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Year of the Cormorant

photoBefore we get there we stop at a gas station in Medford. The heat is so intense it hits you like a brick to the chest—dry, smoky air pressing in so hard you lose your breath. The outskirts of Medford in the dead of summer aren’t that inspiring anyway, all flat, arid landscape paved over and dotted with chain superstores, but the heat adds to the oppressiveness that permeates the whole scene. We’re understandably eager then to get to the lake. If the drive over didn’t get us there, the blistering heat of the gas station certainly convinced us it was time to be there. We pull up around 7, the forest and lava fields on the way up gently saying hello, hello and when we get to the turnoff (we all know the cabin number, but we don’t have to see it to know—the line of cars gives it away), we turn down without hesitation. The deck is full, all our people gathered around the fire. Faces turn up to see us come down the road, Rachelle maneuvering the sable as best she can through the pitted dirt, and we wave from the window. This is a time-honored ritual, coming down the dirt road to the cheers and I don’t know if you’re going to make its! of family below, your reward a leg stretch and a hug from Grandma. I wasn’t here last year but it’s as if no time has passed—there’s the one concrete step down to the porch, the woodpecker door knocker announcing arrivals, a light wind moving through the pine, the familiar woosh-lap of the lake on the shower. We get hustled through the cabin, all wood and bird nests, to the deck and another round of hellos start—not just to the trees and lava fields, but to our family and the sights and the sounds I know we each hold dear. Here is the pipe that shoots out run-off water, here is the special delivery pulley system, here is the picnic table, here are the Adirondack chairs and the side table Hayden made one year. Here is the outhouse, whirring quietly, the outside sink, the sound of the screen door slamming. Here is the low wall of layered stone where Queen Chippie (that’s Grandma—all hail) lays out leftovers and seeds for the little critters, the snap and crack of the fire pit, the bang of the wood out to the dock against the rocks. We creep into the duck inn, doubled over anymore to protect our heads, the one window veiled in a thin white muslin curtain, framing the last of the light fading on the opposite shore. The posters are aged, corners peeling now, but the tale of the Ice Cream factory is still legible, at least for another year.

Sometimes I wonder why I write, what it is that drives the urge to put words on paper. I think for everyone it’s something different, but here’s part of it for me—writing is a way of capturing our present so I can make sense of it, process, and remember, when it goes away. This litany of what I see and hear, and how it makes me feel, this is my mark, so you’ll see me, and so I can tell you what I understand to be true.

But places like the lake are memory come alive, where every turn welcomes you back into the past of who you were each time you encounter things you’ve always known. Even coming down the dirt road I was gripped by a fleeting ghost of panic, the remnants of a childhood fear of skidding down and out of control into the cabin—22 year-old habits are hard to break, apparently. The Duck Inn and the boathouse, the curving staircase into the sleeping loft upstairs, the dock and the kayaks, the fire pit down by the water, they’re all participants in this same grand tradition that our family is a part of too, so familiar now that all these spots and activities have become a talisman of sorts, a touchstone of our relationships to each other. And in each is a story, a do you remember when and what about the time, going back all the way to when we were tiny. We all have them—mine was when I stood on the board connecting the land to the dock and said to Jasper, my grandparents’ old dog, Oh for shit’s sake, Jaspie! because he was in my way. I was maybe four? Even little Ben has his lake baby story—he stood outside the screen door and threatened Sam, saying, I’m going to put pitch on you! That’s a pretty good threat for a three year old.

For all the time we’ve already spent there though, for all the stories that have already happened, there are ever more memories to be made. The narrative evolves, changes shape, moves forward. Sam and I went canoeing down the shore and at the bay, towards the far end of the lake, we stopped for a minute and drifted, chatting idly about her new boyfriend and the smoke and the heat. There, I say, after awhile, pointing out a cormorant. We’d seen one earlier by the dock, and everyone brought up the book Ping—even my Grandpa, who remembered reading it to his girls. They’re funny birds, floating along with their heads cocked up and to the right, looking permanently curious. This one in front of us keeps diving under the water, and we entertain ourselves by doing voices for him, guessing where he’ll pop up. When we turn to head back up towards our cabin, we see the cormorant again—this time with a silvery fish clamped tightly in his beak. My heart goes out to the fish as he curves his body into a flipping U, first this way and then that, aware of how afraid he must be, how desperate for escape. Naturally Sam and I are both exclaiming loudly, OH MY GOD LOOK AT THAT CORMORANT, loud enough to get the neighboring dock’s attention. Without further ado, the cormorant puts an end to the show by tossing his head back and swallowing the fish whole, his throat stretching out a good six inches sideways so we’re able to watch it slide down. This spurs more exclaiming, until we decide we have to get the heck out of here and back to the safety of our own part of the lake.

You see though how this will become a part of the lake’s canon, another story set against the tableau of all that glittering water, the wide expanses of blue—sky and lake—broken up only by the forest on each shore. Here, my family, is participating every year in a narrative that twists and turns through time and continuously grows, so that each trip there is another chapter in a saga that I hope never reaches an end. This is the year of hot and smoky and the cormorant, the year before was the year it was cold and rainy and I missed it, and every year seems to be the year we read a lot of magazines and drink a lot of wine. Every year too is the lake—blue and green, lake smell in the air, something on the barbecue, and everyone gathered around.

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Family Tradition

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Family Tradition

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1010225_10152105545334538_2418952057446437744_nBecause it’s raining so hard we decide to stop in Salinas and visit the John Steinbeck museum. It was interesting—partly because I love Steinbeck (although I’ve never quite figured out how Grapes of Wrath is the work that he’s most famous for, that and Of Mice and Men. I mean I get it—they’re great works, but his best? Not in my book. Easiest to pigeonhole into a genre maybe—that’s why they get the press. But I digress), and partly because why not? It’s pouring and we’re going to Yosemite, where we’re both pretty sure we’ll end up sitting in the rain, or at least hiding from it. Kind of unbelievable considering California is in a drought, but then again, we saw Lake Shasta, a startling picture of blue against a myriad of red rings that told us where the water should be. It’s an unnerving sight, at best. Now it’s hard to believe though, here inside the John Steinbeck museum, listening to the rain on the roof while exploring a mock version of Cannery Row. Our chances for climbing aren’t great—even though we both know it, there’s still a little glimmer of hope that remains by not actually saying it out loud. We were going to climb the side of Half Dome on an epic, 8-pitch route called Snake Dike, perfectly timed for Darren’s 27th birthday. We quickly realize, once we get there—it hits us sometime between buying extra tarps in the frenzy at the village store and going to bed at 7:30 in a downpour—that there will be no climbing. In fact, when we get up the next morning, even though the rain has stopped, we realize that it’s snowing on top of Half Dome. That’s when it gets said out loud. Darren laughs when I ask. No—we’re not climbing today.

Our piece of luck though comes in the form of my parents, and I know that even though we won’t be climbing and it’ll probably rain today, we’re guaranteed some kind of fun with those two and the other people they cart around. A whole lot of crazy in that clan, but fun too. So we call them just at the right time, which is how our rainy, cold night has a happy ending—day breaks on us while we enjoy brunch at the Awahnee Lodge, reveling in those magnificent leaded glass windows and fireplaces you could roast a boar in.  I suggested it to the maitre d’. He said no.

And then the inevitable question—well, and, so what should we do today? We go to collect the others—my siblings, minus Rachelle, and decide, after brief deliberation, we should go on a walk. The trailhead to Yosemite Falls isn’t too far, my mom discovers, isn’t too far from where they’re staying. So we head out. It’s heads craned back for the trip, you have to realize, because that’s what Yosemite is, all sheer granite walls and trees, soaring vistas, water and more water, coming from above and rushing below. It’s a lot to take in, but it distracts us for awhile—the trailhead is actually about a mile from the hotel. And then we see signs, one to lower Yosemite Falls, and one to upper. We’ll do the upper. I don’t know who decides this, I think it may have been my Dad. But suddenly we’re headed up switchbacks towards upper falls, no questions asked.

About ten minutes in Garrett starts to ask for water. We brought no water. Then I realize that he’s wearing aviator sunglasses and chuck taylor lace-ups as his hiking gear. Sam’s in fashion boots. My parents have quickly fallen off the back—if the bears don’t get them, they’re a cougar snack for sure. The family walk has rapidly become something differently entirely and no one is prepared for it.

But! We continue, steadfast in that wonderful Hobson quality of not complaining even in the direst of circumstances, and ascend ever higher towards the top of the falls. It’s actually a decently hard hike, rarely flat, and with enough sheer cliffs to make me happy that my mom isn’t up front with us to see how close Garrett is toeing the line. Don’t be one of those tourists who fall off a trail and die, I tell him. Come on. That’s not us. He takes a selfie with Half Dome in the back. Maybe it is us.

It’s fun, though, because it’s like being a kid again. All the ingredients are here—a vacation with my family, a hike that goes south, weather that doesn’t cooperate. These are the circumstances that have created the best stories of my childhood. Maybe not my fondest memories—I once had pneumonia in Yellowstone and hiked with it for a solid two days before receiving medical attention from a man who was more equipped to handle bear bites than a little phlegm in the lungs—but definitely the best stories. And it’s this bullheadedness that runs in my family that has served us so well, making the best out of the worst, saying yes to something bigger and grander, upper falls versus lower falls that make our lives memorable and keeps contributing to our family lore. These are the kinds of trips I hope we’ll always take, and then I’ll take my kids on, and they’ll take their kids on. This is the kind of chaos that I love best, that resonates with me the most. Barely managed chaos outside—that’s perfection.

It’s worth it—we don’t go all the way to the top, but we do see that iconic panorama of Half Dome and the Falls mirrored across the valley floor and we goof off endlessly on the trip up and especially the trip back. We get close enough to the Falls to hear the thunder of all that water hitting the rock. We imagine that we feel the spray—but I think really it’s just the rain coming back. We made friends with a Danish guy and see a Japanese tourist crouched tiger style on a boulder, taking pictures of himself. I learn that Garrett wants to be a high school teacher and director now, and that Sam has a new boyfriend. It’s good. I wouldn’t find that kind of stuff out unless we were on a hell hike together. Darren spends his birthday with my clan and loves it—or at least pretends to. Either way, it’s a win.

When we get done with the upper falls, we then go to the Lower Falls, which are beautiful, but somehow less impressive. Maybe because we didn’t tear ourselves apart getting to see it—the walk in to this one was paved. Later we go on another walk to Mirror Pond, pretty uneventful but still, the same kind of fun. The best part is that even though we didn’t climb today, didn’t do anything we had planned to do, we got something better—a return to the clan and the familiar rhythm of time with my family.

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V-Day

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V-Day

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photo (7)On our last day there--as with most vacations, it seems--we had the best weather. Which is to say, the sky turned a brilliant, crystalline blue for about thirty minutes before the rain resumed its relentless battle against the earth, and gray sank back down over the city. But for that thirty minutes, we were in the right place at the right time. We drove up to Kerry Park, a spot my parents had brought us many times over the years, because the view is that good. The Seattle skyline is nice and tidily packaged off to the left, the Space Needle jutting out proudly amid the skyscrapers, and the Sound spreads out to your right, tiny whitecaps reflecting the sky. Normally, the Olympics provide a nice contrast to that huge expanse of water, an imposing reminder of the might of earth against the ceaseless force of water. Mt. Rainier will sometimes then loom over all of it, and that's a real sight to see. But we didn't get that lucky. Lucky enough though to squint into the sun at the skyline, buffeted by wind, lucky enough to walk down the road to the next viewpoint and admire the houses, dare to dream that maybe someday it would be a house like that we could own, that some stranger might see and say--maybe some day I'll live in house that beautiful! They were pretty magnificent, although how each of them didn't have floor to ceiling windows in every room to capture all that view I don't know. At the next spot, a bluff overlooking more of the Sound, we see an eagle circling overhead, high enough that he isn't being ruffled by the wind. The water is blue for a second, mirroring the sky. Yesterday when we stood in Pike Place Market behind the old, leaded glass streaked by rain, the water was a steely, melancholy gray. That's how it seems a lot of the time, I think--the next weekend, I come back with my family and my sister Rachelle keeps telling me we're in Gotham City. She may be right.

This time though, it's just Darren and I--we're here for Valentine's Day weekend, only sort of purposefully. It's well-documented that I am not, on the whole, a Valentine's Day believer. I like love, but the kind not celebrated with themed steak dinners and a faux Saint--forgive me, we've been through this before. The weekend picked itself for the trip, the way they do, and then there we were on Valentine's Day, eating breakfast for dinner at Lost Lake Cafe on a triple date with my younger sister. It was perfect. Later, Darren mentioned that Sam and I had a lot of inside jokes. To put it mildly, I said back.

Then, in what should be considered true Valentine's Day fashion, we went and got ultra competitive at an indoor bocce ball court where we owned these two guys who dared to challenge us. Did we all recognize that this was the sport of old, Italian men, and that in the grand scheme of things it meant nothing as to our true athletic prowess? Of course not. The Olympics were on, emotions were running high, we had to win.

We walked home in a haze of glory and delight, as the wet streets and bright lights mingled enchantingly. The walk home has always been one of my favorite parts of a night out—not because I don’t enjoy the dim lit interiors of bars, no, I rather like being among all those people in a crowded, noisy place, or sometimes a quiet one, where you can lean your heads together without feeling bad, just depending on where you go and how you feel. I like all that, but I really love the walk home—going back to a warm, cozy place where my pajamas are waiting, slipping into a dreamless sleep, and waking up with a head full of the laughter of the night before. So this is the way it was on this night too, but with the added layer of magic that a new place brings.

The next day, and the day after that, had the same kind of feeling. Seattle is big and rainy, the market is loud and full of smells, with too many colors that seemed out of place against the gray. When we went into the market from the street we were right next to a tulip stand, heralding against all odds the start of spring, and across the street wasa man playing piano under a large umbrella. He was good, but not as good as the guitar guy further down, singing Led with a bluesy, Americana twist. I gave money to both of them, I have a weak spot for street musicians. It was madness, in a way, but you didn’t realize it until you were out of it—we had one quiet moment on a little balcony behind the Pike Place Market sign, sandwiched between all that water and the dark outline of one of the most iconic signs of my life, we had another in a glass capsule over the water on the Seattle Great Wheel; I begged to go, and though it was cold and wet and there were no sign of the Olympics I still loved it because it was as if the whole city had been laid out at my feet, waiting for nothing, moving for nothing. On the wheel it was nearly silent and very still, and I got to look and look at the lights and the Sound.

And then on the last day we had the best weather, up at Kerry Point. We drove from there to the Chihuly museum, after we saw the houses and the eagle and the blue water, and immersed ourselves in a different world of one man’s imagination—he seemed kind of crazy to me, but in a good way. His glass was unearthly, twisting against gravity, standing in a solid fragility that was, although clichéd, breathtaking. On our way out we watched a short movie about him and he was shown throwing his big glass bubbles into the water—the thing that immediately came to my mind was the day Sam told Rachelle, who was hesitating to jump off the roof of the treehouse, that no one lives forever! She was 6 at the time. Watching both incidents, I think, had the same startling effect.

So that was that, and we went home, no steak dinners and all despite a Valentine's Day in there. A fine trip.

 

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She Makes the Sound

photo (3) I've come full circle--last Monday I wrote about the sea of stars, and this Monday it's the literal sea. My little sister* and I went to the beach on Saturday for the day, and though we'd been planning it for like a week, no one actually thought either of us could make it happen so it was a bit of an achievement. I'm not 100% sure why we had so many doubters, although it could be because Sam and I bring out the most dysfunctional parts of each other and we tend to live as if everything is a bit from SNL. You would be surprised how disruptive and not conducive that is to reality, despite what TV might make you think. But that’s neither here nor there—and really, we only had one major detour.

The detour was a misguided attempt to go on a hike to Cape Falcon, although I found after delving deep into the coastal forest along a road that took us to what was surely a cult’s commune that it’s important to specify in Google maps that you’re trying to find a trail head and not drive to the cape itself. So after barreling down a gravel road in Grocery Getter and rapidly discovering that we had made a grievous error, we got back on the highway, hearts racing, and went to Hug Point. I think all the way around we made a better choice—Cape Falcon is the kind of geographic location you would find in a David Baldacci novel, and Hug Point is something straight out of a children’s book. Think about that.

I’ve heard rumors that the Oregon coast is considered exceptionally beautiful, but I can only assume that the people who think that are all redheads. If you’re looking for a “beach”, where you go and frolic in the waves, maybe got tossed by a sneaker and potentially dragged out to sea in a true pantomime of fun, and where you can lay out a towel and sleep in the sun for six hours, the coast is not it. But you can do what Sam and I did, which is wear sweatshirts and experience constant runny noses while climbing rocks that you can get up but not back down. We also found a dead bird in a sea cave, so that was cool/ominous. I also became particularly obsessed with finding “the old road” that someone wrote about on the internet—or maybe I just saw a picture of it and decided it was surely a sign of humanity’s mark on nature, now wiped out. We initially headed in the complete opposite direction, naturally, of the way it was, so by the time we actually found it, the old road had evolved to something of mythical proportions, which happens when you say, where’s the old road?, sixty times in an hour. There was also a waterfall that, for as much as I hyped it, should’ve been taller than Multnomah. When we stumbled upon it we climbed to the top of it, which sounds impressive but was really more of a scramble up a slight incline than a climb, and then walked up the creek for a ways, telling each other eagerly every few minutes that we were probably the first humans to ever see this land. We had to scare some kids off to make that plausible, but it was worth it.

When we finally did get to the old road, it was very obviously not an old road, and if it was, it was the worst placed road in all of history, as it curved alongside a sheer cliff and was definitely covered when the tide came in. But we went ahead and cut our feet on the barnacles walking along it anyway and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

My sister is funny, in a very special way, because she can be funny and not hurt other people. It’s a rare trait. Too often humor is biting and sharp, caustic, deprecating, insecure and unforgiving, which I sort of hate to put out there, because that’s generally how my sense of humor errs. But for Sam, all the world is an improv stage, and sometimes we like to bounce stuff off each other to see how far it will go. I’m not her best straight man, but I do have a pretty good imagination and a nose for characters, so it can get a little rambunctious. It’s difficult to explain, because it happens so organically and can’t be captured very well outside of the moment. But we have been known to become truckers, old men toasting, blondes, cab drivers, mafia dons, characters from the Lord of the Rings, English, the list goes on and on. Also our comments and actions can only be described as absurd. So there’s that.

We walked along Cannon Beach proper after we ate lunch in a kind of renovated attic dining room that was very cozy and very efficient, which was ideal as neither of us are very good at feeding ourselves, so we ate at light speed and got the hell out of there. Then we bought gummy candy and I dropped the bag on the floor and Sam said, “you ruined Christmas!” just a little too loud. But it was funny. When we were on the beach, Sam told me she told Grandma she would go to the beach for her, and there we were, so we said, what’s up Sea Granny, and I told her what our older cousins told me, about how she got that nickname. Apparently, this was a long time ago, maybe 25 years ago, Grandma wrapped sea kelp she found on the beach around her neck like a scarf and modeled it for everyone, then kept meandering down the shore like it was the most natural thing in the world. Meanwhile, it was reported that my Dad was running into the ocean, rolling in the sand and then running back out to the ocean. In the words of Michelle, your dad was a wild man. So we had a good laugh, and then had a quiet moment, and then we spotted a wedding so we watched that for awhile and talked about how funny/awful it would be if some embittered passer-by started yelling, “it’ll never last!” Perils of a public wedding venue, you know.

When we were leaving I took a long last look around, because really, I love the coast. It’s no tropical isle, but it is a magnificent, awe-inspiring part of the world. We stood, close to being alone, on the sand at Hug Point, backed by swirling, towering cliffs, looking out at that shimmeringly endless ocean and said well this, all this, this is good. When you look down the beach and see a shoreline shrouded in mist, and look out to the water and see all the colors of grey and silver, and you look behind you at dense trees rising away from the beach, and you close your eyes and feel salt sting your face and sand shifting underfoot, and hear the shoooosh crash shooooosh crash of the waves, and know that for as long as there’s been a moon in the sky the water has been moving, there is a vast timeliness that one could easily get lost in. A power bigger than you, right there, unchanging and uncaring, one deep breath from being swept away, it’s a beautifully scary thing. It’s almost uncomfortable, but not quite, and someday I think I’d like to live by a beach. Let’s go, I say to Sam, and we do.

Xoxo, Lauren

*Sam is perpetually about 13 in my imagination. She is also small of stature, so this moniker is appropriate in more ways than one. This is Sam at the beach.

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The Good New Is...

Today, in an effort to liven up my morning, I found a website with job listings and perused them for awhile, until my heart rate was high enough to beat out that of a cornered jackrabbit. Generally I live a terror free life, mostly because I lack a healthy sense of fear, unless it comes to snakes, psychological thrillers*, Larry the Cat**, and the unknown. The first three are pretty easily handled: I review proper snake-bit etiquette once a week, I avoid watching movies that even hint at having Paul Bettany as an imaginary friend, and when it comes to Larry the Cat...it's nothing that hiding in Sam's bed won't fix. But the unknown, now there's a horse of a different color. Before you dismiss my irrational obsession with knowing everything that could/might/will happen, let me remind you that I am now nearing my 21st birthday, which means that I am only one year away from my 22nd, which means I am only one month away from graduating. So what? you might retort. Or I might, under normal circumstances. But as I recently realized over winter break, I have no idea what happens after you graduate. Every time I think about it all I hear is the sound I make when I make fun of my older sister for possibly not having a brain--it's reminiscent of a wind tunnel.

Except now it's me with no brain and no future, and as evidenced by my search this morning, no job prospects either.

That's why in the last few days I've been plagued by cold sweats and a sense of impending doom--today the unnaturally sunny weather here in New Orleans sent me into a tailspin of conspiracy theories. I'm pretty sure there's a catch. Nobody gets June-worthy weather in January without somehow paying for it--my guess is that we're going to have a storm that would make even Noah want to jump ship, and it's going to be the day that I wear both my leather boots and jacket.

But I digress. I've always known that as an English major the only thing I'm going to be able to do with my degree is hang it on a wall, and possibly be the greatest thank you note writer to have ever lived, but other than that, it's not taking me anywhere but the unemployment line or to a career as a barista. Which I am well on my way to. No really, I'm the bus girl right now at a coffee shop but they told me I could get on bar as soon as I work there longer than three weeks at a time. So I guess there's always that, but somehow I always imagined myself gainfully employed and not in a place that smells like coffee grounds and is full of loud, crazy Italians.

Or did I? Maybe my recent panic is really a result of being back at Tulane, a place chock full of highly motivated people, all headed straight for success and willing do a lot to get there. We're talking internships at Google and working for Senators--even if I wanted to, I'm pretty sure I couldn't keep up. Which is ok, because I'm also fairly confident in my ability to use charm, wit and good looks to at least be able to support myself; as far as I know that's the goal once you're done with school. I could be wrong. I've heard some different theories. As far as everything else goes, I haven't the foggiest. I need to start a Lauren is Going to Graduate (Probably) Plan, but I don't even know where to start. I don't even know what I don't know. What do you do? Who do you hang out with? Where do you live? Who pays you? These are questions I am at least moderately determined to find the answers to.

Mostly when I think about the future, I close my eyes and see myself laying on a beach somewhere. It's one of my favorite activities. Not a very lucrative one, but you know. Not many of my favorite activities are--work isn't high up there on my list of priorities. But maybe one of the reasons it seems like everyone but me is going to be blowing kisses from the top quicker than you can say "you're hired" is because I have subconciously surrounded myself with Type-A personalities who will undoubtedly have a couch I can sleep on somewhere down the road, leaving me to go lay out. Preferably in the Maldives.

Also, if all else fails, I've decided my back-up plan is being a trophy wife. I had to ditch the bronze artist thing--the 20lb. bird nest incident didn't bode well for my future in the discipline. Oh well. Whatever it is that I end up doing I'm sure it will produce a lot of things to tell my therapist.

xoxo, Lauren

*A Beautiful Mind, anyone? Remember, I was paranoid for weeks. **Larry the Cat is a figment of my younger sister and I's imagination--he came into our house once and wreaked a terrifying amount of havoc in our front room, and he brought his cat gang with him. Now he's started showing up in other places too. It's like A Beautiful Mind, except we're not math geniuses and instead of Paul Bettany and the government, it's cats. Now that I'm writing this down it sounds really, really crazy. I can't not think of things I'm going to need a shrink for...this is not a drill.