Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keep Away


One of Quint's favorite toys is the little red locking-rings that you have to remove from a one-gallon milk container to unscrew the top. The first time we dropped one on the floor, he batted it around and chased it as if it were a live animal. He played with it for hours, that first time, all by himself, all over the house. I suppose it satisfied some hunting instinct that is hard-wired into a cat’s brain, but it looked to me like he was just having fun. Like he was pretending it was alive and catching it and letting it go, and then catching it again, only to release it for another round. I like watching him play. He is so completely engaged with playing when he is doing it. Completely. It’s the Zen of a cat, that ability to be completely doing whatever activity he has decided to do. He hasn’t perfected it, as he can be distracted momentarily, or even longer, but he never forgets, and after dealing with whatever it might be that distracted him, breakfast, a noise at the window, a knock at the door, he goes right back to single-mindedly doing whatever it was he was doing before he was distracted.

Everything in his world, which, granted, is pretty small, is a potential cat toy. And until he has explored it thoroughly and either classified it as “toy” or “other,” he never gives up on it. If he sees a small object on a shelf above his current jumping height limit, he doesn’t categorized it as “unreachable,” but as “not reachable at this time.” He will go away and think about this new thing and consider his options. How will he reach it? Can someone in the household be encouraged to move it to a more accessible place? It there something nearby that can assist in obtaining the height necessary to reach the thing? I know he is thinking about it. I can see him staring off into space, imagining solutions to the problem, calculating heights and distances and traction coefficients, working out the cat physics of the problem. He never gives up, and he never forgets. If I walk over to that place, he watches me and he makes that noise that says “I want that.” I don’t always know what it is he wants, but he knows, and the “I want that” noise is only used for that demand. There are other noises for other communications.

Playing is ofttimes an individual activity, especially late at night. I hear him dashing about the house, pursuing phantom mice and rats, practicing his night vision skills, dodging obstacles in the living room, leaping from couch to love seat to floor to rug to counter top to the forbidden tabletop to the bookshelf under the dining room window. Once in awhile, he leaps up on our bed, just to make sure we are still there, and then it’s back to dashing about the house. Finally, when all the phantoms have been caught and killed and he is satisfied that all is safe within the house, he will come and join us in bed. Sometimes he sleeps on the pillow above Carol’s head, more often her curls up between our feet. That way he can make sure that if anyone moves, he will immediately know about it.

But playing is always more fun when there is someone else to play with. Since Quint doesn’t have any cat playmates, he has to settle for his human friends. Sometimes that is Carol, other times it’s me, and lately both of us get into the game. The game is a variation of “Keep Away.” Now, Keep Away as a game can be rather cruel, in that, usually the person who is being kept away is an unwilling victim. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it occurs when two people grab something valuable or necessary from a third person. The two grabbers then proceed to toss the grabbed item back and forth between them in such a way as to make it very difficult, or just barely impossible, for the victim to retrieve it. The cruelty comes into play as the two perpetrators must make it appear that there is some hope of the victim regaining the grabbed item. Of course, no such hope exists, but the apparency is important to the longevity of the game and the cruel delight of the grabbers and tossers. It ends when the victim collapses into tears and apathy, which was the purpose of the game in the first place, at least as it was played when I was a child. Usually, I was the victim.

The variation of Keep Away that we play with Quint would be better called Jump Away. There is no cruelty involved, but there is the element of danger, not to Quint, but to Carol and I. It’s a waiting and observation game, but it is also a test of each player’s reflexes. Here’s how it goes. I get on one end of our rather narrow kitchen, Carol gets on the other about eight feet away from me. Usually we are both kneeling. One of us has previously gathered from all over the house, the aforementioned red rings which he so enjoys chasing, three of them is good, four is even better. Quint, who knows this game, sits or lays on the floor between us, waiting. It begins when the possessor of the rings entices Quint by twirling the ring on the floor with a finger. When he begins to stalk the ring, but before he pounces on it and the twirling finger, you toss it into the air toward the other end of the kitchen. You see where the element of danger enters into the game. If you don’t pay close attention, your finger, hand, and arm could be mistaken for a cat toy and bloodshed can occur, not maliciously, of course, but cats don’t really understand the softness of human skin. Cats have hide and a thick layer of protective fur. When cats play with other cats, they don’t usually injure each other because of the fur and the toughness of their hide. No so with us humans, so one must be alert. As I said, this is a excellent test of each player's reflexes. Now, as the ring is, hopefully, sailing through the air, Quint’s part of the game is to catch it. He uses three different methods of doing this, the leap, the flip and the roll. The leap is the most satisfying for all the players. He jumps into the air and catches the ring in his teeth or paws, throws it to the ground and proceeds to ritually kill the poor thing. The flip is fun, too. He’ll let it sail over his head and catch it as it flies away from him, it’s a jump and turn kind of motion. It’s not as high a jump as the leaping technique, but it has a greater difficulty factor. The roll maneuver is executed towards either the beginning or the end of the game. At the beginning of the game, part of the enticement ritual involves tossing the rings to him while he’s laying on the floor. He’ll roll and reach out and grab them as they fly by. Once you’ve got him reaching and grabbing, you can proceed to the leaping and flipping parts of the game. When he gets tired of the leaping and flipping, the game goes back to rolling, reaching and grabbing. This game usually goes on for upwards of fifteen minutes or so, and is played each evening after Quint has had his dinner and his teeth brushed. Someday, someone should make a video of this activity. Someday.

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