Why Ask?

Because chances are, we don’t know as much as we think we know – about ourselves and others, about the world at large, and especially about communicating collaboratively with other species.

question1 035-cropThis not-knowing makes Bugs want to holler.

Readers of my last post will recall that I have become inspired by the work of horse-trainer Alexandra Kurland. Alexandra is famous for training a miniature horse named Panda to be a companion to a blind woman.

I am simply thrilled and amazed that Alexandra incorporates the Feldenkrais Method® into her clicker work. For years I, together with a large segment of the Feldenkrais community, have felt baffled about why the work that means so much to us is so little known by the public. So it is heaven-sent to find knowledgeable interest in a person as eminent as Alexandra.

question-stair-gif“It’s about time!”

Alexandra has grasped a fundamental Feldenkrais principle and made it her own: Ask, don’t tell. Alexandra writes, of Feldenkrais trainer Mia Segal, that “[s]he doesn’t tell the person what to do – bend your knees, turn your head this way or that. Instead she asks questions – how does this feel under my hands? Where does the movement begin? Where does it stop? How does it stop?”

So, likewise, Alexandra asks too. In a blog-post on schooling a horse to join with the handler and walk together quietly in a circle, she wants to know why the horse would leave the handler. Not to insist that the horse pay attention, not to jerk the horse around, not to punish, not to escalate – but to ask, instead: “[Is] the environment . . . too distracting? Are you leaving because you are so full of energy that you can’t walk at my pace? Are you leaving because you aren’t balanced enough to stay on a circle? Are you leaving because you’re afraid of me?”

Why ask like this? Because, “[a]s Mia Segal . . . would say, if you know the questions, you have the lesson.”

Or, as I would say: Because chances are, we don’t know!

question1 020-cropBugs emphatically concurs.

M.D. researcher Robert Burton writes that “[c]ertainty . . . is not a biologically justifiable state of mind.” He notes an increasing body of evidence suggesting that a feeling of certainty stems from primitive areas of the brain and is not the product of active, conscious reflection and reasoning.

I make a further case for “not-knowing,” here, based on brain science demonstrating our inherent biological cognitive limitations.

And then there’s family background. George Lakoff notices that those who find Donald Trump appealing subscribe to the conservative family model of the Strict Father. The analogy is painfully clear, too, in the way we relate to other species. Lakoff writes, of the Strict Father:

“When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become . . . internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. . . . [I]n a well-ordered world, there should be . . . a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate.”

question2 014-cropHow Bugs feels about this.

This writer, on the other hand, subscribes to Lakoff’s “Nurturant Parent” model. This is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one’s community and from caring for and about others.

That’s how I want to live. And that’s how I want to relate to our brothers and sisters of other species. They are sharper than I am. They know how to pay attention. Their survival depends on it.

We humans can be distracted by thoughts and ideas, concepts of the way the world is or isn’t. We need those thoughts and ideas, but in balance. Balance is everything. I want to learn how to use my attention to perceive as much of the world as I can, as truly as I can, as innocently as possible of preconceptions and limiting ideas. That’s what the Feldenkrais work offers me and others, and that’s what I want.

Our brothers and sisters of other species can teach us about attention. Unlike them, we haven’t needed to know what’s going on around us in the natural world. Unlike them, our next meal comes from the fridge, not from the veldt. So we have rested on our laurels.

It’s time to wake up and listen.

question2 006-cropBarney says: Ask, don’t tell.

In the clicker-crate-training over here, the boys and I have progressed into the crates, through the house, out the door, into the yard, and have come to rest right beside the car. But when I opened the car door in front of Barney, he freaked. So now I open the car door first, and then get Barney and bring him right up to the open car door (not into it yet). Seems to be working so far.

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::Click:: Seeing the Boys in a New Light

It’s been an eon since I last posted. Since then, it feels like the Earth has shifted in its orbit and I along with it.

The new orbit turns around clicker-training.

When Bugsy arrived around six years ago, at a friend’s suggestion I bought a clever little clicker-book to teach cats parlor-tricks. I was sorry I ever saw the durn thing. Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks” comes to mind, especially one item entitled “Bitey the hamster loves to go bowling.”

Maybe it took bowling for unfortunate Bitey to feel the love. I don’t know. I never saw the episode and I don’t care to. These type-things evoke the “dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and all the domestic animals” biblical darkness and zoos and down-at-heels carnies and animal testing and let us simply not go there. At all.

This clicker-training is orders of magnitude different.

How about a before-and-after. I have no videos of any of this with my boys, so please take me at my word and I will simply intersperse with aesthetic moments of them looking cute and gorgeous as usual. Later in this post I will provide some links for you to watch the clicker pros in action, training cats and horses.

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Before clicker, Bugsy often seemed anxious and ill at ease. He was spraying all over the place. He has hair-ball issues and he would squawk the house down every time I tried to brush him. Heaven forbid we should have to go to the V-E-T, as getting Bugsy into the C-R-A-T-E meant him bolting under the bed. I nailed the bed-base shut but there was still the problem, come vet-day, of Bugs fighting like a mad-cat, howling all the way to perdition.

Now, post-clicker, Bugs appears generally less anxious. He is spraying much less, as we have solved the medical issue in the meantime and it seems, with clicker-training, that he may have found other, more-constructive ways to express himself. Now he jumps up into my lap for brushing, at my signal, and he sits there purring quietly as I remove wads and handfuls of fur from him daily.

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As for the C-R-A-T-E, no further spelling-out is necessary. We haven’t got to the point of going to the V-E-T yet, as we’re still doing practice runs to the front door and back for now. But let me just say this. One night I got home late. The cats greeted me as usual and then Bugs ran into his crate, whipped around, and stuck his little head out, as if to say, “Look, Ma, what I can do! so how’s about that treat now?,” and here you go, Bugs, and ten or twenty more for good measure.

Bugs now goes into his crate smoothly and voluntarily at my cue, he can stay there with the door open, stay there (purring) with the door shut, with the door open and me not cuing to come out just yet, coming out at my cue, and calmly weathering the crate moving and lifting to the front door and reversing back again.

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Barney, in his turn, has learned how to sit and watch the goings-on without photo-bombing. He can do all that Bugs can do re the crate, plus he can sit-and-stay on a hand-gesture and he can “high-five” with alternate paws for good measure. As for the crate, Barney has progressed to moving out the front door, into the Catio, and sitting in the crate peacefully outside the Catio. I did try carrying him to the car once but he didn’t like that, probably because a neighbor’s tractor started to blurp disgustingly nearby. So we have backed away from the car for the moment and we’ll get there in quieter times.

And with both boys, there is no doubt that they are thinking. I can see Barney’s eyes shifting side-to-side, as he apparently guesses what our next move will be. When Bugsy is in his “sit-stay” in the crate, he bobs his head and points his chin to the floor, where he knows he has trained me to deposit the next treat.

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These are no stupid pet tricks. For one thing, I want the cats as calm as possible going to the vet. For another, I have always worried if the need to emergency-evacuate should ever arise. Now, as the boys are moving toward smooth-and-easy crating and carrying, I have some peace of mind on both points.

As for seeing the cats in a new light: The clicker-training, of the sophisticated kind I now have access to and you will, too, shortly, is on another planet from the stupid-pet-trick book. Now I am guided by skilled, subtle, science-based teachers (see the videos, coming up below). Thanks to them, I now understand this: Clicker-training is a universe away from demeaning animals with stunts that are amusing to humans but have only questionable or no value to the animal. Rather, this is about communicating with the animal’s intelligence. As clicker-founding-mother Karen Pryor says, Reaching Into the Animal Mind.

And that is the different light in which I now see my boys. I now see them as thinking, emotional beings.

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Truly, it is as if the cats have been waiting patiently for the light to dawn on me that they are thinking, emotional beings. The clicker has opened up a very deep connection between us. I now realize that my house-bound boys previously had a tendency to be dull, under-stimulated, bored. This even despite that I had made a whole-hearted project out of designing the house around their needs, playing games with them (e.g., see last post),
feeding them hand-made organic food, talking to them, pestering them with species-specific (i.e., human) hugs, loving them to bits, and all of that. Despite all that, they were not being asked to think, and they needed to think to become more themselves.

And now that I have begun asking them to do what they need to do, in this way, they have revealed themselves as thinking and emotional beings.

I find that incredibly moving.

Orbit-shifting, really. Now my boys are not just Mysterious Cats Dwelling in a Distant Domain of Being-ness, at the altar of which I could only worship helplessly and cult-like. No. Now we are thinking and emotional beings together in this household, and it is like finding one’s self in another world. Through the looking-glass, into a wonderland.

alice-cheshire-cat

All this came about by serendipity. A friend lives in the country nearby. At the local library she saw a community-newspaper article about an upcoming clicker horse workshop. She knew I adore horses and I had begun to do hands-on Feldenkrais® work with them, and she clipped the article for me.

I looked into the workshop and I was electrified to find that the trainer incorporated Feldenkrais into her work.

And that is how I found Cindy Bennett Martin, the host of the workshop here in Arkansas, and clicker-trainer extraordinaire Alexandra Kurland of upstate New York.

Alex is famous for having trained a miniature horse to be guide for a blind lady. You read that right, really.

Alex is a genius in her own right, and for having grasped and understood Feldenkrais like the real thing that she is (more about that later. Probably much later).

First, though, I want you to see a good video that would have taught me how to clicker-train with the crates, except that I put together what I knew from first watching Alex and Cindy work with the horses – I only found this video as I was preparing this blog. The handler uses verbal reinforcement instead of clicks; clicks are more precise, though, and I will probably have more to say about that later, also probably much later.

Never mind. Many ways up the same mountain. This video is an excellent thoughtful demonstration of what’s involved. Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Ellis and Katzenworld for this.

Before you watch, I just want to say: Notice how high Herbie holds his tail. Happy Herbie. A study notes that in a domestic cat, the tail-up is observed “when an adult individual meets another one and . . . signals the intention to interact amicably.”

Also notice how Dr. Ellis never pushes the cat into the crate, but never!!! Notice, in Part II, how Dr. Ellis calls this a “game.”

OK. Now watch here.

training3 032-crop

Next I want to draw your attention to Alex and Cindy at work with horses. The video series in this blog-post of Alex’s was taken at Cindy’s spectacular ranch here in Arkansas, as Alex guides Cindy, a trainer in her own right, in working with Cindy’s gorgeous mare Scout.

There is so much to chew on here that I will leave you to your own devices. I just want to mention a few stand-outs (I have page after page of notes from this single post but I’ll spare you those).

First, as a counter-argument to those who object to clicker-training on grounds that food-treats distract the animal, Alex says, “Once a horse understands that treats come when he shows me good emotional self-control, I can use food as a reinforcer to help teach other things.”

Good emotional control. Absolutely.

And with it, to do this: To teach and to learn in a calm and happy (emotionally controlled) setting. Like here, for example, where Alex says “while it might look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout treats, and that’s how she is getting her to turn, the treats are in fact reinforcers that come after Scout has been clicked for keeping her head away from Cindy . . . .”

It’s about learning. Like this: Dear Scout, don’t crowd Cindy, be calm and in balance. You will be happy when you’re calm and in balance, you see, because you will get reinforced for learning, and this is an excellent and important thing to learn, not to crowd or mug your human. A 1,200-pound mugger is serious business!

And Scout does the equivalent of Herbie high-tail: She bursts into a trot, but still right there alongside Cindy. No dragging, no mugging. See this in Part Six at 5:50.

A happy, polite, amicable animal.

The most beautiful sight on the planet.

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And there’s also this, to make the crucial point that coercion, force, domination, and negative reinforcement are not the way, when it comes to transitioning the horse to follow a lead-rope: “I don’t want my horses to be afraid of the lead or to be worrying about what might happen if they make a mistake. That would poison the cues the lead is giving. If you are using a style of rope handling in which escalating pressure is at times used to enforce behavior, you will undermine the intent and the power of this lesson.”

This video is in just one post from Alex’s blog, where she is hard at work writing her next book. The blog is jam-packed. It’s going to take me many hours of study.

Just glancing quickly at the resources, though, I was gratified to see that Alex has drawn from the work of Jaak Panksepp. More connections. Years ago, inspired by an interview with Panksepp by Ginger Campbell of the excellent Brain Science Podcast (see link to Dr. Campbell in this post of mine), I bought Panksepp’s book, Affective Neuroscience (presents “complex material in a readable manner,” so what does that make me?). The jargon totally defeated me, despite that I am well familiar, in the legal context, with deciphering jargon. Oh no. Not Panksepp. I don’t even know where in the depths of the house I stashed that book, so beyond me it was. Probably donated it to the library. So thank you Alex for drawing on Panksepp, because now I don’t have to. I knew he’d be worth it but I just didn’t have the stomach.

I hope it won’t be this long before my next post, because I sure am looking forward to saying something (probably a great deal) about Alex’s understanding of Feldenkrais and the link between her work, Feldenkrais, and our beloved animals. But I better go feed those beloved animals right now.

In the meantime, here’s the link to Alex’s blog and the Cindy-Scout videos.

Happy tails.

I want these bookends. They’re at the Brooklyn Museum.

tail-bookends

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Fun With Toilet Roll

It has been too cold lately for the Catio and so the boys want to know:

What’s Next?

toilet-p3 001

Barney Squash-Face

toilet-p3 004Bugs: “I abide by window, awaiting developments.”

I found this idea on the Net somewhere.

ONE: Find shoebox.

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TWO: Collect toilet roll and fill box with same.

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THREE: Insert treats.

toilet-p1 003-cropThe dawn of an idea.

toilet-p1 012“What you think?”

toilet-p1 004“I find it good.”

toilet-p1 013The process.

toilet-p1 024-crop

toilet-p1 027And now, the obligatory seasonal shots.

toilet-p2-spring 004toilet-p2-spring 003Happy Spring.

catrun

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The Blues. Before, During, Hopefully After.

Boy, I got ‘em and how. Here are two major elements:

* Several bruising encounters with the American “health-care” system. Make that the American “ill-health brutality” system.

* I am sorely missing my African drum and dance teacher Angelo. He is now in his home country of Côte d’Ivoire for a month, accompanied by students wealthy enough to join him. I am not there, thanks to money troubles among other reasons.

Back in 2005 and 2006, I took two of those trips. The first trip I owe thanks to a generous anonymous benefactor. The second trip was thanks to the mind-boggling disorganization of South African Airways during the first trip, which resulted in them giving three of us free passage for the second. The second trip was even worse than the first, transportation-wise, so I suppose I could have continued claiming another free trip indefinitely – but the screw-ups were so grueling, I lost heart.

Here’s a video a friend and I put together, from the first trip.

So this morning, sunk in the Blues, I came across a video one of my African friends posted on Facebook. I’ve been thinking of our black Americans a lot lately, thanks to events in February Black History Month. I’ve been thinking of how music has been such an important element of how black Americans managed to survive through such unspeakable hardships. The Blues.

The video my friend posted is of Mamadou Diabaté, a genius balafon player from Burkina Faso. That’s near where Angelo and group are right now. This video shows the Africa I saw, in all its stunning beauty of spirit and music.

On Diabaté’s website, I found this, about the Sambla people of whom Diabaté is one:

“Jazz experts find the tonal system particularly interesting as it has close affinities with the ‘Blues’ pentatonic tunings.”

Yet Sambla music pre-dates the Blues.

Connections, undeniable. Ties and connections to Africa. Which we all share. Lest we forget.

*  *  *

And I am thinking of antidotes to the Blues.

Diabaté’s music. How it has come to me sunk in the Blues, from which it all came. Before the Blues, during, and, hopefully, after.

Of how I have just experienced another leap forward in my recovery from my foot injury, when, before this improvement, it seemed possible that I might limp in pain for the rest of my life.

Of dear friends.

Of the cats. Of course. Of course the cats.

Here are cats, followed by a link to the Diabaté video. Which please: Pause in your day, take time to watch and listen. I hope you enjoy. This is world-class. Blues, anti-Blues.

bat4 002-cropBarney

bat3 002-cropBugs, a/k/a “Bougarabou”

And now put your hands together for Mamadou Diabaté.

catrun

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Beginnings and Endings

This is not the post I had planned for today, my birthday. But life happens and it also ends. Today news came that a long-time blogger’s rescue cat, Harrison, finally succumbed to a long illness.

Imagine this kitty waiting all day for his person to come home from work, hanging on long enough to get to the vet, and only there yielding to the inevitable, that the little fellow was finally dying.

His person had taken him in first as a foster, ten months ago, at a time, even then, when Harrison’s health was shaky. I smiled when the person posted the decision to keep Harrison, calling it a “Foster Failure.” As I commented then, “best failure I ever heard.”

In this terrible time, when a “yuge” portion of this country has apparently taken leave of its senses, let this be a call-out to those whose open-heartedness, decency, and generosity matter so much more.

At a time like this, the Buddhists point the way to the aspiration. Here is the Great Bell Chant from Thich Nhat Hanh.

catrun

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The Catio

Recall that after Bugs’s latest unauthorized walkabout, my good landlord built a screen-porch addition to the house. Around three months ago, nine days after my surgery, I was still too debilitated to get out there to enjoy it, so I showed you what it was like from the inside, only.

Now, thanks to the miracle of healing, I’m off the crutches and while not exactly bounding down the steps, I can manage more-or-less. So here is The Catio from the outside.

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Thanks to the uncanny and frankly somewhat-scary unseasonable warmth, the other day we did get out there to enjoy it. (It was in the ’70’s. In January.)

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Bugs marches forth.

In the distant past I had tried to acclimate Bugs to a harness so we could enjoy outdoors safely. One time he may possibly have enjoyed this but, other than a few ultimately unsuccessful harness forays, he has been outside only AWOL. Each of those latter times he sought refuge in dark underground-type places, so I’m guessing he has pretty much never enjoyed the outside experience. He has been housebound for the 5.5 years we’ve been together. Hitherto happily, it’s been my fond hope.

No longer.

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Did he ever react to outside.

“I show my tongue to you, Outside. You got nothing!”

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No video, so just take my word for this: He roared. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It was like this: YARL, step, ROWR, step, WRACK, sniff, MEEROW, pause, REEROW, etc. etc. etc. Constantly. He did not stop.

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Back indoors, he kept right on with the Hallelujah Chorus. Got on my last nerve. Then he did this to the inside door. Because it’s got too cold now to go back out and . . .

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Bugs begs to differ.

So I’m guessing this time he may have enjoyed himself.

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Barney too. Great climber that he is, up he went.

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“I wonder, can I get up in there?”

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“Maybe I’ll try sideways. This ledge is at least 0.035 inches. Plenty wide.”

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“Well – kind of long way down there.”

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Whereupon he jumped down, all who-knows-how-many-pounds-of-him, onto the stone step. Ouch. When he does this inside the house, I have fixed the furniture so he has a soft landing. Not so outside. He seemed to manage fine, but next time I’m going to put a mat down there.

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Back inside. Double-cushioned.

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Spring Fever in January

It’s January 31st. At not yet 9:00 in the morning, it’s 56º F. It’s predicted to go up to 63º today. It’s been like that for days.

In January 2014, I was driving icy roads to get Barney to surgery. In December 2013, it went from the ’70’s one day to 12º the next and nearly a foot of snow on the ground.

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In January 2011 likewise. It went from 74º one day to frozen solid the next. In February of that year, we were bracing for an ice storm, which we got.

So the weather’s crazy. Why should it be any different inside than out? It seemed right to break out Kim’s Chateau Dryden Special Reserve Nipatini.

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Barney kept his head, waiting for the right time to make his move.

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After the obligatory whappy-paws, this happened next.

nip 024-cropBox King

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