A feline memoir

April 14, 2011 • 5:10 am

Buried in yesterday’s New York Times Opinionator, but spotted by Greg Mayer, is a sad but beautiful piece by writer Anna Holmes about her life and the lives and deaths of her cats. Here’s an excerpt from “We were kittens once, and young.”

Unlike dogs, whose wagging tails, endearing clumsiness and panting smiles are evolutionarily manipulative and endlessly entertaining, interpreting the narratives of a cat’s inner life takes extraordinary concentration, which makes the relationship all the more poignant. Mindfulness, I like to say, is what separates true cat lovers from the unenlightened. Without it, a cat is just a sleeping, eating, potential killing machine. With it, a cat is the most amazing of mammalian creations: A balletic, apex predator; a perfect package of physical economy and exquisite Darwinian design. (When someone tells me she doesn’t like cats, I assume she isn’t trying hard enough.)

But the focus they require and their intrinsic self-sufficiency is also what makes watching them die especially devastating . .

I have a theory, which is mine, that atheists tend to own cats more often than theists.

60 thoughts on “A feline memoir

  1. Interesting theory! (Atheist -> cats).
    I once interviewed for a job (as a programmer), and the CEO asked me one of the most unusual interview questions I’d ever encountered: “Cats or dogs?”. I told him about my two cats, and then asked why he asked the question.
    He told me about his ‘pet’ theory, based on experience, that the best, smartest, most originally thinking and independent programmers he had ever hired were all cat owners. Dog owners made horrible programmers.
    (Curiously, all the managers there -I got hired- were dog owners).

    1. I think Jerry’s (and my CEO’s) ‘cat’ theory can be generalized a bit more: when you graph cat-versus-dog owners against IQ/Education, I think you’ll see an interesting pattern!

      1. i think to “manage people” one should have qualities easily complimented by dogs – one would “need” followers and their “veneration”

        a cat lover is not as streightforward as dog lover – a cat is certainly not a follower in the way dogs are

        a graph of iq/inte;lligence vs. dog/cat ownership will reflect on sophistication as proxy for intelligence mixed with temperament traits (need of followers/authoritativeness/respect/etc…) – i would not be surpriced that there will be no clear cut relationship – i can imagine a fairly sophisticated dog lover in which the urge to direct and feel venerated is much more powerful that love of observation and reflection on the beuty of the observed (the cat lovers as per jerry’s pointer)

        1. Since cats and dogs produce different numbers and kinds of allergens, perhaps some pet-owner correlations ultimately derive from variation among human immune systems and MHC loci, which in turn could be correlated with certain human behavioral and personality traits.
          (The above quasi-adaptationist argument was presented with tongue firmly in the cheek of an atheist professor who is dreadfully allergic to cats – but otherwise has nothing against them!).

    2. Actually the article provides your hypothesis with another piece of theory, programmers need to be mindful to breathe life into a complicated construct.

      They also need to be patient with erratic behavior. (Which I will henceforth think of as “cats” rather than “bugs” – love it!)

  2. “(When someone tells me she doesn’t like cats, I assume she isn’t trying hard enough.)”

    Eeeeuw!! That’s the same response I get when ‘friends’ of mine make me admit (not hard to do) that I don’t love Jesus!

    1. i agree – such statement can be made about any kind of “my way” vs. “your way” – if you do not see things the way i see this is because you are not trying hard enough

      of course not trying hard enough may be one of the reasons but it can never be the only reason and such assertion usually stops people who utter it to go furthe into understanding the opponent’s point of view – not a good communication habit

      there is, of course, “an ultimate explanation” for any perceived reality – but the problem, with it is the fact that it depends on the level of the sophistication those who are seeking an explanation

      for example

      the concept of “god” is the earliest explanation for unexplained phenomena mankind came up when deliberative capability advanced one strain of hominids into top predator position (this can only happen once – this is why neanderthals had no chance against homo sapiens)

      science is the inevitable outcoume of deliberative capability operating on relationals over time – we always what to know “better” explanation and because we constasntly become more aware of how much we still don’t know this process is endless and will continue as long as mankind is viable

      with advent of evolution theory the concept of god became obsolete but it will take much longer than 100 years to extinguish the concept of god alltogether

      this is why there always be a group of individuals in the society that are at the forefront of science as machine-that-goes-by-itself caused by the deliberative capability of our species

      and this group of people will be more sophisticated that the rest of the scociety and thereforee this group of people will reflect a “worldview” o\r “belief-system” more advanced in evolutionary terms

      atheism is therefore more advanced in evolutionary terms than religion

      and atheists are more sophisticated than religious people

  3. What with Shirley’s story, the comments in response to her story, and now this…I know I should reply, but I’m not sure how. It’s been several months since I lost Tamar to renal failure, several years since I lost Joanie….

    Please excuse me while I take a few minutes to rub Baihu’s belly. That’s about all I can think to do.


  4. “I have a theory, which is mine, atheists tend to own cats more often than theists.”

    Definitely! Who would want to own a theist anyway!

    1. Ha! I forgot to put the “do” in there as the penultimate word! Well, I’ll let my prose stand because your comment is funny.

  5. Alright, cats are magnificent animals, which behave in a third dimension inaccessible to dogs. I love having cats in the house, and Holmes’s essay moved me to tears.

    But…Mindfulness is not, to my mind, a feline descriptor. Not being social animals, cats are fundamentally unintelligent. But, hey, for a pet, goofy is good.

    1. “Not being social animals ..”


      They may not be herd animals, but my cats are VERY social! (Especially around feeding time)

      1. My thoughts exactly.

        Cat societies at least seem superficially to me to be more similar to human societies than dog societies are to human societies.

        That is, humans have a great deal of variation in sizes and structures of social groups, with a lot of individual variation in roles. I see similar variety in cats. Dogs seem to go for the leader-dominated pack model and that’s about it.

        Remember, just because any given individual can thrive without being part of a larger social structure doesn’t mean that other members of the species don’t form large social structures when given the chance, or that they can’t function as a member of a society if forced to do so.



          1. Merlyn hasn’t learned all the rules, yet, but I could easily handle all 3 by myself when Bryxie was still with us. Cats that I don’t know: no way.

          2. I predict that your ability to herd cats ends the very moment you run out of food. (Or when it’s time to take ‘m to the vet and you break out the cat carrier!)

          3. They all come when called. A particular whistle means for them to show themselves. 2 hand claps in the front yard, or down the block means head for home (to the backyard). 2 hand claps in the backyard means time to go inside.

            It took them a long time for them to train me to do this, but I don’t recall them offering me any food.

    2. I took that what was being described was the mindfulness of the human. That to appreciate cats, mindfulness is required. Mindfulness is a state supported by scientific investigation. And I do find atheists to be way more mindful than theists.

  6. No making me cry first thing in the morning. No fair.

    “interpreting the narratives of a cat’s inner life takes extraordinary concentration”

    Whenever I hear someone say that cats are aloof, I tell them that you get out of a cat exactly what you put into them. Making an effort is so rewarding with a cat. Dog people don’t need to do that, and so, miss out on a level of intimacy that is both joyous and heartbreaking. We still feel the pain of losing Bryxie, even though it’s been over a year, now. That sadness is mitigated somewhat by the incredible delight of our new kitteh Merlyn. And in between, we have Keeshu, who may or may not have cancer, but is getting old and beginning that long downhill run regardless, and Fiona, who came to us as a stray, and who, like Sastra with Shirley, we have had to learn to accept on her own terms, which has taken a long, long time.

    I would not give up even a minute of sharing my time on earth with these wonderful creatures.

    1. Here’s why:
      Stick your nose in a cats’s fur.
      Now do the same with a dog (when it just came inside from a rainy walk, or a swim in a nearby pond).
      Got it?

    2. Because obviously nature is a meowism.

      [When was the last time you saw Dog perform a miracle, say cleaning your kitchen or putting your tool rack in order? So there.]

  7. Atheists like cats because cats are atheists. No cat could possibly think someone/something else is God. The only god in a cat’s life is itself.

    Contrast with a dog which thinks its owners are God(s). A dog needs humans to tell it how to behave. You can basically only show a cat how to behave.

    In my experience, the cat usually controls the dog in the domestic household, not the other way round. Same relationship with humans!

    1. And yet cats don’t kill and cannibalize each other on a daily basis. Why, it is like morals didn’t come from Dog after all.

  8. I can be anecdotal too. You know who all my favorite people are? My very best friends? People who happen to have both dogs and cats. You know, animal lovers.

    Cat lovers are welcome to their preference, and need not insert gratuitous swipes at dogs every chance they get. By the way, next time you’re trapped in rubble, don’t hold your breath waiting for the rescue cat.

    1. Don’t worry, Phil65. The catheists doth protest too much, methinks. It’s almost like they have to repeat their feline devotion to themselves and each other on a regular basis to maintain their belief. Pretty much weekly.

  9. I read somewhere that the old bromide that ‘pets resemble their owners’ has some truth to it if you modify it to ‘people choose pets which they see as having traits they most admire/want in themselves.’ However, this was supposed to work only if you specifically asked people what it was about their dog, cat, or turtle they liked best. It’s hard to objectively rate animals for personality traits. So someone who loved cats because they were “so sweet and funny” would be different than someone who loved cats because they were so “cool and independent” — and their own personalities (or personal goals) would match up with what they saw in their pets.

    Maybe. I rather doubt there’s any hard science behind this.

    My own theory which is mine and my own is that people who love dogs tend to need a lot of approval. This might track with inclinations towards theism — needing to believe that the universe was created by a Loving Presence or it’s meaningless — but again, no idea how to do the hard science here.

    1. Well I love dogs and I’m an atheist who doesn’t require a lot of approval (in my opinion). It’s not the approval of dogs that makes them so great, it’s the unfettered joy with which they experience life. It makes them a delight to be around.

      1. My favorite thing about owning a dog is actually being able to take my dog outside the house with me and enjoy its company and not have to worry about it decimating the natural wildlife.

        1. Well, to be fair, cats shouldn’t be let outdoors off a leash any more than dogs should be.

          For the uninitiated: it might take a bit to habituate a cat to a harness, so read up on how that works. And cats don’t heel; you instead follow along behind the cat. The cat will spend most of the time sniffing things — it’s an exploration and an adventure, not an excuse for exercise.


          1. Leashes are important, but you’d be hard pressed to keep a cat in the yard with a fence!

            I’m mostly biased due to living in the country. Seen way too many farm cats making all the lovely birds disappear.

          2. This is the one place where I must grudgingly admit that dogs win out.

            I had a cat which loved to go for walks and would whine endlessly until I cave in. He would trot happily to the elevator, strain at the leash to get through the front doors and then would hop into a recycling box and just sit, motionless. I’d let him sit then gently nudge, cajole, drag and carry him to a park about thee blocks away where he’d run around and climb trees and enjoy himself but those were a loooooong three blocks!

        2. We take Keeshu for walks in the forest preserves all the time. Leashes are generally required*, although we let her off sometimes so that she can more easily climb an interesting fallen tree. If we’re in Door County on private property, we hardly ever use a leash except at night. Keeshu will readily follow a trail or a sidewalk, as long as we are with her. Bryxie and Fiona rarely went/go more than 50 feet from the house, but love(d) to sit outside and sun as long as there’s a clear path back to safety.

          People think it’s unusual, but we started them off on leashes until we knew their behaviors very well and they knew what we expected.

          *The signs say dogs must be leashed.

    2. My own theory which is mine and my own is that people who love dogs tend to need a lot of approval.

      My own theory is that people who exclusively love cats tend to anthropomorphize their pets to an absurd degree, even more so than dog lovers do, imbuing them with all sorts of profound thoughts and motivations that they can’t possibly have, and even attributing to them a bizarre sort of babytalk/pigeon English in which they supposedly express those thoughts. One can only conclude from this that cat lovers have constructed an elaborate fantasy life, and have some deep-seated inability to cope with reality.

      Actually, I don’t really think this (much), but this is where generalizations get you.

      1. How do you get from ‘having elaborate fantasy’ to ‘deep-seated inability to cope with reality’?
        Non sequitur!

      2. Phil65 wrote:

        One can only conclude from this that cat lovers have constructed an elaborate fantasy life, and have some deep-seated inability to cope with reality.

        As mentioned above, there’s a world of difference between playacting and serious belief. I suspect most pet owners anthropomorphise: you may notice it more with cats than dogs because cats are less similar to us in some ways. You’d notice it even more with turtles, I think.

        I call it “whimsy.” But then, I’m not spiritual enough to take it seriously.

        The people I know who ‘hate’ cats and love dogs — and explain why — always seem to harp on about how a cat doesn’t care about you the way a dog does: it doesn’t run up to greet you and fawn on you and mourn when you’re gone and show its constant appreciation and love and attention and gratitude and loyalty and trust and on and on — so this may have unfairly influenced my view of dog-people. Frankly, that kind of slavish adoration would annoy the heck out of me.

  10. I grew up with dogs, but married a man who only liked cats. I adapted. I REALLY adapted. Now I’m the Crazy Cat Lady who cuddles and loves her own (indoor) cats and feeds the neighbors’ outdoor cats.

    I don’t find cats to be aloof at all. They may have something else on their minds at any given moment — as I write this I can hear Rocky talking through the window to the scrub jay who comes to sample the outdoor cat food — but I find them to be affectionate companions.

    Oh, and yes, I’m an atheist.

    1. “I find them to be affectionate companions”

      Now, if only Rocky could convince the Scrub Jay of that notion too …

    2. I grew up with dogs, but married a man who only liked cats. I adapted.

      In my experience, that’s something that cats know how to do well.

  11. I raised the point a couple of years ago that an affinity for cats is a liberal feature. Anyone can own and love a dog because dogs are hierarchical animals. They define their relationships via a pack and the human is usually the pack leader. Dominance works in the pack and in a human-dog relationship. Conservatives as well as liberals understand this at a gut level.

    A cat, on the other hand, require understanding and understanding requires empathy. Empathy (according to Lakoff anyway) is a defining characteristic of a liberal worldview and is often viewed by conservatives as “weakness”.

  12. My mom, who has never been charmed by a cat, but certainly wishes them no ill will has always claimed, “A dog is attached to people. A cat is attached to places.”
    There is probably some general truth in that, however I’m sure we all have stories of the great lengths cats have gone through to be reunited with their people. I enjoy dogs, but admire cats with all their interesting and goofy personality quirks, their affection, etc. I have also known several aloof dogs, who while wanting to be near people, were not all too thrilled with being petted.

    1. We travel with our cats whenever possible. They don’t really care where they are, as long as they’re with us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *