Saturday, January 28, 2012

Notes from a Cat Whisperer 2: Of Cats and Men

“Sheesh, what are you? A dog!?”


Before February 1964, I was a dog guy. Then, soon after the Beatles rolled ashore that bleak late winter, I read in some fan magazine that my favorite Fab, John Lennon, liked cats. Therefore, to be more like John Lennon, I announced I liked cats.

Sharing—big mistake. Sharing led to lofty, reflexive, dinner-table sneers from my much-older brothers, stabbed down on my little head: “A-HA! He just likes cats because John Lennon likes cats! Copycat! Phony!” Then followed a victory dance around the dining room table: Puny little brother had, once again, been proven a fool.

True, I was a copycat. But this truth didn’t last long.

We had a cat for me to like: an overweight, lumbering, tuxedo tom named Kuching (“cat” in Malaysian). Originally the cat of my oldest brother Christopher, Kuching became more or less my pal. He was an old beast and seemed to appreciate my attention. He came when I called; romped deliriously about when we fed him catnip; humped a softball we gave him to play with.

I cried when we left him behind with Christopher to move to the Midwest when I was eleven. He died not long afterward, as many older pets seem to do when taken from their homes.


One of the first lessons I learned as a boy from my other older brothers—whose Life Lessons too often proved unwise—is that liking cats is not manly.

Women are cat people, not men. It is unmanly to prefer the company of felines to canines. Men are supposed to be—should be, must be--dog guys, not cat guys. Dogs are manly pets, manly companions for manly men.

Cats, delicate and dainty, are feminine (I mean look at how a cat falls twenty feet out of a tree and walks away without a scratch. How girly can you get?)

To be a cat guy is so . . .  gay.

Dogs take direction. Dogs follow orders. They are a tribute to a manly man’s sense of power and control. Their obedience to their masters is a sign of unquestioned masculine power: “Behold! The odiferous groveling Beast does as I say! See my command of all I survey!”

Maybe I have less need of flattery.

 "G-get the hell out of my picture!"


“Cats are useless,” an uncle of mine once spat, his old smoky voice edged with a bitter disgust I knew well regarding other subjects. “They’re good for nothin’!”

Cats don’t take direction. You can play games with them like fetch and hide-and-go-pounce and the smarter ones display a prankish humor—stealing objects from under your nose and hiding them, stopping to look to make sure you follow. They can figure how to manipulate door knobs and water faucets with no training, but only, it seems, on their own initiative.

They can manipulate you too, the little bastards—mostly for food and attention (It’s those button-round eyes, goddamnit, that innocent goofy stare that melts my high castle walls.) They’ll get extremely jealous, will turn their backs and sulk when their feelings are hurt, say, when you don’t want to play. "Refuse to play with me, will you!? I'll go take a big dump on your fancy carpet! Ha!"

I won’t say they’re “independent” because that implies a degree of free will only humans have. Cats, as I’ve learned, are firmly dependent on their people. Don’t be fooled by their superb hunting skills into thinking they thrive in a feral state. The list of things that brutally shorten their lives, from cars, to bigger, meaner animals to (especially) parasites, means, for them, a short miserable life span. (Again: Keep the Cat Indoors!)

You can leave them alone overnight, but not for much longer. They want you home and soon.

But they are genuinely idiosyncratic critters. They live by a different agenda. They’re wired differently and so experience and relate to the world differently than we do.

They’re . . . cats . . . damn them!


They know we’re there, sense that we’re crucial to their well-being and happiness. Their big ears and superb hearing, indicate that our voices appeal to them in some way. We feed them, keep them safe and warm. Sometimes, it may seem they’re attuned to our moods, but that may be simple projection on our part.

They are resolutely self-centered pleasure whores: They love us for food, but also for making them feel good, for talking to them. At their most social, I believe, they do see us as their parent cats. As gods. But no matter how awestruck they may be, it’s still all about them. It’s like the acolyte running the church.

I’ve made friends with so many cats without ever going near a food dish, that I can say with easy confidence that when a cat sits at my feet, staring up at me, it’s not begging for food. It’s paying tribute. “You are a bringer of wonder and magic to my circumvented world. Make more magic!” And yeah, I’m flattered, even while simultaneously laughing my ass off: "So, I'm a god, am I? Oh, if you only knew . . . .”

What do we—meaning I—get out of all this?

Well, um . . . reduced rodent populations . . . I guess . . . .

That’s about it for pragmatic considerations. Their little jaws are ill-suited for carrying pipe, slippers, and newspapers. They’re not the most reliable fire alarms and are more likely to nuzzle a burglar than scare him off.

And when Timmy falls down the well, they’ll probably get distracted by some bug before they take ten steps toward home. An hour later, Timmy’s drowned and the cat is checking the kitchen clock: “Gee it’s kibble time, wonder where that Timmy kid is.”

A chicken is a more useful pet: At least you get eggs.

“Ohhhh, stop it, enough already!”


Loving cats is a little like believing in God. Within the icy, bladed frame of secular reason, science, and sniffy amoral pragmatism, there is no case to be made for it. Don’t even try. You look irrational and foolish. Given the lengths that, say, cat ladies go to with their appalling menageries, it can also be dangerous.

But there it is. Countless people, like me, welcome them into their homes, fall prey to their unconscious charms. We like their soft fur and soft purrs. Love from a cat can be just as intense (and sentimental) as that from a dog and even flattering in a way that dog love isn’t. It’s like a mysterious wall has fallen and a sweet surprise has come padding through, eyes wide and wondering: “Is that food? Wanna play? Pet me?”

It’s humiliating for a man to be seen making friendly with a cat. I feel my guy cred shear away, along with my independence and self-image as the no-nonsense, steely-eyed movie tough guy I thought I wanted to be.

Really, who’d ever want to see Clint Eastwood go “Oooooooo wook at d’ cuuuute puddy-puddy!”?  (Me, I'd give a week’s pay.)

By the way, my cattish tastes are another reason I never made it in show business. In near-absolute percentages, show people are dog people to nerve and marrow: that taking direction thing. Cats not only don’t show up on time, they’ve forgotten their lines, if they even read the script in the first place. (They’re also terrible actors. The only decent film performance I’ve ever seen given by a cat is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And let’s not get into their singing.)


It’s been over a year since our dear Flo passed (the first cat I’d lived with in over ten years). Much of what I’ve said here I learned from living with her. She was one of the dopiest cats I’ve known, but remarkably, also one of the most social, a combination I’ve never encountered before. To the day she died, she was like a baby. Nothing ever grew old. Every day was the world beginning again.

Now we’re living in a new place. No cats allowed or possible. I’m reduced to watching episodes of “Simon’s Cat” (which, among its other virtues, nicely portrays the weary exasperation of cat owners; the sense that the little delinquents are always up to something behind our backs  . . . damn them!). Flo lives in a framed photo we keep on the DVD shelf, on in our memories and scampering up to us, hopping across the bed, or just sitting at our feet staring up, as though dumbstruck. We’re left with the wariness of the neighborhood cats who, no matter how patient we are, keep their distance in their dangerous world.

Yeah . . . pathetic . . . .

But until then, there’s nothing to do, but wait until the wheel turns again.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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