Just One Disconcerting Thing After Another

As Garrison Keillor might say, it's been a disconcerting week in Ashtabula, my hometown. This morning, Cuddles the Cat outsmarted me. That is not unusual. She is a cat of superior intellect and often uses her keen mind to shame me. But this morning, she was unable to hide her disdain, and shot me one of those evil feline glances that seem to say, "Nice try, dummy, but you'll have to do better than that."

You see, I was up early, and the first order of business was to retrieve the morning papers from the front porch. But to get to the front porch, I first had to open the front door. The problem is: quite often when the front door is open Cuddles will dash out in order to cat around. (Please note: Cuddles has been fixed, and any catting around she does she does responsibly.) Cuddles, of course, is quick as a cat, and I'm not. By the time I get the wheelchair out the door and turned around to close it, Cuddles can be out the door and three streets away.

I might be slow, ponderous and uncoordinated, but I am the primate in charge, and no cute, furry quadruped is going to escape on my watch. I snatched her by the nape of the neck, put her on my lap, deposited her in the bathroom and shut the door. Then proceeding at my own comfortable pace, I went out and got the papers. The shock came when I started back into the house and saw Cuddles in the middle of the living room floor. How did she get out of the bathroom? And how come cats always have that look of effortless grace when sprawled on the floor? There was something very Cleopatra-like in her demeanor, as if she were seducing an imaginary Marc Antony. But when I looked her in the eye, she yawned a yawn of haughty insolence. She never said a word but made no effort to hide what she was thinking.

Her look said, "You're hopeless, Tom. I could be running through the neighborhood, but I'd rather lie here and silently mock you."

Then she yawned again and gave a little flick of her head, as if to say, "What are you looking at? Go eat your breakfast and leave me be."

It was disconcerting.

Later, I found her in the middle of the floor as I wheeled from the computer room to the kitchen. There was no way to go around her, so I pulled as close to her as I could, even pushed her a few inches with the foot plate. She looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, "What the hell?" Eventually she moved - all of six inches. I pulled close again, hoping to frighten her, but Cuddles rubbed her back on the carpet for a minute or two before squirming ahead another few inches. We repeated the process again and again and again, until Cuddles had made her point, whatever it might have been.

The week's first disconcerting event, however, occurred Wednesday. I have been aware for some time that my voice is changing. Unlike the change from boyish to manly it underwent in the 1960s, my dulcet tones are now going from manly to womanly. I think it has something to do with MS.

In any event, quite often when I answer the phone and say, "Hello," the first words out of the caller's mouth are "Hi, Nancy." At first I didn't think much of it. I assumed the callers were in the I'm-going-to-talk-to-Nancy mode and weren't prepared for the possibility of someone else answering the phone. But the callers never say, "Oh, stupid me. I guess I need to work on my listening skills. Is Nancy there?" Instead, they get discombobulated, embarrassed, uncomfortable, and extend lengthy apologies.

And so, the phone rang Wednesday afternoon.

"Hello," I said.

"May I speak to Nancy Vallen, please?" the caller asked. He didn't give his name or say where he was calling from. Although, the tone of his voice and manner of speaking conjured up images of a Marine captain sitting ram-rod straight at his desk in the Pentagon.

"Nancy isn't here right now," I said. "May I take a message?"

"No, ma'am. I'll call back another time."

Ma'am? He called me "Ma'am." I was just getting used having my voice mistaken for that of a woman, and this guy calls me "Ma'am." Everybody knows "ma'am" is a euphemism for "doddering old fool of the female variety."

It is very disconcerting.

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