Games Cats Play

A few days ago my friend Arthur wrote on Facebook:

I have a new female feline-and-me ritual: I kiss her unexpectedly on the head and she screams for dear life. Kiss her on the head and she screams. Kiss her on the head and…Then she gets bored and walks away.

For some reason, this delights me deeply.

Dialogue with a (now dead) vet friend:

Me:  Cats have a sense of humor.

Him: Come on.  You’re anthropomorphizing.

Me: No, really.  You know when you wiggle your finger under the blanket like a mouse and they go crazy pouncing on it?

Him:  And?

Me: They’re putting you on.  They know it’s your finger.

Him: (gives me a sidelong look, somewhere between “I don’t buy it” and “You got me”)

OK, call it a sense of fun, but cats clown, and they know they’re being funny.  They also have excellent comic timing: they know when to walk away, how not to beat a joke to death.  They maintain a fine tension between ritual and boredom: they always like to play a game the same way—”works for me!”—but they do not like to play it very many times in a row.  In fact, and this is true of their athletic as well as their comedic games, when they have played once consummately, that’s enough.  They quit while they’re ahead.  They seem to have a sense of achievement—a drive to perfect their game—but you will never see a cat practice, practice, practice.  They go for peak experience. The trick is to get charged up enough to break free of the mundane.

I brandish a small sponge-rubber ball, light and high-bouncing.  Flighty hustles into the bathroom and hides behind the toilet.  I throw the ball into the bathroom, and it ricochets around the walls.  She doesn’t do much: this is just the way you build up energy.  She then runs out of the bathroom and crouches down by the couch, peering along it with one eye.  I am supposed to retrieve the ball and bounce it hard, just so.  As it rises above the edge of the couch, she hurls her whole body two or three feet off the ground and spikes the ball out of the air with both paws like an Olympic volleyball player.

If it was a good shot, she’s done.  She’s satisfied.  But if I bobble the bounce, or if her own timing is off, her disappointment is obvious.  She will keep repeating the sequence until she gets a good one, at which point my role is to scream with admiration.  And then she walks away.

I sometimes think that “games” of both sorts—comedic and athletic—must have been inspired by watching cats.  Soccer, tennis, volleyball, wrestling . . . one cat of mine named Mini independently reinvented them all. I called her repertoire “the Mini Olympics.” Buster Keaton stole his moves from Buster Kitten.