Putting all the pieces together

There’s just so much Candy Crush Saga you can play. I gave up at level 425, and none of the other iPad games I tried afterward grabbed me for long. My old standby, Solitaire, seemed a drab second best. Very 20th century.

Casting about for a new time waster, I downloaded a jigsaw app. Then another, and then a couple more. There are lots of them in the iPad app store. Soon I was hooked. I’ve been compulsively doing jigsaws ever since.

I don’t know what made me think of jigsaws, since I never do them in real life. Who has the patience to devote hours—or days—to snapping together tiny pieces of cardboard on a tabletop? For that matter, who has an empty tabletop? In this cat-loving household, the potential for havoc would be ever present.

And then, jigsaws just seemed uncool—something for kids and old people. Indeed, at my mother’s senior living complex, multiple tables decked out with half-finished puzzles are strategically placed around the great-room area, just waiting for someone with time on their hands to sit themselves down and finesse a piece or two.

But the virtual version is different. There are scads of intriguing puzzle images to choose from, from the standard jigsaw landscapes to edgy graffiti art. You can pick your difficulty level, from too easy to impossible, and then swipe and drag the pieces to your heart’s content. I mute the musical accompaniment—it’s meant to be relaxing but gets annoying fast. But I do enjoy the satisfying sound effect when you snap a piece correctly into place.

At my preferred intermediate-difficulty level, a puzzle might take 10 to 20 minutes to solve. Q.E.D. No tabletop required.

My initial download coincided with the news that one of my oldest friends was gravely ill. All that weekend as I awaited updates, I obsessively did jigsaws. I found them soothing and mindless, with the payoff of seeing all the pieces cohere at the end into something that made sense—the opposite of real life, where nothing did.

My friend died, and I did iPad jigsaws throughout the week of her funeral. Later in the summer, my mother suffered a stroke and lingered for several days before she too died. Again I found consolation in my jigsaws, this time recruiting a companion in my grandnephew Michael, 8. The puzzles were something he and I could do together during family gatherings.

Years ago I attended a smoking-cessation program at our local Penn State cooperative extension. One of the tips for success in quitting was to do something with your hands—something that involved repetitive motion. I took up knitting. Everyone got a scarf for Christmas that year as I knitted and purled my way out of my addiction.

The jigsaws are a little bit like that. You start with what looks like a lot of scattered nothing and wind up with—well, something. You simply have to persevere, trusting that all will work itself out right in the end.

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Christmas giving: It’s complicated

Although it’s not yet Halloween, the stores are shouting Christmas. Our little grandnephew in Florida has already picked out what he wants—a dinosaur train set with lots of whizzing cars. We will have to check in with the other grandnephews and our infant grandniece for their preferences.

It’s fun to buy for the kids, which is a good thing, because they are about the only ones we still buy for. Over the years, little by little, most of the adults have bowed out of the gift game. Thank goodness for my friend Lisa. Otherwise, I’d have no one to exchange presents with.

I used to have a fairly large Christmas list and would begin shopping in the summer, at crafts fairs and flea markets or on vacation. It was fun to poke around at interesting venues, hunting for the perfect little something a friend or family member might like.

But once I reached my 50s, people began opting out. The siblings’ kids were older and preferred a check. And among friends, who knew what anyone needed or wanted anymore? We all had too much stuff. You really had to rack your brain to think of something creative to give. Fancy foods and bottles of wine became fallbacks. Likewise gift cards—always, of course, remaining mindful of the arms race aspect of gift giving: The value of your present had to be roughly equivalent to the value of theirs.

In short, it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, a couple of friends confessed that any gift was unwelcome because of the implied obligation to reciprocate. For them, the giving and receiving of presents was a burden, not a joy. They preferred to step off the merry-go-round altogether.

After a decade of this kind of attrition, I’m left with very few to buy for. There’s my husband, of course, along with a cousin, a neighbor, an aunt—and Lisa. She and I have been exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts since the late 1980s, always with great hilarity and masses of tissue paper.

I love shopping for Lisa, because she and I like the same things. We appreciate arty, unusual or humorous accoutrements. We both like jewelry, scarves and clothing; fancy teas, bath products and kitchen accessories. My favorite sweater came from Lisa, along with a treasured Venetian glass necklace-and-earring set she brought me from her travels and an art print of a cat that she purchased in Barcelona.

This year, I’ve already scored a few things I know will delight her. Finding them was a pleasure. I can’t wait to shop for more.

I’ve read that as you get older, the part of your brain that’s stimulated by acquisitions becomes less active. You’re just not as turned on by new stuff as you once were. Maybe that’s the underlying reason for the waning interest in Christmas presents.

But love is the other side of it. A present is offered “with love from me to you.” As the Beatles surely knew, it’s blessed to both give and receive.

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My mother’s things

Joan Rivers told her daughter to be ruthless about discarding stuff after she died. “I’ve said to Melissa, ‘Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions,’” Rivers told an interviewer in July. “I feel almost hysterical on that. I don’t want them to have a sense of guilt.”

Rivers passed away last month just two days before my mother died, and I came across that quote as we were preparing to clear out Mom’s apartment. I felt grateful for the advice, as if my own mother—she who saved everything—were telling me to take it easy. I vowed to resist the temptation to hoard things just because they were Mom’s.

Melissa Rivers faces the monumental task of unloading a 5,200-square-foot apartment. Mom was down to perhaps 500 square feet in her cozy digs at a senior living facility, so our job wasn’t as daunting as it might have been. The mass of stuff Mom accumulated over 87 years had already been culled three times, during each of her moves, as she downsized and then downsized again.

But the vow not to be beholden to my mother’s possessions soon vanished. When actually inside her living space, I was drawn to all manner of things that reminded me of her, things she had held and used. Crazy things of no value, like little spiral notebooks dotted with handwritten shopping lists, phone numbers, her daily blood sugar readings and random notations like “Stockholm is the capital of Sweden” (important to someone with memory issues).

I took a Rubik’s Cube she liked to manipulate while watching TV and a Scotch tape dispenser in the form of a shark that she had labeled “BRUCE,” after the main character in “Jaws.”

I took jewelry, scarves and clothing; books, letters and knicknacks. I took a few small pieces of furniture, including a porch glider Mom had used on her deck in Rhode Island, her porch in Pennsyslvania and then the patios of her two apartments in Ohio. It’s on our front porch now, and I think of her when I sit in it.

And I took pictures—family photographs, of course, but also some of my mother’s paintings. A lifelong artist, she began painting in oils and acrylics in the 1960s and later turned to watercolors, which became her specialty. She enjoyed the fluidity and freedom of watercolors, as well as the delicious pastel hues the medium could deliver.

I took paintings of each type, along with sketches and charcoal drawings. My original plan was to distribute some of the artwork to friends. But I find myself unable to part with it.

I don’t mean to fetishize the paintings, or any of the rest of my mother’s things. But they are what remains of her now. In these things I sense her presence, rather like the smile the Cheshire cat left behind in “Alice in Wonderland.” Having Mom’s things makes me feel she’s still with me—at least a little bit.

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Is 75 the ‘right’ time to die?

When is a good age to die? Perhaps 80, like the heroine of the 1971 cult film “Harold and Maude”? Or maybe 85 or 90? Or are you one of those hardy souls who hope to make it to 100?

In this month’s Atlantic, the oncologist and author Ezekiel J. Emanuel makes the case that in fact, 75 is the best time to die.

Collective gasp. For some of us, 75 doesn’t feel all that distant.

“I won’t actively end my life,” says Emanuel, a bioethicist who opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia. “But I won’t try to prolong it, either.”

At 75, he says, he will stop seeing doctors, decline medical tests and avoid any treatments except those to ease pain. If he is diagnosed with cancer, he will opt not to treat it. If he contracts pneumonia or a UTI, he will refuse antibiotics, letting nature take its course—and take him out.

Why 75? By then, says Emanual, you’ve had a life. You’ve seen your children grow up (if you’re a parent), traveled, enjoyed professional and creative successes. Your active life is now behind you. Ahead are the mental and physical debilities of extreme old age.

Moreover, he argues, you’ll be doing your children a favor by letting them become the heads of the family and not turning them into your caregivers as they approach their own retirement years. And oh yes — you won’t outlive your money.

Emanuel insists he is not proposing a scheme to ration health care. He’s not even asking anyone to agree with him and knows that most people won’t. He’s simply looking at the quest to extend the human life span and asking how much is enough. How many years do we wish to accumulate, and how many experiences? Does the time come when we can say we’ve had our fair share?

Certain Eastern yogis and holy men are said to have left their bodies when they felt it was time, nonviolently finessing their own deaths. Is 75 a good time for that?

The article brought me face-to-face with my own measure of denial about aging—my belief that if I adopt the right diet, exercise and take supplements I can stave off the worst of it. Emanuel has a word for people like me—he calls us the “American immortals.” The sad truth is, it’s all going to all fall apart in the end, no matter how much mangosteen and maca I consume.

Nor is it useful to point to the exceptional elderly, those who are still pursuing higher mathematics, running marathons or weaving tapestries at 90. These “outliers,” as Emanuel calls them, are not the norm. For the vast majority of us, physical abilities atrophy and creative output stalls at a certain point in life. If you haven’t written the great American novel yet, you’re probably not going to write it at 75.

Emanuel makes an interesting case and raises some provocative questions. But there’s one thing he gets wrong, I think—and it’s a biggie. He makes the mistake of assessing old age from the vantage point of youth, applying the values of productivity and accomplishment to a period that might better be suited to contemplation. Perhaps the life task of extreme old age is not to contribute in the ways we are used to thinking of as important. Maybe the job is to downshift and, I don’t know, breathe.

Maybe old age is a prayer and the nursing home, a cloister. Maybe all those old folks who look like they’re doing “nothing” are in fact doing something mysteriously important.

Sean Strub in “Body Counts,” his memoir of the AIDS epidemic, described a dying friend who that felt suicide might be an option for him if things got too bad. But in the end, a shaft of sunlight coming in his bedroom window proved so beautiful and beguiling that he felt life was still worth living so long as he could see it.

Maybe we too will experience these small moments of grace more fully as we age. Maybe they will give us reason enough to live past 75—even if we are no longer able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.


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Meet my good friend Cardboard Bob

Because I spend so much time in my home office, I’ve got the place filled with things I like. Photos of friends, family, cats. Beatles posters. Groaning bookshelves and an over-full CD rack.

But anyone stepping through the doorway would notice something else first: Cardboard Bob, a nearly life-size 2-D cutout of an intense, unsmiling Bob Dylan that stands by my desk. Even I am sometimes startled when I walk into the room and come face-to-face with him.

Bob’s upper body is in silhouette against a brick wall upon which someone has graffitied “holy mackerel” above the singer’s right shoulder. The word HOLY hovers just to the side of Bob’s halo of curls, and I wonder if he planned it that way. With Dylan, you have to think yes.

With his dark hair and mustache, this Dylan looks rather like Charlie Chaplin, assuming the Little Tramp should ever don a lavender cowboy shirt.

On the back are images of all of Dylan’s album covers through 2001, which is when Cardboard Bob was issued. That’s the year “Love and Theft” came out the same month as the attack on the World Trade Center. I had been eagerly anticipating its release, and a few days after September 11, in desperate need of something to think about other than the twin towers, I made my way to the record store in the Kmart plaza to buy it.

There, in the window, was Cardboard Bob. I asked the kid behind the counter, who looked to be about 17, if I could buy Bob when they changed the window display. He said I could have him, because otherwise he’d be thrown out. The clerk took my number and I figured I’d never hear from them again. To my surprise, the store followed through and called a couple of months later. Cardboard Bob was mine.

When I drove over to pick him up, Cardboard Bob was tucked behind the counter in an out-of-the-way spot. The clerks had placed a bag over his head so that you couldn’t see his face. “Scary,” was how one of them explained the drape.

OK, so maybe the Bob Dylan of the 21st century was no longer the cute boy with the harmonica of the early 1960s—the Dylan of the Apple Computer “Think Different” campaign. (I have one of the Apple posters in my office too, along with the famous Milton Glaser silhouette of Dylan with the psychedeli hair.)

But he’s still—well, he’s Dylan.

I admit that even a lifelong fan such as myself doesn’t follow Dylan as avidly as I once did. I was disappointed by a couple of post-“Love and Theft” CDs and haven’t bought one since. The last live concert I saw was uninspiring. It was 2003 and Dylan was playing the now-defunct Mountain Laurel arena in Bushkill. His voice was without volume; you couldn’t understand the words. And he never picked up a guitar, instead standing behind a keyboard all night.

Even so, Cardboard Bob will stay right here by my desk until he turns to dust—or I do.

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Saying goodbye to Mom

Some years ago when my mother was in the hospital for reasons I don’t recall (she had so many admissions that it’s hard to keep them straight), she had an amiable roommate in the next bed. One day I stopped by for a visit, and the two of us began chatting with the roommate and another old lady sitting with her.

With a shock, I suddenly realized who that second old lady was—like me, the patient’s daughter. I felt that I was looking into my own future, spying who I was destined to become in 10 or 15 years: an old lady attending to an older lady. The daughter must have been in her 70s and her mother, 90-something.

My brother and I were sure that our mother, too, would reach 90-something, as our grandmother did before her. There was no reason to think otherwise. Somehow, no matter what happened to her—and there was lots—Mom always picked herself up afterward and reached for her Pall Malls, spunky as ever. We called her the Energizer Bunny.

So, we were not prepared for the stroke that ended her life earlier this month. She was 87.

The death of a parent is such a big event that it’s hard to process all at once. I’m sure it will take me a good long while to come to terms with it. My first reaction is to be grateful for the collective memories people are offering, to round out the picture of her life. From all the anecdotes and recollections I’ve heard from friends and family, I feel that in some weird way I have a fuller idea of who my mother was—as her own person, separate from me—than I did when she was alive.

I now know that she was a beloved friend, role model and mentor to a younger woman who considered Mom’s home a place of solace and refuge. That she helped a Japanese exchange student acclimate to life in the U.S. and encouraged her to continue college when she returned to Japan. That she was adored by the students and teacher in her watercolor class here in Milford; was cherished as the fun-loving aunt by some of my cousins; was a detail-oriented taskmaster at work.

Perhaps the most touching testament came from an unexpected source: Mom’s cousin Louis, the son of my grandmother’s favorite sister, who called us from South Carolina the day after Mom died. He is about to turn 95—old enough to remember her birth in 1927.

When Mom was a baby, young Louis would wheel her carriage up and down the street to give her some fresh air. He remembers being stopped so that neighbors could admire the beautiful infant. Indeed, we have a photograph of Mom from around this time and she truly was lovely, with dark curly hair and intelligent eyes.

May we all be lucky enough to have someone, at the end, who remembers us so lovingly from the beginning.

Norma A. Damian, 2/3/1927 - 9/6/2014



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The last yard sale

Among other neighborhood news, we learned that some friends would be moving into town from a nearby lake community, and that other friends—soon to be new neighbors of the couple who were moving—were about to embark on a riverboat cruise from Paris to Prague. Such is the stuff you hear while sitting in your front yard on a summer Saturday, behind tables laden with things you are trying to sell.

A master gardener complimented our (to my eye, overgrown) plantings. A young woman—the friend of a friend—snapped photos of the cats and our garden and told us about her boyfriend, a rock star (yes, really). And a couple of camp counselors described a highly ranked chess prodigy at their camp—a young girl who couldn’t be beat.

It all happened at a big yard sale we held several weekends ago. Besides having interesting visitors to chat with, we made some money and got rid of things.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day I informed my husband that this was it. I’m done with yard sales. I don’t mind if he wants to keep doing them—by himself or with a friend. I’ll even help out here and there, putting out signs or, say, making him a tuna sandwich for lunch.

But no more will I devote days of my life to preparing, setting up and tearing down a yard sale. This one wore me out and moreover, I just didn’t enjoy it—even with the cool visitors. The work/benefit ratio did not play out to my advantage.

I have a long history of sales behind me, starting with an apartment sale I organized when I sold my Brooklyn co-op many years ago. I don’t remember how buyers got past the doorman. The poor guy must have had to call me on the intercom for each and every one.

Some years later, my cousin and I mounted a yard sale for my mother when she was leaving her home in Rhode Island after 45 years. Lots of my mom’s friends and neighbors showed up, creating a party atmosphere. We had a good time and Mom made a little money.

Earlier this year George and I did the same for his late parents’ belongings, holding an estate sale to dispose of the contents of their home in Las Vegas. We posted the event on Craigslist, and both sale days were mobbed. Vegas residents are apparently very serious yard salers. Perhaps they think they’ll get lucky, same as in the casinos, and stumble on an amazing find.

And then, we’ve done many yard sales here in MIlford, starting the very year we bought our house. A couple of friends joined us and we all did well and had fun too. But the work seems harder and the rewards fewer as the years tick by.

My husband wants to do another sale in September. Here’s hoping I can withstand any latent guilt feelings and just let him be.

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Another birthday

If you can manage it, I highly recommend having your birthday on a holiday. Not Christmas, of course. People with Christmas birthdays get shorted when it comes to presents. But a long-summer-weekend kind of holiday is ideal. I should know, since my birthday usually falls on or near Labor Day.

Maybe it’s a Virgo thing, but many of my best friends were born around the same time as me—late August or early September. Over the years, some of us have done joint celebrations, something I invariably still do with my friend Eleanore, born on the very same day (though not the same year). Susan, Morag and Catherine precede us by several days, while Bert’s and Patricia’s birthdays come a little later.

Because it’s a holiday weekend, there’s lots going on—though all of it tinged with a hint of melancholy, since it’s the last big weekend of summer. This year, Eleanore and I hit the Pocono Garlic Festival on Saturday. On Sunday, I saw another friend for lunch and shopping, and on Monday a bunch of us gathered for Jane’s annual Labor Day brunch. Later, my husband later took me out to dinner. Now, that’s the way to celebrate.

Even in the Facebook age, there are still cards, including one from my beloved aunt. Every year she sends me greetings and tucks a bill inside. No matter how old I get, I still feel like a kid when that greenback falls out. Lord, bless all the aunts, because we surely need them to show us the way.

Then there’s a card from my cousin Karen that she and I have been sending back and forth to each other since 1999—I know the exact date, because we put the year on our annual messages. After 16 years, the card is pretty full and we are running out of room. But I believe I will be able to find a little space to squeeze in a greeting for Karen’s birthday in January.

This is a kid’s card showing two cuddling cats, one one gray, one orange, beneath the heading “There’s a warmth between cousins that’s special.” Since Karen had a gray cat at the time and I had a red one, I inscribed their names—Divot and Tigger—on the cartoon kitties’ collars. Over the years, we sadly added “RIP” when each cat died.

When the card came back to me last week, I had to scan it carefully to find the 2014 greeting amid the multiple handwritten messages, in different inks. As I wrote in ’04, “This card has seen a lot of wear, just like us!”

Getting older is no fun, but birthdays are. I’ll never be younger than I am now, so I might as well enjoy the day. I sometimes wonder how I managed to get this old. As my cousin pointed out, it’s our mothers, not us, who are supposed to be this age. But the answer is simple: I just got up every day and kept breathing.

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A death in the family: Obituary for our cat Woody

It’s been a heck of a summer, bracketed by the deaths of one old friend in June and now a second friend last week. In the wider world, the headlines are alarming. I read the news today, oh boy.

Amid all this angst comes a different, intimate kind of sorrow as we mourn the loss of our good cat Woody. He died last Friday morning after (as they say in the obituaries) a brief illness, probably cancer. He was 12 years old—no longer a youngster, but not an old cat, either.

We buried him in the kitty graveyard at the edge of the property that holds the bones of other cats who have lived here over the years. A statue of St. Francis stands guard over them all.

This is a cat, not a person. I’m aware of that. And yet, here we are with the same pain and regret that we’d feel in losing any family member. Here we are clearing away the same medical detritus (pill bottles, a half-used bag of IV fluids) that accompanies any other death. Here we are second-guessing our decisions as to his care. Did we do enough? Was it just his time?

Woody came into our lives in 2002. There was something about him—his copper sunset coloring and intricate skein of stripes; his graceful build and slanted eyes—that made us choose him over the other adorable kittens at the shelter.

Right away he began to take the pulse of the household, fitting himself unobtrusively into its rhythms. Indeed, Woody became something of an overseer who helped maintain a smoothly functioning home.

No wonder friends and family members liked him best. Where the other cats make themselves scarce when the doorbell rings, Woody loved company. He took an interest in anyone who visited and served as official greeter, escorting guests inside.

He had a special friendship with the mailman, who carried cat treats in his pouch, and would wait on our big, sunny front porch for John’s arrival.

Woody was a brave little cat. He was not afraid of dogs, not even the mastiff next door. Nor did he fear lightning, or the vacuum cleaner. The other cats scatter when I get out the Electrolux, but not Woody. He would just stay put on the family room couch and calmly watch me work.

He loved being outside, loved basking in the sun. In the summer, he helped me garden. In the fall, he chased leaves. If it rained, he would sit in his basket on the back porch and meditate, mulling timeless cat thoughts.

At night, after dinner, he was my husband’s best friend, sitting beside or on top of George as he watched TV. But when we went to bed, Woody picked me to cuddle with, nestling in the crook of my arm. If either of us was sick, Woody would sit with us, soothing us with his purr and his sweet company.

We have four other cats. Nevertheless, the house seems strangely empty without this one.

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Ice cream maker from hell

It would be easy to blame the Russians, who are known for online shenanigans. But why, after all, would a Russian hacker use my credit card to send an ice cream maker to me at my home, and then try to send Cuisinart accessories for that machine to Montana? As scammers go, this one’s a knucklehead.

Days earlier, a friend had warned me to change my online passwords because of the theft of a billion passwords by Russian hackers. I figured I would get to it “later.” I was tired of changing passwords.

Hadn’t I just done that a few months earlier to address the Heartbleed security flaw? How many online threats can you hear before tuning out, like a blasé villager in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?

Then, one morning, I opened my iPad to find Amazon e-mails thanking me for orders I hadn’t placed.

An ice cream, frozen yogurt and sorbet maker, worth about $100, was going to be sent here, while a $30 freezer bowl for that machine was earmarked for an address in Alberton, Mont. This town of 416 souls is in the western part of the state, bordering Idaho. But I don’t think you can see Russia from your backkyard in Alberton, the way Sarah Palin can from Alaska.

Another message stated that the e-mail associated with my account had been changed. It’s a good thing the hacker shops at Amazon, which is so very OCD about issuing account updates. I might not have known otherwise.

After calls to my credit-card company and Amazon, I got everything sorted out. The Visa card was canceled and so were the orders, and the Amazon account was temporarily frozen. (The rep thoughtfully asked if I’d like to place a last-minute order before she pulled the plug.)

I spent the next hour changing passwords at Google, my bank and other frequently used sites. Then I posted a humorous tidbit about the episode on Facebook, prompting a wry comment from our beautiful young cousin Victoria. “If they comp you a sorbet maker for your troubles,” she joked, “I’ll take it.”

Two days later, in comes an e-mail from Amazon saying that my order—actually, the hacker’s order—had shipped. I called customer service, but it was too late to intercept UPS and the package soon landed on my porch. The rep reassured me, however, that the order to Montana was never processed or mailed. I guess that’s something.

I’m waiting for the promised call from an account specialist who can send me a return-shipping label. The regular rep couldn’t do it because according to Amazon records, no such account exists. No activity of any sort is possible on it, not even by their own customer service people.

It’s like having your court record redacted. None of it ever happened, in Amazon world—which makes it hard to understand why a big box emblazoned with their logo sits unopened in my front hallway.

Victoria, you might get your sorbet maker yet.

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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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