Friday Takeaway: Naomi Shulman

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Dog or cat? Coffee or tea? Mac or PC? Yankees or Red Sox? You realize we’re talking essential nature here, even if in annoyingly binary terms. You also understand what I’m getting at in the larger sense. Dog people are outgoing and affable, while cat people are shyer and — let’s face it — a tad neurotic. You know it. I know it. 

So imagine how I felt when I realized that I, a lifelong dog person (and dog owner), found myself in love with a cat. It felt like I was undergoing a religious conversion. What did it mean?

Backing up a little: When my little white bichon frisé, Sully, died some years ago, a piece of my heart died with her. My friends hugged me and said, “You need another dog.” But I didn’t want another dog — I wanted my dog. Still, our house felt so empty. What about … a cat? I knew I could never love a cat the way I loved Sully, but I wasn’t ready for another heavy relationship, anyway. So off we went to pick up Smokey, who was Sully’s opposite in every respect — cat to her dog, yes, but also black to her white, and boy to her girl. This kitten was basically a non-compete contract honoring Sully’s memory. And, as I told everyone, Smokey wasn’t going to be my pet. He was really for the kids. 

Smokey fit into our household quickly and easily. But he played by cat rules. He didn’t come when called. Snuggle time happened on his schedule … or not at all. When the girls threw a toy for him to fetch, Smokey responded cattily: What is this “fetch” of which you speak? 

Slowly but surely, we began adapting to cat culture. We stopped throwing toys. I stopped calling him with a whistle and patting my lap. Instead, I started appreciating his quiet, watchful disposition, and happily accepted his loving head butts when he deigned to offer them. The first time I said aloud how much I loved Smokey, I surprised myself. But once it slipped out, it had the ring of truth. 

Something else happened, too. I began noticing how my friends’ dogs demanded my attention so doggedly (if you will). Couldn’t they give me a little personal space? Other people’s cats were now far more intriguing. I’d never realized what distinct personalities kitties have; previously, they’d all blended together under the blanket heading of cat. Now it was clear that their quirks were deep, varied — and fascinating. 

I had crossed over. What did it mean that I could hand my heart over to the other side so easily? I searched for answers, and surprisingly, I found some. Psychology professor Sam Gosling of the University of Texas, Austin, led a study examining the personality traits associated with being a self-described “dog” or “cat” person. The benchmarks they used were what shrinks call the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The study backed up what we already know: Dog people are more extroverted and agreeable, just like dogs. Cat people are, yes, more neurotic. But! The study found something else: Cat people are also more open.

“Open” may seem a little vague, but in psychological terms, it’s defined as being receptive to new experiences. The hallmarks of openness are goodies: active imagination, strong aesthetic sense, sensitivity to feelings, appreciation for variety and intellectual curiosity. Doesn’t that sound like a cat to you? This I liked: Cat people think. Once I started examining this more deeply, I realized there were other feline traits that I have adopted in the past few years. I’m more discriminating about the people I let into my inner circle these days, but once they’re in, they’re all in. It’s far easier for me to say “no” now than it was 18 years ago (when I first adopted Sully), but I say “yes” to the right things more consistently. I don’t dive into risks right away — I observe first — but taking that moment to assess has rarely steered me wrong. When it comes right down to it, I’m far more open than I used to be to new ideas that I might have found threatening, once upon a time.  

I no longer resist the cat-person label. I embrace it. (I even adopted a second cat, a little gray girl we call Trashy.) Rather than imagining myself as having switched allegiances, I feel I have developed and expanded. And anyway, more love equals more love. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean out the litter box.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her @naomishulman.