Transcription by Colette Arrand. Hire her if you need things transcribed!
Mary Phillips-Sandy: People have this idea that there is nothing outside of New York and DC, I think, when you talk about political journalism.
Adam Serwer: Oh, I think that’s mostly true.
Mary: That’s probably good for you, actually. That’s probably nice. You get a break, and you get better Tex-Mex food than we have here. And you also have more space for cats, which is what we’re really here to talk about.
Adam: That’s true.
Mary: Adam, I don’t want to talk about political journalism, because frankly, no offense, it’s kind of boring.
Adam: That’s fair. A lot of people feel that way.
Mary: Alright. So let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about cats.
[UPBEAT, SLIGHTLY FRANTIC ELECTRONIC MUSIC: Let’s talk about cats! Let’s talk about cats!]
Mary: It’s another episode of Let’s Talk About Cats. I’m noted cat lady Mary Phillips-Sandy. My cat, of course, is Grendel. And this is a really special episode. We are talking to Adam Serwer of The Atlantic. I’ve been an admirer, Adam, of your writing on the internet for quite some time. I think you are really an astute political observer, a great writer, a great journalist—
Adam: Thank you so much.
Mary: But more importantly, you have four cats. An astonishing four cats. And I love the fact that you’re very consistent. They’re all ginger cats. You have a fondness for the ginger cats. And as I think I mentioned when we were talking earlier, that we like to start off with what we call the five word memoir. Ernest Hemingway, famous jerk, liked to think that he could tell a story in six words. I’m not a jerk, and I think we can tell a story in five words. So Adam, why don’t you give us their five word memoir?
Adam: Sweet Garfields are land manatees.
Mary: Ohh… land manatees. That’s right, you refer to them as the Garfields on your Twitter account.
Adam: Yes, I do. Because they’re all orange, and they’re all—well, they used to all be pretty hefty, so they just sort of lay around the house and they look like large manatees catching a little sun on the beach or whatever.
Mary: And for the record, could you, Adam, state your cats’ names and ages?
Adam: My oldest cat is Butters. His government name is Butterscotch, but only the vets and cops use it. He’s almost 17 years old, he’s going to be 17 in April. There’s Burns, who is 15 years old, he’s a very sweet guy. He’s the friendliest of all the cats. If you take him to the vet, he is immediately trying to rub up on the doctors. There’s Eggsy, who we adopted from Korea. He was a stray cat—he’s a very sweet—
Mary: We’re going to have to talk more about that later in the show, Adam, because you can’t just drop that and keep going and expect me not to follow up. Continue with the rundown, but I’m just warning you, we’re coming back to it, that’s all.
Adam: And then there’s Benne, which is short for Benedict. And we got him because Eggsy really likes Butters. He’s like fascinated by him, but part of that fascination is like he stalks Butters through the house and then pounces on him. And Butters is a little old, so we were like okay, well we really need to get someone for Eggsy to play with, so we got Benedict, and it turns out that Benedict is kind of a terrorist.
Mary: That is absolutely amazing, Adam. I hope that your journalism career never flags. I hope that you continue writing for us for a very long time. But if it fails, three words: cat reality show. It’s a back-up option.
[UPTEMPO, GUITAR DRIVEN ROCK MUSIC WITH FEMALE VOCALS]
Mary: Adam, it is time for a segment that we call the Cat Quiz. So the Cat Quiz is pretty simple. There’s five questions and you have to think fast—when I ask you the question, you answer it. That’s it. Don’t sit around and think forever. That’s the only rule.
Adam: I can’t Google.
Mary: No, and you can’t Google. That’s right. We are talking remotely right now, so hands off the Google.
Mary: This is an honor system. I trust you because you have journalistic ethics, okay? Okay, today’s Cat Quiz, Adam, I know that you are fond of cats and you are fond of Italian food, so today, how much do you know about cats and the beautiful cuisine of the beautiful country called Italy? It’s the Cat Quiz. Are you ready, Adam?
Adam: I am ready.
Mary: Alright, and I am going to remind you, once again, as always, there is a prize at stake.
[CAT QUIZ MUSIC: FAST DRUMS AND RUMBLING PURR SOUNDS.]
Mary: Alright, your first question. Salami felino, it literally means “feline salami,” but it is not made by or with cats. Instead, it is made by people in a place called Parma. Its traditional ingredients include pork, peppercorns, garlic, and what?
Mary: Well you know, we’ll give you a half point. I think all salami has salt by default, but I was looking for the answer wine, they put wine in the salami.
Adam: Oh, that’s great.
Mary: I don’t actually eat pork or drink wine, but I’m excited about that for the people of Parma. Question number two: If you head over to China, you will find a hand-shaped wheat noodle that is known as cat-ear noodles. It’s served in stir-fries and braises. Italy has a pasta shape that is identical to China’s cat-ear noodles but it has a different name. What is it called?
Adam: Is it campanelle?
Mary: Oh, I’m so sorry. It is not. It is, and I’m going to murder the pronunciation, Italy, I’m so sorry—orecchiette.
Adam: Orecchiette, which means “little ears.”
Mary: In China, they believe the ears are those of cats. Okay, question three: over in Rome, the first cat café opened a few years ago. It’s called the Romeow Cat Bistro, of course. So the Romeow Cat Bistro in Rome has plenty of cute cats, but its menu has no what?
Mary: I’ll give it to you. The answer is animal products. It is completely vegan. It’s a vegan cat café.
Adam: That’s extremely impressive.
Mary: I know. I know.
Adam: Because there’s so much meat and cheese in Italian cooking.
Mary: If anyone wants to sponsor a Let’s Talk About Cats trip to Rome, please hit me up. Alright, question four. Adam, you’re doing great. According to legend, a dish that is now considered comfort food in Modina was created accidentally when a woman tripped over a cat, sleeping in front of the stove, and she spilled a ladle full of what into a pot full of polenta?
Adam: Tomato sauce.
Mary: Oh, I don’t think I can give it to you. The answer was beans. And the dish is called—again, Italy, I apologize, I’ll learn how to speak your language when I go there—calzagatti. Apparently it may have been derived from a slang term calza, meaning to kick, as in what the lady did to the cat, which we don’t condone at all. Final question, Adam. Final question. It all comes down to this. A beach on Sardinia’s west coast has become a cat sanctuary in recent years, and a bit of a tourist attraction as well. But the cats themselves have been living there for over a century. They were first introduced to the area as rat-catchers by locals who were busy trying to catch another, more delicious creature. What were they catching?
Adam: Is it anchovies?
[CAT QUIZ MUSIC STOPS.]
Mary: Oh, you know what? That would be good. I love anchovies, too. It’s tuna!
Adam: It seems like a conflict of interest.
Mary: It does. Well, the bad news is, I don’t think you won the Cat Quiz.
Adam: I did not.
Mary: But the great news is that of course you won the prize. You always win the prize on the Cat Quiz. And your prize is a set of—you can’t see it, but I’ve got it right here—we have a beautiful set of cat-themed pot holders for you so that you can cook some delicious Italian cuisine for yourself and your four cats at home.
Adam: Oh, thank you.
Mary: Bueno appetito?
Adam: Thank you so much.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC]
Mary: Our next segment is the Hot Topic debate, where you and I are going to resolve a divisive, feline related issue once and for all. And Adam, I know this is something that you have thought about, talked about, even written about—it’s something that I would say hits close to home. In fact, it is in the home. The question is, which surfaces in the home should cats be allowed on? Now Adam, I know that you post a lot of pictures of your cats on Twitter, and I’ve seen in the past, you have occasionally gotten some heat, shall we say, for sharing photos of your cats on countertops. Some people find that controversial.
Adam: It’s their house! First of all, most people do not cook straight off the countertop surface. Like, if you’re chopping vegetables on your countertop, you shouldn’t be doing that.
Mary: Okay, true.
Adam: Second, who doesn’t clean the counter before you start putting food on it? Personally, I think a cat should be allowed to go wherever they want to go, as long as they’re not messing something up.
Mary: Are there any no go zones in your house for your cats?
Adam: I would say that there are temporary no go zones. For example, my cats, when I start cooking, and then I put a cutting board on the counter, they really like to come and sit on the cutting board, just as a power move to show me who’s boss, which means I have to wash the cutting board again. Other than if they aren’t putting themselves at risk or sticking their paws in something I’m about to eat, they can do whatever they want.
Mary: I in principle agree with you. I will say this: I used to have two cats, Buckley and Milo. They were tub aficionados. They were tub lurkers. You would find them lurking in the tub. And what ended up happening was, I started finding clogs of cat hair in the tub drain. So I had to institute a no cats in the tub rule.
Adam: Oh no!
Mary: Yeah, which infuriated them, because the tub was truly—they went into this weird, meditative state.
Adam: It was a sublime place.
Mary: It was their favorite, you know? Because sometimes there’s little drips of water, there’s interesting textures, there’s a shower curtain that you can rub your paws on, there’s all of this great stuff in the tub, and I just had to start going into the bathroom and throwing them out of the tub. And it made me feel like a monster, yes, but I got so sick of cleaning cat hair out of the drain. So then I started to think, alright, well I understand people now who say, well my cat’s now allowed on the couch, I get tired of cleaning the couch, right? You start to see how people make these decisions.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, stuff like hair on the couch, that battle is over. I have four orange cats.
Mary: What color is your couch? May I ask?
Adam: It’s dark blue.
Adam: So they look great with it. It’s a very nice contrast in color. However—
Mary: Now do your cats have surfaces of their own? That is to say, dedicated things that are just for them to go on that you do not go on?
Adam: Oh yeah. We have cat beds all over the house, and we have a large cat castle and a small cat castle. Eggsy, who spent his formative days in Seoul looking out of the window onto people way, way, way below, really likes to sit on a surface next to a window so he can watch the cars go by. And Benne just likes to find an older cat and bother them.
Mary: So I think we’ve reached a great conclusion here, Adam, in today’s Hot Topic, which is that all surfaces in your home are fair game for cats as long as everyone is safe, and as long as you remember to a) use a cutting board when you cook, and b) wash it before you do so, which I think is really just good life advice.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC]
Mary: If you like Let’s Talk About Cats, you’ll love Let’s Talk More About Cats, the monthly newsletter that has lots of stuff about cats. Uh, hi. I’m Mary. This is my podcast. I’m just here to remind you to sign up for our newsletter at letstalkaboutcats.com. There’s really no reason no to. It’s free, it comes once a month, it’s just a nice, occasional little treat. You’ll get the latest news from LTAC HQ, some cat facts, some links to interesting cat content, stuff that I found on the internet and think you’ll like. You’ll get exclusive Grendel photos. We’ve even given producer Lizzie her own section, she can talk about whatever she wants. Cats, not cats, I don’t know, it’s up to her. So join us, won’t you? Sign up at letstalkaboutcats.com, and we’ll talk more… about cats.
[FAST ROCKING AWESOME GUITAR MUSIC CONTINUES]
Mary: Okay, it is time now, the real reason we’re here. Let’s talk about your cats, all four of them. Wow, we have a lot to cover. So I will start by asking, Adam, I always start by asking our guests, you know, so how did you and your cats meet. But with you, you’ve got this sort of multi-cat, multi-decade journey. I actually want to start more recently, though. Tell me about Eggsy coming to you from Korea?
Adam: I went to Korea over the holiday season the year before last. The reason I did that was because my partner was in Seoul and I wanted her to have an opportunity to see the cats after all, since she has known them for longer than I have. And I brought Burns and Butters with me. Now that was kind of an ordeal.
Adam: And so they were hanging out in the apartment, and we heard that there we a bunch of strays at the Yongsan Garrison that needed homes, and it was one of those things where we were like, oh, you know, we’ll just go and look and if we see any cats we like, maybe we’ll talk about it. But of course what actually happened was we met a cat that we liked and brought him home.
Mary: Yeah. I’m shocked, Adam. I’m shocked.
Adam: And so, Eggsy, his littermates had all been given away, and he was living in a pretty big cage, but it was still a cage. And what was really adorable was that the older cats would watch him play and, first of all, he’d never been in this big of a space in his life. Even though it was just an apartment, he had just, like he—
Mary: Well if he was coming from a cage, yeah.
Adam: Right, he was coming from a cage. So he suddenly realized that it was okay for him to run down the hall and turn around and run back down the hall and bat something all over the place. And so he just started frolicking, and the older cats watched him play, and all of the sudden they started getting really playful. Like they started doing things they hadn’t been doing for a long time, like stalking toys and stuff like that. They had a really good time. The floors in this apartment in Korea were heated, which was something I’d never seen in my life, so they would like, walk across the floor and find a hot spot and immediately plop their bellies on it. It was very cute.
Mary: Oh my god, that sounds amazing. Perfect for kitties.
Adam: It was basically cat heaven.
Mary: Right. And then I love that you got a fourth cat, essentially as a toy for Eggsy.
Adam: So Burns has always been sort of the glue between the other cats. He has had a close, friendly relationship with every cat he’s ever met. We were staying with a friend in Texas when we first moved here, and one of her cats had kidney problems. And he just—he’s a very sweet cat. He was also orange, of course. And he just crawled him into bed and Burns just snuggled up next to him and started grooming him, which was like the sweetest thing I’d ever seen in my life. So part of the timing of the decision was we really wanted a kitten who knew Burns, because he’s been so good at connecting all the other cats to each other. And they’ve just like—they really hit it off. I mean, it’s been tough for Burns because his nose is extremely sensitive, so he can’t really horse around. Unfortunately, Burns has an adenocarcinoma in his nose, which will you know, probably be the end of him, but we’re going to try our best to make his final days as wonderful as possible. But Benne, he loves to nuzzle up next to him and Burns will wrap his tail around him, and it’s just—it’s extremely adorable.
Mary: How are you coping with Burns’ illness right now? I mean, I know how stressful that is, to have a cat who is sick and might not get better. How is that affecting you?
Adam: It’s been tough. I mean, I feel like every pet owner understands this, but particularly when you’re in—you’re having a rough time in life, pets can be an important part of your sort of support system. You know? It’s sad to know that I’m going to have to say goodbye some time soon, especially because he’s just such a benevolent cat. But you know, the only thing you can do I guess is just try to make them as happy and comfortable as possible.
Mary: Yeah, that’s all we can do, right? I remember when our first cat died when I was little, you know, I was young, my dad sort of sat me down and said, you know, if you’re going to have cats or any pets, you need to accept that they’re going to die. I mean, I think I was six. I don’t know that I might have been a little young for this lecture, but he was right. It’s part of the process of loving anyone really is knowing that at some point they’re not going to be there.
Adam: You’re going to lose them.
Mary: You’re going to lose them, or they’re going to lose you. That’s just something that’s the reality of it. But that doesn’t negate all the love that you share while you’re together.
[TRIUMPHANT GUITAR FLOURISH]
Mary: I mean, speaking of tough stuff, that is sort of what you do for a living. I mean, now more than ever. I say we don’t get political on this show, but we inevitably do. I mean, the world is a very bizarre and depressing place right now for a lot of people, myself included, and your work involves starring into the abyss on a day to day basis. I’m wondering—is it easier to stare into the abyss when you’re surrounded by your cats?
Adam: I will say that they are great work partners. It’s funny though because they—you know, cats are very much creatures of routine, and if I don’t do the same thing the same way every day, they get upset. They’re like, no, this is when we do this, and you’re not doing it. What’s going on? But they are, you know, I will say that it would be a lot lonelier to work from home if I didn’t have those four jerks bothering me every 10 minutes.
Mary: Okay, here’s a question: You wrote for The Atlantic Ideas section, so we know a lot about your ideas. What about your cats’ ideas?
Adam: Benne and Eggsy don’t have strict political identities yet, but the running joke is that Butters, for most of his life, was a conservative republican. He voted for Romney. He was very sad on election night 2012 when Obama pulled it out.
Mary: Sure, sure.
Adam: And Burns is a hardcore socialist. He backed Bernie Sanders in the primary. Nevertheless, they’re an odd couple. They get along. They love each other.
Mary: So would you say Burns and Butters are like the Carvell and Madeline of cats?
Adam: I would say that they have an intense love for each other, and they also just disagree politically. But in the Trump era, you know, Butters is a Never Trump conservative, so you know, the differences have been flattened out a little bit.
Mary: In a way, perhaps they’ve been brought closer together since 2016.
Adam: Yes, they both care very deeply about democracy despite their differences on policy.
Mary: And I know your two youngest cats are in fact very young, but do you have any hints at this point as to what their political leanings might be? Have they given you any idea of what—maybe what issues they care about?
Adam: I would say that their uncles have begun to read them into their plot to exterminate all humans. Except for like, a few that they’re going to keep around for belly rubs and opening cans of wet food. But other than that, they don’t really have political views.
Mary: Of course. So in other words, the Garfields envision a new reformation run by cats where humans exist only as sort of can openers.
Adam: A one world catocracy. A kitty paw stamping on a human face forever.
Mary: Hey, you know what? It’s a platform. I’ve heard worse.
[AGGRESSIVE, HARD-DRIVING ROCK MUSIC]
Mary: Twitter, of course, is a place where a lot of people talk about your work, and I imagine they yell at you a lot. But you also share a lot of pictures of your cats on Twitter. Was it a conscious choice to start sharing the cats? I mean, you know, obviously a lot of journalists use Twitter to engage and to share their work and stuff. Did you sort of sit down and think, alright, I’ve got to mix it up a bit, I’ve got these cats, I’ve got this great content.
Adam: It was not like a conscious thing. It was more like, I really enjoyed my cats and they did cute things, and I started posting pictures. And when it first started out, it was like, 2010 we had a different roster of cats. We had Pumpkin, we had Butters, we had James, and we had Burns. And Pumpkin was my favorite, which is okay to say because he was also Butters’ favorite. And he was sort of this very friendly, round guy who he was extremely expressive—if he wanted your attention, he would yell at you. And if you didn’t respond to him, he would reach out his paw and smack you in the face. And be like, yo!
Adam: What are you doing? And he also had a sleep apnea problem, so he had to always have his face raised for him to breathe comfortably. So he would always rest his chin on weird places. So you’d be asleep on the couch and I have a picture of this—Pumpkin would stick his head on your forehead, you know? And then just start purring and be like, okay, this is where I’m sitting for the rest of the day. I would take pictures of Pumpkin being adorable, and then every once in awhile I would be like, oh, it’s fat cat Friday and I’m going to post a picture of Pumpkin. And eventually people started asking for more pictures of my cats. And the more that my career went on, the more that I was just like, my writing was just a constant stream of describing human misery. And so I just felt like I needed to mix it up with things that were not stressful. And the easiest way to do that, at least for me, because I find that my cats are very stress-relieving, I would just take pictures of my cats being cute with each other.
Mary: Yeah. Do you think there are people—or do you know that there are people who perhaps disagree with you, are 100% ideologically opposed to everything you believe and stand for who follow you for your cats?
Adam: Oh, I’m sure that’s the case.
Mary: Really? How does that make you feel?
Adam: And I’m sure there are some people who have unfollowed me because even with the cats they couldn’t put up with it.
Mary: I mean, how does that feel though to know that there are MAGA hat wearing dudes hanging on your tweets because they like your cats?
Adam: I mean, I don’t know, it’s fine. I mean, I follow people—a lot of people I don’t agree with on Twitter. Like there’s three things that are still pure on the internet. One of those things is pets, one of those things is human children, and one of those things is dad puns. Everything else has been ruined. So like, what I find is like people from completely different perspectives can bond over one of those three things and they’re fine.
Mary: You know what, that is probably the most hopeful thing I’ve heard yet in 2019, Adam. Thank you for that.
[AGGRESSIVE, HARD-DRIVING ROCK MUSIC]
Mary: How did you become such a cat person? I don’t know that you mentioned that your partner sort of got you into this. Were you destined for this?
Adam: Not necessarily. So you know, my father was in the foreign service, and I lived in Italy for six years when I was a kid. there were definitely a lot of stray cats in Rome, and we had one. Her name was Sophia. And she had a boyfriend named Maximo. And he would come over and he would get her pregnant, and then she’d have a bunch of kittens. And then we’d try to figure out a way to give the kittens away. And so you know, I always liked cats, but I never personally had a cat like, Sophia was a stray cat. She wasn’t our cat. And when we came back to the US, we didn’t have cats, we didn’t have dogs, basically it was really just that these cats, they were just so friendly and so sweet that it’s just impossible not to love them. I mean, we know a lot of people who are like, oh, we’re not cat people, and then they meet—my cousin came over, my teenage cousin came over with her family for Jewish Christmas this year. You know, we watched a movie and we ordered some Chinese food. And she as like, oh, I’m not a cat person, I’m not a cat person. But of course, in about 10 minutes, she was sitting on the couch as Benne was laying flat on his back letting her rub his belly. They’re such friendly cats, and I’m not going to say that I don’t like other cats, because I do. But I would say that my transformation into cat dad is fully a result of the fact that these cats were so wonderful.
Mary: That’s fantastic. We always like to wrap up by asking, is there anything you would like to say to your cats, who are listening at home?
Adam: You guys are great, please don’t kill all humans yet.
Mary: Adam, thank you so much for joining us on a very busy day.
Adam: Thank you so much for having me.
Mary: Before you go, can you tell everyone how to find you online?
Adam: I’m easily found by my Twitter handle, which is @adamserwer, and thank you for having me on the show.
Mary: Fantastic. Thank you so much. We have some shoutouts to do. We want to say hello to Cat Loaf, listening in Brooklyn. Cat Loaf, your parents would like you to please stop digging through the trash at night. Cats don’t eat carbs. Watch it, Cat Loaf. And on a quick personal note, I want to send a shout out to Beaker, who is also listening in Brooklyn. Beaker recently had a pretty serious health scare, so Beaker, I hope you’re feeling better. We’re all thinking of you and your mom and your little brother Jones. If you would like me to send a shoutout to your cat on an upcoming episode, all you have to do is e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us your cat’s name, where they live, and a little message you’d like us to include. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be your cat. We’ll shout out any cat who deserves a shoutout.
[UPBEAT, SLIGHTLY FRANTIC ELECTRONIC MUSIC: Let’s talk about cats! Let’s talk about cats!]
Mary: And of course you can find us at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, all the usual podcast places, and while you’re there please do us a favor: Rate us, review us, tell us what you think of the show. It really helps. Of course you can also find us on social media, we’re @ltacpod. That’s @ltacpod. Everywhere! I’m Mary Phillips-Sandy. Our producer is the molto bene Lizzie Jacobs. Our theme song is by Poingly, with additional music by the English Muffins. Our show logo was created by Julia Emiliani. That’s it for now. We’ll be back next week to talk more… about cats.
[THEME SONG ENDS.]
Adam: I have to say, if any of your listeners ever go to Rome, there are two cat sanctuaries located in prominent Roman ruins. There’s the Torre Argentina, which is supposedly the site where Julius Caesar was murdered. It is now a lair for the cats. You can’t actually walk into the ruins, but cats frolicking in the ruins of human civilization is some kind of awesome metaphor. There’s an actual cat sanctuary where you can go in and you can meet the cats and you can adopt one if you feel like it. There’s another one which is a pyramid that’s located near the Protestant cemetery in Rome, and it is also a cat sanctuary, with lots of friendly cats. And if you walk into the cemetery, the cats are hanging out there and they’ll probably come up to you and say what’s up. I met a lot of friendly cats in both places. So if you are a cat fan and you probably are if you’re listening to this, I highly recommend, if you are in Italy, in Rome, going to either of those places.