Uncool Cat

Like a portal to a timeless era, Washington Square arch serves as the gateway to Greenwich Village.
Like a portal to a timeless era,  Washington Square arch is an iconic landmark of Greenwich Village.

I was intrigued when I saw the trailers for the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The carefully composed images of Greenwich Village evoked the gritty glamor of the early 1960s in that neighborhood where poets, artists and musicians found cheap lodging and community.

I was some kind of excited when, at age twelve, I went with my Girl Scout Troop on an overnight trip to New York City in the early 1960s. We toured the United Nations, saw a Broadway musical and the Statue of Liberty. But what I was really looking forward to was seeing Greenwich Village. I’d read about the beatniks. I had a set of bongos. I aspired to be cool.

However, my hopes of breathing the air of Washington Square were squashed by the caution of the trip chaperones. Our tour bus did pass by the famous square, but we weren’t allowed to get out of the bus. Who knows what we might have inhaled?

The frustration I felt only made me more determined to experience the city on my terms. Five years later, in the winter of 1966-67, I moved into a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Suffice it to say I learned a lot.

By then the folk music scene had given way to upstart rock bands. There weren’t many bongo players around. But there were still a lot of scruffy young men wandering about with guitar cases filled with dreams.

When I watched Inside Llewyn Davis I was expecting to see something of that tumultuous time when civil rights and social justice were at the forefront of public discourse. But I hadn’t taken into account that this was a Coen Brothers film. The award winning duo has made some amazing films, among them Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men. Some even consider The Big Lebowski a great film. Who am I to judge?

I wanted to like Inside Llewyn Davis. It has the Village, folk music, Justin Timberlake. It even has a cat in a supporting role. But try as I might, I just couldn’t warm to any of the characters. Except the cat. The cat was cool, cooler than Llewyn, and considerably more likable.

The movie follows Llewyn Davis through one week in midwinter as he attempts to restart his career as a solo performer, after his former singing partner (spoiler alert) jumped off a bridge. The movie doesn’t spell out why this happened. But after an hour or so of watching the anti-hero floundering around from couch to couch, I didn’t much care if he jumped off a bridge too.

There are a lot of almost funny little scenes, slyly mocking the folkies of the early 60s, and the earnest fans who believed in them. There is a brief road trip sequence that channels the spirit of Jim Jarmusch, complete with an inscrutable drug addict and a chain-smoking Beat poet.

However, though I tried to care about this story of a lost musician, in the end it was just too much like work. When the film first came out the soundtrack inspired talk of the resurgence of folk music. But really, folk music never goes away. We take it for granted, assuming it will always be there, like that person who always knows the words at the hootenanny. Like Woodie Guthrie. And now he’s gone. Who could take his place? Not someone like Llewyn Davis. Unless maybe he takes up bongos.

Make Snow Begone

Do I look like I'm having fun?
Do I look like I’m having fun?

My cat has had it up to here with the snow.

Normally an even tempered little weasel, Gabby, like most of us, is happier when she can come and go as she pleases. But this winter has tested us all.

The boomerang effect has been particularly vexing. One day 70 degrees (Yippee! Let’s go out and dig in the garden!), the next day 25 degrees and snowing (Yeah. Let’s go dig out the car. Again.)

Fortunately we humans are made of sturdy stuff. We adjust. We buy snowblowers. We vent online.

Cats, while versatile in many respects, can be flummoxed by the various challenges snow presents. It’s not just the cold and the wet and the blustery rudeness of it all. There’s also the depth factor. It gets over four inches, that’s like up to armpit level for a cat. Try walking in that, humans.

So, Gabby has spent more time than usual staring out the window, watching her stone avatar in the garden endure the slings and insults of wave upon wave of snow.

Supposedly, Spring officially begins with the arrival of the vernal equinox on March 20th. Gabby will believe it when she sees it.

A little bit of snow never hurt anyone.
A little bit of snow never hurt anyone.
Make my day. Melt.
Make my day. Melt.
Gone with the drift.
Gone with the drift.


Gotta believe in Spring, dude.
Gotta believe in Spring, dude.



Nap Time

Nap Cat can get comfy anyplace, anytime.

If you believe the lyrics of popular song, then you know that summer time is the best of times.

The livin’ is easy, the fish are jumpin’, etc. The summer breeze makes you feel fine, the summer wind brings love without heartache. School’s out, and it’s time to play ball, eat ice cream and generally revel in the long days of sunshine and warm nights of moonglow.

In reality, there will probably be a few days during the next couple of months when the vagaries of weather and the larger forces of destiny and fate will align to produce a few transcendent moments of that rare essence of Summer.

But for the most part, summer struggles to live up to its hype. If it’s not the bugs and the heat and the incessant lawn mowing, it’s the humidity, the haze, and the pressure to have fun, fun, fun every minute.

Personally, I’m of the view that what makes a summer moment perfect is the kind of suspension of expectations that comes with time off from work, social obligations and media overload. I need time unplugged.

When I forget this and overbook myself, I get cranky. That’s when I turn to my cat for advice.

Normally, I take the cat with a grain of paprika. It looks good, but doesn’t add much to the flavor. However when it comes to the science of down-time, cats are Zen masters. This is why they can’t hold jobs. They’re too good at doing nothing.

Sometimes I forget to do nothing. The mania for multi-tasking runs many people ragged, especially in these tech-infested times.

Cats by their very nature are blissfully immune to the lure of the internet. Sure you can find lots of cat pictures and cat jokes on the internet, but cats themselves have no interest in computers, unless they happen to feel like napping on one.

Summer, in its purest form, is an extended catnap. Whether on a beach, or a hammock, or simply curled up on the couch, an hour or two of refreshing indifference to the rush and bustle of modern life can make all the difference.

So what if summer doesn’t officially start for a few more weeks? Everyone knows that Memorial Day is the unofficial start of real summer. The pools are open, the beach umbrellas are open, the ice cream truck is jingling on the corner.

I’ll take a creamsicle.

Here Comes the Night

All the best cats appreciate literature.
All the coolest cats appreciate literature.

Draw the shades. Light the fire. Dig into that pile of books you’ve been saving for this: The Long Dark Tunnel of the Northwest Night.

In November the whiplash-inducing sudden end of Daylight Saving Time sends many of us inside to seek bright cheer through various means. Some turn to social networks. Others to cable TV. Still others, creatures of the night year-round, embrace the darkness, I suppose.

For me, the saving grace of the season isn’t the twinkling lights festooned on trees and houses, or the comforting abundance of nature’s harvest, but the freedom to burrow into the piles of books I’ve stored against this time.

Squirrels can keep the nuts. I sustain myself with books.

Seattle is a booklover’s haven. Even in these testing economic times, the plucky independent bookstores in this town continue to provide a forum for ideas, community and progressive action that is as cheering as a cup of ale, or cocoa if you prefer, beside a crackling fire.

Others may prefer the thrills to be found in skiing, or snowboarding, or the dizzying swirl of ice skating. But not for me. These old bones will settle with a good book in a cozy chair until the planet tilts back to the light.

The Artful Cat

Attitude Is Everything
Attitude Is Everything

Some people like cats for their frisky playfulness. Others admire their sleek style, or their affectionate natures (where applicable). And of course some people loathe cats. You know who you are. Get out now while the getting’s good. Because today’s topic is the way art imitates cats, and vice versa.

I have worked for a succession of various cats over the years. Some were loveable. Some not so much. But in one area they were all equally endowed. For those of us who are susceptible to it, cats possess a degree of glamour unmatched in the human sphere except in the case of babies and super-models. But while most babies eventually lose their charm, and even super-models fade with time, cats retain their decorative quality for years.

I’m a sucker for the way cats fit themselves into the landscape. To me, a garden without a cat lacks something fundamental. Not everyone looks at the world through this furcentric lens, but some artists seem to share my view.

In the months leading up to our move out here, we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, and there I saw an oil painting that spoke to me on every level. Painted by William Raphael in 1908, the work , titled “Hollyhocks,” captures the lovely untidiness and happy colors of a flower which has always reminded me of the rural Virginia countryside where I first saw it bloom. But what made the painting irresistible for me was the understated presence of a cat, lurking on a fence above the blooms.

Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael
Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael

Well, I knew I could never own the painting, but I thought maybe someday I could recreate the image and photograph it. After all, I had a cat. All I had to do was grow some hollyhocks and wait, right?

So it’s been almost five years since I got that bright idea, and I’ve come to accept that it’s much easier for art to imitate life than for life to imitate art. Because, while I have managed to grow some pretty swell hollyhocks in the last couple of years, the cat has been less than cooperative. There’s a fence right behind the flowers, just right for cat sitting. And many’s the time she has sat upon it. Just never when the damned hollyhocks are in bloom.

Today she deigned to offer a compromise and lounged on the bench which sits in front of the hollyhocks. The image I managed to capture in no way matches the arresting beauty of Raphael’s canvas. If you want to see that you’ll have to visit Vancouver. As for me, I’ll be waiting by the bench. Sooner or later the cat will come back.

A Tale of Two Cats

In general, I approve of cats, feeling that their artistic merit and entertainment value far outweigh the minor annoyances which inevitably arise when sharing a home with a cat. I’ve had a cat most of my life. Not the same cat. They come and go. The best one died at age 17 a few years ago, and in my grief I vowed that as soon as we were back from our travels I was getting a kitten. My husband, who is allergic to cats, sighed heavily and hoped I would give it a rest. Naturally, I did not.

However, what I didn’t know when I brought home this adorable, albeit insane, calico kitten, was that within a month we would be moving across the country. But as we went through the grueling process of selling our Virginia house, packing up, moving to Seattle, living in temporary housing, finding a rental, etc, etc, our new kitten Gabby took it all in stride, gaily tearing apart furniture and toilet paper wherever we happened to be.

Eventually we bought a house here, and Gabby has learned to bask in the sun breaks and endure the relentless rain. So far, so good.

Then last summer one of our daughters had to move across country to a housing situation which did not accept cats, and I, idiot mother that I am, offered to give her cat a home if she couldn’t find someplace else. That’s how it began. In my cheerily delusional way, I assumed that, although the cats might have some reservations about sharing our small house, surely they would work things out in time. Now, after nine months, it appears they have worked things out. They’ve got me trained.

They ring their little bells and I jump to let them in, out, up, down, to fill their bowls and clean up their messes, to comfort them when they have esteem issues, to yank their strings when they tire of clawing the furniture. All of this sounds fairly routine, and, of course, it is, until you realize the one thing the cats will not do. They will not tolerate each other’s existence. They cannot be in the same room without a referee vigilantly maintaining the peace with a firm hand and a full squirt bottle. Thus, if cat A, for instance, wants to go outside, but cat B is lounging in the room that contains the door, I must resort to wiles and stratagems to effect the change.

Cat B, aka Domino, is bigger and arguably crazier than Gabby, and she’s made it clear that this house isn’t big enough for both of them. Which is funny, when you consider that Domino is, for the most part, a very sweet and easy-going feline, never happier than when curled up inside her Eddie Bauer bag. She loves that bag with a passion. She disdains the over-priced feathery catnip-laced playthings we’ve bought to try to limit her impact on what’s left of our furniture. She’d rather climb in the bag, wrestle with it, sneak across the room under cover in it, poke holes in it and occasionally nap in it. But she’s not about to share it, or anything else.

Happiness is in the bag.
Happiness is in the bag.

It was funny at first. But you know how it is with a running joke. Eventually even the best joke needs a nap. I sure do. I tell myself things are going to get better, any day now. They’ll have some sort of breakthrough, look into each other’s mad yellow eyes across a crowded room and realize, hey! Let’s give peace a chance!

Sure. It’s going to happen. Spring is here. Love is in the air, floating like pollen. Or fur.

Don’t get me started.

Beyond the Fur Horizon

She basks in the middle of the road now. Casually spread out on the concrete as if she owns it, my young cat Gabby has finally adjusted to being an urban tabby.

When we first moved into the city, Gabby stared out the window of the high-rise apartment in which we were temporarily housed. Her eyes followed the swooping gulls that soar high above the streets. Frustrated by the walls of glass and the confines of the indoors, Gabby got what exercise she could by tearing apart the furniture and attacking the toilet paper in the time-honored manner of indoor felines the world over. However, when we moved into a small rental house in a quiet neighborhood near the university, Gabby saw more familiar and intriguing sights outside the living room window. Huge dogs trotted past on the sidewalk, flaunting their relative freedom. Squirrels cavorted on the lawn, twitching their fluffy tails at her. And, worst of all, the neighborhood cats padded carelessly across the front stoop, smirking at the new kid on the block.I think that was the last straw for Gabby.

She demanded to be let out. After a brief struggle, we capitulated and opened the door, and Gabby came face to face with Lucy, the long-haired calico queen of the block.Lucy, we learned from our neighbors Fred and Becky across the street, who belong to her, had been accustomed to sleep on the flowerbox which nestles below the window of our living room. Cats, like people, are creatures of habit, and the mere fact that the humans inside the house had changed didn’t change the fact that Lucy considered that window box her own personal futon. Gabby wasn’t having it.

The turf war began with glares and staring contests and moved on to low growls and hisses, eventually escalating to claws and fur-flying free-for-alls. At first I would jump up and try to referee every time I heard the snarling begin. But, you know how it is. After a while, you realize the kids just have to work things out for themselves. And now, some months later, peace reigns, for the most part. Oh, to be sure, there are still skirmishes, midnight porch raids and the interminable pissing contest that seems to be at the root of all wars, but the cats, at least, have decided the street is big enough for both of them. Sometimes Lucy strolls over here and picks up a few souvenirs. Other times Gabby slinks across the street and bothers the birds at Fred’s feeder. But, it’s no longer a war. It’s more like tourists crossing the border at Niagara Falls. Each side benefits from something the other has to offer.

In these complex times, the notion of open borders is no longer a simple issue. But, it seems to me that we are way past the point where good fences make good neighbors. Cats go right through fences. And let me tell you, anything a cat can do, a human can do ten times easier.The latest politically inspired idea to erect  multibillion dollar fences  to close off the borders of this country misses the point. Considering all the problems in the world today, if we are to survive as a species what we need is more unity, not more division. Even my cat has figured that out.

Kitten Gnomics

Why does a kitten chase its tail?

To get to the other side.

This makes as much sense as any other answer, I’ve decided. Of course, it may be because I’m still dizzy  from watching our new 8-week-old kitten doing 30 rpm as she seeks in vain to catch that furry snake that has been following her for days.

As adversaries, they are well matched. The wily snake manages to stay tantalizingly close, yet always slips out of Gabby’s claws. But Gabby is nothing if not persistent. So, they while away the hours, locked in combat, rolling and tumbling across the floor until they both call time out and take a nap. The snake, of course, cheats during these breaks. While Gabby dreams of cheese puffs and butterflies, or whatever it is kittens dream about, the snake is rarely still. It uses this time to work on its moves, coiling and snapping like a restless whip. No wonder Gabby can’t keep up with it.

To her credit, Gabby also works out, practicing her moves on anything snake-like. She trains tirelessly with the jump rope. Unfortunately, she also seems to draw no distinction between cords of flesh and cords of electricity and thus the tangled webs of  electric wire under every desk exert a hypnotic attraction on her peanut-sized brain. And, not content to simply dive into the mess and get herself hopelessly ensnared, she insists on chewing on the wires. This could be a problem.

So far, our relentless vigilance and crafty tactics have kept her from frying the computer wires, or herself. We hope it’s a phase she’ll outgrow. Yet, the whole tail-chasing phenomenon doesn’t seem to be limited to kittens. Plenty of humans I’ve known, self included, waste many an hour in the brainless pursuit of goals that, really, might be better left on the theoretical shelf. I vividly recall as a child once desiring a turquoise blue four-foot-tall plush bear. The rationale for this desire escapes me now. I seem to recall that I actually saved up my little all and purchased the thing. Where it is now I couldn’t tell you. Probably moldering at the bottom of some landfill. The passion which led me to acquire it died as mysteriously as it began.

No doubt, all kittens must one day experience a similar rude awakening when, at long last, having fought the good fight and prevailed, they realize suddenly that a mouthful of fur isn’t really all that much of a treat.

I suppose we all learn this in some way or another as we go through life. We chase our mad desires across six lanes of deadly traffic and, if we’re lucky, emerge on the other side dazed and confused, wondering whatever were we thinking. And yet, perhaps we aren’t so different from our tail-chasing kittens. After all, it’s better to have loved and crossed, than never to have loved at all.