WRITING SHORT: 43/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Living with two house cats is instructive. Our condo is their universe. They know in intimate detail the three upstairs rooms and two bathrooms, the laundry room, closets and linen closets. Downstairs is a long open space, from kitchen and family room through dining room to living room and front door. They’ve commandeered all of it – counters, tables, chairs, sofas, cat tree – plus the utility room and guest bathroom.

They also enjoy the open porch off the kitchen, one flight up from the ground, with birds at the feeders, and bugs, and the occasional squirrel. They can explore the garage, the furnished basement and, more rarely, the unfinished storage section next to the finished part of the basement.

But that’s it. That’s all Sophie, the younger, knows of the world. When the weather and my schedule permit, Sasha, the older, has sometimes been outside on a leash. So she knows there’s also a heaven beyond the front door, carpeted with grass, orchestrated with birdsong, and decorated with fragrant bushes and trees. We’ve never crossed the street though, and she regards the occasional quiet car moving slowly through our residential neighborhood with grave suspicion. Moreover, getting to heaven always requires me.

Jokes about cats letting us live in their houses are ubiquitous among cat owners, and I’m no exception. But joking aside, our cats live at our pleasure. They’re here because we want them here; we could wipe out their known universe by giving them away. That will also occur to a lesser degree when Bill and I move elsewhere as we grow still older. And given our respective ages, one or both of our relatively young cats may well outlive us. Then life as they know it would end when we die.

I’ve set aside money in my will for their care, and stated the hope they can stay together. But such concerns are mine, not theirs. They lack knowledge of a greater universe, a different tomorrow. They have no fears, except of loud noises. They simply enjoy what’s now: treats, smells, washing themselves, petting.

Even though we’re more aware of what’s across the street, foresee some of what’s coming, we might learn from our cats. It’s a wise human who, like a cat, can simply enjoy what’s now.

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6 thoughts on “WRITING SHORT: 43/50

  1. I often wonder what cats retain in their minds. They have exquisitely honed memories for unpleasant experiences (watch them hide when you get out the carrier, if they hate the vet), but how much remains with them of past environments once they’ve got used to the new? I often wonder. All mine are rescues who once either survived outdoors on their own or were so neglected by previous households that it was nearly the same thing. Only one, who came in young, seems curious about The Big World outside the front door. Do they have pictures in their minds? Do they recall the nests of baby rats they (probably) cleaned out?

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    • Of course you’re right, Sledpress, that a cat’s past experiences influence its responses to what is happening now. Feral kittens not handled often by humans in rescue shelters before the age of 7 weeks will never become cuddly cats. (Early life without human contact informs preference for a later life free of human contact.) In the home, the sight of the treat jar brings both my cats running towards me. (Good past experience with sight of treat jars.) The sight of the carrier apparently sends your cats running in the other direction. (Bad past experience with hated vet.) Cats also learn from experience where to go for what they want at the moment. When hungry, mine come to me — the food source — and miaow. When they want to get out on the porch, they sit by the sliding glass door and wait. (The dimmer one seems to believe it will miraculously open if she’s patient; the smarter one has tried to reach up for the latch, but can’t quite make it.)

      But I don’t think a cat’s past experiences qualify as “memories” in the sense that human memories do. It’s hard to believe they are capable of reliving painful past moments while basking by the fire; yearning for a particularly fine meal when their bellies are full of the same old, same old; worrying all the time about dangers the future might bring because dangers were averted in their past.

      So I do believe they live in the now — a now occasionally punctuated by a trigger to action based on experience, but otherwise unruffled by the painful past recollections or troubling forebodings that is the lot of those of us with human memories and the ability to think about them.

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      • Procedural vs. declarative memory, roughly. Cues will evoke responses and a frequently cued or badly traumatized animal will probably hardwire a response (like the ferals). They do develop personalities though, so something is keeping a bit of a record. My speculations are probably mainly poetry — but I’ll always imagine the rat-nest massacres… 😉

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      • Let your imagination run rampant: your cats will never contradict you on the rats! However, the personality differences — which are noticeable to any owner of more than one cat — may certainly derive in part from historical record-keeping (if I can call it that in a cat), but some of it may also be genetic. When we picked up our second kitten three years after the first — same breed, same color — I was surprised her appearance and kitten behavior differed from what I remembered of Sasha, the older one, as a kitten, even though they came from the same breeder. (Different mothers and fathers, though.) The breeder said Sasha’s personality, as we described it, was like her mother’s, and that Sophie, the second one, looked just like her father. For all I know, she has continued her development guided somewhat by his genes.

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