Friday, July 25, 2008

You Want to Name the Cat WHAT?

The new kitten, needed a name.

King of the Hittites?

I got a new kitten and now he needed a name. I like to give my cats royal names, as suits their demeanor. Most of my prior cats had classical names, like Alexander the Great. Now I wanted to get names from a bit further afield.

Among my many historical interests is the Hittites. They were one of the Great Empires of the ancient world. They managed to fight the mighty Egyptians to a stalemate in Syria, they marched on the Babylonian Empire and sacked Babylon, and so on. They were big, once.

Also, they had one of the most egalitarian outlooks of any of the ancient empires, spoke an early Indo-European language I found interesting to study, and were in an area which is modern-day Turkey before the period of the classical "Greeks" who lived there. Fun stuff for a history buff.

So I thought I'd name my new kitten for a Hittite king. I thought I'd call him Supiluliamas, maybe? I mentioned it to my wife, and you can imagine the look I got.

OK, there's no good short form for that one, anyway. People would look at me funny if I was calling my cat "Soup". How about Muwatallis? My wife gave me another look down the nose.

Fine, Muwa wouldn't be a good nickname, anyway.


I might as well have said "rubber baby buggy bumpers" three times fast.


She didn't give me a sour look over that name. Then she tried to say it. The syllables wouldn't come out in the right order. We tried and tried.

OK, maybe not.

Not Arnuwandas. I don't want a cat with "Arnie" for a nickname. So I didn't even bring that one up.

Tudhaliyas? My wife couldn't say that one, either. And having 'Tude as a nickname may be appropriate for a cat, but I wasn't sure I liked it.

King Telepinus was a jerk, and that name would sound dirty, anyway.

Mursilis sounds just like "merciless." Easy to say, but who'd know it was a Hittite king name rather than a name better suited for a pit bull?

We tried Hattusilis again. I coached my wife for several days. It never came out right. OK, still not a good idea. If my wife can't manage it how well would the family and the vet do?

So...he wasn't going to be named after a Hittite king. None of the other names we hadn't tried really did it for me.

So we went with the eminently more pronouncable "Phillip of Macedon." Heck, some people even know who that was!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Cats Direct Our Lives: A Different Pair of Shoes

We decided we'd walk into town yesterday instead of driving. It's not too far, only about a mile and a half. There's a big uphill slope going in to town that means the decision takes a bit of resolve, though.

Since it was a warm day, I decided I'd wear a pair of tennis shoes rather than my usual boots. I have three pairs of tennis shoes, because when I find a shoe that works for me I go back and buy more--I never know when I'll find more that fit. I then work them into use one pair at a time. So at any time I've usually got one pair of really ratty tennies, one pair that's in decent shape, and a pair that still look nice and new.

I didn't want to wear the new pair on this walk, I wanted to keep them looking reasonably nice. I didn't want to wear the ratty pair. The soles are still in good shape but I'd worn them out onto a section of our property that really requires boots--the shoes were full of stickers. So I started looking for my "middle" pair.

I didn't see them in the usual places. Then I remembered. I had removed them while sitting at my computer. I went to the computer to get them. There they were.

Unfortunately, there was also a cat sprawled on top of them, sound asleep. He had his paw over his eyes, and his nose stuck in the opening of one shoe. The cat was completely boneless, and in a deep sleep.

I gave his ears a rub to see how deep he was sleeping. No response. So now I had a dilemma. Do I wake the poor old cat and leave him bereft of his happy, warm spot to get my shoes, or do I leave him and wear something else.

I went and started picking stickers. After 20 minutes of work, I consoled myself that at least the cat had given me a reason to finally clean up the shoes, they weren't in such bad condition once the stickers were out.

My cat Menelaus sleeping on my shoes.

My cat Menelaus with my shoes. He was originally on top of the shoes, but by the time I took this picture he had shifted them around to a more comfortable position.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Cat Ambivalence: Come Here, Come Here...Hiss! Hiss! Go Away!

Our new cat, Zyelena, curled up with Phillip in 1987.

Phillip and Zyelena, 1987

We had a new kitten. Well, cat. She was about six months old and she was a beautiful little girl, very slender, with a black coat, white tummy and chin, and white mittens. We got her to replace our wonderful little dog, Amber, who we'd decided really needed a family that could give her the full-time attention she deserved. My wife and I were both working full time, and the poor puppy spent too many hours alone. She was a bright and active dog, so that meant that when she was bored she started getting into trouble. After a while, and some painful soul-searching, we decided to give her up. My wife found a home for her with a coworker who had kids. As it turned out, his retiree parents fell in love with Amber and ended up taking her home with them. It was the right thing to do, but it hurt at the time.

To fill the hole left by Amber, and to keep Phillip company, we went to the pound to find a new cat. I had seen a beautiful little orange tabby about Phillip's size when I was at the pound earlier. My idea was that we should get another cat about Phillip's size since he was a rambunctious little boy, and the other cat should be big enough to stand up to him.

When we got there, the orange tabby wasn't there any more. She was a gorgeous, friendly little thing, so hopefully someone took her home (I expect so, since she was in the unavailable section when I saw her before and the time until we came back may not even have been enough time for her to become available.) At any rate, we looked at the cats that were available.

I was approaching the process in a more or less logical fashion. I did a once-over on all the cages looking for signs of health problems, injuries, and other potential problems. Then I started looking at size and form. Then I started assessing the sociability of the cats as best I could under the circumstances.

My wife, however, had no such approach. She had already fallen in love with the cat who was to become our Zyelena. I had already eliminated her in my assessment as too small, likely to be bullied by Phillip. The cat had immediately reacted to Toni when she went by the cage. She had rubbed up against the bars and looked deeply into Toni's eyes and purred for her.

I suggested another cat or two to Toni, and she humored me by having a look at them, but in each case she wanted the little black cat more. We briefly discussed coming back another time, but she wasn't willing to risk losing a chance at the little black cat.

So, logic to the breeze, we took home the little black cat.

We took her straight home, we wouldn't have a chance to take her to the vet until the next day since we'd picked her up in the evening. When we got there we pulled her out of the box and let her get acquainted with her new home. It's always hard to do the right thing. You want to hold them and pet them and get acquainted with them yourself, but you have to stay back and let them take things at their own pace.

Phillip was immediately curious, of course. The black cat avoided him at first, but after she'd made a circuit of the living room she stood and looked at him, then quivered her tail.

Phillip walked up to give her muzzle a sniff. He no sooner got within sniffing range than she turned into a fireball, hissing and scratching and yowling at him. Phillip ran away, then turned and gave us a hurt look, as if to say, "What did I do?"

We spoke to her, I stayed away since she seemed leery of me, but she was immediately friendly with Toni. She brushed up against Toni's hand and purred. Then she suddenly seemed to notice Phillip. She made eyes at him and quivered her tail again.

Phillip came slowly over. She reached her nose out toward him. He stretched his neck out to give her a sniff. Again she transformed. She hissed, spit, scratched, and howled. Phillip leaped and raced away, hiding behind the couch. Once he was there and sure he wasn't being followed he looked over toward me. His expression was mournful. He looked confused and frightened.

The black cat continued her inspection of the house. Phillip followed at a distance. He was still very curious about her, but also much cowed by her treatment of him. Three more times as we went through the house the scene repeated itself. She would see Phillip, stand and invite him over, then go berserk the moment he was near.

"I suppose she needs some space," I said, "too much excitement or something." I made preparations to separate the cats for the night. I set up cat boxes and dishes in our bedroom and checked the box in the hall to make sure it was fit for use. We kept Zyelena in the bedroom with us that night, and poor Phillip was left outside in the hall. He cried a little and dug at the door a little, but overall he held up well. I went out and visited with him a couple of times during the night.

The next day Toni dropped off both cats at the vet. We had an appointment for Phillip as well as for our new cat. Toni mentioned the odd interaction the two cats had had the prior day. Later that afternoon, she got a call from the vet that explained it.

Zyelena was in her first heat. They learned this when they did the spay on her. I hadn't seen any of the signs either before or after we got her. I had thought of the possibility but her size made me think she may still be too young, and there hadn't been any signs of it--other than her behavior toward Phillip.

Phillip had already been neutered. So here she was, attracting him as a possible mate only to have some cat who didn't smell right for the job come walking up!

After we got them both home from the vet, though, they tried again. Zyelena stood and quivered her tail. Phillip wasn't sure what to do. Finally, his desire for friendship won out over his fear of claws, hissing, and spitting. He walked up, stopped. Then extended his nose. She reached out her nose. They gave each other a good sniff. Then she stepped forward and rubbed against him. he rubbed back, then started to get too curious about her backside. She drew back, and he froze. His eyes were nearly closed and his ears were rocked back like he was waiting for a storm.

She turned around and gave him a head bump. He relaxed, and gave her a lick on the forehead. Everything was OK.

Until ten minutes later, when she went and hid under the bed for two days. But that's another story.

Our Two Old Cats, Phillip and Zyelena, over seventeen years later.

Phillip and Zyelena, 2004


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Our Little Hula Dancer

Amber dancing for a treat.

Amber dancing for a treat.

We had our dog trained to perform tricks for her treats. We would have her sit up a lot, but for the best treats, she had to dance.

We'd call her, then when she arrived we'd hold up the treat about shoulder high and say "dance, dance, Amber!" She'd get up on her hind legs and bounce up and down with her front paws waving in the air in unison. It was very cute. Sometimes she would get her front paws going from side to side as well as up and down as she danced on her hind legs.

Our gray cat, Phillip, was jealous. He was jealous of the attention Amber got when she danced, and he was often jealous of the really good treats she was getting. Sometimes he'd try to steal her treats. But when she'd earned her treat, we were firm. She got the treat, he had to stay away.

One of the most coveted treats was meat trays. The little styrofoam trays from underneath roasts and hamburger were fun for them to lick clean. Fortunately neither of them showed a tendency to chew on them at all. Usually, I would make Amber dance for the meat tray, then Phillip would get to lick any juice off my fingers.

One night when I started dinner, the cat and the dog took up their usual positions. Phillip curled up on one of the chairs at the table in the kitchen and Amber laid just outside the kitchen with her head just in far enough that she could see me. She knew that she wasn't allowed in the kitchen unless invited (we like to keep pets and hot oven doors away from each other), but she knew it was OK if she kept her body on the carpet outside and stuck in her head to watch (with her soft puppy ears perked up for when I called her.)

I was making up a pot roast. I'm sure both of them recognized what I was doing as soon as I pulled out the roasting pan and started the oven. I washed the potatoes and carrots, cut them up and put them in. I prepared the onions and sliced them and put them in the pot. Then the meat came out of the fridge.

I could sense the anticipation as I pulled it out of the wrapper and put it in the pot. Amber's head was inching a bit further into the room. Phillip wasn't making a point of having no interest in what I was up to, he was sneaking a sidelong look at me.

I put the pot in the oven, then made sure the meat tray was clear of any plastic or absorbent pads or anything.


She came in like a shot. I saw Phillip watching with open interest. His eyes were locked on the meat tray.

I picked up the meat tray and said, "Dance, dance, Amber!"

She hopped up and gave me a really good dance. But I saw Phillip move, too.

I looked up, and saw him sitting up on the chair. He was raised up on his hind legs, with his front paws held up and out in front of him. He was dancing!

He couldn't do the up and down bouncing very well, but his rotund little belly was swinging from side to side. He looked like a chubby little hula dancer.

The cat got the meat tray. I apologized to Amber and let her lick my fingers, then gave her a doggie treat. But this time, Phillip got the meat tray.

Phillip in the kitchen chair.

Phillip in the kitchen chair. The fluffy rump in the lower left is Amber.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rags and the Gerbils

We had a fluffy little calico cat. She was named Rags because she looked like a little bundle of rags when she curled up into a ball. She was a lovable little cat, but prone to loneliness when everyone was out of the house at work or school.

Shortly after we got her, we were given a pair of gerbils along with their cage, water bottle, and so on. They were a pair of females who were promptly named Laverne and Shirley. They were industrious little things. You could drop some pieces of newspaper into their cage and they'd tear it all into neat little strips and build a beautiful little nest out of it in a short while.

Rags was fascinated by the gerbils. She sat watching them intently. She would jerk her head and twitch her whiskers with every move they made. We worried about whether she would attack them. The mesh on their cage was pretty small, there was no way Rags could get a paw in, but we still worried about her hooking them with her claws through the mesh.

She never made a move to attack them that we saw, even when we left the dining room and sat in the living room where we could watch her without appearing to watch her.

Day after day, Rags sat entranced by the gerbils. In the morning we would pull a newspaper out of the pile underneath the coffee table, take a section of it, then put it in the cage for Laverne and Shirley. We'd take out the old nest, and they'd have a day's activity ahead of them (if we left the old nest they'd build a new one and use the old one for their potty.)

Having the gerbils seemed to lighten Rags's mood after she was home alone all day. She was less sulky when we came home. We'd always check on the gerbils. They were never harmed.

In fact, it looked like Rags was getting playful. We kept finding the newspapers spread out from underneath the coffee table across the floor, and sometimes torn a bit. We figured she was working off her excitement from watching the gerbils by dashing around and playing rough while we were away.

One day, after stacking the papers back up under the coffee table and sitting down at the couch to read a book, I heard the sound of paper tearing. Then I heard more tearing, like the newspaper was being torn off in a strip. I looked under the table, and there was Rags with a section of newspaper under her paws, tearing off a strip with her mouth.

"What's this crazy cat doing?" I thought. I left her to it, figuring I'd clean up the mess later. She kept tearing. I figured she was rending the gerbils in effigy.

Later, my mother came in the room. She heard Rags tearing the paper. "What is she doing?" she asked.

"Killing newspapers," I said, "I guess."

My mother kept watching her. I hadn't checked in on Rags in a while. I was engrossed in a Doc Smith book from the Skylark of Space series.

"She's building a nest!" said my mother.

I put down my book and came to see. Sure enough, Rags was building a newspaper nest underneath the coffee table. She had been tearing off strips of paper, and arranging them in a circular pile. We watched her in amazement for a while. After another half hour or so, Rags had a loosely-built, but recognizable nest. It was a larger version of the nests Laverne and Shirley built.

"All this time she's been watching them, we thought she was hunting them," my mom said. "She's been learning from them."

Rags kept making her nests for as long as we had her. Her nests got better and better as she kept building them. She tore the strips finer, and arranged them so that they lay in nice interwoven bunches in a round pile, just like the gerbils' nests. We cleaned out her nest about once a week, and learned that if you wanted to read a newspaper you didn't lay it under the coffee table.

I have no idea if Rags thought she was a gerbil or not. She still liked to play with strings and such like a normal cat. But she could make the neatest newspaper nest you ever saw.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Best Birthday Present

When my wife and I got married, it was just the two of us and her dog, Amber, in a little house that had formerly been base housing for a nearby Air Force base. It was a nice place, and we did well in general, though we struggled financially while I was trying to get a new job. I had left my old job and moved over 300 miles so that she could keep hers.

While I was looking for work or only on spotty contract jobs in a town where I didn't know anyone but my wife, I got to spend a lot of time with the dog. She was a bright little golden fluffball, about 35lb. and very active. I trained her to do all sorts of tricks. She could sit up, dance on her hind legs with her front paws waving in the air, jump over things on command--even my leg if I held it out--or through a hoop. She'd also sit, stay, and "guard"--sitting while looking alert, though she wasn't actually guarding. She'd also wait to eat until told to,and balance treats on her nose.

One night I was on the couch with a book when my wife came home. She poked her head in the front door and said, "Close your eyes!"

It was my birthday, so I wasn't entirely surprised. I closed them and said, "OK!"

I heard her bustle through the room, then I heard the bedroom door close. After a minute, I figured I could open my eyes.

A few minutes later, she popped out of the bedroom with a small box in her hands with a ribbon around it. She carried it like it was explosive. She put it in my lap and said, "Open it quick!"

I undid the ribbon and pulled at the lid. No boom. When I removed the lid there was a furry little gray face with bright yellow eyes looking up at me.

I was completely choked up. Tears started to run down my face as I drank in the look of the sweet little kitten's face.

After some time I managed to choke out, "It's...a kitten."

My wife was silent. I lifted the kitten out of the box and held him. Then I turned to my wife, still barely able to speak, and said, "Thank you."

My wife let out the breath she'd been holding all this time.

"You're happy?" she asked.

I nodded. The little gray kitten was standing in my lap now, giving my hands a good sniffing.

"Oh, good," she said, "I was afraid you'd be angry!"

Then, while the kitten and I got to know each other she told me about how she'd heard me talk about my prior cat, a big gray and white fellow named Alexander, and seeing me with the dog she could tell that while I loved the dog there was a need the dog wasn't filling. So she decided to get me a gray kitten. She'd had to call around to several places--vets, the Humane Society, etc.--to find a place that had kittens (in August.)

When she got to a place that had kittens they didn't have any gray ones. Then a woman who was there spoke up and said she did. So my wife followed her home to a house filled with pets and kids. One of the kittens was a boxy little gray fellow. The kids were disappointed to see "Smokey" leave, but the woman was probably glad to reduce the number of pets to more manageable levels.

She brought him home to where she'd prepared a box and ribbon then hidden them under the bedcovers. He'd been pretty noisy on the drive home, and was wiggly as she put him in the box, so she'd expected him to give himself away before I opened the box. When she actually got him in the box, he surprised her by being still (and he hadn't cried out since coming in the house.)

I didn't find out that he'd been called Smokey until I had given him a name of my own choosing. And, though he didn't have Alex's white muzzle and mittens he was a beautiful cat. Powder gray all over except for little white patches on his chest and belly. His fur shone gold in the sun.

Phillip, as I later named him, and I had very nearly twenty years together. Since I got him for my 24th birthday he'd been with me almost half my life when his time came to an end.

He's the best birthday present I ever got.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cats and Cutting Boards

I have an image in my mind. In a factory somewhere, where they make the cutting boards that are used for sewing, there's a stage in the process that comes after the board itself has been printed, cut, and pressed to fold properly. It comes before they put the cutting board into its wrapper and package it up for shipping.

I can't say whether this step involves some sort of printing, or marking with a scent, or what. But at this station in the production line they treat the cutting board in such a way as to mark it clearly as belonging to cats.

I know it happens, because I see the results every time there's a cutting board pulled out in our house.

As soon as the cutting board is out, no matter whether its on a table, or the floor, or a bed, the cats come from all corners of the house. Immediately they begin to walk on it and lay on it. They know that it's theirs.

A cat that would never think of setting a paw on the dinner table (at least not while a human's looking--I have no illusions about how "good" my cats are when I'm not nearby) will immediately hop up on to the table and stroll across it like they paid for it themselves the moment that a cutting board has been placed on it. They'll even be careful not to put a paw on the tabletop itself, but the top of the cutting board is fair game.

When the hard working seamstresses drive the cats off the cutting boards the indignation is so thick in the air you can bite pieces off and chew it. "How dare those humans drive me off my board!" "Of course I own it, can't you tell?" "If you didn't want me on it, why did you lay it out?"

Then the battle of wills begins.

What, exactly constitutes being "on" the cutting board?

  • If you're laying so close that some of your fur just happens to hang over one edge of the board is that "on" the board?
  • If the fur is touching the board but no weight is being placed on it, is that "on" the board?
  • If one paw just happens to come to rest on the board when your attention is someplace else entirely is that being "on" the board?
  • Is it OK to lay on the board while you're out of the room pressing fabric or pattern pieces?
  • Is it OK to move on to the board if you put fabric or a pattern in front of your face so that you can't see me?
Not to mention that stretching a piece of fabric out on the board is a clear invitation. "Ah, now I see. You took me off the board so that you could spread out this wonderful new fabric and make it more comfortable! Lift me off and I'll take the fabric with me! These claws aren't just for looks, you know. You paid how much a yard? Well, I'm worth every penny of it, wouldn't you agree?"

This is how it goes. Funny, but nobody ever seems to plan an extra 20 minutes into their sewing time to account for dealing with the cats.

One of our cats, Zyelena, had a wonderful game she liked to play. After she'd been taken off the cutting board she'd clear out to a good way away. She'd usually sit where she could keep an eye on things but whoever was sewing couldn't see her. She'd wait until some delightful crinkly pieces of pattern got set out on the board.

Then, like a bolt of lightning, she'd come running and leap on to the pattern pieces and go sliding wildly across the cutting board, chased by shrieks and howls. She'd fly off the far end of the board, pattern pieces still attached to her feet. Then she'd leap and spring and disappear.

And watch some more...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cats Know Their Color

My wife is getting dressed for work in the morning. She takes a wool skirt, fresh from the dry cleaner, and lays it on the bed for a moment then turns to pull a blouse out of the closet. When she turns back around, the gray skirt has a gray cat on it.

When she acts shocked to see him there, he gives her a look as if to say "Why are you surprised? I've been here all morning!"

Another day, in the evening, this time it's a black dress. My wife turns away for a moment to adjust a piece of jewelry. Turns back, and there's a black cat curled up on the dress, sound asleep. Been there for hours, you can tell by how settled in and sound asleep she is.

A new couch is delivered. A battle begins. Only one cat will fit on a 9 foot couch, you see. And that cat is the gray one. The couch is gray, he's gray. Obviously it's his couch! The black cat huddles on a black briefcase that's been left on the floor. But she's got her eye on the couch. Doesn't that stupid gray cat see that the couch isn't gray? It's black and white, just like her. With very narrow stripes.

The orange cat admits defeat, and waits for an orange towel to appear with the laundry basket. The mottled tabby is watched carefully by all. He'll lay on anything. No sense of color.

Amber Wanted to Be Good, But...

Three days earlier, we'd banished the dog from the bed. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the right thing to do. We were still training Amber to sleep at the foot of the bed. She had tried coming to the sides of the bed, but a pet was as good as an invitation, so we had to make her stay at the foot of the bed.

About a half hour after we settled in, Amber started whining.

"Amber, be quiet," I said.

Five minutes later, she started whining again. It sounded like she was trying to be quiet, but she was still whining.

"Amber, hush!"

I'd just drifted off about five minutes later when I woke to the sound of quiet whining. Do I ignore it and hope she'll give up after a while? Maybe paying attention to her when she whines is making her keep at it?

I wait a while, the whining continues and gets louder. I sigh, and pull myself up and over the bottom of the bed so I can shake my finger at her.


She's looking up at me with the most mournful face, as if to say "I'm sorry, I just couldn't help myself!"

I see a hint of something in the darkness, near her backside. I pull myself over further to get a better look.

The cat is there, nearly invisible in his gray coat. He's got Amber's back leg in his mouth, and he's happily chewing away with his sharp little teeth.

Amber with Phillip napping on her back legs.

Phillip and Amber Together. Phillip isn't chewing on Amber's leg right now.

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