It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung

Grateful Dead, “Ripple”

1. Matching games

We went into the pound blind. My aunt works in shelters, and I should have—but didn’t—reach out to gather intel: what are the signs, how do you know, how can you tell? The honest answers to such questions are always variations on “it depends” and “you can’t,” but the blackpill’s administered with a dose of sugar, the dopamine surety of math: “Play the numbers, and live without regret.”

It was a selection game, sure, but of the matching variety: if she didn’t want us, we didn’t want her. The problem was predicting a lifetime of feline behavior from a few minutes of meeting—in predicting years of stability from moments in sturm und drang. Calm cats could turn crazy, crazy cats calm. Were the friendly ones needy? Were the wary ones shy? How to conceptualize behaviors, metonymically, without anthropomorphizing?

And what was the broker’s angle, the shelter worker? She wanted to get cats out of the shelter, free up cages. She had more incentive to get the meanest and worst-behaved cats out, since they’d be the hardest to care for and the hardest to give away. But she also probably had more empathy for the kind and well-behaved ones. And there was a return policy. We picked a tortoise-shelled calico because she could open and close, latch and unlatch, all the cages. A trick she’d learned in the course of defending her wet food, the precious tuna fish, part of a semi-liquid diet. And because the broker told us a sweet, sad story about her: two years old, already a mom, picked up with a litter of kittens in a north-Wisconsin winter. Kittens dispersed, mom had stayed behind in the shelter nearly a year now, never jumping out at anybody. She was smart, and apparently she was the favorite cat of another shelter worker, who worked the morning shift (and therefore wasn’t present to confirm the story). We got fifteen minutes in a dedicated foyer to get to know her personally—while the broker fed her catnip, got her happy and stoned, broke out toys.

2. Naming

The cat was named Olivia, but we decided to rename her. For some reason her coat pattern and affect reminded me of the song “Duchess” by Scott Walker. I liked that association, that it worked whether or not you knew the Walker song. But Nico had a bad feeling about the name, she said it gave her Daddy’s princess vibes. Some time passed, name unsettled, and she still can’t shake the feeling, is eventually reminded by a close friend that a film she had watched as a child—Aristocats—featured a cat named Duchess, with this general princess feel. So we had to rule out “Duchess.”

I grab some names from the Redwall series, because I’d recently revisited Mossflower out of nostalgia and curiosity and want of a light read. So I threw out “Roebuck,” “Sunflash,” and “Starbuck,” which I thought was a Brian Jaques name, but had confused for a Melville name—Moby Dick—which felt pretentious. Years ago, I remember coming across a Twitter or Tumblr post that had mocked the cultural-capital signaling of owners who name their cat “Clytemnestra,” say, or “Mercutio.” My friend Canada owned a cat named “Kitch,” short for Kitchen, but I mistakenly thought it was “Kitsch,” like Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde &.” Anyway, we tossed out “Starbuck.” 

We considered “Ripple” after the Grateful Dead tune. Our friend Jeff has a cat named “Althea,” and it had always sounded anonymous and beautiful and vaguely classical, but recently I’d realized it too was a Dead song. We slowly settled on it, sometimes calling her “Little Bird” after her chirping noises, or just “Darling.” Most of the nicknames came from Anteros—Peanut, Monkey, Owl, Pip, Rjipple after a collar-tag misprint. That gave way to Rips, Rjips, and Ryder Rjipps, each extending the other, an n+1.

Of course the name never mattered to Ripple. When she responds, she responds more to tone of voice, to mouth clicking, than her actual name. Naming felt like a form of dwelling, a way to inscribe oneself into one’s home and habitat. A form of territory marking and semiotics—not so different than cats rubbing their scent glands on people and furniture. We may as well have named a piece of furniture, or a silverware set, or a ceramic vase.

But perhaps we’d optimized to the wrong audience, because the name was always the first question from friends and family, in conversation or meeting. “What’s this pretty girl’s name?” When I would answer “Ripple,” they’d always ask why, because it wasn’t self-evident. And then I had to explain the bit about the Dead, which made me feel like a big stoner, even though the Dead have nothing to do with my drug habits (or lack thereof). I briefly considered coming up with a new origin story.

3. Training

I can change the cat’s behavior through communication in two ways: in the long-term, I can create a pattern of expectation in her. Or in the short-term, I can use a tone of voice and body movement to get her off a table, or prevent her jumping off the balcony, or by crinkling her bag of treats. The short-term interventions are afforded the long-term expectancies and associations, that which I leverage when I crinkle the bag, or shout at her, or praise her. In the short-term, I alter her perceptual inputs or sensory environment in accord with the associations and expectancies I can create and shape in the long-term.

I’ve never loved the intermittent reinforcement idea, at least as applied to real life, not lab mice, where the environment is not controlled. Because when two seemingly “identical” situations or behaviors have two very different outcomes, we seek to find distinguishing or differentiating details between the two—in other words, we attempt to remodel our ontology so that we can better manipulate and anticipate outcomes given situations we find ourselves in, and behaviors we enact. Whatever behavior I wish to reinforce in Ripple, it must be defined or represented or associated with some clear-cut stimulus that she can anchor the reinforcement to. If she cannot ontologically separate the good from the bad—to latch on to the difference (in her behavior) which makes a difference (in my behavior)—then she will be unable to change that behavior—her own and by extension, mine. I must ensure that, if different sorts of reinforcement are doled out—a treat, versus blowing in her face punitively—there are consistent, perceptually salient differences in the environment which she can point to—and that they are the very differences I wish her to attend to and behave differentially around. I work to manufacture those differences, to change the environment to make such distinctions more obvious or salient. I learn that word choice is not salient, but dramatic differences in tone are. (One day, I realize that when I speak to other people, I combine a soft or friendly tone with a harsh or unfriendly message, in order to undercut or soften. But with the cat, I cannot do this; she has no sense of “content”, there is only tone.) I am experimenting with tapping her twice, when she is on my lap, and I am about to get up: the hope is that I can tap her without also lifting her up, that she will learn the cue and get up on her own—easier on both of us. So far (after maybe a dozen or two dozen associations) it has not stuck.

One thing on my mind: when I praise the cat for good behavior, and give her a treat, am I not only showing her what “good behavior” is, but what “praise” is? Is there even, maybe, some uncertainty in her as to the status of the treats? Are all three, in their conjunction, reinforcing the nature of each other?

I hear the same story, in several variants, from various pet-owning friends. It goes something like this: Their dog was hopping up on the table. They coaxed the dog off the table. They gave it a treat to reward it for hopping down. So the dog started jumping up on the table so as to jump down and get a treat.

I decide to de-schizo the cat. I decide all house cats are schizo. Paradoxes are features of language—map, not territory. That is, of the logical system of sense-making an agent has available to it, which proves insufficient or too limited for understanding or positing those dynamics that appear to actually be occurring. Bateson’s double binds are a species of (imperative) paradox: the seemingly dichotomous options advanced or perceived linguistically both fail; the only solution is transcending the dichotomous or digital figuration of the representation system for some middle way, which is “disallowed” according to the digital or dichotomous linguistic system. Schizo superstition is a way of handling impossible reward systems and environments at hand.

4. Wanting

Five or ten times a day, Ripple wants something. I know she wants something, because she gets up in my business. She interrupts my activity, even when I push her away (say, from my typing…), and meows, and she doesn’t stop until she’s got my attention and I’ve engaged. When she just wants to be close to me, she sleeps nearby.

What Ripple wants from me is anything (she’s experienced me) giving her before—and perhaps anything she’s experienced “someone like me” (maybe at the shelter, maybe pre-shelter) giving her, and perhaps some those things she instinctually desires from someone in my role. So: Food and sometimes water; to be played with; to be let in or out of a room, or of the house. Attention, scratches, pets.

The hedonic treadmill moves brutally fast: two weeks in this case, post-adoption, for her to go from Over The Moon To Be Here to Bored And Cranky. We let her roam outside for a while, and this either wears her out or satisfies her, it’s hard to tell the difference. When we move to New York, she’s back to Bored and Cranky, but at least now we’re re-establishing a set-point.

When we let her out, back on the farm, she wouldn’t want the door closed behind her. It made sense—she wanted immediate access, to be able to leave or retreat on her own volition—but at the beginning, it confused me. I couldn’t see past my own projects and desires to hers. Projecting, I thought she was being indecisive, or difficult, probably because from my perspective, it was just being difficult. We had bug problems in the summers, and heat problems in the winter, and we couldn’t go leaving doors open. Eventually we figured out a compromise between open and shut, which was to crack the doors and then pull the blackout curtains in front of the crack. That way she could get in and out, but the bugs and weather generally couldn’t.

5. Playing

I’ve heard it said that humans are the only ones who can do reliable mutual attention, gaze, mimesis, etcetera. Nothing I’ve experienced with Ripple has contradicted or upset this.

However, she is, clear-as-day, strategic and moreover, adaptively, intelligently strategic. She doesn’t have some built-in algorithm of instinct that determines how she hunts, as in ritual or deontology. Rather, she learns how the hunted object behaves and then changing her own behavior adaptively in response. Obviously there are consistent principles in the meta, in her learning and adaptation, but this difference matters.

I’ve been trying to recreate some bona fide hunting situations with laser pointers/treats, so she actually gives a shit, and trying my hardest to keep the laser point away from her/from getting caught, while also obeying certain physical limitations (e.g. the laser pointer has to follow a continuous surface on which it could run—it can’t jump around, disappear/reappear, etc). And for a while I’d run Ripple up and down the stairs to the basement, which is costly energetically for her to follow. Pretty soon she was preemptively blocking off the entrance to the stairs any time the laser gets close.

And with boxes—we had a lot of packed book boxes on the floor during our move, and I usually weave the pointer around them to get her to run in circles—she very quickly picked up that the laser would go around the box circularly, and would switch gears to cut it off in its path. Now she very regularly intercepts the laser pointer mid-path, even with me trying to out-Sicilian-reason her and stay a step ahead

I also get the impression that she has what I’ve been calling a two-way follow concept. She follows me: I can communicate with her (“manipulate” her) by changing my position in space, and therefore alter her position. If I wish her to come outside, or switch rooms, I can move my own body, and thereby indirectly move hers.

Does she understand that I am waiting for her, that I expect her to follow me? When I stop, and look back, she speeds up. If she has been sitting, and I catch her eye, she gets up and continues along. So there is a sense she understands what I want from her.

This is one side of the two-way concept. The other side is that she leads me places, expects me to follow. She will meow, walk to the edge of a room (say a doorway), pause, meow, wait for me to catch up, continue into the next room, etcetera until we are at her preferred destination—for instance a front door to be let out of or in the house, or her food bowl, or the stairs to play with her laser.

And when we take walks in the woods, I think, although I can’t be sure, that there’s a kind of push’n’pull of who leads/who follows: she’ll go to her favorite hangout spots and show me, and make sure I’m following her to them, and once we’re there and hang out there for a while, she’s more than happy to let me take the lead and go off somewhere new

I think one thing this points to is that it actually isn’t that crazy of a step to go from (1) manipulating the environment to (2) coordinating, i.e. mutual manipulation between agents. They’re functionally quite similar: in some sense all the cat needs to have a “follow me” concept is to observe the effects of my body state (positions, actions) in response to her meowing, walking, pausing, etcetera, and then to come up with a working “routine” (meow, walk, pause, walk, pause) that gets the desired outcomes.

What is much more difficult without language is bargaining to a new coordination equilibrium. Instead, behaviors are largely take-it-or-leave-it. We moved to the city recently. We’d like to let Ripple outside, but open train tracks and some busy streets are nearby. She also has a bad habit of not coming when called. So our dilemma is that we can let her out, and she will inevitably pass by the train tracks and busy streets, and if the mood strikes her, stay out for hours past dark. Or we can keep her inside our small apartment. Neither options is especially appealing. But what we cannot do is specify conditions on which she is allowed to explore the outside world. We cannot propose, as a workable equilibrium compromise, a set of temporal and spatial boundaries to limit her movement. There is no ability to find a third, better option—to dialectically decompose the problem-space into areas of concern, and then converge on a new composition, a better balance of cost and benefit. Language, then, must lend us the ability to locate better equilibria, to rig up better games and rulesets.

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