Monday, January 12, 2009

Geographica: Cats!

Geographica this time around takes us way, way back to April of 1964 and to a delightful article called "The Cats in Our Lives" by Adolph Suehsdorf with lots of fun, fascinating photos by Walter Chandoha, and the whole exercise is undertaken in response to a number of private complaints I've received that Stevereads is entirely too canine-centric - that I should, in effect, give the opposition a moment in the spotlight from time to time. Fair enough, and this old issue of National Geographic is worth hunting down just for this piece (although the article "At Home in the Sea" by "Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau" is also worth the effort - not least for that familiar frisson old National Geographics so often impart, that feeling that you somehow know more than the magazine, because you're living in the future it couldn't, of course, know; we're all living, for instance, in a future in which Jacques Cousteau no longer requires such careful identification).

I confess, I've never seen the appeal of cats as pets. Of their utility I have no doubt - despite thousands of years of domestication, they've retained their hunting instincts intact, so their mousing and ratting capabilities make them eminently useful for house and barn. It's the whole 'keep them indoors and call them Smooshy' part I've never understood. Cats are moody, distant, superior, and utterly unpredictable in terms of what - if any - affection they'll show you and when they'll show it. If I wanted that package, I'd live with humans.

Yes, cats can be trained with minimal effort to go potty indoors, but they also hack up large and slimy hairballs on a regular basis - it seems like an even swap to me.

The first and most important thing a dog wants to do is please you (most dogs, I'm talking about here ... not horrible, evil breeds); the first and most important thing a cat wants to do is please himself ... if he even thinks about pleasing you (not actually doing it, but just thinking about it), it'll be a distant second to that first priority. It's like having a snotty, condescending young Japanese exchange student in your house - he understands almost nothing of what you say, he's full of demands, and any obedience you show only makes him disdain you more. Dogs are like an exchange student from, say, Liverpool, who doesn't have a lot going on upstairs, if you know what I mean, but who's up for any madcap scheme you might conceive, who's always enthusiastic to hear what you have to say, and who'll cheerfully eat anything you put in front of him (and who, since he flunks out of his exchange classes almost immediately, hangs around all day napping while you're out working). The differences make a preference seem like a no-brainer to me.

But I have many dear friends and acquaintances who have cats and love them deeply, and Suehsdorf, our National Geographic writer, is definitely one of them, as he makes clear in an anecdote about his own cat, who "rejoices in the name of Kitty":

One evening, Kitty trailed me to the kitchen, discussing the virtues of ice cream while I served the portions. I placed her dish in her accustomed eating place and took the family's into the study, where we were watching the 11 o'clock news. Kitty snooted her ice cream and joined us in the study, complaining.
My wife, who is quick at this sort of thing, said, "It's simple. She wants to eat with us."
And so she did. The scorned ice cream in the kitchen became delicious ice cream in the study, where we could all eat together.

Suehsdorf is a cheery guide (and Chandoha's enthusiastic, energetic photos help immeasurably), recounting the upsurge in purebred cat ownership that was gripping America in the late 1950s and early 1960 (oddly enough, the Siamese breed was outselling all others at the time ... I doubt that fact is true today, fifty years later, and I'm hard-pressed to explain why it would have been so at the time Suehsdorf was writing .... my instincts tell me the culprit is probably some recent movie - The Pink Panther, perhaps? - but I don't really know)(and as you all know, I'm a stone-cold superhottie who's way too young to remember it personally) and retailing all the usual - but still interesting - lore of the species:

The intellectual elite have also made obeisance to cats. The roster of distinguished cat fanciers includes Cardinals Wolsey and Richelieu, Petrarch, Montaigne, Newton, Dr. Johnson, Keats, Poe, Dickens, Walpole, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mark Twain.

Alexander the Great, Louis XIV, and Napoleon are high on the list of cat haters, or aelurophobes. They never could stand anyone who didn't come when called.

Cats, like people, found freedom from persecution in America. It is believed that they first came over in the Mayflower, although it may have been earlier - with the Spaniards in the 16th century.

I can't speak for the pestiferous little Corsican, but in the case of Louis XIV and certainly Alexander, the problem wasn't that cats don't come when called - it wasn't that cats weren't abjectly subservient, it's that those two men needed to know where exactly they stood, personally and emotionally, with everybody around them.

And you can't know that with most cats. The way they stare at you, no blinking, tails enigmatically twitching to no recognizable rhythm ... only to walk away and not be seen for hours, or days, reappearing not one bit more spontaneously affectionate than when they left .... it's frustrating just thinking about it. Dogs (again, good dogs) aren't happy sleeping out in the living room if you're in your study's easy chair, and if you return home from a very good day and decide to do a little jig in your living room, your dog will immediately join in, cavorting and yodeling with sheer, mirrored joy.

Your cat would just sit there on the top of the couch, neatly collected, tail twitching, watching you make a fool of yourself. Your thoughts might be, "Heh - I guess I'm making a fool of myself," and your dog's thoughts might be, "Yay! We're making fools of ourselves!" but your cat's thoughts are very clearly, "I've always known you were a fool, and this little incident just goes into my files."

No, I don't understand the allure of cats as pets. But "The Cats in Our Lives" made me smile several times just the same.


F-Stop said...

Only you could start off an essay saying that you are cow-towing to the cat lovers in your audience and procede to spend the entire piece singing the praises of dogs.

Gawd, I think that you may BE a cat yourself!

Kevin said...

There are dog people and there are cat people. Then there are dog/cat people, who see the obvious benefits of both. We're wiser and better looking.

Sam said...

Dog-towing, I think you mean.

Who's doing this sort of cost-benefit analysis when they're choosing the pets they'll love? Some cats are completely aloof, but most aren't. Most will share your bed, sleep on your lap, bring you gifts (which you may not want since they're often dead animals), greet you, play with you, and most of all claim you. They're smart, have distinct personalities, and, if they're outdoors cats, have interesting lives. It's easy to understand why a person would like living with cats!

(And anyone who thinks cats don't make fools of themselves has never been on Youtube. They just sulk about it for five minutes afterwards, which is also pretty funny.)

Sam said...

I sure don't get the erstwhile appeal of Siamese cats either. But then, nor do I understand all the fuss over labradoodles.

Sue said...

Just to clarify: I love dogs, the bigger doofuses, the better. Currently I don't have any (16-hour workdays make it rather unfair to the dog). However, I will remember your comments during the times that I am NOT waking up at 5 a.m. on a freezing winter weekend morning to let the dog out, and also while I am NOT being guilted into taking a dog out on a freezing winter evening by that same dog's pathetic, eager face. It's supposed to be 15 below today, and my cats will not ask to go out. Just helping to present the other side.

F-Stop said...

Is it just me or does the Siamese in the picture have the same expression as the Abominable Snowman in "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer?"

steve said...

Believe me, Sue, I hear what you're saying. When this sub-arctic weather arrives, I'm going to be wishing for a pair of Persians purring on the mantelpiece ...

Sue said...

Yeah, Steve, and when summer comes, I'll be wishing for a big doofus to take a walk with.

Kevin said...

Me too.

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