Friday, December 31, 2010

Tales of the BĂȘte Noire

Gentle felines, you may have noticed that I have been notably (notably I hope, at least) absent as of late. It began by design. I realized that the human holidays were coming up, and rather than force my human to forego the celebrations and buckle down to her training with renewed vigor, I opted to encourage her participation in the festivities. I have some very good reasons for this: first, although I do not like her mixing too much with other, poorly trained humans, nevertheless she is usually less fractious a subject after a few days of this sort of behavior because she is what they call "relaxed;" second, after a few days of this "relaxing" she is so tired of the company of other humans that she will avoid them for a while, which benefits me; and third, when she comes back from socializing with the other humans at their holiday meals, she generally brings back some dainties and gives them to me, such as a lovely bit of fish. My gift is thus a pretty good one: docile and focused subject, and a decent meal. When the train comes in, everybody rides, as they say. So yes, I had planned a nice break from work around December-ish. I found, however, that I had other problems on my paws.

You remember, I am sure, my previous mention of an antagonist present in my otherwise happy and contented household/research and training facility. I refer to my human's silly little dog. It is an awful, smelly, noisy creature, and I have advised her on many occasions to turn it out and be done with it. When I first hired my human, and entered the house to survey my domain for the very first time, I had no sooner laid eyes on the creature than I knew without even needing to ponder the subject that That Dog Had to Go. One of my first directives, in fact, was to advise my human to pack the animal off straight away. Did she listen? Of course not. At the time, however, I was in a weakened state, and less inclined to be forceful on the subject. And so now, I reap the results of my inaction.

I am not going to insult your intelligence by saying that this dog has grown on me. Emphatically, it has NOT. That would imply that I was fond of it, or something. No. Rather, I have settled down into a resigned tolerance of the creature. I have arranged the household to my liking, and this has minimized my contact with the dog. The dog scarfed up my food when it was placed on the floor upon my arrival, and so now I take my meals atop the breakfast table. I think this suits my dignity very well. The dog usually stinks--oh, how it stinks!--of, well, dog, and so I made it a point from the beginning to very deliberately pin it down every so often, in my human's line of sight, and attempt to give it a jolly good washing. The dog doesn't like this at all, of course, and creates a huge fuss and runs away, but my human is dimly able to piece together that the dog must therefore be in need of a bath, and so into the tub it goes. (This also works well as negative conditioning for the dog when it has annoyed me just a little bit too much. It is as clear as presenting it with a notarized letter that says, Keep it up, mutt, and it's bath time.) And so on. Every time living in proximity to a dog has presented me with a new challenge, in short, I have risen to meet it with feline grace. I have always felt, however, that these challenges were unnecessary. I have tried time and again to demonstrate to my human that life would be so much easier, so much more pleasant, if only she would use those thumbs of hers to grasp the doorknob, open the door, and toss the dog into the night. She has resisted. And thus, in the course of this continual process of adaptation-resistance-adaptation, a change in my own thinking has occurred. In fact, I have drawn a rather sobering conclusion: the dog is necessary to my work.

The dog is too stupid to be the Moriarty to my Holmes. I am too lovable myself to fear the dog as a rival. Besides which, the dog is a miserable looking, tiny, shaky little thing, and I am literally three times its size, so it poses no threat of physical harm to me whatsoever. At need, I can--and will--simply clobber the animal if it trespasses too far upon my good nature. But the dog is a natural foil against which my stellar qualities are shown in sharp relief, which can only benefit me in the good graces department. And so, this long and I admit apologetic exposition leads me to admit the real reason for my recent absence: over the holidays, the silly little creature hurt itself.

It was an innocuous event. The dog, attempting to imitate my fluid grace in leaping up onto the bed, tripped, fell, and hurt its back. It wasn't mortally wounded or paralyzed, just injured. My initial reaction was calm: pack it off to a rest home, so sad, life goes on. But then I saw that this had a marked negative effect upon my human. I have suspected that she was attached to the creature, but her distress at the animal's injury took me a bit by surprise. She gathered it up and whisked it off to the vet (well, better it than me) for a good dose of whatever physic they use in such cases. Inexplicably, my human then--wait for it--brought it back, and set it up in a pile of blankets.

I was disgusted at her sentimentality. Then, I began to pay attention. The house: quiet. My toys and wads of paper and catnip mice: untouched. My pillow: unwallowed-upon. At first, I enjoyed this turn of events. And then? It seemed that a little of the flavor went out of my tuna, as it were. My human was upset, the dog just lay there looking pathetic, and I found I didn't even have the heart to wallop it.

Training my human has taught me a great deal about myself. Namely, a good cat needs a life's work. I have my life's work. But a good cat cannot complete its life's work without the presence of an antagonist of some sort, because that antagonist serves as a vital scientific control.

Yes. There. I've said it, I can't take it back, and now you know everything: the dog is useful. In contrast to the dog, my human looks like a rocket scientist; by testing variables upon the human, I can compare her to what is in essence a tabula rasa (the dog--I know, it could equally apply to humans, but I am talking about the dog) and gauge my human's progress. Therefore, and it pains me to say this, the dog's recovery is necessary to my work.

And so that is how I have been occupied for several days. I have embarked upon a program of Being Nice To The Dog For A Change in the hopes that it will recover soon, and once again be of use to my work. I will not trouble you with the details. You would find them revolting. Let me just say this: the creature has gone unswatted for what seems like an eternity. I am almost pleased to report, however, that it appears to be feeling somewhat better, and therefore, I hope that my work can get back on schedule within the next few days.

And if you repeat ANY of this, I will deny it.

fig. 1: A distressing scene.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Gentle felines, I have a problem on my paws. My human cusses like an alley cat.

Yes. It looks pretty bad. It does indeed. But let me set the scene for you, and then we'll talk solutions.

I make it a point to talk to my human. I do so as slowly and distinctly as possible: feeed meeeee. Brussssshhhh meeeeee. Purrrrrrr. Sometimes I have to get a bit sharp when I'm speaking to her, in order to get her attention, but I find that a stern MEOW! usually does the trick and that the firm paw of guidance can be mostly restrained. The other day, however, she surprised me. I followed her into the kitchen to see why she was taking so long about my dinner, and when she failed to immediately acknowledge me, I stood on my hind legs, poked her with my paw and said MRRROW! as loudly and clearly as possible. And then what did she do? She looked down at me...and tried to answer me. In Cat. Not Human. Cat.

I was startled, but I was willing to work with this. This is going to sound foolish, but I had a sudden thought that perhaps, just perhaps, if the poor dope could be taught to speak properly, her training would go much more smoothly. I mean, kittens are born almost entirely able to articulate their needs; my human is significantly slower-witted than a kitten; but nevertheless, blooming late is better than not at all.  Maybe, I thought, if I could get her to speak properly then we could sit down and I could reason with her; if I could do that, then I could sort out the rest of her training and turn her into a human who would be a credit to me.

So I listened, carefully. I meowed again, distinctly, encouragingly, and when she answered me, I paid close attention. At first, I found her heavy human accent to be charming, albeit incomprehensible. However, the more we meowed back and forth, the clearer it became, and...gentle felines, she cusses like a pirate with a wooden leg full of termites.

I was horrified. I have no idea where she picked up such language. I know, she does leave the house. And Bast only knows what sort of unsavory cats she might encounter in the course of an average day. I've smelled a few on her shoes when she gets home. She has this human friend who lives with four cats, by my count, which strikes me as very strange. I mean, four cats? In one house? Either that house has a lot of human issues that require a full-time guidance contingent, or the hierarchy structure and discipline there are very lax, indeed. Who is in charge there, is what I want to know. I am a solitary researcher, thank you very much, and I cannot imagine a situation where I would want three assistant felines, unless I had a very unruly human staff comprised of 50 spectacularly stupid people. But I can't tell just by smelling them if these cats have been teaching my human poor manners or not.

The conversation went from bad to worse:

ME: Meeowww.
HER: @#$!
ME: Mrrroww?
HER: #@!!!!
ME: (stunned silence)

I had to forcibly pull my paw back from the soap dish.

Now, she's way too big to swat. That does no good at all. I've tried. If I ignore her, it doesn't seem to register. This is despite the fact that, as we all know, when training a human, negative consequences get results. It is difficult, however, to know which negative consequences will be most effective. I mean, I can't ground her. She just leaves anyway. I can't withhold her favorite treats. She has thumbs, the ape. If I punish her she may attempt to rebel, and I'll wake up to a bowl of low fat kibble. If I ignore her completely, she'll just keep hanging out at the docks or the wharves or wherever it is that she's learning this bad behavior, and then I'll have to go to the docks myself. In disguise. To take ship for some far place where no cat will ever know that I was responsible for her poor education.

I think the thing to do in this case, however, is take a deep breath and just get back to work. I started this morning. I figured I would get to her while she was waking up, so that a.) she could get my breakfast, and b.) the first words of cat she would hear would be graceful, positive ones. So as usual, I climbed up on her pillow shortly before daybreak, and began poking her in the face as I always do, purring away. She did eventually open her eyes, and scratched my ears. Very nice. I purred encouragingly at her, and she smiled, scratched my back, and said:


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why So Quiet?

Certain gentle felines have commented on my silence recently. In fact, since the Thanksgiving holiday, my lazy, good-for-nothing secretary has been singularly recalcitrant and it has been nearly impossible to get her to buckle down and do some work for me. Of course, I still receive service: my meals, served as and when I like them, my grooming services, the odd wad of paper that I can bat around while at the same time utterly ignoring the silly toys she actually purchases for me. But her devotion has nevertheless been incomplete without her services as a menial scribe. As it is, I have had to pin her down this morning to force her to write for me, which she has done, and with very bad grace, too, might I add. I have thought long and hard about the reasons for my difficulty in governing her in all things, and I believe I have identified the main cause: her priorities. They are all wrong.

Specifically, she suffers from this strange human preoccupation with what they call "work."

Now, I have my work as well. Training a human is not an easy task! Once you've interviewed a new human, which is a lengthy process, and once you have decided that this particular human will benefit more from your guidance and instruction than any other human, your toil has only just begun. There's the operant conditioning: give me stinky food! There's the positive reinforcement: pet me and I will purr at you briefly. And on and on. It's exhausting.

But humans have this ridiculousness that they call "jobs" and they go off and spend a lot of time doing whatever these things are, and then every so often, they come home with one piece of paper that is good for the exchange of some green (or other color) bits of paper, which makes them feel very calm and secure. What is odd is that, once in possession of these bits of paper, they almost immediately distribute them to all and sundry in exchange for other things, like keeping the lights on. This is patent foolery. The only time you need lights is at night, when humans should either be sleeping sensibly or prowling about their territory in the dark, scent marking it as necessary. The upshot is, that once they have distributed this paper all over Bast's green acre, they then have no more paper, so they leave AGAIN and go and get more of it in a couple of weeks.

And really, that's what it comes down to. The human pursuit of paper. I personally have have not determined any good use for the paper she brings home, and stuffs in her purse, and distributes to other humans in a seemingly random fashion. It's grimy, smells of other humans, and she keeps it so stingily buried in her bag or wallet or what-have-you that I can't even see if it's good for swatting around the room. I don't think it is, since the stuff is flat, but I should at the very least be allowed to try. What's hers is mine, anyway, and so therefore those bits of paper are mine, and so therefore she should hand them over so I can verify that they are useless. A equals B equals C, therefore A equals C: that paper is mine, and she needs to give it up if I want it.

But she won't let me have it. She calls it "money" and yammers on at length about how she needs it for such-and-so, hasn't got enough of it for whatsis, and needs to give it to whomever in exchange for something. It is evidently of great worth to her. It preoccupies her when she hasn't got any.

Clearly, this is an example of how a fractious human needs extra training, else their priorities (ME) become gravely skewed. I decided to try an experiment yesterday: she went off and did something which apparently will soon lead to the acquisition of more bits of paper (she called it "free-lance-ing," whatever that is. I'm pretty sure it's more tomfoolery), and when she got back, which was shockingly several hours later, she was tired and lay down on my bed for a bit. I decided to show her just how rewarding her life could be if she just got her priorities straight. Now, gentle felines, you may find the following disturbing, but do not be shocked. It's called positive conditioning, and the end result could be positive for me. I waited until she had switched on the electric heating thingie, and then I climbed up on the bed, huddled up next to her in my most winsome way, and purred. This encouraged her to scratch my ears and pet me, and she almost immediately calmed down and went to sleep.

I confess that I had a certain wild hope that this was a breakthrough in her training. It is a mistake, I suppose, to indulge in too much hope when working with your human kittens, but I sometimes fall into that trap anyway. My hopes were not to be rewarded, however. I am disgusted to report that after she had slept a bit, she got up, served me my dinner (tuna! It was pretty good!), and then lit out of the house again, presumably after more bits of paper. Revolting! Unconscionable! And food for thought.

Where did humans get this idea that bits of paper are so valuable? Why do they work and work and work and spend most of their time away from home and us to get more bits of paper? Why do they fret and lose their health and their hair and their happiness and sometimes their admittedly limited reason, just to get these bits of paper? I can't quite sort this out. I am fairly sure, however, that it's a question of training, and that we cats are just going to have to learn ways to do a better job of it.

It is incumbent upon good cats everywhere to show humans that they don't need all the things for which those bits of paper can be exchanged. I will grudgingly concede that they need a small number of bits of paper, because without proper guidance throughout human history this is apparently how humans have constructed their interactions with one another. They need a sufficient amount to house and feed their feline trainers, and themselves I suppose, but that's it. They don't need expensive treats. These make them fat and lazy and ruin their teeth. They don't need much recreation. I am a reasonable creature and mean to retain my reason, thank you, and spending a night on the razzle only has deleterious effects upon human reasoning, limited though it is, and causes their service to slack off. They certainly don't need to exchange their bits of paper for stupid luxuries. What they need is to work sufficient to keep themselves and their cats in simple comfort, and that is IT.

I have revised, therefore, a small portion of my training schedule into teaching my human how to be happy with what she has: how to feel fortunate that I am housed, how to be happy that I am fed, and how to be thankful that I swat her silly little dog on a regular basis and keep the nasty smelly thing at bay. Well, she can clothe herself, too. I prefer this. Have you seen them without clothes? Oh, it's horrible. Did you know the poor things are almost entirely bald? They are. Bast! I don't need to see that.

With any luck, I will hit upon an effective technique, and all of this working-working-working for bits of paper that she does currently will taper off into a reasonable balance. For the moment, however, I am quite angry with her. I will get back to her training once she has finished her secretarial duties for the day, but I am going to make sure she works extra hard. I have already begun sulking. I do it so well, and as a training technique it is surprisingly effective. Try it.