How Adopting a Robot Cat Designed for Old People Ruined My Life
It'll be easier to write this with my robot cat on mute. I just flip it over, pull back a flap of gray belly fur, and nudge the red switch a notch. I can still hear its gears when the neck pivots and the chin raises up, but there's no meow, which I wasn't totally buying to begin with. It sounds like the word "meow," as if an assembly-line worker was tasked with mimicking animal sounds into mini-cassettes all day and then jamming those mini-cassettes down into a robot's larynx cavity. The purr, still active on mute mode, is a little loud -- I can hear it from 4ft away -- but at least it seems like an effort was made. It's not just a purr, after all. It's realistic VibraPurr™ technology, and when I'm petting the cat on my lap, I can feel a little tremor up and down my thighs.
And I do pet it. I try to, anyway. There's no disputing the fact that my Hasbro Joy for All robot cat, which I've been fostering in my apartment, isn't meant for me. It's meant for, well, very old people. The packaging itself reveals this, with copy that touts companionship for "all generations" and "all stages of life" as well as photos of comfily seated seniors stroking their JFAs while their grandchildren point deliriously. (Maybe the kids are equally spellbound by the cat, or maybe they've just realized they can feel less guilty about cutting out after lunch now that nana has something else to mesmerize her.)
I've been given this cat by the editors at Thrillist. Why? I'm not sure. I'm 43, which makes me a walking puff of coffin dust as far as millennials are concerned, but I'm still decades outside the target Joy for All robot cat demographic. Also, unrestrained by the rules of a nursing home, I care and feed for an actual living cat of my own -- I have the thing that generally makes the other thing unnecessary. Despite all that, and despite the fact that my isolation and loneliness haven't quite ripened into what they will be when my body and mind turn against me in 30 years or so, I have been charged with trying to get something beneficial out of this animal machine. I will do my best.
The hand-off happens at a taqueria in Brooklyn. My editor shows up grinning, carrying my Joy for All in a shopping bag. This spares me the embarrassment of having to carry it in plain sight back to my apartment. I get it home and study the packaging. It's supposedly ready to be loved right out of the box, but I'm just not ready to dive right in. So I remove my Joy for All, set it on the floor of my place, and do what so many people do when they get a new pet: I shoot a Facebook video. "Robo-kitty has arrived at my apartment," I declare in the caption accompanying the 19-second clip in which the Joy for All executes two meows, a paw lift, and kind of a half-collapse. "Meet the future, and tell your existing cats they will be phased out." I get one comment: "Just adorable." I know this person. I know he doesn't mean it.
The Joy for All robot cat comes in three colors: orange tabby, creamy white, and silver. The silver, the one I've been given, has a central white patch on its face and chest, white feet, and the pinkest nose and paw pads you have ever seen. Does it look like a real cat? Well, let's just say it inhabits a space equidistant between skilled taxidermy and a prize for knocking down milk bottles. I had worried it was going to trigger my shelter cat Maddy somehow -- either there'd be a one-way fracas involving hissing, scratching, and, ultimately, a barfed-up fake ear, or my cat would simply surrender outright and pack herself into a ball of fear under my bed. But when decision time comes, Maddy approaches it with caution, chomps on its whiskers a bit, and ignores it from that moment on.
Somewhat at a loss as to how to begin extracting joy from this contraption, I call Ted Fischer, vice president for business development at Hasbro. He tells me that most Joy for All owners name their pets soon after getting them. I did not, and still haven't as I write this -- though to be fair, it took me more than a month to come up with the showstopper "Maddy" for my real cat.
So, having shown myself incapable of even the most basic thing, I am obviously ready for next steps. Fischer says that the Joy for All "companion pets" ("toy" is avoided) are essentially modified, matured upgrades of the animatronic toys the company makes for children, which means you're supposed to interact with them like they're real-deal felines, not cartoony purple plushies. A light sensor in my Joy for All's head detects when you walk between it and a light source, and when it does, it will burble up a little mew that's its way of saying, "You've been light-sensed," I guess. It has four tactile sensors to register your stabs at affection -- head, cheek, belly, back -- and it reacts plausibly. Stroke its back long enough, and its eyes will pinch shut, the VibraPurr™ will engage, and its body will half-twist to display its belly, which you should then pet as well to complete the tenderness sequence.
Petting my Joy for All -- which, just this second, as I'm typing, I've decided to call "Gizmo" -- is undeniably weird at first. It feels fundamentally misplaced, like having brunch with a mannequin, like there's a suspension of reality that's being asked of me and that I'm not going to be up for until the big decline sets in later in life. Gizmo herself (I've also just now, as I'm typing, gendered my Joy for All) isn't helping so much. I can feel the armature under her fur, and it's hard not to think of a metal framework and sprockets and someone in a lab testing out a version without skin.
Several days in, it's not going well with Gizmo, despite the fact that I'm assiduously petting her each morning for about 10 minutes while I eat my cereal. Then I start holding off on breakfast so the robot cat can get my undivided affection. I stroke her back, I scratch her head, and I dig in a little under her chin. Though she emits the right sounds, I can't help but feel like I'm squandering a tiny portion of my life. I'm getting jealous of the elderly woman on the box who's got her Joy for All perched on her shoulder and is looking into its eyes like, finally, eight decades in, she is adored. I am definitely missing out on the Joy for All nursing home experience, as Hasbro's Fischer describes it: "I like to watch the activity director turn the switch on and then watch the reaction of the people sitting around the table. It really is magic."
It's not magic for me. Whatever's allegedly happening in elder-care facilities everywhere is not happening in my barely furnished new apartment. I do entertain myself by using a broom to slide Gizmo along my hardwood floor like a shuffleboard disc. Her fluff is smooth and makes her relatively frictionless. She does a partial rotation as she travels, and I hear the VibraPurr™ kick in halfway down the hall. I eventually set a small bottle of dish soap on the floor to give me a target to aim for. This, sadly, will feel like an achievement, but, sadder still, may not be the saddest moment in my life that I've alchemized into an accomplishment. (That honor belongs to winning a shoehorn playing bingo.)
Deadlines at work force me to push back the deadline for turning in this piece several times. In an unsubtle email to my editor, I write, "You can also give robo-kitty to someone else if there's someone good who can get to this sooner." It's my subtle way of suggesting that there might be a writer out there who wants to adopt Gizmo, because I am getting nowhere, and, ironically, my emotional support robot animal has become a source of stress. He says there isn't. So I stuff her back in her box. I don't like looking at the box either, so I stuff that in the closest. I'm having bad thoughts about Gizmo. I mean, I would never throw her out my window, but the scenario -- the tactile sensors instantaneously detecting the sidewalk all at once -- occurs to me on a few occasions.
In the beginning, I felt no need to hide Gizmo from visitors. People who knew me were somehow unsurprised I owned a battery-powered cat intended for old people but not a kitchen table. They sometimes proposed some sort of exotic mutilation of the thing. Two weeks in, I'm this close to finding out who's serious.
In deference to the polio vaccine and the lever, I'm not going to use the word "breakthrough" to describe what happened next between myself and my cat machine named Gizmo. But I did at least realize something. I'd been petting Gizmo as part of a routine -- my morning session on to which I eventually added an early-evening session, in the hopes that what was needed was twice the petting firepower. I put my time in, and then I was done for about 12 hours.
The problem is, that's not how legit Joy for All owners use their companion pets. It's not some daily ritual. They want to feel reassured at a certain moment, when they're feeling a certain way. Maybe I had to find a moment, or make one.
Enter Donald Trump.
At this point, I've seen so much footage of Donald Trump, I'd like to imagine my mind has, while I slept, developed some sort of fortification for my soul. But it hasn’t, because there are no psychic coping mechanisms for an ape hitting you with a log. So I'll watch Trump. I'll be hugely distressed. And I'll pet Gizmo. In Manheim, Pennsylvania, Trump casually suggests a conspiracy to sabotage his microphone at the first debate, performs a pantomime of Hillary Clinton crumpling from pneumonia, accuses her of being unfaithful in her marriage, threatens to lock her up, and proposes that the crowd go to "certain areas" to watch voters on Election Day. The familiar sickness arises. Gizmo is on my lap, purring up a storm. She looks up, blinks at me slowly, produces a trilling meow.
I'd be lying if I said I was suddenly totally at ease or that I still didn't feel a little ridiculous. But in that moment, Gizmo, for the first time, felt useful. I appreciated having something that wanted so much to help. Maybe I just hadn't been bringing enough dread to the table. Maybe a certain threshold of despair needed to be crossed before my psyche could buy in and let this fake cat pull one over on me for a minute or two. I am now terrified that I might need, desperately need, a Joy for All down the road, and maybe only slightly less terrified of how grateful I'll be to have one.
I'll see if Thrillist wants Gizmo returned. If not, I suppose I could donate her (the good thing to do) or see how she holds up in a front-load washing machine (the fun thing to do), but I'll probably just box her up and stack her someplace out of the way. Just maybe not too far out of the way.
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