When you're a woman who thinks cats are great, you sometimes have to be careful what you say in mixed company.
Among true friends, for instance, I can openly and unironically ask "Which bowtie should my cat wear on Easter this year?" without the worry they'll misread my question as mid-stop on a downward spiral.
Among regular friends and acquaintances, though, I must first check my edges.
Usually I start with a benign comment to gauge the reaction.
"My cat's meow is unusual ... "
Even if people agree and want to talk further about the meow, I know never to finish with the actual thing I want to say, which is along the lines of "I really do wonder if he has a name he calls me, like a specific meow that's just for me, and maybe I'm not hearing it. It just seems like such a massive miscommunication, one for the ages, you know? What if this whole time our cats have been naming us?"
This -- plus the at least 10 pieces of cat fur on every piece of clothing I own -- is why I am sometimes called a Cat Lady.
I'm not one, though. I swear.
Neither is Sandy Dimke.
But I still had to make sure.
"No. I'm ....... no. I'm not a Cat Lady."
It's a natural question, and not the first time she's had to answer it.
"I like cats. But we don't have a cat right now. We pet sit."
Dimke, who lives in Seabrook, is a professional photographer and specializes in fine-art photography. Her volunteer work includes taking portrait-quality photos of shelter cats. She is also the creator of "Cats of Beaufort," a short compilation of stories and photos that was recently published and is now available to benefit Tabby House.
And Tabby House is the all-cat shelter in Beaufort that has a live web-cam.
I sometimes watch this live web-cam in the hopes that a handsome man will one day walk in. I have the trailer ready for the biopic of our inevitable romance: "In a world, where a single man accidentally walks into a cat shelter. (Loud, jarring phone ring) 'Don't you dare let him leave!' a woman shouts at the stunned volunteer who picked up the phone. 'Don't you dare!' Thirty minutes later, the woman runs through the shelter doors. The handsome man speaks, 'I will take Sparkle, the orange tabby hissing at me from the top of that bookcase ... and this woman's hand in marriage. (Cut to altar, couple kissing and bridal party of cats)."
I can't say for sure, but something tells me Dimke would not go to see this movie. If this were a real-world scenario, though, she'd be the ideal wedding photographer.
"She has become amazingly good at getting cats to pose for her," said Tabby House volunteer Diane Voge.
And yes, there is an art to this.
Dimke is a founder of the Photography Club of Beaufort, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and she works with the Beaufort Arts Association. Before she and her husband, Russ, retired to the Beaufort area, though, she focused largely on architectural photography and created sales brochures for high-end real estate outside the New York City area.
Never once did she have to wave around a feather to get the right shot of a Fairfield or Litchfield county home.
"You can't say 'Siiiiiiiit' or 'Staaaaaay' to a cat," Dimke said. "So a feather really works."
In "Cats of Beaufort," Dimke's portraits are accompanied by short stories of how the cats came into their humans' lives.
And they are told from the perspectives of the cats.
"I was a feral cat found by a Georgia vet, and I was her guinea pig," says Coal in his essay. "Yes, I was the first cat that she operated on and neutered."
In another essay, Dewey gives us some much-needed insight into cat behavior: "I will jump on any available lap, even if the human appears to be otherwise occupied."
Ah, so they do see it when we're busy.
Dimke first started taking photos of the shelter cats because she knew the power of a good portrait. The goal is to make the cats adoptable -- especially the cats that might not enjoy having a cellphone camera stuck in their faces, which is usually every cat ever.
"I photograph the ones who might need an extra push to get them out the door," she said. "I try to bring the cat to its potential. I try to find some way to make that cat look irresistible. The cat has to look irresistible."
For an hour once every week or so, Dimke comes to Tabby House. Over the past few years, she has figured out how to get a photo in which the cat seems to be staring directly into our eyes with an expression that says "I could do without you. Can you say the same about me?"
Cats might own their humans, but behind the camera Dimke is the boss of these cats. How she gets there is good old-fashioned feline trickery.
And she never gets scratched. (Well, there was one time, but "it wasn't personal," she said.)
Dimke knows the best time to take a cat's picture is after it's been fed but before it naps.
She knows that cats are largely unimpressed beings.
"They don't respond well to noises," she said.
And she knows that cats don't like to get dressed up under most circumstances.
"The only time I've ever done a costume was a very small Santa hat ... and I put it on the cat when it was sleeping."
If you want to take good pictures of your own cats, Dimke suggests using natural light to your advantage.
"And shake something in front of them."
The goal with "Cats of Beaufort," Dimke says, is to raise money for the shelter. The book was created solely for this purpose. Public funding for Tabby House, which is part of the Beaufort County Animal Shelter, will be phased out next year.
Tabby House is unusual in that it has a large, open-floor format where the cats can roam freely and socialize among each other and their potential owners.
"When I first entered (Tabby House)," she said. "I really felt like this was a good idea."
It's a feline Shangri-La, to be sure. There are couches and TVs and lots of play areas.
And let's not forget that live web-cam.
Turns out I'm not the only fan.
"One cat (in the book) that was adopted from Tabby House?" Dimke told me. "The owners have a monitor set up at their home now so the cat can watch the cats at the shelter."
Makes perfect sense to me.
But again, I'm not a Cat Lady.
GET THE BOOK
"Cats of Beaufort," by Sandy Dimke, is $15 and available for sale at Tabby House, 2621 Boundary St., Beaufort, and Beaufort Art Association, 913 Bay St., Beaufort. All profits from the book benefit Tabby House, an all-cat shelter. Details: http://www.dimkephotoart.com/cats-of-beaufort/