ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE AFTER NINETY

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Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014.  Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014. [Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.]

[The most viewed piece I ever posted was a summary of “This Old Man,” an essay written by Roger Angell. It had just been published in The New Yorker.  My post ran sixteen months ago, on February 14, 2014, But it still shows up in the stats as being read almost every day by one or more people somewhere in the world.

Initially, I credited its popularity to the fact that the TGOB post offered readers almost half of the Angell essay for free, whereas The New Yorker archives were not free then, except to subscribers. But now I think there’s something more to it than that.  As far as I know,” This Old Man” is almost unique in being written by someone with a clear and literate voice who was in the tenth decade of his life — 94 when the essay was published, 95 this year.

That may seem a long way off to most of you.  Not to me. In less than a month, I will be 84. So once in a while I go back and reread the post, to remind myself of what it may be like for me in just ten years, if I’m lucky enough still to be here then.  Of course, Angell has far more money than I do, and more connections, and more this, that and the other thing to perhaps ease his journey towards the end.  But I do believe most of the essentials about which he writes remain the same for everyone.

Of the sixteen people who clicked “like” on the post when it first appeared, I recognize the avatars of seven or eight.  But many newer readers and followers of TGOB may not have gone rummaging in the blog’s archives to find it.  Therefore, I hope those of you to whom it’s already familiar will humor me for running it once more.  It does make those of us who are only a bit younger, or even very much younger, stop and think.]

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE IN HIS NINETIES

[A reblog]

Roger Angell was born in 1920. He is the son of Katherine White, an early and renowned fiction editor at The New Yorker, and step-son of E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Angell himself has been associated with and written for The New Yorker nearly all of his professional life, more recently always about baseball, and still does a baseball blog for the magazine. I can take baseball or leave it (which is more than I can say for football, basketball or hockey), but mostly I leave it now that my two sons are long out of the house. So when I see something by Angell in the magazine, I’m inclined to skip it.

However, this week’s The New Yorker contains a long piece he has just written which is not about baseball. It’s called “This Old Man” (subtitled “Life in the Nineties”), and I could not put it down until I had read every word. Finding something good about getting old written by someone a bit older than me doesn’t happen every day! So I wish I could just copy out the whole thing here to show everybody. But it’s too long. (Pages 60-65 in the February 17 & 24, 2014 issue, the one with the annual Cholly Knickerbocker cover.)

Nonetheless, without pushing the outer limits of bloggery too far, I can probably offer a taste from the middle (about how the rest of the world treats you when you’re old) and then the last page and a half, about which I thought, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, all the way to the tiny diamond which marks the end.

If you’re twenty-five and feel you don’t need to think about things like this right now, you probably don’t. Unless you’ve got a great-aunt or great-uncle still hanging in there, and want to know what it feels like. But your generation probably doesn’t read TGOB much, if at all. So this post is mainly for everyone else.

Because I’ve had to cut somewhere, I’m skipping the beginning and some of the middle, in which Angell describes his present pretty-far-gone physical condition (eyes, limbs, spine, heart), his personal losses (wife Carol, daughter Callie, dog Harry, many many friends), his remaining joys, his thoughts on death and dying. You can find the magazine online (Google it if you don’t subscribe), should you want to read it all. This part is from page 63:

We elders — what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel? — we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends — old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties — and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming…or Virginia Woolf…. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA — a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two or response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours…..

And here are the last two columns of page 64 and all of page 65:

I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems — by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more — which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now — late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier-op-cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.

I count on jokes, even jokes about death.

Small Boy: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
Teacher: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
Small Girl: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
Teacher: How nice for you, Emma. Next?
Second Small Boy: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
Teacher: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
Luke (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh!”
Not bad — I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.

A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.

“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”

“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”

“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”

“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, “How many insertions?” I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”

I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”

“Oh, come on, dear — they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.

That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still — you know, still doing it?”

“Yes, I did– yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”

This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”

More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number or remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”

This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse — we always thought it would be me — wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart — don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming at home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers — but not just for this surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden –/ Ah — the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor — you’ve had your turn — is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.

Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.

But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick” — a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”

This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone.

You may not like the jokes. But oh, is he ever right! Here’s one more little bit to leave off with:

In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”

Another message — also brief, also breathtaking — came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.

A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”

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RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.

ON CHARON’S WHARF

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[I recently met a woman who recommended I read a book called Broken Vessels, a collection of essays by Andre Dubus.  Dubus  — better known for his short stories — was raised a Catholic and continued in his faith as an adult. As I’m not Catholic, I hesitated. But this is a smart woman.  So I  took her advice.  

Well, there I was, plodding along, beginning to wonder why I’d listened to her — baseball essay, one about trains, another about bullies, a complaint about the justice system (tell me about it) — when suddenly I found myself in territory so gorgeous it took my breath away.  

I had to read it twice, and then some of it once more. It’s a piece called “On Charon’s Wharf”– and if it doesn’t move you, I’d better stop blogging and find something else to do.  I’ve chopped out a couple of pages about an Ingmar Bergman movie which I don’t think you’ll miss, but otherwise was afraid to tamper with it.  It’s about death, and love, and men and women.  Which means it’s about all of us.]

***

“On Charon’s Wharf” by Andre Dubus

Since we are all terminally ill, each breath and step and day one closer to the last, I must consider those sacraments which soothe our passage. I write on a Wednesday morning in December when snow covers the earth, the sky is grey, and only the evergreens seem alive. This morning I received the sacrament I still believe in: at seven-fifteen the priest elevated the host, then the chalice, and spoke the words of the ritual, and the bread became flesh, the wine became blood, and minutes later I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and of love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal.  This has nothing to do with immortality, with eternity; I love the earth too much to contemplate a life apart from it, although I believe in that life. No, this has to do with mortality and the touch of flesh, and my belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh, and that touch is the result of the monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch affirms all that and goes deeper: it affirms the mysteries of love and mortality….

So many of us fail: we divorce wives and husbands, we leave the roofs of our lovers, go once again into the lonely march, mustering our courage with work, friends, half-pleasures which are not whole because they are not shared.  Yet still I believe in love’s possibility, in its presence on the earth; as I believe I can approach the altar on any morning of any day which may be the last and receive the touch that does not, for me, say: There is no death; but does say: In this instant I recognize, with you, that you must die. And I believe I can do this in an ordinary kitchen with an ordinary woman and five eggs. I scramble them in a saucepan, as my now-dead friend taught me; they stand deeper and cook softer, he said. I take our plates, spoon eggs on them, we sit and eat. She and I in the kitchen have become extraordinary: we are not simply eating; we are pausing in the march to perform an act together; we are in love; and the meal offered and received is a sacrament which says: I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.

As lovers we must have these sacraments, these actions which restore our focus, and therefore ourselves. For our lives are hurried and much too distracted, and one of the strangest and most dangerous of all distractions is this lethargy of self we suffer from, this part of ourselves that does not want to get out of bed and once out of bed does not want to dress and once dressed does not want to prepare breakfast and once fed does not want to work. And what does it want? Perhaps it wants nothing at all. It is a mystery, a lovely one because it is human, but it is also dangerous. Some days it does not want to love, and we yield to it, we drop into an abyss whose walls echo with strange dialogues. These dialogues are with the beloved, and at their center is a repetition of the word I and sometimes you, but neither word now is uttered with a nimbus of blessing. These are the nights when we sit in that kitchen and talk too long and too much, so that the words multiply each other, and what they express — pain, doubt, anxiousness, dread — become emotions which are not rooted in our true (or better) selves, which exist apart from those two gentle people who shared eggs at this same table which now is soiled with ashes and glass-rings.

These nights can destroy us. With words we create genies which rise on the table between us, and fearfully we watch them hurt each other; they look like us, they sound like us, but they are not us, and we want to call them back, see them disappear like shriveling clouds back into our throats, down into our hearts where they can join our other selves and be forced again into their true size: a small I among many other I‘s. We try this with more words and too often the words are the wrong ones, the genies grow, and we are approaching those hours after midnight when lovers should never quarrel, for the night has its mystery too and will not be denied, it loves to distort the way we feel and if we let it, it will.  We say: But wait a minute … But you said … But I always thought that …Well how do you think I feel, who do you think you are anyway? Just who in the hell do you think you are?

There are no answers, at least not at that table. Each day she is several women, and I am several men. We must try to know each other, understand each other, and love each other as best we can. But we cannot know and understand all of each other. This is a time in our land when lovers talk to each other, and talk to counselors about each other, and talk to counselors in front of each other. We have to do this. Many of us grew up in homes whose table and living room conversations could have been recorded in the daily newspaper without embarrassing anyone, and now we want very much to explore each other, and to be explored. We are like children in peril, though, when we believe this exploring can be done with words alone, and that the exploring must always give answers, and that the exploring is love itself rather than a way to deepen it. For then we kill our hearts with talk, we place knowing and understanding higher than love, and failing at the first two, as we sometimes must, we believe we have failed at the third. Perhaps we have not. But when you believe you no longer love, you no longer do.

I need and want to give the intimacy we achieve with words. But words are complex: at times too powerful or fragile or simply wrong; and they are affected by a tone of voice, a gesture of a hand, a light in the eyes. And words are sometimes autonomous little demons who like to form their own parade and march away, leaving us behind. Once in a good counselor’s office I realized I was not telling the truth. She was asking me questions and I was trying to answer them, and I was indeed answering them. But I left out maybe, perhaps, I wonder. … Within minutes I was telling her about emotions I had not felt. But by then I was feeling what I was telling her, and that is the explosive nitroglycerin seeping through the hearts of lovers.

So what I want and want to give, more than the intimacy of words, is shared ritual, the sacraments. I believe that, without those, all our talking, no matter how enlightened, will finally drain us, divide us into two confused and frustrated people, then destroy us as lovers. We are of the flesh, and we must turn with faith toward that truth. We need the companion on the march, the arms and lips and body against the dark of the night. It is our flesh which lives in time and will die, and it is our love which comforts the flesh. Beneath all the words we must have this daily acknowledgement from the beloved, and we must give it too or pay the lonely price of not living fully in the world: that as lovers we live on Charon’s wharf, and he’s out there somewhere in that boat of his, and today he may row in to where we sit laughing, and reach out to grasp an ankle, hers or mine.

It would be madness to try to live so intensely as lovers that every word and every gesture between us was a sacrament, a pure sign that our love exists despite and perhaps even because of our mortality. But we can do what the priest does, with his morning consecration before entering the routine of his day; what the communicant does in that instant of touch, that quick song of the flesh, before he goes to work. We can bring our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn’t need words, an act which dramatizes for us what we are together. The act itself can be anything: five beaten and scrambled eggs, two glasses of wine, running beside each other in rhythm with the pace and breath of the beloved. They are all parts of that loveliest of all sacraments between man and woman, that passionate harmony of flesh whose breath and dance and murmur says: We are, we are, we are

1977.

TIM KREIDER AND HIS CAT

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Tim Kreider is a satirical cartoonist based in Baltimore, Maryland who gradually moved into writing essays. By now he may be mainly writing them, but that’s neither here nor there.  In August of this year, The New York Times published a Kreider piece on its Opinion Pages called “A Man and His Cat” that, as the co-owner of two cats, I thought so good I saved it to read again and again. No cat photo. No cat cartoon. Just Kreider words on the page.

Kreider is in his mid-forties and apparently, as he implies in his piece, divorced. Images on the web show him looking like what used to be my type, when I was young enough to have a type. But that’s also neither here nor there, and has not in any way influenced my opinion of “A Man and His Cat.” I had the opinion before I went hunting up the images. I acknowledge I am shirking my duties as a blogger by giving over a whole post to the words of another, words which have already appeared in print for an immeasurably larger audience than I could ever dream of reaching.  Call me lazy, or incredibly generous. I should probably also add that if you hate or even dislike cats, or are allergic to them, maybe you should leave now and come back tomorrow or the next day. The rest of you: here’s almost all of it.  Enjoy.

A Man and His Cat by Tim Kreider. August 1, 2014.

I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life.  Under common law, this cat was my wife. I fell asleep at night with the warm, pleasant weight of the cat on my chest. The first thing I saw on most mornings was the foreshortened paw of the cat retreating slowly from my face and her baleful crescent glare informing me that it was Cat Food Time….

The cat was jealous of my attention; she liked to sit on whatever I was reading, walked back and forth and back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen while I worked, and unsubtly interpolated herself between me and any woman I may have had over. She and my ex Kati Jo, who was temperamentally not dissimilar to the cat, instantly sized each other up as enemies. When I was physically intimate with a woman, the cat did not discreetly absent herself but sat on the edge of the bed with her back to me, facing rather pointedly away from the scene of debauch, quietly exuding disapproval, like your grandmother’s ghost.

I realize that people who talk at length about their pets are tedious at best, and often pitiful or repulsive. They post photos of their pets online, tell little stories about them, speak to them in disturbing falsettos, dress them in elaborate costumes and carry them around in handbags and Baby Bjorns, have professional portraits taken of them and retouched to look like old master oil paintings.  When people over the age of 10 invite you to a cat birthday party or a funeral for a dog, you need to execute a very deft etiquette maneuver, the equivalent of an Immelmann turn or triple axel, in order to decline without acknowledging that they are, in this area, insane.

This is especially true of childless people, like me, who tend to become emotionally overinvested in their animals and to dote on them in a way that gives onlookers the creeps. Often the pet seems to be a surrogate child, a desperate focus or joint project for a relationship that’s lost any other raison d’être…. When such couples finally have a child their cats or dogs are often bewildered to find themselves unceremoniously demoted to the status of pet; instead of licking the dinner plates clean and piling into bed with Mommy and Daddy, they’re given bowls of actual dog food and tied to a metal stake in a circle of dirt.

I looked up how much Americans spend on pets annually and have concluded that you do not want to know. I could tell you what I spent on my own cat’s special kidney health cat food and kidney and thyroid medication, and periodic blood tests that cost $300 and always came back normal, but I never calculated my own annual spending, lest I be forced to confront some uncomfortable facts about me. What our mass spending on products to pamper animals who seem happiest while rolling in feces or eating the guts out of rodents — who don’t, in fact, seem significantly less happy if they lose half their limbs — tells us about ourselves as a nation is probably also something we don’t want to know. But it occurs to me that it may be symptomatic of the same chronic deprivation as are the billion-dollar industries in romance novels and porn.

I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant. Konrad Lorenz confirms this suspicion in his book “On Aggression,” in which he describes how, in the absence of the appropriate triggering stimulus for an instinct, the threshold of stimulus for that instinct is gradually lowered; for instance, a male dove deprived of female doves will attempt to initiate mating with a stuffed pigeon, a rolled-up cloth or any vaguely bird-shaped object, and, eventually, with an empty corner of its cage.

Although I can clearly see this syndrome as pathological in others, I was its medical textbook illustration, the Elephant Man of the condition. I did not post photographs of my cat online or talk about her to people who couldn’t be expected to care, but at home, alone with the cat, I behaved like some sort of deranged arch-fop…..There was a litany I recited aloud to her every morning, a sort of daily exhortation that began, “Who knows, Miss Cat, what fantastical adventures the two of us will have today? I had a song I sang to her when I was about to vacuum, a brassy Vegas showstopper called “That Thing You Hate (Is Happening Again). We collaborated on my foot-pedal pump organ to produce The Hideous Cat Music, in which she walked back and forth at her discretion on the keyboard while I worked the pedals. The Hideous Cat Music resembled the work of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, with aleatory passages and unnervingly sustained tone clusters.

I never meant to become this person. My own cat turned up as a stray at my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay when I was sitting out on the deck eating leftover crabs. She was only a couple of months old then….She appeared from underneath the porch, piteously mewling, and I gave her some cold white crab meat. I did not know then that feeding a stray cat is effectively adopting that cat.

For a few weeks I was in denial about having a cat. My life at that time was not structured to accommodate the responsibility of returning home once every 24 hours to feed an animal. I posted fliers in the post office and grocery store with a drawing of the cat, hoping its owner would reclaim it. It seems significant in retrospect that I never entertained the possibility of taking the cat to the pound.

When I left for a long weekend for a wedding in another state, my friend Gabe explained to me that the cat clearly belonged to me now. I protested. This was a strictly temporary situation until I could locate a new home for the cat, I explained. I was not going to turn into some Cat Guy.

“How would you feel,” he asked me, “if you were to get home from this weekend and the cat was gone?”

I moaned and writhed in the passenger seat.

“You’re Cat Guy,” he said in disgust.

It’s amusing now to remember the strict limits I’d originally intended to place on the cat. One of the boundaries I meant to set was that the cat would not be allowed upstairs, where I slept. That edict was short-lived. It was not long before I became wounded when the cat declined to sleep with me.

“You’re in love with that cat!” my then-girlfriend Margot once accused me. To be fair, she was a very attractive cat. People would comment on it. My friend Ken described her as “a supermodel cat,” with green eyes dramatically outlined in what he called “cat mascara” and bright pink “nose leather.” Her fur, even at age 19, was rich and soft and pleasant to touch.

Biologists call cats “exploitative captives,” an evocative phrase that might be used to describe a lot of relationships, not all of them interspecies. I made the mistake, early on, of feeding the cat first thing in the morning, forgetting that the cat could control when I woke up — by meowing politely, sitting on my chest and staring at me, nudging me insistently with her face, or placing a single claw on my lip. She refused to drink water from a bowl, coveting what she believed was the superior-quality water I drank from a glass. I attempted to demonstrate to the cat that the water we drank was the very same water by pouring it from my glass into her bowl right in front of her, but she was utterly unmoved, like a birther being shown Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. In the end I gave in and began serving her water in a glass tumbler, which she had to stick her whole face into to drink from.

Sometimes it would strike me that an animal was living in my house, and it seemed as surreal as if I had a raccoon or a kinkajou running loose in my house. Yet that animal and I learned, on some level, to understand each other. Although I loved to bury my nose in her fur when she came in from a winter day and inhale deeply of the Coldcat Smell, the cat did not like this one bit, and fled.  For awhile I would chase her around the house, yelling, “Gimme a little whiff!” and she would hide behind the couch from my hateful touch. Eventually I realized that this was wrong of me. I would instead let her in and pretend to have no interest whatsoever in smelling her, and, after not more than a minute or so the cat would approach me and deign to be smelled. I should really be no less impressed by this accord than if I’d successfully communicated with a Papuan tribesman, or decoded a message from the stars.

Whenever I felt embarrassed about factoring a house pet’s desires into major life decisions, some grown-up-sounding part of me told myself, it’s just a cat. It’s generally believed that animals lack what we call consciousness, although we can’t quite agree on what exactly this is, and how we can pretend to any certainty about what goes on in an animal’s head has never been made clear to me. To anyone who has spent time with an animal, the notion that they have no interior lives seems so counterintuitive, such an obdurate denial of the empathetically self-evident, as to be almost psychotic. I suspect that some of those same psychological mechanisms must have allowed people to rationalize owning other people.

Another part of me, perhaps more sentimental but also more truthful, had to acknowledge that the cat was undeniably another being in the world, experiencing her one chance at being alive, as I was…. [I]t was funny — and funny often means disquieting and true — to remind myself that there really was another ego in the room with me, with her own likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies and exasperatingly wrongheaded notions about whose water is better….

I admit that loving a cat is a lot less complicated than loving a human being. Because animals can’t ruin our fantasies about them by talking, they’re even more helplessly susceptible to our projections than other humans. Though of course there’s a good deal of naked projection and self-delusion involved in loving other human beings, too.

I once read in a book about feng shui that keeping a pet can maintain the chi of your house or apartment when you’re not there; the very presence of an animal enlivens and charges the space. Although I suspect feng shui is high-end hooey, I learned when my cat was temporarily put up elsewhere that a house without a cat in it feels very different from a house with one. It feels truly empty, dead. Those moments gave me some foreboding of how my life would feel after she was gone.

We don’t know what goes on inside an animal’s head; we may doubt whether they have anything we’d call consciousness, and we can’t know how much they understand or what their emotions feel like. I will never know what, if anything, the cat thought of me. But I can tell you this: A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.

Tim Kreider’s first book of essays is called “We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons.” It went on my new Kindle after I finished my second reading about his cat. If you haven’t got a Kindle, it’s also available in paperback.  Just saying….