Thursday, 10 November 2011

Operant Conditioning

My cats are neurotic eaters. When I put down their breakfast in the morning (fending off butting heads, leg-tripping body-weaves, last-minute countertop leaps, and non-stop meowing), Maverick will quickly appropriate the first bowl, butting Mitzi out of the way. Mitzi is a slow, fastidious eater. As soon as my back is turned, Maverick, after wolfing down half of his food, will quickly move to Mitzi's dish and gobble up as much as he can. No matter how much more I give him, it is always the same. As poor Mitzi shifts to Maverick's old bowl and takes the first hesitant nibble, Maverick will suddenly decide that the bowl she's eating from is the better one, and he will shove her away. This may happen five or six times until I am almost dizzy from watching Mitzi race from bowl to bowl, frantic to get a mouthful. Although Maverick is generally a shy, gentle cat, when it comes to food, his manners disappear. Maverick had a tough start in life, so for a long time, we put up with his boorish behavior. But as he has gained in strength and confidence, I've decided he has to learn: I bought a squirt gun with a thin, sharp action. I now stand guard over their bowls and as soon as Maverick makes a move toward Mitzi's, I shoot. After a month, my aim has gotten a lot better and Mitzi can finally eat in peace.

The weird thing is that Mitzi doesn't seem to know what to do with herself now that Maverick isn't forcing her into a game of musical bowls. She will take a quick bite of her food, glance nervously around her, then quickly move to the side, as though anxious not to eat too much. Sometimes she will actually wait for him to push her away, standing by her bowl, watching. Years of being shoved away from her own bowl of food have left her emotionally scarred. She doesn't seem to know how to eat without another cat bullying her.

They remind me a little of two people we knew in Japan, Mr and Mrs Ono.

Mr and Mrs Ono were neighbors of ours, a couple in their sixties who ran a small business. I had talked to Mrs Ono on a few occasions before I met her husband and I was always struck by how quickly she spoke and how furtive her speech was, as though she was a political dissident fearful of government spies. I just assumed she was a naturally nervous person with an idiosyncratic way of talking -- until I met Mr Ono.

Mr Ono was a medium-sized man, but his voice was huge and he used it like a blunt instrument. A conversation with Mr Ono generally followed a certain pattern. He would ask you a question which you would then attempt to answer. Before you could get two words out, though, Mr Ono would finish your thought for you, then fire another question before you had time to recover. Around most of the Japanese people we knew I generally felt quite fluent, but around Mr Ono, I quickly turned into a gibbering idiot.

"Cold today, isn't it?" he would bellow. I would open my mouth to agree, but Mr Ono would quickly interrupt, abandoning the weather for a different topic. His garden patch, perhaps? The cold that was going around, and whether my children had caught it? I could never be certain just what he was saying: Mr Ono had a strong regional accent along with his rapid-fire manner of asking questions. He seldom made eye contact, repeated anything he'd said, or waited for a response. Conversations with Mr Ono were surreal -- not conversations at all.

Mrs Ono, a pleasant, sociable woman, got the worst of it. Whenever I ran into them together, a few minutes of 'conversation' with them made me dizzy. "How are your children doing in school?" Mrs Ono might ask, but before I could answer, Mr Ono would come up with one of his thundering non sequiturs. If Mrs Ono wanted to know where my husband and I were going to plant our morning glories this year, say, Mr Ono would begin to talk about the eels in the lake. If Mrs Ono wondered whether our next-door neighbors had come back from Thailand, Mr Ono would suddenly want to know if we were buying our kerosene from the same shop this year. Sometimes, Mrs Ono would begin to ask a question and before she could even get the words out, Mr Ono would bellow out one of his own. I privately began to refer to Mr Ono as Mr Oh No. Mrs Ono's face was always pinched and reflective, and she tended to walk with a slump. I wondered how she coped.

And then, quite suddenly, Mr Ono died. We were away at the time, and I didn't see Mrs Ono for several months. The next time I ran into her in the supermarket, I was astonished at how she had changed. Her furtive way of speaking was gone: she stood up straight and looked you right in the eye. A few times I saw her downtown, usually with friends, but always smiling. "How are those girls of yours?" she would cry merrily, and wait for an answer. We had real, conversations. Years of interruption had not traumatized her: the real Mrs Ono had been released.

I wonder if the squirt gun will eventually work for Mitzi? It's a pity Mrs Ono never had one.

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13 comments:

meredith said...

Thanks again for a great story. I hope Mitzi gets to bloom one day like Mrs Ono.

Vijaya said...

I was nodding in agreement all the way through -- I've had four cats at one point and had to feed my oldest separately. I've known people like Mr. Ono and seen how the people around them came into their own once they either left or died. But you made me snort my tea at the end -- Mrs. Ono with a squirt gun! Yes!!! I've a mind to do this myself ...

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad Mrs Ono recovered quicker than your kitty has. It's sad when someone so dominates another person's life.

Carole said...

Great story. I loved it. Happy for Mrs. Ono. Not everyone in a bullying relationship gets out unscathed. But it is nice to hear when it does.

Kim Ayres said...

Perhaps I should adopt this approach with my grandchildren...

annebingham said...

Three cheers for operant conditioning! I have tried the same thing with an aluminum beverage can filled with stones, but never could fling the thing w/o the cat on the table catching the motion and associating it with me. Never thought of a squirt gun, although I had boys so we never had anything as discreet as a squirt gun around the house: we had Super Soakers, which were about the size of rifles.

Mary Witzl said...

Meredith -- Me too. If she doesn't, though, I'll still have fun with the squirt gun. And Maverick could use the odd bath.

Vijaya -- Monitoring the cats is a headache, but I've got to do something so Mitzi gets her fair share.

I don't think Mr O would have taken the squirt gun well, but he definitely needed some sort of reminder. I just wish I could use it on the people in my life who leave their wet towels bunched up in the bathroom.

Charles -- My poor cat: with Maverick around, she never gets a relaxed meal. At least Mrs Ono got a life of her own eventually.

Carole -- So many bullies get away with it, don't they? It's tough to stand up to them, and then once they get into a pattern of bullying, it's almost impossible. If I were invisible, I'd definitely impose justice with the aid of a squirt gun. Or perhaps a pea shooter...

Kim -- Do it! Just make sure you're in a place that can get wet without harm to furniture, etc. I don't want to get in trouble with Maggie. :)

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Thank you for fusing people and cats into a single laugh-out-loud image. Your observations (of humans and felines) are so astute and funny. I love your writing, and can't wait to read fiction from you with all these qualities. I don't know what projects you have on hand, but I can see small, perfectly crafted, pointed vignettes coming together in a larger storyline.

angryparsnip said...

Love the squirt gun idea, I have used one myself.
My stubborn Scottie Kirby would just stand there and turn her head when I squirted her, she wouldn't move. I also used a soda can filled with pennies to throw near her and stop her but she would fetch the can and bring it back to me. She thought it a fun game.
Since I don't have any cats, I like your idea of changing his behavior but I would have just given her some non anxiety time and feed her in a quiet place.

cheers, parsnip

Pat said...

With my suspicious mind I can't help wondering if she did him in.

Mary Witzl said...

Uma -- Comments like yours are what keep me writing. I've been away from my computer for a whole week -- what a lovely thing to come back and find in there with all the rejections and Viagara ads. Thank you.

AP -- I've tried feeding Mitzi in the bathroom, but it's a headache: she keeps following me out.

I love your dog story; you obviously had a fearless little Scottie. if that isn't redundant. Isn't it infuriating when your best laid plans backfire? Maverick is easily cowed, but coins shaken in a jar, shouting, and loud clapping won't deter Mitzi, who brazenly jumps onto the table or countertops without a by-your-leave. But both cats have an aversion to water, and that squirt gun is a Godsend.

Pat -- I honestly never thought of that! Mr Ono died of a heart attack; maybe Mrs Ono did have a squirt gun and used it at an apt moment. It would make the perfect weapon for shocking a high-strung person out of their life, and who would suspect a tiny wet patch on someone's shirt could be anything sinister?

Bish Denham said...

I can't imagine living with someone like that! And I'm glad Mrs. Ono found her voice. As for you cat, how long as it been since she was able to eat hassle-free? I bet given more time she'll come around and get more relaxed.

Carrie S said...

I've been away for a while for various reasons but I'm so happy to have rediscovered this blog. Love this story; love your writing. <3