The Human Zookeeper

I do tend to over-think things. This morning, over my breakfast bowl of trifle and yoghurt – inappropriate I know, but it was what happened to be in the fridge – I over-thought that my twelve cats could be conceived of as chaos-engines, i.e. the cats create the chaos I need in order to restore order, and be at least somewhat soothed.

You see there’s nothing more dispiriting than coming home to a house that’s exactly as you left it. Even now after – quick calculation – twenty-four years alone, I still find it difficult to believe, when I turn my key in the lock, that nothing will have moved in my absence. I find myself scanning the kitchen and living room just in case something might have moved.

At least when I come downstairs in the morning, thanks to the twelve cats, I know things will not be the same as I left them the night before. I know there will be cat litter all over the floor; food dishes upturned; drinking-water slopped; things knocked over; things probably broken. I know there will be a good three quarters of an hour of zoo-keeping-and-cursing to get through before I can allow myself to sit down in front of the News with my cup of coffee and my bowl of cereal or whatever-happened-to-be-in-the-fridge. ‘Getting up’ takes ages. If I have an appointment at 9 a m I have to set the alarm for 5.30 a.m.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like without the cats. Presumably it will come to that one day, assuming I manage to outlive the current cohort, as is my plan (and assuming no new moggies come tapping at my window pane with their little muddy paws and beseeching miaows). I think life would be cheaper, since even without vets’ bills the cats cost me more than I cost me. I think it would be very restful, since being zoo-keeper to twelve cats is the equivalent of a part-time job, hours-wise. I could put my feet up and watch daytime TV. I could… I could…

I think it would be like being dead, actually. Indeed, once the cats are outlived I shall hope to be dead soon after. Preferably not run over by a bus or anything too nasty or time-consuming.

I need to make order out of chaos, so I need a good supply of chaos to make the order out of. It’s the same as writing – you need the chaos of unwritten words, unimagined stories, to make the stories out of. You need to make things make sense. Life – real life – doesn’t.

When I was first married I developed a Theory of Housework. (Told you I over-think.) There were two points to it:

  1. Everything has is optimal Place and its Condition. The house-person’s job is to return things to their optimal Place and Condition. For example, the Place of clothes is hanging in the wardrobe and the Condition of clothes is clean and ironed. So, dirty clothes must be collected, washed, ironed and returned to the wardrobe.
  2. Running a house is really like being the minder of a big, square machine-for-living. You are trapped, to all intents and purposes, inside the machine. As machine-minder your task is to get all kinds of waste (dirt, dust, clutter, rubbish etc) outside the house, and get the raw materials for the machine to keep on functioning – food etc, etc inside the house. All housework can be boiled down to getting stuff out or getting stuff in and preferably more stuff out than in. Those with more stuff in than out are in danger of becoming hoarders and will end up crawling through tunnels of ancient newspaper or being removed by the Council whilst all the clutter is emptied into hired skips and fumigated, and then finding themselves consigned to an old-folks home or saddled with social workers for ever after. Don’t give them the excuse, is what I say. Fly under the radar.

This makes it sound like one of those demon housewives, one of those poor people who clean, clean, clean from dawn to dusk. I watched a TV programme about that once – someone who smoothed the quilt on her bed over and over and over again, to get out every last wrinkle. But she never, ever got to the last wrinkle. There was always another wrinkle…

It’s a balance, isn’t it? I need the cats to make enough chaos for me to have to be clearing up all day long, but I need the natural tendency to daydreaming idleness I inherited from my father and the ultra-low boredom threshold I inherited from my mother to stop me getting obsessive about it.

And if I do feel tempted to polish or scrub in excess I simply remind myself of the old saying that nobody, on their deathbed, wishes they had done more washing-up.


(The Human Zoo: Desmond Morris, 1969)

3 thoughts on “The Human Zookeeper

  1. You make a terrific point. There was nothing so pleasurable this morning than putting things to right once the family left the building. The cats are still here to stink up the house, track litter everywhere and to leave hair on every surface, so I can never quite rest on my laurels. Still, a little less trail-cleaning and a little more time to write would not go unappreciated.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I recall a Hagar cartoon in which one with horns on his Viking helmet, also now adorned with apron, mop, broom, dust pan, etc., said, “I wash and sweep and clean every room in this place — and yet, just 6 months later, I have to do it all over again!” That’s me. I myself would decreate chaos, here.. I was just thinking of writing a sign that reads: “Mother Nature would appreciate your leaving her Fall leaves outside where they belong.” They hate my notes, here.

    Liked by 2 people

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