Thanks to cat urine and old essays, columnist Ryan Bradford realized even he is capable of change

An orange cat sitting in a box of litter
Thanks to his cats’ no-nonsense attitudes, columnist Ryan Bradford learned a lesson in change.
(BiancaGrueneberg/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Two recent experiences have given me profound insight to change. Or specifically, how I cope with it.

Like most great life lessons, the first one was based in and around cat pee.

During the final days of 2020, that was my life: cat urine. My world was drenched with it. If there’s a better, more poetic encapsulation for that incredibly acidic, toxic, tear-inducing year, I don’t want to hear it.

Long story short: I wanted to change my cats’ litter from the clay variety to pine pellet bedding, which I’d heard was easier on their paws and less likely to end up tracked through the house.

My fatal mistake was when I made the switch, cold turkey. Anyone with cats knows they’re as adaptable to change as your Fox News-obsessed grandparents. My cats peered into their boxes, saw the new material, and then looked at me like what are you trying to pull?

If I had consulted just one of the many videos on how to transition a cat’s litter on the internet, I’d have known that the transition is a process. The sudden change I threw at my cats was like if someone had suddenly filled my toilet with, um, cedar pellets. I’d probably find another spot to go.

So that’s what my cats did.

Smash cut to me loading an armful of dripping blankets into the washing machine.

I mean, it was my fault (if your relationship with your cat isn’t a cycle of abuse, do you even have a cat?). As indignant as it was to pour detergent on soiled bedding while staring dead-eyed into the middle distance, I couldn’t really get mad at my cats because I, too, have an aversion to sudden change. This is why I don’t often do New Year’s resolutions. I’d love to get in shape or lose weight or run a marathon or literally anything that would benefit my health, but to do those requires significant lifestyle changes, and they force me to break the routines I’ve set up.

And for an anxious brain like mine, The Routine is scripture. Hitting every point on my daily routine is a better dopamine kick than any drug I’ve ever done. This is why I’ll stay at a toxic job for years or eat at the same restaurants week after week. Deviation from the routine is scary.

So, with the urine blankets swirling in soapy water, I climbed into my car and booked it to the pet store to pick up a bucket of the old litter. When there’s an opportunity to retreat from change, I do so with a quickness.

The second insight to change came when I was going through an old box unearthed from my storage shed. It has accompanied me through so many moves that I had forgotten its contents, so I was filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation to discover that it was filled with papers I’d written for my ninth and tenth grade English classes.

It turns out I was not great at English, at least not in the beginning. A paper on Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” received a C+. Another assignment — an in-class essay on George Orwell’s “1984,” which I considered to be my favorite book at the time — got a B. Based on my teacher’s notes, I didn’t adequately address how foreshadowing plays into the theme, and only provided a colorful summary of the book instead. (My favorite line: “Winston hooks up with Julia.”).

I remember being disheartened by these middling grades. Throughout elementary and middle school, I considered myself an excellent student. I was in the 4.0 Club in sixth grade. (Sidenote: I didn’t have many friends in sixth grade).

I liked school and thought it was easy. Well, except for math. Pre-algebra can go to hell. But ninth grade English was a slap in my mediocre face, a reminder of how unremarkable I actually was.

As I flipped through the box of old papers, however, I noticed my grades improved. By the end of 10th grade, my B’s had turned to A’s.

I can’t remember exactly what spurred this progressive shift, but it proved to me that, at one point in my life, I was capable of change. And I believe I still am, as long as it’s gradual, incremental and patient. For example, I’ve taken up skateboarding this year after a long time yearning to do it, but being too scared. At 36, the fear of getting hurt is incredible — you don’t have to worry about health insurance premiums when you’re a kid —but now, after taking my board out a few times, I can confidently skate on a smooth patch of asphalt at a moderate pace without falling. Baby steps.

I know this probably doesn’t seem like a novel concept, and “we’re all capable of change” actually seems more stock motivational-speaker-y than profound, but it’s the start of new year after a historically depressing one, so I’m going to roll with it. Not every revelation needs to be monumental. Changing for the better is difficult, but I know I can do it.

I know we can do it, even if it takes time. Start by adding just a few pine pellets to the regular litter, figuratively and literally. I mean, if I’m capable of change, then everybody is.

We’re not cats.