Cat Litter, Mold, and other toxic waste.

All I wanted to do was upgrade the litterbox.

A simple project. Straightforward. Uncomplicated.

Littermaid MegaWe have one of those automatic, self-raking litter boxes manufactured by Littermaid. With three kitties in our herd, we of course have the Mega-Elite-Super-Duper-Pooper-Scooper model.

My brief review of this product is, unfortunately, a sound that readers may find offensive. If you have one cat with minimum bathroom needs, the Littermaid may suit you just fine, although I still wouldn’t recommend it. The concept is solid, but somewhere between the concept department and the how-cheap-can-we-build-it department the solid concept turned into cheap plastics and cheesy mechanisms that wear out too soon and require too much day-to-day attention.

One of our three feline masters insists on the box being pristine, and if she is not satisfied, she will make her displeasure known with malodorous deposits left in inappropriate places (shoes, for example). The teeny little disposable waste container in the Littermaid (designed  to sell replacement containers in copious quantities) is way too small. My three can load that thing full in a day if they’re in the mood.

With the raking mechanism jamming, poor self-cleaning and protest poops on the rise, we had to do something to improve the facilities. One serious contender made by LitterWorks is a stand designed to work with the Littermaid and expand it’s waste storage to more adequate proportions. A great idea, interesting design, and although I’ve never seen one in person, I know from contact with the manufacturer that it’s a quality item made completely from birch plywood without a single speck of particle board (a material oddly akin to what the product helps dispose). Add up the cost of the cabinet and a new Littermaid, and it’s a bit pricey. Given the experience we’ve had with our current Littermaid box, Litterworks still fell short.

Then, I found what we hope will be our solution: The Cat Genie.


This ingenious litterbox is self-washing, just like our cats. Hook it up to a cold water faucet and a suitable drain, and it cleans and sanitizes itself on the schedule you set. If it works as advertised (and I’ve yet to find a displeased Cat Genie owner), it’s downright brilliant. Pricey, for sure, but with the right combination of free shipping, package pricing, and discount codes, not out of line compared tom the other options. After careful consideration, I ordered the Cat Genie Tuxedo Package,which includes a privacy dome and extra supplies.

Since the Cat Genie needs water and sewer connections, the old cat box location wouldn’t work. I put my brilliant engineering mind to work and soon had a plan. We’d locate the Cat Genie in the downstairs bathroom/laundry room. All I’d have to do is cut down the oversize vanity cabinet to make a place for the new feline facility.

No sweat.

As I began planning the project, the usual array of small collateral issues arose. Rather than cut down the old cabinet, we decided to replace it with a nice, new white vanity and cultured marble top. The mirror would then be too big, so we had to replace it, too. The smaller cabinet would produce a gap in the 30+ year old dark walnut wainscoting, we hated that wainscoting anyway, so we decided to take it all down (fortunately, it wasn’t glued, just nailed.) Since we were taking down the wainscoting, the hideous wallpaper above it would have to go, and we’d paint the walls a nice color instead. Then the dark wood wall cabinet wouldn’t look right, so we had to paint that, too. The one-piece vinyl  floor would have gaps both at the front and side of the new vanity, and it wouldn’t do to put a litter box on an unfinished floor, so we added a new floor to the list.

In the matter of a couple of hours planning, our simple “cut down a cabinet” job topped $1,000—plus the cost of the CatGenie. So much for that “simple project we can afford” thing. Sharon and I sat down, re-evaluated, and found an alternate location in the same room that required not a single dime’s worth of remodeling but still allowed us to use the laundry drain and water supply. Problem solved!

Then I went down to the room to measure for water and waste hoses and see if I would need more than the standard hoses that come with the unit. The wallpaper had pulled up a little behind the washing machine, next to the drain and faucet box in the wall. I smoothed the paper with my finger, a nit-picky detail-oriented sort of reaction.

My finger went through the Sheetrock.

I pulled the vinyl walpaper back a little and was greeted by ugly black mold and wet, mushy Sheetrock. After moving the washer and dryer out of the way, I discovered that the drain had been overflowing. Not a lot, just a little bit every time the washer drained. Not enough to spill on the floor, just enough to run down the inside of the wall under the laundrybox trim. I began removing the wet Sheetrock. Two hours later, the lower half of that wall–just under thirty square feet–lay bare, exposing black mold under the wainscoting, black mold under the vinyl wall paper, and black mold on the wall studs.

As mold infestations go, this was a fairly minor incident requiring no outside remediation. After ripping out the wet Sheetrock, wood paneling and insulation, I scrubbed the moldy studs with household cleaner mixed with Twenty Mule Team Borax, an old-fashioned natural product that’s become fashionable again in recent days and is quite effective at neutralizing mold (bleach removes mold stains, but is an ineffective mold killer). After thoroughly drying the wall cavity and raising the laundry box from the minimum allowable height to 42″, I applied a vapor barrier, insulation and new Sheetrock. Better than new.

Unfortunately, we lost some of the wainscoting in the process, as well as some of the hideous wallpaper between the wainscoting and ceiling. We couldn’t match either even if we wanted too, and the room would look even worse with one nice, painted wall and three hideous walls that triggered flashbacks from the ’70’s, so we surrendered to good taste and stripped the other walls as well.  The baseboard and quarter-round had to come up to remove the wainscoting, and wouldn’t give up without a fight that turned it into dumpster bait. We wanted the trim work to be white, so to keep everything matching, we painted the wall cabinet and vanity. The majority of the laundry list of upgrades and repairs I thought I’d escaped had to be done anyway. The only expenses we were able to avoid were the new vanity, mirror, and flooring. Fortunately, those were the most expensive items on the original list. The insulation, Sheetrock, and other wall repair materials cost a lot less.

A week later, the room is put back together, lacking only cabinet doors (still to be painted) and a new mini-blind for the old mini-window. The Cat Genie is still in the box, but not for long.

After all this, that Cat Genie had better be the best thing since clumping litter.

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.

And Then There Were Three

An incredibly encouraging sign appeared in my kitchen this morning. It was something I haven’t seen in a while, a phenomenon that spoke to me loud and clear about God’s grace and His passion for “healing the broken hearted and bandaging their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

As I doctored my coffee, Wookie asked for–in her usual demanding tone–a taste of half-and-half.

Well so what? Your cat asked for cream. Big deal!

Yes, it was a big deal. Wookie hasn’t asked for a drop in nine days. I gave her a little one morning a few days ago, and she didn’t waste it (she’s never met a dairy product that she doesn’t like), but she was rather half-hearted, as though drinking her cream out of obligation rather than desire. This morning’s demanding tone warmed my heart the way the bell on an ice cream truck warms the heart of a child.

BlondieYou see, nine days ago, we lost a dear friend and family member. Blondie, one of Wookie’s feline cohabitants, was sick and went to the kitty doctor for help… and she didn’t come home. Reading what I’ve just written, it strikes me how we humans tend to soften the reality of death with quaint little phrases like “passed away” or “at rest” or the ever-spiritual “gone home to be with Jesus.” But this is one of the ways in which cats are smarter than humans: Wookie knew, the minute I walked in the door (if not before), that her sister Blondie was dead. So did Tingy and Marconi.

Just like the affected humans, each of our three remaining felines grieved in their own way. Tingy paced around the spare room, where Blondie was hiding out when I went to take her to the vet. Marconi, strong man that he is, withdrew to his office (under the bed) and mourned in solitude. Wookie lost her taste for cream. I came home and quietly put the empty cat carrier away, sat in my favorite recliner (where Blondie was fond of joining me for lap-time), and wept in temporary solitude. It wasn’t long before Wookie and Tingy joined me, Wookie in my lap and Tingy on my chest, nose-to-nose.

Blondie was a gentle soul. She was rescued as a kitten by Helping Hands for Little Paws, our favorite animal rescue organization. She was one of only two who survived from a diseased colony of feral cats. She was a beautiful and elegant feline, one that I couldn’t even begin to imagine in the wild, though her instincts were strong. Her personality was quiet; she would sit with us in the same room for hours and could come and go undetected. Every now and then she would crave a little lap time, and climb whatever obstacle stood in her way to have her place in my lap. And then, when she was finished, she was finished, and she moved on.

Blondie spoke infrequently, and of course only when it served her purpose. Most mornings, she would appear in the kitchen as I prepared our morning coffee, and request her morning portion of cream in a gentle and unassuming voice. Being who I am, the only reason she ever had to ask twice was her own impatience. But she was a generous and giving soul, as well. You see, there are times when we don’t give Wookie cream because she… well, let’s just say she seems to have her moments of lactose intolerance. If we set a bowl of cream out for Blondie and not for Wookie, Blondie would have just a taste and leave the rest for her elder sister. I’ve seen days when Blondie didn’t even sniff at the bowl–she just gave Wookie the high sign and walked away.

I miss Blondie tremendously. It took me these nine days to come to the place where I could write this. But when Wookie came to me this morning and asked for cream, I knew this would be the day. Just as Wookie is finding healing from her broken heart, I am finding healing for mine. And yes, writing critics, I used passive voice there on purpose–we are finding, not have found. Because healing isn’t an event, it’s a journey.