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November 12, 2012

‘You’ve Got To Chase the String While You Can’: Paula Poundstone Gains Wisdom From Her Vast Squadron Of Cats

‘My cat, Belle, just seems on edge.’ (©all rights reserved by Paula Poundstone)

Paula Poundstone loves cats.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, so? Why is that worth mentioning? I love cats, too–there’s one sleeping on the bed in the other room.”

I know what you mean (though puzzled by your fictional hostility). I, too, am a true cat lover. We have four at our house.

But even four cats—by most standards, probably considered a large number for one household—is child’s play, or perhaps kitten’s play, alongside the feline population scattered amidst Paula-Ville.

‘For anybody stupid enough to have multiple cats, let me just say: STOP NOW!’ (©all rights reserved by Paula Poundstone)

Poundstone–the veteran comedian and regular panelist on NPR’s popular quiz show, “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me”–and her family have 16 cats.

Do not adjust your set. That is not a typo. Sure, spellcheck isn’t designed to catch numerical errors, but there isn’t actually an error to catch. That “1” in front of the  “6” has not gone rogue—it belongs there.

“Yeah, 16 and holding,”  she answered when I asked about the current household cat count in a September 26 interview on Talking Animals, relative to the tally in her previous visit on the show a year-plus earlier; she’s long addressed cats in her stand-up act. “For anybody stupid enough to have multiple cats, let me just say: STOP NOW!”

If this appears to be far from the exhortation of someone inviting you to join her in the joys of double-digit cat cohabitation,  Poundstone did seem a bit cranky in the initial moments of our chat. In fact, after exchanging some opening pleasantries, she projected an anti-cat stance:

“Did I tell you I’ve turned against cats? Did I tell you that I’ve had it with cats? That I hate cats now? I’m so annoyed with my cats.”

‘My cats don’t do anything. My cats will never be big on YouTube.’

Upon further exploration, it turned out–not surprisingly–this was hyperbole-hate, though rooted in genuine grouchiness for a genuinely good reason: Some of the cats started doing what she described as “territorial peeing” about a year ago.

“I’ve been in purgatory. It’s awful. And the problem is now that (a) I clean for a living and (b) even if I went ‘OK, it’s that cat,’ [it doesn’t help]. Let’s say it’s my cat Tonks, for example, a particular transgressor—like, right in front of me, he’s done it,” she explained, noting that identifying the culprit in no way curtails the commission of the crime.  “The problem is that now, they all do it.”

This provided a glimpse into how providing the roof over the heads of a singular number of cats can be accompanied by being forced to contend with some singular challenges.

Paula Poundstone announces a 24-hour CatCam on Ustream, and introduces the key players.

The discussion of the Pee Plight led, almost necessarily to my inquiring how many litter boxes are on hand for the 16 cats, in order to answer what must be something akin to a robo-call of nature.

“Are you supposed to have litter boxes? I may have just realized my mistake. No, we have four litter boxes, and I am in constant service to the litter boxes.  On the other hand, there is a silver lining here—I am really good at it,”  she said, referring to sccoping stuff out of the aforementioned litter boxes. “I have a gift [for scooping]. I absolutely have a gift—I was thinking of making a training video.”

Poundstone—an Emmy winner who’s appeared on every TV show you can think of, and some you may have forgotten (remember her talk show on HBO? her variety show on ABC?)–was kidding. But it sure was enjoyable to ponder possible titles for that video. Litter Boxes I Have Scooped. Lose Clumps Now—Ask Me How. The Scoop on Scooping. Take A Litter, Maria. (Suggest your own! It’s fun!)

Paula Poundstone’s cat Brittle conducts a medical exam

While the Paula Poundstone scooping tutorial does not truly exist beyond the fun of  brainstorming titles, or maybe imagining select scenes, a legitimate visual representation of this flock of felines does in fact exist: The Poundstone Diner Cam, a camera trained on the cats’ food and water bowls, providing an around-the-clock live feed, so to speak, to Poundstone’s website.

Visiting her site allows you to watch the Diner Cam, and adjacent to that screen is a photo gallery of the cats—sort of a feline Facebook.

Even though there can be long stretches where nothing much appears in the shot– except a humongous bowl of dry cat food, a water dish and a sign in the background that reads “Now is the time to come together as cats to solve common problems”—watching the Poundstone Diner Cam can be oddly compelling.

Like many of the best innovations, it’s very simple—the camera doesn’t pan and it’s pretty tightly focused on the bowls. So the picture is static and basic, though in a modest cinematic flourish,  the water bowl is clear glass and lit from the bottom.  The cats having a swig can look quite lovely, and some appear more than ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Paula Poundstone’s Diner Cam Identification Kit

I asked Paula what prompted her to install the Diner Cam. “I wanted people to see the majesty of  the 16 cats,” she replied. “Our hands are a bit tied, because I really don’t want people to see me scuff through in the morning. We wanted to preserve the privacy of our home, so we had to have the camera facing the wall where the dishes are.

“It’s sort of limiting, space-wise. On the other hand, you do get a really lovely shot of them. And they do that great thing where they—I don’t know why they do this—but they take their food from the food bowl and spit it into the water bowl. I think it’s because I get this kind of cat food that’s fish-shaped.”

Bursts of sustained viewing have yielded other observations. For instance, there’s a very high proportion of grey cats. Perhaps more notably, given the often-towering mound of food sitting in that sizable bowl, it’s striking that, generally, only one member of this Gang Of Four-Times-Four comes by at a time to munch.

Occasionally, though, there’s a mild traffic jam, consisting of a handfuul of cats. But whether one or a few customers stops by, the cats don’t seem to stay a long time, and don’t tend to pig out (if that’s not too mixed a metaphor).

Paula Poundstone’s cat Rutherford, a video biography. The cat was named after Fred Rutherford, Lumpy Rutherford’s dad on Leave It To Beaver. ‘Some say that my cat put the ‘dent’ in sedentary,’ says Poundstone.

And most—but certainly not all—of the feasting felines chow down facing the camera, rather than blocking it. I had surmised that their impressive camera awareness perhaps betrayed their membershrip in a showbiz family, but Paula suggested another explanation.

“Well, that comes from training,” she said, playfully.  “It’s not easy to train them but you can. And you don’t have enough room there to see the runway, but you should see them model outfits.”

Later, after we’ve been talking cats for several minutes on Talking Animals, I wondered, with all the cats that have been in her life, not to mention all the cats in her life currently, what have they taught Paula? There must be some life lesson or wisdom they’ve imparted, even if inadvertently.

The regulars at the Poundstone Diner

“Oh, sure. Because I’ve had  a lot of cats, and I’ve had a lot cats die. Some of them when they were kittens, some when they were really old. But I don’t mess around too much with it—I do some medical intervention–but there comes a point at which I just wouldn’t.

“And I’ll tell you, you know what I’ve learned? You’ve got to chase the string while you can.”


“It’s deep, isn’t it?”

Yeah, that is pretty deep. In fact, as a newly-minted aphorism for how to live our lives, Paula’s phrase may merit some probing discussion over a drink and a snack.

May I suggest we repair to the Diner Cam? I’m buying.

Click here to listen to the Talking Animals interview with Paula Poundstone.

Click here to listen to the June 1, 2011 Talking Animals interview with Paula Poundstone.

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