Cats, Rats, and Donuts

The sign, an improvised advertisement, takes me by surprise. Cash for cats. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon in November. The sky is a smudge. I’m driving north on Old South Telegraph Road, past a Home Depot, past a UHaul and a long-term storage facility, past a place where you can get your crashed car fixed. At one time there was a party rental outfit on this stretch of road: tables and chairs, dishes and glasses and flatware, tents and dance floors. Now closed. Not a lot of partying going on these days. 

At the stoplight where Old South Telegraph meets New South, I notice the makeshift sign, written in black marker on a white placard, “Cash for Cats.”  

I accelerate through the intersection, cross the bridge over Millpond Creek, wondering, Did I really see that? Was there a cat collection center? A booth with a drive-through window where you can pawn your Persian or Calico for cold hard cash, money to help pay for that UHaul or storage space or to get your fender fixed?  Has it come to that?

No, it hasn’t. It must have been cash for cars, which I’ve seen a million times. But I’m glad I got it wrong. It was a pleasant surprise on a gray day, a good mistake. I’m sure cats wouldn’t be offended by the joke. 

I’ve been thinking about cats since I had lunch with my friend Nancy the other day. She’s training her cat to stay in its yard.

“It wears this little collar,” she says.

“You must have one of those electric force fields,” I say. “Like a dog fence?”

“Right.”

“For some reason, I didn’t think they did that to cats.”

“Well, you know,” she says, “you can’t reason with a cat.”

Years ago, I remember my wife’s cousin Phil crossing the invisible line at the edge of his yard, the collar device in his pocket, set to Labrador Retriever. It delivered quite a jolt. It made Phil dance. “So you shock your cat,” I say.

“It’s a little shock,” she says. “It’s one of those shocks like you get around the house.”

“Static electricity.”

She nods. “And the cat is learning. The other day I watched her outside in the yard. She’ll only go so far.”

“Pavlov’s cat,” I say.  

Like many young people of my generation, as a college sophomore in the early 70s, my future undetermined, I decided to become a psych major. I saw myself as a young Freud, as an analyst, with a couch, a notepad, and, I hoped, a beard. Though in the curriculum, you learned you could swing two ways. There was psychoanalysis and there was behaviorism. One school of thought was murky–you took deep dives into a person’s psyche, struggled with their past, their repressed desires, their complexes–the other was mechanistic–you left the psyche to itself and used a reward system to trick the patient into getting well. It was deep structure vs surface structure.

The murk called to me. I wanted to get in there. But I learned about Pavov’s dog and about classical conditioning, operant conditioning, aversive conditioning. I learned about B.F Skinner and the Skinner box, pigeons playing pingpong, about his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. What’s on the other side of freedom, I wondered. Around this time I went to the movie theater, an institution still in existence then, and saw Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” I was both fascinated and appalled by the scene of aversion therapy near the end of the movie, as Alex, the amoral main character in the story, is restrained with his eyes clamped open, so he can be forced to watch graphic scenes of violence while injected with a drug that induces nausea and crippling pain. It was a regime of behavior modification–on the other side of freedom. 

A few miles up Telegraph, on the edge of Waterford, I look for America’s Best, an eyeglass and contact lens shop across the road from a large defunct space that used to be Summit Place Mall. I’ve seen it all on Google maps. Cleared of all remnants of commerce, Summit is now waiting to be rehabilitated. A sign–an actual sign, not marker and placard–advertises one million square feet currently available. Across five lanes of Telegraph, in a sprawling strip mall with a shuttered Verizon store front, a dead Toys ”R” US, and a thriving dialysis center, I search among a bunch of lesser discount stores for America’s Best. I’ve already identified the frames I think I want, having already shopped online. One of many reasons for the sunken Summit.

While Taylor, the masked sales associate, checks on my insurance coverage, I stand in front of walls of frames, looking for the ones I like. There they are, on the shelf, Prive Revaux Maestro. They’re clear, they’re professorial. I know in English “maestro” denotes a dude with a baton standing in front of a symphony. But in Italian, and probably French, a maestro is also a teacher.  So, I’m on the right track. For kicks, before coming, I tried to take the next step and decode the French. What’s Prive Revaux? If I’m going to wear them, I thought, it seemed like I ought to know. Prive meant something like “private” or “personal.”  When I asked Google to translate Revaux, she/he/it came back, “Did you mean ravaged?” No, I didn’t, but I decided that would be descriptive. Privately ravaged teacher transitioning from readers to bi-focals.

Taylor looks at my prescription and talks to me about my options. Beyond bi-focals, there’s progressive lenses. That’s what I’ve come in for. They come in four levels: standard, deluxe, premium, and platinum. The lens I can choose, she says, might depend on my coverage. Do I know my coverage? No, I don’t. Doesn’t she? She says I should call the 800 number on the back of my insurance card and get back to her.

Outside, it’s started to rain. As I walk to the car I pat my pants pockets, my jacket pockets, I search my bag, looking for car keys and cursing. Where the hell did I put them? For over the past fifty years, whenever I’ve approached a car and opened the door, I’ve done so with keys in my hand. A key to unlock the door. The same key I’ll insert into the ignition switch to start the engine. No key, no go. I automatically do this, without thinking. I’m conditioned to do it. I can’t not reach for keys, even though with this vehicle, I don’t need to employ a key if I have the fob anywhere on or near my person. I forget that. I have to unlearn the search, I have to uncondition that behavior. 

Call it deprogramming. The key fob reminds me that Skinner was definitely on to something. 

For years I got up in the morning, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to read the news. Before the digital age, we took delivery of the New York Times. Then came computers and phones.  I started to read the news on my phone. Eventually I began to realize that I wasn’t really reading the news. I was just scrolling it and skimming it. “Massive Earthquake Devastates Nepal.” Skim two lines of text below the title, then scroll. “Boy Scouts to Accept Gay Boys.” Scroll. “Crock-Pot is Dead, Long Live Crock-Pot.“ Scroll.  “Man Shot by Florida Felon Taken to Walmart Instead of Hospital.” Skim and scroll.  “You May Be at Risk of Cancer If You…,” Skim and scroll. I can imagine Skinner grinning, though he doesn’t seem like the grinning type, at the effects of partial reinforcement on a human subject, me. 

The way partial reinforcement will hold you in front of a slot machine, pulling the handle, that’s how I read the news. I’m a rat in a Skinner box, tapping a button.

“Well?” my wife says.

I’m home from America’s Best. I tell her I didn’t order glasses, I needed to find out about insurance coverage.

“I was thinking,” she says. “How about you hop down to the cider mill and get us a couple donuts this afternoon?”

“Okay. But just a couple,” I say. Then: “You know that stream up on Telegraph, by Home Depot, feeds into Sylvan Lake?”

“I can’t believe it’s November,” she says. “We still haven’t had a donut.”

“When I was looking for the glasses store on Google Maps, I saw it’s called Millpond Creek. That’s cute, isn’t it?” She looks up at me from her book. She’s reading Franklin and Washington: The Founding Partnership. She’s reading it. When she bought the book, I told her Franklin and Washington sounded like an intersection. “Millpond Creek,” I say. “So there must be a mill up there, right?”

“Get a quart of cider.”

I can’t help myself. I sing “Down by the old mill stream.” That one line, it’s all I know. Which she totally ignores. That stream, I tell her, connects Crystal Lake to Sylvan Lake. “Did you know that?”

“No.”

“And get this: on the map, there’s a point on the north shore of Crystal Lake called Ghostown Peninsula.” 

“What do you think?” she says. “Half a dozen? Is that too many?”

“G-H-O-S-T-O-W-N,” I say. “Get it? Not ghost town, ghost own.” I have to spell it out for her.  I don’t mind.

“Only you would find humor in that.”  

“Do you think it’s a mistake? Someone forgot to spellcheck it?”

“Half a dozen.  A quart of cider.”

“Maybe it’s named for someone. A famous personage named Abner Ghostown.” 

I drive down to the cider mill, a mile away in Franklin, which calls itself “the little town that time forgot,” wondering if there’s a Washington and Franklin corner I don’t know about. I’m also thinking about donuts, my feelings about which are conflicted. Part lust, part disgust. 

When I taught, on an irregular basis a box of donuts would appear in the English Division office. Always an assortment: glazed, chocolate-frosted, cream-filled, jelly, sugar. You’d walk in to check your mailbox, textbook and papers clamped under one arm, and there it was, the box lid thrown open, and inside, numbering in the dozens, donut delight.   

“Who brought these?” someone would ask.  

Carol, the admin, would say Oh, Don Beasley. Or Joyce Fisher. And you’d think, Cool, a free donut.

I knew by ten o’clock they would be picked over, so before strolling into my nine o’clock class, even if I wasn’t hungry I would eat a donut, a crueller if there was one, otherwise cream-filled, hovering next to the box, leaning gently forward, holding it away from myself to avoid getting all crumby. Ten minutes later, down the hall conducting my class, I would begin to experience donut regret, a state that is both physical and mental. That doughy, sugary, fatty fried thing, feeling kind of rotten in my gut, in my esophagus, and in my brain. Why? I would wonder. Why would I eat one of those things when I knew what lay ahead? I was foolish and weak. 

Often, in the front row a student would pull an Oscar Spunkmeyer cookie from a sack, take occasional bites and wash them down with sips of Mountain Dew. On donut day, I could not look upon them and not see myself, I couldn’t not think “mon semblable, mon frere.” I would get through the class. By ten o’clock the donuts, with the exception of those covered with sprinkles, would be gone. No self-respecting English teacher would want to be seen eating sprinkles. Still in turmoil, I would think, Never again.

I read a review of Michael Moss’s Hooked recently (yes, clicking at my phone one morning, deciding to take a deep dive). The subtitle of the book, “Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions,” gets at the Pavlovian universe we inhabit. Food companies, Moss reports, employ scientists in “flavor houses” up and down the New Jersey corridor. These evil geniuses know how to engineer pleasure and engender desire with junk food taste and smell. Moss cites pumpkin spice as a new and fiendish invention that Starbucks features (exploits) in a coffee drink and that dominates the flavor profile in cookies, Poptarts, M&M’s, and cereals. How powerful is the addiction? “Even seeing the pictures of certain foods,” Daniel E. Lieberman writes in the New York Times, “can cause us to salivate.” 

Ding.

I buy donuts (two) and cider at the cidermill. We are satisfied.

“Should’ve got more,” my wife says.

Maybe not.

An email arrives one day. The sender alerts me to the fact that I’ve misspelled “guttural” on my website. She doesn’t tell me where. And I have no recollection of even using that word. In her message she writes, “I had similar issues on my website which hurt my credibility until someone pointed it out and I discovered some of the services like SpellHelper.com or SpellingCheck.com which help with these type of issues.” She includes a link to her website, in case I would like help.

Thanks?

Yes, thanks. Usually I can spell. And I appreciate the virtues of correct spelling.

As an English teacher, I inhabited a Skinner-like universe for 38 years, applying principles of behavior modification year after year, positive and negative reinforcement. Strong thesis, 10 points!  Five spelling errors, your B becomes a B-! I advocated something like CBS principles in student writing: clarity, brevity, and sincerity. I also celebrated originality when I saw it. 

Skinner points out that we acquire language from the outside in. He calls it verbal behavior. We learn to speak by imitating others, in the beginning, one sound, one word at a time. Your baby says “spoon,” you go bananas. So she says spoon again. You go more bananas. Again and again, she says spoon. You provide the bananas until you’re fresh out. But she’s got spoons now, forever.  For a week or so, one of my grandsons said “ball” 100 times a day. We heard balls of all kinds, declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, even a few imperative balls. 

Then comes everything else in your linguistic universe, such as it is. You learn to talk like the people you hang around with. You also develop the mental agility to not only repeat what you’ve heard and learned but also formulate a sentence you’ve never heard before, a miraculous capacity Skinner cannot adequately explain. It takes Noam Chomsky to do that, when he posits a “language acquisition device–a black box–and a “generative grammar” somewhere in the mind. Down there in the murk.    

Years ago my daughter was sitting on the toilet, swatting at the roll of paper in the dispenser on the wall, talking and talking. She was three. I sat on the floor next to her, listening, chatting, waiting for her to finish her business. As she batted the paper, it unscrolled, lengths of it falling to the floor.  

“Don’t do that,” I said.

“Will you clean me?”

“Yes,” I said. “But don’t play with the paper like that. We don’t want it to go on the floor.” 

She ignored me, gave the roll a few more spins. “Look,” she said. “The toilet paper is doing somersaults.” 

The third or fourth time I Google the meaning of “prive refaux,” trying to make sure I get it right, I find “be smart, be sexy, be shy, be bold.” I’ll take any of these over ravaged. Just as I’ll take cash for cats, Ghostown Peninsula, and toilet paper somersaults. There are limits to the Pavlovian world. And beyond freedom, there’s even more freedom.

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