Tag Archives: Cats

Bill Murray

My wife informs me that she had a romantic dream the other night involving Bill Murray. I asked her whether it was Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray or present-day Bill Murray. She wasn’t sure but said that his hair was definitely gray. It seems that as we age our notion of what’s attractive in members of the opposite sex keeps pace with us. When I was eighteen, I remember thinking it impossible I could ever find a thirty-eight-year-old woman appealing. Now I’m amazed to think that I ever found eighteen-year-olds appealing. When I’m seventy, I suppose that fifty-year-olds will look like pre-adolescents. At any rate, I can hardly blame Mr Murray for taking his chances with my wife.

Meanwhile our cat has died. More precisely, she was euthanized. It turns out that she had cancer in her bowels, which probably explains why she had taken to shitting in the hallway and vomiting over par this last year. She was just shy of twenty. I married into her acquaintance, but my wife had adopted her as a kitten from the Humane Society, back when Bill Murray was notably less gray than he is now. I used to make morbid jokes about the cat, as if I might willingly hasten her departure from this vale of tears. But in fact I miss her getting in the way when I’m reading on the couch. I miss her too-early good-mornings and the patter of her little feet on the wood floors.

Praying at bedtime with the kids, we ask God’s mercy on the soul of our cat. I suppose that cats must have souls as well as people. Why not? We miss them similarly when they’re gone. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey the other day, I found this poignant bit on mortal farewells: “The world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all,’ outwears the accidents of life, and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say: yea, but also, by God’s mercy, both easy and grateful to believe.” It’s the kind of passage I might like to have read at my own funeral, by Bill Murray.

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Phoebe Furbright, Ornithologist

My seven-year-old daughter recently asked me to write her a story, the only stipulation being that it should involve cats. Cats mean a lot to her. I’ve already mentioned her hand-made field guide to cats in the neighborhood, with illustrations, written descriptions, and names that she’s assigned to each.

One day last week she was struggling on her roller skates. Her brother gave her some grief about it and she began to cry. Curiously, while crying, her skating technique improved. When she stopped crying I pointed this out and told her she ought to think of something sad again. “Think of baby kittens,” I said, “with tears running down their cheeks.”

This is how fathers come to be despised by their children. After twenty seconds of shocked silence, the proverbial floodgates opened and she was bawling so hard she could barely stand, much less skate. I assured her that cats don’t really cry the way people do. “It’s just so sad!” she said. “The poor kittens!”

I’m trying now to repair this trauma by writing the requested story, which is quickly turning into a chapter book. My heroine, Phoebe Furbright, is a young cat with a socially unacceptable career goal: to become an ornithologist. Her father, despite the fact that he works in an office and has never so much as scratched a bird in his life, believes her aspirations contrary to cat nature. Birds, he says, are not for studying, but for stalking and killing!

And so on. This is fun writing. After recently finishing my novel and getting no response from the agents I’ve queried so far, I was feeling down and wondering if fiction just wasn’t my bag. In fact, I don’t read much fiction these days, which is perhaps awkward for an aspiring novelist.

If I had my education to do all over again, I suppose I would study biology in college rather than English and philosophy. Then I would do a graduate degree in ornithology, with the goal of working, say, for the National Park Service. Add books, of course, and I think it would be a fine life.

My daughter is discovering an interest in birds. For years now my son has wanted to be a herpetologist, in order to study venomous snakes and Galapagos tortoises – and he’d convinced his sister that she should do the same. But she recently had a close encounter with a hawk that’s made her reconsider. I wasn’t there when she saw it, but she wrote me the following report:

“We saw a hawk right up close and I walked under it and it looked straight down at me. After a while it flew away. Things I noted about the hawk: A white speckled front coat. Big yellow eyes. Long brownish red wings. A curved yellow beak!”

Patrick Kurp recently directed his readers to a Theodore Dalrymple essay about owls – or, rather, about a book about owls. Dalrymple writes that prior to reading this book he had forgotten that owl pellets were produced by regurgitation. He describes memories of dissecting owl pellets in school. I seem to have the same memories, though I can’t place the year or classroom in which this might have occurred. Perhaps I was at camp.

Dalrymple writes that a pair of tawny owls like to vociferate on summer nights from a tree near his home in France. “I never tire of listening to them,” he says. “I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me.” Personally, I can’t imagine hearing owls nearby and not immediately running out to locate their nest and get a look at them.

A short walk from where my parents live there’s a nest of great horned owls. My father, anyway, claims to have seen two of them. Whenever I visit there’s only one. It likes to sit in the crook of a branch about thirty feet up, just below the nest. We spy on it awhile with our binoculars, and the owl watches us too. Then I hunt up owl pellets in the grass below to see what it’s been eating.

I’m curently reading Washington Irving’s A History of New York, a book which a month ago I didn’t know existed, but which I’ll never again be able to live without. It’s the best, funniest thing I’ve read all year, downright Shandean, and I’ll be recommending it to all my friends. Irving does, however, rather unfairly (I think) malign owls.

“There are two opposite ways by which some men get into notice,” Irving reports, “one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts – by the other many a vacant dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom.”

I don’t expect this is very fair to owls, but it’s certainly possible (for all I know) that they are relative dunderpates when compared, say, to corvids. It’s a question, perhaps, for Phoebe Furbright to look into.

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New Year’s Notes

I took some time off work and tried not to look at screens. I looked, instead, at people, at books, at the rather impressive rain, at various animals, plants and things, and at the moon through my son’s new telescope, which was a Christmas gift. How sad it would be if we suddenly had no moon.

In the eighteenth-century, William Herschel thought the moon’s craters might be ring-shaped cities. In The First Men in the Moon (1901), H.G. Wells imagined the craters were huge mechanical doors to an oxygen-rich interior where Selenites lived safe from the absolute zero of night on the surface. It’s been cold on the surface here too. There was ice in the grass this morning.

My daughter has assigned names to all the neighborhood cats. She’s made a field guide with pictures of each. There’s Sam and Jenny, Orange Soda and Orange Cream, White William and Cinnamon, others too. The neighborhood cat she admires most is called Alice Featherlegs. Alice is a short hair, dirty blonde, a bit chubby, eager to roll on her back for a belly scratch.

In old Rome a soothsayer that read omens by the behavior of birds was called an auspex (a haruspex read the livers of sacrificed animals). Today when we say that a moment is ‘ausipicious,’ we mean, without quite meaning it, that the bird-sign is favorable. My daughter reads omens by cat-sign. If she gets a “cattish feeling” and then Alice Featherlegs appears, it’s a very special day and wonderful things might happen. She might get a letter in the mail, or a gift, or dessert after dinner.

Assuming I don’t surprise myself by dying before September, this is the year I will turn forty. I’ve started it with a head cold. This put a damper on any New Year’s Eve plans we might have cooked up, but the wife and I kept vigil until the required hour and I sipped a bit of medicinal scotch to bury the old year and bless the new. I’m feeling a bit better now.

I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’ve resolved to read less. According to my notes, I read more than seventy books in 2012. Some people read more than that, but it sounds like a lot to me and, frankly, not all the books that I read were worth it. If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more. I might also have more time for re-reading, which I’ve decided doesn’t technically count.

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Marginalia, no.250

My cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.

~ Guy Davenport, Geography of the Imagination

Even humans have a hard time recognizing what they don’t expect to see. When I worked at a bookshop in Seattle there was a homeless man named Mark who came in almost every night. We spent hours talking together but if I saw him on the street and called his name he’d flash a look of unrecollecting horror at me and run away. Later that same evening he’d step into the shop as amiable as ever without any memory of our earlier encounter.

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Marginalia, no.236

As fair Grimalkin, who, though the youngest of the Feline Family, degenerates not in Ferosity from the elder Branches of her House, and, though inferior in Strength, is equal in Fierceness to the noble Tyger himself…

~ Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

My daughter loves all cats, but three especially: our own irascible grimalkin, age eighteen, whom she dotes on and defends from all insult; the ghostly white long-hair that pads out from the greenbelt at night; the shy little black that hides under bushes and for whose welfare she often weeps. My father used to preach that we should only love dogs and should despise cats. But without intending it he taught a secret doctrine too: his favorite animal was the tiger.

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Three Paragraphs of Nearly Christmas

Our friend the evolutionary biologist was visiting from New York this past weekend.  We met him in San Francisco on a rainy Saturday for a brunch of crab-meat benedicts and mimosas.  He’s a snazzy dresser (button-down shirt, sweater, slacks, glossy oxfords), heavily bearded, wears glasses; personal interests include weevils, pulp science-fiction novels, and espresso.

A couple days later: After a wait of forty minutes and a per-vehicle fee of $15, we cruise the park to admire the Christmas light displays.  The children sip hot cocoa in the back and we listen to The Chipmunks.  Elves peek from behind trees.  Santa, in a boat, whips a fish from the water straight into the mouth a waiting pelican.  A teddy bear rappels down a giant candy cane.  Around a corner we surprise a dozen dinosaurs of precarious holiday relevance.  T-rex screams. Brontosaurus only munches his electric salad leaves.

Our family cat is sixteen and has never received a letter.  I’m posting her one from the office today.  It comes, ostensibly, from another cat she knew years ago in Seattle, a full page of punctuated ‘meows’ with a paw-print for signature and photo attached.  Won’t she be surprised.  My five-year-old daughter collects the mail with me each evening.

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The Semiotics of Cat Swatting

Cats, it appears, are always being batted at by broom-wielding matrons in old cartoons and fairy tale illustrations.  They have presumably done something to deserve it, or else the matrons in question, cheated of careers in hockey or golf, are re-capturing the glory of young girlhood at the expense of their domestic animals.  Roughly sketched, those always seemed to me the two interpretive possibilities. 

Now, however, I stumble on a third.  No sooner have I picked up the broom and begun sweeping the kitchen floor in the evening than our cat, from whatever corner she was dozing in, infallibly appears and puts herself directly in the way.  She has not, to my knowledge, been naughty; and I never cared for golf or hockey.  Nonetheless, I am instantly transformed into a crotchety matron (patron?) launching kitty from the kitchen.

This happens too often to be mere coincidence, and so I wonder if the old image of the cat getting batted with a broom is not, after all, a symbol of household transgression receiving its just reward, or of swatter’s regret for missed chances at sports stardom.  Maybe, instead, it’s a revelation of some unguessed perversity of feline nature: Maybe cats just like a good spanking now and then.

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