Friday, April 25, 2014

It Is Not Cats Who Are Perverse but the Society in Which They Live

A few days ago, one of my closest friends told me that she and my other friends are concerned that I am becoming a 65 year-old crazy cat lady, and that my obsession with cats has become “pathological.”

Her comment made me realize that, in spite of my constant posting about my cats and their antics, I’ve never written about why my obsession with cats (and, particularly, my own cats) is so deep and intense. I wonder if doing so will illuminate some things about the roles of cats in our lives and our culture. So, I’ve decided to write a lengthy blog entry about it. After all, isn’t that what a 65-year-old crazy cat lady would do?

Exactly a year ago today, my partner J. called me from work to tell me that he’d found two tiny abandoned kittens, a black one and a gray one, on the doorstep of his office, huddling together to keep warm. He and his co-workers put them in a box and brought them to a shelter. The shelter employee said that she would have to euthanize the cats, because their eyes were swollen shut from an infection. They also had upper-respiratory infections. J. and his co-workers then brought them across the street to the vet. When J. put the box down, the gray kitten (who is now called Mel) jumped out of it, terrified, and ran straight into a wall because he couldn’t see. When the doctor reached into the box to pick up the black kitten (now called Stevie), she swatted and hissed at him so vigorously that he got scared and went flying against a shelf in the office. This introduction would tell us everything we'd need to know about their personality types.

The doctor said that, with some TLC and antibiotics, we could nurse the cats back to health and they could live happily as domestic cats. If J. had found them a week or two later, they would have turned feral. J. called me and asked if he could bring them home, so that we could revivify and possibly find a permanent home for them. I immediately said yes since, contrary to popular belief, I was obsessed with cats long before Stevie and Mel entered my life. I’ve always identified with them more than most humans, and even generally unfriendly ones are drawn to me. I think that cats immediately warm up to people who both love their weirdness and respect their boundaries, and I am the same way. 

Strangely, in the months before Stevie and Mel showed up on the doorstep, I had dreamt about cats a lot, and told J. I wanted to think about getting a pair of feline siblings to keep me company while I worked from home. I sometimes think that, like the Children of the Damned or the muses from Xanadu, Stevie and Mel were preparing me for their arrival through telekinetic brainwashing. They have those skills.

I remember looking down at the helpless kittens for the first time when Jason took the towel off of the box. I could tell that they were dangerously adorable, even though their fur was dirty and unhealthy, their eyes emanated green goo, and their faces were covered with crust. They were terrified of the gigantic monsters who had kidnapped them. Whenever one of us reached into the box to make contact with them, they’d hiss, but no noise would come out of their tiny throats. 

This, I think, is an important root of my obsession: They were terrified of us. They didn’t want us to touch or come near them. Gradually winning the trust, confidence, and love of these tiny, helpless creatures who had no reason to warm to any human was one of the most profound experiences of my life. As somebody who once hissed when touched—at least on an emotional level—again, I understood their experience. I think they knew.

I recently read a blog by a new mother about whether or not to show baby photos on the internet. She said, “I’d certainly rather look at pictures of babies than of cats.” I’m pretty sure that this is a common comparison, and a commonly held value system. I don’t—I really don’t—understand why cats are considered less worthy as the children of humans. I would find the notion that they are more worthy as the children of humans offensive, but I find the notion that they are less worthy as the children of humans unfair. How are feline children and human children different? Cats don’t grow beyond infant size. They are covered in fur. I suppose that they’re less intelligent, at least according to human standards of intelligence. They are likely to die before us, and will not be there for us when we’re old (something that does disturb me endlessly). Although I don’t have evidence to back this up, I suspect that the biggest reason that cats are invalidated as children is because they’re non-verbal, so they allegedly can’t communicate with us in any kind of nuanced way.

At the same time, cats and human children both need to be nurtured and loved in order to grow. Cats and humans both look at you adoringly because they know that you are their guardian. Cats and humans both absorb the characteristics of their guardians and emulate the family dynamics in their home (trust me, they do). Different cats have different relationships with each parent. As for verbal communication, I talk all the damned time. I have actually profoundly valued having the opportunity to learn to communicate non-verbally with my cats.

And if you say that I am projecting their personalities and responses onto them, then I say that you are totally wrong.

I often think that cats are de-valued in our society because they’re queer. I don’t mean queer as in homosexual, although that happens. I mean queer as in “disrupting the norms of society in ways that are disturbing to the majority of people.” Cats take more flack than dogs because dogs aim to please people. It’s like they all saw It’s A Wonderful Life and learned that all would be well if as many people as possible liked them. Cats, like me, would probably view It’s A Wonderful Life as toxic propaganda promoting co-dependency and excessive self-sacrifice.

Cats take care of themselves before taking care of others. They violate our society’s cultural hierarchy, which insists that the more helpless should take care of the dominant. I think it’s admirable. Inspiring.

Dogs jump around athletically and often try to engage with people, even strangers. I love dogs. I really love them. And I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that most of the ones I’ve met seem to belong in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Babies slowly learn to walk and engage like their parents. Unless they in some way grow up different...queer.

Mel walks around like Pepper LaBeija.

Stevie slinks like the love child of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky. She schemes like them, too. 

Queer. Socially disruptive. Evil? Misunderstood. Punk. Independent. Groundbreaking. Captivating. I think a lot of people don’t get it. The rest of us are the lucky ones.

I know that this is a totally crazy cat lady thing to say. But I find it hard to imagine that anybody wouldn’t be obsessed with these creatures. If you spend as much time observing cats as I do (since I work from home, and since I am fascinated by the behavior of all living things), it’s impossible not to be enthralled by their crazy dynamics and the sometimes inexplicable but definitely conscious decisions that they make. Why does Mel sometimes ONLY, repeatedly bring his fetched soccer ball to J., even if I’m the one who keeps throwing it? Why does he switch the dynamic another day?

Is Stevie purposefully disappearing and hiding every night before J. and I go to bed, because she knows that one of us will go looking for her to make sure that we didn’t accidentally lock her in the closet, and it will give her an extra opportunity to appear out of nowhere, run into the "off limits" bedroom, and hide in the closet?

Then, of course, there’s the love and support that they give to those who earn it. I can never lie on the couch and watch TV without Stevie insisting that I spoon her. As somebody who secretly craves a lot of validation and affection, it satisfies me emotionally that she always wants to climb on me, receive affection from me, and “mark” me as territory by rubbing her head on me. I both get annoyed by and adore the fact that if I don’t pay attention to her within one minute of her entering the room I’m in, she meows. Once, when a visiting friend started crying over a recent breakup, Stevie rushed over to comfort her.

Nothing feels better than Mel plopping down on my lap to watch a movie when I’m wearing his favored pajamas (I admit that he's likely to ignore me if I'm not). He sits enraptured during old, Technicolor musicals and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. He hates, HATES the MGM lion, the Poltergeist movies, and Madonna’s recent concerts. He prefers J. Crew quality flannel.

"They're back."

There is watching them grow bigger, and seeing their personalities and relationships to me, J., and each other change. Nothing has made me so aware of the passage of time, and it both excites and terrifies me. I think that this is exactly what parents of humans experience.

So if I am a Crazy Cat Lady, I celebrate it. You can send me to the guidance counselor. It would not be the first time.

The queer beings on this planet must stick together and take care of one another, be obsessed with one another. And I will never stop being obsessed with my cats, no matter how socially unacceptable it may seem, because I am happily addicted to the brain chemicals released by all of that love.