Herding Cats

May 25, 2006 at 11:08 am (Uncategorized)

There are mornings like this one when my cat seems strangely symbolic of my life. Granted, the connection might be tenuous because it emerged from a sleep-deprived mind. I didn’t get a whole lot of rest last night because our two year old son Andrew materialized in our bed at an ungodly hour and then proceeded to colonize the mattress by stretching out perpendicular to Jay and me. How can someone that small occupy so much space – and, more importantly, why did we ever teach him to walk? I would be much better rested if we had convinced him that his legs were vestigial rather than functional. Then he would be trapped in his bed unable to roam the halls at the wee hours looking for a cozier spot to thrash around in. But I digress.

Those of you who have visited me know about Kate the Cat. Those of you who haven’t, should never come stay at Casa Rebecca and Jay. We are actually slaves serving Kate, and you will be too if you set foot in here. What Kate lacks in poundage she makes up for in attitude. She’s da bomb – albeit more of an IED than a warhead. She’s only five pounds, but three of those pounds are her vocal cords and the other two in her hind legs (her head is pretty much empty). Kate isn’t afraid to ask to have her needs met, nor is she shy about changing her mind. After being inside the house for 2.5 seconds, she parks her skinny ass next to the door and starts meowing to go outside again. Once you let her out, you have another 3.8 seconds of quiet before she kicks up a racket on the other side of the door. This can go on for hours – days, really – and it doesn’t matter how late it is or what you are doing. For instance, Kate likes to sleep inside the house tucked into her orthopedic cat bed with faux sheepskin, but 4 AM is prime hunting time and she needs to get outside to terrorize the local bird population. We’ve stopped fighting it. Once she meows a single time, we virtually sleepwalk to the front door and let her out in the pre-dawn.

If you decide to assert your rights as a homo sapien and not put your opposable thumbs to use opening and closing doors, Kate will show you who really is the higher life form. She’ll alter the pitch of her howls with the skill of Renee Fleming. Her notes rise ever higher and become ever more frantic. If this fails to make you open the door, she starts climbing the walls. Literally. She can jump to the top of the refrigerator in one leap, and then crawl into the ceiling. Because we live near a busy road, my best buddy Amy was always slightly horrified that we let Kate outside. Whenever I complained about Kate wandering off for a day, which meant I would stay up the whole night calling for her and worrying she was dead, Amy would suggest that we just keep Kate inside. Then Amy came and stayed with us in Montana for a couple of months. “Jesus, throw that fucking cat outside,” she snapped one day when Kate practiced her kitty octaves and climbed the screens. I felt vindicated.

Disciplining Kate is a lot like, well, herding cats. If you catch her on the counter and yell at her, she looks at you with her yellow eyes and shrugs. I swear, she shrugs. If you swat her, she cocks her head. Sometimes she’ll deign to jump down, but she does it so languorously that it’s clear she’s just humoring you and your pathetic attempts to reign her in.

I’ve decided that Kate’s bad behavior has nothing to do with shoddy parenting – or cat-enting, if you prefer. Like many politicians of both parties, who spout about border fences and whatnot, I’ve opted to believe that Kate’s problems are because she’s foreign. (For maximum effect, pronounce this as “furrhn.”) You see, we actually brought Kate home with us from the other side of the world. That’s how dumb we are. We rescued her from the jungle in Palau, the Pacific-island nation where we lived for sixteen months before I was pregnant with Andrew, and paid hundreds of dollars to fly her back to the US. But she just isn’t integrating. She keeps her furrhn ways. One glance at her will tell you she’s not American. She’s rat-sized and has these enormous ears that she can rotate to track our whereabouts in the house. Also, since she hearkens from tropical climes, she doesn’t grow a whole lot of fur. Winters in Montana are tough on her.

I’ve digressed for an exceptionally long time. Bear with me. This is going somewhere. I promise.

Andrew adores Kate, and he also shares her penchant for late-night perambulations. Unfortunately, I can’t blame Andrew’s behavior on his origins. There’s no crack-addicted mother in his past that we can claim as the cause of his constant motion. No, Andrew emerged from me and has been in our care thereafter. Whatever qualities he has in common with Kate, he got from us, whether it is colonizing the bed, climbing on counters, or screeching in the middle of the night.

Then there’s the matter of disciplining him, which again is oddly reminiscent of our sad, sad attempts to control Kate. Jay and I have studiously followed the advice of the parenting books. We strive to enforce unwavering limits; we attempt to reward good behavior as much as we punish the bad. When he is engaged in a forbidden activity, we try not to yell right off the bat, but instead say calmly, “Andrew if you don’t stop sticking that fork in the electrical outlet (or pulling the cat’s tail or squealing like an infant pig or sticking a spoon down your throat) by the count of three, you will have to go to time out. 1, 2…”

The problem is that Andrew, well, is a little on the stubborn side. I’m convinced it is out of sheer spite that he claims to like going to the time-out chair. He even brought the chair upstairs into his room one evening. His favorite word is “no,” closely followed by, “I don’t want to.” And if you have the audacity to tell him no, in response to a request to read Bread and Jam for Frances or Monster Trucks for the fiftieth time that day, he will follow you around the house, doing his own operatic performance. His recalcitrance is downright impressive. One time he peed in his pants but didn’t want to stop playing with his clay. “Come on, Andrew,” I said. “Let’s go change your underwear because I know that doesn’t feel good.” Without missing a beat he said, “Mommy, I promise you. It feels good,” and proceeded to sit in his urine for quite some time.

One afternoon I was trying to change his clothes while he was lying in his bed. He kept squirming and kicking me in the face when I bent over him. I went through my usual litany of counting and warning–all in a steady, calm voice. He kept kicking. I could feel my anger rising from my stomach to my throat. “Andrew. Stop that right now,” I screamed, loudly and not calmly. He kicked me again. Something in me snapped and for the first time ever, I hit him–a solid smack right on his butt. I’ve heard that when other parents do this, their child immediately starts sobbing and behaving. Not Andrew. He laughed. When I told a friend this, she said, “Maybe you didn’t hit him hard enough.” Maybe I won’t drop Andrew off for babysitting over at her house anytime soon.

Those of you who know Andrew will immediately leap to his defense – because he actually is an amazingly good and sweet-tempered kid who tries exceptionally hard to please us. I’m just presenting an extreme view of one piece of his temperament. Because that’s the way it feels sometimes. There are mornings like this one when I can only see the bad in my son, my husband, my cat, my life. My house is a mess; the laundry piles have taken control of the bedroom and are threatening to overrun the rest of the house; my thighs are likely to join in this insurgency and expand even more; I have writing projects backing up; my mother’s day cards to our two Moms are still waiting to be mailed; I have a list of people to have over for dinner that is growing with what seems like a mutant force; I’m convinced I will never get well, will never feel rested, will never get off my medication, will never be able to function without a pot of coffee in my veins. I see life with chronic tiredness and a dirty house stretching into infinity. And it depresses me.

It is at moments like these that I must remind myself of Kate the Cat. She is perhaps the most obnoxious feline that has ever walked the earth, but she is also cute and kind. Andrew has nearly yanked her tail out of its socket and she’s never come close to scratching him. The highlight of her life is snuggling in bed with him. True, there is a lot of herding her (or, more precisely, being herded by her), but we make it work. Same goes with Andrew. A little herding every day, and I’m convinced he’ll decide it’s better to sleep in his own bed, to poop in the toilet and not on the floor, and that squealing is not an acceptable form of communication.

As to the messiness that is my life, I’ll just keep nudging its component parts around like stubborn cats as well. I know you can’t herd cats, but you sure can try. I won’t get well today, but I can take a nap. One load of laundry won’t kill me, nor will researching an article. Like Kate, the individual pieces of my existence sometimes leave something to be desired (all that damn prednisone and those doctors’ visits), but also like Kate, I love my oddball days. If only they were a little quieter.

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