Friday, July 24, 2009

A Conversation With My Cat

I’m in the shop, running a stack of wooden plant hanger bases through the shaper. Between units I pause to adjust my safety glasses and happen to look up. Out in the drive, I can see ShopKat hunched down, staring intently into the raspberry bushes. The tip of her little tail is twitching slowly, back and forth, back and forth.

Some small hapless creature is about to meet its fate.

I look back down at what I’m doing (seriously here, you really want to keep eyes on hands when running the shaper unless you enjoy riding in the ambulance helicopter). When I look up again, Shopkat is gone.

There is a small cat shaped cloud of cartoon dust where she was a moment ago, and a furious commotion in the raspberry bushes.

Go, ShopKat, go!

I kill power to the shaper table and I’m in the process of moving a stack of finished pieces to the project cart - when out of the corner of my eye I catch a black and white shadow slinking furtively through the far highbay and around behind me towards the carving table at the other end of the shop. The hunt has been successful then, obviously. ShopKat likes to display her prizes on the mat in front of my lathe, next to the carving station. I’ll go to use the lathe and find the headless carcasses of voles and chickadees lined up like corpses in the morgue of some budget horror flick. The fact that she’s sneaking into the shop, after stalking prey in the bushes, indicates that she’s made a kill.

I don’t mind the voles (voles are exactly like mice, little gray gnawing disease vectors with tails), in fact I’m all for it – this is ShopKat’s primary duty, vermin eradicator, it’s what I pay her for. But I wish she’d leave the birds alone. So I look to see what she’s got this time.

It’s a HUGE black vole.

It is so big I think for a moment that she’s finally taken down a moose. On second glance I realize it’s the Vole King, Granddaddy Patriarch of the entire Vole Nation, hanging limply in her jaws. This thing must be the source of all the voles in Alaska. He’s like the Godfather of Voles – try to visualize ShopKat dragging Marlon Brando across the floor and you’ll understand what I’m saying here. And when I say Marlon Brando I don’t mean handsome chiseled hardass Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Name Desire, I mean more like blobby gelatinous Island of Dr Moreau Marlon Brando. What I mean is it is one big damned rodent.

ShopKat drops her prize, plop! square in the middle of the mat and nudges it around until it’s perfectly lined up, perpendicular to the centerline and square to the lathe. Then she sits down in satisfaction of a job well done and commences to wash her face.

The Vole’s eyes pop open! Pop!

He jumps up! Boing!

He’s not dead at all! It’s a trick! He was only playing possum, the sneaky son of a bitch!

The giant Vole King spins around and zips off towards one of the work benches like Marlon Brando going for the all you can eat buffet table!

ShopKat is caught completely off guard. She goggles in yellow-eyed amazement. Her tail rigid, like a pipe cleaner, her ears straight up in points.

I yell and gesture, “There he is! Right there! Get him, ShopKat, get him!”

ShopKat continues to stare and the expression her face says clearly, “Well, that’s odd. I know I killed him. Zombie Marlon Brando Voles are not my responsibility.”

The Vole King alters course and dodges towards a pile of birch burl blanks that I have drying in the middle of the floor. The big bastard is fast, like a furry brown bean bag on wheels. For a moment I have a flashback to Saturday morning cartoons and Wylie Coyote giving a shot of super speed tonic to a mouse before trying it himself. The Vole King moves like that super charged mouse. Meep! Meep! Bwing!

ShopKat continues to stare, whiskers twitching, ears wiggling. But she doesn’t move. This is blatant dereliction of duty.

I yell. She looks at me. The Vole King disappears under the stack of birch burl.

ShopKat yawns.

I get the broom and start moving burl around. ShopKat moseys over to watch.

Suddenly the Vole King appears, making a break for the router table!

ShopKat becomes fascinated with her tail. The Vole King passes her within inches, unnoticed.

“Out of the way, Peck!” I shout, and swing the broom with savage abandon.

Contact! There is a solid Thunk! The crowd goes wild! The Vole King is ejected from the shop at high velocity along a low flat trajectory. He lands stunned in the drive. Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you, your highness. I pick up a hunk of scrap wood and go finish him off - and in this regard it is exactly like a Godfather movie. Meet your Maker, Brando. Thwack! Thwack!

The Vole King gets a royal funeral pyre in the burn barrel.

He was a canny foe, we shall miss him.

Yes, yes, I spent twenty years in the military, I have murderous skills. Back off, Ladies, I’m married. I am a mighty warrior, facing down the Vole King like Beowulf and the Grendel with nothing more than a bad attitude and a stick of hickory. But that’s not the point here. The point is I shouldn’t have had to do it.

Obviously it’s time for ShopKat’s employee review.

I find her sitting on the workbench next to the radial arm saw.

Me: OK, look, we need to discuss a few things regarding your recent performance.

ShopKat: Makes a rumbling noise, like a poorly tuned diesel engine [Translation: Pet Me!]

Me: Stop that. Look, I thought I was pretty clear when I hired you. You keep the shop vermin free, in return I feed you and give you a place to sleep. You get a basic health plan and the occasional tuna treat. There may, may, be some petting involved. Which part of that is unclear?

ShopKat: Sticks her nose in my face, sniffs [Translation: Your breath smells like a dead mouse]

Me: Perhaps you aren’t clear on the process. See, you prowl around the shop, all stealthy catlike and such, and kill the vermin that try to get inside. You don’t go out into the bushes and get them and escort them inside! Understand? Well?

ShopKat: Yawns, turns around, swishes tail [Translation: Blah blah, I don’t hear your monkey chatter. Talk to the paw.]

Me: Look, your actions are tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy! You could be court martialed!

ShopKat: Mmph? [Translation: Is that a piece of fuzz! oooh! Me likey fuzz!]

Me: Hey, over here, Princess. Pay attention, I’m talking to you. Here’s the bottom line - you catch ‘em, you kill ‘em. Savvy?

ShopKat: Meow [Translation: Speaking of things, the cat box needs changing, Monkey Boy. See to that, would you?]

Me: Damnit! I’m the boss here!

ShopKat: Makes sort of a feline snicker [Translation: I’ve met your wife]

Me: I mean I’m the boss of the shop!

ShopKat: Wiggles her whiskers [Translation: I’m pointy on five ends. I win]

Me: Well, don’t let it happen again.

ShopKat: Jumps on to my carving stool. Curls up in a ball. Yawns hugely [Translation: Nap Time]

Me: You probably shouldn’t expect a raise this year. Just saying.


  1. Felines are nice to have around, but if you expect them to do what you want instead of what they want, well, you're just setting yourself up!

    May be time to think of some kind of automatic vole-killing robot...

  2. Why we humans think that lecturing cats is a useful pastime is beyond me. It's nearly as big a waste of time as lecturing teens.

  3. Obviously your cat is related to my cat.

  4. In just WHAT universe did you really think you could boss me, the cat, around in???

    Silly human. AGAIN... twice in one week even. BWAHAHAHAHAH!

    There is a reason for the phrase "herding cats" and you have just been skooled!!!

    Signed - ShopKat

    Don't kill hte messenger: WendyB_09

  5. Sounds like you've passed your first training hunt with flying colors. :)

  6. "Demonstrate your technique for me Pink Monkey, and perhaps I will emulate you. Or not."

    Hee. I love ShopKat.

  7. Love it! Great story, and ShopKat is a remarkable cat. She has you pegged. You know you're going to make with the snuggles and tuna treats anyway and clean up for her.

    What she's doing, I think, is telling you that you're family. Cats hunt for each other. They work independently and live together in groups, often bringing home food for their friends and kin. She's been expecting you to eat the voles and birds since she was thoughtful enough to bring them in.

    Bringing you a live one, then, might be a comment that you could stand a bit more exercise running around and vole-chasing. Or she just thought it was fun and wanted to share. This is what Napoleon explained to me years ago in New Orleans when he brought me (roach phobic) the biggest bestest bug in the whole world, a 4" long palmetto bug, and thoughtfully removed half its legs so it could only run in circles since he knew I was slow.

  8. ShopKat: He's not listening again - I bring him the mother of all voles to chase and he yells...

    Jim: Wah wah, waa wah wa wah wahhh!

    ShopKat: Pfff... He doesn't get it...

    Jim: Wah wah waa wa wa waaah wa?

    ShopKat: *yawn* I wonder if he filled my bowl this afternoon...

    Jim: Wah wa waa wa waah?

    ShopKat, walking away swishing tail: I think I'll go chew up his new boots while he's 'working'...

    Jim: Wah?

  9. Karl, my wah wa waah's are much more masculine and manly sounding than that.

  10. I kept expecting this to be the joke where ShopKat turns to you and says "Okay, I'll show you again, but this is the last time!

  11. Jim,

    Damn funny post friend!

    Damn funny!


  12. Excellent! I think you just saved my job because before that I was building a nice loud, its Saturday morning and I'm working here rant for a customer who couldn't grasp that I wasn't ignoring them but working to resolve the issue.

  13. Not only is PETA gonna be after your ass for cruelty to voles...you're also going to be expected to train ShopKat to bring them food instead of tormenting them.

    First the moose, now the voles. You're just asking for it!

  14. I wasn't ignoring them but working to resolve the issue

    By reading my blog? I can't even fault the logic there. Heh heh.

  15. Hello Jim,

    I'm kinda new to this blogging thing, but was recommended to your site by a web acquaintance.

    Your story, "Conversation With My Cat", had me in stitches. I think you have the makings of a short literary work here, you already have the perfect title.

    I'd buy it.

  16. Hello, Joe, thanks for stopping by.

    Someday I may roll all the Stonekettle Station cat stories into a book. The felines around here are certainly entertaining, when they're not driving me insane that it.

    If you liked this post, click on the link at the top of the page labeled "Things about Cats" and you can read all about the adventures of Tubby, Stupid, and ShopKat.

  17. Othello is twice as useless as ShopKat. Bugger encourages me to hang out with the wrong people (he likes the crazy girls), and prevents me from taking phone calls at home in the a/c (he thinks the calls are for him, or is questioning my conversational skills and suggesting alterations throughout phonecons).

    Plus the bastard is a tuxedo, so the blues and whites get equally ruined every time he makes it into the bed room and I've got the ironing out....

    We actually feed and clean up after these things? By choice?

  18. Choice?

    I didn't get no stinking choice, Vettriano.

  19. Ok, I have to ask. You have 3 cats and I have read nothing about butt-sniffing. Our house is owned by 4 indoor-only female cats that also allow my husband and I to live there, and all those cats do is sniff one another's butts. It's not like they don't know each other; the youngest cat will be five years old in September and they've all been together for over 4 years now. Sometimes the cats even climb on the husband and I and present their butts to our noses for sniffing. Despite our repeated refusals, the cats are still demanding for us to sniff their butts. I think that if this behavior is happening at your house, you could tell the story with more humor and make the pink monkeys at our house feel slightly more normal.


  20. Melanie, we don't get much of that here.

    Stupid and Tubby are neutered male house cats. Mostly they just sit around and shed. Stupid doesn't much like to be petted and usually avoids sitting in your lap - preferring to sit wherever you're trying to put your feet instead. Tubby likes to sit in my lap while I'm writing, but otherwise likes laying on the back of the couch. Neither one is much for the Butt/Face routine.

    ShopKat is a small female, she lives in the shop and doesn't mix with Stupid and Tubby at all (though the boys are fascinated by her and watch her intently through the sunroom window when she sits in front of the shop in the sun). She's, without doubt, the most friendly, intelligent, and funny cat I've ever met. But she prefers to flop over on her back for belly rubs instead of sticking her butt in your face.

    All the cats seem to get along with Jumper, the dog, just fine. ShopKat and Jumper have sort of a mutual ignore each other thing going on. Stupid and Tubby worship the dog, and on the rare occasions when Jumper comes into the house the cats follow her everywhere begging for attention.

  21. Jim - see we are kindred spirits on many points. Even if you are a wood worker (EVIL!) instead of a more honest metalsmith (me - blacksmith, ugg).

    My cat brings the odd rabbit, sometimes bigger that he is (yes have image to prove it). Bats. Snakes. Frogs...

    (I have no bloody idea how he managed that one! See :http://warehamforgeblog.blogspot.com/2010/06/kats.html)

  22. Forge, I don't believe I've ever heard wood workers referred to as evil before - I sort of like it.

    We don't have rabbits here in Alaska, we have Arctic and Snowshoe hare - which are just slightly smaller than a horse. I less worried about ShopKat tangling with one of those than I am the bald eagles. She's pretty savvy though, and watches the sky carefully.

  23. Melanie said:
    Butt sniffing among cats in the same house, (Pride or family), is a form of mild aggression, establishing a dominance hierarchy; sort of like young boys punching each other on the shoulder. My two sibling cats George and Savannah used to do this when I first obtained them. After they grew older and found other distractions than irritating each other it occurred less frequently. I noticed it also occurred more frequently when on or the other thought I was playing favorites between them.
    David Chisholm

  24. If you want rodent killing machines, get a terrier. Cats are purely (and only intermittently) decorative.

  25. It's good of you to go above and beyond your ordinary expected servile duties to it, and occasionally provide for your cat's entertainment like this.

  26. Have you yet written Stonekettle Station cat story book yet? I would love to share your wit and wisdom regarding those creatures with fellow cat "owners" (aka servants).

  27. I knew one fellow who share the abode with a half Siamese, half bob cat male. His name was Coyote Bate. He would leave dead coyotes in the drive a couple of times a week. No hickory stick for him.

    I knew another fellow who's cat would bring presents to him everyday. Small dead critters. The cat paid attention and saw which species ended up in the trash and which got dressed, wrapped and put in the freezer. The cat got sauteed giblets and the freezer was always stocked with grouse, quail and cottontail.

  28. SQUIRRRELLL!!!!!!!!!!, SQUIRREL!!!, Squirrel!, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel, squirrel. Anyone who has lived and worked with stockdogs will instantly understand this response. The buttons at the end of the post don't show up on my Android phone. I just switched platforms and I'm reading Stone Kettle Station on a laptop. So I just saw the buttons for the first time.
    Years back, my wife (Deb), her service dog (Button), and I took a train from Reno, Nevada to Lawrence, Kansas. There was a layover somewhere east of the Mississippi river about lunch time. The three of us had a nice lunch a few blocks from the station. After that, Deb needed a bit of a rest and Button needed a long walk having been on the train for nearly 2 days with not much more than bathroom breaks. So off we go, both of us, to explore the town. After a few blocks I discover it is a college town with a beautiful green at the main entrance to the campus. Button discovers it has large trees with red SQUIRRELS!!! OFF WE GO! He launches himself so suddenly that the leash bites into my wrist, anchoring it firmly in place. I spend the next 100 to 150 yards just trying to keep my feet under me, no control, no guidance, barely enough balance and not nearly enough breath. There is a broad oak, 4 or 5 feet in diameter dead ahead. Up the tree the squirrel goes. Up the tree Button goes. Into the tree I go. Fortunately, I brake the head long rush with my free hand and arm, saving my hat and face. As I bounce off the oak I realize that my other arm is being pulled upward. I am finally able to slip the leash off my wrist as I look up. Button is a good 10 or 12 feet up the tree, running out of momentum and starting to turn around. I back peddle furiously, and down he comes, bowling me over. I end up flat on my back with Button sprawled on my chest. Both of us panting for all we are worth. SQUIRREL!

  29. Jim,
    This is the first time I've worked my way down through your back pages and found cat stories. I don't have a shaper, but I have a table saw and I've had many cats over the years, and this story seemed so familiar, I thought I'd write you. My favorite cat was Bugsy, 9 lbs. of black and white gangster, who loved me no end, and wanted to hang out where I was. That included sitting on a stack or Oak boards for four hours two nights in a row while I ripped, cross-cut, resawed, and routed 500 or so slats for some cabinet doors I was making. (My current cat, Tarzan, will do the same, but he's not allowed outside. Too many birds, too many lost/diseased/car-killed cats to allow that anymore.) Bugsy wasn't as good a hunter as her sister, Lucy, but she would catch her share. If I was outside working on my lathe, she would come over with her prize, eat about half of it, (crunch, crunch, crunch,) then leave the rear half for me to enjoy when I finished my work. The worst thing, as you've noted, is when she came in from outside, keeping her head down as I opened the door, so I couldn't see what she had in her mouth, then walked to the middle of the living room and dropped her mouse on the floor. She looked at me with expectation, as if I would play with the mouse with her, sharing the joy of the chase and half a mouse. Meanwhile, the mouse came to the realization that this cat wasn't paying attention, and, two seconds later, we had a mouse hiding behind the carpet on the vertical section of the bottom stair. Bugsy was mystified because her new toy had disappeared. The next evening, as we were watching television, a mouse ran up the post in the living room, then back down through the radiator pipe hole to the basement, before I could catch it. Where were the cats? Napping, probably. The next day was the final straw, when I saw the mouse sitting on the edge of the cats' water bowl, having a drink. Both cats were asleep in their shoe boxes on the radiator, oblivious to the insult being perpetrated. I got up and made chase, and the mouse, foolishly, ran into the pantry. I knew that there was no hole in the pantry, and no escape, if I moved quickly, into the pantry, closing the door and piling newspapers at the bottom, so there was no place to go. In another few seconds, I cornered the mouse, grabbed it, not caring much as it bit down on my finger, because it was too small to break the skin. I quickly took it to the back door, and flung it across the neighbor's yard, where it probably stayed for a few moments before heading to the next adventure. Sometimes, cats be worthless. Sometimes they make you bleed. Sometimes they're just the right thing to be sleeping on your lap or your chest on a cool evening. Always, they are in charge. We serve at their pleasure, and they are often not pleased.
    Keep up the good work, and not just about cats.

  30. OK, I came for the brilliant political commentary, but to find out you are also owned by cats??! It's official, I'm kicking out hubby and will send you an invitation including my address. OK, you may hesitate when you see I live in Houston, but we have kickass air conditioning down here.


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