Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
On Feline Philosophy
Sometimes I wonder what it’s really like to be a cat. Then I remember that, as I get older, I probably already know. They spend most of their day sleeping and far too much of the night roaming about, breaking into cabinets with the efficiency of a safe-cracker and pouncing on unsuspecting dreamers and eating too much. I can relate.
Not long ago, I woke up late. I mean really late, nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. True, I had had a rough night; I was up till nearly five. I had worked and played until two am, and then I tossed and turned for another two and a half hours or so, trying desperately to get comfortable on my aching muscles and sometimes-creaky bones, to breathe through my nose that constantly clogs every time I lie down, to stop thinking about the things I didn’t get done and all the things I’d need to do the next day.
I knew that I would wake up late, and that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would remain groggy all day, out of sorts, my already screwed-up biological clock thrown even farther out of true. And sure enough, it all happened just like I imagined. Up at 1 pm, eating lunch at 5, eating supper at 11, back to bed at a time when most people have already sunk deeply into their REM sleep, dreaming weird dreams and drooling onto their pillows.
I have, over the past couple of years, trained myself to take one or two short naps during the day, partly because I need to make up for the sleep I didn’t get at night and partly because I just can’t go without sleep like I used to. I started experiencing sleep problems when I was a teenager. I would go to bed around 10 pm, but for whatever reason—a surplus of young-person energy? Budding anxiety disorder? Lewd sexual fantasies?—my mind would race as soon as I turned off the lights. Soon enough, I learned that I could solve this problem to a certain extent if I left my radio on all night; then I would concentrate on the music, the lyrics, the mix of genres and styles, and eventually I would drift off, still not right away but earlier than I would have otherwise.
Of course, then my dreams would often take on an even more surreal quality. Once I dreamed that I was walking through my neighborhood, which had somehow been turned into an Asian market. People thronged everywhere, their eyes on the road or the market wares, their shoulders bumping against me as I made my way through them, looking for someone whose name I could not remember. And through it all, David Bowie’s “China Girl” blasted from unseen speakers. The sacred cow he mentions kept wandering through people’s yards and taking enormous shits on driveways. I woke up in the middle of the dream and heard the same song on the radio.
So my sleep schedule has always been weird. And that weirdness has become more and more of a problem as I’ve gotten older. Once, I could stay up for days and still perform at high levels. Now I can go for about four hours before I at least wish I could take a short nap.
I first discovered that age plays havoc with your ability to cope with sleep deprivation not long after my daughter Maya was born. I was still married to her mother then. My then-wife was breastfeeding Maya, which had never presented a problem; but we never considered what might happen if that food supply was suddenly eliminated.
My ex had decided to have her tubes tied after her second pregnancy, which was fine with me. We weren’t getting along at all by then, and I already had three children, so I was pretty tired. The procedure was supposed to take place in the morning, and, we were told, she would get to come home that afternoon. So before we took her to the hospital, she didn’t stockpile any milk for Maya. I saw the unused breast pump lying on a shelf in our closet and shivered, as if I had glimpsed through a crack in the universe a very specific kind of hell. Then I forgot about it and took her to the O.R.
During the allegedly routine procedure, the surgeon found a cyst on one of her ovaries, and it alarmed him enough that he went ahead and removed it. When a physician risks a lawsuit by performing a procedure without familial authorization, you know he must have been concerned. This extra procedure obviously increased the surgery time, but it also necessitated a longer hospital stay, as did the doctors’ feelings that further tests would be necessary. To avoid infection, they gave her more, and different, antibiotics, plus more pain meds than they had originally planned, all of which would have been secreted through her breast milk.
And so a few hours’ stay turned into a multiple-day ordeal. The hospital kept her for further tests and observations. Meanwhile, I was stuck at home with a hungry baby and no breast milk. I had no choice but to give Maya formula, but she hated it. When some of that stuff dribbled into her mouth, you’d have thought that I had given her a lemon rind and alum sandwich. She screwed up her face and screamed at me, as if to say, “You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?” She also responded badly to the artificial nipples and the different feeding position she had to assume. She would barely eat, and because she was so hungry, she cried. Loudly. Interminably. I cannot imagine that victims of the Spanish Inquisition cried louder than she did. I think they heard her on the space shuttle.
I tried everything. I even tried leaning down next to her ear and making a heartbeat sound, which fooled her for about two minutes. But she simply would not take the formula from a bottle. I tried giving it to her with an eye-dropper; she spit it back out. I tried powdered formula and canned formula and every other kind I could find; she would have none of it. And because she was crying constantly, she barely slept, which meant that I didn’t sleep either.
Eventually I reached my wits’ end. I asked Kalene—my third and final wife who was, at the time, a very good friend of ours—to come over and watch Maya so I could get a couple of hours’ sleep; she obliged, but that two hours did me little good. The world began to take on that too-bright quality, where the light looks weird and voices sound muffled and life takes on the characteristics of a Dali painting. You start saying things in a deep, slow voice just to see how weird you sound: “HEEEEEEEEElllllllOOOOOOOoooo, nurse!” Yet when I went back to the hospital, they wanted to keep my ex even longer.
“Doc,” I said, “please understand that I want you to do everything you need to do. Make sure she’s safe and healthy. But if what you’re planning is in any way extraneous, let me tell you this. I’ve been up for days. I’m on the verge of having a psychotic episode. My daughter needs breast milk, and she can’t get any if you keep pumping drugs into my wife. What I’m saying is that if these tests aren’t really necessary, then I urge you, for the sake of three people, don’t run them.”
They ran the tests but did not give her any extra drugs, noting that they were being as cautious as possible but that she would almost certainly be fine without the extra antibiotics. We went home, and she was fine, and my daughter ate, and I slept for about six months.
I can no longer stay up for days at a time, for necessity or fun. I can still go a day or two on little sleep if I have to, but it isn’t easy or pleasant anymore. Yet my sleep schedule remains as screwed up as it has ever been, and short of getting one of those machines that re-align your Circadian rhythms, which my doctor has actually recommended, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t just go to bed earlier; I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable or stop thinking about things. I can go to bed at 9 pm and still won’t fall asleep until at least 2 am, regardless of circumstances. So I might as well just stay up.
Having lived with cats for the past ten years, I’ve noticed how much I have in common with them. The way they live their lives mirrors, in many ways, how I live mine.
What are cats interested in? What do they do? Well, they eat, and sleep, and excrete bodily wastes. They occasionally snuggle up to you in search of affection, and when they’ve had enough, they leave, regardless of your feelings. If you leave human food where they can reach it, they will often sneak snacks that they shouldn’t have, so you have to remain vigilant around them. And when they feel like it, they want to play, no matter what you’d rather be doing. Some, like our cat Cookie, will even punish you if you don’t comply.
I think about more than these things, of course. I don’t reduce my existence to basic functions like eating, drinking, and pooping, and if you don’t agree to have fun with me exactly when I want, I probably won’t attack the printer or paw at the flat-screen TV or knock something off a shelf. But in many ways, I have, as I’ve aged, come to resemble our cats, in philosophy if not appearance.
For instance, I tend to nap at odd hours. I can usually sleep anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours pretty much whenever the sun is out. I can lie down on the couch, my head resting on Kalene’s lap, and fall asleep fairly quickly. I can stretch out on our bed and crash as long as sunlight peeks in through the blinds. I can’t curl up in an office chair like a cat, nor can I use my own arms and legs for pillows. But naps have become an important part of my daily existence. They leave me feeling refreshed most of the time and give me the energy I need to make it through the rest of the day.
I know what you’re thinking. “If you’d just stop taking naps, you could get to sleep at night earlier.” But that doesn’t work. Naps are a comparatively recent part of my routine, but I’ve always had trouble sleeping at night, even when I’m exhausted.
Another way my older self mirrors our cats is that I eat too much and don’t work it off as easily as I used to. When I was younger, I had the willpower to avoid unnecessary snacking. I would eat something until I no longer felt hungry, and then I would stop. Yet, ironically, my metabolism fired so quickly that I didn’t really need any willpower. I could shovel in heaps of whatever I wanted to eat and remain thin and wiry.
Now, my willpower has faded. If somebody hands me a cheesecake, I want to eat as much as I possibly can. If I force myself to stop at one piece, I soon find myself standing at the open refrigerator, looking longingly at the fruit and yogurt and ice cream and snack veggies piled in there. Sure, most of that stuff is healthy, but all of it contains calories. Moreover, I have become increasingly attracted to the kinds of snacks I have always been able to take or leave—Little Debbie snack cakes with enough fat and caloric content to serve as half my day’s allowance, sodium-heavy trifles like potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches as snacks instead of lunches. And as my willpower has faded, my weight has steadily climbed north. When I was in high school, I weighed perhaps 130 pounds. When I was thirty, it was more like 160. Now, at forty, I am nearly 200 pounds. Sure, I eat a little more than I used to and have a harder time turning down sweets, but the main reason for the weight gain is that my metabolism has simply slowed down. I noticed in my early 30s that my stomach was starting to protrude more than it used to; now I sometimes think I look like I’m six months pregnant. True, I don’t have a lot of body fat; I can pinch perhaps an inch on my waist. But my body has changed in ways that I don’t like and that I can seemingly do nothing about.
Our cats have gone through a similar change. When Judas—our beloved companion of nearly two decades, who died a year and a half ago—was still alive, she pigged out quite often. As a result, her belly hung down until it dangled perhaps an inch and a half off the floor, and when she ran, it flopped from side to side, striking her in the middle of her ribs like a scourge. Similarly, Cookie has gained weight since she realized that she’s a cat, not a dog or a human. In her former household, she lived with a lively little dog and an energetic little girl. She was always on the go. Here, our youngest visitor is Maya, who’s going on twelve years old now, and we have no other pets. We play with Cookie as much as possible and run her half to death with her favorite feather toy, Da Bird ™, but she now chills out more than she used to. She takes more naps, stops at her food bowl more often, and generally acts like a cat with nothing particularly important on her mind. And as a result, she’s a fraction heavier than she used to be. I get the feeling that when her own metabolism slows down in her old age, she’ll be quite the little butterball. Sometimes I feel the same way—not that being a bit overweight is so bad, but that a change that I didn’t authorize has occurred and that I’m helpless to change it.
What other ways has my daily life come to resemble my cats’? Well, I’m grumpier than I used to be. I’ve never been one of those people who constantly need to be surrounded by others. But I find that, more and more, I’d just as soon stay home as go to that party, that football game, that concert. Someone asked me not too long ago why I don’t take advantage of my university connections (whatever they might be) and attend more college football games. I said, “Why would I want to go out in the weather and battle close to a hundred thousand drunks for the pleasure of seeing the part of game that happens close to my seats, when I could just stay home and eat my own food, use my own bathroom, and see the whole thing on TV?” And often, when I go out to eat or to a movie, I have to sit on my hands to keep from punching somebody in the face. When did people get so damn annoying?
Cats tend to hang out with people only when they want to, regardless of what the people themselves want. Cats rub on your legs or jump in your lap and demand affection, and when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they tend to wander off by themselves. We used to find Judas sleeping behind curtains, in the closets, in our office chairs. Cookie likes the office chairs too, but also digs the tops of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets or sunny windowsills.
Cookie will stop doing pretty much anything if she suddenly realizes that she needs a bath. I’ve seen her dash madly after a toy, freeze in her tracks, and stick one hind leg straight up in the air so that she can clean her asshole. Apparently some itches just have to be scratched. As for me, I’ve gotten less tolerant of being sweaty. I’ve got to shower every day, even if I don’t go anywhere or do anything in particular. On the other hand, Judas’s hair got duller as she got older and lost interest in grooming herself. Mine now feels oily and greasy if I don’t wash it every twelve hours or so.
When you have more in common with your cats than you do with most people, you might be in trouble. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more insular, impatient, and easily annoyed. I’ve seen my hair start to turn gray and my belly swell out like I was malnourished. I get sore every time I work out or play some sport for more than five minutes. I rail at life’s little injustices—what kind of world is it when you can have both gray hair and pimples? Shouldn’t having the one preclude the other??—with less motivation and more passion. I spend a lot of time by myself or with only Kalene and my kids; I’d just as soon wait for a movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray instead of listen to somebody’s brat caterwaul over the opening credits or watch that idiot two rows down answer the cell phone he was supposed to have turned off twenty minutes ago. Where once I lost myself in the Dionysian pleasures of rock concerts, I now spend half the time wishing that guy would stop stepping on my foot or that that stupid woman would get off her boyfriend’s shoulders so the rest of us could frickin’ see.
In short, I would, nine times out of ten, find more pleasure in curling up in the warm sunlight for an afternoon nap than in losing myself in a human biomass accompanied by loud music or pretty pictures on a screen.
At least I don’t take my dumps in a box or lick myself, right? But then, I’m only forty. I wonder what eighty will bring.
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