Sunday, December 05, 2004

Day of the Sock Monster

It has been about a week now since Elena finished moving into the flat with us. With her came a variety of things: there's a wicker magazine holder now, a little dish of sea shells and drift glass in the bathroom, and a toaster oven that doesn't even look disreputable, much less like a potential fire hazard. She also brought a Siamese cat, Niko. So far, the cat and I have treated each other with a wary sort of respect. I came in the first evening she was her, and there she sat in the doorway. We looked at each other for a minute or two; I offered her a hand, which she deigned to sniff; and then I went to prepare a meal, and she disappeared.

I've felt like she was sitting there, silently watching, while I ate many of my other dinners this week. Perhaps she found them entertaining. I've come home several times this week in a distracted mood, usually with visions of symmetry groups dancing in my head, or sometimes -- when hunger, fatigue, and personal frustrations overcome my technical fascinations -- less pleasant thoughts involving Donald Trump morphing, a la Terminator 2, into a giant animated Santa Claus. There are more prosaic fears and frustrations, too, but the seasonal homicidal reality-television robot sounds much more impressive as a symbol of terror than the fine gentleman who charged through a red to nearly run me over, right? Whatever the case, most days this week I've stepped in the door, taken off my shoes, and realized that I've eaten little or nothing since my morning cereal, and that I probably ought to make food. So the cat watched on, and I foraged, tripping over boxes and discovering that the bananas have been -- correctly -- reclassified as inedible and disposed of accordingly; that the stale bread that I thought to use for onion soup has been similarly removed; and that, though they could not possibly have gone bad, the egg noodles I'd intended to use as the base for my dinner were missing, possibly because a UN humanitarian mission mistakenly evacuated them, but more probably because I ate them and then forgot about it.

So I've gulped down salty pickled vegetables and followed them with apple sauce (a word to the curious: the salt from the pickle brine sets off the apple sauce taste nicely; and Dad, I apologize for ever having made fun of the Wheat Thins + ice cream combination, which is pretty good after all). I've munched down meals of apples, cheese, and crackers, and then -- having taken care of the most urgent edge of hunger -- become distracted and wandered off to spend most of the rest of the evening studying numerical dispersion relations. I've scrambled a couple of eggs to have with an apple; I've mixed yogurt, honey, cinnamon, and barley cereal to accompany an apple; and in one case I accompanied my apple with -- uh -- another apple. And the cat watches on, in that inscrutable way that cats manage so well. Except, of course, when the cat has decided to sleep in the corner; then we change roles, and I watch the cat while I munch.

The cat is much better than I am at gazing inscrutably.

Fortunately, I do have human friends who sometimes eat with me as well. I had a good meal and a cup of tea and a ramblingly disorganized conversation on Tuesday with a friend, and we each read drafts of the paper the other was working on. And on Wednesday, I had dinner with Winnie. I fear I was not terribly good company, as I kept getting distracted by visions of symmetry groups dancing in my head. Yes, I know that's a trite way to put it -- but dancing symmetry groups are far less insipid than dancing sugar plums, and far less frightening than the dancing homocidal Trump-Santa-T2 robots, so I'll adapt boldly a cliche which so many have adapted before. Whether my head is full of dancing algebraic abstractions or differential operators doing their thing (their thing is beat poetry -- or at least you can pretend it is, if you don't know what a differential operator is), I do sometimes chew on problems to the point that my interactions with the world become less graceful. I always hope that this amuses my fellows and myself, rather than exasperating my friends and causing me to wander toward a path of peril -- but since my friends (usually) forgive me, and since I regain the lost weight easily enough, I try not to worry about such little character flaws. Besides, you don't have to know me well to recognize the distracted air and the chaotic hairstyle (math hair, as a couple friends call it) that signals that I'm thinking about a problem; so those acquaintances who find me truly aggravating when I'm in such a mode can easily figure out when I'm best avoided.

I tried to ask the cat her opinion about this. She graciously has not proferred her opinion of my character flaws. She also won't play with her string-on-a-stick cat toy when I'm wielding it, but I think that's more from shyness than from any real disapproval. Besides, you can exhibit some truly fascinating nonlinear wave phenomena by waving the stick back and forth and varying rates. Jim came home one evening while I was illustrating this to myself (and to the cat, but since the cat was hiding somewhere, I was the only obvious audience). I think Jim was far more amused by my fascination with the cat toy than he would have been if the cat was involved.

It's possible that I was once able to quit thinking about problems on command. If so, that time has long past. Sometimes I can put aside a problem over the course of a long walk -- this weekend I took a wonderful ramble from campus up the hillside, along Euclid and Grizzly Peak to Tilden, then back along Spruce, down Marin, down Indian Rock path, and then along Colusa and Portland into El Cerrito -- but even that is sometimes only a temporary measure. Fortunately, with a little effort, I can usually switch between problems. For instance, my shoes seem to rub around my ankles far more now than when I first got them; and while I was bandaging the blood blister induced from the weekends ramblings, I pondered a variety of possible ways that I might be able to patch my shoes in order to prevent further rubbing. My ponderings ultimately led me to conclude only that an extra pair of socks might keep my feet warmer, and that the sides of my heels are perfectly capable of developing the additional callusses needed to handle any remaining confrontations with my shoes that the socks don't quell. But during the time I was pondering my shoes, I didn't think about mathematical problems at all.

Anyhow, I've been distracted; my main point was not how good salty applesauce tastes, nor how distracted I can get by technical problems, nor the new collection of Cooke's Letters from America: 1946-2004 which I saw when I was visiting Barnes and Noble with Winnie. The point is to describe the cat, and perhaps to set the stage for the startling revelation about the cat that occurred to me when I folded my laundry this evening.

Niko, though as innocent-looking as any creature with an unnervingly intense stare and an expressed desire to pounce on things can possibly be, has a dark secret. She is, in fact, a Sock Monster.

My mother used to tell me that lost socks went to a colony on the moon, but it took only a little maturity and reflection to find the problem with the sock colony theory. While it's true that socks are gregarious, and tend to be found in packs, they don't seem to collaborate effectively in groups of size any greater than two; and while rocket science is perhaps not as complicated as the old cliche might suggest, I believe effective rocket engineering is probably beyond the intellectual capabilities of even the most prodigious pair of socks. Boots, maybe; socks, never. Besides, where is a pair of socks going to get the materials to build a booster rocket, let alone enough rocket fuel to reach escape velocity? No, the lunar sock colony theory cannot hold; and so there is only one explanation for sock disappearance

No, it's not the theory of spontaneous combustion -- that's been thoroughly discredited at this point. The reason that socks disappear is that they are eaten by Sock Monsters. Further, anyone who has seen a cat batting at a sock, or trying to climb into a basket of clean laundry, might reasonably begin to infer the true identity of the Sock Monsters. But Niko is a truly remarkable sock monster, as she somehow conspired to make my socks disappear before I even arrived here. My sock supply has dwindled alarmingly over the course of this semester, faster than can be accounted for by the flow of socks from my drawer to the bag of cleaning rags (the BOSSCHEDAWOWET or Bag of Socks So Clearly Holey Even DAvid WOn't WEar Them). So I laid it out plainly for the cat while I folded my laundry: Cat, I said, you may freely prey on any of the socks in the bosschedawowet; or, for that matter, any of the socks in my drawer with holes large enough for me to fit both thumbs through, since soon enough I'll relent and turn those into cleaning rags, too. I give you this freely, as tribute; take it, and please leave my other socks in peace! I looked over my shoulder to see if the cat was taking it in -- I needed to tuck my chin to hold the shirt I was folding in place anyhow -- but the cat was concentrating on her forepaw, which she was cleaning with a sort of cross-eyed look of concentration for which I felt immediate sympathy. I left her to contemplate her task in peace while I finished my folding; then I turned, crouched down, and looked at her intently to see if she had any reaction to my peace plan.

She just stared back at me inscrutably. Cats are so cool.