Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Kitten of Kansas, cat of NC

My first teaching gig after grad school was as an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Kansas. Lawrence was a blue-tinged college town situated on the eastern end of Bob Dole country. I arrived two years after Bob Dole lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton (Dole won most of Kansas, but Clinton won Douglas County).

One of the first things I did in Lawrence was adopt a cat. I had grown up with female cats--Cuddles, Grimalkin, and Charcoal--and I fully intended to adopt a female cat and to name her Fafner.

I took it as a sign that the humane society had a cat named Madison--the same name as the town of my doctoral alma mater. But there, next to her, was a big schmusig orange tabby named Larry--the chummy name of the town of my current professorial gig. Larry was so very schmoozy that he ended up coming home with me and becoming Larry Fafner. He made it his habit to sleep at night curled around my head, purring. He was a lovely cat.

Larry Fafner came with free tape worms that required, in quick succession, a bad vet, a change of vets, a good vet, and several hundred dollars to resolve. Two short months later, when I decided to adopt a second cat to keep Larry Fafner company, the good vet gave me some financial advice: look more thoroughly for signs of health in the adoptee, and bring him/her straight from the pound to the vet before bringing him/her home to Larry.

So, three days in a row, in mid-November 1998, I visited the Lawrence humane society. On Wednesday and Thursday, I played with multiple adorable kittens, leaning toward a sweet little tabby I thought I would call my own--until, on Friday, I decided he was perhaps more wild than Larry would tolerate, and I settled on a jet black kitten named Luke instead.

"We usually require cats to be here for eight days before adopting them out," the pound administrator told me cheerfully, "and Luke has only been here for seven; but that's OK, we'll let you take him." Thus it was that Luke and I headed to the vet that very afternoon. The vet said the cat needed a flea dip, so I left him there and went home to think about a new name while they de-pested him.

When I returned late that afternoon to pick up Not-Going-to-Be-Named-Luke Kitten, he looked content and clean in his carrier. The staff at the clinic had fallen in love with him and, oohing and ahhing about his adorableness, confirmed I had made an excellent choice.

On the way out to the car, sweet wee Kitten started foaming at the mouth. I did an about face and returned to the clinic.

"How odd," said the vet. "He must be allergic to the tinsel toy we gave him. Let's just take that away..." He removed the silvery tinsel ball from the carrier and sent us on our way.

Later that evening, Kitten was still hyper-salivating, and he refused to eat or drink. I phoned the vet, who agreed to meet me at the now closed clinic to re-evaluate the cat. He decided that perhaps Kitten was younger than originally thought and was having a reaction to the flea medication. Together, we gave Kitten a warm bath using Dawn dish detergent--apparently the mildest vet-recommended soap available for washing cats. As we finished, Kitten leaped out of the sink and hung from my sweater, warm and soaking wet.

Thus Kitten learned how to stare water in the face and never blink.

That night, to keep an eye on him while keeping him away from Larry Fafner, I nestled Kitten into a cushioned shoe box and pulled him under the covers with me.

Thus Kitten learned that sleeping under the covers is the bees knees.

On Saturday, Kitten continued hyper-salivating and still refused to eat. Back to the vet we went. The vet taught me how to force feed the cat using a syringe and extra moist prescription canned food. It worked alright at the clinic, but at home, it was another matter. At feeding time, I sat on the edge of the bathtub with the shower curtain drawn, held Kitten in my lap, pried his mouth open, and forced the food in--whereupon he shook his head to keep the food from going down, spraying food all over me and the shower. For a very sick kitten, he achieved remarkably thorough coverage.

I know all of this happened in mid-November, because it followed closely on the heels of another November event. On November 3, I had worked late and then gotten drawn into watching state election returns online. My office was across the hall from some practice rooms, and one of my students dropped in to chat after he finished practicing. When he saw that I was watching election returns, the conversation turned to politics. A little voice in my head said "don't talk to students about this." Another little voice responded "it's OK, your students are adults. They're in college. You can have respectful conversations."

I adopted Kitten about a week after that--the same week that I returned essays to my undergrad theory class. The student with whom I had the conversation on election night got a B-. The B was for the paper itself, and was generous because I was new at being a hardass; the minus was for the peer-review he was supposed to have provided for a classmate, in writing, but didn't. The week I adopted Kitten, the student angrily informed me that he was going to sue me because I had graded him down for being a Republican.

My department chair was extremely supportive. He advised me to listen to voice #1 next time, but stood by me during the craziness with Righteous Student. It was a rough way to end the semester.

Enter Kitten, to cheer me up and keep Larry Fafner company. But Kitten was still quite ill on Sunday. By then, my choices seemed to be either to return him to the pound--where surely they'd euthanize him--or to hospitalize him. I linked Kitten's survival to my own, not knowing whether Righteous Student would succeed in destroying my fledgling career. So back to the vet Kitten went, to be force-fed and re-hydrated by the experts.

Kitten survived, and so did I. The vet phoned on Monday to tell me Kitten was finally drinking on his own. By the time I picked Kitten up on Tuesday, his name had become Homer Wells--an orphan cat named after an orphan named after a cat. Those familiar with John Irving's The Cider House Rules recognize "Homer Wells" as a profoundly pro-choice choice. Righteous Student was transferred to a TA's class, where, alas, he shifted his harassing energy onto his new teacher. I imagine he has wreaked a life of righteous havoc ever since.

Homer Wells, the cat, went on to achieve great things in his life and most certainly learned to "be of use." A vociferous and territorial defender of unmatched socks, he became the namesake for my avatar (mom2homer) when I wanted to assimilate with other moms on a parenting listserv. In midlife, Homer learned how to use the toilet, sorta, and before age and arthritis caught up with him, he was an expert catcher of mice and bats. In his old age, he figured out how to do unexpected things with computers.

Good night, you kitten of Kansas, you cat of NC.

Homer Wells
September (?), 1998 - April 5, 2016

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