Of cats, doors and happiness

The Baltimore Sun

"Look," my husband said the first night we ate dinner in our new house. He had just herded Ben and Jerry, our two cats, into the basement. And now, he was closing the door.

For the first time in a year, we would be able to eat dinner at home without a spray bottle of water beside us, at the ready to chase off our perpetually hungry felines. Yes, we had doors on the rental house we'd been living in, but they didn't close well and our beasts inevitably managed to pry them open.

We love a lot about our new home. Friendly neighbors, a backyard filled with trees, a finished basement perfect for TV viewing and, yes, the door that seals it off from the main floor.

I felt a little guilty about loving this door so much. I mean, didn't I love my cats more?

And then I remembered reading an article in The New York Times several years ago about a book by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert called "Stumbling on Happiness." The premise is that people are not good at predicting what will make them happy. The article noted, for example, that Gilbert himself found that one of the things that made him happiest was not his Ivy League credentials but his endless supply of cargo pants from Costco, which reduced the number of decisions he had to make each day.

That made sense. One of the things that made me happiest about my children's well-respected middle school was the dress code: plaid skirts and navy pants. Every. Single. Day. I love my kids, but the absence of their potential early-morning fashion drama made me very happy.

I love my cats, too. When we got them as kittens, they were two scoops of orange sweetness that could fit in the palm of one hand. Now, they are beautiful bundles of energy who amaze us with their agility.

But they are also pains in the ass. There was the time we woke up in the middle of the night to a crash and discovered they had busted through a window, and Jerry, the stupid one, had panicked and run into the street. After they learned to open the bread box — oh, how they love bread — we hid it in a cabinet above the cooktop. But one of them leaped onto the range hood and flung open the cabinet door. The other followed, grabbing the bread bag in his mouth. We cannot leave any food out anywhere at any time unattended. We baby-proof the cabinet that holds the trash can.

I know we are not alone.

Before we moved from Fort Worth, Texas, I was doing an interview with Broadway star Betty Buckley about singing classes she teaches. She and her personal assistant had come to my kitchen, and Ben and Jerry were not only crawling on her but also trying to swipe the snacks on the table. I got distracted, thinking: "Hey, here's Betty Buckley, best known for her role in 'Cats,' and here she is with my cats, and would it be rude of me to take a photo for Facebook?" By force of habit, I grabbed the snacks and shoved them in the microwave next to the squirreled-away bread.

I looked at my guests, expecting them to be horrified by how our microwave had become a food safe, but they looked only amused. "Oh, you have to do that, too?" one or the other asked. They were cat people.

Still plagued with my cat vs. door happiness guilt, I emailed Professor Gilbert, but he was finding happiness touring Europe and simply wished me luck. However, online I found a helpful video of his appearance on "The Colbert Report." In it, he said that marriage and religion are the two top things that make people happy. Kids are not. "Kids have a small effect on happiness, and that effect tends to be negative," Gilbert said, explaining that it's like the refrigerator light. "Every time you look at it, it's on," he said, and "every time you think about your kids, it makes you happy. The problem is they are a pain in the ass more often than you are thinking about them."

So, in a way, I had my answer. Kids are not cats, per se, but the effect can be similar. I love my cats, but the fact is I also love a quiet dinner with the man I am married to. Sometimes with your cats, as with kids, it's best to just close that metaphorical refrigerator door and stop thinking about them.

Or as the case may be, close that basement door and forget about them. Until you hear a crash.

Catherine Mallette is a senior content editor in The Sun's features department and the editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. Contact her at cmallette@baltsun.com.

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