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Convinced by Kittens

For years, my wife begged me to let us get a cat. I had grown up with dogs - two bubbly French poodles - and cats were anathema. Little, emotionless, personality-less, boring. I could go on. The heat of Carrie's pleading increased when she entered law school, in Philadelphia, and I was a fledgling sportswriter in New York City.

Carrie, the lawyer in training, softened me up to cats slyly, without even mentioning the "c" word.

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"Oh, don't you feel sorry for me down here, all alone in this big city?" she'd say on the phone late at night. What else could I feel?

She innocently popped the question one afternoon as we strolled through the quiet streets of Philadelphia. "What would you think about my getting a cat?" she said. "Then I'd have somebody to keep me company."

Nyet was not an option. "Well, um, sure. That's a great idea," I said.

"Good," she said, and within nanoseconds we were driving to the ASPCA. In fact, Carrie had previously called the ASPCA to get directions.

When we arrived, however, the parking lot was empty, the doors locked. Carrie paled. Then she brightened. "We'll go next weekend, in New York," she said.

So it was. The next Saturday, bright and early, Carrie rattled me awake and dragged me to the animal shelter in New York City. It was not closed. Carrie was ecstatic. "Hee, hee," she giggled. "We're getting a cat!" I smiled blankly.

Once inside, we quickly found ourselves talking to an adoption counselor. "You know, cats are the cutest things in the world," she said, looking into my eyes.

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The world was conspiring against me; I was being swallowed up. OK, OK, I thought. Cats are OK.

After filling out the paperwork, the woman led us to the room where adoptable cats and kittens were kept in cages. It was heart-wrenching: long, lonely meows; paws batting through the bars; kitties sleeping on top of one another. Such sweet, innocent faces! The war was over. Carrie had won.

We were smitten by a litter of tiny brown tabby kittens. We went back and forth and back and forth on which one to adopt. Finally, we selected one and started home.

AN important point: I, not Carrie, carried the cardboard box with our new female feline. We had already purchased the necessary accouterments - litter box, food, food bowls, toys - so we let our kitty free as soon as we got home. At first, she was timid, gently prancing around, feeling her way about her new habitat. Soon, my home was hers. Soon, I would be the visitor. The cat would make the rules.

For a name, my wife and I scoured the biographical section of Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: Newton. Pedro. Botticelli.... Nice names, but not for this adorable thing. Then we saw Maxine. We liked that.

"Sort of regal," I said.

"Yeah," Carrie said. "Maxie. I like that."

The next 24 hours were among the happiest of our lives. We never left my apartment - a fourth-floor walk-up that was smaller than a tomato can - but nonetheless we were ecstatic. We felt like kids on Christmas morning.

That first night, I put Max, who fit into the palm of my hand, on the pillow and I lay my head on the mattress. I slept with my hand cupped around our new kitten. The years of stolid indifference had been zapped from my memory. There would be cats everywhere: on calendars, place mats, coffee mugs, birthday cards.

Max spent most of the next couple of years in New York. I found a thousand excuses why it was better for Max to stay with me.

"She doesn't want to drive for two hours," I'd say, or "The bird-watching is much better from my window sill."

Looking back, it's hard to point to one thing that explains my radical turnaround. All my anti-cat theories were turned upside down. Personality? We now have two cats, the second a black-and-white fuzz ball, Nala (Simba's girlfriend in "The Lion King"). She and Max have more personality than most people.

Nala is up front with emotion. She talks (OK, meows) incessantly, makes sad faces when she wants something, and says hello by rubbing against you. Max is subtle. She's parsimonious with words and spends considerable time checking out newcomers before coming by to say hello, and then it's with a gentle and brief lick.

Whenever we are with friends and the conversation turns toward cats, Carrie likes to describe in detail how I was, for much of my life, vehemently opposed to them. Indeed, I was fiercely loyal to dogs for ages. But that allegiance would surely have changed long ago had I known what I do now:

Cats walk themselves.

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