If Only Cats Would Talk

Does he miss me?

If Only Cats Would Talk

Susan Bass Marcus

My friend, Lyra, posts photos of her ginger cat, Panni on Facebook nearly every day. She describes his antics, especially whenever she returns home and he greets her at the door. After a day of multiple annoyances at work, Lyra tells her Facebook friends how much Panni’s welcome means to her. I often have wondered if Panni shares her emotions. Who knows how or what cats are thinking, really? If they could tell us, I doubt they would share.

Does Panni notice Lyra’s day-long absence? Does he feel loss? Does he anticipate her return as an end to his solitude? My own male cat rarely misses a chance to meet me at the door—actually, any door in the house, even the bathroom—with an effusion of joy more characteristic of long and despair-inducing separations. Where does he think I have been? I know he feels my absence, but is he aware of its duration? I am reluctant to anthropomorphize my cat’s mental processes, but sometimes he responds so…so humanly.

In his break-through tome on cat behavior, ‘Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet,’ Dr. John Bradshaw suggests cats just don’t care. An anthrozoologist who has been studying cats for more than a quarter century, Bradshaw suggests our cats do not think about us when we are not with them. Rather, he says a cat’s behavior is merely a response to cues alerting them to their guardians’ presence or imminent return. Hence, the cat guardian perceives a happy reunion while the feline perceives the presence of an agent for food and cuddling.

Dr. Bradshaw’s studies do not correlate with my own experience, especially regarding our cats’ behavior when we return from a one- or two-week vacation. Although well-tended by their pet sitter, both our cats seem to have missed us, but perhaps outside of time as we perceive it. Some studies show cats not only regard time differently from the way humans do we do; they are indifferent to it. Only cues matter. Cues guide cats through their daily routine.

Sometimes the cues mislead or confuse our cats. For example, the shift to Daylight Savings Time throws them off. In winter, when I emerge regularly from the bedroom—a no-cat zone—at 6:00 a.m., the cats expect me to march immediately to the kitchen to fill their bowl of kibble. Spring ahead to late March when 6:00 a.m. becomes 7:00 a.m. and the cats have been pacing the floor for an hour. Where have I been, they seem to complain. According to Bradshaw, my cues—sounds of my early morning routine like the FM radio switching on, my slippers scuffing the carpet, and water running in the sink–should have determined their behavior, not the clock change. I think they have, instead, an elusive inner rhythm governing their daily set of behaviors. Anyway, they adjust to Daylight Savings Time. Confusion returns when we shift back to Central Standard Time, which is also tough on humans.

I have learned to read my cats’ cues, too. I used to trip over the male cat, waiting for me just outside the bedroom door. Now, I anticipate his body draped across the threshold as he waits for my exit and I step over him.

Do cats watch for or miss our cues when we’re not around to supply them? Does a tree make a sound in the forest if it falls and no one is there? Does my cat lie at my bedroom door when I am not at home? Does he experience object permanence, which is, according to Wikipedia, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way).”  Dr. Bradshaw says no. He insists that they do not miss us. My husband bears witness to a frequent domestic cat phenomenon that contradicts Bradshaw. When the male cat discovers I am not at home, my husband soon hears the cat’s long lament, an aria lasting several minutes, although previously the cat was asleep and unaware of my departure, and, I assume, deaf to the door clicking shut.

That cat’s yowls and moans alternate with trilling glissandos. The rise and fall of his plaintive score appear to indicate his adverse reaction to my absence, reaffirmed by his appearance at the door upon my return. He picks up on some cue, perhaps my footsteps in the corridor, perhaps my voice as I greet a neighbor. I open the door and there he is. His tail vibrates madly and his purring resonates as his flank brushes my legs as if to say, “Long time no see. Welcome home.” As usual, we have a joyful reunion. Something is going on in that cat brain and it’s not indifference. Dr. Bradshaw, please account for that.


March 27, 2017. Revised 5/11/2017

What I Read, Drew, and Wrote

Alfred E. Neuman

Help for Writer’s Block

An Alfred E. Neuman bobble-head sits on my L-shaped desk, next to my laptop. Having finished one novel, I set up an array of de-stressers: Alfred (as in “What—Me Worry?”), a few quieting yoga stretches, diaphragmatic breathing, and a mellow glass of pinot noir (a fruity zin will work, too). They soothe me as I craft the second follow-up novel to Malevir: Dragons Return, work on my short stories, dare to submit work to journals, or anguish over a future reading at my writers’ group.

Alfred, the iconic cover illustration of nearly every Mad magazine, had his debut in the 1950’s. He signified the kinds of mischief that ‘good’ kids then wouldn’t do but would have loved to have done if they could have gotten away with it. My brother had a copy that I borrowed and read in the teen privacy of my room. Every one of its graphic stories, satires, or pseudo-adventure comic strips felt transgressive. Every page- turn offered innuendos or outright depictions of sex, violence, and mayhem that were unimaginable in my everyday life—and I loved it. Vicarious naughtiness.

Drawing on the Right Side

Even before I first secreted myself away with a copy of Mad, I was creating transgressive art and text of my own. After an incident in fifth grade, however, I hid it. My talent for figurative cartooning and a fascination with all things of Ancient Egypt provided me with the means to attract attention in my crowded public classroom–the attention of cute boys. I drew Egyptian princesses, anatomically correct and clothed in gauzy linen.  The boys sitting around me asked for personal copies and their clamoring attracted the attention of Mrs. Brown, my teacher.  She sent me to the office of Mr. O’Rourke, our otherwise kindly principal. My mother came to school within the hour. Mr. O’Rourke announced that I would be suspended until the end of the Thanksgiving break. This happened early in the week before Thanksgiving.

My mother defended me. She reminded the principal that she was the PTA Poster Chairman (all work was done by hand then) and she exhorted him to respect and nurture artistic talent (she was an accomplished amateur painter herself), but Mr. O’Rourke insisted that I had been inexcusably disruptive and provocative. Period.

Well, fine then, my mother retorted. She told him that we’d be happy to start our vacation early and he ought to be ashamed of himself. She walked me home without reprimand, or at least these many decades later, I don’t remember feeling at all guilty, just amused. The incident stayed with me and I recall it whenever I see work by Jeff Koons or other ostensibly transgressive artists.

Ready to Write

Throughout adolescence, I had an Olivetti portable typewriter, now a design classic, but then my pleasurable tool for concretizing my imaginings. Title #1: Sheena, Girl of the Jungle. Title #2 My Life as a Slave. Clearly, I was not drawing from personal experience.

In the first case, I’d just closed the exquisite covers of my father’s copy of Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson. A man travels to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and encounters a forest dwelling girl named Rima. I remembered the girl as a very strange bird-like creature whose provocations fatally stirred the superstitions of the native people living nearby. I thought I could write a better story and I did try but never finished it.

In the second case, my seventh grade classmates and I were assigned to write research papers on injustice in American history. Having also read at that time a biography about George Washington Carver and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I chose to write about slavery in America.  I wrote in the first person as if I myself were the young man kidnapped in Africa and brought to the American South. Although naïve and arrogant, I did live in the old Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and couldn’t help but notice economic and social inequities of the time. A burgeoning indignation spurred me on.

I illustrated the story and every sketch of mine brought me closer to compassion and outrage for the people who suffered the pain and injustice of slavery. I wish I still had that paper, to get into my young adolescent head, to see what I did not know, could not understand.

Over the years I have written creative non-fiction related to the curricula I produced, first as an elementary school art instructor, then for nearly two decades as a museum education curator. While any curriculum I wrote was based on facts as well as best and accepted practices, to add imaginative interest and encourage my students’ engagement I put those facts in the context of stories, situations invented but accurately portrayed that brought to life the remote or unfamiliar.

Once my career in education ended, I set my imagination free, no longer anchoring it on historical facts or art history, but letting it roam in many unconstrained and magical worlds. Hence, my first novel, Malevir: Dragons Return, available to order on this website.

So, Alfred E. Neuman, it’s you and me, kid. On we go, into the world of novel #2.