Outside Myself suggested that we write about how we became our login names. That triggered this avalanche.
1999, a litter of kittens was born under a bush or behind a dumpster in Oakland, California. The kittens were a rarity in the feline world because they had a dad at home, if they could be said to have a home. Dad was a handsome black cat with a round face and a vague recollection of once having been a house cat. He had a feeling that if you located a cat person, one who had cat food in the house, it was a simple thing to persuade them to put out another dish on the porch for the stray cat. I mean, it's just one cat.
The stray cat became “Lover Boy,” for his tendency to hang out with various female cats. One of the females became a regular on the porch, too. She was a a black and white cat who became “Tuxedo.” The surprise came when the couple—as committed as cats can be—showed up with the previously mentioned litter of kittens. A kitty nuclear family, all in time for dinner.
My sister called me. “You've been making noises about getting a cat. Now would be a good time.” Theoretically, I could get a cat and make it work. Mark, my husband, was allergic to cats but I am a mad researcher and had discovered work-arounds for that. You did certain things to the house (doing regular cleaning, going for leather instead of cloth upholstery), the allergic person (Zyrtec, Nasonex) and the cat (regular combing and some variety of bathing, plus restricting its access to the bedroom). I proposed the possibility of getting a cat now to Mark, and showed him a chart I had made with three columns: House, Human and Cat. Mark is seduced by planning. A project plan concretizes a harebrained scheme, and Mark agreed to the kitten.
Well, kittens. One of the pivotal components of the plan is that you have two cats. One cat needs to sleep in the bed with you. Two cats have each other to cuddle with. (This works with dogs as well.) I can say things like “if you're allergic, two cats work better than one cat” with a straight face. Mark began to experience pleasant anticipation. He really likes cats. The only thing against them is the allergy. My sister and I set about catching me a couple of feral kittens. She lured them into her house with cat toys and got two of them playing and we snatched them up. Mine, the girl, all black like her dad, wiggled out of my hands. I had forgotten to consider that I had dire carpal tunnel and couldn't hold onto anything. The girl was free for a few more days. The cat formerly known as Tuxedo Jr, however, was caught, though he got his licks in with a tiny, savage bite to my index finger.
I took the black and white kitten home and tamed it obsessively. Really. I knew chapter and verse about taming kittens, and I had an agenda. These cats were going to be, as I thought of it, manipulable, so that I could do all the recommended allergy stuff on them. Fortunately, the kitten was particularly talented. I let him get used to his environment one whole day. I spent the night on the floor with him, but left him alone. Then I spent the next day on petting lessons. The third day, he had an epiphany. Cat epiphanies are lovely to watch. I held him on my lap for his 30-second desensitization exercise, and his face suddenly lit up. He looked like he was hearing angelic music. He turned his little cheek up to my scratching finger, then he leaned into my stomach and purred with a sound larger than himself. I called him “little miracle” — Milagrito.
That evening, my sister came over with the other kitten, which she had managed to corner. As per the advice on the internet, we had fixed a separate room for her, which you do to make the cat bond with you and not their sibling. I spent the night on my own bed and slept deeply, having lost sleep the last couple of nights. My sister and husband listened to the new kitten scream to her brother. She was, they told me later, astonishingly, heartbreakingly loud. My sister decided the hell with the professional advice, she was going to put the kitten in with her brother. They both quieted down. The next day, my husband and I were discussing a name for the new kitten. We thought we wanted a Spanish name. Mark asked, “is there a name like “siren,” because that's what she sounds like?” So she became Sirenita.
The cats became my muses. How that happened is not clear to me. Perhaps because they created a special space inside my stressed, busy life where I was not in a posture of vigilance, bracing for the next shock in the 15-year saga of my mother's illness. I was content to watch them. I had to watch them closely in order to teach them the trust I wanted them to learn, especially as they turned out to have respiratory and eye infections. We had to bond if I was to put medicine in their eyes. I had to slow down, quiet down, to a cat emotional pace if I was to bond with them. With the kittens, there was both entertainment and empty, waiting time. The time began to fill with song lyrics. Out of nowhere, silly, funny cat words to old songs started popping into my head.
I was puzzled. I'd never done any creative writing at all, and I was producing a stream of catterel (doggerel for cats). I took my songwriting seriously, checking on original lyrics with the purpose of producing a genuine parody. I amused most of my family (though one sister gets a pained look) with my cat Christmas carols. It was a funny aberration for a number of years, my cat songs. Then my husband stumbled upon Catster, a friend site for your cats. I thought it was flickr for cats, and I had him make Milagrito a page. I discovered that my cat's page had a “diary” section. Milagrito became a blogger. I worked on a voice for the cat, as distinct from mine--or what mine would have been, if I'd had a writing voice. I have always been a storyteller, and the cats produced a certain number of funny stories. There was the time he got into the remodeling and got all yucked up and had to have a bath. There was the time he got out while we were at the opera and got in a fight. One of his best stories was about the time we had a rat in the treadmill, and I accidentally crushed the poor thing. Milagrito called it a terrible waste that I threw it in the trash.
I was not on the internet nearly as much as I am these days, but once in a while I needed to create a login, if only to post a comment or ask a question. I used my other cat's name on those occasions, because Sirenita sounds like something I might really be called. Sirenita, the diminutive for “sirena” is usually understood as “little mermaid” in Spanish. Just like I made up a back story for Milagrito (he's the feline pope in exile, in case you need spiritual guidance) I created a story about Sirenita coming from a colony of mercats in Oakland's Lake Merritt. Life was tough back then, and the cat songs, stories and online play-acting were my main diversion at a time when I had a restrained social life, no libido to speak of, and faltering ability to do my various beloved physical activities.
One day, I had to create a login to post a question on an aquarium site. I thought of it as Sirenita's aquarium, because she sat by it for hours, trying to catch the angelfish, who in turn, thought Sirenita was there to feed her. It was a delightful misunderstanding. The site, the name of which I don't remember, so let's call it aquariumgeek.com, asked me to create a login. I agreed and entered “Sirenita.” The site, however, required a full name and would not let me post a question unless my cat had a last name as well. Sirenita Lake, the mercat from Oakland's charming and skuzzy artificial lake, was born.
Open Salon was still years away. I still had to be laid off my job at the computer company, go to law school, crash physically to the point where it appeared that I had a neurological disease and was housebound for months. I never stopped caring about people, trying to help anyone I could, even using my legal expertise a bit, but I was entering a new phase in my life. I had to think about myself all the time, because I had to know what was happening to me and what to do about it. I did a lot of research, looked into treatments for hepatitis and surgical methods of restructuring a backbone. During the darkest period, I planned my suicide. It was easier to contemplate that then to think of becoming increasingly disabled from my mystery neurological condition. I had just spent 15 years dealing with my mother's slow decline from Alzheimer's disease. I was not going there, ever, not while I had bullets for my .38 or there were cliffs to drive off.
Animals have a way of giving up sometimes, when they know they are caught. I've seen a cat do it. Fight like hell, then go limp. I did that, though more slowly. I gave up a bit at a time, with grief and anger but with diminishing resistance. The person I had constructed, the one who was a technical writer, who could teach, who studied law, who was physically gifted, was lost to me. There was nothing left but me, the essential me. No status, no money, no role, no job title. Somewhere I started to accept that. Because I'm fidgety by nature, as well as cat-inquisitive, I began to wonder if there was anything interesting about me. If there was anything that I could still do.
And there was. I could write. I could communicate with people. I could connect on a purely social level, for no other reason than to be connected to other people. It was a novel idea, that life could be about social connection rather than striving for goals or dealing with crises, mine and everyone else's. Giving up my constructed identity left space to do some navel-gazing. I'm still uncomfortable with it, not having been raised to believe that one's self—one's emotions, one's interpersonal adventures—was an appropriate topic for writing. It was easier to start by writing cat humor. But I am slowly finding a way for it to be okay to be my own subject, even on topics as personal as my late-stage sex life. A theory of art perhaps, or a theory of microcosm, where what happens to me has some relevance to other people, if only because they can say, “I'd hate to be her.”
Several things happened all at once. I had hip replacement surgery and it relieved the stress on my back to an unexpected degree. I became far more mobile than I had any expectation of being. In a bout of laziness, I quit smoking. Probably as the result of giving up my ambitions and the associated stress, my libido recovered completely, like a Monty Python character that wasn't dead yet. Six, the Six-Toed Monster was dying and I needed a distraction, so I dashed off an essay about something that was bothering me, media fascination with the sex lives of public figures. I showed it to my husband, who said I should post it on Open Salon. As I had with Catster, I let him make me a page and when he asked what name to use, I said, Sirenita Lake. It was a throw-away, the multipurpose screen name, until I was drawn into OS. My work here gave that name an identity, my new identity. I colored her in for the first time. I became Sirenita Lake.