Cats, I’ve sometimes been told, make better pets than dogs, because cats are more independent, which is just another way of saying that dogs have been domesticated for so many thousands of years, they are genetically the kinds of creatures that find their fulfillment in loving and serving man, while cats are not. I love dogs, and like cats well enough, and so my wife and I have always had a dog and nearly always had a cat. We have a dog and two cats now. We picked up the felines in the usual way, that is, we took them in their wild lives. One was a kitten yowling piteously on the side of the road one night, calling for the coyotes. The other was a yearling cat that showed up in our barn and concluded it was a good gig.
The cats sleep indoors at night, but are outside for most of the day. There they have cat adventures, which are not hard for them to find in the summer, when we go to an island in rural Cape Breton to live. They fish in the marsh and the drainage ditches that run along our street. They climb the stubby willow trees and wait for the unwary bird to perch nearby. They go on safaris through tall grass and hogweed, bringing down big game—mice, voles, chipmunks, and red squirrels. They get into fights with a feral cat who tries to steal their prey. They glare at our dog on his lead, as if he were a coyote, or as if he could suddenly become one. They have probably rutted with females over the years to increase the destroyers of vermin, or to provide lunch for the regular hawks and the occasional bald eagle.
They have natural cat lives. When we bring them in for the night, one of them sometimes begins to act in bizarre and annoying ways, as if there ought to be predators and prey in the living room, or as if the “other” cat peering at him from the window were intent on murder. Then it’s down to the basement for them, so they can sleep it off before they knock down a lamp or spill a cup of tea on the table.
Indoor cats, I’ve noticed, sometimes grow morbid, deprived of the ordinary adventures of the hunt; and I’d like to invent a term, Indoor Cat Syndrome, characterized by Indoor Cat Psychodrama. Think of Muffins, crouching on the top of the refrigerator, staring down at you, then off like a shot to hide under a bed, thinking who knows what feline thoughts, if there be such things at all.
I wish to use the term to make sense of one of the strangest phenomena of our time, the morbid psychological longing to believe oneself oppressed; to see oneself as a player in a terrible political drama; to know, as Muffins does, that right around the edge of the kitchen table waits Armageddon, crouching.
Since, more often than not, it is women among us who are darting and trembling like Muffins, I would like to point out some obvious differences between the lives they lead now and the lives that my elders lived not so long ago. These differences can be summed up thus. My elders had real lives involving real dangers and very real physical burdens. They were outdoor cats even when they were indoors, and they were indoors far less often than people are now.
Let me explain. My father and every one of my 14 uncles spent at least two years serving in the Armed Forces, and that was long before the forces had been turned into a big social experiment in what to do when Johnny thinks he’s Janey, or when Janey thinks that her being overmatched in speed and strength by a typical 13-year-old boy will magically be of no consequence when grown men come at her with bayonets. My eldest uncle on my mother’s side saw action at the end of World War II. One of his brothers lied about his age to get in, but was found out and sent home. He later ended up serving for 20 years. The youngest brother was in time to fight in Korea, at Pork Chop Hill. My father was younger still, and saw no action in war, but spent his two years stationed in Colorado and Germany. He attained the rank of sergeant, leading his men on 50-mile forced trots over rough terrain.
He volunteered when he did because my mother was not in a position yet to marry. Her family needed her to work to help them make ends meet. That was because her father, after working for 15 years down the mine shafts of our town in northeastern Pennsylvania, breathing the coal dust that gave plenty of men black lung disease, and hacking away at anthracite with a pick, suffered a nervous breakdown and was unemployable ever after. My father’s father, like most men of his age, also worked in the mines, and broke his neck in an underground explosion. Since two of the boys beside him got out of the shaft unhurt, the Delaware and Hudson Company determined that his broken neck was his own fault, and did not give him a dime for his injury. He did not die; the bones were fused; but he lived in constant pain for the rest of his life. He still worked, though, taking his boys up to the mouths of the mines to “pick coal”—that is, to gather fallen lumps left by the wayside and to cart them by wheelbarrow back into town, for cut-rate sale to their neighbors. He did anything to make a little loose change and put food on the table for ten children.
My mother was one of six, three boys and then three girls. The three boys were married by the time she graduated high school, so first her older sister went into the textile sweatshops to work for the family, and then, when my mother graduated, she replaced her in the shops, waiting in turn for the third sister. I myself worked in such a shop for two summers when I was in high school. My uncle was the machinist, and got me a job cleaning the place and doing whatever dumb muscle and an unskilled hand could do. The place was an oven, not that anybody cared. The little fibers of textile dust were in the air all the time and would cling to your skin, clogging up the pores. Our main product one summer was snowmobile suits, with a lot of whatever the stuff is that provides the insulation between the polyester outside and the polyester inside. When I wasn’t sweeping, I was happily loading 12-foot-long bolts of material on the conveyor belt, a job I liked a lot, or helping the ladies in the cooler basement, folding and wrapping the snowmobile suits, counting them and stuffing them into big boxes, and then stacking the boxes for when Jim the Truck Driver came. Then he and I would pack the back of his truck.
I liked the work well enough, though I didn’t like the heat, and it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world to get up at six in the morning. It didn’t pay much, but whatever I made went to defray some of my expenses at college (Princeton). A couple of years later I got a better summer job, selling pots and pans door-to-door to working girls who could afford them, and who had not gone to college. That money, too—all of it—went to relieve my parents of some of their burden.
Men and women were outside a lot, though, working, and what they did could be pretty taxing. Everybody in my neighborhood had a clothesline. Everybody had a garden out back, for vegetables. My mother didn’t have a washing machine when I was a little boy, so she toted our clothes up to my grandmother’s house and did the laundry there. Every woman cooked her family’s meals, every day. Every woman did the washing and cleaning in the house, too, and that meant, for my mother, bringing out an “ashcan” a couple of times a week—a big tub for hauling away the coal dust from the furnace—for me to take a bath in. She and my father had to clean themselves by going down to our basement and standing under a nozzle, where there was a drain set in the concrete floor. I have two strong memories of that basement, whimsically related. One is that whenever my mother had locked herself out of the house, she would send me through the narrow chute for deliveries from the coal-man. I’d land in a heap of coal—it was anthracite, very hard stuff and shiny, like black glass, so you didn’t get dirty—and then I’d scramble out and run up the stairs and unlock the door from the inside. The other memory is of an old gramophone down there, playing my father’s favorite, Tennessee Ernie Ford, singing “Sixteen Tons.”
My mother and father, my aunts and uncles, were, you might say, too busy to be oppressed. The men did things that the women could not do or would never want to do, like fixing pipes, painting the houses, and working under their cars, and the women saw to it that there were clean clothes, and good food on the table, and a house you needn’t feel ashamed of, if somebody came calling. And people did come calling, all the time. Then Sunday came, and in my family at least that meant that you dressed up in your best—a coat and tie for me, and shoes shined with liquid polish which we kept under the kitchen sink—and went to hear about the drama of salvation, in a church packed with other such families, and Irish men at the back, ducking out of the homily to smoke cigarettes on the front steps.
I’m not saying that we were saints or sages, or that we did nothing but sweat all day. My mother did not have to work nearly as hard as her mother did, particularly during the six or seven years when my grandmother had to take care of first a bedridden father and then a surly and half-demented father-in-law. Our cats Brownie and Skeezix are not Simba the Lion. But they have real lives for real cats. And something comparable for people is what many in our time, particularly well-schooled women, do not have.
Years ago I made a guess that the sudden appearance of the deadly peanut allergy might have its cause in dirt, or the lack thereof, and recent work in medicine has suggested indeed that babies and toddlers and small children in the too-rich West are dirt-deprived. “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die,” my father would laugh if one of us had fallen in it and gotten some of it in the nose and mouth, or if I dropped a piece of fruit on the ground and gave it a cursory wipe before eating the rest of it. Apparently that is true. You do have to eat a peck of dirt; it is full of all kinds of good things, like bits of dead worm, seeds, nettle-hairs, bird droppings, mold, dead grass, and the dried-up wings of bugs, and these are not so much nutrients as immediate challenges to the body, which then develops plenty of antibodies to deal with them.
When you are hustling from one small grocery store to another, because this one here has good cuts of meat, and that one there has good fruit, or when you are on your back staring up from below at the engine of your car while oil drips on your face—or when you, like my father, keep yourself chaste for two long years in the Army while you are waiting for the woman you love to be able to leave the dress factory—well then, you build up plenty of emotional antibodies, and you would laugh at someone who claimed to be “hurt” for any cause less than a two-by-four swung at the side of the head. It’s not that you’d be proud of your stamina; nothing like that. It’s simply that you would be a normal human being.
And here I note that though some men still do a lot of hard physical labor out of doors, like the three guys on my street yesterday who were “walking” on ladders slung over the top of a roof, while ripping out the old stuff and replacing it with new and managing not to fall to their deaths, or like me this summer, bracing up a sagging 400-pound barn roof with my shoulder while hammering a makeshift lally post in place, most women are pretty far from the like. Not only do they not do such things; they are rarely nearby when such things are done. It is a plain fact that my grandmother did more of that by far than my mother had to do, and my mother did more than her daughters have had to do. When my grandmother was very old and somebody asked her how she made her chicken soup, because she never wrote down a recipe, the sweet old lady, a little foggy in her sense of time, said, “First you wring the @#! chicken’s neck,” salting Henny Penny with a word I had never heard come from her mouth. She raised six children on a shoestring and then took care, one after the other, of her nineteen grandchildren. If you showed up at her house on a holiday, you’d expect to eat a slice of three different pies, and if you balked at one of them she’d give you an odd look—what, turn down food? A life among real things, as I say; too filled with real things to leave time or opportunity for getting the vapors, which is a luxury that only indoor kitties can afford.
These things may help explain why women in the West, whose men are by comparison with men of other times and places the most docile and hapless specimens of their sex the world has seen, complain ever more shrilly and irrationally about how terrible their lives are. One has said to me that we will not have a matriarchy in America until women here are as safe in childbirth as are women in Europe; it did not occur to her to say that we will not have a patriarchy until men have something close to the life expectancy of their wives, or so long as men die at work ten times as often as women. I have heard all my life about the Evil Double Standard, which supposedly winked at the sexual forays of men while holding women to virtue itself, as if virtue were not a liberating power rather than what a petulant teenager thinks of it, an arbitrary restriction of his will. I have never heard at all about all the Other Double Standards, those that wink when a woman starts crying in a department meeting, or when she flees from physical danger. Not all Double Standards are duplicitous. Many are born of forbearance, forgiveness, admiration, gratitude, and love.
But on college campuses now, and in journalism, that stewpot of emotion with just a dash of English and no investigation to speak of, and contemporary politics, a fantasy world if there ever was one, people are speaking and acting as if the next time you pulled up to a urinal in a men’s room you might just be making water next to Hitler. And the evidence? Some people don’t believe you have the right to snuff out the baby in your womb; or don’t believe that a country with a porous border is a real country; or they doubt that “diversity,” even supposing that it really exists in the United States at anything close to the level of culture, supposing further that we have a culture at all, is more valuable than unity, or just getting your job done without worrying about the genetic history of those among whom you do it.
It is an Indoor Cat Psychodrama. “My black body,” said a perpetually aggrieved professor at Saint Eustaby Catholic College, where I Eusta Teach, “disrupts your world!” Sorry, Muffins. I’m a happily married man. Your body does nothing for me. The melanin content of your skin is the least interesting thing about you. A female professor, one Doctor Fluffums, has engaged in a great smear campaign in that world of high-stakes warfare—medieval studies. One of her colleagues dared to write an article for Breitbart, and to defend Milo Yiannopoulos, saying that he was not what his detractors said he was. The horror, the horror! Breitbart—wasn’t Andrew Breitbart the illegitimate son of the granddaughter of the lady who did the cleaning for Goebbels’ second cousin? Get out the smelling salts; Fluffums has fainted dead away.
Hundreds of thousands of women wearing stupid hats meant to look like vaginas march in Washington to demand that men no longer look at them as—whatever. And in a time when plenty of men do not look at real women at all, but prefer computer generated sex goddesses on their laps instead. “You better take us seriously!” they shriek, making a spectacle of themselves, and guaranteeing that, in an age to come when people are sane again, their now-indelible pictures will endure as an acute embarrassment to their persons and their sex.
Meanwhile, we have ducked out of the central drama of human life, the one that the prodigal found himself in when he came to his senses and said, “I shall arise, and go to my Father’s house.” That drama is too real for Tickles.
“Mommy, why were those ladies so weird? They wore ugly things, they were always whining, they lived to be 90 and still said that doctors didn’t take care of them right, they had hardly any real back-stretching work to do, they had gotten from men every plum they demanded, they outnumbered their brothers in college, brothers who were just as smart as they were, they had won the ‘right’ to be infantrymen, which was a joke, and still they made as if men were going to rip them to pieces. Why?”
And Mom looks to Magsie running away from a shadow on the floor. Mom knows why. She is a grown woman, after all.
“It was something in the water,” she says. “Let’s go see what Dad is doing, shall we?”