Let Slip the Cats of War!

My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge fan of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup.  We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar.  Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare hater, is out of town.


“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”

I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without even checking the footnotes; the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go.  Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.


“I didn’t finish the reading assignment–okay?”

Rocco is a quick study, as I was when a youngster, while Okie is a stolid, phlegmatic type, like Jim Bob Mergen, the farm boy who was compared unfavorably–I think–to me in the second grade.  The nun said I picked things up easily and valued them less as a result, while Jim Bob struggled to learn things, and consequently treasured the correct spelling of “cat” more highly than I for the rest of his life.


“Did you put the cats down in the basement?  Because I’m going to bed.”

It may seem strange to you to read from Shakespeare with your pets, but this is an advantage I want my cats to have.  I first read about such a thing in a short story by Cynthia Ozick when I was in my twenties, too late for me.  Apparently, some high-toned families engage in such pursuits while clans like mine were watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Fugitive.”  Children from families of the former type showed up on the first day of freshman English class to mention in a blase, off-hand way, that they were starting work on their second novel while I–I had taken the road more traveled by and had a cool collection of record albums.


“Let me have cats about me that are fat; yond Okie has a lean and hungry look.”

We don’t use the folio version of the play, it would take too long.  Instead, I picked up two copies of Iams Lite Shakespeare for Less-Active Cats at Pet World this morning.  It contains all the essential quotes a growing cat needs, with 10% less fat and archaic English!


Get Troilus and Cressida in the familiar turquoise bag!

The problem with mixing cats and Shakespeare, as with most students, is their short attention span.  We customarily hold our reading on the back patio, and in the conservation land to the west there is a constant flow of fauna; deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys, even coyotes.  Okie caught a rabbit and a snake last week alone.  It’s hard to keep the guys on the text, but I try.  They’re prone to improvise.

“Your line,” I say to Rocco.

“Where were we?”

“‘Another general shout!’”

“Oh, right.  Uh, ‘Why cat, he doth bestride the narrow world like that stupid Doberman down the street; and we petty cats walk under his huge legs, and peep about.’”

“Over to you,” I say to the Oakmeister.

“Uh, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are cats.’”

It’s Roc’s turn, but when I give him his cue I see him gazing across the back yard, to the edge of the grass, where a rabbit has poked his head out from under a rhododendron, those ungainly plants that Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers.  The rabbit’s munching on clover; the stockbroker lives across the street.

“Roc–you paying attention?”

“Uh, sorry,” he says and looks back down at his script.  We proceed in this halting fashion through Acts I and II; a field mouse sees the weighty atmosphere of high culture, and can hardly believe his good fortune.  The cats are playing a tragedy, and it’s comedy to him.


“Nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah.”

Okie detects the mouse’s insolence, and makes a false start towards him, scaring the bejeezus out of the poor rodent.  “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says in a voice that projects to the cheap seats over by the daisies.  “The valiant never taste of death but once.”


“I’m gonna GIT you sucker!”

“Roc–over to you,” I say.  He hasn’t been paying attention, but he picks up where Marc Anthony returns to view Caesar’s lifeless corpse.  I’ve used that phrase before, and for the first time I’m forced to ask myself–what other kind of corpse is there?

“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” he begins, but in a flat, lifeless tone.

“C’mon–put some feeling into it.  You’re Marc Antony, and your best friend’s just been killed.”

He looks at me, then out at the lawn, where the joint is jumpin’, so to speak.  Critters here, varmints there, unprotected species everywhere.

“That I am meek and gentle,” he continues then pauses to watch a wild turkey hen with two chicks tiptoeing as if on eggshells over our acre and a half of fresh, native New England rocks.  As former president of my high school National Forensic League, a triple threat in debate, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic interpretation, I can’t take it anymore.

“Here,” I say, ripping the script from his paws.  “Let me show you how a real actor plays this scene.”

He shrugs his furry shoulders and turns his attention back to the yard as I begin:  “Blood and destruction shall be so in use at our house, and dreadful objects so familiar on our front and back porches, that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infant chipmunks, squirrels and robins quarter’d with the hands of war.”

I see their backs turn and their butts wiggle.  Now they’re concentrating.

“All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge . . .”

A rabbit, stricken with a fatal flash of inspired confidence, makes a dash across the lawn.

“Shall in these cofines with a monarch’s voice/Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the cats of war!”

I’ve barely got the words out of mouth when I see them bolt from our bluestone stage and make for the rabbit, who suddenly the wiser, reverses course and heads for the woods.

“Hey, aren’t we gonna finish?” I yell after the cats.

“I’m taking an incomplete,” Rocco says, to which Okie echoes “I’m dropping this course.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

The Baddest Cat on the Team

          A star high school quarterback was persuaded to play football at Rice University by a handwritten letter its offensive coordinator wrote to his cat.

Sports Illustrated

 

Rocco
“With these feet, I’m gonna need high-tops, like Johnny Unitas.”

 

Ho-hum.  Another day, another Division I offensive coordinator prostrating himself before me.  “Dear Rocco,” Clyde van Pelt of Nebraska writes.  “Can’t you see yourself in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day, with 87,000 screaming fans urging you–and of course your human–on to victory with a national title on the line?”

Uh, no, actually I can’t.  “Beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska”?  Are there two of them?  Is the beautiful one located out-of-state?

To cop a line from Fred Allen, Nebraska’s a great place to live–if you’re a stalk of winter wheat.  Into the round file from waaay downtown–for three!

Okay, who’s next?  Penn State.  Sorry, when I go into the kitty box, I want privacy.  Ix-nay on the ittany-nay ions-lay.

Okie
“How about me?  I’m a Nittany Cat.”

 

Whadda we got here.  Harvard?  Are they serious?  Well, an Ivy League education is worth something–in some benighted minds.  Let’s see what kinda package they’re offering.  Canvas tote bag, no-show job at the Widener Library, free use of a Volvo station wagon.  For what?  To pick up Environmental Studies majors in Harvard Square?  That ain’t the way the Big Cat rolls.

Let’s see–Miami.  Too hot.  Wisconsin–too cold.  Missouri–they don’t pay enough.

Stanford–now we’re getting some place.  Top-notch academics, competitive program, all those venture capital alums to give me a job in case I go undrafted.

And the pussy!  I mean really sharp looking cats, brainy too!

Gotta get this one in front of the bi-ped, see what he thinks.

Funny kitten
“I want everybody down in a 4-point stance!”

 

Hey–wake up, Cheetos-breath.  C’mon, don’t force me to make happy paws all over that stupid sweater of yours.

Yeah, you, numbnuts.  Have you signed your national letter of intent yet?  Well, don’t, okay?  I want you to look at Stanford, then maybe Northwestern, or Virginia, before you commit to four years in some God-forsaken hell-hole where the only entertainment is football and beer.  I don’t want to waste the best years of my life in some place that Gertrude Stein would rank lower than Oakland; not only no there there, no where where.

Look at this course catalog–lots of interesting classes.  History and Philosophy of History and Philosophy.  Can’t top that for circular academic thinking.  The Courtly Tradition in Fiction from Le Morte d’Arthur to Raymond Chandler.  Cats in Cartoons: From Felix to Top Cat.

cats4
“PLEASE–promise me you’re not considering Ohio State!”

What?  Oh you want to spend the next four years in a drunken stupor–is that it?  Well, include me out, Buster.  This cat’s got a brain, okay?  Even if we make it to the NFL–and that’s a big if–we’ll spend the first three years holding a clipboard. Making millions of dollars, granted, but do you know how many jobs there are out there for clipboard-holders?  Not too freakin’ many, pal, and they don’t pay diddly squat.  You know why?  Low barrier to entry.  Anybody can be a clipboard holder, it takes very little training, no professional certification or state-mandated test, no . . .

catfood

Hey, what’s this?  Somebody actually took the time to write us a nice handwritten note–in big cursive letters, too!  This is straight outta Martha Stewart!

Lemme see where it’s from, gimme gimme gimme.  Rice U?  Wha?  You mean like Eukanuba Adult Dry Cat Food Lamb and Rice Formula?

Yuk.

Isn’t there a University of Friskies Party Mix?

Injuries Few in Annual “Running of the Cats”

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  When this suburb of Boston decided to become a “sister city” with Pamplona, Spain a decade ago, few realized what it would mean for the many cat-owners who live here.


El gato de Somervilla

“We have cats the way some cities have cockroaches,” says city animal officer Hardy Michaels.  “There are more apartment dwellers here per capita than any city in Massachusetts, so we have more cats.  Also a lot of goldfish, but they don’t get out as much.”


Running of the bulls, Pamplona

 

Pamplona is the site of the annual running of the bulls made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” however, and when officials from the Spanish sister city visited Somerville in 1998, they asked why there was no counterpart to their annual San Fermin festival, generally regarded as the world’s leading manifestation of innate male stupidity.


Somerville, Mass.

 

“Frankly, we were caught off guard,” says Elinor Harrity, who chaired the Committee on International Relations that the City Council set up because they found the topic of sewers boring.  “We improvised to show our Spanish compadres that we meant them no disrespect, and the running of the cats was born.”


“Look out!”

 

All able-bodied males take to the streets of Somerville today while their Spanish counterparts participate in the San Fermin festival.  There are  eight scheduled runs before a pack of cats that have been fed only dry food and water for a week, whetting their appetite.  “It is a sign of your manhood to risk your life running before the jaws and claws of the hungry cats,” says Andrew Benis, a freelance photographer who recently broke up with his girlfriend of six years.  “Women admire a brave man, but what’s the point if you get trampled to death by a bull before you can score?”


On the prowl.

 

Last year, two men were admitted to Mt. Auburn Hospital with claw scratches on their calves and small puncture wounds on their hands that they suffered when they were bitten as they tried to remove attacking cats from their legs.  “You see your whole life flash before you when those cats come tearing around a street corner,” says George VandeKamp, who works in a used record store.  “Of course, if your life is mainly beer, pizza and beating off like mine, that’s not such a big deal.”

Because of its density, city officials say they would never issue a permit for a running of the bulls here, not that such an event is very likely.  “It’s pretty rare to see a bull around here,” says Assistant Chief of Police Dan Hampy, “although you hear a ton of it any time you walk into a bar.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Crazy Like a Cat

Pets have mental health problems too.

          Headline, The Boston Globe

It’s Saturday, so I’m taking a nap when a ten pound weight covered with cat fur lands on my chest.

“Hey.”  It’s Rocco, cat-of-few-words.

Rocco
“We need to talk.”

 

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I say, and I mean it.

“We need to talk,” he said as he flopped back against a pillow.

“You know you’re not supposed to be on the couch.”

“It’s the only way I can get anybody’s attention around here.”

“I don’t know, that time you brought a live squirrel into the house sure got everybody’s attention.”

“It was raining out, and I wanted to play with him.”

“If by ‘play’ you mean ‘torture in violation of the Geneva Convention.'”

“I never signed that thing.  Anyway–it’s about Okie,” the elder of our two cats.

“It always is, isn’t it?”

Okie
“As Aristotle said, no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”

 

“I think he’s lost his mind.”

“Wouldn’t be too hard.  It’s easy to lose small things, you know.”  Okie has always been the charming ladies’ man, too dependent on his grey-tabby good looks to cultivate his intellect.

“I’m serious.  He drools, he bites me when I try to wash his head, he doesn’t hunt anymore.”

“I think you’re mistaking guile for madness,” I said.  “If he doesn’t hunt, you have to do all the work.”

The Roc was taken aback, but not too far.  Our den couch isn’t that big.

“You mean, you think he’s acting crazy–on purpose?”

don
Vincent Gigante, “The Pajama Don”

 

“It’s been known to happen.  Like Vincent Gigante . . .”

“‘The Pajama Don’?” Roc asked.  Because it was home to Murray Kempton, the most graceful literary stylist ever to write a column for an American newspaper, we subscribe to The New York Post.

“The same.  Okie’s got the game figured out.  You go kill an animal, he gets to ‘roll upon prank to work it in.'”

“In the manner of Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry?” Roc asked.

“On the nosey,” I replied.

He stared off into the middle distance, as he is wont to do.  “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said finally.  “Still, I think it’s about time he took that cat-carrier trip from which no feline comes back.”

That’s my Roc, stealing a line from Hamlet.  “That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns?

olivier
“Tragically, I have by the magic of the Add Media button been inserted into this post.”

 

“Righto.”

“Sorry, no can do.”

“Why not?”

“When I did estate plans for you guys Okie signed a mental health care proxy that said he’s not to be put down at your request.”

“Why that . . .” Rocco began, then stopped himself.  “I can’t believe–after all these years–“

“Of wrassling with each other like a feline version of WWF . . .”

wwf1

” . . . that he’d think I don’t have his best interests at heart.”

“It’s right here in black and white,” I said as I pulled the documents from the secure file cabinet we purchased at a office supply store liquidation sale.  “See?  ‘I do NOT consent to euthanasia or commitment to a mental facility at the request of my brother Rocco without a professionally administered sanity test.'”

Rocco looked at me with that RCA Victor befuddled dog expression he gets whenever he’s painted himself into a cognitive corner.

rca
“Did you say ‘there,’ ‘their’ or ‘they’re’?”

 

“Well, all right,” he said finally.  “I assume since you’re a professional you can test him.”

“That’s not my area of expertise.”

“Oh, right, I forgot.  You’re a leading expert on the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.”

“It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.”

“Can’t you, like, check the internet?”

“And come up with a cockamamie answer like the kid who wrote a term paper that said coyotes reproduce by laying eggs because somebody monkeyed around with the Wikipedia page the night before it was due?”

“You’re the human, you figure it out.”

And so, after my usual in-depth research–a browser search for “insanity test questions”–I came up with a fairly comprehensive 176-question British exam that looked like it would do the trick, as long as I omitted the somewhat dated references to Herman’s Hermits.

herman
“I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”:  Drove many insane in 1965.

 

It wasn’t hard to get some “alone” time with Okie; he’s 91 in cat years, and so spends a lot of time vegging in sunspots on the rugs.  “Oak–got a second?” I asked.

“Sure, as long as you’re not going to put me in a cat carrier.”

“Not if you get a high enough score on a verbal test I’m going to give you.”

His ears perked up, and his eyes opened wide.  “This isn’t . . .”

“I’m afraid it is, old sport,” I said, slipping into Great Gatsby-ese to put him at his ease.  “There have been some suggestions . . .”

“By Rocco?”

“Well, and mom.”

“That wasn’t my vomit.  I swore off chipmunks long ago.”

“There’s really no way to tell, is there?  Anyway, it’s good to have these little . . . what I like to call ‘Sobriety Checkpoints.’  We administer them where I work after someone reaches the age of 68.  It’s just good human resources policy.”

turkey
Good for chasing, not for eating.

 

He snorted, the same snort I’ve heard from him so many times as he watched his younger brother race off, all excited, after . . . a wild turkey.  “What are you going to do if you catch it?” he’d call out, contemptuous of youth’s enthusiasm.

“All right, let’s do it,” he said, and so I began.

“Do you believe you are the ruler of a sovereign nation, and if so which one?”

“That’s easy,” he said.  “I am the master of all I survey, but the U.S. Constitution prohibits titles of nobility.”

“Lucky guess,” Rocco said as he ambled past the doorway.

“You got that one right,” I said.  “Let’s move on.  Can you fly, and if so, do you have landing rights at any major U.S. airport?”

He cocked his head at me, as if I was the crazy one.

“Have you watched me jump to escape from coyotes lately?”

“You haven’t lost your Superman-like ability to leap Sears Tool Sheds in a single bound, I’ll grant you that.”

“Okay–last question.  If I nail this one, you need to leave me alone for the first of my afternoon naps, okay?”

“All right,” I said, and I scanned the list for a question that was both tough and fair.  “Okay, here we go: Are you now, or have you ever been . . .”

“This is descending into McCarthyism.  ‘At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

mccarthy
“Are you the owner of any cats, and if so–how many?”

 

“This is about religion, not politics.  Are you now, or have you ever been, a God or God-like entity?”

He snorted the way he does in the fall when he stays out all night and comes home in the morning with a cold.  “Seriously–that’s the best you can do?”

“This goes to the very heart of the matter: do you still consider yourself a mortal cat?”

cats egypt

He didn’t even take a second to think.  “If you knew anything about cats,” he said, “you’d know humans may be mortals, but cats are divine.”

 

Coming soon in “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

 

Estate Planning for Cats

          The Massachusetts legislature has passed a bill allowing residents to write pets into their wills and leave trust funds behind for their care.

          The Boston Globe


“There–Kitzi is all provided for!”

Once a year when I take stock of my family’s financial situation–how much life insurance we have, the allocation of my retirement plan between bonds, stocks and 60’s era collectible plastic model cars, and what would happen to everybody else in our household if I should die before them.

I was sitting at my desk trying to figure out the pie charts on my monthly statement when Okie, the older of our two cats, jumped up on my desk.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked, mustering as much wide-eyed innocence as a creature who likes to rip the guts out of chipmunks can possibly manage.

“Just my annual financial self-check-up,” I said, reaching into the drawer for an extra box of hyphens.

“I don’t mean to sound . . . crass . . . but have you taken care of me?” he asked.

I gave him a withering look. “You’ll be fifteen years old in 2015,” I said. “That’s 105 in human years.”

“So? You’re the one who rides his bike on state highways.”

Rocco
Rocco: “You made mom the trustee? Good grief!”

 

“I wear a helmet,” I said, turning back to something called the PIMCO Variable Rate Long-Term Investment Grade Bond and Baseball Card Fund.  “I don’t think you’re going to outlive me.”

He’s not the brightest cat in the world; he’s gone a long way on looks alone, with females rolling over and swooning at the black stripes in his short grey fur. I could literally feel him trying to figure out an innocent-sounding way to restart the discussion.

“Not for me,” he said, even though I seemed to recall that he’d used the word “me.”  “For the children.”

“You mean Rocco? He’s going to be 9 this year, so he’s 63.  Sorry, I think the humans around here come first because of their longer life expectancy.”
Thinking it over.

He turned away, a bit miffed.  “Did you see The Globe today?”

Okie
“I can’t go out and get a job at my age!”

 

“That was their advertising slogan back in the 80’s,” I said.  “Which part?”

“An article that tells how you can set up a trust fund for me and Rocco.  Just in case something tragic–God forbid–happened to you.

All of a sudden it clicked. There’d been a segment on “Biography” last night about the Menendez brothers, the Beverly Hills teens who killed their parents to get at their assets.

“Forget about it, pal,” I said, and I tried to put some starch into my voice.  “I don’t have enough money to make it worthwhile to bump me off.”

“What are you talking about?”

Rocco came in the room and, as always, sized up the situation in the beat of an eyelash.

“Is he trying to talk you into a trust fund?” he said before sprawling on his back legs to lick his crotch. “I told him you wouldn’t fall for it.”

Okie emitted a hiss like the radiators in my first apartment.  “You are so cynical,” he said.

“Am not,” Rocco said, “unless you mean that I’m dog-like.”

“I think he means you mistrusts his motives,” I explained, switching to the figurative from the literal.

“I’m not greedy,” Okie said. “I’m not like Leona Helmsley’s dog, Tycoon.”

“The one who was bequeathed $12 million, later reduced to $2 million?” I asked, although I knew the answer.


Tycoon, with Helmsley: “He’s the only one who really loved me for the bitch that I am.”



“Yeah–pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,” he said, using an old country expression popular among big city lawyers.

I reached over and scratched Okie on the head.  “Don’t worry, if mom or I died you could stay here until the other kicked the bucket.”

“What if you died together?” he asked. He’d apparently thought this thing through thoroughly.

“Well, I’m sure one of the neighbors would take you.”


Jack Russell terrier: Yip, yip, yip.

 

“I-nay on the olstead-Hays,” Rocco said, not even bothering to look up from his nether regions.  “I can’t stand their stupid Jack Russell terrier.”

I looked at the two of them, and realized they had a point.  “Tell you what–you guys can make out living wills, saying who you’d want to live with if we died. How’s that sound?”

“Is that enforceable?” Okie asked–he wasn’t completely on board yet.

“With two witnesses and a notary,” I said.

“And we can choose anybody we want?” Rocco asked.

“Sure–who did you have in mind?”

“Aunt Chris–she sends us Friskies Cat Treats!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Managing Your Cats

Business experts say sound personnel management is the key to surviving tough times. These are the same business experts whose current advice on “best practices” is “Your business sucks–if you switched to making kids wooden arrows you could get a government handout.”


“. . . so we’re going to stop making widgets, and become a Wall Street investment bank.”

 

Managing your personal budget is no different. Every member of your household should be evaluated periodically in order to avoid costly litigation down the road, even though you don’t live down the road, you live at your current mailing address.

If there are cats in your house, you will find that fundamental principles of wildlife management are inappropriate tools to achieve your home economic goals. For example: Leave birds alone and they build a nest; leave beavers alone and they build a dam; leave cats alone and they don’t build a multi-level carpeted condo, they scratch the chintz couch, barf on the rug and take a nap.


“It’s not like I’m stealing legal pads from the supply room or something.”

 

In other words, managing cats is much like “herding cats,” a favorite simile of business advice books, although in this case it’s a tautology. To make the job of managing your cats easier, here is a transcript of my mid-year performance review of Okie and Rocco, two mid-level cats at my house.

(Clicking sound as tape recorder is turned on.)

ME: Does this thing work? Test–one, two, three . . .

TAPE RECORDER: Test–one, two, three . . .

OKIE: Sounds like Madonna with a head cold.

ME: Okay, I wanted to tape our little session so that we’d have a record of your performance reviews.

ROCCO: If you’re going to fire me, I want my lawyer here.

ME: No, not at all. Basically, the message I want to send is that you’re both doing a good job, despite . . .

OKIE: Despite what?

ME: Well, I’ve noticed a drop off in your performance.

OKIE: Meaning?

ME: Here are your numbers for the first five months of the year. No chipmunks, no mice, no squirrels . . .

OKIE: I’m 70 years old in cat years. Sales is for young guys–I should be a manager.

ROCCO: How about me?


Squirrel Melt–yum!

ME: Off the charts. Chipmunks–14. Birds–3. One squirrel, and a big one.

ROCCO: All right! I can just taste that sales incentive!

ME: Well, actually, these are tough times we’re going through right now . . .

ROCCO: Oh, puh-lease. You’re a lawyer–you make money off of financial misery!

ME: It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

OKIE: I just want to say in my defense, that if I don’t catch chipmunks, you don’t have to clean up the mess outside.

ME: True, but let’s not confuse effort with results.

OKIE: (. . .) What the hell is that supposed to mean?

ME: I don’t know–it’s a business cliche. Anyway, let’s move on to some of the ancillary aspects of your overall performance. We use a number of metrics to evaluate personnel here, and I wanted to talk to both of you about . . .

ROCCO: Here it comes . . .

ME: Climbing on furniture.

ROCCO: Look, I got up on the bar stool last night because that stunod wanted to fight and I was trying to take a nap.

ME: You guys have got to work on your conflict resolution skills.

OKIE: Fine, if you tell that pervert not to sniff my butt every time he walks by.

ME: Roc–I’ve warned you about our Dignity in the Workplace policy.

ROCCO: I know, but I can’t turn to tab 3 in the Employee Handbook.

ME: I’ll make a copy of the page for you.

ROCCO: (aside) You can put it in the bottom of my kitty box.

ME: That’s another thing. I want you to treat all members of the family with respect. Have you sent thank-you notes to Aunt Chris?

OKIE: What for? There was no catnip in the gift box she sent this year.

ME: You know how Mom feels about drugs in the house.

ROCCO: Speaking of the gift box–there was something else in there you neglected to mention.

ME: What, those cat treats?

ROCCO: Yeah. If I’m doing so well, how about we add those to the menu in the company cafeteria, instead of that crap you buy at the organic food store.

ME: It’s not organic, it’s just low-cal, so your bellies don’t start dragging the ground like a dachsund’s.

TOGETHER: (chanting) Friskies Party Mix–Friskies Party Mix–Friskies Party . . .

ME: All right, I’ll talk to Mom about it.

OKIE: Which means “no.”

ME: Hey!

ROCCO: Why don’t you man up for a change. We’re direct-reports to you on the org-chart, but you never do squat for us.

OKIE: Yeah–you’re nothing but a lap dog.

ME: All right, cool it. Anyway, we’re almost halfway through the year, so stay on course and I’ll let you tear up some wrapping paper at Christmas.

OKIE: And?

ME: And what?

OKIE: Can we bat ornaments off the tree?

ME: Absolutely not!

ROCCO: Can we at least climb up and try to get the star?

ME: This meeting is over!

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Intensive Seminar Helps Cat Poets Sharpen Their Claws

BECKET, Mass. This sleepy western Massachusetts town is home to St. Judith College, the only institution of higher learning in the world named after the patron saint of cats, but that’s not the explanation for the high number of cat lovers here this weekend. “I have learned so much and made so many good friends—some of them human,” gushes Judith Sherman about a three-day intensive seminar in cat poetry she attended here beginning Friday night. “I will never rhyme ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ again, that’s for sure.”

Sherman and nineteen other applicants were accepted into a program designed to reverse what Professor Roger Guilbard sees as a disturbing downward trend in the quality of cat poetry. “Poetry about cats reached its zenith in the eighteenth century with Christopher Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno’ and Thomas Gray’s ‘On the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,’” notes Guilbard, an authority on cat poetry. “T.S. Eliot and Stevie Smith went all cutesy-pie in the twentieth century and it’s been downhill ever since.”

The thrust of instruction and correction in one-on-one sessions and small group discussions has been to discourage the tendency to anthropomorphize our feline friends, says teaching assistant Glynda Gaelwig, who is studying for a master’s degree in English with a concentration in cat poetry. “Excessive sentimentality is the occupational habit—if not the occupation–of cat poets,” the slim, bespectacled blonde notes as she takes an unsparing pen to a poem entitled “My Best Friends Are Cats.” “We try to get our cat poets to understand that first they must observe and make us see their cats, then if it’s not too saccharine to let us know how they feel about them.”

Melinda Stiffel is first to recite in a roundtable group of poets who will have their work critiqued by other participants and, after clearing her throat, she launches into “Some Things About You I’m Not Fond Of,” a poem about her male tuxedo cat, Mr. Scruffy:

I love you much, I love you truly,
You’re just as cute as a bug,
But I really wish you wouldn’t upchuck
Field mice upon the rugs.

 

“Anyone want to take a stab at that?” Guildbard asks, and Nancy Palsgraff, who writes a weekly pet poetry column for the North Adams News-Courier, meekly raises her hand. “I think Melinda did what you told us to,” she says. “You said to take an unsparing look at our pets and not churn out greeting card poems.”

“Fair enough,” Guilbard says. “Although the gimlet eye that a great poet must strive for is clouded by affection, it’s a worthy first effort. Let’s hear what you came up with, Nancy.”

Palsgraff shuffles her papers to place “There’s Just One Thing I Don’t Like About You” on top from the bottom, where she had kept it concealed until prompted in order to hide it from the prying eyes of her fellow students. She looks around the room warily, hoping the criticism of her work won’t be too harsh, then begins:

I think you are perfect in many ways,
And I don’t mean to be a grouch,
But I’m tired of yelling at you all the time
When you sharpen your claws on my couch!

“Ok,” Gaelwig says, “now we’re getting somewhere. I sense a strain of resentment. You’d like to have nice furniture, but you can’t as long as your cat insists on being—a cat! It’s an insoluble dilemma—he can’t change his nature. That’s the kind of knotty problem that makes for great poetry.”

Palsgraff allows herself a tiny little smile of self-satisfaction, and a barely-audible “Thanks” issues from her lips.

“Any comments from the group?” Gaelwig asks.

The hand that shoots up belongs to Con Chapman, the only male in the group, and from the look on his face it is apparent he doesn’t think much of what he’s heard. “That was nice, Nancy,” he says with a sarcastic tone, “really nice. Why don’t you just get your damn cat a scratching post, and spare us the limp claptrap?”

An audible gasp is heard from the class, and Guilbard clucks his tongue in disapproval. “I’ve warned you about maintaining a civil tone in group discussions before,” he says with a stern expression.

“And E.B. White warned us to avoid the gerundic, and yet you persist in using it,” Chapman shoots right back at the professor.

“Well, let’s hear what you wrote,” Stiffel says through a sniffle.

“I’ll be happy to ‘share’ it with you,” Chapman says. “This be the verse,” he says by way of introduction, invoking “His Epitaph” by Robert Louis Stevenson and the poem of the same name by Philip Larkin, “that I would like to be remembered by.” He straightens himself, announces the title—“My Wild Feline Boy”—and begins:

It’s three a.m. and the cat wants in,
My wild feline boy.
He’s made his way home from a night of sin,
My errant feline boy.

With a notch in his ear from an honor-mad fight
And a tail that is shorter than at last sunlight
He stops to eat, then he curls to sleep
My sated feline boy.

He recalls for me a time when I,
Like he, roamed the streets at night.
He unlike me, sleeps an untroubled sleep.
My antic feline boy.


“That’s awful!”

There are looks of consternation on the faces of the others except for Palsgraff, still smarting from the criticism her work received. “I think it’s horrible!” she says with an exhalation of poetic afflatus.

“Would you care to . . . elaborate?” Guilbard asks her gently.

“A cat who fights is a bad cat!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Improving Your Cat’s Body Image

It was a beautiful morning, not a cloud in the sky, and as I obeyed the Biblical injunction to lift up mine eyes to the hills in the east, I almost stepped in it. Not the Bible, the daily deposit of barf that is becoming the occupational hazard, if not the occupation, of this owner of two adult male cats.


It’s in there somewhere.

 

Thankfully whichever one had done the deed had done it on the fake Oriental rug, with its variegated pattern, and not the white or the cream wall-to-walls elsewhere in the house, where it would show. I went through the familiar routine, like an elementary school janitor cleaning up the halls, then stopped by the window sill where our tuxedo cat Rocco, the younger and fatter of the two, was sunning himself.


“What? Whadda ya lookin’ at me for?”

 

“Did you leave me a little present in the foyer?” I asked.

“Not me. Probably Mr. Slimtastic.”

He was referring to Okie, a grey tabby who is indeed becoming thinner as he grows older, the result–our vet says–of a thyroid condition.

“Is it my imagination, or is Okie throwing up a lot these days?”

“I didn’t know your imagination could throw up.”

“What is it with him lately?” I asked by way of ignoring him. “Every morning there’s a pile of upchuck to navigate around.”

Rocco was looking out the window, sizing up a chipmunk that had emerged from a crevice in our stone wall.


“Nyah nyah nyah NYAH nyah–You can’t get me!”

 

“Hello?”

“Sorry, I was lost in thought. I think he’s having problems with his body image.”

I was, to put it mildly, dumbstruck. Okie’s a guy, 63 years old in cat years, salt ‘n pepper fur–he should be settling comfortably into dirty old cathood, not worrying about his waistline.


“Does this couch make me look fat?”

 

“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous.

“I’m a dumb animal, incapable of irony–of course I’m serious!”

Like anyone who’s raised someone with a poor body image and an eating disorder, I had to ask myself if I’d done something wrong somewhere along the way. I examined my conscience, the way the nuns taught me back at Sacred Heart Grade School. I promptly throw out the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue every winter as soon as I’ve checked to make sure that all the models were psychology majors at UCLA and are in favor of world peace. I never, ever make a crack about the weight and/or physique of anyone in the house who might care what I thought–like my wife. The only thing I watch on TV during the summer is out-of-shape baseball players like Josh Beckett, who’s got a major league beer gut to go with his nasty fastball.

“I have no idea where he picked that up,” I said, shaking my head.

“Have you noticed where he’s been napping lately?”

“Uh, no.”

“In the magazine basket, where the catalogs from Chicos get tossed.”

He had a point. The improbably thin women who are always laughing and having a good time as they model the latest mail order fashions are probably not the best example for a cat who’s getting on in years.

“Maybe I should talk to him,” I said.

“I would say it couldn’t hurt, but I know you too well,” Rocco said as he rolled over for a nap.

I ambled slowly into the living room–no wait, it’s the family room, the living room’s the one we never go in–where I found Okie asleep on top of a Chicos catalog.

“Hey buddy,” I said, as I scratched his head. He rolled over on his back for a belly rub, then sat up to examine himself.

“Can we switch back to the low-cal Iams?” he asked.

“You know we have to keep you on the high-fat kind because of your thyroid,” I said.


A little paw-candy to impress the other toms with.

 

“I just hate the way it makes me look!” he said. He licked the yellow fur on his stomach to make it lay down flat.

“Oak old boy–where is this new-found interest in your physique coming from? You’re not trying to attract some young paw-candy at your age, are you?”

“No, I don’t miss my sex drive,” he said with a tone that was world-weary and convincing. “I don’t need that kind of aggravation anymore.”

“Then what is it?”

He looked at me with those big, round, sad eyes he usually only flashes when he wants something really badly, like to go out at night and not come home for two days from a midsummer hunting trip.

“It’s . . . it’s that damned Lady Di cookie tin in the basement.”

Lady Di

“That old thing of mom’s that I put the kids’ crayons in?”

“Yes. Why do you keep it on display down where I have to sleep? All I can think of is her pain, the torment she went through, sticking her finger down her throat every night so she could fit into those skimpy silk dresses after all those sumptuous charity dinners for starving children around the world.”

I put my finger under his chin and raised it so we were looking eye-to-eye.

“Okie–you can’t live your life vicariously through a deceased member of the British royal family. You’ve got to be your own man, er cat, and not follow the frivolous fashions of the moment. Understand?”

“But–you’re always saying ‘A cat can look at a queen.’”

He was right about that. My mom used to say it all the time to get people off their high horses, to mix my metaphors. “Oak,” I said, “that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to go all goo-goo eyed looking at Lady Di pictures. It means that no one’s better than anyone else, that we’re equals, not like in monarchies where commoners aren’t allowed to look directly at the sovereign.”

“Is that kind of like Barbra Streisand telling her housemaids not to look her in the eye?”

“Right. Like Orwell said, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

That seemed to set his mind at ease–I could sense a feeling of peace coming over him. “I always feel better after we have these little talks,” he said with what appeared to be a beatific smile on his face.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you get in such a mellow mood you won’t notice the mouse I threw up in the den.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

The Ballad of the Headless Bunny

T’was a Sunday morning, the first week of May
A fine and fragrant playful day
I put on my bike shorts, prepared for a ride
Opened the garage door and went outside.

There I stepped down on what looked like a mouse
Bloody and lifeless outside of our house.
I took bag in hand and prepared to grab it
When I realized the thing was the head of a rabbit!

I stepped inside, to speak with Rocco
Our younger male cat, and sort of a jocko.
I said “Thanks for the present you left on the steps.”
“Just earning,” he said, “my keep as your pet.”

“I appreciate all the hunting you do,”
I said as I scraped the gore off of my shoe,
“But you should know, if you haven’t been told
That beheading bunnies is really quite cold.”

“It’s nature,” Roc said, with a cynical glare.
“He may have been cute, but he’s just a March hare
Who wore out his welcome, so I let him have it.
That’s the cause of the death of this beheaded rabbit.”

Up ambled Okie, elder cat statesman.
He’d spent the night downstairs in the basement.
His hunting days over, he’s now much the wiser.
He only chews cat food on his long incisors.

“Kid, you blew it,” he said as he walked up,
“When you rub out a rabbit, you don’t want to get talked up.
Silent but deadly, discreet terminations
Are the type that are favored by all criminal nations.”

The younger buck stood as if stunned by a shot.
“You mean you don’t celebrate, a lot or a jot?”
“No way,” said his brother, who’s now in his dotage.
“You don’t want to be covered by cat crime repotage.”

“The tabloids are vicious, the front page pics grisly,
The stories they offer are hot and quite sizzly.
When word gets round you’re big cat on the block
Every tom in the hood wants to give you a knock.”

So Rocco, a feline who learns as he goes,
Decided he’d rather be writ up in prose.
No Song of Rocco, for this black and white moppet
He ordered the author of this poem to stop it.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Happy National Hairball Awareness Day

A rainy Saturday. There’s just me and two cats, Rocco and Okie, three sullen males grunting their way through the day–as usual–while the wife’s running errands.


Rocco: “You insensitive clod!”

 

And yet something’s–not quite right. Okie, the elder cat, seems–distrait. Taciturn. Phlegmatic. And those are just leftover vocab words from my son’s senior English class.


“Just leave me alone–okay?”

He sits on a windowsill, staring off into the middle distance, as if he’s depressed. He’s indifferent to my attentions, or perhaps I should say more indifferent that he–or any other cat–is normally. Rocco’s outside rolling in the dirt, so I amble up to him for a sidebar.

“Great day, huh?”

“Yeah. I’m going to hassle those stupid long-haired chihuahuas next door.”

“Okay, but get that out of your system early–I want to take a nap this afternoon. Hey–have you noticed anything funny about Okie?”


“Yip, yip, yip!”

 

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Strange. He seems somewhat–distant today.”

Rocco looks at me with a pitiless expression and shakes his head. “You are so freaking clueless.”

“What?”

He takes a second to scratch for a tick under his chin. “It’s all about you–isn’t it? You sit there at your computer all day in your own little world. Never thinking about anybody else.”

“Hey–if I don’t sit at my computer all day, you don’t get any Iams Low Fat Weight Control Dry Cat Food.”

“Oh, whoop-de-do! That stuff’s so bad I’d rather eat the bag.”

“You’ll thank me in a couple of years when every other cat in the neighborhood has a gut that’s dusting the floor. But seriously–is something the matter with him?”

“Don’t you know what today is?”


St. Swithin: Peace out, dawg.

 

I search my memory. Not Arbor Day. Not my elder sister’s birthday. St. Swithin’s Day? Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding anniversary? “I give up–what?”

Rocco closes his eyes, as if he can’t believe how stupid I am. “It’s National Hairball Awareness Day, you mook!”

I’m confused. “Okie’s a short-hair. Why would he get emotional about hairballs?”

“You are such an insensitive clod,” Rocco says, licking his white ruff. “Hairballs can strike any cat, at any time–long or short-hair.”

“I didn’t know. We get so many solicitations at work. United Fund. All kinds of diseases. You don’t expect me to keep up with all of them, do you?”


National Hairball Awareness Poster Child

 

“Look–just because there’s no washed-up comedian doing a telethon for Hairball Awareness doesn’t mean you can completely ignore a cause that means so much to someone right in your own home!”


“Ack-ack-ack–it’s the sound of a hairball attack!”

 

“But I don’t . . .”

Rocco cuts me off. “Okie’s mom died of a hairball.”

Okay. ‘Nuf said. I “get it.” “Jeez–I didn’t realize.”

“You should go talk to him. Maybe buy a bracelet, or at least a ribbon.”

I take out my wallet. I’ve got four ones and a twenty. Stupid cat won’t know the difference.

“And don’t try to stiff him like you do the mini-mites hockey kids who accost you at the stoplights with their coffee cans.”


“You cheap bastard–giving a kid a cents-off coupon for a granola bar!”

 

“You’re right. I’ll go talk to him.” I go back in the house and Okie’s still sitting where he was when I left, his chin on his paws.

“Hey Oke,” I say, “I’m . . . uh . . . sorry I forgot about Hairball Awareness Day.”

He looks up at me without anger. “That’s okay,” he says. “Who was it that said the universe was indifferent to our suffering?”


Camus: 1951 Existentialist Rookie of the Year.

 

“I don’t know. Either Albert Camus–or Yogi Berra.”

He lets out a short little sigh. “I think of the poem by Auden . . .”

“Musee des Beaux Arts?”


Auden: “At least this post has a smoking section.”

 

“Right. How suffering takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window . . . “

” . . . or just walking dully along?” I say, finishing the line for him. Nothing like the consolations of art–their purgative powers–to help one get over sadness.

“I tell you what,” I say. “I’ve got $24–I’m going to make a contribution in your mother’s name to the National Hairball Foundation.”

His eyes mist over–or at least I think they do. “Save your money,” he says.

“But I want to.”

“No–you’re going to need it.”

“Why?” I ask.

“For some Resolve Multi-Surface Fabric Cleaner. I upchucked a hairball on the dining room rug.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

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