Pink Brains

April 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

My cat is a complete wuss. My niece, Ramona, came to visit yesterday and he hid in the closet. I opened a can of food for him and he crept out—but as soon as he saw the back of her head on the couch, he fled back to the safety of my dirty laundry and old shoes. Ramona’s a strong young woman but she has a kindly nature and wasn’t even wearing her signature belt of cat skulls.

I named him Fitzroy, after the bastard son of Henry VIII, because he’s my 8th cat (Herman’s Hermits, anyone?), and because, in the vampire series Blood Ties, by Tanya Huff, Fitzroy is the name of the vampire romance writer who happens, in fact, to be King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. It was a picture of his teeth that inspired that, but now I’m thinking more of the romance writer part of the character. My Fitz hasn’t shown much talent or discipline. But he certainly likes to be romanced.

Sometimes I call him other things. Today it’s Pink Brains. This was inspired partly by a Frederick Seidel poem*, and partly by the Glass Cat in the Oz series. When Dorothy first meets the Glass Cat, she says:

Dear me, I hadn’t noticed you before. Are you glass, or what?”

“I’m glass, and transparent, too, which is more than can be said of some folks,” answered the cat. “Also I have some lovely pink brains; you can see ’em work.”**

I’ve seen Fitz’s brains work. He’s patiently destroying my windowscreen inch by inch so he can have the pleasure of plunging to his death. He waits by mouse holes, and grows frustrated when they remain indoors. He sniffs them beneath the refrigerator and since he can’t fit under there he tries to find a way in through the fridge. Yes, I too mistook his intent for a while. But it became clear to me after he’d refused every kind of meat and dairy I have, when he seemed too interested in pushing down through the leeks and apples, looking for a trapdoor.

I don’t spoil him, letting him in the fridge. I observe.

But there is hope—

“Iain McGregor and colleagues from the University of Sydney, Australia, found that rats would stop reacting to the smell of a cat that they had been exposed to repeatedly. Yet when they sniffed a new cat, the rats bolted back into their burrows and became extra vigilant. Dissecting the rats’ brains showed that the part that responds to cat pheromones became less active the more familiar they became with each cat. However, the brains of rats presented with the odour of a new cat became more active, confirming that the rodents reacted differently to the smells of individual cats” —New Scientist, 24 September 2008

The rats learned the risks of each feline one by one. So maybe the mice will start experimenting soon. See if they can get past Pink Brains. I hope not. If they run rings around him, I’ll have to get out the mousetraps again and Mouse-Loser will spend his nights in a cage, gnashing his teeth, while I hope to remember to disarm the traps every morning. How likely is that? 

On the way to finding the article about rats and cats, I found this one, in an earlier issue of New Scientist (July 27, 2007)

Oscar, a stray kitten adopted by staff members at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence about two years ago, lives in the home’s end-stage dementia unit.

I thought this was an end-stage dementia home for cats, but apparently not.

But unlike the unit’s other resident cat, Oscar is not particularly affectionate. “The truth of the matter is, this cat is extremely unfriendly for the most part,” says Dosa. “He shows very little interest unless you bribe him. The only time he seems to become friendly, or the only time he seems to spend time with people, is when they are about to die.”

He will curl up on the bed with someone who has just a few hours left to live, expressing no interest in other patients. “It may be half a day, sometimes two, three, four hours, but he’s always there when the patient dies,” says Dosa, who has written an article about Oscar in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Oscar has been observed to do this at least 25 times. But rather than view his presence as frightening, staff have come to value the knowledge that a certain patient may be near death, and Oscar has provided companionship to those who would otherwise have passed away alone. “We really are able to key into some of his insights and be able to let family know that patients might be nearing the end,” says Dosa. “Invariably, he’s right – much more so than we are.”

I can see how Oscar’s prescience might be helpful to the staff. But as for providing companionship, I’m not so sure. Given the personality of this particular cat, it’s much more likely that’s he’s waiting until the moment of death so he can eat the soul of the departed. 

*  * * * *

Here’s a poem by Frederick Seidel, about youth and age and how we kill ourselves. When I read it now, there are cats superimposed: a young cat like mine, and an old one like Oscar (Oscar isn’t really old, but he takes that part).


* A Fresh Stick of Chewing Gum


A pink stick of gum unwrapped from the foil,

That you hold between your fingers on the way home from dance class,

And you look at its pink.  But you know what.

I like your brain.  Your pink.  It’s sweet.


My brain is the wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar

Instead of being sweet pink like yours.

It could be the nicotine.  It could be the Johnnie Walker Black.

Mine thought too many cigarettes for too many years.


My brain is the size of the largest living thing, mais oui, a blue whale,

Blue instead of pink like yours.

It’s what I’ve done

To make it huge that made it huge.


The violent sweetness in the air is the pink rain

Which continues achingly almost to fall.

This is the closest it has come.

This can’t go on.


Twenty-six years old is not childhood.

You are not trying to stop smoking.

You smoke and drink

And still it is pink.


The answer is you can drink and smoke 

Too much at twenty-six,

And stink of cigarettes,

And stand outside on the sidewalk outside the bar to have a cigarette,


As the law now requires, and it is paradise,

And be the most beautiful girl in the world,

And be moral,

And vibrate into blank.


— from Oooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel


 **The Patchwork Girl of Oz


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