Chapter 13: Ballooning Misfortune

Pumpkin was immensely prideful. He had the same need to appear cool as an insecure middle schooler (is saying “insecure middle schooler” redundant?), though as a creature who at times radiated pure, spiteful evil, he was still not quite as unpleasant as your standard middle schooler. There were things that he wanted to do, and one could tell there was an internal struggle as he debated actually enjoying himself with the merits of not looking uncool.

This is a boy who knows the ladies love a bad boy. This kind of image doesn’t just happen.

Snuggling, for instance. Pumpkin had a desperate need for a certain amount of physical attention, but he refused to do so through things that normal kitties would do, like hopping in a lap. That would have just been too damn simple and a lot less fun. Pumpkin would hop in your lap, but only under the specific condition that there was a pillow in said lap to provide the 3-5 inch separation between himself and a lap which would still allow him to maintain his coolness. This resulted in numerous times where Pumpkin would badger you expectantly, waiting for a pillow to appear in your lap so he could assume the position and gaze out from his throne (what he didn’t realize was that begging for a pillow made him decidedly uncool, and we made fun of him behind his back for it).

Pumpkin took a great liking to sitting on the couch, lording over the living room, on this quilt made by his grandma.

Pumpkin got jealous that his sister, Cherry, had made a habit of getting post-shower snuggles, where she would pretend to love us as she rubbed her scent all over newly cleaned, previously scent-free skin, claiming us as her own. After she got done transferring her scent she liked to sit on your chest for a big, enjoying the single situation where our timid and fearful girl would actually fight for attention herself. Pumpkin refused to be outdone, so he decided he wanted in on post-shower snuggles as well. But Pumpkin refused to sit on your chest like some soft pussy. Instead he stood proudly on your chest, towering over his inferior minion like a God, growing strength from your discomfort as his feet with extra toes placed way too much pressure on your feeble, weak body.

Many times when being pet he insisted on maintaining the facade of definitely not wanting to be pet. He would meow annoyingly as you first started to pet him, expressing offense that you would dare disturb his slumber or insult his fine fur with your impure hands. This was all an act (slightly better than Megan Fox in Transformer’s type of act) and soon his own body would betray him, as his own need to purr out of enjoyment overtook his bitchiness, and his ability to meow would eventually dissipate into nothing, all the while he continued to protest by mouthing silent, grumpy meows.

Pumpkin acts like he doesn’t like being held after we picked him up during an escape attempt. Secretly, part of the reason why he escaped was just for the attention he got for it.

Most cats have an instinct similar to T-rex in Jurassic Park; they don’t want to be fed, they want to hunt. Boy kitties take this even more to an extreme, since they have their predatory desires in addition to the need to be an alpha. Unlike human males they can’t express their desire through sport, video games, deliberately misquoting Jane Eyre to a literary woman, or world war, so they have to get their anger out through other means. This can be such fun activities as spontaneously attacking their master’s leg, or playing with toys. Pumpkin was all too willing to embrace the former, but would refuse to embrace the latter without spending at least 47 seconds pretending like he didn’t want to. He would stand on the sidelines, watching as his sisters gleefully snatched flying objects out of the air and put a killing stroke on their new toy (tragically for many lizards in our household, they have little ability to differentiate between living toys and those provided by their masters). His body would shudder as he tried to maintain the veil of being too cool for playing while he obviously really wanted to give into his instincts and KILL KILL KILL. Sometimes, after the allotted time expired, Pumpkin would finally pounce on the hapless toy with the unbridled fury that only six toes and pent up anger can provide. That is, of course, until he realized that he had shredded his veil of indifference, and went back to being too cool to actually have fun.

He was an angry boy.

Pumpkin could visibly get embarrassed in ways you wouldn’t imagine a cat could be (once again showing more range than Megan Fox). He was always much more fleet of foot and agile than his large frame might let on, but as he got older he occasionally miscalculated the amount of force it would take for his large frame to be propelled to a higher surface, and his large claws would scrape haplessly against the table top he failed to reach as he fell back to the floor, where he would again display his surprising speed by disappearing extremely quickly so he wouldn’t have to own up to the reality that such a majestic creature as he might have made a mistake. There were other times when a lack of spatial awareness lead to him slipping right off the table. This was far more rare, as he genuinely was pretty expert about securely plopping himself down on a surface in prime people harassment territory, but when he did fall, the result was the same magically disappearing Pumpkin. When it came to the table in general, Pumpkin had absolutely no reservations about hopping on the table even during such sacred hours as the rare times modern humans actually eat dinner at the dinner table. Humans eating were merely a captive audience that he sought to exploit. This was in stark contrast to his perfectly-behaved sister Cherry, who also liked to be at the table but was so well-mannered she would sit in a chair like a human, hoping her politeness would earn some table scraps.

Our always impeccably behaved Cherry.

Pumpkin always loved to be a bed boy- in fact, it was pretty much his natural habitat, but he was definitely not a bedtime snuggler. He preferred at least two, and preferably four inches between himself and any humans. Being in the bed wasn’t just for the comfort of it – he did like to be in bed near his humans, but he was much too cool to pretend he actually liked them. So it should have been a clue when he started to want to curl up next to someone in the bed. His grandparents even noticed how good of a bed boy he was when they came down for a visit earlier this year, as he spent a lot of time sleeping next to them despite the beds we can provide the grandparents being scarcely large enough for an elf.

The grandparents when they came down. We photographed at the old Lakeland Train Station, where I took many shots that came out out of focus since I didn’t realize until then that the focus sensor on my new camera was bad.

I knew that Pumpkin was going to be an old boy pretty soon. He was something around 16 and we were looking forward to him getting a driver’s license so he could help with some errands. I had specifically discussed with Jess early in the year that I knew he was going to get old very soon, and I wanted to provide comfort to him as his body aged and the real pains of aging set in. Having owned pets since birth I know what its like to see them get old and need special attention, which they deserve after being with you for years of service. Pumpkin was a special boy who, because of his rough exterior, his poor social skills, and the fact that he was less sensitive than his little sister’s sometimes didn’t get the dedicated attention he deserved (Pumpkin certainly would have told you so). I didn’t know at the time that there was likely already something stealing his life away, and that I wouldn’t get the chance to take my boy through his old age.

There were some other signs as well. He generally seemed to grimace when getting up from laying down, spending a few seconds looking uncomfortable before resuming his normal activity (I didn’t know at the time just what lengths cats would go to try and hide their pain to avoid showing weakness). He had always seemed to know how handsome he was and was rarely reluctant to have his picture taken. Indeed, the way he acted while being photographed implied that he understood that other people would get to see it and understand just how awesome he was (oddly enough, though, he always got shy to meow while on video, so few recordings exist of his incredibly expressive talking). Being that he was the most readily available photogenic object, I generally used him to test out new camera gear, and it was no different when I got a new camera and a new lens set earlier this year. But what was different is that he wouldn’t look at the camera, except to occasionally voice an angry meow at his displeasure. He knew he was sick, and he ashamed to be photographed in that condition, but I couldn’t have known. While it’s clear to see the signs of his illness in hindsight, it’s not as easy to clearly discern things when you are seeing it in real-time.

Pumpkin decidedly not pleased with being photographed.

Also, something must be sad about being lower middle class, which we are. Middle class life is filled with a dozen or more things that might be wrong at any given time, and rarely enough money to fix at least one of them without going into debt if things turn into a serious issue. Cars make funny noises and warning lights occasionally come on, only to disappear. Laundry machines sometimes do a bad load, are the machines bad or was it an outlier? The air conditioner stops working one moment, then starts again. There’s a weird pain in your foot. That tree is leaning awful strongly near your house, but it hasn’t fallen yet. The roof leaks when it rains heavy, will it get worse? Can it wait until summer? There’s a nail in the tire you just got two weeks ago. The front door doesn’t shut right, is it just weird humidity, or will it keep happening? There’s always a whole host of possible problems and a limited amount of resources to fix them while still having a life worth living. Some possible problems end up not being real issues at all, and sometimes they come to a head. You can’t rush out to fix every potential problem when you’re not sure if it’s even a problem at all. You take note of a lot of things, and when your cat who is pretty old starts to display signs that are as likely to be him just getting old as anything else, you don’t freak out about it, because you can’t freak out about things that haven’t presented themselves as actual problems (I must note that with Pumpkin’s sickness, there is pretty much nothing that could have been done to prevent him from being terminal even had we rushed him to a vet the first time he stood up weird).

A great example of a “middle class problem” is when I tripped on a box of goldfish and felt a pop in my hip when I landed hard on my right leg. I hoped it was nothing and found out when swimming on the day picture above that my hip was actually seriously wrecked, as it turned out, permanently. But lots of other times I’ve felt pops, tweaks, and torques and not had any longterm issues.

And let me tell you; for some reason, in the first half of 2019, pretty much everything that could have been a problem, did become a problem. We were having a miserable time! Vehicles broke down, roofs needed repairing, air conditioner acted up, fridge died and had to be replaced (on a day I was supposed to do to a birthday party to boot!), we had Pumpkin’s illness, etc. So many things went wrong that I can’t even place in what order they happened, or even remember all of them for that matter. Our boy was never ignored, but our lives were engulfed in a shitstorm that seemed to provide problems that required our constant attention. In the weeks that lead up to Pumpkin becoming really sick I felt immensely star-crossed. I had spent more money on a new to me but actually “refurbished” camera setup that cost more than any other thing I’d had in my life outside of a vehicle, and pretty much every part of the new setup I ordered was defective, despite coming from several different sellers. Not only was it frustrating to have to spend so much time trying to figure out new equipment, having the suspicion its defective, having to find ways to test that it’s not your imagination, and then figure out what to do about it when its not working, I simply got depressed at the time from having sunk so much money into something that should have been a dream and instead was a living nightmare. And to top it all off, I knew by the time I got the situation rectified, the season in which I could freely use my camera in Florida would have passed.

You see, in Florida, there is a great deal of the year when its simply not that enjoyable to be outside, unless of course you are in the water (which I have no aversion to, but which leaves no place for a distinctly non-waterproof camera), and then there is everything else. Everything else generally runs from sometime in April till sometime unimaginably far away once April comes around. It’s not just the heat, which is scorching even at first light due to humidity that will make you sweat larger more water than contained in many freshwater lakes, nor discomfort from being out in it. It’s just that for that part of the year being outside feels like something is trying to kill you at all times, with that heat, a multitude of bugs, some stinging, some just immensely unpleasant, and some love bugs, grass which grows tall enough in a week to hide a VW Bug, lightning storms that literally generate from nothing in the afternoon as winds collide over Polk County, and gators that will show up on your doorstep just slightly less frequently than Jehovah’s witnesses. Even indoors the air feels humid and aggressive, and the thought of being outside has about as much appeal as pineapple on a pizza. And I love the outdoors, specifically photographing, but it’s tough to do much outdoors in the warm months. So having a new camera I wouldn’t be able to unleash regularly for a great deal of time was an added frustration.

This was supposed to be a perfectly sunny day. Early 2019 in a nutshell.

I may have been able to handle it better had my outdoor and/or creative adventures not seemed star crossed for quite some time. I’ll spare the detail of every frustration, but I’ll relate just one story. In the midst of our unseasonably warm winter, we attended a hot air balloon festival, one which seemed to be managed by the same folks that brought you Fyrefest. The area wasn’t conducive to actually hosting a festival, there were far more people in the space than could ever fit comfortable, and balloons which should have been majestically rising over an open field were struggling to gain air at all while crammed in a narrow corridor between a road and a parking garage. Not knowing the mechanics of hot air balloons, I know not why only two of the five or so balloons there could barely reach twenty feet above the ground, this despite balloon rides being sold at some twenty dollars a pop. I only know that in that moment I felt kind of like the balloons; meant to rise and tower over the world with their beautiful colors on display for many to see and appreciate, bringing joy to those around it, and instead almost completely failing to take flight. I set out to capture a beautiful festival and balloons towering over the horizon, instead I just found an analog for my own personal struggles.

Pretty much the maximum height achieved during the balloon fest. At least we didn’t blow $40 on a ride.

The thing is, I really needed my weekend escapes, as I was struggling to find satisfaction at the insurance job I had been working for just under a year. It’s difficult to describe the difficulty of working an insurance job to those who have never experienced it. I can only describe it as taking the busiest, worst day from any other job and extrapolating it across every day. The amount of work to do in a short timeframe every day is akin to scaling a mountain, step by step. I’ve done that before, both in the metaphorical and the literal sense, and in fact my ability to power through many tasks in an efficient manner is something I’m skilled at, but damn if some days you don’t feel like climbing a mountain. Since your workload compounds, and the difficulty seems to increase exponentially the more you get behind, one bad day can take weeks to recover from. Despite the vast amount of work you’re doing, forget the satisfaction of a job well done, because doing 99 percent of things right in insurance is still a failure, and good luck doing everything perfect when you’re getting phone calls faster than you can even type notes. I’m a person who likes the satisfaction and security of doing things well, and knowing I was have to climb a mountain every day, and not taking a single misstep while doing so, was giving me a crushing amount of anxiety and left my late evenings dominated by a sense of foreboding as I knew what I was heading into every day. The job was making me miserable, but so would having to leave that job, because I would struggle to find the same pay elsewhere, and it would reset my vacation time, which is basically what I live for.

Me in front of Table Rock, SC, a mountain I hiked from the bottom in November 2018. It was awesome, and I’d rather die than have to climb it every day.

The increased pay was a perk, and a big one was having better work hours, with weekends and evenings off. When I first started working the schedule, I took advantage of having normal human hours, and one of the things I made sure to do was to give my Pumpkin frequent walks like he liked so much, though as the job became more intense this became less frequent to the point where I lost track of where his leash wash. We got ourselves a set of bikes, which we enjoyed riding on summer evenings after work, at least when it wasn’t thunderstorming. A normal schedule only does so much. For half the year, it gets dark too early in Florida to do anything outdoors after work, so that’s a wash. When your weekends are filled with misfortune and disappointment, and your work weeks stress you to the point of physical illness, you start to wonder whether that job is all worth it, good hours or not.

Pumpkin on one of the yardwalks he liked so much. I wish I would have taken him out more.

For a while though, things were looking better. First, in a stroke of fortune that felt more lucky than good, I managed to parlay my months of hell working the garbage entry position at my company into a position that, while technically lateral, was better suited to my skillset and would reduce my anxiety tremendously. Training for the new position granted me a lengthy reprieve from the daily mountains. A few weeks into my training I got the new camera back, and for once, it and all its gear were working right. I actually had a weekend adventure turn out right when we took a great trip to the beach on a beautiful, mild sunny day. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we stayed far longer than anticipated, and I didn’t even mind the intense sunburn I got as a consequence. For once this year, I was in a really good mood, and things were working out right.

Beach day!

I was in a good mood because I didn’t realize that in just eight days, my Pumpkin would be gone forever.

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