Love Me

Photo by Paulette Perchach

The internet had promised me the “cutest, fluffiest day ever.” So when we saw the sign for the cat cafe while out shopping in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, I squealed. On it, cartoon cats pranced around photos of the real cats waiting upstairs to love us. I turned to my boyfriend with eyes wide and hopeful, and he smiled and nodded, said with his ever-indulging attitude, “We can go.”

I hadn’t had a cat at home for more than a decade. Tiger, who wandered onto our porch as a kitten when I was five, had lived 18 years, jumping on our laps and nudging her cool nose under our hands to pet her. The small engine of her purr, the rise and fall of her contented lungs under my fingertips as I watched TV, my lap warmed by her small life — it had been too long.

I didn’t have my own cat for the same reason many people in Seoul don’t: tiny, tiny apartments. Starting in 2018, when I lived in a 150 sq. ft. box myself, Seattle ranked with the smallest apartments in the country, smaller even than New York City’s.

We peeked in the window before opening the door. The narrow room with the observation window gave off a tone of sanitarium, but cat towers and toys, along with a yellow wall and tables like any other café, livened things up.

As we went in, a feeling surprised me, a feeling I usually associate with strip clubs: excitement mixed with shame about what you’re excited for, all in an environment where the thing you want is manifest simply by your presence there. Like at strip clubs, we paid an entrance fee: 10,000 ₩, about $8.50, which included a coffee drink and a full day of feline access.

In the gated entryway, we slipped off our shoes in exchange for black slippers with white kitty faces embroidered on them. Per the posted instructions, we sanitized our hands from a pump on a liter-sized bottle of clear gel.

The only other participant, a grown man half lounging like a nerdy mermaid on the floor near our feet looked up at us as lazily as the cat he was petting. He seemed like he was here on some kind of long-term work trip and had just been whispering to the cat about how none of his friends liked his Instagram posts.

The attendant, a woman in her 30s, sat behind a computer at a desk with a baby-gated entrance. Two cats sat on stools next to her, as if they themselves were on a coffee break from their regular rotations. We paid our fee, noticing that she also sold cat food as bait for 3,000 ₩. That felt too desperate. I wanted the cats to love me for me. She rang us up, then returned a Bengal hiding back there into the main area, its body falling out of her hands like water out of a bucket. As I admired its black to beige ombre fur, it ambled away.

We turned around and wondered what to do next. Cats lounged on carpeted half-pipes by the panel of windows. Patches of fur poked out of the windows of cat towers. Boxes of toys lay unjingled among the tables.

Music would have helped. The silence gave it the ambiance of a doctor’s waiting room.

I wanted to sit all the way in the back, as if hiding myself. There, taped to a carpeted tower that held a white cat in its innermost sanctum, the same clipart cartoon cats dancing on the poster out front danced across the top of a sign with red letters and a jazzy font titling it “Notice.”

“Don’t grasp tails nor hit the rumps,” it said.

I mean, fair enough, but that it had to be said concerned me. 

“Don’t hug and pick up cats by force,” I read, suddenly wondering who I was.

“Don’t touch cats when they eat, drink, and sleep.”

But, what else does a cat do?

“Please wait for them.” 

I looked around, at cats lying on their beds, calculating the chances they would willingly approach us, two people they’d never smelled before in what I pictured for the first time as a nonstop string of strangers trying to get some fur.

We had brought books, hoping to recreate days at home reading and cuddling furry friends, and I opened mine now only in a gesture of reverse psychology. My boyfriend cracked open his laptop and dove in, hunched over and typing. My brain couldn’t focus for a full sentence before peeking above the page to see if any cat was not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, and might be construed as approaching.

Fluffy, the white one in the tower behind us, teased us with her soft fur, her eyes opening and closing, as if she knew that as long as her eyes were closed, she was off limits. I’m awake, oh no I’m not, oh yes I am, oops, nope too late, nice try.

I gave up on the focus needed for reading, stood, and picked through the cat toys, a selection of bells, a feather, and something that looked itself like a cat’s tail, all attached to rods, like bait with which to fish for love. I dangled some over Mittens, and she kept her gaze so straight ahead I wondered if she had military training. I combined a feather and a cat tail for what I hoped would be an irresistible combo and flicked it around like a piñata. Any second her evolutionary drives should take over and force her to hurl her body at the toy in a way that was both exciting and hilarious.

And yet, nothing.

After 20 minutes, we started to crack. If a cat wasn’t sleeping, eating, or drinking, we ventured a quick pet of the head, to which the cat usually responded by rising up and walking away, staring back at us with its third eye.

“That one over there bit me!” said my boyfriend, pointing to a cat with ears bent back as if he had held them in that position for so long, they stuck.

“Was it sleeping?” I asked, ready to reprimand.

“No!” he insisted, as if the cat had signed up for this gig and should have come to understand these rules during orientation.

Suddenly, the cream-colored Mr. Whiskers jumped up. In the silence, me, my boyfriend, and the other lone customer watched as he ran to the center of the room. Finally, some action. We all hoped he would start leaping for the jangled feather bait, making us laugh 10,000 ₩ worth of laughs.

But he only heaved once, a pulse shooting up his body, ending in a wet snap that stretched long his neck and open his mouth.

And heaved again, head pushed toward the floor.

Together we three who had paid to be in this room watched the space below his mouth. With one more contraction he flung forth an oatmeal-colored ball glazed with goo. He then darted into a tower.

The owner meandered over, sprayed the floor and wiped it up, folding over the paper towel to dry the floor completely.

We resigned ourselves to standing back and admiring their colors. The Bengal had truly the most stunning eyes I’d ever seen, iceberg blue. As I captured them in a keepsake photo, they stared back at me with a look that said, “I hate everything about your kind.”

Mittens looked out the window, wishing, I imagined, she’d listened to her mother. By the litter box, Princess stubbed out a cigarette under her paw. “Just one more year,” she said to Sassy. “Til I get my degree. Then I’m out.” Behind the litter box, Muffins hit the catnip.

Eons ago, wildcats roamed the Fertile Crescent, now here I was trying to tantalize Teacup with a bell into batting a paw, so that I didn’t just pay $8.50 for a too-sweet coffee and an emotional mélange of rejection and shame, enjoyed amid the enclosed scent of a half dozen litter boxes.

We resisted calling it and admitting defeat, or naiveté, or the fact that we should have known, with all previous intel we had via so, so many memes about how aloof most cats are to their own loving families, that this would obviously have been a terrible idea.

Then the children arrived. Two of them, bouncing in the holding area with an innocence I remembered from half an hour ago.

The gate opened. They ran in. They did not read the sign.

Cat fishing poles waved in cat faces. Sleeping cats pet roughly. Cats hugged without consent. Their mom paid for cat food, and they held it out for the cats to come near, like total cheaters, free to enjoy that childhood innocence about how much animals hate you.

We got a little more brazen ourselves. I reached my hand into the cat tower, to Fluffy’s white fur, and I pet Fluffy without Fluffy coming to me.

I got what I paid for. I nodded to my boyfriend.

We sanitized our hands on the way out.

 

Photo at the top of the page is by Paulette Perhach. 

Why Cats Need Nine Lives

You might think if you can care for human children that you are qualified to care for a cat, but you would be wrong. Three children came to stay for part of the summer and brought their kitten with them. This feline was offered as a kind of bonus to the package deal—you take three, lovely children for a few weeks, and we’ll throw in a cute kitten—free. (Not that I paid to take the kids, nor should I add, was I being paid. In retrospect, I should have demanded remuneration in order to buy life insurance on that cat.)

Let me say that I like animals but prefer they live with other people. I have never cohabited with a cat, but millions of people do it and enjoy it. I refer you to all those proud cat videos on YouTube.

The kitty, the cuddly beast, the adorable fur ball with fangs (we would never call him “bad kitty” because there are no bad cats, only good cats who sometimes make bad choices) was granted his own bedroom and allowed to destroy the entire house for one half hour twice a day. In preparation, a quilt, two rugs, and a felt doll were removed.

Despite all the preparations, no one—not the cat videos, nor my cat-owning friends, nor the children’s mother prepared me for the fact that the kitty had an exuberant death wish.

First, he attempted exsanguination by breaking a ceramic lamp and wallowing in the sharp shards. He engaged in a failed electrocution, knocking a clock into the litter box so that he might chew and pee on the cord. During his house rampage, he crawled on his back under the rocker of my chair, his paws wrapped about the wood, and nearly became crushed cat under my weight. He tried to choke on the silvery ribbon dangling from a balloon.

In between these flirtations with death, the fanged fluff ball developed his repertoire of piteous cries at night. I would hear him mewing woefully at 3:00 in the morning, and imagining him in death throes, I would leave my bed to find he merely wanted to play, wanted his head stroked, wanted to run around the dark and sleeping house with me in pursuit. That cat was training me to fulfill his every whim.

Well, I would not be bullied by a kitten, no matter how adorable. Besides, I was losing sleep; therefore, one morning when the kids left for camp, I decided to nap. No sooner had I gone to bed then there was a horrible wail followed by intense silence. Enough was enough. I would not get up. From the depths of apathy, I reminded myself that I’d never be forgiven if that feline died on my watch.

When I opened the door, he didn’t pounce on my ankle. I looked around. That cute, furry, fanged feline had hung himself on the curtain cord. Given that the drapery cords have huge plastic pyramids on the ends, I had not anticipated the kitty’s ingenuity. The cord was asphyxiating him, so he couldn’t cry; the strings from the shredded curtain sheers were tangled about his body. He was utterly helpless, but still with the living.

I saved him—yet again. Please, no need to nominate me for any awards. Having the five year old, whose first act on entering the house was to rush upstairs and hug her beloved, warm and living kitty, instead of a cold corpse, was reward enough.

How many lives had this kitten used? More than nine? I could only count the close calls I’d witnessed. What attempts might have happened for which I had no evidence? The anxiety of keeping him alive was shortening my own life. At night, lying awake waiting for the next meow, I wondered if it was legal to bury a cat in the yard. I wondered how many years of therapy the children would need when he died at my house. I wondered if natural selection might not be the method by which species evolved because if it were, cats should have died off ages ago. Recently a friend confided that she worries she might turn into a cat lady. That will never happen to me.

 

Photo at the top of the page is “Trio” by Andri B is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Embodying Truth in the Midst of Falsehood

Parthenon

It’s hard not to feel helpless as we witness the dissolution of cooperation around the planet, along with the dying gasps of dialogue among people who hold different views. This is not new, but it’s painful to watch the unravelling of civility and kindness in our world. We are living at a time when the spiritual teachings that many of us rely on to guide and inspire us are being turned into instruments of intolerance and hatred. So what are we to do? Where are we to look for an example that we can admire? One place, which can’t be accused of taking sides in any present dispute, is Classical Greek Literature.

Ancient Greece and Now

Every age has its momentum and its heroes who swim against the current. Judging from the cultural heritage we have inherited from Ancient Greece, this was as true for their time as it is for ours.

The epic poems of Homer depict a generation that was drawn into war when King Menelaus—his ego bruised because Trojans had kidnapped his wife—launched “a thousand ships” to get her back. Homer’s epic poems also launched a theme into our western world in which the ‘heroism’ of battle is linked with a longing for peace and home.

The plays of Sophocles are more psychological. They depict a world, not unlike our own, in which individuals lack the power to escape the conditions into which life has placed them. What is less familiar to our modern perspective is the view that a force called Fate rules the human realm and that this Fate can be known beforehand, as pronounced by the Delphic Oracle.

Sigmund Freud modernized this idea—that individuals live in the grip of inescapable influences—and identified several psychological ‘complexes’ that operate beyond our conscious control. A famous example drawn from Ancient Greek drama is the Oedipus Complex, named for how Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, in spite of his determination to avoid that preordained Fate.

Today we are more likely to think in terms of global forces (social and economic) that gallop over the well-being of individuals who don’t have the ability to defend themselves. We probably don’t think of our own powerlessness to fundamentally change things as being due to either fate or subterranean psychological tendencies. And we probably attribute at least some of our distress to having to witness the suffering in our communities and not be able to do anything about it. Like the role of the ‘chorus’ in Classical Greek plays—which gives voice to the community’s awareness that things are not going well for the play’s characters—many of us lament how people with power are hijacking the ‘commons,’ ignoring the homeless and victims of mass shootings, and don’t seem motivated to set things right.

But whether it’s fate, psychological compulsion, or capitalism run amuck, most of us would agree that our society is dominated by forces that are rarely kindhearted, spiritually evolved, or respectful of Mother Earth on whose health all of life depends.

A Message of Hope from Another Time

There is a play by Sophocles which explores whether, and in what ways, an individual is free to act independently of the global momentums that are always carrying us toward the future. And there is a moment in this play when unexpectedly, shockingly, a new perspective breaks into the open—like a race horse suddenly breaking free from the rest of the field at the Preakness. But all that really happens is that a young man refuses to be the mouthpiece for the ‘inevitable,’ which everyone around him considers it pointless to resist.

I first heard about Philoctetes, this play by Sophocles, in a book by Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow, which celebrates, using examples from both life and literature, how personal affliction can be associated with extraordinary ability. Wilson’s book is named for an archer who is tormented by a festering foot and who has carried the bow of Hercules since Hercules became a god.

To the modern ear (at least to mine), Philoctetes is not the protagonist in this play; nor is Odysseus. The character who evolves into something greater is Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.

There is a moment in this play that must strike the modern reader like a bell ringing a message of hope, revealing the possibility that human beings are free to choose their own path. Even though Neoptolemus may not be able to avoid his destiny, nor dissolve the global conditions in which he lives, he is free to set sail in another wind than the howling gales of dysfunction that seem to rule this world, then just as they do now.

Neoptolemus has been dispatched by Odysseus to deceive Philoctetes in order to get him to step on board and be taken to Troy. Odysseus knows full well to stay out of sight of the man he marooned on this island—when the powerful archer’s cries of pain were demoralizing the Greek army on their way to battle. Now, years later, he has returned to this same island and has instructed Neoptolemus to tell the long-suffering Philoctetes that the walls of Troy have already fallen and that they are on their way home to his beloved Achaean Peninsula.

Neoptolemus is going along with his assignment. After all, his captain has commanded him to tell this lie; and Fate—through the Oracle at Delphi—has said that Troy will only fall when Hercules’ bow and the son of Achilles are both at the foot of Troy’s ramparts.

How could he do otherwise than to comply with forces which are clearly too large for any one individual to successfully assail?

But then something happens. And in that moment a new sensibility, a new vision of what it means to be a human being, arises: Neoptolemus’ conscience steps around those global forces and thereby causes them to take notice.

The Future Is Not Fixed

Perhaps Neoptolemus hears the gulls wheeling overhead, sees the pain of long exile in Philoctetes lonely face, and his heart is moved. He tells Philoctetes that he has been lying to him, that the walls of Troy have not fallen, and that the Greek ship is not really there to take him home.

In the space of a hummingbird’s wingbeat, Philoctetes has strung his bow and a quivering arrow tip is searching for the merest hair on Odysseus’s head. We can be sure that Odysseus is now crouching even lower behind his boulder!  And out of this boulder, Hercules now steps to tell Philoctetes that he must indeed go to Troy because, as prophesied, this is the only way that the walls of Troy can be breached; and only when Troy has fallen can the Greeks, including Philoctetes, finally return home.

So what’s different about the role of fate in this play from, say, the inability of Oedipus to avoid wedding his own mother as it was foretold that he would?  Fate still prevails in the lives of both the Greeks and the Trojans. Fate still circumscribes any individual’s attempt to act independently of what it has been determined must happen. It takes Hercules stepping out of a rock for Philoctetes to lower his bow. It takes an intersession from Mount Olympus to persuade him to continue on to Troy (on the very ship from which General Odysseus sentenced him to his years of isolation on this forsaken island), but isn’t the word of the oracle still revealed to be from a higher ‘reality’ than the impulses—moral or otherwise—of any one individual?

“A Pang of Conscience”

George Gurdjieff used this phrase to identify what he claimed is the last remaining capacity for modern humans to escape the insanity that grips us (as we pronounce ourselves to be the pinnacle of consciousness and rationality). And when Neoptolemus honestly responds to the shared humanity of the exiled man before him, he experiences a ‘pang of conscience.’

When he speaks from his heart, the power of compassion is able to dissolve a falsehood that appeared to be ordained by fate. And once this falsehood gives way, mutual understanding is free to flow among individuals who had until then been sworn enemies.

Is this not the situation in which our modern, polarized world now stands? This world from which genuine dialogue has virtually disappeared?

 

Photo at the top of the page by Phanatic