”

Bo thought about that. It was true, she would have no idea how to teach someone to give milk – it was just what she did. But the idea of everyone noticing her in the sky seemed like a good one.

“And anyway,” he continued, “I don’t think a flying cow is a very good idea. You’re awfully big, and it would probably scare people to death.”

Bo just hung her head, and the bird felt badly for her. He tried to think of something that might cheer her up, when he had an idea.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I just thought of something. Not too far from here is a very strange place with big golden domes. I’m sure that while I’ve been eating on their lawns I’ve heard that they’re teaching people to fly in those domes.” Bo felt a sudden surge of joy.

“Please,” she said, “tell me how to get there!”

“Well,” the bird said, “you go over that field, two cornfields to the right, and you’ll see one of the domes.”

Bo turned her head in that direction, wondering how far it would be for her to walk. She wasn’t sure she would be able to find this place by herself.

“One more thing,” the bird continued, “they can’t teach you to fly unless you have something called a pillow. Do you have a pillow?”

Bo shook her head sadly. “I don’t even know what a pillow is,” she said, “and somehow, I just don’t think it would be that easy for me to get there. You can fly, but I’d have to walk and it sounds like it’s a long way away.”

“I’m sorry,” the bird said to her kindly. “But cheer up. After all, you’re a cow, and cows don’t fly. They do a wonderful job of giving milk to people, but they just don’t fly.” He finished the worm he was eating and hopped over next to her. “I’ve got to be going now,” he said, “I hope to be back some time again. It was nice chatting with you.” And with that he flew up and over the trees at the far end of the field.

Bo felt so depressed she couldn’t eat for the rest of the day, and didn’t have very much milk to give that evening. Farmer Vine was afraid she was getting sick, so he led her into the barn for the night. He gave her plenty of hay, patted her on the back, and said goodnight.

Bo slept, and when she awoke her hunger got the better of her. Farmer Vine came in and for awhile she chewed and swished, and listened to the sound of her milk hissing into the pail. After the milking, Farmer Vine put her out in her field. Bo just started walking. As she walked, she noticed a hole in the fence that hadn’t been there before. Looking around, she decided to go through.

She found herself in another field she didn’t recognize at all, on the other side of the fence. As she walked she noticed that the grass looked very green. She dropped her head and began to eat. As she pulled up some grass, she raised her head and looked around while she chewed.

“I so wish I could fly,” she thought.

Now, what Bo didn’t know was that she wasn’t in any ordinary field. She was in an enchanted field, that grew only four-leaf clovers. And as anyone knows, when a cow makes a wish while chewing on four-leaf clovers, that wish is sure to come true.

Just as Bo was starting in on another patch of clovers, she noticed a tickling feeling in her left ear. She swished it around, and kept chewing. The tickling came back, just like someone was tickling her ear with a feather. She turned her head to see who would be playing this game with her, and couldn’t believe what she saw.

There was a large wing coming out of her left shoulder. Turning her head quickly to the right, she saw another wing.

She mooed in amazement. “Wings!” she exclaimed. “This must mean I can fly!” She wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, but she tried shrugging her shoulders a bit. The wings moved, creating a soft breeze. Delighted, she began flapping them harder. To her utter astonishment, her front hooves came off the ground. With a few more flaps, Bo was in the air.

First, she flew around her pasture looking down at the barnyard and the farmhouse. She flew over the barnyard, mooing in excitement. The other animals just couldn’t believe it. The pig fell right into his mud hole, the chickens began laying eggs from excitement and the cat completely ignored the flying cow and continued to clean her face.

Bo swooped down and off, eager to see what else she could see. She flew over some trees and saw a small town. It must be Fairfield! She flew toward the town square, with its shops and gazebo. She was anxious to see all the people, and have them notice her. Her! Bo the Flying Cow!

In the square there were some grandfathers and grandmothers sitting on a bench feeding a big group of pigeons. “Wow,” Bo thought, “what a great life. Just sit there and get fed.” Some of the birds were on the ground in front of the bench, and some were on a statue of a man reading a book to a child.

As Bo flew overheard, a large – very large – shadow passed over the bench. One of the grandmothers looked up and screamed, dropping her bag of bread crumbs. The sound nearly scared Bo right out of the sky. It scared the other people too. They began running and shouting, pointing up at her. They ran to their cars and began driving them off, and someone brought out a cloth to cover the statue. Bo wanted everyone to just calm down, and for things to be like they were. But it was too late for that.

She landed next to one of the pigeons, who looked at her sideways. “Well,” it said huffily, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here. You’ve completely ruined our breakfast!” A few of the other pigeons nodded in agreement.

“I’m sorry,” Bo said. “I didn’t mean to scare anyone or ruin anybody’s breakfast.” And although she was sorry, she couldn’t understand how anyone could be upset over a few breadcrumbs.

“I just got these wings,” she said, fanning them gently, “and I’ve heard so much about Fairfield, that when I saw the town square from the sky I just had to come down and take a look.”

The Gallery

Image courtesy of Dan Handler.

I wrote this story shortly after college. The idea came to me, out of nowhere, fully formed one day while I was work. I have no idea what was up with that, but I sure wish it would happen again some day. Apparently, my muse actually is a magpie. Or maybe a cow pie. Perhaps that’s where all the shitty ideas come from….

The Gallery

“Why don’t you like my cat?”

“It has nothing to do with not liking your cat.”

“Is it any cat? Do you not like cats?”

“I like cats, cats are fine.”

“Yet you reject my cat.”

“Your cat is always sticking its ass in my face.”

“That’s not just my cat. All cats will stick their ass in your face. It’s instinct.”

“Well, then, let’s just say I don’t like cats.”

“I thought that was the problem.”


We are looking at the painting. It is a large white canvas, devoid of paint. “That’s not a painting.” He looks at me with certainty. “It has no paint on it, so how can it be a painting?” “Perhaps it’s simply classified as art.” “Art perhaps, but it’s not a painting.” “Does it matter what it’s called?” We look at each other. We look at the canvas. He looks at me. “Yes, it matters. They want to call it a painting, and it’s not a painting.” “Well, what do you want to call it then?” He considers. “I don’t know, maybe it’s best to just call it a painting.”


“Now you’re annoyed, I can tell.”

“I’m not annoyed, it’s just that I don’t dislike animals.”

“But you just admitted to not liking cats.”

“It’s not cats, it’s their behavior. I can dislike part of their behavior without disliking cats in general. Or maybe just not like one particular cat.”

“I didn’t think you liked my cat.”


The artist is standing next to us. He has listened to our conversation and is angry. “No, it’s not a painting. I’m the artist, I should know what it is.” “It is a painting.” “But you just said it wasn’t a painting.” “I changed my mind, now that I look at more closely I can see that it definitely is a painting.” “No, no, you were right, look at it, it has no paint on it, it’s not a painting.” “If you have to interpret your painting for the audience, it’s not a very good work of art, is it?” The artist walks away. He is very angry.


“Why are you trying to make me admit that I don’t like your cat?”

“I think it would be healthier for you to see that you don’t like the cat and admit to it, rather than try to pretend something that’s isn’t true. You may end up sublimating your dislike of my cat into something else.”

“Would it make you feel better if I said I didn’t like your cat?”

“Well, if it would make you feel better, I think it should be said.”


The artist is coming back with a group of people. They look hostile. They are carrying books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. They are coming our way and I want to leave. “Let’s just go, it’s not worth arguing about.” “It’s not an argument, it’s artistic debate. Everyone has a right to express an opinion, although the more I look at it, it really doesn’t seem to be a painting does it? What do you think?” Even when I close my eyes, I can see them coming.


“She likes you. She never purrs unless she like you.”

“Cats always like you when you’re allergic to them. She sheds a great deal, doesn’t she?”

“It’s in the nature of a cat to shed. It’s hot outside.”

“Don’t you brush her?”

“Sometimes, but she doesn’t always like it.”

“Can I put her down now?”


They are all angry. They are shouting at each other. “How can it be a painting if it has no paint?” “You idiot, do you think the only element of a painting is paint? What about the creative process?” “So then if this is a painting, anyone who states they are an artist is an artist.” “No, art takes creativity.” “So then, it’s not a painting, but it is art.” “Then we’re all artists.” “No, but we could all be painters.” I am still considering the blank canvas.


“Would you mind keeping her off my lap?”

“But I thought you liked cats.”

“I do, but only when I want to like them.”

“She doesn’t want to get off your lap. Don’t push her, she might scratch you.”

“But I don’t want her on my lap. Couldn’t you get a dog?”

“No, I’m a cat person. Maybe if I offer her some food she’ll get off your lap.”


“Look, if he just painted it white, then it would still be white, it would have paint on it, and it would be a painting.” “But it wouldn’t be a work of art.” “But he would be an artist.” “I like it.” They all look at me. I take money out of my purse. I give it to the artist and take down the canvas. I wonder if it will look better in the living room or over the bed.


“Why should you have to offer her anything? She should simply get off my lap because she is an animal and I want her to.”

“But she does have a will.”

“And I have an allergy.”

“Isn’t an allergy also a function of will?”

“She really is purring. Does it really mean she likes me?”

“I think you’ve held her long enough.”

“No, it’s o.k., she’s happy on my lap.”

“Give me back my cat please.”


The painting is hanging over the bed. I want to enjoy it alone. In silence. I wonder what they are arguing about, now that I have the painting. I lie down on the bed. The room feels much more peaceful than I remember it feeling when I left. I think, it was a lot of money, but you really can’t pay enough for peace of mind. I fall asleep.


“Look, she’s my cat and I want her back now.”

“But she’s happy on my lap. Don’t pull her, she might scratch.”

“I’ll get some food, to entice her off your lap.”

“But I thought you were concerned with her will.”

“If she wants the food I offer to her, then it’s her will that she get off your lap.”

“I would think you would be concerned with the happiness of your cat.”


I am awakened by the artist and the group of people carrying books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. They seem happy to see the painting. “You see, I told you she would put it in the bedroom.” “But it would be better in the living room.” “A work of art is a personal experience.” “But it’s the responsibility of the owner of a work of art to share that art.” “What if the artist never shares it?” “Well, that’s different.” I try to go back to sleep.


“Look, just as I’m enjoying your cat, you want to take her back.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“But I’m trying to show you that I like your cat.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“I really believe your behavior to be irrational.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“But I like your cat and want to hold her.”


I hear a loud voice. “But we never decided if it was a painting or not.” Voices are raised. I consider the artist. I consider the painting. I consider the people with books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. I take a knife, rip the canvas from the frame, and stomp on it. The group is silent. Their eyes are hostile. “She destroyed a work of art.” “She destroyed a painting.” They look at me. “Do you realize a great work of art is an individual effort?” “That was a once in a lifetime piece.” “That can never be recreated.” “It was a blank canvas.” “It was a work of art.” “So a canvas can be replaced, but the work of art can’t?” I leave the room.


“Please give me my cat.”

“Are you jealous that the cat likes me?”


“I never have liked your cat.”