We didn’t have kids so we were really, really emotionally invested in our pets. We loved them, they put up with us, it was the perfect relationship you could have with a cat.
Living in Los Angeles, we had to keep them indoors, and this was a challenge. Just outside was this magical, mystical land of smells and sounds and the cats WANTED OUT. Lizzy made a couple half-hearted attempts but eventually settled for the inside life. She’d sit in the window sometimes, but she seemed to accept her lot in life. Forest, however… Forest was not a quitter.
Being a big, dynamic cat, he had a lot of energy and muscle and inertia. Being a little crazy, he also eventually worked out A System.
I remember one day watching him tear around the apartment in circles, faster and faster like some kind of superconducting kitty supercollider. “What the hell are you doi-” I began when he straightened out his path and beelined for the standard-issue armored metal screen door so many LA apartments have.
BAM! He slammed into the door at just the right angle and… it opened.
He’d figured out a way to pop it open by hitting a lower corner and, faster than you can swear, he was gone. A couple hours later, he swaggered back, covered in dirt and so happy with himself. He’d braved the outdoors and was ready to eat. We pulled him in, brushed him off, and thought that was that.
That was not, of course, that.
Once in a while, we’d hear a big BAM! and sure enough, he’d have let himself out. Without AC, the door was our primary ventillation so we pretty much HAD to use the screen like this, but it was unnerving. He kept coming back, though, so it eventually just became a part of life.
Until the day he got him by a car.
We were devestated. Absolutely shattered. Our emotions were so tied up in our pets, we were destroyed by this and we cried. We turned inwards, held each other, and grieved and it was so rough.
After a couple days, it still hurt almost as much and I was surprised when my sister called me one morning.
“Hey, you guys doing ok?” she asked. She sounded sad and I was really moved. We’d tried to play it cool about the cat, but family knows these things.
“We’re hanging in there”, I told her, but she could hear in the roughness of my voice that I wasn’t really that ok. It had been three days since he died, and I still couldn’t quite believe it.
“This is really tough”, she assured me. I agreed, and for the next couple minutes we had a nice conversation where she was asking after our moods and how we were ‘handling things’. I agreed it was hard, she talked about how little experience we had with situations like this, I was impressed at how much sympathy she had for us and our departed cat.
But the wheel of time turns, conversation progresses and passes and eventually… things start to break down.
After a few minutes of about 99% heart-felt platitudes and recognition of shared grief (I was moved at how strongly she felt about Forest dying, she’d maybe met the cat once), I could tell something was wrong. A conversation is… kinda like a machine. There are gears and springs. The movement in one area causes action in another, and a good conversation will have people bouncing these forces of ideas and thoughts back and forth smoothly so that at the end, both feel fulfilled and something productive has happened. The machine turns smoothly.
Today, there was sand in the gears. Also, some of the gears… were the wrong size.
The conversation machine was starting to tear itself apart from the inside out, and both of us were obviously confused. The responses we were giving each other weren’t landing quite right and both of us were getting a little upset because we didn’t understand why this was happening. Finally, one response was just a little too wrong, and my sister was the one to exclaim:
“Ben, what are you talking about?”
This is a question that’s about as welcome in the middle of a an emotional talk like this as a sheriff showing up in the middle of a wedding ceremony with a stack of warrants. It’s proof that something has gone horribly wrong, that somewhere along the way something terrible has happened and two people are very much not on the same page.
“I’m talking about our cat Forest… what are YOU talking about?” I’m absolutely gobsmacked, we’ve been on the phone for almost 5 minutes. What’s going on?
There’s a moment of shocked silence on the other end of the phone, then I hear: “Oh Jesus Christ, Ben, turn on the TV.”
Super puzzled, I hunt for the remote. As I’m picking it up, I ask “what channel?”. This time, she responds immediately.
“ALL OF THEM”.
It turns out, she was not calling about our dead cat. This was, of course, 15 years ago today.
Our grief took a very unexpected turn that morning. I can’t add anything that a million better writers haven’t already captured about the events then or the years of worldwide change that followed, so I won’t try. From a personal perspective I will say… that in the following months, we had our first child, then shortly after, our second son was born. As happens, our own priorities changed and while we still really like our pets, our kids are obviously the vessels into which we put the hopes and optimism for the future that felt so distant that September morning. We still like our cats (A LOT, don’t get me wrong), but when one dies or disappears, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a brief interruption and then… things goes on. The people and animals pass in and out of our lives and we continue and I couldn’t tell you even what YEAR some of our beloved pets have died now or how old our cats are or any of the other little things that used to seem so personally important.
In one of those strange ways our brains work and associate global things to the personal, when it comes to remembering that our cat Forest died on September 8th, 2001, I’ll never forget.
Kanye West tweeted: “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle”. Deep down inside, I guess I’m like Kanye West, except with a phone book instead of a water bottle. Also, maybe not as talented or publicly ‘wacky’. Anyways, I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t ask the world to be responsible for an outdated reference book that I’ll never use because it’s the year 2016 and I have the Internet. Deciding fast, I grab it and jump into my car. I know these books are distributed by someone driving through the neighborhood and throwing them. Like the Cylons, I have a plan.
I will give it back.
I will choose NOT to be saddled with this… burden. Driving, it’s easy to tell which houses have been hit by the phantom thrower. I glide quietly, my hybrid in “panther mode”, scanning back-and-forth. I’m trying to find a pattern. Am I heading towards them or just retracing the path that led them to my house? An old phonebook looks like a fresh one, there’s no way to tell.
I give up and decide to brute force the neighborhood.
I drive up and down every road, my head on a swivel. Every time I go through intersection, I do that thing we all do at supermarket when we’re looking for the person we came to the store with. A few times, I see something promising and look. Each time, it’s a false alarm and if there’s anyone in the car I’m checking out, they stare at me as I creep slowly past. What’s this LOOK like to them? Well, that’s a question that doesn’t occur to me until afterwards so I continue my mission, leaving a trail of freaked out helicopter parents and neighborhood watch enthusiasts in my wake.
About 15 minutes in, I finally realize this isn’t going to work. Either these people are way faster than I imagined, or we were the last house in the neighborhood. Maybe they’re halfway to Reno to blow their phonebook blood money on doing a gamblings or whatever it is physical spammers do with profits, I don’t know.
I give up. I tuck the phonebook in front of my seat and head back to the office.
A day or two later, my wife notices it on the floor of my car and asks what it’s doing there. I tell her, and she’s immediately practical. “Throw it away or put it in the recycling”, she tells me. “If your plan was to give it back and they’re gone, just get rid of it”.
This doesn’t sit well with me because I feel like then that means the world gets another victory over human decency. The kind of people who throw phonebooks at houses get a pass, and the rest of us need to deal with their anti-social behavior. It doesn’t seem quite right, like I’d would be giving up.
“Well, I was thinking”- I lie, having been doing no such thing, everything I’m about to tell her is occurring to me as I speak so nobody is more surprised than me when that sentence continues: “that maybe I’ll just wait until I see someone who’s parked terribly and maybe put the phonebook under their windshield wiper as some kind of silly, petty protest.”
Hearing it out loud, that actually doesn’t sound half bad. Out of the thousands of ways people have objected to antisocial parking over the centuries, this is a pretty inoffensive one. Yeah, I think maybe I could actually do this. It’ll be great!
Then I remember I’ve just been talking to someone, the level-headed practical bedrock in my life who keeps me together. I can sit here patting myself on the back all I want, but the woman whose opinion is important to me and whose judgment I trust would probably have some input on this grand scheme. I brace myself, this idea may not survive the cold light of logic and sense. These thoughts happen in a flash, she responds instantly.
“Then go get some more of those phonebooks from our neighbors”, she suggests reasonably, “there’s lots of bad parkers. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right”.
Damnit, I love this woman so much.
After telling him about counterfeiting and the various problems, I added that it wouldn’t even work because most people would look at it and know instantly it was counterfeit.
“But I don’t have to fool all the people,” he responded, “I just have to fool one person”.
That left me thinking for a while.