It’s a quiet night at home with my wife out of town. In her absence my parental duties expand beyond gender-normative borders to include helping our cat Rocco with his homework.
“I finished ‘Great Expectations.’ Can I go kill something now?”
“Tell me again why I have to learn to read?” he says as he sees me approach with today’s edition of The Boston Globe, which I like to call the newspaper for people who don’t like to read because of the prominence it gives to the work of its many award-winning photographers.
“Mom and I aren’t going to be around forever, you know,” I say with fatherly concern. “I’m a firm believer that cats can lead productive lives if we give them the tools they need to succeed in a knowledge-based economy.”
“But I don’t want to be productive,” he says. “Productivity would interfere with my nap schedule.”
He’s right, of course, with the relentlessly ruthless logic of the ten-year-old that he is.
“What’s the point of studying vocabulary if you’re going to shorten it to ‘vocab’?”
“Well, reading can be fun, too,” I say, trying to sugar-coat the pill.
“More fun that killing a mouse and rolling upon prank?” he says, referring to the feline practice of rubbing in musk described by nutcase poet Christopher Smart in Jubilate Agno, the poem about his cat Jeoffry he composed while confined to Bedlam, London’s 18th century madhouse.
“You’ve got me there,” I concede. “Still, reading is a very useful skill that you’ll derive a lot of pleasure from. C’mon, let’s buckle down.” I direct his attention to the “Nation” section–apparently with the paper up for sale they’re trying to save money by substituting nouns for adjectives. “Why don’t you try to read this article here,” I say, pointing to a story at the bottom of the page that he should be able to see well.
“Court . . . sides”
“Good. Keep going.”
“with . . .”
“The next word is ‘drug-sniffing.’”
“Okay–sides with drug-sniffing dog. So ‘Supreme Court sides with drug-sniffing dog’–right?”
“Right!” I say with enthusiasm, hoping to kindle his interest and start a fiery love of learning in his little . . .
“I call Equal Protection!” he snaps. “If dogs get to sniff drugs, why can’t I have catnip?”
I bite my tongue for a second. Since the little woman is gone I could give him his catnip mouse for a while, but the drug always sets off a manic-depressive episode complete with furniture-clawing and table jumping that inevitably results in damage to one of my wife’s high-priced tchotchkes.
“Dude–whadda you smokin’?”
“Uh, I hate to go all lawyerly on you,” I say, “but the 14th Amendment only requires equal treatment of similarly-situated pets. Dogs and cats are very different animals.”
He takes this in and considers it for a moment. “Isn’t there some other interpretation, like substantive due process, or penumbras and emanations, that’ll take me where I wanna go?”
“You know me–I’m a Federalist Papers kinda guy.”
Because he hasn’t gone to one of our nation’s top law schools, he’s not in a position to trump me with a wacko legal theory that makes no sense but attracts intellectual adherents like flies to a garbage truck.
“Look,” I say as I sit down beside him. “Pot really is bad for you.”
“You smoked it,” he snaps, as if that ends the argument.
“Yes, but I gave it up.” I chuck him under the chin–that usually improves his disposition–but he stares off into the middle distance. I can tell he wants to purr but is withholding his expression of love to spite me.
“I don’t think it’s good to do it by yourself,” I say, reminding him that he’s the only cat in the house now that his big brother Oakie is dead. “It messes with your head.”
“And you won’t join me?” he asks.
“Nope, I’ve already had too much in my life. After a while you get so much THC in your system it makes you paranoid.”
“It does?” he asks, all wide-eyed interest now. He’s jumpy enough as it is with coyotes and last week a fisher cat in the back yard.
“Yep. Stevie Wonder and me . . .”
“You mean ‘Stevie Wonder and I’–don’t you?”
He’s been listening to my wife and her family, who are always going on and on about some female ancestor who was a grammar teacher. Excuse my French, but big-copulant-deal. “No, as a matter of fact I don’t.”
“Oh God . . . you’re not going to throw Shakespeare at me again, are you?”
“Why not? He substituted the objective form for the nominative–’That’s me.’”
Matthew Prior, wearing ceremonial headgear of the Nonconformist Joiners.
“Matthew Prior, Joseph Addison . . .”
“Any Americans?” he asks pointedly.
“I thought you’d never ask,” I reply, warming to the task. “On page 456 of the 1937 edition of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language you will read . . .”
“No I won’t, but go on.”
“That ‘The nominative, in the subject relation, takes the usual nominative form only when it is in immediate contact with its verb.’”
“That doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“No, but I’ve become a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. Mencken says this ‘free exchange’ has survived on the colloquial level and ‘is in good usage’ despite the fact that schoolmarms ‘continue to inveigh against it.’”
I was by now a little red in the face, worked up as I sometimes get over minor–some would say trivial–points bearing on the proper use and abuse of the English language.
“So despite all the pot you smoked, you can still find your way around the English language . . .”
“Four decades after The Steve Miller Band’s Brave New World album.”
Steve Miller Band “Brave New World” album: Bad taste is timeless.
“In other words–no permanent brain damage resulted?”
He has me pinned like the kid Ronnie, son of the motorcycle shop owner, who wrestled me in gym class.
“None worth worrying about,” I say as I get up, walk to the secret hiding place where we keep the controlled substances, and come back with his catnip mouse.