Cats and Dogs

My old neighbor — we’ll call her Tonya — verbally abused her pets. It was like living next door to a David Lynch biopic of Joan Crawford.

One summer, I was digging a fire pit in my back yard. It was the middle of a nice, warm day, probably in June. Suddenly, over the fence that encloses my back yard, I heard a woman’s voice talking reasonably to what sounded, inferring from what she was saying, like a small child: “Autumn, remember what we talked about? You promised to play on this side of the yard, away from Callie’s sandbox. If you don’t do what you promised, we’ll have to go inside.” Huh. I must have neighbor kids. Cool. I kept digging my fire pit. Three feet in diameter? Four? I tabulated the number of edging stones I would need. The voice from over the fence started up again. “Autumn! You stay away from Callie’s sandbox, like we talked about!” I had hardly dumped my shovelful of dirt before she started up again, this time plaintively, “Autumn! You are ruining this for both of us! I said NO!” And not even five seconds later, crazy time. Full scream. “AUTUMN! Come back here right now! I told you to stay away from that fence! I TOLD YOU TO STAY!! AWAY!! FROM!!! THE!!! F#*KING!!! FENCE!!!” She was almost roaring now, she was screaming so hard.


I called 911. The dispatcher asked for my address and said, “ohhhhhh. That’s Tonya. Those aren’t kids. She’s got some kind of pets over there. We see a lot of her.” I was relieved. Although I don’t think it’s right to derogate your animals, I was hopeful they understood more about their owner’s relative emotional state than, well, English.

I should cop to something right away: I am not a huge animal person. I don’t understand them. I think they are interesting and other, which is nice, but not critical to my experience as me on the planet. I’m happy to see them but not anxious to. That said, if you leave an animal in my care, I will eventually come to love the creature. But I will never spontaneously take pictures of it, or celebrate its birthday. I’m sorry about this, but it’s the truth about me.

I inherited a cat (who my neighbor rescued but was too allergic to care for) about 15 years ago. We named her Bella. Bad things had happened to her — she had half as many teeth as she should have had, all broken in half on one side of her mouth. The vet thought it was an abuse injury, since a car couldn’t have done damage so precise, but a boot could’ve.

Perhaps because of that injury, Bella got what I affectionately referred to as “the tax return infection,” or “TRI,” every single year around tax time, forcing me to spend all that hard-earned money I had loaned to my government on boring things like life-saving feline antibiotics, for which she thanked me by removing most of the skin on my forearms when I administered them. (I went through one pair of oven mitts a year, for exactly that reason.) Every year I owned her, the vet said, “I don’t know if she’s going to make it,” when she’d get the TRI. She’d stop eating, lose so much weight that we called her the Karen Carpenter kitty, and lay around, looking like the kitty embodiment of Morrisey lyrics. And every year she’d rally, responding to the antibiotics as though they were dehydrated capsules from the river of life, flipping the Grim Reaper the bird while sock-hunting and packing on the old lb’s, until she blew past Karen Carpenter and most resembled Marlon Brando. She would get so fat she would lean back on the couch and, with her little stick arms out to either side, lick her upper belly area. She got so fat she bounced off the radiator, trying to leap up and enjoy the afternoon sun.

But one year, she didn’t respond to the antibiotics. She got thinner and slower, and finally just lay in the corner, crooning and mewing. We did everything we could to save her — most of it crap our parents, friends, or other animal enthusiasts recommended. We gave her ice cream. We gave her lard. We gave her olive oil in a dropper, and in a last fit of desperation, we even put olive oil in her kitty butt. Finally, we realized our efforts were bordering on things they did at Guantanemo Bay. So we called and scheduled an appointment with the vet to end her life.

That turned out to be a really, really big deal. I had no idea.

When we got to the vet, we had a long conversation about what we would or wouldn’t be willing to do to save or extend her life. The conversation, while sympathetic and compassionate, was pretty brass tacks. Would we want to run $3,000 worth of biopsies and diagnostics, knowing there was a 50/50 chance she wouldn’t live through the tests? No? Would we want to do $500 worth of blood work, knowing the results would probably indicate the $3,000 worth of biopsies and tests were necessary? Before I had this cat, I scoffed at people discussing vast, expensive medical procedures they had done on their pets. Spleen transplants? Hip replacement? Really? If you had told me then that you were going to spend $3,000 trying to figure out what was wrong with your cat, I would have been replaying Jackie Kashian’s opinion of designer pets, “You know what you can get for three thousand dollars? Three thousand cats.” But now, standing in the vet’s office over Bella’s shivering body, I was mentally calculating how much space was on each of my credit cards.

I didn’t know I would feel like that. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do — what Bella would want me to do, if she was capable of “wanting” anything in the way I thought of it. What was the value of her pain? What did her life, her death mean to her? Was I taking something away from her by ending her life before she did? I needed to know these things to make the right decision, and there was no one to ask but Bella. And she couldn’t tell me. It was kind of like every other critical decision I’ve ever made in my life — decisions in which no matter what I choose I’ll always wonder, always revisit the whole situation and make the decision over and over again, because it never feels right, never settles itself. And, in those situations, every phone call I make to get advice, counsel, or reassurance just rings and rings. Nobody ever picks up. I kept looking into Bella’s eyes, and the phone just kept ringing.

We went ’round and ’round with the vet, asking a hundred different versions of, “will that save her?” and getting a hundred different versions of “probably not for long” until we all kind of arrived at the answer we knew in the first place. We knew she was going to die — now, or very soon.

And in the absence of any new information, we would do what we could to make that suck as little as possible. “We have to let her go.” My sister said.

She was so skinny by then that her body felt like one of those rabbit’s foot keychains, all whispery-furred and hollow. We held her paws, touched her face as the medicine began to work. Her body relaxed, her chest stopped rising and she was gone. It was almost immediate.

All those things — her love of my socks, her wild-eyed destruction of our couch, her fat belly rebounding off the radiator like a bad layup, the years of purring and warm fur against my feet — gone. That’s what we get to know about death — that it removes all of those connections, all of those threads tying that being to the world, and pulls them through the eye of a needle, the other side of which is beyond our vision. It seems impossible for so many threads to just vanish, but they do.

We stood there with her body, crying and petting her, and then her body became her “body” — not her at all. It wasn’t hard to leave her there, because she was already gone.

So, I loved that cat.

I told you this story, because I don’t want you to think I’m a monster when I tell you the rest of the story. Or at least, I don’t want you to think I’m that kind of monster.

The vet called me two weeks later to come pick up her boxed ashes, assumedly to bury them in some shady corner of my yard, with pomp, circumstance, an acoustic version of “In My Life” by the Beatles, and somber prayers to Rascal, the kitty version of Jesus. (Duh, God would send his only cat to die in place of billions of cats so they could live forever.)

But, I didn’t do any of that stuff.

Instead, I put the box in my trunk. It made the most sense. The box was clearly marked, “BELLA O. REMAINS.” What was I supposed to do, buckle it into the front seat? I just kept having visions of getting into an accident on the way home and the box exploding all over the inside of my car, like Mt. St. Helens. There I’d be, with ash outlines of my sunglasses, coughing and sneezing Bella dust while I exchanged insurance information. (“No, my car’s not on fire. These are just my cat’s ashes. No! She was already dead.) The trunk was a better idea. It was February at the time, and the ground was frozen solid. So, when I got home, I left it in the car. Not her, the box of ashes. And then I forgot all about them.

I will be the first person to admit that this is horrible.

I didn’t mean to do it, but I just kept forgetting they were in there until I needed to put something in the trunk. Which was usually groceries. I would open the trunk, see the telltale black box, and say, “Sh*t! Bella’s ashes! I have to remember to bring those inside!” And then I’d angle the Totino’s Party Pizzas between the box and the jumper cables. I’m not proud of myself. And anyway, it was winter and the ground was frozen, so I couldn’t bury her even if I did remember the box, although I didn’t, so it doesn’t really matter. And then we cleaned out our basement, and I began driving around with every soccer item my son had used from 1998 to today in my trunk, piled on top of the box. So, I put my groceries in the back seat of my car, and Bella’s ashes became a distant memory.

As a result, I drove that cat’s ashes around for three years.

One day, my son and I dropped the trunk stuff off at Goodwill, and he spotted the box. “What is this, mom? Does it go in the bin?” I want to point out at this point in the story that I could have said, “yep,” and been done with it, no shame, no ‘splaining, but I am better than that. Not bury-my-beloved-cat-in-a-timely-fashion better than that, but don’t-donate-my-beloved-cat’s-ashes-to-Goodwill-to-avoid-telling-my-son-they’ve-remained-in-my-trunk-for-three-years better than that.

“Those are Bella’s ashes.” I said.

“MOM!!!!!” My son said, in a combination of horror and disgust. “Are you kidding?” I was not kidding.

“It was winter, and the ground was frozen!” I pleaded.

“For THREE years?” he asked, incredulously.

“For part of the three years …” I said, finally.

He held the box of ashes on his lap on the way home from Goodwill.

“Aren’t you worried if we crash, the box will explode all over you?” I asked.

“The ashes are in a plastic BAG, Mom!” he said.

“Really?” I asked

“YEAH,” he said.

“Ah. I see. We should bury them,” I said.

“You think?”

My son went out and buried her ashes in the corner of the vegetable garden, which I said nothing about (even though now I feel like the zucchini is going to taste like cat ashes or make us all get mad cat disease or something) because I had lost all ground to offer direction when I took the cat’s ashes on a three-year road trip. Sigh. In a way, Bella got the longest funeral procession of any cat, ever, including those Egyptian asshole cats, who were buried with live humans to protect them from evil and bring them whatever the Egyptian version of catnip and Meow Mix were.

I want you to know that I had and continue to have the very best intentions. And, although it may come as not inconsiderable reassurance and no surprise to you, no pets.

The Large Hadron Collider, or, I Have Never Met Father John Misty, Irrespective of What This Essay Might Imply

I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad got sick, then my husband got sick, and I became a lot more curious about the nature of being than I was before. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Large Hadron Collider. In case you are not also wedged firmly between a rock and a firm location, devouring particle physics literature like a Kardashian hoarding Us Weekly, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It’s the largest single machine in existence, built in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from around the world.

Maybe I have felt, over the past two years or so, a little sympathetic to the lead electron at the nose of that high-speed electron beam, roaring around an accelerator ring at nearly light speed, every lap incrementally nudging closer to a head-on collision with an opposing electron beam, traveling at equal speed. But, less dramatically, I’ve been thinking more about what scientists have found.

The intent of the Large Hadron Collider is to investigate the structure of the atomic nucleus. (I copied that from the LHC website). But it’s been doing more than that. Like any scientific investigation of the unknown, it has the potential to change everything by altering our perception of the nature of stuff. If, for example, the LHC reveals that energy becomes matter in describable and predictable circumstances, or becomes matter by describable and predictable mechanisms, it would radically change how we see the universe. It’s literally an infinitesimally tiny change, but it would be a boundless change, philosophically.

We already believe/theorize that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, which basically means that everything in the universe was always here, in some iteration of either matter or energy. Everything that you are always was, and always will be, in one form or (maybe and/or) another. You are, and always have been, infinite. You probably knew this already, deep down. It’s the kind of thing you can feel, even if it takes you half your life to put it into words, or the words you finally find are from the Large Hadron Collider website.

Everything I am has been recycled (making Solomon’s “nothing new” comment a little more empirical than prophetic). Everything you are was something else before it was you, and will eventually be something else after. Nothing new comes from anywhere. It was all here, just shuffled around. We’re all eternal. There is no past, no future. It is and has always been now, according to our composition of stuff.

There is a line in Michael Ende’s book, Momo, when Guisseppe asks Momo how old she is and she replies, “As far as I know, I’ve always been around.” Us, too.

Since the dawn of science, pretty much, humans have been searching for one unifying theory of everything — one set of rules to describe how the universe works. Pure science often distances itself from “WHY?” The more ruminative or philosophical science community tarries on “WHY?” but returns first to “HOW?” as the first answerable question, since “WHY?” is a dependent variable. So far, most every new determination in science has been used to take the magic out of “WHY?” to make it explicable, intelligible, and rational. Crashing these electrons around and finding, in the resulting measurable detritus, the field in which energy becomes matter, is the scientific equivalent of finding the body of Christ, withered and carbon-based, behind a very solid rock. It means to many there is no unifying force of creation. No sentient or, more importantly, benevolent force orchestrating the matter and energy of the universe. No God, loving us individually.

This is confusing to me, in the same way evolution somehow disproving any creation stories confuses me. In fact, I can’t believe one without the other. I feel closer to understanding the organizing force of the universe when destruction and transformation are part of the magic, too.

As Lex Luthor said in the latest Superman installation, “If God is all good, He can’t be all powerful.” And that’s bumper-sticker simple, right? But it’s also gorgeous. Choose your nomenclature — God, Allah, Gaia(aiaiaiaia), the Universe — in the way that resonates with you, because that’s important. But the rest of the sentence is fine. The cancer is part of the magic. The dying is part of the magic. It’s not the end, or the tailings pile, or the dregs. It’s as much a part of the system as the fucking, the cheeseburgers, the birthing, the poetry, the fall of the Berlin wall; it’s as real and intrinsic to being as your beating heart. It’s not the shadow to the light — not the opposite of life or the other side of the coin. Scientifically, there is no opposite of entropy.

Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. It’s a scientific measure, not a philosophic discussion. But if it’s a tumor growing in some dark, secret part of your perfect, faithful, kind-hearted, altruistic body, entropy becomes philosophical. It leads a person to consider the infinite life of his or her stuff — the matter and energy that make her or him.

If entropy is an essential, inevitable part of being, and being is meaningful, then entropy must be meaningful, too. Moreover, because I’m intrinsically related to the Universe, I’m comparably connected to you, to your husband’s cancer, to Rwanda, and to Philando Castile. The space between us is expansive at the same time our connection is connate — definitive, part of the fundamental laws of the universe. And, for some reason I still don’t understand, I have the ability to willfully operate my own little world-builder. I have the ability to decide.

Our thoughts are made of the same stuff of the universe — of space and hotdogs and nebulae. We are organizing and sending our own patterns of stuff around the universe all the time. We are touching everything, in our regard of it, all the time. And everything, every new pattern of thought that corresponds with our own experience, our own soul or mind, was something else before, and will be something after. This makes me wonder how much of what happens to us is primarily ours alone, not yours, but mine, particularly? How much do we share? What of me is you, too, right now? What is the subatomic delineation of “we?”

When I think about the electrons in my body, responsible for the communication of thoughts to action, and how enormous they are, compared to the much smaller particles responsible for the creation of matter, I feel suddenly aware of how powerful that ability to decide is. I can make meaning. I can love, forgive, create. If I want to change the universe, all I have to do is change my mind. The force of my intention is a literal force. This is tremendously comforting to me.

We have such power over each other, and such importance to each other. It breaks my heart with precisely the same crushing strength that it uses to open me wide, like a nascent star.

Because it was always and still is now, according to our matter — but the conformation of now we’re creating and experiencing doesn’t need to include this hate machine or that constellation of shared sorrow, which are using the building materials that might otherwise be devoted to moons or oceans or miracles.

One electron, at the head of a roaring stream, circling faster and faster, edging closer and closer to collision. One tiny particle, breaking apart the fabric of the universe, revealing a billion smaller universes within it. No control, but so much power. The world happens to us, but we happen to the universe. And in the end, we share everything.