Monday, November 15, 2010

Copy-Cat ! (Or: Burchfield Rips Off a Jon Carroll Cat Column)

Over the past eight years, I’ve seldom written about our cat Flo, a gem-like but goofy and affectionate calico. This is not due to any weeny sense of privacy, but, partially, because I didn’t want my work to be seen as a pale shadow of the fine and famous Cat Columns by famous San Francisco Chronicle Cat Owner, Jon Carroll.

[5:45 a.m.: The World-famous Cat Columnist Jon Carroll suddenly sits up in bed, antennae shivering with alarm in the cold
dawn. Something is wrong! Rising quickly, he slips feet into slippers and wraps self in bathrobe.]

My main reason for not writing more often about our dear Flo is that there’s not much to say about her beyond “Yup, she sure is sweet, ain’t she?”

[5:50 a.m.: Carroll trips over cat Bucket and falls on face while rushing down hallway to office.]

I first saw Flo’s green button eyes staring vacantly up at me while on my first visit to Elizabeth’s apartment in 2002. Not many brains in this one, I thought.

Later, I caught Flo curling about on the kitchen counter—a Place Upon Which Cats Do Not Belong (though They Behave Otherwise). Before I could remove her, she stood on her hind legs, put her paws on my shoulder and crawled into my arms, swelling into a purr that melted the granite cockles of my heart.

Uh-oh, I thought. Oh my . . . I couldn't put her down, even after she started to drool on me.

[6:05 a.m.: Bearded lips quivering, Carroll gapes in horrific disbelief  at computer screen: “This . . . this is an OUTRAGE!”]

Later that evening, after a pleasurable time spent combing my fingers through the sumptuous fur of this ecstatic creature, I rose from the couch and walked across the room, only to feel a batting at my feet. I turned to look: It was Flo, chasing after me, with her odd, whisper-soft hiss, her eyes wide with outraged bafflement as she swatted at my ankles: Hey! Come back here! Pet Flo! Then she sat on perfect point, staring up at me, her eyes wide with hope. 

Suitably chastened, I returned to the couch.

[6:20 am: Carroll fires off angry cease-and-desist e-mail to Alleged Plagiarizer.

6:25 a.m.: After an angry response to reply from someone named “Norman Mailer Demon,” Carroll shoots highest-priority e-mails to Chronicle Editorial Board, requesting emergency meeting.

6:28 a.m.: Carroll discovers that cat Pancho has figured out control-alt-delete.]

Most Cat Stories start like this: “I always thought cats were dumb, but one day. . . .” Then comes the tale about flushing toilets; playing fetch, hide and seek, and the piano; ringing doorbells; sounding the alarm when the house catches fire; catching the burglar; stealing chess pieces, hiding them, then leading you to them; signaling it’s time to take the yummy medicine by jumping up on the chair, right when you have the dropper in hand.

Cats are certainly not smart like dogs, but the smart ones reveal an often startling, opportunistic intelligence and awareness. If they were human, crime rates would be three times what they are. But they also display a fierce devotion toward their people equal to that displayed by dogs. I’ve bonded with cats without going within ten feet of the food dish.

I have no Smart Cat Stories about Flo. She’s a WYSIWYG cat. To me, sociability equals smarts in cats, but Flo is an odd exception--dumb as a dust mop, loves all who pass gently through her small rounded world (except, of course, for Other Kitties).

[6:40 a.m.: Carroll trips over Bucket, falls on face while rushing out to car.] 

Elizabeth and I have a dumb goofy cat. That’s all.

Example: Flo does not steal food. We could leave a steaming hot chicken and tuna dinner out on the dining table, go out to a movie and it’ll still be there, untouched, when we return. Though Flo may sniff around it, she won’t eat it.

Does this mean Flo is an Trustworthy Incorruptible Kitty, the Eliot Ness of Felines, one who would never stoop to stealing the Food of Her Masters?

Not at all. It means simply this: If it’s not in a dish, on the kitchen floor, it’s not food!

“Yup,” you say, “that’s a dumb cat, alright.”

[8:00–11:00 a.m.: During tense, three-hour meeting with Chronicle Editors, Carroll anxiously proposes options for dealing with new challenge to Cat Column Monopoly. Urges copyright lawsuit and trade marking of such terms as “cat,” “Bucket and Pancho,” and “kibble.”

11:00 a.m: Carroll storms out of meeting after suggestion that he get a dog and write about that instead.]

Cats are said to be “snobby,” “aloof,” “independent.” We’re only their “staff” and all that. I must disagree. I’ve bonded with many cats in my life, and after eight years of living day in and day out with Flo, I conclude that cats are none of those things.

The truth is this: Cats are babies.  

Cats are stuck in an eternal kittenhood, are deeply dependent on their owners and are as domesticated as dogs. The fact that feral cats (the so-called free-living kind) live on average only five miserable years, while fighting off parasites, other cats, dogs and car traffic, while your housebound cat lives up to twenty years (even outlasting many dogs), should settle the matter.

Without us, cats live hard and die early. To me, that’s a pretty human-dependent animal.

[12:15 p.m: Carroll returns home, finds cats have changed locks on doors. Attempts to gain access through cat door.]

Their image of independence could be, I suspect, due to our projection of flattering ideas of ourselves on this sometimes opaque creature. One thing seems true—their stealth and opacity makes them a good subject for whimsical, absurd flights of humor.

[2:48 p.m.: Carroll finally extricates self from cat door, finds entire neighborhood has gathered to stare. Carroll is told that Bucket and Pancho are now posting “Jon Carroll Columns” on the Internet.

“Cats!” Carroll shakes fist at sky. “Damn them!”]

Flo is truly a Wonder Cat. As in, “I wonder when Mom’s coming home?” “I wonder when the Big Friendly Giant’s gonna break out the Wonderful Blue Brush?” and “I wonder why they’re using my water dish as a toilet?”


Life with Flo is one sweet and simple puff of delight after another: the way she lies on top of my hand (another one of All the Things that Belong to Flo); how she snuggles in my armpit on cold nights; the way she runs in front of me when I walk into the bedroom at night, looking up at me in hope that
I’ll pick her up (which I may or may not do).

[3:30 p.m.: Carroll rushes into Internet cafe. Review of Bucket and Pancho’s “Jon Karel Kolum” site shows 1,000,000 views since morning and offer of column space at The New Yorker. Carroll’s page views: minus 10.

 Cuter than Bucket . . . cuter than Pancho . . . put Together!

You wouldn’t know it from the photos, but Flo is an old girl now, her joints creaky, her stomach touchy to anything but special kibble. Still, her jewel-like charm and kitten spirit shine bright and Mom and I are happy to be the Greatest Things in Flo World. Even with her low-wattage brain, she’s one of the great cats of my life.

[4:45 p.m.: Carroll goes to animal shelter, brings home dog.]

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield 

Photos by author

Re-edited 11/18/10

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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