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Emma, one year ago

Earlier this week I mentioned the article in the current New York Review on Grigory Perelman, but failed to point out the issue’s two items of feline fun, having not yet stumbled (pounced?) on them. Let me fill in the gap. I’ll take the opportunity as well to add a few words about our resident feline.

Tim Flannery reviews four books on animal behavior. All four sound superb, but of particular interest for us here is Flannery’s discussion of Temple Grandin’s latest book (with Catherine Johnson), Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Commenting on the cat chapter, Flannery writes:

Cats are a big part of my life, so I read Grandin’s chapter on felines with unusual concentration. I was a little dismayed, therefore, to discover that “animal behaviorists and ethologists don’t know as much about cats and their emotions as we do about other domestic animals.” I thought I knew my cats pretty well, but Grandin surprised me by having much of great interest to say about these superbly sensual, mysterious creatures. One bare fact that had hitherto escaped me is that there are two basic cat personalities—bold and shy—which are associated with coat color. Black cats, it turns out, are usually laid-back, while tortoiseshells are the typical “scaredy cats.” I live with a black and a tortoiseshell cat (known respectively as the Captain and Bernadette), who could be models for this: the Captain is as solid as a rock, his aura of calm spreading far and wide, while Bernadette has been known to take fright at her own tail. Both, incidentally, had identical upbringings from kittenhood.

This hit home. Our own tortoiseshell, Emma, turns 14 next week. Her sister and fellow tortie, Goldie, who disappeared a few years ago, was the classic scaredy cat. However much she accepted us, however willing she might be to sit on our laps or flop for petting, if she were walking down the hall and saw or heard us coming, she’d run the other way. If company were around, she made herself invisible. But in her final years, her desire for chicken, beef, and fish overcame her fear. She would be drawn to the dining table, however many strangers were there, stopping at each chair to see if food were forthcoming.

Emma, though never as skittish, wouldn’t dream of coming to the dining table if strangers were about. She trusted no one, at least until a year ago, when she found an unexpectedly new level of calm. In response to our months-long remodel, she came to accept the constant comings and goings of assorted craftsmen, even allowing Bert, our carpenter/project-manager/friend, to pet her. However, since Joel’s return home in December, simultaneous with the end of the remodel, she has regressed. Initially, she didn’t quite trust that he was back for real. But by the end of January, after Gail and I came home from our third trip of the month, she had re-attached herself to him, like a barnacle to a ship. No longer does she come downstairs to the main floor in the morning to go outside when I get up. She’ll stay on Joel’s bed until he wakes up, and if he wakes up late enough, she might just stay on the bed for the day. The disturbing aspect of all this is that in treating Joel as a quasi-sibling, she has become a scaredy tortie cat.

The latest twist is that Joel took off two nights ago on a road trip — riding shotgun for his friend Michael on his drive back to Boston — and suddenly I’m back in Emma’s life. She woke me up this morning as the birds started tweeting. I ignored her, but an hour later I got up to let her out, and an hour after that she insisted on licking me for five minutes. I haven’t merited such treatment in months. Not that I missed it.

Enough about Emma. The current New York Review has another piece entirely about cats, Pounce, an essay by the late English writer Rebecca West that will appear next month in The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose. Unfortunately, the full article is not available to non-subscribers, but if you love cats, be sure to find it. Pounce came to live with West as a kitten during World War II. Here’s an excerpt:

Then suddenly a disquieting fact was brought to my notice. We lived on the top floor of the apartment house, and outside our windows a cornice ran round the four sides of the building. This Pounce used as a playground, to take the air and exercise his sense of power by ordering the pigeons he found there to take off into the empyrean, and we used to watch him complacently. But it now appeared that he had been using the cornice for other and odious purposes. He had been visiting a neighbor of ours. Not all our neighbors, only one. He had walked past the window of hosts who would have been glad to entertain him, who cried “Pussy, pussy,” as he went by, imagining him to be innocent and playful like themselves, and he went round two sides of the building to the apartment furthest from ours, to call on Mr. Gubbins: the one person among our neighbors who belonged to the same unhappy race as my mother, who feared cats.

The abominable genius of Pounce not only led him to this victim but indicated to him the moments when he was alone and most vulnerable. The poor man suffered from the fear of cats in an even more intense form than my mother. When he saw a cat he became paralyzed. Pounce used to visit him when he was having a bath. Mr. Gubbins was not favored by nature. He was an industrialist who looked like a Communist cartoonist’s victim of a wicked capitalist: a tall and flabby man, with pouches under his pale eyes and drooping cheeks and chins and paunch, and the unpleasant peculiarity that his wispy mustache and strands of hair combed across his bald scalp were bright gold like the yolk of an egg. When Pounce dropped into his bathroom and sat down on his haunches and looked at Mr. Gubbins the poor man’s deplorable and pendulous nakedness was then congealed. He could not get to his bath towel, to his bell, to his door, he could only utter loud wordless groans for help. If his door was locked, he had to stay where he was until his manservant crawled out on the cornice and released him. And Pounce had always left before the manservant arrived.

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