Indignity Vol. 2, No. 54: Mist opportunity.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 54: Mist opportunity.

Sprayco AA-32 All-Around Sprayer

I KEPT FORGETTING to buy a new spray bottle each day, and only then remembering it sometime between 5 and 6 a.m. the next morning, when the sound of the cat scratching furiously at the outside of the younger child's closed bedroom door would wake me up. I would stagger to the bathroom, stick my hand under the tap, and try to flick water at the cat to get her to cut it out. Needless to say this didn't work, or it didn't work long enough for me to get back to sleep before she started scratching again.

Spraying water at a cat to discourage bad behavior is, as a strategy, somewhere between ineffective and cruel, according to the information you get if you try to Google the subject. Ineffective compared to what, though? One page I skimmed suggested that the way to get a cat off the kitchen counter was to shoo it off the counter, then give it a tidbit of food as positive reinforcement for having gotten off the counter, which seems like a perfectly designed training program to encourage your cat to keep hopping up on the counter forever.

Our cat gets off the counter when she sees someone with the bottle. The militant anti-spraying message is that this only teaches the cat to fear punishment, not to correct the underlying behavior, and it poisons the bond between human and cat with fear. I have seen no sign of this. The cat does not dread me or flee my presence; during its waking hours, the cat wants to be as close to me as it can get. In the cat's estimation, she and I are a corporate entity. Everything of mine—the desk, the pencils, my reading glasses, my papers—belongs to the cat, as far as the cat is concerned.

(The paragraph break right there, for instance, was created by the cat dropping her hindquarters onto the keyboard, in an unusually productive contribution to our joint effort. I'm typing this current sentence through the swishing of her tail against the screen, or I was until she tried to gnaw on my knuckles and I dumped her off on the floor.)

The old spray bottle was with us before the cat was. Originally, I bought it for the citrus tree, which I'd ordered for Christmas 2020. That was when Louis DeJoy was busy deliberately ruining the postal service, and the tree got hung up in the mail for something like three weeks. It was still green when it came out of the box, though, so I tried to take care of it according to the instructions, which said I should mist the leaves with water.

The instructions also warned about the grave dangers of overwatering the tree and giving it root rot. So I tried to water the soil judiciously while also spritzing the leaves. Despite its suffering at Louis DeJoy's hands, before long it put out delicious-smelling little white blossoms. In obedience to the extra-credit section of the instructions, I took a tiny paintbrush and moved some pollen around from flower to flower, to encourage fruiting. Soon after, some of the flowers fell off and in their place a tiny little round green thing appeared. Could it have been fruiting? Even after everything?

Then the flower and maybe-fruit withered, and the leaves started falling off. I emailed a photo to the company for consultation. It was under-watered, they said. Out of fear of root rot, I had parched it into decline. Eventually, under more frequent watering, it put out a few new leaves, but it never flowered or grew any taller.

I am bad with plants—so bad that it finally occurred to me this must be what it's like when other people say they're bad at cooking. Cooking is presented as various sets of instructions, going down a list from one step to the next, but it's really about learning to understand and manage the processes that connect one step to the following one: You pay attention to the garlic in the oil until it looks and smells a certain way, and then you put in the greens, and you sprinkle in the right amount of salt, and you watch and feel how they wilt as you stir... This, I realize, is how the instructions for raising plants work. Only you're supposed to pay attention on a time scale of days, rather than minutes, and I never developed the sense for it.

We got the cat from the ASPCA this past fall, as a kitten just old enough to have been spayed. I had cats all the time growing up, but this is the first one I've had in my own household as an adult. She is small and light-boned yet physically oafish; from the day she arrived she's been a 100 percent performer in the litterbox, which qualifies her as a good cat, no matter how willful her other habits may sometimes be.

Still, those habits can be problems. At one point, for instance, I walked into the living room to discover she had managed to knock over the citrus tree and shatter its pot on the floor. As I scooped up the potting soil and re-planted the suffering plant in a new planter, I noticed a new green shoot in the wreckage that I hadn't seen before. Had the tree finally summoned the courage to try growing again, only to be ruined by the cat? I tenderly added the shoot and its tangled, oddly nodular lump of roots to the pot.

Within a week or so, it occurred to me that the leaves on the emerging growth didn't really match the surviving leaves on the citrus tree. They were a different shade of green, and looked sort of toothed. My mind turned back to the lumpy roots. I looked more closely. What we had in the planter was an oak seedling. We'd put the citrus tree outside a few times, in spells of nice weather, in the hopes the fresh air would do it some good. Evidently, while it was out there, a squirrel had buried an acorn in the pot.

The sprayer was of no use for telling the cat not to have wrecked the citrus tree. No matter how much or how little faith you have in a cat's capacity to associate behavior with punishment, you definitely have to catch it in the act. The spray bottle was for when the cat jumped on the dining table or on the counter, or for when she ignored her scratching pad to sharpen her claws on the couch.

Last week, though, I went out of town, and when I got back, my younger son informed me that the spray bottle was broken. Items have a way of getting broken around him; he usually reports the breakage with a disinterest worthy of a cat, as an event the item might perhaps have undergone all on its own. However it had happened, the sprayer was a total loss—at first I thought the squeeze handle had just popped off, and maybe I could put it back on, but then I saw the whole spray head was fractured behind the nozzle, clean through.

Meanwhile, the cat had begun to scratch at his bedroom door, in the hours around dawn. If you wanted to make the best case for the cat, on this point, you could note that the school year was finally over, so a household that used to get up between 6 and 7 was now sleeping in toward 8. That could justify the cat being restive early, but it would not excuse her choice of target: the younger child was always the last person out of bed on a school morning, and he has never been the person who feeds her. Banging away at his door—which stays closed, in part, to keep her claws out of his prized gaming chair during the night—was pure pointless spite.

And it was loud enough to wake me up. When I was growing up, my cats stayed in my bedroom at night, and one of them had a scratching problem. She was a messed-up little stray who'd wandered out of the woods—sweet enough toward people, if they weren't veterinarians, but far beyond high-strung, prone to being terrorized by things that weren't there, to such an extent that, if she were human, no one would have hesitated to say she was hallucinating. In the middle of the night, not always but not rarely, she would start scrabbling at the door and would keep it up indefinitely.

The door was loose in its frame and rattled with the scratching, and the bedroom was small, and there was no escape for anyone involved. The cat didn't even want to get out of the room—she feared the larger world, and she certainly didn't desire to face the family dogs—but she had a compulsion, and this was how she acted on it. I fell asleep in class a lot, or on the couch when I got home from school.

Our current cat is, by comparison, extremely rational. She's just trying out an obnoxious trick, to see what happens. With a working spray bottle, I could give her a clear, helpful answer to that question.

By daylight, however, that need slipped my mind. Finally, on the way back from buying some bagels—having already thought of the spray bottle and forgotten it twice that day—I noticed I was walking past a hardware store. Outside the door were racks of gardening supplies, and in moments I found the spray bottles. I picked up a Sprayco AA-32 All-Around Sprayer, then added a little unlabeled bright-green one, ideal for the bedside. We filled both of them up and set them out, in handy reach.

The next morning, while we were eating the bagels, we looked up through the pass-through to see the cat marching across the kitchen counter. I grabbed the Sprayco, aimed, and tried to squirt it—and the handle snapped off. Destroyed on the very first squeeze. Little bits of the mechanism fell out and rattled on the floor, and the cat jumped down and hurried out of the kitchen to see what was going on. The goodies on the counter forgotten, she began batting the fragments around. The internal spring, rolling and bouncing this way and that, was particularly delightful.

At dawn the day after that, I wondered, half-awake, where the cat might be. I rolled over to find her sleeping peacefully by the end of my pillow.


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of a select sandwich from Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Copyright 1916, now in the public domain for the delectation of all, written by Marion Harris Neil, M.C.A., former Cookery Editor, The Ladies’ Home Journal, author of How to Cook in Casserole Dishes, Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, and The Something-Different Dish.

Thin dry toast
Anchovy purée
Chopped parsley or chopped pistachio nuts
4 hard-cooked egg-yolks
2 ozs. (4 tablespoonfuls) sweet butter
2 boned anchovies
1 tablespoonful potted fish
1 tablespoonful thick white sauce
Salt and paprika to taste
Few drops red color

Pound the yolks of eggs with the butter, anchovies, and potted fish. Add the sauce, red color, and salt and paprika, and rub through a wire sieve. Have some very thin dry toast made, and, while hot, spread it with some of the above mixture. Lay two pieces of toast together to make a sandwich, cut them into neat squares or oblong shapes, spread the top sides lightly with anchovy puree, and on this put a good sprinkling of chopped parsley or pistachio nuts. These are excellent for afternoon tea.

To make the anchovy puree: Take eight large anchovies that have been boned and well washed in cold water; add to them two hard-cooked yolks of eggs, four tablespoonfuls of sweet butter, paprika to taste, and a few drops of red color, and pound all together; rub through a wire sieve and use.

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