Cats: Pieceful Helpers or Puzzling Hindrances?
Hello there! It’s been another month of especially vigorous puzzling at the Puzzle Ambassador’s Residence, and right after pausing my stopwatch to chase the cat up the stairs and grab a slobber-soaked puzzle piece out of his jaw, I had to wonder whether his contributions were actually helping or hindering my puzzling on the whole.
In general, he is a calm soul, except where food or, obviously, puzzle pieces are involved and in those instances he loses his absolute mind. He often doesn’t get to puzzle with me because I have a gate to keep him out of the puzzle room. This is because of bad behavior unrelated to puzzling. Occasionally he wanders in when I leave it open, and a couple weeks ago, I accidentally shut him INSIDE the gate. But he is very responsible, and he meowed until I let him out.
So, certainly being occasionally allowed in the puzzle room is the first step to being a puzzle helper. And being responsible enough to know you’ve made a mistake and are on the wrong side of the gate is another step toward being a good puzzle helper. So far, so good.
I decided to try to get photographic evidence of his puzzling techniques. And I had my camera at the ready several times. But admittedly, every time he got near a puzzle, things got a bit chaotic, and it quickly became clear that I was never going to be able to photograph him puzzling. But fortunately, others have done this important work of documentation for me.
Let’s start here.
The subject in question is the one in the middle, framed by the sewing machine. This is almost exactly what my cat looks like. Ironically, it’s also the exact position he assumed just before he and his sister toppled my sewing machine and table at 3 a.m. one night, causing me to wake from my pillow and fly through the ceiling at the sound of the crash just a few feet away. Fortunately, they managed to not get themselves killed. There was an intense scramble and the sound of 8 paws running down the hall, and after I leapt out of bed to examine the remains of the sewing machine and table, I cried out in relief, “They’re gone! They’re gone!” (you know, because the cats had left the room and weren’t dead under the sewing table). But somehow that phrasing along with the yelling made Mr. Ambassador think the cats were actually dead (“they’re … gone”), and he had some short-lived grief confusion that he had to work out. I think he’s recovered fully.
Of course, unlike this image, my sewing surface (when not collapsed on my bedroom floor) is quite clean and tidy because the cat can’t be trusted around notions. Or a fabric tape measure. Or a pair of sewing scissors that is small enough to run off with.
Now that you’ve got a general sense of what living with my cat is like, let’s check out how he acts around puzzles. For this, we’ll turn to this picture. Check out the cat in the center—the one in the blue shirt. This is the exact expression my cat gets when he sees that a puzzle is happening.
So he has a level of enthusiasm that most of my family members do not when they see a puzzle. Definitely a plus in a puzzle partner!
Once he gets up on the puzzle table, he has exactly three moves. The first is this one. (And no, it’s not knocking over my candelabra or my open ink bottle with the feather pens sticking invitingly out.)
He lays across the puzzle. In general, I don’t like this move in a puzzle partner because it prevents me from placing pieces or looking at the puzzle. And although he has lost several pounds and generally gained a new lease on life after starting his diet, his body still exists in space-time enough to impede my progress when it is splayed in any configuration directly on top of a puzzle. Sometimes, I try to nudge or even shove him and he just ducks his head a bit in mock sympathy, like he’d really like to get off the puzzle but he just can’t because, well, reasons.
Maybe he’s just trying to keep the puzzle from blowing away, but I sneak toward the suspicion that he is actually just preparing for one of his other two puzzle-related moves.
Check out the top row, second from the left, blue background. This is his second puzzle move – he bats at pieces on the table, presumably to get them into a better position within the puzzling space. But sometimes he does this until they are no longer on the table at all. Sometimes it’s one piece. Sometimes it’s several pieces or a whole chunk of the edge. This has the effect of taking the puzzle apart, which is the opposite of how I usually puzzle. And when I’m crawling on the floor picking up pieces and my head is below the table, I’m not able to see if and when he’s moved on to his third and potentially most curious puzzling move.
Same picture, check out the bottom row, second from left. He will grab a piece in his mouth and leap off the table with it, with the same quickness of grabbing a pair of tiny sewing scissors. I have to think the speed at which he makes his exit is an indication that he realizes this is frowned upon. Not only does this actively remove pieces from the puzzling area, it also puts pieces at risk of getting permanently chewed or lost. Sometimes I chase him down the hall and I don’t know if he went left or right and I have to just pick one, and if I pick wrong, he’s got a good enough head start on me that the piece is almost surely chewed beyond use by the time I catch up to him. And certainly, I’d rather not be chasing a cat around the house while my puzzle stopwatch is running. This is the least helpful thing he does when we puzzle together.
To recap: He eats pieces, even though they are not food. He actively takes apart puzzles sometimes, but other times he just threatens to. He’s got a good sense of timing, but only in specific circumstances of his choosing. He knocked over a whole table, but it did not have a puzzle on it at the time. He keeps the puzzle from blowing away. He is quick. He’s very determined when he sets his mind to something. He has enthusiasm and is willing to spend time with me.
Add in my children’s silent, but palpable, relief at not having to puzzle with me, and I think we have a winner!