I was in the market for something graceful

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THE alert observer of social trends will note that the cat has recently slipped in the popular imagination. Only a short time ago, in what might be called the Golden Age of Cat Art, cats dominated the coffee mug, potholder, and apron business. But increasingly, they must step aside for the duck (a hot item last year) and the common milk cow (the more common the better). The cat itself is not to blame for this situation. Rather, cat lovers, among whom I count myself, have contributed to it by making some understandable, though exaggerated, claims for their favorite pet. I'd like to address one of these claims, the one concerning the grace of cats. Let me introduce a very special friend, Ms. Julia Hoover (named before I got her, thank you), Jewel for short. She is affectionate. Playful. A great eater. A large black kitty with startling yellow eyes and a rakishly chic necktie of white fur when she bothers to sit up straight. A real member of the household. Many wonderful things is Jewel, but graceful will never be one of them.

I got her from a litter belonging to one of my officemates about five years ago, and the story of how that happened is instructive. I was single then, had no cats, and was living alone in an apartment. One evening I read one of those magazine survey articles. You know the kind. Some free-lance writer calls up the press agents of a bunch of Hollywood types and asks questions about the sorts of animals their clients keep around the villa. Then the writer publishes a piece called ``Pets of the Stars'' and catches up on the payments on his new word processor. The article I read surveyed single men living alone in apartments about the pets they keep and why they kept them. You can imagine my interest. Cats came in first because they are clean, easy to keep, and because ``men like to have something graceful to watch in the evening.'' All I had to watch was my weight, so that made sense to me.

The upshot of this was that I let it be known at my office that I was in the market for something graceful in a size kitten. It didn't take long for word to get around (offices are like that) and for petitioners representing five litters to reach my desk. That afternoon, yielding to the most persistent offer, I made the trip across town to my officemate's house and picked Jewel out of a wicker basket.

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``You'll really love having a cat,'' my friend told me. ``They're sooo graceful.''

When I brought Jewel home, she was no longer than an average coffee mug turned on its side, no taller than my ankle. It's hard to believe she now weighs 17 pounds, but she does. In those days, she did all the things you could wish a kitten to do. She used the box without fail. She slept on a pillow near me at night (a problem once I married), played with string, climbed the curtains and couldn't get down, and napped each afternoon under a geometrical patch of sunlight on the living room rug. She even retrieved plastic darts I'd shoot across the room. Even now, five years and 161/2 pounds later, she is playful.

But I watched closely as she grew and, I must say, she never became graceful. I think I gave up hope in her late kittenhood, when most cats roughly correspond in athletic agility to human teen-agers. Most cats are adept at jumping, say, from a windowsill to the back of a couch several feet away. They just do it. Blip, and they are hard at work licking their fur, being graceful for bachelors. Jewel consistently missed the couch.

Which brings me to the myth that cats always land on their feet. But maybe I'll save that. Jewel, as I mentioned, is a great eater. She seldom jumps anymore unless chased by the two other cats I've acquired since she moved in, and she has long since given up trying to make the trip between the windowsill and the couch. She sometimes stumbles heading for the food dish, but she always gets there. And, besides, I married a lady who takes ballet classes three times a week, and Jewel and I spend much of our time watching her these days.

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