how is it, I wonder sometimes, that I find myself poring over reviews of cat toys at two in the morning? Or staring with imbecilic bliss at pictures of tiny kittens with lusciously fluffy fur and big, pleading eyes? I blame the cat now sleeping in the other room and my girlfriend, who brought the magazine Cat Fancy into my life.
Neither my girlfriend nor I were born "cat people," and even now (I'll have you know) we blanch at the term and its various unseemly connotations. My girlfriend's own cat obsession began several months before she actually got around to picking out her two cats at the shelter. She collected pamphlets, began intently reading rec.pets.cats, and (perhaps most importantly of all) became a convert to the rigorous cat-raising principles set forth in Anitra Frazier's "New Natural Cat," a popular (and strikingly Martha-Stewartish) guide for "finicky [cat] owners."
Given the pressures we all face in the non-cat-related portions of our lives (holding down jobs, maintaining relationships, watching cable television), it's hard to keep up such rigorous standards for long; and my girlfriend's cat fanaticism began to fade after her new kitties woke her up at 5 a.m. the fifth or sixth night in a row. Oh, sure, she still pampers the creatures they've grown up fat, happy and more than a little spoiled but she no longer turns instinctively to Frazier like a nervous mother to Dr. Spock. She no longer aspires to be the perfect cat mommy; merely, as a therapist might put it, a "good-enough" cat mother.
These days, I'm the one who's in danger of becoming a cat fanatic. It's not that I've been seriously tempted to take up a Frazieristic regimen with my new cat; I have a hard enough time keeping the litter box from stinking up the place. But I have found myself obsessively reading about cats picking up little paperbacks with titles like "Secrets of the Cat," buying 99-cent cat booklets in supermarket checkout lines, and appropriating my girlfriend's copies of Cat Fancy magazine. It's the last that's become the real addiction.
I'm well aware that Cat Fancy is as flat-out kitschy as a big-eyed Walter Keane waif. You don't have to go more than a few pages in to discover absurd examples of feline fanaticism. There are things to buy: For $225, plus shipping and handling, you can treat your sleepy tabby to 21 by 27 inch waterbed, complete with heater, wooden frame and "durable, washable, quilted covers that protect the mattress from punctures." And for a mere $849 (plus shipping and handling) you can buy yourself Franklin Mint's supremely tacky ceramic statuettes of "The Most Fascinating Cats in the World." (Twenty-seven in all, delivered to your home over a two-year period, one cat at a time.) And there are stories to read: "When it comes to being kind to animals," one recent "Feline Friends" column begins, "my wife, Kathy, makes St. Francis of Assisi look like Rambo."
But I find myself still reading the magazine long after I've exhausted its (seemingly inexhaustible) potential for kitsch. Cat Fancy's special section on litter boxes in the October issue held a perverse fascination for me. In fact, I now know a hell of a lot more about litter boxes than I do about the crisis in Central Africa. Even worse, I've found myself sharing this new wisdom with friends. Did you know they're making kitty litter out of orange peels these days? "After the animal's urine hits the peel," an orange peel litter spokesman tells the magazine, "it activates certain citrus acids and gives off a little citrus smell."
True, some of this information might be considered mildly useful, or even (in rare cases) interesting. But I keep reading long after there is anything of substance to read. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that there simply isn't that much to say about cats. Once you've covered the basics, from litter-box complications to the scourge of fleas ("few adversaries have challenged mankind as ruthlessly"), there just isn't much more to say. So the editors have to improvise running long non-articles on subjects like the best cat calendars of the coming year, why black cats bring good luck, and where to find Bed and Breakfasts with cats in residence ("If you can't be with the Cat you love," the article suggests, harkening back to the sexual libertinism of the 1970s, "love the cat you're with.") And then, of course, there are the worrywart articles the lengthy disquisitions on obscure cat maladies, from epilepsy to feline bladder stones that pepper nearly every issue.
Actually, I've come to realize that almost all the text in Cat Fancy is filler much like the articles in Playboy. What Cat Fancy is really about is photographs gorgeous centerfolds of big-eyed kittens, studio shots of exemplary British Shorthairs or Hairless Sphynx, and even (shades of Hustler's Beaver Hunt) amateur pictures of readers' cats. ("Equipped with harness and identification, Kao goes camping in the camper with Elsie Smith and family.")
Cat Fancy offers up what is, for all intents and purposes, a kind of feline pornography Kitty Porn. The cats in Cat Fancy have the same pristine glamour as the women in Playboy; their fur virtually glows. And, like the Playboy bunnies, they offer themselves up to the viewer without hesitation. The bunnies offer the fantasy of sexual pleasure without complications or consequences; Cat Fancy cats offer the pleasures of cat ownership without its complications. Cat Fancy cats don't yowl, they don't tear up the furniture, and they don't urinate on back issues of the New Yorker unlike a certain real cat I could mention.