Commentary Journal

Cats, Hemingway, and Me

I was catching up on on blog posts I’d bookmarked, things that caught my eye on busy mornings or late nights to which I had attended to return long ago, when I came upon this one from Millie Ho about Art, Edward Gorey, creativity in general and–if you read between the lines–a whole lot more.

The post reminded me instantly of Hemingway, and not just because of the prominent photo of the artist Gorey reclined, asleep, and half-covered in his beloved cats.  It is easy to mistake this for a photo of Hemingway, as I initially did–and as many others on the internet have done, because along with the deceptively simple syntax and precise word vocabulary, the long line of marriages and adultery and more marriages, the fishing and the hunting and the boxing and the bullfighting, Hemingway is sort of famous for his cats.
tumblr_lmyfhszSUf1qiu5e6o1_400My first pet was a cat–a fierce, possibly deranged, copper colored striped cat that maybe weighed eight pounds which I named Amber, because I was a kid (geek) who knew what amber was, what it looked like, and that was what color she was.  This led to a lifetime–she would live to be 23 years old–of “that’s a stripper’s name” jokes, which none of us appreciated very much. Amber loved me, slept most of her life on my bed, and tolerated my mother and sister. She waged war on the rest of the world, dominating all the other cats and dogs in the neighborhood via sheer, hostile tenacity.  She twice ventured  to our neighbors’ yard and thrashed their miniature collie–a silly, lazy thing called “Boots” and cornered it on it’s own porch, then came home to sit in my lap, a tiny, purring little Genghis Khan.Literature Personalities. pic: circa 1940's. Author Ernest Hemingway watched by his wife Mary, feeds tit bits to the cat at dinner. Ernest Hemingway, (1899-1961) US writer of novels and short stories and Nobel Prize winner, also a keen sportsman. He was p

When the neighbor, in all her bright red-dyed hair and perfume-drenched glory marched down to our hovel to confront us, and pounded on the door, the cat launched herself at the screen door, from the inside, growling and hissing as she did to most visitors, the mailman, meter readers, extended family, and innocent passers-bycat on screen door. It was a little embarrassing, especially to my mom.  It was also a little bit awesome, in both the colloquial and literal senses of the word.

We never worried about locking our door–my grandmother couldn’t get past this snarling beast.  Forget some burgler–not that our house wouldn’t have been the last house of the block to draw the attention of n’er do wells, unless they were looking for warn rugs or a shabby old flowered sofa.

I never appreciated the cat.  I was a boy, and I wanted a dog, and when I got one–a stray German Shepherd puppy that started sleeping on our back porch one summer evening and couldn’t be convinced to go home–well, nothing really changed.  The cat loved me because I let her alone, I’m convinced, and she ernesthemingway_narrowweb__300x4700worked out some sort of deal with the dog.  She let it sleep on her porch, after all, and eventually shared her bed with him (after already sharing the antique double with me).  This was a dog she could work with–smart, respectful, quiet–except for his love of fetching things (tennis balls, rubber bones–he even carried a neighbor’s beagle puppy back to me one evening, perfectly gripped–unharmed–in his mouth.  That really was embarrassing.) Amber would never have degraded herself by fetching, though she did bring me the requisite corpses of small rodents and birds, but not as tribute mind you–but as a reminder, like the horsehead in The Godfather.

It seems ironic, in retrospect, that I under-appreciated the value of such an interesting companion probably because she demanded so little of me besides the occasional scratch behind the ears, the opening and closely of doors, some water and food.  Do we love based on the effort we’re required to make?  Perhaps not exclusively, but it’s something to think about.1.55811_image.jpeg

You expect a dog to provide companionship, but a cat–I’ve learned to expect, if not quite settle for, something called “affectionate disinterest.”  Psychologically, this is genius on the part of the cats, who could provide excellent advice on human relationships.  I had to learn that keeping my distance and moving (seemingly) reluctantly into relationships, more often than not, is a far better strategical approach than, say, the emotional equivalent of marching headlong into the brink.  064b

We’ve all seen Black Hawk Down, right?  In love, Tom Sizemore and a column of Pakistani mechanized infantry aren’t going to rush in at the last moment and save your ass when you crash and burn.

Better to be the tentative Pakistanis, biding their time.

But there weren’t any cats in that movie…