Heavy Petting

Sons and daughters are different. That seems like an obvious statement but as the mother of a son, who did her best to raise him in an environment as free from gender stereotypes as possible, whenever I come across evidence of what seems to be a universal difference between boys and girls (genitalia and hormones excepted) I am always a bit surprised, disappointed, and wistful.

Gene Kelly in all his glory!

When my 4 year old son chose Snow White slippers to wear to pre-school, I worried he might be teased but I didn’t intervene. When he chose to watch Singing in the Rain with his girl cousins instead of play Legos® with the boys, I didn’t fret or try to coerce him to do more boyish things; instead, I bought matching umbrellas and we tap-danced around the living room together. And in Middle School, when kids teased him in the locker room and called him gay, I applauded his statement during the emergency anti-bullying assembly they held where he emphatically proclaimed that what bothered him the most was not that they called him gay, but that they thought that calling him gay was an insult. He didn’t even explain that his uncle was gay and had died from AIDS. He didn’t play the pity card. He spoke the truth that he believed everyone should believe whether or not they had gay friends or family.

My son was the kind of kid who told me everything. He talked from the minute he woke up and didn’t stop until he was sleeping. I used to play a game with him in the car, setting a timer and seeing who could not say anything for a longer period of time just so I could have a minute of quiet. Putting him in front of the television didn’t work; he wanted to talk about everything he was watching while he was watching it. When his father and I divorced, he called me from his dad’s on non-mommy nights just to check in and talk about the day. I never saw this as a gender specific trait, I figured I had a hyper verbal kid and if I had a daughter, she most likely would be a hyper verbal kid as well. After all, truth be told, I never shut up either! You would think that this piece you are reading right now is going to be about my son, but it’s really about my son’s cat. I’ll get to that in a minute.

When Zak went to college something happened. He stopped calling, he stopped writing, he stopped emailing”¦there were no texts, Skypes, smoke signals, or Instagrams. According to my friends, with very few exceptions, those with daughters in college were still hearing from them frequently while all of the sons were MIA. Zak’s detachment, I was told, was typical of sons, and knowing this gave me NO comfort or solace at all.

So you can imagine my surprise when one Monday morning in September, soon after Zak returned to Vermont for fall semester, I heard his ring tone. Mommy deflector shields up, I braced myself for news that he had either been kicked out of school or had totaled his car again. I knew he wouldn’t be calling me with good news or just to schmooze with good old Mom. Heart racing, I answered the phone.

“Mom, Leslie moved to France and made no arrangements for Tabs.”

I breathed a sigh of relief that this wasn’t life or death and I felt neurotically happy that he still needed me as I listened to his concerns about the now abandoned cat.

Some Back Story

Last winter, Zak lived in Chicago for two months working at a jazz club as part of an internship. While living in the cold Windy City, he found and fell in love with a stray orange tabby cat. He convinced his landlady to let him take the cat in while he found a home for him and then brought the cat to the local veterinarian. They discovered that even though the cat had a microchip in his ear, the information was outdated and so at the end of the internship, my son drove back to Vermont with his new buddy now known as Señor Tablature, Tabs for short (what can you expect, he’s a music major)? When he got to Vermont, he found a friend who lived off campus (no pets are allowed in the dorms) who would take Tabs while Zak retained visitation rights. All was well until over the summer Leslie decided to move to France (because she is 21 and she can) and now Tabs had no place to live.

“Put my grand-cat on a plane, he will come live with me.”

“Really, Mum?”

I felt my mommy innards wrench with a spasm of bittersweet joy at hearing him refer to me as “Mum.” In recent years, he had taken to calling me Mom, hard to distinguish the difference in a printed story, but it had a more formal, grown-up tone that I never really warmed up to.

“Of course, what are we going to do? We can’t put that cat back on the streets or in a shelter.”

In case you are thinking of me as a pure altruist and a candidate to replace Mother Theresa, I will confess that I had a less than noble ulterior motive. Perhaps if Tabs was living with me, I may get a few more phone calls from Vermont that were less crisis-oriented and more like, “So how’s the cat doing?” But I kept that card up my sleeve and we began to make preparations to get the cat to Oakland, California.

We learned that Delta Airlines required a veterinarian’s health certificate ($100.00) before allowing Señor to fly, and there were also very specific requirements for the crate ($85.00) that would transport our traveling feline. The ticket was $250.00.

With all arrangements in place, I trudged off to the nearest pet store. I needed to buy a litter box, litter scooper, cat bed, cat toys and cat food. As I walked down the aisles of the cat section I realized it had been two years since my son had gone off to school and my cat had died at the age of 23. I had spent the last two years with no responsibilities to any other living creature in my house and I wondered if “disrupting the force” was a BIG mistake? At the register I paid another 100 dollars, only the best for MY GRANDCAT, and went home to enjoy my last night of freedom.

The next morning, a mere 48 hours after Zak’s call, Tabs was tucked inside his crate in Vermont and brought to the Albany, New York airport where he had to be dropped off two hours before take-off. His day started at 8 a.m. East Coast time and after a two hour layover in Detroit, I picked him up at the cargo counter at the San Francisco Airport at 8:00 p.m. Pacific time. When I arrived, I handed the paperwork to the clerk and was told I had to pay an extra 50 dollars for the cat’s ticket.

Sheesh, I hadn’t even met the cat and he was already costing me as much money as if I had purchased a full-bred Pedigree Persian! I was informed that I had paid for transporting a 10 pound cat and this cat was 14.5 pounds and there was an extra fee.

I calmly took off my glasses, peered at this poor person who had NO idea she was saying this to a fat activist; someone who has signed countless petitions protesting the airline’s discriminatory practices for fat flyers and said,

“That is discrimination, just because he is fat doesn’t mean he should have to pay more for his seat.”

The clerk calmly took off her glasses, peered back at this obviously clueless red haired lunatic and said,

“Look lady, we are a CARGO company EVERYTHING is based on weight and size of crate. Your cat’s crate was bigger than you paid for and weighed more than you paid for, you owe us 50 dollars.”

I looked into the crate at my new humongous cat weary from 13 hours of traveling, handed the clerk my credit card and took Señor Tablature to his new home in Oakland.

Large orange cat as seen through the bars of his cat carrier
The Weary Traveler

When we arrived, I let him out of his crate and indeed, he was perhaps the biggest cat I had ever known, and I have had cats my entire life! He was majestic, leonine, and red-haired, with a speckled black nose and a swagger like Jack Dempsey. I imagined him in a derby hat with a cigar hanging out of his mouth as he surveyed his new home. I wondered if he even remembered his time living on the streets of Chicago before my son rescued him or the road trip they took cross country. And his life with college kids in Bennington, Vermont, was that even still in his consciousness? I poured some food into his bowl and watched as he attacked it ferociously. When he started purring he sounded like a Maserati warming up for the Autobahn. He ate and drank his fill and then plopped down to give himself a nice loooong bath.

As I watched Tabs, who, as other cat people might relate to, would soon be the cat of Many Names, I was reminded that cats and people are different. That seems like an obvious statement, but considering they are not known for their intellectual prowess, it astonishes me how much better they are than humans at getting their needs met. Clearly he had no issues with his body image or his diet, this cat was home and he was loving it. He swaggered over to me, rammed his big round furry adorable head into my hand and demanded to be scratched. Being the good Grandmother that I am, I complied and was rewarded with more purring and a Big Kitty Flop Down”¦BELLY RUBS were clearly next on the agenda. I must have stayed on that floor for half an hour, my feet had fallen asleep and my knees were killing me, but I hadn’t noticed. I was too busy reveling in the joy of heavy petting; the feeling of being needed, the instantaneous feedback of apurrrroval for my providing joy and pleasure. This, in turn, filled me with joy and pleasure and urged me to keep going.

If people could do this, the world would be a much happier place.

Large orange cat, sleeping
Puuuuurfectly Content

In my work with clients who are diagnosed with BED (Binge Eating Disorder) a common theme is how comfort food results in the feeling of being filled with warmth, love, and caring. Eating ice cream when lonely is like being caressed from the inside and frequently binges are associated with feeling lonely.

“Do you really think I would be eating this second serving of rum raisin if I was kissing someone right now?”

As the eating disorder progresses and weight cycling patterns take hold, people find themselves feeling undeserving of love because they feel too fat to be loveable. It is a cyclical process.

Step 1. Lonely and un-loveable

Step 2. Binge on comfort food.

Step 3. Feel better for a moment

Step 4. Start feeling guilty, still feeling lonely, feeling even more un-loveable.

Step 5. Repeat steps 1-4.

But you don’t have to have an Eating Disorder to relate to how empty most of us feel when there is a lack of intimacy and connection in our lives and food isn’t the only way people compensate for this and attempt to fill in that deep inner void. The benefits of touching and being touched are as much of a human need and desire as they are a cat’s. It’s just that cats are so much DAMN better at negotiating this contract and getting their needs met than we are and I’m proposing that we can learn a thing or two about self-care from the cats (and perhaps dogs) in our lives.

With the holiday season coming up and my son across the country, clearly living like a cave man with no phone, computer, or postage stamps (what other excuse could he possibly have), I think I am going to love having a cat around the house again. No, I’m not digging the litter box duty, but it seems a small price to pay for the heavy petting sessions. I wonder if Señor likes turkey?

Til next time,

Dr. Deah

P.S. Please join me and several other authors as we read from Virgie Tovar’s new fabulous anthology Hot & Heavy in San Francisco at Modern Times Bookstore 2919 24th Street on November 30, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.

Badge reading "Self Acceptance Top 50 Blogger Image of a lighthouse, captioned "Illuminating Blogger Award" Badge reading "WEGO Health Activist Awards 2012"



By Dr. Deah Schwartz

Dr. Deah Schwartz, clinician, educator, and author specializes in Expressive Arts Therapies, Eating Disorders and Body Image. Deah is the Co Author of the NAAFA award winning Off-Broadway Play, Leftovers, and its companion DVD/Workbook Set. An outspoken “New Yawker,” Deah believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to point out and eliminate size discrimination even when it means battling the mainstream media, and even worse, family members! To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work or to book a session visit her website at

Leave a Reply