(Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight.com)
My college roommate and I met our cats at side-by-side animal shelters in San Francisco. Her tabby, Zeke, went home with her that very day, and my black cat, Chuck, also went home with her, as I was still scrambling to get into an apartment. (Here’s to you, Jen, for letting my cat crash with you for a month; thank you for keeping your cool that time he peed on your duvet.)
Thus began 15 years (and counting) of what my husband calls “My Cat Goes Mrow” — that is, long conversations in which Jen and I mostly swap Zeke and Chuck stories. You could argue, and I do, that they’re the beast-shaped filters through which we tell each other about all aspects of our lives, but I can admit that they tend to follow the format he identified (“My cat goes ‘mrow’!” “My cat goes ‘mrow’!”).
My Cat Goes Mrow is having a moment — call it a decade, really — right now, as you may have noticed. (Robert De Niro certainly noticed when he found himself posing with Lil Bub, the feline Internet and film celebrity, on the red carpet at his Tribeca Film Festival.) Last year, a mobile network found that UK internet users share cat photos and clips twice as often as they share selfies.
That could be because cat antics are so meme-friendly, because self-parody (“I’m a Crazy Cat Lady!”) is a popular facet of self-definition via social media, or because cats are inherently outstanding — you pick your favorite theory, and I’ll pick mine. I spent years telling coworkers that I’d eventually defect from our magazine and launch Cats and Flats, a title devoted to my dual passions, and I felt both burglarized and somehow vindicated when Vogue spun the idea into a felines-and-footwear trend feature last March.
All of that said, I never really believed I’d cave to the siren call of fuzzy lucre and go pro as a cat lady when I finally did become a full-time freelance writer. I was going to dive back into penning wildly unprofitable poetry for literary magazines, amass a book’s worth of endlessly cool nonfiction essays, and turn out an occasional wink-wink listicle for the Web; that sort of thing.
Then, just after setting out on my own, I found myself on a trip to Turkey in the company of writers with very specific beats. A fellow who contributed to a weekly news magazine would gaze out over the Mediterranean and say, “The last time I saw fireworks like this was in Kuwait.” An accomplished food blogger would perch carefully over our meals with her camera like Annie Leibovitz shooting Cara Delevingne in a villa on Lake Como. I, in turn, took a photo of the Japanese dude with a selfie stick taking pictures in the ruins at Ephesus beside a bored tabby basking in the sun. I took photos of a trio of cats trying to steal gyro meat from a shrieking foreign journalist at a chaotic outdoor cafe. I rose before the muezzin’s dawn call to prayer in Cappadocia to watch the sun peek over the fairy chimneys — and, okay, to visit the calico and kittens I’d seen cavorting on a rooftop the night before.
It became clear when I returned to the States that my first coverage of the trip was going to focus on Turkish street cats. My camera’s memory card offered up a weird, fabulous hybrid of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Cute Overload. Promising myself that my next piece would be a dark sonnet about the guy selling water bottles full of leeches in Izmir, I wrote up a pitch to Catster, the Internet-savvy, shelter-pet-friendly newsstand reincarnation of Cat Fancy.
The web team wrote back promptly. They liked the cut of my jib, they said; they were interested in the Turkey piece, and they were interested in my contributing other pieces, too. Was I?
Well, I thought, sort of. I’d written about my cats on my own site for more than a decade, I’d rattled on about Cats and Flats an awful lot, and I’d self-identified as a cat lady — one with robust personal hygiene and a lively social network, mind you — for other assignments. Surely it couldn’t hurt to pepper my more traditional work with homeless-kitten stuff. I sent the Catster folks some thoughts on sad cats in Dutch paintings, on “Cat Jeoffry” in Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, on working at an animal hospital and having a three-legged Manx and worrying that our Siamese doesn’t love me enough and cat sitter drama and that one photo of Jack Kerouac with a cat that’s perpetually on Pinterest and prepping your house for folks with allergies and…yeah. My cat goes “mrow,” and I now write a web piece for Catster every other week.
“Cat Jeoffry,” penned by the wildly unlucky English religious poet Christopher Smart when he was imprisoned in an 18th-century asylum, is considered the finest poetry of its time about a pet.Jeoffry was his master’s sole companion in the madhouse, and I’ve always found Smart’s eccentric, tender lines about him irresistible.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
As Robert Pinsky puts it, “Smart conveys that the sacred must be attained not by means of decorous or ecclesiastical portals but by embracing—even revering—what may look profane or trivial. Violating decorum, or otherwise demonstrating a fervor that surpasses customary forms of devotion, can embody conviction.”
There are ways of talking about love for nonhuman animals, about the nonsense we share with them, that we don’t tend to share when we’re speaking about the people we love. I don’t write about the made-up songs I sing to my husband, but the ditties for my cats? That besotted absurdity is easy to understand, and to share. I thought writing about cats would feel like maintaining a secret identity, but it articulates parts of me that were obvious everywhere but below my byline.
A week ago, Jen’s cat and I watched as Jen and her husband dashed around their Chicago apartment gathering items for their hospital go-bag; she was about to give birth to their son, a month early. “See you soon, Zeke!” she called. “You have the best cat sitter ever!” He did, you know.