Ok, I know this is descending into schmaltz (and I have been rather schmaltzy lately on my topic of home and domesticity), but I assure you there’s some serious thinking here, particularly towards the end. After much deliberation, I am convinced that Home is quite literally The Cat (or The Dog, if you have one – and every other New Yorker seems to).
It all began with the interviews I did during my Thesis Therapy Tour, when not a few of my interviewees actually rather explicitly and sentimentally described how their lives and homes changed after the acquisition of a DOG or CAT. Here are some sound bites:
Me: Ok, my last question is: if there was a particular image, or phrase, or thing, that could describe what home means to you, what would it be? A in Paris: For me it’s J (my wife) and B (my dog).
R (& T) in London: Ideally I would like a slightly bigger apartment. T: With a bigger kitchen and spare bedroom. R: Also a garden or a terrace, with plants. T: An outside area where we can have barbecues. R: And so that we can also get a cat. Me: Pets? R: No, not pets. Just one pet. A cat.
J in Shanghai: And somehow or other, this little chap, T, came into my life too, so now my puppy is also part of my home; what constitutes home.
I got thinking about why a pet so was so important to a good half of my interviewees.
At one level, the dog or cat is simply a companion, a way to make Home more “homely” – so to speak – particularly for those who are single, or for home-makers (like myself). The pet becomes a kind of totem or guardian spirit – 家神, reassuring you that your Home still exists even when you’re not in it, and welcoming you Home with a wag or a meow when you return from a long day at the office.
At another more existential level, getting a pet is a sign that one is a step closer to settling down. A pet is kind of an experiment in a different sort of lifestyle that is less “life”-oriented – going out, partying, dinners, people – and more “home”-based and family-centred, with family being the Wife / Partner and/or the Dog/Cat. I mean, you can’t party all night cos the cat or dog needs to be fed and walked, right?
Finally, the pet is also part of the fabric and personality of Home itself. Let me explain what I mean with a final extract from an interview I did with J at (our) Home in Brooklyn:
J in New York: I’m very very sensitive to space and how things are; how place is; how its proportioned; how it’s laid out and so partly because of this, I’m not feeling the place I’m in right now feels like home. And I feel like, network or no network, its gonna be hard for me to come to a point where I feel like this physical location, this physical space that I’m in is gonna be home. I feel I need another move. (Sound of cat scratching a footstool vigorously.) Not country, but another move within New York to a different apartment before I really feel comfortable. (Cat stops scratching the footstool).
In the middle of the interview, our cat leaps onto an upholstered footstool, and starts vigorously scratching at it as though it were a scratching pole. What ensues is a rich and evocative sound (for lack of a better word) that struck me, while I was transcribing the interview, as an indication of how homes resonate with a life of their own – how they have a voice: the rhythmic, low frequency strumming of claw against fabric; how they have a texture: the rough, red upholstery, the soft, white fur and the hard enamel of nails evoked by the sound; and how they have a use (and a value) that was completely independent of humans (in that Home is not defined in relation to humans alone, it could also be defined in relation to pets; how the cat experiences, uses or conceives of our living space is completely different than how WE would experience, use and conceive of it!)
In addition, while the scratching sound was captured in my recording, what could not be captured was the bemused and affectionate look J and I had on our faces while we continued talking, and the sudden change in J’s tone of voice. While J was ostensibly talking about how uncomfortable he was in his current New York apartment, outwardly he became more relaxed and comfortable, sinking into his sofa with an inadvertent smile on his face, once the cat started clawing away at his expensive custom-upholstered footstool.
Home, it appears, is an extension of the cat. Let me revise that. It might as well be the cat, since only through the cat is one able to appreciate the presence of home, both in terms of being aware of the home’s independent materiality; as well as being more appreciative of the more warm, fuzzy, “homely” aspects of the living space, like the sofa, cushions – and I am being disingenuous here – the cat (or dog).