Friday, April 26, 2013

What cats have taught me

I have been a cat owner for most of my adult life, and have learned a lot from them by watching their behavior in different situations. Unlike dogs, they are quite independent and somewhat antisocial. Or rather, they choose when they want to be social. All of my cats had different personalities. The first two were a mother-daughter pair that came into my life in 1980. The mother, Smoky, was a feisty loner type; her daughter, Mushy (so named because she was so affectionate), was the opposite. She loved being around people, she loved being picked up and hugged, and she didn’t mind at all when the children I babysat for occasionally put doll shoes on all four paws. My husband used to call her a 'non-cat'. She never hissed at or nipped anyone. I don’t think I ever saw her get angry, except at her mother, when they both competed for my attention and affection when I was sitting on the couch relaxing in the evenings. She was an extraordinarily well-rounded cat, and I’ve never had another cat quite like her since. Being social came easy for Mushy, even with other cats, but not with her mother. She tolerated her mother, but not much more. I often wonder if it was because she knew that her mother didn’t really want any involvement at all with other cats or with people generally. She liked to be left alone, and I’m sure that annoyed Mushy at times. I remember when a little kitten joined us a few years later; I named her Minou. Mushy immediately became her ‘mother’, washing her, playing with her, and following her around the house as Minou explored it. Watching her do this endeared her to me completely. Smoky wanted nothing to do with either one of them; she mostly wanted to be left alone, and if Minou bothered her, she hissed at her. Minou quickly learned, and avoided Smoky as much as possible. Unfortunately, she did not live long, succumbing to a feline viral infection, which broke my heart. I am convinced that Mushy had empathy; she was intuitive, she understood in her way if someone was sick or if another animal needed help. She understood that Minou was sick and I think she understood that Minou wasn’t coming home from the veterinary hospital. Smoky remained unaffected by it all. Mushy also understood if I was sick or depressed, and was good company at those times. I loved them both, but it is Mushy’s way of being that I remember all these years later, because I think she was on to something. I remember when I moved in with my friend Cindy several months before I moved to Norway; she had a male cat, Burgoo, who did not take kindly to having his territory invaded. The house that we shared was quite large, but Burgoo made sure that Mushy and Smoky had limited access to most of it. Smoky and Burgoo fought so intensely that we had to physically keep them apart; Smoky ended up living in the basement while Burgoo had the first floor along with Mushy. What surprised me is that Mushy did not engage with Burgoo at all; she understood that he did not want her there, and her body language told him that she accepted that. When she passed him, her head and tail were down in a submissive posture, and she slunk along the floor. He never attacked her or went after her. When she saw me, she was her old self—affectionate and loving. Mushy was mostly adaptable and tolerated change, even though I know it made her anxious at times. As long as she saw me during anxious times, it calmed her. Smoky did not adapt and did not tolerate change. I loved the both of them to pieces, but could not take them with me to Norway, as they would have sat in quarantine for six months or more before being allowed into the country, and I didn’t have the heart to do that to them. Another friend of mine, Judy, was kind enough to take them both; she could tell me some time later that it didn't take Mushy long to become a part of her family, which included a husband, several children, a dog and two other cats. That made me happy; unfortunately, Smoky did not seem to adjust to her new family, disappeared, and did not return, which upset me a lot when I heard about it.

I was thinking about Mushy and Smoky today, because I realize that I have a little bit of both of them in me in response to dealing with major life changes and with a workplace that prizes networking and being socially and politically adaptable. Work environments often reflect societal trends; the emphasis in most workplaces these days is on networking, collaboration, communication, being a team player, and being creative and spontaneous in a group setting, all things that were not emphasized as much in my generation of scientists. We were rather encouraged to be loner types, independent and assertive thinkers, quietly creative, able to defend our ideas, able to work alone and to enjoy being alone. Being an astute assessor of the political landscape around us was not deemed very important. The current emphasis is on interacting and working together with other employees, listening to others, adapting to group dynamics, understanding workplace politics, sharing ideas, taming your individual will, being patient and not being a loner type. Those who succeed in the current workplace are good at these things. I used to think that Mushy would have benefited from learning to take on a challenge and to fight like her mother Smoky, but these days I’ve come to see the value in avoiding or not provoking conflict, maintaining some semblance of peace, trying to adapt to change as best one can, and flying under the radar in difficult times. But it's good to have people in your life (a spouse and/or friend) that you know will be there for you--constants in a life filled with uncertainties--especially during difficult times. 

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