Eccentric Flower:201108/So Its Like This

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So It's Like This

[N.B. I totally stole this title from Peter.]

You: Say, can you do me a favor and [do some minor activity involving analytical brain power]?
You: Say, would you like to [participate in some social activity, like go have dinner]?

Me: Um, normally I would be happy to but I think right now it's not possible.

You: Oh. OK then. Well, I'm not offended, but what's up? Now that I notice, you look kinda ... um, you've looked better.

Me: Yeah. [pause] Just a rough period right now.

You: What's going on? Work bad?

[At this point I have to decide whether you really want to know the story or you're just being polite. Or, increasingly, lately, I know you don't want the story and I tell you anyway because I need to blow off steam.]

Me: I've got two projects with absolute, non-negotiable deadlines and either of them would basically be a full-time job for me. Also, these deadlines happen to coincide with what would normally be the busiest time of the year for me in ordinary duties, the period when we have to get everything ready for the students to come back. The stress of all this is making me lose sleep, which doesn't help my productivity, and when that slows, I panic more and that makes me more stressed.

You: [Assuming you didn't tune out four words into that and you have any reasoning power whatsoever:] That seems ... like bad planning. Why set projects to happen just at the worst possible time? And why have two big projects happening at once?

Me: It wasn't supposed to be that way. Both projects are partly sub-contracted, and the people we're working with range from difficult to outright incompetent, depending on the day, the person, and the phase of the moon. One project almost has to end where it ends, because we wouldn't have been able to change that system over until then. But the other is running many months late. It's been a fiasco from the beginning. I knew it would be, because I'd worked with that contractor before, but no one listened to me. When we finally get to go have dinner, I'll tell you about some of the fun and games. The sheer fuckery level will amuse you.

You: [don't actually believe that last bit.] So when do you think you'll be able to participate in the world again?

Me: Um ... maybe September?


[Understand, I've been having this same conversation since late June.]

Me: Yeah, I'll still have a lot of loose ends to finish then, but after the students are settled in I think I'll be able to breathe.

You: I'm not asking for you to do something that requires a couple of days of work, you know! I just want maybe an hour or two of your time!

Me: You don't understand. It's not really a question of time. I try to get home every night between 5:30 and 6:30 even on the busiest days in this mess. I've only gone in on the weekend once in this whole process. I realized early on that I needed to set some limits there or I'd die. The problem is, if we did go have dinner one night, I don't think you'd find me very good company. When I get home, some nights I barely have the energy to eat anything. I don't have the attention span or the brain cells left when I get home to watch TV or a movie, let alone something like playing computer games or reading a book or having a conversation. Mostly I count the hours until I can go to sleep. And then I don't sleep well. Even assuming I had the energy to get myself physically somewhere to meet you for dinner, and back again, I'm not sure I would be able to form complete sentences.

You: [clearly think I am just fobbing you off.] OK, whatever.

[And from there on the only reason it doesn't go Extremely Badly is that I'm simply too damned tired to try to convince you that I'm actually telling you the truth.]

Many of the people I've had this conversation with happen to be parents. Parents are the best and the worst. They are the worst if you're looking for sympathy - the parents of small children who will never be convinced that you have any hand worth a damn in a game of Exhaustion Poker. They just smile patronizingly, like, "Oh, this poor idiot thinks he's exhausted. He wouldn't know real exhaustion if it bit him." However, parents are also the best because they do know bone-dead mental and physical exhaustion and they know from first-hand experience how much your capacities are diminished. And if they ask you to come to dinner at their house and you say, "Maybe in late September?" they will not get offended, because they're used to Extra Infrastructure Load and they have to schedule everything months in advance themselves.

This is especially effective when your co-worker is the one asking you to come to dinner at her house, and has work from the same projects you do.

She has a very energetic, very intelligent, very high-initiative two-year-old who has decided she will sleep in short doses only when it is convenient for her and not for anyone else in the household. I'm really not sure how my co-worker manages to get to work, some days.

Actually I believe the projects will all be finished on time - or at least I'll finish my parts on time, I am not responsible for circumstances beyond my control - and I do have a fairly good handle on my remaining workload. I think it will come out all right. The problem is, when you play it this close, you have no reserve. It doesn't take much - just one additional problem, one other small crisis, one other mishap - to totally push you over the edge.

On Sunday we went to a local shelter and got two cats. One-year-old sisters. Black. Names Ebony and Noir. They were shy at the shelter, but not overly so.

When we got them to the house, they freaked out utterly. We let them out of the travel cages in the basement because we wanted them to see the litter boxes first. They ran and hid. Hours later they were still hiding, but when I checked on them, one of them was wheezing a bit - it's very dusty in those hard-to-access corners of our basement - and I was worried and wanted to try to get her upstairs where it was less dusty. This was a big mistake. After a few rounds of chase she went up through a hole in the plasterwork of the basement ceiling over the oil tank.

And of course I couldn't let her stay up there, because I wasn't sure how far she'd be able to run around and she might have been able to get someplace I'd never reach her (I've had a cat trapped in a crawl space no one could access, yowling piteously for two days until she found the hole from the vent I'd removed. I'd prefer never to go through that again. It was like the house was haunted by a sad cat ghost. All day, all night.) So I had to pull her out. She did not like that. She also did not like that I know how to hold a cat's feet to keep her from scratching me. So instead she bit me. Three or four times, in the shoulder (I have a nice set of puncture marks). I dropped her. She spent the rest of that night in an improvised nest behind some boxes on a bookshelf. The other had crawled into the motor space under our old upright freezer in the basement. What gets me is not that she picked that space, but she never moved. Every time I went down to check on her, she was in exactly the same position.

I was absolutely crushed with fear and guilt. I picked bum cats. I should never have tried to get her out of the basement and now she will never forgive me. They reacted this way because they're traumatized. They hate us. They'll never come out. They won't eat and they'll die. Or they'll crawl somewhere they'll actually hurt themselves, and they'll die.

I slept maybe three hours last night. Then I got up and I had been so stressed all night that I was physically ill. Then I had to go to work and write code.

Oh, yeah, and this morning the cats had totally disappeared.

They're still disappeared. We believe they have found a crawl space in the basement. The previous owners had a sort of low-rent kitchen down there because they'd go down in the basement where it was cool in the summer - a cabinet sink, an old dishwasher under the adjacent countertop, and an old gas stove. There's space behind those. I see some faint cat pad prints in the sandy foundation dust leading behind the cabinet. I can't see into the space under/behind the dishwasher and the stove.

We can't see the cats. They've made utterly no sound. They could be dead back there. And though, rationally, we know that's not true - that if they really had gotten hurt they'd be yelling, that there's evidence one of them used the litter boxes at least once last night, that we think some of their water has been drunk (but no food) - the not knowing is making us insane here. Both of us are just kind of walking around in a dazed, sad, stomach-hurt cloud. We've put out sardines. If they're not touched in the morning, I'm going to have to rip up that counter. (I was planning on tearing all of that out one spare day anyway.) The dishwasher fittings are inaccessible any other way, and I don't even know if the gas is shut off to that stove.

Of course, this will all have to happen after I get home tomorrow night, meaning another day of misery about this. Because I absolutely, positively, cannot take time off work right now to rip out a countertop. None whatsoever. I was late this morning, because of the sleep and the cat-check, and I felt that hour's loss in work not done by the end of the day.

There is no safety net whatsoever, no margin, and I would not lay odds on how well I sleep tonight, even as sleep-deprived as I am from yesterday. I think I'll start out well because I'm so tired, but then I will dream of pulling up a counter and finding two dead cats who were entrusted to my care, and that's going to wake me up and then I'm doomed.

So, um, bottom line is, I'm stretched a little thin right now, and if I tell you I can't do something right now because I simply don't have the energy, for once, please take me at face value. And if updates elsewhere seem to be a lot more seldom than usual, well, I think you can safely assume that it's because I'm frantically busy, and not because I'm huddled under a desk somewhere having the shakes.

Actually, on second thought, don't assume that.

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OK - so the cats ARE fine and they will come out. It took Sligo a couple of days to not be completely freaked out and scared, and he hid in a spot that was so awful Josh had to tear out a section of paneling to get at him. This is what they do. Under no circumstances should you believe that you're a bad person, a bad cat parent or any other such nonsense. Their instincts tell them to hide (something you should be more than familiar with!), and they'll come out and say hi when they're ready. Keep putting out the sardines and tuna, keep making sure the litter box is where they could potentially see it/know it's there, and make sure there's water in the fountain reservoir. This is a perfectly normal cat freak-out period, and it's rough on everybody. And I'm so sorry you got bit. And I'm sure that once she gets to know you, she'll feel badly that she bit you. She is, after all, just a cat, and she doesn't know just how wonderful you are and how lucky she is that you two brought her and her sister home. She'll come around. They both will. **hugs**

-- 03:09, 16 August 2011 (BST)


I know how worrying that kind of cat situation will be, but they'll be okay. They'll come out when they're ready. They will not starve, though they may only sneak out to eat at 2am when they're absolutely sure they're alone for the next few days. They'll get over their fear once they're used to their surroundings, and they will get to know and like you. As long as they're not in the attic or the walls, they are fine.

My mom's taken in two skittish former-stray cats, and each time the new cat freaked the hell out and spent the next week hiding from her. (One actually went crazy when my mom first picked her up, and bit and clawed and launched herself up the curtains in the foyer. My mom was horribly guilt-ridden and thought she'd ruined any chance of the cat ever trusting her. She hadn't.) Neither of these cats was anything like feral; they were just jumpy and scared. They seemed to spend their entire first week in the exact same spot underneath the bed, but the food and litter in the room would be slightly disturbed each morning. It didn't take them long after that till they calmed down and started acting like they owned the place. Even Moly, who was confident and friendly in her cage at the adoption center, was so frightened and shy when I took her home that I started having second thoughts about whether she'd ever like me. Adopting adult cats can be tough; kittens don't usually have that kind of fearfulness. It's hard to leave them be, because you're worried about them and of course you want to see them. But you've done nothing wrong, they aren't traumatized in any lasting way, and they will absolutely forgive you and forget this ever happened.

-- 04:45, 16 August 2011 (BST)


My cat (the one who used to be stray, not the one I linked for you on Twitter the other day) still considers under the kitchen counter to be her safe space and whenever there are strangers in the house she can live there for days. That is after many-many years of living in the house.

It is funny, though, to see her positioning herself (it gets harder to crawl in there, as the cat is chunkier now) in front of the hole under the counter every time she hears the fence gate being opened.

Also - when I place dustbin or recycling or anything else in front of the hole, I will often find the cat sitting there, looking at me with her fire-safety-inspector look: "Do keep the escape ways clear!"

-- 07:38, 16 August 2011 (BST)


I'm so so sorry Col. For everything.

For what it is worth, I found you delightful company over dim sum, and am grateful you found the time to have lunch with me.

Also "The problem is, when you play it this close, you have no reserve.". You know what is going on with me and tenure right now, so you know I'm in the same situation. Just waiting for a kid to get sick and show me how I shouldn't have taken those days off or had slow afternoons or read the internet over coffee.

-- 16:23, 16 August 2011 (BST)


No worries, I understand. You recall I once worked for a Large Company that put people under deadlines like that... and I've had small mammals in my care who managed to worry me beyond all reason.

So, we'll see you in September. (but remember, there's a ... Drat! and now I'll be singing that all day.)

-- 17:24, 16 August 2011 (BST)


Oh, that sounds wrenching. I hope there's a moment of inter-species detente this evening.

(And, as a parent, I am right with you on this. I have had the kind of conversation you describe Many Times, and it shouldn't read as a blow-off to any reasonable person.)

-- 17:54, 16 August 2011 (BST)


Before I was a parent, I was an associate at a large law firm where 200-billables a month was considered reasonable (the minimum was 175 averaged out over the year). My record was 270, which included three full days off over Thanksgiving (a deal I had pre-negotiated before I signed on to the project); in other words, I billed (not worked) 10 hours a day every other day of that November. So, yeah, I get being overwhelmed by work.

As for the cats, well, I like cats, you know, but I have no sympathy for animals too stupid to eat and drink, regardless of how freaked they are. You've done what a responsible pet owner should do (more, I'd argue). It's up to them: You can lead a cat to sardines, but you can't make it eat.

-- 18:53, 17 August 2011 (BST)


Re: " ... maybe September?"

Looks like I will stop over in Boston in September. I would not mind seeing you then, but how will be the most convenient way to work out the possibility of getting together and the details for that?

-- 05:34, 19 August 2011 (BST)


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