cats

Perception: The Apple of My Eye

Jack’s little body is heaving with sobs.  He wails again and again, “How do I grow into a grown-up? How do I get bigger?”  and he is breaking my heart.

I am changing his diaper.  Potty-training Jack has been a monumental challenge, and he is resistant to even the slightest suggestion that he start relieving himself in the potty.

I am exhausted by the effort it takes to stick to my pro-potty talking points and disgusted by the foul mess that I must clean up day after day.  In addition, I feel brutalized by Jack’s intense emotional response to the process.  He wants the growing and maturing to be over, to just be “big” (and potty-trained), without having to experience the torment of growing.

Grief pours from him as he moans oddly,

I want my eyes to be bigger. “

And that is when I pause, thinking all of a sudden of the oft-cited fact that children’s eyes reach their adult size from a very young age, some say as young as two, and that these “wide” eyes are what give children their irresistible look of innocence. But what does it mean that their adult eyes– shifting, watchful, careful not to betray intentions or vulnerability– are already there?

There’s a deli next to Zeke’s school– coffee, sandwiches, drinks– nothing to distinguish it from any other random bodega in our neighborhood, except possibly for one thing: this deli houses a scrawny gray and white cat.  The cat skulks around, presumably to keep rodents from eating up the profits. And truthfully, even this doesn’t really differentiate it from other delis, except that for some reason, this scraggy, bony feline has completely captured Jack’s heart and imagination.

After we drop Zeke off at school, Jack invariably begs to go inside and look around for the cat.  One day Jack asked the silent and watchful man behind the deli counter what the cat’s name was.  The man stifled a snort and said in a lazy voice, “You give a name, and that will be cat’s name.”

Jack thought for a moment, then beamingly declared,

“His name is Catty-Cat.”

And from that day forward, so it was.  We went to visit Catty-Cat several mornings a week and as Jack happily wandered around among the racks of chips and peeked beneath the coffee machine, I felt creepily aware of the alert gaze of the deli’s proprietors, tracking our every move.

In addition to the silent man behind the counter, there is a much chattier fellow, just a little taller than I am, the whites around his darting eyes huge and strangely bright.  He dresses in an overly enthusiastic  and dated “hip-hop” fashion, that calls to mind Ali-G.

He would always greet Jack with a vehement friendliness, often grabbing Catty-Cat out of whatever corner she was hiding in and roughly presenting her to Jack. His tensed hand would be positioned in front of her paws as he spoke firmly in her ear , and loudly encouraged Jack to pet her.  He always insisted that she was terrified of everyone but Jack, whom she loved (attempts to spring from his firm grasp and escape from Jack’s clumsy little hands, notwithstanding).

Once he glanced pointedly at my wedding ring and asked me why I never came in with my husband, asked if he was “away in the army”.

Another time he insisted on giving Jack a free snack from the shop, and as Jack happily selected a bag of “butter-flavored” popcorn, that I knew I would never actually allow him to eat, he told me about his two children, pounding forcefully on his chest as he insisted that his son was “his heart” and that he loved him much more than his daughter.

He and his friend made me insanely nervous. I found myself trying to cross the street before we reached Catty-Cat’s deli.  There was nothing I could put my finger on exactly that made me want to avoid it, but when we were there I always had a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I always kept a wary hand  firmly on Jack’s shoulder as I hurried him through our visit and out to the safe anonymity of the street.

But Jack took such pleasure in visiting Catty-Cat and it was hard to resist the joy shining from his child’s eyes, as he placed his hand on her protruding ribs and felt her vibrating purr.  So from time to time, we did stop in, though I did my best to be brusque and never to meet anyone’s gaze.

Then one rainy day, we stopped in and as Jack’s little voice called , “Catty-Cat?  Catty-Cat where are you?” our colorful friend sauntered over to us and told us that we couldn’t see her because she was in the back room.  I saw consideration wash over his face and saw the slight shift in his expression that indicated that he had actually changed his mind.  “Wait,” he said.  “I show you where she is.”

And as he ushered us toward the back room of the deli, I gripped Jack tightly and felt panic rising in me slightly.  All of my adult instincts were telling me to be on alert, but a needling part of my mind told me that I might be being ridiculous, that this man had never been anything but friendly, and that there was no reason to deny a child an experience that made him so happy, or to make him feel nervous about people that had been kind to him and a cat that he had discovered and named.  I wished that I could see it all with his innocent joy and wonder and turn off my full-grown anxiety.

In the back room we saw Catty-Cat. She was grooming herself, perched on a dingy, once-white vinyl dining room chair. Jack’s eyes locked on her with delight and I found myself nervously glancing around the room.

Next to the chair was a filthy over-flowing litter-box, and a giant hookah, as tall as Jack.

The room was surprisingly empty for a store room.  There were a few cases of A & W Cream soda, a variety of mops and buckets and a metal drain in the center of the concrete floor.  My eyes kept being drawn to a strange lofted platform that dominated the room.  There were 3 or 4 crudely built stairs that led up to it and a neon-printed shower curtain separating it from the rest of the space.  Through a gap in the curtain I could see a large duffel bag and a precisely made pallet, where someone clearly slept.

My heart and mind began to race as it dawned on me that SOMEONE LIVED BACK HERE– and I wasn’t sure if that was legitimately scary or not and I didn’t want the man to perceive that I was afraid and I didn’t want to frighten Jack, but I just wanted to get out of that room and back outside as fast as humanly possible.

As I led Jack back to our apartment I was struck by how profoundly differently we experienced that morning in the deli.  Jack chattered about Catty-Cat and was aware only of the magic of this living being, that ate and breathed, and felt things, and allowed him to interact with it.  My mind was possessed by paranoia and the potential for danger.  Whose mind did it make sense to dwell in?  The world is certainly more lovely in Jack’s eyes.  And it saddens me to imagine his child’s vision being clouded by fear and mistrust.

My father studies Perception, and I remember him teaching me about the eye from a young age, quizzing me on of its various parts: the lens, the iris, the cornea, the rods and the cones. He excitedly explained that the brain fills in blanks so that we would perceive a clear and complete picture of what was before us.

It seems to me that this is very similar to what my adult view of the world does to Catty-Cat’s deli.  I don’t understand what is going on in there.  There are huge and petrifying gaps in my knowledge about the deli’s staff and why someone might live in the backroom and why someone might tell a stranger that they don’t really love their daughter, and without the benefit of a complete picture, all of my mental alarms go off and fill in the fuzzy areas with a strident vigilance.

Children are free to experience the unexplained, without that terror.  We absorb all of the fear for them, tightly grip their little hands, and quietly scan the horizon for threats. In their yearning to grow up so quickly and to be independent, they have no idea that potty-training is merely the barest beginning of independence or of  how incredibly sinister life for an adult can be.

We teach them to use the toilet, and to tie their shoes, and to navigate the world on their own. 

And from us, they also learn to put their guard upThey have to. In order to survive, we all need to assess risks and think about the dangers that could be lurking in the places that we can’t see clearly.

But, in the moment, in Catty-Cat’s deli, as I gaze at the contented glow on my young son’s face while he caresses that skittish bag-of-bones, I don’t mind that soon I will go home and change another dirty diaper.

And I am acutely aware of a raw longing for the time when

I could wallow without fear in the simple rapture of an unfamiliar cat’s purr,

rather than being so keenly aware,

one hand on my son’s shoulder, one eye on the door.

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Florin is so money!


I placed Zeke’s dinner neatly on his plate.  He glared at me, his face radiating disgust. “I can’t eat that!

“Why not?” I asked him wearily.

“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And  then I won’t dream of Florin!”

“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.

Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend.   Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.

Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life.  He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.

I have asked  Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes.  His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.

“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him.  And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”

 Zeke once told me that Florin had 8 arms, 10 noses, and 3 eyes.
 
Florin entered our lives right around the time that Zeke first entered a full day school program. His anxiety over this transition was huge and unexpected and took over our lives for several weeks.  
Zeke had trouble sleeping during this time.  On nights before he was supposed to go to school he would keep himself up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, sobbing and clinging to his father and me, begging us to let him stay at home.  He would wake up hysterical in the middle of the night, moaning again and again,
“Why didn’t you come and get me Mom? I wanted you to come.  
I cried and cried for you.
And you didn’t come.
The moment he opened his eyes in the morning, he would ask  “Do I have to go to school today?” If the answer was yes, he would work himself up into such a nervous frenzy that he was red-eyed and exhausted by the time that I dropped him off.   His teachers would hold him close in their laps so that I could leave. They would hug him and whisper softly in his ears.  If I ever turned around to look at him, the desperation that I saw in his eyes and the wild grasping of his arms as he reached for me filled me with the most savage crushing guilt I have ever experienced.  Each day the sound of his cries for me would follow me down the hall and out of the building.
 I tried not to look back.
And then, one day, when I was picking him up from school he said to me, as usual “Tomorrow, when I wake up, will I go to school?”
“No,” I said, self-consciously trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“Oh,” said Zeke, seeming relieved.
Then he added casually,  “Florin’s Montessori school is right next to his house and when he goes outside he can see his house and his Mom anytime that he wants.”
“Oh?” I said.

From that day on Florin became a regular presence in our lives.  We heard about his house on “Toilet Street” in Brooklyn, (“But not our Brooklyn, on our Earth. It’s an alien Brooklyn and it’s very far away on another Earth.”)  We heard about how his mom didn’t make him clean his room and how she let him brush his teeth with maple syrup.  We heard about how Florin’s dad was not allergic to cats and how Florin’s cat Miracle had pink, yellow, black, and white fur, and sleeps in his bed with him.  We heard about Florin’s first day at kindergarten, a school for very big boys, and how he missed his mom, but then met kids that were fun to play with, that liked to go to the zoo with their babysitters and to play Star Wars, just like him.
And as we got used to hearing tales of Florin and his alien exploits, the crying and the anxiety about school slowly disappeared.
Florin continues on as a fixture in our lives. When Zeke came along with me to Jack’s most recent check-up, where my poor little peanut had to get four shots, Zeke’s eyes were huge and frightened as he watched intently what was being done to his little brother, and he told me afterwards about how when Florin got ten shots he didn’t cry at all.  He told me recently, his voice lowered and slowed to increase the drama of the statement, that Florin has a Lego Boba Fett and a Lego Jango Fett and that
none of the pieces are missing.”

The Many Faces of Zeke, Part I: It all started with a mouse named Coopie

Part I: It all started with a mouse named Coopie…


Sometime over this past winter, Zeke started pretending to be a baby mouse. Coopie, as Zeke called him, loved to snuggle, making little nests of the blankets in our bed and burrowing squeakily down into them. He spoke in a little squeaking voice and spoke frequently of his desire to be “warm and cozy”. He was small and frightened and always wanted his mama mouse (me) to hold him and keep him “safe”.

Soon afterward Zeke invented Ming-Kang. Ming-Kang is a “tiny baby cat”, and the most developed of Zeke’s many identities. When Zeke is Ming-Kang he is absolutely committed to his character. He speaks in a combination of pantomime and meows, resorting to a high-pitched little voice, only when he is unable to get his point across wordlessly. He will only eat food that I tell him is some concoction of mouse. He loves for me to hand him invisible little pretend mice, which he excitedly slurps down. He crawls around on all fours. He lays in my lap and purrs. When Zeke is Ming-Kang, I am Bonko, the “mama cat”, and Jack is Grink.
When Ming-Kang first appeared on the scene, Zeke would spend days at a time inhabiting his cat self. If I called him “Zeke”, he would rub his face against my leg, and meow quietly to remind me who he was. Lately, when Ming-Kang has to pee, he asks me in his kit-squeak voice to accompany him to the litter-box.

One day, he and a friend returned to our apartment after a trip to the park with his babysitter. I knew that Zeke was being a cat because I heard the meowing from the elevator shaft. When the doors opened, both boys were crawling and mewing, but it quickly became clear that Zeke was much more serious about being a cat than his buddy.
I made macaroni and cheese for lunch that day, which Ming-Kang only agreed to eat when I told him that is was “mouse macaroni and cheese”. This announcement gave Zeke’s friend pause.


“It’s not really mice is it?” he asked me, looking concerned, and totally dropping character.
“No,” I said. “We’re just pretending that it is.”
“Why?” he asked, clearly a little confused.
“Because you’re pretending to be cats and cats eat mice.”
“WHY?” he asked, more emphatically this time.

I didn’t really have an answer.

I have no idea why my son wants to spend much of his life as a cat.


“Because it’s fun,” our babysitter helpfully replied.
Ming-Kang smiled angelically and nodded in agreement.


Living life as Ming-Kang has made Zeke have to think a lot about the differences in values that make us different people. One day, Jack was wearing dinosaur pajamas and Ming-Kang pointed quite deliberately at the smiling T-Rex on Jack’s chest.
”What’s that?” he asked.
“A dinosaur.”
“I don’t like that,” he said in his Ming-Kang voice. “I only like gentle things.”
This is, needless to say, not the opinion of my 3-year-old human son, who sometimes comes to stay with us.

Conflicts between your identities are complicated, and can be distressing for anyone, let alone a three-year-old. Once, while I read stories to him in preparation for bed, Zeke turned to me seriously and asked, “Mommy, is Ming-Kang going to eat Coopie?” He had this uneasy, mournful look on his face. He loves both characters so much, I think the realization that they might not co-exist peacefully was genuinely distressing for him.
“No,” I said in my most comforting voice.

Ming-Kang is Zeke and Coopie is Zeke, so as long as we have Zeke we will always have both of them.”