Friday, January 02, 2009

On the 9th Day of Christmas: Nine Cats a-Leaping

Actually, it’s “9 Ladies Dancing” and “10 Lords a-Leaping” but I have nine cats and, while they may put the “fur” back in “furniture,” they don’t dance. They leap, bound, cavort and generally get in trouble as cats tend to do but not dance.

Well, as 8 of them leap, bound, cavort &c: one of the oldest, Sieti, was never into the whole leaping, bounding and cavorting thing even when she was younger (except to chase Murphy) and now, turning 15 in April, she’s not much into being seen either, just sort of ambling from one undisclosed location to another. She’s a little more visible now that she’s had a round of eye-drops that cleared up that watery eye condition she’s been bothered by for the past year: after one or two sessions, she basically disappeared from view so that I’d be lucky to get two rounds of eye-drops in her over a period of three days rather than daily: no wonder it wasn’t clearing up. Last month, I sequestered her in the one bathroom so I could dose her three times a day but the vets said two would be satisfactory (an earlier bottle had said 3x, the new one said 2x) so I let her loose. By then, she figured she WAS feeling better, was happy to be no longer confined and allowed me to give her the eye-drops without the usual blood-letting fuss (next to the eye-drops I kept cotton swabs, peroxide and an antibiotic ointment for cuts and scratches for myself). Now that she’s done with that, she hides less but still manages to scoot away from me if I get just a little too close.

Murphy, the Russian Blue who should’ve been named Kukla, is probably older but I have no way of knowing that. She sauntered up to me and hopped up into my arms one evening when I was standing out in front of a neighbor’s house in Midtown (I’d assumed it was hers but she said in wide-eyed amazement, “no, I’ve never seen it before in my life”). She was already declawed and after being unable to identify any owners, she quickly became part of the household. The vets figured she was between 2-3 years old. Since that was a little over 13 years ago, so she’s probably 15 or 16 but still has the sleek grace and agility of a cat ten years younger. Let’s forget about her peeing on an old shirt on my bed the other day...

Who it was that threw up on my computer table this morning, missing the computer keyboard by a mere millimeter, I don’t know. Of course in the process, he managed to ruin two unsent Christmas cards, an unused envelope, saturating a book jacket (fortunately an old second-hand book of little consequence, not one of my new as yet unread books I’d written about the other day, sitting not too far away), spewing across two CD cases but also missing by an inch some important papers pertaining to the overall structure of the would-be novel I was writing back in November. It could’ve been much worse and I suppose it’s better than waking up in the middle of the night to discover it with my bare feet...

In the chair behind me is only one cat, Max, the likely culprit. He came into my life in the winter of 2001 shortly after I moved into my last midtown apartment. After feeding him for a few days on the back porch, I decided when it was getting down to single digits that night, I had to bring him in: he did not look well. He spent the next two weeks confined to a very small, easily overheated bathroom (this was when the old-fashioned hot water radiators were still working) while I gave him eye-drops and various antibiotics 2 or 3 times a day. His eyes ran constantly to the point one of his possible names could’ve been Tammy Faye which otherwise didn’t really suit him. He ended up being called Max (short for Max) because he seemed macho like somebody who’d be called Max, just Max.

It was a small apartment to have 5 cats in but unfortunately by the next fall, I was down to 3 after the oldest, Keyboard, the standard black-and-white Sylvester-like cat that outlived its owners, had died around the age of 18 or 19 just two weeks after I lost Tobie (Sieti’s mother) at the age of 12 due to a problem with her diabetes which the previous three years had been controlled by twice daily shots.

Max thinks he’s a dog. He has to be wherever I am. He’ll be 8 this spring and he’s a rolly-poly furball who loves to be petted and purrs contentedly. He used to sleep curled up beside me on the bed, usually close to my face, most often with the butt end closest. An earlier cat, Pastiche, used to nuzzle her forehead under my chin but I’m not sure what Max’s maneuver means. At least to him...

Then there are the most recent additions: Frieda Farrell had been a stray cat I fed on my porch along with her identical brother, Fred Farrell, during the summer of ‘06. Then they both disappeared around Labor Day, Frieda obviously pregnant. I would often come home from work around 11pm and find them both sitting at my back door waiting patiently for a hand-out. Every night. But I couldn’t get close to them. I was going to try to cage them and had been making arrangements with a neighbor to borrow a “live trap” when they disappeared. I’d hoped someone else in the neighborhood may have taken them in or rescued them, but it was more likely in that neighborhood they’d get hit by a car or mugged by a dog (I’d rescued one kitten from a German shepherd the boys in the neighborhood had sicced on a litter of kittens: I had her for 15 years).

Frieda returned in March ‘07, just weeks before I moved out of town. Still unable to catch her before I moved (and her schedule was a little more unpredictable this time), I came back in town every night to continue feeding her for the next two weeks. By this time it was obvious she was pregnant again. Eventually, I coaxed her into the kitchen to get the food and was able to shut the door before she ran back outside. I caught her on the second orbit and took her out to the house. Two days later she gave birth to five kittens.

For the next ten months, I was unable to touch her. In fact, I rarely saw her. She only came out to eat the food I’d put down beside the bed she was hiding under. Then she started putting in fleeting appearances in the living room at night, curled up on one of the old recliners. Eventually, she’d come out to eat with the kittens and while she was eating this one time, I reached down and scratched her behind the ear. She looked back at me like “what was that?!” and took off for the living room. But over the next two months, she allowed me to pet her and eventually pick her up even if only for a few seconds before she turned into a windmill studded with rotating knives. By the time she’d lived here a year, she would come up to me to be petted and scratched and now, when she sees me headed for the couch, will curl up there even before I sit down. If I stop scratching her, she gently pats my arm with a paw, becoming a little more insistent until letting me know she still has claws if I continue ignoring her. When anybody else comes to the house, they usually only see her back-end dashing off down the hallway. She’s still a bit “fraidy” and still kind of “feral” but she has turned into a sweet-natured cat even as she went from a sleek alley-cat to looking more like a fur-bearing cantaloupe. She and Max seem to have a thing going, constantly curling up on the couch or my reading chair together. Max, ordinarily, curls up with no one.

The kittens have now seen their third year – born in 2007, living through all of 2008, they observed New Year’s Eve and had a party of their own at midnight, continuing to bounce off the living room walls, ringing in the New Year for Chicago as well, long after I went to bed. They will turn 2 in April and it seems unfair to still call them “kittens” since they’ve certainly outgrown much of what we associate with the word. Like “cute.” You wouldn’t want to call a teenager “cute,” would you? You may think they are, but you wouldn’t dare tell them that...

Each of them has their own personality. The three blondes, the orange tabby males, were named Abel, Baker and Charlie only because at birth they were indistinguishable. As personalities began to emerge and differences of appearances could be noted – though I think frequently I had mislabeled many of the kitten pictures I’d taken those first several months – Abel and Baker were identifiable only by a subtle difference in their facial markings: each has a dark little wedge on their cheeks but Abel’s has two dots inside the wedge and Baker’s two dots are below the wedge. It’s very difficult to tell, on the fly-by, where those two dots are vis-á-vis the wedge, even when they’re looking right at me but not sufficiently in profile. Abel is a little more yellow-orange and Baker is a little more reddish-orange, but sometimes that’s also a contextual variable, depending on the light and they speed they’re running through it.

Charlie has no white on him, has a broader face with the pinkest lips and nose. His tail is also fuller, not quite fluffy but closer to a plume than his more average-looking brothers. N calls him “Mr. Tail.” Charlie is also the only cat I have now who fetches. While I’m working at the piano or at the computer, he’ll often bring a toy or a wad of paper and drop it at my feet. I’ll throw it down the hall and he (and several others) will run after it. Then a few minutes later, he’ll bring it back and drop it at my feet, looking up expectantly, hoping I’ll throw it again. This could go on for an hour or more.

(My first cat, a sleek black nobleman named Chaumleigh, was also a fetcher. In fact, I could throw a paper-wad at him and he could catch it most of the time. Sometimes he’d hit it with his paw as if he held a tennis racket and toss it back to me. There was another stray cat I’d brought in back in New York, a blind cat named Radar, who used to play hockey with Chaumleigh. Radar would sit in front of a partially flattened paper bag, hunkered down like a goalie. Chaumleigh would be about a foot or two out and sweep a small paper wad toward her as if trying to get it into the bag behind her. She could scoot from side to side and her reflexes were so quick, Chaumleigh very rarely scored against her, regardless of the fact she was totally blind. We used to sit and watch them, fascinated, longer than I could ever tolerate watching a human hockey game. At least these two cats never fought.)

Meanwhile, Abel is the most adventurous. I just found him walking down the curtain rod behind me. He’d stepped out on it from the bookcase at one end and had walked the complete length of two windows, jumping down from there onto the bed with a clean dismount that would’ve earned him Olympic points.

Baker is the quietest, the smallest if not exactly runt of the litter even now. A shy cat, he rarely comes up to me except when I’m in the kitchen, mewing and nudging me for attention. I make a point of holding him for several minutes when he does this, just to reinforce it’s okay to be shy, hoping he doesn’t also feel unloved. The others get more attention because they make themselves available to it. But he really is sweet. For a long time, he would hang around his mother more than he would the other kittens. Now, when I find Frieda and some kittens curled up on my reading chair, Baker is rarely among them. But he gets into romp mode easily enough: he and Abel in particular can chase each other from one of the house to the other in just a few seconds and in the process sound like all nine of them in full commotion.

Freddy is the cream-tabby. He too can be kind of aloof at times, though he likes to be near me. Charlie and Max dominate the computer table but sometimes Freddy will join them. More than likely, he’ll curl up under the table or my chair, ready to lead me out to the kitchen every time I get up. When I saw there was a black and a white kitten in the pile of wet fur when they were born (I had missed the actual birth by minutes), I had originally named the white one Blanche and the black one Guy Noir (for blanc et noir) but unfortunately their genders were reversed. So the black one, a tortoise-shell tabby, is Blanche and the cream-colored one became Guy Noir. Having had my ties severed with public broadcasting six months ago, expunged from their website in a matter of minutes, I felt I had to change this kitten’s name, since he was named after Garrison Keillor’s private detective on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Freddy was not the best name I could’ve come up with for him in a pinch but it would have to do.

But naming him after a detective made sense, after all, considering of all the cats I’ve ever had, he’s the one who likes to go “undercover.” When I go to bed, he’s normally right there with me, ready to crawl under the covers and curl up either behind my back or in the crook of my legs. He might stay there only a few minutes – especially if the others are still playing and it’s too good to pass up – but very often he’ll still be there when I wake up in the morning. When I pull up the covers to look at him, he has a look of contentment on his face I wish I could photograph without disturbing him. While Charlie and Max are the olympic-level purrers, very often I’ll hear this lump under the bedspread purring away in the middle of the night.

And Blanche, not to save her for last, is one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing my life with. Though she doesn’t join us on the couch as much as she used to, whether there’s room or not, she will find a way to stretch out with me when I sit in my reading chair. Her favorite position used to be across my chest, making it impossible to read over this fuzzy bandolier. Usually she stretches out along my right leg (Max prefers the left leg, draping himself over my thigh and the arm of the chair). She’ll sometimes sit across the back of the chair, maybe placing a paw on top of my head. When I’m sitting at the computer or the piano (where I should be, now), she’ll come by, squeak at me, and stand there with her paws tapping me – “hey hey, down here!” – until I pick her up. Her coloring gives her face a quizzical expression, her eyes large and round, her nose and lips as black as her fur, making it look like she’s only got eyes on her face. After having been spayed, she’s become a little “cobby” shaped, short legs and thickset in the rump, unlike her sleek or athletic brothers, but not the butterballs her mother and Uncle Max have become.

There have been times when I’d walk into the living room to sit and read only to find every available seat taken. There are nine places to sit between three chairs, three old recliners and the couch with its three cushions, and there will be a cat on each one of them. Last night, seeing the reading chair behind the computer was empty, I went to get my book. Returning ten seconds later, there was Frieda already curled up in one corner, with Blanche and Max patiently waiting for me.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to clean the litter boxes...

- Dr. Dick

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