March 01, 2009

What my cats taught me about life

I'm going to get a little philosophical today and I make no apologies for that.

Regular readers of this blog will know about my cat (Zeke) and his late brother (Moe). Zeke is now 20 months old and considers himself a grown up. He doesn't do the "wide-eyed-chasing-anything-that-moves-like-a-kitten" thing any more.

Well not often, anyway.

These are the first pets I've ever had myself. My parents had pets, of course, but they always seemed to be at-one removed from me. This is the first opportunity I have really had to observe their behaviour 24/7. One of the things that having cats has taught me is that certain cat behaviour applies to everybody.

See how many of these you recognise:

Anything can be a plaything. It's a matter of using your imagination
When I first got them as kittens I went out and bought the cat scratching posts, the furry mice substitutes, the long sticks with bells and feathers on the end, you know: the toys that were needed to help them develop. These were all bought in an attempt to ensure the kittens had things to play with, weren't bored and could cope at home all day while I was out working.

Well shortly after that I had something delivered for work. It came in a box with those polestyrene 'chips' for packing as well as bubble wrap and binding tape. I took everything apart, opened the box up and took out whatever was in there. Instantly the cats were in there playing with the things. I couldn't coax them out to play with the wind up, fur coated mouse, or the expensive feather and fur chase stick. Nothing. They loved the box, they loved the chips and they adored the bubble wrap. Ever since then I've stopped buying specific cat toys. My cats play with toilet-roll inners, wrapped up potato chip packets, empty boxes (see the picture above) and bits of string. Anything is a plaything if you use your imagination. It's the same at work. Anything can be used for what you want it for - as long as you have the imagination.

Toilet paperImage via Wikipedia

It's the message not the medium
If Zeke wants to go out he might sit at the door and stare at me. He might walk around and meow. Or he might jump up and slap the keychain in the lock with his paw causing it to make a noise. In any case the meaning is the same "I want to go out". What that's actually taught me is that sometimes you have to ignore the medium and focus on the message. With Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Friendfeed etc all vying for attention it is easy to get the same piece of information come across your field of view in different formats. It doesn't invalidate the information, though. Remember "It's the message not the medium"

It may be dead and half eaten - but it's still a gift.
Moe was a real hunter. In a short period of time I've known him come back with: a mouse, 3 fledgling birds, a pigeon, 4 shrews, a frog and a fully grown, half eaten rabbit. He could chase and catch almost anything that moved - I've seen him eyeing up small aircraft and helicopters that passed overhead - and it was probably this hunting instinct that put him in the path of a car on the day he died. But at the end of all this work he would always drag whatever he had found into the house and present it to me. It was a gift (granted, not one I could do a lot with), but it did teach me that sometimes you get things you don't always want but they are given with the best intention. This is the same in life. Not everyone can afford to give large gifts (or indeed any gifts). Sometimes the little things are what count - even if they mean more to the giver than the receiver. Accept them for what they mean, not what they are.

If you have someone who likes your company and somewhere to be together, not much else matters.
The thing about cats is that they know how to manage their owners. Zeke knows I'll let him out when he wants, I'll let him in when he needs, I'll clean his litter try and I'll feed and look after him. In return he asks for nothing more than a little stroke behind the ear now and again (and being worshipped and adored as a god - which is standard for all cats). In life, it's also worth remembering that big houses, fancy cars, highly paid jobs and lots of activities to keep you busy are not a substitute for good quality of life and having friends you can trust and be comfortable with.

Sometimes you can get in the way when you mean to be helpful.
I sit and work at the computer most days. Generally Zeke will head out first thing, case the neighbourhood, visit the usual places and come back to eat. Shortly after that he'll come into my office, walk across the keyboard, sit in my lap and start to rub against me. He purrs, plays and goes to sleep. It disturbs me and stops me working - it is difficult typing with a cat paw placed on your trackpad, moving the cursor all over the place - but I generally let him stay on my lap and work around him. I realise that he doesn't know he's in the way and if I scold him or chastise him for that he won't always understand. He's probably just trying to be helpful, or useful. (In a way he is, I have low blood pressure due to the cat. He always calms me down and stroking him is very therapeutic). But it does make me think of times when, maybe, I've tried to be helpful to other people and it hasn't been received the right way. Knowing that what you intend to happen and what actually happens don't always match is a great way of understanding that you can get in the way when you're meaning to be helpful.

Moe and Zeke taught me a lot.

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