Lois Lane: My kind of role model

Ever have one of those aha moments that start with déjà vu and end with “Oh, I get it”? Something like that happened to me on Saturday night when I walked into the family room to find my husband watching “Adventures of Superman” on MeTV, our favored reruns channel.

As I settled down to watch Clark, Lois and Jimmy Olson get themselves out of outlandish scrapes—with Superman’s help, of course—I suddenly realized that Lois Lane was an important, if unacknowledged, figure in my life story.

Lois Lane was the reason I studied journalism and went to work as a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper not unlike the Daily Planet. Lois Lane was my feminist role model.

In the 1950s, when “Adventures of Superman” debuted, there were not many role models out there for little girls. The career track was severely restricted.

You were going to be a housewife. If you were to work for a couple of years before getting married, then teacher, nurse and secretary were acceptable occupations. In the real world, I suppose factory work and retail were options too, but those were not the jobs little girls daydreamed about. Meanwhile, no one spoke of what would happen if you were divorced or widowed, or—heaven forbid—stayed single by choice.

I always loved to read and write, and from an early age I knew I wanted to “be a writer,” whatever that meant to me at the time. One of my most-loved Christmas presents, at age 5 or 6, was a child’s version of a rolltop desk modeled along the lines of the oak desk in my father’s office at work. A writer needs a desk.

I never gave nursing a thought; can’t handle blood and guts. And while my dad felt I should teach, wisely pointing out how nice it would be to have summers off, I knew even then I was too impatient to deal with obnoxious kids like myself all day.

Lois opened the door to another possibility.

Lois Lane was chic and professional. She wore wonderful little tailored suits and smart hats. She interacted as an equal with the chief, who assigned her to big, important stories, not the women’s pages.

She wasn’t a “girl reporter.” She was a reporter. She got to travel and have adventures. She mooned over Superman and mocked Clark Kent. I could do all that!

I was pretty young when “Adventures of Superman” was on, and I didn’t connect the dots at the time—didn’t see that Lois was pointing the way. Nor did I think of her later, when it came time to choose a college major.

But she was in there somehow as I settled on journalism, a practical way, I reasoned, to both write and pay the bills. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve enjoyed my many jobs in newspapers, magazines and books.

At long last, let me publicly thank the lady who inspired me. She may be fictional, but her example was real enough.

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Color me content

I belong to a mindfulness group, a circle of companionable souls who get together once a week for meditation and other practices designed to foster attention and the ability to “be here now,” as Ram Dass used to say in the ‘60s.

One week our group leader began the session by passing out crayons and photocopies of a variety of intricate designs for us to color. Mine, according to the caption, was a Panamanian mola, a type of bright, colorful textile made by means of complex cuts in multiple layers of fabric. I was familiar with this folk art because a friend had given me a mola many years ago. I liked it so much that I framed it and have hung it in every place I’ve lived.

But did I want to color a paper version? I thought the idea was a little lame. Crayons? Really?

Nevertheless, I chose my colors and gamely began working along with everyone else. There was silence in the room as we all bore down on our respective designs. Soon I felt myself easing into the flow of the moment. Concentrating on this simple, tactile work made me feel calm and yes, meditative. I thought of those Tibetan Buddhist monks who create mandalas out of sand, grain by colorful grain. Talk about the art of attention.

That was my first taste of what turns out to be a major new fad: coloring. Coloring books for grown-ups are suddenly a thing. You’d be surprised at how many people have told me they love to color or know someone who does.

As every little kid knows, coloring is creative. You get to make art. You choose the colors, add effects and—if you’re ambitious—even insert new elements into the picture. Moreover, it’s a refreshingly analog activity, balm for those of us who spend too much time staring into screens.

So a couple of months ago, when my cousin Karen asked if I might like a coloring book for my birthday, I eagerly said yes. She picked one out that seems tailor-made for an aging boomer. Titled “Peace & Love Coloring Book,” its cover depicts a peace symbol that has morphed into a mandala, emblazoned with flowers, hearts and swirls. Smack in the center is an anime-style smiley face. Does my cousin know me or what?

Inside is hippie-style artwork in the manner of “Yellow Submarine” and Fillmore East posters. Very groovy. I’ve done just one picture so far, a psychedelic butterfly, using the colored pencils my cousin sent. I just bought myself a box of Crayolas. Maybe I’ll branch out into markers and gels too.

Coloring is relaxing; it’s something you can do if you’re feeling scattered, overwrought or subpar. That’s why I purchased a coloring book for a friend who’s just out of the hospital. She’s a huge reader but can’t concentrate at the moment. Post-surgery, her attention span is roughly equivalent to my kitten Moe’s.

Coloring therapy should be just the ticket.

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Kitten apocalypse

I’ve sometimes thought how great it must be to run an animal rescue operation—specifically, for cats. Think of the fun you’d have canoodling with cats all day and playing with kittens.

I’ve just had a very small taste of that experience, and let me tell you, it’s no easy job. I have new respect for rescuers, especially those who work out of their homes.

A neighbor took in an abandoned mama cat and four tiny kittens, housing them in her upstairs bathroom and attached laundry room for weeks. When she went on vacation recently, I told her I’d watch them here.

It took two cars to transport cats, cat beds, baskets, towels, litter boxes and tarps to place under those boxes in case of, um, spills. We brought over their food—dry and canned, adult and kitten—along with dishes, bowls and a flotilla of cat toys. I set the gang up in my home office, complete with cat trees and window seats that my own cats enjoy.

I promptly fell head over heels for the little family: two orange kittens, two tuxedos and their mother, a longhaired calico barely past kittenhood herself.

But wow. What a lot of work.

Mom and kits were hungry. Every morning I mixed weaning formula from a powder my neighbor supplied, then brought up an assortment of food—canned, and a little dry—during the day. I felt like a cat waitress, but at least I wasn’t feeding them formula out of a syringe around the clock as my friend Polly did for tiny kittens she once fostered.

All that eating made for lots of trips to the litter box. I was constantly scooping, and as soon as I cleaned, someone would go back and use the boxes again.

Kittens are nature’s anarchists. They’re like the Marx Brothers in miniature, running amok in merry mischief. I lifted my rat’s nest of computer wiring off the floor and removed desk accessories and important papers. But you can’t put everything away, and the kittens found plenty to get into.

I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians whenever I walked into the room mid-caper. They loved to run, chase, jump and oh yes, tear paper. Paper shreds were everywhere. The envelope for a card I acquired for a friend had puncture marks from tiny teeth, and the flap of a Netflix envelope was thoroughly chewed. Working at my computer was a challenge, since you never knew when a low-flying kitten would land on the keyboard. Thank God for the “undo” command.

The week extended to two, after my neighbor and I decided the office was a better venue for kittens than her bathroom.  Then she adopted the mom cat and took her home permanently; another friend adopted two of the kittens.

Of the two left, one is promised to someone in Queens. And despite group ambivalence from my husband and my grown cats, it looks like the final kitten, a little black-and-white fellow that we’ve been calling Moe, will stay right here. He turns out to be a keeper.


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Shall we dance?

I’ve always loved to dance, but other than the occasional fox trot or rock freestyle at a wedding, I haven’t gone dancing in years. Last week the local fitness studio hosted ballroom dancing on Saturday night, complete with instruction. And so my husband and I went over to check it out.

About 30 people showed up, both couples and singles. You could tell the experienced dancers by their footwear. The women wore strappy little dancing slippers, some in sparkly silver; one brave soul chose stilettos. The men had on soft, supple loafers or black patent-leather shoes as shiny as cellophane.

The common denominator: leather soles to glide and slide. The amateurs like us, by contrast, had on rubber soles, including one pair of flip-flops. I guess the owner trusted her partner not to stomp her toes.

The night’s lesson was the rumba, a Cuban dance that is simpler and slower-paced than some types of Latin dancing, and thus a good choice for beginners. Nevertheless, it was slow going for some. I caught on faster than my husband did, and as a reward, the instructor took me for a quick spin around the floor to show me how to do the twirl that George and I couldn’t seem to master on our own.

Next came the merengue, faster paced but easy to learn. George and I danced it for a while, then took a break. As I opened a bottle of water, someone came up behind me, took the bottle away and grabbed my elbow. It was one of the more experienced men, not-so-subtly leading me to the dance floor.

The instructor had encouraged us to dance with different people, saying it was the only way to improve. “You don’t mind, do you?” I called out to my husband as my partner put his arm around my waist. In truth, I think George was happy to sit one out.

The new partner—I never did catch his name—was good. He especially liked to twirl and spin, and he had me doing all sorts of complicated figure-eights with the arms as we rotated to the beat—so much so that after a while I got dizzy and had to stop.

No matter. It was huge fun. It felt good to move and it proved to be quite an aerobic workout. The merengue got my heartbeat into the zone.

I’ve known couples who have taken ballroom lessons, and it’s something George and I have always meant to do. Exercise, a night out, the opportunity to move in tandem, literally heart to heart—it’s all good.

And there’s another reason to dance: It’s associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. “Of 11 physical activities considered [in a New England Journal of Medicine study], only dancing was tied to a lower dementia risk,” according to WebMD.

I’m told that ballroom instruction is available on YouTube. We will practice the rumba at home before the next class, in two weeks. I just have to decide on some shoes.

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Quiet! I can’t hear myself think

Many years ago, I met a man who had gone to live on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. He had no electricity, no car (he got around on foot or by kayak) and few creature comforts.

The reason for his retreat was very simple. He just couldn’t stand the noise of modern life. He found electric-motor noise, in particular, intolerable.

I’ve thought about this man off and on over the years and wondered how he made out. Did he stay on his island—and did the island stay quiet? Maybe power boats or neighbors with boom boxes followed him there.

We live in a noisy world and it’s not easy to escape the clamor. Traffic noise is a biggie, depending on where you live, and so is electronic noise. It’s hard to find a medical waiting room, restaurant or retail store that doesn’t have a radio or TV blaring in the background—both, in the case of my dentist. I was there last week, trying to read while waiting for the hygienist as the radio played from a speaker over my left shoulder and the talking heads on CNN held forth across the room.

I’m not as extreme as the guy who moved to Maine, but I am probably more sensitive to noise than some. My husband, for example, doesn’t mind it. He likes keeping the TV on pretty much all the time, almost as a kind of white noise. I only turn it on if I’m actually watching something and even then, I mute the commercials. I hate being shouted at by an inanimate object.

Likewise, I find it distressing to converse with folks who TALK REALLY LOUDLY, as people sometimes do when they’re excited.

I wasn’t always like this. I grew up in the generation that played rock music—loud—while we did our homework and talked on the phone. The noise didn’t bother me then. Is it an age thing? Someone told me that as we get older, it becomes harder to filter out the ambient noise in the environment. That’s why it’s hard to hear what your dinner companions are saying above the din from the other tables in a crowded restaurant.

But maybe it’s not me; maybe it’s the world. Not long ago I had reason to go to urgent care. It was a Sunday and there was just one other person there and no one at all on the side of the cavernous waiting room dedicated to the lab and X-ray department. Nevertheless, their TV set was blaring.

The other patient and I agreed that the sound was a nuisance, so I went over and turned it off. Five minutes later, the receptionist for the laboratory returned from a back room, took her seat at the desk and picked up the remote. Click, the TV was back on.

Since a deserted island isn’t an option, maybe I should spend more time at the library. Do they still require silence in the reading room?

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Too old for a kitten?

My friend up the block came home one night to find that someone had left a cardboard box containing a mama cat and four tiny kittens on her back porch. The person or persons had lined the box with a soft towel and placed it out of harm’s way, so they were trying to do right by the feline family, after a fashion. At least they didn’t dump them in the woods.

My friend is having a heck of a good time fostering the little outcasts and delights in watching the kittens play. But she can’t keep them. She will be looking for homes for the babies and the mother too—a sweet longhaired calico who seems pretty young herself—once the kittens are old enough for adoption.

Naturally, I had to go up to see them because oh my gosh, I love kittens. I got my first kitten as a small child, maybe 3, when my grandparents’ cat, Elmer, had three babies. They were given the placeholder names of Eenie, Meenie and Mo—coincidentally, the same names my friend is using, with the addition of Miney, for her foster four. We took Meenie, and she was the family cat until I was well into college. She was a wonderful mother, supplying us with many litters of kittens over the years.

But I haven’t had a kitten of my own since 2003, the year my husband and I adopted our tortoiseshell cat, Pearl. She was half grown, probably six months old, and had been stuck in a shelter cage for virtually the entire time. She was cute and small, but she wasn’t a teeny tiny thing like the quartet up the street.

I’ve already found a home for one of the foster four with a close friend who has been talking about wanting an orange tabby. And don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking of taking one myself, even though it makes no sense. My husband and I already have three other cats along with the tortie Pearl, and they might not enjoy the chaos a kitten would be guaranteed to bring.

But here’s the creepy question: If not now, when? You take an animal expecting that you will outlive it and will be taking care of it for life. These kittens might live 15 years or more, at which time I will be—well, let’s just say older. A lot older. If I am to have a kitten, it doesn’t make sense to wait. I’m running out of time.

As I gallop through my 60s, I find myself thinking these kinds of thoughts more and more often. When are you “too old” for one activity or another—too old for a kitten, for example? I remember my in-laws returning from the big cruise they took to Spain to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and saying that’s it—no more travel. And I remember my mother, when she moved into the house next door to ours, saying that gardening—at one time, her passion—was over for her. She never planted anything again.

Maybe you just know?

It’s a strange place to be in life, a time to get your will in order, investigate trusts and obtain long-term care insurance, as I just did. That was an experience. It’s not pleasant to contemplate one’s inevitable decline, and it didn’t help when the agent told me the reason premiums are so high is that insurance companies know they will have to pay out on virtually every policy. You might have fire or flood insurance, but with luck you’ll never need to use it. But with LTC, if you live long enough, you will.

I remember when I turned 30. It seemed so old, as if I would suddenly have to do my hair in a stiff Pat Nixon style and become an official grownup. Instead, we boomers did 30 our own way, and that’s been the case with every other stage of life as well.

Staring down the tunnel toward that next decade marker, I have to hope that 70 really is the new 50. Meanwhile, I’ll let you know about the kitten.


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Breakfast of champions

A couple of years ago, newly enthused about the raw-foods movement, I began drinking green shakes. Every morning I would put a bit of fruit in the blender along with kale or spinach, cukes, celery and whatever other vegetables came to hand, and top it all off with a ground chia-and-flaxseed mixture and a dash of Maine-seacoast vegetables (an upscale way of saying seaweed). Add water, blend and there’s breakfast.

Hint: Including half a banana is the best way to guarantee palatability.

My husband called it green slime and refused to join me in a smoothie of his own, despite my constant urging. He feels that vegetables should stay in their place, and that place is the dinner table. For breakfast, he prefers an egg sandwich, a bowl of cereal or—if we’re eating at Perkins—a mountain of pancakes.

Breakfast either is or isn’t the most important meal of the day, depending on which expert you heed. And there’s no agreement on just what you should be consuming first thing in the morning. The French and Italians, some of the world’s most eminent foodies, eat croissants or bread and jam, and don’t seem any the less healthy for it. The Japanese, on the other hand, have miso soup, while in Scandinavia, herring is on the breakfast menu.

So, why not vegetables, as in my smoothies? Of course, it’s not what we’re used to.

We baby boomers grew up eating an array of engineered foods for breakfast, from commercial cereals—most of them sugar coated—to toaster waffles, cinnamon buns from a tube and Dunkin Donuts (the chain was founded in 1950, near the beginning of the boom). Dessert for breakfast! What kid would complain?

A little later came liquid breakfasts—no, not Mimosas. I’m talking about packets of sugary vitamin powder that you mixed with milk. Smoothies for the Mad Men era.

Our generation served as guinea pigs for the convenience-food industry, chowing down on TV dinners and instant puddings the likes of which older Americans had never seen. We couldn’t get enough of the Hostess cakes, Eskimo pies, potato chips and frozen pizzas that beckoned from the neighborhood supermarket. How many chemical additives did we ingest along with them?

One summer when I was 11 or 12, my grandmother came to stay with us for a couple of weeks. One afternoon I suggested we make a cake for dessert that evening. Grandma protested that it was no easy job to bake a cake. Did we have a good recipe and all the necessary ingredients—lots of eggs and butter? Modern girl that I was, I scoffed at her old-fashioned ideas and pulled out a box of Duncan Hines cake mix, the first my grandmother had ever seen.

Just add water. And when it’s done, there’s frosting out of a can!

I suppose things like the raw-foods, locavore and farm-to-table movements are a kind of reaction to all those decades of processed foods. Let’s hope it’s not too late to change our taste buds. I’ll drink to that—something green, naturally.

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For the love of longhairs

Cat lover that I am, one of my favorite TV shows is “My Cat from Hell” on Animal Planet. A cat behaviorist with the improbable name of Jackson Galaxy visits households with badly misbehaving cats—attackers, nervous Nellies who hide under beds, cats who poop in closets—and sets things right.

Each episode makes me grateful that the members of my (reasonably) well-behaved feline quartet don’t need an intervention. However, there is one area where I could use Jackson’s help: grooming. The shorthaired tortie, Pearl, loves being combed and brushed, but she’s not the problem. She doesn’t get matts. The other three do, with the longest of the longhairs the worst offender.

That would be Lulu, a beautiful green-eyed tabby with thick, luxurious fur and a tail like a Persian’s. Lulu is a sweetheart. She loves to nuzzle, cuddle and give head butts. She sleeps on the ottoman on her back, four paws in the air and tummy exposed. Adorable.

But she turns into My Cat from Hell when you reach for the comb, brush or manicure scissors in hopes of untangling that tummy. Lulu will let you comb her head, chin and back, but progress to her flanks or, God forbid, her underside and her eyes get huge and round and scary. She tenses up, ready to strike. Woe unto you if you disregard the cues.

The vet staff has never been able to use the electric clippers on Lulu. She’s too fierce even for these pros. One groomer in town accepts cats, and Lulu has been there twice. But it’s stressful for her because of all the barking dogs, and she comes home smelling vaguely of talcum powder, with tiny pink bows affixed to the fur behind each ear. This might look cute on your Lhasa Apso, but on Lulu, not so much.

Our Maine coon cat Bobcat’s fur isn’t as long as Lulu’s, but this year he too has a matted tummy. The third longhair is Taz. At 17, he’s the old man of the family and the most tolerant of the longhaired trio in terms of combing and clipping. But even Taz has his limits; I have scratches to prove it.

I don’t know why I’m drawn to longhairs, given how high maintenance they are. We had a slew of DSH kitties—that’s domestic shorthairs—when I was growing up, including a mama cat who regularly supplied us with kittens. I don’t remember many longhairs among them.

But as an adult I’ve gravitated to the fluff balls, starting with Melville and his sister Mimsy, a pair of gorgeous tuxedo cats who were large enough to have been Maine coons like Bob. Then came Jean Arthur and finally, Sasha, another longhaired tuxedo cat. Only Sasha ever had matting issues, and we handled them with simple combing.

A friend has recommended a new groomer, and Lulu has an appointment there later this week. The groomer assured me she is experienced with cats. I wonder how she’ll do with My Cat from Hell.

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Karma chameleons

Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, an old boyfriend bought me a lapel pin at a street fair that said “My karma ran over my dogma.” The pun was both funny and a little bit true. I talked way too much about karma at the time, even though it was a subject about which I knew very little.

Nowadays, I’m not the only one. Karma is commonly discussed pretty much everywhere, from casual conversations to the media. But what do we really mean when we speak about karma, instant or otherwise?

”I’m sending you good karma,” a friend cheerfully told me in an e-mail recently. Much as I’d welcome some, is it transferable? In another context, a different friend dismissed a difficult situation by saying “I guess it was their karma.” Isn’t this another way of justifying a failure to act? At the very least, it quickly put an end to the conversation.

At its worst, “karma” can become a cudgel with which to batter people who have suffered a tragedy, as if it’s their own fault that things completely accidental and beyond their control turned out so badly. Hollye Dexter in her memoir “Fire Season: My Journey from Ruin to Redemption” tells of a devastating house fire that she and her family were lucky to escape alive. Afterward, certain friends shrugged it off with remarks like “gee, you must have some really bad karma.”

Karma talk in this case is a finger-pointing exercise, and a way to distance oneself from the disaster. It’s like citing fate or destiny, but with fault attached—which is less than helpful to the person involved.

A twist on karma, likewise used as a way to explain the inexplicable, is the idea that we create our own reality and even our health by our thoughts and actions. It’s true that there’s much worth exploring in the mind/body connection. However, it shouldn’t be used as a way to victimize sick people.

A friend once described her harrowing experience with uterine cancer, a journey that included surgery, suffering and months of chemo. It didn’t help to have friends insist she had caused her own illness, whether through missteps in diet or lifestyle, wrong thinking, character flaws or (dare we say?) karma.

The sad truth is we simply don’t know what to say that’s helpful or consoling when something awful happens to someone. We might tell a grieving person that their loved one’s death was “God’s will,” but this is not useful to hear when you’re hurting. As my friend Mary said after her husband died, “If one more person tells me he’s in a better place, I’m going to scream.”

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s put aside the bromides and keep our ideas about karma to ourselves, and instead dish up heaps of simple compassion when confronting calamity. Before assuring someone that “when one door closes, another one opens,” let’s take a moment to properly mourn whatever was behind that closed door.

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Yoga: a humbling experience

One morning not long ago, I ran into a friend at the post office who was fresh from her yoga class at a studio across the street. This woman is in her 80s but looks 10 years younger. She’s slender, perky and has lovely smooth skin—there’s barely a line in her face.

I asked about the class and she told me it was an easy one that somebody her age could handle—lots of stretches, apparently, but no advanced contortions. I don’t think she’s doing headstands.

Nevertheless, I know from experience that yoga is serious exercise. Even standing upright in mountain pose—one of the simplest—is harder than it looks. And I couldn’t help wondering: Was yoga keeping this lady fit and youthful at 85-ish? Or was being fit and youthful the reason she could take yoga in the first place?

Whatever the answer, the conversation got me thinking about yoga. So a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I began sampling classes at a new studio just blocks from our home.

We’re not new to yoga. We studied over a decade ago with a wonderful teacher named Sabine, under whose tutelage we advanced from beginner to intermediate level. But after several years, we fell away from the practice. Life grew increasingly complex and overscheduled, and it became difficult to get to sessions. How I wish we had stuck with it.

We may not be Ironman material, but neither are we seriously out of shape; both of us are active individuals. No matter. That first Yoga 101 refresher class showed us how out of condition we really are.

I had trouble simply assuming the cross-legged lotus position, even with the blocks the teacher helpfully provided for me to perch on. I could haul myself up into downward-facing dog, but couldn’t hold the pose for any length of time—no upper-body strength. And so it went, for 90 minutes’ worth of reality check.

At the end of class, as the advanced group came in for the next session and their teacher celebrated by walking about the studio on his hands, our instructor suggested we might do better in a gentler class. And so the following Monday we tried Slow Flow & Stretch, or as the teacher Carissa calls it, restorative yoga.

After three weeks, I can now awkwardly assume lotus position. My posture has improved in the warrior poses (watch those shoulders!) and I’m managing a reasonable approximation of down-faced dog. However, it’s far from easy, and we may drop in on the class our 80-something friend takes to see if that’s more at our level.

One way or another, we’ve vowed to stick with it. Here in our 60s, we don’t want to turn creaky and rigid. Now’s the time to build strength before we lose it, and to improve posture, balance and flexibility.

It’s said that engaging with gravity—aka exercising—is the key to staying young. Lord, just keep us from having to take chair yoga!

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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