Columnist

This is a column about being a columnist, and being a father, and being an idiot — not necessarily in that order.

One recent Sunday I was two days late in writing my column and was still failing to arrange words together into a product that resembled something my editor, Tom the Butcher, would at least have called “bad.” “Bad” is negotiable. It is the beginning of a process. At that moment, though, my column was still not within editor-shouting distance of “bad,” which is when the phone rang. It was my daughter, Molly.

“Okay, Dad, you didn’t actually — and I am not accusing you of this because it would be too stupid — you didn’t by any chance for some reason flush cat litter down my toilet, right?”

Background: Molly is pregnant. Her husband is out of town. She is also a veterinarian, so she understands quite well that pregnant women are not supposed to handle cat feces because it can contain a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, which is not good for babies.

There are special moments in a man’s life when he realizes he has been placed on Earth for a reason. In my case I understood that after 35 years of erratic, semi-competent parenting, I had been called upon to utilize my skills and wits and instincts to be a Good Dad. I had been tasked with a mission. So, I have been going over to Molly’s house once a day to scoop poopy out of a litter box and put it in a bag, which I then put into a garbage pail in the back yard. I don’t want to brag, but let’s just say I’ve heroically risen to the occasion.

(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Or, apparently, not. Molly’s question lingered in the air.

“Uh,” I said into the phone, “I sort of maybe did. See, there was only this one single item that I fished out of the cat box this one day, and the basement toilet was closer than the nearest plastic bag, and, really, when you think of it, one of the first lessons you learn in life, even before you learn to read, is that poopy goes in toilets, so, I figured ...”

“I think you need to come over here, Dad.”

And that is when I learned, for the first time, what happens when you flush even a little incidental bit of cat litter down a toilet, which is apparently why cat-litter boxes say in big capital letters DO NOT FLUSH. Cat litter is a preternaturally absorptive substance, apparently designed to expand to roughly 60,000 times its original volume in some horrible malignant process like cancer, only worse.

Molly’s toilet resembled one of those baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes the dumb kids in middle school made every year for science fairs. What had seemed to me at the time to be about a tablespoon of cat litter had swollen into a throbbing gel the size of a bowling ball that no amount of plunge-flushing would get rid of. It resisted scooping efforts, dancing away like mercury. Eventually, I realized that the most effective way to attack it was with my bare hands, so that’s what I was doing, on my knees, in front of a toilet. Seeing this, Molly pointed out that rubber gloves were available and should be an option, and very gently, with love and pain in her eyes, she asked, “Do you have any common sense at all?”

Not much, Mol. But I do have two things: a complete lack of shame, and a column.

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