1/19/08

His Trusty Siamese

I've always been surprised by men's objection to cats. I mean, sure, if a new dating arrangement forces you to cohabitate with a prissy Persian who sheds out of spite and only eats braised veal cutlets, yeah — that's bound to be annoying.

But I'm talking about real cats. Cats who greet you in the morning and again when you come home, and amuse themselves during the day. Who go off on their own for hours at a time, and make plans and hunt bugs and take naps and meow once — in a clear, distinct voice — when they need some attention or they're out of water. And if you're not around to refill the dish, they man up and drink out of the toilet. Those kind of cats.

It seems a guy could appreciate that kind of independence, that "take me as I am" mentality, and recognize a kindred spirit. But not usually.

I'll quote here* from perhaps my favorite 5"x7" book published by a diamond retailer, "How to Bribe a Maitre D'", which came in my mailbox one day in 1999 and has resided in my desktop reference library ever since:

What to Name Your Cat

Cat? Cats are goldfish that shed. Real men have dogs.

(Now hold on. Honestly, we have nothing against cats. Cats are wonderful creatures. But when you think of a man in his prime, in his element, outdoors, he's likely accompanied by his trusty sidekick, the dog. Do you remember this passage from classic American literature? "Bill fought through the blizzard toward the light of the cabin at the mountain's summit, his only companion by his side, his trusty Siamese." Of course you don't remember it. In manly moments only one pet will do.)

Dogs. Big dogs with short names. Dogs that bark at the mailman. Dogs that watch you leave for work and run in circles when you return. Some say men like dogs because we just want someone who loves us blindly. But they don't see us wrestling like children with our dogs. And they don't see us crying when they're gone.

Name your dog whatever you want.


So I was particularly pleased to find out, thanks to Wikipedia, about Ship's Cats. It turns out that sailors have liked having cats around for some 9,000 years, for a variety of reasons. Obviously, an onboard feline will take care of any rodent problems you might have, which prevents damage to ropes, woodwork, and food stores, as well as cutting down on the spread of disease.

A bonus feature of ship's cats, which would be particularly helpful out on a long voyage into uncharted territory, is their sensitivity to atmospheric conditions. Sailors frequently noticed that the cat was more accurate than the barometer at predicting inclement weather.

But they also found that cats are just good company. They're funny, and often friendly, and a superstition arose that if a if a cat approached you on deck, it was a good omen. (It was unlucky if it came only halfway, then retreated.) Some would even do tricks, like jumping through your arms if you angled yourself just right.

The best ship's cats were said to be polydactyl cats, with the extra toes providing additional balance on a tippy ship. (Another fan of the polydactyls was, of course, Ernest Hemingway, otherwise known as "Papa" or "Manliness In Excelsis." Hemingway got his first six-toed cat as a gift from a ship's captain, actually.

There are lots of stories of famous ship's cats, particularly in the British Royal Navy during WW II. My favorite is U-Boat:

U-boat was another ship's cat aboard a Royal Navy vessel of the Second World War, who would take ‘shore leave’ whenever his ship came into port. He would spend days on shore, usually returning only just before his ship sailed. One day, U-boat failed to return in time for roll call and his ship was forced to sail. As she pulled away from the quay, U-boat was seen running down the dock after the departing ship. He made a death-defying leap onto the ship and succeeded in making it aboard. He was reported to be undaunted by his experience, proceeding to wash himself on deck. The crew members were apparently delighted their good luck charm had returned.

Sadly, the Royal Navy banned cats on seafaring vessels in the mid-'70s, for hygiene reasons -- ironically, one of the main reasons for bringing them on board in the first place. But ship's cats still sail, and some, such as Chibbley, who has circumnavigated the world twice on board the tall ship Picton Castle, even get fan mail.

And here on land, it's been photographically proven that dudes like cats. I certainly like mine...

And my brother-in-law Tom likes his, I think...

And my friend Matt warmed up to his pretty quickly...

And even my other brother-in-law Dyrs, who could give Hemingway a run for his money in a manliness contest, has been documented not hating cats.

So maybe this long-standing enmity is just another outdated stereotype. We've been friends with felines since about 7500 BC.

All it took was a boat.

*In addition to contradicting my point, this wonderful essay irritates me another way — by exposing my total theft of its phrasing. Goodness, but I ripped this author off! I had no idea when I wrote the intro paragraphs; honest. I guess I must have read that booklet at a pretty formative time in my writing development.

**There was even a book written on the subject, which I just remembered, called "The Silent Miaow," all about how a stray cat completely won over a gruff sportswriter / fencer / deep-sea-fisherman type. No boats needed.

2 comments:

-T- said...

I *hate* mine. They are just the lesser of evils and more suited to the responsibility level I'm prepared for at this point. Just kidding. I like 'em cuz they're fluffy.

Colin said...

Oh, I forgot to put in Penny's initial take on the subject of ship's cats, as well as her ultimate take, and the point she reiterated throughout my describing it to her:

"Yes yes, I understand all that, but where on the ship does the cat poop?