17 July 2017

Cats and Gats

by Steve Liskow   

Last Friday, my wife Barbara and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
For 31 of those years, we've had from one to three cats, and knowing that Ernie and Jewel will probably be our last pets is disconcerting, especially since both are developing health issues at a much younger age than we expected. Jewel has been on steroids (forfeiting her football scholarship) for nearly two years to fight her asthma (yes, cats get asthma!) and she's beginning to exhibit some of the side effects that the drug can cause.

Ernie has developed stage two kidney disease. So far, he loves his diet food--he has always eaten like a teen-aged boy--and is responding well to the blood pressure meds he takes because of the kidney problem. But both cats are only nine years old, and they've been together almost from Ernie's birth.

Barb and I met at a theater audition not long after I'd adopted a cat from someone who couldn't keep her. Many of out theater friends pointed out that cats fend for themselves more easily than dogs--which we both grew up with--if their servants have a schedule that involves late rehearsals or travel.

Cats are better teachers, too. They can demonstrate everything an actor needs to know about concentration, and they help me with my writing now because they give me a sense of proportion. Dogs may pretend they like a chapter because they want you to feed them. Cats don't care. If you don't feed them, they'll go out and kill something...or tear up the couch and stare at you so you understand it was your own damn fault.

A character in Jodi Picoult's House Rules claims that all cats have Asperger's syndrome, and it may be true. If you have a cat, you know it's always about them. Cats are narcissists at heart, and that fits well with some of the great villains in literature: Moriarty, Goldfinger, Hannibal Lector, or Edmund in King Lear. When cats stalk their prey, they model a focus that can be truly frightening, but the also convey a calculation that works with either villains or sleuths.

Cats can help you depict character quickly in other ways, too. What does it show you if a person doesn't like animals--or, better yet, if animals don't like him? Fran Rizer's Callie Parrish has a Great Dane. Robert Crais gave Elvis Cole a feral cat. He's just called "Cat," which says it all, doesn't it? Linda Barnes's PI Carlotta Carlyle has a cat, too. Megan Traine, the female protagonist of my Chris "Woody" Guthrie novels, has two cats. She named the tuxedo with double paws Clydesdale (usually "Clyde"), and calls his calico sister Bonnie.

Remember the Disney film That Darn Cat (I know I'm dating myself here)? Dean Jones's character was allergic to cats, and it helped deepen his character. Clint Eastwood played a New Orleans detective with two children in 1984's Tightrope, and a crucial scene shows the family dog stuffed into a clothes drier. What does that tell us about the bad guy? Don't worry, he gets what's coming to him.

Many publishers and contests stipulate that an animal can't be killed or tortured in the story, and that just shows ho much most of us value pets. Watch the memes and petitions on Facebook if someone mistreats an animal. Some of my neighbors complain when a rabbit or raccoon gets into their garden, but sometimes I think I'd rather have a raccoon, rabbit, skunk, fox or coyote living across the street instead. We wouldn't talk politics and they take care of their space.


  1. Congratulations, Steve and Barbara, on your anniversary! And I hope the meds you're giving your cats are helping out. We've had animals, cats and dogs, that we've had to do similar things with and it's hard to watch dealing with infirmities of one kind or another. Anyway, I wish you and them the best of luck!

  2. My wife turned me into a crazy cat guy. She had cats when we met and we've had cats ever since. I started putting them in my stories. No, they don't solve murders but they add drama, humor and insight into human characters. They communicate and interact and sometimes confuse things. I gave my first lead character two greyhounds retired from racing and they add so much to the character's life. The main characters of three of my other serieses have cats. Our cats. The ones who live with my wife and I. It's a nice collaboration.

  3. Congratulations on your anniversary!
    I hope your cats will do well for a few more years at least.

  4. Happy anniversary, Barbara and Steve. Thanks for mentioning Callie's Great Dane, Big Boy. In the next Callie Parrish mystery (due out in September), Big Boy is kidnapped. Readers ask if Big Boy is a real dog. He's based on my first Great Dane whose name was Brutus. At this time, I don't have a cat or dog, but I do have a saltwater aquarium with creatures I love. My favorites are the golden seahorses. Years ago, I had a fish that would swim to the top of the water to be petted. The seahorses don't do that, but watching them move gracefully through the water creates feelings of peace and comfort.

  5. Congratulations on your anniversary, Barbara and Steve. I've always said that dogs see themselves as inferior humans, while cats see humans as inferior cats. Dogs adore; cats order. That saying, I've had two cats that each lived to be over 18 years old, and took up much of my adult life, and I was their obedient servant in all things. :)

  6. Eve, I agree with your hierarchy of dogs-humans-cats. We met an older chocolate lab yesterday that a friend just adopted from a rescue shelter, and he's great, but Ernie has the personality of a lab or a golden in training. And he doesn't need walking.

    The only year Barb and I were without a cat was the year we were in mourning for Persephone, an orange tabby that lived to 20 before succumbing to all the slings and arrows that fur is heir to. We were starting to discuss adopting two cats when my daughter visited and commented that the place felt strange without a cat or two.

    Fran, Big Boy kidnapped? Oh, wow. I actually had one early draft of a novel with a girl wanting an Ur-version of Woody Guthrie to find her missing cat. It morphed rapidly. I keep thinking I need to do more with Meg's cats, Bonnie and Clyde, who had large parts in another book that seems less and less likely to get written as I learn more about this stuff.

    And thanks to everyone on the anniversary congrats.


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