It’s a good thing we can’t get by on our own — who’d want to?

     (<a href=''>Car exiting through door</a> image courtesy of

    (Car exiting through door image courtesy of

    It’s because of my faith in feline educability that I am lying on the chilled ceramic tile of my kitchen floor, lifting the flap of the cat door with my right hand while I pinch some catnip in my left.

    They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But how about a young cat?

    It’s because of my faith in feline educability that I am lying on the chilled ceramic tile of my kitchen floor, lifting the flap of the cat door with my right hand while I pinch some catnip in my left.

    Through the open rectangle, I can see Ted hunched on the basement stairs, green-gold eyes huge in his tiger-striped face, whiskers quivering like antennae.

    On Ted’s side of the cat door, further down the basement stairs, are the litter boxes for him and his brother, Barney, along with the stand-up freezer, all three of our bicycles and the gas furnace with its Tin Man arms.

    On my side are two dishes of Purrfect Bistro Real Chicken Recipe, a bowl of filtered water, and the catnip. None of which, at the moment, is tempting poor Ted to venture even one claw across the threshold.

    “Ted, look,” I say, letting the flap fall, then lifting it again, like playing “peek-a-boo” with a baby. (Do cats have object permanence?) “See how easy? This is your own special door. Come here kitty-kitty-kitty … come on … come on!”

    He stares at me — incomprehending? terrified? stubborn? — and I stare back.

    We never had to do this with our first cats, the ones we adopted from the Morris Animal Refuge shortly after we bought the house 15 years ago. They were female litter-mates we named Gilda (Radner) and Gracie (Allen), and they figured out the cat door as soon as I’d installed it, slipping noiselessly from kitchen to basement and back.

    But Ted and Barney just sit there — on the kitchen side, on the nether side — and cry. Am I witnessing an innate male helplessness — a feline version of the way some men will reflexively ask, “Hey, hon, can you get me some coffee?” instead of rising from the Barcalounger to pour it themselves.

    When our boys sit on their haunches, mewling at the cat door, are they waiting for rescue? Are they — how shall I say this kindly — perhaps not the sharpest kittens in the cuddle? They were abandoned on the street as newborns; we adopted them in September from a kitty foster home whose human cheerfully told us, “Yep, I’m one of those crazy cat people.” They came home with ear mites, fleas and — on Barney’s part — sniffles and a runny eye.

    But Ted, apparently, suffered a harsher dose of whatever trauma they endured on the street; for the first three days, he vanished so completely I thought we’d never see him again. Finally, he surfaced in my office, wailing with hunger, and I escorted him downstairs to his food.

    We figured we’d give the boys a break, let them get used to people and petting and sleeping on the bed. We left the basement door ajar, and that worked fine through the fall. But now it’s winter, a brutal minus-eight with the wind chill, and an open basement door means great drafts of frosty subterranean air whooshing into our kitchen.

    So we tried coaxing. We tried catnip and cat toys and bits of yarn dangled teasingly just outside the opening. We tried wriggling our arms through the frame while declaring, “Barney, Ted, see how much fun this is! Don’t you want to walk right through?” We tried pretending we couldn’t care less if they ever learned to use the cat door (it’s not my bathroom down there, guys; it’s yours). We tried praising them effusively if they did so much as sniff the opening.

    Finally, we tried tough love. We closed the basement door and figured that when one of them — Barney, most likely, so much bolder than his easily-spooked brother — became hungry enough (or needed to pee enough), he’d figure out the simple mechanics: just give a little head-butt to the flap, release the magnet, and walk on through.

    It doesn’t seem that difficult. On the other hand, neither does hanging up one’s winter coat on the inside of the closet door, instead of, say, flinging it over the back of the couch. Yet Teenager, despite the fact that she earns nearly straight As at her smarty-pants school, can’t seem to get the knack. And what about Sweetheart, still unable, after all these years, to balance the checkbook?

    And Yours Truly? No exception. I’m a true type-A obsessive who, for reasons I’m certain could preoccupy a good analyst, consistently puts the kettle on the flame and then forgets to make the tea.

    The thing that’s hard for me isn’t hard for anyone else (and vice-versa), and that’s what makes us crazy when we attempt to co-habit. Why can’t your teenaged son put the damn cap back on the conditioner? How come your otherwise sensitive hubby leaves the silverware drawer open every single time? Why does no one else in this house even try to keep the plastic containers organized?


    Maybe these blind spots, these idiosyncratic deficits, are one way of demonstrating our deep need for each other. If I had to survive on my own, I’m sure I’d learn, the hard way, not to put black-eyed peas on to simmer and then vanish upstairs to read a novel. But why learn now, when I have a partner to yank them off the stove before they scorch?

    Same with Teenager and her jacket; leave it on the couch long enough and eventually Mom or Ama will heave a big, exaggerated sigh and huff it into the closet. Or Sweetheart and the monthly reconciling of the bank statement (oh, good grief, just hand me the calculator and the checkbook).

    Maybe this really is the most efficient way to live in a pack, by parceling our energies: You take care of this, so I can devote my attention to that. Maybe our quirks — you’re perpetually early; I’m forever hunting for my shoes — are socially adaptive, less a matter of sole survival than of group cohesion.

    Ted and Barney could — and did — manage on the streets. But the lucky news, for most of us, is that we don’t have to. Instead, we get to live in cozy, exasperating families of humans (and other species). And if we’re really fortunate, we get to do it long enough that our habits hum together, a gently tuned ensemble.

    From my second-story office, I can hear Ted’s plaintive summons. He’s trapped in the basement again, just inches away from self-liberation.

    I crouch in front of the cat door. It’s a new year, buddy, I tell him through the plastic. Perfect time to change. Be brave. Cross that Rubicon. Ted? Hey, Ted? I peek. There he is, waiting patiently on the dusty steps, mote-flecked light swirling around his furred, expectant face.

    I know the drill. We’re in this together, see, like it or not. I hold up the flap, count slowly to five and watch him saunter through, one perfect paw at a time.

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