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My Cat, Master of Intermittent Reinforcement

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

All my life, in my loves and in my friendships, I have preferred a reliable stream of constant affection to sudden passionate outpourings followed by unpredictable periods of silent withdrawal.

So why, you ask, do I have a cat?

My little red dog, Bisou, provides the constancy. Whether I\’m happy, sad, bored, or impatient, she\’s right there, next to me, quietly waiting for my next move. On the other hand,Telemann, the gray cat, treats me in ways that I would never tolerate in a member of my own species.

Take, for example, nap time. When they see me put the special siesta afghan on the bed in the afternoon, Telemann and Bisou come running. I lie down, pull the blanket up to my shoulders, and Bisou subsides by my right leg.

But now where is Telemann? He\’s on the windowsill, looking at the clouds as if he\’s never seen them before.

I really want him to get settled before I doze off, because it\’s upsetting to be awakened by eleven pounds of cat landing on my chest like an asteroid crashing into Siberia. So I call him, using my best coloratura tones, and if I\’m lucky he comes to the bed. He clomps around on my torso, digging his adorable white paws into my ribs until things feel just right, and then curls like a skein of alpaca wool on top of my diaphragm and slowly, slowly closes his eyes.

As long as I lie like a stone effigy on a tomb, all is well. But what if I have to answer the phone, or get a drink of water, or add something I just remembered to my to-do list? No matter how gently I try to slither out from under the afghan, Telemann gives me an offended glare–how COULD you do this to ME!–and departs for the bathroom rug, which is soft and fluffy and (since the bathroom floor is heated) warmer than I. Plus, unlike me, it can be counted on to stay put.

Every time this happens, and it happens a lot, I feel a little hurt, and embarrassed that I feel hurt. For crying out loud, he\’s just a cat.What do I expect? If he\’s annoyed at me, and he must be, because I haven\’t seen him for a while now, I can respond with cool indifference. I\’m certainly not going to go looking for him and make amends. He can darn well make the first move.

In the evening, I\’m lying on the sofa reading when Wham! Telemann lands on me, all slitty-eyed and  purring like an eighteen wheeler at a truck stop. And it\’s o.k. I\’ll forgive him. After all, I\’m the human here. I will lie quietly and let him have his pre-bedtime nap.

But now it seems that he\’s not in the mood for a nap. He\’s in the mood for putting his cold wet nose against mine and patting my cheek with that damned little white paw, and turning around and around with his tail high and his rosy derrière two inches from my nose. And there\’s nothing for it but he must settle not on my belly or my diaphragm or my chest, but on my neck, right between me and my book.

Reader, I let him. What can I do? That cat literally walks all over me–such is the power of intermittent reinforcement, a skill that he mastered in infancy. Like some character out of Dangerous Liaisons, Telemann figured out that, to make a human your love slave, all you have to do is run emotionally hot and cold, overwhelming your victim with passion one moment and turning away disdainfully the next. If you never give affection, the victim loses interest. If, on the other hand, you are constant and reliable, she takes you for granted and may even gain the upper hand in the relationship.

For a cat, that would be the ultimate disgrace, and Telemann is not about to let it happen in our house. So we hobble along, he and I, squabbling and reconciling. I don\’t know where this relationship is headed. I\’m certainly not the one in control here. All I can say is, thank heaven for Bisou\’s quiet reliability. Which leads me to this bit of advice for those who are thinking of getting a cat: go ahead and get one, but, if you want to retain your sanity, get a dog as well.


4 Responses

  1. I've been saving this to read for a long time, and I'm so glad I did. I love it. I may ultimately disagree – I have no desire to have a dog – but it was great reading!

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