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A Cosmology of Cats (Or, An Informal History of Living Rooms)

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First, in a house, there is always a living room.

As a kid, it wasn’t the space you’d find me. Most likely, I was beneath the large quince and forsythia bushes in the backyard, hiding out with the cats in a living room I’d framed using the natural space, shaded in by my vivid imagination, adding walls, a plush rug, velvet pillows, and stained glass windows throughout. It was a world where just the cats and I could live and love— an idyllic, fantasy, and perhaps a science-fiction world without adults, power bills or television sets, where the sound of purr-purr-purr was only interrupted by the silent stalking of songbirds.

But back to real living rooms. I admit that I’m not sure I have one. By definition, it’s the formal living space with the big “L” where families put holiday trees with matching light strands and decorations— the ones you’re not supposed to touch. Officially termed: the Formal Living Room (FLR), the monochromatic room for the monochromatic tree, both accented in tasteful gold or silver (but never both.) The holiday tree could be fake or real (but the room is always real) and the point is that it won’t have real presents under it—or God forbid a child’s handmade ornament. This is a room and a holiday for display purposes only.

Kids are not allowed in the FLR, nor are dogs, unruly houseguests, or anyone with a colorful beverage. And definitely not cats, because cats climb pristine holiday trees and curtains, and leave traces of their coats and paw prints as evidence on the expensive silk pillows in hues that certainly don’t correspond with the “mood.”

The FLR is a room in which all the furniture matches, the art matches, and the expensive rug matches in a color palette that someone studied and assembled like a delicate jigsaw puzzle.

Some readers, no doubt, roll their eyes at all that. That’s my whole house, they’d say.

Well, thank you, IKEA fangirl. In any case, this wasn’t the reality I grew up with—we didn’t ever have an FLR until we were forced to furnish one in a house located in an expensive suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. But, that wasn’t technically an FLR. It was… a living room, at best. A sitting room, perhaps. It was in the right place for an FLR, but we aren’t the kind of people to cultivate—to say nothing about maintaining— a room like that.

 In our house, nothing matched. We only ever had one holiday tree and that one had multi-colored lights and all the ornaments my sister and I made through the years of elementary school, complete with visible glue and our own toothless grins. And bubble-lights. Remember bubble-lights?

Yet, this is where I began my study of living rooms— the room where living happens, and what that living is comprised of.

This is a study of the origin, development, structure, history, and future of the FLR.

The study begins with a memory.

I was twelve and enrolled in the middle school of an upscale bedroom community of Salt Lake City when a classmate invited me to her house for a homework assignment that involved filming commercials we had scripted for our assigned product: “Freeze-Dried Corn.” (Obviously, this was before they implemented STEM education in middle schools, and how this qualified as an assignment for a “Technical Education” class is still beyond me. Maybe they had meant to say “technically education?”)

I put my heart and soul into the design of the package meant to persuade seemingly mentally sound people to buy “Freeze-Dried Corn.” My information-based marketing scheme taught consumers about the importance of maintaining their physical health while managing a healthy budget. Here was a product that could serve as both cornflakes and tater-tots, substituting all required complex carbohydrates for the daily recommended allowances that had a shelf life longer than Twinkies and the versatility of cardboard for a fraction of the price.

I don’t remember my taglines, but one of them might have been “It’s much better than eating your babies!” Because I read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal that year and thought it was hysterical.

My classmate was adopted, something she told me when she opened her front door to let me in, and it’s a detail I remember not only because she was the first adoptee I’d met, but because I’d never heard anyone so clearly state what did and what did not belong in her own family. Or that, at age 12, she had the power to what living was, and what it was not.

Her flatline delivery of “These aren’t really my parents” contrasted with the pristine, beautiful and  unlived-in FLR, the Christmas tree you couldn’t touch but only stare at, which was nothing like the other Christmas tree in the family room that had presents underneath it that she would unwrap on December 25.

“We bring those other pre-wrapped gift boxes out every year,” she told me as she set the camera on a tripod on the kitchen counter and I held my handmade and empty box of Freeze-Dried Corn. “They’re fake.”

 The origins of the FLR . Or, its absence.

As an adult, I live in a house that was built in 1915 with one adult companion, three cats, and a big white dog. The house doesn’t have a real closet, and has only one bathroom. What could have been considered the FLR was added in the 1930s and was once used as just another bedroom. Even though I feel a distinct sense of age and therefore stately prestige from the house having been around this long—reasons why I bought it in the first place— I still don’t think I have a FLR like the one I remember from middle school, or what I think that means to most people. But then again, my definitions of the “F” (if “F” were both “family” and “formal”)  part of the FLR are ones that I have made up, based on what I can remember of my own ancient history.

Instead, in the front room of my house where I live, I have a big wide desk where I write. The desk is positioned next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the Sierra Nevada framed by the ancient cottonwood trees in the front yard. There’s a white shag rug the dog loves to lay on, and a chaise from World Market where I sit in the pre-dawn mornings and write my morning pages. A MauPets cat tower in pine and white fluff that I bought for my delicate female orange tabby and that has been appropriated by her little rascal brother, a gray-striped kitten with giant paws. The rest of the room is lined with books I’ve read and collected since I was in college, and collage and watercolor artwork I have done are on the walls.

By all accounts, it’s a beautiful, eclectic space. To me, this is a “living room” because it is where I do my best living: writing with my cats and my dog. But in what I know of the cultural understanding of this particular cosmology, this isn’t a living room. At best, this is an opulent home office.

The development of a possible FLR. Case study: early memories, structure and history.

What were the living rooms I grew up in?

I close my eyes and try to remember the sounds of Back to the Future, the original, because we would have watched that in our “living room” in a house not far from Reno’s only airport when my mom and I moved in with the man she would make a decades-long mistake with and marry.  That was a room in which the sound of Marty McFly and Doc stressing over a flux capacitor in that gorgeous airborne silver DeLorean happened, and afterward, I made my mom take me to the automobile museum downtown to see a DeLorean just like it, covered in plated 24-carat gold.

It was a room that witnessed the lingering smell of Roundtable “supreme” pizza with the cheese melted into the cardboard delivery box and the fizzy-sweet freshly opened and poured can of Coke into a tall iced tumbler— the Friday movie night splurge we didn’t often indulge in. And when I think about all that, I can see the potting soil-brown carpet of the living room of the house we lived in when I was six and seven. The off-white walls and cinderblock fireplace we never used because it was sooty and made a black mess on the blocks, walls, and carpet.

I can see the blue floral couch. The big wide circle of a cherrywood coffee table rested low to the ground. And the big box TV, not big at all by today’s standards, but this was eons before flatscreens, so the TV took up considerable floorspace because it was as deep as it was wide.  That large cube TV was just like one in the middle of every living room in America, back when we collectively watched television as a family, back when we had families that spent the prime time hours together.

The house we lived in was built with a floorplan of an endless circle: you entered through the front door and after a brief landing, you walked into the living room that faded left into the dining room that faded left into the kitchen that faded left into the family room and then as if by magic you were back where you started in the living room again.

Somehow, I remember one afternoon when I was left all alone in that house. I spent those hours with a string held in one hand playing with the cat on an endless loop of chase through all the major rooms in the house, laughing until the laughing made my stomach muscles cramp, and I collapsed onto the dirt-colored carpet.  That was my happiest memory. In not just one room, but in a physical impossibility —in all of them. Me playing with a cat, even though I cannot say how this was possible, since our cats were never allowed indoors under my stepfather’s firm penalty of death[1].

Their lives were at stake if they were ever caught inside, and so once again, I wonder. When, in my first six years of life, did I develop this rare capacity to love so deeply that I can also be brave and defiant?

Another case study of the absence of the FLR in the narrator’s past or present.

The couch, coffee table and the TV: they went hand-in-hand with how I remember living in that informal living room.  The couch where my stepfather sat for the majority of his hours at home, watching prime-time sitcoms, or movies that we brought home from the rental spot in the strip mall down the road. That’s where I’d find him after I put away my books and my homework so he couldn’t ruin them, and after I carried his bags inside from his truck when he got home from work or another snowmobiling trip.

After I’d unpacked his bags, putting his dirty clothes and socks in the washing machine, I would find him on that floral couch where he would roll up the pant leg on his left leg, exposing a wide and pink scaly patch of psoriasis on the front of his calf that he would command me to rub lotion into because it itched, and that he had scratched, so it bled lazily around the edges of skin that peeled off in cornflake-sized pieces.

I was only six or seven when I did this, but that’s when I learned there’s never an age when skin conditions like that aren’t absolutely disgusting—especially when they aren’t yours and you have to touch them. At the time I compared his leg to what a scaly dinosaur might have felt like (and smelled like, too— like moldy Wonder bread left out too long in the rain); today, it reminds me of descriptions of Henry IIX’s injured leg, the one that filled with pus and that was eventually amputated. He was the English monarch known for murdering his wives and marrying new ones.

That was where we watched TV as we ate dinner. My mom carried the pots and pans from the kitchen to sit on potholders in the middle of the table, so the meat, starch and salad could be reached by us all.  And me, setting the plates down on colorful placemats around that little coffee table with the fork on the left side and the paper napkin beneath it, and the butter knife and spoon on the right. The table was too low for chairs, so my mom and I sat on the floor. My stepfather, however, would wait until we were seated and then schooch the table right up to his shins as he sat on the couch. He always waited until after Mom and I sat down, so we were obliged to “keep up” if we wanted to be near our plates. Implying, I thought, that he would eat all the dinner without us.

The remotes—all three of them, one for the TV, one for the stereo and one for the VHS player—were balanced on the upholstered arm of that floral couch, well within range for him (never my mom or I) to change the channel when a commercial came on or to adjust the volume because commercials always played louder, or to turn the TV off if things got too naked or violent, which is saying something because when I watch shows that aired in the 1980s and 1990s now, they seem impossibly tame.  Even so, his preferences tended to favor action movies, the more explosions the better. That is how I saw all the Die Hard movies and others like them when impossibly everything in the world will violently explode if prompted.

All of this makes me realize that we were a different kind of people then: with large, centralized TVs and phone lines hardwired to the wall, the big couch for everybody, and a million other details that basically served as communal amenities that were meant to be shared, not hoarded or hidden.  Even that coffee table, where we sat on the floor and ate, watching the latest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (my favorite) or MASH. When The Simpsons first aired in 1989, it was immediately forbidden. I would have been seven years old, and attracted to it only because it was animated, not because it offered ways in which I could rebel against the adults around me. Even if that’s what I craved—which I didn’t— there were no exits to the particular hell of psoriasis, a solid regimen of chores and isolation (the cats had to live outside) I knew back then.  Nor did I want there to be. Family was flawed, but my God it was family: together until the credits rolled across the screen. And then you walked yourself to bed to do it over again the next day.

Is it any wonder that my house now is nothing like the houses I grew up in?  The only reason I have a TV is because my dad and stepmom told me I can’t work as a communications professional who basically performs the same functions as a PR firm if I don’t have a solid pipeline to the local TV news stations. I argued with them that I have a computer and I can watch everything online. Given the fact that I have a dormant TV in the main room of my house now for the first time since my childhood—not the room that serves as my office—you can guess how that argument ended.

I also don’t have a couch. Not like the kind we had back in the 1980s and 1990s. I think some families still have them. The kind that are ugly as sin, but actually comfortable to sit on. That you could really sink into, that was colored gray or beige or another disgusting color that you could spill whatever on and not notice.

The last couch I owned, three years ago, was sawed into quarters with a gas-powered chainsaw when my domestic companion and I moved from a small house in the suburbs to a smaller, more ancient house in the country. We didn’t have room for the couch my cats had turned into their personalized scratching post. Plus, at the time we didn’t have a TV, so why have a couch? It’s like having hot dog buns with no wieners. It made absolutely no sense.

The Sonic Landscape of the FLR.

In the living rooms of my memory, we also always had a stereo cabinet with a five-disc CD changer and amp that attached to ridiculously and unnecessarily large speakers. The stereo cabinet was wooden, but the doors were solid glass and you had to push them in to release the magnetic clasp so they could swing out. (Tricky!) Sometimes we hooked up the TV to the amp, so the sounds of the rented VHS pushed through the large speakers and we told ourselves it was like going to the movies—something we couldn’t afford to do often as a family— even though it wasn’t.

On Saturdays, when my mom made a point to clean the entire house—disinfect might be a better word—she’d select five CDs from our collection to serve as the multi-hour soundtrack. Sometimes it was a Yanni-Kenni Rogers-Enya kind of day. Inspirational and light. Other times,  it was Journey, Gloria Estefan and George Winston. Then you knew you were fucked.

Even though I love music—certain kinds of it anyway, typically played on repeat because I’m one of those kinds of people—I don’t have a stereo cabinet. I lost my turntable years ago when an ex-boyfriend took it back, and my evenings spent to the dusty soundtrack of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks  and the song that repeats and to love the love that loves the love to love to love fade into the dusky sunlight that filtered through the antique windows of my flat in my mid-thirties. Sure, there’s iTunes, but it’s not the same thing.

Anyway- what I longed for in my childhood living room, which was hardly ever there save for one distant memory of an afternoon with a cat who loved me, was something that could never be there and if a cat was, then so was fear and violence and pain. It was the kind of impossible happiness that made me run outside and cry when I was six and seven and eight and ten and twelve and thirteen, and fifteen and maybe even after that, when he struck me again and again with a wooden spoon for the millions of ways I had failed until the spoon shattered into a million splintered shards and whatever heart I had did the same thing.

 The Future of the FLR: What the Future Could Bring

 The origins of FLRs may come from convention, but I have come to believe that they are swiftly speeding toward the unconventional. It is a known physical law: that of the tendency of everything to decay over time. As the universe drifts farther and farther apart as more time passes since the Big Bang, so, too, do we as people. The FLR becomes just an LR and then a lonely R, one of many, that belong to one person, and then, perhaps, to no one at all.

And yet, The FLR— they exist, still, I’m sure. One exists in my memory. At a housewarming party in 2017, I saw one for a new Vice President who had just been hired at a company I worked for, then. I recognized the monochrome on monochrome of the room as his Russian wife passed around cheese and crackers on a silver plate. It was not a space in which I could feel comfortable. Neither, though, are the memories of my former living spaces where I always felt on the outside even though I was, literally, on the inside of every house my family owned.

The Internet, they say, was built for cats.  A lifeline, pulling us out of the territory of smart-device-dom and back into the land of the living. Cats, who position their bodies between you and the screen. Cats who lay on your keyboards. Cats who purr. Cats who need you to pet them with both hands s’il vous plaît,. Or no. Just your eyes.

The cats in my opulent home office where I write these words, a bridge between the reality of an FLR and mine. How they are not so different and yet, the same. I may not have ever created a product called Freeze Dried Corn, but there have been mornings as a grown and middle-aged adult when I’ve been known to drag a string behind me as I run from room to room with a cat in pursuit. It still makes me laugh, and at a certain point I’m in a time machine, taken back, back, back to that one happy moment from my childhood and it’s like being tickled, it’s like the most beautiful room I’ve ever seen adorned in gold and silver and starlight, fluff and love and softness. The secret of life: my cats and I. I collapse—and live—because of the absolute joy of it.

[1]Another memory nearly ten years later: my sister, aged 8, in hysterics because a cat is inside when she walks through the front door after school. I let the cat in so he could lay in the sunshine on the warm rug by the sliding glass door. The cat loved it, and what my stepfather didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, I reasoned. But once my sister sees the cat  snoring on the rug, she cannot breathe, she cannot speak, she only sobs again and again and again with disconnected words strung together by snot and tears: dad’s going to kill the cat dad’s going to kill the cat dad’s going to kill the cat. I try to calm her down. But, when her dad comes home hours earlier than usual, I step between him and the small creature, terrified but wearing my best rendition of a shield, daring him to lunge at me. It is the most terrifying moment of  my life, and even though I am tired of these drawn-out fights, tired of fearing the pain he’ll inflict on me, tired, even, of having to choose between love and obedience, there I am. Tired of living with him, I guess.