Born Free: Yet Another Dumb Cat Story


I have this big model train layout that I spent thousands of dollars on. It runs on the floor of the upstairs loft and then around the cathedral ceiling walls and out the window and around the neighbor’s house and then comes back into the living room. It has lots of little trees and little people and teeny plastic squirrels and very expensive engines and cars. The cats are not allowed anywhere near it. And this has been the case for five years. To keep the cats away from it I’ve engineered cardboard staircase coverings and a portable seven-foot door, and pretty much all the same sort of special security measures that Sigourney Weaver and her crew deployed in “Aliens” in order to keep the aliens out of their ping pong room. These are the “anti-kitty defense shields” and were developed very soon after Hurricane Henry demolished a good portion of my little train town of Duck Tape, Wisconsin several years ago.

So a couple months back Carra brought the cats over for the weekend, as is the usual routine. And for some reason I just didn’t feel like putting up the kitty defense shields. I gave it a lot of thought, weighed the pros and the cons, and finally concluded “whatever.”

Lionel (the cat, not the toy train company) is very subdued and dignified. But when he discovered he was suddenly allowed to go upstairs after five years of baying in vain at the foot of the stairs before the mighty cardboard door, he went banana cakes–running up and down the stairs, back and forth, up on the bed, under the bed, into the bathroom, in the the tub, back on the bed, bouncing on the bed, and closing with a snappy rendition of “The most wonderful thing about tiggers, is I’m the only one! Hey!”

And he’s actually been pretty good about staying off the shelves where the train is. So, yea.

Henry, on the other hand, has refused to come upstairs. We don’t know why. But he’ll sit on the living room floor and stare up at the loft, very still, with this creepy expression that seems to say, “I see dead people.” Perhaps it’s conditioning. Maybe five years of not being allowed upstairs has confused him, and he’s now responding the same way that Elsa the Lioness did in the movie “Born Free” when the Adamsons tried to release her into the wild and get her to be a self-sufficient hunter lion as opposed to what they had raised her as, which was a poodle. So while Carra and I are somewhat concerned about this fear that Henry has about coming upstairs, Lionel is delighted by it. They are a competitive pair, you see. While they often take turns playing Lion and The Obnoxious Wildebeest Who Turns His Stereo Up Really Loud Therefore Deserving Whatever Fate May Befall Him (in my home nature is not cruel, it is just), there are as many times when it’s not play but pretty much for real. The problem here is that Henry outweighs Lionel considerably. Henry is in the heavyweight division and Lionel is in the middleweight division, so when they mix it up it’s kind of like a fight between Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Dustin Hoffman. But now Lionel has an entire floor to himself where he can look down at Henry and say “Neener neener.” So he’s thrilled.

The cats actually have their own apartment. It’s the TV room but there are high, broad shelves all around the walls that are designed just for them to hang out on. It has ramps and bridges and little stairs going this way and that, all securely screwed into the walls. It’s not so much a TV room anymore as a 3D replica of an M.C. Escher painting. It also has a “fort” way up high (a 36 by 18-inch wooden box with a long and narrow window slit that allows for observation of all below and “invisibility” simultaneously). Henry has taken over the fort and spends his Sundays sleeping in there. We felt as though Lionel should have a fort too so I spent about sixteen hours constructing fort number two (four hours of actual construction, twelve hours trying to find a stud). Lacking room, I had to pitch the walkway going up to fort number two at a sixty degree angle. We had to push Lionel up it, and then when he came down he slid, so he was not pleased. I re-engineered it and made the angle forty-eight degrees. And I carpeted it, so that he could dig his claws in. Unfortunately it was still not slide resistant. And he couldn’t go up it, except with the push, because he’s the only cat in the world that needs pitons and carabiners to climb something. I toyed with the idea of an elevator but at $4,000 I felt this was not cost efficient, and I should probably have one for myself first. So I took the second ramp apart and built little steps.

You may ask why I do this. Why do I go through all this trouble for the cats? I’ll tell you why. Because when I build things for the cats, it means I don’t have to write. Writing is way harder than nailing stuff together. This is why there are more professional carpenters in America than there are professional writers. If you ask an adequate sample of carpenters (1,000), they’ll tell you right off that they like nailing stuff together way more than writing about nailing stuff together. Personally I have a long history of nailing stuff together, going all the way back to my childhood when I built the first and only 8 by 4-foot airplane-shaped, four-wheeled skateboard. She was a beaut. I see Microsoft Word is telling me that “beaut” is misspelled, so I’ll say she was a butte. And apparently that’s correct, because the red squiggly line is gone. Except that I know it’s not correct. These are the types of annoying issues one has to deal with when writing, but which never come up when nailing stuff together.

I take pride in the things I build, but I also believe taking pride in the things you build can be overdone, which is why my two mottos when it comes to home carpentry projects are (1) “Don’t sweat the small stuff–and it’s all small,” and (2) “Anything worth doing is worth doing now–right now, and we want to be done by seven o’clock because that’s beer and brandy time, so don’t get all sorts of goofy ideas about “varnishing” and “sanding” and “removing the bent nails” and all that hoity-toity time-wasting nonsense.” When it comes to homemade furniture I believe the emphasis should be put on its functionality, not how safe it is to use.

The little steps proved to work well. Of course, Lionel didn’t want to use them at first, showing little interest in the whole operation, but we were able to successfully encourage him to climb the steps and investigate his new personal fort by putting a cheese sandwich in it along with a record player and some old 45s and a princess phone and a copy of Entertainment Weekly For Cats. He then found it interesting.

Henry on the other hand was not amused. Clearly this new construction was to be his Saturday fort which made him wonder what Lionel was doing in it. We could see there was much computation going on in Henry’s head as he looked up at Lionel, looked at us, looked at the wall, looked at the steps, looked at us, looked at the fort–and I have to say the only thing more fun than model trains is watching cats trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

The stairs to Fort Lionel are only five inches wide. When Lionel decided he wanted to come down the stairs, this was the exact time Henry decided he had to go up the stairs. And there they stood in the middle, staring at each other like two trains on the same track (I know trains can’t see and therefore can’t stare so please don’t comment about my using a mixed metaphor) (or that you feel it’s a simile). I knew the narrow staircase situation might happen but I really didn’t think it would be a problem, because previously I thought cats could back up. I know now they cannot (actually I’m sure they can but just refuse to). Either way, I know now what I’ll be doing this weekend which will be building a passing loop from the stairs to the couch (note improved use of train metaphor). This of course means the back door of the house, which happens to be in the kitty room, won’t sufficiently open since expanding the width of the stairs will prevent it from doing so, but it’s not really a problem since nobody uses the back door except me. But due to this recent need for further construction, I unfortunately will not be able to comment on any life and/or current events in the immediate future. But I will get back to the writing game as soon as this project is done (discipline and routine are essential to a writer). Of course, that’s assuming all goes well with the cat bunk beds, which is an idea that came to me just a moment ago when I took a break from this to go look up the definition of “butte.” But right after that I’ll be hunkering down at the old word processor again, unless I decide the swings and the Ferris wheel need to be done first.

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