Lily the hunter plays with her prey

They’re back.

The area mice have left their summer homes out in the field and have come indoors to spend the winter behind the walls of our old house. At night we can hear them rearranging their little matchbox tables and thread spool chairs.

When I think of them that way, they seem quite sweet.

Except they also sneak into our kitchen, stealing crumbs and cavorting in the drawers, nibbling on latex gloves and old wine corks. They hoard birdseed in the dishtowel drawer. Last year, they chewed through the water line that runs our icemaker.

Little matchbox tables notwithstanding, I don’t like mice in the house.

On the other hand, I hate to kill any living creature.

I struggle with this. The only effective way to rid your house of rodents is, let’s face it, to kill them. But until vaporizers become commercially available, there’s no humane method.

Poison is painful and slow-acting. And the upshot — the stench of a slowly deteriorating mouse carcass seeping through the walls for days — is nearly unbearable  (although I do recommend it as an effective appetite suppressant).

Glue traps arguably cause less agony, if you’re OK with the death by starvation part. Which leaves traditional mousetraps, probably the most expedient approach — when they work. We once had a trap that did only 80 percent of the job, leaving us with a mortally wounded but still very much alive mouse who stared up at us with a reproachful expression in his pained Disney eyes.

I cried for days.

Luckily, we have a cat, Lily. She’s one of those all-business felines that rubs against your legs and demands affection until you try to pick her up, at which point she turns into a wolverine that will leave gashes on your chest with her back claws as she vaults out of your embrace. She’ll then hide, lest you again try to overpower her, if not outright murder her, with your dastardly cuddles.

Like most cats, when Lily gets a mouse, she bats it about with glee, stopping now and then to grin and twirl her whiskers instead of dispatching it quickly.

But she has a Hannibal Lecter streak that goes beyond normal cat evil. To exact maximum suffering from her victims, she carries them upstairs and drops them in the bathtub. It’s like her own personal Coliseum.

Every few weeks, we are snapped out of our sleep by the sounds of high-pitched squeaks, pouncing and the occasional falling of a shampoo bottle off the edge of the tub. The noise is broken up by long pauses, which I imagine are when a lot of the whisker twirling takes place.

Lily will “play” in the tub this way at length, delighting in the knowledge that her prey can’t get away. Why rush the torture when she can savor it?

My first (counterintuitive) instinct is always to save the poor mouse. But I refrain.

While as a lap cat Lily is a failure, as a mouser she’s a champ. We need her services. And although death by cat is no kinder than poison or traps, I have convinced myself that letting Lily do the dirty work absolves me from direct responsibility.

Cringing, I tiptoe out of bed and close the door so I at least can’t hear the prolonged torment of a helpless animal — an animal, I must remind myself, that thinks the aluminum foil drawer is a latrine.

We had a mouse-in-the-tub night  not long ago, replete with the usual desperate squeaks and pouncing noises interspersed with ominous silences. Heavy-hearted, I shut the bedroom door and let the cruel ritual play out.

When I got up in the morning, I found the tub empty save for one tiny organ. A kidney, I believe. (“Always leave something for Miss Manners,” they say.)

I sighed and, in spite of myself, mourned the loss of the defenseless little mouse.

Mark tried to humor me. “He might be OK,” he said. “I mean, it’s possible to live with only one kidney.”

Sure.

I know it’s for the best. Thanks to Lily, my kitchen drawers have stayed clean for over two weeks.

But I like to believe that, somewhere in our walls, a recuperating one-kidneyed mouse is telling his pals to pull up a spool so he can regale them with the tale of his daring escape.

 

Gardening: Survival of the fittest

It’s that time of year when I look at my vegetable garden and wonder how it all got away from me.

Every summer, I fall into the same cycle: initial anticipation that turns to endless watering and weeding,  giving way to despair and, ultimately, a sense of failure.

I never learn.

It’s not that I don’t know how to properly plant and maintain a garden. It’s that, in the heady month of May, I lose all sense of reality. I imagine that I can keep up with a bigger garden than I can. And, seeing a vast expanse of unplanted soil, I scoff at recommended plant spacings. I mean, how much can these little butternut squash seedlings really spread?

Seriously, I never learn.

It seems doable, at first. For a few weeks, I brag. “My lettuce is up,” I tell strangers, as though I invented germination. And in those early days when the plants are small, it’s easy to keep the weeds at bay. Each crop stays in its own neighborhood, and I can still stroll down the rows.

“I don’t know why I got so frustrated with the garden last year,” I tell myself in June, admiring my carefully labeled stakes, the orderly rows of ankle-high corn and the tidy tomato plants. “This year is looking good.”

That undeserved self-satisfaction often lasts right through late July.

But then it all hits — heat waves, rain (too much or too little), bugs, and, worst of all, rampant growth of everything, everywhere — and suddenly I am overwhelmed and defeated.

This year’s garden had its standard disappointments: The birds ate all my blueberries; something chewed my corn cobs right on the stalks; my green beans repeatedly overpowered the six-foot bamboo teepee I had made for them, flipping it over like drunken fans do to Toyotas after a Super Bowl.

And what the garden lacked this year in striped cucumber beetles, it made up for in tomato hornworms. (I’ll wait here while you shudder uncontrollably.)

If you aren’t familiar with these creatures, think of the main character in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” only horror-movie sized. They’re so big that if you ran over one with a car you’d feel a bump.

I can hardly bear to look at them, much less touch their plump, finger-sized green bodies. So, upon finding seven of them enjoying a leisurely all-day buffet on my tomato plants, I put on gloves and brought out a set of barbecue tongs for plucking.

Unfortunately, hornworms’ many pairs of legs stick tightly to the plants, and the sensation of pulling hard and feeling them stretch and stretch until they finally let go made me gag. So I took scissors and snipped off the entire plant just below each hornworm.

But because I put in enough tomato plants to supply a Chef Boyardee plant, I still got a decent crop. And other parts of the garden did fine, too. Despite numerous topples, the green beans are producing heavily. I’ve also got plenty of basil, potatoes and pumpkins. And if you need kale, I’ll be harvesting about a bushel a week for the next two months.

Now we’ve reached the part of the summer where the things that did grow, grew too well, including the weeds. The pumpkins and the cantaloupes — which looked so cute in 2-inch pots this spring but are now choking out the rest of the garden and some of the lawn — have cut off all inbound travel routes. I’m going to need to rent a crane and have Mark lower me into the Roma tomato patch.

Overall, my garden is a disaster — not because it hasn’t grown, but because it’s grown too much. And no matter how much I actually end up harvesting, an exponentially larger amount will have gone eaten by pests, ruined by weather or left on the vine — either because I’m too lazy to pick any more or because I can’t penetrate the wall of foliage to get to it.

This past weekend, frowning at the sprawling, undefined tangle of plants and weeds, I made a decision.

“Next year,” I told myself, “I’m scaling way back. Three tomato plants, some basil, and  just one kale plant. That’s it.”

It was a bold statement. In fact, it was the same bold statement I’ve made every September for the past 12 years.

I’m a terrible gardener. But damn, I’m consistent.

It pays to shop with legal tender

“Keep the change.”

That’s something I can say, because I’m one of those people who still carry cash. But for most Americans, especially the young ones, cash is a thing they’ve only heard about, like phone booths or dial-up internet.

They don’t know what they’re missing.

Every Friday, I take a week’s worth of cash out of the bank and use it for most face-to-face transactions: at the grocery store, at the gas station, at yard sales, for poker night (I don’t play, but if I ever get invited, I’ll be ready to ante up). My grandkids are getting to the age where I might want to slip them a dollar or two, and they don’t take plastic.

Don’t get the idea that I’m a Luddite who has failed to keep up with the notion of a cashless society; I was at the forefront. At one time, I lived by the debit card, that instrument of great power — and great danger — that allows you to spend and spend until there’s no money left for your car insurance or electric bill. (There may be more practical ways to use a debit card, but that’s the only method I was familiar with.)

Then, about a decade ago, a friend mentioned how secure it made her feel knowing there was tangible money in her wallet. I decided to give it a try.

It took a few months to settle on a good weekly amount. At first, I set my limit unreasonably low — “I don’t see why we can’t get by on $40 for groceries, as long as I buy the generic pasta” — virtually guaranteeing that I’d run out of cash before midweek. At that point, I’d go back to the debit card and my old freewheeling ways. (OK, “freewheeling” is a too negative term. Let’s go with “furtively irresponsible.”)

But once I set an amount based on a realistic average cost of groceries, gas, and a few sundries, I found that with the proper oversight — opening my wallet and checking how much money I had left — I could make it through most weeks with no trouble, often with a few bucks to spare.

Financially savvy people laugh at my quaint ways. “I put everything on the credit card,” they say. “For the miles.”

I’m not a frequent flier.

Or “to earn points. Then I get cash rewards.” Fair enough, if you’re good at playing the game.

I was not.

I commend anyone who comes out ahead on miles, money or free gas. But here’s a little secret I learned the hard way: If you carry a balance on your card, the interest charges will outweigh your rewards.

Credit card companies loved me. After all, my laziness helped pay for the rewards their more conscientious customers enjoyed.

But now, whenever possible, I stick to cash for retail. It’s simpler. And while I don’t earn any points, I like that it denies some major bank even the possibility of assessing service charges. Every time I pay with cash, I imagine a credit card company executive wincing in pain.

This makes me smile.

I don’t recommend cash for big-ticket purchases, however, if only because lugging a suitcase around is hard on the lower back. But a little cash on hand comes in handy. Without it, you can’t get into a high school sporting event or buy into a back-alley craps game.

And if you don’t have change in your pocket, what do you do when you come across a fountain? Make a wish and throw in your Visa card?

Lots of people tell me they can’t use cash; it just “flies out of their hands.” I have the opposite problem. In my mind, a debit card is like a magical wish-fulfillment talisman; as long as there’s money in the account, there are no limits to what a debit card can buy.

Cash, on the other hand, is real, finite and very hard for me to part with. Separating a $20 bill from my fingers is a job for a cashier with a soothing voice and a rock climber’s grip strength.

I know I’m resisting progress. The time will come when cash is no longer accepted as a form of currency. What doesn’t go on a debit or credit card will be handled through smartphone apps and, eventually, telepathy, although I’m not sure how fees will be assessed.

I shouldn’t fight it. I mean, in theory I agree with people who say change is good.

I just prefer the kind that jingles.