I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
My cat has an unnervingly expressive face. When I first saw him on a rescue site late last winter, I texted my sister his picture; she said he looked like he would steal the hair tie right off your wrist — a favorite heist of his, as it happens. Porkchop is a rambunctious and stubborn polydactyl boy. For a first-time cat-owner, his adoption agency cautioned, an independent, laid-back companion would likely make more sense than this monster baby who delights in biting the hand that feeds him.
But his thumbs really floored me, so here we are.
I understand that Porkchop loves me, insofar as he loves food and I provide that for him; I also understand that if I died in my apartment, he would not wait more than two hours past dinner time before making Fancy Feast of my face. That’s about the extent of my certainty about Porkchop’s interior life, and before becoming his keeper, it would have been enough. Now, though, I live with a small furry puzzle literally screaming to be solved. I do my best, triangulating tail-movement charts to parse whether he feels pissed off or playful. I bombard Google with questions it couldn’t possibly answer: Why is my cat attacking his own feet? Is my cat happy? What does my cat want?
I scoop him up, a silky ball of squalling claws, and put on my most soothing baritone. I rock him slowly side to side, bouncing him gently as if he were an infant, and whisper into his enormous sonar ears, “It’s time for cat massage.” To my continual chagrin, he does not melt into a catatonic fuzz puddle. It’s not the way I’ve been made to understand this maneuver should go. Ten years ago, you see, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, a now-classic viral video colonized my brain. It asks an important question — So Your Cat Wants a Massage? — one that has haunted me for a full decade now.
Cat Massage opens on a blonde woman with a crisp pixie cut and a jungle-print power suit. She cradles an accommodating gray shorthair in her arms: He is called Champion, and he is allegedly the best cat in the United States. Or so she tells him, grinning toothily into his impassive face as she informs him the time has come, he must be massaged. Please, give it a whirl:
Some things I think about when I think about Cat Massage: What purpose does the stuffed tiger serve? Was Champion drugged, and what self-respecting cat lets a human haul it up by the armpits for an extended pectoral scratch? Who even is this lady?
I will never know the answers to most of these questions, but I do know this: Our host is Maryjean Ballner, a licensed massage therapist and the mother of Cat Massage. Ballner once told David Letterman that she conceptualized her method while taming an “unsocialized, feral cat … consciously and unconsciously” applying the principles of human massage to its tiny feline body. In 1997, Ballner put out a DVD tutorial, from which some beautiful genius later sourced the above montage. Until a year ago, I would have appreciated it for the comedic value inherent in a stream of unintentional innuendo: I will never be mature enough to not snicker at someone placidly instructing me to start at the base of the rump and rub my way out to the natural conclusion, nor can I adequately explain how satisfying it is to tell a partner who’s just woken up in a pool of your saliva that drool is a very expressive and highly unconscious form of approval, one you cannot fool. If you had suggested to me, in 2009, that these non sequiturs might be improved by context, I would have removed a shoe from my foot and thrown it at you.
Now, though, it’s the assumption Cat Massage makes about the viewer that really gets me. The first line drops you into a lake of established fact: So your cat wants a massage! Well, of course it does, all cats do, and now you must scramble after solutions to appease your curmudgeonly beast.
If you shelled out $19.99 to send away for this DVD in the Netscape era, you already had a hunch about your cat’s unsatisfied desires. But that premise, and Ballner’s answer to it — subjecting a wild, reclusive animal to a pleasurable-for-people experience — epitomizes the human tendency toward emotional projection, especially onto pets. It rises to the pinnacle of cat-owners’ futile struggle to quash what they perceive as Teflon indifference. I am not immune to this: I lumber after my inscrutable feline ward like a crazed giant, arms outstretched and fingers kneading; I wrestle him into my lap for contact he doesn’t want. I try to pry allegiance from his wily heart, to force love, even as he squirms away.
That says a lot about life and about Cat Massage.