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I decided to start by looking at every funny picture of a cat on the Internet. The endeavor would need a strict method, so I scheduled a day every week for two months to be out of the office and explained to my editor that I needed this time to "report" on "cats."
My plan for reporting on cats looked like this: I would brew a pot of coffee and put on my robe. Then I would open up my laptop and look at pictures of cats for about eight hours, never lingering on a picture for more than a few seconds. I wrote out the plan on a cocktail napkin at a bar after work. I saved the napkin. It has this rough little equation on the side that indicates my plan to look at about 10,000 pictures of cats per eight-hour session.
I started that first morning by looking at ICanHazCheezburger.com, which is something like the Library of Alexandria for funny pictures of cats. Its archive contains the earliest and most archetypal funny pictures of cats on the Internet: Happy Cat, a chubby gray cat that holds his face in an oddly human-like smile; Monorail Cat, a fluffy brown cat lying atop a flat surface so that his body appears to be a monorail car traveling on a track; and a seemingly infinite number of variations of the "cat in an unusual posture with ungrammatical caption" pictures. I sipped coffee, clicked. Sipped coffee, clicked.
I fell asleep on the couch. After waking up, I looked at some more recent pictures of cats: a website devoted to "metal dudes with cats," selections from a book of cats dressed in Japanese fashion, and about 10 different videos of a Japanese cat named Maru who likes to jump into boxes.
I made a sandwich.
To fight a sudden, overwhelming feeling of unproductivity, I quickly emailed a number of popular cultural people asking them what they thought about cats. Novelist Tao Lin said, "I don't know what to say about cats." The White House did not respond to requests for a statement about cats. Comedian Judy Tenuta said, "We like to see cats suffer, because cats really dominate people. They're sort of independent. They get their masters to become their slaves." Oprah Winfrey did not respond. My guess for the email address of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, seems to have been correct, but he did not reply. On the other hand, email@example.com is not a valid email address. Sarah Silverman's publicist said, "She's not available, but thanks for reaching out."
I wasn't sure what I was looking for. I changed out of my robe, stepped out the back door of my apartment and that's when I saw it.
It was, from that distance, just a pile of white fur. Closer, though, there were tiny pink paws and noses too big for their faces and eyelids that couldn't quite open. The litter of kittens was six in all, plus the big momma lain on her side with teats flaring. The kittens could barely stand. One would extend each of his limbs so that his head rose above the rest, only to stumble on the first step back into the heap.
This was a revelation, I thought. The day had actually amounted to something. I got so excited that I jumped right into my car and went to buy myself a beer.
"So, that's when it hit me," I tell the Professor. "That I'd been sitting inside looking at pictures of cats on the Internet all day while this pile of stray kittens had been sitting outside the entire time."
Every once in a while, usually when I'm working on something longer, I call up a friend and have a few drinks while we sort out the story I'm trying to tell. Over the course of working on this story about cats, I called a lot of different friends and had a good number of drinks and more than a few conversations about cats. Even though these conversations happened with a lot of different people, for the sake of time let's just say they happened with one person and that person is named the Professor. Because why not?
This time around, the Professor patiently listened my recounting of the day's work, took a sip of beer and said, "I don't understand where you're going with this story."
I had thought she was going to like the part with the kittens, but it suddenly seemed inconsequential. "Me, either," I said.
"Where is the drama? What is the story?"
"But isn't that exactly the thing about cats? There isn't any drama. There is just one funny picture of a cat and then another funny picture of a cat."
"So, why do we look at them?"
"Right? It just makes no fucking sense. We just keep clicking on them and clicking on them. Even though if you've seen one, you've really seen all of them—"
"No. No, you're missing the point. You need to tell us why we look at cats."
I didn't know what to say about that. We sat in silence for a little while.
"Start from the beginning," she said. "Tell us about the history of cats, the science. If you can tell us how we got here, then we can have a better idea of where we are."