The purpose of a cat
My parents recently put their old cat Dunbar to sleep, which leaves them with only one cat for the first time in a long time. The remaining cat, named Sammy, is huge and orange and, unless he’s eating, has a slightly glazed look in his eyes. When he sleeps, which is often, he looks like he’s in a coma. “Someday it will be tough to tell when Sammy’s dead,” my dad once observed, upon seeing Sammy’s inert body draped over the couch like a shag throw rug.
Sammy has never been a very friendly cat, but he’s opened up a bit since Dunbar died, even going so far as to voluntarily sit with my parents in the evenings. This slight change in behavior recently prompted my dad to say he’d like to get a kitten, so that Sammy would have someone to mentor. “Don’t you think Sammy would like that?” my dad asked. “A little kitten to mentor?”
After I stopped laughing, I suggested that cats don’t really mentor other cats. “What exactly would Sammy teach the kitten?” I asked. The only thing I could imagine Sammy teaching a kitten was how to behave before dinner. “Usually they put the food out at 5:30,” I imagined Sammy telling the kitten. “But I think it’s a good idea to begin pacing in the kitchen around 4 p.m.”
I have two cats, and I can’t think of a single thing that the older one, Paul, taught the younger one, Clem. In fact, it never occurred to me that Paul would teach Clem anything; my main goal, when I acquired Clem, was to get Paul to stop hissing at him and trying to scratch out his eyes.
Some time ago, a family friend heard her father-in-law describe his new cat as “the total package.” “She’s friendly, she purrs and she’s very cute,” the father-in-law said. “As cats go, she’s the total package.” This cracked up the family friend. “It just kills me to hear an 80-year-old man describe a cat as the total package,” she said. My mother looked at Sammy, who is cute, but also moody and aloof and has the bad habit of waking my parents up before sunrise. “Sammy looks like he could be the total package,” she said. “But he’s not.”
Every once in a while, I introduce the concept of the total package to friends who own cats. “Is your cat the total package?” I ask. Usually, the answer is no, but occasionally someone insists that, yes, their cat is pretty darn close to perfect. Now I’ve added a new question to my spiel. “Do you think your cat would make a good mentor?” I ask. Everyone seems to agree that, no, cats do not make good mentors, although some people like to throw out a wise-guy answer: “My cat could give French lessons to a kitten” or “My cat could teach a kitten how to play the guitar.”
Sammy might not have the opportunity to mentor a kitten. My mom says she is opposed to getting any more cats. “I want the cats to dwindle,” she told my father. Dwindle struck me as an interesting euphemism for die, and I immediately began making all kinds of jokes about it. “Is that what happened to Dunbar?” I asked. “She dwindled?” I pointed out that right now my parents only have one cat. “Are you saying you want Sammy to dwindle?” I asked.
In any case, it remains to be seen whether Sammy will be given a kitten to mentor or not. But he’s fairly young, and my guess is that one of these days he’ll have a new companion. And although I’m hoping that new companion turns out to be the total package, I’m not exactly optimistic. Cats are funny creatures, and Sammy is funnier than most. If you’re counting on him to mentor a kitten, that kitten will probably grow up to be a pretty strange cat.
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