Thursday, April 24, 2014

The truth about cats

When I was a child we had two cats. Given I was very young at the time, I cannot remember if we had them both at the same time or if they overlapped or existed in entirely different time frames in our house. One was called Candice Bergen (named after my favourite actress at the time), and the other was Sen, or Arsen Lupurr. I don't recall how we acquired Candy, a beautiful tortoiseshell, but I know we catnapped Sen from his house that was on the same street as the Catholic Church. My mother was convinced the owners had gone away and left him to his own devices. As small children we failed to ask an important question such as: Maybe they have a cat sitter who only comes mornings and evenings? But my mother, not one to leave an animal in distress, was our captain and according to us she knew what she was doing. And plus this was an opportunity to get a pet, who were we to question her methods? So we took Arsen from his yard (the yard of a particularly gothic looking house) and he came to live with us. He was, as it turned out, a very intelligent Burmese. He would miaow and miaow to be let through a door, and if no one responded he would jump up and depress the lever handle to let himself in. It became a party trick when my parents had people round: Sen would miaow and someone would say: I think your cat wants to be let in. And my parents would say: Just wait a bit and see what he does. And after about four miaows Sen would faithfully depress the door handle and haughtily enter the room with a hard done by look on his face.

Later, in old age, both Sen and Candy became incontinent, or maybe they weren't even old and decided to spray in the house. My mother, a fanatically house proud individual, decided it was time for the cat/s to go and live with a nice older couple on a farm. Years later my brother took great delight in telling me that the farm was actually the vet, and he himself took them to be put to sleep. Brothers huh?

For years to come in those half asleep half awake hours in the middle of the night, I would sometimes experience what felt like a cat jumping on my bed and walking over my legs to settle next to me as both our cats had done, and in the morning I would say: "Mommy, Sen visited me last night". A phantom experience of those much loved animals from my early childhood.

We never had cats again. After that it was a series of stray dogs we rescued from the school yard or the street. And my mother never stole a pet again, although she did swap the neighbour his dog for a case of beers. The man had his children on the weekends and had inherited the dog from his ex wife. He was a benignly negligent pet owner, and his small white poodle roamed our street and increasingly spent more and more time at our house. The sweets we children generously shared with her may have had something to do with it. So eventually my mother approached the man and offered him beer in exchange for her and he (all too readily we thought) accepted. And so it came to pass that when I was 12-years-old, Snoopy, an incredibly sweet and intelligent animal became a much loved member of our family and spent many happy years with us before passing away when I was 23. 

Now in my 39th year, I am a cat owner again. I'm learning that they are complex creatures and there are so many parallels with human behaviour, especially that of the overly complicated, high maintenance, sensitive, bipolar, somewhat depressive kinds, it is astounding.

Our older cat was a rescue cat, formerly called 'Wicket' and she is around 5-years-old. The previous owners acquired her from a cat rescue shelter and told us she had spent a lot of her formative life in a cage, which explains why she is genuinely her happiest (a different cat!) when she is outside. Inside, she will never, ever, jump up on the sofa and join you, and she is somewhat nervous. However if you sit outside on the garden bench, she happily jumps up on it and lets you stroke her and exudes happiness and confidence. 

We got her in September of 2013 and she spent the first two weeks hiding inside of our (unlit) fireplaces and under the stove. Eventually bit by bit she came out of her shell, a very slow process made harder by the fact that I have two marauding small children. Had it just been my husband and I, she may have found the mournful tunes of Radiohead disconcerting at first, but would probably have settled a lot sooner in a quiet household. My husband, my daughter, and I are all very fond of animals but no amount of gentle coaxing and reassurance could make this animal trust us, it had to come in her own time.

I frequently had to remind myself that this was not about me, that the rejection was not a failing on my part, but that this animal had had a traumatic past and she needed time to process her new surroundings and to suss me and my family out and come to trust us.  It's still an ongoing process, but bit by bit it's happening. After a few months she would sometimes jump up on the coffee bench we have next to our sofa and allow us to pet her there, so we put a on blanket it, and for a while it became her spot. Then slowly she came to sleep in our bedroom, but never on the bed. And in the evenings she languorously grooms herself, somewhat pornographically at times, and that is also a time she likes being petted. But it is always on her terms, and there are times she does not want you to touch her, and she makes that very obvious with two very large eyes and sometimes a hiss. It's kind of like being friends with someone that blows hot and cold with you and things are very much on their terms. I have also had to accept that she is by choice an outside cat and will never be a lap cat.

Sometimes she joins me on the bed at night when my husband travels, but not when he is home. She has evidently observed what a restless sleeper he is and decided she doesn't want to get injured in her sleep. I, having been injured by his tossing and turning and occasional random arm movements, can attest that this is a wise decision on her part.

So things were going swimmingly well in this vein, and then I went and spoilt it all by getting a kitten. Now if you own cats you will know that they are not pack animals. They have no interest in other cats and are quite happy being solitary. We anthropomorphise and think they would be happier with a friend, but cats are the equivalent of the guy who sits at the bar alone having a drink not because he is lonely, but by choice.

So the question is, why did I get a kitten? I wanted a pet that my children could interact with and enjoy. Our cat has no interest in my children. She will allow my daughter to stroke her sometimes, but the experience is a bit like that person on the school run that sometimes enthusiastically says hello, sometimes blankly ignores you or worse, shoots you a nasty look. My son, forget it, she is wisely afraid of him. To be fair to him he is not a cruel or malicious child, he is simply three going on four and wants to play and fails to realise that sticking a foam Mike the Night sword in the cat's direction is not what she considers a good way to spend her time. I would be lying if I said getting a kitten didn't also have something to do with third child substitution on my part, but that's another story. I thought a kitten could grow up with my children and not be frightened of them, and also that his age would pose less of a threat to my existing cat; That with a kitten, she could very easily maintain her major domo status in the house, and he would defer to her, and maybe, just maybe, she may even try to mother him?

Wrong. Oh so very wrong. And here I put my hands up and say to my friend Alice, and a few others who know about cats, yes yes you were right. They warned me that it doesn't always work like this with cats accepting kittens, especially with rescue animals who like being the only animal in the house. But I was like that young newly married couple who want to start a family and who you advise to enjoy their married life a bit before jumping into the volcano that is parenthood. And they completely ignore you and then a few months later you see them at a function hollow eyed and exhausted and they look at your with pain in their expression which reads: Why didn't I listen to you? Why???

Our kitten, Diego, formerly Delilah until we took him for his first vet checkup, defers to no one. He chases after our older cat, jumps on her, basically scares the shit out of her. She spends her time fleeing from him and looks at me as if to say: 'Why? Why did you do this to me? You knew I was fragile. You knew I needed a safe place to recover and find myself. To gain trust and confidence in myself and others.'  It was like I had thrown her into a room with someone that had previously mugged her and told them to make friends.  

Yup more anthromopormosing, but I don't think I am that far off the mark here.

My friend advised serving them their food in turn, giving the older cat priority, but the kitten used meal times as an opportunity to stalk and jump at my older cat. So much so that like in a Mafia movie, the older cat started eating with her back to the wall. I find it less stressful for her and less opportunity for indigestion if I put the kitten in a room while she eats in peace, and this seems to work. Similarly at night, a time I know she likes to snack and roam the house, the kitten sleeps in my study because I want her to have the reassurance that she can at least move around the house without risk of attack. 

The truth is she hates him, and he terrorises her for fun. It's a bit like an older sister who likes to read and keep little delicate ornaments, and a baby brother who smashes her things and keeps running into her room when she wants to be alone. I try and make a big fuss of her, so she won't feel left out, but her feelings are hurt. And in those first couple of weeks that I introduced them I was genuinely concerned that she might run away, but fortunately, and with the help of 'Dreamies' (her favourite snack), we've managed to avoid that.

The kitten doesn't reserve his terrorising for the older cat. He likes to lay in wait at the bottom of the stairs and attack the ankles and toes of anyone coming or going. This morning he lay in wait for me behind the door of my study as I was entering with his food. Then he jumped up to attack. Not serious actually attacking - but playing. Or unsuspecting dinner guests will experience what feels ten individual sharp needles enter their shin bones and then retract and renter their legs in an upwards trajectory to their thighs as he grimly mountain climbs towards their laps and then on to the table. 

Like small children, small energetic children, none of this is genuine violence or malice on his part. He is learning through play - thousands of years of evolution and instinct have him wired to learn how to jump and climb, and to hunt and kill his prey. Unfortunately, in this role play and in the absence of other kittens, our older cat and our fingers and toes become the unsuspecting prey. He has no cause and effect thinking (you can tell him off and he does it all over again a minute later) and you have to play with him so he can get all that playful violence out of his system otherwise he levels it at you. So we have various toys he likes to chase and jump up for. I genuinely fear for the birds and any wildlife we have in our garden the day this cat eventually gets let out for the first time. He is like a small dark furry Chuck Norris secretly in training and about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting animal and insect world.

But also not unlike small children, when he is not destroying things and attacking you the kitten is extremely loving and affectionate and in need of love and affection. He will curl up on your chest or lap and languorously arrange himself for maximum stoking and purrs so loud it's like he has a small engine inside of him. He sits at my feet while I am writing or painting and looks up at my expectantly so I can put him on my lap where he lays purring or puts his front paws on the desk and watches me paint, sometimes batting the paint brush. One evening we forgot to put him in my study for the night and I woke to find him curled up on the pillow by my husband and I, fast asleep and purring. It is impossible not to feel enormous affection even if you are having to regularly use Savlon on the scratches on your hands and feet.

I'm hoping that once the kitten is less psychotic and settles down (I believe age and eventual neutering help) he and our older cat can have some kind of non violent co existence, but I doubt they will ever be close friends. A bit like someone you really can't bear but at least you can be civil to each other even though you are forcing a smile that actually more closely resembles a grimace as you sip your wine and make small talk about your cats.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The man in the cape

Recently, while waiting for an appointment, I found a small coffee shop and ordered a tea. It was one of those tiny non chain places where the owner sits around chatting with the customers. In a corner sat a man reading a newspaper while tut tutting, who for reasons that would soon become clear, reminded me of the man in the cape in Seinfeld (a guest appearance by Larry David). 

We were the only two people in there apart from the owner, and soon I was part of their conversation which involved Cape Man sharing his cynical misanthropic views on pretty much everything. He didn't like America or Americans because of what he felt was an extremely intrusive and against his rights airport immigration procedure and said the country was filled with gun carrying lunatics. Now I am no fan of the OTT airport immigration procedures myself and I also don't like the idea of people walking around with guns, but I still very much love America, or at least the parts of it that I visit and the friends that I have there. Europe and the French were similarly not spared his scathing cynicism. When I asked him what he did for a living he told me a bit of this and a bit of that, and it sometimes involved selling rugs (carpets not wigs), but was very sketchy about the details. Then he started on about "those fools trying to make contact with life from outer space. Why'd they want to do a thing like that? If there is anything out there the first thing they are going to do is come and take our water."

And for the first time in our conversation I thought: My god, he's right! They totally would take our water. And I started imagining UFO's with giant vacuums in the sky sucking up all the water from our dams and lakes. Which is a reminder of why it's not a good idea to hang out with cynical paranoid people - you start becoming one yourself.

Yesterday I went to the store and bought my daughter a pair of size 6-7 trousers, and the weird thing is they fit. Perhaps not so surprising or weird as she is six and a bit years old, but they seemed so long in the store. It's a reminder of how tall she has become. It's the same thing I have each time I purchase shoes for my children; the shop assistant takes the measurement of their cute little sock clad feet, and then comes back with a few boxes of shoes, and takes what resembles a small boat out of the box and I immediately say: 'Oh no, that looks far too big'. And then it fits. And I think, when did their feet get so big? And then inwardly I kind of freak out because they are growing up so fast and I should be spending even more time with them enjoying all of those cuddles and listening to everything they say before they get to an age when they don't want to talk to me or cuddle me any more. And then in the middle of all those little kids shoes, I kind of have a small panic attack/existential crises. I think I am going to stick to buying shoes on the internet in future - far less stressful.

We recently got a new kitten. We first met him when he was four weeks old and still with his mother, only at that point we, like the owner, assumed he was a she. We had a name picked out and waited the remaining four weeks for our girl cat to be ready. The day we picked 'her' up we took her to the vet who upon closer examination informed me that our girl cat was actually a boy and he had fleas. Within days we had him defleed and despite the initial gender shock, he has become a much loved somewhat crazed member of our family.

It should also be said/cautioned that getting a kitten is a bit like getting an instant toddler without going through the baby stage. They need a lot of affection and policing. Last night we were watching LA Law and we heard this mewling. It sounded like the cats on one of those pet apps my daughter likes to play on my iPad. The ones which have frequent interruptive images of the device being handed to the parent so the parent can purchase even more items for £2.99 - important stuff like makeup or sunglasses for your virtual pet. Given my daughter was supposed to be asleep I went into my study (where the kitten sleeps for now) to investigate. I found him with his neck twisted in a carrier bag handle. He was in extreme distress ergo the weird sound he was making, and like something out of an angst ridden moment in ER we quickly cut him out of it. Rather than licking us with gratitude and having a life affirming moment, he shook himself off and carried on in his normal maniacal manner as though he hadn't just died. Like a human toddler, you think a space is safe and kittens manage to create a near death opportunity.

Yesterday while I was painting, he thought it a good idea to repeatedly walk through my paint palette covering his fur in white, red and blue acrylic, likewise attempting to drink my painting water even though I imagine it tasted horrible. He also chews on the wires attached to my computer, and attempts to remove the peg on the bench leg that holds the glass top of my desk up. Evidently cause and effect thinking and any kind of regard for his personal safety is not in place and will come later. At least I hope so. 

He is also fearless of our resident matriarchal 5-year-old cat. The other evening, for no apparent reason, he decided it was a good idea to launch himself on her back in a sort of Cirque du Soleil move. She got the fright of her life, and belted up to the top of the house to her sanctuary that is our spare/box room. After two weeks there has still not been any kind of happy family moment between them and when she sees him she becomes very still, crouches low, and hisses. He seems to read this as an invitation to run at her, which of course knocks her confidence as she is trying to establish herself as the scary dominant adult and he's not intimidated in the least.

But now I am going to stop talking about my cats, because I could talk about them until the cows come home. It reminds me of when people have a baby and THAT IS ALL THEY TALK ABOUT. And you are sitting there trying desperately to get a word in edgeways to relate your recent traumatic breakup or sofa choice dilemma and the new parent will not entertain the thought that something other than how often their baby poops is important and worth discussing. I was guilty of this myself and am genuinely sorry to all the people I subjected this to.

Last week I attended a makeup session for a sculpture class I missed. Unlike the generic sculpture class I do, I knew this was a life modelling class but was still unprepared for what I was about to see when I walked through the door. The model, a statuesque older man with a long white wispy beard, was sitting buck naked on a chair with his legs wide open, holding a sort of mountain man walking stick in a very proud, Romanesque sort of pose. His legs were opened in my direction so as I came in I looked directly at his crotch. I should have been more non plussed given I am an art student these days, but unsuspectingly happening upon a stranger's scrotum first thing in the morning can be unsettling. I don't think blushed is the right word, but I know my face did something uncontrollably weird and then I sort of awkwardly contorted myself to have a conversation with my sculpture teacher while trying not to look at something that was so evidently in my eye-line. It was one of those moments where by trying to act naturally you come across totally unnaturally. 

I spent the class working on my piece (which was not of the naked man) with what felt like very hot ears. He was a professional life model, and judging by the work the class had done over the last five weeks of him, a very good one at that. 

Later that day I told my mother about my experience and she said, matter of factly: "Well you know, this is the art world, and nudity is quite normal." My mother isn't surprised or shocked by much, which is one of those brilliant things about getting older I suppose. She read my last blog post about her internet dating travails and told me at lunch that I had failed to mention something else which she would tell me after I had eaten. 
Me (after lunch): So what was that internet dating story you wanted to tell me?
My mother: Ah yes, you know that guy I went out for a coffee with? Well he pulled out a hanky from his pocket to blow his nose.
Me: A hanky? (Making a sort of grossed out face) Er, yes?
My mother (making a grossed out face): Yes I know. And I said to him: Hankies? Why not use tissues? They are far more hygienic and you don't have to wash them. And he said quite casually: Oh, no it's fine, I boil them on the stove.

Me: Oh, my god, I would have thrown up
My mother: Yup, that's why I didn't tell you at lunch