FOR MOST of my life, the two most frightening words in the English language have always been "cat show," summoning images of a stuffy arena filled with primped and powdered cats parading in front of a torpid audience that is clapping politely so as not to fall asleep.
So I was more than a little surprised recently to receive an e-mail inviting me to be a "celebrity judge" at a cat show.
This shows you how much the term "celebrity" has been devalued. I could imagine all these cat people standing around, waiting for John Waters or Cal Ripken Jr. or some other famous person to be judging their cats, and then I walk in.
Yeah, that would really whip up the crowd.
Anyway, I e-mailed back something to the effect of: "Oh, you don't really want me, I'm not much of a cat person, more of a dog guy, must regretfully decline, blah, blah, blah."
And they e-mailed back: Look, we know you don't like cats, but come anyway. "Just think of the column ideas you could get from this one," they said.
So that's how I ended up as a cat judge at the World of Pets Expo at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium a few days ago.
A very nice woman named JoAnn Genovese - "like the crime family," she said cheerfully - was the cat-show manager. She explained that I would be judging 44 cats and selecting 10 finalists in the "household pets" category. This meant they weren't fancy show cats, but a mix of purebred cats, mixed breeds, whatever.
At this point, I felt compelled to point out to Genovese what seemed to be a major flaw in my resume as a cat judge: the fact that I knew nothing about cats and had no idea what to judge them on.
"It's totally subjective," she said. "It's just whether you like the looks of the cat."
Genovese also explained that she would be taking the cats out of their holding cages and bringing them up to the viewing stand for me. "We don't want you to get hurt," she said.
"Um, hurt?" I said. Because, quite frankly, I've always been a big believer in me not getting hurt, too.
"You know," Genovese said, "scratched or bitten."
This, of course, confirmed my worst fear of cats, which is that you never really know what they're thinking.
You can look at a cat sitting on a couch, for example, and he looks fairly content and you think he's thinking: Yep, life is pretty good, the chow's great, got a clean litter box. I'm a lucky guy.
But, what he's really thinking is: In about five seconds, pal, I'm going to lunge at you and scratch your fat little eyes out. Just for something to do.
Shortly after this, the judging began. Genovese would bring each cat up and the two of us would study the cat, with me pretending to know what I was looking for.
Genovese told me that if I wanted to pet any of the cats, I had to wash my hands with disinfectant each time, since petting could spread a cold or virus from one cat to another.
Naturally, I had absolutely no desire to pet any of the cats. Still, I felt if I didn't, the cat owners and the audience would quickly realize I don't like cats, further eroding what little credibility I had left as a cat judge.
As the contest went along, I noticed that most of the cats I was selecting as finalists were big, strong-looking cats, some even on the chubby side.
I wondered if this was a bias common to male judges. But Pat Steckman, another very nice woman who was helping me and who has judged cat shows for 10 years, said both men and women judges tend to favor large cats.
Judges of both genders, she added, also tend to favor male cats over female cats.
Female cats, she said, "can sometimes act more like a woman [and] be anti-social."
Whew, I told Stockman - I'm glad you're the one who said that and not me. Because I tend to get nervous when the picket lines show up and angry readers start calling for my head.
"When I show," continued Steckman, "I like strong boys. 'Cause they handle the stress of the show better."
Speaking of stress, I started to feel a little of it midway through the contest when one of the cats suddenly lunged at Steckman and tried to bite her finger.
"Well, this is probably a good time to end the contest," I wanted to say. "Thank you all for coming and please drive home safely."
But Steckman deftly moved her finger away in time and appeared unfazed. She said she'd been bitten and scratched many times.
"It's part of the hazards of being a judge," she said.
In any event, after 75 minutes or so, with the help of Genovese and Steckman, we were down to 10 cats. Then we studied the 10 finalists again and ranked them in reverse order, from 10th place to first place.
When we announced the winner, an orange and white tabby named Piggy, there were squeals and shrieks of joy from four or five people in the audience, who turned out to be Piggy's owner - a girl named Katie - her mom, and her sisters.
I wanted to talk to Katie and see how this momentous event might change her life, and Piggy's too, but she quickly disappeared into the crowd.
So instead I spent the next few minutes signing the ribbons of the other finalists, which is a cat-show tradition.
I should have signed them: Cal Ripken Jr.
Then maybe they'd be worth something someday.