As a cat owner, I handle feces regularly. Handling feces is gross. Many cat owners are also not super-crazy about handling a whole bunch of feces, so we sometimes talk to each other about ways that we can minimize the feces-handling.
Today someone linked me to a brand-new "best litterbox ever," this one a Kickstarter sensation that has gone on to be well-liked by a number of people with small furry purring poop machines in their house. It looks problematic to me, but it also reminded me that I have never encountered a decent "better litterbox" than a big tub filled with some sort of medium, into which the kitties crap.
I only had one truly horrendous experience, with the CatGenie. This happened five years ago, and I have no idea if the fine folks at CatGenie have upped their game, so take this with a grain of salt and don't use it (entirely) against them.
The first, say, five months I had the CatGenie, it worked as it was supposed to. It consists of a rotating bowl, a bunch of plastic granules which serve as the litter, a raising and lowering scoop-like spatula, a hopper, and a flusher. It's hooked to a hose and a drain. When a cat craps in the box, the intention is this: The spatula lowers, the bowl rotates; the turds are captured in the spatula, letting the granules through. The spatula raises, dumping the turds into the hopper, where they're washed down the drain and whisked out to sea. The hose flushes water into the bowl, where the plastic litter is rinsed. Then an air-dryer dries the granules, and it's ready for the next cat-crapstravaganza.
After five months, the whole thing went awry. I contacted CatGenie, and they were fairly helpful, sending me a replacement "engine" for the thing; and then another, and then a third smaller replacement part. Then, things started to get really bad, and that's when I emailed them this:
I'm not sure if this is something I'd be better off calling in about than emailing you directly, but here goes.
I'm at my wit's end with the CatGenie. Thanks to your help last month, and the shipment of two different main unit replacements, I've gotten the CatGenie to a point where the bowl rotates the whole time without stopping (instead of pausing for long periods of time where nothing happens), the air blower does in fact dry the granules (instead of leaving a pile of soggy plastic bits), and the arm does raise and lower effectively when the main processing unit tells it to (instead of staying up or down the whole time and accomplishing nothing).
The problem I'm having now is, frankly, awful. Instead of scooping up the cat turds, dropping them into the hopper, and flushing them, the CatGenie seems to be basically straining the turds through the scoop by breaking them into chunks small enough that the scoop is unable to effectively pick them up. Then, after breaking the turds up, failing to scoop them, and leaving them mixed in with the granules, the CatGenie blows hot air over the tiny turd chunklets, filling my house with the rancid, disgusting smell of hot feces. So when I get home from work, or when I come downstairs in the morning, that is what greets me.
I am including a photo of the CatGenie immediately after having run a cleaning cycle. The dark bits are the turd chunklets. You will notice also a massive wad of poo on the arm itself, where it has mashed a turd into the bottom of the bowl and then tenaciously clung to it, which is also not an uncommon phenomenon. Usually when this happens I use a paper towel to remove the turd-wad from the arm. I use the same paper towel to pluck out the turd chunklets and manually dump them into the hopper. All of which seems to go explicitly against the reason I got a CatGenie in the first place, which was so that I would rarely have to handle cat poo.
Honestly, I can't think of anything that would make me not want to go back to a nice, civilized, covered catbox with scent-dampening clay litter, throw this thing into the dumpster, and warn everybody I know about the failure of the CatGenie to function. However, I now present you, Rich, with an opportunity to change my mind, present a solution to this seemingly insoluble never-ending series of problems, or otherwise alleviate my utter disappointment with your product.
I never heard back. In all honesty, I was at my wit's end with the thing and could not foresee any possible solution. In my furious insanity, I deliberately wrote this letter in as provocative and florid a manner as I could muster. I imagined that the people at CatGenie would read it, laugh, and offer a full replacement as a solution, instead of what happened, which was nothing.
I am not angry at the CatGenie people, at this point, because their product was fundamentally flawed, and they must have been inundated with complaints from people like me. Many of the complaints must have been much more vocal about their hatred of the scent of fresh-baked turdlets waking them up in the mornings (I have always maintained a policy of being even-tempered with Phone Helper People, because I have been on the other end of that phone). They did what they could with what they had.
I'll stick with a big tub full of a granulated medium that can accept whatever my cats dish out.
This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one.
Many years ago, O children, there was a man who was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was sentenced to prison for a very long time. He calmly and good-naturedly tried to serve his term in a low-security level prison. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.
One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. "Got a new cellie for you, pal," said a guard, and ushered in an old man.
The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn't wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.
"Hey," said the prisoner.
The cellmate did not respond, except by staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.
"What's your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?"
The cellmate did not respond, except to scratch the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.
The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. "Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why's he get to wear his own clothes? Why's he get to bring a pet?"
The guard calmly walked over to the cell. "Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain't like you, he'll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don't do anything stupid."
"Okay," said the prisoner. "This is fucked up, though."
"You're tellin' me, pal," said the guard.
The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.
"Well, that's my bunk," said the prisoner. When the old man didn't respond, he said, "But hey, that's cool. One night, you take that bunk. I'll sleep up top."
Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.
The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell's only window.
The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). "Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?"
The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. "Once, yeah."
The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. "Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?"
"How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that."
The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. "Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?"
"What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?"
The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. "It's quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered, but a pack could, if they work together. If they're hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs." He scratched the top of the rabbit's head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. "Go to sleep," said the old man.
Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.
His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.
The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he'd slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.
The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. "Good morning," he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.
"Morning," said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.
Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.
There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house, and keep her refrigerator stocked. She was disappointed that she wasn't often asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.
In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.
One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.
Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.
The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."
That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man thanked her the next day, telling her that he'd never felt better.
This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would coming in with specific needs, and told her what to give for them, always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.
The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.
A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this galaxy." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.
One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place my head in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."
The herbalist did as she was told.
She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.
Then he left.
The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.
There once was a farmer with several acres of land. He sowed and tended and reaped, and in this manner he fed himself and his family. He grew wheat, and turnips, and potatoes. He grew strawberries, and asparagus, and carrots. He traded with the other farmers around him, giving his fruits and vegetables in return for meat, and milk, and other good things. He and his husband and their daughter were all very happy.
One day while picking strawberries, the farmer found a nose, half-buried in the dirt. "How curious," said the farmer, and picked the nose up. He brushed the black soil from the nostrils and thought, "I don't think I know anyone who would have lost a nose." As the last bits of black soil fell from it, the nostrils of the nose flared to life, sniffing and wheezing. The farmer was startled, and dropped the nose back to the ground, where it continued to breathe and sniff and huff and puff. The farmer moved on and picked strawberries on the other side of the nose, but at the end of the day, he returned, picked up the nose, and brought it back to the house.
"Look at what I found in the field today, when I was picking strawberries," said the farmer to his husband and daughter. None of them could think of anyone who could have lost a nose, and all three stared in wonder at how the nose appeared to be sniffing and flaring in such a lifelike manner. "Well, we had better keep it," said the farmer's husband, "in case we meet someone who has lost a nose, so that they can use it." He put the nose on the mantel, and there it sat, occasionally sniffing or sneezing.
The next day, the farmer went out to pick tomatoes, as they had just turned a beautiful deep shade of red. He spent all day picking the roundest tomatoes from the vines, gathering them in his wicker basket, and part of the afternoon besides. A few hours before sunset, he looked down and discovered to his dismay that he had almost stepped on a set of eyes, which quivered and stared upwards at his bootheel. The farmer quickly moved his foot to avoid the eyes and bent down to take a closer look. As he moved, the eyes followed; as he gawped, the eyes blinked.
That night, the eyes joined the nose on the mantel, and they rolled and followed the farmer and his husband and their daughter as they moved around the house, cooking and eating, singing songs and preparing for bedtime.
The next day, while harvesting apricots from his small grove, the farmer found two ears tucked amongst the flower blossoms; the day after that, he found two lean cheeks on a peach tree. After a week of this-- a shaggy brown scalp betwixt the peppers, a neck and chin buried with the sweet potatoes, and finally a chattering skull mixed in with the cantaloupes-- the farmer had assembled a near-complete head on his mantel. The eyes had gone in the sockets, the ears on the sides, and so on. That Saturday night, the head stared down at them, occasionally cocking to one side to hear them better, sniffing at the bread as it came out of the oven, and staring down with them as they ate, grinning its skeletal toothy grin.
"I am so curious," said the farmer's daughter. "What is it doing? What does it want?"
"I am also curious," said the farmer. "Who does this head belong to? Do they want it back? It seems to be personable enough, although I do wish it would stop showing us its teeth." When it heard this, the head looked down and tried to turn away.
"Oh, hush," said the farmer's husband. "It can't help that, dear. Now you've gone and made it worry. Don't worry, head, don't worry."
The next day was Sunday, and the farmer and his husband and their daughter went to church. When they returned, no sooner had they started preparing for lunch when they heard a moist slapping sound at the front door.
"Whatever could that be?" asked the farmer. When he opened the door, he discovered a mouth laying on the welcome mat. "Ah," he said, and quickly placed the mouth over the head's skully grin. Now the head was complete. The whole family gathered around the mantel expectantly.
"He's almost kind of handsome, in an odd way," said the farmer's daughter.
"Burton," said the head on the mantel. "Burton, burton, burton burton. Burton burton burton burton burton."
"What on earth does that mean?" asked the farmer.
"Burton burton burton," said the head, with eyes lowered.
"Maybe he doesn't speak English," said the farmer's husband.
"Burton burton?" asked the head.
"Perhaps it is dumb," said the farmer, and when the head's eyebrows raised in dismay, he quickly added, "Mute, I meant to say. Not stupid."
"Burton," said the head.
"Hush, dear," said the farmer's husband. "Burton is our guest. Daughter, please make sure to roast enough beets to feed Burton as well."
The head smiled down at them beatifically.
That night, as the farmer and his husband and their daughter prepared for bedtime, the head opened its mouth and sang a soft, low, wordless lullaby, a repeating melodic phrase, and everyone slept easily and deeply.
Man, what a strange weekend.
I went to a University of Iowa alumni meeting at a local bar, because the beer was free, and I know a few UI grads in town. I figured it'd be a pretty good time to just hang out, even if I only hung out with my friends the whole time and didn't really do any networking or anything.
When I got there, none of my friends were there yet, so I just sort of hung out at the bar and stared at the televisions, periodically looking around for people I knew. A whole bunch of strangers, but down at the other end of the bar, nursing a beer and looking lonely, was Ryan Gosling, just hanging out by himself. I was baffled. What was he doing there? Why wasn't he being mobbed by people?
Well, I was a couple free beers in, so I wandered down to the other end of the bar and sat down next to him. "Hey, man," I said. "University of Iowa? Class of '02."
"'14," he said. "Ph.D. in Otiotics."
"No shit," I said. "I only went there for undergrad."
None of my asshole friends were showing up, so we just kept chatting. I'd had no idea he was a UI Alum, but apparently he did his time in earnest, even wrote a whole dissertation. And because he's Ryan Gosling, some commercial publishers were asking him to rewrite it in non-academic language to publish as a mainstream book. Fascinating, right?
"Man, you're actually interested in my dry-ass academic writing? It's pretty niche."
"Hell yeah, I am. It sounds super weird."
"Well hold up, I've got a copy in my car." He left and then came back, handing me a weird book with vellum pages and leather binding-- like, actual leather. I guess Ryan Gosling can afford to have his books printed and bound in a pretty fancy way, and not just slapdash jobs at the local University bookstore. I flipped through it, and each page had something completely strange on it-- spot-varnish embossed Hebrew characters, or lacquered characters in Arabic, only visible at certain angles.
"What's with the weird spot-varnish foreign language stuff?" I asked.
"Oh man, no one's noticed that before," he said. "Don't worry about it." He seemed kind of upset, so I didn't follow up.
I kept reading, though. The first third of the dissertation was a collection of lab experiments, but they were all written in a variety of different styles. Some were a lot more literary than they were strictly academic / scientific. I was totally digging it.
The title of the dissertation was "Geographical Origination Identification Via Borborygmatic Emission Descriptors," which meant nothing to me. When I asked him to summarize, he kind of smirked. "It's all about how I can tell where someone's from based exclusively on the way they describe the sound of a fart."
"You're crazy, Ryan Gosling," I said.
Anyway, a few beers later, we headed down to the Salt Lick for some delicious barbecue. When we got there, the place was closed for a private event, but I guess being with Ryan Gosling has some benefits, because they let us in anyway. We stood out horrendously, because everyone else was wearing black dress clothes-- it turns out that the private event was a wake. In the middle of the courtyard, there was a huge temporary-construction aboveground pool, and floating in the pool was an open old-timey wooden casket with a dead woman inside.
The barbecue was incredible.