The Trouble

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischThe Trouble (Annals of Pard: V)
by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve never had a cat before who directly challenged me. I don’t look for much obedience from a cat; the relationship isn’t based on rank or a dominance hierarchy as with dogs, and cats have no guilt and very little shame. I expect a cat to steal food left out on the counter knowing perfectly well that that he’ll be swotted if caught. Greed, and possibly the joy of theft, overrides the slight fear. Stupid human me to leave food out on the counter. I expect a cat who has been scolded or swotted for getting up on the dining table to get up on the dining table and leave little footprints all over it, because he sees no reason to refrain from doing so, when I’m not in the room. When found later, the evidence of the little footprints will have passed the statute of limitations. To make any sense to a cat, retaliation for wrongdoing must be immediate. The cat knows that as well as I do, which is why I expect him to do wrong while I’m not in the room, and don’t expect him to do wrong while I am.

Cat in Bed

Cat in Bed

To do wrong under my very eyes strains our relationship. It demands scolding, swotting, shouting, flight, pursuit, commotion. It is a challenge, a deliberate invitation to trouble. And this is where Pard is different from the many and various cats who have companioned me. They were all like me — they wanted to avoid trouble.

Pard wants to make it.

He isn’t a troublesome cat. His hygiene is impeccable. He is gentle. He never steals food. (To be sure, this is only because he doesn’t recognise anything but certain brands of kibbled catfood and crunchy cat-treats as food. I can leave the pork cutlets on the counter while he’s waiting hungrily for his quarter-cup of dinner kibbles, and he won’t even get up to sniff them. I could put a piece of bacon on top of the kibbles and he would eat them and leave it. I could lay a filet of sole down on him and he would shake it off with contempt and go away.)

Cats in Bed

Cats in Bed

He challenges me by doing what he’s forbidden to do. And I guess there really aren’t a lot of things he’s forbidden, besides jumping up on the mantel and knocking off the kachinas.

He isn’t allowed to get on the dining table, but there’s nothing to do there but leave footprints. The mantel, which is a really big jump even for Pard, is the only unprotected display place left in the house for small ornamental things; all the others have found safe havens unreachable even by airborne cats. So jumping up onto the mantel has become his goal, his challenge.

But only if I am in the room.

He’ll spend all day in the living room and never look at the fireplace, until I come in. A while after we’ve both been there, Pard begins to glance at the mantelpiece. His eyes get rounder and blacker. He wanders carelessly about on a chair-arm (allowed) or side-table (allowed) near the fireplace. He stands up on his hind legs to sniff a lampshade or the top of the firescreen very thoroughly with enormous interest, always a little closer to the mantelpiece. Till, usually when I’m not looking but not quite not looking, he’s airborne, and up on the mantel knocking something off. Then scolding, shouting, flight, pursuit, etc. — Trouble! Mission accomplished.

Recently, there is an added element: the squirt bottle. As soon as he looks at the mantel I pick up the squirt bottle. The first couple of times, when he made ready to jump onto the mantel and I squirted him, he was totally taken aback. He didn’t even associate the squirt with the bottle. He does now. But it merely adds a new flavor, a new spice, to the Trouble. It doesn’t keep him off the mantel.

Lord of all he surveys

Lord of all he surveys

I gave in a couple of days ago and moved all the little kachinas to a haven, leaving only the two big ones and some outstanding rocks. But this morning, while I was doing Downward Dog with my back turned, Pard jumped up onto the mantel and knocked off the lump of Tibetan turquoise, taking a chip out of it when it hit the hearth.

The ensuing Trouble was pretty intense, although I never could get anywhere near close enough to swot him. He knew I was mad. He has been terribly polite ever since, and inclined to fall over and wave his paws in an innocently endearing manner. He’ll go on that way till we’re all in the living room this evening and the need for Trouble arises in him again.

This little cat so deeply shaped by human expectation, the tamest cat I ever had, has a flame of absolute, wilful wildness.

I’m sure some of it’s the boredom factor — a young cat with old people, an indoors cat… But Pard doesn’t have to be an indoor cat. He chooses to.

The catflap is opened for him all through daylight, at his request or at our suggestion. Sometimes he goes out onto the deck, looks down into the garden, birdwatches for a few minutes, and comes back. Or he may go out and turn right around and come back. Or he may say oh, no, thanks, it’s very large out there, and quite cold this time of year, so I think I’ll stand here halfway out the catflap for a while and then back back in. What he doesn’t do is stay out. When the weather warms up and we’re outside too, he will, but not enthusiastically. He’ll go out and go down and eat some of the kind of grass that makes him throw up and come back indoors and throw it up on the rug. That isn’t Trouble-making, it’s just Cat-being.

There is no moral to this story, and no conclusion. Wish me luck with the squirt bottle.

The Cat with the Handle

The Cat with the Handle


Writing is so exhausting

Writing is so exhausting





The Trouble — 20 Comments

  1. We have been known to use a squirt bottle with Emily, our Moldavian Leaping Hound. But years ago, when we had a cat, the squirt bottle was known in our house as the Feline Attitude Adjustment Spray. It did not, alas, actually change or adjust my cat’s attitude (which was that he should do whatever he felt like). It did, however, let him know that he’d been busted, and really ought to stop what he was doing.

  2. Maximum, who still lives with me, is quite the little Wake Up And Feed Me aggressive. We went through a long period where his most effective strategy was to head for the night stand and throw things off . . . glasses . . . (is he awake yet?). . . drinking glass (he’s yelling, that’s a good sign) . . . coaster (slept through that one) . . . kleenex box (ha! you have to be faster than that, groggy human) . . . lamp (now he’s mad!, it’s working!) . . . alarm clock ( that’s it. He’s up!) Now feed me!!

    I tried the spray bottle. Kept it on the night stand. Severe logistical error.

    Three days later & the first thing off the night stand every time was, of course, the spray bottle. Otherwise, routine unchanged.

    • Ack, mine does that, too. -_- It’s gotten so the slight shifting of something on my desk or dresser will wake me more surely than the alarm clock will…

  3. I do love reading about your pal Pard. He sounds so much like my young Siamese, who we have christened ”The Fiend”, though I wonder at times if her name isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing gives her more joy than full-on, extravagant badness in my presence, looking right into my eyes, purring, lashing her tail back and forth, and of course once I approach her for the swat, or yell at her (she doesn’t recognize or respect ”No!” anyway), she streaks off at high speed with her tail in the air. I tell her all the time that she is a Very Bad Missy and she just blinks at me with her big blue eyes. ”Me? But I’m so pretty! Here, pet me, I’m so soft!”

    Good luck with the squirt bottle! My elder cat hates it and will run off if I even pick it up, but we can spray the Fiend until she is dripping and she will simply curse us and lash her tail and continue the badness. May your Pard be more teachable!

  4. Poor knickknacks. My cat gets deliberately defiant like that when he feels he’s being ignored. The only way to make him cut it out is to give him more attention than he’s happy with–grab him and snuggle him and rub his belly even after he’s tired of it, so he struggles to escape and then runs away to hide. But then all cats are wonderfully unique, so who knows what Pard’s reasoning is?

  5. Pard looks a lot like my cat, who is a girl, and named Marlene Dietrich, because she is a girl in a tuxedo. Her resemblance to the movie star is actually very striking:

    The one on the right is my cat.

    Marlene-my-cat is very opinionated, as cats usually are. She does like laps, but only for a minute, and then she wants to sit somewhere else. Usually my shoulder, where she does not fit, but she keeps trying…

  6. Pard is such a wonderful cat! The cats long ago trained me not to have anything breakable anywhere they can get, and they can get to a lot of places you would never believe. And when they do destroy my stuff, which they do fewer times per day now than when they were kittens, they’ve trained me to be very philosophical about it. Those sweet appealing faces seem to say “if you didn’t want your stuff destroyed, then why, oh why, did you get kittens?” And I have to agree that they’ve got a point.

    I’ve rarely seen barefaced outright defiance, though. That must be something to observe. For some reason the thought makes me laugh uncontrollably. I could never keep a straight face with the kids acted horrible either. I think I’m just a pushover.

  7. Eowyn, my one-eyed long-haired tabby, is convinced that kitchen and bathroom counters must not have anything on them, so one of her many titles is President of the Society for Knocking Things off of Other Things. She will get up on a counter, wait until she’s caught someone’s eye, and then knock things off in a very pointed way. We suspect she is a cat of minimalist sensibilities and is trying to educate her clutter-prone humans. See how nice this counter looks when there’s nothing but a particularly beautiful cat on it?

  8. Ah, the slyness of black and whites. Clever, loving and very skilled at getting their own way. I’ve just surrendered. Standards, HA! Squirt bottle, good luck. Give in to whatever they want whenever they want it, I’ve learned my training well at the hands, er, paws of experts. My Lina aka Beanie turns 15 in May as does her more malleable sister, Sophie – a long haired tabby who is a little dim but quite beautiful. We lost their brother, Sam, another B & W, last May. He like the Bean was inventive, funny and loved flirting with my Golden Retriever.
    My unsolicited advice is give the mantle to Pard…think of it as an enhanced Zen practice.
    Best wishes.
    BTW, reading Ether, OR at the moment. Love the idea of a town as moveable!

  9. Like so many commentators here, I too have a black and white cat — a girl named Stella, and she is trouble too.

    Her trouble comes in a different fashion than Pard. Unlike Pard, Stella likes to eat so she is definitely bottom heavy, like a pear. We caught sight of her quite a few times falling short from her jumps and landing painfully (and very undignified) up side down on her head; so she does not go for high places. That honor goes to her little sister, Bella, who is a slim gray beauty; and can jump up on any high surface, but somehow can’t figure out how to get down without help (so you know what she has trained her human to do.)

    Stella likes to eat, so she hates to have her food dish covered up; unfortunately that’s what we have to do all the time. We have 4 indoor cats (the other two are named Squid and Sierra.) The other two are on a special (aka expansive) renal and urinary track cat diet; and cannot eat Stella and Bella’s food. For probably the same reason that human’s renal diet is bland, so is this cat food. One of the two other cats, Squid — the only male cat in the house, hates this food with a passion, and always try to eat something else. Stella, being the clever and skillful trouble Black and White that she is, opens her food dish lid whenever she feels like eating. Being a cat, Stella does not bother with putting the lid back on. So even though Stella was the one who opened the food dish; Squid is the one who gets swotted for eating the “forbidden” food. We have long given up using regular cat dishes for feeding, because they cannot be properly sealed. We tried many plastic dishes with covers, but those flimsy plastic covers cannot withstand the cat claws. The current version of the cat dish is a glass bowl with tupperware style lid and it seals tightly. But Stella just brushes away the lid like a human taking off the cover on her dinner plate. I know this is ridiculous, but Stella often opens doors, drawers, and jars, like she has opposable thumb. She is also the only cat I have encountered in my life that knows how to play “fetch,” but I’m afraid she has gotten tired of playing that game.

    So… does that mean Black & White cats are more clever than other cats? Or just more troublesome?

  10. I loved the blog entry, was glad to read this and other observations from one of my favorite authors.

  11. We all love Bad Cat stories. My cat does the same. We cleared the mantel, and now when she feels I am ignoring her she sits on the bookcase and slowly pulls the books from the top shelf one by one and lets them drop… All the while watching me…

  12. Thank you Ms LeGuin! So coincidentally calculating, these beasties are. My lanky kook, Nash, loves to peruse the DMZ – also known as the stove and counters next to them. When I am watching some amazing documentary or drama, he pops over to the DMZ and raises his head to make sure that I see him seeing me see him, then he begins his rummaging. Same human response ensues, with compact super soaker. If I’m quick enough, I get him. If he’s quick enough, I don’t. Either way, I’m played. The other two cats don’t visit the DMZ. They have no explanation when I ask them why they havn’t given the most recent roomie a clue…

  13. My cats are like Pard as well. Cartouche is a heavy large boy. Very early in the morning, he sits on my chest with his butt in my face or his head close to mine, and meows very loudly into my ear until I get up and feed the whole gang. Then during the day, if we have left butter out on the counter, he will eat that, even when tried covering it. He just removes the cover. Pooka has broken several of my husband’s nice lamps. Completely shattered them to the point of them being unusable. Banshee thinks she is a dainty delicate girl, but she has learned to bully skittish Shadow.

  14. Of course it’s a game, but it’s also a ritual. One of mine has access to four excellent options for clawing and nevertheless will, for no apparent reason, begin working on the frame of the bedroom door. For no reason except he knows it will get him yelled at. After which he hops onto the bed and rests.

    He’s a tuxedo cat, too, one of three. The other two have their games, like parking directly on the narrowest path in the house and refusing to move until it becomes clear I’m not going to stop. This despite their having been stepped on accidentally several times.

  15. A vivid image of a very interesting cat. I’ve never had one like that.

    One quibble: dog relations are not based on rank or dominance hierarchy. That theory is 1) based on observations of broken fragments of wild wolf packs thrown together in captivity, and doesn’t even apply to wolves, and 2) not applicable to dogs anyway, since they’re now very different animals from wolves.

    I only bring this up because people can and do a lot of damage to their dogs following this theory, and can end up badly damaged themselves if they try something like the “alpha roll” (shame on you, Monks of New Skete) on a dog that won’t put up with it. And don’t get me started on that charlatan Cesar Milan.

  16. How I enjoy the anecdotes you tell about Pard. My teenage son and I live with six cats picked up from the street, whose ages range from nearly 14 to a year and a half. Except the oldest, who is simply tired of making place for newcomers, all the others are naughty in their very own ways. But whenever mischief is done I must admit I am to blame, for leaving things in a place-state-way which could only tempt them. The only cat we ever get angry with is Pichimichi, number two, for stalking on Tuco, number six. Tuco is a big, fine, innocent yellowish cat, and Pichimichi is very dark, big-eyed and menacing. We sometimes call him Sauronichi.
    Anyway, at home out cats all consider themselves our equals, and we do not even attempt to pretend the contrary. And whenever Silvita or Minuki, the two only females, snatch some treat from my sons fork on the way to his mouth, I just tell him that that is what comes from eating while watching TV.

  17. Ah, the handle! I had an all-grey Himalayan with one of those. As he liked to “beg” with one paw as well, we called him the teapot. One end: handle; the other end: snout.

  18. Oh, this made me laugh. I have had cat companions who directly challenged my authority but my current companion, a sweet-natured former street kid of a cat, does nothing along those lines. She reponds to a sing-song ‘no no no’, except when she wants to go out at midnight, then I have to raise my voice.
    Good lucky with the squirty bottle. I’ve had one cat who, when I wasn’t reaching for it, attacked it with a sense of real vengance.