Thursday, October 23, 2008

Kittehs 1.5

Today, the Kittens of Mass Distraction celebrate their 1½ Birthday. It was 18 months ago just before 9am when I walked into the master bathroom where I’d sequestered the very pregnant Frieda Farrell, a stray cat I’d just rescued from the streets of Harrisburg two days earlier, and heard this odd little whimpering sound. When I located it from underneath the toilet tank back in the corner, there she was, surrounded by five little wet globs of fur, three orange ones, a white and a black one.

Originally the black one would be named Guy Noir and the white one Blanche, hoping the genders would work out accordingly.

Eventually, it was discovered they did not. So the white male (actually a cream tabby) became Guy Noir (see below right) and the black female (actually a tortoiseshell with some pale orange tiger-stripes barely visible under the black, a jaunty little white bib and an orange patch on the belly) became Blanche (see left, here with her mom taken earlier today). It was later decided, in a move to expunge certain associations from recent memory, the cream tabby’s name was changed to the more generic Fred. I considered changing Blanche, having now broken the Blanc et Noir symmetry, to Ethel but Blanche seemed a good name for her, coloring aside.

The three orange tabbies were easily named: being unable to tell them apart, they became Abel, Baker and Charlie, from the “phonetic alphabet” used by American soldiers during World War II. (Continuing the trend for the remaining two would have resulted in Dog and Edward according to one source, though I kind of like Delta and Echo, from another source. Hey, Sierra and Tango would’ve been cute, too... Hmm, could they stand yet another name-change – at their age, now?)

The problem has always been telling which one was Abel, Baker or Charlie. I look at some of their kitten-pictures and think “oh, I labeled that wrong, that’s not Charlie, that’s Baker.” Then, who knew!? It’s not easy to tell, now!

While I’d taken hundreds of pictures during their first months as they were growing up, there have been fewer since last autumn. Unfortunately, the flash also works in such a way I have lots of photos of squinting cats or closed eyes. With the 9-second delay, there are also lots of pictures of empty floor-space. (Left: Abel at play in the Cat Tube.) During their pre-dawn gymkhana or in the evening when they go into their Flying Wallenda mode, getting out the camera is kind of pointless: I should just set up a video camera and grab some stills, but I think they would all be blurs.

The other night, sitting in the living room trying to read, the older cats Max curled up tight against me and Murphy standing on the other side waiting to be skritched behind the ears, when suddenly the Wallendas went into high gear. You could hear them start from the back of the house, run down the hallway through the kitchen and into the powder room (a distance of some 70 feet), smack into the old metal wastebasket before turning en masse and charging through the living room in front of me, running the next lap back out to the kitchen or perhaps back to the far bedroom. In order to cut them off at the pass, one of the orange tabbies – who knows which one, he was just a blur – jumped up onto the recliner beside me, took a flying leap to land six feet further into the middle of the room and was now out in front. This went on for about ten minutes or so, a typical night with Nascat.

So at 1½ years, this means they are the equivalent of 21-year-old humans – assuming those 21-year-olds are the equivalent of Peter Pan crossed with Dale Earnhardt verging on The Hulk.

They had, in fact, turned out to be rather large kittens at any early age – Charlie has large paws, too, like he might still grow to be the size of a labrador – bigger than the other three adult cats I have. Max, however, is quite solid for a fat and happy 7-year-old, but I think Charlie is still physically larger from little pink nose to the tip of his tiger-ringed tail.

So I suspect their father was the hulking black stray cat I often saw in my mid-town back yard, the one I occasionally mistook for a miniature-sized dog. Frieda, who had been a rather petite ginger kitten the summer before, was no match for him. She herself is no longer the petite kitten she was when I first saw her: she is now more like a fur-bearing cantaloupe (see below).

Having nine cats, of course, does have some drawbacks – mostly of the litter box variety. While a friend of mine talks about having 18 cats in a large farmhouse – he says he cleans the litter boxes while listening to ABBA songs turning it, I guess, into some kind of aerobic exercise (that’s two things I could never imagine doing: aerobic exercises and listening to ABBA songs) – I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to have cat littler brought right to my door the way they deliver fuel oil.

When I was a kid, friends of my folks had taken in, over the years, 30 stray cats. Thirty!! That was before all the Crazy Cat Lady Ordinances were getting passed. They had converted their basement into a cat room complete with several large cat-tree platforms, old soon-to-be unstuffed chairs and a child’s back-yard sand-box for a litter box (they used a coal shovel as a scoop). In fact, the basement had one of those small ‘front rooms’ typical from that coal-burning era, where coal was delivered by a truck and dumped by a chute right into your basement. If only they could get cat litter delivered the same way... but then hauling buckets of coal ash out was no fun either. Even so, I’m trying to imagine opening 30 cans of cat food per feeding: what must the stampede have been like?

I’m also trying to imagine paying for 30 cans of cat food per feeding. That would amount to like 420 cans a week or over $120 by today’s prices! And how many tons of cat litter would it take to fill a child-sized back-yard sandbox? When I fill all nine litter boxes with fresh litter, a 20-pound container goes pretty quickly, so at $8-12 a container, that’s about... yeah, right...

Even before the kittens were at the age they should be weaned, I noticed Blanche, for one, was already nibbling at Frieda’s bowl of dry bits. The Book was telling me to moosh canned food down with a little gravy before their little mouths and teeth could handle adult canned food. And here, this kitten was already a drybivor! By the time they got to canned meat, they were woofing down 3 to 4 cans twice a day. This meant bringing home 40-45 cans a week until I thought I should just wear a special t-shirt for the check-out line – “Yes, I Have 9 Cats.”

Now, fortunately, Frieda and all five of her kittens have sworn off canned food, eating only dry food which I can get in large bags at considerable savings. Only the two oldest cats eat canned food any more – Murphy, the Russian Blue, who is a spry 15-year-old and likes the gravy, mostly, and Sieti who is 14½ and not doing too well (she had 11 teeth pulled last winter - the little dentures were just going to be too much to deal with...).

The attempt to find homes for three of them – I had decided quite early I would keep two of them (the white and black one) and, at least until she got acclimated, the mother – but that proved futile. The closest I got was a woman who saw the flier I’d posted at my vets. She wasn’t a client there, she just called to see if anybody had kittens. But they didn’t have a car, our schedules didn’t jive, I was out with a cold much of that week, and their story got stranger and stranger: she went from saying they would take one kitten to taking all of them, including my older cats, if I was overwhelmed by caring for them. They were living in a hotel-apartment near a hospital and her husband had a temporary job “within walking distance” – at the hospital? They lived out-of-state and had cats at their original home – so I was wondering why they would need some just for their temporary place here – and it just started sounding too uncomfortable. Were they recruiting cats for lab experiments? I decided to keep all the cats or at least make sure they only went to friends I knew. Two or three expressed interest – fine – but then changed their minds. So I still have all five of the kittens.

Now, at 18 months – or 21 human years – they are hardly kittens anymore. But hey...

Charlie, whom I thought might grow up to be an orange labrador, has turned out to be a retriever after all. He is the second cat I’ve ever had who fetches, my very first cat, the black cat Chaumleigh, being the other one. And I mean he fetches – he will bring a toy or a wad of paper and drop it by my feet when I’m sitting at the piano trying to concentrate. And since I’m not really doing anything important, he feels, I might as well toss it back down the hall for him. This can go on a dozen times or more. Eventually, he’ll give up when I stop responding but not before I’ll have three or four toys or paper-wads by the damper pedal...

I also found I can no longer just crumple up a bad sketch to throw in the wastebasket. At the mere hint of paper-crumpling, at least four kittens will appear from nowhere, eagerly awaiting me to throw it down the hall. Even when they were a few months old, Charlie usually got the ball and an 8½x11 sheet of paper was about equal to the size of a kitten. He would grab this in his mouth, barely able to drag it around the floor, growling like a lioness with a gazelle as the others followed in pursuit. Now six times that size, he still growls, but the others know better.

The other day, I saw there was a small catnip mouse on the top shelf of a bookcase. It seemed an odd place for them to leave one there, and I wasn’t even sure they could’ve gotten onto that shelf (others, yes, and jumping up to the top of them, depending on what launching pads there might be nearby, no problem) until I noticed Abel, playing with another toy, tossing it high in the air like a kid trying to pitch and bat a baseball by himself. Up it went, arcing in the air and the cat jumped and batted it with a paw and – wham – it landed right on the top shelf of the tall bookcase, a good five feet off the floor.

(Other cats have been inclined to sports as well: Chaumleigh used to batter down a standing paper shopping bag until it was shaped kind of like a soccer goal. Radar, the blind cat I’d rescued from the streets of New York, would sit in front of the opening like a goalie. Chaumleigh would then shoot a small paper-wad toward the goal but rarely managed to get one past Radar who could lunge to the right or left and shoot it back to Chaumleigh with ease. I’m not sure what it did for the two cats, but it afforded a lot of entertainment to the unbelieving humans who’d sit and watch this for 15 minutes at a time before the cats decided, “okay, enough of that - what else is there?”)

For a long time, Frieda remained eternally elusive or at least reclusive, the Greta Garbo of cats. Even after the kittens had been given the run of the house (and I do mean “run”), it took her another month or two to emerge from the back bedroom where the kittens were born and raised. One night, I came home and found her curled up on one of the chairs in the living room, though she wouldn’t let me get too close to her. Eventually she’d come out to be fed with everybody else but always aloof and waiting until I walked away. It was 10 months before I even got a chance to touch her after that first night when I’d caught her. A few months later I was actually able to pet her, nuzzling the back of her head and behind one ear. She turned and looked at me with the kind of expression that says “wow, what was that? That felt good!” Then she became less wary and would stand there to be skritched and nuzzled. Hold her? Well, maybe for 2 seconds before she’d turn into a windmill.

She still is wary of others. N who stops by on weekends sometimes has only seen her twice in the last 18 months and usually just her back end as she scoots out of the living room and down the hall to the safety of the bedroom. When his car pulls away, I’ll walk back into the house and there she is, in the kitchen, ready to be petted and scratched. Go figure.

A couple weeks ago, she started curling up on top of my bed rather than hiding underneath it. Rarely a playful cat, yesterday she was chasing her tail while lying on her side and back, a feline version of break-dancing. Then she rolled over for a tummy-rub. That night I was able to hold her for two minutes before she said, “okay ‘nuf, down now.”

The other morning I woke up and realized I was unable to move. After a wave of fear subsided, I discovered the reason: I was surrounded by five cats - Max, Frieda and three kittens - completely hemmed in, front and back. One of the benefits of having so many cats on the bed, added warmth aside, is that when they start purring (and Max and Charlie can purr like outboard motors) it turns the bed into a vibrator bed.

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The cat pics in this post were mostly taken this morning or in the last couple of days except for the second one, a July portrait of the very handsome Fred. The top photo is of Blanche and her mom, Frieda, enjoying a quiet moment on my bed this morning. I managed to catch Abel playing in the little-used cat tube: in another photo he is lying on his back, hanging out the front of the tube with his paws crossed like a vampire getting ready for the night.

The low bookcase under the bedroom window, next to my computer desk, is a favorite location. They will sit there and look out at the birds in the tree or in the side yard. May Sarton, in her delightful book The Fur Person called this “reading the paper.” Above, Abel (standing) and Charlie read the morning edition (Blanche is barely visible behind them). This is Blanche (left) telling the others “You should see this squirrel on page one!”

Then there’s the elusive Baker on my bed this morning, squinting at the camera. Earlier this month, I caught Charlie and Freddy watching me from the one window as I put bird seed out on the back porch so they’d have something entertaining to watch... Last night, I caught Abel in an uncharacteristic pose, sound asleep on some old jeans ready for the laundry.

Here’s Frieda (right), looking very contented as the Mother of All Furballs. It’s amusing to see her standing in the kitchen when I toss a catnip mouse down the hall way and all of her kittens go chasing after it as they leap around and over her. She has this look of surprise and awe mixed with a bit of “what have I done?”

But now it’s time to hit the litter-boxes and then get to the piano: I’m starting the last segment of the violin-and-piano piece which could mean in a few days the whole piece will be done. That’s something else I’ve been meaning to blog about in the last five months I’ve been working on it but it always seemed better to do some composing than procrastinate by blogging...

Here is one last pic, today, one of my favorites taken last year when they were like seven weeks old. The Three Blonds: Baker, Charlie and Abel (who is telling Charlie to move over just a bit)...

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