How to bathe a cat, clicker style

Cats don’t like water. Everybody knows this. They screech and howl and wail and scratch and claw and will basically do all they can to avoid getting into it, and all they can to get out of it once it. Their feet go all splayed and thin when wet. Their tails look like string. And the longer their fur, more pathetic (and, ok, funnier) it looks.

I am, as of this morning, the proud owner of a Cat Who Has Had A Bath. I bear one small scratch on my chin as a memento of his initial effort to escape (more a result of clinging mournfully than of lashing out). I have to say, this might sound a bit smug but I’m really proud of this. Because right now Guybrush* is looking fluffier and cleaner than ever. He is affectionate and not afraid of the bathroom. He even sat in there on the loo while I had my bath and greeted me when I got out. Here’s how I did it.

I’ve owned Guybrush for two years (well, in exactly a week it will be two years). Ever since I brought him home from the breeder, I have been forging a relationship with him based on mutual communication in the form of THE CLICKER. If you’re not familiar with clicker-training, it works like this – whenever your animal does a Good Thing, click goes the clicker and a treat appears. It’s wonderful because it’s an instant, repeatable, recognisable signal that You Have Done A Good Thing. I’ve trained Brushy to spin anticlockwise on the signal “spin” and to give me a high-five. He knows that doing these things when asked will deliver rewards. That actually leads to him attempting to cue ME to deliver the goods. I know he’s hungry when he tries to high-five me. “This is a Good Thing that will result in noms,” thinks the kitty. Equally, if he taps my leg, I will pick him up. He knows now that if he wants to be picked up, instead of climbing me, he just has to tap my knee. If he wants to play, instead of mauling my foot, he brings me his toy.

And so we come to the bath. I didn’t want to simply hoist him into the bath, dunk him, and have him forever more associate the bathroom and my pyjamas with terror and wetness. So instead, I got into the bath. When I do this, he usually comes and puts his front paws on the side to gaze down at me in the water with an expression of horror. “Why would you DO that to yourself?” is what I imagine him to be thinking. So this time, as soon as his fluffy little paws hit the rim of the bath – click, treat. Oh. The bath is a Good Thing. A few more goes of that, and we had established that the bath wasn’t going to hurt. The sixth time he put his paws on the rim – no click. That wasn’t going to be enough this time. Dismayed, he attempted to high-five me. This meant leaning over the bath a little more. Good boy. Click, treat. In this way, moving my hand further away, I eventually got him onto my lap in the bath. We had a cuddle, and click, treat. Then, gently, I began to wet my hand and stroke him. Click, treat.

At this point, he started to work out what was going on, and the paw went out to reach for saftey (catching my chin on the way). I held him tighter and kept talking to him, and he settled down a bit, clinging closer for comfort, and on we went, gently scooping and sluicing before we went for “all paws in”.

I can’t say he enjoyed it, but I know he trusts me never to deliberately harm him, so he took it well, and once he was washed all over (except his face; I thought that might be a bit much for a first go!) I lifted him out and gently towel-dried him with a warm, fluffy towel.

The wonderful part was that, far from running out of the (open) door, or backing away from me, he was gentle, affectionate, and perfectly happy to sit still and be groomed until he was dry.

I’ve seen a couple of dog owners trying to use the clicker as a command, clicking furiously and wondering why the dog doesn’t understand what to do. “DOGGY! COME! *CLICKCLICKCLICKCLICK* COME, STOOPID DAWG! *CLICKCLICKCLICKCLICK*” Seriously – wrong. Here’s Karen Pryor’s website all about clicker training: book on clicking cats is fabulous if you want to know more. Thanks to my wonderful friend Sarah (@theknitnurse) for introducing me to this wonderful world of animal communication.

And here’s a little video of Brush doing his thing:

*Yes, those of you who are as yet unfamiliar with my cat, that is his name**. Google it.

**Officially his pedigree name is Lunastar Miresong Troilus. Yeah, I chose that too. So shoot me.

This entry was posted on January 15, 2012. 4 Comments

Non-fiction gluttony

So 2011 has been for me The Year Of The Fiction Embargo. Not that that was the original intention; that just seems to be how it’s turned out. I’ve never been the type to go for non-fiction in general, and I certainly have never in my life read one those biographies masquerading as an autobiography, about somebody still so young that two Christmases later they have to write a sequel. A proper actual autobiographical sequel would be awesome, mind you. Something elucidating on the afterlife. Useful.

Anyway, I shall return to fiction with the publication of Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff” next month, but in the meantime, here are some gems that I have stumbled upon this year. I’ve rather self-indulgently given reviews to my top three.

The 4% Universe – Richard Panek

Panek’s account of the history of cosmology and the ongoing interest in dark matter and dark energy takes in a whole lot of material on the way to its denouement. Rather than expounding solely on oddly-named constants, Panek describes the primary players in the story as full humans, flawed and triumphant by turns. Their contribution to the quest for truth is made more astounding by their clear humanity and excellent portrayal. Add to this the tension of two competing teams across decades of research and this could almost be a novel. Of course, we’re talking cosmology here, and physics that even the top boffins don’t yet fully comprehend, so it’s not something you should read while you’re falling asleep. But it assumes no prior knowledge, so if you’re prepared to concentrate, you’re given all that you need to enjoy the book to the full. The most wonderful thing is that, of all the characters, the universe itself takes the central role, and with awesome majesty; the final page is a masterpiece of prose.

Stand Up And Deliver – Andy Kind

Ok – this is the closest I’ve ever got to reading an autobiography, and it’s because I’d seen the author doing stand-up a few times and found him to be extremely funny and – which is important for something like this – immensely likeable. The book, autobiographical though it may be, has two major things in its favour from the off: 1) it covers a single year only 2) it is a compelling, moving and hugely entertaining piece of work. Kind’s account of his first year in stand-up comedy, from the moment he decides it’s finally time to pursue his dream, is of course filled with highs and lows, and (as you might expect from a successful comedian) contains mountains of laugh-out-loud moments. But there is incredible honesty here, and at times he writes with powerfully eloquent emotion. If you’re still in doubt, it comes highly recommended by comedians Tim Vine and Milton Jones.

Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion – Kevin Dutton

This book is no self-help book in teaching you to be more persuasive – in fact, Dutton takes the reader on a tour of the psychology of con men, politicians, and top businessmen. It takes a lot to talk an uninitiated reader through the complexities of psychopathy (and he interviews some seriously disturbed criminals in the course of his research) so non-judgementally. The accounts included are fascinating and unsettling by turns, but his style, though factual, is thoroughly warm and engaging; it’s hard to say a great deal more than that, but it comes in my top three for sheer excellence of writing.

Below are the other books I’ve read this year that haven’t made it to this blog in full. Do let me know if you want to me say what I thought of them and why – but for now I’ve given them stars out of five.

  • The Virago Book Of The Joy Of Shopping – pub. Virago ***
  • God Collar – Marcus Brigstocke **
  • Luella’s Guide To English Style – Luella Bartley **
  • Art and Artifice – Jim Steinmeyer ***
  • Hiding The Elephant: How Magicians Invented The Impossible – Jim Steinmeyer ****
  • Yes Man – Danny Wallace ***** (SO nearly made the top three; if you’ve read this and enjoyed it, then Stand Up And Deliver is definitely for you.)
  • 59 Seconds – Professor Richard Wiseman ****
  • Paranormality – Professor Richard Wiseman ***
  • Quirkology – Professor Richard Wiseman ****

I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all, regardless of how “good” I thought they were. That’s the problem with star-ratings.

Comparative magic

The glorious first (hopefully, of many) series of ITV’s Penn and Teller: Fool Us finished yesterday. I hear we’re due one more episode at the end of August (still to be scheduled) but now that we’re at a break in the proceedings it seems a good time to sum up why it’s been such a fantastic success – and why the BBC should take note.

It’s been running since the middle of June, preceded by a special in January which, interestingly, coincided very closely with the BBC’s own effort, The Magicians. The premise of Fool Us is that magic acts perform their best effects while the world-famous masters of magic Penn and Teller apply their encyclopaedic knowledge of technique to suss out how it’s done. Those that manage to “fool” them get to do a spot on Penn and Teller’s stage in Vegas.

This is a rare example of television getting it exactly right. It has none of the cruel destructiveness of Saturday night “talent shows” like Britain’s Got Talent; Penn and Teller are uniquely constructive and encouraging even (or indeed on occasion especially) to those magicians who do not fool them. At times, their wonder at the magician’s ability is in fact increased because they know how it’s done – and how difficult it is to accomplish successfully. Their warmth, enthusiasm and enjoyment are tangible throughout; a far cry from the stony derision of Simon Cowell. Even when Cowell says he’s impressed, it doesn’t sound so much an artistic appreciation as it does a business move; you can see the pound signs light up his eyes.

For Penn and Teller, there’s no real commercial bonus to the show, besides getting paid some (which they hardly need) and getting a bit more exposure on this side of the Atlantic (which they thoroughly deserve). It’s born of a love of their art and the boost it gives to lesser-known magicians is phenomenally valuable.

People still seem to see magic as coming in two kinds:

1. Man in posh clothes pulls rabbit out of hat, puts some hoops together and sets a dove flying out of his sleeve. He wants everyone to wonder how. Everyone is in fact wondering why.

2. Man in leather catsuit sets fire to everything with loud music, might do some inappropriate things with a white tiger, and needs a separate dressing room just for his ego.

In fact, Fool Us promotes what is in fact now a very common kind of magic, which deserves recognition and celebration:

3. Talented artist (any clothing style acceptable) combines illusions with witty script and choreography to give an intelligent and memorable performance, often closer to stand-up comedy or Artaudian theatre than just a very good animal handler.

Fool Us overcomes both these initial problems – the focus is very much on “how” – challenging the acts to come out with something original and creative rather than the same old hackneyed tricks in an attempt to produce a genuinely baffling effect. Meanwhile, ego is not the frontrunner here. Even host Jonathan Ross, whose ostensible ego is frequently the punchbag of critics, is effortlessly charming and, though his wit is as sharp as ever, he never once claims the limelight for himself. His deference to Penn and Teller and his jovial yet avuncular attitude to the performers is a perfect through-runner for each show.

Meanwhile, back at the BBC, there are rumours that The Magicians is scheduled to return as a live spectacular, minus Lenny Henry. Oh, to be in that production meeting. Format is everything.

The idea of the Beeb’s show was to take three fabulously talented magic acts as regulars (Luis de Matos, Chris Korn and Barry and Stuart) and, rather than showcase their abilities, force them to shoehorn a second, third, or sometimes fourth person into their routines to sate the public’s baying for minor celebrity thrills.

The reason the celebrity format is so successful with shows like Strictly Come Dancing and, currently, Born To Shine, is the enjoyment of seeing someone having to learn a new skill who is familiar (in theory) for being good (in theory) at something completely different. Often, they fail with gracious good humour. Occasionally, they progress, grow, find a new talent and win the adoration of fans and their happily busy agent alike. Either way, the appeal of the show is about the process of learning.

Not so The Magicians. You can’t show people learning magic; that rather defeats the point and destroys the mystique. In each show, all they could do was show a clip of the celebrity in question looking a bit nervous and saying “I don’t think I’ll be very good” and then wheel the celebrity out, make them do the thing, then say “Well, so-and-so was a great teacher.”

Add to this the excruciating “forfeit” at the end of every show, which was without fail an uncomfortable and miserable moment for all concerned, and you have a final nail in the coffin. Staged as a popularity contest with the studio audience voting, the climax of the show, as with BGT or the X-Factor, was finding out who had lost. And making them pay. That’s a far cry from Teller swinging off the arms of his chair with delight, a common sight in Fool Us.

If The Magicians accomplished one thing, it was to make superstars of the already-popular comedy magicians Barry and Stuart (and yes, I’m a big fan). Their cheeky scripting style, along with their familiarity with not performing solo, meant that they were able to seize on the format and shine despite their agented luggage. Meanwhile, de Matos had to tone down his large-scale showmanship to account for a nervous new partner, and poor Chris Korn’s gently whimsical delivery just got lost in the glitzy celeb-world style. Why, if the producers went all over the world looking for the right acts, did they then simply ignore them?

What is certain is that Samantha Womack (you know, from EastEnders?) will not be remembered for her multiplying rabbits, nor will N-Dubz forever be “the urban hipsters who got sawn in half”. But acts from Fool Us are already becoming legendary – see, for example, Piff the Magic Dragon’s YouTube hits: over 600,000 in less than a week after airing. And of course, Fool Us allows the final quarter of the programme to show us why Penn and Teller art thought kings of their art. The Magicians made no such concession to its performers.

I love and believe in the BBC. I think The Magicians was a perfectly-timed show, picking up on a growing wave of interest in “new magic”. It was even, with the exception of the inexplicably-cast Lenny Henry as host, superbly put together in its key performers; they chose three exceptionally talented and well-contrasting regular acts. It just got so much else wrong.

I’m really delighted that it’s coming back, because as a show it had so much promise, but I really hope they give serious thought to what they want to accomplish with the show and how they can change it. It needs a big overhaul if it’s going to survive past the comeback. And for that, they could do far worse than look to Fool Us for tips.

This entry was posted on July 31, 2011. 1 Comment

First imPression

It appears that it’s in fact rather difficult to begin a blog. Many have been the times that I’ve wished I had a blog simply because Twitter is too brief and Facebook is too… well, Facebook. But now that I have it, I feel I ought to write some kind of introductory spiel, which in itself will be completely unworthy of being read; surely it would be incorrect nettiquette to simply leap in and start spewing my brainbits all over the blundernet? And so here is my unworthy and unwitty first post, which hopefully will eventually get lost in the mists of time.

Furthermore, I am not under the illusion that this blog will do anything other than serve as a head-dump. It will not take the world by storm or make me famous, because neither it nor I is very clever or glamorous. It will not revolutionise the dissemination of front-row news and views from the catwalks, clubs and culture-holes, because I don’t have access to that kind of thing and I don’t like Coke (the drink. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like cocaine either). It’s just going to be a head-dump. Another vaguely imploring, try-hard corner of the blundernet whose only purpose is to enable me to send people a link and let them choose to decide whether they’re interested enough to read. Because at the moment I just tend to talk. Too much. With detail. All the time. Who knows, this single act of NOT sharing information might be the most successful “social networking” I’ve done in a long time.

This entry was posted on July 31, 2011. 1 Comment