Last Saturday morning, we adopted a cat. A kitten from our local shelter. A teeny male tabby that meows incessantly and purrs even more. Affection-starved from spending his life in a cage, this cat wants constant attention. This works well for us, Roz, our other cat, isn't all that interested in affection. She loves petting, head-scratching – for about twenty seconds. Then she gets up and walks away. How does Roz like the new cat? She's pissed. Lots of hissing. Paw up, claws out, ready to take a swipe.
I keep writing the "cat." I'm not certain he has a name yet. When we met him last week, we started calling him Moxie. He has plenty. Bold and playful. Spunky and fun. It was the perfect name. But at the time, the cat was a female. Or so everyone thought. On the intake form at the shelter, he was tagged as a female, and no one checked since, including us. We went to the shelter looking for a female cat. I've only had one male cat in my 51 years of life, and he was a bit of a let-down. Not very affectionate, mean to our other cat. I assumed all male cats were like this.
Eli and I talked about the word moxie about a week ago. His cousins from Maine had just concluded their annual visit. Ben, a high-school student, loves to drink Moxie soda. He wears a Moxie t-shirt almost every day. Moxie must be an acquired taste. Or something Mainers tolerate to be different from everyone else. It's terrible. During their visit, the family took Eli with them to the Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Virginia. The Amelia Earhart exhibit included the word "moxie" several times. Apparently, in conjunction with Ms. Earhart is the only place in modern lexicon that the word can be found. The coincidence was notable to Eli, and we looked up the etymology of the word Moxie. It appears that the word derived from the brand – how American.
We're all in agreement that Moxie is too feminine a name. Possibly because of its association with Amelia. Maybe because it ends in "ie" – I can't say. Regardless, when we tried to call the cat Moxie, we kept referring to him as "she."
Five days have passed. The cat now has the name Tommy. We toyed around with several names. Moxie, Mojo – really "Mr. Mojo" shortening the name "Mr. Mojo Risin’" from the Doors' L.A. Woman – and Bob. The name Bob is a huge joke with my kids. For some reason Sophie and Eli think that Bob is the funniest name a person or an animal can have. Every time the name comes up, they dissolve into fits of tear-inducing laughter. I cringe at the eventuality that they meet an adult Bob in real life. It isn't going to be pretty.
While Moxie/Mr. Mojo/Bob was still being confused by all the names we threw at him, Susan had made a veterinary appointment for the obligatory parasite check that shelter cats need. The appointment was scheduled for the next day and we needed to settle on a name. Tommy Ramone, the last of the four original Ramones had just died, and his name had been thrown into the mix. A true outlier. Not really something any of were talking about, considering. But suddenly, it all gelled. Eli and Sophie simultaneously said they preferred Tommy and we were done. It's a nice name. It fits him. We now all refer to him as "he." I think he has started to respond to the name. He meows a bit less now but still purrs all the time.
All this purring. I never question where I stand with my cats. Their emotions are on display. Tommy, climbing all over me, poking me with his head. Roz, she sits a few feet away, other side of the couch. A satisfied smile on her face. Allowing twenty-second pet-fests. And as soon as she gets enough, she walks away. Or twitches her tail. Or bites me (gently). I was getting a massage the other day. Susan, my wife, is a massage therapist. And since I'm an aging fitness freak, this works out well – at least in my opinion. It occurred to me that the nicest compliment I could pay to Susan during the massage would be to start purring. So primal, so spontaneous, so honest.
Purring humans would make the world simpler, better. Even when animals don't like me, I prefer their honesty. I ride my bike to work. This is something that our neighborhood dogs hate. They go nuts when I zip by. Barking, growling, lunging at the end of their rope. Our relationship is clear. It's never like this with people. We are allegedly the intelligent animal, and therefore more complex, nuanced. People get along for myriad reasons. Of course there's friendship and amiability, but then the deception starts. People strive for harmony, for reciprocation, for advancement, to simply be polite. But many of us aren't very good at this. And some of us suck. Purring with a twitchy tail. Smiling with claws out. Mixed signals. Party small-talk is often like this. Are we getting to know one another or just doing time, a societal duty. Those of us prone to anxiety get anxious. I'd rather the person hissed at me and walked away.
There is a joke within my group of friends about niceness, who's nice, who's not. "Nice" – it's such a weak, insipid word. This is intentional. In this joke, nice is an insult. An implication that the person is tepid and bland like the word. A few months ago, chatting with my boss, I mentioned something about my friend Doug. She knows who Doug is, but doesn't know him at all. But she knows Doug's wife, Annie, well. And she pretty much hates Annie. They have clashed in the past, claws out and in this case, not much pretense of amiability. Their relationship often causes me discomfort at work. So mentioning Doug was a stupid move on my part.
Me: Blah blah blah, Doug, blah blah.
Boss: Oh, Is Doug nice?
Me: <Pause> I think he is the smartest person I've ever met.
Boss: I asked if he was nice, not smart.
And so this five second exchange started a huge analytical round of what motivates me to be friends with people. Niceness isn't on my list. Doug actually is a pretty nice guy. He is genuinely interested in what I have to say. Caring. Remembers when there is something big going on in my life. He's like this with everybody. But many of my friends aren't all that nice. They are smart, witty, driven, interesting, honest, but not necessarily nice. I'm not that nice either. If you want real feedback on your new haircut, the outfit you just bought, I'm the guy to ask.
And this probably gets to the heart of my aversion to polite, societally-accepted human interaction. I'm not looking for fake smiles and uninspired chit-chat. It leaves me feeling disingenuous and dirty. Like I just told a lie. My friends, although many of them fantastic at the small-talk game, share my sentiments. Our conversations are much deeper, wittier, intelligent, sarcastic and rewarding. I spend an evening with them and I know nothing about how their job is going, what they think of the weather, their opinion of the last Pirates game.
As time has passed, Tommy and Roz are getting along better. I won't call it friendship, but certainly a relationship. They fight. In the sort of way that only cats can fight. Hissing, batting, but lots of back and forth chasing. It seems kind of harsh, violent. But it is honest. And at least they are spending time together. Meanwhile, as a member of the 'advanced' species, I spend my evenings out talking with acquaintances about gas mileage and mortgage rates.