The two cats run our lives.
Lumpy’s been in charge for more than a decade. Last spring, he hired an intern
to take up the slack, to do some of the scut work for him. That’s young Sophie, a tiny brindled cat with under-fur the colors of a melted creamsicle.
Sophie is as energetic as a kitten even though she turned two a few weeks ago. When she’s indoors, she surfs the rugs into a heap and terrorizes my Tillandsias. One minute, she’s nestled in the bathroom sink; the next minute, she’s rocketed to the top of a potted ficus tree, testing the tensile strength of its spindly branches.
Lumpy moves slowly, deliberately. With dignity. With clarity of purpose. When he eats, his tail moves back and forth like a metronome. He demands food on principle, but must be coaxed to eat it.
When fast-moving Sophie pokes her head into his food bowl, he backhands her and glares.
“He’s an affection eater,” Mark says, as he kneels next to Lumpy at his food bowl. Mark’s theory is that Lumpy won’t eat without human company.
Mark works at the animal shelter
, and has lots of technical terminology to describe the cats’ habits. He prepares intricately-structured meals to tempt Lumpy, parfaits of expensive cat food that comes in tiny cans. The pate-style turkey and giblets goes on the bottom; the shredded chicken (with one small cube of carrot and a single pea) goes in the middle; the chicken appetizer (white meat chicken in aspic) on top.
You do have to sit with Lumpy and convince him to take the first few bites. You have to rub his white-and-grey muzzle, massage his grey flanks, and whisper sweet nothings about tasty gravy into his torn-up ears.
At the same time, like any good intern, Sophie eats as much as she can as fast as she can from as many different bowls as she can.
Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch. She dips her entire head into a bowl of crunchies. The brittle sound of crunchies being pulverized fills the kitchen. Kee-runch. Kee-runch.
Then, once Lumpy has walked away from his still half-full bowl, that’s fair game for her too.
She inhales his leftover food, then noses her way around the kitchen, hoovering up crumbs from the floor.
Because she’s an indoor-outdoor cat, Sophie also dines on a snack-pack of urban rodents. Mousies, rats, voles, gophers, moles, trolls—anything she finds rustling through the vast tracts of ivy is on the menu.
Should he catch a mouse, Lumpy brings it into the house to eat. He delicately cracks its skull and sucks out the brains, leaving the eviscerated body at the foot of the bed.
“Here’s a project for you. You can use those pelts to make a vest,” he advises me. “A tailored mouse fur vest can be very stylish.”
“It’s not healthy to eat the fur,” he tells Sophie a few minutes later. “You’ll get a tapeworm.” She looks at him blankly.
“Oh, you might eat a mole liver once in a while,” Lumpy continues, “But—take it from me—it’s a bad idea to eat the whole animal, even if it’s organic AND local.”
Sophie listens to Lumpy’s lecture, but her expression is set, stubborn. Later, when she’s outside she eats a vole, whole. Then she swallows a baby field mouse and, along with it, an ivy leaf, some rosemary needles, and a cigarette butt.
Undeterred by the digestive battle in her gut, she vigorously downs the dinner Mark has prepared for her.
Fifteen minutes later, she has vomited in the hallway with the skill and accuracy of a practiced bulimic. The pile of vomit is enormous, almost impossibly large for an eight pound cat. The body of the mouse is unmistakable amid leaves, kibble, Lumpy’s leftover dinner, and an unfamiliar brand of cat food, one we do not feed her.
I try to pretend I don’t know that the mountain of undigested food and prey is there.
“I think I might’ve heard Sophie barfing,” I say to no-one in particular, hoping Mark is within earshot. “She might’ve eaten something that disagreed with her.”
It’s just too gross; I can’t look. I skirt the pile and lock myself in the bathroom.
By this time, the vomit has removed a layer of finish from the hardwood floor, and Sophie has trotted back over to the food bowls, double-quick, for a refill. Because now she’s empty, ready for more.
Maybe she’s just nervous; maybe that’s what makes young Sophie vomit. When he was a kid, my brother used to barf into the bushes on his way to elementary school, just from nerves. A case of nerves can make you sick.
It’s easy to pinpoint the source of Sophie’s anxiety: two cats her age, but much larger—her ex-housemates, wild-girl Juliette and big grey Copernicus—pick on her every time they see her. They used to follow her into the house, primed for a snack and a scuffle. In fact, it was not unusual to encounter an indoor cat fight, one in which Juliette would have loosed great tufts of Sophie’s creamsicle-colored fur.
“Juliette! Sweetheart! You don’t belong in our house. Hit the road!” I said, helpless to intervene in any useful way. But Juliette respected my superior size in a way that not many people do. Startled, she looked up from the dry cat food, spraying soggy kibble out of her mouth onto the floor around the dish. Then she composed herself and eyed me disdainfully with those saucer-round eyes. She slithered down the stairs, around the corner into the garage, and out the cat door, which at the time was just a mailbox-shaped hole in the garage wall.
To be fair, Sophie always stood her ground when her larger rivals attacked. But it surely couldn’t have been much fun for her.
Mark fretted. “They’re beating up on poor Sophia! She has no place that’s safe.”
What he meant was that even the cats at the animal shelter have a safe place to hang out: each cat has its cat-tree, one of those hideous pieces of cat-specific carpet-covered furniture with a dark hidey-hole the kitty can retreat to in times of stress.
We’d already duplicated that. Sophie had a deluxe four-level cat-tree, a sturdy one, covered with the kind of carpeting you’d find in an apartment circa 1985. It was exactly the type of thing I’d vowed NEVER to have in the house.
Sophie’s cat tree is in front of the dining room window and has an amazing view of the San Francisco skyline, 180 degrees of view, from downtown to Candlestick Park.
And from the dining room table, we have an amazing view of a cat tree.
But Mark was undeterred in his compassion for Sophie. And thus began the multi-thousand dollar cat door project, an effort designed to keep both cats safe from interlopers. Safe from mean girl Juliette, safe from the larger vermin—the raccoons, possums, and skunks—that roam our neighborhood in gangs at night.
Most of all, Lumpy and Sophie would be safe without sacrificing style: no Dwell
-subscribing cat wants to emerge into the world from a door that looks like a truck’s mud-flap or one that looks like it’s been appropriated from a hamster’s habittrail.
“Multi-thousand dollars?” I hear you ask. “Are you kidding? Are you those Californians we read about? The ones who schlep their cats to psychiatrists, nutritionists, and aromatherapy? People don’t do that here in ________”
I’d like to say that we’re not; I’d like to deny the allegation in full.
But then I’d be lying.
Mark has spent much of the last two months designing, debugging, and tweaking the performance of the fanciest cat door I’ve ever seen.
Oh, I know people have implemented cat doors
that can distinguish cats with birds and mice in their mouths from unburdened cats, but that’s just a matter of image processing. All you need to do is write some code that compares your cat’s normal silhouette with the silhouette of a cat with something in its mouth. So if a cat approaches the door with nothing in its mouth, the door unlatches. And if a cat with a half-dead pigeon in his mouth approaches the door, the door stays locked.
The project I’m thinking of was originally called ‘Flo Control’, named after the cat in question (i.e. Flo). From the look of the door (and the expression on Flo-the-cat’s face), I believe Mark started with an off-the-shelf setup similar to the one those guys used. But I'm afraid we had to factor in cats who are considerably less compliant than Flo.
In fact, if you didn’t know our cats, you might think that the off-the-shelf setup
would’ve solved our problem: it’s an RFID-controlled door that unlocks as the cat wearing an RFID tag approaches. The cat then just needs to push open the flap—perhaps bump it with his or her nose—like it would a normal cat door. Then the door locks again after it swings shuts behind the cat. Pretty straightforward. You can buy one on Amazon.
Cats use doors like this all the time.
Mark spent months trying to desensitize both cats to the electro-mechanical sounds of the door as the motor unlatched it. Several times each day, he walked up to Lumpy with the door in his hand.
“Lumpy,” he’d say. “Lumpy. Lumpy. Look. Lumpy. Look. This is your door. See?”
And with that, Mark activated the door’s small stepper motor. It made its electro-mechanical noise.
Lumpy raised his head. A look of annoyance crossed his face. He sighed. Then he put his head back down on his paws and continued his nap.
You’ve got to admit, when a door is brought to you apart from the wall, it doesn’t seem very relevant.
After he’d demoed the door’s mechanism to Lumpy a couple of times, Mark would walk up to Sophie.
“Sophie,” he’d say. “Sophie. Sophie. Look. This is your door. Sophie. See?”
Intern Sophie looked up, first startled, then confused. She whipped around and noticed that her extra-long tail was once again following RIGHT BEHIND her. This, she reasoned, was probably the source of the strange electro-mechanical noise. She pounced on it, sinking her sharp white teeth into her own striped tail.
You noisy thing! That’ll teach you! Ouch! Ouch!
It’s rough being an intern.
The longer Mark spent training the cats to use the door
, the bolder Juliette and Copernicus became. I’d be sitting in the living room and I’d hear the Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch of a cat eating at the crunchy buffet.
“Soph. Sopher. Is that you?” I’d call out.
Nothing. Just Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch.
Of course it wasn’t Sophie. She didn’t come around during the day unless she was spoiling for a fight.
If it was Juliette, she acted like she’d been busted smoking in the girls’ room. She’d leave upon confrontation, sullen and quiet.
But if it was Copernicus, he’d growl at me when I entered the kitchen, a low throaty growl. And although his growls were merely youthful bravado, it did seem like the last straw.
“We have to keep them out of here.” Mark was beside himself. “Poor Sophia! She has no safe place. Her enemies can come in after her.”
Mark seemed more upset than Sophie did. I don’t know whether Sophie actually thought of the other two cats as her sworn enemies, but certainly Lumpy thought of them as invited guests. He would go outside and keen so they would come around to visit, calling them with a strange ululating sound.
“Rrrrrrowwwwwooooooo-ooooooo-rrrooow,” he’d say, sitting on the driveway in back of our house. Then he’d give a happy chirp when they finally showed up. “Welcome, you guys. Here, eat my food so I can get something fresh.”
The RFID door should’ve taken care of this issue. That’s what it was designed to do—use the tags to sort between your cats, and the cats who aren't yours.
Eventually Mark decided the cats were acclimated to the door’s electro-mechanical noise, and he installed the RFID-activated door in place of the old hole-in-the-wall door. Then he gave the two cats classes on how to use their new cat door in context.
Lumpy and Sophie exhibited the same kind of disaffected enthusiasm that scofflaw jaywalkers do when they go to Comedy Traffic School on a summer weekend. Lumpy contorted himself and nibbled abstractly at his butthole with one leg straight up in the air. Sophie watched a cranefly land on the workbench, then scratched her ear double-quick, then watched the cranefly take off again.
“They’ll get it,” I told him. “Lumpy’s smart. He’ll get it right away. He’ll get it and he’ll teach it to Sophie.”
I wasn’t wrong. Lumpy got it. He got it, but he didn’t like it.
“I’m not pushing any damn door with my nose,” he said. “You can forget it.”
Instead he stood ululating at the front door. He wasn’t making the noise he uses to call Juliette and Copernicus. No. He was making the noises of injustice, the keening he uses when it’s raining, and he wants to test his theory that it’s only raining in the back of the house, not in the front. So he ululates until someone—me, or more likely Mark—tires of the awful noise and walks down the two flights of stairs to let him out.
Sophie got it too, kind of.
Instead of teaching her to push the door with her head, Mark had taught Little Miss Sophie to push on the door delicately with her paw to activate it. Just use a ladylike push, and the door will swing open. So when she wanted to go outside, she gave the new cat door a tentative push. It swung open obligingly, out into the mild summer air.
The thing about being a cat is, you don’t just open the door and go outside. That doesn’t work. You go to the door, and you look out. You test for weather. You sniff the air for the scent of Juliette, for the scent of a mouse, for the smell of your people, for other cats’ food, for barbequing meat, for big dogs, for small dogs
, for medium-sized dogs, for unfamiliar car exhaust: the list goes on and on.
And you don’t just take one gulp of air; you really do some sampling. It can take a while.
Then, perhaps, you change your mind.
You retreat, tail first, back into the garage. The new door flap begins to close.
Soon you find the door descending far more quickly than you can back into the garage. And you get stuck.
Mark found Sophie hanging from one paw.
He freed the unhappy intern and disconnected the automatic door immediately.
“Poor Sophie,” he told me. “That door isn’t going to work. She could’ve hurt herself.”
Sophie, who was apparently unharmed, headed off double-quick to re-check the never-empty crunchy buffet. She vomited expansively on her way up the stairs to make room in her tiny tummy for some fresh food.
For the next two months, Mark worked on the new door. He worked obsessively, day and night. He worked when he’d normally be napping with Lumpy; he worked and worked.
By the time he was finished, he’d changed the design from a swinging flap door to a counterweighted sliding door. He soldered a new controller to a board, and spent days debugging the new circuitry. He used hot glue on it to keep things neat. He took it apart and started again. He consulted data sheets. He dragged an old oscilloscope home, and then bought a second old oscilloscope when the first one overheated. He bought chips. He bought stepper motors.
He bought transistors, resistors, capacitors, wire.
The garage began to look like a repossessed Radio Shack, minus the unhelpful developmentally challenged employees.
Here’s the sign that things are going from bad to worse: The cabinet of tiny drawers. As long as there’s no cabinet of tiny drawers, the components can be managed with a few reused extra-small Ziploc bags, the kind the pot club uses to sell you a couple of grams of Train Wreck or Pineapple Express.
Once the cabinet of tiny drawers arrives and the Dymo Labelmaker comes out of storage, you know a threshold has been crossed.
But two months later, when the new cat door was finished, I had to admit it was spiffy.
“Let me show you how it works,” Mark said.
We stood inside the garage. He had constructed two pressure plates that were like steps. The idea was, the weight of a climbing cat would activate the door.
He pushed on the upper plate with his fingers. A counter-weighted clear Lucite door slid upward silently, much like the entrance to a James Bond villain’s lair.
He took his hand away from the pressure plate. The door lowered just as silently as it went up.
“See. They don’t have to have the RFID tag on the way out. That way if Juliette comes in, she can get back out.”
Then he flipped a switch on the wall. “And this disables it. That way once they’re in at night, they can’t go back out if it’s after curfew.”
He flipped it again. “See. There’s a light on when it’s disabled.”
“Isn’t that backward?” I said.
“No. No. I’m going to teach Lumpy that it means he can’t go out.” Mark said. “Do you want to see how it works from outside?”
He tapped on button and activated the big automatic garage door. It banged open, seeming clumsy after the smoothly sliding Lucite cat door.
“Why don’t you just teach the cats to use the garage door?” I said. “You could give them both tiny garage-door openers.”
Mark ignored me. He had already built and painted a cleated staircase that matched the colors of the outside of our house.
He pressed on a third weight-sensitive pressure plate, this one at the top of the outdoor ramp.
“See. If it’s somebody with an RFID tag, it opens. And if it’s somebody else, nothing happens.”
He took his hand off the pressure plate and the door slid shut.
I had to admit it was slick.
For the first week or so, Mark propped the door open with a stick so the cats wouldn’t get freaked out, so they’d get used to it. At night, he closed it, according to normal policy.
Unfortunately the door’s plastic was all but invisible. Lumpy thudded into the closed door head first in an ill-fated attempt to use it after-hours.
“Maybe you should make him wear a helmet,” I said.
Mark ignored me. “Do you think he’ll see this?” he said. He’d put a piece of masking tape on the door. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten clear plastic.”
He continued to control the door’s up-down position on a per-cat per-use basis. I harbored some doubt whether they’d ever use the new door once it was fully cat-controlled, although I knew I should keep my skepticism to myself.
Eventually Mark decided that it was time. He flicked the switch to activate the door, and took away the stick that was propping it open.
The next time I went into the garage, I found Lumpy deep in the throes of experimentation. He’d stick a paw on the pressure plate. The door would go up. He’d remove his paw. The door would go down. He’d put a paw back on the plate. The door would go up. He’d take the paw off. The door would go down.
I pulled my Blackberry from my pocket.
“I’m going to take a video of him using it. I’ll post it on YouTube,” I told Mark.
But Lumpy was stubborn. Once he saw me get my phone out, he wouldn’t activate the door. Even after I’d stowed it back in my pocket, he became self-conscious. He went out the people door with me, and was waiting there to thread himself between my feet when I came back in.
For several days, the pattern was the same. He went out when I went out, and came in when I came in.
“Is he actually using the door?” I finally said. “I don’t think he is. He’s always waiting for me. Don’t you open the door for him in the morning?”
Mark was at the workbench, screwing around with the door’s programmed behavior profile. He’d change something in the program, compile it, and download the compiled program onto the controller.
“Yes, he’s using the door,” Mark said.
“I haven’t seen him do it. Have you? Have you seen him actually open the door himself and go through it?” I said. I walked out the garage door with Lumpy at my feet. “See? See what I mean?”
The next day, I was sitting in the garden. It was a Monday and Michael our housecleaner was inside cleaning the house. On Mondays, I stay out of the house, out of the way. Usually I just go to work, but this time I had the day off. So I was outside, in the front of the house, pretending to garden.
I was sitting on the ground between a woody rosemary bush and a stand of plumed grasses, hacking the dead leaves and flowers from an old and overgrown bird of paradise.
Lumpy was in the house with Michael. Lumpy mostly stays inside when Michael is cleaning.
“It’s my territory. You can do what you want to, but it’s still my territory,” Lumpy says.
I’ve watched them together. Lumpy glares at Michael balefully as Michael vacuums the fine web of grey fur and creamsicle-colored fur from the cushions. As soon as the vacuum cleaner is silent, Lumpy returns to the couch to re-apply fur to the exact same place on the cushions. But I don't think either of them is frustrated by the ritual; it's the way they interact and they've been doing it this way for years.
I continued to hack aimlessly at the bird of paradise; I could hear the hum of the vacuum cleaner through an open window. I’d been working on the plant for more than a half hour when I felt something warm on my arm.
A moment of confusion elapsed. More warm liquid showered on my shirt and on the leg of my jeans. Bugs? Maybe it’s those spit bugs. Don’t they emit a warm liquid? But it’s never this much. Bees. Karen keeps bees. Perhaps it’s bees. It must be bees. I looked up from the bird of paradise. There were no bees nearby. Then perhaps it’s sap. But sap is sticky.
A long disoriented moment passed before I realized that Lumpy was absent-mindedly urinating on me, the way an older gentleman might who had mistaken a seated occasional gardener for a urinal.
He wasn’t marking me. He wasn’t engaging in some kind of cross-species fetishistic golden showers.
He was simply peeing in a spot he probably peed every day at about this time. Making his rounds after a hard morning of supervising the vacuuming.
“Lumpy. Lumpy! For christsakes! Stop it!”
It was too late.
Lumpy looked over his shoulder at me, nonplussed.
“I don’t think you should sit there,” he said. “Not now. And probably not ever.”
He wasn’t dismayed. Nor was he embarrassed. Nor sorry. He simply moved on to the next stop on his rounds as if nothing had happened.
He’d apparently used the new cat door without any difficulty and now he was outside.
“Oh. I guess you CAN use the cat door,” I said to him. And he did not follow me to the people door when I went in the house to take a rare midday shower. With water. And soap.
It’s now been almost a month since both cats started using the door. They seem to be completely unfazed by it. Sophie comes in late at night, even while the door is locked for Lumpy. Lumpy is able to open and close the door several times while he makes up his mind whether to go outside, as is his habit. Neither cat has lost the RFID tag that hangs around its neck.
Sophie has gotten her tail trapped by the door once, and she was able to extricate it all by herself with only minimal embarrassment. And I haven’t looked up to see either Juliette or Copernicus chowing down on the crunchies in the kitchen. Nor have I seen fur flying from a cat fight in the house.
The fancy James Bond door to the Cat Cave seems to be working.
That is, until yesterday morning.
Yesterday morning I heard Lumpy calling to Juliette. As I said before, it’s an unmistakable ululating sound, quite distinctive. I looked out the bedroom window, which is right over the cat door. Lumpy emerged as Juliette approached from over the fence. He descended the cleated ramp and chirped hello to her.
“Haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays,” he said.
Juliette looked at him with her round, saucer-like eyes and batted her eyelashes.
Then I saw it: he went back up the ramp and in the door. Then he sat on the pressure plate inside the door to hold it open for Juliette. She followed him up the cleated ramp and disappeared into the garage.
The door is still the most stylish cat door I’ve ever seen.