Saturday, January 22, 2005

In Memory of a Cat

Our family cat passed away a few months ago after a long illness (of which some will suggest was, in fact, the condition of being a cat itself). I wrote this article some time ago and had planned to forward it to any number of pet magazines, but realized it would only put them off their Purina Pet Magazine Employee Chow. In tribute to our cat, and cats everywhere, I instead offer it to you faithful reader. I say "reader" because I suspect there is only one of you out there.


Why I Am A Cat Owner... A Tale of Masochism

At this point I unfortunately must admit something that no self-respecting individual who aspires to write humor should admit. I do not own a dog. Even more shamefully I must confess that, in fact, I own a cat. That’s right I own a mouse retrieving, litter box soiling, hairball chucking feline.

At this point most confirmed cat people are snidely thinking to themselves, “No my friend, you don’t own cats, cats own you” or perhaps the naturalistic aphorism, “you don’t own a cat, you merely house and feed is a thing of the wild”. While these fine chestnuts of wisdom are no doubt, to some extent true (and older than most of the dirt on the Moon), I prefer to classify my relationship with our cat as that of owner to pet. Call it denial if you will. Call me a blithering loon if you must. However, in this way of thinking, I, at the very least, retain some illusion of dignity. I realize there are some people who object to calling any animal a pet, so for those of you at PETA, let me warn you that I’m just finishing off my third double cheeseburger and any comments you care to send in or protests you wish to stage will only result in my driving down to the nearest Western Sizzlin’ and taking out my frustrations on the largest Porterhouse steak I can latch on to. (Actually, in all honesty I had Braunschwieger for dinner but burgers sounded more threatening to the sensibilities of the average PETA member, and I use the word average loosely. I doubt that most people at PETA could tell you where Braunschwieger comes from, much less pronounce it. Of course, I can’t pronounce it either. I can barely spell it.)

Most people in the world of humor prefer dogs. Dave Letterman owns dogs. Dave Barry has a couple and they provide him with more verbiage in a month than that found in the Starr Report. (Come to think of it, there are a lot of people in the humor world named Dave also. Perhaps it has something to do with the letter D?)

Clinton owns a dog also. (so much for the D thing.) I realize that Clinton is not a humorist per say, but he is the source for much of the material found on the air and in print this previous year and I would not be surprised in the least to discover that his dog Buddy was responsible in some way for part of it. (“What are you trying to tell me Buddy? Go into the Oval Office? There’s an Intern in need of comfort?”). Actually I don’t find Clinton at all funny but the publisher says scandal sells magazines so there you have it.

Meanwhile, I have a cat. A feline. A pointy clawed, purring, destroyer of all furniture. A bug hunting, string obsessed, dinner stealing, fur ball of havoc.

I must point out at this point that it was not a personal choice. In fact, I have owned three cats in my life and not one of them was purchased from a store or given to me by a friend or co-worker, or even won in the National Lottery. All of them found my family and I, so to speak.

You know how it starts. You come home one day and sitting at your door is this cute little purring puffball that rubs up against your shin and looks up at you as if to say, “Are you my Daddy? I love you even if you aren’t!” Of course this is a fiendishly clever illusion. What the cat is really telling you is, “Listen bub, it’s friggin' cold out here and I haven’t eaten anything since a dried up noodle I managed to dig out of a half finished Healthy Choice frozen entree’ four days ago... there’s more meat in a head of cabbage...give me chicken now or I’ll julienne your ankles!”

Rather than being properly revolted, this illusion seems to create the strange and sudden desire in most people to begin talking to the cat much in the same way they inexplicably talk to newborns... as if they’d just consumed a fifth of Vodka and then smashed the bottle over their heads. Frequently some of us feel compelled to toss in a couple of meows, as though we were capable of directly communicating with the cat in its own native tongue. Usually the cat ignores this nonsense recognizing that a.) This idiot who thinks they can speak “cat” is my potential meal ticket, so I’d better spare his ankles, and b.) Even if this person sounds the least bit feline, I as a cat, am too stupid to even comprehend what those of my own kind are saying, so I’ll just play along with this moron until I get a bite to eat.

Of course, a certain percentage of the human population does not buy into this illusion. Their normal response is to suddenly react as if they were Garo Yepremian and the cat was a pigskin of the NFL variety. This is probably a good thing as throwing a cat is highly impractical unless you think that scar tissue is fashionable and enjoy seeing out of only one eye. Of course throwing a pigskin is highly impractical also, if your name is Garo Yepremian.

The first cat my family ever owned showed up on our porch one day begging for rotisserie chicken. My mother, who was the chief victim of the incessant attentions of our Pomeranian (a type of dog for those of you in PETA), immediately fell in love with the idea of owning (possessing, whatever...) a cat. The immediate result of this was that our dog suddenly became the victim of constant, systematic and diabolical torture as is the case whenever a large tabby is introduced into a home with a small, vocal dog.

The primary mode of torture was the hit and run. Our dog, named Whiskey Sour (presumably because of the color of his coat and not because we happen to have a large bar in the house) was getting on in years and very much enjoyed his afternoon naps. The cat, named Garfield because American children lack the kind of imagination required to give animals proper names like Grand Champion Artemis or Sea Biscuit, would stealthily approach the dog from behind and then go into the famous cat attack crouch. This crouch routine, well known to cat lovers and other eccentrics, consists of the cat scrunching up its body, raising up its back and wiggling its behind like a middle-aged woman trying to squeeze into a pair of Calvin Klein’s.

Our cat would perform this intricate routine and then, at the precise moment the slightest realization began to settle in our dog’s pretzel shaped brain that something was about to happen, lunge at him, gently tap him on the back with a paw, and then prance away casually the way a college girl plays hard to get around randy geriatrics (I went to a strange college). Then, as soon as the dog reached a comfort zone and settled back into his nap, the cat would repeat the process again, proving the difficulty of teaching an old dog anything, and also that cats, despite their cuddly nature, are complete sadists at heart.

This constant cycle meant that the dog slept little if any, and only when the cat slept, which was never. I learned this at night as I had the only bedroom on the first floor of our flat. Many nights the noise of something being jostled would wake me. The first thing I would notice was the gentle pace of padded feline feet moving about the house. The sound would ebb and flow as the cat passed my room, interrupted only by the occasional ruckus of the cat pouncing past the dog if he happened to be stupid enough to sleep downstairs that given night. Sometimes this gentle footfall would find its way into my room, quietly making its way round the side of my bed. This was usually followed by an unnerving silence, which lasted as long as it took for my curiosity to compel me to raise up my head and glance over the side of the bed. The cat, which had been waiting the whole time for this response, would then slap both of his paws together as though sounding the cymbals in the William Tell Overture. The only difference is that my head was directly in the center of this maneuver, meaning that each little cat paw would smack me in the cheeks. This happened frequently, proving the difficulty of teaching a secondary school student anything. It also explains what my classmates thought was very peculiar acne. (My nickname was "Spotty-Streaky Face".)

The cat would also make the traditional psychotic cat runs. This amazingly stupid phenomenon occurs at any given moment during the day when the years of catnip the animal has been exposed to suddenly and ferociously kick in. The physical description of the event goes thus: Your cat will be engaged in relatively placid behavior, usually sitting or laying down, occasionally walking. Suddenly, without any sign of external stimuli, the cat’s eyes will open wide and the beast will break into a full speed dash, a look of wild panic on its face. The animal will then run around frantically as though it were being pursued by a swarm of rabid bats until the catnip flashback wears off, or the cat has to go to the bathroom, or is distracted by a large piece of cooked meat.

Garfield would perform this maneuver at least fifty times a day, despite the fact that we had never given him catnip at any time and the bar was always locked. The interesting thing about Garfield’s psychotic cat runs is that whereas most cats go around any obstacles that might happen to be in their way, such as furniture, toys, people, and small, frightened dogs, Garfield simply went over them. We eventually learned not to nap for long on the couch in the den as this was invariably in the path of his most regular route, as psychotic cat runs go. While the physical scars have healed, the painful memories remain. Sometimes my stomach still cramps involuntarily whilst lying on a sofa.

Cats are also good for a fight, even if they don’t know who they’re fighting. Garfield demonstrated this wildly unpredictable behavior (yet another) when a gray tabby happened to creep up to our sliding glass back door one evening. This tabby recognized that Garfield was at the time, strictly an indoor cat, and proceeded to taunt him for all he was worth in traditional cat fashion. This meant that he walked back and forth in front of the glass with his tail high in the air, stopping periodically as if to sneer, “Indoor wuss!” It should be pointed out here that cats are on the low end of the witticism scale in the animal kingdom, just below the skink and only slightly above teenage humans.

Despite the lameness of this display, Garfield, being a cat, became agitated and began to emit a steady, low howl that resembled the sound a broken police siren might make. He stared intently at his tormentor, making it clear in cat terms that if the door were so much as cracked open an inch, he would leave him feeling as though he had just French kissed the business end of a chain saw.

This odd display of feline machismo eventually and tragically attracted the attentions of our dog. He had obviously heard the peculiar noises emanating from our cat and decided, in a fit of happy-go-lucky optimism, to check out the situation. As he entered the room, he noticed the cat outside the window and his pace quickened. I imagine sometimes that he thought to himself, “A common foe! Finally we can work together... develop some mutual self-respect... call a truce...I can sleep at night!” He dashed up to the side of our cat, who was still fixed intently on the intruder. He sized up the common enemy and in a proud and fraternal burst of defensive courage let out a sharp bark of warning at the intruder... and was promptly attacked by our cat.

In the cat’s defense it could probably be said that after a full 90-120 seconds of lame cat taunting and intense staring, he was worked up to the point where he would have attacked an 18 wheeler had its driver stealthily driven up behind him and then had the temerity to blast the air horn. Nonetheless, our dog, being somewhat frailer and considerably more nervous than a big lorry, was induced into a sudden state of shock as our cat proceeded to attach each one of its 700 claws into him simultaneously. This all happened in about the time it takes the U. S. Federal Government to spend a nickel. It took us about twenty minutes to disengage the cat from the dog (I’m exaggerating a little... it was a small dog after all), and I’m not sure the dog ever barked with visual range of the cat again.

My wife and I owned another cat with proclivities towards combat. He was an angular Siamese (is there any other kind...I have yet to see a portly one) named Basil, after John Cleese's character in the British television series “Fawlty Towers”. We named him this because of his lean, angular body and because, like Basil Fawlty, he would go ballistic the moment his little cat nerves became overstimulated, which happened to be any time he was conscious.

I am told that all Siamese are cross-eyed. I do not know if this is true, but Basil definitely was. In fact, he was so cross-eyed I’m almost certain that Basil’s eyes spent a good deal of time circling into the back of his head, staring at his own cerebellum, or at least trying to find it.

This led to a number of misunderstandings between he and us. They would go something like this. One of us would see Basil sitting in the hallway, or lying on the sofa. Believing most of the warm, fuzzy fiction written about the hell beasts known as cats, we would naturally want to pet him or playfully scratch him behind the ear, certain there’s nothing he’d like better. We would gently reach out our hand and Basil, seeing dozens of hands swarming to claw his little crossed eyes out, would quite naturally swat madly at them until fingers began to fall off. Thankfully, about 80% of the time he would get one of the non-existent hands.

Sometimes, out of frustration I imagine, he would forgo any pretense of claws and merely lunge at us with his fangs. He soon gained the nickname Cobra-cat because of this odd and puncture-inducing behavior.

Our present cat, named Kitty because we didn’t expect to keep her and felt a name would merely create some sort of a bond (funny now how that didn’t work), is in many ways a typical cat except that she is very stupid as cats go. In her defense, she is endearingly so. She does the psychotic cat runs even now although at age 12 or so they are more or less psychotic lunges. In her younger days she used to amaze us with her ability to run across the vertical side of the couch. We lived in a town house at the time and her favorite maneuver was to hurtle down our steep flight of stairs as if John Elway had thrown her, then make a sudden 90 degree turn toward the couch and turn into it running along its side. It was a the kind of thing NASCAR drivers could do on a banked track if there was no law of gravity and the racing occurred on the fences at the top of the curves. It was as remarkable as the scenes in 2001 where the astronaut jogs in a complete upside down circle. Of course, the astronaut didn’t have 4-inch claws he could dig into the material.

This brings us to Kitty’s favorite hobby (after the number one universal cat hobby, eating). She has apparently made it her personal goal to destroy every piece of furniture we own and much of the walls and doors as well. They say that those who cannot build will destroy. Our gray little cat has made this axiom her religion. Presently, her favorite target is the lovely living room sofa I bought my wife for her birthday a few years ago. She can regularly be found dragging herself from one end to the other solely by her claws. If I didn’t know better, I'd swear she was imitating Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. I imagine that, frustrated by the fact that age has robbed her of the ability to perform her gravity defying runs along the side of the couch (or perhaps the lack of a flight of stairs in our new home prevents her from building up the necessary speed), she has decided to slowly rip it to shreds instead by using it as some sort of cat stairmaster.

Discipline is useless when it comes to cats. They neither understand nor honor the concept. We have tried a number of methods from a stern voice, to a quick (but harmless, lest the PETA readers swoon) swat with the palm of the hand, to a water spray bottle. She responds the same to each. She recoils in what appears to be terrified, mind numbing fear. Typically, she flees as quickly as possible to a place of relative seclusion, and then, having a small walnut in place of her brain, she returns to the very same activity the moment she is distracted from her fear by hunger, noise, or her own bodily gas. I suppose psychologists might say that cats disassociate from the awful trauma of having a person shout “Bad Kitty! No claws! No claws!” or “Stupid Cat! Stop that!”. I prefer to think of the phenomenon as the ultimate proof that cats have the IQ of a salt lick.

I mean, let’s face it, other than purring and catching the occasional mouse, what practical contribution can a cat make to a household unless you find something practical about having your feet viciously attacked in the middle of the night if they so much as twitch under the covers. Our cat Kitty couldn’t even get the mouse part right. The only mouse she ever caught, she proudly brought into our old town house, firmly clamped between her jaws. The moment the wife and I exclaimed, “She’s got a mouse!” Kitty’s jaw went slack as though to exclaim, “A mouse? Where?!?” It was at this point we realized that she had not even bothered to kill the poor thing and it immediately began to dash about the house as we and our bemused cat pursued it. It finally went behind the water heater where I, with an old pair of soccer ("football" for you purists) goalkeeping gloves was able to capture the frightened rodent and release it unharmed into the wild. I did not bother to examine the mouse to see if it had a stroke, although I certainly felt as though one was imminent. The whole time our genius of a cat was darting back and forth, looking at the mouse, occasionally glancing over to me as if to say, “You’re gonna give that thing back to me when you get it, right?” Either that or she was thinking, “So THAT’S what a mouse looks like!” No wonder the world champion mouser listed in Guiness is a terrier.

So why a cat? Why not a dog? Dogs are useful. They fetch your shoes, which is a pretty good trick if you don’t mind walking around with slobber oozing between your toes. They fetch the paper also, which is likely the reason it’s delivered in those nice plastic wrappers these days.

Dogs can defend your home. Of course I’m not including chihuahuas or toy poodles, which couldn’t defend themselves against a gust of wind, despite the furious barking and snarling they will unleash the moment any noise reaches their little nervous system, real or imagined.

Still, I have a cat. Our cat’s idea of home defense is to dash under the nearest piece of furniture still left standing whenever the doorbell rings. If severely threatened though she may, without warning, cough up an extremely moist hairball. It may have grass on it too if she’s been outside recently. Yes, she eats grass, and at this point I feel as if I have attracted the attention of any ex-hippies reading this. For some reason, not unlike the population of California, cats think that grass is medicinal. Doesn’t matter whether it’s crabgrass, bermuda, bentgrass or bluegrass, our cat will devour it and then, at the precise moment her head is inside one of my shoes, bring it back up with all the force of the tidal wave in the movie “The Poseidon Adventure”. I kid you not, this has happened at least twice. Both times my shoe turned upside down and then a tiny Ernest Borgnine climbed up out of the hole in the sole.

Still, call me a loon, but cats can be amusing sometimes. Our present cat has this peculiar habit of sticking her tongue out when she’s happy, as if she were Michael Jordan dunking a basketball. (I'm not sure if he does this when dunking donuts.) At least we think she’s happy. It’s really hard to tell with cats. They don’t wag their tails and I’ve read that cats will purr when both happy and in excruciating pain so that’s not much help either. In fact, it’s an incredibly stupid way to express oneself, a bit like moaning to convey that the temperature of the bath water is just right.

Our cat though will be walking along and you might say something innocuously nice to her like, “Good Kitty!”. Her little gray cat head will swing around and her tongue will be stuck out as though she was so surprised to hear you say something nice that she forgot to pull it back in. I’ve often been tempted at those moments to ask if the “cat had got her tongue” before I would remember that she’s the cat. Please allow me to apologize for that horrible attempt to include that particular cliche in this piece.

Our cat loves string also. In fact, she’s loopy for string. She actually stops eating for string, which is more than she would do for a nuclear holocaust. If you move the string correctly when she’s playing with it she will actually stand straight up and rapidly fling her paws up and down as though she was trying to climb a greased flag pole. In her younger days she would vault entire pieces of furniture to get at string. It was a rather entertaining sight, if we could get past the realization that she was slowly destroying the only things in the house we had to sit on besides the toilet.

She is very patient with kids as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her scratch my daughter once on purpose, despite the hundred or so tail-pullings our little one managed to inflict upon her at an early age. She never gets mad... although she does annoyingly wake us up at six in the morning to announce that her cat bowl is nearly half-empty.

I suppose that we love our cat as much as any pet owner (yes, “owner”, he said polishing off a plate of Buffalo Wings), although certainly not in the same way as those little old ladies who live with swarms of them, and who only appear to have shag carpeted floors because of the massive amounts of shed cat hair that have accumulated over the years. So I may never get much writing mileage out of our cats, and may never be able to wax eloquently about how my dogs can catch frisbees and knock over people (remember, we owned a Pomeranian...which is sort of a cute rat-sized dog with a fur-coat and curly tail). However, we’ll keep the cat and I’ll settle for this essay and evenings of confused purrs and erratic atheletics. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean my shoes.

No comments: