Young cat owners are alike in that most cats they’ll adopt found them in a vulnerable moment — an audible cry in a rainstorm, an endearing look in an adoption center — and the young cat owner will choose to take them in. Sure, the young human will think, I’ve got all the time in the world. The thought young cat owners don’t have at the time of adoption, however, is: My frontal lobe that’s required for long-term decision-making isn’t fully grown in yet.
That’s fine, though. No cat adoption agency does background checks. Young humans — before that frontal lobe required for long-term decision-making has grown in — can make a human baby, be such bad parents that the baby is taken away from them by authorities, and then just make another baby without anyone calling them up to say they should stop doing that. Young humans with big hearts for cats and a distaste for contraception may find themselves with several babies and several cats long before that essential frontal lobe ever grows in.
Cats, whose frontal lobes take up only 3.5% of their brain as opposed to the human’s 29%, don’t make long-term decisions in the same way humans do. Cats have occupied their time eating, sleeping, and ignoring contraception for millennia, making themselves the eighth most populous mammals on the planet after humans — there are around 600 million cats on the planet, placing them neatly on the most populous species list between rabbits and water buffalos* –who’ve never staked out a specific environmental niche of their own. There are city cats and country cats, cats of the desert and the jungle. Like pigeons, they simply glommed onto us at some point.
We’ve gone from worshipping them in ancient Egypt.
To persecuting them for alleged witchcraft in medieval Europe.
If cats wrote history books, they’d characterize us as both heroes and villains, their eventual domestication (of us!) an event with differing opinions much like humans and the Neolithic Revolution, the move that allowed us to build sprawling civilizations while at the same time lowering our quality of life, possessing the same genetics as our hunter-gatherer ancestors but eating fast food and wrecking our knees and elbows by working behind a desk all day.
Cats go through life faster than humans. The time going forward in which a teenaged human with a cat might leave home and do that thing where she either goes to school, work, or the military, then lives it up while figuring herself out for a decade or so before eventually finding a mate and a desk job, would in that time see the cat moving from kittenhood to old age, riddled by oxygen and gravity and time, the forces that pummel us. Elderly cats are cute in their own way, and if the young owner is still young, she might replace it with another kitten. If a human has an average lifespan and continuously owns one cat that also has an average lifespan, her life could be measured by saying she lived to be five cats old. What makes older cat owners different from younger cat owners is that the time in their life that’s already been lived and the amount of time they have left on Earth is more in harmony with that of the cat’s. A single man who adopts a kitten in his 50’s may conceivably die around the same time as the cat, the two of them having eked out their final decades together, bonded, as they say, for the rest of their lives.
These are the significant numbers one must consider when going forward in middle age. I’ve always stretched for around 20 minutes after getting out of bed. I don’t really eat breakfast, but drink coffee and listen to the news while stretching. This would be the entirety of a normal morning if I didn’t adopt two kittens in my 40’s. Now, my morning tasks upon waking are
1) Hit the bathroom for that powerful first-thing-in-the-morning piss, the cats sauntering in to whack at the toilet paper and climb the bath towels
2) Coax the cats out of the bathroom with a sort of clucking sound I learned from the book Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennet, or “The Cat Bible” as it’s referred in online forums like r/cats
3) Change the water in the cat’s water bowl
4) Fill up a little percolator with coffee and set the burner on high as the cats sing their morning song because they know the next step is
5) Wet food — half a can in the morning and the other half for dinner. I suspect this is the highlight of their day
6) Stretch, coffee, news. The big boy likes to jump on my back as I’m transitioning from downward dog to cobra pose while the little one rubs against me. Cats have pheromone glands on their neck, one behind each ear, and they rub their faces against things in this way to mark their property. This is what she’s doing to me. Marking me as her property
7) Clean the litter box
8) Tell the cats I’m going out hunting for the day as I strap on my bag, the big boy making a startled face like I’m suddenly terrifying as he runs into the extra bedroom. A room also known as “The Cat’s Room”
9) Walk out the door
I used to be able to move from #1 to walking out the door in less than 30 minutes, now it is a dance in which you can’t misstep. Were I to black out one weekend and wake up the next morning with no wet food, I’d be mad at myself. The transition from being a dude who’d always had a new, frantic project going on — compiling a new collection of short stories, starting a website dedicated to food fermentation — and still up to stay out drinking into the wee hours of the morning to being a dude that likes to stay in with a mug of tea and a cat kneading his back as he reads on the couch was remarkably quick, perhaps the heady effect of the little one’s pheromones as she tamed me to serve her.
A bit about them.
The big boy’s official name is Xiao Long, which means “Little Dragon,” a name he shares with Bruce Lee, whose name in Mandarin is Li Xiao Long, or “Li the Little Dragon.”
Anyone who’s thinking that an American guy giving his cats Chinese names is pretentious should know that I was working in the international school system at the time, living in China, when I adopted them. While I’m from North America, both of my cats are Chinese. Xiao Long was found in a trash can, abandoned, a fact I like to remind him of when I pick him up and do a “My Papa’s Waltz” dance around the living room after a few drinks. A student group called the Cat Advocacy Team (C.A.T.) had found him and named him Er Shi, which translates to 20 RMB ($3), a name they thought was hilarious. Other adopted cats around the school had similar names from, Si Shi (40 RMB/$7) to Wu Shi (50 RMB/$9).
He was a popular boy on campus. The 9th graders would pass him around to each other in class and during tests as a sort of good luck charm. He slept inside of the student’s desks, and they’d bring him back special treats like freeze-dried sardines when they left town over holidays. By the end of 2018 he was essentially the mascot for the freshman class. When fall break came around later that year, a representative asked if I could foster him over the week as no students would be around to feed him. I said Okay, but with the specific warning that they’d better be trying to find a good home for him because there was no way I’d adopt an animal at this point in my life. Fall came early that year, and the week of fall break was spent with the windows open, me reading big books on the couch and little Xiao Long either perched on my shoulder or tucked up under my chin.
He never slept in a student’s desk again.
The little girl’s name is Lao Hu, or “Venerable Tiger.” Her origin story is much simpler. The big boy was getting a bit too clingy, and he needed a friend to play with. I stopped by a cat clinic to pick up some food and she was there in a cage, having been found out back rummaging around in a trash can — the setting common to both stories — and taken in by the vet. She’d had a traumatic incident with a vehicle in which her tail was smashed flat and it now resembles a Tetris piece or a crooked lightning bolt. The vet cleaned her up and gave her to me for free. When she got back to my apartment Xiao Long held her down, gave her an hour-long tongue bath, and the two have been inseparable ever since.
As mentioned, my transition to “Guy who doesn’t mind staying home on a Saturday night because he has cats to hang out with” also happened pretty quickly. The nine-step process from waking up to walking out the door is repaid by cuddly furballs piling up on me at night to read a book or watch a movie. As far as big connections go in writing, I guess the big take away for this one is that when looking at the people around you in whichever city/town you live in, you might notice that almost all of them are existentially kind of sad. They have work to do. Then there are fun things they can do when not working. People with money can spend less time working and more time doing fun things, but in the back of everyone’s mind you know that one day you’re going to die. Don’t stop reading now. I’m going somewhere with this.
If you move to a new city/town you might get to hear a new language, try a new dish, look at new stuff, but it’s the same cocktail in a different tumbler. This is why people have kids, to have a deeper human experience. I’ll paraphrase Tim Kreider — who, on a side note, has also written a few excellent pieces on cat ownership — from his essay “End of the Line” in saying that people who have kids, fight in a war, become astronauts, spend the night in jail, or rescue other humans from sinking ships and burning buildings are more in touch with raw humanity, with what it really feels like to be alive.
Like Kreider, I’m happy to die without having done any of those things. A perfectly acceptable life for me would be an uneventful childhood, a career I didn’t hate, a middle-class income that would make me an upper-middle class individual since I wouldn’t have to funnel any of it into raising kids, less time working, and more time doing fun things until one day — toward the end of an average lifespan — I’m at home on a Saturday night, watching a movie with two furballs piled up on me, and am taken quick and violently by something like an aneurysm or a stroke. It’d be great if it didn’t hurt, but I guess a quick shot of pain would be fine. The cats would probably eat a bit of me before my stench alerted the neighbors; the nose, lips, and tips of fingers are apparently where they start. Hopefully, they wouldn’t develop a taste for human flesh so someone might still want to take them in.
If my outlook on life sounds bleak, I’d like to argue that, in practice, it’s not. The school of Optimistic Nihilism teaches us that if there is no God (or gods) and that our existence in the universe is random and devoid of purpose, then instead of hopelessness, we should take rejoice in the fact that we’re incredibly lucky to be the only known beings in the known universe who build major metropolises, host raging parties, and can pull out a mobile device to page a vehicle to take us back to our apartments from those parties with the touch of a few buttons. We take it for granted, but the tangible things we can make happen with just that mobile phone are more than we’ve achieved through centuries of prayer. While religion offers a mirage of hope, that’s all you get unless you “Feel it,” as some religious folk who are entirely consumed by the feeling might say. If you “Feel it,” good good good for you, but I hope that feeling isn’t coupled with a sense of superiority, a sense of righteousness, because even the average human lifespan is short in the grand span of things.
The greatest stories religion has told are the ones of men who sell their souls and find that their riches are worthless in the face of the sheer scarcity of time they have left on Earth.
Young folks think they’ll live forever. So do my cats when they eat and shit and sleep and play all day, causing me on my way out to say You eat and shit and sleep and play all day! What legacy will you leave behind!? Then I do that thing where I walk out the door. And from there I walk to a high school where I get the same eye rolls and yawns from my students as I get from my cats and wonder at how elegantly connected this Earth must be that two species can be so distinct and yet have so much in common.
*Mala, Alisa. August 20, 2020. “World Facts” on WorldAtlas.com.