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Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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the safety of shadows
april 1, 2008
I rap my knuckles against the glass of our bedroom window, put a stern look on my face.
To no avail.
Lying in bed these past few weeks, I realized how much you can tell about a cat's current emotional state just by looking at its hind quarters- in this case, the two back legs and tail sticking out from our bedroom window curtains.
Lady's head and front paws had disappeared through the tall, soft part in the white curtains, to where I couldn't see them from where I lay. As I watched, as the morning local news went on about cold fronts, her two gray hind legs suddenly braced against the top of the chair she was stretched out to the window from, her backside wiggling, tail lowering, then wagging side to side, fur in the tail goosebumping (I guess that's what you'd call it) until the tail was as extravagantly thick as a raccoon's.
She let out a low, anguished cry, repeating it over and over again.
We get cats in our backyard.
For one thing, we grow catnip back there. Every Friday evening, Mary and I go out and pluck some, delicate green branches twanging from the plucks, and bring the little jade leaves inside for our cats (our cats are strictly indoor cats), so they can have an end of the work week party. But other neighborhood cats love to come over during the day and roll in it, paws in the air. Plus, we have bird feeders and bird baths everywhere. We easily have fifty birds in our garden at any given time, all different species, from sunrise to just after dusk.
Most of the backyard cats we see only occasionally, but Shittens shows up every day.
We originally dubbed her Mittens, because she's dark gray, with four white paws. We switched her name to Shittens after we saw how distressed Lady would get each time Shittens wandered into our yard. Because we figured that's how Lady must refer to her.
The other cats that show up tend to stay to the back of the yard, under the trees. Sit on their haunches in the dark green ivy beds along the rear privacy fence, watching the birds.
But Shittens will deliberately parade back and forth in front of the window where Lady is trying to get some sun. Sometimes she'll even leap up at the window screen, causing Lady to let out a screech, tumbling off the inside window ledge, onto the carpet, shooting a look up at us, hoping we didn't notice her moment of uncoolness.
"Lady, if you just ignore her, she'll stop. Next time she peers in at you, go over to your food bowl and eat some delicious cat food, looking up at her, smacking your lips, then come over here and we'll pull you up in our lap and pet you."
When we see Lady in the window, mewling, Shittens on the other side, lazily rolling around in the catnip, watching Lady out of the corners of her eyes, we'll pet Lady's long back, but she remains distracted, staring eyes scandalized. We've tried rapping with our knuckles on the window. That startlement worked the first time, but Shittens is smart. We didn't want to toss water through the window screen at Shittens, because she is a cat, and we love all cats. Even the desperados.
But we did come to dislike Shittens. Why does she have to be so hateful? Isn't that more of a human thing?
I normally do our taxes myself, forms weighed down with empty water glasses, ashtrays and forks across the gleaming black surface of our breakfast nook table, lighting a cigarette just before I total everything, telling myself writing a check to the government isn't the worst thing in the world, there are worse horrors, but this year, since I'm now self-employed, running my own consulting business from our home, which means I can declare part of our household expenses as working expenses, but I also have to pre-pay things like Social Security, the taxes just got too complicated.
Could I have figured it out on my own?
Yeah. But did I want to devote that much time to reading IRS manuals?
So one morning, over coffee, Mary and I flipped through the local yellow pages, looking under Tax Consultants. We didn't want to go with someone like H&R Block, because I doubt the people they hire around tax time really have any depth of knowledge. So we hired a certified public accountant (CPA) instead.
I drew up some papers listing all our revenue, all our expenses. We drove out to his office one sunny morning, met with him for half an hour, going over our finances, then left him with the numbers. Two weeks later, he had our return, with all its attendant schedules, neatly typed out, a little silver staple punched perfectly parallel to the top edge of all that thickness. Instead of owing money this year, we're actually going to get back about a thousand dollars. I love it. His fee was only two hundred and twenty-five dollars, which I believe I can write off on next year's tax return (I'll have to ask him).
In the previous Lately, I talked about how awful AT&T U-verse is.
We decided to stay with Time Warner for our broadband connection. We may eventually add DSL, as a back-up, since Time Warner is about as dependable as an alcoholic uncle.
For television, we had been using Dish TV for the past ten years. But we were getting a bit bored with it, so decided to switch to DirectTV, just to see what it's like.
We never once considered getting cable TV. In addition to all the other problems attendant with cable, the fact is the cable TV system does not deliver as strong a signal as satellite TV. All TV, including cable TV, is essentially satellite TV. Stations beam their signal up to satellites 36,000 to 38,000 miles above the earth, and that signal is then beamed back down to Earth. If you have cable, that signal is beamed down to a cable location maybe twenty or thirty miles from your home. The signal then travels those twenty or thirty miles through cable, degrading all the way, to your TV. With a home satellite system, that same signal is beamed directly to the satellite dish on your roof. Instead of traveling miles and miles to your home, it travels ten feet. See the difference?
(Some people (cable stalwarts) will argue the distance doesn't make a difference, since the signal is a digital signal, and therefore no data is lost. What they forget to take into account is the speed of the signal delivery. If your signal is coming from ten miles away, twenty miles away, over cable, there simply isn't enough time for the cable to deliver all the data necessary to give the highest quality picture image. That miles away digital signal delivers as much data as it can each split second, but then has to cut off the data delivery for that split second to start the data needed to display the next split-second image. It's the same principal that comes into play with the connection you use between your receiver and your TV. If you're using S-video or component cables, they simply don't have as fast a data transfer capacity as an HDMI cable. Put a DVD in your DVD player, and watch it on your TV with an S-video or component cable connection, then watch the same DVD using an HDMI connection. With the HDMI connection you're going to see extraordinary detail you couldn't see before, and far more subtle gradations of color (a lawn will have six different shades of green, instead of two.) You haven't changed your DVD, or the DVD player, or the TV. All you've changed is the connection. All that extra data was there-there just wasn't enough speed to deliver it.)
One thing we liked about DirectTV is the fact you get nearly 100 HD channels at this point.
So a couple of Thursdays ago, a young guy with a woolen ski cap showed up at our front door, around noon.
It was a terrible day to install a satellite dish on a roof. A light rain had been falling all morning, but as he propped his ladder against our roofline, the rain got worse (and it was a cold, cold rain, the type that seeps through the skin, right down to the bones. In fact, the day after, it snowed several inches.)
After he had been up on our roof an hour, Mary and I both a little concerned about his well being, I went outside and shouted, asking if he wanted some hot soup. He was on his haunches way up on the gray shingles, absolutely drenched, shivering. Smiled, gave a very polite, No thank you, Sir. Went back to his work.
As a part of the installation, he removed the old Dish TV satellite dish we had been using (the DirectTV dish, we noted happily, was larger. When I called Dish afterwards to cancel our service, the Customer Service Representative immediately offered us free this, free that, if we'd stay with Dish. "Well, to be honest, we've already had the DirectTV dish put in place." "Oh. Okay." His voice sounded dispirited.)
The installation guy completely replaced all the cable running from our roof to our bedroom, drilling through the outside brick of our home. Once he was finished, he hooked up the new DirectTV receiver, found the satellite signal, went through set-up. Once he had everything ready, he called us in to approve the job.
So how does DirectTV compare with Dish TV?
The picture quality is extraordinary. High definition is as good as we've ever seen (we're using a Samsung 52 inch TV). You can stand a nose's length from the image of the weatherman, and it's like standing in front of a person. A seamless image, with no hatching, artifacts, or pixilation.
Standard definition is much better than Dish TV. On Dish TV, standard definition had a slightly muddy appearance. With DirectTV, standard definition images are crisper and more detailed.
DirectTV has more HD channels than Dish, and is far more aggressive in converting channels' signals to HD (Bravo, for example, is only available as of this writing in standard definition on Dish, but is available in high definition on DirectTV.)
And DirectTV has more channels overall.
If you over-schedule the number of shows you want to record during the same hour, the DirectTV interface for choosing which shows to record, which to drop, is infinitely more easy to use than the cumbersome, time-consuming method used by Dish TV.
The biggest downside right now is that DirectTV has occasional audio drop-outs. This occurs mostly when you fast-forward through a recorded program (for example, to skip commercials.) Sometimes, the first five seconds of audio, once you stop fast-forwarding, are dropped (you see the image, but there's no audio). That can be avoided by fast-reversing for ten seconds, but it is a bit annoying. Audio drop-outs also occur on local stations while you're watching them "live" (i.e., not recorded.) Judging from the DirectTV forums, DirectTV is aware of the problem, a software problem, and is working to correct it.
If you look at the description of a show, to see if you want to record it, Dish TV tells you if it's a new show, when it originally aired, and the episode number, which makes it far easier to determine if you've already seen the show. DirectTV does not provide any of that information at this point.
Also, I found the Dish remote control to be a little more intuitive than the DirectTV remote.
Having said all that, though, we're really glad we switched to DirectTV.
On the subject of TV, we've noticed a shift in our viewing preferences the past few years.
For most of our lives, TV was a poor cousin to motion pictures.
TV was all right while you were lying in bed late at night eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream when you really should be loading the dishwasher, but the quality of the shows was way below what you could see in the movies.
Since the beginning of this century, though, that paradigm has shifted.
TV got a lot better. Much of the credit goes to HBO, which started producing original programming in the nineties. Shows like Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show were often smarter and funnier than anything playing in movie theaters. At the end of the nineties, HBO began experimenting with original drama series, producing some of the best work available in any medium, including The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
At the same time, movies got a lot worse. Serious adult films got shunted to the independents, which often didn't have the resources to fully realize a script's potential, while the big Hollywood studios churned out remakes and sequels, filled with explosions, or dreadful "story arc" films where all the joyful, horrible messiness of human behavior is reduced to formulaic "meets, loses, gets" plots.
HBO got shaky after The Sopranos ended, but they've been coming back (Although executives at Showtime are apparently referring to HBO as HBO-ver). In Treatment, broadcast five nights a week, follows Gabriel Byrne as a therapist who analyses four different patients, and is then analyzed himself, each week. The acting is superb, the format novel, and the plot holds a number of surprises.
Showtime was always an also-ran, but it's moved into the top ranks with Dexter, a series ready to go into its third season about a serial killer (played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall, from Six Feet Under) living in Miami. Dexter is the most exciting show on TV right now.
Of all the channels available to us, the one that has surprised us the most is American Movie Classics (AMC), which had been devoted to showing old films. In 2007 they came out with their first original series, Mad Men, about advertising executives in the early sixties, which was surprisingly good, better than anything on broadcast TV. Then in 2008 they aired an even better series, Breaking Bad, about a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he's dying from lung cancer, and decides to use his chemistry skills to market a superior meth amphetamine on the streets, in order to leave his family some money. It's an incredible show, better than anything at your local movie theater.
The other day, as we opened our mail, I noticed we had a slim envelope with the return address, Red Light Photo Enforcement Program.
Inside was a notice stating there was a red light violation against us (i.e., we ran a red light.) The notice gave the cross streets for the violation, and the day and time.
(In America, more and more municipalities are setting up cameras at intersections, to film traffic violations.)
Our notice included a black and white photo of our license plate, clear enough that you could read the letters and numbers, but since it was a tight shot of our license plate, there was no way to tell the traffic context when the picture was snapped.
I checked our calendar. We had indeed been out that day (most days we stay in.) And we had been in Duncanville, where the "alleged" violation occurred.
I remembered the day.
We had a lot of errands to run. We started off by bringing our lawn mower to a repair shop in Duncanville (After its winter hibernation, it wouldn't start, no matter how many times I yanked on the cord, and, incredibly, even after I spat out "Fuck" several times.) After that, we swung over to a liquor store, also in Duncanville, to pick up six cases of Spaten Optimater, a beer we order in large quantities a few times a year, because it's difficult to get (most stores don't carry it.) By the time we paid for the beer, supervising its transfer to the rear of our CRV, an incredibly heavy, cold rain started drumming down. Once the beer was loaded, we were both soaking wet, clothes plastered to our bodies, rain dripping off the tips of our noses. We sat side by side in the front seats, slamming the front doors, looked at each other, and decided there was no point in running the rest of our errands. We needed to hie back home, as quickly as possible, and get out of our wet clothes.
So I drove the speed limit but when I came up on the intersection beyond which, on the right, was the entrance to the highway, I didn't do a full stop. I drove right through the red light (there was no oncoming traffic.) In Texas, like a lot of other states, you can turn right on a red light as long as you come to a full stop before you do. I hadn't come to a full stop. In fact, honestly, I hadn't come to any stop at all. I saw the road on my left was clear, and sailed under the red light, onto the highway.
The notice gave a website you could go to, to view photos of your transgression, as well as a video.
We both thought-- How cool! We can go on the Internet and see a brief, Big Brother film of us in our car.
So we went to the site, and indeed, there was our car, blithely sailing, without any hesitation, under the red light, rain water curling sideways from our big, black tires, onto the highway.
We played it several times, grinning. That's us!
I tried to download the film, so I could display it on this Lately, but unfortunately, that's apparently not possible.
What I did manage to download, and am showing here, is one of the photos of our car. You can't see us, you can't even see the cases of beer in the back, but I thought you might find it, I don't know, kind of interesting to see a government image of the person you're reading, or at least a picture of the car he's driving. Consider it found art. Or something like that. (The picture nicely captures the raindrops.)
To see us breaking the law, go here.
Our car is not the car in the foreground (which stopped for the red light), but the car turning right, up ahead.
A few weeks ago, I was upstairs in my study, writing, and decided to take a break. Stood up out of my swivel chair, stretched, wandered over to Mary's work room. I could hear Mary downstairs, feeding our cats their evening meal, dry cat food rattling down into white styrofoam bowls.
Lo and behold, through the tall front window in Mary's room, down there on the darkening street, one floor below, was the famous Miss Shittens, hurrying across the light-pooled street, from the fence shadows of our neighbor across the way, to the round shadows under the redbud in our front yard. The way her four paws trotted rapidly across the lit areas of the road, I could tell she was tense, frightened, anxious to get again to the safety of shadows.
And for the first time ever, I felt sorry for her.
Nobody pets the top of her head, or swirls the red, pulled-off strip from a Netflix DVD mailing envelope around on the kitchen floor for her paws to capture and release, or holds her in a lap, looking down into her beautiful jewel eyes, talking nonsense human words to her.
So when I see her in our backyard now, taunting Lady in sunlight, smooshing her lean back across chewed catnip leaves, I no longer rap on the window.
I finally realized, taunting is all she's got.