Cast a Wide Net

My life has changed considerably.

Two months ago today, I walked off Chatham University property for the last time as a student. It was great, and it was sad. So ended the stress. So ended the process of getting where I wanted to go. So ended my immediate and easy ability to connect with a community of like-minded people.

And so began something new.

But that ending and all of its sweet relief was deceptive. Now, I’m adrift. Now, I realize that I have no immediate goals, no pressing deadlines. And more importantly, I have no one to direct me. It’s been a long time since I was my own boss. On July 25, 2006, my most demanding superior was born, and until the day I began at Chatham in the fall of 2014, he (and his brother) dictated my every action. I met their deadlines. I did what they asked of me. I gave them what they required. So, while moving from that sort of environment to one in which I worked for teachers felt different, it really wasn’t different at all. I still had to get things done. I still had to complete my job. Plug away.

Grad school taught me how well I work under a deadline. Now, I’m just sort of floating around out here. The kids are in their school. I’m left to gather the things I’ve learned about writing and about myself in the last decade and mold some sort of life for myself. And, being just a bit anxiety-ridden and a tad impatient, I’m not handling it very well.


I decided to cast a wide net. I’m one of the blog editors for Literary Mama. I do freelance blogging. I help a friend teach third graders how to write personal narratives. I try to write on my own, too, while fighting off the difficulties of Sjogren’s Syndrome that really flare up in the fall. I haven’t seen other human beings for two years, so I’m trying to do that, and I’m a little squishy in the midsection too. So, yoga. Rather than a singular focus (thesis), I’ve divided myself up into many varied parts. I know I want to write. It took me 35 years to narrow my existence down to that singularity. Of all the things in the world I could do, writing was it.

But now that I’ve arrived in this place, I realize that the horizon has just expanded exponentially again, to a world almost as big as the one I knew three years ago. Do I want to stay at home and work on my book? Teach little kids? Teach big kids? Freelance for money? Focus on blog editing and publishing? The singularity exploded into an unexpected field of choices, all of which baffle me and tempt me. Thus, the wide net, or as my friend Amanda said, “Throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks.”

The problem is that I’ve caught too many fish in the net. Some keepers, some trash fish, some tin cans. And now I’ve got this heavy-ass net slung over my back and not enough time to deal with the contents. I have fewer free moments in the day than I did during thesis time, and I’m getting paid for very few of my efforts.

Shawn tells me I need to pay my dues. Write, publish, teach, help out. Casually toss my name out there. Work on my book but not kill myself. Fight to stay ahead of my autoimmune problems. Go outside. He’s right, of course. I stayed in my office, writing for school, for two years. In that time I amassed very few life experiences. The idea jar is empty. I need to fill it back up.

I fish. I know how many times I have to cast before I get a bite. I know how many lures I lose, how many snags take my rig. Fishing infuriates me. Some days I don’t catch shit. Once in a blue moon, I land a whopper.

I may need a little help getting this jig out of the tree.

Things Happen

I like even numbers. They comfort an OCD, Type A adult like me. I never have to worry about an extra element. Four members of the Roberts family. Two adults; two kids. Two in the back seat, two in the front.

I repeated the pattern with our critters. We had four ferrets, four guinea pigs. (Don’t get me started.) Two cats, two dogs. It’s just enough. No more than any couple needs. Shawn and I have a house full of life that can be paired off, divided up, and simply calculated. Sometimes I wonder if we stopped our family at two kids just so I could ease my brain with soothing numbers.

That, and the terror of accidentally creating another Ben.

My time in grad school has ended, and over the summer, life began to show me hints of settling into normalcy. Ben has largely stopped trying to kill himself. Andy’s Tourette Syndrome is under control. Work for me is slow but steady, and the household budget has become predictable and even now that I no longer have to write tuition checks.

But nature doesn’t like things to be all wrapped up in a neat package. It prefers entropy. A gradual descent into chaos.

Enter: the monkey wrench.

We returned home from our Fort Myers Beach vacation in the dark due to delays and storms. The pet sitters had left the dog bowls out on the porch, and as we lugged suitcases in the darkness, a round form humped its way off the deck and into the shadows. Whatever the varmint was – no doubt one of them trash pandas – it had been snacking on leftover chow, as varmints do.

But my mom reported a cat sighting to me the next day.

“Your dad saw a big, gray cat on the porch before dawn,” she said.

“No,” I corrected. “That wasn’t a cat. It was huge. Definitely a raccoon.” No feral cat would be so large or so bold.

Gargantuan cat

But it was a cat, and the next evening as we worked on dinner, I went out onto the deck and there he was. He was a great beast of an animal, one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen. He had what the cat books refer to as stud jowls: puffy cheeks and the solid block of a head that come from a lengthy exposure to testosterone. Though Maya, the ever-vigilant critter-catcher was lurking nearby, waiting for her chance to terrorize him (our own cats live on the second and third floors of our house while Maya occupies the first floor and basement because she’s such a notorious cat-chaser), I put her inside before she had a chance to attack him. He followed me and the kids up onto the back porch and quite literally dove into a bowl of cat food, face-first. He ate for well over half an hour. Though he was enormous and solid, his spine and hip bones stuck out and he was flea-bitten and wormy. Unloved.

When he was finished with his enormous meal, he stayed with me and the boys, purring and soliciting attention. Shawn, who is far more of a cat person than I, came to the doorway occasionally and shook his head, not wanting to get attached, but knowing that the odds of avoiding it were slim. When the sun went down and the moon came up, the cat was still there, sitting with Andy and me. He’d eaten no fewer than three times, and showed no signs of wanting to leave.

Shawn picked him up and hugged him. “What’s his name?” he asked me.

“Oh come on,” I said. “I don’t want another cat.”

“What’s his name, Laura?”


*     *    *
Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, I wasn’t necessarily in favor of keeping Panther. Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, it was actually Shawn and the boys who pushed me to keep him. I would have been happy to find him a family. Bottomly inspection revealed that he was neutered at some point in his life (late, due to the stud jowls), and his friendliness and patience with our dogs and our boys indicates he belonged to someone who loved him, once. Poor cat.
What do you do when the universe sends you an animal? It happens all the time, especially with cats. My spirituality these days wavers between strong faith and complete disbelief, depending on the day, but this cat chose us, for whatever reason. What do you do when an animal chooses you? Panther simply refused to leave. Within 24 hours he had waltzed into the kitchen and found his way to the living room sofa. Within 3 days he’d established his preferred meal times, arriving before dawn on the back porch for breakfast and between 4 and 6pm for dinner. Panther is 100% comfortable with us and in the notion that this is now his house.
There’s no such thing as a free cat, though. When a cat first shows up, it seems so easy. Oh, a cat, you think. A relatively self-sufficient animal. They use the bathroom outside, so no litter box costs. I’m already buying cat food for the other two, so that won’t go up too much. Just a rabies shot and he’s good. Right?

Wrong. Panther required rabies, distemper, flea control, worming, and FIV and feline leukemia testing. Panther still requires a rabies booster and a microchip. Panther’s first vet bill ran us over $300. 

Free cat my ass. 
*     *     *
I suppose that, as an animal lover, I had two choices: keep the cat or ditch the cat. Older cats have little chance of being adopted out of shelters. And it was clear that Panther considered our house his home, so if we found a family to take him, who knows if he would have stayed or if he would have bailed out and found his way back to us. I’ve given away two cats, and though it was the right call for at least one, I wish I hadn’t. But Panther has been an expensive endeavor. His vet bills, the enormous amount of food that he eats (he ate for 17 straight minutes this morning), the scratching posts (we declawed our other cats, and no, we won’t do that again), the flea meds, and the coup de grĂ¢ce: the cat door. Because Panther is an indoor-outdoor cat, he goes to the bathroom outside, and when one of us isn’t here to open the door for His Highness, he needs to be able to leave. So we had a cat door install in a basement window, which required precision work from our contractors and will undoubtedly result in a $300+ bill. All so a free cat can barge in and eat our food and sleep on our furniture.

Panther is a real monkey wrench. He’s upset the balance. He’s the odd number. Three cats. Five animals. Nine living creatures in the house. It’s all very uneven. Moreover, I now find that my attention is required not just by differing species (human, canine, feline), but also on different floors. Panther arrives for his breakfast no later than 5:45am. Often I’m up to service him, but when I want to sleep in until 6:30, he’s perturbed by the time I’m up and goes out of his way to trip me as I prepare his morning meal. He’s one of those trippy cats.

But morning used to belong to Putter and Gimli. Maya sleeps in the basement and those early hours provided them with time to come down to the living room and visit with me. They hate Panther. They lurk on the kitchen landing and growl at him while he eats his breakfast, oblivious to their wrath. So now I need to schedule extra Putter/Gimli time upstairs because Panther’s breakfast overlaps with their pre-dawn social hour.

And of course, when I’m upstairs with Putter and Gimli, Maya is downstairs alone. Maya’s sole purpose in life is to watch over her humans, and she gets so lonely that she creeps up the front staircase, trying to rejoin the family on the second floor. When I’m with the dog, the cats are ignored. When I’m with the cats, the dog is ignored. Nugget, at least, can and does follow me anywhere. And until Panther’s arrival, I had a pretty regular routine. Cat up, dog down. Now it’s a free-for-all. Any animal may appear on any other animal’s floor at any given time, triggering snarls and growls and hurt feelings. Yesterday, in fact, Putter was so disgusted by something one of us had done that she took a large and obvious dump on Benjamin’s rug. I just can’t please all of the animals all of the time, and even if I wanted to, I’m a little busy pleasing all of the humans all of the time. As the person who generally runs the household and manages the living beings within it, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the sudden disruption of what was already a tenuous balance.

Go ahead, lady. Try to write this blog.

But the universe sent me a cat. The Universe, capital U. When the Universe sends you an animal, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to take it in.

Maybe Panther is here for a reasons. Maybe he will fight off a wild band of rabid basement weasels when they decide to invade during the frigid winter of 2018. Then again, maybe he’s just here because we smelled like suckers.


Last night at dinner, Panther slunk through the kitchen. I caught a glimpse of something in his mouth and a flash of yellow: one of my cherished goldfinches, the sweet, peeping souls who gather at the drying echinacea flowers in the fall to pick at the seeds. Horrible beast! Shawn took Panther out and pried his jaws open, whereupon the tiny bird flopped out, furious, but seemingly uninjured. I carried it to my parents’ house next door and set it among the flowers where it had a few moments to recuperate.

“Bad cat!” I shouted at him, and he ran away as we all settled back down at the table.

Fewer than ten minutes later, Panther slunk in again with the same bird in his mouth. Dammit! This time he dropped the finch on the foyer rug and it sat there miserably, clearly in worse shape than it had been a few moments ago. Back to the garden it went, but this time I was pretty sure the bird wasn’t long for this world. We covered the cat door to prevent Panther from leaving, told him he was a bad cat, again, and went back to dinner. Which wasn’t warm, any longer.

It took Panther approximately 19 seconds to find his way back to the basement and pry the cover off the cat door. I ran to the finch’s last location and there he was, only a few feet from the poor animal, stalking it. I hollered at him and he darted under the car, watching as I picked up the damn finch. This time, I took it elsewhere, to the neighbor’s yard, and put it up high in a tangled mess of grapevines. Clearly on its last legs, I left it there. Panther did not bring it into the house a third time.

This is the downside of having an outdoor cat. I don’t generally approve of outdoor cats. My own cats are strictly indoor felines for this very reason. I value my bird life tremendously. Now I’m left to wonder if I should suspend my bird-feeding activities for the duration of his tenure with us. If I fill the feeder, aren’t I just ringing the dinner bell?

Perhaps he will eventually transition to an indoor cat. Outdoor cats account for up to 3.7 billion bird deaths annually. I’m a bird person, moreso than a cat person, really. This disturbs me.

It’s an extra dose of monkey wrench in a life I thought was settled.